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A tip of the cap to Rick Ankiel

According to Dan McLaughlin, who I’d have to think would know, Rick Ankiel is retiring. This isn’t an enormous surprise, since he’s not in camp anywhere and he hasn’t been in a big league game since June. But it’s still news. Ankiel was one of the most fascinating, exciting players I’ve ever seen, an absolute physical freak who had a unique career path.

 

So, first, I just want to wish him well. Ankiel wasn’t always easy to cover (he’d admit that himself), but in his later years he relaxed quite a bit and I found him warm and engaging. This story, from last May, was the product of a lengthy and wide-open interview and is one of my favorite things I’ve written in baseball. 

 

Rick had a hell of a career, making it to the Major Leagues three times (starter, reliever, outfielder), which is a stunning accomplishment in and of itself. He struck out 194 batters in one season and hit 25 home runs in another. We’re not likely to see a player like him again any time soon.

 

Anyway. I have three Ankiel stories. Actually, I have a lot more than three, but I have three that are suited to blogging.

 

The first is actually more of a Darryl Kile story. It goes back to my very first spring on the beat, possibly even my first couple of days on the beat. We were having our morning session with TLR at the corner of a practice field while the pitchers did their morning throwing. The nearest pair was Ankiel and Kile — Kile closest to us, Ankiel opposite him, maybe 100 feet away. 

This was the spring of 2002, so October of 2000 and the 2001 season were very, very fresh in people’s minds. Kile, a legendary teammate, was one of the people most aggressive about protecting Ankiel from anything he perceived as untoward or unfair attention from media (or anybody else).

So one of Ankiel’s throws sails a little off line — because when guys are playing catch in February, well, sometimes that happens. Kile had to jump a little bit to catch it. But from my angle, the ball looked like it was coming RIGHT at me. Again, I was new to the beat, and new to being around large numbers of baseballs being thrown around while I was doing my job.

So I had an instant, and ill-advised, reaction of self-preservation. Before I could process that the ball wasn’t REALLY going to get to me, I flinched and said “heads up!” It wasn’t mocking. It wasn’t even loud. It had NOTHING to do with who threw the ball and everything to do with the fact that for about a tenth of a second, I thought I was about to take a baseball in the teeth.

Kile reacted — instantly. He turned around, scowling. He took a couple of steps toward us. He growled, “WHO SAID THAT?” I kind of stammered a half-apology, didn’t really say much of anything, and made myself as small as I could. It was quite an introduction to DK.

So, yeah, that isn’t really an Ankiel story at all, but it always comes to mind when I think of him.

 

The second, though, is very much an Ankiel story.

It was also Spring Training, also in Jupiter.This would have been the spring of… 2003 probably. Matt Morris and Ankiel had pitched in the same game. Ankiel at that point was still not exactly a media darling, and we knew he wasn’t likely to say a lot when we talked to him. We knew likewise that TLR and Dave Duncan weren’t likely to fill up our notebooks regarding him either. So we asked Morris about him.

Ankiel that day had not been especially sharp, but he hadn’t been especially bad either. His fastball command was iffy, but his curveball had been sensational. (As an aside, I honestly believe Ankiel could be a lefty specialist TODAY with just those two pitches.)

Anyway, we were talking to Morris, who on a good day was a really entertaining interview subject, about his teammate and about those two pitches. And somehow the timing worked out perfectly.

Morris, who had a truly great curveball himself, had just finished talking about Ankiel’s fastball and started talking about the curve. Like, the instant Morris said the word curveball, and started talking with a little reverence about it, Ankiel happened to walk by the crowd of reporters clustered around Morris locker.

With a Cheshire-Cat grin, he strolled by, said “Curveball is the [stuff],” and kept walking.

Pretty sure it was the only quote we got from him that day. It was the only one we needed.

