Nephews and Sun
PEORIA - My nephew Brett and I drove from Long Beach to Arizona on Thursday afternoon. The purpose was twofold: to visit my brother Gary and his family in Phoenix and attend a few spring training games in and around the area.
We were fortunate in that Gary's son Troy was playing in an ice hockey tournament over the weekend at a rink that was next door to the spring training complex of the San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners in Peoria. The schedules were such that we were able to watch hockey, baseball, and hockey without missing a beat (or even a two-minute minor).
On Friday afternoon, we attended the Angels-Mariners game. Gary arrived in Peoria about an hour before us and was able to buy tickets on the morning of the game in the fifth row behind Seattle's on-deck circle. We could not have asked for a better location to watch a dream matchup between John Lackey and Felix Hernandez. The home team Mariners took the field first and the most startling observation was seeing the slimmed-down Hernandez loosening up on the mound.
King Felix, who was named Seattle's Opening Day starter by manager Mike Hargrove after his outing, reported to camp at 226 pounds (down from 246 last season). It's quite an honor for a pitcher who won't turn 21 until after the season starts. Hernandez, in fact, will join Dwight Gooden and Fernando Valenzuela as the only 20-year-olds to start an opener in the last 26 years.
Hernandez and Lackey were both getting their work in that afternoon against their division rivals, throwing mostly fastballs and concentrating more on mechanics and command than the results (which, in the case of the latter, were not good). Felix spun a few curves that he left up in the zone but struck out Vladimir Guerrero looking on a nice bender to end the first inning. He punched out four Angels and induced nine groundouts (including five comebackers), three flyouts, and an infield pop fly, and catcher Rene Rivera threw out Casey Kotchman trying to steal on what appeared to be a broken hit and run play. I timed Rivera's throw from home to second in 1.89 seconds, which is right about where he needs to be.
Lackey, who was working noticeably faster, has a compact, fluid motion that is among the best in the game. He was basically throwing batting practice and his line showed it: 10 hits and 9 earned runs in just four innings. He mixed in a few changeups but rarely threw any breaking balls and the Mariners jacked a couple of his low-90s fastballs out of the yard. Jose Guillen hit a two-run shot in the first inning and Adrian Beltre launched a two-run blast in the fourth. We also saw Angels rookie Nick Gorneault take Aaron Small deep to lead off the top of the ninth inning.
Brandon Morrow, Seattle's first-round pick out of the University of California in 2006, retired the Angels in order in the seventh on eight pitches. The 22-year-old righthander, sporting the number 85 on the back of his jersey, is trying to earn a spot in the bullpen with only 16 innings of professional experience under his belt. Morrow threw strikes and got Mike Napoli, Maicer Izturis, and Erick Aybar to loft easy flyball outs that were handled by Jeremy Reed in center and Mike Morse in left.
Ichiro handled DH duties and led off. He ran a 4.19 to first on a fielder's choice, pulling up the last couple of steps. Reggie Willits had the fastest time of the day, running a 4.08 on a 6-3 groundout. Box Score.
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SURPRISE - On the heels of the afternoon baseball game and a second hockey match, Brett and I drove to Surprise to catch an evening tilt between the Brewers and the home team Rangers, who share the beautiful ballpark with the Kansas City Royals. Tip of the day: Don't make the same mistake as us by logically assuming that the most direct route between the two sites would also be the fastest. We crawled along the eight-mile drive on Bell Road for 45 minutes and got to the ballpark just in time to hear (and not see) Sammy Sosa's grand slam in the home half of the first inning. Oh well, I'm glad it wasn't HR #600 (although, if that were the case, I would at least have the ticket stub as a souvenir).
Our tardiness also caused us to miss Eric Gagne, who started and pitched the top of the first only. The former Cy Young Award winner allowed a hit and a walk while striking out two. Despite arriving late, we were able to secure two tickets between home and third in the top row of the field boxes. We sat next to four guys from California who were paying more attention to their Blackberrys tracking the Sweet Sixteen games that were in progress, including USC's loss to North Carolina in which the Trojans apparently ran out of gas late in the second half.
In between Sosa's home run in the first and Tony Graffanino's bomb in the ninth (which took place as we were sloshing across the wet soccer fields that had been turned into overflow parking lots for the night), we witnessed four baggers by Damian Miller, Rickie Weeks, and Johnny Estrada off Bruce Chen. But Chen wasn't the worst southpaw that evening. Zach Jackson, a first-round draft choice by Toronto in 2004 and later part of a package (along with Dave Bush and Gabe Gross) that sent Lyle Overbay from the Brewers to the Blue Jays, looked like he couldn't get anybody out that game or any other game. The 6-5, 220-pound lefty was far from impressive, and it looks as if he will spend the majority of 2007 in Triple-A Nashville once again.
