We’re Moving . . .

. . . to a new URL: Throneberry Fields Forever is now at http://www.throneberryfields.com. With a new look but the same writing you’ve come to know, love, loathe, whatever your choice! It’s going to make life easier for your servant and, hopefully, for you. In more ways than one. Check us out today! And don’t fear losing any of your favourite material—it’s all there in the new archives!

Thanks for taking the ride here, and welcome aboard the new improved ride!

Stephen Strasburg, the Long Haul, and the Short Thinkers

The easiest thing on earth to understand is that Stephen Strasburg isn’t thrilled with his shutdown. The hardest thing on earth to understand, for an awful lot of people still, is why the Washington Nationals stuck to the plan with the postseason dead in their sights and the World Series a distinct possibility. Somewhere in between is a point too often bypassed, whether you favoured or objected to the Strasburg Plan.

Former major leaguer Doug Glanville, now an ESPN writer, doesn’t bypass the point. “[W]hat is of greater concern for the Nationals is how they went so far to protect Strasburg and, in doing so, may have placed doubt where it wasn’t before for him,” Glanville writes this morning. “He now is worried about letting his team down; he now knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that he can be emotionally unavailable and distracted on the mound, a place where he used to be comfortable. He knows he can be shaken to his core.”

“It’s not just about one player. I want to be here for the long haul, for many years to come,” says Strasburg, even if he doesn’t really want to be shut down . . .

Strasburg wasn’t exactly quiet or timid expressing fears of letting the team down prior to Friday night, when his rough outing against Miami—he barely lasted three innings and got strafed for five runs and two home runs, in a game the Marlins hung on to win after the Nats got him off the loss hook—prompted manager Davey Johnson to impose the shutdown perhaps a few innings before actually planned or decided. He just never expressed them in verbiage quite as strong as he deployed the morning after.

“I don’t know if I’m ever going to accept it,” Strasburg mourned. Then, referring to the near-incessant writing and analysing that’s accompanied the Strasburg Plan, he said, “When that’s all you hear, it’s hard for it not to bother you. It is what it is. It sucks.”

Yet Strasburg also seems to know just what Glanville means, even if he’s not in Glanville’s seat in the observation tower. “I’ve got to move forward and be here for this team,” he continued. “It’s not just about one player. I want to be here for the long haul, for many years to come.”

The righthander who’s just finished his first full season following the Tommy John surgery, recuperation, and rehab has already been shaken to his core. He admitted to Johnson that he’d had trouble sleeping and been haunted by fears of letting his mates down. By Saturday morning, Strasburg had the highest ERA on the Nats’ starting rotation based over the group’s last ten starts each. And he had not been his full-powered self in recent outings overall.

“[L]eaving little room,” writes Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post, one of the Strasburg Plan’s stubborn defenders, “for critics of the Nats’ conservative medical protocol to continue braying.”

Not that that’s stopping them. It’s one thing to critique how the Nats have played the Plan publicly. “Had [general manager Mike] Rizzo had a general idea of a limit and kept it to himself during spring training, he could have imposed it now, citing Strasburg’s stuff flattening out,” writes Anthony Witrado of The Sporting News. “It still would have been a major story with several points of view, but it wouldn’t have been a distraction for an entire season and wouldn’t have worn down Strasburg’s psyche, as Johnson claimed it did.”

But it’s something else entirely to dredge up the shooting-themselves-in-the-foot argument against shutting Strasburg down with the Nats knocking on heaven’s door, so to say. Strasburg’s a competitor. No questions asked. But if you really think the Nats can’t get there or stay there for most if not all the postseason haul, you haven’t really been watching this team play.

Don’t dismiss the possibility that the hype surrounding the Strasburg Plan didn’t creep into the psyches of the rest of the pitching staff now and then. They, like many non-pitching Nats, have said at various times they’d rather be with than without Strasburg. But they’ve also said, and this is the part lots of people bypass, too, they’d rather have a healthy than a hindered Strasburg as well. No matter who among these Nats feels strongest about a Strasburg-less postseason this year, you’d be hard pressed to find any Nat who doesn’t appreciate that they’re being built for the long term, and that a single postseason appearance is not in their thinking.

Maybe now that the issue’s resolved, more or less, those Nat pitchers—dearly though they’ll miss having Strasburg taking his regular turns—are made of stuff hardy enough. The brawl the Chicago Cubs instigated Thursday night smothered Jordan Zimmermann’s own recovery from a horrible previous start, and Zimmermann’s outing is just one example.

And the whole team? With Strasburg, the Nats pending Sunday’s outcome have a .619 winning percentage and, by the way, the best record in baseball. They’ve also got a .604 winning percentage in the games Strasburg didn’t start before the shutdown was announced. Would you like to know how many World Series winners have gotten there with a regular season winning percentage around .604? Let’s look at just the last ten Series winners:

2011—St. Louis Cardinals, .556.
2010—San Francisco Giants, .568.
2009—New York Yankees, .636.
2008—Philadelphia Phillies, .568.
2007—Boston Red Sox, .593.
2006—St. Louis Cardinals, .516.
2005—Chicago White Sox, .611.
2004—Boston Red Sox, .605.
2003—Florida Marlins, .562.
2002—Anaheim Angels, .611.

