Friday, April 30, 2004

Games 20 & 21 - Red Sox
All the Good Times We Had, We'll Have Again

Red Sox 4, Devil Rays 0
Red Sox 7, Devil Rays 3
Record: 15-6

Sure wish I had a more blog-friendly schedule today, because I'm just bursting to talk about yesterday's double-header sweep of the Rays. (And yes, I realize that this is yet another example of me not knowing what the hell I'm talking about when it comes to these Sox, what with the ill-founded fear of doubleheaders I posted yesterday.) In the interest of time, and of me getting to Happy Hour in an expeditious fashion, herewith are some of the many highlights:

1. B.H. Kim goes 5 innings and allows 1 hit in game 1. Tremendous sign and huge for the Sox if he can be effective throughout the season. If he can pitch to his potential, the Sox' no. 5 starter will be better than most teams' no. 3 and better than many teams' no. 2.

2. 6 more shutout innings for the bullpen, though the hitless streak ended against Tim Wakefield in game 1. That brings the streak to 32 consecutive scoreless frames by Sox relief pitching. Wow.

3. Speaking of Wakefield, he continues to cement his position as the most selfless, standup player on a roster full of them. After his start on Tuesday was rained out, he volunteered to skip a turn in order to keep Curt Schilling on his regular rest. Means that Wake basically missed a start, but helped the Sox by keeping Schilling fresh, giving the Sox an option out of the bullpen after Kim, and keeping the bullpen fresh. Stud.

4. Sox posted 7 runs in the bottom of the 1st in game 2 after Derek Lowe blew the overall scoreless innings streak. Game 2 was academic from that point, as Lowe was just effective enough to get through 7 innings with the lead intact.

Running low on time and long on thirst, so I'll call it a day. Suffice it to say that I'm enjoying the ride to date.

Thursday, April 29, 2004

Game 21 - Mets
L.A. . . . M.E.

Dodgers 3, Mets 2
Record: 8-13

Steve Trachsel only made a couple of mistakes, but that was enough to beat the back-to-reality Mets. A two-run dinger and a solo shot gave the Dodgers three, and a Kaz Matsui leadoff homer plus a sac fly gave the Mets two. And there you have it. The Mets left nine on base, including a pair in the ninth inning, and grounded into a pair of double plays. And the overriding theme is that I knew they'd do this. The impressive aberrations can't extend to a series or even consecutive games; very quickly it's back to the Expos-esque run production. (The Expos scored four last night for the first time in eons . . . and lost.)

In response to a recent posting of mine which lamented the same ol' same ol' long, hard season with too many similarities to the '03 version, Mike Piazza replied:

"I'm really sick of talking about last year. We're a different team."

Not better, just different.

Last Year's Mets:
- Mets cast-off Marco Scutaro is now hitting .338 for Oakland, leading the A's regulars. Perhaps it has something to do with their announcers pronouncing his name with the proper Venezuelan accent, as opposed to Fran Healy calling him "Scooter-oh."
- Jeromy Burnitz, dumped at the deadline last year, has six dingers and 14 ribbies for Colorado. Granted, it's Colorado, but those numbers would lead the Mets by far. (No Met yet has double-digit RBI's.)
- And Armando Benitez is now 10-for-10 in save chances with a 0.66 ERA.

But not all of them are thriving:
- Robby Alomar and his .222 average are on the shelf for 6-8 weeks after being hit in the hand with a pitch and breaking a bone.
- Timo Perez is hitting .269 but is short of playing time -- he has only 25 AB's so far, playing behind Aaron Rowand in CF.
- Roger "Over and Out" Cedeno made just five plate appearances (0-for5 with a K) before injuring his hamstring. He's making $5,375,000 this year. Five million, three hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars. FIVE MILLION, THREE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY-FIVE MILLION DOLLAREENIES. I thought about just typing that and typing that and typing it until it made any bit of sense to me, but I don't have that much time left . . . in my life.

This Year's Mets:
- Jason Phillips is hitting .131. Another reason Piazza needs to play more 1B?
- Scott Erickson is nowhere near coming back. Don't know whether to laugh or wince, but either way it'll be vigorous enough to induce tears.
- Jeff Duncan is batting at an .083 clip. I'm actually headed to Norfolk this weekend -- if he can get to DC, I can give him a lift down there.

This is almost ugly enough to make me watch the NBA playoffs. Not quite, though.
Game 19 - Red Sox
Invasion of the Body Snatchers?

Red Sox 6, Tampa Bay Devil Rays 0
Record: 13-6

The Sox are winning - dominating, really - on the strength of otherworldly pitching and solid defense. Where the hell is my favorite team? My Red Sox bash the ball all over the park, and win games by softball scores. My Red Sox are led by guys like Jim Rice, Carl Yastzremski, and Mo Vaughn. My Red Sox set the all-time record for slugging percentage in 2003, and still didn't win their division.

These Red Sox are working on a 23 inning scoreless streak, with back-to-back shutouts against the Yankees and Rays on the heels of 5 scoreless innings to close out another Yankee game. The Sox bullpen has a 26 inning scoreless streak, and an 11.1 inning hitless streak going. And before you ask, you should know that I am furiously knocking on wood. At present, there is simply not a weak link on the pitching staff, and there are no other teams in all of baseball that can say that. Long way to go and all that, but this team's makeup is sublime. I can't wait until the hitters catch up to their teammates on the mound.

Tuesday's rainout means that the Sox and Rays are playing a day/night doubleheader today. I love double-headers in concept - it's just a neat idea and a throwback to the old days when baseball was less a business and more a game, and revenues didn't drive scheduling. However, it's really hard to win two games on one day, for whatever reason. I have no empirical evidence of this - just my sense that winning the first game of a twinbill breeds a very human letdown going into the second game. I'm also a bit worried that 18 innings of baseball will tax the Sox bullpen in advance of a road series against the hot-hitting Texas Rangers.

On the plus side, Byun-Hyung Kim makes his 2004 debut for the Sox this afternoon. I'm rooting hard for Kim, because I believe he's got the potential to be a very, very good starter, and because I think he's received overly harsh criticism for perceived lack of clutch makeup. If he steps up and fills his role, the Sox pitching is that much better, which - needless to say - bodes well for the Sox and poorly for the rest of the American League.

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Game 20 - Mets
L.A. Guns*

Mets 9, Dodgers 5
Record: 8-12

The New York Mets hit three home runs in a pitcher's park, rap out 13 hits, score nine earned runs against a (well, formerly) great pitching squad, and the bullpen doesn't -- quite -- blow it. I'm sorry, but I'm not biting on this again. I know the real Mets team, and there will need to be much more of this before I gotta believe.

Mike Piazza belted a homer to left in the sixth to finally tie Pudge Fisk's (such eerie symmetry on this site) mark for HR's by a catcher. Nice to do it in Chavez Ravine, where he jacked so many in Dodger Blue . . . looking much cheesier, but somehow much cooler. [Mike Piazza pulled off Cool Cheez so well, they should have named a Dorito or salad dressing flavor after him.] After he hits another dinger, it'll be interesting to see how many more times he's penciled in at the 2-spot instead of the increasingly more appropriate 3-spot in the field. When your catcher would be better off at first base and your first baseman is a natural catcher, you might not be operating at your fullest potential, right?

In the new era of indifferent cynicism -- I know, how indifferent can a guy be when he recaps 162 games? -- wins are inconsequential but still reasons to smile, a wildflower on the side of a congested, filthy, pollutant-run-off highway of a baseball season. Ooh, pretty.

*Today's segment was originally titled "Cue the Randy Newman," but editors feared my diminutive counterpart might take offense, believing it to be a "Short People" reference instead of "I Love L.A."
Thanks for bringing up that wonderful memory.

I had a lunch meeting yesterday and one of the guys at the table brought up the topic of Game 6 of the '86 Series. He's from Boston, and like me a lifetime Sox fan. Our party consisted of me and my boss (who is familiar with my personal history from that night) and three guys from another company with whom we're negotiating an alliance. I was dying to tell the Worst Story Ever Told (TM), but we haven't known these guys for very long so left it at, "That was the worst night of my life. Next time we get together for a few beers, remind me to tell you about it." Always good for a few sympathy laughs at my 16 year-old expense.
Off-Night Viewing: The Taboo Topic

With no Mets game to watch or even follow in snippets (by the by, when they do play, Baseball Tonight has been completely ignoring my beloved Met-men of late; 90 minutes on the air and no recap???), I was able to skitter along among the Cubs-Diamondbacks, Braves-Giants, and Padres-Expos games Monday night. (Pads-'Spos? Get help, son.) But somewhere in the shuffle, I ended up on ESPN Classic, where an happily familiar sight popped on the screen. Gary Carter at the plate against Calvin Schiraldi with two outs and a sloppy jumbotron operator prematurely congratulating the Red Sox on their 1986 World Series victory. Uh oh.

Of course I'm going to watch. How many times can I see it before I get sick of it? We might find out. And while this is obviously unbelievably annoying to my cohort and his Nation, I actually have a point or two here.

1. ESPN Classic needs to step it up. This game deserves occasional showings, of course, as do all of the ones for the ages. But I have seen Game 6 in full and abbreviated (like last night) form way too many times on this channel. This might be the most repeatedly watchable ten innings of my life. (Watch as many times as you like, Whitney, you can't change the fact that you went to bed after the top of the 10th.) But at this rate ESPN-C is going to kill it for me. Why do you think certain people of my generation loathe Born in the U.S.A.? Despite their arguments to the contrary, it's not because the album sucks.

The other game they've been showing ad nauseum de Bostonimus is the '78 play-off. I promise you I've seen this game air four times in the past few months. Good lord, dear program director, whither the torturous schedule? They also recently aired Games 3 and 6 of last fall's ALCS. Am I only tuning in during the inopportune (if you bleed Sox Red) moments, or is there a vendetta against the sons of Sam Horn, Johnny Pesky, and Bill Lee?

E-C is planning to air a Boston Day type of event in the near future, airing highlights from the B's, C's, BC, UNH, Patsies (the P's?), and Red Sox (R-S's?). Perhaps they've been inundated with angry viewer mail recently. Or, more likely, they are just being smart programmers and feeding off the Soxwagon. They show all of the last-second losses to further ingrain the Sox as heartbreakers, then suck in remoras from Back Bay to Vallejo to boost ratings.

I guess my big problem is this: ESPN Classic has a bazillion "classic" games at their fingertips. There should be a veritable spectrum of jaw-dropping, magnificent moments. And while it's still entertaining to tune in no matter what, they're grading at about a C- level. It's either like the Sports Guy recently said where you can't discern why the hell they're showing a particular game, or it's an obvious one they're playing to death. Program director for E-C might be my dream job -- spending the energy to come up with clever reasons why a certain game should run on a certain day would be fun work. And then, only then, people might start writing "E.C. is God" on alley walls again.

