Last night, baseball lore received a twist so ironic it borders on unbelievable—and only fans of teams other than the ones involved would think so.
The Seattle Mariners beat the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (still the dumbest name in baseball, by the way) 5-0 in a fairly pedestrian mid-July contest, except for the fact that the loss kept the Angels from leapfrogging the AL West-leading (!) Houston Astros in the standings. But two important plays in the game—one a rally-squashing catch; the other a strikeout to ice the victory for Seattle—seem otherworldly in the memories they stir up for fans of the St. Louis Cardinals and the Texas Rangers.
The Angels threatened in the top of the first, loading the bases with none out and the middle of the order looming. But two unproductive outs later, the bases were still loaded when David Freese stepped to the plate. Freese ripped a line drive to right-center that was hauled in with a spectacular diving catch by none other than Nelson Cruz.
Yep…that guy. Only, last night he actually made the game-saving catch on a well-hit David Freese liner.
If that wasn’t enough to make Cards and Rangers fans cringe—albeit for vastly different reasons—the end of the game certainly would.
The Angels couldn’t get much going after that deflating first inning, only putting together four hits on the night. But one of those was a two-out single by Erick Aybar.
Coming to the plate? David Freese.
Standing on the mound? Mark Lowe.
Yep…that guy. Only, this time Lowe struck Freese out to preserve the victory.
That these three players would cross paths again isn’t all that surprising, since it’s been less than four years since that fateful Game 6 night. But all three in the same game, where Cruz DOES make the crucial catch against Freese and Lowe DOES get the crucial out against Freese to end the game? That borders on absurd–not for Angels or Mariners fans, necessarily; for Rangers fans, who can only wonder what might have been…and for Cardinals fans, relieved at what actually was.
Last week, Danny Knobler of CBSsports.com wrote a great article about the St. Louis Cardinals and their decision process for letting Albert Pujols sign elsewhere while eventually re-signing Yadier Molina and how that was the right move for the future of the franchise. I have no dispute with any part of the article, so there’s no need to go through it here—but I highly recommend reading it if you’re a fan of the Cardinals, interested in how to build and maintain a culture of winning, or just love the business of baseball in general.
But on a personal note, the piece struck a chord with me and somewhat related decision I had to make a few years back.
In 2009, Busch Stadium hosted the All Star Game. It was the first time the Midsummer Classic was held in St. Louis in 40+ years, and anticipation was high. The once-in-a-lifetime aspect of the festivities was the catalyst for us to get partial season tickets, knowing that was our best shot at securing tickets for the All Star festivities as well. We were correct; as soon as they were available, we purchased tickets to the game, the Home Run Derby, the Fan Fest, all of it. As All Star Weekend drew near, I was surprised with one more All Star-centric proposition: as an early birthday present, I could select an All Star batting practice jersey for my gift. The jerseys were red, of course, with the great All Star logo featuring the Gateway Arch, and just a hint of the powder blue beloved by so many Cards fans—including myself. Though they weren’t the only players selected from that ‘09 team to represent the Cardinals on the National League squad, for me there were really only two choices: Pujols or Molina.
I have written about this kind of decision before; in fact, it was earlier in 2009. But that was just off-the-cuff thinking out loud, before I was faced with actually making the decision. And it was one I had a LOT of trouble making. At that time, Pujols was still peaking as the best hitter in the game. His importance to the Cardinals’ lineup was never higher, especially since former fellow “MV3” members Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen were now with other teams. Based on that and the words from his own mouth, it seemed unfathomable that Pujols would ever wear a different uniform. On the flipside, Molina was quickly coming into his own as an elite player. His defense was never in question, but his light offensive numbers and clunky base running usually relegated him to the bottom of the order. Then, in 2008, he topped a .300 batting average and 50 RBI for the first time. He was getting on base much more often and striking out very little. His importance to the franchise was high before, but if his offense kept coming around he too would be harder and harder for the Cardinals to let walk. It was a decision I put off until the very last second; even as we pulled up to the Cardinals Team Store I was still mentally flipping the coin. On the one hand, the 2009 All Star Game would be an event that could never be taken away from either player regardless of whether they left for free agency someday. On the other, I couldn’t imagine wearing any jersey or shirt of a former Cardinal while he was playing for a different team. You know…root for the name on the front, not the one on the back…
And then I made the decision.
