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 win on walk-off homer by Russell Martin; Orioles beat Red Sox; Yankees still lead American League East by a game.
The little news: White Sox lose again, and their lead in Central falls to 1½ games.
Who is in: The Rangers maintain their four-game lead in the West and are the closest to securing their seat at the party. The Yankees and Orioles are separated by a game, the White Sox and Tigers are separated by a game and a half, and the A's are 3½ games up on the Angels in the second wild-card race.
Quirky statistic: Yankees closer Rafael Soriano blew a save on Friday night. Before that, well, take a look:
Rafael Soriano (2012): 2-1, 1.99 ERA, 63 1/3 innings, 50 hits, 14 runs, 4 homers, 19 walks, 63 strikeouts, 42 saves.
Mariano Rivera (2011): 1-2, 1.91 ERA, 61 1/2 innings, 47 hits, 13 runs, 3 homers, 8 walks, 60 strikeouts, 44 saves.
Eerie. Rafael Soriano WAS Mariano Rivera, the way Jamie Foxx WAS Ray Charles. Of course, it's now September, and the pennant race is on, and soon it will be October, when everyone will be watching, and that was when Mariano Rivera seemed to become superhuman.
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Glen Kuiper and Ray Fosse are the broadcasters for the Oakland games, and I have to say they are really good. I will admit to being biased here -- Glen is the brother of my childhood (and adulthood) hero Duane Kuiper, who brilliantly broadcasts San Francisco Giants games, and Glen has similar rhythms. Fosse is another favorite from my Cleveland childhood … he was a pretty amazing catcher for the Indians at 23, and it looked like he would go on to superstardom, though people around town always said he wasn't quite the same after getting run over by Pete Rose in the All-Star Game that year.
One thing good broadcasters can do, I think, is give you a story line for the game that either you did not think about or one that you might have breezed by casually. The Yankees led Oakland 1-0 going into the ninth inning on Friday night. CC Sabathia had announced his presence with authority -- eight innings, three hits, 11 strikeouts -- and that had to send a message across the American League. The A's are a whiffing machine anyway, they lead the league in strikeouts (or are last, depending on your point of view) but Sabathia's slider was particularly nasty on Friday night, and he had Oakland hitters swinging at shadows.
Soriano came out to pitch the ninth, and Yoenis Cespedes flew out to deep center -- he just missed it. Then Brandon Moss came up as a pinch hitter, and he and Soriano battled to a 2-2 count. Soriano then threw a hanging slider and Moss crushed a moon shot deep into the second deck of the right field stands for the game-tying home run.
Fosse immediately (and not unhappily) wondered why catcher Russell Martin called for that slider. He wondered (and I agree with him) why at Yankee Stadium -- that home run haven, where the right-field fence is so close to the plate that the two could play Twister together -- you would take the chance of throwing a hanging slider to a left-handed power hitter. This is especially true because Soriano has been getting hurt on his slider all year, while his two-seam and four-seams fastballs have been pretty dominant pitches. Fosse and Kuiper talked for a few minutes about how sometimes it's too tempting for a catcher (or whoever calls the pitches) to rely more on the element of surprise than on the execution of the best pitch.
It was a great conversation, exactly the kind of stuff I love hearing when watching a baseball game (rather than "This guy's just a professional, you know? A professional ballplayer!" or "Come on, Bobby, hit this one out!"). But in this case, it was doubly interesting. Because Russell Martin led off the bottom of the 10th, with the score still tied, and he homered to win the game. And because of the "he called the wrong pitch" angle, suddenly we had a little bit of a redemption story, a little bit of a goat-to-hero thing going, and that always works.
Of course, I don't know if Martin actually called that slider. Maybe it came from the bench. Maybe Soriano shook him off. But whatever the case, the game was a lot more interesting because of Kuiper and Fosse, and that's the best thing I could ever say about announcers.
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The big news: Cardinals lose in extra innings; Brewers beat Nationals with three in the ninth; Milwaukee is now 1½ games back for the second wild card. The Dodgers also won and are two games back.
The little news: The Giants won their fifth in a row to maintain their 10-game lead in the West and are playing perhaps the best baseball in the National League.
