<
>

A night of baseball

At approximately 4:15 Pacific Time last night, Matt Morris took the mound at PNC Park. As Pirates broadcaster Bob Walk pointed out, Morris's statistics since undergoing Tommy John surgery in 1999 are virtually the same as his statistics before his elbow was reconstructed. He pitched only 53 innings, all of them as a reliever, in 2000. Looking at just his stats as a starter, then ...

Hits/9 K/9 W/9 ERA
1997-1998 8.4 6.6 3.0 2.97
2001-2002 8.8 8.0 2.5 3.29

He's giving up slightly more hits, but he's also striking out more hitters and walking fewer. You know, if I ever need to have my elbow reconstructed, I hope my insurance company will spring for Dr. Frank Jobe. That guy does amazing work.

All kidding aside, can you imagine how thin pitching would be if not for modern surgical techniques? I wonder if doctors will figure out how to repair every injury before teams figure out how to keep their pitchers from needing repairs.

Anyway, Morris has been up and down of late, and he pitched a couple of scoreless innings against the Pirates. Jimmy Anderson didn't fare so well for Pittsburgh, giving up five runs early, so at 5:05 I switched to the Royals and Yankees, to see how Roger Clemens is doing these days.

It's not easy for me to watch the Yankees and the Royals; it's like watching ... well, it's like watching a team with a $140 million payroll playing a team with a $50 million payroll that's not spent by Billy Beane (or one of his disciples).

And even aside from the dollars disparity, this particular game seemed like one heck of a mismatch. Starting for the Royals: Jeff Suppan, who was winless in five career starts against the Yankees. Meanwhile, the Royals must be Clemens' favorite team. Entering this season, he'd posted a career 2.03 ERA against Kansas City, his lowest ERA against any team.

I wish I could report that things didn't go according to form, but of course they did. Suppan's given up more home runs than anybody in baseball other than Ramon Ortiz, and he padded his total in the very first inning, grooving a nice high fastball to Bernie Williams. And in the third he grooved another one; this time Bernie got only a two-run double, giving the Yankees a 4-1 lead that would be more than enough.

Fortunately, I didn't really care how Suppan fared. He is what he is -- an innings-eater who makes too much money -- and nobody really pays attention except his wife and his folks. No, I tuned into this one to watch the Rocket. Because with all those question marks in the Yankees' rotation, one might argue that the Yanks actually need Clemens to pitch effectively down the stretch.

He's been good this season, but 9-3 with a 3.94 is a far cry from his 15-1 record at this point last season. Tonight was just his second start since coming off the DL; last Monday, he did pitch seven strong innings, but you have to consider the competition ... Kansas City.

Clemens' fastballs are just fine; his four-seam fastball routinely hit the mid-90s on the speed gun, and he was locating his sinker fairly well. The splitter's also a big pitch for Clemens, but on this night he wasn't always putting it where he wanted. And Clemens does need his splitter, because even he can't live on fastballs alone.

He was good enough for Career Win No. 290, despite giving up 10 hits in five innings (once the Yankees got into the Royals bullpen -- and vice versa -- it was over). So my halfway-educated opinion is this: if Clemens is healthy, he'll be effective. And I didn't see anything tonight to make me think he's not healthy. One caveat, though ... the Rocket hasn't pitched against a good lineup since June 9th, when he beat the Giants at the Stadium. His next two starts should come against the Mariners and the Rangers, and those games should give us a better read on Clemens than these exhibitions against Kansas City.

With Clemens cruising after three innings, I switched to the Rockies and Marlins.

The Rockies and Marlins? Yes, the Rockies and Marlins, and not just for sentimental reasons (they are, after all, sister franchises). No, I wanted to see Mike Hampton pitch. Monday night, Jason Jennings -- who makes $206,000 this season -- won his 13th game for the Rockies. Tuesday night, Hampton -- who makes $8.5 million, not including the big signing bonus -- hoped to avoid his 14th loss.

I did see something interesting in my Florida detour. In the bottom of the fifth, with a man on third base and nobody out, Marlins starter Julian Tavarez stepped to the plate as a left-handed batter. Which was weird because he's a right-handed pitcher. He swung at, and missed, Hampton's first pitch, moved to the other side of the plate ... and on the next pitch, he blooped an RBI single to center field, giving himself a 3-2 lead. Two batters later, Hampton threw a fastball into Andy Fox's wheelhouse -- yes, folks, even Andy Fox has a wheelhouse -- and only Larry Walker's circus catch kept Fox from hitting a two-run homer.

