Monthly archives: April 2006
Soporific Saturday Slaughter
A beautiful day did not make for a beautiful game. Actually, Saturday's ballgame was often tedious, though there was some upper deck excitement provided by Johnny "Double Dutch" Damon, Jason Giambi and Jorge Posada. The slumping Alex Rodriguez made a great backhanded catch (it's funny, Rodriguez is clearly in a funk at the plate and yet his numbers are still respectable--he was 0-4 yesterday but scored three runs and had an RBI) as the offense crushed Toronto pitching.
Final score: Yanks 17, Jays 6.
The most alarming moment of the game came when Gary Sheffield collided with first baseman Shea Hillenbrand. Both went down hard, with Sheff staying down longer. At first I thought, "Oh, God, his right shoulder." But according to the early reports, Sheff has a bruised right knee and banged up both of his wrists. It was a scary moment though. Oh yeah, and Randy Johnson got beat about the face and neck again by the Jays. This time, he was bailed out, but it was another underwhelming outing for the Big Unit against Toronto.
Otherwise, the game was a snoozer, perfect time for Yankee fans to take a mid-afternoon nap without fear of waking up suddenly in a panic. The Blue Jays could simply not throw strikes, almost every count went deep and the Bombers scored runs in all eight innings they came to bat, only the second time in team history that they've accomplished that feat (the first was back in 1939).
They played deep enough into the afternoon for the shadows to become a factor in the last couple of innings. The intense spring light against the grass is just different enough from the more mellow, autumn light--and the shadows they create--to really give you a sense of time and place.
Mr. Chacin goes against Mr. Moose this afternoon, another drop-dead gorgeous day here in the Bronx. Our man, Cliff Cocoran will be on hand, drinking it all in.
Go get 'em Moose.
Beautifical Day for Ball in the Bronx (ain't it?)
It is a sterling spring day here in New York as Randy Johnson goes against the Blue Jays this afternoon. Really, not a cloud in the sky, sunny, but breezy, in the low sixties. It'll be chilly later on. Of course, the Big Unit was served by the Blue Jays last week in Toronto. They just pounded him. Let's see what he has for them this time around. The Yankee offense has sputtered for the past three games. How much longer can that happen?
Let's Go Yan-Kees.
Howe Come (Bernie)?
The news of Steve Howe's unpleasant death hovered over Friday night's game, didn't it? Michael Kay didn't exactly go out of his way to say anything flattering about Howe, who was probably a real hard-on to a guy like Kay in the clubhouse. Or any repoter, for that matter. Joel Sherman was on Channel Nine later on and he too painted Howe as this hyper-active, amped-up nut. I'm sure this is was true--that Howe was what the Brits call the "c" word to the writers. But he was evidentally appreciated by some of his teammates, including none other than Gentle Ben, Bernie Williams. According to Filip Bondy in the Daily News:
He didn't always tell people the truth, and that probably included himself. But Howe made memories in New York, was a real character with real character flaws. Bernie Williams talked yesterday about exactly that - how Howe was wacky in the clubhouse, dead serious on the mound.
Great to hear that Howe played the mentor to Bernie. That is a great pairing to imagine, right? I never really disliked Howe, who was an effective part of those Buck Showalter-Stick Michael rebuilding teams. Talk about a presence. Howe came across like one of those nutzo spaz performances by James Woods, or the guy Mel Gibson played in "Lethal Weapon." But had more of a Jim Bouton-square face. He was uncomfortably wound-up. All sweaty and on-the-edge, ready to burst. I don't think he was altogether unappealing, but man was he volatile. If he didn't like you it must have been brutal. It's nice to know he had an warm side. Howe is possibly hilarious from a distance, but if you found Howe amusing at all, it is because you enjoy laughing nervously. Or if you liked Howe it is also because you probably just sympathized with his kind of schlimazzel. But as troubled as he was, he left Yankee fans with compelling memories, on and off the field. It's too bad that his story ended sadly, but it sure doesn't come as a surprise.
On paper, last night's Roy Halladay-Jaret Wright matchup screamed landslide victory for the Blue Jays. As it turns out, the Jays won 7-2, but the game was far closer than that score indicates.
Jaret Wright allowed a two-run home run to Frank Catalanotto before getting an out in the first, but then held the Jays scoreless through five innings, thanks in part to four double plays turned by the Yankee defense. Not that he pitched all that well. He walked four and struck out none, throwing just 52 percent of his pitches for strikes. Wright left in the sixth with two men on and none out. Scott Proctor came on and got away with a hanging curve to Troy Glaus only to have another to Shea Hillenbrand leave the park to make it 5-0. Much like Wright, Proctor settled down from there to pitch two more scoreless frames, though through more of his own doing, striking out two, walking none, and throwing 69 percent of his pitches for strikes. The Hillenbrand homer was the only hit Proctor allowed in three full innings of work.
Roy Halladay, meanwhile, kept the Yankees off the board entirely through five and a third, despite throwing just 55 percent of 99 pitches for strikes. Scott Schoeneweis came on to face lefties Giambi and Matsui, but walked Matsui and then surrendered Bernie Williams first home run since August 26 of last year (184 plate appearances ago). The home run was just Bernie's second extra base hit since September 7 of last year (151 PAs ago). Williams' next at-bat came with two outs in the eighth with the Yanks down 5-3 and runners on the corners and ended in a 5-4-3 double play that was aided by first base umpire Bruce Dreckman, who called Bernie out despite the fact that he was clearly safe.
Joe Torre then handed the ball to Tanyon Sturtze, who, after getting Lyle Overbay to ground out, gave up another Hillenbrand homer, a Bengie Molina single, an Alexis Rios double (oddly the red hot Rios did not start the game), and a sac fly by Aaron Hill that put the game out of reach.
Today, the script is flipped as Randy Johnson, who has been outstanding in four of his five starts (the one exception being a very off night in Toronto last week), takes on Josh Towers, who is 0-4 with an 8.35 ERA after four starts. Here's hoping the results are similarly reversed.
Blue Jays Vol. II
Tonight, the Yankees open a three-game weekend series with the Blue Jays in the Bronx. These two teams last met in Toronto just over a week ago, splitting a two-game "series" due to radically disperate performances by Randy Johnson and Mike Mussina. Not much has changed about this Blue Jay team in the interim. The only change to their roster is that A.J. Burnett (hereafter known as the Canadian Pavano) is back on the DL and has been replaced in the rotation by hot prospect Casey Janssen, who was drafted out of UCLA in 2004. Burnett did not pitch against the Yankees last week and Janssen will not pitch in this weekend's series, so for all the Yankees will know, this team is unaltered.
They have shuffled the line-up however, primarily because of Alexis Rios, who at 25 appears to finally be living up to his early hype. Rios was rushed to the majors at age 23 after just 185 unimpressive triple-A at-bats and has struggled mightily the past two seasons to the point that he was supposed to platoon in right field this year with twice displaced former Rookie of the Year Eric Hinske. Poor Eric.
What's been most startling about Rios thus far is his power. Rios had just 31 professional homers coming into this season and no more than 11 in any single season at any level, or combination of levels. Thus far, in 18 games he's homered six times and is hitting .368/.375/.772. Certainly he's not that good, but a month into the season, he doesn't appear to be cooling off very much, having gone 3 for 4 with a homer against the Orioles on Wednesday. Last week in two games against the Yankees, Rios went 3 for 7 with a homer, two doubles, four RBIs and two runs scored (doing most of that damage against Randy Johnson whom he's now 6 for 11 against career with three extra base hits). You just can't keep that kind of production in the eighth spot, so Rios moves up to second in the order, pushing Frank Catalanotto (or Reed Johnson) into the lead-off spot, and dropping Russ Adams down to his vacated eighth spot. The result looks like this:
L Frank Catalanotto (LF)
The man who will try to stop some version of that lineup tonight will be Jaret Wright. Wright is making just his second start of the year in addition to a lone relief appearance, both of those prior outings having ended badly. Wright claims that the long rest and excitement about finally getting on the mound caused him to overthrow against the Twins two weeks ago. We'll see if he's able to dial it down a bit tonight. He'll certainly shock the pants off of everyone watching if he is. Making matters worse, his mound opponent is Blue Jay ace Roy Halladay. Halladay hasn't been his dominant self yet this season, and was even skipped two turns ago due to stiffness in his pitching forearm, but still comes into the Bronx sporting a 3.60 ERA, which should be more than enough to outpitch Jaret Wrong.
A couple quick line-up notes: Kelly Stinnett will catch Wright tonight so that Posada can catch Johnson in tomorrow's day game. Johnny Damon is back in the field, as is Bernie, who will play right for tonight's DH, Gary Sheffield.
Yanks Win a Close One
Shawn Chacon and Mark Hendrickson, last night's two junk ball starters, were both effective with plenty of the soft stuff. Joey Gathright made a sterling play in the bottom of the first inning to snatch a home run away from Gary Sheffield. However, an error later in the game by Tampa Bay's third baseman Russell Branyan paved the way for the slumping Hideki Matsui, who came through with the winning hit for the Bombers--a seeing-eye single that was reminiscent of Luis Sojo's ground ball in Game 5 of the 2000 World Serious. After a horribly frustrating night for the New Yorkers, the home team prevailed, 4-2. Derek Jeter had three hits himself and is now batting over .400. The bullpen performed well and this was just the kind of win the Yankees needed, wouldn't you say?
The three-game series is baseball's perfect package. It exposes enough of each team's pitching to prevent any single hurler from dominating the competition, but doesn't go on so long as to overstay is welcome. Five games may not be enough for a postseason series, but they are way too many for a regular-season confrontation, particularly when a team such as the 2006 Royals, Orioles, Mariners or Devil Rays is involved. Two games are unrewarding, over too fast and often without exposing the true nature of the teams involved. Baseball is a game for people who savor the moment and chew their food before swallowing. Until recently it wasn't uncommon for teams to have two games scheduled on the same day. A two-game "series" is as big an affront to the game as artificial turf (which may be why the Yankees always seem to play two against Toronto). Four games are fun for marquee matchups, such as when the Red Sox come to town, but the possibility of a 2-2 series split just doesn't belong in a game that refuses to end in a tie. Indeed, it's the fact that a three-game series must have a winner that, above all else, makes it baseball's ideal regular season sample size.
Tonight, the Yankees play their third rubber game of the year, having previously dropped their first in Oakland and won their second this past Sunday against the Orioles. I guess that makes it something of a rubber rubber game. At any rate, they'll be digging in against lefty Mark Hendrickson, who needed just 106 pitches to hurl a three-hit, one-walk shutout against the O's in his first start, but has been on the DL with tendonitis in his pitching shoulder ever since.
Last year, Hendrickson made a whopping five starts against the Yankees, posting an ERA more than a full run better than his overall mark. As one might expect from a 6'9" lefty, Hendrickson is murder on fellow southpaws (career .225 GPA), but he's rather useless against right-handed hitters, who hit him to the tune of .312/.356/.504. Taking a closer look at his five starts against the Yanks last year, he gave up at least four runs in four of them, but only once gave up as many as five. He also lasted a minimum 6 2/3 innings in four of those starts, pitching a full five in the one exception. That surprisingly consistent, and suggests that, if Hendrickson is fully healthy and on his game coming off the DL, Shawn Chacon will have to do his part tonight.
Chacon, meanwhile, is coming off a tremendously lucky outing against the Orioles in which he held the O's to one run over seven innings due almost entirely to a .182 opponent's average on balls in play. Prior to that, Chacon had racked up a representative 8.03 ERA across two disappointing starts and a pair of ugly relief outings. Here's hoping he gets a few lucky bounces tonight.
Speaking of Roger Angell, after going to hear David Maraniss talk about his new book on Roberto Clemente last night, I was reminded of Angell's description of Clemente in the 1971 World Serious. Maraniss spoke about Clemente's game going deeper than what the numbers can tell us, and I don't think he meant it as a cop-out. It was meant it as a way of describing somebody whose very body language was memorable--all of a piece. "Sensations" was the term Maraniss used and Clemente certainly made the country take notice with his performance--on the bases, in the field and at the plate--in that Serious (by the way, for what it is worth, Maraniss believes that Clemente would have been a fine player today, and he compared him to two other athletes of that era whose games suggested something timeless--Gayle Sayers and Earl Monroe).
Before Game 7, Clemente told Angell, "I want everybody in the world to know that this is the way I play all the time. All season, every season. I gave everything I had to this game." The final game hadn't begun yet, when Angell, summing-up the first six games, wrote:
And then too, there was the shared experience, already permanently fixed in memory, of Roberto Clemente playing a kind of baseball that none of us had ever seen before--throwing and running and hitting at something close to the level of perfection, playing to win but also playing the game as if it were a form of punishment for everyone else on the field.
Now, that's a sensation.
Talk about a night to forget in the Bronx. The Devil Rays set a dubious team record issuing fourteen walks, but the Yankees only managed to score two lousy runs (how's the old blood pressure, Yankee fans?). The Bombers stranded sixteen men on base. The two teams combined for nine stolen bases, but poor base running cost New York. In the end, the Rays rallied against Mariano Rivera in the tenth and won the game, 4-2. Gary Sheffield grounded out with the bases loaded to end the game.
Sam Borden reports in the Daily News:
Despite the unsightly performance, Joe Torre wasn't angry. Asked to explain how a lineup of All-Stars could miss on so many chances to break out against a mediocre pitching staff, the manager simply nodded to the baseball gods.
As Roger Angell once wrote--trying to describe how the Orioles swept the once mighty Dodgers in the 1966 Fall Classic--"the only explanation must be that baseball is still the most difficult, and thus the most unpredictable and interesting, of all professional sports." Look for the Bombers' bats to bounce back tonight.
Everybody Wang-McClung Tonight
Worst. Headline. Ever.
Meanwhile, duck and cover tonight folks. The one team Chien-Ming couldn't solve last year was the D-Rays, against whom he posted a 6.94 ERA across four starts. Aside from one ugly start against the eventual NL Central Champion Cardinals that lasted a mere four innings, his work against the Rays was by far his worst aggregate performance against any single team in his rookie season. Underlining that fact, the Devil Rays were the only team other than the Cardinals to collect more than a hit per inning off of Wang. Distressingly, they were also the team he faced the most last year, as he didn't face any other single team as many as three times. Sadly, Wang's performance thus far this year doesn't suggest that his fortunes are about to change, though the B-squad line-up the Rays are running out there due to injuries to Huff, Lugo, and Cantu (day-to-day with a bruised foot) could help.
