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7/27/2007 09:32:00 AM

Wild Card: Underachievers, Part II

By Cliff Corcoran

Having revisited my early-season list of overachieving teams last week, it though it would be interesting to check up on my list of underachievers as well. Here's how those seven teams were doing when I dubbed them underachievers back in May and where they stand today:

Team May 11 Pct Place July 27 Pct Place
Yankees 0.485 2 0.535 2
Cubs 0.500 2 0.530 2
Phillies 0.441 4 0.515 3
Blue Jays 0.382 5 0.505 3
Royals 0.314 5 0.436 5
Twins 0.500 4 0.505 3
Nationals 0.265 5 0.426 5

There are no Mariners-like outliers here. In fact, the only team that hasn't gotten meaningfully better is the Twins, who remain a .500 ballclub despite dropping Sidney Ponson from the roster and Ramon Ortiz from their rotation. That lack of improvement is due in part to the underwhelming performances of rotation replacements Scott Baker (5.30 ERA) and Kevin Slowey (5.84). Slowey has since been returned to Triple-A Rochester and replaced in the rotation by Matt Garza, but that move has been counterweighted by the sprained right thumb that has forced right fielder and cleanup hitter Michael Cuddyer to the disabled list, leaving the Twins languishing on the outskirts of contention.

The most compelling of these teams are the Yankees, Cubs, and Phillies. The Yankees are baseball's hottest team having won six of their past seven, 12 of 16 since the All-Star break, and 17 of 23. True, 12 of their past 16 games have come against the last-place Royals and Devil Rays, but they've also taken three of four from those .500 Twins and Blue Jays and two of three from the first-place Angels over those last 23 games. Meanwhile, they haven't been merely defeating those last-place teams, they've been destroying them. Before dropping the series finale to the Royals last night, they had won six in a row by a combined 70-19 score (or an average game score of roughly 12-3).

It remains to be seen if the Yankees will run out of gas by the time they hit the considerable mid-August bump in their schedule that pits them against the Indians, Tigers, Angels, and Red Sox, but it looks like they just might be in range of the Wild Card (currently four games behind Cleveland in the loss column with three head-to-head games remaining) and possibly even the AL East (currently seven behind Boston in the loss column with six head-to-head games remaining) when that part of the schedule comes around. More good news for the Bombers: überprospect Phil Hughes, last seen no-hitting the Rangers through 6 1/3 innings, and slugger Jason Giambi are both on minor league rehab assignments and could be activated from the disabled list in the next week or two.

The Cubs have been nearly as hot as the Yankees, winning 21 of their past 29, including two of three from first-place Milwaukee. They've gained 6.5 games on the Brewers over that stretch and currently stand just two games back in the NL Central and one game behind in the Wild Card race. A huge part of their recent success has been the resurgence of Carlos Zambrano who has gone 8-2 with a 1.56 ERA over his last ten starts after starting the season 5-8 with a 5.62. Ted Lilly has joined the party in July, going 4-0 with a 1.98 on the month. Together, Zambrano and Lilly have 12 of those last 21 wins. That can't keep up, but there are still reasons to be hopeful for Cub fans. Derek Lee only hit six home runs in the first half, but he also hit .330 with a .411 on-base percentage, and power tends to be the last thing to return after the sort of wrist injury he suffered (see Hideki Matsui, who hit eight homers through the end of June and has ten more since). Lee had 26 doubles in the first half and already has three round-trippers since the break despite serving a five-game suspension. It's not a stretch to expect more of those doubles to turn into homers in the second half, which could result in some monster production from Lee down the stretch.

Meanwhile, Baseball Prospectus's Will Carroll has been reporting great things about Kerry Wood's rehab. Wood's injury record is such that it's difficult to have any real optimism about his potential contribution, but word via Carroll is that he's throwing mid-90s and could rejoin the Cubs relief corps as soon as next week.

