By Neil Keefe
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When does "early" become "late" in baseball? Everyone seems to have a different answer or opinion to the question on when it's time to start evaluating teams and when games start to "matter." Some think it's Memorial Day or the All-Star break, and others think it's after 40 games or after 33 percent of the season. But the real is answer is Opening Day.
"It's still early" has become a line for managers of underachieving teams to spew to the media to avoid the fact that they currently suck. Joe Girardi (6-6) has pulled "it" out already. Bobby Valentine (4-8) has gone to "it." And I haven't heard any postgame quotes from Mike Scioscia (4-8) or Charlie Manuel (5-7) or Bruce Bochy (6-6), but I'm sure they have used "it" in some form as well.
"It's still early" has become the go-to phrase for those teams not getting the job done in April, but at the same time, teams playing well and winning games (whether expected or unexpected) are commended for their great play, and there's never any mention of the calendar or the game number. I don't hear anyone mentioning that the season is still young for the Rangers or the Tigers or the Nationals or the Dodgers, but it's constantly thrown around with the Yankees along with sentences like "Freddy Garcia won't continue to be this bad" and "Eventually Mark Teixeira will come around" and "Hiroki Kuroda will eventually prove to be a viable No. 2 starter in the AL" and "A-Rod will find his power stroke." But at what point do we stop waiting for things to happen and expecting success to arrive, and when does it become a concern?
It would sound ridiculous for me to write that 12 games into the season is the official measuring stick for the Yankees and all of baseball. It would also be ridiculous for me to say that April games don't matter and that real baseball starts in May or June, or that only the second half means anything. And that's why Opening Day is when "early" becomes "late."
Prior to 2012, I guess you could make the case that games in the second half hold more stock than games in the first half after the standings have taken shape and positions have been established. (I wouldn't have agreed with someone making this case, but I would have understood them using it since it seems to be a mainstream idea.) But not in 2012. Not when there will be a one-game playoff for two teams that didn't win their division, but might have finished with better records than other division winners. Baseball changed their postseason format and the path to the World Series and everyone needs to change the way they view early-season baseball to match it.
"Late" became "early" when James Shields threw the first pitch of the Yankees' season to Derek Jeter on April 6 at the Trop. Like I said after that series, "Game 1 of the season is as important as Game 57 and Game 89 and Game 123 and Game 162. A game against the Rays on Opening Day is equally as important as a game against the Red Sox the middle of the summer." And while it might be the second full week of the season, watching Hiroki Kuroda and Freddy Garcia get torched by one of the weakest offensive teams in the league and watching Phil Hughes have at-bats extended by foul balls and watching the heart of the order struggle to hit for power or with runners in scoring position, these games matter, and they matter as much as the games in second-to-last full week of the season.
As for the Blueshirts, "early" became "late" when the postseason started and every shift, every shot, every goal, every penalty, every single thing turned into being the difference between getting a head start on the offseason and getting to play until June in hopes that Doc Emrick will scream your name followed by "SCOREEEEEEEEE!" And after blowing leads in Games 2 and 4 and losing in overtime both times, the Rangers find themselves in a best-of-3 series with home-ice advantage against a team that has outplayed them in every game except for Game 1.
It's been a few weeks since the debut of "Thursday Thoughts," but with the Yankees playing .500 baseball after 12 games and headed to Fenway Park this weekend and Texas next week, and the Rangers needing to win the biggest game of the season on Saturday night at the Garden, now seemed like a good time for the second installment.
- Does anyone have a good feeling about Freddy Garcia pitching in Boston on Saturday? Last season Garcia had the following line against Boston: 19 IP, 22 H, 11 R, 10 ER, 10 BB, 10 K, 3 HR, 4.74 ERA, 1.684 WHIP. And this came in a season when Garcia was actually good. When I found out during the offseason that I had a wedding on the first Saturday Yankees-Red Sox game of the season I was disappointed, but now I'm relieved.
- A year ago I didn't want Bartolo Colon on the Yankees. Now I would be willing to carry him from Oakland to New York (I understand it might be physically impossible to carry him even one city block) to have him in the Yankees rotation. Colon dominated the Angels on Wednesday night (8 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 5 K) and threw 82 of his 108 for strikes, including 38 consecutive strikes at one point in the game. He's now 3-1 on the year with a 2.63 ERA, and his three wins are one less than the entire Yankees' rotation. He's also making $2 million one his one-year deal with the A's, which is $2 million less than Freddy "Smoke and Mirrors" Garcia.
- How do people get this amped for the release of the NFL schedule? You know who your favorite team is going to play once the previous seasons ends, so does finding out the dates and times of the games really get you that worked up? I asked WFAN's own John Jastremski about this, and his response to me about finding out his Dolphins having their schedule released was similar to my reaction when the Giants won the Super Bowl.
