Joy in Mudonna-Ville

Greetings from Minneapolis, where I’m spending about a week centered around my wife’s cousin Julie’s wedding. Our trip kicked off in fine fashion on Friday, as within an hour of arriving at the airport, we were kicking back at a St. Paul Saints game, drinking beer and eating bratwursts. Awww yeah!

The Saints, an independent team in the independent American Association, won behind a couple of long home runs, but I didn’t actually pay too close attention to the game, even failing to notice former big-leaguer Kerry Ligtenberg closed the door with the save. In addition to my own beverage and pork consumption, I was busy shelling peanuts and otherwise playing with five-year-old Kate and two-year-old Jackie, the daughters of our hosts, who also had a one-month-old infant son in tow. This was the kids’ first baseball game, and while they weren’t overly interested in the proceedings, they were thoroughly sugared up and entertained by the between-innings shenanigans, particularly the mascot Mudonna, a bright pink pig who alternately scared and fascinated my new buddy, Jackie, who understandably had trouble figuring out exactly what she was looking at: “Where pink bear go now? Where pink bear go now?”

I’d read about the Saints years ago in Neal Karlen’s excellent Slouching Towards Fargo, a book that chronicled life in the independent Northern League during the mid-90s. The Saints, owned even to this day by a group that includes actor Bill Murray as well as baseball’s Barnumesque scion, Mike Veeck, featured Darryl Strawberry on his way back to the majors as well as Jack Morris on his way out of baseball, along with a whole bunch of other characters just happy to be playing ball anywhere for a living. Anyway, more than a decade after reading Fargo, I was glad to finally get a chance to attend one of their games, a particularly welcome antidote to Epic Fail Stadium in the Bronx. Tomorrow, I’ll pay a visit to the Metrodome (another first) for a Twins-Brewers game, but I’ll be hard-pressed to top the fun I had here.

• • •

This week at Baseball Prospectus, I wrote a “Pair Up in Threes” piece about a trio of teams whose overall showings were in marked contrast to the performance of their rotations. Both the Red Sox and Phillies continue to contend despite abysmal 6.00+ ERA showings from their starters, while the Diamondbacks are deep into the second division despite strong showings from their starters even with Brandon Webb sidelined. Here’s part of what I wrote about the D-Bags:

What’s Happened: After lasting just four innings on Opening Day, Webb was pushed to the Disabled List due to bursitis in his shoulder. He was expected only to miss a few weeks, but since suffering a setback in late April, he’s been limited to playing catch and won’t be back until sometime in June. While Yusmeiro Petit has pitched poorly in his place (8.03 ERA, -0.2 SNLVAR, .367 SNWP), Haren leads the league in SNLVAR, [Doug] Davis is 11th, and [Max] Scherzer is 26th.

Alas, Webb’s absence has been the least of the club’s problems; right now this may be the unhappiest team in the majors. Manager Bob Melvin was fired on May 8 with the team a disappointing 12-17, 8½ games out of first. They’ve gone just 2-6 under replacement A.J. Hinch, whose lack of managerial experience has drawn fire from the media as well as departed pitching coach Bryan Price. Last Friday, upon pulling Davis for a pinch-hitter, the pitcher — who had thrown just 80 pitches but trailed by a run in the seventh — confronted his new skipper in full view of the TV cameras, never a good sign.

The real problem isn’t a lack of respect for the manager’s authoritah, it’s a snake-bitten offense that’s scraping together just 3.9 runs per game, which ranks 15th in the league; their .236 EqA is the NL’s worst. Three lineup regulars (Chad Tracy, Conor Jackson, and Chris B. Young) are below the Mendoza Line, and Stephen Drew and Eric Byrnes aren’t much above it. As well as Haren and Davis have pitched, both rank in the league’s bottom 10 in run support, well under three runs per game; Haren is second-to-last at 2.3. Meanwhile, the bullpen’s been pretty lousy (12th in the league in WXRL and 13th in Fair Run Average), but most of the damage has been done in lower-leverage situations. Closer Chad Qualls and set-up men Tony Pena and Juan Gutierrez, the only relievers with Leverage scores above 1.00, are all in the black, WXRL-wise, while the mop-and-bucket patrol has sloshed kerosene around during their aisle nine cleanups.

What Will Fix It: Even if Webb returns at full strength, the Diamondbacks have dug themselves a huge hole. The PECOTA-based version of our Playoff Odds Report puts their chances at reaching the postseason at just 9.3 percent, down from 45.0 percent to start the year. The suspension of Manny Ramirez won’t do very much to bring the Dodgers back to the pack; in fact, the Diamondbacks have lost three games in the standings since then. If they don’t start scoring runs soon, it’s going to be a long summer in the Arizona heat.

As for the Hit List, the Dodgers continue to hold onto the top spot, the Brewers are third despite some bad news, and Yankees are 10th. Here’s a taste:

[#1 Dodgers] Life Without Manny: Clayton Kershaw no-hits the Marlins for seven innings; he’s allowed just six runs and 13 hits and zero homers over his last four starts, and batters are hitting just .205/.313/.333 against him overall. The Dodger rotation has picked up the slack since Manny’s suspension via a 2.81 ERA and just three homers in 80 innings despite the presence of both Jeff Weaver and Official Hit List Whipping Boy Eric Milton, two pitchers who survived the fly-ball pitcher’s hell of Albuquerque to return to the majors.

[#3 Brewers] Weeks, Months, Year: Amid a seven-game winning streak, the Brewers incur a loss of a different sort, as Rickie Weeks suffers a torn tendon sheath in his left wrist, ending his season at a point when he was hitting .272/.340/.517 while tied for the team high with nine homers. Given that the injury is in the opposite wrist as his 2006 season-ender, this only perpetuates the concern that he’ll never be durable enough for full-time duty; he’s topped 100 games only twice in five years. For the moment, the Brewers will patch from within via Craig Counsell, Casey McGehee, Hernan Irribaren, and perhaps Alcides Escobar.

[#21 Astros] Ortiz Finally Homers! Russ Ortiz beats Big Papi to the punch by a day with a two-run shot, his first homer since 2003. With a 5.81 ERA and a 21/22 K/BB rate, he ought to consider a career move, as he hit .252/.301/.403 with four homers in 2002-2003, numbers that outdo more than one current Astros lineup regular. On the other side of the coin, Wandy Rodriguez allows his first home run since last August 10, a span of 88 1/3 innings. He’s second in the league in ERA and fourth in SNLVAR; the Astros are 7-2 in his starts.

[#23 Marlins] Crouching Tiger, Rotting Fish: Andrew Miller returns from the disabled list and notches his first win in 11 months, but it’s the Marlins’ only victory in an eight-game span. The Miguel Cabrera/Dontrelle Willis deal hasn’t turned out well for the Fish thus far, as Miller’s put up a 5.88 ERA in 124 innings, Cameron Maybin’s been sent back to Triple-A after a .202/.280/.310 start, and Mike Rabelo, Burke Badenhop, and Eulogio de la Cruz have all been below replacement level as well.

That last entry came out of an on-air conversation with WLQR-Toledo radio host Norm Wamer during my weekly spot, while the Ortiz one was something I made light of during my WWZN-Boston spot on the Young Guns (audio link hopefully forthcoming).

Meanwhile, I’ve got one more article in the pipeline, an ESPN Insider/BP piece related to Randy Johnson’s pursuit of his 300th win that will be held until he finally reaches the milestone. I hope it happens soon — he took a no-decision on Friday night, keeping him at 298 — because I gots to get paid.

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