30 September 2004

Down to the Wire...

The baseball regular season's almost over, and the final picture of the playoff races is beginning to finally come into focus. But, off in the distance, one or two areas simply refuse to be pinned down.

For the first time in months, the Oakland Athletics don't lead the AL West. Anaheim beat Texas last night accomplishing two things:

1) They eliminated the Rangers from the playoff picture, which is particularly good in that it will deprive those who would argue that the A-Rod/Soriano trade made Texas a better ballclub of some fodder for their argument.

B) They moved themselves into first place.

Of course, the second accomplishment was aided by Oakland's loss to last-place Seattle, but more broadly to Oakland's general inability to win consistently for the last month or so. They're 11-16 in September, after finishing August with eight straight wins, a 78-53 record and a healthy three-game lead in the West. Their starters have a 5.92 ERA this month, including one-time Cy Young candidate Mark Mulder's 8.10(!), to go with a 7-11 record. Not a convenient time for your starters to falter.

In the NL, the race for the West is nearly over, with the Giants hanging on for dear life, three games out with four left to play. Not likely, as they say in France. But the Wild Card is still up for grabs, as the Astros have ridden their star to a one-game lead as of last night. Just for the record, Boy of Summer's pick for the NL Wild Card is either San Francisco, Houston or the Cubs, whichever team finishes with the best record at the end of this weekend. Remember: you heard it here first.

So, on to more interesting isseus...

There is a surprising number of individual records that may fall this year. You probably already know about Barry Bonds' myriad of accomplishments: He'll break his own records in single season walks (225 and counting), on-base percentage (currently .610), OPS (1.435 right now), and others. But did you know that his on base percentage is currently higher than all but five other players' slugging percentages, only one of whom plays in the supposedly more offensively oriented American League (Manny Ramirez)? It probably won't happen, but if for some reason Barr's allowed to hit against the Dodgers during the last weekend of the season, and he can hit three homers while Adrian Beltre and Albert Pujols are held in check, he could be the first player in half a century to win a home run title without striking out as often as he homered. Ted Kluszewski did it in 1954, hitting 49 dingers with 35 strikeouts.

Speaking of offense, I'm pretty offended that people are making such a big deal out of Ichiro's chasing George Sisler. Ichiro's quest for the single-season hits record is an interesting footnote to the 2004 season, at best. He's a speedy singles hitter who hardly ever walks, so even with a .370+ batting average, his OBP barely cracks the top 10 in the majors, and his OPS is 38th! Over 150 players have as many doubles as Ichiro right now, and despite all those hits, he might not score 100 runs, partly because his teammates suck, but also because he so rarely gets himself into scoring position.

When George Sisler amassed 257 hits in 1920 he hit .407 to do it. He also was second in the league in homers, doubles, triples, extra base hits, slugging%, OPS, Runs, RBI, steals, and some other stats, most of them behind some guy named Ruth. Ichiro isn't even close to being the second best player in baseball this year. Sisler was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1939, one of the first classes to enter, and he got a higher percentage of the vote than Walter Johnson, Cy Young, Tris Speaker, Nap Lajoie, Pete Alexander, Eddie Collins, Wee Willie Keeler or Rogers Hornsby, to name a few of his competitors on the ballots.

Another interesting note that's gotten almost no press coverage is Adam Dunn's potentially record-setting campaign. Don't know what I'm talking about? See, I told you it's not getting any coverage.

Adam Dunn plays left-field for the Cincinnati Reds and hits cleanup, which makes sense since he has 45 home runs, more than anyone in baseball but Dodgers' 3B Adrian Beltre. He's also walked over 100 times, and driven in and scored over 100 runs each, so he's no one to be trifled with, even though he's only hitting .264. After hitting .215 last year, .264 looks pretty good. What doesn't look good is this number:


That's how many strikeouts Dunn had coming into today's game against Mark Prior and the Chicago Cubs. By the time you read this, he will have at least tied or even set the record for strikeouts in a season. Prior has over 500 strikeouts in less than 440 innings of career pitching at the major league level, so it's a good bet that there might be a couple more added to that by this evening.

