SweetSpot: John Axford

Can the Indians come back this season?

May, 20, 2014
May 20

Is it too soon to count out the Tribe? After Monday’s walk-off win at the Tigers’ expense ended their recent losing streak, it’s worth looking at what has to happen to get last year’s wild-card surprise back in the running in the AL wild-card race. Here’s a quick look at what has to happen for the Indians to become relevant again.

1. This new-look Michael Brantley has to keep doing what he’s been doing. His game-winning blast on Monday was just the latest happy development for him. Almost like clockwork, he’s having a big year as a 27-year-old, right when you’d expect, and you can worry that a lot of it is a big early spike in his homers per fly ball, more than triple his previous career best. But you also can’t help but wonder if this is the payoff for a guy who’s significantly better than average at putting balls in play. Brantley’s .250 Isolated Power against off-speed stuff ranks in the top 20 among major league regulars, so when he got an Al Alburquerque slider over the plate in the 10th, he got an opportunity to add to that impressive clip.

2. Several slow starts in the lineup have to end. Michael Bourn has missed time to injury, but the bigger worry is his career-low walk rate so far (5.5 percent), which is crippling for a team counting on him to get on base in the leadoff slot. Nick Swisher has the seventh-lowest OPS among AL qualifiers, and he’s slugging just .317. Carlos Santana’s been even worse, below .600. While you might ascribe some of that to his troubles adjusting to life as a third baseman, and you can blame some of it on an unusually awful .167 BABIP through Sunday, he is at least walking. Santana and Swisher are supposed to be the stable middle of the order, and their poor performance is part of the reason why the Indians are among the worst at cashing in their baserunners, scoring just 13 percent of them, bettering only the Astros in the AL.

3. This is sort of a subset of the slow starts already mentioned, but the other thing the Indians have to do is start hitting lefties. As far as their record, the Indians were an MLB-worst 4-11 versus left-handed starters coming into their game against Drew Smyly on Monday. The average MLB OPS versus southpaws is .720, but through Sunday the Indians were at .608. You can deposit only so much of the blame for this at situational hero Ryan Raburn’s doorstep. Last year, Raburn went from scrapheap find to lefty-killer, mashing against them for a 1.020 OPS; this year, he was scrapping at less than half that clip at .508 before Monday’s action. Raburn is merely representative of a lineup-wide problem, because outside of Brantley and Asdrubal Cabrera, all of the lineup regulars were putting up a .635 OPS or worse. Start hitting southpaws, and the wins will come.

4. The Indians have to play better defense. A .660 Defensive Efficiency isn’t just the worst in the league or in the majors this year, if that’s what the Indians’ leather men do all season it would be the worst-ever DE posted by a team going back through the 1950 season. (Earlier than that, and we’re less certain about the data.) So that’s epically bad, and to put it another way, 34 percent of all balls put into play against the Indians become baserunners. Not counting walks, not counting homers. The big league average is .689, the AL-leading Athletics are at .722, while the Reds are baseball’s best at .732.

Switch to Defensive Runs Saved, and you get a sense of the damage: According to Baseball Info Solutions, the Indians’ infielders had cost them 16 runs, while the outfield had cost them 26 runs. If you use the old sabermetric yardstick that 10 runs equals a win, that’s four wins the Indians’ defense has already cost them. It’s especially interesting that the outfield has been such a problem: As Rangers fans might have warned Cleveland, David Murphy is a left fielder stretched to handle right, but Bourn and Brantley are both athletic players you’d anticipate better results from afield.

The Indians’ pitching staff is doing what it can to control the damage by keeping balls out of play, striking out 22.7 percent of all batters through Sunday, good for the fourth-best rate in baseball. But even whiffing 2.5 percent more people than the average staff for near-automatic outs doesn’t compensate for being three percent worse than average at letting balls in play become baserunners.

5. The rotation needs to take shape. Yes, we just blamed the fielding for making life hard for the Indians’ men on the mound, but Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco have to own some portion of losing their jobs in the rotation. Zach McAllister has managed just four quality starts in nine turns, while presumed ace Justin Masterson has just five in 10, right at the league average. Corey Kluber is the lone bright spot.

To help fix this issue, Trevor Bauer returns to a major league mound on Tuesday night with high expectations for him as well as for his strikeout rate. Facing Justin Verlander, he will get anything but a soft landing, but the big-picture problem is that if he doesn’t cut down on the freebies that have undermined him in every one of his previous extended stints in the majors, he’ll just be putting that much more pressure on that defense, and he’ll pay a high penalty no matter how many people he overpowers.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s that it looks like Terry Francona once again has a deep bullpen used to good effect. Last year, Francona’s pen made an MLB-leading 540 appearances, and it’s leading the AL this year with 150 appearances through Sunday. Last year’s crew was a little better than average, stranding 73 percent of baserunners (against 70 percent for all MLB). This year’s unit is doing even better, stranding 79 percent of baserunners (with MLB averaging 71 percent). Using Fair Run Average, and the bullpen has improved from last year’s 4.09 to 4.01.

So Francona’s pen men are once again better than most when it comes to preventing runs, and they’ll need to keep that going forward. The down note is John Axford’s perhaps predictable failure to hold onto the closer’s role, but as last year’s Red Sox proved, taking a few months to figure out who your team’s designated saves generator is supposed to be doesn’t necessarily keep you from doing big things.

Can the Indians get it turned around? It would be unusual for Santana and Swisher to remain this terrible, or for Bourn to post his worst season. It would be unusual to see them be the worst defense in history or even recent history, and if (or when) that starts turning around, life will get easier for the men in the rotation. The question is whether it’s going to happen in time for the Tribe to get back into the AL wild-card race, but considering they're just 3.5 games out now -- after all that's gone wrong for them already -- there is no reason to give up on them before the season even reaches the one-third mark.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.
Brewers fans aren't accustomed to seeing the Pirates actually win a game at Miller Park -- the Brewers are a remarkable 46-8 at home against the Pirates since 2007.

They are, however, too accustomed to seeing John Axford struggle. After Axford blew a 4-2 lead in the eighth inning on Wednesday afternoon -- Starling Marte hit a two-run homer, Brandon Inge hit the go-ahead bloop -- he walked off the mound to a chorus of boos. (The Pirates won 6-4.) One of the heroes of the 2011 playoff team, Axford is now 0-3 with a 10.32 ERA and you wonder how long Ron Roenicke will keep using him in important situations. Yes, he'd been pitching better since losing his closer role, allowing just one run over in his previous eight appearances, but he's still not a guy you want to trust; 7.1 innings is a not enough evidence that he was back to the Axford of 2011.

The Brewers have an interesting team. They can score runs and they can really score runs at Miller Park, where the ball flies. They're getting huge performances from Carlos Gomez and Yuniesky Betancourt, who each homered again on Wednesday. Jim Henderson has pitched well in the ninth inning since replacing Axford. The rotation is acceptable. But they can't afford to let the bullpen take down the team like it did a year ago. In the NL Central, which could be shaping up as a four-team race, the Brewers are a playoff contender.

GM Doug Melvin shouldn't wait until July to fortify the bullpen. Do it now. The Brewers don't have a highly rated farm system, but relievers don't cost a lot. Ask the Marlins about Steve Cishek or the Padres about Luke Gregerson. Or find that unheralded guy who looks like a sleeper, like when the Angels acquired Ernesto Frieri last year from the Padres.

As for the Pirates, it was a terrific win and Marte continues to impress from the leadoff spot, hitting .321/.387/.491. They're 16-12 even though Andrew McCutchen hasn't hit much yet. One reason they are: Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli have locked down the eighth and ninth innings. Two innings that continue to plague the Brewers.
Craig Kimbrel Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesCraig Kimbrel led the NL in saves last season and is considered the most dominant closer in baseball.

The Tigers need one. The Brewers thought they had one. The Cubs already have a new one. Some teams probably wish they had a different one. Closers are already melting down in rapid fashion.

