Thursday, May 31, 2007

Game 5: Eastern Conference Finals

Cleveland at Detroit

109 - 107



Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Tribe Shoryukens Daisuke in Finale

The Tribe heads into the Detroit series on the right foot, taking the final game at Fenway Park 8-4. It took five innings, but the Indians broke through Matsuzaka's 7-pitch aresenal with a 4-run fifth. The Cobra continued to impress, going 6 innings with no walks and 2 runs (one earned). The bullpen went into lock-down mode and the offense added a couple insurance runs late to seal the win.

As well as Byrd has pitched this year, he has a tendency to get into jams late in the game. Even if his pitch count is hovering around 70 or 80, Byrd tends to get pulled with runners on base in favor of the bullpen's cleanup crew (Raffy, Mastny, Fultz). I went back and checked the play-by-play calls for the last few games to make sure I wasn't just imagining things, but the box scores from Byrd's starts definitely back up my theory. Whether it's due more to batter adjustments or fatigue (or both), Byrd's late inning jams have become fairly predictable.

Tonight, Byrd gave up three straight hits to start the sixth, loading the bases with no outs. Tom Mastny got the call this time, with Blake retiring Coco Crisp on a nifty flyball catch on the dugout steps. Mastny struck out Youkilis before Wedge brought in The Professional Lefty, Aaron Fultz, to retire Big Papi on a gutsy, nine pitch at-bat. Wedge's big three of Mastny, Fultz, and Betancourt have a combined ERA of 2.13 this season, with opponents batting a stingy .187 against them. Blake's catch going into the visitor's dugout was really the play of the game, since it prevented the pen from having to face both Ortiz and Manny in the same inning with the bases full.

Sizemore and Hafner were the catalysts tonight, going a combined 5 for 10, with 2 walks, 4 RBI, and 3 runs. The duo had only a single hit, run and RBI between them in the first two games of the series. The bottom of the lineup did some serious damage as well, with Shoppach acting as a one man wrecking crew (4-5, 3 RBI, R).

Wedge earned another gold star for resting Martinez (Garko started at 1b) before the big, four game series against Detroit. Wedge continues to be aggressive on the basepaths, taking advantage of Matsuzaka's long delivery tonight. Barfield and Sizemore each stole a base, while Blake had the signal for a hit-and-run early on.

Tonight's win was reassuring in that it demonstrated the focus and resolve of this year's team. I felt frustrated enough after watching Boston's two aces tear through the Tribe lineup the last two games, so I can't imagine how discouraging the losses must have been to the players. Instead of shrinking inside the Fenway pressure cooker, the offense responded in a big way to back up one of their most consistent pitchers.

I rarely cite intangibles as a reason for a team's success, but the Tribe is definitely playing with a certain swagger right now. The players know they have the tools to win any game, anytime. While they should have taken two of three in Boston, I was pleased to see the team step it up to get back on track and avoid the sweep.

Final Notes

Now, I'm not biased or anything, but the umps did a terrible job calling this series. An inconsistent strike zone, some questionable calls, and at least one totally blown call only made a close series even more tense. In game 3, Tim Timmons (remember him from Opening Day? Yeah, that's the guy) called Barfield out at second on a throw from Manny to Pedroia in the sixth. Thing is, Pedroia never touched Barfield, it wasn't even close. Wedge stuck up for J-Barf, but to no avail. Fortunately, Sizemore avenged his teammate by swatting a two-run homer to right field, plating four instead of just two that inning.

Since the game was nationally televised on ESPN2 tonight, I got to hear the comedic stylings of Steve Phillips in the background (I tend to turn the sound down when he gets on a roll). At one point, the conversation turned to the 1997 World Series. Phillips cited a lack of veteran leadership as the main reason Cleveland lost to Florida, which is utter garbage. As a veteran member of the '97 Cleveland squad, Orel Hershiser took offense to Phillips' remark:

Orel: "You get a couple things right [tonight] and then you have to bring that up. I'm not going to bring up any of the things you did..."

Steve: "Oh, please don't!"

