This isn’t complicated. The Orioles needed to improve their pitching staff. They wanted to do this without trading any of the core pieces of their Minor League system. They believe they’re good enough to win a championship this season, but they’re building something larger, something they hope will last.
GM Dan Duquette did the impossible, or close to it. He acquired three contributors—Scott Feldman, Bud Norris and Francisco Rodriguez—without decimating his farm system. The Orioles were already good. Their lineup is as good as any. They’ve got a great manager in Buck Showalter. They’ve got a winning vibe in their clubhouse thanks to Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, etc.
Now they’re better. They may not be as good as the Red Sox and Rays in the American League East, but they’re plenty good enough to get back to the AL Wild Card game for a second straight year. In evaluating who won and who lost this month, this is the place to start.
GM Dave Dombrowski worked his magic again, adding a solid bullpen arm in Jose Veras and a terrific defensive shortstop in Jose Iglesias. The Tigers didn’t need much. They’re in a close division race and likely to lose shortstop Jhonny Peralta to suspension. But Dombrowski has again done a terrific job putting them in position to win a championship.
3. Red Sox
Jake Peavy gives the Red Sox another experienced, proven, productive starter for a rotation that may not have Clay Buchholz the rest of the season. They, too, are in a good place.
Like the Tigers, the Braves may have been good enough to win without doing a single thing. But GM Frank Wren did a nice job adding left-handed reliever Scott Downs and giving manager Fredi Gonzalez another late-inning option in front of Jordan Walden and Craig Kimbrel.
GM Kevin Towers finished his month-long search for a reliever by getting lefty Joe Thatcher from the Padres in a deal that included Ian Kennedy going to San Diego.
With Matt Garza and Jake Peavy off the market. With Cliff Lee too expensive and Ervin Santana unavailable. With the Orioles and Diamondbacks and A’s on the hunt for pitching. Actually, with almost every contender in the market for one more arm.
With all that going on, Astros GM Jeff Luhnow seems to be in a good position in these final hours before this afternoon’s non-waiver Trade Deadline. Norris is 28 years old and under team control for two more years. He’s making a bargain-basement $3 million.
He’s pitching well, too, with quality starts in nine of his last 12 turns. He’s cocky and competitive and anxious to be in a pennant race. He’s younger than Garza and Peavy. He has more innings and strikeouts than either of them. His ERA is lower than Peavy’s. His fastball averages 92.4 mph, his slider 84 mph, according to Fangraphs.com.
Luhnow has told clubs that he’s simply listening to offers for Norris and not especially motivated to move him. This may be more than posturing. Regardless of what happens with Norris, this is the last player for whom Luhnow can expect a significant return.
There has been discussion within the organization about the wisdom of trading him. At some point, the Astros are going to stop stripping down the franchise. Should that happen right after trading Bud Norris? Or should it happen now? With the Astros headed toward a third straight 100-loss season, with attendance having declined 50 percent the last decade, with the games on local television in almost 40 percent of the area homes, this is a tough time to be an Astros fan.
Management attempted to send a different sort of message recently with the signing of second baseman Jose Altuve to a four-year extension, but that’s just window dressing. Winning is the only thing that will put fannies back in seats.
There’s hope. Shortstop Jonathan Villar, 22, and right-hander Jarred Cosart, 22, are in the big leagues. Outfielder George Springer and first baseman Jonathan Singleton are putting up nice numbers at Triple-A. Others appears to be on the way, and Luhnow’s history of running Cardinal drafts suggests his competence.
But it’s an uncertain path. As the Royals have learned, young players don’t come with guarantees. It’s the only way to build a franchise, but the building part of it can be longer and more painful than the way it’s drawn up. So the Astros have no idea how soon they’ll be respectable again.
Does Luhnow use Norris to add another piece to the farm system, or does he keep him and hope to make the rotation more competitive in 2014. He seems inclined to move him and to start fast-tracking his best kids to the big leagues in 2014-2015.
There’s no right answer for any of this. The Astros waited way too long to being this kind of reconstruction. Jim Crane is doing exactly what he promised to do when he bought the club in 2011. But another phase of the project has almost arrived. Bud Norris can contribute by either staying or going.
