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April May Be The Cruelest Month But Don't Tell That To The Mariners, Rays, and Plucky Ivy League Nines

There is an old Russian proverb about illusions that heal and illusions that kill.  We have seen too many of the latter in our public life these days from the top down.

 

For baseball fans, there is nothing like a good start to a season to bring hope, however illusory. When I started this post, the Orioles - unanimously picked for last place in 2019 - had won two series on the road, in Toronto and New York. 

 
Improbable dreams of flirting with .500 at least through the spring danced through my head. The Yankees, who have lately treated the cozy confines of Camden Yards like batting practice, quickly dispelled that illusion with a three-game sweep.   

 
Two games were winnable by the O's but there is no reliable arm on the pitching staff, either starter or reliever.  "Without pitching you have nuttin'!" Sparky Anderson once wisely said.

 
Not that the Oriole offense is potent with the media now swooping down on the record-breaking futility of first baseman Chris Davis. He hasn't had a hit since last September but is still bound to the club with four more years left on his seven-year $161 million contract. 

 

He occasionally lines the ball hard to the outfield but they are only outs.  Then he relapses into his alarming pattern of striking out, both looking and swinging. 


Enough of these somber tones. Let me praise for now the surprise team of 2019 so far, the Seattle Mariners off to a 12-2 start including its opening two victories in Japan over the Oakland A's.   

 
They are scoring runs in bunches with uber-streaky shortstop Tim Beckham blasting homers and outfielder Mitch Haniger determined to prove that his excellent 2018 season was not a mirage.  I do wonder if they will have the pitching and defense - are you listening Tim Beckham? - to hold off the defending AL West champion Houston Astros who just swept the Yankees at home and are riding a six-game winning streak.  


The rise of the Tampa Bay Rays to the early AL East lead is not really a surprise. They won 90 games last year and their home-grown players are beginning to mature.  They made a great trade with Pittsburgh to obtain outfielder Austin Meadows and starter Tyler Glasnow - both have contributed mightily to the Rays' fast start. 

 

Alas, no one expects the exciting product on the field to improve home attendance. Rays management is so resigned to the lack of support at Tropicana Field, its indoor mausoleum in St. Petersburg, that the upper deck will be closed.

 

The Rays are following in the footsteps of the Oakland A's, a 97-game winner in 2018 that also sealed off the upper deck because of weak attendance.  New stadiums are nowhere in sight for either franchise, and I wonder if even new facilities will boost attendance.

 
Speaking of lack of fan support, college baseball in the Northeast is usually played in front of friends and family.  That doesn't mean the competition isn't high quality and fiercely contested. 

 
Last weekend, the Penn Quakers and Dartmouth Big Green played a historic 21-inning game in Hanover that set NCAA records for ABs and plate appearances.  Penn won 21-15 and went on to become the first team in 2019 to sweep a three-game series.

 
The Ivy League pennant race is building to a roaring climax in the next four weekends.  Defending champion Columbia, Harvard, and Penn are tied at 6-3 with Yale just a game behind.

 
Hard to beat the drama of the Yale-Harvard series in Cambridge last week.  Harvard pulled off a dramatic comeback by rallying with 9 runs in bottom of the 9th to stun the Bulldogs 10-8 in the first game. Senior slugger Patrick McColl capped the rally with a grand slam.

 

The comeback was so reminiscent of the Crimson's amazing late inning rally last May against Dartmouth that erased a 8-run deficit and enabled Columbia to make the post-season playoff against Yale. (In the 8-team league, the first two finishers qualify for a best-of-three championship series.)

 
Facing a sweep this past Sunday, Yale rallied with 3 in the 9th to salvage one game in the weekend series. Columbia also got stunned by a Princeton 6-run bottom of 8th rally but the Lions rebounded by winning a rubber match 2-1 squeaker between southpaw Ben Wereski with Jim Smiley getting the save. 

 

This weekend Yale hosts Columbia in a big three-game series - a rematch of last year's championship series swept by the Lions. Lots of scouts will attend the likely first game matchup of aces Josh Simpson (Columbia) and Scott Politz (Yale).  

 
More on this and other sizzling events on many levels of baseball next time. Finally weather seems to be getting as warm as the competition.

 
For now always remember: Take it easy but take it.

