Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Volquez happy, hairless

Edinson Volquez is one of the happiest people I've ever met, as evidenced by his cheeky grin that not even 40 walks and a 5.74 ERA in 58 innings could completely diminish.

But frustration has its limits. And following a particularly dreadful outing, the previously dreadlocked Reds right-hander decided to throw his team under the bus, saying they needed to score more runs. Shortly thereafter Volquez boarded a figurative bus bound for Triple-A Louisville.

But Volquez, whose mental toughness has been repeatedly questioned dating back to his days with the Rangers, made the most of his minor league stint. He worked, he listened, he shaved his head.

Volquez returned to the big leagues on Tuesday - sans dreadlocks - and delivered one of his strongest outings of the season, allowing one run in seven innings in a victory over the Cubs. It was the first time this season that Volquez had reached the seventh inning, largely due to a series of first-inning meltdowns that exhausted his pitch count.

History shows that pitchers coming off Tommy John surgery perform better during their first full season back. But Volquez' issues aren't as much related to velocity and arm strength as they are to command and confidence. Want to predict how Volquez will fare on a given night? Just check the body language.

Beneath Volquez' happy-go-lucky exterior lies a fierce competitor who wants badly to succeed. Some guys harness this and channel it into concentration and intensity. Others sulk. No pitcher has his best stuff every time out. The great ones make do without. Volquez has much to learn in this regard.

While pitching is the key for most teams it's particularly so for the Reds whose NL Central Division title 'peat hopes rest on the live young arms of Volquez, Travis Wood, Homer Bailey, Johnny Cueto, and to a lesser extent Mike Leake.

On Wednesday morning Volquez proudly displayed the clutch of hair previously attached to his head.'s Trent Rosecrans snapped a photo.

"It was too hot," Volquez said. So far he's been able to withstand the heat.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Two months in, suppress panic button Reds fans

It's hard to imagine that the 2011 baseball season is just one-third complete, particularly if you're a Reds fan. In two months Dusty Baker's club has endured a season's worth of injuries, slumps, slides, streaks and adversity. And yet they've managed to remain above .500 and in the hunt for first place in the NL Central division.

The Reds, much like they did during 2010's championship season, have offered up their share of surprises, some mostly unpleasant but not all unanticipated.

I didn't expect:

-- Opening Day starter Edinson Volquez to lose his command and be demoted to Triple-A. Especially since pitchers who undergo Tommy John surgery typically perform better in their first full season back from injury.

-- The first inning meltdowns by Reds starters which have become a disturbing trend involving nearly every member of the rotation at one time or another.

-- Injuries are part of the game. But not 15 transactions involving pitchers during a one-week stretch.

I had a hunch:

-- Scott Rolen would have a difficult time playing a full season. It's just a product of age, but the Reds are a different club with Rolen in the lineup and at third base.

-- Jonny Gomes would struggle. Like Rolen, his presence is important for this team. But not when he's batting sub-.200 and offering little from the defensive end.

-- Joey Votto would play like the reigning MVP.

Shocked the heck out of me:

-- Jay Bruce in May. Not sure I've seen a better month from a Reds hitter. It's easy to forget that he's still just 24, and still in the midst of making adjustments. Whatever alterations he made in late April are beginning to pay off in a big way.

-- That Drew Stubbs, for all the improvements he's making as a youg player, still cannot manage the strike zone. He's not long for the leadoff spot.

-- That Edgar Renteria, last year's World Series MVP, has provided little if anything offensively. Same for Paul Janish. I don't buy into the notion that you need offense from certain positions but the Reds have gotten nothing from shortstop.

This all adds up to 29-28, and 3 1/2 games behind the injury-riddled Cardinals. The NL Central is up for grabs. While the Reds' schedule in June is rather brutal, it lightens up after the All-Star break. The organization has enough depth to entice Walt Jocketty and his bosses to pull the trigger on a deadline deal or two.

Two months in, still much to be determined.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Target Field or Bullseye Ballpark?

The Minnesota Twins' ballpark is aptly named Target Field, for the one seemingly placed squarely on their backs.