 

And the third is from several years later, after Ankiel was an ex-Cardinal. It was the 2010 NLDS between the Giants and Braves, and my first experience as a columnist in the playoffs (as opposed to as the beat reporter or being on sidebar/feature duty). It was a somewhat daunting responsibility, and I had kind of dropped the ball in Game 1 — not writing a bad column, but just failing to do justice to the most essential angle that needed to be written.

Game 2 of that series was a terrific game, weird and full of twists and turns. And I wanted to make absolutely certain I got the right angle, and just crushed the column. Thankfully, Ankiel delivered. A guy who’d been allowed to leave StL a few months either, who’d been kicked to the curb by the Royals at midseason, came up with an enormous, extra-inning, game-winning playoff homer into the Bay at AT&T Park.

I had my angle. Boy, did I. (You can read the column here, if you so desire.) 

 

Anyway. Good luck, Rick, in whatever you decide to do next.

-M.

So, that was pretty great

The best/most memorable/most compelling nine-inning games I’ve seen in person…

 

5. Tie: 2003 NLCS, Game 6 (Bartman), and 2004 NLDS, Game 3 (Lima Time)

4. July 28, 2004, Cardinals 10, Cubs 9

3. 2011 NLDS, Game 5

2. Tonight. 2013 ALDS, Game 3

1. 2006 NLCS, Game 7

Reminiscing a bit

I saw it noted on Twitter this afternoon that today is the 10th anniversary of one of the more memorable games I covered during my years on the beat. On June 13, 2003, Roger Clemens joined two very elite clubs by recording his 300th win and 4000th strikeout in the big leagues.

 

It was part of a very memorable trip to Boston and New York, actually. Also on that same trip, Tino Martinez made his first return to the Bronx since leaving the Yankees. Scott Rolen made a tumbling slide at Fenway that caused him some pain (he later came to call it his “scorpion slide). Matt Morris started a hometown game but left after a first-inning rain delay. There was a lot of stuff going on. Then again, there was a lot of stuff going on every week in 2003, it seemed.

 

But easily, the memory I’ll always have from that weekend in the Bronx has to do with Edgar Renteria. Renteria was one of my favorite guys to cover. He’s smart and funny, and although he was always uncomfortable with his English, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t/didn’t speak it well. Edgar was definitely fun to cover, and was of course beloved by his teammates. And if he didn’t like talking to TV cameras, hey, that just meant he was more available to the writers.

 

So anyway. Renteria was Clemens’ 4000th strikeout victim, so he was one of the people we obviously sought out in the clubhouse after the game. And he swore he had no idea he’d entered the history books. He knew Clemens was going for No. 300, but he didn’t know that he was No. 4,000.

 

This despite the fact that the old ballpark in the Bronx was absolutely shaking with every strike against him. This despite all the attention. Edgar told the scrum of reporters that, hey, he tipped his cap to Clemens for the accomplishment, but he really couldn’t tell us much about what the experience was like — because in the moment, he didn’t know.

 

Skeptical, I pulled him aside the next day and asked again. “C’mon Edgar… were you just pulling our legs? Did you really not know?”

 

He swore he had no idea. I asked him, didn’t it seem unusual that the place was rocking on every pitch like it was the last out of a no-hitter? 

 

The response from the man who’d never played in the Bronx before was perfect: “They were cheering every at-bat.

 

“But I thought it was always like that (at Yankee Stadium).”

 

-M.

2013 Predictions

I already laid out my division/wild card/pennant winner picks for MLB.com, as did several of my colleagues. You can check those out here.

 

But I try to go into a little more depth here at the blog, so once again I’m giving more extensive picks in this space. Here are last year’s preseason predictions, which had mixed results, and here’s my roundup of how I fared at the end of the year.

 

So on with the show.

