Spring Training live diary

Can’t watch the Braves-Mets spring training opener because you don’t have local New York stations? No worries, I am camped in front of my television all afternoon and will be transcribing the events, grossly overreacting to every pitch, and most importantly, laughing at Keith Hernandez’s jokes on your behalf.

First pitch is just minutes away …

1:09- Starting lineup for the Braves:

  1. DH Jordan Schafer
  2. CF Nate McLouth
  3. RF Jason Heyward
  4. C Brian McCann
  5. LF Eric Hinske
  6. 1B Freddie Freeman
  7. 2B Brooks Conrad
  8. 3B Brandon Hicks
  9. SS Diory Hernandez

1:10- Jordan Schafer at the plate. Schaf is rocking jersey number 1 this year. He’s down on strikes. Caught looking at a really filthy 3-2 curveball from Jenrry Mehia.

1:15- Nate Dog works a five pitch walk, bringing up Jason Heyward, prompting a discussion of last year’s Rookie of the Year voting. I still contend Heyward was robbed, but then I remembered the ROY is rather pointless in the grand scheme of things. Who would you rather have on your team, Chipper Jones or Hideo Nomo? Yeah, thought so.

1:18- The newer, slimmer, Brian McCann hits after Jason Heyward bounces out to short (McLouth was moving on the pitch and advanced). Keith Hernandez on McCann’s noticeable weight loss: “He’s always been kind of, well, you know … portly.”

1:21- McCann 2.0 grounds out to 2nd on a 3-1 count, ending the half-inning.

1:22- Lineup for the Mets:

  1. SS Jose Reyes
  2. 2B Luis Castillo
  3. 3B David Wright
  4. CF Angel Pagan
  5. LF Jason Bay
  6. 1B Ike Davis
  7. C Josh Thole
  8. Scott Hairston
  9. RF Fernando Martinez

1:26- Jair Jurrjens started the game with eight fastballs in his first nine pitches. The velocities for those fastballs: 83, 83, 82, 83, 82, 82, 81 … Yikes.

1:31- Angel Pagan hits a soft grounder to Brooks Conrad, and Conrad commits three errors on the play, retroactively costing the Braves the ’95 World Series. Just kidding. End of 1st, no score. One hit, no errors, one left on for New York.

1:36- David Wright robs Hinske of extra bases with a nice backhanded stab and throw to first. Freddie Freeman time, I’m giddy.

1:37- Freeman scorches a low fastball to right field. An error on the throw back to the infield gets him to third. Giddiness levels, rising. Brooks Conrad, now rocking the number 7, down on strikes, reaching on a fastball out of the zone.

1:40- Wild pitch brings Freeman home. Braves 1, Mets 0.

1:41- Mejia rings up Hicks, who is also rocking new digits, inheriting Matt Diaz’s old 23. Lots of new jersey numbers this year, fellow geeks. End of the top half of the 2nd.

1:48- Jurrjens gets out of the 2nd rather easily, surrendering only a soft single to Josh Thole.

1:53- Diory Hernandez and Jordan Schafer make for a quick two outs … File this under “least surprising sentences I’ve ever typed.”

1:55- Nate Dog completes the soft ground out trifecta by rolling over a breaking ball and lightly tapping it to the right side. Strong half inning, boys. Strong.

1:58- Jonny Venters pitching now for the Braves. Final line for Jurrjens: 2 IP, 1 K, 2 H, 34 pitches, 23 strikes.

1:59- Disgusting slider from Venters induces a Fernando Martinez strike out. It’s almost unfair seeing JV face off against lefty hitters.

2:01- Ron Darling on Jose Reyes: “He does things that most guys can’t do in a 162 game season.” That’d be the first time I’ve heard “Jose Reyes” and “162 games” in the same sentence.

2:02- Double play ball to end the inning. Excellent inning of work by Venters: Three batters faced, one strikeout, no balls hit out of the infield.

2:05- Jason Heyward squeezes a base hit through the right side of the infield. McCann 2.0 up with nobody out. He really does look like a different guy out there, like the new “slim” PlayStation3 model.

2:07- After a GIDP by McCann 2.0, Eric Hinske homers off the first pitch he sees. Braves up 2-0 now.

2:10- Freeman dumps a bloop double just inside the left field line. He’s on pace to hit 5,000 doubles this spring. Brooksie grounds out to end the top half.