Ron Gardenhire's club owns baseball's worst record, and with eight players currently on the disabled list it doesn't appear the season will be turning around any time soon. The latest casualties are designated hitters Jim Thome (strained quadriceps) and Jason Kubel (sprained foot).

Thirteen Twins players have spent time on the DL this season including last year's AL MVP Joe Mauer, starting pitchers Francisco Liriano and Kevin Slowey and closer Joe Nathan.

"I don't even count any more," Gardenhire said.

My first trip to Target Field is set for the first weekend of August. Twins/White Sox was expected to be a late-summer clash for first place in the AL Central. As it stands, both teams could be out of the race by then.

May belongs to Jay (Bruce)

Reds outfielder Jay Bruce has been named the Budweiser Presents National League Player of the Month for May.

In 28 games last month Bruce slugged a Major League-best 12 home runs with 33 RBI, while leading the National League in runs scored (23), slugging percentage (.739) and extra-base hits (19). His 38 hits were tied for third in the NL and his .342 batting average was tied for fourth.

Bruce's home run and RBI totals were the highest in a calendar month by a Reds batter since Adam Dunn’s 12 homers in July 2008 and Greg Vaughn’s 33 RBI in September

Bruce leads all NL batters with 32 home runs since August 2010.

"You can't wait to get to the ballpark," said Reds manager Dusty Baker of Bruce's hot streak. "You're seeing the ball like a beach ball instead of a golf ball, and you're very confident. The main thing is just don't try to figure out when it's going to stop."

Odds & Ends

Diamondbacks pitcher Armando Galarraga and umpire Jim Joyce have made amends. They shook hands at home plate the day after Joyce's incorrect call at first base cost Galarraga, then a member of the Tigers, a perfect game. They've even co-authored a book together. But one year after the "Call" they've yet to work in the same game. And won't, says Major League Baseball. "The reason it was done was so that there wasn't any appearance of impropriety," MLB spokesman Pat Courtney told USA Today.

Rockies hurler Ubaldo Jimenez was 10-1 with a 0.78 ERA on this date last year. Just last night Jimenez earned his victory of the 2011 season.

The home plate collision between the Marlins' Scott Cousins and Giants catcher Buster Posey remains a hot topic of debate. The hit ended Posey's season. On Thursday Giants general manager Brian Sabean fanned the flames. "If I never hear from Cousins again or he never plays another game in the big leagues, I think we'll all be happy," Sabean said.

The Sporting News, once dubbed the "Bible" of baseball, has released its list of the top 50 current MLB players. Here's their top 10:

1. Albert Pujols
2. Troy Tulowitzki
3. Felix Hernandez
4. Joey Votto
5. Tim Lincecum
6. Roy Halladay
7. Evan Longoria
8. Miguel Cabrera
9. Joe Mauer
10. Josh Hamilton

The Yankees and Red Sox had the most players on the list with five each, followed by the Phillies with four, and the Brewers, Cardinals, Dodgers and Rockies with three apiece. The annual list was voted on by a panel of 21 current MLB executives.

Hey, at least it was a short trip. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim's charter flight had to make an emergency landing when the plane had hydraulic issues. The Angels landed at LAX, quickly surrounded by emergency vehicles. The team took a bus to their intended destination, John Wayne Airport in Orange County. "Nothing like an emergency landing at LAX to scare the crap out of us," said Angels broadcaster Victor Rojas.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Praying for the enemy

I loathe the 1986 New York Mets. Or at least I did. They were arrogant, brash, the epitome of the Big Apple. They celebrated a division title in the face of my beloved Cubs. They had Hernandez, Dykstra, Gooden, and that catcher. What was his name? Carter, yeah Gary Carter.

I still recall my father waking me up mid-dream, excitedly nudging me. "The Red Sox are going to win the World Series!," he said. I catapulted out of bed only to watch in horror as the Mets rallied to win on Bill Buckner's error. At the center of the celebration was Carter. Yeah, Carter. Ugh.

Years later, having shed my fan card in favor of a career in sports journalism, I was walking out of Cinergy Field following a game and found myself strolling alongside my longtime nemesis. Carter.

