Miracle that is the Astros gets a bit more miraculous

Let’s take a deep breath and reflect on baseball’s most amazing story of 2015 in the wake of a three-game sweep of the Dodgers and a 117th day in first place.

They won on Sunday because rookie right-hander Lance McCullers Jr. went toe-to-toe with Clayton Kershaw for seven innings and because rookie shortstop Carlos Correa helped manufacture the tying run in the bottom of the ninth and because catcher Jason Castro hit a walk-off home run in the bottom of the 10th inning.

When a team keeps doing magical things, it almost ceases to be magic. The Astros finished a 7-3 home stand with their fourth walk-off win in eight games. They won three extra-inning games in that span.

They are a young club. They are playing with energy and enthusiasm. As for the veterans–Castro, Jose Altuve, Dallas Keuchel, etc.–they may be having even more fun.

After averaging 104 losses the previous four seasons and playing a whole bunch of home games in a nearly empty ballpark, the Astros are the very best story in all of baseball.

This thing has some magic. But this team is solid. It has gotten better during the season with the additions of Correa, McCullers, Scott Kazmir, Carlos Gomez, Mike Fiers and others.

The Astros have the look and feel one of those comets that blaze across the sky about once a generation, if that. On the other hand, any objective look at this baseball team would conclude that this is no fluke. No one would even think that if not for the background.

The Astros lost 111 games two seasons. They lost 92 games in 2014.

To come from where they were at to where they are is incredible. They didn’t buy this team, either.

Only the Tampa Bay Rays have a lower payroll than the Astros.

So before we start overlooking the miraculous part of this story, let’s revisit how it happened, one brick at a time.

1. Jim Crane, owner.

He bought the Astros in 2011 and directed the franchise on a new course. Since winning the National League pennant, the Astros had grown old and bad and boring. Their farm system was mediocre, so they pieced a roster together by signing one old guy after another. Crane announced that he would hire a general manager really good at drafting and developing, and he would give him the resources and the freedom to build the Astros as he saw fit.

2. Jeff Luhnow, general manager.

He directed a string of phenomenal drafts while with the St. Louis Cardinals and has done more good work with the Astros, building one of the five best minor league systems in the game. From the 2012 draft, Luhnow’s first, the Astros have had contributions from Correa, McCullers and outfielder Preston Tucker. There’s more talent in the pipeline.

And then last off-season, he changed directions. Instead of trading away veterans, he acquired them—designated hitter Evan Gattis, relievers Pat Neshek and Luke Gregerson, outfielder Colby Rasmus and infielders Jed Lowrie and Luis Valbuena. He saw a window of opportunity and added more talent at the Trade Deadline.

He hit on all of them, showing that he’s as good at building a winning roster as building a great farm system.

3. A.J. Hinch, manager.

He had such a terrible record while in charge of the Arizona Diamondbacks that he knew he might never have another chance. He and Luhnow hit it off immediately.

Hinch is comfortable in Luhnow’s analytics world, and the two men have mutual respect for one another, leading to a comfortable exchange of information and ideas, especially regarding defensive shifts, match-ups, etc.

Hinch has passed every other test, too. He’s a tremendous communicator, has built strong relationships in the clubhouse and has expertly managed both the bullpen and the playing time issues.

4. Carlos Correa, shortstop.

Three years ago, he was Luhnow’s very first draft choice. Now at 20, he’s the franchise’s resident superstar, an amazingly gifted, mature, dazzling perform. He’s one of the rare ones who gets it in every way.<p>

5. Dallas Keuchel, starting pitcher.

He’s the ace. He is absolutely brilliant at working through opposing at-bats. He throws an assortment of pitches, changing locations, speeds and movement. His control is precise, his poise unshakable.

6. Pat Neshek and Luke Gregerson.

In one off-season, Luhnow turned baseball’s worst bullpen into one of its best, and it begins with these two guys taking care of the eighth and ninth innings.

7. Trade Deadline.

No general manager had a better few days. Luhnow added a top-of-the-rotation arm in Scott Kazmir and a middle of the order hitter in center fielder Carlos Gomez. With Lowrie returning from the Disabled List and with George Springer a few weeks away from returning, a really good, really solid team got even better.