Who is in: San Francisco, Cincinnati and Washington are all, more or less, just playing this out -- all of them should win their divisions. Atlanta is coughing a little bit, but the Braves are six games up in wild-card race and are just about locked in. The second wild-card spot is wide open, with St. Louis, Milwaukee (1½ back), the Dodgers (two back) and even Philadelphia (three back) in a free-for all.
End the streak (please?): The Pirates lost 7-1 to the Astros -- it was Houston's most commanding victory since a 10-1 win on Aug. 14 -- and Pittsburgh is now two games below .500 in its flailing attempt to break a streak of 19 consecutive losing seasons.
Quirky statistic: Well, this isn't a quirky statistic as much as it is an amazing one: Have you noticed just how incredible Buster Posey has been in the second half of this season? Go back to the beginning of July, Posey is hitting .373/.454/.618. More on him tomorrow.
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What in the heck happened to Dodgers shortstop Hanley Ramirez? From 2006 through 2010 -- five seasons -- he was ridiculous. He hit .313, slugged .521, stole 40 bases a year, hit 40 doubles a year, hit 25 homers a year, scored 115 runs a year, and seemed to be playing improving shortstop all the time. He was electrifying, he was a superstar, he already had a 30-homer, 30-steal season … he was, well, you remember May 17, 2010, right?
That was the day that "Hanley Ramirez, malingerer," went national in a big way. You might remember the scene. Ramirez was playing for the Marlins then. With two men on, Arizona's Tony Abreu flipped a blooper to left field. Ramirez went after it with some energy, I believe, but could not get there. He made a desperate stab for the ball, missed, and then accidentally kicked the ball into left field. And at the point, something went haywire in his circuitry. There's no certain way to know what he was thinking, but my guess would be that the message beaming in his head looked something like this:
In other words, alternating rage and flatlining. Ramirez jogged after the ball. I mean, he just jogged. It's pretty painful video. For six mesmerizing seconds, he just casually loped after the ball, not unlike the way you might in the park when someone makes a particularly bad Frisbee throw. Two runs scored, the hitter went all the way around to third … and watching Ramirez have a meltdown so publicly, to watch him flip out in the middle of the game like he was some kid who did not get what he wanted in the toy store, it was pretty awful to watch. Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez pulled him from the game, teammates blasted him, Ramirez made a crack about Gonzalez having never played in the big leagues and others on the team loafing too, there were the predictable arguments about whether or not Ramirez was injured, and so on. It was a brief but impressive little incident.
I'm not a believer that something like that haunts a player forever and changes the course of his career. For instance, I honestly do not believe that the much larger tabloid scandal is why Tiger Woods has not won a major championship in four and a half years. Woods has been injured, and he is getting older, and other players are emerging, and life is just more complicated than the movie version of, "And he was never the same again." Woods is playing excellent golf again. But he's almost 37, and he's not the indisputable best player in the world anymore, and winning major championships is HARD.
Still, I suspect that the tabloid scandal has had SOME impact on Woods' life. So it goes with Ramirez. It's not like that jogging scene turned him into Jell-O -- heck, he went 3-for-5 the next day -- but it is true that he was not the same dynamic player in 2010 that he had been the previous four seasons. And in 2011, his game went into free fall. He was hurt and beat up, but in 93 games he hit .252, slugged .379, played quantifiably lousy shortstop and just seemed different somehow. This year, he's been a little bit better than last year, but not much. He's hitting .252 (this is a guy who led the National League in hitting just three years ago). He does have 24 homers, and he has played in 146 games, so there's something happening there. But he's just not the same.
Injuries? Sure, they have played a part. Age? Well, he's 28, and while that seems young, he was up and playing every day at 22, so there could be some wear and tear on the body. But, for two-plus years now, he has simply morphed from the extraordinary young player who could do anything into this player who will occasionally go deep but can't always catch up to the fastball, waves helplessly at the breaking stuff, gets thrown out stealing a lot and plays a below-average shortstop.
On Friday, in the second inning, Ramirez hit a weak grounder and beat it out. He stole second. He went to third on a single. He scored on a groundout. And it reminded me that, not so long ago, Hanley Ramirez was one of the most exhilarating players in baseball, the guy who could beat you a hundred different ways. Can he ever be that again? Does the story ever go back in that direction?