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AL East: Prepping for October
The Red Sox became the first American League team to qualify for the playoffs (the Indians and Angels won their respective divisions over the weekend too). Josh Beckett is the first 20-game winner this season, and wouldn't you know it, David Ortiz is leading the league in OBP (.436), ranks third in slugging (.596) and is second to Alex Rodriguez in OPS (1.032). After losing the series finale to the Devil Rays on Sunday, Boston's lead over New York was just 1½ games (the Yankees were to play Toronto on Monday afternoon) -- but does it really matter who wins the division and who wins the wild card? Baseball Prospectus's Joe Sheehan doesn't think so:
The difference between winning the division and advancing as the Wild Card doesn't mean a thing. ... Does the famed Red Sox Nation consider its 2004 World Championship diminished because they won it coming from the Wild Card slot? Do Tigers' fans not wear 2006 AL Pennant gear because of their shame at going 7-1 against the Yankees and A's when they shouldn't have even been there? Angels fans? Marlins fans? Any of you feel a bit queasy about raising a World Series flag without a divisional one to go with it?
The Red Sox are concerned with preparing for October. Dice K is being rested, while Kevin Youkilis and Manny Ramirez try to get healthy. It doesn't matter what happens this week, doesn't matter if they win the wild card or division. This isn't 1978. What matters is who plays the longest into October.
The Yankees bent the so-called "Joba Rules" on Sunday. Joe Torre told reporters before the game that Joba Chamberlain would not pitch -- he threw two innings on Friday night. But Torre spoke with Yankee pitching instructor Nardi Contreras, author of the "Joba Rules," shortly thereafter and was given the OK to use Chamberlain. In what was clearly a playoff preview, Torre brought Chamberlain in the game with two outs and two men on in the eighth inning with the Yanks leading 7-5. It was the first time Chamberlain has entered a game with runners on base. He threw five straight sliders to Adam Lind and struck him out swinging. Then, Chamberlain retired the side in order in the ninth, striking out the final two batters, good for the first save of his career.
After the game, Torre told reporters, "I told him when I shook his hand, 'You grew a little more at the end,'" Torre said. "Today was probably the toughest test for him." Mike Mussina, who earned his 250th career win on Sunday, added, "I think, when it's time, he'll be available every day."
It is often said that Derek Jeter's game is bigger than his numbers. That may be true, but as another season draws to a close, Jeter's offensive numbers are where they always are. He's batting .319 with 195 hits and 95 runs scored.
"I think consistency is what marks most great players," says teammate Johnny Damon. "If you can be consistent over a long period of time, you'll be looking to go to the Hall of Fame."
Yes, Jeter's power numbers are down, which isn't a complete surprise. He's also been playing on a bad knee for most of the summer. And unlike previous seasons when Jeter gave Torre a hard time for giving him a day off, there have been at least two occasions since August when Jeter has rested without protest. He cannot run at full speed, and two weeks ago, he looked exhausted. From Aug. 1 to Sept. 12, Jeter hit .265/.351/.346. Then, he hit a big home run against Curt Schilling in Boston and suddenly he's got life in his tired body again. From Sept. 13-22, Jeter is .372/.386/.581, numbers in line with his career splits. Jeter's OPS is highest in September/October, .876.
"He knows exactly what he's doing," Damon continued. "He's been in pressure situations ever since he broke into the league and because of that nothing ever seems too difficult or too hard for him."
Although the season has been another downer for the Blue Jays, there is plenty to be excited about with their pitching staff. Dustin McGowan and Shaun Marcum have strong, live arms, and round out one of the best rotations in the league behind Roy Halladay and A.J. Burnett. The Blue Jays swept the Red Sox earlier this week on the strength of fine outings from McGowan, Burnett and Jesse Litsch.
Before Sunday's five-inning start against the Yankees, McGowan had a 3.18 ERA over 87 innings in the second half of the season. In his third seasaon, Marcum is 12-6 with a 4.15 ERA in 156 innings (he threw just 78 last year). Unfortunately, Marcum left Saturday's start in New York with a knee injury. He will have surgery this week.
Burnett has been sensational since returning from the DL in mid-August, going 4-1 with a 1.97 ERA over 59 innings. Burnett has pitched into the seventh inning in all eight starts since coming back, and pitched at least eight innings in his previous three starts.
Burnett is the most maddening of pitchers. For all of his talent, he's never won more than 12 games in a season. Still, if he can somehow remain healthy, and if McGowan and Marcum manage to improve, the Blue Jays could be tough next year.
Now, if only they could hit. John Brattain examines the Blue Jays' offensive woes over at The Hardball Times. The thing of it is, only Aaron Hill, Alex Rios and Vernon Wells have played in more games than Frank Thomas, who has delivered a productive season -- .270/.375/.475, and leading the team in home runs (25) and RBIs (91). It is a modest year when compared with the value Thomas gave the A's last year, but the Big Hurt has been surprisingly durable. I predicted a second-half fade for Rios, but he's got a higher average and on-base percentage in the second half. His power is down, from .520 slugging to .471, but, in the end, he has put together a fine season. The Jays can only hope it is just the beginning for Rios.
Labels: AL East
AL East: Till We Meet Again
Is there any surprise that the final meeting of the regular season between the Yankees and Red Sox came down to Mariano Rivera v. David Ortiz with the game on the line? Given the recent history between the two teams, the answer is no. Rivera has shown signs of mortality against Boston in recent years. Now, with two men out, the bases loaded, and the Yankees ahead by just one run, Rivera was facing the most accomplished big moment hitter in recent memory. The Yankee closer was not sharp. He walked the leadoff hitter in the ninth. A two-out double to Julio Lugo put the tying run on base and then Rivera hit a batter and walked another to set the stage for Ortiz.
According to the Boston Globe:
"Well, what else?" Joe Torre said when asked what he thought of seeing Ortiz at the plate in that situation. "You figure, 'why not him,' at that point in time when he walked Varitek to start the inning, then hits the kid, and you keep hoping he gets the next guy out, and then the next guy is that mountain who comes up there and he had no place to go and we had no place to put him."
Fenway Park holds far fewer than 40,000 fans, but that doesn't prevent them from sounding like 50,000. The air was crisp and it felt like October in every way. With virtually the entire park on its feet, Rivera fell behind Ortiz then evened the count at 2-2, before throwing a 93 mph cutter, up and in. The ball got just under Ortiz's hands and the mighty slugger popped a short fly ball to center field. Derek Jeter -- whose three-run home run off of Curt Schilling in the eighth proved to be the difference -- back-peddled, made the catch, and pumped his fist, a trademark gesture sure to give indigestion to Red Sox fans everywhere.
In a game that featured outstanding starting performances from two old-timers Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling, it was Jeter, whose body has looked tired for weeks now, with the final word. The victory gave New York a 10-8 season record against Boston.
Schilling pitched a gem, but in the eighth, he allowed a one-out single to Doug Mientkiewicz, then a pinch-hit double off the top of the green monster by Jason Giambi. His at-bat with Jeter seemed to last forever, as Schilling met with his catcher on at least three occasions. The tension continued to build when Jeter fouled a fastball down the right-field line, a long run for the right fielder, second and first baseman.
Then Schilling made a mistake and left an 84 mph splitter over the plate. Jeter punched a three-run homer over the Monster. "I was trying to bounce that ball in the dirt," Schilling told reporters after the game. "I don't ever take credit away from the hitter, but I was trying to bounce that ball ... I missed horribly probably in the most crucial situation of the game. That's not something I can do anymore. I can't overthrow the ball late in the game."
Jeter is now at a point in his career when it is fashionable to emphasis his short-comings, writes Mike Vaccaro in the New York Post. But the Yankee captain delivered a key hit against Jonathan Papelbon on Friday night, and then, the winning blow on Sunday.
Joba Chamberlain gave up his first earned run in the big leagues, a solo shot to Mike Lowell, but was still looked good in two innings of work -- in the eighth, he struck out Dustin Pedroia and JD Drew looking on nasty curve balls.
It was a huge win for the Yankees, who are trying to fend-off the surging Tigers (New York remains 2 1/2 ahead in the wild-card standings). The Red Sox may not be thrilled with the outcome of the weekend series -- Friday night's loss being especially painful -- but they avoided being swept and still have a 4 1/2-game lead. Josh Beckett won his 19th game of the season on Saturday and baring a total collapse, Boston will win the East.
The Yankees and Red Sox are finished with each other for the year, but would anyone be surprised to see them at it again, with Rivera and Ortiz, or Papelbon and Alex Rodriguez in the spotlight when it counts most?
Labels: AL East
AL East: Sum of All Fears
What is a baseball fan's greatest fear? These days, it is discovering that your favorite player has used performance-enhancing drugs. It's what keeps Red Sox Nation up at night, as they privately hope that David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez's accomplishments have been on the up-and-up. It is also what must gnaw at Yankee fans as they witness the best offensive season since the days of Mantle and Maris. Now, aside from a coy remark earlier this summer from Jose Canseco, there is no taint of drug-use in Alex Rodriguez's past, and I'm in no way suggesting that he has used PEDs. But these are cynical times, and it's not hard to let your mind wander. The kid in me just hopes that the giants of the game -- Ortiz, Rodriguez, Vladimir Guerrero, etc -- are not disgraced. Am I just being cynical or would I be naïve if I wasn't thinking about these things?
OK, enough about fears. How about some reality? How good has Rodriguez been? He's the front-runner for the American League MVP (and something truly spectacular would have to happen over the next three weeks for him not to win it), and the only third baseman to ever hit 50 home runs in a season -- he was the only shortstop to hit 50 in a year too. Together, Rodriguez (190 OPS+) and Jorge Posada (159 OPS+) are having the best seasons of any two Yankees since Rickey Henderson (157 OPS+) and Don Mattingly (156 OPS+) in 1985, so writes Steve Lombardi of Was Watching.
