Showing posts with label Pittsburgh Pirates. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Pittsburgh Pirates. Show all posts

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Orioles add Pedro Alvarez to a lineup that already has a DH

Pedro Alvarez
Former Pittsburgh Pirates 1B/3B Pedro Alvarez agreed Monday to a one-year, $5.75 million contract with the Baltimore Orioles.

Alvarez was No. 2 on our list of top 5 remaining free agents going into March (posted earlier this week), and he figures to add power to an already-potent Baltimore lineup. Alvarez has clubbed 101 home runs over the past four seasons. Last year, he hit .243/.318/.469 with 27 home runs and 77 RBIs in 150 games with the Pirates. He also struck out 131 times.

Pittsburgh, being a National League team, most likely parted ways with Alvarez because he is a defensive liability at both first base and third base. The Orioles have Chris Davis at first base and Manny Machado at third base, which means they can have Alvarez serve as designated hitter and hide his deficiencies with the glove.

There's just one problem with that: Where does that leave Mark Trumbo? I would have projected Trumbo as Baltimore's DH before this Alvarez move. Now, Trumbo is probably going to play right field, where he's just as big of a defensive problem as Alvarez would be at first base.

I wonder if the Orioles will try Davis in right field and have Trumbo play first. I'm not sure that's any better, but I won't be surprised if Baltimore manager Buck Showalter at least experiments with that defensive look during spring ball.

Baltimore is going to score some runs this season. Adam Jones, Davis, Machado, Trumbo, Alvarez, Matt Wieters, J.J. Hardy; they have a deep lineup with plenty of guys who can hit the ball off the wall and over it.

I question whether the Orioles have enough starting pitching to contend in the AL East. With a projected rotation of Chris Tillman, Ubaldo Jimenez, Yovani Gallardo, Miguel Gonzalez and Kevin Gausman, there isn't an ace in that group -- unless the 25-year-old Gausman, a former first-round draft pick, takes a giant leap forward.

I think Baltimore is going to need to play good defense behind that questionable rotation, but it looks to me like there are too many weak gloves in its projected lineup. That's going to drive Showalter crazy, as he is known as a manager who values good defense.

If the Orioles are to be a playoff team in 2016, they are going to have to outslug the opposition on most nights.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Madison Bumgarner turns NL wild-card game into a snooze

All the drama in the wild-card round this season got packed into Tuesday's marathon American League game. If you went to bed early Wednesday and missed the end of the National League wild-card game, you didn't miss a thing.

Madison Bumgarner and the San Francisco Giants made it look easy, as they dispatched the Pittsburgh Pirates, 8-0. With the win, the Giants advance to take on the Washington Nationals in the NLDS. That series will start Friday.

Bumgarner entered his seventh career postseason start with a couple factors working in his favor. First off, he's been good on the road all season -- 11-4 with a 2.22 ERA. Secondly, he pitched well down the stretch, going 7-3 with 2.12 ERA over his last 10 starts.

When the Giants won the World Series in 2010 and again in 2012, Bumgarner was a member of the supporting cast. Now, he's the San Francisco ace, and he proved it Wednesday night with a dominant, efficient performance.

The left-hander needed just 109 pitches in his four-hit, complete-game shutout. He struck out 10 Pittsburgh batters and walked just one.

Believe it or not, Pirates starting pitcher Edinson Volquez also entered this game with reasons to feel good about himself. After a disastrous 2013 that saw him record the highest ERA among qualifying pitchers in the National League, the right-hander enjoyed a comeback season this year.

He posted a 1.85 ERA over his last 17 starts, and he had allowed just four earned runs in his last 34.2 innings pitched at home. Unfortunately for Volquez, he allowed four runs on one pitch in the fourth inning Wednesday night.

Brandon Crawford became the first shortstop ever to hit a postseason grand slam when he picked on a 1-2 hanging breaking ball from Volquez and knocked it over the right-field wall to give the Giants a 4-0 lead.

That was your ballgame. There was no drama from that point on. San Francisco added four more runs, and Pittsburgh had no chance against the masterful Bumgarner.

