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June 29, 2008

Every Given Sunday

Bronx Breakdowns and Rebounds

by John Perrotto

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You would think that the Yankees' starting pitching should be in shambles by now. Just consider that Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy, the two rookies they were counting on heavily this season, are on the Disabled List and have zero wins between them. To make matters worse the ace of the staff, Chien-Ming Wang, is out until September after suffering a torn tendon in his foot two weeks ago.

Despite these setbacks, the Yankees have won 16 of their last 23 games and gone 24-12 since May 21, raising their record to 44-37 at the midway point of the season. Ask them why, and they give a unified answer: "It's the pitching, especially the starters," team captain and shortstop Derek Jeter said. "There are some other factors too, but basically it all comes down to the starters keeping us in just about every game for more than a month now. We've taken some hits in that department this season, but our veterans have held things together and other guys have stepped up."

While Wang still has a team-leading SNLVAR of 1.9, veterans Andy Pettitte (1.5) and Mike Mussina (1.3) are right behind him. Joba Chamberlain has already contributed a SNLVAR of 1.1 in just five starts since being converted from reliever to starter, while former Nationals prospect Darrell Rasner (0.8) and journeyman Dan Giese (0.1) have both been better than replacement level, not a bad thing considering that they're replacements. The bullpen has been solid as well, with closer Mariano Rivera (2.71 WXRL) continuing to roll along, and the oft-erratic Kyle Farnsworth (1.21) filling the void as set-up man since Chamberlain moved into the rotation.

The Yankees have also allowed an average of 4.2 runs per game since May 21, after allowing 4.6 before. The good works of the pitching staff have led manager Joe Girardi to downplay the importance of the offensive production lost from early-season stints on the Disabled List by Alex Rodriguez (.327 EqA) and Jorge Posada (.298). "A-Rod and Georgie have helped, but we knew our hitting would be there. It's the pitching that has turned things around for us," Girardi said. "Without the kind of pitching we've been getting from a lot of different sources, we would be hard-pressed for our record to be what it is right now. The only way you put together long winning streaks is by getting good starting pitching."

While none of the Yankees' current starters rank higher than Pettitte (76th among major league pitchers in SNLVAR), they all feel they have banded together to overcome the loss of 60 percent of the original rotation. "Everybody's stepping up right now," said Pettitte, who is 75-37 in starts after losses during his 11 seasons with the Yankees. "You never want to lose anybody, especially somebody like Wang, but you need to step up when you lose a guy like that. One guy can't do it alone. Everyone has to pitch a little better. We're the Yankees. We're expected to win. If someone goes down, everybody has to pick up. It's not like you just quit on the season and wait until next year."

While Pettitte and Mussina remain quality starters even as they enter the twilight of their careers, the member of the rotation who clearly has the best chance to become an ace is Chamberlain, who took New York by storm late last season when he came up from the minor leagues and was nearly unhittable as Rivera's set-up man. Switching Chamberlain from reliever to starter in the midst of the season began in late May, when he made three extended relief appearances of over an inning of 35, 40, and 28 pitches. He was on a pitch count in his first four starts and threw 62, 78, 89, and 100 pitches as he worked his way up towards six innings.

The pitch restrictions were lifted in Chamberlain's latest start this past Wednesday, when he dominated the Pirates by shutting them out for 6 2/3 innings while striking out seven and throwing 114 pitches. "I think this has probably gone as well as it could have," Girardi said of Chamberlain's conversion. "That just shows you how hard Joba's worked at it. He's embraced this challenge and really wanted to do that."

Just as the rest of the rotation is trying to meet the challenge of overcoming injuries. "Our starters have really picked us up and now you've got Joba for at least seven innings five days a week," Yankees left fielder Johnny Damon said. "You've got to like the position we're in now."

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One of the more eyebrow-raising incidents in recent memory happened this past Wednesday when Astros pitcher Shawn Chacon attacked general manager Ed Wade in the dining room of the team clubhouse at Minute Maid Park. Upset that he had been moved from the starting rotation to the bullpen a few days earlier, Chacon refused to meet with Wade and manager Cecil Cooper in Cooper's office. That led to words between Chacon and Wade before Chacon grabbed Wade by the neck and threw him to the ground.

The Astros put Chacon on release waivers the next day. "We can't have anarchy," Astros owner Drayton McLane told the Houston Chronicle. "You can't have rebellion. If he disagreed with what Cecil wanted him to do, he should have had the courage to sit down and talk to him. If you shoved a policeman down or any other public servant... can you imagine shoving a principal in a school? It was in full view of several players. Players pulled Chacon and restrained him. There's absolutely no way. You can't defy authority. Even if he disagreed with what they wanted him to do, he should have had the courage to sit down and talk to him."