8. They’re better than you thought.

Because the Astros used a revolving-door roster in recent years, they were able to give players they liked a chance. From those opportunities came starter Collin McHugh, relievers Will Harris and Tony Sipp and infielder Marwin Gonzalez. Every single one of them has contributed.

9. Coaching staff.

Hinch inherited one of the great pitching coaches on the planet in Brent Strom and then added to it. Thanks to these guys, the Astros are as prepared as any team in the majors. Thanks to a collaboration with the front office, the Astros have saved themselves dozens of runs with their defensive shifts.

10. Magic.

Sometimes all the pieces fit. When the Astros need a hit, they get a hit. When they need a late out, they get that, too. From those early success has grown a steady confidence. With the emergence of Correa, Keuchel, etc., with the additions of Gomez and Kazmir, the Astros match up nicely with almost any team in baseball.

How does all of this translate into October baseball? Stay tuned.

Have the Blue Jays gotten your attention yet?

Maybe the coolest thing about this series is that the Blue Jays didn’t shy away from its importance. Even before they got to Yankee Stadium, they said it would be three of the most meaningful games for the franchise in recent memory.  Translation: The Blue Jays haven’t made to the postseason since 1993 and were under .500 as recently as two weeks ago. To put it bluntly, not everyone is convinced how good they are.

Yankee fans were all over social media prior to the series pointing out they hadn’t been impressed by a four-game sweep of the Twins. What say you now, kids?

Professional athletes resist the labels those of us in the media put on certain games. What’s a “statement game” anyway? If the Blue Jays had been swept by the Yankees this weekend, they would still have 49 games remaining and be right back at it Tuesday night at home against the Athletics.

The Blue Jays and Yankees will play one another 10 more times, including three next weekend in Toronto. Whatever statement the Blue Jays managed to make this weekend would have a short shelf life.

Okay, we understand that. That said, it was a great three days for the Blue Jays. An important three days for the franchise. A validation of their transformation.

At the moment—and this is a key phrase—the Blue Jays appear to be the American League’s best team.

In beating the Yankees by scored of 2-1, 6-0 and 3-0, they answered three significant questions about themselves:

  • Is their rotation good enough in the wake of David Price’s arrival in a Trade Deadline deal with Detroit? Three Toronto starters—R.A. Dickey, Marco Estrada and Price—allowed baseball’s second-highest scoring offense one earned runs in 20 1/3 innings.

(The Yankees hadn’t been shut out in consecutive games at home since May 12-13, 1999—a stretch of 2,665 games.)

Their pitching has been really good for awhile. In winning 11 of 12, the Blue Jays have trimmed their deficit in the American League East from eight games on July 28 to 1 1/2 today. Their starters are 10-0 with a 1.78 ERA in this stretch.

  • Is their bullpen good enough?

This part of the roster has caused general manager Alex Antopolous one headed after another. He has used 27 pitchers in all. Six different Blue Jays have at least one save. Three different Blue Jays have at least four.

With a surplus of starting pitchers, the Blue Jays shifted one of baseball’s best arms, 22-year-old Aaron Sanchez, back to the bullpen. His presence in the bullpen and the deals for veterans Mark Lowe and LaTroy Hawkins has transformed that part of the Blue Jays as much as Price deepened the rotation.

Since July 28th—that was the day the Blue Jays acquired shortstop Troy Tulowitzki from the Rockies and told the world they were in a “go for it” mode—Toronto’s bullpen has been baseball’s best.

They’ve got a 1.78 ERA since then, and in three games against the Yankees, Toronto relievers allowed no earned runs in 7 2/3 innings.

(Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran were a combined six for 33 with one extra base hit this weekend.)

  • Would they blink?

Yankee Stadium can intimidate. There’s all that history. There are those thunderclap ovations.  The Blue Jays handled it all. They won a one-game game in 10 innings on Friday. They were in a scoreless game on Saturday until Ivan Nova hung a breaking ball to Justin Smoak with the bases loaded in the sixth. On Sunday, they scored a run in the top of the first and never surrendered the lead. The Yankees left seven men on base and went zero for five with runners in scoring position as Estrada and three relievers tossed another shutout.

