The Weekly Comebacker: The baseball week in review
The Week That Was in Baseball: September 27-October 3, 2010
Avoiding Insanity on the West Coast Is the NL Rookie Class the Best Ever?
Can it Get Worse for the New York Mets? The Overdue Departure of Gene Orza

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Baseball's Ten Most Memroable Home Runs
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After Further Review: Making the Right Call on Replay
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It Ain't Over Until It's Finally, Truly, Surely Over
By beating the San Diego Padres on Sunday, the San Francisco Giants helped MLB avoid a complex agenda that would have required the second place team in the NL West to play 164 regular season games to earn a spot in the postseason. Had the Padres won on Sunday and pulled off a three-game sweep of the Giants in San Francisco, the two teams would have reconvened in San Diego on Monday for a 163rd game to determine first place in the NL West; the loser of that game would have then played Atlanta in a 164th game to determine who would be the NL wild card representative. But the Giants’ 3-0 win over the Padres, giving them their first NL West title in seven years, made the wild scenario moot—as the Padres’ loss gave the Braves the wild card spot outright.

First Place, Second City
It’s amazing that Tampa Bay owner Stuart Sternberg hasn’t done like the White Sox, Mariners, Rangers and Giants before him and used the St. Petersburg card to get a better ballpark or threaten a move to Florida. (Oh—he’s already there.) As we’ve been noting all summer, the Rays are having yet another outstanding year—topping the New York Yankees for AL East supremacy—and few in Tampa-St. Pete seemed to care. In their final regular season home series against Baltimore early this past week, the Rays drew 12,446 on Monday, 17,891 on Tuesday—the day the Rays clinched a postseason spot—and sold out in their Wednesday home finale only because the Rays gave away 20,000 free tickets. That’s a helluva way for a team to express fan appreciation; now only if the fans could appreciate back.

The Wednesday giveaway was prompted after young Tampa Bay stars Evan Longoria and David Price publicly expressed their dissatisfaction with local fan support. Longoria called the poor attendance embarrassing and disheartening, and he’s right—except that he was largely taken to task by fans and the media for being the wrong guy (big-time player with lots of money) calling out locals who may not have the dough, if not the inclination, to attend a major league baseball game. To those critics, we fire back this question: If not Longoria, who speaks to the lack of support? Joe the St. Pete plumber? Mayor Disappointed, who can’t get even the political support to put a vote out for a new ballpark? Maybe it’s Sternberg, who can strike fear in a lot of folks in the Tampa Bay area by uttering these very simple words: “I like Portland in the summer.”

Meanwhile, in Cincinnati...
On the same night the Rays struggled to half-fill Tropicana Field to secure a playoff spot, the Cincinnati Reds drew 30,000 (not a sellout, but a strong gathering nonetheless) in their thrilling, 3-2 walk-off win over Houston to clinch the NL Central title. Not only will it be the first postseason appearance by the Reds since 1995, it comes during their first winning season since 2000. But here’s something to think about if you’re going to lay a bet in favor of the Reds this postseason; they were 30-41 against teams with a .500 or better record this season.

Drone Above the Infield
For the postseason, Fox will be making use of the floating cameras often used in NFL games to given fans a perspective not unlike what they see in the Madden video games. ESPN once used the camera, which looks something like the floating robot from the “Star Trek” episode Requiem for Methuselah, in some of its Sunday night telecasts a few years back, but it was only allowed along the sidelines, not over the field of play. Ground rules are being hashed out in the event a well-hit baseball smashes one of those things to bits.

Goin' Down the Toilet in Flushing
The Pittsburgh Pirates are the worst team in baseball, Kansas City and Washington continue to go nowhere and the Los Angeles Dodgers are in organizational disarray…but no team seems to have a more depressing vibe going right now than the New York Mets. The underachieving Mets secured a second straight losing season on Wednesday in appropriate fashion, committing three errors and getting roundly beat by Milwaukee 9-2 before an actual crowd estimated by local media to be only 1,000 at second-year Citi Field.

