Thursday, September 1, 2011
Updated: September 2, 12:28 PM ET
As the 2011 season turned
By Jerry Crasnick
Detroit pitcher Justin Verlander was a fashionable preseason Cy Young Award pick, but he looked sort of
pedestrian out of the chute this season. Verlander carried a 2-3 record and a 3.75 ERA into the second week of May, and had yet to embrace the staff ace within.
That all changed at the Rogers Centre in Toronto on May 7, when Verlander beat the Blue Jays 9-0 for his second career no-hitter. Since that game, Verlander is 17-2 with a 2.10 ERA, and he has all but secured the Cy Young Award while inserting himself in the conversation for American League MVP.
Over a 162-game season, teams and individual players can point to specific games or sequences that help alter the outlook for both good and bad. Sometimes it's just a matter of time: The Boston Red Sox got off to a 2-10 start, but as subsequent events showed, it's a little early to panic when the schedule is 7 percent complete.
The Florida Marlins ranked among baseball's most pleasant surprises when they got off to a 30-20 start. Then the feel-good vibe dissipated with a 1-18 free-fall that prompted manager Edwin Rodriguez to resign and the Marlins to replace him with Jack McKeon. The Marlins were instantly transported back to the days of tough love, malaprops and second-hand cigar smoke from Trader Jack.
What are some other watershed moments from 2011? We look back at some of major league baseball's biggest "turning points" in this installment of Starting 9.
For all the talk about their dynamic starting pitching, the defending champion San Francisco Giants didn't have much margin for error this season. The 2010 club ranked in the middle of the pack in most offensive categories, and with the exception of a better year by Pablo Sandoval, the return of Mark DeRosa and a full season of Buster Posey, it was hard to envision an appreciable improvement.
Scenario No. 3 vanished in one of the more emotional, hotly debated encounters of the season.
Florida outfielder Scott Cousins steamrolled Posey in a home-plate collision May 25, and four days later Posey underwent season-ending surgery to repair torn ligaments in his left ankle.
The Giants hung around for quite a while -- peaking at 61-44 with a four-game lead on July 28 -- but Posey's absence ultimately helped lead to their demise. Combine sub-.700 OPSes for Aubrey Huff and Cody Ross with a season-ending shoulder injury for Freddy Sanchez and a minimal contribution from Andres Torres, and there just weren't enough bats to pick up the slack in a Buster-free lineup. The Giants rank last in the majors with 460 runs scored.
Replacement catchers Eli Whiteside and Chris Stewart have done a nice job handling the staff, but they're hitting a combined .208 with five homers and 23 RBIs in 313 at-bats. The catching position has gone from a source of strength to an offensive black hole in San Francisco.
General manager Brian Sabean has tried to keep the Giants competitive through additions (Carlos Beltran and Jeff Keppinger) and subtractions (Miguel Tejada and Aaron Rowand). The Giants play the first of six September games against Arizona on Friday night in San Francisco. If they don't draw a line in the sand this weekend, they're finished.
Throughout spring training, the standard line out of Arizona's camp was that manager Kirk Gibson and GM Kevin Towers had done an impressive job of changing the "culture" in the clubhouse and on the field. The Diamondbacks promised to be a tougher, more disciplined and focused club.
Those expectations rang hollow when Arizona got off to a 15-22 start. But something changed the afternoon of May 14. Chad Billingsley combined with reliever Kenley Jansen on a one-hitter, but Arizona beat the Dodgers 1-0 on a Billingsley throwing error to end a five-game losing streak. The game's only run came home on a sacrifice fly by the since-departed Melvin Mora.
The Diamondbacks are 62-37 since that game, and they can point to a confluence of factors. When Gibson pulled the plug on starter Armando Galarraga, the Diamondbacks replaced him with rookie Josh Collmenter, who is 9-8 with a 3.18 ERA and has helped provide stability behind Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson. Veteran Joe Saunders also picked up the pace after going 0-3 with a 5.93 ERA in April.
Once May ended, it was Justin Upton time. Upton posted identical 1.016 OPS totals in June and July to vault himself into the MVP debate, and now he and his teammates have a chance to make a definitive statement and put away the Giants this weekend at AT&T Park.
Dan Uggla's Personal Lift-Off
On July 4, Braves second baseman Dan Uggla declared his independence from unflattering comparisons to Adam Dunn.
