Cubs manager Lou Piniella and general manager Jim Hendry are in the middle of a pennant race, and they realize that there is really nothing either can do to make a difference. That’s not at all frustrating for the veteran duo; they are savvy enough to realize that the best thing they can do for the National League Central-leading club with the best record in the major leagues is to stay out of their way. “My strategy is simple right now, just let my guys play,” Piniella said. “We’re playing good baseball. Our offense has been good all year and our pitching is as good now as it has been all season. There is nothing to change, nothing to tinker with, just go out and keep playing good baseball.”
Don’t expect Hendry to make any big moves this week in advance of the August 31 deadline for setting post-season rosters. While the GM knows there is no such thing as a perfect team, he also knows his club is pretty darned good. “I really like everything about our team,” Hendry said. “It goes beyond just the ability on the field. It’s a good group of guys, a real quality bunch. You don’t have to worry about anything happening off the field or in the clubhouse. You combine with the great job Lou does managing the team and it is just really a joy for a general manager.”
There is a whole lot to like about the Cubs. They have an 82-50 record and hold a five-game lead in the division over the Brewers. They’re second in the major leagues in runs scored per game (5.5), third in runs allowed (4.1), and first in defensive efficiency (.710). While the Cubs have the largest lead of any first-place club in the NL, and Baseball Prospectus’ playoff odds give them a 99.1 percent chance of getting to the postseason for a second straight year, they aren’t yet getting ready for October. The Cubs still have six games remaining against the Brewers, playing three at Wrigley Field from September 16-18, and three at Miller Park to conclude the regular season from September 26-28. The Cubs also have four other series with contenders, including four games at home against the Phillies beginning on Thursday, six games against the Cardinals (three at St. Louis from September 9-11, and three at home from September 19-21), and four games versus the Mets in New York from September 22-25. “There is still a lot of season left, and we’ve got a lot of difficult games ahead of us,” Piniella said. “The last thing we need to be doing is thinking about who we’re going to be playing in the playoffs, or trying to figure out our playoff rotation. We’ve just got to keep doing what we’ve been doing all season. If we do that, we’ll be fine. If we start trying to look beyond that, we’re just asking for trouble.”
Nevertheless, the Cubs are justifiably optimistic about their chances; they’ve been seemingly slump-proof this season. They have one four-game losing streak and one three-game skid, but no others longer than two games. “We’ve been very consistent,” said catcher Geovany Soto, a leading contender for NL Rookie of the Year. “That has been really been the key for us. We’ve just gone out and played consistent baseball day after day after day. If you look at our team, there isn’t anybody having a really great year. We’re not going to have the MVP or the Cy Young winner come from our team. What we have had though, is a lot of guys having really good seasons, both up and down the lineup, on the bench, in the starting rotation, and in the bullpen. The thing you can say about us is that we’re solid. We really don’t have a weak spot.”
While Ryan Dempster ranks fourth in the NL with 5.7 SNLVAR and Carlos Zambrano is 10th at 5.0, third baseman Aramis Ramirez‘s team-leading .300 EqA is just 19th in the league. “We’ve had our ups and downs like a lot of clubs,” Piniella said. “It’s just that we’ve been more fortunate to have a season where the ups have outnumbered the downs so far. We’ve really gotten a lot of contributions from everybody, and that’s what it takes to have a contending ballclub. Whenever we’ve hit some rough patches where we’ve gotten somebody hurt or had somebody struggle, somebody has taken on a little bit more of the load. We really haven’t had a situation where one or two guys have carried us all year.”
The Cubs are hoping that smooth ride can continue through October. In recent years, baseball has seen the Red Sox end an 86-year title drought by winning the World Series in 2004, and the White Sox follow suit a year later to finish an 88-year wait. The Cubs haven’t won a World Series since 1908, an even 100 years ago, which would make a title most fitting. “Everybody plays that 100-year thing up, and I understand because it’s been a long time, long before any of us in this clubhouse were born,” Soto said. “It would be a storybook ending, no doubt, but every team out there is playing to win a World Series. It’s just not us. That’s why we’ve got to just keep playing like we have all year and not let up now.”
Bud Selig is the first to admit he is not big on technology. The commissioner might have been the last high-powered executive in the world to have a computer installed at his desk. As much as it goes against his personality, the 74-year-old Selig has begrudgingly agreed to allow instant replay to help umpires determine “boundary” calls on home runs. Replay will begin to be used in all series that start Thursday, and Selig stressed that video will be used only on home run calls. “Anytime you try to change something in baseball, it is both emotional and difficult,” Selig said in a teleconference Tuesday to announce the inception of replay. “There’s been some concern that, if you start here, look what it’s going to lead to. Not as long as I’m the commissioner.”
General managers voted 25-5 in favor of replay at their annual meetings last November, and a series of blown home-run calls by umpires earlier this season created a groundswell of support for change to come sooner rather than later. Selig finally realized that he had to give in and have Major League Baseball join the rest of the American professional sports leagues in utilizing replay, which has been in use in the NFL since 1986, in the NHL since 1991, and in the NBA since 2002. “Like everything else in life, there are times when you have to make an adjustment,” Selig said. “My opposition to unlimited replay is very much in play. I really think the game has prospered for well over a century now by doing things the way we did it.”