I was somewhat amazed that the Royals pitchers continued to pitch to Rodriguez over the weekend even though Hideki Matsui is slumping. But they went after A-Rod, and he bit back. Rodriguez has homered in five straight games; over the last seven, he's hit .560/.633/1.440, with seven homers, eight runs scored and 13 RBIs. For the season, Rodriguez is hitting .318/.424/.672 with 52 home runs, 132 runs, and 140 RBIs in 141 games. Rodriguez's highest single-season slugging percentage was .631 in 1996; his career mark for RBIs, 142, in 2002. This could be the best overall year of his career.
Somehow, all of the talk about Rodriguez not being clutch has not come up this year, even in New York (just wait until October rolls around). With 2 Outs and RISP, Rodriguez is batting .319/.443/.847, and in Late/Close situations, he's .328/.412/.707. Does this mean he qualifies as a true Yankee yet?
Glaus is about to take a place standing next to Rafael Palmeiro on a very short list of All-Star-level players with a proven steroid past. Glaus didn't test positive like Palmeiro, and he never waved his finger at Congress, so it will be interesting to see the public reaction. Was Palmeiro's offense the positive test, or the lying? Does America only care when steroids help break milestones, or is there really outrage at the integrity of the game being compromised? On the heels of Rick Ankiel, Jay Gibbons, and whatever subsequent names get released, it's time to once again look back and decide what's really important--what happened then, or what we can prevent from happening in the future. Baseball's putting its money on the past, which is simply sad.
Labels: AL East
AL East: Inconsistent Yankees
This is how the story has changed. The Red Sox were swept by the Yankees last week, cutting their lead over New York to five games and it didn't really even matter. It didn't matter because after the sweep, the Yankees dropped three out of the next four games. Meanwhile, in only his second big league start, Clay Buchholz tossed a no-hitter at Fenway Park against the Orioles last Saturday night. Now, the lead is back to seven and only a complete catastrophe would prevent the Red Sox from not only making the playoffs but unseating the Yankees as division champs.
The Yanks have won the East for nine straight years and have a clear path to a wild-card birth -- they play the likes of the Royals, Orioles, Blue Jays and Devil Rays down the stretch, with only a three-game set in Boston as a match-up against a winning team. But the Yankees are a confounding team. When they are on as they were last night, pounding the Mariners, 12-3, they look like the best team in the majors. Chien-Ming Wang is tied with Josh Beckett for the major-league lead in wins with 17. After playing miserably for the first half of the year, Bobby Abreu has already scored 100 runs. Derek Jeter has lost some power but he's still hitting .321. Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada are having great individual seasons. The Yankees have star power, but what they lack is consistency. They don't beat up on mediocre teams like the Yankee teams of the late '90s did. And when they are bad, it's replete, all of a piece. It's the starting pitching and the relievers and the hitting, never mind the fielding.
The Joe Torre era can be split into two parts: 96-01, when they seemingly won every big game, and 02-present, where they've lost in the playoffs to the Angels twice, the Tigers and Marlins once, and, of course, famously to the Red Sox in '04. Other than two playoff series wins against the Twins, and another against Boston in '03, the Yankees have not been able to close out teams for the past six years and there is nothing to suggest that they'll suddenly be able to do it this year.
Then again, who wants to face the Yankees in the playoffs? OK, maybe the Angels do. But for New York, it doesn't much matter if they are the wild card instead of the division winners. Being the wild card didn't hurt the Angels much in '02 or the Red Sox much in '04. New York has shown that they can beat Boston in a short series. The question is, will the Yankees be able to maintain their focus, not to mention their health, against the Royals, Blue Jays and Devil Rays and reach October?
Labels: AL East
AL East: Sox Rules
I contributed two narrative chapters for the new Baseball Prospectus book, It Ain't Over 'Til it's Over. One of them is about the 1974 American League East. That summer, the Boston Globe featured a daily this-date-in-1967 column, reminding pennant-starved Red Sox fans of the improbable run the team had seven years earlier. The '67 team is credited with the resurgence of the franchise, even though it did not lead to a championship.
The Sox narrowly missed reaching the playoffs in 1972, and they could thank a strike and poor executive planning for that. In '74, they found themselves in first place for most of the summer. On Aug. 23, Luis Tiant, the first black player to be fully embraced by Sox fans, shut out the A's 3-0, winning his 20th game of the season in front of the largest crowd to fill Fenway Park in 18 years. Boston was seven games in front of the Orioles and Yankees.
Then, they lost 14 of their next 20, and finished the season in third place. The season would epitomize Boston's reputation until 2004. From Bucky Dent to '86, the Sox always found a way to come up short. But after thoroughly humiliating the White Sox in Chicago this weekend, 11-3, 10-1, 14-2, and 11-1 -- giving a new twist on the old Boston Massacre line -- the Red Sox are 7.5 games in front of the Yankees, and this is a brave new world.
These Red Sox are different. Sox fans wailed last winter about J.D. Drew so far have been proved right. Drew, who hit just his seventh home run of the year on Sunday, could be the first Boston right fielder since 1953 to hit fewer than 10 bombs in a season. Imagine the Boston-baked beatdown this guy would otherwise be suffering if the Sox weren’t in first place?
Of course, Red Sox have had lots of good offensive teams in the past, but now their strength is pitching. Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka and ol' reliable, Tim Wakefield have been excellent this year, while Hideki Okajima and Jonathan Paplebon have been extraordinary out of the bullpen. Not the same Red Sox at all.
Even in New York City, there is a different feeling about them. I lived in Brooklyn from '94 through 2000 and knew of only one Red Sox fan in my neighborhood. Now, Brooklyn's rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods are littered with Red Sox fans. The Sox have become virtually the third team in town. Most Sox fans are transplants from New England. Some are old Dodger fans, others are anyone in general who hates the Yankees. Others are Dominicans who have loved Boston ever since Pedro, then Manny and Ortiz arrived.
It's not so much that older Red Sox fans are finally comfortable wearing their gear out -- though they certainly are -- it's that the younger generation of Sox fans, the ones that don't actually remember '86, are proudly sporting their team pride without fear of reprisal. You know, the Patriots-Era Red Sox fans. These fans are too young to care about the team's history of losing. They remember the comeback of 2004. They root for the best organization in football. They have developed a sense of entitlement about winning that reminds me of, dare I say it, Yankee fans.
Whether Boston will reach the World Series remains to be seen, but it seems unlikely that they will miss the playoffs, despite the team's history. While some older fans will always wait for the other shoe to drop, younger Sox fans expect nothing but good things. August is not October, but Boston can deliver the knockout punch to the Yankees this week when the teams meet for a three-game series in New York. Curt Schilling had it wrong a few years ago when he said there was nothing he enjoyed more than shutting up the 55,000 at Yankee Stadium because there's generally 15,000-20,000 Red Sox fans in attendance for Yankee-Sox games. This week will be no different. The Stadium will be filled with raucous Red Sox rooters as their team looks to bury New York and sail away with the division title.
Labels: AL East
AL East: R-E-L-I-E-F
As the Red Sox begin the week set to face the Devil Rays again -- Boston won two of three against Tampa Bay last week -- they hold a four-game lead over the Yankees. While New York has a tough three-game series this week in Anaheim, followed by a four-game set in Detroit, Boston follows up Tampa Bay with a trip to Chicago to play the White Sox. The Red Sox and Yanks meet next week in New York, their second-to-last meeting of the year. Though the Yanks have crept closer, given the schedule, the time is now for the Red Sox to put the AL East away. Dan Shaughnessy contemplates whether the glass is half-full or half-empty for Boston. Bryan Tsao thinks the Red Sox will be just fine.
Eric Gagne has struggled so far for Boston, prompting Joel Sherman to write that the Yankees may have won the Gagne sweepstakes after all. A few weeks is too soon to write off the trade, however, and Boston manager Terry Francona insists that he will continue to use Gagne:
"I don't think using him differently helps," Francona said. "You put a guy who pitches on adrenaline in a blowout game, it's not going to help him. When a hitter goes through a slump, your good hitters, you stay with 'em. You might give 'em an occasional day off, and that's what we'll do with Gagne today, because he threw a lot of pitches. But you try to put the players in the best position that they can succeed, and if you run away from that, it's not going to work. It's kind of weird, when you're pitching late in the game, there's such a glare. K-Rod [Francisco Rodriguez of the Angels] came in and gave it up. Manny Delcarmen came in and gave it up, but you don't hear about it because of circumstances. If we don't score, all the questions [would be], 'What happened with Manny?'
The Yankees haven't missed Gagne, of course, because of the emergence of Joba Chamberlain -- and to a lesser extent, Edwar Ramirez. Chamberlain's fastball is clocked in the high-90s, he's got a nasty slider in the high-80s and has displayed good control. Chamberlain has quickly become a fan favorite in the Bronx, and why not? He's yet to allow a run. He buzzed through the heart of the Tigers order on Sunday (Sheffield, Ordoñez, Guillen). Chamberlain was profiled in the Daily News by Anthony McCarron yesterday -- an excellent background piece. Over at the New York Times, Tyler Kepner describes The Joba Rules.
The attention that Gagne and Chamberlain have gotten of late -- in addition to credit that Hideki Okajima and Jonathan Paplebon have richly deserved all season long -- has overshadowed perhaps a bigger bullpen story: Mariano Rivera is quietly having his worst season as a reliever. Rivera strikes out more than a batter per inning and has only allowed six walks in 53 innings this year. But his ERA is 3.40, a run higher than his career mark of 2.35. He's allowed 20 earned runs so far this season -- something he hasn't done since 2001. Rivera is 37 and his contract is up at the end of the season. Teammates Jorge Posada and Alex Rodriguez are also in "walk" years (A-Rod can opt out of his deal), but they are performing as well, if not better, than could be expected. The same cannot be said for Rivera. This is not to say that he -- like Gange -- won't return to form over the next six weeks. And it is not to say that the Yankees won't re-sign him -- it would be hard to imagine the new Yankee Stadium opening in 2009 without Rivera. It's just to say that the once-automatic machine at the end of Yankee bullpen has been far from that lately. No wonder Yankee fans are salivating over some kid named after a Hut.
