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August 19, 2007

Every Given Sunday

Settling into the Stretch

by John Perrotto

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Jim Leyland has always insisted that the pennant races don't begin until August 15th. While Leyland has never given a definitive reason for why he has arbitrarily picked that date, the Tigers' manager understands pennant races, having lead Pittsburgh to three straight division titles from 1990-92 back when the Pirates still mattered, guided the Florida Marlins to the World Series title in 1997, and taken the Tigers to the World Series last year.

We've missed the 15th by a couple of days, but can certainly pick up the pennant races with six weeks left in the season. And what races they should be, as all six divisions are still too close to call and the wild-card scrums figure to be entertaining in both leagues. Here is a journey one scribe would make through the pennant races if money were no object, and if one could be magically transported from one city to another without the hassles of air travel and without having to take out the laptop at every airport to run through the scanner:

Aug. 20-22: Cleveland at Detroit. The American League Central race still has a long way to go, but this three-game series could give one of the two combatants at least a bit of an upper hand at the top of the stretch run. The two teams also play in Cleveland from Sept. 17-19.

Aug. 24-27: New York Yankees at Detroit. We'll stay in the Motor City to watch this four-game series, a rematch of last year's American League Division Series upset and Alex Rodriguez choke joke that could have implications on three races: the AL East, Central, and wild card.

Aug. 28-30: New York Mets at Philadelphia. This four-game series actually starts on August 27th, and should be quite interesting. The Mets continue to show they are not invincible, and the Phillies keep proving they are as resilient as any team in the major leagues. This is the Phillies' best shot to bite into the Mets' National League East lead and possibly wrest the division crown from the defending champions.

Aug. 31-Sept. 2: Colorado at Arizona. The Diamondbacks have the best record in the NL West, though seemingly nobody east of Tucson knows that fact. The Rockies are also upstarts in a division that was expected to come down to either the Los Angeles Dodgers or San Diego for a second straight year, but Colorado would have to take at least two of three in the series to keep any division title hopes alive.

Sept 3-5: San Diego at Arizona. We'll take a layover in the desert and find out if the Diamondbacks' division title hopes are realistic. If they can win this three-game series then they will make it very tough for the Padres to overcome them for the NL West title.

Sept. 6-9: Cleveland at Los Angeles Angels. Let's skip the plane and take a nice drive over the mountains to Anaheim to see two contenders meet in an important intradivision series. This four-game set could have wild-card implications, and certainly should make an impact on the races in the AL Central and West.

Sept. 11-13: San Diego at Los Angeles Dodgers. After an off day spent sunning at the beach in the afternoon, then watching ballgames on television at night, we'll stay in SoCal for a matchup between two NL West teams that genuinely don't like each other and have one of the more underrated rivalries in the major leagues. By this point, neither team might have a chance to catch the Diamondbacks in the division race, but both will at least still be shooting for the wild card.

Sept. 14-16: Yankees at Boston. We can't miss the season's last renewal of the game's most heated rivalry--at least, until the American League Championship Series--as the Yankees invade Fenway Park for three games. Will the Red Sox' lead in the AL East have shrunk to the point that panic sets in across New England? Will the Yankees be too far back to do anything but focus on the wild card? Regardless of the answer, Yankees-Red Sox always makes for compelling baseball.

Sept. 18-19: Dodgers at Colorado. There is a sneaking suspicion that this three-game series--we'll leave after the second game--might not mean anything, so we'll leave ourselves wiggle room to maybe make a switch like the networks do with the television schedule. Even if the series is meaningless, we can enjoy the Colorado scenery.

Sept. 20-23: Seattle at Angels. It's back to Orange County with the possibility of the AL West title being on the line in this four-game series. The surprising Mariners appear to be in the playoff chase for the long haul, but we'll have a better idea if they can win the AL West after they host the Angels in a three-game series from Aug. 27-29.

Sept. 25-27: Atlanta at Philadelphia. Mets manager Willie Randolph and Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel agree that the NL East should be a three-way race right down to the wire. If that's the case then this three-game series should be very meaningful. At the very least, it figures to at least impact the wild-card race in some way.

Sept. 28-30: Home on the couch. Sadly, the schedulers have left us with few compelling matchups during the final weekend of the season. The only two series that could possibly match contenders are Arizona at Colorado and San Diego at Milwaukee. Let's just rest up for the postseason.

---

While the spotlight shines brighter on Brandon Webb's scoreless innings streak of 42, which is just 17 away from the major league record set by Orel Hershiser in 1988, Chicago White Sox closer Bobby Jenks is the on verge of breaking a similar record. Jenks has retired 41 straight batters, matching the record San Francisco's Jim Barr set during consecutive starts in 1972. After giving up a home run to Cleveland's Ryan Garko on July 17th, Jenks set down the final three batters that day and has made 13 consecutive perfect one-inning appearances since.

White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen believes Jenks' streak is more impressive than that of Barr because he is a relief pitcher. "He maybe pitches one day but not the next two or three days," Guillen told the Chicago Tribune. "And then he has to pitch back to back. The preparation every day is different, different ballclubs and you've got to face different hitters every day. A no-hitter, you can go out there one day and deal. Forty-one or whatever, that's every day, road trips, day games after night games, all kinds of stuff to put it together. And it's pretty impressive, especially coming from a closer because a closer is a power guy and most of the time very wild."

Jenks burst onto the scene two years ago as a rookie throwing 99-mph fastballs for the White Sox squad that won the World Series. Jenks has dialed the heat down a notch and learned to use other pitches. "Boy, can he pitch," White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper said. "He's got all the pitches. He's got a good changeup. A lot of times, in one inning of work, you're not going to mix that in there. But he has thrown a couple of those in on occasion."