 

AL East: Rays, Blue Jays, Red Sox, Yankees, Orioles

I’m very high on Tampa Bay this year. I think their lineup is better than they get credit for, and of course they’ll do a great job of preventing runs. The Blue Jays have huge upside, but lots of questions in the rotation. If you could tell me Johnson/Morrow combine for 55-60 starts, I’d probably take them to win the division. I’m once again buying, relative to overall perception, on the Red Sox. I think they’ll be improved and a Wild Card contender. It’s really hard to write off the Yankees, but I’m just not sure they’re good enough even when they get healthy. They’ll need to ride their rotation if they’re going to be good. The O’s outscored their opponents by 7 runs last year. I think that is a much truer reflection of their quality than their record was, and they didn’t do nearly enough to get better this winter. They won’t be bad, but in this division, not-bad isn’t good enough.

 

AL Central: Tigers, Royals, Indians, White Sox, Twins

I was (relatively) down on the Tigers and up on the White Sox at this time last year. This time, it’s the opposite. I’m buying the Tigers much more than I was last spring. Sanchez and the emergence of Scherzer deepen their rotation. Martinez and Hunter deepen their lineup. This is a very good team, much better equipped to hold up over six months than last year’s Tigers, IMO. I’d buy any order on the 2-3-4 teams here, but the Royals were a bit better than they looked last year and I’m expecting their young hitters to step forward. Cleveland is definitely improved, but is still a couple of starting pitchers away from serious contention. I’m probably selling the White Sox short, but I see a lot more potential for implosion than improvement. The Twins are a ways off.

AL West: Rangers, Angels, A’s, Mariners, Astros

The Rangers had a frustrating winter, but for a combination of offense, defense, starting pitching and relief pitching, they’re the best this division has to offer. They also have depth and talent knocking on the door, enabling them to address needs in-season. The Angels are going to score approximately eleventy kajillion runs, but I just don’t like their rotation behind Jered Weaver. The A’s were better than people realized even at the end of the year last year, but I can’t shake the feeling that they take a step back. I think the Mariners are still a couple of years away; they needed OBP at least as badly as they needed power, and they didn’t address that need at all. I love the Astros’ plan, but 2013 is going to be a long year.

Wild Cards: Blue Jays, Angels

This part is pretty easy. I think there there’s a pretty decent gap between the top 5 teams and the rest of the AL. Sixth-best IMO is Oakland, and maybe Boston 7th. 

NL East: Nationals, Braves, Phillies, Mets, Marlins

I know, me and everybody else. This is the division that it seems everyone agrees on. Now, of course, that means something weird is going to happen, and the Mets are going to win 90 games or the Nats are going to lose 90 or something. 

Anyway, I’m buying Washington in a huge way. I’m buying their rotation and bullpen. I’m buying their lineup (though if there is a worry, I think it’s possible regression from LaRoche and Desmond). I’m buying their defense. Best team in baseball, IMO. And the Braves may well be the second-best team in the NL. I worry about their rotation, but it should still be good enough for serious contention. I can squint and see how it works for the Phillies, but I’m not buying it. I think they’re a .500 team again. The Mets I like a BIT more than some folks, but it’s not going to be a great year. And the Marlins, like the Astros, I like the future but the present isn’t pretty.

NL Central: Reds, Cardinals, Brewers, Pirates, Cubs

As with Washington, I love the completeness of the Reds. I just don’t see that weakness that will get exposed. I like their rotation, their bullpen, their defense, and their lineup (though the lineup is IMO maybe a bit overrated). The one worry is if something happens in the rotation; I’m not sure what Plan B is. But they seem like a heavy favorite to repeat. The Cardinals could be extremely good, but they have a very wide range of possible outcomes. They’ll score runs. The question is what they get from the rotation beyond Wainwright. Garcia’s health and the effectiveness of the other three guys are all, IMO, uncertain. If it all works, great year. But there are legitimate worries in my mind. The Brewers will score runs, and their rotation is better than you think (led the NL in starters K/9 last year). But the margin for error is SO narrow that even something like doing without Corey Hart will be a problem. I can see how it works for the Bucs — lots of young and talented hitters who could emerge at once, and if that happens, they’ll be better than 4th. But I can’t shake the feeling that it’s another season around 75-80 wins. I like the Cubs’ offseason, but I still don’t think there’s enough improvement to contend.

