Archive for category Impressive Debuts

Candiotti interview with Seamheads.com & retro Hough video

Yes, we’re almost a month into the 2016 season and this is only the first post of the new campaign here on A Life of Knuckleballs! (I guess our coverage here is just like “The Baseball Network” way back when – haha.) Yes, we know that Steven Wright of the Red Sox has surprised quite a few people with his strong start to the season – albeit with a losing record of 1-2 despite his 1.40 ERA – and it’s no surprise to me personally that R.A. Dickey continues to struggle, but the first post of the year deals with a couple of knuckleball pitchers from the 1980s and 1990s.

And yes, I realize that it was 21 years ago this week that the Red Sox signed Tim Wakefield. But c’mon, he gets a lot of press – and has gotten plenty of accolades over the years – so I’ll take a pass on that one other than to mention this piece of history in one line.

What we’re going to do instead here in this first post is post an interview that Seamheads.com, which covers the Red Sox, did with Tom Candiotti this week. As mentioned near the end of the hour (after Candiotti left), the guys noted the ex-Indian and Dodger knuckleballer averaged only one wild pitch per 30 innings for his career – great control for a knuckleball pitcher.

And we pay tribute today too to Charlie Hough as he pitched the first game in Marlins history and beat Orel Hershiser and the Dodgers back in 1993:

We’ll post more stuff throughout the season, so catch up with you later!

 

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Another ‘vintage’ Candiotti start

I have to admit, listening to the Washington Nationals-New York Mets game on ESPN Radio through the first five innings or so on Easter Monday made me think back to the Oakland A’s-Boston Red Sox opener back in 1998.

In the Nationals-Mets game, it was 40-something Bartolo Colon (a former Athletic, by the way) becoming the oldest opening-day starter in Mets history. And it was him losing 1-0 in the middle innings despite pitching a very strong game. Colon’s mound opponent: Max Scherzer, who was making his Nationals regular-season debut and pitching a dominant shutout.

Ahhhhh…back in 1998, it was the 40-something Tom Candiotti becoming the oldest opening-day starting pitcher in Oakland history, losing 2-0 to Pedro Martinez, who was making his Red Sox debut and pitching a dominant game.[1] That night, it was a two-base error by second baseman Scott Spiezio in the fifth inning which led to Boston’s first run on a sacrifice fly. A couple of innings later, the A’s couldn’t turn a double play, and the Red Sox scored an insurance run on another sac fly (which would have been the third out had the A’s turned the DP moments earlier). Oakland did have a chance in the seventh, but Pedro struck out A.J. Hinch and Jason McDonald with runners in scoring position to escape the jam. Oh, by the way, Hinch was making his big-league debut and he had to hit against Martinez and catch Candiotti’s knuckleballs. Yikes.

But it was a moot point – in the Nationals game, the Mets scored three unearned runs off Scherzer, ensuring that Colon’s gem didn’t go to waste.

Speaking of A.J. Hinch having to catch knuckleballs in his first major-league game, check out this video of Andy Allanson and Ron Hassey having to catch Candiotti and Joe Niekro – and also bat against them – in a game from 1986. Candiotti’s first batter would be a sign of things to come for how wild this game turned out to be. Thanks to the YouTube user Classic MLB 11 for uploading it. (Hope it doesn’t get taken down.)

(This, by the way, was Candiotti’s fourth game in the majors throwing the knuckleball. Prior to that, he was a curveball-fastball pitcher.)

Have a fantastic baseball season, everyone!

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[1] There is a distinction here with Candiotti being the oldest starting pitcher for Oakland on Opening Day. In terms of opening-day player in the lineup, Reggie Jackson was the oldest player in Oakland history, as he was the DH back in 1987.

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Will the meltdown in Keizer unravel the Dust Devils’ pennant hopes?

Things looked perfect on Sunday evening (August 24) for the Northwest League’s Tri-City Dust Devils, the Short-Season Single-A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies.

They were ahead of the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes 5-2 going into the bottom of the ninth inning at Volcanoes Stadium in Keizer, Oregon. If they hung on, the first-place Dust Devils would take a two-game lead over the idle Vancouver Canadians in the standings for the North Division’s second-half pennant.

Then, the Dust Devils would return home, where they would play their final eight games of the regular season.

The scenario was perfect. Three more outs, and then go back home with a two-game divisional lead.

Tri-City had just gotten out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the bottom of the eighth, and when catcher Robbie Perkins caught Johneshwy Fargas’ pop-up in foul territory to begin the ninth—with the ball coming out of his glove before it settled in at the last moment—the Dust Devils were two outs away.

