October 2010

Elvis and the Texas Two Step

Thumbnail image for Andrus.jpgNEW YORK — There isn’t really much country music in Elvis Andrus‘ native land of Venezuela. “Not really,” the Rangers’ budding shortstop said. But here, in the U.S., country music has been Andrus’ key to quickly learning English, which in turn has allowed him to have the kind of calming influence he’s having on his teammates. 

“They always told me the best [English] music to try and understand, to learn, is country,” he said in Spanish before Game 3 of this American League Championship Series against the Yankees. “It goes slow, you can really understand the words.”
Andrus (pictured right by The Associated Press) didn’t speak a lick of English when he was signed to an amateur free-agent contract by the Braves in 2005. But thanks to the useful advice of his brother, Erold, who was with the Yankees at the time, Andrus started listening to country music and printing out the lyrics to pick up English quicker. Now, at 22 years old and in his second year in the Majors, he conducts postgame interviews in English with the ease of a 6-4-3 double play, is the ongoing jokester in the clubhouse and … 
“I like the music,” Andrus said. “After I started listening and listening a little bit more, getting into it, I was like, ‘Hey, I like this kind of music.’ The lyrics are good, songs are good. So, I started like it.”
“He loves it, man,” outfielder Jeff Francoeur added. “He listens to it on the iPod, he’s got some Rascal Flatts in there. So, I enjoy it because I’m a big country music fan, being from Atlanta.”
Andrus is still young and relatively inexperienced. He hasn’t acted like it on the field in this postseason (here’s a story I did on him about that), but he does act like it off of it (in a good way). 
Andrus will leave his hair long for the sake of winning streaks, he’ll playfully get on teammates if they make a mistake, he’s constantly singing in the clubhouse — “He sings every kind of music there is,” good friend Andres Blanco said in Spanish — and he’s always dancing. 
“I can dance to anything,” Andrus said, proudly. 
Now, thanks to country music, the Venezuelan shortstop can speak English fluently, too. To Latin players trying to make something of themselves in the big leagues, that’s more important than you think. 
“I understood that to get here, and to feel comfortable in here, and speak with everybody, I knew I had to learn that English,” Andrus said. “I have a passion about trying to learn other languages, and I knew I had to learn English. If I was going to be playing here like I’m doing now, I knew that was the language I needed to learn.”
— Alden Gonzalez

Here’s a recent column on Cliff Lee and his ‘dirty’ cap. 

Clean livin’, by C.J. Wilson

ARLINGTON — The Rangers did something really cool after they beat the Rays to advance to the American League Championship Series for the first time in their history. They waited on Josh Hamilton and C.J. Wilson to come around the corner, and then they sprayed them with ginger ale. 

