Game 163

This week I wanted to fume about the NBA deciding to put nicknames on jerseys, or lament about Vince Wilfork’s season-ending ACL tear, or even discuss the NHL gearing up to begin soon enough. But this week, the glorious gift from the world of baseball overtakes everything.

162 games were supposed to decide everything. It was supposed to decide who was better, but at the end, two teams stood together: the Texas Rangers and the Tampa Bay Rays, both 91-71.

When the season, spanning from the last day of March to the first day of October isn’t enough…when 162 games isn’t enough, what does that bring? Game 163! Hallelujah! The greatest joy for every baseball fan is more baseball and this game is one game where everything could end tonight for one team. These players haven’t played in one-game playoffs since high school and college.

The intensity will be high, the leashes on Starters will be short, and it’s truly win or go home.

Starter Breakdown:

David Price: The Rays give the ball to their Ace, the three-time All Star and 2012 Cy Young. Even though he missed some time this season and finished with a 9-8 record overall, his 147:26 K:BB ratio is among the best in the league. The big lefthander is the biggest pitcher for the Rays and will need his biggest game for them to advance. However, over the past years in 2010 and 2011, Price has been tagged by Texas. He’s 0-3 with a 4.65 ERA over 19.1 innings in three starts. He’s also been shelled for 24 hits. However the ballgame is in Texas and Price has looked worse there with a stat-line of 1-2 for a 10.56 ERA.

Martin Perez: in his last 11 games, 7-2 with a 3.05 ERA, so he’s got the hot hand for Texas, which is why they elected to go with him. He’s 10-5 on the season with a 3.55 ERA in 19 games started. The young man, he’s 21, pitches in the biggest game of his life as this could be his coming out party, or he could prove he can’t handle the spotlight. This game comes at home where Perez has actually played poorly in comparison to the road. Home: 3-3 3.18 ERA, Away: 7-2 3.84 ERA. Perez, as young as he is, can’t allow the Rays to pile on base hits early or that could spell trouble for the Rangers. Also, Texas needs to give him at least four runs of support, he’s 4-2 in those games.

Analysis: Price will out-wily the rookie, but neither will contribute to the decision as this one ends late on a deep-inning heroics.

—-

X Factor:

Wil Myers: The American League rookie of the month for September has been lighting it up for the Rays finishing first in hits, runs, doubles, extra-base hits and total bases. He tied for first in homers and ranked second in every other statistical category. Expert analysis? He is good. Myers, acquired from Kansas City for James “Big Game” Shields (is it rude to mention he probably won’t pitch in many big games anytime soon?), has been incredible. He has a tendency to “leak” and pull the ball when he gets down in the count, but he does it so effortlessly that he can get away with it. Myers, the cleanup hitter, will decide this game from his production at the plate.

Nelson Cruz: In his first re-appearance to MLB action since his 50-game suspension for his involvement in the Biogenesis clinic, he will play a large role for the Texas Rangers lineup. With a power-outage of a lineup with Mitch Moreland and Craig Gentry, Cruz can power the Texas Rangers or he can let them slip and fall. He has spent his downtime in the Arizona Instructional League trying to get timing back. His last game was August 4th and he left with 27 homers on the year.

Prediction: The last three Game 163’s have been in favor of the home team by one run, but Tampa Bay will buck the trend and emerge victorious 6-4.

A Whole New World

As I stated in the introductory post of this blog, a long 42 weeks ago, (wow!), this blog gives me the unique opportunity to both write as I wished and choose my own subject matter. This presented the chance to combine two great loves: sports and writing – unifying the pair. 

Last Friday my dream to become a sportscaster/sportswriter/sports-something took a bold step further down the road leading to my goal. I was hired by Rant Sports to be a writer and analyst on my favorite team in my favorite sport: the Boston Red Sox. It’s a promotion to AA – if this blog is Single-A and it may seem like a small jump, but it couldn’t feel any better. 

Writing for them is unlike anything I’ve ever done before, there’s a style sheet, a “Blogger Bible,” and an exact requirement on pixel-size for pictures. It’s been an educational experience that has provided as many joys as it has challenges. 

I encourage you to check out my posts below as you see fit on my profile, but if you only give one a glance, let it be: The Woody Allen Line, which is a truly special article to me in which I invent a stat!

Don’t worry, folks, Purely For Sport is here to stay as well. I will never forget that this got me started and I will never forget to update every Monday!

Thursday Night Football

Its two weeks into the NFL season and I already can’t stand Thursday night games.

