Thursday, September 29, 2011

Simply the best night of baseball in recent memory

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For baseball purist the final night of the 2011 regular season was a nightmare. It embodied everything the old timers can’t stand about The Great American Pastime in the 21st century. Three teams battling for two final spots in the post-season but not for their division title. No last night’s drama had nothing to do with which team could finish better than their division rivals, because those battles had long been settled. Last night’s late-night, extra inning theatre, came courtesy of baseball’s wild-card system.

There are some who believe the wild-card cheapens the accomplishments of a team’s consistent play over a full 162 games season. They believe it gives squads a second chance to recover from their lack of success and rewards mediocrity. Those who enjoy having one extra spot in both the National and American Leagues would say, last night might be the single best night of baseball on television in the history of the game! Three of the four teams involved for a wild-card birth played deep into the evening with two of those games going extra innings and the other won in the bottom of the ninth. Three extra fan bases that would have not cared about Wednesday night baseball in late September were on the edge of their seat and two of those faithful support groups, now get to enjoy the playoffs as a treat for their devotion!

We have never seen a spectacle in prime-time television sports, like what took place in two of those ballparks last night. Both the Tampa Bay Rays and the Boston Red Sox needed to win, to at least ensure themselves of a wild-card playoff game against each other for the final spot in the American League post-season. While the Rays got off to a horrible 7-0 deficit to the Yankees at Tropicana Field, Boston was handling its business at Camden Yards over the Orioles 3-2. Then things wildly changed, forever building up the argument for the wild-card system baseball has in place. While the Red Sox and Orioles hit the clubhouse to wait out a rain-delay in Baltimore, the Sox players had the pleasure of watching the Rays comeback on the New York. Evan Longoria’s grand slam cut the Yankees lead to just 7-6 in the 8th inning. By the time Boston and Baltimore got back on the field to restart their game, they were fully aware Dan Johnson’s solo homer with two outs and two strikes in the bottom of the 9th inning had tied the game for the Rays as it read loud and clear on the Camden Yards scoreboard. So while baseball fans across the country amazed at the Tampa comeback, the Red Sox now were set with even a greater sense of urgency. But urgency wasn’t their problem, pitching was. All season long, despite their fall in September, when the Sox had a lead heading into the 9th inning they’d won the game, not losing one. But America watched closer Jonathan Papelbon give up a two out, two strike game tying double to Nolan Reimold. Then they watched Robert Andino hit the game winning base hit to left, beating Boston 4-3. When the network showing the Boston loss switched back over to the Tampa- New York game, now in the 12th inning, not sooner than three minutes later did everyone see Longoria stroke his second home run of the game for a dramatic 8-7 Tampa Bay walk-off victory giving the Rays the wild-card spot in the American League as the Red Sox loss was posted on the scoreboard. We might not ever see that time of spontaneous baseball drama over three minutes again in our lifetime! It was all courtesy of the wild-card system.

In the National League with the St. Louis Cardinals having wrapped up an 8-0 win over Houston earlier, securing at least a wild-card playoff game against the Braves, baseball fans also got to watch Atlanta meltdown one more time in the 9th inning, blowing a 3-2 lead against Philadelphia before finally falling in 13 innings, 4-3. More wild-card drama, making game day 162, memorable for baseball. Even the teams and their fans with division titles all wrapped up, had to be all wrapped up in the night’s twist and turns. After-all they were affected by the outcomes for their own division series match-ups. Last night proved beyond a doubt, the wild-card system not only works, but adds a bit of October, to baseball’s regular season in the month of September.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

One Game for One Spot

After 161 games baseball has the perfect wild-card scenario! One game each, for four teams to prove their worthiness to continue into the hunt for October. The situation has four cities on the brink of a fandom break down, but on the other hand, with the anticipation of the post-season temping them like hot dogs on a grill or fresh apple pie, hot out of the oven. For four teams four different seasons has brought them all to the same day, tied for the wild-card lead in the National and American Leagues. But the bottom line, one more win can open up all the possibilities the baseball playoffs have to offer.

