Francisco Liriano is Dealing

He burst onto the scene in 2006 as a member of the Minnesota Twins.  In 121 innings, he struck out 144 batters and sported a 12-3 record with a fantastic 2.16 ERA.  And then, just like that, Francisco Liriano‘s career seemed to take a long drive off a short cliff.   He missed the last seven weeks of the regular season, the divisional playoffs  and all of 2007 because of Tommy John surgery.  He did win 14 games in 2010, earning Comeback Player of the Year honors but at the end of each of the following two seasons, his ERA was over 5.00.   The Pittsburgh Pirates decided to give him a one year guaranteed contract worth $1 million dollars with a club option for 2014 at $8 million dollars.

Francisco Liriano's 14 wins is tied for first in the National League.  Image:  si.com

Francisco Liriano’s 14 wins is tied for first in the National League. Image: si.com

Right now, he is the bargain of the year.

The 29-year old lefty is the rotation’s ace, with a National-League leading 14 wins and an ERA of 2.53, good enough for fifth in the Senior Circuit.   These are outstanding numbers for a guy who started the season on the disabled list and did not make his first appearance until May 11th.  He already has two complete games in 2013, doubling his career total; his only one prior to this season was his no-hitter that he threw on May 3rd, 2011 against the Chicago White Sox.  The Bucs were just coming off a seven loss in nine game stretch when Liriano took the mound last night in San Diego.  Once again, he was brilliant, throwing seven innings of shutout ball allowing only four hits and striking out 13 as the Pirates defeated the Padres 3-1.  The victory enabled Pittsburgh to keep their slim one game lead in the National League Central.  The Pirates are now 3-7 over the last ten games; two of the victories were in large part to Liriano, who could very well be the team’s Most Valuable Player.

At 73-51, the Pirates have the second best record in the National League with 19% of them coming from a player who had his original contract voided by the team in December because of an injury.  It’s hard to imagine a guy in the NL who deserves Comeback Player of the Year more than Nelson Liriano.

Matt Carpenter’s Great Season

The St. Louis Cardinals keep churning out talent.  The latest revelation is Matt Carpenter, a 28-year old second baseman who is playing in his second full Big League season.  Most of America, when hearing about St. Louis in the post-Tony LaRussa era, think about Yadier Molina or Adam Wainwright.  Yet the player who has been just as valuable as Yadi in 2013, is the lefty swinging Carpenter, a 13th round draft pick of the Cards in 2009.   Wainwright, Molina,  Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran grab the headlines but it is Carpenter who has played in 117 of the team’s 122 games who has been the steadying force for the Wild Card-leading Redbirds.

Matt Carpenter leads the NL in three offensive categories.  Image:  rotoanalysis.com

Matt Carpenter leads the NL in three offensive categories. Image: rotoanalysis.com

So how great has Carpenter been this season?  He ranks in the top ten in six National League offensive categories including first in the Senior Circuit in three of them:  91 runs scored, 149 hits and 41 doubles.  Carpenter is also sixth in batting average at .312, eighth in on-base percentage at .387 and ninth in triples with five.  He was selected to his first All Star Game after finishing sixth in the National League Rookie of the Year voting in 2012.  Matty leads the Cards in at-bats with 477 as St. Louis is only a game off the lead in the National League Central and are in prime position to secure their third consecutive playoff berth.

Matt Carpenter is just the latest in a long line of St. Louis Cardinal players who come through their system and continue the team’s winning tradition.  They are the best organization in the sport, consistently in postseason contention year after year.  Helped by their newest star in Carpenter, would you bet against the Cardinals winning their second World Series title in three seasons?

Follow me on Twitter @ltj41 and covering the Arizona Diamondbacks at http://venomstrikes.com

Thank You, Charlie Manuel

New York Met fans may not agree with me but today was a sad day with the news that Charlie Manuel was dismissed as the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies.   The Phils are heading for a second straight sub par season and rather than dumping several underachieving, expensive contracts, it was much easier to fire one skipper.  While I understand why the move was made (the team promoted Ryne Sandberg  to take Manuel’s place), the game will be a little less fun without good ol’ Charlie in the Philadelphia dugout.

Charlie Manuel was the best manager in Phillies' history.  Image:  phillysportscentral.com

Charlie Manuel was the best manager in Phillies’ history. Image: phillysportscentral.com

Let there be no mistake about it.  Charlie Manuel was the most successful manager in the history of the Phillies.  In almost nine seasons, his record in Philly was a glistening 780-636.  That’s only a quarter of the story.  He led Philadelphia to five straight division titles, a streak that is only rivaled by some great New York Yankees and Atlanta Braves teams.  The only time the Phillies made back-to-back World Series was when Manuel was at the helm.  The 2008 Championship team was only the second World title in the franchise’s 131 year history.

