Archive for the ‘The Playoffs’ Category

The Nats’ Season Ends In San Francisco

Wednesday, October 8th, 2014

Untitled

A strangely quiet line-up, a misplayed grounder, a well-placed bunt, a defensive gem, and a wild pitch ended Washington’s season on Tuesday night, as the San Francisco Giants defeated the Washington Nationals, 3-2. The defeat ended the Nationals season, as the Giants now go on to face the St. Louis Cardinals for the National League championship.

The difference in this series, as any Nationals fan will tell you, was Washington’s strangely quiet line-up. While Anthony Rendon and Bryce Harper hit well against Giants’ pitching in the series, San Francisco was able to consistently quiet the bats of Denard Span, Jayson Werth, Adam LaRoche and Ian Desmond — the heart of Washington’s offense.

The same was true on Tuesday, with a medley of Giants pitchers (from starter Ryan Vogelsong to closer Hunter Strickland) throwing on oh-fer to Span (0-4), Werth (0-3), LaRoche (0-4), and Desmond, who notched a single hit. Even the normally productive Anthony Rendon (0-4) proved unable to provide the Nationals with needed offense.

The misplayed grounder on Tuesday came in the 2nd inning, when a hit back to the pitcher off the bat of Juan Perez was muffed by Nationals southpaw starter Gio Gonzalez, putting two Giants runners on base with no one out. A well-placed bunt (by Ryan Vogelsong) one batter later loaded the bases, with the Giants then scoring two runs — on a walk to Gregor Blanco and a Joe Panik ground out to first, which scored Perez.

Did Gonzalez pitch well? The 2-0 score at the end of two reflected the reality of the series: the Giants were moving runners on bloops, bleeders, walks and errors — a habit of championship teams. They were finding a way to win. At no time was this more apparent than in the 6th inning, when a long drive off the bat of Jayson Werth was snagged by right fielder Hunter Pence, who made a Roberto Clemente-like back-to-the-wall catch.

But the game came down to a Nationals miscue in the 7th inning, when Nats fireballer Aaron Barrett came on in relief of Matt Thornton and walked Pence to load the bases. Barrett then threw a wild pitch to Pablo Sandoval, which scored Panik with the go-ahead and eventual winning run.

Barrett made up for the gaffe when he tagged out Buster Posey after blooping a ball to the backstop on an intentional walk, but the damage was done — and San Francisco was the 3-2 winner of the game, and the victor in the series. “I got lucky, obviously, with the wild pitch,” Barrett said after the loss. “The bottom line is I didn’t make pitches when I had to, and it ended up costing us the game.”

If there was a Washington hero for the loss, it was Bryce Harper, who showed that he can be a big-game player in a winner-take-all series. Harper ripped his third homer of the Nats-Giants toe-to-toe in the top of the 7th inning on a 97-mph Hunter Strickland fastball, a long and deep fly ball that ended up in McCovey Cove.

“This is tough,” center fielder Denard Span said after the loss. “We didn’t play well all series. That’s the bottom line. The Giants made the least amount of mistakes. We made too many mistakes. The little things added up.” Nats skipper Matt Williams called the defeat “bitter,” but praised his team for their 96 win season. “I’m proud of them,” he said.

Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 12.18.42 PM

Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: Winners go on to play another day, while losers talk about things like “perspective” — as in, “I know we lost, but let’s put this in perspective.” Still, it’s worth standing back, particularly after a season-ending loss like the one last night, to talk about history . . .

Back in 2010 I wore my ‘Curly W’ hat to the Roy Halladay-Tim Lincecum post-season face-off in Philadelphia, calculating that no one would really look to see whether the cap bore the trademark Philadelphia “P.” I was mostly right, though one Philadelphia fan gave me a puzzled look: “Really?” he asked, eying my hat. “Why would you root for such a loser . . .”

I might have told him that if anyone should know about losing it was a fan of the Philadelphia Stinking Phillies, Established in 1883, it took the Phillies 22 years to just appear in a championship game (which they did, in 1915), and just under one hundred years to win their first one, which came in 1980 . . .

If you study the Phillies or Cubs or White Sox or Twins or Braves (or just about anyone else, perhaps, excepting the Cardinals and Yankees) you realize that it sometimes takes years to build a winner — and a little bit of luck to win it all even when you have one . . .

That’s true for the Nationals too. It’s taken ten years for the Nationals’ front office to build a winner, but it might have taken a lot longer. Back in 2008, the Nationals offered a huge contract to Mark Teixeira, and were disappointed when he decided to sign with the New York Yankees. He signed with them because they were a “winner” . . .

