September 2009

A-Rod set to have breakout postseason

I’m going to go out on a limb here and tell you that while the Yankees are are piling up the regular-season wins and are so far meeting expectations, Alex Rodriguez is in place to have a monster postseason.

By any stretch of the imagination his regular season has been very representative: a .285 batting average, 28 homers, 93 RBIs, a .403 on base percentage, a .524 slugging percentage and a .927 OPS when the latter two statistics are combined. That would be a fine season for anyone, but A-Rod was not inserted into the lineup until May 8 because of a hip injury that may (or may not) require off-season surgery.

Not coincidentally, the Yanks’ turnaround began when A-Rod came back. On May 7, they were 13-15, 5 1/2 games behind the Red Sox in the American League East. Since then, they are 88-41, having clinched the East. Going into play today, they own a 9 1/2-game lead on the Red Sox, a massive 15-game turnaround.

Consider the fact that on July 19, 1978, the Yanks trailed Boston by 14 games. What ensued was the most memorable comeback in Yankees’ history that ended with the Bucky Dent, one-game playoff at Fenway Park that broke more than a few hearts because the Beantowners had blown a certain division title.

Of course, those Yankees won their second consecutive World Series, defeating the Dodgers in six games in both cases. That’s the rubric now that all Yankee teams are judged upon, which certainly was not always the case. If their 101-win season does not translate into their 27th World Series title, the season will be considered wildly disappointing.

That’s where A-Rod comes in. He’s had a quiet season off the field. He is no longer the focal point of the lineup that boasts Derek Jeter with 207 hits at the top of it and Robinson Cano with his 202 hits near the bottom of it. When A-Rod returned to the cleanup spot, Mark Teixeira started seeing a lot of pitches. He has 38 homers and a league-leading 120 RBIs. On May 7, Teixeria had five home runs and 15 RBIs.

The point is, this postseason A-Rod doesn’t have to be the guy. He can fly under the radar and is under no pressure to perform save for the head games he plays on himself. Yes, the Yanks have only won one playoff series since he arrived in 2004 and have won none since the ignoble collapse to Boston that postseason when they were three outs away from a sweep only to lose that series in seven games. In his five postseason series with the Yankees, he’s had four homers and nine RBIs.

But I hark back to the young A-Rod, whose Seattle team lost to the Yanks in the 2000 AL Championship Series. He hit .409 (9-for-22) in the six-games with two homers, five RBIs and 17 total bases, looking like what he is — the best overall player in baseball. So another good postseason series is certainly buried in there somewhere. My prediction is that he finds it this postseason. For the Yanks, there couldn’t be a better time for that happen.

Don’t the Dodgers need to sign Colletti long-term? The answer is Blowin’ in the Wind

I’m usually loathe to start any bit of prose with a question. But with the Dodgers having clinched the playoffs for the third time in the last four years, is it not time for management to re-up Ned Colletti? After all, he’s been the GM there for that entire period.

Or is the answer to this question the same as the answer to all nine questions in the quintessential Bob Dylan song that was the anthem for an entire generation?

“The answer my friend is Blowin’ in the Wind. The answer is Blowin’ in the Wind!”

Those nine questions were asked by Dylan when he penned the song in 1963. Forty-six years later, none of them have been answered. Probably the best cover version of this song was done by a folk group called Peter, Paul and Mary. That became germane this week because of the death of Mary Travers, the female soul of the group, which kept performing well into this decade until Mary’s maladies made it impossible for her to sing any longer. Now they are gone, their ashes are Blowin’ in the Wind.

But I digress. Colletti and the Dodgers have a mutual option on a contract for the 2010 season. Colletti probably will not come back unless he is offered a multi-year deal. There’s no reason to blame him. At 93-63, these Dodgers will finish with the club’s best record since 1988, the last year it won the World Series. Last year, Colletti’s team, playing within the blush of the Manny Ramirez acquisition, went to the National League Championship Series for the first time since that 94-win, championship season. They lost in five games to the Phillies.