2:17- Eric O’Flaherty now pitching. After a quick two outs he got himself into some trouble, surrendering single and issuing a walk, before getting out of the inning with a Josh Thole grounder to 2nd. Good to see Conrad’s case of they yips is cured – he only bobbled it once before throwing to 1st.

2:29- A tradition of spring training, the Mets’ starting position players who are no longer in the game are shown doing their post-game run. Meanwhile, Jonny Venters is getting his post-game run done on the warning track. Reminds me of my days in the Atlanta Public Schools baseball league. Crim High had a track running directly through center field, so it was not uncommon to see an old lady in a nylon track suit power walking across the field during the game.

2:31- Pinch-running for the Braves, Jose Constanza. Of course, Seinfeld jokes abound from the Mets’ booth. I’m pulling for Constanza to make the team for this same reason.

2:33- Heyward, presumably in his final at bat of the day, gets caught looking on a nice back door curve from Taylor Buccholz. Jose “Can’t stand ya” is stranded at first base. Heading into the bottom of the 5th, still 2-0 Braves.

2:37- Craig Kimbrel on the mound for Atlanta. Will be interesting to see if his control has improved at all from last year, when he posted a 7.0 BB/9 in his major league debut.

2:38- Former Brave and general good-guy Willie Harris gives an interview in the dugout. As always, a Harris interview comes equipped with a fat pinch of tobacco in his bottom lip.

2:39- Fernando Martinez earns an “Atta boy!” from Harris as he blasts a Kimbrel fastball to right field. Kimbrel missed his spot and got punished for it. Tie ballgame now.

2:40- The WPIX broadcast completely crapped out, so now I’m looking at a stock image of the Brooklyn Bridge. Gonna give this the standard 15-minute rule that college students apply when their teacher hasn’t showed up to class. If this isn’t fixed soon, I’m out.

2:43- Ah, okay, that didn’t take long. The broadcast came back just in time to see Brooks Conrad boot another routine play. This is kind of becoming a thing with him, isn’t it? I’d hate to see this pop up down the road and cost us a big game or anyth- wait, what? Ah, shit.

2:49- Craig Kimbrel issues his second walk before getting a second out. He’s really battling with some control right now, hope this doesn’t become a thing with him, I’d hate to see it pop up down the road and cost us a meaningful game or anyth– wait, what? Ah, shit.

2:51- Cristhian Martinez comes in and cleans up the mess, inducing a double-play to get out of the jam. Tie ball game, end of the 5th.

2:56- Freddie Freeman, ladies and gentlemen! Now on pace for 9,352 doubles.

2:59- Conrad caught looking, still 2-2 heading into the bottom of the 6. Would expect to see the benches empty out here soon for Atlanta.

3:01– Just found out that the Mets’ spring training yard is called “Digital Domain Park.” I’m disappointed that the crew passed up a golden “master of his domain” joke when Constanza was pinch running. I expect better out of this group. Cristhian Martinez remains in the game to pitch the 6th for the Braves and works a perfect inning.

3:11- Diory Hernandez is on pace for 4,695 soft ground outs.

3:12- Schafer tries to bunt his way on base, but pushes it just a touch too hard towards third. Nice play by Zach Lutz gets him by a half-step. Still 2-2 heading into the 7th inning stretch. Or in my case, the 7th inning coffee refill.

3:15- Not a whole lot going on for either squad, no major league players left in the game, but no real prospects either. Anthony Varvaro, a 27-year-old waiver pickup, worked the 7th for Atlanta and pitched well against an assortment of nobodies.

3:22– A familiar face makes an appearance when Manny Acosta got in the game for New York. He made short work of the Braves, inspired this hilarious tweet from Peter Hjort.

3:30- Stephen Marek now pitching. You may remember him as a throw-in from the Mark Tiexiera-to-the-Angels deal. At 27, he still has a shot to make an impact with the big club but hasn’t seemed to be too well liked by the organization for whatever reason. He spent all of last season in Richmond, where he put up some nice numbers, including 74 Ks in 63 IP. Marek starts the inning by issuing a walk to Zach Lutz.

3:35- Top 9, the diminutive Matt Young leads off the inning for Atlanta by drawing a walk. Young has an outside shot at making the club as the backup center fielder with a good spring.

