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8/17/2007 08:41:00 AM

Wild Card: Top 10 Flashes in the Pan

Mark Fidrych
The Bird set the baseball world on fire in 1976.
Lane Stewart/SI
By Cliff Corcoran

As last week's post about 300-game winners focused on year-after-year excellence, I thought it would be fun to take a look at the other side of the coin this week with a top 10 list of pitchers who were great just once in their careers. There's a bit of number crunching behind the list below, but there's no definitive stat behind it, so I'll spare you the detailed explanation. One thing I will tell you is that I limited my list to pitchers who dominated their leagues in their best seasons. I defined that as pitchers with single-season WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player) totals of 8.0 or better. This eliminated some popular choices such as Steve Stonez, LaMarr Hoyt, Pete Vuckovich, Wally Bunker, the Yankees' Steve Kline, Kent Bottenfield, Pete Schourek, and Jeff Ballard, as none of those pitchers were truly dominant in their best seasons. With that little bit of business out of the way, here are the flukiest flashes-in-the-pan of the past 60 years.

1. Mark Fidrych
The Bird was the ultimate flash-in-the-pan. Breaking into the league in 1976 at 21, Fidrych went 19-9 for a poor Tigers team, completed 24 of his starts, led the league in ERA, picked up the Rookie of the Year award, finished second in the Cy Young Voting, started the All-Star Game for the AL, and even got a first-place MVP vote. Fidrych wasn't just a good pitcher, he was a cultural sensation thanks to his litany of quirky mound habits and the mop of blonde curls that made him the pitching equivalent of Peter Frampton. It was that very same loopiness and boundless enthusiasm that led to a knee injury in the outfield in spring training the next year, and quite possibly some altered mechanics from that injury which resulted in a torn rotator cuff in his ninth start that year. Fidrych won just four games after his 23rd birthday and his rookie season accounts for more than 75 percent of his career WARP total.

2. Herb Score
In 476 2/3 innings over his first two seasons in the major leagues, the Indians' lefty allowed just 320 hits and struck out 508 men (though he also walked 283). Score won the Rookie of the Year award in 1955 while setting the freshman benchmark for strikeouts with 245. He then went 20-9 with the league's second-best ERA as a sophomore. He was back at it in April 1957 when, with one out in the first inning of his fifth start of the season, the Yankees' Gil McDougal hit a line drive that hit Score in the right eye. He was never the same pitcher, in part because of an altered delivery that had been designed to put him in better fielding position after his follow-through, which had the side effect of taking a few ticks off his dominant fastball. After winning just 17 games over his final five seasons, Score was done at 29.

3. Gene Bearden
Southpaw Bearden was one of many players who got a late start to his major-league career because of World War II. As a 27-year-old rookie for the Indians in 1948, the knuckleballer went 20-7 and led the league in ERA. The Tribe finished that season tied with the Red Sox atop the American League and manager Lou Boudreau handed the rookie Bearden the ball for the one-game playoff against Boston. Said Boudreau: “The reason I started Bearden in what was the most important game I was ever involved in was that he was my best pitcher at the time, better than [Bob] Feller, better than [Bob] Lemon." Bearden won that game and twirled a shutout in Game 3 of the World Series against the Boston Braves (the Indians prevailed in six games), but won only eight games the next season, and only 17 over the next four years combined, which comprised the remainder of his career.

4. Randy Jones
A sinkerballer who compensated for low strikeout rates by limiting walks and homers (much like Chien-Ming Wang, only 20 mph slower), the lefty Jones compiled two dominant seasons for the mid-‘70s Padres. While the Pads lost 180 games between 1975 and 1976, Jones went 42-26 and finished 43 of his starts. He came in second in the Cy Young voting in the first of those two years despite winning 20 games and leading the league in ERA, then won the award the following season. Toward the end of the 1976 season, however, Jones suffered nerve damage in his pitching arm. He never posted another winning record and only once was above league-average in ERA. Six years after his Cy Young season, Jones was done.

