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Baseball Notes

It's a one-sided argument

Hitless teams find pitching isn't enough

TONY CLARK Padre bats quiet TONY CLARK Padre bats quiet
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / May 11, 2008

One American League scout just shakes his head when you mention teams that don't hit. Teams like San Diego and San Francisco and Toronto and Seattle.

Which is why a team like Boston stands out. It has balance. It can score and it can pitch. Is this such a hard formula for general managers to implement?

"When I look at lineups and the way they're constructed," said the scout, "Boston does it right. They have guys who can wear down the pitcher, guys who can drill the ball in the gap, they have guys who can run and take the extra base and they have guys who can take it out of the yard.

"I don't understand why there aren't more lineups like Boston's in the league, because they've got it right."

Over his 14-year career, Padres first baseman Tony Clark has seen struggling offenses all of a sudden "shot out of the cannon," suddenly emerging as if they've been reinvented as the 1927 Yankees. But if this is to happen in San Diego, it had better happen soon.

The Padres are falling fast in the NL West, below even the Giants. At one point last week, they were 11 games behind the first-place Diamondbacks, a team they thought they could compete with.

This is not what general manager Kevin Towers imagined for his Padres, who are relatively pitching-rich. And certainly not what Clark expected.

"It would be easy to suggest that it is just the 'offense' that has put us in the situation we're in after six weeks," said Clark in an e-mail. "But I would submit that it is our lack of timely hitting that has been our most difficult hurdle.

"The team I played for last year [Arizona] is the prime example of not having to be an offensive machine to win ballgames. I would even suggest that is what this team has been in the past and been successful at it."

Maybe so, but there are signs the Padres should be worried. After much speculation, Towers made the difficult decision to release Jim Edmonds Friday. The 37-year-old center fielder, while still viable defensively, was hitting .172. This is also a team on which three pitchers are hitting better than six regulars.

Yet there are those who believe the Padres' pitching is simply too good for the team to stay in the basement very long.

"I guess I go by conventional wisdom," said Astros catcher Brad Ausmus. "Having seen that San Diego team, I'll stick to the fact that I think that team will be OK because they have such good pitching. I understand you need to score runs, but I've been on teams like that where you just don't hit for a couple of months and all of a sudden your pitching is still top-notch and your hitting comes around enough and the next thing you know, you're in the playoffs."

Towers has held off on making any bold moves. He told this reporter last week that he wasn't likely to dive into the Coco Crisp market because of what the Red Sox want back.

Towers was looking for options at the Triple A level, and recalled veteran Jody Gerut. But that thinking might change. Entering yesterday's games, the Padres are last out of 30 teams with 119 runs and a .230 team average. There's even the possibility that Kenny Lofton could surface in the Padres' plans, as right now the decision not to re-sign Mike Cameron is backfiring.

But this lack of hitting is not limited to San Diego.

The Blue Jays have excellent starting pitching, but they had the second-ranked pitching staff in the American League last season and finished in fourth place, under .500. Why? Couldn't score. Seattle is also going through similar problems, though the bullpen shares responsibility. It goes to show that while general managers properly direct big money into the pitching staffs, some of them leave the offense a little bit vulnerable.

The Blue Jays brought in Brad Wilkerson, who was dumped by Seattle, and traded for Kevin Mench, because their offense has reached anemic levels. On Thursday, Alex Rios hit a leadoff triple in the 10th inning of a 3-3 game and not one batter could knock him in.

"It's the strangest thing," said the AL scout. "When you're an American League team, you've got to have a great lineup. If you're a general manager, you've got to plug in holes in the offseason or else you can't compete in this league, no matter how good the rest of your team is.

"Yeah, pitching might be 85 percent of the game, but you damned well better have a strong 15 percent of offense in this league. You look at Baltimore - they can't hit their way out of a paper bag. Seattle is terrible. Toronto can't buy a hit when they need it."

Dodgers hitting coach Mike Easler said it took his team a month to crank it up because "for the first month, the pitchers are always ahead of the hitters. You hope it doesn't last two months.

