June 2012

Yankees have been decimated by injuries, but they roll on atop the American League East

The Yankees went 20-7 in June, their most victories in a calendar month since they went 21-7 in August 2009. Thanks to seven shutout innings from Hiroki Kuroda on Saturday, they beat the White Sox 4-0 to erase the sting of Friday’s ugly defeat. The funny thing about the Yankees is they’ve been hit hard by injuries, but virtually everyone in baseball believes they’ll be back playing for a 28th championship this Fall.

They hit three home runs, giving them 122 and extending their record to 46-17 when they hit at least once. They’re 33-7 when they hit multiple home runs and 1-13 when they don’t homer. They’ve got six players–Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson, Raul Ibanez, Nick Swisher and Mark Teixeira–with double digit home runs.

Cano hit .340 in June with 21 runs, 4 doubles, 1 triple, 11 home runs and 21 RBIs. He has homered in eight of the last 12 games and has 15 in his last 35 games. He hit four home runs in his first 42 games this season. He leads all MLB second basemen in home runs and slugging. Among Yankee second basemen, Cano’s 163 home runs are second only to Tony Lazzeri’s 169.

Today brought another milestone for Derek Jeter, who played in his 1,500th victory. He’s 1,500-999 for a .600 winning percentage. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he has the fewest  losses ever at the time of his 1,500th victory.

In praise of Derek Jeter

Derek Jeter celebrated his 38th birthday this week, and it’s a reminder that he’s not going to be around forever. We’ve been awfully lucky to watch this guy play these last 18 years. Here’s hoping we enjoy watching him regardless of how much longer he has. Based on this season, he has plenty left in the tank.

He leads the American League in hits. He’s fourth with 28 multi-hit games and fourth with 35 two-strike hits. He’s hitting .357 in the first inning. He collected his 3,184th hit tonight and tied Cal Ripken Jr. for 13th place on the all-time list. Only Hank Aaron and Ty Cobb had more hits before their 38th birthday. (Jeter is 132 hits out of the Top 10.)

At 46-28, the Yankees have the best record in the Majors. They haven’t had a better record after 74 games since 2004 when they were 48-26. They’re 23-14 on the road and 23-14 at home. They’re 41-8 when scoring at least four runs. They’ve hit 39 home runs in the last 22 games and have 117 for the season, tops in the Majors. They’re 45-15 when they homer and 1-13 when they don’t.

Those offensive numbers are especially relevant at a time when the Yankees are being battered by injuries to the pitching staff. With Mariano Rivera and Michael Pineda gone for the season and with C.C. Sabathia and Andy Pettitte on the Disabled List, the Yankees have seen their margin of error reduced to almost nothing.

GM Brian Cashman has said he’d prefer not to make a deal, but the beauty of devoting so much time and talent to the minor league system is that the Yankees have the resource to make a deal. For now, Ivan Nova, Phil Hughes and Hiroki Kuroda are being joined in the rotation by Adam Warren and Freddy Garcia. If Hughes continues to pitch at a high level, that front three is very, very solid, and Garcia has a long history of pitching well.

When Cashman kept stockpiling pitching last off-season, it seemed excessive. But even without a big-ticket move, he’s looking more and more like the smartest guy in the room.

The Giants have almost caught the Dodgers, and now Tim Lincecum gets the ball

This is one of those special little moments in a regular season. One of the reasons we love this game so much. On Opening Day, many of us believed the Giants and Diamondbacks would fight it out for the National League West. Scouts who’d seen the Dodgers this spring warned us not to overlook them, but when you looked at rotations and lineups, the Giants and Diamondbacks seemed to be better.

Lo and behold, the Dodgers sprinted out of the gate. They were 9-1 and then they were 24-11 and then they were 30-13. At one point, it was easy to see Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw sweeping the MVP and Cy Young Awards. The Dodgers were getting productivity from places they weren’t supposed to get it, but the point is they were getting it.

Meanwhile, the Giants started slowly. So did the Diamondbacks. Neither could find any consistency. Tim Lincecum struggled like he’d never struggled before. Bruce Bochy shuffled his lineup constantly looked for a combination that worked.