AL West: Diamondbacks, Giants, Dodgers, Padres, Rockies

Maybe the most interesting division in baseball. I hated the D-Backs’ offseason, and yet the more I look at the roster, the more I like it. Deep lineup, deep rotation, and Kevin Towers always puts together a good bullpen. They had a very good run differential last year. The Giants will have better offense than people think, not as good a lineup as people think (courtesy, in both cases, AT&T Park) and will be around all year. I just have too many questions about the Dodgers lineup. Love their rotation, don’t have any confidence at all in anybody beyond Kemp, Ethier and Gonzalez in the lineup. The Padres are a bit of a popular sleeper this spring (my friend Joe Sheehan is all over them), but I can’t get past what looks like a brutal rotation. The Rox have a glimmer of hope if all their promising starters take off at once. IMO they have the most hope of any of the presumed “bad” teams this year.

Wild Cards: Braves, Giants. 

I won’t be one bit surprised if the Dodgers or Cardinals knock out one of the five teams I have in the playoffs. But question marks for both teams have me knocking them down a peg. I will say, in both cases, there’s a good chance of a midseason trade that changes how things look.

MVPs: Miguel Cabrera, Bryce Harper (yes, I had Harper even before today)

Cy Youngs: Felix Hernandez, Clayton Kershaw

World Series: Nationals over Tigers

 

And, finally, the playlist:

Keith Richards, “Wicked As It Seems”
Four Horsemen, “Nobody Said It Was Easy”
Black Crowes, “Twice As Hard”
Danko Jones, “Lovercall”
Guns N Roses, “Locomotive”

-M.

Spring Training, Day 18: And on that note, we cue the music

Today was the last full day of my Spring Training 2013 odyssey, with a Braves-Cardinals game at Roger Dean Stadium. Tomorrow morning I fly back to NYC, where I’m told it’s still chilly. 

It’s been a tremendously entertaining, if draining, three weeks, and it’s been great to be back at the ballpark. Whatever my job may require of me in the coming years, I hope it always includes a significant chunk of time actually at baseball games. It’s where I belong, and it’s great to be reminded of that.

Among the impressions that stand out…

* Chris Archer still stands as having given maybe the most impressive pitching performance I saw. Boy does he have some stuff. It’s got to be nice to be able to send a guy like that down.

* Matt Carpenter really looks pretty OK at second base. In short, if he hits like he ought to, the defense will be good enough to play him. I can’t say I expected that. It’s a tribute to him and the coaching staff.

* Most impressive players I saw were Jason Heyward and Bryce Harper. Two guys who just absolutely smoke the ball and are also fairly freakish athletes.

* Evan Gattis is just a hitter. He may or may not break camp with the Braves, but put aside the novelty factor. He looks like a guy who will hit at the big league level.

* Lakeland is still the best place for a game in the Grapefruit League, at least until and unless somebody goes to Vero Beach. Clearwater is the runner-up, for my money.

* Best concession item? Duh – Taco in a Helmet, Port St. Lucie.

* Best meal of the trip? Another no-brainer. Leftovers Cafe in Jupiter.

* Best beer? Green Flash Hop Odyssey Black IPA, at Yard House in Jupiter

Today’s game in a nutshell: Matt Adams’ eighth-inning RBI single broke a tie and gave the Cardinals a 5-4 win. Mike Minor was very good for four innings and then rocky in the fifth. Joe Kelly was quite solid, though not against exactly an A lineup. And Oscar Taveras made a very nice catch to end the game.

Player of the day: Braves outfielder Jordan Parraz was 4-for-4 with an outfield assist.

Miles driven: 4 today, 1654 for the trip

Miles run: 2 1/2 today, 28 for the trip

Starbucks visits: 1 today, 18 for the trip

Up next: A flight to Laguardia, dinner with my wife, sleeping in my own bed, and then the Drive-By Truckers in concert on Saturday night.

