Thursday, June 3, 2010

Reds Fall to Cardinals

I put a lot of energy into the news that Ken Griffey, Jr. retired tonight, but there was also a pretty big game in St. Louis.  The Reds were beaten 4-1 by the Cardinals tonight after winning 9-8 last night.  With Sam LeCure up against Chris Carpenter, it wasn't exactly a shocking defeat.  The Reds tried to mount a rally in the seventh and pushed one run across, but that was all they could muster.  I missed a key play while putting the kids to bed tonight.  Scott Rolen had just driven Brandon Phillips in, and that left runners on the corners with Jay Bruce coming up and nobody out in the seventh.  I'm not sure what happened then, but the play log on fangraphs says

Jay Bruce singled (Liner). Scott Rolen out at second.
I'm not really sure how that happens unless Bruce hit a line drive that hit Rolen or something.  Whatever it was, it was a turning point, killing the last good chance to rally back.  Johnny Gomes subsequently struck out, and Drew Stubbs flied out to end the inning.  The Reds went down in order in both the eighth and ninth to end the game.

Both teams get a day off tomorrow, and they'll go into the break tied atop the division.  It will be the Reds' first off day in three weeks, ending a very tough stretch that has both shown flashes of great potential and exposed bullpen flaws that could haunt the team as the summer wears on.  The Reds come my way next to take on the Nationals in DC.  I'll be at Friday night's game.

A Kid's Memories of The Kid

It was inevitable.  Ken Griffey, Jr. has been miserable this season, and really hasn't been a significant player since 2000.  Still, it is a sad night.  It brings back a lot of memories.  Some great.  Some not-so-great.

From the time I was seven, I wanted to be a baseball player.  For many years, I was convinced that Willie Mays was the greatest baseball player who ever lived, and I was always looking for someone who could challenge Mays' combination of speed and power.  When I was in middle school, I marveled at Eric Davis.  He hit 27 homers and stole 80 bases in 1986 in just 132 games.  For an encore, he hit 37 homers and stole 50 bases in 1987 - in only 129 games.  If not for a mid-season injury, Davis would have been the first 40-50 man before there were any 40-40 men.  Davis was my favorite player, but his body proved too fragile to live up to his enormous potential.  I'll always remember the home run in Game 1 of the 1990 World Series that, I'll always believe, sealed the deal on the Reds sweep of the A's that year, but by then it was apparent that Davis wasn't going to be the "next Willie Mays."

No, the next "next Willie Mays" was already making some noise at that point.  Young Ken Griffey, Jr. was injecting life into a moribund Seattle franchise, delighting everyone with his power and speed for one so young.  (At least it appeared that way to me as a kid.  He was never really a 30 steal threat.)  As Griffey aged, he became a feared slugger, on pace to break Hank Aaron's home run record.  And of course, like Mays, Griffey played awesome and exciting defense in center field.  Griffey wasn't just going to be the "next Willie Mays," he was going to be something that we'd never seen before.  In 1993, Griffey hit 45 home runs, and from then until 2000, he was arguably the most feared and most exciting player in the game.

I have many memories of Griffey.  As a kid, I would occasionally go to Baltimore to watch the Orioles play.  I remember the day that Griffey ended Brad Pennington's major league career.  I was there.  April 24, 1994.  It wasn't the end of Pennington's career, but it was the "end."  I just knew.   The Orioles led 6-3 going into the top of the eighth inning.  Jamie Moyer loaded the bases with no one out, ending his day.  Pennington, a young lefty with a blazing fastball, came on to pitch to Griffey. Pennington struck out more than 10 batters per nine innings in both 1993 and 1994 and at least I believed that he had the potential to be an excellent reliever.  Pennington's first pitch was a wild pitch that brought in a run.  With first base open, the O's decided to go at Griffey anyway.  On Pennington's next pitch Griffey turned on a hard fastball and crushed it over the right field seats and onto Eutaw St.  It was as far as I've ever seen a ball hit.  Pennington's day was done.  He was sent down the next day and would remain in the minors for the rest of the 1994 season.  I'll always remember that event when I think of Griffey.

