Thursday, July 30, 2009

Joba dominates Rays, Yanks take fourth straight series

Joba Chamberlain has had trouble with efficiency so far this season, but since the All-Star Break he has had no problem challenging opposing hitters and the results have been superb. He allowed just no runs and just three hits (all singles) over eight innings against the Rays on Wednesday, never allowing a runner past second base and helping the Yankees bounce back from a lackluster 6-2 loss the night before.

Robinson Cano continued his torrid hitting with two RBI, one on a groundout in the fourth and another on a sixth-inning two-strike home run off Rays starter Matt Garza, who was visibly upset about leaving one in the middle of the plate on a 1-2 count. Melky Cabrera and Mark Teixeira added ninth-inning home runs for New York, who took a 6-0 lead into the bottom of the ninth.

Brian Bruney came in to get some work in the lopsided game, but was pulled after allowing three hits including a two-run moonshot to Evan Longoria. The Yankees were forced to summon Mariano Rivera with a 6-2 lead, something manager Joe Girardi could not have been happy about. Bruney did the same thing a week earlier against the Orioles and continues to prove that he cannot be trusted, even in blowouts. It's a good thing the Yankees have other solid bullpen arms, but if Chamberlain continues to give them length along with Sabathia and Burnett, Bruney may not need to see significant innings too often in the near future.

This start from Joba came off the heels of the Yankees most disappointing game since the break, as struggling Rays starter Scott Kazmir allowed just six baserunners and one run in seven innings to LOWER his season ERA to 6.22. It was the first time this season Kazmir made it through seven full innings and counterpart C.C. Sabathia was very hittable for the second straight start, allowing nine hits and five earned runs in 5.2 innings, his shortest outing in almost a month.

The Yankees made two official errors in the game with a throwing error each by Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, but it was the defense of right fielder Nick Swisher that was particularly atrocious. Despite not being charged with an error, he misplayed a Carl Crawford drive off the wall into a triple in the third inning and dropped a ball in the fifth while unnecessary sliding to the turf, turning a sure out into a triple for Ben Zobrist. He also misplayed a bouncing ball in the sixth inning, turning a single into a double for B.J. Upton and allowing Jason Bartlett to score.

Of course, this came just one game after he hit two home runs in the first game of the series, which the Yankees won 11-4. It has gotten to the point where you just have to take the good with the bad with Swisher but come playoff time, his deficiencies in the field could prove extremely costly for the Yankees.

In game one, New York scored three in the second and two in the sixth, with Cano and Swisher each picking up two RBI including back-to-back home runs in the sixth. Swisher added his second home run in the ninth and Johnny Damon belted a three-run blast a few batters later against the back end of the Rays bullpen. It's nice to see signs of life from Damon's bat, as he has seen his share of struggles at the plate since a hot start to the season.

Like Joba, A.J. Burnett continued his lights-out pitching of late, allowing just two hits, two walks and no earned runs over seven innings, striking out five. If Sabathia reverts back to his dominant form anytime soon, the Yankees could potentially have the most dangerous three-man playoff rotation in the American League. The Yankees are now 3.5 games ahead of the Red Sox and 7.5 in front of the Rays, and they've looked like a legitimate championship team ever since the start of the second half, doing it with timely hitting, solid starting pitching and great contributions from the bullpen. Now it's time to see if they can keep it up.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Brett Favre FINALLY decides to stay retired. Thank god!

If you couldn't tell by the headline, nothing makes me happier than to finally be done with the second Brett Favre retirement saga in as many seasons. The media circus began once he was officially released by the Jets at the end of April and it hasn't stopped since. Until now.

I remember around this time last year when the news broke that Favre had been traded to the Jets on August 6, which also happens to be my birthday (what a great present!). Many Jets fans whole-heartedly bought into the Favre frenzy as his jersey flew off the racks, but I wasn't one of them. I made my apathy towards the trade well-known amongst my family and friends, and 11 games into the season I looked like a fool for doubting the ageless wonder. The Jets were leading the AFC East at 8-3 and had just knocked off the undefeated Titans. Despite 13 interceptions, Favre had also thrown 20 touchdowns and had the Jets streaking towards the playoffs.