Maybe we'll have something more interesting to talk about after tomorrow's action. Tonight's game was one-sided. It was all Giants.

Monday, September 8, 2014

White Sox release 2015 schedule

The White Sox have struggled to a 9-23 record over their past 32 games, so it's clearly time to start thinking about next year. Major League Baseball on Monday released its 2015 schedule, allowing fans of losing clubs like the Sox to put aside the current misery and take a look toward what will hopefully be brighter days ahead.

The first question I always ask myself when the schedule comes out: When is the Sox home opener? The answer is Friday, April 10. For the second straight year, the Sox will host the Minnesota Twins in their first home game. But, it won't be the first game of the year this time. The South Siders will start the season on the road Monday, April 6, in Kansas City against the Royals.

The other thing I always look for are possible road trips to take with the team. Those opportunities will be aplenty in 2015, as the Sox take on NL Central opponents in interleague play next season. They'll be at Milwaukee (May 11-13), Pittsburgh (June 15-16) and St. Louis (June 30-July 1).

I'll probably look into making the trip down to St. Louis. It's a nice ballpark. The Cardinals are always a good team, and it's refreshing to be in a city where baseball in the most important sport.

Naturally, the Chicago media is always quick to mention the crosstown series dates when the schedule comes out. For the record, the Sox will play the Cubs six times next season instead of four, and the series is moving back to weekend dates. The two teams will play at Wrigley Field from July 10-12. The series at U.S. Cellular Field will be from Aug. 14-16.

It's no secret I hate the crosstown series. I haven't attended one of those games since 2008. It's overpriced. It's not fun to go. There are too many drunk people. There are too many fights. The rivalry brings out the worst in both fan bases. If the crosstown series were outlawed, I wouldn't shed one tear. I'll be selling my tickets to those games.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

San Francisco Giants become first team to win protest in 28 years

The San Francisco Giants on Wednesday became the first team in 28 years to win a protest filed with Major League Baseball.

On Tuesday night, the Cubs were leading the Giants 2-0 in the bottom of the fifth inning when a localized downpour caused the game to be delayed for more than four hours after the Wrigley Field grounds crew could not get the tarp on the field quickly enough.

The rain stopped, but the game could not be completed after umpires deemed the field conditions unplayable. The game was official, so the Cubs were awarded a rain-shortened victory.

The Giants, who are in playoff contention, were understandably unhappy and protested under the provisions of Rule 4.12 (a) (3), which states a game can be suspended due to a "malfunction of a mechanical field device under the control of the home club."

In this case, the "mechanical field device" is the tarp, which MLB determined had not been put away properly after its previous use. That's the home club's fault.

Therefore, the protest was upheld, and the game will resume at 4 p.m. Thursday with the Cubs batting in the bottom of the fifth inning and leading 2-0. The two teams have a regularly scheduled game at 7 p.m.

How rare is it for a protest to be upheld? The last time it happened was June 16, 1986.

The Pittsburgh Pirates were trailing the St. Louis Cardinals, 4-1, in the top of the sixth inning when umpires called the game after a pair of rain delays that spanned 17 and 22 minutes, respectively.

National League regulations required that umpires wait at least 75 minutes during an initial weather delay and 45 minutes during a second one before calling a game.

The umpires didn't do that, so the Pirates protested. The complaint was upheld. The game was resumed, and the Pirates lost anyway, 4-2.

The most famous upheld protest, of course, was the "Pine Tar Game," which was played on July 24, 1983, at Yankee Stadium.

The Kansas City Royals were trailing the New York Yankees, 4-3, with two outs in the top of the ninth inning when George Brett connected for a two-run home run to put Kansas City ahead, 5-4.

New York manager Billy Martin argued that Brett had too much pine tar on his bat. Umpires agreed and called Brett out. That was the third out of the top of the ninth, so the game ended with a Yankees win and a Brett tirade for the ages.