If you told your Little Johnny that Ryan Braun was a role model, you’re the one who owes Little Johnny an apology.
I’m worn out by the Ryan Braun outrage. I mean, the hacks apparently were surprised to learn that Braun lied about his use of performance-enhancing drugs. Apparently the hacks weren’t paying attention. Did they really think the specimen collector contaminated the urine sample?
First, he couldn’t have broken the seal and put it back in place. The boys and girls at the lab would have known. Second, there’s no way he could have monkeyed with the sample without the boys and girls at the lab knowing.
Now if some columnists chose to discount science—and a few did—that’s their problem.
I’m especially worn out by the parents and coaches who say they just don’t know how they’re going to explain it to Little Johnny. This is very troubling.
Ryan Braun was a role model before he was caught cheating, and he’ll be a role model when he returns.
Every Little League should put Braun on a pedestal. Every coach should use him to show those kids how the game should be played.
Check out how he keeps his weight back in the batter’s box and how he explodes into the ball. Check out the discipline of his swing.
He’s one of those rare players who seems in control of the at-bat the moment he steps into the batter’s box. Albert Pujols was like that during his years with the Cardinals. He never lunged, never looked off-balance. Other players marveled at him.
There’s plenty more to admire about Braun, and absolutely nothing has changed in the wake of his admission that he used performance-enhancing drugs. He plays hard every single night. He runs the bases smartly, seemingly always seeing the entire field.
In short, he’s a gifted baseball player, one of the best of his generation. If I had a son playing Little League baseball, I’d tell him to study him and admire him and do things the way he did them.
Unfortunately, there are too many coaches and parents out there who want to add a moral or ethical component to our jock heroes. This is ridiculous.
Just because a guy can hit a 96-mph fastball does not mean he’s a man of great moral or ethical standing. I can’t comprehend someone connecting the dots, telling their kid that because Ryan Braun was a good player then he should be emulated in other parts of his life.
Because they did connect those dots, they seem hurt that Braun isn’t what they thought. Whose problem is that? That’s on you, buddy.
You took a remarkable set of skills and drew conclusions you never should have drawn. Again, that’s on you. You’re the one who owes Little Johnny an apology.
Because Ryan Braun runs hard to first base does not mean he’s something more than a baseball player.
Babe Ruth was a great player. Does that mean Babe Ruth was the guy you wanted your kid to be? Absolutely not.
Here’s a little secret: Mickey Mantle was no saint, either. He was an amazing player and could be incredibly charming when he chose to be.
But I don’t think you’d want Little Johnny putting him on a pedestal as anything more than a great baseball player.
We do this with our politicians and actors and authors. We seem unable to accept that the gift to write a brilliant sentence or captivate us on the big screen is just that. It’s nothing more.
From the moment Ryan Braun learned that he’d tested positive for a banned substance, I kept wondering why he didn’t just fess up. Maybe he did want people to see him as something larger and more perfect than a mere baseball player. If so, shame on him.
Players have savaged him in their public comments since Braun’s admission that he lied. Some of this is understandable. As several players have said, when one guy tests positive for PEDs, it reflects badly on every player. It wasn’t just that Braun denied using them. It was how he denied him. He portrayed himself as the victim. He was pretty dang self-righteous about it, too.
Maybe Braun couldn’t deal with the fact that his reputation and good name would be gone forever. He’s lucky in that he’s just 29 years old and can write whatever ending to his career he wants to write. But he can never completely rehabilitate his reputation. That’s the price of cheating.
He lied because he was scared and because he was arrogant. Some of the same traits that helped make him a great player—never give in, never admit defeat—surely worked against him in this arena.
He got his ambition and judgement screwed up. But if he’d looked outside his own little cocoon, he could have seen what happened to Andy Pettitte, Jason Giambi and others who admitted what they’d done.
They were reminded that we are a forgiving people and that fans want to like these guys. If he’d come out and said he screwed up and that he would work relentlessly to get his good name back, plenty of fans would be willing to forgive and forget.
Even the local Milwaukee newspaper, which had its sensibilities so offended that it’s urging the Brewers to get rid of him, will get over it. Its editors and columnists gave Braun the benefit of the doubt when he didn’t deserve it. And now they’re clutching their chests and screaming at the awfulness of it all.
