Bernie Bytes: Kozma answers the call

2012-09-19T15:30:00Z 2012-09-20T09:15:31Z Bernie Bytes: Kozma answers the callBY BERNIE MIKLASZ, Post-Dispatch Sports Columnist stltoday.com

Good morning. Let’s get started with a few quick observations on the Cardinals:

1. The sample size is too small to warrant any conclusions, but I have to say that Pete Kozma has played better than I expected after his recall from Memphis. No one is saying he is Ozzie Smith or Edgar Renteria, or Rafael Furcal, or David Eckstein. No one is even saying that he’s Royce Clayton. He may not even be Tripp Cromer. But Kozma seems to have decent range, with a touch of grace, in his defensive work at shortstop. He’s also provided some offense; in eight starts Kozma is 8 for 25 (.320 BA) with three extra-base hits, a .346 onbase percentage and a .520 slugging pct.

Again: small sample. But this late in the season, with teams chasing a playoff spot and running out of time, the entire competition is a small sample. If a player gets hot now, even if for only a few days, he can make a real impact.

2. Related note: Whatever happened to Ryan Jackson? The Cardinals portrayed him as a legitimately plus glove at shortstop, and he received a brief audition after Furcal went out with an elbow injury. Jackson is in the dugout, but we don’t see him much on the field.

3. Kyle Lohse warrants consideration for the NL’s Cy Young Award but isn’t getting a lot of play in the national-media chatter leading up to the vote. Lohse’s seven shutout innings led the way to Tuesday’s 4-1 win over Houston. Lohse isn’t a big-time strikeout guy, which causes the short-attention span crowd to overlook him.

But has any NL pitcher been more consistent than Lohse? At 15-3 he has the league’s No. 1 winning percentage. He’s third with a 2.71 ERA, and is tied for third with 23 quality starts. He’s already pitched 199 innings, which puts him in the league’s top 10 for innings pitched.

There’s nothing inflated about the Lohse win total; he has a 2.09 ERA in his 15 wins. And in the 15 wins he’s allowed three earned runs or fewer 14 times. So the folks that cackle about the luck factor need to realize that Lohse’s luck has been mostly bad. In his 13 non-decisions, Lohse has a very fine 3.17 ERA. His ERA in three losses is 4.00, which is better than the league average for ERA by starters.

A lot of guys can throw hard, but there’s something to be said for the art of pitching. And Lohse has been an artist in 2012.

4. The Cardinals’ rotation is turning things around; the starters have a 3.22 ERA over their last 15 games. This must continue. Your turn, Lance Lynn. Lucas Harrell, who can be a tough pitcher, goes against the Cardinals tonight, and the home team is still too quiet offensively.

5. Jon Jay had two more hits Tuesday, and is now batting .390 at home this season. And it isn't just the batting average; Jay has a .464 onbase percentage and a .503 slugging percentage at home. With 15 extra-base hits. Busch opened in 2006. The highest home BA by a Cardinal at home in a season is .380 by Albert Pujols in 2008. But Jay is having an unusually extreme home/road split; his road batting average is .226 with a .297 OBP and a .300 SLG.

Let’s go to The Monitor for the daily baseball watch:

Clayton Kershaw: The Dodgers’ ace visited a hip specialist Tuesday in New York, and the news wasn’t as grim as feared. But it isn’t good news, either. The reigning NL Cy Young Award winner was told he could pitch without fear of causing long-term damage to his injured right hip. But that doesn’t mean it makes sense for Kershaw to pitch. He continues to experience a lot of pain. Kershaw has an impingement of the right hip; it stabs at the hip when Kershaw rotates the hip during his windup and delivery.

If Kershaw can endure the pain to pitch effectively, he may have a chance to return in the final two weeks. But based on comments manager Don Mattingly made to reporters, the team doesn’t want to push it. Kershaw is 12-9 with a 2.70 ERA and leads the NL with 206 Ks.

“He's really competitive, but also he knows he can't pitch,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly told the media before Tuesday’s rainout in Washington. “In certain points, he knows he can't pitch. When he can't go out and throw, he knows he can't compete. So it brings you to realism. When you can't throw, you can't go out and compete. So at that point, you know you've got to take care of it.”

The Dodgers’ starting rotation: Mattingly is scrambling to reorganize the rotation. Tuesday’s rainout necessitated today’s doubleheader in Washington. Aaron Harang and Josh Beckett will start (in that order) for the Dodgers. They’ll face Jordan Zimmermann and John Lannan. Harang hasn’t won since Aug. 18 and has been popped for 11 earned runs in his last 21 innings. Beckett has a 3.38 ERA in four starts with Los Angeles.

The Dodgers have three certain starters: Beckett, Harang and Chris Capuano. And now Mattingly will have to figure out the rest. The rainout, combined with Kershaw’s absence, certainly means another start (probably Saturday in Cincinnati) for rookie righthander Stephen Fife. Joe Blanton is 1-4 with a 6.07 ERA and has been terrible since coming to the Dodgers in a deal with Philadelphia. But the Dodgers may not have the option of removing Blanton from the rotation.

The Dodgers trail the Cardinals by 1.5 games for the second NL wild card, and are trying to hold off the Milwaukee Brewers, who have moved to within 1 game of LA.

The Brewers win again: In Tuesday’s easy 6-0 victory, Milwaukee went into Pittsburgh and ran circles around the increasingly overwhelmed Pirates. The Brewers are known for bashing home runs and doubles, but they overran the Pirates with speed in this one. The Brewers had 13 singles and seven steals in Tuesday’s win. Nothing but singles? Seven steals? Milwaukee? Yes. The Brewers’ streak of 85 consecutive games with an extra-base hit ended Tuesday.

