At The Ballyard ... with Steve Weissman

Friday, October 20, 2006

Cards Beat Mets in Dramatic Fashion: “That’s Baseball!”

If I heard it once, I heard it three dozen times as I went inside the Cape Cod Baseball League while researching my recent book about the league: something unusual, or unusually dramatic, would occur, and the players would explain it by saying, “That’s baseball!”

I mention this because there may be no better way than that to sum up the just-concluded National League Championship Series, the concluding game of which last night featured a remarkable number of unlikely heroes and heroics. Here are just a few:

• St. Louis rookie closer Adam Wainwright struck out Mets’ slugger Carlos Beltran on three pitches, looking, to end the game and the series.

• Light-hitting (.216 for his career) Cards’ catcher Yadier Molina gave his club the victory with a two-run homer in the top of the ninth.

• Mets’ left fielder Endy Hernandez made a spectacular leaping catch in the sixth to rob Scott Rolen of a two-run dinger of his own, and then triggered a textbook inning-ending relay to double runner Jim Edmonds off first.

• Mets’ starter Oliver Perez, a “project” at best (3-13 for the year) who was in the game only because Pedro Martinez and Orlando Hernandez were lost to injury, matched Cards’ starter Jeff Suppan inning for inning, allowing but a single run in six innings before departing.

How could all this happen, you ask? How could Mets’ rookie John Maine – the “other guy” in the deal that sent pitcher Kris Benson to Baltimore – beat Cy Young Award winner Chris Carpenter on Wednesday to force the seventh game? How could Suppan – a decent enough pitcher who seems never to have quite fulfilled his full potential – be named MVP of a series that featured such stars as Beltran, Albert Pujols, and Carlos Delgado?

I’ll tell you how: that’s baseball, and it’s what makes baseball great.

Cardinals/Tigers, ’68 and ’06. Let the games begin!

Thursday, October 05, 2006

First Thoughts as to Whom the Sox Should Keep

Completing the thoughts for this week are the first musings as to whom of the possible departees the Red Sox should keep, and whom the club should allow to go. In alphabetical order, I give you the following:

• Alex Cora, Utility: A smart, steady player who can play multiple positions well and might teach Dustin Pedroia a thing or two while sitting in the dugout. He’d be great to have around if Pedroia needs more seasoning; otherwise, he’s expendable and likely attractive to potential trading partners. A keeper, even if only for the spring.

• Alex Gonzalez, SS: What a glove! And when he’s healthy, he can even hit from time to time. A keeper for keeps, especially considering there isn’t an immediate heir apparent. (Hanley Ramirez, where are you now that we need you?)

• Gabe Kapler, OF: As solid a fourth outfielder as there is. He’s got some speed, is a fan and clubhouse favorite, and certainly fields better than Willy Mo Peña. But he is what he is, and both Peña and David Murphy still have upside potential. So painfully, reluctantly, it’s time to let him go.

• Mark Loretta, 2B: Another rock-solid performer. So what if 80% of his hits were singles? He had 181 of them, and made only four errors in the field. After careful consideration, he stays: two years while (on paper, anyway) Pedroia transitions into the job.

• Doug Mirabelli, C: Perhaps the best-loved backup catcher in the game, and surely the only one ever to assume his position from the back seat of a state police car! But he’ll be 36 in two weeks, and he’s batted near or under the Mendoza line for the past two years. His primary value, therefore, is his ability to catch Tim Wakefield’s knuckleball, which means he really only contributes every fifth day – and then only when Wakefield is healthy and on the hill. Surely, there are younger, more versatile players who can fill this role; therefore, with pangs, he goes.

• Trot Nixon, RF: The Original Dirt Dog and a Red Sox lifer. He’s a throwback player who gives his all day in and day out, but at this point in his career, he indeed may have given his all. Unless he offers to re-sign for a significant home-town discount, he goes. But we’d like to keep the cap as a sign of honor and respect.

• Carlos Peña, 1B: A wonderful story of a local product made good: a Cape League Hall of Famer with a good attitude and good skills, but so far, an inconsistent performer at best. If he stays, will we see the Peña who hit 27 homers and drove in 82 runs for the Tigers in ’04, or the one who struggled in the minors for the past year and a half? Let’s hedge the bet and offer him something attractive (plenty of incentives) but small, and keep him if he signs.

• Tim Wakefield, P: A solid citizen with a weird pitch that lets him eat innings and, for the most part, keep the Sox in games. Now healed from his rib cage injury, there’s absolutely no reason not to renew him. He stays.

• Keith Foulke, P: A riddle wrapped in an enigma. Injury and frustration clearly took their toll on both his psyche and his pitching over the past two seasons, but when he’s on, he’s on. He finished ’06 stronger than he started and, unlike last year, when his knees caused him grief, he will have all winter to recondition himself properly. Don’t buy him out, and keep your fingers crossed. He stays.

• Jason Johnson, P: Perhaps the easiest decision of all: picked up only to perform emergency service, he gave up 41 hits and 13 walks in 29+ innings over six games. Nothing personal, but he goes.

• Mike Timlin, P: Another character guy who has meant much to the ballclub. The question is, was his decline in ’06 due to age or his pre-season work in the World Baseball Classic? The latter is not an ongoing consideration, but the former, of course, certainly is. Either way, when a reliever’s ERA essentially doubles as his did (2.24 to 4.36), it’s a concern – especially considering that inherited runners he allows to score show up in the ERA of the guy he replaced, not his own. With regret, he goes, and we’ll hope the Sox will find someone younger who’ll do at least as well, and probably for less money.

