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August 17, 2008

Every Given Sunday

Big Apple Scramble

by John Perrotto

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For those who do not believe that things can change in a hurry in baseball, we present the New York Mets. The Mets were in a full-fledged panic at the beginning of the week when they dropped an ugly 7-5 decision to the Pirates at Shea Stadium. The Mets had led 5-1 after six innings, and then watched their bullpen (sans injured closer Billy Wagner) give up three runs in the seventh inning and three more in the ninth. A day later, interim manager Jerry Manuel said he would seriously consider resorting to drastic measures by moving one of his starting pitchers (left-hander Oliver Perez or right-handers John Maine and Mike Pelfrey) to the pen to serve as the interim closer, and subsequently as the primary set-up man once Wagner returned. "It's a pennant race, and you do everything you can to stay in a pennant race," Manuel said.

Now six days since that loss to the Pirates, things have calmed down, as the Mets have climbed back into first place in the National League East, holding a two-game lead over the Phillies and a 3-game edge over the Marlins. The Mets received word on Saturday that Wagner, who has been far from a sure thing this season with seven blown saves in 34 opportunities, had admitted that his strained left forearm was still hurting and that he wouldn't be able to come off of the disabled list on Monday as hoped. The bad news was softened a bit when Aaron Heilman pitched a scoreless ninth inning on Friday to close out a 2-1 win over the Pirates, and Pedro Feliciano saved the day on Saturday and got the final two outs in a 7-4 win after rookie Eddie Kunz had given up three ninth-inning runs. "It's just been a crazy year for us," veteran right-hander Pedro Martinez said. "A lot of stuff has happened. Guess what? We're in a pretty darned good position now, though. It's the middle of August, the pennant race is really starting to heat up, and we're right there after all the ups and downs."

The Mets have had plenty of downs this season, including manager Willie Randolph's firing on June 16 when their record was at 34-35. That Randolph would get the ax had seemed inevitable ever since the Mets had blown a seven-game lead in the final 17 games of last season, finishing a game behind the Phillies in the NL East.

The Mets have played better under Manuel, who was the American League Manger of the Year in 2000 when he led the White Sox to the AL Central title. "I'm not blaming Willie for what happened early in the season," Mets third baseman David Wright said. "We just didn't play very well, but the thing is that we've been able to turn around a season of inconsistencies and make something good out of it. As inconsistent as we've been this season, particularly in the first half, to be in the position we're in now just goes to show you how fateful and funny this game is. We were on the unfortunate end last September, so we know how fickle baseball can be, so we need to take the momentum we've built now and run with it."

The Mets are locked in a tight three-team race now, and how far they can go remains to be seen. Getting Wagner back should stabilize the bullpen, and the Mets got another big boost this past Tuesday when Maine, returning from the disabled list after missing time with a shoulder strain, pitched five innings of one-hit shutout ball against the Nationals. Martinez had pitched a season-high seven innings on Saturday, and he's been showing good form after missing the final three weeks of July with a groin strain and then had to take a bereavement leave when his father died of brain cancer in the Dominican Republic.

If Maine and Martinez continue to progress, they would combine with left-handers Johan Santana and Oliver Perez and right-hander Mike Pelfrey to give the Mets one of the most feared rotations in the NL. "I really believe health is going to be key for our club," Martinez said. "Once Billy comes back, that's going to set up our bullpen much better and put everybody in the roles they are accustomed to down there. We're also back to the point where we can send a starter out to the mound every night who is going to give us a very good chance to win the game. If we can keep this pitching staff together down the stretch, I know we're going to be tough to beat. The Phillies and Marlins are good, but I like our chances if we stay healthy, I really do. There's a good feeling around this club now."

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The big news coming out of the owners meetings in Washington this past week was that ballparks are in the process of being wired for instant replay, and that the technology could be ready to assist umpires as early as next month. "I want to make sure that if and when we do it, it's really good, it's perfect," commissioner Bud Selig said. "It'll be very limited. I want to make sure, and I'm not quite certain yet, but we should have answers very shortly."

The owners also approved Bill Neukom as controlling owner of the Giants, effective on October 1 when Peter Magowan retires, and they gave the go-ahead to participation in next year's World Baseball Classic. Selig also said Major League Baseball has hired researchers at two universities to study maple bats and why they seem to splinter so much easier than bats made of ash, although no action will be taken this year. Finally, Selig said that All-Star Game rosters might be expanded by the addition of two pitching spots, to ensure that position players won't have to pitch if the game goes deep into extra innings. The American League won in 15 innings this year at Yankee Stadium, and Red Sox right fielder J.D. Drew and Wright would have likely been pressed into mound duty if the game had gone into the 16th inning.