But here’s the thing: If Teixeira had signed with the Nationals, the team might have had a stronger 2009 and finished with, say, 63 wins instead of 59. Which means? Which means that Bryce Harper would probably be playing in Pittsburgh (or in Baltimore) instead of in Washington . . .

So what would you rather have — Mark Teixeira playing first base, or Bryce Harper in left field? Which is why we take universal take-it-to-the-bank judgments about baseball (or about anything else, for that matter) with more than a grain of salt . . .

We’re going to hear a lot of such judgements in the days ahead: the Nats loss to the Giants shows “they’re not ready for prime time,” that the Nats don’t know how to don’t “step up on the big stage,” that skipper Matt Williams “needs seasoning,” that the Nationals need to show some “character . . . ”

What a bunch of baloney. This has nothing to do with character. The Giants didn’t win their series against the Nationals because they’re better citizens, they won it because they hit some timely bleeders and some down-the-third base line bunts . . .

Perspective? How this for perspective: If the “just a little outside” Zimmermann called “ball” in game two had been called a “strike,” we’d still be playing . . .

It was a great season. It was fun to watch. The Nationals are a fine baseball team. They didn’t win it all, but that’s the way it goes . . .

So here’s the argument for perspective. When you lose a series like this one, you pack up your bats, you hop on the airplane, you start planning for next year — and you live to fight another day. In almost everything else, that’s never an option . . .

Untitled

 

Nats Live On: Fister Fells The Giants

Tuesday, October 7th, 2014

Untitled

Facing elimination in San Francisco, the Washington Nationals lived on to play another day, as starting righty Doug Fister combined with timely hitting, and an error on pitcher Madison Bumgarner, to down the Giants at AT&T Park, 4-1. Fister threw seven innings of four hit baseball in a brilliant outing that left the Nats trailing the NLDS by two games to one.

After a frustrating series that saw the Nationals score just three runs in 33 innings, the Washington line-up put three runs on the board against Bumgarner and the Giants in the 7th inning of game four on an Ian Desmond single, a walk to Bryce Harper and a rare sacrifice bunt from catcher Wilson Ramos on a two strike count.

While the Ramos sacrifice was fielded cleanly in front of the mound by Bumgarner, the Giants ace whirled and threw wide of third base, sending the ball down the left field line and into the Giants bullpen. Desmond and Harper scampered home for two runs. The next hitter, Asdrubal Cabrera then singled home Ramos, who slid past Buster Posey for the Nats third run.

“You can’t throw the ball away,” Bumgarner said of his key throwing error. “I screwed it up for us. I thought I had a shot right there. Whether we had a shot or not, I think we still had a shot to get Ramos at first base.” The other Washington run came on Bryce Harper’s second home run of the series (a massive 421 foot shot) over the right field wall.

The game also saw Harper notch two clutch defensive gems, snagging Brandon Crawford’s drive to the left field wall in the second inning and grabbing a dead duck single off the bat of Travis Ishikawa.

“Going out there and being able to deal with that sun a little bit, it’s very tough,” Harper said of his dramatic outfield plays. “We have that a little bit in D.C. in center, so really had it all year long. It’s definitely tough, trying to battle out there.”

The 4-1 victory was a shot in the arm for Washington, which had struggled at the plate against Jake Peavy in game one of the series, and Tim Hudson in game two of the series. While the Nats were still only 1-7 with runners in scoring position, they took advantage of San Francisco’s miscues, while making none of their own.

The victory forces game four of the series, which will be played today in San Francisco. The Nationals will send lefty Gio Gonzalez to the mound to face off against the Giants Ryan Vogelsong.

“His numbers the last month were fantastic,” Nats skipper Matt Williams said in explaining why he will go with Gonzalez on the mound. “He’s been going deep into games and using all his pitches for strikes when he wants to.”

Screen Shot 2014-10-07 at 8.44.37 AM

Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: Here’s what you do if you’re Los Angeles Dodgers skipper Don Mattingly: you run Clayton Kershaw or Zack Greinke out to the bump, take a snooze on the pines, and when you wake up — “presto,” you’ve taken a 2-zip lead on the what-are-we-doing-here St. Louis Cardinals . . .

Or, at least, that’s what fans of the Trolleys would have you think. In fact, it hasn’t turned out that way. Last Friday, in as close to a sure win as you can have, the Redbirds touched the All World Kershaw for eight runs in six innings and squeezed out a jaw-clenching 10-9 win . . .

