The Jays on Tuesday promoted righthander Josh Roenicke and veteran minor-league lefthander Rommie Lewis to the major-league roster in a somewhat surprising move. Lewis' unusual first name was explained to reporters when he arrived in the Jays' clubhouse from Vegas. His father, also Rommie, was named after General Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox, a World War II German field marshal respected for his humane ways in leading the war effort on the African front and accused of taking part in the conspiracy to kill Hitler. He was so popular among the German citizens that he was allowed to commit suicide instead of being executed for treason.
Hmm, an interesting exercise would be to see if we could assemble a namesake MLB pitching staff of famous world generals throughout history starting with (Erwin) Rommie Lewis (2010 Jays); Harry (George) Patton (1910 Cards); Jeff (Monty) Montgomery (1987-99); Bill (Robert E.) Lee (1969-82); (Ulysses S.) Grant (Stonewall) Jackson (1965-82); Dan (William Tecumseh) Sherman (1914); Doyle Alexander (the Great) (1971-89); Jay (Colin) Powell (1995-2005); Fabio (Fidel) Castro (2010); Cyrus (the Great) Young (1890-1911).
The major-league news announcement of the week was the Phillies extension of $125 million to first baseman Ryan Howard taking him through 2016 with an option for 2017. Nice to see the Jays help the cash-strapped (??) Phillies out, giving them that extra $6 million in the Halladay deal. Chump change when it will come to the Cards and their need to re-up Albert Pujols after his option year in 2011. Bobby Cox says Pujols is worth $50 million per year. Of course the Braves were in town to play the Cards and Bobby may have been trying to get in his head. The Jays news of the week was the return of a more cautious Aaron Hill to the active roster on Friday. He is being very careful not to aggravate the tender hamstring.
On to the mailbag.
Q: Hi Richard,
First time writer. Just saw the outcome of April 21 afternoon game, and I was astounded that Cito Gaston didn't pinch hit for John McDonald - and he did this twice! The first time, Mac came through with a sacrifice bunt. Ok. But then Cito used his only bench backup for 2B as a pinch runner. It worked to tie the score, but then in the tenth he was hooped and couldn't pinch hit (Randy) Ruiz for Johnny Mac. Can I get you to play after-the-fact manager to re-think how this sequence could and should have gone?
Andy Gryse, Victoria, B.C.
A: I remember exactly the two scenarios that you're talking about. The first one was easy. If Molina was to reach base leading off the eighth, six outs left, one run down, it was an easy call. McCoy would pinch-run and Johnny Mac would stay in to bunt him over. Two chances at an RBI (which is what happened) and they got the run. If Molina had made an out then Ruiz would have hit for McDonald in the right and McCoy could then come in to play second in the ninth. Simple. The second time up in the 10th was murkier. Without Edwin Encarnacion available to play (he was placed on DL the next day) if Gaston had hit for Johnny Mac in the ninth and if the Jays had tied it, Cito would have had to play someone with no second base experience at second. Bautista would have likely moved to second and Ruiz would have had to play third. That lineup shuffling with a chance to embarrass is not Cito's modus operandi. He refuses to embarrass a player. Besides, John McDonald is a major leaguer and is on the team. As such, with eight-plus years, he is not an automatic out. At that point, if you want to win the game you need two runs. Johnny Mac, the hitter, can sneak a grounder or bloop a single in and you get back to the top of the order. That being said, Ruiz has been grossly under-utilized. I asked Ruiz after Tuesday's game when he was not asked to pinch-hit for John Buck in the top of the ninth if he was inclined to talk to Gaston about his role and what it actually entailed. He was realistic about the tenuous nature of his major-league status at age 32. “No. We win as a team. We lose as a team.” The guy loves being a major-leaguer and despite the fact he knew he would have had a better chance of tying the score than Buck, he refused to rock the boat, although with one swing he could have rocked the stadium. If you're asking my opinion, I think the problem lies with the stupid modern MLB concept of needing 12 pitchers which leaves only 13 position players on your roster – nine in the lineup and one a backup catcher. It's nuts. Back in the day, even with an injury you would have been able to throw in a hitter with a chance to win the game and still play defence. Given circumstances, I agree with Cito on both calls, even though you need to tie before you can win. Cito does not embarrass his players.