  • Now what?

The Blue Jays will play one of the biggest home series in years next weekend when the Yankees come to Toronto. But that’s how pennant races are. The Blue Jays have gotten to within 1 1/5 games of first place, but that just means there’ll be more tests to pass, more big games to play.

All your Hall of Fame questions answered here

Okay, almost all. First, though, a little Cooperstown tourism plug. If you have a chance to visit, do it. It’s perfect. That’s Cooperstown itself and that’s the Hall of Fame. If you’re a baseball fan, it will fill your soul. If you’re an American history buff, it will be a great experience.

Here’s your 2015 Hall of Fame checklist:

  • 310 Hall of Famers
  • 215 players
  • 119 voted in by writers
  • 47 of 70 living Hall of Famers will be in Cooperstown for induction ceremony.
  • 2016 ballot has one slam-dunk first-time: Ken Griffey Jr. Also on ballot: Trevor Hoffman and Billy Wagner.
  • Deserving holdovers from 2015 ballot: Mike Piazza, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, Mike Mussina, Jeff Bagwell, Alan Trammell, Edgar Martinez, Tim Raines.
  • Hall of Famers by position/jobs: 77 pitchers, 16 catchers, 21 first basemen, 21 second basemen, 16 third basemen, 24 shortstops, 21 left fielders, 23 center fielders, 24 right fielders, 1 designated hitter, 23 managers, 10 umpires, 33 executives.

Best team in the American League? Don’t sleep on the K.C. Royals.

David Glass stayed the course. Sometimes, that couldn’t have been easy. Fire this guy. Trade that one. He heard it all. In the end, the Kansas City Royals owner trusted his gut. This wasn’t his first rodeo. Six decades in business had taught him a few things.

In the end, he believed in his people, especially his general manager, Dayton Moore. He never forgot how Moore laid out a blueprint for making the Kansas City Royals great again during that first job interview in 2006.

He remembered Moore saying it wasn’t a perfect plan, that there would be ups and downs along the way. When they’d finished chatting, David Glass was convinced he’d found his guy.

The Royals had to do things a certain way. They could not spend their way to the postseason. They had to build their own foundation through a great minor league system.

Perhaps the best thing the two men have done in nine years together is communicate with one another because this success story didn’t happen overnight.

Moore made some mistakes, but the thing that impressed Glass was how thorough Moore was in his preparation and how he had the ability to assess why things happened the way they did.

Some of us thought the Royals had turned a corner at the end of the 2011 season when Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez arrived. Moore’s plan had begun with building a great farm system, and so, here were the stars of that farm system in the big leagues.

Moore knew otherwise and warned people not to get too far down the road. Winning is complicated. It almost never happens overnight. Good teams are a product of 30 or 35 players contributing.

Go back and look at any successful team the last couple of decades, and almost everyone of them got surprising contributions from people who weren’t in the mix.

In fact, the single most dominant Royal is a guy who ended up in his role almost by accident. Injuries forced Wade Davis into the bullpen in the spring of 2014. The Royals thought it was a temporary detour, that he’d eventually be a starter.

These days, Davis is the best reliever in baseball. In the last two seasons, he has appeared in 103 games for the Royals. In 104 innings, he has allowed nine earned runs. He has 34 walks, 145 strikeouts and an insane 0.78 ERA.

Davis has been in 32 games this season and allowed one earned run. He’s so good that when he gives up a baserunner, it’s news in Kansas City.

Anyway, nine years after Glass hired Moore, it has all worked out the way they envisioned it. The Royals were a sweet story last season as they staged a 41-23 sprint for their first postseason appearance in 29 years, then opened the playoffs with an eight-game winning streak. Their season finally ended with a loss to the Giants in Game 7 of the World Series.

But by the time they were done, they’d completely changed the way we think about the Royals. They were a joy to watch, a team built around a great defense—left fielder Alex Gordon is a nightly highlight reel—and an even better bullpen. They had a great blend of youth and experience in the clubhouse and a manager, Ned Yost, who made it all work.

