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And Then There Were Two: Houston-LA Dodgers Get Ready for World Series (revised with Rose Bowl update)

"Sports Illustrated," often accused of jinxing players with cover stories, must be feeling vindicated. Three years ago Ben Reiter wrote a cover story predicting the Astros as World Series champions in 2017.

Starting Tuesday Oct 24 the Astros will have a chance to fulfill that prophecy when they meet the Los Angeles Dodgers at Chavez Ravine in Game 1. They triumphed over the Yankees in the seven full games of the AL Championship Series.

They won every home game at Minute Maid Park (which used to be called Enron Field until that corporation fell in disgrace). Houston did play pitifully in the three games in New York, undoubtedly cowed by the loud Yankee Stadium fans and the aura of invincibility they like to project.

Yet the Yankees were equally punchless in their four losses in Houston, scoring a total of only three runs. Justin Verlander’s dominance in his two starts for the Astros was not surprising, and he was the deserved MVP of the ALCS.

Yet the Yankees put up very little fight in the final game against the combined offerings of Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers, two good pitchers when on their game but not exactly aces. Morton got the win for 5 innings of work and McCullers got the very rare 4-inning save.

There was some great defense in the ALCS. Right fielder Aaron Judge stole two home runs from the Astros, one in each park. Center fielder George Springer cemented Houston’s last two victories with similarly outstanding grabs. The Astro double play combination of Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve outplayed their Yankee counterparts Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro.

Not enough can be said about the all-around play and leadership by example of Altuve who listed at 5’ 7” 155 pounds is one of the smallest players in MLB. Yet he has won three out of the last four AL batting titles showing power as well as an ability to spray balls to all fields.

The Dodgers, in what 90-year-old former manager Tommy Lasorda loves to call “The Fall Classic,” will be a formidable opponent. In their first World Series since 1988, they won the most games in baseball in 2017 and will have the home field advantage.

Clayton Kershaw gets the nod in the opener likely against fellow lefty Dallas Keuchel, he of the beard that reminds me of one of the Smith Brothers (cough drop manufacturers for you youngsters reading).

Kershaw, the $32 million a year/three time Cy Young award winner, is at the top of his game. He wants to improve on his over-4 point ERA in post-season play.

Another southpaw 37-year-old Rich Hill gets LA's Game 2 nod.
Hill is a nice story - a journeyman originally signed by the Cubs, he has endured several injuries over the years. He bounced to many teams including the Orioles briefly and the Red Sox and the A’s. He also pitched in Asia trying to keep his dream alive.

The deep-pocketed Dodgers signed him to a three-year $36 million contract last off-season. He has been a consistent pitcher when not bothered by nagging hand blisters.

Hill attended the University of Michigan where one of his roommates was catcher-utility player Jake Fox. Last I heard Fox was still playing in the independent leagues after sipping cups of coffee with the Pirates, A's and O's.

As you probably know, I love acronyms. Fox once scribbled in his glove T.E.W.S.I.C.:
To Everyone Who Said I Couldn't. I wouldn't be surprised if Rich Hill wrote or thought something very similar in his long journey to The Show.

The Dodgers have another rewarding story in utility man in Kike (short for Enrique) Hernandez. A journeyman from Puerto Rico, he was obtained from the Marlins (along with versatile catcher Austin Barnes) in the trade for second baseman Dee Gordon. Hernandez belted three home runs in the Dodgers' clinching 11-1 rout of the Cubs in the NLCS.

Yu Darvish, the Japanese pitcher of Iranian descent picked up from the Texas Rangers late this season, probably gets the nod for Game 3. I know the international wing of MLB was salivating at the thought of Darvish pitching against the Yankees’ Japanese import Masohiro Tanaka. But you can’t always get what you want (to coin a phrase).

At the back of a deep Dodgers pitching staff looms Curacao’s Kenley Jansen, a onetime 6’ 5” 280 pound catcher who has become 2017’s best closer. New Yorkers that can forgive Walter O’Malley for taking the Brooklyn Dodgers to LA in 1957 might find some New York connections of interest on the Dodgers roster.

Justin Turner, a former Mets utility player, has blossomed into a standout third baseman on both sides of the ball. First baseman Cody Bellinger, a shoo-in for NL Rookie of the Year, is the son of Clay Bellinger who earned two World Series rings as a utility player on the Yankees last dynasty of the late 1990s.

No doubt MLB was craving building up a battle between top rookies Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger in the World Series but there should be no absence of drama in this Series. I think the Dodgers will win but I’m hoping for a long and dramatic series. Because once again I say - “The only reason to play baseball is to keep winter away.”

That’s all for now - Columbia and Wisconsin football remain undefeated and I am binging on BIRGing - Basking In Reflected Glory. Don’t know how long it will last but nice to enjoy the streaks while they last.

I need to make a correction from my last blog. I said that I'd be satisfied with a Wisconsin win in the Rose Bowl as Big Ten champion. But this year the historic Pasadena CA site is part of the playoff system.

So if the Badgers make the Rose Bowl, they'll have to be part of the four-team championship playoff. That means they'll have to run the table impressively to smell the roses and the ultimate crown.

