It’s 124 miles between Dodger Stadium and Petco Park, with Angel Stadium an easy detour on the way. There’s nowhere better for baseball right now.
Just think about the names involved: Trevor Bauer, Cody Bellinger, Mookie Betts, Walker Buehler, Yu Darvish, Eric Hosmer, Clayton Kershaw, Manny Machado, Shohei Ohtani, Anthony Rendon, Corey Seager, Blake Snell, Fernando Tatis Jr., Justin Turner, and the biggest star of all, Mike Trout.
And don’t forget hometown hero Joe Musgrove, who threw the first no-hitter in Padres history on April 9 and had fans lining up at his parents’ coffee shop in suburban San Diego the next morning to show their appreciation.
Here in the Northeast, we think baseball revolves around Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium, with occasional glimmers from other precincts. But Southern California has taken over.
The Dodgers swept the Padres in the Division Series last year. The teams are playing this weekend for the first time since, with San Diego having bolstered its roster during the offseason. That included acquiring Musgrove from the Pirates.
The moves had the Padres tied for second place behind the Dodgers in the National League West.
San Diego also activated Tatis off the injured list for the series, adding spark to what is the hottest rivalry in the sport. He had played in only five games before injuring his left shoulder.
Tatis homered on Friday night in a wild 11-6 Dodgers victory that went 12 innings. The Padres ended the game with infielder Jake Cronenworth pitching and Musgrove playing left field. David Price pitched two innings for the win and drove in a run.
“It’s different heading in,” said Hosmer, who recently became engaged to former NESN anchor Kacie McDonnell. “Obviously, having a little history with them in the postseason last year, I think that will maybe spice things up a little bit.
“But they’re the best team in baseball. They’ve earned that right. It will be a good test.”
Said Musgrove: “I know it’s going to be rocking, because these are the best series of the year.”
That the Dodgers had Buehler, Kershaw, and Bauer lined up to start wasn’t a coincidence.
“I think you can read into that any way you want to,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “But I think making sure guys are rested and feeling good going into a particular series is the ultimate goal.”
The Dodgers also got Betts back in the lineup on Tuesday after he missed five games because of a sore back. The Dodgers rolled right along without him.
Turner said the Dodgers and Padres would play “19 World Series games” this season, which is a little rash. But it speaks to how excited Southern California is about its teams.
The Angels were a half-game out of first place in the American League West as the weekend started, with Trout hitting .381 and Ohtani slugging as a designated hitter while recovering from a blister that has limited him to one start on the mound.
In what appears to be a weak division, the Angels could overcome their pitching and get Trout back into the playoffs for the first time since 2014.
All three teams have never made the playoffs in the same season. We’re a long way from October, but this could be a postseason with a lot of palm trees in the background.
Verdugo shows outfield versatility
Through Friday, Alex Verdugo had played 44 innings in right field, 31⅓ in center field, and 29 in left field. He has switched positions in-game three times and started the same position in consecutive games only twice.
His career numbers reflect that versatility, too. Verdugo has nearly 600 innings in center, a little more than 500 in right, and nearly 400 in left.
Verdugo said moving around defensively doesn’t affect him.
“It’s just another day,” he said. “I’ve gotten to the point where I just look for my name in the lineup and see where I’m hitting and we’re good. It doesn’t matter, right, left or center. It’s all the same.
“Got to make sure you go out there and take a look at your surroundings at whatever field you’re at and you’re locked in. I’m just an outfielder. I feel like I play every position at a very good level.”
The Red Sox give every defender a cheat sheet with how to position for opposing hitters. Verdugo considers those to be a suggestion, not a mandate.
“I like them. I like the fact that it gives us a general idea where to play certain guys,” he said. “But me, personally, I don’t really follow the cards exactly. I like to get to the spot and see how that batter at the time is swinging it. Sometimes it’s very day to day.
“We’ve got [Nate] Eovaldi throwing gas and we’ve got me playing right-center on a lefty [hitter]. I’ll start playing that, then shift oppo[site field]. I try and read some swings.”