This is the type of progression that management has to love after adding a guy who had never been a GM prior to his hiring by the Dodgers after a disastrous 71-91, 2005 season. Coming a year after they made the playoffs for the first time since 1996, that season of internal conflict cost GM Paul DePodesta and manager Jim Tracy their jobs. And perhaps that’s the way it should have been.

But with Colletti as the GM and Joe Torre as manager, the Dodgers have thrived. Torre clinched his 14th consecutive season managing a playoff-bound team, the first 12 with the Yankees where he won four World Series titles. Torre has a year to go on his contract and says flatly that he will retire at 70 when the 2010 season ends.

Thus, more than ever, the Dodgers need some continuity and Colletti will provide them that if he’s given a long-term deal. Actually, I’m not sure what the arguments are against it. He spent too much money on Jason Schmidt, who came up with a bad arm? He took a chance on Andruw Jones? With the Dodgers trying to save money, Colletti acquired Ramirez from the Red Sox in ’08 and Jon Garland from the D-backs last month and both opposing teams paid the balance of their contracts. One should offset the other.

In baseball, its all about numbers and success, and no matter how far the Dodgers go in the playoff this year, here’s this season’s most important number: 3,601,611 — the top attendance in the Majors, coming in a down economy. That means Dodger fans think that Colletti has put together and Torre is managing an entertaining team. End of story. The decision is a no-brainer. How many cliches can I give you?

But sometimes answers aren’t as easy as asking the questions. And at 57, I never thought some of these nine would still be left unanswered:

How many roads must a man walk down before they call him a man?

How many seas must a white dove sail before she can sleep in the sand?

How many times must a cannon ball fly before it’s forever banned?

How many years must a mountain exist before it’s washed to the sea?

How many years must some people exist before they’re allowed to be free?

How many times must a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see?

How many times must a man look up before he can see the sky?

How many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry?

How many deaths will it take ’till he knows that too many people have died?

The answer my friend is Blowin’ in the Wind. The answer is Blowin’ in the Wind.

Giants hanging in there with 10 games to go; Sabean, Bochy should both return in 2010

PHOENIX — No matter what happens to the Giants in the National League’s Wild Card race, they’ve had a wildly successful season.

Coming off 90 losses in 2008, the Giants at least secured a .500 record with their 5-2 victory over the D-backs at Chase Field on Wednesday night. At 82 wins with 10 games to play, that’s already 10 victories better than ’08. Coupled with a Rockies loss to the Padres in Denver, the Giants are four games behind in the Wild Card race, tied with the suddenly surging Braves.

“We’re still breathing, we got help,” manager Bruce Bochy said after the game. “We’re running out of games. We know that, but there’s still hope.”

The Giants head home to play the Cubs this weekend, while the Rox get the NL Central-leading Cardinals at Coors Field. The Cards need a win or a Cubs loss to capture another division title. The Braves, meanwhile, get three vs. the 99-loss Nationals in Washington.

What the Giants have done should be enough to secure the jobs of Bochy and long-time general manager Brian Sabean, whose contracts both expire at the end of the season. Bill Neukom, the team’s new managing general partner, has told both men they’ll be evaluated with everyone else in the organization this offseason. Here’s hoping that the process doesn’t take long and neither of them are left dangling. They are both consummate professionals. Thus far, Neukom has kept his word and there has been silence on the subject internally and externally.

The Giants haven’t made the playoffs since 2003, but that’s not for lack of effort. In the post-Barry Bonds era, Sabean deserves credit for resisting the trade of his young pitchers — Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Brian Wilson — for more grizzled veterans. With his future and job on the line, it would’ve been easy to take the “win it at all costs now” route. But Sabean didn’t. He stayed the course and the Giants should reward Sabean by staying with him.

