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Orioles Sputter To The End of July As All Division Races Tighten

July 29, 2016

Tags: Struggling Orioles and Red Sox, All-Important Loss Column, Chris Davis, Rangers, Prince Fielder, Astros, Mariners, Felix Hernandez, Indians, Tigers, struggling Royals and Mets, Nationals, Marlins, Giants, Dodgers, Cubs, Cardinals, in praise of Wild Card rule

In this strange but always absorbing baseball season, it seems that uneasy lies the head of all division leaders. I follow the Orioles the most closely, of course, and their AL East lead is down to two games in the AILC . This stands for All-Important Lost Column meaning that a game lost can never be made up but a game not played could still be a win.

A three-game series in Toronto against the second place Blue Jays this weekend should clarify a few things. I am hoping that Chris Davis's bat awakens in his favorite ballpark the Rogers Centre (formerly known as the Skydome in Toronto's championship years of 1992-93.)

The Red Sox are on the road for two weeks and have lost some tough games recently. Yet they are only two back of the Birds in the AILC and the resurgent Yankees only six.

Leaders in baseball's other divisions are having hard times, too. In the AL West the Texas Rangers are having starting pitching woes and have lost slugger Prince Fielder for probably the rest of the season with recurring neck issues.

Last year's surprise team the Houston Astros is hot on the Rangers trail and they are eager to face Texas again after losing all but one of their first match ups this year. Don't count out the occasionally explosive Seattle Mariners who have their ace Felix Hernandez back from injury.

In the AL Central, Cleveland's 14-game winning streak opened a big lead but they are losing luster, obviously needing another bat in the lineup and some help in the bullpen. The Detroit Tigers are hanging in and like the Astros they hope to avenge a pounding by the Indians in their earlier games this year.

The chances for defending World Series champion Kansas City to repeat in AL Central look meager now. So too for the Mets in the NL East. The Nationals have ruled the roost for much of this year but are not invincible. Yet the Mets have fallen behind even the Miami Marlins in the race for the divisional crown.

Perhaps the biggest slump of division leaders is occurring in the NL West where the SF Giants are plummeting. Their defense and hitting looked very suspect when they lost the series at Yankee Stadium last weekend. It was nice though for an old New York Giant fan like myself to see such a spirited band of Giant fans hold their own cheering on the road.

Another thrilling pennant chase between the Giants and Dodgers looms. Only in the NL Central does the race seem over with the Cubs holding a commanding lead despite playing barely .500 ball since they raced out to a 25-6 start. The Pirates and now the onrushing Cardinals are still very alive in the wild card race.

Though I wish the season were shortened to 154 games or fewer, there is one great rule in effect. The team that wins the division title is assured at least one playoff series.
The two also-rans with the best records must play the Wild Card winner-take-all game.

So expect some dramatic baseball ahead. It's what we addicted fans live for.

That's all for now - always remember: Take it easy but take it.

Reflections on The Orioles Shaky Series at Yankee Stadium

July 21, 2016

Tags: Oddities of MLB schedule, Chris Tillman, Chris Davis, Didi Gregorius, Starlin Castro, Jonathan Schoop, J.J. Hardy

MLB's baseball schedule is unfathomable and unfair but it seems it is here to stay (until there is a major realignment that I am not sure I would favor.) I realize that two 15-team major leagues now require an inter-league game every day, but divisional play should still take precedence at regular intervals.

Not so for the Orioles who paid their first visit of 2016 to Yankee Stadium from July 18-21. The Birds had already hosted the Bronx Bombers twice this year and won each series two games to one. Sadly, in a post-All-Star Game batting slump, they provided little opposition as the Yankees mowed them down easily in the first three games, 2-1, 7-1, and 5-0.

Though not convinced that the Orioles are a bona fide championship contender, especially because of a shaky starting pitching rotation, I attended every game. The Birds were undermanned because a stomach virus engulfed the Oriole roster keeping Chris Davis out of the lineup in the first three games and also forcing Manny Machado to the sidelines for game three.

Fortunately, both played in the Thursday day game that saw Chris Tillman perform like a true ace. His seven solid innings preserved the lead that shortstop JJ Hardy gave him with a bases-loaded single in the first inning. It was a ball that handcuffed normally reliable Yankee shortstop Didi Gregorius. It was hit hard enough to be a legitimate single though it was a play that Gregorius usually makes.

Later in the game Didi made amends with some brilliant plays. His double play partner Starlin Caatro also flashed plenty of range and leather. They are the likely future of the Yankees as they aim to get younger and better.

Jonathan Schoop, like Gregorius from the tiny land of Curacao not far from Venezuela, delivered a key two-run insurance double in the seventh inning.

Remember the names of Schoop and Gregorius. Neither made the 2016 All-Star team but beginning next season they should likely add that laurel of recognition.

The Red Sox have moved into first place in the AL East, one lost game ahead of Baltimore with Toronto close behind. The trade deadline looms on August 1 and all teams will strive to improve for either this year or future years like perhaps the Yankees.

