Saturday, April 21, 2012

Perfection and Disaster Coincide Giving Baseball an Early Lift

A stellar 24-hours of baseball began with a star-studded, Hollywood-esque birthday party for Fenway Park as the Red Sox (and Yankees) celebrated the historic landmark's centennial. The festivities were all flash and no substance as New York handily beat Boston 6-2, the visitors leaving not as much as a party favor for the host team. As many of us watched pitcher Felix Dubront and the Red Sox seemingly redeeming themselves by ripping the Yankees a new one with a 9-0 lead in the fifth inning in the second game of the series, perhaps we assumed Boston had the game in hand, playing at home and using Fenway's birthday blowout from the day before as some added motivation. When Mark Teixeira hit a solo home run in the sixth inning putting the Yankees on the scoreboard 9-1, barely an eyelash was batted. Still a 9-1 ballgame in the seventh inning, before any of us had time to contemplate a New York comeback, Fox switched it's live coverage over to the White Sox game in Seattle as a perfect game was in the making. Those of us watching live were lucky enough to catch the last few outs as White Sox pitcher Phil Humbert threw a perfect game, only the 21st such feat in the history of major league baseball. The last perfect game was thrown by the Phillies' Roy Halladay back in 2010. The drama unfolding on the television was palpable at home on the couch as perfection seemed to be in jeopardy when Michael Saunders, leading off for the Mariners in the ninth, got ahead in the count 3-0. The 29-year-old righty remained composed, coming back from the deficit to eventually strike out Saunders en route to a masterful perfect game. What ended as a joyous, historic occasion marked by the Mariners home crowd giving the visiting pitcher a raucous roar and standing ovation in Seattle morphed into a historic swing of a different kind across the country in Boston. A mere 11 minutes after Fox completely switched its coverage, taking the White Sox-Mariners game full-screen, the network returned to Fenway Park where the game was still in the top of the seventh inning, yet the scoreboard looked noticeably different. In those 11 minutes, the Boston bullpen allowed New York to load the bases giving Nick Swisher ample opportunity to hit a grand slam, which is exactly what he did. The comeback was officially on as Swisher's slam put a dent in the lead (9-5), but no, the Yankees didn't stop there. A three-run homer from Teixeira put the Yankees right back in the game as the visitors had clawed their way out of a 9-0 hole, scoring seven runs in the seventh inning, trailing only by one run, 9-8. I'm sure you know where this is going. Things only worsened for the home team in the eighth inning as the Yankees scored ANOTHER SEVEN RUNS to complete an epic comeback. The dichotomy of Humber's perfection in Seattle and the perfect storm resulting in Boston's unfathomable collapse was an emotionally bipolar experience. Contrary to popular East Coast-belief, the entire universe doesn't care about your average Yankees-Red Sox series. If you don't live out East, aren't a fan of either team, or aren't a baseball nut, a New York-Boston series a few weeks into the regular season isn't that enticing. But a comeback from a 9-0 deficit is. And so is a perfect game, no matter the name or face of the pitcher. On one hand, we saw nine strikeouts, five groundouts and 13 flyouts on 96 pitches, good for a 4-0 White Sox win and perfect game, dog pile and gatorade bath included. On the other hand, we watched the Yankees score a mind-boggling 15 runs in 23 at bats leaving the crowd ruthlessly booing the home team and its new manager Bobby Valentine. After the layers of cheering teammates were peeled off from on top of him, Humber was quickly ushered to the dugout area and a headset draped atop his head as the world was ready to hear from the pitcher immediately following his dominating display. Shaking and unable to grasp what he had just accomplished, Humber, coming off of Tommy John surgery, told the television audience, "I'm just so happy. There are so many good things that are happening right now…I've got a little boy on the way, I just want to say hi to my wife back home, and you know I love you baby. That's for you." Humber altered the record books, his performance the 18th no-hitter in White Sox franchise history and the third perfect game for Chicago. A few thousand miles away, the scene at Fenway couldn't have been more opposite as the heinous loss dropped the Red Sox to 4-10 on the season leaving those in the New England region frowning while those in Chicago, and even Seattle, smiled. The Yankees 15-9 victory also required a re-write of the record book as it marked the fifth time in franchise history in which New York has overcame a 9-run deficit, the third time against Boston alone. The last time the Sox surrendered a nine-run lead to the Yanks came in June, 1987. Saturday's game tied the biggest comeback in Yankees history as well. The pitching line for the Boston bullpen? 3 IP, 12 H, 14 R, 13 ER, 5 BB, 2 K. YIKES. Reports out of Boston claim a closed-door meeting with Valentine, GM Ben Cherington and team owner John Henry took place after the game. The knockout combo of a perfect game and epic failure couldn't be more perfect for the game of baseball at this moment as the start of the season had yet to deliver substantial drama. Ironically, the Red Sox were the first team to provide any real regular season intrigue as Valentine got the pot to a slow boil after publicly criticizing Kevin Youkilis, but that was small potatoes compared to Saturday's stunner. The fire and ice we experienced Saturday left fans wanting more, which is exactly the kickstart baseball needed in April.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Observations of the first step of the marathon

Has hell officially frozen over? One might think so with the Dodgers, Nationals and Mets boasting the first, third and fourth best records in all of baseball, respectively. Making some sense at least are the Rangers with the second-best record in the league, but with the Orioles leading the AL East, something is definitely fishy in the majors right now.

