September 8, 2010
On the Beat
Falling Out of First
It would have been the perfect time to be carrying a pin. As quiet as it was in the Braves' clubhouse on Tuesday night, there was really a strong possibility you could have actually heard it drop.
It wasn't just quiet but eerily silent in the visiting dressing quarters of PNC Park after the Braves lost to the Pirates, owners of the worst record in baseball. Atlanta's offense was stifled again by a team allowing the most runs in the major leagues; the Braves lost 5-0 after falling 3-1 in the series opener.
The mood was only darkened by the fact that the Braves had officially frittered away what had once been a seven-game lead in the National League East on July 22. They fell a half game behind the Phillies, who rallied to beat the Marlins 8-7 in Philadelphia. Thus, the Braves find themselves looking up at someone in the standings for the first time since May 30.
And while the Braves still have 23 games remaining, including six against the Phillies, the clubhouse atmosphere was that of a team that had just been eliminated.
"The thing about baseball is that you have to forget about today and start winning tomorrow," shortstop Alex Gonzalez said. "We want to win. We're not giving up. We've got a good ballclub, but we haven't been playing well lately. That's baseball."
The Braves have lost five of their last six and been held to two runs or less in five of those games. The hitting woes have reached their nadir in Pittsburgh as they have scored just one run in two games while facing a pair of starting pitchers in Brian Burres and James McDonald who won't be confused with, say, Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter.
"We've got to score some runs. It's that simple," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "You can't win a game when you don't score a run."
It's not that the Braves have a bad offense. They rank 10th in the majors and fourth in the NL in runs scored with an average of 4.71 a game. However, they have gone into a team-wide slump in the heat of a pennant race, putting excess pressure on a pitching staff that is second in the majors to the Padres in run allowed at 3.80 a game.
Tim Hudson, who is second in the majors with 7.7 SNVLAR to the Phillies' Roy Halladay (8.1), was dazzling through six innings as he held the Pirates scoreless. "I really thought after the fourth inning, he was going to throw a no-hitter because all they were doing was hitting little tappers," Cox said. Then everything fell apart in the seventh inning when the Pirates scored all five of the game's runs.
Hudson was asked if the pitchers are being asked to carry too much of the burden in the Braves' attempt to get back to the postseason for the first time since 2005. Hudson, though, grew up in Alabama as a big Braves fan and knows that pitching was the foundation of the franchise's unprecedented string of 14 consecutive divisions titles under Cox from 1991-2005.
"We know the strength of this team, when you come down to it, is pitching and good defense, like it always is," Hudson said. "Our job is to give up less runs than we get. We're not doing that right now and it's costing us."
Of course, the Braves have been noted as much for their professionalism as winning during their long run of success under Cox. Thus, Hudson would be expected to not say anything critical of the offense.
Yet, the downcast mood in the clubhouse was unmistakable, even if the words were hopeful. Though the Phillies-Marlins game was just going to the ninth inning as the Braves filed into the clubhouse, all of the televisions were shut out. No Phillies-Marlins. No Baseball Tonight. No MLB Network.
"Right now, we can't worry about the Phillies or anybody else," first baseman Derek Lee said. "We've just got to win games, win as many games as we can and see where the chips fall."
The Braves play the Phillies twice more with three-game series at Citizens Bank Park from September 20-22 and at Turner Field from October 1-3 to end the season in what could be the retiring Cox's final games.
"I think it's all going to come down to the head-to-head meetings," Hudson said. "Whoever plays better in those games will win the division. That's what it'll all boil down to."
Of course, that is if the Braves can stay in the race until then. They looked like a beaten team Tuesday night.
"Our confidence is still high," third baseman Martin Prado insisted. "We still believe we can win."
The Twins fully realize they are in a battle with the White Sox in the American League Central, though they hold a 4 ½-game lead. However, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire would prefer not to be reminded about that by visual means in the midst of a game.
Highlights of the White Sox' victory over the Red Sox on Sunday were played on the scoreboard at Target Field while the Twins were still playing the Rangers in a game they eventually won 6-5. The video clips bothered Gardenhire.
"That was the worst thing you can do," Gardenhire said. "I thought that was really terrible to put the highlights of the White Sox up there in our game. We've never done that, and I hope they never do that again. That brought everybody down; the crowd went pfffffffft. We don't need that. This is our game. We're playing our game. We don't care what the White Sox do until we play them. Scoreboard watching is one thing; having White Sox highlights during our game is a joke."
Gardenhire asked general manager Bill Smith to talk to Twins in-game entertainment crew to make sure it does not happen again.
"I don't even care if they show (the White Sox) getting beat. It doesn't matter," Gardenhire said. "I'd rather stay with our team. Let's watch our team. If they show highlights of games, that's fine up there. But I thought that was ridiculous."
The Twins and White Sox meet only once more this season, a three-game series at U.S. Cellular Field that begins next Tuesday. If the teams continue to play the way they have been lately, it should be a heckuva series, as the White Sox had won seven straight games before losing to the Tigers on Tuesday night and the Twins have won five in a row and 10 of their last 12.