On Monday afternoon, with closer Jason Motte sidelined with a sore elbow (he'll get a new MRI on Tuesday), the Cardinals' bullpen imploded in a 13-4 loss to the Reds, led by Mitchell Boggs giving up seven runs in the ninth inning. Now they might have closer issues as well. Rookie Trevor Rosenthal blew a 4-3 lead in the eighth, his second blown "save" of the young season, so he's not necessarily the answer if manager Mike Matheny has lost faith in Boggs.

The Tigers will apparently give Joaquin Benoit their next save opportunity, but many think they need to make a trade for a Proven Closer (tm). The problem ... well, there aren’t really that many Proven Closers out there. And the truth is, most closers weren’t preordained to be closers anyway, many arriving at the role only after failing as starters or finally getting the opportunity in their late 20s. Let’s rank all 30 closers and you’ll see what I mean.

Proven Closers
These are guys who have done the job for more than one season, thus earning the coveted title of Proven Closer.

1. Craig Kimbrel, Braves
The best ninth-inning guy in the business, coming off maybe the most dominant relief season ever -- he fanned over half the batters he faced -- in the modern era, or what Goose Gossage likes to refer to as "After I retired."

Before becoming a closer: Groomed as a closer, he's never started a game in pro ball and became Atlanta's closer as a rookie in 2011.

2. Aroldis Chapman, Reds
I'm actually breaking my own rule here since Chapman has only been a closer for less than one season. But unless his control suddenly abandons him, he's obviously the real deal after striking out 122 in 71.2 innings last season.

Before becoming a closer: Lacked the secondary pitches and stamina to make it as a starter.

3. Mariano Rivera, Yankees
He's old, he basically has one pitch and he's coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Anyone want to bet against him?

Before becoming a closer: Failed starting pitcher prospect.

4. Jonathan Papelbon, Phillies
Starting his eighth year as a closer, which is entering elevated territory. (Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter, for example, only had seven dominant seasons as a closer.) Papelbon had some not-so-clutch moments last season, however, finishing with four blown saves and six losses.

Before becoming a closer: Forty-eight of his 58 appearances in the minors and his first three major league appearances came as a starter, but Red Sox converted him to relief.

5. Joe Nathan, Rangers
Not quite the Rivera-like force he was during his Twins days, but still pretty good. Picked up his 300th career save Monday, becoming the 23rd reliever to hit that mark.

Before becoming a closer: Had a 4.70 ERA in two seasons as a part-time starter for the Giants in 1999-2000, had a 7.29 ERA in the minors in 2001 (5.60 in 2002), made it back, traded to the Twins, then became a closer at age 29.

6. Rafael Soriano, Nationals
Has three seasons as a closer with three different teams, so this will be his fourth year as a closer with his fourth different teams, making him the best example of Proven Closer, Will Travel.

Before becoming a closer: Spent parts of seven seasons in the majors (starting as a rookie with Seattle), many parts of which were spent on the disabled list.

7. Huston Street, Padres
Now entering his ninth season as a closer, Street has recorded 30-plus saves just twice, as he's often hurt and hasn't pitched 60 innings since 2009.

Before becoming a closer: Groomed as a closer since Oakland made him the 40th pick in the 2004 draft out of Texas.

8. Chris Perez, Indians
Now entering his fourth season as Cleveland's closer, he's been an All-Star the past two seasons despite a less-than-awe-inspiring 3.45 ERA and 4-11 record.

Before becoming a closer: Mediocre middle reliever with St. Louis and Cleveland for two years. Fell into the closer role in 2010 because Kerry Wood was injured at the start of the season.

9. J.J. Putz, Diamondbacks
He's had four seasons of 30-plus saves, although he spent three years in between closer jobs. He's another guy who isn't the most durable pitcher around and hasn't pitched 60 innings since 2007.

Before becoming a closer: Started for three years in the minors for Seattle, moved to the bullpen, spent two years as a mediocre middle guy, but learned the splitter and became a closer at age 29 after Proven Closer Eddie Guardado imploded early in 2006.

10. Joel Hanrahan, Red Sox
All-Star closer with the Pirates the past two seasons, but he walked 36 and allowed eight home runs in 59.2 innings last year. Could easily lose the job to former Proven Closer Andrew Bailey.

Before becoming a closer: Didn't make it as a starter with the Dodgers, traded to the Nationals and then to the Pirates. Spent three years as a middle reliever.

One-year wonders

These guys became closers last year, and several of them had dominant seasons. But beware the John Axford lesson: One season does not make you a Proven Closer. Do it again and we'll start believing.

11. Fernando Rodney, Rays
After years as basically a bad reliever (22-38 career record., 4.29 ERA), he signed with Tampa Bay and lucked into getting a save in the season's second game as the fourth reliever of the ninth inning in a game against the Yankees. Went on to have one of the greatest relief seasons ever, with a 0.60 ERA and five earned runs allowed. He's already allowed three earned runs in 2013. Was last year a fluke?

Before becoming a closer: See above. Did save 37 games (with a 4.40 ERA) for the Tigers in 2009.

[+] EnlargeSergio Romo
Ron Vesely/MLB Photos/Getty Images)After many seasons as a middle reliever, Sergio Romo finally got the chance to close and got the last out in the 2012 World Series.
12. Sergio Romo, Giants
The slider specialist replaced Santiago Casilla, who had replaced the injured Brian Wilson. Saved 14 games and then allowed one run in 10.2 postseason innings.

Before becoming a closer: Not much of a prospect as a 28th-round pick who didn't throw hard, but Romo was an excellent middle guy for four seasons.

13. Ernesto Frieri, Angels
The hard-throwing righty came over after an early-season trade with the Padres, got the closer job after Jordan Walden struggled and had a terrific season. Might lose his job anyway if former Journeyman Made Good Ryan Madson gets healthy.

Before becoming a closer: Moved to the bullpen after posting a 3.59 ERA in Double-A in 2009.

14. Jason Motte, Cardinals
Took over the closer role late in 2011 and helped the Cards win the World Series. Saved 42 games with 2.75 ERA last year. Currently injured.

Before becoming a closer: Spent first three pro seasons as a catcher.

15. Jim Johnson, Orioles
In his first full year as closer he saved 51 games. Rare among closers, he's a ground ball specialist who doesn't register many whiffs (41 in 68.2 innings in 2012).

Before becoming a closer: A not-very-good minor league starter.

16. Tom Wilhelmsen, Mariners
In his first full year in the majors, he replaced a struggling Brandon League. Did just fine with his mid-90s fastball and hammer curve.

Before becoming a closer: Was bartending. No, seriously.

17. Addison Reed, White Sox
Saved 29 games as a rookie, although his 4.75 ERA wasn't exactly Rivera-ish.

Before becoming a closer: Drafted in the third round out of San Diego State in 2010, he had a dominant relief season in the minors in 2011 (1.26 ERA) that pushed him quickly to the majors.

18. Greg Holland, Royals
Had 16 saves last season, but his job could be in jeopardy after four walks in his first two innings of 2013. Aaron Crow saved Monday's win for the Royals.

Before becoming a closer: Came out of nowhere to post a 1.80 ERA with the Royals in 2011.

19. Steve Cishek, Marlins
Saved 15 games after expensive Proven Closer Heath Bell gakked up several memorable save opportunities.

Before becoming a closer: The sidearmer was never on prospect radar lists because sidearmers are never on prospect radar lists.

20. Brandon League, Dodgers
Saved 37 games for Seattle in 2011, but lost his job early last season due to general lack of impressiveness. Throws a hard sinker so he gets ground balls but not many K's. Pitched better in 27 innings for the Dodgers last season so they gave him a bunch of money. Control was fine in 2011, not so fine last year.

Before becoming a closer: Didn't make it as a starter in the minors despite high-90s fastball.

Journeymen Made Good
These guys became closers essentially because their teams didn't have anyone else. Perseverance pays off!

21. Grant Balfour, A's
Hard-throwing Aussie became a closer last year for the first time at age 34.

Before becoming a closer: Played Australian rules football. OK, not really. Went from Twins to Reds to Brewers before finally having some good years with Tampa Bay.

