Now, the Division Means More
You might know the old routine of Alphonse and Gaston, where one says, “After you, Alphonse,” and the other says, “No, you first, my dear Gaston”? That’s the way it’s been whenever two teams vie for first place in the season’s final days after they’ve both clinched playoff spots. MLB’s weak home-field advantage policy for its postseason series has never scared these teams to fight it to the end; one gets the divisional title, one gets the wild card, but both head to the playoffs feeling almost equally content with a best-of-five crack at advancing. This was never more evident than in 1996 when the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres headed into the final game of the regular season against one another tied for first place in the NL West. The winner got the title; the loser got the wild card. To both teams, it was more important to rest and reload for the playoffs rather than sweat to the death against each other. The door was there to walk through, but neither team felt compelled to rush in first. “After you, Alphonse.” “No, you first, my dear Gaston.”
With the advent of the wild card play-in game, that has all changed.
The regular season wrapped up this past week with two divisional titles up for grabs: The New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles in the AL East, and the Texas Rangers and Oakland A’s in the AL West. Of particular interest was the final head-to-head battle between the Rangers and A’s in Oakland, with both teams entering the 162nd game of the season in a flat tie for first. This was not to be 1996 redux; while both teams had already clinched assurance of postseason play, the idea of losing and being saddled with a single wild card game, on less rest, with less ideal pitching rotation options, was far less appealing then winning the game, division, and setting up nicely for a best-of-five situation. And thus, the wild card entrants finally have something that should have weighed then down all along: True disadvantage.
The Rangers now understand. They went into Oakland for three final regular season games, leading the A’s by two. They lost all three, including a 12-5 giveaway in the finale before a rare, raucous sellout crowd at the Coliseum. Stripped of the longer bye and tagged as a wild card, Texas was forced to take on the other wild card entrant in the Baltimore Orioles in a one-game series and lost that too, 5-1and suddenly, the Rangers’ season was one and done, with dreams of a third straight AL pennant quickly shattered. No tomorrows, no second chances.
Under this system, painless pleasantries are now a thing of the past. “Screw Gaston,” Alphonse might now say. “I’m muscling my way through that doorframe first.”
Who Are These Kids?
The A’s, who swept the Rangers in the season’s final series to win the AL West, became only the fifth team in history to come from 13 games down in their league/division to place first. The other four: The 1914 Boston “Miracle” Braves, the 1951 New York Giants of “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” fame, the “F**king Bucky Dent” Yankees of 1978 and the 1995 Seattle Mariners. They also did it using rookie pitchers who totaled 53 winsa major league record.
It’s been a very good year for Billy Beane. The Oakland general manager saw Moneyball, which detailed how he made magic on the cheap ten years ago, get nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, and he essentially wrote the plot for Moneyball II by working that same magic out of relative pennies this season, as the A’s defied sharp odds and stormed through the season’s second half to take a division front-loaded with high-priced titans in Arlington and Anaheim.
Celebrate Responsibly, Part I
In postseason berth-winning celebrations, the presence of alcohol is inescapable as the champagne gets showered with reckless regard for the clubhouse. But for the last three years, the Texas Rangers have partied up with ginger ale out of respect for recovering star alcoholic Josh Hamilton, and a few other teams had to celebrate with sensitivity this past week after clinching their divisions.
After the Detroit Tigers secured a come-from-behind AL Central crown, star slugger Miguel Cabrerawhose actions with the bottle arguably cost the Tigers a playoff spot in the final weekend of the 2009 seasonall but hid from the revelers and media, even as his teammates went to great pains to use an “alcohol-removed” wine called Fre.
The Washington Nationals, on the other hand, had no AA alumnus to worry over upon nabbing a playoff spotbut they had to be careful with 19-year-old Bryce Harper, who cannot legally drink (and won’t anyway, because he’s Mormon). While the Nationals sprayed each other with beer, Harper was sitting in the corner with the nine-year-old son of Washington first baseman Adam LaRoche, drinking apple cider. “How could anyone imagine the scene of the two of them together, the baseball player and the boy, and not wish Norman Rockwell were still around to paint it?” spoke Christine Brennan of the Detroit Free Press.
Celebrate Responsibly, Part II
Hasn’t anyone learned from Kendrys Morales, who broke his leg when he mis-stomped on home plate and broke his leg while celebrating a walk-off home run in 2010? Before and since, baseball has been full of injuries sustained while in the act of rejoicing. Dave Dravecky re-broke an arm while caught in the middle of a pile of delirious San Francisco teammates upon winning the 1989 NL pennant. Philadelphia closer Brad Lidge, after a virtually perfect 2008 season with the Phillies, suggested that struggles with his knee a year later began while deep in the middle of the team’s celebratory scrum after clinching the World Series against Tampa Bay. And earlier this year, the Giants’ Aubrey Huff jumped the dugout rail to join teammates to embrace Matt Cain after throwing his perfect gameand sprained his knee.