All of that said, there's something curious about Wang's four starts thus far this season. One would expect him to do poorly on turf as the groundballs he induces are more likely to speed through the infield for hits. Indeed, it would seem that's partially to blame for his struggles against the Rays last year (though he did just as poorly against them in the Bronx). But Wang's one dominant outing this year came on the Metrodome turf. That start also saw his lowest single-game groundball-flyball ratio of the year (1.75 compared to a typical 3.14 in his first two starts combined and a staggering 14.00 in his most recent outing), in combination with his highest strikeout total (eight Ks versus five total in his other three outings combined). Perhaps the solution to Wang's early-season struggles isn't getting the ball down, but actually getting away from thinking groundball all the time and making more of an effort to go for the strikeout, even if it means going high in the zone to blow one of his mid-90s heaters past a hitter.
For his part, the hard-throwing McClung has been godawful this year save for one solid, but unimpressive outing against the Royals. The Yanks feasted on him last year and he has a 14.00 ERA in nine career innings against the Bombers, all of which suggests that Wang might have some room to experiment tonight.
Bubba Crosby gets his first start of the year tonight, batting ninth and playing center in place of DH Johnny Damon. Encouragingly, Bernie continues to ride pine. For the Rays, Crawford is expected back tonight, Cantu remains questionable, and Edwin Jackson has already been send down in favor of tomorrow's starter Mark Hendrickson.
Last week, Buster Olney wrote about how Mike Mussina has been making like Greg Maddux and throwing his soft stuff even slower. Today, Tom Verducci gives us more insight into why Moose has been so successful this spring:
"I threw in an intrasquad game in spring training,'' Mussina said. "People were like, 'Why are you pitching in an intrasquad game?' Really, the only reason why I did was that you back everything up from the start of the season, counting five days between starts, and five days before my first spring training start happened to be a day when we had an intrasquad game.
A few years ago, I did a pre-season Q&A with a bunch of sportswriters. One of the questions I posed was whether Mussina would finally win 20 games that season. Most thought he'd be a lock for at least 15. We've seen Mussina break down with injuries for the past two years, and so the old "Will he win 20?" was not exactly the first question many Yankee fans had on their mind when considering Mussina in 2006. But wouldn't it be wunnerful if he did win 20 this year?
I know, it's a jinx to mention it, but screw it, Mussina has enough bad luck on his own--I'm not going to be the one that puts the whammy on him. Regardless, I hope he gets at least 15 and has a terrific year. It's been cool reading the comments section lately and seeing how many fans he has out there. Cliff and I have always been big supporters. Should be interesting to see how he fares against the Jays this weekend, as they get their second look at him. Friday night, which pits the Big Unit v. Roy Halladay could be something special too.
The Tortoise and the Hare
The biggest story of the season thus far for the Yankees has to be the resurgence of Mike Mussina, who has found the fountain of youth in the form of a 70-mile-per-hour changeup. Moose did it again last night, stymieing the Devil Ray's B-squad for six innings, holding them to four hits in six innings while walking none and striking out seven. Only a first-inning Jonny Gomes homer (his league-leading tenth) managed to spoil Moose's evening.
Fireballer Scott Kazmir, meanwhile, was unable to uphold his end of the bargain, walking Johnny Damon on four pitches to start the evening and then surrendering a two-run homer to Derek Jeter to hand over the lead before he had recorded a single out. By the time the first inning ended on a broken-bat grounder by Andy Phillips, who didn't strike out once in his rematch with Kazmir, the Yanks had a 3-1 lead and were off to the races.
In the fourth, Phillips delivered a one-out opposite-field single and came around to score. In the sixth, Tampa manager Joe Maddon replaced Kazmir, who walked five and threw 101 pitches in his five innings of work, with Scott Dunn and watched as Dunn and subsequent reliever Ruddy Lugo doubled the Yankee run total to make it 8-1. In the eighth, the Yanks plated a lead-off double by Jeter--who was 3 for 5 with a double, a homer, three runs scored and three driven in on the night--to push the eventual final score to 9-1. Sturtze, Villone and Proctor mopped up for Moose, allowing just one baserunner across three innings (a single off Villone).
Other highlights included Miguel Cairo going 2 for 3 with a pair of doubles and a walk (though he did get picked off second following the first double). Not bad for his first start since April 12. Jason Giambi, meanwhile, went 2 for 3 with a double, a walk and three RBIs from the DH spot giving him a two-day DH line of 7 AB, 3 R, 5 H, 8 RBI, 2 2B, 2 HR, 1 BB, 0 K. Hmmm, maybe he can hit in that role after all.
Finally, making his fourth start in five games at first base, Andy Phillips made a pair of nice plays in the field and is starting to look more comfortable at the plate. Phillips has singling in each of the last two games, worked a full count with the bases loaded in his third at-bat last night (though that AB ended in another broken bat groundout), and drove a ball to deep center in his final trip. He's also struck out just twice in his last 11 plate appearances. These are small signs of what I hope will be greater things to come. Hopefully Phillips will start again on Thursday against lefty Mark Hendrickson.
Tampa Bay Devil Rays
As strange as it might be to say, the Devil Rays are actually a pretty interesting team. Despite finishing in last place in 2005 for the seventh time in their eight-year history, the team's long-rumored youth movement finally bore some fruit, enabling the Rays to assemble the league's sixth most productive offense in the season's second half and give the Yankees hell for most of the season. Prior to their final head-to-head series of the year, which the Yankees swept decisively, the Devil Rays were 11-5 against the eventual division champs, having scored 102 runs in those first 16 games. This winter, minority partner Stuart Sternberg bought out founding owner Vince Naimoli and overhauled the front office in the hopes of capitalizing on the team's emerging talent before Naimoli and the administration of ousted GM Chuck LaMarr could do any more damange. Sounds crazy, but it just might work.
Last year, to established stars Aubrey Huff and Julio Lugo and the still-emerging talent of Carl Crawford, the Rays added second baseman Jorge Cantu and finally found room for slugger Jonny Gomes and speedster Joey Gathright. On the mound, Scott Kazmir spent his first full season in the bigs, and reliever Chad Orvella pitched well enough to make Danys Baez and former All-Star Lance Cater trade bait.
This year should bring further maturation from Kazmir (22) and Crawford (24), full seasons of Gomes and Gathright (both 25), and allow Cantu (24) to settle in at second base after being yanked back and forth between second and third last year. Exactly what will come of Orvella (25), who failed to make the team out of camp, or Huff (29) and Lugo (30), both of whom were shopped in the offseason due to their impending free-agency after the current season, remains to be seen. But should Huff or Lugo be moved, uberprospects B.J. Upton (21) and Delmon Young (20) should be ready to step into their shoes, though Upton's ability to remain at shortstop remains in doubt.
Curiously, neither Huff nor Lugo will see action in the Bronx this week, as both are on the 15-day DL. In their place, the Rays will send out not Upton and Young, but Tomas Perez and Ty Wiggington. I was startled at the outpouring of emotion when Perez was released by the Phillies this spring. Apparently, Perez was considered something of an institution in Philadelphia and in the Philly clubhouse. I didn't even realize he was still in the league. Turns out Perez was the Phillies jack of all trades and resident prankster for the past six seasons, though he appeared to have sustained that position on the basis of hitting .304/.347/.437 in 135 at-bats in his second year with the club. Since then he's hit just .245/.300/.372. Good news for the Yanks there. Wigginton, meanwhile, couldn't stick with the Pirates last year after coming over in the Kris Benson trade the year before, but, starting at the hot corner for the injured Huff, has been crushing the ball to the tune of .284/.333/.687, with eight homers in 17 games.
Thus far this season, the Devil Rays offense has been Wigginton and Gomes (.302/.444/.746) with a helping of Cantu. Wigginton is clearly playing over his head, but Alex's boy Gomes just might be this good. Okay maybe not, that good, but his .282/.372/.534 performance last year seems utterly legit. If nothing else, his performance should teach the Yankees and their fans a lesson about judging my man Andy Phillips on 40-odd scattered at-bats. Over 30 plate appearances in 2003 and 2004 Gomes hit just .103/.161/.138 (3 for 29 with a double and one walk), but when finally given regular playing time last year he posted that .282/.273/.534 line. It's not a perfect comparison as Gomes is three and a half years younger than Phillips. Then again, Gomes, despite having success in triple-A, didn't demolish the International League the way Phillips has the last two years.
Of course, all of this swing don't mean a thing if the Rays don't get their pitching in order. Speedster Kazmir, who will start tonight against slowpoke Mike Mussina in what I hope will be a stirring pitcher's duel, looks to be rounding into form, but even with his success, the Rays are only separated from the worst ERA in baseball by the existence of the Kansas City Royals. Last year the Yankees put up thirteen runs on the D-Rays in a single inning twice, and finished the year having put up exactly ten times that against them in 19 games.
There are glimmers of progress. It appears the Rays would be willing to cut bait on Doug Waechter and push hard-throwing Seth McClung into the bullpen should failed Dodger prospect Edwin Jackson (the take for Baez and Carter) and the home grown Jason Hammel take root, but that's hardly as promising as having Upton and Young on deck, particularly given that duo's three starts thus far this year. In the meantime, it'll be more Mark Hendrickson for your money. Indeed, Hendrickson will come off the DL to start Thursday night, which means that Jackson, who will be sent down to make room before Thursday's game, and Waechter, who is getting skipped due to yesterday's off-day, will be available out of the pen should the Rays need nine unexceptional relievers to keep the Bombers at bay rather than the seven they normally employ.
Enjoy tonight's duel. It could get ugly from here.
"Clemente," the new book by pulitizer prize-winning author, David Maraniss, hits the shelves today. It is a fine appreciation of Roberto Clemente, who is undoubtedly one of the most charasmatic players of the post-War era. Although Clemente was a key member of two World Championship teams, he played in relative obscurity in Pittsburgh during the 1950s and '60s, and was overlooked for his much of his career. Until, of course, his monumental performance in the 1971 Serious, and his untimely death in December of 1972. His legend and reputation have grown ever since.
As my pal Steve Treder put it to me in an e-mail recently:
Clemente was actually slightly underrated until the late '60s, and especially during the 1971 World Series when he suddenly got noticed by the national media. At that point they all suddenly seemed to think he was better than he actually was, after years of being overlooked. His early tragic death soon afterward froze his image in time. Had he lived, and had a few years of decline phase at the end of his career, his reputation probably would have balanced out about right. As it is, many casual fans seem to think he was the equal of Mays/Aaron/Robinson/Mantle, when in fact he wasn't nearly as good as any of them.
It is no insult to say that Clemente wasn't as great as Mays, Aaron, Robinson or Mantle. They are all legends. Fortunately for Maraniss, off-the-field, Clemente was more interesting than most. And between the lines, Maraniss points out, Clemente had a terrific, inimitable style.
There was something about Clemente that surpassed statistics, then and always. Some baseball mavens love the sport precisely because of its numbers. They can take the mathematics of a box score and of a year's worth of statistics and calculate the case for players they consider underrated or overrated and declare who has the most real value to a team. To some skilled practitioners of this science, Clemente comes out very good but not the greatest; he walks too seldom, has too few home runs, steals too few bases. Their perspective is legitimate, but to people who appreciate Clemente this is like chemists trying to explain Van Gogh by analyzing the ingredients of his paint. Clemente was art, not science. Every time he strolled slowly to the batter's box or trotted out to right field, he seized the scene like a great actor. It was hard to take one's eyes off him, because he could do anything on a baseball field and carried himself with such nobility. "The rest of us were just players," Steve Blass would say. "Clemente was a prince."
Thanks to Mr. Maraniss and the good people at Simon and Schuster, here is an excerpt from "Clemente." This section is less about Clemente specifically and more about the conditions that Black and latin players encountered in the early 1960s. But it establishes the backdrop that is essential to understanding Clemente's story. Enjoy!
BOOK EXCERPT: From "Clemente"
By David Maraniss
"Pride and Prejudice"
[Clemente] arrived at Pirates camp to train for the 1961 season on March 2, a day late. He and Tite Arroyo had been delayed entry from Puerto Rico to Florida until tests came back proving they did not have the bubonic plague, a few cases of which had broken out in Venezuela during the tournament.
On the day he reached Fort Myers, free from the plague, a story ran on the front page of the New York Times under the headline: NEGROES SAY CONDITIONS IN U.S. EXPLAIN NATIONALIST'S MILITANCY. One of the key figures quoted in the story was Malcolm X, the Black Muslim leader, who in the Times account was referred to as Minister Malcolm. Interviewed at a Muslim-run restaurant on Lenox Avenue in Harlem, Malcolm X said the only answer to America's racial dilemma was for blacks to segregate themselves, by their own choice, with their own land and financial reparations due them from centuries of slavery. He dismissed the tactics of the civil rights movement as humiliating, especially the lunch-counter sit-ins that were taking place throughout the South. "To beg a white man to let you into his restaurant feeds his ego," Minister Malcolm told the newspaper.
This was fourteen years after Jackie Robinson broke the major league color line, seven years after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the separate-but-equal doctrine of segregated schools, five years after Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. led the bus boycott in Montgomery, four years after the Little Rock Nine desegregated Central High School in the capital of Arkansas, one year after the first lunch-counter sit-in in Greensboro. Year by year, the issue of race was becoming more urgent. The momentum was on the side of change, but the questions were how and how fast. In baseball, where once there had been no black ballplayers, now there were a hundred competing for major league jobs, and along with numbers came enormous talent, with ten past and future most valuable players among them. Yet every black player who reported to training camp in Florida that spring of 1961 still had to confront Jim Crow segregation. Even if their private emotions were sympathetic to Malcolm X's rage at having to beg a white man to let you into his restaurant, the issue in baseball was necessarily shaped by its own history. Having moved away from the professional Negro Leagues and busted through the twentieth century's racial barrier, black players did not view voluntary resegregation as an option, and separate and unequal off the field was no longer tolerable.
Wendell Smith, the influential black sportswriter who still had a column in the weekly Pittsburgh Courier but wrote daily now for the white-owned newspaper Chicago's American, began a concerted campaign against training camp segregation that year. On January 23, a month before the spring camps opened, Smith wrote a seminal article that appeared on the top of the front page of Chicago's American headlined negro ball players want rights in south. "Beneath the apparently tranquil surface of baseball there is a growing feeling of resentment among Negro major leaguers who still experience embarrassment, humiliation, and even indignities during spring training in the south," Smith wrote. "The Negro player who is accepted as a first class citizen in the regular season is tired of being a second class citizen in spring training." Smith added that leading black players were "moving cautiously and were anxious to avert becoming engulfed in fiery debate over civil rights," but nonetheless were preparing to meet with club owners and league executives to talk about the problem and make it a front-burner issue for the players association.