I see four teams with .604+ winning percentages winning among the last ten World Series, including a couple of wild card winners. (2002 Angels, 2004 Red Sox.) I see one team (2007 Red Sox) not all that far away from .604. Six of the last ten World Series winners did no better than a .568 regular-season winning percentage, and one (the 2006 Cardinals) barely got past .510. You’re going to argue that the Nats, with a .604 winning percentage without Stephen Strasburg thus far, are killing their World Series possibilities?

Now watch some of the brayers fume that those who think as I just expressed are trying to say, “Nice going—you’ve just said the Nats can win without him as well as win with him.” You can look at it that way if you like. And you’d be wrong. This year’s Nats can win without him, but don’t pretend they’d like to or that it wouldn’t be harder. Of course it would. But how much harder would it be to make their long-term stand if they lose him due to imprudence? And if you think these Nats haven’t had bigger challenges than the Strasburg Plan, you haven’t followed their season unless Strasburg’s on the mound.

They’ve already had their intangibles tested, including and especially playing around their injuries. And these lab Nats still have the best record in baseball pending Sunday’s outcome.

They may have misplayed the Strasburg Plan when dealing with it publicly. Some of the brass’s comments have bordered on laughable. Johnson, Rizzo, and others can’t hang it on the press when they’ve been dropping it all on the press at every known availability, practically. They know it. But you’d have to assume, unless there’s undetected evidence otherwise, that a team playing it smart with a young Tommy John recuperant’s long term physical health isn’t going to ignore his parallel psychological health.

Every Nat from the principal owner down to the rawest September callup knows Strasburg’s feelings about being shut down. What they have to remember, and may have to remind him a little more than now and then, is what Strasburg himself said following up.

I’ve got to move forward and be here for this team. It’s not just about one player. I want to be here for the long haul, for many years to come.

Stick tight with that, Stras. Make it your mantra if you must. But hold tight and don’t let it go.

And when you add a few future postseason trips to your resume, you’ll look back on how much this shutdown and its attendant hype sucked. Then, if you’re as mature as you’re showing even now, you’ll probably say, “Thank God they didn’t let me forget I wanted to be here for many years to come.”

If that’s good enough for Strasburg, and good enough for the Nats, it ought to be plenty good enough for everyone else. Ought to be, but probably won’t be.

The Chicago Cubs, Slow Learners

They’re named after baby bears. Thursday night, they behaved like babies. And one of the infants in the middle of it, who actually began as one of the field’s diplomats, still insists on taking the low road.

“You’re up 7-2, Lendy Castillo’s pitching, it’s 3-0,” harrumphed Chicago Cubs catcher Steve Clevenger. “You don’t swing in that situation. Things happen.”

Let’s see. It was the fifth inning. The Washington Nationals, who’ve already played with a little more than derring-do to build that 7-2 lead, have the bases loaded, two out, and Jayson Werth at the plate. Castillo, a Rule 5 player who isn’t used much otherwise, hoping to impress his brass, but not exactly doing a fine job of that thus far, has fallen behind Werth 3-0.

Standing by their men . . .

The fifth inning. Not the eighth. Not the ninth. Four more innings to go. Did nobody teach Castillo, Clevenger, or any of these Cubs that they play nine innings in real baseball? No wonder the Cubs are going into the 105th year of their rebuilding effort.

Some of what’s likely to be forgotten about Thursday night is Kurt Suzuki whacking a three-run bomb to support Jordan Zimmermann in a nice bounceback start, punching out nine in seven innings’ work; or, the two-run bomb Adam LaRoche would hit not long after everyone went back to his dugout.  None of what’s likely to be forgotten, and I notice surfing around that the Cubs don’t have as many defenders as they’d probably like to have this time, is the Cubs looking, acting, and talking like a bunch of four year olds.

Thursday night’s Cub starter, Justin Germano, made that clear enough. “When you have circumstances like that, you can take it like that—for yourselves to know that we’re not going to let guys run over us,’’ he told the Chicago Sun-Times. ‘‘And if we’ve got to make them uncomfortable in the box, then that’s what we’ve got to do—not totally going after somebody but just trying to make them aware not to be uncomfortable.”

If we’ve got to make them uncomfortable?

These Cubs couldn’t make a Little League team uncomfortable. Germano was talking over his head for a guy who’d been slapped silly for six earned runs (seven overall) in four innings’ work including Suzuki’s blast and, in the fourth, Bryce Harper’s Flying Wallendas-like infield hit with first and second, which allowed Suzuki to score with Werth and Harper moving up further on Starlin Castro’s miscue and scoring—Harper included, on another round of fancy foot and headwork measuring the play and the throw in—off Ryan Zimmerman’s single.

And Germano’s going to sound the charge against guys running over these Cubs?

Clevenger’s major league career to date has been a small cup of coffee with the Cubs in 2011, good for one double and a run scored in five plate appearances, before a 2012 that shows, thus far, sixty games, a .276 on-base percentage, fielding percentages and range factors below the National League average for catchers, and a -0.8 wins above a replacement level player. In early August, with his playing time upped since Geovanny Soto was traded to Texas, the rook got himself tossed after bellowing, with swearing, at ump Jeff Nelson over a pitch call while batting against Cincinnati.