You can say that the organization, originally led by Hall of Fame GM Pat Gillick when Manuel first got there, was largely responsible for the success of the Phillies.  That is a good point but that is diminishing Charlie’s impact.  Let’s compare the two best runs in Phillies baseball.  The Phils from 1976 through 1983 won 5 1/2 (the half is the 1981 strike season) division titles, two pennants and the 1980 World Series.  However, three different managers (Danny Ozark, Dallas Green and Paul Owens led those teams.  Plus, they had legends Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton and later, Pete Rose on those squads.   Philly during Manuel’s tenure has some really good players but it is debatable at best if guys like Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Roy Halladay belong in the Hall.

At age 69, this was probably Charlie Manuel’s last managerial gig.  Even with his excellent 2 1/2 years with the Cleveland Indians, Manuel did not manage long enough to be considered for the Hall of Fame.  I hope he continues to stay in the game in some capacity as he truly is one of the game’s best and most entertaining people.

Follow me on Twitter @ltj41 and covering the Arizona Diamondbacks at http://venomstrikes.com

Jason Giambi’s Flair for the Dramatic

His name will be forever be tarnished by his admitted use of Performance Enhancing Drugs.  He is one of the very few New York Yankee stars not to own a World Series ring.  Yet Jason Giambi has carved out a little bit of a niche as the wise old clubhouse man who can still deliver the occasional big hit.  Today’s three run, eighth inning home run helping the Cleveland Indians get a crucial victory was the latest example of Giambi’s penchant for late innings heroics.

It would be nice to see Jason Giambi make the playoffs one last time.  Image:  Cleveland.com

It would be nice to see Jason Giambi make the playoffs one last time. Image: Cleveland.com

After not being re-signed by the Yankees following the 2008 season, Giambi found his way back to his first home, the Oakland A’s.  He was released by the A’s in August and signed shortly thereafter by the Colorado Rockies.  He helped the Rox with their incredible playoff push garnering many key late game hits as Colorado used an 18-9 September record to become the Wild Card.  Still with the Rockies in 2011, Giambi at age 41 became the second oldest player to hit three home runs in one game, topped only by the legendary Stan Musial.  After the 2012 season, Giambi signed a minor league deal with the Indians and made the club out of Spring Training.   Only July 29th, he became the oldest player to end a game with a home run when he connected off Chicago White Sox reliever Ramon Troncoso.

Although he is batting only.190 on the season, the slugger does have eight home runs.  Part of the reason why the Tribe has stayed within striking distance of first place in the American League Central and in playoff position is the presence of Jason Giambi.  At 42, this may be his last hurrah.  What better way for him to close out a star-crossed career than by smacking the hit that will give Cleveland its first playoff appearance in six years?

Follow me on Twitter @ltj41 and covering the Arizona Diamondbacks at http://venomstrikes.com

Thinking About Steve Kemp

I was standing in line waiting for a ride at Six Flags Great Escape in Lake George, NY on Saturday when I spotted a gentleman wearing one of those classic New York Yankee t-shirts.  You know, the navy blue ones with the white lettering and a player’s name written on the back.  This particular guy had on a CC Sabathia tee which got me to reflecting on my very first New York shirt which was purchased in 1984.  On that particular team, I had my choice of Don Mattingly, Ron Guidry and Dave Winfield among other big names.  So who was the guy I deemed number one during that season?  Why it was none other than the power-hitting lefty known as Steve Kemp.

Steve Kemp's career was derailed by a shoulder injury 4 games into the 1983 season.  Image:  Wikipedia.com

Steve Kemp’s career was derailed by a shoulder injury 4 games into the 1983 season. Image: Wikipedia.com

I know you are probably are wondering why, out of all those stars on the Yankees would I pick a guy who at that point had been a disappointment?  Well, it is probably the same reason why, almost a decade later, my grandmother asked me which player’s jersey would I like to receive from the Dallas Cowboys?  Think about all of the great names on those early to mid 90’s teams like Aikman, Smith, Irvin and Haley.  Yet I chose Ken Norton, Jr for the same reason I chose Steve Kemp.  Everyone has the apparel of the stars, I wanted to go with someone different.

So what was the playing career of Kemp like?  Before he came to the Yankees, he enjoyed a very productive five-year stint with the Detroit Tigers , selected by the team as the number one overall pick in the 1976 draft.  He had a fine rookie season in 1977 with 18 home runs and 88 RBI’s.  He posted back-to-back 20 homer, 100 RBI seasons in 1979 and 1980 with ’79 being his best overall season and his only All-star appearance.  He hit .318 with 26 HR’s and 105 RBI’s.  He was traded to the Chicago White Sox before the 1982 season.  His only season with the Sox was a solid one, belting 19 homers and driving in 98.  He became a free agent and was rewarded with a five-year, $5.45 million dollar deal with the Yanks.

