Monday, July 30, 2012

MLB 'Rivalry Week' Delivers

While many of our nation's top athletes are competing in the 2012 London Olympics across the pond, there is plenty of action to be had stateside America's pastime is in the midst of rivalry weekend.

Going at each other are the following foes:

Cardinals @ Cubs
Red Sox @ Yankees
Dodgers @ Giants
and for good measure, two division leaders in the White Sox @ Rangers.

Even when you have a team at the bottom of the standings (cough cough cubs cough cough), rivalry games are still pretty exciting to watch. Plus, who needs Olympics Opening Ceremonies when you can spend the same four hours watching a regular season Sox/Yanks game?

Of this weekend's series, some are more meaningful than others in terms of impact in the standings. The Cubbies are a bazillion games back (okay,18.5 behind the division-leading Reds, but you get the point) and the Cards are a steep 7.5 games back of Cincy. But as last season's magical run proved, it ain't over till the fat lady sings and 7.5 games back in July isn't a death sentence.

Instead using one of the league's worst teams as a punching bag and logging easy wins, the Cards dropped two of three against the Cubbies. St. Louis squandered a good opportunity to chip away at Cincinnati's lead in the division.

Despite being regarded as the best rivalry in the history of baseball, the Red Sox vs. Yankees series isn't as meaningful as one would expect this time of year as New York has a 10.5-game lead over Boston in the AL East. Again, as history has proven on rare occasion, a division lead of that size is not untouchable at this point in the season.

The Red Sox have been all over the map in a season filled with turmoil surrounding everything from injuries, to crappy pitching to new manager Bobby Valentine. More than a boost in the standings, Boston could use a confidence boost with a few wins over the Yanks in the Bronx.

Meanwhile, the Rangers/White Sox series is quite meaningful as Chicago has regained the lead in a the competitive AL Central. Chicago hopes to keep the train moving as the Tigers are right on their heels, only two games back with the Indians still within range at six games back. The Rangers, having dropped two straight to Chicago, find themselves in an interesting spot after Nolan Ryan publicly criticized star slugger Josh Hamilton. Texas still leads the AL West by four games, and although I would be shocked if Oakland managed to close that gap, it's still way too close for comfort.

The most meaningful rivalry series of the weened is the battle in the Bay between the hometown Giants and visiting Dodgers.

The Dodgers got off to the best start in baseball before MVP runner up Matt Kemp missed time with an injury, while the Giants had an opposite turnaround, starting the season poorly before winning tons of games to take the division lead.

This is a pivotal series, especially for the Dodgers as they acquired Hanley Ramirez from the Marlins in a trade. This guy has been mesmerizing in Dodger Blue thus far, immediately re-igniting the team. The Dodgers won the first two games of the series in San Francisco, the first win coming in 10 innings and the second, by a whopping sore of 10-0, pulling L.A. within one game of the Giants.

Not only is an exciting series between these two teams great on a micro level, but a nail-biting race between the Dodgers and Giants to win the division would be wonderful for the National League and baseball in general.

Should you need a break from the Olympics tape-delay debacle, watching baseball rivalry games in real time is a great alternative.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Cano gets barbequed in Kansas City

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This was only an exhibition. But it sounded more like a game seven between the Yankees versus Red Sox at Fenway Park. With every pitch take, warm-up swing and 75 mile per hour fastball from his father, New York’s Robinson Cano was showered with boos! With every pop up, fly ball and foul ball, outs in the competition, Cano was cheered by the masses gathered at Kauffman Stadium! We all know the Royals – Yankees rivalry dates all the way back to the 70’s when the teams battled in the post-season several times. The Royals franchise also has lost its share of free-agents to the deep pockets of the Steinbrenner family over the years. But this was the All-Star Home Run Derby and part of the first Mid-Summer Classic in K.C. since Kauffman Stadium opened way back in 1973. Who knew the fans in the heartland could bring the heat like their fellow American Leaguers in the Bronx or Boston. But they can and did just that!