Here Comes Da Mums
My mother was born in Belgium and then raised in the Belgian Congo. When she met my father and came to New York in 1966-67, she spoke English well enough, but though she's lived here in the States ever since, her high-pitched French accent remains. Once you meet her once, you'll never forget the way she talks. As kids, she'd sing us lullabys--mostly in French--but sometimes in English too. One that I remember with particular fondess was mom singing the chorus of George Harrison's sweet-natured record, "Here Comes the Sun." Ma didn't know any of the lyrics so she'd just sing the chorus and then add her own "Do-da-do-doo doos." But in her high-lilting voice, it sounded so charming, and for us as kids (my twin sister and younger brother), undoubtedly warming too.
This memory came to mind yesterday as I watched the Yankee game at home with Emily. I had spoken with my co-host Cliff earlier in the day and he expressed some concern about the rainy weather. Cliff's got a season ticket package for Sundays. Since he was on puppy-duty yesterday he offered his tickets to his mom--who is a bonafide Yankee fan--and a cheery one at that. But he was feeling guilty at the thought of his mom getting soaked out there in the bleachers all afternoon. I could relate to feeling guilty like that, so you can imagine how pleased I was for Cliff and his mom when the sun came out mid-way through the game, and remained for the rest of the afternoon.
When the sun poked through, I thought of Cliff and his mom as I heard my own mother singing "Here Comes the Sun."
Just a quick, personal memory during yesterday's 7-1 win at the Stadium. Randy Johnson pitched, Jorge Posada caught, while Jason Giambi supplied the pop.
Rainy Day? Let Them Play!
On a cold rainy afternoon in the Bronx, Shawn Chacon returned to the rotation to work his low BABIP magic against the Orioles. Turning in his first solid start of the season, Chacon only threw 57 percent of 111 pitches for strikes over seven innings, struck out just three and walked just as many, but somehow managed to hold the O's to one run on four hits. That means that just four of the 22 balls in play fell for hits, a .182 BABIP.
The Yankee bats, meanwhile, plated single runs against Daniel Cabrera in the third and fourth (the first a lead-off walk by Robinson Cano, yes you read that right, that came around to score, the second a lead-off single by Alex Rodriguez that also came around to score), then broke the game open in the sixth. That inning started with a walk to Sheffield, a Rodriguez single, and Jason Giambi's third walk in as many trips. Hideki Matsui then cracked a bases-loaded double to plate Sheff and Rodriguez and drive Cabrera from the game. After John Halama came on and got Bernie Williams to ground out, Robinson Cano drew his second walk of the game (and the season!), Kelly Stinnett popped out, and Johnny Damon reached on an infield single to Tejada at short that plated Bubba Crosby, who had come on to run for Giambi perhaps because of the weather. Eddy Rodriguez then relieved Halama and started his day by walking Derek Jeter to force in another run.
And that was the ball game. Chacon, Farnsworth and Villone combined to hold the Orioles to a pair of singles (both off Farnsworth) over the remaining three innings and the Yanks won it 6-1.
Today they hope to find another break in the rain to play the rubber game of the series. Jorge Posada will make his second start behind the plate with Randy Johnson on the mound as Johnson looks to rebound from his awful start in Toronto last time out. Bruce Chen has similar things in mind as he was absolutely lit up by the Indians in his last turn, giving up eight runs on eight hits, two of them home runs, and three walks in four innings. Last year, Chen faced Johnson in the Bronx in his first start of the year and handled the Yankees well only to have his bullpen blow the game. After that, the Yankee had his number, dropping 18 runs on him in 10 2/3 innings across their final three meetings. Here's hoping that trend continues today.
They Wuz Robbed!
Bottom of the ninth. Yanks trailing by one, 6-5. Newly minted 24-year-old closer Chris Ray on the mound for the Orioles against the top of the Yankee order.
After Johnny Damon pops out, Derek Jeter walks on five pitches. Gary Sheffield follows with a line-drive single to center that almost decapitates the second base umpire. Alex Rodriguez then takes a strike, fouls off a slider low and away, swings through a 96 mile-per-hour fastball in on his hands, takes another further up and in to even the count at 2-2, then swings through yet another which is perfectly placed on the upper inside corner. Jason Giambi follows and on a 1-0 count, Jeter and Sheffield pull off a double steal that is ruled defensive indifference despite the fact that it puts the winning run in scoring position. Ray's 1-0 pitch was a ball and with first base open he walks Giambi on two more tosses.
That passes the baton to Hideki Matsui. Two outs, bottom of the ninth, tying run on third, winning run on second. Ray has thrown 21 pitches and walked two already, though Giambi was semi-intentional. Ray's first pitch to Matsui is a ball. His second is below the knee on the outside corner but is ruled a strike. His next pitch is ball two. The 2-1 pitch is almost a foot outside but ruled strike two. Matsui then checks his swing on ball three to run the count full. Ray then delivers the same pitch that was called strike two, it's nearly a foot outside and Matsui watches it go by thinking he's just tied the game with a walk, but home plate ump Phil Cuzzi rings him up. Game over. O's win 6-5.
That wasn't the only call that cost the Yankees the win last night. Chien-Ming Wang set the first seven Orioles down in order (six on ground balls) but fell apart in the third after a Kevin Millar double. He got Corey Patterson to ground out for the second out of the inning, but then walked Brian Roberts and rookie Nick Markakis on five pitches each to load the bases. Wang then threw three straight balls to Melvin Mora before coming back to get two called strikes to run the count full. Mora then hits a grounder to Jeter, who flips to Andy Phillips at first as Mora dives head first into the bag. Replays showed that Mora was should have been the third out of the inning, but he was called safe by first-base ump Jerry Crawford. Two runs scored on the play and Miguel Tejada followed with an RBI single before Wang finally got Jay Gibbons to ground out to end the inning.
I don't like to blame umpires for losses, but in this case there's no getting around it. They wuz robbed.
Incidentally, Wang had another rough inning in the sixth and was pulled in favor of Scott Proctor, who walked in a run (which is impressive as it took him two walks to do it) before getting out of it. Andy Phillips went 0 for 2, popping out on the first pitch in his first at-bat, then working Kris Benson for six pitches in his second only to strike-out looking on a full count. He was then pinch-hit for by Bernie Williams in the sixth with the tying runs on base and two outs. Bernie worked a walk to load the bases, but Johnny Damon grounded out to end the threat. Miguel Cario then took over at first and grounded out to strand the tying run on second in the eighth. Jason Giambi, whose right forearm just above the wrist is considerably swollen from being hit by a pitch on Thursday, went 0 for 4 as the DH with the walk desribed above. Finally, Tanyon Sturtze got three outs, two by strikout, without allowing a baserunner.
This afternoon, Shawn Chacon makes just his third start of the young season, this coming off a pair of dreadful relief appearances during the bast week. Here's hoping Chacon learned something by watching Mike Mussina's slow, slower, slowest routine on Thursday. Chacon's mound opponent will be Daniel Cabrera. Everyone's breakout candidate this winter, Cabrera walked 16 men over 6 1/3 innings in his first two starts, but just one in seven innings in his last outing. In that last start, against the Angels, he lasted seven innings allowing one unearned run on five hits and striking out ten. Uh oh.
The Baltimore Orioles
The last team to beat out the Atlanta Braves for a division title was the wire-to-wire World Champion 1990 Cincinnati Reds. The last team to beat out the New York Yankees for a division title? The 1997 Baltimore Orioles. In the eight seasons since then, the Orioles have finished above fourth place exactly once (2004, thanks to the collapse of the Blue Jays), finished within fewer than 20 games of first place once (2000, when the Yankees finished the season with a dreadful 3-15 slump capped by dropping the final three games of the season to the O's by a combined score of 29-6), and not won 80 games in any single season. For all the attention heaped on the Pirates, Royals, Tigers and Brewers, Kansas City and Milwaukee have been at or above .500 more recently than Baltimore, and the Tigers appear to be more likely to do so in the near future than the Orioles. Quite simply, the Orioles are one of the worst franchises in baseball, giving locals a feast of famine with the newly imported Natspos. (Seriously, is it that abhorrent to be a Phillies fan? With their new ballpark and annual runs at the wild card, the Phillies are the pick of the litter in the mid-Atlantic region, but they barely outdrew Baltimore last year. Sorry. Where was I?)
The O's have shuffled the deck chairs by bringing in yet another collection of over the hill, overrated and overexposed veterans to compliment . . . nothing. The Orioles are horrible. There's no budding future here. Just because they're able to float slightly higher in the water than the Royals doesn't make them anything but an affront to their fans.
But I'm getting carried away. Let's find some positives here: They've finally dumped the Big Ponson Toad. Tonight's starter Kris Benson is nothing special, but he's a huge upgrade over Sir Sidney. Letting J.P Riccardi overpay B.J. Ryan and giving the closer's job to Chris Ray represents both solid baseball economics and highlights one of the few young bright spots in the organization. Luis Matos recent injury just might clear room for Nick Markakis, who broke camp with the club despite having just a half season at double-A under his belt, to Wally Pip him, which would rid the O's of yet another home grown disaster.
I couldn't understand the decision to bring back Sam Perlozzo as manager as the team's winning percentage under him down the stretch was nearly 40 points lower than it was under Lee Mazzilli last year and it was a widely reported story that the Orioles appeared to collectively throw I in the towel by the end of August. But I must say, I like his line-up construction. Putting the slow-footed, but high-on-base-percentage Jeff Conine in the two-hole suggests progressive thinking, and burying big-name 2004 free agent Javy Lopez and new pick-up Kevin Millar in the seventh and eighth spots suggests a true meritocracy that refuses to allow name recognition or salary to determine playing time. In addition, Perlozzo has just two lefties in his line-up and he has them separated by no fewer than three righies in both directions. Part of that is a side-effect of one of them being the rookie Markakis, who of course hits ninth, and of having just two lefties to begin with, but Joe Torrewho started the season with his four lefties paired up in two different spots in his line-up, continues to write Bernie Williams' name into the line-up, and has buried last year's AL OBP leader Jason Giambi in the fifth spotwould be wise to take notes.
Speaking of Giambi, swelling in his right forearm resulting from being hit by a pitch on Wednesday (Bernie Williams pinch hit for him in his final at-bat of that game in Toronto) might keep him on the bench tonight. Meanwhile, Tanyon Sturtze was reportedly available on Wednesday and, having had another 48 hours to rest his balky back, should definitely be in the mix tonight. I needn't tell you, neither of these things is good news, though with Chien-Ming Wang on the mound looking to repeat his fantastic start in Minnesota last weekend, it wouldn't be the worst idea to at the very least put Giambi at DH and allow someone other than Miguel Cairo to man first base.
Random Girlfriend Question #4080
When I'm watching the ballgame at home with Emily--the 'lil perfessor--she loves throwing questions my way. At times I have to bite my tongue and contain my smug, male superiority--"God, what a chick thing to say," I'll think, rolling my eyes. Then of course, Emily will also come out with things that leave me completely stumped. So the other night, as we watched Johnny Damon make several catches against the wall, she asked about the origins of the warning track. How did it get its name? When was it invented?
Mr. Wizard didn't have an answer. So I asked around some, and still don't have a definitive answer. Bill James suggested that they were possibly invented as a response to Pete Reiser, the Brooklyn Dodger outfielder who was famous for running into outfield fences and getting knocked out. Late '50s, early '60s was his guess. Steve Treder thinks it could have been a bit earlier but agrees that it was probably designed at the same time other player-safety innovations were created--batting helmets and padded walls. (By the way, I just learned in David Maraniss' forthcoming book on Roberto Clemente that none other than Branch Rickey came up with the plastic/fiber-glass batting helmet--was there anything that Rickey wasn't invovled in?) Here is Rich Lederer's take:
Warning tracks, as we now know them, were fairly standard by the 1950s. I'm not aware of any ballpark without a warning track by the 1960s. Are you?
So, anyone else have any ideas? Paging Mr. Markusen. Hey, my girl's just got to know.
Buster Olney has some sharp observations on Mike Mussina over at ESPN today:
The last couple of years, Mussina's success or failure was often predicated on how good his fastball was on a given day. If he threw 88-90 mph, he had a chance to have a pretty good day, throwing his fastball high in the strike zone, while most of his offspeed stuff was in the range of 77-78 mph. If Mussina's fastball was 85-86 mph, however, he would get wrecked, the hitters always looking like they were all over everything he threw.
Word, Buster. Got to love the slow stuff.
Nice n' Easy
As ugly as the Yankees' 10-5 loss was on Tuesday night, their 3-1 victory yesterday afternoon was just as pretty. Mike Mussina turned in his best start in what has proven to be a surprisingly strong start to the 2006 season, needing just 101 pitches to make it through 7 1/3 innings, allowing one run on seven hits and no walks while striking out seven. As we've heard him say several times this spring, he was in complete command of all of his pitches, pounding the strike zone (75 of his 101 pitches were strikes) and breezing through the Blue Jay order. Moose's ex-teammate Ted Lilly, meanwhile, split the difference between his first two starts, striking out five and holding the Yankees to just two runs through five innings, but walking five and needing 100 pitches (just 57 strikes) to do it.
It was a tense, tightly pitched game through four innings before the Yankees broke through in the top of the fifth when Alex Rodriguez came to bat with one out and hit the first pitch he saw out of the park to give his team a 1-0 lead. After Jason Giambiwho DHed and saw nothing but lefty pitching all day, going 0 for 3 with a K and five men left on baseflew out, Hideki Matsui and Jorge Posada came through with back-to-back two-out singles to put runners on first and second for Robinson Cano. After falling behind 0-2, Cano smacked a single of his own into left field. Larry Bowa held Matsui at third, but Posada ran right through second base and got trapped in a rundown. Matsui scampered home while Posada tried to dance out of his pickle, but the baserunning gaffe ended the developing Yankee rally.
The Jays got their lone run in the sixth when consecutive one-out singles by Russ Adams, Frank Catalanotto and Vernon Wells fell just beyond the reach of the Yankee outfielders. It was the only inning in which Mussina would allow more than a single baserunner. In his first and only jam of the day, with one run in and men on first and second, Mussina struckout Troy Glaus on three pitches on the lower outside corner and got Lyle Overbay to ground to first base on one more toss to end the inning.
In the next half-inning, a Posada single cashed in a lead-off walk by Rodriguez to restore the Yankees' two-run lead and end the day's scoring. Mussina yielded to Kyle Farnsworth after a one-out single by Catalanotto in the eighth, and Farnsworth and Mariano Rivera combined to set down the last five Blue Jays in order. It was the first Yankee win of the season in which the offense scored fewer than nine runs, and it evened their record at 7-7.
That's it. Nice n' easy.
