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Winter Comes To Baltimore As Royals Sweep The Birds in ALCS

October 16, 2014

Tags: Kansas City Royals, Lorenzo Cain, James Shields, Wade Davis, Baltimore Orioles, JJ Hardy, Nick Markakis, Tampa Bay Rays, Andrew Friedman, David Price, Drew Smyly, Jeff Banister

“The only reason to play baseball is to keep winter away,” is one of my favorite sayings, exact origin unknown. On Wednesday October 15 the Orioles joined the sidelines with 27 other major league teams as the streaking Kansas City Royals swept them in four straight in the American League Championship Series. (As of this posting, the San Francisco Giants have three chances to send the St. Louis Cardinals to the sidelines in order to meet the Royals in the World Series.)

The identical 2-1 scores in the last two games at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City meant that one pitch could have turned each game around. But these games were psychologically never that close. The Orioles had a lead for only two and a half innings in the entire series. Fans felt the team was playing uphill the entire time and I sense the players were experiencing similar feelings.

The Royals’ victory was no fluke. They had been a sleeping giant in the American League with three young former number one draft picks not even in their prime years peaking at the right time: first baseman Eric Hosmer, third baseman Mike Moustakas, and left fielder Alex Gordon.

The Royals’ bullpen arms from the seventh inning on were virtually unhittable: Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and closer Greg Holland. Davis came from Tampa Bay in a trade along with ace starter James Shields to bring their experience and fierce competitiveness to a team needing to learn how to win.

Some observers saw in the Orioles’ loss an analogy to the 1969 World Series when after an opening victory over Tom Seaver, the Birds were beaten four in a row by the Miracle Mets. In this analysis center fielder Lorenzo Cain played the role of Tommy Agee.

Cain was deservedly voted the MVP of the ALCS for his all-around play. A one-time third baseman and Milwaukee Brewers farmhand who didn't play baseball until high school, Cain bunted on his own to sacrifice two runners into scoring position in the first inning in Game 4. Both scored on a tough error charged to Oriole catcher Caleb Joseph who couldn’t quite catch the ball thrown by first baseman Steve Pearce after Hosmer’s ground ball.

Why players rarely bunt these days is a good question to ask about today's baseball. The explanation, though, is really simple - salary arbitration awards are not bestowed on bunts and sacrifices. That’s pretty sad because well-placed bunts can win games as in Game 4 and in Game 2 when Moustakas, who had homered earlier, laid down a sacrifice to set up the winning run.

The finality of the end of a season is always stark. And a sweep is one of baseball’s more painful indignities. However, in the long view the Orioles’ season was a success. They played virtually all season without all-star catcher Matt Wieters – who had Tommy John elbow surgery. Third baseman Manny Machado, last year’s platinum glove winner as baseball’s best defender, missed the first month of the season recovering from knee surgery and then in August had surgery on his other knee.

In early September first baseman Chris Davis, who turned out to be an adequate replacement for Machado at third base, was suspended for 25 games for using the amphetamine Adderall without a prescription. That suspension will end the day after Opening Day 2015.

Despite these key losses, the Orioles ran away with the AL East flag and swept the favored Tigers three in a row in the AL Division Series (ALDS). That was an improvement over 2012, the rebirth year of Buck Showalter-Dan Duquette’s Orioles when the Yankees won a very competitive five-game ALDS over Baltimore.

In my opinion, the outlook for 2015 became brighter when just before the start of the post-season, the Orioles signed shortstop JJ Hardy to a three-year contract worth reportedly $40 million. This contract makes a lot of sense because Hardy is the quiet but effective captain of the defense, someone who makes everyone better. It also suggests that Machado, hopefully fully recovered by spring training, will remain at third for the foreseeable future. That’s fine by me.

The fate of other key Oriole free agents won’t be known for a while. Steady right fielder Nick Markakis has been an Oriole all his career and wants to return and probably will.
Left fielder/dh Nelson Cruz was the one-year steal in free agency in 2014 and he’ll want a long-term contract that the Orioles may not want to offer. Ditto for southpaw reliever Andrew Miller who bolstered the bullpen immeasurably after his arrival at the July 31 trading deadline.

