Five Games in Six Days

One of the biggest indictments of stat geeks or fantasy fanatics is that they follow baseball just by looking at the numbers and don’t actually watch the game enough. That’s obviously not true in many cases, but it’s a charge made by a lot of people who don’t like people who use a lot of statistics.

I consider myself a stat geek and a fantasy fanatic, and I watch as much baseball as I possibly can. This past week, I had the pleasure of attending five games — three minor-league games and two major-league games — in person. Since each game had it’s own very unique feel, I thought I’d talk about what my week was like.

Tuesday

I arrive at Frontier Field in Rochester, N.Y. at 11:30 a.m. to cover a game between the Rochester Red Wings, the Triple-A affiliate of the Twins, and the Durham Bulls, the Triple-A affiliate of the Devil Rays. Since it’s a day game, the press box is packed with people, which always adds to the enjoyment of the game.

The big story in today’s game is that Justin Morneau, who is probably the best hitter in the International League, is not playing. Morneau, who is hitting .361 with nine homers after going hitless in his last two games, turned his ankle during batting practice this morning and isn’t expected to miss the team’s next game on Thursday.

Unfortunately, with all of the other injuries to the Twins and Red Wings, Morneau’s day off leaves the Rochester offense very short-handed. Shortstop Augie Ojeda has a .162 batting average and is batting second. He’s filling in for leadoff hitter Jason Bartlett, who is hitting .339/.412/.504 but broke a bone in his wrist when he was hit by a pitch on Saturday.

Ojeda isn’t the only awful hitter in the lineup, however. First baseman Ryan Owens, filling in for Morneau, is hitting .176 in the sixth spot in the lineup. Third baseman Matt Scanlon is batting .209 and hitting eighth and center fielder Brian Simmons brings up the bottom of the lineup with a .191 average. Obviously, it’s going to be a struggle for the Red Wings to score today against Damian Moss.

The second batter of the game is Anton French, who Director of Media Relations Chuck Hinkel doesn’t think highly of. French hit a home run in Monday’s game and Larry Bump, who is one of the official scorers for the Red Wings but is just doing Associated Press work today, gives Chuck a hard time about his opinion of French.

Chuck responds, “Even a blind squirrel finds a nut sometimes.” French strikes out in his first at-bat, but smacks a two-run homer to right field in his second. Needless to say, Larry lets Chuck hear about it again.

Luis Rodriguez leads off the bottom of the first inning with a single for the Red Wings. The Wings still haven’t gotten their second hit when Jim Mandelaro, who is the Wings beat writer and would be covering the game except that he’s also the college writer and is working on the weekly college page today, asks me what the over/under for Red Wings hits in the game is. I say four.

The Wings finally get their second hit leading off the fifth and their third hit comes one out later. Rodriguez walks to load the bases with one out, but Ojeda, to the great surprise of nobody in the press box, grounds into a double play to end the inning.

Late in the game, Sal Maiorana, who is the Buffalo Bills beat writer for the paper, asks Hinkel a question. Warren Kozireski, who everybody just calls Koz, is the official scorer for today’s game and picks that moment to give Hinkel the line for the pitcher who has just left the game.

Hinkel interrupts Sal’s question, “Hang on, Koz is being high maintenance right now.”

Chuck asks Koz to repeat the pitching line and Koz refuses, saying Chuck should have been listening the first time. Chuck says he doesn’t need Koz and looks up the line himself. Chuck announces the line and Koz says that it’s not official. This is what happens when you get a bunch of guys together to watch sports all the time. You’ve gotta love it.

By the way, the Red Wings lose 3-0. They finish with four hits.

Thursday

After a day off on Wednesday, I’m back at Frontier Field for a night game against the Indianapolis Indians, the Triple-A affiliate of the Brewers, just as a fan this time. I’m with my girlfriend, Stacy, and our friend, Aaron.

Before the game starts, we head up to the press box to say hello to everybody. While I’m there, I find out that Josh Whetzel, the Red Wings radio play-by-play man, reads The Hardball Times. Apparently, he found us through Baseball Primer (now Baseball Think Factory). I wonder how many announcers (at any level, radio or TV) read Baseball Primer and/or The Hardball Times. Whatever the number is, I hope it keeps growing all the time, as I’ve always said that the broadcast booth is going to be the toughest place for sabremetrics to make its mark.

A few minutes before game time, we go down to our seats, which were a few rows back and just to the left of home plate. I love major-league baseball, but there’s something about sitting in a great seat at a minor-league ballpark on a beautiful night and watching a game of baseball featuring some players who will become All-Stars and some who will never even make it to the big leagues.

