Staying up to date on the battles for all the various MLB playoff spots is a full-time job that requires daily attention -- and that’s exactly what we’ll be doing in this space, for the rest of the season.
The big news: Yankees out-slug Blue Jays and extend their lead over Baltimore to one game; White Sox lose late to Kansas City and blow chance to take three-game lead in Central.
The little news: Texas beats the Angels again, making the Angels’ wild-card hopes even slimmer.
Who is in: Yankees up one over Baltimore in East, White Sox up two over Detroit in Central, Rangers up four over Oakland in West. These seem to be the six teams playing for the five playoff spots.
Quirky statistic: The Kansas City Royals are 56-75 against every team in baseball, save for one. That’s bad baseball. But they finish the season 12-6 against the White Sox, who are desperately trying to hold off the Tigers in the division race. Royals pitchers had a 2.62 ERA against Chicago (they have a 4.25 ERA overall). On Thursday night, the White Sox built a 3-0 lead, and it might have been more except for poor base running and ludicrous small-ball strategies in the early innings. The Royals came all the way back and won in the bottom of the ninth. If the White Sox blow the division, the Royals will be the big reason -- this is especially true because while Kansas City and Chicago are through for the year, the Royals have seven games left against the Tigers (the Royals are 4-7 so far against Detroit).
* * *
It seems to me that Ichiro Suzuki is one of those players who puts you squarely in your time and place. You know how there are those moments in history -- usually tragic ones, sadly -- where you always remember where you were? You don’t get to choose those moments, I guess. They are thrust upon you. I will always remember where I was when I heard that Elvis died, when I heard that President Reagan was shot, when I heard that the space shuttle had exploded, when the first President Bush announced that we were going to war, when a bomb went off in Atlanta and, of course, most of all, when I watched a plane fly into the second of the towers. I try to think of good news that sticks with me in the same way as I get older ... there are not many moments, not like that. I guess I remember the first time I saw “The Contest” on “Seinfeld” or the first time I listened to the entire “Born to Run” album, but the details in my mind are sketchy, the bell-ringing clarity of the memory does not exist.
Of course, there are sports moments that leave indelible marks -- the Miracle on Ice, the Jeter homer just after 9/11, Nicklaus at the ’86 Masters -- but even those are a little bit different from those moments above. I can FEEL the worn shag carpet I was sitting on when I watched them break into regularly schedule program to say, “The King of Rock and Roll is dead.” I can feel the bump of the bus on the way home from school when the bus driver, who listened to a little transistor radio to calm his nerves, told us that the president had been shot. The sports memories are not quite like that.
There are moments, I believe, that affirm the time you are living in. And there are people who do that too. When I think of the 1970s, I think of an array of things, the Bee Gees, the Six Million Dollar Man, Pete Rose, Rocky Balboa, Johnny Carson, Dick Clark and the guy who used to do that “You can call me Ray, or your can call me Jay, but you doesn’t have to call me Johnson.”
When I think of the 1980s, I think of Michael Jackson, Joe Montana, Rush, Bill Cosby, Casey Kasem, Dwight Gooden, Gordon Gecko, Marty McFly, Bird and Magic, Ferris Bueller and that boulder that was rolling after Indiana Jones.
When I think of the 1990s, I think of Pearl Jam, Nirvana, the young Tiger Woods, the Clint Eastwood character in “Unforgiven,” Barry Sanders in motion, Emmitt Smith running, Michael Jordan in flight, Michael Johnson making the final turn, Mark McGwire taking batting practice.
Ichiro seems to me that sort of presence -- not just a fabulous player, but an indelible one. The stretch before he sets himself in the batter’s box. The amazing way he reaches out to spoil outside pitches. The running start he takes. His greatness has been much discussed through the years. On the one hand, perhaps nobody in baseball history was ever so good at piling up hits. Ichiro had 200-plus hits 10 years in a row -- nobody else has done that. Ichiro led the league in hits seven times, almost as many times as Ty Cobb (eight), though Ichiro did not join the major leagues until he was 27. Ichiro’s 262 hits in 2004 is a major league record. He also led the league in batting average twice. Add to this his great base stealing (more than 400 stolen bases), and his great defense (10 Gold Gloves). He has been such a wonderful player.