Hello, I Must Be Going
With a 12:30 start today, the Yankees' two games in Toronto feel more like a night-day double header than anything one might call a "series," but whatever it is, it's wrapping up this afternoon with Mike Mussina facing Ted Lilly. Moose has been surprisingly solid in his three starts this year, but has twice been outpitched by men more than a dozen years his junior. Fortunately for Moose, Lilly is just seven years younger than him.
For his part, Lilly had nothing in his first start, walking six in 2 1/3 innings before getting the hook, but came up aces against Boston in his last outing, using a nasty looping curve to rack up ten strikeouts while holding the Sox to one run on six hits through seven and not walking a single batter. The Yankees have had good success against left-handed curveballers thus far this year, beating the tar out of Barry Zito (7 runs in 1 1/3 innings) and Jeremy Affeldt (6 runs in 3 1/3 innings). Here's hoping that trend continues today.
Andy Phillips is scheduled to start at first base for the first time this year with Jason Giambi DHing, while Tanyon Sturtze is unavailable due to back pain. I consider both of these things good news. With Aaron Small just two rehab appearances away from being activated, I'd like to see Sturtze be the man he replaces in the pen. Wishful thinking, I know, but the Yanks have been trying to put wheels on this pumpkin for far too long already.
When you've got Randy Johnson and the Yankee lineup going against Gustavo Chacin and the Yanks drop a four spot on Mr. Gustavo in the top of the first on homers by Alex Rodriguez and Jason Giambi, you've gotta assume the Yanks are about to waltz to an easy W, right?
Randy Johnson had nothing last night. His total lack of command was on display as pitch after pitch floated just above waist high right over the plate. Johnson was serving meatballs on a platter and the Blue Jay hitters feasted on them. By the end of the first an Alexis Rios double and a Troy Glaus homer made it 4-3 Yanks. An inning later, a Rios homer made it 6-5 Jays. A Glaus double and a dreadful play in which Johnson failed to cover first on a ball hit to Giambi and Giambi decided to throw the ball anyway added another Toronto run. After the first two hitters of the fourth reached, Joe Torre had seen enough.
Scott Proctor came on and retired the first five batters he faced before walking Lyle Overbay to start the sixth, and a bunt, a walk and a sac fly plated the Jay's eighth run.
Meanwhile, Chacin shut the Yankees down after his rough first, allowing just a double, a single and three walks over his remaining five innings.
The Yanks got one back off Justin Speier in the seventh, but Shawn Chacon, proving once again that he should never be allowed to pitch in relief, gave it right back when Glaus took his second pitch of the night out of the park. Gary Sheffield then dropped an easy fly ball off the bat of Bengie Molina and Chacon allowed him to come around and score on a single, a fly out and a wild pitch.
And that was that. 10-5 Jays. Johnny Damon made three spectacular catches against the wall to prevent things from getting worse. Matt Smith needed just eleven pitches to work a 1-2-3 eighth to keep his major league record perfect. Otherwise, an utterly forgettable evening for the Yankees. Today's day game couldn't come soon enough.
Toronto Blue Jays
The Blue Jays fell well short of their Pythagorean expectations in 2005 and made a number of splashy moves in the offseason, leading many to believe that they had thrust themselves into the thick of the AL East race for 2006. I have to say, I just don't see it.
Part of the reason is that I expect regression from new additions Overbay (who will miss Miller Park), Molina (who had a rather obvious career year in 2005) and Ryan (who's mechanics and disposition scream implosion to me), as well as from the returning members of the Toronto bullpen, all of whom, save perhaps 27-year-old Jason Frasor, pitched over their heads in 2006.
In addition to their normal regression, the relievers will be hurt by the loss of Orlando Hudson's defense, but not nearly as much as the starters, particularly tonight's starter, Gustavo Chacin, whose solid 2005 ERA just didn't jive with his unimpressive peripherals, and, much as I hate to say it, returning ace Roy Halladay, who is the most extreme groundball pitcher in the Toronto rotation. The second most groundball-prone Blue Jay starter is A.J. Burnett, which isn't the greatest news for Toronto fans already coping with the fact that A.J. has as many DL stays as starts thus far this year.
Memo from HR
For those who missed it, erstwhile Yankee third catcher Wil Nieves cleared waivers this past Thursday and was reassigned to Columbus. Having retained Nieves, the Yankees immediately designated Koyie Hill for assignment (who has since cleared waivers himself) in order to promote Matt Smith to the major league bullpen in anticipation of Jaret Wright's Saturday start. As a result the Yankee bench is down to four men and one catcher, while the Yankee pitching staff has swelled to twelve men.
Twelve pitchers are unnecessary, even if one of them is trapped in limbo between the infrequently required fifth starters spot (next appearance: Saturday April 29) and long relief. Still, the promotion of Smith is to be applauded. A 26-year-old lefty drafted by the Yankees in 2000, Smith excelled after being converted to relief last year, posting a 2.70 ERA and striking out 9.94 men per nine innings between Trenton and Columbus, though with a few too many walks. Smith made his major league debut on Friday night retiring his only batter, lefty Joe Mauer, on a groundout to second.
Further bullpen moves are on the horizon as Aaron Small and Octavio Dotel have both started pitching in extended spring training games. Small threw four innings yesterday in his third game of the extended spring posting this line: 4 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 4 K, 48 pitches. Dotel will make his extended spring debut with one inning today. Small is reportedly just building up arm strength and could return by the end of the month. Dotel is still projected for early June, but appears to be ahead of that schedule, though the Yankees plan to take things slowly with him as he's coming off Tommy John surgery.
Meanwhile, the Yankees have signed first baseman Carlos Peña and reliever Jesus Colome to minor league deals. Colome was released by the Devil Rays on Thursday after just one appearance in which he faced two batters, walking one and retiring the other. Colome lost his roster spot to minor league journeyman Scott Dunn, which is an indication of his talents. Now 27, Colome pitched in part of five seasons with the Devil Rays, his best being 2004 when he posted a 3.27 ERA in 41 1/3 innings striking out 8.71 men per nine innings and walking 3.92 per nine. Last year, however, things went to pot as his hit and homer rates nearly doubled, while his strikeout rate dropped by more than three Ks per nine and his ERA swelled by more than a run and a quarter. Given the arms they already have on hand in Columbus and due back from the DL, things will have to go awfully awry for Colome to penetrate the Yankee bullpen.
Peña, meanwhile, is a very poor man's answer to Hee Seop Choi. A slick-fielding, lefty-hitting first baseman, the 27-year-old Peña has power and patience, but has been unable to put them together after more than 1650 major league at-bats. Once a top prospect in the Rangers system, Peña was snagged by the A's prior to the 2002 season in a six-player deal that netted Texas Gerald Laird and Ryan Ludwick, but after just a half season of disappointing production with Oakland, Peña became one of the key players in the three-team trade that sent Ted Lilly to the A's, Jeremy Bonderman to the Tigers and Jeff Weaver to the Yankees. Peña did slightly better with the Tigers over the remainder of the 2002 season, but failed to show improvement as the Tiger's full-time first baseman over the next two seasons. After hitting just .181/.307/.283 over the first two months of 2005, the Tigers lost patience with Peña, sending him down to triple-A Toledo, where he caught fire, hitting .311/.424/.525. Back with the big club, he hit seven home runs in his first eight games before settling back down to hit just .235/.284/.490 for the remaining month of the season, finishing the season with 95 strikeouts in 295 plate appearances. With Chris Shelton and Dmitri Young on hand and a full outfield of Ordoñez, Granderson and Monroe, the Tigers needed little more than Peña's dismal spring showing to give him his release just before the 2006 season began.
I don't really see how Peña would be an improvement over what Andy Phillips could give the Yankees. Certainly Peña has a lot more big league experience, but that has only allowed him to establish a level of performance (career: .243/.330/.459) that I'm confident Phillips could surpass if given proper playing time. The only upside I see here is that Peña is left-handed and could work his way into a DH platoon with Phillips should Joe Torre ever decide that would like to get an extra base hit or two out of the position. But that's a long ways off, as Peña will have to first work his way back into shape, then prove himself worthy of a roster spot. Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see how Peña's presence in Columbus affects Eric Duncan, who is learning first base with the Clippers, but struggling at the plate. Could Peña's arrival at Columbus bounce the Yankees' #2 prospect back down to Trenton (which is probably where he should have started the season anyway)? And if so, what might that do to the confidence Duncan built up between winning the Arizona Fall League MVP and the J.P. Dawson Award for best Yankee rookie in camp this spring?
Stay tuned . . .
The Yanks bounced back yesterday, as we all hoped, beating the Twins 9-3, featuring strong showings from Chien-Ming Wang, Jason Giambi, Robinson Cano and Alex Rodriguez. Rodriguez was critical of his own performance after Saturday night's tough loss. According to Sam Borden in the Daily News:
Joe Torre wasn't surprised to hear Rodriguez was being hard on himself because he's seen A-Rod "set the bar sky-high" ever since Rodriguez arrived in the Bronx. Torre sometimes wishes Rodriguez would give himself a break.
Rodriguez can be called a lot of things. A slacker is not one of 'em.
Sunday Special: Look Out Below
The Yanks hope to grab a win today before they leave for Toronto. A lackluster offensive outing on Friday night sperled Mike Mussina's decent outing while fortune was on the Twinkies side against Mariano yesterday. Wang vs. Radke today. Let's hope Wang gets some groundballs and that the infielders are positioned to gobble them up. As for Radke, well, let's just say that I expect the bats to be alive this afternoon for the Bombers.
Joe Torre has been rotating his corner men through the DH on the Homerdome Turf. Friday night it was Gary Sheffield with Bernie getting his first start in right since the Buck Showalter days. Last night it was Jason Giambi, who got to sit out against the lefty Santana with Miguel Cairo getting the start at first (1 for 4 with a double off Santana) and Andy Phillips getting his first start of the year at DH (0 for 4 with three Ks after being robbed of a home run to dead center off Santana by Torii Hunter). Today it's Hideki Matsui who will get to sit between at-bats, with either Bernie or Bubba taking his spot in left. This means that Giambi will be back at first with the groundballer Wang on the mound. Giambi has started in the field behind Wang in both of his starts this year with no ill effect, though it still seems as though Torre could have arranged things better to allow Giambi to DH behind Wang as Santana is hardly the sort of league average lefty against whom it makes sense to swap out Giambi, who, it goes without saying, is a superior hitter to both Cairo and Phillips. At any rate, it's getaway day and the Yankees have tomorrow off, so it's all in for the win this afternoon.
When Johan Santana has a four run lead on your team early in the game, you pretty much think it is going to be a short, curt afternoon for your boys. But Santana is not his usual dominant self yet and by the fourth inning, the Yanks started to hit him hard. The Bombers rallied down 4-0 and tied the game on Derek Jeter's third hit of the game--this in spite Torii Hunter casually swiping a home run from Andy Phillips and Jorge Posada missing a homer to right by two feet. Alex Rodriguez, who has been laboring to find a groove this year, got down in the count and then hit a hard ground ball through the left side to put the Yankees ahead 5-4.
There was a lively discussion of what transpired in the bottom of the eighth inning yesterday in our comments section here yesterday. It involved all of your favorites--Johnny Damon, Derek Jeter, Gary Sheffield and Alex Rodriguez. The Yankees had a man on second with nobody out and weren't able to get a run home. The debate was sparked about Derek Jeter. Of all people. And it involved a sacrifice bunt. Of all things. Regular commenter and fellow blogger Mike Plugh wrote a good a follow-up post analyzing the inning over at Caynon of Heroes, which you should check out. Far as I saw it, the inning was highlighted by a thrilling duel between Juan Rincon and Gary Sheffield.
And that's where it stood with Mariano on in the ninth. The first batter Luis Castillo has pestered the Yankees over two games and on the 2-2 pitch barely held up on a cutter. The third base ump opined that Castillo did not go around--it was a generous ruling at best. Castillo then slaps the ball into the turf and beats out an infield hit. Rivera pounced off the mound beautifully and made a strong peg, but it was just a fraction late.
Rivera narrowly missed striking out the next batter Mauer on the 2-2 delivery--a fastball, up and away. The high strike. It's a pitch Rivera has been known to get over the years. So, on a defensive swing, Mauer slaps the ball into left. Matsui gets it and chucks it to third--an absent-minded decision that proved costly. There wasn't going to be a play on Castillo at third, but the throw to Rodriguez allowed Mauer to go to second.
Mo then strikes out poor Rondell White, do did manage one base hit on the game, but who is in the midst of a horrid slump. (The Yanks twice walked Mauer to get to White in the game and both times they retired 'ol Ro.) Mo made him look silly. And then Rivera overwhelmed Torii Hunter for the second out. Caught him looking at a nasty cut fast ball. It fooled Hunter so badly he argued with the home plate ump about the call, but replays showed it just broke devastatingly late. Nothing Hunter could have done about it, but say something. Got to get it out when you get burned that badly.
Then Justin Morneau plunks a soft liner into right, not all that far from Robinson Cano's reach. Two runs score, and the Twins win the game, 6-5. Other than Mauer's defensive-swing hit, nobody had hit the ball hard of Rivera.
But these things happen. It was the first game that hit me in the gut this year, that got me pissed and upset. What calmed me down more than anything was watching Rivera being interviewed after the game. He was smiling and saying, "What can I do, they didn't hit it hard, I felt good, made some sharp pitches, and these things happen. I've already gotten over it and moved on." And he means it, he has moved on. He's speaking in cliches but he isn't lying. Rivera is imperturbable. It's not just schtick with him. That's what makes him the greatest. Win or lose. And if he's cool with the ups and downs of the game, I've got to ask myself "Why am I all nuts over this?" Way to calm me down, Mo, yer the man.
The Yankees wasted a good outing from Mike Mussina, who has previously owned the Twins, losing 5-1 on Friday night. The game moved along quickly for the first six-and-a-half innings and the Yankees were just "off" enough--both offensively and defensively--to come up short.
The Twins' young right-hander, Scott Baker allowed just one run over seven innings, mixing pitches and change speeds effectively. He didn't throw hard, but had the Yankees off-balance all night. A lot of his pitches were just off the plate, just out of the strike zone, and the Yankee hitters anxiously jumped on them. There were a lot of harmless fly ball outs. Gary Sheffield flew out four times and saw less than ten pitches on the night (he swung at the first pitch in his first two at bats, and the team made six first-pitch outs in the first five innings). According to the New York Times:
"He was like a surgeon," Yankees Manager Joe Torre said. "He was down. He was up. Hitters like to zone in on location, and they were never able to do that.
Mussina pitched well for most of the game--running into trouble in the third and later, in the seventh. Jorge Posada was thrown out at the plate attempting to tag on a fly ball to right. The replays showed that he was safe on a close play. The Yankee catcher was involved in another critical play later in the game.