That Selig wants to increase each league's pitching staff to 14 is significant, because both Phillies closer Brad Lidge and Rockies ace starter Aaron Cook have complained in recent days of arm problems brought on by participation in this year's All-Star Game. Lidge had taken a week off before returning to action on Friday to close out a 1-0 win over the Padres for his 29th save in as many opportunities. Lidge had tightness in his shoulder, and he believes it stems from having to warm up six times during the All-Star Game before finally being brought in during the 15th inning. "That's where he could have gotten soreness, and he's just now working out of it," said Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, who has not hidden his displeasure with NL manager Clint Hurdle of the Rockies for putting Lidge in that situation. However, Manuel had also used Lidge five times in six days from July 25-30, and four times in six days from August 2-7. Lidge also said he wasn't feeling right before the All-Star Game.

Meanwhile, Cook skipped a start this past week because of fatigue in his lower back. He believes that the problem stemmed from pitching three innings of relief for the National League. In fairness to Hurdle, he was in a tough spot at the All-Star Game-the NL was already short one pitcher when Giants right-hander Tim Lincecum was forced to sit out with flu-like symptoms. Hurdle also used his first three pitchers for two innings each, leaving himself plenty of options for the late innings of a normal game.

Compounding matters is that Selig is perhaps obsessive about making sure that All-Star Games are played to a conclusion. The season after the 2002 Midsummer Classic in his native Milwaukee ended in a tie, MLB began to award home-field advantage in the World Series to the league that wins the All-Star Game. "As the manager of the team there were two fundamental responsibilities, one was to win the game, and the second was just as important, to get everyone home safely," Hurdle told the Rocky Mountain News. "There is no easy answer. We knew the game was going to be played to its completion."

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Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez has 47 saves, putting him 10 away from the major league record of 57 set by Bobby Thigpen with the 1990 Chicago White Sox. Manager Mike Scioscia is drawing heat from some corners for allegedly padding Rodriguez's save total, and was criticized by some in the media for bringing him into Tuesday's game with a 7-3 lead over the Mariners and two runners on base in the ninth inning. Rodriguez struck out Raul Ibanez for his 46th save, and has two other one-batter saves this season; in a 7-5 win over the Red Sox on April 24, and in a 14-11 victory over the Indians on July 23.

The normally mild-mannered Scioscia was peeved when asked if he was trying to get Rodriguez some cheap saves. "I find that to be questioning our integrity and that's absolutely ludicrous," he said. "Everything we do is what's best for the team. If the closer is available, why wouldn't you use him if the situation dictates the game needs to be closed out? Why wouldn't you? If there's a save situation and Frankie is available, he is going to get the ball."

Rodriguez's pace has been slowing, as he's had only 10 opportunities in 26 games since the All-Star break, after having 41 in 95 games in the first half. He has 41 games remaining to get the 10 saves needed to match the record. The Angels' revitalized offense is also making the save opportunities more rare, having averaged 6.1 runs per game since the beginning of July after scoring 4.1 a game during the season's first three months.

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Astros general manager Ed Wade took plenty of ridicule when he traded for Padres veteran left-hander Randy Wolf in late July. The Astros appeared out of contention, and many observers scratched their heads wondering why the Astros would act as buyers at a time when they would have appeared to be looking to sell. Astros owner Drayton McLane insisted that his team would never run up the white flag, and sure enough, the Astros have at least moved to the periphery of contention at 8 games behind the NL wild card-leading Brewers.

The Astros had won 15 if their previous 18 games before losing to the Diamondbacks on Friday and Saturday, and manager Cecil Cooper partially attributes the improved play to making the statistics work for him. A case in point came on Wednesday, when the Astros faced Giants left-hander Barry Zito, who was allowing right-handed batters to hit .296 and left-handers to hit .266. Cooper stacked his lineup with right-handed hitters and switch-hitters, playing Reggie Abercrombie over Michael Bourn in center field and shifting third baseman Ty Wigginton to left field in place of Darin Erstad, while Geoff Blum played the hot corner. The result was a 6-2 win for the Astros.

"If you look at the numbers, they speak for right-handed hitters, so we went with the numbers," Cooper said. "That's kind of been behind a lot of the things we've done here recently. Just match them up." Cooper will continue to do that in an attempt to pull off a miracle comeback; first baseman Lance Berkman and shortstop Miguel Tejada are the only two players assured of being in the lineup every day down the stretch. "We're playing the percentages," Cooper said. "That's what we're going to do."