Ballpark music note: At about 11:05 am, with the gates already having opened, and the Cardinals taking BP, they played “Battery” by Metallica. That was decidedly unexpected. And very cool.

And, finally, the playlist:

Today is a sad day for me. The Boston Phoenix is closing up shop after decades of being an absolutely fantastic publication. I read it religiously every week when I was in school, for news analysis, local insight, music and arts coverage, and all kinds of fantastic writing and journalism. It was an example of how good an alternative news weekly can be, and its loss will be felt. So in a hat-tip to the Phoenix, it’s a playlist of Boston-area music from when I was in school. Thanks to everybody there. You did great work that mattered to a lot of people.

Letters to Cleo, “Pizza Cutter”
Aimee Mann, “That’s Just What You Are”
Morphine, “Cure For Pain”
Belly, “Feed the Tree”
Buffalo Tom, “Summer”

-M.

Spring Training, Day 17: Back home again on Planet Jupiter

So, somewhat appropriately I think, I’m back in Jupiter for the final stop of my 2013 Spring Training odyssey. This place really feels like home, which I guess makes sense given that I’ve lived more than a year of my life around here. I hit the Crazy Cuban for lunch and headed over to the ballpark for the Marlins and the Braves.

Kris Medlen pitched quite well before coming out of the game in the fifth. He was hit in the arm by a batted ball, and while it doesn’t seem to be serious at all, it would have been silly to push him.

Y’all know, if you read me with any frequency, that I’m not a “soft factors” kind of guy. I don’t pretend to know any of these guys’ character with any degree of certainty, even the ones I covered for a long time. I just think there’s too much that those of us who cover a team don’t know. We can get some read, but I’ve been surprised, positively or negatively, by so many guys over the years that I just think it’s safer to admit that I don’t know.

So, with that said, I don’t want you to think I’m holding Medlen up as a paragon of virtue as I write this. I _do_ think, though, he could be a star. I mean, obviously he could be a star in the baseball sense. The dude pitched 138 innings with a 1.53 ERA last year. He could be an All-Star this year. 

But I mean, he could be an off-the-field star, somewhat akin to how R.A. Dickey has taken off. Dickey of course has other things that make him noteworthy — the knuckleball and an incredibly compelling backstory. But Medlen, like Dickey, is almost disconcertingly honest and funny. He’s got a ton of personality, and an unusual personality. 

Maybe he goes out and posts a 5 ERA this year, and if that happens, nobody outside of Atlanta will notice. But if Medlen has another really good year, you’re going to hear a lot from him and about him, because he’s somebody that writers and TV and radio producers around the country will seek out. 

Today’s game in a nutshell: Medlen and Nathan Eovaldi were both quite good, and there wasn’t a lot of offense. Tyler Pastornicky walked, stole second, and scored on Chris Johnson’s single in the ninth to win the game, 2-1, for Atlanta.

Player of the day: That’d be Medlen by a hair over Eovaldi, since he didn’t give up a run. The Braves right-hander allowed two hits and no walks over 4 2/3 innings, striking out three.

Quote of the day: “I told him the very first time I threw a bullpen, I said, man, I feel like a [jerk] because I know you’ve caught Verlander before.” — Medlen on Gerald Laird

Miles driven: 18 today, 1645 for the trip

Miles run: still at 25 1/2, as I rested today following a rather embarrassing faceplant on the concrete outside the Braves stadium yesterday. Good times.

Up next: Tomorrow is my last game in Florida. I’ll be on Braves duty one more time, handling the beat for Mark Bowman as they play the Cardinals. It’s Joe Kelly against Mike Minor. But perhaps more important, it’s Joe Kelly against Shelby Miller, who will pitch after Kelly as they continue battling for the fifth spot in the Cardinals rotation.l

And, finally, the playlist:

In honor of my time in the homeland, a playlist of Florida artists:

Tom Petty, “American Girl”
Jimmy Buffett, “Migration”
Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Don’t Ask Me No Questions”
Bellamy Brothers, “Let Your Love Flow”
Against Me, “Baby, I’m An Anarchist”

-M.

