Seeing as how this is their 49th trip to the postseason, it should come as little surprise that there are only six franchises (besides themselves) that the Yankees have never played in the postseason–if, of course, you’re not surprised that there are even that many. Recent history, however, suggests that they’ll soon be seeing one of those six; namely, the Tampa Bay Rays.
I’m sure you all know that only one team has forced a Game 7 after trailing a best-of-7 series 3 games to 0, and that that team, the 2004 Boston Red Sox, won Game 7. But what about teams that have rallied from a 2-0 hole to force Game 5 in a best-of-5 series, such as the Rays have done this year? The Rays are the eleventh such team. The first four, interestingly enough, all involved strike-shortened seasons. In 1972, a very brief strike took out the first week or so of the season, and because it was so little (or should that be “despite the fact that it was so little”?), it was decided that they’d just forget about the games that were missed, and if teams didn’t all play the same number of games, then so be it. Some teams played as few as 153 games, others as many as 156. Stupidly, this actually had an effect on the postseason, as Detroit ended up winning the AL East by just half a game. Once there, the Tigers fell into an 0-2 hole against Oakland, only to rally back to force Game 5. They lost. The next strike, of course, was 1981, and unlike the brief strike in 1972 or the one that spanned the 1994 and 1995 seasons, the ’81 strike was in the middle of the season. This led to a “split season” format similar to what they use in the minor leagues, culminating in the first ever LDS, albeit in a more literal sense as these teams were actually playing for the title of Division Champion. The Expos, Astros, Yankees, and Athletics all jumped out to 2-0 leads, but only the A’s finished the sweep, and on October 11, three Game 5s were played. New York and Montreal managed to turn back their opponents, the Brewers and Phillies respectively, but the Astros weren’t so lucky, losing to the Dodgers. It was this last one that started a trend. The remaining six teams to force Game 5 after trailing 2-0–the 1982 Brewers, 1984 Padres, 1995 Mariners, 1999 Red Sox, 2001 Yankees, and 2003 Red Sox–all won Game 5. Don’t be surprised if the Rays win tonight.
Been on an archive binge again, and I decided to look at my predictions and early impressions posts. First, the good. In the AL East, I predicted that the Yankees and Rays would be in the division race until the final week of the season and that one of them would be the wild card. However, I failed to predict that the other would win the division, although in all fairness, it was impossible to predict the number of injuries Boston would have and they still weren’t mathematically eliminated until Game 157, so I think I did fairly well. Only problem was the order of the bottom two in the division, but a lot of people made that error. Also, the NL East. Perfect. The Phillies were division champions, the Braves were second and were the wild card, the Marlins and Mets were almost in a dead heat for third, and the Nationals are both in last place and only picking 6th or 7th in the 2011 draft. NL Central wasn’t horrible, either. I had the Pirates as the worst team in baseball, which they were, and I had the Astros fifth and the Brewers fourth–they were actually fourth and third, but only 1 and 2 games ahead of the fifth-place team, respectively. I said the Reds would “make some noise”, and they exceeded my expectations, winning the division handily. My only real mistake was expecting the Cubs (the aforementioned 5th-place team) to be good.
Not so good: The AL Central, AL West, and NL West. The Central I called a “three-team race”, and while I did correctly pick the top three teams, it wasn’t very close at all as the division was the first to be clinched, and furthermore the team I picked to win it finished a distant third and was more or less out of contention in August. The AL West I called a “mystery”, and didn’t really say much explicitly until we got to the playoff predictions, which revealed that despite my faint praise, I had picked the Mariners to come out of that jumble. The Mariners went on to lose 101 games and set new records for offensive futility, as well as revealing that Don Wakamatsu had a case of “John Gibbons Syndrome”. Ouch. The NL West, I called a “four-team race”, making cases for the four teams in question and failing to actually pick a winner, saying that “all I’m willing to predict is that the Padres will finish in last place.” The Padres entered the final day of the season tied with the Braves for the wild card lead and just 1 game behind the Giants, whom they were playing, for the NL West title, and furthermore if they won and the Braves lost, the Pads had the tiebreaker to get the division title and relegate the Giants to wild card status. They ended up losing and the Braves won, denying them a chance to play a 163rd game (not that that went particularly well for them in 2007), but still, bad. And Arizona’s collapse last year wasn’t a fluke, as they turned in the third-worst record in the majors. Yeah, you can blame part of that on the fact that their longtime ace was out for the entire year (remember him?), but it also became obvious that their rotation had never been more than two deep and they had no bullpen. In other words, they’re the pre-Nolan Ryan-era Texas Rangers. (Ryan’s time with the Rangers as an executive, not as a player.) And when their other best pitcher got off to a bad start as well, it was a ticket to last place. The “other best pitcher” then got traded mid-season.