- Derek Jeter has four home runs and 10 RBIs. Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano and Mark Teixeira have combined for two home runs and eight RBIs. Yes, that's a problem.
- The Penguins-Flyers series has been epic. Even if both teams would probably elect to turn their nets around or play with a sixth skater rather than use a goalie, it has had everything you could want in a series between two rival teams that actually hate each other. I would rather see low-scoring defensive battles and overtime games in the postseason, but an old-fashioned five-alarm gongshow is always welcome.
- Brett Gardner is on the 15-day disabled list, which means the backup center fielder to Curtis Granderson is now … Nick Swisher! Yes, the Yankees have a 10-time Gold Glove winner on their bench, but after the way Andruw Jones played left field on Wednesday night against the Twins, as if he had a few too many beers in the dugout of a slow-pitch softball game, I'm not sure he should be anywhere other than DH ever. Please stay healthy, Grandy Man.
- How meaningless is a goaltender's record in the NHL postseason? Entering these playoffs, Henrik Lundqvist had a 15-20 playoff record, and it's now 17-22, and the TV broadcasts will remind you with the graphic. After Wednesday's overtime loss, his overtime record is now 1-7. So yeah, it's Lundqvist's fault that his postseason win percentage is .436 and his overtime win percentage is .125. It has nothing to do with the Rangers' inability to score goals or create offense, and it has nothing to do with their most talented scorers disappearing after Game 82.
- I don't like that the Yankees are going to wear those throwback uniforms on Friday for the 100th Anniversary of Fenway Park. I understand why they're doing it (to celebrate 100 years of baseball in Boston and to also make some more money), but let the Red Sox wear throwback uniforms if they want to, and stick to the Yankees tradition and don't wear some alternate uniform for one game.
- I don't think there's anything left to say about Brendan Shanahan that I didn't already say about him on Monday despite his most recent rulings, which were every bit as confusing as the ones for Carl Hagelin, Matt Carkner and Shea Weber. There's nothing he can do that will surprise me and there's no way of ever knowing what a suspension will be for a standard elbow or end-of-game instigator or headshot.
- I can't wait to check on the Twins in a few weeks and see Justin Morneau either not playing or not producing. Morneau has hit three home runs in three days at the Stadium and still has one more game to go on Thursday night. He now has seven home runs in 12 games at the new Stadium and just five home runs in 80 games at Target Field. But it's not every series that he gets to face Freddy Garcia and Hiroki Kuroda.
- It's great that Brian Boyle has three postseason goals and two game-winners, but at some point Marian Gaborik is going to have to win a playoff game for the Rangers. And since there's a chance that there might be only two or three games left in the season, he might want to get on that. Gaborik has two goals in nine playoff games for the Rangers, or one less than Boyle has in the last seven days. Gaborik has 14 career playoff goals, but nine of them came nine years ago when he was a 20-year-old on the Wild team that went to the conference finals. I remember the papers getting on Jaromir Jagr and comparing him to A-Rod by calling him J-Rod when he elected to not be a part of the Rangers' shootouts, and if Gaborik is invisible for the rest of this series and the No. 1-seeded Rangers are eliminated, it's going to be bad for Gaborik.
- Freddy Garcia has already pitched himself out of the rotation for when Michael Pineda or Andy Pettitte are ready to return, and if Phil Hughes doesn't show up on Thursday night he will likely punch his ticket back to the bullpen or a bus ticket back to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Hughes has now been a five-inning or less pitcher for nearly a full calendar year since coming off the disabled list last July. And if you include his "dead arm" period at the beginning of the 2011 season and his awful performance in the 2010 ALCS and his 5.15 ERA over his last 18 starts and 20 appearances to finish the 2010 season then he has been bad for a lot longer. Sure, there are flashes of the No. 1 pick that we all expected to be a front-end starter for the Yankees for years, but they are rare and sandwiched between "Hey it's the third inning of a Phil Hughes start, I hope there's reruns of The Office on" starts. Everyone keeps saying, "Well if Hughes can return to his first-half form from 2010 or pitch the way he did against the Twins in the 2010 ALDS then the Yankees' rotation is stacked." But what if he can't. There's a lot more evidence that Phil Hughes won't be the pitcher we expect him to be and want him to be than there is that he will a No. 1 or No. 2 starter for the Yankees. I have been a Hughes supporter and believer all along and that won't change now, especially since he is still 25 years old, but if we're talking about when "early" becomes "late," Hughes is not only pitching for a rotation spot in 2012, but he's pitching to avoid being banished to the bullpen for the rest of his career.
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