Orel then goes for the throat and brings up the Mo Vaughn signing. You could tell it took all his self-control not to just shout SCOTT KAZMIR at the top of his lungs. I love it.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Air Booby

The more we put him out there, the more it seemed like his composure was off the charts for a young guy because he's not a four-year rookie from college. Every time we put him on the floor, he showed that. He has been no different in the playoffs.
-Coach Mike Brown, on Daniel "Booby" Gibson

Wow. That pretty much sums it up for me, just wow. Daniel Gibson came out in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals like a man with a vendetta to pay. I knew he was fully capable of filling in for Hughes at point guard, but nobody expected him to explode like that, in what was essentially a must-win for the Cavs. Over 35 minutes (only Sasha and LeBron played more), Gibson posted 3 assists, 3 rebounds, 2 steals, and 21 points on 4-7 shooting, while going a perfect 12-12 on free throws.

Booby transcended his forme
r role as a three-point shooter by playing stellar defense (against his idol, Billups, no less) and clutch, physical basketball. Despite his lack of size on the floor, Gibson threw himself in the middle of the rebounding scrums and hounded the Pistons offense every chance he got. As his confidence grew, Gibson started to catch the Pistons off-guard by driving straight into the teeth of the defense. While not able to finish like LeBron, Gibson compensated by drawing frequent fouls driving through the lane. The Pistons had no answer for Booby as he racked up 12 points on fouls alone. He might not have sniffed a double-double, but watching him hustle like a maniac and constantly disrupt or create plays, I came away very, very impressed.

I really think Coach Brown made the
right decision in riding Gibson to a win, while resting Hughes. Hughes started to show some wear as early as the first quarter and would have been limited in how he could contribute to the team. Did Hughes' injury change the outcome of the game? Maybe. Coach Brown certainly didn't make his decision blind; Gibson has shown maturity and skill all season, but Brown was also forced to play his hand with a hobbled Hughes. This time, it worked out for the better, even if there was a risk going in (as always, hindsight is 20-20). The Cavs are in a fortunate situation, in that the starting point guard is healthy enough to step in for a few minutes to provide a veteran presence, but just injured enough that Gibson will see significant minutes in the games ahead. As harsh as it may sound, I think Hughes resting is a case of addition by subtraction.

The glaring roadblock for the Cavs this series has been the 3rd quarter. If you subtract the 3rd quarter from each game so far, the Cavs would have swept the series by now. Detroit has outscored the Cavs 87-58 in the 3rd quarter through their four games, a 33% differential. I'm hesitant to say that the coaching staff has pin-pointed the issue, otherwise it wouldn't have happened in four straight games, but if the team wants any chance at all of winning in Detroit, they will have to play a complete game. All James had to say after yet another collapse in Game 4 was "we need to clean it up." Coach Brown is going to have to find a way to get across to his players that they need to maintain their intensity level leaving the locker room at half time or they will never command a game in the playoffs.

It's all or nothing at this point. In order for us to win, I have to play this way. I have to be aggressive.
-LeBron James, following the Cavs Game 3 win over Detroit

When I read the above quote in the Plain Dealer after Game 3, I knew LeBron was ready. Ready to lead, ready to tear through the defense, ready to electrify the Q, ready to quiet the critics, and ready to win. Hearing LeBron endorse an aggressive style of play again was almost as encouraging as actually winning Game 3. The Cavaliers are 10-0 in the playoffs when James scores at least 21 points and his lack of production against Detroit was sinking the Cavs late in games. James has stepped up his game, scoring 12 and 13 points in the 4th quarter of Games 3 and 4, respectively. James raised his production against Detroit from 29 points in Games 1 and 2 combined to 32 in Game 3 and 25 tonight. He accomplished this by doing what he does best; driving to the hoop and playing aggressive basketball.

James' commanding style of play has a psychological impact on the game as well. The Cavs seem to ebb and flow along with James' energy level. The team seems to play with an extra boost of energy after LeBron jams one home after a breakaway. The bench rises up with the crowd and the opponent's armor is breached, if only for a moment. On the road, there is nothing more deflating for a raucous crowd than a slam dunk by the visitors to regain the lead. Game 4 is a perfect example of how basketball can be both beautiful and frustrating, all in a span of three minutes. The game is constantly flowing, each team surging towards the finish like a tidal wave. Momentum can be stolen in an instant, changing dead silence to a booming chant of Lets Go, Cavs!

