Baseball notes

We're talking pivotal figures

Contenders will be counting on these 10

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / August 17, 2008
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The 10 key players for the stretch run, and a comment from a top American League executive:

1. John Lackey, Angels: It's great that the Angels have bolstered their offense with Mark Teixeira, but Lackey is their ace, and once October rolls around he needs to pitch like their ace. He's pitched well against the Red Sox (2-0, 2.81), White Sox (0-1, 2.40), and Rays this season.

Comment: "They have a really excellent pitching staff, but Lackey is the No. 1 guy who has to step up in the playoffs. He's pitched really well, gotten over the Boston hump. It's heading toward a good conclusion for the Angels."

2. David Ortiz, Red Sox: You don't worry about Josh Beckett and Jonathan Papelbon, the superstar bookends of the pitching staff. Here, the problem is a healthy Ortiz all season. Can his wrist hold up through October? With Manny Ramírez gone, Ortiz has begun to find himself (though, don't forget, he did his damage against a weak Texas pitching staff) and that ferocity must continue for the Sox lineup to be effective.

Comment: "He'll make the adjustments of not having Manny around if he's healthy. But against top teams with good pitching, he's not going to get much to hit, though the beneficiary of that is Kevin Youkilis; if he continues to take advantage and produces like he can, he might be the MVP of the league."

3. Troy Percival, Rays: Carl Crawford is a huge loss, and rookie Evan Longoria needs to return for the Rays to keep trucking along, but it appears the team's fortunes are really tied to their closer, Percival, who is back on the DL. Percival gives the Rays leadership, a toughness at the end of the game. He was a key figure in the Angels' world championship in 2002. Dan Wheeler and Grant Balfour are now in the spotlight.

Comment: "You have to have his experience and leadership down the stretch. What he does is create a confidence among the starting pitchers that if they do their part, he'll do his."

4. Mark Buehrle, White Sox: He's a tough lefty who has been through the wars of a pennant race and World Series. Much like Lackey, he needs to embrace the ace role and be lights-out - the way he was against Boston last week.

Comment: "If this guy gets on a roll, he's one of those guys who gets everyone else to ride his coattails."

5. Kerry Wood, Cubs: Everyone is wary of the constant injury cloud around Wood, but there's no arguing about his stuff and his ability to close games. The Cubs have the lineup and the starting pitching, and they need Wood to be a consistent game-ender.

Comment: "This is a good baseball team that needs a closer they can depend on. Wood's got to be that guy at crunch time. We'll see."

6. Manny Ramírez, Dodgers: If he doesn't self-destruct and require time off to rest his legs, if he doesn't act up, if, if, if . . . he's the offensive force the Dodgers need to get past Arizona. We've seen what Ramírez can do in the postseason. As much as any hitter in the game, he can carry an offense.

Comment: "It's contract time. He'll play hard."

7. Adam Dunn, Arizona: The Diamondbacks have the pitching in place, but they need someone to be the centerpiece of their offense. That's an awful lot to pin on a high-strikeout guy, but Dunn definitely can make an impact, hit key home runs, and drive in key runs.

Comment: "Not the hitter I would have chosen to bring an offense together, but will he contribute with a big home run, drive in a big run now and then? Sure. The Dodgers added the best hitter, no doubt about that."

8. Billy Wagner, Mets: He has to come back strong from a forearm strain because he's the closer and they can ill afford not to have him in October. Wagner pitches on pure adrenaline, and if he can get into a rhythm, he'll create a pretty confident pitching staff around him.

Comment: "You just have to cross your fingers and hope he's on a good roll down the stretch and heading into the postseason. If he's the guy who has blown seven saves and loses it from time to time, the Mets won't have a shot."

9. Brad Lidge, Phillies: The last thing the Phillies need is for him to go down. Since the All-Star Game (remember, Clint Hurdle had him up six times before bringing him in), he went from a 1.15 pre-break ERA to 6.75, with shoulder soreness.

Comment: "With Tom Gordon out, there's more need for Lidge to be the guy he was in the first half of the season. Did they burn him out? That would be devastating for the Phillies."

