Monday, April 28, 2008

Bats and Temps Go Cold in Wisconsin

All photos from Appleton & Fox Cities Stadium available on Flickr.

This past weekend was my first "multiple ballgames in multiple cities" weekend of the year and offically pulled me ahead of Erik in the "Most Ballgames Attended" race for 2008. Friday night was game #2 of our Brewers 10-pack against the Marlins. The seats my dad got were excellent and worth every penny, and smuggling in free beer from the tailgate (which isn't always a sure bet to get past security these days) was an added bonus. As for the game action, YoGo gave the team yet another outstanding starting pitching performance, tossing 7 innings of shutout ball against the Marlins ace Scott Olsen. The bad news was that the Brewers' offense was once again embarrassingly bad and provided no run support for Gallardo, as Olsen matched him pitch-for-pitch, going 8 scoreless innings. It was nodded at zero going into the 10th (you can pretty much assume the Crew will go extra innings now) when the most recent bullpen goat, Guillermo Mota, surrended 3 runs and the game ended at that score. It's unclear to me how much of the bullpen's inconsistency is due to overuse/poor bullpen management or just the pitchers themselves. On paper, all of our relievers except Turnbow look good - and even he has had his bright spots. But in reality, one day a guy will toss 2 outstanding innings and the next game will blow a lead. Gagne has 7 saves and a win, but also has an ERA around 7. Mota, Riske, and Torres all have ERAs under 4, but all have surrendered the lead in at least one game in the past week. It seems to be all a game of chess at this point with Yost, trying to figure out who he can rely on and when, and at this point it's pretty clear he really only trusts Eric Gagne and Brian Shouse, as he seems to rotate all other relievers strictly based on availability and not situations. The Brewers could only muster 6 runs in 3 games against the Marlins and are now 9th in the NL in runs scored and are batting an anemic .244 as a team. Some of this I feel has to do with Ned, who I am beginning to question more and more, particularly when we have guys on 1st with less than two outs before the 9th inning and there is rarely a sign to bunt, hit & run, or steal. If it were not for our starting pitching, this team would be well below .500.

Saturday I finally used my free Timber Rattlers tickets and drove 100 miles up north to watch a little Midwest League A-ball with my brother and our friend Brian who lives in neighboring Neenah. Erik and I had visited the T-Rats on the 2nd to last day on the tour on the way home to Milwaukee and it was a great time. I wish I could say the same for Saturday, but it was so cold that I had to focus all of my energy on staying warm. Being so close to the field at a minor league game, and with the temps being so cold which produce a lot of broken-bat foulballs, I also had to concentrate on not getting hit in the face, which proved exceedingly difficult while also eating cheese fries out of a helmet and drinking a 152-oz beer. I make it sound like it was a horrible time, and I'll admit it was ridiculously uncomfortable being in 40-degree weather with strong winds (we actually left in the 7th), but its minor league baseball, and you can never go wrong with that. It's always fun to identify amongst yourselves which prospects look really promising and which will be working at a car wash in a month. The starting pitcher for the T-Rats, Josh Adcock, stood out most in my mind, as he seemed to command the plate well. There were so many seeing-eye singles in the game that I couldn't really say if any position players really jumped out at me. Overall it's a great park and Nick and I look forward to returning when it warms up a bit.

After the game the three of us went to an NFL draft party at the local BW3s, and between that and the ballgame, we acquired an entire bag of free stuff, so the day turned out to be pretty positive - if you ignore the fact that the Packers had a horrible draft, but that's not a story for this blog. After listening to another heartbreaking loss on the radio Sunday, I look forward to the return of Ben Sheets and Mike Cameron against the Cubbies on Tuesday.

Brewers 14-11 (3 @ Cubs, 3 @ Astros)
Reds 11-15 (3 @ Cardinals, 3 @ Braves)
Twins 11-14 (2 v. White Sox, 3 v. Tigers)