The first few innings are fairly uneventful. Rochester gets two men on with one in the first inning, but can’t score and the Indians can’t even get a hit through the first three innings.

Ryan Knox leads off the Indianapolis fourth with a bunt single, breaking up the no-hitter. The third baseman probably could have thrown Knox out, but he couldn’t handle the bunt cleanly. I don’t think anybody would have complained if he had been charged with an error, but Koz decides to give Knox a hit. His no-hitter gone, starting pitcher Dave Gassner gets out of the inning and gives up just two more hits in the game — a clean single to left field in the singth and a double one out later.

Brandon Marsters, who was hitting .160 entering the game, gives Rochester a 1-0 lead in the fifth with his first homer of the season. That’s the only run the Red Wings score tonight, despite the fact that they had eight hits and five walks. In their last two games, the Wings have scored just one run on 12 hits and 12 walks. They’ve stranded 17 runners and hit into seven double plays, which is obviously not a recipe for scoring runs.

Gassner leaves the game after seven scoreless innings, despite the fact that he’s thrown just 69 pitches. With the win, Gassner is 5-1 with a 1.99 ERA. He was the player to be named later in Minnesota’s trade for Shannon Stewart last year. He’s 25 years old and he went 10-4 with a 2.79 ERA at Class AA last year, but I’m not sure how much of a future he has in the majors. He only struck out 92 hitters in 145.1 innings at AA last year and he only has 23 strikeouts in 40.2 innings this year. He doesn’t walk hitters (23 last year and five so far this year), but he doesn’t seem to have great stuff.

He’s replaced tonight by somebody who certainly does have great stuff. Jesse Crain pitches two no-hit innings, allowing just a walk with two outs in the ninth for his sixth save. He now has a 2.75 ERA and will almost certainly become the Twins closer at some point in the next few years. He’s now pitched 19.2 innings and has amassed 24 strikeouts after notching 114 strikeouts in 84 innings at three different levels last year.

Today’s game also provided two examples of what makes my girlfriend great. First, she kept score of the game as she does at every game she goes to. She wasn’t a sports fan at all before I met her, but she’s gradually tried to become more interested and she says that keeping score helps keep her involved in what’s going on out on the field.

Second, the Red Wings played “I Wear My Sunglasses at Night” every time a certain Indianapolis batter came to the plate. The third time, Stacy finally figured out why they were playing it. The hitter was Corey Hart and the person who sang that song was named Corey Heart. She may very well have been the only person in the park to get the reference.

With just one run scored by the two teams, this game takes just 1 hour, 56 minutes to play. That’s another great thing about minor-league baseball. Without the extended wait between innings for commercials, the games can go very quickly.

Friday

I’m back on the beat, covering the second game in the series between the Red Wings and Indians. The press box is much emptier tonight than it was Tuesday and even yesterday. After going down to the clubhouse to talk to manager Phil Roof and third baseman Terry Tiffee for my notebook, I head back up to the press box to get settled for the game.

Before the game starts, I ask Chuck if he can do me a favor and make the game go as quickly as Thursday’s game so that I don’t have to write on deadline. He responds that it’s now my fault if the game takes a long time to play. This is pretty much the response you’ll always get if you work in sports media and you make a comment about how fast a game is going and/or how fast you’d like a game to go.

The Red Wings score more runs in the first inning than they’d scored in their previous two games combined as the first four batters get hits for a 2-0 lead. Indianapolis gets a run back in the second, but Simmons (who is hitting .192) gets the run back in the bottom of the inning.

Simmons singles with one out, steals second and moves to third on a fly ball to center field. That allows him to score when the pitcher balks on a 1-1 pitch to Ojeda, who eventually strikes out.

In the fourth, Marsters doubles with two outs, bringing Simmons up to bat. Hinkel says there’s no way Marsters scores if Simmons hits a single. Bump says there’s no way Simmons hits a single. Simmons hits a single and Marsters scores.

After a scoreless fifth inning for both teams, the Red Wings start to fall apart. They give up three runs in the sixth inning to lose the lead and three more runs in the seventh inning to fall behind 7-4 at the seventh inning stretch. Figuring that the Red Wings won’t come back from a three-run deficit, I write the lead to my story at this point.

I’m pretty sure there’s a fundamental law of the universe that says that when you’re covering a sporting event on deadline and you write the lead before the outcome of the game is certain, something will change. So, it’s not at all surprising to me to see the Red Wings first three hitters all single to cut the lead to 7-5 with their two best hitters coming up.

