Posts Tagged ‘St. Louis Cardinals’
Saturday, September 4th, 2010
Nationals fans got a glimpse of the team’s future double play combination on Friday against the Pittsburgh Pirates, as Danny Espinosa got the starting nod at second base. After spending most of three years in the minors (with stints in Vermont, Potomac, Harrisburg and Syracuse), Espinosa cashed in on his early-September call up by launching his first home run (in the top of the third inning) into the right field seats at PNC Park and turning a seamless double play at a position that he will play well into the future. The Desmond-Espinosa combo is likely to be the opening day up-the-middle defense for the Nats in 2011. Espinosa’s exposure at second base was the only piece of good news for the Nats on Friday night, however, as the Pirates beat up on steady starter Livan Hernandez, touching up the right hander for eight earned runs in just 4.1 innings. Hernandez was philosophical about his outing: “It’s not happening sometimes,” he said. “When it’s not your day, it’s not your day.”
Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: We had plenty of responses from readers on our posting on Albert Pujols and Lou Gehrig, including complaints that we are “N.L.-centric” and that we purposely left out “the one guy who puts Albert to shame.” The reader went on a screed, saying that “Alex Rodriguez has better numbers, plays for a better team, has more awards and plays a more difficult position” than Pujols. “Pujols is a very, very good player,” the reader said. “But he’s no Alex Rodriguez.” So we checked the numbers. Rodriguez has 604 home runs in 17 seasons (Pujols has 401 in ten), has a career BA of .303 (Pujols is at .332), has a career OBP of .387 (Pujols is at .425) and has won three MVPs — the same number as Pujols. Albert doesn’t play for the Empire, but he’s played in two World Series, while Rodriguez has played in one. Pujols lags behind Albert in games played (of course), but all that this means is that Pujols (who’s played in 1530) has about 700 games (Rodriguez has played in 2278) to catch the pride of the Gothams in career home runs — and at this rate (of about 33 per year) he will. By our reckoning (and at the current rate), when Pujols has played in 2200 games, he will have hit just over 610 homers. The reader is right: Alex Rodriguez is a great player. In fact, he’s the second best player in baseball today.
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.Â 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.
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)
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.
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.
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.Â 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 . . .Â 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’sÂ worse. They’re mediocre.
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?
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 whatÂ 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,Â 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.
Sunday, April 18th, 2010
The New York Mets won a wild one in St. Louis — a 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.
Tuesday, January 12th, 2010
This is the way the ratings work: if you want peopleÂ to listen to you, you had better do something interesting — and local. And so, to celebrate Mark McGwire’s coming out party on Monday, one local sports talk show asked its listeners to decide who had hurt their sport more: Mark “the needle” McGwire? Or Washington basketball semi-great Gilbert “Wyatt Earp” Arenas. The calls flooded in, though Sports Talk Radio afficianados are nothing if not predictable. If you don’t like baseball then Mark McGwire is “fatal to the game” (as one caller would have it) and if you don’t like basketball (“Let’s get ready to Gam-blllllllle“) then Arenas is a talisman of “a league of thugs.” There’s a better answer: if Mark McGwire had brought a gun into the Cardinals locker room he would have been immediately suspended for half-a-seasonÂ — and right now he’d be in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
McGwire’s sin, or so it seems to us (and here we are — after a long hiatus), is not so much that he used steroids (didn’t we already know that), but that he took so long in admitting it. Oh, and in admitting it . . . well, he didn’t really admit it: he didn’t avow that somehow it had increased his power (which is what steroids do) and he refused to acknowledge that without them he might not have hit the 70 home runs that made the ’98 season so memorable. That is to say, twenty-four hours after coming clean, McGwire is now being castigated for not really “coming clean.”
The most outspoken McGwire critics appeared on the MLB Network in the backwash of McGwire’s interview with Bob Costas. “The fact is, it is a form of cheating. And the question in my mind is can you award a guy with the highest award in baseball [election to the Hall of Fame] if he cheated? And my answer is no,” Peter Gammons said. Gammons took a surprising view: he said he had voted for McGwire’s entry before admitting to taking steroids, but that he would not do so now — and he predicted that it would be “a couple of tough years” for McGwire. That is to say: there’s no reward for coming clean, at least in Gammons’ mind, and it might have been better for him if he kept his mouth shut. “He wanted to be in uniform [as the new St. Louis Cardinals hitting coach] more than he wanted to be in the Hall,” Gammons reflected. There’s something to that: our guess here at CFG is that Cardinals’ owner Bill DeWitt probably insisted that McGwire clean up the past — if for no other reason than to keep the press from hounding him through all of Spring Training and beyond. But that meant a public admission and an apology. McGwire agreed.
MLB Networker commenter Joe Magrane added his own voice, wondering whether McGwire’s admission was really an admission — McGwire admitted to takingÂ steroids to “heal faster,” Magrane noted, but without explicitly admitting that he used them. “I just don’t buy it,” Magrane said. MLB Cardinals’ reporter Matthew Leach had it the other way: “If there was anything that surprised me about the whole deal, it’s that he was a little more explicit than I thoughtÂ he would be.” Leach then added a classic zinger: McGwire apologized, but without really saying what he was apologizing for.
Yeah, I buy that — but let’s get serious. McGwire could comeÂ absolutely clean (“I put the needle right here, Bob , because I knew it would help me break the Maris record)Â but such an admission, while fueling America’sÂ twisted obsession withÂ public and tearful repentence,Â wouldn’tÂ make any of us actually feel any better. We still wouldn’t know what to do with all those records and (for those of us who watched every minute of the ’98 season) we still wouldn’t know how to think about that day when Mark and SammyÂ made baseball history. (All I can say is, thank GodÂ Sammy didn’t take ’em!) And that kind of admission (anÂ I-did-it-just-to-hit-home-runs admission)Â might actually make us feel worse. Then too — lest we forget — Â Bud and a gaggle of owners and senior baseball executivesÂ were all arrayed in the box seats at Busch watching when Mark and Sammy put on their show. AndÂ while BudÂ “Claude Rains” SeligÂ has appointed every kind of commission possible to investigate the problem, he stood and cheered just like the rest of us when Big Mac put one over the McDonald’s signÂ to break the record:Â “Steroids? Steroids? I’mÂ shocked to learn there wereÂ steroids in baseball.”
McGwire apologized and wants to coach St. Louis hitters. Let’s leave him alone. And let’s hope, for the sake of the Nats, that he does a lousy job.