Author: Comcast SportsNet

Stephen Vogt Getty

A’s catcher Stephen Vogt’s story is one of perseverance, survival


OAKLAND -– It’s easy to define Stephen Vogt’s career by the long road he took to get to the majors.

He spent most of six years in the minor leagues, finally getting his first legitimate shot in the bigs with Oakland in 2013 at age 28. His story has been one of perseverance and survival.

Right now, the A’s catcher is gaining attention not for his background but what’s taking place in the present.

Vogt has put together one of the best all-around offensive seasons in the majors so far in 2015. Oakland went out and acquired players such as Billy Butler, Ike Davis and Ben Zobrist over the winter knowing they needed to replenish the heart of their lineup after trading away so many All-Stars.

But the man who has stepped up to grab the reins offensively was on their roster all along.

“You don’t see that much production out of a catcher,” A’s right fielder Josh Reddick said. “You expect catchers to hit .260, .270 and call a really good game, and he’s doing both of those right now. The damage he’s causing at the plate is just what we need in the heart of our lineup.”

Vogt, 30, is actually putting together some of the best across-the-board numbers in all of baseball. He entered Wednesday night leading the American League in RBI with 30. He ranks second in on base-plus-slugging percentage (1.098), is tied for fourth with nine homers and ranks fifth with a .337 batting average.

Vogt also leads all major league catchers in batting average, homers, RBI and OPS.

“I haven’t really though too much about it as to the ‘why’,” Vogt said. “I’ve typically always been a slow starter as far as seasons go. It feels good to be starting off pretty well. I don’t really know why there’s been more power, but I feel good at the plate. And with this lineup we have, I’m going to get pitches to hit.”

So good has he been that the A’s have been forced to re-think their plan to feature a straight platoon at the catcher position. Manager Bob Melvin said Tuesday that Vogt has earned the right to play on a regular basis. Josh Phegley drew the start in Wednesday’s 2-0 loss to Boston against Red Sox lefty Wade Miley, giving Vogt a rest in a day game after a night game.

Phegley has done nothing to lose playing time as much as Vogt has commanded it with his hot bat. It’s quite the scenario considering that the A’s couldn’t have known for sure entering spring training what they would get from Vogt. He was coming off of right foot surgery in October to repair the plantar plate and was limited at catcher during the spring.

To this point, he’s held up well enough physically to start 27 of the A’s 36 games at catcher. And on Tuesday night he showed terrific mobility, springing out from behind the plate to field Pablo Sandoval’s tapper and throw him out at first. An inning later, he made a sliding catch of Blake Swihart’s foul pop near the first base dugout.

“He still gets a little sore when he’s out there several days in a row,” Melvin said. “We have to be careful with him and not over-do it, especially the way he’s performing right now. But I couldn’t be happier with his performance.”

This essentially is Vogt’s first full season in the majors. He played 18 games with Tampa Bay in 2012 and then emerged as an important contributor with the A’s in 2013 after being called up in June. Last season, he didn’t make the club out of spring training but was called up early on before the foot injury relegated him to first base, outfield and DH duties.

This season he’s been indispensable. Vogt filled in well as the No. 3 hitter when Zobrist first went on the disabled list, and now he’s settled in as the No. 5 hitter with the hot-hitting Reddick batting third.

But perhaps Vogt’s toughest job is learning all the new pitchers that joined Oakland’s staff this year, and playing counselor to pitchers -– particularly the relievers –- who have struggled so far in this 13-23 season.

“I think any time you’re trying to get to know a teammate, you have to get to know them on all levels,” Vogt said. “ Some of the guys in spring, you get to know them and they go out and pitch well. But then you need to get to know them when they don’t have their stuff. So there’s that element of getting to know them with the growing pains of a season.”

A scary trip home from the ballpark in Baltimore

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BALTIMORE – I’ve lived in Baltimore for 35 years, and have seen the Orioles win the World Series, the Ravens win the Super Bowl twice. I’ve seen disasters, too, incredible snowstorms, a train accident near Camden Yards that prevented games from being played, but never rioting.

When Oriole Park opened in 1992, I rejoiced. It was about 1 ½ miles from my house. It’s a short drive, perhaps 10 minutes, and usually it’s uneventful.

Monday was anything but uneventful.

I left for the ballpark around 2:45 p.m., and it took 25 minutes to get there. There was tension in the air, and when I went to the Orioles clubhouse, players watched coverage of the riots.

I wanted to believe the game would be played as scheduled, but when word came that most of the gates were closed, I knew that postponement was a possibility.

When the game was scrubbed, I gathered my belongings to head home, knowing I could write at home.

