The reigning champions have fallen way behind in the NL East, but see the parallels to their comeback season last year.
The arrival of robot umpires takes one giant step closer
After MLB umpires continue to be the center of controversy, Kevin Millar shares his thoughts on if robots should start calling balls and strikes.
Sports Seriously, USA TODAY
PHOENIX — Atlanta manager Brian Snitker laid down in his hotel bed, shut his eyes, but his mind kept racing.
He tossed. He turned. He finally gave up.
Atlanta just lost another game, gave it away really, with a myriad of sloppy baserunning, terrible fielding, lousy relief pitching.
These guys may be the defending World Series champions, and proved a year ago how to recover, and thrive from a dreadful start, but this was too much to take.
“I couldn’t sleep anyways, so I got up,’’ Snitker told USA TODAY Sports, “and started writing down notes. I knew we had to address things before it was too late. I don’t like having a lot of meetings, but I needed to say something.’’
Snitker gathered his team in the visiting clubhouse at Chase Field, told them they were embarrassing themselves with their sloppy play. No more stupid baserunning. No more excuses for lack of hustle. And it was time to take pride in their defense, particularly in the outfield on the days Ronald Acuña Jr. isn’t in the field.
“It was a great call by Snit,’’ Atlanta starter Kyle Wright said, “to get us together. We all know what we have to do, but sometimes you have to bring the whole team together and kind of clear the vision, and re-focus on the goal and task at hand. It was needed.
“‘We’re definitely a confident team, we know we’re good enough and talented enough to find a way out of this, but at the same time, there’s a sense of urgency.’’
The calendar shows it’s still early, but then again, with a 26-27 record through Friday, and the last team in baseball to win three consecutive games with their Friday victory over the Colorado Rockies, it’s getting late in a hurry.
This is a team, of course, that pulled off the unimaginable last season. They were losing a year ago (25-28) at this time too. They didn’t even have a winning record until Aug. 6. They didn’t climb into first place until Aug. 15.
“There were three weeks before the season was over,’’ Atlanta third baseman Austin Riley said, “and we didn’t even know if we were going to make the playoffs. Then, we just kept on winning right through October.’’
So really, nothing has changed.
Slow start. Talented team. Only now they have the confidence, along with the history, they can pull off a dramatic comeback.
“It’s the same exact feeling of a year ago,’’ Snitker said in the quiet of his office. “There’s only one difference. Last year, there was no one in the division that wanted to run away with it.
“This year, there is.’’
Ah, yes, there are those New York Mets.
They were in first place right up until early August last year, but this is a different Mets team. This time, they are for real. They had a 35-19 record through Friday, second-best to only the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League, and had a whopping 10 ½-game lead in the NL East on June 1.
“We can’t rely on the Mets doing the same thing as last year,’’ Atlanta closer Kenley Jansen said, “or this team doing the same thing, either.
“There’s a lot of confidence in here, but you can’t play it cool. Last year is last year. We’ve got to have some urgency. That’s what we always had with the Dodgers, no matter how big our lead was in the division.
“We have everything in here, but we got to play to the level we should, and remind people that this is still our title.’’
Simply, just because the circumstances are eerily similar to a year ago, with Atlanta just plodding along until catching fire, doesn’t mean that history will repeat itself.
“We have more confidence because we’ve been in this position before,’’ said veteran reliever A.J. Minter, “but last year is last year. We’re not guaranteed of making a comeback like we did. We need to get the ball rolling here.’’
If not, with the way the Mets are playing, it will be too late.
“We know that we can still accomplish what we want because of the reality that we did it last year,’’ said veteran starter Charlie Morton, 3-3, 5.47 ERA, “but it’s not like, ‘OK, we got ‘em right where we want ‘em.’ I don’t think there’s anyone in here thinking this is an ideal situation.’’
No, the Mets have certainly flipped the script.