The reason is the same (neither of them drink alcohol). 
The background for it is totally different (Hamilton can’t drink because of past problems with drugs and alcohol, and Wilson doesn’t drink simply because he never went down that path in the first place). 
Speaking to the media before the biggest start of his life — not to mention Rangers history — on Thursday, Wilson was witty, charming and refreshing. He didn’t display any apprehensions about matching up with one of the best big-game pitchers in baseball, CC Sabathia, for Game 1 of the ALCS on Friday. 
Instead … 
* When asked how Cliff Lee has impacted his successful transition from reliever to starter, he quipped, “Before he was here, I was actually a right-handed second baseman.” 
* He joked: “I think I’m just going to get that knuckleball over the plate first pitch and see where we go from there.” 
* Regarding the matchup with CC, he stated: “I don’t face him. … Yeah, his uniform is much bigger than mine, and his feet are much larger than mine, but I’m not trying to fill his shoes.”
* And he was delightfully rude when asked if it was a big deal to face the Yankees in the playoffs: “Getting to the World Series is a big deal, winning the World Series is a big deal. Everything is a big deal. That’s why you guys are all here watching us and asking us silly questions.”
Wilson (pictured above by The Associated Press) was also asked about his personal choice to live a clean life. That’s when things got serious — and interesting, and enlightening. 
“My whole life, I never drank, I never used drugs or anything like that,” Wilson said. “And in this era, where so many guys are tainted and stuff, I would pee in a cup and feel good about it every time. 
“I got a lot of really good advice when I was a kid, and one of them was like, ‘Hey, you know what, there are a couple of things that ruin careers, but why would you ever want to step down a path that’s going to do that to you?’ It’s like, well, I wasn’t born with as much physical talent as other guys. I can’t lay back and let that take over. I have to work for everything I’ve gotten. I’m a regular-size dude, and I can’t hit the ball 500 feet. I’m a little guy, and I’ve always equated it to a work-ethic thing, and that’s the way it’s always been.”
Wilson has had a major impact in Hamilton’s turnaround, too. 
Hamilton, you might’ve heard, is supremely talented but had well-chronicled drug-and-alcohol problems coming up, the type that began in 2001, put him out of baseball for a three-year span beginning in ’03 and ended abruptly in October 2005. The Rangers’ do-everything outfielder has been sober ever since, and the clean Wilson has been helping him stay there. 
“Josh and I have a very odd bond because of that,” Wilson said. “The last couple of years, him and I have gotten close because I was one of the few guys that he had the green light to hang out with, you know what I mean, because guys knew that I was zero risk in that sense. He was going to go over to my room, and we were going to play Xbox, and that’s what was going to happen. We were going to kill some aliens playing ‘Halo.'”
Tomorrow, Wilson will try to kill some Yankees playing the game he loves. If Francisco Liriano weren’t in the same league, Wilson would be an ideal Comeback Player of the Year candidate. having gone from back-end reliever to successful starter (he’s 15-8 with a 3.35 ERA in 33 starts as the No. 2 man behind Lee this season). 
Now, after 6 1/3 shutout innings against the Rays in his playoff debut, he’s gearing up for the start of his life. 
“Every mile I’ve run, my entire life,” he said, “and every little tubing exercise and sinker I’ve thrown playing catch is everything I’ve done to get to this point.”
Alden Gonzalez

Make sure you follow C.J. Wilson on Twitter (@str8edgeracer).

And check out my case for Roy Halladay outdueling Tim Lincecum on Saturday. 

Postseason breakdown: National League

MINNESOTA — While the American League was pretty much decided by the time the final week of the 2010 regular season began, the National League came down to the final Sunday.

Heading into the playoffs, the mystery continues. 

Three of the four NL postseason clubs were watching from home at this time last year. Can anyone from the Reds, Braves and Giants knock out the red-hot Phillies, who have won the pennant two years in a row? 

Have a look … 
Phillies (97-65)

Potential lineup

Jimmy Rollins, SS


Placido Polanco, 3B
Chase Utley, 2B
Ryan Howard, 1B
Jayson Werth, RF
Raul Ibanez, LF
Shane Victorino, CF
Carlos Ruiz, C

Potential rotation

Roy Halladay, RH
Roy Oswalt, RH
Cole Hamels, LH
Joe Blanton, RH

Key relievers

Brad Lidge, RH (CL)
J.C. Romero, LH
Ryan Madson, RH
Jose Contreras, RH

Key reserves

Brian Schneider, C
Wilson Valdez, INF
Ross Gload, INF/OF
Ben Francisco, OF

Why they’ll win: They’re calling them “H2O” now. But however you want to identify them — “The Big Three,” “Cole Oswaday” (that was me) — the starting-rotation trio of Halladay, Oswalt and Hamels is looking untouchable heading into this postseason. So untouchable that they’re pretty much all you need, especially in a short AL Division Series. Throw in the fact that their offense — when it’s right — is one of the most deadly in baseball, and the Phils look poised for a third straight trip to the World Series. 

