Editors' note: The Playoff Pulse, a weekly look at the Major League Baseball playoff races, will appear every Monday until the end of the season.
PHOENIX – Orlando Hudson lounged in his chair and pounded away at text messages on his Treo. He looked more the part of teenager readying for a night out than All-Star second baseman preparing for a game in the thick of a pennant race.
"Nah," Hudson said. "I'm old, man."
He is 29.
"That's old in here," he said. "Not like a grandpa. Maybe an uncle."
In the clubhouse of the National League West-leading Arizona Diamondbacks, age certainly is relative. When Uncle O-Dawg looks across the room, he sees Justin Upton, who, until Saturday, was in fact still a teenager. And he peers to his right and eyes Chris Young, who could become the first rookie to hit 30 home runs and steal 30 bases. And he scans to the left and can't avoid Micah Owings, the best hitting pitcher in the major leagues, and a fair arm in the rotation, too.
No wonder Hudson feels ancient. Fourteen of the Diamondbacks' 25 active players were born in the 1980s, and 10 of them – six regular starters and two members of the rotation – are 25 or younger.
The Diamondbacks, who head to second-place San Diego for a crucial four-game series starting tonight, were supposed to be good, sure, but this good? And, more pertinent, this quick?
"We knew we had a lot of talent," Young said. "We knew it all the way back in spring training. Just depended on whether we stepped up and did our jobs."
Thing is, plenty haven't.
Randy Johnson, expected to complement reigning Cy Young winner Brandon Webb, pitched 10 games before a balky back sent him to the surgeon's table. Right fielder Carlos Quentin and shortstop Stephen Drew, so promising last season, have been miserable. Pitcher J.D. Durbin had a memorable 2/3-inning, seven-run outing that got him released. Infielder Alberto Callaspo allegedly assaulted his wife.
Even Upton, baseball's top prospect, has struggled. Since Aug. 8, he is hitting .170 with a .505 on-base-plus-slugging and 18 strikeouts in 53 at-bats. And though Young's power and speed numbers sparkle, his .314 on-base percentage as leadoff hitter is fourth-worst among the 25 hitters with as many plate appearances.
"Numbers," he said, "really don't apply to us."
As ludicrous as that sounds, Young is right. Considering that the Diamondbacks, who own a 74-57 record, have been outscored this season 556-588. And that August has been their best month this season, with a 15-8 record in spite of a minus-five run differential.
Success isn't a complete illusion: The Diamondbacks are 29-16 in one-run games, and their top five relievers – closer Jose Valverde, Brandon Lyon, Tony Pena, Juan Cruz and lefty specialist Doug Slaten – sport sub-3.00 earned-run averages.
"It's fun to watch us," Hudson said. "These kids are going to be damn good. I see them every day, and I know we're not going to have a lineup of All-Stars, but we're going to be a hell of a team.
"We're just showing it now."
No one here seems to notice. The Diamondbacks' average attendance of 27,129 at Chase Field ranks 23rd in baseball. Last week, for Webb's start in which he looked to continue his scoreless-innings streak, they couldn't even pack 35,000. The fan base, disillusioned by new ownership overhauling everything from the team's colors (bye-bye purple, hello Sedona red) to its roster (bye-bye Luis Gonzalez, hello kids), doesn't seem to understand that the best core in the NL resides in the desert.
Time should draw them back. That and a playoff run. If they keep playing as well as they have, that should come. The Diamondbacks won four of six last week, sloughing off the end of Webb's streak and getting back to work.
"Now we've got our focus set on something else," catcher Chris Snyder said. "Finishing up strong and taking this division."
Boston: Over the weekend, in a four-game series against the White Sox, Boston hit .333, slugged .538, drew 23 walks, smashed seven home runs and scored 45 runs. The Red Sox's pitching allowed a .178 average, .302 slugging percentage, 13 walks, four home runs and seven runs. That is unkind.
David Wright, 3B, New York Mets: No one wants to pitch to Wright, and with good reason. In his 15 official at-bats last week, he had two doubles, a home run, five singles and drove in seven runs. Opponents walked him another 10 times – San Diego issued him four straight Wednesday – lifting his on-base percentage to .692, close to his .867 slugging.
Ohio: Cleveland's grip on first place in the American League Central, though still a tenuous 2½ games, is better than it was at this point last week after taking two of three from second-place Detroit and Kansas City. And though their playoff chances are slim, the Cincinnati Reds have won six straight after sweeping Florida and are just 6½ games behind the first-place Cubs. Don't get too excited. The Reds are still 10 games under .500.
Everyone in the NL East except the Mets: It's gotten gory everywhere but New York, which could bury Atlanta and Philadelphia with a combined seven games on the road against them this week. While Steve Henson takes care of the Braves' travails, how about this from the Phillies, who couldn't get Chase Utley back at a better time: During their four-game losing streak last week, they were outscored 38-11, and the last defeat, a 4-3 heart-ripper to San Diego, led to …
Brett Myers, Philadelphia, RP: The only reason he got so defensive is because he really doesn't know how to spell retard. (Audio at the bottom. Beware of obscenities.)
Milwaukee: Since May 10, when they were 24-10, the Brewers have lost 55 of 96 games. In that time, only Tampa Bay (37-59), the Chicago White Sox (40-59) and Florida (41-56) have been worse – and all three are in last place.
