|JOE TORRE Steady hand|
He's adapting to the West Coast lifestyle, to new players, and to a team that's younger, given a rash of injuries to veterans. But this, you see, is Joe Torre's forte: calm and cool. No worries. Well, maybe a few.
There aren't many big league managers, who shortly after a frustrating 2-0 loss to the White Sox Thursday afternoon would pick up the telephone to call an East Coast reporter, but this fits Torre. A poor start by his Dodgers hasn't dampened the things he stands for, including that a baseball season isn't 81 games long and that every loss isn't the end of the world.
This is what Torre is hanging his hat on in the National League West, and the fact that entering yesterday the Dodgers were only 2 1/2 games behind the first-place Arizona Diamondbacks, despite being five games under .500.
"They're letting us stay in the race," kidded Torre.
Letting them stay in or not, Torre doesn't for a minute expect his team's poor play to continue. He had that same calm with his Yankee teams the last couple of years, and he was right to delay pressing the panic button.
Torre points to the days soon when he'll get Rafael Furcal, Andruw Jones, and Nomar Garciaparra back in the lineup. Furcal makes the Dodgers' offense go. Jones and Garciaparra are once-prominent bats who have fallen on hard times because of injuries and/or diminished skills. Jones is hitting .165 with two home runs and seven RBIs in 133 at-bats and was being booed out of Dodgers' Stadium. Garciaparra has been limited to 31 at-bats with one homer and five RBIs.
Torre has a different kind of team than the one he left in New York. Yankee batters wore down pitchers with patient at-bats, and though Dodgers hitting coach Mike Easler preaches the same approach, Torre said young hitters "don't like to be behind on the count. They don't like strike one." Torre said such a mind-set must be overcome, and he feels it will be in time. Time enough to make a run and be one of the top teams in the NL remains to be seen. Torre wants to develop young players Matt Kemp, James Loney, and Blake DeWitt, while also impressing upon his team the urgency to win now.
Even when the veterans return, Torre doesn't anticipate the Dodgers will stand pat at the trading deadline. Los Angeles isn't one of those rebuilding places.
"I'm sure we'll do something," Torre said.
There has been speculation that the Dodgers need to make the playoffs for general manager Ned Colletti to keep his job. When Torre took the reins as skipper, he had what he felt was a good team. He knew he had the pitching, and even now, as he awaits the return of Brad Penny, Hiroki Kuroda, and, dare we say, Jason Schmidt, Torre perceives pitching to be the strength of the team.
On whether Schmidt, who is coming back from shoulder surgery, will be a shadow of his former self, Torre said, "No, I think he should be OK. I'm guessing it's going to take him a full year to get complete arm strength back."
Yet Torre believes strongly that pitching will help revive the Men in Blue from their first-half doldrums.
"Like today," Torre said after Thursday's loss, "we give up two runs. If we get pitching like that all season, I'll take my chances. The problem has been the fact we've been unable to get extra-base hits. It's been tough to mount an offense."
Torre is amazed at the volatility around baseball, with numerous managers and GMs losing their jobs. He understands, however, that "these owners are paying out a lot of money and they need immediate results. There's not much patience anymore. No more five-year plans."
Torre still keeps an eye on his old team. Being a West Coast manager, he often sits in his office watching the East Coast games. He phoned his replacement with the Yankees, Joe Girardi, after an April series against the Red Sox and asked him, "How was that?"
"That was the one thing [the Sox-Yankees rivalry] that really wore me out," added Torre. "I was pleased to be a part of it for so long, but I've talked to Terry [Francona] about it a lot and it was the thing that wore me down."
Torre isn't surprised that Joba Chamberlain has made the conversion from reliever to starter.
"When you have that much talent, there are a lot of things you can do," Torre said. "I think it was always in everybody's head that Joba would be a terrific starting pitcher."
Kielty has healthy outlookA few questions for Bobby Kielty, who hit the World Series-clinching home run for the Red Sox in Game 4 against Colorado last fall and who was scheduled to begin playing in Pawtucket again this weekend:
Being such a big part of the World Series, is it tough being down here?