The record is 189, set by Bobby Bonds in 1970, his second full season, with the Giants. A handful of other players have been close to this record in recent years, most notably Jose Hernandez, then with the Brewers, in 2002. Erstwhile Brewers' manager Jerry Royster, despite the impending end to Milwaukee's lousy and otherwise inconsequential season, decided to sit Hernandez for the last few games to prevent him from breaking the record, a decision I much derided. But Reds' skipper Dave Miley apparently knows that Dunn is one of his best players, in spite of the strikeouts, amd that if the Reds are to have any chance of playing the spoilers to the Cubs' Wild Card hopes, that chance includes Dunn batting four or five times, and maybe striking out three, but maybe hitting another one over the Ivy covered brick wall at Wrigley as well.

Good for Dave Miley, my new hero. He may not be any better able to keep Junior Griffey in the lineup that Jack McKeon, or Bob Boone, or Ray Knight, or Lou Piniella, but at least he knows how to keep a healthy, productive hitter in there when he needs him, even if it means a possible public relations no-no.

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25 September 2004

Generic Yankees Update

Speaking of the Yankees...it seems they're back on track.

With a 6-4 win last night, the Yankees have pushed their lead to 5.5 games over the Red Sox, which is a pretty tough lead to blow given that the two teams have fewer than ten games left in the season.

It's not exactly the case that the Yanks are firing on all cylinders, but the starting pitchers have a 3.67 ERA in September, 3.27 if you remove Estebomb Loaiza and Brad "Not Ready for Prime-Time" Halsey from the mix. Of course, Estebomb had his best outing yet as a Yankee in his last start, but 5 innings and change and two runs against the Blow Jays does not inspire a lot of confidence in me that he'll be able to get the Twins or Athletics or Red Sox out in October. Or for that matter, that he'll be able to get the Red Sox out tomorrow night, when he goes up against Schilling.

Interestingly, despite their recent success, the Yanks' starting rotation has been decimated by injuries. Barring something bizarre, this could be the first season since 1988 that the Yankees have not had a 200 inning starter, this after having had four of them last year.

But Jeter's now hitting over .290, an impressive resurgence after that dismal April, including .398(!) in September. Two more homers before the end of the season will set a new career high for him.

Jeter Posted by Hello

Alex Rodriguez is about to become the first Yankee since 1975 to hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases in the same season. The late Bobby Bonds is the only player in Yankee history to do so thus far. A-Rod needs two steals to become the second. The Bondses (Barry and Bobby) are the only other players to have done so with more than one team, and A-Rod will be the first to have done so at more than one position, though Ho-Jo did it a couple of times playing a handful of games out of position for the Mets in the '80s.

Jason Giambi, while not exactly the Giambino right now, seems to be progressing. At least he's not laid up with a damn tumor and/or parasite anymore. And it's a good thing, too. John Olerud's resurgence seems to have been pretty short lived. He's hitting an unimpressive .271/.338/.400 in September after hitting .312/.393/.390 in August. With Tony Clark not exaclty living up to the "Tiger" moniker with his anemic .190 September average, and Ruben Sierra sitting around .226 for the month, the Yanks, it would seem, have little to lose playing Giambi every day in hopes that he gets his stroke back before the playoffs.

Now if Kevin Brown can just field a grounder...

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24 September 2004

Random Weekend Notes...

A few random notes on a note-worthy baseball news weekend...

The Smartest Pitcher Who Ever Lived...for 17 Years

Greg Maddux has done it again. He's won 15 games this year, for the 17th consecutive season. Everybody pretty much knows why: he's awesome. Not blow-you-away-with-108-mph-gas awesome like some pitchers, but rather I'm-smarter-than- whomever's-at-the-plate-and-I-know-it awesome, which might be better. Of course, it helped that he played for most of those Braves teams that averaged 98 wins per season for over a decade, and that he never does anything to get himself hurt (you listenin', Brown?), but it's still pretty remarkable any way you slice it.

