Friday, September 30, 2011

Reviewing 25 Bold Predictions

On August 3rd, I made 25 bold(ish) predictions for the final two months of the 2011 baseball season. Now that the regular season is over, I decided to look back and see how I did.  My one stipulation at the time was that any players involved had to enjoy a healthy final third of the season, so predictions involving players who were ultimately bitten by the injury bug will count as pushes.

1. The Red Sox and Phillies will both win 100 games. 
Looks like I was half right.  The Phillies set a franchise record with 102 wins, while the Red Sox limped to 90.  If they had gone 17-10 in September (a reasonable assumption at the time given how well they were playing), they would have reached the century mark as well.  I award myself half a point.

2. The Diamondbacks will overtake the pitching-rich Giants and win the NL West
Boy, did they ever.  At the time the Snakes were one game behind San Francisco, but after running away with the division in September they practically lapped the Giants and finished eight games in front of them.

3. Cleveland and Pittsburgh will finish below .500 despite their trade deadline efforts and hot starts
I knew the Pirates were doomed for a fall, and they made me a prophet by finishing up at 72-90.  Cleveland made it close but missed .500 by one game and ended the season at 80-82.  Ubaldo Jimenez couldn't refind his 2010 form in the AL Central and Pittsburgh needed more than Derrek Lee (who actually raked for them) and Ryan Ludwick.

4. Washington, Cincinatti, Colorado, and the White Sox will finish above .500 despite disappointing first halves.
Wrong on all four, but the Nats just missed (80-81) and the Sox were close (79-83).

5. Mike Stanton will hit 40 homers.
He finished with 34, and while he was dinged up in the first half of September he probably wouldn't have reached 40 big flies anyways.  Maybe next year.

6. Jose Bautista will surpass 50 homers again.
Finished with 43 and really slowed down during the second half.  All those walks didn't help, either.

7. The Giants will not have any players hit more than 15 home runs besides Carlos Beltran, but will still make the playoffs as the NL Wild Card.
(Shaking my fist at Pablo Sandoval and his 23 long balls).  Giants missed the Wild Card by four games, but my implicit prediction that the Braves would lose the Wild Card was spot on.  I just had a feeling that their pitching had overachieved and their offense was average at best.  I'll award myself half a point for being a genius.

8. Multiple teams will lose 90 games, none more than Houston's 100+
Nine teams lost at least 90 games, none more than Houston's 106.  Minnesota just missed the century mark with 99 defeats.

9. Ryan Howard's typically impressive production numbers will help mask his continued regression.
Don't let the 33 four-baggers and 116 RBI fool you, kids.  He set career lows with a .488 slugging percentage and .835 OPS this season, and he's clearly not the same hitter who won the 2006 NL MVP award.

10. Jim Thome will hit his 600th career blast before the end of August.
Big Jim joined the club on August 15th, with half the month to spare.

11. Jacoby Ellsbury will reach 30 bombs and 100 ribbies out of the leadoff spot for Boston.
32 homers and 105 RBI for Boston's tablesetter, who did all he could to drag his Red Sox into the playoffs.

12. Curtis Granderson will threaten to score 150 runs while batting in front of Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano and Alex Rodriguez.
Despite slowing down in September, Grandy man still crossed home plate a major-league leading 136 times in 2011.

13. Albert Pujols and Carlos Gonzalez will pull their averages over .300.
Phat Albert was hitting just .275 at the time and made quite the charge but missed the magical .300 mark (and 100 RBI) for the first time in his career by finishing at .299 (and 99), and CarGo (.289 and on the DL at the time) also fell short with a .295 average.

14. Todd Helton and Melky Cabrera will watch theirs slip below .300.
Helton barely held on to finish at .302, and the Melk Man was a touch better at .305.

15. Matt Kemp will become the fifth player in baseball history to reach 40/40.
39 homers and 40 thefts.  Not too shabby, but close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.

16. Clayton Kershaw, not Roy Halladay, will win the NL Cy Young.
After winning the NL pitching triple crown, Kershaw should take home the trophy (and did).

17. C.C. Sabathia will win 24 games exactly.
Wrong pitcher with this one-Justin Verlander was the hurler who earned two dozen victories while CC (who couldn't lose at the time) ended up with 19.

18. None of Pittsburgh's starting pitchers will finish with 15 wins or a sub-three ERA
Correct on both counts.  Kevin Correia led the rotation in wins with 12 and Jeff Karstens had the lowest ERA at 3.38.

19. John Lackey will record as many or more wins than Josh Beckett from this point forward despite finishing with an ERA over five.
Lackey actually finished with an ERA over six and managed to win three more games.  Beckett won five games over the same stretch to pass his rotation-mate on the season (13 to 12).

20. The Red Sox will have three players eclipse 200 hits.
Jacoby Ellsbury and Adrian Gonzalez did their part, but an early September slump kept Dustin Pedroia at 195.

21. Kyle Farnsworth will finish with more saves than Neftali Feliz and Joakim Soria.
Farnsworth spent most of September on the shelf, so I declare a PUSH.

22. Alex Rodriguez will not be suspended for his poker antics, but will finish the season with a .300 average, 25 homers, 30 doubles and a .500 slugging percentage.
A-Rod did not get suspended (duh) but didn't reach any of those numbers either.  He hardly played (just 19 games in August and September combined) when he made it off the DL because he was plagued by assorted ailments and thumb injuries so I declare another PUSH.

23. Iron Man Prince Fielder will miss a game at some point
The burly slugger appeared in all 162 this year.  I suspect Nyjer Morgan gave him a cookie at the end of every game he played in.