The Royals protested. The league office reversed the call, declaring that Brett's home run should count and ordering the game to be restarted from that point. Nearly a month later, on Aug. 18, Kansas City finished off a 5-4 victory.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

If any pitcher deserves some run support, it's Jose Quintana

White Sox pitcher Jose Quintana leads the league in only one category: no-decisions. He had a league-high 17 of them in 2013. He's had 28 of them since the start of the 2012 season, more than any other pitcher in baseball. Heck, his first start of 2014 ended in a no-decision after the Sox bullpen spit out a three-run lead.

I've lost track of how many times Quintana has pitched well enough to win, only to walk away with nothing. Lack of run support? That would be an understatement. The Sox scored three runs or less in 16 of Quintana's 33 starts last year. Seven times, they were limited to one run or less. They were shutout on three occasions.

So if there's any pitcher who deserved to be the beneficiary of a 15-run outburst, it's Quintana. The left-hander turned in another solid, consistent outing on Tuesday night, firing seven innings of two-run ball in the Sox' 15-3 win over the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field.

The environment is hitter-friendly in Denver, and this game saw the Sox pound out six home runs and 19 hits. First baseman Jose Abreu hit the first two home runs of his major league career. Avisail Garcia also went deep twice, and Alexei Ramirez and Tyler Flowers hit home runs as well.

Abreu's first home run was perhaps the big blow of the game. On the 12th pitch of his at-bat in the seventh inning against Colorado reliever Chad Bettis, the Cuban slugger hit a three-run homer to extend a tenuous 4-2 Sox lead to 7-2. From there, the rout was on. Abreu homered in the eighth inning, as well, and is now tied with Minnesota's Chris Colabello for the American League lead in RBIs with 11.

Speaking of leading the league, Flowers leads all American League hitters with a .478 batting average entering Wednesday's action. That's funny to me. Should I pick him up in my fantasy league?

Cubs waste big night for Castro

Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro missed a good chunk of spring training due to injury, and not surprisingly, he got off to a slow start the first few games of the season. It looks like he's back on track, though, after going 3-for-4 with two home runs and four RBIs on Tuesday night.

But Castro's effort went for naught, as the Cubs lost 7-6 to the Pittsburgh Pirates at Wrigley Field. I bring up his performance, though, to note he is still clearly the best shortstop in the Cubs' organization.

While I agree with Cubs fans that Castro is a frustrating player to watch at times, I disagree with those who want him traded immediately to make room for uber-prospect Javier Baez.

In case you were wondering, Baez is 1-for-18 with eight strikeouts and three errors at shortstop in six games at Triple-A Iowa so far this year. The 21-year-old also was ejected from a game for an angry outburst over the weekend. There's a good probability we'll see Baez in Chicago before the year is over, but his slow start is a reminder that he is still very much a work in progress. He needs to refine his game, especially defensively, before he's worthy of being a big-league shortstop.

The Cubs need not be in any hurry to trade Castro, who for all his faults remains the most accomplished hitter in the North Siders' lineup. The Cubs need to be adding good hitters to their roster, not subtracting the scant few they have.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Bunting with two strikes ... sometimes that works

I was watching a White Sox-Reds spring training game last week when I saw Sox center fielder Adam Eaton bunt for a base hit on an 0-2 pitch. The Cincinnati third baseman was so stunned that he threw the ball away on the play. Even with an accurate throw, Eaton would have been safe.  

I thought to myself, "I haven't seen a Sox player try something like that in quite a few years."  

Fast-forward to Wednesday afternoon: With the score tied 6-6 in the bottom of the 11th inning, Sox infielder Leury Garcia lays down a perfect bunt on an 0-2 pitch. He beats the play out without a throw.  Later in the inning, he scores the game-winning run on a wild pitch as the Sox defeat the Minnesota Twins, 7-6.  

It would be a refreshing change if the Sox can find a way to score some runs this season without the benefit of the long ball. On Wednesday, only one of their seven tallies came on a home run -- a solo shot by Adam Dunn in the eighth inning.  

The Sox scored three runs in the second inning on three singles, a double and two sacrifice hits. They rallied to tie the game with two runs in the ninth on three singles and a fielder's choice. It was encouraging to see some manufactured runs with the game on the line.