What happened next was just incredible. With Dylan Stamey on the mound, the Volcanoes loaded the bases on a pair of singles and a walk, loading the bases with one out. In came Josh Michalec, who hit his first batter to force in a run to make it 5-3. Ryder Jones followed with a two-run single off Michalec to tie the game, and Aramis Garcia then delivered a walk-off RBI single, stunning the Dust Devils 6-5.

The divisional lead had shrunk to just a single game.

Then the following night, Tri-City opened its season-ending eight-game homestand by getting blown out 8-1 by the Hillsboro Hops (who had won the first-half pennant in the South Division and had little to play for until the postseason). In Eugene, Oregon, the Vancouver Canadians won their game, 3-1, and suddenly the divisional lead for the Dust Devils was gone.

Both Tri-City and Vancouver had identical won-loss records in the second half entering play on August 26, but the Dust Devils no longer control their own destiny as they do not own the tie-breaker over the Canadians. That means, for the Dust Devils to make the playoffs, they need to finish ahead of Vancouver in the standings with only seven games to play.

It’s so tough because just two nights earlier, they were poised to take a two-game lead when they had that three-run cushion in the ninth inning. With the rest of their games at home following that contest, the second-half pennant was theirs for the taking…

Hey, perhaps they could still bounce back. If you root for underdogs, you would certainly root for Tri-City. For the season, the Dust Devils are 29-40 entering play on August 26, and only a modest 15-16 in the second half, but they still have a shot at making the playoffs. In their way now are a Vancouver Canadians team that has won each of the last three Northwest League titles, so it would be nice if the Dust Devils could somehow eliminate them during this final week of the season and put an end to the championship run. The two teams will not play each other in the season’s final seven games, so Tri-City will need some help in order to finish ahead of Vancouver.

We’ll see what happens over the next seven nights in the Northwest League.

I know this is short-season, and it’s completely different from the majors, but I suddenly thought back to the 1993 major-league season.

The Red Sox, coming off a last-place finish a year earlier, would end up fifth in the AL East in 1993, 15 games back of the Blue Jays with an 80-82 record. The Yankees, Orioles, and Tigers all finished ahead of Boston. Just by looking at the standings, you would think they were totally irrelevant all season.

But not so.

On July 25, the Red Sox won their 10th straight game, beating Oakland 8-1 to complete a four-game sweep at Fenway. They had won 12 of their last 13, and were in a three-way tie for first place in the East, along with Toronto and New York. (Technically, they were percentage points ahead of both clubs, with a 55-43 record—a .561 winning percentage—while the Blue Jays and Yankees were 56-44 for a .560 winning percentage.)

The following night, July 26, the Yankees lost 5-2 in Detroit, with Tigers lefthander David Wells outpitching Jimmy Key. The Blue Jays, meanwhile, were idle. That meant if the Red Sox won in Milwaukee, they would be in sole possession of first place in the AL East.

Now, coming off a last-place finish a year earlier, it was no small feat for the Red Sox to be in first place in the final days of July. With Roger Clemens on the mound, they had a great shot against the Brewers, who were last in the East with a 39-57 record that was even worse than the Cleveland Indians (47-52), who at the time were perennial doormats in that division.

The Brewers had Rafael Novoa on the mound, a rookie lefthander who would go 0-4 with a 5.06 ERA in 22 major-league appearances. He had logged an 0-1 record with a 6.75 ERA with the Giants in 1990, pitched the next two seasons in the minors, and was now making his debut with the Brewers against the Red Sox. It was just his eighth career big-league appearance and third career start.

The Red Sox, who hadn’t seen him before, struggled against Novoa, who gave up just five hits and two walks over 8.1 innings. The only runs the young lefty gave up came as a result of a two-run homer by Mo Vaughn in the fourth with Andre Dawson aboard.

Thankfully, Clemens was even better, tossing five-hit ball with one walk and five strikeouts over 7.2 innings and turning over a 2-1 lead to the bullpen. After lefthanded relief specialist Tony Fossas retired lefthanded-hitting Darryl Hamilton, who was Milwaukee’s No. 3 hitter, on a flyout to end the bottom of the eighth, the Red Sox were three outs away from sole possession of top spot in the AL East.

Yes, again, this was just late July, but considering how the Sox had finished last in 1992, this was a miracle for Boston.

But there was the bottom of the ninth to be played. Fossas stayed in and struck out lefthanded power hitter Kevin Reimer, but B.J. Surhoff (yet another lefthanded batter) bunted for a single. In came closer Jeff Russell, who retired pinch-hitter Greg Vaughn on a fly to right. The Red Sox were one out away.

russellExcept the would-be final out came to the plate in the person of Tom Brunansky, the former Red Sox rightfielder who was one of the key players in Boston’s 1990 AL East championship season. In the final eight games of that 1990 season, Brunansky hit .400 with five home runs and 12 RBIs (with three of those dingers coming in a crucial game against Toronto on September 29). He is also remembered for his sliding catch of Ozzie Guillen’s liner in the rightfield corner at Fenway to clinch the division on the final day of the season.

