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: Washington clinches the division title despite a loss to Philadelphia. It’s not as much fun to clinch on a loss, but the Nationals’ season has been such a thing of wonder that it really doesn’t matter.
The little news: The Cardinals beat the Reds, 4-2, but the Dodgers won on a walk-off single by Elian Herrera to keep their slim chance of getting into the postseason alive.
Who is in: We are almost wrapped up here. Washington, Cincinnati and San Francisco are your division winners, and Atlanta is the first wild card. St. Louis needs a win in either of its last two games or a loss by the Dodgers to clinch the second wild card. Also, the Reds and Nationals are now tied of the best record in the league, which would determine which of those teams would get home-field advantage should they face each other in the NLCS.
Quirky statistic: The Rockies beat the Diamondbacks in 13 innings Monday to guarantee that they will not lose 100 games this season. The Rockies had a chance before that victory to become the third 100-loss team in the National League -- Houston has 106 losses, and Monday night the Astros dealt Chicago its 100th loss -- and the last time the NL had three 100-loss teams was … never. Heck, the National League has not had TWO 100-loss teams since 1993, when the Mets and Padres each lost 100.
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We should take a moment here to bow down once more to the amazing story of the Washington Nationals. This is a team that lost 100 games in back-to-back years, 2008 and 2009, a team that went through that managerial nightmare last year when Jim Riggleman resigned right in the middle of the year during that crazy “I’m too old to be disrespected” saga, a team whose franchise pitcher, Stephen Strasburg, blew out his elbow 12 starts into his big-league career.
And look at them now, all grownsed up, leading the league in ERA, top five in runs scored, protecting their guy Strasburg against waves of national protest, riding the energy of a 19-year-old Bryce Harper, taking the city of Washington into the baseball playoffs for the first time since the New Deal. It’s a story that defies mere words. It needs a Broadway show.
The Nationals certainly have as good a shot as anybody to win the pennant. The playoffs are, as we know, a crapshoot, but even without Strasburg -- and it’s amazing to say this sans Strasburg -- I don’t think there’s a team in the league that can match up on paper with Washington’s top three starters of Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler. Of course, the Reds have four good starters and a lights out bullpen, the Giants have postseason whiz-kid Matt Cain and perhaps the best home atmosphere in baseball, the Cardinals are defending champs and score a bunch of runs, Atlanta has a well-rounded team and the incomparable Craig Kimbrel at the end, and you can’t really predict what will be the story of the 2012 postseason.
But I would say even with the amazing Orioles run and even with the extraordinary drive of the Oakland A’s, the Nationals are the story of the 2012 regular season.
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The big news: Huge news all over the AL yesterday. The Tigers won to clinch the American League Central. The A’s beat the Rangers to clinch the final playoff spot and also pull within a game of Texas in American League West. The Yankees crushed Boston, while the Orioles lost to Tampa Bay, so now New York leads the East by a full game. Madness!
The little news: Who needs little news when all five postseason spots are now accounted for? But you could say the little news is that the Angels and Rays were both eliminated from the postseason while winning.
Who is in: It’s final now -- New York, Baltimore, Detroit, Texas and Oakland are in. Only one game separates New York and Baltimore, and only one game separates Texas and Oakland for the division titles.
The Triple Crown: Banner day in the Triple Crown race, too. Miguel Cabrera went 4-for-5 with a homer and an RBI to push himself into the solo Triple Crown pole position. But Mike Trout also went 4-for-5 with a double, triple, two runs and three RBIs to remind everyone just how good a player he is, and to keep himself in the batting race.
Josh Hamilton 43
Quirky statistics: Chicago’s Adam Dunn struck out for the 219th and 220th times this season, pulling him within three of Mark Reynolds’ record 223 strikeouts, set in 2009. The strikeouts record is a fascinating one. A man named Sam Wise seems to have been the first player to strike out 100 times in a season, and he did that back in 1884. After 1900, when baseball really began to come into shape, the first king of the strikeout was a base stealer extraordinaire named Billy Maloney. He was a college kid -- Georgetown -- and in 1905 he led the National League with 59 steals while playing of the Chicago Cubs. He also led the league with 83 strikeouts. The next year, he smashed the National League record with 118 strikeouts.