Bochy has done one of his best managerial jobs this year, keeping a team with a thread-bare offense — the Giants’ 112 homers are next to last in the 16-team NL  — in contention for a playoff spot. But that’s not surprising. In his 12 years managing the Padres and now three with the Giants, Boch has always gotten the most out of every club. He won four division titles and the 1998 NL pennant in San Diego and was on a two-year playoff streak when he up and left the Padres for the Giants with one year left on his contract. The Giants owe him a debt of gratitude for coming and an extension for a job well done.

It’s tempting in this era of  instant Twitters and instant success to look elsewhere. But is anyone better out there? Ask Astros owner Drayton McLane, who fired GM Tim Pupura and manager Phil Garner only two years after a World Series loss to the White Sox. McLane brought in Ed Wade and Cecil Cooper. Since then the Astros have continued to falter and Cooper has been dismissed. Sometimes it’s better to stay the course.

The Giants still have an outside chance of making the postseason. If they tie the Rockies after 162 games, they’ll host a one-game Wild Card playoff at AT&T Park by virtue of a 10-8 head-to-head record with Colorado. If they don’t, there’s nothing to hang their heads about.

“Our goal this year was to go to the postseason,” Bochy said. “We all thought we had the team here to do it. But no question, as an organization we wanted to make an improvement. That’s something we wanted to accomplish. We wanted to play winning baseball and now we’ve done that.”

And so, the architect and the manager should be rewarded accordingly.

 

Rockies go home with fate in their own hands

PHOENIX — The Rockies return to Coors Field on Tuesday night to open a nine-game homestand against the Padres in control of the National League’s Wild Card race. By virtue of back-to-back Chase Field victories over the D-backs while the the Giants lost consecutive games to the Dodgers in Los Angeles on Saturday and Sunday, the Rox lead the Lads by 4 1/2 games with 12 left to play.

It’s not time to pop any corks yet. “There’s nothing finished,” said Rox interim manager Jim Tracy. “We have to keep plowing forward.”

But if the Rox hold their own at Coors against the Padres, Cardinals and Brewers, a second trip to the postseason in three years will be theirs. Like 2007, when they were swept by the Red Sox in the World Series, the Rockies will win the NL Wild Card berth. This time it should happen without the drama of a one-game playoff. Two years ago, they had to come from behind in the 13th inning to beat Trevor Hoffman and the Padres.

It still is up to question whether Matt Holliday actually touched the plate when he scored the winning run that October night. “Do you think I did?” Holliday asked somewhat rhetorically when I asked him about it again earlier this season. I covered that game and my answer was “no” then and it remains the same today. Holliday just gave me that little glint of a smile, leaving the question open for all eternity. The plate ump called him safe and that’s all that counts.

This time, the club has ridden Tracy’s managerial expertise. The Rox are 67-37 since Tracy took over for the deposed Clint Hurdle on May 29. And someday soon one suspects that GM Dan O’Dowd is going to remove the interim tag from his title with a nice, fat contract extension.

Tracy was a good manager with a Dodgers team that he managed into the 2004 postseason, but he’s even better now, riding the percentages and his own intuition to make effective moves. On Saturday night, he pinch-hit Ryan Spilborghs in the seventh inning against Clay Zavada. Spilborghs contribued an RBI-double and remained in the game to add another in the ninth. In that final inning, Tracy sent up Jason Giambi as a pinch-hitter and the former Yankee and Oakland star smashed a three-run homer.

On Sunday, both Spilborghs and Giambi were in the starting lineup. Spilborghs replaced the slumping Brad Hawpe with the added incentive of being 9-for-21 lifetime against D-backs starter Dan Haren. Tracy wanted to give Giambi some work at first base while resting Todd Helton. Spliborghs had a big single off Haren in a three-run seventh inning that put the Rox ahead to stay. Giambi went 2-for-4 with a two-run homer.

Giambi’s simply 6-for-15 with a double, two homers and 11 RBIs since he was taken off the scrap heap by the Rockies after his release by the A’s.