Some close to the situation have described the clubhouse atmosphere as toxic in recent weeks, and claim that many players are disenchanted with Cooper and pitching coach Dewey Robinson. First baseman Lance Berkman, however, believes that the confrontation between Chacon and Wade will not cause any residual problems. "Nobody is thrilled that it happened, but this is a sport of high emotion and sometimes things happen that organizations wish wouldn't, and that's why there are vehicles like suspending a player to deal with those situations," Berkman said. "This is a very highly wound sport and it's not like you can take out any frustrations on the opponent. You have to keep yourself in check. A lot of times your emotions just get the better of you. It's happened to me, it's happened to every player in the game. It's one of those things, and I'm sure that whoever's in charge of what's going to happen next will make the right decision and we'll deal with it as players."

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The Rays' plans for a ballot referendum to build a new waterfront stadium that would have opened in 2012 on the site of Al Lang Field (their spring training home in St. Petersburg), have been put on hold. Rays officials sensed there was too much opposition to the project, and they will now allow a group of community leaders to come up with a stadium plan that might still include the Al Lang site, but will also consider other locations in St. Petersburg.

Team officials and the players were disappointed: "We were looking forward to it. I think everybody was. It was something to get excited about," left fielder Carl Crawford said. "But we can deal with the turf (at Tropicana Field). We've been playing on it for so long at the Trop, we've done well in the Trop. We just have to keep playing in the Trop and see what happens after that. Hopefully something will come up." The Rays have indeed learned to use Tropicana to their advantage this season, as they have a 30-13 home record.

Reliever Dan Wheeler is a year-round resident of the Tampa/St. Petersburg area, and thinks a new stadium would be a great idea. "I was hoping this would be something that would pass and obviously their gut feeling was that it wasn't going to," Wheeler said. "So maybe they have to do a little bit more homework, and maybe that's what their game plan is, I don't know. I was excited about it and I thought it was going to be a good thing. Not just being on the Rays but living in the area, I thought this was a great idea and this was definitely going to help the St. Petersburg area grow. So it's a little disappointing, to say the least."

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The maple bat controversy will not go away. There was another scary incident this past Tuesday at Kauffman Stadium, when the Royals' Miguel Olivo broke his bat on a groundball to shortstop. The handle stayed in Olivo's hands, but the rest of the bat propelled backward and struck home plate umpire Brian O'Nora. O'Nora suffered a laceration on his forehead and was hospitalized overnight for observation.

O'Nora was injured on the same day that Major League Baseball's newly formed safety and health advisory committee met by conference call to discuss the possibility of banning maple bats, because of the alarm caused both by the increased frequency of incidents, and by the tendency of the bats to explode into on-field projectiles. Ironically, Royals catcher John Buck is one of the members of the advisory committee along with Mets reliever Aaron Heilman; major league club executives Sandy Alderson (Padres), Paul Dolan (Indians), Gerry Hunsicker (Rays), Walt Jocketty (Reds), and Dean Taylor (Royals); Joe Garagiola Jr., Dan Halem, and Howard Smith of the MLB central office; and Phil Bradley, Gene Orza, Steve Rogers, Michael Weiner, and Richard White from the MLBPA.

"That's exactly why we met, to see what we can do to prevent that," Buck told the Kansas City Star. "We want to make the game safer for everybody." Count Royals left fielder Jose Guillen in the camp of those who would like to see maple bats eliminated. "I use maple bats, and that was pretty scary," Guillen said. "They can ban them if they want to. I love to use them, but I don't want to see anybody get hurt."

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NL Rumors and Rumblings: Astros right-hander Roy Oswalt has a no-trade clause in his contract, but that hasn't stopped the Angels, Braves, Mets, and Phillies from scouting him in recent weeks for a potential deal. Among the changes the Mets are considering are dropping left-hander Oliver Perez from the rotation, and reassigning or firing hitting coach Howard Johnson. The Nationals are close to signing shortstop Christian Guzman to a two-year contract extension. Guzman is eligible for free agency at the end of this year. Cubs right-hander Jon Lieber is leaning toward retiring at the end of this season. Phillies outfielder So Taguchi is in danger of being released. The Phillies have interest in reliever Vinny Chulk, who was designated for assignment by the Giants. The Marlins believe that Miami automobile dealer Norman Braman, who once owned the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles, has no chance of winning his lawsuit, which would stop the construction of the proposed new stadium because the use of tax money was approved without a ballot referendum. The trial begins Tuesday.