He was a good baseball player. He was a good player then, and he’ll probably be a good player in the future.
When he starts speaking up again, when he gets back on the field and starts to produce, the anger will subside. He can again be Ryan Braun the ballplayer. Nothing more. Same as it ever was.
One of the best things about this era of baseball is that there’s only a teensy difference between the top 10-15 teams. At least 18 teams still have a legitimate shot at the postseason. And what decides the playoff berths may be things that haven’t happened yet—a trade or an injury.
Perspective on playoff races changes by the week, especially in the American League East. The Red Sox have spent 91 days atop the division despite some adversity. At some point, we may have to acknowledge they’re the best team in the best division.
But not yet.
Let’s push the pause button for a brief tribute to the Reds and Tigers. I love those teams. I love their makeup and the way they go about things. They’re expected to win. They have demanding fans. Neither club has had a spectacular first half, but they’ve soldiered on, the Tigers staying atop the AL Central and the Reds positioned for a fourth playoff appearance in five years.
When you play the Reds or Tigers, you know what you’re going to get: a good team, a mentally tough team, a team that reflects its manager. Jim Leyland and Dusty Baker have more yesterdays than tomorrows in the game, but both are the gold standard for preparing teams and riding out the highs and lows.
Okay, back to the 2013 World Series.
Right now, it’s the Dodgers and Rays.
There’s an easy to be made for the Cardinals, Pirates, Nationals, Tigers, Reds, A’s and Rangers. There’s a bit tougher case to be made for the Orioles, Diamondbacks, Yankees and Braves. If you look at the Indians, Phillies and Rockies just so, you can be convinced they’ve got a shot, too.
On this day, though, I’ll take the Rays and Dodgers against the field.
And there still are at least 20 teams with legitimate hope of making the postseason.
First, the Rays. They’ve got David Price back pitching at a high level. He has a 1.08 ERA since his return from the Disabled List. Alex Cobb may also contribute in the second half. All season, we’ve been waiting on the Rays to get their rotation straightened out. Consider it done.
They’re also playing terrific defense and scoring more runs than a lot of us expected. To watch Yunel Escobar and James Loney is to be reminded that no general manager is better at what he does than Andrew Friedman.
The Rays have the best record in the majors since May 8 (41-23), which means nothing. But it tells you they’re capable of playing at a very high level over a long period of time.
Now the Dodgers.
They’ve been constructed the old-fashioned way: with a sledgehammer approach to spending money and a lame-duck manager. Some of us wondered if all those large personalities could coexist, and for a long time, the Dodgers were a mess.
But Yasiel Puig began spraying line drives all over the field, Hanley Ramirez and Adrian Gonzalez got hot and the rotation looks terrific with Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Ricky Nolasco and Hyun-jin Ryu.
The Diamondbacks have fought their tails off and been pretty much what their GM and manager hoped they’d be. Their rotation is potentially good enough to take control of the race, especially if GM Kevin Towers adds a bullpen arm or two. I’m hopping the All-Star Break is a reset button for the Giants and that Matt Cain gets things figured out. They, too, are still capable of winning.
At the moment, the Dodgers seem likely to win.
On June 21, they were 30-42 and 9 1/2 games out of first place. If you’d told their fans they were about to take off, you’d been laughed out of the room.
They sprinted into the All-Star Break on a 17-5 run and cut their division by seven games, to 2 1/2. Even with the lack of production at third, they’re solid everywhere else, and like all championship teams, they’re getting contributions from all around their clubhouse.
Now they’re starting to feel it. Gonzalez and Ramirez and Kemp and the others seem to be having fun, with their confidence growing by the day. It would be silly to completely discount the Diamondbacks—and for that matter, the Giants and Rockies—but it’s tough to pick anyone other than the Dodgers in the NL West.
The Phillies could make this Trading Deadline a free-for-all if they switch to a sell mode. At the moment, that seems unlikely since they won nine of 12 leading into the All-Star Break and are back to .500. They’re 6 1/2 games behind the Braves in the NL East and 5 1/2 games out in the NL Wild Card race.
And they might be baseball’s most interesting team. There are a dozen reasons not to believe in them, but they’re getting younger and still have a chance. Also, their GM—and this is important—is not a white flag kind of guy.