I drove up Paca Street, and though it was still daylight, there were few people and cars. I’ll be home in record time.

When I got to Centre Street, about halfway between my house and the ballpark, dozens of police in riot gear had blocked the street, and I turned right and went up Eutaw Street. There I saw some smashed windows on businesses, and as I drove closer to my house, my heart raced.

It seemed quiet there, but a few blocks from my house, I heard a radio report that a Rite-Aid had been looted. Just then, I saw a car stopped in front of me, and two kids carrying boxes were talking with the driver.

I sped around the car, found a parking space near my house, and watched as the kids carrying those boxes walked down my street.

From 1980-87, I lived in front of that Rite-Aid, five blocks away. Then, I learned that the neighboring discount food store and the hardware store had been looted, too.

I know the people who work in that hardware store. It’s been there ever since I’ve been here.

Looting five blocks from home.

I watched coverage of the riots until it was time for bed. I’ve always been a good sleeper and somehow I slept until my wife woke me up just after seven.

Sleep is a great escape. So is baseball.

I love covering baseball games, and covering my adopted hometown team has been a wonderful experience. The only dangers there are foul balls coming into the press box.

I’d like to experience those dangers again soon. The others I hope to never see again.

If the Phillies’ losing continues, Jonathan Papelbon will be disappointed if he’s not traded

Jonathan Papelbon

There’s no denying Jonathan Papelbon is a fierce competitor.

The five-time All-Star signed a $50 million contract with the Phillies back in 2011 because he felt he had a good chance to win baseball games and compete for a World Series.

But if you have listened closely to the Phillies’ outspoken closer, who is four saves away from breaking the club’s all-time record in that category, it’s clear he’s doesn’t think that’s possible with their current lineup.

In fact, Papelbon wants out. He thinks he can help a contending team win a championship, and said he will be disappointed if the Phillies are unable to move him this season.

“Yeah, I will be,” Papelbon said in an interview with Phillies Insider Jim Salisbury. “If we continue to lose.

“If we can rebuild this situation and make it right, and we can get some wins underneath our belt and Ryne Sandberg can get us going, that’s a whole different story. To me, that’s a better part of the story because now I’ve been a part of this remodeling. I’ve been a part of getting this bullpen correct. I’ve been a part of something that’s becoming a winning tradition and going back to the way it was before I got here. To me, there’s no better reward than that.”

Papelbon has never been afraid to speak his mind. He doesn’t care what fans think about him, either. Right now, his only concern is closing out games.

The 34-year-old, however, raised eyebrows earlier this month when he said he doesn’t “feel much like a Phillie” and pined for his old club, the Boston Red Sox.

“I’m not here to be disrespectful,” Papelbon said. “I’m not gonna sit here and give you the old cliche ‘we’re gonna try to do good, hopefully everything turns out good.’ That’s just not me, that’s not how I pitch, that’s not who I am. What I meant is, when my career is all said and done, like we were talking about earlier, I’m gonna look back and feel like I was part of a Red Sox franchise more than I was with the Phillies. Just like Jayson Werth would probably say he’s more of a Phillie than a National.”

Still, Papelbon has no regrets about his decision to come to Philadelphia.

“No, no regrets,” he said. “I signed here. These guys gave me the largest contract in baseball history for a closer. Yeah, it’s frustrating when you come here and you expect certain things, and my competitiveness is such a high level, when that doesn’t happen and you put so much into it and you don’t get what you necessarily want out of it, yeah I say that’s frustrating. That’s frustrating for anyone. I think I just tend to be more vocal about it and that’s it.”

Papelbon also made it clear he’s not interested in playing another season clouded by trade rumors. If it’s possible, he wants to get a deal done.

“I will be disappointed if this continues to happen,” he said.

What’s this?

“If we continue to do the same things as we’ve done the last couple years with me, where we try to do something and get something done with me and then nothing still happens.”

Papelbon is off to a strong start to the 2015 season. In six appearances, he’s allowed just one hit, no walks and has struck out six batters. He’s also converted all three of his save attempts.

So, if given the opportunity, could Papelbon capture a second World Series title before his career comes to a close?

“Yeah, 100 percent,” he said. “That’s what I come to work for every single day.”

Phillies follow Jonathan Papelbon’s team meeting with another loss

Jonathan Papelbon

NEW YORK — About two hours before the Phillies took the field and were beaten by the New York Mets on Wednesday night, Jonathan Papelbon quietly asked a couple of reporters to leave the clubhouse because he wanted to say something to his teammates.

The players’ only meeting lasted just a few minutes. When it was over, Papelbon was vague about his reason for getting his teammates together.