As for the Phillies, they're doing their usual job of getting close enough to be in the playoff discussion, but staying far enough back not to be a real threat. The Phils are just 2.5 games behind in the Wild Card race, but they have four teams ahead of them, including the Cubs and the Braves, the latter of whom stand between the Phillies and the first place Mets in the NL East. The Phils will be getting Brett Myers back soon, but the team will continue to use him as a closer despite Tom Gordon having preceded his return to action and the fact that Jon Lieber is out for the season, Freddy Garcia could very well be, and Jamie Moyer has posted a 6.26 ERA since mid-May. The Phillies have had the worst pitching in the National League this season, but are getting by on the league's best offense, which has scored more than a half-run per game more than the Rockies’s second-best attack. That took a blow yesterday, however, as Chase Utley's right hand was broken by a pitch in the Phillies' loss to the Nationals. There's little remaining hope for improvement here. Ryan Howard recovered from his poor April to slug .695 with 26 homers and 72 RBIs over the last three months, Utley, Jimmy Rollins, and Aaron Rowand are having career years, and even Pat Burrell, who is getting on base at a career-best .408 clip in an otherwise disappointing season, has caught fire in July, hitting .433/.562/.717. Having already maximized the potential of their offense and exhausted their pitching reinforcements, the Phillies have likely hit their ceiling, even if they were to wise up and put Myers back in the rotation.

That leaves the Cubs and the Yankees to provide us with a thrilling come-from-behind pennant chase. The Cubs have been one of the most curious teams in baseball ever since they dropped a combined $285 million on Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez, Ted Lilly, Jason Marquis, and Mark DeRosa over the winter and tossed out another $10 million to make Lou Piniella their manager. That they flopped out of the gate, fought in the dugout, and prompted some classic Piniella press conference material only makes their recent surge all the more compelling. The Yankees have been nearly as compelling, as their own early-season struggles have threatened the franchise's streak of 12-straight playoff appearances despite Alex Rodriguez's all-world season and the return of Roger Clemens. Now both are playing their best baseball just in time for the pennant races to heat up. It seems unlikely that either club will make the postseason, but they sure will make things interesting.


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7/26/2007 12:52:00 PM

NL East: King Cole

By Ben Reiter

I was planning to write this blog entry about how Antonio Alfonseca's success as the Phillies' closer was being accomplished with smoke and mirrors, about how the club ought to immediately reinstall Tom Gordon (who's allowed one total base runner in his three post-DL appearances) in the role ­ at least until Brett Myers returns from a strained right shoulder, which could happen as early as tomorrow. Yes, I was going to write, the big-bellied Alfonseca has managed eight saves and is something of a fan favorite in Philly, but he's striking out a miniscule 3.08 batters per nine innings (the second-worst current closer in the category, Detroit¹s Todd Jones, manages 4.89), he walks more batters than he fans (the only closer who does that), and he has a closer-worst WHIP (1.66) and batting average against (.312). That his ERA is only 4.26, I planned to contend, is something of a miracle.

Then, last night, the Washington Nationals of all teams (!) ­caught up with El Pulpo, scoring three earned runs off of him to take a 5-4 lead in the top of the ninth without breaking a sweat. While the Phils' offense bailed Alfonseca out by tying the game in the bottom of the inning and winning it in the 14th, it became clear that some combination of Gordon and Myers will be closing games from here on in, at least until they both get hurt again S so, around 11 PM last night, a blog asserting that such a change should be made became pointless.

Instead, I'll write about the man who was robbed of his 12th win by Alfonseca's collapse, the pitcher whom I would choose first overall were I lucky enough to have the opportunity to select any in the National League to head my rotation for the next decade or so: the Phillies' 23-year-old southpaw ace, Cole Hamels.

With my sincere apologies to Jake Peavy, Chris Young, Brad Penny, and a few others, I believe that Hamels, in just his first full season in the majors, has emerged as the NL's most talented starter. Despite making half his starts in a ballpark that would make pitchers with lesser constitutions nauseous (Citizens Bank Park is this season the easiest place in baseball in which to hit a home run), Hamels' ERA ranks in the league's Top 20­ and he's actually been better at home (3.42) than on the road (3.84). Part of the reason why he's so valuable to the Phillies is that opponents can't hit homers if they can't hit the ball, period ­ and Hamels is three behind Aaron Harang for the NL strikeout lead. Even more important is that he seems to avoiding hitting the wall in the manner of so many young pitchers come mid-summer (see Justin Verlander last season); he's got a 2.67 ERA in four July starts.

Hamels' precocious stamina stems in part from the fact that he possesses the work ethic of a pitcher 10 years his senior. I was talking to him several weeks ago about his involved, self-driven daily routine: ­"On a gameday I normally get here around 2 P.M., which give me two hours to do shoulders, back, abs, what I need to do or myself. Probably four or five guys get here that early," he said. Reliever Geoff Geary, who was then Hamels' locker mate, interjected. "This guy's unbelievable," Geary said sincerely. "I've never seen anyone work like he does."

