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Zim, Bats Fell Giants

Monday, May 2nd, 2011

Jordan Zimmermann finally got the help he needed, as the Washington Nationals rapped out ten hits at Nationals Park yesterday — and the Nats went on to beat the San Francisco Giants, 5-2. The win brought the Anacostia Nine to within one game of .500, with a final game against the Giants coming this evening.

Zimmermann scattered six hits over six innings, striking out four and walking only two. Zimmermann was followed by Tyler Clippard, Sean Burnett and Drew Storen, all of whom held the Giants scoreless. The big hits of the day were registered by Jayson Werth (who went 3-4) and Pudge Rodriguez, who stroked a clutch two run single in the 8th inning to give the Nationals some late-inning extra runs. Zimmermann registered his second win against four hard-luck losses, throwing 107 pitches, 69 of them for strikes.

Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: sometimes a slump isn’t just a slump — it’s just the way things are. While Jayson Werth finally seems to be getting on track (and has raised his average to .242), the rest of the Nine continue to struggle. In fact, some of those other sluggers in “The Valley of the Lost Bats” seem to be going the other way.

Adam LaRoche always has a slow April, but it’s now May. He’s hitting .189. Rick Ankiel has shown some life, but he might be right where he’s going to stay — at .230. Plus: those young bucks, Desmond and Espinosa, are lucky to be hitting better than their weight. The real sluggers on the team: Wilson Ramos . . . and . . . and Laynce Nix.

Addie and Jordan

Saturday, October 2nd, 2010

Addie Joss

Nats pitcher Jordan Zimmermann must be some kind of throwback: he’s from a part of the country – central Wisconsin – that doesn’t usually produce major league pitchers (or major league anythings) and he’s vowed that, once the season is over, he’ll head back home: “where there’s not that much to do.” That’s for sure. Stevens Point, where Zimmermann went to college, is quintessentially small town America, a paper mill town of some 25,000 on the Wisconsin River that is, oddly, currently under water — and that suffers through winters that make what happens in northern Russia look tame.

Zimmermann’s most recent successful outing (a six inning three hitter), the Nats hope, is a sign that the young righty is about to arrive in the big leagues in a big way. That would be a boon for “the Point” – which brags about its college baseball team, the (ah . . .) “Pointers,” which has Zimmermann’s pic prominently displayed on their home page. And why not? Zimmermann is the biggest thing to happen to Central Wisconsin since the immortal Addie Joss migrated from bump-in-the-road Woodland (where his father was a cheezemaker) to the Cleveland Naps (predecessors to the Indians — but you knew that), where he compiled the second best ERA in MLB history. Oh, and hurled his way into the Hall of Fame.

Joss was an interesting guy: a 6-3 beanpole with a rising fastball, a 12-6 curve and what he called “a slow pitch” –- essentially a change-up. Joss was a real-deal Roy Hobbs, throwing pitches through tires and taking on traveling pros and striking them out in fields where stalks of corn had once stood. On October 2, 1908 Joss pitched his best game – a perfecto against another great, the Pale Hose’s Eddie Walsh. It was the first of two perfect games that Joss would pitch, both against the White Sox, the only time that has been done in baseball history.

Sadly, the Joss story does not have a happy ending –- the career of the Woodland, Wisconsin native was cut short when he was diagnosed with tubercular meningitis and his death, at the age of 31 shocked the baseball world. The first All Star game was played in his memory, with the proceeds dedicated to helping his family. Of course, fans of J-Zimm wince at such comparisons (considering the Joss legacy), but outside of being natives of northern Wisconsin, the two have this in common – a rising fastball, a good hook (perhaps j-Zimm should give up his very average slider) and a “slow pitch.” Nats fans can only hope that the two are alike in one other way: in 1907, at the age of 27, Joss had 27 wins to lead all of baseball.

Well, we can hope.

