THE PALLILOG

What’s on the line, and in the way of Justin Verlander’s Cy Young campaign

Justin Verlander is putting together an impressive season for Houston. Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images.

The Oakland A’s have been a giant steaming turd of a baseball team this season. They made the playoffs in 2018, 2019, and 2020, were a credible 86-76 last season, but in 2022 have been the worst team in the American League and are on pace for more than 100 losses. Their offense is a joke. It’d need a double dose of Viagra to rise to impotent. The team batting average is .214, only the Tigers score fewer runs. Aside: notice how much smarter a manager the Tigers’ A.J. Hinch was when he had the Astros’ roster? Back to Oakland. The A’s stadium situation is a long-running joke, and their owner John Fisher is more interested in landing a sweetheart ballpark/real estate deal either in Oakland or Las Vegas than he is in spending to field a competitive ballclub right now. Yet over their last seven head-to-head matchups, the win tote board reads Steaming Turd 5 Astros 2. Baseball! Monday and Tuesday nights as the worst in the AL A’s were confounding the Astros, the worst in the National League Nationals were beating the best in the NL Dodgers. Baseball!

If the Astros were predestined to come out of the All Star Break winning five of their first seven games, they sure won the right five. Sweeping the doubleheader from the Yankees has the Astros in prime position to snatch the top seed in the American League playoffs, sweeping three in Seattle crushed any delusional Mariners’ fantasy about mounting a run at the Astros in the AL West. Let’s see what General Manager James Click gets done by Tuesday’s trade deadline to upgrade a roster that while excellent overall has well documented clear weaknesses.

Justin Verlander chasing history

Justin Verlander’s next command performance should be Friday night at Minute Maid Park against the Mariners. Verlander sits at 13-3 with a 1.86 earned run average. At 39 years old. After Tommy John surgery. He is brilliant. Verlander doesn’t quite have the scary mound presence of long-limbed, mulleted Randy Johnson, or the often overtly beyond smoldering intensity of Roger Clemens. I mean, you can boil it down to the nicknames: Johnson “The Big Unit.” Clemens “The Rocket.” Verlander is “JV.” That’s unfortunate considering there is not a molecule about Verlander on the mound that is junior varsity.

Clemens holds the record with seven Cy Young Awards. Johnson is in second place with five. Verlander is taking dead aim at winning his third. He’s already a lock first ballot Hall of Famer but if you’ll think of Hall membership as being made up of concentric circles, Verlander makes a big move toward the innermost circles if he wins Cy number three. After Clemens and Johnson, Greg Maddux and Steve Carlton are next with four Cys apiece. Next comes a group of six to win three times: Sandy Koufax, Tom Seaver, Jim Palmer, Pedro Martinez, Clayton Kershaw, and Max Scherzer. Nothing but legends in that group. When Scherzer is the “weakest” link you have one heck of a club. I do not literally love Justin Verlander but I do love that he is acutely aware of baseball history, his place in it, and places he’d like to get. Winning a third Cy would be a doozy. Shane McClanahan has other ideas. Some may ask “Who?” More on him shortly.

There are 11 two-time Cy Young Award winners, all tremendous pitchers at their peaks obviously. Some are legends like Bob Gibson and Gaylord Perry. Tom Glavine and Roy Halladay are Cooperstown-enshrined. But several guys to win two Cys are not remotely close to Hall of Famers. Think Jacob deGrom, Corey Kluber, Tim Lincecum, and Denny McLain. Two others won twice and barely got a sniff in Hall of Fame balloting but for whom I think you can mount credible arguments. For Bret Saberhagen it's a shaky but not meritless case, for Johan Santana it's a pretty good case when compared to, gulp, Koufax.

The Cy Young Award was first given out in 1956. For its first eleven years only one winner was named for all of Major League Baseball. 1967 started one recipient per league.

All eyes on the competition

As for that McClanahan fellow. The 25 year old Tampa Bay Rays’ lefthander has been awesome this season, better than Verlander by a number of criteria including earned run average and ERA+ (which adjusts for ballparks pitched in), strikeouts, and strikeout-to-walk ratio. But the margins are all slim. McClanahan pitches for a clearly inferior team (meaning Rays vs. Astros) with the inferior defense backing him. The guy has been spectacular. It’s the 2022 Cy Young Award so Verlander should get no additional credit for his comeback, there’s a Comeback Player of the Year Award for that. Still, some voters may factor it in if it’s a really close call at the end. As a rookie last season McClanahan threw 123 and a third innings. He may top that total in his next start. We’ll see how he holds up the remaining two-plus months. How Verlander holds up is a question also, but if anything he’s been getting stronger. Last five starts: 5-0, ERA 0.79. The Astros adding additional days rest between several of Verlander's starts was/is a smart luxury the Astros can afford.

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Mattress Mack and the Astros host Pearland Little League at Wednesday night's game. Photo by LittleLeague.org

Sure, it’s impressive that the Astros have made four World Series appearances in recent years, but they’re not alone. There’s another baseball team around here that’s also headed to its fourth World Series since 2010.