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Prepare for Glory

Well, looks like the game is completely blacked out (I can't even watch on I don't see how can call it a "national broadcast," since Fox is carrying the Philly-Atlanta game in my area instead of Cleveland-Detroit. I despise national blackouts, since the small-market teams almost always get screwed over. At least I have time to catch up on the blog-o-matic now:

Someone Owes J-Mike a Beer....

The Tribe started off Game 1 of their epic road trip with an impressive 7-4 win over Detroit. Friday night's win was by far the best game Cleveland has played this season, with solid pitching, clutch defense, and a consistent offensive attack. Paul Byrd gave up four runs and nine hits over 6.1 IP, but was good enough to contain a stacked Detroit lineup and prevent the big inning.

Jason Michaels made an absolutely sick catch at the wall to rob Craig Monroe of a 3-run jack in the 2nd inning. After Michaels landed with the ball in hand, Monroe stopped, stared, and jogged in reverse back to home plate. The lineup utilized Wedgie's one through nine approach to the fullest, with the bottom of the order setting the table and the top five racking up RBIs. Victor started at first again, allowing Shoppach to get two hits and a walk, raising his team leading BA to .326. I made an earlier post about how much I like Shoppach being Byrd's personal catcher every fifth game and he has certainly backed me up on it this season.

On the Cobra

Byrd (5-1) is making a case for Cleveland to pick up his 2008 club option this off-season, pitching some of the best baseball of his career. The 37 year old Byrd has an ERA+ of 113, 1.27 WHIP, 5.2 K/G, and an outstanding 0.5 BB/G ratio over 52 innings pitched. He has not issued a walk since April 26, extending his streak to 37 consecutive innings. Byrd has also been the model of efficiency, averaging just over 89 pitches per game and 3.2 pitches per batter.

Byrd has placed himself in a position to go seven innings on a regular basis (he threw only 73 pitches last night), but Wedge has been quick to pull Byrd after six, or when he gets into a jam late in the game. It seems that the coaching staff is making sure Byrd stays fresh over the long season, keeping his pitch count as low as possible. Resting Byrd, especially when the team has some insurance runs for the bullpen, is a logical decision. Byrd has only pitched 200+ innings once in his career and is getting to the age for a pitcher where that extra rest can go a long way. Look for Byrd to go take his low pitch counts deeper into games in the second half of the season.

Detroit and Boston: Worst Summer Vacation Ever

I know it's only May, but this is a huge road trip for the Tribe. Over the next five days, Cleveland will play two more games in Detroit, then travel to Fenway Park to battle the team with the best record in baseball. If Cleveland can come away with two series wins on this trip, that could possibly give them a nice, two game buffer on those pesky Tigers and would solidify their place as an American League powerhouse. Powerhouse you say? A little early isn't it? No, not really. We're over a quarter of the way through the season and Cleveland has yet to face the top two teams in the league, making this the most significant test for the team so far. Given the Tribe's performance on the road (12-13) compared to the Jake (17-4), it will be interesting to see how they perform. My main concern going in is how the pitching will hold up against the two best lineups outside of Cleveland and New York.

It Ain't Over Yet...

On a side note, Terry Pluto wrote an excellent piece on why Cavs fans should relax and Detroit fans should be the one's worrying as the series heads back to the Gund (er, the Q). Very reassuring and makes some great points, for all you stressed Cavs fans out there.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Royals Unimpressed by Fausto

Fausto Carmona proved human after all in Game 43 against the Kansas City Royals. The Royals brought a consistent offensive attack, scoring 3 runs on 9 hits off of Carmona. Despite having to deal with baserunners in nearly every inning, Carmona didn't panic and induced 4 double plays to get out of jams. Carmona pitched fairly well, but the Royals came up with some quality hitting to match. A 6th inning homer by Mike Sweeney off of an elevated pitch over the plate was Carmona's only glaring mistake over 6 innings.