Five weeks, nine interceptions and just two touchdown passes later, the Jets were on the outside looking in to the playoff picture after a dismal 1-4 stretch that included road losses to San Francisco and Seattle. And as much as it pained me, all I could think was, "I told you so."

Favre was a misfit from the start. He had to learn an entirely new playbook in just a month of training camp and develop chemistry with a completely new set of receivers. And the Jets personnel wasn't that of a high-octane aerial attack. Laveranues Coles was no longer the burner he once was, and Jerricho Cotchery is the definition of a possession receiver. Without a deep threat, the Jets struggled to stretch the field even with Favre's rocket arm, and many times during the season Favre would force the ball deep into double coverage, resulting in numerous drive-killing interceptions.

Meanwhile, the quarterback the Jets released to make room for Favre, Chad Pennington, flourished with the division rival Miami Dolphins. Pennington also beat the Jets in Week 17 to keep them out of the playoffs and win the division for the Dolphins. Pennington finished second in the MVP voting to the Colts' Peyton Manning after throwing 19 touchdowns against just seven interceptions, and he proved that he was indeed healthy and still deserving of a starting gig in the NFL, something the Jets weren't convinced of when they announced he would have to battle the underwhelming Kellen Clemens for a starting job.

Hindsight is 20/20, but Favre was running Pennington's offense all along in New York. A healthy Pennington doesn't throw half as many interceptions as Favre did and probably matches his touchdown total, as he threw almost as many with a significantly less-talented Dolphins offense. Favre was most successful throwing short passes in the Jets' West Coast system, something that Pennington does better than most quarterbacks in the league. And for all the hoopla about Favre's arm strength, he didn't create many big passing plays down the field, except for the other team.

The Vikings should be happy to finally move on from Brett Favre. A soon-to-be 40-year-old quarterback just coming off shoulder surgery isn't exactly a recipe for success, even in the unimpressive NFC North. And if he tired (physically and mentally) after 11 games last season, it seems rather unlikely he would make it through the 16-game NFL grind this time around. Not to mention the uncertainty he created around the team about who their quarterback was going to be this season.

Tarvaris Jackson is no Brett Favre, that's for sure, but he doesn't have to be. Not with Adrian Peterson in his backfield and a stifling run defense. I still think the Vikings are the favorite to win the division, but unless Jackson develops in a hurry they likely won't make it out of the first round. I can understand the frustration of some Vikings' fans and players, who thought they could contend for a Super Bowl with Favre under center. In the end, I think they'll realize they're better off without him. And yes, I am still bitter about last season. If you couldn't tell.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Yanks continue strong post-break play, take three of four from struggling A's

The Yankees finally lost a game since the All-Star Break when Gio Gonzalez outdueled Andy Pettitte on Saturday, but that loss was sandwiched in between three victories where New York put up 21 runs against the young Athletics rotation.

A's starter Vin Mazzaro lost his seventh straight start in the series opener after striking out six Yankees through three scoreless innings, while C.C. Sabathia allowed three runs during the same span. Sabathia would settle down, but Mazzaro struggled the second time through the New York lineup.

After a Johnny Damon infield single, Mazzaro allowed a mammoth two-run home run to Mark Teixeira after running the count 3-0. Alex Rodriguez walked and stole second, Jorge Posada drove a double into the gap to score Rodriguez and Eric Hinske continued to contribute, scoring Posada with a single to put the Yanks up 4-3. Two more runs in the fifth led to the end for Mazzaro, who was admittedly awe-struck by the Yankees, a team he grew up rooting for.

"It was cool facing those guys after watching them when I was growing up," said Mazzaro afterwards.

Sabathia allowed three runs on nine hits over seven innings and didn't walk a batter, striking out four. Phil Hughes continued his great work out of the bullpen and picked up a two-inning save, the first of his career.

In game two, Joba Chamberlain took advantage of a further-weakened Athletics lineup after Matt Holliday was traded to the Cardinals, allowed just two hits and one earned run to pick up his sixth win of the season. Chamberlain has allowed just five hits and two earned runs in his two starts since the All-Star Break.

