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Reflections on Following Playoff Baseball When Your Team Is No Longer In The Hunt

I was disappointed but not really surprised when the Orioles were swept out of the playoffs by the suddenly red-hot Texas Rangers who swept Tampa Bay Rays in two-game wild-card series.  Baltimore ended the regular season in a team-wide hitting slump with the possible exception of Adley Rutschman. 

 

And wouldn't you know it! Rutschman got only 1 hit against the Rangers and was outplayed by Texas catcher Jonah Heim, a former Oriole farmhand and fellow All-Star.  Adley also couldn't guide young pitchers Grayson Rodriguez and Dean Kremer out of the second inning in their ineffective starts in the second and final games.   

 

I know it is a stretch to blame a catcher for a pitcher's inability to put batters away. But there were two instances when the games were still close that Texas batters kept fouling off pitches, obviously frustrating the hurlers.  Couldn't Adley have visited the mound to suggest some other pitches or at least console them?   

 

This is probably too picky. With Oriole bats largely silent, probably nothing could have changed the outcome. I thoroughly enjoyed watching Adley during the season. He has yet to play two full seasons in the majors and Rookie of the Year candidate Gunnar Henderson was in his first full season.

 

I believe they will be core members of a good team. Whether the Orioles become a great team remains to be seen. Spring training 2024 will be very important as the Birds try to figure out how to integrate top prospect Jackson Holliday, not yet 20, into the infield perhaps moving Gunnar permanently to third base. Also late-developing Joey Ortiz might find a utility role somewhere. 

 

EVERY SEASON IS DIFFERENT is one of the few accurate generalizations about baseball. The Birds have 16 players eligible for arbitration and one key Oriole, switch-hitting outfielder Anthony Santander, is eligible for free agency after 2024. 

  

Extending Santander would be one of my priorities if I had any influence.  He is in his prime, not even 30, is durable, and has been with the team the longest, a Rule 5 pick who played 6 years in the minors for Cleveland after they signed him as a Venezuelan teenager. 

 

He is an effective switch-hitter and an improving defensive outfielder.  He also can handle first base at least competently. In the last series of the regular season, he alertly threw out a Red Sox runner trying to go from first to third when couldn't scoop the ball cleanly on a double play throw.

 

I know there are a lot of outfielders and infielders on the farm waiting for their chance.  But I cannot stress enough the importance of keeping veterans who have been through the grind of a long season and who obviously love to play. 

 

Which is why I wouldn't be hasty in letting Kyle Gibson go.  He pitched very well in September, unlike 2022 when he faded out with the Phillies though he

did make their post-season roster. As I discussed in an earlier blog, Gibson talks about the art of pitching like a venerable schoolmaster, something the very young staff benefited from. He also led the AL with 24 double plays created + 1 in his brief but effective appearance in the final playoff game. 

 

Having no team in the hunt in baseball's "Final Four," I'm only rooting for good games with plenty of action and not over-reliance on home runs and

strikeouts. I guess because they are relatively new to the party, Texas and Arizona might be a nice World Series matchup.

 

If third baseman Josh Jung had not missed a few weeks with a hand injury, he certainly would be in the running for the ROY award that Henderson will probably win.  Jung is an impressive player on both sides of the ball.  Brooks Robinson was his idol and when Brooks found that out, he befriended him

and sent him all kinds of baseball goodies. (As I mentioned in my last post, there will always be more heartwarming stories about Brooks Robinson.)  

 

Arizona also has a very impressive rookie, outfielder Corbin Carroll who grew up a Seattle Mariners fan and used to watch Ichiro from upper deck left field seats and still idolizes him. With one early swing, Carroll's 430-foot HR off Brewers ace Corbin Burnes turned around Game 1 of the wild card series for Arizona and the Diamondbacks carried that momentum into sweeping the Dodgers as well. 

  

I wouldn't have wanted a Dodger-Yankee rematch, but I can live with a Houston-Philadelphia rematch if fate so decrees. Houston has reached the ALCS for the 7th year in a row, the last 4 under Dusty Baker who was not around when the Astros were caught in the high tech and low tech sign-stealing scandal. (PBS aired a valuable Frontline documentary on October 3 about this scandal with reportage by Ben Reiter, former Sports Illustrated reporter and author of a glowing book ASTROBALL but he has now reconsidered and even repented.  More on this subject in later blogs.) 

  

Stopping Astros slugger Yordan Alvarez will be a key for the Rangers and the Phillies if they beat Arizona (I am happy to mention Alvarez because I misspelled his first name in a recent blog).  Houston also has a feel-good story in the return of smooth-swinging Michael Brantley after injuries that cost him almost two seasons.  

 

It should be noted that Philadelphia, if they dispense with Arizona, will have home-field advantage against Houston but not against Texas who will be playing in a closed new stadium. The raucous Philadelphia crowd and the team's potent offense will be ready for anything, of that I am sure. Since Arizona won only 84 games and the other 3 finished with 90 wins, Arizona will always start on the road and finish on the road if their series run long.

 

One other item of interest for this young octogenarian is the age of the managers.  Torey Lovullo is the baby of the group at 58 = he grew up in LA, a show biz kid whose father produced TV's "Hee Haw" among other shows.   Then we have Canadian-born Rob Thomson, 60, who was Joe Girardi's trusted coach in both New York and Philadelphia before he replaced Girardi in late May 2022. 

 

Bruce Bochy, back from his 3-year retirement and previously winner of three World Series rings with the Giants, is 68, and venerable Johnnie "Dusty" Baker, Jr. checks in at 74.  Their matchup will be fascinating to watch. They prove that retirement is overrated.     

    

That's all for now - take it easy but take it, and stay positive test negative. I am happy to report I am on the mend from my mild Covid positive but

I intend to keep on masking in indoor settings.      

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Reflections on The First Weeks of the 2023 Baseball Season

I've long believed that you cannot really analyze a baseball season until the Memorial Day weekend quarter-pole.  And obviously you cannot win a pennant in early spring, but you can sure dig a deep hole. 

 

As an Orioles fan for over a half-century, I have been thrilled by their early surge to more than ten games over .500.  Losing a series this weekend to the World Series-contending Braves in Atlanta was

disappointing, but they sure held their own in top-flight competition. 

 

I'm beginning to believe that if this young and spunky crew stays healthy, they could stay in the race all season.  Certainly into the summer when in a program note I'll be speaking about my new book 

BASEBALL'S ENDANGERED SPECIES on Tues afternoon July 18 at the Babe Ruth Museum.  A short walk from Camden Yards where that night the Orioles will host the LA Dodgers. 

 

If the Orioles keep on keepin' on, I will happily abandon my agonized Woeriole commentaries of past years and be glad to exclaim, "Wowrioles!"   

 

This past Saturday afternoon, I journeyed to the Brooklyn Cyclones' Maimonides Park to see the High-A Orioles Aberdeen Ironbirds win 7-2. They took charge in the first inning, scoring two runs without a hit against the Mets farm club. 

 

One of the big attractions for me was seeing Jackson Holliday, the 19-year-old shortstop and number one pick in last year's MLB amateur free agent draft.  I had seen Jackson, the son of All-Star outfielder Matt Holliday, show off his wares in late innings of a couple of Florida spring training games in March.   

 

On Saturday, he struck out his first two times but later contributed a sizzling opposite field double driving in a run through a drawn-in infield.  He also got another RBI on an infield hit.

 

He didn't have many difficult chances in the field but he handled a few easily.  I couldn't get a sense from one game how he was interacting with his teammates.  I do feel lucky I saw him on Saturday because he didn't play on Sunday in a 3-0 loss to the Cyclones that finished in two hours flat. 

 

I am pleased that games on all levels of pro baseball are shorter this year. However, I was not pleased that during the Aberdeen Saturday victory, they struck out 17 times! 

 

I had seen some of the same players at Low-A Delmarva in Salisbury, Maryland last summer. 

They showed a lack of knowledge of situational hitting last year, and, alas, they were no better on Saturday. 

 

On the positive side, I have my eye on Luis Valdez who played second base last year but now patrols right field and covers a lot of ground.  He may be hitting under .200, but it sure looks like his speed is a major tool, and repeat after me - "Speed never slumps." 

 

Hitting and hitting with power usually come last in normal player development, but a glaring example of how the bugaboos of "launch angle and exit velocity" have infected the game came late last month when the St. Louis Cardinals' ballyhooed rookie outfielder, Jordan Walker, just 21, was farmed out after a great start in early April.  His ailment?  Hitting the ball on the ground and not boosting his launch angle and exit velocity.  

 

Despite a significant payroll and playoff aspiritations, St. Louis has the worst record in the National League, 13 games under .500  They are evidently missing retired catcher Yadier Molina so much that they have at least temporarily removed free agent catcher Wilson Contreras from behind the plate.

 

They have sent him to outfield/DH purgatory. If there is a hot seat in baseball, it should be occupied by

"president of baseball operations" John Mozeliak.  His trades have not been successful.

 

He did get lefty Jordan Montgomery from the Yankees for Harrison Bader but he gifted Randy Arozarena to Tampa Bay for lefty Matthew Liberatore who has yet to contribute significantly in St. Louis.  He also fired manager Mike Schildt late in what was a very competitive 2021 season.

 

Meanwhile, neither the Yankees or the Mets have enjoyed good times recently, each hovering around .500.  The Yankees should get a big boost when Aaron Judge returns to the lineup this week from his stint on the injured list.

 

Judge hurt his hip sliding head first into third base, another sign that baseball fundamentals are being ignored by too many teams.  Judge's formidable partner in the Yankee lineup, Giancarlo Stanton, is likely out until the summer with a hamstring injury. This happened when he accelerated too quickly between first and second on a ball he was admiring because he thought it would be a home run. 

