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.
It really does seem amazing that last night’s Dodgers-Cardinals game was the first postseason game ever in which the outcome was absolutely, positively, unquestionably altered by an error. The beauty of baseball is that until the final out is made, you always have a chance to come back. The Dodgers were the first team ever to trail a game with two outs in the ninth inning or later and come back to win after an error on a ball in play on what would have been the game-ending out. What about other famous errors? Way back in 1912, the New York Giants scored in the top of the tenth inning of the decisive game, only to be undone by an error in center field and a foul pop-up that neither the first baseman, second baseman, nor pitcher could get to, but the original error came on the first batter of the bottom of the tenth and the latter wasn’t a ball in play. 1986 World Series, everyone remembers that one–Mookie Wilson’s grounder going right through Bill Buckner’s legs.Of course, even though that was with two outs and it was in the tenth inning, it doesn’t count for two reasons, one of which is only sometimes forgotten and one of which is almost always forgotten. The one that is remembered more often is that the Mets weren’t trailing at the time; the tying run had already scored on Stanley’s wild pitch earlier in Wilson’s at-bat, so a third out would have merely taken the game to the 11th inning. The second, more commonly forgotten reason is that due to Wilson’s speed, Buckner’s bad legs, and Stanley’s failure to cover first, it also wouldn’t have been the third out; rather, it was an infield single by Wilson and an error by Buckner allowing Ray Knight to score from second. Had Buckner played it cleanly, chances are the bottom of the tenth continues with Wilson at first, Knight at third, and Johnson batting. So, yeah, that doesn’t work.
The net result of this? Disappointment for Cards fans, joy for Dodgers fans, and possible sighs of relief for TV executives and/or Red Sox/Angels/Rockies/Phillies fans. Thus far, the games have been staggered such that no two games will be going on simultaneously unless a game other than the last one of the night exceeds 3:30 in length. This is the main reasoning for staggering the starts of the series and for doing that weird thing with the “choose your series” in one league, and it works fine up to a point. Wednesday, we had both NLDS Game 1s and one ALDS Game 1. Thursday, the other ALDS Game 1 and both NLDS Game 2s. Tonight, both ALDS Game 2s. Tomorrow, both NLDS Game 3s. Sunday, however, is scheduled for the NLDS Game 4s and the ALDS Game 3s, so if neither NLDS ends in a sweep, there would be 4 games on one day. (This is also likely why they added the off-day between Games 4 and 5, which wasn’t always there.) The options would be something like this:
1. Schedule 2 games at the same time. This would not sit well with the TV executives.
2. Continue as normal with a quadruple-header. This would be equally problematic, as the 3-1/2 hour differential would mean the late game would start 10-1/2 hours after the earliest. Even if they started the first one at 12:07 Eastern (because they like using sevens, for some reason), the last game still wouldn’t start until 10:37 Eastern…and worse still, due to the way the teams are set up this year, no game will be played in the Pacific Time Zone on the day of the quadruple-header. Outside of World Series games in the Eastern Time Zone, who ever heard of a baseball game with a scheduled start time after 8:30 local? Also, I doubt they’d want to go with a 12:07 start time for the earliest game on a Sunday, especially not in Boston.
3. Still keep things staggered, but decrease the differential a little. This is probably the best option, as they could go with a 12:37 start time in Boston, then a 3:37 (2:37 local) in St. Louis, a 6:37 (5:37 local) in Minneapolis, and a 9:37 (7:37 local) in Denver. If the Cardinals win Game 3, they’ll have to do one of these, but for now, there’s still a chance that Sunday will be a normal tripleheader.
Speaking of time, the Dodgers’ first win over the Cards set a record, too. It was the longest 9-inning game in LDS history, clocking in at 3:54. It’s not a postseason record, as that belongs to Game 3 of the 2004 ALCS, clocking in at 4:20, but it’s a record for the round. (And when you consider the fact that 3:54 was good enough to set a record for a nine-inning game, you have to figure that the 3:30 time slot they initially assign to the games is usually sufficient as long as the game doesn’t go into extras.