Speaking of that ninth-inning rally, Paul Konerko got off to a good start in his new bench role. He led off the inning with a pinch-hit single off Minnesota closer Glen Perkins, who is left-handed. Konerko, for all his struggles in 2013, hit .313 against left-handed pitchers a year ago. He can still be effective for the Sox if he is spotted in matchups that are favorable for him.

'Don't want to get picked off here in this situation'

Good news for the Cubs: Their new leadoff man, Emilio Bonifacio, is swinging the bat exceptionally well out of the gate. He's 9 for 12 through the first two games of the season.  

Bad news for the Cubs: Bonifacio has been picked off base two of the nine times he's reached, and he would have been picked off a third time if the Pittsburgh first baseman had not dropped the ball.

I don't know if I've ever seen a guy get picked off three times the first two days of the season. Would that be some kind of record? It's hard to come down too hard on Bonifacio, though, because he's one of the few Cub hitters off to a good start. The North Siders are 0-2, having lost a pair of extra-inning contests in Pittsburgh. They've scored only three runs in 26 innings against the Pirates pitching staff.

On Wednesday, the Cubs rallied from a 2-0 deficit with a run in the eighth and another run in the ninth. They even took a short-lived 3-2 lead on Anthony Rizzo's solo home run in the top of the 12th. But new closer Jose Veras failed in his first save situation. He gave up the lead and was fortunate to escape a bases-loaded jam and with only one run allowed in the bottom of the 12th. Veras was taking forever in between pitches and seemed to have no confidence in his stuff. It's only one outing, but that performance cannot be encouraging for the Cubs, who went on to lose 4-3 in 16 innings.  

Buerhle turns back clock in first start of season  

Former White Sox left-hander Mark Buehrle had an up-and down year in his first season in Toronto in 2013, but on Wednesday, he looked like the pitcher he was five or six years ago.

Buehrle allowed only four hits over 8.2 innings and picked up the win as the Blue Jays defeated Tampa Bay, 3-0. The southpaw struck out 11 and walked just one.

It was just the second double-digit strikeout game of Buehrle's career. The other came during the Sox' World Series year. He fanned a career-high 12 in a 2-1 win over Seattle on April 16, 2005.

I still root for Buehrle, as long as he isn't pitching against the Sox.  

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Chris Sale's strong outing alleviates bogus 'concerns'

I had to laugh Monday when I read news stories about the White Sox naming Chris Sale their starting pitcher for Opening Day. As if there were another pitcher on the roster under consideration.

That decision might be the easiest one Sox manager Robin Ventura has to make all season. Thank you, Captain Obvious.

Sale made his third start of the spring Monday against the Milwaukee Brewers and turned in 4.1 dominant innings. He retired 13 of the 15 hitters he faced and allowed just a pair of two-out singles. He struck out three and walked none.

I was relieved to hear Sale pitched well, not because I was worried about him, but because it was obnoxious to hear the bogus "concerns" other people had when Sale got knocked around in his second outing against the San Diego Padres last week.

In that game, Sale allowed six earned runs over 2.2 innings and struggled to get command of his breaking ball. Sale hadn't thrown his slider at all in his first outing of the spring, so it stands to reason he had difficulty with that pitch the first time he threw it in game situations this year.

It was yet another example of spring training being about getting ready for the season, as opposed to being about achieving optimal results. Established guys who already know they are coming north with the team don't need to concern themselves with statistics. A pitcher can work on a specific pitch during a given outing, and if he happens to get shelled, then so be it. It's a means to an end in terms of refining that pitch so it will be effective when the results begin to matter in three weeks.

A pitcher who will not be missed

Even as pitcher Zach Stewart languished through a miserable 6-14 season last year at Triple-A Charlotte, I was always somewhat (irrationally) fearful the White Sox would recall him and and give him a few starts at the big league level at the end of the season.

That fear is gone now after the Sox on Monday traded Stewart to the Atlanta Braves for cash considerations. Thank goodness that guy is gone -- hopefully for good.

