Sunday, November 8, 2015

You Never Know...

We lost baseball's great wordsmith in September when Yogi Berra died at the good ripe age of ninety. Berra was unquestionably one of the greatest catchers ever, but today he is probably best known for his quotes, a mixture of homespun wisdom:
Always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t come to yours.
It's like déjà vu all over again.
a unique take on mathematical concepts:
Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical.
hilarious malaprops:
He hits from both sides of the plate. He's amphibious.
and redundant tautologies:
We have deep depth.
So quotable and numerous were his utterances that the word yogism was coined to describe not only things Yogi Berra said, but goofy things other people said that were credited to him. On that he commented:
I never said most of the things I said.
Probably the most famous thing Yogi Berra never said had something to do with an event not concluding without the benefit of song from a woman of large proportion. 

Berra was the master of stating the obvious. Who would have realized for example that you could learn a lot about something simply by watching, that a record would stand until it was broken, and of course, that something's not over, until it's over.

That last observation, probably his most famous, simple-minded as it may sound, is remarkably profound when it comes to the profession Yogi Berra mastered. An equally quotable man with a much different style, the late Baltimore Oriole manager Earl Weaver put it this way:
You can't sit on a lead and run a few plays into the line and just kill the clock. You've got to throw the ball over the goddamn plate and give the other man his chance. That's why baseball is the greatest game of them all.
Unlike games ruled by the clock, there is no such thing as an insurmountable lead in baseball. Difficult as it might be, it is still possible to score ten runs with two outs in the bottom of the ninth to win or tie a ballgame. It probably even happened once somewhere, sometime. As Yori Berra might have said (but didn't):
If there is one word that best describes baseball it's this: You never know.
That wannabe yogism was actually uttered by all-star pitcher Joaquin Andujar, who sadly also passed away this past September. You never know describes the wonderful unpredictability of baseball, especially the game as it is played today.

This year's baseball season which concluded last Sunday was defined by you never know, making it one of the most entertaining seasons in recent memory. At least four teams came seemingly out of nowhere to make it into the playoffs, and the team that won it all, came from behind late in games five times in the post-season, proving once and for all what messers Berra and Weaver intimated, you should never leave a ball game until the last out is recorded.

I've always contended that what makes sports so compelling is the outcome is not contrived like theater, rather the drama is created before your very eyes. Last year's World Series pitted the San Francisco Giants against the Kansas City Royals. These were two very good teams, but that series was dominated by the performance of one man, Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner. That's not to say there was no drama. The Royals ended up one swing away from winning the Series, down by one with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, a runner at third, and Salvador Perez at the plate. But in reality the outcome was never in doubt. Like a fictional heroic epic, when all looks the bleakest, you know the hero would find a way out. That's exactly what Luke Skywalker Bumgarner did. Perez, playing the role of Darth Vader in this drama, wanted desperately to go where no man had gone before by hitting a walk-off come from behind home run in game seven of the World Series. The Giant lefty responded with fast balls all out of the strike zone and Perez swinging for Kansas City, Kansas, took the bait. Instead of immortality, the best the Royal catcher could do to catch up to Bumgarner's heat was a harmless foul pop-up to third baseman Pablo Sandoval for game, set and championship.

If the drama of last year's post-season could be compared to Star Wars, this year's was a little more compelling, perhaps Hamlet meets The Shining, with a little Dr. Strangelove and Abbot and Costello thrown in for good measure. The theme tying it all together was you never know.

Each 162 game major league baseball season is an arduous journey with many pitfalls along the way. Players get injured, go into slumps, or check themselves into rehab at inopportune times. Truly good teams seem to overcome adversity and find ways to be successful. Other teams get hot for whatever reason at the right time and come up on top one year, never to be heard from again. You never know.

At the beginning of the year, things were looking good for teams with big name stars like the Nationals, and the Angels, Likewise by virtue of their being defending champions, the Giants were expected to make the postseason. All those teams fizzled, thwarted by teams who were re-building and considered a year or two away from contention, namely the Mets who won their division, and the Astros and Cubs who won wild card spots. The Astros went on to upset the Yankees (who lost their division to another unlikely team, the Blue Jays) in a one game wild card playoff.

The current setup in major league baseball where two wild card teams are selected from each league (in addition to the three division champs), is in its third year. On one hand, the system rewards teams who have good records but play in strong divisions. This year however, we had the strange occurrence of  the three best teams in baseball all coming from the same division, the National League Central. Consequently the second and third best teams in the game had to play each other in a one game playoff, meaning a high seeded team would be assured of making an early exit from the post-season. That dubious distinction went, for the second consecutive year, to the Pittsburgh Pirates, a team who has been rebuilding it seems forever. All their 98 wins and second best record in baseball got them this year was a one game ticket to Palookaville, punched by Jake Arrieta and the Cubs. Expect changes in the playoff structure next year which would give a playoff advantage to wild card teams with better records than divisional champions.

Speaking of Arrieta, no pitcher was hotter in the second half of the season. The 22 game winner posted a phenomenal 1.77 ERA for the regular season. But that's only the tip of the iceberg:
  • The last game Arrieta lost in the regular season was on July 25th. For the rest of the season he started twelve games, and won eleven of them with one no decision, a game the Cubs eventually won. 
  • Nine of the twelve games he started (granted he didn't finish them all) were shutouts. 
  • He pitched a no-hitter against the Dodgers in Los Angeles on August 30.
  • He pitched six perfect innings against the Pirates on September 27 in a one hit shutout. 
  • In those twelve games, Arrieta pitched 88 1/3 innings and gave up only 4 earned runs which adds up to an ERA of 0.41. 
  • That does not count the one game wild-card playoff in Pittsburgh where Arrieta pitched a complete game shutout.
In a normal year, off-the-chart numbers like those would have made Arrieta a shoe-in for the National League Cy Young award. But in this crazy, you never know year, two pitchers both with the Dodgers, Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw had phenomenal seasons of their own and posted comparable numbers for the year. At this writing we are still awaiting the announcement of the award.

