Archive for the ‘St. Louis Cardinals’ Category

Lannan Masters St. Louis

Monday, August 30th, 2010

John Lannan has now made it all the way back from exile: in his fifth start after his return from Harrisburg (where he was sent “to work on his command”), Lannan mastered the heavy hitting St. Louis Cardinals — leading the Nationals to a 4-2 victory and a much-needed triumph in three games of a four game series. Lannan pitched deep into the contest, allowing eight hits and only one earned run to up his record to 4-1 since his return. “I want to be confident with each pitch,” Lannan said after the game. “I think I did a pretty good job of that, especially to lefties. I made smarter pitches. I was more careful with the sliders today. I felt comfortable with my changeup, throwing the ball in and my curveball felt pretty good.” Michael Morse provided the lumber, going 2-4 and notching his 10th home run and Adam Dunn was 2-3.  But Lannan struck first, doubling into left field in the second inning off of Cardinals’ starter Adam Wainwright, plating the first two runs of the game.

Bad Blood? Jim Riggleman benched Nyjer Morgan on Sunday, the result of Morgan’s purposeful bump of Cardinals catcher Bryan Anderson at home plate on Saturday night. Riggleman apologized to Cardinals’ manager Tony LaRussa for the incident and called Morgan’s actions “uncharacteristic” but “inexcusable.” Anyone who saw Morgan during Saturday night’s game should not have been surprised — after being bumped from the leadoff to the second to the eighth spot in the batting order, Morgan spent most of the 6th, 7th and 8th innings talking to himself, apparently in disagreement over Riggleman’s decision. Riggleman admitted that Morgan was angered by what he viewed as a demotion. “It was building up all day,” Riggleman said. “I think he thought I was wearing that equipment at home plate.” Morgan denied that he was aiming his anger at Anderson. “It definitely wasn’t intentional,” Morgan said. “. . . It is not my style to play dirty. I don’t play that.”

But that’s apparently not the way the Cardinals viewed the incident: while the Riggleman telephone call to LaRussa should have buried the incident, it clearly didn’t. The Morgan incident rankled the Cardinals, as seen when Drew Storen pitched the last of the eighth inning on Sunday, and lost control of a fastball — which sailed behind Matt Holliday. Cards’ manager LaRussa was immediately out of the dugout: “We were told before the game that [there would be] no funny business because of the cheap shot that Morgan did,” La Russa said. “And here’s a guy [Holliday] that hits a single and a double and they throw the ball behind him. There was going to be no ifs, ands or buts. But in [the umpires’] opinion, the pitch got away [from Storen].” Riggleman denied that Storen was throwing at Holliday: “Clearly there was no intent,” Riggleman said. “It was a terrible pitch. It was 4-1. We certainly don’t want to be hitting anybody or get anybody on base and get a rally started. After what happened last night, you could see where this is coming from.”

Is there bad blood between the Nats and Cardinals, or between Riggleman and LaRussa? That seems very much in doubt. But the same is probably not true for the Nats’ skipper and Nyjer Morgan. Morgan’s irritation at Riggleman might represent some passing anger — and Morgan has had a tough week, having been accused of throwing a baseball at a fan in Philadelphia. All of this might be forgivable, but Morgan’s comment on Riggleman’s decision to bat him eighth in the line-up will probably stay with the Nationals’ manager. “I have to be able to handle what I am able to do,” Morgan told the press. “If (Riggleman) feels like this is what he needs to do, he can go ahead and do it.” Our bet is that Riggleman (and Rizzo) view these kinds of comments dimly. Which means that it’s a pretty good bet that Morgan will eventually (and inevitably) be headed out of town.

Dunn, Nats Clobber Cards

Sunday, August 29th, 2010

So here’s the question: how can the Washington Nationals — so toothless against an also-ran and struggling team like the Chicago Cubs — play so well against the St. Louis doom-machine Cardinals? It could be (of course) that the Nats simply play better against stiffer competition (a notion belied by their record against good teams), or it could be (as it seemed on Saturday night) that the team was just due. Whatever the reason, the Washington Nationals finally broke loose against the St. Louis Cardinals on Saturday, plating fourteen runs on sixteen hits, to clobber the Cardinals, who seem suddenly mediocre against struggling teams. The difference on Saturday was Adam Dunn. The left handed swinging behemoth, mired in a month-long slump, provided the impetus for the Nats to break out of their doldrums: Dunn was 2-3 with five RBIs, hitting a towering fly in the 5th for his 32nd home run. “I hit the home run really good,” Dunn said after the win. “I just knew the ball was really high. At this park, you really never know.”

