Archive for August, 2009

Cards Sweep Nats; Ronnie To L.A.

Monday, August 31st, 2009

Garrett Mock and Adam Wainwright threw a classic pitchers’ duel at Busch Stadium on Sunday, but the Nats fell to the Redbirds, 2-1 to drop the third game of a three game set. Mock and Wainwright traded pitch-for-pitch through six complete, until Mock left a 3-2 pitch up in the strike zone against Albert Pujols, which turned out to be the difference in the game. Pujols stroked the mistake into centerfield, ending the deadlock and giving the Cards the win. Both bullpens closed out the game in near-perfection, as Nats’ bats could not provide an answer against a trio of Cards’ pitchers. The Nats accounted for only four hits in the game: one each by Willingham, Dukes, Orr and Bard. It was a tough series for D.C. hitters — but a particularly tough last game, as they faced one of the hottest pitchers in baseball, and arguably one of the contenders for the Cy Young Award. The masterful Wainwright had only one shaky inning and is now 16-7 on the year. 

Garrett Mock dueled Adam Wainwright in St. Louis (AP/Tom Gannam)

Garrett Mock dueled Adam Wainwright in St. Louis (AP/Tom Gannam)

Sunday’s game was one of the best of the year by Mock, who was spotting his breaking stuff nearly perfectly. But the pitch to Pujols, Mock said, will probably keep him awake: “The pitch that’s going to cost me some sleep tonight is the one that he got a hit on that scored the second run,” Mock said. “I wasn’t trying to throw the ball there, obviously — not trying to throw the ball anywhere where he could hit it. I feel like I did do a good job of executing my pitches today, but that particular pitch, I’ve got to be better than that.” Cardinals manager Tony La Russa had praise for Washington’s starter. “I just called Jim Riggleman and said, ‘Whoever decided to put Mock in the rotation, it was a good decision,'” La Russa said. “Boy, he was very good.”

After the game, the franchise announced the departure of Ronnie Belliard for the sunny climes of L.A., where he will find service with the Trolleys. Ronnie’s gotta be as pleased as punch to be headed to a contender, after riding the pines for most of the season behind Anderson Hernandez, now riding the pines for the Chokes, and Adrian Gonzalez. Not surprisingly, Belliard was of two minds on the trade: “I’m happy because I’m going to L.A. and that team is in first place,” he said. “But I’m sad because I am going to leave a lot of friends. I’ve been here for the last three years and I made a lot of friends.” Belliard had been playing well since the All Star break, hitting .325 with five home runs and 22 RBIs. He’d been getting more playing time. The Nats received minor league righthander Luis Garcia and a player to be named in the swap.

Baltimore 

The Orioles might, truly, be one of the forgotten teams of baseball. Fated to play in the A.L. East, the little orange birds are mired in last place, 28 games behind the Yankees — and only eight wins better than the Nats. But there’s hope in Birdland, and not simply because the O’s have won six of their last 11. The team arguably now has one of the best outfields in all of baseball, a clear contender for the rookier of the year award, and perhaps one of the league’s premier young pitchers. All of this was on display on Sunday, when the O’s took on the Naps in Baltimore and coasted to an easy win behind the power arm of rookie Brian Matusz. All of 22, the former first round (fourth overall) pick in the 2008 draft, is the thinking man’s pitcher, who studies game-day videos of himself to determine how best to spot his killer curve, then adjusts his arm slot accordingly. Matusz threw 97 pitches yesterday, 67 of them for strikes. He held the Indians to four hits over seven innings.

Matusz isn’t a surprise: he’s a can’t miss pitcher who won’t miss. The surprise is Felix Pie — a former Cubbie who has now, shockingly, set down roots in left field after going through nearly three years of trying to figure out how to hit major league pitching. Pie has been on a tear, raising his average over the last two months to a respectable .272 and showing some power; he now has seven home runs (a laughable total, we suppose, except that the punch-and-judy Dominican wasn’t supposed to have any at all). Pie weighed in to help Matusz on Sunday, jacking a two run homer in the third. He’s hitting .383 since August 14.

Pie is a nice addition in the outfield, completing a trio that includes Adam Jones in center and Nick Markakis in right. If Jones was playing in New York or Boston, we venture to guess, people would be describing him for what he is: the best young outfielder in all of baseball. The Pie-Jones-Markakis trio has kicked Noland Reimold, a contender for rookie of the year, into the D.H. spot. Reimold’s hot bat has been a surprise for the MacPhail’s this year: the 25-year-old climbed his way, hand-over-hand through the Baltimore system, before the front office gave him a grudging look. He was a prospect that was once ranked near the bottom in the O’s system. But he’s produced and it looks like he’s in Baltimore to stay.

Okay: things aren’t all that great in Baltimore and the fans are restless. How can they be otherwise. The team is in last place. They’re certainly not going to win a pennant next year, or maybe even the year after. But the MacPhail plan is on track — and if the outfield of Pie, Jones and Markakis ever hit together, the Baltimore Orioles could become one of the most formidable teams in all of baseball and a challenger to “the nation” and the evil empire. With Matusz they have the beginnings of a young staff, the only other ingredient they need. And so, after an era of irrational interference from a know-it-all owner, the Orioles are finally on the right track. If they only had a little more pitching.