Also, as the “early impressions” blog suggested, the Giants, who beat out the Padres for the division, appeared to have been my choice for #4. Another conclusion that can be reached from early impressions: I said this early order for the AL West was “almost exactly counter to my expectations”, with Mariners over Angels being the only thing I had right:
Thus, my prediction would have been:
Now look at the actual final standings:
That means that, once again, only one out of a possible six relative positions was as I expected, in this case, Rangers ahead of A’s. It’s really hard to screw up that badly.
Absolutely loved the story that boy GM Jon Daniels had to put gold highlights in his hair as the result of a bet with shortstop Elvis Andrus–thanks to the Rangers’ winning streak reaching double digits. It’s hardly the first performance-related dye job–think Lou Piniella and the 70-91 fourth-place 2004 Devil Rays, the first time Tampa had ever finished out of last place. (Contrast the current Rays, who considered last year’s 84-78 performance a disappointment.) Still, funny stuff.
On the subject of old Devil Rays vs. new Rays, we’re now up to three no-hitters thrown against the mighty Rays in under 2
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½ years of existence, whereas the cellar-dwelling D-Rays were no-hit just once in their 10 years of pitiful existence. At least this one wasn’t a perfect game–far from it, with 10 baserunners on 8 walks, one hit batsman, and one error. It took a ******** 149 pitches for former Devil Ray (and modern-era Ray) Edwin Jackson to finish the game, which is nothing to old-time pitchers but would normally get current managers shot. If it weren’t for the no-hitter, there’s no way he’d have been allowed to last that long. Remarkably, that isn’t even the record for walks in a no-hitter this century–A.J. Burnett had 9 walks in his 2003 no-hitter, and amazingly didn’t even show up on SportsCenter’s list of highest pitch totals in a no-hitter since 1988 (when pitch counts were first recorded.)
But regardless, here we are, not even halfway through the season, and we officially have four (and unofficially, five) no-hitters, two (three) of which were perfect games. Not even the original “Year of the Pitcher” could claim that many that quickly–in fact, 1968 only had five no-hitters total, two of them on back-to-back days (at the same park with the same pair of teams, but for opposite sides) in September. The last season to even have four (this year’s official total) was 1991, when a total of 7 no-hitters were thrown–but five of those were in July or later. (Also, two were combined no-hitters). The last time four or more no-hitters were thrown by the end of June? You’ll have to go all the way back to the dead-ball era and 1917, when Eddie Cicotte of the White Sox no-hit the Browns on April 14, George Mogridge of the Yankees no-hit the Red Sox April 24, Fred Toney of the Reds pitched a 10-inning no-hitter against the Cubs on May 2 (formerly known as the “double no-hitter” as the Reds were also held hitless through nine innings against the Cubs’ Hippo Vaughn before finally breaking through in the 10th), the White Sox were held hitless on back-to-back days by Ernie Koob and Bob Groom of the Browns May 5-6 (not back-to-back games, though; the May 6 no-hitter was game 2 of a doubleheader), and Ernie Shore of the Red Sox had nine innings of perfect relief against the Senators after Babe Ruth got ejected for arguing balls and strikes after issuing a walk to the first batter of the game–long credited as a perfect game for Shore (especially as the leadoff walk was caught stealing, making it a 27-batter game in which one pitcher recorded all 27 outs and did not allow a baserunner) but later changed to a regular no-hitter, the first combined no-hitter in MLB history–on June 23. 6 no-hitters (and, by the definition of the time, seven), all before the end of June. But how many total no-hitters were there in 1917? Just the six. No team was held hitless for the rest of the year after Shore’s perfect relief stint. The modern record? That would be the 7 in 1991 (though the all-time record is 8, way back in 1884). We could be approaching a historic season, folks. The Year of the Pitcher II is officially on.