That ethic has overwhelmed any concerns about Hamels' character that were raised as a result of a few youthful indiscretions, including a bar fight in Clearwater, Florida that left him with a broken pitching hand two winters ago. Indeed, in person, Hamels comes across as more mellow surfer than adrenaline-crazed brawler,­ more John From Cincinnati than Deadwood.

He expresses what appears to be a genuine sense of humility. "Because of the types of pitches I have in my repertoire, I know that I can strike guys out, and it's fun," he says. "But even so, I'm surprised as any that I'm around the top of the leaderboard, because some of the names on that list, I'm in disbelief that I'm at their level. I used to watch [Jake] Peavy, he's phenomenal,­ he was just starting in San Diego when I was still [in high school] there. John Smoltz, [former Phillies teammate] Randy Wolf. There's a bunch of guys that can just blow people away."

Hamels is also unfazed when asked if any batter owns him, a question that might make other young aces indignant. "Miguel Cabrera," he says quickly. "I think he's batting .800 off me [actually .750]. From what I've seen, I think he probably has the best hand-eye coordination in the game, besides Barry Bonds. Just the way he can stay back on a ball that's either 94 or 80, he¹s still able to wait for it."

Seriously, though, being humble only gets one so far: the biggest reason why I'd pick Hamels going forward is because he long ago mastered a dominating strikeout pitch ­ his changeup. Remember, Johan Santana, who is widely agreed to possess baseball's best change, didn't even begin to get the hang of the pitch until he was Hamels' age, when he was sent down to Triple-A Edmonton to work with guru Bobby Cuellar. Hamels has been throwing a circle change since his high school coach, Mark Furtak, taught it to him at age 14.

I'm not suggesting that Hamels has nothing to work on; even though we'll cut him some slack due to his home park, he still allows way too many home runs (an NL-high 22), a tendency that causes him to get lit up once in awhile ­ he's allowed five earned runs in a game three times this season. However, when push comes to shove, I'm still on the Cole Patrol.

  • Beer Leaguer contends that the Phils' MLB-best bats shouldn't overshadow the other improvements they've made since their 4-11 start and credits much-maligned manager Charlie Manuel and his staff. Well-argued, but I still think their lack of any even above-average starter other than Hamels will keep them out of the post-season.

  • Mark Bowman says that Atlanta's the front-runner to land Mark Teixeira, which would be great for the Braves, great for Fungoes favorite Jarrod Saltalamacchia (who would presumably be installed as the everyday catcher in Texas), and absolutely devastating for Reiters on the Storm, my AL-only fantasy team.

  • Mike Cerrone's MetsBlog discusses the incredible wealth of trade deadline options the Mets will have if they're looking for an upgrade at second base, now that Jose Valentin has broken his leg, including Mark Loretta, Mark Grudzielanek, Tadihito Iguchi, Jorge Cantu, and others. The most interesting, and most far-fetched, name on the list is Brian Roberts. Mets fans must be salivating at the thought of a lineup-topping Reyes-Roberts double play combination.

  • Capitol Punishment analyzes Adam Dunn's homers, and concludes that he hits so many no-doubters that he'd barely be affected by a move from the bandbox that is Great American Ball Park to the cavernous RFK Stadium. Whether such a deal makes any sense, however, is another story. In other Nats news: can a hat get any uglier than this? Just wondering.

  • Clark Spencer and Sarah Rothschild of the Miami Herald give us what we've all been waiting for: the back story of Rick OVicious Henricius' Vanden Hurk.
  • Labels:

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    7/26/2007 10:32:00 AM

    AL West: A post-derby slump

    By Gennaro Filice

    Earlier this month, many of the games biggest sluggers, including Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, David Ortiz and Ken Griffey Jr., chose to skip the Home Run Derby. Immediately, folks relentlessly hammered the non-participants. Fans and media members alike especially bashed Bonds' old man rationale. ("It's not that you don't want to do it," Bonds had told the San Francisco Chronicle. "At a certain age you just can't.")

    But Bonds and cohorts may have made the right decision in opting out of the contest. Just ask Vladimir Guerrero.