But Dunn was not the only one on fire on Saturday. Michael Morse also had a hot hand, going 4-4 and scoring two runs, while Adam Kennedy, Roger Bernadina, Ryan Zimmerman and Ivan Rodriguez had two hits each. Over the last two games, the Nationals (whose offense has been positively anemic through much of August) have scored 25 runs on 25 hits, a symmetry rarely equaled through the last five months. While the Nationals might seem to have little to play for (they are nearly 20 games out in the race for the N.L. East Division crown), the same cannot be said of the Cardinals — who need every win they can get to keep pace with the surging Cincinnati Reds, who retain a four game lead over the Cardinals in the N.L. Central. The Cardinals are now faced with a chilling end-of-August reality: unless they start playing better against teams like the Nationals, they will cap a very good season without a shot at the playoffs. For the final game of this four game series, the Nationals will send John Lannan against Albert Pujols & Company on Sunday at Nationals Park.

Scoring The Nationals: Each game — and every year — provides its own scoring rarities. Two occurred on Saturday night that I have never seen before, or scored before. While “keeping a book” is always a challenge, the application of little-known rules to in-game situations can be discomforting. When Ian Desmond was called out for running outside the baseline in the third inning (how often, really, do you see that?) MASN play-by-play host Bob Carpenter helped me along: “That’s scored 3u,” he said — first base putout, unassisted. But the play demanded an asterisk — an outside-the-tradition personal tic that I use to note a rarity (some scorers use an asterisk to denoted a stellar defensive play, I prefer an exclamation point). There was a second asterisk (it’s important to limit their use) that I used in Saturday’s game. It came in the 8th inning, when Nyjer Morgan was called out at home plate (or, more pertinently, behind it), after being touched by a Nationals’ player. Once again Carpenter helped: “That scored 2u,” he said.

The problem with using an asterisk is that it always demands an explanation: which I give in a sentence at the bottom of my score sheet. The July 9 Strasburg beauty against the Giants (6 innings, 3 hits, 1 ER), for instance, included this asterisk in the first inning: “Cain throws it into the ground.” The asterisk was enough for me to recall a memorable moment in the 2010 season — when Giants’ pitcher Matt Cain lost his grip on the ball, which led to Roger Bernadina scoring the Nationals’ first run from second base. The official scoring, I claim, provided only a limited (and even puzzling) explanation that doesn’t really tell the story: “E: Cain (1, pickoff).” There are some events, however, that drive me back to paging through the best best resource on scoring, Paul Dickson’s “The Joy of Keeping Score” (it ought to be called “The Agony of Keeping Score”) which includes one scorer’s “WW” notation — “wasn’t watching.” That happens.

Of course, and as Dickson himself will readily admit, there are some events that happen on the field that simply can’t be scored — though they are fascinating. For instance: I was mightily confused with an event in Philadelphia, when Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz was stopped by umpires from visiting the mound after heading into the clubhouse for a new glove. Why was he stopped and sent back behind the plate? Why, why, why, why, why? I didn’t get it, and the announcers seemed as puzzled — finally just dropping the subject. The puzzle was finally answered (after much thought) by a family member (here he is) who provided this explanation: “If the catcher goes into the clubhouse and then emerges from the dugout to go to the mound, it constitutes a visit,” he said. “The umpires told him — and he decided against it.” Fascinating — and correct. But it has to be remembered; it can’t be scored.

(above: Adam Dunn photo by AP/Susan Walsh; below: Philadelphia Athletics manager Connie Mack used his scorecard to give signals)

Watching Prince Albert

Saturday, August 28th, 2010

It’s possible to pitch to Albert Pujols — but you do so at your peril. Scott Olsen knew this of course (every major league pitcher knows it), but that didn’t keep him from missing an up-and-in pitch to the St. Louis powerhouse, who promptly deposited it in the left field seats. That was home run number 35 in the slugger’s season, a plus-30 total that he has now reached in each of the last ten seasons. The Pujols’ dinger (number 401 of his career, after he hit number 400 on Thursday) was not the difference in the Cardinals’ 4-2 victory on Friday night, but on a day that saw Washington’s top pitching prospect announce that he would undergo Tommy John surgery, the appearance of Prince Albert at Nationals Park might prove reason enough for Nats fans to make the trek to Half Street.

How good is Pujols? A 2008 manager’s survey named him as the most feared hitter in baseball — and for good reason. The slugger’s numbers draw comparisons to Willie Mays, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Mel Ott, Frank Robinson, Babe Ruth — and Lou Gehrig. The Gehrig comparison seems appropriate: both Pujols and Gehrig won one batting title when they were under 30, and Gehrig stroked thirty home runs and hit over .300 for nine consecutive seasons — a mark broken by Pujols last year. In truth, Prince Albert has already matched Gehrig’s greatness (a claim that is heresy in New York), for while Gehrig was an RBI machine (175 in 1927, 184 in 1931), Pujols is arguably the better slugger: Gehrig stroked over 40 home runs five times in his 17 year career, while Pujols has hit over 40 six times in ten years. If Pujols stays health, he’ll add to that record next year and quite possibly for many years after. Additionally, Pujols’ slugging numbers are breathtaking: he has led the league four times in ten seasons, Gehrig did it twice.

