Gennaro Filice
Friday August 17th, 2007

I. Dave Duncan: Every season, without fail, career underachievers make their way onto the Cardinals' pitching staff. Every season, without fail, we immediately predict domination from these career underachievers.

What is the motivation behind this seemingly flawed logic?

Dave Duncan.

There are few people in the world of sports with a better reputation than St. Louis' pitching coach. Duncan, the only active pitching coach who was not a pitcher himself (he enjoyed an 11-year career as a catcher in the bigs), boasts an unbelievable track record of developing quality pitching for a reasonable price, especially when it comes to starters. During his current stint with the Cards, Duncan has a long list of successful reclamation projects, including Andy Benes, Darren Oliver, Daryl Kyle, Woody Williams and Chris Carpenter. Hell, he even made Kent Bottenfield an 18-game winner!

Simply put, Duncan's the pitching coach with the Midas touch. And this is what made the first four months of St. Louis' season so shocking. On the morning of Monday, Aug. 6, the defending world champs were eight games out of first, and their biggest problem was -- gulp! -- starting pitching. On that day, the starting rotation owned a Devil Rays-esque 5.46 ERA, and for the first time in my life, I doubted Dave Duncan.

But alas, less than two weeks later, the Cards have gone on an 8-2 tear and they sit just 2 1/2 games out of first place on this Friday morning. This run has been fueled by -- what else -- stellar starting pitching. Cardinals hurlers have made nine quality starts during this 10-game stretch, going 8-2 with a 1.98 ERA. And did I mention who has been making these starts? Adam Wainwright, Braden Looper, Anthony Reyes, Kip Wells and recently acquired Joel Pineiro -- quite the motley crew, if you ask me.

Duncan's achieved some amazing things over his 28-year career as a pitching coach -- which matches Galen Cisco for most all-time in the majors -- but if this Cardinals team makes the playoffs behind the strength of its starting pitching, this will be his most jaw-dropping accomplishment yet.

II. Detroit's 'pen: With a girlfriend from the Detroit area, Mr. Five Up, Five Down has taken in his fair share of Tigers games this season. And watching this bullpen on a nightly basis has been quite the lesson in masochism. In 2006, Detroit's 'pen was the fourth-best unit in baseball with a 3.51 ERA, but this year, that unit has dropped all the way down to 24th with a 4.68 ERA. Luckily, better days are upon us. Since returning from the disabled list earlier this month, Fernando Rodney has been the overpowering reliever we all remember from last season. In his last six outings, Rodney hasn't yielded a single run while striking out 13 of 23 batters faced. And fireballer Joel Zumaya is throwing 99 mph on his rehab assignment and could be activated as soon as Tuesday. It's about time. At this point, any mention of the name "Jason Grilli" instantly makes me feel queasy.

III. One reason to still watch the Rays: Recently, small-market fans have hammered my in-box, claiming Five Up, Five Down only addresses the big guys. So, here goes nothing ... In a surprise to nobody, the Devil Rays are absolutely horrendous. And as their elimination number decreases by the millisecond -- 17 last time I checked -- it's easy to chalk them up as wholly unwatchable. Unfortunately, you'd be missing one of the hottest and most exciting players in the game today. Carl Crawford, the freakish athlete who had full rides to Nebraska as an option QB and UCLA as a point guard had he chosen not to play baseball, is on an absolute tear. In 30 games since the All-Star break, Crawford's been spraying the ball all over the field, hitting .405 with a lofty 1.042 OPS, 26 runs and 16 steals. Do yourself a favor and check out this Devil Ray with the Leo astrological sign tattooed on his neck. If he ever makes it out of Tampa Bay, he'll become a household name. On a side note, I wonder if this heckler from last season still has Crawford on his fantasy squad.