Yep, he’s the one to show the world the Cubs aren’t going to take the Nats’ chazerei lying down. Clevenger, the Chicago Sun-Times noted about the August toss, “is learning about major-league demeanor as much as hitting and working behind the plate.” Apparently, he’s a slow learner. Maybe if the commissioner’s office hands him, Castillo, and Cubs bench coach Jamie Quirk (about whom more anon) suspensions, he’ll get a little closer to his diploma.

So Werth took a big cut on 3-0 with the ducks on the pond in the fifth. Where I and just about every other baseball watcher comes from they call 3-0 a hitter’s count. Would the Cubs have been offended less if Werth had had the decency to wait until 3-1 before taking a cut?

Clevenger took time to switch mitts when a lace broke on his game piece. During that time, as he went to the Cubs’ dugout to find its replacement, Quirk  and a few possible other Cub pine-pony riders started barking toward the Nats, third base coach Bo Porter in particular. Porter didn’t exactly take kindly to the barking, but he strode almost calmly toward the Cub dugout’s railing, provoking both benches to empty for the first time, though nothing much more than that happened just yet.

It almost seems forgotten that Werth skied to right for the side after order was restored the first time. Certainly it wasn’t necessarily predestination that Harper should lead off the bottom of the sixth. He’d only had a huge hand in the Nats’ Wednesday night 9-1 thrashing, with a pair of bombs. Harper had also been 4-for-8 in the first three games, not to mention turning a double into a triple and a run scored plus an infield hit before he batted in the sixth Thursday.

Clevenger (51), practising scuffle diplomacy . . .

But by God Castillo and Clevenger were going to send the kid a little reminder of who the men were around here. Castillo threw the first pitch of the inning at Harper’s belt on the hip side. Harper bent out of the way like an architect’s compass. Clevenger moved not. a. muscle. as the pitch sailed past Harper and to the Nationals Park backstop. The two Cubs should only be grateful plate ump Jerry Layne—who helped Clevenger nudge Harper away from thoughts of having a mano-a-mano showdown with Castillo at the mound—didn’t throw them out of the game right then and there.

Only when Harper took a couple of steps forward to object to the no-questions-asked purpose pitch did Clevenger rise out of his crouch and step forward, looking to all the world like a peacemaker as he urged Harper back, followed by Werth and Ryan Zimmerman hustling quickly to the plate area to protect their “kid brother,” as pitcher Gio Gonzalez would call him.

You could understand the Cubs’ frustrations. The Nationals slapped them around like bowling pins in the set’s first three. Until Harper got bent the Nats had been on a feeding frenzy including and especially a whopping twelve home runs in the first three games and six on Wednesday night alone. Lots of players don’t hit twelve home runs in a season. Some don’t hit that many in a career.

What you couldn’t understand, of course, is why a kid pitcher who’s been walking six per nine innings thus far, with an ERA that looks like the average price of a compact disc album, and a kid catcher who isn’t exactly making that big an impression behind the dish or at the plate, are going to teach these rapacious Nats a lesson in manners by throwing at anyone. Never mind a Bryce Harper who’s one teenager that doesn’t know the meaning of throttling back when it comes to playing major league baseball.

“It’s really frustrating,” Clevenger drawled in the clubhouse. “They’ve been swinging the bat well all series, you can’t do nothing about that. You try to make some pitches in, and things like that happen.”

Johnson (right, with Michael Morse), managing to win . . .

If all it was was trying to make a pitch inside, Clevenger wouldn’t have sat like a catatonic as the pitch bent Harper and sailed to the backstop without so much as waving his mitt even to look like he was trying to spear it. If you’re going to throw at someone with plausible deniability, protecting your pitcher includes making it look, all the way, like a pitch that just got away. Wave at it. Lunge at it. Anything but sitting still. It betrays you every time.

Somewhere in the milling and mewing that followed immediately, Clevenger, who swears he was still trying to play peacemaker, managed to swing an open hand at a Nat—possibly Ian Desmond, who happened to stumble back and knock umpire Bill Miller down accidentally, Desmond helping Miller up post haste—before trying a shove against hulking Nat Michael Morse. A Cub relief pitcher, Manny Corpas, could be seen in one of the few open spaces in the melee jawing and pointing at a Nat or two. Clevenger, Corpas, and Nats relief corpsman Miguel Gonzalez were thrown out of the game.

Layne left no question who he thought was to blame for touching off the entire evenings’ rumble. He hung it on Quirk in the fifth, saying the bench coach’s “screaming obscenities” at Porter was the pouring of the powder into the keg.

“Here we are in the fifth inning,” Nats manager Davey Johnson said after the game. “We’re in a pennant race, we’re going to swing 3-0, we’re going to do everything. We ain’t stopping trying to score runs. Certainly a five-run lead at that time is nothing. I think it was the bench coach’s frustration in us handing it to them for a couple days. If they want to quit competing and forfeit, then fine. But we’re going to keep competing.”

Sveum, managing to survive . . .

“It’s probably one of the biggest butt-whuppings I’ve ever gotten in my career, as a coach or player,” said Cubs manager Dale Sveum, whose baby bears had just been thrashed in four straight and outscored by 22 runs while they were at it. I don’t remember getting manhandled that bad in any kind of series I’ve ever been a part of. Hopefully these young guys–the team that we’re trying to build–can look back on this and learn a lot from it and know exactly where you got to be as a team to get there.”

