Posts Tagged ‘Baltimore Orioles’

A Slip of the Hip Sinking the Yankee Ship?

Make that a slippage to the point where the Baltimore Orioles—yes, those Baltimore Orioles—are one game behind the Empire Emeritus. In the American League East standings. The Orioles helped themselves there Monday by shutting out Toronto, but the Yankees held the door for them falling to Tampa Bay, 4-3, when Robinson Cano faltered in the bottom of the eighth on maybe the key play of the game.

And it’s no ordinary faltering if Cano wasn’t kidding about a barking hip as he went for the play and he, too, goes down on sick leave.

Roberts—Scoring on the turn of Cano’s hip?

Chris Gimenez, the batter in question with a man on second and the game tied at three, didn’t exactly shoot the grounder like a torpedo along the top of the Tropicana Field rug. The journeyman Gimenez came back up from the minors Saturday and carried a .203 major league average this year into Monday’s game. Not exactly a stick to strike fear into a Yankee heart even if he did swat home a run with a single off CC Sabathia in the Tampa Bay second.

Now, Cano shaded toward the pad with Gimenez batting righthanded, and the Rays’ rook cued it toward the hole. It’s a ball to which Cano normally gets, by trot or dive. Not this time. The ball danced under Cano’s downstretched glove and into the outfield. It rolled slow enough for Ryan Roberts, the man on second, to cross the plate like a commuter barreling his way to catch the downtown express the minute the doors begin closing. Except that now the doors may be closing on the Yankees’ postseason possibilities.

“I had it there,” Cano told reporters after it was over. “It was just my left foot just came up, and I just felt my left hip a little bit. Right when I tried to bend, my left foot just came straight up and I felt my hip. It will be hopefully just nothing bad. It’s just tight right now. Hopefully nothing bad or anything. Let’s see how it feels tomorrow.”

If Cano’s split more than his infinitives, the Yankees are the next best thing to dead ducks.

He looked suspect enough in the top of the same inning, when he couldn’t break out of the box in customary fashion when he hit a liner Tampa Bay third baseman Kelly Johnson couldn’t handle. He dropped and fumbled the ball like a tight end surrounded tighter by barreling defencive backs, then threw way off line toward first base. And he still beat Cano thanks to the Yankee second baseman’s rickety start out of the box.

On 18 July, the Empire Emeritus had a ten-game AL East lead. Eleven days later, the lead remained 7.5. Coming into Tampa Bay after dropping two of three to the Orioles in New York, the Yankee lead was down to a pair. Now it’s a game. And their coming schedule has about a 50-50 chance of allowing them breathing room. Following this week-opening set with the Rays, they get to play the Orioles again in Baltimore. And this year’s Orioles don’t know the meaning of the word “quit.”

Saunders—Shutting out the Jays while the Yanks fed the Rays . . .

By the time they leave Baltimore for a three-set with what’s left of the Red Sox in Fenway Park, the Yankees might discover that even slapping the Red Sox silly in three straight won’t help them much. On paper the Orioles have the tougher immediate schedule—two more with the Blue Jays, that four-set hosting the Yankees, then a showdown with the Rays, and a weekend in Oakland against an equally surprising collection of Athletics, who just might be the hottest team in baseball at this moment and could keep that status by that weekend. (Their upcoming schedule is no siesta, but they don’t exactly seem worried, either.)

But these Orioles are made of hardier stuff. The Yankees have been done in by injuries and too many lineups filled with scrubs and utilities, not to mention a pitching staff that’s beginning to show age and vulnerabilities up and down. The Orioles took two of three from the Yankees as July turned to August. Since then, they’re 20-9, and the Yankees are 15-15. They rode a castoff named Joe Saunders (cast off by the Arizona Diamondbacks a couple of weeks ago; once cast off by the Los Angeles Angels in a deal for Dan Haren) and three bullpen bulls to a three-hit shutout Monday, and they’re closer to the Yankees in the East than anyone’s been since June.

What if if the beginning of the end for these Yankees truly might come off a journeyman .203 hitter, toward the turn of a hip on a ground ball slip?

The Yankees aren’t used to losing pennants or being denied chances for them thanks to surrealities beyond their control. It’ll take just as long for Yankee-watchers and Yankee-haters alike to think of anything like that striking them down. Imagine that. The Yankees and their minions experiencing life according to the pre-2004 Red Sox.

Yes, children—minus Strasburg, this Nats rotation DOES have good postseason chances

Let’s try this again.

Assume the Washington Nationals will stick to the script and implement, some time in September, the exclamation point of the Strasburg Plan. Period dot period. Assume, too, that there’ll be enough blue murder screaming over the Nats torpedoing their own postseason chances. Maybe even some conspiracy theorists demanding a formal investigation, perhaps into whether someone isn’t buying the Nats off bigtime to tank. (Would the conspiracy theorists surprise you, really?)

Now, shove all that to one side and look at the Nats’ rotation without Stephen Strasburg.

Zimmermann—Without the Stras, he won’t be leading a rotation of pushovers . . .

Jordan Zimmermann—At this writing, Jordan Zimmermann leads the team with a 2.63 earned run average. If wins and losses are still your thing exclusively, dismiss him if you must as barely above a .500 pitcher, since he’s 9-8 through right now. Want to know how many no-decisions Zimmermann has on his jacket through today? Nine. If you define pitching well enough to win as surrendering three runs or fewer, he pitched seven of those nine games well enough to win, and in five of those seven the Nats did go on to win. So if you still look at wins and losses first and last, Zimmermann should have a 15-8 won-lost record through today.

What do you know. That would give him as many wins as Strasburg has and a mere two losses more. But Zimmermann’s quality stats include a 1.13 walks/hits per inning pitched rate (team lead), a 3.72 strikeout-to-walk ratio (second only to Strasburg’s 4.23), a 1.8 walks per nine rate, and a 0.8 home run rate. He also has 2.9 wins above a replacement level pitcher. I’m not exactly convinced the Nats would be in terrible postseason shape with Zimmermann at the top of the rotation.