The first hitter in the seventh is Simmons. Despite the fact that he has two hits in his first two at-bats, he’s still hitting below .200 and Bump sarcastically says that this is just who you want at the plate to start a rally. Simmons promptly dumps his third single of the game into center field.

Rodriguez comes up and Bump says that he’ll probably hit into a double play. He singles to left field instead. That brings Ojeda to the plate, who Bump basically says is so bad that even a reverse jinx can’t help. Ojeda singles to center field to score Simmons.

Unfortunately for the Red Wings, Bump has nothing bad to say about Morneau, who strikes out. Michael Restovich then flies out to right field and Tiffee ends the threat by grounding out to the shortstop.

The Red Wings lose 8-5, and I should point out at this point that they’ve had a very strange season. They started the season 8-0, the best start in franchise history (and this is a franchise that’s older than most major-league teams).

After that, the Red Wings lost 10 of their next 12 games, including six in a row at one point. They started the season 8-0, but were below .500 (10-11) before April ended. After snapping that six-game losing streak, however, they won seven consecutive games to improve to 17-12. Then they lost three in a row before a win Thursday and a loss today left them at 18-16.

If you can find a team with a crazier beginning to the season than that, let me know. Also, 20 of the 34 games they’ve played thus far have been decided by one or two runs. The reason they’re two games above .500 despite having been outscored 169-155 is that they’re 9-6 in one-run games and 5-0 in two-run games.

Saturday

Stacy, my parents and I arrive in Toronto just in time for the start of the game between the Red Sox and Blue Jays after a delay because the Gardiner Expressway is closed. We’re sitting four rows back from the field on the third base line, just before the left field wall. I’m thrilled to see that this will be the major-league debut for Kevin Youkilis.

Youkilis, nicknamed the Greek God of Walks, was mentioned in Michael Lewis’ best-seller, Moneyball, and is one of the more intriguing prospects in all of baseball and in the Red Sox farm system in particular. Entering this season, he had a career minor-league OBP of .451, but he had just 19 career homers. He doesn’t look exactly like a baseball player should, and there is a lot of disagreement about whether or not he’ll become a worthwhile major-leaguer.

Considering who Toronto’s General Manager is, it’s no surprise that the small scoreboards in the SkyDome show the OBP and SLG for the hitter at the plate and it’s no surprise that the jumbotron in center field has OBP listed before batting average. What is a bit of a surprise to me is that my dad doesn’t mention batting average the whole game and talks only about OBP and SLG instead.

My dad’s in his 50′s, so he grew up pretty much only listening to people talk about batting average and home runs and RBIs. He tries to read as much of the stuff I write as he can, but he says that sometimes there’s too many stats involved for him to get into it. Still, he’s an intelligent man (an engineer) and he’s apparently seen enough that he believes OBP and SLG to be more important than batting average.

It always annoys me when people decide to completely ignore logical ideas or ways of thinking, so it’s very encouraging to see my father embrace new baseball ideas after a lifetime of thinking about the game in a different way.

After the Red Sox take a 1-0 lead in the second inning, Youkilis pops up to the shortstop in his first major-league at-bat. I was hoping to see him draw a walk after a prolonged at-bat, but things don’t always work out that way.

Mark Bellhorn leads off the second inning with his fourth homer of the season. Bellhorn’s quickly becoming one of my favorite players and I hope he continues to play almost every day even after Nomar Garciaparra returns, so it’s good to see him go deep in person.

However, what happens in the third inning is even better. Youkilis comes to the plate with one out, and deposits his first major-league hit into the left field stands about 100 feet away from where I’m sitting. My mom gets very excited and tries to give him a prolonged standing ovation by herself. She doesn’t always know all of the players’ names and she doesn’t understand all of the finer points of the game, but my mom’s as big a Red Sox fan as you could hope to find.

I didn’t see it during the game, but it was great to see the highlights of the home run and watch Youkilis respond to his teammates’ joke by high-fiving the empty air where his fellow Red Sox would normally be congratulating him.

David Ortiz makes it three solo homers in three innings with a shot to right field with one out in the fourth inning. That’s more the enough runs for the Red Sox to take to the bank today.

Bronson Arroyo cruises through eight innings. He allows just three hits and doesn’t walk anybody (although he does hit Carlos Delgado, which draws boos from the crowd as though he did it intentionally on a 2-2 count to put the leadoff hitter on base). He also strikes out six as he picks up his second win of the season and drops his ERA to 3.53.

