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.