Are the Los Angeles Dodgers Cruz-ing to the playoffs?; Pennsylvania’s playoff hopes take a tumble; the NL Cy Young Award race; Kris Medlen is a very serious man Cruz’ bat ain’t Blue It was after midnight on the East Coast, but very much the thick of prime time on Saturday out in Los Angeles, where there was more dramatic wild-card action between the Dodgers and the St. Louis Cardinals. Behind by a run in the bottom of the ninth inning and down to their final out, LA’s Andre Ethier singled to right field.
Are the Los Angeles Dodgers Cruz-ing to the playoffs?; Pennsylvania’s playoff hopes take a tumble; the NL Cy Young Award race; Kris Medlen is a very serious man
Cruz’ bat ain’t Blue
It was after midnight on the East Coast, but very much the thick of prime time on Saturday out in Los Angeles, where there was more dramatic wild-card action between the Dodgers and the St. Louis Cardinals. Behind by a run in the bottom of the ninth inning and down to their final out, LA’s Andre Ethier singled to right field. Speedster Dee Gordon pinch ran to distract Cards closer Jason Motte, and almost instantly, took off, sliding safely into second. Now the tying run was just 180 feet away with Luis Cruz at the plate.
Haven’t heard of Luis Cruz? Well, you’re not alone. He is quartz on a team of precious gems, most of which have failed to shine down the stretch. But without the journeyman Mexican, who until this year had played a grand total of 56 big league games over four seasons, who toiled in the minors for 11 years, the Dodgers would be even more down and out than they’ve looked.
Cruz told the Los Angeles Times:
“Sometimes when you’re in the minor leagues, you get frustrated, but I never quit. I always thought I could play here. And my dad and my family supported me all the time. And I’m here and very happy.”
On Friday against the Cards there was further validation that Cruz, who has hit over .300 in the past month while the Dodgers have hit .244 collectively, could handle the spotlight, when he connected on a huge, go-ahead, three-run homer in LA’s 8-5 victory. Facing Motte a night later, Cruz crushed a game-tying double into the gap in right center field that brought a desperate Dodgers crowd to its feet.
The 28-year-old raced home as the winning run after the next batter, Juan Rivera, tapped a ball that fell off the glove of a stretching second baseman Daniel Descalso. Just like that, the Cardinals watched a potential two game lead in the wild-card standings evaporate. I Love LA blared on stadium speakers and Vin Scully seemed pleased, in his understated, Scully way.
That’s the way it’s gone down the stretch in 2012, a season shaping up for a spectacular finale thanks to a new playoff system, one that rewards teams that shouldn’t be rewarded, but makes up for that silliness by providing division winners the right to avoid a one-game playoff. Seems a reasonable exchange, doesn’t it?
When it comes to wild-card teams, the Dodgers aren’t the only poster children for ballclubs that in no way shape or form should be involved in the fight for the playoffs. However, from here on out, this is the way baseball is going to be, and once you get over the fact that at this stage of the season, even the Padres, yes, the San Diego Padres, are only six games back of a playoff spot, (not that I believe there’s a chance) then you can really, really enjoy the magic that’s happening around baseball every night in September.
The Dodgers, now 1.5 games behind St. Louis in the race for the second NL wild-card spot, have lost 18 of their previous 27 games and are still major players in this thing. You want to think that Los Angeles have no chance now that they lost their Cy Young Award winning ace Clayton Kershaw, perhaps for the season, to a hip injury – joining other Dodgers starting pitchers Chad Billingsley and Ted Lilly on the sideline – the same way you thought the Giants were done when Melky Cabrera was suspended for 50 games after his positive drug test, the way the Orioles were in trouble after Nick Markakis broke a thumb a little over a week ago. The Giants ran away with the NL West sans Cabrera, while the Orioles storied season has continued unabated.
In 2012, baseball is much more forgiving than it used to be, and no one it seems is out of it until their elimination number is zero. So even though the Dodgers’ pitching staff is a mess, their sticks are silent and they play the Nationals, Reds, suddenly-scorching-Padres and the improved-Rockies, not to mention their hated rivals, the Giants, to finish out their schedule, expect LA, like almost everyone else, to be there until the end.
Kicking themselves in the Keystone State
Penna’s license plates once read “You’ve got a friend in Pennsylvania”. Actually, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Los Angeles Dodgers have two friends in the Commonwealth – the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Philadelphia Phillies. Both Keystone clubs have provided a boost to their National League wild-card race rivals recently, dropping key ballgames to lesser opponents, taking a bit of heat off the clubs to their west.
