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Matt Albers: Laser show

gettyimages-537081332-e1464820646317I have a certain affinity for Matt Albers, mostly because he is the closest thing I have to a doppelganger in today’s game. His every-man body, the way his jersey sags on him … that could be me out there! I mean, if I could throw a mid-90s fastball with sink or had strong legs or could walk. Oh, whom am I kidding? Compared to me, Matt Albers is this generation’s Jim Thorpe.

Albers will also assuredly be forgotten by most baseball fans shortly after he retires. He has played for six teams in 11 mostly nondescript seasons. He hasn’t started a game since 2007, doesn’t have a save to his credit and doesn’t throw extraordinarily hard. Nothing about him is exciting. In a line of work where you have to be pretty special just to make it to this level, Albers is all parts ordinary nonetheless.

However, he accomplished something Thursday that I and many others who adore quirky baseball will remember. In the 13th inning of Wednesday’s game versus the Mets, Albers led off the inning by rocketing a double to left-center field.

Let’s stop there for a moment. Matt Albers doubled. A well-hit, opposite-field, honest-to-goodness double. Well, it would have been reduced to a single with Albers being thrown out at second base if Neil Walker hadn’t been there to act as Albers’ personal backstop. He definitely would have fallen off the bag if no one had been there to help him slow down all of that momentum.

Regardless, it was Albers’ first hit and only second at-bat since 2007, when he was with the Astros (He has made all but eight of his appearances since then with American League clubs). AL relievers roping out extra-base hits isn’t as rare as I imagined, as the last person to do it was the Yankees’ Branden Pinder just last year. It has happened five times in the past decade.

With this kind of odd feat, there are so many angles you can cover, but let’s just go way down the rabbit hole. After his double, Albers moved to third on a wild pitch, scored on a Jose Abreu sac fly, and then went on to close out the game in the bottom of the 13th. So who was the last American League relief pitcher to score a game-winning run in extra innings and get the win? 

That would be Ryan Hancock for the 1996 California Angels. He singled with one out in the 13th inning and scored on J.T. Snow’s two-run homer off of Julian Tavarez as the Angels beat the Indians, 8-6. While you probably won’t remember Albers, you definitely don’t know who Ryan Hancock is, unless you share a blood relation.

That’s because 1996 was Hancock’s only MLB season. He had a 7.48 ERA and a 1.84 WHIP over 11 appearances. But on the bright side, he had only one career plate appearance, so Hancock will forever own a 1.000 average and a 2.000 OPS. 

Before Hancock, you have to go back, understandably, to Sparky Lyle in 1972 to find the last pitcher who achieved the hit-run-win trifecta in extras. One year later, the DH was upon us, and AL pitchers becoming offensive heroes have been rarely seen in the wild. Thank you, Matt Albers

The Dodgers’ phenom is here

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers-Photo DayIn 1980, an unimposing, 5-foot-11 lefthander from Mexico named Fernando Valenzuela made his debut for the Los Angeles Dodgers at the age of 19. He didn’t allow an earned run in 17.2 innings that year and followed that up in 1981 by becoming the first player to ever win the Rookie of the Year and the Cy Young awards. He began that season by posting five shutouts and allowing just two earned runs through his first seven starts. He ended it as the best player on a World Series champion. Through it all, Valenzuela was so beloved by Los Angeles’ large Latino – specifically, Mexican – community, his starts became must-see events. The craze was known as “Fernandomania.”

Thirty-five years later, there’s another 19-year-old, 5-foot-11 lefty from Mexico ready to become the Dodgers’ next phenom. And he will begin his journey tonight.

That’s Julio Urias, a pitcher whom MLB.com has listed as a top-10 prospect two years running. He will take on the Mets at Citi Field, and the Dodgers clearly believe he is ready for such high-end competition. They could have called up someone else and held Urias back until next week’s home series versus the pitiful Braves. Instead, he will be thrown into into the orange and blue flames tonight. Urias has done nothing to second-guess his preseason rankings as he has a 1.10 ERA and a 44:8 strikeout-to-walk ratio through 41 innings at Triple-A Oklahoma City.  He threw six no-hit innings in a start earlier this month.