After losing 19 of their last 25 games down the stretch, the Atlanta Braves will have only themselves to blame should their season come to an end versus the Phillies. This organization is known for falling in the NLCS or World Series, so a wild-card blunder is out of character for the A-T-L. But with another defeat, the tomo-hawk chop turns into one of the greatest tomo-hawk-chokes, in the history of wild-card play! Pitcher Derek Lowe has been a 15 million dollar bust for the Braves, losing all five of his September starts. So the heavy lifting will have to be done by today’s starter Tim Hudson. Huddy is 16-10 this season with a nice earned run average of 3.23. He’ll face Philadelphia starter Joe Blanton, who’s making his first start since May. Advantage… Atlanta.

While the Braves were looking over their shoulders it was the St. Louis Cardinals wings they kept hearing. Tony LaRussa’s squad battled back from a nine-game deficit, winning 17 out of 25 games in the month of September. They reached the mountain-top on Tuesday with a 13-6 comeback win over the Houston Astros, whipping out a 5-0 lead for The Stros in the process. But they still need one more to secure more baseball. Cardinal’s number one Chris Carpenter heads to the hill in Houston today but the challenge will not be easy. Houston starter Brett Myers has only allowed seven runs in his last six starts! But the Cardinals could be the team of destiny in 2011 and their bats will do the talking at Minute Maid Park.

After almost blowing another lead in Baltimore before Jonathan Papelbon secured an 8-7 victory yesterday the Red Sox were almost in a must-win situation today. Check that, they still are in a must-win scenario. Red Sox Nation is certainly ready to witness the worst today the way the end of August and all of September have gone. They’ve blown a nine game wild-card lead in the span of just 23 days. An elimination from the post-season today would surely put this collapse up there in the forefront of Boston sports disappointment lore. Jon Lester is the man who will try to make everyone in New England forget the long winter ahead should the Sox fail against Orioles starter Alfedo Simon. Lester has the most wins for the Sox this season, while Simon has a record of just 4 and 9 with an earned run average of almost five. There is no way in the world Boston should not win. But it was almost impossible to blow a nine-game lead in 23 days but they managed that!

The Tampa Bay Rays have to be the loosest bunch of this wild-card final four. They were left for dead a month ago, until Boston started regurgitating its win total from earlier in the season. With a win the Rays get another crack to be were they shouldn’t considering their payroll and fan support. David Price who won his last outing against the Yankees takes the hill with Tampa’s season on the line. New York will play its everyday line-up and treat Wednesday like a playoff turn-up. But is that really possible? No way will the Yankees care as much about the season finale as the Rays do, nor will they play like the season is on the line the way the Rays will. Tampa has no fear of New York or the moment, considering their season should have been over a long time ago. Expect the Price to be right today at Tropicana Field.

Oh and by the way, if both the Braves and Cards both win or lose…. And likewise with the Sox and Rays…. There will be a one-game playoff on Thursday between the pairs! Now that’s a wild thought!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

What a Wild Ride!

Some of the best music ever made has been titled with the word, “wild” in it. Of course there’s “Wild Thing” by The Troggs in 1966. How about “Born to Be Wild”, of course a Steppenwolf staple from 1967. The 70’s brought us “Wild World” by Cat Stevens and who can forget Tone Loc’s “Wild Thing” from 1988. The best sports adaptation in relation to the word, without a doubt has become baseball’s wild card race! In both the National and American League’s, six teams all find their playoff fate resting over the final week of the season. Now what could be wilder than that?

