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Cain's Speed & Murphy's Power Lead Royals and Mets to World Series

The Royals’ return to the World Series is no surprise to me. They ran away with the
AL Central title and didn’t play a meaningful game after the All-Star Game until the playoffs began.

Then down to the last six outs of their season, they rallied for five runs in the eighth inning to tie the upstart Houston Astros in the AL Division Series. They dispatched Houston the next day and kept the upper hand against the homer-happy Toronto Blue Jays throughout the AL Championship Series.

Just as he did in one of the Houston games, Royals center fielder Lorenzo Cain provided a unforgettable moment by scoring the deciding run in the bottom of the eighth all the way from first base on a single to right field.

It was a moment of redemption for Royals third base coach Mike Jirschele who held Alex Gordon at third base in the ninth inning of Game 7 of last year’s World Series won by the Giants led by overpowering southpaw Madison Bumgarner.

Cain is a much faster runner than Gordon and once right fielder Jose Bautista threw the ball to second base to hold Eric Hosmer to a single there was no stopping Cain’s feet and Jirschele’s whirling arms.

Nobody, even their most ardent supporters, expected the Mets to reach the World Series. Yet behind great young starting pitching and formidable closer in Jeurys Familia, they swept the overmatched Chicago Cubs after winning a tough best-of-five series over the LA Dodgers.

Hindsight tells us that the Cubs had exhausted their energy by knocking their arch-rival Cardinals out of the playoffs. Once the Mets took a lead on Cy Young candidate Jake Arrieta early in game two of the NLCS, I was not surprised by their pulling off the sweep in Chicago.

The confidence level of the Mets has to be at an all-time high. They beat LA’s two great starters, Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, and then Arrieta and Jon Lester of the Cubs. Daniel Murphy, never known as a power hitter, homered off all of them, including twice off Kershaw.

Murphy also provided a positive Murphy Moment as a base runner in the clinching Game 5 against LA. His manager Terry Collins evidently coined the term Murphy Moment for his notorious base-running gaffes.

Yet in the deciding game against LA, with the Mets down a run and Murphy on first base, he alertly sped to third after a walk to Yoenis Cespedes when he saw no Dodger covering the bag. All LA infielders had shifted to the right side of the diamond and neither pitcher Greinke nor catcher Yosmani Grandal broke to cover third.

The next batter hit a short fly ball to right field and Murphy tagged up to score the tying run. Two innings later he homered for the deciding run.

It should be a great competitive World Series. So much juicy questions loom:

Will Murphy after nearly a week off still be red-hot at the plate?

Will Kansas City’s starting pitching, its only seeming weak point, rise to the occasion?

Can the Mets’ bullpen in front of Familia, its own weak spot, pitch better?

Which of each team’s dominant closers, Familia and the Royals’ Wade Davis, will prove mortal? In the clincher against Toronto, Davis worked out of a major jam with two runners in scoring position and only one out.

Kansas City has the home field advantage because the American League won the All-Star Game, a silly reason to bestow that honor. This year the benefit has worked out fairly because Kansas City did have the best regular season record in all of baseball.

I’m not a betting man but I think that edge might prove the difference. Certainly the teams look evenly matched for a long absorbing series.

Of course, yaneverknow, yaneverknow, in baseball.

That’s all for now. Always remember in baseball and in life:
Take it easy but take it!
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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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