Sunday, October 30, 2011

St. Louis Steals Series

On two different occasions during Game 6, the Cardinals were one strike away from losing the World Series.  Somehow, they managed to fight back and eventually win what many are calling one of the greatest baseball games ever played on a David Freese walk-off home run that sailed over the centerfield fence. 

But after a season chocked full of improbable comebacks and unbelievable endings from Robert Andino, Dan Johnson, Evan Longoria and others, the moral of the story was simple; never say never.  No one in his right mind picked the Cardinals to win this thing, especially when they didn't even have a snowball's chance in hell of making the playoffs less than two months ago, but here they are, champions of the world for the second time in six seasons.

It was nice to see some fireworks because outside of the Albert Pujols-led offensive outburst in Game 3.  This series, like most, had been ruled by pitching until the bats busted out again in Game 6 by clobbering a revolving door of 15 pitchers for 28 hits, 19 runs, and half a dozen long balls.  Every member of the Rangers starting lineup not named Colby Lewis notched at least one hit, and after going up 7-4 in the seventh inning Texas seemed to have its franchise's first World Series championship in the bag.  But despite holding a three run lead and needing only five outs (ring any bells, '03 Red Sox and Cubs?), Texas allowed St. Louis to knot the game after an Allen Craig solo shot in the eighth and a two-run triple by Freese (who was down 1-2) off Neftali Feliz, who was basically Mariano Rivera with his career postseason ERA sitting at a miniscule 0.87 before that fateful ninth inning. 

But then a hobbled Josh Hamilton morphed into Kirk Gibson and lofted a two-run big fly in the top of the tenth off Jason Motte, and just like that Texas was back in the driver's seat, poised to finish off their foes once and for all.  Unfortunately for the Rangers, Darren Oliver and Scott Feldman couldn't hold the lead and gave that pair of runs right back despite coming within one strike of extinguishing Lance Berkman.  Texas could muster nothing more than a Mike Napoli single against Jake Westbrook in the eleventh, and Freese sent everybody home with his game-ending home run to lead off the bottom of the inning.

And then the Rangers were dead, because teams that come so close in potential clinchers, only to let it slip through their fingers, always seem to lose the series.  Recently, the '86 Angels in the ALCS, '86 Red Sox in the World Series, '03 Cubs in the NLCS, and '04 Yankees in the ALCS all stumbled just before the finish line.  We can add the '11 Rangers to that list, because after plating a pair of runs off a tired Chris Carpenter in the first inning of the first World Series Game 7 since 2002, they looked lifeless.  Dead.  Defeated.  Matt Harrison labored against a lineup without Matt Holliday and was gone after four innings, although in fairness he only left his team with a one-run deficit.  But Carpenter seemed to gain strength as the game went on, scattering just three hits after the first and by the time he departed in the top of the seventh his Redbirds had their own three-run advantage.  The Cards would add one more in the bottom of the frame for good measure, but Texas only managed one baserunner over the final four innings as their offense vanished and their star-crossed season faded away. 

Motte closed the door with a 1-2-3 ninth, and with that the Cardinals capped off their Cinderella season with their franchise's eleventh World Series flag.  Freese followed up his NLCS MVP performance by taking home the Fall Classic MVP as well, becoming just the sixth player to win both awards in the same postseason.  It will be interesting to see what effect, if any, the title will have on Pujols' impending free agency.  I think he'll stay in St. Louis (even though they can't afford the Alex Rodriguez kind of contract he is reportedly seeking) if only because many of the perennial winter big spenders--Boston, New York Yankees, Philly--already have first base locked up, but if we've learned one lesson from the 2011 baseball season, it's that anything is possible.

Just ask the St. Louis Cardinals.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Rangers Rally Again, One Win Away

Mike Napoli comes through for Texas
Game 5 of the World Series served as a microcosm for the series itself; another low-scoring, tense affair in which the Cardinals jumped out to an early lead, only to watch the Rangers come back to tie (and ultimately win) the game.

St. Louis scored both its runs on back-to-back RBI singles by Yadier Molina and Skip Schumaker in the top of the second, but that was all the Redbirds were going to get off a shaky (nine baserunners allowed in just five and a third innings) but effective C.J. Wilson.  Texas got one back with a Mitch Moreland solo homer in the third, but Chris Carpenter was doing his best to mute the Ranger bats and held a narrow 2-1 lead going into the bottom half of the sixth.  That's when the 2005 NL Cy Young winner stumbled, though; after getting two quick outs he allowed an Adrian Beltre game-tying blast and back to back base knocs by Nelson Cruz and David Murphy to put runners on the corners, but he extinguished his own fire and made it through the next inning before departing with the score (and the series) still tied at two.