Gio Gonzalez—He’d probably win the Cy Young Award if it were going to the most congenially quotable pitcher in the league. He has the second best winning percentage (.696) to Strasburg (.714) as of today. He’s also third among the rotation in ERA—with a nifty 3.28. He only has three no-decisions, and in only one did he pitch well enough to win, according to the above definition. So, instead of his current 16-7 won-lost record, he’d be 17-7, since the Nats went on to win that one game. If you want to cut him a break and say four earned runs or less is good enough to win, Gonzalez could—since the Nats went on to win all three of his no-decisions thus far—have a 19-7 record.

He’s got a 1.16 WHIP through today; he has a 2.80 K/BB rate, he has a 9.5 K/9 rate, and he has a 0.5 home run rate, if that matters to you. He also has 1.6 WAR. In a Strasburg-less postseason rotation, I don’t think you’d be in grave danger with Gonzalez as your number two man.

Edwin Jackson—Start and end with wins and losses and you’d start worrying here. After all, Jackson only has an 8-9 record despite his 3.53 ERA. He also has eight no-decisions, one fewer than Zimmermann. And, by the aforesaid measurement of pitching well enough to win, in six of those games Jackson did pitch well enough to win. The Nats only went on to win one of those games, alas, which would make Jackson a 9-9, but since four of them ended up as one-run games, and you’d like to think a pitcher working well enough to win or better than well enough should have come away with a pitching win. By that, Jackson should be 12-9.

His quality stats are solid for a number three man. He has a 1.17 WHIP and a 2.85 K/BB rate; he has a 1.1 home run per nine rate and a 2.8 BB/9 rate. Look at a Strasburg-less Nats rotation and, so far, you can’t really think of one good reason why this rotation can’t succeed come postseason time. Among Zimmermann, Gonzalez, and Jackson, they average to a 1.15 WHIP rate. Folks, that’s 1965 Los Angeles Dodgers, 1969 New York Mets, or 1971 Baltimore Orioles territory.

Ross Detwiler—The sleeper of the bunch. He’s 8-6 with a better than respectable 3.52 ERA. He has a pile of no-decisions in his own right as a starter (he’s also seen some very effective bullpen duty)—seven, to be exact. Of those seven, he pitched well enough to win six of them, and the Nats went on to win four of those. By that, Detwiler should have a 12-6 won-lost record.

Detwiler’s quality stats are just about even with Jackson’s. He has a 1.17 WHIP and a 2.31 K/BB rate; he has a 2.4 BB/9 rate and a 0.6 HR/9 rate. As a number four man in a Strasburg-less postseason rotation, it doesn’t exactly look as though Detwiler’s the weak link. It doesn’t even look as though the Nat rotation without Strasburg is a weak link.

The entire Nats pitching staff through this writing is worth 17.4 WAR. With Strasburg, the rotation is good for 13.5; without him, they lose a mere 2.6. Believe it or not, Zimmerman leads the rotation with his 4.0. Are you trying to tell me a rotation configured to equal 10.9 WAR would go into a postseason with a gaping handicap?

Of course there’s no way the Nats are where they are without Strasburg. Assuming they hold those levels the rest of the stretch, nobody else going to the postseason in the National League should assume the Nats rotation minus Strasburg would be pushovers. Whoops! you say—whaddabout postseason experience? Gotcha! There’s Edwin Jackson, and there’s all the rest, and shouldn’t the Nats bring every damn last weapon to bear they can bring including Strasburg?

Well, now. Let’s take a look at a few rotations that went into a postseason with little to no such experience to carry into it and see what they did:

A tale of two Hall of Famers—little did Kid Palmer know . . .

1966 Baltimore Orioles—The only pitcher on the entire staff with postseason experience was reliever Stu Miller (1962 San Francisco Giants). Who also led the team in ERA. Except for oft-injured lefthander Steve Barber, the Oriole starters were kids: Jim Palmer was all of 20, Wally Bunker 21, Dave McNally 23, and John Miller 25. You’d have given a staff like that three chances in a World Series against the last of the great Dodger teams of the middle 1960s. Those Dodgers still brandished Hall of Famers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, plus Claude Osteen as the number three rotation man and Phil (The Vulture) Regan having his career year out of the bullpen. The Orioles swept the Dodgers in four straight, though they did get a little help from Willie Davis’s fatal inning in a Game Two in which Koufax otherwise looked like his usual self until then. Maybe they had some incentive not to get another turn against Koufax, but whatever works, works.

Koosman, doing what even a Hall of Famer couldn’t, beating the Orioles twice in the ’69 Miracle . . .

1969 New York Mets—Not a damn one of them, not even veteran Don Cardwell, had postseason experience to speak of entering that postseason. The Mets had one bona-fide Hall of Famer in the rotation (Tom Seaver) and one bona-fide Hall of Famer (Nolan Ryan) as a spot starter and relief option, and about the only postseason experience either had was watching on the tube or in the stands. The Mets steamrolled the Atlanta Braves to win the first National League Championship Series, then won four straight—with Jerry Koosman, not Seaver, winning twice—after losing Game One of the World Series to a Baltimore Orioles team that, on paper, was supposed to make three squares a day out of those Mets.

1970 Cincinnati Reds—The first of the teams to be known as the Big Red Machine had one pitcher (Jim Merritt, a 20-game winner) who’d been to a World Series in 1965 (with the Minnesota Twins) but pitched only 3.1 innings in two relief appearances. Not exactly a well-seasoned veteran of the wars. After burying the Pittsburgh Pirates in three straight in the NLCS, they went down in five to the Orioles in the Serious.

1971 Oakland Athletics—These A’s featured a rotation topped by Vida Blue (having his career year) and Catfish Hunter (future Hall of Famer) and nobody with postseason experience. They got overwhelmed by the Orioles and their four 20-game winners in the League Championship Series, alas. Call it a dress rehearsal for what was to come—namely, three straight World Series rings.

1979 Pittsburgh Pirates—The Fam-I-Lee had one starter, Bert Blyleven, with any postseason experience, and that was a mere two-inning relief gig with the 1970 Twins whom the Orioles blew away in three straight. It may have been one of the classic full-team efforts—no Pirate pitcher was all that dominant in the World Series, other than Blyleven and closer Kent Tekulve—but the Pirates did win it in a seven-game thriller.

“One Tough Dominican . . .”

