Tag Archive | Championship

Baseball Beginning Again

We’ve hit that most wonderful time of the year. Spring training has gotten underway and baseball season has begun! Yes, it is still early March, meaning that opening day is still a month away, but I am still happy to say that baseball is back! Even if there is snow on the ground. 

This year will be a bit different for me as a baseball fan, not for anything at the MLB level, but for a new fandom I’ve developed since working for the Whitecaps: college baseball. Of course the Red Sox are the top priority for my fandom. They are my favorite sports organization and I have high hopes for them this year. Last season was a phenomenal ride that ended with a painful loss to Cleveland. For 2017, there is plenty to be excited about. Dustin Pedroia patrols second and the defense, Pablo Sandoval has lost weight and looks more motivated to be a part of the team, and Mookie Bette is coming off a near MVP caliber season. And I haven’t mentioned the pitching yet, what with Porcello, Price, Rodriguez, and new acquisition Chris Sale forming a top level rotation. It will be weird watching the Red Sox without Koji in the back end of the bullpen, and I don’t know what to say about David Ortiz not being in the lineup. I’ve never known the Red Sox without Big Papi. He’s been at the heart of the Red Sox and Boston since 2003, and he is now retired. I will do anything I can to get into Fenway on June 23, when 34 will be retired. I’m still stunned that Ortiz is no longer playing, but I still have high hopes for my guys on Yawkey Way. 

And in case that wasn’t enough, I’ve got two other teams I’m following this year. Both are college teams with professional prospects. One is a DI team, one’s a DIII team. And I’m just a fan of one and I’m working for the other. 

My fan team first. This summer, I hosted two players from the University of North Carolina. They are both high quality guys who will be drafted this year into professional baseball. They made my summer on Cape Cod nothing short of amazing and I have my college baseball team for life. My alma mater doesn’t have a varsity baseball team, so I’m forced to look elsewhere. And why not look at Chapel Hill for good baseball? 

I’ve been rewarded so far. The Tar Heels are 10-3 so far, only running into trouble against St. John’s and Long Beach State. My guys have also had excellent starts to their seasons. Both have played in and started all 13 games this season. Zach is off to a .317 start, and has the second highest on base percentage on the team. He’s hit well, fielded well, and is upping his draft stock early this year, especially after a remarkably quick recovery from TOS surgery this off season. While Zach has been excellent this year, his roomie and running mate, Logan, is tearing it up. He’s batting .367, has an OPS of 1.021, and is leading the Tar Heels in hits, total bases, and steals. He’s proving himself as a top draft prospect and they’re looking to lead UNC to the College World Series after a bitterly disappointing end to last year’s college campaign. Fan me is excited to have another team to follow, and for that team to have personal connections. I’ll see these guys in early April when they play at Chestnut Hill against the Boston College Eagles. 

As excited as I am for UNC, I am equally excited for a DIII team that I’m calling games for this year. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology isn’t known for its athletics, but don’t be fooled. There are skilled athletes at MIT. Perhaps one of the best stories in baseball right now is being authored there. 

I called MIT baseball games last year, and had a front row seat to Austin Filiere lighting up his conference. He’s a career .427 hitter and can play the field very well. He also got to play in the Cape League this past summer against my Carolina guys. When the Harwich Mariners showed up, I checked the roster and saw Austin Filiere from MIT on there. I was dumbfounded. A DIII player facing off against the best that college baseball has to offer? He had better be good. Needless to say, he was. Filiere finished tied for the 2nd most homers in the league and totaled the most RBI for the team with the best record in the league. He was voted to the All-League team and proved to be a legitimate draft prosepect. 

This year has already started for the Engineers. They split a pair of games against Texas Lutheran. Unfortunately, Filiere did not look that good. He’s only hitting .167 through two games. I have no doubt that Filiere will right his direction. The Engineers were supposed to play at UMass Boston on the 5th and they’re supposed to play a double header against Southern Maine to open the season at home on Saturday the 11th. Considering that snow will be on the ground, they won’t be able to play until the 17th, when they take the road to Oglethorpe, Georgia. I trust that the Engineers will entertain and that their star player will get drafted this year. 

The snow is still falling, but baseball season is upon us! I am so excited to get into the swing of it, especially with two more college teams to follow. 

World Series Magic: Way to go Cubs!