BK: "I would say tough because of the injuries I've had. I've had no choice, really. I've had to rehab the injuries I've had [left wrist surgery and oblique muscle] and that's prevented me from really playing and working my way back up there. Injuries have given me problems throughout my career. I try every year to not have them, but for some reason they follow me around. Otherwise, it's tough being in Triple A when you know you can help a major league team, but the important thing now is to start getting some reps and at-bats."
Do you think about why you have had so many injuries?
BK: "The [surgery] to my wrist is probably something that needed to be done for three years, but that one doesn't bother as much as the oblique coming back. You're not going to play in the big leagues with an injury."
What's your arrangement here?
BK: "I can opt out whenever. If something comes up and I want to go somewhere else, I can. I don't think anybody should just be handed a job. I've had to fight for playing time my whole career, so if I can show I'm worthy of being back up and helping a team again, then that means I've earned it and that as a player is what you want. You don't want something handed to you because of what you might have done in the past. You have to show you can still do that job. If I don't perform, I'm not gonna be back up there."
Do you often think about that home run?
"It's neat to think my last at-bat in the big leagues was a home run in the World Series. I really don't want to remember that as the last one. I really want to get back up there and play again and do more things with my career."
At the midway point, these players have been monstersMidseason awards (stats heading into yesterday):
BEST PLAYER - Lance Berkman. The big lug has had an amazing first half - .365, 21 homers, and 63 RBIs. OK, it's for the going-nowhere Astros and in a wonderful ballpark in which to hit (though his numbers are almost as good on the road). Josh Hamilton, Chipper Jones, Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, Chase Utley, Johnny Damon, J.D. Drew, and Adrian Gonzalez are also contenders.
BEST PITCHER - Cliff Lee. At least something good has happened in Cleveland over the first half. Lee is 11-1 with an American League-leading 2.34 ERA. Tremendous strikeout-to-walk numbers - 90 K's and 16 walks over 103 2/3 innings. Runners-up: Joe Saunders, Brandon Webb, and Edinson Volquez.
BEST ROOKIE - Jacoby Ellsbury. Hard to ignore the 34 steals and great defense at all three outfield positions for a top team. David Murphy (.275, 10 HRs, 52 RBIs), Kosuke Fukudome (.301, 6 HRs, 33 RBIs), and Joey Votto (.280, 12 HRs, 38 RBIs) are all having excellent years.
BEST CLOSER - Francisco Rodriguez. Kudos to George Sherrill, even though only 10 times in his 26 saves has he not allowed a base runner.
BEST MANAGER - Joe Maddon. The newfound confidence of his Rays and their intensity on the field is a reflection of Maddon. Good jobs, too, by Lou Piniella, Terry Francona, Charlie Manuel, Mike Scioscia, and Fredi Gonzalez.
BEST COMEBACK PLAYER - Milton Bradley. He tore a ligament in his knee during an argument with an umpire last September, and has returned with Texas to lead the AL in hitting.
BEST TEAM - Tampa Bay Rays. The Red Sox have been ahead of them, the Cubs have had the best record, and the Angels have been consistently good, but the incredible job this team has done for a half-season has made the Rays the most intriguing story to date. Now, that all could change when they play the Sox starting tomorrow, but what's been impressive is they've made their run with major injuries along the way to closer Troy Percival and first baseman Carlos Pena, and played the first month without Scott Kazmir. They have literally fought for respect, and have it.
WORST TEAM - Colorado Rockies. I understand the plethora of injuries Colorado has sustained over the first half, but this team was in the World Series last year, which is why the Rockies' first half has been worse than that of Seattle, which finished last a year ago in the AL West; Toronto, which would be within spitting distance of first in the NL West; the Dodgers, who should be far better; San Diego, a dreadful offense; the Mets (who are actually in position to win the division); and Cincinnati.