Which brings is to this past week and Kansas City, where the Tigers had just clinched the AL Central title. Pitcher Max Scherzer, considered the next best guy in the Tiger rotation after ace Justin Verlander, was in the middle of the on-field pile of happy players when someone stepped on his ankleand twisted it. Scherzer’s shoulder has been the bigger problem of late, but even if that’s fine, there was serious doubt as to whether he would start the postseason on schedule because of the ankle.
We know that guys are young and full of testosterone (legit or otherwise) and the 162-game season is a long, hardened haul, but next time you celebrate anything, just pump your fists, complete your circuit of the bases if need be, give a handshake and run off the fieldjust like the old ballplayers used to do.
Bobby VAnd That Ain't "V" for Victory
Bobby Valentine got quickly booted out of Boston after the regular season finale, but he didn’t leave without getting in a few final parting shots. As the Red Sox was completing their late-season crash-and-burn with a lifeless 14-2 loss at New York, capping a three-game sweep at the hands of the archrival Yankees, capping an embarrassing 16-42 run to end the season, Valentine called out his coaches: “There’s situation during the year I didn't think it was all for one or one for all, whatever it is. I don’t really remember specifically. ... It was just a feeling.”
Five teams had worse records than the Red Sox, but no team was more emotionally beat up. Valentine lost control of the clubhouse almost from the first day, challenging his players publicly and challenging sports talk hosts to fights; pitcher Josh Beckett went golfing while on the disabled list; team favorite Kevin Youkilis was shipped away; and most damaging of all, a cadre of players all but mutinied, a sordid spectacle that led to the bombastic mid-August trade that sent Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford to Los Angeles. Gee, and to think: Manny Ramirez had nothing to do with any of this.
With some fairness to Valentine, he wasn’t handed much luck in the form of 27 players hitting the disabled list, the most on one team since 1987. But the sum total of these torturous episodes combined with the Red Sox’ 69-93 recordthe franchise’s worst since 1966just made it too difficult for Boston to keep him.
Alas, Poor Cubbies
Looking at his former Boston employers from afar must have been a relief for general manager Theo Epsteinbut by the record, he had it worse in Chicago with the Cubs. Of course, few expected anything out of the Cubs while there was at least hope in Boston. Epstein’s new team had little talent to begin with, and much of that was gone by mid-summer, with Ryan Dempster traded and Kerry Wood retiring. The maturation of Anthony Rizzo was a blessing and will be sorely needed for the near future, but there was little else to crow about. The low of all lows came on the third-to-last game of the year, when they shared company with the even lower (55-107) Houston Astroswho came to town and handed the Cubs their 100th defeat of the year. Speaking of sharing, the Cubs did just that with the aforementioned Red Sox; the Cubs, too, suffered their most losses since 1966.
Fernando, You Look Marvelous
With two more scoreless saves delivered in the season’s final series against the Orioles, Tampa Bay closer Fernando Rodney broke the major league record for the lowest ERA by a closer pitching 50 or more innings in a season. Rodney’s 0.60 ERA barely erased Dennis Eckersley’s 0.61 mark for the Oakland A’s in 1990 from the record book. Beyond the ERAs, the comparison between the two closer’s performances show hauntingly similar figures. They both saved 48 games and blew two opportunities; Rodney allowed 43 hits in 74.2 innings, while Eckersley gave up 41 hits in 73.1 frames; and Rodney barely out-K’d Eck, 76-73. The only distinct advantage goes to Eckersley in the walk category; he gave up just four passes, while Rodney walked 15.
The Seattle Mariners are giving in toand moving inthe fences. Safeco Field, whose lengthy field dimensions and often thick marine air have left many hitters grumbling and star Mariners of the past like Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez to flee, will have shorter distances to the fences next season per a statement released by the team this past week. The left-center field area will see the biggest reduction, with the fence moved in as much as 17 feet.
Something About That Season Finale
Evan Longoria and Dan Johnson, the two heroes of Tampa Bay’s thrilling, come-from-behind overtime win over the New York Yankees a year ago that put the Rays in the playoffs, revved up again for this year’s final regular season gameeven as it meant nothing to the postseason picture. Longoria, who hit two homers including the historic game-winner against the Yankees last year, smacked three homers against the Orioles at St. Petersburg; it’s the second time in his career he’s gone deep thrice. Meanwhile in Cleveland, Johnsonthe ex-Ray reduced to a September call-up by the Chicago White Soxhammered three homers himself to help the Sox squash the Indians, 11-0. They were his first three jacks since his unlikely two-out, game-tying homer in the ninth against the Yankees last year.
The Comebacker’s Greatest Hits
Click here to look at the TGG Comebacker archive going back to the start of the 2007 season.