Bill Hall played center field and struck out three times. It will be interesting to see if Hall can duplicate his 35-HR season while switching positions. A good athlete, the 27-year-old should have no problem handling the defensive chores, but I can't help but wonder whether 2006 was a career year for him at the plate. Hall and Prince Fielder will need to supply the power if the Brewers are hopeful of supplanting the Cardinals as the NL Central champs.
Hank Blalock, who went 0-for-2 with a strikeout and two walks, was taking his usual rips on every swing, seemingly going for the downs on every pitch. A lot has been said and written about his inability to hit on the road and his second half woes going back to the 2003 All-Star game when he took his now teammate Gagne deep for a two-out, two-run HR to lead the American League to a 7-6 victory in the midsummer classic. I believe part of his problem is his approach at the plate and maintain Hank would be better served if he didn't try to pull everything and jack every pitch out of the park.
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PHOENIX - Our third and final spring training game was a Saturday afternoon clash between the Colorado Rockies and the Angels. Our luck for picking up great tickets continued as we bought a pair in the second row behind the Angels dugout from a scalper an hour-and-a-half before the sold-out event. It wasn't much of a game, but the seats made it all quite bearable.
Jeff Francis outdueled Kelvim Escobar, who left in the third inning after straining his back reaching for a groundball single off the bat of Steve Finley. Mike Scioscia and pitching coach Mike Butcher visited the mound and, after watching Escobar throw a couple of warmups, took the big righthander out as much for precautionary reasons as anything else. He is not expected to miss a regular season start.
The most impressive player was Ryan Spilborghs, who slugged a home run well beyond the wall in left-center field and made a long, running catch in right center and a strong throw to first base trying to double up Shea Hillenbrand. Spilborghs is competing with John Mabry and Alexis Gomez for the final spot on the Rockies bench. Spilborghs wasn't the only player who hit a home run in Phoenix that day. My nephew Casey hit a "don't stop running until you make it around the bases" home run in his T-ball game that morning. He plays for the Yankees and wears #7 on his back. Funny, I thought they retired that number.
Angels relievers Chris Resop and Kevin Jepsen got ripped, allowing a combined 8 hits, 4 walks, 1 HBP, and 9 runs in 2 innings. Several fans around us, apparently thinking they were attending the World Series finale, booed Resop and Jepsen to the point that I wanted to turn around and tell them to zip it up. If anything, I felt embarrassed for the pitchers who were obviously struggling to throw strikes and get batters out. Jepsen has never pitched beyond Single-A and is probably heading to Double-A Arkansas in a couple of weeks. Box Score.
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LONG BEACH - I recently learned that Norm Larker died on March 12 at the age of 76. Larker became the third member of the 1959 Los Angeles Dodgers World Series Championship club to pass away during the off-season. Relief pitchers Larry Sherry (December 17) and Clem Labine (March 2) predeceased Larker.
Larker was one of several Dodgers who lived in Long Beach or Lakewood. The Larkers built a new house in Lakewood Country Club, adjacent to Lakewood Village in Long Beach (which is where I was born and raised). Times were different in the late-1950s and 1960s. Dad would carpool with many of the local players such as Larker, Ed Roebuck, and Gino Cimoli, as well as the late trainer Bill Buhler, to and from the airport. My parents would also invite players and their wives to the house for a game of bridge.
The Larkers had four sons - Duane, Wayne, Blaine and Shane - who played baseball at about the same time as my brothers and me. My younger brother Gary and Blaine were Pony League teammates, and it wasn't unusual to see Norm at Heartwell Park watching their games back in the mid-1970s. Blaine was on the Cal State Fullerton team that won the College World Series in 1984. Larker was joined on the All-Tournament team by Barry Bonds.
Norm was second in the National League in batting average in 1960. He missed out on the batting title by one hit. The lefthanded-hitting Larker need to go 2-for-3 in the final game to surpass Dick Groat, who had finished the year at .325. Larker walked in the first inning, grounded out to second in the third, beat out a higher bouncer to first in the fifth on a play that was ruled a hit by the official scorekeeper, and flied out to left in the seventh. He was in the on-deck circle when Maury Wills hit a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the ninth to score Bob Lillis (my favorite player at the time) with the winning run in a 4-3 victory over the visiting Cubs.
Larker was named the Long Beach Independent, Press-Telegram Most Valuable Player in 1960. He was chosen as Dodger of the Day by my Dad 13 times, one more than fellow Lakewood resident Stan Williams and two more than Don Drysdale and Wills. The photo of Larker and Dad is from The 1961 Dodger Family pamphlet by Union Oil Company of California.
Larker played six years in the majors, including four with the Dodgers. He was selected by the Houston Colt .45s in the expansion draft in October 1961 and was traded to the Milwaukee Braves in 1962 and sold to the San Francisco Giants in 1963. Larker finished his career as a professional ballplayer with the Toei Flyers in Japan. He will be missed by all of us in the Dodger Family.