In the seventh, with two men on and the Twins holding a one-run lead, Juan Castro popped a Mussina change up foul. Posada raced over towards the first base dugout to make the play but couldn't get there in time. Jason Giambi, who was playing back off the base was too late arriving as well. The truth is, Posada covered a lot more ground than Giambi did, yet if anyone was going to make that play it would have been the first baseman. In what was clearly going to be Mussina's final batter of the game, Castro worked the count full, then fouled off several pitches before slapping an RBI single to left.
It was just one of those nights. The Bombers put the first two men on in the eighth but Bernie Williams bounced into a double play--they went listlessly in the ninth, almost as if they had a plane to catch. Kyle Farnsworth pitched the bottom of the eighth and allowed two more runs to score.
I've complained about Farnsworth's thought-process in the past and last night was an ideal example of why the guy drives me nuts. Farnsworth's two best pitches are a plus fastball and a sharp slider. But you don't get the sense that he knows how to mix his pitches properly--he falls in love with dominating a hitter and makes things tougher on himself in the process.
With two men out and nobody on, Farnsworth was pitching to Torii Hunter, a right-handed hitter. He threw a slider for strike one and then got Hunter to wave at a nasty slider for strike two. Now, I'm thinking, okay, time to come up and in with the heat. Posada signaled for a fastball and you could see him motioning for it to be high and tight. Hunter is a free swinger, after all. Farnsworth shook him off.
C'mmon, Meat, I'm thinking at home. We're going to go through this Nuke Laloosh routine all year, aren't we? (Funny to consider Jorge Posada as the sage Crash Davis, huh.) But no, Farnsworth wanted to get him out on another slider. It would be difficult to throw one better than the pitch Hunter had just swung through. Sure enough, the next pitch was a slider, it wasn't as nasty as the previous one, and Hunter slapped the pitch into right for a double.
Justin Morneau, a lefty, was next. He had a great swing at a Farnsworth fastball that was low and right over the plate. The pitch was fouled straight back indicating that Farnsworth had gotten away with one--Morneau was right on it. He got strike two on another fastball, but this one was up and away, and he simply over-powered Morneau with it. So now, I'm thinking, maybe time for the slider, or another high heater. Instead Farnsworth threw another low fastball--seemingly identical to the pitch Morneau just missed--which was promptly slapped into left field for an RBI single.
Now, maybe Farnsworth's location was just off. Again, I'll admit that I'm ready to be critical of the guy so I'm not exactly even-handed when discussing him. He's clearly got good stuff. I just don't know that he's got much sense. And after a long night of lousy at-bats, it was the icing on the gravy so to speak. Farnsworth didn't lose the game for the Yankees, he just made it uglier.
No breaks for the Bomb Squad tonight as they face Minnie's ace, Johan Santana. Santana has not pitched well in his first two outings, which is just enough to make me believe that he'll be on tonight. Jaret Wright goes for the Yanks.
The Minnesota Twins
One of the best stories in baseball in recent years was the trio of AL Central Titles won by the Minnesota Twins immediately after Commissioner Bud Selig threatened the team with contraction. Unfortunately, that story does not have a happy ending as, while we have all been waiting around for the Twins to convert their seemingly endless supply of young talent into a more meaningful title, the team has regressed into mediocrity. That the left side of their infield is populated by Juan Castro and Tony Batista, the latter of whom spent 2005 playing in Japan, should be evidence enough of that.
That said, the Twins are always going to be dangerous because of their pitching, which is why it's fortuitous that the Yankees are catching them this early in the season. One game shy of two times through their rotation, the Twins starters have a combined ERA of 6.63 and would-be two-time Cy Young winner Johan Santana, who will go tomorrow against Jaret Wright's first start of the season, has yet to win a game.
Tonight, the Yankees face 24-year-old rookie Scott Baker, who beat out Francisco Liriano (the left-handed future star who is generally considered the second coming of Santana) for the fifth starter's spot in spring training. While no pushover himself, Baker took the loss in his first start, allowing three runs on nine hits and a walk in 4 1/3 innings against the powerful Indians' lineup. A decent first outing spoiled by the fact that the Twins bats couldn't muster a single run against Jason Johnson, Gullermo Mota and Bob Wickman.
Mike Mussina takes the hill for the Yanks, looking to build upon his surprisingly strong performance in his first two starts.
Randy Johnson was cruising along for the first four innings yesterday afternoon, but he allowed three straight hits in the fifth, giving up a run in the process. He made it through the inning but after throwing only 87 pitches his day was over, sending a tremor through Yankeeland. The team announced that there was nothing physically wrong with Johnson but after the game it appeared that he had in fact experienced some discomfort out there. The Big Unit was his naturally defensive self when he spoke with reporters (if he is uncomfortable, you know he's going to make the press uncomfortable). Tyler Kepner reports in the Times:
Manager Joe Torre said that Ron Guidry, the pitching coach, told him Johnson was stiff during yesterday's game, although Torre said he did not know where. Johnson initially scolded reporters for getting the story wrong, but then admitted to some stiffness sort of.
The Yankee lead was cut to 4-2 when Tony Graffanino greeted Taynon Sturtze with a solo home run in the eighth, that was as close as KC would get. The Bombers scored five runs in the bottom of the frame--highlighted by home runs from Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon, and that was that. Final score: Yanks 9, Royals 3. Gary Sheffield also homered, Hideki Matsui and Derek Jeter both lengthened their hitting streaks and Bernie Williams collected three singles on the afternoon. After the sweep, the Yanks are back on the road this weekend, out to see their old pal Ruben Sierra and his new team, the Twins.
With yesterday's 12-5 victory over the Royals, the Yankees clinched their first series win of the season, pulled their record up to .500, and put themselves on pace to score 1134 runs this season. It almost doesn't seem fair to send Randy Johnson to the mound this afternoon to go for the sweep. Sure, the Royals have scored 12 runs against the Yankees over the past two days, but the Yanks have countered with 21 of their own.
One reason for the Bombers onslaught has been the 17 free passes they've received from the Royals' pitchers over the last two days. The walks are likely to keep coming today with former Orioles prospect Denny Bautista on the mound. Bautista historically walks about four men per nine innings, a number that's sure to increase against the power and patience of the Yankee lineup. Randy Johnson, on the other hand, has yet to walk a batter this year in fifteen innings. Save for a Frank Thomas homer in his first start and an Adam Kennedy "triple" in his second, Johnson has dominated, holding his opponents to a smattering of singles.
On paper, today's game is a complete mismatch. Knowing how baseball works, that likely means that Reggie Sanders will hit a pair of two-run homers off Johnson and the Yankee bats will sputter against the hard-throwing Bautista, but honestly, I just can't see that happening.
Meanwhile, the big news is that Kelly Stinnett will again be behind the plate for Johnson, and without a day-game-after-night-game-related excuse. To make matters worse, unlike in Stinnett's last start, Joe Torre is not keeping Posada's bat in the line-up, sticking with his singles-hitting DH Bernie Williams. Williams will hit seventh, ahead of Cano and Stinnett.
Buddy Bell, meanwhile, has completely mixed things up against Johnson. Here's today's Royals lineup:
R- Tony Graffanino (DH)
Angel Berroa hitting fifth against Randy Johnson? I suppose Torre can afford to give Jorge the day off after all.
Yesterday's game will be remembered for Gary Sheffield's wicked foul ball in the first inning, which sent third base coach Larry Bowa to the turf. In the same at-bat, Sheffield hit a three-run homer to left, tying the game. According to the Daily News:
Sheffield apologized, but Bowa waved him off. "I told him forget sorry," Bowa said. "I'll go down on my back every day for a three-run homer."
The Royals had a 3-0 lead, but their starting pitcher, Jeremy Affeldt walked Johnny Damon and then Derek Jeter in the bottom of the first (oy) before Sheff's homer. Oh, those base on balls. The Bombers didn't look back as they handled Kansas City 12-5. Shawn Chacon wasn't especially terrific but after a rocky start he was good enough.
With yesterday's ugly 9-7 win on the books, the Yankees have allowed 16 runs in the two games started by Chien-Ming Wang and 14 runs in their other five contests. Seven of the 16 runs allowed in Wang's starts were given up by the Yankee bullpen across 7 1/3 innings. The Yankee pen has allowed just two runs in 8 2/3 innings in the other five games. The Yankee offense, meanwhile, as scored 34 runs in the team's three wins and ten in their four loses.
The Royals, meanwhile, have proved capable of both winning and losing both low and high-scoring affairs, dropping their first two against the Tigers 3-1 and 14-3, then taking their first two from the World Champion White Sox 11-7 and 4-3. Between yesterday's loss and that first win against the Chisox, the Royals scored 18 runs, but have scored just nine runs in their other four games.
It's too early for any of these stats to really be meaningful, but they sure are curious, and they make speculation about the potential of this afternoon's contest all the more difficult.
Today the Royals will send to the mound 25-year-old lefty Jeremy Affeldt. Affeldt was once considered a future rotation star for the Royals before blisters and other injuries pushed him to the bullpen. Last year he pitched exclusively in relief, and not all that well, serving as a second lefty behind Rule 5 pick and yesterday's losing pitcher Andy Sisco. The year before, he made just 8 starts and was far less effective as a starter than he was in his 30 relief appearances. This year he's been thrust back into the rotation by the mysterious disapperances of Zack Greinke, who skipped the team in late February and is on the DL due to psychological issues, and Runelvys Hernandez, whom the Royals tried to placed on the DL due to "lack of stamina" after he showed up for camp overweight but were forced to option to Omaha instead. In his first start this season, Affeldt lasted just four innings, surrendering six runs on seven hits and a pair of walks to the White Sox.
The Yankees counter with Shawn Chacon, who faired better in his first start against the Angels, though not dramatically so, giving up four runs on eight hits and two walks in 5 2/3 innings. One encouraging sign was that Chacon struck out four in those 5 2/3 innings despite a mere 58 percent of his pitches being strikes. This against an Angels team that was the second hardest in baseball to strikout in 2005. Both Chacon and Affeldt feature big 12-6 curves, which just may be my favorite pitch to watch. If only I could take today off of work as well.
Mike Sweeney, who left yesterday's game in the ninth after being hit on the right hand by a Mariano Rivera pitch, is expected to be in the line-up for Kansas City. His x-rays were negative.
Update: Joe Torre is sitting Robinson Cano against the lefty Affeldt, giving Miguel Cairo his second start in the Yankees' first eight games. Cairo is hitting ninth behind Bernie, who will play right field allowing Sheffield to DH. Sweeney, meanwhile, is not in the line-up for the Royals. Matt Stairs will DH for KC instead.
It's a start, right? Johnny Damon debuted at home, and, unfortunately, Bob Sheppard, the veteran Stadium P.A. announcer missed his first home opener since 1951 (he's due back for the next home stand, however). On a beautiful day in New York, the Yankees started out well, then muddled through a good portion of the game, the fans sitting on their hands. It wasn't until the eighth inning, when the offense scored five runs--capped by Derek Jeter's impressive three-run swat--that the Stadium came alive again. The Bombers came away with a 9-7 victory, their ninth consecutive win on Opening Day in New York.
Bernie Williams had a key hit in the frame, which helped make up for his base-running error earlier in the game. Mariano Rivera pitched the ninth for the save. It wasn't a pretty game, but the Yanks will take it, and it because of the outcome, it is destined to become a "YES Yankee Classic." Heck, even Mike Lupica is waxing poetic about the Yanks this morning. Go figure that.
Boss George was in the house, but didn't have much to say, especially to his old pal Murray Chass. And Bill Madden notes that while the end result was positive, there was a lot of be concerned about during the middle innings.
Meanwhile, the Red Sox won their Home Opener as well. Josh Beckett, who is sure to become public enemy number 1 in the Bronx this year, was fired-up and pitched well. Beckett is an arrogant so-and-so and when he's on, he's exceedingly tough, as we well remember from the 2003 World Serious. He's an easy guy to hate, but for Sox fans, a terrific guy to have on your team. The kid Papelbon sure looks poised as well.
The Kansas City Royals
The Yankees may have started the 2005 season 11-19, but they hit rock bottom at 27-26 following a three-game sweep at the hands of the Royals in Kansas City. Though the Yanks got their revenge at home in August with a three-game sweep of their own, I'm sure the humiliation in KC is still fresh in the minds of the returning members of last year's Bombers. Coming off a disappointing roadtrip in which they went 2-4 due to a pair of one-run loses, I imagine the Yankees are unusually fired up for the lowly Royals.
The Royals are once again the worst team in baseball, though in their defense they do have three solid arms in their bullpen (Burgos, Sisco and Dessens, and will have a fourth when Mike MacDougal gets back from the DL), and four solid bats to kick off their lineup (DeJesus, Grudzielanek, Sweeney and Sanders, though DeJesus could miss the entire Yankee series due to a strained left hamstring). They might even get something useful out of tomorrow and Thursday's starters Jeremy Affeldt and Denny Bautista, but that's the extent of it and everything's relative to how bad the team was last year.
Looking at the members of the 2005 Royals who have been replaced on the 25-man roster for 2006 the thing that jumps out at me when is that only Shawn Camp has surfaced with another major league team. Ruben Gotay, Chip Ambres, Aaron Guiel, J.P. Howell, Leo Nunez and Kyle Snyder all remain in the Royals system but failed to break camp with the team (in part due to the Royals own mismanagement). Terrence Long, Super Joe McEwing, Alberto Castillo, Jose Lima and Brian Anderson are all major league vets who appeared with various teams as non-roster invitees this spring, but failed to catch on. D.J. Carrasco likely saw a similar future for himself and signed with Japan's Kintetsu Buffaloes in February. That these eleven men, nearly half of the Royals 2005 roster, failed to make another team is, to me, proof that the Royals are essentially operating at replacement level.
Meanwhile, the thing Yankee fans will best remember about today's Royals starter Joe Mays is that he was the guy who gave up Hideki Matsui's opening day grand slam in 2003. Here's hoping we see a repeat of that today.
People Get Ready
Doesn't feel like snow, does it? No, it's a beautiful, crisp spring morning in New York and looks like it'll be gorgeous up in the Bronx for the Bombers' home opener. I know the Royals aren't the Red Sox, but anyone excited?
One week is in the books and in many ways I feel as if the season hasn't started yet. That's what you get when the Bombers open up on the west coast. To be honest, between my job and promoting "Stepping Up", I've simply been too preoccupied to focus on the Yanks. I've caught a few odd innings here and there, and, fortunately, I know where to come for all the latest recaps and analysis.