Dumbest Athlete Baseball Player Writer BBTN Anchor Who Ever Lived

OK, so he's not the dumbest writer. I think Bill Conlin still works for the Philly Daily News. But John Kruk refreshes my amazement with him on a nearly daily basis by coming up with ever-more asinine things to say about baseball. His most recent column lists a few tongue-in-cheek awards and even acknowledges that The Big Unit has been a better pitcher than Roger Clemens this year, but c'mon, Chone Figgins for MVP?
What's next? Jeremy Affeldt for the Cy Young Award? Hey, Affeldt didn't know whether he was starting or relieving or closing on any given day, and his pitching was... um... mediocre, so why not?

Actually, I was in a Yahoo Fantasy League earlier this year that also thought Chone Figgins was pretty darn valuable as well. That league setup overvalued triples and steals while undervaluing silly things like, well, pitching, so I quit it. If MLB somehow starts giving awards to guys like Chone Figgins, I may have to seriously consider becoming a hockey fan. Oh wait, never mind.

Have You Seen This Pitcher?

Who Am I? Posted by Hello

GS  CG   IP    H   HR  BB   K   ERA   WHIP

30 4 217.1 177 20 60 271 3.35 1.09

He has fairly impressive credentials: over 270 strikeouts and barely more than a baserunner per inning in almost 220 innings of work. An ERA that ranks 4th in the AL this year. One of those complete games was a shutout, too, and the opposition has only hit about .215 off him. Not a bad resume, I'd say, except for this:


That's his record. In this day and age, that pitching line would put a guy at least in the running for the Cy Young award, if not at the head of the pack. Another 30 or so innings of work like that would nearly assure him of it, if not for the fact that he hasn't actually been able to win more games than he's lost (see Johnson, Randy). And besides, Johan Santana's running away with the AL CYA this year, with Schilling a distant second, right?

So why haven't you heard of this guy? What rock have you been living under to have not noticed someone who's struck out more batters than everybody but Randy Johnson?

Well, you have seen him. As a matter of fact, he's been on national television twice in the last week, pitching against (and losing to) the New York Yankees. You see, I've tricked you again (you keep falling for it...). The line above is Pedro Martinez, i.e. Punk-Ass, except it's his body of work against the Bronx Bombers over the course of his career, including three ALCS appearances. For reference, the rest of his career looks roughly like this, on average, not including postseasons:

GS  CG  IP   H   HR  BB   K   ERA   WHIP

29 4 210 159 16 56 241 2.65 1.02

In addition, you should know that his average record is 17-7 in games against not-the-Yankees. These numbers also include some of his relief work early in his career with Los Angeles, but you get the point. He's just about as stingy with the hits and walks, and just as prolific with the strikeouts, but for whatever reason, he just does a better job of keeping runners from crossing the plate when he faces everyone else. Granted, over the time he's been facing them (1998-2004 and counting) the Yankees have won their division every year, and have won three of the five World Series in which they've played, beating out (up, on) Pedro's Red Sox twice to get there. So I guess ascribing Wins and Losses to pitchers has some meaning after all.

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15 September 2004

"...I Knew Lefty, and Sir, You're No Lefty!"

Much attention this season has been paid to the plight of Arizona's Randy Johnson.

randy Posted by Hello

Naturally, it's hard to think of anything a world-famous man making bajillions of dollars a year to play a children's game in front of thousands of adoring fans would experience as a "plight". Nevertheless, it must be something of a drag to see your best efforts kicked to the curb like yesterday's hot dog wrappers, or, perhaps more poignantly, like an infield grounder to Chad Tracy.

ESPN Radio's morning show Friday mentioned that The Big Unit would pitch Friday night against San Francisco, and that despite his losing record, which stood at 12-13 entering the game (Note: Johnson won that game, pitching seven shutout innings to even his record at 13-13.) Mike Greenberg, a ~35ish sports reporter, proffered the idea that a case could be made for Johnson as the best pitcher in the NL this season, and that the only reason for his lackluster record was poor run support from a poor team, one that has already lose three more games to this point in the season than the Philadelphias did in '72, with three weeks yet to play. I tended to agree.

But Bob Pecose, a ~55ish newsman and self-declared purist, proved unwilling to concede the point. Bob still believes in Wins and Losses as a useful measurement tool for pitchers, and mentioned in support of his position the case of Steve Carlton, who somehow managed to go 27-10 and won the Cy Young Award for the 1972 Phillies, who lost 97 games for the worst record in the NL that year. Greenberg wondered aloud whether it might be determined that Carlton's record was indebted to unusually high run support, and suggested that they ought to look into it some time when they weren't so busy.