Labels: AL East
AL East: Do we have a race?
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.
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.
Labels: AL East
AL East: Fading Boss
The worst kept secret in New York is that George Steinbrenner is no longer the man, let alone The Boss, he used to be. There have been rumors and whispers for a few years now that Steinbrenner is sick -- that he has dementia. He rarely appears in public these days and almost all of his communication is handled by his publicist, Howard Rubenstein.
But what is perhaps most surprising about this story is how the New York media has avoided reporting it head-on. Richard Sandomir has tackled it in the New York Times, but many other reporters have only hinted at Steinbrenner's failing health. This all changed late last week when Franz Lidz's profile of Steinbrenner for Portfolio.com was released. Lidz, practicing a form of sabotage journalism that would make Mike Wallace proud, visited Steinbrenner's home and found the Boss a shell of his former self:
It's 2 in the afternoon, and George Steinbrenner is wearing slippers, silk pajamas, and a terry-cloth robe -- all Yankee blue. A diamond-encrusted World Series ring nearly as big as a Ritz cracker obscures his wedding ring.
The reaction to Lidz's piece -- much of which is based on a 20-year old interview with the owner's son -- has been mixed. Some feel that this a case of the chicken coming home to roost. That Steinbrenner, who loved the spotlight for so long, is now getting what he deserves. He bullied and harassed people in the papers for years. He is still, after all, a public figure. He is still officially the owner of the Yankees. Some, on the other hand, feel that Steinbrenner should be left alone now, that he should be treated with some dignity.
Mike Lupica, a longtime Steinbrenner antagonist -- and the man who dubbed the Yankee owner The Boss --is one of those people. In 1987, Lupica coined the phrase Georged:
"GEORGE (jogj), v., GEORGED, GEORGING. 1: To insult, verbally abuse, taunt members of the New York Yankees in the newspapers. 2: To threaten with demotion to the minor leagues, usually Columbus of the International League; or threaten with trade to another major league team. 3: To actually bully Yankees to the point where they are unable to perform at previous levels of baseball skill, specifically, levels exhibited before becoming Yankees. USAGE: Exclusively relating to the principal owner of the Yankees, George Steinbrenner; i.e./ to be Georged by Mr. Steinbrenner."
Yesterday, Lupica wrote:
"He still wants to be that guy -- The Boss," a baseball executive, one who has tangled with Steinbrenner and goes back a ways with him, said on Friday. "So he's not. So what? Why does it matter? If you're talking about sports owners -- and I don't care whether you've loved him or not, whether you hate the Yankees or not -- it would be like asking Ali to still be Ali.'
Lupica shows some feeling for Steinbrenner. The Bronx Zoo truly is dead.
Labels: AL East
AL East: The stretch run
It was a solid week for everyone in the American League East, except, of course, the hapless Devil Rays, who went 1-5. The Orioles were 5-1, the Red Sox were 5-2, the Jays went 4-2, and the Yanks were 4-3. Boston ended the weekend with a loss, but still have a healthy 8.0-game lead over the Yankees, whose best shot at the postseason is to win the wild card, where they currently trail the Indians by four games. Toronto's record stands at 52-52, and they 11.5 back; the Orioles are surging but still 14.5 out of first. And it is late early once again in Tampa Bay, as the Rays trail by 24.5. The Jays and O's will jockey for third place but this looks like how the division will wind up at the end of the season. It will be interesting to see what, if any, moves are made in the next 48 hours as the trading deadline looms.
Starting in the cellar, the Rays broke an eight-game-losing streak on Sunday, after coming back against Jonathan Paplebon on Saturday night, only to lose to Boston in extra innings. The Rays jumped the trading deadline last week, moving disgruntled reserve infielder to the Reds, then shipping Ty Wiggington to the Astros, and reliever Seth McClung to the Brewers. The Mariners are interested in Tampa's closer, Al Reyes. It's been another long, trying year for the Rays, who are trying -- and now perhaps succeeding -- to develop pitching.
The Jays were were cautiously optimistic about their chances to make a run at the postseason before losing two tough games to the White Sox over the weekend. Then they lost 4-3 on Friday night and starting pitcher Josh Towers ripped his team to the media:
"We just gave the game away. Personally, that's what I think," Towers said. "Today was just a game that I felt we were in complete control of and we should've won and we didn't. All around, it just wasn't a great game played by us.
The following day, a players-only meeting was held. Afterwards, veteran catcher Gregg Zaun said, "I always understand frustration ... But it's never productive to throw anybody on the team under the bus. It just doesn't get anybody anywhere. It creates bad feelings and resentment and a simple apology usually takes care of it."
According to the Globe and Mail, Towers will not be traded.
Roy Halladay tossed his fourth complete game of the season on Saturday but the Jays came up short, 2-0. The game lasted two hours and seven minutes, much longer than the last time Halladay and Mark Buehrle squared off, back in May. That game lasted one hour and fifty minutes and the Jays won, 2-0. According to Buehrle, "My theory in a game is win quick, lose quick. Whatever you do, get the ball and throw it. There is no reason to take your time out there."
Moving on to Baltimore, where the Orioles are playing about as well as they are likely to play all season. This weekend may have been all about Cal Ripken Jr., who was inducted into the Hall of Fame on Sunday, but it was also about the streaking O's, who are pitching well, fielding well, hitting some, and running the bases with aggression. Baltimore is happy to have Miguel Tejada back in the line-up.
The Yanks plowed through the Royals for three straight nights and then lost the next three games in a row. Saturday night's 7-5 defeat in Baltimore was the worst of it. The Yankees have put themselves in a position where they cannot afford to lose more than one or two games a week. They are fortunate that the Indians, Tigers and Twins have all been scuffling of late. Alex Rodriguez, hitless since launching career homer run No. 499, is pressing, swinging at balls out of the strike zone, though he did walk three times yesterday.
Now that Ryan the Temp appears headed to Dunder Mifflin headquarters in New York, Dwight Schreute could have a new person to train in Kei Igawa, who was demoted to Scranton. Igawa hasn't received the kind of heat that Carl Pavano did, but so far, this deal is every bit the bust. Phillip Hughes, who had another good outing yesterday, will probably take Igawa's next turn, which would be this coming weekend vs. the Royals.
The Yanks are looking for bullpen help. Scott "The God of Hell Fire" Proctor and Kyle "Cooter" Farnsworth -- who got into it with catcher Jorge Posada on Sunday -- are likely chips, according to George King. The Yanks have interest in Greg Gagne, who would prefer to close. But they may have an in-house solution as Joba Chamberlain has been taken out of the starting rotation in Scranton. Chamberlain is expected to work in relief this week. According to Joel Sherman:
"Our guys saw Chamberlain last week and said he was the best pitching prospect they have seen all year," an AL executive said. "If he were a five-year veteran there is no doubt with this stuff that he would be pitching in the majors. So here you have the chance to pitch him in the majors while also limiting his innings. You get value both ways. The Yanks should absolutely do that."
The Red Sox are rolling. Manny is starting to hit. But they are still interested in Jermaine Dye. J.D. Drew continues to work diligently through a difficult first season in Boston. Says hitting coach Dave Magadan say:
"He's worked hard on staying through the ball, staying to the middle of the field, and driving the ball the other way. It's just something that hasn't really transferred into the game. When you're getting pitched the way he is -- he's getting pitched hard in and then soft stuff out over the plate -- it's a tougher pitch to drive the other way when it's soft out over the plate.
Meanwhile, Curt Schilling is looking to return to the rotation in early August, and long-lost starter Matt Clement hopes to comeback in September.
Labels: AL East
AL East: Red Sox right ship
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...
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.
Labels: AL East
AL East: Five up, five down
With the second-half of the season is less than a week old, I thought it would be a good time to look at who might have a strong second half and who might fall off.
Bobby Abreu: How much do the Yankees miss Gary Sheffield? On the field, plenty, as Abreu inexplicably fell off the map. Though he once possessed a powerful throwing arm, that alone cannot mask his fielding inadequacies anymore. Moreover, his ability to get on base has covered a sharp decline in power, but in the first half he just didn't do very much of anything well. He's become a poor defensive player and while his OBP is respectable (.353) it is far from below his career average (.409). The Yankees have an option on him at the end of the year. While he may not play well enough to remain in New York, he'll salvage what has been a down year.
Manny Ramirez: There are a bunch of candidates on the Red Sox that should improve as the summer rolls along, notably Julio Lugo and J.D. Drew and Coco Crisp. Ramirez (.288/.385/.473) has respectable numbers but this is Manny Ramirez, Hall of Fame Hitter, we're talking about. He's got just 12 home runs. Look for a late season flourish and for Manny to hit 30-plus by the time it’s all said and done.
Akinori Iwamura: The D Ray's third baseman has only played in 56 games due to assorted injuries, but he's hit to the tune of .285/.366/.416. At the plate, Iwamura looks like a combination of countrymen Ichiro and Godzilla. He pulls off the ball like Ichiro but his body is thicker like Godzilla's. If he can remain healthy, he'll do a little bit of everything well, including running the bases and fielding his position.
Roy Halladay: Toronto's ace is 10-4 but his ERA is 4.66, just about the worst of his career (he did have a 10.64 ERA in just 67 innings in 2000). Halladay has battled through injuries, sure, but if he can keep himself off the DL, there is every reason to believe that he'll return to form, get that ERA down below 4.00 and win close to 20 games.
Nick Markakis: OK, this is pushing it, seeing as how the second year outfielder is having a good season (.288/.350/.453). Right now, his rate numbers are almost identical to his final 2006 stats. But Markakis was a monster in the second-half last year (.311/.364/.532) -- he hit 14 of his 16 home runs after the break. Why not again?
