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We've got an Eastern League "batting champion" on the New Haven Ravens (and he ain't Alexis Rios), a "Triple Crown" batsman in Auburn, and a Jamie Vermilyea sighting in Dunedin. What more could one ask for in a minor-league update?

[The scare quotes are there to obviate the need to remind me how useless the notions of "batting champions" and "triple crowns" are.]
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We've come to expect the unlikely when the Jays play the Rays, who have won the last three series between the teams. Twice this year, it's been arch-nemesis Joe Kennedy (6-0, 3.56 vs. Toronto in his career; 12-27 and over 5.00 against everyone else) continuing his strange mastery, which I swear will end tomorrow.

Back in April, tonight's starter Mark Hendrickson was cruising along with a shutout through seven, only to lose 4-3 on a succession of bloops and seeing-eye flares in the eighth. Five days ago at SkyDome, Lurch was hit harder -- including a broken bat off his leg -- while the Jays blasted about a dozen frozen ropes right at the Tampa outfielders; the final was 7-6, completing the most frustrating sweep imaginable.
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If you ask me, it's an art. On ESPN.com, Buster Olney examines lateral movement on pitches, citing Roy Halladay as a prime practitioner:

He has so much movement on his pitches that he simply aims the ball down the middle, and then allows the natural movement of his refined pitches to take the ball to the edges of the strike zone.

When Doc's fastball is straight, as it was in Anaheim, he's just another good pitcher. I expect that he's made the necessary adjustments, and the D-Rays will find it difficult to make solid contact tomorrow.
Many thanks to BB reader Amal for this link. It's a 50 minute interview with Bill James, from "The Connection" on NPR last Friday. Also joining host Michael Goldfarb for part of the fascinating conversation is Dan Okrent, an accomplished author and editor-at-large for Time, Inc., who will always be more famous for inventing Rotisserie baseball.
Only four weeks remain to determine the playoff seedings. Lopsided wins were the order of Week 18, and they changed the standings dramatically. Nation Builders clobbered masssuckage 11-1 to move into fifth place, while Mebion Glyndwr thumped Reykjavik Fish Candy by the same score to leap from 11th into sixth.

Red Mosquitos, comfortably in the championship picture a week ago, are now seventh, four games back of the resurgent Welshmen. The pesky bugs were eaten alive 11-1 by the Thunderbirds, who vaulted from 17th into 10th, and are just six games away from completing a truly miraculous charge into the championship round. I warned you, Spicol. Justin B.'s club is on a 30-6 tear against first-division rivals the last three weeks -- I was another of his victims -- and that pitching staff of Halladay, Vazquez, Santana and Harden is the envy of the league.
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I don't think the Blue Jays are in the mood to lose another series to the building Devil Rays. Toronto has won only 2 games in 9 contests against Tampa Bay in 2003.All but one of the nine has been decided by either 1 or 2 runs.

Tonight's starter, Cory Lidle, owns one of the two victories. He needs to trust his stuff and work all the corners of the plate - these Rays will fish for more than the occasional borderline pitch. Zambrano, like many Rays' pitchers, sports an unimpressive K/W ratio (76/67). He has taken advantage of his defence to the tune of a .236 batting average on balls in play against (AL average approx. .290).

Who would have guessed at the start of the season that the Jays would be more looking forward to an August series in Anaheim than to the subsequent three-gamer in St. Petersburg?

Indeed, the Rays are a much hotter club than the Angels at the moment, and are fresh off their incredibly frustrating three-game sweep at the Dome last week. They proved to be a pesky opponent for a team playing meaningful baseball this weekend, too, as they took one of three from the Royals and nearly took a second.

To make matters worse, Joe Kennedy pitches on Wednesday. Heading into his start, however, Kennedy's back is smarting from a SkyDome slip-and-fall and his pride is smarting from repeated shellackings on the mound. Plus, he's got some kid named Halladay as his opposing number. Folks, if your Toronto Blue Jays are ever going to beat Cross-Body Joe, Wednesday's the day!

In other action this week, Lidle and Hendrickson get second chances to beat the not-quite-dynamic duo of Zambrano and Sosa after they each failed to do so last week.

