Friday, March 31, 2006

Uehara Watch: Episode 1

Why should Matsuzaka get all the love? Kouji Uehara of the world famous Yomiuri Giants is trying to capitalize on a stellar WBC, and prove he's also worthy of Major League service. Like Matsuzaka, his ballclub is reluctant to post him and he patiently waits for his chance to go stateside. Getting his wish may prove impossible anytime soon, but it's a good chance for us to look at his more closely this season.

To that point, the Giants opened their season against woeful Yokohama and Uehara was joined by new teammate and fellow WBC hero "The Lion King", Seung Yeop Lee, who will bat cleanup for Yomiuri. Uehara was involved in a harrowing ordeal the other day, in which he crashed into a garbage truck. Apparently, he was okay. I won't be going into as much detail in recapping Uehara's starts, but the boxscore will tell you the story and it's noteworthy that both of these players were the heroes of the game. [VIDEO HIGHLIGHTS]

Uehara pitched a complete game, giving up 8 hits, 2 runs, striking out 4 and walking no one. He was 0-3 at the plate, but drew a walk. Nice start to a long season.

Lee was monstrous. He went 2-2, with 3 walks, 5 runs scored, a home run and 3 RBIs. He's looking to bring a title to the Giants, ending a very long drought. An MVP award may be in the making as well....

(In Japan, after every game the heroes are interviewed on the field, in front of the fans. Nothing insightful is ever said, and it's more for the purpose of lavishing praise on the players and allowing the fans to glow in the warm aftermath of the victory. If you care to watch it, despite it being in Japanese, you may find it interesting. Remember....after EVERY game.) [VIDEO]

Let the Games Begin

Thank goodness it’s time to kick things off in a fresh new season. Sometimes the winter is too long and cold. The inaugural Canyon of Heroes season preview is an abbreviated article, in that it only superfluously looks at Major League Baseball as a whole, in favor of brevity. The focus of this season preview is the AL East, and you’ll find below some general predictions followed by more in depth analysis of our home division and immediate rivals. Without further ado, let’s begin.

American League

East: Yankees
Central: White Sox
West: Athletics
Wild Card: Red Sox

AL Champs: Yankees
AL MVP: Derek Jeter
AL Cy Young: Johan Santana

National League

East: Mets
Central: Cardinals
West: Dodgers
Wild Card: Braves

NL Champs: Cardinals
NL MVP: Albert Pujols
NL Cy Young: Pedro Martinez

World Series: New York Yankees defeat St. Louis Cardinals

AL East Preview

2005 Order of Finish:

1. Yankees (95-67)
2. Red Sox (95-67)
3. Toronto (80-82)
4. Baltimore (74-88)
5. Tampa Bay (67-95)

(Papi Knows Where to Look for NY)
Predicted Order of Finish:

1. Yankees (97-65)
2. Red Sox (92-70)
3. Blue Jays (85-77)
4. Devil Rays (72-90)
5. Orioles (65-97)

AL East MVP: Derek Jeter, SS-Yankees
AL East Cy Young: Roy Halladay, RHP-Blue Jays
AL East LVP: Corey Patterson, CF-Orioles
AL East Sigh Young: A.J. Burnett RHP, Blue Jays

New York Yankees Preview

Outlook: By all accounts the 2005 season was a lackluster showing by the Yankees. While it’s true that they posted 95 wins, tied for 2nd best in the AL and 3rd overall in the Majors, the team never found consistency and struggled to patch together a solid rotation all year long. Beating the Red Sox for first place in the AL East was sweet, but the team fizzled out in the playoffs and showed why big hitting is only a formula for regular season success.

The same pitching problems confront the Yankees in 2006, and there is no reason to believe we will see an improvement in the overall wins in the regular season. I believe the offense will stay strong and that the team will show improved results in beating the weaker teams in the division. Although Tampa is much improved under new ownership, there is no reason to believe they can post a winning record against the Yankees again.

The season will hinge on a return to form by Randy Johnson, more consistency from Mike Mussina, and solid contributions from a combination of Wang, Chacon, Pavano, and Wright. The bullpen appears to be improved and deeper, as long as Joe Torre uses his toys wisely and doesn’t wear them out by over-pitching them. The addition of Johnny Damon seems unnecessary at first glance and all the hype about him being a “real leadoff hitter” is ludicrous. The argument has been made ad nauseum that Derek Jeter’s numbers in the #1 hole were near the top in the league. Essentially, the Yanks look the same as they did a year ago with the same question marks, and the same strengths.

MVP Player: Derek Jeter – Look for a batting title, gold glove, and MVP trophy
MVP Pitcher: Mariano Rivera – No comment necessary

Bat to Watch: Bernie Williams – Can he get back near .300 for one more year?
Avert your eyes: The Yankees Bench – Who among these guys is a player?

Arm to Watch: Mike Mussina – Moose is 37 and seems to be slowly declining. We need him.
Duck!: Tanyon Sturtze – How long before Torre goes away from him in favor of new blood?

Boston Red Sox Preview:

Outlook: The off-season was certainly an adventure in Boston. The Theo Epstein seesaw was enough to give Red Sox Nation a collective cardiac arrest. All in all, the team seems to have turned itself over, dropping key members of the 2004 Championship in favor of a different mix. The Josh Beckett signing was the crown jewel of the winter for Boston, and he should account nicely of himself at the front of the rotation. His health is a gamble for the Sawx, but he’s got electric stuff as the Yankees well know, and could win some important ballgames for Boston this year. All those nice things aside, Beckett sports a WHIP of 1.235 for his career, and while his ERA is good, he’s about to enter Fenway Park and you should see a spike to a number closer to 4.00 this season. Like Pavano, Beckett is cashing in on a good arm and memories of the 2003 World Series.

