Sept. 22|11:30 a.m. ET
Does anyone doubt the mental toughness of the San Diego Padres?
After a galling loss in Los Angeles Monday night, the Pads went on to take two of three from Arizona. With the Dodgers facing a season-ending series in San Francisco, the Pads are the favorites for the division title.
Best news of the season for the Mets: Jason Isringhausen’s hip surgery in St. Louis. Braden Looper has to prove the Mets and Marlins wrong and prove he can close in primetime for the Cardinals.
Best news of the season in the AL West: Texas appears ready to keep manager Buck Showalter (.494 win percentage.)
Most underplayed story of this post-BALCO season: David Ortiz and Marcus Giles deal with heart-related concerns in September. One hopes these are just random unfortunate occurrences.
We harp often about bullpens: How important is it to Florida, a team on the fringes of the National League wild-card race?
No team in MLB has lost more games than the Marlins when leading in the eighth inning or later (16) or seventh inning (21).
With any respectable relief work, the Marlins are a playoff team.
Minnesota’s pitching staff has been more than Santana and Liriano: Its bullpen has been exceptional, and the staff has allowed barely two walks per game, by far the fewest in MLB.
Pride check: Watch the Braves push in the final two weeks to reach .500. John Schuerholz and Bobby Cox will measure this group in its ability to play for pride. The division title streak ends, but the Braves duo would take pride in a 15th straight winning season.
My 10 breakout players:
Robinson Cano, Yankees. Is New York so absorbed in the absurd A-Rod melodrama that a future batting champ is ignored?
Cano, despite missing a month with injury, is at .336 with 50 extra base hits. Nitpickers will point at a lack of walks, but no matter this guy can hit.
Ryan Shealy, Kansas City. More for what he represents than the actual numbers. Dayton Moore landed the kind of player the Royals have failed to develop since Mike Sweeney -- a power hitter around whom you can build a lineup around.
Scott Proctor, Yankees. A savior in a bullpen that has found its rhythm in September despite the absence of Mariano Rivera.
Andre Ethier, Los Angeles. Great payoff for Milton Bradley. He has proven he can hit a year before most projected his arrival.
Brandon Phillips, Cincinnati. Overcame his failure in Cleveland with a fine blend of speed and extra-base power. He is in the first wave of young athletic players needed to upgrade the National League.
Takashi Saito, Los Angeles. Check the numbers. He has dominated in a manner that has made the Dodgers forget Eric Gagne and frightens potential playoff opponents.
Brian McCann, Atlanta. A young catcher who can hit and command the respect of a veteran pitcher like John Smoltz.
Matt Cain, San Francisco. The real deal with a devastating two-pitch combo. He put his package together for the first time in an awesome August. His arrival allows the Giants to let Jason Schmidt test the free-agent market.
Hanley Ramirez, Florida. Dan Uggla has rightly received most of the praise among the young Marlins, but Ramirez is the most important player. With over 60 extra base hits and 50 steals, he is in the Jose Reyes mold.
Like Phillips, he heralds a new generation of talent sorely needed in the National League.
Joe Mauer, Minnesota. Obvious, yes, but the other night, I saw him beat out a bunt in Cleveland. A catcher bunting for a hit in September? Sick!
A possible batting champ who has a veteran’s walk-to-strikeout ratio (77-49). The best is yet to come. And the Twins no longer hear questions about passing on Mark Prior.
Sept. 4|4:30 p.m. ET
The Barry Bonds scorecard so far this season: one multi-homer game, a .262 batting average, pedestrian power numbers (19 homers, 58 RBI), a trainer/close friend in prison for the third time this year over his refusal to betray Bonds under oath, and the best man in his wedding turning on Bonds to the feds in a bitter split.
And the most amazing number of all: 109 games played.
Never have I seen an athlete whose focus was as unshakeable on the field. In my years traveling with the Giants, the group marveled at the way Bonds could dismiss boos and criticism from any front.
He often used anger as his fuel and any mini-slump he met was usually met with the inside joke from teammates that someone needs to “piss him off.”
