Monday August 15th, 2011

Five thoughts on a mid-August weekend of baseball...

1. Diamondbacks surging. While much of the attention in the National League West has centered on the struggling offense of the defending champion Giants, who have lost 11 of their last 16, the Diamondbacks have gotten hot at just the right time to take a two-game lead in the division. Arizona finished a sweep of the Mets on Sunday for its sixth win in a row and a 14-6 record dating back to July 23.

New general manager Kevin Towers made a bullpen reinvention an offseason priority after the club ranked last in the league with a 5.74 ERA in 2010, nearly a run and a quarter worse than the Cubs, who were second-worst at 4.55. Towers signed J.J. Putz to be his closer and traded power-hitting third baseman Mark Reynolds to the Orioles for a pair of relievers, David Hernandez and Kam Mickolio. Though Mickolio has spent most of the years in the minors, Hernandez has been a revelation as the club's top set-up man.

During the Diamondbacks' 20-game hot streak, Putz has appeared in nine of their 14 victories and earned eight saves and a win. He's allowed two runs and struck out six over 8 2/3 innings. Hernandez, meanwhile, also appeared in nine of those wins and notched six holds and two saves. Opponents batted just .100 against him, as he had 10 strikeouts and yielded only two runs in 8 2/3 innings.

At the trade deadline Towers also added A's reliever Brad Ziegler, who has given up one earned run in his first six innings in Arizona. Collectively, Arizona's bullpen may have only improved from 16th to 12th in the league, but the ERA is nearly two runs lower at 3.80. Its save-conversion rate ranks fourth at 77.8 percent, and the Diamondbacks are 62-0 when leading after eight innings.

Arizona suffered two potentially season-ending injuries over the weekend, however, but neither should significant hinder the club's postseason chances. Starting pitcher Jason Marquis fractured his right fibula and first baseman Xavier Nady fractured his left hand. The D-backs signed veteran first baseman Lyle Overbay to help replace Nady, who was batting .248 with only four homers, but will likely seek pitching help from the farm system to replace Marquis, who had allowed 16 runs (12 earned) in 11 1/3 innings since being traded from the Nationals.

2. Dan Uggla's hitting streak ends. The record of Yankees great Joe DiMaggio has proven invincible for another day, as the latest challenge from Braves second baseman Dan Uggla ended at 33 games Sunday. At the length, however, it was no serious challenger to DiMaggio's 56, as Uggla was still three and a half weeks away from tying and breaking the mark.

Uggla went 0-for-3 with a sacrifice fly Sunday and was robbed by Cubs second baseman Darwin Barney, who made a diving catch in right field to snare what could have been a bloop single.

But still the streak was as improbable as it was memorable. It was improbable because Uggla was batting .173 before stringing together roughly five weeks' worth of hits, and it was memorable because he slugged 15 home runs during the streak; because he extended the streak to 13 games with only one at bat that day, a pinch-hit homer; and because he advanced his hitting streak to 15 games a day after the fact, thanks to the official scorer changing an error to a hit. He gained 49 points of average during the 33-game streak.

Uggla's streak was the majors' longest since Phillies second baseman Chase Utley had a 35-game streak in 2006 and is the longest in Atlanta Braves history, though the franchise record remains 37, set by Tommy Holmes of the 1945 Boston Braves.

More pressing for the Braves: After losing two straight to the Cubs while the Giants won two straight over the Marlins, Atlanta's wild-card lead over San Francisco shrank to four with the two clubs set to start a four-game series at Turner Field starting Monday night.

3. Rangers, Angels enter AL West clash while moving in opposite directions. The Angels host the Rangers for a four-game series starting Monday night, and even with a sweep Los Angeles would only pull into a first-place tie with Texas. That's because the Rangers swept a road series from Oakland over the weekend and has won eight of its last 10 games while the Angels, who blew a ninth-inning lead on Sunday, have lost consecutive series to the Blue Jays and Yankees to fall four games back in the standings.

