Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Nine innings: 06.06.06

Playing nine innings while wondering if Jason Giambi is really that sweaty, or if it's just the cream and clear burning off . . .

1. You'll be besieged with lots of theories in the coming days about why Josh Beckett is getting slaughtered, and some will even be valid. His fastball is straight. They're sitting on the heater because he can't get his curve over. His command is spotty. He's leaving the ball up and over the plate. His pitching pattern is predictable.

Well, I've got a theory of my own (or at least of the minority) and I'm confident it will eventually prove the correct one:

The batters know what he's throwing before he throws it.

Yep, he's tipping pitches.

Frankly, there is no other logical explanation for what's happening here. A pitcher of his ability and velocity should not be getting hit like this. His arm is sound by all accounds. His stuff is elite, if inconsistent. The fastball that Giambi hit all the way to New Jersey was clocked at 97; the pitch Andy Phillips blasted came in at 96.

Now, there's no shame in getting taken deep by Troy Glaus or Vernon Wells or a re-swollen Giambi; they get paid the big bucks to hit home runs, and sometimes you just have to tip your cap to them. They are among the few men on the planet who can hit a 97 mph fastball even when they don't know it's coming.

But Andy Phillips is not among those few, and when the likes of him, Ben Broussard and Russ Adams are confidently teeing off on him, when you've allowed a career-high in home runs in the first week of June, when Miguel Freakin' Cairo is taking a fastball on the outer half of the plate and pulling it to left, something fishy is up.

The batters know what's coming. They do. And as a quick Google search revealed, it wouldn't be the first time. This is from Beckett's rookie season, in '02:

Beckett will take the mound again today at Philadelphia, hoping to show that the worst drubbing of his brief career last week against Cincinnati was a fluke. He retired just three batters and gave up eight hits and seven runs, which hiked his ERA from 2.90 to 4.09.

"They were hitting it like they knew what was coming," Beckett said.

That might explain the performance. Recurring blisters on the middle finger of his pitching hand have forced Beckett to alter his grip, perhaps causing him to inadvertently indicate what kind of pitch he's about to throw.

Cincinnati slugger Adam Dunn said Beckett positioned his right hand in his glove differently when he was about to throw a curve. Other Reds hitters said they didn't notice the rookie tipping any pitches, but Marlins manager Jeff Torborg and pitching coach Brad Arnsberg were suspicious.

"It seemed like they knew something," Torborg said. "I stood there that night wondering. They hit everything he threw, including a couple of curveballs inside that they should have been fooled on."

Former major league catcher Jim Leyritz stopped by the Marlins' clubhouse last week to tell Arnsberg that Beckett positioned his glove one way before throwing a fastball and another way for a curve.

Arnsberg studied game video for over an hour, trying to spot such disparities.

Sounds familiar, doesn't it? For what it's worth, the Red Sox have dismissed the notion, but there are couple of names in that story that raised my eyebrows. The first is Brad Arnsberg, Beckett's pitching coach during his time in Florida, who is currently . . . the pitching coach for the Blue Jays. You're telling me he hasn't tipped off the Blue Jays' hitters to some giveaway in Beckett's deliver, the way he grips the ball in the glove, something, that gives the hitter the enormous advantage of knowing what pitch is coming? Arnsberg knows the quirks of Beckett's delivery better than anyone with the exception of the pitcher himself. Of course he's spilled the secrets.

The other name that caught my eye in that story was Jim Leyritz. I'm sure you've seen him sitting behind home plate during the recent Sox games in the Bronx, wearing the gaudy leather jacket with the logos of every major league team. He works for MLB.com now, but his loyalties are with the Yankees, he loathes the Sox (since Jason Varitek took his job) and I wouldn't be surprised if he's shared some knowledge with the Dark Side.

Go ahead, call me a conspiracy theorist if you will, but the signal in my tinfoil hat tells me Arnsberg, Leyritz, and apparently just about everyone else in the AL have found a tell in Josh Beckett's delivery.

Al Nipper, Terry Francona and the Red Sox damn well had better get in on the secret.

2. I wish David Pauley had that first big-league victory to show for his fine performance under difficult circumstances tonight. But at least he made it apparent why the Sox brought him up in the first place: While he may be inexperienced (this was the 22-year-old's second start above Double A) and his curveball/changeup repertoire isn't going to wow the guys with the radar guns, Pauley receives high marks from the Sox front office for his composure and competitiveness, and they believed he could handle the bright lights of the Bronx better than certain, more touted prospects. And he did. Best of all, he silenced those shrill numbskulls who derided Pauley after his rough debut against the Jays. The kid may not ever be a major-league ace, but on this night, he showed he belonged.