 

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March Comes In Like A Lionfish

MARCH COMES IN LIKE A LIONFISH
I don’t know enough about my family history though I do know that the patriarch of the family in central Europe around 200 years ago was someone named Fischl Lowen. And somewhere down the line, the last name and first name were flipped and Lowenfischl shortly became Lowenfish.

I know there is a lionfish in many oceans of the world and it has no predators which means it causes a lot of havoc among other fish but fortunately there is no relation there.

I say all this because the old saying on the eve of the third month of the year is “March Comes In Like A Lion but Goes Out Like A Lamb.” I don’t mind at all thinking that March comes in like a lionfish because it is a special time of year for a sports fan.

College basketball season is reaching a climax and I am happy that my graduate school alma mater the Wisconsin Badgers are coming on strong. They are only a game behind the Big Ten-leading Michigan State Spartans and Indiana Hoosiers. A road game against the Spartans on Thursday March 7 might determine their title hopes and regular season titles still mean something to me.

There will be a Big Ten tournament that will largely determine March Madness seeding but regular season performance still should count for something. My undergraduate alma mater Columbia has had a disappointing season in an Ivy League that is the only league in the country playing back-to-back games. Conditioning and health are thus of primary importance and a key injury can set you back permanently.

That’s what happened to my Lions when their All-Ivy senior point guard Brian Barbour caught a flu bug that knocked him out of commission for several games. To finish at .500 in the league Columbia must sweep the final four games, including a visit to contending Harvard on Fri March 8.

The Cantabs will have revenge on their mind after Columbia’s convincing 15 point triumph in New York a couple of weeks ago. The defending league champion Harvard cagers have a chance to put away second-place Princeton this weekend on the road.

As much as I love small-time college basketball and occasionally the pros, what March means the most to me is the resumption of spring training. So many story lines are forming and harder than ever to predict results because of the turnover of players.

The best thing about spring training in that since 1995 we have enjoyed the presence of labor peace so we know that there will be a full season and post-season of thrills. And the old cliché remains true that everyone is still 0-0 until the games count starting on Sunday night March 31 when the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim visit the Cincinnati Reds for the start of the regular season.

Hardly a traditional rivalry the Angels vs. the Reds but this is the first year of inter-league play virtually every day and so many anomalies exist. Like the following day Monday April Fool’s Day both the Yankees and the Mets open at home. Neither team will be favored to reach the World Series in 2013, especially the Mets, but the key one word about baseball remains: Youneverknow, youneverknow.
There will always be a surprise team.

In 2008 it was the Tampa Bay Rays making the World Series after years of futility. And thanks to a gifted general manager ANDREW FRIEDMAN, field manager JOE MADDON and supportive owner STUART STERNBERG, they have averaged 92 victories a year since 2008.

At the end of last season I lived in mortal fear that the Rays would take revenge on my Orioles in the final series of the year by sweeping them at Tropicana Field. Turning the tables after the Birds had brought out the broom in Baltimore earlier in September.

That series was marked by the greatest play I saw all year – rookie third baseman MANNY MACHADO’S bluffed throw to first base that caught pinch-runner RICH THOMPSON unaware as he overran third base.

The Orioles were the surprise team of 2012, turning their 2011 record of 69-93 around exactly to 93-69. Can they repeat? Who knows? They certainly have a fighting chance with a full season of Machado, the reclamation project NATE MCLOUTH and NICK MARKAKIS. More solid work from effective starters WEI-JIN CHEN and MIGUEL GONZALEZ will certainly help.

I’m not in the prediction business so it is hard to say who will be the surprise team of 2013. I don’t necessarily believe in the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED jinx but the current issue with Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller is touting the Cleveland Indians who have splurged on free agents first baseman/outfielder NICK SWISHER and center fielder MICHAEL BOURN in addition to other newcomers pitcher TREVOR BAUER, outfielder DREW STUBBS and new manager TERRY FRANCONA.

Games will still be won on pitching and defense and it remains to be seen if the Indians have enough of that to compete with the defending AL champions Tigers and runner-up White Sox.

That’s why they play the games and no amount of statistical “science” can prove anything this early. So relax and enjoy the upcoming season and such off-field events as the highly anticipated first-ever exhibit on scouting, opening in Cooperstown on May 4th. More on that in upcoming posts.

Always remember: Take it easy but take it!
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