2. The other thing that struck me while watching "Nightmare on Rob Russell's Street" was even more evidence how wrong the singular focus of post '86 blame on Bill Buckner really was. This is by now a belabored point, but every viewing brings it home further. Nearly every loss has multiple culprits, and this was no exception. Obviously Schiraldi didn't get it done. Stanley threw the wild pitch that tied the game, but did you see the nonchalant reach by Gedman on the play? Doesn't the situation demand a little more care? And according to Joe Garagiola, Stanley also completely ignored an easy pick-off of Ray Knight by Marty Barrett before the crap went down, to the point of leaving Barrett way out of position when he fired a pitch. There was culpability all around (except in Hendu's area -- he was a stud that month and was denied his proper place in Boston Legend history by some bad luck). But if Boston needed the one target, it should have been John McNamara. If you're going to crucify Grady Little in '03, the inverse blunder must be equally reprehensible, no? Take McNamara's Clemens yank in the 7th ("Hate the Clemens" but there's no way he asks out for any blister) and add in the failure to substitute Stapleton in the 10th. He also brought Schiraldi back in Game 7 after he'd soiled himself in Game 6, and Schiraldi ended up taking the final loss.

Anyway, here's the problem: seeing all of Sox blow the lead to some jackalopes (Knight, Carter, HoJo, Mitchell, Hernandez, Straw, etc -- I adore these guys, but if I weren't a Mets fan, I'd have hated them), seeing the somber Buckner walk off, and knowing how unfairly unkind a nation (or Nation) of ignorant bastards was to him after that, it kind of bums me out a little. And when I am watching the only World Series my team has ever won during my lifetime, I want nothing but sheer bliss and thrills. Dammit.

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Grudging Credit Where Credit is Due

Like many fans, I have a strong distaste for Barry Bonds. Admittedly, my perception of him is driven largely (almost exclusively) by the media's portrayal of him as surly, petulant, bitter, and joyless. The current steroid-seeded cloud of suspicion that hangs over him like dust over the Peanuts' Pigpen doesn't help. We like our ballplayers happy-go-lucky and appreciative, and we honor guys like Kevin Millar and Sean Casey because they give good quote, whether or not they're producing on the field. And while I like Millar and Casey and guys like them because of their public personas, have you seen Bonds' numbers this year?

Through 19 games, the Giants' leftfielder's line looks like this:

44 AB, 22 H, 17 R, 9 HR, 20 RBI, 30(!) BB, 5 K, .500 BA, .703 OBP, 1.227 SLG, 1.930(!) OPS

He leads the majors in HR, BB, BA, OBP, SLG, and OPS - most by large margins.

Before yesterday's games, he had swung and missed 9 times while hitting 9 homeruns. Think about that. He's walked in 41% of his plate appearances. To quote Dave Chappelle's Little John, "Whhhhaaaatttttt!?!". The media is beginning to ponder his chances to hit .400 for the season. Maybe we should be wondering if he can hit .500. And whether he'll get enough at-bats to qualify for a batting title.

These numbers follow three of the most amazing offensive seasons in MLB history, and can't all be attributed to steroid use. Other guys are juicing, and none of them are as dominant as Bonds. I'm not condoning cheating, but I stand in rapt amazement watching the numbers he's producing, and at how he - more than any hitter I've ever seen - completely changes how pitchers and managers approach the game. Simply remarkable, and a shame that he's such a prick. I suppose that'll make it easier to accept when it turns out he is a roid-monster.

Monday, April 26, 2004

As Promised - The Expos Watch

Record: 5-14 (3-4 vs. the Mets, 2-10 vs. rest of league)
Runs Scored: 34 (1.79/game)
Home Runs: 9 (Barry Bonds has 9)
Batting Average: .203
OPS: .546
Average Home Attendance: 13,210

Still on a very impressive pace. Other peculiar tidbits around the league:

- The second-worst record in the league is held by the Seattle Mariners (6-13)
- Worst OPS in the league: 1. Expos (.546) 2. Mets (.670) 3. Yankees (.692)
- Armando Benitez is now 9-for-9 in save opp's with a 0.73 ERA. Last year at this time he did have seven saves -- to go along with four blown saves, three losses, a 7.24 ERA, five meltdowns, 40,000 enemies in Queens and the neighboring boroughs, and a knack for making everything 1000% harder than it needed to be. Apparently all he required was the relative obscurity a World Series-winning team in Miami merits (which is a lot). What's going to happen when Loria moves the team to Vegas, though?
Games 16 Through 18 - Red Sox
Dogs and Cats Living in Sin

Red Sox 11, Yankees 2
Red Sox 3, Yankees 2 (12)
Red Sox 2, Yankees 0
Record: 12-6

I mean, seriously, a sweep of the Yankees? In the Bronx? With Joe Torre pulling out all the stops and flatly telling the media that this was an important test for his team? Never happen.

But it happened, and not just that, it happened with the Sox being clearly the better team in all phases of the game, but not nearly playing up to their potential - at least on offense. Yankee hitters went 15-99 in the series. The Sox bullpen did not yield a single run, stretching their string of scoreless innings to 24 2/3. The Yankees were beset by shoddy fielding, on-field miscommunication, lack of timely hitting, and mediocre relief pitching - at least when it mattered. The Sox, though they were 0 of 19 with runners in scoring position in game 2, and though they only mustered 4 hits in game 3, found a way to win. It got so bad for the Yankees that the classy fans in the Bronx booed Derek Jeter, mired as he was in the midst of an 0 for 26 tailspin, capped off by three strikeouts yesterday. As Yankee broadcaster Hanoi Michael Kay blurted, "That's like booing Santa Claus". And if Santa Claus was the overrated, overpaid, second-best shortstop on the North Pole Reindeer, he'd be right.

Sox fans are conditioned to believe - to know - that the Boston 9 will find a way to lose games like these, especially against the Yankees. Not in April 2004, even (cue broken record here) without Nomar, Trot, and B.H. Kim. To steal the noted wisdom of Theodore Logan, "Strange things are afoot at the Circle K".

Nearly every player on the Sox roster contributed to the sweep, from superstar Manny Ramirez' key extra-base hits in the last two games, to Mark Bellhorn's game-winning sac fly in game 2, to Alan Embree, Mike Timlin, Keith Foulke, and Scott Williamson dominating in their appearances, to Pokey Reese's critical turn of a double play on Bernie Williams with the bases loaded in the 7th inning of a tie game in the second contest, to great starts from Derek Lowe, Bronson Arroyo, and Pedro Martinez, to Bill Mueller's game-breaking three-run homer in the first game, and on and on.

The Sox aren't hitting, but they sure are winning, and they sure as hell look like they expect to be winning, and I'll take that formula all year long.
Games 17 through 19 - Mets
Don't Wake Me Up, I Don't Want to See

Cubs 3, Mets 1
Cubs 3, Mets 0
Cubs 4, Mets 1
Record: 7-12

I can see clearly now, the hope is gone,
I can see all frustrations in my way
Gone are the rays of light that had me blind
It's gonna be a dark (dark), dark (dark)
Rain-clouded day.

Yes, the series in Wrigley has removed the rose-colored glasses and cued the Johnny Nash (well, his alternate, negative image version). Does it seem too early, too Red Sox Nationish to turn my cards over and sheepishly push them towards the dealer when we're still in April? Does it? Consider this, fair friends. Last year's Pauly-Shore-movie of a season starred a Mets team who, after 19 games, was 8-11. Yes, that'd be one game better than we sit here a year later. For all the chaff-cutting and wheat-adding that supposedly happened in the off-season, the net result is a downturn?

A few minor points about the blues-filled weekend in Chicago:

1. See the mid-game update below. When Piazza stepped to the plate in the third inning, the Mets had notched five hits in just over two innings against the Cubs. After the incident we'll call "What Mike Did," the Mets played 25 more innings with just nine hits. I wouldn't believe it's possible for a meek grounder to the pitcher to be powerful enough to set the tone for three days, but seeing is believing. Nothing was the same after that.

2. Chicago II: Saturday in the park was just a disaster, and it did nothing to colour my world or make me smile. Kerry Wood is feeling stronger every day, and that was only the beginning. Questions 67 and 68 that day: would the score end up 25 or 6 to zero, and does anybody on the Mets really know what time it is? (Sorry, you'll get nothing from the Peter Cetera-ble Singer era.)

3. Kerry Wood is a stud, and he's pitching unbelievably, but the Mets just looked awful against him. There were more check-swing and half-swing strikeouts than I've ever seen. Guys didn't look like they guessed wrong -- they looked like they weren't guessing at all, just waving the bat at warm-up swing speed and taking their seat. For the first time this season, they looked like they did not belong on the same field. And that's when things started to crystallize for me.

4. A year ago Matt Clement pulled a Wohlers-Ankiel against the Mets, spastically losing his control for a few innings in a display reminiscent of Ebby Calvin LaLoosh. A year has made a ton of difference for Clement, who looked unhittable Sunday, and was just that through six-plus. Of course, he got plenty of help from the Mets hitters, who were swinging at absolutely everything, holding off only on pitches right down the middle. It also helped that the strike zone was wider than Waveland Avenue, but the same strike zone didn't help a slightly-off Al Leiter. It further helped that Art Howe was forced to pencil in a lineup of Matsui-Duncan-Piazza-Garcia-Phillips-Valent-Zeile-Gutierrez, a.k.a. "The Colander." But make no mistake, Clement was lights out.

5. And that's all I have to say about that series.

So I'm a little groggy from sleeping dreamily through the first four weeks of this 2004 campaign. Now I'm awake, though, and I can see what we're in for: more of the same, alas. It was either Steve Stone or Chip Caray in the WGN booth (both were mockingly critical of the Mets, and rightly so) who captured it all so nicely when he laughingly announced the Expos' current run total (Expos Watch coming soon!), then sighed and said, "Yeah, it's going to be the Expos and Mets in the cellar of the National League East this year. To be lumped in with a team who has scored half as many runs as the second-lowest scorer in the league is embarrassing. But not inaccurate.

The injury problem cannot be overstated. Yes, it's technically still April, people keep saying. Well, it's almost May, almost 1/6 of the way through, and Jose Reyes hasn't taken a swing. Cliff Floyd is almost forgotten, Mike Cameron has missed a few games, and now Ty Wigginton is out. [Wigginton was diagnosed as having an ulcer; his Yankee-fan doctor was unable to determine the cause until Ty forwarded him the URL of this site.] It's unwise to judge the future of this team when its best squad hasn't taken the field, but it's more naive to think there won't be more DL stints on the way. There's little depth on this club, and that's been exposed early. Norfolk, Virginia has produced some of the finest talent the world has ever seen (see Rob's post on my GWRBI from last week); what's happened there lately?

After dropping eight of ten in pathetic fashion, the prognosis simply looks bleak all around. I am cutting my losses early this year and waiving any aspirations of contention. How quickly will the second-tier goal of finishing within the 22-game window of the Red Sox be cast off as delusion, too?