We’ll see what happens. There will likely be a bevy of trades as the Hot Stove League picks up. I hope the Tampa Bay Rays, my second most favorite team, can bounce back from their sub-.500 season. The Rays’ presence is, of course, felt on the World Series-bound Royals with James Shields as the ace and Wade Davis as the almost unhittable eighth inning specialist.

When they fell out of contention in July, the Rays traded another ace pitcher David Price to the Tigers but it seems like they found an able replacement in southpaw Drew Smyly. It remains to be seen how they adjust to the departure of their youthful general manager Andrew Friedman who recently became the president of baseball operations for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

FINAL NOTE: Congrats to Jeff Banister, new manager of the Texas Rangers who overcame the threat of amputation as a teenager to become a minor league baseball player and more recently a longtime coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

That’s all for now. Always remember: Take it easy but take it.

Eyewitness Report on Orioles Dismantling Tigers

October 6, 2014

Tags: Hagler-Hearns, Games 1-2 in Baltimore, Nick Markakis, JJ Hardy, Adam Jones, Nelson Cruz, Alejandro DeAza, Justin Verlander, Victor Martinez, J.D. Martinez, Miguel Cabrera, Delmon Young

I was blessed to have tickets in the upper deck at Camden Yards this past Thursday and Friday as the Orioles began their three-game sweep of the favored Detroit Tigers in the American League Division Series.

The first 2 innings of Game 1 reminded me of the Marvelous Marvin Hagler-Thomas Hearns middleweight bout of 1985 – a classic battle that after fierce action saw champion Hagler knock out Hearns in the third round. That Hearns hailed from Detroit may have influenced my analogy.

Oriole starter Chris Tillman struck out the side on 14 pitches as the Sea of Orange-clad Baltimore fans went wild. Nick Markakis led off the bottom of the 1st with a single off defending Cy Young winner Max Scherzer. He went to second when Alejandro DeAza, a late July pickup who has boosted an Orioles lineup missing All-Stars Chris Davis, Manny Machado, and Matt Wieters, was hit by a pitch.

Irrepressible Adam Jones, the team leader who can be very undisciplined at the plate, grounded into a double play to momentarily quiet the crowd. But Nelson Cruz, the greatest one-year free agent signing in recent memory, picked Jones up by homering to right center field.

But the Tigers answered back immediately when the unrelated Martinezes, Victor and J.D., belted back-to-back homers. However, Markakis singled home a run in the bottom of the 2nd to give the Orioles a lead they wouldn’t lose.

A pattern was set for the first 8 innings of the first 2 games – every time one team scored the other team answered back immediately. That’s the goal of every team, but only the good and possibly great teams actually execute it on the field.

A JJ Hardy home run gave the Orioles a huge insurance run in the bottom of the 7th. So Miguel Cabrera’s mighty two-out blast to right center in the top of the 8th
only brought the Tigers to within one run.

Then as advertised the Detroit bullpen imploded for 8 runs in the bottom of the 8th.
I don’t think Alejandro DeAza will ever forget hitting 2 doubles in the same inning, the last one driving in the last two runs of the outburst.

Yet the final score of 12-3 Orioles was very deceptive – it was a tight game until that last half-inning. And the power potential of the Detroit lineup 1 through 6 was positively frightening. By contrast the last three spots were very weak, an Achilles heel for Detroit almost as bad as the horrendous bullpen.

Friday’s day game saw the second of Detroit’s three Cy Young winners Justin Verlander match zeros with O’s Taiwanese southpaw Wei-Yin Chen until the bottom of the 3rd when Nick Markakis got his first HR off Verlander in 50 career ABs.

In keeping with the Hagler-Hearns theme, the Tigers answered with lightning quickness. In less than ten pitches, Chen gave up five runs, the last four coming on a
3-run HR by JD Martinez – a godsend for Detroit after unbelievably released last winter by the Houston Astros – and Nick Castellanos.

The Orioles answered in the bottom of the 4th when JJ Hardy singled home Adam Jones who had started the inning with a single up the middle. I had almost prayed that Jones would have a good post-season after his failures in the 2012 ALDS.
And his single up the middle was a good omen.

The Orioles knocked Verlander out of the box in the sixth inning - Hardly the dominating performance expected of a Cy Young winner. I chuckled at a sign in the crowd:
KATE UPTON IS HOT, VERLANDER IS NOT (with a circle and slash through “not”).