22. Glen Perkins, Twins
The rare lefty closer had 16 saves a year ago.

Before becoming a closer: Career 5.06 ERA as a starter in 44 games before moving to the bullpen.

23. Rafael Betancourt, Rockies
At 37 years old, he became a closer for the first time and saved 31 games for Rockies in 2012.

Before becoming a closer: Has a career 3.13 ERA, so he'd been a good reliever for a lot of years.

24. Jason Grilli, Pirates
The veteran reliever had a career year last year at age 35 with 90 K's in 58.2 innings and took over the closer role when Hanrahan was traded.

Before becoming a closer: Played for five major league teams before Pittsburgh.

25. Casey Janssen, Blue Jays
Another late bloomer, he got the ninth-inning job after Sergio Santos was injured last year.

Before becoming a closer: The former starter didn't really have a wipeout pitch so he got pushed to the pen.

26. Bobby Parnell, Mets
He's long been heralded as a closer candidate due to his high-octane fastball. Now he'll finally get the opportunity.

Before becoming a closer: One-time minor league starter has spent past four seasons in the Mets' bullpen.

The Import
27. Kyuji Fujikawa, Cubs
The new Cubs' closer could be good, bad or something in-between. I think he'll be pretty good.

Looking for help
28. Tigers. The problem with Phil Coke as a closer is that Phil Coke just isn't a very good reliever. Al Alburquerque and Brayan Villarreal have better stuff but not much experience.

29. Brewers. Axford was signed out of independent ball and had a monster 46-save season for the Brewers in 2011. He's allowed four home runs in 2.2 innings this season and the Brewers may sign Rollie Fingers.

Might not get a save opportunity until May

30. Jose Veras, Astros.
Now 32, he's pitched for the Yankees, Indians, Marlins, Pirates and Brewers and has five career saves.

Before becoming a closer: The Brewers had the worst bullpen in the majors last year and even they didn't want him back.

Sunday's day of aces turned more into a game of Crazy Eights -- there were some crooked numbers put up against several of baseball's top pitchers and none of the anticipated showdowns materialized into a pitcher's duel.

One of the disappointing matchups was the Stephen Strasburg-Johnny Cueto game in Cincinnati. There's really not much at stake in early April, but this game had that little extra taste of powerhouse teams trying to get a little early bragging rights. The Reds had wiped out the Nationals 15-0 on Friday and the Nationals won 7-6 on Saturday, blowing a four-run lead only to win in 11 innings, so this game would determine the series winner.

Cueto gave up a three-run homer to Kurt Suzuki in the second inning, but did settle down and didn't allow anything else through his six frames. Strasburg's final line -- 5.1 IP, 9 H, 6 ER, 4 BB, 5 Ks -- looked liked he got knocked around, but that wasn't really the case. On the other hand, he wasn't the dominant Strasburg we unfairly expect to see every start.

In the first inning, the Reds scored three runs with only one hit out of the infield:

-- With one out, Xavier Paul weakly chopped an 0-2 curveball off Strasburg's glove for an infield hit.
-- Joey Votto does what Joey Votto does: he walked on five pitches. Strasburg tried to bust him twice inside but was way off the plate on both pitches.
-- Brandon Phillips hit a first-pitch fastball hard to third that Ryan Zimmerman put a nice diving stop on but lost the ball on the transfer.
-- With the bases loaded, Jay Bruce lined a 2-2 curve to left-center for a two-run double.
-- Todd Frazier's infield grounder plated the third run.

The curveball to Bruce wasn't in a bad location -- low and away -- but was a bit lazy without a sharp break, and Bruce was clearly sitting on it. Until Strasburg gets better at commanding his fastball inside to lefties, it's going to be easier for hitters to lean over the plate with two strikes -- or at least anticipate that outside curveball. Here, check out Strasburg's fastballs to Cincinnati's left-handers on Sunday:

Stephen Strasburg heat mapESPN Stats & Information Stephen Strasburg didn't throw many inside fastballs for strikes against lefties on Sunday.
In the sixth, the Reds scored three more runs. Speedy pinch hitter Derrick Robinson slapped a base hit past a drawn-in Zimmerman for his first major league hit. Shin-Soo Choo then lined a 1-2 high fastball into center to push Robinson to third. With the infield halfway, Paul hit a hard grounder to second baseman Danny Espinosa, who threw home instead of turning two. Everybody was safe. Davey Johnson said Espinosa should have turned two. Espinosa said, "The way I thought was, we were playing halfway because we were trying to cut that run down." After Votto grounded out, Phillips hit a 2-2 changeup into left for an RBI single, knocking Strasburg from the game. The final run scored on Bruce's infield hit.

So it was a bit of a bad-luck outing for Strasburg, as he walked four and was unable to punch out Bruce and Phillips in key situations. He apparently had some problems pitching out of the stretch in spring training as well. "I have to look at video and see what I'm doing out there," Strasburg told MLB.com. "Some days, you kind of give up a lot of singles, and when they all get on base, they seem to come up with the clutch hits. You have to tip your cap and move forward."

I think there's another issue brewing here. Let's see Strasburg become a great pitcher before we declare him the greatest pitcher. In Vegas, he was the betting favorite to win the NL Cy Young Award over Clayton Kershaw. He and Kershaw received the most Cy Young predictions on the ESPN staff balloting. Sure, that's somewhat understandable considering his dominant strikeout rate from last season (30.2 percent, highest in the majors for any pitcher with 150 innings since Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez in 2002).

So, yes, there's no denying Strasburg's potential. But let's keep in mind he's never pitched more than seven innings in a game, let alone 200 innings in a season. He's not quite a polished pitcher yet, especially against left-handed batters, who hit a respectable .271/.326/.387 off him last year, including .323 off his fastball. Kershaw -- only a few months older than Strasburg, mind you -- is at the peak of his powers, a guy who could easily be gunning for his third straight Cy Young Award (he finished second to R.A. Dickey last year).

After an Opening Day shutout against the Giants, Kershaw was brilliant again on Saturday, allowing two hits in seven scoreless innings against the Pirates. He's thrown 94 and 97 pitches in his two outings, whereas as Strasburg labored through 114 on Sunday.

I do think Strasburg will get to that next level. He may reel off 15 brilliant starts in a row. But he's not Kershaw just yet. The hype is a product of today's world, but how about if the man pitches eight innings in a game before we say he's as good as Kershaw.



Poll of the week: Who had the best first week?


Discuss (Total votes: 4,724)

Three stars
1. Justin Upton, Braves. How cool was Saturday night? B.J. Upton tied the game in the bottom of the ninth with a home run off the Cubs' Carlos Marmol, and then one out later, his brother Justin won it with his second homer of the game and fifth of the season.

2. Kershaw, Dodgers. Through two starts he's allowed no runs, one walk and no extra-base hits. Next up: At Arizona on Friday.

3. Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks. Went 6-for-13 with a homer, three doubles, five runs and five RBIs as the D-backs swept the Brewers in Milwaukee.

Clutch performance of the weekend
CC Sabathia, Yankees. With the Yankees off to a 1-4 start, on Sunday they had to face Justin Verlander, who was looking to go 2-0 for the first time in his career. He still is, as Sabathia tossed seven scoreless innings. Hold off on that Yankee funeral march -- at least for another week.

Best game
Nationals 7, Reds 6 (Saturday). The Nationals led 5-1 but scored twice in the eighth (with the help of some sloppy defense) and twice in the ninth off proven closer Rafael Soriano to tie it (Choo homered and Votto tripled and scored on wild pitch). Ian Desmond and Jayson Werth homered in the 11th only to see the Reds score on Votto's walk and Phillips' double -- but Craig Stammen finally struck out Bruce on an 0-2 curveball.

