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Prize Fight Intensity On Display in Baseball Playoffs

After watching the Yankees-Minnesota first inning last Tuesday Oct 3 (Bobby Thomson Day BTW in 1951 and Dave Winfield's birthday), I couldn’t help thinking of the first round of the Marvin Hagler-Tommy Hearns middleweight fight in April 1985.

More haymakers were thrown in the first round of that classic fight than in most entire bouts (Hagler won it by a third-round KO - I saw it on small theatre TV at Madison Square Garden’s long-gone Felt Forum.)

The Twins hit two HRs and knocked out Yankee ace Luis Severino in first inning. But Curacao’s pride Didi Gregorius smacked a three-run dinger to tie the game immediately, and Yanks won going away.

Nothing like playoff games to reveal intensity a la boxing’s concentrated mayhem. (I’m not an ardent boxing fan because the aim of the sport is really to concuss your rival. But I’m a flawed human being who does believe in a fair fight with no favor.)

And with the exception of LA Dodgers sweep of the Diamondbacks, the playoffs have been intense and gripping (despite the length of the games due to extra commercials and incessant meetings between catchers and pitchers).

We’ll see if Cleveland can continue in the playoffs by winning Game 5 at home tomorrow night (Wed Oct 11). “Momentum in baseball is the next day’s starting pitcher” will be truer than ever. Cleveland ace Corey Kluber will be matched against the former Indian CC Sabathia.

Kluber was treated rudely by the Yankees in the now-infamous Game 2 - you know the one where Yankee skipper Joe Girardi, the obsessive note-taker with the big thick looseleaf book, didn’t appeal a bad call on a hit-by-pitch. And moments later Indians leader Francisco Lindor hit a grand-slammer to bring the Indians back into a game they won in extra innings.

Just hope it is a good game like the classic Game 3 in which Japanese import Masahiro Tanaka won a gripping 1-0 shutout that proved again that nothing quite beats a low-scoring baseball game with plenty of base runners but stout pitching.
Revived Yankee first baseman Greg Bird homered deep into the upper right field stands off usually impregnable reliever Andrew Miller for the game's only run.

It would be nice for Cleveland if they can get injured slugger Edwin Encarnacion back into the lineup. And if their number three hitter Jose Ramirez finds his hitting stroke.
The playoffs, being so short compared to the long grind of the regular season where “tomorrow is your best friend,” intensify slumps. Hope J Ramirez snaps out of it.

Meanwhile Houston eliminated the Red Sox three games to one. The Astros embarrassed punchless Boston in the first two games in Texas by identical 8-2 scores.
The Red Sox salvaged some respect by winning the third game at home and leading the fourth one by one run into the 8th.

But the talented young Alex Bregman, a natural shortstop now playing third because of the emergence of Carlos Correa at short, homered to tie it. And then former Red Sox outfielder Josh Reddick hit an opposite field single to give the Astros the lead in their ultimate 5-4 win.

The only blemish on the Astros performance was center fielder George Springer’s botching balls in Fenway Park’s tricky deep center field. On Sunday he played a catchable ball into a double when he didn’t realize he had more room to catch it.

Yesterday (Monday Oct 9) Springer allowed an inside-the-park home run to talented Red Sox 20-year-old rookie third baseman Rafael Devers when the ball ricocheted wildly off the metal wall into Fenway’s vast right field.

For Houston’s sake I hope Springer plays better on the road in the upcoming ALCS either in Cleveland or New York. Or maybe Jake Marisnick returns to the lineup.

In the National League, the Cubs have taken a 2-1 lead over the Washington Nationals. The pitching has been great in this series - the defense not so great.
I was glad that the Nats at least won a game at home before heading to Wrigley Field for Games 3 and 4. They'll have to conquer Jake Arrieta to stay alive.

Washington has not won a playoff series since they returned to the majors in 2005 as the former Montreal Expos. It looks like they will have their work cut out for them to break that bad streak.

Before I close, I want to tip my cap to some of the insights of the Fox Sports One team covering Boston-Houston, Joe Davis and former players David Cone and AJ Pierzynski.

