The Book of Mike

"This is no junior college. This is the notorious University of Miami.” -- Marlins starter Dontrelle Willis, after getting knocked around for six runs in 2 1/3 innings by the Canes.

Thursday, September 30, 2004

Playoff Races Heat Up

Yesterday I said I’d write about the National League playoff contenders today, but last night’s on the field action was just too exciting to go without comment. The two teams that I follow the most closely – the White Sox (a team that I’ve followed for my whole life) and the Marlins (a team that I can’t escape from following because I’ve lived in Miami for the past ten years) – are out of the playoff mix, and realistically have been for awhile. Given that, you’d think it would be difficult for me to find excitement in the playoff races.

But it hasn’t been. A number of teams that I casually follow – or teams with a player or two that I really enjoy – are most definitely in the mix, and that’s added to the drama. Plus, I’m already invested in the MLB Extra Innings package (although I’ve already gotten way more than my money’s worth out of it), so there’s plenty to watch on television at night. Actually it’s this way for me every year. Granted, the Marlins were in the playoff race and ultimately won the World Series last year, but more often than not the end of the year is like this – my favorite team (the White Sox) and my local team (the Marlins) are nowhere near the race.

This year though Vladimir Guerrero and the Angels are pushing Billy Beane’s Oakland A’s for the American League West crown. While I’m disappointed that one of these teams will ultimately not reach the playoffs, I am excited to see this race come down to the final three games of the regular season (if not a playoff game on Monday). In the National League, it’s possibly even more exciting as the Giants and Dodgers both have an opportunity to win their division, and, as of right now, the Giants, Astros, and Cubs are locked in a too-close-to-call three-way heat for the NL Wild Card. Wild card indeed.

Last night’s action only served to enhance the drama; about the only thing bad about last night’s games was that many of them took place on the West coast and since I live on the East coast, that meant it was a long night for me. It’s not that I’m complaining though – just saying that it was a little difficult to roll out of bed this morning.

American League
Angels – Rangers
Both teams entered this series with post-season aspirations. Now that the Red Sox have clinched the wild card, only the Western division crown remains an option for these two clubs.

Last night’s game was a back and forth struggle, with the Rangers coming back slowly after the Angels jumped out early to a three run lead. The game got most exciting when 2002 World Series hero K-Rod struggled against the Texas hitters. K-Rod entered the game with only three wild pitches over the course of the entire season; he managed to throw two wild pitches during one at-bat, and those two pitches ultimately led to the go ahead run scoring in the bottom of the eighth.

When the bottom of the ninth rolled around it appeared that Angels slugger Vladimir Guerrero was either going to end the game with an out (meaning that the Rangers would secure the win) or that he’d cement his claim to the American League MVP award with a game-tying home run. Realistically though, tying the game with a home run in that situation was a long shot, and Guerrerro “only” came through with a single.

This would prove to be enough though, and it set the stage for one of the feel-good stories of the year, as it brought Curtis Pride to the plate. Pride was replacing another Angels’ superstar, Garret Anderson, as Anderson was removed from the game due to injury earlier. That’s not the story though. The story was Curtis Pride.

Pride is the only deaf major leaguer that I know of, and that’s far from the only adversity he’s overcome in his life. On the baseball field alone it’s been a struggle. Pride started out this year in independent baseball and likely wouldn’t have been available for last night’s game if not for September’s expanded rosters. Although he’s played in the major leagues off-and-on since 1993 (debuting with the Expos, of course), Pride hasn’t totaled one hundred major league at bats since 1997, when he split time between the Red Sox and Tigers. In his journey through baseball, Pride made major league stops with the Braves, Red Sox, Expos, Yankees, and now the Angels – all since 1998. He didn’t even appear in the bigs in 1999 or 2002. Still, Pride never quit and never gave up on himself. Last night, Angels fans were thankful for that.

Knowing that, it was almost comical to hear the Rangers crowd get into the game in the 9th inning when Pride strode to the plate. It was as-if they were trying to distract him with excessive noise. Little did they (likely) know that as loud as they might be, it would have no effect on Pride’s at-bat. Pride proceeded to lace a ball to deep centerfield, over the centerfielder’s head and off of the fence. Since their were two outs and the ball was hit so far, Vladimir Guerrero was able to score from first, tying the game at 6.

Eventually the Angels won in extra innings, securing themselves of at least a share of the AL West lead for another day (as the outcome of the A’s game was still undecided). The real story here though was more than just the Angels winning – it was Curtis Pride coming through and being an inspiration to many on the biggest stage that was available to him last night.

Mariners - Athletics
Other than the pennant race, last night’s M’s and A’s game featured two key storylines: the Mariners Ichiro Suzuki’s pursuit of George Sisler’s single-season hit record and the A’s Rich Harden’s continued emergence as an upper echelon major league starter.

Ichiro came into the game needing four hits in his final five games to break Sisler’s record of 257 single season hits. You can argue the merits of Ichiro’s assault on the record – and I would fall into the camp that would say it’s impressive, but not the most impactful thing I’ve seen in the game this year – but it’s difficult to argue that he’s a hitting machine. He managed “only” one hit in last night’s game (and even drew a walk), but that means he only needs three more hits in the M’s final four games to eclipse the record. It’s hard to imagine that he won’t break the mark at this point. Ichiro is working on a nine-game hitting streak right now, and he’s had a hit in 13 of his last 15 games. If he can extend that mark to 16 in his final 19 games, he’ll have the record.

Rich Harden’s case is an interesting one for the A’s. On a team noted for it’s three aces – Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, and Barry Zito – Rich Harden is quickly making a case for referring to the A’s as having four aces, or even possibly keeping Harden separated from those other three – but as the ace of the staff. Harden is young (he’ll turn twenty-three in the off-season), but started his 31st game of the season last night and will end the season with nearly 200 innings.