For all the modern-day personality and swagger with how he carries himself, Verdugo is an old-fashioned player. He has an all-fields approach at the plate and is fundamentally sound defensively as far as throwing to the right base and not taking unnecessary risks. He has a strong, accurate arm, too.
A few other observations about the Red Sox:
▪ Xander Bogaerts has played 920 games at shortstop, fourth in team history and closing in on Nomar Garciaparra (951), Rick Burleson (1,004), and Everett Scott (1,093).
Remember the debate in 2014 about whether Bogaerts was too big to stay at shortstop and should move to third base? He took the spot back after Stephen Drew was traded and has held it since.
Bogaerts isn’t going to win a Gold Glove any time soon. But he makes the plays he should and at a time when the Sox use shifts on so many hitters, he’s playing point guard to make sure his teammates are in the right place.
There were three times in the Minnesota series when the Sox were shifted and a runner on second could have taken third if not for Bogaerts shouting at somebody to hustle up and cover the base.
Two scouts who have watched the Sox said Bogaerts needs to work on the consistency of his throwing mechanics, which may be a product of his missing time on the field early in spring training.
But his offense — he had an .888 OPS through 13 games — and day-to-day reliability makes up for that. Alex Cora often mentions how he has to wrestle with Bogaerts to convince him to take a day off.
Cora is friendly with Francisco Lindor and Carlos Correa, two excellent shortstops from Puerto Rico. But he is always quick to say that Bogaerts is his favorite shortstop.
▪ It was 33 degrees at first pitch when the Red Sox and Twins played Tuesday at Target Field. No big deal there. The April 7, 2018, game against Seattle was 27 degrees and it was 31 for the April 17, 2014, game against Toronto.
▪ Spending four days in Minneapolis to cover the Sox was a sobering experience.
On Monday, a curfew was announced after a police officer killed Daunte Wright, an unarmed Black man in nearby Brooklyn Center, the day before and protests broke out. As the curfew approached, people were rushing to get off the streets as police vehicles broadcast warnings.
The Red Sox stayed at a hotel outside the city and the players were told to stay on the property.
The city was already on edge waiting for the end of Derek Chauvin’s trial for the killing of George Floyd. Many storefronts, hotels, and restaurants are boarded up, and on Wednesday major intersections were being patrolled by National Guard troops in full battle gear.
Military Humvees parked on sidewalks is something you’d expect to see in Iraq, not middle America. That Target Field is ringed with concrete barriers and chain-link fences is jarring, too.
“Justice for George Floyd” reads a sign the Twins put on the fence in left-center field. Team president David St. Peter, president of baseball operations Derek Falvey, and manager Rocco Baldelli have taken on the issue of social justice directly.
“Those [conversations] are never going to end, especially with what we’re dealing with as a community right now, especially with the way that it’s coming into the Twins organization and into our clubhouse directly, and our guys are feeling it,” Baldelli said.
I caught an Uber to the airport after the game on Thursday afternoon and the driver said he didn’t plan on going back into the city until after the trial.
“There’s nobody in downtown anyway,” he said. “Everybody is afraid.”
This is America in 2021.
Kimbrel showing closing touch
The Red Sox made Craig Kimbrel only a qualifying offer when he became a free agent after the 2018 season, knowing he would reject it. The closer, then 30, had what for him was a down season, then allowed seven earned runs on nine hits and eight walks over 10⅔ innings in the playoffs.
By Game 5 of the World Series, it was Chris Sale who came on to get the final three outs instead of Kimbrel.
That Kimbrel was hoping to land a record-setting deal for a closer served only to hasten his departure from Boston. Other teams weren’t feeling it, either. Kimbrel had to wait until after the June 2019 draft before settling for three years and $43 million from the Cubs.
He pitched poorly for much of 2019 and ’20, his release point a moving target. But the righthander is back to All-Star form this season.
Kimbrel retired 18 of the first 19 batters he faced, 10 by strikeout, and didn’t allow a hit. Further, almost nothing has been hit hard.
