This Great Game Comebacker

The Week That Was in Baseball: October 13-19, 2014
Baseball’s Wild Cinderellas Travis Ishikawa Channels Bobby Thomson
The Expanding Strike Zone Citi Field Gets Smaller—Again


Best and Worst of the 2013 Season

BEST HITTER, AMERICAN LEAGUE
Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

BA
R
H
2B
3B
HR
RBI
BB
IB
HB
SB
.287 115 173 39 9 36 111 77 6 10 16

The third time looks to be the charm for the enormously talented outfielder—he just turned 23—as he finally looks deserving enough to win the AL MVP after two years of having to duke it out in the vote with Miguel Cabrera. His numbers, and our breakdown of them, confirm it. His .287 average isn’t anything to go nuts about it, but he piled so many solid numbers in every offensive category, it thus makes him the complete package. The hype is true: he is the next Mick.


BEST HITTER, NATIONAL LEAGUE
Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh Pirates

BA
R
H
2B
3B
HR
RBI
BB
IB
HB
SB
.314 89 172 38 6 25 83 76 8 10 18

Giancarlo Stanton put together power numbers unrivaled in the NL but, like Trout above, McCutchen was an all-around force just a few upticks better on an overall basis. The reigning MVP put himself in position for a second straight honor by playing solid clutch baseball in the stretch run and pushing the Pirates into the playoffs for the second straight year. Perhaps McCutchen benefited here from Stanton’s brutal, year-end pitch to the face, but he played only one game more than the Miami slugger on the year.


WORST HITTER, AMERICAN LEAGUE
Stephen Drew, Boston-New York

BA
R
H
2B
3B
HR
RBI
BB
IB
HB
SB
.162 18 44 14 1 7 26 24 3 0 1

We all thought, last winter, that the veteran shortstop wasn’t worth the many dollars he and super-agent Scott Boras tried to command on the free agent market. But we didn’t know that he was going to be this bad, either. It didn’t matter if it was the Red Sox (.176) or the Yankees (.150), Drew stunk it up at the plate from start to finish. Boras now has his work cut out even more as Drew becomes a free agent yet again and is already lobbying him with claims that he’s still “elite” and “the best defensive shortstop” among the free agents. So once was Leo Durocher, all while he was called the All-American Out.


WORST HITTER, NATIONAL LEAGUE
Dan Uggla, Atlanta-San Francisco

BA
R
H
2B
3B
HR
RBI
BB
IB
HB
SB
.149 14 21 3 0 2 10 11 0 4 0

It’s apparently the end of the road for a player who not long ago could be counted on year in and year out for 30-plus homers and 70-plus walks. Uggla extended a miserable trend from late last year, unable to get anything going at the plate; the Braves finally gave up and let him go in July. The Giants took a chance on him but wondered why after 11 hitless at-bats and six strikeouts. Chances are, if he’s playing baseball next Apri,l it will be in the minors. He’ll be well compensated, too; the Braves owe him $13 million in 2015.


BEST PITCHER, AMERICAN LEAGUE
Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners

W-L
IP
H
R
ER
BB
HB
WP
BK
SO
ERA
15-6 236 170 68 56 46 5 18 0 248 2.14

King Felix is king again after another stellar effort that all but confirms him as the greatest Mariners pitcher ever (with all due respect to Randy Johnson and Jamie Moyer). He stole the AL ERA title away from Chris Sale after a last-minute scoring change took four earned runs off his stat sheet. Hernandez has thrown 200-plus innings and struck out 200-plus batters in each of his last six seasons; only Walter Johnson, Tom Seaver and Roger Clemens have put together longer streaks.


BEST PITCHER, NATIONAL LEAGUE
Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers

W-L
IP
H
R
ER
BB
HB
WP
BK
SO
ERA
21-3 198.1 139 42 39 31 2 7 2 239 1.77

It wasn’t the best of starts for the Dodgers ace; he missed all of April with a sore shoulder, and in his fourth start back he arguably suffered his worst outing ever when he was pummeled for six runs in less than two innings at Arizona. After that, he was virtually untouchable—pitching so magnificently with a 1.43 ERA over his final 22 starts that he’s now considered a prime candidate to win the NL MVP. And that’s never easy for a pitcher to earn. Kershaw now owns four straight NL ERA crowns.