The Indians had plenty of opportunities to score, but left five on base. Odalis Perez brought some good stuff to the park today, holding the Tribe to only 3 runs over 6 innings. Perez utilized an effective changeup and kept the Indians off-balance, striking out six. The Royals' bullpen came up big, giving up one hit over the final three innings to seal a 4-3 win at Kauffman Stadium.

I normally don't give any Dap to the opposing fans, but the Kansas City fans have to be among the most underappreciated in baseball. To be able to root for a team that's been as bad as the Royals for that long and still be as enthusiastic and supportive of your team is the ultimate display of dedication. The crowd at Kauffman always seems so spirited and into the game, even if their team isn't playing well that night (or that month). The fans have reason to be excited though, they have a dangerous, young team on the rise in K.C. The Royals have a dangerous, albeit inexperienced team this year, but give them three more years and they should be turning some heads.

Last Word on The Brick

After taking some time to ponder LeBron's decision to pass for the win, rather than finish his drive for the tie, I keep finding myself in agreement with his decision. "We told LeBron to go ahead and attack and make a play," Coach Brown said to the Plain Dealer. "If you get to the rim, go ahead and finish. If you feel like the defense is collapsing, go ahead and kick it. So it was his read." Marshall was wide open as Rasheed Wallace collapsed to cover a driving LeBron, so he did exactly what Coach Brown wanted.

This is exactly the style of play that LeBron has brought all season. James distributes the ball because he trusts his teammates and they've delivered all season. This is nothing new. I doubt the odds would have been much better to win the game in overtime against the surging Pistons than it would have been for Marshall to hit the open three-pointer. Tony and Wilbon summed it up nicely on PTI today (unfortunately I can't hunt down a video), making essentially the same point above and agreeing with LeBron's decision to pass. They went on to say that you can't fault LeBron for maintaining his style of play during the final possession (as a facilitator), but that you can absolutely fault him for not scoring more points over the course of the entire game.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Defense Impressive, but Offense Chokes

The game was won, all they had to do was hold on. All they needed were a few stops and a few inside feeds to the big guys who had been producing all game. That's it. But of course, things are never that easy and the Cavs lost a game, at Detroit, that will likely come back to haunt them.

Two things led to the downfall of the Cavs: the first was Lebron being held to only 10 points on 5-15 shooting. In an otherwise solid performance (11 reb, 9 ast, 4 stl), Lebron couldn't give the team the extra points it so desperately needed. Detroit's defense hounded James every time he got the ball, making it especially difficult for him to penetrate inside without getting several hands on the ball on the way there. The result was many broken plays that would have resulted in easy layups or turn-around jumpers against a lesser defense.

The second was the poor shooting percentages both at the line and in play. The most maddening, inexcusable, despicable part of losing a close game like this, is that nagging chink in the Cavalier's armor: free throws. Yes, the one shot you would hope a professional basketball player would be able to make nearly every time he's at the line had a fair hand in the Cavs loss tonight. The Cavs offense was anemic in general with 37.2% shooting, but only 64.7% of free throws made as a team.

Down by two, Cleveland missed their first shot in the last seconds of the game, but got the offensive rebound and a second chance to tie it up. Rather than go for a high percentage shot and force overtime, Lebron kicked it out to an open Donyell Marshall who missed the three and essentially ended the game. I'm guessing the team's poor free throw shooting had something to do with the decision not to drive to the basket and face an almost certain foul by Detroit. This is one of those hindsight calls that fans will be second guessing for the rest of the playoffs and then some.

There were some positive signs, despite the crushing manner in which the Cavs erased all their hard work. The Cavs had the right idea from the start and gave Big Z and Wild Thing plenty of opportunities on offense. The two big men took advantage of their time with the ball, finishing with 22 and 13 points respectively (the top two scorers on the team). Ilgauskas looked as sharp as he has been in the playoffs, racking up 13 rebounds, tipping in shots at the rim, and setting the net on fire late in the game. Likewise, Varejeo created havoc on the floor, playing 27 minutes and hustling every one of them. It seemed like every time there was a play for a rebound or a turnover, Varejeo was in on the play. If Z and Varejeo can combine their high level of play with a "normal" performance from Lebron, the Cavs have a very good chance of winning the next game.

