Some random thoughts on the current baseball season……….
There are many ways to spell tough luck in baseball, it’s that kind of game…one of the best ways this year is S-a-m-a-r-d-z-i-j-a, as in pitcher Jeff Samardzija. Coming into this week, he had a brilliant ERA of about 1.64, but absolutely zilch to show for it – a record of 0-4. Of course he pitches for a bad team, in fact the ‘poster-boy’ of all bad teams, the Cubs. This year and last, they’re about as bad as they’ve ever been, I just don’t get it…..can’t they be good, just once, just for a little while? C’mon, God….. would ya? Pleeze?
Samardzija started Wednesday afternoon’s inter-league game against the Yanks in Wrigley Field. The night before, the Cubbies shocked themselves and the free world by clobbering the Bronx boys, 6-1. But could this sudden astounding competence and outrageous good fortune continue for our fair-haired boy with the great ERA and eye-chart name? Nooooo. Samardzija threw seven stellar innings, giving up nothing – a couple of measly hits, no walks, no runs and actually lowering his ERA to 1.46. But not only did he not get the win, neither did the Cubs, they lost 3-2 in thirteen…….Jeezus, what does a guy have to do to get a win around there? Sacrifice his mother? Cut off his pitching arm? Samardzija was one of the pitchers the Jays were trying to pry loose in their futile off-season pursuit of a starter, he sure would look good in a Toronto uniform. They’ll have to join a long line-up of suitors now though. One thing’s for sure, the Cubs won’t keep Samardzija, they can’t afford him and besides, who needs a good pitcher when your goal is seemingly to be the worst ball club on the planet, year in and year out?
Mark Buehrle picked up his major-league leading eighth win yesterday, giving him 194 for his career. This puts him in some pretty good, interesting historical company – Babe Adams, Dolf Luque, Doc Gooden, with Dazzy Vance just down the road. Buehrle’s getting on, but with the goop he throws, he’s the kind of guy who could pitch well till he’s pretty old, he could get up to 240 or 250 wins. He’ll never make it to the Hall of Fame even if he does that, because his other numbers are less than imposing, but I could care less. He’s the epitome of one of the types of pitchers I just love – lefty, durable, fast-working, consistent, looks like a hillbilly, doesn’t throw hard enough to break an egg, good control, modest with a sense of humour, will win you 12-15 games a year in his sleep – in fact, half the time he’s so relaxed, he looks like he is asleep.
I also love the way his name fits his burly, seemingly unathletic physique, which is deceptive. He looks pudgy and slow, but is one of the best fielding pitchers in baseball history; just another one of the eccentric, unexplainable things that keep me in love with the game despite its occasional attempts to alienate me. Let those other sports have the Knute Rockne guys with the Adonis builds and the matinee-idol good looks, baseball has always had room for funny-looking, fat, slow guys who look like they’d never be great athletes, but turn out to be…….. great athletes. Ruth, Berra, Gabby Hartnett, John Kruk, Mickey Lolich, Kirby Puckett, Tony Gwynn (those last two looked like bowling balls but both could hit and run like crazy), Boog Powell, Greg Luzinski (OK, you can’t win ’em all), Billy Butler, David Ortiz…….As long as baseball continues to find room for these kinds of guys, it will remain a great game.
Buehrle is nobody’s idea of what an ace looks like, but who cares? He’s definitely been the ace of the Jays’ staff this year, one shudders to think where they’d be without the Burlmeister. He’s given us one of the best stretches of his career to start this season and could easily be in line for his first 20-win season. I hope he makes it, nobody deserves it more and he’s been a pleasure to watch all these years, even more so now.