24. Brett Gardner beats Derek Jeter in every significant offensive category.
DJ had more hits, doubles, RBI, total bases, and higher slash stats.  Turned out the Captain wasn't done after all.

25. There will be another no-hitter before season's end
I predicted this just a week after Ervin Santana tossed his.  I was wrong.

Even though I used 25 labels I actually made 39 predictions; 18 were right, 19 were wrong, and two were pushes, which sounds about right when every prediction has a 50/50 chance (it either comes true or it doesn't).  Guess I should have stopped after 22.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Stunning Turn of Events

The Braves were the first to fall, when likely NL Rookie of the Year Craig Kimbrel blew a 3-2 lead in the top of the ninth to a Chase Utley sacrifice fly.  Four innings later, Hunter Pence stroked an RBI single in the top of the thirteenth to give the Phillies a 4-3 lead.  Atlanta's other Rookie of the Year candidate, first baseman Freddie Freeman, followed a Dan Uggla walk by bouncing into a season ending double play.  The loss gave the Cardinals, who blanked Houston with Chris Carpenter's gem, the NL Wild Card.

Down in Florida, the Yankees coughed up a 7-0 lead by allowing Tampa to score six runs in the eighth and Dan Johnson to tie it with a homer in the ninth (and no, it was not off Mariano Rivera, who wouldn't have come in if this game went 100 innings).  With New York's starters long gone and Scott Proctor pitching in relief, it was only a matter of time before the Rays walked-off.  The Yanks had men on the corners with no outs in the top of the twelfth, but some fool got bagged off third, their Triple A lineup couldn't score and Evan Longoria rose to the occassion in the bottom of the frame by blasting a walk-off home run three minutes after Jonathan Papelbon blew his own 3-2 lead in spectacular fashion.

After blowing away Adam Jones and Mark Reynolds, he allowed back to back doubles before Red Sox-killer Robert Andino struck his final blow with a walk-off single.  A sliding Carl Crawford just missed it and probably should have had it, but he is not the scapegoat.

Nobody is.  Not when your starting rotation vaporizes, the offense can't come up with key hits and Daniel Bard kills every other eighth inning lead.

Besides, the game was lost before Mr. Andino ever stepped to the plate.  It was lost when Boston wiped out baseruuners, when Marco Scutaro got gunned down at the plate and David Ortiz was thrown out trying to stretch a single into a double.  It was lost when they loaded the bases with nobody out in the top of the ninth for Big Papi, only for him to hit the ball ten feet for a force out before Ryan Lavarnaway bounced into a double play.  Boston should have had five or six runs, and maybe they would still have a game to play tomorrow.

But they don't.  They turned a nine game lead into a one game deficit in four weeks and went from leading the AL East to finishing third for the second year in a row despite having a payroll four times greater than Tampa Bay's.  Despite having the easier schedule, they managed to drop five of seven games against the last place Orioles.  They won seven games this month, and only one required fewer than seven runs to do the job.  After Josh Beckett beat the Rays on September 16th, the starting rotation failed to earn a win.  Six times in September they lost by one measly run.  You can't say enough about this epic collapse, and yet there really is nothing new to say.

They didn't deserve it, and even if they had won, they almost surely would have lost tomorrow.  They literally had no one to throw at the Rays, unless Beckett was willing to pitch on two days' rest.  And if they had managed to win and play the Rangers in the ALDS, they would have been helpless without their aces during the first two games.

I can't believe I'm saying this, but Boston fans will have to wait 'til next year.  There will be no Soxtober.

At least we know Adrian Gonzalez, Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia will not win AL MVP, so that should help make the voters' decisions a little easier.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

It All Comes Down to This

After 161 games and one of the most painful Septembers in recent memory, the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays are tied for the AL Wild Card lead with 90-71 records.  Both teams will be throwing aces tonight; Boston is going with Jon Lester on short rest even though he has lost his last three starts and seen his ERA swell over half a run, from a tidy 2.93 to a much less spectacular 3.49.  He's only faced the Baltimore Orioles once this year, exactly five months ago in Camden Yards, but if it's any consolation he hurled eight strong innings and thoroughly dominated a lineup that featured Brian Roberts, Nick Markakis, Derrek Lee, Vladimir Guerrero, Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, and Mark Reynolds.  He may be scuffling, but right now he's Boston's best, and only, option.  On the other side, Alfredo Simon, just your run of the mill mediocre Orioles pitcher with a career 5.15 ERA and 1.46 WHIP, will be on the bump, so Boston's batters should get some decent pitches to hit.

Tampa Bay will rest its postseason hopes on the shoulders of David Price, their talented southpaw. As of this writing the Yankees have not named their starting pitcher for tonight's game, but it wouldn't surprise me if they go with some no-name September call-up.

For Boston, the stakes couldn't be any higher.  If they lose and the Rays win, they will have completed one of the biggest September chokes in the history in the sport and capped it off by dropping six of their seven games against the lowly Orioles in the season's final ten days.  For a team of All-Stars, one that was predicted to dominate the regular season, possibly win 100 games and challenge the Phillies in the World Series, to miss the playoffs altogether would be humiliating. The Rays have much less at stake since they were left for dead four weeks ago and weren't even supposed to get this close after losing Matt Garza, Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, and Rafael Soriano to free agency last winter.  They're playing with house money while the pressure is on Boston to finish what they started.

