October 4, 2018
The end of the regular baseball season is always a bittersweet time. There are playoffs ahead but October baseball is national not local (except for radio if your team is in the hunt.). I already miss the daily flow of games from all over the country and the amassing of steady incremental statistics.
The National League Wild Card game was historic in that two divisions ended in dead heats. That meant two one-game playoffs this past Monday Oct 1 to determine the division winner and automatic entry into the playoffs.
The Dodgers won at home over the Colorado Rockies and the Milwaukee Brewers won at Chicago to assure their places in the tournament. That meant the Wild Card game would pit Colorado at the Cubs’ Wrigley Field on Tuesday night Oct 2.
In a 2-1 13-inning thriller, the Rockies eliminated the Cubs. (I’m a New Yorker and have never called them the Cubbies and never will.) It was a wonderful ending for those of us who like to see the unheralded player - almost the last man on the 25-man roster - become the unlikely hero.
Around the bewitching bell of midnight CDT, it was third-string catcher Tony Wolters who drove in the winning run with a single up the middle. It was a tough experience for Chicago to lose two post-season games in a row at home but I think they’ll be back in future post-seasons.
A fully healthy Kris Bryant should help a lot. Maybe they’ll be able to get some wins and innings from the very expensive free agent bust Yu Darvish. Most of all, the team cohesion will have to return.
When the Cubs were in command of the division for most of the second half of the season, team leader Anthony Rizzo was quoted as saying that the team was made up of number one draft choices who don’t act like them. That grinding quality needs to return.
The American League Wild Card game the following night - Bobby Thomson Day October 3 - provided no such excitement. A now-healthy Aaron Judge slugged a two-run homer in the first inning and the Yankees were rarely threatened on their way to a 7-2 romp over the Oakland A’s.
Predictably, Billy Beane, the widely-hailed genius of the A’s, said that a playoff never tests the true value of a team, and usually effective manager Bob Melvin agreed. But like the Twins last year the A’s did not seem ready to play in such a high-pressured situation. A low payroll is no excuse for uninspired play though the Yankees are certainly formidable and peaking at the right time.
I grew up watching too many Yankees-Dodgers World Series in the 1940s and 1950s but we may be heading in that direction again. We’ll find out more in the next couple of weeks as the Yankees-Red Sox and Houston-Cleveland meet in the ALDS and the Dodgers-Atlanta Braves and Colorado-Milwaukee go head-to-head in the NLDS.
I'd like to see a rematch of the 1948 and 1995 with the Indians and Braves - Ryan Braun's arrogant unrepentant PED-abusing past makes it impossible for me to root hard for the Brewers though I have Wisconsin roots from the 1960s.
I'd like to see Indians win in seven though they too have a poster boy for PED abuse, Melky Cabrera. (Maybe he won't make the post-season roster.) But I know very well you can't always get what you want.
Meanwhile the baseball managerial firing season is in full flower. Cubs honcho Theo Epstein has assured the world that Joe Maddon will return in 2019 but not with an extension to the contract so he could well be considered a lame duck. Not likely given his innovative approach to life and managing.
Some people were surprised that Paul Molitor was fired in Minnesota but not me. I could see a look of near-resignation on his face in the latter stages of the season. In a very weak AL Central, the Twins finished second at 78-84 but only because they won a lot of relatively meaningless games at the end of the year.
The decision to not renew Buck Showalter’s contract in Baltimore was no surprise to anybody. A 47-115 season doesn’t look good on anyone’s resume.
It may mean the end of his managerial career though at 62 he still looks good on the surface. He certainly should be saluted for his many great achievements at turning around moribund teams - starting out with the New York Yankees in 1992 who had just come through their worst non-championship period after the 1981 World Series.
Buck left the Yankees after they lost a thrilling ALCS to the Seattle Mariners in 1995. He then became the first manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, starting with the team and setting the tone of the organization two years before they played their first game in 1998.
Just as in New York though, where Joe Torre took over essentially Buck’s team plus Derek Jeter and won the 1996 World Series, the Diamondbacks only went all the way in 2001 after Buck yielded the reins to former catcher (and now announcer) Bob Brenly. The addition of aces Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling didn’t hurt.
After managing the Texas Rangers for a few years earlier this century, he came to the Orioles late in the 2010 season. He turned the team around quickly and by 2012 the Orioles were back in the playoffs for the first time since 1997.
They won the AL East in 2014 and I’ll never forget the last great euphoric moment at Camden Yards. After beating the Tigers two in a row - a bases-clearing double by Delmon Young the deciding hit - a joyous Orioles fan carried a sign into the happy milling crowd: KATE UPTON IS HOT, VERLANDER IS NOT. (Justin of course now has the last laugh appearing again in the playoffs for the second year in a row.)
Buck’s last playoff game with the Orioles can be marked in 20-20 hindsight as the beginning of the end - when he chose not to use ace closer Zach Britton in the Wild Card game at Toronto in 2016. In fairness to Buck, every other bullpen choice in that game had worked like a charm.
But to channel George Costanza to George Steinbrenner in a classic Seinfeld episode, “How could you trade Jay Buhner for Ken Phelps?” I asked in wonderment sitting at the bar at Foley’s that night: “How could you choose Ubaldo Jimenez over Zach Britton in a double-play situation in a tied game on the road?!”
Buck’s last two seasons were not good in Baltimore and 2018 defied belief in its horror. He is moving back to Texas, this native of the Florida Panhandle who went and played at Mississippi State but owes a lot of his inspiration to meeting his father’s friend Bear Bryant at Alabama.
