Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Wild Wild West(s)


Does anyone really think the Orioles are going to catch the Yankees in the American League East? I didn’t think so. What about those doubts the red-hot Detroit Tigers, winners of six in a row and seven of their last ten; aren’t going to overtake the Chicago White Sox in the A.L. Central. Not many are there? In the National League the Washington Nationals have owned the east for months now. Unless they suffer severe injuries in crunch time, the experience of the Atlanta Braves will not matter down the stretch for the division title. In the N.L. Central no one expected Pittsburgh to maintain the top spot for the entire season. Cincinnati despite dropping three straight, rolled off eleven wins in a row before hand, taking control and most likely will not look back. So that leaves us with two races to talk about and although they are not the wild-cards, which undoubtedly will come down to the final days of the regular season, they are indeed wild!

Surprisingly in the American League West, we are looking at a three team race and not a two-team battle. The Oakland A’s were the talk of the post all-star break after rattling off a July to remember. To start the 2nd half of the season Oakland pounded out a record of 13-4 heading into August, not to mention winning 12 of 14 at one point. But these are the A’s and we’ve been to this party before. Starts out strong then all the hot babes leave early for the next spot! That could be happening again to Oakland. Five and a half games out of first place behind Texas is certainly in the mix but it doesn’t appear to be lasting long. Heading into Tuesday, the A’s found themselves losers of three straight and six of their last ten before a much needed win over the third place Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Over the last 30 days, Cuban superstar Yoenis Cespedes has been the only player able to keep a post-season deserving, type of performance going. In his last 23 games he’s hitting .412 with five homers and 19 runs batted in. His counterpart Josh Reddick who had basically carried Oakland in the first half has cooled off tremendously. He crushed the ball to a tune of .268 with 20 homers and 43 rbis early. He also added 84 hits while scoring 52 runs. He was basically Oakland’s most valuable player up to that point. Since the break his averaged has dropped to .226. In the last 23 games and 93 at bats he has managed just 21 hits with 13 rbis. The pitching has declined as well. Only A.J. Griffin has three wins over the last month while ace Bartolo Colon is just 2-1 in his last five starts. Both Tommy Milone and Jarrod Parker are posting ERAs of over five in the last 30 days and closer Ryan Cook has only converted three of his last seven save opportunities. While the A’s and their money saving ways have produced an exciting product on a severe budget, their lack of experience appears to be catching up. Youth can only get you so far and Oakland has probably peeked out a little early in terms of winning the division. However the wild-card is without a doubt a possibility. The team they’re chasing in the division, Texas and the one closing in, the Angels are rich in experience and talent. L.A. Ace Jered Weaver just keeps on getting better as the season progresses. To open up the latest series between the Angels and A’s the right-hander rolled to a four hit shutout of Oakland for his league leading 15th victory. We can’t forget it was also the Angels who made maybe the biggest move of the trade deadline grabbing Zack Grienke from Milwaukee to solidify their starting rotation. Between Weaver, Grienke and lefty C.J. Wilson, (9-8 with an ERA of 3.34) it’s the Angels not the Texas Rangers or A’s with the top three pitchers in their rotation. This usually tends to pay off in September. Slugger Albert Pujols after arguably the worst start to a season in his career is now back in superstar form. Pujols was just named as the American League’s Player of the Week. He batted .424 with five doubles, six home runs, 13 rbis and nine runs scored in seven games played. That week helped boost his overall stats to 24 homers, 76 rbis with a batting average of .285. Here is the thing about the Angels though. Those numbers aren’t even the best in their line-up! Outfielder Mark Trumbo has crushed 28 dingers with 76 rbis and is hitting .289. Centerfielder Mike Trout has become the unanimous American League choice for rookie of the year. He’s roped 20 homers and driven home 60 runs. The speedster has also stolen 36 bases. Although Los Angeles dropped the final two games of a four game split at Texas at the end of July, it’s the Angels that have the more dangerous overall line-up with five players belting double-digit homers. Expect a big push from this squad to close in on the two-time defending American League Champions despite the fact they sit six games out in the division, as of this writing. The Rangers are the team to beat but their thrown is on shaky ground. The biggest news surrounding the Rangers as of late is not what they’ve done on the field but what they did off of it. At the very end of the trade deadline, Texas was able to pick up right-handed pitcher Ryan Dempster in a deal with the Chicago Cubs. That move paid dividends on Tuesday night as Dempster tossed 6 and 2/3rds innings, allowing six hits and just one walk in a 6-3 win over the Boston Red Sox. The three runs he gave up were all unearned as he improved his Rangers record to 1-1. The win stopped the bleeding of a two game losing streak for Texas. As they close out their series in Boston, things then get real tough as the Rangers travel home to face red-hot Detroit for three and then head to the Bronx to deal with the New York Yankees. Offense is not the problem with the Rangers nor has it been during their reign atop the American League. They still have six players with double-digit home runs and eight posting impressive RBI totals. But their pitching is not nearly as solid as the previous two seasons. With Colby Lewis now done for the year with a torn flexor tendon, Texas is lacking a true ace. Matt Harrison leads the staff with 13 wins against six losses but after that it gets thin quick. Newcomer Yu Darvish has been effective in his first season putting up an 11 and 8 record, as of August 8th. But he’s dropped four of his last six starts and seen his ERA rise from 3.59 to 4.57. Walks continue to be a major issue as he given up 74 free passes in 134 innings this season. After that, Derek Holland’s 9-7 mark is the best they got as Roy Oswalt’s struggles have landed him in the bull-pin. The Rangers offense is capable of winning games on its own, as they proved in the final two victories of their last series versus the Angles, both comebacks of 11-10 and 15-9. But in the upcoming dog days of August, without consistent arms to control the opposition, their six game lead is the west is going to disappear before we even get to September. Not to mention you can’t forget, they still have seven head to head battles to play against the Angels.

