Monday, October 5, 2009
Ok, it's getting a little ridiculous now with Michael Cuddyer. The guy has been hot as a pistol for the last month and it's to the point now where he could probably walk up to the plate holding a spatula and still jack one out of the yard. The Twins finished the season on a torrid 16-4 tear, and Cuddyer led the charge with his blazing .333 average, 8 homers, and 24 RBIs. The only real moment of adversity for the Twins this weekend came when the Royals rallied to tie Saturday's game in the 8th, putting the pressure back on the Twinkie offense to reclaim the lead. Cuddyer took matters into his own hands in the bottom of the inning, while when facing something called a "Dusty Hughes," he looked changeup on 2-0 and proceeded to hit the longest home run in major league history. The Twins have experienced a true roller-coaster ride this season, and there is none better to symbolize that than Michael Cuddyer.
The last half dozen years of the guy's career have been something straight out of Caligula. You never know what to expect. In 2004-05, he was a marginal utilityman with a little pop in his bat. Then he finally busted out in 2006 with 24 taters and 109 rib-eyes (the same number he had total in his first five years in the bigs). He was officially a star on the rise in the Twin Cities. But then '07 came around and Cuddyer clumsily returned to Earth. His power numbers went down, and nobody could quite figure out why. Then last year, albeit one marked by injuries, Cuddyer stepped to the dish 279 times and hit all of three home runs. A guy has a year like that, and more often than not they are bagging groceries within the next 8-10 months. It was a startling drop in production for a guy that looked to be a Twins cornerstone just two years prior. Which makes his most recent stretch of dominance so hard to figure.
He scuffled for large parts of the summer, and then when big bopper Justin Morneau went down for the count, Cuddyer simply turned into some other type of rawhide-bashing life form. Wonderboy catcher Joe Mauer is the likely choice for American League MVP, and the rest of the Twins lineup contains a number of little land mines that must be sidestepped with care, but heading into Tuesday night's all-or-nothing showdown in the Homerdome, it is the once-forgotten Michael Cuddyer that will be feared most. And rightfully so.
The Chicago Cubs had one of their more forgettable seasons in 2009. They followed up consecutive playoff appearances with a sloppy 83-78 finish, good enough for second place, but still well out of the money in the ultra-depressing National League Central. The Cubbies typically strong pitching staff suffered throughout the campaign. Ryan Dempster returned to his normal perch atop Mount Mediocrity, Carlos Zambrano had a year that had him pondering retirement, and Kevin Gregg blew so many saves that the front office gave serious consideration to bringing back the late Rod Beck for the stretch run. He couldn't do much worse, could he? The everyday lineup was no great shakes, either. Fonzie Soriano found his comfort zone in the .240's while becoming a highly respected butcher in left field, Milton Bradley singlehandedly transformed one of the best clubhouses in the league into one of the worst, and amazingly enough, Derrek Lee (111 RBIs) wound up being the only guy on the team to drive in more than 65 runs. Putting that in perspective, the Tigers, another offensively challenged club, employed four such players. So heading into the season finale Sunday afternoon with the Diamondbacks, there really wasn't much to look forward to. Just two run-of-the-mill squads playing out the string on a blustery day in north Chicago. Cubs rookie outfielder Sam Fuld got the start in center. And while Fuld has dazzled with his glovework, his run production has left a little to be desired. And when I mean "a little," I really mean a lot. What I'm trying to say is that Fuld had strode to the dish a cool 121 times in his big league career before Sunday's affair, and driven in a grand total of zero runs. Not a one. Not a broken bat blooper with a couple runners on...not a lazy sacrifice fly to bring home a guy from third. Not one run batted in. And it's not like the guy can't hit. He has a sharp eye, sprays the ball all over the field, and kept his batting average close to .300 throughout the year (finished at .299). But he just couldn't manage one stinkin' ribbie.