The other holes in CF and SS were filled by Coco Crisp and Alex Gonzales, respectively. Crisp is a solid all around player that should see a spike in his offensive numbers in Fenway. He won’t put up the same kind of numbers that Damon leaves behind, but his 42 doubles last season were no fluke and he will hit to the gaps frequently in Southie. Gonzales is Silly Putty. He’s there to make sure balls don’t go through the infield. He has a career .682 OPS, which should tell the story.

The Sox are not as good this season as they were in either 2004 or 2005. Schilling is a year older and his famous ankle hasn’t improved. The rest of the pitching is decent but not lights out, with Clement, Paplebon, Wakefield, and the ever abrasive David “Tweedledum” Wells. Ortiz and Ramirez are as potent a 1-2 punch as there is in the league and virtually guarantee an above .500 season regardless of who you put around them. Mike Lowell is a favorite whipping boy in some circles, but I think he should account nicely of himself for the Red Sox. He has solid career numbers which should provide a better predictive sample than the dismal results he produced in 2005. To sum things up, the Sox are not the team they once were, but they are still a formidable opponent with a great home field and an aggressive front office. There’s no reason they can’t be near the top of the Wild Card race all year.

MVP Player: Manny Ramirez – As good as Ortiz is, Manny is Manny
MVP Pitcher: Keith Foulke – If he doesn’t bounce back it’s over in Beantown

Bat to Watch: Adam Stern – “The Canadian Babe” could provide a welcome surprise to red Sox Nation
Avert your eyes: Alex Gonzalez – A career .291 OBP? Can you say Womack?

Arm to Watch: Curt Schilling – If 2006 isn’t better than 2005 by a wide margin the Sox are out of the playoffs.
Duck!: Tim Wakefield– Led the AL in home runs allowed last year with 35, and had 29 in 2004.

Toronto Blue Jays Preview:

Outlook: The Jays are back at it again. They have taken up free spending ways to get their fan base back and fill the cavernous Sky Dome again. The Blue Jays used to lead the Major Leagues in home attendance every year, but have fallen out of favor with their fans in recent times. It’s easy to understand why, with the lack of direction both in the front office and on the field.

Letting Carlos Delgado, the face of the modern Blue Jays, go was a smart choice in my opinion. The brain trust at Blue Jays central knew they could get several players for the cost of one Delgado. The thing is, they broke the bank on B.J. Ryan and A.J. Burnett. They must like guys with initials instead of names. Credit GM J.P. Ricciardi for those decisions. I guess he wanted company in the lonely world of the nameless. Stupid. Burnett is starting the season on the DL in the grand tradition of other former Florida Marlins hurlers (see: Pavano, Beckett).

There is enough hitting talent on this roster to succeed. A team that features Vernon Wells, Troy Glaus, Frank Catalanotto, Alex Rios, Eric Hinske, Lyle Overbay, Shea Hillenbrand, and Bengie Molina should have no trouble putting up runs. Likewise a rotation fronted by Roy Halladay, Ted Lilly, and Gustavo Chacin should prove tough on any team facing all three in a series. Add a healthy Burnett to the mix and you have the makings of an above average rotation. If Ryan can close effectively, you’ll see the Blue Jays become a thorn in the side of any number of teams throughout the season. They’re not in the same class as the Yanks or the Sox, but the fans should have some reason to cheer.

MVP Player: Vernon Wells – Alpha and Omega for the Blue Jays offense
MVP Pitcher: Roy Halladay – If healthy, Toronto is in the Wild Card hunt

Bat to Watch: Alex Rios – Can he breakout in 2006 the way Toronto believes he can?
Avert your eyes: Russ Adams & Aaron Hill – Weak middle infield offensively.

Arm to Watch: Roy Halladay – The entire season depends on his health.
Duck!: Josh Towers– Posted a 1.71 WHIP in the Spring, and is always an adventure.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays Preview:

Outlook: Finally some new ownership committed to actually being a Major League team. Let’s face it, the Devil Rays will never in a million years win the AL East with juggernauts like New York and Boston in front of them, and historic franchises like Toronto and Baltimore surrounding them. They can compete and should they build wisely they can find themselves regularly in the wild card race. It will take shrewd planning and great scouting, but if the Twins can do it, so can the Rays.

For a couple of years now, I’ve really admired Tampa from afar. I like the core of young players they have and I’ve hoped that they would commit to spending big on a few marquee types that can help them climb out of the lower part of the division. They need to buy a few free agent arms and find at least one All Star caliber guy for the middle of their lineup. The payroll has got to increase, or what’s the point of even having a team in Tampa? You’re in the AL East under teams that routinely spend upwards of 100 million and more on their franchises, so what hope do you have of EVER reaching the playoffs if you can’t at least finish 2nd?

What they have now is a good start and should get them out of the basement this year. The Orioles will oblige them by fielding one of the worst teams in baseball, but they’ve also built a foundation. I like Jorge Cantu. His OBP isn’t great, but I think he’s a gutsy ballplayer who leaves it all out on the field. His power numbers are good and given some protection in the lineup he could turn out to be a solid regular for years to come. Sean Burroughs has always had the talent. He’s not a power hitter, but he can play ball. On a good team, he hits at the bottom of the order, but he’d do you proud down there. On this team he’ll be forced to hit higher up in the lineup than he should and that will hurt him. I expect big things from Rocco Baldelli this season. He never stood out as a Hall of Famer in the making, as Lou Piniella wanted us to believe, but he has a lot of tools and could evolve into a solid middle of the lineup guy, in addition to playing a good center field.

The pitching is the key. Scott Kazmir has a lot on his shoulders this season. He needs to turn into a legit #1 starter and show Tampa fans that there’s hope for the future. If he had a plus year, the Rays will go out and get a couple of real major leaguers to pitch with him. As it is now, Seth McClung will open the season as the #2, followed by Mark Hendrickson and Casey Fossum. Ouch. Kazmir needs to go out and post a win every 5th day to keep the momentum going. It’s a lot to ask of the young man. Is he ready?