Felix Pie (left) is congratulate by Melvin Mora after homering against the Indians

Felix Pie (left) is congratulated by Melvin Mora after homering against the Indians

Nats Struggle In St. Louis

Sunday, August 30th, 2009

Matt Holliday loves St. Louis. Since coming to the Cardinals, the former Colorado Rockies-Oakland Athletics outfielder is hitting .376 with a .438 OBP for the Redbirds. On Saturday, his three run homer all but decided the 9-4 contest, giving the loss to Nats’ starter Craig Stammen. And so after taking two of three from the struggling Cubs in Chicago, the Nats have now dropped two in St. Louis, but with hopes that the team can recover on Sunday in the final game of a three game set. On Sunday night, the Nats will travel to San Diego to take on the resurgent Friars, who are riding a  miraculous three game winning streak against the sinking Florida Marlins. Holliday’s homer came in the first, and while it did not seal the game for the Redbirds, it cast a bright light on the Cardinals’ strength since the trading deadline, when Holliday arrived: a team that could break out the big bats and score a slew of runs in backing what is one of the N.L. strongest starting staffs.

A disappointed Elijah Dukes struck out with the bases loaded in the 7th (AP/To Gannam

A disappointed Elijah Dukes struck out with the bases loaded in the 7th (AP/To Gannam)

“That’s what makes their lineup good,” Stammen said. “They’ve got multiple guys that can hurt you, back-to-back-to-back,” Craig Stammen admitted after the game. “When I went out there, I was like, ‘You know what? Have fun. Have fun trying to get the best hitters in the game out.’ And for the most part, it was kind of fun, except when they got me.” Stammen was not only victimized by Holliday. A key error by Cristian Guzman in the fifth inning helped the Cards score four unearned runs after two outs. Stammen defended his shortstop. Guzman has made enough plays for me this year that I’m not really worried about the one mistake that he makes,” said starter Craig Stammen. Adam Dunn provided Washington’s power, hitting his 35th home run in the 6th.

Down On Half Street: It seems the only time anyone in the N.L. Least can win a game is when they play each other. At least that’s the way it’s been lately. The Mets, reeling from a raft of injuries and the effects of age, were pummeled by the Cubs on national television on Saturday, 11-4, with Cubs supersub Jake Fox hitting a grand slam off of Mets youngster Bobby Parnell. Parnell is the hope of the future, but he’s had a rocky August. Nevertheless, the team pledges that “The Bobby Parnell Project” as they call it, will continue. Parnell is fairly philosophical about it all, admitting that his last outings have been “up and down.” Mostly down, actually . . .

It’s not possible for things to be worse in Florida, but they (nearly) are. You get the feeling that this is a ballclub that is on the verge of taking itself apart. On Friday, versus the little brown priests, Chris Volstad barely made it to the top of the dugout steps before he was shipped out to New Orleans.  Volstad, all 6-8 of him, lasted 1.2 innings (but just barely) and gave up six earned runs. He had a 5.08 ERA in the show. (We’ll take him.) On Saturday, the Marlins (hoping to catch the Phillies) sent out their ace, Ricky Nalasco. But they forgot to bring their bats. In six innings they mustered four hits against no-name Friars’ hurler Wade LeBlanc. Don’t underestimate Wade — he has an ERA of 9.58. Either Wade looked like Roger McDowell, or the Phish looked like the Bad News Bears. One guess . . .

Up in Philadelphia, things are proceeding apace for the Phuzzies, who are breezing their way to a division crown. Out in South Philly, the guys who stand around on the corner and talk tough are even trying to figure out the dimensions of the statue to Cliff Lee that will grace the front of the Philadelphia Art Museum — where they never go. Right next to the one of that other great Philly cultural icon, Rocky Balboa. But the Cliff Lee Express was derailed on Saturday, when the Chops decapitated Lee in front of a sold out crowd at Citizens Bank Park. The Chops barrage of homers (Diaz, Escobar, Anderson, Jones) reached such a din that it was like listening to the 1812 Overture. “It’s hard to get good results when you’re throwing pitches belt high and down the middle of the plate,” Lee said after the game. “That’s basically what happened. I feel good about throwing strikes, working ahead and not walking people, but I put myself in positions to put them away and I missed up and down the middle. If you consistently do that, that’s what’s going to happen.” The final butcher’s bill? 9-1 Atlanta.

Albert’s Walk Off… and “Buck’s Plan”

Saturday, August 29th, 2009

albert-pujols

John Lannan’s stellar eight inning performance on Friday night — which should have led to a Nats’ win — was reversed with one swing of Albert Pujols’ bat in the ninth inning, as our Anacostia Nine lost to the St Louis Cardinals 3-2. But after the game, it wasn’t Pujols’ walk-off home run, given up by Jason Bergman, that Lannan regretted, but his own eighth inning pitch that pinch hitter Khalil Greene muscled out of Busch Stadium that tied the game at two. Greene, who has struggled all season (and is hitting near the Mendoza line) came to the plate with Lannan clearly in control, but lifted a Lannan pitch that was up in the zone into the Busch Stadium bleachers. The homer shocked Lannan as much as it energized the St. Louis crowd. Without that homer, Lannan speculated, he might have made it into the ninth: and the Nats’ loss might easily have counted as a win.