“How can you not notice what the Mets are doing?’’ Minter says. “We all see it. They’re trying to run away with this thing. We can’t control what they’re doing, but we can be in control of ourselves. We can’t be trying to catch them in a few weeks, it’s going to take the rest of the season.’’
Said Morton: “Max Scherzer is out. [Jacob] deGrom is out. And they’re still winning games. That’s impressive.’’
Atlanta, winners of four consecutive division titles, doesn’t even want to entertain the thought of settling for a wild-card berth, but the reality is there is an extra playoff spot this year. The new format will also take the randomness out of a sudden-death wild-card game with a best-of-three series.
There will at least be some wiggle room, if necessary, for GM Alex Anthopoulos to work his magic again at the trade deadline, but for now, he’s scrambling to make sure Atlanta at least stays in the Mets’ rear-view mirror.
The fifth-starter spot has been a broken-down merry-go-around all season. They moved rookie Spencer Strider, a strict vegan who was averaging 13.7 strikeouts per nine innings as a reliever, into the starting rotation last week and plan to keep him there.
The outfield defense has been nothing short of atrocious, with Acuña returning the first week of May from his major knee surgery, but unable to play every day. They give him a day off after every travel day, and make sure he’s used as a DH several times a week. This has forced Marcell Ozuna to play left field where opposing teams turn singles into doubles on balls hit to the outfield, with routine fly balls turned into hits.
They’ve attempted to shore up that defensive nightmare by calling up 21-year-old Michael Harris II, who had never played above Class AA until this past week. Atlanta wasn’t sure if he was close to being ready offensively, but defensively, he’s resurrecting memories of 10-time Gold Glove winner Andruw Jones.
Yes, just another great alumni who Harris grew up idolizing in Atlanta, with posters of Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman still on his bedroom wall.
“It’s an unreal feeling being here,’’ says Harris, the youngest Georgia-born player to make his debut since the franchise moved to Atlanta in 1966. “You can dream of it, but the dream you have probably won’t match up to it. I remember the day I got my name called by the Braves in the draft, I was just stunned. I have the same reaction now being called up.
If Harris continues to be a threat offensively and play great defense, Strider turns out to be an elite starter, Morton can find his curveball, setup man Will Smith can locate his fastball, reliever Tyler Matzek can get healthy, Acuña can again play like an MVP candidate, outfielder Adam Duvall can show that last year wasn’t a fluke, Ozuna can hit like it’s 2020, first baseman Matt Olson performs like Freddie Freeman, they can hit with runners in scoring position (.243, .695 OPS), and they stop striking out more than any team in baseball (512) – maybe Anthopoulos doesn’t have to be perfect in his trades again.
Maybe, whether they get into the playoff tournament by winning the division or grabbing a wild-card berth, they can have a realistic shot of being the first National League team to win back-to-back World Series titles since the Cincinnati Reds in 1975-76.
“Our record speaks for itself,’’ said Anthopoulos, who made a rare trip to join the team, “but we’re way more talented than we’ve shown. When you think about it, the only real smooth year we’ve had during this run without major issues was in 2018, so I do think it helps that guys ultimately know we can do it.
“We’re going to get guys back. Guys who had slow starts will get better. We’ll have Acuña playing every day. And although our goal is to still win the division, the big thing is just getting into the postseason, and anything can happen.
“It’s really very similar to last year.’’
And they have a World Series banner proudly flying at Truist Park to show what can happen.
“We’re more confident than a year ago because we did it,’’ starter Ian Anderson said. “We know that stage of the season is in front of us. And when that point hits, we’re going to run with it.’’
They may be battered. They may be bruised. But they’re still standing, refusing to simply stand by and let the Mets run away with it.
“This game will knock you down, and knock you down some more,’’ Riley says, “but we’ve taken punches before and haven gotten up. We know we can do it.
“Now, it’s time we do it.’’
Tom Candiotti surgery?
The year was 1981, and Milwaukee Brewers starter Tom Candiotti needed help.
Well, he needed a new elbow ligament.