Now in 1993, he was a Brewer, and was hitting only .178 going into the game against the Red Sox. And there he was, lining an 0-1 pitch from Russell over the leftfield fence for a game-ending two-run homer.

The stunned Red Sox never recovered. They (along with the Yankees) fell out of first place, a half-game back of the idle Blue Jays. Boston never got close again the rest of the season. Well, the Red Sox hung around for a bit but a four-game series sweep at home at the hands of the Indians in late August really helped bury them.

I’ve always wondered how things would have played out had Boston hung on for its 11th straight win that night in Milwaukee. I mean, Russell was only one out away. Had they won the division that year, he wouldn’t have attacked the city of Boston the following year after he’d left town. (I still remember the media talking about Russell’s comments on the radio back then, and those were the days without the Internet and social media. Had he made those comments today, he would be heavily crucified for what he said.)

Well, the 2014 Tri-City Dust Devils are much closer to first place. They do have fewer games remaining, though, to try and finish ahead of Vancouver. The season wraps up on Labor Day Monday, September 1. Yes, I know it’s totally different from the big leagues, but still, it did make me think back to the 1993 Red Sox. And Tom Brunansky. And Jeff Russell (and his comments about Boston).

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Sometimes zeroes don’t mean much…

Dan Johnson, called up by the Blue Jays from Triple-A Buffalo on July 11, made his Toronto debut that same night against his old team, the Tampa Bay Rays, and had the most interesting stat line in his new club’s 8-5 victory.

Johnson, probably best known for his ninth-inning homer for Tampa Bay against the Red Sox in September of 2008 in a contest which gave the Rays the AL East lead and then another dinger against the Yankees in the 2011 season finale to help the Rays clinch the wild card, posted the following line in his Toronto debut:

0 AB, 3 R, 0 H, 0 RBI, 4 BB, 0 SO.

Though Johnson couldn’t get a hit, he still made a huge contribution for Toronto. The Blue Jays’ newest DH was still was able to reach base in all four plate appearances and, more importantly, came around to score three times – including the tie-breaking run in the ninth inning after he had drawn a leadoff walk against the struggling Grant Balfour.

Definitely an odd and crooked-looking line score.

This reminds me of a couple of weird-looking stat lines for Tom Candiotti, where he lost a couple of games despite allowing zero earned runs. Same with John Smoltz, who lost a pivotal game to the Philadelphia Phillies in Game Four of the 1993 NLCS.

Let’s start with the Smoltz game, with the Atlanta right-hander owning a career postseason record of 5-0 with a 2.13 ERA in nine starts heading into the October 10, 1993 contest against lefty Danny Jackson (a playoff veteran himself) and the Phillies. Thanks to a Mark Lemke error at second base in the fourth inning, the Phillies scored two runs off Smoltz to take a 2-1 lead. The Braves almost tied it in the eighth when they put two runners on with two outs and erratic closer Mitch “The Wild Thing” Williams took over for Jackson.

Lemke, looking to redeem himself for the earlier fielding error, took Williams’s second pitch to deep left – which would have tied the game but leftfielder Milt Thompson made a circus catch to end the inning.

Atlanta then put two runners on to lead off the ninth but Williams fielded Jeff Blauser’s sacrifice bunt attempt and threw out the lead runner at third base, before inducing Ron Gant – arguably the league’s best clutch hitter down the stretch – to hit into a game-ending double play. The Phillies won 2-1 to even the series at 2-2, and then won the next two games to clinch the NL pennant.

But here was Smoltz’s line in the game:

6.1 IP, 8 H, 2 R, 0 ER, 5 BB, 10 SO.

It was Smoltz’s first career postseason loss – despite the fact he struck out 10 Phillies and gave up zero earned runs. What was interesting too, was that reliever Mark Wohlers walked three and struck out five in two hitless innings, meaning Atlanta pitching struck out 15 Philadelphia hitters but the Phillies still prevailed [1].

Oscar AzocarThen, on to Tom Candiotti. On August 3, 1990, the Cleveland Indians knuckleballer took a no-hitter into the bottom of the eighth inning at Yankee Stadium. He retired the first two batters and was four outs away from history, with a 4-2 lead. The Yankees had scored two runs in the first inning on a hit batsman, an error by second baseman Jerry Browne, a Candiotti wild pitch, and an RBI groundout by Mel Hall.

With two outs in the eighth, Steve Sax walked before Jim Leyritz reached on an error by shortstop Felix Fermin. Yankees rookie Oscar Azocar, in his first month in the majors, broke up the no-hitter with a single up the middle, cutting the deficit to 4-3.

