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Baseball Notebook: Losses and Tigers and Mets ... oh my!

Sunday, September 21, 2003

By Steve Ziants, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

In his ode to the 1962 New York Mets aptly titled "Can't Anybody Here Play This Game," noted New York chronicler Jimmy Breslin writes of a game -- one inning in fact -- in Cincinnati that August.

It was the season of 120 losses.

With one out already in the books in the third inning, four times, Breslin writes, Mets pitcher Al Jackson induces perfect double-play balls. And four times his infielders find ways to smudge perfection. With runners on first and third, first baseman Marv Throneberry throws -- belatedly -- to, of all places, home plate after fielding a hard grounder when the 3-6-3 double play or the slightly more difficult 3-unassisted-6 would have been the options of choice. With the bases loaded, second baseman Ron Kanehl readies for a grounder hit right at him ... and plays it off his leg. With the bases still loaded and still one out, all Reds runners break on Jackson's pitch. Again, the ball is hit to Kanehl. He fields it perfectly this time and flips it to second to start the double play. Only one problem. The Reds' runner from first is already on the bag.

Three double-play balls. Three runs score.

Undeterred, Jackson gets still another Reds player to hit the ball on the ground, this time to shortstop Charley Neal. "The temptation," writes Breslin, "was to go for the inning-ending double play, short-to-second-to-first. It looked easy. But you were not going to get Charley Neal into a sucker game like this. No, sir. Charley straightened up and fired the ball to first to get one out. The fourth run of the inning came across."

When Jackson finally got out of the inning, manager Casey Stengel took him out of the game. "If I let this man go out there again," ol' Case reasoned, "he may never be the same."

Said Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn, who was in the outfield that day while playing out the string of a 15-year career: "I don't know what's going on, but I know I've never seen it before."

Who among us believed we'd see it again? And then came these dear, woeful 2003 Detroit House Cats, who are 38-116 going into today's game against the Twins.

They need to go 5-3 -- a .625 winning percentage -- the rest of the way to avoid joining the Mets in the Land of 120 Losses. The modern record for losses in a season. One-hundred-twenty. In baseball, it's the number that differentiates "Showgirls" from "Ishtar." Good luck! These cats haven't been above .300 let alone .600 at any point this season.

Yet no team loses 116 times merely on talent alone. There have to be other things at play. Karma? Fate? Perhaps the cosmos' pension fund of bad luck has been entrusted to former Tigers pitcher Denny McLain.

All have been tools in the House Cat litter box this summer, costing them at least 10 games. So what? So give the Cats a mere 106 losses with nine to play and Jay Leno wouldn't find them as enticing a punchline(score). These Cats would be allowed to slink away into the off-season and be forgotten by history.

But alas, that is not to be their fate. Sometime this week, they will lose No. 120. So, as we wait to see if the inimitable Nate Cornejo has his 16-loss stuff in the Metrodome this afternoon, The Guy In The Stands looks back at 10 games that made a difference for the Tigers in 2003 and maybe shed some light on just how they got to destiny's broken doorstep.

Ten that got away

April 17: Oakland's Miguel Tejada homers in the 11th to beat the Cats, 6-5 -- the first of five walk-off homers to beat them in 2003. They fall to 1-17. "Bottom line," says manager Alan Trammell, "it's a cruel game."

April 25: By now, it's clear that cruel won't begin to describe their season. They suffer their sixth shutout in the season's first 21 games, losing to the Mariners, 6-0. Pitcher Mike Maroth falls to 0-6 -- only the second pitcher to lose six games before the end of April.

May 1, Part I: Orioles reliever B.J. Ryan comes on in the seventh inning to get the win in the first game of a doubleheader and doesn't even throw a pitch. He picks Omar Infante off first to end the inning. His teammates score three runs in the top of the eighth and win, 5-2. "What a country," exclaims Orioles manager Mike Hargrove. The bigger question: from which non-baseball-playing one did these Cats emigrate?

May 1, Part II: Maroth takes a no-hitter and a 3-0 lead vs. the Orioles into the eighth inning in the nightcap. He loses the no-hitter when Jay Gibbons leads off with a single, he loses the shutout when he wild pitches home a run and eventually loses the game, 6-4. "We've all said it, if you've been in this game, you've never seen it all. But my gosh, what happened is tough to swallow," Trammell says as the Cats slip to 3-23.

May 3: Ex-Tiger Damion Easley, still owed a record $14.3 million by the Cats after being released in spring training because he didn't fit their plans (he apparently didn't know how to lose), shows up with the Devil Rays and beats them, 8-6, with an RBI triple in the 10th. He will drive in only three more runs before being released a month later and won't be heard from again. Except, that is, on the first and 15th of every month.

May 19: Carlos Pena hits three homers and knocks in seven runs. But have no fear. The Cats blow a 6-0 lead and lose to the Indians, 10-9. In a perfect Cat twist, Pena makes the final out.

June 1: With Roger Clemens going for win No. 300, the Cats do the unexpected. No, not win, stupid. But they do rally from 7-1 down to send the game into extra innings ... where they not-so-promptly lose in 17 innings, 10-9, on homers by Alfonso Soriano and Jorge Posada.

