Monster half-year makes Cubs' Lee an MVP
Halfway through another baseball season, it's time to wonder: Can Derrek Lee win the Octuple Crown? If there's a pitch inside Vladimir Guerrero's zip code, is there any chance he'll miss it? And how many games will Roger Clemens win after his next retirement?
Yes, halfway through the season, we've seen the best of the best -- and the worst of the worst. So hand us those envelopes. It's midseason-award time.
NL MVP of the Half-Year
Derrek Lee, Cubs. We'd feel better about this choice if the Cubs hadn't just careened to six games out in the wild-card race. But it's still hard to pick against a guy who's a threat to lead the league in not just the standard old triple-crown categories but also all these departments: runs, slugging, on-base percentage, hits, extra-base hits, total bases, average with runners in scoring position and average against left-handers and right-handers. Even though just about no one is ever on base in front of him, if Lee's second half matches his first half, he'd finish at .378, with 49 homers, 102 extra-base hits, 220 hits, 19 stolen bases and a .721 slugging percentage. So how many players have ever had a year like that? Exactly none. (And only if we lower the SB bar to 15 do we drag in one man -- George H. Bambino Ruth.) APOLOGIES TO: Albert Pujols, Andruw Jones, Chad Cordero, Morgan Ensberg, Bobby Abreu.
AL MVP of the Half-Year
Vladimir Guerrero, Angels. This was Miguel Tejada's award for 2½ months. But then Guerrero came off the disabled list in Anaheim. And it was baseball's equivalent of the resumption of the Space Shuttle program. One minute, the Angels were hitting .261, scoring 4.6 runs per game and barely holding off Texas. The next, they were in orbit. Guerrero batted a ridiculous .440 in June. And since his return, the Angels have gone 18-12, batted .299 as a team and averaged 5.1 runs per game. Coincidence? You must be kidding. APOLOGIES TO: Tejada, Travis Hafner, Brian Roberts, David Ortiz, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez.
NL Least Valuable Player of the Half-Year
Cristian Guzman, Nationals. It's tough to throw a banana peel on this team's parade. But in the first season of a four-year, $16.8-million contract, Guzman has been the biggest mess to hit Washington since Monica-gate. He's hitting .201, with a .239 on-base percentage, .291 slugging percentage and more times caught stealing (four) than called safe stealing (three). So how ugly are those numbers? Even if we ignore his base-stealing adventures, only one player since 1918 has beaten that .201-.239-.291 trifecta over a full season -- the legendary Mario Mendoza. Yikes. SIGHS OF RELIEF FOR: Mike Lowell, Raul Mondesi, Corey Patterson, Kaz Matsui, Mike Lieberthal.
AL LVP of the Half-Year
Juan Gonzalez, Indians. Some traditions just don't die. And The Invisible Juan running off with LVP trophies is one of them. Not even Bonnie and Clyde have stolen more money than this guy. It was tough to top last year's LVP performance, when Gonzalez managed to miss the last 4½ months of the season with an injury once described as "day-to-day." But this year, he put together just enough good swings in the last week of spring training to vest his $600,000 Opening Day bonus -- then asked out with a strained hamstring the next day. Two months later he was back -- for one swing of the bat, after which he couldn't even make it 90 feet to first base before U-turning right back onto the DL. Anybody remember when this guy looked like a Hall of Famer? SIGHS OF RELIEF FOR: Tony Womack, Sammy Sosa, the Boone brothers, Miguel Olivo.
NL Cy Young of the Half-Year
Roger Clemens, Astros. Much as we love Dontrelle Willis and the electric current he plugs into every ballpark he pitches in, the Cy Young is about one thing and one thing only: Who has pitched the best? So we don't care if Willis has won 13 games and the Rocket has won just seven. Clemens' ERA is nine-tenths of a run lower than Willis'. And it isn't much closer in departments like strikeout rate, opponent batting average, WHIP or quality starts. The Marlins have blown just one save for Dontrelle. The Astros have blown three for Clemens. And you can account for their entire win differential in the six games Clemens started in which the Astros scored zero runs while he was in the game. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Clemens' 1.48 ERA is the lowest by any pitcher at the break, in a non-strike season, since 1968 (Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale). And if the Rocket can keep his ERA that miniscule, it would be the lowest by any 40-something pitcher since Cy Young (the pitcher, not the trophy) in 1908. Any more questions? APOLOGIES TO: Willis, Chris Carpenter, Pedro Martinez, Roy Oswalt, Livan Hernandez.