Other note: Edwin Jackson is the first NL pitcher to have a complete-game no-hitter against an AL team. It’s the fifth no-hitter between teams from opposite leagues, following Don Larsen’s perfect World Series game in 1956, David Cone’s perfect game in 1999, the Houston Astros’ combined no-hitter in 2003, and Justin Verlander’s no-hitter in 2007.
I’ve been keeping busy with other sports–and some non-sports entertainment–over the offseason, so I’m not 100% dialed in to the goings-on of baseball, but nonetheless, it’s time to at least make an attempt at predicting things.
AL East: As per usual, the AL East is quite possibly the toughest in all of baseball, and will likely be the source of the Wild Card. Now, I know that I am not unbiased, but I believe the Red Sox will take the division due to the depth of their rotation. When it was announced that Daisuke Matsuzaka would miss the start of spring training due to injury, I wasn’t really worried, because for all that he cost to get, he’s basically the Sox’ number 4 now, behind Beckett/Lester/Lackey (arrange these three however you like, although that’s probably the order I’d put them), and they’ve got Buchholz and Wakefield behind that, so even without Dice-K, they’ve still got a solid 5-man rotation. The Yankees and Rays should both still be in the division race up until the final week, though, and either one could end up as the wild card–it comes down to the Yanks’ aging veterans vs. the Rays’ unproven youngsters, particularly where the rotations are concerned (although the Yanks also have some unproven youngsters at the tail end of the rotation). Baltimore, for some reason, is optimistic about this year, while Toronto is known to be in a rebuilding year, so I’ll say that the Jays finish in last place and the Orioles in fourth.
AL Central: Another three-team race. I’ll give the edge to the Tigers, but I wouldn’t give anyone in this division more than a 35% chance of reaching the playoffs–the Tigers, Twins, and White Sox are that close.
AL West: A definite mystery. The Angels have definitely taken a step back and fallen back to the pack, to the point that I’m pretty sure I heard one person on the radio call the West a three-team race between the A’s, Rangers, and Mariners at one point during the offseason. I’m not sure if I’d go that far, though–it’s still the Angels we’re talking about here. The Mariners definitely made great strides during the offseason, trading for Cliff Lee and signing Chone Figgins as a free agent, but I’m worried they still don’t have enough star power to make it last–I’m not even really sure who their 3-5 starters are, and the lineup is decidedly small-ball. Then again, who in this division really does have serious star power?
NL East: The Phillies are still the class of the NL and should be able to make it four straight division titles and three straight NL pennants, at which point the talking heads will start to wonder how long it will be until we can start calling them a dynasty (yes, even if they lose the World Series again–after all, the ’90s/early ’00s Braves were a dynasty despite only winning one World Series, weren’t they? Okay, maybe not.) The Braves are my favorites to finish second, and possibly earn the Wild Card. The Mets have improved over the offseason and could end up in third if they stay healthy, or they could land in fourth. The Nationals will likely finish last in the division again, but will probably pick no higher than fourth and possibly as low as eighth in the 2011 draft rather than the #1 spot they’ll have for the second year in a row in 2010.
NL Central: To be honest, I really haven’t followed the NL that closely. I know that the Pirates will be in last place again, and that the Astros still aren’t terribly good and seem most likely to land in fifth, and that Milwaukee is a far cry from their 2008 wild card berth, but that’s about it. The Cubs and the Cardinals should slug it out again, and, like almost every other year, I’m going to say that the Reds could make some noise. (Note that I make this prediction almost every year, although I think I skipped it last year, and it hasn’t actually come true since 2006, when they still finished in third but weren’t eliminated from the division race until the penultimate day of the season.)
