Diamond Update

June 2, 2011

June 2, 2011
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Around the Horn
NL Races Going as Expected

There are fewer surprises in the National League than in the AL. But one team we didn't expect to be on the north side of .500 is Arizona. On Friday the 13th, Arizona dropped to a season-low seven games below .500. Since then, the Diamondbacks' luck has changed dramatically, winning 14 of 16 and moving into first place in the NL West. But we don't see staying power. And with Buster Posey lost to the Giants, the Colorado Rockies will win the division. They'll find just enough pitching to get it done.

The Central is playing out much like we thought it would in the preseason. St. Louis, led by Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman, not Albert Pujols, and Cincinnati have been atop the standings all season. But Milwaukee, with a recent run, has made it a three-team race - as expected. None of the three will be dominant enough to run away with the division. They all have weaknesses that can prevent them from winning the title, but St. Louis seems to have the deepest lineup and rotation.

Seeing Philadelphia leading the East should not be a surprise to anyone. Florida and Atlanta have enough pitching to hang around, but the Phillies have a lineup that can hit with just about any team. We expect the wild card to come from the East - and we're going with Atlanta.

Assessing the AL Races
Clearly, the biggest surprise in baseball has been the Cleveland Indians. Few experts saw this coming. The question now is whether the Indians can maintain their hot start. The answer here is ‘yes.’ Although some injuries are beginning to take a toll, Cleveland has enjoyed success without stars Grady Sizemore and Shin-Soo Choo contributing like they are capable. A deep bullpen can keep the Tribe in games even when the lineup may slump. Detroit appears to be the only team that will challenge Cleveland in the AL Central.

Yes, the Red Sox have officially recovered from their horrendous start and will win the AL East. It will be interesting to watch the Tampa Bay-New York race for second place. Age and a lack of starting pitching may catch up to the Yankees this summer. However, the Yankees certainly have the resources to overhaul their roster during the season. The Rays don’t. Give the wild card to New York.

Expect Texas to take control out West. The Rangers have weathered a storm without stars Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz. Jered Weaver and Dan Haren could not have been much better over the first six weeks, and yet the Angels are still laboring behind their rivals from Texas.

Athlon Sports Players of the Month

National League
Jay Bruce, Cincinnati
Bruce led the majors with 12 home runs and 33 RBIs in May. The Reds slipped a bit in the standings, but it wasn’t due to a lack of production on Bruce’s part. Of his 38 hits, six were doubles and he scored 23 times. His OPS of 1.140 led the National League among hitters with as many as 70 at-bats.

Anibal Sanchez, Florida
Sanchez made six starts in May and didn’t allow a run in three of them pitching seven, eight and nine innings. He tossed a complete game shutout at San Francisco, winning 1-0 and allowing just five hits. In eight shutout innings at Washington, he allowed just three hits in another 1-0 win. He had an 0.92 WHIP for the month with a 1.66 ERA. His record was 4-0.

American League
Jose Bautista, Toronto

It’s safe to say that Bautista is the leading candidate for AL MVP so far this season. After all, he is repeating as our AL Player of the Month. After hitting nine homers in April, Bautista followed up with 11 in May. He led the majors with a 1.267 OPS with a .4786 OBP and .791 slugging. Routinely walked with runners in scoring position, Bautista had just 23 RBIs in May. He batted .360, good enough for eighth in the big leagues.

Justin Verlander, Detroit
Verlander cruised through the month of May in dominant fashion. The highlight was his near-perfect no-hitter on May 7 at Toronto. He walked just one and faced the minimum 27 batters to record the second no-hitter of his career. Verlander earned a win in just three of his starts, but two no-decisions were an eight-inning, three-run performance and a six-inning, three-run outing. For the month, he allowed just 39 hits plus walks, and struck out 33.

AL Player of the Week
Carl Crawford, Boston

Finally, Boston fans were treated to the level of play from Crawford they expect after the superstar signed a huge contract over the winter. The Red Sox got a big lift from their leftfielder this week. Crawford batted .423 with three homers and eight RBIs. He scored nine runs.

AL Pitcher of the Week
Jered Weaver, Los Angeles

After tossing seven strong innings in a win over Oakland, Weaver threw nine shutout innings at Minnesota in a 1-0 loss to the Twins. Over 16 IP, Weaver allowed just eight hits and four walks and struck out 12. He had a WHIP of 0.81 and an ERA of 0.56.

NL Player of the Week
Jay Bruce, Cincinnati

The Reds' young rightfielder led all the majors with 13 RBIs last week. He batted .353 with four home runs and six runs scored. Bruce had four multi-hit and four multi-RBI games. His OPS was 1.141.

NL Pitcher of the Week
Yovani Gallardo, Milwaukee

Over two starts for the surging Brewers, Gallardo tossed 15 innings, alowing just one earned run and nine hits and a couple of walks. He whiffed 14 on his way to two wins with an ERA of 0.60 and a WHIP of 0.73.

Athlon Spotlight
'Put Me in Coach'

There is nothing in baseball quite like the sight of a position player taking the mound. Typically, this happens in blowouts when a losing manager doesn't want to tax his bullpen in a losing cause.

There have been a handful of meaningful appearances by position players. Last week, Philadelphia's second baseman Wilson Valdez pitched a scoreless 19th inning against the Reds and was rewarded with a run in the bottom of the inning for the win. It was the first time since 1921 that a winning pitcher had started a game at another position.

Valdez's win wasn't cheap. He faced the heart of the Cincinnati lineup. He retired reigning MVP Joey Votto on a deep fly to center, then hit Scott Rolen (not hard enough to hurt him, but with Rolen you never know), retired Jay Bruce on another deep ball to center and got pitcher Carlos Fisher on a popup.

