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The most improbable blast

5/21/2010
It took Brooks Conrad 4,000 at bats to get to experience this. Those at bats were in the minorsGetty Images

Brooks Conrad wanted a brief scouting report on Francisco Cordero as he prepared to pinch hit in the ninth inning Thursday. So as the switch-hitter went back to the dugout to get his left-handed equipment after the Reds changed from left-hander Arthur Rhodes to the right-handed Cordero for Conrad's at-bat, he asked Chipper Jones what to expect.

Jones gave him a little rundown of Cordero's stuff, and gave him a simple suggestion: Make him throw strikes, Chipper said. Conrad was absorbed by all this, in this moment. Bases loaded, the Braves down three runs, after being down by six to start the bottom of the ninth, and Conrad wanted to move the inning along.

He walked to the plate, and home plate umpire Lance Barksdale dusted off home and said something to Conrad that he didn't immediately understand. Then Ramon Hernandez chimed in, as well: Conrad had forgotten to change his helmet, to bat left-handed.

"I tossed it over [toward the dugout], and I had to move past that embarrassment," Conrad said Thursday evening, chuckling over the phone.

Did he ever; what followed was one of those moments that we'll remember long after the season.

What led up to that has been years of work, years of perseverance. Brooks Conrad was an eighth-round pick of the Houston Astros in 2001, and he would have about 4,000 at-bats in the minors before seeing a pitch in the major leagues. He got to know Round Rock, Texas, very well, probably much more than he would've liked -- he played Double-A there for the Express in 2004, and remained there after the franchise moved up to Triple-A, for 2005, 2006 and 2007.

Conrad says he never thought about quitting, about finding a new profession. "I love to play the game," he said. "I wasn't about to go and do something else. ... I never had that attitude."

What he hoped for was a better opportunity in another organization, and he signed with the Oakland Athletics before the 2008 season -- and for the fourth consecutive year, he hit 20-plus homers in the minors. At age 28, Conrad got his first shot in the big leagues, with the Athletics.

He signed a minor league contract with the Braves before the 2009 season. "We liked his versatility, and the fact that he was a switch-hitter with power," recalled Braves GM Frank Wren, through e-mail. "He's a gamer with a great attitude."

As Conrad shifted into a support role for the Braves, he asked questions of others, like Greg Norton, about being a pinch hitter, about how to prepare for a moment that he found himself in on Thursday afternoon, in Turner Field.

Cordero threw a strike, and Conrad dropped the head of his bat, smashing the ball squarely, toward left field. Off the bat, he thought his long drive had a chance to clear the fence in left field ... and then saw Reds left fielder Laynce Nix close on the ball, reach out for it.

"I thought he caught it," Conrad said. "I kind of turned."

He looked away, and what he did not see was that the ball had glanced off Nix's glove and bounced over the wall, for a grand slam. Not knowing what had transpired behind him, Conrad lifted his hands over his head with some exasperation -- and that was the moment when he saw the fans going crazy, and his teammates running out of the dugout.

And then Conrad went crazy, too. It was the No. 1 moment in Conrad's career, for sure, he said. "It's a really cool feeling to get up there in a pinch-hit situation," he said, "and make the most of an opportunity like that."

Here's a link to the video. Great stuff.

The aging question

Had a discussion the other day with an executive about how younger players have a greater role these days, and it raised an interesting question: Has the overall production and use of players in their mid-30s generally declined?

The answer, as it turns out, is overwhelmingly yes. And the numbers are dramatic, and fascinating.

Frank Labombarda of the Elias Sports Bureau dug out these overall production numbers on hitters and pitchers over the past decade -- and the numbers are fascinating. For each year, the numbers are broken down into innings pitched, wins and ERA. They include every pitcher from that year in that age bracket.