The first three games that will have replay on Thursday are the Phillies at the Cubs, Twins at Athletics, and Rangers at Angels. “I hope we get to throw a red hankie like NFL coaches when we want to challenge a call,” Piniella said with a smile. “It would be great to finally be able to throw something out onto the field and not get ejected.”
Unfortunately for Piniella, replay won’t work quite that way in baseball. A technician and an umpire supervisor will monitor video for available broadcast feeds at the office of Major League Baseball Advanced Media in New York. If the umpiring crew chief decides a play needs to be checked, he will call New York and have the video replays made available to him and the rest of his crew. The crew chief will then make the final decision on whether to reverse the call. Anyone leaving the dugout to argue a replay call will be immediately ejected, and in keeping with MLB policy on close calls, replays of the call in question will not be shown on the stadium video boards.
The Twins’ Joe Mauer became the first catcher to win an American League batting title in 2006. He is trying to repeat that feat in 2008 and become the first major league catcher with two batting crowns. Mauer is hitting .318, fourth in the league behind Rangers designated hitter Milton Bradley (.324), Red Sox third baseman Kevin Youkilis (.319), and Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler (.319), who is on the disabled list and possibly out for the season with a sports hernia.
“I wouldn’t bet against Joe,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “When you put the ball in play with hard contact like he does, as much as he does, you have a chance to be up there in the batting race every year. He hits so many balls hard per game and he can run, get some infield hits. Yeah, he’s got a good chance, no doubt.”
Mauer hit .347 when he won the batting title in 2006, but his average slipped to .293 last year as he battled a series of leg injuries, leading some to argue that the Twins should move him out from behind the plate. Mauer has been healthy throughout this season, but the low-key Mauer isn’t ready to handicap his chances of another batting title. “I really haven’t given it much thought,” he said. “My goal hasn’t changed since spring training and everybody knows what it is-to get back to the playoffs. The batting title two years ago was nice, but I’m not going to be devastated if it doesn’t happen. I won’t be too happy if we don’t make the playoffs.”
Twins hitting coach Joe Vavra thinks that the key to Mauer’s success is the way that he exudes understated confidence in the batter’s box. “If you watch, it’s really interesting how much control he has of his at-bats, yet in such a quiet way,” Vavra said. “He gets in the batter’s box when he’s ready, one foot in and then a pause to gather himself, and he takes command but he does it discreetly, elegantly. It’s like he’s playing a different game, where the pitcher isn’t in control.”
Indians center fielder Grady Sizemore reached another milepost on his way to superstardom. The leadoff hitter already has 34 stolen bases on the season, and on Monday night he joined the 30-30 club by hitting his 30th and 31st home runs against the Tigers. Sizemore became the 31st major league player to reach 30-30, and just the ninth American Leaguer. The only other Indians player in the club is Joe Carter, who had 32 homers and 31 steals in 1987.
“When you say [30-30], you think about an athlete with a tremendous amount of ability-strength as well as quickness,” Indians manager Eric Wedge said. “You think of a complete ballplayer.”
As someone who bats at the top of the order, Sizemore feels that the feat has extra meaning. “Ideally, as a leadoff guy, that’s how I want to be looked at, as a guy who can hit for power, hit for average, get on base, and steal bases and create runs by himself,” Sizemore said. “I like to be in that category of both power and speed.” Sizemore has a chance to become the fifth player with 40 homers and 40 steals in a season, joining Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, and Alfonso Soriano. “I’ll take the same approach I did before,” Sizemore said. “I’ll go day to day and try not to think about it. I’ve got a long way to go before I get there.”
MLB Rumors and Rumblings: The Dodgers plan to make a big push to sign CC Sabathia as a free agent in the offseason, and figure to be the front runners if the big left-hander decides he wants to return home to his native California. … The Tigers are expected to trade left-hander Kenny Rogers, who has cleared waivers, by the end of the week. The Yankees seem to be a logical landing spot, though the Cardinals are also a possibility. … The Yankees are so happy with left fielder Xavier Nady since acquiring him from the Pirates last month that they plan to explore a long-term contract extension with him this winter. … Blue Jays ownership is expected to determine general manager J.P. Ricciardi’s fate at the end of the season, and it appears he has a 50-50 chance of returning in 2009.
Scouts give their views on various major-league players:
- Nationals right fielder Austin Kearns: “He’s lost all his power. He just doesn’t drive the ball anymore. I really thought he was going to be a big-time home-run hitter when he came up with the Reds, but it doesn’t look like that is going to happen.”
- Brewers right-hander Ben Sheets: “His stuff just hasn’t been crisp since the All-Star break. His pitches have lacked bite and it seems like he’s really laboring. Something isn’t right with this guy.”
- Blue Jays infielder Marco Scutaro: “He’s really stretched when asked to play third base regularly, but he is a valuable guy because he plays good defense at three infield positions and has developed some pop in his bat. He’d be a great National League player where you could double-switch him and move him all around the field.”