1982 St. Louis Cardinals—None of this rotation had postseason experience going in, and they didn’t exactly go in looking like a particularly threatening rotation. (Their best starter: Joaquin Andujar, whose 1.09 WHIP was the only one on the staff below 1.25.) The only pitcher on the whole staff with postseason experience was Jim Kaat, by then working as a relief pitcher who only started two on the season. The Cardinals ground out a seven-game Series win over the Brewers, but you couldn’t really say that either team threw a deadly rotation up there. (The Brewers, in fairness, had a rotation slightly worse than the Cardinals’ and two pitchers—Hall of Famers Rollie Fingers and Don Sutton—on staff, but Sutton was a mid-to-late season pickup and Fingers, of course, was the closer.)

1986 New York Mets—They had no 20-game winners, three starters with ERAs under 3, and nobody with postseason experience. After they steamrolled the National League in the regular season, they had to win the pennant the hard way against a feisty collection of Houston Astros, then win the World Series the hard way against a star-crossed collection of Boston Red Sox. If you looked at the rotation’s WHIP overall, it compares pretty favourably to that of this year’s Nats thus far.

1990 Cincinnati Reds—The stars of this show, arguably, were the Nasty Boys bullpen, among whom only Randy Myers (1988 Mets) had any postseason experience. In the rotation, only Danny Jackson (1985 Kansas City Royals) had been there, done that; in the non-Nasty bullpen contingent, only veteran Rick Mahler (who had sixteen spot starts during the season) had gone to any postseason, and there he’d pitched less than two innings for the 1982 Atlanta Braves. These Reds ended up stunning the A’s with a Series sweep after needing six to beat the Pirates for the pennant.

Young, loud, and snotty . . .

2003 Florida Marlins—No postseason experience ever among the rotation, including young, loud, and snotty (You lost! Go home!) Josh Beckett. Beat the Yankees in six in the World Series, after shoving the Giants out of the way in the division series but winning an arduous League Championship Series against the Chicago Cubs.

2007 Colorado Rockies—Had six starters on the year, none of whom took postseason experience into these rounds. These Rockies swept the Philadelphia Phillies out of the division series and the Arizona Diamondbacks out of the League Championship Series—only to be swept out of the World Series, in turn, by the Red Sox.

2008 Tampa Bay Rays—No rotation postseason experience. Not quite as good as this year’s Nats with or without Strasburg. And they got rolled in five by the Phillies in the World Series, after taking the Chicago White Sox in four in the division series and wrestling to a seven-game LCS win over the Red Sox.

Lincecum—no experience necessary . . .

2010 San Francisco Giants—They made themselves into a no-experience-whatsoever postseason rotation. The only member of the 2010 Giants with any postseason experience of which to speak was Barry Zito (when he was with the early-2000s A’s)—and he’d pitched so horrifically in 2010 the Giants didn’t dare include him on the postseason roster. This took the Giants to a World Series against a Texas Rangers staff that had two postseason-experienced starters. (Cliff Lee and Rich Harden.) The “inexperienced” Giants rode that pitching and some very timely and half unexpected hitting to a five-game Series conquest.

Covering twelve teams since 1966 who took little-to-no postseason-tested pitching into any postseason, it shakes out like this: eight of those rotations proved World Series winners. One of those rotations, moreover, beat a rotation loaded with two much-experienced Hall of Famers including maybe the greatest peak-value lefthanded pitcher of the post-World War II era at least and possibly all-time at most.

An 8-4 World Series-winning record among the inexperienced over a 46-year span isn’t exactly a great reason to be alarmed that the “inexperienced” Washington Nationals rotation—with or without Stephen Strasburg—is going to be guaranteed dead meat going into this year’s postseason. If the Nats stick to the Strasburg Plan on behalf of keeping their man’s arm from breaking off long-range, it is not going to kill them going in if they go without him.

That doesn’t guarantee the Nats’ survival, of course. But it does suggest that the alarmists bleating about whether they’re shooting themselves in the feet or “cheating” their fans out of the best possible chances to win are bleating through their derrieres.

A Snag on Blanton

There’s a snag in the possible movement of Philadelphia’s Joe Blanton to the Baltimore Orioles—and it has nothing to do with anything the Orioles found in Blanton’s medical records, for which they asked to review Monday. The Baltimore Sun’s Dan Connolly says the snag is money:

Blanton.

The Orioles are deep into negotiations with the Philadelphia Phillies about acquiring right-hander Joe Blanton, but the amount of money the Orioles would have to pick up could be a sticking point in reaching an agreement before Tuesday’s 4 p.m. non-waiver trade deadline.

They likely could acquire the 31-year-old Blanton for a mid-level minor leaguer, but the Phillies also want to shed what remains on Blanton’s $8.5 million contract — which is approximately $3 million.

And, according to an industry source, the Orioles appear hesitant to absorb that figure for a pitcher who is considered a mid-to-late-rotation innings eater. The Phillies, who surprisingly are last in the National League East despite a $170 million-plus payroll, are looking for salary relief, especially after inking lefty Cole Hamels to a $144 million contract extension Wednesday.

The Phillies aren’t necessarily looking to blow up the team entirely even with the trades of Shane Victorino (Dodgers) and Hunter Pence (Giants)—they’re merely looking to shuffle a few pieces for a 2013 regrouping as well as salary relief. There may be no better analysis of their current position and what has fueled it than Jonah Keri at Grantland.com:

Halladay.

After the Phils lost in the ’09 World Series, Amaro started doubling down. There were smaller deals, like a three-year, $18 million pact with Placido Polanco to upgrade at third base. Then there were the mega-deals. First, Amaro flipped three more prospects to Toronto, landing arguably the best pitcher in the game in Roy Halladay. The Phillies then locked up Halladay in another below-market deal, getting a steal at three years, $60 million plus an option. The next contract sparked far more controversy, when [Ryan] Howard signed a five-year, $125 million extension that didn’t kick in until Opening Day 2012, nearly two years after pen hit paper. Whether the Phillies were opening the vault because they overvalued home runs and RBIs and overlooked Howard’s shortcomings (his struggles versus lefties; lack of defensive value; the fact that he’d already peaked three years earlier) or because they wanted to retain the de facto face of the franchise, it was an overpay. [Cliff] Lee returned to Philly in 2011 after a year away at five years, $120 million; [Jimmy] Rollins re-upped for three years, $33 million the next season; and Jonathan Papelbon also joined the next season at four years, $50 million.

