Friday, September 02, 2005

Split? D'oh!

Did I say I would do an Oakland Athletics team report at the end of yesterday’s column? Because, um, by that I definitely meant I’m going to bitch about the Yankees. And then some.

I have to admit, though, that I only caught the first inning via Sterling and Waldman on the way to work. Working 5-9 shifts proved beneficial when the games were at 10, but a 4:45 game just doesn’t work with that kind of shift. But, I pulled into work with the score 1-0, so I had little to worry about.

Sure, Wright struggled with the strike zone in the first, but we can call that a normality at this point. His approach to pitching a game is like a guy approaching a female at a bar. A bit nervous at first, trying to feel out the situation and not make any mistakes. So he throws the ball out of the strike zone (asking vague questions), hoping that the guys at the plate swing away (the female showing interest). And once he’s got their interest, it’s smooth sailing from there.

Quick side note: this would mean that his fifth inning against Kansas City this weekend would be the equivalent of the guy telling the girl about a girlfriend/wife. After he took her home, before the sex. It would also mean that getting shellacked with a liner in the shoulder would be like the infamous cock block. Hey, you can’t get the girl every time.

Enter Tanyon Sturtze, who apparently believes that since he took Paul Quantrill’s role this year, he has to follow the same path as the twice DFA’d reliever. On many occasions this year I referred to Quantrill as the king of plating inherited runners. Well, his replacement is making a run for the throne, and it couldn’t come at a worse time, with the Second Season starting and Moose’s immediate future unclear.

I’ve been on the Sturtze bandwagon as long as I could stand it, and I may be the last guy jumping off it. It’s amazing how long a pitcher can ride a month like Sturtze has ridden May, where he allowed just one run in 13.2 innings. And having just typed that, I realize how ridiculous it sounds. Thirteen and two-thirds innings have defined this guy’s entire season to this point.

Did I mention he gave up a homer to a guy who 1) hadn’t previously homered this season and 2) had 12 career homers before that AB.

It’s time to open our eyes, though. Or at least it’s time I opened mine and looked at the comprehensive picture. Sturtze’s numbers by the month:

April: 10.1 IP, 6.10 ERA
May: 13.2 IP, 0.66 ERA
June: 18.0 IP, 4.00 ERA
July: 14.2 IP, 6.14 ERA
August: 12.1 IP, 5.11 ERA

And that’s not even counting yesterday! Now that Sturtze’s ineptitude is obvious to me, the only one left to convert is Torre. And judging by his comments following Sturtze’s outing Sunday, yesterday may have been Steve's Howe's third cocaine bust for Sturtze. Except Sturtze won't be banned from Major League Baseball; he'll just be banished to the depth's of Joe's bullpen -- which, according to Buddy Groom, are comparable.

That’s not to say I don’t want Sturtze in the bullpen. I just can’t see him working out down the stretch in the seventh inning role. As I’ve said before, Small could fill that void if Mussina and/or Wang are good to go in the rotation.

I pose this question: if you were Joe Torre, which four guys would you go with in the playoffs? The rules are simple: 1) Moose and Unit have to be included. No way the team removes a $19 mil and a $16 mil pitcher from the postseason rotation. 2) We’re assuming Wang won’t be back. And 3) If you say Al Leiter, I get to bludgeon you with my Wonder Bat.

So yeah, about that A’s team report. I’m kinda feeling like writing about the A’s will only depress me even further. Hopefully I’ll be back on Monday (or Tuesday, depending on how the weekend finds me) bright and cheery, wondering why I was so pessimistic following a split (A split! I was buggin’ over splitting a series!).

But more than likely, I’ll be bitching and bemoaning the upcoming series with Boston.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Back On Track

How ‘bout dem Yanks? Or, should I say, how bout dem Yanks fans, who complained and complained about dropping to Seattle Tuesday night. Look, guys, it’s going to be okay (just say the goddamn words). You can’t win ‘em all, and sweeping a four game series is a rarity not to be taken for granted. Three out of four ain’t bad, or something like that.

Well, no one should be taking anything but a split for granted, considering who is on the mound today. Sure, I’m still giddy over Wright’s return to the rotation, despite his outing on Sautrday. But you can’t just pretend that start didn’t happen. In his post-game interview, Wright explained to reporters that there was nothing wrong; he had his stuff, it’s just that the ground balls found their holes (though he had an equal number of ground and fly balls, 7).

I still have confidence in Wright. His stuff is right where it was last year with the Braves, and from what I’ve read of his rehab experience, his confidence looks to be right along with him. So if he has his stuff and his confidence, we have nothing to worry about, right? Well, except the ground balls hitting the holes instead of the infielders’ gloves.