I know it's hard for some of you east coasters to keep your cool right now, but seriously Yankees and Red Sox fans, we're not even 10 games into the season so please wait at least another month before you completely lose it.

Most season previews and Power Rankings I viewed at the conclusion of spring training predicted the Dodgers would be down in the dumps this year (yet again) but I disagreed and said as much in my own MLB season preview. Luckily, the boys in blue are making me look good as Los Angeles not only has the best record in baseball at 8-1, but that number is good for the Dodgers best start since starting the 1981 season at 9-1…a season that resulted in a World Series championship for L.A.

While the broke (see: Frank McCourt) and seemingly broke down Dodgers appeared to be devoid of any expectations from the national media or the public, that other team across the 405 freeway. with all its glitz and glam, was facing the exact opposite situation with the addition of bazillion-dollar off-season acquisitions Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson.

In a bizarre reversal of fortune, the Dodgers are getting all of the praise while the now Pujols-led Angels (3-5) are bringing up the rear in not only their own division but the Halos are also near the bottom of the entire American League as well.

There is no real battle for L.A. at the moment - the Angels don't even play in Los Angeles County, much less L.A. city proper, so, there's that - as this isn't a fair fight based on the Dodgers early dominance.

Matt Kemp picked up right where he left off as the NL-MVP runner up leads the majors with five home runs, 15 RBI and a .457 batting average. The center fielder isn't the only hot hand at Chavez Ravine as right fielder Andre Ethier is close on Kemp's heels with three home runs and 14 RBI, good for second-best in the league.

Now, to the downside. Yes, there is a downside. It's called the Padres and Pirates.

That's who the Dodgers have amassed an 8-1 record against. The Padres and the Pirates. Yikes.

It's hard to take anyone seriously as a contender after the first nine of 162 games in a regular season but it's also harder to give a team props when their "strong start" comes against two of the worst teams in baseball (thus far).

As for the new-look Angels, the boo-birds are already out making a stink about signing Pujols to a 10-year, $240M contract. Along with the three-time NL MVP came Wilson, the lefty who carried a hefty $77.5M price tag of his own.

The 31-year-old Pujols is off to to a S-L-O-W start, hitting an underwhelming .250 with only three RBI and not a hint of a home run in his repertoire . Fear not though Angels fans because the team is strong without Pujols, as proven by Anaheim's 7-1 spanking of the Yankees in the Bronx on Saturday.

Remember how Boston's big bat David Ortiz was hammered by the media during his slow start over the last few seasons? The Red Sox slugger routinely struggled for the first month of the season before warming up and regaining his typical good form in the batter's box.

Pujols said after the Angels' Friday loss to the Yankees, "I'm a human. Sometimes you want to press a little bit and try to do too much." Slumps are often times mental and have nothing to do with physical pain or problems. Signing a contract of this magnitude surely put enormous pressure on Pujols' shoulders and it's showing early.

This wouldn't be the first time Pujols found himself in a pickle. In the final year of his contract with the Cardinals - without an extension in sight - Pujols was hitting .143 through the first 30 at bats last season. How did that wind up for St. Louis? Exactly.

Much like the role reversal of the Mets and Yankees in New York for the time being, L.A. has the potential to be the baseball capital of the country this season.

It's too early to crown anyone king of anything, so lets regroup after 30 games to reexamine Kemp and Kershaw vs. Pujols and Wilson. After all, what purpose would either team serve in SoCal without any Hollywood drama? Sit back, and enjoy the show.

Monday, April 9, 2012

MLB Season Preview

The 2012 baseball season has its work cut out for it as 2011 delivered twists and turns from the very start, providing all kinds of drama and excitement all the way to down the last, possible day of the MLB season, with game 7 of the World Series.

If 2012 can give us even half of madness (and chicken and beer) that we got last season, we'll all be in for quite a treat. The new season has already brought plenty of change in the form of brand new ballparks to managers and players alike in different uniforms, which is just enough to get us excited for the beginning of what can at times, feel like an endless season.