Now, this is baseball, and even the Houston Astros, who lost their 100th game on Tuesday, have won 48, meaning that on any given night, they are capable of coming up trumps against any and all comers. Still, the Phillies cannot lose three of four contests to the lowly Stros’, a team in transition, and expect to make the playoffs. How does a team that put together an improbable 18-6 run then flop in Houston of all places? It wasn’t the butler, but the bullpen that did it, surrendering late leads not once but twice. The Astros, a team with absolutely nothing to play for, rallied from three runs down in the eighth inning of Sunday’s series finale, putting four on the board to stomp on the Phills bid of salvaging a series split. The pen, which struggled to bridge from the starters to closer Jonathan Papelbon all season until this late run, reared it’s ugly head once more, casting doubt on whether they have enough in relief to get beyond the regular season. Philadelphia were also shut out in the series, with five Astros pitchers stifling a suspect Phillies offense on Saturday. Should they fall short in their better-late-than-never-run towards an unlikely playoff berth, Philadelphia will look back at those games in Houston with regret.
Thankfully for Phills fans, their Texas tumble didn’t continue in New York, home of the worst home-field advantage in all of baseball. The Mets are 4-22 in games played in Queens in the second half, and on Monday, Cliff Lee beat R.A. Dickey in a marquee matchup to move within four games of the wild-card spot, further frustrating New York’s ace in his bid for 20 wins. One more Mets note because I cannot resist: in the last 133 home innings, the Mets have scored more than one run in a single inning just once. Now that is truly Amazin’.
Meanwhile the Pirates continue their second half tailspin, one that has seen them revert to the sort of play that resulted in 19 consecutive seasons of sub .500 baseball. They took two out of three against the Cubs this weekend but are 2-5 against the NL Central doormats over the past ten days. This recent skid, despite the hot September of NL MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen, has been all about the Bucs lack of offense, and at one point, they went six straight games without scoring more than three runs. Then on Sunday they busted out for nine runs, only to watch the Cubbies storm back thanks to a sixth inning grand slam by Mike Rizzo - a moment described by one Pittsburgh fan as the defining moment of the slump. Even when they win, they lose – Pittsburgh beat the Cubs 3-0 in the series finale on Monday, but thanks to a 3.5 hour rain delay, their game didn’t conclude until 1:28AM central time. That means they wouldn’t hit the hay back in Pittsburgh until roughly 6AM, not exactly ideal considering that they began a key series vs. playoff rivals Milwaukee on Tuesday, and surprise, the Brew Crew wiped the floor with the zombies 6-0, stealing seven bases while they nodded off in between pitches, further diminishing their playoff hopes, moving to 3.5 games out. The Brewers passed them in the standings and are now just 2.5 games back.
The Bucs may be more likely to cobble together that elusive winning season rather than a playoff berth, but regardless, 2012 has brought hope to the moribund franchise.
Oh, to be (Cy) young…
With 11 pitchers owning ERA’s of under 3.00, I thought perhaps that this season may share some characteristics with 1968 – known to baseball fans and historians as the Year of the Pitcher. That was a season when hurlers dominated so thoroughly that the mound was lowered by five inches in 1969 in order to throw a bone to those poor, decrepit hitters. I went over to baseball-reference.com to have a look at what hapened 44 years ago and quickly discovered that my hunch was wildly naive – as it happens, 2012 doesn’t come even close. Back in 1968, the league ERA was an incredible 2.98 compared to this season’s mark of 4.03. There were no fewer than 49 pitchers with ERA’s under 3.00 in 1968, and the 49th was future Hall-of-Fame southpaw Steve Carlton. Who won the NL Cy Young that season? Bob Gibson, another hurler bound for Cooperstown, who was 22-9 with a 1.12 ERA with 268 strikeouts! Denny McClain won the AL award, going 31-6 with a 1.96 ERA. Not bad.
The next season, with the mound lowered, hitters were able to scratch an additional .65 runs, and there were just 24 hurlers with sub-3.00 ERA’s. So, 2012 is certainly nowhere near the Year of the Pitcher II, but it is amazing to contrast this and recent seasons to say, a year like 2000, when the league ERA was nearly three-quarters of a run higher than it is today, when home runs hit their all-time high, 1.17 per game. The pitchers have been wresting back control for several years now, and in 2012 has left us with quite the Cy Young Award race in both leagues. This week we look at the NL where you have R.A. Dickey, who once again couldn’t get any run support against the Phills on Monday night, Clayton Kershaw, who may have pitched his last inning of the season, Gio Gonzalez and we can even throw in Kyle Lohse, because, why not, he’s been ridiculous. Wins are valued far less than they once were which is why Kershaw gets a sniff here with just 12 victories (Felix Hernandez won it with 13 in 2010 but threw 249 innings and was incredible), but in 2012, the competition is probably too stiff for him to win, especially when you consider that Dickey has 18 victories on a losing ballclub, has over 200 k’s, just 50 walks as a knuckleball pitcher. Kershaw hasn’t gotten much help from his teammates, but still leads the league in strikeouts and WHIP. Gonzalez has 19 wins, but really can’t compete with Dickey overall, and the same can be said with Loshe, who is the biggest surprise of the bunch (he even had an RBI double last night in the Cards win vs. Houston).
Here’s another couple of names for Cy Young – how about Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman? I posed that to a buddy and he said nobody pays attention to Atlanta unless it’s on fire. Chapman hasn’t pitched in nearly 20 days, which means he has fallen off the radar a bit, but that isn’t really fair. Both players have numbers comparable to Mariano Rivera in 2005 when he probably should have won the award, when Bartolo Colon got it with his 21 wins and a host of substandard numbers, possibly prompting the backlash against the importance of victories as a viable statistic. Anyway, take a look at all those numbers and let me know who you think should get the plaque – I’m taking Dickey, go figure. We will cover the AL Cy Young candidates next week.
Here’s a number to chew on – seven. That’s the number of runs that the Atlanta Braves Kris Medlen has allowed in his first nine starts after re-locating from the Braves bullpen.
One late night watching MLB’s TV network, with one eye and ear open, I heard the chatter about Medlen’s inning limit, and how they were able to keep him on the hill late this season by starting him in the bullpen, and that the Nationals should have considered that as an option for Stephen Strasburg who is now out for 2012. Whoever was saying those wise words gets a gold star – both pitchers had innings caps while recovering from Tommy John surgery, but now Medlen is on the hill for a streaking Braves team that swept the Nationals this past weekend while Strasburg sits in the dugout, and then sits in the dugout some more.
I know that the Nationals are thinking for the long term, and I don’t necessarily disagree with shutting him down. However, when you think of the arm that is just sitting there doing nothing while the team heads towards a post-season with a real shot at winning it all, it is just hard to believe. These thoughts are exacerbated when you see what the Braves have done with Medlen, who has faced Washington in two of his previous five starts, allowing just one run in 14 innings, striking out 20 and walking just two batters picking up two victories. Yes, they are different pitchers, with different styles, that have taken different roads to get where they are today. However, it’s got to have Nats fans talking and wondering why their biggest asset is collecting dust. Nats brass should be thankful they play in a medium market – if this was happening in say Boston or New York there would be rioting in the streets.
• Here’s a good story coming out of that Braves/Nats series this weekend. Washington’s Gio Gonzalez, exiting the game on Sunday, tipped his cap to Atlanta’s Chipper Jones who will retire after the season. It was an acknowledgement that came in a game between rivals that could potentially meet in the playoffs, and during a series that the Nats got swept. After the game he said (via the AJC):
“Absolutely. I think he’s one of the greats to ever play the game, one of the greatest third baseman to ever play it. It was an honor to be on the same field especially at his house. It’s only a sign of respect and a guy who showed me respect by getting in that lineup, (he’s) telling me that’s how you want it – I’m going to go at you. The guy scored a run for them. That’s the kind of guy you respect 100 percent.”
I’m a sucker for that kind of class, great job by Gonzalez. I wonder if he will be as kind to Chipper if they are fighting for a World Series place.
• Stating the obvious here but if you’re wondering what should you be watching on Wednesday at 8PM EST then wonder no more. Mets vs. Phillies? Yanks vs. Jays? O’s vs. M’s? No way. It’s all about the CBS show, Survivor Philippines. Why? Well, this season, none other than Jeff Kent will be appearing on the program. That’s right, Mr. Sunshine himself. The 44-year-old former second baseman, who could find himself in the HOF shortly, and, who, by the way, made an awful lot of money in his long, fruitful career, will be taking on the likes of The Facts of Life’s Blair Warner in his bid for the $1m prize, not to mention a boatload of newfound credibility. Basically, we are talking about the Super Bowl of reality television here, and so I say, pennant race, shemenant race. For one hour on Wednesday, it’s all about Survivor, obviously.
• Andy Pettitte’s return to the mound was delayed by a night after the Yankees/Blue Jays game in New York was washed out. New York also got some news regarding Mark Teixeira, and that’s that the Yanks slugging first baseman won’t be back into the lineup until late September. Regardless, the Bronx Bombers seem to have weathered the storm, winning four of their last six including winning their series against struggling Tampa Bay. Alex Rodriguez’ return to form doesn’t hurt – his OPS over the previous two weeks is approaching 1.000.
• Toronto Blue Jays Yunel Escobar was suspended for three games for writing an offensive phrase into his eye black. I believe the phrase was “Do not watch Jeff Kent on Survivor”.
• Add another chapter to the Orioles storybook season. Baltimore emerged victorious in an 18 inning marathon in Seattle on Tuesday to move within a half game of the rained out Yankees. The victory, which came in five hours and 44 is their 14th win in extra innings, the longest streak since the 1949 Cleveland Indians won 19 in a row. More importantly, the Orioles, which had tied the game in the top of the ninth inning, remain three games ahead of the Los Angeles Angels in the race for the second wild-card spot.
• Albert Pujols was not in the lineup on Tuesday, attending to his wife and newborn child. Meanwhile, the AL West leading Rangers were torn apart by his Los Angeles Angels on Tuesday as they make a final run at a playoff spot. Pujols, who has suffered a fourth consecutive year of declines in his OPS, will post career lows in several major categories and is hitting .226 in September.
Here is a photo of Jeff Kent without his shirt on. Is that wrong?