If both teams win or lose, then a one-game playoff will be held tomorrow at Tropicana Field.  I don't need to tell you that the Bosox have made a habit of losing such games in spectacular fashion thanks to Denny Galehouse and Bucky Dent, and who would Boston pitch?  John Lackey? Tim WakefieldJosh Beckett on two days rest? Lester again?  None of those options sound appealing. favors the Sox as 18 percent more likely to win the Wild Card.  Would you bet on those odds?  I still would.

Oh, and apparently the same thing is happening in the NL between St. Louis (Tampa Bay equivalent) and Atlanta (Boston).  Unfortunately no one really seems to care, but for the record coolstandings favors the Redbirds by nearly 23 percent. 

So will the Sox and Braves hold on?  Can the Cardinals and Rays defy the odds and finish their amazing September comebacks? 

Tune in tonight to find out.

Bills Topple Pats

Brady struggled against Buffalo

There's been a recurring theme in New England over the past decade; as goes Tom Brady, so go his Patriots.  So it's not much of a surprise that when Brady was not particularly sharp last Sunday against the Bills, the Pats came up short to a team that hadn't defeated them since 2003.

Terrific Tom didn't have a terrible game; he still threw for 387 yards to set yet another record--this time it was most passing yards over a three game stretch.  He also completed 67 percent of his 45 pass attempts and notched four touchdowns, two apiece to Welker and Gronkowski, who combined for 326 receiving yards on 23 catches.  Unfortunately, he tied a career-worst with four interceptions after throwing just one in the first two weeks and the Patriots blew a 21-0 lead in the second quarter before ultimately falling to the undefeated Bills, who basically did the same thing to the Raiders in Week 2 after they rallied from a 21-3 deificit, by a close score of 34-31. 

This game didn't feature much running from either team and quickly turned into a battle of the quarterbacks between Brady and Ryan Fitzpatrick, who nearly equaled his nemesis with 369 yards on an efficient 27 of 40 passing rate. 

New England will be on the road again in Week 4, this time in Oakland where they look to rebound against a solid Raiders squad currently leading the AFC West.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Dan Uggla's Rollercoaster Season

With 162 games, every baseball season is a marathon, so there are bound to be plenty of ups and downs throughout the six months.  Guys will catch fire and go ice-cold, and in the end everything usually evens out.  But has anyone been more hot-or-cold than Dan Uggla this season?
Dan Uggla has had his ups...
Before 2011, Uggla had been one of the most consistent players in baseball since he finished third in the 2006 NL Rookie of the Year voting.  He stayed healthy, rarely strayed far from his .263/.349/.488 career line and was a lock to provide at least 30 homers and 90 RBI from the keystone position.  He was money in the bank.  When the Marlins traded him to the Braves this past winter, it looked like a big win for the 30 year-old slugger.  Not only did he make out with a five year, $62 million contract, but he also escaped the offensive wasteland known as Sun Life Stadium and found a new home in the much more neutral Turner Field, where he sported great career numbers.  Uggla seemed primed for a great season, so much so that ESPN fantasy analyst Matthew Berry predicted the two-time All-Star would enjoy his first 40 homer season in 2011 after never hitting more than 33.

And it's easy to forget now, but Uggla got off to a terrible start.  And I'm not talking a couple weeks or even a month (or two).  He wasn't walking.  His ground balls weren't finding holes.  His fly balls weren't clearing the fences.  The calendar flipped to May, then June, then July, and he still wasn't hitting. 

...And his downs

On the morning of July 5th, he was hitting .173/.241/.327.  Now that's Adam Dunn bad right there, the kind of terrible you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy.  Sure, his .187 BABIP screamed unlucky, and he was still on pace for 23 home runs, but a year that began with so much promise had turned into a nightmare throughout spring and early summer.  Luckily for him, the Braves were winning and fellow underperformers Dunn, Carl Crawford, and Jayson Werth drew plenty of criticism for their own disastrous seasons, but Uggla was still cut from many a fantasy squad and seemed to have no hope of recovering his prolific power stroke.

That same day, he went 2-2 with a double and a big fly against the Rockies.  He proceeded to get at least one hit in each of his next 32 games to craft one of the most unlikely, improbable (he is the only player in the modern era to still be hitting under .200 at the end of a 20 game hit streak) 33 game hit streaks in baseball history.  Over the course of the streak he batted a scorching .377/.438/.762 and cranked 15 long balls.  Of course, his brutal first half meant that his batting average at the end of the streak was a very Danny Espinosa like .232, but in a little more than a month he had managed to salvage his season. 

He earned NL player of the month honors for August and, after five crazy months, has finally settled down in September.  The rollercoaster ride seems to have finally leveled out, for now.  He has neither slumped nor streaked during the month and recently smacked his 35th home run of the season, tying him with Matt Kemp and putting him just one behind Albert Pujols for the league.

Heck, with one more power binge he could make Talented Mr. Roto's bold prediction a reality. 

But his season isn't over yet; the Braves still need Uggla to produce over the next week if they want to hold on to their slim wild card lead and make the playoffs.  October baseball is unchartered territory for Uggla, who has yet to play in the postseason. 

The question is; which Uggla will show up?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Playoff Picture: One Week to Go

It's hard to believe, but the MLB regular season ends a week from today.  So with only seven or eight games remaining on most teams' schedules, I'll take one last look at the playoff picture.

AL East
Likely Division Winner-New York Yankees
Entering today's game, gave the Bronx Bombers a 98.9 percent chance at winning the division.  The stumbling Red Sox are six games back with only seven to play, so New York's got this thing wrapped up.

AL Central
Division Winner-Detroit Tigers
Motown ran away with the division in September, built a double digit lead and already clinched.  Then again, it's possible no other team in the Central finishes above .500, so winning it in a landslide is about as impressive as Germany conquering France.  The only real questions remaining regard Justin Verlander; can he a) become the first starting pitcher since Bob Welch in 1990 to win 25 games in a season and/or b) become just the second starting pitcher in the last 40 years (Roger Clemens is the other) to take home MVP honors?  I say yes and no, respectively.

AL West
Likely Division Winner-Texas Rangers
The reigning AL champs will return to defend their title this October.  They haven't clinched yet, but coolstandings gives them a 98.5 percent chance to win the division since they have a comfy five game lead over the Halos with eight remaining.  I really thought the Angels had a shot at this thing because of their pitching (Dan Haren, Ervin Santana and Jered Weaver having great seasons) and they were nipping at the Rangers' boots until about a week ago, but Texas didn't fold.

AL Wild Card
Likely Winner-Boston Red Sox
Whatever there is to say about Boston's September swoon has been said already.  Their once insurmountable lead over Tampa Bay has been trimmed to two games (one in the loss column), but coolstandings still gives them a reassuring 87.9 chance to come out on top.  The race is still very much alive.

NL East
Division Winner-Philadelphia Phillies
Talk about a foregone conclusion for the only team guaranteed to win more than 100 games this season (they have 98 entering play on Wednesday) and it feels like they clinched in June.

NL Central
Likely Division Winner-Milwaukee Brewers
The Brew Crew hold a five and a half game lead over the Redbirds (who'd be right there if Adam Wainwright hadn't been lost for the season) and with a 99.9 percent likelihood of winning the division, Milwaukee will be back in the postseason for the first time since C.C. Sabathia was pitching every other day for them down the stretch in 2008.

NL West
Likely Division Winner-Arizona Diamondbacks
San Francisco had the pitching with Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Ryan Vogelsong, Madison Bumgarner and Brian Wilson to make this interesting, but the recent surges of Carlos Beltran and Pablo Sandoval haven't been enough to carry a thin lineup.  The loss of Buster Posey proved to be the crippling blow, and now the Snakes have a five and a half game lead and a 99 percent chance to win the division.

NL Wild Card
Likely Winner-Atlanta Braves
This race is just as interesting as the one for the Junior Circuit's wild card, but because it doesn't involve Boston, New York or Los Angeles no one seems to care.  The Braves, like Boston, have been decimated by injuries to Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens while Derek Lowe is pulling a John Lackey and the unhittable bullpen duo of Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel is running out of gas. The result; a huge lead melting like a popsicle on a summer day.  Atlanta actually has a lower chance (81 percent) of winning the wild card than Beantown even though their lead (two and a half games) over St. Louis is slightly larger than Boston's lead over Tampa.  Even with Atlanta finishing the season against the Phils (who will likely be resting regulars and removing their vaunted starting pitchers after five innings), they both have soft schedules and the potential to create as much drama as Tampa and Boston.  Stay tuned.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Good News and Bad News

The Good News:

New England earned a solid Week 2 victory by dropping the Chargers this afternoon at Gillette by a score of 35 to 21.  The second quarter was all Patriots and was unquestionably the key to their victory, since both teams scored seven points in the first, shut each other out in the third and battled through a 15-14 (advantage Patriots) fourth quarter.  But San Diego failed to score in the second quarter, and the Pats squeezed ten points out of the first half's final three minutes.  The highlight of the day was big Vince Wilfork making an improbable interception (the first of his career) just before the half.  San Diego was knocking on the door at the New England 29 yard-line before the big fella picked off Philip Rivers and sparked a drive that culminated with Stephen Gostkowski drilling a 47 yard field goal as time expired.
Run, Wilfork! Runnnnnn!

The two teams finished neck-and-neck in almost every statistical category except one; turnovers.  San Diego gave the ball away four times, twice with interceptions and twice with fumbles, whereas the Patriots did not turn the ball over at all.  Most frustratingly for San Diego, three of its turnovers occurred within New England's own 35 yard line and led to 17 Patriot points.

Tom Brady brought his A game again as he shattered Cam Newton's newly minted record for most passing yards in the first two games of the season while also becoming the first player to follow up a 500 yard passing performance with a 400 yarder.  He completed 31 of 40 passes for 423 yards and three TDs (no interceptions), two of which ended up in the hands of tight end Rob Gronkowski (the other went to Aaron Hernandez).  BenJarvis Green Ellis lead the rushing attack with 70 yards on 17 carries and a touchdown with 1:54 left in the fourth to ice the game.

New England's defense was solid once again, limiting the Chargers to just seven points through the first three quarters and keeping their running game in check.  The Pats take on the Bills, also 2-0, next Sunday in Buffalo.

For the Sox, Kevin Youkilis could return from his sports hernia tomorrow and Erik Bedard is set to start against his former team. the Orioles, on Tuesday. still gives us a 90.3 percent chance of making the postseason.

The Bad News:

The Red Sox lost again, making that eight losses in their last nine games against Tampa Bay.  Their Wild Card Lead, four games after Friday night's win, has been cut in half with ten games to play.  I wasn't expecting Tim Wakefield to beat David Price for career victory 201, but I was hoping Timmy could keep Evan Longoria, B.J. Upton, Johnny Damon, Desmond Jennings, Matthew Joyce and Ben Zobrist off-balance with his knuckler.  Alas, Wake suffered a disaster start by allowing six runs, all earned, in only five innings of work and watched his ERA rise to an unsightly 5.08.  Price wasn't sharp, either, and departed early after the red-hot Mike Aviles roped a line drive off his chest, but Boston's slumping 3-4-5 hitters (Adrian Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia, and David Ortiz) went 1-11 and were nonfactors in one of the biggest games of the season.  Unfortunately the ball wasn't carrying well this weekend, but the weather is supposed to warm up a bit this week and hopefully will help some of those long fly ball outs reach the seats.