Friday, April 23, 2004

Mid-Game Update

Jae Weong Seo wasted no time reprising his role as the best batting practice pitcher in a major league rotation, serving one up to Moises Alou in the first inning with a man aboard. Before you could get settled in, 2-0. Mike Cameron came right back with a solo shot in the 2nd for the Mets, though. Seo settled down for a couple of innings and the Mets loaded the bases with no outs in the top of the 3rd. A sure chance to break it open with Mike Piazza at the plate.

The Game Log reads:
-M Piazza grounded into double play, pitcher to catcher to first, K Matsui out at home, S Spencer to third, K Garcia to second.
-M Cameron struck out looking.

Ugh. Seo responds with a meatball to former Cowboy-Upper Todd Walker and it's 3-1. I'll give Seo credit, he doesn't drag it out painfully. It's just a sock in the face, not a slow malaise.

- - -

Something forgotten in my earlier post: Ty Wigginton was placed on the DL today after fainting and experiencing dizziness, perhaps after a hard look at his .188 batting average. I hope it's something to joke about and not more serious, but it's definitely not what the Mets needed. It means more AB's for Ricky Gutierrez and Todd Zeile, which wasn't in the game plan. Jose Reyes, please come quickly.
Games 15 & 16 - Mets
Tax-Deductible, Charitable Contributions

Expos 2, Mets 1
Mets 3, Expos 2
Record: 7-9

That high-powered Montreal Expo offense mustered a whopping total of seven runs in four games agains the Mets in this series. Yet they split. That's just so weak. Especially when those seven runs were equally distributed -- one or two runs in each game. Montreal is 4-12, with three of those wins coming against the Mets. This Shea homestand against dud teams has really gone awry - the only series they won was the one against the Braves.

10% of the season is done and I have no earthly idea what to think of this team. Are they capable of either a serious run or a serious plummet? I don't know. Is the hitting just in need of a jump-start or will it just remain anemic like last year. I don't know. Mr. Hand, will I pass this class? Gee, Mr. Spicoli, I don't know.

On the bright side, Steve Trachsel has resumed his steady-as-he-goes role from last year, ignoring his season-opening pants-wetting. Last night he worked seven strong and added another hit. (He's batting .300 and getting a serious look from Wilpon to be the next hitting coach.)

Up next: a nine-game road trip to Chicago, L.A., and San Diego that starts in a few minutes in Chi-Town. Jae (Seo-)Seo, who has had trouble at the pitcher-lovin' Shea, will probably get clobbered in the pitcher-eatin' Wrigley. Greg Maddux goes for the Cubbies -- he's been largely unimpressive thus far this year, making the Mets' decision to lay off their pursuit of him this winter seem like a wise call. The Cubs have been putting double digits up like it's Bears season. The Mets have been struggling at the plate. I'm seeing a 10-4 Cubs win today. So, given the way everything's shaken out thus far in '04, bet on 1-0, Mets.
Game 15 - Red Sox
Schill (Should Have Been) Out

Blue Jays 7, Red Sox 3
Record: 9-6

Second week in a row the Sox blow a winnable game against an inferior opponent on the eve of a Yankee series. Worked out okay last week in hindsight, but doesn't make it any more fun to lose. Curt Schilling took a 3-1 lead into the bottom of the 7th inning, then gave up 4 straight hits with 2 outs in the inning to lose the lead. After 104 pitches, he's done. Right?


Um, not so much. Despite having a dominant, fairly well-rested bullpen, and the ghosts of Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS hovering nearby, Terry Francona chose to bring a tiring Schilling back into the game in the bottom of the 8th. Schilling loaded the bases with a two-out walk to Orlando Hudson, and then gave up a crushing grand slam to Chris Gomez (!) on his 123rd pitch of the night. I don't blame Schilling for wanting to stay in - he's a horse and he would go 9 innings every game if it were his choice. It's not though. The manager gets paid a lot of money to make hard decisions that may not please every player. Francona blew this one. Plain and simple.

Of course, the Sox offense could have rendered the pitching decision moot by batting better than .077 (1 for 13) with runners in scoring position. The 2004 Sox are 19th in the league in runs scored with 70 (4.67/game), 14th in OBP (.347), and - on the heels of the best slugging season in history - 20th in slugging (.404). This is not your 2003 Red Sox, that's for sure, but the impending arrival of Nomar and Trot ought to lift the offense to where it can at least compete with the pitching for top billing.

Three in the Bronx this weekend, where the Yanks lay in wait to try to avenge last weekend's Sox uprising. Joe Torre's already thrown down the gauntlet, telling the press that this series is a big test for the Yankees. As I see it, the Sox have nothing to lose - the Yankees have all the pressure, and the Sox still don't have their entire team in place. And this time, the pitching matchups are roughly even. No predictions, though - I clearly don't know what the hell I'm talking about when it comes to these Sox.

Thursday, April 22, 2004

Game 14 - Red Sox
Belli Wakes Up

Red Sox 4, Blue Jays 2
Record: 9-5

My ability to impart reverse-positive mojo on Red Sox players is beginning to verge on the absurd. Just yesterday I impugned backup catcher Doug Mirabelli, and he responded last night by ripping two homeruns and a single to account for nearly all of the Red Sox' offense. To be sure, his big hits were against left-hander Ted Lilly, and not against right-handed pitching - which was my primary beef with him - but the fact remains that yet another Sox player has made me eat my words. To which I say, Curt Schilling is looking a little pudgy and I'd be surprised if he gets through the 6th inning tonight. (Let's take this anti-mojo for a spin, shall we?)

This was another bloodless, professional win, made more impressive by the fact that the Sox' bit players picked up the slack when the big hitters slumbered. Tim Wakefield (who I also mildly slagged a few days ago) went 6 2/3 innings with only 2 runs to get the win, and Alan Embree and Keith Foulke closed the game out with 2 1/3 innings of hitless relief.

Schilling takes the hill for the Sox tonight, looking to close out a three-game sweep of the Jays (who haven't won at home yet this season - Ooof) in advance of this weekend's series in the Bronx. I repeat my caution from last Thursday - the Sox need to keep their heads in this game and not get distracted by this weekend's festivities. They got ambushed by the O's last week in a similar situation.

In other, likely more important news, the Angry Men opened their 2004 softball campaign with a scintillating two-game sweep of the Squirrelly Zippers. I'll let my colleague comment in more detail, as his two-out single plated the winning run in the second game of the series, capping a 4-run comeback in the bottom of the last inning. Of course, my one-out sacrifice fly brought home the tying run, taking most of the pressure off of Whit's shoulders. Just doing my job.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Game 13 - Red Sox
I'm the Real Petey, Yes I'm the Real Petey, all the Other Slim Peteys are Just Imitating

Red Sox 4, Blue Jays 2
Record: 8-5

Martinez (W, 2-1) 7.0 5 2 1 2 6 0 104-67

That's Pedro's line from last night's game against Toronto (IP, H, R, ER, BB, SO, HR, Pitches-Strikes), in which the Sox' ace held the Jays scoreless until he tired in the 7th. What a difference a few days and warm climate (or, in this case, controlled climate) makes. Ledges all over New England are lonely places this morning, as the early-season Oh-my-freakin'-God-what's-wrong-with-Pedro panic wanes for at least five more days. This was also the second time in 10 days that Pedro outdueled Roy Halladay, and the score should have been worse, but the bottom of the Sox order - obviously spent from their heroic and likely singular effort against the Yankees on Monday - left 11 men on base.

Jason Varitek went 3-for-3 to raise his average to .350 and his OPS to 1.040. He's been extremely patient this year, working the count and seeing lots of pitches, and it's paying dividends early on. Makes me all the more irritated every time I see Doug Mirabelli in a game against a right-handed pitcher, just because management thinks Tim Wakefield needs a caddy.

Williamson and Foulke continued to deliver from the bullpen, pitching two scoreless innings to tidy up a very neat, very professional victory for the Sox. No muss, no fuss, no drama - just a win. Thank you sirs, I'll have another.
I had no idea the Mets were playing the Expos. Honest. So please take back your thinly disguised ill-wishing or I'll sic Manny on you. Did you see the nutty he threw last night on a ball that really wasn't all that close? I like Angry Manny.

And the negative karma emanating from that A-Rod thing will be paid back in spades.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Game 14 - Mets
Give Us Your Tired, Your Poor, The Wretched Refuse . . . We'll Find a Way to Lose to Them

Expos 2, Mets 1
Record: 6-8

At least last year we didn't have to see the Mets play the dreadful Tigers, which no doubt would have resulted in at least one loss to one of the worst teams ever fielded. As soon as my cohort posts the inaugural Expos Watch, the Mets drop a bad one to them. Within hours. To Rob I simply say: Wow, the Red Sox are really clicking on all cylinders right now. Probably destined for one hell of a year unless some bad breaks come their way.

Al Leiter pitched a great game for seven innings, allowing just one run. Enter David "Foul" Weathers, who proved that he had more ability to give up a run in his little pinky than Leiter had in his whole body. One batter, one run allowed. Stellar. And what with the Mets sponsoring Expos Emulation Night, Weathers' mistake was enough to chalk up a bad loss to a bad team. There were more zeroes in the Mets' box score than in Mo Vaughn's well-earned 2004 salary (or you could say more goose eggs than on the farm he bought with the money he was paid for doing nothing, or more doughnuts than in his breakfast regimen that caused him to weigh 600 pounds and destroy his knees, or any other bitter metaphorical stretch). But the Mets' weak hitting (4 hits, 2 walks, 1 run) is certainly understandable when you have to run the gauntlet of Zach "Try to Remember My Name for a" Day, Luis "Ayala My Name Out and Still Nobody Knows Who I Am," and Rocky "Well, I got me a fine wife, I got me old fiddle, when the sun's comin' up I got cakes on the griddle, life ain't nothin' but a funny, funny" Biddle. (Sorry, it was either that or Rocky "Little in the" Biddle "And He Got Much Back.") My point, somewhere in that muck, is that these guys aren't exactly having their baseball cards taken in to collector shops for pricing. But then again, which Expos are? Possibly Jose Vidro, whose homer beat the Mets tonight. Wow, it's like a "Seinfeld," it all wrapped up so far-fetchedly neat there.

The AP recap of this game states: "They [the Expos] are the first team to not score more than four runs in each of its first 14 games since the 1988 Texas Rangers, according to the Elias Sport Bureau." Yes, that is certainly awful, to be sure. Fast fact: the 2003 New York Mets scored more than four runs just once (Game 11) in its first 15 games, so let's not be looking down our nose too much at the lowly Expos. Despite hours of counseling, hypnosis, and shock therapy, I cannot forget last year's Mets.

And on the (even) lighter side of things, while flipping between the Braves' loss to the Reds, the Birds' drubbing of the D-Rays, and the slow painful drag of a Mets loss served up in skittle-sized niblets on the ESPNews ticker (I miss the Extra Innings package slightly less than college, slightly more than the Wendy's SuperBar), I happened upon a commercial that I swear on the future of the Mets season I thought was fake. As the "here's how to order" screen came and faded, I sat there waiting for the punchline, some clowning from Comedy Central or National Lampoon or the Sons of Sam Horn. It was just so bad, so utterly preposterous, it was pure gold for joke-makers in Red Sox Nation, and even over in Mets Township. Somebody come on and let me in on this gag.

