|Sunday, July 13
Updated: July 28, 2:25 PM ET
Wild Pitches: Half-year in review
By Jayson Stark
Injuries of the Half-Year
SECOND PRIZE -- Mariners closer Kazuhiro Sasaki was the latest victim of baseball's most dread travel affliction, Samsonitis. He fractured two bones in his rib cage -- carrying his suitcase up the stairs.
THIRD PRIZE (Northern League Division) -- Kansas City T-Bones third baseman Jeff Baker missed five games with a bruised knee when he forgot to wait for a green light before crossing the foul line -- and got run over by the Jackhammermobile, a VW Rabbit driven by Joliet's team mascot.
MANAGERIAL DIVISION -- To his growing list of Things That Never Happened When I Was Doing Baseball Tonight, Buck Showalter can add this calamity: He popped a hamstring in May -- when he burst out of the dugout to argue a call.
Patriot of the Half-Year
It was July 1. Sexson was standing at home plate in Houston. And way, way, wayyyy out there in center field, 430 feet away, in one of the funkiest outfields ever constructed -- in fair territory, we might add -- he could see Minute Maid Field's uniquely situated flag pole, minding its own business, doing its patriotic thing.
And then something happened that has never happened in any baseball game we've ever witnessed: Richie Sexson squashed a Wade Miller pitch so deeeeeeep into the Texas night that it clanked off that flag pole -- hard enough to put a dent in the pole.
What it didn't do, though, was put a dent in the home run column on Sexson's stat sheet -- because that pole is inside the fence and in play. Never mind that it's 430 feet from home plate, that it sits atop a hill and that the ball hit three-quarters of the way up on the pole. This was not a home run.
We want quirks in our modern ballparks, right? Well, you can't get much quirkier than a flag pole in the middle of the outfield.
So the ball caromed off the pole, whizzed past Craig Biggio (who had just begun scrambling up the hill in center) and turned into Sexson's first triple of the year.
"I'm willing to bet," Brewers coach-witticist Rich Donnelly told Wild Pitches, "that that's the longest ball hit in the history of baseball that wasn't a home run. It wasn't like it was going to be five feet over the fence. It was 30 feet over the fence. And the fence is 435 feet away. They estimated it at 500 feet -- and it didn't leave the park."
Now hold on, we agitated. Back in the early days of baseball, there were no fences in the outfield. So there's no guarantee that somebody didn't hit one farther back in those days.
"OK," Donnelly conceded. "Then it was the longest ball hit since 1860 that wasn't a home run."
Hold on, we agitated again. How do we know that, say, Ulysses S. Grant didn't hit one farther? He was one powerful guy.
"I don't think Ulysses could do that," Donnelly protested. "I've seen pictures of him. He had bad bat speed."
As long as he had good troop speed, of course, that didn't matter. But that's irrelevant right now. What's relevant is that, just days before the Fourth of July weekend, Richie Sexson got up close and personal with our stars and stripes in a way that just about nobody ever has.
"I think he knocked about three states off the flag," Donnelly said. "Three states seceded when he hit it. I think it was West Virginia and Louisiana that fell off. There were stars all over the field.
"He shocked the nation," Donnelly reported. "By the time he was done, there were only 47 states."
Yeah. And only three bases.
Box score Lines of the Half-Year
5 2/3 IP, 12 H, 10 R, 7 ER, 3 BB, 7 K, 2 HR by a guy with no previous career RBI vs. Maddux (Pat Burrell).
4 2/3 IP, 10 H, 10 R, 10 ER, 2 BB, 4 K, 1 HBP.
4 2/3 IP, 9 H, 10 R, 10 ER, 4 BB, 5 K, 1 seven-run inning (biggest off Pedro since July 1, 1994).
Actual facts: The 10 runs against Maddux were more than he has allowed in 15 different months as a Brave. ... It took Johnson seven starts, and 53 innings, to allow 10 earned runs last year. ... And the 10 runs against Pedro were as many as he once allowed in his first 12 starts combined in the 2000 season.
Best quote (from Cy Unit): "I don't expect to give up any runs -- let alone 10."