From a casual distance, this year tops all. It is utterly remarkable that he has played games. First, that he has whipped his body into better shape, dropping weight as the season has progressed.
Second, that he has shielded himself from the maelstrom in which he has lived, one that no other player has experienced, to play without incident.
He hasn’t played as well as in the past. The ordinary numbers don’t lie.
Bonds sees more fastballs than ever. Many of his homers have been offspeed pitches that Bonds has driven straight away. There have been few classic Bonds pull shots.
So in the final month of a disappointing season for him and his team, the question of Bonds’ future arises.
I have been shocked by the turn among the San Francisco media this summer. A general sense has grown that it is time for Bonds and the Giants to move on.
An older team, constructed to win now, is on track for a second consecutive losing season. General manager Brian Sabean is a wise man that knows when to cut his losses. Without the wins to keep them happy, the Giants' owners wonder why they are receiving no return from their investment in the minor leagues.
A new course is needed in San Francisco, one that has already started with the Giants outbidding a handful of teams to sign a talented 16-year-old Dominican. There is internal debate about Bonds, the need to move on against the desire to see Bonds hit 756, if possible, in a San Francisco uniform.
My form sheet on the question of Bonds in 2007:
Do the Giants re-sign Bonds?
Unlikely. With the All-Star Game in hand, the Giants should be well fortified in maintaining their season ticket base of 28,000.
Make no mistake; this decision is more business than baseball. It’s hard to justify re-signing a 43-year-old position player to a big contract.
But the Giants pay their own mortgage. They need to keep their park full, and if they fear empty seats, there will be an inside push to consider bringing back the record chase.
What would is take to re-sign Bonds?
Without Bonds, there would be no new ballpark in San Francisco. He was the credibility the Giants needed to sell the corporate backing necessary to finance the private construction. And his excellence has kept the park full for seven seasons.
Why on earth would Bonds consider taking a “discount” to continue playing in a park he can rightfully call his own?
I have seen many suggestions that Bonds would play for between $5 and $10 million, and with incentives. If Bonds is reading any of that, he is enjoying a hearty laugh.
Bonds has never done “discounts,” and rebels against anyone else making money off of his achievements.
Witness his withdrawal from the Major League Baseball Players Association licensing program, the only player to ever fly solo from his peers. Anyone who knows Bonds does not believe in any chance of a “hometown” discount.
Bringing Bonds back would cost the Giants every penny of the $18-20 million he is being paid this year.
What are the options for Bonds?
No other National League team could sign him and afford to play him in the field.
If Bonds could choose his best non-Giants option it would be Oakland. Comfortable, “home,” a contending team, and playing in the protective cocoon of the Bay Area all make the A’s a desired stop.
But Oakland has never before been in the market for a $15-20 million player.
Could they possibly change their mind?
There is never a shortage of enmity from the A’s towards their crossbay rivals. How about a double hit of 1) announcing a new ballpark just miles from downtown San Jose (likely to happen in November) and 2) signing Bonds?
Think that might get the Giants’ attention?
Aug. 30|9:30 p.m. ET
The quietest best season in baseball belongs to Carlos Beltran. He is going to break Mets franchise records for homers and runs batted in.
Mets broadcaster Ron Darling calls him the “best player on the best team in the league,” a description befitting an MVP. And the interesting part is that the Mets paid Beltran $119 million for precisely this kind of season, yet they may have needed to add another high-priced player to extract this performance from Beltran.
When this Mets season is analyzed, perhaps the most intriguing challenge will be to measure Carlos Delgado’s impact on Beltran.
Close friends with a shared heritage, they both came to New York under a cloud of suspicion. The same message was whispered about each man -- they preferred to stay out of the limelight, they would flourish in smaller media markets, but struggle in the scrutiny generated by New York.
Last year those whispers about Beltran appeared to have merit. Without question two injuries to his leg in the early season, and a serious concussion from a gruesome outfield collision in August hampered Beltran.