He knew all about the success of Tommy John, who underwent the first elbow ligament replacement surgery for a major league pitcher in 1974.
Candiotti went Dr. Frank Jobe’s office in Los Angeles, underwent a thorough exam, and Jobe had one question for him:
“Are you a prospect?”
Candiotti, undrafted out of St. Mary’s College of California in 1979, explained that he was recently added to the Brewers’ 40-man roster, so yeah, technically, he was a prospect.
“He said, ‘OK, but if not, I’d suggest you do something else,'” Candiotti said. “I’ve done eight of these, and only one guy has ever come back. And that’s Tommy John.’
“If I wasn’t, he would have told me to find another career.’’
Jobe indeed had operated on seven other pitchers after John, but no pitcher ever threw a pitch in the big leagues after undergoing the experimental surgery.
This time with Candiotti, after rehabbing with hand grips, flattened tennis balls, rubber bands and using an archaic arm machine, it finally worked.
The rest is history.
“I used to tell Dr. Jobe, we were so close to calling it the ‘Tom Candiotti surgery,’ Candiotti, 64, said. “I would have been famous.’’
Instead, it was Candiotti’s success, winning 151 games with 68 complete games while pitching to the age of 42, that led to Tommy John surgery becoming a permanent fixture in the game.
Candiotti, who underwent the surgery on Oct. 13, 1981, won the third-most games by any pitcher after undergoing the procedure behind only David Wells (239) and Tommy John himself (164 of his 288 total victories).
There have been more than 2,100 pitchers and players who have undergone Tommy John surgery since Candiotti. John Smoltz became the first pitcher to undergo the surgery and reach the Hall of Fame. Jacob deGrom became the first Cy Young winner who underwent Tommy John surgery. World Series champions Adam Wainwright and Stephen Strasburg were Tommy John patients. Wells threw a perfect game.
Barely a week goes by without someone undergoing Tommy John surgery, with veteran relievers Chad Green of the New York Yankees and Justin Wilson of the Cincinnati Reds the latest on Friday.
“I feel like I’m one of the founding fathers,’’ says Candiotti, now a broadcaster with the Arizona Diamondbacks, who still has a scar on his right arm where the ulnar nerve ligament was used for his procedure. “Every time I see one of these guys, I say, ‘Oh, that’s cool.’ I almost feel part of them.
“Anybody can have the surgery, but to get back to that place where you’re going to throw on a major league level, that’s a whole different deal. When I see a guy like [Dodgers reliever] Daniel Hudson come back from not just one, but two Tommy John surgeries, it just gives me chills. Every time I see him, I root for him.’’
Modern science, medicine and rehab has dramatically changed over the years. In 1983, Candiotti’s first year after Tommy John surgery, he went out and tossed 179 ⅔ innings and reached the majors, and then pitched winter ball, going 8-0 for Mayaguez in Puerto Rico.
“Can you imagine them doing something like that now?’’ Candiotti said, laughing. “My God.’’
Candiotti became a knuckleballer in 1988 and pitched at least 200 innings in eight consecutive seasons for Cleveland and the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The most memorable game he ever pitched was his second career big-league start. He was facing the Angels.
The opposing pitcher that night? Tommy John.
Candiotti threw an eight-hit shutout, while John surrendered seven runs in the Brewers’ 7-0 victory at County Stadium in Milwaukee.
The next day, one of the young clubhouse attendants ran up to him with a message: Tommy John wanted to meet him.
“Tommy John, he was like the nicest guy in the world,’’ Candiotti said. “He said, ‘Nice game, but you’ve got a long way to go. I talked to Frank about you, you’re not out of the woods yet.’
“He’s telling me things I needed to do, things that no other doctors knew. Team doctors didn’t have any idea. He told me the exercises I needed to keep doing.
“He spent like an hour and a half with me, making sure he answered every question I had, the whole thing.’’
Candiotti paused, momentarily looked away, and said, “That was the first time I ever talked to him. And the last time I ever talked to him. I never even saw him again after that.’’
