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April 5, 2011

Divide and Conquer, NL West

I Am Almost Ready to Learn

by Geoff Young

Beginning

I am here

please

be ready to teach me

I am almost ready to learn

-- W.S. Merwin

The opening series at Dodger Stadium, one between longtime rivals, provided a study in contrast. The World Champion Giants have chosen to sacrifice defense for runs, while the Dodgers are taking the opposite approach. Consider four of the eight regular positions on Opening Day:

Pos

Giants

Dodgers

3B

Pablo Sandoval

Juan Uribe

SS

Miguel Tejada

Rafael Furcal

LF

Pat Burrell

Tony Gwynn Jr.

RF

Aubrey Huff

Andre Ethier


That's two third basemen, a first baseman, and a DH on the left vs two shortstops, a center fielder, and—well, okay, Ethier's numbers are worse than I'd expected—on the right. And for as good as Andres Torres was in center field last year, flanking him with Burrell and Huff qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment in some jurisdictions. On the bright side, Giants pitchers led MLB in K/9 in 2010, so perhaps fewer balls in play will translate into fewer balls misplayed.

Such is the long-term hope, anyway. The short-term reality is that San Francisco committed three errors on Opening Day, including one each by Tejada and Burrell, and allowed one unearned run, which turned out to be the margin of difference in a 2-1 loss at Chavez Ravine.

Game two wasn't much better for the Giants. Errors by Sandoval (pandas have good hands but suspect arms) and starter Jonathan Sanchez led to two unearned runs in the sixth inning of another one-run loss. It may not be cool to measure defense in terms of errors, but it's also not cool to commit five in two days, essentially giving away two games.

And although the offense came through in a big way in Game three, the finale featured more defensive shenanigans. This time Huff took center stage, misplaying two balls into triples in a game his team lost by two runs.

Giants fans should be excited that the frequently youth-averse Bruce Bochy decided to let Brandon Belt do his thing at the big-league level, where his bat is needed most. However, at some point, Bochy may need to change his corner outfield alignment. There is a threshold beyond which offensive gains no longer offset defensive deficits.

* * *

In Gwynn, meanwhile, the Dodgers have found that which has eluded them for nearly 30 years: a suitable replacement for Cecil Espy. Fans long have rued the day Espy was shipped along with Sid Bream to Pittsburgh for Bill Madlock, but a quick dip into the San Diego suburbs (Espy was from Point Loma, Gwynn from Poway) unearthed another fleet-footed defensive whiz who can't hit baseballs. Next on the agenda: Find replacements for Ralph Bryant and Franklin Stubbs. It's a long season, but one mustn't give up hope.

Tragically, the defensive talents of Gwynn were overshadowed by something indefensible. On Opening Day, after the game, two men beat a Giants fan at Dodger Stadium and “left him in a medically induced coma.” Speaking as someone who cites baseball as his religion, I certainly understand the fervor the game can induce, but how does this happen? Alas, it is part of baseball’s heritage. From The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract:

One time, on opening day, a fan fell out of the upper deck at Royals Stadium and was killed. I was there that day, but a friend of mine who was sitting near the place where the fan fell always claimed that he was pushed out, murdered. My friend never went back to the ballpark.

This is part of a longer essay on the state of fandom in the late 1970s and early 1980s. James goes on to talk about changes made shortly thereafter that largely curtailed such behavior and concludes with a passage that seems quaint in light of Thursday night’s incident:

After a couple of years, people no longer expected to be able to go to ballgames to get drunk and scream at people. A whole generation of fans has grown up now to whom the idea of going to a baseball game to drink until you vomit would seem as foreign as the idea of going to Alaska to test out your new fly swatter.

Everything old is new again. Some people are just jerks, and while it's impossible to dismiss the actions of these thugs who may have ruined the lives of an entire family because a man was wearing the wrong colors, it's also impossible to understate the capacity of humans to inflict damage on each other for no good reason. I don't know how you fix this, but as Jon Weisman notes, “The game needs to remain a game, not a war.”

* * *

On a more pleasant note, the other intradivisional series saw Arizona beat the Rockies in the opener. Several strange things happened in this one. In no particular order:

  • Willie Bloomquist batted leadoff for the Diamondbacks and went 3-for-6

  • The Arizona bullpen pitched well

  • Ubaldo Jimenez allowed six runs; compare with the seven he allowed through May last year

Colorado took the next game behind Jorge De La Rosa, who worked 5 1/3 scoreless innings. We’ve discussed the Rockies’ emphasis on efficiency from their starters, and although De La Rosa issued just one walk on Saturday, he needed 87 pitches to retire 16 Diamondbacks.

Time to panic? Hardly. It’s one start.

The rubber match got snowed out, because that’s how they roll in Denver in April. If you’re Arizona, you’ve got to feel good about splitting the opening series at Coors Field. The Snakes are in the same position now as the Padres were at this time last year—with a paucity of identifiable big-league talent and almost universally expected to finish last in their division. That formula nearly pushed San Diego into the playoffs. Will the same happen in Arizona?

* * *

Speaking of the Padres, they took two out of three in St. Louis. Busch Stadium traditionally has given them fits, although the fact that these weren’t playoff games may have helped.

New center fielder Cameron Maybin, who is no Cecil Espy, made his presence felt immediately, launching a game-tying solo homer with two out in the ninth inning of the opener. He then singled home the eventual winning run. As I noted over at my blog, Maybin’s homer was just the second game-tying homer with two out in the ninth ever by the Padres. Dramatic much?

And although they couldn’t complete the sweep on Sunday, the Padres received a terrific performance from the unlikely Dustin Moseley, who allowed just one run in seven innings while taking the loss. Yes, the Cardinals were without Matt Holliday for the final two games, but last I heard, that Albert Pujols guy is pretty good.

Most people don’t expect much from the Padres in 2011. Three games doesn’t change that, but it’s encouraging to see the starters give up six runs in 19 innings in the house of a presumed contender, one led by the best player on the planet. Considering that their ace, Mat Latos, isn’t even on the active roster thanks to shoulder bursitis, San Diego will take it.

Related Content:  The Who,  Vomit

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