Urias does compare slightly to Valenzuela as a pitcher, but that doesn’t mean he will throw a bunch of shutouts right away – it’s a different era. However, Urias pitches with more power and better control. His career K-to-walk rate through more than 250 minor league innings is better than 3:1. Scouts have marveled at his feel for pitching at such a young age, and there was a belief that Urias was MLB-ready last year, at the age of 18, when he was baffling mature hitters in Double-A. Even at age 16, Urias was striking out more than 11 men per nine with a sub-2.50 ERA and a WHIP barely over 1.10. He is a player well beyond his years.

Urias has a full repertoire of pitches, too. A mid-90s fastball, an excellent changeup, a developing curveball and a slider. He can throw all of those pitches for strikes and spot them on different horizontal and vertical planes. His combination of age and stuff has led to comparisons with not so much Valenzuela, but Felix Hernandez.

Felix was the last pitcher to debut at such a young age. Bryce Harper was game’s most recent teenage hitter. Those players had a surplus of hype surrounding their first games, and it should be no different with Urias. I won’t be able to watch tonight’s game because living in Los Angeles and seeing the Dodgers on TV is not something many people can do around here. Also, I’ll be at Angel Stadium for Astros-Angels. Because who needs to watch the game’s next great arm introduce himself when you can just go see Mike Fiers battle Matt Shoemaker, right?

Anyway, I’m just giddy and glad that Urias is here. He looks like the nerdy, scrawny babyface who gets bullied by the jocks in high school. But he is about to make a bunch of grown men look stupid. I’m not sure how many starts he will make; the Dodgers will monitor his pitch and inning counts very closely and may stick him in the bullpen for this season. But for one night, everyone should want to see what he brings. Maybe he won’t produce anything close to “Fernandomania” in the long run, but if he is as good as billed, I, for one, welcome the age of “U-phoria”

Noah Syndergaard hammers two home runs

002fgrksThor does it all. As Vin Scully brought up during his Wednesday night broadcast between the Mets and Dodgers, Thor is the god of thunder, lightning, storms, strength, fertility, healing, hallowing, the protection of mankind and … oak trees? 

Baseball’s Thor, Noah Syndergaard, must have been super pissed after serving up two home runs to the Dodgers given that he had allowed just one in his previous 38.1 innings.

But that’s OK, because Syndergaard did what he usually does on the mound otherwise and must have felt compelled to do something about those home runs, so he hit two of his own. And yes, I used the spanish announcer calls because Vin Scully wasn’t available.

Obviously, using “hammers” in the headline here is a cheap pun that everyone is using today. But there was nothing cheap about either of those shots. Look at that second one again, especially. A slider on the outside half that he barrels out to left-center? Syndergaard’s pitching repetroire isn’t the only unfair aspect of his baseball talents, apparently.

Syndergaard became the first pitcher since 2007 to hit two homers in a game. That pitcher was Micah Owings, who was always a better hitter than pitcher. In 205 career MLB at-bats, he recorded nine home runs and OPS’ed .813.

The last Mets pitcher to double up with the longball? Walt Terrell in 1983. I always love it when random players who have been completely forgotten for 20-plus years pop up in these conversations.

Also, in case you’re not keeping track, the Atlanta Braves have nine home runs this season. Mets pitchers have three, all of which have come in the past week.

The man who started this power surge will be on the mound for the Mets tonight, Bartolo Colon. I’ll be at the game, and I will be so giddy if Bartolo can go deep in consecutive starts. But if he homers — or even makes solid contact — off of Clayton Kershaw … I don’t even know. Baseball is really weird, but that’s straight gonzo.

2016 MLB predictions: divisions, awards, the whole kit ‘n’ caboodle

March 30, 2016 Leave a comment

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Now that I’ve published what I consider to be the possible high and low points for every team, let’s keep the guessing game going with a look into what will happen by the end of this season.

Because you know how good I am with predictions.

American League East

1. Toronto Blue Jays (No. 1 seed in the AL playoffs)
2. Boston Red Sox (4)
3. New York Yankees
4. Tampa Bay Rays
5. Baltimore Orioles

Toronto’s offense is unmatched. But with Marcus Stroman, Marco Estrada and a strong bullpen, the Jays are much more than a bunch of bats. The Red Sox so desperately want to make up for last year’s failure, and they will to a point. David Price cures a lot of ails, but how far that team goes really hinges on the well-being of Clay Buchholz and their aged stalwarts.

