Wednesday, August 08, 2007

A Birthday at the Ballpark: Reds .vs. Dodgers

Well, it wasn't really my birthday; August 7th was my 26th birthday. Yes, my 26th birthday was also the day when Barry Bonds broke the all-time home run record. I was just thrilled. Actually I wasn't watching the game at all -- I was watching Mystery Science Theatre's The Giant Spider Invasion with some friends. It was a lot more enjoyable.

So we set the day after my birthday as the day to go see the Reds. Not only was it $1 hot dog day (a fact which easily won over my friend Chris -- from the previous game -- and my roommate Jonathon), but all non-premium seats were 1/2 price! So we got ourselves some nice seats right down on the infield just past third base. Granted, we were pretty far back, but it was still a bargain at $20 a pop.
First, Jonathon and I had to drive to Newport to pick up Chris. Chris said that he was going to try and convince some more people to come along, but no dice. Apparently -- and I've noticed this before to -- it's hard to get people to join in on a social outing unless there's at least 5 other people involved. Everyone apparently said to Chris, "Well, I can't go. But who's going?" I guess if some really sexy people were going, then they would have changed their minds. Either that or they just want to keep tabs on what everyone's doing. But it was a disappointment that, evidently, Jonathon and I weren't enough to get people out of their houses. Sigh.

Granted, I could understand why people wanted to stay inside. As we were walking up to the ballpark, we passed a bank which showed a temperature reading of 101 degrees. And this was at 6:30 in the evening. It was hoooot and also humid.
But for $1 hot dogs, we made the trek. It was the Reds against the Dodgers, which sounded like a mismatch, although the pitching match-up was promising: Aaron Harang .vs. Chad Billingsley. Two good young starters there. I was also looking forward to getting to see some of the Dodgers' young talent.

The first thing that struck me was the Dodgers' lineup, which had Juan Pierre leading off. Now I've gone on at length in this blog about the problems people have when they put their faith in otherwise untalented but speedy leadoff men, and I've mentioned Pierre himself on more than one occasion. Pierre's OBP entering Wednesday's game was .318. That's below average for any hitter, which means that it's unacceptable from a leadoff man. And of course, Pierre isn't picking up the slack with a .280 batting average, a non-existent slugging percentage, and a throwing arm like a wet noodle. Yes, he steals bases, but at what cost? Mercy!
Not only that, but the Dodgers followed him up with Rafael Furcal (OBP of .345 entering the game), who wasn't doing much better at the plate. Now Furcal is usually better than that, so I can live with him leading off a game. But putting Pierre and Furcal at the top of the order is not going to get ducks on the pond for your big batters. Not coincidentally, the Dodgers were going on back-to-back games of being shutout.
The Dodgers had Russel Martin in the #3 spot. Martin's a good hitter, especially for a catcher (296/367/464 on the season), but he's not the classic #3 type. Jeff Kent (304/382/509) would have been better off at #3 or -- dare I say -- #2, with Furcal leading off.
Andre Ethier hit 5th, which isn't so bad (300/366/459) except for the fact that James Loney and Matt Kemp were at the bottom of the order. I know that a pennant race isn't always the best time for experimentation, but the Dodgers should try to get at least some of their impact rookies in the middle of the order. If they did, then maybe they'd be scoring more runs instead of turning their batting order on its head.

Nomar Garciaparra hit 6th, because he used to be a good slugger. Nomar's hitting 279/326/365 this season, which is eight different kinds of awful. At least now he's creating a hole at third base rather than at first (he was at third tonight, with Loney manning first. Since the Betemit trade, this could stick.) I don't have any great confidence in Nomar's defense or even his ability to start hitting like a good third baseman. Of course, the real problem is that they have Nomar at all, having signed him under duress after losing J.D. Drew. The Dodgers have a perfectly good young first baseman (Loney), a perfectly good young third baseman (Andy LaRoche, stuck in the minors), and expensive free agents in the middle infield (Furcal and Kent). Take into account that the team also had Betemit when the year opened, and it's simply an inexcusable blunder to re-sign Nomar Garciaparra.