The Dodgers bounced back from that first game loss with a ho-hum two hit seven inning stint from Greinke on Saturday (notching a 3-2 victory in Game 2 of the Dodgers-Cardinals best-of-five), but baseball analysts were still wondering why Donny Baseball hadn’t given Kershaw the hook when he started to unravel the day before . . .

Last night we were all given an insight into Mattingly’s thinking, which goes something like this: why in the world would you rely on a sometimes shaky bullpen when you’ve got the game’s best starter on the mound. Sure nuf, last night in St. Louis, the Dodgers bullpen waltzed their way into a 3-1 loss when lefty reliever Scott Elbert gave up a two run homer in the 7th to Kolten Wong . . .

Scott Elbert? One L.A. wag described Mattingly’s decision as “one for the birds . . .”

(more…)

Nats Blasts Not Enough Against The Giants

Saturday, October 4th, 2014

Untitled1

Bryce Harper and Asdrubal Cabrera each homered for the Nationals, but the round trippers weren’t enough to tame the Giants, as Washington fell to San Francisco 3-2 in the first game of their five game National League Division Series face-off. The two teams will continue their fight to play in the N.L. Championship series on Saturday.

The Giants victory was fueled by a nose-in-the-dirt outing from San Francisco righty Jake Peavy, who no-hit the Nationals into the 5th inning, when Bryce Harper finally connected for an infield single. When Peavy exited the game after two outs in the 6th, he’d held the Nationals to just two hits and no runs and had struck out three.

“Peavy was unbelievable,” Harper said, following hit team’s loss. “He has been in this game a long time. I don’t know if I should be saying this, but I love his mentality out there and the way he pitches. He screams and yells and does what he does out there.┬áThat’s a gamer’s mentality. I have the utmost respect for Peavy for the way he threw tonight.”

Washington starter Stephen Strasburg, meanwhile, labored through five innings, giving up eight hits. The Giants played a small ball, hit-to-contact game against Strasburg, nickel-and-diming him with line-drive singles up the middle. Singles from Joe Panik, Brandon Belt and Buster Posey put the Giants ahead, 3-0 by the 7th inning.

The Giants’ hit-em-where-they-aint’s routine was frustrating for Washington’s young righty, who put in a solid performance, but took the loss. “Wasn’t like they were hitting me all around the yard,” Strasburg acknowledged, following his loss. “Hit it where we weren’t.”

Washington finally clawed back from the early deficit in the 7th, when Bryce Harper and Asdrubal Cabrera launched home runs that brought the Nationals within a single run. Harper’s breathtaking homer landed in the upper deck of right field, as the 45-000-plus Nats fans screamed their appreciation.

Jerry Blevins, Craig Stammen, Matt Thornton and Tyler Clippard followed Strasburg to the mound, providing workmanlike relief to the righty ace. But San Francisco responded by putting an extra run on the board in the 7th against Stammen, when Joe Panik led off the inning with a triple and was plated by a clutch Buster Posey single.

“Like I said, we had opportunities,” Nats skipper Matt Williams told the press after his team’s loss. “One swing of the bat can mean the difference in our game today. It didn’t happen. We will see if it can happen tomorrow.”

Screen Shot 2014-10-04 at 8.20.51 AM

Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: Bryce Harper’s 7th inning home run traveled 445 feet and landed in the third tier, bouncing forward where it was retrieved by a fan. The home run came off reliever Hunter Strickland, a late season addition to the Giants’ roster and the reputed “closer of the future” for San Francisco . . .

The Giants game plan against Strasburg was to hit his fastball up the middle, and not to do too much. It seemed to work. “He was good,” manager Matt Williams said. “Throwing strikes early. It wasn’t that he was so excited that he wasn’t throwing strikes. Worked through the first inning well. I think he pitched fine . . . ”

Nats fans were silenced, and a little surprised, by San Francisco’s early offensive, but then got back into the game when Harper homered. When Asdrubal Cabrera then hit his round tripper (following a Wilson Ramos “K”), lifting his arms into the air to spur the home town crowd, the fans responded . . .

Cabrera’s home run didn’t have the distance of Harper’s, but it was impressive nonetheless. The offering from Hunter Strickland was high-and-away, and came in at 97 mph. Cabrera reached out to get it, and actually pulled it down the right field line. Very few 97 mph fastballs are pulled that well . . .