Maloney set this record honestly -- he really couldn’t hit. It wasn’t a case of sacrificing a few strikeouts for the greater good, he just tried to hit the baseball and often failed. In 1910, though, another college kid, Jake Stahl (who had a law degree), struck out 129 times, a record that would last for 28 years. But this was a little bit different. Stahl seems to have been a pioneer of sorts. He seemed to be one of the early adapters of the “strikeout as strategy” kinds of hitting. Stahl led the league in home runs (10) and he hit 16 triples that year. He seemed to understand the “swing hard, try to hit the ball a long way, and hope for the best,” mentality that would mark the careers of so many others through the years. The guy who made this strategy his own was Babe Ruth, who led the league in strikeouts five times while almost singlehandedly making the home run baseball’s greatest joy. But it should be noted: Ruth never struck out 100 times in a season.
It’s also been one of baseball’s great ironies or coincidences or bits of trivia that while Joe DiMaggio was famous for being nearly impossible to strike out (Joe D. had more homers than strikeouts seven times in his career), his brother Vince is the one who broke Jake Stahl’s strikeout record. I always liked the line about the DiMaggio brothers -- the Joe was the best hitter, Dom the best fielder, Vince the best singer. But it isn’t really fair to Vince -- only a handful of people in baseball history were as good a hitter as Joe or as good a fielder as Dom. Vince DiMaggio was a good player, a pretty good hitter for the era, had a bit of power, good defensively. Still, those strikeouts stand out. His 134 strikeouts in 1938 (Joe struck out 21 times that same year) was the record for 17 years.
Then, the strikeouts began to flow from the force. Power hitters willing to guess, willing to swing and miss a few times, all for the greater good, began to emerge. Jim Lemon, a good power hitter for Washington into the late 1950s, struck out 138 times but hit 27 homers and led the league with 11 triples. His record lasted five years.
Jake Wood, in his rookie season, struck out 141 times but (strangely enough) also led the league in triples. His record lasted one year.
Harmon Killebrew struck out 142 times -- this while mashing 48 homer homers and walking 106 times. He finished third in the MVP race and, perhaps more than anyone, made the strikeout manly. His record lasted one year.
Dave Nicholson, a free-swinging 23-year old, shattered Killebrew’s record with 175 strikeouts in 1963. It was a quantum leap forward. Nicholson had power -- he hit 22 home runs that year -- but he simply could not hit the ball often enough to make use of it.
Then came Bobby Bonds, who created a whole new genre of player -- the unapologetic strikeout star. He struck out 187 times his first full year in the big leagues. But he also hit 32 homers and stole 45 bases. The very next year, he struck out 189 times. He struck out 120 or more times in 10 different seasons, and Bonds -- like his famous son -- simply accepted this as part of his game. He hit homers! He stole bases! He scored runs! He won Gold Gloves! There were constantly stories in the preseason baseball magazines with lines like “if Bobby Bonds could cut down his strikeouts he would become one of the game’s great stars.” But he never did and, best I can tell, he did not try too hard. With those strikeouts came home runs, stolen bases, big plays, thrilling baseball. He was already a star. And it isn’t just that he was unwilling to make any tradeoffs (assuming he even COULD have cut down on strikeouts). No, he struck out with unapologetic passion.
There were many great strikeout hitters throughout the 1970s and 1980s -- the king being Reggie Jackson, who swung for the fences and struck out more than 2,500 times in his career, still a record -- but it took a quarter century, and Adam Dunn, for anyone to break Bonds’ strikeout record. Dunn struck out 195 times. Ryan Howard, three years later, struck out 199. Mark Reynolds, a wunderkind of the K, broke the 200-strikeout barrier by striking out 204 times in 2008, and then the next year set his record of 223. Now Dunn has a chance to make the record his own again.