I'd seen enough. It didn't look like Mike Hampton's dramatic comeback would begin this evening, so I watched Clemens again until 7:05 -- actually, I switched channels just too late to avoid missing Suppan give up yet another home run -- when the real stuff started: two games out west featuring three teams in the playoff hunt.

Of course, the Red Sox-Mariners would have been a lot more appealing if the pitchers would have Moyer and Martinez. Or Moyer and Wakefield, or Moyer and Lowe (that's Wednesday night, on ESPN2). But Pineiro vs. Burkett wasn't bad. In fact, Joel Pineiro's one of my favorites, because he's one of the few pitchers with great command of both his curveball and his slider. Whereas some pitchers have three pitches that they throw at approximately one speed apiece. Pineiro has four pitches -- fastball, slider, curve, changeup -- that he throws at virtually every speed between 76 and 93 miles per hour.

It says something about the difference between the Mariners' rotation last season and this season, that Pineiro has gone from the No. 5 starter to No. 3 ... and that's being kind to Freddy Garcia, who hasn't pitched as well as Pineiro this season.

Seems like just a few weeks ago that people in Seattle seriously considered the possibility that this year's Mariners might win more than 116 games ...

John Burkett's an interesting case, too. Everybody knows that he saved his career after going to Atlanta; in the two seasons before Burkett joined the Braves, he went 18-25 with a 5.65 ERA. But you know, he didn't turn things around immediately. In 2000, Burkett posted a 4.89 ERA with the Braves. It wasn't until his second season with Mazzone and Maddux that he pitched like an ace.

And pitch like an ace he did. Burkett's 3.04 ERA last season was the best of his 12-season career. So with Burkett joining the Red Sox this season, the question was, could he thrive despite 1) the natural tendency to sink after a career season, and 2) not having Greg Maddux as a thinking buddy any more?

Well, he hasn't been great, but he's certainly been good, with a 4.15 ERA entering his start against Seattle. Or rather, the ERA is good. Burkett's given up 137 hits in 121 innings, and that's probably going to come back and bite him over the last six weeks of the season.

I was watching that game when I heard that Barry Zito had a perfect game through three innings. I switched channels immediately, but -- oops -- too late to see Orlando Hudson break up Zito's gem with a double.

No matter. Zito's one of my favorite pitchers, because his overhand curveball is one of favorite pitches. In a recent ESPN.com chat, Zito said that his changeup has become his go-to pitch, but don't be fooled; it's the curve that sets up everything else. Now, I don't buy the argument that Zito throws the best curve since Koufax, because Dwight Gooden's curve took a back seat to nobody's. But Zito's bender probably is the best you'll see this week.

Zito escaped that mini-jam, and just a few minutes later Jermaine Dye hit a three-run homer, so I flipped back to Safeco Field ... where, as if he'd read my mind and gives a hoot what I think, John Burkett got himself into a mess of trouble in the bottom of the third: double, triple, double, walk, walk.

That left the bases loaded, with Edgar Martinez due up. Edgar slapped a grounder that would have been a double play if Burkett had been lucky, but instead it zipped into left field for a two-run single. He escaped that inning with no further damage, but got driven for cover in the fourth.

Meanwhile, Pineiro did what he nearly always does. He threw strikes but didn't give up any blasts, which is a potent combination. It was a good night for the kids, as Zito also pitched well, and moved into a tie for the league lead with his 16th victory.

With the Mariners and Athletics both winners, I flipped over in time to see the Rally Monkey make an appearance in Anaheim. The Angels didn't score against Detroit in the bottom of the 10th, though, so I went off to bed. Not knowing who won will give me a reason to get up in the morning.

Before I say good night, though, here are my grades for tonight's "featured" starters ...

Morris: A-
(what elbow?)

Hampton: B- (he regrouped for the W)

Suppan: D (Mr. Gopher's best friend)

Rocket: C+ (maybe life doesn't begin at 40)

Pineiro: B+ (new No. 2?)

Burkett: D (when the luck runs out ...)

Zito: B+ (still buckling knees)