Posted on: August 17, 2011 7:51 pm
Edited on: August 17, 2011 10:50 pm

Diamondbacks are the true surprise team

PHILADELPHIA -- The Pirates have fallen back under .500.

The Indians have fallen out of first place.

The summer of surprise in baseball seems to have ended a little early . . . unless you count the Diamondbacks.

And why shouldn't we be counting them?

"These guys have been flying under the radar," said Lyle Overbay, who spent the first four months of the season with the surprising Pirates, and is in his first week with the surprising Diamondbacks.

They lost more games last year than the Indians did. They looked as bad this spring as the Indians and Pirates, too.

And almost three weeks into August, the Diamondbacks began play Wednesday 3 1/2 games up on the defending World Series champions.

They're far from the point that we should consider them a lock for the postseason, and in fact that 3 1/2-game lead shrunk to 2 1/2 games on Wednesday night. It's worth remembering that the Padres held a four-game lead over the Giants on this date a year ago, and that the Diamondbacks held a 4 1/2-game lead over the Dodgers in late August 2008.

"We fell apart at the seams [that year]," Justin Upton said.

It took two years to put them back together, two years of 90-plus losses. It took two managerial changes, a general manager change, and enough roster turnover so that Upton, Chris Young and injured shortstop Stephen Drew are the only regulars remaining from that team.

It took Upton becoming a true MVP candidate at age 23, after a winter in which the Diamondbacks briefly considered trading him away.

But here they are, the only one of baseball's surprise teams that's still in a playoff spot, a spot that would most likely see them right back here in Philadelphia in six weeks' time. Here they are, the surprise team that got overlooked while we were focused on those other surprise teams.

"That's OK," Young said. "If everybody's talking about you too much, maybe your head gets too big. But if nobody's talking about you, maybe your confidence gets down."

The Diamondbacks seem to have little problem with confidence. They're 3-1 this year against the Phillies, including a Tuesday night win in which they became the first team ever (in 53 attempts) to come from behind in the ninth inning to beat Roy Halladay.

"We feel like we can play at this level, no doubt," Upton said.

The Diamondbacks came into their clubhouse after that game and watched the second-place Giants lose in extra innings against the Braves. But those who were there noticed that the Diamondbacks weren't fixated on the Giants, and didn't spend much time celebrating their loss.

"As long as we win, it's fine," closer J.J. Putz said.

As with so many other things that Diamondbacks players say, those words could easily have come out of manager Kirk Gibson's mouth.

There's no doubt that Gibson sets the tone for this team. They believe in themselves the way he believed in himself, and they fight back the way he fought back (as evidenced by their big-league high 35 come-from-behinid wins).

He would never want to admit surprise, because he begins every season thinking his team can win. Besides, he would never celebrate staying in the race through mid-August.

"We'll stay humble," Gibson said. "We've accomplished nothing. We put our head in there the first day of the season -- the Diamondbacks are in. The only thing we can say now is that the Diamondbacks are still in."

They're still in, while the Pirates have slid out and the Indians are in danger of doing the same.

There is a surprise team in baseball this year. The Diamondbacks are it.

Posted on: August 12, 2011 10:33 am
Edited on: August 12, 2011 10:41 am

Indians activate Choo from DL

Shin-Soo Choo, out since late June with a broken thumb, returns to the Indians lineup Friday night, a few days sooner than expected.

Choo made two minor-league rehab appearances at Class A Lake County, going 0-for-6.

If Choo can hit the way he did last year (.300 with 22 home runs, 90 RBI and an .885 OPS), he could give the Indians a big boost as they chase the Tigers in the American League Central. But Choo struggled this year, hitting just .244 with 28 RBI in 72 games before his injury.

After taking two of three from the Tigers this week, Cleveland is three games behind Detroit with 47 games to play.

To make room for Choo on the roster, the Indians designated Austin Kearns for assignment.
The Indians host the Twins this weekend. Minnesota will get Justin Morneau back from the DL on Friday.

Posted on: August 11, 2011 11:46 pm

3 to Watch: The Thome in Cleveland edition

CLEVELAND -- Jim Thome was playing third base for the Indians the day he hit his first big-league home run.

On the same day Lonnie Chisenhall turned three years old.

Thome left the Indians to sign with the Phillies after the 2002 season.

On the same day the Indians traded for Travis Hafner.

Thome comes back to Cleveland this weekend with 598 home runs, and wouldn't it be great if he gets to 600 during this three-game series at Progressive Field?