So after fighting their way back into the game and the series, Texas kept its momentum rolling in the eighth inning.  Despite Tony LaRussa's best efforts (incredibly, he ordered two intentional walks and used five pitchers to get those three outs, all of which were swinging K's), potential World Series MVP Mike Napoli delivered a tie-breaking two-run double that plated Cruz and Michael Young

Once again, the top of the ninth featured Neftali Feliz facing Albert Pujols in a bit of a jam (this time he had plunked Allen Craig to bring The Machine up representing the tying run), and once again the young flamethrower got the best of the future Hall-of-Famer.  This time he ran the count full against Phat Albert (whose timing might have been off after receiving three intentional walks in Game 5) before getting two outs with one pitch via the strike-him-out-throw-him-out.  Then, after walking Matt Holliday to bring up Lance Berkman as the tying run, managed to whiff the NL Comeback Player of the Year and secure his sixth save of the postseason.

The Ranger bullpen, fully rested after Derek Holland's near shutout in Game 4, made things interesting by allowing eight Cardinal baserunners over the final three and two-thirds innings but somehow stranded them all, as St. Louis ultimately left a dozen men on the basepaths.  They will certainly need more success with RISP in Game 6 if they want to survive another game in this series, which shifts back to Missouri. Colby Lewis and Jaime Garcia will square off tomorrow night, the former trying to finish the job while the latter fights to keep his team's Cinderella season alive.  I like the Rangers' chances of finishing off the Cards, but at the same time want the Redbirds to prevail and force a dramatic Game 7, something the World Series hasn't seen since the Giants/Angels Barry Bonds/John Lackey matchup in 2002.

But as much as I'd like that to happen, I foresee Texas winning its first Fall Classic in franchise history tomorrow evening.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Texas Hold 'Em; Rangers Even Series

Derek Holland was dealing last night
After a night where the bats finally sprang to life and thumped out hit after hit, the series returned to normal in Game 4 when pitching reigned supreme once again.  Derek Holland came up big and gave Ron Washington's overworked bullpen a much needed breather by carrying a shutout into the ninth inning before handing the ball over to Neftali Feliz for the final two outs.  Holland was untouchable on a night where he allowed just two hits (both to Lance Berkman), two walks and fanned seven while holding Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, and the rest of St. Louis's lineup in check on a cool night in Arlington.

His margin for error was razor thin during the game's first half, as Redbird starter Edwin Jackson nearly matched his adversary.  Jackson quickly settled down after allowing a Josh Hamilton RBI double (marking the first time Texas got on the scoreboard before St. Louis in the series) and loading the bases in the bottom of the first and trailed just 1-0 in the sixth before walking Nelson Cruz and David Murphy with one out.  Tony LaRussa went to the bullpen, and Mitchell Boggs promptly served up a three run blast to Mike Napoli on the first pitch.  Texas had its much needed insurance runs, but Boggs and Jake Westbrook kept the Rangers off the board for the remainder of the evening, allowing St. Louis to mount one last rally in the top of the ninth.

Holland got the first out on a Nick Punto grounder to Adrian Beltre, but a free pass to Rafael Furcal ended his shutout bid as Ron Washington brought in his closer.  Feliz then walked Allen Craig to put runners on first and second for the heart of the Cardinals lineup with only one out.  Up stepped Albert Pujols, fresh off the fourth 3-homer game in World Series history and more locked in than any hitter on the planet.  Feliz, for his part, didn't pitch around the slugger; he challenged the great Pujols and got the count to 0-2 before inducing a deep fly ball to center field for out number two.  Then, after loading the count against Holliday, Feliz whiffed him on the eighth pitch of the at-bat to seal the win and even the series at two games apiece.

This best of seven has been whittled down to a best of three, and the pivotal Game 5 features the aces, Chris Carpenter and C.J. Wilson, and thus figures to be another low-scoring affair.  I think whoever wins this game will win the series, and since I believed in Texas at the onset of the Fall Classic I'm going to stick to my guns and pick them to win tonight.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Offenses Explode, Cards win Slugfest

After a pair of pitching duels in St. Louis, several baseball pundits (myself included) believed there was a good chance Game 3 would finally feature the offensive fireworks we expected from the two slugging contestants in this year's Fall Classic.  These two lineups were like dogs that hadn't been fed or seen the sun in a week, clawing to bust out of their cages, and last night the doors swung open and they both went wild.

The telling stat for Game 3 is the number two, as in the number of scoreless innings (the second and third) that show up in the box score.  Because if you look at the other seven innings, you'll find numbers that make you wonder if Ron Washington and Tony LaRussa shut down their bullpens and tried to neutralize the opposing lineups themselves (I'm kidding, of course; both pens got a full night's work after both starting pitchers left during the fourth inning). 

For the game's first third it looked like we were in for another low-scoring affair on a warm, windless night in Arlington.  Allen Craig, who's single goal in life is to break up tied games, did so for the third straight night with a go-ahead solo home run in the top of the first off Matt Harrison, who was chased from the game when the Cards scored four off him in the fourth.  Texas immediately returned the favor by sending Kyle Lohse to an early shower when they began their half of the fourth with a Michael Young home run, Adrian Beltre single, Nelson Cruz (naturally) home run, and a Mike Napoli single. Fernando Salas, on in relief, escaped a runners on the corners, one out jam when Napoli, whose lack of speed rivals Kevin Millar, got gunned down at the plate by Matt Holliday after attempting to score on an Ian Kinsler fly ball down the left field line.