Outfield Fly Rule?
Chipper Jones was a bit prescient when he loathed the idea of the one-game wild card set-up. “Anything can happen in one game,” he lamented a few weeks back, “a blown call by an umpire, a bad day at the office…at least in a two-of-three-game series you have some sort of leeway.”
Jones’ worst nightmare came true in what would be the final game of his Hall-of-Fame careerand the game that may forever be known for the ‘Outfield Fly Rule.’ With the Braves trailing St. Louis 6-3 in the bottom of the eighth with one out and runners on first and second, Andrelton Simmons hit a pop fly to short left field; rookie Cardinal shortstop Pete Kozma chased after it and readied to catch itthen suddenly got out of the way for left fielder Matt Holliday to make the catch behind him. One problem: Holliday expected Kozma to catch it, and they both watched it drop to the turf. Meanwhile, left field line umpire Sam Holbrook (remember, six umpires in postseason games) belatedly and inexplicably called the infield fly ruleeven though the ball dropped in the heart of left field, halfway between the edge of the infield dirt and the warning track.
Instead of a bases-loaded, one-out scenario, Holbrook’s strange call automatically tagged Simmons with the second out as the runners were allowed to move to second and third because of the drop. Not good enough, yelled Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez, who vehemently protested the calland certainly not good enough for the Braves’ fans, who responded by littering the field with debris that delayed the game for roughly 15 minutes. Much discussion ensued during the delay between the umpires and it looked quite possibly as if the umpires might reverse their initial call; ultimately, they did not. The game continued, the Braves failed to score in the inning and lost, 6-3, ending their season with a single, controversial playoff loss Jones had feared.
Life Isn't FairBut it's Awfully Profitable
The Braves played the wild card playoff under protest following the Outfield Fly Rule call, but MLB quickly denied them. Reason: In October, time is short, TV rules and money has to be counted. Ain’t no time for a replay.
Can't Blame Brooks Conrad for This One
The NL’s best defense throughout the year, the Braves hurt themselves badly against the Cardinals by committing three errors, leading to four unearned runs. Starter Kris Medlen was tagged with three of the unearned tallies, and lost his first postseason start after giving Atlanta 23 straight regular season wins when he took the mound as a starter.
In our preseason preview back in March, TGG’s Eric Gouldsberry said of the Baltimore Orioles: “Baltimore’s own current run of (losing seasons will) increase this year to an AL record-tying 15 seasons. Count on it.” A lot of other folks felt the same way, which makes the Orioles’ ride to the postseasonand their stunning wild card win at Texas to advance to the ALDSall the more utterly unexpected. Perseverance was a major theme in the Orioles’ winning ways; they were 74-0 when leading after seven inningsa powerful complement to a Baltimore bullpen that used to be so ridiculously awful, as the Rangers themselves remember after once beating the Orioles up 30-3 in a 2007 gameand they finished the regular season 29-9 in one-run games, translating into a .763 winning percentage that’s by far the best in modern major league history. (Two teams in the 1890s had better percentages, but in far fewer games.).
Now Can I Have the MVP?
There is one thing solidly in Cabrera’s favor: The other 11 players who have achieved the triple crown in baseball’s post-1900 modern era are in the Hall of Fame.
Miguel Cabrera ended a 45-year drought and became the first hitter since Carl Yazstremski in 1967 to win the triple crown of hitting, leading the American League in batting average, home runs and runs batted in. It’s a splendid achievement for a player who’s become so automatic at putting up prodigious numbers, many have come to take him for grantedperhaps the reason he’s never won a MVP award. You would think his triple crown line of .330-44-139 should automatically bless him with the honor, but ever since the modern MVP first started being handed out in 1931, four of ten triple crown winners prior to Cabrera did not win the award. And there’s a lot of chatter out there that Los Angeles of Anaheim rookie Mike Trout, who sizzled in almost every aspect of his game, should be this year’s recipient ahead of Cabrera. One thing’s for sure: Had the Angels made the playoffs and the Tigers stayed home, and not vice versa, Trout would definitely be the favorite among voters.
The Second Chance
Greenberg’s second at-bat leaves only Fred Van Dusenwho threw out the first pitch before the Marlins’ 4-2 loss to the Metsas the only major leaguer to be hit in the only at-bat of his career, in 1955 for the Philadelphia Phillies.
Adam Greenberg finally got his wish. Slow to engineer a comeback after being hit in the head on the first and only pitch he ever saw as a major leaguer back in 2005 for the Chicago Cubs, Greenberg was given a one-day contract to play for the Miami Marlins and made a single appearance to the plate against New York Mets knuckleballer extraordinaire R.A. Dickey. Three pitches and three strikes later, he was out and done but got what he wanted, complete with a huge cheer from 20,000 fans at Marlins Park.