5. Jim Kern and Mark Eichhorn
Both relievers were old-school stoppers who pitched 140-plus innings in their dominant seasons. Kern, a quirky 6-foot-5 righty known as “The Great Emu," had been an All-Star fireman for the Indians before being traded to the Rangers for Bobby Bonds and Len Barker after the 1978 season. In his first year in Texas, Kern posted a 1.57 ERA in 143 innings while saving 29 games and winning another 13. His five straight years of more than 90 relief innings caught up with him the next year, as did a return throw from his catcher while he was warming up one day, the latter of which resulted in a significant head injury. Injuries shortened his '81 season as well and, after a last gasp split between the Reds and White Sox in '82, he was never the same. Eichhorn relied on a wild side-arming delivery to post a 1.72 ERA in 157 innings while striking out 166, saving 10, and winning 14 for the 1986 Toronto Blue Jays as a 25-year-old rookie. He put together a solid career as a setup man after that, but nothing that came close to that first season.

6. Ralph Branca
Branca's one of the most famous names on this list, but it's instructive that he's remembered for one spectacular failure -- Bobby Thomson's pennant winning homer in 1951 -- than for his own success. Branca, who made his major-league debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers as a teenager during the war, had a couple of decent seasons, but only one that was great. That came in Jackie Robinson's rookie year of 1947, when Branca, just 21, finished third in the NL in ERA and second in wins and strikeouts. Branca's two decent seasons were his follow up and, ironically, 1951. He was shipped out of Brooklyn at age 27 and was out of baseball at the age of 30.

7. Mike Scott
If not for Darryl Strawberry's leadoff double and Ray Knight's RBI single in the top of the 16th inning of the sixth game of the 1986 NLCS, Scott just might have pitched the Astros to their first World Series. Scott dominated the Mets and the rest of the National League in '86 on the strength of an unhittable split-finger fastball that, rumor has it, was aided by the scuff marks of second baseman Bill Doran. That season, Scott became just the eighth man in the integrated era to strike out 300 men in a season and picked up the Cy Young award. Not bad for 31-year-old failed Mets prospect. Scott was good for three more seasons, but he was only great for that one.

8. Ewell Blackwell and Ray Scarborough
OK, I'm cheating a bit to squeeze some favorites in. In his second full season, 24-year-old Ewell “The Whip" Blackwell went 22-8 for the 1947 Cincinnati Reds, completing a league-leading 23 of his 33 starts and falling just 14 ERA points shy of the pitching triple crown while finishing second in the NL MVP voting. He had two more outstanding seasons in 1950 and 1951, but never topped that sophomore year and was washed up by age 30. The next year, in the other league, the 30-year-old Scarborough went 15-8 for a Senators team that only won 56 games thanks to his second-place ERA. Scarborough, who had lost the prime of his career to World War II, was never again as good as league-average.

9. Hank Aguirre andDick Ellsworth
Aguirre was a strong lefty reliever for the Indians and Tigers in his late-20s, but in 1962 Detroit moved the 31-year old into the rotation and he took over the league, posting a 2.16 ERA in 22 starts in addition to his 2.40 mark in 20 relief appearances. In retrospect, more than doubling his career high in innings pitched in a single season was probably a bad idea as it took a return to the 'pen five years later for him to regain his effectiveness. Unfortunately, he was 36 by then. Fellow lefty Ellsworth broke in with the Cubs at the age of 18 and by the time he was 23, the year after Aguirre's big season, he was breaking the spirits of NL batters, posting the league's best adjusted ERA and going 22-10 with 185 strikeouts. Three disappointing years later, he was dealt to the Phillies. By age 32, his career as a league-average hurler was over.

10. Mike Caldwell
Caldwell was a subpar lefty swingman for the Padres, Giants, Cubs, and Brewers for most of the 1970s. In 1978, however, he stuck in the Milwaukee rotation and went 22-9, completing 23 games and finishing second in the Cy Young voting on the strength of a miniscule walk rate (1.66 BB/9) and ERA. He stuck around for six more seasons with the Brewers, but after a decent encore in 1979 his performance steadily declined.


posted by SI.com | View comments | Add a comment  
8/16/2007 09:08:00 AM

AL West: The Good, the Bad, and the Disorderly

By Gennaro Filice

Last winter, the Mariners found themselves with just two legitimate starting pitchers (Felix Hernandez and Jarrod Washburn) on the payroll. The arduous task of overhauling their rotation was made all the more difficult by an absurdly inflated market for starting pitching. After the supposed premier arms (Barry Zito, Jason Schmidt, Ted Lilly and even career-Mariner Gil Meche) proved too expensive, Seattle ended up acquiring three middling starters: Miguel Batista, Jeff Weaver and Horacio Ramirez. Almost three quarters of the way through the season, GM these three acquisitions fall into three categories: the good, the bad and the disorderly.