That play seemed to signal a shift in momentum, as St. Louis began to pull away began to pull away afterwards.  They tagged Scott Feldman for three runs in the fifth to push their lead to 8-3, and then responded to another three-run rally by the Rangers with four runs of their own off Alexi Ogando in the top of the sixth.  Redbird relievers Lance Lynn, Octavio Dotel and Mitchell Boggs proceeded to suppress the Texas sluggers, permitting just one Ranger run over the final four frames while St. Louis tacked on four more insurance runs to make the slugfest a 16-7 laugher.

But in a game with 23 runs, 17 singles, five doubles, six long balls, and every starter not named Jon Jay spending time on the basepaths, the day belonged to Albert Pujols, who tied a World Series record by slamming three home runs as part of his 6-4-5-6 box line.  Even more impressively, he turned the trick in his last three at-bats of the evening, victimizing Ogando, Mike Gonzalez and Darren Oliver in consecutive trips to the plate.  The Machine had a disappointing regular season in his contract year, but the 31 year-old slugging free-agent-to-be is quickly erasing any doubt that he might be declining with a monster postseason that rivals anything Carlos Beltran, David Ortiz, Reggie Jackson, Mickey Mantle or Babe Ruth ever accomplished.  Phat Albert has always feasted off enemy pitching in October, but he's turned these games into his own personal batting practice session.

Texas needs to find a way to keep him in check during Game 4, but you can't just pitch around him with Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman waiting on deck and in the hole.  Derek Holland will have to find a way to cool his red-hot bat tonight, or else the Rangers could be looking at another early exit from the Fall Classic.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Rangers Rally, Even Series

After eight tense innings in Game 2, Texas was on the brink of going home in an 0-2 hole, a deficit that teams overcome less than 20 percent of the time in the World Series (40 of 52, including the 2010 Texas Ranger edition, went home empty-handed).  With the temperature hovering around 50 degrees once more, the Colby Lewis and Jaime Garcia had battled through six and a half scoreless innings before, as Yogi Berra once said, it was "deja-vu all over again."  Tie game, two outs, runners on the corners, and Alexi Ogando staring down pinch-hitter Allen Craig.  Craig emerged victorious with a go-ahead RBI single under the same circumstances the day before, and the Game 1 hero came through once again by slashing another go-ahead RBI single the other way.  For the Rangers and their fans, the same thought had to be running through their minds:

We make it all the way to the World Series, and the guy who kills us isn't Albert Pujols or Matt Holliday or Lance Berkman, but Allen freakin' Craig? That's like losing to the Celtics on a Rajon Rondo three-pointer, or invading alien armies succumbing to our bacteria micro-organisms.

So although it seemed improbable, in the top of the ninth Texas was three outs away from another loss. Cardinal closer Jason Motte, sporting a perfect 0.00 career postseason ERA, was poised to notch his sixth save of the postseason, but he would have to go through the top of the order first.

And that's exactly when Texas finally snapped out of their funk and returned to life, like one of those zombies on "The Walking Dead." Ian Kinsler blooped a single off the end of his bat that found its way into no-man's land out in shallow left field, then swiped second base a la Dave Roberts in Game 4 of the '04 ALCS.  Elvis Andrus, playing the role of Bill Mueller, roped a single to center.  Kinsler was held at third, but Andrus advanced to second on the throw to the plate and all of the sudden the Rangers were in business.  Two men in scoring position, nobody out, and the big bats coming up.  Josh Hamilton, plagued with injuries and sapped of his power, managed to drive a fly ball to deep right field that plated Kinsler and moved Andrus to third.  Michael Young followed suit with a sac fly of his own, and just like that the Rangers had their first lead of the World Series.

Yadier Molina gave St. Louis a chance in the bottom of the ninth by drawing a leadoff walk from Neftali Feliz, but his potential tying run would be stranded at first as Nick Punto and Skip Schumaker whiffed before Rafael Furcal flew out to Nelson Cruz to end the game and send the series to Arlington all even at one game apiece.

Maybe this change of scenery and weather will help rejuvenate the bats, which have been awfully quiet thus far in the series.  This World Series was billed a slugfest given the contestants' unimpressive starting rotations and hard-hitting lineups, but there has been a scarcity of scoring.  Both teams have crossed home just four times each and managed only one combined home run, a two-run shot from Mike Napoli in Game 1 (no one went yard yesterday, the first homerless World Series game since Game 2 of the 2007 World Series, a match that ironically was played at Fenway Park between the mashing Rox and Sox).  Base knocks have been hard to come by as well: Texas has 11 and St Louis has a dozen through the first 18 innings of this year's Fall Classic. 