June 21: Plate umpire Larry Young ejects catcher A.J. Hinch for not throwing the ball back to the pitcher quickly enough in a game against the Rockies. True story. "Apparently, after a close pitch to [Todd] Helton, Larry thought A.J. held the ball too long," Trammell explains. A turning point? No. Just pure House Cat hairball. A 9-6 loss drops them to 18-53.

July 6: Another ex-Tiger, Jose Lima -- the Royals' reclamation project by way of Newark of the Atlantic League -- provides the insult to an already injurious season by beating the Cats, 5-3. Being Jose Lima, he enjoys every moment.

July 19: Nate Cornejo throws a no-hitter for 6 2/3 innings against the White Sox, then gives up seven consecutive hits before the last number of the bullpen can be dialed. You know the rest. White Sox 6, Cats 2.

Sept. 2: OK, officially this wasn't a loss. They beat the Indians, 8-6. But it is indisputable proof that even in victory this edition of the Cats still could find a way to lose a one-car race. Prospect Cody Ross hits a grand slam in the third inning for his first big-league home run ... and five innings later writhes on the ground with a knee injury that requires reconstructive surgery. Seems he hit the first-base bag wrong running out a sacrifice bunt. Oh, those Cats.

Afterward, Trammell mutters to reporters something about this being a cruel game. No one argues with him. And why would anyone?

A heady play

Twins right fielder Michael Ryan, a native of Indiana, Pa., has played only 29 major-league games. As he found out Sunday in Cleveland, it only takes one to secure a place in history.

For those who didn't see the replay (and yet aren't officially dead), it had been a fairly routine, 3-3 game until Cleveland's Jhonny Peralta led off the bottom of the seventh with a fly ball to right-center. Ryan drifted over, but then lost the ball in the sun. As he fell and ducked in the same motion, the ball conked him on the right side of the head. The obviously struck him in the sweet spot, because it popped off his noggin and into the waiting glove of center fielder Dustan Mohr for an improbable 9-8 putout.

While embarrassing, it might also have been a professional blessing because it brought attention to everything he's done since getting called up Aug. 12. Ryan, who hit only .225 at Class AAA Rochester, has hit .356 with 4 home runs and 11 RBIs in 45 at-bats during a stretch in which the Twins caught and passed Chicago atop the AL Central. The Twins are 9-1 in games he has started and were jump-started to a key 4-2 win against the White Sox Wednesday when he slammed a 416-foot home run off Jon Garland in a three-run third inning.

"You've got a young kid in a big atmosphere, on a big stage, and he's playing like a veteran," said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire.

But then, should that come as a surprise?

"We know he has a good head on his shoulders," Gardenhire said. At that, Gardenhire would like The Guy to tell everyone that he'll be appearing all week, to please tip your waiters. And, oh yes, try the veal.

Heated discussion

In a shocker akin to the realization that Ben and J.Lo are never going to make it to the altar, the Texas Rangers have discovered that a $252 million shortstop alone can't bring them success. So it's time for the second phase of their master plan -- a giant thermometer. It's no secret the heat in Arlington, Texas, in July and August can be brutal. To that end, manager Buck Showalter wants to play more day games. "I want to use the heat to our advantage," he said. Enter one big thermometer that will let visiting players know just how hot it is as they step onto the field. Can military sound equipment blasting Bay City Rollers tunes 24/7 into the visiting clubhouse be far behind?

This 'n' that

Has anyone noticed that Pirates catcher Jason Kendall has quietly climbed to sixth in the NL in batting (.326). ... With 11 strikeouts in the Giants' NL West-clinching 8-3 win vs. the Padres, Jason Schmidt (16-5) became the first Giants pitcher to reach 200 strikeouts in 28 years -- since John Montefusco in 1975. ... Schmidt was named Friday to start the playoff opener. ... Yankees pitchers David Wells and Mike Mussina go into the week in search of their 200th career wins. Should they get them, the Yankees will be the first team since the 1988 Twins (Bert Blyleven, Steve Carlton, Joe Niekro) to have three 200-game winners on their staff. ... Jim Thome has hit some big home runs to help the Phillies overtake the Marlins for the NL wild-card lead going into the weekend, but catcher Mike Lieberthal just might be their stretch-run MVP. He has hit .344 (22 for 64) with 23 RBIs this month, including two homers and four RBIs in a 7-3 win vs. the Reds Friday. ... And finally, even if they make the postseason, will the Phillies have anything left emotionally by the time Sunday arrives? They travel to Miami for a series Tuesday-Thursday vs. the Marlins. Then they come home Friday-Sunday for what likely will be three must-win games against the Braves in what will also be the final regular-season series at Veterans Stadium.

Shot and a jeer

Still don't believe in the reach nor the power of The Curse of The Bambino? Did you note who narrated "The Curse" that debuted on HBO Tuesday? Here's a hint: He won't be marrying J.Lo any time soon. Coincidence?


Steve Ziants can be reached at sziants@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1474. This notebook was gathered from personal interviews, wire service reports and other newspapers.

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