Injuries coming at worst possible time for contenders
Tom Brady goes down with a ripped up knee, sidelined for the season, and all of Patriots Nation suddenly looks like a stopped-up Bill Belichick. The pained faces. The mumbled replies. The hurry to get somewhere else.
It's understandable, of course. Brady is kind of a big deal. He's important to the Patriots and to their fans. Without Brady, the Pats' chances of making the playoffs -- never mind reaching another Super Bowl -- are about as good as the Yankees'.
Still, you usually don't find that type of a shell-shocked reaction in baseball, not that early in the season. In baseball, when a player is injured in March or April, there's a short gasp and maybe a few doomsday headlines before the front office simply gets into gear, the next guy is plugged in and everybody goes about the business of playing six tortuous months of 162 seemingly non-stop games. Or, if you're sabermetrically inclined, about 10 times the number of games that they play in the NFL.
Oh, sure, some early season injuries hurt more than others. Back in 2004, Barry Bonds carried the Giants to 91 wins. But in '05, injuries kept him out of the lineup until September, and by then, the Giants were six games behind and couldn't make up the difference. As awful as the Giants were in '05, you have to figure that a full season of the baddest man to swing a piece of lumber since Hank Aaron would have made a difference.
Generally speaking, though, the long season helps baseball teams have a much easier time adjusting to the loss of a big stud early in the season. If someone goes down in spring training or in April or even in May, there are plenty of opportunities to find a diamond in the minor-league rough, or give a backup a chance to make good or, lacking that, to pull off a trade. And they don't have to spend three weeks deciphering the playbook, either.
You can find all sorts of historical examples, but here's a quick one from this season: The Mets were figuring on a lot of help from Moises Alou. They're paying him $8.5 million to help. He's played 15 games this year and is out for the rest of the season with a hamstring injury. Yet because of some good play by some backups -- Fernando Tatis and Daniel Murphy, mainly -- the Mets are still on top of the National League East.
An injury to a quarterback, obviously, is different than an injury to anything in baseball. What do you liken it to; losing a stud corner infielder? (The Cardinals won the NL Central, and 100 games, even though third baseman Scott Rolen missed most of 2005.) The do-everything shortstop? (The Dodgers are leading the NL West without Rafael Furcal, who may make it back soon.) A big-swinging outfielder? (Again, Bonds or a number of others.)
Even an injury to the ace of a pitching staff, if it comes early enough in the season, can be overcome. It's easier, in fact, considering that an ace, a healthy one, has a hand in deciding only 20 percent of his team's games in the first place. This year's Dodgers, for example, don't miss Jason Schmidt, though they may miss the $12 million they're paying him. The Cardinals have competed even without Chris Carpenter and Mark Mulder for most of the season.
Late-season injuries, though ... well, that's a different matter altogether. Baseball history is littered with stories of players who were hurt in September and watched helplessly as their teams went on a nosedive. That's why you're a lot more likely to see Belichick faces around baseball in September than at the start of the year.
Who's worried now?
Did you see Cubs manager Lou Piniella when he thought his co-aces, Carlos Zambrano and Rich Harden, might be in the infirmary during the September stretch run? As it turns out, both Zambrano and Harden are expected to pitch later this week and the rest might do them, and the Cubs, some good. Not to mention Piniella's blood pressure.
Carlos Quentin, who was streaking toward the American League MVP this season, broke his wrist assaulting his own bat and will be gone for a couple more weeks and maybe longer than that. The Sox have a one-game lead in the AL Central. Are they nervous about losing the league's leading home run hitter? Of course they are. Time's running out.
Mets closer Billy Wagner has ripped up a ligament in his elbow and will miss all of 2009. Now, the Mets are scrambling for a closer. Can Luis Ayala fill in? Mets fans are wondering.
What about Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria of the Rays? Tampa Bay is clutching a 1 1/2 -game lead in the AL East despite missing their speedy outfielder and their slugging third baseman. Willy Aybar has filled in nicely at third, and Eric Hinske and a couple of other guys are holding things together in the outfield. But the team's lead dropped to a half-game before a clutch win Tuesday night, and you know as soon as Longoria is ready -- it should be within days, barring a setback -- manager Joe Maddon will pencil him into the lineup as fast as he can. Crawford probably won't make it back this year.
Think the Diamondbacks, who have fallen into second place in the NL West, wouldn't love to have their second baseman, Orlando Hudson, back for September.? He's not returning -- he's been out since early August after breaking his wrist -- so the skittish D'backs will have to get by with new pickup David Eckstein (who is hitting just .154 in his first seven games in the desert).
Jonathan Broxton throws the ball hard. Like 98 mph hard. But the new Dodgers closer has blown seven saves this season, which is four more than Takashi Saito has coughed up. When Saito's elbow is healed -- it might be as early as this weekend, given his rehab schedule -- Joe Torre will give the ball to the player who's done it longer. He won't be taking too many chances with new guys in September.
Back in April, baseball fans in Boston fretted a little over the prospect of a season without Curt Schilling, the 2004 World Series hero sidelined with a bad shoulder. But the fans of Red Sox Nation have been around the block. They knew that they could get by. And they were right.
Can the Sox win now, though, with J.D. Drew's back flaring up and with Josh Beckett's recent elbow scare? What if Daisuke Matsuzaka is hurt? What if Dustin Pedroia breaks his nose on his 300th dive into the hole between first and second?
At this point, Boston fans just have to hope that the Sox stay healthy. Another Nation of Belichick faces in town would be just too much to take.