The good: Miguel Batista. Many folks questioned Seattle GM Bill Bavasi's sanity when he signed the then-35-year-old Batista to a three-year deal with $25 million, but Batista has served as a quality No. 3 starter. The right-hander easily leads the team with 12 wins (a career high), and boasts the second-highest starter ERA (4.13). In his 10th full year of MLB service, Batista has shown a veteran savvy over the last couple months, pitching fabulously and helping Seattle stay in the pennant race. Since June 10, Batista has made 11 starts and one relief appearance, going 6-4 with a 2.71 ERA. Over his past eight starts, Batista is 5-2.

The bad: Horacio Ramirez. The Mariners acquired Ramirez from Atlanta by trading promising reliever Rafael Soriano. Though he owns a winning record 7-4, that is just the byproduct of good run support -- the Mariners have produced 90 runs during his 14 starts (an average of 6.4 per game). Ramirez's true colors shine through in his horrendous 7.38 ERA. In fairness, Ramirez has been pretty good at Safeco Field, going 6-1 with a 4.05 ERA. But in his six road starts, the southpaw has been overwhelmingly horrendous (1-3, 13.50 ERA). The biggest problem for the 27-year-old has been his knack of throwing every pitch at a very similar speed, which takes away an element of surprise for a finesse pitcher. Without a legitimate replacement, though, Seattle's stuck with Ramirez for now.

The disorderly: Jeff Weaver. I'm going by the dictionary.com definition of disorderly: "characterized by disorder; irregular; untidy; confused." Thus far, "irregular" and "confused" perfectly describe Weaver's '07 campaign. He has either been fabulous or horrible, nothing in between, as evidenced by this post on BaseballMusings.com. I think it's safe to say the Mariners were looking for a bit more consistency when they signed Weaver -- a World Series hero last October -- to a one-year, $8.4 million deal.

Seattle is just three games behind Los Angeles in the AL West race and they're tied with New York in the Wild Card, so these three hurlers face a month-and-a-half of high-stakes pitching. Unfortunately for Mariners faithful, it doesn't look like Ramirez will be exempt from road trips.

  • Although Bill Stoneman has taken a lot of heat for never acquiring a bat to complement Vlad Guerrero, the Angels' general manager has made a number of solid moves over the last couple years, and Big A Baseball pays him due respect.

  • The Rangers may be the worst team West of Tampa Bay, but what does the future hold? Dallas Morning News columnist Evan Grant predicts how the roster will look over the next five seasons.

  • On Tuesday, the A's acquired Jack Hannahan in a minor league trade. When Hannahan reported to the big club on Tuesday, he was greeted by one "familiar" face: Nick Swisher. The two first met on opposite sides of a heated, bench-clearing brawl back in their Big Ten days.
  • Labels:

    posted by SI.com | View comments | Add a comment  
    8/15/2007 07:32:00 PM

    NL East: Shortstop debate revisited

    By Ben Reiter

    The best shortstop in baseball currently resides in the NL East. The only question at this point is: Which shortstop is it?

    This season I've discoursed extensively on the division's glut of talent at the position. At the end of April I wrote a feature in SI on the troika of Hanley Ramirez, >Jose Reyes and Jimmy Rollins; at the end of May I looked at the reasons behind Rollins' month-long slump, from which he quickly broke out; and July brought a lambasting of Tony La Russa for leaving Ramirez and Rollins off the NL All-Star team. (I'm not quite sure why more than a month later I still hold an L.C.-on-Heidi-type grudge against La Russa for that, but I do).

    I'm not apologizing, nor do I feel I've exhausted the topic. With all due respect to Derek Jeter -– and the Yankee Captain needs more respect about as much as he needs more winsome girlfriends -– the top four shortstops in the majors this season are all NL Easters, in Ramirez, Reyes, Rollins, and Edgar Renteria, who, lest you've forgotten during his stint on the DL with a sprained ankle, is hitting .336 with an .879 OPS, both career highs. (A fifth NL East shortstop, Washington's Cristian Guzman, was hitting .329 and appeared to be on his way to breaking out when a torn ligament in his left thumb ended his season on June 24).

