Monday, May 05, 2008

What the First?

For six consecutive batters to start the final game of the Detroit series, Boof Bonser was the grand marshall of the Tigers' hit parade. Curtis Granderson greeted him with a shot that landed seven rows above the beloved Baggy and the inning digressed into a series of unfortunate events including Placido Polanco's infield single off Bonser himself. The high-priced Motown lineup surgically sprayed line-drives over the Dome's turf Miguel Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen all singled, accumulating two more runs. With Marcus Thames accounting for the only out of the first inning thus far with a foul pop to Mauer, the right-handed batting Edger Renteria doinked a low-and-away curve just over the head of the lumbering Justin Morneau and in front of the charging Michael Cuddyer scoring the bushy-haired Magglio Ordonez.

Prior to the game, the Tigers manager Jim Leyland reiterated his desire to have an increasingly mobile team. "A lot of it has to do with we’re not a motion team, we’re not a first-to-third team -- guys aren’t going first-to-third and sliding and making it on a close play. We’ve got to do better at that. Our secondary leads (the lead a player takes after the pitcher releases the ball) -- we’re going to have to keep harping on that." Leyland told the press. Leyland's pledge to implement his movement plan came to fruition in the first. With Miguel Cabrera batting with a 1-2 count Leyland attempt a hit and run. As Polonco dug for second, Cabrera fouled off the Bonser offering. Nevertheless Cabrera singled to Gomez later in that at-bat advancing Polonco regardless. Ordonez, the subsequent batter, singled to left on an 84-mph 3-2 slider with both Polonco and Cabrera in motion on the play. Polanco traipsed home with ease. A team that had been known for their long-ball, with a .437 slugging percentage (1st in the AL), were hitting and running all over the place.

It was as hapless as Bonser, who had been consistent for all but his Tampa Bay starts, had been this season. To be sure, his 2-4 record may invite plenty of naysayers but Bonser had been one of the most reliable pitchers on the staff. He could hardly be faulted if his offense failed to provide him even two runs of support per outing. Now in the Dome with the lone out and already down by five runs, he looked like a man presented with the task to solve a mathematics equation writing in hieroglyphics. You could see the motor in his mind churning as he wound up on the losing end of all but one of his first seven battles - even luck had left the Dome to enjoy the spring weather following Renteria's bloop.

With runners on the corners following Renteria's duckfart, Bonser focused in on the Tigers catcher, Ivan Rodriguez.

A lot of pundits like to make light of how impressive the Detroit line-up is with a future Hall of Famer in Rodriguez batting eighth. This revelation was not overlooked by our very own Fox Sports Net commentators. Eighth, of course, is exactly where a hitter like Rodriguez should be batting. This is because Rodriguez is grossly overrated at this point in his career. In his early years, Rodriguez was bar none the best defensive catcher in baseball. His arm was legendary. His bat was decent: between 22 and 25 years old, while cozying into the new offense injected Ballpark at Arlington, he was a 10-15 home run guy with a batting average that fell between .260 and .300. The strike-shortened 1994 season may have hindered his power potential as he hit 16 home runs in 363 at-bats when the season was halted. However, when he started at age 26 in 1998 Rodriguez began to swat the ball everywhere as he finished with a career best 21 home runs and a .321/.358/.513 batting line. In 1999, Rodriguez put together his finest season at 27 - in fact, if you look at his baseball-reference page, you will undoubtedly notice that if his career is a bell jar, this was certainly the pinnicle. He finished with 35 home runs and a .332/.356/.558 batting line. Even more curious is that Rodriguez attempted 37 stolen bases (successful on 25 of them) - 21 attempts more that season than his next highest season (16). For all this, Rodriguez was awarded the AL MVP. (It would be an injustice just to suggest his bat elevated him to the best player in the American League, as a catcher he logged 1,208 innings behind the plate and only allowed one (1!) passed ball all year.) Since 1999, production has since decline to the levels that it was at during his 22-25 years. This is a typical evolution in a player's career. You hit 30 years old and you no longer have the same batting eye, timing or wrist strength that you did at 25. However, as former teammate Jose Canseco suggests, I have to also believe that between 1997 and 2000 while playing with Texas, Ivan Rodriguez was on PEDs. A team that once boasted known PED users including Canseco, Rafael Palmerio and Juan Gonzalez probably influenced Ivan Rodriguez as well. Back in the present nearly a decade removed from the MVP season, Rodriguez deserves to bat eight because he is not someone that is reliable at getting on base to begin with. Last season, Rodriguez walked just nine times in 515 plate appearances (a walk rate of 1.7%). This led to an on-base percentage of .294, his lowest since two seasons before when he finished with a .290 obp due to walking just 11 times in 525 plate appearances (2.0% walk rate). This is the definition of an eight hitter.

