May 24, 2009
On the Beat
Ken Macha knew that he was walking into a good situation when he was hired as the Brewers' manager last November. The Brewers were coming off of their first post-season appearance in 26 years after winning the National League Wild Card. They had a talented young group of hitters, led by such stars as left fielder Ryan Braun and first baseman Prince Fielder, but Macha also knew that he was stepping into a tricky situation. For as bright as it appeared from some angles, there were also some dark clouds hanging over the team.
The Brewers had stumbled down the stretch in 2008, and manager New Yost was fired with two weeks left in the season. Bench coach Dale Sveum took over as interim manager and got them to the playoffs, where they lost to the Phillies in the National League Division Series. In the offseason, the Brewers lost their two best starting pitchers to free agency in CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets, closer Salomon Torres decided to retire, and even though there has been some unwelcome injury news this past week on second baseman Rickie Weeks, Macha has no complaints.
The Brewers have righted themselves following a 4-9 start and are now 26-16, good for a first-place tie with the Cardinals in the National League Central. "It's been a lot of fun," said Macha. "We've got a good young group of energetic guys here who really love to play the game. They play hard every day, they have a lot of confidence in themselves, and they have a lot of fun. It's the type of team you like to manage."
Macha had managed the Athletics for four seasons but was fired just a few days after they lost to the Tigers in the 2006 American League Championship Series. He spent the past two years working as a studio analyst for NESN on Red Sox telecasts before general manager Doug Melvin hired him as the permanent replacement for Yost. The Brewers, though, will be without Weeks, who suffered a tear in the tendon sheath of his wrist that will require season-ending surgery. Weeks was considered a future superstar when he was selected with the second overall pick of the 2003 first-year player draft, and he finally seemed to be living up to that promise after years of inconsistent play. He had nine home runs in 162 plate appearances and a .280 EqA, up from .266 a year ago. "He was hitting everything hard and he had really turned the corner," said Sveum, now the hitting coach. "I really thought this was going to be the year when he broke out and became a star."
Instead, the Brewers will make do with a loose platoon of Craig Counsell and Casey McGehee for now, while top shortstop prospect Alcides Esccobar has begun to play some second base at Triple-A Nashville. Regardless, they still have firepower in the lineup; their average of 5.0 runs per game ranks 12th in the major leagues. Braun (.339 EqA) and Fielder (.323) are leading the way, while center fielder Mike Cameron (.316) is also off to a hot start, and Counsell (.310) has been productive in a part-time role.
After so many key personnel losses, the biggest question mark for the Brewers coming into the season was their pitching, but the new-look staff has been outstanding and is third in the majors with just 4.2 runs allowed per game. Yovani Gallardo has emerged as the ace with 1.6 SNLVAR, and David Bush has 1.2. "We all knew that none of us were going to replace CC or Benny by ourselves," Bush said. "We felt if everyone just pitched a little bit better then we could at least try to make up for the loss and still have a good staff. That's how it has been working out to this point. Everyone has elevated their game."
The Brewers took a gamble that all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman had something left; the Padres decided not to re-sign him after 16 seasons with the club, and it's a Brewers' free-agent signing that is paying off. After missing most of spring training and the first three weeks of the regular season with a strained oblique muscle in his side, Hoffman has 1.621 WXRL, while Todd Coffey (0.940) and Mark DiFelice (0.794) have been solid in complementary roles. "It's only natural for people to wonder how much you've got left, but I've felt pretty good out there," Hoffman said. "My stuff is not going to light you up. It's more location with me. If the location's there, I feel I have a chance. I needed to get off to a good start, especially with a new team and a new organization. I didn't want to [have to] climb out of a hole early."
Instead, he has helped to pull his teammates out of an early hole. "We got off to a bad start, but these guys don't panic," Sveum said. "They went through a lot last year and survived. They don't give in to anything. We have a tough group of kids."
The Phillies are 15-6 on the road this season but 8-12 at home, and the backward split bothers manager Charlie Manuel, who has been questioning his players' mental preparedness since spring training, and wondering if his team is suffering a hangover from winning last year's World Series. He also is wondering aloud if the front office might not be putting too many extra demands on the players following their championship season.