Mike Lowell: Boston's third baseman was thought to be washed-up when he joined the Red Sox with Josh Beckett last year. He's been anything but, providing solid defense and a steady bat. Last year, he hit .307/.359/.516 in the first half (with 31 doubles), .257/.315/.424 (just 16 doubles) after. Look for a similar slide this year.
Alex Rodriguez: He's been the Yankees' best player this year. With 30 homers and 86 RBIs at the break, there is almost no place to go but down. Rodriguez has bounced back from his "poor" 2006 season, and has thrived in spite of controversy, much of it of his own doing. However, with the Yankees teetering and an off-season that is sure to bring many more distractions (not to mention dollars), will Rodriguez will be able to maintain his level of play?
Jeremy Guthrie: The 28-year old right-hander has been heaven sent for the Birds this year, with 75 strikeouts and just 21 walks with a 3.07 ERA in 105 innings. But as the innings mount and the losing in Baltimore swells, look for Guthrie to come back to the pack.
Alex Rios: The Jays' lanky right fielder has picked up nicely where he left off in 2006 before a bizarre staph-infection sullied his season. He already has a career-high 18 home runs, and before it is all said and done should set career marks in walks, doubles and runs scored. That said, I just don't envision him slugging .532 the rest of the way. Very nice young player, but I won't be sold on him until he proves it over the course of a full season.
Labels: AL East
AL East: Midseason Grades
The Yankees' run of nine consecutive American League East titles likely will come to an end this year. The Red Sox got off to a torrid start and hold a comfortable lead even though they played below .500 in June. It would take a massive collapse on Boston's part to relinquish first place, and they haven't hit like they can yet. New York would also have to play close to .700 ball for the rest of the season, and the Yankees have simply been too inconsistent to bank on that. When they pitch, they don't hit and when they hit, they don't pitch. The Bombers haven't missed the playoffs since 1993, and it looks like curtains for the Joe Torre Era.
Like the Yankees, the Blue Jays have been crippled by injuries. They have not folded but are essentially a .500 team. The Orioles and Devil Rays are mired at the bottom of the division once again, each consumed by their own controversies. The O's fired manager Sam Perlozzo and hired Andy McPhail to oversee baseball operations, while the Elijah Dukes fiasco everything good out of Tampa Bay, except their losing record.
Boston Red Sox
Record: 53-34, 1st place
Runs Scored: 435 (7th in the AL)
Runs Allowed: 346 (1st in the AL)
What went wrong: Julio Lugo (.197/.270/.298) has been a major disappointment at shortstop and J. D. Drew (.258/.368/.391) has not hit for power, with just six home runs in the first half. David Ortiz has battled through injuries and hit only has 14 home runs; Manny Ramirez has just 11.
What went right: Mike Lowell is playing very well for a second-straight year in Boston, and, in spite of the drop in home runs Ortiz still has a .990 OPS. The starting pitching, led by Josh Beckett (12-2, 3.44 ERA) and Dice K (10-6, 3.84 ERA), has been stellar. Hideki Okajima (0.83 ERA in 43 innings) and Jonathan Paplebon (1.93 ERA and 46 strikeouts in 32 innings) have been devastating in the bullpen.
What's next: The Sox were nothing short of mediocre in June, posting a 13-14 mark, yet they still hold a double-digit lead over the Jays and Yanks. The hitting should improve in the second half and Boston should cruise to the division title.
New York Yankees
Record: 42-43 (10 back), 2nd place (tie)
Runs Scored: 464 (3rd in AL)
Runs Allowed: 392 (4th in AL)
What went wrong: Injuries hit hard this spring, but that doesn't explain Bobby Abreu's horrible first half. Johnny Damon and Robinson Cano have been subpar as well. Most of all, the bullpen has been terrible. Anyone imagine that the Yankees would ever be last in the league in saves (11) with Mariano Rivera still wearing pinstripes? Derek Jeter's fielding has been poor, a trend that is bound to continue. Surprisingly, Jeter also leads the league in times caught stealing (seven).
What went right: Offensively, Jorge Posada, Jeter and Alex Rodriguez are playing as well, if not better, than could have been expected. Rodriguez has 30 homers. Hideki Matsui is second on the team with 11. Without Rodriguez, the Yanks would be fighting to stay out of last place.
What's next: The Yanks face a long climb to make the postseason. It's unlikely that the Red Sox, Indians or the Tigers will fold and that's what has to happen for New York. Beyond that, they have Rivera and Posada to re-sign in the off-season. It's likely that both will remain in New York, at inflated prices. But the $64,000 question is whether or not Rodriguez stays. At this point, the Yankees can't afford to lose him.
Toronto Blue Jays
Record: 43-44 (10 back), 2nd place (tie)
Runs Scored: 415 (9th in AL)
Runs Allowed: 400 (6th in AL)
What went wrong: The Jays have been hampered by injuries. The biggest loss was closer B.J. Ryan, gone for the year. A.J. Burnett has been decent but he's hurt again and the decision to sign him has been publicly questioned by the general manager. Roy Halladay is 10-3 but he's got a 4.46 ERA in 16 starts. Vernon Wells (.253/.314/.443) is having a down year.
What went right: Alex Rios has rebounded nicely from a injury-plagued 2006 with 22 doubles and 17 dingers. Shaun Marcum has been a pleasant surprise as the number three pitcher in the starting rotation.
What's next: Everything needed to fit into place in order for the Jays to make a serious run this year and that just hasn't happened. They still might push the Yankees out of second place but they might be sellers (Glaus, Thomas) at the trading deadline.
Record: 38-49 (15 back), 3rd place
Runs Scored: 390 (12th in AL)
Runs Allowed: 403 (7th in AL)
What went wrong: The bullpen only has 15 saves, second fewest in the AL. Closer Chris Ray has an ERA of 4.89. Starting pitcher Daniel Cabrera has thrown a lot of innings and has a 1.43 WHIP but he continues to be a disappointment at 6-10 with a 5.04 ERA. Miguel Tejada was no longer an elite shortstop before he broke his hand, ending the fifth longest consecutive-games played streak in baseball history.
What went right: Brian Roberts is an All Star and deservedly so -- his 848 OPS leads the team. Erik Bedard has emerged into very good pitcher, with 149 strikeouts and a 3.40 ERA in 121 innings, while Jeremy Guthrie has a 2.74 ERA in 102 innings and is the team's second best starter. The hiring of Andy McPhail to run the baseball operations is a step in the right direction.
What's next: The O's have a couple of good young players (Bedard, Markakis) but they essentially need to go back to the drawing board and start from scratch. They'll play out the string and get to work trying to build a cohesive program for the first time in years.
Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Record: 34-53 (19 back), 4th place
Runs Scored: 408 (10th in AL)
Runs Allowed: 537 (14th in AL)
What went wrong: Rocco Baldelli got hurt again and then once more. Aside from Jamey Shields and Scott Kazmir the pitching has been awful. The Elijah Dukes story, a tawdry turn right out of Jerry Springer, has been a PR nightmare for a team with a lot of young talent that seemingly does little else but spins its wheels.
What went right: James Shields has been a horse, throwing 129 innings and he's been efficient with 116 strikeouts and only 19 walks. Scott Kazmir hasn't been as good but he does have more than a strike per inning. Al Reyes has been strong at the back of the bullpen with 17 saves and 38 strikeouts in 33 innings. Carlos Pena (.287/.395/.609) has been an unexpected treat at first base, leading the team with 20 homers, and B.J. Upton (.320/.396/.545) has been very good at second base.
What's next: The Rays continue to develop promising young players -- Dukes, Young, Upton -- but they have not been able to move any of that talent for what they need most: pitching. There are isolated performances that bear watching but collectively, the Rays are as bad as ever.
Labels: AL East
AL East: All-Stars and All-Flops
The following players from the AL East have made the All-Star team: David Ortiz, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mike Lowell, Brian Roberts, Carl Crawford, Jorge Posada, Alex Rios, Josh Beckett and Jonathan Papelbon. Here are my position-by-position picks for the best and worst the AL East has had to offer so far:
C: Jorge Posada
1B: Carlos Pena
2B: B.J. Upton
SS: Derek Jeter
3B: Alex Rodriguez
OF: Manny Ramirez
OF: Carl Crawford
OF: Alex Rios
DH: David Ortiz
SP: Josh Beckett
SP: Erik Bedard
SP: James Shields
Set Up: Hideki Okajima
Closer: Jonathan Paplebon
C: Dioner Navarro
1B: Yankees (Doug Mientkiewcz, Miguel Cairo)
2B: Robinson Cano
SS: Julio Lugo
3B: Melvin Mora
OF: Johnny Damon
OF: J.D. Drew
OF: Bobby Abreu
DH: Jason Giambi
SP: Edwin Jackson
SP: Kei Igawa
SP: Jae Seo
Set Up: Kyle Farnsworth
Closer: Chris Ray
Labels: AL East
AL East: Getting Late Early
The Yankees left for the West Coast early last week as the hottest team in baseball, having won 11 of their past 12 games. Now, six games into a nine-game road trip, New York is 1-5—swept by the Rockies and losers twice against the hapless Giants over the weekend in San Francisco. Since last Monday, the Bombers have lost three games in the standings to the piping-hot Red Sox, and now trail Boston by 11.5. Seth Mnookin thinks that for the remainder of the season the Red Sox should worry about almost anyone but New York.
What's wrong with the Yankees, asks Tyler Kepner in the New York Times. George King has an answer in the Post: the Yankees are a bad team. Peter Abraham has some ideas for how New York can fix things, including this:
"Get Joe Torre to retire: Right now. Everybody knows he's not coming back barring some sudden run to the World Series. So have Joe announce that he's retiring at the end of the season and see what happens. Create a little tension and drama, maybe it'll motivate the players. Then, if they suddenly do go on some magical run, create a story that Big Stein begged his man to come back for one more year. If they lose, you've lost nothing. Joe gets his graceful exit and either Mattingly or Girardi takes over."
