The Week That Was in Baseball: August 17-23, 2009
Which Teams Have the Easiest—and Most Difficult—Road to October?
Unassisted Glory for Eric Bruntlett
Long Odds for Stephen Strasburg

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An Unassisted Finish
Unassisted triple plays seem to come in bunches. There were six of them over an eight-year period during the 1920s; then, over the next 65 years, there was just one turned. On Sunday at New York, Philadelphia second baseman Eric Bruntlett performed the seventh unassisted triple play over the last 16 years, the third in as many years, the 15th overall in major league history and only the second to finish a game to preserve the Phillies’ 9-7 win over the Mets. Bruntlett achieved the rare feat the way it normally happens: By catching a line drive off the bat of Jeff Francoeur, doubling off Luis Castillo at second and tagging out Daniel Murphy, both of whom were moving on a hit-and-run attempt. The only other unassisted gem to finish a ballgame took place in 1927 when Johnny Nuen pulled off the hat trick of outs all by his lonesome for the Detroit Tigers in a 1-0 win over Cleveland.

Mission Impossible?
Stephen Strasburg became the 14th pitcher selected as the number one pick in the MLB draft since the process began back in 1965, fetching a record $22 million ($7 million of that in the form of a signing bonus). Strasburg and his 103-MPH fastball has his work cut out for him, and not simply because he’s charged with the unenviable task of turning around the woeful Washington Nationals. Not one of the previous 13 pitchers chosen as number one has ever produced a 20-win season, and only four of them (Mike Moore, Alan Benes, Tim Belcher and Floyd Bannister) ever won over 100 in a career. There have also been three flameouts among the list: David Clyde (18 career wins), Bryan Bullington (still active, but also still looking for his first career win) and Brien Taylor, who never even made it to the majors after being selected tops by the New York Yankees in 1991. So good luck, Stephen, this is your mission as you’ve chosen to accept it. Hopefully you’re career will not self-destruct in five seconds.

Cubs Sold! Cubs Sold!
Baseball’s longest-running formality finally appears to have come to an end this past week with the purchase of the Chicago Cubs by the Ricketts family from the Tribune Company. The Cubs were originally put up for sale in early 2007, hoping a deal would be done by the end of that year; at the time, the team’s worth—which included historic Wrigley Field—was said to be $1 billion. Thanks to the recession, which forced Tribune to go bankrupt, the Ricketts family was able to buy the team at a relative discount of $845 million. Tribune, which paid a mere $20.5 million to buy the Cubs in 1981, will still have a healthy stake in the team, but the Ricketts will be calling the shots.

Fifteen at Ten
The Florida Marlins’ bid for a major league record ended this past week when their streak of collecting ten hits a game ended at 15—three shy of the mark co-owned by the 1922 St. Louis Browns—perhaps the one and only Browns team good enough to win a World Series—and the 1925 Cleveland Indians. Florida’s streak ended on Thursday when Houston’s Wandy Rodriguez—having a terrific year for the Astros—held the Marlins to four hits. The Marlins hit .329 during the streak, the longest since a 15-game run by the 1937 St. Louis Browns, a more typically bad version of the team now known as the Baltimore Orioles who finished that campaign at 46-108, despite the AL’s second-best team average at .285.

Not a Weak Spot to be Found
The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim finished their 5-4 win over the Cleveland Indians with all nine of its starting players hitting at or over .300 for the year. Only the 1930 St. Louis Cardinals have finished a season in which each of their everyday position players batted over .300; of course, in 1930, the entire National League batted .303.

More Head Games
The wave of players knocked out of action by balls hit off their heads appears to have reached the minors. This past Monday, Darin Downs, a Class-AA pitcher for Montgomery in the Tampa Bay farm system, was struck on the head while pitching in Birmingham; as the ball deflected into the dugout—on the fly—Downs fell to the ground with a fractured skull. He was placed in the ICU at a local hospital, where he stayed for two days. By Wednesday he was listed in stable condition. Meanwhile, the New York Mets’ David Wright and the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Hiroki Kuroda—both hit in the head last week—are currently serving time on the disabled list as a result of their injuries.

An Eye For the Dirt
Umpire Doug Eddings, whose name (along with that of A.J. Pierzynski) will live in infamy among any fans of the Angels who’ll recall the 2005 ALCS, figured in another look-fast call at home plate in Thursday’s game at Washington between the Nationals and Colorado. With two out in the fifth, the Rockies’ Carlos Gonzalez was called out on a foul tip into the glove of catcher Josh Bard for the third out—except Eddings ruled that the ball hit the dirt first, bringing the count back to two strikes. The curious part of all of this is that Eddings made the call not from behind home plate, but at second base, where somehow he was able to see the ball strike the dirt before heading into Bard’s glove; replays proved him correct. The Rockies we’ll certainly send a thank-you note of some kind to Eddings; Gonzalez, given new life, launched a bloop double that scored two runners and broke a scoreless tie, on the Rockies’ way to a 4-1 victory.