Only four games into his Yankee career, Kemp was involved in a brutal collision with Willie Randolph and Jerry Mumphrey.  It was revealed that Kemp had a bone chip in his shoulder but he played through his injury.  His career was never the same.  He spent only two years in New York, he amassed  only 19 homers and 90 RBI’s in 780 at-bats.  He was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates before the 1985 season. He spent a little over one season with the Bucs before being released.  Over the next season and a half, Kemp spent time in the Minor Leagues in the systems of both the San Diego Padres and Texas Rangers.  Kemp batted 39 times with Texas in 1988 before retiring at the tender age of 33.

That awful injury with New York cut short a promising career.  What I remember about Steve Kemp was that he ran out every single ground ball like it was Game 7 of the World Series.  I can still see him hustling down first, batting helmet flying off his head as he just either legged out an infield hit or was thrown out by a half-step.  He also made a nice play in right field during Dave Righetti‘s no-hitter.  That alone should reserve a place in every Yankee fan’s heart for him.

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I have been wrong about many things during the 2013 season.  You can see for yourself by clicking here.  The one that has really put me to shame is my thoughts on the Los Angels Dodgers.  Oh sure, I was looking good for about the first two months of the season.  Then the team called up Yasiel Puig and right around that time Hanley Ramirez got healthy.  Even then I still thought the good times wouldn’t last; I remember when the Arizona Diamondbacks swept the Dodgers in May; LA looked like a Double A squad with shoddy defense and awful baseball awareness.  The Dodgers looked lost.

What a difference seven weeks makes.

After sweeping the hot Tampa Bay Rays this past weekend, the Dodgers are now 37-8 since June 22nd.  An insane 15 game road winning streak was right in the middle of it.  Even though Puig has cooled off somewhat and Matt Kemp is still hurt, Los Angeles is showing a great deal of toughness I didn’t think was there.  The run has lifted the Dodgers to a 7 1/2 game lead over the second place D-Backs.

With Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke leading the rotation, don’t expect the Dodgers to fade anytime soon.  They now have to be considered legitimate World Series threats.  Just ask the St. Louis Cardinals who were recently took only one game in a four game set at home against LA.   Unfortunately for the rest of the National League, Tommy Lasorda is once again singing about Dodger Blue.

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By contrast, one of the few things I have been dead-on about is the play of the Washington Nationals.  They reminded me of Arizona, who went from 65 wins in 2010 to 94 wins and a division title in 2011 to 81 wins in 2012.  It is very hard for a team that comes from nowhere to win big the next season and to retain that excellence the following year.  They don’t get the chance to sneak up on anyone.  Now they become the hunted. That is exactly what happened to the Nats even though they added Rafael Soriano to an already stout bullpen.

It also doesn’t help that Stephen Strasburg only has six wins.  His 2.85 ERA indicates he has pitched well without much support from his offense.  Gio Gonzalez‘s output isn’t much better with only seven victories with an OK 3.52 ERA.  It is the lineup that has doomed Washington. They rank 24th in batting average at .243 and 26th in on base percentage at .303 which is also their ranking in runs scored with 442.  Ryan Zimmerman and Bryce Harper have been both hurt and played under expectations.  It adds up to a 57-60 record, 14 1/2 games back in the National League East and no shot at the playoffs.

Will 2014 be a bounce back year?  They certainly have a good core.  It is hard to imagine the team will not score two seasons in a row for Strasburg.  Then again, we have been saying the same thing for years about the run support for Felix Hernandez.  General Manger Mike Rizzo, flush with his new contract will only have to do some minor tinkering instead of wholesale changes.

Follow me on Twitter @ltj41 and covering the Arizona Diamondbacks at http://venomstrikes.com

So Much Good is Going on In Major League Baseball

The big story surrounding Major League Baseball is the impending suspensions of several players regarding their involvement with Biogenesis, the infamous lab located in South Florida.   The biggest name involved, of course is Alex Rodriguez and anytime A-Rod’s name is brought up, particularly “juicy” story such as this, everything else around the game takes a back seat, even the just-concluded trading deadline.   Well, as you know, I have had it with all of the negative press about baseball lately.  So I figured now is about the time to look at all of the GOOD things that are happening ON THE FIELD, you know where the actual games are being played.  All of you need to stop listening to the drama and the angst and all that is wrong with the game and focus on some wonderful things that are taking place as the calendar shifts to August.  There are a ton of great things and frankly I could probably write about something positive about all 30 teams.   Here are some items that will make you feel good as a fan even  if it doesn’t involve your team.

