Friday, August 19, 2005

Wild Wild Wild Card

Let’s take this off day to talk about something else. Anything else, actually. Just not the Yankees.

One quick note: Randy Moss admits to smoking marijuana “once in a blue moon.” 1) NFL players only get tested once a year, pre-training camp, for marijuana and other recreational drugs. They have the rest of the year to indulge in the sticky icky, so I think it’s safe to say that the moon is perpetually blue over the Moss estate. Oh yeah, and 2) who gives a shit??

We’re closing in on September, the second season. Forget the previous five months; seasons are made and shattered during the final four and a half weeks of the season. Contenders are debunked, sleepers awake from their hibernation. A slump can ruin a star’s bid for an MVP and his team’s chances of competing for the one award that matters.

So let’s take a look at the top five/six contenders from each league.

Ladies and Gentlemen: your American League Contenders!
Chicago White Sox
Los Angeles Angels
Boston Red Sox
Oakland Athletics
New York Yankees/Cleveland Indians

And your National League Contenders!
St. Louis Cardinals
Atlanta Braves
San Diego Padres
Philadelphia Phillies
Houston Astros/Washington Nationals

The NL race is the more intriguing one here. Besides the fact that a sixth contender was required due to a tie in record, the Marlins are just a half game back of the ‘Stros/Nats, with the Mets an additional two back, and even the Brew Crew are only five games off the National League Wild Card leading Phillies. Over in the AL, the Twins are only three and a half off the pace, with the sleeper Blue Jays just a half game back of that.

The ‘Jays are the most interesting story in the AL right now. They’ve been hovering around contention all year, but have been overshadowed by their AL East foes, the Yankees and the Orioles. But now that the Orioles have melted down, fired their manager, and have realized that postseason play is a mere wet dream, the Jays have moved into prime contention.

The Jays remaining schedule isn’t terrible. They face Tampa Bay six time, the Royals thrice, and have a four game set with the Mariners. On the flip side, they have ten against your New York Yankees, ten games in which they could bolster themselves into serious contention like a trebuchet, or make plans to spend October with their families. Boston rolls into Rogers Centre for three, and the Jays have four at Fenway, which doesn’t bode well for them.

Next weekend, the last weekend before the new season begins, will be telling for not only the Blue Jays, but the Injuns, as they hook up in Canaduh for a three game set. A sweep could ruin one season and be the lifeblood of another. On a cynical note, this is also a series that could ruin the Yanks season, as it could lend one team the momentum and motivation that the Yanks so noticeably lack.

If we’re going to talk about the Blue Jays being right in it, I guess it’s only appropriate to mention their NL counterparts, the New York Mutts. Yeah, the Mets have been an up and down ride this year, and losing Mike Cameron for the season isn’t helping things. Victor Diaz will get his share of playing time, however, and if he starts grooving like he was in April it could be just the spark the Metropolitans need. Of course, they could use Carlos Beltran circa exactly one year ago, but they can’t be counting on that. They can just pray Jay Seo continues being their Aaron Small, that Pedro hurls more games like his weekend performance in LA, and they get some productive innings out of Benson, Zambrano, and Glavine. Other than that, let Wright and Reyes do their thing.

Problem with the Mets is that they’re in dead last place in the NL East right now. And while that may mean little, since they’re sitting on a 61-59 record, it does mean that they have to overtake three teams to be sitting on that Wild Card Throne. Luckily for them, they have nine chances to overtake the Nats, and six each against the Marlins and Phillies.

On the flip side of the Mets schedule, they have the Cardinals in a four game set out at Busch, and three guaranteed losses down at Turner Field. As a betting man, I just can’t justify putting any green on the Mutts, considering the up and down season they’re having.

I would, however, put some dough on the Phils to hold that Wild Card lead. Not that I’m counting out the Astros; we’ve all seen how hot they can get down the stretch. But sans Beltran’s immortal September/October bat, and the ‘Stros just aren’t the same team they were last year. Then again, with subtraction comes addition. And by that I’m referring to Andy Pettite, who is having an “eff you, George” season. But unless they can get some additional runs out of those bats, the ‘Stros might find themselves outmatched by the run-producing Phils.

