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Cleveland On Verge of World Series While Cubs-Dodgers Are All Even

Baseball never fails to deliver the unexpected. The National League had a ho-hum season in which only a few teams - the Cubs, the Nats, and the Dodgers won more than 90 games.

The American League had far more competition and until the last week of the regular season it was possible that four teams - the Blue Jays, the Orioles, the Tigers, and the Yankees - might battle into play-in games prior to the wild card game.

So what happens? The Indians with a starting pitching staff minus two regular members, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, swept the Red Sox in the American League Division Series. After Monday night Oct 17’s 4-2 win at Toronto, the Indians are up 3-0 needing only one win to reach the World Series.

Manager Terry Francona, who led the Red Sox to World Series triumphs in 2004 and 2007, has used his bullpen masterfully and the offense has produced enough timely hitting to buttress his future Hall of Fame credentials.

Meanwhile it has been the NL that has provided the most consistent drama. The Dodgers, also suffering a shortage of starting pitchers, eliminated the Nats in a gripping five game NLDS.

Their great ace Clayton Kershaw, only recently back from months on the DL with serious back issues, came out of the bullpen to get the last two outs in a road win at Washington.
Closer Kenley Jansen entered the game in the 7th inning (just like Rollie Fingers and Goose Gossage used to do) beyond giving way to Kershaw for the save.

Kudos to Dodgers rookie manager Dave Roberts for making that bold decision. Roberts will now be known for more than being the pinch-runner who stole second against Mariano Rivera that fueled the Red Sox comeback against the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS
(American League Championship Series).

The Cubs, the only 100-plus winner in MLB this season, dispatched the Giants in four games in their NLDS but it wasn’t easy. In fact, they had to score four runs in the 9th inning to win at San Francisco. If they hadn’t rallied, they faced the challenge of beating Johnny Cueto in Chicago to move on in the playoffs.

The Cubs are young and loaded with talent at every position, and inventive manager Joe Maddon loves players who are versatile and can perform capably at many places on defense.

They rode a pinch-hit grand slam by Miguel Montero to win the first game against LA but that man Kershaw threw seven shutout innings in the second game and veteran first baseman Adrian Gonzalez’s solo home run was the margin of victory in a 1-0 win to even their NL Championship Series at one game apiece.

The Cubs ran away with the NL East this year and have never looked up at any team all season. Which makes the three games in LA this Tuesday Oct 18 through Thursday Oct 20 fascinating to watch.

The Cubs remain clear favorites to win the NLCS and their first World Series since 1908.
But the Dodgers have Kershaw and closer and free agent-to-be Kenley Jansen to head their
tattered but still resourceful mound staff.

What makes this post-season so refreshing is that managers Francona and Maddon are throwing away the conventional wisdom on pitching roles. Maddon has twice asked his formidable closer Aroldis Chapman, another free agent-to-be, to give him a six-out save.

That it hasn’t worked out either time doesn’t mean Maddon was wrong. It just shows that he is willing to take chances based on his knowledge of matchups and an intuition that has been honed by his long experience in the game.

All of Francona’s moves have worked out. He has his ace in Corey Kluber, the reigning AL Cy Young-winner, who has been impeccable in the post-season. And he has used his brilliant southpaw reliever Andrew Miller as early as the fifth inning and in Monday night’s 4-2 victory, he brought him in for a four-out save.

The old time fan in me has wanted a Cleveland-Cubs World Series because their World Series droughts have been the longest. Cleveland hasn’t won since 1948 and only has one other world championship flag to raise for the 1920 team.

They represent one of the smallest cities in baseball with a declining population and accordingly a relatively small payroll. They have drafted wisely and now the fruits of that patience are paying off.

You always build championships up the middle and three emerging Cleveland stars are at key positions - shortstop Francisco Lindor, second baseman Jason Kipnis, and center fielder Tyler Naquin, a rookie of the year candidate.

If the Indians close the deal on Toronto, they will present formidable opposition to either the Cubs or the Dodgers. They also will have the home field advantage in the World Series because the AL won the All-Star Game.

The Indians will not take anything for granted in trying to close out Toronto. Francona knows all about teams losing 3-0 leads in the playoffs because he led Boston to such a victory over the Yankees in 2004. But you have to like the Tribe's chances.

It is not right that home field advantage in the World Series is the product of the All-Star exhibition game. That rule is preposterous but so is incessant replay. Yet nothing can kill baseball as long as the games are played without lockouts and strikes.

So let’s enjoy the action and the chills and thrills because November 2nd is coming too soon - the day when the seventh game of the World Series if necessary is scheduled. Afterwards we all must face winter, never an appetizing thought.

As always remember: Take It Easy but Take It!
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Orioles and Mets Face An Early Winter After Losing Close Wild Card Games

If you are a pure baseball fan, the pitchers’ battles that punctuated each Wild Card game last week were your cup of tea. Nothing like an elimination game to focus the minds of players and fans alike.

If you are emotional fans of the Mets and the Orioles, the losses were harder to take.
They must now face winter in the early fall. Nobody can criticize the effort of either losing Wild Card team, but when bats grow silent and runs are not scored, there is no way to win, especially in the post-season when pitching and defense matter more than ever.

