Ex-teammate vouches for Pujols
Did he or didn’t he?
People will believe what they want to believe about whether Los Angeles Angels first baseman Albert Pujols used performance-enhancing drugs.
But Los Angeles Dodgers second baseman Skip Schumaker, a teammate of Pujols’ in St. Louis from 2005 to ‘12, strongly disputes Jack Clark’s recent accusations about the former Cardinal.
Schumaker, who was sharply critical of the Milwaukee Brewers’ Ryan Braun after Braun accepted his 65-game suspension, rose to Pujols’ defense Saturday in an interview at Dodger Stadium.
“He’s the most honest guy I’ve ever been around,” Schumaker said. “He’s a solid human being, a solid Christian. What he says is the truth. I’m 100 percent behind Albert. Everyone who has played with him is 100 percent behind Albert. What Jack is doing is wrong.”
Pujols issued a forcefully worded statement Friday night denying Clark’s charge and saying that he planned to take legal action against the former major leaguer and his radio station, WGNU 920 AM in St. Louis.
Later that night, the company that employed Clark announced that it was dismissing him and his co-host, Kevin Slaten. It is not known whether Pujols will follow through with his plan to sue now that Clark has lost his job.
Schumaker said that Pujols has never even touched alcohol, but Clark tweeted Saturday that he stands by his initial comments about Pujols and PEDs.
This is not the first time that Clark has weighed in with critical remarks on the issue.
In Oct. 2009, Clark ripped Mark McGwire in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch after McGwire admitted using PEDs, calling him a “sad excuse for a baseball player” and adding, “he should not be in baseball. He should be banned from baseball more than ever.”
McGwire admitted to his use of PEDs after the Cardinals named him their hitting coach. Clark lobbied for that position before McGwire was hired, sources said.
FROM THE MOUTH OF A BABE
During his first week with the Tampa Bay Rays, rookie outfielder Wil Myers surprised his new teammates by lamenting, “I usually hit more home runs in batting practice than this.”
“Everyone was kind of looking around and saying, ‘Did he really just say that?’” Rays third baseman Evan Longoria said, chuckling.
Myers, 22, often delivers what Longoria calls “Wil-isms” — comments that are so bold, they both astonish and amuse his teammates.
“Let’s just say he doesn’t have a lack of confidence in himself,” Longoria said.
Case in point: Aug. 3, when the Rays failed to convert an opportunity in the ninth inning of a tie game against the Giants. Myers turned to Rays athletic trainer Ron Porterfield and said, “Leave it to Wil.” And sure enough, Myers hit a walkoff RBI single the following inning.
The Rays don’t take offense with Myers’ bravado; Longoria said that Myers is harmless, and naïve in an endearing way. Myers’ southern accent — he is a native of High Point, N.C. — makes his remarks sound that much funnier, at least from Longoria’s perspective.
Longoria, 27, said that he and other Rays veterans quickly made it clear to Myers that he should talk about the team before himself in media interviews. And Longoria added that it’s not as if he treats Myers the way Cliff Floyd and Eric Hinske treated him as a rookie in 2008. Longoria recalled boarding the team bus with drinks for his teammates in one hand and Floyd’s personal bag in the other.
“I’m much easier on him than they were on me,” Longoria said.
AND THE OTHER SIDE OF THE TRADE?
The Kansas City Royals’ 18-5 run since the All-Star break is helping ease the sting of losing Myers for a package that included right-hander James Shields. Myers looks like a monster — he had an .885 OPS in his first 189 plate appearances — but KC began the week only 4.5 games back in the race for the second wild card.
How did the Royals turn it around? Well, their offense is better — the team, which averaged 3.98 runs per game before changing hitting coaches on May 30, has averaged 4.14 runs since then and 4.48 since the break, with both first baseman Eric Hosmer and third baseman Mike Moustakas producing OPSes above .840 in the latter window.
The Royals’ run prevention, meanwhile, remains a decided strength. The rotation ranks fourth in the AL with a 3.94 ERA. The bullpen leads the AL with a 2.73 ERA and features closer Greg Holland, who has converted 25 straight saves. The team also has made the ninth-fewest errors in the majors, though it ranks only 16th in defensive efficiency.
“This is a team with a lot of talent and ability,” right-hander Jeremy Guthrie said Monday. “I don’t think there was a dramatic change in the team, but I think the consistent hard work of each guy and the ability to have fun on the field has helped us continue improving even when the wins weren’t coming.
“If you have pitching and good defense, you have a chance to win, and our defense has been exceptional, which makes us all better pitchers. I’m not a hitter, but it seems as though Pedro Grifol and George Brett (since departed) really had a positive impact on the hitters. Our bullpen has been consistent all season and I feel like as a group our starting pitching has been doing a good job of giving the team a chance to win each night.”
THE EVOLUTION OF PUIG
Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, in a pre-game meeting with FOX broadcasters Saturday, all but acknowledged that right fielder Yasiel Puig ignores his appeals — and his staff’s appeals — to hit the cutoff man.
Mattingly did not at all sound upset. Instead, he explained in matter-of-fact fashion that Puig thinks he can make every play. The danger, of course, is that Puig’s reckless style eventually will cost the Dodgers a victory. But if Puig adjusts defensively as well as he did offensively, it won’t be a problem.