Not that the Phils don’t have problems of their own. Of the serious NL Wild Card contenders, they have by far the most runs allowed (552). And as we’ve learned from our beloved Yankees, you just can’t count on your bats every night to carry the team. But the Phils are hot now, and if they can keep this up for a few more weeks, they might just have hit their way into the playoffs.

Back in the AL, the Athletics are in prime position to make the postseason after being 15 under .500 in May. Their young stars have stepped up and rocketed this team atop the AL Wild Card standings, and for a bit were leading the AL West. But it’s inexperience that may preclude them from returning to the playoffs. How are they going to react to the pressure of the second season? Can Huston Street continue to finish off games down the stretch? Can Eric Chavez play his role as team leader? Can Harden and Zito take the reigns of the staff?

I’d comment on the Twinkies outside chance, but I’d rather leave that to the experts, since not even the most apt of baseball analysts will have a dickens of a time with the team from Minneapolis. Instead, I’ll leave that job to the folk over at Aaron Gleeman’s Baseball Blog.

And then there’s the Yankees. But I’m not going to talk about them. No, there will be plenty of time to lament about the season that should have been in the coming weeks.

And it might not be pretty.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Over?

I’m not saying it’s over, but tonight it felt like it was. All over. Nothing. No division, no Wild Card, nothing. If the demoralizing loss two nights ago was an omen, then the demoralizing loss last night was confirmation.

I don’t want to say all of this; I want to be a Believer. I want to be able to say, “Those two losses aren’t a problem. We’ll just pick it up, sweep the White Sox, and eventually sweep Boston at the Stadium to put ourselves right in the middle of things.” But recent history precludes me from making such statements.

All this inconsistency is killing me inside. The wins bring back memories of a time when the Yanks went up on you and that was it. Game over. And no deficit was insurmountable. The comeback kids. But the losses conjure thoughts of Pat Kelly, Alvaro Espinoza, Kevin Maas, and my personal favorite, Andy “Stanky the Yankee” Stankiewicz.

This is a time when we should be getting psyched up for the home stretch. September baseball, baby! A new season. A mini-season the Yankees have owned since 1998. But now Yankees fans, en masse, are biting off their fingernails night after night, praying for the team to eek out a win against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

Call us spoiled, but this is baseball in New York. It’s been the routine for years now. The team tears it up during the regular season – though they always hit some kind of skid along the way – and test their mettle in the playoffs.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. We were going to avenge the humiliating loss to the Sox last year. But then John Henry bribed our entire pitching staff to take a dive, leaving us with a scrub rotation of Randy Johnson (not bribed, he just sucks), Mike Mussina (a Stanford man wouldn’t accept such a bribe), Al Leiter (Henry bribed Larry Beinfest to release him), Shawn Chacon (the bribe that backfired) and Jaret Wright (Henry didn’t recognize his name, so he didn’t bother to bribe him).

The Yanks have 42 games remaining, so this seems like a premature rant. But it’s not. It needs to be said, and it needs to be said now. We’re only 4.5 off of Boston’s division lead, and a mere 1.5 behind Oakland for the Wild Card, but the team is going to have to turn everything around in these 42 games to pull this one off.

Problem is, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a team this inconsistent all the sudden find something solid to cling on. And it’s not like we have a solid pitching rotation we can use as a foundation; hell, if we had a solid rotation, we wouldn’t be in this mess right now. If we could count on the arms to come through when the bats have an off night, we’d be the ones in first place, looking down on the lowly Red Sox.

That’s not to say the pitching is the entire problem. Mussina has provided quality innings this year, Chacon has been a monster of a surprise, Small – despite last night – has been solid, and Mo, save for a few aberrations, has been the best closer in baseball. There are flaws in our batting order as well.

Namely seven, eight, nine – any combination of Bernie, Tino, Posada, Womack or Bubba. Now, I’ll grant Bernie and Tino some amnesty, since they’ve been producing a bit lately. But Posada (managing a .265 average in August, and that’s a good month), Womack (need I go into statistics with him), and Bubba (.175 average, .233 OBP).

