My Kind of All-Stars
With Delmon Young among the three Americans on base, a grand slam was all that separated the U.S. from their opponents in the final inning of the Futures Game. Given that opportunity, George Brett had no choice but to send Kevin Frandsen to the plate. Kevin who, you ask?
Despite being a second baseman that tore up the Cal League before a recent promotion, that was the disappointed question in the minds of thousands yesterday. They were expecting speedster Marcus Sanders, or Eric Patterson, or Dustin Pedroia to back-up Josh Barfield at second base. Instead, we were left with a 12th round pick lacking of any star potential.
Four singles. Two from Andy LaRoche, one infield single from mL home run leader Brandon Wood, and one (of course) from Delmon Young. That's all the United States could manage against the World staff that Willie Hernandez beautifully controlled. And he did just that right up to Adam Loewen's forced 1-2-3 double play to end the game.
Through two innings, it looked like a pitching duel on both sides. After struggling in his Tiger debut last week, Justin Verlander began his first Comerica Park start well. With four fastballs to lead it off -- all between 95-98 mph -- Verlander retired Mariner top-of-the-order hitters Rafael Betancourt and Shin-Soo Choo. Both an impressive opposite field double by Kendry and a Nelson Cruz pop out were at-bats that started with Verlander's nice high 70s breaking ball and ended with 96 mph fastballs.
After Verlander, the World sent WTNY favorite Francisco Liriano to the mound. The big left-hander impressed, throwing twelve pitches en route to a 1-2-3 first inning. True to form, Liriano threw just one pitch under 85 mph (and 84 at that), and two fastballs under 96. Also validating his scouting report, half of Liriano's pitches were balls. This guy should be in Minnesota's bullpen at the end of the season, as very few southpaws even in the Majors can throw 89 mph sliders, as Liriano showed against B.J. Upton.
Unfortunately sandwiched between Liriano in the first and Edison Volquez in the bottom of the second was Anthony Lerew. Not Baseball America's first choice to attend the game, Liriano did struggle a bit in his one inning of work. With a quick delivery, Lerew struck out Edwin Encarnacion to start his inning using fastballs at 93-94 mph. He then walked Miguel Montero on four pitches, and gave up a single to William Bergolla on another fastball. As a side note, I liked Bergolla more than I thought I would, but he looked completely fooled by Lerew's nice curve, and seems to be a dead-red fastball hitter. With two runners on base, Lerew forced Hernan Ibibarren and Luis Montanez into ground balls, ending the inning.
Then came Volquez, who I was very excited to see, after Jamey Newberg has assured me that Edison should be considered Rangers prospect #1b. I have had a hard time believing that -- I'm a big John Danks and Thomas Diamond fan -- as I have both ahead of Volquez currently. That didn't really change after Sunday, though I did find out the hype is probably not going away. Delmon Young singled on the first pitch Volquez threw, a 96 mph fastball that the Rays super-prospect hammered up the middle. It seems the 96 fastball was a bit of an overthrow for Edison, as he did not top 94 in his six fastballs after that. That included a Jeremy Hermida fly out on three straight fastballs, an Andy LaRoche single on a hit and run, and a Ryan Garko double play. There is no question his fastball is heavy, and his breaking ball is good, but I will warn that the Volquez talk is a bit overdone right now.
Following Volquez was Zach Jackson, a player of completely different caliber, a southpaw with the most interesting of deliveries. It is an extremely hyper delivery, with a huge right leg kick before he throws. Jackson mixed in a 90-94 mph fastball, a mid 80s cutter and high 70s breaking ball. I liked Jackson, despite allowing a Shin-Soo Choo home run on one of his cutters. Choo continues to impress me whenever I see him, despite falling behind both Chris Snelling and Jeremy Reed on the M's organizational depth chart.
The World squad countered with Yusmeiro Petit in the bottom half of the inning, as the big Venezuelan right-hander went throw the inning 1-2-3. I didn't exactly see the reasons that Petit strikes out so many hitters on Sunday, but his arsenal that never left the 81-90 mph range did prove effective. Although, there are easier lineups to face than Josh Barfield, Chris Young and Kevin Thompson.
Fire was the theme of the fourth, as the inning featured two of the game's hardest throwers in Joel Zumaya and Juan Morillo. The hometown Zumaya probably created the most buzz, especially after striking out Miguel Montero on a 99 mph fastball. In many ways reminiscent of Jose Capellan's performance at the game last year, Zumaya threw just one curve in his twelve pitch inning, the rest fastballs from 95-99 mph. He is going to be a good one -- I'm not doubting that -- but Joel must learn to trust his secondary pitches more to stay in the starting rotation.
Before Morillo was Scott Mathieson, as Willie Hernandez decided the final four innings would be split evenly among six pitchers. So, Mathieson drew the tough job of B.J. Upton and Conor Jackson in his six-pitch, 2/3 inning performance. Mathieson nearly added Delmon Young to that list of hitters, but was helped by Rafael Betancourt going past the second base bag to throw out Upton. Betancourt's defense looked fantastic in the one day, and while he's still about the third or fourth best shortstop prospect in the system, could definitely have a moment in the sun at some point.
Following Mathieson was Morillo, a Rockie relief prospect that began his day with two 99 mph fastballs. He finished off Delmon with a 96 mph fastball that was very heavy, prompting Young to ground out to second base. In the fifth inning, Morillo finished his two batter outing against Jeremy Hermida, striking out the Marlin outfielder on six pitches. He finally threw a breaking ball on his tenth pitch, striking out Hermida, who had seen five straight fastballs from 93-98.