Despite living near Baltimore, I grew up a Reds fan.  When the word came out that Ken Griffey, Jr. wanted to be traded from the Mariners, I was watching with bated breath.  Atlanta was regarded as the favorite to land Griffey, but I held out hope that Griffey's Cincinnati roots would sway the decision.  His dad played for the Big Red Machine, and Griffey went to Cincinnati's famed Moeller High School, where he became the number 1 pick in the 1987 draft.  I was elated when news of the Griffey trade went through.  No one knew what injuries would do to his body and his game.  Obviously, looking back, we know that giving up a package of players that included Mike Cameron and Brett Tomko was not a good deal.  From 2000 to 2008 - the years Griffey played for the Reds - Cameron alone earned 35.3 WAR compared to Griffey's 13.2, according to fangraphs.  At the time though, I saw Griffey manning center field for a then-relevant Cincinnati Reds team.  Sure the $116M (I think) contract was big, but it wasn't what Griffey was worth.  He was giving the Reds a hometown discount.  He was the best player in the game, and he wasn't going to be paid like it.  Of course, now we know that didn't matter.  Griffey was a bust in Cincinnati, and his time there was marked by losing baseball.  This year, the Reds are finally starting to turn it around, but the poor product they've placed on the field this past decade or so can unfortunately be traced back to Griffey's contract.

Despite all that, I loved Griffey.  I got one last hurrah from the man.  On April 20, 2008, I had my first opportunity to attend a baseball game in Cincinnati.  Jay Bruce hadn't been called up yet and Griffey was still the face of the franchise.  After the game got going, rain moved in and threatened the proceedings.  I was at the game with my wife and our two children, then ages 3 and 1, so the weather put a real damper on things.  We tried to ride the weather out, but kids couldn't handle it.  We resorted to watching a few innings from on TV inside one of the shops on the main concourse.  In the top of the tenth, Edwin Encarnacion made a huge error that should have got the Reds out of the inning.  Two Brewers would come around to score making the score 3-1 and appearing to seal the game.  We left.  We barely get out of the stadium when fireworks went off.  Encarnacion had atoned for his error by hitting a home run, his second of the game.  Still, the Reds were down 3-2.  Then, more fireworks!  Paul Bako went back-to-back, and the game was tied again.  At this point, we're frantically walking around the stadium trying to find a way to see the end of the game.  We stumble upon a stadium entrance where a young man was guarding the entrance to an elevator, watching the game on the TV mounted above.  We hung out with him to see how the ending would unfold.  After a couple of batters reached base, Ken Griffey, Jr. came to the plate with one out.  Griffey ripped a ball to right field to drive in Brandon Phillips and win the game for the Reds.  The fireworks went off again, and I got to enjoy the long ride back to Maryland knowing that my childhood hero had won the game.

Griffey has been one of the best players to ever play baseball, an easy first-ballot Hall of Fame choice.  Even though his wRC barely cracks the top 150 of all time, Griffey was an icon of the sport.  His stats were impressive, but the injuries and general ineffectiveness late in his career make it difficult to really appreciate Griffey's greatness from statistics alone.  For me, it is the memories of Griffey that will linger.  I'll be able to pull out my 1989 Upper Deck #1 and show it to my kids.  I can show them the baseball that Griffey signed - the only signed ball I own at this point.  I'll be able to tell them the story about how my favorite shirt at one time was a Ken Griffey, Jr. t-shirt made to look like a baseball card, and how devastated I was when I ripped it hopping over a fence to retrieve a baseball during a pick-up game.  Those memories will last a long time.  I can only hope my kids get the opportunity to share their stories of the "next Ken Griffey, Jr." with their kids one day.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Catching Up

I haven't really been able to keep up with all the action over the holiday weekend, so I'll give a bit of a recap of the interesting things I saw.  On both Friday and Saturday, the Reds were awesome.  They poured it on a struggling Astros team.  Then came Sunday.  Felipe Paulino pitched great for the Astros, and the Reds' powerful offense suddenly disappeared.  Mike Leake worked to keep the Reds in it though, and the Reds had a great opportunity to win the game, stranding five runners between the eighth and ninth innings.  The Reds have been so good at driving in runners in situations like that this season, so this was uncharacteristic.  The Reds still took the series though and could look forward to taking a one game lead to St. Louis to play the Cardinals.