The Major League Baseball Players Association has apparently authorized the implementation of the new New York quarter. The back of the coin features a picture of the state, the Statue of Liberty, and "Gateway to Freedom." The front of the quarter depicts the State of New York's greatest leader since its acceptance into the union in 1788: Alex Rodriguez. Umm . . . excuse me? I mean . . . what? Uhhh . . . pardon me? There is no way in the world this isn't a joke, right? I'm going to feel pretty silly when someone explains that it's a big Internet hoax that somehow spread into TV.

A colorized (as if it's not freakish enough, they colorize it) picture of A-Rod appears on the quarter, which sells for $19 (act now for the special offer of $9.95 plus S&H!) but is still real currency (25 cents, people). Only in New York will people pay $19 for a quarter. Limit 5 coins per person, since they don't want the mentally disabled people of the five boroughs getting conned too bad by this.

Now Alex Rodriguez is the latest in a long line of famous statesmen to appear on coins: G-Wash, T-Jeff, A-Linc, F-Roos, A-Rod. Nice. This well-beyond-tacky display, one which makes zubaz pants look like pleated dress slacks, is only made more ridiculous by A-Rod's miserable start to the season. Good thing these quarters cost so much -- Yanks fans might start throwing rolls of them at him from the bleachers. The commercial and website refer to him as "the next 'Pride of the Yankees.'" Oh, my. Somewhere in heaven, Lou Gehrig and Gary Cooper just threw up on each other. This whole thing is obviously ludicrous to the point of being obscene, but it's also the most painfully premature thing I've seen since high school. I'm just keeping my fingers crossed for a quick cure to Alex Rodriguez's Disease.

Please, somebody, anybody, straighten me out and tell me it's a prank. It sure would be a dandy.
Game 13 - Mets
When in Doubt, Play Montreal

Mets 4, Expos 1
Record: 6-7

Was last weekend's Pirate debacle just a terrible dream, perhaps a misguided fantasy starring Johnny Depp? No looking at the roadkill in the rear view mirror, boys. Stay on target. Lotta ball left. [I read that somewhere.]

There's nothing like playing the 2-11 San Montreal Expos to cure what ails you. Thanks go to Rob Russell for jinxing us, though. (See below.) Couldn't you at least wait until this series is through?

Rookie Tyler Yates shut down the Interns (hopeful future Senators) for five and two-thirds, and the bullpen held them scoreless for the remainder. Braden Looper had to throw 21 pitches but skated out with his third save. That was the easy part, according to Monsieur Russell's stats. Karim Garcia and Ty Wigginton's bombs provided more than enough O for NY to end the skid and move on.
Tiger Watch, Part Deux - This One Goes to, um, Montreal

Making fun of the Montreal Expos isn't really fair, and frankly, not all that fun. It's beyond insane that Major League Baseball has let this franchise dangle for the past several years when the Nation's Capital sits forlorn and pastime-less. Every true baseball fan should feel his or her blood boil when Les Expos are mentioned, and should sign up Bud Selig for every en.larg.e you.r 3 in.ches spam emailer's mailing list on principle. Montreal's putrid performance to date is a function of a gutted roster (sans Javier Vazquez, Vladimir Guerrero, and Michael Barrett, and soon to be Jose Vidro), a miserable travel schedule (regular season major league baseball in front of 7,500 in San Juan is an oxymoron at best, a travesty at worst), and the combined weight of several seasons as the Tiny Tims to Peter Angelos' Ebenezer Scrooge.

That said, their performance to date is a awful. To wit:

20 runs in 13 games, good for 1.54 per outing. No other team averages fewer than 3.36 (Philly). Good Lord.
A .200 team batting average and a .541 OPS. Yikes. In other words, their lineup consists of 9 Tony Womacks.
And even with a 3.66 team ERA, the 'Spos are 2-11.


Monday, April 19, 2004

Games 10 through 12 - Mets
We Might Be Able to Accept This from Worthy Adversaries . . . But Pirates?

Pirates 7, Mets 6
Pirates 2, Mets 1
Pirates 8, Mets 1
Record: 5-7

Once again I cast a pall over the potential for wins against the Pittsburgh Pirates with a pessimistic post; once again my prognosticating powers were proven quite potent. Instead of sweeping or even winning this series, the Mets fumbled, bumbled, and stumbled their way to handing the mighty Bucs all three games. At home. Even as I type this a day removed from the third and final insult, I am shaking my head in disbelief. I'm hopeful the Mets are shaking this debacle off and focusing on beating the 2-10 Expos over the next four days. But as long as I must recap the carnage, I can compact it into a neat, little package of hideousness.

What's the most distressing part of flagging the homestand this weekend?

1. Orber Moreno and Mike Stanton facing 5 batters during the crucal 8th inning of Game 1 and retiring none of them. Bullpen . . . weakening . . .
2. Allowing a 7-run inning just a week removed from an 11-run inning.
3. Scraping together just four hits against Oliver Perez and a cast of has-beens in Game 2.
4. Watching Jose Freakin' Mesa collect saves against the Mets in consecutive games.
5. Seeing the formerly white-hot Mike Piazza's BA dip to .267 and falling.
6. Jae "Seo Last Year" taking another beating, this time in a starting role.
7. Having the following lineup pound out 17 hits Sunday: Tike Redman, Jack Wilson, Jason Kendall, Raul Mondesi, Randall Simon, Craig Wilson, Bobby Hill, Chris Stynes. Not exactly Stargell, Parker, and the family, or even Bonds, Bonilla and the boys.
8. Having the Braves rebound and leapfrog the Mets after sweeping the Marlins.
9. Being swept by the Pirates at Shea for the first time in 10 years. (I don't like any comparisons to those Mets.)
10. That seeping, sinking feeling that we aren't that good and will be in for another grueling year.

That last one is obviously the killer, though the multiple-personality Mets have us going series to series with a swing that's mirroring the current temperature pinball on the East Coast. The cold rain / hot sun pendulum we've experienced makes people get sick, and the Mets' fluctuation between squad of stars and band of idiots is starting to have the same effect. True, the ups and downs may even out to a .500 record, which could be deemed a successful season by preseason standards, but all that up and down will surely make me ill.
Games 9-12 - Red Sox
Holy Shit!

Red Sox 6, New York Yankees 2
Red Sox 5, Yankees 1
Yankees 7, Red Sox 3
Red Sox 5, Yankees 4
Record: 7-4

You see the post immediately below this one? The one about the miserable 6-9 slots in the Sox order, and about how a split was going to be nice? Whoever wrote that is an imbecile. A very pleased imbecile, but an imbecile nonetheless. Throw out Crespo's 0-for-4, and those scrubeenies went 5-12 with 3 RBI and 2 runs scored, including both the game-winning run and RBI when David McCarty scored on Gabe Kapler's two-out single in the bottom of the 8th. Bronson Arroyo shook off some early shakiness to post 6 innings and keep the Sox in the game, and his teammates scrapped back from a 4-1 deficit, scoring single runs in each of their last 4 turns at the plate to catch and pass the Yankees.

It bears repeating that games in April don't mean that much, but I'd rather be the Red Sox today than the Yankees. New York came to town with every advantage; better pitching matchups, a healthier lineup, and a more-rested bullpen. The Sox - without their All-Star shortstop, starting rightfielder, and No. 5 starter - took 3 of 4 games and looked like the more complete team in doing it. The Yankees will certainly hit better than they did in this series (though that can't take away the fact that Alex Rodriguez' first series on the big stage yielded as many errors as it did hits), but they've got questions in their starting rotation, and their bullpen was outpitched by that of the Sox.

The baseball season is a long slog, and I'm certain that this Yankee ballclub will remain a force over the long haul - they've just got too much talent. I'm equally certain, though - for the first time I can remember - that this Sox team will be right there with them. I cannot overstate my level of confidence in the Sox pitching staff - once today's game was tied, I was dead sure that the Sox would win, because I thought they had the advantage once the game got to the bullpens. And I was right.

This was a game, and a series that the Yankees should have won. In the immediate past, they would have won it, and easily. In the embryonic stages of 2004, the Sox are getting the bounces, and making the plays. Color me happy.

Several things stand out from this 4-game set, in no particular order:

1. Mike Mussina is toast.
2. I'm really enjoying the Mark Bellhorn era.
3. Heard Curt Schilling on the radio after Saturday's game, happy about the win but angry with himself for only going 6 1/3 innings. Love this guy's game, his sense of accountability, and his guts.
4. Alan Embree flat out blew Hideki Matsui away with the bases loaded on Friday night. Three straight fastballs killed a potentially back-breaking rally and added to my belief in this bullpen.
5. Manny is hammering the ball - even his outs today were smoked. This could be a mammoth season for the flaky one.
6. A-Rod has quieted the critics who say that he should be playing shortstop instead of Jeter in a most creative manner.
7. The Sox, and Derek Lowe, get a pass from me for the lone loss in the series. Lowe was rusty, the Sox were flat, and even so, Mark Malaska and Phil Seibel were a real bright spot - role players filling their role perfectly.
8. So, Kevin Brown - these guys are a little tougher than the Devil Rays, no?
9. Cesar Crespo is Spanish for "Now batting for your Pawtucket Red Sox".
10. I hope Keith Foulke can pitch as many innings as it appears Terry Francona will ask him to.
11. Is that last sentence even in English? Forget it, he's rolling.

And finally, where is Whitney, and how did the Mets do this weekend?

Here's today's Sox' lineup against Kevin Brown and the Yankees:

Damon CF
Mueller 3B
Ortiz DH
Ramirez LF
Varitek C

Ok, so far, so good. Here's where the train goes badly off the rails:

McCarty 1B
Crespo 2B
Kapler RF
Reese SS

Top that off with No. 5 starter Bronson Arroyo on the hill, and you get a recipe for a quick, painless Yankee victory.

Oh, and as I type this, the bad guys have already plated 3 and have runners on 1st and 2nd with one out in the top of the 2nd. Neat. Well, I said I'd be happy with a split, especially given the depleted nature of the Sox' lineup, so I'll have to be happy with a split.
Another quick note, as I'll blog the entire Yankee series after this morning's game. 11:05 am start, bright sunshine out my window, and a Palm Pilot full of meetings. What kind of idiot made this schedule? And by that, I mean my schedule, because I should have known damn well that today is Patriot's Day.

Not terribly upset about yesterday's loss - Lowe was pitching with way too much rest against a team that always hits him pretty well. Would have liked to see him throw more strikes, though. The bullpen, as it has been for the last week, was nails. The so-called "dregs" of the Sox bullpen - Mark Malaska, Phil Seibel, and Frank Castillo - held the potent Yankee lineup scoreless on two hits over the last 6 1/3 innings after Lowe gave up 7 tallies in the first 2 2/3 frames. More importantly, they gave Scott Williamson, Mike Timlin, Keith Foulke, and Alan Embree a day off, which may well prove critical today.