Seriously, the NFL has Sunday and Monday nights to shop its premier teams in a prime-time slot where the biggest competitor is what? The Amazing Race? Essentially there is none and the NFL rules supreme. They get plenty of exposure and sell commercial air time in 30-second intervals for more money than I may make in years.

The NFL couldn’t have picked a more strategic night to hold an extra contest: late enough in the week to give people hope for the weekend, but not Friday or Saturday as they lose viewers to parties and family obligations before they take a day-long siesta on Sunday.

Why do we need Thursday Night Football, or more affectionately known as TNF?

We don’t. In the practical sense it makes lives miserable. Sleep-deprived, the fans who stay up all night pay dearly as the game’s half-time gets going around 10 PM. You know, the 10 PM that signifies bedtime for anyone who’s a student (like me!) and has to get up at 6 or anyone with a regular, decent job.

It also makes Fantasy Football lives more difficult because, well, do you start Player X on Thursday or Player O who has a Monday night game? Did you forget to check your team on Thursday and did that stud that you sat coming off the bye week go off? Too bad because football starts on Thursday.

To satiate the over-saturated, very demanding market, there needs to be football as long as possible.

Roger Goodell and his crew over in the NFL Headquarters love it. It starts NFL week early, like a tease that – just when you were getting excited – it all gets yanked away as you must wait another three nights for NFL action. Then, by the time Monday night’s games are over, you’re already preparing for Thursday when it’ll be back. It’s a vicious cycle really.
In addition, in October the schedule often coincides with playoff baseball…or World Series baseball. Since the World Series this year will be between the 23rd and 31st of October and the Carolina Panthers play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at home in that span. Imagine, just imagine, that the Tampa Rays make the World Series and host on the 24th – pandemonium even Pablo Sandoval couldn’t contain. Then there’s the Christmas Eve fiasco where many fans (fathers who were supposed to be home with their kids) and announcers voiced their public displeasure.

A gift to the fans is not what the pre-game show shows us either. With the exception of Steve Mariucci and Rich Eisen, the cast features several former NFL players. Marshall Faulk can be somewhat brash and egotistical, but he provides an in-depth analysis at the Running Back position and Deion Sanders, known as “Primetime” in his playing days, loves the limelight and provides some comedic relief on a straight-forward pre-game. That cast, intact since the show’s inception in 2006, added an additional analyst in 2011 named Michael Irvin. He…well there’s no nice way to put this…is about as articulate as Shannon Sharpe – which means to say, not very.

The proposal that the NFL is doing the fans a service by offering more NFL is merely a façade. Like the proposed 18 game season, the NFL does not care about the fans, the players, or anything such. They care about making money, which of course is the proper paradigm for any business, but still the attempt at slyly passing TNF off as a gift to the fans is low.

Plus, if the fans were supposed to enjoy the game, they’d be able to watch said game. Since the rights were awarded to NFL Network, fans viewership of the game is severely restricted. Not owning cable, or even cable won’t get you NFL Network as you must own a special package from your cable provider.

So as this post is published on a Monday, enjoy Tuesday and Wednesday night, because Thursday night you won’t get any sleep.

American League Playoff Portrait

Football is back. Woo! ESPN, CBS, and most of the other major news outlets across the United States are celebrating the rebirth of the NFL and what is sure to be a spectacular upcoming season. But people forget that September isn’t just about football, it’s about playoff races. Baseball heats up, coming to boil in September just as the NFL pan gets placed on the stove for warming.

Baseball is still here! It’s still going on! Not only is baseball still going on, it’s getting good.

Here’s a rundown of MLB playoff predictions:

American League Locks

With Boston and Detroit holding their divisions hostage, the East and Central respectively, it appears that – barring a major collapse by either team – those divisions are locked up. Boston has 7.5 games on Tampa Bay and Detroit has 5.5 on Cleveland.

AL East Pick: Red Sox

AL Central Pick: Tigers

AL West

Out West, the Athletics and Rangers battle for the top spot as Oakland maintains a 1.5-game lead. The Athletics are built – pitching, good defense, timely hitting – to win games. The Rangers finish the season with a tough schedule. They have to take on the Athletics, the Pirates who have a lot to prove after being swept by the Cardinals last weekend, the Wild Card-leading Rays and the Royals, who are heating up and in the playoff hunt. Contrastingly, the Athletics only tough competition is Texas. Oakland also gets to play the painful-to-watch Minnesota Twins and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (twice each!) and finishing up against the abysmal Seattle Mariners. The Athletics not only have a better team, but a more favorable schedule.

