All-Star C: Vote Carlos Ruiz

June 27, 2012

            Three years ago, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel screwed the Giants by overlooking left-handed reliever Jeremy Affeldt for the 2009 All-Star squad. But, Giants fans need to take the high road this year by doing the right thing and voting for Carlos Ruiz as the starting catcher for the National League.

            After all, Affeldt got his revenge. After posting one of the best seasons of any reliever in 2009 – with a 1.73 ERA in 74 appearances, including a remarkable 1.32 ERA in the first half of the season – Affeldt was left off the NL All-Star squad.

            From an overview perspective, it’s tough to fault Manuel. There has long been rampant prejudice against middle relievers in terms of All-Star selections. And, the modern scheduling format doesn’t help, with out-of-division teams such as the Giants and Phillies only playing each other six times a season.

            Still, an All-Star manager is responsible for more than an overview perspective. It is after all an All-Star position. And so, when a pitcher who displays out-and-out dominance throughout a season gets left off the team, it should be viewed as a slight, whether or not that’s actually the case.

            Of course, Affeldt took it to Manuel and the Phillies in Game 6 of the 2010 National League Championship Series. History will remember that decisive game that propelled the Giants to the World Series as the Madison Bumgarner game. And, while the then 21-year-old Bumgarner was nails through two shutout innings in that game, it should not go overlooked that it was actually Affeldt who came on in relief of starter Jonathan Sanchez to shut the door and turn the tide of the postseason for the Giants.

            With the Giants having tied the game 2-2 in the top of the third, Affeldt emerged with two on and no outs in the bottom of the inning to settle things after benches had cleared following a hit batsman. Affeldt’s first order of business was a tall one, having to face slugger Ryan Howard. But Affeldt made quick work of the All-Star first baseman, striking him out on five pitches, before setting down all six batters he faced in order.

            Throwing four consecutive lefties at the Phils in the game – Javier Lopez went on earn the win – the Giants of course prevailed 3-2 to advance to their date with destiny against the American League champion Rangers.

            Back in the present day, Buster Posey may well be on his way to a date with destiny in becoming the first Giants catcher to start an All-Star Game since 1963. However, this year’s All-Star honor really should belong to Ruiz.

            Sure Posey is a heroic story, rebounding from a career-threatening injury suffered last season in a collision at home plate. And, there’s no fault in voting for the best catch-and-throw backstop in the game, who’s hitting .298 with 10 home runs through 66 games. Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina is also amidst a brilliant season, as the reigning four-time Gold Glove winner is currently hitting .317 with 12 home runs through 68 games.

            The travesty, however, is that Posey and Molina are the only two names in the All-Star conversation. While Ruiz has moved into the cleanup spot for the Phillies, he is hitting 10 home runs through 67 games, and is currently leading the majors with a .361 batting average. The veteran backstop is also heartily outslugging his contemporaries – .579-.520 over Molina, and .579-.483 over Posey.

            Plus, giving Posey a couple extra days off should be viewed as a win-win for Giants fans. So do the right thing. Vote for Carlos Ruiz.


‘Cats win college crown

June 25, 2012

            University of Arizona baseball has always been synonymous with powerhouse offense. This season, the Wildcats touted the fourth best offense in the nation, hitting .329 as a team. All but one of their regular starters hit below the .300 mark. And, they outscored opponents 756-577 throughout the year.

            Yet, the story of Arizona’s epic postseason run is its pitching.

            Monday night, Arizona capped a clean sweep through the postseason to win its fourth ever College World Series crown, and its first since 1986. The Wildcats also won National Championships in 1976 and 1980.

            Sure, Arizona’s championship-series opponent South Carolina was not renowned for its offense. The Gamecocks hit just .265 as a team this season. But, regardless of who its opponent was, Arizona’s starting pitching was nails throughout the postseason, getting 85 innings out of its starters in 10 games, including five complete games.

            Sophomore right-hander Konner Wade hurled three of those complete games, including the championship-series opener Sunday night in a 5-1 win over South Carolina.          

            Sophomore right-hander James Farris pitched into the eighth inning Monday in the clinching 4-1 victory. Farris also won the Regional playoff clincher with a complete-game shutout to eliminate Louisville on June 3, the last time he pitched previous to Monday’s championship finale.

            The most pivotal postseason outing, however, came in the Super Regional round, when junior right-hander Kurt Heyer went 9 1/3 innings to take a no-decision in an eventual 7-6 win over St. John’s in 10 innings.