Saturday's loss to the Giants was a low-point. Leading 4-1 in the sixth inning with their ace Chien-Ming Wang on the hill, the Yankees looked poised for a victory. But Wang, and then the bullpen, faltered. New York would have been cooked if not for Alex Rodriguez's solo blast in the ninth, which pushed the game into extra innings. Rodriguez doubled two innings later and the Yankees had the bases loaded with just one out, but Hideki Matsui struck out on three pitches and Robinson Cano grounded out. Scott Proctor gave up a bloop hit in the 13th which proved to be the game-winner.
Rodriguez, who reached base 12 times in 16 at bats against the Giants (including 9 hits), was pretty much the whole show for the Yankees over the weekend. He's been one of the few consistent players on a team whose performance has fluctuated wildly. One day, the offense clicks, the next day, good hitters like Bobby Abreu give up at bats, swinging at bad pitches in hitter's counts.
Even veteran pitchers like Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte are struggling with the mental aspect of the game. Mussina gave up RBI hits to the number 8 hitter twice -- once against the Rockies and then against the Giants. After the first one in Colorado, he chalked it up to "National League inexperience," Mussina said. "I didn't think about who was on deck, I wasn't paying any attention to it. I would have pitched a little differently if I had thought about it. After 17 years, you're going to learn a few things about this game and that's one of them."
Two nights later, after giving up six runs, Andy Pettitte told reporters, "To tell you the truth, I don’t really know what happened," Pettitte said. "I haven't done that in a long time. I quit pitching. I didn't use both sides of the plate like I was doing the whole game, and kind of got real one-dimensional, trying to throw my heater and my cutter in on almost every pitch. Man, you can't let that happen, and I did, and it cost us in a big way tonight."
Mussina wasn't paying attention to the fact that he was pitching to the number 8 hitter? I thought he went to Stanford. Why didn't his catcher help him out there? Pettitte admits that he quit pitching? What gives with this team? What gives is that they are 36-37 and it is getting late early.
Labels: AL East
AL East: Baltimore Chop
From the mid-1960s through the mid-1980s, the Baltimore Orioles were the model organization in baseball. Baltimore built their teams around the concepts of great pitching, stellar fielding and the three-run home run and won championships in 1966, 1970 and 1983. In fact, the O's had the best record of any team during the '60s and the '70s.
Earl Weaver, who steadily worked his way through the minor leagues, managed the team for most of this run, and is a Hall-of-Famer. The Orioles developed talents such as Boog Powell, Brooks Robinson, Paul Blair, Mark Belanger, Jim Palmer, and, later, Bobby Grich, Don Baylor and Eddie Murray. They played baseball the right way, the "Oriole Way," and thrived in spite of the fact that other teams spent more once the free agency era began.
The Orioles' system began to corrode during the Cal Ripken years. By the mid-90s, they had become another version of The Best Team Money Can Buy, featuring stars like Roberto Alomar, Rafael Palmeiro and Bobby Bonilla. They were competitive for a few seasons and then collapsed -- the Orioles have finished as high as third in the American League East just once since 1997.
I grew up in the '70s and '80s and always counted on the Orioles being a force, much like the Atlanta Braves have been for the better part of the past 20 years in the National League. It wasn't that I necessarily liked them, but they were dependable, respectable. But the old Orioles are long-gone, and that is one of the running disappointments in the game. Now, each season presents yet another mediocrity.
The O's have lost eight straight games, more than a third of the way to the 21 consecutive games they lost in 1988. Sam Perlozzo reportedly is being fired today, but the organization's troubles run deeper than its manager. For the moment, Kevin Millar called a players-only team meeting to try and unite the club.
According to Roch Kubatko in the Baltimore Sun:
Always a favorite of the media for his accessibility and one-liners, Millar vented when he noticed a few reporters joking around while players ate dinner in silence and dressed at their lockers.
The fun and games continue this week for the Orioles on the West Coast. They have today off, then face Jake Peavy on Tuesday night in San Diego.
"Larry was that bridge for us," said [assistant managing editor/sports for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Garry D] Howard. "He was the bridge for this generation. He helped father this whole generation. I think you could trace it back to Larry and then to a Sam Lacy.
Dan Shaughnessy remembers his colleague. For more on Whiteside's story, pick up Howard Bryant's compelling book about racism and Boston sports Shut Out.
Labels: AL East
AL East: Cheated
There are all kinds of ways of feeling cheated. Some you just have to live with, like when you go to the Caribbean on vacation and have to fork over $10 for a tube of toothpaste at a local pharmacy, or like when you pay top dollar too see a Broadway play only to find out that the lead is being played by an understudy. Then there is the kind that is seemingly more personal, like when baseball fans are robbed of the pleasure of rooting for the all-time home run record to be broken because of Barry Bonds' link to performance-enhancing drugs.* A sucker is born every minute, and yet nobody likes being conned, as millions of viewers were last night with the final episode of The Sopranos.
Another way of feeling cheated -- albeit in a less acute fashion -- is having to watch interleague play rob us of natural league rivalries. The Yankees only play the defending AL champion Tigers twice this year, but New York plays both Pittsburgh and Colorado. Stop the presses. Look, I understand why interleague games are profitable and why they are here to stay, but this is ridiculous. Divisions aren't even lined up specifically to play each other -- now it's just a hodge-podge of random match-ups (Blue Jays vs. Dodgers, Orioles vs. Rockies) -- and all at the expense of league games. The only reason why there isn't more of an uproar about it is because fans have been knocked unconscious by all the excitement.
Barring a sudden midseason surge, Mike Flanagan and Jim Duquette are going to be right back where they were last July, when several teams made offers for Tejada. This time, however, they may be able to make the case to owner Peter Angelos that the club will be in a better position to make good on the Tejada timetable without Tejada.
* I recently wrote a column about which players are the most -- and least -- fun to watch. I got a lot of mail about the piece. The biggest complaint was that I didn't include Ryan Freel on the list of players who are fun to watch. The second biggest knock was that I put Junior Griffey on the list of players who are the least fun to watch. My reasoning was not because Griffey isn't appealing but because he's been injured so often since he's been with the Reds, and that it's hard to watch a great player so diminished. But upon further review, I have to say that I was wrong about Griffey, especially in light of Bonds breaking Aaron's record and Sammy Sosa hitting his 600th home run. Junior is 37-years-old and has 578 home runs. He has never been linked to performance-enhancing drugs. There is every to reason to believe that he'll reach 600, and more. His swing is still as sweet as ever. I was wrong; Junior's FORP is just fine.
Labels: AL East
Al East: A-Rod gets redemption
Alex Rodriguez ended perhaps his most tumultuous week as a Yankee late Sunday night with a line drive home run into the Red Sox bullpen at Fenway Park in a driving rain. That it came on an 0-2 pitch -- fastball, outside corner -- from Boston's ace reliever, Jonathan Papelbon, and proved to be the game-winner, made it even sweeter for Rodriguez, who graced both the front and back covers of the New York tabloids this past week.
Rodriguez was on the front cover for stepping out with a blonde who is not his wife (give Red Sox fans points for cleverness in how they handled that one). On Friday, he was on the back cover for a ninth-inning incident against the Blue Jays. With the Yankees ahead by a run, Hideki Matsui on second and Rodriguez on first, Jorge Posada lifted a fly ball in the infield between third and short. As the ball hung up in the air, Rodriguez passed between the two fielders and yelled, "Ha!" The ball fell in safely, Matsui scored, and Jason Giambi -- who was later put on the DL for at least 4-6 weeks with a bad foot -- followed with a two-run single.
The Blue Jays were livid with Rodriguez calling his play "bush league" and worse. Toronto manager John Gibbons said, "One thing you know about the Yankees, one of the reason they're so respected, they do things right ... They always have. They have a lot of pride, a lot of class and they play the game hard. And that's not Yankee pride right there. That's not the way they play."
Perhaps that is not the way Joe Torre's teams play, not in these kinder and gentler times. Torre later said that he understood why the Blue Jays were upset. Billy Martin would have loved the play (unless of course somebody had the stones to pull it on him). I'm sure Earl Weaver wouldn't have blinked. And Leo Durocher would have approved. Here's Leo the Lip, from his autobiography, Nice Guys Finish Last -- a book that Bill James considers to be one of the best baseball reads of them all:
If a man is sliding into second base and the ball goes into center field, what's the matter with falling on him accidentally so that he can't get up and go to third? If you get away with it, fine. If you don't, what have you lost? I don't call that cheating; I call that heads-up baseball. Win any way you can as long as you can get away with it.
Derek Jeter has pulled that stunt -- momentarily falling on a runner so they can't advance -- plenty of times, but he never gets called on it. But this is Rodriguez. As Mike Vaccaro put it: "If Pete Rose did this, men would write poems about grittiness, paeans to aggressiveness. But with A-Rod, it rubs opponents the wrong way."
Rodriguez wasn't having a great weekend series in Boston. The fans were all over him. Last night in the seventh inning, he failed to drive in the tying run with runners at the corners and just one out. But Mr. Tabloid, Mr. Un-Clutch, came through with the biggest hit of the week for Yankees in the ninth. Along with some fine work from Mariano Rivera, Rodriguez and the Yankees were spared a June burial in Boston. They trail the Red Sox by 12.5 games, and the two teams do not meet again until the last week of August. But for one night, as Bob Ryan notes, Rodriguez and the Yankees gave their fans something to cheer about.
Labels: AL East
AL East: What to do with Dukes?
Six years ago, a prominent baseball columnist wrote a column about Toe Nash, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays prospect from Louisiana, "The Babe from the land of Sonny Boy Williamson." But Nash wasn't the second-coming of Babe Ruth or Satchel Paige; he was a thug. He played alongside future big leaguers, Carl Crawford and Josh Hamilton in an instructional league but he never made it close to the majors. Instead, he ended up in jail.