Lannan was nearly spectacular: reversing a series of indifferent outings. He threw only 91 pitches, more than two-thirds of them for strikes. “That was more like what we saw earlier in the year,” interim manager Jim Riggleman said of Lannan’s performance. “He was outstanding against a good hitting ballclub. He got a lot of ground balls. He pitched a great ballgame. He got behind on Khalil Greene, and Khalil has a little power. And he had to put one in there, and Khalil took advantage of it. That was the big blow.” In fact, the big blow came one inning later, against Jason Bergman, who served up a classic in-the-wheelhouse pitch to Pujols, who rarely misses. Bergman’s third pitch of the night was his last, as Pujols’ jacked just one under the second deck in left field.

Down On Half Street: Last Monday, “Baseball Tonight’s” Buck Showalter presented his plan to realign major league baseball, arguing that the “integrity of the MLB schedule could use an overhaul.” The way to do that, Showalter argued, is to get rid of two weak teams (the Ray and Marlins), do something about the DH (either keep it or get rid of it) and realign the league into four divisions of seven teams each. The divisions would be renamed for Babe Ruth, Henry Aaron, Roberto Clemente and Jackie Robinson. Each team would play every other team exactly six times: three home and three away and because the teams are geographically aligned, the economic savings would be obvious. Not bad. It’s a compelling idea and shouldn’t dismissed. So watch the video, it’s entertaining. The former Rangers’ skipper is right about baseball’s current problems: the schedule is badly unbalanced, attendance is weak in at least four markets and it makes no sense for (say) the Red Sox and Yankees to play each other eighteen times.

There’s been a lot of comment about Showalter’s plan, most of it negative. Umpbump points out that Showalter’s plan worsens the problem it’s intended to solve: “None of the alleged benefits of these new divisions that Buck and [Steve] Berthiaume spend so much time praising will come to pass at all if each team plays every other team exactly 6 times. Teams will have to fly farther, more often, fans will have even more games outside their time zone they’ll have to stay up late for, and regional rivalries will be much reduced because the fans will only see that rival team three times a year.” Bleacher Report, meanwhile, rightly reports the obvious: “Some of the teams who don’t win now would go out of the frying pan and into the fire. The Nationals would not only still have to compete with the Mets and Phils, but they would pick up the Yanks and Red Sox as division rivals.” The Fair Ball notes that convincing the owners in Tampa and Miami that they should cash it in for the good of baseball is probably not going to work. (Truth is, if I had my way, I’d get rid of the Toronto Blue Jays, but only because I can’t stand them.)

Buck

Realignment in baseball is worth doing, but radical realignment isn’ possible — and it isn’t necessary. It’s time to kick the Brewers back into the American League (to help resolve the problems caused by the unbalanced schedule), get rid of the D.H. (add an extra player to each team’s roster in five years, to satisfy the players’ union), work with weak franchises to ensure the building of new stadiums (like Tampa), negotiate an increase in the luxury tax on high salary teams (and require recipients of the tax to spend it on player development) and allow teams to trade draft picks in the first year player draft. These are fairly modest proposals and they’ve been heard before: their chief elegance is that they’re actually doable.  

Still, there’s something about the Showalter proposal that is oddly compelling. It keeps you awake at night, thinking about the possibilities. Is it true that putting the Nats in “The Babe Ruth Division” consigns them to interminable mediocrity, with little hope of ever seeing the postseason? I wondered this last night, eyes staring at the ceiling, as I heard St. Louis fans cheer as Albert Pujols circled the bases. And I began to think about what the Nats might do in “The Babe Ruth Division,” say, next year. And it occurred to me. It might not be so bad. So instead of grouping the teams alphabetically (as Showalter had done in his presentation), I ranked them in order of predicted finish for the 2010 season.

So. Whaddayathink?

The Babe Ruth Division: 2010 Season

1. New York Yankees
2. Philadelphia Phillies
3. New York Mets
4. Toronto Blue Jays
5. Washington Nationals

6. Baltimore Orioles
7. Boston Red Sox

Pretty good prediction, eh?

Mark DeRosa’s Revenge

Friday, August 28th, 2009

At the outset of the ’09 season, baseball’s prognosticators picked the Cardinals for second place in the NL Central — or even third — behind the Cubbies, who had rejiggered their line-up to be more “balanced.” The Cubs had traded super utilityman Mark DeRosa to the Naps and signed on left handed hitting Milton “Game Board” Bradley, mixing a righthanded heavy line-up that had been swept in the playoffs at the hands of the hated Trolleys. The Cubs — a veritable set of mashers — were on the way up, the Cards (a bunch of sore arms and also-rans) were on the way down. Now, months later, the results of all those moves are in: and the Cardinals are running away with the division crown. While afficiandos focus on the Cubs’ failures, there’s more reason to argue that Cards G.M. John Mozeliak made all the right moves and all of them just at the right time. So what happened?

The Cardinals began their sprint to the top of the NL Central at the end of June: the timing coincided with their trade for Cleveland’s DeRosa. The Cards shipped reliever Chris Perez to Cleveland to land DeRosa to shore up a wobbly infield and undermanned outfield. Just one day later, DeRosa went on the DL, but the deed was done and the Cards were overjoyed with their acquisition. So was DeRosa: his last place ass had landed in a tub of first place butter: “From a selfish standpoint, I get to battle for a division title again and I’m in a good position with a great team.” Then, at the end of July, Mozeliak traded a passel of prospects to the White Elephants for Matt Holliday. It’s not simply that Holliday was a good hitter, he knew NL pitching and could provide protection behind Pujols, who was starting to see more walks than Cards manager Tony La Russa liked. Holliday cashed in a Mozeliak’s trust, setting the league on fire.