So I did.

I got to thinking about how this could possibly have happened, and whether or not something can be understood about the nature and/or usefulness of pitching wins and losses from comparing 2004 Johnson to 1972 Carlton. There are several factors here to consider here when cmparing two pitchers across eras like this.

Lefty Posted by Hello

For one thing, the starting pitcher's role has changed significantly in 32 years. Steve Carlton pitched 346 innings, while starting 41 games that year. He completed 30 of those starts, eight of which were shutouts. He easily led the league in starts, innings, complete games, ERA, strikeouts, and some more obscure stats. Johnson is second in the NL in innings pitched this season, but probably won't come within 100 innings of Carlton's total. At the rate at which Johnson consumes innings, he would have to start 50 games to equal Carlton's 346 innings pitched, and he would win 21 games...but would also lose 21. Carlton's 30 complete games were seven more than the next closest pitcher in the NL, but there were ten other guys with at least 13 complete games. This year Livan Hernandez will likely lead both leagues in that category without getting into double digits.

Carlton's 1.97 ERA was the lowest in the NL that year, whereas Johnson's 2.75 is currently pacing the NL, nearly a run higher. The NL ERA in 1972 was only 3.45, making CArlton's league-leading 1.97 was 75% better than the league average, whereas Johnson's on "only" 58% better this season, because as runs become more scarce, they also become more valuable.

This factor surprised me the most in my research. The 1972 NL average team scored 3.91 runs per game, as compared to 2004, when the NL is averaging 4.7 runs/game right now, again, almost a run higher. Carlton's horrendous team scored 3.22 runs per game on average, and about 3.28 when Carlton pitched, roughly 83% of the NL average. This was the big surprise for me. I figured that if he won 27 of the team's measley 59 victories, it must have been because they scored more runs when he pitched, but that wasn't the case. They scored almost exactly the same number of runs per inning innings in Carlton's starts as they did for anyone else, on average, which was substantially less than the NL average.

Again by contrast, the 2004 D-Backs average 3.88 runs per game, 3.92 when Johnson pitches, pretty much the same. The NL average this year is about 4.67 runs per game, which means that the 3.92 runs they score for Johnson are (wait for it...) 83% of the NL avearge! It should be noted that the D-Backs score slightly more than a run over the number of earned runs Johnson allows, but also that runs become "cheaper" as scoring increases. Johnson has allowed ten unearned runs this season as well, which hasn't helped. Carlton only let eight unearned runs score all season, while pitching almost 130 more innings than Johnson has to this point.

So clearly the expectations have changed. Starting pitchers rarely complete their starts, and if they allow three earned runs in six innings, it's called a "Quality Start" even though a pitcher who did that every time out would have a 4.50 ERA, which is basically mediocre.

That's the background you need to understand before we can really say anything about how good Randy Johnson is or is not. First, let's look at how well Johnson has pitched this year:

He's pitched 215 innings, starting 31 games so far and completing four. Both the innings and complete games totals are second in the NL to Hernandez. Of those 31 starts, 22 have been "Quality Starts" meaning that he pitched 6 innings or more and allowed three earned runs or fewer, theoretically giving his team a chance to win. Except that it doesn't win, because eight of his 13 losses have come in these so-called "Quality Starts." The team has scored a grand total of seven runs in those eight starts, and no more than two runs in any one of them, so Johnson is only 10-8 with four no decisions in those QS. Not surprisingly, the Diamondbacks proceeded to lose all four of those no-decisions as well.

In 1972 a Quality Start would have been assessed differently. The NL ERA was 3.45, so an appearance which leads to a 3.50 ERA might be aptly called "Quality", such as 7 innings and two earned runs, or eight innings with three earned runs. Carlton had 30 such appearances that year, and went 25-4 with only one no-decision, a 10 inning shutout that was lost when the first batter in the 11th inning homered off the relief pitcher who replaced the pinch runner who replaced the pinch hitter who replaced Carlton in the top of the inning. If I were Steve, I wouldn't ever give up the ball either.