            The reason this is such an astonishing achievement is because Arizona has never been known for its pitching. Much of this is in part to Arizona’s Tucson home being a desert paradise for hitters. All you have to do is look at Gil Heredia’s 1986 season to understand the modern dynamic of being a Wildcats pitcher. Heredia set the Arizona record for most home runs surrendered by an Arizona pitcher in a single season with 19, but still won 16 games that year – the second winningest season in Wildcats history.

            While there have been some Wildcats pitchers to go on to good major league careers – Heredia, Scott Erickson, Joe Magrane, and Craig Lefferts, to name a few – only one Arizona alumnus has gone on to become a great big-league pitcher; former closer extraordinaire Trevor Hoffman. However, Hoffman didn’t pitch at Arizona. He was a shortstop who actually led the Wildcats in hitting with a .371 in 1988, outhitting his teammate J.T. Snow by 35 points that season. It wasn’t until Hoffman’s third year as a professional that he converted to the mound.

            Otherwise, the only Arizona pitching great to transcend the mythos of legend while wearing a Wildcats uniform is softball icon Jennie Finch.

            The legend of Arizona’s 2012 season belongs to head coach Andy Lopez, though. All the talk of timeless achievements in this year’s College World Series was South Carolina’s push for a three-peat. But all along, Lopez was in a position to make history. And, in capturing the National Championship, he becomes just the second coach in history to do so with two different teams, previously leading Pepperdine to the title in 1992.

            And, it was the manner in which Lopez managed his pitching staff that drove Arizona to an undefeated 10-0 postseason run, culminating in the 2012 National Championship.


Bochy’s son closing at AA

June 23, 2012

            Those who winced through Brian Wilson’s season-ending outing on April 12 witnessed the atypical effects of a torn ulnar collateral ligament.

            Wilson’s velocity dropped noticeably while he pitched in obvious discomfort. While it was surprising that Wilson finished the game, it was little surprise when the Giants’ All-Star closer underwent Tommy John surgery a week later.

            However, the effects of elbow injuries are not always so obvious. Just look at Giants prospect Brett Bochy. Two years ago at the University of Kansas, the right-handed reliever was one of the most dominant closers in the nation. After earning his fifth save of the year for the Jayhawks on April 1, however, a recurring bout with elbow soreness finally caught up with him.    

            “I had been pitching pretty well,” Bochy said. “Everything was going well. Then I got a sore elbow. I thought is was tendinitis, and it turned out to be Tommy John. Then I got [the surgery] done … and [the doctor] said it had looked like it was an injury that had happened for a while, and just started to flare up.”

            Even with the foreboding injury flaring up, Bochy’s high velocity was consistent. He was throwing strikes, and most importantly, he was getting results. Overpowering as a junior, Bochy allowed just nine hits through 23 innings, while striking out 34 against seven walks.   

            “It wasn’t really something I felt on one pitch, but it got to the point where it was pretty painful, but I was still pitching with it,” Bochy said.

            Going under the knife just three months prior to the 2010 draft, Bochy’s stock took a big hit. The 6-foot-2 right-hander ultimately fell to the Giants in the 20th round, while he was still trying to reestablish his full range of arm motion following surgery. It wasn’t until he arrived at minor league camp in 2011 that he was able to throw from the mound.

            “I felt great right when I came back,” Bochy said. “Standing out on the mound, I felt like my stuff was back, and everything was back. As far as bouncing back in back-to-back days, that took awhile to come. Last year I didn’t have that as much. This year I feel great.”

            Bochy took an even-keel approach to his rehab. For Giants fans familiar with the demeanor of his father Bruce Bochy, Brett is cut from the same stone. The approach served him well. He saw immediate success in his rehab year of 2011 at Low-A Augusta, appearing in 35 games while tallying 10 saves to compliment a 1.38 ERA.

            This season, Bochy skipped a level with a promotion to Double-A Richmond. He didn’t immediately assume the closer’s role for the Flying Squirrels, but soon earned the job by starting the year with eight consecutive scoreless appearances. He currently has eight saves along with a 1.62 ERA.

            “He’s a guy who nothing bothers him on the mound,” Richmond pitching coach Ross Grimsley said. “I asked the question to him in spring training: ‘How do you handle the pressure that comes with your dad being the manager of the big league club?’ … He just said he had a good time playing, and it shows. The pressure of his dad being the manager, he doesn’t show it one bit.”

            Bochy’s repertoire is tailor made for the bullpen. He consistently locates a low-90s fastball, and backs it up with a slider-changeup combo.          

            “He throws strikes. He’s deceptive. [Batters] don’t take good swings off of him most of the time,” Grimsley said. “He just does everything you want a guy to do that comes out of the bullpen.”