Jenks is superstitious and doesn't want to jinx himself by talking about the streak. However, A.J. Pierzynski said that he was nearly as nervous catching Jenks' record-tying game against Seattle last Sunday as when he was behind the plate for Mark Buehrle's no-hitter in April. "You don't want to do something to allow him to not get a guy out and have the streak come to an end," Pierzynski said. "It put a little pep in your step."

Barr seems an unusual candidate to hold the record, as he had a solid but unspectacular career, going 101-112 with 12 saves and a 3.56 ERA in 12 seasons with San Francisco (1971-78, 1982-83) and California (1979-80). Barr set the record in '72 over two appearances. After walking pitcher Bob Moose to lead off the third inning, he retired the final 21 batters in an 8-0 win over Pittsburgh in San Francisco on Aug. 23, and then set down the first 20 batters six days later in a 3-0 victory at St. Louis, before Cardinals outfielder Bernie Carbo broke the streak with a two-out double in the seventh.

The previous record had been the 38 straight batters Pittsburgh's Harvey Haddix retired in his famous 13-inning loss against the Braves in Milwaukee in 1958. Barr did not realize he had set a record until Cardinals broadcaster Jack Buck mentioned it to him during a post-game interview. "My first thought was: What did I do?," Barr, now the head coach at Sacramento State, told the San Francisco Chronicle. "Winning two games in a row, or two complete games in a row, that's a record? Even (after Buck explained), it was like, 'Ah, I never put it together like that,' I knew I got a fair number of guys out in this game but I never put the two games together."

---

It is one week short of four years since Brian Giles was dealt from Pittsburgh to San Diego, giving the slugging outfielder a chance to play for his hometown Padres. However, it might not be so accurate to refer to Giles as a slugger any more, as he is the Padres' leadoff hitter and has a line of .300/.387/.434 in 367 plate appearances this season. He has hit only seven home runs, and five came last week during the Padres' three-game series in Cincinnati in the hitters' paradise of Great American Ball Park.

In fact, Giles' power has taken a major dip since the trade. He hit 165 home runs in 3,114 plate appearances in nearly five full seasons with the Pirates, once every 18.9 PA. He has gone deep just 63 times in 2,593 plate appearances during his time with the Padres, once every 41.2 plate appearances.

However, Giles feels his statistics are a reflection of playing his home games in the extreme pitchers' environment of Petco Park rather than diminishing skills at age 36. "It's not about numbers," Giles told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "It's about winning. People can formulate their own opinions--'Oh, you've lost your power,' and everything--and that's fine. That doesn't bother me. I know that I'm a good player and I know I'm a winner and I know a lot of teams want that type of player on their team. I'm not cocky or anything, or conceited. I know I'm a pretty good player. This park is difficult to hit home runs for a guy with my kind of power. That doesn't mean I can't do other things to help us win."

Giles' splits this season are a good example of how much he is hurt by playing in San Diego. His rate stats are .343/.409/.530 in 186 plate appearances on the road but just .253/.331/.365 in 181 plate appearances at home. However, Giles is quick to point out he would never consider reversing that trade made back in 2003. He has been to the playoffs with the Padres the past two seasons, while the Pirates are working on a 15th consecutive losing season, one short of the major league record set by the Philadelphia Phillies from 1933-48.

"We've won here the last couple years and we've got a chance again this year," Giles said. "In Pittsburgh, we never had a chance to win. You could put up all the numbers in the world, but you'd never wind up winning."

---

Atlanta manager Bobby Cox blew past John McGraw this past week to break the all-time record for most times ejected. Cox got his record 132nd thumb on Tuesday night from home plate umpire Ted Barrett when he argued a called third strike against Chipper Jones in a game against San Francisco. Cox then got run again the next night against the Giants, this time by Angel Hernandez for arguing a balk call against Tim Hudson.

Cox's response? "Means nothing. Just been around a long time, that's all," Cox told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Cox has been clearly uncomfortable discussing the record this season, and went nearly two months between his record-tying and record-setting ejections. "It took him forever to break it," Braves left fielder Matt Diaz said. "So I think he's trying to keep it quiet."

---

From the rumor mill: Detroit desperately wants to find a NL club willing to trade for outfielder Craig Monroe, who was designated for assignment, as the Tigers fear he would be signed by another American League team as a free agent for the pennant race. Pittsburgh has been interested in Monroe in the past and would be willing to trade shortstop Jack Wilson if the Tigers pick up all of the $14.35 million remaining on the final two years of his three-year, $20.2 million contract. Baltimore is willing to trade outfielder John Gibbons in the offseason, but it's doubtful there will be much of a market after he underwent shoulder surgery this past week. Gibbons has two years and $11.9 million left on his four-year, $21.1 million contract. Cubs manger Lou Piniella is leaning toward a closer-by-committee approach, with Bob Howry and Carlos Marmol getting some save opportunities to supplement closer Ryan Dempster. Left-handed reliever Will Ohman's days with the Cubs could be numbered, as he angered management when he questioned how an arm injury was treated after being optioned to Iowa. Milwaukee could be close to pulling the plug on left-hander Chris Caupano in the rotation. The Brewers have lost each of Capuano's last 15 starts and he is 6-18 with a 5.20 ERA in 212 innings since being selected to last year's All-Star Game. Though rookie right-hander Joba Chamberlain has been an immediate sensations in the bullpen, the Yankees plan to move him into the starting rotation next season. Texas will give Gerald Laird and Jarrod Saltalamacchia equal playing time behind the plate for the rest of this season to determine who will be the starting catcher in 2008. White Sox rookie left-hander John Danks' workload will likely be reduced in September as the club may look at prospects Lance Broadway, Gio Gonzalez, and Adam Russell.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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