Stewart went 3-7 with a 6.14 ERA in 28 appearances (9 starts) with the Sox over a two-year period. He was last seen in a White Sox uniform on June 18, 2012, when he gave up six runs, nine hits and four home runs in a 12-3 loss to a Cubs team that would go on to lose 101 games.

Six days later, Stewart and Brent Lillibridge were traded to the Boston Red Sox for third baseman Kevin Youkilis. Naturally, Stewart did nothing to impress in Boston. He was traded to Pittsburgh in November 2012, placed on waivers and later picked up by the Sox once more in January of 2013.

Ugh. I guess somebody had to pitch at Charlotte last year. At least Stewart never got back to the bigs in Chicago. This is one pitcher I hope we never see in the Sox organization again.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Cardinals eliminate Pirates in NLDS Game 5

I think I mentioned earlier this week that St. Louis Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright has been really good in the playoffs in his career.

The right-hander delivered in the clutch again Wednesday, firing a complete game eight-hitter as the Cardinals defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates 6-1 in Game 5 of the NLDS at Busch Stadium.

With the win, St. Louis takes the series 3-2 and advances to the NLCS for the eighth time since 2000. The Cardinals will open at home against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday night.

St. Louis jumped in front in the second inning when David Freese got a hanging breaking ball from Pittsburgh starter Gerrit Cole and knocked it out of the yard for a two-run homer. Matt Adams added a two-run homer in the eighth inning to put the game out of reach.

Not that Pittsburgh had much chance against Wainwright, who is now 4-0 with a 2.03 ERA and four saves in 15 career postseason appearances. The only time I can remember Wainwright failing in the playoffs was last year when he got rocked by the Washington Nationals in Game 5 of the NLDS. On that night, of course, the Cardinals roared back from a 6-0 deficit and won the game anyway.

After Wednesday's victory, St. Louis is now 8-1 in playoff elimination games over the last three seasons. Give the Pirates credit for a great season -- they won 94 games and took the top-seeded Cardinals to the brink in this series. However, the talent and experience of St. Louis won out in the end.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Monday quadrupleheader: Best day of the playoffs so far

I have been waiting for a day like Monday. All four divisional playoff series were in action, and this was a quadrupleheader of games that had it all: three one-run decisions, a near no-hitter by Michael Wacha, clutch home runs by Jose Lobaton and Juan Uribe and a bench-clearing incident in Detroit.

There is so much to talk about I could never mention it all in one blog post, but I'll try to touch on a talking point or two from each game.

Oakland 6, Detroit 3

The A's are a team that believes in statistical analysis, so I'm sure manager Bob Melvin was aware of the lefty/righty splits on Detroit pitcher Anibal Sanchez.

For the season, lefties hit .247 against Sanchez, while righties hit at a miserable .207 clip. Accordingly, Melvin loaded his lineup with seven left-handed bats Monday against Sanchez. Three left-handed hitters -- Josh Reddick, Brandon Moss and Seth Smith -- took the Detroit right-hander deep over the first five innings of Oakland's victory, which gave the A's a 2-1 series lead.

The game will be best remembered for a bench-clearing incident in the bottom of the ninth inning. Oakland closer Grant Balfour and Victor Martinez exchanged insults after a foul ball. Amusingly, the crowd mic on MLB Network picked up all the expletives. After order was restored, Balfour nailed down the save. The A's will look to close out the series Tuesday.

St. Louis 2, Pittsburgh 1

Wacha nearly no-hit the Washington Nationals in his last regular season start. In that game, he lost his bid on an infield single by Ryan Zimmerman with two outs in the ninth inning. This time, with the Cardinals season hanging in the balance, Wacha took a no-hitter into the eighth inning before losing it in a slightly less cheap manner -- he gave up a 430-foot bomb to Pittsburgh third baseman Pedro Alvarez.

But the St. Louis bullpen came on to close this one out for Wacha, and the Cardinals tied the series at 2-2 and forced a decisive Game 5 on Wednesday.