MVP Player: Jorge Cantu – His attitude can keep a losing ballclub motivated to the end.
MVP Pitcher: Scott Kazmir – The team is on his young shoulders

Bat to Watch: Delmon Young – What does he bring to the table for this franchise?
Avert your eyes: Tropicana Field - The worst sports facility in major sports.

Arm to Watch: Jason Childers – Good minor league reliever who has looked strong in camp.
Duck!: Casey Fossum– Led the AL with 18 hit batsmen last year. (FYI…Derek)

Baltimore Orioles Preview:

Outlook: Yuck. That’s all I really want to write. Yuck. There I said it again.

I would be remiss if I stopped there, regardless of my feelings. This once proud franchise, who plays in one of the best ballparks in baseball has been reduced to a squad of has beens, never will bes, plus Melvin Mora and Miguel Tejada. Where did they go wrong? Can they blame things of Jeffrey Maier somehow?

Gone are Sidney Ponson, B.J. Ryan, Sammy Sosa and Raffy “HGH” Palmeiro. Also gone are there chances of staying out of the basement in the AL East. Of Jeff Conine, Corey Patterson, and Jay Gibbons does not an outfield make. Javy Lopez is being counted on to play first, catch, and DH. The DH option is the only one that makes any sense to me. Brian Roberts had a fine year last season, by all accounts, but will never approach the same success again. There’s less protection in the order now. Count on the Orioles to give away as many runs on defense as they produce with their bats.

The first, second, and third rules of baseball are all the same. Pitching is everything. In Baltimore this season, pitching is nothing. Lopez, Benson, Bedard, Cabrera, and Chen are their starting rotation. None of those guys are top pitchers, and while each is solid in his own way, they will struggle in their 57 games against the Yankees, Red Sox, and Blue Jays. That’s not to mention the games they will play against Oakland, Anaheim, Chicago, and Cleveland. They’ll be lucky to pick up 35 wins in those games. The final word is, trade Tejada and Mora and rebuild Baltimore. That stadium is too beautiful for such ugly baseball.

MVP Player: Miguel Tejada – Duh.
MVP Pitcher: Jim Palmer – Why not? I have to pick somebody.

Bat to Watch: Melvin Mora – A hitter’s hitter. Watch and learn.
Avert your eyes: Donald Corey Patterson – How does a guy with a career .293 OBP start?

Arm to Watch: Daniel Cabrera – Young kid should make an impression at some point.
Duck!: Anna Benson– Will make a bad season worse with her mouth.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Matsuzaka Watch: Episode 1

Well ladies and gentlemen. Seibu versus SoftBank has concluded and Canyon of Heroes is here to bring you the low down on Daisuke Matsuzaka's first outing of the 2006 campaign. the video highlights come from the SoftBank game recap, most of them are clips of the home team's success against Matsuzaka....hardly a fair picture of the game. But, there you have it.

In his "Seibu Blues", facing off against Fukuoka's Tsuyoshi Wada, Matsuzaka took the mound looking to capitalize on his MVP performance in the World Baseball Classic, which concluded in San Diego 10 days ago. Although he cruised through the first inning 1-2-3, showing unreal bite on his curve and electricity on his fastball, there was a wild pitch that sailed through the right handed hitter's box and went all the way to the backstop. Perhaps that pitch was a precursor of things to come.

In the second, he showed a bit of rust in giving up a LONG single off the wall [VIDEO] in left field to 2004 MVP and WBC cleanup hitter, Nobuhiko Matsunaka. A full count hanging curve to the next batter Julio Zuleta led to runners on 1st and 2nd with nobody out. In typically Japanese fashion, the next batter stepped in for the mandatory scarifice bunt (yes, in the 2nd inning of a scoreless game in March). In more idiotic fashion the following batter also chose to sneak a bunt in and failed. 2 outs. Talk about letting a pitcher off the hook. Matsuzaka got the next hitter to go quietly.

The third inning brought further deterioration of his control and you can see how a guy who is accustomed to throwing 120 pitches every 5 or 6 days would experience some difficulty after a 10 day layoff and a trip halfway around the world. A leadoff hit by Naoyuki Omura was followed by a sac bunt attempt that failed. The ball rolled foul saving him from total disaster and with his second chance, he chopped a little hit over the mound [VIDEO] putting two runners on again to start an inning. Naturally, with the same situation presenting itself in the 3rd as was present in the 2nd, Oh decided to sac bunt again. After two failed attempts, Mitsuru Honma fouled off several pitches and then worked a walk, filling the bases with nobody out.

The remarkable thing in this game was the fact that despite all the struggles early there was never a visit to the mound. Not even by the catcher. Jolbert Cabrera the #3 hitter for SoftBank worked a 3-0 count, and after Matsuzaka managed two strikes against him, walked in a run [VIDEO]. 1 to nothing SoftBank and threatening to break the game wide open with Matsunaka coming to bat yet again. Our hero proceeded to throw a fat hanging curve that the 2004 MVP hit dead on the screws. A screaming liner shot down the first baseline but was snared by Seibu firstbaseman Alex Cabrera who promptly stepped on the bag for the double play and pivoted for the throw to second. A split second faster and he may have had a chance at the triple play, but the gold star defensive effort energized Matsuzaka who got an over aggressive Zuleta on three wicked pitches.

Meanwhile, SoftBank left hander Tsuyoshi Wada was dealing. His three quarter release baffled Seibu hitters and he easily cruised through the early part of the ballgame. Where Matsuzaka faltered, Wada seemed to get stronger every inning. He was up to the challenge and seemed to relish the opportunity to face off against the man with all the accolades and hype. Cameras continually showed Wada smiling quietly to himself in the dugout between innings.

