"Anything Can Happen In A Short Series," Is Felix Hernandez Worthy of Another Cy Young, and The Derek Jeter Farewell Tour Finally Ends

September 29, 2014

Tags: No game 163's after all, Felix Hernandez and his ERA adjustment, David Price, Dave Righetti, Madison Bumgarner, Nick Markakis, Aaron Loup, Caleb Joseph, Marcus Stroman, Buck Showalter, Orioles Post-Season Prospects, Derek Jeter's Last Home Game, 7th umpire for the World Series

And now the 30 MLB teams that began the season with hopes in spring training have been reduced to 10. And while there was a chance that there could be three game 163’s after action on the final Sunday of the regular season, none of them materialized.

Oakland won at Texas and Seattle thus lost out on the second wild card in the American League. Late July acquisition David Price, the onetime stellar southpaw of the Tampa Bay Rays, came up big for the Tigers and they won the AL Central for the 4th consecutive year.

But runner-up Kansas City still made the post-season for the first time since 1985 and they will host the Athletics in the Winner Take All Wild Card game on Sept 30. Their hopes will rest on righty James Shields, another former Tampa Bay Ray hurler, versus southpaw Jon Lester, himself a late July acquisition plucked from the Red Sox by A’s gm Billy Beane.

In the National League Pittsburgh lost two in a row at Cincinnati and the Cardinals won the NL Central again though the Pirates and St. Louis could meet again in the NL Championship Series. The Pirates will have to get through the San Francisco Giants in the Wednesday NL Winner Take All game. The home field crowd at the wonderful PNC Park should give them a big boost.

The matchup of well-traveled Edinson Volquez versus Giants’ ace southpaw Madison Bumgarner should be a gripping one. I will never forget Giant pitching coach Dave Righetti, the former Yankee closer, gushing over Bumgarner’s abilities after the Giants won the 2012 World Series: “He just looks like a pitcher!”

Left out of The Big Dance – if you allow me to use the basketball post-season phrase - are the Seattle Mariners who won 87 games, a vast improvement over recent fallow years. But they will always rue a late season horrid road trip that cost them a chance at the playoffs.

“King” Felix Hernandez could not stop the bleeding and got lit up by the Toronto Blue Jays in his next-to-last start of the season. He might still win another Cy Young award but I don’t like the way his case has been artificially bolstered.

MLB changed a hit into an error in one of Hernandez’s losses thereby making his ERA lower than another Cy Young contender the Chicago White Sox’s star southpaw Chris Sale. Cleveland’s Corey Kluber might have the best credentials for the Cy Young but too often votes go by raw numbers and reputation.

The post-season should provide a lot of excitement. I have never been a predictor but it will be interesting to see if the Orioles can turn it on in October after clinching very early on September 16. "Playing Meaningful Games in September" is the title of an essay on The Orioles Glory Years 1960-1983 that will be published shortly in NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture.

An irony of September 2014 is that the last two weeks of the regular season saw the Orioles playing Meaningless Games in September. After the early clinching manager Buck Showalter decided that resting his everyday star outfielders Adam Jones and Nick Markakis made sense, esp. since Markakis got drilled behind his shoulder blade by Toronto southpaw Aaron Loup. Catcher Caleb Joseph also almost got hit in the head by Blue Jay righty Marcus Stroman in the same series resulting in a five-game suspension for the promising Stroman.

Showalter decided that it was not worth it going all out for the best record in the league over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. What distressed Showalter and all us ardent Oriole fans (I call myself a CON man - Certified Oriole Nut) were the fielding lapses in the last games of the season. Third base became a sink hole, reminiscent of the days before miraculous Manny Machado arrived in August 2012 and helped to propel the team to the playoffs.

Machado is gone for the season with an injury to his second knee and my guess is that the utility man Ryan Flaherty gets the start on Thursday October 2 against the Tigers.
If the team gets as far as AL Championship Series Chris Davis, who surprisingly filled in well at third base, will be eligible beginning in the third game. But that it is a long long
way off.

Jeter Scripts Another Special Yankee Stadium Moment
I love baseball because surprise and unpredictability is at the heart of the game. And never bet against Derek Jeter doing the dramatic on the largest stage.