    For all his talents, though, Renteria does not quite possess the all-around chops of the others, so he finishes a very respectable fourth. Now, the stats for each of the top three so far this season, and their projected final numbers:

    Jose Reyes, Mets
    Current: .306 BA, .378 OBP, .459 SLG, 26 2B, 11 3B, 9 HR, 47 RBI, 86 R, 56 SB
    Projected: .306 BA, .378 OBP, .459 SLG, 36 2B, 15 3B, 12 HR, 65 RBI, 119 R, 78 SB

    Hanley Ramirez, Marlins
    Current: .341 BA, .393 OBP, .574 SLG, 34 2B, 5 3B, 21 HR, 59 RBI, 90 R, 37 SB
    Projected: .341 BA, .393 OBP, .574 SLG, 47 2B, 7 3B, 29 HR, 82 RBI, 126 R, 52 SB

    Jimmy Rollins, Phillies
    Current: .290 BA, .342 OBP, .523 SLG, 27 2B, 15 3B, 21 HR, 69 RBI, 100 R, 22 SB
    Projected: .290 BA, .342 OBP, .523 SLG, 37 2B, 21 3B, 29 HR, 96 RBI, 138 R, 30 SB

    A few things must be noted here. First, Rollins and Ramirez have this year spent significant time hitting third in the order, not leadoff -– 18 percent of Rollins' at-bats and 36 percent of Ramirez's have come in the three-hole -– while Reyes has taken every one of his hacks at the top of the order. Second, both Rollins and Ramirez play in offenses that are more productive than Reyes', Rollins especially so. However, it's hard make any conclusion after examining the numbers other than that Reyes now significantly trails Ramirez as the NL East's best shortstop -– and may be behind Rollins as well.

    That fact might come as some surprise to some of the baseball men I interviewed for that SI shortstops piece, including Nats GM Jim Bowden, who said, "I love Hanley Ramirez, I love Jimmy Rollins, but Jose Reyes is the guy I would pick of the three ... He has the highest upside." And it might surprise you, unless you're one of the several hundred people who usually watch Marlins games. But check out the name at the top of the list on Baseball Prospectus' current VORP leaderboard, not just for shortstops, but for all positions.

    Yes, BP's numbers say, Hanley Ramirez is now more irreplaceable than even Alex Rodriguez. Reyes' and Rollins' VORPs rank 16th and 23rd, respectively, as the BP algorithm appears to give equal weight to Reyes' unmatched disruptive ability on the basepaths and the run-generating prowess of Rollins, who has become a certifiable power hitter despite standing 5'8" -– that is, a single inch taller than David Eckstein.

    In Ramirez's case, however, we're looking at one of the finest offensive seasons ever put together by a major league shortstop. His .967 OPS would be the 16th-best for a shortstop in MLB history; his 47 projected doubles would tie for 11th; his 83 extra base hits would tie for eighth (the only shortstops to hit more are Rodriguez, Robin Yount, Nomar Garciaparra, and Cal Ripken); his 52 steals would tie for 26th. Sure, his defense is questionable -– his 16 errors are the NL's second most, and his .791 zone rating is the league's worst -– but he's only in his second season, and that facet of his game should improve with experience.

    In April, Bowden said of the deal that in essence brought Ramirez to Florida for Josh Beckett, "I think it was a great trade for both franchises. The Red Sox got an ace for the top of their rotation -– but they paid a big price." Even as Beckett excels in Boston this season, the Red Sox must be watching Julio Lugo flounder and wonder what might have been.

    After all, they had the young man who is not just the finest shortstop in baseball, but possibly the game's best player, in their clutches, and they sent him away.

  • That Mets catching situation we talked about last week? Suddenly not looking so hot, but the organization still has no interest in bringing back Mike Piazza, reports Joe Popper of The Bergen Record.

  • The two men whom the Nationals drafted with the compensatory picks they received by virtue of not trading Alfonso Soriano at last year's deadline are now in the fold: they are Josh Smoker and Jordan Zimmermann. Heck, the Nats figured, we've already had so much luck with one Zimmerman(n)…

  • John Smoltz might have a little extracurricular motivation to put together an end-of-season winning streak. Smoltzy's learning what the pro golf world realized long ago: do not bait El Tigre.

  • A healthy Brett Myers and Tom Gordon have completely turned things around for the Phillies' bullpen, says Todd Zolecki of the Inquirer.

  • ... So you're saying the Marlins have a chance?


    posted by SI.com | View comments | Add a comment  
  • 8/14/2007 11:43:00 AM

    AL Central: Who's Now? Not the Twins

    By Joe Lemire

    Does, um, anyone want to win this division?