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AL Rumors and Rumblings: With third baseman Mike Lowell on the disabled list, the Red Sox would like to add infield depth, and are considering the Astros' Mark Loretta, the Giants' Rich Aurilia, and the Orioles' Kevin Millar for possible waiver trades. Orioles designated hitter Aubrey Huff has cleared waivers but will only be traded if they can get a decent haul of young players in return. The Indians want to add a top-flight closer in the offseason, and are considering making a big pitch for Rodriguez as a free agent, or trading for the Athletics' Huston Street. While the White Sox are looking to acquire a starting pitcher now that right-hander Jose Contreras is out for the season, they are also considering promoting left-hander Aaron Poreda from Double-A Birmingham.

NL Rumors and Rumblings: Braves left-hander Tom Glavine's chances of retiring increased significantly this past week when he reinjured his elbow in his first start back from the disabled list. Diamondbacks outfielder Adam Dunn denies that he will look for a $100 million contract as a free agent over the winter, a theory advanced by Reds right-hander Bronson Arroyo, his former teammate. Second baseman Orlando Hudson, out for the season with a broken wrist, has likely played his last game for the Diamondbacks; he's eligible for free agency at the end of the season, and is unlikely to take a below-market contract to stay with Arizona. The Cardinals are leaning toward not re-signing deposed closer Jason Isringhausen, who is eligible for free agency at the end of the season. The Marlins are considering calling up Double-A Carolina center fielder Cameron Maybin before August 31 so he would be eligible for the post-season roster, and also to provide insurance for slumping Cody Ross.

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Interesting facts as the 20th week of the regular season concludes:

  • White Sox left fielder Carlos Quentin's streak of being hit by a pitch ended at six games Friday, the longest such streak since 1920, when HBP first became an official statistic.
  • Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz hit two three-run home runs in the first inning on Tuesday against the Rangers, becoming the first player to homer twice in the first since the Reds' Aaron Boone on August 9, 2002 against the Padres. Ortiz was also the first American League player to hit two homers in the first since the Mariners' Bret Boone and Mike Cameron hit back-to-back shots twice against the White Sox on May 2, 2002.
  • The Rangers came from 10 runs down in that game to take the lead before losing 19-17. The Rangers were also the last team to overcome a 10-run deficit, going from down 14-4 to posting a 16-15 win in 10 innings over the Tigers on May 8, 2004. The Red Sox also blew a 10-run lead for only the second time in their history, the other coming June 4, 1989 when they saw a 10-0 lead turn into a 13-11 loss in 12 innings to the Blue Jays.
  • Second baseman Dustin Pedroia become the first player in Red Sox history to have five hits and score five runs in the same game in the wild victory over the Rangers.
  • The Angels' three-game sweep of the Yankees that ended last Sunday was their first against New York in Anaheim since May 23-25, 1995, when Chuck Finley beat Mariano Rivera, Bob Patterson beat Jack McDowell, and Mark Langston beat Melido Perez.
  • Delmon Young's three-run home run off Rivera on Tuesday was the first the Yankees closer had ever given up to a Twins' hitter in 53 innings.
  • The Dodgers' four-game sweep of the Phillies that ended Thursday was their first over Philadelphia at home since July 2-4, 1962. It was also the Dodgers' first four-game home sweep since downing the Giants from June 22-25, 1995.
  • Center fielder Mark Kotsay became the second Atlanta player to ever hit for the cycle when he performed the feat Thursday against the Cubs, joining Albert Hall, who did so on September 23, 1987 against the Astros.
  • The Cubs swept the season series from the Braves 6-0, the first time they had done so since the teams began meeting in 1876.
  • The Giants have had 15 players make their major league debuts this season, the most by any club since the 1954 Athletics also had 15.
  • The Diamondbacks' Stephen Drew is batting .345 since July 10, best among NL shortstops. He's recorded 19 extra-base hits with 13 doubles, four triples, and two home runs for a .535 slugging percentage, which also leads NL shortstops during that span.
  • Center fielder Willy Taveras has 57 stolen bases, a Rockies' single-season record, breaking the old mark of 53 set by Eric Young in 1996. Taveras leads the major leagues in steals, with 17 more than the next closest player, Mets shortstop Jose Reyes, who has 40. Taveras had never stolen more than 34 bases in his four previous seasons.
  • The Cubs' seventh- and eighth-place hitters in the lineup have combined for a .300 average this season, tops in the major leagues. Their number-seven hitters lead the majors with a .310 batting average and 77 RBI, and the number-eight hitters also top the majors with a .291 average.
  • At 25 years old, third baseman David Wright already ranks among the top eight on the Mets' career lists in home runs (120, tied for seventh), doubles (175, seventh), and RBI (460, eighth).
  • Since making his debut with the Brewers on July 8, left-hander CC Sabathia leads the NL in wins (seven), ERA (1.55), complete games (four), shutouts (two), innings pitches (64), and is tied for first in strikeouts with the Giants' Tim Lincecum with 60.

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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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