Stan “The Man” Musial remains the most iconic Cardinal (as Pujols readily admits), but he never had Pujols’ power (Musial stroked 475 home runs in 22 seasons, Pujols has hit 401 in ten), or his RBI potential — Musial had ten seasons of plus-100 RBIs, which Pujols has already equaled. But what Musial lacked in power he made up for in hits: he led the N.L. in hits in six seasons, Pujols has led his league once. Pujols’ power is Willie Mays’ power: Mays hit 40-plus home runs six times in 22 years, Pujols has done it five times in ten. Pujols’ strike out rate compares favorably with Henry Aaron’s and his power is similar. Aaron hit 30-plus home runs in 15 of his 22 seasons, a mark that Pujols could equal (with that important caveat — if he stays healthy) in five years. And Pujols hits for a higher average.

While feeding a comparison compulsion is a pastime for baseball fanatics, it has its rewards — it compels us to understand just how great the truly great were: Ted Williams led the majors in walks six times, Pujols has never done it once, though Pujols will undoubtedly eclipse Williams’ RBI totals. Then too, while pitchers fear Pujols, they were petrified by Williams (who led the A.L in walks eight times); that, or Williams had the better eye (or both). But Pujols (on the other hand) has a much better eye than Frank Robinson, who sported high OBPs — but absolutely hated to walk. Robinson won the MVP twice, Pujols has done it three times. Mel Ott (underrated and below-the-radar Mel Ott) was a horse, playing and playing and playing without injury year after year. Pujols will outhit Ott, but he’ll have to stay healthy to equal his total games mark. Oh, and Ott knew how to walk and (arguably) had a better eye at the plate. But just barely. And while Pujols does not have the power of Barry Bonds, he could add something (and this year) that Bonds never had — a Triple Crown.

So while Nats fans justly mourn the loss of a potentially great pitcher (and a pitcher for the Washington Nationals, no less), they might take modest solace that — at least when the St. Louis Cardinals visit D.C. — they can watch one of the very greatest players who ever played the game. Pujols is so good that he is not only drawing comparisons to Ruth and Gehrig and Musial and Williams (and maybe half-a-dozen others), he has already equaled or surpassed many of their more celebrated stats. Albert Pujols is already the Lou Gehrig of St. Louis and he already has Hall of Fame numbers — and he’s only getting started.

Nats Return After Dropping Five

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

John Lannan held the St. Louis Cardinals to two runs in six innings (one of his most solid outings of the season), but it wasn’t enough as the punchless Nats lost their fifth straight on the road. The Nats return to Washington today to face the Metropolitans in a two game set, which will be followed by the “Battle of the Beltways” — a three game series against the league poorest Baltimore Orioles. Despite the loss, Lannan’s outing against the Redbirds must have brought a sigh of relief to the Nats brain trust, as the young lefty is a mainstay of the Washington rotation. With Jason Marquis down for at least the next several weeks (and with Craig Stammen and Luis Atilano still finding their way in the majors), Livan Hernandez and a revived Scott Olsen would have been the only two absolutely dependable starters in the Nats’ rotation if Lannan had continued to struggle.

In spite of the five game skid, Nationals skipper Jim Riggleman focused on Lannan’s positives. “He pitched good,” Riggleman said. “I’m really encouraged that he was out there and pitched in that 100-pitch range pain-free. He’s kind of had an issue or two. We bumped him a start and all that kind of stuff and that’s one of the better games he has thrown this year for us.” Lannan was also upbeat. “We haven’t hit our stride with hitting or with pitching and we’re still battling,” he said after the Cardinals loss. “We’re in every ballgame, and that’s all you can ask for when we’re kind of struggling. We have to get out there tomorrow and win as many as we can at home.”

Cincinnati Rising: If the Nats call up Stephen Strasburg during anything that even looks like a major skid, the expectations for him will be too high. But if they’re winning, well then Strasburg’s arrival will be seen as a move that can put them over the top. There’s no way for the Nats front office to win this “why not now” battle; which is probably one of the reasons why Mike Rizzo is sticking to his original schedule, despite the young phenom’s spectacular showing in the minors and in spite of what the Nats might be doing on the field. Then too, there’s the model being followed by the rising young starter in Cincinnati — Mike Leake. Leake has powered a surprising Cincinnati (where arms go to die) squad to first place in the Central Division. Due to Leake (whose role at the center of the Reds starting rotation is key) the Reds are giving the Cardinals fits and making the Cubs look mediocre.

So why aren’t the Nats doing the same thing?