            It’s been a topsy-turvy season for the big-league bullpen. In addition to Wilson’s injury, veteran right-hander Guillermo Mota is serving a 50-game suspension. While Dan Otero and Steve Edlefson each struggled amid early-season call-ups, the current promotions of right-handers Shane Loux and George Kontos are showing promise. Also, left-hander Dan Runzler has been moved up to Triple-A Fresno as part of his rehab assignment as he rebounds from a lat injury.

            Should there be any more obstacles for San Francisco’s relief corps, though, the front office will need to get creative. The only other available pitcher on the 40-man roster that has yet to see major league action this season is Hector Correa, who is currently at High-A San Jose. The recent signing of Brad Penny – who recently amped up with four relief outings in eight days at Triple-A Fresno – gives the Giants a  veteran option. Otherwise, any more personnel issues would force the Giants to either make a deal or dig deeper into their farm system.

            Grimsley mentioned an additional trio of relievers who, along with Bochy, have been standouts at Double-A this season – left-handers Tom Vessella and Chris Gloor, and right-hander Daryl Maday. However, he couldn’t give a clear projection for the respective timetables of Richmond’s pitchers.      

            “As of now, it’s hard to say,” Grimsley said. “You can’t tell. If somebody starts throwing a lot of strikes, and they’re around the plate, and they can handle themselves the way you’d hope a guy would handle himself in the big leagues … but at this point, no, there’s probably not a spot for them.”

            Just as with his approach to rehab, Bochy is even keel about where he pitches. It doesn’t seem it matters to him where he pitches, or what role he ultimately assumes. He just wants the ball.

            “Whatever role they want me to pitch in, I’m comfortable with,” Bochy said. “So, whatever the Giants have planned, I’m willing to do.”


The return of Jair Jurrjens

June 22, 2012

            With the spotlight on Tim Lincecum’s struggles in San Francisco, an even more enigmatic implosion has been that of Braves right-hander Jair Jurrjens. That is, until Friday night.

            The Braves’ rotation has been solid but unspectacular this season, with the exception of young Brandon Beachy, who was riding high with the best ERA in baseball until he underwent season-ending Tommy John surgery Thursday.

            So Friday, the Braves turned to Jurrjens to make his first big-league start since April 23. The right-hander turned in his best start since previous to last year’s All-Star game, shutting down Boston with 7 2/3 dazzling innings of three-hit ball as Atlanta prevailed 4-1.

            The game had originally received top television billing by the MLB Network, but due to a rain delay, the network instead aired the Subway Series between the Mets and Yankees. And so, the West Coast audience was relegated to viewing the game on the MLB Gameday rotisserie board. But, much like the Brandon Morrow start I blogged about last month, Jurrjens’ outing was a fun one to watch via a pitch-tracker.

            Location-wise, Jurrjens looked hittable early on. He left pitches up to each of Boston’s first three hitters, including a high fastball to Adrian Gonzalez, which the Red Sox No. 3-hitter promptly served into left field for a single. It would be another seven innings before Boston scratched out its second hit, however.

            After the first inning, Jurrjens dominated the bottom of the strike zone. His fastball was cutting both sides of the plate, and his changeup was consistently bottoming out. He took a one-hit shutout into the eighth having set down eight batters in a row, and ultimately gave up one run on three hits, while striking out four against one walk and one hit batsman.

            It was something the baseball world didn’t know if it would ever see again – the Jurrjens of old. While he has long since garnered the dubious label of an injury-prone player, that wasn’t the problem this season. He was just out of whack, beginning the year with four dreadful starts in which he was 0-2 with a 9.37 ERA. He was summarily demoted to Triple-A Gwinnett, where he wasn’t much better, going 3-4 with a 5.18 ERA over 10 starts.

            Granted, Jurrjens was coming off a nagging knee injury which derailed his All-Star season last year. After dominating in the first half with a 12-3 record and a 1.87 ERA, he managed just a 1-3 record with a 5.88 ERA after the All-Star break, before spending the final month of the season on the disabled list.

            After whirlwind trade rumors regarding Jurrjens in the offseason, and recent speculation in the Atlanta newspapers that the Braves are in the market to acquire Matt Garza from the Cubs, the right-hander’s clutch performance Friday night is a vindicating one – at least for the time being – especially with Atlanta being overtaken for second place in the NL East standings by the surging Mets earlier in the week. With Friday’s win, the Braves still trail the second-place Mets by a half game, and are three games back of division-leading Washington.

