July 2012

Red Sox are 13-23 in games started by Josh Beckett and Jon Lester. They’re 36-26 in games started by anyone else.

It was almost impossible to look at these Red Sox and not believe great things were around the corner. Even with a ridiculous number of injuries, there was still so much talent, so many guys with track record. With Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz at the front of the rotation, the Red Sox seemed to have enough arms to weather almost any storm.

Offensively, they’ve been terrific. Thanks to big years from Cody Ross, David Ortiz and others, the Rangers are second in the Majors in runs. Bobby Valentine has done a nice job constructing a bullpen with the American League’s third-best ERA without injured closer Andrew Bailey. If there was one thing that could be counted on, it was the front of that rotation, especially Beckett and Lester.

But last September’s slump has carried right into this season. The Red Sox are 13-23 in games started by Beckett and Lester, 36-26 with anyone else on the mound. Both of them have worked furiously to get straightened out. Lester had a long bullpen session with piching coach Bob McClure Wednesday afternoon in Texas. McClure said they were working on some fairly basic mechanical issues. However, Lester’s velocity is down from a couple of years ago, and no one seems to know why.

Beckett’s season has been a nightmare from the beginning. He began it by being asked over and over about the fried chicken-and-beer environment of last season. About the time that stuff died down, he was found to have played golf on an off-day when he was injured. He didn’t risk making the injury worse, but image is everything. Besides that, Beckett could have handled the entire thing better.

He blew off the media Wednesday after allowing four runs in seven innings in a loss to the Rangers. Meanwhile, the Red Sox (49-49) still have a chance, but they’re on the edge. Boston is just six games out in the American League wild-card race, but has six teams to pass to get a playoff berth.

At times, both Lester and Beckett have looked like they’re closing to turning their seasons around. Then the wheels fall off again. A wild pitch probably did Beckett in on Wednesday. There’s still plenty of time to turn things around, but they can’t afford a real slump, either.

Tigers make a significant upgrade with addition of Infante and Sanchez

Rick Porcello, Doug Fister and Max Scherzer are pitching well. Miguel Cabrera has been tremendous, and so has Austin Jackson. The Tigers’ bullpen has been very good. Since June 8, the Tigers are 26-12 and have made up a six-game deficit to take the lead in the American League Central.

Now GM Dave Dombrowski has made a nice move in acquiring second baseman Omar Infante and pitcher Anibal Sanchez from the Marlins. He surrendered a top pitching prospect, Jacob Turner. His one and only goal was to win in 2012, and this trade puts the Tigers in a better position to do just that.

Jim Leyland has used five different players at second base, and they’ve combined for a .562 OPS, lowest in the American League. Infante, 30, is second among NL second basemen in doubles (23), fifth in home runs (eight) and sixth in RBI (33) and OPS (.749).

The Phillies finally have the gang back together, and now we see if they can make it interesting

“I was aware of it. (The PR guys) tell me about that crap every night. They were wanting me to fix it, I guess.”–Phillies manager Charlie Manuel on his team being 0-38 when trailing after seven innings before rallying to beat the Dodgers on Tuesday.

The Phillies finally are whole again. That happened Tuesday when Roy Halladay returned to the rotation to pitch five innings against the Dodgers.

“I can’t describe how important it is to have Chase (Utley) and Ryan (Howard) back,” Hunter Pence said. “The whole dynamic of the lineup changes. It makes it tougher on pitchers to deal with. We have more intangibles with them in the lineup. It goes beyond just how good they are.”

The Phillies are in last place in the NL East, 13 1/2 games out of first. They’re 10 out in the NL Wild Card race and have seven teams to pass to snag one of the playoff spots. Those numbers make the mission seem almost insurmountable, but it’s always like that at this time of the year.

All the Phillies can do is starting rolling up victories and pay no attention to the schedule. When you look at them now, with all the pieces back in place, it’s tough not to believe. They’ll return home Friday for a six-game home stand against the Giants and Brewers before going on the road for six against the Nationals and Braves.

General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. will use these last few days before the July 31st trading deadline to get a deal done with Cole Hamels. Even if he feels compelled to trade him, it doesn’t mean the Phillies are pulling the plug on the season. They’ve got too much money invested the next few years to make any dramatic change of direction.