Wise up, forget A-Rod and pay attention to guys like Jason  Donaldson.  Image:  sfgate.com

Wise up, forget A-Rod and pay attention to guys like Jason Donaldson. Image: sfgate.com

The Oakland A’s are proving last season was no fluke.   Oakland has the second-largest lead of any division leader as they are up 4 1/2 games over the Texas Rangers.  On the mound, Bartolo Colon will garner serious Cy Young Award consideration with a 14-3 record and a 2.50 ERA.  Grant Balfour has 28 saves and has blown only one opportunity since last August.  Third baseman Jason Donaldson is showing All Star voters the folly of their ways by leading the club in hitting at .297 with 16 home runs and 61 RBI’s.  First baseman Brandon Moss has picked up for other struggling hitters leading the A’s with 17 homers and has driven in 49 runs.  July and August is usually the time Oakland’s teams under GM Billy Beane are at their best so I see no reason why the A’s won’t repeat as American League West Champions.

The Pittsburgh Pirates will REALLY finish over .500 this season…….and make the playoffs.  The last two seasons have been unkind to the Bucs down the stretch.  It will be much different finish for Pittsburgh this season.  This week saw the Pirates face the St. Louis Cardinals in a crucial showdown to determine who enters the next month leading the National League Central.  The Pirates won the first four games, sweeping a doubleheader on Tuesday, and are now up 2 1/2 games on the Cards.  Third baseman Pedro Alvarez is one of the game’s true power hitters as his 27 dingers proves.  Center fielder Andrew McCutchen has thrust himself into the MVP race as perhaps the game’s premier up-the-middle outfielder.  The bullpen has been simply dominant and Francisco Liriano has been the free agent signing of the year with an 11-4 record  and a 2.16 ERA.   All of those losing seasons resulting in high draft picks combined with  shrewd free agent signings and trades have made the Bucs the feel-god story of the season.

The Kansas City Royals and Cleveland Indians are legitimate division threats.  Most people, including me, figured the American League Central would be won easily by the Detroit TigersAfter a rough month of May by both KC and the Tribe, that seemed to be the case.  However, Cleveland at 3 games out and the Royals at 7 1/2 games behind, are not going away.  Cleveland obviously stands the better chance at the moment.  When you have the ageless Jason Giambi ending a game with a home run for you,  anything is possible.  Second Baseman Jason Kipnis is having the best season no one has heard from with 15 homers, 68  RBI’s , a .295 average and 21 steals.  Justin Masterson is pitching like a true ace with 12 wins and a 3,42 ERA.   The Royals are still probably a year away but they are providing their fans with some hope that the corner has been turned.  Ervin Santana and James Shields have provided everything management was looking for when they were both acquired this past Winter.  They both have ERA’s less than 3.10 and are on track to throw close to 200 innings.  If they somehow get one more bat before August 31st, they could throw a real scare into the Tigers.

Yadier Molina is having a wonderful season.  It seems as though Yadi has been around forever, gunning out baserunner after baserunner and getting clutch hits for the Cardinals.  For a while, Molina was leading the National League in hitting; right now he is third at .330.  He has eight home runs and his 54 RBI’s is on pace to surpass last season’s career high of 76.  As usual, his work behind the plate has been stellar, working with a cast of veterans and newcomers, all of whom swear by Yadi’s game-calling abilities.  Molina just landed on the 15-day disabled list with a knee injury, a rotten time for St. Louis as they fight to keep pace with the Pirates and ahead of the  Cincinnati Reds in the standings.  Molina will be a leading MVP candidate by season’s end but the Cards woudl just settle for him to be back healthy for September.

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Former First Baseman/Designated Hitter George Scott passed away on July 28th at the age of 69.  Big George had some serious power in the late 1960’s and through the 1970’s, slugging a total of 271 home runs.  He played on the pennant winning Boston Red Sox in 1967 and is a member of the Sox Hall of Fame.  While with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1975, Scott led the American League in home runs with 36 and RBI’s with 109. 

I always knew Scott was a big power hitter but I did not realize what a great fielder he was.  He won eight Gold Gloves at first and Nick Carfado of the Boston Globe wrote that he had never seen  a better fielding first baseman.  From what I have been reading about his life, he was a big, gentle man with a tremendous heart.  It is another sad passing of someone being taken before his time.

Rest in Peace, Boomer.

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Brian Wilson is backIt was a long, hard road for the fireballing reliever, one of the true characters of the game.  He underwent arm surgery and has not pitched in a Major League game in almost 18 months. Even though it was the Los Angeles Dodgers  who signed him, I am very glad that we will get a chance to see him pitch again.