Tom Verducci unpacks this issue in a recent SI column. The heart of the Verducci column is a comparison of the way the Reds are handling first round draft pick Mike Leake vs. the way that Rizzo & Co. are handling Strasburg. “What is most interesting about the Strasburg Plan,” Verducci writes, “is that concurrently the Cincinnati Reds are running an entirely different development plan with Mike Leake , their base model of Strasburg. Leake, 22, and Strasburg, who turns 22 in July, both pitched in major college programs, both were drafted last year in the first round, both signed too late to pitch in affiliated pro baseball last year and both went through their first spring training this year. They were born only eight months apart.” And then Verducci goes on to note that Leake’s pitch count this year add up to 691 pitches in nine MLB games as compared to Strasburg’s 469 pitches in the minor leagues. So who’s being smarter — Dusty Baker’s playoff hungry Cincinnati Reds, or Jim Riggleman’s build-for-the-future Nationals?

Verducci notes that Jim Riggleman was the manager of the Cubs in the year that then-phenom Kerry Wood was overpitched and that (as a result), he’ll be extra careful when Strasburg arrives. But the temptation is certainly there. We might imagine a resurgent Nats Nine that, in mid-September, is just two games out of the Wild Card race. With Lannan, Strasburg, Hernandez, Stammen and Olsen as the starting five and Strasburg on the mound against (say) the surging Braves, Riggleman will want to leave him right where he is — despite his pitch count. It’s not everyday you get into the playoffs. But then again, why would you rely on Strasburg in September if you know that your next day’s starter is not Craig Stammen or Scott Olsen, but Roy Oswalt? Which is not only why Jim and Mike will stick with their plan (no matter what), it’s also why it’s likely that come the trade deadline, the Baker Boys of Cincinnati will do the right thing by Mike Leake: they’ll get him some help.

Nats Skid Now At Four

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

Ian Desmond went 4-4 and Drew Storen made a solid debut, but the Washington Nationals fell to the Cardinals 6-2 on Monday night in St. Louis. The Nats were victimized by a tough first inning from starter Craig Stammen, who surrendered four runs against a hitting heavy Cards line-up.  Stammen pitched well the rest of the way, but Washington’s suddenly quiet bats could not get to the Redbirds. “He got settled in and pitched really good,” Riggleman said of Stammen after the game. “He really made a lot of great pitches and gave us a chance. He kept us in there. Their guy did a good job, too. Lohse did a nice job. He kind of kept us off.” Drew Storen came on in the 7th inning with a man on and one out to face former Nats infielder Felipe Lopez (who fouled out), Redbirds outfielder Ryan Ludwick (who he hit) and big bopper Matt Holliday, whom he struck out. It was an impressive first outing for the 22-year-old reliever. “He closed the inning. He did good. He threw strikes,” Ivan Rodriguez said. “He threw the three pitches out of four that he has. He threw the sinker, the breaking ball and the slider, and he did great. He did a great job.” The Nats losing streak now stands at four — with a second game against the Cardinals in St. Louis tonight.

Those Are The Details And Now For The Headlines: It looks like one of those seasons for the Bosox, who are mired in fourth place in the AL East, a full 8.5 games behind the surging Tampa Bay Rays. The sound and fury from Boston is deafening, as fans of “the Nation” have begun to take themselves apart about the deplorable state of their lovable Yazstremskis. Over The Monster is particularly puzzled, pointing out the “surprising teams” that have better records than the heroes of Fenway: the Padres, Blue Jays, Reds, Nationals and Marlins. The head scratching in the Fens is interesting to watch, particularly for a franchise whose fans suffer from attention deficit disorder. If you had claimed back in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s that the Sox would one day be viewed as one of the game’s sure-to-win franchises, your claim would have been greeted with jaw-dropping disbelief.

While Sabermetric gurus are able to point to a welter of statistics reflecting the Red Sox woes, the simple truth is that the once proud pounders who thrilled the nation (and “The Nation”), with two world championships are an aging, punchless, poor-pitching and injured group of Back Bayers who play their worst against their deadliest foes. The Red Sox lost two of three in New York one week into the season, lost four in Tampa Bay a week later and two of three against the Yankees in New York in May. That doesn’t count losses to teams they should dominate. For instance, the over-confident Sox lost three to Baltimore’s wadda-we-gonna-do Triple-A Orioles . . .  for God’s Sake . (Spontaneous demonstrations broke out on Eutaw Street and Dave Trembley was given the keys to the city.)

The problem is pitching (ain’t it always). The Red Sox rank 27th in runs allowed and 27th in team ERA. While the Red Sox can put runs on the board (they’re near the top in runs scored), they can’t keep others from scoring even more: Clay Buchholz (with four wins) is their steadiest starter, Josh Beckett is a mess and Daisuke Matsuzaka (just back from the DL) can’t get anyone out. Their roster is a doctor’s dream. Beckett has back spasms, J.D. Drew suffers from vertigo (and an inability to hit an inside slider), Mike Cameron has kidney stones (the poor sot), Jacoby Ellsbury has a chest contusion, Dice-K had a neck strain (and probably still has), Jed Lowrie has suffered from mono and (OLAS) Justin Pedroia continues to battle wrist issues. And now (following last night’s game against the hated Yankees) the entire team probably needs scream therapy.