This is problematic for Jason Giambi, who is much more productive, obviously, when he’s seeing quality pitches. But after his recent resurgence, pitchers are finally figuring out to feed him a steady diet of off-speed pitches, knowing that even if they put him on for free, the three guys hitting behind him don’t pose much of a threat.

Yankees teams in the recent past have had flaws, but not as glaring as this year’s incarnation. This should make things exciting, however, to be in a bona fide pennant race. And it would, except the Yankees’ flaws are so egregious, it may just make it impossible to stay in this thing.

But that’s mere speculation at this point. Because as I said, there are still 42 games left to erase a 4 and a half game deficit. And since six of those 42 are against the Red Sox, the thought that the season might be over after last night’s game is a ridiculous notion, right?

It’s ridiculous if you think a team can play significantly better in the last 42 games of the season than they have for the first three quarters of it.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Walking In the Winning Run

I didn’t want to say this, in fear that I’d piss off the baseball gods. But this needs to be said: good teams don’t lose games like last night’s. The night was theirs, but they allowed Tampa Bay to waltz back into the thing and eventually overtake them for an 11th inning win.

It wouldn’t have been that bad had the Rays won the game outright in nine. If Randy had a shaky performance, gave up five runs, and our bats got stuck after that third run scored in the second inning, I’d let it go and anxiously await tonight’s game. But that’s so far from how it went down.

Randy…actually…pitched…well. Very well indeed. The only aberration in his seven-inning performance was a two-run shot to Eduardo Perez, who by the way owns us. Nine homers on the year, four against the Yanks. You just can’t explain these things. Not that Perez isn’t a solid player. It’s just that he turns into Manny Ramirez when he’s in the box against the Yanks.

We sure could have used some more pop in the bats tonight, but I guess you really can’t complain about the hitters having an off night. It’s just a shame to see a Randy start – in which he threw 70 percent strikes – go to waste. This is emphasized with the slow night with the bats. See, not only did Randy pitch well last night, but he pitched well in a game where the bats couldn’t produce runs at the normal, 6-per-game clip.

And everything was rolling along smoothly, until the ninth inning that is. A night after putting two guys on before recording an out, Mo succumbed to the rule of the 162 game season: if you’re overused out of the bullpen, you’re going to give up runs. I don’t know how to put it more simply. Mo needs rest, so the rest of the pitching staff – and the bats – are going to have to pick up for him.

It’s a given that he has tonight off, followed by Thursday’s off-day. But then we’re in Chi-town, facing off against the best team in the AL, a team that took two out of three from us a week ago. If the trend of one-run games continues between the clubs, Mo is going to be an integral part of any winning during those three games.

The whole team needs to band together to give Mo some rest, and if this truly is a team – despite what the media portrays them as – they’ll step up and do it. That means blowing Tampa Bay out of the water tonight. That means Al Leiter throwing strikes and letting the guys behind him take care of the rest. That means winning by at least three.

Not only that, but it would serve the Yanks well to break out their Wonder Bats (I heard Tony Womack got his magic bat off a piano) and kick the ever loving crap out of the White Sox on Friday, giving Mo yet another day’s rest.

The lack of off-days is really going to hurt the team, though it’s not like other teams are getting any better rest. Mo is the closer, the guy who finishes everything off. When we have a lead and need three, four outs, he’s the guy. Has been since ’97. We’re heading down a stretch where wins are essential to a postseason birth.

But Mo is tired. Mo needs rest. But Mo needs to come in and save games. Mo can use all the days off he can get. Mo is ineffective when overused, as evidenced by last year and his few shaky outings in the past week.

So the test of the team goes beyond this weekend and throughout September. Not only do they have to win, they have to win comfortably enough that Mo won’t be needed.

This also means a lot more Aaron Small, on a more daily basis than his stint in the rotation. While I still decry Torre for replacing him as a starter, he may prove invaluable out of the pen. Not only can he eat up innings, he can get the last three outs (see Saturday, Texas Rangers).

I actually just – as in five minutes ago – thought of the possible ramifications of Small in the bullpen, and really, it might just save the season. Sure, his four wins and sub-three ERA have picked up the Yanks in the Dog Days of Summer, but having him in the bullpen strengthens it immeasurably. Think about it: Mo, Gordon, Sturtze, Embree (not great, best lefty we’ve had this year in the pen), Proctor (the Proctor who throws strikes, not ball four over a guy’s head), and Small.

