Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
The simple fact is that right now, the Rays are a better team than Boston, and it's really not even close. This is Tampa Bay's rotation: James Shields, tonight's starter, who is probably running a strong third in the race for the Cy Young Award; David Price, who can be as good as any pitcher on a given day; Jeremy Hellickson, who has the second-lowest ERA in the AL in the second half of the season, behind Ervin Santana; and Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann, who are strong and healthy and have combined for 300 innings.
Meanwhile, the Red Sox front office and coaching staff has been scrambling for pitching, stacking up arms like sandbags against a flood of runs. Six of the seven pitchers who worked for Boston on Thursday night were not with the team at the outset of the season.
As old pal Jayson Stark has noted, the Red Sox have two quality starts in the first half of September, and the Rays have 10. With Boston's lead over Tampa Bay reduced to three games after the Rays' 9-2 victory over the Sox on Thursday, all that stands between the Red Sox and full-blown fan panic tonight is Josh Beckett. The ace hasn't pitched in 10 days and will be taking the mound with some sort of wrap or brace on his injured ankle.
Boston's lead over the Rays was 11 games on Aug. 7, and now it's possible that by Monday morning the Red Sox could be in a tie that will have everybody in New England recalling '49 and '74 and '78. If not for the championships of 2004 and 2007, the Red Sox might be convinced that the crazy broken-bat play that was pivotal in the Rays' first rally Thursday was the latest sign that the baseball gods are angry at the Red Sox.
But it's worth remembering this, in the frantic hours of emotional bridge-jumping: One victory in the next three games for the Red Sox will change the equation dramatically. One victory will mean that Boston -- which was the best team in the majors for a lot of the summer -- will go into the final 10 days of the season with a two-game lead. And the final 10 days won't be kind to the Rays, who have to play the Yankees in seven of their final 10 games, with the other three coming against the Toronto Blue Jays.
The Red Sox, on the other hand, have two series against Baltimore wrapped around a three-game series versus the Yankees. It may feel like Boston's collapse is inevitable, in watching its games, but a three-game lead with two weeks to play is an enormous advantage. Beckett's on the mound, and the Red Sox are counting on him for an emotional lift, writes John Tomase.
Hellickson showed some emotion, writes Marc Topkin.
NL wild card: Time is running out for the Cardinals, who are 4½ games out with 13 games to play, and St. Louis starts a series in Philadelphia, as Derrick Goold writes.
If the Angels were to somehow make the playoffs, their starting pitching would make them dangerous, writes Mike DiGiovanna.
AL No. 1 seed: The Tigers' winning streak came to an end, and now maybe manager Jim Leyland can change his underwear, writes Drew Sharp. Even on a night when Detroit lost, its magic number was reduced to one.
Personally, I don't think what Fielder said, or when he said it, is that big of a deal. Everybody knows he's going to test the market, and everybody knows the Brewers will be greatly challenged in attempting to keep the slugger.
But Rodriguez's comments were not well-chosen. One executive mused, "From the outside looking in, he had handled that shift in roles. But now everybody is going to think he is a me-first guy, totally selfish. Why would you say those things right now?"
Right now, the Brewers are on the verge of making the playoffs, and right now, John Axford is one of the best closers in baseball. If you were a club executive thinking about making a three-year offer to Rodriguez, you might be gambling that he remains effective through the duration of the contract -- and right now, you're wondering if he would become a pain in the rear if he doesn't get exactly what he wants. K-Rod will become a free agent in less than two months, and his words probably did some damage to his leverage.
Doug Melvin doesn't think the Brewers will be affected by what was said.
Moves, deals and decisions
1. Everything that Ozzie Guillen says these days seems designed to aid in his exit from the White Sox, and he told reporters on Thursday that Kenny Williams deserves to keep his job. Translated: Let me go, since you're going to keep him.
For his part, Kenny Williams tells Rick Morrissey he can work with Ozzie, and that the fate of the manager is in the hands of Jerry Reinsdorf.
Rampant problems throughout the White Sox organization will be difficult to fix, writes Mark Gonzales.
Look, no matter how it's resolved, somebody please make it stop.