"I want you to get this the right way, and how I say it, because we have a lot [going on] and we do more things now," Manuel said. "Our players are involved in more things for the public. They're involved in more things on their own. They're involved in a lot more things since we won the World Series. I think at home we've got so many things to do that baseball's got to be put right back as a priority, like we've always had it."
Asked if he was referring to individual functions or club-related functions, Manuel replied, "It's everything. It's individuals, but it's also everything else we're required to do. Don't get me wrong, a lot of it is when you win and you're champions, you've got to do it. There's a lot. But at the same time, our biggest thing is our priority to win the game."
The corporate and button-downed Yankees have seemingly morphed into the 2004 Red Sox in recent weeks, behaving like a group of "Idiots." The Yankees are a considerably looser group than past versions of the team, and many in the clubhouse attribute the shift in atmosphere to outfielder Nick Swisher, who was acquired from the White Sox in an off-season trade. It's Swisher who took the step of cranking up the clubhouse stereo every day in spring training, and the Yankees are calling their good times "Swisherlicious."
The Yankees have brought back the Kangaroo Court for the first time in 15 years as players and coaches can be fined for a variety of goofy offenses. The Yankees have also picked up on the time-honored tradition of throwing shaving-cream pies in the faces of players while they're giving post-game television interviews.
Outfielder Johnny Damon took a swipe at former manager Joe Torre by saying that current skipper Joe Girardi has instituted a "family atmosphere" that has made things more relaxed. "The rules are more family-oriented now," Damon said. "You couldn't bring the kids to the ballpark [under Torre]. It just wasn't a fun, conducive place to come to. I love Girardi being all about family."
Rockies first baseman Todd Helton became the 255th player in major league history to reach 2,000 hits when he singled off of the Braves' Jair Jurrjens on Tuesday. Or perhaps it's the 256th. It all depends on who you believe, but either way, Helton was happy. "I wish it was a grand slam, but to get to this point is pretty darn cool," Helton said.
Helton is officially the 255th according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the official statistician of Major League Baseball, but Baseball-Reference.com says that Helton is 256th, and that is the source that MLB.com uses for its statistics. Why the confusion? For one, Elias does not consider the National Association to have been a major league, and so it doesn't count statistics from the NA, which was in existence in the 1870s.
Other statisticians do count the NA as a major league, however, and as a result, MLB.com lists Paul Hines as 193rd on its all-time hit list with 2,134, but he had 253 of those hits while playing for the NA, which leaves him with only 1,881 hits according to Elias. Deacon White is listed at 223rd by MLB.com with 2,066 hits, but he had 447 hits in the NA, which leaves him with 1,619 hits according to Elias.
Another reason for the confusion is the inconsistent record-keeping in the early days of the game. That is why Elias lists Sam Thompson with 2,016 hits on its list, tied for 242nd with Bill Mazeroski. Thompson, however, is credited with only 1,979 hits by MLB.com, which ranks him 268th.
Some interesting facts:
NL Rumors and Rumblings: After turning down a trade to the White Sox, Padres right-hander Jake Peavy continues to hold out hope that he will eventually be dealt to the Cubs. Meanwhile, the Padres are expected to put right-hander Chris Young, third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff, and right fielder Brian Giles on the trade market soon, though Giles has a no-trade clause in his contract. ... The Mets are eyeing the Nationals' Nick Johnson to replace injured Carlos Delgado at first base, and they also have interest in the Orioles' Aubrey Huff and the Mariners' Russell Branyan. ... Cubs manager Lou Piniella is giving serious consideration to moving Alfonso Soriano from left field to second base and playing Micah Hoffpauir in left in an effort to jump-start the offense. ... Rookie Colby Rasmus will remain the Cardinals' center fielder when Rick Ankiel comes off of the disabled list.
AL Rumors and Rumblings: The Mariners were unsuccessful in their attempt to trade shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt to the Pirates for shortstop Jack Wilson, or to the Padres for left fielder Chase Headley. While there seems to be no market for Betancourt, plenty of teams figure to have interest in left-handers Erik Bedard and Jarrod Washburn and third baseman Adrian Beltre once the Mariners make them available for trade. ... The Red Sox would consider parting with right-hander Brad Penny in a trade for an impact bat. ... The Orioles are expected to call up top catching prospect Matt Wieters by the middle of June.
Three series to watch this week, with probable pitching matchups: