One of the well-worn yet correct cliches about the immense MLB season is that it is a marathon not a sprint. Yet as autumn approaches, when there are barely 20 games left to determine division winners and wild card participants. each game takes on added importance. Only the mentally strong can balance the pressure of the schedule with the need to trust your own stuff and understand what you body is capable of doing on the given day.
In the National League, two divisions have been long ago decided, Atlanta in NL East and LA Dodgers in NL West. They are assured byes in the first round of the playoffs that will begin early in October with a best-of-3 wild card series in each league. The third division champion doesn't get a bye but plays the third wild card in its league.
For most of this season, the NL Central was surprisingly inept, the perennially contending Cardinals falling to the basement and no other team really excelling. But now two teams are comfortably above .500, the Brewers, before games of Mon Sep 11, leading the Cubs by 4 games and the surprising Reds also with a shot at the last wild card.
Defending NL champ Phillies have the lead in first wild card but only two games ahead of Cubs, narrowly holding 2nd wild card by two games over the surprising Diamondbacks who have a slight lead over Marlins with Reds and Giants still alive.
You can't beat the drama of last weekend. The Cubs salvaged the last game of a 4-game series against upstart Arizona at Wrigley Field. Balls were flying unpredictably all over the ancient ballpark on Chicago's North Side, everywhere but towards the outfield stands as windblown home runs. So pitching was at a premium and Zac Gallen, another onetime St. Louis Cardinal rashly traded, threw a complete game victory.
To me, the Cubs southpaw Justin Steele has established himself as a legitimate Cy Young contender - unlike Blake Snell of the vastly disappointing Padres, Steele wants to go deep into games and has 16 wins to prove it. After a late season slump, Gallen may be back in the Cy Young conversation. His teammate, crisp speedy outfielder/leadoff man Corbin Carroll, looks like a Rookie of the Year favorite.
In the inter-league matchup of the Brewers at Yankee Stadium (I must think twice to say "interleague" because I, for one, still consider in my bones Milwaukee an AL team and Houston an NL team), Milwaukee won the series but lost out on a sweep despite reigning Cy Young winner Corbin Burnes throwing a 8-inning no-hitter and closer Devin Williams putting up a zero in the 9th.
But the Brewers could do nothing against American League Cy Young favorite Gerrit Cole who threw a 7-inning 3-hitter and the Yankees' first bullpen pitchers kept putting up zeroes. Brewers twice took leads in extra innings but Yankees came back and ultimately won 4-3 in 13 innings.
Turning to the AL, the Central division is virtually decided with the Minnesota Twins holding a comfortable 7 1/2 game lead on the sub-.500 Cleveland Guardians. They will not get a bye but will play the third wild card entrant in that 3-game series with home field advantage.
The other two AL divisional races are still up for grabs. Prior to games of M Sep 11, the surprising Orioles led the perennially contending Rays by 3 games, 4 in the lost column. 4 big head-to-head matchups come up Th thru Su Sep 14-17 in Baltimore. Birds cannot afford to overlook at home 3 games with the disappointing-but-still-potent Cardinals and ditto the Rays playing 3 on the road in Minnesota.
The AL West has turned into a three-way tussle featuring defending World Series champion Houston, now narrowly in first place two lost games ahead of both Seattle and Texas. As I mentioned in my last post, the Astros have likely the easiest schedule playing one series each against the A's and the Royals, teams on their way to over 100 losses. The return to health of Jose Altuve, Jordan Alvarez, and Michael Brantley really deepens the Astros' lineup. Whether their overall pitching is as good as last year's will be something to watch carefully.
In another dramatic series last weekend, Tampa Bay knocked the Mariners out of first place by winning at home the last 3 games of their 4-game series. A controversy erupted after Tampa's come-from-behind Fri night victory when George Kirby, impressive young pitcher for the Mariners, emotionally confessed to reporters that he felt gassed after throwing 90 pitches in 6 innings and holding a two-run lead.
He felt that he didn't want to pitch in the 7th and proceeded to lose the lead after giving up a 2-run homer to backup catcher Jean Pinto who like many Rays has emerged from minor league obscurity to be a big contributor. Kirby immediately apologized the next morning, saying he never wants to be taken out of a game, but it was too late.
The many pundit nay-sayers all over the baseball world, including former pitchers like hotheaded David Wells, branded Kirby as the poster boy for the spoiled 21st century starting pitcher who never wants to go beyond 5 or 6 innings in any game.
I call myself a "lively dinosaur" because I, too, along with a lot of oldtime baseball fans, yearn for complete games by pitchers who want to complete what they started. Yet I cannot overlook a lot of data that indicates after 100 pitches, pitchers tend to weaken. It was not the case in Cy Young award-winning Corbin Burnes' 8 no-hit innings against the Yankees on Sunday, but he was moved after throwing 109 pitches, 6 short of his career high.
Trying to look to the future dispassionately, the big problem is that today virtually every organization doesn't allow any minor league pitcher to work more than 5 or 6 innings. How can you develop major league arms that way? Learning to pitch when tired to me is the essence of good pitching. And the essence of good coaching should be to teach pitchers to understand their arms and bodies and to help them understand the difference between being simply sore as opposed to be seriously injured.
I know how hard it must be to make this distinction when adrenalin, testosterone, and competitiveness in service to the team all are in the mix.
Since common sense is so uncommon, especially in sports, you can see how this will be a long uphill struggle. But one worth definitely worth exploring and fighting for sanity.
Before I close this edition, here's a shoutout to another successful Kelly Rodman Memorial All-Star Game held on August 24th, a day early because of rain in the forecast at Worcester's Polar Park, home of the Red Sox Triple-A farm club the WooSox. Spearheaded by veteran scouts Matt Hyde of the Yankees and Ray Fagnant of the Red Sox, the game features promising high school and college players from all over the country.
The game is the culmination of a late summer program of clinics and intrasquad games that in its 14 years of existence has sent three dozen players into pro baseball. Since 2020, the game has been dedicated to the memory of Yankee scout Kelly Rodman who rose quickly in the organization to become an advocate for amateur players like promising rookie shortstop Anthony Volpe.
She left us far too early at 44 years old, but her exhortation to aspiring players, "Be Great Today!," sums up the fiercely optimistic spirit that any successful player must exude. I believe that telling her story was a perfect way to end my recent book, BASEBALL'S ENDANGERED SPECIES: INSIDE THE CRAFT OF SCOUTING BY THOSE LIVED WHO LIVED IT.
That'a all for now. Always remember: Take it easy but take it! And don't forget - stay positive, test negative.