NL West: If the Braves don’t win the Wild Card, expect it to come from this division. This may be a four-team race, as the Dodgers and Rockies, both postseason teams last year, should not have fallen off much, the Giants are still a team on the rise (again, see last year), and the Diamondbacks…well, I still have no clue why they faltered so much. They won the division in 2007 and were in the hunt late in 2008, and they made humongous upgrades in the ’08-’09 offseason…and inexplicably were a complete non-factor in 2009. I can only dismiss this as a fluke, and I think they’ll compete this year. Who will win this division? Your guess is as good as mine; all I’m willing to predict is that the Padres will finish in last place.
Playoffs: Like I said, I’m not really sure who most of the NL teams will be, and frankly I don’t really care because the Phillies are far better than anyone else in the league in my mind and will win the NL pennant. As for the AL, I’m going to predict Red Sox over Tigers and Rays over Mariners in round 1, followed by…Red Sox over Rays in the ALCS, and then…ooh, this is a tough one. They say pitching wins championships, and nobody has better pitching (if they’re healthy) than the Red Sox, which is why I picked them this far (yes, the Rays could also outhit the Red Sox, but their pitching, while good, is not good enough). But the Phillies rotation, while not as deep, is probably even stronger at the top, and their lineup is quite possibly the best in either league. Then again, you have to look beyond the simple skills and consider the matchups. For some reason, the Red Sox never really had much trouble with Halladay, which is odd because the Red Sox usually struggle with the Blue Jays, period. Lackey, while never terribly good against his new team regardless, was especially bad at Fenway, so if he ends up as the #3 and the AL wins the All-Star Game again, that’s all the better–and if the NL somehow pulls it out and the Sox pitch Lackey in Games 2 and 6, even better. So…it’ll be a close one, but I think the Red Sox can make it 3 titles in 7 years.
Even when the races are dull, they’re interesting. This year marks the third straight year that a one-game playoff will be required after 7 straight years without one. While the first half of the decade had a few tight races as well–the 2003 NL wild card was a multi-team scrum, IIRC, that the eventual World Champion Marlins were considered a long shot to come out of on top, and if I remember correctly, the Cubs, who ended up winning their division, were leading that race for much of the final weeks; no division in the NL was won by more than 2 games in 2001, with the wild card having the same record as their division’s champion–but the second half of the decade has produced some real memorable ones. There’s 2005, where with three days remaining, the White Sox clinched their division in the strangest way possible, holding a 3-game lead over Cleveland, who they were to play in the final three, while Cleveland was merely tied for the wild card lead; the White Sox were assured a playoff spot because the team Cleveland was tied with, Boston, was also playing their division leader, the Yankees, and were only one game back, so were they to sweep, they’d be outright division champions and Chicago and Cleveland would still both be in the playoffs were Cleveland to sweep. The NL wild card also came down to the final day that year. Then there was 2006, and the Twins’ unlikely division championship. Prior to the final weekend of the season, the Twins had led the division for all of about maybe six hours, when Detroit lost a day game to drop into a virtual tie, percentage points behind; Minnesota lost that night. By the time the Twins tied it up with three days remaining, both teams had already clinched playoff spots, so the Twins, lacking the tiebreaker, still weren’t really in first place. Minnesota lost the first two and won the third; Detroit got swept in rather painstaking fashion, by the last-place Royals, who incidentally lost the #1 pick in the draft as a result, finishing 1 game better than the Devil Rays. Over on the National League side, 2006 was the year of Houston’s mad dash that came up short. With 12 days remaining, the Cardinals seemed to have the NL Central locked up, holding a 7 game lead over second place Cincinnati. They then went on a 7-game losing streak that included a sweep at the hands of the Astros, and so 9 days later, the Reds were still in it, 2.5 back, but now in third place, with the Astros a mere half game behind the Cardinals. Had that run been completed, all of this other “history-making”, with the Mets-Phillies in ’07 and Twins-Tigers this year, would have been moot–8.5 games in 12 days. Alas, it was not meant to be. (Another division was decided by a tiebreaker that year, the Padres over the wild-card Dodgers). 2007, of course, saw the Mets cough up the NL East and the Rockies win 13 of 14 to force a one-game tiebreaker for the wild-card, but what was forgotten in all of that was that had the Rockies won the one game they lost in that span, there would still have been a tiebreaker–between the Diamondbacks, the team that beat them and that won the division, and the Padres. The race was that close. Compared to all of that, the past two years have been relatively mundane. Hell, this year, almost every race was decided with nearly a week to spare–and yet, we still have a one-game playoff.