Strickland is an impressive addition for the Giants who is capable of providing late inning heat. But his final line on Friday was downright terrible. He gave up two hits, both of them home runs, and his final ERA for the day came in at a solid 18.00 . . .

The Nationals stranded seven runners on Friday and were 0-7 with runners in scoring position. That was the difference in the game, though the Giants pointed to the performance of starter Peavy and their playoff experience as the key to their victory . . .

“I think we tapped into our postseason experience,” San Francisco closer Sergio Romo said. “There’s that little extra thing in our chemistry — that focus, that determination — that separates postseason games from regular-season games. Everything seems to matter in the playoffs . . .

Screen Shot 2014-10-04 at 8.13.53 AM

It’s Nats-Giants In NLDS

Thursday, October 2nd, 2014

Untitled

Giants southpaw Madison Bumgarner shut out the Pittsburgh Pirates on Wednesday night, 8-0, propelling San Francisco into the National League Division Series, where they will face the Washington Nationals. Bumgarner threw a complete game four hitter in leading the Giants.

The Giants’ win came off the arm of Bumgarner, and the bats of shortstop Brandon Crawford and Brandon Belt. Crawford hit a grand slam home run in the fourth inning to give San Francisco a four run lead, while Belt chipped away at Pirates pitching with two hits and three RBIs.

“We got outplayed tonight,” Pittsburgh second baseman Neil Walker said after his team was eliminated from the post season. “Bumgarner went out there, he did what he wanted to do. He put up the strike zone and he made it tough on us.”

The Giants victimized Pittsburgh starter Edinson Volquez, who was rocked for five runs in just five innings of work. The Pirates followed with five relievers, but Pittsburgh’s hitters still couldn’t get to Bumgarner, who threw 109 pitches in the game, 79 of them for strikes.

The Giants win sets up a five game series with the Nationals in Washington. The Nats are expected to throw ace Stephen Strasburg in the opening game of the series on Friday, while the Giants will throw veteran Jake Peavy and follow with another veteran, Tim Hudson. The Nationals took five of the seven games in which they faced the Giants this year.

While Washington has yet to make its final roster and starting rotation decisions, the team is expected to follow Strasburg with Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister. Gio Gonzalez will be the sole Washington lefty starter should Washington need him. The first game of the series will be played at 3 pm on Friday at Nationals Park.

Screen Shot 2014-10-02 at 9.16.34 AM

Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: Washington’s Internet Baseball Writers Association announced their 2014 player awards on Wednesday, and CFG was one of the voters. Anthony Rendon took top honors among the voters in winning the Goose Goslin Most Valuable Player Award while Jordan Zimmermann was named the winner of the Walter Johnson starting pitcher award . . .

Centerfield Gate was outside this mainstream: we voted Denard Span the team MVP and Doug Fister the team’s best starting pitcher (this was before we saw Zimmermman’s no-hitter, which might have changed our vote). Drew Storen received the best reliever award, while Adam LaRoche was named the teams best slugger . . .

It’s worth reviewing the season’s final player stats — to show just how solid the Nationals were in the regular season. Washington’s Span led the the N.L. in hits (tied with Philadelphia’s Ben Revere), Anthony Rendon was fifth and Jayson Werth was in the top 30 . . .

Anthony Rendon led the league in runs scored (with 111), while Werth was third in OBP (.394). Rendon and Span were fourth in doubles, Adam LaRoche was fifth in RBIs and Span was fifth in stolen bases. It was a solid year for the team at the plate (fifth in BA, fourth in OBP, fifth in Slugging, fourth in OPS) . . .

But no one outshone the Nationals on the mound, where Washington finished first in team ERA, was second in the league in shutouts (behind the Dodgers) and gave up fewer walks than anyone. Doug Fister and Jordan Zimmermann finished in the top ten in ERA, while Stephen Strasburg finished tied with Johnny Cueto for the league lead in strikeouts . . .

The Nationals had the second best bullpen in the National League (just behind San Diego, and measured by bullpen ERA), and has to be accounted as having one of the best benches. The Nats weighed in with the best record in the National League, at 96-66. But the most important test yet remains, and it begins tomorrow — against the Giants . . .

7652190

Let’s Play The . . . Giants

Saturday, September 27th, 2014

sandoval

Somewhere here soon, and actually any minute now, Nats skipper Matt Williams will tell the Washington sports press that he doesn’t care whether the Nationals face the Pirates (and, well, perhaps the Cardinals) or the Giants in the playoffs — “they’re both good teams.” That’s fine for Matt, but the rest of us should have a decided preference: Let’s play the Giants.

