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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!

O's Make It To The Wild Card Game As Regular Season Ends

October 2, 2016

Tags: Craig Kimbrel, Foley's nyc bar, Mike Matheny, Joe Girardi, Matt Wieters, Kevin Gausman, Ubaldo Jimenez, Ramon Martinez, Dan Duquette, Colin Kaepernick, Cardboard to Leather-Oriole Advocates project, Victor Martinez, Miguel Cabrera, J.D. Martinez, Chaz Roe, Jim Johnson, Mark Trumbo, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Noah Syndergaard, Madison Bumgarner

Baseball’s exciting, wildly unpredictable season came down to Game 162 with a real possibility that there would be play-in games before the wild-card Winner Take All playoffs. It didn’t happen because the Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles won their final series on the road at Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium, respectively.

After taking advantage of Macy's "greatest sale of the year," I strolled the big blocks from 7th Avenue and 34th Street to Foley's bar not far from the Empire State Building where I took in the proceedings I knew that on a football Sunday there would be many TVs tuned to baseball.

Amazingly, Foley's is a big St Louis Cardinals outpost and many Redbird-clad fans gathered hoping against hope that the Giants would lose and the Cards would get in.
After the umpires on Thursday night shockingly didn't enforce a rule that a ball was a ground-rule double allowing the Cards to beat the Reds, I was glad the Cards were locked out of the 2016 playoffs. Like the Yankees, they are in there too much (but at least their manager Mike Matheny doesn't wear a number like Joe Girardi's 28 to tell the world about the inevitable next world championship.)

I was pleased when there was a family of Oriole fans from Towson, Maryland, where I started my teaching career way back then. We made appropriate noise when the O's took and kept the lead.

So now the O’s and Blue Jays will meet on Tuesday Oct 4 at 8:08 on TBS in Toronto for the right to play the Texas Rangers in the best-of-five AL Division Series. Boston, the AL East winner whose closer Craig Kimbrel is in a slump at the worst time, lost home field advantage to the Cleveland Indians who will host them in the other ALDS.

The Detroit Tigers, given up for dead a couple of months ago, made a valiant run at crashing the playoff party. But playing the role of spoiler to the utmost, the Atlanta Braves beat the Bengals on Sat. and Sun. to eliminate Detroit. The Braves in September also swept the Mets at Citi Field but the New Yorkers rebounded to win the first wild card.

It was unfortunate for Detroit that they couldn’t use their designated hitter Victor Martinez in the National League park but they had their chances to win each game. Just couldn’t come up with the big hit, a lament that is often heard when teams just miss out on the post-season.

A fascinating sidelight in the Tiger losses is that two former Oriole castoff relievers got huge outs for the Braves. Coming in with bases loaded and nobody out in the 8th on Sat night, Chaz Roe kept Atlanta's 5-2 lead by striking out fearsome Miguel Cabrera and getting stellar J.D.Martinez to hit into a double play. Former Oriole closer Jim Johnson got saves in each game.

Meanwhile the much-maligned Oriole starting pitching came up big in the last weeks of the season. Who would have thought that Ubaldo Jimenez would emerge as a consistent contributor?

Ramon Martinez, Pedro’s older brother and a special adviser to Oriole gm Dan Duquette, has become a confidant with fellow Dominican Ubaldo. Ramon has evidently helped to eliminate some extraneous movement from Ubaldo’s complicated delivery.

Things are going well in Ubaldo’s outside life that certainly hasn't hurt his performance.
**He recently became father for the first time.
**In early September he flew to Miami in between starts to attend a swearing-in ceremony to become an American citizen.

At a time when the national media is making such a big deal about journeyman quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem, most of the country doesn’t know about Ubaldo Jimenez’s unabashed affirmation of his adopted land.

He also has become the new spokesperson for the Cardboard to Leather philanthropic project of the Oriole Advocates, a longtime baseball-loving community service organization in Baltimore. Cardboard to Leather makes annual trips to Latin America bringing baseball equipment to the needy.

