Welcome to the Stretch Run
We enter the final two weeks of the regular season with much drama to behold in one leagueand essentially none in the other.
The lack of suspense is to be found in the American League, where all four playoff spots are virtually sewn up; the only fluid point remains in the AL East, where it’s just a matter of who between the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays will finish firstand who will get the wild card. The AL Central-leading Minnesota Twins, with a resounding sweep at Chicago this past week to put the final nail in the White Sox’ coffin, and the Texas Rangers in the West have all but locked up first place in their groupings.
By stark contrast, almost everything is up in the air in regards to the National League postseason picture. The closest thing to a sure bet lies in the NL Central, where the Cincinnati Reds hold a comfortable lead over the sputtering St. Louis Cardinals. But Philadelphia and Atlanta are fighting it out for the NL East title, and the West is a ménage-à-trois of contenders (San Francisco, San Diego and Colorado) all vying for the top spot. There’s fight-to-the-death pressure built upon all these teams, for unlike the situation in the AL East, the second place finalist is not guaranteed as a wild card.
Momentum shifts will be felt to start this week with the Braves going head-on against the Phillies for a three-game set in Philadelphia; at week’s end, the Giants head into Colorado to try and blunt the Rockies’ knack for winning often and late in September, as they’ve done with great efficiency since 2007’s historic run to the World Series.
Wake Us Up in October
Perhaps fans in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area realize that one way or another, the Rays are getting into the playoffsso why bother to watch until then? When the defending champion Yankees came to town this past week for a crucial three-game midweek series, attendance for all three games fell well short of capacity at the 36,000-seat Tropicana Dome. For the Monday opener, 26,907 showed up; on Tuesday, the count was 28,713; and on Wednesday, the official figure was upped to 29,733. Not even the plethora of Yankee fans that usually flood the ballpark could completely pack the joint.
Wake Us Up in 2012
Philadelphia’s media scribes couldn’t help but notice the stark difference between the constant sellout home crowds for the Phillies and the nearly empty expanses of Sun Life Stadium when the team visited Miami to take on the Marlins this past week. David Murphy of the Philadelphia Daily News: “To the naked eye, there were barely enough witnesses to get the game notarized. Probably some wives and girlfriends. Some families, no doubt. Maybe a fan or two who had passed out in the upper deck during the Dolphins' 15-10 win over the Bills on Sunday.” Frank Fitzpatrick of the Philadelphia Inquirer: “During Game 3…the press-box announcer’s microphone sputtered. The only clearly audible words that emerged were ‘seven-thirty.’ Perhaps only here, in the sporting morgue that is Marlins baseball at Sun Life Stadium, could listeners not be certain whether he was citing the game’s starting time or its attendance.”
The Marlins announced crowds of roughly 16-20,000 for each of the three games between the Marlins and Phillies, but reporters believed the actual total in the house per game was somewhere in the 3-5,000 range. Those “no-shows” will show up to the Marlins’ new ballpark in 2012won’t they?
The End of Torrewood
It may not be so much a retirement for Torre as it is an escape from the Dodgers, an organization that has grown disorganized thanks to the messy divorce at the top of the executive depth chart between Frank and Jamie McCourt. So Torre will leave the potential ruins of the franchise to his mentor, former Yankee hitting great Don Mattingly, who’s been at his side as a bench coach for seven years; rumor already has it that Torre might be interested in stepping back into the dugout as manager of the New York Mets, where he began his managerial career in 1977.
Joe Torre surprised almost no one this past week by announcing that he would be stepping down as manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Fifth on the all-time list among managers with 2,318 wins, The 70-year old Torre is wrapping up his 29th year at the helm and his third with the Dodgers, his fifth team. He has reached the postseason in 15 of those seasons, including the last two with the Dodgers and 12 straight campaigns with the New York Yankees, for whom he won four championships.
A Voice of Sanity From the Past
As the stock in futures for the Dodgers continues to plummet, former team owner Peter O’Malleywhose father Walter brought the team west from Brooklyn in 1958went on public record this past week to state that the Dodgers need new ownership, saying that the McCourts have lost “all credibility throughout the city” and that local investors are badly needed to take over. O’Malley, who sold the team to Fox in 1998, said he was not interested in regaining control of the Dodgers but would help to transition the team to new ownership. A Dodger spokesman for responded to O’Malley’s comments by insisting that Frank McCourt intends to run the Dodgers in the “long-term” and “looks forward to the day when his four boys own and operate the team.”