Erik - 7
Peter - 9

Monday, April 21, 2008

Sheets Out, Yo-Go In

This past weekend, I watched my current and former city's teams duke it out at the GAB in Cincinnati. The Brewers ended up taking 2 of 3 from the Reds and going 5-4 on a roadtrip that seemed to last a year. On Friday, Ben Sheets had another dominant start and made Reds hitters look foolish for 5 innings, and then Neddy finally decided to shut him down with tightness in his right tricep. Saturday was an extra-inning affair in which Jeff Suppan looked pretty outstanding in the Crew's eventual 10th inning win on a fine all-around game by Bill Hall. Sunday the Brewers should have locked up the sweep, with Reds ace Aaron Harang battling the first start of the season by Yovani Gallardo since coming off the DL following offseason knee surgery. But, Eric Gagne gave up a couple of gopher balls in an attempt at his 7th save, and Salomon Torres eventually gave up the GW single to Ken Griffey Jr in the bottom of the 10th, allowing the Reds to salvage some dignity in the series. Gagne seems to be pretty lights-out this year aside from his first start in Chicago, so if I had to make an excuse for his poor performance, it would be that it was his 5th consecutive day pitching. The jury is still out on this guy, who coming into the season had the highest career save percentage in major league history (min. 175 attempts) at just over 96%, but is 1-1 this year with an ERA over 7, saving 6 of 9. I feel that he will right the ship, based solely on what I've seen the last 3 Brewer closers of Turnbow, Kolb, and Cordero struggle through before eventually succeeding. (I'm also a little biased because I've been told by at least 5 people now that I look like him...what is THAT all a-boot?)
The Brewers are in an interesting situation now, as they temporarily have to carry a league-high 14 pitchers (staffs normally have 11-12) due to the ambiguity of Sheets' latest injury. Utilityman Joe Dillon was optioned to AAA to make room for Yo-Go, and it appears right now that a day after being removed from the rotation, Dave Bush will start for Sheets on Wednesday, but it is unclear right now whether Big Ben is just moving a day or two back in the rotation or a full turn. Sheets is 3-0 with a sub-1 ERA and 24 Ks this year, and losing him for any length of time will dramatically hurt this ballclub, whose bullpen is struggling to find an identity, whose bench is reduced to three players, and who is anxiously awaiting the returns of Tony Gwynn Jr and Mike Cameron to the lineup next week.
As for the Reds, I feel from the three games I've seen them play this season that they could put together a .500 club this year if they stay healthy and continue to get quality starts from their youngsters Edinson Volquez, Johnny Cueto, and eventually Homer Bailey. Back that up with Aaron Harang dominating the league and Arroyo and Josh Fogg at least keeping their team in the game, there's no question this offense can put up 5-6 runs a game when running on all cylinders. Griffey looks as agile and focused this year as I've seen in awhile, and Edwin Encarnacion may be taking a page out of Pat Burrell's book by attempting to look less embarasssing at the major league level this year. Most importantly to any Reds fan of the past decade, the bullpen actually seems respectable and not just a hodgepodge of has-beens, with CoCo of course being the major offseason acquisition - even though it does look like David Weathers will be out for a bit with elbow problems, I think they have enough talent at Louisville to hold it together. Offensively, the Reds really only lost J-Ham in the offseason, but Joey Votto and Jeff Keppinger have definitely emerged to at least be adequate substitute bats in the lineup.
Brewers 11-7 (2 v. Cardinals, 2 v. Phillies, 3 v. Marlins)
Reds 8-11 (2 v. Dodgers, 2 v. Astros, 3 @ Giants)
Twins 9-10 (3 @ Athletics, 3 @ Rangers)
Erik - 7
Peter - 6

Monday, April 14, 2008

Jason Kendall for MVP

It was the first Red Sox/Yankees series of the year featuring the two statistically worst hitters in baseball, Jason Giambi and David Ortiz. Pedro goes to the DL, Randy comes back, and Doug Davis makes a courages 6-inning start two days before having his thyroid gland removed. The Cardinals are still raking, the young D-Backs are going yard at a record pace, and so far it looks like AL East MIGHT be more than a 2-horse race this year for a change. Much like Stephen Drew coming onto the scene last year and rivaling his much-hyped-never-quite-delivered bro J.D., "J-Up" looks poised to be even better than his older brother, B.J. Upton. Dice-K came back down to earth with a typical all-over-the-place start on Sunday Night.

I attended one game last week, a battle between the Reds and Brewers at Miller Park, the only game of the series the Crew won and their only lost series to date so far. Jeff Suppan gave a solid performance, and despite blowing another save, Gagne looked pretty stellar (he's never shaking off Jason Kendall again). Bill Hall continued his dominance of Reds pitching, and Ryan Braun still refuses to take a walk. The story of that night though was the amazing pitching of rookie Johnny Cueto. This kid has kind of come in under the radar (except to the die-hard Reds fan), particularly with the expectations surrounding Homer Bailey. Although he struggled a bit in his start yesterday, in his previous two he had pitched 13 innings, gave up no walks and struck out 18. It's gonna be fun to watch this kid and Yovani Gallardo develop this year.

