By Hannah Keyser
The benches cleared during extra innings after Dodgers reliever Dennis Santana plunked the Padres’ Jorge Mateo. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
Leading off: Dodgers-Padres — a new hope
If you want to reside at the center of the baseball universe, may I recommend San Clemente, California? Nuzzled up against the Pacific Ocean, it is a surfing hotbed, and the local high school produced Rian Johnson, director of “Knives Out” and one installment of “Star Wars.” That saga will serve up more than 20 hours of communal entertainment if you’re so inclined, but we’re eyeing San Clemente for something even better.
The drive from Dodger Stadium to Petco Park is 123 miles (and oh, you know, literally any number of hours) down Interstate 5, but San Clemente is smack dab in the middle, just 60 miles from either setting for baseball’s new blockbuster event.
The Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres spent the winter collecting talent, rising up leaderboards and generally pumping helium into the balloon that is their 19-game slate. As Friday’s opening duel approached, it already counted as headline news that a mid-April baseball series was accumulating what I blearily recognized as hype.
Then the games started.
There were a laundry list of objectively wild occurrences just in Friday’s game — Padres star Fernando Tatis Jr. returning days after dislocating his shoulder to play and homer in the game could also qualify — but the topper probably remains that the sports world felt glued to a 4-hour, 57-minute game right up until it concluded around midnight on the West Coast, or 3 a.m. Eastern time.
As the Dodgers squeaked out dramatic wins on Friday and Saturday, then finally got cut down by a Padres rally on Sunday, the refrain went that it felt like a playoff atmosphere. But no, this was something bigger. Stripped of win-or-go-home stakes — or even any tangible meaning in a postseason positioning race that is both months away and mostly decided — these games still felt urgent and heated.
It was proof positive that Dodgers-Padres is, almost unbelievably, the new (less annoying, not-yet-tired) Yankees-Red Sox rivalry that many said it could be. April, October, the trappings don’t matter now. There’s nothing that can make a Dodgers-Padres game bigger than the simple fact of it being Dodgers-Padres.
So mark your calendars: They play again this weekend. — Zach Crizer
No. 2: One big reason the Padres remain little brothers
On Tuesday, Padres manager Jayce Tingler had to pull Blake Snell from a game against the Pirates after only two outs that took 38 pitches to get. The following day, no-hitter-thrower Joe Musgrove allowed one run, but the bullpen was still tasked with four innings. And the day before the Dodgers series began, the heavily taxed bullpen made it through another four innings by relying on Craig Stammen for three of them.
That didn’t seem like such a big deal until the back-and-forth battle reached the 12th in a deadlock, and lefty Tim Hill wavered. Stammen was the only pitcher left and he was not available. And so a tight game got out of hand, with former two-way player Jake Cronenworth coming in from second base to just escape the inning.
And that, friends, is how pulling Blake Snell early once again played into the hands of the mighty Dodgers.
Even after GM A.J. Preller bulked up the San Diego pitching staff, a major gap remains between the Padres rotation’s consistency and that of the Dodgers. Los Angeles is getting the most innings per start of any team in the majors, 6.1 per game, while San Diego ranks in the bottom third of the league at 4.7 innings per start.
Some health and a larger sample could even that out a bit, but the chasm won’t go away. It will just have to be overcome if the Padres hope to win a series when it counts. — Zach Crizer
No. 3: The Mets should want to know
It is not that noble to want a world without workplace sexual harassment or gender discrimination if it’s contingent on not having to change any of your own behavior to achieve it. Powerful men like to assume they can espouse a desire to preside over progress without disrupting the status quo that has benefited them. Harassment, they must think, is an aberration from the current contours of their comfortable professional settings. If only the bad guys would stop doing it, we could leave everything else unaltered.
When Mets president Sandy Alderson addressed the media after firing brand new GM Jared Porter after it was revealed he sexually harassed a female reporter while he was employed by the Cubs, he explained that the team had no inkling of Porter’s past indiscretions. Perhaps that was because they hadn’t spoken to any women who worked with him, but Alderson seemed to genuinely lament that fact.