Pearland defeated Oklahoma, 9-4, on Tuesday to win the Southwest Regional and qualify for the Little League World Series starting Aug. 17 in South Williamsport, PA.

Most fans and media say the Little League World Series is held in Williamsport, but it’s South Williamsport, just a 5-minute stroll across a bridge over the Susquehanna River in north central Pennsylvania.

Pearland is on a torrid 13-game winning streak that swept through district, sectional, state and regional tournaments to earn the Little League World Series bid.

Here’s how difficult the road to the Little League World Series is. There are 15 teams in MLB’s American League. If the Astros finish with one of the two best records, they’ll have to win two playoff series to play in the World Series.

Little League is a little bigger than MLB. Little League is the largest youth sports organization in the world, with 2.5 million kids playing for 180,000 teams in more than 100 countries on six continents.

Pearland, representing East Texas, had to defeat All-Star teams from West Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Louisiana, New Mexico, Arkansas and Colorado to win the Southwest Regional. The Little League World Series will host 20 teams - 10 from the U.S. and 10 from international regions.

If you have children that play Little League, or you’re just a fan, attending the Little League World Series should be high on your baseball bucket list.

I covered the Little League World Series in 2010 when Pearland made its first appearance and made it all the way to the U.S. championship game. It may have been my most fun assignment ever.

The Little League World Series is played by 11 and 12-year-olds in Little League’s major division. When ESPN and ABC air these games, they’ll present the players as innocent little kids, like Beaver and Wally or Tom and Huck. They’ll show the kids playing Simon Says with the Little League mascot called Dugout. They’ll ask the kids who’s their favorite big leaguer.

I was a Little League coach. I followed Little League All-Stars across Texas all the way to South Williamsport. These kids are absolute baseball maniacs with $400 gloves, $500 bats and Oakley sunglasses. I thought the Astros might call and ask where they got their super neat equipment.

Especially in Texas, these kids are built tough with long ball power and play year-round travel baseball with high-priced private coaches. This isn’t a choose-up game in the park where kids play in their school clothes, one kid brings a baseball and the players share bats. I looked at some of the Little Leaguers and wondered if they drove to the stadium.

I half-expected, when ABC asked who their baseball idol was, they’d answer “me!”

Here’s how seriously good these kids can play the game. Justin Verlander throws a 97-mph fastball. That’s pretty fast. It’s not rare anymore for a Little League pitcher to reach 70-mph on a fastball. The Little League mound is 46 feet from home plate. A 70-mph pitch in Little League gets to home plate in the same time as a 91-mph pitch from 60 feet 6 inches in MLB.

In 2015, a pitcher named Alex Edmonson fired an 83-mph heater at the Little League World Series. The reaction time a Little League batter had against Alex’s pitch was equal to a Major Leaguer trying to hit a 108-mph fastball. Good luck with that. Alex pitched a no-hitter and struck out 15 batters in six innings at the Little League World Series. Now 20, Alex is a relief pitcher for Clemson.

The Little League World Series is a trip. The easiest way to get there is to fly into Philadelphia and drive to South Williamsport. I sat next to CC Sebathia’s mother on the plane.

Admission to all Little League World Series games is free and snack bar prices are reasonable. A hot dog is $3. Alcohol and smoking are prohibited.

The first Little League World Series was held in 1947. Only 58 players have played in the Little League World Series and later played in MLB. The most famous are Cody Bellinger and Jason Varitek. Only two players from the Houston area made the leap: Brady Rodgers and Randal Grichuk both played on the 2003 team from Richmond, about 30 miles from Houston in Fort Bend County.

While you’re in South Williamsport, you should visit the Little League museum and Hall of Excellence. Among the inductees: Presidents Joe Biden and George W. Bush, Astros manager Dusty Baker, Kevin Costner, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dick Vitale, Rob Manfred and someone who’d later play stadiums in a different way, Bruce Springsteen.

Speaking of Springsteen, I shattered a record at the 2010 Little League World Series. The record was Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. I was talking to a Little League executive while teams were warming up on the field. Born in the U.S.A. came over the stadium loudspeakers.

I told the executive, I’m a big fan but maybe this isn’t the best song you should be playing. The executive asked why not? Well, you might want to listen to the words. Born in the U.S.A. is a depressing song about a U.S. soldier who is sent to Vietnam and can’t find a job when he gets back home. It’s not exactly Yankee Doodle Dandy. You have teams from Asia here (Japan won the tournament that year). The executive said, please tell me you’re kidding. Here’s one verse:

Got in a little hometown jam

So they put a rifle in my hand

Sent me off to a foreign land

To go and kill the (what is considered a slur for Asians).

Later I got an email from the president of Little League International.

“Quite honestly, I've never listened closely to the words of Born in the USA. I see clearly how it is offensive to our Little League friends from Asian nations. I have directed our folks who coordinate the stadium music to discontinue playing it in the future.”

Play Centerfield by John Fogerty instead. The message of that song is, “put me in coach.” Little League couldn’t say it any better.

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