I’ve been watching baseball since 2003. I’ve enjoyed the sport since the battles of the Red Sox and Yankees awakened my imagination and presented me with heroic figures, dubious villains, and a captivating and engaging story wrapped in an understandable and beautiful form. I’ve watched my team go from the most jinxed franchise in baseball to one of the most blessed. I’ve seen long time desolate franchises like the White Sox, Phillies, and Giants all become champions in recent years. I have even seen some of the most exciting and best baseball ever played in the history of the sport. After thinking about it, I’ve come to realize just how special Wednesday night’s game was. It confirmed my undying love for the sport of baseball. 

On Wednesday night, two denied franchises played in the seventh and final game of the World Series. The Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians battled and fought to win each game, and the fight was never out of these teams. The Indians hadn’t won since 1948. The Cubs hadn’t won since 1908. They played and managed desperately, they made a few mistakes along the way, and exhausted their bullpens and benches trying to win a championship. 

That second point is the most interesting to me. With all the excitement surrounding the game, people are brushing by the fact that the Cubs won almost in spite of Joe Maddon’s managing. He pulled Kyle Hendricks much too early. Jon Lester made him look good with his performance, thankfully, and then Maddon pulled him too early as well. And what’s worse, he pulled him for Aroldis Chapman, a guy Maddon had overworked and asked too much of beforehand. He threw 41 pitches in Game 5, which was fine, the Cubs needed to win that game and it was close. But he threw 21 pitches in Game 6, in which the Cubs led 7-2 when he threw. That over reliance on Chapman was almost a fatal mistake. Chapman didn’t have his location or his velocity and was exposed by Cleveland in the 8th. Watching that game with some friends, one of whom is a Chicago native and one of whom just badly wanted the Cubs to win, there were plenty of nerves and F-bombs to go around when Rajai Davis sent Cleveland into a frenzy and gave us this all time image of Lebron James going berserk. 

I wanted the Cubs to win but I could just watch this gif on repeat for a while, it’s that good. 

After that momentary disaster, the Cubs showed, as I had been telling my Chicago friend, that these were not the same old Cubs from 1969, 1984, 1998, 2003, or any of the prior 108 years. This was a new, resilient team, and we would find out what these guys were made of. Chapman, despite being overworked, bounced back and shut out Cleveland the rest of the 8th and the 9th inning. Cleveland’s bullpen held strong too, despite allowing a runner to reach 3rd base in the 9th for the Cubs, and for the first time since 1997, extra innings were needed to decide Game 7 of the World Series. The Cubs offense rallied for two runs in the 10th, and their bullpen gave up one more run in the bottom of the inning. In years past, the Cubs would’ve folded under pressure and surrendered the lead and the championship. But this team was different. Kris Bryant slipped on the throw to first to end the game. Other years, that ball goes into the third row of the stands. This year? The throw is right on and the Cubs won.

The pub where we were watching the game had to close up before extra innings got underway, so I ended up listening to the rest of the game on the radio. Fine by me, Dan Shulman and Aaron Boone were better than Joe Buck and John Smoltz. Plus baseball was made for radio. Anyway, I listened to the game on the way home, and let out a joyous cheer when the final out was recorded. Not because I’m a Cubs fan because I’m really not. I have only one true baseball love and that’s the Red Sox. But since the Sox were not in it and because us Boston baseball fans understood the plight of Cubs fans, I wanted to see them win. I sat in my car and listened to the postgame interviews and tried to soak in the seemingly impossible dream that just became real. I wanted the Cubs to win, and I genuinely never thought they would win a championship. But here it was. They won. They deserved it. They won in spite of their manager’s maniacal use of his closer. And they beat a tough opponent that gave them everything they could’ve asked for. 

Congratulations to the Chicago Cubs and every die hard Cubs fan. They deserve this championship and the chance to celebrate at today’s parade down Michigan Avenue. Congratulations also to David Ross and Kyle Hendricks, alums of the Brewster Whitecaps who were a massive part of winning this championship. I’m thrilled to say that an organization I’m a part of helped mold champions and broke the longest championship drought in sports history. Terry Francona and the Cleveland Indians deserve all the respect in the world for playing honorably and reminding the world how amazing a sport baseball is. This was certainly one of the greatest World Series ever played (yes that countdown is next), and one of the alltime feel good stories in sports. Enjoy your championship Chicago! Ernie Banks and Harry Caray have popped the heavenly champagne already. 

Game 7: A Night to Exercise Demons

The baseball season began back in April. Eight months later, and the season has now reached its final night. The Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians will play the 37th deciding Game 7 in the history of the World Series. One of these two denied franchises will win their first championship in many years and the other will walk away from a long season in painful defeat. How marvelous. 

