The Astros won their fourth game in a row, and fifth of the entire Spring Training, today. A lot of people are scratching their heads and trying to figure out what happened. What changed? Why is this team, who went winless in nineteen straight, suddenly able to win four consecutive?
It’s pretty simple, really. There are two basic reasons, and neither of them has anything to do with Ivan Rodriguez.
The biggest is that our lack of organizational depth, as you get deeper into Spring Training, is less exposed. As more teams begin to send their minor leaguers back from whence they came, it becomes major leaguers against major leaguers. Suddenly, the games that we were losing in the seventh and eighth innings, when our mediocre Double-A pitchers gave up hits to other teams’ slightly-better-than-mediocre Double-A hitters, are falling our way when we have major leaguers playing in those innings. This is great in Spring Training. As the season progresses and we need to patch holes in our roster, as every team does over the course of a 162-game season, we will begin to feel this.
The second reason is that our major league team is made up largely of veterans. Veterans always seem to, from my observations, take a little longer to get into the “groove”. Our starting eight average 8.75 seasons of experience between them. There wasn’t a lot of competition this spring, so no one felt much pressure to produce sooner. So now, as Opening Day approaches, it looks like things are falling into place and we can all take our fingers off of the panic button.
Of course, we’re still a fourth-place team in a weak division at best.
Speaking of streaks, tonight I watched Japan extend their World Baseball Classic title streak to two. It doesn’t sound impressive, except that there have only been two WBCs.
We arrived early today. After two days of getting there just in the nick of time, I wanted to get a chance to watch the warmups and batting practice, get a few shots, and chat with the folks around me.
Of course, many of the folks around me didn’t speak English. And of the few that did, far too many spoke a broken, gutteral English that NL Central fans will recognize as Cubspeak.
There was a decidedly-international feel. In addition to Korea and Japan, the U.S. of course had a large contingent on hand. And, it being Southern California, after all, Mexico was well-represented:
Since I didn’t really have a dog in the race, I mostly allowed myself to get caught up in the fervor as gametime approached. The Korean and Japanese contingents showed up in full-force and rooted on their teams. Chants of “Nippon! Nippon!” and the Korean phrase for “Republic of Korea” (or so I was told… it was a three-syllable chant that sounded vaguely like “Attica” with five drum beats after it) overlapped and battled with one another in a multi-layered force of energy and enthusiasm, but both sides were respectful of one another.
In fact, as I allowed myself to get caught up in the excitement of the fans sitting around me, in a way I was glad to see Japan against Korea, instead of the USA in the finals. These fans deserved it more. In America, we complain about the WBC. We complain about players potentially getting injured. We complain about them missing time with the ballclubs paying them millions of dollars. We complain about the playing time they get; the playing time they don’t get. We don’t really like the WBC as a nation. But Japan and Korea, on the other hand, wanted to win this thing, and they wanted to win it very badly.
Of the sixteen teams participating, I began to wonder if maybe the USA was the least deserving. Not based on talent, but rather on a pure lack of motivation to prove themselves on the national stage. After all, don’t the best and the brightest from all of these other countries try to come to the US to compete in our major leagues? Monetary reasons aside, the best players in the world have to prove themselves against the best competition, and that can only be found in Major League Baseball. We’ve grown accustomed to it, and the puny and occasional chants of “USA! USA!” at Sunday night’s semi-final matchup simply could not compare to the inescapable, loud, constant cheers in Monday night’s finals. From the first pitch until the last out, the fans cheered.
As the game progressed into the later innings, however, I found myself rooting for the scrappy Koreans. The reasoning was two-fold, I suppose: 1) I am from Ohio, and my second-favorite team is the Indians. The sole major leaguer on the Korean roster is Shin-Soo Choo, an Indian. Compare that with Ichiro, who would rather punch himself in the face than play in Cleveland. 2) I didn’t want to see Japan continue to dominate the WBC. We’ve seen them win it. This Korean team, on the other hand, was as much fun to watch and hadn’t yet won it all. Besides, isn’t saying Japan is a great baseball country becoming old hat by now?
I guess not.
Two things struck me as I was watching the game. Despite all the talk of fundamentally-sound Asian baseball (and it was), each team had one gaffe that may have helped to decide the game. With two outs and a runner on second in the bottom of the ninth, up 3-2, Japan’s shortstop was playing almost directly behind the runner, very close to second base. The third baseman was playing very nearly on top of third base. A right-handed hitter was up, with about 80 open feet in the 5.5 hole.
I couldn’t quite understand the positioning, and as should have been expected, the batter knocked a grounder through that massive gap, scoring the runner from second and sending the game into extra innings.