Sunday, April 18, 2004

Little less happy now that the Yankees have posted 5 (sorry, make that 6) in the 3rd and awoken the slumbering Derek Lowe Face. Note to self: we're still never saying anything bad about Derek Lowe after his playoff performance against the A's - even if he's making that a hard pledge to keep. Can't do worse than a split, though - which looks pretty likely with Bronson Arroyo waaay overmatched against Kevin Brown tomorrow.
Checking in briefly on a thoroughly gorgeous spring afternoon in the D.C. suburbs (exurbs, maybe?) to note happily that the Sox won the first two games of this week's version of Apocalypse Now, and that Jason Varitek just made Jose Contreras throw 12 pitches before the Sox catcher singled to right. The dueling demands of two little girls and a bright, sunny day will cut this entry short, but rest assured there's a spring in this blogger's step and an 11:05 am start tomorrow that'll spice up another day in the office.

Friday, April 16, 2004

There's not a chance in hell that the words "T'Pau" and "Orber" have ever before appeared in the same paragraph. Kudos, my friend.
Game 9 - Mets
Getting Zippo Off Leiter

Mets 4, Braves 0
Record: 5-4

Two nights ago we were Metless and Soxless, and a documentary satiated my baseball jones. Last night both teams were on the tube, and each provided some excitement. While the Orioles are inching closer to forcing Pedro Martinez to publicly acknowledge he's their bitch, the Mets and Braves squared off for the rubber match of this series and for the sixth time in the nine games of this young season.

You may as well call Al Leiter "T'Pau," because he's the heart and soul of this team. (Please don't, though.) Glavine presents another father figure, Franco adds a grandfather figure, and Piazza captures the never-say-die spirit, but Big Al is the guts of this organization. Mike Cameron's late scratch added to a list of nicks and dings that's keeping the Mets from sporting its best lineup even once this year. The outfield of Joe McEwing, Jeff Duncan, and Shane Spencer paled in comparison to the Cliff Floyd-Mike Cameron-Karim Garcia trio that was killing the ball last week. Speaking of pale, the Wonder whitebread outfield was just one portion of a starting lineup featuring not a single Latin-born player. They made it work, though, as Leiter's 5 1/3 shutout innings paved the way for stellar relief from David Weathers, Orber Moreno, and Braden Looper, and the Braves managed just four hits, four walks, and nary a run.

Meanwhile, timely hitting makes all the difference, and the Mets cashed in on some. Spencer's groundout plated one in the first and his flare brought home a runner after a walk and balk from Braves starter Horacio Ramirez. The 2-0 lead looked a little tenuous in the late innings, requiring key double plays to help Weathers escape twice without damage. In the bottom of the eighth, the Mets appeared to be squandering a chance to add insurance, following up a walk and a hit with two unproductive outs. Karim Garcia pinch-hit, but the Braves brought in lefty-killer C.J. Nitkowski to minimize Garcia's effectiveness from the left side. Garcia, however, muscled one over second base for an RBI single, and Jeff Duncan (another lefty) followed with a slap to the left side that scooted through and brought home run number four.

When playing any team the difference between a two-run lead and a four-run lead going into the last frame is often larger than those two runs, but when playing the Braves it's expanded exponentially. That team simply has an annoying habit of dramatic comeback wins, especially when Chipper Jones has a turn at the plate. Those last two runs, scraped across in scrappy fashion, seemed to take any second winds from their sails. Looper fired a 1-2-3 inning with a pair of K's -- starting with Chipper's lead-off swinging strikeout to set the tone.

Bucs this weekend and Expos next week. Should be a few wins, right? Funny how it never works out that way.
Game 8 - Red Sox
I'm Gonna Get Some Perspective if it Kills Me, Dammit

Orioles 12, Red Sox 7 (11)
Record: 4-4

As I watched last night's game with my father, I reverted to really bad Sox fan form, foaming at the mouth with end-of-the-world, what-the-hell-is-wrong-with-these-losers invective. It certainly didn't help that we were flipping back and forth between this debacle and the Bruins' failure to show up against the Canadiens on an adjacent channel. Just a really bad karmic evening for Boston sports fans (and one that I believe I predicted just yesterday in the wake of a the hysterically overblown previews of this weekend's Sox/Yanks series). In the bright daylight that follows in-the-moment anger, I'm trying hard to remember that there's a lot of baseball left to play.

Will the real (new) Pedro Martinez please stand up? After the stellar performance he authored against the Jays on Sunday, it seemed as though the persistent Pedro fears had been assuaged. Last night, though, he a) gave up a leadoff homerun to Brian Roberts (!), b) failed to hold 5-2 and 7-4 leads, c) and only managed 5 innings of work. All of this while looking nothing like any Pedro I've ever seen, save for a few otherworldly changeups. His fastball wasn't, his curve didn't, and his change, well stayed the same to a far greater degree than normal. In his defense, it was a cold, wet, miserable night in Boston, and he's never pitched particularly well in those conditions. He's also had an April stinker in each of the past several years and rebounded to post his expected sublime numbers. Mike Mussina's ERA resembles a New York movie ticket price at the moment (8.22) but I don't see Yankee fans poised to leap from the Triborough. So, once more into the breach with deep breaths and forced calm.

On the bright side, the meat of the Sox bullpen (Timlin, Williamson, Foulke, and Embree) was dominant last night, going 4 scoreless innings with help from Mark Malaska. I have extreme confidence in those 4 guys - so much so that when any of them gives up even a baserunner I get puzzled. If they stay healthy, the Sox will resemble the Rivera/Wetteland era Yankees in their ability to end games by the 7th inning. The offense also showed up, at least in the first 4 innings (hear me now and believe me later, B.J. Ryan will be the Orioles' closer before year-end, and be really good). Billy Mueller hit his first tater of the year, Manny and Ortiz seem locked in, and Mark Bellhorn got two more walks (that's 12 in 8 games. Zoinks.). 7 runs with Pedro on the hill should be enough to win. Every time. The offense gets a pass even though they went scoreless in the final 7 frames.

Tonight brings the first of 19 world-changing, era-defining, cripple-healing, rotation-of-the-earth-stopping contests against the (gasp!) New York Yankees. Or, if you prefer, the Sox play the Yankees in the first of 19 regular season games between the two rivals. The national and Boston media would have you believe the first of those two sentences. I sure as hell hope the players are focused on the second. As I wrote to Whit and loyal blog reader T.J. Doyle:

"the games certainly "matter", in the sense that all 162 count equally in the standings, but when a 5-4 team squares off with a 4-4 team with 150 some-odd games left to play, unless one team sweeps the other, steals their wives, and leaves their opponents' body parts strewn about Fenway Park like so many shards of Aaron Boone's ACL, then this series can't possibly have the historic implications so many in the media wish it to have. Frankly, I'm a hell of a lot more worried about why Pedro Martinez can't hold the O's to fewer than 7 runs than I am about the results of this series."

Which pretty well encapsulates my view on the matter. Two of four in this series, especially with the pitching matchups tilted in the Yankees' favor would be plenty fine with me. Worse than that will piss me off, but won't be the end of the world, regardless of what Dan Shaughnessy writes. Nomar, Trot, and the heretofore unremarked-upon B.H. Kim are just around the corner 'til the light of day.

Thursday, April 15, 2004

Is it Still Baseball Season?

I ask because the Sox haven't played since Sunday, and I'm pretty sure it's not the all-star break. In the interim, there's been lots of sturm and drang about how the Sox are going to fiddle with their rotation to deal with the rainouts and to prepare for the Yankee series that begins tomorrow. I hope the Sox players are less focused on the Yankee series than the Nation is, or else - as Sidney Ponson correctly notes - the Orioles are going to treat the Sox tonight like the FCC treats dissenting, creative or original voices; by crushing them mercilessly.

In search of ideas and issues with which to distract myself from this numbing, baseball-free landscape of rain and boredom, I note with interest Whit's review of the Hank Greenberg documentary. Not because I want to see it (I do), but because it reminds me once again of a tremendous connection that I continue to neglect. My wife has a good friend from college named Mitch Scherr, who is a Senior Producer with Major League Baseball Productions. An emmy-winning producer, at that, scoring a statue for his work on Cal Ripken's final season with the Orioles. I've met Mitch several times, broken bread with him, shared a bit of the grape with him, even talked baseball with him. He's a terrific guy - laid back, into baseball, sarcastically funny, and he's got one of the great jobs that a normal, sports-loving guy can have. He travels all over the country going to baseball games, talking to ballplayers, filming interviews, hanging out with big league managers and execs. He's given us several MLB DVDs that he's produced, all great work. And I sit here asking myself, why the hell haven't I leveraged this connection more? He lives in Brooklyn, so why haven't we hit him up for Yanks or Mets tix and made a weekend of it? Why haven't we called him to see when he's coming into town to get freebies to O's games? In short, what the hell is wrong with me, or, more accurately, with my wife?

The things you ponder when the rain takes away your fun.
Game 8 - Mets
Be Careful What You Wish For

Braves 6, Mets 1
Record: 4-4

It didn't look like they'd play, so I said. It didn't look like they should be playing. And it certainly didn't look like the Mets wanted to be playing. It rained for three days straight. It rained and rained and rained some more. It rained like a slow divorce, as they sang years ago. So what exactly were they doing playing baseball out there? I had hoped they might get this game in; soon thereafter I was cursing myself.

Ace John Thomson held the Mets' bats in check for eight innings. In truth, Thomson's a pretty good pitcher. Though he's been in the league for seven years and his next winning record (or ERA under 4.00) for a season will be his first, he's pitched for Colorado and Texas, two places where pitchers are humbled on a nightly basis. He also threw for the Mets a couple of years ago, a nondescript, mediocre pitcher on a nondescript, mediocre team. So he's paid more dues than the idiots in the union here in my Bureau.

On the flip side, rookie Tyler Yates stumbled after a great first outing. Not that he had anything resembling run support, anyway. Bad weather, bad idea to play (nice call, Mets), bad game. Shake it off. It's a beautiful day today, and Big Al is on the hill tonight against Horacio Ramirez and the Tomahawk Chumps once again.

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Off-Day, Rain Day, What's the Difference?

The Mets had the day off yesterday. Baseball's schedulers must have read the Farmer's Almanac, because it would have been rained out, anyway. Fine work. Unfortunately, this crummy weather is still hovering over much of the East Coast, and there might not be any baseball at Shea tonight, either.

What with the only two teams that matter (sloppily borrowing from The Clash in no more worthy a fashion than Vanilla Ice's borrowing from Queen & Bowie) being out of action this night, I decided to take a break from the vacuum that is Major League Baseball and turn my television viewing 180 degrees away, to something miles removed from bats, balls, spikes, caps, stirrups, sani's, jocks, and uni's: a documentary. On Hank Greenberg. (I told you it was a vacuum.)