The Dodgers thought Puig finally might slump when he went through a 1-for-14 stretch in Washington and Toronto from July 19 to 22. Some slump. Since then, Puig has batted .406 with a 1.208 OPS in 82 plate appearances.
Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey had a blunt response last Friday when I asked him how the Rays planned to approach Puig: “Take advantage of his aggressiveness,” Hickey said. “He swings at everything.”
Actually, that is no longer the case. Puig is showing considerably more discipline, laying off breaking pitches away. He has drawn 14 walks (five intentional) in his last 14 games.
“You see him adjust like that, it tells you the guy has a chance to be really good,” Mattingly said.
THE EVOLUTION OF ESCOBAR
Those who recall shortstop Yunel Escobar’s past troubles in Atlanta and Toronto might be surprised to learn that he has emerged as one of the more popular figures in the Tampa Bay clubhouse.
Infielder/outfielder Ben Zobrist gave Escobar especially high praise, saying that his energy is infectious. Escobar, Zobrist said, “is an energy giver, not an energy taker.”
The Rays’ clubhouse, of course, is one of the most welcoming in the majors, thanks in large part to the communication skills of manager Joe Maddon. But Escobar also is excelling on the field, to the point where Maddon said “we can’t be where we are without him.”
Since starting the season 4-for-45 — a .089 batting average — Escobar has batted .279 with a .743 OPS, above-average numbers for a shortstop. He also has excelled at situational hitting, hitting coach Derek Shelton said, while getting more than 50 percent of his at-bats in the ninth spot.
Defensively, Escobar also has been a major asset, ranking fifth among all shortstops in John Dewan’s plus-minus ratings on BillJamesOnline.com. Escobar is plus-10, meaning that he has made 10 plays above the number that the average fielder would make.
Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons leads all major-league fielders at plus-39.
A POTENTIAL HEIR TO GRIFFEY?
Just sayin’, but the Mariners appear well-positioned to make a run at Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury in free agency.
The M’s are deep in young, affordable position players, with a mere $33.257 million committed to their 2014 payroll, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. Ellsbury, who is from Madras, Or., and attended Oregon State, could fill two voids, leading off and playing center field.
Michael Saunders is not a center fielder, and Dustin Ackley has not proven to be a long-term solution. Remember the emphasis the M’s placed on defense not long ago? These days, they’re occasionally using an outfield of Raul Ibanez in left, Saunders in center and Michael Morse in right.
The addition of Ellsbury would upgrade the defense, ignite the offense and energize the fan base. The M’s struck out on Josh Hamilton last offseason. They might have a better shot with Ellsbury, whose agent, Scott Boras, generally seeks the best market deal.
AN UNUSUAL CHARITABLE INITIATIVE
A number of players do excellent work for various charities, but Cardinals right-hander Adam Wainwright and his older brother, Trey, came up with an interesting new twist — Waino’s World of Fantasy Football.
The league will consist of four 12-team divisions, each including a Cardinals player. Wainwright, Allen Craig, Matt Holliday, David Freese are the planned participants — beat one of them, and you will get bragging rights over an actual major leaguer.
The 44 available slots cost $2,500 each, and all of the proceeds will be divided between two charities — Operation Food Search, a St. Louis-area food bank, and Water Missions International, a non-profit, Christian engineering organization that provides sustainable safe water and sanitation solutions for people in developing countries and disaster areas.
The draft will be at Busch Stadium on Aug. 23, and the event will include a catered brunch and tour of the ballpark. The Wainwright brothers eventually want to expand the program and involve other players in other cities.
AROUND THE HORN
* The Dodgers are quite the wrecking ball of late, but let’s not forget that a team with a $220 million-plus payroll should be a wrecking ball.
As one rival executive points out, the Cardinals could make like the Dodgers this offseason if they had the money, trading for Rays left-hander David Price, signing free-agent center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury and second baseman Robinson Cano.
The Cardinals don’t have that kind of money, don’t have that type of advantage. No team does except maybe the Yankees, and they still plan to be under the $189 million luxury-tax threshold in 2014.
* The reported defection of first baseman Jose Abreu from Cuba could lead to another free-agent bidding war; Abreu, 26, will not be subject to the limits on international spending.
The question is whether Abreu will merit a deal comparable to Yoenis Cespedes’ four-year, $36 million contract with Oakland or Puig’s seven-year, $42 million contract with the Dodgers.
One international scout has his doubts.
“He’s a big, strong guy with tremendous power, and a very good breaking-ball hitter,” the scout said. “But he doesn’t hit good pitching very well at all. If you’ve got velocity, you can throw the ball by him up.”
Specifically, the scout said that Abreu will crush pitches in the 88-89 mph range, but that even 91-92 mph gives him trouble.
* And finally, a leftover note from the non-waiver deadline: Keep your eye on Double-A right-hander Matt Stites, who went from San Diego to Arizona with lefty reliever Joe Thatcher in the Ian Kennedy trade.
Stites, 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds, reminded D-Backs scout Bill “Chief” Gayton of Braves closer Craig Kimbrel. Obviously, there is only one Kimbrel, but Stites possesses a similar build, and his minor-league numbers — a 1.53 ERA, 0.70 WHIP and 150-to-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 135 1/3 innings — are eye-popping.
The D-Backs project Stites as a late-inning reliever, and maybe even a low-cost closer.