If the Phillies do a quick collapse—and it would have to be quick—Ruben Amaro Jr. might change his mind about shopping Cliff Lee, Jonathan Papelbon and Chase Utley. If that happens, he almost certainly could land enough young talent to deepen his farm system. Again, though, that seems unlikely to happen.
I’ve got Bud Norris, Chris Carter and Jose Veras on this list, but I’m not convinced the Astros are going to be sellers. Yeah, they’ve got baseball’s worst record and appear to be on their way to be the first franchise to have the No. 1 pick three years in a row.
But they may not be far from respectability. They’ve got intriguing talent at the upper level of their farm system, and with the ballpark empty and the club still trying to pitch its TV package to carriers, owner Jim Crane could decide the time had come to put a better product on the field.
If Norris is still with the Astros on August 1, it will speak volumes about where the franchise sees itself. Still, there definitely are players available. Here now are 12 who seem the most likely to be traded. Note that the list is heavy with relievers and light on offensive firepower.
With at least 20 teams seeing themselves as being in contention, it’s impossible to know exactly who is and who isn’t a contender. Also, general managers value their young prospects as never before. They see the Cardinals as a model franchise. Rather than try to pry an impact player away, they may go for a lesser move—Cody Ross, Marco Scutaro—that could have a big impact.
We know for sure the Cubs, White Sox and Brewers are listening, and we know too that a bunch of teams believe a tweak to the roster could get them to the postseason.
Here are a dozen to consider:
1. Matt Garza—He’s a top-of-the-rotation starter and pitching at a high level. For teams like the Orioles or Rangers, he could be a huge difference-maker.
2. Jesse Crain—Forget that he’s on the Disabled List or that he has been an eighth inning guy. He’s the most coveted reliever on the market and seems a perfect fit for the Tigers, Diamondbacks and any other club looking to strengthen its late-inning relief.
3. Addison Reed—He’s just 24 years old and five years away from free agency. So why would the White Sox even consider moving him? They probably won’t, but they’ve sent signals that they’re willing to listen. Would the Tigers part with Nick Castellanos? GM Rick Hahn probably will be asking that question, too.
4. Francisco Rodriguez—He has pitched very well and still only 31 years old. He also might come at a cheaper price than Crain or Reed. A potentially shrewd acquisition.
5. Matt Lindstrom—He’s 33 and probably not the guy to pitch the ninth inning anymore. But he has beens solid and could make a bullpen better.
6. Kevin Gregg—He’s 35 years old. Otherwise, see above.
7. Jason Kubel—He’s got five home runs and a .684 OPS. But there aren’t going to be many offensive players shopped. His money is reasonable and could be signed through 2014.
8. Bud Norris—If the Astros do trade him, he might be the second-best starter on the market. Since he still has two more arbitration years, Astros GM Jeff Luhnow probably will ask a high price or hold onto him.
9. Jose Veras—He’s a veteran closer who has pitched well this season. He’s not one of the upper-tier guys, but the price could be right.
10. Adam Dunn—He has been very good in recent weeks. He hits with power, lots of it. He’s a terrific clubhouse guy.
11. Chris Carter—See above.
12. Steve Cishek—Another interesting reliever, not a star, but a very solid guy, a guy who could help a contender.
One of the coolest things about this All-Star Game is all the guys who’ve had to prove a lot of people wrong.
Paul Goldschmidt was a eighth-round draft choice. You know what that means? Scouts for every Major League team couldn’t envision a great career for him. Even though who loved his work ethic and smarts and heart and all that stuff wondered if he had enough of the right stuff to make it.
Allen Craig was also taken in the ninth round. He was undrafted after his junior season at Cal, then seemed to be an afterthought pick by the Cardinals in 2006.
Word is that he was almost released in rookie ball because he didn’t have the quickest bat or the most athleticism or any of that stuff scouts can measure.
“In my situation, I don’t think I just had to prove myself,” he said. “I think I had to do way more than that. I had to hit my way up the ladder.”
His teammate, Matt Carpenter, would understand. He was in his fifth year at TCU when the Cardinals took him in the 13th round. Jeff Luhnow drafted both Craig and Carpenter, and he emphasizes he believes both players would get to the big leagues.