Now, nearly 40 years later, Candiotti is left with another question:
“How is [Dr. Jobe] not in the Hall of Fame?’’ Candiotti said of the surgeon. “You kidding me? We wouldn’t even have a pitching staff today without Dr. Jobe.’’
Around the basepaths
– The Arizona Diamondbacks have engaged in internal discussions on whether to give manager Torey Lovullo a contract extension with their surprising start, hovering around .500 after losing 110 games last season.
While some front office officials have urged ownership to give him an extension, they have decided for now to wait, wanting to make sure he’s still the right man to lead them back into a postseason contender.
– Lovullo is not the only manager whose team is in the wait-and-see mode.
Los Angeles Angels manager Joe Maddon is seeking an extension, with a $4 million option or $1 million buyout in 2023. It automatically vests with a World Series berth. Yet, if the Angels, losers of nine consecutive games entering Saturday, miss the playoffs, Maddon is expected to be fired.
– Perhaps the most intriguing manager who may have to secure a playoff berth to retain his job is Hall of Famer Tony La Russa of the Chicago White Sox. He’s in the second year of a three-year contract, and the personal choice of chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, but if they miss the playoffs after being heavily favored to win the AL Central, there will be plenty of pressure to replace him.
The first-place Houston Astros also likely will have to capture another playoff berth for ownership to extend Dusty Baker, but it’s also quite possible that Baker steps away into a front-office or advisory position.
– Other managers on the hot seat whose teams must show improvement include:
Dave Martinez of the Washington Nationals, who has a $3.5 million option in 2023 that must be picked up by July 1, or become a lame duck.
Don Mattingly of the Miami Marlins.
Chris Woodward of the Texas Rangers.
– The Chicago Cubs, in the middle of their rebuild, are poised to be major players in the free-agent market this winter.
They have their eyes on shortstop Trea Turner, Carlos Correa and Xander Bogaerts.
“I guarantee you they’re going to get one of them,’’ one veteran GM told USA TODAY Sports.
– The Philadelphia Phillies, who have never been shy about adding offense, are expected to be in the market for one of the marquee free-agent shortstops, several executives predict.
– Easily, the greatest starter on the trade market, executives say, is Luis Castillo of the Cincinnati Reds. Castillo, 29, is earning just $7.35 million, and isn’t a free agent until after the 2023 season.
He showcased his talent this week with a 10-strikeout, seven-inning shutout performance at Fenway Park, hitting 99-mph on the radar gun in the Reds’ first victory in Boston since the 1975 World Series.
The Reds know they can wait until this winter, or even next summer to trade him, but plan to listen to all offers now.
– Pitchers are disgusted with the official scoring this year, and who could blame them? Everything is ruled a hit these days. Everything. If Ozzie Smith was still playing, he may have played his entire career without an error.
“My conspiracy theory is that they want batting averages to be up, so anything even remotely close is ruled a hit,’’ one Cy Young candidate told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s a complete joke.’’
– Josh Hader of the Milwaukee Brewers just may be the most dominant closer we’ve seen since the days of Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman, but no one seems to notice.
The dude has not given up a run since July 28, 2021, spanning 39 games and 37 innings, and successfully saved18 consecutive games to open the season. He is eight innings shy of ranking in the top 10 of the longest shutout streaks in baseball history, and 22 innings of Orel Hershiser’s all-time record.
“He’s my guy, I love what he’s doing,’’ Atlanta closer Kenley Jansen said. “It’s just incredible what he’s doing. He’s on fire man.
“To think he’s getting close to Hershiser’s record, that’s just crazy. I’m rooting for him. I want to see some crazy stuff happen here.’’
– It may not quite be the Lou Brock-Ernie Broglio trade, but man, it’s getting close with the St. Louis Cardinals’ heist of Paul Goldschmidt.
It’s the worst and most lopsided trade in D-backs’ history.