Johnson, managing to win. Sveum, managing to survive. You get the feeling the Cubs didn’t learn a thing Thursday night, other than if you can’t beat ‘em, try to bean ‘em or beat ‘em up.

“It’s probably not going to help them avoid their first 100-loss season in [Cubs president of baseball operations] Theo Epstein’s lifetime,” writes the Sun-Times‘s Gordon Wittenmyer, “but the fight the Cubs showed in Thursday’s 70-man scuffle with the Washington Nationals was a significant step in the growing process for the young team, said some of the clubhouse elders.”

If that’s so, how come no less than Cub first baseman Anthony Rizzo all but said after the drubbing was done that there was no earthly or other reason to think about throwing at Harper?

“I don’t think he was over the top at all,” Rizzo told the Chicago Tribune of Harper’s immediate response after Castillo bent him in half. “Things escalated. Bryce, it wasn’t like he was running his mouth or saying anything. He plays this game the right way. He plays hard. He’s real exciting to watch. Playing against him, you have to contain him.”

If Rizzo said as much to his teammates after it was all over, he’d have established himself as a legitimate team leader right away. Because the Cubs showed the wrong kind of fight Thursday night, but the Nats showed the right kind all week long. Among other things, it’s the kind of fight that doesn’t send you home for the winter to watch the postseason on television while leaving behind the impression you’re nothing but a bunch of sore losers.

The Nats Play Baseball, the Cubs Play Basebrawl

All of a sudden the Chicago Cubs seem to have a new slogan: You play baseball, we’ll play basebrawl. Not that it’s going to stop the Washington Nationals from finishing what they started Thursday night, a 9-2 drubbing to complete a four-game sweep. But by cracky it’ll make us feel like men’s men to teach you a lesson, you miserable pudknockers!

Yep, that’s the way for a team who got outscored 31-9 over the four games in Washington to show the world who the men are in this game. Let that upstart Harper brat pick himself up, dust himself off, and roll all over us, will you? Let’s see how smart he looks when we knock him on his ass after we’re so far down in this game we wouldn’t be able to get back up with a rocket.

“Whaddya mean, get bent? Whaddya think he just did to me?!? And those ain’t clown questions, bro!”

That’ll teach the Nats to play like champions-to-be against the Cubs, who’ve now dropped seventeen of eighteen road games and built a six-game losing streak overall in the bargain. Who cares if the Nats are in a pennant race for real while the Cubs couldn’t out-race a millipede in a manual wheelchair? They want to pour it on when they’ve already got themselves a 7-2 lead? We’re not gonna take that lying down!

No, they were going to make sure Bryce Harper took one lying down, or close enough to it. Lendy Castillo, the Cubs’ righthanded relief pitcher, opened the bottom of the sixth with a fastball right at Harper’s belt. Castillo couldn’t even think about trying to argue that the ball got away from him. And at first Cub catcher Steve Clevenger looked like a first-class diplomat. When Harper, understandably enough, took a couple of steps toward the mound, Clevenger merely got around to his front and urged him back and away.

That’s when Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman hustled out toward Harper to make sure the lad didn’t get himself into any further hot water as the benches and bullpens poured out for the second time on the night. And that was where the entire field crowd might have dissipated after a little barking and no punching. Except that Gio Gonzalez, Wednesday night’s winning pitcher, felt a Cub paw on his shoulder, and heard another Cub barking at him, and the two dissipating sides poured back in.

This time, Clevenger surrendered his diplomatic corps credentials and gave a shove to the Nats’ Michael Morse. This is something along the line of Tom Thumb challenging Paul Bunyan to a boxing match. It’s also guaranteed to cause a scrum within the scrum, which is exactly what happened. All this while Harper, Werth, and Zimmermann did their best to stay on the peripheries. “You come into our house and try to mess with our kid brother,” Gonzalez told the Washington Post after the brawlgame, “that’s how we look at it. You’re not just going to come in and please as you do with that.”

Clevenger got the ho-heave. So did Nats relief pitcher Michael Gonzalez and Cubs reliever Manny Corpas, who was seen rather vividly on camera jawing, pointing, and for all anyone could tell threatening various mayhems to various Nats.

By the time any semblance of order could be restored, and Harper could continue his turn at bat, the only question remaining before the house was what the hell Castillo was still doing in the game. Maybe the warnings went to both sides after he bent Harper, but even the blind could have seen he left no room to wiggle into a claim that the ball got away from him somehow.

As things turned out, Harper finally struck out, but Zimmerman chased Castillo with a base hit. Jeff Beliveau came in to relieve and found no further relief when Adam LaRoche hit his first service into the right field seats.

Just a night earlier, after getting thumped 9-1, with Harper himself leading the mayhem with two bombs and the Nationals just about running out of bleachers into which to deposit their launches, Cubs manager Dale Sveum—who’d been thrown out in the third for arguing balls and strikes—seemed to know the score well enough. “It’s just men playing against boys right now,” he mourned.

That was Wednesday, this was Thursday, and the tensions probably started in earnest in the fifth, after the Nats an inning earlier poured it on further with three more runs. Now, up 7-2 with the bases loaded and two out, Werth took a big cut on 3-0. Too big so far as Cubs bench coach Jamie Quirk seemed to be concerned. He started jawing from his dugout at Nats third base coach Bo Porter, who could be forgiven for not taking kindly to Quirk telling him something along the line, perhaps, of how nice it isn’t to keep playing guns blazing when you’re already burying the opposition.

