Posts Tagged ‘Pittsburgh Pirates’

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.

Root, Root, Root, Get Run

If Don Mattingly and Matt Kemp are right, Angel Campos needs to face baseball government and explain why he threw Kemp out of a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates for the heinous offence of rooting for a teammate.

If they are wrong, however, and Campos’s real motivation was Kemp and other Dodgers barking about Campos’s balls and strikes, then Campos needs to explain why he waited until Kemp hollered, “Let’s go, ‘Dre!” to teammate Andre Ethier, in the batter’s box leading off the second inning, before he tossed Kemp.

Facing A.J. Burnett—whose comeback story is one of the reasons the Pirates are chugging away in an honest-to-God pennant race, and in whose starts the Pirates are 18-4 this season, including Thursday night’s 10-6 win over the Dodgers, tying a single-season percentage mark (82 percent) set in 1902 (behind Jack Chesbro)—Ethier stepped out of the box a moment and the scrum was on in earnest.

“Hey, man, since when is rooting for my guy against the law?!?”—Manager Don Mattingly (l.) and outfielder Matt Kemp (c.) would like plate umpire Angel Campos (r.) to explain that one, as should everyone. (Note: Campos’s “HW” patch is in honour of longtime NL ump Harry Wendelstedt, who died in March.)

You could hear a little yapping coming from the Dodger dugout before Ethier stepped out of the box. Kemp, who’d struck out in the first, was clearly unhappy with Campos’s strike zone. Campos would have been well enough within his rights as an umpire to toss someone if it was just barking about ball and strike calls. All he had to do was give one of the Dodger barkers the ho-heave during the ball and strike barks, and that would have been that.

As it happens, Campos did issue a kind of warning to the Dodger dugout over the ball-and-strike barking. Something along the line of, “I don’t want to hear another word out of you.”

“Then I said, ‘Let’s go ‘Dre’,” Kemp told reporters, apparently indicating he’d begun rooting for Ethier after the unofficial knock-it-off about the pitch calls, “and he tossed me out of the game. You’ve got two teams going at it in a pennant race. We’re trying to build the lead against the Giants and Arizona, and I get thrown out for cheering my teammate.”

Throwing a player out for rooting for his teammate? No wonder Mattingly scurried out of the dugout to face Campos down. In part from the instinct to protect his player further, in part because he probably had every right on earth to demand an explanation as to why, suddenly, rooting from the bench is supposed to cost a player.

Kemp, for his part, blasted out of the dugout after getting the thumb. No problem there. Players and managers have been known from time immemorial to look to have their say, once and for all, after their ejections. Except that Kemp needed, at various times, bench coach Trey Hillman, teammate Shane Victorino, and one or two other umps to keep him from possibly trying to knock Campos into the middle of September.

At one point, Kemp bumped into one of the umps, probably unintentionally. It got rather crowded around the plate, where the debate transpired, particularly when crew chief Tim Tschida decided Mattingly needed the rest of the night off for bad behaviour himself. He also needed Hillman’s help to get Mattingly off the field at last.

“This isn’t about being mad,” said Mattingly to reporters after the game, which cost the Dodgers a series sweep against the Pirates. “This is something that has to go above me. It needs to go to the league. We’re in a pennant race, and I’ve got a guy who was second in the MVP last year, and you can’t take him out of the game for cheering for a teammate. If we had gone out of control, that’s different. This is just unacceptable behavior [by Campos].”

It wouldn’t be the end of the Dodgers’ troubles with the plate ump. When Pedro Alvarez hit one over the center field fence in the fifth, moments after Garrett Jones hit one of his two three-run bombs on the night, Los Angeles starter Joe Blanton ran toward Campos before leaving the field when he was lifted for a reliever.