That said, the Dodgers went into Wednesday's game with something less than an ideal deployment of their offensive resources. Part of this was due to tactical error (Pierre, Garciaparra) and part of it was the inevitable consequence of such a foolhardy offseason by the front office.
The Reds sent up the usual suspects, minus Ryan Freel. Freel will undergo season-ending surgery soon, and while I respect the fact that he's the poster child for Cincinnati baseball, he's 31 years old and just can't afford to continue playing as recklessly as he does.
A tale of two cities: leading off for Cincinnati was Scott "The Mad" Hatteberg (.401 OBP before the game), who has 0 stolen bases, but is still a much better leadoff man. Batting second was Pierre's Cincinnati counterpart, Norris Hopper. Well, no, they're not that similar, but they're both outfielders overrated for their speed and "hustle." With Hopper, at least they're aware he's mainly a fourth outfielder; I don't see him getting a mega million dollar payday.
After Hopper, it was Griffey-Phillips-Dunn. I wondered if it might make more sense to move Hopper down in the lineup and have it start out Hatteberg-Dunn-Phillips-Griffey. That's probably way too much Moneyball for most teams to stomach, especially at the top of the lineup.
The order was rounded out by Edwin Encarnacion, Alex Gonzalez, David Ross, and Aaron Harang. Edwin's having a tough year (269/344/384), but I think if they'd just stop messing with him, he'd be better off. He may not be a third baseman for long, but you're not in the pennant race; don't send him to Triple-A and stifle his growth just because of his errors. This guy's still young and should still be good if doesn't get "Kearns-ized" by the front office.
Gonzalez is a backup shortstop signed to be a starting shortstop. That's not so awful, so long as they're cheap, and A-Gonz isn't. With David Ross, the Reds fell in love with an aberrant 2006 season (255/353/579) and can't seem to pull the plug, even with Ross stinking up the joint (202/259/399). If he didn't have 15 homers, he'd be historically bad, rather than just bad.
Both pitchers started out well, moving pretty easily through the first three innings. Aaron Harang in particular was dominant, retiring the first 10 batters he faced. In the top of the 2nd, Andre Ethier hit a ball foul that was heading right towards us, but a little high. Our laps were full of hot dogs, so we couldn't even stand up, really. The ball bounced off the facade of the second deck and landed somewhere next to me. I was looking toward the floor, when my friend Jonathon raised his arms . . .

. . . and there it was. I've never caught a foul ball in my life, and here Jonathon catches one (or rather, it caught him) at his first-ever big league game. I was positively giddy, and I'm not often giddy. My friend Chris was just grumpy that he didn't catch it himself. That ball will hold a special place of honor back at the apartment.

But as I said, the first three innings went quietly. The Reds finally got things started in the bottom of the third. Hatteberg led off with a double, and after Hopper grounded out, Griffey singled him in (Reds 1, Dodgers o). Phillips grounded into a force play and, after issuing a walk to Adam Dunn, Billingsley got out of the inning when Edwin Encarnacion flied out.

Harang gave up his first hit in the 4th, a single off the bat of Rafael Furcal. Russel Martin then single, sending Furcal to third, but Harang struck out Kent and then Ethier flew out to left field to end the inning.

The Reds got some action started in the 5th, as Chad Billinsgley fell apart. Billingsley walked two, threw two wild pitches, and would have thrown more if not for some energetic work by Russel Martin. He looked like he was positively losing it, and it took two visits from Martin (we booed; it was hot) and one from pitching coach Rick Honeycutt to get Billingsley out of the inning. The Reds also helped him with a baserunning gaffe. They had runners at 2nd and 3rd after an excellent sac bunt by Harang when Hatteberg hit a ground ball to first. Alex Gonzalez, the runner at 3rd, broke for home and got caught in a rundown, as Loney had plenty of time to throw to the plate. Martin chased him back up the line, by which time David Ross was already standing at third. Gonzalez then made a big u-turn and got around Martin, but was rightly called out for leaving the baseline. With runners again on second and third, Billingsley walked Hopper to load the bases for Griffey (!). Fortunately for the Dodgers, Griffey flew out.