Nats, Capps Defrock Friars

Saturday, May 29th, 2010

Matt Capps pitched out of a based loaded jam in the ninth inning to preserve a Washington Nationals and John Lannan win in San Diego, 5-3. The victory marked an all-the-way back start for the Washington mainstay, who had his best outing of the year — a seven inning, seven hit semi-gem that fed off the Friar’s lack of power and Washington’s ability to put the ball in the seats. Josh Willingham began the Washington scoring with a three run top-of-the-fourth dinger off of starter Clayton Richard, who held the Nats to four hits. Ian Desmond went 2-4 for the night, which included his fourth homer, a solo shot in the seventh. The game’s comic interlude was provided by San Diego, which filled out its staring line-up card incorrectly, spurring the Nats to play the game under protest. But the protest was dropped by the Nats front office after the win.

While Richard could not stop Washington’s long ball, San Diego manager Bud Black named closer Matt Capps as the difference in the game. Capps struck out two and then induced a ground ball to pitch out of the ninth inning jam. “That was a tough one for Capps, and he got it done,” Black said following the San Diego loss. “He’s pitched well. He has that in him. We had some good swings, but we just didn’t connect. We got it in position with those four hits there in the ninth, but it just didn’t turn out.” Capps register his 17th save, throwing 24 pitches, 17 for strikes. His ERA now stands at 2.96. The Nats face off against the Padres at Petco Park in San Diego in a Saturday night game that will feature recently recalled Nats Triple-A pitcher (and spot starter in 2009), J.D. Martin against young Friar hurler Mat Latos.

Waiting For Strasburg Stanton: While Washington fans speculate endlessly about just when Stephen Strasburg will make his debut in the Bigs, Fish Fans are all agog about Michael Stanton — “the next big thing” in Florida. While Stanton (more properly, Giancarlo Cruz-Michael Stanton) was hardly judged a “phenom” when he was drafted in the second round (79th overall) of the 2007 draft, his semi-meteoric rise through the Marlins farm system (he’s now at Double-A Jacksonville) has been accompanied by a breathtaking display of power. Back on May 6, one of Stanton’s towering drives in Montgomery not only cleared the centerfield wall, it sailed effortlessly over the 95 foot scoreboard behind it. Stanton’s teammates immediately engaged in speculation about whether the ball would ever be found — it wasn’t.

The Marlins clearly know what they have, fueling speculation about just when Stanton will appear — and what kind of difference he’ll make when he does. The excitement is not confined to the front office: when not waiting for Hanley’s next tantrum, the Uggla-Cantu Fins are twittering about Stanton’s prodigious shots. This is not all hype: through his first 38 games this year (albeit, at Jacksonville), Stanton is hitting .310 with 16 home runs and 39 RBIs with a .447 on-base percentage. He leads the minors in just about everything having to do with hitting. There’s no reason to think this won’t continue with the big club, when he’s called up sometime in June. He’s “Florida big,” following the Marlins’ tradition of drafting tall ironman types that are more Ruth than Ripken.

Of course, Stanton’s arrival as “the next big thing” is highly anticipated by Marlins’ fans (here they are), in large part because the last big thing (Cameron Maybin) hasn’t worked out so well — and because, despite fielding a good team, Miami’s fans seem as unexcited as any team in baseball not named the Blue Jays. It’s no wonder then, that Marlins President Larry Beinfest channels Mike Rizzo when he talks about Stanton, giving cagey answers to reporters who hound him about Stanton’s prospective arrival. Beinfest knows what he’s doing — increasing speculation about just when Florida’s version of Jason Heyward will arrive at Landshark Stadium. Patience, patience, Beinfest says. Stanton justs needs to continue working on his game “and the rest will take care of itself.”

Bay Watch

Monday, May 24th, 2010

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How odd is it that, just over forty games into the season, the Washington Nationals and San Francisco Giants — teams so different in outlook, history and raw talent — would have almost identical records? And yet there it is: after suffering through a gut-wrenching five game losing streak, the Giants (predicted in the pre-season as one of the elite teams of the NL West), are one game over .500, as are the Nats (at 23-22). If the Giants are so much better than the Nats (as baseball analysts would have once claimed), then why are they playing so poorly?