Then came Sunday. You knew Fuld did not want the ignominy of this "feat" haunting him all winter. You thought maybe he would be inspired by the Jewish holiday of Sukkot getting kickstarted over the weekend. Whatever the case, Fuld wanted to put the demons to sleep for good, and finally did so in the home half of the fifth when he took a Doug Davis offering and blasted it high and deep to right where only the bleacher bums had a realistic chance of making a play. L'Chaim!! It took the 5'10" spark plug from Stanford the whole year to do it, but Fuld was finally able to wipe off that nasty goose egg from his rookie stat line. And just to prove that the first time was no fluke, Fuld drove in his second career run next time up with an otherwise uneventful groundout to first.
His confidence was now growing, and his RBI total was practically exploding. But in this wildly disappointing Cubs season, it is no wonder that the final out of the game was made by former Rookie of the Year turned bust Geovany Soto with one of his trademark flailing Ks, leaving the hottest hitter on the planet, Sam Fuld, stranded in the on-deck circle. An oddly poetic conclusion to a truly joyless season.
Before Mark Reynolds came along, 200 strikeouts for a hitter in a single season was simply unheard of. Heck, you only bat five or six hundred times a year. How can you pretend to make a living when you're striking out more than a third of the time?? Guys used to approach Bobby Bonds' old record of 189 Ks late in the year, and suddenly vanish into thin air. Out of the lineup, five days in a row. Nobody wanted to be associated with such a shameful record. Jose Hernandez, formerly of the Cubs and just about every other team in Major League Baseball, used to perform this ritual annually. He'd get to 185 or 186 and just shut it down. Doesn't exactly conjure up memories of Ted Williams' refusal to sit out the season's final doubleheader, even though doing so would have assured him a historic .400 batting average. He played the games, got his hits, and earned that mark. Which is why you kinda have to respect Mark Reynolds. The third baseman for the Diamondbacks came along last year and tallied a whopping 204 strikeouts. He didn't ride the bench to avoid his rightful place in the record book. He took it like a man and made an oath to not let history repeat itself in 2009. Well, at least it sounded like a good plan at the time. He finished his season yesterday afternoon with a "Reynolds Classic" three-strikeout day at Wrigley, giving him a grand total of 223 Ks on the year. No sir, that was not a typo or a misprint. The man became the first major leaguer to eclipse the 200-K mark last year with 204, and proceeded to absolutely crush that number in 2009. What's his goal for next year...250? 300? To be fair, the free-swingin' Reynolds also bashed 44 round trippers and drove in 102, but at what point does his almost silly 'feast or famine' approach become detrimental to the cause?
Reynolds should do himself a big favor this off-season and take some time to learn about Joe Sewell, the underrated Hall-of-Fame shortstop for the Indians in the 1920's and 30's. Sewell was just 5'6" and weighed all of 150 pounds. He might have looked like the kind of guy you could simply overpower with a blistering fastball up in the zone. Guess again. Sewell was quite possibly the toughest man to strike out in baseball history. He walked to the plate 8,329 times during his career, and on only 114 of those occasions did he wind up trudging back to the dugout shaking his head. That is once out of every 73 times. Placido Polanco is perennially at the top of the "hardest to strike out" list. But his numbers are usually in the 14-15 range...not seventy-three. Sewell's most ridiculous season came in 1925 when he amassed a mind-boggling 699 plate appearances, and struck out FOUR times. Four. He went to bat nearly 700 times, and let the pitcher reach the three-strike limit on exactly four of those instances. And to prove he wasn't making contact just for the sake of making contact (see: Juan Pierre), Sewell hit .336 and finished third in the AL MVP vote. (I'm still bitter that Roger Peckinpaugh took that award over my boy, and I still think the numbers speak for themselves, but we'll let it go...for now.)
Sewell was the picture of consistency throughout his 14-year career, and he remains arguably the most overlooked Hall-of-Famer in this game's deep history. It took him 1,903 games to collect his microscopic career total of 114 whiffs. Reynolds had 123 by this year's All-Star break. Reynolds is undoubtedly one of the most potent young sluggers in the National League. But until he embraces the legend of Joe Sewell and learns to command the strike zone even the slightest bit, he will continue to be a punchline in a profession where production, not comedy, is the top priority.
We close the book on another baseball season, but plenty more awaits in the playoffs (hopefully...for Tigers fans). And wherever you are, don't forget to have a little piece of cake on Friday...it's Joe Sewell's birthday. Reach the High Socks Legend at email@example.com