For those who like tragedy (and walk offs), last night’s Red Sox tilt against the Yankees was fun to watch (you could switch over, just in time to see this disaster, following the Nats post game wrap-up). With a man on in the bottom of the ninth and the Sox ahead 9-7, super reliever Jonathan Papelbon collapsed. He gave up a game-tying homer to Alex Rodriguez (who hit it wicked faaaaah …), then plunked Francisco Cervelli with a fastball. With Cervelli on first, Papelbon missed his spot with Marcus Thames, who cranked Mr. P’s wheelhouse fastball into the lower left field seats. As Papelbon walked from the field, it was hard to shake the feeling that the Yankees have Boston’s number. So here’s the deal: after a season of success at Fenway the current standings in the AL East are, in fact, an accurate reflection of Red Sox reality. We can be surprised by the early season success of the Padres, Blue Jays, Reds, Nationals and Marlins. But no one should be surprised by the Red Sox. It’s not that they’re a bad team, because they’re not. For Red Sox fans, it’s  worse. They’re mediocre.

Rockies Take Series, Storen Arrives

Monday, May 17th, 2010

Scott Olsen’s steady mound presence and ability to pitch out of jams could not save the Nats from a three game losing streak, as Washington dropped three out of four games in Colorado. The final contest, played before over 40,000 Rockies fans at Coors Field, resulted in an itchy close Rockies 2-1 victory. The Nats bats were hardly silent (both Cristian Guzman and newly activated Mike Morse went 2-3), but the Anacostia Nine could not get runs when they needed them, leaving a whopping twenty runners on base. The difference was Jeff Francis, who pitched for the first time since September of 2008. The Rockies’ ace gave up seven hits over seven innings in notching his first 2010 victory. He looked like the Jeff Francis of old, getting outs when he needed them, and throwing his patented sweeping breaking ball that confused Nats hitters. But Scott Olsen was even better, giving up five hits in 6.2 innings pitched. The difference was a late-inning sacrifice fly against overworked reliever Tyler Clippard, who has been victimized recently.

Rumors began to circulate just after the Colorado game ended that the Nats would call up Drew Storen for the series against the Cardinals, which is scheduled to begin on Monday. Storen, a first round draft pick in 2009 (tenth overall) has been touted as the Nats’ closer-of-the-future. A product of Stanford University, Storen signed quickly with the Nats after the draft and climbed effortlessly through the Nats farm system — with a 1.11 ERA and fifteen strikeouts in just over 16 innings pitched during stints at Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Syracuse. By the end of Sunday night Storen was on the way and former Yankee Brian Bruney was shipped to Syracuse. While taking responsibility for being ineffective, Bruney did not take the news well, saying that he would have to decide whether to report to Syracuse, or seek work elsewhere. “Where I go from here, I don’t know,” Bruney told reporters after hearing the news. “I guess only time will tell.

While the arrival of Storen has been widely anticipated, it seems unlikely that Jim Riggleman will use him either as a closer or in long relief: not only has Matt Capps proven an effective ninth inning arm (he leads the league in saves), it’s unlikely the Washington front office will rush Storen into close games, bringing him along slowly and using him in situations where he can build his confidence. But the Nats desperately need someone to pitch in the 6th and 7th innings — a job that was originally given to Bruney. It seems likely that the Nats will rely on Tyler Walker, Sean Burnett,  Doug Slaten and (though to a much lesser extent) Miguel Batista, to provide a bridge to Tyler Clippard, or to spell him as necessary from constant 8th inning work. Clippard, who has been outstanding, has recently been fraying at the edges, pitching in 26 innings in 19 appearances.

Olsen Dominates, Nats Head To Chicago

Monday, April 26th, 2010

Scott Olsen’s seven inning gem against the Dodgers has Nats fans (and the Washington Post) oohing and ahhing about the team’s new attitude. “Instead of saying ‘Get ’em tomorrow,’ the Nats have finally assembled a tougher, more irritable group that actually does it,” Post columnist and leading baseball pundit Thomas Boswell writes. Boswell goes on to note: “It’s not just the Nats’ record that is different this spring. The Nats themselves are. They’re starting to resemble the first gritty crew that brought baseball back to D.C. after a 33 year wait.” Tougher? More irritable? Gritty? My first reaction was to scoff: forget irritable and gritty — we need front line guys who can throw strikes. Please, please, please Tom (I know you’re the best, or close to it), but you know (and I know, and it’s no secret) that a rotation of Lannan, Stammen, Olsen and Hernandez are not going to get it done.

But in studying yesterday’s box score, I began to question by own cynicism. The difference in the Nats 1-0 win yesterday (a beautifully pitched game, if ever there was one) from any of their wins last year was obvious. For right there, in the middle of the line-up, were two players the Nats needed, but didn’t have, in the ’09 campaign. When Mike Rizzo signed Ivan Rodriguez and Adam Kennedy in the offseason, he not only filled two special needs, he added two gamers to the clubhouse — players who not only know how to win, but want to. While Rodriguez and Kennedy went a combined 0-6 yesterday, their role on the team has been indispensible, providing much needed leadership to a crew of talented, but young, players. Mike Rizzo added a caveat: “We’re a long ways from where we want to be.” Yeah, true. But you’re also a long ways from where you were.