The fourth brought misfortune to Matsuzaka yet again. An easy grounder to short was absolutely butchered as shortstop Nakajima threw the ball over Cabrera's head at first putting a no out runner on to lead off. Forgoing the bunt in this inning, third baseman, and #7 hitter, Nobuhiro Matsuda singled on a poorly thrown curve setting the stage again with 1st and 2nd nobody out. NOW you get the sac bunt, which worked to perfection. 2nd and 3rd, one out. Naoki Matoba hitting in the 9-hole looked completely overmatched on the first two pitches, only to choke up and find success fouling off 12-15 offers from Matsuzaka. To his credit, he stayed cool and took his wind up. On a pitch high in the zone Matoba weakly singled [VIDEO] scoring the runner from third and making the game 2 to nothing. A 1-4-3 double play later and the inning was over. The run was unearned and came back to haunt Matsuzaka and Seibu in the end.

A home run off the bat of Hiroyuki Nakajima (Kaz Matsui's successor at short) had Seibu back in the game with Matsuzaka absolutely cruising. The double play he started kicked him into gear and the Hawks barely touched him the rest of the way. He ended the game after 8 complete innings, 131 pitches in the books, and a one run deficit. The eighth was his strongest inning, striking out 2 on filthy pitches, and you got the feeling he could work about 3 innings more. Unreal.

The top of the 9th turned out to be the last half frame of the ballgame as Seibu rallied to put runners on 2nd and 3rd with one out, down one run. The next two batters, Hiroshi Hirao and Kotaro Sekida struck out in humiliatingly easy fashion.[VIDEO] Not even a ball in play for a chance at the tying run. Matsuzaka takes the loss. Here's his final line:

What did we learn about Daisuke Matsuzaka from this start. First, he needs to pitch on a regular schedule. Guys who regularly feature high pitch counts don't do well over-rested. Second, he's super cool under fire as his expression never changed during the worst jams of the game. His manager didn't need to talk to him and his catcher did little more than stand up and run through some signs. Third, if he gets on a roll it's over. Like all great pitchers, once he found his groove he was lights out. That's all for the first Matsuzaka Watch. Stay tuned for updates on the schedule and opponent for start #2. (Video Highlights from SoftBank broadcast)

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

My Personal Saviour: Mr. October

His Hall of Fame plaque reads:

Exciting performer who played for 11 division winners and found special success in World Series spotlight with 10 home runs, 24 RBI's and .357 batting average in 27 games. In 1977 Series, hit record 5 homers, 4 of them consecutive, including 3 in one game on 3 first pitches off 3 different hurlers. Mammouth clout marked 1971 All Star Game. 563 homers* rank 6th on all-time list. A.L. MVP, 1973.

Reggie Jackson is my favorite player of all time.

As a 6 year old boy, I lived in Rhode Island and regularly went to Pawtucket Red Sox games with my father. He was the publisher of the local newspaper at the time and knew the owner of the Pawsox, Ben Mondor, fairly well. We'd sit in the owner's box, which wasn't luxury, but rather on the 3rd base line next to the home dugout. I used to peek my head around the corner into the dugout and the players would yell at me to get back inside. One lucky night in the late 1970's, I got to throw out the first pitch at a game. In 1980, I got to visit the lockerroom and got a hat from Wade Boggs.

As you might imagine, there are some pictures floating around of me as a boy, wearing Pawsox or Red Sox gear. It was natural. I didn't understand the rivalry until I was about 8 years old, and Bucky Dent hit that famous home run. A grade school kid who gets to go to the local ballpark and meet the players will naturally gravitate towards that team to a degree. Hell, I even went to nursery school with Carlton Fisk's daughter during the brief time we lived in New Hampshire. Talk about Red Sox Nation.

Now that my little confession is out of the way, I'll go back in time even further and tell you that I was born near Syracuse, NY in the frigid Finger Lakes region. My uncles were all die hard Yankee fans and my Uncle Dick especially. He was a Mickey Mantle fanatic and made sure that I always had a new Yankees t-shirt as I went from diapers to trainers. Up until my father moved us to Rhode Island in the mid-70's, all I knew was the Yankees.

In grade school all my friends pretended they were Carl Yazstremski, Carlton Fisk, Jim Rice, Fred Lynn, or Dwight Evans when we played after school. I was naturally a Fisk fan, what with my nursery school connection and all, but I was a much bigger Reggie Jackson fan and I was the only kid in school who chose to be a Yankee in the heart of Red Sox Nation. Yup. Reggie it was, and I proudly went to bat imagining myself wearing those tinted Poncherello glasses and swinging for the fences. I carried the 1979 Topps Reggie Jackson card with me for years, everywhere I went. I still have it to this day.

The fact is, although I enjoyed the perks of being a Red Sox insider to some degree, my heart was always with the Yankees. I knew that I was born in New York. I knew my parents were both lifelong New Yorkers. It was my heritage. My uncle's indoctrination to the Yankee Empire probably saved me from being one of those suffering Red Sox fans for the rest of my life. I loved Willie Randolph, and I loved Catfish Hunter. Gator and Gossage were my guys. Munson was one of my biggest heroes, despite being a bitter rival to Fisk. The first time I knew anything about death was when Munson's plane crashed. That lesson didn't come from a pet or a grandparent. It came from a Yankee.

My first real baseball memory came in the 1977 World Series. Reggie's 3 home run performance was the first game my father and I watched together on TV, and I got to stay up late. I don't have a clear picture of the game, but I see Reggie swinging and trotting and crossing home plate as if it were HiDef. I was totally hooked, and any hope the Sawx ever had to claim me as one of their own was lost forever. I guess you can say that Reggie Jackson is my personal Saviour. Yea, though I walk through the valley of Fenway, I shall fear no evil, for "The Straw" is my shepherd...

The exodus that was my childhood continued, as my family moved to Oakland in 1981. Billy Martin had taken over as the manager of the Athletics and the team's marketing slogan was "Billy Ball". Everytime an Athletics' player hit a home run, the stadium would rock to the tune of Kool and the Gang's "Celebration". To my great surprise, I learned during these years that Reggie Jackson had not been hatched in some wonderful laboratory a Yankee, but had slugged his way to fame as a member of the A's.