Only he wasn't arrogant, or brash, or anything resembling the Mets catcher I had once despised. He was pleasant and polite, insightful. We chatted briefly about the game before going our separate ways down the steps toward Second Street.

Earlier this week I learned that four small tumors had been found on Carter's brain. A few days later it was reported that the tumors were likely malignant, according to doctors at the Duke University Medical Center. Once the pathology report is complete Carter's doctors will discuss treatment options.

Perspective changes as you grow older. Or at least it should. It has certainly changed for me as I've made the transition from paying customer to paid observer.

In the fall of 1986, Carter was the enemy. Today Carter is a Hall of Famer and one of the greatest catchers of my generation. Above all he's a human being facing one of life's great challenges. Today, I'm rooting for him.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Clemente's death brought life to Pirates' Walker

Neil Walker, who plays for the surging Pittsburgh Pirates, is a fan of Pirates legend Roberto Clemente. Walker is getting married in December. The rehearsal dinner is being held at the Clemente Museum, adorned with artifacts from Clemente's life and career.

None of this information, which appeared in a story by Bob Nightengale in Tuesday's USA Today newspaper, seems out of the ordinary. But one quote from Walker stood out. "I owe everything in my career, really, my whole life to Roberto Clemente," Walker said.

Clemente died more than a decade before Walker was born. But here are the chilling details of how the lives of Walker and Clemente became unequivocally linked.

On Dec. 31, 1972, Walker's father, a former major league pitcher, was in Puerto Rico helping Clemente load relief supplies on a plane bound for earthquake-stricken Nicaragua. When Tom Walker began to board the plane, Clemente told him to stay behind and enjoy the New Year's Eve party.

The plane never made it to Nicaragua. It caught fire in midair and crashed, killing Clemente and four others.

"If not for (Clemente), I wouldn't be here today," said Walker. "I'd sure love to make him proud now."

Clemente's gesture saved Tom Walker's life, and 13 years later his son, a future major leaguer, was born. The fact that Neil Walker now wears a Pirates uniform ... makes you wonder, doesn't it?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Interleague interlude?

In preparation for this weekend's laptop-less trip to Cleveland for the Reds/Indians series at Progressive "It will always be Jacobs" Field, I was amazed at the ease by which I purchased tickets. Sections 151 and 153, within a stone's throw of home plate. Point-click, done.

Didn't use to be this easy. There was a time when Tribe/Redlegs was a tough docket, a virtually assured sellout.

Now, this was a month or so before the first-place Indians forgot they were supposed to be the last-place Indians. But enthusiasm for the home-and-home 'Battle of Ohio' series has largely fizzled.

Tigers manager Jim Leyland summed it up recently.

"It was a brilliant idea to start with," said Leyland of interleague play. "But it has run its course."

I tend to agree. Unless it's Cubs/Sox or Yanks/Mets, interleague play has lost its luster. Not to say it wasn't a good idea, if not great. But perhaps it's time to revisit.

As it stands the Reds have six games against Cleveland, just two fewer than against Philadelphia, a potential NLDS opponent.

In one stretch the Reds play 15 consecutive interleague games, including a six-game roadie to Baltimore and Tampa Bay. Not the best way to prepare for a key seven-game pre-All-Star break trip to NL Central rivals St. Louis and Milwaukee.

Slight overkill.

It seems the Reds and Indians both will enter this weekend's series in first place and they're anticipating raucous crowds throughout. Great American Ball Park will be jammed when the Bronx Bombers visit in June, probably not so much for the Blue Jays.

I'd trade interleague play for more games against the inter-division rival Cardinals, packaged with a prize fight between Marty Brennaman and Dave Duncan.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

More Killebrew reax ...