Campos isn’t exactly immune to controversy. Last year, during an interleague game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Kansas City Royals, Campos tossed Royals catcher Matt Treanor (who happens to be with the Dodgers this year) while they were exchanging words . . . at a moment when Treanor wasn’t even facing Campos as he talked. Let’s see. Tossing one man when he isn’t even looking at you; tossing another man when he’s rooting from the dugout. Campos seems to have a thing for long-distance purging.

We’re going to hear and see it if Kemp gets himself a fine and/or a suspension, which is just about the last thing the Dodgers need while battling for the National League West. Bank on it. What we may not hear or see is whether Campos is disciplined as a possible instigator, and by what means.

Which is part of the problem many have with umpiring today. For the most part, the arbiters do well. But when they do wrong, when they cross the line between mere command of a game and baseball’s equivalent of judicial tyranny, which is, unfortunately, often enough, the consequences they face are disclosed rarely enough.

Victorino to the Dodgers: The Trade Winds at 5.5 Hours to Go . . .

One of the signatures of the Philadephia Phillies’ former grip on the National League East is departing, according to Fox Sports. The network says Shane Victorino was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers Monday for relief pitcher Josh Lindblom and minor league pitcher Ethan Martin, whose name was raised earlier during conversations with the Chicago Cubs regarding Ryan Dempster.

Victorino returns to his first organisation . . .

The network quotes an unidentified source as saying the Dodgers for now are thinking, “Damn the money, make the club better,” as the Dodgers continue a push in the National League West. For Victorino it’s a sort-of homecoming: he was originally a Dodger draft (1999), but the Dodgers lost him twice in Rule 5 minor league drafts and he eventually haunted his first organisation in postseason play, helping beat them in 2008 and 2009—and triggering a bench-clearing when Hiroki Kuroda dusted him during the 2008 League Championship Series.

Victorino is a two-time All-Star with 40 runs batted in in 2012. He’s thought to have faded somewhat this season but he’s still only 31 and, according to the Los Angeles Times, the Dodgers think he still has plenty of upside left for them, if you listen to general manager Ned Colletti.

We’re excited to add an All-Star caliber player with postseason experience. He plays the game with passion, gives us a top of the order bat from both sides of the plate, can steal bases and is solid defensively in the outfield.

Victorino has 24 stolen bases and came off a 2011 in which he scored 95 runs and led the National League with 16 triples.

What did the Phillies get for him? Martin is a starter who’s considered just about major league ready but the Dodgers have a decent rotation behind Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley; Lindblom has established himself as a solid enough late-inning relief option with a 3.02 ERA thus far in 48 2012 games.

The Phillies were said to have been listening to offers for Victorino from the Cincinnati Reds and the Pittsburgh Pirates as well, both of which NL Central contenders were said to be as weak in the leadoff spot as the Dodgers. Sports Illustrated noted the Reds might have felt the Phillies’ return demand might have been too high. On the Phillies’ part, unloading Victorino and/or Hunter Pence could free up some salary space, bring in a prospect, and possibly get them back in the NL East hunts for 2013. (Of course, possibly moving Cliff Lee would do even more in that regard.)

The Reds are at the bottom of the Show in batting average from the leadoff spot (.203) and on-base percentage (.248). With Victorino gone, the Reds may set their sights instead on Juan Pierre (also with the Phillies) or Minnesota’s Denard Span, but they may not want to give up a pitcher to get Span. The Pirates, on the other hand, merely need help in the lineup, especially in the outfield where Andrew McCutchen now seems like a one-man show, since they fixed their biggest problem when they landed Wandy Rodriguez from the completely-rebuilding Houston Astros.

Speaking of Dempster, the Dodgers are still thought to be interested in landing the veteran righthander whose scoreless innings streak ramped his value to his personal all-time high. Dempster himself has vetoed a potential deal to the Atlanta Braves, who need to shore up their rotation for a final postseason push, and the issue seems to come down to just what the Dodgers will have to send the Cubs to get him.