Hitter on the rise: Chris Davis, Orioles.
Davis went RBI-less on Sunday, but still has 17 in Baltimore's first six games (fantasy owners everywhere thank you, Chris). As John Fisher of ESPN and Stats Info pointed out, Davis has been crushing outside pitches, going back to late last September. In his last 11 regular-season games since Sept. 26, Davis has six home runs on the outside part of the plate (or off it), largely because he's been staying back and going the opposite way or to center field.

ESPN colleague Curt Schilling said (via email) to watch very closely how Davis is pitched moving forward. Schilling says the smart teams will start pounding Davis with hard stuff inside. "If he has matured as a hitter," Curt wrote, "he will draw a significant number of walks this week because only top of the rotation guys (A) have consistent command in; (B) get the consistent call in from umpires."

Pitcher on the rise: Kyuji Fujikawa, Cubs
Thanks to Carlos Marmol's implosions in the ninth inning, Fujikawa will take over as the Cubs' closer, even though Fujikawa also had a rough outing on Saturday prior to Marmol's Upton affair, giving up three runs in the eighth.

Lineup move I can't understand
Eric Wedge, I don't understand you. And I'm not even talking about your various outfield arrangements so far. If the Mariners have any chance to win this year, a primary reason will be because Dustin Ackley develops into the hitter everyone thought the was going to develop into a couple years ago. But Wedge has already sat Ackley twice in seven games against left-handers. For Robert Andino. I get it, Chris Sale is tough on lefties. But we know Andino can't hit. What the Mariners have to find out is if Ackley can hit. He needs to play every day.

Team on the rise: Rockies
Hey, they're 5-1 and tied for the best record in baseball. They also have the best run differential in the majors at +21 -- an amazing 47 runs better than the Padres after just six games. Ahh, first-week stats!

Team on the fall: Brewers
Where do I even begin? The Brewers lost 8-7 in 11 innings on Sunday -- the final out coming when pitcher Kyle Lohse had to pinch hit and struck out looking with runners on first and third. But the more egregious strikeout looking came with the previous batter, when Rickie Weeks took a called third strike, KNOWING THE PITCHER WAS ON DECK AND THE BREWERS HAD NO BENCH PLAYERS LEFT.

How did the Brewers get there? Well, Ryan Braun was unavailable and Jean Segura got hurt earlier in the game, but the Brewers are only carrying 12 position players on the roster to begin with, meaning they had 11 guys minus Braun. I know the Brewers' bullpen is bad, but carrying 13 pitchers is about the dumbest kind of roster management you can have. The Brewers deserved to lose that game and deserve to be 1-5 right now.
Quick thoughts on Wednesday's games:
  • Three closers blew ninth-inning leads -- Phil Coke of the Tigers, Fernando Rodney of the Rays and Chris Perez of the Indians. The Rays and Indians ended up winning their games anyway, so no harm, no foul. Of the three the one I'd most worry about is Rodney, because he was so good last year and the Rays need him to dominate once again. Coke entered with a 2-1 lead after Joaquin Benoit had walked the leadoff hitter in the ninth, and Coke gave up a little flare to right and then a two-run double to Eduardo Escobar that was tagged to deep left-center but Austin Jackson and Andy Dirks had a miscommunication, letting the ball drop. I'm not that worried yet about Detroit's closer-by-committee situation, as I still think they have enough good arms down there to make it work.
  • The other closer to really worry about, however, is Milwaukee's John Axford. After giving up a game-tying homer in the opener, he pitched the ninth while down 4-3 and allowed five hits and two runs, failing to get three outs. Rockies beat writer Troy Renck reported on Twitter that a scout said hitters are seeing Axford's release point so easily that it's almost like he's tipping his pitches. I don't see how the Brewers can use him in a save situation again until he proves he can actually go through an inning without giving up a home run. (Carlos Gomez did have the play of the day, however.
  • Watched Tim Lincecum's start and it wasn't pretty, although he escaped with the win despite walking seven batters in five innings. How rare is that? Tommy Hanson was the only starter to walk seven batters last year and come away with a victory. Like with Roy Halladay, we're still left wondering what lies ahead.
  • Great game in Arizona that I didn't stay up for, the Diamondbacks beating the Cardinals 10-9 in 16 innings. Josh Collmenter pitched five innings to get the win, which begs the question: How many teams even have a reliever like that anymore, a guy you can leave in to soak up innings? Collmenter has spent parts of the past two seasons in the Arizona rotation. (Although I don't understand moves like this: David Hernandez, one of the best setup guys in the game, pitched just one inning and 10 pitches. In a tie game, why remove him so quickly? In a tie game, don't you have to think about the game being extended and how you want as many innings as possible from your best relievers? Especially since Arizona doesn't even play on Thursday. It worked out in the end for Kirk Gibson, but I hate that rote "remove a guy after one inning" mind-set and ignoring his pitch count.)
  • Was watching Halladay pitch, so missed Matt Harvey's gem for the Mets (7 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 10 SO). I think I'll be watching some of his starts soon enough. In a postgame interview, he said he had command of his fastball to both sides of the plate, and didn't have to shake off catcher John Buck all game.
  • The Astros, Marlins or Yankees: Which team will be worse? Just kidding, Yankees fans! (Sort of.)
It's one of the best days of the year. Maybe the best. Especially if your team won. Here are 10 things to take away from Monday's action.

1. Bryce Harper loves the spotlight.

While Opening Day is, technically speaking, just one game of 162, it is special -- to players, to managers and certainly to fans, who fill parks across the country, even in 35-degree weather (applause to hearty Minnesotans). Opening Day isn't just another game in late July, where the legs are tired and the fatigue of a season has to be fought through. Everybody is pumped up and focused. The lights shine bright and that's why I love what Harper did on Monday. Davey Johnson showed no fear in naming the 20-year-old his No. 3 hitter and Harper's two solo home runs in a 2-0 victory showed a Ken Griffey Jr.-like flair for the dramatic (Griffey hit eight home runs on Opening Day in his career). Harper is going to take that No. 3 position in the lineup and own it for the next decade. And those gutsy MVP predictions for him don't look so crazy.

2. Yankees feed into preseason fears.

With a lineup that featured Eduardo Nunez hitting second, Kevin Youkilis hitting cleanup (his .409 slugging percentage last year was lower than his on-base percentage in 2009 and 2010), Vernon Wells, Ben Francisco, Jayson Nix and Francisco Cervelli, the Yankees are clearly going to struggle to score runs until they get Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira back. But will they still be in the race by then? CC Sabathia got dinged a little bit in a four-run second inning in the Yankees' 8-2 loss to the Red Sox -- two infield singles, a little flare, a groundball hit -- but he also walked four batters in five innings.

3. Jackie Bradley Jr. shows mature approach.

While Boston's rookie left fielder is already overhyped -- I worry Red Sox fans are expecting the next Harper or Mike Trout -- he showed why the Red Sox were confident he could hold his own in the majors despite playing just 61 games above Class A ball. He drew three walks, including a crucial freebie during that second inning in which he fought back from an 0-2 count and laid off three tough sliders to load the bases with one out.

4. Bullpen worries already in Milwaukee.

Brewers closer John Axford was outstanding in 2011 when the Brewers won the NL Central. He was the opposite of outstanding last year, losing his role for a spell to Francisco Rodriguez as the Brewers lost an MLB-leading 11 games they led heading into the ninth inning (MLB average: under four). So it didn't inspire confidence when he served up a game-tying home run to Dexter Fowler in the ninth. The Brewers did win the game in the 10th, but keep an eye on Axford's next few outings.

5. Cy Young candidates dominate.

Clayton Kershaw, Stephen Strasburg, Matt Cain, Justin Verlander, Chris Sale and Felix Hernandez combined to allow ... nothing, in 41.2 scoreless innings. Jered Weaver and Johnny Cueto each allowed one run. What did we learn from those guys? Nothing! We already knew they were good. But the most impressive may have been Cubs right-hander Jeff Samardzija, who allowed two hits in eight scoreless innings against the Pirates, walking one and striking out nine. Samardzija surprised last year in moving to the rotation, especially with his command after having control issues as a reliever, and with a fastball clocked as high as 97 mph, his first outing suggests that maybe -- maybe -- he'll soon be mentioned in the same paragraphs as those other guys. Like this one. (By the way, Anthony Rizzo's home run to center was sweet, just a nice easy swing ... and boom.)

