Everyone is either a self-professed expert or in a bad mood these days, which makes it tough if you're a ballplayer in a rut. Leave the bases loaded or hang a slider to A-Rod, and chances are there's a newspaper columnist, a blogger or talk-show caller out there looking to challenge your manhood, competence or reason to exist.
Fortunately, the sheer length of a baseball season provides an opportunity for injuries to heal and fractured psyches to mend. And you never know where the comeback trail will begin -- with a trip to the disabled list, a pep talk from a teammate, a mechanical adjustment or the old regression to the mean finally taking hold.
This week's installment of "Starting 9" is heavy on the redemption theme, as we salute players who hit rough patches earlier this season but have recovered to make significant contributions for teams in playoff contention. Say hello to our Back-from-the-Dead All-Stars.
Pat Burrell, Phillies
In early July, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a story on Burrell beneath the headline "The $50 Million Mistake.''
It was hard to dispute the premise: Burrell had just failed to make an All-Star team for the eighth straight season, and his slugging percentage was a meager .368. Even Phillies assistant general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. conceded that Burrell's six-year, $50 million contract hadn't worked out as the team had expected.
Unbeknownst to the Phillies, the "good" Pat Burrell was about to make an appearance. Since July 2, Burrell is hitting .375 and leads the majors with a .488 on-base percentage.
Burrell is publicly aloof and a hard guy to read, but he doesn't seem to be the type to derive motivation from armchair critiques. Phillies fans have been booing him for years, and he's never lashed out or made excuses. On the contrary, Burrell is comfortable enough in Philadelphia that he remains finicky about waiving his no-trade clause.
Burrell's problems appear to lie in his hitting mechanics. When he's slumping, he opens up too quickly on the front side, his head flies out, and he's helpless against breaking balls down and away. When Burrell is dialed in, he stays more upright and behind the ball, and he's better equipped to drive pitches up the middle and the opposite way.
Manager Charlie Manuel and hitting coach Milt Thompson have spent countless hours working with Burrell in the cage, but they can't cure his streakiness. The Phillies just hope this latest binge lasts a while longer.
Jeff Weaver, Mariners
Weaver was the embodiment of awful in his first month as a Mariner. He went 0-6 with a 14.32 ERA in six starts, and Seattle was outscored 54-13 in those games.
When Weaver went on the disabled list May 10, everybody winked and assumed the Mariners just wanted to save him from further shell shock. In reality, the team detected weakness in Weaver's shoulder and thought he could benefit from some rest and strength work with the training staff.
Weaver has been a changed man since his return. He's getting better extension, which gives his two-seamer more sink and his breaking pitches more bite. He is also generating greater arm speed, which adds deception to his changeup. He's 5-4 with a 3.30 ERA in his last 13 starts.
"I told him, 'You used to have an attitude in Detroit. You need that attitude to pitch,''' said Seattle manager John McLaren. Weaver has been known to lose his composure on the mound and irritate umpires on occasion, but his competitiveness served him well with St. Louis during the 2006 postseason. For the moment, at least, he has attitude to spare.
Chone Figgins, Angels
Chone is pronounced like "Shawn,'' which rhymes with gone. When Figgins was hitting .133 in late May, gone and Triple-A Salt Lake ranked first and second among the average Angels fan's preferred destinations for him.
After missing most of April with two broken fingers, Figgins spent most of May searching for a comfort zone at the plate. When manager Mike Scioscia gave him two days off to clear his head, Figgins went to the batting cage and began hacking until his aggression was spent and his hands were raw.
He's never looked back. In June, Figgins hit .461 and joined Albert Pujols, Randy Winn and Ichiro Suzuki as one of four players in the past five years to collect 50 hits in a month. He leads the majors with a .394 average since June. While Vladimir Guerrero remains the focal point of the Angels' offense, Figgins is the team's toughest out right now.
Bobby Abreu, Yankees
Abreu was hitting a soft .234 on June 1 when the New York Daily News quoted an anonymous scout referring to him as a "piece of garbage.'' You can only imagine the phraseology the same scout must have applied to Carl Pavano.
Fair or not, Abreu wasn't himself in the first half. He uncharacteristically expanded his strike zone, going a career-high 61 plate appearances without a walk, and manager Joe Torre gave him a wake-up call at one point by dropping him to eighth in the order.
Abreu has hit .328 since June through selectivity and a return to the basics. He's stopped "drifting" at the plate, said one scout, and done a better job of staying on the ball and driving it up the middle.
The Yankees, faced with big decisions on Alex Rodriguez, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada this winter, must also determine where they stand with Abreu. His on-base ability isn't easily replaceable, but that $16 million option seems awfully steep for a corner outfielder with an .808 OPS.