Mark DeRosa

But Holliday was just one piece of a make-over that Mozeliak had in mind. Two days before sealing the Holliday deal, the Cards G.M. traded away Chris Duncan to Boston for under appreciated shortstop Julio Lugo, who had worn out his welcome with the Red Sox. With acquisition Khalil Greene (whom Mozeliak had hoped would plug the Cards hole at the position) not working out, the Redbirds were desperate to find a solution. Lugo hasn’t exactly been ripping up the NL, but La Russa has done his usual sleight-of-hand in getting the most from him: he starts at second against left handed pitchers (for left swinging Skip Schumaker) and at short when breakout youngster Brendan Ryan needs a breather. So far so good: such mixing and matching would not have been possible in Boston, where psychologically hobbled Theo Epstein would never have subbed for Dustin Pedroia.  

There’s more. The acquisition of John Smoltz, it is now reported, is the result of a recommendation to La Russa and Mozeliak by the newly acquired DeRosa, who told them that the future hall of famer would fit in nicely in St. Louis. The Cardinals bit: outbidding the Marlins, Dodgers and Rangers for his services. For the Cubs (and the rest of the N.L. Central), DeRosa can be counted as the latest in a series of team curses. He has become a kind of Jason of the N.L. Central — an unforgiving and murderous nightmare, taking retribution on the Baby Bears for not having enough confidence in him to keep him around.

There’s no question. Signing Smoltz was a gamble for the Cardinals, but so far (at least) it seems to have worked out: in Smoltz’s first outing against the Friars, the righty threw five innings of three hit ball. He looked sharp and confident. He looked at home on the mound. He looked like he was back. The outing raised eyebrows around major league baseball: maybe the old guy still has something left. Yeah, maybe. But Smoltz doesn’t have to be the lights-out John Smoltz of old. He just has to pitch well enough to give the Cardinals another arm in their already superb arsenal of arms: Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright and Joel Pineiro. Smoltz could set the Cards up for a good run in the offseason. He could bring them into the post-season as the team to beat. And wouldn’t it be nice to see St. Louis facing off against that other great team in the league: The Los Angeles Dodgers The Colorado Rockies.

Cubs Down . . . But Morgan Out

Friday, August 28th, 2009

On a day that the Washington Nationals played classic in-the-clutch, play-em-close and hold-em-off-late baseball to take a tough 5-4 decision against the fading Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field, the team announced that they have lost centerfielder Nyjer Morgan to a season ending injury. Morgan broke a bone in his left hand while sliding into third base in the third inning of the tilt against the Cubs on Thursday and his place in center will be taken by hot-glove standby Willie Harris. “I’m happy for the opportunity to play, but not happy to see my teammate get hurt,” Harris said. “Nyjer was having one hell of a season. He was our sparkplug. He came over here and we started to play better. You hate to see anyone get hurt.” General Manager Mike Rizzo said that he and interim manger Jim Riggleman would discuss other potential moves the team might make to replace Morgan during the Nationals trip to St. Louis, where they will open against the surging Cardinals on Friday.

With their 5-4 win at Wrigley, the Nationals wrapped up a two-of-three set against the slumping Cubs in big-bat fashion, with home runs from Ryan Zimmerman (his 27th) and Adam Dunn (his 34th). The Dunn-Zimmerman duo are now among the best in the NL. In traditional fashion, the Nats pitching staff did just well enough to win, but not brilliantly enough to keep Nats fans from gnawing their fingernails back to the quick: J.D. Martin lasted five innings (103 pitches, 64 strikes) before being relieved (in order) by Tyler Clippard, Sean Burnett and Mike “Heart Attack” MacDougal. This now seems an almost predictable rotation, with all three among the most effective relievers on the team. After giving up his by now expected walk in the ninth inning (he oughta just do it intentionally, and get it over with), MacDougal closed the door on the Cubs for his fourteenth save in fifteen tries. With all the early season moaning about Joel Hanrahan (who’s still struggling, though in Pittsburgh) there’s been little serious effort to recognize just how good MacDougal’s been — probably because we’re so busy swabbing the end of our nails with that pink stuff that makes your eyes water. So here goes: Mike MacDougal has been doing a hell of a job.

Nyjer Two

“Game Board” Bradley Feels The Hate

Thursday, August 27th, 2009

C’mon Jorge, throw a strike! Thus, the fervent plea of Nats fans last night, as Jorge Sosa worked his way through the Cubs line-up (nearly the entire Cub line-up as it turns out) in Wrigley Field. Sosa, who has been episodically efficient this year, served as the Cubs’s pin cushion while Jim Riggleman and his gaggle of coaches counted off the interminable minutes until the end of the game — which saw the Cubs slug out a 9-4 win at Wrigley Field on Wednesday night. Sosa pitched one-third of an inning and gave up five earned runs, one of the most futile performances by the Nats’ bullpen of the year: which is saying something. What the score does not reflect is that the game was actually within reach. New Nats addition Livan Hernandez, signed by the Nats on Tuesday night, pitched effectively over six complete innings — giving up five hits and striking out six.