3:38- Full count to Joe Mather, it’s pretty a much a guarantee that Young is going to try to steal 2nd here. Nobody wants extra innings and Young is trying to showcase his best skill. The entire ball park knows he’s taking off.

3:41- Mather hits behind the runner but a nice play by the 2nd-basemen Jordany Valdespin manages to keep it in the infield and get the out at 1st. Regardless, the go-ahead run is in scoring position and everyone is hoping for a merciful break in this tie. Nobody wants to see extra innings in February.

3:44- And there it is! Eddie Lucas laces a shot to left-center to plate the go ahead run. “Atta boys” all around.

3:47- Lucas is gunned down by three feet trying to steal 2nd, but the pitch was ball four anyway. In addition to giving up the go ahead run, Manny Acosta has now issued two walks. Good to see he’s already in mid-season form.

3:49- Diory Hernandez’s effort to go for the ground out cycle (one to each fielder) is dashed by the hard infield dirt when the ball bounced over Zach Lutz’s head and into left field. Lucas scores, but is called out for not touching 3rd base. Comical stuff.

3:52- Juan Abreu in to close out the 9th. Please, oh, please let him get through this either without surrendering a run. I’m running low on snark.

3:59- Crap, 1st and 3rd now for the Mets after a beautiful hit-and-run. Abreu needs to either give up a three-run bomb or induce a double play, I won’t settle for allowing the tying run. Extra innings not an option.

4:00- Jordani Valdespin rips a double that one hops the fence. Just groove one, Abreu. I know you’re trying to earn a job and everything, but take it from me, you probably already blew it. You’re not gonna win a job anyway, so just put one over the dish and let someone hit it far so we can all go on about our day. Sound good?

4:06- Abreu walks the bases loaded, bringing up Lucas Duda. [Shameless Star Wars joke time] You’re my only hope, Lucas. (As someone who has been victimized by shameless Star Wars jokes my whole life, it feels good to be on the other end of that deal.

4:07- Duda pops out in foul territory, and we’ve got FREE BASEBALL! I can barely contain the excitement.

4:14- After leadoff singles by Jose Can’t Stand Ya (gotta love spring training substitution rules) and Wilkin Ramirez, JP Boscan lays down a perfect sac bunt to advance them to 2nd and 3rd.

4:17- Matt Young, you are my hero. Braves re-take the lead when Young chops one to short and Constanza beats the throw home. We may be out of this soon enough.

4:20- Ed Lucas with another RBI single, and the rout is on. 5-3 Braves now.

4:25- Keith Hernandez just informed me that Missouri has the most states bordering it in the entire union. This is why you hang around for the 10th inning of spring training games.

4:28- Willie Harris at the plate, his pinch has tripled in size. And just like that, this game is tied again, as he with the forever protruding lower lip plants one behind the wall in left center. Thankfully, this game is going to be called at 10 no matter what happens.

4:30- And that’s all folks! Tie ball game is your final. Always good to blow two saves in one game.

Time to hand out some grades: Freddie Freeman gets an A+ for his triple-double performance; Matt Young and Manny Acosta each get A’s for their collective efforts in the 9th inning, which almost gave us a timely end; Ed Lucas only gets an A- for his two ribbie effort due to failing to touch third base in the 9th, a mistake which only prolonged things; Willie Harris gets an A for his fat pinch and entertaining in-game interview; Keith Hernandez and Ron Darling get a B- for their work in the booth (I have to deduct for failing to fully capitalize on the Constanza joke potential), Juan Abreu gets a D- for a disastrous inning of work, and Brooks Conrad gets an E4.

That concludes this installment of Grapefruit Diaries. Until next time …

Back on Track

The Hawks entered Friday night’s game with a lot of issues to address, and the Warriors were more than accommodating. Both teams shot a lot of jumpers, but only the Hawks’ were falling. You can’t take too much from these sorts of games, of course, they happen from time to time in the NBA. Sometimes, a team just fails to show up, play hard or convert even the easiest of offensive chances — it’s a syndrome that the Hawks themselves are not immune to as we’ve all seen this season. But tonight the afflicted team was Golden State, which, in addition to boosting Josh Smith’s shooting confidence (possibly to lethal levels), it made the assimilation of newcomer Kirk Hinrich into the offense a bit easier.