That’s it for now. See you at the ballyard!

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Let the Roster Speculation Begin!

It’s Day Two of the Boston Red Sox’s 2007 season, and already the speculation has begun as to who from the ’06 squad will return in ’07. While it’s too early to travel terribly far down this path, it is interesting to see which players on the current roster have contractual ‘outs’ (either via free agency or buyout clauses) that make it easy to move them down the road. Here’s a preliminary stab at the list, by position, with departure candidates shown in italics. (Details can be seen at Sons of Sam Horn.)

So, who's in your wallet?

Position - Player
Infielders (9)
C Varitek,
1B Youkilis,
C. Peña
2B Loretta, Pedroia
Gonzalez, Cora
3B Lowell

Outfielders (7)
LF Ramirez
CF Crisp
4th Hinske,
Kapler, Murphy, W.M. Peña



Pitchers (14)
SP Beckett
SP Clement
SP Lester (LHP)
SP Papelbon
SP Schilling

SP Wakefield (t)

RP Delcarmen (RHP)
RP DiNardo (LHP)
Foulke (m)
RP Johnson (m)
RP Lopez (LHP)
RP Snyder
RP Tavarez

m = mutual option
t = team option

Monday, October 02, 2006

Silver Linings in the BoSox Final Cloud

The 2006 Boston Red Sox season mercifully is now behind us, and thanks to injury and what GM Theo Epstein described as “some weaknesses” in the team, the Sox finished in third place (behind New York and Toronto) and missed the post-season for the first time since 2002.

For all the frustrations and medical bills, though, the end was more satisfying than it could have been. So while the talkradio crowd piles on – so easy and convenient to do – let’s take a minute to consider some of the positives:

• The players (seemingly most of the ones not wearing 24, anyway) heeded manager Terry Francona’s call to play the game “right” regardless of the club’s place in the standings or likelihood of making the playoffs. I attended Game 80 on Saturday evening and was gratified to see first-hand the hustle and grit that characterizes winning teams. (That, and a reliable bullpen – but that’s a column for another day!) What a wonderful object lesson for my 11 year old son, who was as inspired as I was by David Ortiz’s ninth inning blast to the triangle that would have tied the game had it been hit five feet to the right.

• Another object lesson could be found in Francona’s caring and class when dealing with the team’s August implosion, the ongoing l'affair Manny, and the opportunity for such fan favorites as Trot Nixon and Mark Loretta to get their due from the final-day crowd. Though he clearly was disturbed by his club’s Dog Days collapse, Francona remained publicly constructive and focused on the future, he politely refused to comment on Manny Ramirez’s injury or trade status except as it affected that day’s ability to play, and he had the presence of mind to engineer on-field substitutions during yesterday’s rain-shortened game to ensure Nixon and Loretta, possible non-returnees next year, could receive their measure of the fans’ appreciation. Well done, Tito, and thank you.

• The latest fruits of the farm system were able to showcase themselves and demonstrate to the brass and the fans that they are worthy of plying the Fenway trade. The headliner, of course, was Jonathan Papelbon, who set a new standard for Red Sox rookie closers and who, for reasons related to health, will move to the starting rotation next year. But David Murphy, Kason Gabbard, Devern Hansack, and David Pauley also all showed promise, and as long as this year’s trial by fire doesn’t ruin them, we may still see good things from the likes of Craig Hansen and Manny Delcarmen. Dustin Pedroia may be the most notable young gun of them all, for after a painfully slow start, he made adjustments to his swing that enabled him to finish the year with the kind of solid stroke that prompted his promotion in the first place.

• The general manager was available, open, and honest in his remarks following the final game, and made clear he is rededicating himself to the organization’s stated strategy of not sacrificing future performers in the pursuit of short-term gains. In an age when high-level decisions are defended and justified regardless of their outcome, it was refreshing to hear Epstein admit he was “impatient” when he traded Cla Meredith and Josh Bard to San Diego to reacquire Doug Mirabelli. “I don’t think we dealt with it the right way, and that’s not going to happen again,” he said. Bravo!

• Speaking of players acquired via trade, Josh Beckett seemed to be learning how to pitch – and not just throw – as the season wound down. The Sox will need him to build on this progress if they are to feel good about the big contract to which they signed him at mid-year, but the signs are there that we may yet forget about Anibel Sanchez and Hanley Ramirez, whom we traded to get Beckett and third baseman Mike Lowell – who himself, lest we forget, was terrific in the field and solid at the plate.

• And speaking of fielding, what a joy it was to watch the Red Sox throw the leather this season! They set records for errorless games and turned double plays with a consistency I haven’t seen in my two decades as one of the Fenway Faithful. I became a full-time New Englander in the fall of 1986 after watching 20 years of National League baseball, a span that encompassed such slick-fielding clubs as Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine of the early- and mid-’70s and St. Louis’ masters of the Turf in the early ’80s. So I remember well watching the Sox ‘turn one’ instead of ‘two’ during the ’88 playoffs and observing to a friend that “they don’t play the same game they do in the National League!” It was great to see the Sox place a premium on infield defense when building this year’s team, and greater still to hear Epstein say he intends to similarly upgrade the outfield when preparing for ’07.

So much for the silver linings. Stay tuned for a preliminary roster forecast!