The excitement and anxiety that a game 7 can produce is unmatched in sports. A season full of attrition and magical performances culminates in a few games played between two great teams with the whole world watching. They both are fighting to win and, in baseball, playing the mental games that no other sport has. They’re trying to keep up with the other guy and not look dumb on the game’s biggest stage. Those are common elements of every Game 7, but this year’s matchup has some extra history attached to it. 

The Cubs and Indians are two of the most denied franchises in professional sports. Cleveland last won a World Series in 1948, beating the Boston Braves 4-3 at Braves Field in Boston (which is now Nickerson Field at Boston University).

Chicago, famously, hasn’t won a World Series since 1908. They beat the Detroit Tigers in five games, closing out the series in Bennett Park in Detroit to win their second consecutive World Series. Since then, not much success has come to these Great Lakes area teams. 

After 1908, the Cubs went on to win seven more National League Pennants and lose every World Series they played in. They lost some of the most famous World Series ever played. The Red Sox beat them in 1918 before Boston sold Babe Ruth and induced the Curse of the Bambino, Babe Ruth called his shot against the Cubs at Wrigley Field in 1932, and  Goose Goslin hit a walk off double in game 6 of the 1935 World Series to put Detroit over the Cubs. 

Their last trip to the Fall Classic was in 1945 and it ended with a crushing game 7 defeat at Wrigley to Detroit. In a series heavily affected by the recently concluded World War II, the Cubs and Tigers played the last Series before many of Baseball’s stars, like Ted Williams, Bob Feller, Yogi Berra, and others, returned to the field from battle. It featured players who wouldn’t get a chance to play Major League Baseball otherwise, and they actually produced a pretty good series. It went the distance with Game 7 at Wrigley Field but the Cubs ran out of pitching and caused their own curse. William Sianis, the owner of the Billy Goat Tavern, attended the 4th game of the World Series. He took his pet goat with him to the game (yes this was allowed back in the day, kinda). The goat’s odor was unsettling to many fans around and Sianis was asked to leave. He famously proclaimed that the Cubs would never win again. The Cubs only won one of the four games played at Wrigley Field that series and lost the Series. They started Hank Borowy in both games 6 and 7 (again, yes they did that back then) and Borowy ran out of steam. He only faced 3 batters in game 7, gave up 3 singles, and Detroit got 5 runs in the first inning. The Tigers won 9-3 and until this year, Chicago had not been back to the World Series since then. 

Cleveland’s record in the postseason is not much better than the Cubs. After their 1948 Championship, the Indians were most famous for playing in a cold football stadium referred to as the “Mistake by the Lake”. Cleveland Stadium was famous for feeling empty with 40k people, which felt even colder and more empty during the lean years of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. there was one failure in the 50’s that stung Cleveland badly. In 1954, the Indians won 111 games, a then American League record, and faced the New York Giants in the World Series. They didn’t win a single game. They became a footnote to Willy Mays magnificent catch in game 1 at the Polo Grounds. 

After being swept, they didn’t make it to a postseason series until the 90’s. The Indians made a dramatic turn around in the mid 90’s, becoming one of the best franchises in the sport. They got a beautiful new stadium in 1994 and won 100 games and the AL Pennant the next season. The Indians would make the playoffs every year from 1995 until 1999, and set a record for the longest sellout streak at Jacobs Field (Now Progressive Field). However, that era is marked by three painful defeats. First, Cleveland went to the World Series in 1995 and lost to the Atlanta Braves in 6 games, with Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux leading the way over the Tribe. 

Cleveland returned to the World Series in 1997 and faced the expansion Florida Marlins and combined for one of the greatest series ever played, capped by a legendary game 7 in Miami. Cleveland took a 2-1 lead into the 9th inning, and looked to win a championship on manager Mike Hargrove’s birthday. And then things unraveled. Jose Mesa took the hill in the bottom of the 9th, and surrendered a run on a sacrifice fly to tie the game. Extra innings followed and the 11th inning still stings for Cleveland fans. Bobby Bonilla led off the inning with a single, and after a botched bunt, Craig Counsel grounded the ball over to 2nd base for a tailor made double play. Except Tony Fernandez (a 4 time Gold Glove winner who set a record for best fielding percentage for shortstops and drove in the only two runs of the game for Cleveland) committed an error and the Marlins were in scoring position. A few batters later, Edgar Renteria drove a single into center field and the Marlins won. Cleveland walked off the field shell shocked. 