When the Phillies took the field to start the 2012 season, they were shooting for their sixth straight division title. Except Howard, [Chase] Utley, and Rollins were all well past their prime with Howard and Utley on the DL, and the rest of the roster looked thin behind Halladay, Lee, Hamels, Papelbon, and a couple of key position players. All told, the Phillies’ payroll had nearly doubled in five years, to $172 million. They’d finally moved into the Yankees’ neighborhood.

Howard.

It’s easy to criticize Amaro for the flawed, hugely expensive roster he now has: If you want to know why Philly owes about $115 million to six players next year and craves payroll flexibility now, look no further than the deals they handed out over the past few years. But really, that’s the nature of success. More often than not, winning leads to more spending, and not necessarily the other way around. Maybe the Howard deal shouldn’t have happened, and the team’s nucleus should have seen more turnover as everyone got older. But the Phillies’ revenue streams had exploded thanks to their five straight division titles and new stadium, and Amaro had a mandate to keep the good times rolling. We were going to reach this point sooner or later, even if Branch Rickey were in charge.

Most recently, Blanton posted five quality starts in his last six assignments and rolled a respectable 3.82 earned run average in July. The Orioles targeted Blanton as a pitcher who could help stablise a younger rotation.

The money may not be the only snag in the works. The Sun says the Phillies’ targets in a Blanton deal include infield prospect Jonathan Schoop, a 20-year-old who won the Orioles’ Brooks Robinson Award as their minor league player of the year, but the Orioles wouldn’t be likely to include Schoop in a deal.

MEANWHILE, BACK IN THE JUNGLE . . .

NOW, THIS IS A SWITCH!—Thus far, the New York Mets’ 2012 has been marked by an arduous grapple for a shot at the postseason, but one made difficult to impossible by a bullpen that tends to detonate nuclear weapons instead of pitches at the Mets’ expense.

That was a collective New York heart attack you’ve been hearing since late Monday night, when the San Francisco Giants’ pen imploded on the Mets’ behalf—the Giants’ bulls upchucked a two-run lead and let the Mets hang up six runs in the final three innings, including but not limited to Scott Hairston’s two late bombs, a two-run shot in the eighth and a solo in the tenth. It’s as though the Giants’ bulls were trying to return the favour, since the Mets’ middle infield misplayed a sure one-out double-play, letting a Giants run score. The two teams actually traded leads four times before the game went to the extras and the Mets came out on top 8-7.

Still, the Mets need to reconstitute their bullpen—and fast, if they think they have a prayer of staying in the postseason picture. Bobby Parnell looks like a closer of the future but he needs to get better control of his lightning fastball, Frank Francisco (the incumbent) isn’t quite back from his injury, and Pedro Beato—who could yet be their future setup man—was sent back to the minors to get himself back on track. The Mets have been quiet on the non-waiver deadline trade market thus far.

The Giants Sing a Song of Hunter Pence

They won’t be doing this with each other anymore: Hunter Pence (r.) will be doing it against Shane Victorino (l.), now that Pence is a Giant and Victorino, a Dodger . . .

Now we’re rolling. The Philadelphia Phillies and the San Francisco Giants have finished a deal to send Hunter Pence to the Giants for major league-established outfielder Nate Schierholtz and two prospects, catcher Tommy Joseph and pitcher Seth Rosin. (Now, there’s a name for a pitcher!)

The Giants were looking for an upgrade in the lineup and in the outfield, which Pence—who’s signed through this season and could earn over $13 million in 2013—would bring with the 17 homers and 59 RBI he has so far in 2012. The deal comes right on the tail of the Phillies sending Shane Victorino to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

For Pence, it’s his second non-waiver deadline move in as many seasons: the Phillies landed him near the deadline last year from the team named later to complete the deal that sent the Milwaukee Brewers to the National League.

The Phillies, meanwhile, are said to have stopped all talk involving trading Cliff Lee despite Lee’s struggling. The Texas Rangers, whom Lee helped lead to a World Series in 2010, were thought to be interested in bringing him back, but various reports point to the Rangers not wanting to surrender quite the package the Phillies sought in return even if the Rangers were willing to work with the Phillies on Lee’s remaining salary.

The Phillies aren’t looking (yet) for a downright organisational overhaul, but they are trying to rehorse for a run in 2013 after injuries and inconsistencies drove them to the bottom of the National League East this season. At this writing, the Phillies are still said to be in serious discussion with the Baltimore Orioles on a deal to send the Orioles pitcher Joe Blanton, with the Orioles going far enough to request a look at Blanton’s medical records. Blanton would be just one move for the Orioles; they’re said to be looking for bullpen help as well.

MEANWHILE, BACK IN THE JUNGLE . . .

EMPIRICAL MOVES?—The New York Yankees aren’t being as quiet as a lot of people thought in the past fortnight, the Ichiro Suzuki deal to the contrary: they’re now said to have eyes for Ryan Dempster while possibly looking for a little third base help with Alex Rodriguez down for the count for six weeks at least. San Diego’s Chase Headley—whom most analysts think the Padres must move if they want to get rebuilding in earnest—is thought to be on the Yankee radar. What might make the Yankees think they have a shot at Dempster, who’s being pretty finicky in invoking his no-trade clause? Easy enough: Two men Dempster respects, former Cubs GM Jim Hendry and former Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild, are in the Yankee organisation now. However, a few reports indicate the Yankees and Cubs are merely talking—for now.

TEXAS SHIELDS?—At this writing, it’s believed the Texas Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays are talking about Rays pitcher James Shields, formerly thought to be on the Los Angeles Angels’ radar until they pulled the proverbial trigger on the Zack Greinke deal. Right now, that’s all it is, according to a few reports: talking.

SNAKES IN THE GRASS?—The Arizona Diamondbacks may be making a move in their quest to land a major league-established starting pitcher: they’re said to have pulled minor league pitching prospect Patrick Corbin from a scheduled start in Sacramento (AAA), indicating a possible deal in the works in which Corbin would be included, though nobody’s saying just whom the Snakes have as their target. On the other hand, it’s also possible that they could move a major league starter (as yet unnamed) in a deal. The Diamondbacks are widely thought to be trying to move two other players, infielder Stephen Drew and outfielder Justin Upton.