Whether it was preordained by the Tiger coaches on the bench, an oversight by the interim Twins manager or simply Boof Bonser not believing 32-year-olds can run, Renteria was given free reign on the basepaths. True, in the past few seasons Renteria's ability to take second base has leveled off from his 2003 season in which he swiped 37 bases while with the Cardinals. When he did run, Renteria did so with precision. Last year he stole just 11 times in 13 attempts for the Atlanta Braves. It could have been that Bonser was to preoccupied with finally getting a second out that he completely zoned out whatever action may have been coiled on the basepaths. Whatever the reason maybe be for allowing Renteria to close the gap between himself and 2nd now closer to 83 feet away. With a 1-1 count on Rodriguez, Bonser rolled off an 78-mph curveball and Renteria took second with almost as much defensive indifference as the French army. This maneuver by the new-look Tigers effectively eliminated the double-play ball and put Renteria a single away from adding to that Tiger lead that was sitting at four.

Again, Bonser focused in on Rodriguez ahead in the count 1-2 - with Renteria now 90 feet closer to home. In his previous 1-2 count to Cabrera, Bonser came in with his curveball that was whacked to center for another hit and another run. Fresh in his mind, Bonser dropped the curveball below the strikezone and into the dirt. Rodriguez tried to hold up his swing at a ball that was making a short free-fall the distance of Rodriguez's knee to his ankles. To date, Joe Mauer had inspired as much confidence as Rodriguez did several years back behind the plate. In 2006, Mauer's last injury-free season, Joe logged 1059 innings and only allowing just 5 passed balls. Up until Bonser's 80 mph curveball to Rodriguez, Mauer had worked 220 innings without succumbing to a passed ball. This one, however, did not take the anticipated hop that Joe was looking for, instead, the tumbling ball hit the dirt and ran the ground to the backstop. This brought Guillen home from third and Renteria moved up yet again, now a total of 360 feet since his protecting the plate swing.

Bonser threw possibly his best pitch of the inning to Rodriguez only to have it five-hole the catcher that can count his passed balls allowed on his throwing hand. More contemplation appeared on Bonser's face as his pitch counted neared 35. Without the use of long-man Brian Bass, who filled in for Scott Baker the night before after his night was cut short following the third inning, Scott Ullger called on Bobby Korecky to begin loosening up in the bullpen. Renteria was comfortably at third and Rodriguez stood at first base - knowing full well he shouldn't be - with the confidence of college student who just snuck into a bar on a terribly fake ID.

Hope was on the horizon as former Twins Jacque Jones dug in at the plate who had been as close to an automatic out there could be. Never mind that if his season ended today .173/.256/.267 would be printed on the back of his baseball card for all the boys and girls to read, in the past week alone Jones had been hitting .063/.11/.125. Jones complied and struck out on four pitches (the punch-out slider may have been a mercy call by the umpire). There it was, five runs down without a single at-bat had by a Twins batter but the end was in sight. There were two outs as Detroit flipped its order back to the top to Granderson who, four runs ago, initiated the scoring.

Runners on the corners again, Bonser took his second attempt of the inning at subduing Granderson. Following a ball, the count pulled even at 2-2. On the following pitch Rodriguez broke for second. Mauer, who up until this point had not committed an error on the season, short-hopped Nick Punto on the throw which skipped towards Carlos Gomez in centerfield. Renteria scored as Rodriguez checked in at second. There it was: rock bottom. The moment of sheer disbelief. Bonser had thrown everything at the past few hitters but only to have the same results as the run total for the Tigers increased. Defensively he was not getting any assistance - Mauer's throw was bad and Punto should have gloved it. Three pitches later Granderson struck out looking and Bonser could retreat to the dugout to reformulate his game plan.