“I wasn’t healthy there,” Giambi said about the end of the line in Oakland. “But I’m excited to be here. It’s great to be in the race. I talked to a lot of people about Tracy and he’s a big reason why I came over. I’m glad I’m here.”

The Giants come into Chase on Monday night to open a three-game series against the 85-loss D-backs with the season on the line. They’ve lost three out of their last four at the season’s crucial time and can’t afford to lose any more. Still, if the Rockies hold their own it won’t much matter anymore what the Giants do.

“We’re at the great point in the season where we hold our fate in our own hands,” Tracy said. “If we do what we’re supposed to do, we’ll be playing meaningful games in October. If we don’t we won’t have anyone to blame, but ourselves. There will be no excuses.”

D-backs need to “reload” bullpen, Hinch says

PHOENIX — It may be a matter of semantics at this point, but when I asked D-backs manager A.J. Hinch whether  he needed to “rebuild” the club’s bullpen for next season, he responded: “Rebuild may not be the right word for it, but maybe reload a little bit.”

During the course of what is now an 83-loss season, the Arizona bullpen has saved 32 games, the third lowest in the 16-team National League. As of this writing, 13 individual big-league closers have more than Arizona’s 32 combined saves. D-backs closer, Chad Qualls, out until next season after surgery to repair a torn knee ligament, is now 20th overall in the Majors with 24 saves.

To me, Qualls is a fine setup guy, but he’s not a closer, although there doesn’t seem to be agreement there from the manager. “I’m fine with Qualls as the closer,” Hinch said. “He does it in a different way. He’s not your typical 95-98 [mph] power closer.”

Neither is Trevor Hoffman, but somehow he’s the all-time leader with 587 saves.

Call me crazy, but the D-backs again need somebody like that. In my mind, you start with the closer and build the bullpen backwards to close the gap between the relievers and the starters. If it’s a solid bridge a team has a chance to win a lot of games. To wit, two years ago, the D-backs pen saved 51 games, 47 of them by Jose Valverde. They won the National League West by a game, which means Arizona needed every last one of those saves to make the playoffs. Add to the fact pile that the D-backs also scored 17 runs less runs that season than they scored.

The pen in 2007 was Tony Pena and Juan Cruz as the seventh-inning guys, Brandon Lyon as a lights-out eighth inning guy, who then handed the ball over to the often-emotional Valverde. They are all gone — Cruz and Lyon to free agency, Pena and Valverde via trades. Valverde was the first to go in the 2007 offseason. It was a financial move because the D-backs weren’t inclined to pay Pada Grande what he might have won through arbitration.

It had an immediate ripple affect. Lyon was moved up to close and didn’t last the season in that slot, giving way in September to Qualls, who the D-backs obtained from the Astros in the Valverde trade. Pena never seemed to develop. John Rauch was obatined from Washington and didn’t prove to be reliable. He’s also gone. The short of it is that the D-backs pen saved 39 games in ’08 and just missed winning the NL West title, finishing two games behind the Dodgers. One is left wondering what might have happened had they not traded Valverde, who is a free agent this offseason.

With Rauch traded and Qualls on the DL, the D-backs are left with a pen that includes Juan Gutirerrez, Blaine Boyer, Daniel Schlereth, Clay Zavada and Esmerling Vasquez. Not a lot of household names among the bunch. And Qualls must recover sufficiently from surgery to contribute.

“I think he can get the job done,” Hinch said about Qualls. “But more importantly is who surrounds him when he’s not available. As this season has evolved with Vasquez and Gutirerrez, their maturation will play a very important in how we put next year’s bullpen together.”

Rebuild or reload? The difference seems to be in the eye of the beholder.

These Yankees could join elite teams in franchise history

I grew up in the north Bronx only about a 10-minute car ride from Yankee Stadium. My parents — Gloria and Len — still live in the same apartment on 235th St. and Riverdale Ave. They’ve been there since 1957. My mother has become a die-hard Yankees fan, even though she never gave a care about it when my brother and I were kids. My father, who took me to my first game ever at the original stadium in 1960, has watched the team since Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio played together there in the late ’30s. My parents are both 82.