UH-OH . . . There’s a snag in the speculation on Ryan Dempster as a Dodger target. Fox’s Ken Rosenthal tweets it this way: the Dodgers’ position “is that they have made deals without moving any of top 7-8 prospects. Will not move any of them for rental like Dempster.” Which could mean the Dodgers may back away from Dempster unless there’s a fair chance they can sign him beyond his current deal that expires at season’s end.

The Sunny Side of the Street, and other ballads . . .

Whatever speculation there might have been (there was some) about whom the San Diego Padres might have thought about moving, there’s one candidate off the streets now: ESPN reports the Padres have signed closer Huston Street to a two-year extension, worth $14 million, including a 2015 team option that could make the deal worth $21 million to the righthanded All-Star, who’s 2-0 with an 0.91 ERA and all seventeen of his save opportunities converted through this writing.

For Street it seems almost like calling it home at last.

Street.

You find a place that you’re comfortable with, obvious success makes you feel more comfortable, but also the team, my teammates, wanting to be a teammate with these guys for an extended period of time. It’s a two-year deal with an option so if the team picks up that option it’s three years, that’ll be four years here in San Diego, at least. I think the organization itself is a bunch of people that I like, that I like being around, that I want to go play for and ultimately you have to believe in that, you have to believe in everybody involved.

The Padres picked him up in the first place in a 2011 swap with the Colorado Rockies.

With Street off the market now, eyes continue following the Padres to see if they’ll move Chase Headley.

MEANWHILE, BACK IN THE JUNGLE . . .

Liriano.

PITCHING PUMP—The Chicago White Sox thumped Francisco Liriano last Monday; this weekend, they added Liriano to their staff, getting him from the Minnesota Twins for infielder Eduardo Escobar and minor league pitching prospect Pedro Hernandez. Liriano’s struggled this season so far (he’s battled injuries and inconsistencies since his 2006 premiere), but once the White Sox landed him—he’s expected to join the White Sox when they arrive in Minnesota after playing Texas Sunday—they extended their winning streak to five. It’s a change of scenery move for Liriano and a possible upswing for the Twins regarding Hernandez: he’s 8-2/2.92 between AA and AAA this year, though he had a shaking major league outing against the Red Sox earlier this year, but the Twins could be looking at him as major league ready as soon as 2013.

Johnson.

DECENCY—That’s what the Arizona Diamondbacks hope they got when they bagged Houston third baseman Chris Johnson. Not only does he have a +105 OPS-plus (league average: +100), he’s under contract control through 2017. To get him, the Snakes sent the Astros a pair of minor league spare parts. Landing Johnson, though, has several analysts thinking he brings just the infield depth needed for the Diamondbacks to think about moving Stephen Drew, with the Oakland Athletics a possible trading partner.

Roberts.

THIS IS THE END . . . for Baltimore Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts. He’s due to have season-ending surgery to fix a torn labrum in his right hip. The news came after Roberts was to begin a rehab assignment at Aberdeen (A). Roberts’s season started badly enough with a concussion, before he injured his hip after seventeen games back from the concussion. Roberts told reporters he would be disappointed not to stay the course with an Oriole team in surprising pennant contention this year, but the long-range plan is “to get ready for 600 good at-bats in 2013.”

A Devilish Angel

Fifty years ago, a rakish, flaky, and talented lefthanded pitcher, who thought he’d reached his final end in the Baltimore Orioles organisation, sat at his parents’ home in Trenton, New Jersey. He’d just returned from pitching winter ball in Venezuela, helping lead his team to the playoffs. Now, he pondered a meager, minimum-salary contract offer from the Los Angeles Angels, who’d plucked him from the Baltimore Orioles organisation in a minor league draft the previous November.

Through early 1962, Bo Belinsky was an up-and-down minor league pitcher, after having signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1956 just to escape a Trenton in which he’d come to feel hemmed in. When a sympathetic Orioles executive suggested Venezuelan winter ball, he took to it, convinced the Orioles now thought nothing more of him, despite leading his minor league in strikeouts in 1961.

One moment a live prospect, the next a skirt-chasing head case, or so baseball people came to think of him. Now, with five weeks to go before spring training, Belinsky takes a call from Angels general manager Fred Haney, formerly a back-to-back pennant-winning Milwaukee Braves manager. He’s demanded something better for compensation than the $6,000 major league minimum salary. “I’ve been around,” says Belinsky, whose pastimes also included pool hustling, after having grown up the son of a Trenton television repair expert and winning numerous neighbourhood sports trophies while shying away from organised school sports. “I want eighty-five hundred. Not a penny less.”

The Angels open spring training without him, and Los Angeles Herald-Express sportswriter Bud Furillo smells a rat. Chafing because his paper, like just about all Los Angeles and southern California papers, boosted the Dodgers without much thought to the Angels otherwise, which didn’t bode well for him on the Angels’ beat, Furillo calls Belinsky in Trenton. The pitcher repeats his contract demand to Furillo. When the veteran reporter asks how he was passing time, Belinsky doesn’t flinch. “I’m shooting a lot of pool and laying a lot of broads,” he replies.

With a little cleanup on the comment about the girls, Furillo writes a story that makes Belinsky seem too tied up in a big-money pool tournament, and making too much money otherwise, to think about baseball.

The Herald-Express does Furillo one better: they slam it on page one, complete with a very vivid photograph of the handsome lefthander. It launches a flood of publicity for Belinsky and the Angels alike, even if some stories side with the Angels in the contract dispute. Belinsky becomes an overnight sensation on a Los Angeles sports scene that already has star power to burn with the Dodgers. And Belinsky had never thrown a major league pitch in his life to that point, other than previous springs’ exhibition games if that much. Thinking he’d have a better chance of getting what he wanted if he was in camp instead of on the phone from Trenton, Belinsky decides to report to Palm Springs, where the Angels train, after all.

His family's only known studio portrait of Bo Belinsky.