Could they sustain their success? Yes, they can. They’ve won 13 of 18 games to open up a 4 1/2-game lead in the AL Central. They’ve stayed true to their formula. Their 2.06 bullpen ERA is the second-best in the majors, slightly behind the Cardinals (2.04). Their defense is again baseball’s best.

They’ve got a variety of offensive weapons and a rotation that’s a work in progress. But the Royals have won enough the last 12 months to understand winning that they’ve developed some swagger along the way.

Since the Royals took off in late July last season, they’ve been baseball’s best team, going 95-55, including the postseason. But the 2015 Royals are different than the 2014 Royals. James Shields, Nori Aoki and Billy Butler left via free agency. Moore’s off-season wasn’t about just replacing them, but building roster depth.

No general manager did his job better. In Kendrys Morales, he upgraded the team’s DH production. In Edinson Volquez, Chris Young and Joe Blanton, he signed three affordable starting pitchers who’ve been a godsend for a rotation hit hard by injuries and poor performances.

He also found one of baseball’s great comeback stories in Ryan Madson, who was re-emerged as a top-flight reliever after missing three seasons. In Madson, Blanton and Young, the Royals were rewarded for having smart baseball people who saw things in those guys that other teams apparently didn’t.

Anyway, it’s all working for the Royals right now. Best team in the AL? The Astros and Rays are in that conversation. The Yankees and Orioles are as well. The Athletics seem to have one of those closing kicks in them. But the Royals are a great story, and one of America’s really good baseball teams has a team worth of all those fans.

Dallas Keuchel and the path to stardom

He did it himself. Hard work. Determination. Analysis. Confidence. Never overlook those things. Everything begins with his own inner-drive and confidence. Dallas Keuchel was the 221st player taken in the 2009 Draft, so not everyone believed he would be this good.

Because he didn’t have a blazing fastball–ranked 45th in the AL at 89.6 mph by Fangraphs.com–he was harder to project as a major league starter. Even the scouts who appreciated his smarts and his aptitude and work ethic at the University of Arkansas just weren’t sure he would make it.

Indeed, he might have been on the edge when the new boys arrived after the 2011 season. He’d gotten to Class AAA by then, but had been hit hard.

Four seasons later, he stands as an endorsement of how the Houston Astros have done business since owner Jim Crane hired GM Jeff Luhnow after the 2011 season. Keuchel hasn’t just proven he belongs in the big leagues although that was the first step.

During the last two seasons, only King Felix, Jon Lester and Chris Sale have lower ERAs among American League starting pitchers.

This season, Keuchel is front and center in every Cy Young Award/All-Star conversation. With the Astros having spent the last 69 consecutive days atop the AL West, with them sporting the third-best record in baseball (43-32) and the second-largest division lead (5 games), Keuchel has emerged as a bona fide star.

After Thursday’s complete-game shutout of the Yankees, he’s first in the AL in innings, batting average (.194) and WAR (4.1), second in wins (9) and WHIP (.96) and third in ERA (2.17).

He’s doing it primarily with four pitches: fastball, slider, change and cutter. Given that 89.6-mph velocity, he’s a reminder that the most important pitching variables will always be location and movement.

He has learned to pitch to contact, and because of his ability to move the ball around and to get movement on so many pitches, hitters simply don’t square up many balls.

Only 20.4 percent of his pitches have been hard hit, the lowest percentage in the AL, according to Fangraphs.com, and 25.3 percent of them are softly hit. That may be why his BABIP is .233, also the lowest in the AL.

Again, the Astros would like to emphasize that Keuchel’s greatness is primarily a product of his physical gifts and his ability to maximize them.

But he’s also a ringing endorsement for Luhnow and his staff and the way they evaluate pitchers and scout opponents and all of that. In other words, everything is connected to every other little thing.

Theirs is a simple approach: Attack the strike zone, don’t be afraid to throw above the belt and believe in your stuff. All of this work is a product of an analytics department that allowed the pitchers to emphasize what they did well and get away from what was getting them beat.

As I wrote during Spring Training, Keuchel’s success began with a remake of his delivery suggested by Astros pitching coach Brent Strom and bullpen coach Craig Bjornson.

“If you look back to his video in 2011-12, it was a completely different movement pattern,” Strom said. “He’s quicker to the plate.”