He hit his first 334 home runs as an Indian, and his 186 home runs at Progressive Field are still far more than he has hit at any other ballpark (U.S. Cellular is second on his list, with 98).

And that's even though Thome played his first 70 home games at old Cleveland Stadium.

There's no one left on the Indians roster who was a Thome teammate in Cleveland. Chisenhall, now 22, is the Indians third baseman now.

But you know that Cleveland still means more to Thome than anywhere else he has played.

He's hit well on previous returns, going 35-for-114 (.307) in 34 games, with 10 home runs and 32 RBI. He's had three multi-homer games in Cleveland as a visitor.

He needs two in the next three games to get to 600 here, perhaps not likely but certainly not impossible.

On to 3 to Watch:

1. Thome has never homered in 16 at-bats against Justin Masterson, the Cleveland starter in Twins at Indians, Friday night (7:05 ET) at Progressive Field. The Indians rearranged their rotation after Masterson went just two innings before a long rain delay knocked him out of his Tuesday night start against the Tigers. Why? That's simple. Masterson has been their best starter this year. "Masterson has been a No. 1 for us," manager Manny Acta said.

2. You never know what C.J. Wilson might say, but did you really expect him to go into his start at Oakland by saying, "I hate pitching there" and that "The players on [the A's] team hate me"? Maybe he'll like the Coliseum more and the A's players will hate him more if he wins in Rangers at A's, Friday night (10:07 ET) at the Coliseum.

3. The Brewers went into the season knowing they had little rotation depth in the minor leagues, but they survived Zack Greinke's injury because Marco Estrada was decent in his place, pitching well enough for the Brewers to win two of his four starts. Estrada last started on May 4, and the Brewers have used just their regular five starters since then. But Chris Narveson's freak injury -- he sliced open his thumb while trying to fix his glove -- has forced Estrada back into the rotation for Pirates at Brewers, Saturday afternoon (4:10 ET) at Miller Park. This is one of the Pirates games that Fox picked up for its Saturday game of the week, before the Pirates went into their skid.

Posted on: August 11, 2011 11:00 pm

Verlander gets 100th win, on the way to ...

CLEVELAND -- It's a long way from 100 to 300.

But as Justin Verlander said Thursday night, "You have to get to 100 if you're going to get to 300."

And if you're going to get to 300 wins, it sure does help to get to 100 when you're 27 or 28 years old. Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux got there when they were 27 (as did CC Sabathia). Tom Glavine and Nolan Ryan got there when they were 28.

Verlander, baseball's newest 100-game winner, turned 28 in February.

And yes, he could get to 300 (as could Sabathia).

"He's got a legitimate shot," Tiger manager Jim Leyland said.

"I don't think there's any question," pitching coach Jeff Jones agreed.

Verlander thinks so, too.

He downplayed the meaning of 100 wins, because he understood that the significance of Thursday's 4-3 win over the Indians was that it gave the Tigers a three-game lead over Cleveland in the American League Central.

But Verlander is as driven as any pitcher I've ever been around. And as much as he wants to win for the team, personal goals are a big part of what drives him.

"I think of the big picture," he admitted Thursday. "I've made no secret that my No. 1 goal is to get to the Hall of Fame."

And, as he said, 300 wins would pretty much assure that.

Can he get there?

Absolutely he can, if he stays healthy (and Verlander's durability has been among his strengths).

Thursday's win was Verlander's 17th of the year (he's the first in the majors to 17). It's the third straight year he has won at least 17, and the fifth time in his six full big-league seasons.

With seven innings Thursday, Verlander is at 195 for the season. He'll top 200 for the fifth straight year (after the Tigers basically kept him from it as a rookie).

He stays in games, limiting the risk that the bullpen will fail to hold a lead, and increasing the possibility that his team will give him a lead in the late innings of a close game.

And he pitches to win.

"At one point in his career, I think he wanted to strike people out," Jones said. "Now he just pitches to win. Look at his no-hitter [in Toronto], where he only struck out four."

If he pitches until he's 40, Verlander would need to average 16-17 wins a season to reach 300. That's not easy, but with his stuff, his drive and his durability, it's far from impossible.

As Leyland said, he has a legitimate shot.

Category: MLB
Posted on: August 11, 2011 7:29 pm

Cabrera, Santana have words in Indians dugout

CLEVELAND -- Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera and first baseman Carlos Santana had to be separated in the Indians dugout in the first inning of Thursday's night's game against the Tigers.