It was like an Edward G. Robinson movie. They sat me down against the [Desert Inn Hotel] pool, poured me a drink, and took off. They wanted names, dates, and phone numbers of all the broadies I had laid. I told them there wouldn’t be enough room in their papers for any other news if they printed that. They wanted to know about the pool tournament. Hell, there was no pool tournament, I was shooting some friendly games, and they got the idea I was in some great contest. I let it ride. They had heard about some of the fights in the minors and some of the adventures in Venezuela. I built it all up a little . . . I realised that from the first day these guys didn’t want the truth. That wasn’t as good a story as something I could make up. So I went along with them. I answered all their questions the way they wanted. When they asked about broadies, I built it up. When they asked about pool, I made out to be the best player that ever picked up a cue. When they asked about my contract, I made it sound like I wouldn’t sign under any conditions unless [Angels owner Gene] Autry asked me personally.”

—Bo Belinsky, to Maury Allen, for Bo: Pitching and Wooing. (New York: The Dial Press, 1973.)

After three days of that whirl, and a promise from Haney to renegotiate his contract if he makes the team and pitches well, Belinsky signs. He gets to within inches of being released or sold, however, when he struggles to come around; the winter pitching in Venezuela has exhausted his arm. It takes Haney and pitching coach Marv Grissom (he was the winner in relief, when Willie Mays’s stupefying catch and Dusty Rhodes’ pinch-hit home run meant Game One of the 1954 World Series) to persuade manager Bill Rigney to keep Belinsky at least for that part of the season in which a team could carry more than 25 players.

Belinsky finally gets his chance to start in late April 1962, at Dodger Stadium. (Oops. The Angels call it Chavez Ravine, for the three years of their tenancy there.) The Angels’ only other reliable lefthanded starter, Ted Bowsfield, turns up with a sore arm, and Rigney is anxious to send a lefthander out for the second of three games with the Kansas City Athletics. Belinsky on the outside is as cocksure as the day was long; inside, he will admit in due course, he may be  shrinking, knowing he’ll be gone for good if he bombs in this game. All the razzle, all the dazzle, all the cool stories and nights on the town with the hottest honeys in Hollywood, won’t save him if he blows this one.

Once upon a time, believe it or not, Bo Belinsky actually could pitch.

He falls behind 2-0 in the first inning but that’s all the Athletics would get off him. Belinsky strikes out the side in the second inning, pitches out of trouble in the fourth, fifth, and sixth innings, helps his own cause by singling home Eddie (The Walking Man) Yost with what would prove the winning run, and yields to Art Fowler, who saves it for him with three innings of solid relief.

A week later, Belinsky gets his second chance. This time, he goes the distance, throwing a four-hitter to beat the Cleveland Indians, 6-2. Six days after that, he’s sent to face the Indians again, in Cleveland. This time, he goes five and a third, the Angels up 6-1 when he gets shaky enough in the sixth that Jack Spring relieves him, after he’s plunked Tito Francona with the bases loaded, Spring escaping the jam but running into trouble an inning later, forcing Eli Grba to finish that inning, before former Yankee star Ryne Duren relieves Grba in the eighth to finish and save it.

Four days later—with a 3-0 record and a 2.21 ERA to launch his major league career in earnest, and the Los Angeles sports press who’d built him into a star going nuts—Belinsky gets the starting assignment against his former organisation, the Baltimore Orioles.

“He could challenge anybody with that fastball. He got the screwball over early, but the fastball set up everything . . . When Bo was on, he had that electric kind of stuff,” his catcher that day, Bob Rodgers, later a major league manager, would remember.

“The worst thing that ever could have happened to Bo,” Rigney would remember, of the game and its aftermath, “was pitching that no-hitter.”

[W]ithin days after his no-hitter, Belinsky . . . would be heralded as sport’s most original and engaging playboy-athlete. His name would become synonymous with a lifestyle that was cool and slick and dazzling, epitomising not only the lifestyles of such later athletes as Joe Namath, Ken Harrelson, and Derek Sanderson, but also those of an entire, ephemeral decade—the Sixties. But in time the name Belinskly would become synonymous with something else. It would become synonymous with dissipated talent.

—Pat Jordan, “Once He Was an Angel,” Sports Illustrated, 1972; republished as “An Angel of His Time” in The Suitors of Spring. (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1973.)

Belinsky’s date book now includes some of Hollywood’s prime glamour women, including but not necessarily limited to Tina Louise, Ann-Margret, and his eventual fiancee Mamie Van Doren. He tools around famously—or infamously, depending on your point of view—in a stylish Cadillac convertible; he’s seen at least as often in Los Angeles’s most delicious nightspots as he’s seen on the mound, often as not with his Angels roommate and best friend, pitcher Dean Chance; fading but still influential show business columnist Walter Winchell becomes his patron.

Twisting the night away: Bo Belinsky with Mamie Van Doren.

But he will go from that no-hitter to finish 1962 with a 10-11 won-lost record, a 3.56 ERA, 2.2 wins above a replacement-level player, a 1.45 walks/hits-per-inning-pitched rate, and the American League lead in walks, the only time he would ever lead his league in any category. After an off-season of cool among the southern California demimonde, Belinsky’s 1963 would be interrupted by a spell in the minors—on the Angels’ Hawaii farm team—and a final major league record of 2-9/5.75/-1.9/1.47.

Without changing a single thing, however, Belinsky in 1964 will seem as though he has found the right stuff at last, all things considered. By the time he finishes 11 August with a very tough loss to the Indians—Cleveland third baseman Max Alvis whacks a three-run bomb off him in the ninth, after he spends the first eight innings swapping zeroes with Luis Tiant—Belinsky stands at 9-8 (it might have been 12-8; he’d had two losses and a no-decision in which he pitched well enough to win) with a 2.86 ERA; he’d cut his WHIP down to 1.29; he’d be two wins above a replacement-level player; most important, he’d seem to have quit trying to finesse or embarrass hitters, a flaw Rigney would later affirm.

Like many pitchers in similar straits, following two seasons of promise turned to struggle, Belinsky would cry in a reporter’s beer a day later, in this case  Associated Press reporter Charlie Maher. Maher would write a fine, sensitive story in which he’d address Belinsky’s expressed inclination to hang it up and observe it was only the expression of a pitcher who’d just pitched one of his best games and come up short in the absolute end. But elder Los Angeles Times writer Braven Dyer, already a Belinsky nemesis, would see the story in print, after the Angels make a cross country flight from Los Angeles to Washington for a set with the Senators. Dyer will barrel to Belinsky’s hotel room, demanding a story for his own paper. While Chance prepares a bath to relax after the long flight, Belinsky answers the door. Possibly inebriated, Dyer will appear ready to swing at Belinsky, and the lefthander will deck him with a single punch.