What wasn’t reflected in Beltran’s 2005 numbers was his intent to play. He recognized the responsibility that came with his contract. And he was going to play, even at a percentage of his true self.
The collision with Mike Cameron in San Diego was severe enough that Beltran could have taken an unquestioned stint on the disabled list. He insisted on playing within a week.
Even when the Mets playoff hopes faded in late August, Beltran stayed in the lineup. A quiet man, Beltran didn’t often explain or excuse his performance. But it is now clear that the Mets recognized what had been suggested about Beltran -- a great player who does not carry a team.
So Carlos Delgado arrived and now Beltran hits like he did in the Houston lineup alongside Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman and Craig Biggio. He may the best Mets player this year, but he isn’t their only player.
It’s the greatest lesson baseball executives have learned in the big-dollar era. Agents sell stats, comparing their clients to the greats based on many projections and formulas. But stats don’t talk about one’s soul. Stats don’t reflect one’s ability to accept the moment, the expectation, the accountability, and the responsibility that come with a huge paycheck.
Have I mentioned Armando Benitez?
Beltran is an honest person. He accepted most of what came with his contract. But did the Mets learn that they spent $119 million to sign a player who needed another star alongside to carry the burden?
One Mets aside…how absurd that the Mets can cruise through the entire season unchallenged not only in their division, but the entire league, and have their postseason begin against a floundering .500 wild card team in a best-of-five series?
When will baseball please correct this madness?
Aug. 20| 5:30 p.m. ET
Reds general manager Wayne Krivsky isn’t the type to chortle so I will do it for him. His Cincinnati club is no lock for the playoffs, but Krivsky can sleep every night knowing he did everything possible to help his team break an 11-year postseason drought.
When he broke the trading ice with the much-discussed deal with the Nationals, Krivsky was vilified by a fair number of analysts. He was roasted for trading two everyday players for a pair of relievers.
Granted this deal now doesn’t look as good for the Reds with Gary Majewski disabled (an injury that the pitcher claims occurred in Washington and a potential grievance issue for the Reds), but Krivsky’s thought process was ahead of the curve.
Think anyone has noticed the total meltdown of Boston’s bullpen of late. The Red Sox staff needed well over 600 pitches to lose the first three games of its five-game series against the Yankees.
Relievers are the most erratic…and most valuable commodities in today’s game. Starters are coddled from the cradle, groomed to throw 100 pitches every five or six days and walk away with head held high if they post an ERA under 5.00.
Bullpens have become the equivalent of a sausage factory. Too many managers, consumed by the win-every-game mentality that is a product of ever-increasing media-internet scrutiny, abuse their relievers nightly.
A common formula seems to be for managers to use five relievers, warm up the other two and have at least 10 “false alarms” (a family term for the reliever’s dreaded enemy, warming up without entering the game).
Give a manager a 12-man staff, illogical in the DH-less National League, and they still burn out their bullpen. I have long thought that a labor concession to the players could be a 28-man roster, allowing teams 14-man staffs and, in theory, insuring days off for relievers.
General managers to whom I have floated this thought laugh. They have all spent countless hours trying to replace relievers toasted by today’s managing style.
Dave Righetti, an outstanding closer turned pitching coach, came to San Francisco in the late 1990’s with the notion that relievers should be able to get ALL hitters out. Absent the obvious lefty specialist needed to neutralize a left-handed slugger, Righetti felt bullpens should consist of pitchers able to retire any hitter, and thus relievers should pitch full innings.
It didn’t take long for Righetti to be indoctrinated to today’s reality. Almost all relievers are specialists. Managers always play “by the book” to limit second-guessing.
Matchup pitching changes often start in the sixth inning. I will never forget the ludicrous sight of a Bobby Valentine-managed team, with its starter struggling, warming up a righty and a lefty IN THE SECOND INNING.
A universal baseball belief is that pitching determines postseason teams. I agree and take it one step further. Bullpens will determine who plays in October. A strong bullpen can carry average starting pitching.
