Friday, May 11, 2012

Birdland Bulletin: Beasts of the East

What if I told you that the top two teams in the A.L. East were facing off in a series this weekend? Is that something that you might be interested in?  Well unlike Bob Ryan’s litany of empty promises, this promise is a reality.  But first, cancel those plane tickets to Boston because the Red Sox are in last place. Those train tickets to New York are also worthy of a refund. Go ahead, read those sentences again and let them marinate. AHHHHH, that felt good. 

The Tampa Bay Rays at 20-12 are in town to face the 20-12 Baltimore Orioles.  Yes, I know it’s only May so you will have to pardon my excitement because we have not had too many of these series in the past decade or so. 

On April 30, the Orioles embarked on a 2-week stretch that would test their metal and prove whether their hot start was fact or fiction.  Well after a series win IN the Bronx and a sweep AT Fenway, the O’s came home to face the gauntlet that is the Texas Josh Hamiltons.  The best part about that series is that it is over and it is in the past.  The Orioles have still looked good against the bigger teams in the A.L. and this weekend will be a true litmus test.  The Orioles have a great opportunity to flex their muscle in the A.L. East and take a step out in front of the Rays.  There are key injuries on both sides with the Rays without their three-hole hitter and team leader Evan Longoria, and the Orioles skipping Jason Hammel’s next start due to fluid build up in his knee.

QUICK SIDEBAR: The early returns of the Jeremy Guthrie trade have been fantastic.  Matt Lindstrom has an ERA of 1.29 in 14.0 innings of work while striking out 14.  Jason Hammel has been a revelation.  He leads the team in wins (4), K’s (38), and he leads all Orioles starters in ERA (2.09).  He has been commanding his fastball and his two-seamer has more run than my shorts after eating the Chili Taters from Hard Times.  Hopefully this knee injury is just some fluid build up and nothing to worry about because he has been the Orioles Ace in the first month-plus of the season.

The Orioles lineup is slightly more productive than the Rays, while the Rays possess a superior starting rotation.  Therefore the x-factor in this series will be the battle of the bullpens.  The Orioles bullpen has been fantastic led by the back end arms of Jim Johnson, Pedro Strop, and the aforementioned Matt Lindstrom.  Righties Darren O’Day and Luis Ayala both have ERA’s under 2.00 and have looked good in a pinch.  Heck even Kevin Gregg did not look terrible over the weekend in Beantown.  But just like having sex with a model…how long can that really last?  Let’s hope Gregg can stay effective this weekend.

While the Orioles have the 2nd best bullpen ERA in the Majors (2.19), Tampa Bay comes in ranked 25th with an ERA of 4.40.  Tampa Closer Fernando Rodney has been locked in, going 9 for 9 in save opportunities with an ERA of 0.57.  Opponents are batting .179 versus Rodney.  J.P Howell is having a bit of a bounce back so far this season and Wade Davis has transitioned nicely into the Rays pen.  After that it gets uglier than Union Jack’s when the lights come on at the end of the night.  The Orioles have the edge in bullpens, but let’s hope the Orioles starters can pitch like we know they can and the bullpen will not have to be over taxed.

Game 1:
Jeremy Hellickson (3-0 2.75) vs. Dana Eveland (2012 Debut)
On paper the edge goes to the Rays, but on paper the Orioles have been underdogs all year. If the Orioles can get into the Rays pen early they could steal this one.

Matt Moore (1-2 5.71) vs. Brian Matusz (1-4 5.91)
The Battle of the Much Hyper and Under Achieving Left Handers.  The uber prospect Matt Moore has struggled early this year.  Brian Matusz looked awesome vs. the Yankees two starts ago and was promptly shelled by the Josh Hamiltons in his last outing.  The Rays lineup is not as vaunted as the Texas Squad so hopefully Matusz can get right in this one while the Orioles bats hopefully keep Moore’s struggles going.

James Shields (5-1 3.23) vs. Jake Arrieta (2.3 4.23)
A couple of power armed right handers toeing the rubber in this one.  Some days Arrieta looks like the Orioles ace and other days he serves up fastballs like they are the soup du jour.  Arrieta will rise to the occasion facing off against “Big Game James” and we will have a Sunday classic.