On to the Advance Scout!
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The Sunday of a holiday weekend is typically pretty quiet in Da Box, and there's not much breaking news in Jays-land. Be my guest to take this thread wherever you want; I'm kicking it off with a brief minor-league review and a couple of quick hits on the Jays.
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The big lineup news today is the presence of Reed Johnson in the leadoff spot. Against a righty, Frank Catalanotto usually plays LF, but perhaps Carlos Tosca has run out of patience with his slump, and the skipper obviously has confidence in the Sparkplug against any kind of pitching. Mike Bordick, who is more dangerous against southpaws, remains in the 2-hole -- Eric Hinske is hitting seventh. Bordick's on an 11-game hit streak, batting well over .400 for that stretch, so while he's hot, it's not a bad idea.

Kelvim Escobar, no longer distracted by trade rumours but still pitching for his next contract, should have a good afternoon in Anaheim. He's 4-3, 2.73 with five saves in his career against the Angels. His opposite number, RH Scot Shields, makes just his third start of the season but has been brilliant in most of his 30 relief appearances. Stamina will be the big question as he takes over the rotation spot of the costliest release in baseball history, Kevin Appier.
While going back and forth on the Syracuse shuttle this season, Corey Thurman's had a pretty good year. He came up a couple of times without seeing any action, then finally pitched three innings of shutout relief against the Red Sox July 10. Three days later, he gave up a couple of walks, a hit and a run against the Yankees, followed by two perfect frames at Fenway on the 20th. That's a 1.42 ERA in 6.1 IP in the AL, and in his 14 AAA starts, he was 5-3, 4.46, with a couple of valid excuses.
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Here, in one large indigestible lump, is my summary of the Jays' month of July, which was about as much fun as watching the Dental Procedures Channel. I hope you find it enjoyable, or at least tolerable.
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So the Jays didn't manage to pull off that much-anticipated Escobar-Cash for Foppert-Willams trade that was all but a certainty in the minds of many insane people. Big deal -- there were some excellent pitching performances in the minor leagues last night.
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There's a lot of Theo "Luke Skywalker" Epstein and George "Darth Vader" Steinbrenner talk in the Big Apple press this morning. On ESPN.com, Adrian Wojnarowski (whose day job is with The Record in New Jersey) has penned a glowing tribute to the Red Sox GM:

With the Red Sox back just 2 games now and leading for the AL Wild Card, the message is unmistakable in Boston now: They're going for it. They're going for everything. What's more, Epstein hasn't had to sell out the Red Sox tomorrow for today, protecting most of his top prospects in trades for arms. His confidence is growing with every move, every bold stroke. As it turned out, Epstein isn't before his time at 29 now. His body of work insists he's right on cue.

Has the wunderkind done enough? Can the young Jedi defeat the Evil Empire?
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It's not easy to win sixteen consecutive decisions. It takes tremendous talent, dedication, preparation, stamina, resilience and luck, in the form of good health and run support. Roy Halladay can set a club record and equal an AL record tonight, but you can be certain he'll approach it as just another start.

A 16-0 run by Roger Clemens happened just two years ago, but it's hardly commonplace -- if Doc can defeat the Angels, he'll be only the second man in 60 years to accomplish the feat. He'll be backed by the latest "regular" lineup, which features Mike Bordick at SS, Frank Catalanotto leading off in LF, Josh Phelps at DH and Carlos Delgado back at first. Phelps has been freed; the manager says he'll get three AB every night, and play six days a week. It's too bad for Reed Johnson, but the Sparkplug knows he's a role player, and he'd be the last to whine about playing time. He'll be out there tomorrow against the lefty, when we might even see Dave Berg in action.

I like what Carlos Tosca is telling his troops, and the media. His team had a rotten April, then two great months. They had a rotten July, so tonight is the beginning of two more great months. The distraction of the trade deadline is over; it's time to relax and have fun, for the players and the fans. Go, Doc!
Well, my pre-season pick to repeat isn't looking so hot. Every Angel not named Garret is suffering from a severe slugging slump, and the team's been reeling since the All-Star Break (when contention was still very much a possibility). The team's vaunted chemistry has broken down lately as well, although most Halos were happy not to see either a fire sale or a panic session of trading good prospects for last-ditch help.

With Kevin Appier gone, the Angels are finally rid of their financial sinkhole created by the Mo Vaughn signing that seemed like a much better idea at the time. New owner Arte Moreno has apparently given the Angels' head office the go-ahead to spend this offseason, boosted by the team's championship-fueled attendance that has blown prior team records for fan support out of the water.

(Note to Wayne Huizenga: You see? The '98 Marlins didn't even have to be good. They just had to have the possibility of being good and you would have made money.)

On to the Advance Scout!
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