Goldschmidt is hitting his way into Cooperstown with his 25-game hitting streak and current slash line of .349/.427/.630. In his current 39-game streak of reaching base since April 22, he’s hitting .404 with a .471 on-base percentage and .758 slugging percentage.
He’s on pace this season to hit 56 doubles, 37 homers, drive in 146 runs, score 112 runs, and produce 209 hits.
Meanwhile, the D-backs return of catcher Carson Kelly, pitcher Luke Weaver and infielder Andrew Young has been a bust.
Kelly has hit .230 in 268 games with the D-backs since the trade, playing in just 20 games this season.
Weaver has gone 8-18 with a 4.48 ERA, and has pitched just once this season.
Young was released two years ago.
– If third baseman Jose Ramirez played in New York or Los Angeles, he’d be a household name.
Instead, he’ll go down as one of the greatest players in Cleveland history, a perennial MVP candidate (five top-6 finishes) who once again has been nothing short of sensational.
He leads the American League with 52 RBI, triples (four) and ranks second in slugging (.632), OPS (1.025), extra-base hits (28) and is third in homers (13). He’s on pace for 183 RBI, just behind Hack Wilson’s all-time record of 191 RBI in 1930.
“Honestly, it’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen,’’ Cleveland starter Zach Plesac told reporters this week. “He’s the best player in the game, hands down. I don’t care who wants to challenge him.’’
Said catcher Austin Hedges: “He’s the best player in the world. He’s unbelievable. I feel I should have to pay for my seat in the dugout just to watch him play every day.’’
Ramirez, by the way, has struck out only 7.5% of the time, the lowest strikeout rate in the major leagues.
“You can’t be this good the way he does it without being ultra-intelligent about what they’re trying to do to you,” Guardians manager Terry Francona says. “He’s obviously extremely talented. But he is every bit as smart about the game as he is talented.”
– Scouts can’t stop raving about Dodgers Class A catcher Diego Cartaya, insisting he will be a perennial All-Star with a Hall of Fame future.
“I’ll tell you right now,’’ one veteran scout said, “he’s the best catching prospect I’ve seen in my life. He could be in the big leagues right now. He’s unreal.’’
– Congratulations to Ed Lynch, the former Cubs GM and Mets pitcher, was inducted into South Carolina’s Athletic Hall of Fame along with the likes of Hall of Fame pitcher Gaylord Perry and 15-year veteran first baseman Dan Driessen.
“This is a huge honor for me,’’ Lynch said, “but by biggest honor and the thing I’m most proud of is when I hired Don Baylor as manager of the Chicago Cubs, an institution that was 130 years old and had never had an African-American manager. To paraphrase, the greatest American who ever lived.
“When I looked at Don, I didn’t look at the color of his skin. I looked at the context of his skin. I looked at the context of his character and how much he was respected in the game. I am so proud of what I did.
“Don is gone now, but his memory will always last with me.’’
– Condolences to four-time 20-game winner Dave Stewart and his family. Stewart’s father, LeRoi Chapelle, died this past week in Phoenix at the age of 103.
– Don’t look now, but Aaron Judge of the Yankees and Mookie Betts of the Dodgers are on pace to produce at least 50 homers and 200 hits this season.
Only four players in baseball history have accomplished the feat:
Babe Ruth, Hack Wilson, Jimmie Foxx and Alex Rodriguez.
– The Cubs made the decision last summer to unload the core of their team by trading Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Javy Baez).
Well, only Rizzo continues to thrive away from Chicago with his two-year, $32 million deal. He has 12 homers with 34 RBI in the middle of the vaunted Yankees lineup.
Baez, who signed a six-year, $140 million contract with the Tigers, is hitting .194 with three homers, 13 RBI and a .532 OPS.
Bryant, who signed a seven-year, $182 million deal with the Rockies, has played in just 17 games because of back problems and has yet to hit a homer.
– The Dodgers have made precious few mistakes in the Andrew Friedman regime, but trading away Yordan Alvarez to the Houston Astros in 2016 for reliever Josh Fields was a colossal blunder.