Pitchers, Age 34

2010: 455.3 IP, 22 wins, 4.37 ERA

2009: 2060.0, 114, 4.09

2008: 799.0, 31, 4.62

2007: 1028.3, 41, 4.60

2006: 1371.3, 78, 4.42

2005: 1152.0, 59, 4.13

2004: 1313.7, 81, 4.24

2003: 1176.0, 51, 3.97

2002: 1464.7, 76, 4.62

2001: 1709.0, 112, 4.46

2000: 2296.3, 152, 4.35

Pitchers, Age 35

2010: 366.7, 20, 3.68

2009: 701.7, 33, 4.45

2008: 813.3, 48, 4.32

2007: 755.3, 43, 4.48

2006: 1170.3, 64, 4.48

2005: 1260.0, 79, 4.26

2004: 863.3, 51, 4.85

2003: 1113.0, 58, 4.45

2002: 1250.7, 81, 3.91

2001: 1691.0, 92, 4.05

2000: 1408.3, 80, 4.25

Pitchers, Age 36

2010: 165.0, 11, 5.95

2009: 696.7, 44, 4.11

2008: 760.3, 48, 4.40

2007: 891.0, 54, 4.74

2006: 1125.3, 63, 4.37

2005: 963.0, 51, 4.58

2004: 849.3, 53, 4.31

2003: 1009.0, 54, 3.94

2002: 1586.0, 105, 3.44

2001: 1147.3, 65, 3.99

2000: 680.0, 39, 3.96

Hitters, Age 34

2010: 2786 at-bats, 709 hits, 91 HR

2009: 7057, 1880 168

2008: 8748, 2443 213

2007: 4846, 1250 127

2006: 8493, 2374 295

2005: 7298, 1883 223

2004: 6181, 1618 193

2003: 6668, 1769 253

2002: 9077, 2382 311

2001: 7666, 2048 247

2000: 7356, 2005 239

Hitters, Age 35

2010: 1800, 461, 40

2009: 7053, 2038, 194

2008: 3914, 984, 135

2007: 7106, 1955, 210

2006: 5524, 1417, 194

2005: 5150, 1333, 142

2004: 5561, 1443, 219

2003: 7407, 1989, 265

2002: 5359, 1421, 158

2001: 5450, 1402, 173

2000: 8458, 2252, 337

Hitters, Age 36

2010: 1159, 329, 25

2009: 2559, 682, 89

2008: 5852, 1615, 194

2007: 3232, 820, 97

2006: 4374, 1151, 128

2005: 4188, 1061, 128

2004: 5686, 1499, 203

2003: 4185, 1120, 120

2002: 4348, 1048, 114

2001: 5426, 1404, 198

2000: 5498, 1484, 205

To summarize, the production numbers of the hitters and pitchers ages 34-36 have dropped significantly, generally speaking -- especially in players at age 36. Players at that age in 2009 had less than half of the at-bats than they did in 2000, and pitchers age 36 threw fewer than half the innings in 2009 than they did in 2002.

By the way: These numbers are completely in line with the thinking of a lot of players that the use of performance-enhancing drugs began to kick in with pitchers a little later than for hitters; a lot of players think that at the turn of the century, a lot of pitchers began recognizing the benefits of PEDs in their day-to-day recovery.

Big Papi

David Ortiz complained Thursday about how he's been treated by the media. Look, he's entitled to feel how he feels, but it's not as if reporters or columnists generated the issue of whether Ortiz could dig himself out of his early-season slump on their own. Because of his lack of production, Ortiz was benched, he was pinch hit for, he was platooned, he was even given days off against right-handers, and the Red Sox wrestled internally about what to do with him, with the options ranging from outright release to giving him more time.

Steve Buckley writes that one of the doubters was Terry Francona. In fact, even at a time when Ortiz has started to hit, he was out of the lineup Thursday, because lefty Francisco Liriano started for the Twins; Ortiz's current OPS is 230 points lower than it was three years ago.

Maybe all of this is a nice focal point for him, something that pushes him. But I haven't seen an example in which anybody took cheap shots at him -- the criticism of his play, and Francona's managerial moves, have always been rooted in Ortiz's production. For Francona, for the media, it's business, not personal, even if Ortiz chooses to take it personally.

Dings and dents

J.J. Hardy won't be ready to face his old pals, writes La Velle Neal.

Moves, deals and decisions

1. Garrett Atkins was benched.

2. Todd Wellemeyer's days in the San Francisco rotation could be numbered.

Thursday's games

1. The Red Sox got to Francisco Liriano. Kevin Youkilis is on a roll, Daniel Barbarisi writes.

2. Matt Holliday had a good day. Why Adam Wainwright won: He had a good curveball, as hitters were 1-for-8 with five strikeouts. Wainwright threw a strike on 81.5 percent of curveballs and also got 47.1 percent of hitters to miss the curve. This season, opponents are hitting .152 (12-for-79) with 32 strikeouts against it. He attacked the inside part of the plate to get strikeouts, as four of his seven K's were on inside pitches, and hitters were 1-for-6 overall. After allowing 10 hits on the inside part of the plate in his first four starts, Wainwright has allowed only three in his past five starts. The Marlins' 3-4-5 hitters (Hanley Ramirez, Jorge Cantu, Dan Uggla) were 1-6 with two walks and three K's. For the season, the heart-of-the-order hitters are batting .187 against Wainwright, as opposed to .228 for all other places in the batting order.

3. Brian Matusz got pounded, Jeff Zrebiec writes.

4. The Pirates have been playing better of late, but they were edged out by the Brewers on Thursday, Dejan Kovacevic writes.

5. With Jimmy Rollins hitting in the middle of the order, the Phillies thumped the Cubs, David Murphy writes.

6. The Nationals threw out a stinker, Adam Kilgore writes.

7. Ubaldo Jimenez was outstanding, again, Troy Renck writes. Why he won: Of the 23 batters he faced, he threw a strike as one of the first two pitches 21 times. This converts to 91 percent of the time compared to the MLB average of 85. Eighty percent of batters who went to two strikes were converted into outs, compared to the MLB average of 72. He converted ground-ball outs -- 82.4 percent of all balls hit into play were ground balls, his highest percentage this year. The 14 ground-ball outs he got were his second-highest on the season.

Said Jeff Francis, in the story linked above: "I have pitched like that before too. I was playing Nintendo."

8. Why Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw won: He got the first batter out in six of the eight innings he appeared in -- 75 percent, compared to the MLB average of 68 percent. He worked fast -- 60 percent of his at-bats were three pitches or less, compared to the MLB average of 47. He threw his fastball for strikes 71 percent of the time, compared to the MLB average of 64.

9. The Rays built their lead to five games over the Yankees by thumping them for 18 runs over the past two days.

9. Ken Griffey Jr. had a big moment, in a walk-off, Geoff Baker writes.

10. The Dodgers took care of business, writes Baxter Holmes.

11. The Diamondbacks rallied against Tim Lincecum.

Other stuff

• Washington owner Mark Lerner got hurt during batting practice.

• The D-backs' pitching coach is bothered by the team's performance, and he's been doing some self-counseling.

Carl Crawford is going back to Houston, for interleague play.

• A couple of corner outfielders in the Bay Area provide everything but power.

Vin Mazzaro showed better command this time.

• The Cliff Lee/King Felix combo hasn't been a knockout, yet, Larry Stone writes.

And today will be better than yesterday.