The second moment came in the top of the te
nth inning. With runners on second and third, Ichiro came to the plate. Ichiro may very well be the greatest player in the history of Japanese baseball. Without a doubt, he is the biggest star. He now has eight seasons in Major League Baseball, and ice water runs through his veins. I don’t care who’s batting behind him, I don’t know why you don’t walk him to load the bases and get a force at any base, especially with two outs.
At the very least, you don’t give him anything to hit. At all. Instead, an eight-pitch at-bat followed, during which Ichiro hit a two-run single to put Japan up for good, 5-3. Especially puzzling was that a few batters later, with first base open, Korea intentionally walked Norichika Aoki for the second time in the evening to get to cleanup hitter Kenji Johjima of the Mariners.
All things considered, though, it was a well-fought game and I’m extremely glad I went.
Saturday was torture. I’d been up late on Friday night in a writers’ meeting, working out the scripts for the web series. Then up early on Saturday for the 7:00a call. I didn’t want to do it that early, but we had to break in time to make the trek all the way from Santa Monica to Dodger Stadium in time for the first pitch of Korea-Venezuela.
I’m not going to make some sort of stereotype about Korean drivers, but let’s just say traffic at Dodger Stadium that night was the worst I’ve ever seen it.
The game had a decidedly-strong home field feel for the Koreans. Dodger Stadium was awash in blue. Korea jerseys, hats, signs, flags. The flags. You know you own the crowd when you can send a ginormous flag around the stadium, confident that it will return to you unharmed. This is said flag right before it engulfed me:
The game was a surprise. Not necessarily the final score, 10-2, but the sheer lack of focus by the Venezuelan team. When you look around one team and see Ramon Hernandez, Miguel Cabrera, Jose Lopez, Marco Scutaro, Carlos Guillen, Melvin Mora, Bobby Abreu, Endy Chavez, and Magglio Ordonez… then you look around the other team and only recognize Shin-Soo Choo, you don’t expect the kind of blowout that we witnessed.
Late to bed after another writers’ meeting following the game and back at the set at 8:00a. Sunday’s shoot didn’t last quite as long. I took the actors outside for rehearsal as the gaffer and DP lit the set. Three minutes – I kid you not, three minutes – after the gaffer gave me the all clear, we had a fire. A bouncecard came loose from its C-Stand, fell onto a roll light, and burned. The damage turned out eventually to be minimal, but between cleaning up the fire damage itself and the residue from the fire extinguisher, we lost the entire day of shooting.
But everyone was okay.
Then it was back to my apartment to shoot our divisional predictions, which we’d intended to do on Friday, but Brian was late so we weren’t able. That pushed us right up against the USA-Japan game, so we headed out to Dodger Stadium for that game.
By this time, I was pretty fried. I was sitting amidst a good collection of fans from both teams. Oddly, the Japanese fans all seemed to have “thundersticks” that said GoToPuertoRico.com on them. It’s like being at a Cubs-Astros game in Minute Maid Park where all the Cubs fans have “Go Brewers!” thundersticks.
Oswalt looked electric in the first, but things quickly unraveled. Errors, combined with a seeming inability by Oswalt to throw strikes and challenge hitters, combined to let Japan sneak out to a 6-2 lead. A late-inning rally was stymied when Evan Longoria – in his first and only WBC at-bat – struck out with a runner on third.
So once again, the Japanese celebrated on our home turf. With a lineup that includes such household names as Hiroyuki Nakajima, Michihiro Ogasawara, and Atsunori Inaba.
In its way, the WBC has proven a microcosm of free agency vs. building from within. The USA and Venezuela used a collection of star players and failed. Korea used guys who knew the system; who bought into the team-first concept and largely had experience with one another. The Japanese did the same thing, with a few key stars like Ichiro and Dice-K.
In a seven-game series, the USA probably beats the overwhelming majority of these teams. We have depth as a country that others simply do not have. As a friend of mine pointed out, the actual World Baseball Classic is Major League Baseball, where the best players in the world duke it out over 162 games. But this World Baseball Classic, it’s a puzzle.
The USA fans were simply not as “into” the game as the fans of other teams were, and it may be representative of the way the players feel about it, as well. It’s hard to get excited over what amounts to being a Spring Training game. You’ve got a long season ahead of you and you don’t want to miss a chance at helping your team go to the World Series, so maybe you don’t take some risks here and there.