    Big Daddy Vladdy took home the derby title, smacking 17 balls into the AT&T Park stands, but Guerrero hasn't hit a homer since his magnificent display in the Bay. In fact, he hasn't left the yard since a June 23 game against Pittsburgh. This 24-game, 97-at-bat stretch is the longest homerless drought in Guerrero's illustrious career. According to Angels color commentator Rex Hudler, Guerrero says three taxing rounds at the derby are at least partially responsible for the dry spell. During Tuesday's broadcast, Hudler spoke of a pregame conversation with Vlad in which the right fielder surprisingly admitted that the derby wore him down and affected his stroke.

    With just 14 jacks through the first 100 games of 2007, Guerrero's on pace to finish the regular season with 23, which would be a career low.

    Truth be told, though, the Angels couldn't care less.

    While the home runs have been scarce, Guerrero's still managed to produce at an elite level. His current .327 batting average is two points better than his career mark, and his .409 on-base percentage easily trumps his lifetime clip (.391). Vlad has the fourth-most RBIs (79) in the American League; at this rate, he has a chance to top his career-best mark of 131 in 1999. And with 32 doubles, he's en route to easily eclipse his highest total ever (45 in 2001).

    Angels manager Mike Scioscia gave Guerrero the day off on Wednesday and the Angels don't play today. On Friday, Los Angeles opens up a three-game series against the Tigers, who have given up the fourth-most homers in the American League. If facing Detroit doesn't get Guerrero out of his big-fly funk then the turn of the month should do the trick. Vlad's career splits show that August is definitely The Impaler's best power month.

  • With the July 31 trade deadline looming, the hottest name in the AL West is probably Texas first baseman Mark Teixeira, though teammate Eric Gagne could give him a run for his money. Earlier this week, Gagne showed the durability that netted him 152 saves from 2002-04 by earning three saves in a 24-hour period. The last-place Rangers are expected to be definite sellers before the deadline, and Dallas Morning News columnist Evan Grant provides his predictions on who is staying and who is going.

  • The A's 4-3 win over Los Angeles on Tuesday featured one of the finest performances by a rookie this season. A's leadoff man Travis Buck went 4-for-5 with a double, home run, three RBIs, two runs and a stolen base and made a game-saving diving catch in the eighth inning. The 23-year-old's spectacular game caused Athletic Supporters to really sing his praises as an all-around threat.

  • Prior to Wednesday's game in Arlington, Seattle's J.J. Putz, Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre decided it was time for a change and administered crew cuts to the entire team, even manager John McLaren. Part-time musician Ben Broussard stepped it up a notch and opted for a mohawk. Conveniently, today's starter Jeff Weaver and his free-flowing locks were already on their way back to Seattle before this team-building activity was hatched.
  • Labels:

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    7/25/2007 11:39:00 AM

    NL Central: Piece of history

    By Albert Chen

    I spent last weekend at Miller Park, not to check in on the first-place Brewers but to be around in case Barry Bonds smacked home runs 754 and 755. A short word about Bonds before we dive into some NL Central news: Some talking heads are saying that he better break the record at home because there's going to be bedlam if he does it on the road. But if the crowd in Milwaukee is any indication, the response may be a lot more tame than people think.

    The booing by the Brewers faithful each time Bonds stepped to the plate last weekend seemed more dutiful than vicious. They booed but rose in expectation, with eyes wide open, when Bonds flew out to center on Friday. They booed but snapped photos on nearly every pitch to the old slugger. And when Bonds was intentionally walked for the first (and only) time in the series on Saturday, they booed again.

    "It's kind of weird here because everyone doesn't like him but everyone wants to be here for the home run," said Matt Borgo, a 23-year-old med student who sat expectantly in the rightfield seats at Miller Park on Sunday with a glove in hand. "This is still history, and we all want to be part of it."

    Still, the would-be home run king, even as the hallowed milestone is at last so near, remains as joyless as ever in his pursuit. He scowled at the media, he never acknowledged the Milwaukee fans that cheered him when he emerged each day for BP. Indeed, as Updike once wrote, "Gods do not answer letters."

    Anyway, onto the Brewers: Milwaukee owner Mark Attanasio -- whose brother Paul, by the way, penned two all-time great movies, Donnie Brasco and Quiz Show -- says that "there's room in the team's budget" to acquire help before the July 31 trading deadline. I think Milwaukee's going to need help in order to secure this division. The Cubs, who have a superior run differential to the Brewers', are for real, and Milwaukee needs more firepower in the lineup. (Jermaine Dye, perhaps?) Since the All-Star break the Brewers were 12th in the National League in runs scored and 11th in on-base percentage. "I think they need a hitter," says an advance scout. "[Yovani] Gallardo has been huge for them, and they'll be fine when Ben Sheets comes back."

