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The Pennant Chase

   by Al McMordie - 08/08/2006

The All-Star break and the trading deadline are now in the rear view mirror, so it’s the beginning of baseball’s stretch run for October. From a handicapping standpoint, many factors have just taken place that influence how a team might respond over the next eight weeks. Some teams jettisoned players and are focused more on next season (Phillies, Pirates, Cubs, Brewers) and could be worth a look at as go-against teams.

There wasn’t a flurry of key trades, either, unlike past years. Most teams found asking prices for players too high and passed, preferring to stick with what they had. But more teams have hope for the next two months, mainly because there are so many tight pennant races. The NL West is the closest – and worst – race baseball has seen since, well, the 2005 NL West race. Just about every team is at .500, with the last place Giants only 5 games out of first! With that said, the Dodgers have to be happy with themselves (and their recent 10 game win streak).

Dodgers GM Ned Colletti improved the starting rotation six weeks ago by getting Mark Hendrickson from the Devil Rays, then gave up no young players while adding Greg Maddux and Julio Lugo. Maddux doesn’t walk anyone and will benefit from such a huge pitching park like Dodger stadium. He pitched 6 no-hit innings in his first start with the Dodgers, too. Lugo hasn’t been used much yet, but he is a strong offensive player that can play second or short and has value, speed and versatility.

The filthy rich Yankees were the biggest winners at the trading deadline, giving up virtually nothing to shore-up an outfield depleted by injuries, adding All-Star RF Bobby Abreu, a terrific 5-tool player. They also nabbed the best starting pitcher available in Corey Lidle, who was impressive in his first Pinstripe start. With the Yanks, Red Sox and Blue Jays in a tight race most of the season, NY got a big leg up on its competitors. Perhaps Lidle can help stabilize the rotation, just like the shot Downtown Doyle Alexander gave to the Tigers in the second half of 1987.

If you’re looking for a team to come from behind and win the World Series, take a look at the Minnesota Twins (currently around 18-to-1). If the playoffs started today they wouldn’t even qualify for the spot. Yet, they are the team no one wants to play. Minnesota is 38-12 since June 11 with a strong young offense, a lights-out rotation and an ace closer in Joe Nathan. Lefties Johan Santana and rookie Francisco Liriano are the best pitchers in baseball, while Brad Radke is 6-2 with a 2.72 ERA his last 13 starts. That’s three guys who would be a No. 1 on any team in baseball. A name to remember is Matt Garza, a hard-throwing young righty currently at Triple-A for the Twins. He throws gas and has been compared to Liriano. You will see him up before the regular season ends and he could give the Twins an even BETTER starting rotation!

The Detroit Tigers story has been great and they will be a threat to win the whole thing, but let me drop one word of caution to any Tiger supporters: Why is Todd Jones still closing? He is 38 years old and has a 4.63 ERA. Opponents are hitting .308 off him at home, a disturbing stat as the Tigers play in a pitcher-friendly park. He’s not a strikeout pitcher (21 in 44 innings) and has a 2-5 record.
With fireballers Joel Zumaya, Wilfredo Ledezma and Fernando Rodney sporting far better numbers and stuff, shouldn’t one of them be getting groomed as a closer? I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Tigers blow some October games behind the soft-throwing 38-year old Jones, if manager Jim Leyland continues to stick with him. Good luck, as always...Al McMordie.

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