6. Angels bullpen answers first test.

The Angels had issues in middle relief last year, a problem that was hoped to be solved by signing Ryan Madson and Sean Burnett, and moving closer Ernesto Frieri to a setup role. But Madson is still recovering from Tommy John surgery and the bullpen didn't look good during the Angels' 10-20 spring training. But in relief of Weaver, the pen tossed seven innings of one-hit baseball to beat the Reds 3-1 in 13 innings. Frieri fanned Jay Bruce looking for the final out and you wonder even if Madson comes back if Frieri keeps the ninth-inning role.

7. Speaking of closers ...

It didn't take for Carlos Marmol to possibly lose his grip on the closer role for the Cubs, which is probably more important to fantasy owners than it actually is to the Cubs. After hitting Andrew McCutchen and then allowing a stolen base, RBI single and walk, the Cubs used James Russell and Kyuji Fujikawa to record the final two outs.

8. The Marlins hit Placido Polanco cleanup.

And they wonder why they're having trouble selling season tickets.

9. Andrelton Simmons makes me happy.

While the three home runs the Braves hit off Cole Hamels in a 7-5 win -- Freddie Freeman, Dan Uggla and Justin Upton (welcome to Atlanta!) -- were the big story, Simmons made a couple nice plays in the field and showed off his cannon arm. If the Braves battle with the Nationals in the NL East, Simmons' Ozzie-like defense will be a key reason why.

10. Young stars everywhere.

Look at the names cited above. Harper. Bradley. Samardzija and Rizzo. Sale. Simmons. Strasburg. Even Kershaw is still just 25 years old. This is my biggest takeaway from Opening Day 2013: Baseball is stronger than ever, with young talent oozing all over the sport. This great game is in good hands and when we get to watch players like this, so pull up a chair and enjoy the next 179 days. I know I will.
Craig KimbrelMark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsCraig Kimbrel worked a one-two-three ninth to secure the win over Team Canada.
They call this the World Baseball Classic and Sunday's United States-Canada game certainly qualifies as a classic, with a David-versus-Goliath storyline, several questionable lineup and managerial decisions made by Joe Torre, a late-inning rally and maybe some respect earned for this tournament.

The final score read 9-4 in favor of the United States, and the U.S. moves on to the second round next weekend in Miami. But the game was much more tense than the score indicated. Some quick thoughts:

  • Let's begin with Torre's lineup. He inserted Shane Victorino into left field and Ben Zobrist into right field, moving Ryan Braun to the DH spot, Joe Mauer to catcher and benching Giancarlo Stanton. While that added two switch-hitters to the Team USA lineup against Canadian right-hander Jameson Taillon, it meant sitting one of the game's premier sluggers for Victorino, who isn't the same presence in the lineup. I understand that Torre wanted to get Victorino into a game, but this isn't tee ball; there are no trophies and cookies handed out to the losing team for trying your best.
  • Torre then had a strange sacrifice bunt attempt in the second inning with two runners on and no outs after David Wright doubled and Canada third baseman Taylor Green dropped an infield pop-up. Instead of going for a big inning against a 21-year-old who has pitched three games above Class A, Torre had Adam Jones bunt. It made no sense to play little ball there instead of trying to blow the game open against a pitcher who didn't exactly dominate the Florida State League in 2012. The bunt worked but Taillon worked out of the jam without a run. Play for one, get none.
  • The U.S. fell behind when Mariners outfielder Michael Saunders continued his hot WBC streak with a two-run home run to right, yanking a terrible hanging slider from Derek Holland. Saunders had shown bunt on the first pitch, a ball in the dirt, then swung away. That's what can happen when you don't bunt.
  • Down 2-0 in the fourth, Torre then bunted again with two on and no outs. The bunt "worked" when Green hesitated on Zobrist's bunt down the third-base line and Zobrist beat the throw to first. How rare is a bunt when trailing by two runs? Torre managed the Yankees from 1996 to 2007 and the Yankees had 13 sacrifice bunts when down two runs -- one by a pitcher, three by Miguel Cairo and the others by weak hitters other than two by Derek Jeter in 2004. In other words, Torre almost never bunted in that situation. It's like Torre was watching all the small ball played by the Asian teams and forgot he has the best lineup in the tournament. If Green makes the play, the U.S. scores only one run that inning instead of two. Good outcome, but the wrong call.
  • In the eighth inning, after Jones delivered a big go-ahead double to give the U.S. the lead, Torre turned to Diamondbacks righty David Hernandez even though the heart of the Canada lineup -- Joey Votto, Justin Morneau and Saunders, all left-handed hitters -- was due up. I can't quibble too much with that decision, even though lefty Jeremy Affeldt was available. I would have used Affeldt, as all three players had sizable platoon splits last year, but Hernandez was one of the game's best relievers in 2012 (although he held righties to a .145 average and lefties to a .240 mark). After Votto reached on an infield, Morneau struck out and Saunders laid down a perfect bunt single. Chris Robinson then singled to load the bases and Adam Loewen grounded out to make the score 5-4. Torre then brought in Marlins reliever Steve Cishek (of course, using Craig Kimbrel, the most dominant reliever in baseball with your tournament on the line was apparently out of the question) and had him intentionally walk Pete Orr (!) to load the bases. I never like that move, which gives a pitcher no room for error. Canadian manager Ernie Whitt also pinch-hit lefty Tim Smith to face the sidearmer. The intentional walk also guaranteed Votto would bat in the bottom of the ninth. Anyway, Cishek got Smith to ground out to second in what turned out to be the game's crucial at-bat.
  • The U.S. broke it open in the ninth, with Whitt waiting too long to bring in Brewers closer John Axford, who served up a three-run double to Eric Hosmer. In the end, the U.S. bullpen depth proved key, as many expected it would before the game.
  • One thing that needs to stop is the guarantees made to general managers that if their guy is selected to a squad, he needs to play. I'm not sure if Torre used Hernandez because he hadn't pitched in the previous two games -- and again, it wasn't that strange of a move, not like the two bunts -- and needed to get him some work. Same thing with Cishek. Or maybe Torre just wanted to get them into a game. But this isn't exactly an All-Star Game. It's not an easy job, but I'd like the U.S. managers to treat this a little more seriously and not guarantee playing time. It's easy enough for a reliever to throw on the side after a game and Victorino's season isn't going to be ruined by not playing for three days.
  • Part of the fun of the World Baseball Classic is rooting for guys from your team, no matter which country they're playing for. As a Mariners fan, it was exciting to see Saunders have another big game. It was a rough day for Brewers fans, however. Green went 0-for-5 and his two miscues in the field led to at least two U.S. runs, Jim Henderson couldn't hold the 4-3 lead in the eighth, and then Axford let the game get away in the ninth. Even Braun went a quiet 1-for-5.

We've had a brawl, we've had upsets, we've had dramatic late-inning rallies and, thanks to one big swing from David Wright, we now get a monumental showdown between bitter enemies Canada and the United States to stay alive in the World Baseball Classic.

OK, maybe it's not quite Sidney Crosby and the Canadians taking on Ryan Miller and the Americans in the 2010 gold-medal hockey game at the Vancouver Olympics, and maybe Canada and the U.S. aren't exactly enemies on the diamond, but Sunday's game at Chase Field in Phoenix is probably the biggest baseball game for Canadians since the Blue Jays won their second straight World Series in 1993.

Baseball fans in the U.S. are still warming up to the whole idea of this tournament, and while a major goal is to help increase popularity of the sport in countries such as Brazil and China and Italy and the Netherlands, don't be fooled: The organizers want U.S. fans to get as passionate about the World Baseball Classic as those in Japan and Latin America. In large part because second-round games will be held in Miami, with the semifinals and finals in San Francisco, and the organizers want sold-out ballparks -- something more likely to happen if the U.S. keeps advancing.