3. If we didn't realize that Mike Timlin is the unsung hero of the entire ballclub, we sure do now. Seeing Rudy Seanez come into a tie game with the bases loaded and realizing there really was no better alternative tends to have that effect on you.

4. Maybe it's because Yankees fans are insecure and desperate for affirmation, understandable enough given that most of them look like Turtle from "Entourage" (the women included) or Bobby Baccala from the "Sopranos" (wait a minute - that is Bobby Baccala). But man, aren't the Bronx Faithful getting a little carried away with their cloying demand for a curtain call after pretty much every semi-meaningful home run> I thought the second-inning hat-tips by Phillips and (H)G(H)iambi were lame Monday night, but last night's Bernie Williams lovefest after he hit a solo homer in the fifth inning to tie the game at 1 was even cheesier and more than a little pathetic. What's next, a standing O for A-Rod after he homers in the ninth to cut a deficit to 12-3? You'd think Yankee fans would realize that a curtain call is the way to salute those who have delivered in the biggest moments - a Reggie Jackson three-homer World Series game, a David Cone perfecto, Jeter's flip to get the Lesser of the Giambis. Then again, it's been a while since they've won a championship, from what I hear. Guess they've lowered their standards.

5. Loyalty is a trait you'd treasure in a friend, but for a baseball manager it can be a character flaw. I think Francona is a heck of a manager, but I'm convinced he cost the Red Sox three or four ballgames last season by playing Kevin Millar over Kevin Youkilis long after it became clear that Mr. Cowboy Up wasn't going to hit. He played Millar out of loyalty, and to a lesser extent, he's currently making a similar costly mistake by batting Jason Varitek sixth. Varitek, who has struggled at the plate for almost 3/4ths of a full season now, has no business being that high in the lineup, not with Youkilis and Mike Lowell tearing it up. I suspect the injury Varitek had during the World Baseball Classic is still bothering him, and you have to give him credit for gutting through it, but he has been a complete mess at the plate for most of this season. Francona needs to quit protecting One Of His Guys and move him south in the order until his bat is useful again.

6. The "Baseball America" junkies have long told (assured?) us that the Yankees farm system is barren and neglected, and certainly every time a mummy such as Scott Erickson or Terrence Long lumbers north from Columbus, that perception is enhanced. But Brian Cashman and the rest of Steinbrenner's minions, lackeys and whipping boys deserve credit for putting faith in players that weren't considered supreme prospects, but who certainly look like able major leagues now. Robinson Cano received mixed reviews as a farmhand, but he's done nothing but hit since he arrived in New York, and he looks like a future star and Sox tormenter at second base. Chien-Ming Wang has a Derek Lowe sinker, a sneaky fastball, and poise in abundance. And while Melky Cabrera looked overmatched during his recall last season, he belongs now. His catch to rob Manny Ramirez of a homer in the eighth last night is one of the best Web Gems we will see all season, and his heady and alert baserunning in the first inning Monday stole the game's first run, and more importantly, earned a coveted fist pump from Captain Derek J. Intangibles.

7. Our obligatory NFL note: Yes, Bethel Johnson was a bust of a second-round pick, a slightly faster but just as clueless version of Tony Simmons. But for a player whose Patriots legacy is one of Unfulfilled Promise, he sure came up with his share of huge plays, as documented by my Globe teammate Mike Reiss in a May story:

Among Johnson's most notable plays with the Patriots are two kickoff returns for touchdowns -- a 92-yarder against the Colts in 2003 at the end of the first half, and a 93-yarder in 2004 against the Browns on the opening play of the game. He also had a big catch against the Seahawks in 2004 -- a 48-yarder on third and 7 late in the fourth quarter to help the Patriots seal a victory. Two other big offensive plays for Johnson were a 41-yard touchdown catch to give the Patriots a 7-0 lead over the Titans (and ultimately a 17-14 win) in the 2003 Divisional playoffs, and a 55-yard touchdown reception in Atlanta in 2005.

I also recall Johnson reversing field and gaining a crucial late first down in that Titans playoff game in '03. Not a bad personal highlight reel for a player who never really put it together. Makes you wonder what he could be if he ever stumbles upon a clue, though if he couldn't do it playing with Tom Brady, it's probably not going to happen.

8. If Jack Welch is the "Voice of the Fan," then I'm the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Cripes, he's been popping up on the postgame show more than The Eck recently.

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

Here's a frightening thought appropriate for 6/6/06: What if Al Nipper was a better pitcher than he is a pitching coach? (Shudder.)

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