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When The Marathon Becomes A Sprint + Homage to Don Welke (1942-2018)

September 25, 2018

Tags: Last week of MLB season playoff analysis, Mike Shildt, the Cardinal Way, Bud Norris, Don Welke, Pat Gillick, Bob Engle, John Olerud, Pat Hentgen, Jim Abbott

As I have said many times, all any baseball fan should ever ask for is to play meaningful games in September. That hope was long dashed this season (and probably for many future seasons) in Oriole land and for too many other teams this year. (Sure hope we are not seeing the rise of a permanent baseball underclass.)

For those teams still in the hunt, there is nothing like the agony and ecstasy of baseball in late September. When the number of games is reduced to just a handful, the pressure and tension can be excruciating. In a rare unqualified statement about baseball, it says here that the teams that win have the players who can stay intense without being tense.

The five teams in the American League playoffs are already set. The Red Sox and Indians have clinched their divisions, the defending World Series champion Astros will likely clinch the AL West this week (if not at lowly Toronto, then definitely at very lowly Baltimore).

The only dramatic question in the AL is whether the Oakland A’s or the Yankees will host the wild card game on Wednesday October 3. Most likely it will be the Yanks because they have to lose three games out of their last six and the A’s must win all of their remaining five for the wild card game to be played in Oakland.

The National League is far more intriguing. Only the Atlanta Braves have clinched a division title so have no worries about an elimination game. The Cubs are stumbling a bit but still lead the Brewers by two games in lost column. The soaring Dodgers only lead the Rockies by one lost game.

The Cardinals, under once-interim now-permanent manager Mike Shildt, are the most threatened with the most difficult schedule. Last night (M Sep 24) they threw away a key rain-interrupted game to the Brewers. They lost 6-4 with the eventual winning run scoring on an ill-advised errant throw to first base by pitcher Bud Norris that allowed the tie-breaking run to score from third.

Kinda ironic that erratic former Oriole Norris is subject of St Louis boo-birds because supposedly he was nicknamed Bud as a three-year-old because he liked to sip Budweiser!

I love the story of Shildt, a baseball lifer from Charlotte, North Carolina who grew up in the 1970s when the Orioles had their Double-A team in Charlotte. He was a jack-of-all-trades - ballboy, gofer, clubhouse attendant, you name it.

He is the rare MLB manager that never played pro ball. But he has imbibed the Cardinal Way that started with Branch Rickey and continued by George Kissell, Stan Musial, Red Schoendienst, and so many more.

The Redbirds will have to play better defense if they want to make the playoffs. And gulp! after two more with the Brewers at home, they end the season with three at Wrigley Field. Though not yet a lock, it seems the Cardinals and Rockies will fight for the second wild card with Colorado hosting the Phillies and Nationals at home.

I want to conclude this post with a fond remembrance of the late Don Welke. One of the great scouts of our era, Welke died in San Diego on Wed Sep 19 just a few days shy of his 76th birthday. He was still scouting for the Padres at the time of his death.

Starting out as an associate scout with the Cincinnati Reds in the 1960s (as the future Big Red Machine was being formulated), Welke enjoyed a career that spanned major contributions with the expansion Kansas City Royals and Toronto Blue Jays and later the Orioles, Texas Rangers, and lastly the Padres.

During Pat Gillick’s induction speech at the Hall of Fame earlier this decade, he singled out Welke (and Bob Engle) for special commendation. It was Welke’s scouting that brought first baseman John Olerud and pitcher Pat Hentgen to Toronto. He also tried valiantly to sign Jim Abbott but the remarkable one-armed pitcher opted for the U of Michigan instead.

Welke became a world traveler in his later years and did a lot of international scouting. He was part of the staff for the gold medal-winning American baseball team at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Welke’s roots were in the Midwest. His early career almost reads like a traveler’s guide to that region. He liked to call himself a Harvard man, that is, a graduate of Harvard HS in Illinois.

He attended and graduated from Carthage College in Wisconsin but never played pro baseball. Instead he started a career in coaching and education as a graduate assistant at Eastern Michigan U in Ypsilanti. From 1970-75 he was the coach at Concordia College in Ann Arbor.

I had the good fortune to meet Don on a few occasions. I have an especially warm memory of his appearance on a panel that I moderated on scouting for the annual NINE Baseball Magazine conference in Phoenix.

He wasn't an advocate of analytics and its new terminology - low-key wit and pithy perception were his trademarks. “I always look for the player who makes the game look easy,” he once said, knowing of course that the game is never easy.

In a 2015 interview for Fox TV Sports that I accessed this morning via Google, Welke compared scouting to playing in one key way: you have to possess “the ability to be better than the next guy . . . and . . . have the courage to be risky some times.”

Welke is survived by three sons. He will be sorely missed. At least in the age of the internet we have everlasting access to his wit and wisdom.

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

On Revenge As Motivation and How Grand Slams Kill Rallies

September 15, 2018

Tags: Brigham Young - Tanner Mangum, Wisconsin - Rafael Gaglianone, Alex Hornibrook, Jonathan Taylor, LA Dodgers, Yasiel Puig, St. Louis Cardinals, Patrick Wisdom, Miguel Andujar

This is an amazing time of year for the sports nut and couch potatoes. Baseball pennant and wild card races are heading towards climaxes and college football has begun with a fury.

I was worried that my graduate alma mater Wisconsin was overrated as a possible college playoff team and Brigham Young proved my fears warranted Saturday afternoon in Madison. On the second hottest day in Camp Randall Stadium history - field temperatures rose to 120 at one point - the Utah eleven avenged last year's rout by the Badgers in Provo with a hard-fought 24-21 victory.