BACK-TO-BACK DIVISION: It was exactly 65 years ago that a Reds pitcher named Johnny Vander Meer made the two greatest back-to-back starts of all time (déjà vu no-hitters). So maybe it was just nature's way of evening things out this May when Reds pitcher (uh, make that former Reds pitcher) Jeff Austin made possibly the two messiest back-to-back starts of all time. Here they come:
0 IP, 3 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 4 BB, 0 K and the scary tag line: Austin pitched to 7 hitters in first.
2/3 IP, 4 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 1 BB, 0 K, 4HR -- and Austin became the second pitcher in history (joining Roger Mason) to give up home runs to the first three hitters of a game.
Actual facts: Austin faced 14 hitters in these two starts, didn't get an out until the 11th batter he faced, allowed 10 of the 14 to score and, of the 50 pitches he threw that weren't hits, only 18 were strikes. But the big news, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, is that Austin was only the second pitcher in the last 30 years to get KO'd in the first inning in back-to-back starts and allow at least five runs in each of them. At least the other guy who did it, Woodie Fryman (on April 7 and 17, 1974), got twice as many outs as Austin did.
ONE-HITTER DIVISION: It isn't impossible to give up seven runs on one hit. But it takes some big-time creativity. And Reds pitcher Ryan Dempster was nothing if not inventive in his April 30 start at Coors Field:
1 1/3 IP, 1 H, 7 R, 7 ER, 6 BB, 1 K, 50 pitches, 19 strikes.
Actual fact: Dempster was the first pitcher to give up seven runs on one hit since ... himself, on Oct. 5, 2001, against the Braves. His line that day was an almost identical 2/3-1-7-7-6-1, with 45 pitches and 14 strikes.
Actual quote: "That was terrible, just ridiculous," Dempster said. "I should to go the Gulf Coast League -- or they should put me to sleep."
MYSTERY-PITCHER DIVISION: What's the kangaroo-court punishment for a catcher who shows up his own pitching staff? Well, in San Diego, you apparently get sent to the Portland Beavers. That's what happened to Wikki Gonzalez, anyway, after he wandered into a May 15 game against the Braves and gave up 15 fewer runs than the real Padres pitchers did:
1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB (of Chipper Jones), 1 K, 1 fastball clocked at 87 mph.
Actual quote: "Gonzalez has got good (stuff)," said Braves first baseman Robert Fick. "They should probably put him in their rotation."
Late-Breaking Box score Lines of the Half-Year
5 1/3 IP, 15 H, 7 R, 7 ER, 2 BB, 2 K, 1 HBP.
Actual fact: Before this game, Zito had given up a total of 17 hits to the Devil Rays in his career (four starts, 30 innings, four wins, no losses). Then he became the second pitcher in the last five years (but also the second in two weeks) to give up 15 in one game. (Jimmy Anderson also did it, on June 26.)
Actual quote: "If you would have told me we'd get 15 hits off Zito," said Lou Piniella, "I would have looked at you a little funny."
5 2/3 IP, 11 H, 10 R, 10 ER, 6 BB, 2 K, 2 HR.
Actual quote: "If I go out there again and make the same pitches I made today," George said (really), "I probably get a win."
Sweet Swingers of the Half-Year
They've already become the first pitching staff to have at least four different pitchers hit a home run since the 2000 Dodgers. They're the first Cubs staff to do that since 1970. And they're only two homers away from tying the 1973 Braves for most home runs by a pitching staff (non-Colorado division) in one season in the DH era.
But if you've done your math correctly, you know one more thing: If four Cubs pitchers have homered, it means all the Cubs in the starting rotation have homered except one. That would be Matt Clement, a man who, at last look, had made 301 consecutive trips to the plate in the big leagues without a trot.
"There's heavy pressure on me to get one," Clement admitted to Wild Pitches. "Personally, I'd rather win games than hit home runs. But if I don't, I'll be known as The Guy Who Didn't Hit One."
Clement remembers something about hitting a ball that got caught on the warning track once. That was five years ago. But that was as close as he's come to a home run. Except in BP. Where at least he has hit enough homers to "know it's possible."
He's actually in the midst of his greatest offensive season ever -- hitting .250, with two doubles and three RBI -- after four straight years of batting .080 or lower. But nobody wants to hear that with that zero in his home run column. Except Clement sees it as the result of years of hard work paying off -- hard work at being a lousy hitter, that is.
