The Little League World Series finished over the weekend with a team from Columbus, Georgia winning a thrilling game over Japan. With the added hype and coverage from ESPN, many people dismiss the whole thing as bad for kids, too much pressure, etc.
Those people are wrong. Sure, the pressure is hard on kids, but it's a pressure to succeed in an environment where the world is supporting you. Watch any interview with these coaches and you know right away that there is nothing selfish about their motives. They are teaching young men how to work hard, have fun, and accept winning as humbly as losing.
Watching the kids from Georgia and Japan after the game, you couldn't tell who won and who lost. The kids from Japan were crying their eyes out, but the champs from Georgia looked almost somber after the initial celebration. You could tell they felt Japan's loss. That's right - champions with humility and understanding of what's important - playing the game the right way.
The kids from Georgia displayed a winner's class that hasn't been seen in professional sports in years, so if you think extra face time for a star little leaguer on national television is a bad thing, think again; the exposure might just prevent these kids from becoming another Terrell Owens because, right now, they know that success is all about the team and they are happy to declare it - on ESPN no less.
In a meaningless trade, the Padres have sent minor league pitcher Evan Meek to the Devil Rays in exchange for Russell Branyan, a journeyman third baseman/outfielder who has always displayed power but has an inability to maintain a respectable batting average. While Meek is likely depressed about going from a contender the a last place team, his long term prospects still appear bright as he shall inherit the earth. Yeah, that's right, I went there.
In the ever-changing NL landscape, another team is starting to emerge as a potential contender, albeit it with a record under .500. Crack open a cold one, Milwaukee, because that's right, the Brew Crew currently find themselves just 5 1/2 games out of first place. That's closer than Boston or Chicago are to New York and Detroit, AND Milwaukee is chasing two extremely mediocre teams in St. Louis and Cincinnati. With a healthy Ben Sheets and newly acquired closer Francisco Cordero, the Brewers might just make a little noise come September.
The Boston Red Sox are in danger of getting swept in a FIVE game series to the Yankees if they don't get their act together today, but in this day of the Wild Card, it's still too early to count them out.
In the AL Central, Detroit just handed Chicago the division title by willingly trading for utility infielder Neifi Perez. With Placido Polanco out for the year, Tigers GM thought it would be a good idea to boost his team's infield depth by trading for one of the worst infielders in baseball. Omar Infante and Carlos Guillen are miles better than Perez, so Perez should never see the field. In the case that one of them need a day off, I can't believe they isn't a better infielder in Detroit's farm system than Perez, currently holding the 6th WORST OBP in baseball for players with more than 200 AB.
It will only get worse in Detroit, and if Leyland thinks he has a solid late inning defensive replacement in Perez, he hasn't been watching many Cubs' games this year. Not surprisingly, Detroit blew a 6-run lead and lost 7-6 shortly after acquiring Neifi Perez. The bad mojo begins, and when the Chicago White Sox win at least 3 of 4 from Detroit this week, it will only get worse.
The NL has been up for grabs all year long - may the best bad team win. This weekend, however, the AL will be thrown in a tizzy with the Red Sox and Yankees playing FIVE games against each other. Adding to the mix is a 3-game series in the Metrodome between the White Sox and the Twins, currently running #1 and #2 in the Wild Card race. The winners won't be decided this week, but a winless weekend for teams like Boston or Minnesota might give us a better picture of the losers in the playoff race.
Last night was quite a night for baseball: two 18-inning games, a 2-hit shutout, a 3-hit shutout, and a dominating 8-inning, 3-hit performance by Johan Santana. Being a numbers guy, the best part about a day like that is checking out the oddities in the box scores the next day. Here are a few things I found:
-Pedro Astacio threw only 89 pitches in his 2-hit complete game over Atlanta. I watched portions of the game, and Astacio's stuff was as electric as anyone I've seen this year.
-Chicago Cubs starter Rich Hill, Wednesday's originally scheduled starter, DID get his victory on Wednesday - it just came via Tuesday's game. Pitching in relief, Hill got the win throwing 2 scoreless innings in the game which ended after midnight. If Dusty Baker sticks with Hill today, he will have a chance at 2 wins in one day.
-Also in the Chicago/Houston affair, leadoff hitters Juan Pierre and Willie Taveras reached base 3 times in 18 plate appearances - not exactly setting the table.
-542 pitches were thrown in the Houston game. 514 were thrown in the Colorado game.
-The Arizona/Colorado 18-inning marathon produced 14 strikeouts for each team. It sounds like a lot until you realize it's well under 1K/IP.
-Coors Field is simply not the launching pad it once was, yielding just 3 runs over 18 full innings.
It's mid-August, and staring at the league leaders in various newspapers and websites, there aren't too many surprises atop the charts. Ortiz, Halladay, and Hoffman type players litter the charts, but the one leaderboard that doesn't quite fit is the race for the batting title.
In the American League, Joe Mauer, catcher and former 1st round draft pick, has a comfortable 17 point lead over Derek Jeter, and is currently hitting a robust .361. It was expected that Mauer would shine in the bigs, but after an injury-plagued start and a career behind the plate ahead of him, a batting title seemed very unlikely. Now it's a month and a half from reality. Even stranger, the National League leader in batting average is Freddy Sanchez of Pittsburgh. That's right, Freddy Sanchez, 28-year old third baseman with 173 big league at bats coming into 2006.
While it may have been a foregone conclusion in April that teams like the Royals, Pirates, and Devil Rays were not making the playoffs, at least baseball offers individuals the chance to shine and surprise us all, regardless of the team's performance. Keep on hitting, Freddy!