On the other hand, he never hit for much power and he did not walk much, so while he piled up the hits, he did not necessarily generate a tremendous number of runs. He never led the league in runs created. Only four times in his career did he even finish in the top 10 in runs created. Ichiro’s brand of baseball is so exciting, so fun, so wonderful, it almost feels ungrateful to ask what it’s actually worth.
On Thursday night, Ichiro came to the plate against Toronto’s Aaron Laffey with the Yankees down 2-1 and the bases loaded. The Yankees’ single run was Ichiro’s solo home run in the third. It has been a couple of years since Ichiro was Ichiro. Last year, he did not hit .300 for the first time in his career, and he barely even had an on-base percentage of .300. He plodded around in the Seattle outfield; it was shocking to watch him not chase down fly balls that were once all but routine for him. This year was just about the same in Seattle, and finally the Mariners dumped him on the Yankees. Ichiro promptly responded by getting a hit in 16 of the first 17 games he played for New York. Since joining the team, he is hitting .321 and slugging about .450 -- pretty much at his career averages.
Of course, he still doesn’t walk, and he’s playing a lot of left field now, which is just weird -- kind of like seeing Peyton Manning in a Broncos uniform -- but there are moments when watching him is still a singular joy. As he stepped in against Laffey, needing a hit to put the Yankees ahead, there seemed to me no doubt whatsoever that he would get it. The first pitch, an 84-mph fastball low and outside, he watched. The second looked like pretty much the same pitch, and Ichiro waved helplessly at it. The Yankees broadcasters talked about how Ichiro is one of those hitters who will sometimes purposely look bad on a pitch in an effort to get the pitcher to throw it again. I usually find that kind of talk silly.
But the next pitch -- another fastball away -- Ichiro leaned into, in his effort to drive it to left field. He did indeed seem to expect the same pitch, and he was ready for it. But he just fouled it away.
He was in the moment now. Another fastball, another foul ball. Ichiro has not been as hard to strike out as some great hitters of recent times -- Tony Gwynn was much harder to strike out, Wade Boggs, George Brett and so on -- but in moments like these he has always seemed to me impervious to strikeouts. It’s like, he’s figuring out the pitcher, pitch by pitch, and when they throw him a bad pitch, he just shakes his head sadly, and if they throw him a good pitch he fouls it away as if to say, “Nice try! But sooner or later, my friend, you will make your mistake.” Laffey tried a little slider, but it was out of the strike zone, and Ichiro watched it go by.
And then Laffey tried to challenge Ichiro with a pitch up and in, and Ichiro turned on it, smashed a two-run double, and the Yankees never trailed after that. Ichiro turns 39 next month, and he’s not a great player anymore. On a day-to-day basis over an entire season, you could argue that he’s not even a good player anymore. But he’s still Ichiro, and to watch him break down a pitcher like he broke down Aaron Laffey, well, it’s still a singular thrill.
I won’t know for another decade or two how to look back on this particular time. I’m pretty sure, though, that watching Ichiro Suzuki hit will be part of the panorama.
* * *
The big news: Washington beat the Dodgers to secure the city’s first playoff appearance since 1933. Cincinnati beat the Cubs to clinch the city’s first playoff appearance since, well, 2010, so, OK, that’s not as big a deal.
The little news: The Cardinals beat the Astros again -- yawn -- and their wild-card lead remains at 2½ games … but it’s no longer the Dodgers chasing. Milwaukee beat Pittsburgh again -- yawn -- and has now won five in a row.
End the streak (please?): As mentioned, Pittsburgh lost to Milwaukee -- the Pirates blew a 7-4 lead in the eighth -- and so now the Pirates are actually under .500 for the first time since May. Pittsburgh has had 19 consecutive losing seasons.
Quirky statistic: The Cardinals are 9-3 against Houston, and they have three more games with the Astros before the season’s out. Milwaukee also has three games left with the Astros -- the Brewers, by fluke of schedule, get three more games against Houston than the Cardinals do.
* * *
It was an odd sort of celebration in Washington on Thursday night, a celebration that gets into my big problem with this new wild-card system in baseball.
