Somehow, I don't think this was quite the way Luis Mendoza envisioned his major league career taking off.
The Rangers pulled off another very impressive win against the Oakland Athletics on Saturday night, thanks in large part to the offense shelling A's starter Chad Gaudin for six runs on ten hits and two walks in just 3.2 innings. Hank Blalock (3 for 4, HR), Marlon Byrd (3 for 3, BB) and Ian Kinsler (2 for 5, HR) led the attack against a more than bewildered Oakland pitching staff.
Meanwhile, right-hander Luis Mendoza made the emergency start for Texas in place of left-hander Kason Gabbard, who was scratched mere hours before the scheduled first pitch due to a blister on his left thumb.
According to pitching coach Mark Connor, the blister had affected Gabbard's fastball command over his last two starts, as well as "nearly every pitch" he attempted to throw during a bullpen session on Friday; not surprisingly, those have been Gabbard's two worst starts in a Rangers uniform. He's expected to miss just this one start, and will hopefully return to the rotation on Thursday in Oakland.
Mendoza's night began well enough, as he quietly retired four of the first five hitters he faced. But with one out in the top of the 2nd inning, Nick Swisher drilled a line shot towards the middle, which nailed Mendoza on the inside of his left knee cap and knocked him clean to the ground.
After being visited for several minutes by manager Ron Washington and trainer Jamie Reed, Mendoza threw a couple of warm-up pitches and declared himself ready to go; he finished the inning with a pair of fly ball outs. But after sitting down in the dugout before the third inning, Mendoza's knee began to stiffen up on him, ending his first major league start after just two innings. Quite unfortunate, but what can you do?
Luckily, the Texas bullpen stepped up in a big way for their fallen comrade: A.J. Murray earned his first major league win by allowing two runs in three innings of work, while the trio of Mike Wood, John Rheinecker and Wes Littleton combined to throw four innings of shutout baseball. I'm not sure if that's a testament to the quality of those pitchers, or to the shoddiness of the presently constructed A's lineup - either way, I'll take it.
And for what it's worth, Ron Washington had praise for his rookie starter after the game, even though he threw just 30 pitches during his injury-shortened effort:
"He didn't seem to have any jitters," manager Ron Washington said. "And he showed me a lot of guts just by getting up from that line drive. He showed me a lot, period. He showed a good sinker, good makeup, good attitude and good tempo. What we saw, we liked."
Washington also said that Mendoza would "probably" get another chance to start this season, but the jury's still out on that one.
Kason Gabbard wasn't the only Rangers left-hander unavailable on Saturday night: C.J. Wilson was out with a sore ribcage, and will not pitch again until Tuesday in Detroit at the earliest. C.J's recent high pitch counts have the club concerned, and for good reason: he's not terribly far removed from Tommy John surgery, which put him out for all of the 2004 season.
In any event, the Rangers are planning to be more careful with Wilson the rest of the way, which means he probably won't pitch in back-to-back games again this season. Take note, Joaquin Benoit.
Brandon McCarthy will return to the Texas starting rotation for the second game of Tuesday's doubleheader, a development that took shape only after he threw a successful 45-pitch bullpen session from a mound on Friday without experiencing any pain. McCarthy had been planning to pitch a simulated game on Tuesday, but his tremendous strides in the recovery process have the Rangers believing he can safely return to the rotation.
Before getting too excited about B-Mac's imminent return, it bears mentioning that he'll likely be limited on Tuesday to just 45-50 pitches, or about three innings. Nonetheless, this is very good news for the Rangers as far as their long-term prospects go - less than a month ago, it looked like the walls were about ready to cave in.
After being absent from the lineup for four consecutive games, Nelson Cruz went 1 for 4 with a run scored and two strikeouts on Saturday night. While his lone hit, a double, came on a fairly well struck line drive that landed barely fair down the right field line, it also came on a fairly hittable 92 MPH fastball from starter Chad Gaudin.
Nelson's first inning showdown against Gaudin was especially ugly: he struck out swinging - badly, I might add - on three breaking balls that were down and well outside of the strike zone. In fact, Cruz was so badly fooled by Gaudin's off-speed stuff that I'm not sure any of his three wild hacks during that at-bat were even in the same zip code as the baseball.
What's particularly disturbing is how Cruz appears to be doing the whole "one step forward, two steps back" routine: since going 7 for 15 with 3 HR and 3 BB in four games immediately following his promotion on July 28th from Triple-A Oklahoma, Cruz has batted just .210/.269/.290 with 1 HR in 100 AB. Let's be perfectly honest: that's terrrrrible. The open stance is still there, but the ability to hit breaking pitches isn't. And at this rate, it may never show up.
Deservedly so or not, David Murphy is stealing a growing number of at-bats away from Cruz, and unless he begins to turn things around rapidly, it appears as though Nelson's time in the Rangers organization may be drawing to a close. That would come as a major disappointment to me personally, considering how bullish I was on his chances to succeed before the season began.
But in my haste to express my optimism about Cruz, I neglected to mention those pesky rumors that were buzzing around at the time of that article's publication. As I remember it, those rumors stated that Brewers GM Doug Melvin was not too terribly grief-stricken at being forced to include Cruz in the Carlos Lee deal, since Milwaukee believed that his inability to hit breaking pitches consistently would prevent him from ever becoming a full-time major league player.
At the time, with the intoxicating aroma of spring training in the air, and the eternal hope of another season nearly ready to spring forth, I dismissed those rumors as nonsense. In retrospect, that was a really stupid thing to do on my part; it's indeed beginning to look like Doug Melvin was right all along.
And finally tonight, the DMN's Evan Grant included this odd piece of information in his game story from Saturday:
Manager Ron Washington said he was not aware Frank Catalanotto was only a double shy of hitting for the cycle when he pinch hit for him Friday. However, the manager said he probably still would have opted to go with Sammy Sosa in an effort to put another late run on the board.
Ignorance is bliss.
Sunday, September 9th Game Preview
Oakland Athletics (69-74) vs. Texas Rangers (67-74)
Lenny DiNardo (8-3, 3.70 ERA) vs. Kevin Millwood (9-11, 5.31 ERA)
2:05 PM CST in Arlington, Texas (Rangers Ballpark in Arlington)
TV: KDFI/My27 | Radio: KRLD 1080 AM