August 2010

September chock-full of storylines

The best time to be a baseball fan, in my mind, starts right now, when the calendar flips to September, the rosters expand to 40, the trade rumors simmer and each game takes on added playoff intensity. 

The storylines are aplenty this year, with 12 teams within five games of a playoff spot heading into Wednesday. Here are my top 10 … 
10. Skippers trying to shed the “interim” tag
Their clubs may not be heading to the playoffs, but interim managers Edwin Rodriguez (Marlins), Daren Brown (Mariners), Mike Quade (Cubs) and Kirk Gibson (Diamondbacks) are competing for long-term jobs. Per standard protocol, each of their respective clubs have said they’ll be a strong candidate in the interview process, and how their teams play in September could go a long way in that regard. Also consider that several other openings — the Braves, Blue Jays, and possibly the Dodgers and Cardinals, to name a few — will come up this offseason, meaning clubs may be more willing to stick with what they’ve got. 
9. Chapman leads the list of September call-ups
Unfortunately, Tommy John surgery deprived us of watching more of Stephen Strasburg‘s rookie season. But not to worry — Aroldis Chapman and his 100-plus mph fastball from the left side are here to dazzle us. He’ll be something to watch every time he steps out of the Reds’ bullpen. Also look out for John Mayberry Jr. (Phillies), Freddie Freeman (Braves), Desmond Jennings (Rays), Mike Moustakas (Royals) and several other prospects who will be called up this month. 
8. Can Morneau make it back? 
We know Minnesota won’t rush the return of Justin Morneau, who’s recovering from a concussion and has been out since July 7. But the Twins were already dealt a serious blow when closer Joe Nathan‘s elbow gave out in Spring Training, and it’ll be hard to see them advancing deep in the playoffs with Morneau also gone (despite Jim Thome‘s prowess at the plate this season). 
7. Lee and Howard look to reverse struggles
Two of the game’s elites are looking to bounce back from rough Augusts. Cliff Lee had a nightmarish seven starts that month, posting a 1-4 record and a 6.37 ERA, after topping the Majors in WHIP and being nearly unhittable for most of the season. Ryan Howard, meanwhile, missed most of the month while on the DL with a left ankle strain and was batting just .111 with one RBI in his first nine games back before having a nice night against the Dodgers on Tuesday. Deep postseason runs aren’t possible on the Rangers and Phillies without these two in top form. 
6. Low-budget Reds and Padres still doing it
Will that continue? The Reds’ win and the Cardinals’ loss put them a season-high seven games up heading into the month, even though Cincinnati didn’t make much in the form of in-season acquisitions. The Padres have scuffled recently, but they’ve been in first place in the National League West since June 16 and still hold a four-game cushion. It’ll be interesting to see if the Giants can catch up. 
5. Injury-riddled Red Sox march on