You have to wonder why it took the Cardinals four games to send Wacha to the mound. Adam Wainwright is their ace, but after him, Wacha has been St. Louis' next best pitcher. If the Cardinals are fortunate enough to advance to the NLCS, they need to make sure Wacha is in line to make two starts in that series. He really impressed me with his fastball-changeup combination. I think he's a better pitcher than both Lance Lynn and Joe Kelly, at least at this moment.

There will be no debate over who gets the ball in Game 5 for St. Louis. It will be Wainwright. Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle has chosen to start rookie Gerrit Cole instead of veteran A.J. Burnett. I like the move by Hurdle. Burnett was shelled in Game 1 of this series, while Cole was masterful in a Game 2 victory. In a winner-take-all situation, I believe you go with the guy who is pitching best, regardless of experience level.

Tampa Bay 5, Boston 4

The Rays have always been a resilient bunch, and they got off the deck in this game a couple times. The Red Sox jumped out to a 3-0 lead halfway through, but Tampa Bay tied it on a three-run homer by Evan Longoria in the bottom of the fifth inning. 

When Longoria stepped to the plate, the Rays had runners on second and third with two outs. I'm sure some Boston fans are wondering why the Red Sox didn't just put Longoria on with first base open. Conventional wisdom says you don't give teams baserunners with a three-run lead. In this case, I agree with conventional wisdom. But, Longoria is far and away the most dangerous hitter in the Tampa Bay lineup. There's a case to be made that you don't let him beat you and take your chances with the rookie on deck, Wil Myers. The Red Sox pitched to Longoria, and his blast changed the complexion of the game.

Tampa Bay scratched across a run in the bottom of the eighth inning to go ahead 4-3. Boston answered with a run of its own in the top of the ninth off Rays' closer Fernando Rodney. No matter. The Rays got it right back when Lobaton hit a walk-off shot off Boston closer Koji Uehara, who gave up only five home runs all season. Go figure.

The Rays still trail the series, 2-1, but they have life. Game 4 is Tuesday.

Los Angeles 4, Atlanta 3

The day started with a curious decision by Dodgers manager Don Mattingly. He scratched scheduled starter Ricky Nolasco and brought back ace Clayton Kershaw on three days' rest. Mind you, Kershaw threw 124 pitches in his Game 1 victory, and Los Angeles entered Monday's play with a 2-1 series lead. I can understand wanting to throw your ace one more time if you're facing elimination, but the Dodgers were not in that situation. I was really surprised they brought Kershaw back on short rest. It was a move that reeked of needless desperation.

But give Kershaw credit. He threw the ball well once again, allowing just two unearned runs over six innings. However, Braves veteran Freddy Garcia matched Kershaw pitch for pitch, and Atlanta took a 3-2 lead into the bottom of the eighth inning. Facing elimination, if there was ever a time for the Braves to ask closer Craig Kimbrel for a six-out save, this was it. Instead, David Carpenter pitched the eighth inning for Atlanta. It took him two batters to blow the lead. Yasiel Puig doubled and scored moments late on the game-winning home run by Uribe.

Mattingly wanted Uribe to bunt on the pitches prior to the home run. That didn't work out so well, but the home run erased the stink. Suffice to say, I think the Los Angeles manager made a couple of questionable choices on Monday. He got away with them, and now his team is in the NLCS, awaiting the St. Louis-Pittsburgh winner.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Clayton Kershaw's performance highlights first day of NLDS

Both National League Division Series got underway Thursday, and unfortunately, both games were duds. None of the late-inning drama we associate with playoff baseball was present in either of these two contests.

The St. Louis Cardinals scored seven runs in the third inning and went on to an easy 9-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Los Angeles Dodgers also got out to an early lead and coasted to a 6-1 win over the Atlanta Braves. In each of these two games, you knew who was going to win by the fourth inning.

The highlight of the day was definitely the performance of Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw. After Adrian Gonzalez hit a home run in the third inning to put the Dodgers up 4-0, you had a feeling Kershaw was going to shut the door. He's 36-0 lifetime when Los Angeles scores four or more runs for him. Shut the door he did, striking out 12 Atlanta hitters and allowing just three hits over seven innings. At one point, Kershaw fanned six consecutive batters.