“I think this is a very unfortunate circumstance that we wish we knew about, but didn’t,” he said at the time.
The implication was: It would have been different if he had known.
According to reporting by The Athletic, when the Mets were in the process of rehiring David Newman to be the team’s chief marketing, content and communications officer last year, two female employees spoke to Alderson about his behavior in a previous stint with the team, which included accusations that he had made inappropriate comments to women and discriminated against a woman on the basis of her pregnancy.
In other words: That time, Alderson knew. Newman was rehired anyway.
In response to The Athletic’s reporting, Alderson seemed defensive and frustrated. He railed against “capital punishment” and tried to invoke a “statute of limitations” on uncovering such unsavory insights about the team.
“The onus is on all of us to root this out where it exists,” Alderson had said during that Porter press conference. Well, at least reporters are living up to that lofty aspiration.
This is not about whether Alderson himself is unfit for the job (in part because I’m not sure how anomalous the front office culture he presides over really is). I’m merely pointing out that if the goal were actually to improve the culture of the Mets, everyone involved would want to know about ways in which they’re falling short. After all, that’s the first step to doing something about it before it becomes another scandal. — Hannah Keyser
No. 4: Carlos Rodon rises like a phoenix
Yahoo Fantasy is taking a weekly look at who’s hot and who’s not — and whether you should believe in the streak. Here’s a sample from this week’s edition:
The White Sox seem to attract no-hitters like mosquitos to summer, and the latest belongs to Carlos Rodon, who is one of the better comeback stories of the young 2021 season.
After being a highly touted prospect, Rodon never lived up to expectations, thanks in no small part to some freak injuries, not to mention Tommy John surgery in 2019. He returned in 2020, suffered through a couple of appearances, and hit rock bottom when the Sox non-tendered him.
But like a phoenix rising from the ashes, it seems like Rodon has come back stronger than ever.
After re-signing with the Sox in the offseason, Rodon, armed with 2.5 more MPH than he had in 2020, dominated in spring training and has carried that success into the regular season. Rodon is 2-0 with a nonexistent ERA and, of course, the aforementioned no-hitter (which should have been a perfect game, but he hit a batter with two outs in the bottom of the ninth).
The first place we look for a potential breakout from a pitcher is velocity, and Rodon’s has ballooned all the way up to 95.5 mph this season; in fact, he was touching 96 late in that no-hitter.
Rodon isn’t the first pitcher to return from Tommy John and succeed, but I don’t think anyone expected this start. Even if he regresses (like, I don’t know, gives up a run) — which he will — consider the fact that he wasn’t even drafted in most fantasy leagues. So when the hot streak ends, via a subpar outing or a blow-up game where he allows a plethora of runs and doesn’t make it past the third inning (to be apocalyptic), don’t cut bait.
We could be seeing a brand new, dominant version of Carlos Rodon. — Mo Castillo
No. 5: Pablo Sandoval has glasses now
And I love them.
He looks like Pablo Sandoval’s father.
He looks like Professor Panda.
He looks like he’s playing his own insurance agent brother in a commercial.
He looks like a guy on pace to shatter single-season pinch-hit home run records before the All-Star break. — Hannah Keyser
No. 6: Vlad the Valuable
We’re less than 20 games into the 2021 MLB season, but I already feel comfortable saying it: Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is a perennial MVP candidate. Guerrero, 22, looks like a different player at the plate early on.
One of the biggest things holding back Guerrero in his first two seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays was his inability to put the ball in the air. Guerrero always hit the ball extremely hard, but hard-hit balls on the ground typically result in singles. It’s early, but Guerrero’s ground-ball rate is the lowest of his career. He’s spraying line drives all over the field, and putting the ball in the air slightly more than he has in the past.
He’s also utilized a different approach at the plate. Guerrero is being more selective during at-bats. He’s not swinging as much as usual, instead hunting for pitches in spots he knows he can handle. It’s resulted in fewer hard-hit grounders to the shortstop and more line drives to center field.