Somehow, the Red Sox have managed to stay afloat in the toughest division in baseball despite being completely ravaged by injury this season. Things likely won’t get any better, either, since Jacoby EllsburyDustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis all figure to be out for the year. But the Red Sox have plenty of chances remaining against the Rays and Yankees as the regular season winds down, and history us not to sleep on this team. 
4. Bobby’s swan song
Can Bobby Cox, a sure-shot Hall of Famer, end his brilliant career with yet another playoff appearance? It sure seems that way, even though Chipper Jones has already been lost for the season. The Braves have been in sole possession of first place in the NL East since May 31 and don’t seem to be going anywhere. The health of Derek Lowe‘s elbow — which he says is nothing serious — will be something to monitor down the stretch, as will the production of recently acquired first baseman Derrek Lee, and whether or not Troy Glaus can give Atlanta anything as a third baseman. 
3. Who gets the major awards? 
It’s been one of the most impressive years for National League rookies in quite some time. So, who wins that league’s Rookie of the Year award? (I’m assuming either Austin Jackson or Neftali Feliz in the American League.) Jason HeywardJaime Garcia, Buster Posey, Mike Stanton, Gaby Sanchez and Strasburg, among others, are candidates. As for the two league MVPs? It’s up for grabs between Robinson Cano, Josh Hamilton and Miguel Cabrera in the AL, while Joey Votto, Albert Pujols and Carlos Gonzalez will seemingly battle it out in the NL. The Cy Young, in my mind, will come down to Tim Hudson, Roy Halladay, Josh Johnson, Adam Wainwright, Ubaldo Jimenez and Chris Carpenter in the NL; and Clay Buchholz, Felix Hernandez, Trevor Cahill, David Price and C.J. Wilson will go at it in the AL. 
2. The race between the Yankees and Rays
Will any club separate itself in the AL East? The Rays and Yankees were deadlocked for a record-setting eight straight games until the Yankees took a one-game lead on Tuesday night. But this is far from over. The two clubs have been separated by no more than a game since Aug. 15 and are scheduled to meet seven more times before the regular season ends. The Rays lead the season series thus far, 6-5. 
(Here’s a column I wrote on the Rays’ in-it-to-win-it mentality last week.)
1. Manny’s in Chicago
I am of the belief that Manny Ramirez‘s impact on the White Sox will be a great one. One that will get them over the top and into the playoffs, in fact. The skepticism is obvious, but one doesn’t have to look too far back to find a reason to believe. In 2008 — during a contract year, just like this one — Ramirez joined the Dodgers right before the non-waiver Trade Deadline, tore it up and got them in the playoffs. His run with the White Sox starts Wednesday, when he bats fifth and serves as the DH. Considering the Twins’ situation with Morneau, I believe he helps Chicago close the gap on their four-game deficit in the AL Central. Even if he doesn’t, a White Sox team with Ramirez (pictured below; Reuters) and Ozzie Guillen in the same dugout is a must-watch. 
* Here’s a fresh story on contenders gearing up for the stretch run, and look for a column on the five in-season moves that will have the biggest stretch-run impact on the homepage on Thursday. 
Alden Gonzalez

When going out on your own terms isn’t an option

Chipper Jones‘ season came to an abrupt end after a brilliant jump throw down the third-base line at Minute Maid Park last Tuesday, when he landed awkwardly and somehow ended up tearing his left ACL. 

Even worse, Chipper had previously indicated this could be his last season of all — a season that is already going to see legendary manager Bobby Cox hang it up, and a season that has the Braves primed for the postseason. 
Now, Chipper won’t see what’s possibly the last year of his career all the way through.
Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan knows what that’s like. 
Ryan (pictured below in his 1993 getup) proclaimed prior to his 1993 campaign with the Rangers — his 27th in the big leagues — that he’d be retiring by the end of the year. But his career ended two starts early, when Ryan’s arm gave out on Sept. 22 and was then placed on the shelf for, well, the remainder of his life. 
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“The fact that I knew it was my last season, I announced that and had every intention of retiring, and the fact that it happened prior to the end of the season, it was a little more disappointing,” Ryan told me in a phone interview on Thursday. “But that’s one of the things about professional sports that you have no control over.”
We want our heroes to go out the way we want to remember them: on top. And athletes want nothing more than to finish on their own terms. Most of the time, though, neither are possible. 
But how much does it really matter in the long run? 
Years later, do we really have a bloated Babe Ruth limping away with the 1935 Boston Braves embedded in our memory; or a dead-armed Whitey Ford not being able to pitch past May in 1967; or Wade Boggs not finishing out the final month of his 1999 farewell tour with the Rays because of his own knee injury? 
Probably not. But the players never forget. 
“I think what you want to do [as an athlete] is be consistent and perform to the level of what your expectations are of yourself,” Ryan said. “Yeah, [Chipper] would like to be productive all the way until the end of his career, and that’s the way I felt. My last season wasn’t as productive as I hoped it would be, but a lot of that was due to injury, so I think it just confirmed for me that I had made the right decision.”
We’ll wait and see how performance and injury impact Jones’ decision for the 2011 season — will it solidify his sentiment that he’s indeed finished, or will it motivate him to give it another shot and try to go out the right way? 
Since indicating in June that he might retire at season’s end, the 38-year-old switch-hitter (pictured below walking off the field for possibly the last time with Braves trainer Jeff Porter) has batted .307 with a .907 OPS, providing reason to believe he could perhaps be a productive player beyond this season. 
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Then came the knee injury. And now, if he goes through with retirement, will come the most difficult part of all: Moving on with life after baseball. 
Ryan knows what that’s like, too. 
“It took me two years to get over being a Major League Baseball player, and I was totally shocked by that, because I played so long, and I had so many things I wanted to do in my life that I was looking forward to,” the Rangers’ current president said. “But you have to realize, though, that you’ve been a ballplayer your entire life and your entire adult life, and so you live that lifestyle, you live that routine, you have that discipline. And now, all of a sudden, you wake up one day and that’s not the case, and there’s an adjustment period.”
— Alden Gonzalez

