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AZ 2, Cardinals 6 - Ten Down and Ground

Record: 65-75. Change on last season: +2
Rookies in starting lineup: 2
Number of players in the majors with 70+ RBI: 71
Number of Diamondbacks with 70+ RBI: None

"What we have here, is a failure to communicate." That's a (slightly tidied-up) version of a famous line from Cool Hand Luke, but on first glance could just as easily apply to Diamondbacks' management. Despite the failures of the past few months, they still seem to want to persist in rolling out as close as they can get to the 2005 version of the team - y'know, back when Tony Clark was good - rather than looking toward the 2007 version.

It's somewhat understandable: letting go of the past is never easy, and Gonzalez + Counsell represent the last ties to the glorious, golden era of the 2001 team. But last year, this was a mediocre 77-85 bunch, consisting of declining veterans (Counsell, Gonzalez, Clark, Clayton), not-ready-for-prime-time players (Snyder, Cintron, Terrero) and a pitching rotation with one man (Webb, natch) posting an ERA+ better than 100. So why cling desperately, to the last vestiges of it, like a drunk clutching a doorpost? Clark will not resurrect our season: hell, he can't even resurrect his own season. Carlos Quentin sitting on the bench is not going to help us in 2007. If we're going to lose - and on recent performances, this seems a good bet - then let us lose in a way that will help us down the road.

At least Clark and Counsell have the decency to suck lately, which makes it that much easier for me to criticize their occupation of a lineup spot. Luis Gonzalez, on the other hand, occasionally still produces - as in last night's game, where he drove in two runs and hit his 15th homer. No, Gonzo is not going gentle into that good night, but burning and raving at the close of day, as Dylan Thomas would have said (if he was a baseball blogger), and is still producing at an average level for NL right-fielders. [Of course, he's getting paid well above average...]

Decent performances like this mean it becomes difficult to convince casual fans that Gonzo in LF is no longer in the best, long-term interests of the team. After all, he's now tied Harry Heilmann for 21st place on baseball's all-time list with his 542nd double. Isn't that more important? [Heilmann played 17 seasons, from 1914-32, mostly for Detroit. He won four AL batting titles, and his best year was probably 1923, when he hit .403 with 18 HR and 44 doubles. Heilmann was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1952. No, I'd never heard of him before either.]

The Diamondbacks certainly foster this attitude, honouring his, ah, achievement at tonight's game. The first 40,000 fans receive a Luis Gonzalez poster featuring a timeline of doubles he's hit, including photos from the game he reached the 300/500 milestone. [There is also, I note, 20% off Gonzo merchandise, less an "honour" than "clearing the shelves" - wait a couple of months, and I bet it'll be even more heavily discounted...] He's also getting another pre-game ceremonial presentation. Stop me if I'm wrong, but wouldn't it make more sense to, oh, I dunno, wait until he's done hitting doubles? Which might not be long. The headline on the Tribune's report today is 'Stay appears close to end for Gonzalez'. He says, "I would just like to know so I could enjoy those last games at home with the fans."

He deserves that. Hell, turn that whole final weekend against the Padres into an utter Gonzo lovefest, for everything he's done with the franchise since he arrived here. I'm hoping to get to the last game, and help give him a fitting sendoff, for he is, and will always be, among my favorite players. But my love is tempered with a realization that regular playing time for him is no longer in the best interests of the team. We need to look forward, not back, though I appreciate it's a difficult task for management to juggle all the pieces. There is, for example, a real chance that whoever played LF could alienate fans if he is seen as the "Gonzo killer." [We've seen how attached some are to purple and teal, and that doesn't even have a pulse]

Which is where Eric Byrnes comes in, since he's someone the fans have already grown to love this season. He could take over there and put up similar numbers (OPS = .817 vs. Gonzo's .828 - the difference, and then some, being Luis's walks), while remaining a crowd favourite, and at less than half the price of Luis' 2007 option. $3-4m would be the likely arbitration figure, and he wants to return, saying "I hope they want to bring me back, but it's not up to me, it's up to them... I think this has been a good fit for me, and hopefully it was a good fit for the Diamondbacks. It's just a matter of whether I fit into the plans of what they are trying to do in years to come. Hopefully I do, because I want to be part of that. There are so many good young players coming up." Works for me.

Back at last night's contest, Clark, meanwhile, struck out in the pivotal at-bat, with runners on second and third and no outs in the fourth, when it was still a one-run game. The Cardinals escaped the inning without conceding a run: they walked Drew to get to Batista, who grounded into a forceout at home, and Young then also grounded out to end the inning. Clark's flailing was a major shift in momentum: we had other chances (notably Byrnes also going down swinging with a runner at third and one out in the fifth), but two groundouts would have given us the lead. In his defense, however, Clark was one victim of a wildly inconsistent strike zone by home-plate umpire Bill Welke, which seemed to consist mostly of make-up calls for the previous pitch. Questec will be having a quiet word with him, I think.

