GIANT STEPS COULD AFFECT PLAYOFFS

By Murray Chass

August 16, 2009

The New York Mets hold a distinction – call it a record, if you’d like, but we have become too record crazy – that they would be happy to relinquish to the Los Angeles Dodgers this season. As of the start of the week, the Dodgers were 34 days away from the Mets’ mark, and they had 49 days left in which to surpass it.

In 2007 the Mets spent 159 days in first place and, as most of you know, did not finish in first place. No team has ever been in first for so long without finishing the season in first. The Dodgers, as of the start of the week, have been atop the National League West for 125 days.

Because the Dodgers have dominated the West, holding the lead since the season was only 12 days old, they are expected to win the division title. But in recent days signs have materialized that offer just the slightest suspicion that they are slowly losing their grip on what once was a sure thing.

Sign No. 1: The Dodgers’ division lead at the start of their weekend series against Arizona was five games, the slimmest it had been since it was five games three months earlier on May 14.

Sign No. 2: Until the last week of July, through their first 99 games, the Dodgers had not lost as many as three games in a row. They had staged winning streaks of three games or more nine times. Then on July 28 and 29 they lost to St. Louis and suddenly had a four-game losing streak. Ten days later they lost three straight to Atlanta for their second longest losing streak of the season. Meanwhile, they had not won three or more in a row in three weeks.

They went into their game with Arizona Saturday night having won 8 and lost 13 of their last 21 games, easily their weakest stretch of the season.

If the Dodgers were to falter, who would be the team most likely to capitalize and bump them from the top spot? It’s hard to choose a clear favorite between Colorado and San Francisco, but if pitching wins pennants, it would be the Giants.

Actually, I have felt for some weeks now that the Giants would overtake the Dodgers and win the division title. I wrote in this space at the All-Star break not to ignore the Giants. But while the Giants have been good, the Rockies have been better, slashing four games from the nine games that separated them from the Dodgers at the break. On the other hand, the Giants have the kind of pitching every team desires, though their hitting often doesn’t support that pitching.

Going into Saturday’s games, the Giants had the lowest earned run average in the major leagues (3.51), the most strikeouts (910), most shutouts (15), most complete games (10) and had allowed the fewest hits (901). The Giants’ starting pitchers (3.56) and relievers (3.40) also were tops in the majors.

Individually, Tim Lincecum (2.19 e.r.a.) and Matt Cain (2.44) ranked first and fourth in the majors, and each had won 12 games. But most intriguing wags Barry Zito, who finally seems to remember how he pitched on the other side of the Bay.

In his five starts before he pitched against the Mets Friday night, the left-hander permitted 8 earned runs in 35 1/3 innings for a 2.04 e.r.a. and three wins in four decisions. He suffered a slight setback against the Mets but wasn’t terrible, giving up three runs in five innings.

Missing from the rotation is Randy Johnson, the 303-game winner, who last pitched July 5 and is recuperating from a torn rotator cuff that was discovered with an MRI July 27. The Giants hope for his return early next month.

In the meantime, the Giants could use more hitting to aid their pitchers. The Giants’ offense is one of the weakest in the league, standing 15th in total bases and home runs and tied for 14th in runs scored.

Their No. 1 hitter is Pablo Sandoval, the third baseman, who was hitting .329 with 17 home runs and 68 runs batted in. They added another good hitting infielder by participating in the Pirates’ July grab bag and choosing second baseman Freddy Sanchez.

The move that catapulted the Rockies into the race, wild card if not division, was their change of managers May 28 with the season about a third over. The Rockies made a remarkable turnaround after Jim Tracy replaced Clint Hurdle, a move that enhanced general manager Dan O’Dowd’s reputation.

The Rockies had an 18-28 record with Hurdle, who stunned the division only two seasons ago when he directed the team to 14 victories in its final 15 games and sweeps of the first two rounds of the playoffs before finding its tank empty and losing the gas game in the World Series.

The Rockies lost four of their first six games under Tracy but then won 11 straight and 17 of 18 and were off to the race.

The Rockies have a more potent offense than the Giants, ranking second in the National League in home runs and runs scored. Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki was leading the team with 23 home runs, and Brad Hawpe was the r.b.i. leader with 68, though three others – Todd Helton, Tulowitzki and Clint Barmes – were at 60 or more.

