ROOKIE CARDINALS FLY HIGH

By Murray Chass

May 3, 2009

For the Washington Nationals, the team with the worst record in the major leagues, to have two rookie starting pitchers and two rookie relievers is not surprising. What is surprising is for the St. Louis Cardinals, with their rookies, to have the majors’ best record.

Shairon Martis (three) and Jordan Zimmerman (two) have five of the Nationals’ six victories (through Saturday). Mike Hinckley, who has a 2.79 earned run average, is tied for the most appearances, 13, on the team’s pitching staff. Garrett Mock, with a 7.20 e.r.a. in 5 games, has not pitched as effectively.

Martis, a 22-year-old native of Curacao, pitched a five-hit complete-game victory over the Cardinals Saturday and in the process faced the Cardinals’ three rookie position players – third basemen Joe Thurston and Brian Barden (who played shortstop Saturday) and outfielder Colby Rasmus, whose home run was the only run Martis allowed.

“We’re very pleased with them,” said Cardinals’ general manager John Mozeliak, whose team is having the franchise’s best start since 1944 (17-8 through Saturday). “It’s only the first month under our belt, but given how we’ve played it’s very encouraging to us. We’ve lost Chris Carpenter, but still having success is pleasing.”

The Cardinals have grown accustomed to losing Carpenter, their No. 1 pitcher. An elbow injury that required ligament transplant surgery limited him to four starts the past two seasons, and in his second start this season, the right-hander tore his left oblique muscle. He will most likely be out until sometime next month.

Mitchell Boggs, a rookie right-hander, has replaced Carpenter in the rotation, and the Cardinals won his first two starts, including last Thursday’s game in Washington.

The Cardinals have started three rookies at third base in place of Troy Glaus, who is recovering from shoulder surgery in January. One of the three, David Freese, started four games and hit .158, earning a return trip to the minors.

Manager Tony LaRussa has basically platooned Thurston, a left-handed batter, and the right-hand hitting Barden (above). Both had limited major league playing time before this season, with Thurston, 29, playing in a total of 59 games over five seasons with the Dodgers, the Phillies and the Red Sox.

Thurston, starting 15 games, was hitting .279 before Sunday and led National League rookies with 12 runs batted in. Barden, starting 7 games and playing in 13 others, was hitting .349 and had .591 slugging and .396 on-base percentages, leading N.L. rookies in the first two categories as well as home runs (3) and holding second in on-base.

“Both these guys have major league service time,” Mozeliak said. “Thurston had success at Triple A last year, and we took a flyer on him. Offensively he’s done very well. He’s been very aggressive at bat and on the base paths.”

Of Barden, Mozeliak said, “This spring when we putting the club together, he started separating himself by playing super defense all spring. The surprise has been his offense. He’s another young man taking advantage.”

Rasmus, the 28th player selected in the 2005 draft, was hitting .270, but his value to the Cardinals has gone beyond any hitting he has done. Many far more experienced outfielders balk at playing different outfield positions, but Rasmus has started games at all three outfield spots in LaRussa’s four-man outfield rotation.

“He understood that to get his at-bats he would be in a variety of different places,” Mozeliak said. “Absolutely he’s been okay. Defensively he’s done a very good job for us. Right now he’s obviously getting his first taste of the major leagues, but most importantly he’s showing patience at the plate. His on-base (.357) is good. When he’s hitting in front of Albert it’s important.”

When the 22-year-old Rasmus started on opening day, he was the youngest player in the Cardinals’ opening-day lineup since a 21-year-old Albert Pujols started on opening day in 2001.

Mozeliak said it was never the club’s plan to start two or three rookies, “but in fairness to Tony he has been given the opportunity to manage a club that gives him a lot of flexibility. He can play the hot hand.”

The rookies, Mozeliak added, have not been overwhelmed by the Cardinals’ division lead “and I don’t expect they will be.”

The Oakland Athletics are the Nationals of the American League with a pitching staff spiced with rookies. But the Athletics’ rookie starters haven’t been as successful as their Washington counterparts.

Left-handers Trevor Cahill and Josh Outman and right-hander Brett Anderson have started 11 games and emerged with no wins. The Athletics have won three of their starts. Andrew Bailey, on the other hand, has three victories and no defeats in 12 relief appearances with a 1.53 e.r.a.

For starting pitching victories by rookies, check the Toronto Blue Jays, who have used rookies because they have an entire rotation on the disabled list. Even one of the rookies is there, but Ricky Romero picked up two victories with a 1.71 e.r.a. before landing on the list. Scott Richmond (at left) has a 3-0 record and a 2.70 e.r.a.

Richmond and Bailey lead American League rookie pitchers with their three victories and also lead with 20 strikeouts.

Travis Snider, an outfield teammate of Richmond and Romero, leads A.L. rookies in home runs (3), runs batted in (11), total bases (30) and slugging percentage (.448). Chris Getz, White Sox second baseman, tops A.L. rookies in hits (19) and is second in on-base percentage (.381).

A Colorado outfielder, Dexter Fowler, who leads N.L. rookies with 19 hits, performed an unusual rookie feat last week, stealing five bases in the first four innings of a game against San Diego. What happened the rest of the game? Did he take off the last five innings? No, but he didn’t have another chance to steal. He struck out and grounded out, and in the one instance he was on base, the pitcher was a base ahead of him.

Fowler has nine stolen bases altogether. All of the other N.L. rookies combined have nine stolen bases.