One final question is this: How high can the strikeout record go? How many strikeouts can a man have where the manager would continue to play him the entire season? Is 250 strikeouts within reach? How about 300? I doubt the latter. Adam Dunn is hitting .204 this year, but he walks enough to keep his on-base percentage at around league average, and he has 41 homers. I think 300 strikeouts would be untenable based on simple math. But I’m sure people who grew up watching baseball in the 1930s and 1940s would have said the same about 225 strikeouts.
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One more thought about the MVP race, as prompted by Brilliant Reader Paul: The next time anybody says that it seems illogical for player to win the Triple Crown and NOT WIN the MVP, that person should be reminded … that very thing happened twice to Ted Williams.
In 1942, Williams won the Triple Crown in a runaway -- batting average 25 points higher with nine more homers than the second place guy, 23 more RBIs than anyone in the league -- and lost the MVP race to Joe Gordon. It’s one of the most famous MVP snubs in baseball history, but ask yourself: What were the writers thinking? Gordon had an excellent offensive year. And the writers determined -- without the help of WAR, I might add* -- that Gordon was the much more valuable defender, the much better base runner, and of course the Yankees had the much better record. Taken all together, Gordon was named the MVP.
*WAR would not have helped them anyway … Williams by WAR was a much better player than Gordon in 1942.
In 1947, Williams again won the Triple Crown and again was beaten out for the MVP, this time by Joe DiMaggio. Why? How? One more time, the writers -- without any knowledge of WAR* -- went with DiMaggio’s defense, all-around play and leadership.
*Which, once again, would have shown Williams to be far superior.
This is not to say writers should follow their own history -- to be honest, those two MVPs were both egregious blunders. It’s to say that the “You can’t win the Triple Crown and not win the MVP” line is not only illogical reasoning, it’s pure historical nonsense. If people think Cabrera’s lead in average, homers and RBIs makes him the league’s most valuable player, great. Vote for him. But don’t try to take the easy way out and say that the Triple Crown winner is automatically MVP. It’s never been true.
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It’s worth a short obit for the postseason chances of both the Los Angeles Angels and Tampa Bay Rays, who made dramatic runs at the finish. The Rays have won 11 of their last 12, and the Angels have been the American League’s best team since late April.
But it’s a reminder that the games late in the season don’t count any more than the early games. Everything that happens in September is so magnified because by September we have a clear picture of the narrative, because time is running out, because a lot of people are only just tuning into baseball.
But April games, midseason games, August games -- they’re all the same. The Angels did not call up Mike Trout until late April, when they were 6-14, and they never quite recovered. The Rays got off to a pretty good start, but they had a six-week period in June and July when they were pretty miserable, couldn’t score runs, and they never quite recovered from that either.
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You have to wonder what the Texas Rangers’ mindset is at the moment. Sure, I mostly believe that “mindset” stuff is just for us sportswriters … that players go the park and play ball and don’t let the storylines affect their play much, and maybe not at all.
But, at the same time, the Texas Rangers have to be kind of shocked that it has come to this. The Rangers -- two-time defending American League champs -- moved into first place on April 9 and have been there every single day since. Their lead never crested like, say, the Yankees’ lead … but they have basically been up four or five or six games all season long. They are the best team with the best players. They have had a couple of upsetting injuries -- Neftali Feliz and Colby Lewis come to mind -- but have largely been healthy.
And now, they have to win one of the next two at Oakland just to make the real playoffs rather than the one-game free-for-all.
I don’t think players panic. Managers … yes, sometimes I think managers panic. But players generally don’t. It’s not like that. Even the U.S. Ryder Cup team’s historic loss Sunday, I don’t think “panic” had anything to do with it. But I do think that when things start to go wrong, it’s like a slow leak in the tires. You are not entirely sure why, but things just seem to be getting flatter and harder. The Rangers send out their best pitcher tonight, Matt Harrison, who has been Cy Young good since mid-May.
This seems as good a shot as any for Texas to put this thing away, once and for all. But, for whatever reason, nothing has been easy for Texas.