Five Up, Five Down
Lowell and Youk fuel the Sox; NL Central bottoms out
Posted: Friday June 1, 2007 2:51PM; Updated: Friday June 1, 2007 5:15PM
I. Youk and Lowell: Almost a third of the way through the 2007 campaign, the Red Sox are still waiting for a host of key cogs to kickstart their season. First and foremost, Manny Ramirez looks abnormally normal at the plate with a .269 batting average. Coco Crisp still can't hit a lick -- an 0-for-16 slump has dropped his average to .229. And none of Boston's three big offseason additions -- Daisuke Matsuzaka, J.D. Drew or Julio Lugo -- have lived up to the billing.
Yet even with all this sub-par play, the Red Sox Nation couldn't be happier. Not only do the beloved Sawx own a double-digit lead in the AL East, but also they hold a 13.5-game advantage over the "Evil Empire."
How have the Sox jumped out to such a commanding lead with little assistance from Manny, Coco, Daisuke, J.D. and Lugo? Look no further than the two biggest catalysts for the third-highest scoring offense in baseball: Kevin Youkilis and Mike Lowell.
It's a bit easier to comprehend Lowell's emergence. During his prime years with Florida, he was a steady run producer, cracking 100 RBIs twice. Also, Lowell has earned a reputation for playing his best ball before the All-Star break. Even so, his stats in the first two months of the season are pretty jarring -- a .330 batting average with team highs in homers (10) and RBIs (41). Wasn't this guy basically forced upon the Sox in the Josh Beckett-Hanley Ramirez trade? Guess the 32-year-old still has some gas in the tank after all ...
Unlike Lowell, the 28-year-old Youkilis has no track record as a slugger. Granted, he collected respectable totals in runs (100) and RBIs (72) last season, but nothing hinted toward his prodigious production of 2007. The first baseman ranks in the AL top five in batting average (.354), runs (40), doubles (17), on-base percentage (.427) and OPS (.987). Entering this weekend's series against the Yankees, he's riding a 22-game hitting streak (during which he has compiled a .429 average with six homers and 21 RBIs). Youk's success this season has earned him some new perks. This week he joined teammate Curt Schilling in the blogosphere, launching his own blog for MLB.com called "Yooooouuuuukkkkk."
Even with some of the best numbers in baseball, though, Youk may have trouble making the All-Star game. Since the Midsummer Classic will be played on a National League park (San Francisco's AT&T), there won't be a designated hitter. Thus, the Red Sox were forced to place David Ortiz -- not Youkilis -- on the All-Star ballot as their eligible first baseman. The onus will be on Jim Leyland to select Youk as a backup.
II. Seattle's bats: Suddenly, Seattle finds itself in second place in the AL West, thanks in no small part to the Mariners' offensive explosion. Seattle set a club record for hits in May, eclipsing 300 for the first time. The Mariners are now second in the majors in batting average (.281) and easily boast the fewest strikeouts (231 through 50 games).
As usual, the attack starts with Ichiro Suzuki, who's riding a career-high 24-game hitting streak. But everyone on the roster is red hot ... everyone except Richie Sexson, who's engaged in his annual first-half battle with the Mendoza Line.
III. Old Man Saito: At the outset of the 2006 season, 36-year-old rookie reliever Takashi Saito wasn't expected to contribute much. Many believed Saito, who enjoyed 13 solid (but unspectacular) years in Japan, was washed up. He signed a minor league deal with the Dodgers and started last season in Triple-A. But when Danys Baez stumbled, Saito took over as LA's closer and didn't look back, setting a Dodgers rookie record for saves (24) and leading all MLB relievers with 107 strikeouts.
This year -- at the tender age of 37 -- Saito's just as dominant. He's 15-for-15 in saves with a 1.64 ERA, and has converted 25 straight going back to last season. His key to success has always been pounding the strike zone, as evidenced by his current 14-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Saito has struggled with one aspect of his game -- finding an entrance song that fits. In his first home appearance of the year, Saito came out to this gem. For those of you unfamiliar with Japanese '80s pop music, that's Isseifubi Sepia's classic anthem "Zenryaku, michi no ue yori." Needless to say, it wasn't a big hit with the Dodger Stadium folk. Next, Dodgers officials tried Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water," but no one liked the song's connection to Robb Nen, who used the track while closing for the rival Giants. Currently, Saito's entering games to the beat of George Thorogood and the Destroyers' "Bad to the Bone," but the friendly hurler isn't sold on the song.
"We'll probably end up changing it at some point," Saito told The Press-Enterprise. "I don't really know what the words mean. Somebody told me the song doesn't really fit me."
IV. Mauer's replacement: All-Star catcher Joe Mauer has been out of Minnesota's lineup since May 5 with a strained left quadriceps, and the Twins keep pushing back his return date. Luckily, Mike Redmond has swooped in and saved the day. Redmond -- a 36-year-old career backup -- has completely tempered the loss of the reigning AL batting champ. Since taking over the everyday catching duties, Redmond is hitting .388 with a .962 OPS.
Redmond's hot bat gives the Twins the luxury of waiting for their franchise catcher to be 100-percent healthy before returning to the lineup. And since Redmond's old enough to run for president, I don't think Mauer has to worry about a Wally Pipp situation developing.
V. Brad Lidge: While the Astros -- losers of nine of their last 10 games -- plummet toward the bottom of the NL Central, one Houston player has risen from the ashes. Surprisingly, that one Astro is none other than meltdown master Brad Lidge.
After losing his closer job just a week into the season, Lidge told the Houston Chronicle he was "ticked off" about Phil Garner's decision to demote him. This augmented anger certainly hasn't affected his performance in a negative way:
If the Astros keep tanking, this guy will become prime hot stove fodder.
1 of 2