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Winter Comes To Baltimore As Royals Sweep The Birds in ALCS

“The only reason to play baseball is to keep winter away,” is one of my favorite sayings, exact origin unknown. On Wednesday October 15 the Orioles joined the sidelines with 27 other major league teams as the streaking Kansas City Royals swept them in four straight in the American League Championship Series. (As of this posting, the San Francisco Giants have three chances to send the St. Louis Cardinals to the sidelines in order to meet the Royals in the World Series.)

The identical 2-1 scores in the last two games at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City meant that one pitch could have turned each game around. But these games were psychologically never that close. The Orioles had a lead for only two and a half innings in the entire series. Fans felt the team was playing uphill the entire time and I sense the players were experiencing similar feelings.

The Royals’ victory was no fluke. They had been a sleeping giant in the American League with three young former number one draft picks not even in their prime years peaking at the right time: first baseman Eric Hosmer, third baseman Mike Moustakas, and left fielder Alex Gordon.

The Royals’ bullpen arms from the seventh inning on were virtually unhittable: Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and closer Greg Holland. Davis came from Tampa Bay in a trade along with ace starter James Shields to bring their experience and fierce competitiveness to a team needing to learn how to win.

Some observers saw in the Orioles’ loss an analogy to the 1969 World Series when after an opening victory over Tom Seaver, the Birds were beaten four in a row by the Miracle Mets. In this analysis center fielder Lorenzo Cain played the role of Tommy Agee.

Cain was deservedly voted the MVP of the ALCS for his all-around play. A one-time third baseman and Milwaukee Brewers farmhand who didn't play baseball until high school, Cain bunted on his own to sacrifice two runners into scoring position in the first inning in Game 4. Both scored on a tough error charged to Oriole catcher Caleb Joseph who couldn’t quite catch the ball thrown by first baseman Steve Pearce after Hosmer’s ground ball.

Why players rarely bunt these days is a good question to ask about today's baseball. The explanation, though, is really simple - salary arbitration awards are not bestowed on bunts and sacrifices. That’s pretty sad because well-placed bunts can win games as in Game 4 and in Game 2 when Moustakas, who had homered earlier, laid down a sacrifice to set up the winning run.

The finality of the end of a season is always stark. And a sweep is one of baseball’s more painful indignities. However, in the long view the Orioles’ season was a success. They played virtually all season without all-star catcher Matt Wieters – who had Tommy John elbow surgery. Third baseman Manny Machado, last year’s platinum glove winner as baseball’s best defender, missed the first month of the season recovering from knee surgery and then in August had surgery on his other knee.

In early September first baseman Chris Davis, who turned out to be an adequate replacement for Machado at third base, was suspended for 25 games for using the amphetamine Adderall without a prescription. That suspension will end the day after Opening Day 2015.

Despite these key losses, the Orioles ran away with the AL East flag and swept the favored Tigers three in a row in the AL Division Series (ALDS). That was an improvement over 2012, the rebirth year of Buck Showalter-Dan Duquette’s Orioles when the Yankees won a very competitive five-game ALDS over Baltimore.

In my opinion, the outlook for 2015 became brighter when just before the start of the post-season, the Orioles signed shortstop JJ Hardy to a three-year contract worth reportedly $40 million. This contract makes a lot of sense because Hardy is the quiet but effective captain of the defense, someone who makes everyone better. It also suggests that Machado, hopefully fully recovered by spring training, will remain at third for the foreseeable future. That’s fine by me.

The fate of other key Oriole free agents won’t be known for a while. Steady right fielder Nick Markakis has been an Oriole all his career and wants to return and probably will.
Left fielder/dh Nelson Cruz was the one-year steal in free agency in 2014 and he’ll want a long-term contract that the Orioles may not want to offer. Ditto for southpaw reliever Andrew Miller who bolstered the bullpen immeasurably after his arrival at the July 31 trading deadline.

We’ll see what happens. There will likely be a bevy of trades as the Hot Stove League picks up. I hope the Tampa Bay Rays, my second most favorite team, can bounce back from their sub-.500 season. The Rays’ presence is, of course, felt on the World Series-bound Royals with James Shields as the ace and Wade Davis as the almost unhittable eighth inning specialist.

When they fell out of contention in July, the Rays traded another ace pitcher David Price to the Tigers but it seems like they found an able replacement in southpaw Drew Smyly. It remains to be seen how they adjust to the departure of their youthful general manager Andrew Friedman who recently became the president of baseball operations for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

FINAL NOTE: Congrats to Jeff Banister, new manager of the Texas Rangers who overcame the threat of amputation as a teenager to become a minor league baseball player and more recently a longtime coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

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