At this point I should probably write something about Kendall since he's in the subject of this post. Jason Kendall has probably single-handedly gotten us at least 3 wins and has vastly improved the morale, defense, and hitting approach of the entire team. He has thrown out every runner attempting to steal 2nd this year, he is a superb caller of the game, and did I mention he is DESTROYING all opposing pitchers!?!? The man is still leading the majors with a .406 average, which was brought down slightly this weekend, as he only could muster a measely 3 hits against the Mets. This is what I love most about the game - guys like Gabe Kapler and Mark Reynolds have just as much chance to go yard on any given day as Big Papi, guys like Jason Kendall can out hit guys like Ichiro - as Jason says, "see the ball hit the ball" - and in the ultimate parody, teams like the Royals and White Sox can come storming out of the gates. Any team can win on any given day with any payroll, and any team is perfectly capable of winning 80 games in any given season. Not even the most devout and informed fan could have predicted that the Brewers would get embarrassed by a guy who hadn't started a game in 3 years (Nelson Figeroua), but that we would beat arguably the best pitcher in baseball Johan Santana and that we would dominate Oliver Perez the next day, who hadn't given up a run all year up to that point.

A couple things in closing:
(1) Evan Longoria got called up this week by the Rays - keep an eye on this kid.
(2) Watch as the Cards and Brewers make history this week, as they may very well be the first two teams ever to meet that both batted their pitcher in the #8 spot.

Brewers 8-4 (3 @ Cardinals, 3 @ Reds)
Reds 6-7 (3 @ Cubs, 3 v. Brewers)
Twins 6-6 (2 @ Tigers, 2 v. Rays, 3 v. Indians)

Erik - 7
Peter - 4

Monday, April 7, 2008

Opening Week 2008

All photos from Miller Park Home Opener available on Flickr.

Major League Baseball rang in the new season in a very unique fashion this year - a set of games in Japan between the Red Sox and Athletics, and the unveiling of a beautiful new ballpark in Washington on the first Sunday Night Baseball broadcast of the season on March 30th. Teams picked to finish near last like the Cardinals, Royals, and Orioles are all at the top of their divisions, while teams with high expectations like the Rockies, Mariners, and Tigers are all at the bottom (apparently $138 million can't buy even one victory for Detroit). Even the Mets and Cubs, who I'm sure most of America picked one of these teams to represent the NL in the World Series, are .500. Even though the season is young, as a famous manager once said, "You can't play your way into the postseason in the first week, but you can certainly play your way out of it." Perhaps the only team in the high-octane first week of the 2008 regular season that has actually achieved what they were expected to - whether good or bad - was the home team, our Milwaukee Brewers.

After coming out of a dramatic series against the Cubs in Chicago with two wins, the Brewers started their home schedule on Friday, April 4th at 1:05 PM. I was one of the 45000+ fans in the standing-room-only crowd that day, and I was again in attendance on Saturday. The weekend drew the highest 3-game weekend total in club history - over 119,000 people. It was my first Opening Day game I could remember, not counting times I tailgated in the parking lot with AM620 on the radio, and it was a blast. Of course drunken debauchery was to be expected - multiple beers spilled on row in front of us, and a fight in the parking lot, to name a couple incidents - but it was awesome to see the support for the team in such numbers. The Brewers ended up sweeping the Giants on three dandy pitching performances by Carlos Villanueva, Manny Parra, and Ben Sheets (CG, 0 ER, 0 BB, 8 K on Sunday against SF "ace" Barry Zito). The bullpen was a tad shaky at times, but for the most part the revamped relief core delivered as advertised. The Brewers acquired Guillermo Mota, David Riske, Salomon Torres, and Eric Gagne this off-season, and I got to see all four pitch this weekend. All have incredibly different styles, but what they do have in common is that they all pound the strike zone and walk few, and they all can pitch multiple innings except for maybe Gagne. Lastly, the bats were also in full force in Friday's and Sunday's games, and when everyone on the team is destroying the ball EXCEPT arguably their most dangerous hitter Prince Fielder, you know that spells trouble for the rest of the league. As in the bullpen, the two big contributors thus far in the lineup have also been off-season acquisitions - Jason Kendall, who coming into Sunday had the Majors' 3rd highest average, and Gabe Kapler, who is tied for the team lead with 2 HR and is playing a great center field in place of a suspended Mike Cameron and an injured Tony Gwynn Jr. The Brewers are currently 1st in the Majors in RBI, stolen bases, runs, and doubles, and are 2nd in hits.

I will be attending the game against the Reds tomorrow for the Crew's first night game of the '08 campaign. Let's hope we keep running on all cylinders towards the NL Central banner!

Brewers 5-1 (3 v. Reds, 3 @ Mets)
Reds 4-2 (1 v. Phillies, 3 @ Brewers, 3 @ Pirates)
Twins 3-4

Erik - 7
Peter - 3