The Sky's the LimitExcept in Denver
For the sake of Colorado Rockie fans who might still have hair left, let’s hope the end of the 2012 season will be the last they see of the four-man, 75-pitch-limit rotation that Rockie manager Jim Tracy installed early this season in the latest scheme to tame the mile-high Coors Field beast. The experiment was a failure; the average start by a Colorado pitcher this season was less than five innings, and the team’s rotation was dead last in the majors in wins (29), earned run average (5.81), innings (765) and batting average allowed (.304). It also exhausted an overworked bullpen whose 4.52 ERA was third-to-last in the majors. Once-and-current Rockie Jeff Francis (113.1 innings pitched) spared the team from the embarrassment of becoming the first team in history to not field a single pitcher with 100-plus innings.
Coors Field is part of the problem, but it’s not the problem. It was only a few years ago that the Rockies looked primed to field a venerable rotation, but Ubaldo Jimenez lost the zip on his fastball and was dealt away, and potential rising stars Jhoulys Chacin and Jorge De La Rosa were badly sidetracked by injuries from which they’re still trying to overcome. What’s left of the current staff shows some promise but also much inexperience and, most of all, a good deal of stress trying to succeed under Tracy’s strange pitching limitations. The Rockies need pitchers this offseason and they won’t get them trying to sell this policy on them; just trying to encourage them to come running to Coors Field is challenging enough.
The 75-pitch count thing isn’t just a bush-league idea, it’s literally on par with what ten-year olds are held to in little league. These guys in Colorado are well-paid professionals; let them do their job.
Adam Dunn came into the final game of the season with 222 strikeoutsone shy of Mark Reynolds’ all-time mark, set in 2009. He sat out. The record remains under Reynolds’ name.
Everything But the Win
James Shields will likely be back next year with Tampa Baythe Rays hold a $9 million option for 2013but if this past Tuesday’s start against Baltimore was indeed his last in a Ray uniform, it was a beautiful, bittersweet one. Shields went the distance, striking out 15, walking none and allowing one run on two hitsbut the one tally was a solo homer by the Orioles’ Chris Davis that turned out to be the lone score in a 1-0 Baltimore win. The only other time since the end of the deadball era that a pitcher has put up similar numbers or better and lost was Dwight Gooden, in 1984.
Bid the Viz Goodbye
Omar Vizquel brought relevance to an otherwise utterly worthless season finale between the disappointing Blue Jays and last-place Minnesota Twins in Toronto. The 45-year-old played in his final major league game in positive fashion, knocking out a single in his final at-bat and making an impressive catch on a looping fly ball. The hit gave him a career total of 2,877, a figure bettered by only 39 other players; his 2,709 games played at shortstop are second to none. Those numbers, combined with his flashy brilliance on defense that led to 11 Gold Gloves, should make him a strong candidate for the Hall of Fame when he first appears on the ballot in 2018.
Someone Treated What?
Texas pitcher Derek Holland claims his Twitter page was hacked by someone who left a homophobic message directed at someone who had replied to an earlier Holland tweet. (Maybe it was Yunel Escobar.) Holland claimed it couldn’t have been him since he was actually pitching at the time the note was tweeted, but also acknowledged that his fiancée has access to the account. MLB is investigating.
This Week's Challenger to Joe DiMaggio
San Francisco infielder Marco Scutaro finishes the 2012 season with a 20-game hitting streak intact, the longest active run heading into 2013; it might be 27 games were it not for a hitless game back on September 9. The Venezuelan native, who turns 37 on October 30, hit .427 over his last 26 games to finish the year with an career-high .306 average.
Next Year's Challenger to Long, Mattingly and Griffey Jr.
The Orioles’ Chris Davis finished the season with home runs in six consecutive games, tying the all-time Baltimore-St. Louis Browns franchise record. By hitting one over the fence in each of his first two games in 2013, Davis can tie the major league mark of eight straight currently co-owned by Dale Long, Don Mattingly and Ken Griffey Jr.
TGG Goes to CafePress
We’ve always gotten raves for how we look at This Great Game, and now you can own a piece of the brand. We’ve opened a page at the popular CafePress site, with apparel, mugs, clocks and other items dressed in the TGG brand now available. We don’t just throw the logo and be done with it, adding in some fun baseball trivia. We even have a boy brief for the ladies that says on the backside: “If baseball is on your mind at this point, we’re just what you need.” Now you can show the world that you’re a baseball expert...and you’ll look good, too. Check it out now!
Now Playing at TGG
In Ed Attanasio's newest addition to TGG's They Were There section, Chuck Stevens talks about being the first major leaguer to get a hit off of Satchel Paige, his life and times living in Hollywood as a Pacific Coast League player, and his role in establishing the Professional Baseball Players' Association, which helps former ballplayers in need.