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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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No Baseball Excitement In Baltimore This September

It is hard for an Orioles fan to face the disaster the 2015 season has become. Since 2012, “Playing meaningful games in September” had returned as a happy Birdland mantra.

It won’t be chanted this September. A four-game sweep at home by the resurgent Minnesota Twins followed by a 1-6 road trip at defending AL champion Kansas City and surprising Texas has put Baltimore four games under .500 and in danger of falling into the AL East basement.

The two biggest culprits have been the lack of consistent starting pitching and a homer-happy strikeout-happy offense that produces little else. The defense has remained solid and at times spectacular, but you have to score some runs. When you don’t, the pressure on mediocre pitching to be perfect builds to impossible levels.

There is still a full slate of September games to be played, mainly in the AL East where the O’s so far have a 26-24 record. Playing spoiler is not what Oriole diehards expected in March though I did pick them for 4th.

I thought the starting pitching was overrated and the loss of free agent outfielders Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis would create a void in the offense. Having top reliever Andrew Miller bolt to the Yankees didn’t bode too well either.

The MLB's 2014 executive of the year Dan Duquette thought he could piece together an outfield from bargain-basement free agent pickups but the strategy failed miserably.
Losing Markakis to the Braves really hurt because he played hard and played hurt and he played every day.

I can understand why Duquette probably convinced owner Peter Angelos not to give a fourth year to both Markakis and Cruz, but in Nick’s case he had been a loyal Oriole for 10 years and deserved the reward.

Though his new team the Braves are rebuilding in a very difficult way for Braves fans, Markakis's numbers are excellent. And again he was always more than the numbers.

The state of the Oriole farm system has improved and the worst thing a franchise can do is to throw money wildly into the free agent market. Unfortunately, the Orioles stand to lose its biggest run-producer Chris Davis (wildly streaky that he is) and useful southpaw-though-no-ace Wei-Yin Chen to free agency after the season.

So it is not an easy time to be an Orioles fan. There have been no rabbits in manager Buck Showalter's hat this season. However, there is some core young talent that should be given reasonable multi-year contracts, esp. third baseman Manny Machado, an emerging though still immature star, and All-Star closer Zach Britton.

Alas, I will watch the last weeks of the regular season and the post-season with interest but devoid of the passion of the true fan.

I’ve always liked Joe Torre’s explanation for why he returned to managing after years in the broadcast booth. “I missed the winning, . . . and the losing,” he said.
When games matter and there is always hope for tomorrow and the day after, that is what baseball rooting is all about.

I will also keep an eye on the waning days of the minor league season in the New York City area, esp. the short season New York-Penn League that ends its regular campaign on Labor Day, followed by two short best-of-3 playoffs.

There is quite a race going down to the wire in the McNamara division of the NY-PL.
Only a half game separates the Staten Island Yankees, the Hudson Valley Renegades (the Tampa Bay farm club), and the Aberdeen Ironbirds (the Orioles affiliate).

In late August I saw the SI Yankees and the Ironbirds split a doubleheader in front of an intimate crowd at the lovely ballpark on New York Harbor, only a short walk from the Staten Island ferry. BTW the ferry is a free ride in each direction and remains one of the great attractions of NYC.

A tip of the cap to the HV Renegades, one of the Goldklang group of minor league franchises. On Sat Sep 5 at 5:30p, before the regularly scheduled 7:05p game against Aberdeen, veteran scout John Kosciak will be the 14th talent hunter honored with a plaque on the Dutchess Stadium Wall of Fame.

Kosciak, now a pro scout with the Pirates, has worked in baseball for more than three decades. As a Houston Astros scout, he was instrumental in signing of budding star outfielder George Springer from the University of Connecticut.

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