He’s so quick that he has allowed just three stolen bases the last two seasons. But that’s just part of this success story.

“Dallas very rarely misses badly, and I think hitters realize that, so they’re always on swing mode,” Strom said. “He makes a lot of his pitches look like they’re going to be strikes, and they end up being balls. And he makes balls look like strikes, which is what you want.”

In eliminating his curveball and focusing on his slider, he went back to the pitch that had played a role in his emergence in high school and at the University of Arkansas. Keuchel’s attitude was also a factor.

“I wasn’t afraid of contact,” Keuchel said. “That’s the biggest thing. That goes back to confidence. In hitter’s counts, I wasn’t afraid to use any pitch. I have some pretty good late sink on my fastball, and that helped out. Just being confident and throwing it in the count was huge.”

And along the way, his confidence has grown day by day. As he has had success by being aggressive in the strike zone and trusting his stuff, he has gotten better and better.

Teams have adjusted to him, that is, laying off some of the high stuff. But he is so good at commanding the entire strike zone, that he has had an answer.

There are dozens of sweet, sweet stories around these Astros in 2015. None of them is sweeter than Dallas Keuchel’s path to stardom.

Jackie Bradley Jr. is back with the Red Sox and ought to play every inning of every game

First thing Red Sox manager John Farrell ought to do when Jackie Bradley Jr. arrives is summon him to his office and say the following: “You are playing today. You are playing tomorrow, too. And the day after that and the day after that. So just go out there and do what you do. We believe in you. You just need to believe in yourself.”

Bradley was baseball’s best defensive center fielder last season. Unfortunately, he hit just .198, and because there were offensive problems in other areas, Farrell couldn’t afford to keep running him out there. This spring, he got caught in a numbers squeeze and has spent most of the season at Pawtucket.

He has produced again, hitting .322 with an .867 OPS. He had 18 doubles, four homers, four stolen bases and a .398 OBP. Those numbers may not blow you away, and there’s no way of knowing how they’ll translate into the big leagues. So far, they haven’t translated very well.

That said, this kid is 25 years old and has every measurable tool. Young players develop at different speeds. Most of them don’t make it. But there’s only one way to find out. That is, he has to play. Tell him he’s playing and that there’s no need to look over his shoulder.

As bad as the Red Sox have been, they’re only 7.5 games out of first place in the AL East. As they look at the division landscape, they have every reason to think, “Why not us?”

Despite everything has happened, there are plenty of reasons for optimism. Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts are both 22. Both have played well. There’s a core of young pitching–Brian Johnson, Eduardo Rodriguez, Jonathan Aro–that offers more hope.

And there’s Clay Buchholz. Maybe he will end up being the ace the Red Sox thought he was. In his last eight starts, he has a 2.28 ERA along with 10 walks and 48 strikeouts in 55 innings.

Are there problems? Absolutely. It’s almost incomprehensible how poorly all those new starters have performed. Mike Napoli is hitting .197. Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval have not been very good, and that’s being charitable.

But there are 89 games left, and things can change. Ramirez and Sandoval have good track records, at least as far as producing offensively. If one or two of those starters perform better, the Red Sox might just get on a roll.

Am I being overly optimistic? Sure, I am.

But I believe in Ben Cherington and John Farrell. I believe in a clubhouse led by Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz. I believe the minor league system has significant quality depth. The Rays and Orioles probably are the best teams in the AL East, but they’re unlikely to run away with the thing, either.

This may end up being a classic kind of race in that there’s a case of some kind to be made for at least four teams, and perhaps the Red Sox can inch their way back into the conversation. Along the way, they should find out about some of the young guys who could figure prominently into their future, beginning with JBJ.

Springer, Correa and the way the Astros always hoped things would work out.

Springer and Correa. Correa and Springer.

For a couple of years, this is how the Astros hoped things would work out, that these two dynamic young players—George Springer and Carlos Correa—would someday be the cornerstones for all the good things that were going to happen.

Those good things have happened faster than almost anyone could have anticipated. The Astros (37-28) have been alone atop the AL West since April 13, and with Correa’s arrival last week, both these crazy good young players have been on display.