AL Cy Young of the Half-Year
Roy Halladay, Blue Jays. How many people south of Ontario would know Halladay from the postman if he showed up at their mailbox? We'd guess about 12 (and 11 would be people who have him on their fantasy team). But this just in: This man, when healthy, has been one of the three best right-handers of this millennium. (Only Pedro and Oswalt have a lower ERA since Opening Day 2001.) When that line drive clanked into his leg Friday night, Halladay was leading his league in ERA, innings pitched, opponent batting average, opponent slugging, opponent on-base percentage, complete games and quality starts. There's a name for something like that, you know: Cy Young. APOLOGIES TO: Jon Garland, Mark Buehrle, Kenny Rogers.
NL Cy Yuk of the Half-Year
Eric Milton, Reds. When Milton decided to sign that three-year, $25.5 million contract to go pitch in the Great American Gopherballpark, one year after leading the league in homers served, there sure were a lot of people saying: "That's a baaaaaddd idea." Well, it doesn't look much better now -- except on payday. Milton went into his final first-half start Sunday with a chance to join history's only member of the 50-Gopherball Club, Bert Blyleven, as the only men to cough up 30 home runs before the All-Star break. And that .603 slugging percentage Milton has allowed means he's essentially turned every hitter he's faced into Pujols ... which is really, really tough to do. CYS OF RELIEF FOR: Joe Kennedy, Paul Wilson, Vicente Padilla, LaTroy Hawkins.
AL Cy Yuk of the Half-Year
Jose Lima, Royals. It isn't easy for an Opening Day starter to go to the mound 18 times and win just twice -- even if he has a 7.33 ERA. But Lima has pulled that trick off in Kansas City. And what's really impressive is that this is the second time in his career he's won two of his first 18 starts and had an ERA that high at the All-Star break. In 2000, when he was an Astro, he was even worse, believe it or not (2-13, 7.36). According to Elias, only one other pitcher since the dawn of the All-Star break has had two different first halves that unsightly -- Jim Abbott (in 1996 and 1999). So friends, this is Cy Yuk-dom at its mightiest. CYS OF RELIEF FOR: Sidney Ponson, Zack Greinke, Hideo Nomo, Alan Embree.
NL Rookie of the Half-Year
Jeff Francis, Rockies. OK, so we'll grant you that Francis actually wasn't even the best rookie on his own team for a while there. But then that that little carry-the-deer-meat-up-the-stairs fiasco wiped out Clint Barmes' magical season. And that opened the door for Francis to attempt something that only Jason Jennings has ever done -- put together a rookie-of-the-year kind of season while pitching in a ballpark with no gravity. Francis is already up to five starts (three of them at Coors) in which he's allowed one earned run or none. And his numbers in Denver (6-2, 4.09) are downright crazy. If Francis (8-6, 5.16) goes on to win 15 games and keep his ERA under 5.00, he'd be just the second Rockies pitcher ever to do that (joining Jennings in 2002). Who knew? APOLOGIES TO: Barmes, Ryan Church, Lance Niekro Yhency Brazoban, Willy Taveras (and watch out in the second half for Rickie Weeks).
AL Rookie of the Half-Year
Chris Young, Rangers. Young is another guy who hasn't seemed to notice he's pitching in a hitter's paradise. He ripped off nine straight starts of three earned runs or fewer at one point. And until Manny Ramirez grand-slammed him toward a quick shower July 5, he was working on an ERA (3.33) that would have been the lowest by any Rangers starter since Kevin Brown in 1992. But as the Sacramento Kings could tell you, Young's baseline jumper is better than Kevin Brown's. APOLOGIES TO: Huston Street, Jesse Crain, Gustavo Chacin, Tadahito Iguchi, Nick Swisher, Jeremy Reed, Aaroh Hill, Russ Adams.
Managers of the Half-Year
Frank Robinson, Nationals, and Ozzie Guillen, White Sox. The day the Braves pass the Nationals, we'll be switching our NL vote to Bobby Cox, who's performing his greatest juggling act ever. But here's the way this manager-of-the-year stuff usually works: Did anybody out there figure on the Nationals and White Sox being on 100-win paces at the halfway pole? Right. Thought so. Which means Robinson and Guillen pile up those manager-of-the-year votes. And deservedly -- even though neither of them even remotely fits your standard modern-day-manager mold. Maybe there's a message in that. APOLOGIES TO: Cox, Tony La Russa, Eric Wedge, Mike Scioscia, Terry Francona.
Top Five Injuries of the Half-Year
FIFTH PRIZE (HOTEL-LIFE DIVISION): (TIE) Twins shortstop Jason Bartlett ripped off a fingernail -- in his hotel room -- while trying to rotate the TV so he could watch a basketball game. And teammate Terry Mulholland missed a game when he rolled over in bed and a runaway feather from his pillow decided to insert itself in his eye.