However, Anibal Sanchez, only recently activated from the disabled list, came in to pitch two perfect innings of relief. And when the Tigers got an insurance run in the top of the 8th, it was 6-3 Detroit.

Yet another good omen appeared when a perfect relay from Jones to second baseman Jonathan Schoop to catcher Caleb Joseph nailed lumbering if mighty slugger Miguel Cabrera at the plate.

It was a HBP to Jones with one out in the bottom of the 8th that started the winning four-run rally. That a former Tiger Delmon Young stroked a bases-loaded pinch-hit lead-gaining double was ironic.

Perhaps even more ironic was that the hit came only two hours before sundown and the start of Yom Kippur, the solemn Day of Atonement in the Jewish religion.

As a member of the Tigers in 2012 an intoxicated Young had been arrested in New York in the wee hours one morning after spewing anti-Semitic epithets and knocking to the street a target for his rage.

He was sentenced to sensitivity training and reportedly has since developed a genuine relationship with a Detroit-area rabbi. Once the number one draft pick in the country of the Tampa Bay Rays, Young has been a model citizen in Baltimore and has become an extremely productive pinch-hitter and occasional designated hitter.

And Delmon knows baseball and epitomizes the aggressive hitting philosophy explained by Adam Jones: "Tee it high, let it fly." When asked afterwards if he was hoping for a double, Young replied, "I wanted to hit a grand slam."

The crowd responded to Young's heroics with an outburst that veteran Baltimore fans
said was the loudest ever heard. I haven't been to many Oriole games in Baltimore recently but the chants of "We Won't Stop!" and "This Is Awesome" were quite impressive.

So was the outpouring of fan love for Nelson Cruz - "Cruuuuuuz!" - a regular chant since
he established himself as a consistent offensive force in the lineup. He is a free agent after the year and he has liked his time in Baltimore. But we'll see at age 35 next year how many suitors he will have. Probably a lot.

Added cheers were bestowed upon "Nick Mar-Ka-Kis!" and "J.J.Hardy!" two quiet leaders who could also be wearing other uniforms in 2015. My sense is that Markakis wants to stay with the only team he has ever played for and the Orioles will either pick up a $16-$17 million option or extend him at perhaps a slightly lower annual salary.

Hardy is an unrestricted free agent after the World Series. With the latest knee injury to Manny Machado, I would be very wary of letting Hardy walk away.

I returned home to New York to watch on TV on Sunday October 5 as the Orioles completed the sweep. Bud Norris, making his playoff debut, outpitched the third Cy Young winner in the Detroit arsenal David Price. It was Cruz’s two-run home run in the 6th after a Jones single that provided the necessary runs in a 2-1 victory.

Cruz’s home run just sneaked inside the right field foul pole. Impeccable five-out relief work from southpaw Andrew Miller - another free agent after the season - brought the game to closer Zach Britton who was shaky. He immediately gave up back-to-back doubles to the formidable Martinezes to cut the lead to 2-1.

But the bottom of the Detroit order was as wanting as their bullpen. A clever move by Oriole manager Buck Showalter to walk home run threat Nick Castellanos to set up a double play worked perfectly when inexperienced Hernan Perez grounded into a 5-4-3 DP that sent the Birds into their first AL Championship Series since 1997.

Looking ahead, beginning on Friday Oct 10, the Orioles will have home field advantage against the surprising Kansas City Royals who also dispatched the heavily favored Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in three straight. Obviously this will be a more demanding series because after a few years of underachieving the Royals have arrived with their great bullpen and blinding speed and emerging left-handed power threats in first baseman Eric Hosmer and third baseman Mike Moustakas.

The battle of underdogs vying to become AL top dogs should be a very interesting one.
And I expect the Orioles will continue their fine tradition of excellent choices for Star Spangled Banner singers.

Shining particularly well before Friday's game was the operatic soprano from Richmond, Virginia, Chelsea Buyalos who delivered a stirring rendition in under 1 minute and 20 seconds. Her "God Bless America" was poised and beautiful, too.

Never forget, dear readers, that the only reason to play baseball is to keep winter away.

As always, I sign off YIBF (Yours In Baseball Forever!) and urge you to
Take it easy, but take it!

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