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Late August Thoughts As The Home Stretch Looms

It is hard being an Orioles fan right now but as you dear blog readers know I have been loyal to a fault since 1970.

I guess we've reached a certain point in this summer slide where we have to say without sarcasm that Sunday’s rain-delayed 5-3 loss to Houston was respectable (after giving up 27 runs in the prior two games). There is enough time to straighten the ship but a schedule of facing contenders doesn’t get any easier.

“To be the best you have to beat the best” is a mantra that Branch Rickey and all winning sports leaders have invoked. So tough schedules have never been an excuse for bad play.

Neither have easy schedules been an excuse for coasting into the playoffs. How well I remember Earl Weaver going ballistic when a writer would say, “If you play only .500 ball the rest of the way, the opposition must play over .750.”
Earl would growl, “Are you telling me we are going to lose half our games?!”

It is up to a genuine contender to play like a champion regardless of the teams on the other side of the ball. And since before the All-Star Game, the O’s have played sub-.500 ball.

The lack of depth in the farm system -- from starting pitching to speedy guys who can manufacture runs -- lies at the heart of the problem. The loss of fleet rookie outfielder Joey Rickard to a hand injury has really been a major blow.

I was at the game at Yankee Stadium a month ago when I heard the thudding sound of his hand colliding with the hard auxiliary scoreboard in right field. Rickard’s broken finger has not sufficiently healed and he won’t be ready to play until sometime in September.

Still, it is too early to throw in the towel on 2016. The O’s remain only two lost games behind Toronto and Boston, but clearly the confidence from leading the AL East for much of the season has been shattered. Someone on the starting pitching staff must step up with a deep effort to allow so-far-perfect closer Zach Britton to work his late game magic.

CONCLUDING BASEBALL THOUGHTS:
**There must be a rule passed in the off-season to place a limit on how long a replay challenge can take. Three minutes might even be too long. You can split hairs on different camera angles, but the cost of disrupting the flow of the game is too great.

Here's a good question to ask in all walks of life these days:
“ISN'T IT BETTER TO BE VAGUELY RIGHT THAN PRECISELY WRONG?'

**I see where it is becoming fashionable again to criticize baseball for being too slow a game for the instant gratification of today's age. I beg to differ.

From my vantage point, baseball doesn’t need a clock between pitches. It needs some courage from leadership to stop batters from adjusting batting gloves after every pitch, and to limit the number of visits of catchers to the pitcher to one per AB or maybe only a few per inning.

Then the natural flow of the game could proceed the way it was intended.

**How about the response of Philadelphia Phillies fans to the return of Chase Utley in a Los Angeles Dodgers uniform? He received a standing ovation before his first at-bat, something he admitted he was looking forward to. He received more ovations after hitting two home runs, including a grand-slam.

The emotional bonds between fans and players run very deep, even after a hero has been traded. Utley was a mainstay on the Phillies teams that won 2008-09 pennants and the 2008 World Series. His three-word victory speech at the 2008 parade, “World F----n’ Champs,” won’t ever be forgotten in Philadelphia.

Though New York Mets fans have a far more negative view of Utley for his hard injury-causing slide into Ruben Tejada in last year’s N.L. playoffs, there is no doubt that the Southern California native has always played the game very hard.

Philly fans’ warm reaction to Utley’s return reminded me of something baseball’s first forgotten late 19th century labor hero John Montgomery Ward once said: “Without sentiment baseball would be a very empty game.”

That’s all for now. As the song goes, “See you in September.” And always remember:
“Take it easy but take it.”
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Roughned Odor's Baserunning and More Drama from Baseball's Division Series

As a chastened Orioles fan, I can take a little solace that the Texas Rangers’ surprise rise to the edge of the American League Championship Series may have started when they took three out of four in Baltimore just before the All-Star break.

It was before they made the trade deadline deals in late July that brought them a likely ace in Cole Hamels from Philadelphia, and also in the same deal lefty Jake Diekman who has become a key member of their bullpen. Add in Sam Dyson who came from the Marlins.

I don’t think I ever saw better baserunning than supplied by Roughned Odor in the Rangers’ 14-inning second straight playoff win over Toronto. He went first to third on an infield grounder, and then scored on a short fly ball to center, deking his left hand into home plate and pulling it away and touching it with his right hand before Russell Martin could apply the tag.

Center fielder Delino DeShields Jr. has also provided a lot of spark as the Rangers’ new leadoff hitter. He had three hits in the extra-inning victory and beat out a routine grounder to short for a big insurance run in the 14th inning rally. (Blue Jays shortstop Troy Tulowitzki is still hurting from the injury to his non-throwing shoulder and it may well have affected his throw to first. He certainly has not been hitting with authority.)

Like his father, who had been recruited to play point guard for Villanova basketball, DeShields Jr. before signing with the Montreal Expos, is a great athlete who both Ole Miss and the University of Georgia were interested in for football.

DeShields is only a rookie so it is too early to predict how great his career will be.
He may have a chance, though, to make most people forget that his father’s greatest claim to fame may be that the Expos traded him even up to the Dodgers for Pedro Martinez.

In an age when MLB is drawing more and more players from the international market, the Rangers may lead every team for being a veritable United Nations on the field.

Roughned Odor is from Maracaibo, Venezuela family filled with players and coaches.
Shin-Soo Choo is from Korea, Adrian Beltre and his temporary replacement Hanser Alberto are from the Dominican Republic, and injured ace starter Yu Darvish is from Japan.

There are a lot of home-grown stories on the Rangers including starting pitcher Yovani Gallardo who went to nearby Fort Worth Trimble Tech HS, and reliever Ross Olmerdorf who grew up in Austin TX and went to Princeton.

Arguably the brightest man in baseball, who has worked in Washington, DC as a high-level government agricultural researcher, Olmerdorf has rescued his career by resorting to a Bob Feller-style full windup.

Every playoff season has its own special drama and 2015 is no exception.
Joe Maddon's Cubs used two safety squeeze bunts in a row to stoke a 5-run rally to even up their series with the Cardinals at 1-1. And now the Cardinals must face Jake Arrieta at Wrigley Field. Every pitcher is ultimately hittable but Arrieta is as hot as any hurler in the history of the game.

Best thing about the Cubs is that they are versatile as well as talented and Maddon has them all thinking, "W" for winning and nothing else. When asked in spring training about Cub curses and 106 non-winning seasons in a row, Maddon replied, "I don't vibrate at that frequency."

The Mets’ chance for a sweep on the road against the Dodgers’ great aces Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke came to a dramatic halt on Saturday night when Chase Utley slid hard into Ruben Tejada at second base, breaking up a possible though not likely double play.

Unfortunately Tejada’s leg was broken by the slide and now Wilmer Flores, the Mets’ better-hitting more defensively-challenged shortstop, takes over that key position. I’ve always liked Flores’ bat and we’ll see how he responds to his big challenge.

Certainly Flores will always be remembered for breaking into tears on the field at the trading deadline in late July when he thought the Mets had sent him to Milwaukee in a trade for former Met centerfielder Carlos Gomez.

It was one of the most touching moments of the entire season and reminded us of how ballplayers, despite their celebrity and great riches, are human beings after all.

In my next post we'll have the answers to these still-unresolved questions:
Can Jake Arrieta lead the Cubs to the edge of the NL Championship Series?
Will the Rangers complete their upset victory over the heavily-favored Blue Jays at their home park in Texas?
Can Houston use home-field advantage to dethrone Kansas City as American League champion?
Will the Mets add to the Dodgers’ recent miseries in the playoffs?

In the meantime, Always remember: Take it easy but take it!
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