One reason Carlton won so many games is that he almost never gave up the ball. He completed nearly 3/4 of his starts, was only replaced in the middle of an inning once all season, and even pitched the tenth and eleventh innings in three of his starts. As I mentioned, his run support was just about as feeble as Johnson's is, but he allowed so few runs to score, and refused to let a relief pitcher screw up his work unless he absolutely had to, that he managed to win.

Eight of his games, as I mentioned, were shutouts. Nine other times he pitched a complete game and allowed only one run, earned or otherwise. Five of his other complete games entailed only two runs by the opposition, and two of those were 11-inning jobs. In adidtion, he also had that 10-inning shutout bid ruined in the top of the eleventh, as I mentioned earlier. So that's 22 of his 30 complete games that included 2 runs or fewer, not all of which were wins. Johnson has only had 16 games of any length this year allowing 2 or fewer runs, and only seven of those have been eight innings or more, none more than nine. Pitchers just can't do the same type of job with any kind of consistency.

After 31 starts in 1972, Carlton was 20-7, with a 2.10 ERA and had just completed nine straight and 14 of 15 starts, including two 11-inning, 2-run jobs. And though he had pitched about 50 more innings than Johnson in those 31 starts, he had only one more decision, with seven more wins and six fewer losses. Carlton was, more often than not, so stingy with runs, and so reluctant to surrender the ball, that he usually managed to win.

In 1971 and 1973, Carlton pitched very similarly. He had an approximately league-average ERA, and pitched a lot of innings. But the 90-win, '71 Cardinals gave him enough run support to provide a 20-9 record at year end, whereas the 91-loss Phillies let him take it one in the "L" column 20 times in 1973. The difference in run support was less than two runs per game.

And for the most part, Johnson has done everything you could ask from a pitcher: he gets batters out, prevents runners from scoring, fields his position, etc. What he doesn't do is bat, at least not very well. Hey, if you had a strike zone the size of a screen door, you might have a little trouble making contact too. But Johnson's .114 average, with one Run scored and 4 RBI, certainly doesn't help his cause much. Carlton, though not exaclty Babe Ruth with a batting average that echoed his ERA (.197), did have 5 extra base hits, including a homer, 6 runs and 8 RBI. There were four times that season when a run that he scored or drove in made a difference in the game, four wins that (presumably) would have garnered the Big Unit a Big L.

Now we get into "what if" scenarios? What if Johnson got league-average or better run support? Well, looking at his game log, if the team could score runs to average out to 4.67, depending on how things worked out, Johnson might still only be something like 16-12, or with some breaks, 17-10, which would certainly put him under serious consideration for the 2004 Cy Young Award, but still isn't anywhere near as good as Carlton was.

Amazingly, though, Carlton did not win an inordinate number of games given his run support. The Pythagorean projection for his ERA and Run Support

[ERA^2/(ERA^2 + RS^2)]

suggests that 27-10 is exactly where Carlton's record should have stood in 1972. His team barely scored more than 3 runs per game, but he allowed only two, and didn't allow a relief picher to get in the way of victory. The margin for error was so close, but Carlton managed to be ever-so-slightly within that margin 27 times that season. Johnson's just had hard luck and bad relief pitching, as Pythagoras tells me that he should be 17-9 at this point, not 13-13.

This seems to make it fairly clear that though Johnson may be the best or one of the best pitchers in the league, he's still nowhere near as good as Carlton was that year. I doubt anyone would really argue with this. But you don't win a CYA by proving that you're better than some guy who pitched thirty years ago, you win by being better than anyone else pitching in your league now, theoretically. People like Bob Pecose and Joe Morgan need to wake up and smell the 21st century. Pitchers are asked to get batters out, in an effort to try to win games for their team. If the team doesn't score and they lose, 1-0, it's hardly the pitcher's fault. The fact that he has 13 wins on a team that might not win 50 is fairly impressive to begin with.

Let's not put a damper on his accomplishments by complaining that he's not another person in another time. That's a standard against which no one should have to be measured.

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08 September 2004

The Year of the Streak(s)

Forget Cal Ripken. Forget 1998.