At least a part of the answer became obvious on Sunday, as the McCoveys struggled through yet another punchless contest — registering a terminally fatal 0-18 with runners in scoring position and suffering their second consecutive shutout. The loss was particularly hard to swallow, as it came against their White Elephant rivals across the Bay, who not only swept the interleague series, but made the Giants look downright silly. Here’s the key, at least according to San Francisco skipper Bruce Bochy: the Giants can hit, but only sometimes and even when they do, it’s not when runners are in a position to score.

Giants fans are becoming impatient: with one of the most formidable starting rotations in all of baseball, the Giants should be winning decisively. They’re not. Bochy has responded to the team’s hitting drought by shaking up the McCovey’s batting order: dropping outfielder Aaron Rowand into the sixth spot and moving speedster Andres Torres to the head of the line-up. But even Bochy has doubts this will work — San Francisco’s problem is that it lacks hitters who can hit for power and average. Pablo Sandoval is San Francisco’s premier (and popular) young power hitter, but his batting average stands at .282 — hardly something to brag about. Aaron Rowand, signed as a free agent to anchor the outfield and drive in runs, is hitting just .242 while import Freddy Sanchez is struggling to remain above the Mendoza line.

A comparison between a line-up struggling to generate runs and one that knows how to put them on the board is sobering. The Giants have put 33 dingers into the seats, the Nats 39; the Giants are hitting an anemic .257, the Nats are chugging along at .265 — the Giants have driven in 160 runs, the Nats 191. Which is to say: a San Francisco front office that boasts a starting rotation of Lincecum, Cain, Zito and Sanchez (truly, the Nats have no one to compare), is now having to scramble to find someone comparable to Willingham, Dunn, Zimmerman and Guzman — anyone of whom would add more power and average to the Giants line-up than anyone they currently have. Which is why, in the weeks ahead, the Giants will begin to search for the hitting they will so desperately need to catch the Friars and Trolleys for the NL West flag. They must know — the price will be high.

Walk Off “Hammers” O’s

Monday, May 24th, 2010

Josh Willingham’s walk off home run in the tenth inning gave the Nats the game, the set and the match against the Baltimore Orioles in a 4-3 victory at Nationals Park on Sunday. Willingham’s game winner came off of O’s reliever Cla Meredith, and gave the Nats bragging rights in the “Battle of the Beltways” inter-league series. Perhaps as important, the Nats played a nearly perfect, tight game that relied on defense and pitching — a decided change from Saturday’s messy win and a needed boost as the Nats now head west for an extended road trip. “When you get a game winning hit like that,” Willingham said after the win, “it’s why you play the game as a baseball player . . . it got up in the air and went out.”

Willingham’s game winning knock was not the only good news for the Nats. Starter John Lannan pitched well — holding the Orioles to one run on two hits over 5.1 innings. Lannan said that his arm felt good after the outing, with the pain he had suffered over the previous weeks an apparent thing of the past. “I’m feeling healthy, which is the main thing,” Lannan said. The game also seemed to confirm Jim Riggleman’s decision to provide Roger Bernadina with a more steady starting role in right field. After a slow start, Bernadina is hitting the ball well — and he’s a defensive asset in right field. “He’s just getting a little better each time,” Riggleman noted. “He’s really finding his way and getting a little more comfortable.” The Nats will start their road journey with a series against the San Francisco Giants,  before moving on to San Diego and Houston.

Marlins’ Pitching Spears Nats

Monday, May 3rd, 2010

The Nats were reportedly displeased with their play over their last two days in Miami (“We’re definitely upset,” Willie Harris admitted. “We’re not like in the past, where you might think it’s just another ballgame. It’s different), but the truth is that, while the Nats could have played much better, they lost to two tough pitchers and a team of suddenly surging long ball hitters. It’s sometimes just this simple: the other team plays better and the guys they put on the mound are in command of their stuff. So it was on Saturday, when Chris Volstad’s knuckle curve subdued the Nats order, stifling a confident team in a visitor’s park. Which is simply to say: the Nats ran into a team that boasts pitchers who know how to throw complete games. The Marlins are tied with the Phillies for most complete games — having turned in complete performances from Volstad (who held the Nats to just four hits) Ricky Nolasco (beaten by Scott Olsen on Friday) and Josh Johnson — who was in complete command on Sunday.