To this day, the jersey I chose still hangs in my closet—which is probably where it will stay, at least until Pujols’ contract with the Angels expires. The Cardinals have much better foresight than I do.
Albert Pujols leaving the Cardinals via free agency was always a possibility, however unlikely it seemed. I thought the Cards would be in on the dollars side, but would balk at the years. Turns out the opposite was true. But before 2011 I was hoping for 7 years guaranteed +2 or 3 option years. In the NL, it is really, really hard to justify paying a 40+ player $20 million or more when he has to play in the field every day. But there are so many unknown details here, starting with AAV. If the Cards said they’d signed him for 10 years, $250 million starting with $30 million next year, a declining AAV, and the last two were $15 million options, I think I’d be on board. He’d still get the same amount of money; they wouldn’t be paying him as much in his last few years. Apparently the Marlins had the highest bid, which means that no trade clause was a really big deal. I can get behind that, too. Security is important. But that’s not all it was.
I think what really stings is the smoke he blew up all our asses: “I have money; it’s not about the money”…“Why would I want to play anywhere else?”…“I want to be like Stan Musial and be a Cardinal for life.” When you invoke the name of Stan Musial and phrases like “it’s not about the money” and “Cardinal for life” you’d better mean it. Clearly he didn’t. Today does not erase the last 11 seasons, either for his individual accomplishments or the team’s success. But some of that integrity and persona has been diminished with this news. He really was about the money. That in itself isn’t terrible; just be honest about it. Maybe the Marlins offered the most zeroes in front of the decimal, but if we’re comparing apples to apples, the Angels and Cards offered the same contract terms. The Angels’ trump card was more cash. The Cardinals’ trump card was baseball legacy/immortality. He took the bread.
I’m not really sure how to describe my feelings beyond the above. Maybe it will set in once I see Pujols 5 on the back of a LA Angels jersey. Maybe it will set in during the Winter Warm up or Spring Training when, for the first time in over a decade, Albert Pujols is nowhere to be found. But I didn’t really go into convulsions when Tony LaRussa retired, either. At the time I chalked it up to World Series Hangover. But that was over a month ago. An era has truly ended in St. Louis. Let’s hope the Cardinals don’t lapse into another odd-decade Dark Age. Looking at the rest of the roster, though, I really think they’re going to be OK. We all are.
The American League may be the better league, but it does not have a better brand of baseball. I am not a fan of the DH and its trickle-down effect on the AL style of play (i.e., no strategy at all). Regardless, this year’s ALCS matchup is the one I felt was inevitable.
Los Angeles Angels vs. New York Yankees This really is a battle between the two best teams in the AL. The Yankees once again loaded up on talent via trades and the free agent pool, landing Nick Swisher, AJ Burnett, Mark Texiera, and CC Sabathia in the offseason. The Angels took a strong core and added just a couple of missing pieces–namely Bobby Abreu, Brian Fuentes, and Scott Kazmir–to their seemingly bottomless well of homegrown major
Of course, the midseason trade for Kazmir probably wouldn’t have been necessary if not for the death of pitcher Nick Adenhart at the beginning of the 2009 season. But Adenhart’s death has become a rallying point for the Angels; they play with a sense of purpose and inspiration. Although they haven’t been back to the World Series since winning it all in 2002, the Angels seem to be in the postseason (or at least in the race) every year. They’re winners.
The Yankees, for their part, are trying to get back to the World Series for the first time since 2003, their longest drought since they began their amazing run in 1996. And for all the talk about how the Yankees “buy their way” into the postseason every year, 12 of the players on their 25-man roster have been with the Yankees their entire careers, whether that be 15 years or two. And that doesn’t count Hideki Matsui, who has only played for the Yankees in North America but had a great pro career in Japan first, or Andy Pettitte, who was brought back to his original team after several years with the Houston Astros.
This series, like all postseason series, will come down to pitching. Both of these teams can hit and score runs, and both can hang in a tight game. They have strong rotations and bullpens, top to bottom. But the Yankees have the equalizers: Sabathia is one of the best pitchers in the game, Pettitte is one of the best starters in postseason history, and Mariano Rivera is the best closer in postseason history. The Angels have answers in just about every other area but those three; unfortunately they happen to be the most important three of all. Yankees in six.