On the National League side you can flip a coin, pick a number or even draw straws! The three team race between the Giants, Dodgers and Diamondbacks appears to have no rhyme or reason to it what so ever. The last two weeks watched the Dodgers sweep the Giants in impressive fashion at AT&T Park, only to have Arizona come to Dodger Stadium and do the same to Los Angeles. The D-backs then hit the road for Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, dropping three of four before picking up a win on Tuesday night. The Giants lead the division by just a game and a half over Los Angeles with Arizona trailing by four and appear to have the easiest schedule over the last two months with more home games than either the Dodgers or Diamondbacks. But these three teams still play each other a combined 28 times so no lead will most likely be safe heading into the final week of the regular season. Without a doubt it was the Dodgers and General Manager Ned Colletti who put in the most work and got the most done by the trade-deadline. Los Angeles’ biggest move was the deal for infielder Hanley Ramirez. The three-time all-star has already paid dividends with a game winning two-run homer at San Francisco to open that series, along with two other game winning hits in his two weeks of wearing Dodger Blue. Colletti also added relievers Brandon League and Randy Choate to the bull-pin to strengthen what has been one of the best pins in baseball overall. The final piece to the puzzle the Dodgers are hoping was the edition of outfielder Shane Victorino to the line-up just hours before the deadline hit. He brings a legitimate lead-off hitter and defensive player to left which is what Los Angeles had been lacking. However even with those moves the Dodgers have watched their offense sputter and remain inconsistent. After the beating they gave the Giants at spacious AT&T Park, scoring five, ten and four runs to win the series, they went cold at home versus the Diamondbacks plating just four runs in three nights. They then rallied to sweep the Chicago Cubs at Chavez Ravine scoring 16 total runs in the series, only to drop the first two games of their current home series against the terrible Colorado Rockies, getting just one run across in two games against the worst starting rotation in all of baseball. The pitching continues to improve for the Dodgers with Chad Billingsly winning his last three starts and Clayton Kershaw rounding into CY Young form again. They also added strike thrower Joe Blanton into the mix getting him off waivers from Philadelphia. He pitched well but received a no-decision in his first start during the Chicago series. For Los Angeles consistency will be the key. If they can find it over the last month and a half of the season they should win the division. They have the most talent on paper and still face the Giants nine times with six coming at Chavez Ravine; along with six more against Arizona with four of those at home. It’s the other series against sub-500 teams the Dodgers must worry about. That’s when their focus seems to drift. While San Francisco holds a small lead they too have proven to be an up and down squad. Matt Cain (10-5), Madison Bumgarner (12-6) and Ryan Vogelsong (9-5) continue to put quality starts to together giving the Giants a chance to win usually when either of the three takes the hill. But the decline of Tim Lincecum has come at a big price. The two-time CY Young winner’s 6-11 record has brought the pitching staff back to earth as he and Barry Zito seem to take turns struggling with every other start. Maybe the biggest obstacle San Francisco has had to overcome is the loss of closer Brian Wilson who went down early in the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Neither Santiago Casilla nor Sergio Romo has been a consistent answer to Wilson’s closing ability. What San Francisco does have going for it is the season-long hitting of Melky Cabrera. The milk-man leads the majors with 152 hits while putting up an average of .353. That offense has also received a boost from Buster Posey. The all-star catcher who ended his 2011 season early due to an ankle injury appears to now be all the way back. His 18 homers and 73 rbis lead the Giants offense. But it’s beyond those two where the problems of inconsistency lie for San Francisco. They too like the Dodgers can go through offensive droughts not scoring enough runs to support their pitching. It hasn’t helped that Pablo Sandoval suffered another injury, this one to his hamstring and is back on the disabled list. After those three players the Giants become very mediocre offensively and definitely have a smaller margin for error than Los Angeles does. The wild-card for the Giants is will the other five position players be able to produce once Sandoval returns? If they don’t, San Francisco will find itself relaying on winning one of the wild-card spots to make the post-season. Arizona is definitely the dark horse is the N.L. West. At one point the D-backs appeared to be fading from the race, falling as far back as nine games in June. But that was June and Arizona has hung in there. The reason they’re only four back is because their offense in that hitter’s park has started to find its bite! Paul Goldschmidt suddenly has 16 home runs with 56 rbis and is hitting .308. Aaron Hill has caught fire lacing 13 long balls with 47 runs batted in. Miguel Montero also has gotten hot driving home 66 runners while Jason Kubel has set the pace. 23 homers with 73 runs batted in and an average of .280 has given Arizona a dominant force in the line-up to fear. At the trade deadline the Diamondbacks picked up Chris Johnson in a trade from the Astros and it has been arguably the quietest and most productive acquisition among the big three teams in the west. Johnson has pounded five homers in just eight games since his arrival. The D-backs have won five of those eight games. Where the Diamondbacks will come up short, at least as far as the division is concerned is pitching. Wade Miley has been superb at 12-7 overall with an ERA of just 2.85, almost as good as anyone in the N.L. this year. But after that Ian Kennedy’s 10-8 mark is as good as it gets. Trevor Cahill continues to be spotty at best, rotating wins and losses over his last eight starts. In a division where both the Giants and Dodgers have superior starting pitching overall, the D-backs might have the most consistent offense at least in early August, as shown by their run differential of plus 44. Far better than the San Francisco’s plus 15 ratio; or the Dodgers plus 11. But on paper both of their line-ups have a better chance of combining great pitching with powerful and timely offense and that’s why Arizona will be the odd man out with Los Angeles winning the division followed by the Giants who will land one of the wild card spots in the National League. But in the Wild West about the only thing known for sure is the race will come down to the final week!

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