In between Morillo was when the World added insurance to their 1-0 lead. Without looking back into my records, I still remember not being enthused by John Danks' rocky half-inning last year. The left-hander who left that impression on me this year was Paul Maholm, the Pirates former first-round selection. Maholm faced five batters in his Futures Game stint, and recorded just one out, via a Hanley Ramirez sacrifice bunt that he almost beat out. Besides that, he had Hernan Ibibarren single on the second pitch, he hit Luis Montanez on the second, and walked Javi Herrera on six pitches. His first seven pitches were all 89-91 mph fastballs, none of which were particularly effective. He finally decided to show his decent curve in the middle of Herrera's at-bat, throwing three balls with it, including a 3-2 pitch that would lead the bases. After that, Justin Huber doubled en route to his MVP award on a second pitch fastball.
Luckily the book was closed on Maholm after that, as Chris Lambert came in and saved his game. There was no pitcher at the game that increased my interest in him more than Lambert, who struck out one, walked another, and then ended the inning on an infield pop out. During that time, Lambert showed confidence both in a change up and breaking pitch, as he did not throw a fastball until his fourth pitch, after recording the strikeout. My one concern would be his fastball command, as he threw three balls in five attempts with the 90-94 mph pitch. Despite his recent struggles in AA, I like Lambert, and it appears he is a fastball tune-up away from becoming the club's best prospect.
Back to the bottom half of the inning, where we already have seen Morillo strike out Hermida. Just six pitches into the inning, Willie Hernandez brought in Fernando Nieve. On a first pitch fastball, Andy LaRoche smacked a 93 mph heater right back up the middle, nearly hitting Nieve in the process. After seeing his two singles, there is no doubt in my mind that LaRoche is a fastball hitter. Nieve would come back to force Ryan Garko into a ground out and strike out Josh Barfield on a good looking slider. No complaints on Nieve that showed three pitches and good control of his 92-94 mph fastball.
Good things from Troy Patton in the top of the sixth inning, as he showed all three of his pitches against William Bergolla to start. A steal from last June, the southpaw started the inning with a 93 mph fastball, the only velocity the pitch hit in four throws. He also showed an impressive change in the dirt, and forced a ground out from Bergolla on a mid 70s, loopy curve. Hernan Iribarren followed that up with a strike out on a change up, which Patton had previously set up with a fastball and two nice curves. If Lambert impressed me the most, there is no doubt that Patton came a close second.
But for some reason George Brett decided he would go all Willie Hernandez on us, and try to split the pitching up equally. Bad decision. James Johnson was exactly what the world as looking for, the right-handed version of Maholm, with a fastball that didn't top 91 and some unimpressive breaking stuff. You know a pitcher's stuff is shaky when in just six pitches he has given up two singles and a bloop double on a 3-0 count. While Johnson came back to strike out the MVP Justin Huber to end the inning, the damage to the American's chances and Johnson's resume.
With just six outs to go and second-hand choice Fausto Carmona beginning the bottom of the sixth, it was time for the Americans to come back. They didn't. Chris Young, one of my favorite prospects, bounced out to third on Carmona's second pitch, a 94 mph fastball. Young showed some fantastic speed getting done the line, though, nearly beating out the throw from Jose Bautista. It was too bad Lastings Milledge didn't show the same effort on his ground out, as Milledge didn't run hard down the line, but still had a close play on a tough play by Hanley Ramirez. The good part about Milledge was that on his first pitch -- a 95 mph heater -- he swung early. The bat speed is there.
And just like that, with four fastballs, Carmona was out and the Americans would have to amass a rally with Anibal Sanchez on the mound. Sanchez has been gaining serious steam as a prospect after an amazing April followed by the Carolina League All-Star Game, where he apparently shined. Now in AA, Sanchez did show big league stuff despite some rough results. Brandon Wood hit the first pitch he saw up the middle, where Hanley Ramirez had a tough play (Betancourt would have made it) and could not throw out the minor league home run leader. But Sanchez came back and struck out another recent high-A promotee, Daric Barton, on an at-bat that included three 94 mph fastballs and two 86-88 mph change ups.
In what would be their last chance, the World almost tacked onto their lead in the top of the seventh. To continue to show off a weaker pitching staff, the Americans brought in Travis Bowyer to finish the game. And despite having been the International League's best closer this year, Bowyer struggled. He began impressively, striking out his first batter with a fastball that got up to 98 mph. But the velocity did not impress Jose Bautista, who singled, nor Russ Martin, who drew a seven pitch walk. And like that, fourteen pitches into his inning, Bowyer still had not thrown a fastball. And he should have abandoned the pitch more against William Bergolla, who watched a 99 mph pitch go by before hitting his second single on another Bowyer fastball. But with the bases loaded, the Twin came back to strike out Iribarren and force Luis Montanez into a fly out.
And, of course, the Americans would come back in the bottom half of the seventh and lose the game on Frandsen's double play. The bases did get loaded on three walks, two from Anibal Sanchez and one from Adam Loewen. I liked Loewen more than Sanchez from what I saw that inning, as the big Oriole southpaw profiles to be a reliever down the road. He threw four fastballs to Scott Moore, the last of which the ex-Tiger nearly doubled on...though Javi Herrera tracked it down. And he also showed a good, high 70s breaking pitch that accounted for two of the four Chris Iannetta balls.
And like that, the anti-climatic game was over. I was left with good impressions from Lambert, Patton and Bergolla, and bad ones from Maholm, Ryan Garko and James Johnson. And while the game had not been the most exciting one I've ever seen, I was able to close my fake-scout's eyes at the end of the night a happy man.