The Angels will suspend and then trade him, after he finishes the season in Hawaii, to the Philadelphia Phillies. Belinsky will feud with manager Gene Mauch over his pitching role and a rib injury. The Phillies will send him to the minors in June 1966, where he will seem to recover his out pitch; the Houston Astros will draft him out of the minors for 1967; he will go from there to undistinguished turns between the minors (though he’d pitch another no-hitter, in Hawaii, a place he comes to love almost as much as southern California) and the Pittsburgh Pirates, the St. Louis Cardinals (who would cut him in spring 1969), and the Cincinnati Reds, whom he’d make out of spring training 1970 but work eight innings before being banished to the minors (in Indianapolis, a comedown for him compared to Hawaii) for the final time.

In the interim, he will swap his playboy lifestyle (in part by attrition, when his funds can’t equal his digs, his rides, or his taste in the ladies) for marriage to Playboy Playmate of the Year (1965) Jo Collins. When that marriage and a second (to paper heiress Janie Weyerhaeser) produce three daughters but fail miserably otherwise, Belinsky will try to rekindle his former lifestyle but end up an alcoholic.

When a Houston sportswriter asked him how sport’s most notorious playboy felt upon reaching thirty, Bo replied with a smile, “Babe, it’s no fun knowing that in every home in America your birthday is celebrated as a day of infamy.” An exaggeration, perhaps . . . [but] one still had the annoying suspicion that Bo Belinsky felt his remark contained more truth than wit. Whether this was the overblown self-pity of a too shallow man or the heightened perception of a too sensitive man was not clear. What was clear was only that Belinsky had dissipated a promising career, that people had grown tired of him, and that most of his difficulty could be traced to his personality. He did not have the knack of later athletes—the Namaths, the Harrelsons, the Sandersons—of consciously cultivating his personality precisely up to, but not beyond, that point at which the public becomes bored with it.

—Pat Jordan.

At peace in Las Vegas: still handsome; now clean and sober, but bravely battling cancer.

I came to the Angels as a kid who thought he had been pushed around by life, by minor league baseball. I was selfish and immature in a lot of ways and I tried to cover that up. I went from a major league ballplayer to hanging onto a brown bag under the bridge, but I had my moments and I have my memories. If I had the attitude about life then that I have now, I’d have done a lot of things differently. But you make your rules and you play by them. I knew the bills would come due eventually, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to cover them.

—Bo Belinsky, to Ross Newhan, for The Anaheim Angels: A Complete History.

He will clean up, enter periods of introspection, and finally become first an alcohol counselor in Hawaii and then a car dealership promoter in Las Vegas. He will also become a born-again Christian (“Can you imagine finding Jesus Christ in Las Vegas?”), an occasional baseball card show presence, and live a sober, quiet life in Las Vegas until his death—of a heart attack, apparently, though he’d also be fighting bladder cancer—at 64. In November 2001. Half a century to the month after the Angels drafted him out of the Orioles’ organisation in the first place.

Bo was a one of a kind guy, and there won’t be another one like him. He was full of cancer, his heart was bad, and his hip was hurting him terribly at the end. He had slipped and fallen, and it was really tough on him. But he had made his peace with the Lord, and he is probably better off today than he was last week. He’s not suffering terribly anymore.

—Dean Chance, reacting to Belinsky’s death.

He went from a long minor league life to throwing a rookie no-hitter for his fourth straight major league win in 1962. In 2002, almost a year after he died, his inability to reconcile to his three children his only lingering black mark, his former Angels broke their own longtime demons and curses, actual or reputed, and won their first World Series rings.

Too free spirited to make a successful professional athlete, too guileless for all his street smarts to make a life beyond baseball for long enough. Yet Bo Belinsky put the Angels on the map for keeps, half a century ago, when he drove the prudes mad with his slick, dazzling, playboy style. Neither side understood, quite yet, that a time would come when Belinsky’s rakish lifestyle at the height of his fame would seem tame, even genuinely romantic, compared to the debaucheries into which future sports stars would sink with little comparative shame.

The 129 Minutes Heard 'Round the World

I could say that there are no words, but then I wouldn’t be a writer. I could say that I didn’t know what to think or say when Evan Longoria tore Scott Proctor’s 2-2 service over the fence for game, wild card, and what remained of the Boston Red Sox’s hearts; when badly-spent rookie Atlanta relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel heaved up the tying run in the ninth and Hunter Pence ripped a two-out RBI single in the thirteenth. But then I wouldn’t be a baseball fan.

Except that for a good while I actually didn’t know what to say. I had just kept my closest eye on maybe the greatest night in baseball history, and the most heartbreaking fifteen minutes the sport has ever seen, and I could only replay the moves in my mind and my heart. Not to mention where the Red Sox and the Braves stood well enough at the top of the wild card heap when September began only to stand in the shadows of collapse, complete and profound, two nights before September would end with a postseason beginning that both teams would see only on television. Assuming they retained the stomach for it.

Fredi Gonzalez isn’t likely to lose his job over the Braves’ self-immolation. Terry Francona may well have lost his over the Red Sox’s. Gonzalez inexplicably sounded the call of no excuses after Pence’s single closed the Braves’ coffins and one his key mistakes, his overuse of his bullpen in the first half, no longer had the resources to keep Atlanta’s anemic offence from being overmatched by a Philadelphia lineup that didn’t know the meaning of the words lay back and let it happen. Francona inexplicably dozed at the tiller while his Red Sox proved ill-conditioned, ill-consistent, and perhaps ill-aligned when the heaviest heat of the stretch drive bore down upon them.

Remember this time notation: 9:56 p.m., Eastern Daylight Time, Wednesday, 28 September 2011. From that moment, as the Red Sox and the Braves enjoyed tight 3-2 leads while the Tampa Bay Rays were unamused by a 7-0 deficit (to the AL East champion New York Yankees, basically in tuneup-for-the-postseason mode), baseball essentially chose to remind a jaded nation just what is its real national pastime and which of its professional sports still holds the deepest capacity for the most transcendental drama. Especially when, as many did, the final month begins with those who should know better yawning over its guaranteed absence.

For one trans-dimensional night, meet the King of Swing . . .

