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.

Mets Syndergaard ejected after throwing behind Utley

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NEW YORK — In a scene that has seemed inevitable since October, New York Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard has been ejected for throwing a 99 mph fastball behind Chase Utley of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Utley is playing at Citi Field this weekend for the first time since his late takeout slide in last year’s playoffs broke the right leg of then-Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada.

New York was incensed by the aggressive slide, which led to a change in baseball rules on slides at bases this season. But the Mets had not attempted to retaliate until Saturday night.

With one out and nobody on in the third inning of a scoreless game, Syndergaard’s first pitch to Utley sailed behind the second baseman’s back by a considerable margin.

Plate umpire Adam Hamari immediately ejected Syndergaard, prompting irate Mets manager Terry Collins to come storming out of the dugout. Collins also was ejected.

Indians’ Brantley unsure of return from shoulder injury

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CLEVELAND — Indians outfielder Michael Brantley has no timetable for his return from the shoulder injury that has sidelined him for the second time this season.

Brantley spoke to reporters Saturday for the first time since being placed on the 15-day disabled list on May 14. He began the season on the DL following surgery for a torn right labrum in November. Brantley hit .231 with seven RBIs in 11 games before being shut down again.

“I wasn’t bouncing back quick enough to keep playing back-to-back games, which is very important,” he said. “I want to be healthy each and every day and I have to play at a high level. This is the major leagues. You have to be at the best of your ability and the highest health-wise you can be.”

Brantley, who received an anti-inflammatory shot in the shoulder two weeks ago, doesn’t think he returned from the surgery too soon.

“I was ready,” he said. “We talked about it. We had a great process laid out. Everything went smoothly. It was just a bump in the road.”

Brantley has been hitting off a tee but isn’t sure when he will begin taking swings in the batting cage. He is playing catch since he throws left-handed but wants to be cautious about resuming a hitting program.

“Surgery is nothing to play with,” he said. “You have to be smart and understand your body.”

Brantley visited Dr. Craig Morgan, who performed the surgery, in Wilmington, Delaware after he returned to the DL. An MRI showed no changes in the shoulder.

“He said everything checks out good, just make sure to take your time and we’ll see what happens from there,” Brantley said.

Brantley finished third in the AL MVP voting in 2014 when he hit .327 with 20 homers and 97 RBIs. He batted .310 with 15 homers and 84 RBIs last season.

Blue Jays walk off Red Sox, 10-9, as Travis scores Martin

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TORONTO (AP) Devon Travis drove home Russell Martin with two out in the bottom of the ninth as the Toronto Blue Jays rallied to beat the Boston Red Sox 10-9 on Saturday.

With the Blue Jays trailing 9-8 on a David Ortiz home run in the top of the inning, Boston closer Craig Kimbrel retired Edwin Encarnacion and Michael Saunders. But Justin Smoak singled on a line drive to center, and with Ezequiel Carrera pinch running for Smoak, Martin drove in his third run of the day on a double to tie the game.

After Martin advanced to third on a wild pitch, Travis forced third baseman Travis Shaw to stretch to corral a shot, and though he tried to throw Travis out at first, his throw was dropped by Hanley Ramirez and Martin scored.

The walk-off win was Toronto’s second of the season, the first coming against Texas on May 3, and completes the series win over the Red Sox, snapping a two-series home losing skid.

Martin hit his third home run in four games with a solo shot over the right-field wall in the sixth inning, while Xander Bogaerts and Shaw both had home runs for the Red Sox.

Ortiz’s 13th home run of the season and league-leading 46 RBI had seemed to be enough for the Red Sox, who watched an 8-4 lead disintegrate in the eighth inning as the Blue Jays rallied to tie the score.

Reliever Gavin Floyd (2-3), who gave up Ortiz’s shot, got the win, while Kimbrel (0-2), on his 28th birthday, was tagged with the loss.