Look where we are now. The Dodgers have lost seven of eight, and the Giants have gotten hot and closed the gap in the National League West to a single game. Now Lincecum gets the ball with a chance for the Giants to tie the Dodgers. Ryan Vogelsong and Barry Zito have opened the series with terrific games, and the Dodgers haven’t scored a run since Sunday. (Vogelsong is 4-2 with a 1.29 ERA in eight home starts.)

Vogelsong beat Kershaw on Tuesday night for the second time this season, and the Giants have thrown back-to-back shutouts at the Dodgers in consecutive games for the first time since 2002. Melky Cabrera hit his seventh homer and raised his batting average to .352. Fifty-five of the Giants’ 75 games have been decided by three runs or less.

No one is likely to catch Mike Trout in the AL Rookie of the Year race, but White Sox LHP Jose Quintana is having a terrific season

Jose Quintana began this season having never pitched an inning above Class A ball. He’d spent time with the Mets and Yankees. He averaged 3.9 walks and 10 strikeouts per nine innings in the minor leagues. The White Sox saw an arm worth taking a chance on. After nine solid starts at Class AA Birmingham, he was summoned to the Major Leagues. He’s still only 23 years old.

The White Sox have been one of baseball’s most pleasant surprises, and Quintana has made a solid contribution. He has thrown 16 consecutive scoreless innings, the long shutout streak for a White Sox rookie since Brandon McCarthy strung together 17 1/3 innings in 2005. During the streak, he lowered his ERA to 1.25.

He has also faced 97 straight hitters without allowing a walk, the longest such streak for a White Sox batter in three years (Mark Buehrle had a streak of 101 batters in 2009). Quintana’s 1.46 ERA as a starter is the lowest for a Sox pitcher covering his first six starts since Cisco Carlos rolled up a 0.93 ERA in 1967.

The White Sox have spent 29 days atop the AL Central and have led by as much as 2 1/2 games twice. But they’re just 9-13 in June, the second-worst record in the AL this month. They were 18-11 in May, tied with the Angels for the best record in the AL.


Another weekend of packed houses and electric atmosphere as fans vote in favor of Interleague play

If you’ve lived in Baltimore or its suburbs or any length of time, you know a couple of things. One is that it has great sports fans, great baseball fans in particular. The Orioles have a rich history, and fans embrace Brooks Robinson and Cal Ripken every bit as much as they embraced Johnny Unitas and that generation of Colts.

Another thing you’ll find out is that they don’t think much of Washington. Maybe it’s an inferiority complex. Maybe it’s that Baltimore sometimes gets forgotten as a dot on the map between Philadelphia and Washington. When a Washington attorney, Edward Bennett Williams, bought the Birds in 1979, it was not viewed favorably in Charm City. For one thing, there was a great fear Williams would move the Orioles to Washington. For another thing, he wasn’t one of them.

So when Major League Baseball returned to Washington, a recipe for a great rivalry was in place. Even though the Orioles and Nationals play in different leagues, Interleague play has offered a couple of weekends of years for fans to taunt the other side and establish bragging rights.

And that’s why Camden Yards was packed this weekend as the Orioles took two out of three from the Nationals. Both teams are competitive, both fighting for playoff spots.

Some of us in the media love to bellyache about Interleague play, but fans love it. They’ve loved it from the beginning, and they especially love it the regional rivalries: Mets-Yankees, Cubs-White Sox, Rangers-Astros, etc.

Citi Field was also packed and loud this weekend as the resurgent Mets tested themselves against the first-place Yankees. Some of the players said it was just another game, but there’s no way they believed it. Fans were so into the games that it was impossible, as a R.A. Dickey said, not to feel the emotion.

Major League Baseball attendance is booming, up 8.1 percent from this time last season. As for the 252 Interleague games, they drew 15.8 percent higher crowds than other games. This weekend’s games, drew 8.7 million, the third-highest total in the 16 years of Interleague.