Thursday's loss was just the first of three for Boston
All you can really say is that it was just another tough series for Boston, with that 4-3 loss yesterday with Jon Lester pitching being the killer.  At times they just looked lifeless and beaten, like the long season and pressures of a playoff race are wearing them down.  To make matters worse, it's very possible the Bosox get swept in tomorrow's doubleheader with the Orioles since Kyle Weiland and John Lackey are pitching.  If there's a recipe for losing two games to a last place team in one day, this is it.  Weiland's never won in the Show, Lackey hasn't pitched well since 2009 (in fairness he does have sparkling career numbers against the O's), and as I said before Baltimore has a solid lineup that can make you pay for your mistakes in Fenway.  And while I'm sure I don't need to tell you this, losing both games would trim the lead to a single game. 


Meanwhile, those pesky Rays get the day off tomorrow to recharge their batteries for a critical four game series in three days at Yankee Stadium. Never thought I'd say this, but we really need to root for the Evil Empire over the next week and a half.  They face the Rays seven times and will play a large role in determining Boston's playoff destiny.

My friend doesn't think the Sox will make the playoffs.  I say they will.  This team has come too far to blow it now.

But if they did, I wouldn't be surprised.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Nice Win, But Work to be Done

Time and time again in his career, Josh Beckett has come through in big games, and while the season wasn't exactly on the line tonight, things weren't looking too great for the Red Sox and they really needed a great start from their best righthanded starter. 

And Beckett, true to form, did not disappoint.  He held the Rays to three runs (two earned) over six innings, struck out seven against only one walk (intentional) and outdueled fellow big game pitcher James Shields to earn his thirteenth win of the season.  The bullpen picked up where he left off, as Alfredo Aceves, Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon whiffed eight Tampa Bay Rays for the final nine outs and preserved a narrow 4-3 lead.  The win ended a six game losing streak to their Florida nemesis and was just the team's fourth victory in its last fifteen games.

Josh Beckett returned from a sprained ankle tonight
against the Rays and stopped the bleeding
Boston just needed a win in any way, shape, or form this weekend, and they got it tonight.  Didn't matter if it happened tonight, tomorrow or Sunday.  Multiple wins would be nice, obviously, but one victory was a necessity.  It might turn out to be the most important game of the season.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves just yet.  No matter what happens this weekend, we can't guarantee Soxtober  even if gives Boston a 95.8 percent chance to make the playoffs.  Forget about the final ten games of the regular season, when the Rays will face the Yankees seven times while the Sox get the Orioles for seven.  The Yankees will be resting their regulars and aligning their rotation for the postseason, so you can guarantee they won't be making a hard push for 100 wins (they currently have 90).  They're not going to roll over, but they won't be playing at full strength with Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano and Nick Swisher still dinged up and likely to get some breathers.

The last place Orioles are depleted, too, but they'll be playing for personal pride and to avoid losing 100 games.  Their pitching is ineffective but they can still swing the bat with J.J. Hardy, Mark Reynolds and the red-hot tandem of Matt Wieters and Vladimir Guerrero in the lineup.  And if you think Boston can just walk all over Baltimore, go ask the Rays how they dropped two of three in Camden Yards earlier this week.  Nothing is guaranteed, especially in a playoff race.

The way Tampa's had our number the last few years I'm just hoping for a series split, which would maintain Boston's comfortable four game lead.  If the Rays rebound to win their two remaining games with the Sox this weekend, then Boston's advantage will be halved to a slim two game lead with ten to play, and David Ortiz and company might go into full-fledged panic mode.  The Rays will leave town in a state of euphoria, brimming with confidence and walking with swagger, while the demoralized Red Sox will be left shaking their heads and wondering how in the world this could be happening when the Wild Card race was all but over two weeks ago.  While the Rays sprint to the finish line, Boston need crutches just to limp there.

Tampa Bay already got off to a great start in this do-or-die series by bashing their way to a 9-2 win last night against poor Kyle Weiland (still winless in the bigs), and the James Shields-Josh Beckett duel went back and forth before Boston squeaked out a crucial 4-3 win.  Boston has a good chance to win again tomorrow on national TV (Sox on Fox) when Jon Lester takes on Jeff Niemann, but Lester struggled mightily in his last start and Sunday's matchup favors the Rays, who will be throwing David Price against the newest member of the 200 (21 of which have come at Tampa's expense) win club, Tim Wakefield

But I'm not taking anything for granted, not when Evan Longoria, B.J. Upton and Matthew Joyce are en fuego and their starting pitchers give them a chance to win every night.  Not when Boston's potent offense has been hit-or-miss lately and the bullet-riddled staff has the worst ERA in the majors so far in September and Daniel Bard suddenly can't get anybody out (although he did toss a scoreless eighth inning tonight that will hopefully get him back on track).  Not when Kevin Youkilis, J.D. Drew, Jed Lowrie, Clay Buchholz, Erik Bedard, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Bobby Jenks are wounded.  And certainly not when this team is finding a way to finish the season even worse than how it started.