Q: Hi Richard,
It's good to see that the US media are finally recognizing Doc for his amazing abilities following his early dominance in the NL this year. I was thinking about dominant pitchers and Nolan Ryan by far to me is considered the best. I mean 7 no hitters, strikeout king what more do you want? My question is, will there ever be another Nolan Ryan or is Doc the new measuring stick for today's generation of pitchers?
R.J. Navia, Whitby
A: I detect a certain amount of sarcasm in the first statement re US media and I admire it very much. The US media as far as all things baseball thinks it was the first to split the atom. As far as Nolan Ryan is concerned, don't forget that he was a failure in New York with the Mets in 1968 and was hardly a factor in '69 when they won the World Series. Then the Mets had a brain cramp, giving up on the future Hall-of-Famer and shipping him to the Angels for future Jays manager Jim Fregosi. Yikes!! Looking for a similar situation with which we are all familiar? How about a scatter-armed Expos' lefthander, Randy Johnson to the M's with two other players for Mark Langston. That may be one of the worst trades ever. They did not ask my opinion when I was with the Expos as a P.R. guy at the time. In any case I think there's a huge difference between Doc and Ryan. The former fireballer, who like Halladay had a slow start to his fabulous career, now president of the Rangers, was always blessed with natural ability, skills that needed less refining than the immensely intense Halladay. Doc is the prototype of today's dominant pitcher because today's dominant pitcher understands that he can make ba-jillions of dollars combining a fine-tuned natural ability with a personal fitness regime. It's similar but different.
It's always a treat to read your mailbag on Wednesday. I'm writing this on the heels of Jose Molina throwing out four Rays on Sunday. I haven't seen the numbers, but it seems to me that the opponents have been running aggressively against Buck so far. Is having a catcher who can gun down would-be base-stealers a good thing for our young starting staff, like having a solid infield defence? Could Molina emerge as our #1 catcher this year, or is Buck calling games well enough or otherwise mentoring the pitchers in a way that doesn't show up on the stat sheet? Not that I'm impatient with Buck's slow offensive start or anything.
David Wencer, Toronto
A: In my humble opinion, each of these guys has his own particular issues in terms of being an above average major-league catcher – Buck more than Molina. Molina in the first 21 games showed that his issue is blocking pitches. He's not very good at it because, it seems to me, he is proud of his arm and quick release so he tries to turn his glove over and scoop all balls in the dirt in order that he can gun someone down rather than just be able to block a ball and prevent a base moved up. The Jays pitching staff leads the AL with 14 wild pitches. In answer to whether Molina could emerge as the starter – yes. I have not heard one pitcher credit Buck for the way he has caught a game and led them through the minefield of nine innings like guys did with Rod Barajas. Buck has thrown out one of 15 base stealers in 139 innings with a catcher's ERA of 5.20. Molina has thrown out seven of eight base-stealers in 51 innings with a 3.00 catcher's ERA.
Q: Hi Richard,
I just moved here in the past two years and started going to ball games last summer. While I've known for some time that players commonly spit tobacco while playing, normally I'd assume on an all-grass outdoor surface that the tobacco residue would be absorbed by the actual dirt out there. However on the artificial turf the Jays play on, what happens? Does the grounds crew actually wash the field every few weeks? Or is there a layer of disgusting, festering tobacco slowly accumulating at the players' feet?
Brian C., Toronto
A: The procedure according to the grounds crew is like patrolling your back yard looking for weeds. They periodically tour the field looking for tobacco stains. When they find one they clean it with soap and water. They cannot vacuum the carpet because of the combination of seed and rubber pellets that makes it play similar to real grass. They clean that part with a Swiffer type contraption. The warning track all the way around can be vacuumed. The best (or worst) story of this type was Lenny Dykstra when he was with the Phillies. He constantly had a chaw in his cheek the size of a golfball and stationed in centre field at Veterans Stadium would constantly stream the vile juice onto the carpet. It got to the point where opposing outfielders did not want to stand in the same spots when it was their turn even if it was the right spot. Dive? Forget it. Advantage Phillies.
Q: Hi Richard.
Love your mailbag and look forward to reading it every week. My question is about the new shortstop the Jays signed Adeiny Hechavarria. Recently you said it was likely he would be their starting shortstop to open the 2011 season. Don't you think this is a little aggressive? How can he make the Majors after only 1 season in the Minors? What level of competition do you think he faced in Cuba compared to the Minors?