If you're the Braves, this isn't what you wanted to see in Game 1. Atlanta has the reputation of an all-or-nothing offense. The Braves led the National League in home runs this year with 181. They also tied for the league lead in strikeouts with 1,384. All-or-nothing was nothing on this night, and the Braves won't have it easy in Game 2, either, as they must contend with Los Angeles right-hander Zack Greinke, who has a 1.85 ERA since the All-Star break.

Meanwhile in St. Louis, Carlos Beltran hit a three-run homer off Pittsburgh's A.J. Burnett during that seven-run outburst, and that was your ballgame. Adam Wainwright pitched seven innings of one-run ball and remained unbeaten in his postseason career (3-0, 2.27 ERA). This one was a real snoozer unless you are a Cardinals fan.

We'll see if the action heats up on Friday, with four Division Series games on tap around the country.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Francisco Liriano pitches Pittsburgh Pirates into NLDS

Coming into this year, the Pittsburgh Pirates hadn't had a winning season since 1992. I don't think too many people picked the Pirates to go to the playoffs back in April, but here they are, still playing as the calendar turns to October. They went 94-68, and they are one of the feel-good stories of the year.

Pittsburgh will head to St. Louis to open the National League Division Series on Thursday night after its 6-2 victory over the Cincinnati Reds in Tuesday's NL Wild Card Game.

How does a team like the Pirates go from the outhouse to the penthouse so quickly? Well, like everything else, it's a combination of skill and luck. You need some guys to come out of the woodwork and have surprise years for you. Take Francisco Liriano (pictured), for instance.

By any standard, Liriano had a lousy 2012. He went 3-10 with a 5.31 ERA in 22 starts with the Minnesota Twins. He was traded to the White Sox midseason, where he failed to make an impact. In 12 appearances (11 starts) on the South Side, he went 3-2 with a 5.40 ERA. Manager Robin Ventura could not trust Liriano in big games, and the left-hander was one of the reasons the Sox spit up their AL Central lead late in the season.

Liriano became a free agent and had few offers over the offseason. The Pirates took a chance, and it has paid huge dividends. Liriano made 26 regular season starts for Pittsburgh and won 16 of them, finishing 16-8 with a 3.02 ERA. It was easily his best season in three years.

He found himself on the mound Tuesday night against Cincinnati, and he delivered perhaps the most clutch performance of his career. He went seven innings, and he allowed just a run on four hits while striking out five. Much like the Pirates as a team, Liriano has gone from the scrap heap to relevance in just one year.

The win was Pittsburgh's first in the postseason since Oct. 13, 1992. That has to be a good feeling for Pirates fans. They'll be underdogs against the mighty Cardinals for sure, but they've waited a long time for playoff baseball in that city. They have the opportunity, in part, because they've gotten surprising contributions from guys like Liriano.

Monday, September 23, 2013

The pennant races with one week to play....

The 162-game marathon has come down to a six- or seven-game sprint for some clubs as we enter the final week of the regular season. Here's a rundown of the races, who has clinched, and who still has work to do:

AL East
The Boston Red Sox have clinched the division and own the best record in baseball (95-62). The Red Sox are two games ahead of the AL West-leading Oakland A's in their quest to secure homefield advantage throughout the playoffs.

AL Central
The Detroit Tigers (91-65) possess a five-game division lead. Their magic number is down to two. They open a series Monday against the 90-loss Minnesota Twins. Detroit figures to clinch before it leaves Target Field. The second-place Indians (86-70) figure to be more concerned with securing a wild-card spot at this point.

AL West
The Oakland A's (93-63) have proven last season's division championship was no fluke. They have clinched the title for the second consecutive year, once again outplaying the big-spending clubs in Texas and Anaheim. The A's will need a red-hot final week to catch Boston for the top seed in the AL, but I doubt anyone in Oakland will be complaining if the A's finish with the second-best record in the league.