            More importantly, it looks like Atlanta can count on its 2011 All-Star to step up with the recent loss of the best pitcher in baseball.


Florida cheesed at CWS

June 18, 2012

            What a way to go out for No. 1-seed Florida.

            Trailing 5-4 in the ninth inning of Monday’s College World Series elimination game, the Gators did what a team is supposed to do when the opposition implodes. They let them. Unfortunately, home plate umpire Phil Benson went with the sympathy vote on a strike call that effectively ended Florida’s season.

            With Kent State going into the ninth leading 5-4, things went buggy for the Golden Flashes’ bullpen. Kent State reliever Michael Clark didn’t throw a strike in walking back-to-back hitters to start the inning. Josh Pierce came on in relief, but after a sacrifice bunt, hit Daniel Pigott to load the bases.

            Pierce also lost the strike zone, throwing three straight balls to Casey Turgeon before pouring in a strike to set the stage for a fateful 3-1 pitch. Pierce’s next offering was nearly a foot off the outside of the plate. ESPN’s K-zone verified it. Yet, instead of forcing home the tying run, the pitch was called a strike by Benson, prolonging the at bat, which ended controversially on a check-swing strike-three call that saw Turgeon – thinking once again that he’d walked – jogging half way down the first-base line before getting rung up.

            The game, and Florida’s season, ended on the next pitch when Justin Shafer lifted a lazy fly out to right field.

            Kent State clearly outplayed Florida through the first eight innings. The Golden Flashes’ offense generated four runs in the first two innings, knocking out Gators starter Randall Hudson after the first, before touching reliever Jonathon Crawford for a slew of unearned runs in the second.

            Florida’s offense wasn’t exactly getting shut down by Kent State starter Ryan Bores, though. The Gators were hitting the ball hard from the get-go, but consistently found Kent State’s gloves through five innings. In plating a run in the sixth, and two more in the seventh, Florida inched within striking distance to set the stage for a ninth-inning comeback, only to have it nullified by a terrible call at the most critical moment.

            So, the epic career of Florida catcher Mike Zunino ends on a downer. The slugging junior was 2 for 4 with two RBIs in the game, and 8 for 25 with three home runs and 11 RBIs throughout the postseason. As the third overall pick in the draft by Seattle, however, Zunino will almost certainly be going pro.

            And so, Kent State advances through the College World Series bracket as the newly dubbed Cinderella team, after Stony Brook was eliminated Sunday. And, home plate umpire Phil Benson undoubtedly need be dubbed Kent State’s Prince Charming.


Valdez tops in SJ bullpen

June 17, 2012

            The first half of California League play closed Saturday with disappointing results for the San Jose Giants, who failed to win the first-half North Division title for the first time since 2004, finishing three games back of Bakersfield.

            The silver lining for the Giants is they have found a new closer option in right-hander Jose Valdez. San Jose has mixed and matched in the bullpen all season, especially in the ninth inning. Eight different pitchers have earned saves, though according to pitching coach Steve Kline, this is as much by design as it is out of necessity.   

            “Well, I never give these kids roles, because you never know what they’re going to have to do when they get up above,” Kline said. “They all pitch. They’re all able to throw in every situation, and I ask them every time, when I give you the ball, just take it and go out and pitch.”

            For the last week at least, Valdez has emerged as San Jose’s closer. The big right-hander has been the most consistent reliever in the Giants’ mix this season, posting a 2.70 ERA while tabbing 43 strikeouts against 10 walks in 33 1/3 innings.

            Entering into his June 9 appearance against Stockton, however, he had not recorded a save. Since saving that 4-3 victory, Valdez has notched three saves in fairly dominant fashion, striking out seven over three innings.

            At 6-foot-7, Valdez belongs to a trio of San Jose relievers that look more like basketball players than baseball players. At 6-foot-6, Seth Rosin leads the Giants with 10 saves. And 6-foot-8 Mitchell Beacom is the tallest player currently on the San Jose roster.

            In fact, Valdez is so tall that he has trouble negotiating the doorway into the dugout, where he has to duck as not to hit his head. His long, athletic frame has served him well on the mound though. He has flashed a low-90s fastball to compliment a circle changeup, and a devastating slider with which he got three swing-through strikes to close out Saturday’s 3-2 win over Modesto.

            “My arm feels really good,” Valdez said. “We work hard here, lifting weights a couple times a week, and running a lot. So, I feel good.”

            Valdez is grateful for his height, as it got him out of the catching crouch as a kid. When Valdez was a little league player in the Dominican Republic, his coach Jesus Tavarez put him behind the plate because of two very distinct traits – he could really throw, and he was really lazy.