Many Red Sox fans were annoyed that Arroyo pitched pretty well in the rotation and still lost his spot when Byung-Hyun Kim returned. If Arroyo can keep making quality starts (not like this every time, obviously), then maybe he’ll actually get to stay in the rotation the whole season. I’d certainly like to see what he can do, because the Red Sox may be counting on him to be a good starter next year.

Sunday

Today is Roy Halladay Bobblehead Day at SkyDome. My dad and I (it’s just the two of us today) leave the hotel early enough to get to the park at noon in hopes of being one of the first 10,000 fans, but the bobbleheads are all gone by the time we get there. Oh well, we still get to see Halladay against Pedro Martinez, which is well worth the price of admission.

I’ve seen Pedro pitch in person three times before today, and he’s allowed just two runs in 18 innings. He’s gone 2-0 with 24 strikeouts, two walks and 12 hits. My parents think I should tell Pedro I’ll come to every game he pitches if he gives me a cut of his contract.

The first time I ever saw Pedro pitch was August 14, 1999. Pedro was in the middle of a Cy Young season and he was supposed to be the starting pitcher, but when we got to the park, Bryce Florie was warming up and was announced as the Boston starter, to a chorus of boos. Florie left after 4 2/3 innings with the Red Sox leading the Mariners 5-1, meaning the win would likely go to the Boston bullpen.

Rheal Cormier came in and gave up a hit which turned into the final out of the inning when Butch Huskey threw the runner out trying to stretch a single into a double. That was the only out recorded while Cormier was in the game, and since he didn’t have much to do with it, he wasn’t in the running for the win either.

The Red Sox added two more runs in the bottom of the fifth, so Pedro had a 7-1 lead to work with when he entered the game to start the sixth (it turned out that he had been late to the game, so Jimy Williams had Florie warm up to start and decided not to switch back when Pedro showed up). Pedro allowed a run in the sixth and then pitched three scoreless innings for what’s probably the easiest win of his career.

The next time I saw Pedro in person was last year, when he matched up against Mike Mussina at Yankee Stadium on the Monday after Fourth of July weekend. The Red Sox scored a run in the first before Mussina shut them down for the next seven innings. He allowed just two hits and a walk with nine strikeouts in eight innings. Pedro made the 1-0 lead stand up for five innings, but Enrique Wilson doubled and scored on a single from Jason Giambi to tie the game. The Red Sox ended up losing 2-1 when Kim loaded the bases with nobody out in the ninth, struck out Robin Ventura and then got Curtis Pride to hit a grounder to the drawn in infield, which Todd Walker bobbled and threw away.

Most recently, I saw Pedro face off against Javier Vazquez at Yankee Stadium. Pedro shut down the Yankees for seven innings and Manny Ramirez gave Pedro all the offense he’d need with a two-run homer off Vazquez in the fourth.

So, I’ve got a pretty good history when it comes to games involving Pedro, and this one starts off quite nicely. The Red Sox scratch out a run off Halladay in the first and Pedro doesn’t allow a hit for the first three innings. When most pitchers haven’t allowed a hit in three innings, you don’t think too much about it. When it’s Pedro, thoughts of a no-hitter start to drift across your mind.

Pedro gets the first out in the fourth, but then Vernon Wells hits a slow grounder that Youkilis can’t quite handle cleanly. It could have gone as an error, but the home scorer decides to give Wells a hit. The scoring decision doesn’t matter for long, however, as Delgado follows Wells with a bomb to right field for a 2-0 lead.

Pedro gives up another run in the sixth, but he doesn’t pitch terribly. He goes seven innings and allows three runs while striking out six and walking one. He allows six hits, but three of them are infield singles. He really only makes one mistake, and that ends up costing him the game.

Halladay doesn’t allow the Red Sox to get anything else going after the first as he goes seven innings and allows a run on six hits and two walks with six strikeouts. The Red Sox get a couple on in the eighth and one on in the ninth, but can’t get anything across the plate and lose 3-1.

The bright spot of the game is that Youkilis gets two more hits and is 4-for-8 with a home run in his two-game major-league career. I’d love to see a Red Sox infield of Ortiz, Bellhorn, Garciaparra and Youkilis next year. Well, maybe Ortiz at DH and somebody else at first, but you know what I mean.

At any rate, that was my week. Lot’s of baseball and lot’s of different stuff going on. It’s amazing that you can go to five games in a week and see so many different things happen that you don’t ever get bored of the game. That’s why it always baffles me when people say that baseball isn’t exciting.

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