FOURTH PRIZE (CLEANUP-MAN DIVISION): Yankees reliever Felix Rodriguez tore cartilage in his knee getting out of the shower.
THIRD PRIZE (HOT-SEAT DIVISION): Cubs reliever Mike Remlinger was sitting in a clubhouse recliner, swiveled in his chair, got his little finger caught between his chair and the one next to it, fractured the pinkie and landed on the disabled list.
SECOND PRIZE (CART-MEETS-THE-HORSE DIVISION): Pirates ace Oliver Perez also headed for the DL with a broken toe -- from kicking the clubhouse laundry cart.
FIRST PRIZE (NEAT-AND-GREET DIVISION): It's still hard to believe that Barmes blew up his rookie-of-the-year campaign over a load of deer meat. He broke his collarbone when he fell trying to carry the deer meat up the stairs of his apartment building -- because he got tired of waiting for the elevator. Then he even engaged in a dastardly cover-up by claiming he was carrying groceries, in an attempt to avoid implicating Todd Helton, who had hosted the deer hunt. Oh, deer.
Minor-League Injury of the Half-Year
Tucson Sidewinders phenom Conor Jackson thought he'd found a safe place to make a cell phone call last month, out beyond the left field fence. He just forgot one minor detail: Batting practice. So he wound up doing more than just raising the bar. He also raised a nice little welt on his noggin -- when he got conked on the head by a BP home run. Oops. Wrong hot spot.
Most Creative Injury of the Half-Year
When a guy is in a slump, he often hears that it's all in his head. But Pirates shortstop Jack Wilson just took that a little too literally.
After flying out in the sixth inning July 2, Wilson thought about his at-bat through the next half-inning. So after it ended, he headed for the clubhouse to watch his at-bat on video.
Uh-oh. Just inside the door, teammate Michael Restovich was loosening up in case he had to pinch-hit. And as he was wind-milling his bat with one hand, guess who walked through the door and got conked with a Louisville Slugger bat right on the old coconut? Yup. And Wilson got gonged so nastily, he even had to leave the game.
"With the way this season has gone, it doesn't surprise me at all that something like that happened," Wilson told the Beaver County Times' John Perrotto. "In fact, I'd almost expect it."
Near Injury of the Half-Year
But some men are luckier than Wilson. Like Mets utility whiz Chris Woodward, for instance. He was minding his own business May 8, standing in the on-deck circle in Milwaukee, when he almost got run over (and practically pan-seared) by the entrants in the daily sausage race.
"That would have been embarrassing, to get plowed over by a hot dog," Woodward told Mets beat man Pete Abraham of the Journal News (of White Plains). "I heard one of them yell, 'Look out!' I think it was the bratwurst."
Boxscore Lines of the Half-Year
THIRD PRIZE -- Kansas City's Zack Greinke, June 10, vs. Arizona, in one of the craziest games any pitcher ever lived through:
4 1/3 IP, 15 H, 11 R, 11 ER, 2 BB, 2 K, 3 HR allowed, 1 HR hit.
But here's the most amazing part of that line: No loss. (The Royals came from nine runs back to get Greinke off the hook ... but then lost anyway.)
FACTS OF THE DAY: Greinke was the first starting pitcher in the last 45 seasons to give up 15 hits and 11 runs in one game without getting a loss. He was also the first in the last 45 seasons to give up 11 runs in a game in which he homered. And he was just the second starter in the last 74 years (joining Scott Sanders, in 1998) to give up 15 hits but not even get 14 outs.
SECOND PRIZE -- Giants reliever Scott Eyre had about as mathematically impossible a line as any pitcher has ever had, May 2 vs. Arizona:
0 IP, 0 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 1 K
So let's see now. He allowed no baserunners -- but gave up a run. And he had a strikeout -- but not outs. How'd that happen? Easy. Mike Matheny forgot to catch a third strike on Shawn Green that would have ended the inning. So instead, Green made it to first on a passed ball and, after Eyre departed, scored on a Tony Clark double.
Eyre told Wild Pitches even his father called to make sure that line wasn't some kind of misprint.
FIRST PRIZE -- Cincinnati's Paul Wilson made history May 6 vs. the Dodgers -- just the wrong kind:
0 IP, 5 H, 8 R, 8 ER, 1 BB, 0 K, 2 HBP, 2 HR and the dreaded tag line: "Wilson pitched to 8 batters in 1st."
FACT OF THE DAY: So how hard is it to give up eight runs in the first inning without getting an out? According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it has happened just five times in the last 75 years. But only one man has ever done it twice. Right. Paul Wilson (July 10, 2003, vs. Houston).