The Yankees scored four runs against starting pitcher Brett Anderson, who came into the game with a 21-inning scoreless streak. They added four more in the eighth against the Oakland bullpen to put the game out of reach. Derek Jeter went 3-5 with two RBI and Johnny Damon drove in three to improve New York to 8-0 since the break.

The winning streak had to come to an end eventually, and it did on Saturday. Gonzalez and Pettitte dueled for six innings, with the Yankees holding onto a 1-0 lead. But Oakland blew it open in the seventh, as Pettitte allowed four of the inning's first five batters to reach base, tying the game and loading the bases. Alfredo Aceves replaced Pettitte but didn't provide much relief, allowing three hits that scored five runs, three of which were charged to Pettitte. Jeter and Teixeira homered in the eighth to cut the lead to 6-4, but Andrew Bailey closed it out in the ninth after walking the first two batters for his 11th save.

The Yankees would bounce back in the fourth and final game of the series however, even after Sergio Mitre allowed two first-inning runs. A based-loaded two-out double in the bottom of the inning by Robinson Cano scored three runs and put the Yankees on top 4-2 after one inning.

Cano would also turn on the better double plays I've ever seen with men on first and third and one out in the fourth, taking the feed from Derek Jeter and getting rid of the ball almost instantly, throwing a perfect strike to Teixeira to double up Adam Kennedy and save a run. Mitre was helped by three Yankee double plays in the game.

Oakland would retake the lead in the sixth when Mark Ellis hit a two-run homer off of Phil Coke, who relieved Mitre earlier in the inning. But the Yankees fought back again in the bottom of the inning, with a two-run single by Jeter putting them up for good, 6-5. Teixeira added an insurance run with an RBI single, and Mariano Rivera closed out the game in the ninth, retiring the A's 1-2-3 for his 29th save.

The Yankees will begin a three-game set with the Rays tonight, who they lead by 6.5 games in the AL East. They remain 2.5 games ahead of Boston, who will play four games of their own against the Athletics.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Burnett stays hot, helps Yanks complete sweep

A.J. Burnett has been the Yankees' best pitcher of late and that continued Tuesday afternoon at Yankee Stadium. Burnett turned in his seventh straight quality start, going seven innings and allowing two earned runs as the Yanks took down the Orioles, 6-4.

New York jumped all over Baltimore starting pitcher Jason Berken right off the bat, dropping his record to a miserable 1-8 on the season. Berken laid the game's first pitch right down the middle of the plate and Derek Jeter ripped it into left-center for a double. Mark Teixeira singled Jeter to third and Alex Rodriguez drove Jeter in with a single to left. After a fielder's choice and a walk loaded the bases, Robinson Cano picked up an infield single to score Teixeira and Nick Swisher smacked a two-run single to right center to put the Yankees up 4-0 before Burnett even took the mound.

Burnett found himself in trouble in the top of the third thanks to a dropped fly ball by Swisher in right to start the inning, as Baltimore put runners on second and third with one out. But Burnett struck out Aubrey Huff on an unhittable curveball down and in and Swisher made up for his earlier error with a great lunging catch to rob Ty Wigginton and save two runs. Jorge Posada added a solo home run in the bottom of the inning to extend the Yankees' lead to 5-0.

Both pitchers settled down after that until the Orioles put up two in the top of the seventh against a tiring Burnett, who left after the inning with a pitch count of 104. Posada doubled Rodriguez home in the bottom of the eighth off Baltimore closer George Sherrill to give the Yankees what seemed to be a safe 6-2 lead heading into the ninth.

Brian Bruney entered the game and, pitching for the first time since July 10, promptly struck out the first two batters he faced. But Bruney reverted back to his recent inconsistent ways, leaving a fastball right down the middle that was crushed into the left field seats by Adam Jones. He left another fastball middle-in to the next batter, Nick Markakis, who deposited it into the right-field bleachers to cut the lead to 6-4 with two outs. The Yankees were forced to go to Mariano Rivera once again, who struck out Aubrey Huff with a backdoor cutter to end the game.

