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

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!
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A Shout-Out To Caleb Joseph As The River of Baseball Returns: updated post

During the first huge baseball strike in 1981 Roger Angell - who still contributes his elegant prose to the newyorker.com's website - wrote a great lament about the absence of baseball and its "slowly fluctuous standings." He compared the course of a baseball season to a river that "is headed, in its own sweet time, toward a down summer broadening and debouchment and to its end in the estuary of October." (Reprinted in LATE INNINGS: A Baseball Companion: Simon & Schuster, 1982), p382.)

We are now barely ten days into the baseball season and already excitement and agony are overflowing. An Orioles fan like yours truly had no expectations for the four-game series at Yankee Stadium just concluded.

Lo and behold, the Birds took three out of four in the Bronx, winning both extra-inning marathons. Nobody made a bigger contribution than catcher Caleb Joseph in those two nail-biting wins. I doubt if anyone hitting under .100 ever made more of an impact on a series.

Friday night Joseph saved the tie in extras by corralling a wild pitch from Mychal Givens and flipping the ball backhanded to Givens who blocked home plate and applied the tag on sliding Didi Gregorius. Givens sure put his experience as a former shortstop to good use on that play.

(BTW, it is hard to imagine both Cincinnati and Arizona giving up on Didi in trades - he has blossomed into a star on both sides of the ball with the Yankees, yet another of the great players from Curacao, a tiny country near Venezuela with barely a quarter of a million people.)

In Sunday’s 8-7 12-inning win, Caleb saved the one-run lead by being middle man in a very rare 1-2-5 DP. After closer Brad Brach walked two and botched a bunt, Aaron Judge bounced to the mound. Brach forced the runner at the plate and Joseph alertly threw to Tim Beckham at third to get that man Gregorius for out #2.

Brach then struck out Giancarlo Stanton to clinch the victory. Bronx newcomer Stanton had a miserable home stand striking out five times on Sunday and leading nine runners stranded. He had another five-strikeout game earlier in the week.

Coming to a new league is not a piece of cake and longtime Stanton watchers say he is likely to heat up soon. Has a chance to do so in Fenway Park this week. We shall see.

Hard not to root for a guy like Caleb Joseph a mid-round draft pick from unheralded Lipscomb U. in Nashville Tenn. He toiled for years in the minors without getting a callup to majors, once even living for a while in his Double-A clubhouse.

He made another great play defensively on Friday night, running Stanton back to third base on a grounder to the infield and then tagging the runner from second who had made third, and then Stanton. Unfortunately the umpires did not call a double play despite manager Buck Showalter's intense but polite protests.

Shoutouts also deserved for Pedro Alvarez, onetime Pirates #1 draft pick who grew up not far from Yankee Stadium. He hit the game-winning 14th inning grand slam on Friday and scored the winning run on Sunday.

Another journeyman Craig Gentry saved the game with a circus extra-inning catch on Sunday and then got the GWRBI with a 12th inning single. The Birds are still only 4-6 but they are beginning to play gritty come-from-behind baseball, a cautiously hopeful sign.

It is one of baseball’s great cliches that “a season is a marathon, not a sprint.” But it always helps to get off to a good start. Wins in April mean less pressure for wins in August and September.

On the other hand, I feel bad for the fans in Cincinnati, Tampa Bay, San Diego, Miami, and Oakland, and probably soon in Kansas City, Texas, and Philadelphia. A team can dig a hole in April that becomes almost impossible to climb out of, especially with daily inter-league play and constant travel.

I feel good for the hot starts of the Pirates and Braves and Angels. There is talented youth on all three teams and that certainly stokes the hope in fans, esp. us codgers who dream of what used to be (or in my case what I wished used to be in terms of on-field talent.)

I should also mention that one of the older teams in baseball, the Mets, are off to an impressive 8-1 start. They not only have beaten the Phillies and Marlins but so far have gone 5-1 against likely contenders Cardinals and Nats. If their vaunted pitching holds up, they may surprise a lot of people including yours truly.

We fans better enjoy the extra inning dramatics. Because if MLB hierarchy has its way, there won't be any more. The minor leagues are experimenting with all extra half-innings beginning with a runner on second and nobody out.

I'd prefer a home run derby - which was tried in the one year of the Israel Baseball League - to this strange concoction. More on misplaced ideas to speed up the game in future posts.

On the college front, my Columbia Lions are 5-4 with four more weekend three-game series ahead. Defending champion Yale is 6-2 with a makeup game still to play on Monday April 9 at Cornell. Dartmouth and Princeton also have only two losses.

It’s a new system in the Ivy League this year. Gone are the two doubleheaders on weekends, seven-inning first games, and two divisions in the eight-team league.

Every team now plays each other in a three-game series, all games nine innings.
The top two teams at end of regular season play a three-game series to earn the automatic NCAA tournament bid and a chance to make the coveted mid-June College World Series in Omaha.

Columbia’s starting pitching has been erratic all season. But the defense has improved. And in salvaging the final game against Dartmouth this past weekend, two big sophomore bats played a big role: first baseman Chandler Bengtson’s who hit two 3-run HRs in a 12-3 pasting of the Big Green and DH/left fielder Liam McGill who stroked the ball solidly all weekend.

There is no admission charge for Columbia baseball. It is sadly a very short season but I highly recommend a trip to Satow Stadium/Robertson Field just north of the football field NW of Broadway and 218th Street - accessible by either #1 train to 215th Street or A train to 207th Street - take second car and exit on 211th Street/Isham St.

There are only two weekends left of Ivy League baseball - Princeton Sat Apr 21 doubleheader at 11:30; Sun Apr 22 at 1p, and Penn F Apr 27 at 3p; Sa Apr 28 11:30 (2). There is also a non-league game against Fordham W Apr 25 at 330p.

On a very windy cold Wed. afternoon early this month, Columbia beat perennial power St. John’s for the 7th time in a row.

Next post more on college and high school baseball in the NYC area. For now: Always remember: Take it easy but take it!
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