It was hard not to recall Nash as the Devil Rays now have another talented -- and even more accomplished -- but deeply troubled young player to deal with in Elijah Dukes. In April, Dukes, who has five children from four different mothers, threatened his wife NiShea Gilbert. According to the St. Petersburg Times, Dukes left her the following voice message:
"Hey, dawg. It's on, dawg. You dead, dawg. I ain't even bulls-------. Your kids too, dawg. It don't even matter to me who is in the car with you. N-----, all I know is, n-----, when I see your m-----f------- a-- riding, dawg, it's on. As a matter of fact, I'm coming to your m-----f------ house."
The following day, New York Sun baseball writer Tim Marchman wrote:
If the Devil Rays truly want to disavow this, they have to release Dukes and forfeit the benefit of his immense talent; to do much of anything else would be to say that his ability to hit a baseball outweighs his monstrous behavior.
Here is more about Dukes' volatile relationship with Gilbert, and here is Joey Johnson's lengthy profile of Dukes in Sunday's Tampa Tribune. Stuart Steinbreg, the Devil Rays' principal owner said that he wanted Dukes released when he first heard the news. According to MLB.com:
"My immediate reaction [would have been] unprintable," Sternberg said. "Dukes' punishment wouldn't be called a suspension. It would be called, you know, 'You're fired.'"
Dukes was benched by D-Ray manager Joe Maddon last Wednesday and Thursday; he returned on Friday night and hit a home run in a Tampa loss. Then, last night, Dukes had the game-winning hit against the Tigers. Gary Sheffield has some words of advice for Dukes, who isn't going anywhere just yet. The Rays did, however, demote Jonny Gomes to make room for Akinori Iwamura.
What I'm really eager to see is how his older body will react from staying away from the game for a longer period of time. I know he has done this the last two seasons, but again he is one year older and will be facing better hitters… I'm not saying that this was a bad signing for the Yankees; I am saying that there may be room for concern. Clemens may come back and prove once again that he can be dominant, but I would just like to give it time before he is anointed the savior of the season.
"Everyone is disgusted and they don't want to spend money," said Abdul Traore, surrounded by discounted Yankees gear at his Jeans Plus store on E. 161st St. by the Stadium. "When the Yankees win, people show up. When they lose, everybody is just mad."
Labels: AL East
Al East: Lackluster League
Well, so much for the Big, Bad American League East. Right now, it's the Red Sox and a collection of mediocrities. The Blue Jays have been killed by injuries, as have the Yankees, who have to be considered the biggest collective disappointment of the year so far. The Orioles, those perennial mediocrities from the mid-Atlantic, are right on schedule for another long, frustrating season, and in spite of the fact that they've got some talented and exciting young players, the Devil Rays find themselves in a familiar place at the bottom of the division. Only two-and-a-half games separate the second place and last place teams, while Boston is cruising, 10 1/2 in front. But the East can't compare with the Central as the class of the League.
Here's a question: Which manager will get fired first, Sam Perlozzo, John Gibbons or Joe Torre? The heat as been on all three men. Yesterday, it just got a little hotter for Perlozzo when his decision to pull Eric Bedard, who pitched a fantastic game, back-fired and the Orioles 'pen coughed up the game.
Boston arrives in New York today for a three-game set. Steve Buckley says the rivalry is lacking pizzazz. The Red Sox are 5-1 against the Yankees this season. "We're playing well. We're doing our thing right now," David Ortiz said. "They need to figure out what they're going to do to beat us. We don't have to worry about it. I've been here for five years and we don't need to worry about nobody right now. Everybody needs to worry about us."
The Yankees, who salvaged the final game of their first meeting with the Mets on Sunday night thanks to a nifty debut performance by Tyler Clippard, have their own problems to worry about. On Saturday, they lost yet another pitcher to injury when Darrell Rasner broke his finger in the first inning. He'll be out for three months. Robinson Cano has been terrible, and so has Bobby Abreu. Alex Rodriguez is hitting .254/.361./.408 in May. Johnny Damon has been playing hurt all year and Jason Giambi, 1-for-his-last-26, may have unwittingly opened up a can of worms for himself.
Mike Lupica suggests that the reason Torre still has his job is because Steinbrenner is not the same man he once was:
I constantly hear about how tough and demanding the Yankee owner still is, and what kind of pressure Brian Cashman and Joe Torre are constantly under to win. Except. Except the Yankees constantly tell us their mission statement is to win it all every year and they haven't done that since 2000. And they have lost in the first round three times out of the last five years. And Cashman is still here and Torre is still here. And so what I'm trying to figure out is this: Where are all the demands from the owner? Where is all the urgency? You know who's the kind of boss that Steinbrenner is still supposed to be and so clearly isn't?Bill Madden adds:
There is no question, with the old Boss, heads would be rolling today, players would be traded, front office and other staff would be fired or demoted. Someone would be the scapegoat, and usually it would be the manager. But the old Boss also always had another manager warming up in the bullpen, be it Billy Martin, Lou Piniella or Gene Michael. While Steinbrenner has told his people he wants Don Mattingly to succeed Torre, this is hardly the time. Maybe Steinbrenner's silence and inaction is his way of saying Cashman and Torre deserve this team and deserve to wallow in the misery of it the rest of the season. On the other hand, maybe it means there's nobody home anymore where once a mouth roared and Yankees minions cowered in fear.
Labels: AL East
AL East: Knuckling Down
For the past decade, the Red Sox have played especially well at the start of the season. After an exciting, if improbable, win yesterday over the Orioles at Fenway Park bumped their record to 25-11, Boston increased its lead over the O's and Yankees to eight games. This isn't even their best start in recent years, though it is close -- they were 25-9 in 2002. Boston's offense has been sensational for over a week now; quite frankly, everything is clicking for the whole team right now.
"If the Red Sox keep playing the way they are," Johnny Damon said yesterday after the Yankees lost 2-1 in Seattle, "nobody is going to catch them."
Surely, the Sox are playing over their heads to a degree, but there is nothing flukey about their pitching. Josh Beckett, who had his first blister scare of the season yesterday, is 7-0; future Hall of Famer Curt Schilling has pitched very well; Daisuke Matsuzaka has been inconsistent but has shown flashes of brilliance. Jonathan Paplebon is one of the elite closers in baseball. And so, once again, it's been easy to overlook the unique contributions of Tim Wakefield, who has been with the Red Sox longer than any current player.
Last week, Wakefield outpitched Roy Halladay, lowering his ERA to a league-leading 1.79 in the process. Wakefield is the only true knuckleball pitcher left in the game, which makes him a precious commodity. Yet the Red Sox are paying him at the bargain-basement rate of $4 million a year, proving that, seniority be damned, knuckleballers still don't get much respect.
Still, thinking about how good Wakefield has been brought to mind great knucklers from the past. Of Hall of Famer Hoyt Wilhelm, Roger Angell once wrote, "He delivers a pitch with approximately the same effort as a man tossing a pair of socks into a laundry hamper."
Minor-league-pitcher turned major-league writer Pat Jordan once wrote that the knuckleball is "a curious and irrational pitch with more than a little madness tied up with it. A pitcher does not really throw a knuckleball; he surrenders it to the elements as it were some wild, unattainable bird he is glad to be rid of. Once unleashed, the pitch has a will of its own ... Pitchers must ask themselves: is it worth the effort? Not many say yes. It takes a strong-willed, well-disciplined man to throw a knuckleball. A man not given easily to despair and defeat."
The legendary Phil Neikro was one of those men (as is Wakefield). Neikro toiled in the minor leagues for eight long seasons learning to master the pitch. In a 1970 profile in True magazine, Neikro told a writer:
"Damn, but my life is tied up with that pitch. Sometimes I can't even separate the two. It's as if the pitch and my life are one and the same thing. You know what I mean? I owe everything to that pitch. Everything."
Neikro went on to win 300 games in the major leagues. His knuckler was so nasty that Pete Rose once said of it, "Trying to hit that thing is a miserable way to make a living." Once, after striking out four times against Neikro, the slugger Dick Allen nonchalantly said, "I never worry about it. I just take my three swings and go sit on the bench. I'm afraid if I even think about hitting it, I'll mess up my swing for life."
Wakefield will never win 300 games, but he's a joy to watch, the pride of the Red Sox. Oh, in case you missed it, be sure to check out Ben McGrath’s 2004 New Yorker profile on Wakefield.
"It's the pride factor and the responsibility factor; his biggest problem right now in his mind is letting people down," [manager, Joe] Torre said. "I think he'd have an easier time snapping out of this thing if we had been winning a lot more."
Labels: AL East
AL East: The Return of The Raj
There was plenty of drama during the seventh inning stretch of a brisk but contentious game between the Yankees and Mariners at Yankee Stadium on Sunday afternoon. It had nothing to do with the action on the field -- where Scott Proctor had just been kicked out of the game for throwing at a batter -- but everything to do with the guest in the owner's box. Yankee public address announcer Bob Sheppard interrupted the seventh inning stretch and directed all eyes to the owner's box, which had been cleared to make room for Roger Clemens, who spoke directly to the crowd, with giddy Yankees GM Brian Cashman perched close by. Clemens was terse and somewhat cryptic in his remarks, but the fans were aided by a message on the scoreboard, "Roger Clemens is Now a Yankee."
The Yankees and Clemens proved that one man can be bigger than a game. I wonder what would have happened if the Yankees been losing the game? Regardless, Clemens is a Yankee again, and he'll earn roughly $18 million for his services, pro-rated from $28 million (Darren Rovell at CNBC explains why the deal doesn't make financial sense for the Yankees). The public announcement had a reality TV feeling to it. It was clearly staged, but, judging by the raised eyebrows and smiles on the faces of the Yankee players in the dugout, not everybody was in on the "surprise."