Burnett improved to 9-4 on the season, allowing six hits and three walks while striking out six. Phil Hughes continued his lights-out work in relief before Bruney faltered in the final frame. The Yankees would love to get Bruney straightened out, as that would give them four solid middle relief options in front of Rivera along with Hughes, Alfredo Aceves and Phil Coke. Add a deep bullpen to a great offense and an improving rotation and the Yankees could stay in first place until season's end.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Yankees move into first place in AL East

Just a week after I predicted the Red Sox to finish on top of the AL East, there has already been a changing of the guard. The Yankees have won their first five games since the All-Star Break and, coupled with Boston losing four out of five, have taken a one-game lead in the AL East and hold sole possession of first place in the division for the first time since June 8.

The Yankees have allowed just 10 runs over these five games and are now 43-22 since Alex Rodriguez returned to the lineup after missing the season's first 29 games. After Hideki Matsui's walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth last night, the Yankees didn't suffer a letdown in the second game of their series with Baltimore, who dropped to 1-13 on the road against AL East opponents this season after tonight's 6-4 loss.

The Yankees made the most of their six hits and were helped by the struggles of Orioles starting pitcher Rich Hill, who walked four in his three innings of work, throwing 82 pitches and just 48 for strikes. A two-run single from Rodriguez in the third and a two-run home run by Robinson Cano in the fourth chased Hill from the game after he allowed five earned runs on just three hits. The Yankees were able to run all day on Orioles rookie catcher Matt Wieters, succeeding on their first three steal attempts until Wieters was finally able to gun down A-Rod stealing second in the seventh inning.

In his first start since 2007 after elbow surgery and a drug suspension, Sergio Mitre replaced the injured Chien-Ming Wang and picked up the win. He lasted 5.2 innings before tiring after 91 pitches and was pulled after allowing a two-run single to Melvin Mora that cut the Yankee lead to 6-4. Mitre allowed three earned runs on eight hits, striking out four against just one walk. The Yankees are hoping to catch lightning in a bottle with Mitre, like they did with journeyman Aaron Small in 2005. Alfredo Aceves, Phil Coke and Mariano Rivera threw 3.1 scoreless innings in relief as the Yankees bullpen continued to surprise with its recent stellar performance.

After they finish out their series with Baltimore tomorrow with the surging A.J. Burnett on the mound, the Yankees will host a four-game series against the last-place Oakland Athletics before traveling to Tampa for an important series with the Rays. They won't see Boston again until August 6, when they begin a four-game set with the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

First Half Recap: National League

Unlike the American League, there are questions all over the National League. The Dodgers are running away with the West, holding a seven-game lead on San Francisco and a nine-game edge over Colorado. They have the best record in baseball through the season's first half, and that was without leading slugger Manny Ramirez for 50 games. With Manny back in tow, Los Angeles is the class of the NL (maybe even all of baseball) and likely the league's only surefire playoff team at this point in the season.

The Phillies have struggled through the season's first half due to the 14th-best pitching staff in the NL. The struggles of ace Cole Hamels have to come to an end sometime and the recent acquisition of Pedro Martinez and a potential trade for Roy Halladay show the Phillies are trying to patch their pitching holes soon. There's nowhere to go but up for the reigning World Series champions and their top-ranked offense in the second half. The Marlins, Braves and Mets are all within 6.5 games of first but if they couldn't overtake the Phillies at their worst, who's to say they can make up that ground in the second half. The Mets will be 10 games out by the time Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado all return from the DL, the Braves can't hit and the Marlins have fallen off since their hot start. The NL East is Philadelphia's to lose.

Things get interesting when you look at the NL Central. St. Louis leads the division at 49-42, but the Brewers, Cubs, Astros and Reds are all within five games of the Cardinals. The Cards are the most balanced club in the division, ranking sixth in the NL in runs scored and third in ERA. But teams are bound to start pitching around MVP favorite Albert Pujols eventually and Chris Carpenter is always one pitch away from another injury. The Cubs and Astros struggle to consistently score runs, although the Cubs could turn things around if Alfonso Soriano starts hitting and Aramis Ramirez provides the punch the middle of their order lacked while he was injured. Milwaukee can hit with Home Run Derby winner Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun and is solid in the bullpen, but will need to make a move at the deadline for a starting pitcher. Young ace Yovani Gallardo can't do it all, and none of the Brewers' other starting pitchers have an ERA under 4.50. If they pick up a solid second starter, they could overtake the Cardinals.