Baseball has had four weekends–three in a row–in which 1.6 million fans attended games. That has happened this early in a season since June 2008, and the last time MLB had three 1.6-million weekends in a row was 2007, a record-setting year.

“Major League Baseball is enjoying a remarkable first half of the season,” Commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement. “With strong competitive balance, historic milestones, five no-hitters, and outstanding performances from our game’s young players, our attendance is a reflection of the great momentum we have as we approach the All-Star Game.”

The American League won the series again, going 142-110. Thats nine years in a row and 12 of 16. The Rangers led the way with a 14-4 record.

R.A. Dickey rolls down a historic road and here’s a look at the numbers

  • R.A. Dickey and CC Sabathia pitched 10-strikeout complete games in their most recent starts, on June 18. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it was the first time both the Mets and Yankees had 10-strikeout complete games on the same day. It was the first time since 1900 that two New York pitchers had 10-strikeout complete games on the same.
  • Dickey is the first pitcher since at least 1900 to toss back-to-back complete games with 10-plus strikeouts and one hit or less, according to Elias.
  • Dickey has pitched five straight starts without allowing an earned run with at least eight strikeouts. That’s an MLB record. The previous record was four by Gaylord Perry (1967), Ray Culp (1968) and Pedro Martinez (2002).
  • Dickey has won six straight starts with 63 strikeouts and two earned runs. No pitcher since 1900 had gone  6-0 with at least 60 strikeouts and two or less runs in six straight starts, according to Elias.
  • Dickey has won a career-high nine consecutive decisions. It’s the longest streak for a Met since Johan Santana won 10 straight between July 9, 2008, and April 6, 2009.
  • 11 victories tie Dickey’s career-high,  set in 2010.
  • Dickey hasn’t allowed an earned run in 42.2 innings, the second longest streak in franchise history. Doc Gooden had a 49-inning streak in 1985.

Dodgers? Giants? Don’t overlook the Diamondbacks in the NL West.

The Diamondbacks have trimmed their deficit in the NL East from 9 games to 6 1/2 in just the last few days. But they’ve been playing well for awhile now, winning 11 of 16 and 20 of 33. Lately, their offense has been throwing a lot of runs on the board–46 in the five games before today’s contest against the Cubs. They’re leading the Majors in runs since June 5.  In addition, their .998 fielding percentage if baseball’s best.

Manager Kirk Gibson pushed his team hard on fundamentals the last two springs. One byproduct was back-to-back lousy spring training records. Another is that the Diamondbacks are as fundamentally sound as almost any team in baseball. Gibson still has his players on the field early some days to work on the basics. Hard to argue with the results.

Gibson just used the same lineup for consecutive games for the first time this season. One of his most productive arrangements has been at first base, where Paul Goldschmidt and Lyle Overbay have combined to hit .310–only the Reds have a higher batting average at first–with 40 extra base hits (second) and a .389 OBP (third).

The Diamondbacks have gotten solid work from their bullpen. It held opponents scoreless in 11 of 18 games this month, with a 3-1 record, three saves and a 3.47 ERA.

His remaining headache is in the rotation, where Daniel Hudson has a 6.60 ERA and Ian Kennedy had a tough start . Short starts have left a good bullpen taxed. Hudson was part of Arizona’s rise last season, going 16-12 with a 3.49 ERA and 222 innings.With Joe Saunders on the disabled list, fans are clamoring for 2011 No. 1 pick Trevor Bauer to get a shot, but he has allowed 60 base runners in 42 innings at Class AAA. His broader numbers are outstanding: 2.79 ERA with 51 strikeouts in 42 innings. He might also benefit from better competition because he surely feels he’s ready for the Major Leagues.

Regardless, after a very slow start (just like last season), the Diamondbacks look like a team that’ll be competitive for the long haul.

Is Tim Lincecum pitching for his spot in the rotation?

Before we get to the angry parent, let’s begin with the raw numbers. Tim Lincecum has won two of his 14 starts. His 6.19 ERA is the highest among qualified starters. He has allowed at least four runs in 10 of 14 starts and is winless since April 28. The Giants have lost his last nine starts.