The strike shortened season was difficult for a 10 year old boy to understand, but any confusion about the unusual circumstances was relieved when my father got tickets to Game 3 of the ALCS in Oakland. I was beyond excited to see my Yankees come to town with Reggie batting cleanup. Alas, he did not play that afternoon and missed the first 3 games of the Series against the Dodgers as well. I still enjoyed the sight of the Yankees celebrating yet another trip to the Fall Classic.

Reggie was on his way to California the following year and my dreams of seeing him hit for the Yankees in the World Series again were forever dashed. Although my family moved back to New York in late 1983, all that was waiting for me in pinstripes was a 3rd place ballclub with an amazing rookie first baseman named Don. It wasn't the same.

Now, I have my own blog. I've feted Bernie Williams in recent days and inducted him into my fledgling Canyon of Heroes Hall of Fame. Reggie Jackson, and all his colorful past, now joins him and you can follow my tribute section by checking the bottom of the page.

A monument to the greatest Yankee slugger of all time, as far as my heart is concerned.

Matsuzaka Watch: False Start

Well. It appears as though my information was incorrect and Matsuzaka didn't pitch in the first game of the Soft Bank Hawks series. Disappointing to say the least. I was looking forward to this all day.

He is scheduled to pitch on Thursday, March 30th and the game is available to watch free online. You can catch all the action live at 1am PST or 4am EST. For those of you in Japan, you can tune in at 6:05 for the first pitch. Opposing Matsuzaka and Seibu is Soft Bank's Tsuyoshi Wada, also going for the first time this season.

Many of the Japanese ballclubs are offering games free online this season, and I will post information as soon as a good game comes up on the schedule. The feed looks clean and the game is really enjoyable to watch online. In case you have trouble navigating the Soft Bank site (in Japanese), just click the button on the page which looks like this:


...and the game will launch automatically in Windows Media Player. If you don't have WMP, I don't know what to tell you. Sorry.

Stay tuned for my recap and links to the highlights of the ballgame. I'll pick out the things that are important and leave the rest for posterity. can watch video highlights of games in Japan....

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Matsuzaka Watch

In an effort to keep tabs on the hottest pitching prospect in the world, I've devised a new feature for Canyon of Heroes called, "Matsuzaka Watch".

The Japanese professional season kicked off on March 25th to great fanfare with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks and Manager Sadaharu Oh facing the Japan Champion Chiba Lotte Marines and our own Bobby Valentine. 13 of the WBC Champions play for these teams and the crowd reaction was outstanding.

I've been watching the early Seibu box scores to get a feel for when our hero would make his first start. The Lions are standing at 1-1 after splitting their opening two games with the Orix Buffaloes. Japan's lone medalist at the Torino Olympic Games, figure skater Shizuka Arakawa threw out the first pitch to open the year for the Lions. If only Matsuzaka looked this good, Seibu would win every year. Surprisingly, Matsuzaka will debut in Seibu's 3rd game against Oh and Soft Bank at the Fukuoka Dome. You can watch the game live via internet broadcast on Tuesday, March 28th at 1am PST/4am EST. If you're in Japan, tune in at 6pm for the game. You'll be getting Lotte against Nippon Ham on NHK's BS1.

Against Soft Bank in 2005, Matsuzaka posted a 2-4 record with a 2.65 ERA and 41 strikouts against 4 walks. He featured a 0.93 WHIP in 44.2 innings pitched against the Hawks. His downfall was 7 home runs against in 6 games, with 3 coming in one mid-season tilt. Those 3 dingers only accounted for 4 runs over 8 innings though.

Before I continue with this feature, I should say that I don't share with many of the US sportswriters the notion that Matsuzaka has done all he can do in Japanese pro ball, or that he needs to come to the majors to test his stuff against the best hitters in the world. If he played the rest of his career in Japan there would be no shame in it, and whatever accomplishments he chalks up should stand as a marvel, regardless of our personal feelings in comparing the Majors with Japanese "Pro Yakyu". I simply want him playing for the Yankees because I want the best pitchers in the world on my favorite ballclub.

I'll provide a recap of his performance against Soft Bank and track his stats for you over the course of the season. Check back for his upcoming games and regular updates on statistical information.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Oh Japan

Oh Japan. By "Oh", I mean Sadaharu, and "Oh no!". The Japanese legend won this game almost in spite of himself, pulling ace pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka after 4 innings with a 6-1 lead. "Oh" also means "King" in Japanese and that's exactly where Japan finds itself. Japan has definitively proven that it is the best baseball country in the world. Against perennial international champion Cuba, Team Nippon, behind world class pitching from Daisuke Matsuzaka has emerged as the champions of the 1st World Baseball Classic 10-6.

The first order of business is to come clean about a couple of things. I told my wife before this competition that she shouldn’t get too excited because Japan will be competitive, but had little chance to win it all. Second, I told my co-worker, Mizutani-sensei, that Japan had no chance to beat the US and was quite arrogant in saying so. Finally, I picked Cuba to beat Japan 5-3, despite my heart being with them in this game. I owe all of them an apology and heartfelt congratulations. I guess, by "Rice and Beans", I meant "natto gohan".

Here’s how I want to talk about this. First, I took comprehensive notes of the pre-game and the first two innings to establish the mood and flow of the game. They’re here almost completely unedited. What follows is a brief review of the rest of the game, and my thoughts on what this whole thing means. For comprehensive photos of the game check here for the Mainichi News collection. Enjoy.

Pre game….Oh looks so proud in the dugout practicing his pitching grip…. He was a Koshien pitcher, who showed great determination in pitching every game, and facing up to discrimination against his half-Chinese ancestry…. Read his autobiography.

Cuban team standing respectfully throughout the very long anthem…..what were they thinking…..

I missed one meeting between these teams in my preview. In 1985 at the Intercontinental Cup - Japan beat Cuba.

Oh and Hank Aaron pose for pictures before Aaron throws out the 1st pitch. I thought Aaron looked a little uncomfortable when the game was live, but looking at the photos, I think I was mistaken. They probably have shared a lot of photo sessions together over the years.