"I hear (Mark) Prior come in and complain and say, 'He threw me three curveballs,' " Clement laughed. "Well, that's his fault. He spoiled it for himself. I've spent four years getting my average low enough to get all fastballs."
Now all he needs is one more fastball down the chute, and a good 40-mph gust off Lake Michigan, and we'll really have ourselves a note.
Double Switch of the Half-Year
After Houston's Jose Vizcaino got hit by a pitch and broke his wrist, Astros manager Jimy Williams sent pitcher Jeriome Robertson in to pinch-run for him. Robertson wasn't even wearing spikes at the time, but he followed orders.
Ah, but the surprises were just beginning. He was just getting over the shock of pinch-running when his life really got interesting. The inning ended, and Robertson was heading off the field when Williams told him, "Not so fast," and then pointed him out toward second base.
They then tossed him a glove from the dugout -- but it was a right-handed glove. So there you had it -- the goofiest scene of the year: a guy wearing a glove on the wrong hand, wearing sneakers instead of baseball shoes, manning an actual position in the middle of an actual major-league game.
So what was this about? Well, it sure wasn't because Williams wanted to turn Robertson into Jeff Kent Jr., or even into a human trivia question. In honesty, the manager just needed to buy more time until reliever Ricky Stone got warmed up.
But nobody told Jeriome Robertson that. He was planning just to stand there between first and second -- except Jeff Bagwell then decided to make this really amusing, by flipping him ground balls. And Robertson did his best to shot-put them over to first.
"I know those throws weren't looking good," he told MLB.com's Jim Molony. "But I was hitting him in the chest."
Finally, before this turned into a scene out of "Major League," Williams headed for the mound, waved for Stone and double-switched Robertson out of this mess. But nobody had ever let Robertson in on that plan -- until it happened.
Asked what he would have done had the game started, Robertson replied: "I would have called time." Yeah, for about an hour.
Five Strange-But-True Feats of the Year
Blonde of the Half-Year
Q. What is eternity?
A. When four blondes meet at a four-way-stop-sign intersection.
For a long time, the highlight of Piniella's first season as a Devil Ray was the leisurely stroll he took out into the right-field corner one night in Texas to try to figure out whether a pinball ricochet shot by Einar Diaz was a home run or not.
Then came his fabled Ben Grieve "whaddaya-mean-it-doesn't-matter" tirade, which did such a spectacular job of keeping the Devil Rays in the news last month.
But when a hair stylist (as opposed to Rey Sanchez) actually is allowed into a major-league clubhouse to bleach the manager's hair before a game -- as his team's reward for finally winning three games in a row, 85 games into the season -- that, friends, is your official Lou Piniella Moment of the first half.
The Orlando Sentinel's Rick Maese reports that after Piniella's new coiffure was complete, he headed for the dugout, where he ran into GM Chuck LaMar.
"Do you need an earring?" LaMar asked.
"Maybe," Piniella quipped, "a surfboard."
Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow of the Half-Year
In a June 30 game in Oakland, Seattle third baseman Jeff Cirillo got called out at first on a close play, argued the call and got ejected. So he stomped back into the clubhouse, watched the replay and then ...
Yup. As he was watching the play and the ensuing argument, Cirillo came to two conclusions: 1) He was safe. And 2) his goatee looked "stupid." So he shaved it.
"I was either going to throw more stuff," he said afterward, "or go shave."
No-Hitters of the Half-Year
On the final Sunday in April, 40,016 people went to a real, live baseball game in Philadelphia, even though there were no fireworks scheduled, no bobbleheads being handed out and it wasn't billed as Opening Day II.
They thought they were streaming through those gates to see one of the sporting community's most hallowed and sentimental events -- the final birthday party of the beloved Phillie Phanatic in the soon-to-be-sawdust Veterans Stadium.
What they got instead was a no-hitter by Kevin Millwood -- over a Giants team that was 18-5 at the time. It was only the second no-hitter thrown by a Phillie in Philadelphia since 1898. And it was, amazingly, the third straight no-hitter pitched against the Giants by a pitcher named Kevin (Millwood, Brown, Gross) -- while no other team has ever been no-hit by ANY pitcher named Kevin.
But afterward, Phillies manager Larry Bowa officially apologized to the Phanatic "for upstaging his birthday."