Ham Fightin' Sledge Hammered by the Swine
Terrmel Sledge, who played in the majors from 2004-07 and is now in Japan, was one of two players and a coach from the Nippon Ham Fighters to be infected with the swine flu this past week. The rest of team is being closely looked after in the aftermath of this discovery.

Rookie Parade
The Oakland A’s began the month of August by starting a rookie on the mound in 15 straight games, four short of the major league record established by the St. Louis Cardinals at the end of the 1997 season. During this stretch, the rookie starters were 5-6 with a 4.66 ERA. There’s been so many rookies on the A’s this year, we wonder: Who’s doing the hazing?

In the House in Wobbly Spirit
On Friday at Oakland, it was Jason Giambi Bobblehead Night, two weeks after Giambi was released by the A’s. By the time this gets read, Giambi could be in a Colorado Rockies uniform.

Dangerous Cliff
Cliff Lee appears to be reverting back to Cy Young form. Energized by his trade to Philadelphia, the former Cleveland Indian—after going 4-9 in his first 19 starts of the year—has won in each of his last seven outings, going the distance in four of them. Lee’s ERA during this run is a miniscule 1.09, and he’s struck out 48 batters in 58 innings—while walking just six.

Bitchin' on Mitch
A day after slamming the Mitchell Report from which he was a suspected steroid user, Oakland slugger Jack Cust took out his frustrations by hitting a solo homer against the New York Yankees—ending a long drought in which he had gone almost a month without a RBI. During this span of 23 games, Cust batted just .169 with just one extra base hit, but true to his form, he collected more walks (23) than hits (12). Cust denied ever taking performance enhancement drugs, as suggested in the Mitchell Report, and suspected that the report itself is tainted because George Mitchell was affiliated with the Boston Red Sox, a team from which no players where named in the report—all despite recent revelations that David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez and pitcher Bronson Arroyo were all PED users in Boston.

This Week's Challenger to Joe DiMaggio
This is one week where the ghost of the Yankee Clipper is feeling beyond smug about his long-standing and, it seems with each passing year, unbreakable mark of hitting safely in 56 straight games. At the end of this past week, the best anyone can vouch to closing in on DiMaggio’s record is Texas’ Michael Young, who carries the majors’ longest active hitting streak—at 11 games. Even if Young were to keep the streak alive and break DiMaggio’s mark, he wouldn’t be able to do it until after Opening Day 2010.

The Comebacker’s Greatest Hits
Click here to look at the TGG Comebacker archive going back to the start of the 2007 season.

Who's In and Out for October
The way things are looking, don’t expect much change at the top of the standings through the rest of the regular season; the six divisional leaders going into this week all have easy schedules to play out and keep their distance on the competition. Only the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and Philadelphia Phillies look even somewhat vulnerable in terms of strength of schedule, but they’ve also been two of the hotter teams of late. The wild card derby remains wide open, with several neck-and-neck races likely to go to the wire.

Here’s a breakdown of those teams still in contention, and their chances of making into the postseason.

The New York Yankees play 16 of their next 23 games at the new Yankee Stadium, a place they seemed to have mastered; 12 of those 23 will also be played against AL East underlings Toronto and Baltimore. Assuming they don’t slip up during this stretch, they’re a lock to win the AL East.

The Boston Red Sox have healthy head-on competition over their next 22 games, with action against Chicago, Tampa Bay and Los Angeles of Anaheim—but 15 of those games will be at Fenway Park. If they can get past that in good shape, only three of their remaining 17 games will be against a team over .500 (at New York, Sept. 25-27), and the wild card could very well be theirs.

Eighteen of the Tampa Bay Rays’ next 25 games will be on the road. The week of September 7—one in which the Rays play seven road games at New York and Boston—will likely make or break their season.

The Detroit Tigers have an easy road compared to the chest-thumping White Sox, with most of their remaining play against relatively weak AL Central opponents. With 12 of the season’s final 15 games against Chicago and Minnesota, the Tigers have total control of their destiny.

Six of the Chicago White Sox’ final nine games will be against the current front-running Tigers, but they can’t afford to look ahead; 14 of their next 20 are on the road and include stops in Boston, New York and Los Angeles of Anaheim (not to mention a one-game make-up at Wrigley against the Cubs); the six home games during this rough stretch will include a four-game series against Boston. If they survive early September intact, they have a shot; if they don’t, it’s adios, amigos.