Harang allowed a leadoff single to Nomar in the 5th, then retired the next 9 batters he saw. He was very much in control.

Billingsley gave up another walk in the 5th, but otherwise made it through the inning. (The highlight of the 5th was an unheralded catch by Jeff Kent, who ran well into center field to make an over-the-shoulder catch on an Edwin Encarnacion pop-up).

Billingsley was relieved by Scott "Whipping Boy" Proctor in the 6th. Proctor threw two scoreless innings, allowing just one hit (a single by Griffey).

Right before the 7th-inning stretch, a small rainstorm burst out of the looming clouds. It wasn't much rain, and several people (especially Chris) welcomed anything that would cool us off. But most people started heading for the concourse, earning them the label of "party-poopers" in my book. The rain stopped less than 5 minutes later, so ha, ha!

The Pepsi Scoreboard Stumper for the game was: "Name the 4 batters to hit 40 or more HR in a season while with the Los Angeles Dodgers."

That was tough, but right away Chris and I came up with Mike Piazza and Shawn Green. The L.A. angle meant no Duke Snider, so I had to start thinking of big sluggers who played for the Dodgers. That's not a long list. I guessed Raul Mondesi (didn't he hit 40 back in the day?) and, just so we'd have somebody from before 1993, I also guessed Frank Howard. (We were right with Piazza and Green; the other two were Gary Sheffield and Adrian Beltre. Beltre's career year had already slipped my mind, and I didn't remember Sheffield being that healthy in LA).

Harang got in trouble in the 8th, as Loney led off with a double. He represented the tying run and stood in scoring position with nobody out in the inning and Matt Kemp due up. Kemp hit a line drive right at a diving Brandon Phillips, who then flipped the ball to Gonzalez at second to double off Loney. The crowd went wild.

Harang allowed a walk to pinch-hitter Olmedo Saenz (who was lifted for pinch-runner Delwyn Young). Juan Pierre followed up with a hard liner to left field, but it was right at Adam Dunn, who caught it to end the inning.

Jonothan Broxton came on for the Dodgers in the 9th and looked sensational. He struck out both Dunn and Encarnacion with offspeed stuff (unless the scoreboard was lying). Alex Gonzalez doubled with two out, but David Ross flew out to center to end the inning.

David Weathers came on in the 9th, and things got even more interesting. Rafael Furcal led off. Furcal hit a sharp bouncer back up the middle. Weathers, who had fallen to the left side of the mound, reached out with his bare hand and caught the ball in time to throw Furcal out at first. But that wasn't even the best catch of the inning. After Russel Martin popped out, Jeff Kent hit a screaming line drive back up the middle. I saw Brandon Phillips start to dive and said, "No way." But yes, Phillips speared the liner with a great diving catch and the Reds won, 1-0.

Harang took the win in a great 8-inning outing that saw him strike out 8 and walk just one. Billingsley took the loss, but even though he went haywire in the 4th, he still allowed just one run through 5. The save went to Weathers for his 9th-inning acrobatics.

A poor 20,462 was the paid attendance for tonight's game, which is disappointing even for a Wednesday. Granted, it was hot and threatening some rain, but it was also 1/2 price ticket night with $1 hot dogs to boot. If those promotions brought 15-17,000 into the game, I shudder to think what a regular game would have done.

Not only is it the dog days of summer, but the new ballpark halo is starting to wear off. I hope Cincinnati won't make it to Pittsburgh levels of empty seats, but it's been a long time since they were really good. They've got several really good players, but their depth sucks, and a lot of their problems are of their own making. I'm optimistic about the arrival of stud hitters like Bruce and Votto, but I still gotta wonder who's gonna pitch these here games.

Until next time.

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