The main justification for Clark playing seemed to be that he was 6-for-9 lifetime against Jeff Weaver, with two home runs. While initially seeming like fairly productive numbers, the sample size there is so small as to be meaningless. In less than ten at-bats, anyone could do anything, and it would be near-impossible to draw any significant conclusions as a result. Also, how many of those at-bats were this season, when Clark hasn't hit his weight (245 lbs, fact fans) save one game in April? Answer: none at all. Using a tiny set of performances from last year is not my approach to lineup construction.

Batista's undefeated streak came to a sudden end, thanks largely to another bad first inning for the Diamondbacks, which saw them face a three-run deficit before they got to the plate. The Cardinals fell a double short of hitting for the cycle in the first, with a two-run homer by Spiezio the big blow. Batista ended up going six innings, allowing five runs on six hits and three walks. The fifth was his other bad inning: the Cardinals scored a run on a passed ball by Montero, while Batista was trying to pitch around the edges of Pujols, with one of those "unintentional intentional" walks. However, Encarnacion followed up with an RBI single, so that run would probably have scored anyway.

After Miggy left, Slaten retired the first two hitters in the seventh, before being replaced by Julio for the last out, and the eighth. Even though removed from the closer's role, Jorge the Jorrible still had his problems: he allowed another homer to Spiezio and three hits to the seven hitters he faced, though did also fan three of them. Aquino worked a scoreless ninth - as a result of this game, Julio's ERA for Arizona is now worse than both Aquino's and Juan Cruz. Taking only relief outings into consideration, here are the stats for our bullpen corps this season (min. 15 innings):

             IP  H BB  K  ERA WHIP  BAA
Vizcaino   58.0 45 23 65 3.26 1.17 .213
Cruz       19.2 11 16 21 3.66 1.37 .167
Lyon       64.0 60 19 42 3.80 1.26 .249
Medders    67.1 75 23 42 3.88 1.46 .281
Aquino     43.1 51 21 44 4.36 1.66 .293
Julio      39.0 30 22 51 4.38 1.33 .204
Grimsley - let's not bother, shall we?
Pena       24.1 27  7 20 5.18 1.40 .284
Valverde   41.2 44 21 61 6.48 1.56 .265

On that basis, I'd favour keeping Vizcaino, Cruz, Lyon and Medders around for next year; I'd prefer to see Cruz in a starter's role, albeit cutting down on those walks. If he makes the rotation, maybe one of the Gonzalez boys would replace him. Valverde probably should be retained too, since he seems to have sorted out whatever issue was ailing him, and the stats are inflated by a horrible couple of weeks where nothing went right. Slaten should get a good look, both the rest of the way and in spring training. I don't think we'll want to hang on to Julio, since we have cheaper, better alternatives. Pena seems to have the raw "stuff", but needs to know how to use it more effectively.

Offensively, Gonzalez was the only batter with more than one hit - Hudson and Drew both reached safely twice, on a hit and a walk apiece, but we seemed adrift on a steady diet of breaking balls from Weaver. Johnny Estrada was drilled on the arm in the fourth, and left the lineup shortly afterwards: there seems to be no permanent damage and he'll probably miss just a couple of games. He was replaced by Montero, who didn't have the greatest of games behind the plate. As noted, a run scored on a passed ball, and a number of pitches also seemed to be popping out of his glove as if it were made of wood. Still, early days yet. And thanks to Devin and icecoldmo for popping in.

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Today: Jeff Makes Be-Weavers of the D'backs

Tucson beat Salt Lake again last night, to take a 2-0 lead in their playoff series. This time, they used 7.1 innings of three-hit ball from Dustin Nippert to beat the Bees by a score of 4-2. He walked three and fanned seven, allowing no earned runs, though this was hardly a defensive gem by either team. Tucson scored twice in the first inning without a hit, thanks to a pair of Bees gaffes, while a dropped pop-up by Juan Brito led to two unearned runs going the other way in the eighth. However, Arizona had a 4-0 lead by that point, thanks to a wild pitch and sacrifice fly in the sixth, and Bajenaru, White and Koplove pitched the final five outs to preserve the victory, Koplove getting the save.

I should also mention that the Sidewinders were not our only farm team to make the playoffs, as the Class-A South Bend Silver Hawks also experienced post-season baseball. However, they were less successful than their Triple-A counterparts, losing the first two games in their best of three series against the Lansing Lugnuts - yeah, South Bend got screwed. :-) Both defeats were 4-3, last night's largely thanks to four unearned runs in the first inning: only one Lansing runner reached second after that, but the damage had been done. South Bend scored runs in the third, sixth and eighth innings but couldn't quite complete the comeback, as Justin Upton struck out three times. Manager Mark Haley said, pointedly, "Justin is getting a steady diet of curve balls, and part of learning how to play this game is learning how to hit them, and not lunge at them." Ouch...