For the Atlanta Braves the wild ride is about over unfortunately. The Braves have been on a downward spiral for the last 20 games, losing 13 of those. They owned a 10 and a half game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals in the wild-card standings back on August 25th. That advantage has now dwindled to just one and a half, with six games to play. Atlanta now must finish the season with three games at Washington, then host baseball’s best team the Phillies for the final weekend of the season, not good. The Cardinals have been able to tomo-hawk chop the Braves lead because they have flat out caught fire! Tony LaRussa’s bunch has won a remarkable, 19 of 25 games since August the 25th. They also have the easiest schedule remaining with just one left today at Busch Stadium against the sub-.500 Mets and then they host the Cubs for three before finishing the season at lowly Houston on the final weekend. The Red Birds will most-likely be signing a post-season fight song at the end of the week! Their biggest competition for the spot might be moving up on their shoulder in the defending World Champion Giants. All of a sudden, they’ve won nine of ten and find themselves just three and a half back of the Braves, two behind the Cards. San Francisco has the best pitching out of the three contenders but must still play one game versus the Dodgers today and then three at National League West eventual champion Arizona. Should the Giants still be hanging around over the final weekend, they get three at home against the banged up Colorado Rockies and that will end up a sweep. The champs won’t go down without a fight but this race is the Cardinals to fly away with!

On the American side it’s boo-hoo time in Bean town! Not only are the Red Sox hanging on for their dear life but face it, they don’t deserve a playoff position after the September they’ve recorded in the books. The Sox have dropped 16 of the last 21 games! Talk about a free-fall. Not that long ago, they actually were the East leader over the Yankees and now just two and a half games separate Boston from both Tampa Bay and The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. To make matters worse the Red Sox now have to deal with The Bombers in the Bronx for three and then head to Baltimore for the final weekend of the season. Six games left but who can they turn to? Even ace Josh Beckett got beat yesterday as he succumb to the pressure, blowing a late lead at Fenway Park. Boston held a nine-game lead back on September 3rd over Tampa Bay. While they try to tune out all the talk of choking in their locker room by the media, The Angels certainly aren’t on their side. The Los Angeles Angels of course is to whom I’m referring. The Orange County crew has captured 12 of their last 19 games because that potent line-up is starting help out Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and Erving Santana on the hill. The Halos have the best combination of starting pitching and run production out of the three teams in the race. They end their series with the Jays today in Toronto before finishing the year at the Big A with three against Oakland and three against a Texas team who will already have clinched the division. You have to love the Angels remaining schedule as an advantage to them catching and passing Boston and Tampa. Speaking of the Rays, what a run they’ve made but you don’t get to make playoff travel plans for a nice effort. After thumping Boston all around in six head to head games the past week and a half, they’ve now dropped three straight and still have to play the Yankees four more times. Momentum does not seem to be on their side and neither is their ability to score runs with New York or the Angels. If they were playing Boston for another set in the final week, you’d have to like their chances but they’re not. So what a wild fall it could be for the Sox and a wild rally for the Angels. We can only hope, if baseball’s post-season is anything like its wild-card finishes, then the wild ride has just begun!
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Friday, September 16, 2011

RED SOX NATION ON HIGH ALERT!

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The last time New Englanders were this nervous, Paul Revere was riding around shouting, “The British are coming, the British are coming”! In 2011, there is a tropical storm know as The Tampa Bay Rays that has just landed on the shores of Massachusetts.

For the majority of the season, the Red Sox have either led the American League East or been the wild-card leader. Well, they’re still the wild-card leader but that lead isn’t much to smile about these days if you’re a member of Red Sox Nation.

Just two weeks ago, Boston’s lead over the Rays was nine games back on September 3rd. The Red Sox were riding high, in first place over the Yankees and Tampa was an after thought. But the dog days of August passed and a September swoon has hit Fenway Park! Boston is a pitiful 3-11 this month and has watched the Bronx Bombers pull away in the division. But the bigger problem is now the Rays rest just three games behind and Boston is in serious danger of choking away its wild-card position and the post season!

Just how serious has it gotten? Well Tampa stung the Sox last weekend in Florida, sweeping a three-game set. Last night in Boston, Jeremy Hellickson led the Rays to a 9-2 win, surrendering just three hits and one run in 5 and 2/3rd innings for the win. That was just game one of a four game series this weekend in Beantown! The Rays could actually roll from Yawkey Way with the wild-card race tied if they can sweep! A month ago this would have been unheard of! It’s certainly not out of the question either, considering Tampa has won 10 of the 15 head to head games against the Sox this season. Trying to ease the minds and souls of the Boston faithful tomorrow will be ace Josh Beckett. He returns from an ankle injury but is scheduled to start against Tampa’s James Shields who just beat Boston last weekend at Tropicana Field.