    If you were Doug Melvin, what would you do? Would you trade Derrick Turnbow for a big bopper? Can the Brewers hang on without making a deal?

  • For more on the NL Cent, The Hardball Times provides "an illuminating analysis."

  • Craig Biggio is done after 2007. A Hall of Fame lock, says Richard Justice, who writes about "Beege here."

  • Viva El Birdos points out that the Cardinals have been playing "as well as anyone in the NL since the start of May.."

  • An interesting exchange between Viva El Birdos and Bleed Cubbie Blue.

  • Red Reporter chimes in on the "Adam Dunn to the Nationals" rumor.

  • Was sorry to see Hunter Pence go down with an injury. The center fielder was on his way to a splendid season, and a great battle with Ryan Braun for NL ROY. Will Carroll gives us his take on Pence's injury.
  • Labels:

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    7/24/2007 12:30:00 PM

    AL Central: Wait till next year

    By Joe Lemire

    Ozzie Guillen is channeling Ricky Bobby. And that's definitely not a good thing for White Sox fans.

    When asked if he was surprised Chicago was tied with Kansas City for last in the division, Guillen gave an answer very reminiscent of Ricky Bobby's motto, "If you're not first, you"re last."

    The White Sox manager said:

    "Not really. Especially when we left for spring training we thought we had a pretty good ballclub. This is not an excuse, but if you don't finish first, it doesn't matter.

    "That's the way I look at it. I said that last year. If you don't finish first, who cares where you finish? Second, third, fourth, you go home. Second place you got better hopes than last place, but it's not any different. The only difference is the next year you pick higher in the draft. But besides that, it's not any different. You go home and watch baseball like everybody else."

    For starters, second place in the AL Central -- particularly this year -- means a very good shot at the wild card. As recently as 2003 and 2004, wild card winners Florida and Boston emerged from the wild card to win the World Series. But apparently that's not enough hope for Guillen, who sounds only concerned with the 2008 amateur draft.

    Of course, with a 43-55 record and 14.5-game deficit even in the wild card standings, it's no surprise that Chicago won’t make the postseason this year -- Baseball Prospectus gives them a .00585 percent chance -- and that several White Sox are being actively shopped (even if G.M. Kenny Williams is holding his cards close to the vest).

    Their starting pitching has been pretty good, particularly Mark Buerhle, Jon Garland and Javier Vazquez who, at the ages of 28, 27 and 30, respectively, should continue to have several more productive seasons. But of their Opening Day starters, only Joe Crede (29) and Juan Uribe (27) were under the age of 30. Crede was batting .216 before undergoing back surgery -- making room for 24-year old prospect Josh Fields at third base -- and Uribe is batting a cool .222. With Paul Konerko and Jermaine Dye having down seasons and not getting any younger, this is not a lineup to build around for the future.

    With the trading deadline approaching and Guillen conceding that he's not surprised the White Sox have faltered, it's definitely time for Williams to listen to any and all offers, move the veterans for young players and hope for the best in next year's draft -- Guillen's already planning for it.

  • If you can make it to Kansas City tonight -- and I'm sure there are still tickets available -- it's George Brett Pine Tar Night! To commemorate the 24th anniversary of Brett going berserk, the Royals are giving out 20,000 T-shirts with fake pine tar stains.

  • Royals shortstop Tony Pena Jr. has not walked in his last 236 plate appearances. That is not a misprint. More troubling is that last weekhis general manager supports him. Dayton Moore said, "I couldn't care less if he walks again all year. I don't want him worrying about that. The biggest mistake that players make is they start focusing so much on their weaknesses that they don’t maintain their strengths." I do hope that getting on base qualifies as a strength for most position players, so maybe Pena needs to take a different approach at the plate.

  • OK, one more Royals link and then I'm done. Today's sure sign you're a small-market team: a popular fan blog posts a poll asking, How many Royals will be traded?

  • Actually, I lied. I'd be remiss to neglect to mention this -- tucked low in this New York Daily News story is the note that Kansas City has the best ERA in the majors since June 24. In the past month, the Royals have won series against Boston, Detroit, Los Angeles and Seattle -- four of the five top teams in the AL.

  • Fresh off being AL Player of the Week, Curtis Granderson went 3-for-3 with a walk, HBP, HR and four RBIs playing in his hometown of Chicago last night.

