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What A Difference A Month Makes: Late July Baltimore Blues

The great historian of the U.S. Charles Beard once said, "History never repeats itself exactly." I was thinking of that perceptive quote when looking at the mediocre month my Orioles have endured. I never expected that they could repeat their miraculous finish of last year when they won a record number of one-run games, beat the Rangers in the first-ever wild card playoff game, and pushed the Yankees to the limit in the AL Divisional Series.

They took fire last year around August and are certainly still alive in this year's wild card hunt. They are only five games behind the surging Tampa Bay Rays in the lost column for first place in the AL East. But the Birds are spinning their wheels in July and giving no signs that they can put together a winning streak to surge them towards the top.

The slumps of Chris Davis and Manny Machado were predictable. They had spoiled us with home run and double binges, respectively, and to their credit they have continued to play strong defense as does the entire team night after night. Yet the starting pitching remains inconsistent except for the emerging Chris Tillman and hopefully a healthy Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez. The lack of consistent power from other members of the lineup except for Davis is both evident and frustrating.

The return of second baseman Brian Roberts after years of injuries has pleasantly surprised me. He seems to be moving well in the field and driving the ball at the plate. So maybe a lineup that is potentially deep when it is clicking will awaken in the days ahead. Not betting on it but will be rooting for it to happen.

I hope the Orioles will be wise enough not to go for a deadline deal in late July for the quick fix that won't fix anything for the long run. Some teams, however, cannot resist the pressure from the media, including a special MLB-TV program planned for the hours before the mid-afternoon July 31 trading deadline.

Don't get be wrong - I love MLB TV. Even won a mlb.com T-shirt - made in America I'm happy to add- when I asked a question of Mark McLemore at FanFest during All-Star Game about his connection with Adam Jones that I found out goes back to when both were with the Seattle Mariners. Yet long-term views in building an organization should always be foremost.

Meanwhile the Tampa Bay Rays under the guidance of world-class manager Joe Maddon continue their amazing onslaught. After being in the basement briefly in late June, they have surged into first place as of games before July 30. Near the end of July they won back-to-back series on the road against both the traditional AL East powers, Red Sox and Yankees.

The return of last year's Cy Young winner David Price from injury has led the way on a potent starting staff that includes former Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson, breakout southpaw Matt Moore, the rookie Chris Archer (pilfered from the Cubs in the Matt Garza deal), and Roberto Hernandez (the former Cleveland star known as Fausto Carmona).

Waiting in the wings to return to the rotation shortly is Alex Cobb who was having an outstanding year when he was hit in the head by a line drive in June. The Rays witnessed the Blue Jays' J.A. Happ suffer a similar injury earlier in the season at their home field Tropicana Park and Happ is still not yet back.

The dangers that ballplayers face every day and the courage they show should never be underestimated. I was an eyewitness on Friday night July 26 to another near-injury when
the Yankees' Ichiro Suzuki almost beheaded Hellickson with a line drive in the first inning.

Hellickson, who won the gold glove last year, reacted quickly and snagged the ball before it hit his jaw. He composed himself quickly and wound up pitching six innings for the win.

It is not likely that Tampa Bay fans will flock to their indoor stadium in St. Petersburg to greet their surging heroes. They remain next-to-last in MLB home attendance. But Florida Gulf Coast sports fans are missing a great opportunity to see a team that lives - really lives one of the mottos of manager Joe Maddon: "Win hard for 30 minutes, lose hard for 30 minutes, and then prepare for the next game."

I don't follow the National League as closely because the Mets while improved are still lacking in so many areas. In late June I did see the Dodgers play the Yankees at Yankee Stadium. I was pleasantly surprised to see many Brooklyn Dodger caps and shirts even though the team has been in LA now longer that they were in NYC's underdog borough.