Confidence word count: 3.

Wright’s adversary tonight is the still disappointing Joel Piniero, who spent a portion of this year in Triple-A. Unfortunately for the Yanks, they have this problem with hitting mediocre pitchers (see: Jeff Harris, Jose Contreras, the entire Devil Rays staff). Though, Piniero might fall somewhere outside the lines of mediocrity.

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I just want to take this space to commend the Yanks for last night. Normally, on a night where the only two runs plated were solo blasts, things wouldn’t be looking so hot. But this came against a 19-year-old phenom who has drawn more than one comparison to Doc Gooden. King Felix fanned seven in eight innings, and really didn’t make too many mistakes.

This is why the home runs are big. It means that the Yanks – Sheff and Cano in particular, of course – took advantage of the mistakes the younger made. I’m particularly happy with Cano’s shot, because he had to adjust to the off-speed pitch, didn’t quite hit is squarely, but still managed to muscle it beyond the outstretched glove of Ichiro.

Capitalizing off mistakes: it’s one of the differences between the June Yanks and the August Yanks. Now if they can only fix that damn affliction where they can’t drive one in with bases loaded, none out.

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One last topic I wanted to touch on today is Matt Lawton. Sure, he only has two hits since coming over, but remember that one was in the bottom of the ninth Saturday against Kansas City, and the other was an insurance home run in the eighth against Seattle Monday. This can’t and won’t keep up, and I think the Lawton acquisition is going to be more crucial than some may think.

He’s not going to put up monster numbers, but that’s not what he was brought in for. Cashman dished for him – at a relatively cheap price, considering what Chicago gave up to get him (Jody Gerut) – to solidify the outfield. Remember back in June and July, when the Yankees brethren were screaming about nabbing a centerfielder? Well, the wish was granted. Lawton is so versatile that he can play any outfield position, which allows Matsui to patrol center when Bernie’s out of the lineup. And while Matsui may not be the quickest outfielder, he gets a great jump on the ball when he’s in center, his natural position.

Lawton’s hitting will come around, and he’ll prove to be the guy we were looking to acquire in Eric Byrnes or Randy Winn. In fact, I think Lawton is a superior option to either of those guys.

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Coming tomorrow: The Oakland Athletics team report. The first official series of the Second Season begins, and begins with a bang, baby!

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Crosstown Traffic

Honestly, everyone should have seen this coming. Sure, no one really expected it to happen last night, but Shawn Chacon was bound to have a bad outing. A guy who throws so few strikes isn’t going to win them all.

And the bats aren’t always going to be alive and ready for a monster comeback. Yesterday was yesterday, and the quicker the team forgets it and gets back to pulverizing the Mariners the better. Hey, remember, a sweep was the optimistic goal; three of four was the realistic one, which is still alive.

If it is any consolation, however, Chacon’s pitch count in the fourth inning was 81, 40 of which were strikes. His final numbers were six innings, 113 pitches, 62 strikes. And he only allowed runs in the second and third innings. True, he didn’t look particularly strong in the other four innings he hurled, but it indicates that this was an aberration.

We are one day away from the Second Season. Of course, the Second Season doesn’t necessarily start exactly on September 1st. It really depends on the team’s schedule. For instance, the Yanks second season doesn’t really start until Friday in Oakland, even though the games against Seattle are meaningful. Well, a second season began last night out in Queens.

Before I launch into this Mets diatribe, I need to set forth a disclaimer. I am not a Mets fan. I never have clamed to be, never will. I am, however, a baseball fan. And since the Mets a) are just as local as the Yanks and b) have no bearing on the outcome of the Yanks season, I’m finding myself engrossed in their story line.

They blew it last year by dealing Scott Kazmir (inexcusable) for a guy who couldn’t find the strike zone at 29 years of age (and still can’t a year later). Sure, Benson came at a relatively cheap price, and they got rid of Ty Wiggington in the process, which is, as they say, addition by subtraction.

Of course, the Mets fell short last year, as was expected. In fact, they played worse in the second half, than the first, even dropping 11 straight in August through September, and 19 of 21 overall. So let’s get this all straight. The Mets are a mere few games out of the Wild Card hunt at the end of July, so their GM deals their top pitching prospect, amid other slightly lesser prospects, to get a guy who has a reputation for being blind to the strike zone, and to an overrated hurler who becomes a free agent after the year.

