The Weekly Comebacker: The baseball week in review
The Week That Was in Baseball: March 7-13, 2011
TGG Visits the Cactus League Are the Teasers of 2010 Ready for 2011?
It's Nolan Ryan's Rangers Now The "Return" of Matt Bush So Long to the Rage

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Spring Training: Baseball's Ultimate Convention
If you ever make the journey to spring training, trust us on this one: You won’t be alone. TGG’s Eric Gouldsberry took the plunge into the Cactus League this past weekend (as many of our Facebook friends who received his updates and images well know) and saw plenty of company in the fans wearing the colors of the 15 teams holding spring court in the Phoenix area.

Even before you reach Phoenix, you know it’s going to be a party; it pretty much was one already on the flight from the San Francisco Bay Area, where Giant fans showed their colors and talked up baseball and the Valley of the Sun with great fun. Once in Phoenix, the weather was fantastic, with daily high temperatures reaching well into the 80s as the sun had little competition in the skies. The ballparks seen were intimate as expected but expensive; it cost $20 just to sit on the outfield lawn at Saturday’s San Francisco-Los Angeles game which drew a record crowd of over 12,000 to Scottsdale Stadium. (At least the parking was free.) But once inside the ballparks, there was no shortage of spectacle. In one quick sweep of the Scottsdale Stadium concourse before the Giant-Dodger game, Eric passed by Hall-of-Famer Gaylord Perry (signing autographs), Giant owner Bill Neukom (relaxed in a golf shirt and shorts—no bow-tie) and Giant announcers Jon Miller, Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow, all conversing casually with syndicated baseball writer Peter Gammons.

Most impressive was the new Salt River Fields facility on the east end of Scottsdale, which serves as the joint spring training home for the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies. The wide-open complex includes a main 12,000-seat ballpark with an open concourse as wide as many you’ll see at the big league ballparks, and surrounded by 12 (yes, 12) ballfields. (If you’re going to Salt River, park in the shopping mall at the south end of the grounds; it’s free parking, there’s good pregame food options around, and it’s a short walk to the right field corner entrance.)

The nightlife was not as wild as expected, but vibrant nonetheless—with many establishments in Scottsdale showing their allegiance (or multiple allegiances—you can’t tick off too many fans) for the visiting teams. And the best thing about coming to spring training on the second weekend in March: No losing of an hour on Saturday night. (There’s no Daylight Savings Time in Arizona.)

Above photo: First pitch of an exhibition game at the new Salt River Fields in Scottsdale between the Colorado Rockies and the Kansas City Royals on Friday, March 11. Below: TGG's Eric Gouldsberry (right) poses with friends John Pearson (left) and Rusty Shaffer (center) outside of Scottsdale Stadium, spring home of the San Francisco Giants, on Saturday, March 12 before the Giants' game with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Chucked Away
Not only has the honeymoon ended for Texas owners Nolan Ryan and Chuck Greenberg, but so has the marriage. Somewhat out of nowhere this past week, Greenberg—the man considered by many as the savior of the franchise following the bankrupt coda of Bob Hicks’ tenure—was suddenly forced out by Ryan and the team’s two major investors, Bob Simpson and Ray Davis. Ryan said that the split was the result of philosophical differences between himself and Greenberg, with Simpson and Davis apparently backing the Hall-of-Fame pitcher’s side of things. If anything else, this breakup confirms that Ryan is not just a star figurehead in the Ranger organization but, instead, more powerful than many people thought.

A Heartbreaking Ocean Apart
Japanese players warming up for the major league season were understandably distracted this past weekend after news and shocking videos detailed the massive earthquake and tsunami it triggered in the Northeast section of Japan. (All this, and there may be meltdowns at local nuclear plants.) Milwaukee reliever Takashi Saito had his parents and two brothers living in hard-hit Sendai, but he apparently has heard that they’re okay. Kei Igawa, projected to start the year in the New York Yankees’ farm system, went as far as to return to his homeland and had a successful reuniting of his family, also located in the disaster zone. And former Chicago Cub Micah Hoffpauir, now playing in Japan, said the quake battered him around in the Tokyo Dome Hotel, some 250 miles away from the epicenter, though he and the building survived.