“It was a team meeting about baseball, about playing the game,” he said, straight-faced. “It wasn’t a big deal.”

Papelbon then joked that the meeting was about setting up a Kangaroo Court, though that didn’t seem to hold water because meetings like that aren’t usually thrown together in the moments before a team goes out to stretch.

To know Papelbon is to know he does not like to lose and he especially does not like to be pushed around. Ric Flair would not approve. It’s very possible that Papelbon addressed his dislike for such in the meeting. After all, the Phillies were pushed around by the Mets on Tuesday night. It said it right there in a headline in the New York Daily News: Harvey’s Ut-check: Plunking Sends Message Mets No Longer Pushovers. The accompanying story praised the Mets for their recent dominance of the Phillies and swaggering pitcher Matt Harvey for making a statement by sticking a fastball between the 2 and 6 on iconic Phillie Chase Utley’s back.

If Papelbon’s team meeting was meant to rally the troops before the finale of the three-game series, well, it didn’t work.

The Phillies lost, 6-1, to their tormenters from Queens (see Instant Replay). The Mets swept the three-game series. They have beaten the Phillies in 15 of the last 19 meetings, dating to last season.

That’s some serious pushing around.

“Personally, I see it,” said Cody Asche, responding to a question about the Mets’ recent dominance of the Phillies. “I see the discrepancy in the win-loss record.

“Do I have an explanation? No. Do I wish it was different? Yeah. If we are going to make moves, we have to take care of the teams in our division, so we definitely have to play better against the Mets.”

The Phillies did a lot of things poorly in this series. Their defense was sloppy at times. They couldn’t bunt. Manager Ryne Sandberg made some questionable moves. The starting pitching was tagged for 19 hits and 10 runs over 10 2/3 innings in the final two games.

Most haunting was the atrocious work of the hitters with men in scoring position. The Phils went 3 for 27 with runners in scoring position in the series. They are 11 for 69 (.159) in those situations for the season.

Sandberg always talks about the importance of having base runners. The Phillies had plenty of them on Wednesday night. In fact, they had runners in scoring position in seven of nine innings, yet scored just one run and left 11 men on base because they were an unsightly 2 for 16 with runners in scoring position.

“That’s the first thing you ask for, base runners and opportunities,” Sandberg said. “We had 11 men left on base. We couldn’t come up with a drive to put up a crooked number. We had the opportunities and could not do it, just the one run in the first.”

That run came after a triple by Odubel Herrera, who batted leadoff and had three extra-base hits. Asche also had three hits and is now 12 for 24 on the season. This is a “developmental” season to use general manager Ruben Amaro Jr.’s word, so the performance of young players Herrera and Asche was promising.

But guys like Papelbon are itchy to win. The Phillies have lost four in a row and The Horse has been relegated to being a bullpen spectator.

Jerome Williams started for the Phillies and allowed 10 hits, including two homers, in five innings. Meanwhile, Jon Niese, bobbed and weaved his way through 6 1/3 innings. He allowed nine hits, but just one run.

The Mets have serious talent in their rotation. Before Niese, the Phillies were beaten by Harvey and Jacob deGrom in the series. Both those guys have Cy Young potential.

Now it’s on to Washington and four more top pitchers — Doug Fister, Max Scherzer, Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg.

“That’s a challenge for us, so obviously we have to do things better on the offensive side of things,” Sandberg said.

“Don’t press, keep grinding and have good at-bats,” Asche said. “The law of averages has to take over sometime. The hits are going to come.”

They came Wednesday night, but the runs didn’t follow and the Phillies, much to Jonathan Papelbon’s chagrin, were tormented by the Mets once again.

Starlin Castro? Addison Russell? Cubs see wide-open possibilities

starlin castro cubs getty

It didn’t take long for the Starlin Castro rumors to start up again – if that trade speculation ever even stopped.

For all the growing hype and win-now expectations, the Cubs are still very much in a wait-and-see mode. That makes 2015 a pivot point for The Plan, an All-Star shortstop and arguably baseball’s best farm system.

“No agenda going into this year,” Theo Epstein said.

The Cubs confirmed the sad beginning to Triple-A Iowa’s season: Javier Baez is taking a leave of absence to be with his family after his sister, Noely, died on Wednesday night at the age of 21.

Epstein is a believer in Baez’ talent and toughness, so the president of baseball operations will let this all play out, knowing that the 2015 group shouldn’t be the best team during this competitive window.

[MORE CUBS: Why Cubs are starting C.J. Edwards in Tennessee bullpen]

Even if you’re in love with Addison Russell – and you think you know the answer to the Castro question – it still leads to all sorts of follow-ups.