The Mets lost a classic pitcher's duel with Noah Syndergaard going seven shutout innings but playoff whiz Madison Bumgarner pitching a complete-game shutout. Journeyman third baseman Conor Gillapsie's 3-run 9th inning HR off Mets usually effective closer Jeurys Familia was the deciding blow.

Gillapsie's moment in the sun was touching for Giants fans because he came up in the San Francisco organization but made his major league debut with the White Sox where he performed for two years. He then bounced around for a while until he returned to the team that first signed him. You see in baseball, you can go home again.

The O's 11-inning 5-2 loss to the Blue Jays was one that will be harder to forget. Manager Buck Showalter is being crucified for not using his perfect closer Zach Britton - 47 for 47 in the regular season - in the game. Buck might have made matters easier for himself if he just said to the press, “I wasn’t gonna use him until we had a lead.”

That’s how it works in regular season but the playoffs are different. There’s no tomorrow, to coin a phrase. As it turned out, the excellent relievers in front of Britton did do a marvelous job - two of them, hard-throwing converted shortstop Mychal Givens and soft-tossing sidearmer Darren O’Day, each got one pitch double plays.

However, going to starter Ubaldo Jimenez with one out none on in bottom of 11th inning was the disastrous choice. Within five pitches, Jimenez gave up two singles and the game-winning three-run bomb to Edwin Encarnacion. It was the top of the order and the big boppers were coming up for Toronto. That was where Britton should have been used.

I know it is so easy to second-guess, and the bottom line is the Orioles didn’t get a hit after the sixth inning. We had seen the offense disappear so often in second half of season. The illusion that the playoffs would be different faded quickly.

I sure hope the O’s make a strong effort to re-sign Mark Trumbo who produced Baltimore’s only two-runs in the wild card game with a homer that unlike his usual mammoth shots just sneaked over the left field fence.

I wanted the O’s to offer Britton a two-year deal before the season and buy out one of his arbitration years. Alas, owner Peter Angelos and gm Dan Duquette don’t do business that way. So now Britton’s one-year salary will probably escalate into the 8 digit category.

By contrast, the Colorado Rockies saw the promise in second baseman D. J. LeMahieu and offered him a $6 million-plus two-year contract before the start of 2016. Mahieu wound up winning the National League batting title.

My praise for the budding star is tempered by the poor decision by Rockies management to bench Mathieu for four of the last five games of the regular season so he could win the title over the injured Nats second baseman Daniel Murphy.

It was not Mathieu’s choice to sit but evidently management dictated it with the support of field manager Walt Weiss. It did not help save Weiss’s job as the New York metropolitan area native from Suffern was not rehired after four years on the job.

I find the contrast quite striking between Mathieu’s sitting and Ted Williams’ insistence on going for a genuine .400 average on the last day of the 1941 season. Williams could have sit out and protected a .3996 average that would be increased to .400.

The proud Williams insisted on playing and went 6 for 8 in a doubleheader against the Philadelphia A’s. He wound up with a .406 average, a revered number in baseball history that is not likely to be surpassed.

Without the Orioles, the post-season doesn’t provide me with a real outlet for my baseball passion. I do watch many of the games because as I’ve said many times on his blog, the only reason to play baseball is to keep winter away.

Before the games of Monday October 10, Toronto, riding a high ever since avoiding Zach Britton in the wild card game, is already in the AL division series after sweeping the Rangers. In hindsight, Texas’s poor run differential of only 8 runs over their regular season opponents doomed them.

Cleveland surprised Boston by routing Boston aces Rick Porcello and David Price, but they still have to contend with the Bosox in Fenway. If it comes to a game five in Cleveland, the Tribe should feel confident that their defending Cy Young award winner Corey Kluber can come through again with the kind of dominant performance he delivered in game 2.

In the National League, the Cubs convincingly dispatched the Giants in the first two games. Facing elimination, the Giants will throw the amazing playoff whiz Madison Bumgarner on Monday October 10 in an attempt to stay alive.

The Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers are playing the only series that looks like it could go the distance. A fan who loves baseball’s redemptive quality has to love Jose Lobaton’s game-changing 3-run HR on Sunday.

Only playing because his friend and Venezuelan countryman Wilson Ramos tore up his knee at the end of the regular season, Lobaton bounced into a bases loaded 1-2-3 DP in his prior AB. He was ready for a better showing next time around.

Redemption was the rule again when Blue Jays second baseman Devon Travis started Toronto's winning rally against the Orioles. He had bounced into two double plays earlier in that game.

Because they are franchises that have long suffered, I’d like to see a Cubs-Indians World Series with the Cubs finally winning after an 108-year drought. Their loyal scout for 35-years Billy Blitzer - who brought Shawon Dunston and Jamie Moyer and others into their fold - deserves his ring. But I do want to see some memorable gut-wrenching baseball before winter comes prematurely to all of us ardent addicted fans.

That’s all for now - always remember: Take it easy but take it!
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