MVP candidate Ryan Braun, he of the 40 homers, led the Brewers’ track team with three steals Tuesday. “People have always perceived us as a team that relies on the home run, but we really don't,” Braun told reporters. “We're pretty good at running the bases. If you rely on the homer, you really get yourself in trouble, so you try to find a way to manufacture runs sometimes, too.”

Actually, Milwaukee depends on the home run to score more than any NL team. According to Baseball Prospectus the Brewers have scored 43.79 percent of their runs via the homer. That’s the highest percentage in the NL, and the fifth-highest in MLB.

But this much is certain: the Brewers are sprinting, having won 21 of their last 27 to emerge as a threat to the Cardinals. Milwaukee, which has won 9 of its last 13 road games, is 2.5 games behind STL.

Clint Hurdle: the Pirates’ manager is clearly exasperated by his team’s unstoppable 11-26 slide. Hurdle has tried everything, including a starting-rotation makeover, to get the Bucs going again. But they keep losing. And Hurdle’s frustration is intensifying.

Milwaukee’s stealing spree was nothing new. This stat borders on the unbelievable, but opponents have stolen 137 bases in 151 attempts against the Pirates this season. That’s right: Pirates catchers have caught only 14 of 151 thieves. How is that even possible?

In comments made to reporters following Tuesday’s game, Hurdle seemed annoyed by the Brewers, and annoyed by his own team.

“We're not the only ones they steal on, but they've piled on us on a couple of different occasions,” Hurdle said of the Brewers, before adding that he didn’t see anything wrong with their non-stop running Tuesday. “No, not at all. If you don't like them stealing bases, get them out.”

Hurdle ordered his pitchers to be more aggressive in pitching inside against the Brewers’ hitters. That comes in the aftermath of Milwaukee hammering Pirates pitchers for 24 runs in a three-game sweep earlier in September. After Hurdle expressed the desire to “eliminate their comfort at the plate,” the Pirates hit two Brewers Tuesday, and buzzed the visitors inside on a few other occasions.

“They’ve pushed us around for years now,” Hurdle said, post-game. “I know the history. We haven't done anything (to cause the Brewers discomfort). But we've got to start.”

A month ago, the Pirates were 12.5 games ahead of the Brewers in the standings. But Tuesday night the Brewers went ahead of the Pirates, who are 1 game behind Milwaukee, 2 games behind the Dodgers and 3.5 games behind the Cardinals.

Max Scherzer: The St. Louisan was putting together an ace-caliber season for the Detroit Tigers before encountering unexpected difficulty in Tuesday's start vs. Oakland. The Tigers won 12-2, but Scherzer left after throwing 44 pitches in two innings. The problem: fatigue in his right shoulder. But an MRI revealed no structural damage, so Scherzer won't have to deal with an injury.

This is what Max told reporters after the game:

"I noticed in the first, but I didn't have any pain in my shoulder. My arm was dead. I was able to finish out the first inning and obviously I went out for the second and my arm felt good at least to start the inning. But the end of the inning, the (Coco) Crisp at-bat, I really ran out of steam. I could feel my arm losing strength. I could feel I didn't have the strength that I normally have. When something like that happens, you've got to come out of the game."

Scherzer's velocity was down; his last fastball was of the appearance was clocked at 90 mph. That's low for Max.

"I've had issues in the past, but nothing like this. I could feel it was outside of the shoulder joint, none of the major structural problems," he said. "That's why I tried to battle through it. But once I realized it was only going to get worse, that's when I needed to come out."

The Tigers are in trying to stay close in the AL Central and AL wild card races. And losing Scherzer, even for a start or two, would be a major blow to their shaky postseason hopes. Scherzer entered Tuesday's start with an 8-1 record and 2.61 ERA since the All-Star break, and he leads MLB with 220 strikeouts.

"It's just questionable, I've got to take it day by day," Scherzer said. "We'll take a couple days off throwing and then re-evaluate. It's just a muscular inflammation type of thing and those are easy to treat in the grand scheme of things. As soon as I can get the inflammation out, then I know I'm going to be able to pitch again very soon, because structurally, I have all my strength and I'm fine."

Albert Pujols: With his Los Angeles Angels opening a crucial series at Texas on Tuesday night, Pujols was in Kansas City to be with wife Deidre, who gave birth to their fifth child, daughter Esther Grace, early Sunday. Pujols told the Angels he would rejoin them in time for Wednesday night's game. The Angels routed Texas 11-, so Pujols wasn't missed. Not that it matters, because the Angels supported his decision to go to KC to be with his wife and new daughter. Mrs. Pujols was in Kansas City, her hometown, because that's where her parents live. And the Angels played at Kansas City last weekend.

"There's no doubt Albert is where he needs to be," LAA manager Mike Scioscia told reporters. "I'm speaking for myself. You can ask other people in our organization, but I'm sure we're all on the same page with that.

"The plan was, whenever he got things settled, he was going to play with us. The fact that we were in Kansas City, she had the baby in Kansas City, made it easier for him to play on Sunday. And then taking care of the matter, he needed yesterday and today to take care of them. But believe me, we're 100 percent behind what he needs to do for his family."

The Angels trail Baltimore by 3 games for the second AL wild card spot.

The Angels enter the week three games behind the Orioles for the second American League Wild Card spot, with 15 games left.

As always, thanks for reading.

Bernie

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Bernie Miklasz

You've read Bernie Miklasz in the Post-Dispatch since 1989. Now check out a new video "Breakfast with Bernie" every weekday morning. You'll also see more "Bernie Bytes" around the clock as he posts quick-hit commentaries on a variety of topics.

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