THE NEWBERG REPORT — May 28, 2008

He was a career .255/.316/.372 hitter against southpaws, facing one who was holding left-handed hitters to an anemic .167/.286/.167 line (no extra-base hits in 36 trips) this year.  On top of that, he was 1 for his last 11 overall, bothered by a sore thumb.  And he wasn’t seeing the ball well in Tropicana Field.

Turns out all Josh Hamilton needed was a Sports Illustrated jinx.  

He’s so good that a grand slam in a three-run game in the eighth sort of felt inevitable, like a handoff to Marion Barber at the one-yard line.  Just taking care of business.

(Enjoy this from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s Anthony Andro: “Hamilton didn’t know he had hit the ball until he heard the contact.  He thought the sinker was going way inside, and his eyes closed in anticipation of the ball hitting him.  Instead, he hit the ball.  ‘When I swung, my bat path made contact with the ball and I actually closed my eyes for a split second,’ Hamilton said. ‘When I heard it hit, I opened up my eyes. I saw it when I was running to first.’”)

We’ve played a third of the season.  If he keeps this up, Hamilton paces out at .329/.371/.603 with 39 home runs, 45 doubles, nine triples, 174 RBI, and 105 runs.  

Wanna bet against him?  

Be my guest.

By the way, according to several media accounts, only about 3,000 Rays fans stood and applauded Hamilton when he first stepped to the plate on Monday, his first trip to Tampa Bay, in front of a crowd whose organization was where his storied pro career began.  

But hey, that was still a whole quarter of the fans on hand.

On Memorial Day.

To support the team with the best record in baseball.

Pathetic.

Incidentally, the only active Rays that Hamilton has played with are outfielder Carl Crawford (1999, rookie-level Princeton), righthander Jamie Shields (2001, Class A Charleston), and outfielder Jonny Gomes (2002, Class A Bakersfield).  Hamilton and Longoria both played for short-season Hudson Valley in 2006, but not at the same time.

Here’s the SI cover story.

Hard to believe that Hamilton was primarily a leadoff hitter for Cincinnati last year.  

But it helps explain the low RBI estimate in Bill James’s otherwise not-so-crazy projection for Hamilton this winter: .305/.382/.598 with 31 home runs and 71 RBI in 410 at-bats.  The .980 OPS that James projected is only a few ticks off of the .974 that Hamilton sports right now.  Impossibly, James is the only person in the world that thought that Hamilton would be this good — if not better.

Michael Young has 61 hits, which extrapolates to 183 for the year.  Concerned?  Don’t be.  Through a third of the 2007 season, Young had just 57 hits (a 171-hit pace), and he finished with 201.

To count on Vicente Padilla to go 21-6, 3.67 is too big a leap, but the difference between Padilla in 2007 and 2008 when he gets himself into a mess has been staggering.  He didn’t have his A game command last night, but fanned 10 in six innings — half of them looking — and won a fifth straight decision for the first time in his career.

On March 1, I wrote this: “[B]etween [Ian] Kinsler’s ability to pile up doubles and get into scoring position with his feet if he merely singles or walks, and Hamilton’s and Michael Young’s ability to do all kinds of things with the bat behind him, it’s probably not a bad bet to expect a healthy Kinsler could threaten to score at least 115 times, which would give him one of the top 10 run-scoring seasons in franchise history.”

Kinsler is on pace for 132 runs, which would be one short of Alex Rodriguez’s franchise-record 2001 output.

Milton Bradley is hitting .329/.438/.569 with eight home runs, 16 doubles, and 29 RBI in 47 games.  Name a better free agent hitter signed anywhere in baseball this winter.

On September 23, Texas started an outfield of Jason Botts in left, Marlon Byrd in center, and Nelson Cruz in right.  David Murphy came on defensively for Botts in the eighth but didn’t get an at-bat.

On September 24, same exact thing.

Murphy started in right on September 25, going 2 for 3 with a run-scoring single.

But he was back on the bench on September 26, as Texas went back to the Botts-Byrd-Cruz triumvirate.  

It was that four-game stretch, which preceded Murphy playing every inning of the Rangers’ final three games in 2007, which set the table for Murphy to make a run at Rookie of the Year in 2008.  He finished last season with 103 at-bats as a Ranger, giving him a career total of 127, three short of exhausting his rookie eligibility.

Murphy is hitting .289/.333/.474 with a Major League-leading 19 doubles to go along with 36 RBI, which is sixth in the league and extrapolates to 108 for the year.  