Human Sacrifice of the Half-Year
Boxscore minutiae-hunting doesn't get any more rewarding than the sight, in a June 29 Reds-Cardinals box score, of the tidbit: "SF -- Dunn."
This, friends, was no ordinary SF, you see. This was Reds masher Adam Dunn's first sacrifice fly in (no kidding) 1,086 trips to the plate (since July 22, 2003).
"Never," a much-relieved Dunn told the Dayton Daily News' Hal McCoy, "have I wanted a ball to be caught so much. I thought it was going to fall in for a hit."
Asked if he got any calls of congratulations, Dunn quipped: "I think my brother called my cell phone when I was halfway to first base."
And now, still more awards ...
MATHEMATICIANS OF THE HALF-YEAR -- It may not seem that hard to count to three. But in back-to-back weeks in June, two different Astros -- Lance Berkman and Jason Lane -- forgot how many outs there.
Lane's miscalculation caused a real mess, since he tossed what he thought was an inning-ending fly ball into the stands and allowed a run to score. Berkman at least was a little more surreptitious about his snafu. After making a diving stop at first base on a ground ball down the line, he took a long time getting up and then staggered toward the dugout, as if he'd just reinjured his knee. The trainer even sprinted out to check on him.
Turned out, he confessed to the Houston Chronicle's Jesus Ortiz, "that was me thinking there were three outs when there was really two. So then I had to come up with something, and that's what it was: The old trick-knee routine. Works every time."
SLUMP-TO-SMOOCHEE OF THE HALF-YEAR -- The good news for Brian Giles was that he won the Padres' clubhouse pool to catch that more-than-ceremonial first pitch from noted hurler Anna Kournikova on April 29. The bad news was, he then went 0 for his next 21.
"He kissed the princess," chuckled manager Bruce Bochy, "and turned into a frog."
CREAM-OF-THE-CROP CLOSER OF THE HALF-YEAR -- For lack of any other reasonable alternatives, the Giants turned to 28-year-old career minor-leaguer Tyler Walker as their someone-has-to-do-it closer after Armando Benitez got hurt. Asked a couple weeks later why he was sticking with Walker, manager Felipe Alou replied: "He's the cow we're milking."
FAN NON-INTERFERENCE OF THE HALF-YEAR: Only in L.A. could Luis Gonzalez have robbed the Dodgers' Jason Phillips of a home run last weekend. Phillips hit a ball that actually went over the short fence in the left field corner. But as a few fans just stood and watched, Gonzalez lunged into the seats, caught the ball and then landed in an empty seat in the first row.
Gonzalez's reaction was a philosophical: "I was lucky L.A. fans leave early." But a not-so-calm Phillips wasn't quite that appreciative, telling the Los Angeles Daily News' Tony Jackson: "There's not one idiot out there who can reach over and grab the ball?"
CAPTAIN VERTIGO OF THE HALF-YEAR -- It figured. The Brewers signed Ben Sheets to a four-year, $38.5 million extension in April. And about 12 seconds later, Sheets came down with a rare inner-ear disorder. Knocked him out of the rotation for more than a month. So when it finally appeared he'd straightened himself out (literally), the Brewers had him throw one final bullpen session.
Afterward, he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Tom Haudricourt: "I told them I'm ready ... Of course, I told them three weeks ago I was ready -- and turned around and walked into a door."
BEST BABE RUTH IMPRESSION OF THE HALF-YEAR -- If there's one American League pitcher no NL pitcher ever wants to face again, it's Cleveland's C.C. (George Herman) Sabathia. On May 21, he homered against the Reds. Three weeks later, he doubled against the Giants -- making him the first AL pitcher to thump two extra-base hits in the same season since Bobby Witt in 1997.
If you don't think old C.C. enjoyed running that slugging percentage up to a scenic 1.000, he told the Cleveland Plain Dealer's Paul Hoynes after the homer: "As I was running around the bases, I was thinking about all the people I was going to call who said I couldn't hit."
TROTTERS OF THE HALF-YEAR -- You may think that Orlando Hudson's 53-second trip around the bases, after he popped a hamstring trotting, was the most impressive home run trot of the first half. Nope. The winner was actually Tigers pitcher Jason Johnson. It took him a whopping 59 seconds to orbit the bases after his June 8 homer in Los Angeles -- and he didn't pull anything (except the home run).
"The wind slowed him down, I think," third base coach Juan Samuel told Booth Newspapers' Danny Knobler. "I know I was getting tired of clapping while I waited for him."