Alvarez, the 2019 AL rookie of the year, is a bona fide star, hitting .281 with 15 homers and 33 RBI. Now, he’ll be paid accordingly with a six-year, $115 million contract extension that’ll be officially announced Monday.
– Former All-Star outfielder Adam Jones, who enjoyed playing two years in Japan so much, that he now plans to spend the next year with his family on a European tour, living mostly in Paris and Barcelona.
– There have been some strange call-ups in major league history, but the scene of the Tigers’ call-up of infielder Kody Clemens, son of seven-time Cy Young winner Roger Clemens, was an all-timer.
Clemens was driving his own car and following the team bus when Class AAA Toledo manager Lloyd McClendon told him to turn around, pull off Exit 179, and meet him in the parking lot of Home Depot in Bowling Green, Ohio.
McClendon delivered the news he was going to the big leagues, and would be wearing No. 21, the same number his dad wore with the Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays.
– Cleveland Guardians ace Shane Bieber may be the greatest pitcher on the road since, well, ever.
Bieber now has made 34 consecutive road starts without permitting more than three earned runs, the longest in baseball history, six more than Hall of Famer Tom Seaver.
Bieber is 18-8 with a 2.27 ERA during the stretch with 295 strikeouts and 48 walks.
– The Yankees must figure out what to do with outfielder Joey Gallo, who continues to be a bust in New York. He’s hitting .177 with five homers and seven RBI this season, with 56 strikeouts in 130 at-bats, and has just one RBI with runners in scoring position.
– Those who play first base for the Kansas City Royals have been trapped by baseball’s Bermuda Triangle, and lost forever. Their first baseman have produced a negative 4.9 WAR since 2018 according to FanGraphs, easily the worst in baseball.
The latest to become entrapped is Carlos Santana, who’s earning $10.5 million this season. Santana is hitting just .161 with two homers, 10 RBI and an ugly .543 OPS.
The Royals, who have first base prospect Vinnie Pasquantino waiting, may have no choice but to release Santana.
– Baseball lifer Mark Weidemaier, who resigned earlier this year as manager of the Tecolotes Dos Laredos, was hired Saturday to be the pitching coach of the Long Island Ducks.
Weidemaier, 67, has worked everywhere from Major League Baseball (Angels, Yankees, Cleveland, White Sox, Dodgers, Reds, Nationals) to Korea (Samsung and Kia) to Mexico (Rojos del Aguila de Verarcruz and Tecolotes Dos Laredos) to now the Ducks.
“They will not keep me out,’’ he says. “I will keep going either here in Indy Ball, Mexico or Asia.’’
– Who would have imagined that the Yankees would have the best rotation in baseball this year (2.60 ERA) behind only the Dodgers (2.50 ERA)?
– The new left-field wall at Camden Yards have robbed hitters of 22 home runs (10 by the Orioles and 12 by the visitors) according to tracking by the Baltimore Sun.
– Jackie Bradley Jr. has been just fine this year in his return to Fenway Park, but on the road, his offensive woes continue.
He has a slash line of .308/.349/.513 at home this year.
On the road? .139/.215/181.
– Two of the top slugging catchers this year happen to be brothers:
All-Star Willson Contreras of the Cubs has eight homers.
Little brother William Contreras of Atlanta has seven home runs.
– You have to wonder if this is the end of Robinson Cano’s career after being released by the Padres this week. Cano hit just .091 without an extra-base hit in his 10 games with the Padres, after batting just .195 with the Mets this season.
If it’s over, he’ll finish his career with eight All-Star appearances and a .301 batting average with 335 home runs.
– Former Mets manager Mickey Callaway, who was fired by the Mets and suspended by MLB for allegations of sexual harassment, just got fired as the manager of Acereros de Monclova in the Mexican League.
– Congrats to 40-year-old pitcher J.A. Happ, who has officially retired after 15 seasons, winning a World Series with the Phillies and winning 133 games.
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