2. Ozzie Guillen is not ready to retire.
Dings and dents
1. The Phillies never lose -- they swept a doubleheader on Thursday -- and it seems fairly clear at this point that the Cy Young Award is going to be placed in some corner of the Philadelphia clubhouse -- in the locker of either Roy Halladay or Cliff Lee. The left-hander dominated the Marlins on Thursday; from ESPN Stats & Information, how this happened:
A) Lee recorded 35 called strikes, the most by any starter in a game this season, and Lee's second-most in the last three seasons. Twenty of Lee's 35 called strikes came on pitches at the belt, as he worked each side of the plate. Oddly enough, however, seven of those 20 came on pitches middle/middle, or over the heart of the plate. Marlins hitters swung at only seven of Lee's 14 pitches over the middle of the plate. Only one opponent (the Marlins back in June) has swung less often in that spot against Lee in the last three seasons.
B) Lee pounded the zone with his fastball. He threw a season-high 46 of his 58 fastballs (79.3 percent) for strikes, including 41 that were in the strike zone.
C) Sixty-four percent of the time the Marlins took a fastball against Lee it was called a strike. That's the highest rate against Lee in the last three seasons.
D) Lee got ahead and stayed ahead: Lee started 23 of 32 hitters (71.9 percent) with a first-pitch strike. Lee went to a 1-1 count nine times. In each of those nine plate appearances, he threw a strike that either retired the hitter or took the count to 1-2. He went to just two three-ball counts and took 22 hitters to a two-strike count, tied for his second-most two-strike counts in a start this season.
From Elias: Lee, who was not involved in the decision in the Phillies' 10-inning victory, has allowed only four earned runs in 64.2 innings over his last eight starts. His 0.56 ERA during that stretch is the lowest ever by a Phillies pitcher over any eight-start span in one season, and the lowest by a pitcher on any team since 2002, when Pedro Martinez had an 0.47 ERA for the Red Sox over eight starts from July 1 through Aug. 10.
Lee finished with 12 strikeouts, his ninth 10-K game of the season (leads majors). He had nine in his entire career entering this season.
2. The White Sox were eliminated.
3. The Royals' strong play has been one of the better baseball stories of late, and they buried the White Sox.
4. The Cubs didn't quit, but they lost, writes Fred Mitchell.
5. The Marlins lost twice.
7. The Mets got hammered and Terry Collins had something to say about it.
8. The Nationals are finishing well -- that's five straight wins and counting.
The Challenges of Scouting Baseball in Europe.
Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Alex Liddi reached the majors this week, marking multiple milestones not just for himself, but for the sport. He's the first Italian-born big leaguer since World War II, and the first who grew up in Italy, as opposed to players from early last century who were born in Italy but emigrated here as children. But more important to MLB is the fact that he's the first player signed from the sport's European academy to reach the majors, and as the talent level in Europe continues to improve -- something Leander Schaerlaeckens writes more about on ESPN.com today -- he should be followed by many more from all over the continent.
Europe has had no trouble producing athletic talent in sports that are more popular at the youth level, such as soccer, ice hockey, or even regional sports like handball or cycling, so the potential to find legitimate baseball prospects exists. But even with MLB's growing efforts with its main academy (located in Tirrenia, Italy, a coastal town about 15 kilometers from Pisa) and new regional academies in countries where baseball has at least established a foothold, scouts face significant challenges in identifying and evaluating players.
Just getting young athletes interested in baseball was, for some time, the major obstacle for baseball in Europe; you can't take a raw athlete at 16 or 18, stick a bat in his hands, and expect him to be able to handle even decent college pitching. "Baseball, even though it has been in Europe many many years, wasn't given the priority perhaps by the various countries in terms of athletics," according to Bob Engle, vice president of international operations for the Seattle Mariners. "But the main thing occurring [to change that] is more exposure. Global communications have helped, and it helps to have some players at the major league level from Europe."
Rene Saggiadi, the polyglot European scout for the Arizona Diamondbacks, agrees that this remains an obstacle but is changing for the better. "We're drawing more athletes to the sport, that's the crucial part. Now teams have to scout Europe because there are good athletes. The problem is how to keep them playing baseball, or most will just drop out when they get to the ages of 14-16," either to concentrate on their studies or to focus on a more popular sport, such as soccer.
