My weekly observations and notes about some Canadian baseball stories:
· Happy Easter! It has become an Easter tradition on this blog to pay tribute to ex-big league slugger Luke Easter on Easter Sunday. “Luscious Luke” was a hulking, six-foot-four, 240-pound slugger who became the 11th African-American to compete in the big leagues when he debuted with the Cleveland Indians on August 11, 1949. Known for clubbing tape-measure homers – including a 477-foot blast that was the longest ever recorded at Municipal Stadium – Easter, due to segregation, didn’t make his big league debut until he was 34. After three seasons in which he never socked less than 27 homers for the Indians, Easter, hobbled by knee and ankle injuries, was released, but he continued to belt moonshot round-trippers in the International League (IL) for the Ottawa Athletics in 1954. Later he starred with the IL’s Buffalo Bisons and Rochester Red Wings. A jovial, easygoing man who rarely refused an autograph request, Easter was once approached by a fan who told him that he saw him hit his longest home run, to which Easter responded, “If it came down, it wasn’t my longest.” Sadly, Easter was murdered in a bank parking lot in Euclid, Ohio on March 29, 1979.
· Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto (Etobicoke, Ont.) clubbed his first major league leadoff home run on Thursday (see video above). Yes, you read that correctly. Votto was batting leadoff for the Reds. The Canadian slugger hit atop the Reds’ lineup for four games this week, before sitting out Saturday’s contest with back tightness. Reds manager David Bell decided to move the Canadian slugger to the top of the order to spark the club’s offence. Bell’s strategy is in line with that of several advanced statisticians who have suggested, based on their research, that teams should bat their best hitter first for the simple reason that they will get more at bats. Prior to this, Votto has mostly batted third during his 12-year big league career. But in case you were wondering, Votto had hit in the leadoff spot in one previous game prior to this week. Back on June 18, 2008, he hit atop the Reds order and went 1-for-4 in a 6-1 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
· Ladner, B.C., native James Paxton struck out 12 while hurling eight scoreless innings to record the win for the New York Yankees against the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday. Katie Sharp, of the Talkin’ Yanks podcast, pointed out that with that performance, Paxton became the first Yankees starter to toss eight scoreless innings while striking out at least 12 batters in a start against the Red Sox since Hall of Famer Mike Mussina did it in September 2, 2001. This was Paxton’s fourth regular season start with the Yankees since being acquired from the Seattle Mariners last November. The Canuck lefty’s record now stands at 2-2 with a 3.91 ERA heading into his start today against the Kansas City Royals.
· Calgary native Mike Soroka was outstanding in his first major league start in almost 10 months on Thursday. The Canadian right-hander allowed just one run on four hits, while striking out six, in the Braves’ 4-1 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks. The 21-year-old Canuck went 2-1 with a 3.51 ERA in five starts with the Braves last season before being sidelined with a shoulder injury. Soroka was also dominant in his first rehab stint with the triple-A Gwinnett Stripers on April 6 when he struck out seven batters in five perfect innings. A graduate of the Canadian Junior National Team, Soroka was a first-round pick (28th overall) of the Braves in the 2015 MLB draft. Prior to being promoted by the Braves in 2018, Soroka had pitched in parts of four minor league seasons in the organization.
· The news was not as good for Victoria, B.C., native Nick Pivetta. After posting an 8.35 ERA and allowing 31 hits in 18 1/3 innings in his first four starts this season. Pivetta was sent down to triple-A on Wednesday. The Phils still have high hopes for the hard-throwing 26-year-old who showed flashes of brilliance in his first two big league seasons. After going 8-10 with 140 strikeouts in 133 innings in 26 starts in 2017, he followed that up by fanning 188 batters in 164 innings and lowering his earned run average to 4.77 in 32 starts last season.
· It was 53 years ago today that the Chicago Cubs made one of the best deals in franchise history when they swapped veteran pitchers Bob Buhl and Larry Jackson to the Philadelphia Phillies for outfielder Adolfo Phillips, first baseman John Herrnstein and a young Canadian pitching prospect named Fergie Jenkins. The Cubs converted Jenkins into a starter and the rest, as they say, is history. In his first season as a full-time starter in 1967, Jenkins recorded 20 wins and was selected to play in the all-star game. He followed that up by leading the National League with 40 starts and a 20-15 record in 1968. Those two seasons were part of a remarkable string of six consecutive 20-win seasons (1967 to 1972) for Jenkins with the Cubs. His 1971 campaign ranks as his most impressive. That season, he led the National League with 24 wins, 30 complete games and 325 innings pitched and became the first Cub to win the Cy Young Award. In all, he would spent 10 seasons with the club and he remains the franchise leader in WAR by a pitcher (52.9), strikeouts (2,038) and starts (347). For his efforts, he was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991 and his No. 31 was retired by the Cubs (jointly with Greg Maddux) on May 3, 2009.
· And just because I was curious . . . with hockey legend Steve Yzerman being named the general manager of the Detroit Red Wings on Friday, I wondered what would happen if I googled “Steve Yzerman baseball”. The above photo came up. This is a photo of Detroit Lions star running back Barry Sanders, Tigers slugger Cecil Fielder, Yzerman and Pistons great Joe Dumars at Tiger Stadium. It’s interesting to note that they’re holding Canadian Cooper bats.
· This week’s trivia question. Joey Votto’s home run on Thursday was the 271st of his major league career. He is one of four left-handed hitting Canadians to hit at least 200 home runs in their major league careers. But who is the only right-handed hitting Canadian to belt 200 home runs in the major leagues? Please provide your answer in the “Comments” section below. The first person to provide the correct answer will win a 1977 O-Pee-Chee Joe Morgan card, a 1983 Topps All-Star Pete Rose card, a 1987 O-Pee-Chee Nolan Ryan card and a 1989 Upper Deck Paul Molitor card.
· The answer to last week’s trivia question (Paul Hodgson was the first exclusively right-handed hitting Canadian to belt a home run from the right side of the plate for the Toronto Blue Jays. Who was the second?) was Langley, B.C., native Brett Lawrie.