He said that part of a scouting director’s job is understanding how other clubs see a player and where is the most economically efficient place to draft him.
But it’s also clear that neither Craig nor Carpenter were slam dunks.
“We had to overachieve to prove people wrong,” Craig said.
Pirates closer Jason Grilli is here, too. He turned 36 last fall and is playing for his sixth organization. He probably was long since past the point of thinking he’d ever make it to an All-Star Game.
For him, the challenge was to keep proving he belonged. Plenty of people were surprised after last season when Pirates general manager Neal Huntington traded his closer, Joel Hanrahan, to the Red Sox for a setup man named Mark Melancon.
The Pirates believed Grilli could close for them, which is a huge leap of faith for someone who had five career saves in his first 10 Major League seasons.
“Look,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said, “whenever Jason has been challenged, he has done well. We feel really good about Jason.”
Hurdle spoke those words during Spring Training when he was asked about Grilli. Five months later, Grilli is leading the National League with 29 saves and was just chose to his first All-Star Game.
Together, he and Melacon have helped give the Pirates a lockdown bullpen in the late innings and are huge parts of one of baseball’s best teams.
Chris Davis grew up in East Texas dreaming of playing first base for the Texas Rangers. When they took him in the fifth round of the 2006 draft, he was thrilled.
He was in the big leagues two years later, and even with Josh Hamilton on the roster, the Rangers thought Davis might be the better power hitter.
When he hit 21 home runs in 2009, the Rangers thought his time had arrived. And then he hit .192 the next season. His confidence and swing seemed shattered.
Some wondered if grabbing Justin Smoak in the first round of the 2008 First-Year Player Draft showed Davis the organization had no confidence in him. Midway through the 2011 season, he was traded to the Orioles.
That’s when Buck Showalter worked his magic. He told Showalter he believed in him in a way the Orioles never did. He said together they would do great things.
And so Davis is here too, leading the big leagues with 37 home runs and on a pace to hit 60. He has become everything the Rangers envisioned for him and then something.
To know him is to root for him. He’s a big, strong country boy, one of those people everyone likes and roots for. To see him here now, to see him with Goldschmidt and Carpenter and the others is one of the real special things about this All-Star Game.
There are plenty of guys who took the fast track to stardom, but there are a bunch who had to overcome all kinds of doubts. As Allen Craig said, they had to prove people were wrong about them and then they had to prove them wrong again and again.
They’re an example to every kid out there that hard work matters, that confidence matters, that sometimes gifts aren’t easily recognized by those who are paid to make such decisions. It’ll be cool to Manny Machado and Bryce Harper and all those overnight stars out there being introduced before the All-Star Game, but it’ll be especially great to see people like Paul Goldschmidt and Matt Carpenter, the guys who had to do more than just perform. They had to prove they even deserved a chance to perform.
Why in the world would anyone suggest the Phillies ought to blow it up and start over? That’s just silly talk. For one thing, GM Ruben Amaro Jr. is not the type to give up on a season. Why would he? The Phillies are averaging almost 40,000 fans per home game, and those folks aren’t going to stick around for a two-year or three-year reconstruction.
Besides that, the Phillies have been just good enough to hover on the edge of contention. They haven’t been very good this season, but they haven’t been terrible either. They were 12-15 in April, 14-14 in May, 13-15 in June and 6-2 in July. Their longest winning streak has been five games, but it was followed, predictably, by a five-game losing streak.
They’ve had six losing streaks of at least three games, none longer than five. Likewise, they’ve had four winning streaks of at least three games, none longer than five.
They’re ninth in the NL in runs. They were 11th in April, 13th in May and third in June. They’re seventh in July.
They’re 13th in ERA—10th in ERA by starting pitchers.
They haven’t been more than one game over .500 or five games under.
And here’s the killer: Their run differential is -44, fifth-worst in the NL.
What do those numbers say? Probably that the Phillies aren’t good enough to make the playoffs.
On the other hand, in for a dime, in for a dollar. The Phillies have some bad contracts, but those bad contracts were signed for the right reason. They won five straight division championships, and rather than make some tough choices with some popular players, they decided to keep the band together in the hopes of winning another championship.