“It is with profound sadness that we share with you that our beloved Harmon passed away this morning. He died peacefully surrounded by Nita and our family. He will be missed more than anyone can imagine but we take solace in the fact that he will no longer suffer. We thank you for your outpouring of support and prayers and take comfort in the fact that he was loved by so many.” – The Killebrew Family

“We all loved Harmon so much. Harmon was a great man, on and off the field. He was a bigger Hall of Famer off the field. Everyone that Harmon ever came in contact with has a story about what a class man he was.” – Bert Blyleven

“He was just a fierce competitor and a perfect gentleman at the same time. You don't see that a lot. Sometimes you get fierce competitors who are bad people. You see guys that are not fierce competitors but nice guys. You don't see the two of them together very much." – George Brett

“This is a sad day for all of baseball and even harder for those of us who were fortunate enough to be a friend of Harmon's. Harmon Killebrew was a gem. I can never thank him enough for all I learned from him. He was a consummate professional who treated everyone from the brashest of rookies to the groundskeepers to the ushers in the stadium with the utmost of respect. I would not be the person I am today if it weren't for Harmon Killebrew. He was a Hall of Famer in every sense of the word." – Rod Carew

RIP Harmon Killebrew

Harmon Killebrew passed away this morning at his Scottsdale, AZ home. He was 74.

Killebrew had been battling esophageal cancer, and he announced last week that his battle was coming to an end. Killebrew died peacefully, with his wife, Nita, and their family at his side.

Some reaction:

“Harmon Killebrew personified Hall of Fame excellence in every aspect of his dynamic life. He will forever be remembered for his 573 career home runs and as the 1969 American League Most Valuable Player, and as one of the greatest hitters of his era. Since joining the Hall of Fame family in 1984, Harmon was a beacon of light among his fellow Hall of Famers, always smiling, always enjoying every moment that life delivered to his doorstep. We have so many fond memories of this wonderful baseball hero, and we will miss him enormously.”

– Jane Forbes Clark, Chairman, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

“Harmon was a Hall of Famer on and off the field. He was baseball's version of Paul Bunyan, with his prodigious home run power, leading by example in the clubhouse and on the field. Off the field, he emanated class, dignity, and warmth, and he was a great humanitarian. He was so down-to-earth, you would never realize he was a baseball legend. It’s ironic that his nickname was ‘Killer,’ as he was one of the nicest, most generous individuals to ever walk the earth.”

– Jeff Idelson, Hall of Fame President

“No individual has ever meant more to the Minnesota Twins organization and millions of fans across Twins Territory than Harmon Killebrew. Harmon will long be remembered as one of the most prolific home run hitters in the history of the game and the leader of a group of players who helped lay the foundation for the long-term success of the Twins franchise and Major League Baseball in the Upper Midwest. However, more importantly Harmon’s legacy will be the class, dignity and humility he demonstrated each and every day as a Hall of Fame-quality husband, father, friend, teammate and man. The Twins extend heartfelt sympathies and prayers to the Killebrew family at this difficult time.”

– Dave St. Peter, President, Minnesota Twins Baseball Club

Monday, May 16, 2011

John Allen to assist MLB in Dodgers operations

Former Reds CEO John Allen, one of the true good guys in baseball whose vision helped produce Redsfest and laid the foundation for a successful Reds franchise, is back in baseball.

Tom Schieffer, who was appointed to monitor the struggling Los Angeles Dodgers franchise by commissioner Bud Selig, has selected Allen to assist in overseeing the day-to-day operations of the club.

Allen was involved in all aspects of the development and construction of Great American Ball Park prior to its 2003 opening. Before joining the Reds, he worked for the Triple-A Columbus Clippers as director of business operations.

“As a longtime baseball executive John provides a wealth of acumen that will be very beneficial as we continue forward in this process to help the Dodgers,” said Scheiffer.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Cuban Misfire

The Reds invested $30 million in a "Missile" and lately it's been misfiring. Cue the collateral damage.

Left-hander Aroldis Chapman, the 23-year old owner of a rich contract and at times a 105-mph fastball, couldn't locate the strike zone with Google maps and a GPS.

Manager Dusty Baker insists Chapman can work out his troubles at the Major League level, and what better time to test the waters than with the Reds ahead 9-2 in the ninth inning on Sunday.

Twenty three pitches. Five strikes.

Chapman faced five batters and walked four, quickly turning a rout into a nail-biting 9-7 victory.