Recently, my father said that this year’s Yankees team might be the best he’s ever seen. I told him to hold his Iron Horses. In my lifetime there have been three Yankees teams that are among the best in baseball history: 1961, 1978 and 1998.

The ’61 team had Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle combine to hit 115 homers. Those Yanks dominated the American League and wiped out the Reds easily in a five-game World Series. In addition, that title was part of a wave that saw the Yanks win 10 World Series and 15 pennants from 1947-64, a period unmatched in Major League history.

The ’78 team with Reggie Jackson, Thurman Munson, Catfish Hunter and Ron Guidry, may be the guttiest. The Yanks had won the pennant in ’76 and the World Series in ’77. On July 19, 1978, the Yanks trailed the Red Sox by 14 games in the AL East. They staged the historic comeback, beating the Sox at Fenway in the Bucky Dent one-game playoff for the division title and went on to defeat the Dodgers in the World Series for the second consecutive fall in six games.

The ’98 team won an unparalleled 125-games — 114 during the regular season and another 11 in the postseason, including a sweep of the Padres in the World Series. With a core of Andy Pettitte, Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada, the title was among four from 1996-2000, including three in a row.

So dad, the current Yankees have a chance to be great, but they still have a long way to go. They have been on fire since the All-Star break, and who could have predicted that the core would still be contributing at this late date? After all, Jeter came off a down ’08 season and some people were beginning to wonder if the wear and tear of all those regular season and postseason games had taken their toll. Rivera and Posada were returning from right shoulder surgery, and Pettitte always has to contend with a balky left elbow.

Yet, all four have been dominant again. Add great years from their free agent pickups — CC Sabathia ($160 million) and Mark Teixeira ($180 million) and the Yanks have been flying in their first year at the new Yankee Stadium.

All they have to do is win the team’s 27th World Series and they will be recognized among the best in franchise history. No small feat, considering the standards set by Yankees teams that came before them.

Carpenter feel good story of season

The recovery of Cardinals right-hander Chris Carpenter from two seasons worth of arm injuries for me is the feel good story of a season, during which I’ve also dealt with a myriad of heath issues and tried to remain working.

At this writing, he’s 16-4 with a 2.45 ERA, having spent a stint on the DL, dealing with an oblique injury. He looks as good as he did back in his 2005 National League Cy Young Award season and 2006 when he helped pitch the Cardinals to the World Series title.

“With everything I’ve been through in my career I love going out there,” Carpenter said when I talked to him last month after another brilliant start in San Diego. “I don’t take anything for granted. I treat every start like it’s the last time I’m ever going to pitch.”

That is rare, as Mike Hampton would agree. Hampton had surgery again this week on his left shoulder, which revealed a completely torn rotator cuff. He wants to pitch again, but he’s out for 2010 and still has surgeries on both knees to come. That will make it nine surgeries for Hampton since he signed a mega contract with the Rockies in 2001.

I applaud Hampton for keeping up the good fight. What Carpenter is doing is a real inspiration to me because I know how much work it took to make it back. I’ve had to make it back from four surgeries since Feb. 4, 2008, and I’m just a writer. I don’t have to whip my body into the condition to compete at baseball’s highest level. I just need to stay in some sort of modicum of shape. Carpenter has not only done that, but he’s returned to elite status. When he’s on, he has a drop-dead curveball, the best I’ve seen since Sandy Koufax used to drop them over the plate when I saw him pitch as a kid.

With apologies to his teammate Adam Wainwright (18-7) and Giants right-hander Tim Lincecum (14-5), Carpenter is my Cy Young Award winner this season. Also add Comeback Player of the Year honors in the Senior Circuit.

Keep it up, Chris, and here’s hoping you can ward off any more injuries. It’s great to see a good guy overcome and continue to excel.

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