Unfortunately, those core parts—Ryan Howard and Roy Halladay and Jimmy Rollins—began to age, and production dropped.
But I don’t understand why it would make sense to start over. Their most valuable assets are on the pitching staff. They owe Cliff Lee $62.5 million, Cole Hamels $117.5 million and Jonathan Papelbon $26 million over this season. Lee and Papelbon might bring a handful of prospects, but they’re also the best chance the Phillies have to stay competitive.
It’s one thing to speak theoretically about breaking up the team, but what happens then? If you think the Phillies are mediocre now, what will they be when they start fast-tracking kids and fitting in players from other organizations?
They would have no identity. They would be relying on players with no track record.
Is this kind of thing inevitable? You bet it is at some point. I saw first-hand what happens to organizations—in my case, the Orioles post-1983 and Astros post-2005—when they’re forced to confront the realization that the current group’s run is over.
That’s a dark hallway in front of them, and for me, despite the negative analytics and all, I’d keep piecing these Phillies together as long as possible. What follows is uncertainty. The Phillies may never have another run as good as this one, but I’d extend it as long as possible.
In a perfect world, there’d be a natural evolution as players from the farm system force their way onto the roster. In Ben Revere, Domonic Brown, John Pettibone and Darin Ruf, they have four important players 26 or under. Delmon Young is just 27, John Mayberry Jr. 29.
The Phillies don’t appear to be as good as the Nationals and Braves, but those teams have some issues, too. Besides, when a fan looks at a team, he doesn’t always see what’s there. Rather, he sees what could be there, what should be there, what he wants to be there.
Amaro may have a dramatically different view of things three weeks from now, but if today was the Trading Deadline, I’d be a buyer.
Starling Marte, Josh Donaldson and Gerardo Parra lead off my I-Can’t-Believe-They-Didn’t-Make-the-All-Star-Team squad
One year when Joe Torre learned he’d fallen a few votes short of making the Hall of Fame, he was philosophical.
“It’s the Hall of Fame,” he said. “It’s supposed to be hard to get in.”
That’s the way it is with the All-Star teams. Some deserving players are going to be left out. And when you consider that maybe the two most respected managers in the game, Bruce Bochy and Jim Leyland, picked the squads, then there’s really no room to complain.
That said, let’s take a moment to acknowledge the play of a few guys who as of now are not going to be at Citi Field next week.
- Starling Marte, Pirates OF. His first full season in the Major Leagues has been a smashing success. He might be the best defensive left fielder in baseball. Offensively, he’s the definition of an impact player with 100 hits, 58 runs, 16 doubles, eight triples, nine home runs and 27 stolen bases. BaseballReference.com’s WAR has him the sixth-best player in the NL, the fourth-best OF behind Carlos Gonzalez, Andrew McCutchen and Carlos Gomez. He may not be at Citi Field, but he has a great chance to playing in October and show the rest of the world how good he is.
- Josh Donaldson, A’s 3B. He was a catcher 18 months ago, and the A’s simply didn’t know if he could make the transition to third. He has not simply made it. He has made it look easy, showing off his athleticism virtually everyday. He’s also an offensive impact player with 23 doubles, 15 home runs and a .924 OPS. It was always going to be tough for him because the competition at third in the AL is ridiculous. Miguel Cabrera and Manny Machado might be the two best players in the league, and that left Donaldson, Evan Longoria and Adrian Beltre on the outside looking in. Like Marte, Donaldson can take some comfort in playing for a team that seems headed for the postseason.
- Gerardo Parra, Dbacks OF. I’d start by praising his defense, but he might be the third-best outfielder on his own team, behind A.J. Pollock and Cody Ross. But there’s plenty other things to his game. According to WAR, he’s the 11th-best player in the NL thanks to a stat line that includes 26 doubles (tops in the NL), 103 hits, 51 runs, 7 home runs and an .806 OPS. After all the moving and shaking the Dbacks have done in the outfield the last couple of years, their best guy is a familiar face.
- Evan Longoria, Rays 3B. He has been slowed by plantar fascitis lately, but his defense in second only to Machado’s in the AL. Offensively, he could finish with 200 hits, 100 runs, 100 RBIs, 40 doubles and 30 home runs. It’s understandable why he wasn’t selected, but he remains one of the real special players in the game.