AL Rumors and Rumblings: The Indians are considering making another contract extension offer to left-hander C.C. Sabathia, who rejected a proposed deal before spring training began and has said he does not want to negotiate during the season. The Indians feel that reliever Juan Rincon, who was released by the Twins last week, can help their bullpen after he makes a few appearances at Triple-A Buffalo in an attempt to get back on track. If right-hander Curt Schilling does make a successful recovery from shoulder surgery, the Red Sox are said to have no desire to re-sign him as a free agency. The Yankees have extended an invitation to fired Mets manager Willie Randolph to return to the organization as a possible minor league infield instructor or adviser to GM Brian Cashman. The Athletics want a right-handed hitting outfielder, and are reportedly eying Rockies left fielder Matt Holliday and center fielder Willy Taveras. The Orioles, now on their third starting shortstop this season after calling up Brandon Fahey from Triple-A Norfolk this past week, are looking to trade for Nationals infielder Felipe Lopez. White Sox infielder Juan Uribe has been on thin ice all season, and he could be designated for assignment when first baseman Paul Konerko comes off of the DL.

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Interesting facts as the 13th week of the regular season comes to a close:

  • The Mariners' Felix Hernandez hit a grand slam on Monday off of the Mets' Johan Santana. It was the first by an American League pitcher since the Indians' Steve Dunning connected off the Athletics' Diego Segui on May 11, 1971.
  • Reds right-hander Bronson Arroyo gave up 10 runs in one-plus inning against the Blue Jays on Tuesday, becoming only the sixth pitcher in history to allow at least 10 earned runs without getting more than three outs. The last pitcher to suffer that indignity was the Astros' Jason Jennings, against the Padres last July 29, when he allowed 11 runs in 2/3 of an inning.
  • When 44-year-old Diamondbacks left-hander Randy Johnson and 41-year-old Red Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield faced each other Wednesday at Fenway Park, their combined ages were 86 years and 252 days. That was the oldest matchup of starting pitchers at Fenway since September 26, 1965 when the Athletics' Satchel Paige (59 years, 81 days) faced Bill Monboquette of the Red Sox (29 years, 45 days).
  • Sabathia struck out 11 in his win over the Reds on Friday to become the first Indians pitcher to have three consecutive double-digit strikeout games since Chuck Finley in 2000. Cliff Lee also struck out 11 in beating the Giants on Thursday, giving the Indians starting pitchers with back-to-back double-digit strikeout games for the first time since Gaylord Perry and Dick Tidrow each fanned 10 against the White Sox on May 10-11, 1972.
  • Rich Harden is the first Athletics pitcher to be 5-0 since Billy Koch in 2002. Harden is also 18-3 in the 29 career start in which he has pitched at least seven innings.
  • Rivera has saved 54 victories for Pettitte, one away from the all-time record of 55 set by Dennis Eckersley and Bob Welch.
  • Jeter had 2,438 career hits when he celebrated his 34th birthday Thursday, the most hits ever by a Yankees player at that age. The last player to have more hits before turning 34 was the Brewers' Robin Yount, who had 2,485 before his 34th birthday in 1989.
  • The Yankees posted a 10-0 win over the Pirates on Wednesday for their sixth shutout of the season. (They only had five all of last year.) That shellacking also came after a 13-0 win over the Astros on June 15, making the Yankees the first team to win two shutout games by 10 or more runs in a 10-day span since the 1998 Braves beat the Diamondbacks 10-0 on Sept. 20 and the Marlins 11-0 on Sept. 23. The last time the Yankees accomplished that feat was in 1985, when they beat the Orioles 10-0 on both June 17 and 19.
  • The Marlins' Dan Uggla has 23 home runs, uniting him with Joe Gordon as one of two second baseman in history to have 20 or more homers in each of his first three major league seasons. Uggla had 27 homers in 2006 and 31 in 2007. Gordon began his career with four straight 20-plus homer seasons with the Yankees, belting 25 in 1938, 28 in 1939, 30 in 1940, and 24 in 1941.
  • The Rays are 48-32, and just the ninth team since 1900 to be 15 games or more over .500 after finishing the previous season with the worst record in the major leagues. The others are the 1902 Browns, 1903 Giants, 1967 Cubs, 1988 Indians, 1989 Orioles, 2001 Cubs, and 2001 Phillies.
  • Catcher Max Ramirez became the sixth different Rangers player to collect his first major league hit this season when he singled off Oswalt on Wednesday. The others are German Duran, Brandon Boggs, Scott Feldman, Kason Gabbard, and Eric Hurley.

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Three series to watch this week with rankings according to Jay Jaffe's Prospectus Hit List:

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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