Two years later, they looked to threaten the powerhouse New York Yankees for the AL Pennant. They led the Red Sox two games to none in the division series and looked to take down New York in the ALCS, except they didn’t get that chance. Boston came back and forced a decisive game 5, and after a few barn burning innings early, Pedro Martinez came out of the bullpen and threw 6 innings of no hit baseball to win the game and the series for Boston. Cleveland would rebuild their team and the dominant 90’s teams were done. Cleveland had one more chance to win in 2007, but blew a 3-1 series lead against the Red Sox and Terry Francona (their current manager), and missed out on the Fall Classic. 

I made a prediction for the Division Series earlier this year. I declined to make predictions for the League Championship Series and the World Series and I will NOT make a prediction for tonight’s game. I will appreciate the game, enjoy the competition, and be happy for the fan base and team that wins. Both of these franchises have long and checkered pasts. One of them will win and end their pain. The other will add another chapter to their agony. And it all depends on how the ball bounces in one game. How marvelous. 

There Goes Papi

I’ve been attending and watching sporting events for almost my whole life. I’ve had almost every emotion possible. I’ve been at ease watching my team annihilate the opposition, dejected when my team stinks, shocked by heartbreaking losses, tense in close and meaningful games, and thrilled by exciting victories late. The one emotion I haven’t had before is being sad. I’ve been dejected, but I’ve never had a sense of true sadness while at a game in my life. That was, until last night at Fenway Park. 

I waited until the first inning started to buy tickets, knowing that they would drop like a rock, and picked up seats for fairly cheap. After that, I went with my friend, another life long Sox fan, and off we went to the tense atmosphere of playoff baseball in Fenway Park. We knew the potential for the Red Sox to stage a stellar series comeback, given their history in the 2000’s. We also knew that if they lost, the last active player from our youths would retire and our childhood sport fandom would in essence be over. 

Sure enough, the Red Sox found themselves down two in the bottom of the 8th inning with a runner on base, two out, and David Ortiz up to hit. Naturally, we felt pretty good about it. And then Cleveland pitched around him with an unintentional intentional walk. Hanley Ramirez singled in a run, and then Ortiz was taken out for a pinch runner. He left to upraorus applause and adulation. Unfortunately, he was denied a proper happy ending. The Red Sox failed to tie the game in the eighth and got two more runners on in the 9th and failed to score then. When the game ended, I had this crushed feeling of, “It’s over. The season, the chance for a championship, the fun times at the ballpark, but especially the career of a legend. It’s all gone.”

At that moment, I sat down in my seat and was the saddest I’ve ever been at any game I’ve ever gone to. I filled out my scorebook with what had happened, and looked around the ballpark. There were so many people standing in shock. They all knew, as I did, that we would never watch David Amèrico Ortiz Arias step to the batters box ever again for the Boston Red Sox. We didn’t want it to end. We stood and waited. We chanted at the top of our lungs: “We Want Papi!” And “Thank you Papi!” and best of all “We’re Not Leaving!”. We waited for what felt like an eternity. 

And then a tall, looming figure stepped out of the Red Sox dugout and took the field. The Fenway Park sound guys played this music from The Natural, and every person there watched this legend as tears filled every eye in the yard. Surrounded by reporters, he looked around the park with tears in his eyes. He didn’t care about the people taking pictures a few feet away from them, he wasn’t there for them. He walked out to the pitchers mound to say thank you to the people in the stands. He tipped his cap to us, and we cheered and yelled “Thank you David!” until we just couldn’t speak or make anymore noise. We all knew what this man did for the Red Sox, the region, and ourselves. We could do nothing, but applaud the efforts and heart of this champion. And then he stepped off the mound and off the field, back through the dugout and into the clubhouse to remove his equipment for the final time. 

I’ve been following the Red Sox since 2003, a diehard fan since 2005, and a Boston area resident since 2012. In that time, David Ortiz went from a mediocre left handed hitter to productive hitter on a record setting offense to postseason folk hero to legendary slugger worthy of record alongside the greatest to ever play the game. I grew up watching him play every single day for six months of my year every year from 2003 on. I was 8 when he took over the DH spot from Jeremy Giambi. I’m now 22 and I’m watching the last of my childhood baseball heroes walk away. And when David walked out and tipped his cap to us, I cried. I’ve never shed a tear at a game before. But that was the end of my childhood baseball fandom, and I was so sad to watch it end. 

As I’ve explained before, David Ortiz is the most important Red Sox player ever. Not the best, but the most important. He took the Red Sox from being a team that would be just good enough to entertain and just bad enough to fail spectacularly in the biggest game of the season to being a champion. The 2004 World Series is the most important trophey in the history of all Boston sports without any hesitation. And David Ortiz was at the heart of it. When we cheered David, we were thanking him for his efforts on the field and his transformation of the organization we root for. He turned us into winners. And I mean that line quite literally. 