The Rays have one of the best manager's in baseball in Joe Maddon. But just because you are one of the best does not mean you are the best.  In fact the best looks something like this:

Camden Yards will be full of Birdland residents this weekend and hopefully the O’s can take the series and grab hold of first place in the A.L. East.  Win or lose, it’s just refreshing to have a big series at the Yard even if it is only May.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Natstown Newsletter: Still Harpin' on Hamels

The only thing that surprised me when Cole Hamels threw at Bryce Harper, was that the ball did not explode and disintegrate into dust when it connected with Harper’s lower back.

Baseball has a way of policing itself and pitchers throwing at batters is as ingrained in the game as a tin of Skoal in a player’s back pocket.  If a batter does something that upsets the opposing team such as run his mouth a little too much, show up the other team, or admires a home run a little longer than he probably should, all warrant wearing a fastball in the back.  It is the pitcher’s obligation to stand up for his teammates and he does this by “trying to come in with a fastball, but then it got away” or some tongue-in-cheek response of this nature.  There can be some serious ramifications if a pitcher is expected to protect his comrades of the clubhouse and does not come through, just ask Sean Tracey.

With all that said, Cole Hamels has absolutely no reason to drill Bryce Harper in the bottom of the first inning in Sunday night’s game.  It was obvious that it was intentional, even if Hamels had not shown his ass in his postgame interviews and proudly admitted to plunking the Nationals’ phenom on purpose.  It is no secret that Harper has the tendency to rub people the wrong way, but he has done NOTHING to warrant a bean-ball during his infant 8 game big league career.  The only team who maybe had a reason to hit Harper was the Los Angeles Dodgers after Harper intentionally knocked off his own helmet as he flew into second base on his first career hit.  

Aside from that, Harper has been a model teammate and opponent since receiving his much heralded call up.  He has been humble, and acknowledges ALL of his teammates in any post game interview.  Not to mention the kid plays harder than Brady Anderson’s six-pack.  He has not shown up any opponents, and he is a throw-back  in every sense of the word.  He rocks stirrups, runs as hard as he can every time out of the box, and plays the game right way.  One could say he is “old school.”

Cole Hamels thinks he is old school just because he hit a rookie in the back.  The first rule of actually being "old school", is never declaring yourself as "old school."  Sorry, Cole but I don’t think Bob Gibson would sip strawberry daiquiris, wear skinny jeans and go on the Ellen DeGeneres show.  Cole “Old School” Hamels has done all of these “activities”.  If “The Philly Pretty Boy” is old school, than Bobby Knight is progressive and refreshing.  Baseball has changed over the past few decades, and pitchers do not just plunk a rookie simply to welcome him to the big leagues anymore.  If Harper had shown up the Phillies or done something to disrespect the game, then Hamels should drill him, but not just because he ripped through the minors and has played hard and hustled since his call up. 

Another time when it is acceptable to intentionally hit an opposing batter is if one of your teammates has been clearly plunked on purpose. This was the case with Bryce Harper, so Jordan Zimmermann put the Nationals on his back and threw at Cole Hamels.  Hamels hypocritically stared out at Zimmermann as he took the stroll to first base.  It is important for a pitcher to show the players in the lineup that he will protect them, and he is not afraid to hit the other team’s batters.  Especially when you have a 19-year-old rookie who has more talent in his pinkie than the tens of thousands of fans who boo him relentlessly on the road.  Zimmermann stepped up, protected his young teammate, and sent a message to the Phillies that their days of walking all over the Nats were over.  Zimmermann’s postgame response, although most likely dishonest, is the way you handle this situation.  He alluded to the idea that the ball got away from him, he didn’t pound his chest and act like a tough guy who proudly admitted to going after a 19-year-old rookie.

By now we have all heard Mike Rizzo’s spot on comments about Cole Hamels.  I love what the Riz said, and as a player you’ve got to love how he is willing to come to bat for you.  But again, the Riz is biased because he is sticking up for his players.  Yet, other respected voices from the game have come out in support of Harper.

Curt Schilling: “I never threw at a guy for being a rookie. That’s just so stupid. It’s like throwing at a guy for hitting a homerun when you threw a crappy pitch. You throw at guys for specific things.”

Jim Leyland: "We're always talking about our game being cleaned up and doing the right things for our game in all areas of the game – and I'm 100 percent for that," Leyland told radio broadcaster Dan Dickerson during his pre-game show Monday night. "But this is a perfect time to show that we mean business, and I think this suspension is way, way too light."