The Cubs, for their part, need to move Dempster in favour of continuing a rebuilding effort that began when they brought in Theo Epstein to run the organisation. They’ve already moved veterans Geovanny Soto (C) and Paul Maholm (P) for some attractive prospects.

What makes Dempster so attractive other than his apparent career year this year? To those who dismiss him as a mere .500 pitcher, here says SI’s Jay Jaffe: “Dempster has been a guy who has averaged 200 innings a year while striking out 8.2 per nine, with an ERA 17 percent better than league average. That’s a solid 2-3 starter. He’s not going to maintain that 2.25 ERA, but he should still be a help to the Dodgers, and he’ll command a pretty penny this winter.”

Life During WARtime and Other Movements . . .

The bomb-robbing catch of the year isn’t exactly the only reason Mike Trout’s the most valuable Angel through this writing . . .

Life During WARtime—If you’re looking for an entry into the wide world of WAR (wins above a replacement-level player), David Schoenfeld of SweetSpot has a pretty good starting point, with a couple of links to a couple of more pretty good starting points. In case you’re wondering before you go in, Mike Trout—the white-hot Los Angeles Angels rookie—leads the American League pack through this writing with a 5.2 WAR, followed by Robinson Cano (New York Yankees) at 4.8 and Josh Reddick’s (Oakland Athletics) 3.9. In the National League, the top three through this writing are David Wright (New York Mets), 5.3; Andrew McCutchen (Pittsburgh Pirates), 5.1; and, Joey Votto (Cincinnati Reds), 4.5.

Piracy—Speaking of McCutchen, for the second year in a row the Pirates look pretty at or just past the midway point . . . but Jon Paul Morosi (FoxSports) isn’t the only one who thinks there’s a sterling opportunity for the Pirates to stand taller than they ended up standing in 2011. Summary: The Reds are going to be hurting without Votto (out 3-4 weeks following torn meniscus surgery); the Milwaukee Brewers are giving Zack Greinke a week off after he started three straight games (following an early heave-ho) and rolled a 9.00 for July, which Morosi thinks will damage Greinke’s trade value enough to keep the Brewers from getting back into the NL Central race seriously. Meaning GM Neil Huntington should be thinking of moving boldly—perhaps luring a deal for talented but disgruntled Arizona outfielder Justin Upton, who’d give McCutchen a little more lineup protection and the Pirate offence a little more firepower; and/or, luring a deal for a veteran starting pitcher (Wandy Rodriguez might be one candidate, Morosi suggests) or another veteran bat (Shane Victorino and Carlos Quentin are two names Morosi has in mind). The idea, says Morosi: moving for impact players would tell the Pirates and their long-parched fans that the team intends to play for the roses right away. The kicker: Will the Pirates be willing to part with a few prospects, given that they’ve tended to overrate most of them the last several years? Even if the Pirates don’t make it again, at least this time they’ll be seen as serious players for it.

TrumbotronMike Trout may be getting the ink, and Albert Pujols may be right behind him with his resurgence (after a horrid beginning in his new fatigues), but Mark Trumbo hasn’t exactly been staying out of the way, either. The Angels’ jack-of-all-trades leads the American League in slugging percentage (.634) and ties with Josh Hamilton (Texas) for OPS (on-base plus slugging) with his .995, and no matter where manager Mike Scioscia plays him—first base, third base, around the outfield—the kid produces. Without undermining what Trout and Pujols mean, be advised that since 26 April Trumbo has started every Angels game but two . . . and the Angels are 42-29 since, the second-best spread in the Show in that time frame. Pretty damn impressive for a guy who was first seen as a hot pitching prospect until Angel scouts decided they liked him better as a hitter.