Mitchell Page, 1951-2011
Last week saw news of the death of Mitchell Page, who was a brief silver lining in the moribund period for the Oakland A’s between the championship years of the early 1970s and the popular “Billyball” revival of the early 1980s. Page came to the A’s via a six-player trade involving Pittsburgh and made an immediate impact in Oakland—batting .307 with 21 home runs, 75 RBIs, 78 walks and 42 steals (he was caught only five times) in 1977. Long-term stardom never materialized; after another solid (but not as sensational) year in 1978, Page’s play deteriorated quickly and by 1981—at age 29—he became a permanent bench performer; subpar defense in the outfield didn’t help. Page served as batting coaches for numerous teams over the last ten years, including the St. Louis Cardinals and Washington Nationals.

A Sober Return to Tucson
Although the Phoenix area now has the monopoly on Cactus League play, exhibition baseball returned to Tucson (where Arizona and Colorado held camp up until last year) under sobering circumstances. Over 7,000 fans filled Kino Stadium for a contest between the Diamondbacks and Chicago White Sox as a special benefit for a memorial fund set up in the name of Christina Taylor-Green, the nine-year old girl who was one of the victims of the shooting rampage in Tucson this past January; she was the daughter of Los Angeles Dodger scout John Green and the granddaughter of former manager Dallas Green. A second benefit will take place in Tucson on March 25 with a game pairing the Diamondbacks and the Dodgers.

Better Late Than Never
Matt Bush is back. Well, okay—he was never “there” to begin with. “There” was originally supposed to be San Diego, where the Padres made the teenage shortstop the number one pick of the 2004 draft and gave him a $3.15 million signing bonus. The post-draft Bush has been a disaster: He played poorly, ran afoul of the law on numerous occasions, did not stay in shape and was often hurt, even as the Padres transitioned him to the pitching mound.

After getting a look from other teams to no avail, Bush finally seems to have gotten back on track in Tampa Bay, where the Rays have seen actual maturity and results in spring training from the 25-year old. Perhaps even more promising than the numerous scoreless innings he’s pitched is that he showed up to camp early, hungry and in great shape—something the Padres and other teams never got from him. Bush won’t make the Rays’ Opening Day roster—he’s already been assigned to minor league camp—but his attitude finally seems to have a major league sensibility to it.

New York Yankee closer Mariano Rivera, 41, took the mound for the first time this spring on Sunday and faced off against three Minnesota batters. He struck them all out.

Wounded of the Week
The games may not count right now, but unfortunately the injuries do. Trying to stay healthy for Opening Day has become a tough task for many major leaguers in Arizona and Florida, as the idea of playing it safe just doesn’t seem to be cutting it. Bad news hit Milwaukee camp when ace pitcher Zack Greinke—a big part of the Brewers’ high aspirations this season—was found to have a cracked rib after taking a spill earlier this winter in a pick-up basketball game; he’s not expected back until May. Broken hands, meanwhile, fell young Philadelphia outfielder Dominic Brown and Arizona pitcher Zach Duke; both are expected out from six-to-eight weeks. Dontrelle Willis, making a comeback attempt for the Cincinnati Reds, stepped and slipped on a bat backing up a play during a spring game, spraining his ankle. And the pains that just won’t go away are keeping stars in Philadelphia’s Chase Utley, the New York Mets’ Carlos Beltran and Baltimore’s Derrek Lee from getting it going during the exhibition season.

The most frightening moment of the week involved Luis Salazar, a minor league manager in the Atlanta system who was in the Braves’ dugout when a wicked foul ball hit by catcher Brian McCann nailed him in the face during a game. Salazar lay on the ground unconscious for 20 minutes before being airlifted to a nearby hospital; some in the dugout believed he had died. McCann was so distraught that he left the game and caught up with Salazar, who did survive and is scheduled for eye surgery.

Finally, we see that it’s not just players and coaches who are suffering from the pains of practice; even Hall of Famers brought in to lend their sage aren’t spared. At the Phillies’ spring training digs in Clearwater, Florida, Yankee legend Yogi Berra was in the visiting clubhouse when he tripped and fell back while getting a bowl of soup. Berra tried to shake it off and continue on, but others insisted he go to the hospital; four hours later, he left the medical ward with a thumb’s up. Asked what he thought of Clearwater, Berra said: “I didn’t like the soup.”

Are the Teasers of 2010 Ready For 2011?
Chances are, you don’t know many or even any of the following nine players. Perhaps, soon, you’ll here more about them. Or maybe you’ll never hear of them again, as they fade away knowing that they briefly made a pretty darn good mark on a major league stat sheet.