At this juncture, the Wild Card looks like it will come from the West, where San Francisco holds a two-game lead over Colorado and four-game cushion over Florida and Milwaukee. The Giants have a weak lineup but their 3.51 team ERA leads the National League. With young studs Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain leading the rotation and veterans Barry Zito and Randy Johnson anchoring the back end, this team may not need to score runs to hang on to their slim lead. The Rockies have gone 29-13 under Jim Tracy after an 18-28 start with Clint Hurdle as manager, and they seem to be the major contender to the Giants Wild Card lead. If they combine their solid pitching over June and July (3.73 ERA) with their third-ranked offense, they can find a way into the playoffs. And once you're there, everyone knows that anything can happen.

NL East - Phillies
NL Central - Brewers
NL West - Dodgers
Wild Card - Rockies

First Half Awards:
MVP - Albert Pujols, Cardinals: Was there really any question? Pujols continues to amaze fans and pundits alike with every passing season. His .332-32-87 line at the break gives him the lead in two of the three Triple Crown categories, trailing just Hanley Ramirez (.349), Carlos Beltran (.336) and Pablo Sandoval (.333) in batting average. His only real competition there is Ramirez, so we could see the first Triple Crown winner since Carl Yastremski in 1967 and the first in the NL since 1937.

Cy Young - Dan Haren, Diamondbacks: The choice was hard between Haren and Lincecum, but check the numbers on Haren. In 130 innings he has walked just 16 batters and allowed 89 hits (.189 opponents' batting average). He may not strike out as many batters as Lincecum, but that doesn't matter when you put less than a runner per inning on base (0.81 WHIP). His ERA is also lower (2.01 to 2.33) and he has one less win on a 38-51 ballclub. Watch for a possible second-half regression, though (3.08 career ERA before the break, 4.12 after).

Rookie of the Year - Colby Rasmus, Cardinals: If Pablo Sandoval had 16 less at-bats last season, he would be a no-brainer pick right here. Instead, Rasmus is a worthy candidate. Tommy Hanson could be the pick by season's end, but he hasn't logged enough innings for me to consider him just yet. Plus, a .278-11-34 line with 46 runs scored is impressive for a player who doesn't turn 23 until August. Many were high on Rasmus before last season, but he spent the entire season at Triple-A due to a logjam in the Cardinals outfield. That logjam is still present, but Rasmus has come on recently as the most consistent player in that crowded outfield. A 25-home run season isn't out of the question for this up-and-coming star.

C - Brian McCann, Braves
1B - Albert Pujols, Cardinals
2B - Chase Utley, Phillies
3B - Mark Reynolds, Diamondbacks
SS - Hanley Ramirez, Marlins
OF - Ryan Braun, Brewers
OF - Raul Ibanez, Phillies
OF - Jayson Werth, Phillies
SP - Dan Haren, Diamondbacks
SP - Tim Lincecum, Giants
SP - Chris Carpenter, Cardinals
SP - Josh Johnson, Marlins
SP - Matt Cain, Giants
RP - Ryan Franklin, Cardinals
RP - Jonathan Broxton, Dodgers
RP - Heath Bell, Padres

Monday, July 13, 2009

First Half Recap: American League

There is good reason why the baseball season is 162 games long. None of the division leaders after the season's first month (Toronto, Chicago and Seattle) are within three games of a playoff spot as we head into the All-Star Break. After a 27-14 start, the Blue Jays have gone just 17-32 since and find themselves 11 games behind division-leading Boston and eight games out of a Wild Card spot. And the news that they will listen to offers for ace Roy Halladay shows that they are more likely to be sellers than buyers at the trade deadline.