But now they'll get opportunities to feast on middle rotation starters like Kyle Lohse and Matt Harrison, so the bats can't stay silent for long. Both offenses, so prolific during the regular season, should dial up in Texas, a hitter's haven especially when compared to the more pitcher-friendly Busch Stadium.  There's simply too much hitting talent on display for every game to be a one-run pitcher's duel, and sooner or later these guys will bust out.  Plus, the DH will be in play for both sides, and hopefully the hitters are getting their timing back after the brief respite between the LCS and World Series. 

I think the next two games (before Chris Carpenter and C.J. Wilson return to the hill) will be closer to expectations, 6-4 kind of games that feature more slugging and less small ball.  I like these tight games and all, but I think we can all agree a little more offense certainly wouldn't hurt.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Redbirds Draw First Blood

Game 1 of the 2011 World Series is in the books, and St. Louis is one step closer to winning its second title in six seasons.  A significant step, mind you, considering Game 1 victors have gone on to win the Series nearly 80 percent of the time (19 of 23) since 1987 (thanks, Tom Verducci).

The game was played under less than ideal conditions, with the temperature hovering around 50 degrees on a damp, blustery autumn evening.  Staff aces C.J. Wilson and Chris Carpenter stifled enemy bats for the game's first third, hanging doughnuts on the scoreboard through the initial three and a half innings.  NL Comeback Player of the Year Lance Berkman broke up the pitcher's duel with a two-run single in the bottom half of the fourth, but Mike Napoli responded immediately with a two-run shot in the top of the fifth to tie the game back up.

Nelson Cruz attempts to catch Craig's sinking liner
The game wouldn't stay that way for long, though. In the bottom of the sixth, with two outs, runners on the corners, and Alexi Ogando on in relief of Wilson, the always-impulsive Tony LaRussa pulled his ace for a pinch hitter even though the 2005 NL Cy Young recipient had only tossed 87 pitches and probably had one or two more innings left in the tank.  In his place stood Allen Craig, the 27 year-old sophomore with exactly 127 major league games (postseason included) under his belt, who rewarded his skipper by slicing a go-ahead RBI single (a ball that Nelson Cruz could and should have caught, a la Carl Crawford's miscue that ended Boston's season exactly three weeks prior) to right field give St. Louis a lead they would not relinquish.  LaRussa would use five relievers from his hard-worked but effective bullpen to get through the next three innings, and the quintent neutralized the potent Texas lineup by not allowing any baserunners over the final eight outs.  Jason Motte closed the door in the ninth, setting down the heart of the order in Michael Young, Adrian Beltre and Cruz to secure the pivotal Game 1 triumph.

Interestingly, both teams stroked six hits, two for extra-bases, and their biggest stars were held in check.  Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday combined to go 1-6, while Young and Josh Hamilton went 0-8. The Rangers will need to win out in order to make my prediction (Texas in five) come true.  My fingers are already crossed.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Cards and Cowboys are Two of a Kind

Just a dozen fun and interesting similarities between this year's St. Louis squad and Texas team.

1. Both had two regulars hit over .300 (Lance Berkman and Yadier Molina, Mike Napoli and Michael Young)

2. Both teams had eight players reach double digit home run totals

3. Both teams had five pitchers win at least ten games

4. Both pitching staffs drilled 46 opposing hitters

5. Each team had one player (Albert Pujols and Ian Kinsler) score more than 100 runs

6. Neither team had any batter reach the century mark in walks

7. The triples leader (Michael Young and the departed Colby Rasmus) for each team finished with six

8. Each defense led its league in double plays turned

9. Each lineup is built around a former MVP winner (Pujols and Josh Hamilton)

10. Each lineup led its league in batting average

11. Both staffs had four starters complete at least 180 innings; Colby Lewis, C.J. Wilson, Derek Holland and Matt Harrison for Texas, Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia, Kyle Lohse, and Jake Westbrook for St. Louis

12. Both teams played their best baseball (winning percentage-wise in September)

Monday, October 17, 2011

2011 World Series Preview

The World Series starts Wednesday, and six and a half months of regular season and playoff baseball have whittled down the 30 major league teams to just two: the St. Louis Cardinals and the Texas Rangers.  I'm guessing no one in their right mind saw this matchup coming, not when the Phillies and Red Sox seemed destined for October glory and, if not them, then the Yankees or Giants or Brewers.  But alas, this World Series won't pit Roy Halladay against Jon LesterAdrian Gonzalez won't get to take any hacks against Cliff Lee, just as Ryan Howard won't dig in against Josh Beckett.  I guess they're right when they say great teams are made on the diamond, not on paper.

Texas just so happens to be a great team on paper and made the World Series last year, where they fell to Tim Lincecum, Edgar Renteria and Brian Wilson, so they're in familiar territory.  After battling the Angels all season long, they managed to pull away during the season's final weeks and finished the year with a commanding ten game lead.  Their lineup, stacked from top to bottom, is clearly their strength, but they have decent defense and pitching as well.