Bogaerts, who went 3-for-5 with three runs, extended his hitting streak to a career-high 21 games with a homer off the top of the left-center-field wall in the fourth inning. The streak is the second longest in the majors this year, behind teammate Jackie Bradley Jr.’s 29-game run, which ended Thursday.

Ramirez drove in three runs, while Dustin Pedroia had a pair of doubles and two RBIs as he extended his hitting streak against Toronto to 22 games.

Boston starter Rick Porcello gave up four runs on seven hits while striking out five over 6 2/3 innings.

Marcus Stroman tied his shortest outing of the season, also against Boston, surrendering seven runs on 11 hits while striking out five. He was chased in the fifth inning with one out.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Blue Jays: SS Troy Tulowitzki (right quad) was placed on the 15-day DL. Tulowitzki, who is batting just .204 this season with eight home runs and 23 RBIs, had sat out two games this week with the injury. Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney are expected to split time at shortstop until the veteran returns. Toronto activated left-handed reliever Aaron Loup from the 15-day DL to take Tulowitzki’s place. Loup, who has yet to play this season, has been recovering from a forearm strain and just completed a rehab assignment with Triple-A Buffalo.

UP NEXT

Red Sox: LHP David Price (7-1, 5.34) returns to a happy hunting ground Sunday. The former Blue Jay makes his first start of the season at Rogers Centre, where he is 11-1 in 15 career starts with a 3.34 ERA.

Blue Jays: RHP R.A. Dickey (2-6, 4.60) is 0-5 in his last eight starts against the Red Sox. He is looking for his first win against them since going 4-0 in 2014.

Hendricks pitches 5-hitter, Cubs beat Phillies 4-1

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CHICAGO (AP) Kyle Hendricks pitched a five-hitter for his second career complete game, Dexter Fowler hit a leadoff homer and the Chicago Cubs beat the Philadelphia Phillies 4-1 on Saturday.

Hendricks (3-4) struck out seven and walked none. He was in line for his second career shutout before giving up a run in the ninth.

Fowler sparked a two-run first against Jerad Eickhoff (2-7) with his sixth home run.

Jason Heyward had two doubles for Chicago, which has won four in a row. Ben Zobrist had two hits, including an RBI double, to extend his streak to 14 games.

The Phillies lost for the sixth time in eight games.

Philadelphia had just four hits before right fielder Heyward and second baseman Zobrist allowed Freddy Galvis‘ fly to drop between them for a leadoff double in the ninth.

Galvis scored from third when Ryan Howard struck out swinging on a pitch in the dirt. The Cubs had a shift on with the lefty at the plate, allowing the runner to take a huge lead.

Catcher Miguel Montero looked him back, but Galvis took off for home as he threw to first on the strikeout, spoiling the shutout and drawing boos from the crowd. Hendricks then retired Cameron Rupp on a groundout.

Dominant in a rare win over struggling Atlanta in his previous start, Eickhoff came up short against the team with the best record in the majors. The right-hander went six innings, allowing four runs and eight hits while striking out seven and walking one.

The Cubs, tops in the majors in run differential, wasted no time grabbing the lead.

Fowler drove a 3-1 fastball just over the wall in left-center for his second leadoff homer this season and the 16th of his career. Heyward followed with a double and scored on a two-out double by Zobrist, who came in on a 22-for-50 tear.

The Cubs made it 3-0 in the third on back-to-back singles by Addison Russell and Hendricks and a double by Heyward. Hendricks got thrown out trying to score to end the inning, but the way he was pitching, it didn’t matter.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Phillies: Galvis came up limping in the sixth inning after Hendricks hit him in the right leg with a pitch. He walked gingerly to first and stayed in the game after being tended to by a trainer.

UP NEXT

RHP John Lackey (4-2, 3.38 ERA) goes for his first win in more than three weeks for Chicago while RHP Vince Velasquez (5-1, 2.75 ERA) tries to shake off his shortest outing of the season for Philadelphia. Lackey is 0-1 in his past three outings, although he has lowered his ERA from 4.02 to 3.38. Velasquez lasted four innings against Detroit on Monday, allowing three runs and nine hits.