WORST PITCHER, AMERICAN LEAGUE
Bruce Chen, Kansas City Royals

W-L
IP
H
R
ER
BB
HB
WP
BK
SO
ERA
2-4 48.1 69 40 40 16 1 0 0 36 7.45

Time was, Chen was the only pitcher who seemed to know how to throw in Kansas City. But now the 37-year-old Panamanian is living in the Bizarro World, which is good news for the playoff-worthy Royals—and bad news for him. An aching back plagued Chen early in the season, and he never found his groove upon his return; when he got shelled for five runs in an extra-inning relief appearance against the Twins in late August, the Royals unceremoniously bid him farewell.


WORST PITCHER, NATIONAL LEAGUE
Edwin Jackson, Chicago Cubs

W-L
IP
H
R
ER
BB
HB
WP
BK
SO
ERA
6-15 140.2 168 105 99 63 3 9 0 123 6.33

Usually when anyone in baseball—whether it’s an outfielder, pitcher or manager—is struggling and the fans start barking for someone to replace him, the comeback usually is: “Well, who else better do you have in mind?” Which brings us to the Cubs and Jackson, the veteran right-hander who just continually bombs, start after start; there must be someone, somewhere, that the Cubs can easily snag to replace a guy who’s now 14-33 with a 5.58 ERA over the last two years. Maybe this is why the Cubs won’t sit him; at $13 million, he’s easily the team’s highest-paid player. By the way, that’s also what the Cubs owe him in 2015—and 2016 as well.


BEST TEAM, AMERICAN LEAGUE
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (98-64)

They finally came around. After years of high springtime promise backed by big-time free agent spending and the emergence of super-duper-star Mike Trout, the Angels finally performed to the best of their ability and then some, bolting past the A’s after the All-Star Break and securing the majors’ best record. What put the Halos over the top is what they had badly lacked in recent times: Depth in the starting rotation and a quality bullpen


BEST TEAM, NATIONAL LEAGUE
Washington Nationals (96-66)

Under first-year manager Matt Williams, the Nationals finished as, arguably, the most impressively balanced major league team around. All five of their starting pitchers won at least ten games, with Gio Gonzalez putting up the worst ERA of the lot—at 3.57; and the depth of the hitting showed itself after partial-season losses to Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman, with MVP candidate Anthony Rendon in particular stepping up. If the Nats don’t make it to the World Series, it’s bound to be labeled a disappointment in D.C.


WORST TEAM, AMERICAN LEAGUE
Texas Rangers (67-95)

It was a disaster from start to finish for a team many thought was headed to the postseason in 2014; 21 different players were sent to the disabled list at some point, leading the Rangers to virtually empty out their farm system to keep the roster full. In the end, a major league-record 64 players represented the Rangers on the field at some point in the season. It would have been worse, but interim manager Tim Bogar rallied the Rangers to a 14-8 finish after the strange departure of long-time manager Ron Washington. The 2015 campaign represents one big reset button for the Rangers.


WORST TEAM, NATIONAL LEAGUE
Arizona Diamondbacks (64-98)

The Snakes began the year Down Under in Australia, and that’s a fitting description of the season to follow. Arizona actually played .500 ball from May 1 through July 31, but the season-ending injury to star slugger Paul Goldschmidt and the trading away of solid gamers Martin Prado and Gerardo Parra crashed this team to a 16-37 finish. Here’s the biggest proof that the D-Backs couldn’t rise to the occasion: Against playoff-bound teams, they were 16-48. Your move, Tony La Russa.


Th Wild Things of October
The Kansas City Royals blew past the Baltimore Orioles at the ALCS this past week and not only reached the World Series for the first time since their last postseason appearance in 1985, but also became the tenth wild card team to reach the World Series since the advent of the extra postseason spot in 1994.

They’ll be opposing the San Francisco Giants, who are back for the third time in five years—and for the second time as a wild card team, having previously gone to the Fall Classic as a non-divisional winner in 2002. Then, the Giants played the Anaheim Angels, who represented the AL also as a wild card; the matchup between the Giants and Royals will thus be the second meeting of wild cards in the World Series—and the first involving a fifth-seeded team with expansion of playoff participation starting in 2013.