That’s where the questions start to come in I suppose. In last night’s start Harden pitched effectively through the first seven frames. He began to tire in the 8th though and was removed from the game with a 2 – 1 lead, but with two men on and only one out. Ultimately the runners who were on base when Harden departed scored, so Harden was charged with the loss. Not only does the loss cost the A’s in the standings and give the Angels sole possession of the division lead with less than a handful of games left to play, but it also may be damaging to Rich Harden on a number of levels.

Harden through 124 pitches last night. That marks the fourth straight start in which he threw well over 100 pitches, and was the 18th time (in 31 starts) that he eclipsed the century mark. He threw at least 90 pitches in each of his other starts (sans one June start against the Giants when he suffered an injury). For an older, more established pitcher, this would not be disturbing. However, for a young fireballer like Harden, it most definitely could be, but only time will tell.

If the A’s make the playoffs they’ll be counting on Harden in a large way to come through for the team. However, this youngster has thrown the 37th most pitches in the majors this year (the 7th most amongst pitchers under 25 – and Harden is arguably the least developed of those ahead of him). He’s also thrown 13 more innings than he’s thrown in any other year of his career. Each inning that he tack’s on in the post-season is another that his young may be too fatigued to take. The A’s will likely need him though – barring a turnaround from one or two of their big three – as Harden has been the most reliable starter on the staff in the second half this year.

National League
Reds – Cubs
Last year the Cubs dragged out the suspense for their fans, only to lose in heart-breaking fashion in the NLCS to the Marlins. A crueler fate could be awaiting the Cubs this year as they appear to have primed themselves for a late season collapse of epic proportions. Maybe that’s just what I’m hoping for, but if last night’s game is any indication, that could most definitely be what we’re looking at.

The Cubs lost in extra-innings at home yesterday to the lowly Reds. Any loss is painful at this time of year, but last night’s took away the Cubs recent strangle-hold on the Wild Card lead.

A few weeks from now we could be talking about how Nomar Garciaparra is the Billy Goat reincarnate.

Cardinals – Astros
Not that long ago the Astros were left for dead. Experts everywhere chided ‘Stros GM Gerry Hunsicker for not unloading free-agent-to-be talent like Carlos Beltran at the trading deadline in hopes of starting to build for the future. It turns out the experts – and the losers, like me – were wrong. The Astros really were in this thing all along, most of us just didn’t know it at the time.

In fact, going into today’s action, the Astros find themselves atop the Wild Card standings and in control of their own fate. If they win out – and they will be paid a visit by the lowly Colorado Rockies this weekend – they’ll find themselves in the hallowed post-season. Granted they were in this position last year and blew it, but they didn’t have Roger Clemens or Carlos Beltran back then.

Last night’s game wasn’t particularly memorable other than that it was the first time in recent memory that the Astros weren’t just in a position of having hope – now they’re in a position of controlling their own fate.

Giants – Padres
Barry Bonds is in his twelfth year with the Giants and they’re seemingly always in the playoff chase. Sometimes this is due to the fact that Bonds is surrounded by other good players who are having very good years – Matt Williams and Jeff Kent in the past and J.T. Snow this year. The one constant though is Bonds. In his assault on home run records and other chapters of the record book, one thing has been regularly lost about Bonds that is truly the hallmark of what separates the great players from those that are amongst the greatest of all-time – they make those around them better. Bonds clearly does that.

On this year’s Giants team, which position player would start on your favorite team? Ray Durham? Maybe. A.J. Pierzynski? Maybe again. The point is that this lineup isn’t littered with players you wish you had on your team. It’s just Bonds and a handful of guys who are playing over their heads – in part because the hitters ahead of Bonds are seeing better pitches (as pitchers don’t want to see runners on base ahead of Barry) and the guys behind Bonds are seeing better pitches too (as pitchers don’t want to put anyone else on base, as Bonds has usually reached base before).

Last night’s game was a painful loss for the Giants though. They had an early lead, but lost in extra innings. The three errors, including one in the 10th, committed by the Giants were extremely costly.

Rockies – Dodgers
The Dodgers are about the biggest cause of me losing out on sleep. I’m not much of a Dodgers fan, and if the Giants or Angels are on at the same time, I’ll often tune into one of their games instead, but when Vin Scully is broadcasting a Dodgers game I have a hard time tuning away. Part of me knows that we won’t be able to listen to Scully much longer. Still, he’s on top of his game, and regardless of his age, I appreciate being able to listen to a legend, let alone a legend who can do the play by play and color commentary all by himself. Most of the broadcasters in the game today can’t do even one of those two jobs very well, but Scully does both. So I stay up later than I should, much more often than I should, just because I enjoy his dulcet tones.

Last night wasn’t a happy one though for Scully or his friends in blue. First of all, it was their first game without outfielder Milton Bradley, who has been suspended for the remainder of the regular season, and stud closer Eric Gagne, who was unavailable for yesterday’s game due to a (relatively) minor injury.

In a hard fought game, the Dodgers – like seemingly every contender in the National League not named the Astros last night – lost the game in the 9th, when their bullpen – now without Guierllmo Mota, who was traded to the Marlins at the end of July – surrendered three runs. The Dodgers were unable to score in their half of the ninth and went home with a loss.

The Dodgers still have a three game lead in the NL West, but a win last night would have been significant. It would have given the Dodgers a four game lead with only four games to play, including three at home this weekend against the Giants, the team that’s chasing them in the standings. With a win last night, they would have only needed one more win to assure themselves of a division crown.

It didn’t happen though, and as happened throughout the majors last week, we got some exciting games and a number of outcomes that will make the remainder of this week’s action that much more exciting.


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