AL Wild Card
Six teams remain alive, but realistically, this race is between Tampa Bay (86-69), Cleveland (86-70) and Texas (84-71). The Rangers are 1.5 back of Cleveland and two back of Tampa Bay. Texas opens a three-game set Monday against 105-loss Houston, and it better sweep. The Rangers close with four in Anaheim. The Indians are in great shape. They have two games left with the 94-loss White Sox and four with the 90-loss Twins. They win five out of six, they're in. Four out of six will probably do it, too. Tampa Bay is concluding a four-game series with Baltimore on Monday, before a six-game closing road trip to New York and Toronto. That will not be easy, but the Rays have the advantage of that two-game cushion over the Rangers. Kansas City (82-73) is 3.5 out of the wild card. New York is four back, and Baltimore is 4.5 back. Each of those three teams is still alive, but realistically, they would need to win out while others choke.

NL East
The Atlanta Braves (92-63) have the best record in the National League and clinched their division title Sunday with a 5-2 win over the Cubs at Wrigley Field. It will be a fight to the finish for homefield advantage in the NL. The Braves are just 1.5 games ahead of St. Louis (91-65) and 2.5 ahead of Los Angeles (90-66). Does that even matter? You bet it does. Atlanta is 52-22 at Turner Field this season and just 40-41 on the road.

NL Central
St. Louis (91-65) is in good shape, two games ahead of both Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. The Cardinals are at home for the final week, hosting Washington (84-72) for three and the 91-loss Cubs for three. You have to believe St. Louis will win the division with a .500 homestand, especially since Pittsburgh and Cincinnati close the season playing head-to-head. If either the Pirates or the Reds were to sweep that final series, maybe they could catch the Cardinals. But, the more likely scenario involves the Pirates and Reds beating up on each other, allowing St. Louis to put the division away.

NL West
Los Angeles (90-66) is the only team in baseball enjoying a double-digit lead in its division. The Dodgers have basically lapped the NL West. They could use a hot streak at the end to pass the Cardinals and or the Braves, so that they'll be able to open the playoffs at home.

NL Wild Card
Almost certainly, the NL wild-card game will feature Pittsburgh (89-67) and Cincinnati (89-67). Both clubs are five games ahead of Washington (84-72) with six games to play. Right now, it's a matter of which team will host that wild-card game. It's a dead heat entering Monday. The Pirates play at Chicago for three games before finishing with three in Cincinnati. The Reds welcome the New York Mets for three before playing the Pirates. Here's a possible dilemma for the season's last day: If the two teams are tied going into Game 162, do you throw your best pitcher or one of your best pitchers to try to get homefield for the wild-card game? Or do you rest everybody for the winner-take-all 163rd game? I think I'd save all my bullets for the wild-card game.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Freddy Garcia and Jose Contreras: Back from the Dead

Back when Jose Contreras was the ace for the 2005 World Series champion White Sox, I assumed he was about 50 years old. He was a terrific pitcher at that time; he just looked like he was old enough to be my grandfather.

Freddy Garcia was a starting pitcher on that team, too. The following year, in 2006, he looked like he was pitching injured. Sure enough, by midseason 2007 he was on the shelf with shoulder problems. I figured his career might be over then.

Well, I was wrong about that. Can you believe both these two men are back in the major leagues? Both were recalled within 48 hours of each other this week.

Garcia made an immediate contribution to his latest team, the Baltimore Orioles. He took a no-hitter into the seventh inning Saturday against the struggling Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim before running out of gas. As a matter of fact, Garcia faced the minimum 18 batters through the first six innings. He ended up allowing two runs in 6.2 innings and received a no-decision in Baltimore's 5-4, 10-inning win.

Contreras, meanwhile, has made it back from Tommy John surgery, a procedure he had done last June 20. He'll be a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates' bullpen after being recalled from Triple-A Indianapolis on Friday. Contreras is listed as being 41 years old. Believe that at your own peril. He might have been older than that during his White Sox heyday.

I'm really surprised these two guys have hung around for this long. It just goes to show that guys who know how to pitch can enjoy long, long professional careers.