The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg was on PBS last night, and since there wasn't much on (Angels v. Mariners and Cards v. Astros failed to draw me), I figured I'd watch a little, having read glowing reviews upon its release four years ago. Two hours later, I was thoroughly impressed with this film. I had little prior knowledge of Hall of Fame baseball player Hank Greenberg, what he meant to Tiger-town, how much of a strapping, bad-ass stud he was, what he endured as a Jewish player, that he spent 4.5 years in the Army in WWII during the prime of his career, or that he made the first serious run at the Babe's single season mark. He was definitely a player worthy of a documentary after all.

The modern era has witnessed a huge outpouring of salutes to Jackie Robinson for what he accomplished in the face of such hatred but has largely forgotten Greenberg's similar -- though he admits it's a far cry from Robinson's plight -- endurance. That Jackie looked up to (the original) Hammerin' Hank Greenberg as a role model says plenty. His numbers still hold up: he's 7th all-time in OPS, Rob Neyer. His 162-game average for RBI's is 148, second only to Lou Gehrig's 149. Were it not for those four years in the service and a broken wrist killing the '36 season (in between 170 and 183-RBI years), his lifetime stats might jump out at you more. Instead, he's not a household name to my generation; he certainly was a household name in the 30's, and much, much more than that for Jewish Americans of that era.

PBS often airs such pieces a few times over a few weeks, so look for it, and watch it. If you have any passion for baseball whatsoever, you'll enjoy it.

Interesting tidbit: As the final credits rolled, I noticed (right after seeing thanks to the Robert Russell Memorial!) the filmmaker dedicates the program to the return of Major League Baseball to Washington, DC, and to securing full congressional voting rights for the people of the nation's capital. In that order! Baseball first, then the opportunity to cast a valid ballot for the next President of the United States! Doesn't anyone get how important this is?

Meanwhile, back to real-time baseball: Barry Bonds topped Willie Mays' career mark with his 661st home run last night. ESPN is trying like hell to overhype this thing, but isn't this unfortunate timing considering the indictment of Bonds' trainer for steroid distribution two months ago? Bud Selig has made sure the issue remains completely up in the air so that nobody can even think about Bonds and HRs without having at least a fleeting thought of steroids as well. Has anyone considered what Selig's miserable legacy will be years from now? (Strike/no World Series/All-Star tie/steroids/Expos) Can you impeach a commissioner?

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Two Days, No Baseball

Strong rains the the northeast have postponed tonight's Sox game. The good news: the already-beleaugered bullpen gets another day of rest. The bad news, no baseball for a second straight miserable, cold, rainy day. Feh.

Monday, April 12, 2004

Game 7 - Mets
Jets 10, Falcons 6

Mets 10, Braves 6
Record: 4-3

This is getting preposterous. These two teams -- neither expected to maintain a high-powered offense in 2004 -- have now plated 71 runs in four games. That's almost 18 scores a game. It's 36-35, Braves at this juncture. That it's the Braves and especially the Mets doing this is odd. That this 10-6 ballgame came on a cold, wet day at Shea with each team's #2 starter on the mound (my man Steve Trachsel vs. Rob's buddy Mike Hampton) is bizarre. That it happened with Mike Piazza, Cliff Floyd, and Jose Reyes on the shelf for the Mets and Chipper Jones and Rafael Furcal absent for the Braves is just silly.

I was following along at work -- today featured a rare but skillful juggling of cranking out work, checking the game at regular intervals, and writing the column for last night's game -- and "witnessed" (via constant refreshes of online game updates) the Mets jump out to a quick 6-0 lead in three innings. D.C. was drenched with rain all day, so I quickly checked the weather at Shea (also online, what a multitasking nerd I am). The beginnings of a rainstorm without end had reached Flushing Meadows, in not so many words. As the Mets began adding to the lead in the bottom of the 4th, we reached that familiar, angst-filled moment. It's the one where we're kind of wishing they'd hurry up and get back out in the field to complete the 5th before rain halts play (and subsequently erases an otherwise splendid outing), but we're also pretty damn sure we're going to need each and every one of these runs, so let's not squander any opportunities. I'm reasonably certain at this point that the outcome will either be (a) a rainout called in the top of the 5th with the Mets up, 10-0, or (b) playing the full nine and the Mets blowing the lead they didn't make big enough. Pessimism, but anyone questioning its place in Mets fandom is a stranger to these parts.

The lead is a whopping 10-0 as the game becomes official. Hampton served up more hits than Casey Kasem (again) and his ERA now looks like my dry-cleaning bill. Damn shame. Ah, well, he did say he didn't like playing in New York. I have some distaste for those "we chewed you up and spit you out" New Yorkers who love to rail on guys who didn't find solace in NYC (read: Yankee apes), but there was just something about the way Hampton abandoned the team when they most needed him -- for the money, money, and more money the Rockies were offering -- that left me very, very cold on him. And he's probably just a nice fellow with a dorky nickname (the "little bulldog"), but I'm relishing his lack of success since. He went belly-up in Denver, landed on his feet in Atlanta after some sketchy dealings with the Marlins, and gave the Braves less of a marquee season than . . . Jason Marquis. His two outings this year, both against the Mets, have been horrendous. This, my friends, is karma, the kind of karma you talk about when you have no idea what Buddha was really all about.

Steve Trachsel allowed just one run on four hits and a pair of walks to even his record at 1-1. A promising return after a hideous season debut (that his ERA is still perched at 9.00 despite his good numbers today tells that story). Thanks to the ever exciting "Remember the Armando" Bullpen, however, it looked for a spell like the 10 runs wouldn't be enough. Grant Roberts entered in the eighth and did his best Mike Hampton impression, giving up four quick ones on two homers. When "Minimalist" Art Howe left him in -- just like he did much of last year with struggling relievers, only to see them implode -- the tone of this posting was becoming like milk pushing the Sell By date. That decision paid off, though, as Roberts eked out a backwards K and preserved a 10-5 lead. After a 1-2-3 Mets 8th (natch), Dan Wheeler came on to finish it off, but ended up looking like [enter nameless, faceless teen here] trying to finish off Freddy Krueger/Jason/Michael Myers. Once the save opportunity arose, though, fireman Braden Looper stepped in and put out the fire with two pitches, inducing an Andruw Jones GIDP with a look of "Come on guys, it's so simple -- maybe you need a refresher course. Haaaaaeeey." Presumably the 9th inning run was just to ensure another football-looking score. Nice.

And finally, since I made a reference to our old chum Armando Benitez, I should give him his due. He's a Florida Marlin now, and in their six games so far this season, he already has five (5!) saves. He hasn't walked a batter, and after giving up a homer Opening Night (old habits die hard), he has allowed just a pair of hits and no runs. If he's turned everything around, good for him. But I noticed something the other night: in every interview where Jack McKeon or other Marlins are lauding Benitez's comeback, faintly in the distance but definitely noticeable, you can hear something. Listen for it next time. Tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick . . .
Games 4 through 6 - Mets
Will the Real Mets Pitching Staff Please Stand Up?

Mets 3, Expos 2 (11)
Expos 1, Mets 0
Mets 4, Expos 1
Record: 3-3

In three games against the Braves, the Mets were outscored by a count of 30-25. In three versus the Montreal Expos, they outscored Montreal 7-4. I haven't seen such erratic, bipolar behavior since a couple of my girlfriends in college. Youngster Tyler Yates looked better than sharp in his debut, Al Leiter threw five shutout frames to shake off that noggin knocker, and Tommy Glavine built on his Opening Night performance to go seven without an unearned run crossing. The pen had a couple of missteps (Mike Stanton on Friday, Jae Seo on Saturday to cost them the game) but held strong the majority of the time. Right about when Patrick was nearing the panic button a la Red Sox Nation, the Mets demonstrated that just when you have them pegged, they'll go out and make you look a fool. Repeat after me: The only thing I know for sure is that I know nothing at all . . .

So San Juan wasn't the disaster it was last spring (dropping four straight to incite me to multiple, tired uses of the word "crappy" in my recaps). It did wreak a little havoc on the Mets' health, though. Mike Piazza looked a little green at 1B when he got mowed over by Peter Bergeron on a bunt play gone all wrong, and he's probably still a little banged up -- as well as shell-shocked. Oh, well, it couldn't have been as bad as a crash at the plate. Worse news came from Cliff Floyd, who strained his quad as he was streaking (we're going streaking in the quad!) down the first-base line. Floyd, who homered Friday night, went on the DL today. His replacement, Eric Valent, hit a key home run yesterday, his first in the bigs. Cliff Floyd is a trooper who toughed it out for most of the season last year before succumbing to a slew of injuries. His last few games of 2003 had him limping to the outfield like the fife player in that "Spirit of '76" painting. He's definitely down in the dumps after getting nicked so early in this campaign, but here's hoping his return to active duty is a speedy one.

Speaking of San Juan, the key players in a group still bent on bringing the Expos to Washington, DC (including the current mayor, Anthony Williams) offered up a deal which MLB cannot reasonably ignore. A 100% publicly-funded stadium proposal beats any other offers on the table, and takes one more excuse away from Bud Selig & Co. You'd think eventually they would have to concede that they are afraid of Peter Angelos. (And why wouldn't they be afraid? I saw three former asbestos execs panhandling outside Camden Yards last week.) But in the mixed-up, muddled-up alternate universe that is the Office of Major League Baseball, nothing makes any sense. Up is down, wrong is right, shady is acceptable, and what makes dollars for a few always beats what makes sense for everyone else. Supertramp really did a number on Bud Selig, as he still believes "logical" is a bad thing.

Home Opener for the Mets today, weather permitting. The opponent is the Braves: more T-ball scores in store?
Games 6 and 7 - Red Sox
Petey and Schill, Chicken Soup for the Sox Fan's Soul

Red Sox 4, Blue Jays 1
Red Sox 6, Blue Jays 4 (12)
Record: 4-3

Sometime in the middle of the 2nd inning of Saturday night's game, as I watched Josh Phelps smoke a hanging changeup to right-center off of Pedro Martinez, I began toying with the idea that, maybe, just maybe, Pedro was human, and that I should revise my expectations for him downward. Y'know, mediocre start on opening day against the O's following an even worse spring, combined with the inevitable ravages of age and time on an already fragile and wispy physique. Hell, I'd almost convinced myself that it was time to eulogize this once-fierce warrior. The lesson, as always, is that I'm an idiot.

Though he wasn't the electric Pedro of 1999-2000, Martinez still outdueled reigning Cy Young Roy Halladay, going 7 2/3 innings and giving up 4 hits and 1 run while fanning 7 and walking 2. He struck out Frank Catalanotto on a curveball so pure that the Jays' leftfielder just stared forlornly straight ahead, never looking at either the umpire or Pedro as he trudged back to the bench, bewildered. One game does not a season make, but one game definitely reminds this fan that Pedro Martinez is the best pitcher I've ever seen - and he wasn't even really that dominant, at least by Pedro standards. I suppose it's easy to get spoiled in the presence of true greatness.