Now that the AL Central Division has finally been clinched, the playoff matchups are set. That means it’s time for some wild (but somewhat educated) guesses as to who will survive to play in the League Championship Series!
Minnesota Twins vs. New York Yankees: The Twins won a thrilling game to take the AL Central Division crown Tuesday night. Momentum may be on their side initially, but the Yankees are a juggernaut. They have superior pitching, superior hitting, and at least equal defense to the Twins. They also have home field advantage and a day of rest that the Twins will eventually wish they had. The Metrodome gets no more than a two-game stay of execution, and even that may be generous. Yankees in three.
Boston Red Sox vs. Los Angeles Angels: Again? These two teams seem to make a postseason meeting mandatory, and the Red Sox always seem to have the Angels’ number. But all good things must come to an end. The Angels have a very solid team top to bottom. Their defense will be the difference in this series, and it won’t be easy, but I think the Angels have more of a sense of purpose than the Red Sox this year. Angels in five.
Colorado Rockies vs. Philadelphia Phillies: This series could set a record for most runs scored in a five-gamer. The thin air in Colorado; the cozy confines in Philly…and both teams have a ton of offense. The pitching? Well, the Rockies’ rotation is suspect with the injury to Jorge De La Rosa, and the Phillies’ bullpen is terrible. In the end, I think the Phillies have more firepower…and if they put up a ton of runs the closer issues will be moot. Phillies in five.
St. Louis Cardinals vs. Los Angeles Dodgers: The two most storied franchises in the NL hook up for only the third time in playoff history. Neither team was great down the stretch. The Dodgers can do some damage on the basepaths, and manager Joe Torre isn’t afraid to play smallball…but these situations can be countered with (if not nullified by) catcher Yadier Molina and the Cardinals solid if unspectacular infield. The Dodgers have the superior closer, but he’s useless if they can’t get a lead for him. Pujols. Carpenter. Wainwright. LaRussa. It’s all too much for LA. Cardinals in four.
Stay tuned…we’re just getting started, baby!
Los Angeles Angels’ pitcher Nick Adenhart was involved in a car accident after last night’s game against the Oakland A’s and died today. He was 22. The official statement from the Angels can be found here.
As a Cardinal fan, I can’t help but be reminded of Darryl Kile and Josh Hancock. While most of us don’t get to know these players personally, we do, in some sense, establish a bond with the teams and the players based on mutual admiration and respect. The only thing I can say right now is I feel for the Angels and their fans. It will be hard, but take solace in the game. I’m sure Adenhart would have wanted it that way.
This week I’ll be giving my best guesses as to who will win their respective divisions this year, then I’ll roll out a postseason prediction. But since baseball is a game of emotion as much as it is of logic, I’ll explore both. First, that other league: the AL
The AL West is the red-headed stepchild of Major League Baseball. Four Teams? And one of them is in Texas? That’s almost as ridiculous as the Atlanta Braves and the Cincinnati Reds being in the NL West for a quarter century. What’s worse is that only two of the four teams really appear to be trying: the Oakland A’s and the LA Angels. The Seattle Mariners aren’t going to be much better than last year’s debacle, and the Texas Rangers just can’t seem to find the pitching to complement a usually powerful offense. The A’s were not a bad team last year; the Angels were just really good. That may change this year, though.
I’d love to see Seattle back in the playoff hunt because of one guy: Ken Griffey, Jr. No one deserves a World Series appearance like this guy, and to have it happen as a member of the Mariners would make it a story that writes itself.
What I think will happen:
1. A’s – I think GM Billy Beane has once again made just the right moves to put this team back on top. Matt Holliday and Jason Giambi should boost the offense, and Orlando Cabrera will help stabilize the defense. They have a young rotation once again, but in a weak division it may not matter.
2. Angels – They’re going to miss Mark Texiera and Francisco Rodriguez, but now it looks like top-end starters John Lackey and Ervin Santana may have injury concerns as well. That could be enough to keep a third straight division title out of reach.
3. Mariners – May see dividends from the intangibles expected with the return of Ken Griffey, Jr.–large home crowds, mentoring for young players, etc.–but even .500 might be a stretch.