The difference between the ’09 and 2010 Nats becomes more obvious when you go through the line-up of the Chicago Cubs, whom the Nats face in Chicago starting tonight. The North Side Drama Queens are a team of head cases and disasters-waiting-to-happen: Alfonso Soriano’s penchant to drop flies in left field is damn near agonizing, the perpetually petulant Carlos Zambrano has been demoted to the bullpen, the perennially injured Aramis Ramirez is a fracture away from putting the Cubs in the cellar and Kosuke Fukudome is overpaid and (undoubtedly) on the trading block. I know, I know — the Cubs just swept the Brewers and can hit the hell out of the ball. But the name of this game is pitching, and the Cubs don’t have it. Forget the starters (or don’t — if you really believe that Carlos Silva is the answer), and focus on the bullpen. The line-up of Berg, Grabow, Gray, Russell and Marmol is a patched together crew of rookies and semi-veterans (like Marmol) who have yet to prove they can hit the strike zone. Put another way, we would be justified in saying that the Cubs bullpen collapsed in the first two weeks of the season, but we’d be wrong. It had nothing to collapse from.

Cubs fans are on a death watch. Nats 320 has an outstanding interview with Cubs blogger Joe Aeillo of View From The Bleachers, and while Joe sounds positive enough, you can almost hear the ‘Oh-God-wadda-we-gonna-do’ tension in his voice. Joe talks about Uncle Lou’s bullpen problems and notes that Zambrano has been “the weak link” in the rotation so far this year, but the icing comes when Nats 320 asks about Soriano. “I’ll give you $20 right now, straight cash homie, if you convince the Nationals to take him back,” Joe says. That’s a deal we can pass up: we’ll keep Willingham. Soriano, the bullpen — they’re all problems. But the real problem facing the Cubs is down the road in St. Louis. The Cubs don’t have anyone who matches up with Chris Carpenter, Brad Penny or Adam Wainwright. I can’t stand Penny (he should just rob a 7-Eleven and get it out of his system), but the former Dodger bad boy is pitching brilliantly — with three wins and a 0.94 ERA. That’s a record that Zambrano can only dream about.

The Cubs haven’t had a team since Mark Prior and Kerry Wood were five outs away from the World Series. Remember? Prior was a USC power pitcher with Cy Young stuff and Woods struck out 20 in his rookie season. And then . . . and then, in the 8th inning of Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS a little pop foul that should have been caught did them in. It was their last shot. Neither Prior nor Wood have been the same since; Prior became a surgeon’s dream and is now out of baseball and Wood is in Cleveland, dealing with a cranky back. Looking at Prior (a shoulder, an achilles tendon, a hamstring, another shoulder), you can understand why Mike Rizzo wants Stephen Strasburg in the minors — and why he insists that any member of the Washington club have a winning attitude. Put another way, the problem with Cubs comes down to this: Carlos Zambrano throws the ball in the mid-90s and is capable of a 20-win Cy Young season. But wouldn’t you rather have Livan Hernandez?

Jimenez Outduels Livan

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

Ubaldo Jimenez and Livan Hernandez held a master class in pitching on Thursday with Jimenez coming out on top — at least in terms of the score. Supported by two solo home runs (one each from catcher Miguel Olivo and third baseman Ian Stewart), Jimenez shut down the Nationals when it counted, wracking up his fourth win of the season in an itchy-close pitchers’ duel at Nationals Park. In spite of the score, Hernandez was (arguably), the more impressive pitcher, mixing a fastball (which topped out at 87 mph), with a slider and change-up. Hernandez changed speeds so effectively that he most often fooled Colorado’s heavy hitting lineup. Jimenez, on the other hand, relied on an overpowering fastball that topped out at 97 mph — his slowest offering was Livan’s fastest. So while the Rockies won, the result of the duel between speed and finesse was clear: Livan was the more cerebral pitcher, Jimenez the rocket.

In the end, the brilliantly pitched 2-0 contest came down to this: the Rockies could hit a hanging slider (which is what  Hernandez threw to Ian Stewart), while the Nationals most often could not catch-up to the Jimenez fastball. The contrast between Hernandez and Jimenez was most marked in the first inning. Behind in the count 3-1 against Willie Harris, Jimenez attempted to play catch-up by throwing Harris his best pitch — a 97 mph fastball in the upper part of the zone. The pitch was predictable and, in most cases, would be unhittable. But Willie was ready and put the offering over the head of the centerfielder. “The guy throws a million miles an hour,” Harris said, talking about the at bat. “He has really good offspeed pitches as well. He keeps you off balance. You get in an 2-0 count, you are definitely thinking the fastball. He drops in a changeup or a slider on you. That’s what the good pitchers do now.” It was one of the few mistakes that Jimenez made.