Nationals Cubs Baseball

The Nats’ loss was dampened, somewhat, by the appearance of Hernandez. It seemed almost as if a weight had been lifted from the team: a sure sign that a wily veteran, “the master,” had returned (and not a moment too soon) — and brought his toolkit: a ball that moves in and out and down at strange and unpredicted speeds and a fastball (just 85 mph) that is high, but not too high; just high enough for a guy like Derrek Lee to think that he might put it into the seats (but swing under it). Hernandez has to be the most phlegmatic pitcher in baseball. He walks slowly to the mound, and slowly off and his expression, whether the game is 9-0 in his favor, or against, rarely changes. So it was last night, when Milton “Board Game” Bradley put a two run homer into the seats at Wrigley, sparking a sure Cubs win. Hernandez, undisturbed, pawed tentatively at the dirt with the toe of his right cleat and went back to work.

The two couldn’t be more different. After last night’s game, Hernandez stood next to his locker and talked to reporters about what it’s like to be back with the Nats — a team, a franchise and a city that he’s always liked. “It’s nice to be back,” Hernandez said. “I love the city. I’ve been asking every year to go back. Inside, it’s very emotional. I’m very happy. I like to thank the people here for giving me a chance to come back.” On the other side of the field, Milton Bradley couldn’t wait to get dressed and out of the way of the reporters waiting to talk with him. A bad season? A poor attitude? Bradley blamed the fans, saying they “hated” him. He once famously said of the bleacher jeers at Wrigley:I just pray the game is nine innings, so I can be out there the least amount of time as possible and go home.” The Cubs would love to accomodate him.

It was a lot worse the night before — after the Nats pummeled the Cubs for fifteen runs. “When I go home and look in the mirror, I like what I see,” Bradley told reporters. “My family is there; I have people I can talk to who are very supportive, in spite of everything and all the adversity and the hatred you face on a daily basis. But I’ll be all right. I always have. I’m talking about hatred, period. I’m talking about when I go to eat at a restaurant. I’ve got to listen to the waiters badmouthing me at another table, sitting in a restaurant. That’s what I’m talking about. Everything.” Phew. Not surprisingly, Chicago Cubs reporters and blogs have had a field day. “We Don’t Hate You,” intoned one, “You Just Stink.” Apparently after his two run home run against Hernandez on Wednesday, Bradley made “a hand gesture” to fans — who were cheering him. The results of “the hand gesture” might have lit up Chicago’s Magnificent Mile: “I have some very simple advice for Bradley,” a reporter later editorialized, “shut up and perform, and the fans won’t hate you so much.” Ah … it might be too late for that.

So it goes in Chicago — where the full effect of losing when you’re picked to win is now on full display: an embittered  player that is being paid $61,00 per game is blaming everyone but himself, and a general manager who is continually reminded that the two players he might have had (this one and this one) are not only better and are not only headed to the post season, they were actually a hell of a lot cheaper. Never mind. He took a pass. He wanted Milton Bradley. And so, it seems, there’s only one way to describe this . . .

Cubs Choke

Nats Claw Orphans

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

Any team can have a bad century, but the former White Stockings, Colts, Orphans and, now, Chicago Cubs are in line for a major league unprecedented 101st season without a championship. The Washington Nationals may well have put the final nail in the Cubs’ coffin for this season on Tuesday night with a 15-6 clobbering of the little bears at the friendly confines of Wrigley Field. The Nats’ onslaught was led by two home runs from Josh Willingham — including a touch-em-all that landed beyond the left field wall on Waveland Avenue — and a grand slam dinger from a struggling Elijah Dukes. After the game, the usually reticent Dukes said that he was “waiting for something that moved” from Cubs reliever Aaron Heilman, a Mets castoff with a suspiciously high ERA. And he got it. Dukes, who has been taking so much batting practice that he had to sit out two games after injuring his thumb in the batting cage, accounted for five RBIs while walking twice. Dukes, whose BA has been see-sawing all season, has a fairly hefty RBI total: it now stands at 51. And it’s true — Dukes has been hitting the ball with more confidence and authority (and to the opposite field), after being recalled from the minors.

Elijah Dukes Accounts for 5 RBIs (AP/Nam Y. Huh)

Elijah Dukes Accounts for 5 RBIs (AP/Nam Y. Huh)

Washington righthander Garrett Mock pitched 5.2 innings for the win, his third of the season. Mock looked good, if not overpowering, with a snappy fastball, but was lifted by interim manager Jim Riggleman for reliever Tyler Clippard. Clippard and Saul Rivera closed out the game. Riggleman’s habit of pulling starters early was on prominent display at Wrigley — he has a history of pulling the trigger on his starters, a habit he developed when he managed in Chicago, his first managing job. Mock was clearly upset by the decision, showing his irritation on the bench. In fact, there’s no reason why the young righthander couldn’t have gotten the third out in the fifth, particularly with the Nats leading (at that point) 9-1. In all, Mock threw 89 pitches, 59 of them for strikes: hardly an elbow shattering experience.

Down On Half Street: Bill Ladson is reporting that the Nats have signed Livan Hernandez to a major league contract. The team has sent Collin Balester to the minors to make room for Hernandez. On MASN after the conclusion of the Nats-Cubs tilt, Ray Knight described the news as “a potential coup” by Nationals’ General Manager Mike Rizzo. Nationals pitchers can use the steadying influence of a veteran presence like Hernandez, Knight said. He added that the Nats also want to set a standard of winning, with important games coming, and Hernandez knows how to win. Hernandez was a fan favorite when he was with the Nats. The official release from the Nats reads, in part: “He will make his first start on Wednesday at Chicago (NL), while J.D. Martin (2-3, 4.76) will start Thursday’s series finale at Wrigley Field” . . .  Is “ambitioned” a word? In a column in the Washington Post this week, I thought I read Chico Harlan say that a Nats’ pitcher had “ambitioned” to be a pitcher all his life. So is it? Is “ambitioned” a word? I admit, I have efforted to find out, but I’ll be damned if I can find it in the dictionary . . .