The expatriates from Brooklyn were still under .500 when I saw them. But you could see the talent ready to explode in Hanley Ramirez, now back playing shortstop, and Yasiel Puig, the Cuban defector. Shortly after leaving NYC, the Dodgers caught fire and have played baseball almost as well as the Rays since then. They lead the NL West now and have two aces in NL Cy Young award winner Clayton Kershaw and the AL refugee Zack Greinke.

The unpredictable world of baseball continues to unfold and I for one will sit back and enjoy it. I am not letting the continuing fallout from the Biogenesis steroid scandals spoil it for me. I for one wouldn't mind more suspensions of players by MLB except - I stress EXCEPT - I have no confidence that impatient owners will not go bidding crazily for the next free agent with questionable credibility on the PED issue.

One truth remains self-evident: Nothing can or will kill baseball.

That's all for July - see you next month and remember always: Take it easy but take it!  Read More 
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All Hail Baseball's New Manny, Machado + 4th of July Thoughts on Pro and College Baseball

I turned 71 on June 27 and for my birthday my nephew and his wife sent me a gift certificate for goodies from MLB.com’s website. For the first time in my life I bought a replica jersey - the home white Orioles uniform of #13 Manny Machado.

Since Manny came up in early August last year the Orioles defense has been transformed from poor to excellent. Around the same time Nate McLouth revived his career as the Orioles’ new left fielder. They were two huge reasons for Baltimore’s defensive rebirth that happily has continued this season.

Machado turns 21 on July 6 and is on pace to break Detroit Tiger Earl Webb’s major league record of 67 doubles set in 1931. I’m not a big booster of records. I’m more impressed by the everyday process of going about winning. Machado’s poise in the field and awareness at the plate are remarkable in a player so young performing at a position that he hardly ever played before.

The Orioles 2010 number one draft pick was a heralded shortstop from Miami, Florida wearing #13 as homage to his hero and Miami homeboy Alex Rodriguez. With J. J. Hardy playing “championship” shortstop, the apt adjective used by Orioles manager Buck Showalter, Machado upon his callup from the minors last August slid over to third base with barely any game experience. He plays like he has been there all his life. Game after game he makes both the remarkable play and the basic one. His game on both sides of the ball is truly worth the price of admission.

So I am proud to wear Machado’s jersey. I have even toyed with the idea of wearing it to an upcoming Oriole game at Yankee Stadium but maybe discretion will be the better part of valor. If you don’t get this blog again soon, I wasn’t discreet.

I am not as proud that I voted the allowed 25 times on the mlb.com ballot for the All-Star Team. I don’t why the magic number of 25 was created. In fact, it can be 35 if you sign up for some kind of promotion.

With defending AL MVP Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera on the ballot, there is no way that Machado will start in the July 16 game that this year will be played at the Mets’ CitiField in Queens. Machado may not even make it as a reserve because of the demands on AL All-Star manager Jim Leyland of filling out a roster with at least one player from every team.

But make no mistake: by performance Manny Machado is already an All-Star. He has fully vindicated manager Showalter’s brilliant stroke of putting him into the second hole of the batting order. As his power develops, Manny might ultimately bat a little lower but wherever he hits he should be an Oriole fixture for years to come.

Handicapping the AL East Race On Fourth of July:
The Red Sox continue to rule the roost in the AL East with the Orioles currently second.
Team management knows and we fans know that Bird pitching must improve. The July 2 trade to the Cubs of underachieving starter Jake Arrieta and erratic reliever Pedro Strop for righthander Scott Feldman may be a step in the right direction.

Certainly the banishment of Arrieta and Strop fall into the category of what Branch Rickey called “addition by subtraction”. Showalter managed Feldman in Texas and he liked what he saw then in the 6’ 6” righthander from Hawaii who was raised in northern California. According to Wikipedia, Feldman’s dad was raised in Pennsylvania mining country and became a FBI agent. I like those paternal roots in hard tough work.

