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Rousing End To Regular Season Sets Stage for October Playoffs

Monday October 5 will be a rare day off before playoff baseball begins with the AL Wild Card game at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday Oct 6 with the rambunctious Houston Astros invading Yankee Stadium for the right to meet the Kansas City Royals in the best-of-five American League Division Series (ALDS).

I must admit that I was rooting for the Yankees to go on the road for the Winner Take All game. They finished the season as losers of six out of seven games, three out of four to the Red Sox at home and a sweep in Baltimore at the hands of last year’s AL East champion Orioles.

The Astros played very well in Seattle and Arizona, winning both series but unable to sweep the Diamondbacks on Sunday that would have given them the home game in Houston. It was still a remarkable year for the young Astros who rose from seasons in the lower depths to lead the AL West for most of 2015 until the Texas Rangers, another horrible team in 2014, roared past them to win the title.

There is nothing like baseball when everything is on the line. Players who gather in Florida and Arizona in February, who live with each other more than with their own families, go on the field in late September and try to relax while playing games that will determine whether they make the playoffs or go home also-rans.

The Saturday October 3 game between the Angels and Rangers will go down as one of the most remarkable ones in baseball history. I have cited over the years in this blog “Lowenfish’s Law”: “No four-run lead in baseball is ever safe until the last man
Is out.”

It came true on Saturday when the Rangers entered the 9th inning at home in Arlington, Texas with a 10-6 lead. Rangers rookie manager Jeff Banister played with fire by bringing in his closer Shawn Tolleson for the FIFTH straight game. He immediately gave up two solo home runs to cut the lead to 10-8.

Infrequently used righthander Ross Olmerdorf came in and got a bad break immediately when Albert Pujols popped a ball down the right field that fell out of first baseman Mike Napoli’s glove when second baseman Roughned Odor collided with him. Four hits later, some with two strikes and two out, gave the lead to the Rangers who closed out a 11-10 victory.

The Rangers were already in the playoffs so it wasn’t a devastating loss. “Tomorrow is your best friend” remains one of the great adages in baseball, and on Sunday southpaw ace Cole Hamels, a trade deadline pickup from the Phillies, pitched a complete game 9-2 victory to give the Rangers the undisputed title of the AL West.

Attempting a sweep at Arizona, always hard to pull off on the road, Houston tied Arizona in the sixth inning but Diamondbacks slugger Paul Goldschmidt belted a two-run home run that proved the difference in a 5-3 Arizona victory.

There should be exceptional drama ahead in the wild card games. Houston’s homegrown stellar southpaw Dallas Keuchel is matched against the Yankees high-salaried Japanese import Masahiro Tanaka on Tuesday night.

On Wednesday the Pirates, winners of 96 games, could find their season end because of the deliveries of the Cubs star righty Jake Arrieta who has enjoyed statistically the greatest second half of a season in baseball history.

Powerhouses Kansas City and St. Louis will have home field advantages when they take on the wild card winners, starting Thursday and Friday in the best-of-five league division series (LDS). Division winners Texas and Toronto and New York and Los Angeles will square off in the other LDS.

Playoff baseball is not the same as the daily grind of the regular season. I am pleased that my Orioles surprised a lot of us by winning the last two games over Toronto after the Blue Jays clinched their title in Baltimore. Even more satisfying was sweeping the Yankees this past weekend, forcing them to back into the home wild card game with Houston’s Sunday loss.

The pending free agent losses of slugger Chris Davis and effective southpaw Wei-Yin Chen made the victories bittersweet. Davis sure went out with a bang hitting two home runs in the last game of the season at Camden Yards. But what baseball teaches us is to enjoy the moments of triumph fully because losses of games, and personnel, inevitably lie ahead.

That’s all for now – in the meantime always remember – “Take it easy but take it!”
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Joe Maddon’s Hazelton Integration Project Banquet A Big Hit on the Hot Stove Circuit

The third annual Hazelton Integration Project shindig on Friday night Dec 20 drew over 600 people in support of the program inspired by Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon.
Blessed with a nice acronym and slogan, “Get HIP!”, the goal of the program is to provide literacy and other vital services for the more than 10,000 Hispanics that have recently settled in Hazleton, Maddon’s home town, a onetime thriving hard coal community in central Pennsylvania.

A few years ago widely publicized local hostility to the new immigrants disturbed Maddon who was certain that the negative attitude did not represent the real Hazelton. He vowed that once he established some national profile he would do something to welcome the newcomers as his Polish-Italian ancestors had been made to feel at home when they first settled in town.

An impressive turnout of baseball people and members of the media came out to support HIP. The dais included Maddon; newly-appointed Phillies bench coach Larry Bowa, a shortstop hero on their first World Series winners of 1980; legendary Cuban-born pitcher Luis Tiant; new Tigers bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer who formerly held the same position with the Phillies; and broadcasters Kimberly Jones, Ed Randall and Ken Rosenthal. Baseball’s most talented and outrageous mascot the Philly Fanatic also made a cameo appearance drawing squeals of delight from the many youngsters in the audience.

Pennsylvania native-Penn State graduate Kim Jones summed up beautifully the essential idealism of the Hazelton Integration Project. “Some of our differences make for the strongest bonds,” said the former YES network clubhouse reporter for the Yankees who now works for the NFL TV network. Fox Sports and MLB analyst Ken Rosenthal added that “acceptance, tolerance, and unity” were the watchwords of HIP.

In a free-wheeling exchange of views with peppy veteran broadcaster Ed Randall, Maddon tipped his cap to the Red Sox who won it all in 2013 and dominated the Rays in head-to-head meetings. He said he was not surprised in the least when the last place Bostonians of 2012 surged to the top. A great believer in the makeup of players not just the statistics on their bubblegum cards, Maddon knew the Red Sox would be trouble once they signed free agents Jonny Gomes, a former Ray, and Mike Napoli, who Maddon knew from his years as a California Angel scout, instructor, and coach.

Maddon said it was “50-50” whether the Rays can hold on to star southpaw David Price who will soon be too expensive for the budget-challenged Rays. (Most observers think it is sadly close to a sure bet that Price will be traded maybe even before the start of spring training.) However, Maddon is convinced the Rays will always contend because of the organization’s outstanding player evaluation from the amateurs through the pros.

Maddon pulled a surprise when he answered a youngster’s question about his favorite player: “Andrew McCutchen of the Pittsburgh Pirates.” He explained that last season during a early spring training game between the Rays and the Pirates, McCutchen beat out a routine ground ball to shortstop even though it was two out in the bottom of the 9th inning and the Pirates were well behind. After the game, Maddon congratulated Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle for instilling that kind of hustle in the centerfielder who went on to become the 2013 National League MVP.

I certainly hope Maddon is right that the Rays will continue to contend because they go about things the right way. They have locked up their best player third baseman Evan Longoria into the next decade and have always managed to find the pieces to fit around him, beginning with the biggest part of all, the pitching staff.

Maddon is as comfortable in his own skin as anyone I’ve ever met not just in baseball but also in any walk of life. Whether he is wearing a faux sharkskin sport jacket - as he did at the banquet –- or inviting penguins and snakes into a Rays clubhouse that needed some relaxing last season or building team unity by organizing wardrobe themes for his players on road trips, Maddon is always trying to get the most out of his men and the most out of his life. At a time when baseball talk is too often about millions of dollars and almost double-digit years in contracts, he is a most refreshing breath of fresh air and intelligence.

In honor of him, I will appropriate his closing salutation to end this Christmas Eve post:
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