We are over a third of the way through the baseball season, and I’m averaging about one baseball column every three weeks. Three might as well be a theme of the column this week, and while I apologize for leaving my dedicated baseball readership bereft of material (to all five of you — sorry guys!), I am glad to announce that we’re back this week with as much topical news as I can muster. Unfortunately, the most topical thing is tremendously sad, so I’ll save that for last.
At this point in the season, we can start to see team narratives developing, and whether certain teams are flukes or not. Rather than do an all-out power rankings (of which I have one planned for the All-Star break), we’ll take a look at just six teams. (Well, five, but again, we’ll get there.) Three of these teams are doing quite well, exceeding expectations, or have a nice story going for them. Three of them are in the doldrums, fading, or have been beset with loss. As always, the baseball season is a marathon, not a sprint, but we’re far enough along to take a look at some things and say “Hmm, well, that doesn’t seem so bizarre anymore”.
Enough about this. Time for a game of Three Up, Three Down.
UP: Toronto Blue Jays
I’ve actually been a closet Blue Jays fan ever since I was a little kid, when the Canadian kids show “Under the Umbrella Tree” was syndicated on the Disney Channel (before it got all weird… kids these days). Seeing the Blue Jays succeed makes my heart a little happier. And they’re good this year for one reason: they hit the HELL out of the baseball. Jose Bautista, one of the best hitters in the game, is finally healthy after a few years mired in injury hell, and has a slash line of .314/.436/.545 with 15 home runs. (Hint: when your slash line goes .3/.4/.5, you’re having a really good season.) Edwin Encarnacion — once a retread third-baseman from the Reds who couldn’t make a throw to first if his life depended on it — has thrived as a DH, with 20 home runs and a slugging percentage of .575. Three other starters have already reached double digits in home runs on the team with the highest OPS in the league (technically, they’re second in runs scored behind Oakland, but then again, Oakland was expected to be good).
Meanwhile, Mark Buehrle is in the middle of the finest season of his career, with a 10-3 record and a relatively stingy 2.28 ERA, a full run-and-a-half lower than his career average. Much of this might be attributed to luck, and only allowing 4 home runs all year while pitching in the AL East can’t last, but he’s serving the role of the staff ace with high distinction. R.A. Dickey and Drew Hutchinson have been mostly serviceable. The one problem area comes from the remainder of the pitching staff, which is being held together with duct tape and WD-40 at this point. While that won’t matter with such a good offense in the regular season, come playoff time, it might prevent Toronto from advancing as far as they like. For now, however, the old adage that “chicks dig the long ball” rings true.
DOWN: Colorado Rockies
They’re actually in the middle of a five-game winning streak as I type this, but a lot of their offensive brouhaha has cooled down, as anyone might expect when you only play half of your games in the hitter’s environs of Coors Field (a beautiful park, by the way). It’s been proven in the past that sustained offensive brilliance on the park of the Rockies does not a winning season make, and this year seems to bear that out. What really hurts the Rockies is their lack of a bonafide ace/stopper at the head of their pitching rotation, where pitchers such as Jorge De La Rosa, Juan Nicasio, and Franklin Morales leave a great deal to be desired. (Oh, for the days of Ubaldo Jiminez and Rock-Tober.) Troy Tulowitzki has cooled slightly since flirting with .400 at the start of the season. If anything, Justin Morneau’s renaissance has been pleasant to see after the first baseman’s battle with concussion-related problems over the last couple of years. Less pleasant has been the mediocrity of Carlos Gonzalez, a hitter who can challenge for a batting title in any given year, yet is hitting a pedestrian .255 at the moment. The NL West hasn’t been as dominant as might be expected (cough, cough, Dodgers), yet the Giants serve as a formidable obstacle to any future dalliances with Rocktober this autumn.
UP: Kansas City Royals
Speaking of winning streaks, the Royals are in the midst of a seven-gamer at the moment, despite having the power of a horse-drawn chariot in a bog. Their top three home run hitters combined simply equal the total home runs of Mr. Encarnacion in Toronto. Their offense ranks last in home runs, and is awash with struggling former “can’t-miss” prospects such as Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, and Billy Butler. Their ERA, however, resides among the top three in the American League, led by staff ace James Shields, along with venerable journeyman Jeremy Guthrie and Jason Vargas. Greg Holland has provided shut-down relief as their closer, and the rest of the staff has been serviceable, to say the least. It remains to be seen if the Royals can scrape by enough runs to challenge for a Wild Card slot in the crowded AL race, but for now, let’s just enjoy them being above .500.