American League Central

1. Cleveland Indians (3)
2. Detroit Tigers
3. Kansas City Royals
4. Minnesota Twins
5. Chicago White Sox

I’m assuming Michael Brantley has no further problems with his repaired shoulder. That pitching staff should be the best in the division. Detroit should hit a ton, and its new bullpen looks nice. I have them just below Cleveland because I don’t trust Anibal Sanchez to stay healthy, and the starters behind him in the rotation are a mystery. And no, I will never learn my lesson about doubting the Royals. I’m a stubborn person, OK?

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Best-case/worst-case scenarios for every MLB team in 2016

March 28, 2016 Leave a comment

question-marks-300x300You know the adage that is hammered into every team preview column at this time of year: Hope springs eternal. That hope is then extinguished pretty early for some teams. Really, really early for others. But we should all be optimists in March.  So, here’s what I consider to be the best-case scenario for each team on the field this season.

However, I’m also a realist. “Winning the World Series” isn’t a down-to-earth possibility for everyone. Conversely, there is no chance that the Cubs — even the Cubs — will lose 100-plus games. Consider this list a sensible results spectrum for each team. “Sensible results spectrum” just doesn’t sound catchy as a title.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Best Case: All that action in December pays off as Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller head a staff with a good amount of complementary talent. Patrick Corbin more closely resembles his 2013 form. The offense remains potent, and 36-year-old Brad Ziegler follows up a solid 2015 by continuing to make hitters pound the ball into the dirt. A division crown is very possible, and a trip to the NLCS isn’t out of the question.

Worst Case: This is basically a repeat of the 2015 Padres: Winning the offseason doesn’t promise success over the summer. Miller has an understandable regression, turning the rotation into Greinke followed by a bunch of guys. The offense will still be productive, but the likes of David Peralta and Yasmany Tomas don’t do enough to support Paul Goldschmidt and A.J. Pollock. Who knows if this will all mesh? If it doesn’t, third place is where they will land

Atlanta Braves

Best Case: For some teams, winning right now isn’t really what’s best for the club. The Braves are one such team. What’s best for them is seeing some of their young players (Ender Inciarte, Julio Teheran, Matt Wisler, Aaron Blair, etc.) provide hope for the future, a healthy Freddie Freeman, and a lot of losses so they can maximize their draft pool and couple Dansby Swanson with another No. 1 overall pick.

Worst Case: Freeman battles more injuries. Atlanta’s green pitchers get thoroughly battered around the league. Coming out to Turner Field only serves to remind fans how the Braves are technically deserting Atlanta and a relatively young ballpark to get their hands on some more sweet, sweet public money where a lot of rich white folks live. No hope.

Baltimore Orioles

Best Case: Chris Davis, Adam Jones, Manny Machado, Matt Weiters, J.J. Hardy, Jonathan Schoop, Mark Trumbo, Pedro Alvarez. This team should lead the sport in home runs, so that’s cool. If the starting rotation can be league average collectively, the O’s can slide their way into a Wild Card spot.

Worst Case: The starting rotation is as much of a tire fire as many expect. That unit lost Wei-Yin Chen and basically replaced him with a Yovani Gallardo who is becoming more hittable. Weiters still can’t shake the injury bug. In the game’s deepest division and bereft of an arm they can depend on to stop a losing streak when the strikeout-happy bats are slumping, Baltimore could find itself in last place comfortably

Boston Red Sox

Best Case: What was supposed to be in 2015 comes to fruition in 2016. All of the vets are able to stay healthy. Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez endear themselves to Red Sox Nation. David Ortiz gets one more shot at October magic. The duo of David Price and Clay Buchholz dominate, and the back end of the bullpen with Craig Kimbrel is no longer a point of great consternation for the Sawx. This squad has World Series potential

Worst Case: Another huge letdown. Price remains great, but the rotation otherwise is a mess. Buchholz hardly makes it past 100 innings again. Carson Smith’s elbow injury subtracts a critical late-inning weapon. First base becomes Ramirez’s latest comical defensive venture. With Sandoval, people talk more about his fat than his bat. Father Time continues to wear on Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia. Fourth place and another finish behind the Yankees.

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Fact: Jennry Mejia doesn’t learn from his mistakes

February 12, 2016 Leave a comment

516769Excuse the painfully obvious pun, but Jennry Mejia has racked up three strikes and he’s out.