Spring Training, Day 16: No-hitter watch

Exhibit 14,729 as to how Spring Training is different: 

After five innings today, I took a look at my scorecard and said, “Oh, hey, the Cardinals don’t have a hit yet.” And then they got one, and that was that. 

Seeing them next to each other, thinking about them on the same day, I was struck by the similarities between the Cardinals and Braves. They’re both going to score a lot of runs, thanks to deep and powerful lineups (though the advantage goes to StL here). They both have some big arms in relief and should have quality bullpens (though the advantage definitely goes to ATL there).

And then there are the rotations, for my money are what separates the two teams — and yet in a sense are somewhat similar. The difference is the Cards have one or two more questions than the Braves do. In each case, it could be a very good unit. In each case, there’s an exciting youngster in the five spot. The Cardinals are more likely to have a Cy Young contender, I think, but the Braves are more likely to have above-average performances from their 3rd and 4th guys.

Overall, for both teams, I think it will come down to what the rotations do. If Jaime Garcia and Jake Westbrook and either Kelly or Miller come up big, the Cardinals could win north of 90 games and win the division. If Medlen comes anywhere close to repeating and Hudson has one more strong year and Teheran emerges, the Braves could have the NL’s best record. But it’s hard to shake the thought in both cases that if something goes wrong, it’s going to be in the starting five.

You can actually take this parallel one step further, in that in each case, I think they’re chasing a team that’s a little better, a little more complete, has a little bit less uncertainty. So IMO there’s a good chance they’ll be in a Wild Card battle with one another as they chase the respective defending division champions.

Today’s game in a nutshell: Teheran was very good. Westbrook was a bit shaky. And the back of the Cardinals bullpen was very, very rocky in a 12-3 Braves win over St. Louis. 

Player of the day: Teheran. He pitched five no-hit innings, striking out six against two walks. Aside from Brian McCann, he’s probably the biggest variable for this team, in my mind. If he’s very good, look out.

Miles driven: 7 so far today, 1464 for the trip

Miles run: 3 today, 25 1/2 for the trip

Starbucks visits: 1 today, 16 for the trip

Up next: It’s one more long highway haul for me tonight. I’m Jupiter-bound once again, spending the last three nights of the trip in my old stomping grounds. For the next two days, I’m on the Braves beat, covering for my good friend and A-1 teammate Mark Bowman as they play the Marlins (tomorrow night) and Cardinals (Thursday).

And, finally, the playlist:

Depeche Mode announced tour dates today. So you get a Depeche Mode playlist, which is fairly easy (or really difficult, I’m not sure which) given that there are something like 200 DM tracks on my iPod. 

“Black Celebration”
“World In My Eyes”
“In Your Room”
“Nothing”
“Everything Counts”

-M.

Spring Training, Day 15: Space Ghost Coast to Coast

Sometimes, I’m a 10 year old. I could come to Space Coast Stadium five times a year for the next 10 years, and I will never, ever, ever not chuckle and think of Space Ghost when I see the name. Then again, if you ever watched the old Space Ghost Coast to Coast show, you know why. That was great stuff.

I saw the Nats and Braves today and it wasn’t really much of a contest. A not-exactly-Opening-Day lineup thumped an almost-exactly-Opening-Day Nationals lineup, 7-2.

And so it got me to thinking about the nature of baseball, and sample sizes, and stuff like that. We lose sight, far too often, of just how much randomness is built into a baseball game or even a series of baseball games. The lesser team wins a large percentage of the time. We’re so used to football, or even basketball, where upsets are shocking for a reason. In baseball, it’s just not like that.

So you get a game like today, with Ernesto Mejia and Blake DeWitt getting key hits in a Braves win over Stephen Strasburg and the Nationals. These things can happen in ANY baseball game, and even more so in a spring game, where guys come out early and you get weird lineups. It just can’t be emphasized enough. Weird things happen in baseball games. 

