Thursday, May 20, 2004

Mike Lowell was the forgotten man during last year's Marlin championship run. Lowell had been the steady rock earlier in the Marlins' season belting 32 homers and knocking in 105 runs. His numbers would have been much higher but Lowell broke his hand. Ivan Rodriguez, Miguel Cabrera, great young pitching and an old timer manager led the Marlins to the Series title. Lowell had bit parts in the post season including one heroic hit, but his earlier season was largely forgotten.

Ivan Rodriguez is now gone and Cabrera is appearing to seem human after all. Mike Lowell has come to the fore as the leader of the Marlins offense and has helped the not-so-surprising team to the top of the NL East. Tonight's game against Houston is a perfect example.

Luis Castillo led off the game with a single and took third on Pierre's single. Castillo then scored on a wild pitch. But then Pierre got thrown out trying to steal. That could have ended a potentially big inning with only one run. But then Lowell came up and hit his twelfth homer of the season.

In the fifth inning, with the Marlins up 3-1, Lowell was pitched around and walked and came in to score on a Lenny Harris double.

On Lowell's next at bat, after the Astros had scored a run in the top of the seventh to cut the Marlins' lead to 5-2, Lowell responded in the bottom of the seventh with his thirteenth homer to put the nail in the game.

Lowell now has 13 homers in 38 games and is on pace to hit 54. He is also batting .349, with a slugging percentage near .700 and an OPS over 1.110. In short, he is having a monster year and is continuing his pattern of getting better every year, increasing his production while increasing his walks and lowering his strikeouts.

And Lowell has become one of the best fielding first baseman in the league. Scott Rolen may be the best fielding third baseman in the National League, but Lowell, right now, is the best third baseman in that league.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

The thing about Major League Baseball is that life is mirrored on the field. Similar to an crime movie, problems are solved in two to three hours. There are good guys and bad guys and depending on the movie, either one could win. For the Fan, Randy Johnson has always been one of the bad guys. The bad guys won big last night.

Randy Johnson has always portrayed this scowling, oppressive presence on the mound. He is unlovely, gangly and uncouth to look at. He showed his bad guy presence during the All-Star game when he buzzed John Kruk to prove a point. And, worst of all, Johnson had the temerity to consistently challenge Nolan Ryan's single season strikeout record while also threatening Roger Clemens' record for Cy Young awards.

And then the bad guy beat the good guys in the deciding game of the 2001 World Series. The fan's teeth gnash when the bad guy is as good as Randy Johnson has been. From the second half of 1998, when Johnson was traded to Houston, until the end of 2002, Johnson won 91 games and lost 28. Johnson is now 234-118 in his career with 3952 strikeouts in 3185 career innings. Incredible.

The bad guy seemed finished last year. His velocity down, his back aching, Johnson limped through last year and ended up with a 6-8 record. More telling was that for the first time in his career, Randy Johnson gave up more hits than innings pitched. The Fan tried to avoid feelings of satisfaction.

And then there is the concerted effort in the past few years to make the bad guy look almost human. He appeared on baseball shows attempting to hit a baseball. He is shown gracefully bowling a beautiful left hook in a commercial. A sporting magazine showed him as a driven man and a family man. The Fan almost gave in to taking Johnson off the bad guy list. Almost.

Last night, at the age of forty, Randy Johnson did something Roger Clemens has never done: a perfect game. His last fastball was 97 MPH after only hitting 92 last year. The perfect game wasn't against any run of the mill team. The gem beat the Atlanta Braves. Granted, the Braves aren't what they were, but they are still the Braves. The bad guy made it look easy.

Sometimes, the admission has to be made that the bad guy is one of the best to ever work his craft. Sometimes, a true Fan has to acknowledge the bad guy with a tip of the cap. That was an awesome performance, Randy Johnson.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Take a tip from the Fan: Never move during baseball season if you love the game. This very good season churned on while the Fan was blacked out like the old days before the Internet and Baseball Tonight. I apologize to my loyal readers for the absence. The move was very much like this MLB season, full of surprises, good and bad, at the same time predictable. And the fun continues.