St. Louis, whom no one gave much of a chance this year after they lost 20 game-winner Adam Wainwright for the season back in February, last made the trip five years ago, when they snuck into the postseason as an 83 win squad and ended up as the last team standing.  Declared clinically dead little more than a month ago, they rallied as the Braves wilted down the stretch to capture the NL Wild Card and take their chances in October as the team with the fewest regular season victories.  But before you write them off as overachievers who have no business being anywhere near this series, remember that they did lead the Senior Circuit in runs, hits, total bases, and the three efficiency averages (plus OPS) while the Rangers only topped the AL in two categories; batting average and shutouts.

So here they are, two slugging teams from middle America pitted against each other on baseball's biggest stage.  Only one will get to wear those shiny rings next year, and I'm putting my money on the Rangers.  I'll use a position by position comparison to explain why.

St. Louis has a formidable backstop in Yadier Molina, an All-Star each of the past three seasons and recipient of three consecutive Gold Gloves.  The youngest member of the catching Molina trio (and also the best) had always been better with the glove than the stick, but this year he was an asset at the dish after setting career highs in runs, hits, doubles, home runs, RBI, batting average, slugging percentage, OPS, OPS+ and total bases.  Another plus; he hits significantly better in the postseason and posted gaudy .412/.500/.529 rates in the '06 Series While Mike Napoli is a liability behind the plate and between the bases, he more than makes up for these deficiencies with his thunderous stick.  Like Molina, he enjoyed a breakout season in 2011 by setting career highs in runs, hits, home runs, RBI, the three triple slash stats, OPS, OPS + and total bases.  The slugging catcher has blossomed in Texas and his .320/.414/.631 rates resemble a prime year from Alex Rodriguez's statsheet. 
Advantage: Rangers, but it's close.  Molina is the more complete player, but Napoli is such a superior hitter that his bat negates Molina's advantage on defense and the basepaths.  Offense is generally at a premium in October, so I'll take the catcher with 30 big flies and 1.046 OPS every day and twice on Sundays.

First Base
Regardless of who's manning first for the Rangers, be it Mitch Moreland or Michael Young, he can not compete with the incomparable Albert Pujols
Advantage: Cardinals, not close

Second Base
Nick Punto and Ryan Theriot (candidate for the David Eckstein effect) have taken over the reins from Skip Schumaker, but neither can hold a candle to keystone stud Ian Kinsler, who scored 121 runs and just turned the 30/30 trick for the second time in three years.
Advantage: Rangers, not close

Third Base
NLCS MVP David Freese is better than most people give him credit for, and I'll bet you didn't know he demolished Milwaukee pitching with three doubles, three long balls and a scorching .545/.600/1.091 line, but Adrian Beltre has been one of the best two-way players at the hot corner (along with A-Rod, Chipper Jones, David Wright, Aramis Ramirez, Ryan Zimmerman, and Evan Longoria) over the past decade.  He also enjoyed a three-homer game during the Game Four clincher in the ALDS against the Rays.
Advantage: Rangers, closer than you would think

Rafael Furcal has had trouble staying on the field recently, managing to appear in more than 100 games just once during the past four seasons and becoming so frustrated this year that he reportedly considered retirement.  At this point the former NL Rookie of the Year is a shell of his former self. Elvis Andrus, on the other hand, is a 23 year-old on the upswing who set career highs across the board in 2011.  Like Furcal he lacks power and is rather ordinary with the bat, but unlike his counterpart he's a plus defender and possesses excellent speed.  Andrus can contribute much more than Furcal and provides plenty of energy, which can always help boost a club that's been playing baseball every day for seven months.
Advantage: Rangers, not too close

The Cardinals boast a strong outfield of 2007 NL MVP runner-up Matt Holliday, NL Comeback Player of the Year Lance Berkman, and Jon Jay (career .298 hitter).  35 year-old Berkman should see some time at DH given his atrocious fielding, so that could free up some more playing time for Allen Craig.  The Rangers are just as fearsome with ALCS MVP/the-hottest-hitter-on-the-planet Nelson Cruz, 2010 AL MVP Josh Hamilton and the always solid David MurphyMichael Young figures to DH along with Napoli when Yorvit Torrealba suits up.  Honestly, both outfields are loaded and choosing between them would be splitting hairs.  Texas has a younger group that is also more injury prone.  I hate to cop out with a tie, but they're dead even. You take one and I'll take the other.
Advantage: Tie

Starting Rotation
St. Louis boasts a legitimate ace with Chris Carpenter, but the rotation after that is a mixed bag with Edwin Jackson, Jaime Garcia and Kyle Lohse.  Texas lacks a true ace, but its rotation is much more balanced with C.J. Wilson, Colby Lewis, Derek Holland and Matt Harrison.  Interestingly, St. Louis has just one southpaw (Garcia) whereas Texas has three (Lewis is the outlier).  I don't want to know what the Cards would be willing to do to have Adam Wainwright back, because it could literally be anything.
Advantage: Rangers, but neither side has great frontline starters

St. Louis has a solid 'pen with Octavio Dotel, Fernando Salas, Lance Lynn, Mitchell Boggs, and Jason Motte closing out games.  Tony LaRussa has tinkered and juggled with his relievers all season long, so hopefully his players finally understand and embrace their roles.  The Rangers' pen looks shakier on paper, but pitched quite effectively during the LCS.  Set-up man Mike Adams and sophomore closer Neftali Feliz are superb and Texas has more proven lefthanded relievers, but I don't trust Darren Oliver or Scott Feldman in the middle innings.
Advantage: Cardinals, but it's close

Neither team has a great bench, so I'll call it a wash.