Odd Man Out?—Trout’s and Trumbo’s emergence may or may not leave Peter Bourjos the Angels’ odd man out, even if he isn’t exactly worrying about it. Bourjos was bumped to one side as a starter when half the Angels’ Terrible Ts (Trout) showed what he was made of, and the swift defender has been dogged by trade rumours ever since he was an Angel prospect offered up in talks when the team made a play for Roy Halladay in 2009. “This is the most relaxed I’ve ever been at the trade deadline because I’ve been through it so many times,” he told the Los Angeles Times this week. “Whatever happens, happens. If I’m traded, I’ll go to a team that wants me, that needs me. But hopefully, I can play my whole career here.” He may not get that hope, though, if he ends up going in any package the Angels might put together, successfully, for the like of Philadelphia’s Cole Hamels.

Rivals—If the Angels have Hamels on their radar, they’d better keep a wary eye on their number one nemesis in the AL West: the Texas Rangers are said to have longing eyes for Hamels and two other arms, Greinke and one-time Ranger Cliff Lee, he who chose Philadelphia over Texas after he was landed near the 2010 non-waiver deadline and helped pitch the Rangers to the World Series. CBS Sports reports the Rangers hungry for a bona-fide number one starter and, if they can’t bag either Hamels (assuming the struggling, injury-plagued Phillies think they can’t re-sign him before his free agency, which might be one indicator that they’ve surrendered the season) or Greinke, they’d take another flyer on Lee (whose availability would be another sign the Phillies are looking past this year). One kicker that might make a difference: Lee is owed $25 million for each of 2013, 2014, and 2015, with a 2016 buyout worth $12.5 million.

Upchuck—That’s what former Seattle star Jay Buhner says he’d do if the Mariners sign still-valuable but still-fading Ichiro Suzuki to a three-year deal ($35-40 million is the figure tossed around most often) after his current contract (five years, $90 million) expires at season’s end. Buhner told Seattle ESPN radio the Mariners need to turn around more than they need to spend that kind of money on one player, even a player as popular as Ichiro remains—despite his batting average falling to .260 (through this writing), his unlikelihood of reaching 200+ hits for a second straight season, and his likelihood of missing 30 stolen bases for just the second time in his Show career.

Do or Die Time?—The Mets haven’t looked as good since the All-Star break as they looked going into the break: they’re on a six-game losing streak (including a loss going into the break) after dropping two straight to the Washington Nationals this week. They hope R.A. Dickey, who had a shaky outing after the break, gets back on his so-far track and salvages the final game Thursday before the Mets come home for rounds with the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Nats again, followed by a western road trip with stops in Arizona, San Francisco, and San Diego. In other words, including Thursday, they have fifteen straight games against teams in third place or better in their divisions, and playing out of their division with a sub-.500 road record to date means they’ll have to help themselves best. The problem for the Mets since the break: their none-too-steady bullpen has done the lion’s share of killing them whenever the Mets manage to make noise midway or late in games. It went from bad to worse when Pedro Beato (who may yet be their setup man of the future, but was in after the rest of the pen couldn’t stave off the Nats in regulation) wild-pitched the winning run home with the bases loaded in the tenth Tuesday, and the Mets couldn’t follow through after a pair of ninth-inning bombs by David Wright and Lucas Duda to pull back to within a run, with Tyler Clippard—who yielded the bombs—striking out Jordany Valdespin to nail it for the Nats.

It Might As Well Be Spring . . .

To hell with the calendar. Every real American knows spring begins in that blessed spell when pitchers and catchers report and the position players aren’t all that far behind.

Walking the plank to Pittsburgh . . .

* A.J. PIRATE?—It’s looking more and more as though the Empire Emeritus and the Pittsburgh Pirates have a deal to send A.J. Burnett to Pittsburgh in exchange for a pair of minor leaguers. Ridding the Yankees of a talented headache on the mound, though from most reports a good guy in the clubhouse.

That talented headache, though, could be seen as something close to the key which unlocked the Yankees’ 2009 World Series conquest. As a matter of fact, in the eyes of ESPN New York’s Wallace Matthews, that is precisely how Burnett is seen. It’s been a staggering decline for the righthander since he led the National League in shutouts (five, in 2002) but pitched himself right out of Florida when he crashed and burned down the stretch of a pennant race in which the Marlins still had a shot at factoring.