But a strong starting staff cannot mask a weak bullpen. Nothing deflates a team more than a late-inning loss. Nothing lifts a team more than the feeling of certainty that accompanies the entrance of a top-flight closer.
Ask Kansas City manager Buddy Bell or Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon. With nothing more than an average closer, the Royals and Rays would be flirting with .500 marks in August.
Relievers are still on the move in the waiver period. Krivsky has acquired six this summer with the arrival of Scott Schoeneweis. The Majewski affair does raise a serious caveat about trading for a reliever with a heavy workload from another organization. It’s just another general manager headache in this era.
But watch these last six weeks. Unless the Red Sox revamp and fortify their bullpen, they have no chance of catching the Yankees or the wild-card contenders from the AL Central Division.
And if Kyle Farnsworth’s injury isn’t serious and Scott Proctor can prove able to handle his career-high in games pitched, the Yankees still have the master, closer Mariano Rivera, and that may make them the team to beat in October.
Aug. 11| 1:30 p.m. ET
Most of us watching the proceedings of the House Government Reform Committee on March 17, 2005 cringed as Mark McGwire repeatedly refused to talk about the past. But in a Washington, D.C. law office, there were high fives exchanged.
That disconnect between hired-gun lawyers and the rest of America is reflective of many problems in our society. But, to the point here, it is the most damaging choice McGwire made in his career, more so than his ill-positioned tub of andro.
The lawyers schooled McGwire to avoid saying anything that could lead to a perjury charge. Instead, they hung out their client in the court of public opinion where he received a far more severe sentence.
The lawyers celebrated their win. Their client didn’t perjure himself, but he damaged -- perhaps forever -- one of America’s greatest athletic stories.
Well done, lawyers.
So in January we will have baseball's equivalent of a New Hampshire presidential primary for Mark McGwire, the first concrete results of the damage his lawyers created for him on March 17, 2005. January is when the Class of 2007 for the Baseball Hall of Fame is announced.
McGwire appears for the first time on the ballot. His polling is not good. Rob Neyer recently canvassed baseball writers for ESPN.com on their potential votes and only 10 percent of responders said yes to McGwire for the Hall of Fame in 2007.
Ten percent? For the man who captivated America eight summers ago with a record-setting homer barrage, and whose only link to performance-enhancing substances is the andro tub?
Well done, lawyers. McGwire suffers for going first. He will take the hits, not all undeserved, for the hundreds if not thousands of players who have used and abused performance-enhancing substances over the last decade.
The collective body of baseball writers will have their say. They can’t protect the game’s integrity, but they can guard the Hall of Fame. If they don't vote McGwire into the Hall of Fame, they will by their balloting declare him guilty of cheating.
There is no other explanation for a “no” vote when it comes to McGwire's candidacy for the Hall of Fame.
Some say McGwire doesn’t deserve to go in alongside Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn (also on the 2007 ballot), but he can go in with others in some other year. That rationale is utter nonsense.
This is not to absolve McGwire. I broadcast his rookie season of 49 homers and, by comparison, the player I saw in St. Louis that year ballooned to cartoonish proportions. Suspicion is legitimate. Judgment, however, is completely different.
Judgment is often final, and it should be meted with the utmost care. I don’t expect much compassion for McGwire. His utter seclusion, both before and after March 17, 2005, hasn’t helped.
Yet Richard Nixon was forgiven, so can’t anyone receive the same? But McGwire has to ask without any “help” from those Washington lawyers.
Aug. 6 | 4:30 p.m. ET
Two stories evoking opposite emotions propel me into early August.
I feel good about the growing sense that labor peace is upon us. Labor peace…words I never thought could be written about baseball in our time.
In May, an executive involved in the negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement (the current deal expires on Dec. 19) expressed total confidence to me about an agreement.
Obviously, I let slip a look of skepticism. He responded that if there was any motivation on either side to create problems this year, the game was in dire trouble. He was right.
Bud Selig’s chief deputy, Bob DuPuy, let slip a surprisingly optimistic comment about the state of talks last week. Even better, Don Fehr and Gene Orza have been quiet.