The Royals faithful were unmerciful on Cano, the captain of the American League Home Run Derby team for not selecting Kansas City designated hitter Billy Butler to compete for the A.L. in front of the home fans. It’s not like Cano’s choice was an easy one. Butler has 16 home runs at the break, while Derby participants Jose Bautista hit 27, Mark Trumbo(22) and now two-time winner Prince Fielder hit 15 first half jacks. In the end, not only did they make their presence felt but rejoiced in the fact last year’s derby champion, finished with a big goose egg! Cano failed to hit one home run, finishing last in the competition. This was the first shut out at the plate since Brandon Inge went homerless in the 2009 game. Afterwards Cano said the fans did not affect his performance but fatigue was a key factor in his power-outage. Cano didn’t arrive into Kansas City until about 4:30 am after the final game of the Yankees-Red Sox series at Fenway Park the previous night. He also wasn’t upset at the crowd for giving him the business at the plate. As a matter of fact he stated he would be more than happy to compete in another Derby. “Why not? You’re not going to be the hero all the time. This is for the fans. When you make a mistake, you have to take it.”

In an event that basically means nothing other than an opportunity for the fans to watch their favorite players in a more relaxed atmosphere show off their ability to hit long towering home runs, Royals fans had every right to exercise their displeasure with Cano for not bringing in a qualified home-town guy to compete. Not only would Yankees fans have done the same thing, they would have been just as loud and probably thrown in a few expletives Kansas City fans chose to leave out. The response of Kauffman crowd not only showed they were actually into the Derby, even without a dog in the fight but the Kansas City fan also has a real voice outside the stadium next door where the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs play. Arrowhead Stadium is known as one of the toughest in the league for visitors and now Kauffman is also gaining a little status in the respect column.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Baseball’s All Star Break: A time to reflect in the National League

Unlike the American League which has three teams that are already playoff locks even at the break, there is much to be decided in the National League. Only three teams have winning records both at home and on the road and none are a shoe-in come October. With that extra wild-card spot this post-season the N.L. races are going to come down to the final couple of days of the regular season which should make for some amazing fall baseball.

While nothing is settled in any National League division, it’s the west that could finish with the most exciting race in baseball. The Los Angeles Dodgers limped into the break with an anemic 5-15 record in their last 20 games. But the good news for the Blue Crew is they still own the division lead by a half a game. Injuries have been the story at Chavez Ravine in the first half of the season. Arguably the N.L. MVP when healthy Matt Kemp, twice hit the disabled list with groin and hamstring injuries, playing in just 31 games. Follow slugger Andre Ethier also finished the first half on the disabled list with an oblique strain. Starting second baseman Mark Ellis suffered a bizarre leg injury which caused him to miss almost seven weeks. The good news for L.A. Ellis is back while Kemp and Ethier return in game one after the break. The Dodgers will still be missing number five starter Ted Lilly who pitched very well before shoulder stiffness put him on the shelf. He is not expected to return right away so rookie Nathan Eovaldi will take over his spot in the rotation. The Dodgers half game lead is pretty amazing considering all the make-shift line-ups manager Don Mattingly was forced to create. No doubt the strength of the Los Angeles club is the pitching. The Dodgers team earned run average of just 3.33 is only second in the N.L. to the Washington Nationals. Giving the fact they’ve weathered a storm of injuries and are still the front-runner in the west, speak volumes of where they could end up at the end of the regular season. With new ownership just salivating to show the Dodger fans they are committed to winning, you can expect the Blue Crew to be buyers before the trade deadline possibly picking up a power bat for one of the corner positions as well as another arm that can be put in the starting rotation or the bull-pin. If Kemp and Ethier pick up where they started the season, the Dodgers will not only make the play-offs but most likely win the west. Hot on their tail, the San Francisco Giants. The 2010 Champions got off to a slow start but eventually picked up the pace and took a lead in the west before dropping five of six on the road to close out the first half. The Giants have also suffered a couple of major injuries, losing third baseman Pablo Sandoval for a month with a broken bone in his left hand. The bigger injury however was the elbow problem closer Brian Wilson suffered causing him to undergo Tommy John surgery ending his season. Santiago Casilla took over the closer spot to mixed reviews. Wilson was not only the guy to shut the door at the end of games for San Francisco but was also the swagger of the entire Giants’ clubhouse. Without a doubt, there is a lot missing from the team that captured the first ever title in San Francisco Giants history just two seasons ago. Missing in action is two-time CY Young winner Tim Lincecum. He appears to be a shell of the dominate force that was once the Giants ace on the mound. The right-hander has struggled to a record of 3-10 with ERA of 6.42. Lincecum’s earned run average is the highest in the National League among qualifying pitchers and nothing so far has proven he’ll regain his once great form. With that said the Giants only trail the Dodgers by a half a game in the West and sport a couple of the best starters in baseball period. Matt Cain has received major pub for his perfect game against the Houston Astros but what’s more important, his record of 9-3 to go with lefty Madison Bumgarner’s mark of 10-5. These two alone could keep San Francisco in the race with solid starts. Manager Bruce Bochey will most likely need to move Casilla from the closer role and insert Sergio Romo if the Giants are going to stop giving games away at the end. Offensively San Francisco only has one player in double digits in the home run column and that’s Buster Posey. Power is an issue and the Giants will need more than Melky Cabrera’s hot batting average of .353 with 44 rbis to win the division. Maybe the biggest question surrounding the Giants; will they go out and get some much needed offense before the break? It could decide their playoff future in 2012.