DOWN: Texas Rangers
This season can’t end quickly enough. The Rangers have spent a combined 10,000,000 days on the Disabled List (I exaggerate, but…). Prince Fielder, their big off-season acquisition, is lodged there for the rest of the year. Jurickson Profar has yet to play this season. Their roster is a who’s-who of stars from their dominance of the last four years. The World Series of 2011 is a bitter-sweet memory (well, the Series itself is a bitter memory), but hell, I’d at least take getting there over living in the 15-Day DL Hell. The only solace is that, for the moment, they’re shuffling along at just one game under .500. With a few strokes of luck, a few players returning from injury… aw, who am I kidding, they’re screwed.
UP: Cincinnati Reds
I’m a homer, I admit it. They still have a sub-.500 record, I acknowledge that. They’ve performed disappointingly below expectations, I grudgingly nod my head. However, they’re finally getting healthy after a brutal string of injuries kowtowed their April and May. Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, and Devin Mesoraco have all done time on the DL, Aroldis “Cuban Missile” Chapman was nearly destroyed by a line drive to the head and missed time, and the pitching staff has been gutted by injuries at times. Jhonny Cueto has helped to hold it together by being the temporary “Best Pitcher on the Planet” at times, and Todd Frazier seems to be coming into his own this season. Now, the whole team seems to be recuperating, and Mat Latos, their second ace, recently returned to throw six innings of shut-out baseball against the Milwaukee Brewers. (Editor’s Note: Needs more adjectives. How about… The AL-Central-leading, second-best-record-in-the-NL Milwaukee Brewers. Signed, the staff’s resident Brewers fan, -J.) (Editor’s Retort: Dear J, let’s talk in October about adjectives. Adjectives like…September swoons. Love, the staff’s resident baseball realist. – Travis)
The one problem remains the bullpen, where various pitchers such as J.J. Hoover, Manny Parra, and Logan Ondrusek have been doing their best impersonation of a tire fire. Meanwhile, Tony Cingrani has slumped in his sophomore season, battling shoulder injuries and ineffectiveness for much of the year. If any team needed to make a trade for a high caliber reliever, it would be this team. Regardless, they’re finally healthy. As a Reds fan, I say we just enjoy that for a bit, shall we?
DOWN: San Diego Padres
The Padres stink this year. At 29-40, they’re near the basement of the National League. However, we’re not really here to talk about that today.
Occasionally, there comes a player who embodies the heart and soul of the team he/she plays for. We’ve seen this before with John Elway and the Denver Broncos, Derek Jeter and the Yankees, Martin Brodeur and the New Jersey Devils, and Larry Bird with the Boston Celtics. That player, for better or worse, symbolizes that team, and whenever the team is mentioned, a casual sports fan will more often than not immediately call to mind the heroics of that legendary figure.
Such was Tony Gwynn for the San Diego Padres — “Mr. Padre”.
Tony Gwynn, winner of eight batting titles, was one of the best pure hitters to ever play the game. Here was a man who shared long conversations with another master of hitting, Ted Williams, as he refined his sport into an art. He was a master of a single into the 5.5 hole between shortstop and third base — that was his trademark — yet he was capable of power. He played on both teams that San Diego sent to the World Series. He came the closest anyone has come since 1941 to hitting .400, ending up with a .394 average in the strike shortened darkness of 1994. A Hall of Fame player, he was elected with one of the highest voting percentages in history, on the same ballot as Cal Ripken, Jr., no less. Greg Maddux, one of the greatest pitchers of any era, never struck him out. In 140+ plate appearances, Tony Gwynn never struck out. He never did. He barely struck out more than 40 times in a season. He won five Gold Gloves for his defense. He averaged 40 stolen bases over a five year stretch. He hit .351 after he turned 34. He was beloved in his community. Immediately after retiring, he became the head baseball coach at San Diego State, teaching college kids the joys of the game. He was often described as a giggling, cherubic figure, a man with infectious joy who belonged to the game and loved every minute of it.
Yesterday, Mr. Padre died after a four-year battle with cancer, brought on by habitual use of smokeless tobacco. He passed away at the all-too-young age of 54, leaving behind a family (his son, Tony Jr., currently plays for the Phillies), a community, and a team suddenly bereft of its most iconic figure. Tony Gwynn embodied baseball in San Diego. His loss is a tragedy. Our thoughts go out to his family, and to all those affected by his passing.
He will be missed.