Cone, whose first team was the KC Royals, paid homage to the former Kansas City reliever the late great Dan Quisenberry who once noted that Fenway’s Green Monster Wall had a heartbeat and as the games got close, you felt it beating.

It was also Quisenberry that described the secret to his success: “Thirty ground balls, thirty strikeouts, thirty great plays.”

Cone, Davis, and Pierzinski also deserve kudos for praising Alex Bregman’s confident take of a pitch seconds before he hit his tying home over the Green Monster off Red Sox ace closer Craig Kimbrel.

Just remember as these games go on until the end of the month - “The only reason to play baseball is to keep winter away.” Next time I hope to say about my two alma maters currently undefeated on the gridiron - Columbia (4-0) and Wisconsin (5-0).
Both have tough games ahead so not feeling overconfident.

In the meantime, always remember: “take it easy but take it."
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Eyewitness Report on Orioles Dismantling Tigers

I was blessed to have tickets in the upper deck at Camden Yards this past Thursday and Friday as the Orioles began their three-game sweep of the favored Detroit Tigers in the American League Division Series.

The first 2 innings of Game 1 reminded me of the Marvelous Marvin Hagler-Thomas Hearns middleweight bout of 1985 – a classic battle that after fierce action saw champion Hagler knock out Hearns in the third round. That Hearns hailed from Detroit may have influenced my analogy.

Oriole starter Chris Tillman struck out the side on 14 pitches as the Sea of Orange-clad Baltimore fans went wild. Nick Markakis led off the bottom of the 1st with a single off defending Cy Young winner Max Scherzer. He went to second when Alejandro DeAza, a late July pickup who has boosted an Orioles lineup missing All-Stars Chris Davis, Manny Machado, and Matt Wieters, was hit by a pitch.

Irrepressible Adam Jones, the team leader who can be very undisciplined at the plate, grounded into a double play to momentarily quiet the crowd. But Nelson Cruz, the greatest one-year free agent signing in recent memory, picked Jones up by homering to right center field.

But the Tigers answered back immediately when the unrelated Martinezes, Victor and J.D., belted back-to-back homers. However, Markakis singled home a run in the bottom of the 2nd to give the Orioles a lead they wouldn’t lose.

A pattern was set for the first 8 innings of the first 2 games – every time one team scored the other team answered back immediately. That’s the goal of every team, but only the good and possibly great teams actually execute it on the field.

A JJ Hardy home run gave the Orioles a huge insurance run in the bottom of the 7th. So Miguel Cabrera’s mighty two-out blast to right center in the top of the 8th
only brought the Tigers to within one run.

Then as advertised the Detroit bullpen imploded for 8 runs in the bottom of the 8th.
I don’t think Alejandro DeAza will ever forget hitting 2 doubles in the same inning, the last one driving in the last two runs of the outburst.

Yet the final score of 12-3 Orioles was very deceptive – it was a tight game until that last half-inning. And the power potential of the Detroit lineup 1 through 6 was positively frightening. By contrast the last three spots were very weak, an Achilles heel for Detroit almost as bad as the horrendous bullpen.

Friday’s day game saw the second of Detroit’s three Cy Young winners Justin Verlander match zeros with O’s Taiwanese southpaw Wei-Yin Chen until the bottom of the 3rd when Nick Markakis got his first HR off Verlander in 50 career ABs.

In keeping with the Hagler-Hearns theme, the Tigers answered with lightning quickness. In less than ten pitches, Chen gave up five runs, the last four coming on a
3-run HR by JD Martinez – a godsend for Detroit after unbelievably released last winter by the Houston Astros – and Nick Castellanos.

The Orioles answered in the bottom of the 4th when JJ Hardy singled home Adam Jones who had started the inning with a single up the middle. I had almost prayed that Jones would have a good post-season after his failures in the 2012 ALDS.
And his single up the middle was a good omen.

The Orioles knocked Verlander out of the box in the sixth inning - Hardly the dominating performance expected of a Cy Young winner. I chuckled at a sign in the crowd:
KATE UPTON IS HOT, VERLANDER IS NOT (with a circle and slash through “not”).

