Results tagged ‘ ALCS ’

Boy, This Game Takes You Back Sometimes

ALCS15810260338.jpgAs I watched the Yankees record the final out of the ALCS tonight and advanced to the World Series to face the Philadelphia Phillies, I couldn’t help to be transported back a full decade (or even more) to my youth.

As a youngster in the late 1990s, my Twins were the scourge of the American League, so come playoff time I would always latch onto another team to root for.  This most often ended up being the team playing the Yankees at the time, as I despised their large-market spending and arrogant owner.  Plus, it was always that same core of guys (1996-2001) who were nearly impossible to beat.

A decade+ later, four of those same guys (well five, if you count former Yankee catcher Joe Girardi, now managing the club) are still doing their thing…Derek Jeter still gets all the clutch hits, Jorge Posada keeps chugging along, Andy Pettitte never loses a big game, and Mariano Rivera is absolutely incredible.

Thus, while I still cannot bring myself to actively root for the Yanks, I do have more than a grudging respect for those four players…guys who play the game the right way and deserve any more rings they can get on their fingers. 

World Series Failing? Let Rivalries Develop

1_61_fenway320.jpgThis week, while reading an article in Sports Illustrated magazine, I came across a rather lengthy article (although I cannot recall by whom) discussing how the World Series needs to re-establish its place as the crown-jewel of the baseball season, as in recent seasons (most dramatically this year) the event has lost huge viewership numbers, even losing to the NBA Finals in some seasons.  The author of the article layed out a few solutions to the problem, such as starting games earlier (so kids and working adults can watch them), speeding up pitching changes, and doing something to take bad weather out of the equation (like mandating that all new parks be built with a retractable roof).  However, I had a much different response to that article that I wanted to share on this blog…

To me, the drop in World Series luster in the recent years has, ironically, been caused by baseball’s biggest accomplishment…parity (eight different teams have played in the World Series the past four years).  Think back to when the World Series was a premiere event…it was because the New York Yankees were dominating and everyone either loved them or loved to hate them.  Realistically, the Yankees’ last playoff hurrah was in 2004 (when the Red Sox made their improbable comeback)…since then, the World Series just hasn’t been the same in terms of viewership (the Sox got a boost from beating the Yanks, of course).

So, at least in my mind, the best way to return to a star-studded World Series again is to let a big-market team dominate the playing field again.  However, I am terribly opposed to that sort of economic structure (despite the excitement it brings to the playoffs, as who didn’t have a rooting interest in the Yankees either way over the past decade?!), so here is what I think is the next best solution…let the natural MLB rivalries develop.

Historically, the ALCS and NLCS series’ have often been more dramatic as the World Series just due to the fact that both teams (being in the same league) know each other so well.  During the late 1990s and early 2000s, such rivalries as Cardinals-Astros, Braves-Mets, Yankees-Red Sox, and even Yankees-Rangers (for Texas’ first-round futility against the Bombers) really fueled the postseason structure, creating steam for a big World Series matchup.  Because, even though the WS does not, by definition, precipitate geographic rivalries, it can be made more exciting by teams that just came off a thrilling victory.  Growing up, I was always very anti-Yankees and anti-Braves (because I despised the advantages of large market teams over “my” Twins), but that “hatred” of those teams made me watch them all the more just to see them get beat!  I think the same principle could apply to MLB today, but we just have to let a few rivalries play out.

For example, Red Sox-Rays (as pictured above) could be big for years to come, while White Sox-Twins also has potential  In the NL, the Phillies and Dodgers may “get up” for each other after that spirited NLCS, while the Cubs and Cardinals are always at each other’s throats.  Plus, who knows where new rivalries will emerge.  Just last year, no one would have ever thought Sox-Rays would turn interesting, but look what happened.  From my experience with the AL Central, the Twins and Royals have quite a rivalry, but it will only gain attention if the Royals win a few more games (Yikes!).

Thus, I don’t think that there is a “quick fix” to restoring luster to the World Series.  I would love to see games start earlier and pitching changes go a bit quicker, but that alone will not restore interest…only teams, players, and the rivalries between them.