Japanese announcers still dislike Bob Davidson as they run down the umpires and mention he’s at first. They say, “He’s here again. Even now it feels bad to see him….but that’s in the past.” Even Davidson’s explanation of the ground rules to Oh can’t dampen his obvious enthusiasm as he beams throughout

Looks like I picked the right starter for Cuba, Ormari Romero. It was a stab in the dark, but it made sense in terms of rest and success in the WBC, where other pitchers have struggled a bit. The 38-year-old veteran is on the big stage for perhaps the final time. He throws a heavy sinker/curve like Contreras. It looks wet, and he gets the first batter easily. Romero has lost the zone. Cuba’s bullpen is up with one out in the 1st and no one on. They’re always ready. Ugly pitching, and he’s yanked after only 23 pitches with the bases chucked. Ouch.

#23 Odelin enters and also can’t throw strikes, falling behind Tamura 2-1. He hit him and Japan leads 1-0. Is this the dominating juggernaut that always seems so unbeatable in international competition? Japan isn’t beating them; they are imploding. Odelin came back nicely to strike out Satozaki. Ogasawara was at Athens when Matsuzaka and Japan beat Cuba last. Another run is walked in. 2-0 Japan. Ug-LEE. Imae, the hero of the Japan Series for Bobby V. and Lotte, delivers a single, laced up the middle on a fat pitch down the middle. Japan 4-0 in the first before Cuba even comes to bat. Pitching change #2.

Norberto Gonzales enters with 2 out and runners on 1st and 2nd, and retires Aoki on a little grounder to Gourriel at second. It was close at first. What will the Cuban bats do to respond? Before the inning starts, I imagine that Matsuzaka will come out pumped and he’ll be dealing. If he can go 1-2-3, Cuba may be broken. If Cuba can rally and scratch out even one run, it’s still a game. If they get more, it’s on.

Captain Paret is a flat out stud. I think it’s going to be a game. First at bat for Cuba and he pounds a ridiculous home run into the left field stands. Japan 4, Cuba 1. Enriquez had a good swing but grounds out to third. The meeting I’ve been waiting for between Matsuzaka and Gourriel comes early. On the first pitch, Gourriel takes a big swing and is a bit late. He shows very quick wrists. The second pitch is an overpowering fastball for a strike. Pitch three eats him up and he grounds out to short. Fast. Matsuzaka continues to look overpowering against Borrero. Ahead in the count 1-2, he changes pace and Borrero swings over the top of the dying quail. 3 outs. Paret establishes Cuba a bit, but Matsuzaka settles down and dominates batters 2 through 4. It’s up to Cuba’s pitching to string together 3 or 4 innings of zeros, or this game could be history, quick.

Paret flashes leather against Ichiro in the 2nd. That’s why he’s the captain. Keepin’ them in the game. There’s something Jeter-esque about him.

Matsuzaka threw the nastiest pitch I’ve seen in years to Cepeda in the bottom of the 2nd to strike him out. A vicious spitting slider that started at Cepeda’s knees and cut over the plate at the last second. Wow! He’s blowing heat by these guys. If anyone catches up to his fastball they’ll hit it 10 miles, but they can’t hit it and they look like Little Leaguers against Roger Clemens! Urrutia down swinging. Garlobo up to take his swings. He’s been ridiculous in the National Season in Cuba, and he’s been ridiculous in the WBC. Single to right on a nice line drive. Matsuzaka ends any idea of scoring by blowing away veteran catcher Ariel Pestano, who hit cleanup against him in Athens. Is this game over already? If Matsuzaka can hand the ball over to Otuska directly, yes. If the pen gets into the game at any point…..

Bottom 3: Paret gets robbed on Ball 4 high, when home plate umpire calls a late strike. He then gets blown away by straight Daisuke heat.

Top 4: With Ichiro batting and 2 out, Nishioka gets picked off trying to steal. Stupid.

Petco is a pitcher’s park as a half dozen Cuban hitters fly out to the warning track during this game. In either home country they’d all have been home runs.

Bottom 4: Kawasaki flashes leather, robbing Frederich Cepeda of a hit up the middle.

Top 5th: Ichiro leads off with a double down the line. Typical Ichiro style as he hit the ball off the end of the bat and started to 1st before the ball had even left the bat. 1st and 3rd Japan, as Matsunaka drops a single in front of Urrutia in right. Gonzales is lifted after pitching 3.1 innings of unspectacular baseball, but he kept Japan off the board. What happens now as Yadier Pedroso comes in to face the rest of the Japanese lineup? This is literally the game hanging in the balance. Hesitation at third costs the Cubans a run and an out. 5-1 Japan, and still no one out. To throw home, or not to throw…..He who hesitates is lost. A bunt, a pitching change, and a sac fly later and it’s 6-1, Japan. I hereby proclaim this game over.

Bottom 5th: Why on Earth would you take Matsuzaka out of the game this early? Watanabe is a good player, but Matsuzaka was bringing this thing home in dominating fashion. Will Oh live to regret this choice?

Top 6th: Umpire Bob Davidson blows a call at first, calling Munenori Kawasaki out at first although he was clearly safe.

Bottom 6th: Watanabe starts to falter. An error by Kawasaki puts Gourriel on base. Ariel Borrero singles. Frederich Cepeda doubles to score Gurriero 6-2 Japan. Osmani Urrutia singles to score Borrero, and we have a game. 6-3 Japan. What did Oh do? 1st and 3rd and only one out for Cuban MVP Yoandy Garlobo...a homer ties the game...and he grounds into a double play. It's a game now. No Matsuzaka makes it interesting.

Top 7th: Adiel Palma looks sharp and the momentum has swung. His 7th inning is the 1st sharp frame thrown by Cuba and Japan goes down 1-2-3.

