The Week That Was in Baseball: September 15-21, 2008
Who Should Prevail in the Final Week—And Who Shouldn't Why Not OKC, Bud?
Strikeouts, Strikeouts and More Strikeouts Farewell, Yankee Stadium

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The Final Week: How the Postseason Races Stack Up
AL East: Tampa Bay enters the week with the 1.5-game advantage over second-place Boston, but the schedule favors a possible Red Sox uprising. Boston has seven games, all at home—with four against a deflated Cleveland team and three against the Yankees, a team long resigned to playing the spoiler. Tampa Bay, on the other hand, not only plays out the entire week on the road, but with eight games thanks to a Tuesday doubleheader at Baltimore. Granted, the Rays’ opponents—the Orioles and Detroit—are not playing A-list baseball, but this schedule will present a challenge to keep themselves fresh. Both the Rays and Red Sox will make the playoffs anyway, as it’s just a matter of better home field advantage—and, for the Rays, the distinction of pulling off the remarkable: A youthful, never-has-been suddenly reigning over, arguably, baseball’s toughest division and the game’s two biggest spenders in the Yankees and Red Sox. Advantage: Boston.

AL Central: For the Chicago White Sox, leading second-place Minnesota by 2.5 games, it’s very simple: Take at least one of three games at Minnesota in mid-week, and don’t mess up their final three games at home against Cleveland. For the Twins, who get three at home against lowly Kansas City to wrap the regular season, sweeping the White Sox means everything—and although two out of three against Chicago isn’t a bad thing, they’ll likely need help from the Indians at Chicago. Advantage: Chicago. 

NL East: A toss-up to start the week, though the New York Mets have the psychological disadvantage as the team burdened with that old, sinking feeling after blowing the big lead against Philadelphia last year; they’re on track to stage a mild repeat. The good news for the Mets is they’re at home for the rest of the regular season, starting with four against a Chicago Cub team now resting up for the playoffs. The bad news is that they finish the year against Florida, who’s come alive again—and the same team that helped deny the Mets a postseason spot at the end of last year. The worst news for the Mets is that the Phillies also play the last week at home—with three games each against NL East weaklings Atlanta and Washington, with a day in between. Advantage: Philadelphia.

NL West: The Los Angeles Dodgers have a comfortable lead over the Arizona Diamondbacks and a comfortable edge on travel; they start the week with an off-day, followed by three games at home against a San Diego outfit trying to avoid 100 losses before moseying up to San Francisco against the spunky yet relatively untalented Giants. The Diamondbacks begin things on the road with four games at St. Louis and then three at home against Colorado against Phoenix. It’s a tall task for the Snakes, one they’re not likely to overcome. Advantage: Los Angeles.

NL Wild Card: For now the four spot looks likely to be rewarded to whoever finishes second in the NL East, but let’s not forget about Milwaukee in spite of its crash-and-burn play of the last month. (Let’s do forget Florida, Houston and St. Louis, all of whom are mathematically still alive to start the week—and barely, which is a virtual synonym for ‘mathematical.’) If the Brewers are to shake off the recent past and relight the fire, this isn’t such a bad week to do it; after an off-day on Monday, Milwaukee gets six at home, the first three against last-place Pittsburgh and the final three against the Cubs, who’ll be more interested in resting starters in advance of the postseason they’ve already clinched home field advantage for. But the Brewers will likely need either the Mets or Phillies—perhaps both—to collapse. Advantage: Second-place in the NL East.

A Wee Bit Better
Seattle’s Ichiro Suzuki set a modern major league record by collecting 200 hits in eight consecutive seasons, breaking the old mark established by Wade Boggs from 1983-89. Wee Willie Keeler also knocked out at least 200 hits in eight straight years, but that took place between 1894-1901—back when foul balls were not counted as strikes.