The horror; the horror: I have gotten sliced and diced from Chicago Cubs fans, dozens of whom have written (well, okay, three of whom have written) to say that the Cubs are still young and tough and plenty fast and that they don’t need to be totally rebuilt. They point out that the North Side Drama Queens are set at shortstop (with Ryan Theriot), at second (with Jeff Baker), in left field (with Jake Fox), at catcher (with Geovany Soto) and have some new former Ahoy pitchers on the mound that will be the new guns of the future — in Tom Gorzelanny and John Grabow. Yeah, okay. Gorzelanny looked particularly effective tonight, giving up only three runs in one inning of work . . . so I’ll stick with my two interlocking predictions, contradictory as they might seem: if the Cubs make the playoffs this year (and I don’t think they will) then they’ll win it all — since this will mark the first year after the end of the Merkle Curse (alright, that’s lame, but you never know) but if they don’t win it all, then the Nationals will win the world series before they do. And frankly, I think the second prediction is a pretty safe bet.

Perception and Reality — In Chicago

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

The Nationals roll out of Washington after suffering a signal defeat at the hands of the Milwaukee Brewers — another “might-have-been” in a home stand of might-have-beens, with the brewmeisters’ winning a 7-1, a veritable sudzing of the Anacostia Nine at Nats Park on Monday afternoon. In many ways this was a typical outing for Collin Balester: that is to say, it was not good. Balester was only marginally better than during his previous outing (when he couldn’t get out of the second inning versus the Rockies), because last night he actually lasted into the sixth against the Brewers. When headed for the third time throught the crew’s line-up, Balester fell apart — with the scorebook telling the tale (in order): double, home run, single (wild pitch), walk, walk, single (relieved by Bergman), single, single (relieved by Villone), fielder’s choice, strike out, strike out. The butcher’s bill? Six runs, seven hits (including a home run), two walks and a wild pitch.

It was difficult for Jim Riggleman to put flinty light on such an embarrassment, so he didn’t try: “If I had a crystal ball, I would not have sent him out there for the sixth inning,” he said. But the Nats’ bats were also to blame: the team left twenty-one on base over the course of nine (that’s more than two an inning, for those of you who are counting) and couldn’t take advantage of a less-than impressive Yovani Gallardo, who seemed (at times) almost indifferent to his fate. The big blast for the Brewers came off the bat of Ryan Braun, whose soaring 6th inning tumbler landed six rows from the plaza up in the left field stands. Excepting for that up-in-the-zone pitch, the Nats seemed to master the smooth swinging Braun, who registered three strike outs. That Nats are now off to “the city of the big shoulders, the hog butcher of the world,” where they face the other worldly Cubs, owner of an embarrassingly high salary structure to go with their embarrassing won-loss record.

Chicago

The headline of the Cubs website reads: “Zambrano returns to kick off critical homestand.” Yeah, it’s critical alright. It’s critical for those who want to have a future in Chicago next year. For the rest of us, the question of whether the Cubs will have a place in the post-season has already been answered — and the answer is “no.” When the Cubs have needed to produce the most they have flopped: they are 5-10 over the last fifteen and most recently lost an embarrassing three of four in Los Angeles. To those stinking Dodgers no less. When they most needed to gain ground on the Cardinals (and if not that, to gain ground in the wild card race) the Cubs actually lost ground — with the rest of the league racing away from them. They are eight games behind the Redbirds, and 7.5 behind the Colorado Streaks in the wild card. Their recent road trip was a disaster: they were pathetic against Colorado, horrible against San Diego (as in the San Diego Padres), and outclassed against the Trolleys. It actually looked, in the city of dreams, as if the slugs had thrown in the towel. One Cubbie’s blog notes: they now have as much chance of making the post-season as O.J. Simpson does of being a useful member of society.

After spending the last twenty-four hours pouring over Cubs’ statistics, we here at CFG have come to the following conclusion: the Cubs are just not very good. The problem starts not on the field, but in the dugout: Carlos Zambrano spends most of the time fighting himself, Milton Bradley is a whiner, the front office decided to trade away Mark de Rosa (who was only the key to the team), Rich Harden’s reputation as “the sore armed Harden” is well-earned and the lovable free-swinging Alfonso Soriano is not so lovable when he goes into a pout and hits .194 in 67 games. Fans of the North Side Drama Queens have reacted accordingly: their blogs are filled with stories about new movies, recommendations that the front office participate in the “cash for clunkers” program and they now run tutorials on why Mark Prior is a symbol of why Cubs fans are left to wallow in their own despair. Remember Tinkers-to-Evers-to-Chance? Well, my friends, it’s time to relive those halcyon days.

This isn’t a ball club, it’s a novel.

