Thursday, April 13, 2006

Everyone Plays on Friday - AL Predictions

Angels (5-4, 1st) @ Orioles (5-5, 4th)
Ervin Santana (1-0, 1.59) - Rodrigo Lopez (1-1, 6.39)

SoCal's most promising team begins a 10-game road trip tonight, and will face the O's, whose 59 runs scored rank second in the American League, trailing only the Yankees. By contrast, the Halos have scored just 38 runs, which at least is more than Kansas City. Baltimore's starter, Father Rodrigo, has defeated the Angels four times in a row, averaging 6.5 IP and a 1.04 ERA since 2003. I predict a change in all these patterns. Vladimir Guerrero has been under the radar so far this season, and it seems about time for Vladdy to have one of those 10-13, 3 HR, 9 RBIs kind of weekends. Prediction: ANGELS

Indians (6-3, 1st) @ Tigers (5-4, T-2nd)
Jake Westbrook (2-0, 1.98) - Kenny Rogers (1-1. 4.76)

As Cleveland begins a 10-game road trip of its own, I might worry about Travis Hafner's ability to dominate an opposing lefty pitcher. Fortunately, for Pronk, that lefty is Kenny Rogers. Detroit has already come back to Earth - after winning their first five games, the Tigers have yet to taste victory again - and success in this four-game series against the Indians would do a lot for the confidence of this young pitching staff. But after Rogers is abused in this opening matchup (I'm predicting 7 or 8 runs, maybe 4 innings) the Tigers will wish they had never left the Motor City. Prediction: INDIANS

Mariners (5-5, 3rd) @ Red Sox (6-3, 1st)
Jamie Moyer (0-1, 4.38) - Curt Schilling (2-0, 1.93)

Since 2000, Moyer is 1-6 with a 7.79 ERA against the Red Sox. I expect more of the same, as Wily Mo Pena and Dustan Mohr play their way into the hearts of Boston fans. Okay, so maybe that's a bit of a stretch, but nobody needs to see Adam Stern and David Ortiz play the outfield against lefties (LOOK: Big Papi is listed as an outfielder. Crazy!). The Mariners truly seem like a .500 ballclub, albeit one of the most exciting .500 ballclubs in recent memory. Ichiro and King Felix get the pub, but there are more interesting questions: Is Yuniesky Betancourt ready to play everyday? Can Rafael Soriano replace Eddie Guardado as the team's closer? Will Scott Spiezio continue to haunt the Mariners from beyond the grave? Few of these questions will be answered today; all of them will be on my mind. Prediction: RED SOX

Royals (2-6, 5th) @ Rays (4-6, 5th)
Scott Elarton (0-2, 3.29) - Scott Kazmir (1-1, 5.68)

Who will win the Battle of the Scotts? Who cares? Prediction: RAYS

Yankees (5-4, T-2nd) @ Twins (4-5, 4th)
Mike Mussina (1-0, 2.77) - Scott Baker (0-1, 6.23)

This is the one game I would love to watch today, as the Fabulous Baker Boy will try to stave off a Yankee lineup that is scarier than Rene Russo in Two for the Money.
Seriously, though, Giambi is a mean son of a gun, and nobody ever looked forward to facing A-Rod, Jeter or Sheffield. After Kyle Lohse survived against Oakland the other day, it is now Baker who is on the hot seat in the Twins rotation. One of these two is the candidate likely to be pulled for up-and-comer Francisco Liriano at some point this season, hopefully (for my fantasy team) before the All-Star Break. I won't speculate that Baker's job security rests on his performance against the Yankees today - talk about pressure - but he should have his post-game bottle of moonshine ready, just in case it's a night he'll want to forget. Prediction: YANKEES

Blue Jays (5-4, T-2nd) @ White Sox (5-4, T-2nd)
Scott Downs (0-0, 5.40) - Javier Vazquez (0-0, 2.57)

Is there anyone who can stop Jim Thome? Downs would seem an unlikely candidate; one of six southpaws on Toronto's 40-man roster, he has been dubbed by Baseball Prospectus, "The epitome of the replacement-level lefty." For the uninitated, "replacement-level" denotes exactly what it appears to, and Downs may, in fact, epitomize the type. He "boasts" a career 5.02 ERA in 262 major league innings, and allows a homerun about every seven frames. If that level of performance cannot be easily replaced, J.P. Ricciardi is in for a long season. Even if Thome doesn't go yard tonight, it's a good bet that one (or three) of his teammates will, and Javy Vazquez should pitch effectively enough to give Chicago's bullpen (.287 BAA) some much-needed rest. Prediction: WHITE SOX

Rangers (3-7, 4th) @ Athletics (5-5, 2nd)
Kevin Millwood (0-2, 7.36) - Barry Zito (1-1, 8.59)

A matchup of de jure aces, and AL West rivals, this should be a hard-fought game as neither club wants to fall much further off the pace. In Millwood's rookie season with Atlanta, all five starting pitchers finished with at least 16 wins, an achievement that spoke to the durability and depth of the rotation. This year, Oakland's prized collection of Zito, Rich Harden, Dan Haren, Joe Blanton and Esteban Loaiza has a decent chance to accomplish the same feat. Winning games against lesser teams, such as Texas, will go a long way toward getting the A's back into the postseason. A note of caution: the Braves failed to make the World Series in 1998. Prediction: ATHLETICS

Check back tomorrow to see how these picks stacked up, and enjoy the games!

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Prelude to a Punch?