TEN-ACIOUS TEAM OF THE HALF-YEAR -- Once those Arizona Diamondbacks get the hang of something, they like to stick with it. So on June 17, one game after giving up 10 runs in the sixth inning to the White Sox, those relentless D-backs served up a 10-run third inning to the Indians. They joined the 1969 Mets as the only teams in history to give up 10 spots in back-to-back games.
"It may sound kind of stupid," Gonzalez said afterward. "But you've got to stay away from innings like that."
Hey, thanks for clearing that up.
BLOODLESS KOO OF THE HALF-YEAR -- Was there a greater Subway Series moment this year than the sight of Mets reliever Dae-Sung Koo somehow doubling off Randy Johnson on May 21 -- and then, even more amazingly, roaring home to try to score from second base on a bunt ... and making it?
"I need to find out the Korean word for stop," said third base coach Manny Acta, "in case he gets on again."
BASE-STRETCHER OF THE HALF-YEAR -- Speaking of Great Moments in Baserunning, we turn our attention to the exploits of Twins flake Matthew LeCroy last weekend.
LeCroy -- who is so nimble that the Twins have compiled an actual highlight video of the 8,000 times he has literally fallen down on the job -- is also one of those speedsters who makes Juan Castro look like Scott Podsednik.
But for some reason, he tried to go from first to third July 3 on what looked like a game-winning single by Mike Redmond. Which meant Torii Hunter (the runner on second) had to shift into late-breaking turbo to make sure he crossed home plate before LeCroy got tagged out at third.
Fortunately, LeCroy stampeded into third safely, with a slide that manager Ron Gardenhire said later looked more like "a man falling down a stairwell." So the run counted. The Twins won. And Gardenhire then told the Minneapolis Star Tribune's Jim Souhan: "My goal is always to watch Matty slide -- because when Matty slides, that's more entertaining than baseball itself."
EMERGENCY RELIEVER OF THE HALF-YEAR -- You know those puzzles kids like to do: "What's Missing From This Picture?" Well, last month, the Mariners discovered, on their first visit to Petco Park in San Diego, exactly what was missing from their bullpen picture -- a bathroom. So when reliever Matt Thornton had to go, that's just what he decided: He literally had to go. Right through the stands, into a stadium men's room, where he stood in line in uniform, chatting with the customers.
"I met a guy named Stan, who invented a baseball cap with a handle so you can take it off fast to catch foul balls," Thornton told the Seattle Times' Bob Finnigan. "He said he tested it at a batting cage on pitches at 75 mph and caught five before the seams started to give out."
HITLESS WONDER OF THE HALF-YEAR -- This year's winner of the annual Last Guy To Get A Hit competition was Astros utilityman Eric Bruntlett, who went all the way from Opening Day to May 20 before finally getting his first hit. And how did Bruntlett find out he'd won? By reading it in the paper, after his identity had first been revealed by our Useless Information detectives.
For the record, it was a double that broke Bruntlett's 0-for-2005 schneid. But Bruntlett told the Houston Chronicle's Jesus Ortiz he didn't care what kind of hit it was: "I would have taken anything. A broken-bat single. Anything. Well, not a broken bat -- because I have Mike Lamb's bat."
HOUSEHOLD NO-NAME OF THE HALF-YEAR -- Third-string Angels catcher Josh (I'm Not Even A Molina) Paul had made it through 32 consecutive games without an at-bat last month when a fan approached him for an autograph during batting practice. Here's how the conversation went, according to the Los Angeles Times' Mike DiGiovanna:
FAN: "You're my favorite player. Can I have your autograph?"
PAUL: "What's my name?"
FAN: "I don't know."
Hey, at least he didn't call him Molina.
MOTHER OF THE HALF-YEAR -- Finally, the Atlanta Journal Constitution cajoled first baseman Adam LaRoche's mother, Patty, to contribute an item last week about her son. And the pride just oozes out of this list of The Five Dumbest Things Adam Did Growing Up:
1) "He went camping and forgot to bring the dog back. Never saw the dog again."
2) "On a dare, threw an orange over his team's bus while the bus was moving. His target was the roof of a car. The orange smashed the windshield, and the driver that was hit looked over. The name of our school district was on the team bus."
3) "Someone brought a pair of antique handcuffs to class. He handcuffed the kid next to him to the chair. There were no keys."
4) "One time I told him he was slow as molasses. He said, 'Who's Molasses?' He actually thought there was a person named that."
5) "Put a helmet on his little brother Andy, told him to run around the backyard and shot BBs at him. I just found out about this when I went to the wedding of one of Adam's friends."
Ah, there's nothing like the love of a mother for a son. Is there? And even in a list of Five Dumbest Things My Kid Ever Did, that love never dies.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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