Archive for the ‘The Playoffs’ Category

Those Little Town Blues

Thursday, May 13th, 2010

Roger Bernadina conquered New York — slugging two home runs and executing a rally-killing circus catch in right field as the Washington Nationals took two of three from the Apples at Citi Field. The Nats 6-4 ninth inning victory left the Nationals in sole possession of second place in the NL East, with the Anacostia Nine posting a head-spinning 19-15 record, just 1.5 games behind the guaranteed-to-win-the-division Philadelphia Phillies. The Mets were left to lick their wounds after Tuesday’s victory, which not only came at their expense, but made them trailers to a Washington team that (shhhhhh … don’t say it) is now being talked of as a possible (shhhhh!) contender for a spot in the playoffs in September (now you’ve gone and done it, you idiot). Buster Olney commented openly on “Baseball Tonight” on Wednesday that if the Nats continue to play well, and if Stephen Strasburg is all that everyone thinks he is and (if, if, if if) someone like Chien-Ming Wang were to recover nicely from his shoulder problems — well, then, the Nats would be buyers and not sellers in July, and perfectly capable of adding another pitcher (like, say, Roy Oswalt) to an already formidable mix. And adding someone like Oswalt could make the difference between a nice finish to a good season, and a season in which the home towners play well into October.

Olney should know better. Not only is that a lot of ifs, but the baseball gods take painful retribution on those who think about October during a frigid May road trip. But that Roger Bernadina would be the hero of the Nats latest victory seemed to underscore the unlikely mix of solid pitching, improved defense and timely hitting that has made the Nats the head-shaking talk of baseball: the good-glove-light-bat Bernadina was hitting just .212 when he came to the plate on Wednesday, as skeptical Nats fans kept wondering what the front office was going to do about the “problem in right field.” But Jim Riggleman told reporters after the game that he has faith in Bernadina’s ability to shake a slow start and drive in runs: “He is just too good to be sticking [a hit] out there now and then,” Riggleman opined. “The coaches agreed. They all felt the same way that Roger is ready to break out. It’s one game. It’s not a breakout. It could be the start of something good. It couldn’t happen to a more wonderful kid. Again, we are lucky to have him.”

So? So while it’s still early, and while it’s difficult to believe the Nats will continue to find heroes to give them wins in unlikely places (heroes like the otherwise punchless Roger Bernadina), and while it’s absolutely nuts to tempt the baseball gods by talking about September in May, its hard to argue with what long-suffering Nats fans are seeing on the field: a team that is improved in every category and that is learning to win knock-em-down late inning games. And the rest of baseball is noticing.

Doormats Win NL . . . Mattingly To Nats?

Friday, October 23rd, 2009


While the AL champion has not yet been decided, the crowning of the Phillies as N.L. champs sets up a classic I-95 tussle with the Yankees — or maybe it’s the Rocky Balboa vs. Apollo Creed series. Despite the dominance of the Phillies in every aspect of their series with the suddenly sputtering Dodgers, the Ashburns would be decided underdogs in the match-up against the The Evil Empire, whose front line pitching of Sabathia, Burnett and Pettitte would match-up well against Utley, Howard, Werth and Ibanez. And while the Phillies’ bullpen outclassed the Broxtons, they’d have a tougher time with the middle of the Yanks order. “We’re gonna get it,” Phuzzie manager Charlie Manuel says. We can forgive the over-confidence:  anything can happen in a seven game series and the Phillies are hardly pushovers. Even if they will be (and it’s still a pretty big maybe) facing the class of baseball.

It didn’t use to be this way. For over seven decades the Phillies were the pushovers of the National League — only one step ahead of our very own Washington Senators. As our pals over at Real Dirty Mets Blog point out, the Phils were once the doormats of the league: “From 1918-1948 they were above .500 once. 78-76 in 1932, finishing 4th. In an 8-team league, that was the only time in 31 years they finished above 5th place.” Before winning it all in 1980, the Phillies had appeared in the postseason twice — and lost both times. The Phillies might not have been “first in war, first in peace and last in the National League,” but they were next-to-last; the only thing they had to show for their efforts were a bunch of gamers who entered the hall: Richie Ashburn, Jim Bunning, Jimmie Foxx and Robin Roberts. Not a bad crew, but near-beer when compared to the Dodgers, Giants, and even the Cubs. Even when the Phillies were good they were bad. Baseball fans who know the game well scoff at the Mets collapse of 2007: the ’64 Phillies led the league by 6.5 and blew it in seven games. They were “the pholding Phillies.” It took them until 1980 to win their first series — a record of futility unmatched even by the North Side Drama Queens, who dominated the game in the early part of the century. It took Steve Carlton and Mike Schmidt to turn it around, though it would be another twenty-eight years before the Phillies took another championship.