Surpassing Thigpen
Having broken the season saves record and with his team coasting towards the postseason, Francisco Rodriguez has the luxury of adding to his unsurpassed achievement of the 2008 campaign. The Angel closer earned a one-out save on Saturday at Texas to become the first major leaguer to record 60 saves in a season. Jose Valverde of the Houston Astros is second in the majors—with 42. Two teams—Seattle and Washington—have fewer wins than Rodriguez has saves.

Fighting for Attention, Not the Postseason
Before the season started, experts looked at the schedule and figured that this past weekend’s showdown between the Tigers and Indians—two teams picked by most everyone to go toe-to-toe for the AL Central title with the rest of the division left in the dust—would be a heavyweight bout. Well, on Friday night, it was—sort of. A seventh-inning brawl featured two players whose struggles have epitomized the overall failings of both teams: Cleveland’s Fausto Carmona, whose ERA and control have both gone haywire a year after going 19-8, and Detroit’s Gary Sheffield, who’s showing plenty of rust at age 39 with a .220 average. After getting plunked on the arm by Carmona, a seething, barking Sheffield took first base and, upon drawing a throw to first, continued barking—finally getting Carmona’s attention to the point that the charge between the two began in the infield. Both players were ejected, the Indians won with a late-innings rally, 6-5, and the White Sox and Twins continued to fight it out in an altogether different way for the AL Central crown.

Dangerous When Loaded
Cuban émigré and White Sox rookie Alexi Ramirez hit his third grand slam of the year on Friday, tying a major league record for a rookie held by the Yankees’ Shane Spencer in 1998. The slam helped Chicago win at Kansas City, 9-4. After a rough start to the year, Ramirez has acclimated himself and been consistently hitting around the .300 mark, with 20 homers and 72 RBIs.

Nomo No More
Daisuke Matsuzaka broke a season record for Japanese-born major leaguers by winning his 17th game on Monday at Tampa Bay, 13-5. The second-year Red Sox pitcher, who’s only lost twice this season, surpassed Hideo Nomo, winner of 16 games for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1996, 2002 and 2003.

Now Playing on TGG
Check out Ed Attanasio’s entertaining chat with one-game-wonder Stefan Wever in TGG's latest installment of the They Were There section. Also new this week, in our Opinion section, is Eric Gouldsberry's look at baseball's infatuation with bronze statues.

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Yankee Stadium: We'll Take The First Fifty Years
Not to rain on the Yankee Stadium parade as the facility’s reign came to a close on Sunday night’s Yankee-Oriole game, but to the many who have proclaimed the Stadium as baseball’s greatest long-standing jewel...wrong. Perhaps, if the Stadium was in its original state, with the famed third-deck copper façade and early 20th-Century majesty, we would concur. But the massive overhaul given to the ballpark in the mid-1970s, which removed the elegance and gave it a sterile powder blue-and-gray modernism, simply makes it feel as if the real farewell should have taken place after the last out at the Old Stadium in 1973. When the day comes that Boston’s Fenway Park shuts its doors forever...now, there’s a real tearful farewell waiting to happen.

Having said that, we must bow to Yankee Stadium as a monumental structure drenched in history over the past eight-plus decades in a context that goes beyond baseball. Besides all of the great moments that the Yankees contributed to the facility, Yankee Stadium also played host to some of boxing’s most legendary bouts, arguably the NFL’s greatest game ever (the 1958 championship between the New York Giants and Baltimore Colts), visits from three popes and, briefly, Pelé and the New York Cosmos. In more recent times, Yankee Stadium’s proudest moment may have come in the days after 9-11, when it transcended sport and became a common ground of unity and healing for those all too deeply affected by the brutal terrorism inflicted upon New York City and elsewhere. In that regard, for all that the Stadium has given, yes, a tear can easily be shed with its closing.