Which is not to say that the Nats played (or pitched) well — they didn’t. Craig Stammen remained inconsistent through four innings on Saturday, pulled early by Riggleman when it was clear that he simply didn’t have his stuff. After two good outings, Stammen seemed to slip back to his old ways: serving up batting practice fastballs to a group of hitters who knew exactly what to do with them. John Lannan endured the same kind of outing on Sunday, though this time the Nats looked a little less like the defensive bumblers of ’09. Pitching was still the problem — Lannan gave up nine hits through five shaky innings and the bullpen wasn’t much better, with Brian Bruney as ineffective behind Lannan as Tyler Walker had been behind Stammen. Bruney was puzzled by his continued struggles: “Really, honestly, I don’t know what to tell you,” he said following the Marlins Sunday win. “I think you can just jumble everything together and say it’s frustrating.”

Chris Volstad is an imposing presence on the mound (6-8, 225), with a pitcher-heavy fastball and a smooth delivery. But his best pitch is a “knuckle curve” — what some players call a “spike curve.” Oddly, it (and not the fastball) is Volstad’s out pitch (or at least it was on Saturday) and when he throws it well (as he did against the Nats), he’s damn near unhittable. The knuckle curve features a semi-curve ball grip with one or two fingers curled back. To be effective, the ball is launched or pushed towards the plate instead of thrown. The master of the knuckle curve was Burt Hooton, a Texas phenom who pitched fifteen years for the Cubs, Dodgers and Astros. Hooton was the “next big thing” when he arrived in Chicago in 1971 — one of the few MLB players to vault from college directly into a team’s starting line-up.

For a time in Chicago, Hooton looked like the real deal. He struck out 15 in one of his earliest appearances in 1971 and in his first outing in ’72 he threw a breathtaking no-hitter against the Phillies. But Hooton struggled with the Cubs the rest of the way and was dealt to L.A. in 1975. Hooton was 19-8 for the Trolleys in 1978, his best year. In 1981, Hooton was named the NLCS MVP for his stellar pitching performances against the Expos and went on to pitch well against the Yankees in the ’81 World Series. But while Hooton was the master of the knuckle curve, he was never the master of the strike zone — and never equaled in his later career the lights-out promise of his 1972 no-hitter. Hooton has served as a pitching coach in the Astro’s organization since his retirement and, in 2009, was inducted into the University of Texas Hall of Fame, along with Astro’s slugger Lance Berkman.

Nats Take Chi-Town Series

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

In the “I can’t believe this is happening” 2010 season of your Washington Nationals, the late April three game series against the Cubs might stand out as one of the team’s best. The Nationals came into Chicago hovering at .500, and left two games over. The Nationals took two of three from the Cubs in a tightly played defense-and-pitching series of contests that (in retrospect) weren’t all that close. Oddly, the Nats not only won the series, they were the better team on the field. With a 12-10 record, the Nats are off to their best start since moving from Montreal to D.C. But it’s not just the wins that are surprising (or not, as the case may be), it’s the way the Nats are winning — getting solid starting pitching, playing tough defense and relying on a dependable “lights out” reliever.

The Nats 3-2 win on Wednesday at Wrigley was a model of how the Mike Rizzo makeover has taken hold: Luis Atilano pitched six solid, if unspectacular, innings, Adam Dunn ended the game with a tough near-the-boxes snag of a fly ball that kept the Cubbies off the bases in the ninth, and Matt Capps recorded his league-leading 10th save in a three-up-and-three-down final frame. Even the sometimes-shakey Brian Bruney looked good, pitching out of a two-men-on 7th inning. Bruney looked like he’s finally getting his fastball down in the zone, and gaining confidence. My sense is that Nats’ skipper Jim Riggleman is desperately trying to keep his composure, while privately holding torch light parades on the team’s impressive start. “Our guys are focused and trying to play today’s game, not thinking about yesterday or tomorrow or down the road,” Riggleman said after the series. “They are just trying to win the game. Hopefully, it will add up and we win another one.”