Say goodbye to your job, Jim Duquette. And at this point I’d like to say that Steve Phillips wouldn’t have made such an egregious move at that point in time. I’ll tell you who else wouldn’t make such a blunder.

Omar Minaya. He took over a franchise officially in “oh shit” mode, and quickly solidified them to the best of his ability. He re-signed Benson, ostensibly overpaid for Pedro Martinez – though the way he looks now, he could still be solid for his next contract year in ’08 – and forked over Scott Boras dough for Carlos Beltran. Sure, that deal isn’t exactly panning out the way the Mets had hoped. And damn, I’m glad the Yanks didn’t nab him. But when you consider Beltran’s performance in September and October last year, I’m sure the Mets are damn glad to have him on the roster right now.

Over the course of this year, the Mets have developed into contenders. Maybe they weren’t on Day One. But as the season progressed, a pair of 22-year-olds emerged as the best hitters on the team. David Wright and Jose Reyes have stepped up their games and have exceeded expectations for the year.

Holes were created at first and second bases. When Doug Mientkiewicz hasn’t been on the DL, he’s looked like garbage, which is also a perfect way to describe Kaz Matsui at second. But the Mets have plugged both of those holes well with a combination of Marlon Anderson, Miguel Cairo, Chris Woodward, and recently Mike Jacobs.

Victor Diaz has been plugged into the void left by Mike Cameron in right, and Juan Castro has been close to “the man” status during his stint filling in for the injured Mike Piazza. So all the sudden, the Mets have a solid one through eight punch. And just as soon as they find this, they also find themselves with a surplus of starting pitching.

Even though another quality arm in the bullpen would help the Mets immensely down the stretch, they should for no reason trade Steve Trachsel, especially since there are only two, maybe three guys in the rotation who are irreplaceable – Pedro, Tom Glavine, and Kris Benson. Don’t tell me that Trachsel can’t replace Zambrano or Seo, because he sure as hell can.

Having the extra starter also provides the Mets with insurance against injury or fatigue. Pedro admitted last week that he’s feeling rather tired at this point in the season, and a few extra days rest here and there, to be provided by Trachsel, could keep him fresh for a playoff run.

Or what if the Mets have a Mussina situation, where a starter has a problem like an inflamed shoulder, and it is uncertain when he’ll pitch next? Who is a better option, Trachsel or Ishii? Did I even need to ask that question?

The Mets took all of this into the beginning of their Second Season last night, facing off against the Wild Card leading Phillies. Down 4-2 in the seventh, the Mets eeked out a run to pull within one. But hell, Marlon Anderson must have just missed the sweet spot, because his shot to right looked like a dinger off the bat. But at least it allowed Ramon Castro, who led off the inning with a double, to advance to third with one out.

It took a wild pitch, though to score Castro, but they were chipping away at the lead. And finally, in the eighth, against the usually solid Ugueth Urbina, the Mets finally struck. Wright walked to lead it off, stole second, which was followed immediately by a Brandon Jacobs strikeout. He’s a rookie, it happens.

Victor Diaz walked, which prompted commentator Gary Cohen to ponder pinch-hitting for the catcher, Ramon Castro. Silly idea, Gary, at least in hindsight. Hell, in foresight even. Just read the above paragraph and you’ll know that there was no way Willie was pinching for Castro.

His three-run shot was the difference, and the Mets pulled to within a half game of the Wild Card lead. Sure, there’s a month of baseball left, but it all begins here for the Mets. Take two of three from the Phils, and they’ll have gained some momentum entering a time of turbulence.

But if last night began the Second Season, the test of the Second Season comes next week at Turner Field, where the Mets battle the NL East leading Braves. There’s going to have to be a reversal of fortunes for the Mets to prevail at Turner, and they’re going to need those wins to continue their hunt for the NL Wild Card.

More on the Yanks and Mets tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Pitching Wins Ballgames

There are so many relevant topics to talk about now, which is a normality a team is winning. And the Yanks, well, they’re winning. And they keep winning. You can even say they’re playing to their potential for the first time this season. What a time they picked to do it.

Of course, the team has problems, and what team doesn’t? The reason the Yanks are winning, however, is that they are picking up for each other, spreading tinted cream over their blemishes.

Remember back when I analyzed the Yanks vital statistics and found that Slugging Percentage and WHIP seemed to be the indicating stats of the team’s success? Let’s take a quick look at those stats from August:

Slugging: .447 (6th)
WHIP: 1.28 (5th)

And the stats I kind of wrote off:

ERA: 3.75 (4th)
OBP: .349 (4th)

And their record, 18-9, is the second best in the AL for August, just behind those blasted Injuns.

