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May 13, 2011

Divide and Conquer, AL West

The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

by Joey Matschulat

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In the not-so-grand pantheon of the absolute biggest gut-punch days for the AL West in recent memory, Wednesday—and all of the demoralizing events and announcements that were contained within its 24-hour window—no doubt deserves a very prominent spot. I suspect I may never get another opportunity to wind the entirety of my narrative around the happenings of a single day, but only because this day was so completely and utterly outlandish from a baseball standpoint. Behold the chronology of one miserable day in the life of the AL West:

11:49 a.m. PDT: After receiving second and third opinions on his barking left shoulder from famed orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrew and Mets team physician Dr. David Altchek on Monday and Tuesday, respectively, the word finally came down via John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle: "Dallas Braden to have shoulder surgery Monday to repair torn capsule in left shoulder." Like so many felled pitchers before him, Braden's own injury-marred odyssey included shoulder stiffness, the obligatory and quite immediate trip to the 15-day disabled list, and a subsequent visit to Dr. Lewis Yocum and an MRI exam that revealed no structural damage and culminated in a prescribed course of rest and rehab. Sports medicine has never been in a better place than it is right now, but cases like this one—where further examination reveals a far more serious underlying problem than what was first diagnosed—are so commonplace that I really can't begrudge anyone a healthy dose of skepticism about baseball injuries.

Braden's prognosis is still unclear, as the Athletics are waiting for him to undergo the knife before disclosing an estimated timetable to bring him back to the mound, However, it’s clearly a very serious injury, and if it turns out to be anywhere near Johan Santana's torn capsule in terms of severity, it will spell lights out for his 2011 campaign. I certainly would not regard that as a death knell to the Athletics' chances of claiming the division title, and given how well the present starting rotation (Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson, Gio Gonzalez, Brandon McCarthy, and Tyson Ross) has been going along, one could argue that Oakland doesn't even really need Braden right now... but injuries happen. Attrition happens. There will very likely come a point when one of the dominos in this group either falls or ceases to be a quantifiable rotation asset, and a pitcher of Braden's above-average pedigree won't be there to absorb the hit. It may not hurt right now, but I'd be willing to bet that it hurts before the season is out.

2:36 p.m. PDT: Let's see—the team that shot out of the gates with a torrid 9-1 start has now lost six out of its last seven series, and proceeds to drop a futile Monday night series opener against the visiting Athletics. Said team's manager is then struck by a bolt of inspiration while watching “Seinfeld” later that evening, arrives at the ballpark the next day with a radically altered lineup in mind—one featuring such oddities as Julio Borbon batting leadoff, Michael Young batting cleanup (for the first time in his major-league career), and Mike Napoli batting eighth (against a lefty, no less!)—and watches his team win handily against Brett Anderson. Said manager rolls out the same unusual lineup on Wednesday afternoon, watches his team jump ahead by seven runs... and then it's all wiped away, as though it never even happened. Huh?

The Rangers did everything right on Wednesday, but their fatal flaw was that they didn't do everything fast enough. With an intensifying squall line bearing down on Arlington from the west, Texas dropped a seven-spot on Gio Gonzalez that was punctuated by a third-inning grand slam from Mitch Moreland... and then the game began to drag. And drag. And drag. After Moreland's one-out blast brought the tally to 6-0, Gonzalez required no fewer than 25 extra pitches and at least one attempted pickoff move to exit the inning for good, all of which consumed precious minutes as the Rangers raced to record 15 outs before the storm system arrived. Alas, they only made it to 12 outs, and after a two-hour, 21-minute rain delay, crew chief Gerry Davis called it quits despite the still-early time of the day and the fact that both teams were scheduled to be off today. Sorry, Mitch.

Approx. 5:30 p.m. PDT: The last raindrops fall in Tarrant County for the night, leaving Rangers Ballpark in Arlington precipitation-free for the first time in nearly five and a half hours... but, unfortunately, completely devoid of baseball activity.

Approx. 7:00 p.m. PDT: With Felix Hernandez on the bump at Baltimore, the Mariners fall to the tune of a 4-2 final. King Felix yields four earned runs on three walks and seven hits in only five innings of work, and the Mariners prove incapable of getting much of anything done against Chris Tillman and friends.

7:36 p.m. PDT: Last December 7, the story was that Kendrys Morales, now infamous for breaking his leg after jumping in celebration of his May 29, 2010 walk-off grand slam, was expected to be ready for full baseball activities at the outset of spring training. On February 14, it was that he wasn't ready for full baseball activities, but would be ready for Opening Day. On March 31, it was that he wouldn't be ready for Opening Day, but would hopefully be ready to go in roughly three weeks’ time. (See where this is going yet?)

And now, courtesy of the Orange County Register's Sam Miller, we have word of the mother of all setbacks: "Kendry Morales out a minimum of six months, Dr. Lewis Yocum says. ... Surgery will clean out scar tissue that has formed. The original fracture is healed."

There is something of a ray of sunshine here in that Mark Trumbo, Morales' primary replacement, has posted a power-heavy showing of six home runs and .270/.311/.486-level production in 119 plate appearances thus far—but, of course, one is justified in being tentative about where Trumbo is ultimately headed, given his walk-to-strikeout ratio (0.21) and extreme propensity to this point for both swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone (43.9 percent O-Swing%) and his inability to make contact with such pitches (56.4 percent O-Contact%). This is, yet again, a situation where the impacted team might very well be able to weather the storm in the long run, but I feel even less confident about this happening than I do about the Athletics being able to withstand the long-term loss of Braden.

Approx. 10:20 p.m. PDT: After going into the top of the ninth inning leading the White Sox by a 4-2 margin, Angels closer Jordan Walden coughs up two runs to send the game to extra frames. Los Angeles ultimately falls in 10 innings, 6-4.

 I will now proceed to forget that Wednesday ever happened, as will likely every other fan of an AL West ballclub. 

Related Content:  Dallas Braden

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