Etc.Touching the bases
Apropos of nothing: 1. I love Kansas City Star writer Bob Dutton's nickname for Royals closer Joakim Soria: "The Mexicutioner"; 2. Cardinals manager Tony La Russa is passionate about great coaches such as Dave Duncan getting into the Hall of Fame; 3. Can anyone explain the year-on, year-off syndrome in Cleveland?; 4. Pawtucket Red Sox color man Bob Montgomery said Bob Stanley recently gushed about Sox reliever Daniel Bard. "Ninety-seven, 98 miles per hour with a 12-6 curveball," said Montgomery. "[Stanley] said he was one of the nastiest relievers he's seen."
Why would the Red Sox be interested in trading for C.C. Sabathia? First, because they can. They have the money to sign him long term. They also have the prospects to give up, including what might be the most attractive player any team could include in a package - Clay Buchholz. With Justin Masterson making a solid impression in the majors and Buchholz down in Triple A, it doesn't take a genius to figure out which of the two starters the Sox are higher on at the moment. Why won't the Sox trade for Sabathia? Because they will ultimately decide Buchholz is too valuable, even with 21-year-old righthander Michael Bowden (7-3, 2.33 ERA) coming fast - likely to hit Pawtucket any day now. One team that will dive headfirst into the Sabathia hunt is Texas. Team president Nolan Ryan is emphasizing pitching, and this is the best guy out there.
Catching some praise
I don't know whether Pawtucket manager Ron Johnson is just trumpeting the company line or really means it when he says he's "ecstatic" about the progress of catchers Dusty Brown and George Kottaras: "How many organizations have the situation we have where we have two prospects at the same position?"
It was a long time ago, but reliever Mike Timlin remembers fondly his days with manager Cito Gaston in those golden years in Toronto. "He set a real positive tone in the clubhouse," said Timlin. "I know the guys really liked playing for him. I know the only problem he had was with 'Boomer' [David Wells], but otherwise there was talent and he got the most out of it." In 1989, the Blue Jays fired Jimy Williams after a 12-24 start and Gaston took over and Toronto caught the Orioles on Game No. 161. Seems far-fetched he could lead the Jays to the playoffs this year, but a little "Cito Magic" goes a long way.
During their just-completed 10-game winning streak, the Twins won games started by Randy Johnson, Brandon Webb, Jake Peavy, and Greg Maddux, who have 11 Cy Young Awards combined. The Twins can hit. General manager Bill Smith is having a good first year, getting decent talent in the Johan Santana deal, and is likely to add Francisco Liriano from Triple-A Rochester to a staff that has been lights out of late. The Twins had a 19-1 run en route to a 71-33 record over the last 104 games in 2006. They're starting to look like that now.
Not so fast...
The Red Sox passed on Joba Chamberlain with the 40th pick in the 2006 draft to take Wichita State lefthander Kris Johnson. Chamberlain went a pick later to the Yankees. But the Sox were - and are - high on Johnson, who has recovered from Tommy John surgery in February 2006. He is 6-3 with a 3.32 ERA at Double A Portland. Johnson was selected as a supplemental pick as compensation for losing Johnny Damon to the Yankees. The 6-foot-4-inch, lanky starter has an 89-93-m.p.h. fastball, a good curve, and very good changeup. He's on a run of 17 consecutive scoreless innings.
Sheets ready to roll
Brewers starter Ben Sheets is at the end of a four-year, $38.5 million deal. And now that he's 9-1 with a 2.59 ERA, he says he'll likely test free agency. The Brewers do not anticipate trading Sheets as long as they're in the National League Central race. The oft-injured righthander is on pace to start 30 games for the first time since 2004. Of Sheets's declaration, one American League executive said, "The Brewers have been very good to him and very patient with all of his injuries. Tough thing to say in the middle of a season. I'm sure there's a team or two out there who will take the plunge and break the bank for him. But you can't ignore his history, either."
I lost another loyal friend way too young, New Bedford Standard-Times sportswriter Danny Pires. Godspeed . . . Happy 42d birthday, Peter Hoy.
Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com.