Colorado also had four pitchers with 10 or more wins, led by 13 for Jason Marquis, who has turned out to be one of the best trade acquisitions of last winter.

The Rockies obtained Marquis plus $875,000 to pay part of his $9,875,000 salary from the Cubs for reliever Luis Vizcaino. Marquis can be a free agent after this season, but the trade has turned out to be one of the most one-sided of last winter. If Marquis helps the Rockies reach the playoffs, the trade will become even more one-sided.

But will the Rockies reach the playoffs? Or will the Giants? Both could get there if one of them is the division champion and the Dodgers completely fold. That development would be one of the most surprising of the season.

But I’m going to hold out for the Giants and their excellent pitching. If pitching is 75 percent of the game, as someone once said, the Giants should be in good position to qualify for the post-season.

The Giants, having lost two of three to the Dodgers last week, continue to be wary of them. “They have a good club,” said Dick Tidrow, former pitcher and now a Giants executive. “They didn’t compile this record by being mediocre.”

What will it take for the Giants to squeak past the Dodgers?

“I think we’ve got to have a winning streak somewhere like Colorado has done to get back into the thing,” Tidrow said. “How do you do that? Get good pitching and score enough runs to win. Whether you want to win the wild card or the West, you’re going to have a winning streak that is substantial.”

The Giants and the Rockies, of course, are wild-card, as well as division, rivals. One or the other has led the wild-card standings since before the All-Star break. But they could wind up knocking each other out of that race because they have 10 games left against each other. That segment of the schedule is in addition to having six games each against the Dodgers.

Teams do not mind being the wild card as opposed to being a division winner. Three of the last seven World Series champions gained entry to the playoffs as the wild card.

“Being hot at the right time of year has a bearing on this thing and that normally is what the wild-card team has to do,” Tidrow said. “They have to be hot at the end or they don’t make it. I’d take it either way. We could win it outright and win the World Series or do it by way of the wild card.”

PIAZZA PONDERS LITERARY PLANS

Just about six months ago I wrote a column about Mike Piazza’s possible use of steroids when he played. His fans reacted with outrage. It was as if I had accused Piazza of being Charles Manson and Jeffrey Dahmer rolled into one.

Now it seems possible that Piazza’s fans may get to read it from their hero himself.

Several months ago I heard that Piazza may be doing a book. The publisher, Simon & Schuster, I was told, had signed a contract for the book.

However, there was a hangup with the deal going forward because the publisher, before signing the contract and giving Piazza the huge advance, hadn’t pinned down exactly what he would say in the book for the hundreds of thousands of dollars Simon & Schuster was paying him.

Piazza’s dilemma: If he didn’t tell all in the book, the publisher would not get its money’s worth. There are only so many Piazza fans, and how many books could they buy? But if he did agree to tell all and all included his alleged use of steroids, he would jeopardize, if not flat out destroy, his chances of getting into the Hall of Fame.

The content of the book apparently is in the discussion stage.

“The contract hasn’t been canceled,” Bob Bender of Simon & Schuster said. “The book’s agent, David Black, was talking to Danny Lozano, Piazza’s agent.”

Black and Lozano did not return calls seeking comment.

(Subsequent to the posting of this column, Black, who said he sold the book proposal to Simon & Schuster for Piazza, called and said he had no direct knowledge of what Piazza planned to include in the book but said Lozano told him, “Mike’s going to talk about everything.”

 

Does that mean Piazza will write about steroids? “I would assume so,” Black said. “I was told he has nothing to hide.”

 

That, of course, does not mean Piazza will admit to having used steroids. He could write, “I have nothing to hide because I never used steroids.” But many would not believe that, including one prospective author who withdrew from the project because he had no guarantee that Piazza would be forthcoming about steroids.)

I asked Bender if the book would include a Piazza confession of steroids use. “We’re certainly hoping for a candid book,” Bender said without answering the question directly, “and based on a meeting we had with him we expect we’ll get one.”

The puzzling part of this tale is why does Piazza need a rich book contract when he made millions playing baseball. The contract he signed after the Mets got him in 1998 was worth $91 million.