The rest of the AL East is shaping up like many thought, with the Red Sox leading the second-place Yankees by three games and the third-place Rays by 6.5 games. The Red Sox have been the AL's best team so far and should win the division, leaving the Yankees and Rays to fight for the Wild Card. Chicago, Minnesota, Texas and Seattle are also in the mix, with none of them more than five games out of a playoff spot.

The Rays are the only team besides the Red Sox to place in the top five in team ERA and runs per game, and in the end the Wild Card race should come down to them and the Yankees, who own the AL's top offense but one of its bottom-four pitching staffs (4.54 ERA). But those numbers are bloated by the early-season implosion of Chien-Ming Wang and C.C. Sabathia is a proven second-half stud, just look at what he did for Milwaukee last season. With A.J. Burnett pitching well of late, the Yankees rotation could straighten itself out by season's end. The bullpen outside of Mariano Rivera is another story, but the Rays have similar issues (and no Rivera).

The Tigers and the Angels lead the AL Central and AL West respectively, and both teams look to be the class of their divisions. Detroit has the third-best team ERA in the American League at 4.09 and if Justin Verlander and Edwin Jackson can continue their success, the Tigers will have one of the AL's best one-two starting pitching combinations, which is crucial for success in a short playoff series. Minnesota won't go away easily and neither will the White Sox, however. Chicago may have a deeper pitching staff with Mark Buehrle, John Danks and the resurgent Jose Contreras and has a deeper lineup than the top-heavy Tigers, especially if All-Star outfielder Carlos Quentin returns healthy from plantar fascitis. If everything falls into place for them, I can see the White Sox making up their 3.5-game deficit and taking the division. Ozzie Guillen will keep that team motivated until the very end.

The Angels have the AL's fourth-best offense, scoring over 5.3 runs per contest, but are 12th in the league with a 4.79 team ERA. However, John Lackey looks poised for a good second half and with Jered Weaver enjoying a breakout season, the Angels should be solid at the top of their rotation. Texas could make things interesting if Josh Hamilton comes back strong, but Seattle should fall off as the summer rolls on, even if future Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez continues to dominate.

AL East - Red Sox
AL Central - White Sox
AL West - Angels
Wild Card - Yankees

First Half Awards:
MVP - Joe Mauer, Twins: He might not be flirting with .400 anymore, but in just 241 at-bats he's managed a career-high 15 home runs along with 49 RBI and 49 runs scored. He sprays the ball from foul pole to foul pole and does it with power. Not to mention he plays baseball's most demanding position and plays it well defensively. Honorable mention goes to teammate Justin Morneau and Boston's Jason Bay.

Cy Young - Zack Greinke, Royals: Greinke has 10 wins this season. As a team, the Royals have 37. A 2.12 ERA and over a strikeout-per-inning earn Greinke the nod over Toronto's Roy Halladay. He has come down to earth with just two wins in his past seven starts, but these are first-half awards, not season awards. Halladay may be the choice by season's end, if he stays in the AL.

Rookie of the Year - Ricky Romero, Blue Jays: Even if Toronto trades Halladay, they have a future ace in Romero. Despite missing a month, Romero has seven wins and a 3.00 ERA in 87 innings. A 69:30 K:BB ratio is also an impressive number for a rookie and Romero isn't slowing down, posting eight consecutive quality starts and a 5-1 record heading into the break. Detroit rookie starter Rick Porcello started the season with more hype, but Romero has pitched considerably better in the first half.

C - Joe Mauer, Twins
1B - Justin Morneau, Twins
2B - Ian Kinsler, Rangers
3B - Evan Longoria, Rays
SS - Derek Jeter, Yankees
OF - Jason Bay, Red Sox
OF - Torii Hunter, Angels
OF - Carl Crawford, Rays
SP - Zack Greinke, Royals
SP - Roy Halladay, Blue Jays
SP - Felix Hernandez, Mariners
SP - Josh Beckett, Red Sox
SP - Justin Verlander, Tigers
RP - Joe Nathan, Twins
RP - Mariano Rivera, Yankees
RP - Andrew Bailey, Athletics