The moment brought back memories of 1978. On July 23 of that year, volatile manager Billy Martin had finally had enough of his owner, George Steinbrenner, and his star player, Reggie Jackson. After a few drinks, he told reporters, in reference to Jackson and The Boss, "One's a born liar and the other's convicted." Martin insisted that the reporters run the quote. The following day, he was fired. Four days after that, Martin quietly snuck into Yankee Stadium on Old Timer's Day. Sheppard made two announcements, the first that new manager Bob Lemon would return as skipper in 1979. The fans booed and when they calmed down, Sheppard said, "And coming back to manage the Yankees in 1980…number, one, Billy Martin!" Martin charged onto the field and received an eight-minute ovation.
The return of Clemens didn't exactly get that kind of electric reaction yesterday, but on a weekend that offered NBA and NHL playoff elimination games, one of the biggest boxing matches in recent memory, and the Kentucky Derby, the Yankees found a way to grab their fair share of headlines too. Steinbrenner may be diminished, but they are still doing things George's way in the Bronx. After the press conference was over, there was Clemens, throwing in the bullpen with a few coaches around him. Just another episode of Rocket TV.
The Clemens signing smacks of desperation, according to Murray Chass of the New York Times. More business as usual for both Clemens and the Yanks, says Mike Lupica and Joel Sherman. Tim Marchman thinks it is a great move on-the-field for the Yankees, but that Clemens could bring some unpleasant baggage with him.
Curt Schilling, who pitched well in Boston's 4-3 win over the Twins on Sunday, says that while it would have been nice to have Clemens, the Red Sox "don't need him." Dan Shaughnessy writes that the return of Clemens to New York "is certain to galvanize the anti-Rocket legions in Red Sox Nation." Ya think? For another Red Sox take on the Clemens story, check out Yanksfan v. Soxfan, as well as Evan Brunell's analysis at Firebrand of the American League.
After winning two straight, the Orioles were pounded by the Indians yesterday.
The Rays and Jays both lost too on Sunday. For the Jays, it was especially painful as they got a good start from A.J. Burnett the night after their ace, Doc Halladay was shelled. Toronto has now lost six straight and find themselves in last place. Only the Red Sox have a record over .500 in the East, and they are cruising at 20-10, the best record in the league.
Labels: AL East
AL East: No End In Sight For Yanks' Woes
For the Yankees, April has been the cruelest month, as the most expensive team in baseball finds itself smack in last place with a host of problems that don't look as if they'll be solved anytime soon. Johnny Damon, Robinson Cano and Bobby Abreu (whose longest hitless streak in his career ended late yesterday at 0-19) are all struggling, yet the offense has still been excellent.
The pitching, on the other hand, has been unsightly. Yankees starters have pitched the fewest number of innings per start of any team in baseball. The bullpen has thrown the most innings, but until Saturday, had yet to record a save. The Bombers have used five or more pitchers in each of the last 10 games, which according to the Elias Sports Bureau, hasn't been done in at least 50 years. If it wasn't for Kei Igawa's stellar outing on Saturday, the Yanks, losers of eight of their last nine, could have found themselves with a new manager.
Much has been written about The Boss not being what he once was, and you could argue that it is hardly Torre's fault that his pitchers can't pitch. Not surprisingly, Torre received the support of his players after yesterday's loss. According to the New York Times:
"It's common sense," said Derek Jeter. "He's not playing, that's the bottom line. That's pretty much all I've got to say. It's unfair. It should stop. We should never talk about his job. He's been doing a great job. He's doing a great job this year."
Still, in the past, Yankee skippers have been fired for less, as Murray Chass notes today in the Times. New York hasn't had this poor an April record since 1985, when they posted a 6-12 mark. Steinbrenner, who had given manager Yogi Berra one of his dubious votes of confidence, fired the Yankee legend before the end of April that year. Billy Martin took over and the Yankees finished the season winning 97 games, but the '85 Yanks are most famous for being the season when Steinbrenner referred to his star outfielder, Dave Winfield as "Mr. May."
The Yankees have held a lead in each of the six games they have played against Boston this season, and have lost all but one of those games. Which begs the question: What does one Roger Clemens make of all of this? Because of his relationship with both Torre and Andy Pettitte, it was believed that the Yankees had the inside track in landing Clemens should he decide to pitch again this season. Now, you'd think that the Red Sox are becoming increasingly attractive to the pitching legend. If he went to New York, Clemens would be seen as a savior to a depleted pitching staff. If he chooses Boston, he could round out the best staff in the league, and probably the game. As the losses mount, New York's chances at losing to the Sox in the Rocket Sweepstakes grows increasingly more likely.
Labels: AL East
AL East: Jays hurting, O's winning
The most unusual thing about the current AL East standings can be summed up by the phrase "second-place Baltimore Orioles." Don't be fooled. The O's have won eight of their past nine games, but those games have all come against the Royals, Devil Rays and Blue Jays. The Blue Jays may not seem like they belong in that group, but the injury bug hit them hard a week ago and they've gone just 1-5 since. Before that, they too had fattened up on a menu of Rays and Royals, those two teams yielding the Jays' only series wins of the year thus far.
Within the span of three days, Toronto placed its starting left fielder, third baseman, and closer on the DL. Left fielder Reed Johnson went down with a herniated disk and will likely miss more than two months following back surgery. Closer B. J. Ryan, who was diagnosed with an elbow strain by famed Tommy John surgeon Dr. James Andrews, is expected to be out four-to-six weeks. Third baseman and No. 5 hitter Troy Glaus went down with bone spurs in his left heal and tight hamstring but could be back by end of month.
Though Johnson will be out the longest, his loss is the least significant. The Toronto pitchers will likely miss Johnson's defense in left, but 23-year-old rookie Adam Lind, whose career minor-league line entering the season was .319/.382/.511, should more than replace his production at the plate and could very well relegate Johnson to a fourth-outfielder role upon his return, which is a job Johnson's better suited for anyway.
The other two injuries are killers, however. The loss of Ryan won't so much be felt in the ninth inning, as Jason Frasor should do a fine job filling in as closer, but rather in the middle innings where the Jays are relying on converted starters Shaun Marcum, Casey Janssen and Victor Zambrano. Indeed, Marcum blew a game in the eighth inning on Thursday against the Red Sox, then combined with Janssen to blow a two-run lead in the eighth against Baltimore the next night, with Zambrano coming on in the ninth to take the loss. Manger John Gibbons shares the blame here. Jeremy Accardo is the team's second best righty reliever behind Frasor, but hasn't pitched with a lead in two weeks, while starter-turned very effective LOOGY Scott Downs has only pitched with a lead once in that span.
Then again, the problem could be that the Jays rarely have a lead. That brings us back to Glaus. Toronto has scored 6.25 runs per game with Glaus in the lineup and 3.20 runs per game without him. The Jays' current stop-gap is a platoon dominated by lefty-batting no-hit journeyman infielder Jason Smith (.234/.276/.384 career), with rookie Ryan Roberts, a solid-hitting second baseman playing out of position, confined to starts against lefties. Their backup option is veteran good-field/no-hit shortstop John McDonald (a career .240/.283/.316 hitter). That downgrade is far more detrimental to the offense than the loss of Ryan is to the bullpen. Glaus is supposedly expected back before the end of the month, but to read Will Carroll's description of his heel injury (bone spurs rubbing against and inflaming his Achilles tendon), it seems Glaus will have to cope with the problem all season long, which could result in extra days off, a possible decline in production, and perhaps even repeat trips to the DL. Unfortunately for Toronto, with Frank Thomas entrenched as the designated hitter, there's really no way to ease the strain on Glaus' heal without crippling the offense.
The Yankees are the mirror image of the Blue Jays. For one thing, their offense is seemingly indestructible. In a three-game series against the Red Sox's three best pitchers this past weekend, with Hideki Matsui on the DL, Johnny Damon missing a game due to back pain, and Jorge Posada limited to just three plate appearances all weekend by a bruised thumb, the Yankees scored nearly six runs per game, holding the lead in the seventh inning of the first and third games and sending the tying run to the plate in the ninth in all three. The Yankees' problem is the rotation, which has been in shambles all season and saw rookies Darrell Rasner, Jeff Karstens and Chase Wright take turns the last time through because three of their intended starters (Chien-Ming Wang, Mike Mussina, and, surprise, Carl Pavano) are on the DL. The good news for the Bombers is that, also unlike Toronto, they're activating players from the DL rather than placing them on it. Matsui returns tonight and claims to be at full strength after missing the minimum due to a hamstring pull suffered in the cold during the team's season-opening homestand. Wang returns tomorrow night to start against the Devil Rays. Mussina should rejoin the team next week in Texas. Meanwhile the struggles of Karstens and Wright in Boston over the weekend could motivate the return of Rasner, who pitched well in his last two starts before being demoted out of necessity to ease the strain on the American League's busiest bullpen, or start the pleas for überprospect Phil Hughes.
The Red Sox, took advantage of the hobbled Yankees this past weekend, but that's to their credit. Two of their three wins required late-game comebacks: a five-run eighth-inning rally against Mike Myers, Luis Vizcaino, and Mariano Rivera in the first game and a three-run seventh inning homer by Mike Lowell off Scott Proctor in the last. Assuming the Yankees will eventually solve their rotation problems, this division will likely come down to these two teams and Boston's three-game sweep this past weekend could loom large in September. The rivals rematch for a three-game set in the Bronx this upcoming weekend with more favorable pitching match-ups for New York, thanks in part to Wang's return from the DL.
Incidentally, the Red Sox honored Red Auerbach on Friday night by donning green jerseys and caps (actually an old St. Patrick's Day design that didn't look so terribly out of place in the green of Fenway Park). Also, because they were rained out on April 15, the Sox honored Jackie Robinson last night instead. Coco Crisp and David Ortiz were the Red Sox wearing 42, but Crisp only played the final two innings as a defensive replacement. Meanwhile, Ortiz wearing number 42 in a Red Sox uniform looks less like a tribute to Robinson than a tribute to Mo Vaughn.