With that possibly in mind, the U.S. was given a soft pool. While the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Puerto Rico were all placed together in Pool C, the U.S. drew lighter-weights Mexico, Canada and Italy. But when Italy beat Mexico and Canada, and then Mexico upset the U.S. on Friday night, it suddenly put pressure on the U.S. to win its final two games of pool play. Joe Torre's squad was actually helped when Canada beat Mexico earlier Saturday -- a game that featured a bench-clearing brawl in the ninth inning -- meaning the Americans now controlled their destiny.

That destiny took a turn for the worse when the surprising Italians took a 2-0 lead against Ryan Vogelsong, who didn't have his usual excellent fastball command. Most of the Italian players are from the U.S., including big leaguers Anthony Rizzo, Chris Denorfia and Nick Punto, but cleanup hitter Alex Liddi of the Mariners was born and raised in Italy and 23-year-old starting pitcher Luca Panerati is an Italian who played a few years in the Reds system, topping out in A-ball. Panerati nevertheless shut down the U.S. with his 86 mph fastball and offspeed pitches, leaving after three scoreless innings; he can tell his grandkids someday about the time he shut down a lineup of major league All-Stars. But the U.S. rallied with five runs in the fifth inning, capped by Wright's two-out grand slam off Matt Torra, an American who pitched in Triple-A for Tampa Bay’s organization last year.

[+] EnlargeDavid Wright
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY SportsDavid Wright turned one around from Italy's Matt Torra for the key fifth-inning grand slam.
That 6-2 win means U.S. versus Canada, winners move on to Miami, losers go home (or back to spring training). Considering the way this tournament has gone -- Italy advancing, Venezuela out after losing its first two games, 2009 runner-up South Korea failing to advance out of the first round, the Netherlands beating Cuba in a second-round game -- don't count out the Canadians.

First, their lineup has some guys you've heard of: Former MVPs Joey Votto and Justin Morneau. Mariners outfielder Michael Saunders went 4-for-4 in the 10-3 win over Mexico. The lineup was hurt by Brett Lawrie's injury in spring training and we’ll have to see if Pete Orr and Rene Tosoni, ejected after the brawl, will be suspended or not; the pitching is thin without guys such as Ryan Dempster, Scott Diamond and Erik Bedard participating. Still, Pirates prospect Jameson Taillon will start against the U.S., and while he hasn't reached the major leagues yet (he pitched in Double-A last year), he has major league stuff, ranking as Keith Law No. 20 preseason prospect. He's certainly capable of shutting down the U.S. lineup for his 65-pitch limit. After that, however, Canada's pitching thins out in a hurry, with Brewers closer John Axford and Phillies reliever Phillippe Aumont the two biggest names in the bullpen.

The U.S. will start Derek Holland, a good strategic move by Torre to get the lefty Holland in there to try to neutralize Votto, Morneau and Saunders. With Ross Detwiler throwing four scoreless innings of relief against Italy, that means the U.S. bullpen is well-rested. Look for Torre to use lefties Jeremy Affeldt and Glen Perkins against the middle of the lineup in the middle innings, and he still has Craig Kimbrel waiting to get some action.

The U.S. will be heavy favorite to advance. To use another Olympic hockey analogy, the Americans are the Soviets. Do the Canadians have a miracle in store? I'll be watching to find out. After all, it's about time we settle this border war with Canada.

The second wild card is a goofy, ridiculous idea that goes against everything baseball history stands for: That the regular season is the ultimate test of a team's ability, strength and toughness. To get to the playoffs, you have to prove yourself over 162 games; and to get there, baseball requires a higher standard of excellence than other sports.

Which is one reason I didn't like the second wild card; it lowers that bar. And once you're there after playing 162 games, you get one game, do-or-die, to remain alive?

I still have my doubts, but in 2012, I'll admit: The second wild card has added an extra layer of fun.

I'm pretty sure the Milwaukee Brewers would agree. I'm not exactly sure when the Brewers hit their low point. Maybe it was when Rickie Weeks swung at this pitch, but more likely it was July 23, 24 and 25, when they lost three games in Philadelphia by identical 7-6 scores, all in the late innings. In the first game, Francisco Rodriguez allowed four runs in the bottom of the ninth. The next day, the Phillies scored six runs in the eighth inning. The day after that, the Brewers scored a run in the 10th but gave up two in the bottom of the inning. Two days later, Zack Greinke was traded.

And why not? The Brewers were 45-54, 10 games out of the second wild card, the magic of 2011's playoff run a distant memory.

Yet here we are, 44 games later, and the Brewers are three games behind the suddenly plummeting St. Louis Cardinals for that suddenly enticing second wild card. On Wednesday, the Brewers completed a three-game sweep of the Atlanta Braves thanks to an eight-run explosion in the fifth inning, all the runs in Milwaukee's 8-2 victory. The Brewers are 18-5 over their past 23 games, hitting .289 with 36 home runs and 32 stolen bases while averaging 6.1 runs per game. The pitching has been impressive, of course, with a 3.33 ERA and 220 strikeouts in 208 innings.

The fifth inning came from nowhere. Paul Maholm, who has been so solid for Atlanta since coming over from the Cubs, was sailing along with just three hits allowed through four innings. The inning began with a Chipper Jones fielding error, Yovani Gallardo's sacrifice and Norichika Aoki's infield single that Jones made a diving stop on but couldn't make a throw. Up stepped Weeks, the 2011 All-Star whose averaged had sunk to .158 on June 10 and remained under .200 through July 24. Since then, however, he's hit .308, slugged over .500 and he hit a 2-1 fastball from Maholm into the bullpen in right-center for his sixth home run of September.

The Brewers weren't done. Ryan Braun -- can we finally start talking about him as an MVP candidate? -- singled. Aramis Ramirez reached on another infield single that Jones couldn't handle, Jonathan Lucroy singled just past a diving Paul Janish at shortstop, Logan Schafer walked and Travis Ishikawa cleared the bases with a double over the head of Jason Heyward on a pretty good low-and-away slider from Maholm. That brought in Cristhian Martinez and Gallardo finished off the inning with an RBI double.

Hey, it was one of those innings -- two infield hits, a single just past Janish, a double just out of Heyward's reach. It's one of those innings that when they happen in September you start believing in things like luck, karma and chasing down the Cardinals.

Gallardo, in the absence of Greinke, has stepped up since that trade. Other than one bad seven-run outing against the Pirates, he's been terrific over nine starts, giving up two runs or fewer in seven of those starts and three in the eighth. The Brewers have won all nine of those games. And here's a stat that may surprise: Gallardo leads the majors with 24 quality starts, one more than R.A. Dickey and Clayton Kershaw. Does that make him a Cy Young candidate? No, but he's provided that one consistent presence from an Opening Day rotation that saw Chris Narveson go down after two starts, Randy Wolf pitch his way out of town with a 5.69 ERA, Shaun Marcum miss time and Greinke get traded. The Brewers even had their own less-publicized Operation Shutdown when rookie Mark Rogers, who went 3-1 with a 3.92 in seven starts after his recall from the minors, was shut down after his Aug. 31 start.

* * * *

OK, maybe this is where I admit I picked the Brewers to reach the World Series. It was an admittedly left-field prediction, but going out on a limb with at least one pick is part of the fun of spring-training prognosticating. But one reason I believed in them was I did think their offense would be fine, even minus Prince Fielder. Indeed, the Brewers have scored the most runs in the National League and one big reason has been Ramirez, who essentially replaced Fielder in the lineup. Compare their numbers:

Fielder, 2011: .299/.415/.566, 38 home runs, 36 doubles
Ramirez, 2012: .296/.361/.529, 23 home runs, 44 doubles

Pretty close, and considering Ramirez plays third base, you can actually argue that Ramirez has been more valuable than Fielder (Baseball-Reference Wins Above Replacement: Fielder 4.3 in 2011, Ramirez 4.7 so far.)