This then got me thinking about the World Baseball Classic, where there was this great rush to assign meaning to three games. The U.S. goes 2-1, so everything is OK, but if it had gone 1-2, it would mean we needed to re-assess everything? This is madness. The difference between winning and losing one baseball game could be any of a thousand things completely divorced from the relative strength of the teams playing it.

Not that they don’t care. Not that the games are meaningless to the people playing in them. Absolutely not. That’s why it’s fun to watch. But as far as something to draw conclusions from? One game, be it in Viera or Phoenix or San Juan, is just one game. Always.

End of sermon.

Today’s game in a nutshell: Stephen Strasburg was dealing, and then he was in trouble, and then he was out of the game, and then it became a rout. Strasburg explained that he’s really working on getting more effective out of the stretch, and it was with runners on that he got in trouble today.

Player of the day: Facing the Nats’ Opening Day Lineup, Paul Maholm was terrific. He pitched five shutout innings with two hits, one walk and five strikeouts. Excellent work.

Quote of the day: “I know there’s a lot of new TV deals that have made that possible. But I don’t know. I barely know the infield fly rule.” — Fredi Gonzalez, on the fact that some different teams have been spending big in free agency in the past couple of years.

Miles driven: 62 today, 1395 for the trip

Starbucks trips: 1 today, 15 for the trip

Up next: I’ll see the Braves again tomorrow, this time at their home ballpark in Greater Disneyburg. I’ll be on columnist duty as they face the Cardinals, with Julio Teheran and Jake Westbrook taking the mound.

And, finally, the playlist:

Johnny Marr’s got a new album out, and it’s pretty good. How ’bout we delve into his career for some highlights?

The Smiths, “What Difference Does It Make?”
The The, “Dogs of Lust”
Electronic, “Feel Every Beat”
Modest Mouse, “Dashboard”
The Cribs, “Ignore the Ignorant”

(man, how great is Johnny Marr’s résumé?)

-M.

Spring Training, Day 14: Morning comes early

It wasn’t quite full daylight yet when I hopped in the trusty rental car for the trip from Greater Disneyburg to Lakeland, thanks to the time change. Not that I’m complaining, as I’m one who greatly appreciates extra daylight in the evening, but it was a bit odd. Everybody around the ballpark seemed to be moving a bit more slowly today.

Well, everyone except Bryce Harper. I’ve said this before, but the guy is just tremendously fun to watch doing just about anything on a baseball field. This year, though, he does look a little different.

Which is to say, he’s bigger. He looks like he’s growing into an adult’s body. More weight, but I’d swear he’s also even taller. Dude is just big.

And holy cow does he put on a show in BP. He’s one of those guys, like has been said about Pujols, that the ball just sounds different when he hits it. I saw him hit three BP homers today — all of them to the left side of center, one of them to left-center, and all of them well up the berm behind the fence. Even the single he hit was scorched.

None of this, of course, means he’s going to have a great year in actual Major League games that matter. But the more I see him, the more I get the hype. The tools are ungodly. The presence is IMO undeniable. Obviously any number of things could go wrong, because this is a difficult game. But I think nearly any prop bet you offered me on Harper’s 2013 season, and his career, I’d take the over. I’m a full buy.

Today’s game in a nutshell: Rick Porcello was very sharp again, Dan Haren got no help from his defense, and the Tigers held on for a 2-1 win. There were a total of 11 hits and 3 walks in the entire game.

Quote of the day: “I’m the oldest starting pitcher. I throw by far the slowest. I’m the second-best hitting pitcher.” — Haren, asked how the Nationals differ from the other teams for which he’s pitched. (And for those unaware, he’s used to being BETTER than the 2nd-best hitting pitcher, not worse)

Player of the day: We have our first two-time winner. Porcello was very impressive once again, going five shutout innings with three hits, no walks, and four strikeouts. 

