Friday, May 12, 2006

Nine innings: 5.12.06

Playing nine innings while waiting for Steinbrenner to call out "the shortstop" . . .

1. Mid-May visits to the Bronx don't get much more enjoyable than this, eh? Josh Beckett and Jonathan Papelbon reminded the Yankees of the great things 25-year-old fireballers can do, sizzling Mark Loretta raised his once-puny average to .282 (the same as some dude named Damon), bobbleheaded A-Rod got a scolding from the increasingly batty Boss, the Big Unit was pummeled down to size, the tabloids flew into a feeding frenzy ("The Big Ugly"), and even after Mike Mussina won a TKO over Curt Schilling in the second game, the Sox recovered to take a maddening-turned-exhilarating rubber game last night despite going 3 for 15 with runners in scoring position. It was the kind of game the dynastic Yankees of the '90s always seemed to win, and while we know it's early (hey, isn't this Dave Winfield's time of year?), it sure is a blast watching the Red Sox win them now.

2. It's a foolish endeavor to dismiss the Yankees early in any season - they usually have the talent and resources to at least patch up their problems - but man, there's no denying that they have some major issues at the moment. Randy Johnson, the alleged ace, is a mechanical mess, he yells at Jorge Posada like he's the enemy, and you have to figure his shoulder is killing him if he'd go so far as to have an MRI. Hideki Matsui's injury could be devastating - no Yankees hitter other than Jeter scares me more when the game is on the line, and unless they trade for someone like Jay Payton, there's no one on their strikingly feeble bench (Miguel Cairo, first baseman?) that is capable of replacing him. And we haven't even mentioned Gary Sheffield's injury, Tanyon Sturtze's sudden realization that he's Tanyon Sturtze, or Carl Pavano's perpetually bruised posterior. Guess we'll see if Brian Cashman is capable of pulling another Aaron Small out of his hat. Color me skeptical.

3. I've never known quite what to make of Tom Verducci, the outstanding baseball writer for Sport Illustrated. While he's written some of the finest Red Sox-oriented features I've ever read - a definitive piece on Pedro Martinez six or seven years ago and the 2004 Red Sox Sportsmen of the Year tearjerker come immediately to mind - he's a Jersey guy who has long had a habit of taking subtle and sometimes unnecessary shots the Red Sox. So when I read the following item from one of his recent mailbags, well, let's just say I filed it under Things That Make You Go Hmmmm:

In your Red Sox column, I couldn't help but stutter when I got to the part about Jason Varitek and Trot Nixon ("noticeably trimmer and with less pop"). Short of saying "Jason and Trot sure miss that flaxseed oil and the clear," what are you insinuating? I'm not from Egypt, and don't know about da' Nile.
-- John, Windsor, Conn.

Ah, yes, this is the shadowy age we live in, the one owners and players created by giving us the Steroid Era. Scouts take note all the time of players who look smaller and show less pop. They use the line "Congress got him" to explain some guys' declines. If you've been watching the past two seasons, you know what I mean. That said, I do think both players got very big, and at their age, and in Nixon's case, with his injury history, they're probably better off being a bit lighter. The question is not what happened -- everybody deserves the benefit of the doubt -- but will they suffer any decline? Pudge Rodriguez, Bobby Higginson, Scott Spiezio, Ryan Klesko, Nomar Garciaparra ... all suffered declines when they weren't as bulked.

Is he implying something here? It certainly seems so, though to his credit (if that is the word), later in the column he also points suspicious finger at a certain suddenly potent Yankee. When asked if a team has ever tried to void a player's contract because it was agreed upon under false pretenses, Verducci writes:

The Yankees actually looked into that possibility last year before Jason Giambi made a dramatic and unbelievable turnaround. His game and his body changed almost overnight in May, and the Yankees dropped any idea of trying to get out from under his contract.

The bold emphasis there is mine, but the statement is curious. Verducci, after all, is a wordsmith. One who is apparently adept at making us read between the lines.

4. The better Kevin Youkilis plays - and so far he has been consistently excellent, an on-base machine with steady glovework to boot - the more I wonder why Tito was so reluctant to give him Kevin Millar's at-bats late last season. Loyalty is swell and all, and maybe he's simply improved from last season to this one, but if the Sox had this version of Youkilis in their lineup a year ago, the AL East race would have been far less dramatic.

5. If I could have any wish fulfilled, any wish at all - well, make that any wish that didn't involve a tub of lime Jell-O and Pam from "The Office" - I think I'd wish that Jimmy Fallon swallowed a case of extra-explosive Pop Rocks before he began gulping that Pepsi and prancing around like the no-talent, Sandler-lite damn fool that is. Yes, I think that would be my wish. (Though after watching tonight's incredibly well-done season finale of "The Office" - well, let's just say wish No. 1 is going to stay at the top of the charts for quite a while. Man, is she hot. Hey, you don't think my wife reads this site, do you?)

6. For obvious reasons, I'm glad Wily Mo Pena is settling in and contributing. The Sox are a better ballclub if Trot Nixon has a platoon partner, his contributions silence the talk-radio banshees who turned on him before giving him a legitimate chance, he's a good kid who works hard and is easy to like. But mostly, I'm glad I no longer find myself belittling Bronson Arroyo in an attempt to defend the trade. Arroyo is one of my favorite Sox of the Idiot Era - he got the most out of his ability, pressure didn't bother him, he tended to bring out the worst in A-Rod, and he loved being here - and it really bugged me when I'd catch myself saying, "Ah, Arroyo's just a fourth- or fifth-starter, the NL will catch up to him, blah blah . . ." whenever one of my buddies would start dumping on Pena. I like Pena, and I reluctantly liked the trade when it happened. But I want to keep liking Arroyo as well. The more Pena contributes, the easier it is.

7. Yeah, I got pissed when I read Mike Vaccaro's inflammatory column the other day, but I have to admit, I long ago wondered why the Yankees haven't knocked Big Papi on his ass once every once in a while. Not that it would necessarily work - when he's angry, he tends to take it out on the baseball - but they have to do something to keep him from walloping them time and again. (And that something apparently does not include signing Mike Myers.) Why they have sent Papi a we're-not-going-to-take-it-anymore message is something of a surprise. Oh, right - they're classy. Almost forgot.

8. Programming note: While it may seem we've been slacking when it comes to pecking out posts this week, I was actually working on a couple freelance projects, including one posted on one of my favorite sites, Baseball While some of the material may seem familiar to TATB readers (yep, Buckethead makes a cameo), check it out if you get the chance. It's truly a great site and I was thrilled to be asked to step to the plate as their "Designated Hitter" columnist. Also, rumor has it Friend of TATB Jamie Mottram of AOL's SportsBloggersLive is going to give us a plug on ESPN's "Cold Pizza" this morning, so set your TiVo and such accordingly.

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

So how did the deal work again? The Sox had to take Beckett's contract in order to get Lowell? Okay, maybe that's not quite how it went down. . . but so far, the Sox's third baseman is playing like his miserable 2005 season was indeed an aberration. I'll admit I'm surprised, but I sure am enjoying the Mike Lowell Resurgence.