Wilson has some tremendous seasons with the San Francisco Giants, topped off by a spectacular 2010 that saw the Giants capture their first World Series Championship in the Bay Area.  Wilson was tremendous, recording an NL-leading 48 saves and a sparkling 1,81 ERA.   For his career, Wilson owns 171 saves and a 3,21 ERA.  He will appear in a few Minor League rehab games until being called up to LA probably sometime before September 1st.

I wish nothing but the best for Brian Wilson, a good player, a great personality and a seemingly tremendous person.

Follow me on Twitter @ltj41 and covering the Arizona Diamondbacks at www.venomstrikes.com

The Gutsy Boston Red Sox

Originally, the headline on this was going to be “A-Rod and the Yankees Deserve Each Other”.  I decided to go in another direction because I am really tired of all the negative stories associated with the two of them.  I will let that one line speak for itself.  Feel free to comment on it any way you see fit.  So I move on to one of the best stories of the 2013 Major League season and I can’t believe I am about to write these words:

The Boston Red Sox are really impressive.

Dustin Pedroia has a new $100 million dollar contract and his team is in first place.  What could be better?  Image:  masslive.com

Dustin Pedroia has a new $100 million dollar contract and his team is in first place. What could be better? Image: masslive.com

Let’s face it, one of baseball’s most storied franchises was absolutely terrible from September 2011 through all of last season.  I figured the epic collapse and the Bobby Valentine experiment would keep the Sox out of contention in 2013.  However, I suppose you can say the one positive about the Bobby V season was the unloading of the bloated contracts of Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett.  We didn’t know it then but it set in motion the chain of events that have landed the Sox in first place today.  Former pitching coach John Farrell, who was forever the manager-in-waiting finally got his shot at managing the team and it is obvious he has done a tremendous job leading the club in the most competitive division in the game.  Shane Victorino and Mike Napoli have proven to be nice additions.  Napoli is second on the club in home runs and RBI’s and Victorino is hitting .287 with 14 stolen bases.  David Ortiz continues to put up excellent numbers with 19 home runs, 65 RBI’s with a .323 batting average.  Dustin Pedroia is back among the best second basemen in baseball and has a nice new contract to go along with it.

It has not all been smooth sailing for Boston.  Clay Buchholz, he of the 9-0, 1.71 ERA mark has been out with a neck injury since June 8th.  Jon Lester has 9 wins but a high 4.50 ERA.  Closer Joel Hanrahan, acquired this offseason is out for the year with an arm injury.  Jon Lackey has provided a much-needed boost to the rotation with a 2.95 ERA but only a 7-7 record to show for it.  While the starters have been shaky, it is the bullpen, despite the loss of Hanrahan that has flourished.  Koji Uehara and Andrew Bailey have combined for 25 saves with Uehara posted a sparkling a 1.59 ERA.

Even with all of the injuries, the Red Sox have been in first place for 86 days.  It is a testament to their resiliency that they have met and conquered every challenge so far this year.  They are by far my biggest surprise team of the year and are in excellent shape to make the playoffs. ***************************************************************************************************************************************************** If you haven’t played mlb.com’s “Beat the Streak“, I suggest you do so today.  You have a chance to win $5.6 million dollars.  All you have to do is pick one player per day to get one hit….and you only have to do it for 57 consecutive games, a nod to beating the 56 game hitting streak by Joe DiMaggio.  You can use the same player more than once.  I have been playing it for about four weeks now and so far, none of my streaks have gone on past two games.  You may not win as much as the top prize in the lottery but you may have a better chance winning big money and more fun playing this game. **************************************************************************************************************************************************** Everyone knows that yesterday, July 24th, was the 30th anniversary of the infamous George Brett Pine Tar Game.  Since that got a lot of attention, I decided to see what significant events happened today, July 25th.  I found three items courtesy of baseballdeworld.com.  Here they are:

1930-The Philadelphia A’s pulled off a triple steal twice in one game as they defeated the Cleveland Indians 14-1.  It was the only time in baseball history this feat occurred.

1941-Lefty Grove won the 300th and final game of his Hall of Fame career as his Red Sox beat the Indians 4-1.

1977-While playing for the Cincinnati Reds, Pete Rose sets the all-time record for hits by a switch hitter with number 2,881 during a 4-1 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals.  Rose broke the record that was held by Hall of Famer Frankie Frisch.

Follow me on Twitter @ltj41 and covering the Arizona Diamondbacks at http://venomstrikes.com

The All Star Game Still is Great

The Major League All Star Game is this Tuesday night and I, for one am looking forward to it.  I won’t get a chance to watch much of it (I’ll explain later)  but it nevertheless is one of my favorite sports days of the year.    I still remember hoping to leave the beach early so we could catch the Classic (I believe it was 1981;  Gary Carter winning the MVP with two home runs).   I feel now about it now like I did 30 plus years ago.  It is such a great thing to see all of the best players all on one field, in their own uniforms, even if the game is nothing more than a glorified exhibition game.   I know a lot has changed in the years since I started watching the Mid-Summer Classic, particularly the fact that we have the opportunity to see all of these players every single night as opposed to once or twice per season.  Still, there is nothing that is more Summer than a warm, humid night watching the All Star Game.