My trip to St. Louis was brief but a success and I really enjoyed the place, its history and all the baseball fans I met. The longest interview I did was the first--for the local NPR station (which you can listen to here). I've got just enough "ums" and "you knows" in there to make my old man roll his eyes--and I was trying my best to be on point with that stuff. (I must have said "essentially" or "the interesting thing" about a dozen times each too.) Just goes to show you what a learned skill talking in public is. Hey, I'm getting there. Tonight, I'll be on Sports Bloggers Live between 7-8 on AOL, and I'm also hosting a chat over at Baseball Prospectus. I'd appreciate it if y'all could stop by and throw in a question--about Flood, the Yanks, or anything else you've got on your mind.
Thanks, and I hope to be back to the Yankee beat sometime in the near future.
Super Colon Blow
It's official, the Yankees own Bartolo Colon. In four starts last year between the regular and postseason, the Dominican Dirigible posted the following line against the Bronx Bombers:
19.2 IP, 23 H, 19 R, 14 ER, 7 HR, 7 BB, 13 K
Yesterday they beat Bartolo's base drum even harder, scoring eight runs (seven earned) on seven hits and two walks in just over two innings. Alex Rodriguez, who hit four home runs in his first four at-bats against Colon last year, went deep in his first trip against him this year leading off the second. A single and an error later, Jorge Posada made it 4-0 with another dinger. Three batters into the next inning, a Posada double made it 6-0 and chased Colon before he could get the first out of the third. It then took Esteban Yan two pitches to surrender both of Colon's bequeathed runners via a Cano double. The Yanks put up two more on Yan over the next three innings, including Posada's second homer of the day.
Meanwhile, Mike Mussina picked up right where he left off in his first start (6 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 2 BB, 5 K, 68 percent of 92 pitches for strikes), Kyle Farnsworth (2 K) and Scott Proctor (1 K) turned in a pair of perfect innings, and Mariano Rivera, yes Mariano Rivera, pitched around a Casey Kotchman single to close it out.
One and a half times through the rotation, the Yankees have a 3.04 team ERA and the offense is heading home to feast upon three Kansas City Royals starters who had ERA's north of 5.00 last year. Everything's going to be okay.
Randy Johnson pitched a gem last night that was spoiled by a two-out, defense-assisted Adam Kennedy triple and another bad night for the Yankee offense.
With the score knotted at one due to a pair of first-inning runs off a Derek Jeter homer and a Vlad Guerrero RBI single, Juan Rivera lead off the bottom of the fifth with the Angels fourth single of the night. Johnson then struckout Tim Salmon and Jose Molina before yielding yet another single to Robb Quinlan, who started at first in place of the left-handed Casey Kotchman and had also singled in his first at-bat against Johnson.
Adam Kennedy followed and after taking ball one, pulled an extra-base hit down the right field line. Gary Sheffield fished it out of the corner and fired in to the cut-off man Cano standing just behind first as Quinlan rounded third. Cano bobbled the ball, however, losing his opportunity to make a play on Quinlan at the plate. Instead he fired to third to catch Kennedy stretching. Cano's throw was in plenty of time and Alex Rodriguez had the ball in his glove and on the bag ahead of Kennedy's slide, but when Kennedy's lead foot came in, it kicked the ball loose and the play was scored a triple.
It was the Angels only extra-base hit of the night and Johnson would complete the game allowing only one more baserunner on another Guerrero single, finishing with this line:
8 IP, 7 H, 3 R, 0 HR, 0 BB, 8 K, 71 percent of 97 pitches for strikes. Again, six of those seven hits were singles and all eight strikeouts were swinging.
It wasn't enough. After Jeter's homer, the Yankees could only strand a pair of walks against Ervin Santana until the sixth, when a throwing error by Chone Figgins put Jeter at first with one out. Gary Sheffield then singled to make it first and second for Alex Rodriguez. On a 1-2 pitch, Rodriguez lined a ball up the middle only to have it hit Santana in the back of the knee and drop to the ground for a 1-3 putout. Jason Giambi then worked an eleven-pitch walk to load the bases, fouling off five straight 3-2 pitches in the process and driving Santana from the game, but Hideki Matsui, who has been the hottest Yankee hitter thus far this season, popped out against lefty J.C. Romero to end the inning.
Rodriguez was robbed again in the eighth inning when, after a two-out ground rule double by Sheffield that was badly misplayed by Garret Anderson in left, Rodriguez scalded a ball in the second base hole only to have Kotchman, in the game as a defensive replacement for Quinlan, make a tremendous diving catch and flip to pitcher Scot Shields to retire the diving Rodriguez by the thinnest of hairs.
The Yankees threatened again in the ninth against Francisco Rodriguez following a one-out solo homer by Matsui that pulled them within one, but pinch-hitter Bernie Williams grounded weakly back to the mound to strand Bubba Crosby, who came in to run after a two-out Cano single and advanced on a wild pitch, at second. Final score: 3-2 Angels.
The Yanks look to save face tonight after scoring just three total runs in their first two games in Anaheim. Despite that miserable run total, there were some good indicator's last night: Gary Sheffield was 2 for 4 with a double, Alex Rodriguez had two RBI hits taken away due to misfortune and good defense, Giambi stung the ball a couple times and had that fantastic at-bat that chased Santana, Jeter and Matsui homered, Cano got two-out single with his team down one in the ninth. On top of all that, Damon's O-fer last night was his first of the season. This team is on the verge of busting out and tonight's opposing pitcher just might be the guy they do it against.
The Yankees faced Bartolo Colon four times last year, including the playoffs, and none of those outings ended well for the heavy-set hurler. In their first meeting, Colon failed to make it out of the fourth as Alex Rodriguez went 4 for 5 with three homers and ten RBIs and the Yankees won 12-4. Three months later in Anaheim, Colon gave up four solo homers, another to Rodriguez, a pair to Giambi, and one to Matsui, though the Angels pulled out a 6-5 win when Vlad Guerrero hit a grand slam off Tom Gordon. In Game 1 of the ALDS, Colon kept the Yankees in the park, but gave up three first inning runs and lost to the Yankees and today's Yankee starter Mike Mussina 4-2. Finally, in Game 5, Colon was unable to answer the bell for the second inning (though, curiously, the Angels would go on to win behind Ervin Santana on another two-out defense-assisted Adam Kennedy triple).
There's word that Colon is still not completely healthy. He needed 95 pitches to get through five innings in his first start, allowing three runs on eight hits and a walk to the Mariners. Considering how well the Yankees hit him last year, even when he was in good health, I expect the key to this afternoon's game to be not the performance of the slumping offense, but whether or not Mike Mussina can repeat the excellent performance he had against the A's in his first start.
After scoring 15 runs on opening night, the Yankees have scored a total of eight in losing their last three games. But as tempting as it might be to point to a team-wide offensive slump, the fact of the matter is that they've simply run into some outstanding pitching. Rich Harden, Dan Haren, Justin Duchscherer, Huston Street, Kelvim Escobar, Scot Sheilds and Francisco Rodriguez are some of the best pitchers in the American League. Randy Johnson and Mariano Rivera are the only Yankee hurlers who could crack that line-up and Rivera, shamefully, has yet to throw a pitch this season. It's no wonder the Yanks are 1-3. The good news is that Randy Johnson will take the ball tonight looking to stop the Yankees' losing streak. The bad news is that the pitcher he's facing is the promising Ervin Santana, who was the winning pitcher in relief in Game 5 of last year's ALDS. Truth be told, I'd take the 23-year-old Santana over any member of the Yankee rotation other than Johnson himself.
In other news, Wil Nieves was designated for assignment yesterday to make room for new third-string catcher Koyie Hill, who joined the Yankees in Anahiem last night. Nieves will now have to pass through waivers in order to remain in the organization and report to Columbus. All of this proves that Nieves only made the opening day roster because he was out of options and the Yankees didn't think they could afford to lose him to waivers, which should tell you something about how dire the organizational catching situation is. With Hill in the fold, however, the Yankees can afford to expose Nieves, and if Nieves clears, they can then risk exposing Hill, thus opening up that final roster spot for a more deserving player such as Ramiro Mendoza or one of the Kevins. Indeed, DFAing Nieves removes him from the 40-man roster, which means there's now an open spot on the 40-man for Mendoza, who could replace Jaret Wright in the bullpen once Wright is needed in the rotation.
Odds are Nieves won't be claimed, but it will be interesting to see what the Yankees do if he is. One fears the loss of Nieves could freeze Hill on the 25-man for the forseable future, which would be a dreadful waste of a roster spot unles Joe Torre uses the situation to DH Posada on days he doesn't catch. Still, the fact that Hill fell all the way to the Yankees (the Angels and White Sox are the only teams that don't have waiver priority over the Yankees when it comes to wavied National Leaguers, though that will change on the 30th day of the season, at which point this year's standings will be used to determine the waiver order) strongly suggests that there are no other teams out there desperate for a triple-A catcher with out a past or a future. The Yankees should should just suck it up and DFA Hill either way, besides which, they can always withdraw him from waivers and return him to the 25-man roster if he is claimed.
Finally, Joe Torre made the first of what I expect will be several small tweaks to his batting order last night. I've not said much about Torre's bizzare choice to pair up the four lefties in his line-up, placing Giambi and Matsui and Cano and Damon back-to-back, in part because I didn't expect it to last. Indeed, starting last night, Torre has swapped Cano and Bernie Williams in the order, thus using the switch-hitting Williams to break-up the left-handed Cano and Damon. Torre said he made the move because Cano was swinging the bat better than Bernie. That's encouraging because it indicates that Torre is capable of recognizing that Williams, who is now batting ninth, is the worst hitter in his lineup.
Los Angeles de Los Angeles de Anaheim
In my preview of last year's ALDS I wrote about how, for all the praise he receives as a manager, Mike Scioscia does a terrible job of filling out his lineup card. That didn't change during the offseason. Adam Kennedy has a .349 on-base percentage over the past four seasons but remains buried in the ninth spot while Orlando Cabrera, who has never had an on-base percentage that high in any of his major league seasons and carries a .315 career mark, bats second yet again. Darin Erstad, who hasn't had an OPS over .746 since 2000 continues to not only play every day, but bat in the middle of the line-up.
At least Scioscia has shifted Erstad back to centerfield, opening first base for Casey Kotchman, a huge upgrade that should have been made last year. Scioscia could similarly improve his lineup by starting Robb Quinlan at third and using the multi-talented Chone Figgins to force Erstad or Cabrera out of the lineup. Unfortunately misplaced loyalty in the case of Erstad and misplaced cash in the case of Cabrera have kept Figgins boxed in at third and Quinlan riding pine. Most startlingly, Scioscia has abandoned the complex platoon he employed last year that pulled the lefty Finley in favor of Quinlan against southpaws. The Angels have faced lefty starters in two of their three games thus far this season and Quinlan has yet to start, while the left-handed Erstad has started all three games.
The good news for Angels fans is that there offense is on the verge of a major rebirth. To the 30-year-old Vladimir Guerrero, the 28-year-old Figgins and the 23-year-old Kotchman, the Angels will soon add a full infield of prospects in 22-year-old first baseman/DH Kendry Moralis, 22-year-old second baseman Howie Kendrick, 21-year-old shortstop Brandon Wood, 25-year-old third baseman Dallas McPherson, and 23-year-old catcher Jeff Mathis, the last of whom is already on the 25-man roster and should be starting ahead of Jose Molina (yet another misallocation of resources by Scioscia).
The question is, should those eight men indeed coalesce into a dominating offense, will the Angels be able to maintain the pitching required to complete another Championship ballclub. If not, it will be a bitter irony as, for now, it's the Angels' pitching that makes them contenders. John Lackey experienced a breakout last year and could be even better this year. Twenty-three-year-old Ervin Santana will spend his first full season as a member of the rotation and could establish himself as a front-of-the-rotation future star. Kelvim Escobar salvaged an injury-shortened 2005 by returning from the DL as a dominating middle reliever. This year he returns to the rotation, where he was the Angels ace in 2004. Then there's that guy who erroneously won the AL Cy Young last year.
Meanwhile, the Big Three in the Angels' bullpen may just be the best in baseball, but Brendan Donnelly's pixie dust appears to be wearing off and there's considerable concern that Francisco Rodriguez could be headed for a big fall unless he agrees to correct his ugly mechanics. His increased wildness last year (4.28 BB/9 up from 3.54 the year before) is a warning sign that the 24-year-old closer would be wise to heed his coaches. As his comment in this year's Baseball Prospectus annual says, "Rodriguez's mechanics have eroded to the point that it's now a matter of when he will suffer a catastrophic arm injury, not if." Yikes.
Roster below the fold along with a note on Koyie Hill.
Chacon and Bacon
One of the keys to the Yankees' success this year will be the performance of Shawn Chacon, who makes his first start of the year tonight against the Angels. Much has been made out of the fact that Chacon's fantastic performance after being acquired by the Yankees last July was largely the result of an abnormally low opponents' batting average on balls in play (BABIP). BABIP is generally considered something beyond a pitchers control. League average generally falls around .300 and pitchers whose BABIPs vary greatly from that norm in a given year can generally be expected to regress toward the mean in the following year. As a Yankee last year, Chacon posted a .240 BABIP, thus the pessimism many have about his chances for success in 2006.
However, Marc Normandin of Beyond the Boxscore writes in Baseball Prospectus's latest Yankee Notebook that Chacon actually has a history of significantly low BABIPs relative to his home park. Thus, the improvement Chacon showed as a Yankee last year just might be a sustainable result of escaping Coors Field, a park that generally inflates BABIP, because Chacon just might be the rare non-knuckleballer who can consistantly supress his opponents success on balls in play.
The Normandin's credit, this is something he noticed before Chacon threw his first pitch for the Yankees. That is significant not only as a testament to Normandin's skills as an analyst, but because it proves his BABIP analysis isn't simply a case of retrofiting the stats to explain past performance, but the detection of a trend significant enough that he was able to anticipate and extremely surprising improvement in performance.
Here's what Normandin wrote around the time of the trade:
Shawn Chacon of all people looks like he might have the ability to control hits on balls in play a little bit. Ignoring the .314 BABIP, where he was closing, Chacon's BABIP's for his major league career read .275, .261, .276, and .272. Consider again that Coors raises BABIP by simply existing [the average BABIP at Coors during Chacon's stay there was north of .330 --CJC], and we have ourselves someone lowering the batting average of balls in play against him at an extreme rate consistently.