The feel good story in all of baseball this season is the N.L. Central division leading Pittsburgh Pirates. The Bucs haven’t been to the post-season in 20 years but their 48-37 record is making believers out of more than just Pirates faithful. Pittsburgh closed the first half with a flurry, winning eight of their last ten games. Leading the way is National League MVP award leader Andrew McCutchen. 18 home runs to go with 60 runs batted in. He has put the Bucs on his back for the first half of the season. Neil Walker has also driven in 41 rbis, while Garrett Jones and Pedro Alvarez have both added power, with 12 and 16 long balls respectively. The biggest question for the Pirates in terms of not only winning the division but just making the playoffs in general is whether or not their pitching holds up. With just a one game lead over the Cincinnati Reds and a two and a half game margin on the St. Louis Cardinals in the division, there is little margin for error. James McDonald is finally meeting the expectations so many have had for the right-hander since he came over from the Dodgers organization. His 9-3 record leads the team as well as his 12 quality starts with an earned run average of 2.37. A.J. Burnett has regained his Toronto Blue Jays form, the one that eluted him as a New York Yankee. He finished the first half at 10-2 and seems to be more likely to keep up that pace than McDonald. Between those two, to closer Joel Hanrahan, who’s saved 23 games, the Bucs are very thin. They’ll need both McDonald and Burnett to be just as consistent while another starter emerges. If this takes place, the Pirates should find themselves back in the playoffs but most likely as a wild-card team. The Cincinnati Reds seem to be a more likely choice to overtake the Bucs and hold off the Cardinals to win the Central. Experience could prove to be the deciding factor here. The Reds line-up is laced with veteran bats led by Jay Bruce. Bruce has racked up 18 homers to go with 56 runs batted in. Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Ryan Ludwick all have double-digit homers to go with big RBI production. The Reds simply have the deepest line-up in the central and that is a huge advantage. On the hill Johnny Cueto has sparkled to a 10-5 record while both Matt Latos and Homer Bailey have started to turn the corner solidifying the Cincinnati rotation. There won’t be stretch run jitters coming from the Reds clubhouse and you know they’re hungry after losing to the Phillies in 2010 and missing the post-season all together last year. The defending World Series Champion St. Louis Cardinals are right back in the mix despite losing manager Tony LaRussa to retirement and slugger Albert Pujols to free-agency. The Red Birds start the second half just 2.5 back of the Bucs and like the Reds are one of three teams in the National League with a winning record at both home and on the road. St. Louis lost Adam Wainwright last season to injury and flourished to win the franchises 11th championship. They’ll try to do the same without Chris Carpenter and so far so good. Carpenter will miss the entire 2012 campaign with nerve damage in his throwing shoulder but the Cards have battled on. Kyle Lohse was responsible for keeping St. Louis afloat early and has continued a tremendous first half with a 9-2 record. Lance Lynn has also been a pleasant surprise winning 11 games in the first half against just four defeats. Wainwright started slow but has almost reached an even .500 at 7-8 overall. If the right-hander can regain his form from the 2010 season, which saw him win 20 against 11 losses, St. Louis would possess the best starting staff in the Central and win the division. The offense hasn’t seemed to miss a beat even without Pujols. Five players posted double-digit power numbers in the first half, led by Carlos Beltran’s 20 homers and 65 runs batted in. The powerful line-up sports Matt Holiday, Yadier Molina, Beltran, Allen Craig and last season’s World Series MVP David Freese. 261 rbis between those five bats says plenty about both the power and balance that is maybe second to none in the entire National League. On paper, both St. Louis and Cincinnati should reach the post-season with Pittsburgh as the odd team out, but that is why they play the game.