 Posted by Hello
2004 is The Year of the Streak.

Or, more accurately, the Year of the Streaks, as there are several different kinds of streaks that have taken place or are currently underway.

For example, the Arizona Diamondbacks, though they might have been thought of as contenders before the season began, are easily the Worst Team in Baseball. Their current 42-97 record means that they have barely won 30% of their games, are eight games worse than the next most awful team in MLB, the pathetic Kansas City Royals. They're also 17(!) games worse than the Montreal Expos, the closest NL team, who are so bad that two countries don't want them. Montreal has the worst offense in the majors, averaging only 3.85 runs scored per game, which is only 2.98 with the exchange rate, and there's as much distance in the standings between the Expos and Diamondbacks as there is between the Expos and Cubs.

To be as bad as the Diamondbads are, sorry, Diamondbacks, you've got to have a few losing streaks, and boy do they. Arizona has lost nine games, eleven and even 14 games in a row, and has three other losing streaks of five or more, including the current one, which stands at six. When, in late August, they took two games out of three from the Cincinnati Reds (who should be ashamed of themselves, by the way...), it was only the second series the team has won since Mid-June. If you look at the games around those three largest losing streaks (9, 11 and 14 games, from June 18th to August 14th) the team won eight games out of 51, for a .157 winning percentage. Even the 2003 Tigers, who explored profound, new depths of futility in losing 119 games last season, never won fewer than 10 games in any 51-game span, according to Baseball-Reference.com.

The D-Backs are a Blur of Badness Posted by Hello

On the other side of the coin, the Florida Marlins have currently built a 9-game winning streak, which has helped them to get back into the NL Wild Card Race, where they are currently only 1.5 games behind the lead. Nine games is not that extraordinary a streak, but it sure is a timely one, as was the 7-game winning streak they had near the beginning of the season. That 7-game streak was helped by the Marlins getting to play the Phillies, who suck when they play Florida, as you may recall, and the Expos, who suck when they play anyone. It also served to put the Phils five and a half games behind the Marlins, which is just about where they sit now. This means, of course, that the Phillies and Marlins have played almost exactly as well as each other since the middle of April, and that the Phillies' lost postseason chance is owed entirely to their inability to beat the Fish.

Philadelphia has gone 69-58 in games they didn't play against Florida, while the Marlins have actually played at .500, 61-61, in non-Philly games. But Florida has won 11 of 12 contests between them, and, as I mentioned in a previous post, the two teams still have seven games against each other in September. So, while the Marlins' current winning streak is timely, it's really their success against the City of Brotherly BOO!! that they have to thank for even being in contention. And if the Fish should pull off another miracle and make it to the playoffs? The Phillies ought to get proper credit...for sucking exactly when they needed to.

Speaking of winning streaks, the Houston Astros have taken advantage of some of their NL Central rivals to win 12 in a row. Perhaps more impressively, they've won 15 out of 16 and 20 out of 23 since mid-August, to lead the NL Wild Card race, in a tie with the Giants, by half a game. This after the Astros were all but counted out, with a season-worst four games under .500 record at 56-60 on August 14th, and after losing two out of three to the Expos (who suck, remember?) Their next five games come against the Pirates, who also suck, but then a lot of the remaining schedule is against the Cardinals and Giants, who don't. Half a game isn't much of a lead, and while the Cubs are the class of the race on paper, they've done anything but put away the competition to this point.

And we can't forget Boston, though we might like to. The Red Sox comfortably lead the AL Wild Card race by five games over Anaheim, and are continuing to creep up on the Yankees in the AL East, only two games back now after beating Oakland 8-3 last night. That extends their current winning streak to a meager four games, but this follows shortly after a ten-game win streak and six-game streak, broken up only by singular losses, which means that the Dirt Dogs have won 20 of their last 22, and haven't lost consecutive games in over a month. It's almost sad that all this effort might prove to be for naught as the Division title and the Wild Card seem to offer about the same chance of making it t and winning the World Series. I Keep telling myself that Lady Luck will have to wake up at some point and start evening things out for the Sawx, but with the remainder of the Red Sox schedule taking place against Tampa, Baltimore and Seattle, streak or no streak, the Red Sox will not go away.