Perhaps it is the only positive to come from the steroid era -- an acknowledgement that the sides must shelve their negotiating postures in a time of insane economic growth for the sport.
There is more than enough for all, and for once it appears as if there will be a painless way to share the wealth.
On another front, USA Today and Baseball America have featured the troubles of Tampa Bay’s talented trio of Triple-A prospects: B.J. Upton (recently recalled to the big leagues), Delmon Young, and Elijah Dukes.
They are -- from all reports -- extraordinary talents with mercurial personalities. They talk loudly, walk proudly, and have little use for the minor leagues.
Foes have claimed that at Durham (N.C.), Tampa’s Triple-A farm team, “the inmates are running the asylum.”
They clearly do not emerge from the “Bull Durham” school of hardscrabble minor leaguers.
They are also African-American. This concerns me as someone who loudly proclaimed, as far back as three years ago on telecasts of Mets baseball, the need to stop worrying about blacks in the front office, and focus on keeping blacks on the field and in the stands.
And in the subsequent three years, we've learned the percentage of black players in Major League Baseball is at a 40-year low.
I have repeatedly called Dontrelle Willis, Jimmy Rollins, and Torii Hunter the most important players of their generation. They can influence many young African-Americans about the virtues of baseball, demonstrating that it is cool to play ball, and that a ballplayer can still go home in the winter with “street cred.”
An aside: the above-mentioned trio stands out as people among the players I have met in recent years. They are gems that should be cherished for their on-field excellence and off-field demeanor.
Which brings us to the Devil Rays’ trio. They are the next wave, but from all indications they lack the personal strength of the Willis, Rollins, and Hunter.
I can’t help but wonder if they are impatient, seeing their peers collecting big checks in the NBA or being treated like pros at a major college football factory.
That is baseball’s challenge -- minor league travel, hotels and clubhouses. No bonus check can compensate for working conditions that entitled youth views as beneath them.
I have only glimpsed Upton on television, and have never seen Young or Dukes. But I worry about them and for baseball.
The game needs them. For baseball to remain our national pastime, it must reflect our land in all colors and creeds.
July 30 | 8:05 p.m. ET
A burial took place in Atlanta over the weekend. The Braves’ reign in the NL East came to a virtual end at the hands of the team they have tormented more than any other over the past 14 full seasons.
The Mets went to Turner Field and thoroughly whipped the Braves, leaving Atlanta dead in the division and badly limping in the wild-card chase.
Two years ago, the Mets traveled to Atlanta on deadline weekend entertaining hopes of pressuring the Braves. In the days leading to that series, the Mets made the worst trade in recent history (Scott Kazmir for Victor Zambrano) and dealt for Kris Benson, a pitcher with a history of success against Atlanta.
With everything geared toward that weekend, the Mets went to Atlanta …. and were swept. Season over.
Two years later, the Mets can finally enjoy some semblance of payback, not just for 2004 but Brian Jordan pounding Armando Benitez and John Franco, Kenny Rogers’ NLCS-ending bases-loaded walk, and Chipper Jones’ 700 career homers against the Mets (it feels that way to Mets fans.)
Look at the Braves: Tim Hudson, their future rotation foundation, is having an awful month and a mediocre season. John Thomson and Horacio Ramirez have been non-factors. Jorge Sosa, a pleasant surprise last season, was designated for assignment. The bullpen has been an utter disaster. In July, Braves starters posted a 6.39 ERA.
Do you think anyone in Atlanta will admit that just maybe Leo Mazzone knew a little something about pitching?
Other deadline tidbits:
Finally, we ask two questions in the massive swirl of nonsensical rumors swirling around Monday’s deadline?
ATLANTA (AP) - Matt Harvey pitched six hitless innings, John Buck homered and the New York Mets held off another Atlanta comeback, beating the Braves 4-3 Tuesday in the first game of a doubleheader.
Taking a look at some of the greatest catchers off all time.