So here (“Chicagoland fans”) is whatyaoughtado, but it’s painful: you clear the decks and you start over. Not like the Nats! We weren’t slow and old, but we started over anyway. That’s not true for your team. The Cubs are slow and old and they need to get young and fast. Carlos Zambrano could be a very good pitcher, but he’s worn out his welcome. He has to go. The best pitcher on the Cubs staff is Ted Lilly and he’s a gamer. Sadly, he’s 33. So he stays. But I would trade Harden. In spite of his enormous value, he’s one bad pitch from a blown shoulder and I would also cast a jaundiced eye on Ryan Dempster. He hasn’t proved he can pitch in the big games and he’ll never again be as good as he was last year. Aramis Ramirez must stay, of course, but you have to wonder if the injury he suffered this year will recur with increasing frequency. So you think I’m wrong? Well I’m not. You think you have a pitching staff? Really? Well, you don’t: you have episodes from “As The World Turns.”

Now then, on to the infield. Mike Fontenot is a good second sacker, he really is, but he’s not a .300 hitter and never will be. The Cubs need one, to team with shortstop Ryan Theriot — who’s the heart of the club. The Riot is the Cubs future. Fontenot isn’t and neither is Zambrano. Stop talking about how they teamed up at LSU. This isn’t LSU. It’s the majors. And get rid of Derrick Lee. Derrick Lee is a good hitter, but not a great hitter, no matter what you Cubs fans say, and he’s 33. He’s lost a step. Sooner or later (and probably sooner) he’s on his way to the junior circuit where fans can ooh and ahh about his value as a DH. “Oh Derrick, oh Derrick.” Listen, Derrick would look terrific in an Oriole uniform. They love guys like Derrick in Baltimore. And trading Derrick to Baltimore would clear the way for Micah Hoffpauer at first base — and it’s about time. Aramis Ramirez stays at third, of course, because when he’s hitting the Cubs win. But Aramis needs to stay healthy. Cross your fingers.

Let’s see, that leaves Kosuke Fukudome, who’s a hell of a ballplayer. Of course, when he didn’t turn into Mickey Mantle the Chicago press dumped all over him. But when you compare him with, say, this guy, you realize what you have. And fine, you can keep Soriano, so long as you realize who he is (and who, after all, would take his contract?), but understand that he only has about three holes in his swing (an outside slider, an inside slider, a high fastball). I would trade Bradley (if you can), despite the paltry return he’s likely to bring on the market — because the last thing any team needs is a head case.

And that’s the biggest problem with the Cubs. No fan, anywhere, wants to believe that their team doesn’t give a damn. And certainly that’s not the case with the Cubs. Milton Bradley and Carlos Zambrano and Alfonso Soriano want to win as much as the next guy — maybe even more. But that’s not the perception among a lot of Cubs fans, and it’s not the perception among fans of the game outside of Chicago. The Cubs-as-headcase has come to define the franchise. That’s the truth. And there’s only one way to change that perception. Clear the deck, get rid of the deadwood, the old, the slow, the head cases — and to keep the team’s youngest, toughest and most highly motivated players. No matter what their statistics. That means changing the franchise face from Milton Bradley to Sam Fuld. It means keeping a .283 hitter with no pop and no experience  — and trading a grizzled veteran with a high OBP. Because sometimes perception is reality – the kid who gives a damn is a hell of a lot more valuable than the veteran who doesn’t. And that’s always true. No matter what the stats say.

Sam Fuld

Sam Fuld

A “Wheezing” Nation . . . And Some Nuggets

Monday, August 24th, 2009

DWilly’s piece yesterday about the Red Sox was right on the money: their age is showing. I’ve been looking for a word that describes their play since the All Star break and I’ve had a difficult time coming up with just the right moniker. Then, this morning, I read a piece in the New York Times on the Sox newest Japanese import Junichi Tazawa and there it was: “wheezing.”  Perfect. Their batting averages show it precisely. The Red Sox top four guys are hitting .297, .300, .292 and .308.  After that the averages fall off, with their eight- and nine-slotted guys (Varitek and Gonzalez) not hitting their weight — at .222 and .210 respectively. Combine that with a two man rotation and you get what you get.

It is a truism that this not the ’04 ball club. There is no “Cowboy Up” talk and no emotional sparkplug. There is no Kevin Millar. The oldest guy in the Sox lineup that year was third baseman Bill Mueller, who was 33.  Today Varitek is 37, third sacker Mike Lowell is 35 (both, shown below, in the ’07 series) and two other guys are 33. Not the geriatric ward but no spring chickens either. But there is one similarity with the ’04 club. Today the Sox are 70 – 52, 6.5 games behind the Yanks. On this day five years ago they were in a similar position: 70 – 53, 6.5 games behind the Empire. The Sox finished the ’04 campaign with 98 wins, which is .700 baseball.  But without a bottom half of the lineup and a beat up pitching staff it’ll be quite a feat to match their ’04 glory.

Varitek and Lowell: old then, older now

Diamond Nuggets: Twins catcher Joe Mauer leads the majors with a .378 batting average. As surprising as it is for a catcher to be a league hitting leader it’s even more surprising to see what he’s done in the heat of August.  Over the last 30 days he’s been on a .427 clip with 10 dingers and 26 RBI. With his four year, $33 million contract up for renewal at the end of the 2010 season he’s a lock for a mid-year trade next year. I hope Theo Epstein is paying attention . . . My dislike of the Nationals TV broadcast team continues to deepen. Messers Dibble and Carpenter should be renamed drivel and . . . and . . . well . . . nothing rhymes with Carpenter — but you get the point. The inane stuff that passes for light banter is incredible. Yesterday it was a discussion of Frank Howard doing his laundry on road trips. Really. I toggled over to the Birds’ broadcast and listened intently while Jim Palmer and Gary Thorne talked about pitch counts and game situations. Music to my ears. Actually it felt like I pulled that stick out of my eye. I encourage you all to repeat my Nats/O’s toggle and listen to the differences in the broadcasts. Today was not the first time I’ve switched away from the pablum that passes for entertaining discussion on the Nats telecasts . . .
 
