Sunrise Cactus

Ten Things I learned from my trip to Spring Training

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Today is my first day back at work in the fortified compound and I’m just now starting to feel back in the swing of things. It’s a good time, then, to look back at my ten days in the desert and talk about some of the things that stuck out, for better, for worse, for important and for not. So here’s what I learned, in no particular order:

1. Yasiel Puig is a big young (?) man

source: API saw the Dodgers four times. Just a quirk of the schedule, I guess. Cuban import Yasiel Puig played in all of those games. And he generally looked pretty good. He’s a big, big fellow who hit a home run against the Indians a week ago Sunday that may still be flying someplace. Just impressive power and I’m rather high on his chances to make an impact. But something else notable: at the risk of breaking my “don’t make accusations unless you have some proof” rule, I will say that if Puig truly just turned 22 years-old like the Dodgers say he did he’s the most mature 22 year-old I’ve ever seen. Maybe I’m totally wrong — and I’ll admit I’m just speculating off the old eyeball test — but the guy looks like he could have teenage children of his own. Maybe it doesn’t matter. And I’d say a much bigger problem for him and the Dodgers is his tendency to swing at fastballs in his eyes. But I don’t know if I’d be giving this guy seven year contracts.

2. Jurickson Profar looks overmatched

A guy who is more reliably young, the Rangers’ infielder and baseball’s top prospect Jurickson Profar, looked pretty overmatched in the early going. I saw him play twice and his at bats looked … unplanned. When he did have a decent idea of what was coming he didn’t handle it well. And this was against pitchers who were still working on stamina and things and weren’t trying to be too fine. I know spring stats should be ignored, but it’s hard to ignore how ineffective Profar has been so far. To the extent Rangers fans are hoping for him to have a big impact, their hope may be better saved until he’s had a bit more seasoning down on the farm.

3. My heart is going to be broken by Nate Robertson and/or Scott Kazmir, I can just feel it.

I got to witness two potential comeback stories in Arizona: Nate Robertson, who is remaking himself as a sidearmer after so much time away, and Scott Kazmir, who is trying to come back from friggin’ oblivion. Both looked good when I saw them. Robertson was downright inspirational when I talked to him.  But part of me — the very pessimistic part of me that I wish wasn’t there sometimes — keeps saying “everything seems great the first week of March, don’t get your hopes up.”  There are stories about guys on these sorts of comebacks every year. I always want them to work. Sometimes they do. I hope these two do.

4. It’s spring training for fans anticipating home runs, too.

I think every single fly ball I saw in Arizona was met by a host of fans going “whooo!” or making some other noise that suggested they thought it was a home run when, most of the time, it was a mid-range fly ball. People in Arizona are dedicated fans to be sure. But they’re not necessarily as informed and savvy as the folks back home. Well, this guy was, but he was a wonderful exception.

5. The World Baseball Classic is a lot of fun if you’re actually at the games.

source: Getty ImagesI saw two WBC games on Friday: Canada vs. Italy and Mexico vs. USA. The former featured a near empty Chase Field, the latter a nearly full Chase Field with a raucous and crazy crowd. The former was a mercy rule game, with Canada getting its clock cleaned, the latter a closer game for a while at least, but not really a barn burner. Though it wasn’t the best baseball ever and though I have been generally lukewarm about the WBC, the games were better than all of the spring training games by a longshot because there was a greater intensity about them and a clear sense that, yes, the players cared if they won.  That doesn’t mean the WBC is great, but it does suggest that the whole “the games are too early and should be moved to a different part of the year” criticism isn’t necessarily the best one. Good baseball can be played in March. Oh, and if you play your cards right you can get yourself on national television, looking silly, while at one of the game.

