Baseball: Rays’ turnaround highlights crazy first half
By Mike Fitzpatrick
NEW YORK ó Tampa Bay is on top, the Chicago Cubs keep winning and Major League Baseball might add instant replay before the summer’s over.
What in the name of Babe Ruth is going on with this grand ol’ game? Conventions are getting shattered everywhere, just like those thin-handled maple bats.
Indeed, it’s been a wild first half for the national pastime: one no-hitter, three fired managers and Ken Griffey Jr.’s 600th home run. And with a farewell All-Star game at Yankee Stadium only days away, there’s something else that sticks out, too.
“Nobody picked up Barry Bonds. That might be the biggest surprise in baseball. Barry Bonds is out there,” Torii Hunter of the Los Angeles Angels said. “I know he comes with baggage or whatever, but if I was an owner, I’d like to get Barry.”
While the indicted home run king was left waiting for an attractive offer, young pitchers such as Tim Lincecum and Edinson Volquez emerged. Chipper Jones flirted with .400, Manny Ramirez hit homer No. 500 and Mike Piazza called it a career.
Josh Hamilton continued his remarkable comeback from drug and alcohol abuse, putting up huge numbers for Texas. Cancer-survivor Jon Lester also added to his feel-good story, tossing a no-hitter for Boston.
The Cubs jumped out to a strong start, looking to win their first World Series championship in 100 years. They just made a big move, too, acquiring right-hander Rich Harden from Oakland to fortify a top-notch rotation.
That deal came one day after rival Milwaukee landed lefty ace CC Sabathia from the Indians, who have hit the skids after falling one win short of the American League pennant last year.
Two blockbuster trades right before the All-Star break and suddenly the NL Central appears awfully tough. A few months back, it was supposed to be the softest division in baseball.
But that’s how fast things have flipped this season.
Take the Tampa Bay Rays, for instance. They dropped the Devil from their nickname last winter and started playing like a completely different team.
Long the laughingstock of the AL East, Tampa Bay got tired of being kicked around. Joe Maddon’s feisty young squad had a spring training fight with the Yankees, then a nasty brawl with the Red Sox. Following up their punches with much-improved pitching, the Rays soon surged to the best record in baseball.
“I had anticipated that we’d be a lot better by now. I’d be lying if I said I thought we’d be this many games over .500,” Maddon said. “That’s exceeding expectations a bit.”
Especially for a club that’s never won more than 70 games in its 10-season history.
“When we were losing, everybody wanted to knock us. Now they want to beat us,” reliever J.P. Howell said. “I always thought we were going to be in the mix, but I was shocked that we’re doing this.”
Tampa Bay isn’t the only surprise, though. The Chicago White Sox, Minnesota Twins, Oakland Athletics, Florida Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals are all playing far better than predicted.
“This game, the satisfaction comes after the six-month test,” Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. “It won’t be satisfying to have three good months and then stumble. I want to make sure we’re concentrating on what we’ve got to do, not what we’ve done.”
Meanwhile, the New York Yankees, Detroit Tigers and New York Mets ó with the three highest opening-day payrolls in baseball ó have sputtered around .500. Colorado, last year’s NL champ, isn’t even close.
“Crazy year,” Giants general manager Brian Sabean said, referring to the wide-open NL West.
The Mets, after weeks of speculation, finally fired manager Willie Randolph in the early morning of June 17 and replaced him with Jerry Manuel.
Two other teams followed suit within three days. The disappointing Seattle Mariners dumped John McLaren for Jim Riggleman, and Toronto supplanted John Gibbons with old favorite Cito Gaston.
On the field, the AL dominated interleague play again, while scoring dropped to its lowest level in 16 years.
Just a few months after the Mitchell Report on doping in baseball implicated dozens of former All-Stars, teams averaged 4.54 runs per game through July 7. That’s the lowest mark on that date since it was 4.16 in 1992, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
In May, players and owners approved tougher drug-testing rules.
“We’re still trying to get through this cloud of performance-enhancing drugs,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. “Hopefully, we’ll get that cleaned up and get back to playing baseball. But I think baseball is alive and well and moving forward.”
Scioscia’s team accomplished a rare feat on June 28. Starting pitcher Jered Weaver (six innings) and reliever Jose Arredondo (two innings) combined to hold the Los Angeles Dodgers hitless in a 1-0 defeat.
It didn’t count as a no-hitter ó just a frustrating loss.
All season long, players and managers around the big leagues have been exasperated by a rash of missed home run calls. So baseball wants to adopt instant replay by August for home run disputes in hopes of fine-tuning the system in time for the playoffs.
The umpires’ union and MLB must reach an agreement before replay can be tried. The sides have started discussions.
“We talked about it for like a month and then bam ó implement it,” Hunter said. “That’s unbelievable how quick they came around. I was very shocked that that was going to happen. I’m thinking it was going to happen 5-10 years from now. So that’s how much the game has changed.”
Another pressing issue is the danger of maple bats. Some say they splinter with greater force than ash models, and a management-union safety committee is investigating.
Maple bats can’t be banned without the union’s agreement.