The Minnesota Twins have the easiest schedule of the three competing AL Central teams, but they also have the most ground to make up. Six games each against the Tigers and White Sox will undoubtedly be crucial for their fading hopes.

The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have it easy over the next two-plus weeks, with the majority of their games against Oakland, Seattle and Kansas City; from there, the competition gets a bit tougher, with three games against the White Sox, four against the Yankees, three against the Red Sox and seven against divisional rival Texas. But the final bit of good news for the Angels is that they play their final 13 games in the state of California.

After this week’s road swing through New York and Minnesota, the Texas Rangers have it really easy through mid-September with only a three-game home series against Seattle being their only .500-plus competition. The Rangers need to power up during this span to make their remaining seven games against the Angels in late September meaningful. If that fails, they still have the wild card to play for.

The Philadelphia Phillies are playing as if they have the NL East locked down, but if there’s a time they don’t want to slip up the rest of the way, it’ll be during a ten-game road swing in late September when they have consecutive three-game series at divisional contenders Atlanta and Florida. Odds are that one of those teams will stay sharp, so the Phillies had best stay on their toes.

The Atlanta Braves’ season may be decided this coming week with seven road games—three at Philadelphia, four at Florida. If they survive that ordeal and are still alive by late September, they’ll get three more shots each against those two teams—all at home.

The Florida Marlins need to take advantage of a relatively easy schedule that lies immediately ahead of them, for they finish the season with six road games—three at Atlanta, three at Philly. As a bonus, the Marlins are hoping the Phillies will be resting on their NL East-winning laurels for that final series if Florida is still in the hunt for the wild card.

The NL Central title is clearly for the St. Louis Cardinals to lose at this point. They play 21 of their remaining 36 games at home, and their remaining road fare consists of Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Houston, Colorado and Cincinnati. If the Cardinals can stay focused, they’re in.

The Chicago Cubs actually have a bigger cakewalk of a schedule to play than the Cardinals—but they got seven games to make up in the standings. Yet with 24 of 40 games to be played at Wrigley Field and an abundance of creampuff NL Central competition still to come, the Cubs have the best shot among the NL Central outsiders to catch the Cardinals—and perhaps slipping into the crowded wild card race.

Outside of six games each left against Colorado and San Francisco, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ remaining schedule is laughable; the other five teams they square off against (Cincinnati, Arizona, San Diego, Washington and Pittsburgh) just happen to be the five worst in the NL. If the Dodgers blow the NL West lead, they’ll categorically have no one to blame but themselves.

As far as the competition goes, the Colorado Rockies’ degree of difficulty is a bit tougher than the Dodgers, but with 23 of their remaining 38 games to be played at Coors Field, the advantage to the Rockies’ playoff chances is considerable. But: Of their 15 remaining road contests, nine are split between San Francisco and Los Angeles. If they bomb in California, it’s trouble in Denver.

Like the Rockies, the San Francisco Giants have the majority of their remaining games at home, but they also have road stops left in Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Los Angeles. The Giants have six home games left against wild card rival Colorado; it’s crucial that they win as many of those as possible if they want to experience the postseason.

A Backfire, For Now
Here’s hoping that the A’s got some good long-term prospects for Matt Holliday when they traded him to the St. Louis Cardinals, because they obviously got the short end of the stick in the deal that sent Holliday to Oakland from Colorado. Closer Huston Street has converted 33 of 34 save opportunities for the Rockies this year, while outfielder Carlos Gonzalez is hitting .373 with seven home runs after the All-Star break as he matures into the role of a starter with the Rockies.

A Boy Name Joe
Tampa Bay Ray manager Joe Maddon made some news off the field this past week when he dyed his hair black in advance of what he called a “Johnny Cash-themed road trip” that the Rays would be embarking on. Since when did the majors have teams in Nashville and Folsom?

Wounded of the Week
The epidemic of mental-related issues continues to sideline major leaguers. This past week we heard that Oakland pitcher Justin Duchscherer, who hasn’t thrown a pitch for the A’s this season after starting last year’s All-Star Game for the AL, will miss the rest of the year due to what is listed as clinical depression. Duchscherer has struggled to come back from arthroscopic elbow surgery in March, but his depression is said to partially be the result of “non-baseball” issues.

Also getting a seat on the ouch couch this past week are starting pitchers Aaron Cook (Colorado), Johnny Cueto (Cincinnati), Kyle Lohse (St. Louis) and Houston’s Mike Hampton—who says he’ll tough it out after a planned 15-day spell despite the fact he’ll be pitching with a torn rotator cuff.