What I didn't account for was Wolf pitching so poorly and the bullpen duo of Rodriguez and John Axford developing severe cases of pyromania. The Brewers have blown 10 games they led entering the ninth inning. That's terrible beyond words: Entering Wednesday's games, all 30 MLB teams were a collective 1842-91 when leading after nine innings. That's an average of three such losses per team; the Brewers had 10 percent of those defeats all by themselves.

So the Brewers can score. They have an ace. Axford has shaved off his 1890s 'stache, reclaimed his closer role and allowed one hit over his past nine appearances that resulted in eight saves and a win.

Are the Brewers a great team? No, they're 72-71. But this goofy race for the second wild card makes them playoff contenders. Their next six games are against the Mets and slumping Pirates.

Like I said: I dislike the second wild card. And yet I love it.

Now, about those Phillies ...

Nori AokiBenny Sieu/US PresswireNori Aoki's legging out an infield hit is the Brewers' case in point: They're not out yet.
No, seriously, don't laugh. You can't write off the Philadelphia Phillies and Milwaukee Brewers just yet. Both teams are 69-71 and six games behind the Cardinals for the second wild card (with the Dodgers and Pirates also ahead of them), but didn't we learn last year that crazy, ridiculous things can happen in September?

Is it possible for either team to catch the Cardinals? Sure. Consider:

St. Louis is 75-65. If they go 10-12 the rest of the way, they finish 85-77. And they're 4-8 over their past 12 games.

That means the Phillies or Brewers have to go 17-5 to win 86 games or 16-6 to tie (and assume the Dodgers and Pirates slide as well). The Phillies are 12-4 over the past 16 and the Brewers are 15-5 over the past 20.

The Phillies also have a pretty favorable schedule the rest of the way: Miami (3), at Houston (4), at the Mets (3), Atlanta (3), Washington (3), at Miami (3), at Washington (3). They do have a tough series against the Braves and two against the Nationals, but Washington will likely be resting its best pitchers in the final series. If the Phillies go 9-1 or 8-2 over these next 10 games, you never know. The Brewers have a little tougher slate: Atlanta (3), Mets (3), at Pittsburgh (3), at Washington (4), at Cincinnati (3), Houston (3), San Diego (3).

In the end, both teams will likely fall a few games short and will reflect back on bullpens gone awry. The Brewers lead the NL with 31 bullpen losses and have lost 10 games when leading heading into the ninth inning, most in the majors in a category where most teams have only a few such defeats (the Pirates have none, the Orioles one). The Phillies are 58-2 when leading after eight innings, but they've lost 11 games when leading after seven. While their bullpen has pitched the fewest innings in the NL, it's tied for second with 23 bullpen losses. Jonathan Papelbon, the $50 million closer, has six losses by himself.

Both teams, of course, expected to be stellar at the back, but Papelbon and setup man Antonio Bastardo have each allowed seven home runs. For the Brewers, John Axford and Francisco Rodriguez have also each allowed seven home runs and have combined for 15 blown saves and 14 losses. With just average performance from those two guys, the Brewers would have an additional five or six wins ... and be right there with the Cardinals instead of six games back.
The dumbest move of the offseason was when the Milwaukee Brewers offered arbitration to relief pitcher Francisco Rodriguez. The Brewers simply misread the market; they had expected Rodriguez to sign elsewhere, regaining the closer role he held with the Mets before his trade to Milwaukee. Instead, with the market for closers was essentially non-existent (Ryan Madson signed a one-year contract with the Reds, for example), Rodriguez accepted the Brewers' arbitration offer and the sides eventually agreed on a one-year, $8 million contract.

The Brewers were stuck with a pitcher they didn't want, a guy who had lived a bit of high-wire in 2011 anyway, surviving more on his deceptive, arms-and-legs, falling-down delivery and changing speeds than on the high-powered stuff he once possessed.

So not only did the Brewers spend $8 million on a relief pitcher with a dubious future instead of elsewhere to help the club, Rodriguez proceeded to stink it up. Among relief pitchers with at least 35 innings, Rodriguez has the fifth-highest on-base percentage allowed. The latest blow-up came Sunday afternoon when K-Rod and fellow arsonist John Axford combined to allow six runs as the Nationals beat the Brewers 11-10 in 11 innings.

Of course, the Brewers solved their bullpen problems today by firing bullpen coach Stan Kyles.

Look, there's always more to story than we know, but on the surface this certainly appears to be the Brewers looking for a scapegoat. Rodriguez has six losses and a 5.36 ERA; Axford has six losses, a 5.11 ERA and seven blown saves. Jose Veras has been terrible. The team resorted to pick up Livan Hernandez. As Jack Moore of Disciples of Uecker pointed out, the Brewers have outscored their opponents by 30 runs in innings 1-6, but have been outscored by 48 runs in innings 7 and later.

"We feel very good about having him and Axford, and having them the whole year," general manager Doug Melvin said back when Rodriguez agreed to terms.

It's been a lost season for the Brewers, the white flag officially waived with the Zack Greinke trade. But the losing began back with an ill-fated decision that never should have been made.
First base: Ohh, Baltimore. On the latest edition of SweetSpot TV, Eric Karabell and I discussed whether the Orioles should be buyers at the trade deadline. We agreed they shouldn't. Monday's game is a good example of why. Long-time prospect Chris Tillman had looked good in his season debut before the All-Star break, taking a one-hitter into the ninth against the Mariners. But that game was in Seattle so had to be taken with a cautionary optimism. Against the Twins on Monday Tillman failed to get out of the first inning, throwing 49 pitches, giving up five hits and two walks. The Twins went on to a 19-7 victory.

Look, there are two key numbers for the Orioles. The first is their 46-43 record that now has them half a game out of the wild-card lead currently shared by the Angels and Tigers. The second is their minus-55 run differential, second-worse in the AL to the Twins. The record is nice, but the run differential is a better indicator of team quality and future performance. With Jason Hammel now sidelined following knee surgery, Wei-Yin Chen is the team's only dependable starter. The offense ranks 11th in runs, 11th in OPS and 12th in OBP. Right now, it's a team with a good bullpen and not much else. And the bullpen may be starting to break due to its heavy workload. Hold on to your prospects, Orioles. Your future is not 2012.

Second base: Halladay returns. Roy Halladay returns from his shoulder injury to start for the first time since May 27. Halladay's average velocity on his fastball, sinker and cutter was down from 91.1 mph in 2011 to 89.4 before he was shut down, so that's one thing to watch tonight. Hitters had also been more successful attacking the cutter. After batting .206 against it in 2011, they are hitting .277 against it 2012. This is reflected in how right-handers were having more success against him as seen in this heat map:

HalladayESPN Stats & InformationRight-handed batters had been more effective against Halladay in 2012.

Halladay takes on Dodgers rookie Stephen Fife, who will be making his major league debut. Fife is a 25-year-old right-hander, a third-round pick in 2008. His numbers at Albuquerque aren't inspiring (4.53 ERA), 66 strikeouts in 97.1 innings, but that's a tough place to pitch. He allowed just five home runs, so if he keeps the ball down maybe he can keep the Dodgers in the game.

Third base: #Yosted. I asked on Twitter why Salvador Perez was batting ninth for the Royals when the Mariners were starting lefty Jason Vargas. Since returning on June 22, Perez had been hitting .373/.383/.644. In limited time a year ago, he hit .484 against left-handers. You can make the case he's the Royals' best hitter against left-handed pitchers. Anyway, I got a bunch of feedback like "you must be new here" and "#boomyosted." As it turns it, Ned Yost actually explained his lineup in this notebook item from the Kansas City Star. It's a gem, including "I don’t want to hit Sal ninth, but I don’t have any other spot to hit him at this moment." Go, Royals.