These are not grandpa’s Phillies. The turn in the franchise is not simply the result of lots of money (their 2009 opening day payroll was a whopping $113 million), or a strong fan base (third in all of baseball), but a reflection of one of baseball’s best front offices. Phillies’ GM Ruben Amaro (Jr.) never stopped building: the 2009 version of the Phils is his handiwork. He added a key piece in the off-season (Raul Ibanez) and two starters that will be the backbone of the staff in the series: Cliff Lee and Pedro Martinez. Even so, it might not be enough. While the Phillies would be favored to humble the Belinskis, it’s doubtful Lee could pitch as well in two games against the Yankees as he did against the Dodgers. And could we really expect Pedro to match his seven inning NLCS effort? Then too, there’s the Phillies bullpen. Scoured clean during the regular season (they were simply awful, and in chaos, in the late going), Brad Lidge was once again Brad Lidge in the Trolley series, keeping the ball away from their best hitters. He would have to do that again, and then some, against the Jeters. Bottom line? In any match-up against the Bombers, the Phillies would have to be Rocky Balboa to win. But it would be exciting.

It’s Not A Motorcycle Sweetie, It’s A Chopper: Mark Lerner just bubbles over about the great progress the Nats have made over the last season, identifying the hiring of Mike Rizzo as one of the five great things that has happened to the team. Agreed. But the real question here (never asked in the on line interview) is whether the owners are willing to shell out what it will take to bring ballplayers to the club. The Nats payroll for 2009 was at $60 million, a little more than half of what the Phillies paid . . . The Lerners should know better than to complain about the media. They can’t win: and it’s hard to argue with columnists who roll their eyes at the obvious penny pinching. The Lerner family says they operate the Nationals as a public trust and are committed to the city. They should be celebrated for that: but the midseason argument that the Lerners have given back never really sounded right. Is that why they bought the team? To be good citizens?

The report of the day has Don Mattingly being interviewed for the Nats managerial job. “You listen to everyone,” Mattingly said about taking a job with a team that is rebuilding. “I’m flattered there’s some organizations out there that think I’m capable of it, or at least talked to me about it. You get to know them, they get to know you, and you see where it goes from there.” Mattingly knows the game and has been angling for a top dugout job since he left baseball. He was the reputed successor to Joe Torre in New York and was angered by the hiring of Joe Girardi. But the knock on Mattingly has nothing to do with his willingness to manage a last place team. The question is: does a last place team really need a guy who’s never been a manager — or wouldn’t the Nats be better off with someone with a few more years under their belt. No matter his experience, Mattingly would be an experiment: and the Nats have had enough of those.

The Grudge Match

Friday, October 16th, 2009


Tommy Lasorda is a ubiquitous presence in baseball and a legend in Los Angeles. The camera finds him in Dodger Stadium during nearly every game of the week, he’s constantly interviewed, and his baseball judgment is considered nigh on saintly: Tim McCarver mentions his name in a worshipful (almost liturgical) tone (“there’s Tommy”) and reporters scribble furiously when he talks, which he does — a lot. He’s even supplanted the late Walter O’Malley as “Mr. Dodger,” certainly he’s more worshipfully remembered than Walter Alston, whose managing career matches Lasorda’s. When Lasorda retired as the Dodger’s manager, back in 1996, he spent untold hours sidling up to Hollywood legends and walk-of-fame wannabes, hobnobbing with producers and starlets, and befriending crooner Frank Sinatra. Tommy’s done everything but the perp walk, but you never know.