Right now, objectively speaking, Evan Longoria is Murphy’s only legitimate competition for the award (though I suppose Nick Blackburn and Aaron Laffey may be longshot candidates), but at the moment Murphy should be in the driver’s seat.  

In 97 Rangers games, spanning 314 at-bats, Murphy is a .306/.349/.494 hitter, with 31 doubles, eight home runs, and 50 RBI.

Bob Sturm blogged that, going into yesterday’s games, Rangers hitters led the American League in strikeouts, Rangers pitchers led the league in walks and had the fewest strikeouts, and Rangers defenders led the league in errors.  Sturm asks: “How are they not in last place?  It makes you wonder if this is a smoke and mirrors hot month, or if the Rangers are making up for it elsewhere.  The truth will be told over the course of 162.”

Yes, it will.  There have been years where this team’s record lagged its video game statistical output, where the whole was crummier than the sum of its parts.  I’ll take the flip.  This team finds ways, unlike lots of other recent Rangers editions.

Part of the formula is that this offense leads the league not only in home runs, as it’s accustomed to doing, but also in sacrifice bunts, sacrifice flies, and stolen base percentage.  (No team has led all four categories in 35 years.)  This is a smart offense, something we’re not necessarily accustomed to saying about a Texas Rangers attack.

A win today, and Texas would run its streak to 10 straight series won (nine) or tied (one), its longest such streak since opening the 1998 season with seven series wins and three ties.  

The Rangers’ record since their seven-game slide in late April is 20-11, a winning percentage of .645.  Their four minor league teams have a collective .627 winning percentage.

Hank Blalock returned to Texas to get a cortisone shot in his sore right wrist.  Once the wrist responds, he might go out on a rehab assignment to get some reps before a return to the big club.  If it doesn’t respond at all, surgery apparently isn’t out of the question.

Righthander Kevin Millwood, who got through a 65-pitch simulated game environment on Saturday and a bullpen session yesterday with no groin issues, will start Friday’s opener of the Oakland series in Arlington.  He’ll be on an 85-90-pitch count.

It’s no longer a lock that righthander Doug Mathis returns to AAA when Millwood is activated.  He’s reportedly a consideration for a bullpen role, which would mean righthander Josh Rupe or righthander Kameron Loe could be optioned.

Righthander Luis Mendoza struggled in a rehab start with Oklahoma on Monday, yielding five earned runs on three doubles and three singles in two innings of work.  He came out of it with no shoulder or blister complaints, but at this rate he’s not going to reclaim a rotation spot from Sidney P
onson or Scott Feldman anytime soon.

Righthander Brandon McCarthy has been cleared to start throwing.

Lefthander John Rheinecker had a minor arthroscopic procedure on his shoulder and won’t throw for another two or three weeks.

Texas released righthander John Patterson, whose arm hasn’t bounced back from the nerve problems that have hampered him for two years.  He plans to sit the rest of the season out.

Frisco catcher Max Ramirez, on the strength of a .455 average, four home runs, and 10 RBI, was named Texas League Player of the Week for the second time in May.

Scott Lucas points out that Clinton righthander Blake Beavan has faced 118 hitters as a pro — and has issued one walk.  In 31 innings, he’s scattered 26 hits and fanned 15, coaxing 1.45 as many groundouts as flyouts.

The draft is in eight days.  

The Yankees signed Ben Broussard to a minor league contract.  He doubled three times and walked, driving in three runs in his AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre debut last night.  They were his first RBI since April 6.  He failed to push a run in over his last 62 Rangers at-bats.

The Dodgers designated righthander Esteban Loaiza for assignment to make room for the arrival of lefthander Clayton Kershaw.

The Calgary Vipers of the independent Golden Baseball League signed infielder Jose Morban and catcher Pat Arlis, and the Edmonton Cracker Cats of the same league signed righthander Agustin Montero.

After today’s Tampa Bay matinee, the Rangers come home for a season-long 10-game homestand, during which they’ll face the A’s, Indians, and Rays (and during which we all have a job to do: Josh Hamilton is currently sixth in the American League outfield vote for the All-Star Game).  

Whether or not Texas can claim that elusive winning record today, there’s a seriously good chance that the club could come out of the upcoming stretch at home on the right side of .500.  

Not that I want to jinx anything.

You can read more from Jamey Newberg at www.NewbergReport.com.

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