At that juncture, Indians skipper John McNamara pulled Candiotti in favor of closer Doug Jones, who gave up a first-pitch home run to Hall, turning the 4-3 lead into a 6-4 deficit. That was the way the game ended, with Candiotti charged with the loss and the following line:

7.2 IP, 1 H, 5 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 7 SO.

All five runs off Candiotti were unearned because of the fielding errors by Browne and Fermin.

Then on June 30, 1995, Candiotti was pitching for the Dodgers against the Colorado Rockies, and gave up two first-inning runs because of an error by third baseman Tim Wallach. At the time, the two runs seemed insignificant because Rockies starter Kevin Ritz was just 11-24 with a 5.78 ERA going into the season, and you would figure a lineup featuring Mike Piazza, Eric Karros, and Raul Mondesi would do some damage against a mediocre pitcher.

Unfortunately, the Dodgers couldn’t touch Ritz, who gave up just three hits over six shutout innings (though he also walked five and struck out only one). Karros finally homered off Curtis Leskanic in the ninth to break the shutout, but the Dodgers couldn’t get the tying run home in the 2-1 loss.

The line for Candiotti:

7 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 7 SO.

It was as good a start as Candiotti had had at Yankee Stadium five years earlier – but again only good enough for a loss. It would be that type of a season for the knuckleballer, who went 7-14 despite a respectable 3.50 ERA for a first-place Dodger team [2].

Funny stat lines – they happen in baseball from time to time, and thanks to Dan Johnson for reminding me of these couple of examples.

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[1] Kent Mercker, who also appeared in the game for the Braves, recorded two outs but did not issue a walk or notch a strikeout.
[2] Teammate Ramon Martinez was 17-7 with a 3.66 ERA.

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And how do you score that one again?

On July 3, Minnesota’s Chris Parmelee extended his hitting streak to 13 games with a first-inning RBI double against Yankees rookie right-hander Masahiro Tanaka, but the Twins still went on to fall 7-4 to New York.

Parmelee, who is batting .440 during the streak and .286 on the year, was also tagged out on an unconventional 9-4-2-5-7 play when he tried to stretch his two-bagger but then stopped and tried to return to second base.

Sure, it was also a game which saw Tanaka (12-3) become the winningest Yankees rookie before the All-Star break, surpassing the 11 first-half victories collected by Spec Shea in 1947 (according to the Elias Sports Bureau), and fellow rookie Zelous Wheeler homered in his major-league debut after spending nearly eight years in the minors… but how often do you see a 9-4-2-5-7 play in a ballgame?

This reminds me of a strange play in an Indians-Royals game back on April 16, 1990, where an unusual 6-4-4-5 double play – with an assist to the umpire – took place on a rainy day in Kansas City.

Tom Candiotti was on the mound for Cleveland that afternoon, and though he often pitched in hard luck throughout his career, actually benefited this time – with help from this particular odd (and controversial) double play.

candiottiThere were two Royals runners on base – Jim Eisenreich on second and Kurt Stillwell on first – with nobody out in the second inning.

Because it was early in the game and Candiotti also couldn’t get a good grip of the knuckleball in the rain, the Indians ace wasn’t throwing his knuckler. With Candiotti tossing very hittable pitches, Willie Wilson hit a hard line drive that Indians shortstop Rafael Santana caught, but the ball dropped out of his glove. Second baseman Carlos Baerga picked the ball up, and stepped on the bag to force Stillwell out. But Baerga dropped the ball as well!

“This was a rainy afternoon in Kansas City,” Candiotti recalls years later, “and the field was wet, the ball was wet… everything was ugly out there.”

However, Baerga then alertly picked up the ball again and stepped on second base once more, beating Stillwell to the bag. For some reason, second-base umpire Rich Garcia missed the play and called Stillwell safe. And for some reason, Eisenreich was caught between second and third.

“Then Baerga saw Eisenreich, and threw to Brook Jacoby at third base,” recalls Candiotti. “They got the guy out. So, it looked like we got just that one out at third base, and there were still two runners on with one out.”

Third-base umpire Steve Palermo, however, overturned Garcia’s call and signaled Stillwell out, which was the correct play. So now there were two outs, and two pitches later Candiotti was out of the inning as he retired Frank White on a lineout to centerfield.

“It was a double play, but how do you score that?” asks Candiotti.

Simple: You score it Candiotti as the winner, as Cleveland went on to win 6-3 in the rain.

“Tom Candiotti: A Life of Knuckleballs,” a biography of former big-league pitcher Tom Candiotti, will be released in July of 2014. You may pick up a copy either from Amazon.com or through the McFarland & Company website.

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