10. CC Sabathia, Brewers: He's 7-0 with a 1.55 ERA in eight starts since coming over from Cleveland July 7. Starting pitching has been the key to the Brewers' surge, and it all bleeds down from him. He has been unbelievable.

Comment: "It's too bad the Brewers weren't in a position to allow Sabathia to skip a start. That would really help keep him strong, but they don't have that luxury."

The view by the bay
A few questions for Giants general manager Brian Sabean:
Thought by now some of your veteran players - Randy Winn, Rich Aurilia - might be dispersed to other teams.
BS: "There's still time. We've had some interest in our players, but nothing has materialized quite yet. But between now and the roster deadline [Aug. 31], there's still plenty of time for teams to assess their needs and come back to us with something."
I'm sure this has been a tough year. It seems as though you're bringing up younger kids and seeing what they can do.
BS: "It's a transitional time, but an exciting time. We'd like to see what these kids can do now and how we project them for our team in the future. There's been some frustration this year. We felt we did some things better than we expected and we didn't do things that we expected to do. We haven't hit at times and that puts a strain on your pitching staff."
Is Barry Zito salvageable?
BS: "In his defense, he's gone out there at times and had good stuff and we haven't supported him offensively. Same with Matt Cain. I think it's awfully tough mentally for a pitcher to know he's got to be perfect out there and not make a mistake because we aren't going to score enough runs to support him. Barry is transitioning, there's no doubt about that. He keeps searching for something to turn it around for him again, and believe me he's trying."
Do you have a plan for the future in terms of whether you want to go young or whether you want to dabble in the free agent market?
BS: "I think we made a great choice in going after Aaron Rowand last year. I think he's been everything as advertised for us and he's someone we would certainly want to build our team around in terms of a guy who leaves everything he has on the field every day. We have some things we need to correct and we'll look for free agents and to make deals. We need to do something about our bullpen. We need maybe to look and see if we can do something with a first baseman. We know we have a keeper in Fred Lewis. We'll certainly have to wait and see who's on our team by the end of the year and make our evaluations and who we have and who we don't have."
Was it tempting at all when you saw Barry Bonds on the field last weekend not to give him a jersey and suit up?
BS: "I don't think I'll touch that one."

Don't look now, but instant replay will be here soon
From what we've been able to piece together in the last day from league sources, Major League Baseball is shooting for the end of August as a target date for the unveiling of instant replay for borderline calls.

If there is a delay, it will be because all 30 ballparks have to be wired with monitors. Digital signals will be sent to the monitors from MLB's central office. As it stands, the crew chief will be assigned to view the monitor and make a decision.

There will be no new cameras put in place. In recent tests conducted in parks where the wiring and monitors are already in place, "we've received clear-cut views on balls in question," said a league official.

Another issue is monitor locations. MLB wants the crew chief to have a quick path. The preference is a location near one of the dugouts, but that's not available everywhere.

If the system is up and running by late August or early September, it would give MLB a month to work out the bugs.

"I like it," said Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi of the instant replay. "I was on the subcommittee that was discussing it at the time.

"I think we all just want to see a home run ball called fairly, and given the new boundaries of some of the new ballparks, it's getting harder for umpires to distinguish the boundaries in some of the stadiums."

Would he like to see replays used for other calls?

"No," said Ricciardi. "I don't think we want to be at the ballpark all night. The only thing that bothers anyone is when a ball is called fair or foul and it should have been the other way. Those things can be looked at quickly without major disruption to the game."

Touching the bases
Apropos of nothing: 1. If the Tigers pick up a few bucks, Gary Sheffield could really help the Rays; 2. Asked White Sox GM Ken Williams how often he traveled with the team. "About 50 percent," he said. "You know I have a manager who is a little eccentric."; 3. MLB didn't pick any Red Sox for the US team in the Olympics; 4. He's still raw defensively, but Texas backstop Jarrod Saltalamacchia would be an offensive force at Fenway; 5. Am I crazy to think Carl Pavano will be motivated upon his imminent return to the Yankees?