6. It’s way more interesting to talk to baseball players about non-baseball things.

I interviewed more players this year than I ever have. And though I’m still a total novice at the clubhouse beat compared to just about every reporter out there, I’ve realized that for the most part I am not all that interested in talking to ballplayers about baseball. OK, that’s an exaggeration. Talking specifically about their craft and their career arcs and things are interesting, but (a) “how ya feeling after today’s start;” (b) “tell us about the pitch from Shlabotnik in the fifth; and (c) “how do you think the ballclub is going to do this year” jive is boring.  I want to hear more about Corey Hart and Batman, thanks. Or ballplayers’ other random interests. Or stuff from the periphery of the game. The on-the-field action almost always speaks so much better for itself than someone involved in it does two hours after the fact.

7. Spring training parks are weird.

This kind of speaks for itself. They all have their own little quirks. Except the music. They all play terrible, terrible pregame music.

8. A lot more adult fans bring gloves to the game than I thought.

I highlighted one leather-toting grownup in Scottsdale and many of you crawled out of the woodwork to tell me that you still bring gloves to games. I had no idea. I feel like this changes our relationship.

9. Diversity in baseball is not merely a black and white issue.

Early in my trip I visited the Giants, who have no U.S.-born black players on their roster. Which is odd. But which is not, contrary to what so many people like to say, indicative of a problem. Baseball may not look like it once did, but it is unquestionably more diverse than ever.

10. Everything is wonderful and everyone is happy and this will remain the case until about April 5th or so.

I guess the biggest takeaway from spring training is that there isn’t really a ton to take away. At least not early. Every team and every player, no matter how bad they were last year, thinks they’re looking good now. Every team and every player expects to remain healthy and for best case scenarios to reign supreme.  I’m sure there is some realism behind closed doors, and I suppose it’s a particular joy of baseball to have optimism return every spring. Renewal. The Song of the Turtle. All that jazz.  But logic and history tell us that half of these teams are gonna be terrible, a lot of these optimistic players will struggle and that no battle plan in recorded history has ever survived much beyond contact with the enemy.

That contact begins on the evening of March 31 for two teams and in the next couple of days after that for everyone else.  The results of that and the changes and adjusts made in response thereto are what’s going to matter. Almost nothing that happened in the Greater Phoenix Arizona area in the first couple of weeks of March will.

And That Happened: Wednesday’s scores and highlights

LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 24:  Rich Hill #44 of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches in the fifth inning of the game against the San Francisco Giants at Dodger Stadium on August 24, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)
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Here are the scores. And here are the highlights:

Astros 5, Pirates 4: Evan Gattis and Carlos Correa homer as the Astros scratch out five runs off of Gerrit Cole. Finishing the road trip 5-2 has to make the Astros feel a bit better about things at the moment. They’re still four and a half back with four teams ahead of them in the Wild Card, but there’s still time.

Brewers 7, Rockies 1: Two homers from Ryan Braun, driving in three while Zach Davis allowed one run over six, striking out eight. Four wins in a row for Milwaukee. That means nothing for playoff purposes — they ain’t in the conversation — but they can mention it in the holiday letter.

Athletics 5, Indians 1: Kendall Graveman allowed one run while pitching into the seventh while his teammates scratched out runs with singles, sac flies and reaching on errors. The Indians scored three runs total in this three game series. They somehow managed to win one of the three games but, boy howdy, that’s not what a playoff team wants to do against a losing team with the worst defense in baseball.

Yankees 5, Mariners 0: Gary Sanchez homered again, his seventh in his past nine games and his ninth overall. The Mariners intentionally walked him twice, which had Joe Girardi talking about how unusual it is for a team to do that to a rookie and how much respect it shows for his power. Probably worth mentioning that the guy they walked him in order to get to was Mark Teixeira, who couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a friggin’ boat anymore, but I get why Girardi didn’t mention that. Masahiro Tanaka tossed seven shutout innings.

Cubs 6, Padres 3: Kyle Hendricks allowed two runs over six innings which actually increased his ERA from 2.16 to 2.19. He leads all of baseball in that department nonetheless. Ben Zobrist had two hits including a triple which knocked in two.

Orioles 10, Nationals 8: Zack Britton allowed a run on an Anthony Rendon RBI double but his ERA remains a nice 0.69. The reason he was in the game was because Daniel Murphy hit a late grand slam while the Nats were down by seven, transforming a blowout into a save situation. I wonder if Britton had sort of mentally written off his need to pitch before going in. Who knows. Manny Machado and Matt Wieters each drove in four. The win plus the Blue Jays and Red Sox losing brings Baltimore back to within one game of the division leaders.