So with a three game lead and just 13 games left to play the numbers still favor Boston don’t they? Not really. The Sox are hitting just .178 against Tampa Bay pitching. That’s the lowest total for a Red Sox team against any opponent, playing at least ten times in 65 years! At Fenway Park that number gets lower to the tune of .162. So besides just hitting the baseball, what else is ailing the Sox? How about back spasms to Big Papi, a sports hernia and bursitis in his left hip that Kevin Youkilis is trying to play through. Beckett has the twisted right ankle and Adrian Gonzalez is dealing with a bad leg. Not the way you envision the end of a season leading to a playoff run. But there is one saving grace for Boston fans ready to take a walk and a leap off the upper deck of the Tobin Bridge into the Mystic River to end it all: the New York Yankees. While the Red Sox play the Baltimore Orioles in seven of their last ten games after the Rays series, Tampa faces the Bronx Bombers in seven of their final ten games. Four of those meetings come at Yankee Stadium as well. So the schedule favors Boston, no matter what happens the rest of this weekend. But if the Red Sox don’t find a way to beat Tampa or start winning some games in the month of September, it won’t matter who the Rays finish the year against. The Orioles will be playing the final days with nothing to lose, kind of the same thing Tampa was doing just a few weeks ago!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Six horse race is down to 2

September’s stretch run in the majors has come down to just two division races that leave something for the imagination. The American League east is once again another race to the finish between the Yankees and Red Sox. But even that race is no fight to the death as both teams will make the post-season, with the loser of the east counting on winning the wild-card spot in the American League. New York has weathered a Boston run to own a two and a half game lead by putting together eight wins over their last ten games. While C.C. Sabathia is once again a Cy Young candidate, with Ivan Nova and Freddie Garcia putting together double-digit win seasons on the mound, The Bronx Bombers sit on top because they do just that, bomb away at the plate! Not even the Phillies offense is close to what the Yankees have done in terms of run differential in 2011. New York has scored 209 runs more this season than it has given up. Boston is second in this statistic but trail the Yanks by over 40 runs. That’s saying a lot about the power of the New York line-up. The bombers have eight players in their line-up with double-digit home runs! That is ridiculous considering Alex Rodriguez; maybe their best power hitter has been hurt for a good portion of the second half of the season. Boston’s three top starters with double-digit wins, Josh Beckett-12, Jon Lester-15 and John Lackey-12, have all given up plenty of long balls as well. This doesn’t bode well for the fight to the division title as the two teams meet up just three more times at Fenway Park. Somehow Boston has won 11 out of the 16 head to head match-ups this year, but New York still leads the division. You just have to figure with the ferociousness of the Yankee offensive attack, should they meet up in the post-season, the run scoring production of the pinstripers, will be too much for the sox to overcome.

The American League west has suddenly become a showdown at the O.K. Corral between the Angels and Rangers. This race has a lot more at stake because the loser will be watching in October. Like the Yankees – Red Sox, the Rangers have produced a run differential number that is hard to ignore. The Texas offense has nearly outscored its opponents by one hundred more runs than the Angels. But this head to head match-up is almost even at 9-7 Rangers. Like Boston, the Halos top pitchers are starting to show some strain. Jered Weaver, Edwin Santana and Dan Haren have all had to throw recently on shorter rest and its show in their performances. Pitch counts are high for all three at the end of the season, but manager Mike Scioscia really has no choice. When one of those three starters are on the bump, the Angels are 56-36. If not, the record is an ugly 25-29. Those numbers won’t catch the defending A.L. Champs down the stretch run. Texas right now is hanging on with one major advantage besides its offense. Manager Ron Washington seems to be able to turn to any of his five starters and receive a quality start, or least a performance to give him a chance to win. C.J. Wilson, Matt Harrison, Alexi Ogando, Derrick Holland and Colby Lewis have all notched double digit wins. Another Ranger plus, they’ve been there before. Last season’s victory over the Yankees and World Series appearance no doubt is going a long way in the confidence department. These two squads play each other three more times in the final three games of the season. The Angels can only hope to hang around long enough to make it come down to that!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Cy Young award anyone's race in the NL but AL is all but engraved