Well, not until October. When the Yankees beat them. Again.

It's just a matter of time... Posted by Hello

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05 September 2004

Looks Like I Picked The Wrong Week to Quit Sniffing Glue

It's been a rough week for the New York Yankees and their fans.

Though they took three out of four games from the Blue Jays in Toronto last weekend, they ended the series with a loss. One-time ace Mike Mussina could not get out of the seventh inning without allowing five runs, amking it the ninth time this season Moose had alowed at least five runs in a game. To his credit though, the six and a third innings he pitched marked his longest outing since returning from the DL. Still though, six innings and five earned runs is hardly the kind of performance you'd like to see from a pitcher making sixteen million dollars this year, especially against a last place team that's scored fewer runs than all but three teams in the AL (Seattle, KC and Tampa Bay.) An ace, he is not, at least this year.

As if that were not sufficiently depressing, the Yanks then traveled home to host the Cleveland Indians, in what should have been continued abuse of the American League's soft underbelly, but instead became an embarassment of historic proportions for the Yanks. Rather than showing the mediocre Cleveland Indians who's boss, the Yankees infuriated their own Boss by posting the most severe loss in the franchise's storied, 100+ year history, and equaled the most lopsided shutout in major league history, losing to the Indians 22-0. Jake Westbrook, who's having a decent season for the Tribe, shut them down for seven innings, and Jeremy Guthrie, making only his second major league appearance, pitched two scoreless innings to cap off the humiliation. Thankfully, they won the next two against Cleveland, but the bad press created by this demoralizing loss got a lot of people worried about the Yankees' chances in October, including me.

Without looking it up, I imagine that you'd be hard-pressed to find the last World Series championship team that had been beaten by something like 20 runs in the same season. Mercifully, they did manage to take the remaining two games of that series, but the damage had been done.

The next stop on the trolley through the American League Patsy-ville was Baltimore, who rolled into town Friday for a three game series that should have helped the Yankees pad their lead on division rival Boston, but instead turned out to be a nightmare of almost epic proportions.

Kevin Brown started on Friday night, and pitched reasonably well, allowing three runs in six innings, but ending his night rather abruptly when he punched a clubhouse wall in frustration after the sixth inning and broke two bones in his left (non-pitching) hand. He had been hit in the right forearm by Miguel Tejada's batted ball in the sixth inning, one inning after tweaking his knee covering first base on an infield grounder. Of course, Brown also missed a substantial portion of the season with lower back injuries and an intestinal parasite, so it's not as though they could afford to miss him for another few weeks. Heck, they needed him to pitch the very next inning, as his 81 pitches at the time certainly were not so many to have normally sent him to the showers at that point. Felix Heredia, his emergency replacement, walked the only two batters he faced before retreating to the showers in the clubhouse from the shower of boos coming from the stands. The Yankees still don't have a decent lefty in the bullpen, and by 'decent' I mean "doesn't completely suck."

The AP reported that the Yankees front office people began reviewing Brown's contract to see if anything like a self-inflicted injury would void his otherwise guaranteed money, another $15 mil next season, but that seems a moot point right now. Whether or not Brown is overpaid with the nearly sixteen million he's making this year (he is), he's still one of the best starters the Yankees have when he's healthy. Sadly, he won't be healthy enough to pitch again for about three weeks, perhaps even after the regular season has ended.

On this subject, I can speak a little from personal experience. About eight years ago, while I was in college, I did something like this as well. In my own anger and frustration, over a girl, a much better reason than Kevin Brown's, if you ask me, I punched something I should not have: my closet. The dorm closets at Lehigh were made of solid oak, and as you might have guessed, the bones in my hand were not, so you can imagine which of us lost that fight. (I have a rematch with that closet coming up in October. It's on Pay-Per-View.) My fifth metacarpal was broken just below the joint where it meets with my right pinky, what they call a "boxer's fracture" for obvious reasons. (Unlike Brown, I did not have the foresight to hit the closet door with my left hand.) I was told that they could perform surgery and reset the joint so that it would look nice again, but that the range of motion I would have if they did so might not even be as good as if they just let it heal itself in the semi-bent position, which took about 4-6 weeks in a cast, if I recall. I doubt that metacarpal fracture medical science has advanced all that much in less than a decade that Brown will be back before early October, even with his superior physical conditioning and probably better doctors. A bone is still a bone.