Yep—it’s just men playing against boys right now . . .

Porter may have left the Nats’s broadcast team aghast when he strode over to the rail of the Cubs’ dugout. But Quirk was the one ejected. And, the instigator. Says whom? Says Thursday night’s home plate ump, Jerry Layne, leaving no doubt. “The fracas was started because all that stuff that happened that was instigated by Quirk screaming out at Porter. And the obscenities that he screamed out, I just felt was inappropriate and that’s what caused everything,” the husky ump told reporters.

Inappropriate? If the ducks hadn’t been on the pond at the time, who’s to say with the mood of the Cubs that Werth wouldn’t have gotten one thrown toward his own gut.

Harper had already returned under the Cubs’ skins as early as the first inning, when he whacked and ran out a nifty triple, diving head first into third just to be sure, then scored on another dive while Zimmerman was grounding out. In the bottom of the fourth the lad got even friskier, beating out an infield hit with Kurt Suzuki and Werth on ahead of him, Suzuki scoring, Werth to third and Harper to second on Starlin Castro’s muff, before Werth and Harper came home on Zimmerman’s single.

Werth was in position to swing 3-0 with ducks on the pond in the fifth after Ian Desmond—who’d be knocked into umpire Bill Miller during the sixth-inning soiree after Clevenger took an open-hand swing at him—drew a one-out walk off Castillo and stole second. Danny Espinosa singled him over to third, then stole second himself after a second out, before Zimmerman drew a full-count walk to load them up. That Werth skied to right for the side almost went forgotten while Quirk launched his screed to Porter and both sides launched out of the dugouts and the pens.

Davey Johnson, a manager to whom the word “quit” is an obscenity, illustrated precisely why the Nats are where they are and the Cubs are where they aren’t. “Here we are in the fifth inning,” he said to reporters after the game. “We’re in a pennant race, we’re going to swing 3-0, we’re going to do everything. We ain’t stopping trying to score runs. Certainly, a five-run lead at that time is nothing. I think it was the bench coach’s frustration in us handing it to them for a couple days. If they want to quit competing and forfeit, then fine. But we’re going to keep competing.”

Handing it to them for a couple of days? By the time the Nats finally got through with them, the Cubs were probably calling in search and rescue teams to help them recover their heads.

They weren’t anywhere to be seen in Nationals Park all week long. These Cubs didn’t even pretend to keep competing. They got steamrolled. And there was no way they were going to leave town before letting the Nats know who the men around here were.

Not these Cubs. Why, their rebuilding effort is only going to go to its one hundred and fifth year. Big deal.

To the Would-Be Victors Come the Would-Be Spoilers

The Seattle Mariners may have been on a bit of a tear of late, but they’re not exactly looking for a postseason shot that they’re just not going to get. However, read carefully: the Mariners have the single most tough schedule in the American League to come down the stretch of the stretch.

The New York Yankees and their minions love to say, no matter how the Yankees might be struggling lately, that the road to the Serious still goes through the south Bronx. But for the Los Angeles Angels, the Oakland Athletics, and the Texas Rangers, the road to the postseason is going through Seattle: 21 out of the Mariners’ coming final 24 games will be played against those clubs. The lone set with no postseason prospect involving the Mariners is a three-set against the Toronto Blue Jays.

And the Mariners won’t necessarily be pushovers, either. They might be dead last in the American League West (67-71, with only a vague hope of reaching .500 if at all) but since the All-Star break they’re tied for the second-best jacket in the circuit with 32-20, even if they did kind of fatten it at the expense of Kansas City, Cleveland, and Minnesota.

And it gets even more delicious when you factor in that it won’t only be the Blue Jays who have to deal with Felix Hernandez, who’s already thrown four shutouts in his last ten starts including his perfect game. Including the regular season’s final day, when—if he works on his regular rest—the Angels would have the pleasure of figuring him out, possibly with a wild card spot on the line for Mike Scioscia’s troops.

So who else really gets to play spoiler down this stretch? First, the American League:

Los Angeles Angels—One more slump, however, and the Angels go from possible wild-card sneak-ins to spoilers alone. They face the third-toughest AL schedule behind Seattle and Oakland. Six games to come against the Rangers, four against the A’s, and three each against the Central-fighting Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox. On the other hand, they also face six games with the Mariners . . . over their last nine games on the season. If the Angels are going to be fated as spoilers after all, their time is sooner than you or they might think.

Boston Red Sox—On scheduling paper the Red Sox have the fourth toughest AL schedule to come. Six games each against Tampa Bay, Baltimore, and the Empire Emeritus. That’s on paper only. In reality—don’t exactly bank on this year’s Red Sox becoming last year’s Orioles. Since The Big Deal they’ve gotten worse instead of better and it doesn’t look like anything can help them now. Which is another good reason to dump Bobby Valentine post-haste. He can’t even get them to muster up for playing for pride anymore.

Toronto Blue Jays—They have four against the Orioles, seven against the Yankees, and three versus Tampa Bay. Sorry, Yankee fans—the road to this postseason just might be going through Toronto or Boston, though right now Toronto looks like the heavier stretch to pave.