But despite what Trolley fans might think, Lasorda’s not perfect. In 1993, he questioned whether then-Dodger prospect Pedro Martinez (5-11) was big enough to be a good pitcher, prompting the Dodger’s front office (which spent their time back then listening for the whip-crack in his raspy voice), to trade him to Montreal in exchange for second sacker Delino DeShields. Martinez rewarded Lasorda’s skepticism the next year: he pitched nine innings of perfect baseball for Montreal, compiling a 17-8 record. And he went on to become one of the best pitchers in baseball. Anyone can make a mistake, but apparently Pedro holds a grudge, not least because the endlessly yakky Lasorda was so outspoken in his criticism of his diminutive pitcher. It’s one thing to say a guy is “too small” to the front office, it’s another to say it in pubic. Then too, Pedro is not the kind of guy who’s known for steering away from controversy — and neither is Lasorda.

Back in 2005, Lasorda picked a fight with the Phillie Phanatic on his blog after the Phanatic took a Lasorda jersey, put it on a dummy, and ran over it again and again before a Dodgers-Phillies game. “This should not be shown in ballparks, especially in front of children,” Lasorda complained. “It exhibits disrespect and violence.” The next time the Dodgers were in town, Mr. Thin Skin (during a clubhouse lecture he gave on compassion, he told a player who interrupted him to “shut the f … up!”) body-slammed the Phanatic to the ground. And bragged about it. Say what you will about Martinez’s defense in fending off Don Zimmer: at least he didn’t attack a mascot.

The Martinez-Trolley feud would be enough to make tonight’s Trolley-Phuzzie match-up worth watching, but it’s not the only story of this series. Head hunter Vicente Padilla is scheduled to start for the Dodgers against his old team, who traded him to the Texas Rangers for a player to be named later — a “here, we don’t want him” swap that ruffled Padilla’s feathers and got under his very thin skin. Padilla was not well-liked in The City Of Brotherly Love, whose fans mercilessly dogged him about his wildness and mound antics and remained silent when he was traded. That wasn’t true for other Phillies: Randy Wolf (also now a Dodger) had a thick-as-syrup “Wolf Pack” following that howled when he appeared, while Jim Thome’s apologists were so vocal, so slathering, it was almost embarrassing. Padilla went on to become a felon in Texas, but has apparently cleaned up his act in L.A., where his teammates testify that he’s the brother of Mary Poppins. Of course he is: pitchers actually have to enter the batter’s box in the National League (where the game is played among men) — which means any Padilla fastball aimed at an opposing player’s ear is likely to result in his being carted from the field. Right past Lasorda’s box.

The silence you hear tonight when the Philllies take the field in the bottom of the 1st will have a lot to do with the importance of a second-of-seven NLCS  match-up: but the cameras will be trained on Lasorda, Martinez and Padilla, and not on the scoreboard. And any up-and-in fastballs are likely to be interpreted as more than pitches designed to move the hitter off the plate. This is for all the marbles in the National League, but this isn’t LA-St. Louis, or Philadelphia vs. the Rockies. This is an old fashioned grudge match between teams and players that don’t each other very much. And it will be pure entertainment.

Angel’s Stun, Sweep Sox

Sunday, October 11th, 2009

That glazed and puzzled look that has appeared on the faces of so many other post season teams (the St. Louis Cardinals yesterday, and the Chicago Cubs last year, to name just two) is now being worn by the Boston Red Sox. The A.L.’s wild card entry was stunned by a ninth inning rally in Boston on Saturday, and swept in three games by the Los Angeles Angels to be eliminated from the playoffs. The Bosox appeared headed for a sure win in their head-to-head match-up against the Belinskis, leading the Halos 6-3 heading into the 9th inning at Fenway Park — with their ace closer, Jonathan Papelbon on the mound. But with two outs, Papelbon’s down-and-out or up-and-in stuff failed him: Erick Aybar singled, Chone Figgins walked and Bobby Abreu doubled to tighten the contest. Even then, the Red Sox remained a simple grounder or fly ball away from victory. To set up a force out at every base, Papelbon walked Torii Hunter intentionally. That brought Vladimir Guerrero to the plate. On the very first pitch to one of baseball’s beset bad-ball hitters, Papelbon gave up a single to center. Guerrero’s hit, a leaning over-the-plate smack of a low and outside fastball, scored Figgins and Abreu and gave the Angels the 7-6 victory.

Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: The elimination of the Redbirds and Bosox now sets the wheels in motion for the offseason in both Boston and St. Louis. There’s a lot to do. Fans of “the Nation” face some big questions: about the future of David Ortiz and the cost of Jason Bay. The team is hardly in need of a major overhaul, yet the horses that have consistently put it into the off season are aging or hobbled. The entire left side of the Boston infield is in question: Mike Lowell can’t play third forever and the team has no ready answer at shortstop. “Phtttt . . . c’mon” — fans of the Nation say: what about Jed Lowrie? Well, what about him? Maybe Baseball Reference is lying, but their stats show him hitting .147 in 32 games. Hell, there’s a shortstop in Washington who hits a damn sight better than that and he’s no damn good at all . . .   

The Redbirds are younger, but the questions might be more pertinent: whether to pony up the big bucks it will take to keep Matt Holliday in left and (just like the Red Sox) what to do at third. Mark DeRosa is a free agent and while he likes St. Louis he will test the free agent market. Then too, while shortstop seems set for the River City Nine, rookie phenom Brendan Ryan hit a scorching .083 in the playoffs and looked shaky in the field. Redbird fans have the same reaction to this negativity as their Bosox buddies: “Oh yeah, well what about Troy Glaus?” Okay, right. Troy Glaus: who left his right shoulder somewhere in Toronto and hasn’t been the same since. Maybe he’ll return to his 2008 form (.270, 27 home runs), but it’s a pretty big maybe. Then too, number three starter Joel Pineiro is a free agent and would be a number one starter on most major league teams: including the Nats (now there’s an idea). Oddly, whether Holliday or DeRosa or Pineiro decide to stay in St. Louis might hinge more on the fate of Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan than on how much money Billy DeWitt puts on the table. LaRussa and Duncan’s contracts are up and both are rumored headed to Cincinnati, to team up with their old St. Louis G.M. pal Walt Jocketty . . .

Twin Killings: Twinkies, Bosox On The Ropes

Saturday, October 10th, 2009


There have been 26 Yankee juggernauts in major league history — 27 if you count the 1960 team, that could have, might have and should have won a world title: were it not for the heroics of Bill Mazeroski. This team, the 2009 version, is even more formidable. The twin killers of the Twins on Friday night (that put the reeling Twinkies down by two games to zip) were Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira, one of whom is headed to the hall and the other who might well be. It’s easy to see why Teixeira — offered an off-season gift basket from the Nationals — decided to play for the pinstripes: the New Yorkers know how to spend money, and they know how to win: a requirement for any ballplayer who prizes not only a large bank account, but a handful of rings.

What was billed as a pitchers’ duel turned out to be exactly that: as Yankee A.J. Burnett mixed four kinds of fastballs to put the Twins down through six innings. But Burnett, a puzzling mess at odd times, was pulled after six complete, with Yankee manager Joe Girardi suddenly dependent on a relief core that has often been shaky. And so it proved: even Phil Hughes and Mariano Rivera were merely human, while former Ahoy fireballer and reclamation project Damaso Marte was a disaster. The often so-so Nick Blackburn, meanwhile, was brilliant — posting a 1.59 post season ERA and befuddling Yankee hitters through 5.2. So when Joe Nathan arrived with the Twins’ lead intact we could be forgiven for thinking the game was over. Not so: Alex Rodriguez’s ninth inning home run tied it, while Tex’s walk off against Jose Mijares in the 11th won it. “It’s really disappointing,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “I’ve been walked off enough times here. Some of the things that happened out there were pretty disappointing. It was a good baseball game. A lot of things could have went either way, but didn’t go our way again tonight.” 

The Boston Red Sox Are Being Eaten In Anaheim. After a not-even-close 5-0 drubbing at the hands of the Belinskis on Thursday, “the Nation” sent ace Josh Beckett to the mound against Jered Weaver. It was a bookie’s fantasy: the lanky if talented Weaver brothers have “never quite” and have a tendency to implode (and what a sight it is!), while Beckett is calm to the point of perversity — and it’s downright weird. If Jered is Yosemite Sam (arms akimbo, fist slapping glove), then Josh is Mr. Magoo (calmly asking for another ball, as the one he just pitched sails into the night). So it was that — if you were to actually bet (and you wouldn’t would you?) — you would have been all-in on Beckett. And you’d have lost.