We’re talking about the young players that make up our annual list of those who got called up late in the 2010 season and impressed. Some of these guys are big-time prospects, others just players who got the call and unexpectedly made the most of their chances. So here they are, in alphabetical order:

Lorenzo Cain, Kansas City. The speedster from Georgia hit over .300 with 26 stolen bases in 84 minor league games and kept up the pace at the big league level in Milwaukee, hitting .306 with seven more swipes. Traded to the Royals as part of the Zack Greinke deal, Cain should make the Opening Day roster; the question is whether he’ll start. 

Dillon Gee, New York Mets. Here’s another one of those head scratchers; Gee struggles at Triple-A Buffalo with a 4.96 ERA, gets called to the Mets anyway—and secures a 2.18 ERA in five starts. Unless Buffalo’s ballpark is a bandbox (he was 13-8 there), we don’t get it, either. But here he is, hoping to crack the 2011 rotation to at least keep the mound warm for rehabbing Johan Santana.

Jeremy Hellickson, Tampa Bay. On eof the top pitching prospects in the nation, Hellickson made such a good impression to start his late-season call-up that the Rays were worried they would overuse his 23-year old arm, so they preserved him in the bullpen even as the team fought it out for the AL East title. That seems to show that the Rays are more concerned about the future rather than the now with this promising right-hander. He is likely to start the year in the starting rotation.

Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta. Twenty innings, 40 strikeouts, and a 0.44 ERA. That’s the insane numbers put up by the 22-year old Alabaman late last year as he possibly eased the Braves’ offseason push for a veteran closer to replace the retired Billy Wagner. The job isn’t his yet, but if he keeps up with anything near the above stats, it’ll be a formality.

Michael Kirkman, Texas. Though he blew a save in a throwaway contest at the end of last season, the 24-year old southpaw was otherwise excellent, producing a 1.65 ERA in 14 relief appearances after going 13-3 as a starter at Triple-A Oklahoma City. He’s on the bubble to make the Rangers’ Opening Day roster.

Mitch Moreland, Texas. Arriving just before August, the first baseman—no relation to former major leaguer Keith Moreland—hit .255 but blasted nine homers with 25 RBIs in 145 at-bats; he then hit .348 in the Rangers’ postseason with a pivotal home run in Texas’ only World Series win. Moreland should finally allay Ranger fans who have grown sick of Chris Davis’ lack of progress at first.

Eduardo Nunez, New York Yankees. Patiently waiting in the wings on the depth chart behind Derek Jeter, the 23-year old shortstop showed a bit of vitality late last year, hitting .280 with five steals in 30 games. Nunez is competing for a utility spot on the roster and likely will get it.

Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox. It was quite a ride in 2010 for the Florida native, going from Florida Gulf Coast College to Winston-Salem to Charlotte to the big time at Chicago, all within a three-month period. Sale saved his best for the White Sox, authoring a 1.93 ERA and 32 strikeouts within 21 appearances and 23.1 innings. The tall (6’6”) southpaw is penciled in to the White Sox’ Opening Day bullpen that, oh, by the way, could probably use a new closer.

Casper Wells, Detroit. The 26-year old from Grand Rapids has a career .250 average in the minors—he hit only .233 at Triple-A Toledo last year—but he was energized in his call-up with the Tigers, batting .323 with four homers and 17 RBIs in 93 at-bats. He has a fair shot of making the Opening Day roster as a reserve outfielder.

...And What of the Teasers for 2009?
Following up, we checked our list of teasers from a year ago and discovered how they fared in 2010. Some we know about based on their star performances—while many others just faded back to the obscurity they came from. Here’s the player-by-player breakdown, again in alphabetical order:

Michael Aubrey, after a sharp cameo with Baltimore, didn’t make the roster and, after hitting .235 at Triple-A Norfolk, didn’t receive a second late-season call from the Orioles. He’s now trying to hitch on with the Washington Nationals.

Alex Avila spent his first full season at the major league level with Detroit, catching 98 games for the Tigers, but hitting only .228. With Victor Martinez now signed on, Avila will likely experience more of the 2011 season from the bench.

Justin Berg, after a 0.75 ERA in 11 appearances late in 2009, struggled in 2010 with a 5.18 figure in 41 games and found himself back at Triple-A Iowa. He’s fighting for a bullpen spot on the parent club this spring and, so far, isn’t impressing anyone.