If the Orioles manage to beat Toronto in the wild card game, Jimenez will certainly get a start in the division series. The Orioles young veteran Chris Tillman is likely to get the wild card start with the finally healthy Dylan Bundy ready to aid in relief.

The Birds’ other young hard-throwing right-hander Kevin Gausman beat the Yankees in Game 162 to clinch the wild card bid. All of a sudden, with Bundy, Gausman, and Tillman, and one more year of revived Jimenez and maybe Yovani Gallardo and Wade Miley, Oriole pitching doesn't look so foreboding.

One of the interesting sidebars in the upcoming Toronto-Baltimore wild card tussle is that two sluggers on each team might be playing their last game for their current franchises. Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion of the Blue Jays and Mark Trumbo and Matt Wieters of the Orioles are all free agents at the end of the post-season.

All year on this blog I have refused to speculate on where these run-producers might go and I’m not gonna start now. Wieters, a switch-hitter and an excellent defensive catcher, probably has the most value. It certainly went up when he smashed for the first time in his career home runs from both sides of the plate in the O's Game 162 5-2 victory over the Yanks.

We’ll cross that bridge of free agency speculation after the World Series.
For now I’m just glad that we have at least this extra game to look forward to.

Ditto the National League Wild Card game that will pit the defending NL champion Mets against the Giants who swept the Dodgers in San Francisco to earn a chance to go for their third straight even-year World Series title. The Wednesday matchup between the Mets’ Noah Syndergaard and the Giants’ World Series hero Madison Bumgarner should be a beauty.

But it’s baseball - it could be a rout or a slugfest. We don’t know and neither do the stat heads. That’s why they play the games.

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

The Cape Cod Baseball League Should Be On Every Fan's Bucket List

August 19, 2015

Tags: Buster Posey, George Springer, Dallas Keuchel, Mark Teixeira, Matt Wieters, Joe Girardi, Mike Matheny, Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox, Gio Brusa, Donnie Walton, Orleans Firebirds, Ronnie Dawson, Josh Vidales, Hyannis Harbor Hawks, Tristan Hildebrandt, Judy Scarafile

In early August I spent five wonderful days watching playoff action in the Cape Cod Baseball League. Probably the oldest summer league in the country, dating back to 1885, the Cape is also the most prestigious. As many as 1 in 7 of current major leaguers played at least a summer on one of the ten teams in the CCBL.

The Giants’ Buster Posey (Florida State), Astro stalwarts Dallas Keuchel (Arkansas) and George Springer (Connecticut) and the Yankees' Mark Teixeira and the Orioles' Matt Wieters (both Georgia Tech) honed their skills in the CCBL. So did onetime catchers and current MLB managers Joe Girardi of the Yankees (Northwestern) and Mike Matheny of the Cardinals (Michigan).

One of the many charms of the CCBL is the players’ college is always announced as well as their names. There is never an admission charge during the regular season that stretches from early June to late July. Only in Hyannis for the playoffs, where the Harbor Hawks lost the final series to repeat champion Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox, did I see a suggested donation sign of $5.

The secret to CCBL success has been that it is a wholly volunteer operation. Players stay with host families all summer and many are provided with day jobs. All athletes are expected to participate in youth clinics. There are no ground crews so it’s players you see watering and raking the field before and after games.

During games, one of the players – usually a pitcher not slated to hurl that day – joins an team intern and they pass around a basket collecting money for raffle tickets. It adds to the pleasant informal feeling that permeates every ballpark in the CCBL.

I didn’t get to visit every stadium, but I attended games in Orleans, Yarmouth-Dennis, and Hyannis. There are very few stands at Eldredge Park in Orleans, but families come out early and bring lawn and beach chairs to stake out places behind the foul lines.

There is more seating at Yarmouth-Dennis’s Red Wilson Field located behind the regional high school. Here, too, portable chairs line the area behind the foul lines. Y.D’s public address announcer morphs the late Sherm Feller of Fenway Park in his opening greeting: “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls.”