On Thursday night Sept 25 in the last home game of his 20 year career as a New York Yankee, he doubled in the first run of the game and quickly scored the second. In mid-game, showing more range than usual, he started an excellent double play to nip the Orioles’ speedy Adam Jones (a videotaped ruling overturned an umpire’s on-field call).

With the bases loaded in the bottom of the 7th inning, Jeter hit a slow roller to short that wouldn’t have been a double play. But normally reliable, indeed brilliant Baltimore shortstop JJ Hardy didn’t even get a force play as he threw past newcomer Kelly Johnson at second base. Two runs scored and the Yankees went into the 9th inning with a 5-2 lead.

Fate struck in Jeter’s behalf again. Yankee closer David Robertson gave up two long home runs to tie the score. But in the bottom of the 9th Jeter was up with the potential winning run on second. As he had done so many times before, Captain Clutch slammed a game-winning single to right field.

After the game losing pitcher Evan Meek, a journeyman who will not make Baltimore's post-season roster, expressed almost delight that he would be linked in baseball history with Jeter’s last great hit. Such is the reputation that Jeter has among his peers.
And needless to say, he is a saint to his legion of fans some who paid up to $10,000 for tickets to his final Yankee Stadium appearance.

Enjoy the post-season beginning with the Wild Card games. And I'm glad to learn that there will be 7 umpires at the World Series. One will umpire behind home plate for the first game, go to right field for game two, and then the replay booth for the remaining games.

I have long advocated a replay chief being on the scene of the game. Maybe this development can avert the overturning of a key call from someone hundreds of miles away from the action. Let the best teams win and the baseball be memorable. Of course I want the Orioles to go all the way and perhaps avenge 1971 and 1979 against the Pirates.
Whatever happens, I hope that a team clearly wins and there are more heroes than goats.

And always remember: Take it easy but take it!

Giving Pearce A Chance, Deep Depth, and Other Wonderful 2014 Oriole Storylines

September 17, 2014

Tags: David Simon, Steve Pearce, Chris Davis, Earl Weaver, Caleb Joseph, Dan Duquette, Buck Showalter

I first heard the phrase “Give Pearce A Chance” (a takeoff on a famous John Lennon song) in a July Sports Illustrated piece by David Simon, creator of the HBO series set in Baltimore, “The Wire”.

I use it all the time now – thank you David - because the saga of Steve Pearce, the 31-year-old journeyman who was even designated for assignment early this season (left off the active roster for a few days), is one of the best stories in the season.

Pearce hit a first inning three-run home run in the AL East division-clinching game that brought the Orioles their first title since 1997. For good measure Pearce hit another one the next night, bringing his seasonal total to 20, three more than he hit in his entire career. His batting average is on the cusp of .300 and his RBI total is nearly 50.

Pearce is now a fixture in the lineup, often protecting cleanup hitter Nelson Cruz as the #5 hitter. He also runs the bases hard, breaking up many a potential double play, and providing superior defense at first base.

What a godsend Pearce has been now that last year’s homer king Chris Davis has been suspended for 25 games for taking the stimulant Adderall without written permission. Davis had flunked one drug test already but for reasons known only to himself he continued to use the speed-like drug.

(Adderall is probably a performance-enabling drug not a performing-enhancing drug, but the collective bargaining agreement in baseball doesn’t make a major distinction – though the penalty for repeat violation is less drastic for Adderall than it is for steroids.)

Missing due to physical injury All-Star players third baseman Manny Machado and catcher Matt Wieters, the Orioles have stunned much of the baseball world by running away with the division flag in the usually hotly competitive AL East.

How have they done it? The answer can be found in one of late Hall of Fame Oriole manager Earl Weaver’s favorite phrases, DEEP DEPTH. When Wieters went down in May the Orioles brought up career minor leaguer Caleb Joseph who has been excellent. He receives well, throws out more than 40% of base stealers, and in one stretch hit home runs in five consecutive games.

Joseph is also known to be a good impressionist. He does one of manager Buck Showalter that breaks up the clubhouse. He also can mimic general manager Dan Duquette but he keeps that one to himself. “Buck can only send me to the minor leagues,” he has explained sagely. “Duquette can release me.”