Athletes can only do so much to directly impact our day to day lives. They play a game and entertain people. They aren’t doctors, nurses, firefighters, police officers, or anything that directly helps a city in that manner. Any impact that can be is up to the person watching the game and athlete in question. Athletes can inspire fans and make them realize their own potential. They see the exploits on the field and think: “If they can handle all this pressure of all these expectations and perform like that, then I can handle my issues and do it the way they do.” 

Watching the Red Sox from 1919 to 2003 was to expect failure. You follow a team for so long and see so many failures while that guy (in this case the Yankees) gets every break and does so well, and it rubs off on your psyche. When David showed up and played with his swagger and championship mindset, he changed the Sox from fearing the big moment and the Yankees to wanting that pressure. That rubbed off on the fan base too. It rubbed off on me. I looked at Ortiz as an inspirational figure for my youth, looking to his triumphs for inspiration to deal with personal struggles and problems. He gave me the confidence to handle my issues with a championship swagger and attitude. I’ll always have him to personally thank for that. And me tipping my cap to him was my way of saying thank you. I’m sure I’m not the only person with that sense of gratitude or impact given by him. 

Thank you David Ortiz, champion, hero, and Boston Red Sox legend. You’ve changed a city, a team, a fan base, and filled our lives with so much joy. One standing ovation from all of us Red Sox fans would not be enough to thank you for all that you’ve done. But it’s all we could give you last night. Thank you. We will miss you, and love what you gave us forever. 

Division Series Previews and Predictions

After two outstanding Wild Card games over the last few days, the Baseball Postseason is ready to get started tonight! We have eight teams starting the division series in both the American and National League over the next two days, and this is when the best baseball is played. Let’s take a look at each series and see what I think will happen! And for the record, I’m not going to predict more than just the Division Series. We’ll start with the American League. 

Toronto Blue Jays vs Texas Rangers- Rangers in 5

This is the series I look at with the most excitement. After last year’s matchup between these two teams, capped by this Jose Bautista homer and bat flip, and the bad blood spilling over into a regular season match early this year, I am excited for this matchup! There is bad blood, animosity, and something that baseball has missed for a long time: menace. There’s a sense of competition that the sport desperately needs in the postseason, and I am excited for that. There also are talented baseball players on both teams, so we should get good play in addition to the competition. Both teams have strong lineups, good to well above average starting rotations, and shakey bullpens so I see that as a close matchup.

The Blue Jays lineup can make minced meat out of the best pitching in baseball. Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, and Troy Tulowitski are all able to hit homers off any pitcher in any ballpark, let alone band boxes in Texas and Toronto that will lead to more offense. Their defense is also capable, with the fifth best fielding percentage in the AL. Russell Martin is an underrated defensive catcher, and their starting rotation is talented, if a bit unproven. They have the AL’s ERA leader in Aaron Sanchez, who is coming off a masterful performance in Fenway Park against the best offense in baseball, in which he held the Red Sox to one run over seven innings. Marcus Stroman, Marco Estrada, and JA Happ are also talented pitchers who will hold their own. Toronto’s weakness comes in the form of their bullpen. They have only a 4.40 ERA and despite holding the Orioles offense to only 2 runs in the wild card game, there is no clear closer or obvious stopper in the Jays bullpen. Roberto Osuna is questionable for game 1, and that will mess with the bullpen big time. 

Texas can match the Canadian offense. Adrian Beltre continues to make a Hall of Fame case for himself after a .300, 30 homer, 104 RBI season at 37 years old. Elvis Andrus hit .302, Rougned Odor provides some punch (no pun intended), and Ian Desmond is a capable all around hitter. After Prince Fielder retired, the Rangers picked up Carlos Beltran, a playoff tested future Hall of Famer to bolster the offense, and he has done just that. Unfortunately, the defense is only pedestrian, with the 9th best defense in the American League. Their starting rotation on paper is also only pedestrian without the names of the pitchers being considered. Cole Hammels and Yu Darvish are talented pitchers with huge name recognition, but age, attrition, and injury have slowed them down. Hammels has the lowest ERA on the team at 3.32, and Darvish is just getting back to full strength after Tommy John surgery, pitching in only 17 games this season. But these guys, along with Colby Lewis and Derek Holland, are skilled players with postseason experience that will show up against Toronto. The reason I’m picking Texas in this series is the bullpen. The teams are even in all positions except the closer. Osuna isn’t ready to play this series right now, while Sam Dyson (2.43 ERA, 38 saves) is ready to go for Texas. I think the Rangers have a slightly better bullpen and will scrape by the Blue Jays in 5. 

