Rob Neyer

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Monday, June 23
Updated: June 24, 3:59 PM ET
 
MacDougal has right stuff to be closer

By Rob Neyer
ESPN.com

I've watched it a dozen times, frame by frame, just to make sure. And after those dozen times, I remain confident that I've never seen a pitch quite like the curveball with which Mike MacDougal struck out Albert Pujols on Sunday in the bottom of the ninth.

Mike MacDougal
Mike MacDougal is 16 of 21 in save opportunities this season.

Already down in the count, Pujols was just trying to stay alive when MacDougal unleashed a truly nasty yakker. Pujols took a nice healthy stride, like he always does ... and then some piece of his brain became utterly convinced that the baseball was heading straight toward his brain. This realization -- or, rather, this misconception -- resulted in a chain reaction that included 1) Pujols' knees buckling, 2) Pujols' rear end turning toward second base while his head turned toward the backstop ... and 3) the umpire calling strike three!, because the pitch sliced through the middle of the strike zone to end the game.

MacDougal throws his fastball in the mid-90s without straining, and he just might have the nastiest curve in baseball. Sunday, the 26-year-old rookie earned his 16th save by striking out Pujols with that curveball. In the Royals' first game this season, MacDougal earned his first save by striking out Frank Thomas with that same, if not quite so nasty, curveball.

McDougal's already picked up a cool nickname -- "Mac the Ninth" -- but he's still got some things to learn. Consistently throwing strikes, for example. But he's a lot better than I ever thought he'd be. I first came across MacDougal two years ago in Tacoma. I was sitting behind the plate at Cheney Stadium, where the Rainiers were hosting the Omaha Royals. Sitting right in front of me were two athletic sorts, who I took to be Omaha pitchers (which, as it turned out, they were).

I recognized one of the pitchers as Brian Meadows, a once and future major-leaguer, but I didn't recognize the other, a skinny redheaded kid who looked like he might be 18 or 19 years old. When the skinny kid left, I started talking to Meadows, who told me the redhead was actually Mike MacDougal, a former first-round draft pick who was, at the time, 24 years old. I was surprised, because MacDougal seemed a lot more interested in talking to his girlfriend and telling a real kid what he wanted from the concession stand than watching the baseball game. How could this guy (I wondered to myself ) ever become a major-leaguer? He's 24, but he looks and acts like he's 18. An immature 18.

Meadows, only a year older than MacDougal but already a major-league veteran, didn't seem concerned. MacDougal wasn't pitching well as a starter and would wind up with a 4.68 ERA that season, with 110 walks and only 76 strikeouts in 144 innings. But all Meadows could talk about was MacDougal's stuff. Considering MacDougal's age, his performance, and what I judged to be his lack of emotional maturity, I figured that even if Meadows was right about MacDougal's stuff, the kid was a long shot to ever do anything in the major leagues.

Then again, maybe Meadows knew what he was talking about. Meadows was talking about MacDougal's arm, and MacDougal might have a better arm than anybody who's pitched for the Royals. Ever.

And I think if Nuke LaLoosh were a real person, he'd have been turned into a closer, too.

Some near-midseason surprises
Now, just a few statistical notes, mostly sans analysis ...

  • Looking at the top six qualifiers in the American League batting race, I see a couple of names that remind me of past batting races: Ichiro Suzuki (.356) and Nomar Garciaparra (.334). The weird thing is the other four guys, none of whom have ever shown the ability to hit .300 in the major leagues, let alone win a batting title. Here's that quartet, along with their career stats entering this season:

    			Avg.		AB
    Melvin Mora		.249		1,438
    Milton Bradley		.234		717
    Hank Blalock		.211		147
    Eric Byrnes		.246		142
    

    Granted, all these guys have enjoyed at least a modicum of success in the minor leagues, with everyone but Mora once was considered a top prospect. So while I don't expect any of these guys to win the batting title this season -- my money's on Ichiro or Nomar -- Mora's the only one of the group who figures to hit some serious skids down the stretch.

  • In the National League, you have to drop all the way to the seventh spot for a surprise on the batting list. Sure, Florida's Alex Gonzalez is a big surprise, but generally the NL batting race makes a certain amount of sense (though the same can't be said of the home-run list, where Mike Lowell is No. 1 and Javy Lopez sits above Barry Bonds).

    David Wells
    Starting pitcher
    New York Yankees
    Profile
    2003 SEASON STATISTICS
    GM IP W-L BB SO ERA
    15 107.2 9-2 4 55 3.26

  • You probably heard Jon Miller talking about this Sunday during the Yankees-Mets game, but in 108 innings this season, David Wells has issued four walks.

    Four.

    Without running through the names, suffice to say that if Wells continues to pitch like this, he's going to wind up at the top of just about every list of control pitchers you'd care to construct. Wells turned 40 last month and -- oh, by the way -- at 9-2 with a 3.26 ERA, he has to be taken seriously as a Cy Young candidate.

    Bill James says that today's players aren't aging any more gracefully than the players of yore, and I'm sure he's got plenty of evidence to back up that argument. Nevertheless, I'll bet it's been a while since a trio of 40-year-old pitchers did this ...

    W-L ERA Jamie Moyer 10-4 2.93 David Wells 9-2 3.26 Roger Clemens 7-4 3.42

    Clemens has 106 strikeouts in 98 innings, Wells issues a walk about as often as Sly Stallone makes a good movie, and Moyer's strikeout rate this season is the highest of his long career.

    As a fan, I'm a little disappointed with Clemens' decision to retire after this season, but at least we'll still have Moyer and Wells for a while longer. Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information, visit Rob's Web site.





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