Miles driven: 38 so far today, 1,288 for the trip

Roadside sight of the day: As I pulled onto I-4 this morning, I saw a hot air balloon. And then another. And then two more. In total, 11 balloons dotting the sky of the Kissimmee-Lake Buena Vista-Celebration-Disneyburg area. Apparently it’s a daily thing, or at least a regular thing, and you can buy rides. Quite a sight. No, I didn’t take a picture. I was going 75 mph.

Starbucks visits: 1 for the day, 14 for the trip

Up next: I see the Nats again tomorrow, this time at home against the Braves. It’s Stephen Strasburg against Paul Maholm, hopefully the first of many Nats-Braves games I cover in 2013. 

And, finally, the playlist:

It was definitely a wake-me-up kind of morning on the car stereo on the way over…

The Virginmarys, “Takin’ The Blame”
The Bronx, “Pilot Light”
Free Energy, “Electric Fever”
Rancid, “Roots Radical”
Social Distortion, “Story Of My Life”

-M.

Spring Training, Day 13: Taco. In. A. Helmet.

Today brought me to Port St. Lucie, home of the Mets and of the best concession item in the Grapefruit League: Taco in a Helmet. If you get to Port St. Lucie, just go get one. Thank me later. Crushed chips, cheese, spicy ground beef, lettuce, salsa, jalapenos and sour cream in a nice-sized helmet (bigger than your usual ice cream helmet, smaller than an actual helmet).

Anyway, to the baseball.

Today was another episode in the ongoing strange saga of Johan Santana, and I’d be lying if I said to you that I understand what exactly is going on. He’s going to pitch in a game, at some point. But when? Not clear. Whether that will be enough for him to be ready for the first turn through the rotation? Not clear. This is a situation that is best left to the beat writers,and the Mets have some good ones. 

No, rather than actually looking at what’s going on with Santana, the situation instead just causes me to think about what the Mets really are this year. And it may seem silly, but Santana’s health question is really kind of a tipping point for me.

With him, you can look at the rotation and see it being pretty good. I like Jon Niese a lot. Dillon Gee has been effective despite an unusual profile, Shaun Marcum is a nice lottery ticket, and the kids (Wheeler and Harvey) are really exciting.

But it all works so much better with the guy at the front. Santana doesn’t need to be a Cy Young winner, but he needs to be a guy they can count on to be effective. If he’s not there, it really changes the whole look of the Mets starting five, from a unit that has some real potential to one that has more reasons for concern than optimism.

I still wouldn’t completely rule out a surprise. The rotation could still be very good. The lineup is, IMO, better than it looks. But it’s a much tougher row to hoe with Santana a question.

Today’s game in a nutshell: Jeremy Hefner was very good and the Mets hit the ball awfully hard in a 9-6 win against the Astros. New York smacked five doubles among 12 base hits. 

Player of the day: Perhaps the most pivotal Met, Lucas Duda. He hit hte ball hard all over the field, including a double to the opposite field, in going 3-for-3. If Duda lives up to the promise that a lot of people (myself included) thought he had going into last year, it changes the look of this Mets lineup a lot.

Quote of the day: “The same guy that throws really well in the seventh is the guy that should pitch in the ninth.” – Dan Warthen, Mets pitching coach

Miles driven: 36 so far today, 1127 for the trip

Miles run: 6 today, 28 1/2 for the trip

Starbucks visits: 1 so far today (though with another couple hours to drive, maybe one more in the offing), 13 for the trip

Up next: I’ll make camp in Orlando for the next few days, bopping around the camps in Central Florida. Tomorrow it’s Dan Haren against Rick Porcello as the Nats play the Tigers in Lakeland. It will be my first time seeing Washington this spring, and I’m definitely looking forward to it.

And, finally, the playlist:

Let’s shuffle the iPod today, shall we?

Kanye West, “All Falls Down”
EMF, “Children”
U2, “Party Girl”
Cake, “Carbon Monoxide”
Rolling Stones, “Honky Tonk Women”

-M.

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