Boston Red Sox vs Cleveland Indians- Red Sox in 4

As a Red Sox fan, after the last week of the season, I am quite nervous for this series. I don’t have a ton of faith in the Red Sox bullpen and I don’t want to face Terry Francona’s team giving up home field advantage. That all being said, I’ll put my fandom and fears aside and try to be objective about this series. 

Boston comes in with the best offense in baseball. Mookie Bette, Dustin Pedroia, and David Ortiz all have cases to be MVP this season, while Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Hanley Ramirez all provide stronger bats than most can offer. Cleveland is no slouch offensively, but they lack the diversity of weapons that Boston has. Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez are the two .300 hitters on the team, and Mike Napoli has given a spark of power, but the Indian’s offense is ultimately a far cry from what Boston can bring. 

Boston also carries a talented pitching staff. Rick Porcello is a viable Cy Young candidate, and David Price picked up his play later in the year. Clay Buccholz and Eduardo Rodriguez are wild cards but if they come up strong, they can put Boston over the top. The rotation is shortened after the absurdly stupid decision to have All Star Steven Wright run the bases in Los Angeles on August 5th which resulted in his shoulder injury. He could return to the team for the ALCS, but he can’t help the team against Cleveland. The Indians carry a pitching stud in Corey Kluber, but he is injured and so is the rest of the starting rotation. Kluber is starting game 2 after a late season quad injury, and game 1 starter Trevor Bauer isn’t a pitching ace. Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco are also injured, and will not play in the series. Cleveland’s starting rotation is not in good shape. The bullpens are more comparable, but the injured Indians starting rotation will be their downfall. Kluber will win his start in Cleveland, but Boston’s offensive depth will take on the rotation and win the series in four games. 

Now onto the National League. 

Chicago Cubs vs San Francisco Giants, Cubs in 5

By leaps and bounds, this is the hardest series for me to predict. On one hand, the Chicago Cubs are the most talented team in baseball, have the NL MVP in Kris Bryant, one of the best pitchers in Jake Arrieta, a bevy of young talent, championship veteran guile in players like Jon Lester, John Lackey, and David Ross. On the other hand, it’s the Cubs. This is the most cursed team in baseball facing the team that turns into a golden team in even year Octobers, the San Francisco Giants. More so than the stigma of “It’s the Cubs”, these teams match up extremely well. 

Chicago clearly has the better lineup from top to bottom, but the Giants still have weapons in Buster Posey, Hunter Pence, and Brandon Crawford. They don’t have the power of the Cubs, but they can make the Cubs rotation work and throw a ton of pitches. The real matchup is in the starting rotations. Madison Bumbgarner, the best postseason pitcher throwing right now, won’t start until game 3, but Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija are capable pitchers and can make life difficult for Chicago. The Cubs will have to face a difficult rotation, and Chicago’s bullpen will have to hold up better than the Mets’ bullpen did last night. With Aroldis Chapman in the closers spot, they can shut down the Giants in the 9th. If the Cubs are to win, the Cubs MUST win both games 1 and 2 in Chicago and the bullpen must be better than the Giants. 

I see this series as a toss up. The Giants have a winning culture and attitude that the Cubs have not proven to have and they have the pieces to take down the Cubs. The Cubs have talent and the burden of expectation from baseball fans and the longest suffering fan base in all of sports. If the Cubs are to win a championship, they must win games 1 and 2 at home. 

Washington Nationals vs Los Angeles Dodgers- Nationals in 4

This series is simultaneously interesting and boring for me. These teams are talented and Fun to watch in the regular season. However, they are horribly disappointing in the postseason. The Dodgers were supposed to beat the Cardinals in the 2013 NLCS and 2014 NLDS, the Mets in the 2015 NLDS behind the performance of Clayton Keyshawn, Justin Turner, Yasiel Paige, and others, but lost every single series, never reaching their postseason potential. The Nationals are just as disappointing, with a lost championship in 2014 and missing the playoffs last year. I expect both teams to eventually fold, if not in this series then later in the month. But I will still watch and see which of these “Next Year’s Champions” will continue to tease their fans. 