Showalter and Duquette might be in line for Manager of the Year and Executive of the Year awards that are voted before the post-season begins. I don’t want to jinx the team’s chances of winning their first World Series since 1983, but the Buck and Dan show has been a pleasure to watch in 2014 as both seek to win their first World Series rings.

Showalter taught the Yankees of the early 1990s how to win but it was Joe Torre in 1996 who took them to the World Series victory stand. Buck was the first manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks expansion team but it was Bob Brenly who led them to the 2001 title. Showalter also was at the helm of the improving Texas Rangers last decade but it was the recently resigned Ron Washington who led them to the 2010-11 World Series.

When he took the Oriole helm late in the 2010 season, Showalter wryly noted that he looked forward to finally walking down the aisle with someone he raised.

He immediately embraced the Orioles’ proud past that made them the envy of baseball during their glory years from the late 1960s through the early 1980s.
Framed photos of the six Oriole Hall of Famers, in action photos with their teammates, now adorn the halls of the modern clubhouse at Camden Yards: pitcher Jim Palmer, manager Earl Weaver, the Robinsons – Frank and Brooks – and Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken Jr.

During the great 2012 season of rebirth (when they made the playoffs as a wild card but lost in the divisional round), the six Oriole Hall of Famers were honored by statues created by talented sculptor Toby Mendez. They now grace the area beyond the center field fence at Camden Yards.

GM Dan Duquette has a similar history of near-misses in his career. He built a contending team in Montreal under manager Felipe Alou but the 1994 strike wiped out the World Series that year (leaving Showalter's Yankees similarly frustrated). Later he ran the Red Sox, but he was his successor Theo Epstein who got to enjoy the end of the so-called Curse of the Bambino in 2004 with a repeat championship in 2007.

Away from major league baseball for nearly 10 years, Duquette never left the game. He created a summer college baseball league in his home area of western Massachusetts and remained interested in the international game.

Drawing on recommendations of veteran scouts Ray Poitevint and especially Fred Ferreira (who was with the Yankees when they developed the haul that produced Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera and Ramiro Mendoza in the early 90s), Duquette brought two key starting pitchers to Baltimore: Miguel Gonzalez from the Mexican League and Wei-Yin Chen from Taiwan via the Japanese pro leagues.

No one can predict how the playoffs will turn out. Some pundits think that the early clinching by the Orioles could make them rusty when playing for keeps begins again on Thursday October 2 against an opponent still to be determined.

Personally I don’t think that will happen. The team is too resilient and hungry. And there remains an outside chance that the Orioles could still nose out the California Angels for best record in the American League and home field advantage throughout all the playoffs.

For the moment as an Oriole fan for nearly a half-century it is time to celebrate and relax a little and be ready to turn on the faucet full-bore in early October.

And always remember to Take It Easy But Take It!

YIBF (Yours In Baseball Forever) Journal - September Stretch Drive Edition

September 2, 2014

Tags: Pittsburgh's PNC Park, Washington's Nats Park, Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park, Oakland A's, Calif. Angels, Caleb Joseph, Steve Pearce, Huston Street

The Dog Days of August have given way to the September Stretch Drive in Major League Baseball. Before I look at what September and October may hold for the contenders and pretenders, let me mention a couple of highlights from my whirlwind trip in mid-August to the new ballparks in Pittsburgh, Washington, and Philadelphia.

**PNC Park in Pittsburgh ranks deservedly high among the new ballparks in MLB.
I attended a Monday night game Pirates game against fellow contender/pretender Braves - hard to say which way either team is going though Pittsburgh is far closer to top than Atlanta where Washington is running away with NL East.

More than 31,000 attended a game in which there was no particular promotion. They stayed rooting despite a six-run first for Atlanta. Pirates even brought the tying run to plate in 6th inning but bad base-running did them in.

Sound system was mercifully not too loud so one could converse with a neighbor. Like at the best of minor league parks, there was constant activity on the field during the half-inning breaks. But again nothing too loud or in bad taste.