 

Whether the Mets can emerge as a contender is a good question.  They are not a young team and have invested enormously in future Hall of Fame pitchers Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander who are both pushing forty.

 

Because of injuries and Scherzer's 10-day suspension for using too much rosin on his throwing hand,  neither has been able yet to stabilize the rotation. I wonder if the rest of the lineup can ever become enough of an offensive force to make up for inconsistent pitching. 

 

Baseball's hottest team, the Tampa Bay Rays, spends a rare week in NYC starting on Thursday May 11, the first of four games at Yankee Stadium.  They just won two out of three closely contested games against the Yankees in Tampa. 

 

Their record of 28-7 is the best in MLB since the Tigers went 35-5 in their wire-to-wire 1984 World Series

winning season. (The numbers 28-7 remind me of one of my heroes, Robin Roberts' astonishing won-loss record in 1952 for a bad Phillies team.)  After finishing up in the Bronx, the Rays make a rare appearance in Queens for night games on TuW May 16-17 and a day game on Th May 18. 

 

On the college baseball front, my Columbia Lions need a lot of help from Yale if they want to host the first four-game Ivy League post-season tournament from May 19-22.  Penn and Harvard are tied for first with 13-5 records and Princeton just finished its season with a 13-8 mark and have made the tourney.

 

Columbia has fallen to 11-7 and needs one win against Penn this weekend or a Yale (9-9) loss at Harvard to get the fourth spot in a year the Lions were picked to finish first. 

 

Recent season-ending injuries to sophomore center fielder Skye Selinsky and junior third baseman Seth Dardar have hurt the team's record-setting offense and the pitching and defense have not been the team's strong suit in 2023. But the Lions have been consistent May winners in recent years so don't count them out yet. 

 

In other local college baseball news, Rutgers is closing the Big Ten season on a roll and has a chance

to make a push towards the College World Series.  The Big Ten tournament will be held this year from May 23-28 on the same field in Omaha where CWS will be played from Th June 16 thru M June 26, 

 

There is one more chance to see the Scarlet Knights at home.  It's this weekend against Illinois - Fri and Sat May 12-13 at 6p at Bainton Field in Piscataway and Su May 14 at noon in Lakewood NJ at ShoreTown Park, the home of the Jersey Shore High-A Phillies farm club. 

 

St. Johns and Seton Hall have not enjoyed outstanding years in the Big East, but they have often come big in May so keep your eyes open on their fortunes.   I'm not a big fan of aluminum bats but the competition is intense at this time of year and well worth watching. BTW if you must see wood bats,

the PSAL high school tourney starts shortly and more on that in the next blog. 

 

I close my first post in May in remembrance of Dick Groat, who passed away on April 27 at the age of 92 in his home town of Pittsburgh. In the latter stages of writing my Branch Rickey biography, I spent a very memorable afternoon at the golf course Groat built with Pirates teammate Jerry Lynch on the grounds of a former apple orchard near Ligonier, Pennsylvania, 60 miles east of Pittsburgh. 

 

He had warm memories of life lessons he had learned from the canny and philosophical Rickey. The 

Mahatma, or the ferocious gentleman as I dubbed him, talked Groat out of his pro basketball career, but he remembered the fun he had playing the sport where he became an All-American at Duke.

 

"Basketball was fun," he told me. By cotntrast, "Baseball does things to your coconut."  After a turnover in basketball, you can immediately make up for it with a steal or a good shot moments later.  In 

baseball you have to wait eight batters to get another chance on offense and you better not brood about it.

 

I thought about Groat's insight when I learned of the death from cancer of southpaw Vida Blue, 73, on May 6.  Blue rocketed to fame with Charley Finley's Oakland A's, but he let a contract dispute with the owner sap his love of the game.  

 

His full name was Vida Blue Jr. and he refused Finley's entreaties to legally change his name to Vida True Blue.  Vida never knew his father, Vida Blue Sr., but he was very proud of him and the family lineage in the northern Louisiana town of Mansfield. 

 

Blue's career record of 209-161 with a 3.27 ERA was certainly worthy of Hall of Fame consideration but his problems with cocaine that led to a prison sentence in the early 1980s did not help his candidacy. RIP both Vida Blue and Dick Groat.

 

Next time some more thoughts on baseball as we near the Memorial Day quarter-pole.  Also I'll provide some detail on one of the great cultural improvements in NYC, the renovated Geffen Hall in Lincoln Center. 

 

Since it is so hard to say goodbye, one last note:  I am glad to report that after a couple of months hiatus, Noir Alley with Eddie Muller has returned on TCM to its regular Sat midnight/repeated on Sunday 10am time slot. His new list all come from the heyday of Noir in the 1940s and 1950s. More details at tcm.com  

 

For now, always remember:  Take it easy but take it, and stay positive, test negative. 

 

 

 

  

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