I am fascinated that so many Yankee fans are convinced that the current squad needs revamping. Yet the Steinbrenner family and close associates still evidently cling to the belief that this year can still lead to a playoff.

One word of advice to all teams (that of course won't be heeded) - Don't make deals just because of the clamoring of the media. I personally prefer the older deadline of mid-June.

It says here that teams should rely primarily on what their own organizations have developed. But since building a championship roster is such a difficult process, there will always be trades and wise acquisitions by other means.

There should be plenty of drama ahead and I for one am grateful for that. It is a precious time of year when pennant race baseball should have the main attention of real fans.
When the football season begins in late August/early September that focus will change.

That's all for now. I'm off to teach at Chautauqua in western New York during the first week of August. Will be back with reports on that later in the summer.
In the meantime, always remember: Take it easy but take it!

Orioles Honor 1966 Champs + Musings at All-Star Game Break

July 11, 2016

Tags: 1966 Orioles, Oriole Advocates Jim Palmer, Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Boog Powell, Moe Drabowsky, relief pitcher Eddie Fisher, Ubaldo Jimenez, Joe Smith, Jonathan Schoop, Andrelton Simmons, Curacao talent pipeline

On Friday July 8th the 1966 World Series champion Baltimore Orioles were honored at a luncheon sponsored by the Oriole Advocates, a longtime charitable organization in Charm City. There was also an evening pre-game ceremony at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. More than a dozen players and coaches from Baltimore’s first World Series champion gathered for the events.

Of course, Hall of Famers Jim Palmer and Brooks Robinson attended - both have established roots in Baltimore since their playing days, Palmer as an excellent TV analyst and Robinson as a truly beloved year-round resident.

No surprise that slugging first baseman Boog Powell was also on hand – his barbecue stand is a popular feature at Camden Yards.

Unfortunately, Frank Robinson did not come, citing a previous commitment.
His arrival in a pre-1966 season trade from the Cincinnati Reds was the catalyst that put the Orioles over the top in 1966. He went on to win the Triple Crown and American League MVP, the only season incidentally that he ever led the league in batting average, home runs, and RBI.

Though not there to hear the plaudits, Frank Robinson’s role on the 1966 team was universally praised. His intense desire to win was infectious. Some teammates even thought that the moment he hit a home run in his first batting practice was the moment the whole team knew they would win it all.

The most amusing speaker was knuckleballing relief pitcher Eddie Fisher (no relation to the pop singer who married Debbie Reynolds and then Elizabeth Taylor).
A retired golf director for the Oklahoma tourism department, Fisher said he developed the knuckle ball because "my spitter was so slow that it dried up before it reached home plate."

After the late Moe Drabowsky pitched over six innings in relief and won the first game of the 1966 Series over the favored Los Angeles Dodgers, the bullpen was not needed. Fisher said that he warmed up a couple of times just to get on television. He added that he thought about applying for unemployment because he hadn’t worked at all in the Birds' stunning four-game sweep.

Sadly, Friday's day of celebration ended on a sour note when Ubaldo Jimenez imploded again in a starting role for the 2016 Orioles. Baltimore fans are generally not savage – they are more likely to cheer sacrifice bunts and the animated ketchup-mustard-relish race on the ballpark scoreboard than boo the home team.

But after being knocked again in the second inning, Jimenez heard the catcalls. He is
still owed $27 million through 2017 so an outright release is not likely yet. But there is much speculation that his place in a very suspect starting rotation may have been irretrievably lost.

The happier news is that the Orioles bounced back to win two close games on Saturday and Sunday. The also-ran Los Angeles Angels were in a giving mood and the Orioles were gracious hosts and accepted the breaks.

On Saturday former Mets reliever Joe Smith dropped the ball before he started to pitch. A balk was called, allowing the O’s to tie the score at 2-2. Emerging star second baseman Jonathan Schoop gave the O’s the lead with a RBI single in the 8th inning.

On Sunday shortstop Andrelton Simmons, like Schoop a native of the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao, let an easy popup fall in short left field. It set up a big insurance run in an eventual 4-2 Orioles win.

The O’s enter the All-Star Game break with a two game lead over Boston with Toronto right behind. The Yankees pulled to .500 with a 3-1 series win at Cleveland.
They are only 8 back of the Birds in the lost column. The Birds make their first trip to NYC July 17-20 and they will be crucial for both teams, especially the Yankees.

Lots of baseball still to be played. Even teams totally out of the playoff races like the Braves in the NL and the Twins in the AL are playing better.

As always the team that wins will not necessarily be the best team but the team that plays best down the stretch. After their sizzling start, the Cubs have looked mortal and what was once a 14 game lead over the Pirates has been cut in half. The Cardinals are even a little closer than Pittsburgh.

So as always in baseball as in life the advice is the same: Take it easy but take it!

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