The National League’s prospective poisoners aren’t looking at quite the kind of roads the AL spoilers-in-waiting face. The league’s toughest schedule to come belongs to the Los Angeles Dodgers, who are fighting for a postseason berth still. But the second-toughest belongs to the Miami Marlins—who look at this writing and probably for the rest of they way as though the only thing they could spoil would be their fans’ lunches or dinners. The road to the National League postseason isn’t going through southern Florida this time.

As for the rest of the league?

New York Mets—They’ve been looking a little better since busting out of their last free fall with an 8-3 record over their previous eleven games. They still face six games with the Atlanta Braves, three with the Washington Nationals, and a four-game set against the Pittsburgh Pirates, who are still clinging to postseason hopes and just might get a chance to have the Mets throw them over the stern. Unlike the Red Sox, the Mets are playing for pride now and have the right manager under whom to do it. Terry Collins is what the Red Sox only thought Bobby Valentine would be, the difference being Collins learned from the past and hasn’t been swatting flies with atomic bombs or betraying his players no matter how no-nonsense he is with them.

Milwaukee Brewers—They’re facing four with the Nats and three each against the Braves, the Pirates, the St. Louis Cardinals, and the Cincinnati Reds.

San Diego Padres—Don’t laugh; the Friars just took two out of three from the Dodgers and have three more to play against them. That’s in addition to three games each with the Cardinals and six with the San Francisco Giants.

Further spoiler alert: At least a few of the aforesaid contenders (we’ve already mentioned the Angels in this context, alas) could be reduced to spoilers themselves by the time at least one of the current candidates gets to them.

Enough, Already—Bobby Valentine Needs to Go; Yesterday, if Possible

It’s come to this. The other team who collapsed almost as monumentally as the Red Sox did a year ago gets credit for not doing what the Red Sox did, letting an incumbent and decent manager fall on his sword and hiring Bobby Valentine in his place.

The Red Sox collapse spared the Atlanta Braves the ignominy attached to the Red Sox, never mind that nobody accused the Atlanta rotation of spending more time with chicken and brewskis than with pitching charts and sliders on the black down the stretch. And the Braves should probably be grateful not to have had imposed upon them what was imposed upon the Red Sox.

Cover boy . . . (Sports Illustrated image)

“Even as the Braves tease/torment us with the possibility (remote though it would seem) of another epic collapse,” writes Mark Bradley of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “we can take solace in this: As frustrating as they can be, they’re not the Red Sox. Because the Red Sox took their own E.C. of last September and proceeded to destroy themselves.

“They changed general managers. More to the point, they changed managers and hired the absolute worst man for the job, and not a day passes that Red Sox Nation isn’t given a new reason to realize that any organization that employs Bobby Valentine is doomed.”

That, too, was prompted by Valentine’s ghastly appearance on this week’s Sports Illustrated cover. Not to mention Valentine’s unconscionable radio rant a day or so earlier, when he threatened to punch out one of two radio interviewers who dared to question whether Valentine, who hasn’t exactly kept secret his own disenchantment with this season, had “checked out” on it at last.

It would have been hilarious if it hadn’t been so disgusting. And no amount of backpedaling that he was only kidding around has cauterised the impact yet, if ever it will.

Practically anyone who heard the exchange on the air has written that Valentine in that moment sounded anything like a man going for a laugh. Here is the transcript from WEEI, to whose host Glenn Ordway he directed his fumes, after Ordway asked him directly, if not maliciously, “Have you checked out?”:

What an embarrassing thing to say. If I were there, I’d punch you right in the mouth. Ha, ha. How’s that sound? Is that like I checked out? What an embarrassing thing. Why would somebody even, that’s stuff that a comic strip person would write. If someone’s here, watching me go out at 2 o’clock in the afternoon working with the young players, watching me put in the right relief pitchers to get a win, putting on a hit-and-run when it was necessary, talking to the guys after the game in the food room — how could someone in real life say that?

Apparently, it’s just fine for Valentine to ask whether a Kevin Youkilis has checked out, metaphorically speaking. Valentine in April threw the first match into the natural gas leak that already was the Red Sox clubhouse when he was foolish enough to question since-departed Youkilis’s heart in hand with the first baseman’s physical health. Valentine may have lost just enough of his clubhouse right then and there. Now, knowing Valentine hasn’t exactly been demure about his own frustrations lately, someone had the temerity to question Valentine’s heart. And Valentine went Hiroshima.

Imagine if Youkilis in mid-April had been asked in a radio interview about his manager’s original comment and told the questioner, “What an embarrassing thing to say. If I were there, I’d punch you right in the mouth.” What would you consider the odds of Youkilis surviving without taking a beating from the rest of the press or from his own bosses? Who’s to say he wouldn’t have been run out of town sooner than he finally was?

Just when you thought, as I did just a day or so ago, that it was safe to bear even a modicum of sympathy for the man, Valentine drops Little Boy and makes yet another big stink. Compared to him, Ozzie Guillen is beginning to resemble a diplomat.

It got even better when Valentine, parrying an inquiry into his late arrival at the ballpark, dragged Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon into it, saying Maddon sometimes gets to the park even later than Valentine “once” did. To his credit, Maddon refused to let Valentine make a beard out of him. “Apologies to the writers for being late to today’s pregame session,” he tweeted post haste. “My pedicure appointment ran a little late.”