4. Rangers – Need a miracle. And a pitching staff.
The AL Central is probably going to be the most balanced division in baseball this season. No team is a clear favorite, and no team looks like a sure-fire dud either. The Detroit Tigers can’t possibly be as bad as they were last year. The Kansas City Royals may finally have a rebuild worth seeing to completion, and the Cleveland Indians might have the best pitching staff in the division. The Minnesota Twins are a sure bet to be in the mix like always, and if the Chicago White Sox can get big contributions from their youngsters they could surprise everyone in this tight race.
I’d love to see the White Sox pull this one out again. They might need to make a move to get a little younger and a little faster for it to happen, though. Jermaine Dye, Paul Konerko, Jim Thome, and AJ Pierzynski can swing the lumber, but they’re not exactly OBP machines. And, in a division where all the teams could be bunched up at or above .500, you need to play the whole game to be able to win.
What I think will happen:
1. Indians – Pitching wins championships, and Cleveland has a ton of it. Of course, everyone has to stay healthy, but that’s true of all teams. Big contributions from Anthony Reyes, Carl Pavano, and Kerry Wood are essential to the Indians’ success.
2. Tigers – A lot of people (including myself) picked Detroit to run away with this division last season, and they ended up dead last. It wasn’t the coaching…manager Jim Leyland is one of the best in the business. So that leaves one of two things: talent or attitude. Well, they had a lot of talented guys last season, a lot of whom are back for 2009, so…yeah. Get it together, boys.
3. White Sox – To go along with their aforementioned offensive issues, the South Siders have questions in their rotation. Mark Buerhle, John Danks, and Gavin Floyd should be OK; beyond that things get dicey. But GM Kenny Williams has proven himself a pretty smart guy, and I can’t count out a team managed by Ozzie Guillen. The White Sox are my dark horse pick to come out on top.
4. Twins – Dark horse pick 1-A to win. Minnesota simply cannot be counted out of this race. The glaring problems they have is with the backs of two guys named Joe. Star catcher Joe Mauer has a back injury that will have him starting the season on the DL, and new third baseman Joe Crede has a history of back injuries. Those are big holes to fill if these two can’t stay healthy.
5. Royals – From the Starting To Come Around file, the Royals can sniff .500 if their rotation holds up, Joakim Soria closes like a stud again, and the offense is steady. In a division with such parity, they just have to concentrate on winning series and they’ll be pesky.
The AL East is a ridiculous juggernaut flush with just as much money as talent. I expect two playoff teams and the AL World Series representative to come out of this division. The New York Yankees reloaded with several top free agents but somehow trimmed payroll. The Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays will have legitimate shots at winning this division as well; the Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles will not. It would not surprise me at all to have three teams within five games of the division lead most of the year. Which means the division championship is pretty much up for grabs.
I would love to see the Tampa Bay Rays win the AL East again. Last season made it easy for Rays fans to forget the previous 10 years of terrible, terrible baseball. The team earned their success; they didn’t buy it or luck into it. How can you not root for a team like that?
What I think will happen:
1. Yankees – Sabathia, Burnett, Wang…that competes with the top three of any rotation in baseball, but injury concerns are there. Riviera…the closer of the decade, but injury concerns are there. Texiera, Damon, Rodriguez, Jeter, Posada…a steady (if not borderline explosive) lineup, but injury concerns are there. On paper and sans injuries, the Yankees have one of the best teams in the league…
2. Red Sox – …but so do the Red Sox. And what they might have going for them over the Yankees is their youth. With that said, the Sox also need big, healthy years from veterans Mike Lowell, Jason Varitek, David Ortiz, and JD Drew if they’re going to overtake the Yankees and…
3. Rays – …this team, who added some veteran presence in Pat Burrell and Jason Isringhausen (once he’s rehabbed from offseason surgery) to go with their young core. They’ll pitch well, they’ll hit, they’ll run, and they’ll play defense. This team proved last year they can beat their big purse rivals to the north, and they’re likely do it again this year.
4. Orioles – Baltimore will do one thing well this season: play defense. Cesar Izturis and Brian Roberts are among the best middle infield combos in baseball. Unfortunately, they won’t have enough offense or pitching to compete with the big dogs in this division. But .500 isn’t out of the question.
5. Blue Jays – Toronto is going the wrong way. This year, the only thing they’ll be competing for is the #1 draft pick in 2010…which means they should probably trade Roy Halladay to try to get another 1st round pick and maybe a high-level prospect or two.
Agree? Disagree? Indifferent because you feel the National League is superior? Let’s hear it!