Friday, May 15, 2009

HERE'S ONE PROBLEM, FOR STARTERS

How can such terrible things happen to such wonderful people?

If I was having a dinner party, I couldn't think of five finer people to have come by than the Rock Cats starting rotation. Jeff Manship, Matt Fox, Ryan Mullins, Jay Rainville and Cole DeVries have all been very accommodating, pleasant young men who respond candidly when they pitch well and accept responsibility when they don't.

Unfortunately, with the very notable exception of DeVries, they haven't, and it's taking a hideous toll on the Rock Cats during the present homestand.

Without counting Thursday night's suspended game in which the Rock Cats trailed 8-1 in the Portland fourth, the team ERA over the previous five games was 7.16. The only victory during that stretch was a 12-11 win.

Talent is not the issue. Manship was of All-Star quality at the high-A level in Fort Myers and there is no reason why it shouldn't translate here and beyond. He's 2-3 with a 6.31 ERA.

Fox and Rainville have eerily similar track records.

Both were first-round sandwich picks in the 2004 draft, Fox chosen 35th overall and Rainville 39th. Both suffered shoulder injuries that wiped out full seasons.

Rainville, 23, a powerfully built 6-foot-2-inch, 234-pound right-hander from Rhode Island, had a nerve injury and missed the entire 2006 season after posting a 3.29 ERA and striking out 110 in 142 1/3 innings at Fort Myers the season before. Counting the suspended game where he was lit up for six earned runs in 2 2/3 innings, his ERA is at 6.14. He yielded seven earned runs in 3 2/3 in his previous outing -- the 12-11 game -- when he had a 10-2 lead with which to work.

Fox, 26, a Baseball America first-team All-American at the University of Central Florida in 2003, missed all of 2005 rehabbing from shoulder surgery. Command (16 walks in 33 1/3 innings) has abandoned him. He's 1-2 with a 4.32, and has a respectable ratio of hits (32) to innings pitched.

Mullins' Double-A inauguration in 2007 has some stirring moments. The 6-foot-6-inch southpaw out of Vanderbilt displayed a deception that had hitters off-balance. But the Eastern League caught up to him last year, hitting .287 against him over 30 games (24 starts). He's currently 0-5 with a 5.79 ERA and the league is hitting .339 against him.

DeVries has been sensational at 2-2 with a 2.23 ERA. He's gone through his last three starts (18 innings) without surrendering an earned run.

There's nothing I'd like better than to see the other four pitch their way back to prospect status, and they should all consider the case of former Rock Cat turned Cardinals multi-millionaire Kyle Lohse (3-18 with a 6.04 ERA with New Britain in 2000), but the turnaround absolutely needs to begin now. Although it hasn't been a particularly cold spring, June is on the horizon and the warmer weather is setting in.

The starters cannot continue to fall short of six or seven innings of quality work. The bullpen has been stretched beyond its limits. Something has to change with the pitching and the leaky defense or a team with outstanding offensive abilities will be hopelessly buried in no time.

Friday, May 8, 2009

IMPORTANT HOMESTAND LOOMS FOR CATS

The Rock Cats have rallied back into the midst of the Northern Division race, but it's largely been on the strength of their offense.

The defense has been adequate. They have made their share of sensational defensive plays but have made some costly errors.

When Wilson Ramos is behind the plate and Brandon Roberts is in center field, they are strong up the middle. Yancarlos Ortiz has some flash at shortstop and Steve Tolleson is steady. Brian Dinkelman is an All-Star quality second baseman. That gives them passing grades up the middle.

In the corners, Matt Moses has developed into a good left fielder. Rene Tosoni has been exceptional in right, displaying a powerful arm. Juan Portes has shown to be a steady defender both in the outfield and filling in for the injured Danny Valencia at third base. Toby Gardenhire is a valuable utility player. He even filled in admirably at catcher when manager Tom Nieto had a need.

What concerns me is the pitching.

The rotation features four right-handers -- Jeff Manship, Cole DeVries, Matt Fox and Jay Rainville -- with similar attributes. None are overpowering. They have to spot their fastballs and have command of their breaking balls to be successful. Therefore, the opposing teams get similar looks day in and day out, which allows the hitters to get in a rhythm against them.

Manship had two starts where he looked like the stopper he was projected to be. DeVries has exceeded all expectations thus far with most of his outings solid. Fox and Rainville have not pitched with the kind of consistency needed to get deep enough into games.

Left-hander Ryan Mullins has been unable to get untracked this far.

The bullpen is among the league's best with Rob Delaney setting up closer Anthony Slama. Frank Mata and Yohan Pino have been effective at times but you never seem to know what you're going to get when they're called on. Zach Ward has had some major struggles of late after pitching so well for most of 2008.

The Twins generally make some adjustments between Double-A and high-A every year in mid-June so we're still about a month away from wholesale change. The high-A Fort Myers Miracle have a number of pitchers throwing well, particularly starter Carlos Gutierrez and reliever Steven Hirschfeld. With minor league director Jim Rantz due for a visit soon, we should get the lowdown on what the future holds.

The potential is there for the best season since 2003, but if the rotation can't put together a string of quality starts, the bullpen could begin to suffer from overwork and escaping the lower reaches of the division will be difficult.

With at least one victory in the current three-game road trip to Portland in the bag, the upcoming homestand should give us a good idea where the team is headed. We'll get our first look at the Connecticut Defenders and another look at Portland, which doesn't seem to have the high quality talent its had in recent years.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

FOR THE LOVE OF SPARKY

Spring is a time when New England surges back to life after a bleak winter, but in my family it has also become a time of sorrow.