Well, all signs certainly point to Texas winning its first World Series in franchise history.  The Cardinals are a great Cinderella story, but Pythagorean W-L pegs them as an 88 win team (by comparison Texas is a 98 win team), which just isn't good enough to survive October.  St. Louis has the benefit of homefield advantage, but I'm going to say the Rangers win in five.

Brady, Pats Top Cowboys

Surprise! Brady does it again
The Patriots had just gone down, 16-13, and this series looked like their last chance.  2:30 to go, the pigskin (and the game) in Tom Brady's hands and his 30 start winning streak at Gillette on the line.

This was exactly the kind of pressure situation he relishes with circumstances he always seems to overcome.  Was there ever any doubt he would deliver the way has time and time again throughout the past decade?

Sure, he'd thrown a couple picks earlier in the game, but that might as well have been ancient history.  You just knew he was going to at least push New England into field goal range, regardless of his struggles against the Dallas defense that afternoon.

And wouldn't you know it, Tom Terrific delivered again.  He needed little more than two minutes to move the ball 78 yards, a methodical drive of short/medium passes underneath the coverage that culminated in a perfect throw to Aaron Hernandez cutting through the middle of the end zone with 22 seconds remaining.

Just another day at the office for New England's quarterback, who clocked out with 289 yards and a pair of TDs (the other went to his go-to target, Wes Welker, who had an otherwise quiet day) on 27/41 passing.  He spread the ball between Branch, Gronkowski, Hernandez, and Welker to keep the offense balanced against a strong defensive effort from Rob Ryan's D. 

Once again New England's much maligned defense was solid, coming up with a critical stop/forcing a punt in the series before Brady's game winning drive and limiting Tony Romo and the Cowboys to just one touchdown.  The Patriot D really shut the door on third down by holding Dallas to just four conversions in thirteen attempts.

Ironically, this game was supposed to be a high-scoring slugfest between two high-powered offenses, but it quickly dissolved into a sloppy mess of turnovers and failed drives.  Both teams combined for six turnovers (three picks and three fumbles) while settling for a pair of short-range field goals.  The Pats actually went up 13-3 in the second quarter but came up empty in the second half before Brady saved the day.

With the Bills falling to the Giants, 27-24, New England (5-1) grabbed first place in the AFC East.  They have a bye for Week 7, but will return to the gridiron the following week in Pittsburgh for a showdown with the Steelers.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Rangers Return to Fall Classic

As much as I hate to pat myself on the back, I will acknowledge that I correctly predicted on this blog the Rangers would defeat the Tigers last night and advance to the World Series.

Now Detroit made me sweat a little bit because they got off to a great start in Game Six.  They held a 2-0 lead through the first two and a half innings thanks to solo home runs from Miguel Cabrera and Jhonny Peralta.  But Motown started Max Scherzer was clearly laboring, had stranded four runners through the first two innings and managed to emerge unscathed by the skin of his teeth.  It was only a matter of time before Texas got on the scoreboard, because when you give that lineup opportunities eventually it will make you pay.
Nelson Cruz and Co. give Texas another shot at a World Series title
Scherzer paid, and then some, in a third inning meltdown that began with a free pass to Elvis Andrus and ended three pitching changes and nine runs later.  Texas did most of its damage through singles and walks, needing only two extra-base hits (both Michael Young doubles) to put up its nine-spot. 

And just like that, the series was over.  Detroit trimmed the deficit to 9-4 and chased Derek Holland from the game with an Austin Jackson two-run shot in the fifth inning, but Texas slammed the door by plating six more runs over their next three ups to make the game a laugher.  The Rangers' potent offense pulverized six Tiger pitchers (none of whom were Justin Verlander with the season going up in smoke) for 15 runs, 17 hits including four doubles and two big flies, one of which was series MVP Nelson Cruz's sixth of the LCS, and eight walks. 

Texas becomes the first American League team in a decade to appear in consecutive World Series.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