It’ll take more than a pedicure to settle Valentine’s and the Red Sox’s hash. Bradley isolates the point rather well.

No wonder this man’s smiling . . .

Some Braves fans who were so disenchanted with the user-friendly Fredi Gonzalez last September that they took to AJC.com message boards to lobby for a hard nose with a flair for tactics—a man, in sum, like Bobby Valentine. Trouble is, nobody who plays for this “tactician” can ever be troubled to do as he asks: They’re all too busy hating their manager’s guts.

The Red Sox serve as both case study and object lesson: They failed spectacularly last season and overreacted, and today they’re one game out of last place in a five-team division and have taken to selling off assets in the hope they might get a little better somewhere down the road. The Braves stayed the course and are again positioned to make the playoffs. Sometimes we around here criticize the Braves for being too passive, but whenever we look toward Boston we should be reminded that motion for motion’s sake is never a good idea.

The Red Sox thought it’d be a good idea to throw the smarmy Bobby Valentine into a combustible clubhouse, and today the flagship team of New England is in ashes. And we learn yet again that actions do have consequences.

So does partial action. So does inaction. The Red Sox are learning about both the hard way, too. It’s no longer possible to hang most or even some of it on the players, with maybe one or two exceptions. Sure, they’ve still had a season in hell on the field. But those who were considered Valentine enemies, actual or alleged, are gone now. The season in hell continues apace, and Valentine keeps putting torches to the fires and his foot in his mouth. All the way to his ankle.

The longer the Red Sox leave him where he is, the deeper runs the perception that this is a management that either wouldn’t know a clue or couldn’t care less. All things considered, it probably should have happened immediately after The Big Deal. But Valentine needs to go. Yesterday, if possible. For the sake of the Red Sox, and just maybe for his own sake, too.

Brandon McCarthy, Scored By a Liner

Especially for a pitcher, keeping your head in the game is not supposed to mean to the point where your head nearly gets taken off.

Oakland Athletics righthander Brandon McCarthy throws Los Angeles Angels hitter Erick Aybar a 91 mph cutter practically down the chute in the top of the fourth Wednesday night. Aybar hits it on the proverbial screws. The ball slams into the right side of McCarthy’s head like a bullet, knocking the righthander down on the mound.

Herb Score and Gil McDougald, call your offices?

Aybar’s liner was hit so hard and fast McCarthy had no chance to get his glove up to knock the ball down. The ball hit McCarthy above his right ear, seemingly, as he was in his follow-through. He was knocked around and bent over at the waist on immediate impact before crumpling to the mound, his back to the plate, falling over onto his haunches and finally into a sprawling heap.

Down and holding where the liner drilled him . . .

The entire population of the Oakland Coliseum, including those milling in the Angels’ dugout, cried in horror as McCarthy hit the deck and Aybar ran over first base following the putout. Believe it or not, there was a putout on the otherwise sickening play. The ball caromed off McCarthy’s head toward third base, where Josh Donaldson fielded it on the run and threw Aybar out.

Then, Donaldson ambled over to join the rest of his infield plus both the Oakland and Los Angeles trainers around McCarthy, who managed to sit up and run his hands through his hair, obviously trying to salve pain. Aybar lingered near and then forward of first base. He looked for all the world to see like a man who’d had a gun blast off in his hands completely by accident and seen a respected neighbour take the bullet.

“I didn’t see the ball until it was right on me. All I know is the ball got really big really fast.”—Herb Score.

Alberto Callaspo, the Angels’ on-deck hitter, squatted in the on-deck circle, leaning forward on his bat, shaking his head helplessly. Aybar returned to his dugout in due course and let his head fall into his hands in utter disbelief, promising himself to check on McCarthy as soon as possible.

He was fortunate that A’s fans these days are a civil bunch when it comes to accidents in honest play. When McDougald rifled his liner off Score’s eye in May 1957, the Yankee jack-of-all-trades was hammered with fan abuse enough. Never mind that McDougald had a gentlemanly reputation parallel to Score’s. (“It was,” New York Journal-American writer Til Ferdenzi wrote, “like Sir Lancelot felling Sir Lancelot.”)

The abuse didn’t stop the heartsick McDougald from calling the hospital constantly, even wresting from staffers the direct line to Score’s doctor, in order to keep track of the fallen righthander. More than that, Score’s mother got McDougald on the phone to reassure him about her son, and about himself.

“You feel really bad,” Aybar said to reporters, as translated from his native Spanish. ”[McCarthy]’s a good guy. You never want to hit anybody over the head, and he’s a good guy. Hopefully everything turns out all right and, God-willing, that he gets better soon.”

This wasn’t even close to the way the Angels wanted to finish what they’d started earlier in the week and sweep the high-enough-flying A’s. It certainly wasn’t the way the A’s wanted to go down, if they had to go down to the Angels. “You try not to let it linger,” Oakland catcher Derek Norris said after the game, “but it’s human nature for it to. Your heart goes out to your teammate. You battle with them throughout the course of the season, but we try our best to motivate us to win it for Mac.”

Applause as McCarthy leaves under his own power . . .