The title, by the way, was Detroit manager Jim Leyland’s response when asked if he was concerned about Rick Porcello starting such an important game at such a young age.
Watching the ESPN Sunday Night game. The umpires just overturned the end of the game, an apparent walkoff RBI fielder’s choice by Ryan Ludwick turning into an inning-ending double play due to Matt Holliday getting called for interference. It was the right call; Holliday was nowhere near second base with his slide. Egregiously bad move by Holliday. On the topic of ESPN Sunday Night Baseball, they’re having an all-time first: They’re holding the game in the afternoon next week. This is because the game is Red Sox @ Yankees, and New York has a high Jewish population, so with Yom Kippur starting at sundown on Sunday, they didn’t want to
inconvenience discriminate against some of the local fans by switching the game to the evening. Because the real heavy-duty Jews spend the entire day in synagogue on Yom Kippur. On that topic, I only just now realized that I missed Rosh Hashanah, and I’m quite unhappy about it.
On this morning’s topic, no new partial locks, and no playoff spots clinched, but the Nationals have wrapped up 5th place in the NL East, and the Mets 4th. There was one elimination today, Astros from the NL wild card, and there’s still a chance for one more, Brewers from the Central should the Cards win it in extras.
Ah, now this is the type of night Passed Ball likes to see. Let’s start in Pittsburgh, where the Pirates faced the Brewers, who had won 17 straight against them. Leading 7-2, the Bucs oddly allow reliever Jeff Karstens to bat in the eighth inning (wait, the Pirates moved him to the bullpen? Are they assuming that this was a fluke?) This is important because in his last appearance against the Brewers, Karstens hit Ryan Braun with a pitch–and the Brewers got their revenge, plunking him to start a bench-clearing brawl. Karstens and the Pirates would have the last laugh, however, as the former came around to score to extend the lead to 8-2 and the Bucs broke the losing streak with an 8-5 win. On to our nation’s capital, where it was the same old story–Washington loses again, 6-2 to the Mets, dropping to 26-66. They’re 54 losses away from tying the major league record with 70 games left to play. Just saying. Anyway, a real wild one in Oakland, where the visiting Twins got off to a 12-2 lead after 2.5 innings. Let it be noted that heavy early scoring doesn’t always lead to victory–just ask the Rangers, who in 2006 were 0-2 when scoring their tenth run of the game in the third inning. (If memory serves me correctly, they didn’t actually lead by ten in either of those games, leading 10-1 in the first of those two and 12-4 in the second). Sure enough, the A’s roared back to get within 12-7 after 4 innings, taking a 14-13 lead with a 7-run 7th and holding on with a disputed third out call in the top of the ninth. (Justin Morneau was quite clearly safe with the tying run, but replays are not allowed on those types of calls, so the Twins were robbed.) The Rays almost put on a smaller rally, after the White Sox had a 4-1 lead after 3. Bobby Jenks, summoned in the ninth to protect a 4-3 lead, was less than perfect. After striking out the first two batters he faced, he gave up a walk, a single, and another walk and went to a 3-ball count on Jason Bartlett before finally striking him out to end the threat. All I can say, Bobby, is what is the deal with that beard??? Seriously, does he bleach it or something? Back to the National League, where aside from the Nationals, the NL East had a stellar night, the Braves scoring heavily in the late innings to top the Giants 11-3, the Phillies applying steady pressure in a 10-1 thrashing of the Cubs, and the Marlins nipping the Padres 3-2. Of note is that Giants loss, for it opens the door for…the Colorado Rockies! The Rockies, who had bottomed out at 20-32 following a June 3 loss to Houston and had a worse record than any team other than the Nationals, climbed to 51-42 with their 10-6 win over Arizona yesterday, giving them the lead in the NL Wild Card race. From second-worst in the majors to second-place in the division (and with a better record than one of the other two division leaders, at that) in just 47 days, a 31-10 run. This is much greater than their late run in 2007. This is incredible. And with more than two months remaining in the season, they have a chance to even take the division, now sitting just 8 back of the dominant Dodgers, winners again last night thanks to homers by Manny Ramirez and Andre Ethier. The LA area’s other team got rained out in Kansas City; Angels and Royals will play a doubleheader today.