It’s not that we don’t like the Pirates (we love them, and if the Nats weren’t in the playoffs . . .), it’s that of the two teams that the Nats are likely to face in the playoffs first round, the Giants are (arguably) the easier opponent. They’ve had an inconsistent September (swept by the Padres and dumped by the Dodgers) and, with the exception of Madison Bumgarner (and Jake Peavy) their pitching is a mess.

The Giants know it. Having backed into the playoffs, Giants skipper Bruce Bochy is now juggling his starting staff to make certain San Francisco puts Bumgarner on the mound on Wild Card Wednesday, no matter who the Giants face. Which means that, if the Giants were to win, the Nationals would face either Ryan Vogelsong, Jake Peavy or Tim Hudson in the first game of the N.L. Division series — while Bumgarner sits.

San Francisco will enter the playoffs with the worst pitching stats of any of the five N.L finishers, with a so-so team ERA (at 3.52), a habit of giving up big runs to small teams and a back of the rotation that has been absolutely shelled.

The Giants lost to the Padres 4-1 last night at home, but gave up eight runs to them on Thursday, in a game the franchise said it had to win. Earlier in the month, the McCoveys were outscored by the Friars in a three game set, 16-2.

But our argument doesn’t have as much to do with the Giants as it does with the Pirates. Pittsburgh is red hot (they’ve won nine of their last eleven), their line-up is that much more formidable and their starting rotation is tougher than San Francisco’s. Pittsburgh is the N.L.’s big secret: they can hit, they can pitch, they’re patient at the plate and they’re fast.

(more…)

Nats Keep Rolling, Edge Miami 3-2

Sunday, September 21st, 2014

Untitled

Sloppy play and a slow start weren’t enough to deny the Nationals their 90th win of the season, or starter Jordan Zimmermann his 13th, as Washington rallied to edge the Marlins in Miami on Saturday night, 3-2. The win, coupled with a Dodgers loss against the Cubs, lifted the Nats 2.5 games ahead of Los Angeles for the best record in the National League.

Starter Zimmermann was once again the ace of the game, throwing six innings of five hit baseball while striking out four. The victory for Zimmermann marked the Nationals tenth consecutive win with “the Ace of Auburndale” on the mound. Zimmermann soldiered on after taking a pitch off his shoulder in the sixth inning — a dangerous line drive that threw ripples of fear through the Nats dugout.

“It happened so fast,” Zimmermann said, after the Nationals victory. “I saw the ball coming and thought that it was stopped. I just tried turning and lift my shoulder. I was lucky enough that it hit my shoulder and not my face. It’s a little sore, pretty tight right now but it will be fine. It’s not going to affect me.”

The victory also marked the return of third sacker (and, now, left fielder) Ryan Zimmerman, who had missed 55 games, to the line-up. Zimmerman’s contribution was immediate. The “face of the franchise” was 2-3 on the night, with a single (in his first at bat in the second inning), and a triple in the 7th that scored Ian Desmond. “It was fun to be out there and be part of the team and be out with the guys in a really good win,” Zimmerman said.

Miami scored a single run in the first inning on four hits, including an RBI single from rookie Justin Bour. The Marlins scored their second run in the fourth, after Reed Johnson led off with a double to center field. Denard Span retrieved the ball off the wall, but overthrew cutoff man Asdrubal Cabrera. Backing up the play, Jordan Zimmermann overthrew Anthony Rendon at third, which allowed Johnson to score.

“I knew I overthrew the first cutoff guy, but I thought the ball was gonna get caught,” Denard Span said of the unusual two error play. “I turned my head and all of a sudden I heard the crowd roaring. I was like, ‘What the heck is going on?’ Next thing you know, he was rounding third.”

All of Washington’s runs were scored during a 7th inning rally that began with an Ian Desmond single. Desmond then scored on a Ryan Zimmerman triple, with Zimmerman then ruled out at home on a Wilson Ramos fielder’s choice. But second sacker Asdrubal Cabrera kept the inning going with a triple that scored Ramos. Cabrera, in turn, scored on a Denard Span single.

The three run 7th inning held up, with the Nationals bullpen closing out the game. Aaron Barrett and Tyler Clippard closed down Miami in the 7th and 8th innings, with Drew Storen keeping the Marlins off the board in the 9th (with the help of a game ending double play), notching his ninth save.