Starting pitcher Fausto Carmona eventually stepped between the two players, and manager Manny Acta later spoke with Santana.

Santana has struggled with some throws at first base. He dropped a throw from Cabrera Wednesday night, leading to three unearned runs, and he couldn't handle a throw from third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall in the first inning Thursday, leading to another unearned run.

Posted on: August 10, 2011 11:02 pm
Edited on: August 10, 2011 11:09 pm

Indians on Kipnis: He's our Utley

CLEVELAND -- The Indians see Ubaldo Jimenez as their Justin Verlander.

And Jason Kipnis as their Chase Utley. Or Dustin Pedroia.

Doesn't really matter which.

Some in the Indians organization say Kipnis can be Utley, the Phillies All-Star second baseman. Kipnis relates even more to Pedroia, the Red Sox All-Star who preceded him by five years at Arizona State.

"I would love to be put in the same sentence as either one of those guys," the 24-year-old Kipnis said Wednesday night, after the first five-hit, four-run game by an Indians rookie in 59 years.

Fine, here's the sentence, courtesy of Indians manager Manny Acta.

"I feel like we've found our own Pedroia, Utley or something in between," Acta said.

In his first 16 games in the big leagues, Kipnis has hit .295 with six home runs, 11 RBI and a 1.014 OPS. Not bad for a guy who started off 2-for-19.

Of course, Pedroia started even slower, batting .191 in his 31-game late-season trial in 2006.

"I talked to him when we were in Boston," Kipnis said. "He calmed me down."

Indians people say Kipnis has the same toughness that makes Pedroia and Utley so good. They say there's plenty of power, and even opposite-field power that Kipnis hasn't yet shown in his first month in the big leagues.

And they love the way he plays.

"He's a gamer," Acta said. "He's a dirtbag."

Maybe he's Utley. Or Pedroia.

Or something in between.

Posted on: August 7, 2011 7:44 pm
Edited on: August 7, 2011 7:45 pm

3 to Watch: The new rivalry edition

You're tired of Yankees-Red Sox.

You tell us that all the time. There are other teams. There are other rivalries.

There's Cardinals-Cubs. No, wait. Not this year.

There's Cardinals-Reds. No, wait. Not this month.

There's Cardinals-Brewers.

Let's go with that one, especially this week. Let's see if Ron Roenicke complains about the lights at Busch Stadium (as Tony La Russa did last week in Milwaukee). Let's see if anybody throws up and in to Albert Pujols, Ryan Braun (as happened last week), or even perhaps to Yuniesky Betancourt.

Let's see if any of the Cardinals fight -- with the Brewers, or with each other (as also happened last week).

And let's see if the Brewers can take control of the National League Central, or if the Cardinals can keep the race close.

Cardinals-Brewers may not have the history of Yankees-Red Sox, but right now it has a lot more emotion. And a lot more at stake, because unlike the Yanks and Sox, neither of these teams is close to being guaranteed a playoff spot.

Besides, Cardinals-Brewers has La Russa, just as those every one of those other National League Central rivalries did.

"The Cardinals seem to be the common thread is all these things," Lance Berkman told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last week.

He's right, and there are at least two reasons for that.

First, the Cardinals have had a winning record 11 of the last 12 years, so they're almost always in the race to the end. Second, they have La Russa, the manager who gets a lot of credit for all that winning but also for all that anger.

The Cardinals had some history with the Brewers, even before last week's eventful series at Miller Park.

The Cardinals see the Brewers as kids who don't take the game seriously and don't know how to win. The Brewers see the Cardinals as bullies who don't like to have fun.

It's a rivalry, and for now, it's the best we're going to get.

The Yankees and Red Sox don't play again for another three weeks.

On to 3 to Watch:

1. The Giants have lost eight of 10. The Pirates have lost 10 in a row. The Giants can barely score a run. The Pirates have allowed as many runs in the last 10 games as any team has in any 10-game span this year. The Giants have a very real chance to be in the playoffs. The Pirates have a very real chance to finish the year with a losing record -- again. And if the Pirates don't win a game in the series that begins with Pirates at Giants, Monday night (10:15 ET) at AT&T Park, they'll equal their longest losing streak in 56 years.