Sight lines and concessions are very good. The location on the three rivers that surround the verdant city of Pittsburgh is very lovely.

Lots of sculptures dot the outside of the park including one of Roberto Clemente and a jubilant cap-waving Bill Mazeroski after his glorious 1960 World Series-winning home run over Yankees. And there are a lot of restaurants in the area that make a fan want to stay around for a long time.

**Nats Park in the Navy Yard SE section of Washington, D.C. is not as homey as PNC Park. But of course Washington is not as homey a city as Pittsburgh. There is some grandeur to the park but the seats are not as close to the field as in Pittsburgh.

As a New Yorker I felt at home seeing Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack and Blue Smoke
available. But there is too much cuteness in the names of the other concessions – Pop Fly Popcorn, Steak of the Union, and the like.

I wore my Oriole cap to the night game against the Diamondbacks – a Washington rout determined by another early six-run inning. I received the kind of verbal abuse I often get at Yankee Stadium wearing the same cap. So there is a genuine local rivalry brewing between Washington and Baltimore which augurs well for the baseball business in the DC-Balt beltway.

**My fourth visit to Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia for a Wed. aft. day game was pleasant. The stadium has a carnival aspect with many booths outside the lower deck - former Phillie slugger Greg Luzinski has a food concession.

The day game with the Seattle Mariners proved to be the most competitive tussle I witnessed. Phillies rallied to win 4-3, showing off the kind of strong bullpen that enabled them to no-hit the Braves on Labor Day. Cole Hamels ran out of gas in both games but clearly he remains a top-of-the-rotation kind of starter.

The only sad aspect to the day was sparse attendance. Reminded me too much of the barrenness at CitiField in Flushing. It’s the price of the Phillies and the Mets no longer being contenders.

And now time to analyze what we may expect in September on eve of playoffs:
The Washington Nationals have the best record in the National League and a comfortable lead in the NL East. The other spots are wide open with this historically-minded New Yorker looking forward to another Giant-Dodger showdown in the NL West while the Cardinals-Pirates-Brewers battle for the NL Central crown.

Returning to contention after some down years in the AL West, the California Angels have the best record in baseball. They stunningly swept a four-game home series against the Oakland Athletics the weekend before Labor Day.

So many pundits anointed the A’s as a Series lock when they made July trades for Cubs pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel and Red Sox ace Jon Lester.
Journeyman Hammel finally delivered an overpowering performance on Labor Day holding surprise contender Seattle to three hits in a 6-1 victory.

Samardzija and Lester have pitched well in their new rental uniforms – both will probably leave as free agents in the off-season – but Oakland has stopped hitting consistently. They probably miss their Cuban star and cleanup hitter Yoenis Cespedes.

The A’s now likely face a one-game play-in wild card elimination to just make the playoffs. But so much can change in September.

Thus discussion of “magic numbers” to clinch make me nervous. Never far from my mind is the specter of Boston’s 7-20 record in September 2011 that cost Boston manager Terry Francona his job.

An excellent manager of players and personalities, Francona resurfaced in Cleveland in 2013 and a great September led them into the wild card game that they lost to Tampa Bay. The Indians are lurking in the hunt for the same game in 2014.

So are the Yankees who still have eight games remaining with the AL East leading-Orioles who trail the Angels by three games for best record in the AL. The Orioles are a feel-good story with sterling contributions from unheralded players like career minor league catcher Caleb Joseph and perpetual fringe outfielder-first baseman Steve Pearce.

“Give Pearce A Chance” could be the motto for the 2014 Orioles but he has been sidelined for a few days with a dread abdominal injury that the team hopes is minor.

The Birds’ roster does seem to have the “deep depth” that legendary late manager Earl Weaver craved. But, please, not too many magic number prognostications – though as of this writing it is 19 – the number of combined Oriole wins and Yankee losses to bring Baltimore its first AL East crown since 1997.

My closing words this week come from the Angels’ new closer, Huston Street, a veteran of many teams and someone with a fine athletic lineage – his father James Street was an outstanding championship-winning U. of Texas-Austin quarterback.

“The media’s job is to remember. My job is to forget . . . everything but the next pitch.”

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