2007 was thought to be Prince Fielder’s break out year. He had 50 home runs that season along with 119 RBI, 354 total bases and he hit. 288.  But this year might be the one in which he becomes a more complete player. He won’t reach 50 homers (33 so far is nothing to sneeze at), but he’ll have more RBIs (he leads the majors with 110), his OBP is up 19 points over two seasons ago – and he’s hitting 15 points above his average that year. Plus, he’s much more patient at the plate and will probably have 100 walks this year — pretty good for a guy with a power swing. His fielding has also improved. He’s on pace to cut his errors in half from last year’s total of 17 and his fielding percentage is .995.  No wonder they love this guy in Milwaukee.

Nats End Skid, Tame Wallbangers

Monday, August 24th, 2009

Craig Stammen pitched 6.1 innings and the Nats rapped out ten hits — including three home runs — to take the third game of the four game series against the Milwaukee Brewers at Nationals Park on Sunday, 8-3. Stammen was not brilliant, but in firm control of the strike zone, moving his fastball in and out against a baffled Milwaukee line-up. Stammen, who has had several good outings of late, threw 97 pitches, 60 of them for strikes. Stammen consistently moved players off the plate by throwing his fastball inside on hitters. “My No. 1 goal is to pitch six or seven innings and throw a quality start,” he said after the game. “But it was really important today to save the bullpen, give some of the guys a couple of days of rest and pitch late into the game so we could win.” Sean Burnett and Tyler Clippard pitched in relief and were able to close out the game.

Craig Stammen Three

As was the case in the previous two contests, the Nats’ bats came alive, but this time the effort was in a winning cause. And the wallbangers in this case were not from Milwaukee. Home runs by Cristian Guzman (number 6), Adam Dunn (his 33rd) and Ryan Zimmerman (his 26th) paced the ballclub. The club was even able to pull off a suicide squeeze, with Nyjer Morgan laying down a perfect bunt in the second inning to score a sprinting Mike Morse. “It was one of those plays where we had to get that run in and put a little more pressure on them,” Morgan said. “We got it down and executed the play. I was trying not to show the bunt too early. It worked out in our favor.” Morse started in right field, his first major league start for the club since coming over from the Mariners.

Some People Call It A Kaiser Blade, I Call It A Sling Blade: Ronnie Belliard has been hitting the ball well lately, stroking a grand slam homer in a losing cause to the Brewers on Saturday. He’s raised his batting average by twenty points in the last week and had a key hit on Sunday. So, despite our constant criticism of Ronnnneeeeee here at CFG, we’re all happy for him. In fact, we’re so fracking ecstatic we’re wetting our pants. A young guy who can hit .300 and field his position? Who won’t get picked off first? Who won’t boot a ball at a key point in the game? Fogeddaboudit  . . . we want Ronnie. That said, don’t ya think it’s a little much when Bob Carpenter described Ronnie as “a really good hitter” during the Sunday broadcast? 

The game of the week took place after the Nats-Brewers match-up today, but before the Red Sox battled the Yankees in Boston. Out in Colorado, the Rockies faced off against the Giants in a tussle of NL West contenders vying for a wild card spot. And, at least at first, it seemed a cinch that the McCoveys would stifle the Rockies’ bats. Tim Lincecum was dominant: he pitched seven innings of three hit ball and struck out seven. He had a no hitter through five. He was overpowering. In comparison, Ubaldo Jimenez looked merely average — giving up two runs to Frisco in the top of the second. But in the seventh, Lincecum left a change-up out over the plate and Rockies’ Seth Smith put it in the seats. The Rockies went on to win the game, 4-2, saddling Lincecum (now 12-4) with the loss. Jimenez, whose win might well have put a very large post hole in the “let’s give Lincecum another Cy Young” bandwagon, is now 12-9 with a 3.36 ERA. Coors Field was filled to capacity (47,704). The Rockies are now three up on the Giants in the wild card race, and only 3.5 back of the fading Trolleys, who lost to the North Side Drama Queens. This was one hell of a game.

Would you like some Coors Light with that Whine? The announcers on FSN Rocky Mountain were going on a bit today about how “those guys out on the east coast” (I’m not kidding) are ignoring just how good the pitching is out in the west, and how good the Rockies and Giants are. Yeah, there’s a little of that. I’ve even mentioned it here in the well-read and highly influential pages of CFG. But you know, they went on and on. And on. And on. It would help, of course, if major league baseball didn’t schedule the Giants-Rockies dust-up for a mid-afternoon in August. But, really, who knew? Then too, it’s hard to see how ESPN could have guessed that, during the third week of August, the most important game being played in baseball would be between the San Francisco Giants and Colorado Rockies. Then too, the comment is just not accurate: it’s not as if Tim Lincecum hasn’t been celebrated.  Yeah, sure. We oughta pay a little more attention to the Rockies. But ignored? Give me a break.

Our Of Thin Air