Theories abound. He never should have lost weight in the off-season. Could that be the reason for an alarming drop in velocity? He spent too much time on conditioning and not enough on pitching in the off-season. Virtually everyone  who cares about the Giants has an idea why Lincecum has pitched this way. The Giants have stuck by him, so far, but he could be pitching for his spot in the rotation against the A’s tonight.

The Giants have drop him from the rotation if he doesn’t pitch well against the A’s tonight. This is all difficult to comprehend. Lincecum won Cy Young Awards in his first two Major League seasons. He began the season with a 69-41 career record and a 2.98 ERA. He wasn’t just one of the best pitchers in the game. He was one of the best ever.

And now he’s pitching for a spot in the rotation?

Giants GM Brian Sabean said Lincecum did two bullpen sessions between starts instead of his usual one to work on mechanical issue. Will it help? Who knows?

Regardless of how it plays out, Chris Lincecum, Tim’s father, is plenty ticked off.

“Here’s a two-time Cy Young winner, a four-time All-Star, a World Series champion, and send him to the minors?” Chris Lincecum told USA Today “You do that, and what you’re basically telling the player is, ‘We don’t need you or respect you.’ And this is the kid who helped bring a championship to the city of Sab Francisco for the first time in over 50 years?

“It’s like people forget what he’s done. It’s like, ‘What the (expletive) do I have to do. What more do you want? I gave you two Cy Youngs. I was a major contributor to the World Series. And you crucify me now?’ “

Verlander leading AL in strikeouts and innings and on schedule to start his first All-Star Game

Justin Verlander is lined up to start his first All-Star Game. He’s tentatively scheduled to pitch his final game before the break on the Fourth of July, and that would give him five days of rest before the All-Star Game on July 10. In addition, he might also get the ball when the Tigers resume play July 12th in Baltimore.

A year after winning sweeping the American League Most Valuable Player and Cy Young awards, Verlander is having another dominant season. He leads the American League in innings and strikeouts, and is fifth in ERA. He has pitched at least seven innings in nine of his 15 starts and allowed three runs or less 12 times.

This will be his fifth All-Star selection. He pitched an inning in 2007 and again in 2009. He’s the only American League starter in the top five in innings, strikeouts and ERA. The Tigers have scored three runs or less in 10 of his 15 starts, and he has pitched some high-pressure innings. He has won a pair of 3-2 games and a 3-1 game. He lost a 2-1 contest to Justin Masterson.

Here come the Tigers, now just 2 games out of first place in the American League Central

If you’ve been waiting for the Tigers to make their move, wait no more. Austin Jackson’s return from the disabled list has been the catalyst they’ve been looking for. They’re 7-2 and have cut the deficit in the American League Central from 6 games to 2. His defense in center is terrific. His OBP is above .400. He has four doubles and two home runs in nine games. To have him on base in front of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder transforms an offense that has been nothing special.

Meanwhile, the starters are 5-0 with a 3.25 during this 7-2 run. Those numbers include 19 walks and 58 strikeouts in 52 2/3 innings. Relieavers have a 2.12 ERA since May 17. Isn’t this the team we expected to see?

So much was expected of the Tigers that it was difficult to be patient. The Angels were the same way. We expected them to sprint out of the gate and fly high from start to finish. And there was a time when it looked like it might not happen. It’s incredible to look back and attempt to understand the things that can transform a team.

But then one day we look up and there has been a string of solid pitching performances and an offense that was supposed to be pretty good is just that. In a long season, contending teams end up getting contributions from places they didn’t expect. But those contributions are critical. For instance, Quintin Berry had a career-high five hits Sunday against the Rockies. He’s the fifth Tigers rookie in  80 years to have a be perfect with the plate with five or more hits.

Speaking of Fielder, he’s hitting .358  with 12 doubles, a triple, five home runs and 28 RBI over his last 33 games. He’s sixth in the AL with a .390 OBP. Cabrera has been outstanding as well, ranked in the Top 10 in the AL in home runs (10th), RBI (second), hits (second), OPS (ninth).