Three months into the season, Uggla and Dunn were high-profile portraits in despair -- established sluggers with dueling sub-Mendoza-line batting averages. Things never improved for Dunn, who is hitting .163 and is now a nonentity in Chicago. Uggla, meanwhile, began the long climb to respectability on July 5 with two hits against Colorado. By mid-August, he had hit safely in 33 straight games and raised his average from .173 to .232.
The Braves say Uggla never sulked or stopped working overtime in the cage in the quest to escape his slump. In hindsight, he simply needed to relax and stop trying to do more than usual to justify his new five-year, $62 million contract extension.
"When you look at guys who get contracts like that who are hard on themselves, it takes them a while to adjust," said a scout. "Instead of trying to prove they're worth it, they finally just accept it and say, 'This team is paying me to be the player I am.' He stopped pressing and he became Dan Uggla again."
Once Uggla became less jumpy at the plate and stopped giving pitchers the upper hand, it showed in the results. According to ESPN Stats & Information, his production has improved drastically against outside pitches and sliders from right-handers.
Uggla has also benefited from some fortuitous placement of balls -- or luck, if you prefer. Before the streak he was hitting .206 when he put the ball on the ground. He's batting .469 on ground balls since the start of his streak.
Welcome To Milwaukee, K-Rod
Prince Fielder was just returning from the media room after the All-Star Game when he was surprised to learn he had a new teammate; the Brewers had just fortified their bullpen with the addition of Francisco Rodriguez in a trade with the Mets.
"He's definitely going to bring the success he'd had in his career and that confidence to the team," Fielder said of Rodriguez. "You can never have too many guys."
Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin was thinking the same thing. The Brewers missed Takashi Saito, who was on the DL with a smorgasbord of injuries, and Melvin said LaTroy Hawkins and Kameron Loe were "getting heavy in high-leverage innings."
The arrangement wouldn't have worked without an attitude adjustment from Rodriguez. With prompting from his new agent, Scott Boras, K-Rod embraced his new role as a good soldier and setup man for closer John Axford, and Milwaukee's deeper bullpen has made a world of difference. The Brewers lead the majors with a 2.66 ERA since July 17, and they're 17-4 since the All-Star break in games decided by one or two runs.
Casey McGehee and Yuniesky Betancourt have picked up the pace offensively in the second half, and Milwaukee has become less of a pushover away from Miller Park. After a 16-31 start on the road, the Brewers are 15-7 in away games.
The Jerry Meals Moment
In June 2010, umpire Jim Joyce earned a place in baseball infamy with a terrible call to deprive Detroit pitcher Armando Galarraga of a perfect game. (Speaking of which, that's the second Armando Galarraga reference in this column. That has to be a world record.)
It would be unfair to say that Jerry Meals, the perpetrator of 2011's most egregious call, singlehandedly sent the Pirates to their doom. But he certainly helped hasten the inevitable.
On July 25, the Pirates were 53-47 and tied for first place in the NL Central. The next day, they were locked in a 19-inning marathon with Atlanta and seemingly on their way to a 20th inning when Meals called Julio Lugo safe on a play at the plate to give the Braves a 4-3 victory. Subsequent replays showed that Lugo was clearly out. "The game tonight deserved way better than that," said Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle in response.
Bye-bye, good times. The Pirates split the next two games in Atlanta before dropping 10 straight to the Phillies, Cubs and Padres. Pittsburgh's funk coincided with a tear by Milwaukee, and when the Pirates finally woke up, they were 10 games out of first. Now they're 62-75 and a lock to finish below .500 for a 19th straight season.
In truth, the collapse was probably just a matter of time. The Pirates have a weak offensive club, and the pitching rotation thrived for several months behind a group of middle-to-back-end, pitch-to-contact types.
Still, that dispiriting 19-inning loss at Turner Field provided a convenient demarcation line between the "new" Pirates and the same-old, same-old Pirates.
Derek Jeter's revival
Few players in history have been more glorified and vilified in a three-day span than Jeter, who was the toast of baseball after going 5-for-5 against Tampa Bay to crack the 3,000-hit club -- then torched so routinely for bailing on the All-Star Game, commissioner Bud Selig felt it necessary to jump to his defense.
Maybe Jeter needed to clear his head after the emotional grind of chasing 3,000, but he's sure been a different guy since coming off the disabled list after the break.