But with the new, comes the old, more-of-the-same cast of characters who never seem to let the little guys in the game. Let's take a look at the top 10 teams listed by ESPN's Power Rankings:

1. Yankees (Color me shocked)
2. Rangers (Oooh, what a bold choice!)
3. Angels ($240 million… for ONE guy)
4. Tigers (Verlander, Cabrera and Filder, oh my!)
5. Rays (Props for ranking the Rays ahead of the Sox)
6. Red Sox (The talent is there, but does this roster have the heart? How will they handle Bobby Valentine?)
7. Diamondbacks (Reigning NL West champs)
8. Phillies (Always in the hunt with this roster & rotation)
9. Cardinals (No Pujols? No problem, according to many analysts as St. Louis is still strong on many levels)
10. Giants (He's baaaack!!! Losing Buster Posey on opening day last season sucked. The kid is a difference maker)

As you can see, all of the usual suspects top ESPN's list and on paper, yes, these teams should all be playoff contenders with the addition of a second wild-card in each league as a part of the expansion of the post-season.

But the real fun comes with the surprises, the teams that, every few years, shouldn't make it into the playoffs, but miraculously do, as we saw with both the Rays and Cardinals last year. The difference is that neither Tampa nor St. Louis is an underdog so even though the suspense of the playoffs being decided by the last game of the regular season was riveting, the "lovable loser" factor was missing.

Well, the Tigers pulled it off, taking the Yankees to a full five games in the ALDS and winning the series. Remember when the Twins won the AL Central on the last day of the regular season back in 2006? That was the first day of the season in which they alone led the division… the last day of the season. They made for a good underdog, although the Cinderella was short lived as Minnesota lost to the Oakland A's in the ALDS.

But that's the kind of thing we want to see. The best we can expect is to wind up with the unexpected. Can you imagine if the Royals made the playoffs? Speaking of which, let's continue with the rest of ESPN's Power Rankings and see if we can find any silver linings amongst the anticipated middle-of-the-road and seller dwellers of the league.

11. Marlins (What's not to like? The Marlins got quite the makeover, including a colorful new logo to match the personality of the squad's new Skipper, Ozzie Guillen. Oh ya, there's a guy named Hanley Ramirez on the roster too…)
12. Blue Jays (Analysts are singing praises about these birds from the north as the Blue Jays offense, led by Jose Bautista has potential.)
13. Brewers (I'm still wondering how leaving pee in a cup in some dude's refrigerator for the weekend explains off-the-charts levels of testosterone.)
14. Braves (If they can keep injuries to a minimum and squander a massive lead down the stretch, Atlanta certainly has a chance.)
15. Reds (Despite losing closer Ryan Madson for the year, the dynamic duo of Joey Votto and Jay Bruce will keep the machine running in Cincinnati.)
16. Nationals (Stephen Strasburg needs to prove his worth and hopefully we'll get a glimpse of Bryce Harper. Then again, if the Nats have to bring Harper up, that probably means they are in trouble.)
17. Indians (If Ubaldo Jimenez can get back on track and help the rotation, that would be a good start as Cleveland needs a big chunk of the roster - ie: Asdrubal Cabrera and Carlos Santana - to step it up if this team wants to contend.)
18. Rockies (The pitching staff is…. wait…If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all.)
19. Dodgers (Clayton Kershaw, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Dee Brown, James Loney. In his second year as manager, Don Mattingly should be able to capitalize on a roster comprised of top-notch talent and "unknowns" who have potential.)
20. White Sox (Boy, it's going to be a rough one on the South Side of Chicago. The Sox just don't have the pieces of the puzzle to be competitive season, plus, no Ozzie to at least keep us entertained from time to time.)
21. Royals (Pundits claim the Royals have some of the best prospects around, but until those guys make it to the majors and find success, the team is in trouble. KC did sign a group of young guns from the farm system in the off season, so we'll see how they fare this year.)
22. Twins (Should Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau stay healthy, it probably wont be enough to overcome Minnesota's pitching woes.)
23. Pirates (Yet another team touted for its young, talented roster. The Pirates led the NL Central for a time last year, so I'm sayin there's a chance!)
24. Cubs (We've seen Theo Epstein work his magic before. He did it with the Red Sox, so his tenure with the Cubbies should at the very least keep us intrigued this season.)
25. Mariners (It's a shame that players as tremendous as Felix Hernandez and Ichiro Suzuki don't have much to work with. Supposedly this roster has hope, but I'll believe it when I see it.)

As for the bottom five, I can't really disagree with ESPN's rankings and thus unable to find many redeeming words. Sorry guys, I hope you all prove the naysayers wrong and surprise us!

26. Padres (Young prospects. The Padres lost a LOT when they let go of Mat Latos and Adrian Gonzalez but with the loss came plenty of hope for the future. Not sure how long it will take before San Diego has anything to show for shipping those guys out of town.)
27. Mets (Unfortunately, my crystal ball seems to malfunction and crash anytime I say "Mets," or any word that sounds similar. I wonder if that's a bad omen?)
28. Orioles (I hear Camden Yards is the best ballpark in America…)
29. Oakland (Hopefully the sideshow that is Manny Ramirez will eventually make it up to the majors, even if to just put some butts in the seats in Oakland.)
30. Astros (When your best pitcher has a career record of 73-75, and a 4.05 ERA, the team is in deep trouble. I hope they can find a way to make their last season in the NL bearable before making the switch to the AL next season.)
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