"We went up against good pitching teams like Atlanta, Arizona, and San Diego right off the bat, which didn't help. I think that's happened to us. I kept saying, with our pitching, just give us a little time and our guys will get going."

Ausmus agrees that good pitching won't always be enough, but he said, "Look at our case. We've gotten a lot better starting pitching than we ever expected. It's been surprising. And we do have a good lineup that can score runs.

"But in the end, for me, it's the teams that are consistent with their pitching that emerge. That's why I'd never count San Diego out."

A few questions for center fielder Carlos Gomez, who has taken Minnesota by storm since coming over from the Mets in the Johan Santana deal:

Catching the speedy Gomez

Over the next few years, you're going to be compared a lot to Jacoby Ellsbury. What do you think of him?

CG: "Who's that? I don't know him. What's his name?" (Gomez pauses, and a teammate says, "Ellsbury, plays center field for Boston.") "Oh yeah. He's a very, very exciting player. His game is a lot like mine. He runs, can play defense, can hit, and has some power. Yeah, I like watching him a lot. I think I played against him in Double A."

Do you think you're the fastest player in baseball?

CG: "No. We had a guy at Double A named Juan Capusano. Oh, my God, he was the fastest player I've ever seen. In the big leagues? I don't know. Well, I probably am. I've always been fast because my dad was very fast. He played baseball in the Dominican and he's 46 years old right now and he's still very fast."

Can he beat you?

CG: 'Well, I let him win once in a while to keep him happy. He doesn't play anymore, but he can still beat a lot of people in a race."

What did it feel like to hit for the cycle so early in your career?

CG: "I was so excited because Kirby Puckett [the last Twin to hit for the cycle, in 1986] was one of my favorite players. It's amazing. I saw the video of Kirby Puckett doing it. That was unbelievable. I knew I had a chance because there was a lefty pitching."

What do you envision yourself as down the road? Will you be a leadoff hitter?

CG: "Now I'm a leadoff hitter, but I'm 22. When I get to be 25, my body will be bigger and I'll be hitting home runs. I can be like an Andruw Jones or a Torii Hunter and hit third in a lineup. I don't think I'll be a leadoff hitter forever, no way."

David Ortiz spent a lot of time talking to you before Friday's game. What did he say?

CG: "Papi is my homeboy. He played on the same team I did in the Dominican, so we're very close. He just told me not to let anything distract me. He told me to forget about money because the money will come if I'm a great player. He told me to just keep staying focused on baseball and nothing else. He told me to go 100 miles an hour and never let up. I don't think I'll ever change that."

One Jones isn't keeping up with the other one

It's amazing what's happened to the Joneses. Chipper Jones, still a Brave, is hitting .400, while Andruw Jones, who signed a lucrative deal with the Dodgers in the offseason, is being portrayed by some as one of the biggest busts in free agent history.

But Jones's hitting coach, Mike Easler, doesn't think the former Braves superstar is done, by a long shot. When Los Angeles signed Jones to a two-year, $36.2 million deal, the hope was that a change of scenery and a new hitting coach (it was going to be Don Mattingly, until he stepped down for personal reasons) would turn Jones's fortunes around. He had hit .222 in 2007, but this year, entering last night, he was at .174, with 1 homer and 4 RBIs.

Easler says he knows what Jones is doing wrong; it's just a matter of getting him to make corrections.

"His bat speed, his hands, they're all fine," said Easler. "This kid gets booed every night, and the negativity around him is so bad. But I'll tell you, this guy works as hard as anyone I've ever been around, and that's another reason I think he's going to break out if it.

"We spend a lot of time doing video work and going over the things he used to do well when he was hitting 30 home runs and knocking in 100 runs. He's definitely getting out front too soon. He's lunging. He's too anxious.

"You can understand that when you're not going good, but if he stays back and lets the ball come to him, he'll be better off."

In 16 of his first 34 games, Jones could not muster a hit. He's been sat down a time or two by manager Joe Torre, but the Dodgers can ill afford to have $18 million per year on the bench.

"I think, for what he's gone through, he's reacted to everything very well," said Easler.

Etc.