I Don’t Believe What I Just Saw

MattGarza.jpgLast night, as I sat down to watch the Boston Red Sox take on the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 7 of the ALCS, I was rooting for the Sawx to win the AL pennant.  I just know a lot more about the Sox and figured it would be more interesting to see them back in the World Series then the upstart Rays.  When the final out was recorded (remarkably, in favor of Tampa Bay), however, I found myself feeling good for the improbable Rays franchise for two reasons: seeing former Twins succeed, and seeing a franchise that never should have been winning something significant.

I have been closely following major league baseball since 1998 (the whole McGwire-Sosa thing, you know), the same year the then Devil Rays (along with the Arizona Diamondbacks) were introduced into the game.  Within a few years, once the Rays organization had time to prove to me how inept they were, I made the prediction that the Rays would never win a significant championship in the history of their franchise.  I though this for two reasons: First, the Tampa Bay area really isn’t suited for a major league baseball franchise, as the fan support is terrible (too much sun in Florida, I think).  Second, they play in what amounts to the high-rollers division of the American League…the AL East.  While the Yankees, Sox, and Orioles (although you would never know it considering how many bad decisions they make with it) have incredible streams of revenue, the Blue Jays and Rays are pretty much left in their dust.  To me, the chances of someone other than New York or Boston winning the AL East were as good as someone knocking the New England Patriots off the top of their weak NFL division the last few years.

So, as the final out was recorded last night, I was glad to see the Rays bring at least some happiness to the few fans in TB who follow them with a passion (like I do my Twins).  Also, I was happy for former Twins Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett (and Grant Balfour, I guess) for their winning performance.  Garza clashed with enough Twins coaches to make his departure imminent, but I don’t begrudge him for that, as the Twins have a very strict organizational stance on pitchers that Garza didn’t feel he could work within.  I liken it to the Twins telling David Ortiz to push the ball into an often wide-open left field, something he wasn’t going to do and thus needed a new team to start fresh with.  As for Bartlett, he never really played up to his true potential for the Twins, so I’m glad to see him step up and become a leader for another club.

Finally, I was wondering throughout last night’s game what team the Twins (and specifically manager Ron Gardenhire) were cheering for.  At first, I thought that perhaps the bitterness at losing Garza and Bartlett would have them leaning towards Boston, but then I consider things further and reached a different conclusion.  Being a Little League coach for three years in my home town, my face always lit up when a former player experienced success elsewhere, so I bet a guy like Gardy (and a close-knit team like the Twins) were rooting for their old pals.

All season long I doubted the Rays.  First, their ability to win the AL East, and second their ability to advance deep into the postseason.  They have proven me wrong at every turn, and I now finally believe they have a shot at accomplishing the unthinkable…winning a World Series championship.  If I were the Devil right now, I’d start getting the heaters installed, as things could get a bit chilly down there if the Rays have their way this week.

Coaching Staff: The Great Motivator

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In my mind, there are two areas in which a MLB manager should be judged: Ability to motivate players, and game strategists.  I would like to evaluate Twins manager Ron Gardenhire on both those characteristics:

As far as motivating players, Gardy may just be the best in the business.  With his down-to-earth (yet effectively intense) attitude, Gardy gains the respect of his players, which is nice to have over a six-month season.  Plus, with the kind of turnaround that major league rosters currently endure, the ability to incorporate new faces into the clubhouse is an invaluable skill.

On the game strategy side, I think Gardy is a bit lacking in one key area: pitching management.  In my mind, Gardy is much too careful with his pitchers, often overworking the bullpen as a result.  Rarely does Gardy ever just let a starter (much to the chagrin of TV broadcaster Bert Blyleven) even come close to finish what he started.  He also plays the lefty-righty percentages a little more than I would like (instead of going with the “hot hand”), but he has had success with that strategy in the past, so I’m not too frustrated about that.

All in all, Gardy is a great skipper to lead a team like the Twins that, just because of their small-market nature, will always have a high turnover rate in players, thus needing a strong leader in the corner spot of the dugout to keep the ship afloat.

So, that concludes my review of the 2008 Minnesota Twins.  Despite not making the ’08 playoffs, the Twins took a huge step forward (in a year they were expected not to compete whatsoever) in player development and have just as good a chance as anyone else in the AL Central division to take the ’09 crown if they can shore up one key area: the bullpen.  It was a great season with many great memories, and that is what I will take from the 2008 Minnesota Twins experience.