Gary  Carter was the MVP of the 1981 All Star Game.   Image:  yahoo.com

Gary Carter was the MVP of the 1981 All Star Game. Image: yahoo.com

Despite what I have heard about the game the last ten days or so, it is still a great game.  It is light years better than the All Star contests of the other sports because it is more of a true indicator of how baseball is actually played as opposed to the other ones where there isn’t a tremendous amount of sweat broken when it comes to defense.  There is much derision about how the contest is tied to the winning League getting home field advantage for the World Series.  I wish they would take that provision away; despite what others say, it was fine before this rule was introduced. 

People also seem to complain about the selection process about who was left off,namely Yasiel Puig.  I heard people say that he is the most electric player and that baseball should have found a way to get him in the game.   Well, the fans decided he shouldn’t get the final vote, that Freddie Freeman who played the entire first half (with a stint on the 15 day disabled list) deserved it more than a guy who played 40 games.   Commentators said that it was just another example of baseball getting things wrong.  This leads me to fume even more about what I have heard recently……

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The ratings decline of the All Star Game, the declining attendance in general and the steroids controversy were all topics of conversation recently.  All of them purport to show Major League Baseball in a bad light.   It got to the point where it seemed MLB was (a) on the verge of losing 60% of their fan base,(b) can do nothing right and (c) need “more spicing up” to revitalize the product.

I have had it.

I already stated I love the All Star Game no matter what stipulations are in place and no matter who bad the selection process is, both by the fans and by the managers.  The attendance problem is not immune to baseball.  Have any of these geniuses noticed the economy still stinks?  That maybe the reason why more empty seats are seen in ALL sports is because the tickets are just too damm expensive?  These people barely say boo when the almighty NFL has large swaths of empty seats in almost every single stadium every single Sunday.  In all the years before the new Meadowlands opened, I never once heard the Jets advertise for fans to buy tickets.  Why?  Because all of the games were sold out.   Now, they have so many commercials looking for season ticket holders that it would make the people who run infomercials for the Juicer blush.  Outside of a select few markets, there are 5,000 empty seats or more at most NBA and NHL arenas.  Yet it is MLB that is the punching bag for media members looking to make a point.

Steroids once again reared their ugly head and once again baseball was put under the microscope.  Look, it stinks there are still players that are trying to gain an unfair advantage by juicing.  However, no other sport gets the scrutiny MLB does when this issue is raised.  No one dares to speculate how many NFL players juice.  Are they afraid of getting their access cut by the league, therefore they can’t speak ill of them?  Yet it is baseball who is made out to be the fool, trying to nab some of the biggest stars of the game.  Even though they are guilty of burying their heads in the sand for far too long, I applaud the effort Bud Selig and Company have made to rid the sport of PED’s.  They should be commended for their efforts not castigated for ridding the game of “what the fans want”, namely home runs.          

Speaking of what fans want,  supposedly baseball’s low ratings can partly be attributed to the fact that a major portion of older fans don’t like the “styling” of certain players.  There needs to be some other forms of entertainment.  My question is, aren’t the players and the games themselves the entertainment?    I consider myself an “older” fan I suppose, but there have been a number of things that have developed recently that I think are pretty cool.  For instance, I think the celebrations after say a game ending hit are pretty fun.  Heroes of the game getting doused by drinks or pies are amusing.   The hand gestures while on base after a big hit are OK.  About the only thing I do not like are bat flips after hitting a home run.  As a I mentioned in a previous blog, fraternization among players isn’t such a bad thing.  So what do people want?  Cartwheels around the bases?  Throwing the ball underhand? 

I wish people would just appreciate the game of baseball instead of consistently complaining about its warts.  If you don’t like it, don’t watch it, don’t cover it.  The game is fine without any meddling from people who claim to know better.

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I mentioned earlier I wouldn’t be watching much of the All Star Game.  That is because I am in Orlando on a business trip.  That stinks for sure and there is one other byproduct of me being away.

I won’t be able to watch the game with my 8-year-old son, Ryan.

Ryan didn’t really start watching and paying attention to baseball until the World Baseball Classic.  He has always been fascinated with countries and could probably indentify the flags of 30-40 different countries.   He has slowly gotten more into Major League Baseball to the point that we will often watch MLB Network’s “Quick Pitch” together.  He loves the bow-and-arrow routine of Fernando Rodney after he records a save.  We look at the All Star Game Rosters together.  I haven’t pushed him into it; Ryan has just started following on his own.  MLB.com is now one of his favorite sites.