Game 1 of the Conference Finals is the best I've seen the defense play in any playoff game this year. There was no quit in the Cavs tonight, but unfortunately their lack of a consistent offense and Lebron's inability to raise his game in the face of a tough opponent resulted in a loss.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Cobra Strikes Again

Paul Byrd overcame a few speed bumps, but earned a win at the Jake Sunday to improve to 4-1. Byrd scattered 9 hits over 7 innings with no walks, but found himself with the bases loaded and nobody out in the 8th. Then the Indians dropped the grit bomb on Cincinatti, getting out of the jam with only one run scored.

Fultz came in to relieve Byrd with the bases loaded, holding Griffey Jr. to a sac fly. Raffy Betancourt comes on to face Brandon bleepin' Phillips. In the signature moment of the game, with Phillips batting, Kelly Shop-vac guns down Ryan Freel trying to steal 3rd, shortly followed by Reds manager Jerry Narron going berserk and getting gunned down by umpire Gary Darling. Betancourt proceeds to strike out Phillips with a nice breaking ball to end the inning. Awesome.

Borowski came in for the save with a 1-2-3 9th inning behind a sick sprawling catch from Pronk (yes, you read that right, a web gem from Pronk).

Shoppach Plays Bigger Role in '07

This is why the fans in Cleveland love Shoppach, he just keeps racking up these key put-outs in big innings. It's a tough break for him that he's blocked by Martinez, but he has been getting a lot more playing time this season. Here's a breakdown of Victor and Kelly's positional splits for the past two seasons:

Victor Martinez

Position GS (2006) GS (2007)
C 127 29
1b 19

Kelly Shoppach

Position GS (2006) GS (2007)
C 31 12

Shoppach has started at catcher in about 30% of games this year, compared to starting in only about 19% of games the entire 2006 season. Martinez has gotten more days off from catching since he is now a legitimate option at first, allowing Wedge to rest him without removing his bat from the lineup. Wedge has also not been afraid to play Hafner at first on occasion, giving Martinez some starts as DH. Shoppach has put up solid offensive numbers (for a catcher) and has earned a reputation for his cannon arm, throwing out 34% of baserunners in 2006, well above the AL average. Wedge's backstop rotation will reduce wear and tear on Victor, while shoring up the Tribe's defense at backstop.


According to the game recap for May 20, Cleveland has tied the 1995 club for the best home start in team history, with a mark of 16-4 at the Jake and Miller Park. Even better, the fans are starting to come back too, with 102,016 people attending the three game Cincinatti series over the weekend.

Sours Can't Get It Together Against Cincy

I'm trying to not get down on Sowers (honest), but he just can't seem to get it together this season. Against Cincinatti on Saturday, Sowers seemed to have a difficult time locating some of his pitches, missing the catcher's target. Cincinatti took advantage of anything that wasn't catching the extreme ends of the strikezone, resulting in a lot of long fly balls and a lot of scattered hits. Throw in the fact that Sowers rarely throws above 88 mph and it became pretty obvious, early on that this was a bad combination for Cleveland.

Sowers' performance would have been acceptable if it weren't for the two 3-run taters he gave up to Brandon Phillips and the catcher David Ross (not exactly the Bash Brothers). Hometown announcer Rick Manning put it best: "Three-run homers are not good." My thoughts exactly, thank you, Rick.

Despite his putrid ERA this year, Sowers is actually giving up homeruns at roughly the same pace he did last year. In 2006, Jeremy gave up 10 HR in 88.1 IP, with 5 HR in 41.2 IP for 2007. The problem, as indicated above, is that he is putting a lot more people on base. Opponents are slugging .471 (79 points higher than 2006) against Sowers, while his walks per game have increased from 2.1 last year to 3.0 this year. Do you really need stats to know Sowers is pitching poorly? No, but I was curious just how big of a gap there actually was between 2006 and 2007. Yeah, a pretty big one.