Adrian Gonzalez, Justin Turner, and Corey Seager lead a potent lineup against the Nationals and Howie Kendrick, Josh Reddick, and Yasiel Puig look to improve on disappointing regular seasons and help the team get a boost. For DC, Daniel Murphy takes his .347 average into the postseason with the intent of another trip to the Fall Classic. Wilson Ramos also hit .300 and is the other well performing hitter for DC. Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman, two long standing DC hitters, had very disappointing seasons and look to step up in October. Harper’s season was especially disappointing. The reigning NL MVP went from hitting .330 to only .243 this season and he struggled to get into any kind of rhythm this season. If anything, the fact that Washington won 95 games this season with Harper performing so poorly is reason for more confidence. Imagine how well they’d play if Harper picked up his average.

These starting rotations are both top heavy. Clayton Keyshawn and Max Scherzer are the undisputed aces, but the rotations beyond those two are a little short. Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strausburg both have talent but have been inconsistent this year in the nation’s capitol. Kenta Madea and Scott Kazmir have some good innings in them, but they are secondary to Kershaw and not quite ace level. The Dodgers have a decided advantage in their bullpen. Washington released their closer, Jonathan Paplebon, before the signing deadline in the middle of the season, and have given Shawn Kelly the closing job. He and the rest of the Nationals Bullpen has plenty to prove. LA has a bona fide closer in Kelley Jansen, sporting a 1.83 ERA and 47 Saves. The rest of the bullpen is more dependable as welll. However, because of slightly better pitching, and the potential for Bryce Harper to break loose, I’m picking Washington to win the series. 

So there are my predictions. Onto the playoffs! 

 

Division Champs! Why Does it Feel Empty?

After two consecutive last place finishes in 2014 and 2015, the Boston Red Sox rose up to have the best offense in Major League Baseball. It’s been fun watching this team hit so well and excite the city of Boston. Last night, they clinched the American League Eastern Division Championship for the first time since 2013. They have sowed up a playoff spot and avoid the Wild Card randomness and cap a great regular season. They celebrated in Yankee Stadium after securing the division. 

So why was I not celebrating? Well, winning the division last night felt empty for a few reasons. Namely, we lost. Last night’s game in Yankee Stadium was eminently winnable, with an outstanding start from Clay Buccholz, and an offensive surge in the 8th that should have been enough for the bullpen to hold. It wasn’t though. Craig Kimbrel, the closer for the Red Sox and a representative at the All-Star game this year, was absolutely awful in the 9th. He walked three guys, gave up 1 hit, got no outs, and when Joe Kelly got tagged by Mark Texeira with a grand slam, surrendered four runs to lose the game for the Sox. The Red Sox had a game that they could have easily won against their arch rivals and they blew it. Regardless of winning the division, I don’t feel good about what I saw from my team last night. 

Should I be happy that the Red Sox are in the postseason? Yes. Am I happy that I will get to watch Ortiz in the postseason one more time? Yes. Does that make up for blowing an eminently winnable game against the Yankees while there is still plenty to play for this week? Not only no, but hell no. The bullpen did not instill any confidence in me, and losing to the Yankees, especially in walk off fashion, is always gut wrenching. And what’s left to play for? Home field advantage throughout the playoffs. 

Right now, the Red Sox are the second seed in the playoffs. They would have home field for the Division Series and the World Series sown up if they make it that far. Here’s my concern: the American League Championship Series. Boston is best at home this season and they’d be in the best position to win the championship if they had home field advantage in that series. Here’s the problem: Texas has the best record in the A.L. and I don’t like the matchup against Texas. They’re 3-3 against them this season and didn’t look good in Arlington when they traveled there earlier this season. Every loss makes the chance for best record less likely and that worries me, especially with the bullpen’s importance to every team and the Sox bullpen coming up smaller than mini me frequently this season. They are 20-22 in one run games in the postseason, where close and low scoring games are more frequent, that stat is alarming. 

Am I worrying too much? Probably. Do I have cause for concern after last night? Yes. Do I desperately want David Ortiz to go out with a championship? Without question. Have I enjoyed this season? Yes! It has been so much more fun than the last two years and I love being a Red Sox fan right now. But am I happy after clinching the division? No. There is still plenty of baseball left to play and too much up in the air to celebrate after a night like that. This isn’t the Red Sox of the past, when just winning enough to get into the postseason was acceptable. Winning championships is the ultimate goal, and the Red Sox have a long way to go before they can win the championship. 

Don’t Forget Miami Shaq

When asked what the most important move he has made for the Miami Heat, former coach and current President and Godfather Pat Riley didn’t say it was signing Alonzo Mourning in 1995, drafting Dwayne Wade in 2003, signing Ray Allen away from Boston in 2012, or luring Lebron James and Chris Bosh to South Beach in 2010. He said that acquiring Shaquille O’Neal was far and away the biggest move he made as president of the Miami Heat. “He turned our franchise around. He gave us real legitimacy.” The reaction to the interview in which he said this has been a mix of “really?” and “He’s just saying that as a bitter man who has watched Lebron and Wade leave him in recent years.” To both of those I say, quit your bellyaching and understand the context of Shaq’s arrival in Miami. 