They were at the top of the lineup on Monday when the Astros beat the Rockies 6-3. That’s mostly symbolic. When Jose Altuve returns from a pulled hamstring, he’ll hit either first or second.

But on Monday night, Astros manager A.J. Hinch began his lineup card with Springer, Correa and Preston Tucker. Those three names speak volumes about this franchise.

Springer is playing his first full major league season. Correa and Tucker made their major league debuts after hot starts in the minor leagues.

And Hinch puts them right in there in the most important parts of the lineup. Whatever the Astros are going to be this season is going to be because of the young guys.

Springer and Correa had three hits apiece on Monday. Springer continued his torrid stretch with two home runs and a single. And the Astros lead their division by 2.5 games.

When Springer was hitting .185 in mid-May, he was still contributing. It wasn’t just his manager and teammates saying the things they’re supposed to say, either.

Everyone in the ballpark could see it. He made dazzling plays in right field and drew walks and ran the bases aggressively. He hit monstrous home runs.

Astros manager A.J. Hinch said there were other factors. There was the energy Springer brought to the dugout. There was his chatter, his laughter. In ways large and small, he impacted the team.

About all he wasn’t doing was getting bunches of hits. Some of that energy worked against him. He swung too hard and too early in the count.

Funny thing is, he did keep drawing walks. But he kept telling himself to “Slow the game down.” Regardless, there was never any thought of benching him or giving him a day or two to work on things.

He has been at the center of every amazing thing the Astros have done this season. He’s a huge part of maybe the best and most surprising story in the entire sport.

And now, we’re seeing the full George Springer.

The Astros have said for awhile now that they expected him to lead them for years to come. When he made his big league debut on April 16, 2014, it marked an important moment in the reconstruction of the franchise.

His season ended with a pull quad injury after just 78 games, but the Astros saw enough to know they were right about him. They knew if they stayed patient and put him in a good environment, they would have a special player.

At the moment, few players in baseball are playing better. In the last month, he was raised his batting average from .185 to .269 and with this emergence comes the arrival of a complete player.

He’s hitting .371 over the last 25 games with eight doubles, four home runs and a 1.013 OPS. This month, he’s hitting .407, third among all major league players with at least 42 plate appearances.

Only Dustin Pedroia has more hits, and Springer’s name is dotted across the leaderboard in OBP (5th), OPS (9th), homers (20th) and runs (11th).

He has continued to make those splashy plays in the outfield and to set a tone with how his first-place team approaches things. Lately, he has made the most difficult game on earth look easy.

He’s hitting .435 with four doubles and three home runs in his last 12 games, raising his average from .224 to .269. He’s ridiculously hot, so hot that his teammates doused him with cold water in the dugout on Monday night.

This is a great time to be a fan of this baseball team. General manager Jeff Luhnow’s reconstruction project has produced results far faster than anyone expected.

Dallas Keuchel is one of the best starting pitchers in baseball, and rookies Lance McCullers (3-1, 2.00) and Vincent Velasquez (5 shutout innings in only start) offer hope. Baseball’s worst bullpen in 2014 is now one of its best.

Five players have made their major league debut this season, and right-hander Mark Appel—the No. 1 pick of the 2013 Draft—has just had his two best starts of the season at Double-A Corpus Christi.

Luhnow’s off-season acquisitions—Evan Gattis, Colby Rasmus, Pat Neshek, Luke Gregerson—have all played important roles in this turnaround.

Hinch was exactly the right man to manage this club. His temperament and communication and game management have been critically important.

In short, it’s all working.

Buddy Black’s firing was inevitable and will end up being a good thing for both him and the Padres

This isn’t about the San Diego Padres hiring a better manager because that’s almost certainly not going to happen. This isn’t about getting rid of a guy who did a bad job, either, because Buddy Black didn’t.

In fact, Black will be the frontrunner for every job opening, whether it’s in the dugout or front office. Suddenly, every team growing disenchanted with its manager has an option. Yes, friends, it’s a cold world.

Black served the Padres with professionalism and distinction for 1,362 games. In that time, he established himself among the upper echelon of big league managers even though there were plenty of years when he didn’t have a competitive roster.

