Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Nine innings: 06.28.05

Playing nine innings while wondering who's crazier at the moment, George Steinbrenner or Tom Cruise . . .

1) Shaughnessy had it right. The Sox will run away with the American League East. (I'm choosing to write off last night's homecoming mess as a mere speedbump on the road to October. Thus the Manny photo from the previous day.) They've won 12 of 14, they're 2.5 games up on the Orioles and 5.5 up on the Yankees already, Curt Schilling is darn close to returning to anchor the staff, closer Keith Foulke is rediscovering his stuff, Manny is back to being Manny, and as we all expected, the lineup is heating up along with the temperatures. (I predict we are about to see the real Edgar Renteria soon enough, too - cold weather has never agreed with him.) Sure, there are flaws - at this point I'd rather see Joe Sambito come into a game than Alan Embree - but the Sox are in far better shape than their division competition. The Orioles are battered and crumbling, and the Yankees . . . wait, tell me again: What was the "turning point" for the Yankees? Was Giambi's walkoff homer against mighty Pittsburgh? . . . the comeback against the fearsome D-Rays? . . . or the time Bernie Williams tracked down a fly ball without a limb falling off his mummified body? I always forget - there have been so many "turning points" already, you know? I wonder how many of them have realized the moment may never come. It's the Sox's year, again. So go ahead, mark it down: For the first time since Erik Hanson Magic in '95, the Sox will win the AL East, and it'll be over early. No one else in this division is in their league.

2) Meanwhile, turmoil again abounds on the Death Star. The Yankees have won two in the row - it's a turning point! - but George Steinbrenner has ordered his minions to the Yankees' Tampa compound for a meeting to "discuss" what's wrong with the Worst Team $205 Million Could Buy. Speculation is that Steinbrenner already has his scapegoat selected, though it's possible that Giambi's sweep-averting game-winning hit against the Mets Sunday night saved a few front-office jobs. As it is, Steinbrenner certainly seems like he's trying to give the impression that he's about to go on a rampage. Not only did he release one of his patented (or Pattonted?) missives through his personal public relations lackey today, but it was noted by said lackey that Steinbrenner was - get this - lifting weights while he dictated the release. Steinbrenner? Lifting weights? Suurrre. He's the kind of guy who pays people to exercise for him. I suppose he was spotting for Giambi after sticking a needle in his a--, too, right? Doing squats with Jeter, perhaps? Or maybe he's shaping up so he can play for the Yankees, figuring what the hell, he's younger than half the roster. Man, but if he is telling the truth . . . I'd cough up my weekly allowance for pictures. Can't you just see him, say, wearing a pinstriped spandex unitard over his ever-present turtleneck, the words "The Boss" or "True Yankee" stitched across chest, as he curls his pink two-pound weights with help of his assistant Smithers? The comedic possibilities are endless. Georgie Porgie is jacked and pumped and ready to rumble! Come git your whuppin,' Cashman! Bring it on Lucchino!. . .

3) The biggest surprise of the baseball season? It's not the Devil Rays' cruel and unusual punishment of the Yankees, or Dontrelle Willis's spot-on rendition of Vida Blue's Greatest Hits, or even the emergence of the Chicago White Sox as a legitimate World Series contender. It is this: David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez still get pitches to hit despite often having Kevin Millar batting immediately behind them. There is no logical reason why Papi - or Manny, who is on a 41-homer, 143-RBI pace and who surely will be the subject of a fawning piece by Peter Gammons any day now - is allowed to do damage on those nights when the Human Groundball To Third follows them in the lineup. Some managers' stupidity is exceeded only by their stubborness, I guess.

4) Have you noticed that the first base position for the New York Mets has become a branch of the Red Sox Alumni Association? First it was a rotund Mo Vaughn and his equally bloated contract a few years ago. Then they acquired Doug Mientkiewicz and the hot World Series ball this offseason. Brian Daubach, last seen running around Busch Stadium after Game 4 of the World Series, wearing street clothes and maniacally waving a broom (no kidding), was recalled from Triple A Norfolk a few weeks ago. And now there's 364-year-old Jose Offerman, recalled yesterday to replace the injured Mientkiewicz, and ostensibly his on-base percentage. Heck, the Nashua Pride doesn't have that many washed-out ex-Red Sox. Makes me wonder which ones the Mets missed out on in the past - George Scott? Carlos Quintana? Billy Jo Robidoux? - and whom might be next. Millar does know they have KFC in New York, right?

5) In case you missed it, Ken Rosenthal reported in The Sporting News that the Marlins are willing to trade free-agent-to-be A.J. Burnett, but that the Red Sox thus far have not expressed interest in the phenomenally talented but inconsistent starting pitcher. While I am an unabashed Burnett fan dating back to his brief, electric time with the Portland Sea Dogs, my initial reaction to this piece was: Of course the Sox aren't interested. They need relievers, not starters. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought Theo might do his stealth thing and pluck Burnett out from under the Orioles, Yankees and whomever else is in the running. Why? One reason (two if you count the fact that John Henry adores Burnett from his days as the Marlins owner): If the Sox picked up Burnett (or the Giants' Jason Schmidt, who may also be available) and Schilling returns to ace form, then Bronson Arroyo and Tim Wakefield can both go to the bullpen. My guess is that Arroyo and Wakefield would be far more effective than, say, the Ricky Bottalicos, Brian Fuenteses and Danys Baezes that are said to be available. In other words, getting Burnett would strengthen the entire staff, not just the starting rotation. I say Theo tries to do it - but he draws the line at giving up Arroyo in the deal, for the bullpen's sake.

6) I'm not saying Ramon Vazquez is the worst major-league infielder I have ever seen, but the more I see of him, the fonder I am of the Cesar Crespo era. If he's still injured, he should go on the disabled list. If he's not, he should go in the transactions. Say it with me, and maybe Theo will hear us: "Bring back Pokey . . . bring back Pokey . . ."

7) Reason 2,004 why I dig Baseball Prospectus as much for the witty writing as I do for the stat-geek insight - one line from their take on Sox prospect Dustin Pedroia:

He could quickly turn into the player everyone in Anaheim thought David Eckstein was.

In 14 words, a perfect assessment of Pedroia, Eckstein and the Angels' peabrained fans. Gotta love BP.

8) Mark Prior's excellent performance Sunday (6 innings, 1 hit) temporarily justifies the Cubs' decision to rush him back from a broken elbow, but it does nothing to temper my feeling that this is going to prove to be a horribly short-sighted decision long-term. Prior was originally expected to miss the rest of the season after he was drilled by a line drive on his priceless pitching elbow a month ago yesterday. That he's back so soon - and apparently in such good form - is a tribute to his determination and toughness. But Cubs fans must dread the knowledge that Dusty "Pitch Count? I Don't Need No Stinking Pitch Counts" Baker will be less than prudent when it comes to working Prior back slowly. Baseball doesn't need another Tony Saunders, but Baker is certainly capable of giving us one, and you know how things tend to go for the Cubs. I hope Prior knows what he's doing.

9) As for today's Completely Random Baseball Card:

And somewhere back in time, Stewart O'Nan just lost his Pirates cap while shoving a 9-year-old out of the way in pursuit of a Dauber batting-practice home run.