We’re coming into the final stages. The Yankees are on the edge of locking up a playoff spot, which could happen as early as today should they win and the Rangers lose. Also almost ready: the first “partial position lock”, a condition where a team cannot catch the team immediately in front of them in the division standings. A full position lock, of course, is when a team knows exactly where they will place in the division. Wait…actually, there’s already been a partial position lock, over in the NL East, between the third-place Braves and the fourth-place Mets. That appears to have happened…after the Mets lost to the Braves on Thursday, actually, which was the Mets’ 84th loss, while the Marlins and Braves both had 78 wins and the season series against the Mets already in hand. There is a possible full position lock today (two, actually)–if the Mets beat the Nats, it will lock the Nats into 5th place and the Mets into 4th. Other potential partial position locks: A Giants win or a Padres loss will drive a lock between them (SF wins + SD losses currently totals 162, but the Padres lead the season series 9-6), and, amazingly, a Red Sox win and a Rays loss knocks the Rays out of the wild card race and guarantees the Red Sox at least second place in the AL East. (Chicago can’t lock up third or better yet, even with a win and a Cleveland loss, because their lead in the season series is only 8-7.)
At the beginning of the month, the Tigers looked like a hot team, someone you wouldn’t want to face in the playoffs. Now? They’re looking like they might not even make it! It’s starting to look like it will be 2004 redux in the American League–Yankees over Twins, Red Sox over Angels, Red Sox over Yankees. (I may be a tad biased on that ALCS prediction, but the Red Sox do hold the advantage in the season series, 9-6.) The Tigers have gone ice cold and are just 2 games ahead of the Twins. It looks like an interesting postseason is coming up.
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.
I’ve been doing fairly well in SftC recently, and when I went to look at the play-by-play of last night’s Rangers-Angels game to see how Josh Hamilton did overall (already knowing that he’d failed to get a hit or a walk in his third plate appearance), I noticed that each of those first three ABs were immediately followed by “A Jones homered to left” (or left center, in one case), and I was thinking, “Wait, is that that ‘A Jones’?” Yeah, it is. Was his Dodgers contract up already? Nah, couldn’t have been. They must have released him. That’s the only explanation that makes sense, since there’s no way the Rangers would take on that kind of salary (and he’s not making nearly that much)…okay, maybe they would. It doesn’t say anything about him being released, but it’s quite obvious that that’s what happened. Anyway, he’s obviously been there this whole time, since those three home runs last night give him 14 on the year. How did I not know about this until now? (Or did I find out earlier in the season and just forget about it already?) One article written in the wake of last night’s game mentions how badly this must have stung fans on both sides of the LA divide, since the Dodgers only managed to get three home runs out of his bat all year in 2008. All I can say is, wow. Wait… Texas has always been one of the “red flag” teams, and I had my suspicions about him near the end of his time with the Braves after members of the ESPN show then known as Cold Pizza made note of how he’d gone from a speed guy to this huge slugger that shatters bats…You don’t think he’d be going back to an old habit, do you? …Eh, nothing’s ever been proven in the first place. Let’s just let sleeping dogs lie on this one.
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)
Oh. G-D! The Rangers have done it to the Orioles again! Granted, what happened last night is nothing compared to the 30-3 whupping the Rangers dealt out a couple of years ago, but 19-6 is still pretty nasty. Ian Kinsler went 6-for-6 and hit for the cycle to lead the team. (The order of his hits: double, homer, single, single, triple, double.) Nelson Cruz led the team with 6 RBIs, 4 of them on 1 swing of the bat in the 8-run 4th. Like in the 30-3 game, Baltimore took the early lead, up 2-0 before Texas got to bat and 3-1 after 2 full innings. This was hardly the only offense-heavy game, though. Others that hit double digits: St. Louis 12-7 over Arizona, Toronto 12-2 over Minnesota, Seattle 11-3 over LA, Florida 10-4 over Atlanta. Other interesting games: Red Sox-A’s, where Tim Wakefield took a no-hit bid into the eighth, and Dodgers-Giants, where the Dodgers won with a walkoff walk. Also: Jose Reyes scored from first on a passed ball. Yeah, really. It helped that there had also been a runner on third at the time. Ken Griffey Jr. homered in the Mariners’ win, his 400th homer as a Mariner.