Bottom 7th: Kawasaki commits an error at short in his second consecutive inning to start things off. Pressure is on, and the calming influence of a dominating pitcher is now missing. He bobbles the very next ball but turns the double play. Watanabe follows up the nice DP with yet another error, dropping the ball as he tries to beat Paret to the bag. It's getting ugly. No harm, no foul as Cuba goes meekly into the night in the 7th.

Bottom 8th: Another close play at first and Davidson calls Gurriero safe on a legged out single past the pitcher. The announcers are beside themselves. Otsuka up in the pen. After getting Borrero to fly out, Frederich Cepeda steps in and absolutely blasts a 2 run shot into the left field stands off Soichi Fujita, 6-5 Japan. Otuska comes into the game. Inning over.

Top 9th: Ichiro seals the game with a 9th inning RBI, Japan 7-5. That oughtta do it. The play at the plate is close and replays show he may have been out. More umpire controversy. No controversy as Fukudome singles to drive in 2 more, putting Japan up for good, 9-5. Make it 10-5, on another bases juiced sac fly.

Bottom 9th: Cuba scratches out a run, but Otsuka is too much and strikes out an overly aggressive Gourriel to end it.

There you have it. Japan is World Champion. For a long time, the game only felt competitive for one instant, when Paret blasted his home run off Matsuzaka in the 1st to give Cuba the look of the prize fighters that their country has been so famous for over the decades. Japan dominated terrible Cuban pitching until Oh's decision to relieve his ace after only 4 innings pitched breathed new life into the game and Cuba rallied.

Matsuzaka didn’t need to run support, as he looked every bit the #1 starter he is, and could be for a lucky Major League team. (wink, wink...interlocking NY) The bullpen for Japan was the achilles, and could have really made Oh a huge goat for the rest of his life.

We learned a few things in the WBC. The world is full of great ballplayers. There are a lot of countries which love the sport as much as we do. We need to pay more attention to what’s happening in baseball around the world if we claim to really love the game. I, for my part, will do my best to blog about baseball in Japan, Korea, and Cuba in addition to writing about the Yankees and Major League baseball.

We learned that the combination of Uehara and Matsuzaka makes any Japanese national team a formidable power that can stand up to any team in the world. These guys went a combined 5-0 with a 1.50 ERA, only 3 walks and 26 strikeouts in 30 innings, and a combined .93 WHIP. Matsuzaka has been named the WBC's Most Valuable Player in addition to Ichiro and catcher Satozaki on the "Best 9" team. The US features Jeter at short, and Ken Griffey, Jr. in the outfield. Korea's Lee Seung Yeop and Lee Jong Beom are on the team in addition to Cuba's Gourriel. One post-script note: I just watched Matsuzaka's MVP interview with Japanese television and they asked him about the trophy. He said, "Hontoni Americapoi.", which means it's really American-style, and proceeded to show everyone how the glass piece on top had already broken off. HA!

I wonder if Oh Sadaharu will ever get the respect he deserves and find himself inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame. I wonder if we will see the birth of a real World Series, starting with Japan League champs against MLB champs. Japan wants it already. Can the Yankees or anyone else claim to be “World Champions” if they don’t take on the champions from the WBC home country?

The WBC has ended, but baseball feels like it is only just beginning as we’ve seen the birth of a new international love for the sport and a new context by which all of us will understand the events that unfold day by day on diamonds from Seoul to Santiago, and from New York to Tokyo.

Viva al beisbol! Yakyu banzai! Long live the game!

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Rice and Beans

We’re finally here. The end is in sight. Two teams, one dream. Japan versus Cuba for all the marbles. Did anyone see this coming? Could we have predicted that the final of the 1st World Baseball Classic would feature these two international rivals?

If I were a betting man, I would have put my money on a US vs. Dominican Republic final almost any day of the week. The United States roster featured players like 2-time AL MVP Alex Rodriguez and 4-time World Series Champion, Yankee captain, Derek Jeter. 1997 MVP Ken Griffey, Jr. manned centerfield, and 1999 NL MVP Chipper Jones had a bag full of bats with him, ready to slug his way to a title. The US had 7-time Cy Young Award winner, and 1986 MVP, Roger Clemens at the front of the pitching staff, and a host of Major League stars backing all of them up.

The Dominicans were equally loaded with MLB talent. Think about this group of players. 2002 AL MVP Miguel Tejada started at short, and 2005 NL MVP Albert Pujols took his position at first. 2005 AL MVP-runner up David Ortiz stepped in as DH, and 6-time All Star, 1997 World Series champion, Moises Alou was along for the ride. 2005 AL Cy Young winner Bartolo Colon headed the rotation, and a host of other Major League All Stars backed them up.

Boy, was I wrong.

How is it that the Final of the WBC will feature a total of 2 Major League players, both on Team Japan? One of those players is the great future Hall of Famer, Ichiro Suzuki. The other is excellent relief pitcher Akinori Otsuka of the Texas Rangers. Of course, with the long-standing US embargo of Cuba, it takes serious effort to defect and enter the United States for a professional career. Undoubtedly, over the last generation we may have seen dozens of All Star caliber players in the Major Leagues, if not for the animosity that exists between Castro’s “Socialist Paradise” and the American Colossus dominating the region. Team Cuba has been the X-factor all along in this competition and they did not disappoint.

The fact remains. This result is a devastating blow to the credibility of Major League Baseball. With revelations of widespread doping in the American game, including some of the biggest stars of the last decade, and salaries often 20 times that of their competitors in the World Baseball Classic, is it wrong to wonder if Major League players are really as good as we’ve always believed? People here in Japan are asking that question this week, and more so tomorrow when we all gather again at work.

Regardless of what it means for the Major Leagues, none of us really should be too surprised at the matchup. I’ll tell you why. These teams regularly meet in the final rounds of baseball competitions all over the world. I went back and examined the key matchups of Japan and Cuba over the last 15 years and came up with an interesting list.

1991 A 10th inning single by catcher Jose Delgado lifts Cuba over Japan 5-4 in the championship game of the Intercontinental Cup (the WBC, before the WBC).