Pick: Athletics

Wild Card

The Wild Card is, as the cliché goes, anybody’s ballgame. With Texas a lock, Tampa Bay (78-64) owns the second spot to lose. Four teams are within leap-frogging distance however as Baltimore (2 Games Back), Cleveland (2GB), New York (2.5), and Kansas City (3.5) are all vying to dethrone Tampa Bay.

Cleveland, by far, has the easiest schedule and Baltimore, along with Tampa Bay, has the bumpiest road ahead.

The Indians hitting and pitching are mediocre however and it’s difficult to trust a rotation where the “Ace” is Justin Masterson and the number two pitcher’s name is Ubaldo Jimenez. Also, their best hitter is batting .282 (Kipnis) and no one on their roster has over 17 dingers. Eliminate Cleveland.

The Yankees are also tough to count on as their pitching ranks 26th in MLB in ERA since the All-Star break. While Alfonso Soriano has been knocking the ball all over the yard, he only bats around four times per game. But their pitching can’t keep up – eliminate New York.

Baltimore hasn’t gotten much out of their deadline acquisition of Bud Norris and their pitching continues to slide since the break as their 20th-ranked pitching and Chris Davis’ cooling has corresponded with the team’s slide at the dish. Playing the tough divisional foes such as the Sox, Rays, and Yankees for 14 out of the last 20 games cuts them from the hunt.

And we’re down to two! Kansas City, the furthest back, and the Rays, the current leader, have the best chances to win the Wild Card.

You can never discount the Rays, who have a potent rotation of David Price, Alex Cobb, Matt Moore, and Chris Archer. Their veteran leader Evan Longoria has a big deal with the team and wills his team to win, now. The team is batting .256 – 13th in the American League since the All-Star break – has struggled as of late, going 3-7 in their last ten games. Their road record during this 2013 campaign sits at a sub-par 34-38 (as opposed to their 44-26 home record), plus they play nine games on the road in September, including a six game intra-division road trip to conclude the season.

Since the Rays continue to struggle and play a majority of their games on the road, which leaves the door open for KANSAS CITY! Choo Choo! You’re going to miss the bandtrain (which has been since updated from the bandwagon – which is so 1850)! Kansas City plays 12 of their last 18 contests on the road this season – which is okay because they’ve been better on the road so far than at home in Kaufman Stadium. The league’s hottest team since the break for the midsummer classic, 3rd in pitching and 4th in hitting, they will continue to torch through the American League and win the second Wild Card spot. They also mix their still-up-and-coming-but-not-yet-established young stars like Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler, and Salvador Perez with seasoned veterans Ervin Santana, “Big Game” James Shields, and Jeremy Guthrie. Having a 40-save guy in Greg Holland at the end of the bullpen doesn’t hurt either.

Picks: Texas and Kansas City

Other Notes:

Though the Boston Red Sox get former Ace Clay Bucholz back tomorrow night against the Rays after three months on the DL, something says they might be peaking too early. After scoring 54 runs in 4 games against the Tigers and Yankees, the offense seemed to be lethal. Scoring at will was great as the Red Sox rolled through two tough AL opponents, but the fact that towards the tail end they started winning 12-8 and 13-9 says their bullpen might be failing. The same goes for the streaky Mike Napoli who hit a blistering pace during early September and has a tendency to fall, and fall hard. The Red Sox may be hitting stride at the exact wrong time.

 

The Best Part of Being the Worst

On Friday night, the Astros of Houston, Texas did what they do best, which is, of course, lose. With that loss, the Astros (44-91) were eliminated from all playoff contention – elongating their playoff drought to seven straight years.

The 7-1 drubbing at the hands of the Seattle Mariners at home in front of 13,869 fans was sad. Even sadder? The number of fans at Minute Maid Park meant that the stadium was only 33% full. The saddest part? That miniscule percentage is still higher than the Astros winning percentage, which is at 32%.

It’s not as if a result like that wasn’t to be expected, however. All season the Astros have lost and lost, and lost again. Their 6-19 July was one of the worst months on club record. The Astros are last in Major League Baseball in almost every sortable team statistic, with a .981 fielding percentage and 4.85 ERA, no one else even comes close to being as atrocious as the Astros. Also, at 44-91, they threaten to best (or worst?) their club record of 55-107, set last season.

But back to the gloom: their leading hitter, Jason Castro, bats .278 and their best pitcher, Luke Harrell, sits at 6-15 with a 5.81 ERA on the year. In fact, no one on the club has more than two saves and on their official homepage, if you click on team leaders in “ERA” the server spits back “No qualifiers found.” Ouch.

You get it, the Astros are essentially terrible. So why is there so much hope around Houston?