Aside from the increased exposure that Engle mentioned, which includes availability of live games online and through ESPN America, MLB has increased its commitment to developing European players through its own European Academy in Tirrenia, and by supporting national federations that run their own academies. There are at least 20 of those local academies, some full-time and some part-time, some national and some regional, across eight European countries and South Africa, which has sent its best players to the MLB academy in Terrenia since the latter opened. The Dutch national federation has led the way with six regional academies, and they further indicated their commitment to the sport with their recent announcement that they hope to host MLB games in the Netherlands in 2014 when their new stadium complex opens near Amsterdam.
These local academies are critical to developing young players, because baseball is a sport of specialized skills in which athleticism is important but not sufficient for success. Players go to live at the academy, go to school in the morning, then play every afternoon with quality instruction they wouldn't otherwise get. "A player in an area with no infrastructure would plateau at 13 because of lack of coaching," says Saggiadi. "Now the academies give those players a chance, arguably giving them the best coaches in each country, where they're training and playing every day."
The Dutch are also leaders in working to get younger athletes into baseball, which is critical in countries where soccer might pick off the best athletes before they reach their teen years. "It's a distinct disadvantage that the young athletes aren't getting into the game until 13 or 14," according to Engle, under whose stewardship the Mariners have now signed two big leaguers from Europe: Liddi and Greg Halman. "That puts them behind others, particularly position players who don't get the quality at-bats against quality pitching."
Another major challenge for scouts in Europe and for the players themselves is the short schedule most teenaged prospects play there. "Players are lucky if they play 40-50 games in a year," Saggiadi says. Local club teams only play a handful of games, so scouts need to evaluate players at structured events organized by MLB or by individual national baseball federations. That schedule starts in the spring. "In late April or early May there are academy tryouts," Saggiadi says. "It's the most exciting time of the year for us. We go country to country, six countries in a week this year and nine last year over ten days, where the players go through simple pro workouts. They do the 60-yard dash, infield and outfield [practice], BP and bullpens. We can see 400 players over a week, all selected by qualified personnel."
The typical summer for top European prospects -- and the scouts chasing them -- begins a few weeks before those tryouts, when MLB's European office runs its Tournament of Academies in Regensburg, Germany, a five-day event involving six to eight countries that send rosters that should, in theory, comprise their best prospects. In August, the top 50 to 55 players from the federation tryouts assemble at MLB's European Academy for three weeks of intensive instruction, which is also the best scouting opportunity, because it's a rare chance to see the prospects play quality competition, and because the weather, while warm, is usually dry. The group of players this year included a few older players who aren't really pro prospects. They are there to raise the level of competition and to help groom future coaches who could also proselytize for the game in their home countries.
This increased structure and attempts to make evaluating talent a little easier has led to a rise in signings and signing bonuses, with several players a year earning bonuses of $100,000 or more. It has also allowed for the development of talent in countries beyond the Netherlands and Italy, which were most likely to see their youth teams qualify for international tournaments, by creating local competitions that seek to pit the best players against each other.
With nine teams boasting a full-time scouting presence in Europe and 22 having signed at least one European-born player in the past decade, major league clubs are showing that they recognize the long-term potential of the region. But everyone I spoke to for the story agreed that a few more steps need to come before Europe becomes an essential stop for all 30 teams on the international scouting circuit.
Continued growth in the academy system is a must, and there's a lot of optimism on that front. MLB has taken steps to provide support to the existing national and regional academies, sometimes financially but more often in things that can only come from the U.S.: equipment and instruction. MLB sends coaches to Tirrenia and to local academies every year, from former big leaguers like Bruce Hurst, Lee Smith and Wally Joyner to minor league coaches and coordinators with strong track records in development. They've also sent strength and conditioning coaches to work with academy coaches and have developed a comprehensive offseason training manual for European baseball players that focuses on strength training specific to baseball.“
"If you're a European player, you know now you're going to get seen by 20 teams, and you know you're going to get opportunities. So if baseball is your first sport, you don't have the impulse to move away from it. You can make baseball your first priority."