I can’t tell you how disappointed I am that I won’t be there to watch the game with him.  I will be with him in spirit and will be thinking of him as I check on the score.  Sorry, buddy.  Go American League!

Follow me on Twitter @ltj41 and covering the Arizona Diamondbacks at www.venomstrikes.com

Jean Segura is the Best Shortstop Playing Right Now

Have you ever heard of Jean Segura?  If you haven’t, you are not alone.  The 22-year old shortstop of the Milwaukee Brewers  is fighting to keep his team out of last place in the National League Central.  The Brewers have been beset by both injury (Ryan Braun, Aramis Ramirez and Corey Hart who is now done for the season) and ineffectiveness (ace Yovani Gallardo has an ERA hovering near 4.50).   Because of his market, nary a soul outside Milwaukee has been paying attention to this phenom as evidenced by his third place showing in the voting for the All Star Game at his position.  There is one other thing you should realize.

Learn the name Jean Segura.  He is just getting warmed up.  Image:  jsonline.com

Learn the name Jean Segura. He is just getting warmed up. Image: jsonline.com

Jean Segura is the best shortstop in the game right now.

Sure, you may clamor for the now oft-injured Troy Tulowitzki.  You may think it is the wonderous Hanley Ramirez, wonderful for his offense but wonder-awful for his many mental lapses on the field.   Give me Segura who is having an MVP-type season despite all of the issues surrounding his club.  He ranks in the top five in many National League offensive categories including hits (first with 113), batting average (fourth at .323) and triples (second with eight).  He also 12th in runs scored with 50.  When you combine his age and huge upside, there is no other shortstop I would want right now.  Think about the Los Angeles Angels who traded him last season to the Brew Crew for Zack Greinke and have nothing to show for it.  Erick Aybar is a nice player for the Angels but clearly it is Milwaukee who is benefitting tremendously from LA’s generosity.

The Brewers may want to think about locking up Segura long-term.  There is a certain team in New York that will be needing a shortstop in a couple of years.

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The Miami Marlins, the scorn of the offseason and a laughingstock as recently as two months ago, are playing some good baseball.  Since June 1st, the team is 18-15 and have taken a series from the St. Louis Cardinals, arguably the best team in the game as well as a series from the NL East leading Atlanta Braves.  The improvement of the team has coincided with the return of outfielder Giancarlo Stanton, who I am sure will be the subject of trade talk from now until the year 2015.  But there is also another explanation in the rise of the Fish.

Miami can boast some of the best young starting pitching in the game.  Start with Jose Fernandez, the 20-year old ace who is heading to the All Star Game and is one of MLB’s top rookies.  His record only stands at 5-5 but his ERA is an excellent 2.83 and has 99 strikeouts in 98/3 innings.  He has impressed so many people around the game, even Hall of Famer Don Sutton who recently spent some time with the Rookie.  Fellow rotation mates Jacob Turner and Nathan Eovaldi have combined for 11 games started and an 2.42 ERA.  those three along with highly touted Henderson Alvarez have progressed so nicely that the team cut some more salary by trading long time Marlin Ricky Nolasco.

Once unthinkable, the Marlins have become respectable in such a short period of time.  There will be more growing pains for sure but I wouldn’t want to be a contender and have to face that staff late.  Stanton needs help on offense and is getting some from outfielder Marcell Ozuna and will be joined soon by super prospect Christian Yelich.  Miami could break .500 as soon as next year and become a Wild Card threat.  Now, all Jeffrey Loria has to do is finally keep a quality team together instead of taking it apart.

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Speaking of under the radar, the Tampa Bay Rays are just humming right along.  Every team in the American League East has gotten significantly more press than Tampa but yet here are the Rays once again having another fine season.  Right now, the team is 51-40, 3 games behind the first place Boston Red Sox and in position to capture the second Wild Card.

It seems as though we go through this every season.  We see the organization in some kind of cost cutting mode and then are forgotten about until you get to say, this point in the year and they are in the thick of the playoff hunt.  The trading of James Shields to the Kansas City Royals for gifted young outfielder Wil Myers has been a boon to the Rays’ offense.  Ace David Price just returned from the disabled list and hurled a complete game gem on Sunday.   After starting slowly, closer Fernando Rodney is back to his bow-and-arrow shooting ways.  Tampa is riding a six game winning streak, winning none of ten overall.

For the record I picked the Rays to win the AL East and go to the World Series this year.  Not too long ago, that seemed like another failed prediction.  Now, I don’t look so bad.