- Jay Bruce, Jacoby Ellsbury, Ian Kinsler. Those are three more players whose names jump off the sheets in terms of their first half. Kinsler spent time on the DL, but has still done enough to return to the level of elite player status. Again, there’s no way to get all the good players on the teams, and that’s part of the beauty of the debate.
How do you think the New York Yankees are feeling about themselves this morning? That was the Ivan Nova who won 16 games two years ago and has at times looked like a top-of-the-rotation guy. Actually, he was better than he’d ever been, but you get the point.
If he pitches at anything near the level he was at in an 11-strikeout complete-game victory over the Orioles on Friday, the Yankees would have a different look. Even when they were losing position players seemingly by the hour during Spring Training, their starting rotation figured to be good enough to keep them in the mix in the American League East.
That rotation is eighth in the AL in ERA, seventh in quality starts and fourth in innings as Phil Hughes and David Phelps have been maddeningly inconsistent. When the Yankees lost 13 of 18 recently, scoring 3.2 runs per game and falling from 1.5 to 6.5 games out in the American League East, all those injuries finally seemed to be catching up with them.
Since then, they’ve won five in a row to get themselves back in a good place. Meanwhile, the Red Sox have spent 39 consecutive days alone atop the AL East and now have a 5.5-game lead. They’ve survived injuries and slumps to their pitching staff and questions about the bullpen.
Even with the AL East changing this week with the Orioles’ acquisition of Scott Feldman and David Price’s dazzling return from the Disabled List, it’s beginning to look more and like like it’ll be a Red Sox October. But after watching Nova dominate the Orioles on Friday, the Yankees have to feel pretty good about their own chances.
He needed just 102 pitches to throw his first complete game. His last batter was Adam Jones, and of the four pitches he threw him, three were clocked at 95 mph. For the night, he had it all working. He threw first-pitch strikes to 20 hitters, got 14 swings and misses and had a terrific curveball.
He threw 33 of them in all and also mixed in four change-ups, all of them after the fifth inning. By that time, he’d established a really good fastball, so the change-up was the final piece to the puzzle.
Nova got the start in place of Hiroki Kuroda, but pitched so well that Joe Girardi will give him at least another crack. Whether Girardi will go with a six-man rotation for awhile is one of the things he appears to be thinking about. Regardless, Nova gives him interesting options he didn’t have before.
If Alex Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson and Derek Jeter are able to return, and if all of them is productive for, say, the final six or seven weeks of the season, the Yankees are good enough to make the postseason for the 18th time in 19 seasons and maybe keep going.
That would be a remarkable accomplishment when you consider how dismal things looked when last season ended and the waves of bad news that hit the franchise during Spring Training. Plenty can still go wrong. No one knows when Jeter and A-Rod will be back and how well they’ll perform.
But the Yankees win close games, don’t make errors and have a terrific bullpen. Robinson Cano and Brett Gardner have had nice offensive seasons, and if the rotation is solid, the Yankees have a chance. The Yankees and Red Sox play 13 more times, including 10 times in September. Let the fun begin.
We may look back as Monday night being the day the Washington Nationals finally got their mojo back. They’ve had a tough, tough first half, slowed by assortment of slumps, injuries and poor baseball. Let’s also give the Braves credit for sprinting out of the gate and opening up a 7 1/2-game lead.
Can the Nationals make up a lead that is now 6 games on a really good Atlanta team? The Braves had a tough offensive month, averaging just 3.7 runs per game. But the pitching staff was dazzling, compiling a 2.71 ERA, and the division lead grew from 4 1/2 to 6 1/2. That’s because the Nationals went just 13-13 as their offense continued to scuffle as well.
Now, though, Bryce Harper is back in the lineup, allowing Davey Johnson to move Jayson Werth into the second spot and Anthony Rendon to seven. Those two changes give the lineup an explosive bat in the middle and more depth. With Stephen Strasburg and Harper both healthy, this looks the Nationals’ moment.
It’ll be interesting to see how they position themselves in the 13 games before the All-Star Break because it gets really interesting afterwards with an 11-game homestand that begins with three against the Dodgers and four against the Pirates. They’ve got nine more against the Braves, the last of those coming in mid-September.