* More on this subject coming soon to an near you. 

‘Year of the Pitcher’ indeed

If you didn’t want to admit it before, perhaps Sunday afternoon — when Brandon Morrow was one out away from the sixth no-hitter of the season and fourth against the Rays in just over one calendar year — finally made you come to grips with the fact that this is indeed “The Year of the Pitcher.”
Personally, and I don’t think I’m alone here, I love the dominance displayed on the mound recently. I’d much rather see a 3-2 nail-biter than a 10-8 slugfest, and I think most baseball purists would agree. 
This season, you’re a lot more likely to see the former. 
Want proof? 
Well, five no-hitters — two of them perfect games — have been fired this season, and two others (Armando Galarraga‘s near-perfecto on June 2 and Morrow’s near-no-no) came down to the last out. Since 1900, only three other seasons in Major League Baseball included five no-hitters (1973, 1968 and 1962) and five others had more (six in 1968, 1917 and 1908, and a record seven in 1990 and 1991). 
There have already been 37 1-0 games this season, which matches the total from all of last season. 
And several rookie pitchers have made top-notch debuts, like the Rays’ Jeremy Hellickson, the Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg, the Indians’ Jeanmar Gomez and the Reds’ Mike Leake
Entering Wednesday’s games, 17 starting pitchers who qualified had ERAs under 3.00 this season. Last year, there were 10, and in 2008, there were eight. 
Many believe a more-strictly-enforced drug program has vastly diminished the use of performance-enhancing substances and led to the re-emergence of the pitcher’s dominance. 
Recent numbers seemingly point to that. 
Heading into Monday’s slate of games, the cumulative MLB batting average was .259, and the cumulative ERA was 4.13. Both are the lowest since 1992 — when there was a .256 batting average and a 3.74 ERA — according to STATS LLC. 
Here’s a look at the recent year-by-year MLB batting averages and RBIs, courtesy of STATS … 
* 2000: .270 BA, 4.76 ERA
* 2001: .264 BA, 4.41 ERA
* 2002: .261 BA, 4.27 ERA
* 2003: .264 BA, 4.39 ERA
* 2004: .266 BA, 4.46 ERA
* 2005: .264 BA, 4.28 ERA
* 2006: .269 BA, 4.52 ERA
* 2007: .268 BA, 4.46 ERA
* 2008: .264 BA, 4.32 ERA
* 2009: .262 BA, 4.31 ERA
* 2010: .259 BA, 4.13 ERA (entering this week)
That’s a pretty steady decline over the last five years. Could we be witnessing a new era, and not just a different year? 
— Alden Gonzalez 

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Above, Morrow, pictured while pitching against the Rays on Sunday afternoon at Rogers Centre in Toronto, had a no-hitter until there were two outs in the top of the ninth. Then, Evan Longoria singled just out of the range of second baseman Aaron Hill. Morrow finished with nine shutout innings, one hit, two walks and 17 strikeouts in a 1-0 complete-game win. 