    The Indians and Tigers are tied atop the AL Central with 65-53 records, but neither has the luxury of falling back on a wild-card lead should they fail to win the division, as both New York and Seattle are now two games up. Cleveland seems to be falling apart, after failing a big test and getting swept at home by the Yankees this weekend. And Detroit, with 14 consecutive games against sub-.500 teams, went 5-9 and are just 8-17 in its last 25 and are reeling as they enter tonight's start of a two-game set with Cleveland.

    Sounds like time for the annual second-half Twins surge, right?

    Not this year. They've lost seven of eight and are still kicking around at the edge of contention, seven games behind the co-leaders, but seemingly disinterested in charging forward. Not fully out of it, not quite in it. And that's exactly Johan Santana's problem.

    Sorry I'm a little late on this -– it'll teach me to go on even a small vacation during the season -– but Minnesota's two-time Cy Young winner expressed his unhappiness with Twins management after Luis Castillo was dealt at the trade deadline for two low-level prospects. The move saved Minnesota $2 million in payroll and hurt the team's (outside) chances at contending this season, leading Santana to rant about the move and general manager Terry Ryan's philosophy.

    Santana said a lot of things, ranging from "That's why we're never going to go beyond where we've gone" to "I respect all the decisions they make, but I won't say that they're right all the time" and "from seeing that we're not even trying from the top to the bottom -– I don't think it's a good sign."

    Amidst all the ace's critical words of Twins management -– "these guys upstairs," as Santana put it -– none was more troubling than this: "They protect their young players. They protect their organization, their roots, everything. But I guess I won't be a part of it. A lot of guys don't feel like they can be part of it, and they have to move on."

    It comes as no surprise that Santana likely won't return to Minnesota after his contract expires at the end of 2008. For many it's a foregone conclusion that Santana will be pitching the 2009 home opener in either the new Yankee Stadium or the Mets' new Citifield, rather than sticking around Minneapolis for the 2010 opening of the Twins' new downtown stadium.

    But these comments seemed well-considered and almost well-rehearsed, almost like Santana's been waiting to deliver these lines, to build a body of evidence for why he's unlikely to accept a hometown discount to stay with the Twins.

    What's curious about Ryan's dealings -– and where Santana likely makes a good point -– is why the Twins aren't more eager to compete now. I understand that they don't have the payroll to make a big splash. Santana's contract alone was likely going to be worth the value of the franchise before plans were finalized on a new park.

    But I also understand that in Santana, Joe Nathan, Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer that the Twins have arguably have the four best players at their position in the AL. It's hard to find a better core of players to build around. They locked up Mauer with a four-year contract before season started, and Morneau isn't eligible for free agency until 2011. Yet Nathan and Santana have contracts set to expire at the end of 2008, and Torii Hunter will walk at the end of this year. Why go halfway? Maybe the Twins think Alexi Casilla can step right in for Luis Castillo at second, but if you're going to be a seller at the deadline, why not also move Hunter since he's likely to skip town at the end of the year for free?

    Twins management seems perfectly willing to hold onto a few big names that will keep the team competitive and draw fans to the park, but they seem wholly uninterested in taking the plunge to really make a run at a title. On one hand they have star power; on the other hand Nick Punto (.208 /.301 /.271) is still their everyday third baseman, they haven't found a power upgrade for corner outfielder Jason Kubel (.248/.307/.405) and Carlos Silva is still a major part of their rotation.

    Talk about mixed signals. It's like trying to date a girl who can't make up her mind whether she's interested or not. You'll have a great time, I don't know, say, three times out of nine (i.e. at bats by Hunter, Mauer and Morneau); twice you'll have a fun, nothing-special kind of date with the girl (i.e. Michael Cuddyer and Castillo/Casilla); and on the rest of your dates the girl will show almost no interest in getting on base whatsoever (Punto, Kubel, Jason Tyner/Lew Ford and Jeff Cirillo). It's a maddening existence, to be sure.

    Though it's a sound business strategy to always be in contention without ever mortgaging the future to acquire a big name at the expense of prospects, it's not necessarily the most sound baseball strategy if you're targeting a World Series title. Sure, the Twins keep churning out quality young players, but at the pace they're working, they'll never have enough overlap among those players in their prime, especially considering the occasional injury or two (ahem, Francisco Liriano). Frankly, we might not be having this conversation if Liriano were still in the rotation, but every team has its share of bad luck.