Madison Bumgarner joined the San Francisco Giants midway through last season at age 20 and pitched as if he’d been there for years. He was 7-6 with a very respectable 3.00 ERA in 18 starts—and 2-0 with a stellar 2.18 ERA in the postseason, capped by eight shutout innings in Game Four of the World Series. Just what everyone else in the NL needs to see: Another young hotshot on the mound for the Giants.

Neftali Feliz set a rookie record with 40 saves for the AL champion Texas Rangers and won AL Rookie of the Year honors. The only question this spring is whether he’ll start or close.

Brad Kilby picked up last year where he left off in 2009, impressing the A’s with a 2.16 ERA through his first five appearances before he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury (what is else was new in Oakland?). The A’s will likely give him another roster spot for 2011—if he stays healthy.

Randy Ruiz finally looked like he had broken through, at age 31, to supply some serious thunder for the Toronto Blue Jays. But after a dreadful start (6-for-40, one home run) in 2010, he took his act to Japan, where he hit .266 with 12 homers in 81 games.

Rusty Ryal became a serviceable bench performer for Arizona last season, hitting .261 with three homers in 104 games split between the outfield, first and third. But like Ruiz, he’s gone Japanese and is now with the Yomiuri Giants (in light of recent events, he and Ruiz might want to consider a return to the States).

Josh Thole started last season at Triple-A Buffalo before being called up to New York, where he hit .277 in 73 games for the Mets while nabbing 11 of 25 would-be basestealers from behind the plate. His play was good enough for the Mets to waive bye-bye to Rod Barajas and point to him as the starting catcher in 2011. (At upload time, Thole’s hitting .448 with a pair of homers this spring.)

Small Town News
Bryce Harper will soon be Washington’s, but for now he’s Hagerstown’s, a Maryland berg in the Class-A South Atlantic League. It’s not that the Washington Nationals think that lowly of the 18-year old wunderkind—who hit .389 with three doubles during spring training—but they want him to begin at a point where he can begin a smooth, effective and everyday emergence towards the parent club. Baseball fans in the Hagerstown area will undoubtedly swarm the box office for a chance to see one of the most heralded young talents the game has seen in years, but they should only mind the early games on the schedule—because by June, Harper likely will be gone, moved up to Double- or even Triple-A.

What's in a Name?
Kendry Morales of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim informed the media this past week that his first name has been spelled wrong ever since he arrived from Cuba and that it should be pluralized. So now it’s Kendrys Morales. It’s funny, too, because he’s the one that let the Angels know at first that the name was singular.

A Grand Gift?
Alex Liddi may not make the Seattle Mariners’ Opening Day roster, but he’ll always have this: Grand slams in back-to-back games this past week. On the other hand, given how bad the Mariners’ offense is forecast to be…

Smart Fish?
Los Angeles of Anaheim outfield prospect Mike Trout checked out the scoreboard at an early spring training game in Arizona and saw a promotion for fans to call in with their baseball questions—with his cell phone number listed as the line to call. It was all a prank by veteran Angel teammates. Joel Pineiro explained: “He’s The One, the golden child , the top prospect in baseball, right?”

Cover Your Ears, Kids
Played on the public address system just prior to Saturday's San Francisco-Los Angeles game at Scottsdale: "Cocaine" by Eric Clapton. The lyrics may be "anti-drug," but too many people can't read between those lines—no pun intended.

Are You Checked in, Dan Abrams?
The Barry Bonds trial begins this coming Monday.

Now Playing at TGG
Ed Attanasio’s interview with Freddy Schmidt, the oldest living ex-St. Louis Cardinal, can now be seen in the They Were There section. Freddy talks about his experiences with Branch Rickey, Jackie Robinson and his infamous racist foil Ben Chapman, and his two World Series rings—and why he's lost one of them.

Coming Soon
One of our biggest traditions continues when TGG's fearless prognosticators Eric Gouldsberry and Ed Attanasio release their preseason picks for the 2011 season. Look for it on the week of March 28.

The Comebacker’s Greatest Hits
Click here to look at the TGG Comebacker archive going back to the start of the 2007 season.

Baseball's Ten Most Memroable Home Runs
Our list of ten long balls that are the most deserving for their fame, importance and pure spectacle. Check it out now!

After Further Review: Making the Right Call on Replay
As baseball struggles to grasp video replay, here's a suggestion on how to expand upon it and make it efficient—if not flawless. Check it out now!