Cliff Corcoran is the co-author of Bronx Banter.
Labels: AL East
AL East: Pitchers have their say
We all know that teams in the East can hit, but this past week, the division's top pitchers made their presence felt as well. Josh Beckett is off to a hot start, and after getting pounded on Opening Day, Curt Schilling has rebounded nicely. Erik Bedard has thrown consecutive good games, and Scott Kazmir outdueled Johan Santana late last week, handing the perennial Cy Young candidate his first loss at the Metrodome since August 1, 2005.
The most hyped game on the week featured "King" Felix Hernandez and Daisuke Matsuzaka at Fenway Park, with the matchup between Ichiro and Matsuzaka getting most of the ink. Mike Lowell later told reporters:
"I didn't want Ichiro to hit me the ball because you couldn't even see the ball there were so many flashbulbs going off. I was thinking, I hope he hits me a ground ball because if he hits a line drive right at me, I'm seeing stars. But it was pretty cool. We had two of the best players in Japan facing off against each other. That's not something you see every day."
In the end, it was Hernandez who stole the show. Matsuzaka pitched well enough, allowing three runs off eight hits and a walk, over seven innings, but Hernandez was a load, carrying a no-hitter into the eighth inning. The Fenway Faithful may have gone home disappointed, but it's likely that they will not forget what they saw any time soon.
The best pitching performance of the week came on Friday night when Roy Halladay allowed a single run in 10 innings, leading the Blue Jays to a 2-1 win against the Tigers. Staked to a 1-0 lead (Alex Rios led off the game for the Jays with a home run), Halladay gave up a dinger to Magglio Ordonez in the top of the second, and then scattered four hits over the next eight innings. According to the AP:
"Halladay just had a bowling ball working out there today," Detroit's Sean Casey said. "There was late movement on everything. His sinker was late in the zone, his cutter was late in the zone. The curveball was heavy. Everything was so late. You'd go to swing and boom, that's when it would start moving. You'd go to center it and it was a ground ball. You'd roll over it or blow your bat up."
Jeremy Bonderman was almost Halladay's equal, allowing just the one run over nine innings. Rios' sac fly against Fernando Rodney in the 10th was the difference. There is a terrific analysis of the game at The Detroit Tigers Weblog.
B.J. Ryan flew to Alabama on Sunday to visit Dr. James Andrews. Ryan will have an MRI on his sore left elbow and the Jays will be waiting with bated breath for the results. General manager J.P. Ricciardi told the Toronto Sun, "He's not a complainer. You never see him in the training room. So when he says something, it just alerts you a little bit more." Asked if his closer might be facing a season-ending Tommy John surgery, Ricciardi was fatalistic. "I prepare myself for the worst -- but I don't think that's the case," he said. "The preliminary is not that, but if it is, whaddya gonna do? Call the league up and say we don't want to play anymore?"
Will Caroll, the injury guru at Baseball Prospectus, told me:
"Ryan's mechanics have always been so bad that it's been a matter if not when he'd get hurt, but he'd gone so long without an injury that he was starting to look like one of those guys that make us look stupid. He's big, 'country strong,' but even that only goes so far. If the Jays are sending him to Andrews, that's either a really bad sign (something horribly wrong) or that they're trying to convince him that there's nothing that wrong [Burnett a couple of years ago]. I think it's the latter. But I wonder if it's a cascade from his spring back injury.
Labels: AL East
AL East: A-Rod to the Rescue
The Yankees barely survived the chilly conditions in New York during the first week of the season with a 2-3 record, and they fared that well largely due to the contributions of the man that Yankee fans love to hate: Alex Rodriguez. The Bombers have looked old so far, and not just because of injuries to Johnny Damon (strained calves) and Hideki Matsui (hamstring).
The fielding has been awful. Derek Jeter has won three straight Gold Gloves, but even the most ardent Jeter supporters would concede his reputation had something to do with that. Still, after being a subpar shortstop for many years, Jeter has actually improved over the past three seasons. Is age catching up to him? Jeter's range, particularly to his left, is limited, but his errors this season have come on throws. On Saturday, Melvin Mora stole second base because neither Jeter or Robinson Cano covered the bag. Limited range, even poor throws are one thing, but when was the last time you saw Jeter commit a mental error?
The starting pitching has been even worse. Through five games no Yankees pitcher has worked into the sixth inning, and only Kei Igawa made it through the fifth. Starters have allowed five, four, six, seven and five runs, respectively. The Bombers are fortunate that the bullpen was restocked over the winter. They are getting plenty of work early -— even Andy Pettitte threw an inning of relief on Sunday, his throw day, for good measure.
In spite of all this ugliness, the loudest boos at Yankee Stadium were reserved for A-Rod. On Wednesday night against the Rays, Rodriguez came to the plate in the bottom of the eighth inning, the Yanks trailing by a run. There were two out and the bases were loaded. Brian Stokes had just gotten Jeter and Bobby Abreu to tap back to the mound weakly. Now, he left a pitch out over the plate to Rodriguez, who got under it and popped it up. Rodriguez was showered with boos.
This is not an old story, of course. Rodriguez is booed in New York, because, well, New Yorkers like to boo. He's also booed because so much is expected of him. He is the Big Ticket star with the Hall of Fame talent and the salary to match. Like Jeter, the next time he doesn't hustle down the line trying to beat out a ground ball will be the first. Like Paul O'Neill, he berates himself mercilessly after he's made an out.
Rodriguez is the biggest star the Yankees have had since Reggie Jackson and Dave Winfield in the early 1980s. Rodriguez may display some of Jackson's insecurities -— he really wants to be liked, has to feel needed -— but is probably more similar to Winfield, who George Steinbrenner once dubbed "Mr. May." No matter how good a player Rodriguez is -— and going into his fourth year at the hot corner, it's safe to say he's the best offensive third baseman in Yankee history -— the prevailing sentiment in New York is that he can't deliver in the clutch.
Which isn't entirely true. Rodriguez has had plenty of big hits for the Yankees. Just not enough. He's also failed plenty in tense situations late in ball games. All of which makes him the most dramatic Yankee to follow. His at-bats, especially in the Bronx, are charged with a kind expectation and energy that brings Reggie's heyday in the Bronx Zoo to mind.
Rodriguez's game-winning grand slam against Chris Ray and Orioles on Saturday afternoon is just the kind of Reggie moment Rodriguez has been dying for. He was down in the count, 1-2, and many fans were likely preparing for the worst. The Yankees only needed a single to at least tie, and probably win, the game. But Rodriguez did them one better, he hit one in the center-field black, on a similar pitch to the one he missed against Stokes days earlier. Which is what Yankee fans want. They want headlines. Rodriguez homered in his first at-bat on Sunday too, this time to right-center field, a sure sign that he is feeling good. Even more to the point, the Yankees need Rodriguez now more than ever. Without him, they could still be looking for their first win.
Curt Schilling and Erik Bedard rebounded after their Opening Day duds, with nice performances on Sunday. The Red Sox were led by David Ortiz (go figure), and Jonathan Papelbon. Boston's offense was held-in-check over the weekend in Texas. The story of the week for Sox was the sterling debut of Daisuke Matsuzaka, which left viewers delighted, grasping for comparisons. Matsuzaka has five or six B-plus or A pitches, and looks to be one of the most entertaining performers in the game. He might not be as great as Pedro Martinez was in his prime, but he carries himself in the same kind of regal manner.
Roy Halladay also earned his first win of the season yesterday, as the Jays took two of three in Tampa. The Big Hurt hit his first homer for the Jays over the weekend, but Mike Rutsey writes that outfielder Alex Rios is falling back into old habits.
Finally, the Devil Rays came back against B.J. Ryan on Friday night to beat the Jays in the Tampa home opener. The win featured contributions from the youngsters -- Delmon Young and B.J. Upton. Earlier in the week, Elijah Dukes hit a frozen-rope home run at Yankee Stadium that would have done Gary Sheffield, Jim Rice and Winfield proud.
Alex Belth is an SI.com columnist and the founder of Bronx Banter.
Labels: AL East
AL East: Time begins on Opening Day
"People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring." -- Rogers Hornsby
I was walking along 236th street in the Bronx on Saturday afternoon when I saw a squat man approaching me. He looked vaguely like Ed Sullivan and was wearing a Yankee cap. "Only two more days 'til Opening Day," I said to him. He barely looked up and grunted. Hey, just because I think that I have a connection with strangers because of an assumed mutual love for baseball, doesn’t mean that it’s always true or that they necessarily want to talk about it. But about halfway down the block, a small woman wearing an old winter coat was standing in place, smiling and shaking her hands excitedly. I figured that she was motioning to someone behind me, but I as got closer, she started to clap her hands and she told me how many games she planned to see at Yankee Stadium this year. "I only see them against the Red Sox and the Mets," she said. "You must be a glutton for punishment," I said, noticing that her lipstick was smeared. "Nah, don’t be silly," she said touching my arm, "I just like the action." And with that, she was gone.
Opening Day is largely a ceremonial affair, but for baseball fans it is when life begins again in earnest. Unless you are one of the few lucky ones who actually have something riding on tonight's NCAA Tournament final, you are ready for the long baseball season to kick off. Your favorite teams’ roster is set, you’ve oiled your mitt and perhaps already had your first catch of the year, and many fans have already spent countless hours preparing and then drafting their fantasy teams. But starting today —- or last night -— the numbers count, and we can take in the fresh spring air with a new sense of hope.
This is why Tom Boswell once wrote that time begins on Opening Day. "Sure opening day is baseball’s bandwagon," Boswell wrote. "Pundits and politicians and every prose poet on the continent jumps on board for a few days. But they’re gone soon, off in search of something other windy event worthy of their attention. Then, once more, all those long, slow months of baseball are left to us. And our time can begin again."
Alex Belth is an SI.com columnist and the founder of Bronx Banter.
Labels: AL East
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