Not hurting for candidates
The Rookie of the Year race in the American League is becoming quite an interesting competition, mainly because the front-runners -Rays third baseman Evan Longoria and Rangers outfielder David Murphy - are on the disabled list. Now, could Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga (10-4, 3.23) be in line for the award? The injuries to Longoria (.278, 22 HRs, 71 RBIs) and Murphy (.282, 15, 74) also could enhance the chances of Jacoby Ellsbury. Others who could come on strong are Indians outfielder Ben Francisco (.279, 12, 45) and Twins starter Nick Blackburn (9-6, 3.73).

Still batting it around
It is unlikely that the lengthy study being conducted by the Commissioner's Office into the shattering of maple bats will result in the adoption of a uniform set of specs for how a bat should be constructed and with what type of wood. "That won't happen," said a committee member. "The more we get into it, the more we see that this issue has far greater depth than we ever anticipated. There's a lot to this that we keep finding out and keep discussing. It's going to take a while to sort this out and come up with a solution. We certainly don't want fans or players to get hurt."

The dealing isn't done
There's a lot of talk among scouts that the Dodgers are looking for more reinforcements, especially in the middle infield. The name of Nationals second baseman Ronnie Belliard has come up quite a bit. Meanwhile, everyone is longing for middle-relief help. The one veteran who had a lot of claims on him was Doug Brocail of the Astros, but owner Drayton McLane is still in a denial stage and doesn't seem to want to part with anyone. There also has been interest in catcher Brad Ausmus, but - surprisingly - not by the Red Sox or Padres, teams he would love to go to. The Sox also looked into Astros catcher J.R. Towles, who was demoted to Triple A earlier this year after hitting .143, but were told he wasn't available.

Price isn't right in Seattle
The Mariners' poor season has extended from the field to the trade deadline and now to the waiver wire. They haven't been able to dump any of their veteran players. They placed Raul Ibanez, Jarrod Washburn, and Adrian Beltre on waivers at the same time and weren't able to work out deals. "They're asking for the ranch," said one baseball official. "They want you to take on their contracts and give you prospects. It's one or the other, and they want both." The Yankees had interest in Washburn at the deadline, but the asking price was prohibitive. The Twins put in a claim on Washburn but couldn't work out a deal in the 48-hour window. Ibanez was claimed by an unspecified team - perhaps the Tigers - but again, no deal was made. The Mariners released Richie Sexson and Jose Vidro earlier, unable to get a bag of balls for either.

Magic moments remembered
It went without much fanfare because there was so much happening at Fenway during the week, but Joe Morgan was honored on the 20th anniversary of Morgan Magic, something that resonated with former Mariners manager John McLaren, who became Morgan's bullpen coach in 1991. "That makes me happy they gave Joe his due," said McLaren. "He's a good person and good baseball guy. I always heard stories about '88 and what he did. I know the one year I had with him was the most enjoyable one I ever had in baseball. I'll never forget one time Joe came out of the dugout and I can't remember who was pitching, but I was the bullpen coach and we had Dennis Lamp warming up. Dennis stopped throwing and stopped near the gate and then comes trotting out. Joe never signaled for him and he ran out to wave Lamp back. Funny scene. We lost the game and afterward Joe said to me, 'We should have brought in Lamp.' "

Old-Timers' Day in Cambridge
Steve Buckley's labor of love, the 15th Abbot Financial Management Old Time Baseball Game, will be Thursday at 7 p.m. at St. Peter's Field in North Cambridge. Lou Merloni will don a 1901 Baltimore jersey for the game, which benefits the Todd J. Schwartz Memorial Fund.

Short hops
From the Bill Chuck files: "On May 15, 1989, while playing for the Milwaukee Brewers, Terry Francona made his last and only pitching appearance, facing the Oakland A's, who were winning, 12-2. Terry retired the side in order, striking out Stan Javier to end his one inning." . . . Love this book: "Spartan AC: An American Legion Baseball Team United Through Adversity." Great local baseball story by Vin DiNunno. Information is available at . . . Happy 57th birthday, Butch Hobson, and happy 25th, Dustin Pedroia.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at

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