What to Look For in 2011
The other curious point regarding the schedule is that it will begin at the end of Marchin midweekand finish before September, also in midweek, to allow the postseason to start on a weekend and finish before the end of October.
The tentative schedule for the 2011 MLB season was released this week, and as usual, most of the attention is centered on the more intriguing interleague matchups. The one that stands out the most was is a visit by the Chicago Cubs to Boston’s Fenway Park, their first since losing the 1918 World Series to the Red Sox. Elsewhere, the Blue Jays will try again to host the Philadelphia Phillies in Toronto without the G20 butting in; negotiations continue to have San Francisco and Arizona open the season in Taiwan; and the Seattle Mariners are looking into an alternate site to host an interleague series with Florida because the current dates conflict with a U2 concert already scheduled at Safeco Field.
Keeping His Word
Volatile Chicago Cub pitcher Carlos Zambrano reconfirmed his desire to retire from baseball once his five-year, $91 million contract expires in 2012. “Life is short, believe me,” Zambrano said after helping to defeat St. Louis this past Wednesday, “Sometimes you miss things in life because of baseball that you shouldn’t miss. I want to be (there for) any moment for my daughter, any moment for anything that happens, especially in my family.” After a terrible start to the year in which he was demoted to the bullpen and fought with teammates in the dugout, the Cubs probably couldn’t wait to get rid of Zambrano; now they’ve probably got a change of heart since his return to the rotation. In eight starts since August 9, Zambrano is 6-0 with a 1.59 ERA.
The Iron Prince
If Cal Ripken Jr. is looking behind to see who’s the guy closest to threatening his remarkable record of 2,630 consecutive games played, he’s going to need something akin to the Hubble Space Telescope to find him. Milwaukee slugger Prince Fielder had the longest active streak going until this past week, when an illness sidelined him and ended a run of 327 straight games with his name somewhere in the lineup. Fielder’s streak, though far from Ripken Jr.’s mark, did establish the standard as the longest in Brewer history.
Three-Bagging to 100
Detroit’s Johnny Damon joined Tampa Bay’s Carl Crawford this past week as the only active major leaguers with 100 career triples. Philadelphia’s Jimmy Rollins may cross the threshold as well if he can knock out two more this season. Only 17 other current players have as many as 50; in case you were wondering, Sam Crawford is the all-time leader with 309.
An Uninvited Guest
The local media in Cincinnati pointed out this week that Red pitcher Bronson Arroyo has won at least 15 games in each of his last three seasons, something only three others have done during that same span. Lucky man, that Arroyo; his ERA during this time is 4.21, while the other three pitchersRoy Halladay (2.68 ERA), CC Sabathia (3.03) and Jon Lester (3.27) are all more deserving of their presence in this category.
Toto, I Have a Feeling We're Not in the Kingdome Anymore
Ken Griffey Jr. apparently hasn’t been the only Seattle designated hitter to be asleep at the plate (never mind the clubhouse) this year. For the year, Mariners hitting in the DH spot are collectively hitting .189, far and away the worse such figure in the AL.
With a double and home run this past week, Brandon Wood of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim made gains on avoiding the embarrassment of becoming the player with the lowest OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) among players with a minimum of 200 at-bats in almost 100 years. Wood’s OPS was at .408 to end the week, a slightly higher figure then that of Kansas City’s Tony Pena Jr. (.398) in 2008. In 1912, 17-year old Frank O’Rourke hit .122 with 11 walks and four extra-base hits for the Boston Braves to produce a .325 OPS; he returned to the majors five years later older, wiser and more seasoned a player, collecting 1,000 hits over a 14-year career that ended in 1931.
This Week's Challenger to Joe DiMaggio
He hasn’t been overwhelming, but Cleveland’s Michael Brantley has found a way to get a hit here and there and piece together a 19-game hitting streak that, at weekend’s end, is the longest active run going in the majors. The 23-year old rookie outfielder is hitting only .286 during his streak, explained by the fact that he’s had only seven multi-hit games during this span (and four games in which he’s had at least six at-bats). Nevertheless, this is the longest streak by a Cleveland rookie since Larry Doby hit in 21 straight games in 1948.
The Comebacker’s Greatest Hits
Click here to look at the TGG Comebacker archive going back to the start of the 2007 season.