Home plate: Tweet of the day. The Cardinals scored three runs in the ninth off Brewers closer John Axford to win 3-2 (leading Brewers manager Ron Roenicke to say Axford may lose his job as closer). How big was the win for St. Louis?
First base: Now that's a bad week. Closer John Axford was an important cog in Milwaukee's trek to the NLCS a year ago. After blowing two save chances in early April, he converted his final 43 opportunities. It's been a different story in 2012. On Tuesday, he gave up back-to-back homers to Colby Rasmus and Jose Bautista as the Blue Jays rallied for a 10-9 victory in a good old-fashioned slugfest. By old-fashioned, we mean 2002. (Sometimes we miss those high-scoring games.) Anyway, Axford blew saves last Wednesday and Thursday in 4-3 losses to the Royals, giving him three blown saves in a seven-day span. He's allowed runs in five of his past eight appearances. Big win for the Blue Jays, who slammed six home runs (two each from Rasmus and Bautista) as Brewers rookie Tyler Thornburg surrendered four bombs in his major league debut.

Second base: Streak over. The Braves ended the Yankees' win streak at 10 games, preventing the Yanks' first 11-game streak since 1985. Three keys plays: After two errors got Tim Hudson into a jam in the fourth inning, he struck out Curtis Granderson with two outs on the bases loaded on a nifty 77-mph changeup; the go-ahead run came in the sixth on Jason Heyward's two-out smash off Mark Teixeira's heel -- a tough play but one the Gold Glove first baseman usually makes; Chipper Jones, who made an ugly error in that fourth inning, atoned when he backhanded Teixeira's grounder in the seventh and threw out Granderson at home plate.

Third base: Umm, about that greatest relief season ever ... Speaking of relievers, Aroldis Chapman gave up a two-run bomb to Asdrubal Cabrera in the bottom of the 10th inning as the Reds lost 3-2 to the Indians. Chapman has now picked up losses in three of his past six appearances and been scored upon in four of those appearances. That's two straight one-run wins for the Indians in the battle of Ohio. Maybe the best sign for the Reds was Mike Leake throwing seven strong innings; he's now gone at least seven in four of his past six starts and is perhaps finally settling into a little run of consistency.

Home plate: Tweet of the day. Rays reliever Joel Peralta was ejected for having a foreign substance on his glove. Apparently, as manager Joe Maddon tweeted, the Nationals violated some sort of baseball code.
Here are some links to check out in Internet land. We'll begin with reaction to the big signing from Tuesday.
  • ESPN Insider Buster Olney has an excellent breakdown of all the ramifications of the Fielder signing — from Detroit's future payroll obligations to what this could mean for Joey Votto. Over the past three seasons, Votto's hit .318/.418/.565 compared to Fielder's .287/.409/.547. Fielder has more power, but Votto makes up for it by hitting .300. Votto, of course, is superior with the glove and on the bases. Over those three seasons, Baseball Info Solutions rates Votto as plus-6 runs saved on defense compared to Fielder's minus-15. On the bases, Votto is minus-4 runs but Fielder is minus-17. That's about a 10-run advantage per season with the glove and feet that Votto provides — or one extra win. There is another difference, however: Votto will be two years older when he hits free agency, so I don't think that necessarily means Votto will get the same kind of contract as Fielder.
  • Miguel Cabrera has apparently said he's moving to third base. Cabrera last played third in 2008, when he started 14 games there for the Tigers at the start of the season, fielded .900, and was quickly moved to first. With the Marlins in 2007 he fielded .941 and BIS rated him as 16 runs worse than an average third baseman. I'm skeptical about Cabrera playing regularly there, but I suppose it's possible Cabrera could play third when Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer pitch — two strikeout/flyball pitchers — and Brandon Inge or Don Kelly play third when Rick Porcello or Doug Fister start.
  • Curt Schilling offers his thoughts on the signing.
  • Brewers closer John Axford talks about Prince and Milwaukee's offseason.
  • Walkoff Woodward — coming soon as an official SweetSpot Tigers blog — offers up a bunch of thoughts on Prince coming to Detroit.
  • What this means for the Nationals.
  • Jayson Stark lists his best 3-4 combos in the majors.
  • Crashburn Alley's Bill Baer breaks down the contracts of Fielder and Ryan Howard.

And some stuff from the non-Prince area ...

Brewers still short at shortstop

December, 8, 2011
Heartbreak in Dallas didn’t entirely belong to the St. Louis Cardinals and their fans. The Milwaukee Brewers, their direct rivals in the National League and for the 2011 pennant, had to endure their own series of setbacks. Between the disappointments of finding out that Francisco Rodriguez had accepted their offer of arbitration -- guaranteeing that they’ll be paying eight figures for John Axford’s setup man -- and the associated likelihood that Prince Fielder is now well out of their price range, it wasn’t general manager Doug Melvin’s best week.

The Brewers weren’t entirely inert, though. Perhaps as a matter of expense, they chose to be one of the losers in this winter’s shortstop shuffle by reportedly coming to terms with shortstop Alex Gonzalez on a one-year deal with a vesting option for 2013.

[+] EnlargeAlex Gonzalez
AP Photo/J Pat CarterAlex Gonzalez certainly won't cure a Brewers offense ailing from the loss of Prince Fielder.
The most generous way to look at the Brewers adding Gonzalez is that this is an upgrade. However, “upgrade” is a relative term, and you basically have to chalk that up to the anticipated difference between Gonzalez and Yuniesky Betancourt on defense. While Betancourt had his best season with the glove in years via interpretive metrics like Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating and Plus/Minus, he was still in the negative. As far as you can accept the conclusions of any or all of them, the picture on Gonzalez is reliably better, but from year to year, there isn’t a lot of consensus: Gonzalez’s DRS and Plus/Minus marks have been excellent in the past two seasons, but his usually solid UZR marks veered into the negative in 2011.

Make of that what you will. Besides serving as a reminder that no one of these metrics should be taken as the final answer on a guy’s glove, what this means for the Brewers is that while you can be relatively sure Gonzalez is an improvement as far as their defense, it isn’t like they’ve just brought in Ozzie Smith.

The even more joyless side of the exercise is on offense, which is effectively a push. In 2011, Betancourt had a .652 OPS to Gonzalez’s .642, marks consistent with career clips that are sub-.700 for both. Both pop up prodigiously (Gonzalez finished in the top 10 among batting-title qualifiers with popups in 12.6 percent of his at-bats), while Gonzalez strikes out nearly twice as often. So joyless at-bats and relatively easy outs are routine for both. Both have a little bit of sock, and Gonzalez cranked out 68 extra-base hits in 2010. He’s also five years older than Betancourt, so you can reasonably expect him to lose ground to Father Time, while Betancourt might simply remain at this level of execrable production for a while yet.

And that’s really the problem. The Brewers have been slumming when it comes to shortstops for a while now since giving up on J.J. Hardy after 2009. Dealing the last two years Hardy was under contractual control might have seemed affordable because they were making room for top prospect Alcides Escobar and getting the talented Carlos Gomez from the Twins. But Gomez was as disappointing as a regular for the Brewers as he had been with the Twins, and Escobar gave them a .614 OPS and inconsistent defense. So Melvin dealt Escobar in the package that landed Zack Greinke (no shame in that) while having to accept Betancourt. Betancourt’s improvement in the field aside, he remained what he was as a Mariner and Royal -- one of the most disappointing, overhyped Cuban imports ever, no mean feat given the amount of money burned on that group.

From Hardy to Escobar to Betancourt to Gonzalez, Melvin’s worked his way from prospects past and present down to the real temps. Switching to Gonzalez is effectively more of the same. If this was a team that needed just a placeholder at the position to do no harm on a contender, maybe this works -- not that it did for the Braves with Gonzalez this season, or the Brewers with Betancourt. Absent Fielder, an offensive zero like Gonzalez becomes that much less affordable for an offense.

In essence, this all goes back to Melvin’s major miscalculation in offering K-Rod arbitration. As a result, the Brewers are stuck with affordability as the key criterion in selecting a shortstop, instead of making a play for Rafael Furcal, let alone Jimmy Rollins or Jose Reyes. Punting a lineup slot -- again -- while they’re losing Fielder certainly isn’t going to help them score runs, let alone defend their division title. If you thought the winter couldn’t get any colder in Milwaukee, guess again.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.