This is the version of Guerrero fans were promised when he was called up two years ago. This is the version of Guerrero who should hit .300 with 30 home runs every year, and will probably walk away with at least one MVP award before his career is done. — Chris Cwik
No. 7: The only place you’ll be walking is back to the dugout
Facing Corbin Burnes is anything but a walk in the park right now. Set to take the mound again Tuesday night in San Diego, the Milwaukee Brewers starter is putting together a historic start to cement his 2020 breakout as very real, and possibly an understatement of his talents.
Through 18 1/3 innings, the popular Cy Young dark horse has tallied 30 Ks and not walked a soul, which is threatening to turn him into a favorite for the award before the calendar flips to May.
Entering 2021, no pitcher had ever kicked off a season with two straight starts of nine or more strikeouts and no walks. And well, Burnes has now gone ahead and done it three times in a row. It’s only the fifth such streak at any point in baseball history, and two of those are by Clayton Kershaw.
No one has ever done it four games in a row. — Zach Crizer
No. 8: Let Zack Greinke hit!
The Houston Astros are going to Colorado early this week for a quick set against the Rockies. That normally wouldn’t mean much except for the ticking clock on one of the sport’s most amusing and rootable player goals. Zack Greinke, a likely Hall of Famer for his work on the mound, has always taken an inordinate amount of pride in his all-around abilities. At the moment, he has nine home runs and nine stolen bases to his name, and he really wants one more of each.
“The only milestone I care about is to get 10 home runs and 10 stolen bases,” he told reporters during spring training.
Only one pitcher since 1920 has reached both marks (Cardinals legend Bob Gibson), and Greinke wants to join the club. The problem, of course, is that he plays in the American League and there is a good chance all of MLB will be living in a DH world in 2022.
Which makes this quick trip to Colorado an enticing opportunity. He’s not scheduled to pitch, having just thrown eight shutout innings on Saturday, but if any scenario allows him a shot to swing for the fences in the Mile High City, let’s hope he gets the chance. — Zach Crizer
No. 9: The two-way player window is open
In March 2019, MLB and the MLBPA signed off on a series of rule changes that would go into effect over the following two seasons. Maybe you remember the switch to a single trade deadline or the $1 million Home Run Derby prize money from that summer. The following season would bring the three-batter minimum, an increase in roster sizes (and a decrease in September roster expansion), a cap on pitchers, and accordingly, a new codified two-way player threshold. In order to qualify to pitch in a game, a player had to either count toward the pitcher limit or be designated a two-way player. To earn that qualification, you had to both pitch 20 innings and start 20 games (as either a position player or DH) with at least three plate appearances in each of those games in the current or prior season. Otherwise, position players could only pitch in extra innings or blowouts. (There is more explanation on exactly what those thresholds mean, if you’re interested.)
I went to spring training in 2020 looking to do a story on how all this might impact the development of two-way players. The pitcher limits made them more valuable — as an extra arm that didn’t count toward the cap — while the thresholds made them harder to come by. At the time, only Shohei Ohtani qualified (the league let 2018 stats count toward the requirements for the inaugural year). Some teams were weighing the merits of gaming extras or blowouts to get a guy to two-way status. The Reds’ Michael Lorenzen was especially miffed that his combination of relief pitching and defensive replacement wasn’t recognized.
And then, well, we don’t need to rehash what happened in the middle of spring training 2020, but suffice it to say I never wrote that story.
I finally got around to realizing recently that those rules were at the very bottom of a very long list of ways that sports were disrupted by the pandemic. With injury concerns abounding and health and safety prioritized above all else, the cap on pitchers was waived for 2020 and 2021, and, correspondingly, the two-way player designation was not necessary. Any position player may appear as a pitcher at any time.
Why does any of this matter now? Well, it seems that the league is still interested in implementing those rules next season, which means that teams have an extra chance to get potential two-way players to those thresholds. There aren’t that many options (Ohtani is so special and exciting for a reason) and we didn’t see teams try to gamify that when the rule was first introduced in 2019. But I do wonder whether, with a little more lead time to consider the impact, teams might get creative with their potential two-way players toward the end of the season if the thresholds are within reach. Or maybe that’s wishful thinking that we have some funkiness to look forward to. — Hannah Keyser