Hinrich didn’t play much, but when he did he looked like a good fit for what the Hawks like to do on offense. After entering the game midway through the first quarter, Hinrich promptly buried a 3-pointer, announcing his presence and sparking a 19-7 run to close out the period. The final line for Hinrich: 17 minutes played, 8 pts., three assists and one turnover. Pretty respectable debut to be sure.

But Atlanta’s other point guard, the one Larry Drew seemingly forgot about for weeks at a time, took advantage of the increased playing time with a solid performance of his own (just don’t look at the shooting totals). Granted, it was against a lifeless Golden State squad, but Teague looked comfortable running the offense, earning six assists and playing a career-high 26 minutes. If he can replicate that assist output going forward, it’s possible his playing time will be less sporadic than it was with Mike Bibby on the team. (Speaking of Bibby, he kicked off his stint with the Wizards as only he can, going 0/4 from the floor in 10 minutes and posting a negative-19 plus/minus rating.)

There will be nights though when the Hawks will need him to shoot better than he did tonight, and that is what’s likely going to keep Hinrich (once he’s acclimated) and Jamal Crawford ahead of him in the rotation. It’s still nice to see our “point guard of the future,” even if only by default, get some extended burn for a change. It only took 118 games is all.

The Josh Smith/Al Horford tandem was really the showpiece tonight, as both players were terrific on both ends of the floor. Horford (22 pts. on 14 shots, 13 rebounds and 7 assists) has such a profound impact on both ends of the floor that it’s a shame he doesn’t get more national love. I won’t go so far as to say he should be an MVP candidate this season, largely because the Hawks’ overall record doesn’t justify such a claim, but he has to be approaching that stratosphere.

Meanwhile, Josh Smith continues to defy the cries of “Nooooo” from Atlanta fans every time he cocks his left elbow behind his ear to unleash that funky jumper. It’s hard to argue with the results on nights like tonight, when he hit 11/18 from the field and 1 of 2 3-pointers attempted, but these are the sort of nights that artificially inflate his confidence and threaten to hurt the team down the road. Sure, it’s nice to see him light it up from outside against a team which checked out mentally sometime between the opening tip and half-time, but come the playoffs, against teams that actually are trying to defend, we’re going to need Smoove attacking the basket, not settling into a comfort zone. As he’s the only Hawk who is legitimately un-guardable when attacking the hoop anymore, it’s imperative that he maintains an aggression on offense rather than being seduced by these easy-coming jumpers which will no longer be there six weeks from now.

Will see what the future holds for the new-look Hawks. Whether Hinrich can hit the ground running, Teague can actually begin his previously stunted development, and whether Horford and Smith can continue to dominate games, the Hawks will certainly never have it easier than they had it tonight. The next eight games are brutal on paper. After finishing up their west coast road trip with trips to Portland (Sunday) and Denver (Monday), the Hawks face the Bulls twice, plus the Lakers, Thunder and the revamped Knicks in the next two weeks. Time to see what we’re made of.

Bibby is gone, but the Hawks may not be done

Mike, you don't have to stop posting up on the three-point line, but you can't do it here.

So you may have heard that Mike Bibby was traded to the Wizards, along with Mo Evans, Jordan Crawford and a first rounder, for Kirk Hinrich and Hilton Armstrong. Obviously, this is a marginally positive development. But more player movement could be on the way.

Zaza Pachulia was held out of last night’s loss at Phoenix, as the Hawks continue to work on possible deals leading up to the 3 p.m. trade deadline. My initial reaction, forgetting any on-court implications, is “Nooooooooo!” Zaza is a fan favorite, just as Bibby was a non-fan favorite, so it would be sad to see him go. But uh, yeah, professional basketball is a business and all that, so good luck with the trade talks, Rick Sund. Hope it works out. And congrats on ridding the team of the Alb-Bib-tross.

Kirk Hinrich and Hilton Armstrong, welcome to Atlanta. To the former, I hope you improve the team’s on-ball defense and maybe contribute an occasional assist, which is much more than I can say for your predecessor. To the latter, I hope you and Josh Powell get along nicely on the bench.

Midweek Linkage, including a few updates

A few previous stories need updating it would seem.