TATIS TAKES OFF

Fernando Tatis was named the comeback player of the year for his performance with the Mets last season, but when you consider where Tatis came back from the award should have been more than a year’s worth.

From mid-June 2003 to mid-May 2008, a nearly five-year span, Tatis did not play baseball at all for two years, spent more than half of another season on the disabled list, and played in the minor leagues for an entire season plus more than half of another. His only time in the majors during that span came with Baltimore in 2006 when he played in 28 games (started 11) and batted 64 times.

Tatis, at the age of 33, returned to the majors with the Mets last May, presumably as a bench player. But the more he played the more he hit and the more he hit the more he played. He wound up being one of the team’s most productive players, batting .297 and driving in 47 runs, starting 35 games in right field, 28 in left, two at third base, one at first.

His loss for the last two weeks of the season after he suffered a separated shoulder trying to make a diving catch hurt the Mets’ chances of winning the division title.

Despite his production last year, Tatis was back in his bench role when this season began. For a team that didn’t have an abundance of hitting, the Mets left themselves open to questions about their plans for Tatis, who in their first 14 games played in only 5 games and batted 7 times without getting a hit.

Asked about his status, Tatis said, “I don’t mind doing that. I know my role over here, what kind of job I’m going to do. We want to be a strong team coming from the bench. I think we’re going to have a better team like that.  I think Jerry’s going to use us the same way that he used us last year. Maybe when a left-handed pitcher is on the mound I’m going to play. That’s the way I think he’s going to use us.”

I then asked him if he might hit better the more he played. “Yes, the more that you play you get the chance to see more pitches so you’re more ready when you get into the game,” he said. “The more you play you’re going to feel more comfortable. Definitely.”

Right about that time Manager Jerry Manuel began using Tatis more frequently, starting him at first base in place of the ailing Carlos Delgado. Playing six of eight Mets’ games Tatis collected 10 hits in 20 at-bats.

Back in the years when Tatis did not play, 2004-05, Tatis considered himself retired. He came out of retirement for an unusual reason. He wanted to help build a church in his hometown of San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic.

“God put it in my heart,” Tatis said. “Before I was coming back I was in my house. I was not even practicing or doing anything. I was sitting in my family room with my wife. We talked about it and here I am. That’s amazing to me. It’s still amazing to me. A couple of years I was sitting in my home not doing anything and look where I am now. It’s amazing.”

Tatis’s church, Jerusalem First Church, stands proudly in San Pedro.

“We got a lot of people to help us,” Tatis said. “That was a big help because it takes a lot of money to build a big church. But we wanted a bigger church and we have it. People appreciate it and they love it. I feel very good about it.”

FERNANDO REINCARNATED, 28 YEARS LATER

Despite Zack Greinke’s terrific start to the season, there has been no outbreak of Zackomania in Kansas City. But then Royals fans have never been overly exuberant.

Greinke has won his first five starts, pitching two complete games and allowing only two earned runs for a 0.50 earned run average. The last time a pitcher produced such a fantastic start to a season was in 1981, according to Elias Sports Bureau. The pitcher was Fernando Valenzuela, and his magnificent performance inspired Fernandomania in Los Angeles.

Valenzuela had begun pitching in the majors the previous September but was still a rookie in 1981. A 20-year-old left-hander, he won his first eight starts that season, completing all but one, and in that one he didn’t pitch the 10th inning. He compiled a 0.50 e.r.a. with 4 earned runs allowed in 72 innings.

OH NO, ANOTHER ONE

Peter Golenbock strikes again.

What does that mean? It means that Goldenbock has written another baseball book, another book about the Yankees, and that’s not good. In fact, it’s downright dangerous. It’s dangerous because whenever he has written a baseball book, Golenbock has created errors for posterity.

Years from now some kid will take a Golenbock book out of his school library and think he is reading an accurate history. Golenbock and accuracy are an oxymoron.

Golenbock’s newest book came to my attention from a friend who saw a review of it on a Web site, cbsnews.com. The reviewer, Peter King, a CBS radio news correspondent, appropriately trashes the book for its many serious errors.

The review includes an expression of regret from the author for the mistakes and a statement from the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, which said in part, “Regarding Peter Golenbock’s book, we are currently taking steps internally to correct the errors which will be reflected in the next reprint.”

But the reviewer must be faulted, too. “As an avid baseball fan,” he writes, “I’ve enjoyed Golenbock’s past works, which include collaborations with former Yankees Graig Nettles, Billy Martin and Sparky Lyle. Those associations gave me good reason to expect ‘George’ to be interesting and entertaining.”

How could he have read those other Golenbock books without finding the same kind of faulty writing he exposed in “George?” He would have had to have read the books with his eyes closed not to see them. The Lyle book, “The Bronx Zoo,” for example, contains 68 factual errors.

Yes, I counted them at the time the book was published, and the number was confirmed by another writer who also covered the Yankees. In addition, the book misspelled dozens of names. I counted those, too, but don’t recall the number.

The Martin book, “Number 1,” for another example, said that Martin resigned as the Yankees’ manager in 1978 at the Crownson Hotel in Kansas City. There was no Crownson hotel in Kansas City. It was the Crown Center.

In another book, about the Dodgers, Golenbock wrote that Duke Snider was a right-handed hitter. Not that anyone else knew.

The mistakes in the Steinbrenner book are far from the first Golenbock has foisted on the sports-reading public. He has long been a serial killer of accuracy in baseball literature.

 

 

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