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.
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.
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A real football score at Fenway
last night–Papi alone drove in a touchdown in the first inning with a pair of
three-run homers as the Sox took a 10-0 lead after one inning. With run support
like that, you’d think it would be all too easy for Charlie Zink to pick up a
win in his major league debut…and you’d be wrong. After allowing 10 runs (4
earned) in the first, Texas starter Scott Feldman remarkably came back out, got
through the second without allowing a run, and got the first two outs of the
third before being removed for Josh Rupe with the bases loaded. Rupe proceeded
to walk the first two batters he faced to restore the Sox’ ten-run lead at
12-2. Zink recorded his second perfect inning of the night in the fourth, but
things began to unravel in the fifth. One out, 12-6 now, runner on first, and
there’s a fly ball to centerfield, Crisp going back, leaping up, makes the
catch…no, he dropped it! Runners on second and third now. Crisp tries to
convince the umps that he caught the ball and dropped it on the transfer.
Replays do appear to show him attempting to transfer the ball at the time of
the drop, but it wasn’t in his glove for very long, either…perhaps we should
defer to the NFL rulebook. A receiver must retain possession of the ball
throughout the course of going to the ground…yeah, I’m going to have to say no
catch. Call it an E-8…What do you mean it’s a base hit! He “doubled” right into
Crisp’s glove! There’s no way you can rule that a hit…this is bullsh**. Anyway,
that’s the night for Zink, 12-6 as Javier Lopez comes on with one out in the
fifth. Something similar happened with David Pauley’s debut, if I remember
correctly–left with a lead but too early to get the win. Lopez picks up an out
and allows an inherited runner to score on a base hit, and then David Aardsma
comes on. He proceeds to give up a three-run homer to Ian Kinsler, and it’s 12-10 after 4½. Papi leads off the bottom of the fifth and
appears to hit his third home run of the game, a career first, to straightaway
center. Umpires say otherwise, ruling fan interference and sending him back to
second base. No matter as Kevin Youkilis follows with a no-doubt-about-it home
run to make the score 14-10. So, despite the rain that fell in the second
inning, we’ve made it to five, and this game will be official. Are we sure
that’s a good thing, though? Aardsma returns for the sixth, leaving with the
score 14-11 and two runners on base. Sadly, by the rules of the game, he’d be
the one getting the win if this score holds up. Manny Delcarmen fails to make
it so and is charged with a blown save, as the Rangers batter him around to
take a 15-14 lead, and despite a less-than-inspiring performance, Rupe is now
in line for the win. Warner Madrigal, who sounds more like one of my made-up
players in Dream than an actual major leaguer, pitches a hitless sixth,
the only blemish a walk, for his first hold of the year. Delcarmen comes back
out and is charged with another run, leaving with one out and one on in favor
of Hideki Okajima. Okajima loads the bases with a walk and a hit batsman but
manages to keep the score at 16-14, and Jamey Wright gives up an unearned run,
the result of his own error, in the process of picking up a hold in the seventh.
Okajima shuts the Rangers down in the eighth, and on for the next hold is Frank
Francisco. Crisp leads off and makes an out, and Jacoby Ellsbury, a late
scratch from the starting lineup with a bruised tailbone (result of being hit
by a John Danks pitch the previous night) comes in to pinch-hit for Kevin Cash.
He draws a walk, and Drew flies out to right for the second out. Up comes
Dustin Pedroia…long fly ball to left, will it stay fair? Yes! Off the wall for
a double, as Jacoby motors home with the tying run! 16-16 with two outs in the
eighth! Now, in that long first inning, David Ortiz had a pair of three-run
homers. Kevin Youkilis, batting right behind him, had a pair of strikeouts.
First base is open. You know what the smart move is. It’s the wrong one,
though, as Youk hits his second homer of the night, a three-run shot
over the Monster to give the Sox a 19-16 lead. “A good year,” I said, “we won
the World Series.” Now Papelbon comes on, and my father begs him “not to make
this exciting”, something I try in vain to explain to him is impossible. Yes,
it’s a three-run lead in the ninth with the closer on the mound, but the
circumstances that led to it make it impossible for it to be “boring”. Besides,
it’s Papelbon. Watching him work is never “boring”. I would’ve used the word
“tense” rather than “exciting”, because the game has been exciting, and
Papelbon is an exciting player to watch–as are most dominant closers.
Unfortunately, semantics don’t matter when Papelbon isn’t being lights-out. One
double, one error–Youk’s second of the night, at as many positions–and the
tying run is at the plate, 19-17 the score. Have the Sox ever won a game by the
score of 19-18? Well, it didn’t happen here, as Pap finished it out, 19-17 the
final. Meanwhile, in Minneapolis, a see-saw game is going on. The Yanks led
first, 1-0, but the Twins took a 2-1 lead, only to see it go to 3-2 Yanks. The
Twins tied it at three, but the Yanks scored next, twice, and then once more to
make it 6-3. By the time the postgame show started on NESN, however, it was
6-6. I later found out that Delmon Young’s home run off of Mariano Rivera was
the first Mo had ever allowed to a Minnesota Twin–in his fourteenth
professional season, all of them in the American League, with two ALDS meetings
with the Twins thrown in for good measure (’03, ’04). A-Rod and Nady homered
in a three-run twelfth, though; 9-6 the final.