When I last wrote about Mr. Sowers, I was under the impression that he would put up a couple quality starts as he emerged from his funk, but I saw no sign of improvement against Cincinatti and he has now given up at least six earned runs in a game for three consecutive games. I'm convinced the Front Office has already made up its mind on Sowers and Carmona, there's just no way that you can send Carmona down. You just can't; the idea is absurd at this point. Sowers can't have much confidence left after getting thrashed for most of the season, while Carmona is earning praise from his opposition:

"He's not even human," Torii Hunter said following a shutout loss. "It was so scary, I thought I was hung over."

Twins outfielder Michael Cuddyer on Carmona: "There's no question -- we won't face anyone with better stuff. His stuff [on Thursday], in all my years in baseball, I haven't seen anything better."

I don't see how a young pitcher's confidence can be much lower at this point, so sending him to the minors might come as more of a relief than anything. It's a delicate situation, but Shapiro has a lot of experience dealing with young players at this point (learning from the good and the bad), so I trust the team to handle the situation properly. Jeremy will definitely have an opportunity to pitch for Cleveland again, but time is running out for this year.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Another One Bites the Dust

After looking lost and out-classed in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, the Cavs put forth their best effort of the series to close out the Nets. Talent-wise, Jersey and Cleveland are not far off, which made the Cavs' previous effort pathetic and embarrassing. Where was the desire to win? Where had the team's focus gone? Cleveland fans had every reason to dread a Game 6 in New Jersey with the momentum swinging heavily in the Nets' favor.

Many analysts were picking New Jersey before the series even started and were too busy talking about how Jason Kidd plays like a little baby Buddha to give Cleveland much credit (even after they took a 3-1 series lead). Cleveland finally shut up the talking heads by dropping the hammer in Game 6.

Cleveland came out very aggressive in the first half, racking up points on fast-breaks and fighting for every rebound. Coach Brown had the team establish a strong presence in the paint early on, with Lebron keeping his double team assignments off balance by occasionally feeding a perimeter shooter from the post. Ilgauskas, James, and Gooden saw a lot of scoring opportunities near the net, exposing one of Jersey's biggest weaknesses.

This inside presence carried over to some impressive efforts on rebounds. Cavaliers were flying all over the place under the net, with guys nearly running out of bounds to save several balls; even Big Z dove to the floor to recover a loose ball at one point. A persistent, physical defense kept New Jersey in check for most of the game with 37% shooting.

It wouldn't be a Cavs game with out a trademark, second half collapse though. Up by 22 at half time, Cleveland allowed the Nets to come within one point by the end of the 3rd quarter. Jersey switched from a man to a zone defense half way through, preventing Cleveland from driving to the basket with any frequency and forcing difficult jump shots. Another contributing factor was Lebron playing with four fouls during the 3rd quarter, curbing the Cavs formerly aggressive play.

The Cavs found an answer to the Nets' zone defense in Donyell Marshall and Daniel Gibson sniping from beyond the arc in the 4th quarter. Marshall, who may be the only man in Cleveland grittier than Trot Nixon, made 6 of 10 three-point shots coming off the bench, finishing with 18 points. Gibson contributed two crucial three's early in the quarter to give the offense a boost.

Will everyone who predicted Donyell Marshall would clench the series off the bench please raise their hand? That's what I thought.

While I could not be prouder that the Cavaliers have gone this deep into the playoffs, I am wary of the Detroit series. New Jersey isn't even in the same class as Detroit, but seemed to wear the Cavs thin at times. The only way Cleveland is going to win the Finals is to play with the same focus and intensity that allowed them to shut down a surging New Jersey team in the 4th quarter of Game 6. Detroit plays with this mindset at all times, which is one reason they are so dangerous. The talent is there for Cleveland, but their execution has been lacking at times. I think we see will Cleveland's best basketball of the season in what should be a highly contested Eastern Conference Finals.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Odd Man Out

Shapiro and Wedge may face a difficult decision when the time comes for Westbrook to return to the rotation. Fausto Carmona has taken full advantage of his 5 starts, going 3-1 with an outstanding 2.97 ERA and 1.20 WHIP. Since struggling against Chicago in his first start, Carmona has contributed to wins over New York, Minnesota, and Baltimore (twice) going at least 6 innings with a 1.59 ERA in those four games.