Coming up in later posts will be my thoughts on the AL Champion Tampa Bay Rays, as well as a World Series prediction.

RP: You Are The Weakest Link…Goodbye?

nathanreview.jpgAlthough the 2008 Minnesota Twins season was effectively ended on a Jim Thome home run in game number 163, the season realistically slipped away during the month of August, when the bullpen inexplicably failed to record any key outs (even Joe Nathan included, for a time) and lost game after game in the late innings.  Any major league manager will tell you that any competitive team needs to have at least a decent bullpen, and right now that is about the only weak link (albeit a major weakness) for the Twins to potential shore up over the offseason.  A quick look at how the major relievers fared in ’08:

Joe Nathan (67.7 IP, 39 SV, 1.33 ERA): Despite a shaky spell in mid-August, Nathan was by and large the most dominant closer outside of Anaheim’s Francisco Rodriguez for the majority of the season.  No reason to be concerned here.

Matt Guerrier (76.3, 5.19): After Pat Neshek went down with a season-ending injury, Guerrier stepped up as an ace setup man, bridging the gap to the dominant Joe Nathan.  Alas, Guerrier completely crumbled as the season progressed, getting to the point where he was pretty much “off limits” in crucial games down the stretch.  His mindset is probably what needs the most soothing heading into ’09, as he was really messed up at the end of this year.

Dennys Reyes (46.3, 2.33): Reyes turned in a decent season out of the pen (his numbers are tricky, as he rarely throws to enough batters per inning to factor into the earned runs), but needs to work on one crucial area: control.  When facing good hitters in pressure situations, Reyes would often throw terrible wild pitchers (ones Joe Mauer wouldn’t have a chance at stopping) and letting runners move up.  So, batters would then key on the strikes and blast them, as Reyes would practically have to throw the ball right down the middle to be confidant of getting it in the strike zone.

Jesse Crain (62.7, 3.59): Crain can throw harder than any of the Twins’ current middle relievers, but still completely wilts in pressure-packed situations (think of LaTroy Hawkins trying to close in 2001).  He far and away led the team in walk-off hits given up, due (like Reyes) to shoddy control, allowing batters to tee off on the pitches thrown down the pipe to prevent walks.  The one hope for Crain is that ’08 was his first season back from arm surgery, so perhaps he was still just getting himself back into playing condition (although I don’t think so).

Craig Breslow: (38.7, 1.63): All in all, Breslow (acquired in mid-season from the Cleveland Indians) was probably the most consistent reliever of the bunch.  He didn’t pitch many innings, but got the job done more often than not.

As if those less than thrilling reports weren’t bad enough, three more Twins relievers (Brian Bass, Juan Rincon, and Eddie Guardado) turned out to be complete busts, with no chance of returning in 2009 (Bass and Rincon are already gone).

There is, however, at least some hope on the horizon.  Pat Neshek, the side-winding righty that is so difficult to figure out, will be back in ’09, while young Jose Mijares impressed many people in crucial late-season 2008 action.  If those guys can come back strong, perhaps the Reyes’, Crain’s, and Guerrier’s of the world can better settle into their own specific roles.

Playoff Notes:

-Is there anyone alive out there right now who DOESN’T think the Boston Red Sox are going to advance to the World Series by beating the Rays tonight?!  Here is the starting pitching matchup: Jon Lester (16-6, 3.21) vs. Matt Garza (11-9, 3.70).  The Sox are just following their typical playoff pattern…dominate the ALDS, come from way behind in the ALCS, then dominate the World Series.  Will it continue?  I think so.

CF: Spick and Span? Not With Go-Go.

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When Torii Hunter (arguably the most popular Twin since their rise to prominence in 2001) left for the Anaheim Angels via free agency after the 2007 season, a gap hole was left in center field at the Metrodome.  After an intense Spring Training competition for the job between Carlos Gomez (acquired from the Mets in the Johan Santana trade), Denard Span (the heir apparent to Hunter’s job until he struggled in the minor leagues), and Jason Pridie (a cast-off from the Rays who had a great spring).  Although Span seemed the more polished of the three come April, “Go-Go” Gomez was named the starter due to his almost unbelievable speed and the excitement he brought to the club and their fans on a daily basis.