Scott’s control and his pitch assortment have improved with experience. At 30 years old he could provide the equivalent of what lefty Joe Saunders did last year in a late August trade: stabilizing the rotation. His first start on July 3 against the offensively challenged White Sox was effective: 6 innings, 2 runs 6 hits no walks 6 strikeouts.

Another Memorable “Night of Champions” in Lubbock, Texas
On the last weekend of June the College Baseball Foundation presented its annual “Night of Champions”. This year the events took place on the campus of Texas Tech University in Lubbock. It was a warm gathering of past college heroes like Arizona State’s Sal Bando and USC’s Roy Smalley Jr and stars of the just-concluded 2013 season like slugger Kris Bryant, third baseman from the University of San Diego, and University of Oklahoma righthander Jonathan Gray.

Bryant and Gray were picked second and third in the nation in last month’s amateur free agent draft by the Cubs and the Colorado Rockies, respectively. At a time when the deadened bat of college baseball has severely curtailed offense, Bryant slugged 31 HRs for his University of San Diego Matadors. His output was 14 more dingers than any other player and more than many teams!

Bryant was a worthy winner of the 27th annual Dick Howser Trophy given annually to the college player whose performance on the field and character off of it best exemplifies the standards of the late Florida State and major league shortstop and World Series-winning Kansas City manager. One of Dick's twin daughters Jana Howser is the development director of the College Baseball Hall of Fame and she presented the trophy to Bryant on the Night of Champions.

Bryant's backstory is an interesting one. His father briefly played in the minor leagues for the Red Sox his home town team. Settling in Las Vegas, Nevada, Papa Bryant built a batting cage for young Kris in his backyard. Since the age of 5 Kris has been in love with baseball and the art of hitting. He played some amateur ball with fellow Las Vegas native Bryce Harper, the Washington Nationals prize outfielder.

Improving on defense, Kris Bryant could be slugging the ball at the “friendly confines” of Wrigley Field soon. He has until just before the All-Star Game on July 16 to sign with the Cubs or go back into the draft and return for his senior year at San Diego. As a Scott Boras client, Bryant is not a slam dunk to sign but I predict that he will start his pro career in a few days.

Another Lubbock highlight for me was sitting in on an interview with John Schaly, son of the late Marietta (Ohio) Division III baseball coach Don Schaly. Schaly won nearly 82 per cent of the games for his alma mater, three national championships, and seven second-place finishes. He developed three notable major leaguers - Pittsburgh relief ace Kent Tekulve, southpaw Terry Mulholland who starred with the Giants and Phillies, and future major league manager Jim Tracy.

John Schaly remembered how Tekulve lived for a time at his parents’ house as he developed the skills that led him to the major leagues. Those who remember the skinny stork-like Tekulve will not be surprised to learn that he wasn’t a highly coveted prospect. He even had to talk himself into an afternoon tryout camp when told in the morning he didn’t run fast enough to be a major leaguer. “I don’t run the ball to home plate,” he argued. Talking his way into another tryout Tekulve became the only player signed by the Pirates that day and was on his way to a distinguished career: 94-90 W-L, 184 saves,
2.85 ERA, and a World Series ring with the 1979 Pirates.

Modest John Schaly himself has established a fine record as baseball coach at Ashland College, a Division II school in Ohio. He has led his team several times into post-season play. “I want to win it all once,” he said. “I can never match my father’s record.”

Another coach, John Winkin, who skippered the Maine Black Bears to six College World Series appearances, was unable to attend as was his son whose plane from Maine to Lubbock was cancelled. But Winkin, who developed future major league pitcher Bill Swift and shortstop Mike Bordick, now stands enshrined in Lubbock along with Don Schaly, Sal Bando, Tino Martinez (U. of Tampa), Ralph Garr (Grambling of Louisiana), Roy Smalley Jr (USC), and Tom Borland (Ohio State) who led the Buckeyes to a national championship in 1955.

That’s all for now. Just remember: Take it easy but take it.  Read More 
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