James, Cormier, Smoltz, Barry. It's not exactly Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz, Millwood, but if the Braves are going to make any attempt at keeping their decade and a half playoff streak alive, they are going to have to do it with a heavy helping of unknowns. This is Bobby Cox's toughest challenge, but in the weak National League, anything can still happen.
As much as I love to ridicule the mediocrity of the NL West, suddenly that division has two teams (Arizona and San Diego) just 1/2 game behind in the Wild Card race. Granted, the D-Backs and Padres are merely 2 games over .500 114 games into the season, but at least the West is as competitive as the rest of the NL.
As for the National League on a whole, it is a sickly lot sans the New York Mets. St. Louis is the next best team with a record of only 62-52, and Los Angeles leads a division at only 59-56. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Twins are on the outside looking in at 20 games over .500 in the AL Wild Card race, but the 56-58 Astros are just 2 1/2 games away from the playoffs in the meager NL race. It only takes one great team to win the World Series, but in this year's National League, even that one may be hard to come by.
While watching the Detroit broadcast of the Tigers-Twins game last night, I heard the announcers mention, after Luis Castillo already collected his fourth hit on the night, that is was the SIXTEENTH time in his career that he has accomplished that feat. Sixteen?? Luis Castillo?? Impossible, I thought. Thanks to the great website www.retrosheet.org, though, I was able to verify that record as correct. Castillo had 13 4-hit games heading into this year and 3 more in 2006.
That got me thinking about some other players with good multi-hit potential. Ichiro and Todd Helton immediately came to mind, and here is what I found:
To date, Helton has amassed 29 games of 4 hits or more, including one 5-hit game.
To date, Ichiro has also amassed 29 games of 4 hits or more, including four 5-hit games.
I'm still impressed with Castillo's 16 games, but Ichiro's and Helton's feats really show you how a star can dominate a game, even in baseball.
For all you Ryan Howard fans suddenly creeping out of the woodwork, don't plan on setting a date for Howard's 600th home run celebration, because it's not happening. Howard is a decade younger than Ken Griffey Jr., almost to the day (Howard was born 2 days early). Unlike Griffey, though, Howard took his time getting to the majors, despite posting some impressive minor league numbers. It makes you wonder what the Phillies were waiting for and why they signed Thome in the first place.
The less than meteoric rise to the majors leaves Howard with just 62 career home runs at the age of 26. In contrast, Griffey had 238 home runs before his 26th birthday and Alex Rodriguez was in the mid 200's as well. Ryan Howard is a true talent and has the ability to dominate the National League; just don't expect to see his name on any career leaderboards when he retires.
Wondering about waivers? Around this time of year, newspapers and Baseball Tonight frequently talk about players clearing or being put on waivers. Sometimes the outlet does a good job explaining the process, but other times there is no description following up the statement. For a complete, easy to understand explanation, check out this link to the Atlanta Journal Constitution. They offered the explanation, likely to prevent Atlantans from burning down John Schuerholz's house, after mentioning that Andruw Jones was put on waivers. The funny thing about the article is that even Jones admits to not really understanding what it means. Sometimes we forget these guys are paid to play ball and not to worry about contracts and trade offers.
On the topic of Atlanta players, Jeff Francoeur is the poster child for why the Braves are unlikely to go on a playoff run this year. Despite all the poor pitching this season, it is the inability of some hitters to display patience at the plate that is killing Atlanta in '06. In the National League, there are NO dominant staffs, so the pitching isn't as great an issue as it is made out to be. The real issue is when you can only score 2 runs against teams like the Pirates. The REASON for that can be attributed directly to Jeff Francoeur seeing exactly 5 pitches over the course of his 4 at bats. The one pitch not put in play? That's right, a swing and a miss. Worse yet, Bobby Cox said he was not worried about it because of where Francoeur hits in the order (sixth).
I'm all for aggressive hitting, but you can't be predictably aggressive or you will never see a good pitch to hit. The same way a pitcher doesn't start every batter with a first pitch fastball, a hitter shouldn't start hacking away at every pitch thrown. Francoeur, 0 for 4 yesterday, enabled Pittsburgh's staff to get through 1 1/3 innings of his at bats on just 5 pitches, meaning the Pirates had to work the other 7 2/3 innings with fresher arms. That means a longer outing for the starter and less time for the opposition's weakest link - middle relief. Contrary to Cox's statements, patience at the plate matters whether you're hitting first, fifth, or last. It's also the reason Francoeur's decent power stats don't accurately reflect his negative effect on the whole ballclub, and it's why guys like Brett Butler, Tony Gwynn, and other patient hitters have not been given enough credit. Their stats don't properly display the POSITIVE effects they have on the overall outcome of the game.
Don't look now, but my preseason picks for the World Series are suddenly within striking distance of the playoffs. The Yankees are currently tied for the AL Wild Card and have spent every dime trying to improve, while the Phillies are only 3 1/2 games behind the NL Wild Card leader after doing the complete opposite. Bobby Abreu and Cory Lidle have been dealt (to the Yankees, no less) but Philadelphia is suddenly playing some inspired ball, led by Chase Utley and his 34-game hitting streak.
Check out Slate.com for an interesting read on the downfall of baseball cards as a hobby and as a collectible. Jamieson, the author, correctly blames huge overproduction in the early 90's, but I also signal the official slide beginning when the card companies started playing soothsayer, issuing "Rated Rookies" and "Future Stars" before guys even played an inning. Suddenly, a guy's rookie card wasn't his rookie card because they printed a card for him the year before. Speaking of which, if anyone wants to get in cheap on a dozen Kevin Elster rookie cards, drop me a line! He's a can't miss - DonRuss told me so.
With the inevitable lull after the trading deadline, The Commish took the opportunity to grace you with the presence of a new Foul Territory column. Summer vacations with the kids gave The Commish a new insight into his crazy family. Read the madness here.