Continuing the theme of ways that I’m right and Dad’s wrong, late in the game
he dismissed the idea that anything significant would’ve happened in the Tampa
Bay-Oakland game as of yet. I told him that the A’s had taken a 2-0 lead on a
home run by Bobby Crosby. “Too early to mean anything.” No, the 10-0
first-inning lead the Red Sox had was too early to mean anything; the postgame
update showed the Oakland lead cut to 2-1 in the top of the fourth, but that
eventually became the final as the Rays lose a game that was more fútbol
than football and the Sox get back to within three games. Are those injuries
Zink was sent back to the minors
after the game to make room for the Red Sox’ newest acquisition, pitcher Paul
Byrd, traded from the
Native Americans Indians for either cash or a PTBN.
Cleveland fans seemed happy enough to get rid of him, but although his ERA is
around 4.5 and his record is 7-10, he’s 4-0 since the All-Star Break, which is
good enough for me. Besides, we don’t need an ace; we just need someone to fill
in for Wake and/or be better than the struggling Buchholz. I heard that Byrd
will be pitching in Buchholz’s spot in the rotation, but with Zink back at
Pawtucket, you’ve got to figure that Buchholz is just being held back a few
days, till Wake’s next turn in the rotation. On to the constant drama that is
the National League.
Two teams with streaks of six
games, both victorious last night. One was the Milwaukee Brewers, extending
their winning streak to seven games with a 5-2 victory over San Diego–oddly
enough, a streak that did begin right after the Parra-Fielder dugout
scuffle. The other was the Cincinnati Reds, Edinson Volquez picking up his
fourteenth win as the Reds handed Jeff Karstens his first NL loss, 5-1 the
final. The win gave the Brewers a four-game lead in the wild card as St. Louis
lost to Florida, 4-3, in a game lengthened by rain delays, and they closed to
just three games behind the Cubs, who got hit even worse by the southeastern
rains, postponed completely in Atlanta. The Braves and Cubs will play a
doubleheader today. Out west, the Dodgers rallied to a walkoff win in the ninth,
4-3 over the Phillies as Andre Ethier drove in Russell Martin with the winning
run, and remained a game behind the Diamondbacks, victorious at Coors by a 4-2
score. Back east, the Mets blew another late-game lead, Ryan Langerhans with a
pinch-hit solo homer, his first long ball of the year, in the seventh to tie
the game at 3-3. But nobody blew a save; starter Johan Santana was still in the
game. He picked up the win when a 1-2 pitch from Saul Rivera was ruled to have
grazed the helmet of Damion Easley, forcing in a run, and Joe Smith and Pedro
Feliciano each pitched scoreless innings to preserve the 4-3 lead, something
the Mets have struggled with in the absence of Billy Wagner. The Mets now stand
at just a game behind the Phillies; Marlins are 1½ back. But the hottest team
in baseball right now (with the possible exception of the Los Angeles Angels of
Anaheim, who never seem to lose) is the Houston Astros, 13-3 since July 27 and
above .500 for the first time since June 11 following a 12-4 win over San Francisco
last night. Don’t look now, but they’re just 8½ behind the Brewers in the wild
card race–a deficit they’ve (almost) covered in much less time than what
they’ve got to work with here. (See: September 2006. Actually, just the second
half of it.) Their pitching might not be what it was then, but I wouldn’t count
them out of it just yet. You don’t mess with Texas.
…Say, I wonder if Roger Clemens is
still available to them. Luring him out of retirement worked for them before,
right? (See: 2004 and 2005)
Wow. Some game the Yanks had today, eh? Johnny Damon had a career day
today–yes, even better than the day that he was just a homer away from
the cycle by the end of the first inning—
going 6-for-6 and driving in
the game-winning run in the Yankees’ 12-11 victory over Kansas City.
The Yanks faced a 2-0 deficit before they even came to bat and trailed
5-1 after 3 innings, but battled back to tie it in the fourth and take
a 6-5 lead in the fifth. Kansas City took a 10-6 lead into the
seventh-inning stretch, but pairs of runs in the seventh and eighth had
the game again tied before KC scored once in the top of the ninth,
setting the stage for the tense Yankee win. Jose Guillen drove in seven
of the Royals’ eleven runs with two-out homers in the first and seventh
innings, the latter a grand slam, along with an RBI single in the
third. The Sox weren’t hurting for runs either, as Manny homered in the
first to tie Eddie Murray on the all-time home runs list, J.D. Drew
came a double shy of the cycle, and Lowell and Youk doubled
back-to-back to drive in four insurance runs in the eighth in an 11-3
win most notable for the fact that at one point both teams had
knuckleballers on the mound: Tim Wakefield for the Sox and R.A. Dickey
for the Mariners.