Mets 10, Nationals 5. Sometimes the score really doesn't tell the whole story. There is so much to say about last Thursday's contest between NL East "rivals," a game I witnessed via the 2006 debut of ESPN's Thursday Night Baseball (not exactly a traditional broadcast venue, but I guess any time Ramon Ortiz pitches, it's an event). As the Mets and Nationals prepare to face off for the fifth time of this young season, here are some thoughts about what to expect, and also a few highlights from what went down last time the two clubs:

The return continues for "El Dedo," Pedro Martinez. Early in his first game against the Nats, Martinez looked uncomfortable in his motion, to say the least, and it was difficult not to notice how he was almost pushing his pitches toward the plate, rather than throwing. (Remember that outfielder on your Little League team whose throwing style made you think he never played catch outside the season? If you were the first kid to show up for a game or practice, and that kid was the second, you wanted to hide in the bushes, just to avoid somebody seeing you tossing the ball with such an incompetent thrower. In my darkest moments, I fear that the winter-long media obsession with Pedro's big toe is merely a decoy, that his shoulder is the real source of concern, only the writers and team brass are so horrified when they think of the fallout of such an injury -- Glavine-Zambrano-Trachsel-Bannister-Heilman, with Darren Oliver and Jose Lima waiting in the wings -- that the mere possibility cannot be broached. Has Pedro become that Little League nincompoop who nobody wants to associate with? The question burned in my mind for the first couple of innings, although he eventually seemed to settle into himself, with mixed results.)

His mechanical rust notwithstanding, El Dedo effectively shut down the Washington hitters in the 1st, 4th and 6th innings of his season debut, although his control issues were obvious: a four-pitch walk to Ramon Ortiz; four hit batters for the day, equalling Martinez's total for the 2005 season;

Aggressive play will rule the day. In Pedro's last start, the Mets staked themselved an early lead by pushing across two runs in the first frame. Leadoff hitter/Energizer Bunny Jose Reyes dropped a lob wedge into center field and moved to third when new Mets backstop/Brooklyn native Paul Lo Duca executed on an apparent run-and-hit play. All the early talk about Lo Duca has focused on his ability to take pitches so Reyes can steal bases, but it's PLD's ability to make solid contact that makes him an ideal No. 2 hitter on this team. Reyes is just as dangerous when the ball is in play, the type of runner who forces the other team to make mistakes. (When it comes to running the bases, I cannot remember a more exciting player than Reyes, who shows no ill effects of the hamstring/leg injuries that plagued him in his earlier days. If any major leaguer is capable of stealing 100 bases these days, it is Joselito, who undoubtedly has the support of his manager, Willie Randolph. In his first year at the helm, Willie's aggressive managing style resulted in more stolen bases (153) than any other National League team. Leading the way was Reyes, who became the youngest player to reach 60 steals since Tim Raines in 1981. If Reyes ever gets his OBP up to .360-.375, it's hard to imagine he won't swipe in the triple digits.)

David Wright is living up to the hype. Wright has been slapping and driving the ball to right field almost exlcusively in these early games, an encouraging sign that the youngster's plate coverage and bat control have not been over-hyped. His combination of discipline -- he is the Anti-Reyes, rarely swinging on the first pitch -- and power will go a long way this year. I feel that Wright could hit anywhere from 2-6 in the lineup and succeed. He has driven in runs in each of the Mets' first six games, setting a new franchise record. The ceiling on his production levels appeared high before the season began, and his torrid start has surely bolstered these lofty expectations.

The Nationals have a captain, and he wears a mustache.
In the most encouraging development of the Nats' young season, Nick Johnson has become Rod Farva. Not only is Johnson more fun to watch because of his newfound ability to pass for an adolescent walrus, but his three-run homer off Pedro put the Nationals right back in last Thursday's game. He takes pitches, makes contact, and has been with the team longer than anyone besides Jose Vidro. I don't know how the Win Shares stack up, but it seems the Nationals/Expos may have actually gotten equal value in the deal that sent Javy Vazquez to the Bombers.

Ryan Zimmerman presses onward in his Rookie of the Year campaign. He's young, he has the playing time, and he has a lot of hype. The highly-touted RZA crushed a homer against Billy Wagner in the Mets' second game of the season, which at least is an improvement over last year, when Mets fans were treated to Braden Looper's Opening Day implosion, aka "The Heartbreaker," aka "The Day Joe Randa Made the List," aka "Armando's Last Revenge," aka "The Day Pedro Regretted His Own Existence." However, it was the RZA who was made to look foolish in his first time facing Pedro. The bat never left his shoulders, and on three pitches was called out on strikes. (This isn't meant to be an indictment of Zimmerman, but can you imagine the hype that would surrounded this guy if he went back-to-back on Wagner and El Dedo? He could have locked up the Rookie of the Year award right there with a three-run homer to give the Nationals the lead. Instead, he couldn't muster up a swing against Pedro's buffet of changeups and two-seamers. Go Mets.)

Nationals catcher Brian Schneider looks to make personal history. Say what you will about Schneider's lofty reputation as a defensive backstop, but his inclusion on the U.S. team as starting catcher cannot be ignored as a major brain fart in the organization of that squad in the World Baseball Classic. Just about every other catcher in his divisionwould have been a better choice over Schneider, who -- a smile on his face -- will one day tell his grandchildren that he reached base against Pedro Martinez. (This is the most creative way I can spin Willie Randolph's decision to walk Schneider on purpose in Thursday's game. For those keeping score at home, Ramon Ortiz followed with a two-RBI single.) If Schneider can reach base in consecutive games against Pedro, he should retire from the game immediately, citing professional nirvana.

Ok, the game's about to start, so I have to go see how Jose Reyes can avoid seeing the fourth pitch of an at bat. Happy Passover!