  • Apparently groundballs can beat you too. In looking at Jake Westbrook's game log, you can see that the hard luck Cleveland pitcher is doing a good job keeping the ball on the ground. Westbrook's yielded just homer in July with a 45:17 groundball-to-flyball ratio, including a 15:1 mark in last night's 6-2 loss to the Red Sox. Yet, he's 0-3 with a 6.38 ERA in the month.

  • In the New York Penn League this week: the two AL Central affiliates, the Oneonta Tigers and Mahoning Valley Scrappers played each other! The O-Tigers took two of three in the series. And pitching seems to be contagious. Since Guillermo Moscoso's perfect game, Oneonta's starting pitchers are 6-1 with a 1.92 ERA.

  • Don't forget about today's AL Central twinbill: Tigers at White Sox at 1:05 p.m. and again at 7:11 p.m. central time. (The second start time seem curious? Don’t forget that Chicago sold the rights to its start time to 7-Eleven.
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    7/23/2007 09:18:00 AM

    AL East: Red Sox right ship

    By Alex Belth

    The Yankees have gotten off to a good start in the second half, so good that at some point last week, the first whispers (i.e. pipe dreams) of a Red Sox collapse could be heard in Gotham. Boston has not played especially well since the beginning of June, but they recovered nicely last week, winning four of seven while New York won six of eight. Over at Baseball Musings, David Pinto notes that the Yankees need to gain a game per week on the Red Sox in order to have a shot at the division. New York gained a game and a half since last Monday.

    There is good news in Boston. First, David Ortiz, who has been banged-up all season, does not appear to have seriously hurt his shoulder. Not only that, but Curt Schilling just aced a rehab start. Tim Wakefield reached a milestone, and hey, Julio Lugo is even starting to hit a little bit. Finally, southpaw Jon Lester returns to the Red Sox and will start tonight against the Indians. The 23-year old pitcher, who will replace Julian Tavarez in the rotation, was diagnosed with a rare form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma last season. As Dan Shaughnessy notes in today's Boston Globe, this will be Lester's first start in exactly eleven months:

    "They have my best interest in mind at all times," Lester said yesterday after working out in Pawtucket. "It was hard, and frustrating, to do the steps and the progressions that they had, but as long as I sat back and kept telling myself that they want me to be healthy and that's the main goal for my future, not right now...

    "It's been hard getting treated like you're in a glass bottle, so it'd be nice to finally break through it and get to go pitch again."

    "Trust me, anyone going through this doesn't want to talk about it," said Mike Lowell, who underwent surgery for testicular cancer in 1999. "He wants to be a baseball player rather than a cancer survivor. I'm super happy for him and I think he feels like it's a long time coming. He's answering more cancer questions than baseball questions. You'd rather talk about baseball, but with me it took about a year and a half."

    In the Boston Herald, Steve Buckley calls Lester's story truly magnificent. The Red Sox hope that Lester will be an upgrade on Tavarez, of course. However, it is remarkable that Lester is back in the majors, period. Let's hope he stays there.

    The Yankees scored a boatload of runs against the Devil Rays over the weekend -- 21 and 18 in the final two games, to be exact. Joel Sherman says that there should be an asterisk attached to every offensive achievement against the Devil Rays' pitching staff. Hideki Matsui, who is batting .349 with 9 home runs and 17 RBI in July, had five hits on Sunday afternoon. Alex Rodriguez hit career homer 498 and now has 99 RBI on the season. But the feel-good story of the weekend was Shelley Duncan -- son of Cardinals pitching coach Dave, brother of Cards left fielder, Chris. A veteran minor leaguer, Duncan, who looks as if he could have played at the turn of the last century, collected his first big league hit on Friday night and his first big league homer on Saturday. He out-did himself on Sunday, blasting two homers and evoking memories of Kevin Maas and Shane Spencer. He enjoyed two curtain calls. Duncan gives the ever-corporate Yankees a refreshing blast of unbridled energy reports Bill Madden in the Daily News.

    The Yankees acquired Jose Molina as a back-up catcher on Saturday. Cliff Corcoran, who says the Yankees didn't know how good they had it with Kelly Stinnett, calls the move a modest upgrade.

    Baltimore rookie, Jeremy Guthrie won a pitcher's duel in Oakland on Sunday. The O's ace, Erik Bedard, handled the A's on Friday. The two starters are a bright spot for the Orioles, who will be in the news this week as Cal Ripken Jr.gets ready to be inducted into the Hall of Fame on Sunday.