And hell, on those nights when the bullpen needs a rest (which will be a lot of nights to come), Small can act as the entire triumvirate. Instead of throwing Sturtze in the 7th, Gordon in the 8th and Mo in the 9th, Small can go all three innings, spelling the rest of the crew.

See, this is how creative we’re going to have to be down the stretch to stay in this thing. I’ve just never thought of Torre and Mel as the height of creativity…

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

I'm Not Going To Get Over Excited...

I don’t want to jump the gun on this one. Scratch that. I do want to jump the gun on this one, but I’m not going to let myself. Not this soon. Not after what happened in April.

But damn, did that kid pitch well last night. Good, efficient baseball. And for six and a third, no less. Far from flawless, but easily his best performance of the year. Six and a third, two runs, four hits, two strikeouts, one walk.

Wright pitching the way he did tonight was like winning $10 on a scratch-off game; you’re jacked because you just won something. Now you can buy TWO scratch-off games! (Or five of those $2 games, but you never win more than $2 on them anyway).

Will your further investment pay off? Who knows? Sure, you switch it up, play a different $5 game. And sometimes, you’ll hit another ten spot, maybe break even with a Lincoln. The rest you crash and burn. They may have odds calculated for winning these games, but everyone knows that even if the odds say 1-15 wins ten smackeroos, you could go through twenty, thirty cards before you do anything better than break even. Oh, but you didn’t break even, because you bought two cards; you’re actually down five bux.

Point is, the realistic side of me says that Jaret Wright can keep winning, just like you can keep getting that one ticket out of the bunch that hands you $5 to buy another ticket.

The painfully optimistic side of me says we might just get some return on our investment. I try to ignore that side as much as possible, since he’s gotten me into a dab of trouble lately.

A dab.

Know what else Wright was like last night? It was like calling up a pitcher from AAA and seeing him throw that game, like when Chien-Ming Wang started for the injured Wright on April 30th. Except there was no pressing need for a starter, as it was Aaron Small’s scheduled start. This leaves one wondering whose crack-influenced thought process led to the conclusion that Wright should have started last night?

The guys in Boston are loving this. They’re absolutely reveling in the fact that we’re touting Aaron Small, mainly because they’ve never heard of him, therefore making him – in their minds – a nobody, meaning that this is a fluke and it will come to a hilariously (for them) painful (for us) end.

And I have just this to say to you, Boston: how’s Clement? And Wakefield? And Arroyo? And Miller? And Wells? Oh, I know! All sitting with ERAs above four. And Schilling? He’s busy blowing three-run leads in the bottom of the ninth to the Tigers.

You know what else Boston loves? The fact that I, among others, am in no way confident that Randy Johnson will be able to handle the D-Rays tonight. Times are sure changing in baseball; in the times I’m familiar with, that would be as ridiculous a statement as my previous one about Small.

It’s come down to this with Randy: the only reason I’m not tearing my hairs out over his start tonight is because of his name. Because really, that’s all he has going for him at this point. Change his name to Dave LaPoint, and he’s just another inconsistent pitcher (though I admit a harsh reference).

Here’s a question I never thought I’d ask: who would you rather have in your rotation next year, Randy or Small? While this is an opinion question, there are such things as wrong opinions, and if you picked Unit, you’re wrong. Though, I doubt many Yankees fans are very high on Randy right now, and I know we’re all jumping on Small’s bandwagon.

And if the guy has a bandwagon, he certainly needs a nickname. The Big Improvement? Small Ball? Savior of Our Season?

Nah. I’m reaching into my bag of Bill and Ted for this one. Station. Henceforth, Aaron Small will be referred to as Station. Just like Jaret Wright will be the scratch-off kid…unless he can prove to be Powerball.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Sweet Lou

In the words of Professor Hubert Farnsworth, “Good news everyone!” We actually swept a team, and now roll to the turf of the AL’s perpetual cellar dwellers. What’s that, you say? You have a few numbers you want to whisper into my year?