Why they won’t: Just like last year, the Phillies and Charlie Manuel aren’t sure what they’re going to get in the ninth inning from Lidge, even though he has closed out the season very well. Also, the offense has been inconsistent this year, to say the least, and that’ll be something to watch out for, too — especially with J-Roll not looking too healthy. 

Giants (92-70)

Potential lineup

Andres Torres, CF


Freddy Sanchez, 2B
Aubrey Huff, 1B
Buster Posey, C
Pat Burrell, LF
Juan Uribe, SS
Jose Guillen, RF
Pablo Sandoval, 3B

Potential rotation

Tim Lincecum, RH
Matt Cain, RH
Jonathan Sanchez, LH
Madison Bumgarner, LH

Key relievers

Brian Wilson, RH (CL)
Sergio Romo, RH
Jeremy Affeldt, LH
Santiago Casilla, RH

Key reserves

Eli Whiteside, C
Edgar Renteria, INF
Cody Ross, OF
Aaron Rowand, OF

Why they’ll win: The Giants’ duo of Lincecum and Cain is as good as any in baseball and will keep games close, and Sanchez, the No. 3 man, has been an under-the-radar stud. San Fran is also a hot team going in, having gone 19-10 since the start of September to take the NL West from the Padres. Their bullpen is lights-out, too. The Giants finished the regular season with the best ERA in baseball, and the second-best relief-pitcher ERA. 

Why they won’t: This department has been better lately, but the Giants’ offense is still a big question mark heading into the postseason. Does Bruce Bochy‘s club have enough punch to compete with some of the NL’s best? Can they manufacture runs without having to rely on the long ball? And can Posey, the potential NL Rookie of the Year, bust out of his recent slump — 6-for-42 — and come up big in his first postseason? They’ll need him to. 

Reds (91-71)

Potential lineup

Brandon Phillips, 2B


Orlando Cabrera, SS
Joey Votto, 1B
Scott Rolen, 3B
Jonny Gomes, CF
Jay Bruce, RF
Drew Stubbs, CF
Ramon Hernandez, C

Potential rotation

Edinson Volquez, RH
Bronson Arroyo, RH
Aaron Harang, RH
Travis Wood, LH

Key relievers

Francisco Cordero, RH (CL)
Arthur Rhodes, LH 
Nick Masset, RH
Aroldis Chapman, LH

Key reserves

Ryan Hanigan, C
Miguel Cairo, INF
Paul Janish, INF
Laynce Nix, OF

Why they’ll win: Some may be surprised to learn that Cincinnati finished the regular season with the most runs in the NL, but the Reds are a very good offensive ballclub despite the lack of sexy names. Whether they hit against the Phillies and, perhaps eventually, the Giants remains to be seen. Their bullpen has some weapons, especially in Chapman — a wild card for this team. 

Why they won’t: Dusty Baker‘s club just has too many inconsistent parts. It starts with Volquez, the Game 1 starter who’s been up-and-down since coming off ’09 Tommy John surgery, and it ends with Cordero, who’s blown eight saves this season. Then you can sprinkle Phillips and others in between. And then there’s this: The Reds went a combined 7-12 against the three other NL playoff teams this season. 
Braves (91-71)

Potential lineup

Omar Infante, 3B

bobby_cox_cigar.jpgJason Heyward, RF

Derrek Lee, 1B
Brian McCann, C
Matt Diaz, LF
Alex Gonzalez, SS
Brooks Conrad, 2B
Rick Ankiel, CF

Potential rotation

Derek Lowe, RH
Tommy Hanson, RH
Tim Hudson, RH
Brandon Beachy, RH

Key relievers

Billy Wagner, LH (CL)
Takashi Saito, RH
Jonny Venters, LH
Peter Moylan, RH

Key reserves

David Ross, C
Troy Glaus, INF
Eric Hinske, INF/OF
Rick Ankiel, OF

Why they’ll win: Because fate says they should, considering this will be Bobby Cox‘s last season at the helm. Need a more concrete reason? The Braves can still pitch with just about anybody, and it can be enough to keep them in contention despite a myriad of injuries. 