Okay, now that’s just weird. We’ve seen the local wildlife interfere with the game before–just ask the Royals about the birds in the outfield at the Jake, or the Yankees about the midges at…the Jake…yeah, Cleveland really needs to do something about those animals. But this afternoon’s Astros-Padres game was delayed for nearly an hour in the top of the ninth inning when a swarm of bees descended upon left field at Petco Park, apparently attracted to a ballgirl’s jacket that was draped over a chair. I first found out about this thanks to ESPN.com’s “Streak for the Ca$h” game (yes, that’s how it’s spelled), as the game in question was one that I’d made a pick on. Figuring the game would be just about over, I found it in the top of the ninth, two outs, no one on, and then as I was looking for something more detailed, a hit was recorded. Following it initially on the live scoreboard, it continued to say that it was a 1-0 count. For quite awhile. So I pulled up Gamecast, with the same results. Thinking ESPN.com might be lagging, I went to MLB.com. Same results. Intrigued, I turned on the actual game, and saw the bugs buzzing about–it took a little while before one of the announcers mentioned what they were, and at first I was in disbelief–“Did he just say bees?” Yes, yes he did. Bees. It also took my mind a little while to sort out which park they were in, at which point it made slightly more sense–but only slightly. Still, there are so many questions left unanswered. Where did all of those bees come from? Why were they attracted to the ballgirl’s jacket? Why did she even have a jacket for an afternoon game in San Diego? Hopefully more details will be released soon.
Update: Okay, some answers have been given: The bees, which reportedly numbered in the thousands, had attached to a queen bee. Padres president Tom Garfinkel said that head groundskeeper Luke Yoder has a beekeeper on speed-dial–which sort of says that they knew that there’s a high bee population in the area. However, this only brings up more questions. How did the queen bee get there? Why did the swarm not appear until the ninth inning? And if they knew that there might be a bee problem, why wasn’t anything done before then? To try to ascertain some of these answers, I consulted Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queen_bee. There, I learned about the swarming process and the virgin queens, which I presume is what we had here. You can follow the link if you’re interested in learning more. Interesting what this game can teach you, eh?
The always spectacular Mariano Rivera recorded his 500th save last night against the Mets, but perhaps of greater note was that he recorded his first career RBI. After coming in to get the final out of the eighth, he came up to bat with the bases loaded and 2 outs, taking 2 balls and a strike, swinging at strike 2, then fouling off a 2-2 pitch before taking two more balls to draw the walk off of K-Rod to drive in Melky Cabrera. As a rule, Red Sox fans like me aren’t quick to praise a Yankee, but Mariano is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, no questions asked. He’s probably the best closer ever.
Elsewhere, the Rockies refuse to go away. After losing 2 games to the Angels to constitute their first series lost since losing the first three games of a four-game series at Houston June 1-4 (the win in the finale of that series constituted the start of their 11-game winning streak), they returned to sweep the A’s and are now 20-3 since June 4th, going from 2nd-worst in the majors to tied for tenth-best (with the Brewers). They’re still a half game out in the NL Wild Card, behind the Giants, but just 7.5 behind the suddenly failing Dodgers. Wait, are they failing? Their season high in games over .500 was under a week ago (although they’re 1-4 since then). The Giants are in second at 7 back, but they had never fallen further than 9.5 back at any time, anyway (two occasions, the latter of which was, incidentally, just before the Rockies’ hot streak started.) So, yeah…since June 4th (inclusive), the Dodgers are 11-10, the Giants 15-9, and the Rockies 20-3. Looks like the Dodgers are going to have to be more than just average if they want to hang onto their lead. If memory serves me correctly, the infamous Red Sox “collapse” of 1978 also had the leading team playing around .500 ball over the span of their collapse. The Rockies and Dodgers start a 3-game series in LA tonight.
