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.
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!