    As always, it's hard to argue with a team that's won the division four of the last five years, even if only once in that stretch have they advanced beyond the first round and never have they reached the World Series. But it is easy to argue with a team seemingly willing to let the game's best pitcher walk away disgruntled.

  • The Royals Review breaks down K.C.'s poorly constructed offense, which has given 26.3 percent of its plate appearances to hitters playing below replacement level. RR also does an in-depth review of the Royals' deadline deal, sending Octavio Dotel to Atlanta for Kyle Davies, and concluding that GM Dayton Moore should have targeted younger prospects.

  • South Side Sox runs down the list of collected White Sox thoughts.

  • Let's take a moment to honor some impressive ongoing AL Central streaks: Bobby Jenks has retired 41 straight batters, tying a major league record, and Placido Polanco just broke the record for consecutive errorless games at second base, with 144.

  • The Tigers appeared to have signed top pick, Rick Porcello … but at a record cost of a guaranteed $7.3 million for a high school player.

  • I hadn't seen this before, but here's all you could want to know about Detroit's minor leaguers.

  • Grady Sizemore played Whiffle Ball recently. In case you're wondering, skip ahead to the fourth photo in the gallery, you'll note that he served as all-time pitcher.

  • The tremendous comeback of Fausto Carmona continues to get more press.


    posted by SI.com | View comments | Add a comment  
  • 8/13/2007 11:23:00 AM

    AL East: Do we have a race?

    By Alex Belth

    Vacationers throughout New England are becoming slightly uneasy. The Red Sox lead over the Yankees is down to four. Although it is fashionable for Red Sox fans, particularly those under the age of 25, to have historical amnesia these days, for those who suffered through the '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s and beyond, the ghosts are never far away. The possibility of the Red Sox folding late in the summer is always right there. Remember 1974, when Luis Tiant won his 20th game of the season in early August, and it looked as if the Sox were going to cruise to the division title? Remember 1978?

    Of course, true Red Sox fans remember it all. Which is not to say that the 2007 edition will collapse like so many other Sox teams in the past. For the moment, however, they are doing their best to test the collective nerve of what is known as Red Sox Nation. Kevin Millar hit a game-winning three-run home run on Sunday afternoon in Camden Yards to lift the Orioles past the Red Sox, 6-3. Baltimore won the weekend series, the first time they've beaten Boston in a series in two years. On Friday night, they beat Boston in dramatic fashion as well.

    Newly-acquired reliever, Eric Gagne, has struggled so far with the Sox. He allowed single runs in his first two appearances for Boston and then blanked the Angels for an inning last week. But on Friday night, Gagne surrendered four runs in one-third of an inning, and yesterday, he gave up a game-tying dinger to Miguel Tejada.

    According to Steve Buckley in the Boston Herald:

    For what it's worth, it would be impossible to say or write anything about Eric Gagne that's worse than what he was saying himself after yesterday's game. Let's return to Eric on the car phone.

    "It's stupid," he said. "They brought me here to do a job and I'm not doing it. I gotta step up my game. It's ridiculous. These guys play eight great innings and I go out and blow it. That's just...a shame.

    "It's a bunch of (expletive) is what it is. You go out there and do your job. I'm not doing my job right now. I'm letting everybody here down. I need to step up my game and find my game. That's it. It's pretty simple.

    "This game is simple. I'm (expletive) this up right now."

    The Red Sox have a chance to pad their lead as they play Tampa Bay twice, along with the White Sox (and one tough one against the Angels), before they meet up with the Yankees later this month. Meanwhile, New York has to play the pesky Orioles, seven games against the Tigers and their own three-game series vs. the Angels, a brutal stretch writes Tim Marchman in The New York Sun. Boston's lead could be back up to seven, eight games when it is all said and done. But if it is closer than four, man, the series in New York, starting Aug. 28 is going to be bumpin.

  • Over at the Boston Herald, Tony Massarotti thinks he may have found the team's fatal flaw.

  • The Red Sox have their own young arm who might be in the rotation soon.

  • The Yankees are surging. Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera, the team's answer to Heckle and Jeckle, are both hot offensively. Then again, so are most of the Yankees. When it is all said and done, Bobby Abreu's numbers will be decent and who knows, the Yanks might pick up his option after all. Most of all, Phillip Hughes and Joba Chamberlain give the Yankees something they haven't had in a long time -- young pitchers who can actually strike batters out.

  • Mariano Rivera almost blew a save yesterday in Cleveland but held on as the Yanks swept the Tribe. In the New York Times, Tyler Kepner writes that Rivera is still effective.