So I don't really care about the schedule that favors the Red Sox, because the bottom line is this; the Sawx won big tonight but still need to put their foot on the gas.  Otherwise the unthinkable might happen; October baseball could be played without them.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Wake Wins 200th

It's been a big summer for baseball milestones, and tonight Tim Wakefield joined Derek Jeter, Jim Thome and Michael Young, three outstanding men who recently reached big round numbers.  It has been more than seven weels since the rubber armed Iron Man walked off the mound in the seventh inning of a slugfest at Fenway to a standing ovation.  He'd just served up a grand slam to light hitting Mariner shortstop Brendan Ryan, but luckily for him the Sox had lit up Rookie of the Year candidate Michael Pineda and Seattle's middle relievers for a dozen runs.  So Wake got his 199th career win (and his 2,000th strikeout as a member of the Red Sox), even if his stat line (ten hits and seven earned runs over six and a third innings, known as a "distaster" start for allowing more earned runs than innings pitched) resembled a typical A.J. Burnett performance. 

And then a funny thing happened.  Timmy, for the life of him, just couldn't get that 200th win.  He was the tough luck loser of a 3-1 pitcher's duel with Gavin Floyd in his final start of July, earned a pair of no-decisions in eventual Boston victories before going the distance against the Mariners, only to lose 5-3.  In his next turn, he left in the sixth inning against the Royals and was slapped with another ND, then got rocked by the light-hitting A's at Fenway.  After tossing four shutout innings during mop-up duty of a 10-0 Rangers blowout, his seventh try at the milestone qualified as cruel and unusual punishment; he departed after the fifth with the Sox up 8-5, then could do nothing but watch as Daniel Bard and the bullpen blew the lead and the ballgame.  Boston scored ten runs and pounds out fourteen hits, and he still didn't get the win.

By all rights, he should have had his 200th win a few weeks ago, but baseball can be a funny sport.  He gets knocked around by a AAA lineup and wins, then holds his opponents to four earned runs or fewer in eight consecutive starts and somehow can't buy one.

Wakefield rarely makes it look easy these days, but he can still get the job done
But the 45 year-old knuckleballer finally got that elusive W in front of the supportive home crowd at Fenway tonight, and now we can all rest easy.  Fittingly, number 200 was a classic Wakefield workmanlike effort; six innings, five earned runs and gopher balls to slugging catcher J.P. Arencibia and MVP contender Jose Bautista.  This mediocre line was good enough on a night when the Red Sox crossed home plate 18 times against Brandon Morrow and the Blue Jays.

It's been one heck of a career for Tim.  The oldest player in the game three years running leads all active pitchers in wins and innings pitched, but despite his impressive career totals he's only been a slightly above average pitcher throughout his 19 big league seasons.  It's safe to say his overall statistics reflect longevity, endurance, and perseverance more than elite skill.  He's had his fair share of highs and lows throughout his two-decade major league odyssey that originated in Pittsburgh with Barry Bonds.  After a sensational debut and sophomore slump there, he was unceremoniously let go and the 28 year-old's career was in jeopardy (his timing was impeccable, though.  He left the Pirates when the wheels fell off and arrived in Boston just as the team became perennial contenders).  Boston GM Dan Duquette took a flier on him after Roger Clemens and Aaron Sele went down early in the '95 season, and Wake thanked him by resurrecting his career and becoming a fixture for the Old Towne Team over the next decade and a half. This guy played with Nomar Garciaparra and Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling and Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz and Jon Lester.  I see him as the team's pitching equivalent of Jason Varitek; long-tenured sources of production and leadership.

And like Varitek, Wakefield has shown time and time again that he's willing to do whatever's best for the team.  After averaging fifteen wins a season for the first four years of his Boston career, he became the team's closer and saved fifteen games during the middle of the '99 season when Tom Gordon got hurt.  Because of his late game success and versatility, Wakefield spent the next three years alternating between starter and reliever before becoming a permanent starter again late in the 2002 season.  In the ALCS two years later he volunteered for mop-up duty in Game Three's 19-8 shellacking, sacrificing his Game Four start to help preserve the bullpen.  He took a beating from the Yankee sluggers but unwittingly saved the season by keeping Boston's relievers fresh for the 26 combined innings of Games Four and Five.  He's a mid-rotation innings eater (a job he has embraced by finishing more than 3,000 frames; most among active pitchers), and to top it off every offseason he signs a cheap one year contract and ends up being one of the best bargains in baseball.  Ole Reliable is always ready and willing to fill a rotation slot when Daisuke Matsuzaka or Josh Beckett gets hurt.

Although he is once again splitting time between the bullpen and starting rotation, Wakefield continues to contribute even as he loses effectiveness and lobs the slowest fastball in The Show.  As I took a look back at Wakefield's illustrious career, I decided it would be fun to remember some of his best moments as well as his rocky ones.

-Third place finish in 1992 NL Rookie of the Year balloting.  Went 8-1 with four complete games and a sparkling 2.15 ERA over his first thirteen starts.  The Sporting News named him NL Rookie Pitcher of the Year and he spun a pair of complete game victories in a losing effort against the Braves in the NLCS
-After Boston scooped him up, he earned his keep by finishing third in the 1995 AL Cy Young race on the strength of his sixteen wins and 2.95 ERA.  Won Sporting News AL Comeback Player of the Year for his efforts
-Shut down New York in the 2003 ALCS and would have won series MVP if Grady Little hadn't forgot about his bullpen during Pedro Martinez's infamous meltdown in the eighth inning of Game Seven.
-Earned his first and only All-Star selection in 2009 at the age of 42, making him the second-oldest first-time All-Star ever behind only the immortal Satchel Paige
-Recipient of 2010 Roberto Clemente award, first Red Sox player to win it
-Is the oldest Red Sox pitcher to win a game and the oldest Red Sox player to appear in a game at Fenway
-Making the postseason ten (soon to be eleven) times and winning a pair World Series rings
Acknowledging the Fenway Faithful
-Followed up stellar rookie campaign by struggling, losing rotation spot, and getting demoted to AA in 1993
-Spent all of '94 in the minors and was released by the Pirates on April 20, 1995
-Led the American League in losses with fifteen in 1997
-Struggled mightily in the '95, '98 and '99 playoffs by allowing nearly twice as many earned runs as innings pitched.  He also surrendered the gopher ball to Aaron Boone that ended the 2003 ALCS and failed to make it out of the fourth inning in his only career World Series start against St. Louis in 2004.  He has more losses than wins in his postseason career, not to mention an unsightly 6.75 ERA, 1.47 WHIP and 1.42 K/BB ratio.  Yikes
-Was left off the 2007 World Series roster because of a shoulder injury
-Hasn't finished a season with sub-four ERA since 2002 and has only four such seasons for his career
-A dozen seasons with double digit losses and more L's than any active pitcher.