As for the two prospects going to the Yankees, pitcher Diego Moreno is thought to have the greater upside—he projects toward becoming a valuable middle reliever thanks to his lively fastball and a well-regarded changeup, since his lack of a breaking ball is believed to keep him out of any starting picture. That projection, though, may point to another season or two up the road, meaning the Burnett deal amounts to a salary dump with the Pirates agreeing to take on about $13 million of Burnett’s remaining salary. Burnett himself had something to do with this deal: he’d previously spurned a potential trade to the Los Angeles Angels.

Major league from end to end . . .

* CLASS RETIRES—In the end, Tim Wakefield decided hanging on with little enough left in the tank for the sake of seven wins, which would have made him tops on the Red Sox all-time list, wasn’t really worth it no matter how deeply he loves the game.

The classy knuckleballer announced his retirement emotionally Friday, at the Red Sox’s new JetBlue Park in Fort Myers. “I never wanted to pitch for another team,” said the one-time Pirate and converted infielder whom the Red Sox plucked from the minors after a promising beginning faded to minor league frustration. “I’ve always said I wanted to retire a Red Sox and today I’m able to do that.”

Wakefield, who pitched with heart as well as a dancing knuckleball, will be rememebered for many a stout hour on the mound, perdominantly as a starter who could eat innings and keep his team in games more often than not. For this writer, the most outstanding of those memories will be his gallant duel in relief, against The Mariano, in Game Seven of the 2003 American League Championship Series, a duel his side of which ended only when the first pitch he threw to open the bottom of the eleventh was sent into the left field seats by Aaron Boone for game, set, and pennant.

Wakefield earned redemption a year later, in the 2004 ALCS, when his likewise stout relief helped the Red Sox to the second of their four straight pennant-winning wins against the Yankees. But Wakefield’s determination in that 2003 game spoke volumes about the pitcher and the man even if it ended so horrifically. He’s nowhere near the neighbourhood of a Hall of Famer, but don’t let anyone tell you he was anything less than major league from end to end.

Outfielder Al Spangler was one of the feature faces for this set of souvenir cards the Houston Colt .45s issued in their first season . . .

BANG!—Call it political correctness run amok (as usual?) if you must, but the Houston Astros’s 50th anniversary remembrances won’t be allowed to include completely accurate replicas of their original Colt .45s home uniforms. Seems there’s a little problem with the original Colts breast logos, a pistol underlining the word COLTS with a trail of gunsmoke from the barrel forming the C. Can’t have that, says baseball government.

What’s next—ordering the Mets to change their famous sleeve patch logo, of “Mets” in orange script across the blue New York skyline inside a baseball, because the sky is clear above and missing New York’s air pollution? (Oops. Don’t go there. The Tampa Bay Rays were ordered to shenk the cigar from their throwback Tampa Bay Smokies uniforms last year, and the Atlanta Braves may or may not have been ordered to pull the warrior brave from the left sleeves of their mid-to-late-60s throwbacks.)

“During our discussion with Major League Baseball,” wrote Astros authentication manager Mike Acosta, replying to a fan who sent a letter of dismay to commissioner Bud Selig, “it was expressed to us that we could wear the uniform as long as the pistol was removed. We realize this changes the original design, but we still want to honor the Colt .45s. We are also under an obligation to follow Major League Baseball’s requests.” But is MLB obligated to distort history?

SPEAKING OF THE COLTS—Memorable exchange from Al Spangler, Colt .45s outfielder: Responding to teammates’ kvetching about the tough Arizona spring training skies, Spangler waved off the complaints: “I would merely allow for the force of impact and the rate of descent and could catch the ball while making change for a $20 bill.” Then, he let one fly fall before him and one fall behind him. Naturally, he was asked to re-explain his theory in light of the two errors: “I forgot to figure the curvature of the earth.”