The Badgers had a chance to force overtime but after two timeouts to ice him, the usually reliable kicker Rafael Gaglianone missed a 42-yard field goal. Wisconsin never got into a rhythm all day. Star running back Jonathan Taylor did not fumble but didn't break any big runs.

Badgers southpaw quarterback Alex Hornibrook threw a key interception early in the second half that set up a Cougar TD and gave them control of the game even though Wisconsin did briefly tie. Brigham Young's 25-year-old senior quarterback Reese Mangum played virtually flawlessly.

It was sweet revenge for a team that was embarrassed 40-6 last year. There is nothing like getting even in sports - and maybe in life too - as a motivation.

The LA Dodgers are proving that in St Louis, battering the Cardinals' young pitching staff in the first three games of their pivotal series for wild card position. Just a few weeks ago, the Cardinals roared into LA and swept four from the defending NL champions.

Though by inclination I root against the rich goliath Dodgers and Yankees, I knew that the Dodgers were not to be counted out. They are an explosive team and no one can be more explosive than Cuban defector right fielder Yasiel Puig who had four homers in the Fri and Sat games in St. Louis, with 3 HRs and 7 RBI in Sat's 17-4 romp.

The only runs for St Louis in this game was a grand slam HR by rookie Patrick Wisdom. It would be their only runs this day. Of course, no one can turn down a grand slammer but I think Patrick would agree that baseball wisdom decrees that a grand slam home run often kills a rally.

Same thing happened to the Yankees on Saturday. Miguel Andujar's grand slammer brought the Yankees to 8-7 in chase of Toronto. But they never really threatened again. The grand slammer killed the rally.

Why? Because the bases are then empty so the pitcher no longer worries about base runners and can use his normal full pitching motion. Just another of baseball's wonderful anomalies and contradictions.

That's all for now but there will be more highlights ahead to discuss as wild card positioning in both leagues is still wide open. Stay tune.

And always remember: Take it easy but take it!

Fasten Up Your Seat Belts for A Wild September Esp. In National League

September 5, 2018

Tags: Broadcaster Bob Murphy, Scott Servais, Wade LeBlanc, Dee Gordon, Jean Segura, NL pennant/wild card races, Cole Hamels, Mike Shildt, Mike Matheny

If only legendary Mets broadcaster Bob Murphy were alive to give his signature late-inning close-game call, "Fasten up your seat belts!" Because he could say it every night as eight teams in the National League can stake a chance to make the post-season.

I write mainly about the Orioles and the American League in this blog but given the historically horrible 2018 of my favorite team, they are playing no meaningful games in September this year. Except to be a spoiler now and then.

Like last night (Tues Sept 4) they rallied to beat the Mariners 5-3 in Seattle. Mariners skipper Scott Servais, drenched in the analytics that told him that starter Wade LeBlanc couldn't face the fearsome Orioles hitters three times, yanked his effective southpaw after six shutout innings.

The Orioles then went to town on the struggling Seattle bullpen. Although like every losing team they almost threw away the game on defense. The Mariners evidently showed more fight in the clubhouse before the game when second baseman/center fielder Dee Gordon and shortstop Jean Segura got into a tussle - reportedly over Gordon's sloppy defensive lapses.

Seattle is now a distant third in the race for the two wild cards with the Yankees and surprising Oakland A's. The A's could still catch Houston for the AL West title but there is no real drama in the AL.

Cleveland is running away with the AL Central and the Red Sox have a lead varying from 7-8 games over the Yankees in AL East. They still have two head-to-head series left but it will take a full collapse of Boston to make those games truly dramatic.

Quite the contrary in the NL. The West is really the wild west in 2018 with only a game separating the Colorado Rockies, the Arizona Diamondbacks, and the five-time consecutive champion LA Dodgers.

In the East, Atlanta has maintained recently a lead of two to three games over the fading Phillies but they still have two head-to-head series left, too. Their records are not great so they can't count on earning a wild card - one of then must win the title.

In the NL Central, the Cubs seemed to be in control until they went to Milwaukee on Labor Day and lost two in a row to their rivals to the north.

Newly acquired southpaw Cole Hamels - who has solid playoff experience with the Phillies and the Rangers - has pooh-poohed any rivalry because so many Cub fans make the 90-minute trek to Wisconsin.

That, of course, didn't go over well in beer and bratwurst and cheese country. The Brewers have to make one last trek to Wrigley next Monday thru Wed. And their next-to-last series is in St Louis with the revived Redbirds.

Let's not forget the Cardinals who have been on a tear ever since organizational lifer Mike Shildt took over as interim manager for Mike Matheny early in the summer.
After a 26-12 log under the new leadership, management rewarded Shildt with the permanent job (as permanent as anything ever is in "the hired to be fired" world of baseball).

Of course, Cardinals then went on to lose a few in a row before they held on to beat the disappointing Nationals last night 11-8 in a road slugfest in DC. They have a lot of new young faces on both the mound and in everyday roles that make them a very interesting story. As are the Brewers who with St. Louis are right now the two wild card leaders.

One thing about baseball never to forget is that it is a game of trends and peaks and valleys. Never get too high after a win or too low after a loss, one of the great cliches.

Yet all bets are off when it comes to exciting September baseball. So sit back and enjoy it and we'll be back to you later in the month with updates and more stories.

For now always remember: Take it easy but take it!

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“Lowenfish’s take is detailed and nuanced.... he doesn’t look for simple answers; despite his own abiding admiration, he never sugarcoats or presents Rickey in anything other than a three-dimensional light.”
–David Ulin, Los Angeles Times