But through it all, Wakefield has remained a class act and the ultimate team player.  He's a consummate professional on the field and off, where he donates time and money to charities throughout New England.  Tim Wakefield isn't a Hall of Fame pitcher, but more importantly is a Hall of Fame person.

Also-congratulations to Mariano Rivera on his 600th career save.  Two more and he'll break Trevor Hoffman's record.  Like Wakefield, Rivera is a class act and deserves all the praise he gets for this remarkable achievement.

Brady, Pats Sink Dolphins

New England started its 2011 season on the right foot last night by taking down the Dolphins, 38-24, in Miami.  The Patriots are no stranger to winning their season openers, however, as this marked the eighth straight year they've enjoyed a victory in Week 1. 

Reigning MVP Tom Brady became the 11th quarterback
 in league history to toss at least 500 yards in a single game
Tom Brady was the star of the show last night, leading New England's offensive attack with four touchdown passes and compiling a team record 517 passing yards (take that, Cam Newton) with 32 completions in 48 attempts, capping it all off with a 99 yard TD to Wes Welker about halfway through the fourth quarter.  The defense had just made a critical stop at the one yard line, and while passing out of his own end zone on first down may have been a risky play call, Tom Terrific was up to Belichick's challenge and fired a perfectly placed laser to Welker, who had snuck free at the 30 yard line and bolted to the end zone for his second touchdown of the evening.

The Pats moved the ball 622 total yards, another franchise record, and the offensive line deserves plenty of credit for that achievement.  Brady consistently benefited from ample time in the pocket and rarely had to throw under pressure, so he could let the plays develop and pick out his receivers.  Pint-sized Danny Woodhead led New England in rushing with 69 yards on 14 carries, but it was BenJarvis Green-Ellis who accounted for NE's lone rushing TD.  Sophomore tight end Aaron Hernandez chipped in with 103 receiving yards and a touchdown as well.

The defense was solid, too, by shutting out the Dolphins in the second quarter and limiting Miami to just seven first half points.  They did allow Miami QB Chad Henne to notch 416 yards with 30 of 49 passing, but compensated by shutting down the Dolphins' running game for the most part. 

All in all, last night's victory was a great team win for the Pats.  Their next game is this Sunday against the Chargers (who overcame a 17-7 halftime deficit against the Vikings to pull out a win in Week 1) in Foxborough.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Pats Ready to Rumble

With the Patriots only two hours away from kickoff in Miami and memories of the NFL lockout quickly fading away, New England is ready for football season to begin on this beautiful Monday night.  That, and we really need something to take our minds off the slumping Red Sox, who have somehow turned an insurmountable wild card lead into a race with the Tampa Bay Rays. Boston's recent struggles have fans worried about a September collapse, the kind of epic choke that only the Red Sox are capable of.

Thankfully, there is much more optimism on the gridiron.  The Pats have assembled an impressive array of talent this season, leading some pundits over at The Sporting News to predict a 15-1 regular season (why not just go all in and mark 'em down for another 16-0?), especially since New England isn't saddled with a tough schedule this season.  I'm not as optimistic; 13 or 14 wins, the latter representing last season's total, sound about right, and I'm concerned the team might need some time to mesh before it really takes off.  I'm not sure how high-profile newcomers Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and BenJarvus Green-Ellis will fit into Bill Belichick's system, and they may need some time to get comfortable and adapt to their new surroundings, teammates and roles. 

Adding big personalities to quiet, professional teams such as the Patriots can cause chemistry issues; look what happened to the New York Yankees from 2002-2008 when they added Jason Giambi, Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, Randy Johnson, and Johnny Damon, among others, and couldn't win a World Series.  On the other hand, the Pats thrived in Randy Moss's inaugural season and could enjoy a similar level of success four years later. 

But hopefully they've worked it all out during preseason (not that anyone cares, but they were 2-2) and are good to go tonight, because after the tenth anniversary of 9/11 and the Sox slipping on a banana peel this weekend, we just need to kick back, stoke up some nachos and enjoy a few hours of pure American entertainment. The Dolphins look like a mediocre bunch this year, so they shouldn't pose much of a challenge for Tom Brady and co.

All signs point to an easy win for the Patriots, which is exactly what this city needs.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Similar Royal Stats

The Kansas City Royals are mired in another lost and forgettable season, buried deep in the AL Central Standings and on pace for another 90+ loss regular season.  2011 will mark their eighth straight losing season and sixteenth out of their last seventeen (2003 was the streak buster), so by now the city casually associates its once-proud baseball team with mediocrity, hopelessness and despair.   Fans have given up and as a result the team ranks third to last in attendance in the American League.