So what does all this prove? Well, for starters, it proves that we’re going to need some solid, not even dominant, but just purely solid starts from Randy Johnson here on out. It also means that Mike Mussina can’t have starts like his last two. But both of those are givens at this point.

There are plenty of reasons for the dip in ERA and WHIP over the course of August, and most would agree that the newcomers, Chacon, Small, Leiter and Wright, can be handed most of the credit for this.

Most would be right. And while it’s easy to heap most of the credit on Chacon and his 1.80 ERA, but last night proved that another one of those newcomers may prove to be just as vital a part. Yes, I’m talking about Aaron Small.

I’ve been touting this guy since his second start (the seven inning, three run performance against the Twins), and he’s done very little to perturb me since his emergence earlier this month, save for that blown save against the D-Rays. Damn those D-Rays.

Oh yeah, and that small gaffe against the Royals this weekend. But that was following ten days off, which is what typically happens to bullpen pitchers when a team carries 12 hurlers. But now with Proctor down in Columbus, Small is sure to get his share of outings from the ‘pen.

The thing about Small is he’s so versatile. He can throw long relief out of the pen for damage control, he can obviously start a quality game, and he can even come in to get three guys out. This can be crucial down the stretch, and especially since we have a similar pitcher, Tanyon Sturtze, also in the ‘pen.

While Sturtze and Small are similar in their versatility (though I wouldn’t be counting on Tanyon to be starting a game anytime soon), they are stylistically different. Sturtze has an excellent fastball with a nasty splitter to complement it. Small is location, location, location, hardly breaking 90 on the gun, but hitting his spots to get guys out.

What does this mean for the Yankees bullpen? I know Torre won’t go for it, since he’s a set in his ways kinda guy, but how about abandoning the “three-headed monster” tactic? Sure, Flash and Mo will still be the 8-9 combo; that formula has worked for years for many teams.

But this three-headed thing seems to put all of the burdensome bullpen work on just those three guys, and as was proven last year, that becomes daunting. Quantrill, Gordon and Rivera were Nos. 1, 2, and 3 in the league in appearances, and the effects of this burnout became evident down the stretch, when they lost ground to Boston in September and eventually collapsed. So why continue the same formula, knowing that the bullpen will have to stay ready and healthy for a successful stretch run?

This is why Small is so valuable: he’s another able arm in the bullpen, at least for now, who can eat up innings. I remember saying back when he was initially moved to the bullpen that he could be used to take up the last three innings of a game, successfully spelling Sturtze, Gordon, and Mo. But I think I’m singing a different tune now. Perhaps he can be used in place of Sturtze or Gordon. Or, on a day when the rest of the bullpen needs a day off, take Mo’s spot and finish off a game.

Hopefully Torre sees this and begins using Small a bit more frequently. Once again, with the pitching staff down to the normal 11 guys, he’s bound to find himself on the hill more frequently, as will Felix Rodriguez. The key is giving these guys some kind of consistency so they can get into a groove and become productive. They've shown that they can, and now it’s time to do it with consistency.

This is my plea to Joe Torre: mix things up. Don’t think that in a two-run game that Sturtze is a must in the 7th, because he’s not. Small can pitch the seventh, just as Felix Rodriguez can. Sure, you want to keep the consistency of Gordon-Rivera doing the 8th and 9th, but don’t think you have to overwork either of them. The bullpen is finally solidified, but will only be effective if used, well, effectively.

Let’s just hope this is recognized within the organization, and we don’t fall into the same rut we did last year, burning out the bullpen and consequently our chances at a 27th championship.

Monday, August 29, 2005

What A Weekend

It’s weekends like this that prove I’m a moody bitch. The Yankees drop a few games that I believe are meaningful (see: Devil Rays), and I’m asking if it’s over. Then they rattle off eight wins in ten games – marred only by two innings in those two losses – and I’m talking about October like it’s a given.

Can’t we just settle on a happy medium?

And the excitement looks to continue throughout the week, as the Yanks are out on the West Coast, battling the Mariners for four. We’ve had their number this year, and heading out when they’re this hot can only be a plus.

Alas, the real test comes this weekend out in Oakland. The way the rotation is panning out, it’ll be Leiter, Moose and Chacon against whatever three of Oakland’s five quality – at worst – starters they have coming up.

For lack of anything else interesting to write, I guess I’ll just go for a day by day analysis of the weekend.