Cinderella stories have become a chronic reality in modern baseball; you don’t have to reign supreme in the regular season to ensure a world title in October. The trick has become rather simple: Just be good enough to be part of the upper third tier and enter the playoffs as one of ten teams who start what has essentially become baseball’s second season, with the slate wiped clean and anything possible—as the following teams have found out over the last two decades when entering as a wild card:

The 1997 and 2003 Florida Marlins. The Fish have twice made the playoffs, both times as wild card teams—and both resulting in world championships. But the similarities between the two teams end there. The 1997 edition was an expensive, star-studded edition that seemed disappointed not to unseat the powerful Atlanta Braves in the NL East but nonetheless made its statement by conquering the Braves in the NLCS before edging Cleveland in a wild World Series; the 2003 team was a younger, more humble no-name squad that had slowly risen from the depths of owner Wayne Huizenga’s panic-driven selloff after his 1997 title (which crashed the team) and came out of nowhere, snatching a wild card spot after falling as much as ten games below the .500 mark at one point in the season. No matter. The Marlins got hot in October, got unexpected assists from Steve Bartman and Alex Gonzalez against the Chicago Cubs in the NLCS, and gunned down the highly favored New York Yankees in the Fall Classic behind Josh Beckett’s pitching.

The 2002 Anaheim Angels. The Angels won 99 games but finished second to the Oakland A’s of Moneyball lore in the AL West, yet drove through the AL playoffs behind Adam Kennedy’s sudden power surge and crazed home crowds that craved the Rally Monkey and those annoyingly loud ThunderStix. In the World Series, the Angels proved that their wild card squad was better than the other (the Giants, which made it after placing second in the NL West) and barely, mounting an unlikely rally from five runs down while facing elimination in Game Six to nab the trophy in Game Seven.

The 2004 Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox are not to be confused with an overachieving mid-market franchise (as most of the teams listed here are), but their unlikely ride from certain elimination started famously late in Game Four of the ALCS, when they were down to their last out of the series and facing a humiliating sweep at the hands of the archrival Yankees, who topped them in the AL East standings. But Dave Roberts stole that base, David Ortiz did his thing, the Red Sox stayed alive again and again and made history by becoming the first time to ever come back from three games down in a postseason series to win it; they carried the momentum to the World Series, where they easily upended the St. Louis Cardinals in five.

The 2007 Colorado Rockies. No team said ‘Cinderella’ more than the Rockies, who zoomed out of September obscurity to grab the NL wild card (doing so with a wild tiebreaker victory against San Diego) and swept both Philadelphia in the NLDS and Arizona in the NLCS; at that point, they had gone 38 days with just one loss. But the Rockies became a victim of their non-stop success; the sweep of the Diamondbacks forced them to wait eight days before the start of the World Series, where an experienced (and less rested) Boston team laid down their own sweep, ending the Rockies’ dream.

The 2011 St. Louis Cardinals. Never mind the World Series; the Cardinals weren’t even thought of as postseason contenders as late as September, when they trailed the Braves by eight games for the NL wild card. But the Cardinals won 16 of their last 21 while the Braves tanked and ceded the playoff spot to St. Louis on a memorable final day of regular season action; from there, the Cardinals continued to play comeback kings with come-from-behind series conquests of the Phillies in the NLDS and, memorably, the Texas Rangers in a raucous seven-game Fall Classic that sent retiring manager Tony La Russa out on top.

Top Seeds Be Damned
This World Series will mark the first time that both teams won fewer than 90 games during a regular non-interrupted (strike, war) season. In fact, the combined 177 wins between the Giants and Royals are just one more than the lowest aggregate in major league history, when the A’s (94-68) and New York Mets (82-79) paired up in 1973.

They’ve Met Before, You Know
In early August, the Giants traveled to Kansas City for a three-game interleague series with the Royals—and were promptly swept. In their three wins, the Royals revved up with a preview of what they would deliver in the postseason; they hit four homers, stole eight bases and the superlative Kansas City relief triumvirate of Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera and closer Greg Holland combined to throw five shutout innings.

While the Royals in top form, the Giants clearly were not. The sweep represented the low point for the Giants’ midseason swoon, from which they would be winners of just 20 of 55 games; the second base position was not fully rookie Joe Panik’s yet; and Tim Lincecum, who has yet to be heard from this entire postseason despite being on the Giants’ active roster, pitched the final game and was shellacked. From there, the Giants won 19 of their next 28 to prop themselves back into postseason position.