Follow me on Twitter @ltj41 and covering the Arizona Diamondbacks at www.venomstrikes.com

Big Props for Joe Girardi

He has won a World Series title and has made the playoffs four straight seasons.  He has won 522 games in five and a half seasons as the manager of the New York Yankees.  This season, his team is on pace to win 86 games, his lowest victory total as a New York manager.  There is also one other fact we should mention about Joe Girardi.

This season represents his finest managing job.

Now, there are a slew of Yankee fans that would disagree.  They have never liked Girardi ever since he became the skipper in 2008 after the beloved Joe Torre departed.  There are others that would point to the fact the Yanks’ payroll is the highest in baseball so that automatically disqualifies him from any managerial award.

Joe Girardi is one of baseball's best managers even if his fan base doesn't admit it.  Image:  espn.com

Joe Girardi is one of baseball’s best managers even if his fan base doesn’t admit it. Image: espn.com

Nonsense.

Many of these same critics had the Yankees falling off the face of the Earth in Spring Training.  This was before Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira came back from injury only to be put back on the disabled list.  Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter haven’t played a game yet.  Kevin Youkilis, signed to take the place for Rodriguez is out possibly for the season.  C.C. Sabathia and Andy Pettitte have been mediocre and Phil Hughes can’t seem to do anything right.  Yet, for all of their troubles, this Yankee team is 43-39, only 6 games out of first place.  Most, if not all of the credit belongs to Girardi.  You don’t see him get too rattled and even though you may not agree with his decisions, I have supreme confidence that his reasoning is sound and more often than not will make the right call.  You have to believe Sabathia will be better in the second half and Jeter will provide a boost just by his presence alone.  I also think Rodriguez will have a pretty good half for the team that loves to hate him. But even if none of that comes to pass and given his record of success Girardi shouldn’t be the one taking the heat.

If you don’t believe Joe Girardi is doing an outstanding job as the manager of the Yankees this season, then you probably just don’t like him or the team.  Maybe you will be convinced when they end up being one of the five teams in the American League playoffs.

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I have a family member (and loyal reader) named Bob who is one tremendous baseball historian.  I love getting his e-mails on the game be it an Orioles contest he just attended or reminiscing about a player from decades ago.  He sent me an e-mail on Sunday about former Philadelphia Phillies catcher Stan Lopata who passed away recently.  I wanted to share it with you and give you an idea of the knowledge of love the game this guy has.

Wash Post has small obit on the passing of Phillie Whiz Kid (1950) catcher Stan Lopata, sometimes called Stash. He was a big lumbering hulk and had some good years with Phillies, espec 1956 with 32 HR, still a Philly catcher record. In 1950 NL pennant champ year , Lopata and Andy Seminick were dividing catching for Phils.   1950 World Series loss to NY Yanks was cruel indeed. Jim Konstanty, 74 game relief pitcher and NL MVP surprisingly started Game 1 and barely lost 1-0 in the opener. With today’s ESPN & all the TV, Konstaty opening the WS without ever starting before, would be eye-popping. He lost to NYY clutch pitcher Vic Raschi, Then Robin Roberts lost in 10 inning 2-1 on Joe DiMag HR. Seminick hit an almost winning HR that just twisted foul at the last moment. Then Phils lost 3-2 and in the 4th game, Whitey Ford won his first WS game of a great career.   A Phila friend gave me an autographed ball of the 1950 Whiz Kids,Robin Roberts, Richie Asburn & the rest.

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Speaking about props, how about those Pittsburgh Pirates?  They own the best record in baseball at 51-30, this after their top three starters in Spring Training (at least on paper) were A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez and Francisco Liriano.  Not a bad top three but not an ace to be found.  In addition, they traded All Star closer Joel Hanrahan to the Boston Red Sox before the season started.  Finally, their best player, Andrew McCutchen, has numbers that are off from the 2012 season.

So what’s going on?

To start with, the bullpen has been sensational.  Closer Jason Grilli has converted 27 of 28 save opportunities and was mentioned by Billy Ripken on MLB Tonight as the National League MVP.  He has 59 strikeouts in 36 2/3 innings to the tune of a 1.72 ERA.  Setup man Mark Melancon has been equally as dominant posting a 0.89 ERA in 41 games.  Jeff Locke has been a huge surprise in the rotation going 7-1 with a 2.06 ERA.  On offense, McCutchen has been heating up but the big story for at least the past month has been third baseman Pedro Alvarez.  He slugged ten home runs in the month of June, giving him 20 for the season.  Highly-touted left fielder Starling Marte has been a nice table stter with a .288 batting average and has reached base almost 35% of the time.

The Pirates have started out well the last two seasons but have collapsed in late August in both those campaigns.  Don’t expect that to happen a third time.  This team is loaded and is a deadline deal away from being true World Series contenders.

Follow me on Twitter @ltj41 and covering the Arizona Diamondbacks at http://venomstrikes.com

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