It happened in the seventh inning in Anaheim and it went something like this: Vlad Guerrero walked (Howie Kendrick runs for him), Kendry Morales lines out, Kendrick steals second, Juan Rivera grounds out to third (two outs), Maicer Izturis singles (Kendrick scores), Mike Napoli HBP, Erick Aybar triples, (Izturis and Napoli score), Chone Figgins strikes out for out number three. Score: 3-1 Angels.  What was most unusual was that Beckett seemed to lose his cool — complaining to homeplate umpire C.B. Bucknor that Mike Napoli hadn’t moved out of the way of a fastball that hit him in the back. Beckett seemed to come unhinged. “I wasn’t much [ticked] that he wouldn’t overturn the pitches, but show me a little bit of respect,” Beckett said. “He just straight-faced me and then walked away. I was just like, I went up to [catcher Victor Martinez]. I said, ‘Vic, he’d be [ticked] if I did that to him.’ I’m not asking him to even overturn it, just listen to what I have to say. Don’t like, take your mask off, straight-face me and then walk away. I can’t say anything to the point of getting thrown out.” 

The Red Sox, now down two games to none, must win three games in a row to advance to the league championship series. “We’ve just got to regroup,” Beckett said. “We know what we need to do now. We can’t lose another one. A lot of guys in here have been through this. It’s not an ideal situation, but we have to win.”

Rockies Even Series; Trolleys Stun Redbirds

Friday, October 9th, 2009

The Colorado Rockies held off the rallying Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on Thursday to take the second game in their five game series, 5-4. The key for the Purples was an unlikely two run homer off the bat of catcher Yorvit Torrealba, who hadn’t had a four base knock since May. Torrealba’s knock was complemented by solid pitching from Rockies’ starter Aaron Cook and bullpen aces Jose Contreras, Matt Belisle, Rafael Betancourt, Franklin Morales and all-world closer Huston Street (above). The Heltons, who won during the regular season by counting on the bats of an unlikely mix of new heroes, depended on the bat of yet another unknown newcomer: in this case it was left fielder Carlos “Cargo” Gonzalez. Gonzalez — a former Showboat prospect and a throw-in in the off season Oakland-Colorado Matt Holliday-for-Huston Street trade — spent much of the last two seasons in triple-A, while Denver’s front office waited for him to pan out. Gonzalez got his chance this year, after a series of injuries made room for him in the Colorado outfield. On Thursday, the fleet Venezuelan went 3-5 to spark the otherwise sleepy Rockies’ line up.

When the Oakland A’s got Matt Holliday from the Colorado Rockies in the Huston Street trade back in November of 2008, they thought their search for a big bat was over: the Stillwater, Oklahoma native was a three time all star and three time silver slugger and he’d been named the 2007 World Series MVP. But Holliday didn’t seem to fit in in Oakland (he hit an otherwise anemic .286 with 11 home runs in 93 games), and on July 24, 2009 Oakland A’s guru Billy Beane swapped him to St. Louis for three top prospects: Brett Wallace, Clayton Mortensen and Shane Peterson. In St. Louis, Holliday tore the cover off the ball — hitting .353 with 13 home runs in just 63 games, and propelling the Redbirds into the post season. He was just what Tony La Russa ordered.

Holliday’s post season experience gave St. Louis the confidence they needed against L.A. With Albert Pujols and Holliday in the middle of their order and Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright their big guns as starters, St. Louis was set to head into L.A. to face Joe Torre’s big bats. L.A. took the first game, with a surprisingly shaky outing by Carpenter. But St. Louis came back to dominate the second game: and it looked like the Redbirds were set to even the series at one game apiece. But with two outs in the ninth ining and St. Louis leading, the otherwise sure-handed Holliday dropped a sinking liner off the bat of first sacker James Loney to give the Dodgers new life. Casey Blake then walked and former Nats Ronnie Belliard singled home the tying run, before Mark Loretta’s short centerfield single provided the 3-2 walk off win. “It’s tough to swallow,” Holliday said after the game. “Obviously, I feel terrible. But I just missed the ball. It hit my stomach. I think I can catch a ball hit right at me.” The Trolleys now lead the series, 2-0.