In his new piece at Baseball Prospectus, Normandin provides this chart:
What's apparent here is that Chacon's BABIP relative to his home park with the Yankees last year was low even for him, but not so low that one can't expect him to be a valuable starter for the Yanks this year. With that in mind Normandin takes on Chacon's PECOTA projection:
PECOTA assumes that BABIP regresses . . . His weighted mean projection BABIP is .287, and he is expected to finish with an ERA of 5.04; PECOTA is normally conservative, but that seems well out of line with what Chacon could be capable of, free from Coors for an entire season. This is not to say that Chacon is going to replicate his 2.85 ERA, as even the best in the business have a difficult time with that sort of thing in consecutive seasons. Rather, it seems entirely possible that Chacon can best his 90th percentile projection for ERA without actually having the peripheral statistics that PECOTA expects him to. PECOTA projects a 3.94 ERA at his highest point, and that seems to stem from a much improved K/BB of 1.69 (saying "much improved" before such a low K/BB makes one stop and think for a moment [Chacon's K/BB tends to hang out around 1.40 as it did this spring, though curiously it was actually lower during his time as a Yankee last year --CJC]). Chacon may be able to surpass his projection simply by invoking the powers of BABIP in 2006.
So what exactly happens to the balls put in play against Chacon? Normandin presents the following breakdown of Chacon's 2005 season:
Normandin finishes his piece by cautioning that the jury is still out as to just how sustainable Chacon's success might be, but it seems that the unshakeable optimism I have for his 2006 season just might be justified.
Pitching and Defense
Five unearned runs, that was margin of victory for the A's last night as they took the opening series from the Yankees with a 9-4 victory. The Yanks did well to get out to a 4-0 lead after three against Dan Haren, but from there the A's hurlers tightened up and the Yankees' pitching and defense fell apart.
Chien-Ming Wang got his ground balls (9 of 12 outs in the field came on the ground) and came through with strikeouts, K-ing three in his 4 2/3 innings for a 5.79 K/9, but he also walked three and allowed seven hits in that short span. From what I could tell watching the game on MLB Gameday (due to a misbehaving cable box), he left too many pitches up in the zone.
It all came apart in the fourth after a ground out and a single when Derek Jeter bobbled a would-be inning-ending double play ball for the Yankees' first error of the night. Dan Johnson followed by working a full-count walk and Milton Bradley singled home the two runners that should have been retired by the double play. Wang then got the final two outs, but not before a third run scored on the second out of the inning.
In the fifth, Wang had a stirring confrontation with Frank Thomas with one out and men on the corners, eventually getting Thomas swinging for the second out, but then a pair of walks loaded the bases and forced in the A's fourth run and Tanyon Sturtze was brought in to get the final out.
With his starter out of the game after five and the score tied, Joe Torre turned to Jaret Wright in the sixth. One could have argued for two innings each from Farnsworth and Rivera had Farnsworth not pitched the night before. Another option would have been to stay with Sturtze, who only needed three pitches to finish the fifth, but all of that would be second guessing. As it stood, Wright looked sharp in his final two spring starts and seemed like as good a choice as any. Indeed, Wright made Torre look good by pitching around a walk for a scoreless sixth then recording a 1-2-3 seventh against the heart of the A's order.
With the game still tied and the bottom of the order coming up, it seemed safe to let Wright have one more frame, but Milton Bradley started the eighth with a triple just beyond the reach of Johnny Damon in center and scored when Robinson Cano booted a would-be Jay Payton groundout. A pair of singles plated another run and drove Wright from the game with men on first and second and none out. Mike Myers then did his job by striking out Kotsay and Torre turned to Farnsworth to keep the A's lead at 6-4. Farnsworth's first pitch was wild, sending Jason Kendall to third, and his next three were out of the zone, loading the bases, which Frank Thomas then cleared with a two-out double to run the score to 9-4, chasing Farnsworth from the game.
And that was that. Unlike Tuesday night, the Yankees left just four men on base and Joe Torre's pitching changes were logical and timely. Last night's loss was no fun, but the loss in and of itself doesn't bother me all that much. It does, however, make Tuesday's ninth-inning defeat all the more bitter. Last night was a winable game, but the pitching and defense kicked it away. If the players lose, so be it. Tuesday night, however, was a game the manager lost, and that's inexcusable, especially when his team has an opportunity to take a series from a team as good as the A's. As it stands, the A's took two of three from the Yankees without Mariano Rivera throwing a single pitch.
Their manager having thrown away a chance to take the season's opening series last night, the Yankees are forced to play a rubber game against the A's tonight in Oakland. Taking the hill for the A's will be Dan Haren, whose similarities to last night's Oakland starter, ace Rich Harden, extend further than the five common letters in their last names. Here's an updated version of the tale-of-the-tape that I ran last year:
While Harden is universally recognized as a potential Cy Young candidate, Haren is poised for a breakout season of his own. Haren's 2005 was already better than either of Mark Mulder's last two seasons. Mulder, you'll recall, was the Big Three ace whom the A's sent to St. Louis for Haren, reliever Kiko Calero, and now-20-year-old catching-cum-first base prospect Daric Barton. It's Harden and Haren whom I expect to lead the A's to an easy AL West crown this year. Certainly you have to like the chances of any team that lists Barry Zito as its third-best starter.
Opposing Haren tonight will be the Yankees' 2005 rookie sensation Chien-Ming Wang. Wang, now 26, remains an extreme, and extremely effective, ground ball pitcher. Last year Wang ranked third in the majors in groundball-to-flyball ratio among pitchers with more than 100 innings, trailing only Brandon Webb and ex-Yankee Jake Westbrook, but ranking ahead of the aptly named Derek Lowe. The problem with all of that is that Wang has to work in front of the Yankees' extremely porous infield defense. Thus far, in just two games, we've seen Alex Rodriguez make some outstanding plays at third base and the three men to his left compensate by booting, whiffing and otherwise failing to catch up with balls hit or thrown in their direction. My confidence in Joe Torre has already been spoiled, but if the Yankee skipper knows what's good for his team, he'll compensate by DHing Giambi in Wang's starts and giving the more agile Andy Phillips those starts at first base. Though I'm a proponent of playing Giambi in the field because of the boost it gives his bat, the offensive upgrade achieved by benching Bernie in favor of Phillips should compensate for any lost production from Giambi, who should be able to produce from the DH spot if he's only required to do so once every five days.
Failing that, there's always the hope that Wang will improve his strikeout rate this year. In his rookie season, Wang struck out just 3.64 men per nine innings, a severe drop from his career minor league rate of 7.06 K/9. In 74 1/3 career triple-A innings between 2004 and 2005, Wang struck out 6.78 men per nine and in 15 1/3 innings this spring he struck out 5.87 men per nine innings. Given that history, it seems fair to expect Wang to increase his strikeout rate to something in the mid-fives this year. As dominating as Chien-Ming can be in terms of keeping his opponents from getting the ball in the air, he'll need to help himself more often this year if he expects to improve on his freshman campaign.
Finally, while we're on the topic of pitchers who made their pinstriped debuts in 2005, Will Carroll's latest Under The Knife column contains some unsurprising speculation about Carl Pavano's that is nonetheless startling to see in print. Quothe Carroll:Carl Pavano is headed to [back expert] Dr. [Robert] Watkins for a check of his problematic back. There have been whispers from some in Yankee camp that Pavano will likely need surgery, almost certainly season-ending and perhaps career-ending. . . . Pavano's contract is insured for backs.
Pavano is owed $30.9 million for the remaining three years of his contract (2006-2008) and the buyout on his 2009 option, though I'm not sure exactly how much of that is recoupable via the insurance should Pavano never throw another major league pitch.
So Long Screwy, See Ya in St. Louie
In the top of the first inning last night, Johnny Damon and Derek Jeter reached base and then Gary Sheffield took a characteristically healthy cut at the first pitch he saw and fouled it back. He was right on the pitch and just missed it--Rich Harden eventually struck him out on a 3-2 splitter. Alex Rodriguez was next and he put a great swing on a 2-1 fastball that he just missed, fouling it straight back. Rodriguez whiffed as well and so did Jason Giambi to end the inning. That was just the start of a frustrating evening for the Bombers out in Oakland, but I missed the rest of the game.
I'm gearing up for a two-day visit to St. Louis tomorrow and Friday to promote my book on Curt Flood. I'll be at Left Bank books on Thursday night and on various local radio and TV shows during my stay. Cliff will hold things down--as he's been doing for weeks now--and continue to provide crack analysis on the Bombers. Alexbelth.com will hopefully launch tomorrow--with many kinks to be ironed out over the coming weeks. In the meantime, if you are interested in Curt Flood, here is an excerpt from the book, plus an interview with me that appears today on Viva El Birdos.
Take it ease, and go Yankees.
Jeff Weaver Syndrome
The Yankees left ten men on base last night, six of them in scoring position, but what cost them an otherwise thrilling game was the same old bullpen mismanagement that has long plagued Joe Torre's stay in the Bronx.
Give the A's credit. They can pitch. Rich Harden wasn't dominating, but as he showed in the first by striking out Sheffield, Rodriguez and Giambi to strand Damon and Jeter at second and third, even on an off night he has the stuff to get the job done when he needs to. Of course, he got a big assist in the third when Rodriguez cracked a two-out hit to right with Sheffield on second, then proceeded to run into an out between first and second to end the inning. That stopped the Yankees at one run in that inning. Harden continued to struggle in the fourth, but got three straight outs with men on second and third, though another run came home in the process. When the Yankees finally got another RBI hit in the sixth (Posada's first safety of the season, but second RBI of the game) followed by yet another single, A's manager Ken Macha took it as a sign that Harden was cooked. Justin Duchscherer came on and struck out Cano to end the inning.
Duchscherer can pitch too, as he proved again the next inning by retiring Sheffield and Rodriguez to again strand Damon at second. In the eighth, the Yankees had Hideki Matsui at second with two outs and lesser pitcher Joe Kennedy on the mound, but their worst batter was up and Bernie flied out to end the inning. In the ninth it was ace closer Huston Street who would strand Damon at second, this time walking Sheffield, but retiring Jeter and Rodriguez around him.
As for the Yankees, Mike Mussina exceeded expectations by holding the A's to three runs through seven full while striking out six, a very solid outing for Moose despite homers by Swisher and Chavez. The key is that, since he only allowed two walks and three other hits, the two dingers were solo shots. With Mussina out of the game after 102 pitches (63 percent strikes), Torre expertly managed his pen in the eighth, bringing in Myers to face the lefties Kotsay (strikeout) and Chavez (walk) and then calling on ace set-up man Farnsworth to get the right-handed Frank Thomas despite the temptation of lefty Dan Johnson hitting behind him.
Unfortunately, that's where Torre's wisdom ran out. It took Farnsworth all of ten pitches to retire Thomas and Johnson, yet for some reason Torre decided not to use him in the ninth inning of a game that remained tied. That was mistake number one. Mistake number two was who Torre brought in instead.
We've seen this before, most famously in Game 4 of the 2003 World Series. On the road in a tie game, when the time comes to use Rivera, Torre thinks to himself, "I have no idea how long this is going to go. I'm not going to burn Mo here. I'm going to save him to get those last three outs once we get a lead. In the meantime, I'll use my long man because he can pitch all night while we wait for the offense to score." Usually that long man only gets an inning or two of work in because, with no room for error in a game that will end the second the home team scores, that's exactly what happens. The home team scores off the sixth best man in the pen and the game ends without Rivera throwing a pitch. We saw it with Jeff Weaver in the 2003 Series and we saw it again last night.
Torre should have left Farnsworth in for the ninth and used Rivera for the tenth and eleventh before resorting to his lesser relievers. Rivera last pitched on Saturday and threw just 12 pitches in that game against the Diamondbacks. Farnsworth last threw on Friday, using just 20 pitches against the D-Backs. What's more, the Yankees have an off day on Thursday. To make matters worse, the A's had already blown their best set-up man (Duchscherer) and were an inning deep on their closer. The Yanks end-gamers had every opportunity to outlast their Oakland counterparts. There's simply no excuse, especially in a game that could have clinched a series win from the league's top team.
Instead, Torre turned to Scott Proctor, literally the last man in the pen both by virtue of his making the 25-man roster at the tail end of spring training and his recent absence from the team to attend to his newborn daughter in the wake of her cardiac surgery for a congenital heart defect. Proctor's daughter, Emmy, is expected to make a full recovery, but it doesn't take the most sympathetic soul around to imagine that Proctor's focus may not yet be as sharp as it might be after he's had a few more days to lose himself in his daily routine with the team (he rejoined the Yankees after the pre-game introductions on Monday night).
Not that Proctor's mental state should have come into play. Nor should have Proctor himself. But he did. Twelve pitches later, only eight of them thrown with purpose, the Yankees, or more accurately, Joe Torre had blown a winnable game.
Mussina v. Harden
My headlines have been boring as beans recently. Sorry about that. Then again, there's something to be said for truth in advertising.
After last night's 15-2 massacre (I particularly liked the Daily News's WBC-inspired headline "No Mercy"), the A's look for a little get back with their ace Rich Harden on the mound against the mysterious Mike Mussina. Mussina has suffered a glaring decline the last two years, in part due to elbow problems that one can't expect will go away as he begins his age-37 season, no matter how good he may have felt at the end of spring training.
Harden, meanwhile, is a 24-year-old stud with a devastating repertoire, a textbook delivery, and a very bright future. Funny, then that the last time either pitcher faced tonight's opponent they did it against one another in Oakland in a game that saw Harden leave due to injury and Mussina pitch a gem.
Harden left that game, a 9-4 Yankee victory marred only by an ugly outing from Mike Stanton in relief, after an inning and a third with a strained oblique muscle, an injury which appears to be all the rage these days. He didn't pitch again for more than a month.
Mike Mussina made two starts against the A's last year. Those two starts came on consecutive turns in early May and turned out to not only be Mussina's best back-to-back starts of the year, but part of the salvation of the Yankees' season.
With his team 11-19 entering a Saturday afternoon game against the A's at the Stadium, Mussina took the mound and hurled a beautiful four-hit shutout that kicked off a ten-game winning streak. Game five of that streak was Mussina's second start against the A's described above in which Moose went seven allowing two runs on six hits and a walk and striking out nine. His season line against the A's was thus: 16 IP, 10 H, 2 R, 1 HR, 3 BB, 12 K.
That catch is that the A's lineups that Mussina faced in those two games contained just four of the hitters he will face tonight (Kotsay, Kendall, Chavez and, in the first of the two only, Ellis) while the rest of the order was filled out by men such as Scott Hatteberg, Keith Ginter, Marco Scutaro, Eric Byrnes, Bobby Kielty and an ineffective Erubiel Durazo (0 for 7 in those games and .237/.305/.368 on the year on his way to Tommy John surgery). Tonight those players will be replaced by Dan Johnson, Bobby Crosby, Milton Bradley, Nick Swisher and Frank Thomas. Add in a healthy Harden and Moose and the Yanks have their work cut out for them tonight.