Rays look to make a move as they begin a 10-game home stand against the Red Sox, Indians and Mariners

Despite being gutted by injuries, the Rays remain in the thick of things. When they begin a 10-game home stand against the Red Sox, Indians and Mariners on Friday, they’ll be just a half-game out of first in the American League wild-card race. Since starting the season 13-1 at home, the Rays are 11-18 at Tropicana Field.

Their .232 team batting average makes them one of eight teams with a batting average that low and a winning record at the break. In 1972, the Orioles, Mets and Tigers all did it. The Rays are doing it with pitching. Their 3.73 team ERA is the third-best in team history at the break. But they’re ninth in the AL with 363 runs, and their .376 slugging percentage is their worst ever.

Now about those injuries. The Rays have put 14 players on the disabled list, trailing only the Red Sox (20) in the American League. They still have six players on the DL, including outfielder Sam Fuld, who is on a rehab assignment, and third baseman Evan Longoria, who could be out a few more weeks. The Rays are 29-33 without Longoria. When he went on the DL on May 1, the Rays were 15-8. The Rays have used eight players at third, tops in the Majors. The Rays are 6-12 since outfielder Matt Joyce went on the DL with an oblique strain.

Still, there’s some magic with this little club. The Rays have won seven times when trailing entering the ninth inning. That’s tops in the Majors.<p>

After 33 years and 5,097 regular-season games, Tony La Russa says this is it, and he means it even if some people aren’t convinced.

Tony La Russa admitted he’d missed the competition. That part of it has been hard to let go. Still, he said that the 83rd All-Star Game is absolutely, positively the end of the line for his managerial career. So after all those years in uniform, this final time must have feel mighty peculiar.

When someone ask if he’s positive he’ll never manage again, he left no doubt.

“I believe it,” he said. “I know it.”

Strange?

“I feel a little strange at times,” he said. “Right now, it’s the same as always. I don’t know what the game is going to hold. They’re going to keep score, and we want to get three outs in the bottom of the ninth. All that’s sort of familiar.”

Asked about his emotions, he said, “I don’t think anyone has made a big thing out of me being back. I’m totally consumed with the game. There’s nothing personal about it.  I went through it at least a half-dozen times in September and October.”

When asked again about possibly managing again, he drew a line in the sand.

“I’m telling you, it’s who we’re going to pitch and who we’re going to put in,” he said. “If they keep score, you’re going to try and win. It’s simple. That’s why they keep score.”

He’s working for Major League Baseball, but would probably consider a front office position if it were offered.

“The thing I miss the most is competition,” he said. “I don’t like not competing. But I don’t want any part of the dugout.”

La Russa will be managing his sixth All-Star Game, joining Joe Torre (six), Joe McCarthy (seven), Walter Alston (nine) and Casey Stengel (10) as the only men with that many. This is just the fourth time an inactive manager has managed an All-Star Game. John McGraw retired after the 1932 season, but returned to manage the first NL Team in 1933. Danny Murtaugh managed the 1972 NL Team after leading the dugout after the 1971 season with the Pirates. Bob Lemon manage red the 1979 AL Team after being replaced as Yankees manager.

From an All-Star notebook:

  • Ron Washington is the 20th man to manager at least two straight All-Star Games.
  • 46 of 82 All-Star Games have been decided by two runs or less, including six of the last seven. Twenty-six All-Star Games have been decided by one run, including four of the last six.
  • The National League leads the all-time series 42-38-2. The National League has won consecutive games for the first time since winning three in a row 1994-96.
  • The American League is 18-5-1 in the last 24 All-Star Games.
  • There have been 685 runs scored in All-Star Games. The National League has scored 344, the American League 341.
  • Justin Verlander is the seventh Tigers pitcher to start an All-Star Game. Matt Cane is the seventh Giant to start an All-Star Game.
  • Matt Cain and Buster Posey are the first battery mates to start an All-Star Game since 2006 when Kenny Rogers and Pudge Rodriguez got the call.

Can the Orioles hang in? Diamondbacks? Rays? Yes, folks, it’s that time of the year.