When will things click for Baez at the plate? Where will Kris Bryant play defensively? How does Arismendy Alcantara fit into the picture? Where is this payroll going? When will the business side deliver the TV megadeal? What, exactly, are the San Diego Padres, New York Mets and Seattle Mariners (or insert any other rumored team here) thinking?

“They can play together,” Epstein said. “Is it likely that they all play together and we bring in no one from outside the organization? No. The most likely outcome is that we keep a lot of these guys and we sign a free agent or so over the years and we make a couple trades, too. Big trades. That’s most likely.

“But my point is, when I say they can all play together, that’s a direct answer to the question: ‘What are you going to do with all these shortstops?’ Well, your three shortstops can play second, short and third. And Bryant can play third or either corner. I think (Kyle) Schwarber can catch and Alcantara can play second or he can play center. And (Albert) Almora can play center when he’s ready.

“They have a lot of versatility and there’s a way that they all fit together. It’s not like we’re sitting there with five first basemen wondering what the hell we’re going to do with them.”

[MORE CUBS: Cubs being cautious with pitching prospect Pierce Johnson]

The Cubs haven’t been inclined to pay the price in terms of prospects and salary for someone like, say, Cole Hamels. The Philadelphia Phillies aren’t particularly high on Baez, either. The Cubs could simply wait for what’s shaping up to be a banner class of free-agent pitchers – Jordan Zimmermann, David Price, Jeff Samardzija – next winter.

Russell made a great impression in spring training with his smooth defense at shortstop and serious attitude inside the clubhouse, showing maturity for a 21-year-old who’s played three games about the Double-A level.

Baseball America’s No. 3 overall prospect lived up to the hype, but Russell’s most impressive move might have been silencing Joe Maddon. At least that’s how the manager with no mute button remembered their meeting the morning the Cubs sent Bryant, Baez and Russell to minor-league camp.

“Addison Russell, how bout this kid?” Maddon said. “Nobody’s talking about him. (But) I couldn’t tell him what to work on. I’m not (kidding). He’s that accomplished at that age.

“(Addison’s) sitting in there talking and I had nothing. I was lost. Just keep doing what you’re doing, basically.”

[MORE CUBS: A viewer’s guide to new Cubs manager]

While Bryant Watch became the national story, Russell is the other Scott Boras client who could eventually impact the 2015 Cubs.

“Absolutely, he would be able to help us this year,” Maddon said. “I totally believe that.”

Russell had been a late bloomer coming out of Pace High School in Florida, needing time to change his diet and reshape his body, really putting himself on the map later in the scouting process.

Russell fell to the Oakland A’s with the No. 11 pick in the 2012 draft, or five spots after the Cubs grabbed Almora, the first player selected by the Epstein administration.

The A’s hoped Russell would be able to give their major-league lineup a jolt at some point last season – until he tore a hamstring and got healthy enough to become a headliner in the Jeff Samardzija Fourth of July blockbuster trade.

“The biggest thing with him would be just to understand his body,” Maddon said. “A lot of the young players, to me, don’t really understand nutrition and things of that nature. I really try to emphasize (that) because you want to keep your body well and full of energy to play through September and October.”

Castro hasn’t played any meaningful games past, uh, the IRS filing deadline, maybe Memorial Day?

It’s not Castro’s fault the Cubs have finished in fifth place for five years in a row, but he sure takes a lot of heat for a three-time All-Star who just turned 25.

Before you ship Castro out of town, let’s see what he can do on a good team, how focused he will be in a pennant race, where his game can go with an established leader and a cohesive clubhouse.

Remember, Maddon is Castro’s fifth manager in six seasons and the shortstop remains under club control through 2020, so there’s no reason to rush into a deal.

Castro already knows this is a big year for him personally.

[MORE CUBS: Cubs should feel urgency to win now at Wrigley]

“Oh yeah,” Castro said. “I feel really good. I’m starting to feel great, offensively and defensively. I think we got a nice group. We can be together and we can do something.”

Castro made it happen during the seventh inning of Wednesday’s 2-0 win over the St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field. He drove in Anthony Rizzo with a line-drive single to left field for the season’s first run, hustled to second base on the throw and then scored on Miguel Montero’s sacrifice fly.

Castro also struck out during a first-and-third, one-out situation in the fourth inning, and committed an error in the eighth. But the Cubs are in a place now where they can pick each other up and everything doesn’t have to revolve around Starlin all the time.

“We’re going to have a pretty fun year,” Castro said. “We can put something together and get a lot of wins.”