Angels 8, Blue Jays 2: Albert Pujols homered, pushing him past Mark McGwire on the all-time list. He’s now 10th in history with 584 bombs. He had four hits in all and three RBI. Mike Trout homered too and Matt Shoemaker tossed six shutout innings.

Rangers 6, Reds 5: Yu Darvish of all people homered and Adrian Beltre hit a tiebreaking RBI double in the eighth. The Rangers had a three-run lead, blew it, but pulled it out in the end. Speaking of Rangers, y’all should go see the movie “Hell or Highwater.” I took a night off of baseball last night and saw it and it was amazing. Jeff Bridges plays a Texas Ranger of the law enforcement variety and he’s fantastic. Chris Pine was something of a revelation, though, playing a west Texas dude who finds himself living an outlaw life due to desperate circumstances. Just a good, tight, well-written and well-acted flick.

Marlins 3, Royals 0: The Royals nine-game winning streak ends thanks to Jose Fernandez’s nine strikeouts in seven shutout innings. Christian Yelich singled in two. Best news of the night for Miami, though, was trading for Jeff Francoeur. That’s not great for baseball purposes, but he really is a nice young man who will light your day up with his smile.

Rays 4, Red Sox 3: Boston had an early three-run lead that was cut to 3-2 before Evan Longoria‘s eighth inning homer tied things up and forced extras. In the 11th Boston reliever Heath Hembree got two outs before giving up a double to Luke Maile. Then Hembree dropped the toss while covering first base on a Kevin Kiermaier grounder, allowing Maile to score from second. That doesn’t exactly make Kiermaier a hero in this situation, but he made the contact that resulted in the winning run so he is still The Cool Cat of the game, and is still worthy of an award: a video from one year ago today of my kitty cat Scully eating cold oatmeal out of a cup on my desk. She’s the cuuuuuutest. Congratulations, Kevin!

Phillies 5, White Sox 3Tommy Joseph and Cesar Hernandez homered. The White Sox sure had a crappy day yesterday. 

Tigers 9, Twins 4: Miguel Cabrera had four hits, including a homer. The suddenly useful Justin Upton homered as well. Cabrera was a triple shy of the cycle, which we’d like to remind you still isn’t a notable thing.

Cardinals 8, Mets 1: The Cards smacked three homers off of Jacob deGrom who wasn’t too deGreat last night. Carlos Martinez allowed one run over eight innings, however, and that’ll do just deFine.

Diamondbacks 10, Braves 9: Brandon Drury hit a walkoff sac fly in the 11th. Drury was a Braves draft pick once upon a time. They traded him to Arizona to get Justin Upton. That seems like it was about 10,000 years ago.

Dodgers 1, Giants 0: Rich Hill made his Dodgers debut and it was worth the wait: six shutout innings. Four members of the bullpen tossed three more to complete the shutout, which allowed Justin Turner‘s fourth inning solo homer to stand up. A three-game lead in the West now for L.A. This Giants second half is a nightmare.

Albert Pujols passes Mark McGwire with 584th career home run

CLEVELAND, OH - AUGUST 11: Albert Pujols #5 of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim runs out a double during the ninth inning against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field on August 11, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Indians defeated the Angels 14-3. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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Angels DH Albert Pujols passed Mark McGwire for sole possession of 10th place on baseball’s all-time home run leaderboard, slugging his 584th career home run in the first inning of Wednesday night’s game against the Blue Jays.

Mike Trout had already slugged a solo home run off of Jays starter Marco Estrada to bring Pujols to the dish. Pujols jumped on an 0-1 cut fastball, sending it out to left-center field, clearing the fence by a few feet.

Pujols, who finished 4-for-4 with the homer and an RBI double, is batting .257/.321/.441 with 24 home runs and 99 RBI on the year. His next target on the home run leaderboard is Frank Robinson at 586.