However, Anibal Sanchez, only recently activated from the disabled list, came in to pitch two perfect innings of relief. And when the Tigers got an insurance run in the top of the 8th, it was 6-3 Detroit.

Yet another good omen appeared when a perfect relay from Jones to second baseman Jonathan Schoop to catcher Caleb Joseph nailed lumbering if mighty slugger Miguel Cabrera at the plate.

It was a HBP to Jones with one out in the bottom of the 8th that started the winning four-run rally. That a former Tiger Delmon Young stroked a bases-loaded pinch-hit lead-gaining double was ironic.

Perhaps even more ironic was that the hit came only two hours before sundown and the start of Yom Kippur, the solemn Day of Atonement in the Jewish religion.

As a member of the Tigers in 2012 an intoxicated Young had been arrested in New York in the wee hours one morning after spewing anti-Semitic epithets and knocking to the street a target for his rage.

He was sentenced to sensitivity training and reportedly has since developed a genuine relationship with a Detroit-area rabbi. Once the number one draft pick in the country of the Tampa Bay Rays, Young has been a model citizen in Baltimore and has become an extremely productive pinch-hitter and occasional designated hitter.

And Delmon knows baseball and epitomizes the aggressive hitting philosophy explained by Adam Jones: "Tee it high, let it fly." When asked afterwards if he was hoping for a double, Young replied, "I wanted to hit a grand slam."

The crowd responded to Young's heroics with an outburst that veteran Baltimore fans
said was the loudest ever heard. I haven't been to many Oriole games in Baltimore recently but the chants of "We Won't Stop!" and "This Is Awesome" were quite impressive.

So was the outpouring of fan love for Nelson Cruz - "Cruuuuuuz!" - a regular chant since
he established himself as a consistent offensive force in the lineup. He is a free agent after the year and he has liked his time in Baltimore. But we'll see at age 35 next year how many suitors he will have. Probably a lot.

Added cheers were bestowed upon "Nick Mar-Ka-Kis!" and "J.J.Hardy!" two quiet leaders who could also be wearing other uniforms in 2015. My sense is that Markakis wants to stay with the only team he has ever played for and the Orioles will either pick up a $16-$17 million option or extend him at perhaps a slightly lower annual salary.

Hardy is an unrestricted free agent after the World Series. With the latest knee injury to Manny Machado, I would be very wary of letting Hardy walk away.

I returned home to New York to watch on TV on Sunday October 5 as the Orioles completed the sweep. Bud Norris, making his playoff debut, outpitched the third Cy Young winner in the Detroit arsenal David Price. It was Cruz’s two-run home run in the 6th after a Jones single that provided the necessary runs in a 2-1 victory.

Cruz’s home run just sneaked inside the right field foul pole. Impeccable five-out relief work from southpaw Andrew Miller - another free agent after the season - brought the game to closer Zach Britton who was shaky. He immediately gave up back-to-back doubles to the formidable Martinezes to cut the lead to 2-1.

But the bottom of the Detroit order was as wanting as their bullpen. A clever move by Oriole manager Buck Showalter to walk home run threat Nick Castellanos to set up a double play worked perfectly when inexperienced Hernan Perez grounded into a 5-4-3 DP that sent the Birds into their first AL Championship Series since 1997.

Looking ahead, beginning on Friday Oct 10, the Orioles will have home field advantage against the surprising Kansas City Royals who also dispatched the heavily favored Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in three straight. Obviously this will be a more demanding series because after a few years of underachieving the Royals have arrived with their great bullpen and blinding speed and emerging left-handed power threats in first baseman Eric Hosmer and third baseman Mike Moustakas.

The battle of underdogs vying to become AL top dogs should be a very interesting one.
And I expect the Orioles will continue their fine tradition of excellent choices for Star Spangled Banner singers.

Shining particularly well before Friday's game was the operatic soprano from Richmond, Virginia, Chelsea Buyalos who delivered a stirring rendition in under 1 minute and 20 seconds. Her "God Bless America" was poised and beautiful, too.

Never forget, dear readers, that the only reason to play baseball is to keep winter away.

As always, I sign off YIBF (Yours In Baseball Forever!) and urge you to
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