Start with this non sequitur: Football games are becoming less and less enjoyable for me to watch all the time. It isn’t just all the hard thinking we have to do about the violence in football … it’s the tediousness of the games, and the force of instant replay. The games seem to me to have less and less flow all the time. A play happens, and then it’s five minutes of analysis of that play -- did the ball break the plane, did the second foot land in bounds, was the knee down, did the ground cause the fumble, on and on and on and on and on and on and ARRRGH. It’s like watching back-room squabbling in the judge’s chamber instead of watching the trial. It drives me nuts. I don’t want every play reviewed, OK? I want the calls to be right, but not if it means I spend more time watching referees under a hood and commercials for that new Matthew Perry show. I want to watch a bleeping football game.
In fact, while I’m on this rant, I’ll tell you what drives me crazier than anything: These ridiculous rules about how a receiver basically has to hold on to the ball until his 45th birthday for it to count as a catch. Are you kidding me? A guy catches the ball, gets two feet down, done, right? That’s a catch. That was always a catch. Now, because of the power of instant replay, it’s all about: was the ball moving, did the receiver have control, did he hold on to the ball even as he hit the ground 20 feet out of bounds, did he hand the ball back to the official or did it slip out of his hands, did he take the ball with him to the locker room at halftime, did he sleep with the ball for 40 straight nights? I’m all for the principle of instant replay, for using technology to get the calls rights. But the truth is, it doesn’t end there. Technology pushes forward. And suddenly, nothing is real, everything is reviewable, and what was once INARGUABLY a catch is now something that referees and announcers and fans fast forward and play back and fast forward, like Costner in “JFK.” Back and to the left. I readily admit that I might be the only person in America who feels this way, but it is sucking the joy out of the game for me.
What does this have to do with Washington making the playoffs? Well, as you know, we now have this new wild-card system in baseball where two wild-card teams will play each other in a one-game playoff. The idea -- not without merit, I guess -- is that this would accomplish two things:
1. It would make winning a division a huge advantage over winning a wild card, thus returning some integrity to the division races.
2. It would bring hope to a bunch of new cities by adding a fifth playoff team in each league.
I have issues with both of these reasons, but I see their merits and, anyway, it will mean more baseball. But here’s where it gets difficult. On Thursday night, the Washington Nationals clinched their first postseason berth ever, and the first in the city since FDR was in office. A great day! A party! A … oh, wait a minute. They just clinched a wild-card spot. So, really, upon further review, that’s not so great, I mean, that’s only the right to be in a one-game playoff and, oh, so wait, the Nationals magic number to win the division is eight? Oh. So maybe THAT should be the celebration day. Right. Maybe everyone should wait before really partying. Yeah. Maybe.
See, this new system takes what was once real and unequivocal -- clinching a spot in the postseason -- and makes it enigmatic, cryptic. One beautiful thing about sports is the certainty of it, the finality: This team won, that team lost, that was a touchdown, that was a dunk, that was a home run … there isn’t the complexity and grayness and unpredictability of school board meetings and court cases and business decisions. But, more and more, we are injecting those complexities and uncertainties and fine print into sports. As I have written before, you used to watch someone on your team catch a touchdown pass and your only thought was, “Yes! Whoo! Yes! Whoo! Yes!” Joy. Sheer. Unadulterated. Now, your thought is, “Oh no, did he get both feet in bounds? Did he hold on to it long enough? Wait, no, show the other angle again. No, the OTHER angle. Oh, no, from that angle it looks like …”
Washington fans, it seemed to me, had no idea how to feel on Thursday night. They were no doubt happy to get into the postseason. They were handing out shirts and hats -- it was great to see my old friend Ray Knight, a Washington broadcaster, beaming as he wore his Washington Nationals postseason hat. But, it wasn’t a real celebration. If this team blows its 5½-game lead in the East and ends up as the wild card, there will be no joy in Mud-throwingville. Everybody knows that. Thursday was a big night in Washington baseball and, at exactly the same time, it wasn’t a big night at all. This new playoff system brings on some good stuff -- the great battle in the American League East, for instance -- but it also brings us muddy nights like Thursday, when a town gets into the postseason for the first time in 79 years, does a quick “yay,” and then rushes out to beat the traffic.