That's all for now - always remember: Take it easy but take it!
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Playoff Spots Still In Doubt As Late September Baseball Drama Builds + Homage to Three Departed Scouts

If you didn’t believe there was such a thing as baseball gods, think again. All summer long the building story was that the LA Dodgers might shatter the major league record of 116 for most wins in a season. Not so fast.

Though they have built up a huge cushion in the NL West over the playoff-bound Arizona Diamondbacks and playoff-contending Colorado Rockies, the Dodgers recently endured a 11-game losing streak.

The slide brought back comparisons to the World War II 1944 Brooklyn Dodgers (Branch Rickey’s second Brooklyn team was a ragtag outfit, waiting for the arrival of Boys of Summer Gil Hodges, Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, among others.)

LA’s ship has been somewhat righted recently. They won two of three over possible playoff opponent Washington Nats. But then improbably oft-injured ace Clayton Kershaw gave up a grand slam home run to Aaron Altherr in a loss to the last-place Phillies.

Washington like LA has run away with the far weaker NL East division. If their starting pitching remains healthy, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez could be formidable in the post-season. But the Nats and their fans have their demons to deal with because they have endured many recent tough playoff losses without making the World Series.

Don’t count out the defending WS champions Chicago Cubs. They swept the St. Louis Cardinals last weekend and have a three-game lead on the Milwaukee Brewers. But the Brewers are only one game behind Colorado for the last playoff spot. They host the Cubs in a four-game series starting Thursday Sept 21. Talk about Midwestern baseball drama!

In the American League, the Houston Astros have run away with the AL West, but like the Dodgers they have endured some rough patches. Last-place Oakland recently swept them in four games. Astoundingly, the Astros gave up 9 or more runs in each game.

Yet the late August pickup of Tigers ace Justin Verlander has definitely boosted the Astros’ chances for a good playoff run. But they need a healthy 2015 Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel to augment Verlander and that remains to be seen

Las Vegas odds-makers and occasional sentimentalists like yours truly are making the Cleveland Indians favorites to win it all. After coming so close last year losing an extra-inning game seven to the Cubs.

The Indians just broke Oakland’s American League record 20-game winning streak by running off 22 wins in a row. Even more impressively, once Kansas City eked out a 4-3 win over the Tribe, Cleveland won the next two games and now are on a 3-game roll.

Another fascinating aspect of baseball's long long season is that winning streaks in baseball are often followed by losing streaks. It was a lesson ingrained in me when I was 11 years old in 1953 and the Yankees won 18 in a row only to lose the next nine. They still won their fifth World Series in a row under Casey Stengel.

A rewarding aspect of the 2017 schedule is that Cleveland and Houston will have a lot to say about the American League playoff participants. Cleveland visits the LA Angels this week and a week later they host the Minnesota Twins. The Astros visit the Red Sox for the final four games of the regular season.

As of this blog posting before games of September 20, the Twins lead the Angels by one game in the lost column. Kudos to Twins skipper Paul Molitor and Angels manager Mike Scioscia for keeping their unheralded teams in contention. The same shout-out goes to Brewers manager Craig Counsell.

There is a school of thought that says playing teams already in the playoffs is a break for the team trying to get in. I’m skeptical of that argument because no team wants to go into the playoffs on a losing streak (I know the Yankees limped into the 2000 post-season, but they were fortunate in playing an underwhelming though gritty Mets team in the World Series.)

Methinks that Boston wants to wrap the AL East before those final games against Houston. Three of the Red Sox’s last four victories on the road have been dramatic extra-inning wins, the last two in Baltimore. They need them all because the Yankees are only three games behind them and are also playing well.

Boston needs to win the AL East division outright to avoid the wild card single elimination game. If they tie, Yankees win the division because they won season series against Boston.

Friday night September it took 14 innings but Boston beat Tampa Bay on the road. Last night they rallied twice from five-run deficits to beat the Orioles 10-8 in the 11th. A clutch two-run single by the remarkable rookie Andrew Benintendi was the difference.

In the Tampa Friday win, the Bosox scored three in the 9th to tie the game. Only a sensational diving catch by the Rays gold glove centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier prevented them from winning in regulation.

Kiermaier made another leaping grab in extra innings and homered to avert a Tampa Bay loss in the 13th inning before Boston salted away the game with 7 in the 14th.

Kiermaier is a great testament to the importance of grass roots baseball scouting. The 2010 31st round draft choice from tiny Parkland College in Champaign Illinois, the Fort Wayne Indiana native has put himself on every team's and fan’s radar.

Speaking of scouting, I want to note with sadness the passing of three great baseball talent evaluators who recently left us within 10 days of each other: Cincinnati's Gene Bennett, Toronto's Mel Didier, and the Yankees' Gene Michael.

More on these irreplaceable men in the next post. They were so much more than the prizes they brought to their teams:
Bennett signed Don Gullett, Hall of Famer Barry Larkin and Paul O'Neill.

Didier, who remarkably helped to lay the groundwork for three expansion teams Montreal, Seattle and Arizona, signed Gary Carter and Andre Dawson for the Expos.

Gene Michael, who traded for Paul O'Neill and as general manager in the early 1990s during George Steinbrenner's suspension held on to the Yankees' core players Jeter, Pettitte, Posada, Mariano Rivera, and Bernie Williams.

That's all for now. Always remember: Take it easy but take it.
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