The east has been all about the Washington Nationals over the first 83 games. At the break the Nats hold the N.L.’s best record at 49-34, four games in front of the Atlanta Braves and 4.5 in front of the New York Mets. Washington’s success stems from a league-leading earned run average of just 3.20. Newcomer Gio Gonzalez leads the staff with an impressive 12-3 record. Second-year man Stephen Strasburg continues to sky-rocket in his short career, sporting a 9-4 record at the break. Journeyman Edwin Jackson is third in line and his continued improvement of ten quality starts in 16 appearances has given Washington a solid third man on the mound. While the Nats offense consist of just two real power hitters in Ian Desmond and Adam LaRoche; Ryan Zimmerman, Danny Espinosa and rookie Bryce Harper continue to come up with clutch at bats making the entire line-up more than formidable. The Nationals sit on top of the division due to a dominant 16-9 mark versus the division. They hope to keep that type of success up and avoid a meltdown like the second half of the 2005 campaign. In their first season in the nation’s capital, they also led the division only to finish the second half 16 games under .500 and in last place. The Mets don’t have the level of talent Washington possesses, but have received amazing pitching consistency from Dillon Gee and R.A. Dickey to keep them in the race for now. The Atlanta Braves strength has been its offense. Atlanta can rope the long ball with the best of them as Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Brian McCann and Dan Uggla all posted double-digit homers and close to fifty runs batted in. The Braves pitching however has been less than spectacular with only Tommy Hanson reaching 10 wins in the first half of the season. Inconsistency on the mound will be Atlanta’s doom in the second half of the year. Miami continues to under-achieve while Philadelphia has dug itself such a hole, 14 games back that even the return of both slugger Ryan Howard and second baseman Chase Utley might not be enough to allow them to make a serious run at the Nats. Roy Halladay is expected to pitch in Clearwater before returning to the majors after two stints on the disabled list with a strain in his throwing shoulder. His return to the big leagues could be delayed if the rehab doesn’t go well. Cliff Lee has suffered from the offense’s lack of run production but did pick up his first win of the season before the break. Cole Hamels, who becomes a free-agent at the end of the year, is on the trading block as the Phillies appear to be sellers this time around as the trade deadline nears.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Baseball’s All-Star Break: A time to reflect in the American League

With the Mid-Summer Classic closing in, the major league season has a chance to catch its breath. Teams in need of help, get a chance to evaluate and start making calls. Others wait for reinforcements to come off the disabled list, while yet more decide to trade away some of their assets to bring in prospects and start planning for the future. But with an added wild-card spot in each league this post-season, more teams than ever, are in the hunt for the playoffs.

In the powerful American League East, it appears to be the Yankees division to win and everyone else is just positioning for a wild-card spot. After a slow start the Bronx Bombers have found their stride opening their largest lead of the season in the division. A 20-7 month of June propelled New York to baseball’s best record at the break, as the offense exploded lifting the Yanks to a run differential of plus 44, second in the big leagues in the month. New York leads the majors in slugging percent and this shouldn’t come as a surprise with the power throughout the pin-strippers line-up. Robinson Cano has banged out 20 home runs to go with 51 rbis. Nick Swisher continues to surprise driving in 50, while Mark Teixeira also has 15 dingers and 53 runs driven home. The offensive list goes on and on as the Yanks are starting to play, as good as they appear to be on paper. On the hill, the 9-3 records of C.C. Sabathia and Ivan Nova, heading into the series finale against Boston, have backed up the bats while Rafael Soriano has filled in admirably in place of Mariano Rivera. While the Bombers pitching is not over-powering as in the past the bottom line is they can outscore anyone and that makes them the favorite to not only win the A.L. East but maybe American League crown and also the 2012 World Series. Boston has fallen off but the biggest disappointment for the Red Sox has been the pitching. Josh Beckett has fought off injuries but the results of four wins and seven losses haven’t cut it in the standings or with the New England faithful. Jon Lester sits at just 5-5 before Sunday’s game with New York, while the only bright spot on the hill continues to be Felix Doubront sporting a record of 9-4. Both Beckett and Lester will need to be lights out in the second half or no post-season at Fenway in the fall. With the bat, “Big Papi” David Ortiz is proving there is plenty left in the tank! The slugging lefty has belted 22 homers with 56 runs batted in, before the Sox first half finale against the Yankees. He’s also hitting .313. Adrian Gonzalez is trying to back Ortiz up, driving home 45 runs but has only knocked six balls out of the yard. Dustin Pedroia’s injuries have not helped out a Red Sox club that has suffered 22 players lost to the disabled list. Entering final game before the all-star break, the Sox sat just two games out of a wild-card spot. They’ll have to play much better in all areas to secure one during the second half. The feel good story in American League is that of the Baltimore Orioles. Buck Showalter’s bunch finished the first half at 45 and 40, sitting in second place in the A.L. East. The O’s are a scrappy bunch and play scrappy baseball. Adam Jones, Chris Davis and Matt Wieters have all driven in over 40-plus runs. While the overall line-up doesn’t possess a bunch of power it does find ways to manufacture runs to go along with solid defense. Jason Hammel has posted an 8-5 first half record, followed by Wei-Yin Chen’s seven victories. The Baltimore staff simply isn’t good enough to carry the load. For the Orioles to capture a wild-card spot, the O’s will have to play flawless baseball in the second half.

