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NL Wild Card Drama + One Oriole Fan's Farewell to Buck Showalter

October 4, 2018

Tags: Tony Wolters, Kris Bryant, Yu Darvish, Anthony Rizzo, Theo Epstein, Aaron Judge, Billy Beane, Bob Melvin, Ryan Braun, Melky Cabrera, Joe Maddon, Paul Molitor, Buck Showalter, Joe Torre, Derek Jeter, Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, Bob Brenly, Justin Verlander, Kate Upton, Delmon Young, George Costanza (Jason Alexander), Jay Buhner, Ken Phelps, Zach Britton, Ubaldo Jimenez, Adam Jones, Dan Duquette, Bear Bryant

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!

Extolling Cubs' Feel-Good Triumph Despite Trump's Feel-Bad Triumph

November 13, 2016

Tags: Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Jeff Blauser, Mark Lemke, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Theo Epstein, Kyle Hendricks, Ryan Dempster, Harry Caray, Jake Arrieta, Pedro Strop, Scott Feldman, Steve Clevenger, David Ross, Joe Maddon, Andrew Miller, Rajai Davis, Clinton Inc., Ben Zobrist

The Cubs winning the World Series after 108 years of futility started the month of November like a feel-good story for the ages.

The young Cubs were essentially a very likable team. The youthful veterans at the corners, third baseman Kris Bryant and first baseman Anthony Rizzo, were both productive and amazingly poised for relatively inexperienced players.

They were both home-grown and lived through the bad years to further appreciate the surge to the top. I will never forget Hall of Fame southpaw Tom Glavine making the same point to me years ago.

He said that the secret to the Atlanta Braves’ great playoff run of the 1990s and early 2000s was that they learned to lose together before they were able to win together. Glavine and fellow Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz and under-appreciated double play combination Jeff Blauser and Mark Lemke all came through the Atlanta farm system.

Though the everyday core of the Cubs’ promising future also came from astute amateur scouting, the key pitchers on the new World Champions were either trade or free agent acquisitions. Jon Lester, a leading contender for the National League Cy Young award, and John Lackey were both free agent signings though Cubs president Theo Epstein knew them both from their work in Boston.

Kyle Hendricks and Jake Arrieta were obtained in savvy trades. Hendricks, the Dartmouth economics grad inevitably nicknamed “The Professor,” was still a minor leaguer when obtained from the Rangers for fading pitcher Ryan Dempster. (Dempster has become a broadcaster who does a good imitation of the late legendary voice of the Cubs and previously the Cardinals, Harry Caray).

As we Oriole fans never forget, Arrieta came from the Birds along with valuable reliever Pedro Strop. The Orioles received journeyman pitcher Scott Feldman - who finished 2016 with the Blue Jays - and minor league catcher Steve Clevenger.
(The latter will probably be best remembered for his thinly veiled racist-misogynist tweet that caused his release late last season by the Seattle Mariners.)

No mention of the Cubs triumph would be complete without an homage to backup catcher David Ross. Nicknamed “Grandpa Rossy” by Anthony Rizzo, Ross announced his retirement before 2016 started.

As Jon Lester’s special catcher, Ross was summoned into World Series Game 7 in the bottom of the 5th along with the star southpaw. (Why manager Joe Maddon yanked effective starter Hendricks after a controversial walk is still a mystery. My guess is that once Lester warmed up and was ready to pitch, Maddon decided he had to use him.)

Ross’s throwing error on a tough roller and a wild pitch that he couldn’t corral turned a comfortable 5-1 lead into a 5-3 nail-biter.

YET BASEBALL IS ALWAYS ABOUT REDEMPTION!

Though Hollywood might have turned down the story of the last AB of Ross’s career, in the very next half-inning, the top of the 6th, Ross homered to dead center off Cleveland’s usually unhittable reliever Andrew Miller. The dinger provided a crucial insurance run. So when Rajai Davis homered in the bottom of the 8th it only tied the game.

And now for something completely different . . .

The 2016 World Series was both an artistic and financial triumph. 40 million people evidently watched Game 7 and the Sunday night Game 5 easily outdrew Sunday night football.

And then Election Day happened.

In hindsight, we should have known it would be close, especially in a year that
was volatile all over the world. None of the “experts” thought Great Britain would leave the European Union, but “Br-exit” forces won.

In baseball terms, I felt all along that the Clinton, Inc. organization reminded me of the worst aspect of Yankee entitlement. They virtually bragged about having the most money and supposedly the best “ground game” to get out the vote on Election Day.

Well, it turned out this election might be summed up as The Revolt of the Deplorables. Hillary’s unfortunate description of the worst Trump supporters was a tasty morsel served to the opposition.