  • Leo Mazzone, Baltimore's pitching coach, thinks Tom Glavine will be the last of the 300-game winners. I don't think that is necessarily true, but I do know that Mazzone has the best starting pitcher in the AL East: Erik Bedard (ahead of Josh Beckett, Scott Kazmir and Roy Halladay).

  • The O's are playing well, and they are not stealing signs, according to manager Dave Trembley.

  • The D-Rays try to keep their fans' attention during the dog days of yet another losing season. Oh, by the way, Scott Kazmir has been pretty good.

  • A.J. Burnett pitched for the first time in close to two months and cruised through the Kansas City line-up, a good sign for the Blue Jays, a talented-yet-mediocre ballclub.
  • Labels:

    posted by SI.com | View comments | Add a comment  
    8/13/2007 10:47:00 AM

    NL West: Tap the Rockies

    By Jon Weisman

    This is usually the time when the Colorado Rockies go back to shopping at Philosophies 'R' Us, trying to find a deal that will give them a chance of winning at high-altitude. Next year typically starts every August, if not sooner.

    Not this year.

    The Rockies are five games behind the Arizona Diamondbacks for first place in the National League West and only two behind the San Diego Padres (whom Colorado visits for a three-game series starting Tuesday) in the wild-card race.

    It's gotten to a point where every personnel decision the Rockies face is worthy of attention.

    First and foremost comes Colorado's starting pitching. Already having lost Rodrigo Lopez for the season, the Rockies' latest casualty was Jason Hirsh, who went down with a fractured right fibula. Astonishingly, Hirsh pitched five innings with the injury, but Colorado needs some longer-term solutions.

    On Sunday, 36-year-old journeyman Tim Harikkala started and allowed three runs and nine hits in 3 1/3 innings against the Cubs, then was designated for assignment after the game.

    Jeff Francis (114 ERA+ according to Baseball-Reference.com, with 100 being league average) gives the Rockies a strong chance to move within a game of San Diego on Tuesday when he opposes Greg Maddux, but on Wednesday Colorado is tentatively scheduled to throw 23-year-old Ubaldo Jimenez, who has allowed 41 baserunners in 24 2/3 innings over five starts.

    "Jimenez revealed flaws that kept him nestled in Colorado Springs for much of the season," wrote Troy E. Renck of the Denver Post concerning Jimenez's last start, in which he allowed nine runs in two-plus innings. "His fastball was flat, and he couldn't command his curveball or changeup. ... It raises the question: How much more patience can the Rockies show the 23-year-old?"

    Renck said that 21-year-old lefty prospect Franklin Morales "is on the fast track." Beyond that, the options look like retreads such as veteran Elmer Dessens, now at AAA Colorado Springs.

    Although the Rockies could welcome back All-Star closer Brian Fuentes this week, according to Thomas Harding of MLB.com, it will have to be the Rockies' offense that carries the team through these rough patches. To that end, Colorado has added another weapon, calling up 22-year-old third baseman Ian Stewart.

    Colorado already has a starter at third in Garret Atkins, but Stewart will, if nothing else, help off the bench (replacing Jeff Baker, who was hit in the head by a Jason Marquis fastball Friday).

    Stewart also is helping the Rockies ease Todd Helton (back spasms) back into the lineup at his own pace, by allowing Atkins to spot-start at first base.

    "This was no September call-up," wrote Patrick Saunders of the Denver Post. "A hot prospect in the Rockies' organization since his selection in the first round of the 2003 June draft, Stewart was tossed into the fire of a pennant race."

    Colorado has also been improvising in center field. Clint Barmes, the deposed Rockies starting shortstop, has moved to the outfield in place of Willy Taveras, who is nursing a right quadriceps injury. Barmes doubled and scored on both Saturday and Sunday.

    But with all these transactions, a little magic never hurts. Stewart went 0 for 2 in his first start Saturday before giving way to pinch-hitter Jamey Carroll.