Now Kimbrel will be a free agent again after this season, assuming the cost-cutting Cubs pass on his $16 million option. He’ll be an attractive trade chip, too, if Chicago is out of contention come July.
His fastball, which averaged 98.3 miles per hour in 2017, is down to 96.6 this season. But Kimbrel has increased the spin rate from last season and is throwing more strikes.
In Boston, Kimbrel was always aware of where he stood among his fellow closers. His four-out save on Tuesday at Milwaukee was No. 351 of his career. That’s 12th all time. With 40 more, he’ll move past Dennis Eckersley for seventh place.
Kimbrel said he’s aiming for 400 and beyond.
“He’s a special one and we’re fortunate to have him,” Cubs starter Jake Arrieta said earlier this season. “He’s going to climb the ranks. Especially with the stuff that he still has.”
With the collective bargaining agreement expiring on Dec. 1, Kimbrel may be in for another long wait in free agency. But he’s setting himself up for another opportunity.
The Braves can’t seem to settle on a role for Sean Newcomb. The 27-year-old from Middleborough was 12-9 with a 3.91 ERA in 30 starts in 2018 and opened the ’19 season in the rotation. He struggled, was demoted to the minors, and returned to pitch effectively in relief. Newcomb went back to the rotation in 2020 but was optioned after four starts. Now he’s a reliever again and through Friday had struck out 12 in 5⅓ innings while allowing two hits. “He’s aggressive as a reliever,” a scout said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if he closed for them eventually” … When Yadier Molina caught his 2,000th career game on Wednesday, the timing was perfect. It was at Busch Stadium and the starting pitcher was Adam Wainwright, his longtime teammate. The season schedule was out of his control, but Molina had a choice of days off and set it up so he could catch Wainwright. They have been batterymates 277 times, the most among active duos and sixth all-time. The record is 324 starts for Mickey Lolich and Bill Freehan of the Tigers from 1963-75. Wainwright and Molina could move into fourth place before the season ends … Jonathan Lucroy reached 10 years of major league service time this past week, an achievement that brings with it lucrative pension benefits. Credit the 34-year-old catcher with being determined. He played only 28 major league games from 2019-20 (one of them with the Red Sox) and was released by the White Sox on March 30 before hooking on with the Nationals and getting over the top … Through Friday, the Mets had games postponed or suspended on April 1, 3, 4, 11, 12, 15, and 16 because of virus protocols or poor weather. From last Sunday through Friday, they played one nine-inning game … The trade deadline will be Friday, July 30, this season, a day earlier than usual. Major League Baseball wanted to avoid the 4 p.m. deadline hitting during afternoon games and having players come off the field. That makes good sense, but for the moment there’s only one game scheduled to start before the deadline. Two others have 4:05 starts. The Red Sox are at Tampa Bay that day … Forrest Hill Academy, a public school in Atlanta named after Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest, has been renamed the Hank Aaron New Beginnings Academy by the city’s school board. The board waived the usual five-year waiting period in honoring Aaron, who died in January … On March 26, Twins shortstop Andrelton Simmons posted this on Twitter: “I’ve received some questions and some requests regarding the vaccine. And for personal reasons and past experience I will not be taking it or advocating for it. I hope I don’t have to explain myself. And hope you all make the best decision for you and your family’s health.” Simmons has since declined to elaborate. On Wednesday, Simmons went on the COVID-19 injured list after testing positive and will be away from the Twins for at least 10 days. He also was exhibiting mild symptoms. Extra tests were ordered for players and staffers. The Twins made vaccines available to their players and staff earlier this month. “Our view of that is constantly reminding people of why we think it’s a good idea to get vaccinated. Our docs have recommended that,” president of baseball operations Derek Falvey said … Happy birthday to Rico Brogna, who is 51. He spent part of the 2000 season with the Red Sox after being claimed off waivers from the Phillies. The Turners Falls native turned down a chance to play quarterback at Clemson after being a first-round pick of the Detroit Tigers in 1988. As a member of the Mets, Brogna hit the first home run at Coors Field when it opened in 1995. It took until the fourth inning, believe it or not.