A disappointed friend of mine offered this analogy: “Hillary was like the pitcher given a six-run lead who couldn't finish or win the game.” Given the rightward drift of the country and the uneasiness of so many people who feel left behind, that judgment might be a bit harsh.

Yet I certainly don’t look forward to what these next four years might bring politically. But as always baseball serves as a huge consolation for those who understand it. Swinging for the fences works now and then, but hitting up the middle and controlled slashing down the lines remains the best weapons for success. That's how Series MVP Zobrist got the big hits in both the NL Championship and World Series.

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

You Can’t Always Get What You Want But I Did Get My Dream Extra-Inning Game 7

November 3, 2016

Tags: Lowenfish's Law, Aroldis Chapman, Rajai Davis, Bernie Carbo, Carlton Fisk, Ben Zobrist, Joe Maddon, Theo Epstein, Anthony Rizzo, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Terry "Tito" Francona, Cody Allen, Andrew Miller, Bryan Shaw, Kyle Hendricks, David Ross, Dexter Fowler, Justin Turner, Kenley Jansen

If you scroll through these blogs over the past few years, you’ll see that I fervently believe in Lowenfish’s Law: No lead of four runs or less is ever safe in a baseball game until the last man is out.

In my last blog, I wrote that the Indians just might win a seventh game in what shaped up as a very close World Series. Well, the Indians did have a chance to win that seventh game on the second night of November.

They rallied from 5-1 and 6-3 deficits to score three in the 8th against the Cubs’ star closer Aroldis Chapman. Journeyman Rajai Davis hit a two-run home run to tie the game.

I couldn’t help thinking of a similar great World Series game in 1975 when Bernie Carbo hit a three-run homer in the bottom of the eighth to tie the game against Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine. Would there be a Carlton Fisk to win the game in extra innings?

That classic contest was only a Game 6 and this one was for all the marbles, a Game 7.
Alas for Cleveland, there was no Carlton Fisk on their roster. Chapman recovered his poise to retire the Indians in order in the 9th, and the Cubs got the lead in the top of the 10th on a clutch RBI single by Ben Zobrist, the deserving MVP of the Series.

I really had no horse in this race. Both teams deserved to win but in organized sports there is only one winner. I was glad that the triumphant Cubs were gracious in victory. Both manager Joe Maddon and team architect Theo Epstein praised the Indians for their gallant effort.

Zobrist, who now has won back-to-back World Series (he played for the 2015 champion KC Royals), added to his laurels as one of the classiest as well as most versatile of MLB players. He praised his teammate Anthony Rizzo for being so good that he was walked intentionally to get to Zobrist in the chance of getting the inning-ending double play.

People who truly love sports know there are times when it is a shame that there has to be a loser. The 2016 World Series was a prime example.

The Indians showed amazing heart not just in the last game but in sweeping the Red Sox in the first round, knocking out the Blue Jays in five games in the ALCS, and taking the highly favored Cubs to the last out of game 7 in the Series.

That the Tribe accomplished all this missing two key starters in their rotation, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, was quite remarkable. I know this is small consolation for Cleveland which has now not won a World Series since 1948 and has only appeared in four since then.

I think the most astonishing part of this Series is that no starting pitcher threw a ball in the seventh inning and very few got far into the sixth. The Indians had the superior bullpen and excellent manager Terry "Tito" Francona was not afraid to use Cody Allen, Andrew Miller, and Bryan Shaw more than one inning.

Joe Maddon didn’t have as many relief reliables as Francona but he hoped to get as many as three innings out of the powerful arm of Aroldis Chapman. This strategy almost backfired in Game 7 when starter Kyle Hendricks was yanked with two out in the 5th inning with a four run lead.

A throwing error by catcher David Ross followed by a wild pitch that led to two immediate runs made it a 5-3 game. But Ross, ending his 15-year major league career in style, atoned for his miscue with a big solo home run in the next half inning.
ANSWERING RUNS IN BASEBALL IS ALWAYS HUGE, ESPECIALLY IN BIG GAMES LIKE THIS.

So now winter has come for everyone in baseball, but very soon news of free agent possibilities and signings will hit the sports pages. Teams have exclusive rights to their potential free agents until five days after the Series ends, which means Monday November 7.

Here are some questions for the Series teams and one other playoff team to answer:
**Will the Cubs re-sign Dexter Fowler their leadoff hitter and centerfielder?

**Will they re-sign Aroldis Chapman or will he possibly return to the Yankees ?

**How will the Indians fortify their lineup with more power and consistent hitting?

**Will the Dodgers, who actually led the Cubs two games to one in the NLCS, keep their free agents - solid third baseman/timely hitter Justin Turner and potent closer Kenley Jansen?

Those answers will be coming soon. In the meantime, let’s salute everyone on the Cubs and Indians who kept winter away for so long.

That’s all 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