Woes of Yanks, Giants show importance of long haul

Baseball is such a great game because as soon as you think you have it figured out, it throws you a curve.

Originally Published: May 28, 2003
By Joe Morgan | Special to ESPN.com

Baseball is such a great game because as soon as you think you have it figured out, it throws you a curve.

One month into the season, it looked like the New York Yankees and San Francisco Giants were the class of their respective leagues. But as Yogi Berra said, "It ain't over till it's over." Baseball's unpredictable nature is why I never predict a World Series winner at the beginning of a season.

Now it appears that the Atlanta Braves -- with baseball's best record at 35-17 -- are head and shoulders above everyone else. We'll have to see if that lasts.

I expect the Giants and the Dodgers to have a close pennant race, but don't count the D-Backs out yet.
In a 162-game season, there are so many ups and downs. Over the long haul, those ups and downs even out, which means the best team usually finishes first in the end. The Kansas City Royals started 16-3 and looked like one of the best teams in baseball. But you're never as good as you look when you're playing well, and you're never as bad as you look when you're playing poorly.

The formula for MLB success is simple: The best team that plays most consistently will win over the long haul. Consistent, quality play is rewarded.

The Giants roared to a 15-2 start, and all the so-called experts in the Bay Area had given them the NL West. The Los Angeles Dodgers were playing poorly and the Arizona Diamondbacks were off to a slow start, and the Bay Area media said they wouldn't be able to challenge the Giants.

Well, on May 9 the Giants were 25-9. Since then, they've gone 6-11 while the Dodgers ran off 10 straight wins. The Giants (31-20) now lead L.A. (30-21) by just one game.

The Yankees jumped out to an 18-3 start. On May 8, they were 25-9. Since then, they've gone 5-13, and now they're in second place in the AL East, trailing the Boston Red Sox by 1-1/2 games.

In one of my ESPN.com chats earlier in the season, someone asked me if the Yankees would win 120 games. Because I've been in this game so long and realize there are ups and downs, I said, "No way." I don't think anyone will be asking that question anymore.

I still believe the Yankees will win their division. But the Red Sox are a better team this season because they don't rely on Nomar Garciaparra and Manny Ramirez alone. Shea Hillenbrand, Trot Nixon and others make Boston's lineup more capable. And I've always felt that the bullpen-by-committee has promise, and it is holding its own.

Regarding the Giants, I've cautioned before that as the season drags on, the wear and tear could affect their young pitchers (like Kurt Ainsworth, Jesse Foppert, Damian Moss and Joe Nathan). I felt this group might hit the wall in the 150-innings-plus range. But it hasn't even taken that long. The Giants' young arms are struggling already.

For example, Nathan started the season with 22-1/3 scoreless innings but has given up 12 runs in his past 7-1/3 innings. Overall, the reliever is 5-2 with a 3.64 ERA.

I expect the Giants and the Dodgers to have a close pennant race, but don't count the Diamondbacks out yet -- especially if Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson get on a roll. I viewed L.A. as the favorite heading into the season, followed by San Francisco and Arizona.

When Barry Bonds was out with his sore right knee -- he returned Tuesday night against the D-Backs -- the Giants' lineup became ordinary. Jose Cruz (.269, 8 homers, 25 RBI) and J.T. Snow (.274, 2, 25), who both started strong, have cooled off lately.

Lack of offense has also been a key factor in the Yankees' recent woes. Jason Giambi has struggled all season (.217, 9, 31). Bernie Williams (.286, 7, 31) got off to a great start but then slowed down, and now he's injured. At the one-month mark, Alfonso Soriano was batting .375, but he's tailed off lately as well (.314). He's still tied for the AL home-run lead (15) and has 38 RBI.

In baseball, the long haul counts. Short bursts, which sometimes are related to favorable or unfavorable matchups, become less important. And the beauty of baseball is that you can't ever predict what's going to happen. Just ask the Anaheim Angels.

Konnichiwa, Ichiro
I appreciated having the opportunity to interview Seattle Mariners leadoff man Ichiro Suzuki, the onetime Japanese League star.

Ichiro is one of the calmest athletes I've ever met. Whatever the question, his calmness and his demeanor remain the same. This certainly helps him in pressure-packed at-bats in the ninth inning. And it also helped him make the transition from Japan to the United States two years ago.

I asked Ichiro about the difference between playing in Japan and here in America, and he told me that it had nothing to do with baseball. It was a question of how comfortable he was 24 hours a day, not just how comfortable he was at the ballpark. The cultural change was the biggest adjustment he had to make. There's a marked difference between how he lived in Japan -- from cuisine to cultural customs -- and how he lives here in Seattle.

It's the same with Latin players who come to play in the major leagues. We live so differently here in the United States than people do in many other countries.

Ichiro's calmness impressed me, as did his intelligence. He never answered a question with a simple "yes" or "no" but always offered a thoughtful explanation. Ichiro's command of the English language is also much better than people realize. When he walked in, I was prepared to use the Japanese greeting "konnichiwa" -- which means "hello" or "good afternoon" -- because we were meeting in the afternoon. But he walked in and said, "Hey Joe, how are you doing?"

We had an engaging conversation, and I immensely enjoyed sitting down one-on-one with him.

Explaining Moyer's Success
What's the secret to Jamie Moyer's success? This year, the Mariners starter is 7-2 with a 3.66 ERA. Since coming to Seattle via a trade with Boston in mid-1996, Moyer is 105-50. In all but one of those seasons, he's had a sub-4.00 ERA.

My theory has always been that left-handers who are able to throw strikes and change speeds can win in the major leagues -- even if they can't throw hard. If Jamie Moyer were right-handed, he wouldn't be nearly as successful.

I can't see a right-hander throwing in the low-to-mid 80s (like Moyer) and having the same success. For instance, Greg Maddux is not a power pitcher at all, relying on his control and location. But he throws harder than Moyer (upper 80s to low 90s). Hitters don't need to look for Moyer's fastball, but Maddux can keep them honest. I don't believe a right-hander can win the way Moyer wins.

So, to boil it down, Moyer wins because he's left-handed -- and because he can throw strikes and change speeds. Left-handers are always at a premium in the major leagues.

Chat Reminder: I'll answer your questions in an ESPN.com chat Friday at 10:45 a.m. ET.

An analyst for ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball, Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan won back-to-back World Series with the Reds. He contributes a weekly column to ESPN.com.