Friday
I was excited to go to this game, considering I haven’t been since late April. But, when I finally realized who was on the mound, I tensed up just a bit. My entire commute to Manhattan was riddled with insecurities about Randy, about out affliction with losing to last place teams. And hell, it’s not like this year’s Yanks are a team that comes up with timely wins.

What a great game to be in attendance for. It was snap-snap for most of the game, which meant, for one, that Randy wasn’t effing up. But it also meant the Yanks weren’t chipping away at Mike Wood. Well, that is until A-Rod smoked one into the black seats. Being in the bleachers, it was an extra special shot, since it was launched right in our direction. And, of course, so mo-mo fan decided it was worth it to hop the divider into the black seats and snag the ball.

It was also particularly exciting in the left field bleachers because Bernie was stationed just to our left. He was being heralded throughout the game, and that was only intensified after he hit his first home run….off the meeeezzzzzzzzzzzaaaaaaaaaaannnnnnnnniiiiiiiiiiinnnnnnnneeeeeeeeeeee! Unfortunately, that bum Crosby took his place after his upper-decker.

The only part of the night that even slightly annoyed me were the 20-year-olds sitting behind us for the first two innings. Not only were they rattling off irrelevant stats, they were rattling off false statistics. Nothing bugs me more than someone who says something about sports that is patently false, like when the kid was talking about Angel Berroa being a quality player. Sorry, kid, but his numbers do a lot of talking, and they’re sure not hyping him up.

I was relieved in the third when a group of kids came over, claiming that the 20-year-olds seats were in fact not their seats. And, of course, the 20’s were sitting in the friggin’ wrong section. So not only were they wrong about sports, but couldn’t even figure out where to sit. Unfortunately, the kids who showed up were Mets and Red Sox fans, and couldn’t possibly be more annoying. The one sounded like John Leguizamo, circa The Pest, and wouldn’t shut up about how drunk he was, and how he wanted a beer. Good thing they don’t serve them in the bleachers.

P.S. Fans on the third base side, learn to do the m-fing wave. Every single wave of the night was killed by that section.

Saturday
I actually didn’t get to catch much of this game. After the Yanks went up 3-0 early, Jon and I decided to do our Madden fantasy draft, which as you know is no simple task. After drafting our team and setting everything up, we clicked back only to see Royals 7, Yanks 3. We headed to the Internet to find out how the runs were scored, and found out that Jaret Wright, after looking strong (sans the first, which is slowly becoming his trademark) in the first four, allowed five in the fifth. Is this going to become a trend for us?

So, needless to say, we continued to pursue our Madden interests, advancing our fantasy-drafted team a year (we draft young, so we wanted to make this a team for the future). After doing that, we grabbed some fries from a place – and I wish I knew the name – that sells only french fries. Yes, that’s right, this shop cooks your fries right in front of you, giving you enormous portions and a plethora of dipping sauce choices. De-friggin-licious. Upon returning, we flipped to ESPNews, to see Royals 7, Yankees 8.

Naturally, we had to sit through all the boring ESPNews content before they showed the highlights of the game. And as soon as I found out A-Rod got the game winning hit, a phone call was immediately placed to my dad, hounding him incessantly about A-Rod (if you’re new to this space, my dad hates A-Rod, and refuses to give him credit unless he homers in the bottom of the ninth with two out and two guys on). The counter-argument thrown at me: “it wasn’t that clutch; if A-Rod doesn’t get that hit, they’ll live to play another inning.” Flimsiest argument out there, people. Take note of that.

Sunday
I was supposed to head to my buddy Al’s house so we could work on some more stuff for our band, the Screaming Negroes. It was difficult to wrest myself from the television, but after Giambi went deep for the second time, I figured my time had come.

Heading over there, I had good ole John Sterling on the radio (and I don’t care what anyone says, I find him enjoyable). As I pulled up to Al’s, Giambi was stepping up to the plate, having A-Rod walked to get to him. And this after two dingers. So what does Giambi do? What Giambi does best, working the count 3-2. And finally, he slapped a single to plate two, increasing his RBI total to seven, and causing me to hit the ceiling of my car with my head. The minute pain was well worth it.

As a whole, this weekend demonstrated the multiple ways the Yanks can turn nine opponents into a battered and bruised squad. They won Friday with a few timely homers and solid pitching from Randy and Mo. Saturday was the return of the Comeback Kids, and in the most dramatic of fashions. Sunday they just poured it on, and kept pouring it on.

If they had been playing like this all season – ah, scratch that. It’s not healthy to be thinking about such trifling matters at a time like this. It’s almost time for the Second Season, baby, and first on the list of opponents: Oakland. It doesn’t get much better than this. September baseball, baby!