Ant to (literally) add insult to injury, the Yankees lost the only game I got to see in person this year, Saturday, also to the Orioles. And they didn't just lose, they couldn't even buy a hit. Sidney Ponson, at one time on a pace to lose 20+ games, with an ERA still pretty close to 6.00 as he entered the game, shut the Yankees out for the second time in a week, alowing only two hits and a walk in nine innings.

To his credit, Mike Mussina pitched pretty well overall. He struck out eight and allowed only two runs in seven innings, though he did need to work his way out of trouble on a few occasions. It's a shame his best performance in three months had to be squandered by poor offensive run support and a bad showing by the bullpen.

Down only 2-0 coming into the ninth inning, Yankees fans at the game had something for which to cheer, as Metallica's "Enter Sandman" began playing on the Stadium PA system, and The Best Closer in Postseason History sauntered in from the bullpen behind left-centerfield. Mariano Rivera, having been all but unstoppable this season with a miniscule 1.32 ERA and 46 saves entering the game, couldn't stop himself from allowing four runs while getting only one out. This rather intrigued me, as most managers won't bring in their best reliever, the Closer, in a non-save situation. Typically Joe Torre doesn't either, but we've seen often, especially in the postseason, that he's not afraid to buck convention with Rivera when it might help win a game. It didn't on Saturday.

The problems started with a solo home run by Rafael Palmiero into the right field bleachers, a no-doubt-about-it blast that traveled about 420 feet, and then traveled back about 40 feet, when the Bleacher Creature who caught it threw it back onto the field. Of course, Palmiero is a future Hall of Famer who's done that about 540 other times in his career, more than all but ten guys in history, so it was almost forgiveable. On the other hand, he hadn't hit one in over a month, and this was only his second homer since the All-Star Break. Still, with not such an insurmountable lead at 3-0, the Yankees still had a chance if Mo could buckle down and get some outs. But three singles and a fielder's choice grounder later he'd still only gotten one out, was down 4-0 and had men on first and third.

No pitcher wants to read the words "relieved by Bret Prinz" in a game story about himself, so I hope Rivera didn't pick up the Sports section on Sunday morning. Not being a good enough pitcher to keep Bret Prinz and his 5.25 ERA in the bullpen is a lot like not being a good enough lawyer to keep the state from calling in My Cousin Vinny to argue the case. And, as if that weren't depressing enough, Prinz came in and allowed Brian Roberts, whose "slugging" percentage ranks #139 out of 157 qualified major leaguers this season, to deposit his first pitch into the right field stands, scoring both runners and putting the Yanks down 7-0. Prinz did mercifully get the next batter out, but the Yanks' day was clearly over.

Sidney Ponson finished the game out with a perfect ninth inning to complete the Bronx Bombers' shame. It was his first complete game in over a month, his first shutout since mid-May. Just a bad week all-around for the Yankees.

Making things worse, the Red Sox had pulled, over the course of this week, from 6.5 games out to a paltry 2.5 games out of first place, with six games remaining in the season against the Yankees. The Sawx had to play insanely good baseball for a month in order to get this close, which would seem to indicate that the law of averages is bound to catch up with them and get them to lose once or twice in a while, but 2.5 games is hardly a comfortable cushion in a season that once saw the Yanks up by more than ten.

The remainder of New York's schedule is, as I mentioned, pretty easy, in theory: Six more games agains Toronto, five against Tampa Bay, and three each against Baltimore and Kansas City, besides the six against Boston and three against Minnesota. Boston's schedule isn't exactly tough though, and with the pitching rotation's struggles and injuries, the Yanks do have their work cut out for them the rest of this month.

If there's any solace to be had in this situation, it lies in that the AL East team that doesn't win the division will probably win the Wild Card, which we've already saeen offers a perfectly acceptable opportunity to win the Wolrd Series. But I think the Yankess would prefer to keep that streak of division titles going, if at all possible.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go buy some more rubber cement...

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