So yes, these two teams have met before. But don’t use the results solely as a basis of what you think will happen this week.

The Shot Seen ‘Round the World by Those Who Could Find FS1
Travis Ishikawa’s walk-off, National League-winning home run over the tall brick wall at San Francisco’s AT&T Park was the second game-winning shot in Giants postseason history. You’re probably thinking that the first was Bobby Thomson’s legendary drive in 1951 that took them to the World Series, but no—because that technically didn’t take place in a postseason game. Thomson’s homer came in a three-game tiebreaking series against the Brooklyn Dodgers to determine first place in the NL (when there just eight times and no divisions), so it all counted toward the regular season.

The first postseason walk-off homer in Giants history actually occurred three years after Thomson, in Game One of the 1954 World Series—a contest greatly remembered not because of Dusty Rhodes’ tenth-inning shot but because of Willie Mays’ famous over-the-shoulder catch at the Polo Grounds that helped keep the Giants in the game.

History Repeats Itself
Twelve years and two days before Ishikawa’s homer, the Giants won Game Five of the 2002 NLCS and advanced to the World Series with a walk-off win over the Cardinals at San Francisco, after they had tied it in the eighth inning.

History Repeats Itself
Frank Burke, the man who caught Ishikawa’s historic home run, was nice enough to forego the possible thousands he would have received down the line in an auction by giving the ball to Ishikawa after the game. All he asked in return was tickets to the World Series, but a representative for the Giants said that the best they could do was get him something for next year’s regular season—probably a midweek game against San Diego. When he was interviewed the next day by San Francisco sports talk station KNBR—the Giants’ flagship station—the morning sports talk crew of Gary Radnich and Larry Krueger were appalled and lobbied the team through public opinion to get Burke, an auto mechanic from the Central Valley, tickets to the Fall Classic. The next day, the Giants changed their minds—and Burke will be attending Game Three this Friday.

Last Year’s Anonymity, This Year’s Hero
In 2013—and for much of 2014, for that matter—Ishikawa was wondering if he had hit the end of the road. He played in just seven games split between the Yankees and Orioles in 2013, spending the rest of the time in the minors; this year, he started the season getting a bit of play in for Pittsburgh, but he was unceremoniously released after the Pirates grabbed Ike Davis from the Mets to take his spot. The Giants, whose front office has a thing for being particularly loyal to its players past and present, claimed Ishikawa—a member of the Giants’ organization from 2002-11—and sent him to the team’s Triple-A affiliate in Fresno, where he labored until he returned to the parent team in September with Michael Morse suffering an oblique injury. Ironically, it was Morse’s eighth inning pinch-hit home run—only his second hit since the end of August—that tied the game and set up Ishikawa’s heroics in the ninth.

Last Year’s Hero, This Year’s Goat
Actually it’s a little unfair to label Michael Wacha, who served up Ishikawa’s home run, the primary goat for the Cardinals’ NLCS loss. And not just because there’s other circumstances that gravely led to St. Louis’ demise, as we’ll get to momentarily. But Wacha, who at this time last year was bursting into fame with a sensational postseason performance, had not pitched for 20 days when he took the mound in the bottom of the ninth and failed to uphold a 3-3 tie. He had produced a solid 2.79 ERA through his first 15 starts, but shoulder discomfort got the best of him and he landed on the disabled list; he was activated in time to pitch four times in September but hardly looked sharp, and had not made one appearance in the postseason until Game Five.

Oblique-Di, Oblique-Da…
Beyond Wacha, there was plenty of blame to go around for the Cardinals’ NLCS exit. The St. Louis bullpen produced a 4.96 ERA and was tagged with three of the four losses. Scuffling defense led to one loss and nearly kept them from winning Game Two. Jhonny Peralta was a harmless 2-for-17. But what probably sank the Cardinals more than anything else was the oblique injury that ended all-star catcher Yadier Molina’s participation in Game Two. Molina’s replacements (Tony Cruz and veteran A.J. Pierzynski) did okay at the plate in his absence, but his command behind the plate at the catcher spot cannot be underrated, and for St. Louis to miss that really hurt them. In fact, we were asking ourselves this after Game Two: Would the Cardinals rather felt better down 2-0 in the series with a healthy Molina, or tied 1-1 with Molina no longer available?