Howard Adler, Toronto
A: I don't believe I ever said he would “likely” be their opening day shortstop in 2011. I believe the Jays would like him to be there next year but that's a tall order, even for a 21-year-old with advanced skills. They do have an option for 2011 on Alex Gonzalez and that might be the prudent way to go in terms of making sure Hechavarria is ready for the show. Hechavarria was being groomed in Cuba to take over the National Team duties at shortstop but was still at the Junior level when he defected. The Jays and the rest of baseball will find out this summer what that level of training compares to in America.
Q: I enjoy your mailbag, as well as Damien Cox's mailbag on hockey. My question, I understand the rule about umpires calling a balk on a pitcher. What I have always wondered is why the rule was created in the first place. It seems to me, that it would make as much sense for it to be a runner beware and the pitcher allowed the added deception. There are prolonged cat and mouse toss over to first to try to catch the runner leaning. What would it hurt if the pitcher could try to be more deceptive (seems not many pitchers have as good a move as in the past anyways re: Jimmy Key).
Keith Kerfoot, Aberfoyle
A: That logic regarding open season on pickoff moves is like suggesting instead of penalizing hockey players for certain hits just have it anything goes because players don't body-check as well as they used to – let the winger beware. If there was no balk rule it would eliminate the stolen base. Nobody could take a lead or get a good jump because a guy could bob his shoulders, start his delivery, stop, wheel and fire to second. No the balk rule is a necessary one if somewhat abused by certain lefthanders. Watch the runner at first when a lefty reaches the apex of his leg lift and balances, staring straight at the runner. Many players will instinctively jump back towards first base as the pitcher then delivers to the plate. That's what would happen for every pitcher and runner with no balk rule.
How much of the Jays early relative success is due to the lack of pressure imposed on the team this year? We always here about how the Leafs get better when the pressure of the playoffs is off. Are the hitters and pitchers taking the field with a 'nothing to lose' mentality? In your opinion, what is the driving factor of the Jays' 'warm' start?
Scott Rambeau, Windsor
A: There's a lot of truth to that “lack of pressure” leading to improved play scenario. All winter the brass has preached “rebuilding”. Low to no expectations. The manager says after the Jays are leading the division early: “If we keep playing like this we won't finish last.” No pressure there, boys. The first baseman and right fielder stay in the lineup even though you could drive from New Orleans to Los Angeles on the highway described by their batting average (I-10). No pressure there. The rotation ace replacing Roy Halladay has no wins after five starts but is praised by all as having a great April. No pressure there for you 2-5 starters. It's not just the Leafs through the years who have thrived when realistically eliminated. The Jays are guilty of that too, which has always brought them to an encouraging finish that has fooled ownership and the fans into thinking “maybe next year.” The Jays are playing better than expected but need to keep it together for six months, 162 games. It'll be tough.
Q: What an honour to talk to the guru of baseball here in Toronto. This question has been burning a hole in my head for years and only you can extinguish the flames. The other night the Jays had nobody out and runners on first and second. I think the automatic play should be the double steal, the worst that can happen is one out and a runner on either second or third. The likelihood of a double play is remote I think and with some luck you may have runners second and third and nobody out. Maybe I'm missing something but I think that is a play that should be made. What is your opinion, thanks? By the way the Jays scored nothing on that particular night. Aggressive baseball by the Jays may put more butts in the seats, playing the percentages all the time becomes boring.
Brian Runciman, Oakville
A: The situation to which you are referring, Brian, came in the top of the eighth inning on Friday night in Tampa. The Jays were leading 6-4 with lefty Randy Choate on the mound. Freddie Lewis led off with a double and Aaron Hill walked. Runners on first and second, nobody out, with Lind, Wells and Overbay coming up. Now you never want to make the first or last out of an inning at third base, so you wait and give Lind, your top RBI man a chance to hit, even against a lefthander. After that first out the chance for a double-steal is right now, setting up a sac fly and making them bring the infield in, but the problem is that if you are successful, then that leaves first base open with Wells facing a lefty. They would walk your hottest hitter intentionally to get to the lefty Overbay and since Cito never hits for him the advantage goes to the Rays. If they throw Lewis out at third base then it's two out and first base open and they walk Wells again. The Jays had a 2-run lead at the time and a chance for a big inning. I love the stolen base as a former NL guy, but there are better times for it. Thanks, Brian.