Friday, July 11, 2008

I Feel Good: Our National Pastime's Finest

Typically, the hours leading up to baseball's July 31st trade deadline are noted for a flurry of transactions that could make or break an organization's attempt at reaching the postseason. In 2008, the biggest blockbusters have already been made, as Athletics' ace Rich Harden has made his way to the Cubs in Chicago's response to the Milwaukee's acquisition of last year's American League Cy Young award winner, the robust C.C. Sabathia. In either case, the Cubbies and Brewers have made their intentions clear: they will work diligently to label themselves as serious World Series contenders. In lieu of these ambitious moves, the V-List takes a look at the best feel-good stories of the MLB season thus far.

5. Geovany Soto: An NL First
Pop quiz, hot shot. Who is the first National League rookie to start at catcher for the All-Star team? If you guessed Johnny Bench or Mike Piazza, you would be wrong. This distinction is held by none other than current Chicago Cubs backstop Geovany Soto, who proved his worth to the organization by mashing the ball in a late-September call-up in 2007. By hitting .289 with 15 homers and 52 RBI's, Soto, much like his compatriot Kosuke Fukodome, has invigorated the North Side of Chicago with tremendous flair and passion for the game. Many games have been won off the bat of Soto, to which the Cubbies are grateful, as they hold the best record in the National League at 54 - 36. Much like Dodgers' catcher Russell Martin before him, Soto has infused youth into a position once dominated by the likes of Pudge Rodriguez and Jorge Posada, who are at the tail ends of their respective careers. Here's to many more All-Star appearances by this Puerto Rican sensation, who just might aid his ballclub in taking home the franchise's first World Series in 100 years.

4. The Kid Goes for 600
Injuries have derailed promising careers of legends (Sandy Koufax) and near Hall of Famers (Don Mattingly) alike. For Ken Griffey, Jr., arguably the game's best all-around player in the 1990's, "The Kid" watched as his assault on Hank Aaron's homerun mark crumbled, simply because his move to the Cincinnati Reds has brought nothing but injury after career-threatening injury. Even so, in a June contest against the Florida Marlins, Griffey continued to utilize his sweet power stroke as he reached career dinger #600 (and counting) for his illustrious career. Although Barry Bonds has already surpassed Aaron's record, it's Griffey's career that moves baseball fans the most, simply because Griffey is a man of class and passion, one who plays the game each and every day like a Little Leaguer awaiting the reward of an ice cream cone at the end of a Reds' victory.

3. Tim Lincecum: Diminutive Size, Behemoth Effort
The folklore surrounding Giants' lefthander Tim Lincecum is astounding when you consider little Timmy was 4'11" entering his freshman year of high school. Some ten years later (and a foot taller), Lincecum dazzles fans by the Bay with 98 MPH heat, a weapon that has delivered 10 wins, a 2.49 ERA, and 122 strikeouts for a team depleted by the departure of many talented ballplayers, including Barry Bonds. Lincecum first burst onto the scene on an ESPN broadcast of Sunday Night Baseball on May 6, 2007. With a freakish stride of seven and a half feet, 129% of his height (most major leaguers average a stride that is 83% of their height), Lincecum has given Giants fans a reason to show up to the ballpark, knowing that their ace of the future has many more gems left to bestow upon San Francisco followers willing to wait for a Renaissance in the Bay City.

2. Jon Lester: No-Hitting Cancer Survivor For the first time in Boston Red Sox history, two Boston hurlers pitched consecutive no-hitters from 2007 to 2008, the first completed by Clay Bucholz on September 1, 2007, the latter accomplished by Jon Lester on May 19th of this season. What is especially awe-inspiring about Lester's feat was the fact that only a year ago had Jon battled lymphoma, a form of cancer. Upon his return from chemotherapy and radiation treatment in August of last year, Lester returned to the organization and pitched in the decisive fourth game of the 2007 World Series, an effort that delivered Boston's second title in four years. In Lester's no-hit effort, Jason Varitek was behind the plate, a catcher who ended up calling his fourth no-hitter, an MLB record (an achievement he endured with Lester, Bucholz, Derek Lowe, and Hideo Nomo, all pitchers for the Red Sox).

1. How About Them Rays?
Upon joining the Rays in April of this year, third baseman Evan Longoria surfaced as the next big thing in Tampa Bay, hitting .270 with 16 homeruns and 47 RBI's at age 23. Longoria anchors a lineup strengthened by the likes of Carl Crawford, Dioner Navarro, Carlos Pena, B.J. Upton, and Jonny Gomes, a group that has led Tampa Bay to the best record in baseball at 55 - 34. As if the hitting corps weren't remarkable enough, the Rays are further stabilized by a pitching staff led by Scott Kazmir, Andy Sonnanstine, Matt Garza, James Shields, and Edwin Jackson, a young quintet that will later be revitalized by star prospect David Price, who is currently dominating Double-A. Managed by Joel Maddon, the Rays are on the fast track toward taking the AL East divisional title, as the squad currently holds a lead of 7.5 games ahead of the Yankees and 4.5 games ahead of the Red Sox. In a season peppered with surprises (the Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins), the Rays are at the forefront of an enticing AL East race that will come down to the season's final weeks, a juncture no Rays fan could have envisioned, even Dick Vitale, a season-ticket holder since the team's inaugural season in the bigs.

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