Opening Night Running Diary
The below are my largely unedited notes taken during last night's season opener . . .
I'm oddly grumpy about tonight's game. I guess the late start and fear of rain has soured my mood some. Perhaps watching last night's disappointment has also contributed to my grouchiness. Still, it looks sunny in Oakland and we've got Randy Johnson facing Barry Zito. I can't not get geared up for this, no matter how much I've come to despise the sound of Michael Kay's voice.
Joe Torre announced what he expects to be his everyday lineup on Sunday and he's written it onto today's line-up card:
L - Johnny Damon (CF)
The A's, meanwhile, line it up a bit differently than I had expected. Here's their opening day nine:
R Mark Ellis (R)
With the lefty Randy Johnson on the mound, lefty Dan Johnson hits the bench, righty Jay Payton takes over in left, and Nick Swisher moves to first.
This is the Yankees' only trip to Oakland this season. Weird. They've only opened a season in Oakland once before and have opened on the west coast just five times prior to this, the other four being split evenly between Anaheim and Seattle, four of the previous five west coast openers coming in consecutive seasons from 1997 to 2000.
Damon steps up to hearty boos from the fans of his former team.
It appears to be raining throughout the country. In addition to the rain outside my window, last night the 2006 season kicked off with a game between the second and third best teams in baseball that was ruined by a nearly three-hour rain delay. Tonight, with bad weather already looming over the Bay Area, we may see a repeat of last night's mess except with the first and fourth best teams in the game as the participants.
For those who might misinterpret that last statement as the homerism of an admitted die-hard Yankee fan, it is the host Oakland A's whom I believe are the best team in baseball, with the hometown Yankees coming up fourth (for what it's worth, I expect the Red Sox to do battle for fifth place with whomever emerges from the National League scrum).
The A's won just 88 games last year, but, as I predicted at the outset, 2005 was merely a trial run for the team that will take the field tonight. Among the Athletics who enjoyed their first full major league season last year were closer and AL Rookie of the Year Huston Street, starting pitchers Dan Haren and Joe Blanton, outfielder Nick Swisher, and first baseman Dan Johnson. Meanwhile, young stars Bobby Crosby and Rich Harden battled injuries in what would have otherwise been just their second full seasons in the bigs. All of these players can be expected to improve this year, be it due to increased health, experience, or a combination of the two.
To this emerging core, the A's have added the explosive bat of Frank Thomas and the explosive personality of Milton Bradley. There's no guarantee that either will stay healthy long enough to make 300 plate appearances, let alone twice that many, but for as long as they are in the line-up, they will represent a tremendous improvement over the departed Scott Hatteberg and Erubiel Durazo and demoted Bobby Keilty (temporarily in triple-A to give the A's an extra pitcher to cope with the impending rain) and Jay Payton.
Payton's removal from the lineup gives the A's a righty power bat on the bench that similarly upgrades the team's support staff, which last year involved way too much Eric Byrnes (which is to say, any). The Bradley trade, meanwhile, also netted Antonio Perez, a high-on-base utility man who pushes futility man Marco Scutarowho spent a large chunk of the past two seasons starting in place of injured middle infielders Crosby (in 2005) and Ellis (in 2004)yet another notch down the depth chart.
Elsewhere the A's have added a pair of former Yankee hurlers. Erstwhile swing man Esteban Loaiza, who put up handsome numbers in the pitchers paradise of RFK last year with the Nationals, joins Oakland as a fifth starter, taking over for Kirk Saarloos and his 2.99 K/9. Meanwhile, my one-time pet cause, Admiral Brad Halsey, will slide into the bullpen as a long-relief lefty behind the similarly repurposed and regally named Joe Kennedy. The Paperboy, who just turned 25 years old in February, can also deliver more effective spot starts than Saarloos and could very well work his way into the A's rotation to stay should Loaiza regain his Yankee form. Either way, these two ex-Yanks again push a player who got way too much exposure last year, in this case Saarloos, further down the depth chart.
Some of these improvements will likely be offset by the regression that can be expected from set-up man Justin Duchscherer, who appeared to make the leap in his second full season at age 27, and second baseman Mark Ellis, who returned from a year lost to labrum surgery to be more productive than in either of his previous two major league seasons. But then those two are young enough (the older Ellis will be 29 on 6/6/6) that their improvements could very well be real. Meanwhile, Barry Zito and Eric Chavez are not only still in green and gold, but both are younger than both Duchscherer and Ellis.
On top of all of that, this is a ballclub that fell five games shy of their Pythagorean record in 2005, the fulfillment of which would have tied them with the Indians just two games behind the Angels, Yanks and Red Sox in the overall American League standings.
As for the Yankees, they actually exceeded their Pythagorean record by five games last year, but that's become an annual event for the Bombers. In fact, nine of Joe Torre's ten Yankee clubs have exceeded their Pythagorean record, the one exception coming in 1997. Call it the Mariano Rivera effect. With Rivera slamming the door, the Yankees are able to win more close games that would be expected given their overall run differential, which in recent years has been further skewed by some extremely problematic starting pitching. It's the latter that explains why the A's didn't experience a similar effect given their excellent end game in 2005. Unlike the Yankees, the A's also managed to lose small due to strong starting pitching that was often victimized by an offense that scored fewer than four runs per game for the first two months of the season. (see pages 132 to 137 of Mind Game for my analysis of these effects on the Yankees' Pythagorean records).
Unlike the A's, the Yankees can expect regression (Sheffield and Mussina due to age and nagging injuries, Rodriguez and Chacon because of abnormal 2005 production, Sturtze and Small because the clock has struck midnight, and possibly even Jeter, who's thirtieth birthday is receding in the rearview) that will, at minimum, offset whatever improvements they might enjoy elsewhere (a full season of the rejuvenated Giambi, full-seasons of more experienced Cano and Wang, possible rebounds to previous levels of production by Johnson and Matsui, and perhaps even a bit of bounce from Wright, courtesy of that Mussina curve, Proctor, given a new more suitable role, and Bernie, who couldn't be much worse than last year).
Will all else evening out, the Yankees' offseason moves aren't sexy enough to inspire much enthusiasm, but despite their drab appearance, they all represent improvements, even if those improvements are largely because of the atrociousness of the players being replaced. I've prattled on enough about my expectations for the Yankees this year elsewhere, but allow me to jump the gun on my usual roster breakdown just a tad and give you some specifics:
Who's Replacing Whom?
Using VORP (Value (Runs) Over RePlacement), the eight departed players in the first six lines above combined to cost the Yankees 25.6 runs last year, this despite a positive 10.4 VORP from Martinez. The six players taking over their playing time combined to be 92.3 runs above replacement, and there's a decent chance that Wang and, given enough playing time, Phillips could improve enough to compensate for Chacon's regression. That's nearly a twelve-run improvement right there.
While Damon et al. are all essentially guaranteed to be more productive for the Yankees in 2006 than the players they are replacing, Kyle Farnsworth is more likely to break even with the departed Flash Gordon. The advantage there being that Farnsworth is eight and a half years younger than Gordon, has nearly 1400 fewer major league innings on his right arm, and a cleaner (though not perfect) injury history to boot. For identical money, the Yankees made a significant upgrade, though that improvement may not necessarily show up on the balance sheet given that Gordon's 2005 is already on the books.
The laundry list of miscast and past-due LOOGies that follows Mike Myers' name should be reason enough to appreciate his signing. And while Ron Villone isn't exactly good, he should at least be able to pass through airport metal detectors on road trips, something Quantrill and Felix Rodriguez were unable to do last year given the giant forks sticking out of their backs.
This of course doesn't even begin to take into account the fact that the Yankees finally have a crop of replacement players worth using in Columbus this year, but I've beaten that horse to death already, so I'll take this opportunity to shut the hell up and present the rosters for tonight's game.
Nothing to do but wait around all day until the Yanks open their season in Oakland tonight. Happy Opening Day to you all--this is the fourth Opening Day here at Bronx Banter, the second in a row with Cliff. Looking forward to another entertaining season with you guys.
On a personal note, my Curt Flood book recently hit the shelves and it will be officially released on April 12th. I'm in the process of putting the final touches on a new site (Alexbelth.com) which should be up and running later this week. In the meantime, "Stepping Up" was mentioned in the L.A. Times and the Boston Globe yesterday, The Black Athlete Sports Network, and The New York Sun this morning.
Allen Barra penned the piece for the Sun (Disclosure: Barra is a friend):
Flood, one of the most important players in the game's history in terms of moral leadership, has remained until now a man without a biography. Alex Belth's stirring and hugely readable "Stepping Up" (Persea Books, 240 pages, $22.95) plugs a significant gap in the history of baseball's turbulent 1960s and early '70s.
I've got a new piece up at SI.Com celebrating Flood, and yo, I'm going to be at Left Bank Books in St. Louis this coming Thursday. I know it's a hike, but just thought I'd throw it out there in case you know anybody in the vicinity.
In the meantime, Cliff "the Night Owl" Corcoran will be holding the fort down here, as the Yanks kick off the 2006 season on the West Coast.
Let's Go Yan-Kees!
Another Opening, Another Showdown
I have to hand it to the MLB schedule makers, tonight's season opener between the World Champion Chicago White Sox and the up-and-coming Cleveland Indians (on ESPN2 at 8:00 EST) is the perfect way to kick off the 2006 season. I was one of five Toasters to pick the A's to go all the way this year, but after Oakland, I believe the Indians and White Sox are the next two best teams in baseball. As a result, I expect the AL Central to be this year's most exciting race. So what better way to start the season than with the World Champs and the team that's poised to make them sweat all season long.
Last year, the Indians rebounded from a 9-14 (.391) start to play .604 baseball over the season's final 139 games. They also went 22-36 (.379) in one-run games, including five one-run loses in their final seven games which handed the White Sox the division and the Red Sox the wild card in the season's final week. In games decided my more than one run, the 2005 Indians played .683 ball. These signs all point toward a better record in 2006 for a team that missed the playoffs by two games last year.
The story of the White Sox 2005 season, meanwhile, is the exact opposite. After a scorching 24-7 (.774) start, the White Sox played .572 ball the rest of the way and posted a .648 winning percentage in one-run games, including two of their three wins against the Indians in the season's final series. Due largely to their disparate one-run records, the Indians' Pythagorean record was five games better than the White Sox's last year, despite that fact that the Sox won the division by six games.
Despite winning their first Championship in 88 years, the White Sox hardly rested on their laurels this offseason, trading for Jim Thome and Javier Vazquez, both of whom stand to be major improvements over the departed Carl Everett and Orlando Hernandez, and giving rookie Brian Anderson the center field job. Elsewhere, however, there is considerable fear of regression. Will Jermaine Dye slug .512 this year? Will Scott Podsednik revert to his .244/.313/.364 line from 2004? Can Jose Contreras sustain the improvements he made last year? Will the rest of the rotation survive the loss of Aaron Rowand's defense in center? Most of all, what will come of the White Sox's bullpen, which in 2005 got career years out of Cliff Politte and Dustin Hermanson (the latter of whom will start the season on the DL with a bad back) and saw youngsters Neal Cotts and Bobby Jenks appear to make the leap? The fifth and sixth men in the pen for the Sox entering the season are Matt Thornton, a would-be LOOGY who gave Mike Hargrove fits in Seattle last year by walking 6.63 men per nine innings (does that make him a LOWGY?), and 21-year-old Boone Logan, who has spent all but four games of his three-year professional career in rookie ball with the White Sox's Pioneer League team in Great Falls.
The Indians, meanwhile, are a team on the rise. Though their off-season changes are largely uninspiring (getting Ben Broussard a legitimate lefty-killer for a platoon partner in Eduardo Perez and replacing no-hit back-up catcher Josh Bard with the power and patience of Kelly Shoppach stand as their biggest upgrades), their triple-A team at Buffalo is stocked with prospects who could greatly improve an already excellent ball club by taking over at the major league level mid-season, among them Andy Marte (3B), Ryan Garko (1B), Brad Snyder (RF), Franklyn Gutierrez (CF/LF), starting pitchers Fausto Carmona and Jeremy Sowers, and reliever Andrew Brown. Given that tremendous potential for in-season improvement via on-hand talent and the correction that's bound to occur in the one-run records of both teams, I believe the Indians are the team to beat in the central this year.
For more on these teams be sure to check out the outstanding Let's Go Tribe and the two excellent Sox blogs South Side Sox and Exile in Wrigleyville (and of course my Indians chapter in Baseball Prospectus 2006).
As I type this, we're about a half hour from the first pitch of the 2006 season. Lefties Mark Buehrle and C.C. Sabathia are likely taking their warm-up pitches in the U.S. Cellular Field bullpens. You can find the opening day rosters of both teams below the fold.
Murray Kempton was a famous New York newspaperman for more than fifty years. I've tried to read his stuff on occasion and there is something about his language that I can't get past--I've always had a difficult time appreciating and understanding his work. At the same time, I've also felt that I should get him, that I'm missing something.
Oh, well. I did love him as a New York character, however--he was legendary for riding his bicycle all around town. In 1994, I was working as a waiter at a modest neighbhorhood restaurant on the Upper West Side and had the pleasure to serve Mr. Kempton lunch one afternoon. He had clamps around his ankles so that his pants would not get caught on the chain of his bike. We chatted some and he was every bit the gentleman.
Anyhow, I bring Kempton up because I ran across an article he wrote for "Sport" magazine back in 1962 about the Mets called "Back at the Polo Grounds." Since we were talking about New York fans a couple of days ago, I thought you guys might enjoy this:
The New York of the Giants, Dodgers, and Yankes was an annual re-evocation of the War between the States. The Yankees were the North, if you could concieve a North grinding along with wealth and weight and without the excuse of Lincoln. The Giants and Dodgers were the Confederacy, often undermanned and underequipped and running then because it could not hit. You went to Yankee Stadium if you were the kind of man who enjoyed yelling for Grant at Richmond; you went to the National League parks to see Pickett's cahrge...
Kempton's essay can be in found in the fine collection, "Baseball: A Literary Anthology."
Brother's Little Helper
"Anybody who thinks you can go through the season normally and your body can just respond normally, after what we go through, is unreasonable," said Eric Chavez, the third baseman for the Oakland Athletics. "I'm not saying taking away greenies isn't a good thing, but guys are definitely going to look for something as a replacement."
Over the past couple of months there have been a bunch of stories about how the new ban on greenies will impact baseball this year. I can't recall any of them being more concise or thorough than Jack Curry's piece this morning in the Times. I think this is one of the most interesting stories of the coming season and Curry does a fine job of spelling out the a-b-c's of the matter. Check it out.
About the Toaster
Baseball Toaster was unplugged on February 4, 2009.
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