In terms of managing people and using a bullpen and getting a competitive, cohesive effort from his club, Black deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Bruce Bochy, Joe Maddon or any of the other top guys. Among baseball people, he’s as respected and as well liked as anyone on the planet.

To know Bud Black is to like him. I first met him when he won 17 games for the Royals in 1984, and in the 31 years since, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone say a bad word about him, professionally or otherwise.

Having said all that, his firing was inevitable.

This is about a new ownership group and a new general manager going out and hiring their own guy. Black apparently came close to being fired last season around the time general manager Josh Byrnes was fired.

Instead, Byrnes got fired and was replaced on an interim basis by A.J. Hinch. During the off-season, Byrnes joined Andrew Friedman’s new front office with the Dodgers.

Hinch departed, too, joining the Astros as manager. At the moment, he’s the easy frontrunner to be the American League Manager of the Year.

The Padres hired A.J. Preller of the Rangers to be their new general manager, and even though he completely overhauled the roster, he didn’t change the manager.

And that was odd.

Some of us figured Preller understood how good a manager he already had. Or maybe he didn’t have a replacement in mind. Whether Preller made the decision to fire Black or if the change was forced upon him by ownership is beside the point. Now all the people in charge of the Padres will find out whether Black was the problem or if it was the roster Preller constructed.

Offensively, the Padres are plenty good enough. Only the Blue Jays, Yankees, Rangers and Diamondbacks have scored more runs.

Everything else is broken. The Padres’ rotation is 18th in ERA despite being first in quality starts (42). Neither Andrew Cashner (2-8, 4.16 ERA) nor Ian Kennedy (3-5, 5.84) have been as good as the Padres hoped they’d be. San Diego has been a poor defensive team as well.

The bottom line is that the Padres are 32-33 after a frantic off-season of change, and given that Black wasn’t hired by the people now in charge, he ultimately was going to pay the price for a slow start. If the Padres take off now with bench coach Dave Roberts in charge, they’ll Black was the problem. On the other hand, if they continue to flounder around .500, there’ll be a message in that, too.

Say this for the Padres. They’ve been consistent: 11-12 in April, 14-15 in May, 7-6 in June.

The NL West is winnable. The Dodgers have spent most of the season in first place despite injuries to the rotation. The Giants have had some very good stretches and some very mediocre ones. The Diamondbacks (30-32) have been better than almost anyone thought possible.

The Padres are six games in the NL West and four out in the NL Wild Card race after losing four of six. Maybe management could see a season slipping away. Maybe they’re hoping a different voice will do the trick. Meanwhile, Black can catch his breath and wait for the job offers to arrive.

About the only thing that’s certain out of all of this is that Buddy Black will manager again in the big leagues if that’s what he chooses to do. Some club will be lucky to get him.

The Atlanta Braves are better than almost anyone thought. Could they steal the NL East?

You keep waiting for the Atlanta Braves to fade away, don’t you? We all do. This is not their year. Don’t believe me? Go look it up.

Some of us declared them dead about the third day of Spring Training. They’d simply gotten rid of too much talent and too much payroll to compete with the Nationals, Mets and Marlins in the NL East.

And yet…

After 60 games, they’re flirting with .500.

And first place.

The Braves arrive at Citi Field tonight with a 29-31 record and a mere 2 1/2-game deficit in the NL East.

Sure, some of that 29-31 record can be explained by their division being not exactly the powerhouse it was expected to be. But the Braves shouldn’t be apologizing for any of that.

All they’ve done is play competitive baseball. And so, after 60 games, is it fair to ask: Why can’t the Braves win the NL East? Are the Nationals and Mets really that much better than Atlanta?

The Braves play the Mets and Nationals 12 times over the next three weeks, so we could get some clarity. Or not.

The Braves are seventh in the NL in runs and 11th in ERA. Their rotation is 19-17 with a 3.91 ERA. Those numbers put them in the upper half of the NL.

Meanwhile, their bullpen has been terrible. Its 4.75 ERA is the worst in the majors and possibly the only thing keeping the Braves from a serious postseason run.

But one of the things President of Baseball Operations John Hart did during his first months on the job was replenish the farm system. So he has young arms to either deal or to rotate through the roster in a search for answers.