…First, yesterday’s fantasy of Devin Harris in a Hawks uniform is now out the window, because he was shockingly sent to Utah today (along with Derrick Favors) in exchange for Deron Williams. The Hawks still need a point guard though, and as Michael Mark Bradley writes, the decision to pass on Chris Paul (and Williams) in the 2005 draft still haunts the team. Can’t wait for Bradley’s next column, in which we’ll learn why Kennedy’s trip to Dallas was a bad idea.

(Edit- not sure why I initially called Mark Bradley “Michael.” I’d like to blame it on something, maybe that I was reading a Michael Cunningham article at the same time, or maybe I was perusing the injury list for my 2010 fantasy football team, but really I just screwed up.)

…Oh yeah, the Hawks played a game last night. I would like to provide some insight, but it’d require more effort than the team has displayed of late? We can talk about lineups and personnel all we want, but the central issue is that the team just isn’t playing hard. They’ve dropped four of their last six games, three of which by 15 or more points. Something has to change and soon. As Al Horford tweeted, the team has “some soul searching to do.”

…A couple weeks back, the Falcons desire for a new stadium was just a talking point, but with the re-worked financing agreement between the team and the Georgia World Congress Center, the new crib could become a reality by as early as 2017. When I wrote about the possibility of a new stadium, I was mainly concerned with financing (I wanted the team to pay for all of it) and location (I wanted the team to stay in the city limits). One out of two ain’t bad. The new proposal will call for the city to kick in about half of the funds, with the rest of the bill being covered by the team.

The good news, however, is the new stadium will remain near downtown, adjacent to the Dome. And if you have grown attached to the jagged-roofed, (formerly) teal and mauve palace, fear not. The Dome will remain in tact to will continue to host college athletics such like the Chick-fil-A Bowl and ACC/SEC championship events.

… And lastly, it flew under the radar a bit, but the Braves announced a two-year contract extension for general manager Frank Wren earlier this week. I’ve come full circle on Wren, and am absolutely thrilled to have him as my favorite team’s GM. I take it most other fans who were once critical share that sentiment. He’s made more good moves than bad in his tenure, he’s rebuilt the pitching depth both at the major league level and in the farm system, and he made a huge splash this offseason in trading two minor assets for Dan Uggla. The present day Braves are looking pretty good, and the future looks even better. The extension was well deserved.

Non-crazy thought of the day: Devin Harris (or Ray Felton) in a Hawks’ uni?

Original images via NY Daily News and Dime Magazine.

The Carmelo Anthony trade that did (finally) happen could turn out to be good news for the Hawks, because the trade that didn’t happen gives the team a potential trade partner of its own.

After missing out on Anthony, the Nets are likely looking to shed salary with any potential deals, and they have in Devin Harris a very desirable trading chip for any team which is looking to upgrade at the point guard position. Sound like any team you know? Thought so. As Michael Cunningham writes, Hawks GM Rick Sund is actively scouring the trade market for potential guard help, and that search includes the Harris:

Harris, who turns 27 28 on Sunday, would meet Atlanta’s desire for a capable defender who also can push the pace and create shots for others. But he makes $9.3 million in 2011-12, and adding his salary to the roughly $65 million Atlanta has committed for next season would push Atlanta’s payroll above the current luxury-tax threshold (which could change in the new CBA). Harris also is owed $8.5 million in 2012-13.

It’s not clear whom the Hawks would offer for Harris. Jamal Crawford seems to be the obvious candidate because his expiring $10.1 million contract would allow the Nets to carve out even more cap space for next season–they have just $37 million in committed salaries.

With the salary differences, it wouldn’t be so simple as a straight Crawford-for-Harris swap. Assuming the Nets would take that deal to begin with (obviously, Atlanta would), that trade fails the all knowing ESPN Trade Machine.

This is the best I could do in matching up the salary figures without involving a third team.* Damion James was originally drafted by the Hawks this summer and swapped for the Jordan Crawford pick, so I don’t know if the Nets would be thrilled to include him in any deal. But hey, if Renaldo Balkman can return to the Knicks, anything can happen.

* – I revisited the Trade Machine and managed to work this one through the filter. Jeff Teague/Crawford for Harris and small forward Quinton Ross. It’d hurt a bit to give up on Teague this soon, but Harris is only 28, already an established player and has another 1.5 years left on his deal. I would do this move in a heartbeat.