Apart from the Red Sox finally ending the curse in 2004, nothing has warmed my baseball heart more the last few years than watching Edwin Encarnacion develop into a fearsome big-league ballplayer. It’s similar to the Bautista story, but even more feel-good. I remember when he came over from Cincinnati as part of the Scott Rolen deal. He seemed to be a misfit, a misunderstood ballplayer without a home or position, with some potential strengths but very glaring weaknesses. He’d bounced around between the minors and majors a lot, you could almost feel the doubt and pain radiating off him, the lack of confidence; I felt something akin to pity for him, he seemed so…. sorrowful. I remember him making some dazzling glove plays at third base, but his throwing was really erratic. For a while, the Jays didn’t quite know what to do with him, but it seemed he could hit, at least with some power, if not for average. They finally tried him at DH and then first base, where he’d at least make a big target and where his errant throwing wouldn’t be such a big deal. You’d have to say it worked. He hit .244 with 21 bombs in 2010, .272 with 17 in 2011, then had his breakout season in 2012 with 43 dingers and followed that up with 36 last year, just to show it was no fluke. He’s now one of the legit, feared sluggers in the game and he’s at it again lately after a slow start.
His back-to-back two-homer games in Fenway were great, but his play in the third game of the set, though homerless, was even more galvanizing. Though not one of nature’s gazelles, EE busted his ass down the first base line to beat out a slow roller that Sox shortstop Humphrey Bogart hesitated on for just a second. This is called hustling and being a teammate, ladies and gentleman, it wins ballgames and sets an example. Later in the game, with a man on base and Ortiz having a dangerous looking at-bat against the ever-vulnerable Dustin McGowan, EE took a wicked bullet down the first base line, knocked it down, corralled it and put Papi out at first base with a mischievous little grin – “is that all you got, man?” – which Papi returned, threat over. EE, you have to love the guy……
Edwin’s skills – power, strength, strike-zone judgement – are the ones that fade the slowest, so at 31, he could be at this for a while. He now has 208 big-league home runs, he could easily reach 300, maybe even 350 or 400 – that’s a great career by any standards – who’d have thought it, five years ago? Go, Edwin, go.
Speaking of sluggers, milestones and careers, I was much encouraged by the recent return to form of Albert Pujols and his passing the 500-homer mark, though he seems to have come back down to earth a bit since. It was none of my business, but I was surprised and disappointed by Albert’s decision to leave the Cardinals after ten great seasons with them, over the trifle of a few more million. I mean, really, who would you rather play for, the Cards, or the Angels? By his lofty standards, he had his first two less than great seasons right after this, mostly due to injury, which will happen with age. He’s about 34 now, so I’ve been pulling for a return to form from him. I see Pujols as a sign of true, historic greatness in our time as opposed to the usual musty past, I’d love to see him put together four or five really solid years to end his career with a bang, maybe get to 600 or even 700 homers. Nothing against Lou Gehrig or anything, but it would be nice to say that we saw with our own eyes the best first baseman ever to play the game, who played it clean and right. We might be saying that of Albert anyway, regardless of how he finishes.
It’s symbolized in a way by the diverging fortunes of the A’s (terrific) and the Pirates (not too hot) so far, but have you noticed how many established, star pitchers are really struggling, and how many kids you never heard of who are pitching just great? Among the former are the following: Clayton Kershaw, who got the tar beat out of him recently by Arizona, of all teams. It was only one game, but 18-7?!? Clay Buchholz, who has an ERA of over 6.00 and who, in one outing a while back appeared to be pitching blindfolded. Lincecum hasn’t looked good and I don’t think Matt Cain even has a win yet. Sabbathia, Cliff Lee, Lester, Verlander, David Price, Cole Hamels, everybody with Pittsburgh, a whole bunch of usually solid guys have looked pretty shaky of late, it’s weird. But there are some kids who just take your breath away, including, yet again, a bunch with Oakland. How do they keep doing this? With no money, no ballpark, no fans, they keep turning no-name pitchers into good ones, only to lose them and replace them with younger, lesser-known kids who are even better. Guys who look strange (like A.J. Griffin or Sean Dolittle, who looks like a bagpipe-playing biker) or have funny names (Sonny Gray, Evan Scribner, Drew Pomeranz, Arnold Leon, Josh Lindblom and Joe Savery – a closer’s name if I ever heard one), but who throw gas or don’t walk anybody, or both. I mean year after year…. Just who the fuck are these guys and why are they so good? Somebody should break into Billy Beane’s house late at night and take some hair samples or dandruff scrapings or something and duplicate him from his DNA, I’m beginning to seriously believe he’s a genius.