Carmona has displayed his ability as a groundball pitcher this season with a 2.14 (60-28) groundball-flyball outs ratio with only 11 K's in 33.1 innings pitched. Despite the barrage of groundballs, the infield has only committed 2 groundball related errors with Carmona on the mound. What's even more encouraging, is Carmona has been able to overcome pitching in front of the 4th worst defense in the majors, despite relying on the defense to finish off a large majority of opposing batters.

The incumbent, Jeremy Sowers, has struggled to find his groove this year, posting a 6.56 ERA, 1.63 WHIP, and no wins in 7 starts. Sowers has not been horrible, with 4 quality starts to 3 poor ones, but has had a startling lack of consistency compared to his performance last year. The Ohio native has gotten roughed up by Baltimore and LA in his last two outings, giving up 12 runs in only 7 innings pitched.

It's difficult to say what is causing Sowers' performance to fluctuate so much this early in the season, but hitters making adjustments to a young pitcher may be a major factor. Mechanics are definitely a contributing factor, as Sowers relies on precise, consistent placement of his pitches rather than power. In his last two starts, Sowers had an obvious problem finding the strikezone or fooling many batters. I have a lot of confidence in Sowers, but I am wondering whether or not he is completely healthy right now, since he hasn't shown any mechanical problems before this season.

A trip to Buffalo to work out any kinks may end up hurting Sowers' confidence in the long run, causing him to look over his shoulder once he returns to the rotation. On the other hand, Carmona has proven he is ready to help the major league club and has been the best starting pitcher not named Charles Carsten. Sowers is young, with only 21 starts under his belt, but he at least deserves a chance to keep the job he earned last season, with or without Carmona waiting in the wings.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Eutaw Street

I was lucky enough to catch the last game of the Cleveland - Baltimore series at Camden Yards on Monday. As a displaced Cleveland fan, any opportunity to see the team play in person is a special occasion. This was probably one of the coolest games I've been to in a while (including those at the Jake); all the Indian fans in attendance made for an unusually friendly atmosphere for an away game.

I met an awesome couple outside the stadium ticket office who offered us a deal on two box seats on the third base line. He said he got them for free from his company and ended up having some extra tickets that day, but was happy to offer them for a discount to a fellow Cleveland fan. So I ended up with some of the best seats I've ever had for a ballgame, right out of the gate, thanks to some kindness from a fellow fan. The view was excellent, one row removed from the season ticket holders above the visitor's dugout.

I got to the park early and made my way down to the visitor's dugout to watch the players come out and warm-up. I posted a couple pics of warmups and Carl Willis, Fausto Carmona, and V-Mart walking back from the bullpen together. There were several Cleveland fans staked out near the dugout, some with little kids, most with Sharpies. Everybody was very friendly and I chatted with a couple fans about the stadium, weather, and the best way to get autographs. Peralta popped his head out on the opposite end of the dugout and signed a few autographs, but didn't hang around long. J-Mike also made a brief appearance and took the time to talk to a few of the fans while he signed. Byrd and Jeff Datz talked to what appeared to be mutual friends at one end of the dugout, while Blake, Rouse, Garko, and J-Barf started to warmup on the outfield grass.

Pronk and V-Mart jogged past the eager Tribe fans early on to the cheers of "Hey Travis!" and "Go get 'em Victor!". Unfortunately, we couldn't persuade them to stop for autographs, but everyone knows the players have a job to do and don't always have time to hang out on the fence. Upon hearing the inquiries coming from the fans, Victor politely waved and trotted out to the bullpen to help Carmona warm-up. The whole pre-game warmup had the feeling of a high school ballgame, very relaxed and personal.

As the players began to wrap up their warmup routines, Trot Nixon stopped to sign autographs. Then, as if that wasn't enough, Garko and Barfield came over to join him. I was lucky enough to come away with a baseball signed by all three. I'm a huge sports geek, so getting autographs from the players is a big thrill for me. I couldn't manage to say much other than "thank you" to the players; I was really caught off guard when three of my favorite players stopped by to give some of their time to the fans. It was surreal to have those guys standing right there in front of me after just seeing them on t.v. all the time, very cool. And yes, I am a dork.