And if you want to know where the season went wrong, you don't have to look far.  The starting pitching, stripped of 2009 AL Cy Young winner Zack Greinke, has been atrocious.  The bullpen has had a few bright spots a la All-Star Aaron Crow, but even reliable closer Joakim Soria has sputtered through a down season by his lofty standards.

But there is some hope on the horizon, for the young and talented lineup has gotten lost somewhere in the shuffle. Designated hitter Billy Butler and three outfielders Melky Cabrera, Jeff Francoeur and Alex Gordon have enjoyed remarkably similar levels of success at the plate this year. Their statistics are almost identical. Check it out here:

They're all basically the same age, and 21 year-old rookie Eric Hosmer is keeping up with them, too.  Glad to see the Melk Man and Frenchy have rejuvenated their careers in Missouri away from the bright lights of New York where Cabrera was a Yankee and Francoeur was a Metropolitan.  Gordon, fully healthy after a pair of lost seasons to injuries, has salvaged an unimpressive start to his hyped big league career and seems to have finally turned the corner.  Butler may never develop 30 home run power, but if he ends up being a righthanded Nick Markakis then nobody will complain.

All of these guys have been instrumental in keeping the Royals' offense above average this year.  They've done their best to negate some of the team's pitching woes and unite with the struggling but still developing Mike Moustakas to create a great nucleus for the organization to build around.  New manager Ned Yost has performed admirably as he lets his youngsters mature while he waits for reinforcements to arrive, because right now that's pretty much the only thing he can do.  Kansas City doesn't exactly have the money to acquire big name free agents, but as Joe Posnanski has noted the organization spends what little dough it does have quite poorly.

But their loaded farm system is stocked with talented pitchers, and everyone's talking about the Royals as contenders in 2013 or 2014.  We just need to wait a few years and give their prospects time to develop, and before we know it the Royals might be the top dog in the eternally unstable AL Central.  Rebuilding takes time and patience, and for now the fans in KC must weather the storm and hope the sun comes out tomorrow.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Sox Stumble in September

Two weeks ago, the Red Sox were on a roll, having just swept a doubleheader from the Oakland A's at Fenway and capping a late August run of eight wins in eleven games.  They seemed primed for a nice September run that, knock on wood, would culminate with their first AL East flag since 2007 and first 100 win season since 1946.

John Lackey was turning his season around,
then lost all three of his starts during Boston's recent swoon
Then Hurricane Irene blew through town, and apparently took some of the baseball team's mojo with it because since then, the Sox have simply not played well.  Maybe the two-day break messed with their rhythm, cooled their momentum, took some of the wind out of their sails.

Whatever happened, it wasn't good.  Granted, they've been pretty banged up lately, but now the Wild Card is suddenly in danger and 100 wins are pretty much impossible with only two and a half weeks of games left.

Let's start at the beginning of the swoon, when the Yankees showed up at the Fens for a midweek series and took two of three from the (at the time) division leaders after winning just two of their first ten matchups.  But in all fairness, the Bronx Bombers defeated John Lackey and Alfredo Aceves; not exactly the A-Team.  C.C. Sabathia was bound to beat the Red Sox in 2011 at some point, and his breakthrough in the first game was key.

Then the hard-hitting Rangers arrived and beat up Boston pitching for 28 runs in three games.  They feasted off Andrew Miller and Lackey in Friday and Sunday's games, a pair of blowouts sandwiched around a 12-7 slugfest on Saturday in which Boston emerged victorious.  Still, a homestand that began with so much promise against the Athletics ended with just four Red Sox wins against five losses.  The brief bump in the road was also disappointing because the Sox always play well in America's oldest ballpark, but the Rangers had essentially used its cozy dimensions for batting practice.

Maybe the Red Sox just needed to get away, like in those commercials, but so far the road trip hasn't exactly been a vacation.  Boston kicked off its series north of the border by dropping a 1-0 extra-inning nailbiter in Toronto when red-hot Brett Lawrie belted a walk-off home run.  They bounced back with a 14-0 blowout, but that was quickly forgotten the following night when the bullpen (mostly Daniel Bard) coughed up the lead in Tim Wakefield's seventh bid for career win number 200 and blew the game.  Ricky Romero kept Boston's bats in check during the final game to take the series and bump the Blue Jays' record up to .500.

So the Bosox couldn't wait to get out of Canada, but a change of scenery didn't help last night either, as Boston lost in Tampa Bay when Wade Davis outdueled Lackey in a 7-2 Rays win.  That makes eight losses in their past eleven games, an exact 180 from the streak that preceded this slump.  Their two game lead in the AL East has turned into a two and a half game deficit, and if they can't steal a win in Florida this weekend (no easy task against Jeremy Hellickson and "Big Game" James Shields) their once secure Wild Card lead will be in serious jeopardy.  No matter what happens they will have more games against the Rays since Boston doesn't play anyone outside their division for the rest of the season, meaning their last month of regular season baseball in 2011 consisted entirely of intra-divsion games except for the Texas series.

A week ago this race was over, but Boston has let Tampa Bay climb back into it.  All they really need is a split this weekend, and throwing Jon Lester on Sunday should help.  According to, we still have a 96.1 percent chance of making the postseason (Tampa has a slightly slimmer 3.9 percent chance).  But the way they've been playing lately, all bets are off.

Editor's Note; Another devastating extra-inning loss tonight after Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Jacoby Ellsbury tied the game in the top of the ninth with back to back missiles into the right field bleachers off Kyle Farnsworth.  Tomorrow is a must win.