Mitch Williams: “It was stupid. The only time you hit somebody is, number one if they show you up in anyway, they put a target on their back. or if you’re protecting one of your players.  Bryce Harper, at this point, in his short week and a half career, has done nothing but play the game hard. So to drill him in his first at-bat, for no reason whatsoever, is ridiculous. It’s ludicrous, honestly.”

Look for some more fireworks to come from this the next time the Phillies play the Nationals.  The rivalry is just heating up, and as it continues to grow we may look back on this past weekend’s series as the jump off.

For more of these hilarious photos of Cole Hamels check out:

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Draft Day Diagnosis

by Ben

I am annoyed very annoyed.  I expected this from the Four Letter sports network who neglects highlights like they are the original owners of Sarah McLachlan’s dogs.  ESPN has taken the term “BREAKING NEWS” and worn it out like a prostitute’s deposit box.

I expected this from ESPN, but not from my fellow congregants of the Church of Chocktaw a.k.a. Redskins Nation.  If certain members of the fan base are not complaining about something, then they have nothing to talk about. 

There is no Quarterback Controversy in Washington. There is no Quarterback Quandary either.  Robert Griffin III is our franchise quarterback and Kirk Cousins will be his back up. Period. So stop acting like a bunch of Rajan Rondos and knock it off.

Drafting Kirk Cousins in the fourth round (despite his 2nd round grade by many in the NFL) was not an ego driven pick by the Shanahans, it was not an owner driven pick either.  It was a savvy move to pick up a viable back up and insurance policy for a quarterback with more hype than a sex tape starring Jessica Biel and Kate Upton. 

The NFL is a quarterback driven league, and the Washington Redskins have drafted their cornerstone superstar who is the total package.  He is charismatic, athletic, has a high character, and he can launch an aerial assault like George W. Bush when he had control of the red phone.

However, quarterbacks take major hits on a weekly basis and every snap is a risk for an injury.  The Redskins have protected themselves against this by drafting Kirk Cousins, who after being developed under the Shanamen, will be a solid and reliable quarterback in the NFL.  His role with the Redskins will be to backup and push Robert Griffin III, not threaten his job. This has to be considered a coup, unless you are in the Rex Grossman camp. And if you are still in the Rex Grossman camp, then I hope you leave your food out over night so a grizzly bear comes to your camp and rips your face off.

Another way to look at this draft day decision is following the Kevin Kolb/Matt Flynn/Brian Hoyer model.  The Redskins can develop Cousins BEHIND Robert Griffin III, and then hopefully trade him for draft picks.  I know Kolb was the only one traded for picks, but Flynn was rumored to net picks before cashing in on a nice contract with Seattle.

In case those of you who constantly complain forgot, the Redskins traded three 1st rounders and a 2nd round pick to get into position to draft Robert Griffin III.  This means two things; the first is that the Redskins are heavily invested in RG3 and they will ride or die with him.  The second part of this is that their draft pick pool is slightly depleted, and the Redskins will be looking to acquire more draft picks.  If developed properly – and there is no reason to think he won’t be developed properly by the Shanahans – Cousins could net the Redskins a 2nd round pick or even multiple mid round picks.  I would think this is a reasonable gamble taken by the Redskins with their fourth round pick.

There is no question that the Redskins had more holes to fill than the Iraqi Navy, and the 4th round may have been a better place to select an offensive tackle.  Would I rather have seen the Redskins draft Ole Miss right tackle Bobby Massie or Zebrie Sanders out of Florida State with their fourth round pick? Of course. BUT, when it comes to offensive linemen, I trust the Shanahans.  They know what they are doing on the offensive line, and they addressed the depth of the line by drafting two guards and a tackle in this year’s draft.  Protecting Robert Griffin III is paramount and the Shanahans and Bruce Allen are very aware of this.  Their job is to also protect the TEAM, and they have done this by acquiring a solid quarterback to be an insurance policy in the event of an injury, or as a trade chip to pick up extra draft picks. 

It is time to stop complaining and start embracing our new franchise quarterback who has so much charisma, even Magic Johnson is jealous.  It is a new dawn for Redskins Nation and it is one to be very excited about.  A year ago the NFL was locked out and the Redskins had a “battle” going on between John Beck and Rex Grossman.  A year later, Robert Griffin III is in town and is more popular than Whitlow’s on a Thursday night.  Kirk Cousins is RiRa when Whitlow’s gets too crowded.   You would much rather go to Whitlow’s, but RiRa isn’t so bad, and it is not a threat.