Another nice touch at Y-D is before the game the Johnny Carson Show theme is played. Just another a retro charm of Red Wilson Field.

Hyannis’s McKeon Field is the biggest park I visited. It is located behind a Catholic high school not far from Main Street and the JFK Memorial museum. To my delight I discovered a Cape Cod League Museum in the basement of the JFK building.

The room is not yet air-conditioned but it is a considerable collection of memorabilia and an explanatory film about CCBL history. I am sure it will reward more visits in the future.

The sense of intense quietude at the Cape Cod ballparks is remarkable, especially to a New Yorker who goes to a lot of major and minor league games where there is no escape from blaring sound systems.

There is some canned music at CCBL games but in moderation and never during an inning. So there is time to savor the interval between pitches without being bombarded with the puerile “Everybody clap yo’ hands!” and other maddening noise.

As for the games, most memorable was the semi-final series between the favored Orleans Firebirds, possessor of the best regular season record, and the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox.
All games were the kind of tight pitchers' battles I adore.

After losing the opener at Orleans, 4-0, the Y-D Red Sox stayed alive by winning a classic 13-inning 2-1 game that was decided on a two-out bases-loaded wild pitch on an 0-2 count. Orleans had tied the game in the 7th inning on a home run by outfielder Ronnie Dawson (Ohio State).

Adding drama to the Y-D elimination game was the absence of lights at Red Wilson Field.
The game could have been called by darkness and would have been resumed at noon the next day.

Unfortunately for the Firebirds, Dawson and fellow Buckeye, pitcher Taylor Tully, couldn’t stay for the rubber match because they had to fly back to Columbus for the funeral of a teammate who died of leukemia.

In the deciding third game, Y-D held off Orleans, 2-1, behind a great performance by Cory Macolm (Arkansas, Little Rock) and a first inning home run by Gio Brusa (U. of Pacific). The jury is out on whether Brusa has the bat speed to advance high in the pros, but Brusa is certainly a great name for a slugger.

Red Sox shortstop Donnie Walton (Oklahoma State), undersized in this day and age at 5’ 10”, saved the game with a remarkable diving stop up the middle in the bottom of the 8th inning with the tying run on third base. Somehow from his rear end Walton managed to throw the ball to second to force an Orleans runner preserving the 2-1 lead.

Gio Brusa also came up big at the plate in the final best-of-three games against Hyannis. The series proved almost anti-climactic because none of the games were close.

The Red Sox again lost the first game on the road, a one-sided affair that did feature two of the most remarkable diving infield catches I have ever seen: one by Hyannis shortstop Tristan Hildebrandt (Cal State-Fullerton) and the other by Y-D second baseman Jose Vidales (U. of Houston).

The Y-D Red Sox came back to win the final two games convincingly thereby copping their second straight CCBL flag. Kudos to coach Chad Gassman and his remarkable volunteer coach Ron Polk, one of the all-time winningest coaches in college baseball history at Georgia and Mississippi State and now a volunteer coach at U of Alabama-Birmingham.

It was a year of loss in the CCBL. Legendary Red Sox scouts Bill Enos and Buzz Bowers and Bill Kearns, a longtime Mariners talent hunter, all passed away.
A moment of silence was held at Red Wilson Field in memory of Florence Wilson, Red’s widow, who also recently died.

At the end of the playoffs league president Judy Scarafile announced her retirement after 24 years on the job. More than anyone Scarafile epitomizes the volunteer spirit of the CCBL. Though these losses are signficiant, I predict the CCBL will continue to thrive in one of the most picturesque settings imaginable, forty miles out to sea from the Massachusetts mainland.

Next year I am vowing to see more Cape Cod baseball, starting with that special Elizabeth Lowell Park in Cotuit with its renovated wooden grandstand and a convenient ramp that will make access easier for your creaky correspondent.

Next time – commentary on the exciting major league pennant races that should all go down to the wire.
For now - Always remember: Take it easy but take it!

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