IV. The 9-9-9 Club: Nine beers, nine hot dogs, nine innings -- the fans' version of the 40-40 club. I had never heard of such a fraternity before watching Wednesday night's Braves-Giants game. At said game, two Braves fanatics were sporting white T-shirts featuring three nine-box checklists labeled "Beers," "Dogs," and "Innings." As the game wore on, the fans gleefully used a Sharpie to mark off their progress. A quick postgame Google search revealed this club's cultish following (check out this Web site dedicated to the pursuit.)

I'm guessing this Joe Six Pack is a charter member:

Photo courtesy of AP

V. Moises Alou: This New York Press article put it best: "So what if Moises Alou urinates on his hands, spends too much time on the Disabled List, and, by some accounts, has been playing baseball since the US took control of the Dominican Republic in 1906? The man can flat-out hit." Alou has given a huge boost to the Mets offense since his return from the DL on July 26, hitting .313 with six home runs, 15 RBIs and 11 runs. Any chance he stays injury free for the rest of 2007?

I. Pronk: Honestly, what is going on with Travis Hafner this season? On this date last season, Hafner owned a .302 batting average with 35 home runs, 105 RBIs and a rotund 1.059 OPS. Exactly one year later, he's hitting .254 with 18 homers, 71 RBIs and an underwhelming .816 OPS. Granted, Hafner's been banged up recently with a pulled hamstring and swollen right knee, but "Project Donkey" was in a season-long slump before these injuries occurred.

"He's still having a good year by mortal terms," Cleveland general manager Mark Shapiro recently said. "He's just not having a good year for himself or for our expectations of him."

That's for sure. In July, Cleveland signed Hafner to a four-year, $54 million extension. And at the time of the signing, Shapiro said, "Not only is Travis Hafner among the elite hitters in major league baseball today, but he will have the opportunity to establish himself as one of the great players in the proud history of the Cleveland Indians organization."

Pretty high billing for a guy who's never played in an All-Star game...

For the record, though, Five Up, Five Down believes that this year is an aberration for the talented slugger. But maybe that's just because I love power-hitting, 240-pound North Dakotans who can 360 dunk ...

II. Yankees signing Tommy John: Am I missing something here? The Yankees signed first-round draft pick Andrew Brackman to a $4.55 million deal an hour before Wednesday's midnight deadline, even though the former North Carolina State hurler had spent the day being examined by Dr. James Andrews because he may need Tommy John surgery. I know this surgery has a high success rate, but I'm not sure I'd bet $4.55 million on it...

III. Jim Duquette: With Mets starting pitching struggling (5.82 ERA in August) and Scott Kazmir dealing like nobody's business (4-1, 1.01 ERA, 53 K his last seven starts), it's time for our annual public flogging of Jim Duquette. As everyone knows, Duquette is the man who pulled the trigger on the Kazmir-for-Victor Zambrano deal back in 2004, quite possibly the worst trade in Mets history. Sorry Jimbo, you're never going to live that one down.

IV. Randy Messenger's temper: In an alibi reminiscent of Jeff Kent's truck-washing claim, Giants reliever Randy Messenger originally claimed he broke his left (non-pitching) hand shagging fly balls in batting practice Wednesday. But on Thursday, Messenger admitted he actually suffered the injury when he punched a plastic equipment cart after giving up a game-winning double to Chipper Jones on Tuesday night. This is the same guy who gave Scott Olsen a black eye during his Marlins days (though recent occurrences suggest Olsen probably deserved it). Messenger's expected to miss four to six weeks. The Giants hulking hurler had a unique take on the incident: "Everyone's always been harping on me to stop punching stuff with your right hand," Messenger told MLB.com. "I listen to them, and see what happens."

V. Byung-Hyun Kim's return to Arizona: Six years after Byung-Hyun Kim almost single-handedly threw away the 2001 World Series for Arizona, the Diamondbacks -- who are in the midst of a tight pennant race -- reacquired the notorious hurler through the waiver wire. He made a couple starts before being designated for assignment Wednesday.

I don't think he won back the trust of Diamondbacks' faithful:

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