    Roy Halladay pitched two outstanding games this past week. In fact, Jays pitching only gave up 12 hits to the Mariners all weekend. Though he didn't have anything to show for his effort against the Yankees (which the Jays lost in extra innings), Halladay tossed the ninth shutout of his career on Sunday. He thoroughly out-pitched Felix Hernandez, who allowed his emotions to get the better of him. According to the Globe and Mail:

    "He's been on a roll the past couple outings," Jays manager John Gibbons said of Halladay's 111-pitch shutout performance. "He's just made a couple of adjustments, and he's really pounding the strike zone. He's got his curveball going, and that's something he was missing when he struggled. To get a shutout against a pretty good team is a pretty good feat, and the bats came through today."

    As for the Devil Rays...oy. After Sunday's embarrassment, Jonny Gomes said:

    "To sum it all up, I guess you can say it's an old-fashioned a-- whipping," outfielder Jonny Gomes said. "You can use whatever words you want. You could use four-letter words, 13-letter words -- they could all fit somewhere in these three games."

    Hey, at least they kept the Yankees to just three touchdowns.


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    7/23/2007 09:03:00 AM

    NL West: Dodgers staff in tatters

    By Jon Weisman

    Injuries and ineffectiveness have pulverized the once-formidable Los Angeles Dodgers pitching staff to such an extent that three pitchers have started and relieved in the same week.

    The Dodgers have been a pitching punching bag ever since July 4, when starters Hong-Chih Kuo and Randy Wolf met up with Jason Schmidt on the disabled list. Reliever Chin-hui Tsao compounded the problems by joining bullpenmate Yhency Brazoban on the DL on July 15 -- a day after Tsao gave up a grand slam that propelled the Dodgers into a 12-inning, 193-pitch endurance-fest in San Francisco and undermined any rest built up over the All-Star Break.

    Perhaps most discouraging, All-Star closer Takashi Saito hasn't entered a game since Wednesday because of soreness, which Saito fears might be a revival of spinal cord issues that plagued him during his final three seasons in Japan, according to Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times. Saito is scheduled for an MRI today.

    As a result, if you've ever been looking for a team that would be nifty enough to use its starters as relievers on the days they're scheduled to throw in between outings, the Dodgers have collapsed into that paradigm.

  • Mark Hendrickson, who got the victory with two innings of relief on the day Tsao broke down, started last Tuesday but was knocked out after three innings. Recent callup Eric Stults relieved him for the next three innings.

  • Derek Lowe started Friday but got knocked out after three innings. Hendrickson threw 33 pitches in relief that game.

  • Sunday, Stults started and was kind enough to last for 5 1/3 innings, but with the bullpen maxed out, Lowe had to come get the Dodgers through the seventh -- in what ultimately became a 10-inning loss.

    If Chad Billingsley, a 22-year-old righthander who has a 3.56 ERA but isn't always economical with his pitch counts, can't give the Dodgers innings tonight in Houston (and that may be the case as he struggles with a blister on his pitchaing hand), it would surprise no one at this point to see Brett Tomko -- who gave the Dodgers six innings of shutout respite Friday -- become the latest to pull double-duty. Essentially, the Dodgers have resorted to using a six-man rotation with every starter on call for relief at least one day in between.

    To get off this treadmill, one or several things has to happen. Saito has to get back in action, or the Dodgers need to add him to the DL and call up a minor leaguer like Eric Hull (3.18 ERA at AAA Las Vegas) or Jonathan Meloan (2.20 ERA at AA Jacksonville before his recent promotion to Vegas). And some starter besides Brad Penny has to pitch into the seventh inning. Since the All-Star break, no one else has.

    For all their problems, the Dodgers are in first place in the NL West, a game ahead of the San Diego Padres and a half-game behind the New York Mets and Milwaukee Brewers for the best record in the NL, thanks to a revitalized offense led by 22-year-old Matt Kemp (1.007 OPS) and 23-year-old James Loney (.942 OPS). It's a complete turnabout from the run-challenged, pitching-strong group that carried the team for the season's first three months.

