…Sorry, that should be “hope springs eternal”….man, have we needed this. After a harsh winter that tried even the hardiest of souls among us, the Boys of Summer are back with their grand old game and not a moment too soon, Opening Day at last. Cue the massed choirs of the Hallelujah chorus, bring on the William Tell Overture, “Auld Lang Syne“,”Take Me Out To the Ballgame” and whatever other celebratory music seems appropriate. Play it all, make it festive and stirring because once again, our prayers have been answered. The grass (OK, some fake stuff too), the crack of bat on ball, the whoosh of a high, hard one, the ballet of a niftily turned double-play, even the rancid scent of stale hot dogs and overpriced swill-beer …man, have we ever needed this.
The return of baseball is such a balm and a blessing, especially when the nice weather is dragging its butt and we’re not out of the winter woods yet. Its arrival comes with other perks too, like the appearance of the first box-scores in today’s morning papers. Amid all the wrenching chaos of change – which, after all, is nothing but the gradual stripping away of all that we hold dear – there’s something very comforting in knowing that people have been digesting these lovely, tiny columns of numbers and abbreviations along with their corn-flakes and coffee for well over a century now. Keep progress, give me the box-scores. They provide much better morning reading than the sordid, loutish miasma of politics, business and celebrity-worship that pollutes the newspapers. At least when a box-score says Bryce Harper went 2-for-4 with a double and a walk, you can believe it.
Of course, many blessings are mixed…..after all, spring also brings the tax-man and his fangs. And Opening Day can bring disappointment, depending on how your team makes out. For Blue Jays’ fans, yesterday’s dismal 9-2 loss to the Rays mostly brought a feeling of deja-phooey about their team, as in “here we go again”. Much of the off-season commentary about the Jays sensibly and repeatedly pointed out four keys to the team’s fortunes – improved defense, staying healthy, a good start and above all, the quality of the starting rotation – oh well, I guess one out of four is better than nothing.
The defense should be better at several sore spots, if only by subtraction in a couple of cases. It’s anybody’s guess how well Ryan Goins will hit, but it’s a sure bet he’s a defensive upgrade at second base over Emilio Bonafacio, who played the position last year like a man defusing a bomb while wearing oven mitts. And behind the plate…well, not to knock J.P. Arencibia or anything, but their catching improved as soon as they let him go. Never mind Dionner Navarro… hell, Rick Cerone would have been an upgrade and he must be at least 60 by now. And now that Melky Cabrera can actually move again, left-field should be better too, so the defense should be improved, which will help the pitchers, and if yesterday was any indication they’re gonna need it.
Now, I know it was only the opener and one game does not a season make. And I know that R.A. Dickey has had success in the past and had a good second half last year and all that. But seeing as he’s the ace and everything, it would have been nice if he’d at least set the tone for the season by pitching like one, or at least close to it, but no dice. Plainly put, he was not very good, with gusts toward awful. I mean, just five innings pitched, six walks (tying a career-high), five hits (three of them screaming doubles but miraculously no homers) and six runs, all of them earned? Where’s the leadership in that? It’s all very noble of him to take the blame for this and say it’s all on him, but I’m getting tired of hearing it, just as I’m getting weary of his philosophical musings about how elusive and hard to control the knuckler is and how he needs to be better and blah-blah-blah. Don’t say it, R.A., do it, and sooner would be better than later.
Although it was already too late, Esmil Rogers did a nice job in relief with two shutout innings. Jeremy Jeffress can throw the ball at 97 m.p.h. till the cows come home and that’s great, but the good news about him ends there, because – at least judging by the one really ugly inning he pitched yesterday – he doesn’t seem to have much of an idea where the ball is going to go. In one inning he hit two batters (both of whom came into score), walked another, and gave up three ringing hits and three earned runs while striking out nobody, despite his heat. Yeeeeshhhh.
As bad as the pitching was, news on the health front was maybe even worse, as the brilliant (but brittle) shortstop and table-setter Jose Reyes re-aggravated his bothersome hamstring and came out of the game after just one at-bat. And Jays’ fans thought things were rough last year when Reyes went down after 10 games. He’s been placed on the 15-day DL and exactly how serious the injury is remains unclear, but this is not good news, not in any way, shape or form. Reyes has had trouble staying in the line-up before last year and the problem for the Jays is not so much replacing him defensively, but in the batting order. It’s a double-whammy – he’s their only legitimate lead-off hitter and if he’s out for any length of time, it leaves a huge hole and means the Jays have to drop a weak-hitting replacement middle-infielder into the bottom of their batting order, which is already weak enough. Seeing as Reyes injured his tender hamstring earlier in spring training and is so vital to the team’s fortunes, the question becomes: Why did he play in both the exhibition games in Montreal? I understand they were of some importance in a ceremonial and feel-good sense, but as baseball games that counted, they were meaningless. Who is making these decisions and why? Closer Casey Janssen is also on the DL to open the season, but at least the team has the bullpen depth to replace him for a while – in theory, anyway.
As for getting off to a good start, these injuries don’t help and beginning the season with a four-game series against the Rays in Tampa is not exactly what the doctor ordered either. The Jays have a tough enough time beating the Rays in Toronto, but the Orange Juice dome (or whatever it’s called) has been a graveyard for them, pretty much the fifth circle of Hell.