“If you want a really good reason why there’s a new ballpark necessary in this area, there it is.”

trop roof.jpg“It’s not cute,” is what Rays manager Joe Maddon said after a heartwrenching loss to the Twins on Thursday afternoon — a game when his Rays came back from trailing, 6-0, to tie it with a two-out, pinch-hit grand slam from Jason Bartlett in the eighth inning, then saw Jason Kubel give the Twins the lead for good on a two-out, ninth-inning popup-turned-single off the catwalk in an obsolete Tropicana Field. 

After the 8-6 loss that put the Rays a half-game back of the Yankees in the American League East, Maddon wanted to make one point perfectly clear. 
“To lose a game in a pennant situation like that because of your roof truly indicates why there’s a crying need for a new ballpark in this area, regardless of where they put it,” Maddon told reporters in his office. “It just needs to be a real baseball field where, if you were to lose the pennant by one game and look back at a game like that because the roof got in the way, you’d be very upset. So, again, there’s no better reason than that.”
Maddon is never shy to speak his mind, but this is not sour grapes. The Rays have been clamoring for a new ballpark for years now and really haven’t gotten anywhere. Truth is, they need one — and it’s not because Kubel’s popup cost them one game out of 162. 
Gone are the Astrodome, the Kindgome and Olympic Stadium, meaning Tropicana Field is the only enclosed ballpark without a retractable roof remaining in baseball. And it’s the only one with artificial turf, too. 
With the Marlins set to get their new retractable-roof ballpark for the start of the 2012 season, it’s time for Tampa Bay to have the same. 
Recently, the Rays — contractually obligated to stay at Tropicana Field until 2027, though that’s negotiable — and St. Petersburg, Fla., officials decided to put off talks on a new stadium until the end of the World Series, and the perception is that the two sides don’t agree on much right now. Mayor Bill Foster said the Rays can leave “The Trop” and pursue another stadium in the city, but Rays President Matt Silverman believes the club needs to consider other sites, too. 
Maddon figured he’d use Thursday’s incident to stress that this simply needs to get done, one way or another. 
“If you want a really good reason why there’s a new ballpark necessary in this area,” he said, “there it is.” 
According to The Associated Press, more than 100 flyballs have hit the four catwalks at Tropicana Field since the ballpark opened in 1998. Kubel’s traveled about 190 feet and hit the A-ring, which is the highest. 
Under stadium rules, a ball that bounces off a catwalk is live and in play as long as it lands in fair territory. In fact, the same thing happened between these two teams on May 2, 2007 — though to the Rays’ benefit — when Carlos Pena hit a seemingly routine fly ball off the catwalk that landed for a single and led to the winning rally. 
Perhaps the baseball gods were simply balancing the playing field on Thursday. 
Regardless, though, the issue here is clear, and it doesn’t take yet another ball ricocheting off a catwalk to understand it: The Rays need a new home, and a solid plan in that direction needs to be put in the works soon. 
“I know it works both ways, believe me,” Maddon prefaced. “We’ve benefited from this in the past. There was a time when it was kind of cute. In 2006 and [’07] it was kind of cute — when you might lose a game or win a game because a ball hit the roof or a raft or whatever. But it’s not cute today. It’s not cute. And that’s what sticks because you get a loss, [Joaquin Benoit] gets two earned runs during the loss, because a ball hit something in the roof. And that’s wrong.”
For reference, here’s a look at the height of the four catwalks at Tropicana Field, courtesy of … 
* D-ring: 59 feet above CF, 121 feet above home plate
* C-ring: 99 feet above CF, 146 feet above home plate
* B-ring: 142 feet above CF, 173 feet above home plate
* A-ring: 181 feet above CF, 194 feet above home plate
Alden Gonzalez
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