Those Are The Headlines, Now For The Details: “Baseball Tonight” commentators are starting to take notice of the Nats — focusing, most recently, on the 10-for-10 Capps. The “who would have thought it” comments are a reflection, mayhaps, of BT’s down-in-the-mouth view of Nats’ baseball. After L.A. dropped two of three in Washington last week, BT ran a segment on “what’s wrong in L.A.” — implying that it wasn’t a matter of what Washington was doing right, but what the Dodgers were doing wrong. The lone exception is Tim Kurkjian who, when not talking about Stephen Strasburg, is celebrating his Spring Training prediction that the team is worth watching . . . The Cubs looked just average in their series loss against the Anacostia Nine. The Cubbies pitched well, but their big bombers (and the entire team, for that matter) were held homerless. That’s almost unheard of in Chicago, and shows just how effective Nats’ starters have been . . . We’ll add this: Tyler Colvin looks like the real deal. It’s going to be hard to keep the Stan- Hack-in-waiting out of the line-up, or keep Alfonso Soriano in . . .

After putting it off for several months, I am reading The Bill James Gold Mine, the most recent trademark effort from the statistical guru and now Senior Baseball Operations Advisor for the Red Sox. As if I don’t get enough baseball (a Nats game per day, plus the MLB Extra Innings package — this week it was the fascinating Diamondbacks-Rockies match-up), I now finish the evening with a chapter of James — like slurping ice cream after a visit to Chucky Cheeze. His take on the 1974 World Series is worth reading twice, particularly if (like me), you don’t exactly have a love affair with Dodger play-by-play legend Vin Scully. Then there’s this, in the chapter on the Oakland Athletics, one of baseball’s most fascinating teams:

“Who led the Oakland A’s in Win Shares in 2009? Andrew Bailey with his 26 saves and 1.84 ERA? Nope, he had 17 Win Shares. Jack Cust and his 25 home runs? No, only 14 Win Shares. Matt Holliday before he left? Only 12 Win Shares. It was third baseman Adam Kennedy with 18 Win Shares . . .” That is to say, if you peel away all the controversy (and complexity) surrounding the concept of “win shares,” James is making the case that Kennedy was more valuable to the A’s in 2009 than franchise marquee players Bailey, Cust and Holliday. The notion is almost counter-intuitive. That said, James has a point about Kennedy, and players like him. My own non-statistical sense is that Kennedy’s value to the A’s last year and to the Nats this year is more simply put: while Kennedy is hardly flashy and does not hit the long ball, his steady experience pours concrete into the middle of the Nats infield and batting order. I just feel better with him on the field. At the end of the year (and barring injury), we’ll find that the Nats are more likely winners when Kennedy’s in the line-up than when he’s not . . .

Adam Kennedy #29 and Cliff Pennington #26 of the Oakland Athletics congratulate one another following their victory over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim at Angel Stadium on August 29, 2009 in Anaheim, California. The Athletics defeated the Angels 4-3.

Desmond Is The New Shortstop

Monday, March 29th, 2010

The Nationals just got younger around-the-horn, the question is — did they get better? The naming of Ian Desmond as the Nationals’ new shortstop on Sunday was greeted with relief by most of Nats’ nation, but it comes with a Jim Riggleman caveat: “He may not be playing good in May, so Guzman may be our shortstop,” Riggleman said. “To open the season, we’re going to give Dessie a shot there to hold that position down. We hope that works.” Riggleman’s words sound like the mantra faced by rookies through all of baseball history – you’ve got a month kid, make the most of it. Desmond doesn’t sound worried (“Doesn’t really sound like it, but I am excited”), and neither does Mike Rizzo: “He’s a major league shortstop who’s proven he can hit,” Rizzo said. “We see him as an important part of our ballclub going forward.”