We couldn't help but look back at some notable mound appearances. Some ended in disaster. In 1993, Jose Canseco of the Rangers entered a
12-1 game in Boston as Texas manager Kevin Kennedy wanted to save his bullpen. Three walks, a hit and three runs later, Canseco would injure his elbow ultimately costing him the last half of the season.

Other appearances weren't rewarded with wins, but the embarrassment/moral victory element can't be overlooked. In 1988, Jose Oquendo of St. Louis was asked by manager Whitey Herzog to toe the rubber in the 16th inning of a 5-5 game against the Atlanta Braves. Seemingly waving the white flag, Herzog calculated that losing a game would not be as bad as losing an entire pitching staff, potentially costing more losses in coming days.

But Oquendo managed to get through the 16th unscathed after giving up a leadoff double to Ken Griffey Sr. followed by an intentional walk to Gerald Perry and a single to Ozzie Virgil, as Griffey was thrown out at home by rightfielder Tom Brunansky.

The utility infielder-turned-pitcher turned the Braves away in the 17th on one hit, the 18th on two walks before the Braves finally got to him in the 19th, plating two runs on a two-out double by Griffey after a pair of walks.

While Oquendo was saddled with the loss, the Braves were saddled with the stigma of taking four innings to score off a middle infielder on the mound. Among the oddities of the game, Atlanta's Rick Mahler, who made 34 starts that season, pitched eight shutout innings for the win after entering the game in the 12th. Oquendo threw 65 pitches, walked six (two intentional) and struck out one (Mahler). St. Louis pitcher Jose DeLeon entered the game as the leftfielder at the same time Oquendo moved from first base to pitcher. DeLeon and Brunansky swapped from left to right 11 times, presumably to keep DeLeon out of harm's way as much as possible. They each made a putout during the position swaps, but DeLeon was in left when Griffey hit the game-winning double over his head. Andres Thomas and Ron Gant were each 0-2 off Oquendo. Perry was intentionally walked twice.

It is rare for position players to be in line for a decision, and most likely are stuck with losses. But there have been a few winning emergency pitchers in recent seasons. Brent Mayne of the Colorado Rockies tossed a scorless frame on Aug. 22, 2000, as the Rockies defeated the Braves, 7-6, in 12 innings. Mayne was the 10th pitcher used by the Rockies and had a dicey inning. After retiring pinch-hitter Tom Glavine on a comebacker and Walt Weiss on a fly ball, Rafael Furcal singled and Andruw Jones walked to bring up Chipper Jones, who grounded out to third. Adam Melhuse, who was pinch-hitting for Mayne in the bottom of the 12th, singled in the winning run. So Mayne, a backup catcher, was good enough to be an emergency pitcher, but was removed for a pinch-hitter with the game on the line.

Farm Report
Shelby Miller, St. Louis

The 20-year-old former first-round pick has St. Louis fans growing more impatient for his call to the big leagues. But for now, they'll have to settle for his promotion to Double-A Springfield. In nine starts at High-A, Miller was only 2-3, but had a 2.89 ERA and had 81 strikeouts in 53 innings. He averaged just 6.8 hits per nine innings and 13.8 Ks per nine. However, walks have been a bit of a problem, at 3.4 per nine innings. The Brownwood, Texas, native will get his first start at the AA level this week as Springfield visits Corpus Christi and San Antonio. Miller is on track to spend next season in Memphis with an arrival in St. Louis late in 2012 or early 2013.

Tim Beckham, Tampa Bay
According to Baseball America, Beckham has fallen out of the Top 100 prospects prior to this season. The No. 1 overall draft pick in 2008 has struggled, but the Rays still believe in him. After making 43 errors at shortstop in 125 games in 2009, he cut that down to 25 last season. Playing at Double-A Montgomery, he is batting .305 with 39 runs and 30 RBIs in 47 games.

Numbers Game
   1,000   Appearances by the Yankees' Mariano Rivera as of May 25. He became the 15th pitcher in history to make 1,000 appearances, but only the first to do so with one team.
          6   Road victories already this season for Pirates pitcher Kevin Correia. His total of seven wins leads the National League.
     11-2   Record of the San Francisco Giants in one-run games at home this season.
          1   Number of teams among the 29 teams he has faced in which Mariano Rivera has not recorded a save. In two appearances against the Pirates, Rivera is 2-0 with a 0.00 ERA.
        11   Earned runs allowed by Cardinals pitcher Jaime Garcia in his 11th outing, a 15-4 loss to the Rockies. He allowed only 14 earned runs in his first 10 starts of this season.
          3   Number of times in the last 137 road games that the Pirates have scored in double digits - all three times against the Cubs.

Turn Back the Clock
June 2, 1935

Babe Ruth, at age 40, announces his retirement.
June 2, 1941
Lou Gehrig dies of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, an illness now known as Lou Gehrig's Disease.
June 3, 1995
Pedro Martinez of the Montreal Expos is perfect for nine innings at San Diego, but loses his no-hitter when Bip Roberts doubles to lead off the 10th. With a 1-0 lead, Mel Rojas relieves Martinez and retires Steve Finley, Tony Gwynn and Ken Caminiti to earn the save.

Trivia Corner
Of the 15 pitchers who have appeared in more than 1,000 games, only two accomplished that prior to 1990. Can you name the first pitcher to take the mound 1,000 times?

Trivia Answer
Hall of Famer Hoyt
Wilhelm, at age 47, in 1970.

<p> Athlon editors assess the division races thus far, select players of the month and week, have a little fun with non-pitchers on the mound and more.</p>
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