The season is nearly a fourth over (or, for the optimist, three fourths to go) and the surprises equal the predictable. The Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, Marlins, Astros and Cubs are as good as expected. The Orioles are as improved as expected.

The Angels in particular are playing as well as expected, but in an unexpected way. The team has had terrible injuries to several of its stars, but they still roll along winning seven out of their last ten. The latest terrible injury is to Troy Glaus with a shoulder injury. Glaus was placed on the 60-day disabled list, which is a shame as he was off to a great start after being injured much of last year. Glaus had already homered eleven times this season after only reaching sixteen last year.

The real surprises so far this season are many. Nobody expected the Devil Rays to win the AL East, but most thought they would be vastly improved. On the contrary, they have only won ten games in thirty-six attempts and have lost nine of their last ten. Old Piniella must be coughing up blood at this point.

Nobody expected the Reds to 20-17 at this point in the season. Adam Dunn has an on-base percentage of .490 to go along with his eleven homers. Sean Casey is batting .374 with 15 doubles. Barry Larkin and Ken Griffey Jr. are contributing. The pitching isn't spectacular, but has been better than expected with Paul Wilson and Aaron Harang leading the starters. Danny Graves isn't unhittable, but he has saved seventeen of the Reds' wins.

A surprise on the negative side has been the Royals. The ugly ducklings turned swans last year have been abysmal to this point. The pitching staff in particular is scary with a staff 5.28 ERA. The pitchers have given up 467 base runners in 305 innings. Ugh!

The Seattle Mariners have fallen on similar hard times. The Mariners pitch alright--although Hasegawa and Pineiro have had horrible starts to their season. The Mariners hit for a decent team average as well. Consider though that the Mariners have only hit 24 homers in 36 games. Bret Boone, Edgar Martinez and John Olerud are all batting in the high .240's and have collectively seemed to get old all at once. The manager is taking the heat, but this is a team that was kept together for two seasons too long.

Just about every team in the AL Central is a surprise. The Royals have been discussed already for their sour season. But the Twins are above expectations, as are the White Sox, Indians and even the Tigers. While the Tigers don't seem capable of maintaining their .500 record, the other three seem to be ready to battle it out the rest of the season.

The Twins seem to be doing well with mirrors. Lew Ford is a blossoming and unexpected new star and Christian Guzman is off to a good start. The relief pitching has been sublime so far as unlikely heroes like 85 year old, Terry Mulholland is contributing well along with unexpected closing success by Joe Nathan. Nathan's ERA is down to 1.37 and has struck out 26 batters in 19.2 innings pitched. It seems hard to believe that the Twins can hold on, but they haven't cracked yet.

The White Sox and Indians are good, but seem no better than .500 teams, but neither does the Twins. The winner of this division may end up with 85-90 wins.

The most fun surprise so far this season has been the Rangers and the Brewers. The Rangers have a chance to stay in contention in the AL West while the Brewers won't win a division any time soon, but they've turned into a fun team to follow.

Lyle Overbay has blown open the league so far this season. The Brewers have a pitcher who hits...or is that a hitter who pitches? Scott Podsednik has already scored 30 runs and has stolen 20 bases without being caught. And recently, Ben Sheets is starting to live up to his potential as he recently struck out 18 batters. Sheets is 4-2 with a 2.90 ERA. There is a fun story everywhere you look on this team.

Overbay has been amazing. Batting .369 this season, Overbay already has 21 doubles to go along with five homers and 38 RBI. Overbay is on pace to hit sixty doubles and a 150 RBI.

Brooks Kieschnick is batting .368 as a pinch hitter and has a 1.47 ERA in twelve pitching performances. Now that is fun stuff.

The Rangers are just as fun to watch as they have several young stars that have gelled under Buck Showalter. Soriano, Blalock, Young, Texeira, Nix and Mench have to be entertaining for the Rangers' fans night after night. Playing nearly .600 baseball is by far the number one team surprise of the year.