At season’s end, reports ran rampant that manager Jerry Manuel and general manager Omar Minaya would be served with their walking papers—but beyond that, the Mets have bigger problems, with some clubhouse dissension, definite tension between players and management, fighting between players and relatives (Francisco Rodriguez), an owner likely still reeling from the loss of mega-millions from Bernie Madoff and, as referenced earlier, a new ballpark in a major metropolis that’s far from filled on a daily basis.

Remember that crying kid splashed across the daily New York tabloids after watching the Mets give away a postseason spot on the season’s final day in 2007? He’s probably a Yankee fan now.

Don't Forget Cito
Lost amid all the pomp and ceremony given to retiring Atlanta manager Bobby Cox was the praise heaped upon another veteran manager calling it quits, Toronto’s Cito Gaston. Surely, part of the reason for his relative lack of notice is that he hasn’t strung together a long stretch of success the way Cox did, but his two tenures with the Blue Jays were impressive in different ways; he got his first shot at managing early in 1989, reviving a talented Toronto team to an AL East title—followed by three consecutive divisional crowns from 1991-93, the latter two leading to back-to-back world championships. Returning to the helm at Toronto in 2008 after an 11-year hiatus, Gaston got overachieving results from a team that appeared to be losing out in the world of free agency.

The 66-year old Gaston was given a grand send-off before Wednesday’s regular season home finale, as players past and present took part in a 30-minute ceremony honoring him, drawing numerous standing ovations from the crowd of 33,000.

A Tale of Two Seasons
At season’s end, the majors counted up three 20-game winners: CC Sabathia, Roy Halladay and Adam Wainwright. Surprisingly missing from the list is Colorado’s Ubaldo Jimenez, who looked to be a lock for 20 wins after notching 15 at the All-Star break; in spite of two strong outings in the regular season’s final week—including eight innings of shutout ball on Saturday at St. Louis—Jimenez failed to win either and finished the campaign stuck at 19, in part because the Rockies scored a total of one run in those last two starts. Only two other pitchers have won as many as 15 games at the All-Star intermission and failed to finish the year with 20: Bret Saberhagen in 1987, and Greg Maddux in 1988.

Shutout by Committee
It’s not terribly uncommon, in these days of expanding pitching staffs, to see as many as eight pitchers take the mound for one team in a single game. But using eight pitchers to put together a nine-inning shutout? It happened on Saturday at Kansas City, where Tampa Bay took advantage of eight arms to silence the Royals, 4-0. Andy Sonnanstine started and lasted 2.1 innings, then was replaced as manager Joe Maddon wanted to use as many pitchers as possible to get in some activity in advance of the start of the postseason. Had he used starter David Price as Sonnanstine’s first reliever (instead of inserting him as his fourth pitcher), he might have gotten the decision and won his 20th game. Instead, it went to Chad Qualls, who relieved Sonnanstine. The game tied the major league record for the most hurlers used for a nine-inning shutout.

A Sterling September in San Francisco
Pitching has recently been considered the key to the San Francisco Giants’ success, but it was in overdrive during September when the team staff compiled the lowest earned run average by a major league team in one month since the Cleveland Indians posted a 1.42 mark (the lowest ever) in May 1968, the “Year of the Pitcher.” The Giants’ 1.78 ERA was the fifth lowest since the end of the deadball era (after 1919), all the more impressive considering the September schedule included road stops in hit-happy joints Colorado and Arizona, and a series at Chicago’s Wrigley Field that included one night where winds were gusting straight out to center field (the opposing Cubs didn’t score a run). Even better for the Giants, the .182 batting average allowed by their pitchers was the second lowest ever during one month since 1920, bettered again only by the 1968 Indians.