And he did so in quick order.

The Mets’ former closer has been handed a permanent ban for a third violation of Major League Baseball’s performance-enhancing drug policy, the league announced Friday. While Mejia isn’t the first baseball player to be given a permanent or indefinite suspension for drug use (Ferguson Jenkins and Steve Howe were both banned and later reinstated), he is the first player to be suspended permanently for PEDs.

It’s also crucial to not confuse the word “permanent” for “lifetime.” Under this policy, Mejia can apply for reinstatement into major and minor league baseball following one full year of suspension. Furthermore, Mejia must wait at last two years from the penalty’s beginning (today) to be granted reinstatement. To say Mejia has been banned for life is technically incorrect. He has been banned for as long as the league sees fit, and there is a path for him to return. In an absolute best-case scenario, Mejia could be back on an MLB team on Feb. 12, 2018.

But history tells us he won’t be able to lay off the bad stuff for more than a few months.

At this time two years ago, Mejia was preparing to battle for the fifth spot in the Mets’ rotation, a battle he won. However, he was moved to the bullpen in May after compiling an ERA north of 5.00 and walking 20 hitters through his first 37.1 innings. That move proved to be a wise decision as Mejia down 28 of 31 save chances. He had a strikeout-to-walk ratio slightly less than 3:1 with a 2.72 ERA.

Pretty good.

AND THENNNNNNNNNNNN …

On April 11, 2015, Mejia was suspended 80 games for testing positive for the anabolic steroid stanozolol.

He did the time and returned to the Mets in July, having lost his closing role to Jeurys Familla. Mejia made his 2015 debut on July 12 and by July 28, he was banned for using stanozolol (again) and boldenone.

Then today, while still serving his 162-game suspension for that second strike, Mejia gets thrown out indefinitely. The substance? Boldenone. Again. 

The most stunning part of this story to me is not that Mejia became the first MLB player to fail three PED tests; it’s that he did so in a span of less than two years. And now he’s supposed to stay clean for at least two years before possibly re-entering the league? 

Maybe Mejia no longer cares about having a life in American baseball. Maybe he’s got an addiction to PEDs. Maybe he’s just incredibly stupid and keeps unknowingly ingesting stuff that contains these drugs. Whatever the case, he’s no longer the answer for any team at the back end of its bullpen. He is, however, the infamous answer to a trivia question and MLB’s new poster boy for the effectiveness of its PED testing program. 

The Colorado Rockies, With Their 5.31 ERA, Post A 1-0 Road Shutout

August 23, 2012 Leave a comment

Hey, don’t be so quick to bash that 75-pitch limit that the Rockies have placed on their starters. Today, it worked! And it helped complete a four-game sweep of the Mets. Only, of course, the Mets.

Somehow, someway, the Rockies shut out the Mets at Citi Field this afternoon, 1-0.

Yes, the Rockies scored one run. And won. Miracles do happen. Tyler Chatwood, Adam Ottavino, Rex Brothers, Will Harris and Matt Belisle split the duty and kept the Mets scoreless. It helped that New York left 12 runners on base and had another man thrown out trying to steal, but don’t let the details get in front of a good story. ROCKIES PITCHERS DOMINATED, OVERPOWERING ALL WHO OPPOSED THEM WITH THE FURY OF A RUSHING AVALANCHE.

It was the Rockies’ first 1-0 win since 2010 in Arizona. The Mets hadn’t been shut out at home since 2008 against the Nationals.

Barring an all-but-impossible hot streak over these final six weeks, the Rockies will finish the year with a team ERA of more than 5.00. Today’s sterling performance brought it down from 5.31 to 5.27. The 2009 Orioles were the last team to record a 1-0 win during a season in which they had the league’s worst ERA. That game came on June 1 in Seattle, and the O’s finished up that season with a 5.15 ERA — the Rockies will be fortunate to even reach that mark.

Finally, what terrible luck for Collin McHugh. He makes his MLB debut for the Mets, pitches really well — seven innings, zero runs, nine Ks — and it just so happens to come on one of the finest days Colorado pitching has experienced in more than two years. According to the Elias Sports Bureau (via ESPN Sports and Info), McHugh is the first pitcher since 1900 to throw at least seven innings with at least nine strikeouts and no runs in his major league debut and not get the win.

Get’em next time, kid.