When McCarthy managed to get up at last and walk off the field under his own power—he’ll be held in hospital overnight and miss the A’s trip to Seattle—the standing ovation also included everyone in the Coliseum and everyone in the Angels’ dugout.

McCarthy went down for the count with the A’s still very much in the game, trailing a mere 3-1. In fact, the two sides played shutout baseball from the fourth through the eighth innings. The Angels stranded a pair of one-out baserunners in the sixth and stranded super rookie Mike Trout (a two-out walk, a stolen base) an inning later, while going on to wreck a one-out walk (to Kendrys Morales) with a double play. The A’s best threat the rest of the way was first and third with one out in the seventh, before Angels reliever Nick Maronde celebrated birthday number 23 by punching out Coco Crisp and Sean Smith for the side.

It wasn’t until the ninth that someone got really frisky. Eight someones, to be precise, all wearing Angels silks. Peter Bourjos opened with a walk and took second on Aybar’s followup base hit, before Norris’s miscue in front of the plate let Callaspo load the pads on a bunt. Pinch-hitter Macier Izturis wrung a bases-loaded walk and, after Trout (uncharacteristically) struck out, Torii Hunter turned the merry-go-round back on with a base hit. Albert Pujols’s strikeout wasn’t exactly in vain, with Izturis stealing home on the front end of a double steal (Hunter taking second), before Morales grounded out for the side and a 7-1 lead that would hold with only a two-out single and a strand from the A’s in the bottom.

Mussina had to convince himself everything wasn’t coming back at him . . .

But you can’t exactly fault the A’s if their hearts might have fallen out of it just a little bit.

Bang, bang! Or, as one fan tweeted, presumably from the ballpark itself, “like the ball hitting the bat twice.”

Just a year earlier, Colorado’s Juan Nicasio took one on a liner by Ian Desmond. Nicasio was caught in the neck, suffering a fracture that kept him down for the rest of 2011. In 1998, Mike Mussina, then with the Baltimore Orioles, took a comebacker the hard way and subsequently admitted it he struggled “getting over the fear that every ball I threw, every ball that someone made contact with, was not coming back at me.”

One of McCarthy’s own relievers Wednesday night knows the feeling only too well. Pat Neshek took one in a college game. Steve Shields, a journeyman reliever in the late 1980s and early 1990s, got it twice—once when he was in the Red Sox system, and once as a Seattle Mariner: in his second appearance of 1987, Hall of Famer Kirby Pucket lined one off his cheek, breaking it and causing him to miss a month. He didn’t exactly pitch well on his return.

Lou Brissie.

You don’t have to get it in the face to be taken down for any length of time—and even out. Now a popular Angels broadcaster, Mark Gubicza in 1996 was a veteran Kansas City righthander who took one off his left leg, suffering a fracture that caused him to miss the final half of his final Kansas City. Career essentially over, if you don’t count an aborted comeback bid with the Angels. Matt Clement’s career ended similarly: enjoying a career year with the 2005 Red Sox, he took a liner in the face from then-Tampa Bay outfielder Carl Crawford in July. He managed to make his next start, but the Crawford shot did to Clement what Mussina feared would happen to himself, and Clement was gone a year later.

Several generations earlier, Lou Brissie, the courageous Philadelphia Athletics lefthander, took a line shot off a leg from Ted Williams—on Opening Day, 1948. (Brissie had made his major league debut the previous September, in Yankee Stadium, on the day the Yankees honoured Babe Ruth.) What amplified the horror: the leg was the one Brissie begged military doctors to save, when they wanted to amputate, after it had been all but blown to bits in World War II battle. (Brissie needed 23 surgeries and a metal brace in order to even think about baseball, never mind impress A’s emperor Connie Mack with his courage.)

Brissie went down fast and Williams hustled over from first base to see if Brissie would be ok. “Dammit, Ted,” Brissie is said to have cracked, “why didn’t just pull the ball?”

It’s every pitcher’s worst nightmare. And not all of them handle it the way Lou Brissie and Herb Score did. “I talked to Gil and told him it was something that could happen to anyone,” Score would say in due course. “It’s just like a pitcher beaning a hitter. He didn’t mean it.” After missing the rest of the season recuperating, Score would lose his formidable arm—to faulty mechanics, by his own admission, after he tried coming back too soon from an elbow tear.

The medication that kept him pitching finally left him fearful of a line drive to the face . . .

Retiring at thirty, when he was still somewhere about ten dimensions beyond the top of his game, Sandy Koufax admitted he was prompted in considerable part by the medical regimen he underwent to keep pitching with his arthritic elbow. “[T]o walk around with a constant upset stomach because of the pills and to be high half the time during a ballgame because you’re taking painkillers, I don’t want to have to do that.”

He didn’t have to say it. Phil Collier, a San Diego Tribune reporter, who sat on the story of Koufax’s final season for a year until Koufax himself announced his retirement, said it for him. “He took codeine before he pitched,” Collier once said. “Because of the codeine, it affected his reaction time. He was afraid sooner or later someone was going to hit him in the head with a line drive.”

It was hard not to be grateful that Brandon McCarthy wasn’t on anything but his own power when he went down. That may be the only thing about which we can be grateful on McCarthy’s behalf right now. But it was hard not to remember Koufax’s halting admission to suffering every pitcher’s worst nightmare when looking at the number on McCarthy’s back.

Thirty-two.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.