The Missouri October Power Surge, East End Edition
The Royals won the ALCS with a total run margin of plus-six—which tied the Yankees (1950 World Series) and Chicago White Sox (2005 World Series) for the smallest such differential from a four-game sweep in postseason history.

Is it a 747 or 40,000 People?
Deadspin caught hold of a video of someone filming the sights and, more importantly, the sounds outside of Kauffman Stadium when the final out of ALCS Game Four was clinched.

The Silver (Bird) Lining
Now that the Orioles’ season is done, outfielder Adam Jones can now go to the place he earlier called his favorite to go to in Baltimore: The airport, where he’ll fly to his offseason home in San Diego.

Err Disaster
Randy Choate’s wild throw on a sacrifice bunt from the Giants’ Gregor Blanco in the bottom of the tenth—which brought home the winning run for San Francisco in its 5-4, 10-inning win in NLCS Game Three—was the first time since 1969 and the third time ever that an error ended a postseason game.

Hitting it a Wong, Wong Way
The Cardinals’ Kolten Wong had seven hits in eight postseason games—all for extra bases. Among the knocks were three doubles, a triple and three home runs—including a walk-off shot to give the Cardinals their lone NLCS win in Game Two.

You Better Swing, Because It’s Likely Going to be Called a Strike
We’ve been talking about the epidemic of strikeouts that continually resets the record books on an annual basis; there were more K’s than ever this year, the Cleveland Indians set a major league team mark for strikeouts in a year and the Cubs were called out on strikes 300 times in a single month (August).

But the baseball web site Hardball Times is telling us that the players are not wholly responsible for the problem. The umpires are to blame as well, and as evidence of that the site produced a startling infographic that shows that, over the last five years, the strike zone has grown three inches lower; the width has actually shrunk, but nowhere as fast as it has grown vertically.

MLB might want to take note of what outsiders are plainly discovering and do something about it. Umpires continue to take a rogue-like approach in establishing their own interpretations of the strike zone; unless it wants to see more players walking slowly back to the dugout with their heads drooped low, this isn’t going to get any better anytime soon.

Thank You, Mr. Roberts
Brian Roberts announced his retirement this week after struggling once again with sub-standard play when healthy enough to take the field. A two-time all-star at second base, Roberts was one of the few bright spots in the Baltimore Orioles’ recent dark times, averaging 100 runs, 46 doubles and 35 steals over six full-time years with the Orioles from 2004-09. It’s possible that he got help in fueling that production; after being named in baseball’s Mitchell Report on steroid use, he confessed that he shot up—once. A series of concussions starting in 2010 severely curtailed his output through the end of his career, averaging barely 50 games a year through his final five seasons.

A Real Citi Move For a Real Citi Team
The decsion by the New York Mets to move in the Citi Field fences three years back apparently wasn’t enough. The team has announced that they’ll be bringing in the walls even frther for 2015, with the primary focus on right and right-center—currently a respective 375 and 390 feet from home plate.

The shrinkage comes after the Mets finished dead last in the majors in home batting average at .224, with 59 homers—but opponents batted .247 (which ranked 18th) while smacking 72 dingers. So maybe the problem for the Mets, who’ve never played well at Citi Field—they’re 143-181 there over the last four years while playing.500 on the road—isn’t the field dimensions; maybe it’s just the players.

Hopefully He’ll be Asleep During Surgery
Boston first baseman Mike Napoli, whose production tailed off in 2014 with a .248 average and 17 homers due to numerous injuries everywhere on his body, has decided that his biggest medical issue is a lack of sleep—so he’s undergoing surgery in early November to rid him of sleep apnea. “I’ve tried numerous things and none of them worked,” Napoli told WEEI.com. “Dental mouth piece, CPAP machine, medicines…it’s just gotten to the point where I have to get (surgery) done.”

Its Great Stuff, If You Can Find It
Game Two of the NLCS—which went right to the wire and resulted in a walk-off victory for the Cardinals—drew a quarter of the audience that watched a NBC Sunday Night Football snoozer between the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants (a 27-0 Eagles victory). This is what happens when you bury a baseball postseason game on a cable channel (FS1) that didn’t even exist a little over a year ago.


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