    Wolf is tentatively set for a rehabilitation start in a Class A minor-league game Wednesday, but it should be a while before he emerges as an innings eater to say the least. Since July 1, 2004, he has lasted seven innings only six times. Of course, a team's first instinct in July is to look to the trade market for help, but it's not as if there are fields of quality arms waiting to be harvested. And, the Dodgers' most tradeable commodities, Kemp and Loney, are now integral to the team. Moving them would only re-open the team's offensive woes.

    With Hendrickson and Tomko as inconsistent this year as they have tended to be for years, the pitcher to watch might be Billingsley -- who, appropriately enough, began the season in the bullpen. Billingsley, who turns 23 Sunday, has only logged 65 2/3 innings in 2007. The talent is clearly there, as evidenced by his adjusted ERA of 122 (100 being average) according to Baseball-Reference.com. But doubt remains whether he become efficient enough with his pitch counts in time to save the Dodger staff this season.

    Pitches by Dodger relievers since the All-Star Break
    July 13 38
    July 14 102
    July 15 62
    July 16 39
    July 17 126
    July 18 45
    July 19 95
    July 20 33
    July 21 37
    July 22 87
    Average per day 66.4

    Geoff Blum hasn't permanently taken second base from Marcus Giles in San Diego, but the 34-year-old journeyman infielder (.699 career OPS) has started four of the past five games at the position -- going 7 for 12 with three walks in the process -- ahead of Giles, who has a .200 on-base percentage in 82 plate appearances since June 25.

    Padres manager Bud Black told Scott Bair of the North County Times that "a number of things" were going wrong for Giles.

    "I think he's still expanding the strike zone a little bit," Black said. "I think that he tends to be a little bit out in front of off-speed pitches. Then when he tries to stay back, he ends up being late on the fastball. He's caught in between, and for a hitter that's always a tough spot.

    "We're just trying to stay positive. ... basically told him, 'Keep your head up, keep plugging away and keep on working.' During the first part of the season, he was mainly responsible for our success, and we feel that he's capable of carrying us again."

    Jockeying for first place with the Dodgers for weeks now, the Padres have played two fewer games then their Los Angeles rivals. In the final three weeks of the season, the Dodgers are off on three consecutive Mondays -- Sept. 10, 17 and 24. San Diego also has Sept. 10 off, but then closes with games on 20 consecutive days -- including a four-game trip to end the season in Milwaukee, against a Brewer team currently trying to fight off the Chicago Cubs for the NL Central title. If Milwaukee has clinched by then, it could be a cakewalk for the Padres, but if the Brewers need the wins, the Padres could have a rough final hurdle for the playoffs.

    The Dodgers finish their season against the team that loves to hate them, San Francisco Giants -- but in Los Angeles.

    While "Big Unit" Randy Johnson continues on the rehab road, the guy Arizona Diamondback fans have begun calling the "Petit Unit" -- Yusmeiro Petit -- is winning people over. Petit pitched six shutout innings to lead Arizona over the Cubs on Sunday, 3-0. Petit now has a 2.54 ERA in five starts totaling 28 1/3 innings for the Diamondbacks.

    "All hail, in particular, the Petit Unit, who did what he does best: throws quality strikes," wrote Jim McLennan at AZ Snakepit. "In six shutout innings, he allowed only three hits, walked none and struck out five. A phenomenal performance, and the Marlins must be kicking themselves for letting go of Petit -- effectively trading him for Byung-Hung Kim (Arizona traded Jorge Julio to Florida for Petit -- Julio then went to Colorado for Kim) . Did I mention that the kid is only 22, and won't turn 23 until the off-season? My only concern is that he hasn't gone past six innings since his debut, though since he hasn't thrown more than 90 pitches in any outing, it's hard to tell if this is stamina-related or not."

    Petit's victory got the Diamondbacks back within 3 1/2 games of the Dodgers and 2 1/2 games of a wild-card spot, as well as giving them two games of separation from the Colorado Rockies, who tied with them for third place after Friday's games.

    Brad Hawpe of Colorado may have 17 home runs, a .387 on-base percentage and a .544 slugging percentage, but Colorado has begun platooning him against left-handed pitchers with Ryan Spilborghs.

    Against lefties this season, Spilborghs is 17 for 40 with five walks, four doubles and three home runs, which translates into a .489 on-base percentage and .750 slugging percentage. Hawpe is 15 for 79 with a .273 on-base percentage and .278 slugging percentage.

    "It's really in the best interest of the ballclub to give those at-bats to Spilborghs right now," Rockies manager Clint Hurdle told Michael Phillips of MLB.com.


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