Even if it meant Kimbrel, otherwise a solid Rookie of the Year candidate with the rookie saves record, throwing a meatball that could be dumped for a seeing-eye tying RBI in the ninth.

Even if it meant Longoria possibly giving the out-of-town scoreboard a fleeting glance before hitting a three-run homer off Luis Ayala to pull the Rays to within a run of a Yankee team with no stake in the race any longer because they’d already wrapped the East.

Even if it meant the St. Louis Cardinals—whose own stupefying return from the land of the living dead will be forgotten too often in the tales of Atlanta and Boston deflation—finishing their 8-0 abuse of the worst roster in Houston Astros history, ensuring that even if the Braves hung in to pull out a win it would mean, at best, the equal of a condemned prisoner filing one more court appeal.

Even if it meant an up-and-down first baseman, who can’t normally hit if you suggest he try a hangar door, stepping in against a Yankee no-name named Cory Wade and hitting one out with the Rays down to their final strike, sending that one to extra innings in the bargain.

Even if it means the drama going from acute to beyond the fifth dimension, when a rain delay in Camden Yards finally ebbs and the Red Sox can resume the festivities against the Orioles, whose season would end in the basement but who were playing for spoiler to climax an apparent season-long feud with the Olde Towne Team.

Even if it means Pence swinging like a quadriplegic to sneak a broken-bat base hit to where neither second baseman Dan Uggla nor first baseman Freddie Freeman can reach it, to put the Phillies up 4-3 in the top of the thirteenth.

Sing a song of one Pence . . .

Even if it means Freeman grounding into a season-ending double play, leaving the Braves the potential holders of the worst September collapse ever this side of the 1995 California Angels.

Even if it means Jonathan Papelbon, the Red Sox’s hearty reliever, opening the ninth with back-to-back punchouts only to close it with back-to-back doubles, including the ground-rule game tyer from Nolan Reimold and, three minutes later, Robert Andrino dumping a quail that Carl Crawford, the Red Sox’s high-priced snatch from Tampa Bay, whose season had been one of exposing himself as an overrated talent in the first place, got a glove on only to see it bang off its edge unconscionably and roll away for the game-losing RBI.

Even if it means, three minutes after that, Longoria turning on Proctor and the Red Sox with one long-distance swing and joining company with Gabby Hartnett, Bobby Thomson, Bill Mazeroski, Chris Chambliss, Carlton Fisk, Kirk Gibson, Joe Carter, Aaron Boone, Steve Finley, and David Ortiz.

Even if it means only too many people are going to obsess enough with the Red Sox’s and the Braves’s self-immolation that they need to be reminded that the Rays made themselves into the greatest comeback team September has ever known, from nine out to the wild card, with the Cardinals doing what they hadn’t been done since they did it on the backside of the infamous Phillie Phlop of 1964—from eight back to the World Series.

That’s the genuinely sad part. More people remember the Phillie Phlop than the Cardinal Comeback. And more people will remember the self-immolations of this year’s Braves and this year’s Red Sox than the gallant self-resurrections of this year’s Cardinals and Rays.

Ortiz himself must be feeling the pangs of hell in his oversize heart. Once upon a time, he stood tall and proud as the man who finished what Dave Roberts started and launched the Red Sox toward the beginning of the greatest postseason recovery ever. Seven years later, he stands among the beaten as part of the worst collapse in the same team’s tortuous enough history.

One only imagines the pangs in Chipper Jones’s heart. The only incumbent Brave to have been there when the Braves last won a World Series, in 1995, pushing himself now on balky knees while the rest of the bats around him ran the gamut from papier mache to parchment and back. Jones could do no more to stem his team’s deflation than had been done over all those early-and-often postseason executions. Only this time he wouldn’t even get into the postseason to test any prospective curse on the Braves. This time, the Braves had taken a gasoline bath and lit the cigarettes of the condemned before the bath was dry. It likely leaves the aging and banged-up Jones to ponder whether he’ll try one more season, one more pennant race, one more chance to join his Braves for one more clean World Series shot.

They’ll recover a lot more readily than the Red Sox will, alas. The Red Sox. A team who’d fractured a long-standing curse of surrealistic heartbreak, thought they had it made, and learned the hard way how unkind it is to tempt the baseball gods once too often and with little to appease them. A team who’d once been hale and hearty heartbrokens, learning the hard way that complacency, indifference (the stories have already wafted up about the striking lack of chemistry on this year’s model), and reputed sloth merely leaves you heartbroken.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia prays he wasn't really there when this happened to his Red Sox . . .

It’s as though Dave Roberts’ stolen base, David Ortiz’s eleventh-hour bombs, Curt Schilling’s blood-and-boots pitching, Johnny Damon’s salami, and Keith Foulke’s shovel to Doug Mientkiewicz were figments of the imagination.

Once again, we see Leon Culberson throwing high to Johnny Pesky, Joe McCarthy pulling Ellis Kinder, Dick Williams asking what Jim Lonborg no longer had, Luis Aparicio stumbling around third, Darrell Johnson pulling Jim Willoughby, Bill Lee throwing an insult to Tony Perez, Don Zimmer sitting Luis Tiant for Ice Water Sprowl, Bucky (You-Know-Whatting) Dent hitting the home run, the grounder skipping through Bill Buckner’s wicket, Grady Little committing to Pedro Martinez’s heart without checking his flesh and bones.

Those Red Sox teams were at least done in in honest effort. This one was done in by . . . well, we don’t want to say dishonest effort. But this injury-pockmarked Red Sox team didn’t have what that injury-pockmarked Tampa Bay team ended up having. Those Red Sox teams provoked a literature of tragedy unlike any baseball has ever known this side of the Chicago Cubs. This one is likely to produce a book of calumny. (It’ll only begin with how the Rays could have come back from the dead without Crawford while the Red Sox came back from the land of the living with him.)

And, the unemployment of the franchise’s most successful manager. Terry Francona once shepherded the end of 86 years of transcendental heartbreak. Now he’s the the poster boy, right or wrong, for one season of transcendental heartbreak. Fredi Gonzalez is probably counting his blessings. In Atlanta, they don’t call for heads on plates or dates with the lions in Turner Field over this kind of thing. If they did, Bobby Cox would be the answer to a trivia question, not a Hall of Fame manager in waiting.