Why they won’t: Because of what I just mentioned — injuries. Chipper Jones was first, then Martin Prado, and now Jair Jurrjens has been shaken up and won’t be starting in the NLDS. The Braves’ offense will be relying on an inconsistent Lee, Ankiel, McCann and Gonzalez, and a rookie in Heyward. That’s a lot of question marks that need to turn into solid answers. 

NL CHAMPION: Phillies. 
— Alden Gonzalez

Postseason breakdown: American League

MINNESOTA — The Rays, Yankees, Twins and Rangers are all different heading into the postseason, but they all have a lefty at the top of their rotations, solid eight- and ninth-inning guys and, come Wednesday, they’ll all be 0-0 and 11 wins away from World Series glory. 

With the start of the American League Division Series now less than two days away, here’s a team-by-team glance at what we’ve got. 

(And a prediction that’s hopefully more successful than my regular-season picks.) 
Rays (96-66)

Potential lineup

John Jaso, Cap-price-rays-celebrates-playoff-berth.jpg

Ben Zobrist, RF
Carl Crawford, LF
Evan Longoria, 3B
Carlos Pena, 1B
B.J. Upton, CF
Willy Aybar, DH
Jason Bartlett, SS
Sean Rodriguez, 2B

Potential rotation

David Price, LH

James Shields, RH
Matt Garza, RH
Wade Davis, RH
Key relievers

Rafael Soriano, RH (CL)
Joaquin Benoit, RH
Randy Choate, LH 
Grant Balfour, RH

Key reserves

Kelly Shoppach, C
Dan Johnson, 1B
Reid Brignac, INF
Matt Joyce, OF

Why they’ll win: The Rays have a potential (or favorite?) Cy Young winner in Price, they have a back end of the bullpen that makes the late innings a nightmare — with Benoit in the eighth and Soriano in the ninth — and their speed element — led by Crawford and Upton — is as unique as it is excruciating to defend. Tampa Bay finished 2010 first in the AL in relief pitcher ERA, third in fielding percentage and, despite an inconsistent offense, third in runs. All big keys to success in my book. 

Why they won’t: As threatening as they are on the basepaths, the Rays’ offense has been rather inconsistent this season, because those surrounding Longoria (fully recovered) and Crawford have been very streaky. The big key will be Pena, the power-hitting first baseman who hit just .122 since the start of September. The importance of Pena to the offense is matched by the importance of Shields to the rotation. Joe Maddon surprised me by naming him the No. 2 starter behind Price, despite his 7.59 ERA in his last six starts. He’ll need to be “Big Game James” and give this up-and-down rotation another solid option if the Rays are to make a return trip to the World Series. 

Yankees (95-67)

Potential lineup

Derek Jeter, SSalg_yankee_stadium_crew.jpg

Nick Swisher, RF
Mark Teixeira, 1B
Alex Rodriguez, 3B
Robinson Cano, 2B
Lance Berkman, DH
Jorge Posada, C
Curtis Granderson, CF
Brett Gardner, LF

Potential rotation

CC Sabathia, LH
Andy Pettitte, LH
Phil Hughes, RH
A.J. Burnett, RH

Key relievers

Mariano Rivera, RH (CL)
Kerry Wood, RH
Joba Chamberlain, RH
Boone Logan, LH

Key reserves

Francisco Cervelli, C
Ramiro Pena, INF
Marcus Thames, OF
Austin Kearns, OF

Why they’ll win: Because they’re the Yankees. They’re the defending champions, the payroll monsters and the ones with all the mystique. Their lineup is loaded with dangerous hitters from top to bottom and sprinkled throughout with gritty postseason performers who know what it takes to win this month. So does their ace, Sabathia, and their closer, Rivera. With names like those, along with A-Rod, Jeter, Teixeira, Posada and Cano, the potential MVP, it’s hard to ever bet against the Yankees. Wood has also been a key addition and makes the Bombers yet another team in these playoffs with the eighth and ninth pretty much locked down. 