Three and seven. Three of ten. At least that isn’t how we’ve fared against the Red Sox this year. Instead, we’re hitting .300 against the mighty Tampa Bay Devil Rays, a team that’s sure to make a serious run for the pennant in 2012.

Pardon me while I lament dropping seven of ten to D-Rays, 23.5 games behind Boston, meaning 19 games behind us, 20 in the loss column. They’ve allowed 698 runs this season, most in the majors by 22 over Kansas City, a team you don’t really want to draw comparisons to.

Then again, you don’t really want your franchise drawing comparisons to the D-Rays, either. Hell, the D-Rays don’t even want to be compared to the D-Rays.

The D-Rays single handedly prove that team batting average means jack squat, as they are tied for second in the AL – with the Yankees, 14 points up on the AL best Chisox. When it comes to that slugging stat that I’ve been raving about, they drop to sixth, a mere point ahead of Chicago, but 18 up on the Athletics.

If I was a D-Rays fan – the fact that I’m not proves there is some sort of higher existence – I would actually be scared to check their pitching statistics. Their team seems like they can hit, so the problem should be obvious even before noting that they’re last in the AL in ERA at 5.58. Remember those White Sox, who just one paragraph ago were behind Tampa Bay in two offensive categories? 1.94 lower ERA. Hell, even the Yanks have a point on them.

Remember that WHIP stat that I deemed integral to the Yankees success or lack thereof? Oh, those D-Rays and their 1.57, tying KC for the AL worst. But that’s not the worst of it.

Their strikeouts to bases on balls ratio – a stat that I not so much neglected to leave out of my analysis last week as just didn’t have room for it without expanding to 5,000 words – is an abysmal 1.50. You can know next to nothing about strikeouts to walks ratio, and still be certain that walking two guys every time you strike out three is going to end up in lost games. I don’t care if you slug like the Texas Rangers – though they manage a not-so-much-better 1.83 ratio.

Wanna hear worse? Of course you do. The D-Rays strike out 6.05 per nine, which ranks ninth in the AL. Which means they walk four per nine. And that’s in addition to a team OPS of .822, worst in the AL.

So let’s add all of this up. They walk plenty, strike out a couple, and have the worst on base plus slugging in the league. And THEY’RE besting US 7-3 this season?

But such has been the ongoing story of the 2005 New York Yankees. Squeaking out a few clutch wins surrounded by losses to the bottom feeding teams. Worst part of it all: an ESPN headline from June 23rd – no small sample of the season: “Half of Rays road wins at Yankee Stadium.” Demoralizing, just demoralizing. The number: four.

The question we’re all asking is: how? How is it that the D-Rays are killing us this year? Their K/9 is 5.00, lower than their yearly totals. Their K/BB is 1.57, slightly better than they’ve fared against the rest of the league, but not an abnormality that would explain these losses. Hmmm….maybe we need to look at our own corps of pitchers to figure this one out.

Well, upon some brief research, our K/9 against the D-Rays is 5.30, and K/BB is 1.56. So all in all, we’re sitting pretty even in the free outs/free bases category, even though our K/BB is

What does all this mean? When you break everything down to their most simple parts, it basically means that the team that smacks the crap out of the ball the most will take this series. That, or if one team can come up with some stellar, consistent pitching.

Actually, the series may boil down to Sweet Lou and how he’s feeling. If he’s feeling like getting fired, he may sabotage his starting pitcher by pulling him after seven innings of shutout ball (see Casey Fossum, June 20th).

I know this sounds Bill Simmons-esque, but shouldn’t Piniella get his own reality show? Just him and his antics in the dugout and in the front office. It’d be great. Hell, you wouldn’t even have to be a baseball fan to enjoy it. Who wouldn’t enjoy watching a guy try his hardest to get fired, but won’t quit because he doesn’t want to lose out on the remaining portion of his contract?

I’ve now managed to blow hot air about the D-Rays for over 800 words. In fact, I don’t think I’ve said anything meaningful up to this point – and don’t really plan to for the rest of this space. It’s tough to dissect a team this horrible when they’ve done a number on your team thus far in the season.

All I’m expecting from these three games: at least one Sweet Lou ejection. And I guess that’s all I can ask for.