"I think it's bringing the best out in both teams," White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko said of the pennant race. "We're hanging in there. It's definitely easy to get discouraged when the team is winning a lot and you feel like you're playing well and not moving. It's why it's so tough. That's why when it's 162, when you do win the division, the three times we have it's such a great feeling because you feel like it's the hardest thing to do. It's such a battle all year. It should be hell. It should be tough. For us, it's still very, very possible, but the numbers are shrinking. At some point, hopefully we make a move. But I think it's bringing the best out in both teams. Like I said two, three, six months ago, it will probably come down to the last week, the last weekend. That's what we hope."
The Phillies, without fanfare, hired Hall of Fame closer Bruce Sutter as a consultant last month. The move made sense because Sutter lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, not far from Philadelphia.
The Phillies brought Sutter aboard with the primary objective of teaching Triple-A Lehigh Valley closer Scott Mathieson his famed split-fingered fastball. The Phillies hope that it will give Mathieson a second pitch to complement his 95-mph fastball and put him in position to eventually replace closer Brad Lidge. Mathieson, who had three arm surgeries in three years from 2007-09, including two Tommy John procedures, will get a chance to see how his splitter works against major-league hitters after being a September call-up.
"He got 300 saves with it, so I'll take that," Mathieson said of working with Sutter. "It was cool to hang out with him and pick his brain. And he's fun to be around, a real good guy. He definitely lightened up the atmosphere. He was a positive addition to the last couple of days of our season. He made baseball fun again there."
A firestorm broke over the weekend when manager Tony La Russa confirmed that center fielder Colby Rasmus had asked the Cardinals to trade him both last season and again this year in July. First baseman Albert Pujols strongly rebuked Rasmus, saying, "We need to find a way to get him out of here."
However, it is highly unlikely the Cardinals will trade Rasmus in the offseason. The 24-year-old has a .295 TAv and the talent to become a star player. Furthermore, La Russa believes he and Rasmus can coexist despite a sometimes stormy relationship.
"It's one of the most incorrect evaluations and analyses that I can ever remember," La Russa said of the idea he and Rasmus can't get along. "To say that in 2011, either I'm going to be gone or he's going to be gone. Our relationship is nowhere near that."
MLB Rumors & Rumblings: The Red Sox are convinced that designated hitter David Ortiz can continue to a productive player despite his slow starts the last two seasons and plan to exercise the $12.5 million option in his contract for 2011. … Red Sox third baseman Adrian Beltre has put himself in line to hit the jackpot in free agency this winter, and the Angels will be at the front of the line to try to sign him. … Catcher Jason Varitek plans to play at least one more year, though it almost certainly won't be with the Red Sox if they re-sign Victor Martinez as a free agent. … Former Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez is finding that it's nice to be a wanted man as he reportedly heads the list of three teams looking for skippers for 2011: the Braves, Cubs, and Mariners. … It could get interesting if Derek Jeter winds up filing for free agency in November as the prideful shortstop still wants to be paid top dollar, but the Yankees might hesitate because they feel he is a player on the decline. … Disappearing Mets left-hander Oliver Perez plans to play winter ball in his native Mexico. … Brandon Lyon will remain as the Astros' closer even with Matt Lindstrom now off the disabled list.
Scouts' views on various major leaguers:
Royals catcher Brayan Pena: "He's going to get to play more now that (Jason) Kendall is done for the year, and it'll be interesting to see how he does. I once thought he had a chance to be a No. 1 catcher, at least on a second-division team, but you wonder if his skills have eroded from playing so little the last few seasons."
Rays first baseman Dan Johnson: "He's a pretty limited guy, but the one thing he can do is potentially get a big hit off a good right-handed pitcher. For that reason alone, he would be worth keeping on the post-season roster."
Dodgers first baseman James Loney: "It's easy to talk about what he doesn't do—hit home runs— but that's shortchanging him. He's a smart hitter. He'll wait and wait until he gets the pitch he wants, and he isn't afraid to hit with two strikes. In a perfect world, he'd hit 30 homers a year, but that doesn't mean he's not an asset."
Marlins left-hander Andrew Miller: "He is the most frustrating pitcher to watch in the entire major leagues. He's a big guy with a good arm, but he's always a mess mechanically and he just nibbles, nibbles, nibbles and continually falls behind in the count. It just drives you nuts."
Reds third baseman Scott Rolen: "I thought Walt Jocketty had lost his mind when he traded for him last year, but he's had a heckuva year. He never seems to have a bad at-bat, never seems to get fooled by a pitch. The only hole he has is on pitches up and in, but he's smart enough to lay off them."
Pirates second baseman Neil Walker: "Talk about the proverbial light bulb going off, well, it did with this guy. Until this year, he would swing at everything and get eaten up by off-speed stuff. Now he's willing to take a pitch, and he's started murdering breaking balls. Plus, he's a pretty decent second baseman for a guy who never played the position until this year."
Three series to watch with probable pitching matchups and all times Eastern:
Cardinals (72-64) at Braves (79-60), Thursday-Sunday September 9-12
Giants (78-61) at Padres (78-59), Thursday-Sunday September 9-12