Why they won’t: Because the starting rotation won’t let them. That’s the only glaring weakness I see for the Yankees in this postseason (though, granted, it’s a big one). Joe Giradi has been mum on who follows CC in the rotation — and maybe he doesn’t even want to think about it. Seriously, who do you go with? Burnett has been awful this season, especially lately. Hughes has been up-and-down and has far-exceeded his previous career-high innings mark. Pettitte isn’t far removed from a long stint on the shelf (and he’s 38). And Vazquez’s struggles have pretty much exiled him from the postseason rotation. 

Twins (94-68)
Potential lineup
Denard Span, CF


Orlando Hudson, 2B
Joe Mauer, C
Delmon Young, LF
Jim Thome, DH
Michael Cuddyer, 1B
Jason Kubel, RF
Danny Valencia, 3B
J.J. Hardy, SS
Potential rotation
Francisco Liriano, LH
Carl Pavano, RH
Brian Duensing, LH
Nick Blackburn, RH
Key relievers
Matt Capps, RH (CL)
Brian Fuentes, LH
Jon Rauch, RH
Jesse Crain, RH
Key reserves
Drew Butera, C
Nick Punto, INF
Alexi Casilla, INF
Jason Repko, OF
Why they’ll win: In their previous five appearances in the postseason, the Twins have advanced past the first round just once. But this time, they’ll start with home-field advantage in their beautiful, brand-new ballpark — Target Field — and a resilient team will play on it. Their bullpen is one of the best in the bigs, and though the starting pitching and offense isn’t flashy, the Twins find a way to get the job done in those areas, too. 

Why they won’t: Because the injuries will just be too much to stomach. The Twins have already dealt with the long-term losses of closer Joe Nathan and main run producer Justin Morneau. But Ron Gardenhire‘s club may have to overcome more, if Mauer’s knee and Thome’s back prove troublesome throughout the playoffs. Also, is Liriano the type of ace that can match up with the front-line lefty starters of the other three teams? 

Rangers (90-72)

Potential lineup

Elvis Andrus, SS


Michael Young, 3B
Josh Hamilton, LF
Vladimir Guerrero, DH
Nelson Cruz, RF
Ian Kinsler, 2B
Mitch Moreland, 1B
Bengie Molina, C
Julio Borbon, CF

Potential rotation

Cliff Lee, LH
C.J. Wilson, RH
Colby Lewis, RH
Tommy Hunter, RH

Key relievers

Neftali Feliz, RH (CL)
Darren Oliver, LH
Darren O’Day, RH
Alexi Ogando, RH

Key reserves

Matt Treanor, C
Jorge Cantu, INF
David Murphy, OF
Jeff Francoeur, OF

Why they’ll win: The Rangers have it all in this postseason — a potent lineup, a solid rotation, a deadly relief corps and a wealth of depth. The biggest cause for concern heading in was the health of Hamilton, but the MVP candidate dismissed that by looking good in the regular season’s final weekend. Now, he can nestle into a lineup that boasts Guerrero, Young, Cruz and Kinsler. Rotation-wise, the Rangers knew they’d have an ace in Lee — who proved last year his regular season success translates to the playoffs, too — but it would’ve been hard to predict the rotation behind him would be as solid as it has been. 

Why they won’t: I think the Rangers are the best, most complete AL team in this postseason. But that’s only if Hamilton and Lee are performing the way we all expect. Can we be sure they will? Hamilton, as you know, missed about a month with two fractured ribs. Lee, as you may not, struggled mightily in August, a month that saw him post a 6.35 ERA in seven starts. Also, Ron Washington is the only skipper in these playoffs with no previous postseason managing experience. 
AL CHAMPION: Rangers. 

— Alden Gonzalez

* Look for the NL version tomorrow, and follow @Alden_Gonzalez for coverage of the Yankees-Twins ALDS. 
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