Tempe – Not sure what it is about the two Cactus League games I’ve attended so far this season, but if they are any indication, then the NL Central is going to be hideously bullied around, as I provide my thoughts on the California Angels and Milwaukee Brewers.
-Okay, so the lead to this post was a complete lie. Obviously we have no idea whether or not the Central will be good this year, but odds are it will be in the conversation as the best division in baseball. It’s just hard to see that, considering the Cubs lost 13-0 on Tuesday to the Rockies, and in my second game of this baseball odyssey, the Angels racked up 10 runs in two innings and dispatched the Brewers by a score of 12-2.
When you take a look at the Brewers’ lineup for the game, you can start to see more connections to the Cubs than just divisional allegiance. Aramis Ramirez, long-time third baseman for the Cubs, played in the game for Milwaukee, and even though he did have an RBI single down the right field line in the third inning, he squandered a couple of other chances with runners in scoring position. His pop-out to the second baseman in the fifth inning was especially painful with Jean Segura stranded on third base.
Matt Garza also started this game for Milwaukee, and he was rocked even harder than Travis Wood was on Tuesday for the Cubs. Garza surrendered nine earned runs and scattered nine hits in just 1 2/3rd innings of work, and he struggled right out of the gate. The only guy he could seem to get out was Raul Ibanez, who accounted for two of the five outs he secured.
One other former Cub was in the house at Tempe Diablo Stadium for the game, as Carlos Pena came into the game to replace Albert Pujols in the seventh inning. He struck out looking in the seventh inning, but he did rap a nice single in the eighth inning.
-Aside from seeing former Cubs players attempting to make new lives for themselves elsewhere, I was struck most on Wednesday by just how potent a lineup combination of Mike Trout and Albert Pujols could potentially be for the Angels.
Obviously everyone knows about Trout, but seeing him in person is truly a spectacle. He glides around the field effortlessly (I’ll resist making a fish pun), and every time he stepped to the plate, the 5000+ spectators at the stadium stopped what they were doing and watched. His two-RBI single in the second inning drew a loud ovation, and even his fly-out to deep right enter in the sixth inning got some “oohs and ahs” as it exploded off his bat.
The more surprising player to me in this game was Pujols. Everyone is writing him off as a washed-up has-been who should have never left St. Louis, but if Wednesday is any indication, people still fear him. The double he ripped in the first inning to score Trout from first was a blast that may have been a home run in some parks (center field at the stadium is 420 feet from home plate), and it was clear that Garza wanted nothing to do with him in the second, walking him with minimal effort.
I know it’s a big “if” to say that if Pujols can return to a form even close to what he had as a Cardinal, then the combination of him and Trout in the 2-3 spots in the Angels’ lineup could be an unbelievably good combination, and one that could conceivably lift the Halos over the Athletics in the division.
-The food at Tempe Diablo Stadium was a bit hit or miss for the Neveau clan on Wednesday, but the hit was a mind-blowing experience. The hot dogs aren’t all that great (bun soggy on top and hardened from excessive heat on the bottom), but the pulled pork sandwich that I got from Honey Bear barbeque (a Phoenix-staple) was absolutely ridiculous. It was so good that I might even go back downtown this afternoon and have it again for lunch.
-This is the kind of thing that can only happen at spring training. During the game, home plate umpire Dana DeMuth made it a point to wait until the pitcher would come out to the mound before he would throw the ball out there. Instead of just tossing it though, he would rear back and fire his best fastball to the pitcher. I ended up yelling at him that the Cubs were interested in signing him, and he responded by shaking his head and saying “that’s all I’ve got.”
Apparently DeMuth was on a pitch count of 15-20 pitches.
-If you were one of those people that thought David Freese was a product of playing for the Cardinals, you might want to rethink your stance. He ended up going 3-for-3 in the game with two RBI and a run scored, and he looked perfectly comfortable at the plate all day. If he’s batting behind Josh Hamilton or Pujols in the Angels’ lineup, he could rack up some pretty ridiculous RBI totals for the Halos.
-Zach Duke also made an appearance in the game for the Brewers, and he worked a perfect fifth inning, striking out all three batters he faced. Granted, he missed the meat of the Angels’ lineup and forced Trout and Pujols to remain in the game so they could get an extra at-bat in the sixth, but he was in total command of his pitches, and made every one of those punch-outs look easy. Great to see him competing for a spot in Milwaukee’s rotation.
-Finally, I’m not sure if every team does this at spring training, but they should. In the Angels’ team shop, they had a section of hats, T-shirts, bats, and pennants that are designated as “value items,” and I ended up scoring an Angels hat for $7. With hat prices for authentic fitted caps ranging around $35-40 now, it’s great to see teams recognize that there are fans who can’t afford to drop that kind of coin on a hat, and I appreciated being able to get a hat at a more than reasonable price.
More teams should take their lead.