There are enough good third basemen in the NL to stock a separate league: David Wright, Ian Stewart, Placido Polanco, the fading Chipper Jones, Aramis Ramirez, Arizona’s wiff-or-wack Mark Reynolds and, of course, “our very own” Ryan Zimmerman. Among others. Cincinnati fans would clamor that new Reds third sacker Scott Rolen should be added to the list of the elite: and they have a point. Rolen, who once crossed swords with Tony La Russa,  is leading a Cincinnati team that could be the surprise champ in the NL Central, despite their early 7-9 record. Rolen is playing like he did in 2002, when he came over to the Redbirds from the Ponies and won a Silver Slugger Award. The often hobbled Rolen is hitting .289 with four homers and Cincinnati (where arms go to die) is responding. They took two of three in Los Angeles, notching an impressive 8-5 victory yesterday against the Trolleys that was sparked by Rolen’s cannon-shot double in the bottom of the seventh. Dusty’s Baker Boys were ecstatic. This is the way that Baker and the Cincinnati front office had planned things at the start of the season.

Rolen, who has a problem with authority figures, fits well in Cincinnati — where (very often), no one seems to be in charge. The slick-leather-big-bat third baseman was a 2nd round draft pick for Philadelphia back in 1993, but took four years to get to the majors. It was worth the wait. Beginning in 1997, Rolen began a five year run that had Phillies fans comparing him with Philadelphia legend Mike Schmidt: Rolen hit 21, 31, 26, 26 and 25 dingers before being shipped (via Toronto), to St. Louis where he battled injuries and fought with the manager. St. Louis cut him loose, shipping Rolen to Toronto (which, believe it or not, actually has a baseball team) for Rolen clone Troy Glaus, who had once hit 47 home runs for the Angels. The trade seemed an even-up; Rolen and Glaus sported big bats and tweeky shoulders — Rolen had shoulder surgery in May of 2005 (after a collision at first with Dodger fill-in and former North Side Drama Queen draft pick Hee Seop Choi), while the suddenly under-performing Glaus had shoulder surgery in January of 2009.

By the end of last year, both Rolen and Glaus not only needed to get healthy, they needed a new start. Glaus got his when he signed this last off season with the Atlanta Braves, while Rolen was traded from Toronto to Cincinnati in a move that had Reds’ fans scratching their heads: the swap seemed an expensive and questionable last-gasp effort to fill a hole at third, while the Cincy front office searched for a more permanent replacement. But Rolen has been a surprise: a solid citizen in the clubhouse (that’s the surprise) and a formidable bat in Cincinnati’s fifth hole (which, frankly, is not) Rolen is now teamed with veteran Brandon Phillips and big lumber youngsters Joey Votto and Jay Bruce to provide mashers in the middle of the Cincy order. Once Bruce and Phillips get past their early season slumps (and they will), the Reds are likely to surge past the Cubs and Brewers, giving St. Louis a run for the division title. It’s too bad Rolen can’t pitch — it took Cincinnati starters sixteen games to notch their first victory, which came yesterday against Los Angeles.

Rolen would agree — Aroldis Chapman can’t arrive soon enough.

Mets in 20 — and “The Silent Giant”

Sunday, April 18th, 2010

The New York Mets won a wild one in St. Louisa twenty inning marathon that lasted seven hours. The final line is memorable: both teams used 46 players and 19 pitchers, racking up the seventh longest game in Major League history. The Mets hold the record for playing in the longest game, a 24 inning 1-0 loss to the Astros on April 15, 1968. But the Mets were on the winning end of this one. Together, Mets and Cardinals pitchers threw a combined 652 pitches, lowering team batting averages and ERAs. For a time it looked as if the Red Birds would win, even after Cards manager Tony La Russa chose third sacker Felipe Lopez to pitch the 19th and and left fielder Joe Mather to pitch the 20th. La Russa was apparently saving his team’s arms, but it looked like the Cardinals were waving the white flag. But the game took one final turn: left-fielder-turned-reliever Joe Mather served up a sacrifice fly in the 20th to put the Mets ahead 2-1. Mike Pelfrey, normally a starter, came on to record the save — the first of his career.

The Mets 2-1 win was done by scratching and clawing, for while starter Johan Santana gave the Apples seven badly need well-pitched innings (he gave up only four hits), the Mets biggest bats remained strangely silent. David Wright, Jason Bay and Jeff Francoeur were 1 for 20, and Bay looked particularly ineffective. Bay, who is hitting .222, struck out four times. The Mets-Cards tilt provided an unusual Saturday, even for a baseball fanatic. It was possible to watch Livan Hernandez pitch at Nats Park and then drive home in time to catch every pitch of the Busch Stadium death march. The game wiped out Fox’s Saturday prime time programming and pushed back by one hour the slot for the local news. It was worth it, if only to tally a semi-rare baseball anamoly — Mets relieved Francisco Rodriguez (K-Rod), came on in the 19th to get the save for the Mets, but the Cards tied the score. But the Mets scored again in the top of the 20th and Jerry Manuel brought starter Mike Pelfrey in to to do what K-Rod couldn’t. When Pelfrey succeeded, sending the Mets back to their hotel for a badly needed rest, K-Rod registered a blown save — and a win.