One name: Jeff Luhnow. He’s the General Manager of the Astros and is as transparent as a glass window with Houston fans.

Much like the Tampa Bay Rays and their ex-Wall Street, ex-Goldman Sachs employees in their front office, Houston wants to prepare, plan, and out-think every other team in the Majors.

They began in November of 2011 when Jim Crane, an air freight company founder and local businessman, purchased the team and took a stipend from MLB to move the team to the AL West in the 2013 season. In a 25-page plan when Crane bought the team, Luhnow detailed his plan: blow-up everything, trade for a solid corps of prospects, and expand overseas operations.

Boy did he ever blow up the team. In 2012 they had the 27th ranked payroll in MLB at $61 million. They had six players making seven figures. They traded every single one. This season the Astros have the lowest payroll since the 2008 Marlins, at $26 million. How stingy is their payroll? Their highest paid player isn’t even on their roster. Wandy Rodriguez, who they traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates last season, gets his salary picked up by Houston, which is $5 million.

Flexible payroll doesn’t always equal success as well. Remember when the Miami Marlins were supposed to be a great ball club after acquiring all that talent circa 2011 and then held a public-raging inciting firesale? Jeffrey Loria, owner of the Marlins, fooled the entire Miami-area in order to get a new stadium.

But, Luhnow’s philosophy is brilliant if prospects equivocate into stars. They could be sub-par, spend some money and have okay draft position; or they could take a few AWFUL seasons and get great draft position. So the Astros are horrible on purpose. Luhnow’s hoping they’ll stick with him to watch his mathematics pay nice, clean dividends.

When Crane acquired Houston in 2011 the farm system ranked 26th of all 30 MLB teams, but in 2013 – two years into the Luhnow plan – they were ranked fifth. Of course many teams have been as astronomically awful (and sustained that) as the Astros before. The Pirates haven’t finished above .500 since 1992 when Bonds left and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays lost 91+ games for ten straight seasons. Those teams got bad and lost for years. But the question is, can Luhnow disarm the Warrior of Losing that he equipped?

Signs point to yes.

He’s the first General Manager to publicly declare the futility of his team, refusing to claim that they were trying to be competitive when they clearly were not. He’s being honest with his fanbase, which is a good first maneuver.

Even though the world of baseball prospects is a hypothetical conundrum with as many “Can’t-Miss misses” as “Can’t-play superstars” there seems to be something about Luhnow that’s special. A comforting fact for Houston: Luhnow presided over the St. Louis Cardinals farm system from 2006-2011 and they entered the 2013 season with the number one overall system in the Bigs. Most of the players in the minors for the Cards were acquired by Luhnow.

Even though minor league win-loss records are relatively inconsequential, it means a lot that the Astros’ affiliates are 88-60 this year combined. Just a pair of seasons ago, their minor league teams had the worst record combined of any organization. Luhnow produced immediate results. Like in 2012, he rid the Astros of the most useless commodity a MLB team can have: a good closer on a bad team. He traded Mark Melancon to the Boston Red Sox for Jed Lowrie and pitching prospect Kyle Weiland. Lowrie hit .244 and played solid defense for the ‘Stros whereas Melancon had a 6.20 ERA for the Sox.

Then he shipped Carlos Lee and his gargantuan $18.5 million salary to Miami for 3B prospect Matt Dominguez, who’s a former first-round pick that never filled out at the dish. That is, until 2013 where Dominguez, getting regular Big League cuts, has 19 homeruns and nearly 70 RBI.

To follow the roster moves Luhnow has made in the last two-plus years, here’s a quote from Grantland contributor, Rany Jazayerli:

“David Carpenter, J.A. Happ, and Brandon Lyon were sent to the Toronto Blue Jays for placeholders Ben Francisco and Francisco Cordero, and five prospects. Brett Myers (and cash) was traded to the Chicago White Sox for three prospects. Wandy Rodriguez, one of the team’s most valuable commodities (he’s a very consistent no. 3 starter, and was under contract for another year), was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates for three prospects. Chris Johnson was traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks for two prospects.”

This season they continued as they sent Bud Norris, only considered an “Ace” by a team such as Houston, to Baltimore for OF L.J. Hoes, LHP Josh Hader, and a competitive balance draft pick. Hader was a sleeper for the Orioles farm system this season according to baseball’s prospect expert, Keith Law.

With only one quality Major League player on their roster, 5-foot-5 Second baseman Jose Altuvé, the Houston Astros will continue to stockpile picks and prospects and, according to their plan, pursue big free agents in the winter of 2014.

Right now, they couldn’t beat a high school Varsity team. In three years, they could beat any team in the world.