Singing the Post-Cy Young Blues
Kansas City ace pitcher Zack Greinke received 11 runs of support in his Tuesday start at home against Oakland, a rare gift of offense from his Royal teammates who for the most part have abandoned him whenever he’s taken the mound this year. (The bullpen, which has blown many leads he’s left with, hasn’t helped either.) While Greinke’s 9-12 record and 3.90 earned run average still pales in comparison to his sterling work of the year before, he’s far from having the worst performance by a reigning Cy Young Award winner. So, wouldn’t you like to know who’s at the top of that list? Here are five who suddenly lost it, in alphabetical order:
Bartolo Colon, 2006. Colon capped an exceptional eight-year run (during which he accrued a 135-75 record) by winning a career-high 21 games to nab the Cy in 2005. But pitching that postseason, Colon tore his rotator cuff and he was never the same; in 2006 he only won one game in ten starts (losing five) with a 5.11 ERA and struggled over the next three years to return to form. He last pitched in 2009.
Mark Davis, 1990. No Cy winner has been more flash-in-the-pan than Davis, who toiled for nearly a decade as an unsuccessful starter and common-player reliever until he sprang to life with San Diego in 1989, saving 44 games with a 1.85 ERA. A free agent, Davis’ success netted gold in the form of a three-year deal with Kansas City for nearly $10 million; his first year with the Royals set the tone for an ugly tenure, blowing four saves early before losing the closer role to Jeff Montgomery. Davis finished the 1990 season with a 2-7 record and 5.11 ERA, and afterward never came close to recapturing the magic of 1989.
Denny McLain, 1970. After winning 55 games with two Cys in 1968-69 (he shared the 1969 award with Mike Cuellar), McLain’s bid for an unprecedented third straight Cy went straight out the door before Opening Day even started when commissioner Bowie Kuhn suspended him for the first three months of the 1970 season for his gambling ties. McLain was not only ineffective when he returnedproducing a 3-5 record and 4.63 ERAhe was in a foul mood to boot, receiving another suspension for dumping water on two Detroit sportswriters. He lost 22 games the next year and was out of baseball by 1973.
Steve Stone, 1981. A serviceable starter throughout the 1970s, Stone exploded into the spotlight in 1980 when he won a career-high 25 games against just seven losses with a 3.23 ERA for Baltimore. The curveball that gave him that success led to his downfall in 1981, as he struggled with tendinitis and finished with a 4-7 record and 4.60 ERA; at that point, the 34-year old Stone retired from the game and moved on to a furtive career as a TV analyst for the Cubs and, currently, the White Sox.
Pete Vuckovich, 1983. After leading the AL with 14 wins in 1981 and authoring an 18-6 mark to win the Cy in 1982 for Milwaukee, Vuckovich paid the price for the shoulder pains he absorbed during that time by discovering a torn rotator cuff in the spring of 1983. He recovered well enough to pitch late that season, but was 0-2 in three games with a 4.91 ERA. He never recovered, missing the entire 1984 season and going a combined 8-14 from 1985-86 before calling it quits.
Was Tawny Kitaen in Town?
What’s a pennant race without a mysterious, disfiguring injury to the face of a contending team’s star? Last year, it was Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera who showed up with a series of scratches and bruises on his face in the waning days of an intensely tight divisional race between his Tigers and Minnesota. (Cabrera gave a cover story at first, later admitted he got beat up by his furious wife after an all-night drinking binge, and in the aftermath his potent bat iced over as the Tigers bowed to the Twins in 163 games.)
On Friday, it was New York Yankee pitcher A.J. Burnett’s turn to take the moundand to face the media to explain a black eye and discolored cheek he suddenly showed up with at the ballpark. Burnett did his work on the mound, throwing seven sound innings at Baltimore, but refused to discuss the shiner with the media, saying only that it wasn’t “baseball-related.” Yankee manager Joe Girardi and team general manager Brian Cashman, both publicly unaware of what caused the damage to Burnett’s face, laughed off his appearance in what seemed to be a desperate attempt to move on.
CC at XX
After falling a win shy of 20 in both 2007 and 2009, Yankee ace starter CC Sabathia became the majors’ first 20-game winner of the season when he put in his usual quality work at Baltimore to help give the Yankees an 11-3 win on Saturday. Other 20-game winners will likely follow before the 2010 season is done; it would be a disappointment for Philadelphia’s Roy Halladay, St. Louis’ Adam Wainwright and Colorado’s Ubaldo Jimenez (currently at 19 wins) to not get there; Jon Lester, at 18 wins, has three more shots. Three other pitchers, each with 17 wins, have an outside shot at 20: Tampa Bay’s David Price, Minnesota’s Carl Pavano and Detroit’s Justin Verlander.