At the same time that the Mets and Cards were marching up Golgotha, Rockies’ starter Ubaldo Jimenez, the best fastball pitcher in the majors, threw the first no hitter in Colorado franchise history. The no-hitter was unusual in this sense: Jimenez was not particularly effective until the 6th inning when, following the advice of former Mets fireballer and now Rockies’ pitching coach Bob Apodaca, he began to pitch from the stretch. “I saw [the Giants’ Tim] Lincecum last year do it,” Jimenez said after the game. “He wasn’t good from the windup, then he got from the stretch. It came to my mind. But then Apodaca came to me and I was like, ‘Of course, I’m going to try it.'” It worked. Jimenez began to put the ball down in the zone, and the walks that characterized his first five frames ceased.

Describing Jimenez as “the silent giant,” Rockies’ manager Jim Tracy was buoyed by the win and filled with praise for his starter: “In order for special things to happen, you have to have special people,” Tracy said of Jimenez. “We have a whole clubhouse full of them. But this is this man’s night tonight. In my opinion, it couldn’t happen to a better human being and a more talented human being than this guy.” The Jimenez no-no marked the third complete game of the day, an unusual occurrence in modern baseball. On Saturday, complete games were put in the books by Jimenez, Florida Marlin Ricky Nolasco — and Washington Nationals’ ace Livan Hernandez.

Angel’s Stun, Sweep Sox

Sunday, October 11th, 2009

That glazed and puzzled look that has appeared on the faces of so many other post season teams (the St. Louis Cardinals yesterday, and the Chicago Cubs last year, to name just two) is now being worn by the Boston Red Sox. The A.L.’s wild card entry was stunned by a ninth inning rally in Boston on Saturday, and swept in three games by the Los Angeles Angels to be eliminated from the playoffs. The Bosox appeared headed for a sure win in their head-to-head match-up against the Belinskis, leading the Halos 6-3 heading into the 9th inning at Fenway Park — with their ace closer, Jonathan Papelbon on the mound. But with two outs, Papelbon’s down-and-out or up-and-in stuff failed him: Erick Aybar singled, Chone Figgins walked and Bobby Abreu doubled to tighten the contest. Even then, the Red Sox remained a simple grounder or fly ball away from victory. To set up a force out at every base, Papelbon walked Torii Hunter intentionally. That brought Vladimir Guerrero to the plate. On the very first pitch to one of baseball’s beset bad-ball hitters, Papelbon gave up a single to center. Guerrero’s hit, a leaning over-the-plate smack of a low and outside fastball, scored Figgins and Abreu and gave the Angels the 7-6 victory.

Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: The elimination of the Redbirds and Bosox now sets the wheels in motion for the offseason in both Boston and St. Louis. There’s a lot to do. Fans of “the Nation” face some big questions: about the future of David Ortiz and the cost of Jason Bay. The team is hardly in need of a major overhaul, yet the horses that have consistently put it into the off season are aging or hobbled. The entire left side of the Boston infield is in question: Mike Lowell can’t play third forever and the team has no ready answer at shortstop. “Phtttt . . . c’mon” — fans of the Nation say: what about Jed Lowrie? Well, what about him? Maybe Baseball Reference is lying, but their stats show him hitting .147 in 32 games. Hell, there’s a shortstop in Washington who hits a damn sight better than that and he’s no damn good at all . . .   

The Redbirds are younger, but the questions might be more pertinent: whether to pony up the big bucks it will take to keep Matt Holliday in left and (just like the Red Sox) what to do at third. Mark DeRosa is a free agent and while he likes St. Louis he will test the free agent market. Then too, while shortstop seems set for the River City Nine, rookie phenom Brendan Ryan hit a scorching .083 in the playoffs and looked shaky in the field. Redbird fans have the same reaction to this negativity as their Bosox buddies: “Oh yeah, well what about Troy Glaus?” Okay, right. Troy Glaus: who left his right shoulder somewhere in Toronto and hasn’t been the same since. Maybe he’ll return to his 2008 form (.270, 27 home runs), but it’s a pretty big maybe. Then too, number three starter Joel Pineiro is a free agent and would be a number one starter on most major league teams: including the Nats (now there’s an idea). Oddly, whether Holliday or DeRosa or Pineiro decide to stay in St. Louis might hinge more on the fate of Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan than on how much money Billy DeWitt puts on the table. LaRussa and Duncan’s contracts are up and both are rumored headed to Cincinnati, to team up with their old St. Louis G.M. pal Walt Jocketty . . .