Also tonight: The Rays and Jays meet for the first time this year. Quirky.
The AL won the interleague series again, 137-114 (one make-up game remains, between the Cubs and White Sox)
As I may have mentioned in earlier “way-too-early predictions”, I have a feeling that the Royals are going to be the surprise team of the year. Before, I compared it to last year’s Rays–a team that had been drafting early year after year, making a few under-the-radar trades and free agent signings–nothing that would catch anyone’s attention, but very important stuff. Now, the Rays even caught me by surprise, and the AL East is the division I follow the most closely. So is this really an equivalent case? Not quite. The Rays were probably helped out by being in the AL East. Is it really possible to make that sharp a turnaround that quickly? In a way, yes, but I often pick my teams that will improve based on who was doing well late in the year. (This is part of what led me to keep picking the Reds. This is also why I think the Astros will finish second in the NL Central this year.) However, September is a time where teams play a lot of games within their divisions. Tampa Bay was able to hide because while they were an improving team, they still weren’t on par with the Yankees, Red Sox, and Blue Jays, until suddenly they were. The Royals don’t have that luxury. While they are showing signs of taking the same path as the Rays, they are not yet at the point in that journey that the ’08 Rays were at. They probably need one more year. Now, seeing as how the ’07 Devil Rays were last in the league, how can I defendmy Royals pick? Well, for one thing, it’s not exactly one year off. They’re farther along than the Rays were at the start of ’07, but not far enough along to be at the point the Rays were at at the start of ’08. And, of course, while the Rays might have ended up showing some warning signs if they were in a weaker division, the Royals are about to get inflated by the AL Central. This is a division that was won last year by a team that nobody can explain and most pundits are picking to finish no better than fourth. Also last year, a team was pumped up as possibly setting all sorts of scoring records, and promptly finished last in the division. I think the Tigers got exposed, and there is no reason to think they’ll be getting any better seeing as how they still have no pitching worth speaking of. Then there’s the popular choice for this year’s division title, the
Indians Native Americans. At the start of ’08, they were riding high, having just missed winning the pennant in ’07 and looking like they weren’t going to be any worse in ’08. Then everything went weird. C.C. Sabathia didn’t get off to a good start. The offense that had done so well in ’07 went into hibernation. Players got traded away. Promising ’07 rookies hit sophomore slumps in a major way. Even with the return of Cliff Lee, who had been great in ’05 but disappointing in the following two years, the Tribe struggled mightily. And now, they’re the favorites, despite their bullpen having imploded on them last year (they’ve acquired a new closer that might be able to patch up the problem, but good luck getting to him without sending the starters out for at least the first out or two of the 8th), and their new #3 is Carl freakin’ Pavano. Yeah, really. That’s your favorite? So now, unless the mystery White Sox manage to carry onwards (and they’ve lost a few players, too, in important places, so don’t count on it), the only outside obstacle to the Royals riding a breakout wave is the Minnesota Twins, who were a big surprise last year and have much of that talent locked up for awhile. Of course, that’s because there were a bunch of rookies in there. While they do have plenty of good established talent, their rotation could end up hitting the sophomore slump, and the rotation is key to trying to win a division (which is why the all-offense Tigers are still no threat). The Royals didn’t really have that many rookies last year in the rotation, did they? Plenty of young pitchers, to be sure, but not so many rookies. Unless there’s a “junior jinx”that I’m not aware of, the Royals could end up riding an infusion of rookies and a wave of other young talents to a surprising AL Central title. Then again, maybe in the long run, that’s better. If they get that rookie infusion out of the way now, the inevitable sophomore slump would happen in 2010, which could lead to a large drop, but with the talent still there, they’d bounce back in 2011 and have another high pick to help keep things going. The AL Central runs in cycles because it consists solely of small-market teams. I think the Royals are about to get their turn.