            Once he started to pitch at 13, though, Valdez’s career took off. He signed with the Giants as an international free agent when he was 16, and has grown up in the minor leagues before finally coming into his own as a 21-year-old this season.

            And, to look at Valdez, it’s obvious he isn’t lazy anymore. Whereas being taller can often be problematic for pitchers, athleticism has been a benefit in avoiding many of the pitfalls that can arise with so many moving parts.

            “Usually, the taller you are, the more klutzy you can be,” Kline said. “But, these guys all seem like good little athletes.”

            Valdez’s command has caused him to make great strides this season, after being overwrought with wildness in previous years. In this his sixth pro season, Valdez owns an inflated career average of 5.7 walks per nine innings. He has always seen relatively successful results, though. That is, until a midseason promotion last year to San Jose.

            Not only did he walk 34 in 38 2/3 innings at San Jose in 2011, he surrendered four home runs. This season, though, in refining his location, he has kept the walk average at 2.8 per nine innings. He is also keeping the ball in the yard, having yielded just one homer in 28 appearances.

            “Last year I was walking too many guys and didn’t have any control,” Valdez said. “I went home and I started working on trying to do my job, and this year I’ve been doing really good.”

            In support of Valdez’s save on Saturday, left-hander Dan Runzler worked a scoreless eighth inning, retiring the side in order on 11 pitches. The appearance is Runzler’s third of the year, since beginning a rehab assignment at San Jose on June 8.


CWS Cinderella overmatched

June 16, 2012

            It’s Omaha tradition. Each June, the Nebraskan locals “adopt” an underdog team for which to root at the College World Series. This year there were two contenders for the “Cinderella” moniker – Stony Brook and Kent State – and both ran into dominant pitching to fall in the opening round of the CWS bracket.

            Omaha decidedly adopted Joe Nathan’s alma mater Stony Brook. Good choice. But, the city should seriously consider adopting UCLA ace Adam Plutko as their Cinderella pitcher.

            In 2011, Plutko emerged as a Freshman All-American, though he was wildly overlooked as UCLA’s Sunday starter due to the Bruins’ legendary one-two punch of junior right-handers Trevor Bauer and Gerrit Cole. Measuring their respective sophomore seasons, though, Plutko certainly stacks up.

            In 2010, Bauer led the nation in with 165 strikeouts while posting a 12-3 record with a 3.02 ERA. Cole was 11-4 with a 3.37 ERA, while ranking third in the nation with 153 strikeouts. Plutko hasn’t been the strikeout king his predecessors were, but he has proved their equal in this his sophomore season with a 12-3 record, while dazzling with a 2.48 ERA. 

            Stony Brook ran up against Plutko in Friday’s CWS opener, falling 9-1 to No. 1-ranked UCLA. And, Stony Brook never had a chance.

            Even before UCLA erupted for five runs in the bottom of first inning, Plutko commandeered the game. The right-hander made a statement by making quick work of the top of Stony Brook’s lineup, setting the side down in order, including strikeouts of the America East Conference’s two top hitters Travis Jankowski (.416 average) and William Carmona (.393 average).

            After escaping unscathed from a bases-loaded jam in the second, Plutko went on to dominate, allowing one run on five hits over seven innings, while striking out seven against two walks.

            Stony Brook is now on the brink of elimination, though its a familiar and seemingly favorable position for the first AEC team to ever advance to Omaha. The Seawolves are viewed as the epitome of the college baseball underdog. They were lauded as the only No. 4-seeded team to win in regional play this season. And, in both the regional and super regional tourneys, they had to play back from early loses, winning each round with consecutive victories while on the brink of elimination.

            Just because Stony Brook is garnering a long-deserved spotlight, however, doesn’t mean the small New York upstarts of the modern baseball era are new to the tradition of winning baseball. While it’s true the Seawolves are reveling in their first 50-win season, they have long been contenders in the AEC. Before surpassing the 40-win mark for the first time last season, Stony Brook posted an above-.500 record in all but two seasons (2005 and 2006) since joining the D-I ranks in 2000.

            Kent State was welcomed to its first CWS appearance in the same manner as was Stony Brook. No. 19-ranked Arkansas upended Kent State 8-1 Saturday, behind a masterful performance by junior D.J. Baxendale. While the Razorbacks’ ace isn’t nearly the caliber of UCLA’s elite starters of recent years, he solved a Kent State lineup that paced the Mid-American Conference with a .302 team batting average this season, scattering three hits over 6 1/3 strong innings to earn his team-best eighth win.