Which inspired Millwood to quip: "I don't feel bad. He's had more birthday parties than I've had no-hitters."
On June 11 at Da Stadium, however, the Yanks found themselves mixed up in the most populated no-hitter of all time. They got no hit by six Astros pitchers (the last five of whom kept parading to the mound after starter Roy Oswalt got hurt in the first inning).
Along the way, eight straight Yankees struck out (against three different pitchers) for the first time in franchise history. There was a four-strikeout inning (against Octavio Dotel), the first time that had ever happened in any no-hitter. And when the final out was recorded and many Astros started jumping up and down, a confused Jeff Kent had to ask Jeff Bagwell what was up -- and only then learned he'd just played in a no-hitter.
But in no-hitters like this, it's only reasonable that confusion and jubilation become inextricably intertwined.
After all, following a normal no-hitter, the catcher jumps into the pitcher's arms. But how does it work with six pitchers?
"Nobody knew who to jump on," said Astros broadcast-humorist Jim Deshaies. "I think each pitcher should have just staked out some turf, and then four or five guys could have jumped on all of them."
Tiger Tales of the Half-Year
But all that looks like the glory days compared to this year.
This year, the Tigers started 0-9, 1-17 and 3-25. It took almost three weeks before they got an RBI out of their cleanup hitters. They didn't win a series in their home park until July. They've had losing streaks of nine, nine, eight, eight and seven games already. And they were the first team in history to lose 60 games while their calendar still said "June."
Ah, but look on the bright side. At least they were able to give Jay Leno an alternative to crushing Demi Moore every night.
"Over the weekend," Leno chuckled one evening, during the Iraq war, "I thought I was watching war footage. A bunch of men in uniform were waving white flags and surrendering. It was the Detroit Tigers."
Mr. Versatility of the Half-Year
He's the only man in history who ever homered as a pitcher, a DH and a pinch-hitter in the same season. He's pitched and DH'd in the same series. He's played first base. He's played the outfield. About the only thing he hasn't done is pitch to himself.
"He's got to be the only player in major-league history to pinch-hit in a game, pitch in the game and then warm up the next pitcher," Brewers coach-witticist Rich Donnelly reported. "I mean, when's the last time you saw a pitcher come out of a game and, after he pitched, grab a glove and run out and warm up the next pitcher? He did that. Then he came in and announced to Ned (Yost), 'By the way, I caught in high school.' "
So it's a possibility that before this year is out, Kieschnick will play all nine positions in the same game. But even if he doesn't, he's still turning into our generation's quasi-Bambino. Kind of.
"He's like the ultimate 12-year-old," Donnelly said. "He plays it all."
20-20 Visionaries of the Half-Year
In fact, back on May 17, 1979, the Cubs gave up 20 in a game and then scored 20 in the span of an hour -- in a 23-22 loss to the Phillies.
But whatever. For the Marlins to give up 25 runs to the Red Sox on June 27 and then come back to beat Atlanta, 20-1, five days later just proves they're ready to host "20-20" as soon as Barbara Walters retires.
(By the way, only twice last year did the Dolphins give up 25 and then score 20 in the same week.)
Best we can tell, the Marlins apparently looked at that 20-1 game as revenge. What the Braves couldn't figure out was what they did to deserve losing by 19?
"I think the Marlins thought we were the Red Sox," Bobby Cox speculated.
Technological Innovation of the Year
It was all supposed to be a tool to help our favorite umpires in their quest (or at least Sandy Alderson's quest) to call a more consistent strike zone. Instead, we haven't heard this much grumbling about any technological innovation since the last cassette tape got tangled up in our car tape deck in about 1988.
"You know, they say they want a new strike zone," official Wild Pitches humor consultant Rich Donnelly told us. "Well, I had something that might help. When I was a kid playing Wiffle Ball, we used to put a lawn chair behind home plate. If you didn't swing and it hit the lawn chair, it was a strike. Think that would work?"
Answer: Rafael Palmeiro (8), Fred McGriff (8), Jeff Bagwell (7), Tino Martinez (6), Mo Vaughn (6), Frank Thomas (6), Carlos Delgado (6). And if you guessed Jim Thome and/or Jason Giambi, they're both on pace to add themselves to this list sometime in the next two months.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.