A few comparisons from ESPN Stats & Information:
• Jeter was hitting .183 (11-for-60) against pitches 93 mph or above before his DL visit. He's batting .324 (12-for-37) since his return.
• Before his DL trip, Jeter was hitting line drives 12.8 percent of the time. It's been 26.8 percent since.
• Jeter has also pulled the ball more aggressively. His pull rate has increased from 28 percent (66 of 235 balls in play) to 36 percent (61 of 168) since he returned to the Yankees' lineup.
In the course of raising his average from .256 to .297, Jeter has forced media skeptics to concede that reports of his demise were greatly exaggerated. If he keeps hitting like this, that three-year, $51 million extension might look downright prudent.
As Bergen Record columnist Bob Klapisch recently observed, "Every day, it seems, Jeter is enjoying a private take-that to his critics, including me. I'll admit I was wrong about the surge. I never saw it coming."
The Phillies weren't exactly in dire straits when general manager Ruben Amaro acquired Pence from Houston two days before the non-waiver trade deadline. The Phils' 66-39 record was the best in the majors, and they looked like a team with the potential to go deep into the postseason behind the big three of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels.
But the offense was a source of concern, and it had become readily apparent that the Phillies missed Jayson Werth's right-handed bat in the middle of the order -- no matter how mediocre his production was in his new environs in Washington.
Enter Pence. He's hitting .478 (11-for-23) with four homers against left-handers since joining the Phillies. Before Pence's arrival, the Phils as a team were hitting .235 with a .660 OPS versus lefties. Those numbers spiked to .279 and .863 in August.
Pence's arrival appears to have been a boon to Ryan Howard, who hit eight homers and drove in 21 runs in August. The Phillies' run production has increased from 4.3 to 5.4 runs per game since the trade.
The raw numbers can't begin to quantify the energy and entertainment value that Pence brought to Philly. After scoring the winning run against Pittsburgh, Pence breathlessly told postgame interviewer Gary Matthews, "Good game. Let's go eat." The slogan was emblazoned on T-shirts, and now it's the trendiest baseball fashion item this side of the Tony Plush shirts at Miller Park in Milwaukee.
Adam Wainwright's Elbow Injury
The 2011 Cardinals suffered their biggest body blow before Grapefruit League play began, when starter Adam Wainwright tore his ulnar collateral ligament and needed Tommy John surgery. There's no way to replace a 20-game winner and the guy who finished second in the 2010 NL Cy Young Award balloting, so the Cards decided to move Kyle McClellan to the rotation and figure out the bullpen on the fly.
But as St. Louis starter Kyle Lohse told reporters in Jupiter, Fla., "That's a big guy to miss."
And how. The Cardinals survived Wainwright's injury, closer Ryan Franklin's implosion and assorted other setbacks long enough to get off to a 38-26 start. But Wainwright's absence eventually took its toll.
GM John Mozeliak tried to salvage the season in late July when he acquired Edwin Jackson in a three-way trade with Toronto and the White Sox. But the Brewers flogged Jackson for 14 hits in a 10-5 victory on Aug. 3, and the Cardinals have spent the past month falling further and further behind in the NL Central.
No, No, Ubaldo
After digging so many early holes in recent years, the Rockies placed a major emphasis on a strong start this season. Everything went according to plan when they won 11 of their first 13 and were 17-8 and atop the NL West by 4½ games at the end of April.
Unfortunately, April led to May.
Ubaldo Jimenez set a downbeat tone for the month with a four-inning, 88-pitch, three-wild-pitch clunker in an 8-4 loss to Pittsburgh. Things took an even more troubling turn for the worse three weeks later, when Jorge De La Rosa suffered a season-ending elbow injury in a blowout loss to Arizona.
Suddenly, the euphoria of spring was looking more like desperation. With their ace in a funk and their No. 2 starter on the shelf, the Rockies lacked the stability in their rotation to overcome the holes in their lineup. After an 8-21 May, they were cooked as contenders. And in late July, GM Dan O'Dowd traded Jimenez to Cleveland.
Now Jimenez will try to re-establish himself with the Indians, who have come back to earth since a 30-15 start. And the Rockies are already looking forward to next year, when they hope to come up with a contending rotation from a mix that includes Jhoulys Chacin, Juan Nicasio, Esmil Rogers, Jason Hammel, De La Rosa and former Indians prospects Alex White and Drew Pomeranz.
Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via email.
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