League Championship Series Both 3-2

The ALCS currently stands with the Texas Rangers poised to repeat as American League champs, as they hold a 3-2 advantage over the Detroit Tigers, who staved off elimination in Game Five behind their ace Justin Verlander.  Tonight Texas plays Game Six at home and sends southpaw Derek Holland (16-5, 3.95 ERA, and a league-leading four shutouts during the regular season) to the hill against 15 game-winner Max Scherzer to try to avoid a potential Game Seven.  Nelson Cruz has been a one-man wrecking crew for Texas by slamming all five of their home runs and accounting for almost half of their RBI (he has 11 of their 24).  He's also toting an absurd 1.622 OPS into tonight's showdown.  On the other side, Detroit's offensive attack has been much more balanced, as they actually have higher on base and slugging percentages while homering nearly twice as often (and spread out amongst seven players, none of whom have belted more than two).  Righthanded batters Miguel Cabrera and Ryan Raburn are swinging hot bats and will look to take advantage of the Texas lefty (who get yanked in the third inning of Game Two) in the friendly hitting confines of Arlington.
Nelson Cruz set an LCS record with five home runs
In the National League, the same Cardinals who were left for dead in the NL Wild Card race this time last month are just one win away from their third Fall Classic appearance in the past eight seasons.  They will have to do it in Milwaukee, though, where the Brewers went 57-24 over the course of the season.  Tomorrow afternoon midseason import Edwin Jackson (12-9, 3.79 with a 2010 no-hitter under his belt) gets the ball against soft-tosser Shaun Marcum (13-7, 3.54 in his NL debut), neither of whom made it out of the fifth inning in their first NLCS starts.  Not surprisingly, Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday have led the Redbirds' charge (with some help from David Freese) and helped overcome mediocre performances from the starting rotation while MVP candidates Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder have returned the favor for the Brew Crew. 
Albert Pujols continues to build upon his impressive October history
My predictions: The Rangers will polish off the Tigers, and the Brewers will win to force Game Seven.

Friday, October 14, 2011

2012 Comeback Player of the Year Candidates

Jacoby Ellsbury and Lance Berkman were just named 2011's Comeback Players of the Year, and each selection was a no-brainer.  Ellsbury's 2010 was a lost season; he appeared in just 18 games due to rib injuries suffered during a collision with Adrian Beltre.  His two attempted comebacks only led to re-injury, and he was shut down in mid-August.  He came back with a vengeance this year, posting career highs in almost every category across the board and surpassing teammates Dustin Pedroia, Adrian Gonzalez and David Ortiz in the AL MVP race by leading the league in total bases while scoring 119 runs, stroking 212 hits, swiping 39 bags, batting .321 and providing plenty of pop out of the leadoff slot by smacking 83 extra base hits, knocking in 105 runs and slugging .552.  He also did his best to push Boston into the postseason by providing 7.2 bWAR and posting his highest monthly hit, double, home run, and total base figures in September.

Berkman, on the other hand, appeared in 122 games last season but suffered through his worst full year as a professional, setting career lows in every category and looking finished at the age of 34.  Not even a midseason trade to the Yankees and their short porch in right could rejuvenate the slumping switch hitter.  But after accepting a one year, eight million dollar contract from the Cardinals (a 46.4 percent pay cut), switching from first base to right field and improving his fitness routine last offseason, Berkman returned to form by beginning the season on a tear and finishing with a .301/.412/.547 (almost identical to his .296/.409/.545 career triple slash) line.  The All-Star also belted 31 homers, plated 94 runners, scored 90 runs and walked 92 times while providing lineup protection for Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday.  Not surprisingly, the Redbirds picked up his $12 million option for 2012.

So this got me thinking of players who had down seasons in 2011 but could rebound and take home some hardware next season...

Alex Rodriguez-Was enjoying a decent season (minus the power stroke) before going down with a midseason torn meniscus from which he never really recovered.  He's 36 but could still put up good numbers with that park and lineup if he manages to stay healthy.
Carl Crawford-Disappointed in his first Boston season, but I'm predicting a Curtis Granderson-esque (minus the 40 big flies) turnaround in 2012.
Shin-Soo Choo-One of baseball's most underrated players missed half the season and struggled when he did play.  At 29 he's still in his prime and should return to his 20/20 .300 ways next year.
Joe Mauer-The power he flashed in his 2009 MVP campaign will never return when he plays half his games at Target Field, but a return to health (from bilateral leg weakness) and more games at 1B/DH should help recuperate his career low triple slash stats from 2011.
Kendrys Morales-Hasn't played since breaking his leg after awkwardly landing on home plate following his walk-off grand slam on May 29th, 2010.  The offensively challenged Halos need his .300-35-110 potential back in the heart of their lineup as Bobby Abreu and Torii Hunter decline.
Justin Morneau-The 2006 MVP and 2008 Home Run Derby champion missed half of 2010 and 93 games last season with a concussion and recurring symptoms.  Is only 30 years old.
Adam Dunn-Rough year for the big guy, who some (myself included) predicted would threaten 50 home runs with a move to the homer-friendly Cell. 
Alexis Rios-Notoriously streaky hitter suffered through more slumps than hot streaks in 2011.
Vernon Wells-Has a history of playing better in even-numbered years.
Ichiro Suzuki-Some bad luck on balls in play snapped his decade long streak of 200 hits with a .300 average, but Seattle should give him a breather every now and then (he led the league in games played during his age 37 season).
Francisco Liriano-No-hitter notwithstanding, Liriano endured his second tough season in the past three years.  Needs to cut his walk rate, five per nine in 2011, if he wants to return to his 2006/2010 form.
Ubaldo Jimenez-Hasn't pitched well since the middle of 2010, but should improve in his second tour of duty through the AL Central.