When we placed Oakland rookie Chris Carter upon the podium of shame back in mid-August as our worst AL hitter of the week, we noted that his 0-for-19 performance was just four hitless at-bats shy of the all-time mark for the most to start a major league career. Apparently we stumbled upon some erroneous information: The record actually belongs to Vic Harris, who in 1972 started big league life by going 0-for-36. So this is a reprieve for Carter, but not for much longer; he finished the weekend 0-for-32 with 13 strikeouts. Harris, by the way, overcame his bad start enough to hang around in the majors for eight years, hitting .217 in 1,610 at-bats.
...And Those Who Teach, Teach Pitching
Players in other sports struggling to reach the big time supplement their dreams by working in the back of a convenience store or building homes. Here’s a tip for baseball’s career minor leaguers: Try teaching. It worked for Jim Morris, who taught science before stumbling upon a 98-MPH fastball that famously lured the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in a tale that inspired the film The Rookie. And it apparently worked for Bobby Cramer, a substitute teacher who finally ended years of minor league captivity when he became the oldest pitcher, at 30, to make his debut for the A’s since Steve Gerkin in 1945 (and chances were, Gerkin was plucked onto the team because he was the only living male body available in Philadelphia as World War II reached its peak). Cramer made the feel-good moment feel even better when he allowed a run on four hits in 5.1 innings to earn credit for Oakland’s 3-1 win at Kansas City this past Monday. (He also beat the Twins at Minnesota with a similar effort on Sunday.) This year alone, Cramer’s path to the majors took him through Cancun, Stockton, Midland and Sacramento.
Texas second baseman Ian Kinsler was briefly suspended for one game this past week when, after being ejected from a September 10 game against New York at Arlington, he came back on the field to celebrate a walk-off, 13th-inning home run by Nelson Cruz to beat the Yankees, 6-5. According to the umpires, Kinsler stepped back on the field before Cruz touched home plate, thus violating the terms of his dismissal. Kinsler appealed the suspensionand won.
Rogers Hornsby never did it. Neither did Jeff Kent. Or Ryne Sandberg, or Joe Gordon or Joe Morgan. But Dan Uggla has. The 30-year old Florida Marlin became the first second baseman in major league history to record four 30-homer seasons (all consecutively) when he knocked one over the fence against Philadelphia this past Monday. Uggla hit 31 long balls in 2007, 32 in 2008, and 31 in 2009.
Atlanta rookie reliever Mike Dunn has thrown 14.1 scoreless innings since being called up by the Braves in mid-Julydespite walking 15 batters during that time. He’s allowed seven hits as well.
With Nary a Syringe in Sight
Here’s another sign that the steroid era has come to an end. When the Los Angeles Dodgers edged the Giants at San Francisco 1-0 on one hit this past Tuesday, it was the 26th time this year that a team ahs recorded one or no hitstying a major league record set back in 1988.
Omitted For Your Approval
The New York Mets’ team photo was taken this past week without pitcher Johan Santana (recovering from shoulder surgery) and closer Francisco Rodriguez, currently banned after his altercation with the father of his girlfriend in August. According to the New York Daily News, a team spokesman said that an image of Santana would be Photoshopped into the team pic, but not Rodriguez. A follow-up to the Mets produced nothing definitive on the subject, but you can bet where the team is going with this. We’ll also see if the players’ union is truly anal enough to bring a complaint over this.
Wounded of the Week
There is also news out of New York that Yankee first baseman Mark Teixeira has been playing with a broken toe since being hit by a pitch on August 31, and although he’s actually continued to play and will not be placed on the disabled list as of this posting, his drop in performance (no homers, .211 average in September) is telling.
Among those who will be missing out on the remainder of the season after being shut down this past week include Florida pitching ace Josh Johnson (back), potential future New York Met ace Jenrry Mejia (shoulder), Baltimore rookie pitcher Jake Arrieta (elbow), and Pittsburgh outfielder Lastings Milledge (oblique).
Now Playing at TGG
From the Opinion section, our choices for the ten most memorable home runs ever hit. Check it out now.
Coming Soon to TGG
This coming week, we'll be posting the latest installment of They Were There, with TGG's Ed Attanasio chatting with former speed burner Maury Wills.