Barfield and Garko had the enthusiasm of little kids as they chatted with everyone, giving special attention to the younger fans (Barfield even let one fan lean over the fence and take a group photograph). Away games are definitely the best way to get autographs, since the players know they won't get mobbed like they would at home (they're probably happy to see a friendly face too). Speaking of friendly faces, I'm 90% sure that Trot Nixon's dad was in attendance. He had a seat near the dugout and was sporting a sleeveless Red Sox jersey and a rough, graying goatee. I had heard that his dad lived in the area and came out for some of his son's road games, so I'm convinced that was a sighting of the Grit Paterfamilias.

The Tribe resumed their pounding of the Oreo's pitching from the day before and plated 10 runners in a bona-fide rout. Below is a pic of Sizemore leading off the game against Steve Trachsel. Carmona pitched great, giving up one un-earned run over 7 innings. I even got a compliment from a Yankees fan sitting nearby on the quality of Carmona's work. Carmona had to bob and weave out of trouble a few times, but got the job done and did a good job of silencing the home town fans (much to the delight of the Cleveland fans). The highlight of the game was Pronk's grand slam to all but seal the win.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Sowers Struggles, Bullpen Demands Vacation

Game 27 at Baltimore

Jeremy Sower's smoke and mirrors weren't fooling the Orioles on Saturday, as they chased him after two innings while scoring six earned runs. Sowers didn't have his usual focus and had trouble finding the strike zone. The pitches that did make it in got crushed by the Oriole's lineup as their consistent attack plated six runs on six hits.

Sowers usually pitches with ice water in his veins, but was visibly rattled on the mound and in the dugout as he watched his handiwork fly around the ballpark. The main problem was a lack of control, resulting in a lot of flat balls that were easily hit. So far this year, Sowers has put up four quality starts with two clunkers sandwiched in between. The New York game is a difficult one to criticize, since the defense was a prime contributor to the loss, but the Baltimore game was all on Sowers. Hopefully Jeremy was just having an off-day and gets his command back by the next start.

The highlight of Saturday's game was the season debut of Rafael Perez, who had a nice 1-2-3 5th inning in relief. Perez was called up from Buffalo to relieve pressure on the tired bullpen staff and will probably be sent back down once Marte is ready to return. Perez's breaking pitches looked filthy as he pitched the last three innings of the game.

Game 28 at Baltimore

It took two games, but the Cleveland offense finally showed up to play on Sunday, as they backed up C.C. Sabathia in a 9-6 win at Camden Yards. The Orioles threatened to blow the game wide open in the sixth inning, but Grady Sizemore made a ridiculous, two-out, full-extension catch to rob Corey Patterson and strand three Orioles.

Sizemore's catch quite possibly saved the game, as the bullpen gave up three runs in the 8th and 9th innings to make the final score 9-6. The only thing bigger than Sizemore's awesomeness was Trot Nixon dropping the Grit Bomb on Baltimore's pitching today. Trot had a career high 5 hits, with 4 RBI and 2 runs, showing the kids how it's done. I'm still in the party that everyone on the team should sport Trot's fu-manchu look, how scary would that be? Alright, not that scary, but team-wide facial hair would automatically raise the team's GORP (grit above replacement player) to a 1.8.

The bullpen is definitely feeling the effects of pitching so many innings the last two series. Between the multiple extra inning games, Cliff Lee's inability to go 7 innings, and Sower's 2 inning breakdown, the pen has been working overtime. Cabrera and Betancourt looked gassed today as they gave up three runs, forcing Wedge to bring Borowski in to finish off the last batter in the ninth.

Managing the bullpen at a time like this is very difficult. While the relief corp has been one of the team's greatest strengths this season, it is going to need to see a reduction in appearances to get back on track and stay strong over the long haul. Quality outings from the starters are a must, but that's easier said than done. I was very happy to see Wedge go with Davis and Perez in long relief on Saturday, essentially conceding the game (which the flailing offense finished off anyway), but giving the late inning guys a break.

Things should settle down though, as the number of extra inning games will recede to the mean and Sowers and Westbrook start churning out quality starts like they did all last year.