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CAN THE PLAYOFFS MATCH A WEDNESDAY NIGHT FOR THE AGES?

[this post originally appeared at www. booktrib.com]
The Jewish New Year of 5772 began on Wednesday night Sep 28, 2011. Though Jewish by birth and temperament, I have not been a synagogue-goer for years.
I actually did consider going to temple this night given my growing need for the solace of community and tradition in a particularly unsettled world.

As usual, though, I chose instead the religion of baseball and was rewarded with a night of breath-taking baseball in front of my modest though very clear 27” flat screen TV. Even my recently acquired calico cat Sheba came out from her hiding places to join me as I watched the Tampa Bay Rays beat the Yankees and win the AL East wild card a mere three minutes after the Orioles beat the Red Sox in the bottom of the 9th at Camden Yards.

Never has a regular baseball season ended with such drama. And I didn’t even mention the playoff-bound Philadelphia Phillies beating the Atlanta Braves in 13 innings to allow the St. Louis Cardinals to win the National League wild card.
The 2011 Braves and Red Sox will have to live all off-season with blowing record-setting 8 ½ and 9 game leads in the month of September.

The Braves simply did not hit in the last month and their pitching staff had major injuries to starters. Thus too much pressure was placed on the probably overused bullpen trio of ERIC O’FLAHERTY, JOHNNY VENTERS & closer CRAIG KIMBREL.

The Red Sox collapse was also attributable to injuries – most notably starter CLAY BUCHHOLZ and intense third baseman KEVIN YOUKILIS – and the other starting pitchers imploded all month as age crept up on the roster. When you are relying regularly on 45-year-old gallant knuckleballer TIM WAKEFIELD you are asking for trouble.

Red Sox fans will cringe all winter at the memory of slumping DH DAVID ORTIZ and exemplary clutch shortstop MARCO SCUTARO getting thrown out on the bases in their painful 4-3 loss to the Orioles in what turned out to be their last game. Closer JONATHAN PAPELBON, who may depart as a free agent, couldn’t complete the save as with two outs and none out he gave up doubles to CHRIS DAVIS (a welcome addition from Texas late in the season) and NOLAN REIMOLD and a game-winning single to ROBERT ANDINO (who played brilliantly the last half of the season and could be the starting second baseman next year or at least valuable super-sub.)

How fitting that Andino’s hit should have been caught by left fielder CARL CRAWFORD. But the $142 million man plucked from Tampa as a free agent lost much confidence in his game as the year wore on. He never hid from the press but he obviously was not prepared for the pressures of playing in Boston.

If a certain humility comes to Red Sox Nation as a result of their collapse I welcome it.

I truly dislike the term “Red Sox Nation,” a pretentious concept of tribal self-importance at a time in our history when what should be our real nation is falling apart through deliberate discord and horrible helplessness.

But enough of carping criticism. Let me sing instead an Ode to the Joy of Rays Baseball. On the remarkable Wednesday of Sept 28 they came back from a 7-0 deficit to score 6 in the bottom of the eighth, the last three on a HR by EVAN LONGORIA, who the night before had started a rare triple play in a 5-3 victory over the Yankees.

The Rays then tied it in the 9th with two out and two strikes on DAN JOHNSON a longtime minor league journeyman with a knack for big HRs (he had homered off PAPELBON to help clinch the 2008 Rays AL East title.) And then Longoria won the Wild Card with a line drive home run in the 12th that just sneaked over the short left field porch at the Rays’ Tropicana Field indoor dome.

I have long espoused LOWENFISH’S LAW OF BASEBALL – “No four run lead is every safe until the game is over.” But coming back from a 7-run deficit with only two innings to go defied all logic and yet it happened.
YOUNEVERKNOW, YOUNEVERKNOW, pitcher Joaquin Andujar’s pithy one-word description of baseball came true.

Even brilliantly optimistic Tampa Bay manager JOE MADDON doubted a comeback but once the bases got loaded on walks and hit batters, the players began to believe.

Just a few days before MADDON said of Tampa Bay’s great September surge: “It goes beyond numbers and all that stuff. We’re talking about human beings.” Added the man who manages to merge successfully the insights of PICASSO and WAYNE DYER of “Your Erroneous Zones” fame:

“Physically and mentally, I think we’re able to do things even better without trying. I just try to stay out of the way and let them play. It’s a joy to watch.”

SO WHO WILL WIN THE PLAYOFFS?
I’m not in the prediction business but I can honestly say that this year every one of the 8 teams still alive has a compelling story and could win.
The odds-makers will probably favor the Phillies and the Yankees but I wouldn’t count out any team.

The Rays are riding a high that might carry them a long way. They have solid starting pitching (if DAVID PRICE can bounce back from his woeful Wednesday start and disappointing second half) and the amazingly resourceful EVAN LONGORIA.

The Texas Rangers are defending AL champions and have home field advantage against the Rays.

The Yankees are the Yankees and will have home field advantage throughout the whole AL playoffs. But their pitching including CC SABATHIA hasn’t been overwhelming lately and ALEX RODRIGUEZ is still battling injuries.

A big series by DEREK JETER is quite possible and that could bring the Yankees another title. I laugh at the stat experts who were denigrating Jeter all year. He almost hit .300 and had big hits and deep at-bats throughout the second half of season once his reached his personal milestone of 3,000 hits.

PLAYERS WHO OBVIOUSLY PLAY FOR THE TEAM AND NOT INDIVIDUAL GLORY ARE RARE NOWADAYS AND SHOULD BE APPLAUDED EVEN IF WEARING ARROGANTLY ENTITLED PINSTRIPES.

The Detroit Tigers are the hottest team and have a great starter in Cy Young-lock JUSTIN VERLANDER and a fearsome middle of the order with DELMON YOUNG now batting ahead of MIGUEL CABRERA (maybe my MVP) and VICTOR MARTINEZ who spurned the Red Sox to join his Venezuelan countryman Cabrera).

Most Tiger fans I know are nervous about closer JOSE VALVERDE who saved 49 games in a row. They are waiting for the shoe to drop when he blows a big one. Most fans will cheer because Valverde’s histrionics on the mound don’t win him any friends.

In the National League, the Cardinals rush to the Wild Card give them momentum and they have ALBERT PUJOLS and the revived LANCE BERKMAN. They could give the Phillies a run for their money in a five game series despite the Phils’ great starting pitching led by ROY HALLADAY & CLIFF LEE. I think slugger RYAN HOWARD will be a key. He has not had good post-seasons and does have something to prove.

The Milwaukee Brewers hope to draw on the last mileage out of slugging first baseman PRINCE FIELDER before he likely leaves as a free agent.
But the Arizona Diamondbacks, the surprise team of 2011, could continue their magic. Former Yankee IAN KENNEDY has become a 20-game winner and former Met JJ PUTZ (pronounced “Puts” – ahem!) has been a solid closer.

All in all looks like very interesting October baseball. But it will be hard to beat that magical Wednesday night September 28, 2011 that spilled past midnight and brought joy to Tampa and St. Louis and utter despond to Boston and Atlanta. There, the old line reigns – “Wait until next year.”

You dear readers won’t have to wait until a couple of weeks into October for the next post.

Remember: Take it easy but take it!
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