It’s Not A Motorcycle, Sweetie, It’s A Chopper: The only thing that might be worse than biting your nails over the performance of a rookie shortstop is having an All Star shortstop who can’t play. The Apples now say that their former all-world glove-and-bat Jose Reyes (he’s the heart of the team, or was) will not only not be ready to start on opening day, it’s not clear when he’ll be ready. Yet, for all of that, Mets’ GM Omar Minaya thinks Reyes is close: “We’re not going to rush for the sake of one game,” Minaya said. “Having him play the whole [or the vast majority of the games] is the most important thing.” Mets’ fans remain optimistic. Over at Real Dirty Mets Blog, “Mr. North Jersey” has Jose penciled in to start the season — the triumph of faith over reality . . . It’s not like the Mets need Reyes, not with the likes of Ike Davis, Ruben Tejada and Josh Thole smacking the ball . . . that said, we’ve turned over a new leaf on the Mets, dropping the word “chokes” to describe them, and retreating to something more palatable — like “Apples.” That doesn’t quite cut it, so we’re open to suggestion. “Chokes” is, I agree, a little over the top, as well as inaccurate: to “choke” you have to be good. And I’ll stick by my end-of-’09 prediction: the Nats will finish ahead of the Mets this year, and it won’t be close. Whether they have Reyes or not . . .

Jose Reyes #7 of the New York Mets poses during Spring Training Photo Day at Tradition Field on February 23, 2008 in Port Saint Lucie, Florida.  (Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Jose Reyes

Roberto Clemente

Friday, September 4th, 2009

The Nats will host Roberto Clemente Night on Friday night when they face off against the Florida Marlins. As I recall, I saw Roberto Clemente play six or seven times, almost all of them in Milwaukee County Stadium. This must have been in 1964 and 1965 — at the peak of his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates. I saw him two more times after that, in 1969 or 1970, at Wrigley Field in Chicago. Clemente was only 25 when he played on that great 1960 world championship team that took the series in seven games from the Yankees — the one where Bill Mazeroski hit the walk-off in the ninth inning of the sevnth game. Clemente was young, just 25, and hit .314 for the season.

Clemente won the MVP award in 1966 at the age of 31, his greatness established: he hit .317 with 29 home runs and he had 202 hits. He was a hitting machine — at the end of the 1972 season (just before he was killed), his hit total stood at exactly 3000. He had at least three more good years left in him in baseball, a lot more in life. The Clemente years were good years for the Pirates: they won a world championship in 1960 and 1971 and Clemente was surrounded by good players, some of them were very good: Matty Alou and Dick Groat and Don Hoak and Willie Stargell and Al Oliver and Bill Mazeroski and legendary pitchers Vern Law, Harvey Haddix and Bob Friend.

I remember Clemente playing right field, but I don’t have any specific memory of him hitting and I remember the way that he ran because it was so distinctive. He was scary quick, midwest quick. And you knew, when you saw him play, that he had a very special ability. I had heard he had a legendary arm and I saw it — once — though I don’t remember the exact details. Close enough thought: I remember the game. It was in Milwaukee County Stadium and it was a day game featuring the home team lame-duck-no-account 1965 headed-out-of-town (I’m still bitter about those) Milwaukee Braves against the mighty Pirates. The Braves were at bat with two outs, but there wasn’t anyone special at bat (like Aaron or Mathews); but some light hitting lug — and I didn’t much like many of them anyway. It was someone like Woody Woodward or Dennis Menke or someone like that. I would like to think it was Menke, one of my least favorite players. Dennis “boot ’em” Menke.  

Anyway, whoever it was came up and hit a scorcher down into the right field corner (a hell of a hit) and tore around first and the ball was hit on a line just inside the first base bag. The ball headed to the corner and it took one high bounce against the green wall. And Clemente went and got it and caught it on the bounce as it came off the wall and Menke (or whoever) headed to second and just kept going. A clear triple. And Clemente turned and rifled the ball over the head of the second baseman and into third where Pirate third sacker, young Bob Bailey was waiting.

I remember it well: the ball caught up with Menke about halfway between second and third and Menke looked at the ball as it passed him. I saw his head turn. Everyone saw his head turn. And Bailey just kind of spread his legs and leaned down and the ball took one bounce and Bailey applied the tag and flipped the ball to the ump. We were all on our feet with Braves fans (what there were of them) ready to cheer this fantastic triple and the air just came out of the stadium and everyone, just everyone, kind of looked at their shoes and shook their heads and went back to their popcorn. What was amazing about it really was that when Bailey applied the tag, Clemente was already halfway to the dugout — he was on the lip of the infield grass. And I remember thinking: well, I saw that.