Aubrey Huff-Has been up-and-down the last few seasons, so he's due for a good season in 2012.
Hanley Ramirez-Missed 70 games but was suffering through his worst season.  Will be 28 next season and should return to form.
David Wright-Like his fellow Gotham City third-sacker he had an injury-marred 2011 that resulted in career lows across the board.  Will be 29 next year and could benefit if the Mets move their fences in.
Jason Bay-Has been a huge bust for the Mets thus far, but at 33 he still has some rebound potential.
Buster Posey-Has a shot to be the 2012 version of Ellsbury
Jason Heyward-Suffered a sophomore slump, but is simply too talented to not improve next year.  Plus he's only 22, so last season could have resulted from growing pains.
Jayson Werth-Almost went 20/20 in an otherwise disappointing debut in the nation's capital.
Ryan Zimmerman-Was solid when he played, but missed over 60 games.  2012 will be his age-27 season, so watch out.
Adam Wainwright-Missed all of 2011, but should be good to go for 2012.
Johan Santana-See Wainwright, Adam.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Cubs Hire Epstein

Epstein will attempt to break an even longer curse in Chicago
Terry Francona was the first casualty of the historic Boston Red Sox collapse, and now it looks like DM wunderkind Theo Epstein has put Beantown in his rearview mirror as well.

After building the unforgettable team that ended the city's 86 year World Series drought, Epstein is reportedly on his way to Chicago, where he will attempt to help the Cubbies win their first title since 1908 (or at least get them to their first Fall Classic since 1945).  The Cubs had already wooed Theo throughout most of September, and it's certainly possible he would have taken the position even if his Red Sox managed to hold their Wild Card lead and limp into the postseason. 

Although it is sad to see the architect of Boston's mini-dynasty skip town, there really wasn't much left for him to do there.  He joined the Sox as a 28 year-old Yalie, the youngest GM in baseball history who had dreamed of working for the Old Towne Team as a high schooler in local Brookline.  He inherited a talented team from interim GM Mike Port that hadn't made the playoffs since 1999 but included superstars Manny Ramirez, Nomar Garciaparra and Pedro Martinez.  After a roster overhaul brought undervalued players such as Kevin Millar, Bill Mueller, Todd Walker and David Ortiz to Beantown during his offseason debut, he had assembled one of the most potent lineups in baseball history that carried the team to within five outs of the World Series.  After replacing Grady Little with Terry Francona, Epstein addressed the squad's most glaring weakness--pitching--by bringing an ace and shutdown closer in Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke.  But he still wasn't content, and nearly pulled off a blockbuster three-way trade of Nomar and Manny for Alex Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez.  This guy had guts.

And the rest, as they say, is history.  Epstein saved the 2004 season with a blockbuster deadline trade of Garciaparra to the Cubs to acquire Gold Glovers Orlando Cabrera and Doug Mientkiewicz, two players who sparked Boston's second half surge and eventual World Series triumph.  Boston bowed out of the ALDS in 2005, and Epstein unexpectedly resigned shortly after.  Fortunately, he was rehired as the GM and Executive VP three months later and helped bring Boston another championship in 2007.  Meanwhile, the organization thrived; Fenway Park is riding an impressive sellout streak, the franchise became much more saavy with its new emphasis on statistical analysis, the farm system flourished (see Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, and Jonathan Papelbon) and the team is a threat to win the World Series every year. At this point, his job was more about maintaining and tweaking the team than rebuilding it . 

Even so, Epstein has received plenty of criticism for his inability to find a stable, productive replacement at shortstop for Garciaparra, whose successors include Edgar Renteria, Alex Gonzalez, Julio Lugo, Jed Lowrie, and Marco Scutaro.  He's also been bashed for questionable and expensive free-agent signings such as Renteria, J.D. Drew, Julio Lugo, Daisuke Matsuzaka, John Lackey, and Carl Crawford.  I don't blame Epstein for any of them because they were all good players when he signed them and it's impossible to gauge how a player will handle Boston's intense media and fans.  The Red Sox have the second largest payroll in baseball at $163 million, so they can afford to make these kinds of "mistakes," just as the Yankees can afford to lose money on Kevin Brown, Carl Pavano, Kei Igawa, A.J. Burnett, and Rafael Soriano.  Perhaps they weren't the wisest decisions, but they were certainly defensible at the time.

So now he takes over the Cubs with a new five year, $20 million contract.  Fifth place Chicago just completed a 71-91 season and is looking to rebuild around a solid young nucleus that includes Starlin Castro, Geovany Soto, Tyler Colvin and Matt Garza.  Their attendance is strong (over 3 million fans) and they have a lot of money coming off the books soon, but the frustrated franchise still has a long way to go if it wants to overtake the more talented Cardinals, Brewers and Reds. 

First he vanquished the Curse of the Bambino, so naturally the next step is to take down the even longer and more ludicrous Curse of the Billy Goat.  Fortunately for long-suffering Cubs fans, Epstein is the right man for that job.