From his earliest moments in Baltimore - when he finished 34-23 in 2010 winning more games than the team had won before he arrived - he made all of us Oriole addicts proud and created lasting memories.
It is almost fitting though equally sad that Adam Jones has probably also played his last game in Baltimore. This effervescent modern player and the old school manager formed a unique bond during the Orioles’s good years.
Jones’s free spirit but obvious desire to win allowed Buck to loosen up some of his old-school rules. So on hot days Buck allowed the Orioles to take batting practice in shorts. It was Jones who insisted that Buck take a bow out of the dugout when he won his 1000th game as a manager.
It’s sad that this year from hell lowered Showalter’s lifetime record to under .500 with the Orioles. The road up will be a hard one and the Orioles are also looking for a new general manager with the decision to not rehire Dan Duquette.
Ownership remains in flux with the Angelos sons in charge now with patriarch Peter ailing. It can’t be worse than 47-115, can it?
So let me close with a big thank you to Nathaniel “Buck” Showalter for the pride and joy he brought to the Orioles and their fans for many years.
That’s all for now - always remember: take it easy but take it!
October 6, 2014
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!
June 15, 2014
Happy Father's Day to Dads and their loved ones! 50 years ago - on June 21, 1964 to be exact - Jim Bunning threw a perfect game against the Mets at New York's brand-new Shea Stadium. I went with my father and it wasn't an exciting game because the Mets trailed early. But the drama built up, of course, and Bunning struck out John Stephenson to end the game. He then headed to be introduced on Ed Sulivan's CBS-TV Sunday night "really big shew".
And now let's turn to Quotations from Orioles manager Buck Showalter. The Baltimore skipper worked as an ESPN commentator in between his Texas Rangers and Orioles jobs. He has a gift for the terse insight that this sound bite-happy world of ours requires. As the O’s try to assert themselves in the AL East, here’s a sampling of the baseball-savvy bon mots of Baltimore’s baseball boss:
**“This game has a way of embracing you or spitting you out.”
Said by Buck after the Orioles nail-biting Flag Day June 14th 3-2 victory over the Jays.
Opportunistic base-running by Delmon Young and brilliant shortstop play by JJ Hardy prompted this comment. (Hardy mysteriously has lost his power at the plate, perhaps because of lingering back issues, but his defense is exquisite – I highly recommend turning one's eyes away from computer screens to watch it.)
**”If you have one good pitch, you can compete in the big leagues.
If you have two good pitches, you can win in the big leagues.
If you have three good pitches, you can dominate.”
--Buck quoting ace pitcher-turned-broadcaster Orel Hershiser.
“There are four ways you can leave the major leagues.
You can TALK your way out of it.
You can PARTY your way out of it.
You can EAT your way out of it.
You can PLAY your way out of it.”
Showalter wisely recommends the last.
AN HOMAGE TO BB&T STADIUM in Charlotte, North Carolina.
A week ago I paid a visit to the new home of the Charlotte Knights the White Sox affiliate in the International League. It’s located across the street from the Carolina Panthers’ NFL home.
I was quite amazed that despite torrential rains the game was played with only a 75 minute rain delay. The drainage system at BB&T Stadium is excellent, and I was impressed by the swift manner in which Knights’ personnel used modern suction equipment to remove wet spots and puddles from the outfield.
The game turned out to be a slugfest won by the division-leading Columbus Clippers, an Indians affiliate, over the tailend Knights. Charlotte starter Tommy Hanson, once a promising Braves righty, was lit up early by a home run by Indians prospect Jesus Aguilar. Neither Hanson nor his first reliever former Cardinal Mitchell Boggs gave evidence that they might be heading back soon to The Show.
The Knights fell behind early but they had some moments with a rally that knocked out Clippers starter Gabriel Arias before he could qualify for a win. Jared Mitchell, former star LSU football and baseball player, blasted a homer but his BA remained under the .200 mark so I think his development is still lagging.
But I was really glad I got to see BB&T Stadium with its spectacular view of downtown Charlotte. It was Bark in the Park day and many fans brought their pooches to parade around the rapidly drying grounds. Retired wrestling star George “The Animal” Steele also was on hand to throw out a first ball from nowhere near the pitching mound. And the concessions were quite good.
COLLEGE WORLD SERIES IN FULL FLOWER:
The eight-team double elimination competition began in Omaha yesterday with Cinderella UC-Irvine staging a late rally to beat Texas, 3-1. It was a matchup of septuagenarian coaches Mike Gillespie of Irvine versus Augie Garrido of Texas. Both have won the CWS with other schools – Gillespie with his alma mater USC and Garrido at Cal-Fullerton before his last title at Texas in 2005.
In the evening game Vanderbilt held on to beat Louisville, 5-3. The deadened bats have reduced the offense in the college game so games are usually low-scoring. So a premium is placed on pitching and defense and the sacrifice bunt and the bunt for a hit take on more importance.
I’m enough of a purist to miss the thwack of the bat - I still cringe at the ping from the metal bat. But the intensity of the games and the usually close competition have won me over.
Father’s Day matchups are another surprise team Texas Tech versus Big 12 rival TCU and Virginia versus Mississippi. All aired on ESPN2 with the final best-of-three series starting on Mon June 23.
More on the CWS next time as well as word on the upcoming inductions into the College Baseball Hall of Fame near the Texas Tech Lubbock campus.
In the meantime the YIBF (Yours In Baseball Forever) always advises:
Take it easy but take it!