The Dodgers faced the Mets in a coast to coast dream matchup for the networks who were no doubt reeling from the early departure of the Yankees. The rap on Kershaw for all his prowess, was that he couldn't win the big game. The winner of the 2014 Cy Young award, Kershaw had two rough post-seasons, last year, losing two games in the Dodgers' best of five National League Division Series loss to St. Louis, and two more the year before in the National League Championship Series, also against the Cardinals

This year, Kershaw made it five post-season losses in a row in a 3-2 loss in game one against the Mets and their young ace, Jacob deGroom. Zack Greinke had better luck with run support from his team the next game, winning it 5-2.  In game four, Kershaw finally got the monkey off his back, this time after only three days rest, pitching brilliantly in a three hit masterpiece, a do or die game in New York. In that game, Kershaw allowed only on run on a solo home run by Daniel Murphy (more on him later). LA took the game 3-1.

Things were looking up for the Dodgers as they headed home for the definitive game five with Zach Greinke on the mound. After giving up one run in the top of the first, the Dodgers immediately jumped on Jake deGroom in the bottom of the frame, scoring two runs. Greinke was looking pretty good until the fourth inning when he gave up a single to Daniel Murphy. Next up was the lefty hitter Lucas Duda who as usual received an extreme infield shift where the Dodger third baseman was positioned in short right field. Duda drew a walk, advancing Murphy to second. Then performing a revival of the classic Abbott and Costello routine, "who's on first, what's on second, I don't know's on third", the Dodgers didn't know who was on third either, and Murphy calmly waltzed to third base while the Dodgers just stood and watched. Next up was catcher Travis d'Arnaud who hit a fly ball to right that was hooking foul. Dodger left fielder Andre Ethier bore down on the ball and made a splendid running catch, one or two strides into foul territory. Murphy tagged and scored easily, tying the game.

That catch brought up the question, should Ethier have let the ball drop in foul territory, thereby conceding the out but not allowing the tying run to score? Now there's a question that will be pondered for eternity. In the sixth, Murphy (much more on him later), hit a solo home run off Greinke and that was it, the Mets beat the Dodgers three games to two.

News of the Dodgers' demise was music to the ears of Cubs fans whose team had beaten the Cardinals in the other NLDS two days before. That matchup was the first time those ancient rivals had faced each other in the post-season since 1886 when the St. Louis Browns, champions of the long defunct American Association, beat the National League Champion Chicago White Stockings (same teams, different names), in a previous incarnation of the World Series. Chicago fans had long relished the thought of meeting the Mets in the NLCS as A) lingering hatred still burns in the hearts of old-timers for the New York National Leaguers since the great Chicago collapse of 1969 and B) the Cubs owned the Mets during the regular season, taking all seven games from them.

Little did they know...

Anyway, the unusual outcome of the Mets/Dodgers series was nothing compared to what went down the day before in Toronto. Under the dome in the Great White North, the Blue Jays were battling the Texas Rangers in another deciding fifth game of a divisional series. Toronto dug itself into a deep hole after losing the first two games at home, but redeemed themselves in Arlington winning both games on the road, 5-1 and 8-4. In game five the score was tied 2-2 by the time the seventh inning rolled around. 53 minutes later, that inning would go down in history as one of the strangest ever. The weirdness started with Rangers Shin-Soo Choo at the plate and Rougned Odor at third. On a throw back to the pitcher, Toronto catcher Russell Martin inadvertently bounced the ball off Choo's bat and it ended up in the infield between third base and the pitcher's mound. Odor immediately took off for home while the plate umpire signaled a dead ball. Meanwhile the Toronto infielders were slow to react and Odor crossed the plate easily. The original call was no play (presumably due to batter interference) and not surprisingly, an argument ensued. After a video review, the umpires reversed their call, saying that the ball was indeed live as Choo and his bat did not interfere with the throw, and the go-ahead run for the Rangers counted.

Quite understandably, Blue Jay manager John Gibbons came out and rightly I believe, protested that since the umpire signaled the ball dead during the play, the play should have been ruled dead, just as in football where a play is automatically dead whenever an official blows the whistle, regardless of the reason for the whistle. Gibbons lost the argument and announced that the game was being played under protest. Toronto fans agreed and showed their displeasure by hurling trash onto the field.

It turned out to be a moot point as in the bottom of the inning, the Jays loaded the bases on three consecutive Ranger errors. Toronto scored the tying run on a fielder's choice, then the roof caved in when Jose Bautista hit a monster three run home run off a Sam Dyson sinker that didn't sink. Dyson took exception with Bautista's now legendary prodigious bat flip before he rounded the bases. A kerfuffle ensued and more trash found its way onto the field. After the dust settled, the Blue Jays found themselves up 6-3, and that's how the game and series ended.

The other ALDS saw 2014 American League Champion Kansas City Royals against the feisty Astros. Like Toronto, the Royals appeared they would be down two games do none at home. But in game two of the series, Kansas City began their streak of late come-from-behind playoff wins, by winning that game and preserving a split of the first two games of the series. Once again, in game four, six outs away from elimination, the Royals down by four in the 8th scored five runs, then two more in the ninth to move the series to a fifth game in Kansas City where newly acquired pitcher Johnny Cueto won easily, 7-2.

Whew, all that and we still haven't made it to the League Championship Series. I guess that will have to wait for another day and post.


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