It’s not just tha A’s though, or the Rays, who are also pretty good at this sort of thing, there seem to be a lot of young pitching phenoms this year. The Royals have a kid named Yordano Ventura who throws real hard with control. He has an ERA of 2.80 and has struck out 56 batters in 54 innings. In a recent game against the Orioles, he fanned Chris Davis with a 100-m.p.h. fastball up around the eyes, Davis looked like he wanted to run and hide somewhere. The kid threw one that was only about 95 to Nelson Cruz that was promptly deposited in the bleachers for two runs, but that was his only mistake, he lost a tough one, 2-1. The Yankees and Mets started two kids against each other in their major-league debuts recently and it being an inter-league game at the Mets’ field, each of them got their first big-league hits. The Yank pitcher was Chase Whitley, who looked about 18, but the Mets’ kid, Jacob deGrom (great name) looked about 12. They both pitched really well, but deGrom was the more impressive, even though he lost (Whitley was yanked after about four shutout innings) – seven innings, two hits, one run, losing 1-0. Then there’s Jose Fernandez of the Marlins, who’s now injured and looks to be this year’s Matt Harvey. I realize the Jays have traded a lot of their young prospects recently, but none of them looked to be approaching this level, not anytime soon, and you have to ask – when are the Jays going to get a couple of young kids who can throw like this? They desperately need a starter, some miracle kid to step up and throw the blazes out of the ball this summer…..I can dream, can’t I?
I’ve long had a conflicted thing about cheering for the Jays and the Red Sox; it’s insane, I know, but they’ve rarely been good at the same time, so it’s kind of worked. During the recent series at Fenway, I was pulling like crazy for the Jays though and was delighted with their sweep, even though it meant the Sox have lost seven in a row. It surprised me and wasn’t a conscious decision, it was real, my guts and heart talking, saying….beat these guys. It’s not that I’ve abandoned the Sox; like all Sox fans, I’m a lifer. But last year’s special win sated me for a while. I don’t want them to lose exactly, but it’s almost like I need them to flounder around for a while before thirsting for another championship (and it doesn’t hurt to see Mr. rod-up-the-ass Farrell struggling a bit, I’ll confess.) It’s more that, like a lot of us, I need these Jays to win, especially after the torture of last year. It was gruesome, beyond disappointing, the summer of our discontent, it shook our faith and it’s been a long time now. This year’s team appears at least sound, if a little short here and there, but the way they’re playing is at least heartening and first place, even at this point, beats the hell out of last. Things always look rosy during a winning streak though – the sweep at Fenway is a good sign, but they come home to a sterner test – the A’s. The Jays are about to face a buzzsaw of pitching and if they fare well, then I’ll really start to belieeeeve.
I’m going to my first game of the year on Saturday and this will be made even more special because Anna and I are taking our daughter-in-law Sarah, who loves baseball, and our two-year old grandson Charlie, this will be his first big-league game. I’m wondering how he’ll take to it, he’s in the habit of taking a pretty big afternoon nap. In fact, he and I are known for taking a nap together often; we’ll probably end up asleep for a few middle innings in the sun, there are worse things.
I noticed that the Jays were going to start a pitcher named Hendriks in his Toronto debut tomorrow, facing a tough Oakland pitcher named Jesse Chavez, who once belonged to the Jays before they gave up on him and who’s been chucking aspereen tablets lately. I didn’t think this mismatch was suitable viewing for my grandson’s first baseball experience, so, using my considerable clout with the organization, I made a call to inquire if the Jays might re-think their rotation for this special occasion. Sure enough, my main man Gibby came through for us – they’re starting Hendriks tonight against Kazmir and R.A. Dickey tomorrow against Chavez. Thanks fellas, this is more like it; Charlie and I now have a chance to fall asleep to Dickey’s knuckleballs fluttering around all over the place, if you will. Hopefully without too many of them leaving the park and waking us up.
It just shows what a simple phone call to some well-placed, higher-up friends can achieve, and if you buy this, I can get you a really great deal on the Bloor viaduct……..
Cheers for now and watch out for those high, hard ones.
© 2014, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.