Albert Pujols and the legendary blast that should never have happened

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lidge-100315.jpgI remember when I first realized that Albert Pujols was GREAT. I already knew he was great, mind you, but there came a time when the simple lower-case modifier was no longer good enough to describe the St. Louis Cardinals slugger. Sort of like calling the Grand Canyon big, or the Pacific Ocean wet, it didn’t quite measure up.

Anyway, the moment when Pujols became GREAT for me came in Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS, when he slugged a game-winning home run of such Hobbs-ian proportions that it nearly derailed not only the train at Minute Maid Park, but Brad Lidge’s career along with it.

Lidge was filthy that night, with high-90s gas, a high-80s breaking ball and a bucket-full of confidence. But Pujols changed that with one effortless, violent flick of his wrists. It’s not a wonder it took Lidge three years to recover.

[For those of you with a fuzzy memory, you can relive the moment here. As for Astros fans, you may comfort yourselves in knowing that your team eventually advanced to the World Series despite Pujols’ heroics. Then, you may cry yourselves to sleep knowing it’s not going to happen again anytime soon.]

Morgan Ensberg, the third baseman on that Astros team, gives readers some insight into that game in his blog – which is quickly becoming a must-read. In a post on Monday, Ensberg writes that Pujols shouldn’t have had the chance to play hero in that game, that if he had been positioned properly at third base, Pujols would not have even come up to bat.

In the ninth inning, Lidge started out by striking out John Rodriguez and John Mabry, with leadoff hitter David Eckstein coming to the plate. A light-hitting contact hitter, Eckstein was simply looking to get on base and was highly unlikely to pull the ball down the line. Ensberg, recalling this, says he was positioned too close to the line by manager Phil Garner.

But you should know that there is a optical illusion at Minute Maid Park. Phil Garner (manager) sits in the first chair of the dugout protected by the handicap elevator in the first base dugout. From his vantage point, it looks like the third baseman is directly inline with him.  However, the view from the third baseman’s vantage point is off to the left by about 5 feet. This is a problem.

Garner is lining me up according to the spray chart, but I am not where he thinks he is moving me.  I am actually closer to the line then he would want due to the illusion but there is nothing that can be done.  From his view I am in the exact spot that I need to be.

Eckstein ends up singling into the hole past Ensberg, Jim Edmonds follows with a walk and Pujols makes history. Baseball, ladies and gentlemen, is a game of details.

If Phil’s view wasn’t off-set, I could have made the play and the game would have been over. [Instead] Lidge throws a fast ball that Eckstein hits in the 5-6 hole for a base hit.
Two batters later, Pujols makes history and there is no optical illusion involved there at all.

Ensberg gives some other interesting details in his post, so go head on over and check it out. I find it fascinating how the simplest of mistakes can change the course of baseball history. But seeing as how in this instance Pujols gave baseball fans such an unforgettable moment, I’m perfectly OK with how things turned out.

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The deeper implications of the A.J. Ellis trade

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 17:  Clayton Kershaw #22 of the Los Angeles Dodgers heads to the dugout at the end of the first inning against the Los Angeles Angels at Dodger Stadium on May 17, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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The trade of a light-hitting backup catcher is normally about as inconsequential as it gets. The trade of A.J. Ellis by the Dodgers to the Phillies, however, is anything but that. Indeed, it may be the public manifestation of long-simmering, well, maybe “feud” is too strong a word, but a definite butting of heads between the team’s front office and its best player.

While almost all of the clubhouse drama in Los Angeles has surrounded a talented but aggravating corner outfielder currently toiling in the minors, Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times wrote last night that the Ellis trade could very well be seen as the front office’s shot across Clayton Kershaw‘s bow:

Kershaw’s preference of Ellis was the subject of a longstanding tug-of-war between Kershaw and the front office, which wanted Yasmani Grandal behind the plate as much as possible . . . Some players interpreted the trade as a message from the front office.

This isn’t Kershaw’s team. It’s not Corey Seager’s team or Adrian Gonzalez’s, either.

It’s Friedman’s.

The notion that Kershaw likes to pitch to Ellis is pretty well-known, but the idea that it was so strong a preference that it created a dispute as to whether he has final say over a roster spot is news, at least to people who aren’t around the Dodgers all the time. Hernandez is a good columnist and is particularly well-plugged in to the Dodgers after many years of being their beat writer for the Times. He wouldn’t throw the notion of there being something of a power struggle in this regard out there all willy-nilly in order to stir the pot or something. I don’t doubt for a second that something bigger than most of us have seen is going on here.

As for the trade itself: yeah, it’s pretty debatable as to whether it makes any kind of sense. Carlos Ruiz is likely an upgrade over Ellis, but it’s a pretty marginal upgrade when you consider how few plate appearances the Dodgers backup catcher will make for the rest of the year. It’s especially marginal if you assume, as Hernandez and others assume, likely with reason, that the loss of Ellis is going to harm morale. At least in the short term before they get to know Ruiz well (worth noting, though, that he comes pretty highly recommended from Kershaw-caliber aces for all the same reasons Ellis does). I can see a lot of reasons not to make that deal even for an extra hit or two a week that Ruiz may give you over Ellis.

All of which speaks to what we don’t know. What we don’t know about the mind of Andrew Friedman and whether or not there is something more going on here than is immediately apparent. About the relationship between him and Kershaw and, for that matter, him and the rest of the team that would cause him to make a deal that plays as poorly with his own players as this one does. It could be something about Ellis. It could be something about Friedman’s relationship with Kershaw. It could be something totally unrelated to any of that, such as offseason plans and the roster in 2017 (Ruiz has a team option for next year, Ellis is a pending free agent). Unless or until Friedman speaks or a reporter gets someone to shed more light on this, there will continue to be questions.

In the meantime, I’ll grant that there are certainly different rules which apply to superstars than mere mortals, but veto power over a trade and/or playing time for other players isn’t typically one of them. If, as Hernandez suggests, there was a sense that Kershaw and Friedman didn’t see eye-to-eye on that and it wasn’t otherwise being resolved, it makes Friedman’s move somewhat more understandable.

World Baseball Classic pools, venues announced

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - MARCH 10:  Miguel Cabrera #24 of Venezuela gets a hit and drives in a run against Spain during the first round of the World Baseball Classic at Hiram Bithorn Stadium on March 10, 2013 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
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Yesterday the folks who run the World Baseball Classic (i.e. the Rand Corporation, in conjunction with the saucer people, under the supervision of the reverse vampires, the Illuminati and the Trilateral Commission) announced the groupings and venues for next springs’s tournament. It breaks down thusly:

  • Pool A will play in Tokyo, featuring Australia, China, Cuba, and Japan;
  • Pool B will play in Seoul, featuring Chinese Taipei, Korea, the Netherlands, and either Brazil, Israel, Great Britain, or Pakistan (final participant to be determined at a qualifying tournament in New York next month);
  • Pool C will play in Miami, featuring Canada, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, and the United States;
  • Pool D will play in Guadalajara, featuring Italy, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela.

A winner and a runner-up will advance from each pool following a round-robin competition. That will result in a second round robin made up of Pool A and B — which will be called Pool E, because it HAS to be complicated — and which will be played in Tokyo. Meanwhile, Pool C and D’s representatives will make up Pool F, who will play in San Diego at Petco Park.

The winner of Pool F will then take on the runner-up of Pool E in a semifinal at Dodger Stadium, while the winner of Pool E will face Pool F’s runner-up there as well. The winners of those matches will play in the WBC final, also at Dodger Stadium.

Got it? Good.

Now we wait. And listen to people tell us how much we should care about the World Baseball Classic between now and March.