It feels like some teams are teetering. It feels that way even though the statistics don’t really tell that story. At the moment, 20 teams are still within five games of a playoff berth, and three others (Diamondbacks, Brewers and Royals) are right behind. This list doesn’t include the Phillies, who are 8 1/2 out and have seven teams to pass to get the National League’s second wild-card berth. With Ryan Howard and Chase Utley both back in the lineup, the Phillies have to get something going these next couple of weeks. Otherwise, GM Ruben Amaro Jr. will have those tough decisions made for him.

The Orioles have lost 11 of 16 and allowed at least five runs in 10 of those 16 games. Tommy Hunter, Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta are all back in the minor leagues as Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter search for answers.

Likewise, the Braves are scuffling. They’ve lost 14 of 23, allowing five or more runs 11 times and scoring three or less eight times. In what’s starting to feel a bit like last season, the Braves get one thing fixed just in time for something else to break.

The Diamondbacks have lost six in a row and been outscored 39-17.

And there are the Rays, who’ve lost 11 of 16. They’re 33-22 against right-handed starters, 11-17 against lefty starters.  But offense has been a problem the entire season, especially with the club gutted by injuries (14 players on disabled list at the moment). The Rays have had double-digit hits just 18 times. That’s 25 times fewer than the Angels, who lead MLB with 43.

The Rays have also made 67 errors, second-most in the Majors, as Joe Maddon’s search for offense have led to some odd lineups.

Luke Scott is in an 0-for-39 slump, having last had a hit June 1. According to Elias, the MLB for a position player is 0 for 46 by Eugenio  Velez in 2010. Scott missed 17 games with back stiffness during the slump and is 0 for 24 since returning June 28. He has reached base twice during this stretch, drawing a walk on June 28 against the Tigers and getting on via an error on June 8 at Miami.

Carlos Lee gets a fresh start, and the Astros move on

In a lot of ways, Carlos Lee got a raw deal during 5 1/2 seasons with the Astros. He became the face of the failings of the franchise, and that was never fair. The Astros went from one of Major League Baseball’s most successful franchises to one that’s being rebuilt from the ground up for a long list of reasons.

Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell couldn’t play forever. There were a ton of mistakes made in the First-Year player draft and plenty more in free agency. Jeff Kent and Andy Pettitte were shown the door. For several years, the Astros thought they were one or two players away from being back in contention, and so millions were thrown at an over-the-hill gang that included Miguel Tejada, Kaz Matsui, Bill Hall, Woody Williams, Mike Hampton, etc.

Lee stepped into the middle of it all after the 2006 season when he was signed to a six-year, $100-million contract. First, he was being asked to replace a hole in the lineup created by the departures of Beltran and Kent. Second, the franchise had a host of other needs, and without a productive farm system, they couldn’t all be addressed.

Lee was an incredibly consistent offensive player during his first four seasons with the Astros. He averaged 28 home runs and 102 RBIs a season and had an .833 OPS. His production declined the last two seasons as he got older, but that’s one of the risks of giving a 30-year-old player a longterm deal for big bucks. As former Astros owner Drayton McLane said when asked what Lee’s signing had taught him, “Long-term contracts can be painful.”

For those first four seasons, Lee was pretty much the player he’d always been. He was a very tough out. He didn’t strike out much and had the ability to produce even when a pitcher delivered his best pitch.

But…

He wasn’t a very good defensive outfielder. Never had been. Was never going to be. The Astros didn’t get him for his glove. They got him for his bat, and that’s where he excelled.

He was also never going to be Charlie Hustle. He never had been. If the Astros thought $100 million was going to transform him into something else, they just didn’t do their homework.

Besides, the Astros had so many other issues that Lee wasn’t going to turn them around if he’d shown up at 2:30 and called a team meeting twice a week.

Carlos never seemed to let the criticism get to him. He showed up everyday with a smile on his face, went about his business and did his thing at the plate.

Once Jim Crane bought the Astros last Fall and brought in GM Jeff Luhnow to build the baseball operation, Carlos was a poor fit. Luhnow wants to open the Major League roster up to young players who might improve and grow with the franchise. He now has that at every position, and if a couple of the young pitchers now performing well in the minors are the real deal, the Astros have a chance to improve quickly.

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