In the 90’s Shaquille O’Neal was the most exciting player in the league. He was a massive man who had the agility of a guard and was averaging 28 and 15 in his sleep. He made the Orlando Magic not only relevant, but took them to the finals and made Orlando the most exciting team in the league to watch. When he went to the Lakers in 1996, he cemented his place as the second most dominant player in NBA history behind Wilt Chaimberlain. He won the MVP in 2000, led the Lakers to 3 straight titles, and was the MVP of the Finals in every Finals Series the Lakers won. 

Contrast this incredible success with Miami’s history up to that point. The Heat were founded in 1988 and were ice cold out of the gate. They lost their first 17 games and finished their first season 15-67. They didn’t make the playoffs until 1992, and they were swept easily by Chicago in the first round. They didn’t make the conference finals until 1997 and lost in 5 games to the Bulls. They built some strong regular season teams in the back half of the 90’s and played some legendarily brutal games against the Knicks, but Alonzo Mourning, Tim Hardaway, and new head coach Pat Riley weren’t enough to make it to the NBA Finals. In fact in 1999, they became only the 2nd top seed to lose to an 8th seed in the first round of the playoffs when the Knicks upset them. When they drafted Dwayne Wade in 2003, Miami meant absolutely nothing in the basketball world. Beyond having one of the NBA’s legendary figures in Pat Riley involved with their organization, they hadn’t won anything of major significance. 

Then in 2004, Shaq and Kobe broke up and LA’s championship reign came to an end. Miami had gone to the 2nd round of the playoffs that year, but still needed a piece to make them legitimate title contenders. They decided to trade Lamar Odom, Brian Grant, and Caron Butler to get Shaq. Immediately, the impact was felt. Shaq and Wade became the biggest power duo in the game, Miami had the best record in the east, and came within one victory of their first NBA Finals appearance. After retooling their supporting cast, a severely disrespected Heat team upset Detroit in the Eastern Conference Finals and the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals to win the franchise’s first championship. Miami completed their quest for a ring and this one is held in high regard by Riley, who has 5 rings as a coach. It all became a real possibility when Shaq arrived. 

The 2006 NBA Finals are regarded as a one man show. Dwayne Wade was absolutely the best player on the floor that series, averaging 34.7 points a game and winning the MVP of the finals. Shaq didn’t have that great a series, only averaging 13.7 points a game. Compared to his points output in prior years, this was a precipitous decline. He still pulled down a team high 10.2 rebounds a game that series and contributed to a championship team. But this series highlights just how under appreciated Shaq’s time in Miami was. 

His first season in Miami, Wade was not the future Hall of Famer that he is today. He was a quick shooting guard with a big upside and plenty of scoring ability, but he wasn’t Flash yet. The Miami Heat were a promising team, but hadn’t earned the respect of the league yet. When the Big Aristotle showed up, Miami became a legitimate title contender. They had an MVP candidate, one of the greatest centers of all time, and a player with plenty of game left to give. While the Shaq that played in Orlando and LA is treated as a legendary player, Miami Shaq is generally regarded as the start of the old, lumbering Shaq who barely resembled his former glory. That’s not a fair description. In fact, Shaq was almost the MVP of the league in his first year in Miami. He averaged 22.9 points, 10.4 rebounds and 2.3 blocks a game while leading Miami to 59 wins in 2005 and lost the MVP to Steve Nash in one of the closest votes in the history of the award. His 2nd year in Miami, he still averaged 20 points and almost 10 rebounds a game, and had 27 point and 12 rebound performances and better against the Bulls and Pistons in the playoffs. Shaq played at a Hall of Fame level in Miami, even though many fans have forgotten that. 

Lebron and Wade were a more dynamic and explosive duo in Miami than Wade and Shaq were. But without Shaq going to Miami, the Heat never win a single championship and Wade’s successes that made Miami appealing to Lebron and Bosh in 2010 don’t exist. Thus, Pat Riley is correct about Shaq’s importance to the Heat organization. 

When Shaq is inducted into the Hall of Fame on September 9th, most highlights will be from his years in Orlando and Los Angeles. Don’t forget to talk about his Miami years though. Wade didn’t become Flash until Superman joined him, and Lebron might never have taken his talents to South Beach of the Big Aristotle hadn’t made Miami credible six years earlier.