I don’t know what the answer is. A lot of people advocate changing the timing of the WBC. I have to admit, in 2006 I thought playing it in March, during Spring Training, was clunky. This time around, I tried to embrace it, but it does have some definite drawbacks. The Japanese team was together six weeks weeks before the USA team. They took infield practice before the game. The two teams that advanced were much more fundamentally sound, and played like a team. The Americans and Venezuelans played like All-Star teams. Trying to hit for power, and often failing. Making errors. Pressing.
Would a team of amateurs be a better fit for this tournament? I don’t know. The talent level on the other clubs is certainly very high. The good news is that the USA did make the semi-finals. And it was a very fun game to watch.
But now I find myself with tickets to a Korea-Japan game, imagining what could have been.
Imagine, if you will, that you are twenty-two years old. If you actually are twenty-two, enjoy the relative ease of this assignment.
Now imagine that you’re twenty-two, and you’re a left-handed pitching prospect who’d been pitching for six years between Rookie, A, and A-Advanced leagues. You’ve done pretty well for yourself – throwing 471.1 innings in that time, going 22-26 with 4 saves, 534 K to just 221 BB, a 3.49 ERA and a 1.31 WHIP. Nice, clean, crisp pitching line, and your best year is also your most recent one.
Now imagine that you get called by your home country to pitch in the World Baseball Classic.
Wow, what an honor! What an exciting opportunity for someone who’s never played against anything beyond the Florida State League.
Now imagine that your first assignment, as a 22-year-old A-Advanced pitcher playing for your country, is to enter a game with a slim lead and two runners on base.
Your job? Pitch to Robinson Cano, Hanley Ramirez, and David Ortiz without allowing any of those two runs to score. No pressure, right?
Alexander Smit didn’t shut down the Dominican Republic. In fact, he issued a walk, gave up a hit, and got just one out – on a sacrifice fly. Still, my hat’s off to the kid for coming in against overwhelming odds and going right after some world-class hitters.
I’ve been on the fence about the World Baseball Classic, but watching Smit – who pitches in the Cincinnati Reds organization – take the ball with confidence, and exit with his team’s lead still intact despite overwhelming odds… that moment right there may have pushed me over the edge.
That is what the WBC is all about.
As you’ve no doubt heard by now, Alex Rodriguez may have to withdraw from the WBC due to a hip injury.
You never like to see such a high-profile player go down to injury, but my thoughts immediately turned in a different direction than most people’s.
If Alex Rodriguez misses the WBC, does this make Miguel Tejada the Dominican Republic’s starting third baseman?
Tejada withdrew from the Classic after hearing a rumor that he was going to be used primarily as a first baseman. Then, with manager Felipe Alou’s eventual assurance that he would play shortstop, third base, and DH, he changed his mind and joined the team.
With Rodriguez in the lineup at third, and Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirez at shortstop, it wasn’t immediately clear how much playing time Tejada would get in the infield. Now, that’s all changed.
Barring whomever would replace A-Rod on the roster, the only other third baseman currently with the team is Willy Aybar. Given that option, it seems reasonable to assume that Tejada would become the starting third baseman.
And that, as far as I’m concerned, is a problem for the Houston Astros.
I’m generally pro-WBC. I don’t mind players taking the added injury risk to play for their countries. LaTroy Hawkins, Roy Oswalt, and Carlos Lee are all involved in the classic, and bully for them. These are three guys who performed for the Astros last year. They did exactly the job they were asked to do, and they did it well.
But Tejada’s short tenure with the Astros has been tumultuous, at best. First, he was caught lying about his age. Then, he suffered a mid-season slump that hurt the team in a bad way. Next, he was indicted for lying to federal investigators. Then came the WBC.
Simply put, I feel pretty strongly that Miguel should be in camp. He should be getting reps as a shortstop. He should be preparing himself to earn the money he’s getting paid – an albatross contract, signed under false pretenses regarding his age. That contract, and the five players we gave up to get Tejada from the Orioles, could be singled out as the single-largest reason the Astros were unable to make a move of any merit this offseason.
The news that he may get significant playing time at another position doesn’t sit well with me.
Of course, there is another option, given the Astros’ holes at third base. If Tejada shows himself to be a competent third baseman, perhaps Coop may consider moving him there permanently, and allowing either Tommy Manzella or Drew Sutton to play shortstop, assuming Chris Johnson is sent to AAA at the end of Spring Training.
Knowing Cooper, that seems unlikely, but it is a possibility. Tejada’s still a better-fielding shortstop than he gets credit for (he had a 4.01 RFg in 2008, six points above adjusted league average), but he is aging (three years more quickly than we’d realized.)
In other news, Roy Oswalt will be on The Late Show With David Letterman tomorrow (Thursday) night for the Top 10 list: “Reasons To Watch The World Baseball Classic.”