Road Kill
The Pittsburgh Pirates’ 57-105 record, the worst in the majors, was due in large part to a horrid 17-64 mark on the road—matching the infamous 1962 New York Mets for the most road losses in a 162-game season. The all-time worst road record in the modern era belongs to Babe Ruth’s last team, the 1935 Boston Braves—which finished 13-65 away from home.

Future Kill
This is how screwed up the Pirates are: Their Double-A minor league affiliate in Altoona, PA wins the Eastern League championship—and its manager, Matt Walbeck, gets fired by the Pirates. No official reason was given for Walbeck’s release, though rumor has it that the Pirates were aware that Walbeck was looking to move on anyway to managing at a higher level elsewhere. Perhaps he was afraid he would be given the managerial job in Pittsburgh, where the days of John Russell (299 losses in three years) as Pirate skipper are rumored to be numbered.

The Blue Jay Blast Parade
The Toronto Blue Jays fell seven home runs shy of the all-time mark for home runs by a team in one season, hitting 257 on the year; only the 1997 Seattle Mariners (264) and 2005 Texas Rangers (260) hit more. The Jays did tie another mark by fielding seven players with at least 20 homers; it might have been eight had shortstop Alex Gonzalez not been traded to Atlanta; he had 17 long balls when dealt during the All-Star break.

He May Come Back to Haunt You
Matt Holliday finished a solid first full year for the St. Louis Cardinals, but he was at his best against his two former major league employers, Colorado and Oakland; for the year, Holliday hit .487 (19-for-39) with seven home runs and 13 RBIs combined against the two teams in nine games against them.

Park Foundation
Chan Ho Park—yes, he’s still around—set a new standard this past week by earning his 124th career victory, surpassing Hideo Nomo to become the all-time leader in wins among Asian-born players in the majors. The 37-year old South Korean has been pitching in relief since ill-fated tenures as a starter in Texas and San Diego, and his three perfect innings of relief at Florida this past Friday gave him the win for the Pittsburgh Pirates—his second team this year (he started with the Yankees) and his sixth over the last five seasons.

Wait 'Til Next Year
The Chicago Cubs’ bullpen are going to have to find away to bottle its momentum for the next six months; it finished the season throwing 27.1 consecutive scoreless innings.

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The NL All-Rookie Team
The chieftains at MLB Central would love nothing more these days than to weed out the sinful old stars of the steroid era and bring in promising members of the young, clean hope, and what they’ve seen in the National League this year is sure to bring a wide grin to their faces. The senior circuit’s rookie class is so good this year, many are saying it could be the best produced by a single league, ever. It’s so good, you could put together a team of the top NL rookies and they could easily hold their own against some of the better veteran squads. And so, we’ve done that; below is a position-by-position review of the best freshman the NL has given us in 2010:

Catcher: Buster Posey, San Francisco. Deservedly, the odds-on favorite for the NL Rookie of the Year award, if sportswriters based near the Atlantic can shake off any East Coast bias they may have. Posey combined a strong batting average with solid power—and his defense was pretty sharp, too.

First Base: Gaby Sanchez, Florida. A major dark horse rarely brought up amid the Heyward-Strasburg-Posey conversations. Sanchez’s 85 RBIs and 37 doubles led all major league rookies.

Second Base: Neil Walker, Pittsburgh. The 25-year old born down the street from PNC Park was a consistent .300 hitter since joining the Pirates in late May, and grew into a bigger threat as his power and patience emerged. The desperate Bucs are salivating for further improvement from Walker in 2011.

Shortstop: Starlin Castro, Chicago. The 20-year old Dominican who crashed spring training and soon after got promoted to the bigs has been a bright spot in an otherwise dismal year for the Cubs. His 27 errors in 123 games at short strongly suggests that his defense needs work, but the guy can hit. And, for all it’s worth, no one in this group has a flashier name to boast.

Third Base: David Freese, St. Louis. Houston’s Chris Johnson and Pittsburgh’s Pedro Alvarez showed some terrific stuff, but what’s telling about Freese’s contribution (.296 average, 36 RBIs in 70 games) is how badly downhill the Cardinals went after his season-ending injury at the end of June.