My wife and I experienced deep grief on April 27 when the time had come to put Sparky, out beloved dog of 15 years, out of her misery.

Sparky was a purebred keeshond. She looked remarkably like the dog depicted in UConn's familiar Husky logo. And smart? I have never known a smarter dog. She slept with us, ate with us, helped us bring up our children and provided comic relief.

She would watch the television screen intently for animals and unleash her shrill bark whenever a dog, or horse (she knew them as "big doggies") or most nototiously, a cat, would come onto the screen. Our little sentinel would climb the stairs that lead from our living room to the second-floor bedrooms to the fifth step, where she could see out three of the windows to see who or what was coming or going.

Indeed, our home was Sparky's realm. Squirrels, cats and other dogs were not invited.

Sparky was obviously getting old. Keeshonds, know as Dutch barge dogs because they would help unload boats using their small but sturdy frames, generally live to be 12 but Sparky persevered. She persevered through Cushing's disease, which ravaged her skin among other things. She recovered quickly from surgeries on her patella and the removal of a growth from her back side.

Our vet, Dr. Tanya Batterson, called Sparky a "trouper." All Sparky wanted to do was please us and be with us and to that end she staved off disease and discomfort, discouraged strangers from entering our midst and lived to a ripe old age.

But that didn't make it any easier to say good-bye. Yes, the muscle in Sparky's back legs had atrophied to the point where she struggled to get to her feet. She had stopped climbing the stairs long ago. Yet she was nobly fighting off the sure signs of old age.

On April 27, something went terribly wrong. Lisa came back from their daily walk crying uncontrollably. Sparky simply could not walk. She could no longer squat to do her business. She began vomiting up a thick yellow substance. She held her head crooked.

Our "trouper" had suffered an ischemic stroke as a direct result of the Cushing's disease.

We brought her to an emergency clinic in Avon, where the youngsters working there and the veterinarian were gentle, understanding and kind. They gave us some options, but in all fairness to our dear companion, Sparky's time had come.

The doctor put a catheter into her forearm. She laid on the table panting heavily, seeming without knowledge of what was going on around her. He injected a pink gel into her and within 20 seconds, her loving heart stopped beating. I watched the life drift out of her. A cold, distant look came into her eyes. She no longer responded to my touch.

All dogs go to heaven, I kept repeating to myself. We walked out of the room and into the parking lot. A guttural noise emanated from deep within as I leaned against my truck and tried to come to grips with what had just happened. I hadn't heard that sound roll up from my stomach since my mother was suffering with cancer and on her death bed exactly 19 years earlier. I was not the same person after my mom died. I am not the same person I was on April 26, 2009.

Just over a week has passed since our gut-wrenching loss and reminders of Sparky's incredible life abound.

The soft spring breeze tinkles the mobile that hangs in the porch and it sounds like that familiar jingle her dog tags made. The house groans when the stormy winds blow and it seems like she'll come around the corner with her beautiful, soft head bobbing back and forth. Everything keeshond still decorates our living quarters. The fifth step is empty.

Unanswerable questions, forever the bane of humankind, continue to fog my mind: Does Sparky's spirit still live? Does she know how much we loved her? Does she know how much we miss her?

Lisa and I look ahead, trying to survive our terrible loss. We hope there is another dog -- almost certainly another keeshond -- in our future, but right now, there is no replacement for Sparky.

She was a treasure beyond what any human could possibly provide.

Monday, May 4, 2009

ROCK CATS ARE ROLLING

The Rock Cats are taking shape on the field. Off the field, they're spitting in the face of the recession.

After a slow start, the Cats bats are exploding with hits the way I envisioned when I was at spring training. The starting pitching is holding its own right now and the bullpen, although it burped against Trenton, has basically been phenomenal.

I urge local fans to get a glimpse of two very promising players who will be wearing big-league duds someday. Third baseman Danny Valencia and catcher Wilson Ramos can play this game. The sound and velocity of the ball leaving their bats conveys a message that they are special talents. Given the changing nature of Double-A baseball, they may not be here all that long so make your plans.

If you don't, rest assured that somebody else will. The attendance at The Emerald has been nothing short of sensational with the Cats leading the Eastern League in per-game average by 800 over the second-place Portland Sea Dogs.

Don't read too much into that as far as New Britain ending up on top. The stadium simply cannot hold the kinds of crowds that places like Portland and Reading bring in when the weather warms up but this is the best early spring the Cats have ever had. The sales people are doing a magnificent job and people are responding through walk-up sales at the ticket windows.

There is not a better entertainment bargain anywhere so it should be of no surprise, especially when fans try to buy their annual allotment of tickets in Fenway or The Bronx. The Sox and Yanks will probably start offering mortgages on their ticket deals.

In Boston, $30 won't even get you a parking space. In New Britain, it gets four family members into a Wednesday game and each gets a hot dog, soft drink and box of popcorn. Okay, we're not watching major leaguers here, but the savvy local fan has seen Jacoby Ellsbury, Clay Buchholz, Jon Lester, Jonathan Papelbon, Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis over the last six or seven seasons.

In New York, $7 won't even get you in a game of three-card monte but in New Britain, you can get seats so close to first base that you'll be ducking on high throws from shortstop. And we have seen the likes of Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, Brett Gardner and Ramiro Pena.

I would like to encourage anybody who considers a Rock Cats visit to think ahead. First, tickets for key series can get to the premium stage, particularly fireworks Friday nights and games against the Red Sox and Yankees minor league stars. Also, come out early. The Rock Cats offer all kinds of pregame festivity, batting practice is fun to watch and you avoid the inevitable parking lot jam-ups that leave cars creeping down South Main Street and stuck on the Route 9 spur from the south that feeds right into Willow Brook Park.