    Drew Bienhoff of Up in the Rockies picks up the story from there:

    Coming into today's game against the Cubs, you could almost sense a bit of panic throughout Rockies Nation. Two straight losses to Chicago on the heels of a dominant sweep of the Brewers had taken Rox fans from a nice sky high to a very earthly low, 6.0 games back of the unfathomably hot Diamondbacks. I guess that goes to show something when it's hard not to panic after two consecutive losses, but with the way that this franchise has mailed it in late in the season over the past decade, it's difficult to blame Colorado fans for feeling a bit anxious. Plus, with the Cubs' young phenom Rich Hill on the mound going against Rox fifth starter Josh Fogg, the pitching matchup was anything but advantageous. Times were tense…

    But along came the most unlikely of heroes with the bases loaded, two outs, and a tie game in the bottom of the sixth inning. That's right, Jamey Carroll, he of the 17-for-96 (.177) start to the season and the current .229 batting average, strode into the batter's box and lined a grand slam into the first row of the left field bleachers, sending the Coors faithful into an uproar.

    Brandon Webb is about one game away from being worthy of round-the-start national coverage. Webb has thrown 33 consecutive scoreless innings, putting him more than halfway to Orel Hershiser's major league ecord.

    "The difference last night -- and, indeed, during much of the streak, was the return of Webb's ability to control his pitches," writes Jim McLennan of AZ Snakepit. "In six starts since the All-Star break ... he has allowed only nine walks in 44.2 innings -- 1.83/nine innings. In the last six starts he made before the All-Star break, that figure was 3.23, and his ERA was 3.92. Now, he can throw the sinker for a strike, almost at will, and hitters are no longer able to lay off, knowing it'll probably drop out of the zone."

    These have been heady times for division-leading Arizona, which has endured three consecutive losing seasons (including a 51-111 debacle in 2004), and Justin Upton fever has only fed the frenzy. Upton, whose Aug. 2 callup (23 days before his 20th birthday) made him the youngest player in the majors, is 10 for 34 with four walks, three doubles, three triples and a home run. That's a .368 on-base percentage and a .647 slugging percentage.

    "Even as he looks a bit uncomfortable in right field, Upton looks like he belongs in the majors when he's up at the plate," wrote Nicholas Cote of Out in the Desert. "He doesn't chase bad pitches, or even good pitches that are slightly off the plate but tempt inexperienced hitters ... and he's willing to hit pitches where they're thrown. This guy is exactly what the Diamondbacks need right now."

    Nevertheless, a small dose of reality struck the Diamondbacks in the eighth inning against the Washington Nationals on Sunday. Six outs away from cementing a five-game lead in the division, Arizona allowed six runs and lost, 7-6. Waiver claim Byung-Hyun Kim starts the Diamondbacks' next game against his most recent team, Florida.

    Milton Bradley has been a success for San Diego when he has played. Now on his third California team in three years, Bradley has an on-base percentage of .461 and slugging percentage of .627 in 89 plate appearances, but a strained right hamstring has held him to one plate appearance since Aug. 3.

    "He's just sore because he worked it real hard" in a workout before Friday's game, Padres manager Bud Black told Tom Krasovic of the San Diego Union-Tribune.

    Brian Giles has cushioned Bradley's absence, hitting, as Corey Brock of MLB.com points out, five home runs in 13 at-bats against Cincinnati after hitting two in his first 286 at-bats this season.

    Like their division rivals, the Padres are also still working to solve the back end of their rotation. Brock wrote that "Clay Hensley, who pitched six walk-free innings in Triple-A on Friday, apparently will return to the Padres and start for Wil Ledezma on Thursday against the Rockies" after Ledezma lasted only 2 1/3 innings in his Friday start."

    Small side note: the pitcher who made his major-league debut by throwing 2 2/3 scoreless innings while relieving Ledezma, Jack Cassel, is the brother of New England Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel, Brock noted. Jack was sent back to AAA after the game, as the Padres keep rotating arms onto the roster.

    Now that Barry Bonds has gone into the great home run beyond, the problems of the San Francisco Giants return to the spotlight. Grant Bisbee of McCovey Chronicles had his own take.

    "Randy Winn is the second-best hitter on this team," Bisbee wrote. "I'm just going to repeat that a few times for effect. Randy Winn is the second-best hitter on this team. Randy Winn is the second-best hitter on this team. Randy Winn is the second-best hitter on this team. Randy Winn is the second-best hitter on this team. Randy Winn is the second-best hitter on this team."

    I've avoided doing this so far this season on Fungoes, but for an update on the Dodgers, I'd like to invite you to check my Sunday posting at Dodger Thoughts.

    One thing you don't hear much about these days in Los Angeles that you did hear in July: the notion that Bill Mueller turned the offense around after replacing Eddie Murray as hitting coach. Not with these awful numbers since July 24, provided by David Pinto of Baseball Musings.


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