Jacque Jones, Cubs
General manager Jim Hendry offered Jones all over Western civilization last winter, and was on the verge of trading him to Florida in June when the commissioner's office intervened for what one insider called "accounting" issues.
Good thing for the Cubs. Jones leads the team with a .336 average and 26 RBIs since the All-Star break, and he's helped fill the void left by Alfonso Soriano's quadriceps injury.
Cubs fans, who've made a sport of booing Jones, stood and cheered three times after he homered and made a sparkling catch in a recent win over St. Louis. Jones is back in their good graces -- at least until he misses a cutoff man or pops up with the bases loaded.
As for this winter, who knows? With a glut of outfielders in Chicago, Jones could be back on the trade market soon enough. He'll make $5 million next year in the final year of his contract. Given the spiraling cost of outfielders, he looks downright affordable for 2008.
Brian Giles, Padres
It's been a challenging year for Giles. He missed a month with a painful bone bruise in his right knee, and that heartwarming reunion with little brother Marcus hasn't produced the desired results.
In today's accusatory climate, Giles' mid-30s power decline also has generated the inevitable whispers. The San Diego Union-Tribune's fan chat board recently posted the question, "Was Brian Giles on the juice?'' The question generated nearly 170 responses.
Giles has denied using performance enhancers, and the numbers suggest his power drop-off is primarily a function of playing 81 games at Petco Park. All seven of Giles' homers have come on the road, and he has a .530 slugging percentage in away games compared to .348 at Petco.
Giles' recent four-homer outburst in Cincinnati was a freak occurrence, but if he can contribute a high on-base percentage, some doubles, aggressive baserunning and hard takeout slides, he'll be a factor for a Padres team that ranks 15th in the National League in runs scored.
Julio Lugo, Red Sox
It would have been easy to file Lugo under the Edgar Renteria "not emotionally equipped to play in Boston" category when he dipped to .191. Instead, manager Terry Francona sent him to the bench for a respite, and Lugo responded like a man freed from an emotional burden.
Lugo is hitting .338 since the All-Star break, and according to one scout, he's controlling his at-bats and working himself into better hitter's counts instead of simply "letting it fly." He also leads American League shortstops with 27 steals.
Lugo isn't the only Boston position player who's made an in-season comeback. Coco Crisp recovered from a terrible start and a run-in with the Mariner Moose to raise his average from .221 to .273. He's also playing Gold Glove-caliber defense for the Sox.
Kip Wells, Cardinals
Wells, on the other hand, was declared a bust in June, when a 17-8 loss to Kansas City dropped his record to 2-11 and raised his ERA to 6.93.
The Cardinals sent Wells to the bullpen for a refresher course, and he's been a different pitcher since his return to the rotation. He's 3-1 with a 2.79 ERA in his last six starts, and he's been less inclined to nibble than throw strikes and trust his natural movement.
"His stuff isn't any different than earlier this season,'' said a scout. "He just isn't pitching from 2-0 or 3-1 in the count all the time.''
Wells has company in the Dave Duncan Reclamation Society. Joel Pineiro, discarded by Boston, has won three straight decisions for St. Louis, and Anthony Reyes, once 0-10, is now back among the living at 2-12.
Lastings Milledge, Mets
It's always been a question of comportment rather than talent for Milledge. Even when he's producing, stuff just seems to happen to him.
The latest contretemps occurred in July, when Milledge "windmilled" teammate John Maine across home plate after a home run. In exchange for his irrational exuberance, Milledge took a fastball in the arm from Pittsburgh's Tony Armas Jr.
It's been a tumultuous year for Milledge. His name popped up in trade rumors with Oakland and Houston. The Mets sent him to Triple-A New Orleans in April, and he missed five weeks with a foot injury. For a brief period, prospect Carlos Gomez passed him as the Mets' Outfield Flavor of the Month.
In reality, the Mets are willing to wait for the rap video of Milledge's life to play out. He's been so hyped for so long, people lose sight of the fact that he's 22 years old. Milledge is two months younger than Felix Pie, and two years younger than rookies Ryan Braun and Hunter Pence.
In recent weeks, Milledge has bonded with new Mets coach Rickey Henderson and hit his way back to prominence. He's batting .381 in August, and he began the Mets' winning rally against Trevor Hoffman with a single Tuesday night. With the Mets' outfield aging, he's looking like more of a cornerstone player than trade bait these days.
Willie Harris, Braves: He arrived from Triple-A Richmond in late April to form a productive left-field platoon with Matt Diaz. Harris tied a franchise record with six hits against St. Louis on June 21.
Jake Westbrook, Indians: Westbrook is back to pounding his sinker and throwing quality starts after an extended stay on the disabled list.