The Braves are so close to first place that it’s reasonable to assume Hart is shopping for bullpen help even if it means surrendering a prospect or two.

Regardless, the Braves are in a good place. In a whirlwind few weeks, Hart unloaded payroll and acquired all kinds of young talent.

Even if the Braves were lousy in 2015, Hart could live with it because he had at least changed the larger direction of the franchise. In dealing Jason Heyward, Evan Gattis, Justin Upton, Melvin Upton Jr. and Craig Kimbrel, Hart gave the franchise a dramatically different look.

But the Braves never once said this was a total reconstruction project. Even as they shipped one player after another out of town, they emphasized that they still believed they could be competitive in 2015.

But teams always say that even when their actions indicate otherwise. If you thought the Braves were working toward Opening Day 2017 in a new ballpark, that would have been reasonable.

Here’s what has gone right:

  • Shelby Miller (5-2, 1.84), who arrived in the Heyward deal with the Cardinals, has been a tremendous pickup. Along with Julio Teheran, Alex Wood and Williams Perez, Atlanta has a rotation that is playoff worthy.
  • CF Cameron Maybin has jump-started his career. Long a highly regarded prospect with the Marlins and Padres, Maybin has a .787 OPS, second-best among Atlanta regulars.
  • Hart’s signing of three veterans–Nick Markakis, Jonny Gomez and A.J. Pierzynski–has been smart both in timers of production and leadership.

Yes, it’s hard to imagine the Braves going to the postseason without that bullpen getting some major work. This isn’t a good time to be adding pieces via trade.

But the NL East looks dramatically different than it did on Opening Day, and contrary to what a lot of us thought, the Braves are very much in the conversation.

In praise of Albert Pujols

Albert Pujols had played one season of professional baseball when the St. Louis Cardinals invited him to Spring Training in 2001. One thing was certain: He was not going to make the team.

First, the Cardinals were loaded.

Second, Pujols had played three games above Class A ball.

While the Cardinals loved the kid, they simply didn’t believe it would be fair to throw him right to the wolves. At the time, teams believed that rushing a player through the minors could permanently harm his career.

And then Pujols began hitting line drives.

He sprayed them all over the field. His swing was disciplined, his strength and speed incredible. There was a seriousness about him that impressed everyone.

And the work ethic?

He was relentless in the batting cage and the weight room and on the field. Even now when you ask teammates about Pujols, they mention many of the same things:

  • They’ve never seen anyone work harder. If you show up in the Angels clubhouse around 5 p.m. or so, you might find Pujols covered in sweat, having just taken swing after swing in the indoor batting cage.
  • His swing is so precise that he almost never lunges or looks uncomfortable. It’s as if he controls at-bats the moment he steps into the box.

Back to that first spring with the Cardinals. Right in those first days, Tony La Russa realized he had a player who had both talent and a burning desire to maximize that talent.

At some point during spring training Mark McGwire told La Russa, “If you send him back to the minors, it’ll be one of the worst mistakes you’ve ever made.”

Still, until Bobby Bonilla got hurt, it looked like the Cardinals would send him back down. The Cardinals adamantly say this is not so, that Pujols made the club on his own.

I tend to trust the later. I remember standing behind a batting cage with La Russa that spring and watching Pujols hit. In perhaps the highest compliment one manager has ever paid one of his players, La Russa just stood there and watched.

When I asked a question or two, he just nodded toward the cage. We were both seeing one of those guys who comes along every generation or so.

Fourteen years later, Pujols, 35, is on his way to the Hall of Fame. He has slowed down some in recent years thanks to an assortment of leg injuries.

At times, it has been painful to watch him run the bases. But it has been a joy to watch him swing the bat. That swing may not be as feared as it once was, but it’s still a thing of beauty.

He’s now 16th on the all-time home run list with 537 and 30th on the all-time RBI list with 1,635. His .9878 OPS is the ninth-highest of all-time. Pujols is also a nine-time All-Star, a two-time World Series winner and a three-time MVP.

In his 15th season, Pujols has taken a backseat to Mike Trout in terms of numbers and awards. But his .852 OPS is his highest in three years and still commands respect from teammates and opponents alike. It remains a joy to watch him play.

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