"Bud Killed Us"
The Houston Astros were feeling good going into the weekend before last, having won 14 of 15 games and making a legitimate charge at the NL Wild Card with the division-leading Chicago Cubs on tap for three home games. But then Hurricane Ike roared through Houston, and up became down. Major League Baseball ordered the series moved to Milwaukee’s Miller Park, not only forcing Astro players to put behind concerns and chaos for their families, friends and homes, but also to travel last-minute and play a series that had essentially become home games for the Cubs, some 90 miles from Chicago. The Cubs, far less stressed, far less traveled, felt at home in Milwaukee; in the first game against the Astros, Carlos Zambrano threw the Cubs’ first no-hitter in 36 years, and in the second, Ted Lilly came within five outs of throwing another. It was the beginning of the end of the season for the Astros, who went on to lose five straight by a combined score of 38-5. 

The Astros fumed over the switch to Milwaukee and the funk it created. Manager Cecil Cooper called commissioner Bud Selig, his former boss in Milwaukee, and “vented” to him over the situation. Astro players quickly made T-shirts that on one side said “We survived Ike” and on the other proclaimed, “Bud killed us.” Scrambling to provide damage control, Selig placed a full-page ad in the Houston Chronicle explaining his decision and announced that MLB would donate $500,000 to benefit the victims of Ike. 

Selig claimed that he had little options on short notice but to move the series to Milwaukee, noting that he tried Phoenix, Minneapolis and St. Petersburg, if for anything else, because they were roofed facilities. But wasn’t Arlington, home of the Rangers, considered? Or, to be put a little further out of harm’s way, why not SBC Bricktown Ballpark in Oklahoma City, a gorgeous 13,000-seat minor league facility with major league field dimensions (325 down the lines but up to 415 feet in much of center field)? After all, Oklahoma City came to the rescue of the NBA’s New Orleans Hornets and became a year-long home for the team orphaned by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, ultimately rewarding the town with the Seattle SuperSonics. Although the remains of Ike were plotted by forecasters to move northward towards Oklahoma, MLB certainly would have gotten the games in before the rains came. Bad choice, Bud.

From No-Hitter to No Good
In his first start after throwing the no-hitter at Milwaukee against the Astros, Carlos Zambrano was lit up by the St. Louis Cardinals on Friday night at Chicago, 12-6. Zambrano lasted only 1.2 innings and allowed eight runs, the shortest (and likely worst) outing by any pitcher following a no-hitter since Bob Forsch in 1978. 

Should They Recheck the Elevation in Arlington?
It’s said that everything is bigger in Texas. That must include the baseball scores coming out of Arlington these days. On Friday, the Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim delivered the latest outburst of offense coming out of Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, with the Angels surviving, 15-13. For the record, the Rangers have been involved in seven games this season in which both teams scored ten or more runs; overall, they’ve reached double digits 23 times and have allowed their opponents to do the same in 26 games. By contrast, the Colorado Rockies—who play half of their games in the juiced, mile-high air of Denver—have scored ten or more runs just 14 times in 2008, while allowing opponents ten or more 14 times as well.

Kings of the Whiffs
This past week, Jack Cust struck out for the 187th time this season, breaking an American League record held for 21 years by Rob Deer. This coming week, it’s possible that Cust—and more likely, Philadelphia’s Ryan Howard and Arizona’s Mark Reynolds—will become the first major leaguers to strike out over 200 times. If you see a trend, you are correct, sir. Last year, a record-setting 86 players struck out over 100 times. With a week to go, some 80 players have already reached 100 this season, and with a horde of guys closing in, it’s likely the bar will be raised yet again. By contrast, 38 players struck out over 100 times 20 years ago, in 1988; in 1968, that figure was 18; and 20 years before that, in 1948, there was just one player who whiffed past the century mark. It’s official: Discipline at the plate has become a dinosaur.

The Strive for 35
Alex Rodriguez, having a relatively quiet season (the tabloids notwithstanding), hit his 35th home run of the year on Wednesday against the Chicago White Sox—the 12th time in his career he has reached 35, a major league first.

This Week's Challenger to Joe DiMaggio
Kelly Johnson of the Atlanta Braves ends this past week with the majors’ longest active hitting streak, at 19 games. His streak began on September 1 and has continued through the month, hitting .405 with eight doubles, three triples, two homers and 15 RBIs during.

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