2. The Brewers traded for Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum last winter. The Cardinals traded for Edwin Jackson this summer. Marcum and Jackson meet up in Brewers at Cardinals, Tuesday night (8:15 ET) at Busch Stadium. Last week in Milwaukee, Jackson allowed 10 runs in seven innings on a day when the Cardinals had a tired bullpen. A day earlier, Marcum allowed six runs in six innings, leaving with a 7-6 lead that the Brewer bullpen couldn't hold.

3. Detroit and Cleveland are close enough geographically to be rivals (2 1/2 hours by car, ballpark to ballpark). The problem is that they've basically never been good at the same time. When the Tigers were winning in the '80s, the Indians were losing 100 games. When the Indians won 99 games in 1996, the Tigers lost 109. The Indians were good in the mid-1950s, and the Tigers were good in the late 1960s. They finished 1-2 in the American League Central in 2007, but that race was never really close in September. Maybe this one will be, especially if Ubaldo Jimenez makes a difference. Jimenez, who makes his Indians home debut in Tigers at Indians, Wednesday night (7:05 ET) at Progressive Field, already owns a win over Detroit this year. He gave up three runs in five innings in a June start for the Rockies in Colorado, winning 5-4. The Indians need Jimenez to pitch like an ace. The Tigers already have an ace, Justin Verlander, who starts against the Indians on Thursday

Posted on: August 4, 2011 9:09 pm
Edited on: August 4, 2011 10:16 pm

3 to Watch: The second wild card (now!) edition

The teams with the two best records in the American League meet this weekend, and it means next to nothing.

Baseball's top rivalry resumes this weekend, with first place on the line, except that in this case, second place is basically as good as first.

If commissioner Bud Selig has the best interests of baseball in mind, he'll forget about Alex Rodriguez's supposed poker games, and do the one thing that would make this version of Yankees-Red Sox truly important.

Can we get the second wild-card team added for this year?

I realize it can't happen. I realize baseball is heading towards adding the second wild-card team in 2012, and that's the best we're going to get.

But if you're one of those who still don't believe in the concept, just look at what the current system has done to a series that should be great.

The Red Sox and Yankees have been separated by no more than 2 1/2 games in the standings since the middle of May. The Red Sox have dominated the first nine head-to-head meetings, winning eight of them, but the Yankees have done better against everyone else.

The Red Sox have been winning like crazy, but so have the Yankees.

It's a great race, except for one thing: They're both going to the playoffs, and there's only a minimal reward for winning the division rather than the wild card.

In fact, if the season ended today, the division winner would play the Tigers, which means facing Justin Verlander twice in a five-game series. The wild card would play the Rangers, who may be better overall, but don't have a Verlander-like ace.

A second wild-card team solves most of this.

With a second wild-card, winning the division means avoiding a one-game play-in against a team like the Angels. It means not just an extra day of rest, but also the chance to save your best available pitcher for the first game of the Division Series.

Yes, the Yankees already want to beat the Red Sox, and vice versa. But in the current system, in a year like this, with both teams nearly guaranteed a playoff spot and little distinction between a division winner and a wild card, there's very little penalty for not winning the division.

And that's too bad.

On to 3 to Watch:

1. When the Yankees didn't trade for a starting pitcher at the deadline, general manager Brian Cashman suggested that Bartolo Colon would be as good a No. 2 starter as anyone he could acquire. So let's see how Colon matches up against Jon Lester, his mound opponent in Yankees at Red Sox, Friday night (7:10 ET) at Fenway Park. Lester has won both his starts against the Yankees this year, despite giving up seven runs in 12 innings. He's won his last five starts against the Yankees, dating back to last year. Colon has lost both of his 2011 starts against the Red Sox, despite going 10 1/3 innings and allowing just three earned runs.

2. One of those pitchers the Yankees passed on, and the only one who realistically could have slotted as a No. 2 starter, was Ubaldo Jimenez, who debuts for Cleveland in Indians at Rangers, Friday night (8:05 ET) at Rangers Ballpark. He faces Derek Holland, who has three complete-game shutouts in his last five starts, and also shut out the Indians in June at Progressive Field.

3. The Phillies broke their five-year string of trading for a starting pitcher at midseason, in large part because they knew Roy Oswalt was coming back from the disabled list. The Phillies also decided against trading for a reliever, in part because Oswalt's return means that either he or Vance Worley can move to the bullpen for the playoffs. Oswalt returns from the DL in Phillies at Giants, Sunday afternoon (4:05 ET) at AT&T Park. Tim Lincecum, the guy Charlie Manuel said was "good, not great," starts for the Giants.

The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com