THIS CONTRACT GAME GETS THE BREWERS

It was one of those contracts that the Cleveland Indians made popular in the mid-1990s, when they initiated the practice of signing young players to multi-year contracts in which the club took the risk that their projection of the future production of the player would be accurate and the player took the chance that he wouldn’t become so good that he’d be sacrificing many millions of dollars.

In April 2007, when he had less than four years of major league service and was coming off a season in which he hit a career-high 35 home runs and had a $418,000 salary, the Milwaukee Brewers signed Bill Hall to a four-year, $24 million contract.

Last week, when he was hitting .201 with 6 home runs, the Brewers designated Hall for assignment, meaning they had 10 days to release, trade or get him to go him to the minors. Whatever they do, they owe the third baseman the remainder of his $6.8 million salary for this year, $8.4 million for next year and a $500,000 buyout of an option for 2011, a total of $11.13 million.

Instead of improving as he gained more experience, Hall regressed. In succeeding seasons, his batting average went from .291 to .270 to .254 to .225 to .201. After he opened the Brewers’ eyes and cash register with 35 home runs in 2006, he hit a total of 35 the next three seasons.

AWESOME AUSSIE

With an explosive start to his major league career, Trent Oeltjen of Arizona became the fifth player in the expansion era to collect 12 hits in his first 24 times at bat. The first four, according to Elias Sports Bureau, were Ken Reitz (1972), Kirby Puckett (1984), Mike Lansing (1993) and Bo Hart (2003).

Oeltjen, however, is the first Australian to break in with 12 hits in his first 24 at-bats. Among his hits were seven singles, two doubles, a triple and three home runs. He did not strike out in those first five games and, in fact, didn’t strike out until his 31st at-bat.

NO MORE PAVANO, PLEASE

The Detroit Tigers have seen enough of Carl Pavano this season. Actually, they saw too much of him in the first week of August.

Pavano beat the Tigers twice in games six days apart, allowing them one run in eight innings, then no runs in seven. There’s nothing unusual about a pitcher beating a team in successive starts, but what Pavano did was very unusual.

In his first start against the Tigers, the 33-year-old right-hander was pitching for Cleveland. In his second start he was pitching for Minnesota, having been traded between starts. The Twins claimed Pavano on waivers, and they worked out a deal with the Indians to get him.

Pavano was the first pitcher to beat the same team in successive starts, pitching for different teams, since Andy Ashby defeated Baltimore in 2000. He beat the Orioles for Philadelphia July 8 and for Atlanta six days later. Ashby was traded during the All-Star break.

NOT JUAN BUT NINE GONZALEZES

Major League Baseball took a census of its population last week and found it had more players named Gonzalez – 9 – than anything else. The Gang Gonzalez:

Adrian            (Padres first baseman; pictured)
Alberto           (Nationals shortstop)
Alex                (Red Sox shortstop)
Carlos             (Rockies outfielder)
Edgar              (Padres second baseman, Adrian’s brother)
Edgar              (Athletics pitcher)
Giovany         (Athletics pitcher)
Miguel            (Red Sox reliever on disabled list)
Mike                (Braves reliever)

The runners-up:

7 – Johnson
6 – Cabrera
6 – Hernandez
6 – Ramirez
6 – Young
5 – Martinez
5 – Rodriguez
4 – Chavez
4 – Jones
4 – Pena
4 – Perez
4 – Rivera

ALERT! BEWARE SPEECH POLICE

Major League Baseball’s Speech Police were busy last week, monitoring Ozzie Guillen and Bronson Arroyo.

Guillen, the Chicago White Sox manager, announced that if pitchers kept hitting his batters, as they had been recently, he would instruct his pitchers to retaliate. Arroyo said in a newspaper interview that he used nutritional supplements without knowing whether or not they were on baseball’s banned list.

M.L.B. officials said they had no intention of disciplining the pitcher but wanted to educate him about what he might be doing to himself if he were using questionable supplements.

In Guillen’s case, baseball officials know that teams and pitchers retaliate for their hitters being hit by pitches, but they don’t want managers and pitchers talking about it.

Nevertheless, the simple act of talking to a Guillen or an Arroyo sends a bad message even though officials think it’s sending a proper message. Managers and players should have some rights to talk publicly without intimidation even though baseball, as a private industry, doesn’t have to allow employees freedom of speech.

 

Comments? Please send email to comments@murraychass.com.