Baseball’s Cy Young races have become about as different as striking out the side and a bases loaded walk. On the national side the top dogs keep switching the top spot with a chance for any of four hurlers to take home the hardware. In the American League there is one arm that continues to separate himself, from the rest of the competition and the league in general.

Out of the contenders in the National League, Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw plays for the worst team, that gives him the least amount of run support. But that didn’t stop him early in the season and it’s only made him stronger during the dog days of August. In his last 13 starts dating back to June, the Los Angeles ace has been simply awesome! How does a 10-2 record with a 1.65 era sound? He’s fanned 105 hitters in just 98 innings while walking just 19. He has averaged at least 7 and a third innings per start over that stretch, not allowing an earned run in six of those starts. But he hasn’t just come on since June. Prior to that, he posted a 6-3 record while only surrendering an era of 2.62. All this, on a Dodgers squad that only recently hit its hottest streak of the season, winning 11 of its last 15 games. Kershaw is the National League front-runner despite any debate.

Not far behind of course is Philadelphia’s Roy Halladay. At 16-5 with an earned run average of 2.47 for the season, Kershaw can feel the right-handers breath on the back of his neck he’s so close. While the numbers are comparable one advantage the Phillies number one does have is the way he’s performed in that little league field known as Citizen’s Bank Park. Without a doubt Halladay pitches his home games in a hitter-friendly stadium but it hasn’t blown his numbers up. A disadvantage compared to Kershaw, he plays for the better team by far. They score more runs, play better defense and the Philadelphia bull-pin despite the injuries is far superior to the Dodgers. But neither of these guys has needed much help in 2011.

Getting himself back in the conversation is Philadelphia teammate Cliff Lee. He’s August has been the best in baseball in either league! The left-hander posted a record of 5-0 with an earned run average of 0.58! That is an amazing statistic. It’s similar to his June performance of 5-0, allowing just one run in 42 innings of work. So your asking, why isn’t he the front-runner? Well his July was rocky at best; as he lost three out of five and surrendered 39 runs in just 33 innings pitched. But is 15-7 mark continues to pick up steam.

The odd man out in the National League now is the San Francisco freak, Tim Lincecum. Despite his record of 12-11 which in the most part is the fault of his teammates lacking ability to score runs, he was right in the mix. Before his last start against the Chicago Cubs, the two-time defending National League Cy Young winner had given up just eight runs over his last nine starts. Now the Giants won six of those games, while scoring only 19 runs, that’s how good Lincecum was in that stretch. But on August 29th, the Cubbies roped him for six hits in six innings of work with four earned runs. Lincecum was also lit up for three homers in a game for the first time in his career. Add in the Giants fall to six games back in the West and his bid for a third straight award is all but over.
The American League leader hasn’t had any meltdowns, bad months or injuries for that matter. Detroit’s Justin Verlander has been on a mission since opening day. He sports a major league best 20-5 record, with a 2.38 era, just as smidge higher than the Angels Jered Weaver. Besides wins, he’s the American League leader in strikeouts with 218 and quality starts, 26 of 29 possible. Oh did I forget to mention he threw a no-hitter back in May and how about an 11-1 record against division opponents. He is the reason for the Tigers dominance in the American League Central, which now makes him a complete most valuable player candidate. With that talk surfacing in the American League, no way he doesn’t win the Cy Young unless he completely falls apart in September. Don’t hold you breathe, that’s for hitters in the American League stepping to the plate at Comerica Park when Verlander is on the mound.




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