Then, on Sunday, Curt Schilling took the hill in his home debut and dominated the Jays. Okay, half of that sentence is accurate. But even though the league's best No. 2 starter wasn't razor-sharp, he still battled for 8 innings, 10 strikeouts and 116 pitches, and got off the hook when Mark Bellhorn singled in the game-tying run in the bottom of the 9th. David Ortiz, coming up fast on the outside in the race to be my favorite Sox player, smashed a two-run tater in the bottom of the 12th to send the home fans happy.

"This will get us going," said first baseman Kevin Millar. "This team gets scary if we start doing stuff like this. This is the kind of win that we had last year. That shows the character of this team. This team is going to do a lot of winning." I love Kevin Millar, even when I hate his batting stroke.

(Random stat geek aside: Bellhorn appears to be another winning move by Theo Epstein, Boy Genius. Though he's only batting .174, he's walked 10 times in 33 plate appearances to generate a .424 on-base percentage. He's gonna hit, and if he keeps getting on base at this rate, he'll be this year's Bill Mueller - out of nowhere professional hitter. Just so I've warned you, this is the same guy who hit 27 homers for the Cubs just two years ago.)

Ten minutes after Ortiz' bomb, Phil Mickelson curled in a 20-foot putt to conclude the most remarkable Masters I've ever seen. Philly Mick, big-talented, hard-luck loser ends his majorless streak on the same day the big-talented, hard-luck Boston Red Sox pick up where they left off at the end of 2003, winning a game they shouldn't have? Omen? Hmmm? I'm just saying.

Saturday, April 10, 2004

Game 5 - Red Sox
No Sleep 'Til...Brookline

Toronto Blue Jays 10, Red Sox 5
Record: 2-3

The Sox played 13 on Thursday against the O's, then sat at the airport for 4 1/2 hours while their plane was being repaired (I have a mental picture of Tom Berenger and Wesley Snipes sitting on the tarmac in Major League), and didn't get home to Boston until 7:30 in the morning. Then, they went out and played like they were exhausted against the Jays, with the gassed bullpen (will the 2003 version of Mike Timlin please pick up a white courtesy phone, you're needed at Fenway Park) giving up 6 runs in the 8th and 9th to drop this one to the Jays. Dave McCarty, a backup firstbaseman and outfielder actually closed out the game for the Sox, a combination of a big deficit and an overtired relief corps leaving new manager Terry Francona no other option.

I might be tempted to head toward the ledge, but bad luck and bad timing are the real culprits in the Sox' early-season sluggishness. Yes, they're not playing well, but they're also undermanned and on the wrong end of some weird shit. Seriously, a plane breaking down following a 13-inning game followed by a 3:05 start? What the fuck is that? So, long story short: no worries, get through this month without completely imploding, trust in Pedro, Curt, Lowe, and Wake, and remember that the pennant's rarely won in April.

Thank God it's a long season.

Friday, April 09, 2004

Are we completely sure that Patrick's not a Red Sox fan, or, even more likely, a member of the Boston media?
Game 3 - Mets
Amelia Earhart, Jimmy Hoffa, Pitching & Defense

Braves 10, Mets 8
Record: 1-2

Those of you who've been with us since the beginning of last year are probably familiar with an annoying trait of mine: I will invariably bring up every accurate prediction I've ever made. To wit, this will be the second time in the embryonic stage of this season that I've done it. But man, when I'm right, I'm right!

Monday, April 5: (a) "Scott Erickson, who was last seen pulling into his reserved parking spot at the Johns Hopkins hospital." (b) "Erickson (now shopping for real estate on the DL)"

Last night during warm-ups before his first game as a Met, Scott Erickson strained a hamstring and severely hamstrung the Mets' chances of taking this series. If I cease to make negative (albeit obvious) prognostications, will they stop coming true?

Art Howe looked like the man who brought a knife to a gunfight as he penciled Dan Wheeler in as a spot starter. If his name sounds familiar, it's because he's mentioned several inches south on your screen, pitching an inning and a third in the game the night before. Oh, this should go well, everyone in Metville collectively sniped.

Wheeler wasn't terrible, especially considering the circumstances, and he made it through the first three frames unscathed. Ty Wigginton, much more fearsome in this year's 7- or 8-spots than he was in the 5-spot last year, hit a two-run dinger off John Thomson to give the Mets a surprising lead. The Braves got to Wheeler for a pair in the 4th, tying it, but the Mets got two more the next inning. After a leadoff double, Art Howe pulled Wheeler and brought in David Weathers to stop the bleeding. Weathers proceeded to do his best Edward Scissorhands, though, and three runs scored.

Weathers was a steady workhorse middle reliever/set-up man last year, especially in the early going, but he just didn't get the job done here. Still, the Mets scratched across another in the 6th and it was knotted again. It has been nice to see some tenacity in coming back again and again during this initial series. And then John Franco entered and assured us that there would be no more comebacks.

I had a lot of trouble justifying the negative comments I wrote about Franco last year, and it's still painful to have to write such things, but it's no less necessary. This is a great pitcher who did great things for this club for a great number of years. This is also a team who can't afford to have close games rest in the hand of a guy, were it not for his great history, would be out of a job in this league. That may be overly critical, since there were more guys to point blame at in this game than I have fingers, but the index finger is aimed squarely at Generalissimo Franco.

Franco faced nine batters and retired two, which isn't terribly efficient. In truth, he made a few great pitches along the way that reminded us of how he used to con, swindle, and trick batters into pop-ups or bad swinging K's. But one or two good pitches to each batter will not get the job done. He ended up walking a run home on a ball that bounced before it reached the plate. Franco's fastball hasn't been one at which to marvel in a long time, but his speeds are so low these days that he needs top-shelf control to have any shot. The three walks he surrendered illustrate how poor that control was. When he loaded the bases down 6-5, I angrily made a bet with my television (aloud, to my house guests' bewilderment) that if he walked Julio (the better-aging) Franco home, I would guarantee the Braves would score 10 runs, presumably on a subsequent grand slam. After the walk, there was not the slam I had envisioned ruining things, but the Braves did end up tallying 10. The TV and I agreed to disagree and called it a push.

The previously heralded good D was abandoned after Game 2. The Mets had three errors and a passed ball in the loss. None of the runs were unearned, but there were several defensive miscues in the midst of what became big innings for Atlanta. As the pitching and defense vanished, it became clear this game would not be won, and that we might be in for the long season we thought we'd ducked after Game 1. And I'm not the only fan grimacing after these consecutive pathetic displays. My brother-in-law Patrick, quoted more than once (in a tone either hostile or doomed) last year, called and left me a message early this morning. It contained the following snippets:

"need to vent . . . are you kidding me . . . give up 30 runs in 3 games . . . long, LONG year . . . was so excited after Game 1 . . .watched all three games . . . already think I've had enough . . . need to vent"

I think Patrick needs to move down here to DC where we can only catch the Mets on TBS when they play the Braves or WGN when they play the Cubs. This season might cause him bodily harm. For me, though, I need another week or two before I can get a good bead on the season just yet. I'm just happy they're hitting the ball. So what if this resembles men's softball? I like softball.
Game 2 - Mets
Well, That Didn't Take Long

Braves 18, Mets 10
Record: 1-1

The dream season for the Mets lasted exactly 12.5 innings. While the Detroit Tigers, last reported here sporting lineup cards featuring Tanner-Leak-Engelberg-Whurlitzer, are 4-0 en route to another 100-loss season, so their rem sleep is lasting far beyond the Mets' camp. Instead, we were gently roused from a 6-0 lead in the 3rd inning of Game 2 when Chipper Jones hit a tater to make it 3-0. An inning later, we were unceremoniously dumped from the bed into a vat of ice water when the Braves plated 11 runs off Steve Trachsel, Grant Roberts, and Dan Wheeler. Eleven runs. Wow.

And so, just 25 hours into the new season, we have our first embarrassment of the Mets season, the first time an opponent blue-pencils their team record book at our expense. This is more familiar territory for us fans, and it reeks vaguely of home. That the Mets gave up 18 runs is a punch in the nether regions, but in stark contrast to many of the 2003 football-score-deficits, there were a number of bright spots:

1. Scoring 10 runs on 15 hits against Atlanta is new ground, and even in wretched defeat good news. Seeing former Met and Rob Russell fave (a little too much so) Mike Hampton take a shellacking is never a bad thing.

2. Mike Piazza is tearing the cover off it these days. '03 was a lost season in many ways for Piazza. This season he is starting strong. Plus, after clearing the fences three times in two games, he's just one HR shy of the by-now dreaded catcher record, and it'd sure be nice to be rid of that chatter when discussing his inevitable move to first base. [He played a few innings at first during garbage time on this night.]

3. After two games, it's Braves 4, Mets 0 . . . in errors! By this time last year, Cedeno, Burnitz, Vaughn, and the rest of Team Hands Like Feet had more fumbles and punts than the Jets and Giants combined.

Two games is two games, to be certain, but let's go the silver lining route rather than the doom and gloom of, say, The Boston Globe.

Keep your heads up, lads, there is reason to believe. Or at least there isn't overwhelming reason to disbelieve.
Game 4 - Red Sox
Mama Told Me There'd Be Days Like This (Especially without Nomar and Trot)

Orioles 3, Red Sox 2 (13)
Record: 2-2

I've got a hunch that Sox fans will be nervously sitting through more than our fair share of games like last night's for the first 4 or 5 weeks of the regular season. Very respectable pitching (not withstanding 13 walks) was undermined by anemic offense, and the O's won the war of attrition against the Sox bullpen, winning the game in the bottom of the 13th when Boston's Bobby Jones walked 4 men, including Larry Bigbie with the bases loaded. (Random historical aside: I would have thought that having Bobby Jones on the hill on the first day of the Masters would be a good omen.)

What a difference a year makes (with an assist from injuries). Here's the simple truth: Without Nomar Garciaparra and Trot Nixon in the lineup, the Sox' offense is only slightly better than ordinary. The 6-9 slots in last night's lineup were filled by David McCarty, Mark Bellhorn, Doug Mirabelli, and Pokey Reese. All decent ballplayers, but 3 of the 4 noted much more for their defense and versatility than for their bats. For the series, the 7-9 spots in the order were a robust 6 for 42. Last year, on any given night, 6-9 read Kevin Millar, Trot Nixon, Bill Mueller, and Jason Varitek, in some order. All four of those guys drove in more than 85 runs, and Mueller won the batting title. So rehab well, Nomie and Trot, we're all gnawing on our fingernails and hoping the pitching staff continues to shine.