That brings us to today.  The Reds got whipped by the Cardinals.  I didn't listen to much of the game, but the parts of the game I did hear were very interesting.  First, the Reds jumped on the board early and held a 2-1 lead going into a rain delay.  The rain delay lasted one hour and one minute, but both managers brought their starters back to start the fourth.  Jaime Garcia looked shaky in the fourth, and the Reds pushed across another run before Garcia got a big double play groundout to get out of the jam.  (That shouldn't come as a surprise to fangraphs readers, as Garcia has been getting a lot of attention there this season because of his ability to induce ground balls.)  So, after an hour rain delay and a long inning, Bronson Arroyo comes on to pitch for the Reds.  Hindsight is 20/20, so it is easy to say that Dusty should have just brought in Micah Owings for long relief and called it a night for Arroyo.  If I recall, Arroyo was already at 58 pitches through three innings at that point, so it wasn't like he was sailing through the Cards lineup anyway.  If it was any other team that the Reds were playing, I think Baker pulls Arroyo.  Still, I can't fault Baker too much because of the importance of the game.  This was shaping up to be a series where the Reds could really establish themselves and put the pressure on St. Louis to keep up.  The move backfired.  Arroyo would finish allowing 7 runs in 4 1/3 innings, while throwing 103 pitches in the process.

The other thing that caught my ear (as it were) about the game was the way the Cardinals exploded out of the rain delay.  Arroyo got two outs, but then he walked the pitcher, Garcia.  Felipe Lopez then singled and Garcia aggressively went to third base on the play.  On the next play, Ryan Ludwick also singled to right, and Jay Bruce came up throwing.  In attempting to cut Lopez down at third, he allowed an alert Ludwick to take an extra base.  It seemed like kind of a moot point, in that it allowed Albert Pujols to be intentionally walked.  However, when Matt Holliday hit a two-run double giving the Cards their first lead, it leaves you to wonder how differently the inning might have played out.  Shortly after this, I went to dinner.  When I got back, the Cards were way out in front.  No need to rehash how they got there.

The thing that has my attention right now is how the Reds have been a different team these last two games.  The offense hasn't been explosive, as it was almost all May long.  They didn't hit against the Astros when the key situations came up.  On the mound, even though Mike Leake didn't give up any runs, he was constantly working out of trouble, just as Arroyo was today.  And on the bases, the Cardinals were the aggressive team today - something that has really defined the Reds so far this season.  Even the decision-making has been a bit questionable.  Jay Bruce's attempt to throw out Lopez today was a throw that shouldn't have been made.  It's conceivable that Dusty's leaving Arroyo in after the rain delay was a poor decision (and not simply a poor result).  Hopefully the Reds get their act back together quickly, but I suspect they're feeling the weight of being hunted by St. Louis, and it's messing with them a bit.  The teams are even now, so we'll see if the Reds can right the ship with Johnny Cueto on the mound tomorrow.  A win tomorrow would help the team get their confidence back.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Devin Mesoraco

Part of the fallout of the Ryan Hanigan injury was that Devin Mesoraco was called up to AA Carolina. He hit his first homer for the Mudcats today. Mesoraco is a former first round pick who hasn't hit at all until this year. This year though, he was destroying Carolina league pitching, with his 1.035 OPS leading the league. He'd have to be considered the most pleasant surprise in the Reds system this season.