In the Central the White Sox, Indians and Tigers all are in the mix. Chicago continues to just pound out runs with a differential of plus 63, which is the best in baseball. Adam Dunn has recovered from last year’s drop off to drive home 61 runs in the first half with 25 long balls. Like the Yankees, the Chicago line-up brings to the plate multiple threats throughout the line-up so there are no easy outs. Chris Sale has emerged as the ace of the staff, winning ten games but the rest of the rotation is suspect at best. Chicago will have to battle in order to hold on the division lead in the second half. Cleveland has probably over-achieved to this point of the season. While pitchers Derek Lowe and Ubaldo Jimenez has rallied to win eight games apiece, the Tribe’s top three hurlers all have earned run averages in the mid-fours and that will eventually catch up as the season progresses. Jason Kipnis is leading the Cleveland offense that sports only three hitters with double-digit home runs in the American League. When it’s all said and done, the Tribe will have to battle for one of the wild-card spots in the American League at best. Detroit rallied to get a couple of games above .500 at home before the break at 22-20. Before that, the Tigers had been a complete disappointment at Tigers Stadium. Prince Fielder has proven to be worth the money Detroit coughed up in free-agency. 15 home runs to go with 63 rbis are second on the squad only to Miguel Cabrera’s 18 long balls and 71 runs batted in. Other than those two, the rest of the line-up has been average at best and will have to pick it up if the Tigers are to win the division. Justin Verlander, the best pitcher in the American League has been the victim of poor run support. However he’s still posted a record of 9-5. Detroit’s other two big starters Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer have been just a little better than average. The Tigers should finish well enough to lock in a wild-card berth but if their line-up can rise up along with both Porcello and Scherzer on the hill, the Tigers should win the division again.

The West appears to be on its way to a wild finish between the two-time American League Champion Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. There has been nothing surprising about what manager Ron Washington’s club has accomplished to this point. If it wasn’t for a late dip of 5-5 towards the end of the first half, the Rangers would easily have the best record in all of baseball at the break. Texas sports the best run differential in all of the majors at +78 and that can be contributed to a balance of hitting and pitching. Josh Hamilton has put together another MVP type of campaign in the first half. 27 homers and 75 rbis say it all. But Texas follows up “The Natural” with plenty of swingers! Adrian Beltre has driven home 54 runs. Nelson Cruz has 11 long balls with 53 rbis. There is a reason they’ve represented the A.L. in the World Series the last two years. Like the Yankees and White Sox, there are just no easy outs in the Rangers line-up. The pitching has the potential to be the best in all of baseball. Matt Harrison and newcomer Yu Darvish have posted double-digit wins, while the entire staff earned run average of 3.78 is the best in all of baseball. Stingy pitching and lots of power appear to be a great balance which could get the Rangers to a third straight A.L.C.S. After an incredibly slow start, the Angels got themselves back in the not only the playoff picture but also in the running to catch Texas in the West. Los Angeles entered the final game of the first half trailing the Rangers by just four games. The Halos have the unique offensive combination of both power and finesse. As a team they’re hitting .269 which is ranked third in the majors. Super-rookie Mike Trout leads the team at .341while driving home 40 runs and sending 12 homers out of the yard. Albert Pujols went a month and a half without a home run at the start of the season but that was then and this is now. The big guy now has 14 dingers to go with 51 rbis. Mark Trumbo leads the team in runs driven in with 57 and 22 jacks. Add in the production of both Torii Hunter and Howie Kendrick and this line-up is just a formable as any in the American League. On the hill, both Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson have been outstanding! Weaver’s 10-1 mark is one of the best in baseball at the break. Wilson has proven owner Artie Moreno spent some of his free-agent money wisely. The lefty is 9-5 despite battling the team’s early season offensive woes of low run production. If manager Mike Scioscia can get both Dan Haren and Ervin Santana on track, both have under-achieved so far, the Angels could make a realistic push to catch Texas for the West title. If not, they will be a major player come post-season time from one of the wild-card spots.
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