1992 Cuba wins the first ever Olympic Baseball gold medal, going 8-0. They beat Japan 8-2 on the 3rd day of the competition. Japan went on to win bronze.

1996 Cuba again breezes through the Olympic tournament 9-0, defeating Japan 8-7 in early round play and again 13-9 in the gold medal game.

1997 Japan stuns Cuba 11-2 in the final at the Intercontinental Cup, ending a 10 year domination of international competition for the Cubans, and breaking their string of 7 consecutive IC titles.

1999 Cuba is stunned in the 11th inning, 4-3, by host country Australia at the Intercontinental Cup, and settles for runner-up. Early in the tournament they beat Team Japan 4-1. Japan went on to defeat the US 6-0 in the 3rd Place game.

2000 Cuba beats Japan twice in Olympic early round games, 6-2 and 3-0, respectively. The US wins gold defeating Cuba 4-0, and Japan falls to Korea 3-1 in the bronze medal game.

2002 Cuba wins the International Cup on its home soil. They defeat Japan twice in early round play, 8-7 and 5-0. Korea fights hard, but goes down in the title game 2-1.

2004 Cuba wins gold in Athens, beating Australia 6-2. Japan claims bronze by beating Canada 11-2. On Day 3, Daisuke Matsuzaka deals a gem in defeating Cuba 6-3. Foreshadowing?

By my tally, Cuba has at least a 9-2 record against Japan in major international competition over the last 15 years.

The Baseball World Cup, which I know very little about, has been dominated by Cuba for nearly 70 years. They have claimed the title in 25 of the 36 competitions held, including the last 9 in a row, and 12 out of 13(Korea, 1982). It appears as though Japan and Cuba have not met during the last 3 Baseball World Cups, and beyond that I can't say.

What can we expect from this game at the Inaugural World Baseball Classic? I'm inclined to think that Cuba is too strong for Japan. I'm inclined to wonder what this game would look like with Hideki Matsui, Tadahito Iguchi, and Kenji Johjima involved. Alas, it was not meant to be. Japan will need to rely on the bat, legs, and strong throwing arm of Ichiro Suzuki. They will need to play their style of "small ball" almost to perfection. Any slight error will cost them dearly. The game is that tight.

I've previewed a lot of Japanese players to this point. I'll give you the only player, other than Ichiro, that will determine the outcome of this game. That player is Daisuke Matsuzaka. Not only did he beat Cuba in the nations' only meeting at the Athens Olympics, but he may yet prove himself to be a strong Major League pitcher in the near future. I make no secret of my desire to see him in pinstripes ASAP.

Matsuzaka is a horse, plain and simple. He throws pitches and he eats innings. He averaged 126 pitches a game for 28 games in 2005. Some say that he needs to slow down before his shoulder breaks apart, but he is the crown jewel of Japanese Professional Baseball and people are always talking about him. Matsuzaka was a high school phenom in Japan, and in one game he threw 249 pitches in 17 innings of play! He led his team to the championship in both the Spring and Summer editions of the Koshien National High School Baseball Invitational, which is like the NCAA Tournament of Japan. Matsuzaka pitched 10 innings in one Olympic game in Sydney 2000, as a recent high school graduate. Much of these details are documented by Will Carroll in this article highlighting his famous "gyroball". A more recent article claims that the gyroball isn't in Matsuzaka's arsenal, and that he hasn't used it at the WBC. Why don't you take a look for yourself and see.

As the ace of the Seibu Lions staff, he led his team to the promised land in 2004, taking the Japan Series from the Chunichi Dragons 4 games to 3. Major League scouts have been watching him for years, and waiting. Will we have to wait much longer, especially if this dominating figure can achieve the impossible and hurl his way past Cuba to the WBC title?

The first thought on everyone's mind when speaking of Cuban baseball is, "Will anyone defect?" There are certainly some players that must be tempted to take their chances in North America, but the players all say that they play the game for love and not for money. We'll see what happens after the Championship Game. The guy that has everyone drooling is 21 year old Yulieski Gourriel. Many believe he could be as good as Alex Rodriguez and he has been a force for the Cubans in recent international competition, including these games. Gourriel is the son of legendary Cuban beisbol champion Lourdes Gourriel who has coached his son since he was born.
In the 2005 World Cup, Yulieski posted a 1.297 OPS with 8 home runs and 19 RBIs in 11 games.

Team captain and leadoff man is shortstop Eduardo Paret. The 33 year old Paret provides veteran leadership to a team featuring so many wet-behind-the-ears ball players. In the 2005 Baseball World Cup, Paret led the team to it's 9th straight title with a 1.819 OPS, 7 walks and 12 hits in 26 plate appearances, and stole 8 bases in 6 games. He was named MVP.

The Cuban pitching staff has a number of quality arms. It's difficult to get a read on who will pitch in this game. All of their top pitchers can start and come out of the bullpen as we've seen several times in the WBC. Star hurlers Yadel Marti and Pedro Luis Lazo combined for the 3-1 victory over the Dominicans, and both have alternated between starting and finishing games. Their recent appearances will likely preclude them from playing in this contest much. I would expect the Cubans to turn to Ormari Romero for the start in this game, as he was sharp in defeating Puerto Rico on March 15th. 4+ days of rest should be enough to get him through the early part of the game, when he can turn things over to Vicyohandry Odelin or Yadiel Pedroso. The mystery is, either of those players could also get the start. It's that kind of team.

Now for the prediction. It seems clear to me that the Cuban team is superior in most respects. They have played together on the international stage for a long time, have championship experience, and play for the love of the sport. I like that. It's not to say that the Japanese team lacks passion or desire, and anytime you have a guy like Matsuzaka pitching you have a punchers chance, but Cuba has a lot to prove on US soil and I think it will propel them to yet another international baseball title. Ichiro and Matsuzaka will both impress and I think the game may be close, but Cuba will win out in the end. Cuba 5, Japan 3.