For the first few months of the season, Go-Go was indeed the most exciting player on the team, whether it was streaking to catch balls out in the field or flying around the basepaths after driving the ball into the gap.  As the season stretched on, however, pitchers began to learn how to pitch to the rookie Gomez, and the strikeouts and terrible at-bats began piling up.  At one point, Ron Gardenhire considered benching the fiery youngster (after dropping him from 1st to 8th or 9th in the order), but Carlos likely saw his job saved when Michael Cuddyer went down with an injury, and Span (the guy who would have taken over in CF) came up to replace him instead.

Gomez did finish the season on a high note, and his stats are respectable for essentially a first-year player: 577 AB, 79 R, .258 BA, 33 SB.  However, he also struck out a near Twins-record 142 times and also was prone to defensive lapses in CF from time to time.  His blazing speed and cannon arm more often than not made up for his mistakes, but too many times would a ball roll right under his legs or he would juggle the ball at a crucial moment.

Of course, Gomez would still be penciled in as the starting CF in 2009 if not for the emergence of Span (who will be moved back to his natural position when Cuddyer returns next year).  During the 2008 season, Span manned the leadoff spot in the order like no Twin has done since Shannon Stewart, working deep into counts, drawing walks, and spraying the ball all over the field.  In 347 at-bats, Span hit .294 with 70 R, 50 BB, 102 H, and 18 SB.  Whereas Gomez struggled in the pressure of the leadoff spot, Span thrived.  Defensively, Span made some of the most athletic catches ever seen in the Metrodome, and also has a rifle arm.

So, with Cuddyer (and his shiny, long-term contract) coming back to man RF in 2009 (as he should), it should be an interesting battle for the centerfield spot.  Whereas Span seems to be ready right now, Gomez is a remarkable young talent whose potential is the teflon roof.  Knowing Gardy, each player will get their share of ABs in 2009, although a riskier move would be to deal one of them for a relief pitcher that the club so desperately needs (to be discussed later).

Playoff Notes:

-Perhaps it is time I stop doubting the Rays, as their 13-4 crushing of the Red Sox tonight leaves them one game away from the World Series.  I still think the series will need to go back to Tampa to be concluded, but now the Red Sox are up against the wall and will find it extremely difficult to beat the young Tampa club three times in a row.

3B: The Platoon

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During spring 2008, the Minnesota Twins were counting on Mike Lamb (like Adam Everett, also acquired from the Houston Astros) to man the hot corner and, more importantly, provide some pop to the offense with his seasoned bat.  Neither occurred (Lamb played below-average defense and hit just .233), and within a few months the platoon of Brian Buscher and Brendan Harris took over the third stop.

Buscher (a lefty) hit .294 in just 218 at-bats and proved to be an RBI machine (47 in 70 games).  His defense was a bit shaky earlier one, but tightened up as the season progressed into September.

Harris (a righty) moved to third after being exiled from both second and short on a starting basis.  Harris played against lefties (and a good share of righties), hitting .265 in 434 at-bats.  Harris tended to be a streaky player, going through stretches where he seemed to get all the key hits, followed by slumps that would find Buscher even starting against left-handers.

Personally, I would like to see the Busch Man installed as the everyday third baseman.  I feel that he gives the lineup more pop, and his defense will only get better.  The key, though, is how Buscher progresses in his development.  At the end of 2008, Buscher struggled for the most part, so perhaps pitchers are figuring him out and now he needs to make the adjustment.  Thus, Harris is very much worth keeping.  If Buscher fails to produce up to expectations, Harris is still a prospect to keep an eye on, as he is still pretty young.

Fan response to the 2008 Twins may lean towards signing a third baseman with a little more pop in his bat than the unproven Harris or the youngster Buscher, but knowing the Twins’ budget a move will almost certainly not be made.  We’ll have to rely on one (or both) of those two players to improve on their ’08 campaign.

Playoff Notes:

-Boy, the Rays sure surprised me by thumping the Red Sox today 9-1.  I never thought I’d see the day when the Tampa Bay baseball organization would make a World Series appearance, but now the world is just two more victories away from that exact feat.

-Right now, the Phillies and Dodgers are just winding down a crazy contest that I believe has featured a lead change every time a run has been scored!  It is currently 7-5 Philly in the top of the ninth, but in a game like this nothing is over until the final at-bat.

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