I’d probably like the Rays more if they played in another division or even in the other league, so the Jays didn’t have to face them so often. I do admire them though. No matter how many players they lose due to a low payroll and their fickle fan-base, they always seem to have good starting pitching and lots of it, some relievers and they play terrific defense. They have baseball’s smartest manager in Joe Maddon and only one real star in Evan Longoria, but they surround him with good athletes who know how to play the game and don’t make many mistakes. Ben Zobrist, Matt Joyce, Wil Meyers, super-sub Sean Rodriguez and (aarggh) Yunel Escobar – they don’t all have pretty hitting numbers, but they seem to know how to play as a team and win. I guess I would be less irritated by the Rays if the Jays showed a little more of this kind of moxie, instead of making plays like Jeffress did yesterday. Jeffress got in Lawrie’s way as Brett was charging to field a grounder which he had the better angle on, then fielded it awkwardly himself, airmailing the throw to first base. Given their other problems and question marks, the Jays have to start helping themselves by playing heads-up baseball. It’s another dispiriting aspect of yesterday’s rout, along with their hitters striking out nine times with just one walk.
However, the great thing about baseball is that it’s everyday and they get to go out and try again tonight to redeem themselves, which could happen, it’s a funny game. Not a good start though.
Luckily, I’m not just a Jays’ fan, but a fan of the whole game itself, and there was plenty to cheer about elsewhere yesterday. There were a number of big-league managerial debuts, by Bryan Price with the Reds, Ryne Sandberg with the Phillies and Brad Ausmus with the Tigers. I wish Ausmus well and he has a good team to work with, but I’m going to miss Jim Leyland and his impassive, time-ravaged baseball face. And his calm, reasoned, dignified manner of speaking, whether after a tough loss or a triumphant win. There were also some good games, including two minimal 1-0 affairs won by the Cards and the Pirates, Pittsburgh’s coming on a 10th-inning walk-off bomb by Neal Walker, their bopping second baseman. And there was another 10-inning walk-off win by the Tigers, 4-3 over the Royals, and a 2-1 nail-biter won by the Orioles over Boston. That game featured two players I’ll be watching closely in the early going. There were splashier deals this past winter, like the Mariners signing Cano or the Yankees acquiring Tanaka, but I think the best move might turn out to be the Orioles getting Nelson Cruz to play left-field. Really, he’s a right-fielder, but no matter, left-field was a big hole for them and they filled it with a proven 30-homer, 100-RBI guy. I have no idea how their pitching will be, but if Machado can come back to play third base like he did last year, along with Chris Davis, Matt Wieters, J.J. Hardy and an outfield of Markakis, Jones and Cruz, their everyday line-up should be killer.
The other player I’m watching and really pulling for is Grady Sizemore, who’s making a bid to return to the majors as Boston’s everyday center-fielder, after two years lost to injury. It’s a long shot, he’s 31 or 32 now, but he looked good in the spring and he had two hits yesterday, one of them an absolute bomb of a home run, accounting for Boston’s only run. So far, so good. You may think I’m in his corner because I’m a Red Sox fan, and you’d be partly right – the Sox badly need a guy in center to replace the departed Jacoby Ellsbury, but that’s only some of it. In his early years with the Indians from 2005 – 2008, he was one of the best, most complete players in baseball, a true five-tool player and a favourite of mine. There was just something about the look of him playing the game – going to get the ball in center or running the bases, lashing doubles all over the place – that gave me that old-timey baseball feeling, he looked like a player from the ’30s or ’40s. He was in the middle of another excellent season in 2009 when knee injuries felled him and he played only about 100 games over the next two seasons. Careers being sandbagged by injuries are sad to watch and I’m really hoping Sizemore can buck the odds and make it all the way back this year. I’d be cheering for Grady even if he was trying to do this with the Yankees, not that they’d need to bother with the likes of him after spending $400 trillion in the off-season.
Along with the squeakers, there was a wild one yesterday between the Phillies and the Rangers in Texas. Philly won 14-10 – two touchdowns against a touchdown and a field goal. There were 31 hits, with 4 doubles and 4 homers, including the 200th of Jimmy Rollins’ career. Cliff Lee’s ERA at game’s end was something like 37.00 – and his team won. And, don’t look now, but good old J.P. Arencibia, who landed with the Rangers, actually drew a walk. Yes, that’s right, I kid you not. After drawing exactly 18 walks – I repeat,18 – all of last season, J.P. is on a pace after yesterday’s game to draw 162 this year. Somehow though, unless he’s found a way of getting some scrapings of genetic material from Ted Williams into his morning smoothies, I don’t think he’ll be able to keep this up.
Arencibia was driving me seriously crazy by about halfway through last season, but by the end I’d gone over the edge, it became personal, even irrational. Watching him have maybe the worst overall season by a catcher in history, I didn’t just want him traded, I wanted him dead. Toward the very end of the season, a good friend took me to a Jays/Yankees game in Toronto. The real upside of it was we saw Mariano Rivera record the final save of his great career, something to cherish forever. The downside was watching Arencibia make it look so easy. After already striking out twice on a total of six pitches earlier in the game, you not only knew he’d strike out on three from Mo, but could practically recite the sequence in advance. Cutter right over the middle – take, strike one. Cutter outside – fouled off, strike two. Cutter off his shoelaces, swing and miss, see ya later. Jeezus.
Seriously though, now that he’s with Texas, I wish J.P. all the luck in the world, in much the same way that I wish A-Rod a nice, restful, navel-gazing year off from baseball, followed immediately by his permanent retirement.
© 2014, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.