Outfield: Jason Heyward, Atlanta; Mike Stanton, Florida; Jose Tabata, Pittsburgh. Everyone was talking about Heyward after an explosive spring and solid start to the regular season, giving him the early jump on Rookie of the Year consideration. Stanton hit more home runs (22 to Heyward’s 18) in 42 less games and, like Heyward, possesses enormous power potential. Tabata’s .299 average gave the Bucs a triumvirate of solid rookies (along with Walker and Alvarez); here’s hoping, for the sake of Pirate fans, that the team doesn’t send these guys away before realizing their full potential.

Starting Pitchers: Daniel Hudson, Arizona; Jaime Garcia, St. Louis; Stephen Strasburg, Washington; Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco, Jhoulys Chacin, Colorado. Garcia (13-8, 2.70 ERA) has been consistently tough from start to finish; Hudson was utterly brilliant (7-1, 1.69 ERA in 11 starts) after being traded to the Diamondbacks from the Chicago White Sox for Edwin Jackson; Strasburg was the household phenom until Tommy John surgery dealt him a major setback; the 21-year old Bumgarner (7-6, 3.00) bent but never broke with the Giants; and Chacin posted a 3.28 ERA that was deserving of a far better record than 9-11, especially in Colorado.

Relief Pitchers—John Axford, Milwaukee (closer); Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati; Jonny Venters, Atlanta; Ryan Webb, San Diego; Wilton Lopez, Houston. Axford took over for fading legend Trevor Hoffman, saving 24 of 27 games and winning eight others; Chapman lit up the radar gun as no other pitcher before, registering a record 105 MPH pitch; Venters’ 1.95 ERA in 79 appearances was an eye-opener in Atlanta; Webb (3-1, 2.90 ERA) successfully joined the chorus of sharp Padre relievers; and Lopez walked just five batters (striking out 50) in 68 appearances for the Astros.

We'll Smoke to This, Gene
The odds of a work stoppage during negotiations for baseball’s next collective bargaining agreement were raised considerably with the announcement that
Gene Orza, the union’s Number Two, will be stepping down next spring. It’s common knowledge that Orza was hardly the union’s goodwill ambassador; he was said to be overly combatant in talks with MLB management, and his staunch arm-stiffing on baseball’s effort to rid the game of performance enhancement drugs led many to wonder if he actually advocated the use of such medicine.

It was Orza who, in response to baseball’s early efforts to initiate steroid testing, sarcastically suggested that players might as well been tested for cigarettes as well. And it was Orza who was rumored to be giving players advanced warnings that they were about to be given a surprise random test. Granted, Orza rose in the union ranks during a period of deep mistrust with MLB—the collusion of the late 1980s had a lot to do with that—so it’s understandable that he innately harbors ill will to this day. But this does no one any good. His departure is long overdue.

Conviction and Closure
The guilty verdict rendered to Andrew Gallo for the drunk driving murder of Los Angeles of Anaheim pitcher Nick Adenhart and two others in April 2009 drew numerous comments from Adenhart’s former Angel teammates. “A kid goes to jail for the rest of his life,” said infielder Brandon Wood. “If that’s not a wake-up call…you drink and drive, and now you have 50 years in a cell to think about what your drinking did one night.” Pitcher Jared Weaver was harsher in his assessment of Gallo, who will likely spend a minimum of 51 years in prison. “The guy obviously got what was coming to him,” said Weaver. “He deserves what he got.”

Public Agenda
Another baseball-related court case in the Los Angeles area—the McCourt divorce trial—came to an end this past week as well; the judge presiding over the case now has 90 days to make up his mind as to who really owns the Los Angeles Dodgers between Frank and Jamie McCourt. Meanwhile, Los Angeles city councilwoman Janice Hahn suggests that a 1961 MLB edict barring public ownership of major league teams should be overturned, allowing Dodger fans to buy up stock and become majority owners of the team. If Hahn’s name sounds vaguely familiar, it was her late father Kenneth Hahn, then a L.A. county supervisor, who lobbied the Brooklyn Dodgers to move west in 1958.