And you thought the 1962 Mets (This is the only park in the league where the women wear insect repellent instead of perfume.—Richie Ashburn, Original Met, on Colt Stadium) were nuts?

On recovery road . . .

RECUPERATING—Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, from complicated surgery to remove a facial nerve that got wound up with a tumour in his cheek, and to graft a neck nerve to ensure his returning facial movement, which could take eighteen months. The best news: Gwynn’s cancer has not spread and he’s expected to make a full recovery, not to mention returning to his job as San Diego State’s baseball coach soon enough.

* A LOAD OF BULL?—Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire says the only bull he wants to see around his team is the one he brings in from the pen in relief. “There’s a good chance some guys might have their feelings hurt in spring training, because I saw things I really didn’t like,” he tells the St. Paul Pioneer Press. I pay attention to how players are handling situations, and there were parts of last season I didn’t like at all. When something went wrong and you got that, ‘Oh, boy, here we go again, he’s going to say something to us.’ That’s a bunch of bull. I say something because I want you to be a better player. It’s when I don’t say something that you ought to be worried.”

Ibanez

MEANWHILE, BACK IN THE JUNGLE . . . The word is that the next Red Sox to call it a career could be Jason Varitek . . . Former Red Sox relief pitcher Hideki Okajima, a key man in their 2007 World Series championship, flunked a physical for the Yankees and won’t be at spring training with the Empire Emeritus . . . Johan Santana was said to be “excited” after throwing off a mound for the first time since last fall . . . Manny Ramirez, hoping for a comeback, could yet becomean Oakland Athletic, with reports indicating the A’s may have a deal with him in a few days, though he’ll have to serve a fifty-game drug suspension . . .

Santana

Trading A.J. Burnett means the Yankees have a little extra play money for signing former Phillie Raul Ibanez as a DH and former Athletic Eric Chavez as an infield backup . . . Two days before pitchers and catchers reported, the Kansas City Royals created three less headaches by agreeing to deals with Eric Hosmer (first base), Mike Moustakas (third base), Lorenzo Cain (outfield) and Luis Mendoza (pitcher) . . . Two Chicago Cub minor leaguers, righthander Ricardo Estevez and lefthander Jorge Navarrete, will sit out fifty games under minor league drug program: Estevez came up positive for stanozolol and nandroline; Navarrete’s said to have refused a drug test . . .

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.

"That's telling me I was incorrect in my position . . .": Jerry Meals

“It’s a shame,” Atlanta Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said Wednesday, “because Jerry Meals is one hell of an umpire.”

Meals is also one hell of an honest ump, based on remarks he made later in the day Wednesday about his call that enabled the Atlanta Braves to win a marathon, 19-inning, 4-3 game against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Turner Field. The Braves won after Julio Lugo, tagged above his right kneecap on his thigh by Pirates catcher Michael McKenry, was called safe by Meals, inexplicably.

After coming into the locker room, I reviewed the incident through our videos that we have in here and after seeing a few of them, on one particular replay, I was able to see that Lugo’s pant leg moved ever so slightly when the swipe tag was attempted by McKenry. That’s telling me that I was incorrect in my decision and that he should have been ruled out and not safe.

—Jerry Meals.

He didn’t exactly apologise; there was no “I’m sorry” in the comment, but clearly Meals knows what did happen. Clearly enough, he said it. Let’s give Meals the benefit of the doubt and acknowledge his regret. He wasn’t out there looking to job the Pirates. But let’s also acknowledge that the blown call is still further evidence on behalf of replay.

Just as clearly, there’s still a lot of baseball to play yet. Though they were surely right to protest the Tuesday/Wednesday outcome, it’s on the Pirates to do exactly what they suggested themselves in protesting—shake it off and play their best baseball the rest of the way. To the extent that nobody can argue one blown call at the plate triggered a pennant race collapse for a plucky team that’s spent the season thus far defying everyone else’s expectations.