Clemente two

The “Other Hank” . . . and Ian

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

Somewhere in the back of every fan’s mind is a list of baseball injustices. For Cubs fans it’s that Ron Santo isn’t yet in the Hall of Fame, for Pirate’s fans it’s that Roberto Clemente wasn’t named the NL MVP in 1960. There’s an argument on the net about whether Tim Raines, one of baseball’s great on base players should be in the hall, whether Jeffrey Maier or Steve Bartman should have been called for interference, whether Satchell Paige was justified in being irritated that Branch Rickey chose Jackie Robinson to break the color barrier. But in terms of pure injustice, few can top the unstated but embarrassing slight suffered by Texas Rangers fans who saw perhaps the game’s best second baseman (who came up as a shortstop in ’04) held out of the all star game. Even Boston Red Sox fans were upset.

04Kinsler

It’s not any easier to talk about the Kinsler slight now that the game is over. Not only is Kinsler a possible AL MVP, the American League went into the St. Louis “Midsummer Classic” with (count ’em) one second baseman — the well-deserving Aaron Hill (who’s an institution on my list of baseball’s most underrated players). Hill became a starter after Dustin Pedroia (here he is, in case you’ve forgotten) decided to spend time with his wife, who’s enduring a difficult pregnancy. To take Pedroia’s place, Hill was made a starter and Tampa Bay Ray Carlos Pena was named to the team. The naming of Pena meant that the AL might have fielded an all-Tampa Bay infield, particularly after Ray’s coach Joe Maddon named hometown favorite Ben Zobrist as a possible second baseman. Zobrist is a hell of a hitter, but Tampa Bay fans look at him as a “super-uilityman” — and he’s played nearly half his games in the outfield and shortstop. And since when does a “super-utility-man” get named to the all star game? Still, there was a chance that Kinsler might appear after Evan Longoria decided not to play, the result of an infection his throwing hand. But AL manager Joe Maddon picked Angels’ third baseman Chone Figgins to take Longoria’s place. Who knows, maybe there’s something about Kinsler that Maddon doesn’t like, but it certainly can’t be his qualifications: he’s hitting .337 with 14 home runs, 58 RBIs, 84 runs and 23 stolen bases — better numbers than any other AL player at the position. Not bad for a guy who finished second in fan voting and got to spend the all star break at a Starbucks in Dallas.

The slight of Ian Kinsler has rightly angered Ranger fans, but this isn’t the first time that a great player and potential MVP was overlooked in “the Midsummer Classic.” In 1954, feared Cubs hitter Hank Sauer was given three days off during the all star break, despite the fact that he was having a phenomenal year. Baseball’s older veterans still talk about the Sauer slight, noting that he’d won the rain-shortened 1952 classic with a home run — a year in which he’d led the league in homers and RBIs — and was one of the game’s most-feared hitters. In 1954, they note, he was having a career year and single-handedly carrying a bad team. Sauer (nicknamed “the Honker” for his big nose) was hardly a defensive whiz (he once misplayed a fly ball during a night game and explained that “I lost it in the moon”) and might have been the slowest outfielder in the National League. But his Wrigley Field blasts were the stuff of baseball lore and Cubs fans loved him: whenever he hit a homer, Cubs fans in the rightfield bleachers showered him with packets of tobacco. On Hank Sauer Day, a celebration of his career, there was so much tobacco on the field that it took five wheelbarrows to remove it. “I loved playing in Wrigley Field,” Sauer remembered during his retirement. “Fans would throw tobacco to me. What I couldn’t put in my pocket, I’d store in the vines. I supplied the whole club with tobacco.”

The Sauer injustice remained unmentioned by the Cubs outfielder throughout his career and into his retirement. When asked about it he dismissed it with a shrug, adding that a lot of people in the league that year were more focused on Chicago’s new rookie phenom — shortstop Ernie Banks. Then too, as Sauer himself would have admitted, he hardly deserved to be on the starting nine in ’54. The NL outfield was packed: with Stan Musial, Duke Snyder and Jackie Robinson, a veritable murderers’ row, named as the league starters. But that Sauer should have been on the team is not in question. The same holds true for Kinsler.

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