The Turnstile Story
Major league attendance slipped for the third straight season, dropping 1% from last year’s totals in the midst of a recession-challenged campaign. The per-game average of 30,067 was down nearly 8% from the all-time high figure of 32,785 set in 2007. The New York Yankees overtook the Los Angeles Dodgers as the number one draw at home, with 3.76 million fans; eight other clubs surpassed three million in home attendance (including Minnesota, for only the second time in franchise history), while nine teams failed to surpass two million, including the playoff-bound Tampa Bay Rays. The Cleveland Indians, who once set a major league record with 455 consecutive sellouts, finished last in the majors with 1.39 million tickets sold.

Johnny Knoxville Would Have Been Proud
It was double embarrassment—and double trouble below the belt—for the Angels’ Erick Aybar, who swung and missed at this pitch that hit him in the protective cup area (and let’s hope he was wearing one).

Another Dirty Thirty
Alex Rodriguez homered for the 30th time this past Wednesday at Toronto, giving him 13 straight seasons in which he’s reached that number—and tying the all-time mark previously set by Barry Bonds. It’s the second straight year in which Rodriguez has reached the 30-homer mark in the final week of the season. He’s one year shy of Hank Aaron’s overall record for most years with 30 or more.

The New Lords of the Whiff
The Arizona Diamondbacks swung and missed past the 1,500 mark in the final week of the season, the first team ever to strike out that often in one year; no other before team had even reached 1,400. And yes, Mark Reynolds, the Diamondbacks’ king of the swing-and-a-miss, did become the first everyday position player to have a higher strikeout total (211) than batting average (.198).

An M For the DH
Boston slugger David Ortiz became the second player ever to record 1,000 RBIs as a designated hitter; he finishes the season just three shy of the guy ahead of him, the retired Edgar Martinez, for the most ever by a DH.

Manny Ramirez: Expensive as gas in 2008 after his trade from Boston to the Los Angeles Dodgers, cheap as tap water this season after joining the Chicago White Sox—batting .261 with a single home run and just two RBIs in 24 games. With free agency looming once again for Ramirez, let’s see what kind of positive spin agent Scott Boras can put out to potential major league bidders this time around.

The Walk-off Strikeout
This pretty much sums up the season for the Seattle Mariners; tied 5-5 with the Texas Rangers on Wednesday at Arlington with two out in the bottom of the ninth and a runner on first, Seattle pitcher Dan Cortes got Nelson Cruz to swing and miss for strike three—but the pitch went wild and got away, and when catcher Guillermo Quiroz chased it down and threw to first to officially retire Cruz, that too went wild and the ball headed down the right field line, allowing Mitch Moreland to score all the way from first for the winning run.

200 Will Get You 100 in the Worst Way
Ichiro Suzuki became the first player in history to twice collect 200 hits while his team lost 100 games. It happened in 2008 when the Mariners lost 101 times, and it happened again this season when the Mariners lost another 101 games. Suzuki accrued 213 hits in 2008, and 214 this year.

One More Silver Lining in Seattle
Center fielder Franklin Gutierrez racked up 415 chances on defense for the Mariners this season without an error, the most by a player at his position without committing a goof. St. Louis’ Curt Flood held the old mark, with 396 in 1966.

This Week's Challenger to Joe DiMaggio
Mark Ellis will begin the 2011 season with a 13-game hitting streak intact, the longest active run in the majors. The Oakland second base stalwart used the streak to cap a terrific last month-plus of action in which he raised his batting average 41 points from the end of August.

He Said What?
Jeff Passan of Yahoo, writing of how baseball lags far behind football in Florida: “What (fans in Tampa Bay) really want to see—what would sell out all 36,973 seats at the Trop—is Tim Tebow raking the infield dirt.”