Worst of all for the Angels, the two games they lost to the Blue Jays were games started by Jered Weaver and Dan Haren; entering the series L.A. had won nearly two of every three games (.663) started by Weaver and Haren and were a sub-.500 team (.478) in games started by everyone else. Not only did they miss an opportunity to win behind their best starters, but also Haren won't get a chance to pitch against Texas. After pitching Sunday he won't take the mound again until Friday against Baltimore.

4. Minor Matters: Marlins' Morrison demoted; Strasburg shines. The weekend's most shocking development was the Marlins' demotion of 23-year-old leftfielder Logan Morrison to the minor leagues. Morrison was only batting .249 but had an average on-base percentage of .327, as well as 17 home runs that ranked second on the club. His 26 RBIs in July led the NL.

Yet Florida sent him to the minors after Saturday's game, as the left-handed hitter was just 9-for-42 (.214) with 15 strikeouts in his last 12 games. Morrison's prolific tweeting has cultivated a significant fan following -- and surely the attendance-starved Marlins can use the help in developing more marketable stars, especially as they moves to their new ballpark next year -- so such a move was predictably received poorly by many of the team's fans.

Morrison told reporters in Florida that he didn't think the demotion was because of his outspokenness on Twitter -- "I think it was something else," he said after Saturday's game, "but I don't even know if I want to say it right now" -- but the Marlins need to be careful in how they treat one of the game's more personable and engaging players, someone Major League Baseball has tapped for much of its social media campaign including a pair of videos this summer promoting its MLB Fan Cave here and here.

Surely there must be more to this situation -- and the Palm Beach Post noted that Morrison canceled his charity bowling event on Thursday because the team foundation had "dropped the ball" and later refused to participate in a photo session with season-ticket holders -- but Florida needs to be mindful that they risk stifling an original voice with great fan appeal. And the Marlins do seem to be serious about the matter, as president of baseball operations Larry Beinfest said Sunday, according to mlb.com, "We thought it was in the best interest for Logan to go down and work on things. He needs to concentrate on all aspects of being a major leaguer and work his way back."

With Morrison's agent recently saying that they will contact the players' union and explore a possible grievance against the team, undoubtedly more will emerge in the coming days or weeks.

In on-field news, Nationals starter Stephen Strasburg dazzled in his second minor-league rehab start. Pitching again for the Class A Potomac Nationals, Strasburg hit as high as 99 mph on his fastball and pitched three shutout innings. He threw 33 pitches and struck out five, walked none and allowed only two infield hits. Slated to throw up to 50 pitches, Strasburg finished his day by throwing 17 more pitches in the bullpen and will start in the minors again in five days. He's all but assured a major-league start in September.

5. Infield singles. Red Sox starter Tim Wakefield was denied his 200th career win for the fourth consecutive start. . . . The home run hit by Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista on Sunday was his first in 10 days and only his third in his last 24 games. . . . The Brewers scored their two runs in a 2-1 win over the Pirates on Sunday thanks to a Nyjer Morgan making two outs. Morgan reached base on an eighth-inning strikeout when the third strike wasn't caught -- it would have been the third out -- which extended the inning long enough for a Ryan Braun RBI single. The game-winning run scored on a Morgan sacrifice fly. . . . The Giants' major-league record streak of 21 straight solo home runs ended when Cody Ross hit a two-run homer in the third inning, but San Francisco started a new streak with three more solo homers, including two by rookie Brandon Belt, later in the day. . . . The Indians, who are 2 1/2 games behind the Tigers in the AL Central, had their game with the Twins rained out on Sunday. Cleveland has a scheduled off-day on Monday and will finish the season with 45 games in 44 days. . . . By taking two of three from the Royals, the White Sox evened their record to 60-60, their fourth time at .500 in the last four months -- they were also even at 7-7, 42-42, 43-43 and 52-52 -- but they haven't been above .500 since they were 7-6 on April 15.

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