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Orioles Sputter To The End of July As All Division Races Tighten

In this strange but always absorbing baseball season, it seems that uneasy lies the head of all division leaders. I follow the Orioles the most closely, of course, and their AL East lead is down to two games in the AILC . This stands for All-Important Lost Column meaning that a game lost can never be made up but a game not played could still be a win.

A three-game series in Toronto against the second place Blue Jays this weekend should clarify a few things. I am hoping that Chris Davis's bat awakens in his favorite ballpark the Rogers Centre (formerly known as the Skydome in Toronto's championship years of 1992-93.)

The Red Sox are on the road for two weeks and have lost some tough games recently. Yet they are only two back of the Birds in the AILC and the resurgent Yankees only six.

Leaders in baseball's other divisions are having hard times, too. In the AL West the Texas Rangers are having starting pitching woes and have lost slugger Prince Fielder for probably the rest of the season with recurring neck issues.

Last year's surprise team the Houston Astros is hot on the Rangers trail and they are eager to face Texas again after losing all but one of their first match ups this year. Don't count out the occasionally explosive Seattle Mariners who have their ace Felix Hernandez back from injury.

In the AL Central, Cleveland's 14-game winning streak opened a big lead but they are losing luster, obviously needing another bat in the lineup and some help in the bullpen. The Detroit Tigers are hanging in and like the Astros they hope to avenge a pounding by the Indians in their earlier games this year.

The chances for defending World Series champion Kansas City to repeat in AL Central look meager now. So too for the Mets in the NL East. The Nationals have ruled the roost for much of this year but are not invincible. Yet the Mets have fallen behind even the Miami Marlins in the race for the divisional crown.

Perhaps the biggest slump of division leaders is occurring in the NL West where the SF Giants are plummeting. Their defense and hitting looked very suspect when they lost the series at Yankee Stadium last weekend. It was nice though for an old New York Giant fan like myself to see such a spirited band of Giant fans hold their own cheering on the road.

Another thrilling pennant chase between the Giants and Dodgers looms. Only in the NL Central does the race seem over with the Cubs holding a commanding lead despite playing barely .500 ball since they raced out to a 25-6 start. The Pirates and now the onrushing Cardinals are still very alive in the wild card race.

Though I wish the season were shortened to 154 games or fewer, there is one great rule in effect. The team that wins the division title is assured at least one playoff series.
The two also-rans with the best records must play the Wild Card winner-take-all game.

So expect some dramatic baseball ahead. It's what we addicted fans live for.

That's all for now - always remember: Take it easy but take it.
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March Comes In Like A Lionfish

I don’t know enough about my family history though I do know that the patriarch of the family in central Europe around 200 years ago was someone named Fischl Lowen. And somewhere down the line, the last name and first name were flipped and Lowenfischl shortly became Lowenfish.

I know there is a lionfish in many oceans of the world and it has no predators which means it causes a lot of havoc among other fish but fortunately there is no relation there.

I say all this because the old saying on the eve of the third month of the year is “March Comes In Like A Lion but Goes Out Like A Lamb.” I don’t mind at all thinking that March comes in like a lionfish because it is a special time of year for a sports fan.

College basketball season is reaching a climax and I am happy that my graduate school alma mater the Wisconsin Badgers are coming on strong. They are only a game behind the Big Ten-leading Michigan State Spartans and Indiana Hoosiers. A road game against the Spartans on Thursday March 7 might determine their title hopes and regular season titles still mean something to me.

There will be a Big Ten tournament that will largely determine March Madness seeding but regular season performance still should count for something. My undergraduate alma mater Columbia has had a disappointing season in an Ivy League that is the only league in the country playing back-to-back games. Conditioning and health are thus of primary importance and a key injury can set you back permanently.

That’s what happened to my Lions when their All-Ivy senior point guard Brian Barbour caught a flu bug that knocked him out of commission for several games. To finish at .500 in the league Columbia must sweep the final four games, including a visit to contending Harvard on Fri March 8.

The Cantabs will have revenge on their mind after Columbia’s convincing 15 point triumph in New York a couple of weeks ago. The defending league champion Harvard cagers have a chance to put away second-place Princeton this weekend on the road.

As much as I love small-time college basketball and occasionally the pros, what March means the most to me is the resumption of spring training. So many story lines are forming and harder than ever to predict results because of the turnover of players.

The best thing about spring training in that since 1995 we have enjoyed the presence of labor peace so we know that there will be a full season and post-season of thrills. And the old cliché remains true that everyone is still 0-0 until the games count starting on Sunday night March 31 when the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim visit the Cincinnati Reds for the start of the regular season.

Hardly a traditional rivalry the Angels vs. the Reds but this is the first year of inter-league play virtually every day and so many anomalies exist. Like the following day Monday April Fool’s Day both the Yankees and the Mets open at home. Neither team will be favored to reach the World Series in 2013, especially the Mets, but the key one word about baseball remains: Youneverknow, youneverknow.
There will always be a surprise team.

In 2008 it was the Tampa Bay Rays making the World Series after years of futility. And thanks to a gifted general manager ANDREW FRIEDMAN, field manager JOE MADDON and supportive owner STUART STERNBERG, they have averaged 92 victories a year since 2008.

At the end of last season I lived in mortal fear that the Rays would take revenge on my Orioles in the final series of the year by sweeping them at Tropicana Field. Turning the tables after the Birds had brought out the broom in Baltimore earlier in September.

That series was marked by the greatest play I saw all year – rookie third baseman MANNY MACHADO’S bluffed throw to first base that caught pinch-runner RICH THOMPSON unaware as he overran third base.

The Orioles were the surprise team of 2012, turning their 2011 record of 69-93 around exactly to 93-69. Can they repeat? Who knows? They certainly have a fighting chance with a full season of Machado, the reclamation project NATE MCLOUTH and NICK MARKAKIS. More solid work from effective starters WEI-JIN CHEN and MIGUEL GONZALEZ will certainly help.

I’m not in the prediction business so it is hard to say who will be the surprise team of 2013. I don’t necessarily believe in the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED jinx but the current issue with Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller is touting the Cleveland Indians who have splurged on free agents first baseman/outfielder NICK SWISHER and center fielder MICHAEL BOURN in addition to other newcomers pitcher TREVOR BAUER, outfielder DREW STUBBS and new manager TERRY FRANCONA.

Games will still be won on pitching and defense and it remains to be seen if the Indians have enough of that to compete with the defending AL champions Tigers and runner-up White Sox.

That’s why they play the games and no amount of statistical “science” can prove anything this early. So relax and enjoy the upcoming season and such off-field events as the highly anticipated first-ever exhibit on scouting, opening in Cooperstown on May 4th. More on that in upcoming posts.

Always remember: Take it easy but take it!
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