Another possible scenario in the post-‘Melo world: Denver could turn around and flip one of the newly acquired former Knicks, Raymond Felton. Felton was having a career year in New York, with with the young Ty Lawson ready to take over for the departing Chauncey Billups, the Nuggets appear set at point guard. The speculation around the league is that Felton will be dealt before the deadline.

So, Felton or Harris? Which would you prefer? The correct answer, of course, is “anyone but Mike Bibby.”

So yeah, the Knicks made a huge splash Monday night, but the ripple effects have provided the Hawks with options of their own.


Al vs. Amar’e: War of the words

Hawks-Knicks tonight at Madison Square Garden, which for multiple reasons should be quite the intense match up. As you may recall, the last time these two teams played, they engaged in fisticuffs. After the game, Amar’e Stoudemire set the stage for what should be a chippy rematch, taking this shot at his front-court counterpart, and fellow All-Star, Al Horford:

““It’s going to be a very, very intense game after what happened in Atlanta. He don’t want to see me. I watched him play in Florida, and I’ve seen him play a few years in Atlanta. We’ve got two different games, and we’ll see how it plays out.”

Predictably, Al wasn’t too pleased with the unprovoked attack:

“I don’t understand what he means by I don’t want to see him. Like we are supposed to be scared of him or something. Ain’t nobody scared of nobody. We are all grown men. It’s all good.”

“I walked out with the W’s the last two times, so that’s that.”

Gonna give the advantage to Horford, because the “W’s” are all that matters. Let’s hope the Hawks can grab another tonight.

Does Bon Jovi deal increase momentum for new Falcons’ stadium?

As you have probably heard, Jon Bon Jovi wants to buy a minority stake in the Falcons. As you’ve also probably heard, Arthur Blank is seeking a new stadium for the team sometime this decade. As Yahoo’s Rick Limpert writes, the two developments are linked. With the influx of cash (an estimated $150 million to be specific) from Bon Jovi’s investment, the team would be more equipped to build itself a new home.

While everybody is mum right now on the possibility of Bon Jovi buying a stake in the Falcons, if he does, that is the “go” signal that there is a new stadium in the works.

There’s nothing else in the article that we don’t already know, besides the revelation that the author has a shaky grasp of suburban Atlanta geography. (Minor quibble, sure, but since when was Doraville northwest of the city?) Arthur Blank wants an open-air stadium — or maybe even a retractable roof, because you know, everyone else is doing it! — and while he says he would prefer to keep the team downtown, he is willing to move to the ‘burbs if need be.

That’s all well and good, an open-air stadium would be nice, but what the hell is wrong with the Dome? It’s not even 20 years old, and is three years removed from $30 million worth of renovations (which, to be fair, the team paid for with its own money). Atlanta doesn’t need a new football stadium, and it’s preposterous that the NFL and the Falcons are attempting to fool its citizens into thinking it does.

In November, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said that the the city will need to build a new stadium before it can again be considered as a viable host city for the Super Bowl. To which I say, Mr. Goodell can go fuck himself.

As can Mr. Blank too, if he A. expects taxpayers to foot the bill for a new stadium just 20 years after the state-funded construction of the Dome; or B. plans on leaving the city proper for a suburban location. As long as he pays for it himself and doesn’t leave Atlanta, I can’t really object if he wants a shiny new home for his team.

But what I do object to, is league commissioner (and noted scumbag) Roger Goodell’s role in this. Here’s my favorite quote from Goodell about the issue:

“The bar has been raised because you’re getting great facilities around the country in great communities. These games are a tremendous value to the communities, so there’s a lot of competition for it. So I think a new stadium with this great community would be beneficial to bringing another Super Bowl to this community.”

Notice how he manages to shoe horn “community” into every sentence? As if that softens the blow of two rich men attempting to strong-arm a city into spending millions of dollars on something they want rather than on what the city might actually need.

On behalf of the community, Mr. Goodell, we’ve got bigger fish to fry. We don’t need your advice, and we damn sure don’t need your transparent attempts at blackmail.

I know that it’s inevitable that the city will eventually cave to Mr. Blank’s wishes and build the Falcons a new home. I just hope that when it does, it’s not because the douchiest commissioner in all of sports says so. I also hope that the team remains within the city, and not in some no-name suburb which online journalists can’t even find on a map.