"We just have to figure out what's wrong with Chapman," Baker said. "You've got to work and that's what he's been doing. He's working before the game ... trying to find his release point. We just have to go back and try to figure out what we're going to do at this point. We don't know."

Chapman has walked 20 in 13 innings and owns a 6.92 ERA in 16 outings.

"The word is getting around the league now because they were just up there taking," Baker said.
The Cardinals had no intention of swinging. Not down by seven runs in the ninth. Not knowing that the book on Chapman is that the home plate umpire takes a coffee break when he comes trotting in.

It would seem the Reds have enough depth in pitching that it isn't necessary to sap Chapman's confidence at the Major League level. Baker said Chapman won't be demoted, although he does have options.

Chapman's problems are mechanical and can be fixed, so says Reds pitching coach Bryan Price, a.k.a Missile repairman.

You always want guys who are more pitchers than throwers. Chapman's issue right now is far worse. He's an aimer.

Charlie still hustling

Pete Rose was known for head-first slides and an all-out effort which led to his record 4,256 hits. But when it comes to pursuing his reinstatement, Rose is out standing up.

I covered Rose's appearance last night at the Ohio Justice and Policy Center's inaugural gala at the National Underground Railroad and Freedom Center, just steps from Great American Ball Park.

The theme of the gala was redemption. But for every time Rose took responsibility for his actions, there were two or three other occasions where he felt baseball and the public owed him something.

Rose also made clear his desire to manage again in the big leagues. Here's a link to the story:

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Clubhouse culture ... is it real?

Yes, says Cardinals right fielder Lance Berkman. I spoke with Berkman at length today on a variety of topics for a project on baseball intangibles. We were in agreement on the existence of clubhouse cultures in baseball and its impact on team success.

Through my work with I've spent significant time in the visitors clubhouse at Great American Ball Park. There is a difference in how teams go about their day to day routines.

Established winners like the Yankees, Cardinals and Braves tend to be more business-like in their approach. Young clubs more loose, veteran teams more subdued. Some teams have more card games than others, some more practical joking. Some clubs watch more film, spend more time in the cage, while others crowd the couches and peruse the CDs and DVDs.

There isn't always a direct correlation between a professional clubhouse and winning or losing. Some of the more successful Florida Marlins clubs, for example, had a very raucous clubhouse.

As Berkman suggested, veterans and stars often dictate clubhouse culture, for better or worse. Ken Griffey Jr. and Adam Dunn set the tone in the Reds clubhouse during their tenure here, not always for the betterment of the club. Young players followed their lead.

There was a noticeable shift in the tone of the Reds clubhouse once Griffey and Dunn departed. And despite being a relatively young ballclub, last year's NL Central Division champions conducted themselves more like a veteran team.

But over the course of a grueling six-month schedule there's always time for some clubhouse levity. Today's DVD selection in the Cardinals clubhouse - Ace Ventura, Pet Detective.

La Russa's pain is 700 WLW's gain?

It's radio, where shock value sells. So you have to consider the source. But 700 WLW's latest promo pushes the envelope of good taste. Here’s the text:

"Cardinals manager Tony La Russa has shingles, so we want to give you a chance to win some Tony La Russa shingles of your own! The Reds and Cards clash this weekend at GABP and we’re backin’ our Redlegs by giving you a shot to win Tony La Russa shingles courtesy of Ray St. Clair Roofing!".

La Russa is missing this weekend's NL Central Division clash at Great American Ball Park while he recovers from shingles, which can be a very painful condition.

I respect the nature of rivalries but this sort of thing is best reserved for fan blogs and bar stool fodder. It's also a bit disconcerting that Ray St. Clair Roofing bought in.

The Reds agree. Chief Executive Officer Phil Castellini issued the following statement:

"The Reds were not aware WLW was putting together this contest. It is in bad taste and does not reflect the spirit of respectful competition the Reds and our fans have toward Tony LaRussa and the Cardinals. We are disappointed our rights partner would execute such a contest and fail to consult us in advance so we could have prevented it from happening. Reds ownership has asked WLW to remove the page, and they are cooperating".