Screen Shot 2014-09-21 at 9.24.12 AM

Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: The Braves season was still alive last week, but their skid just goes on and on. Last night the Braves were upended in Atlanta by the suddenly dangerous Metropolitans, who shut out the Tomahawks, 2-0. Atlanta is 4-13 in the month of September. Which means that the Braves “tragic number” is two: if they lose today, and the Pirates win, the Braves will be out of the post-season . . .

“I thought we had good at-bats up and down the lineup,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said, after last night’s loss. Really? The Braves were 2-10 with runners in scoring position. And. And don’t look now, but the Mets and Marlins have an outside chance of catching the Braves for second place in the National League East, which would just about do-in the Cobb County faithful . . .

And, ah, wouldn’t that be a shame . . .

Meanwhile, the Braves of the West (otherwise known as the Oakland Athletics) continue their imitation of a demolition derby. It’s getting really ugly, which means that it’s nearly impossible to avert your eyes. We tune in every night to watch the A’s, just so we can see how they’ll screw up this time. The A’s are 6-12 in September, and continue to find new ways to lose . . .

(more…)

Baltimore Ends Its Drought, Wins A.L. East

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

Untitled

The Baltimore Orioles defied the odds-makers, pundits and baseball analysts, sweeping to their first American League East title since 1997, with an 8-2 win over the Toronto Blue Jays at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on Tuesday night. The victory gave the O’s a 91-60 record on the year, second best in all of baseball.

This is not where the O’s were supposed to be. As the Yankees, Red Sox, Rays and Blue Jays retooled in the off-season (with the Yankees spending wildly to rebuild their outfield and pitching staff), the Orioles made do with a late signing of outfielder Nelson Cruz, a decision that brought nearly unanimous hoots of derision from baseball experts.

But the Orioles, who suffered in-season injuries to catcher Matt Wieters and All-World third baseman Manny Machado (as well as the suspension of home run powerhouse Chris Davis), mixed and matched and scratched their way to victory after victory, matching the third best ERA in the American League to the best long-ball hitting team in the majors.

But Baltimore’s pitching and hitting tell only a part of the story. The unsung hero of the O’s 2014 campaign might well be G.M. Dan Duquette, whose mid-summer moves kept the O’s alive when they should have been fading. Duquette shuffled players back and forth to Triple-A Norfolk, getting key starts from journeyman infielder Jimmy Paredes, trading for Bosox reliever Andrew Miller and then swapping two minor leaguers for Alejandro De Aza and Kelly Johnson.

Nearly all of this handiwork was on display in Baltimore last night. Paredes was 2-3 with an RBI while playing third, De Aza stroked a triple and notched three RBIs, Miller provided a two-batter bridge to Tommy Hunter who pitched the 9th, Steve Pierce (released, then re-signed by Duquette back in April) hit his 18th home run of the season — and the O’s laughed their way to an 8-2 victory.

But this is hardly the trash heap O’s. Baltimore boasts perhaps the best outfield in baseball, as well as one of the American League’s favorites for MVP. Cruz, De Aza and Pierce hold down left field, steady veteran Nick Markakis is in right and potent and potential MVP Adam Jones mans center. Nelson Cruz is the DH, and he has 39 home runs on the year — best in the junior circuit.

And then there’s Buck Showalter, now the favorite to win the Manager of the Year Award, not least for shaping (with Duquette) the almost famous “Baltimore Shuffle” — the up-to-the-majors, down-to-Triple-A moves that have characterized the team’s handling of the pitching staff all year. Somehow, it’s all worked out.

And here’s how: Wai-Yin Chen (the underrated Japanese import) is 16-4, Miguel Gonzalez has won seven of his last ten outings, Chris Tillman has been brilliant (a 3.29 ERA and 1.22 WHIP), and the Baltimore bullpen has the fourth best ERA in the American League.

And last night Buck Showalter handed the ball to the up-and-down Ubaldo Jimenez, an unusual act of confidence in a starter who’s been inconsistent — at best. And how did Jimenez react? He threw an improbable five innings of two hit baseball.

“You get older, you want to get a good angle and a good seat and see good people get a return for what they put into it and what they’re trying to achieve,” Showalter told the press after last night’s clincher. “And this is a huge step, to get a chance now. We’ve got to figure out a way to win 11 games.”

Which is to say: in our opinion, the always-underrated O’s are not simply the best team in the fast eroding American League Least, they’re the class of the American League — and our pick as the team to beat in the post-season.

buck-showalter