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First Summer Edition of the YIBF (Yours In Baseball Forever) Journal

I hadn’t decided to go to the opener of the June 20-22 Oriole-Yankee series at Yankee Stadium until Friday morning. Got myself through StubHub an upper deck seat on the aisle giving me plenty of room for my aching right knee to stretch out.

Didn’t realize that the seat would also provide me plenty of exercise because there was constant traffic of fans in my row coming back and forth back and forth from concession stands. Watching the game for them was obviously of secondary importance. They didn't even get involved in the wave that kept many of the crowd involved on this pleasant evening.

The late Mets broadcaster Ralph Kiner had the best line about what the wave is good for:
"straightening your shorts."

Though Yankee starter Hiroki Kuroda no-hit the O’s for five innings, I didn’t think that streak could last because his pitch count was elevated. And sure enough the Orioles rallied with two runs in the 6th. But they couldn’t add more runs - a persistent problem in 2014.

Once again Lowenfish’s Law – no four run lead is ever safe until the game is over – proved correct. Usuallly reliable O’s closer Zach Britton couldn’t get the third out in the bottom of the 9th though he had two strikes on Mark Teixeira with two out and a man on first.

Teixeira walked, was pinch-run for, the latest Big Buck Yankee free agent addition Brian McCann singled in a run, and on a 3-1 count another free agent Carlos Beltran blasted a long home run to left center to win the game.

The Orioles showed their resiliency by winning the next two games convincingly,
6-1 and 8-0. In the Sunday afternoon shutout they beat another big ticket Yankee signing Japanese phenom Masanori Tanaka. And to add to the O's recent surge the following night they limited White Sox star southpaw Chris Sale to six innings. And they came from behind to win on their own walkoff homer by Chris Davis.

Walkoff homers – a term likely coined by Hall of Fame closer Dennis Eckersley – are quite rare. And the ones that turn defeat into victory in one swing of the bat are unforgettable.

I still remember nearly 40 years ago when Orioles second baseman Bobby Grich won a game in Baltimore by beating the Red Sox reliever Jim Willoughby. And while the memory won’t be as warm, I think I’ll always remember how Beltran spoiled my Friday night. But fortunately not the entire weekend.

Lots of baseball still to be played, of course. Question marks on the mound and in the lineup continue to perplex followers of the Orioles. Even though this seems like a year of parity or mediocrity, my LD (Lively Dinosaur) roots incline me not to get too enthusiastic until my team is at least 10 games above .500.

But I am certainly keeping the faith and if the starting pitcher-winners this weekend Bud Norris and Chris Tillman and bullpen arms T. J. McFarland and Tommy Hunter continue to pitch well, 2014 might be another fun summer in Baltimore.

I will be in attendance this weekend in Baltimore when on my 72nd birthday the Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays tangle in a June 27th day-night doubleheader. Impressions of that experience and more next time we meet.

In the meantime always remember: Take it easy but take it!
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How Can Red Sox, Dodgers, or Cardinals Lose? Thoughts on Baseball's Final Four

Winter has come for my two favorite teams, the Orioles and the Rays. To add to that misery, word just came that Manny Machado will need surgery for the ligament damage in his left knee. We cross fingers that he’ll be ready for the start of the season.

There will be a World Series with traditional teams competing and that is some consolation. It is likely that the Boston Red Sox and the Los Angeles Dodgers will be the favorites and the choice of the biggest media outlets, but don’t count out the Tigers or especially the Cardinals. “Anything can happen in a short series” is the oldest of sports clichés, but like most clichés, it is true.

The Cardinals made baseball’s Final Four by eliminating party-crasher Pittsburgh.
St. Louis ace Adam Wainwright totally scuttled the Pirates in both game 1 and the deciding game 5 of the Division Series, both played in St. Louis. Hopefully, it will go down as a breakthrough year for the Buccos, who ended their horrible record-breaking streak of 21 straight losing seasons.

Among the newest ballparks Pittsburgh’s PNC Park ranks high among them. I’ve been there a couple of times since the ugly all-purpose cookie-cutter Three Rivers Stadium was demolished. PNC’s location on the banks of the Mononghela, Allegheny, and Ohio Rivers couldn’t be nicer and the corporate bank sponsor has remained the same since it opened, an amazing fact in itself.

Yet the Pirates couldn’t advance over the Cardinals. They will have to address its absence of offense in the off-season. The late-season addition of Marlon Byrd from the Mets gave them a needed extra bat but they will need more down the road to remain a consistent contender.

Byrd will be a free agent after the World Series and where he winds up in 2014 will be an interesting question. At the end of last year, he was suspended for 50 games for a violation of MLB's drug agreement and he had to play winter ball in Mexico to show baseball honchos that his skills hadn’t eroded.

HANDICAPPING THE LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES:
The Cardinals-Dodgers NLCSeries should be a beauty of a competition. Rebuilt Busch Stadium doesn’t have the charm or waterfront location of PNC Park but it hosts one of the perennially contending teams in baseball. And the Cardinals have succeeded with remarkably young homegrown pitching and many everyday players also developed on the farms like first baseman Matt Adams and catcher Yadier Molina, whose bat has improved and whose defensive skills are top-drawer.

Outfielders Matt Holliday, a trade pickup, and free agent Carlos Beltran are dangerous bats in the lineup. Beltran is the new “Mr. October” who has become the most feared offensive player in contemporary post-season baseball. He is also a free agent at the end of the World Series.

The Dodgers have two bona fide aces in homegrown Clayton Kershaw and free agent pickup Zack Greinke. They have the exciting Cuban defector Yasiel Puig in right field and the powerful Hanley Ramirez at shortstop. Their turnaround this season was remarkable.

At one point they were 30-42 and in last place in the NL West division. They then went on a remarkable 42-8 run that most likely saved manager Don Mattingly’s job and they won the division going away. (Mattingly wears #8 in homage to Yogi Berra who managed him briefly in New York in the 1980s.)

The Cardinals have the home field advantage and that might give them the slightest of edges in what should be a great series. But remember always about baseball: Youneverknow, youneverknow in baseball. And this series could come down to how the young closers for each team pitch – Kenley Jansen for LA, Trevor Rosenthal for St. L.

The Red Sox have the home field advantage over the Tigers and I feel that they are the one clear favorite in this year’s Final Four of baseball. They have a deep rotation with Jon Lester at the top and three other good starters in John Lackey, Clay Buchholz, and the underrated veteran Jake Peavy who could be moved up in the rotation.

The Red Sox have the hottest closer in Koji Uehara who has been lights-out since late June - except for the hiccup in serving up a walkoff homer to Jose Lobaton in the only game that the Tampa Bay Rays won in the Division Series.

I haven’t even begun to discuss the balanced powerful Red Sox offense that is ignited by leadoff hitter Jacoby Ellsbury – another free agent after the World Series. At times injury-plagued, Ellsbury seemed healthy enough against Tampa Bay and he is running the bases with daring. I don’t think Tiger catchers Alex Avila or Brayan Pena can stop him.

The Boston lineup doesn’t have a weak spot down to the nine spot in the order with the young third baseman Will Middlebrooks. The Tigers got some great pitching by Max Scherzer and the revived Justin Verlander to beat Oakland yet again. But slugger Miguel Cabrera is ailing and though still very dangerous I think Boston will prevail in under seven games.

Let’s hope whatever happens the games are memorable and make us forget that winter is on the way.

That’s all for now – always remember: take it easy but take it!
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