The real bright spot here is that the aforementioned pitching staff looks like it will keep the Sox in nearly every game. Tim Wakefield wasn't brilliant last night, but he scrapped and gutted his way through 5 2/3 innings. Alan Embree was filthy for an inning, striking out three of the four O's he faced. Mike Timlin walked another guy, but got out of it with a nasty K of Rafael Palmeiro. Scott Williamson looked dominant, and Keith Foulke, while a little shaky, buckled down to get out of a runner on third, no-out jam in the 10th. The Sox are sporting a 2.49 team ERA through 4 games, a number that will cover a lot of offensive shortcomings.

For what it's worth, I love Tim Wakefield - if he's not my favorite Sox player, he's at least in the conversation - and respect the hell out of his team-first attitude and competitive nature. It's just that watching him pitch drives me batshit. Even when he's lights-out, it seems like he's one batter away from completely losing command of his knuckler and running off a streak 12 straight balls. Happened last night in the 4th inning, after Wake had battled through three innings of off-and-on control issues. He walked three in the 4th and paid for it when David Segui ripped a liner back through the box to score the O's first two runs. And then, just like that, he was back in control, getting out of the inning without further ado.

Home opener this afternoon in Fenway. Wonder if my boss is expecting me to get anything done after 3:05.

Thursday, April 08, 2004

Game 3 - Red Sox
The Kindness of Strangers

Red Sox 10, Orioles 3
Record: 2-1

The good news for Oriole fans is that Melvin Mora didn't kick any more groundballs last night. The bad news is that he still isn't a very instinctive thirdbaseman, and that fact opened the floodgates for the Red Sox in the 2nd inning of last night's game. The game was scoreless with two out and runners on 1st and 2nd when Pokey Reese chopped a harmless-looking grounder to deep short. Miguel Tejada played the ball cleanly and looked to flip it to Mora for the force at third. Mora was late covering the bag (probably assuming that Tejada would make the easy throw to first), and Tejada's hurried, double-clutched throw to first was too late to get the speedy Reese. Johnny Damon followed Reese by singling to left to plate two runs, and Bill Mueller ripped a single to center to score two more, and the train was rolling. The good guys tallied 7 in the inning and coasted the rest of the way.

To be sure, many of the O's were in a giving mood last night, even after Mora's thoughtful present. The Sox probably should have been held to 1 run, as Larry Bigbie had Mark Bellhorn dead to rights at home on Damon's single. Bigbie's throw short-hopped catcher Javy Lopez, allowing Bellhorn to sneak in safely, and causing third base coach Dale Sveum to breathe a huge sigh of relief. Then, with the score 4-0 and two more men on base, O's centerfielder Luis Matos lost Manny Ramirez' towering, but easily catchable fly in the lights, giving Manny a double and allowing two more runs to score.

Derek Lowe cruised for the Sox, allowing 2 runs in 6 innings. That makes 5 earned runs in 18 innings for Red Sox starting pitching - a tidy 2.50 ERA. Johnny Damon awoke from his cave-slumber to go 5 for 5, and Kevin Millar recovered from his collision with Damon to rope three hits. If game 1 was one of the 35 chalk-'em-up losses, this game was one of the 35 auto-wins.

This Oriole team is going to be fun to watch this season, especially on offense. They don't really have an easy out in their starting lineup, with Mora, Tejada, Lopez, and Rafael Palmeiro all quality sticks, and Jay Gibbons, Matos and Bigbie getting better and better with experience. Their starting pitching is really young, with only 10 career wins in the 2-5 slots after Sidney Ponson in the rotation, which will make for some trying moments for skipper Lee Mazzilli. Quick prediction after watching Mazzilli's early-season body language: he's gonna unleash some serious nutties as the season wears on, either at his youthful team or at the umpires. He seems to be wound really, really tight, which doesn't bode well for a guy with a fragile ballclub.

Still don't know a ton about the Sox, except that they seem to have picked up where they left off from last year in terms of looseness and unity. As an example, despite the best efforts of baseball's worst media corps, none of the Sox players seem to give a damn about Pedro's leaving the ballpark after being lifted from Sunday's start. Leading scumbag Dan Shaughnessy penned a poisonous screed about the diva pitcher's antics, failing to recall - or perhaps not caring - that he praised Roger Clemens' competitiveness and combativeness 6 years ago when the former Sox hurler did exactly the same thing as Pedro. Let's all sing along now, "The Pedro's black, the Rocket is white, together we learn that Danny's uptight". And by uptight, I mean borderline racist. This is the same guy who called David Ortiz a "sack of crap" in print last season, and has targeted Mo Vaughn, Carl Everett, and Pedro for his vitriol in seasons past. To paraphase liberally from Seinfeld's Babu, "He's a very bad man".

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Game 1 - Mets
Kaz-ynski Singlehandledy Bombs the Braves

Mets 7, Braves 2
Record: 1-0!

Kaz-aam! Rock the Kaz-bah! The Kaz-by Show! Or, more appropriate for the geographic region in which he starred, Mat-soooooey!

Okay, so for my '04 opener, I opted for something New York Post-ish instead of a "In the Beginning," We the People," or "Call me Ishmael." (The Post ran "Kaz to Celebrate.") We are covering the punkish Mets here, not the reverent Yankees. Sue me.

As my moronic tirade of Post-Its alluded to, Kaz Matsui was huge in his MLB debut, smashing the first pitch of the Mets season over the centerfield wall in Turner Field, then doubling twice and walking twice. His performance and that of the entire club this Opening Night are an incredibly positive tone-setter for the year; the only thing negative about the night is the negative image of Opening Day 2003 reflected here. Beating the Braves in Atlanta has been an elusive feat for years; doing so with Glavine on the hill (in impressive fashion), with strong performances from an ensemble of players kept me smiling throughout the last three innings.

That I only caught the last three innings was the result of a great day at the ballyard, as noted by my counterpart in a more timely manner. The weather was April-perfect, the seats were top-notch (this is a direct slag on O's fans; I bought 5th row, $27 tickets last week), and the baseball was . . . well, it was baseball, which was all it needed to be. The bits I'll add to the Millar homer episode:

1. Rob failed to mention that he was chiding me mercilessly for failing to haul in the ball until the petite young lady (that he mentioned) on the other side of me, presumably obscured from his vision by the curves of my fatbody, popped her head around and expressed gratitude for my hesitation. I don't know what was more disappointing at the time, the missed glory of a home run catch or that he actually couldn't see a woman who'd been sitting next to me for twenty minutes.

2. After the ball landed out of reach, I had a moment of Ugly Americana. I realized that we were definitely on TV and instinctively threw my long arms into the air in celebration, forgetting for the moment that I'd decided to root for the hometown Orioles. Oops. Repeated SportsCenter viewings allowed me to pick myself out of the highlight, then laugh at my own idiocy for piling on with the hordes of Sox fans just for the millisecond self-location.

3. The poor sap who was in the can when the ball landed in his vacated seat came back, got the bad news, and began drinking beer at a rate which accelerated his penchant for inane anti-Sox comments far more than it activated his bad comedy checkpoint. After serving as arbitrator when Mr. Russell began pointing out the error of his unfunny ways, I last spotted the chap lunging over a couple of rows of empty seats at game's end to instigate a mini-brawl with some equally sauced, equally unenlightened Soxers. Good day at the Yards for us - for him . . . not so much.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand. The New York Metropolitans start out with a convincing win over the poor Braves. (No need to add epithetical descriptors to "Braves" when we've just beaten them like this.) And after exactly nine innings of work, we are rolling! Isn't it way too early to think big? Of course! But does that matter right now? Hell, no!

The plummet down to earth could begin tonight at 7:30, but for now . . . life is good. There is little to no insight offered here today. Sorry about that; as discussed among many other philosphical discussions at the game yesterday, I am at my creative best when the Mets are dead-in-the-water losers with problems galore. Looks like it'll take at least one more game before I am back in my milieu.
Game 2 - Red Sox
From the Uninspired to the Sublime

Red Sox 4, Orioles 1
Record: 1-1

Days like yesterday are the inspiration for the legions of baseball poets who rhapsodize endlessly about baseball's perfect rhythms. Whit and I spent a long, leisurely beer- and sun-soaked afternoon in Charm City, carrying on a rambling conversation about everything from families to memories to the nature of Red Sox Nation. In the midst of our afternoon, a baseball game was played - and we were almost participants.

We sat four rows back from the leftfield fence at Camden Yards, close enough to see individual blades of grass in the outfield. Curt Schilling calmed Sox fans from Bangor to points south by dominating the Oriole bats, scattering 6 hits and allowing 1 run in 6 innings. He'll be expected to go longer into games as the season progresses, but his first outing in Sox togs was plenty good following Opening Day's mediocre effort. Alan Embree, Mike Timlin, and Keith Foulke were nearly flawless in the 7th, 8th, and 9th, respectively, with Foulke shaking off a messy Spring Training to close out a tidy, tight 4-1 win.

The Sox were helped by Oriole starter Eric Dubose's wildness (he walked 6 and unleashed a Nuke LaLooshian wild pitch to plate a run in the 2nd inning) and Birds' third-baseman Melvin Mora's inability to make easy plays to his left (Mora's second error of the game allowed Boston's final run to score). Of note for the Sox, beyond Schilling's performance and that of the bullpen, were Pokey Reese's defensive stylings (he's smooth like my baby daughter's butt - when Nomar gets back he and Pokey will form a sensational middle infield pair) and Kevin Millar's insistence on clanging his nugget off of Johnny Damon's jaw on a routine popup to center. Damon's gotta feel at least a little gunshy at this point, having collided with fellow Sox twice in the last 7 or 8 real games he's played. I feel certain that his newly hirsute personal style is prompted at least in part by a subconscious desire to have a little extra padding on his head.

In addition to his comical outfield effort, Millar did provide Whit and I with our own personal highlight. His 4th inning blast off of Dubose started right at us when it left the bat, prompting me to exclaim, "That's ours", and our entire section to stand in anticipation. The ball struck an empty chair three seats from us and clattered around for a moment before a woman reached down to snag it. Whit chose chivalry over glory, declining to trample the young lady next to us to get the souvenir. Personally, I think the trampling might have made a better story.

On the car ride back, Whit harangued me at length about the bandwagon nature of Red Sox Nation (the crowd at Oriole Park was at least one-third Boston rooters) and contended that a Sox world championship would permanently (and negatively) alter the nature of the relationship between the Sox and their fans. He argued that Sox fans (and to some extent, non-Yankee baseball fans at large) relish their hard-won identity as noble, long-suffering competitors, fighting the good fight year after year but falling just short. A championship, in Whit's mind, turns the Sox into just another big market bully beating up on the little guys.

A lot to think about, to be sure, but I think my grandfathers or my father or millions of others in their generations would laugh Whitney out of the room if he made the same argument to them. The first Sox championship will be such a cathartic moment for so many people, that I don't think it's possible to accurately weigh the longer-term implications. I disagree with Whit, at least in the sense that one singular title will really exorcise decades (nearly a century) of soul-crushing near-misses, but, frankly, I'd love to find out one way or another. We're not done with this topic by a mile.