Touching the bases
Apropos of nothing: 1. When I looked at the batting leaders at midweek, two catchers - Victor Martinez and Joe Mauer - were 1-2 in the American League; 2. How about sibling catchers Benji Molina (Giants) and Yadier Molina (Cardinals) being the two hardest players to strike out in the majors - once every 21 at-bats for Benji and once every 20.4 at-bats for Yadier?; 3. I think Sidney Ponson (2-0, 1.30) must have swallowed Roy Halladay or something; 4. Got to feel sorry for Koby Clemens, who is now getting razzed by fans; 5. The Lehigh Valley IronPigs are 5-30.

Silent treatment
Theo Epstein is not going to discuss anything about his contract. When asked whether he had recently agreed to or is discussing a new deal, he issued a no comment. Since the 2005 episode, when he left the team in a dispute, Epstein has been hesitant to engage in any discussion about his future. Red Sox sources indicate that the general manager appears to be happy with his future in the organization.

The meter is running
Joe Bick made a couple of proposals to the Sox over the winter and spring on a long-term deal for client Kevin Youkilis, but the Sox decided they weren't quite ready. Given his hot start, it would seem the right time to rekindle those talks. Bick said, "All we can do is wait until the Red Sox are ready to discuss something like that. I made the proposals, and since then, a couple of players have signed that make those proposals outdated, so we'd have to start over again." In other words, the price has gone up. The Yankees signed Robinson Cano to a four-year, $30 million deal and the Reds gave Brandon Phillips a four-year, $27 million deal. Both players have the same service time as Youkilis, and you could argue that Youkilis has been more productive.

Seeking a collusion conclusion
Astros catcher Brad Ausmus on the union exploring the possibility that collusion by owners is keeping Barry Bonds and other players out of the game: "I think they're doing what they're paid to do: to look into these matters if they believe they have a legitimate reason to. They're doing their due diligence. I don't think anyone is saying that's happening, but why not look into it and come to a conclusion after you've explored it?"

Extreme games
The Indians are scratching their heads trying to figure out how their starting rotation can be so bipolar. On one side, Cliff Lee has walked only two batters in 44 2/3 innings en route to his 6-0 record and 0.81 ERA. On the other side, Fausto Carmona has averaged seven walks per nine innings (31 walks in 39 2/3 innings); last year he walked only 2.6 per nine innings. According to one scout, "They're laying off his pitches in the dirt more. So many hitters bit on those pitches last year."

Pen is mighty shaky
The Red Sox never had much interest in Derrick Turnbow, who wound up taking a Triple A assignment with the Brewers. Turnbow is expensive, earning $3 million this season, and it doesn't appear the Brewers were willing to eat much of that in a deal. The Milwaukee bullpen has turned out to be a disaster, with Eric Gagné already having blown five saves. He had a 6.75 ERA with the Sox over 18 2/3 innings last season; this year he's at 6.14 over 14 2/3 innings. And here's the other problem: Prince Fielder. He is a far cry from the 50-homer player he was a year ago. Fielder had only 4 homers and 20 RBIs entering yesterday's games, with a .256 average. He became a vegetarian in the offseason, though nobody has linked the two developments. Still I ask, "Where's the beef?"

Switch hitters
With interleague play starting this week, a reminder that the best active hitter in interleague play is Texas's Michael Young, who in 490 at-bats has a .347 average. Second is Detroit's Magglio Ordonez at .345.

Time to go to the Wells?
David Wells could be a pitcher who saves the day for someone at the All-Star break. At least he thinks so, and agent Gregg Clifton said, "He would need two weeks to get ready and he could give a team 20-25 starts." After Kei Igawa was roughed up by the Tigers Friday night, Wells might look good in pinstripes again.

Short hops
"Deep Drive," by Mike Lowell and Rob Bradford, is an excellent read . . . This from baseball historian Bill Chuck: "Sign him up. Since Pope Benedict did Mass at their park, the Nationals have been 8-3 at home." . . . Reader Saundra Ketner reports that, in Kansas City, the world-famous Stroud's (best chicken place in the country) has reopened . . . Happy 44th birthday, Jeff Sellers.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com

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