SKEPTICAL HOMETOWN COLUMNIST OF THE WEEK
T.J. Simers, Los Angeles Times
When in need of a skeptic, Page 2 of the L.A. Times is sure to provide a willing and able participant. Even though the Dodgers have played better of late, it does nothing to cut through Simers' acidity.
The Dodgers were 24 games above .500 with Paul DePodesta and Jim Tracy during the Parking Lot Attendant's first year of on-the-job training in L.A., but now that Frank McCourt really knows what he's doing, the Dodgers are 225-228 the last three years. I wonder whether DePodesta and Dan Evans would agree to a consulting fee.
MATCHUP OF THE WEEK
Go ahead. Swallow the hype. Stomach the overexposure. Enjoy the four-letter-saturation of the Red Sox-Yankees series that starts Thursday. The discerning baseball fan already will have watched the more intriguing matchup.
Seattle hosts the Los Angeles Angels for three games starting tonight. The Mariners trot out one of the American League's best offenses. The Angels oppose them with one of the league's best rotations. The Mariners' bullpen is steel. The Angels' run like an SLK.
In the opener, Angels ace John Lackey faces Miguel Batista, who has justified the big contract Seattle gave him this offseason. Ervin Santana opposes Seattle's reinvigorated Jeff Weaver in the second game, and Weaver's brother, Jered, squares off against another young right-hander, Felix Hernandez.
Over their last 88 games, the Mariners are 54-34 and the Angels are 52-36. Los Angeles' lead? Two games – and just one in the loss column.
Take New York and Boston and the 7½-game difference. This week, the best coast is the West Coast.
Marquee hitters are doing what marquee hitters are supposed to do in August. The pitchers, on the other hand, are neither living up to their plaudits nor their contracts.
Here are the statistics since Aug. 1 for the best hitter and starting pitcher on each of the 16 teams in playoff contention:
|Vladimir Guerrero||L.A. Angels||.320||7||23||.387||.640||1||13|
|Jeff Kent||L.A. Dodgers||.183||1||9||.257||.333||0||7|
|Carlos Beltran||N.Y. Mets||.340||6||22||.455||.792||3||13|
|Alex Rodriguez||N.Y. Yankees||.337||8||20||.438||.640||7||12|
|Albert Pujols||St. Louis||.318||7||13||.426||.576||0||10|
|Adrian Gonzalez||San Diego||.323||7||11||.411||.602||0||19|
|Jeff Francis||Colorado||2-1||5.40||26 2/3||31||11||28||4|
|Justin Verlander||Detroit||2-1||6.75||21 1/3||30||5||20||2|
|John Lackey||L.A. Angels||2-2||4.91||25 2/3||39||5||15||3|
|Brad Penny||L.A. Dodgers||1-2||2.90||31||29||13||22||1|
|Orlando Hernandez||N.Y. Mets||2-0||3.21||33 2/3||21||14||35||5|
|Chien-Ming Wang||N.Y. Yankees||3-1||5.46||29 2/3||38||8||20||1|
|Cole Hamels||Philadelphia||2-0||3.48||20 2/3||16||4||13||2|
|Adam Wainwright||St. Louis||2-1||2.00||36||31||10||32||2|
|Jake Peavy||San Diego||4-0||1.38||32 2/3||19||11||42||2|
PLAYOFF ODDS REPORT
Not too much new in the AL, though that could change this week with the two huge series on the coasts. The NL, on the other hand, is a gigantic ball of yarn caught up in a mess of tangles. Buoyed by a strong week – and Milton Bradley's mashing return – the Padres have taken command of the wild-card lead while staying close enough to Arizona for a shot at the NL West title. The biggest NL mover of the week otherwise: Defending champion St. Louis, still, sadly, yearning to get to .500. (Last week's percentages in parentheses.)
Boston Red Sox: 99.8 percent (98.5 percent)
Los Angeles Angels: 89.44 percent (86.02 percent)
Cleveland Indians: 71.27 percent (62.72 percent)
New York Yankees*: 52.9 percent (69.73 percent)
Seattle Mariners: 47.42 percent (36.46 percent)
Detroit Tigers: 32.87 percent (39.97 percent)
New York Mets: 96.97 percent (95.55 percent)
Arizona Diamondbacks: 70.58 percent (70.39 percent)
San Diego Padres*: 59.33 percent (34.01 percent)
Chicago Cubs: 56.12 percent (58.24 percent)
Milwaukee Brewers: 25.54 percent (34.27 percent)
Los Angeles Dodgers: 23.24 percent (18.3 percent)
St. Louis Cardinals: 19.05 percent (9.4 percent)
Philadelphia Phillies: 16.78 percent (30.24 percent)
Atlanta Braves: 15.74 percent (28.49 percent)
Colorado Rockies: 15.72 percent (20.6 percent)
* – Wild card leader: Perhaps it is Seattle's schedule – an upcoming four-city, 10-game trip – that accounts for the disparity between reality and projection. The Mariners hold a two-game advantage over the Yankees, yet New York is 50.4 percent favorites to capture the wild card while the Mariners are 25.67. San Diego, at 23.81 percent, hold a wild-card lead of less than 2 percent over the Diamondbacks, whom they trail in the real standings.
"I know all about Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, but today's baseball stars are all guys named Rodriguez to me. They're apparently very good but they haven't caught my interest." – "60 Minutes" crypt-keeper Andy Rooney
Poor codger might have a heart attack when Kosuke Fukudome arrives next season.