Sometimes, the game loves you back.

I spent last week on the road, first on a trip with my wife, Sophia, then off to see an old friend from the East Coast who was out on this one. I didn’t see much baseball from the 19th through the 26th, even missing the highlight shows most of the time. It was a good break; I remarked to Sophia on Tuesday, as a game aired on a television in the back of a restaurant, that I was really starting to miss the game. While I was enjoying our trip, I was also looking forward to getting back to “normal” life a little, immersing myself in the game and writing again.

With my travel complete, yesterday was the first time in a while I’d had a chance to follow a day of baseball the way I usually do, watching games on television and following the untelevised ones online. I picked a pretty good day to return, because almost as if the game missed me and wanted to show me just how much, baseball provided a ridiculously entertaining day of highs and lows.

The peak came in Philadelphia, where Kevin Millwood threw his first career no-hitter against the Giants. Millwood, who has been very good in five of his six starts for his new team, struck out 10 and walked just three in shutting down one of the top offenses in the league. He did so in a game where he needed to be perfect: The Phillies scored just one run for him, on a Ricky Ledee home run in the first.

If you were going to compile a list of pitchers liable to throw a no-hitter, Millwood would have to be high on it. He’s a high-strikeout guy who absolutely owns right-handed batters, and he’s put up some very low opposition BAs over the years. On a day like yesterday, when he had both his velocity and his breaking ball, he’s as good as anyone in baseball.

Part of the story here is that Millwood is pitching for the Phillies, not the Braves, following last December’s trade. I’ve said it before, and it bears repeating: There’s no excusing John Schuerholz’s decision to dump Millwood four months before he would have had to start writing checks. It was a panic decision, one in part forced on him by his superiors, and one he should have had the judgment and fortitude to hold off on. His oft-repeated claim that he offered Millwood to all 29 GMs, and was rejected by 28 of them, rings especially hollow.

Millwood is probably going to pitch into October this year, and his performance will probably be the reason his new team beats out his old team. Yesterday’s outing just highlights how important he is in the NL East race.

At almost exactly the same time that Millwood was completing his no-no, two teams were staging huge ninth-inning rallies. In Toronto, the Blue Jays capped a difficult weekend by scoring six runs in the bottom of the ninth, beating the Royals 10-9. Just an hour earlier, the Royals had appeared to be well on their way to 18-4, with an 8-1 lead in the seventh. The game appeared so much in hand that Tony Pena pulled Mike Sweeney and Raul Ibanez in the eighth, a decision that left him with Mendy Lopez stranding two runners with two outs in the ninth inning, rather than the chance for Sweeney to drive in more insurance runs–runs the Royals could have used.

If you’re a Royals fan, the game brought back all kinds of ugly memories of the last few years. A bullpen that had been untouchable for four weeks fell apart, allowing eight runs over the last two innings. Albie Lopez, Ryan Bukvich and Mike MacDougal came into the game with a collective ERA of 2.05, and MacDougal had closed out all nine of his save opportunities. They allowed nine hits and two walks while getting just five outs, and lost the game when Angel Berroa made a throwing error while trying to get an inning-ending force out at second base.

The ninth inning was a big moment for the Blue Jays, who struggled to start the season while playing tough competition, then continued to perform poorly against the Devil Rays and Royals this week. They also returned to Toronto last week with the specter of SARS hanging over the city, and while the hype far outstrips the danger there, it cannot be easy to focus on your work with the looming threat of a plague. Watching the remaining crowd cheer the Jays’ win yesterday, it was hard to not think of how much these people needed that
moment, and how, once again, baseball serves to help a city forget its troubles, if only for a little while.

Down in Florida, the Marlins popped three ninth-inning home runs off of the Cardinals’ bullpen to tie their game 6-6. It looked like it would be another failure for a pen that has been just as bad as you’d expect from looking at its resumé, but out of the blue the Cards got 11 shutout innings from the likes of Cal Eldred and Dustin Hermanson, finally winning in the 20th inning when 0-for-9 Fernando Vina singled home a run.

I bashed the Cards bullpen last week because of the presence of so many release-worthy names, but neglected to mention the two viable pitchers in the crowd, both of whom came up big yesterday. Steve Kline gets more pub for his dirty hat than for his pitching, but he’s been one of the game’s best left-handed relievers for six years now, and retired all nine men he faced over the last three innings of Sunday’s marathon. Kiko Calero is a former Royals prospect who came to the Cardinals as a minor-league free agent off of his best minor-league season (109 K, 35 BB in 125 2/3 Triple-A innings). He contributed two shutout innings yesterday, although he needed 45 pitches to do so. Calero has 17 strikeouts in 11 1/3 innings, and is the Cards’ only healthy pitcher they can go to when they need a whiff.

While the Cardinals’ bullpen was shutting down the Fish, Esteban Loaiza was doing the same to the Twins. Loaiza is one of the best stories of the season so far, 5-0 with a 1.25 ERA and a 35-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 36 innings. Loaiza seemed to have settled into the role of innings-muncher for bad teams, posting ERAs of 4.56, 5.02 and 5.71 the last three years for the Rangers and Blue Jays, and watching his peripherals–particularly his strikeout rate–plunge into an area that usually means the end of a career. Kenny Williams invited him to spring training and watched him take the No. 4 starter job with a 2.43 ERA and a four-to-one K/BB ratio.

I’m usually the last person to throw cold water on a 7/1 K/BB ratio, but before we get too excited, let’s take a quick look at the teams Loaiza has faced so far:

Team               Runs      EqA        OBP       Walks
Tigers (twice)     52 (14)  .187 (14)  .252 (14)  68 (12)
Orioles           115 (11)  .257 (10)  .329 (11)  84 (7)
Royals            119 (8)   .269 (3)   .352 (2)   72 (11)
Twins              88 (12)  .234 (13)  .304 (13)  62 (13)

There’s not a patient offense in the bunch, and only the Royals have been even passable at getting on base so far. Loaiza may yet have a big season, following the Joe Mays path of 2001, but hold the excitement until he sees a team that doesn’t come to the plate thinking it’s softball league rules, with everyone starting 2-1.

The day ended with the Red Sox and Angels in Anaheim, where Pedro Martinez again showed the one chink in his armor: He can’t be ridden hard and put away wet. He left yesterday’s game after seven innings and 101
pitches, with a 4-2 lead. Brandon Lyon and Chad Fox coughed that up, forcing the Sox to play yet another long extra-inning game. This time, they won in 14 innings thanks to homers by David Ortiz and Jason Varitek.

It would be easy to interpret this as yet another failure of the Sox bullpen–more on that later this week–but at some point, doesn’t Martinez have to go the distance? AP reports that he hasn’t had a complete-game win since August of 2000, and has just three complete games since then. Three times this
season Martinez has left close games after seven innings having thrown no more than 101 pitches, and that, more than anything else, is why I didn’t think it was worth it to pick up his extension. The need to baby Martinez means that the Sox are often taking high-leverage innings from their $17 million pitcher and giving them to waiver bait like Brandon Lyon. Each time it gows awry, the Sox get that much closer to having spent $92 million over seven years and having nothing to show for it.

Martinez is a great pitcher, but even for this day and age, he’s not a workhorse. He doesn’t provide the innings, and the threat of an injury to him forces Grady Little to manage games in a suboptimal fashion. Martinez will keep runs off the scoreboard, but unless he can stay in close games for more than 100 pitches, he won’t be worth the kind of money he’s making or demanding.

It sure was fun watching him, though. It completed a day of remembering why I love this game, and why, no matter what else I do, I always come back to it.

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