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: Mayhem. Everywhere. The A’s beat the Rangers, so the AL West comes down to a one-game playoff tonight between Texas and Oakland. Meanwhile, the AL East was bonkers too, with the Orioles somehow winning despite being entirely overmatched by Tampa Bay’s James Shields, and the Yankees somehow winning despite being down two runs in the ninth.
The little news: Though it doesn’t matter anymore -- the race is over -- the Chicago White Sox lost again. That’s 11 losses in their last 14 games … at the start of this stretch they were two games in front in the AL Central.
Who is in: Four of the five spots come down to the last day. The Yankees lead Baltimore by a game, so either a Yankees win or an Orioles loss will give the division to New York. If the Yankees lose and the Orioles win, they will have a one-game playoff in Baltimore on Thursday for the division. The West’s one game playoff is tonight, with the Rangers-A’s winner getting the title. Detroit is the only division winner that is in and waiting to see what happens.
The Triple Crown: Miguel Cabrera just about wrapped up the Triple Crown on Tuesday night by going 2 for 3 with two RBIs. It would take a Herculean effort, probably two homers by Josh Hamilton in Oakland, to take the Triple Crown away from Miggy now.
Mike Trout: .324
Josh Hamilton: 43
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Every now and again as a sportswriter, you connect with an athlete. Sometimes, it comes down to a mutual interest; former Kansas City Chiefs star Priest Holmes and I play chess. Sometimes, it’s something else. Raul Ibanez’s first-born son was born one day before my first-born daughter, and there’s just something about first-time fathers going through the same things at the same time. That was particularly true at the time, because less than two weeks after our children were born, 9/11 happened. Everyone, across the country, felt the strongest emotions, of course. But for two bleary-eyed, sleep-deprived fathers filled with all these new feelings and hopes and worries, it was all but impossible not to feel attached somehow.
Raul Ibanez is a professional hitter. Of course, anyone who gets paid to hit is a professional hitter, but I’m referring to the term in the Harold Baines model of professional hitter. There are hitters in baseball history -- usually left-handed hitters -- who will hit you .280 or .290, sometimes higher, bang out 20 homers, sometimes more, drive in 90 runs, sometimes more than that too. Harold Baines did this for more than 20 years, making him the very essence of a “professional hitter,” but there have been others. Chili Davis was a professional hitter. Matt Stairs was a professional hitter. Brian Giles … Fred McGriff … Ray Lankford … Bill White … you can go on like this for a while.
Then, it’s more than just the numbers. Professional hitters, in my version, take their hitting seriously. I don’t think of them as ballplayers so much. I think of them as artisans, guys who travel around with their bats and hit in whatever situation they happen to find themselves in. I have always thought of Raul that way. Nothing came easily for him. He was drafted in the 36th round. He was overlooked constantly. The first five or so years of what should have been his big-league career in Seattle, he found himself in the minors more than in the majors. He just didn’t do anything quite well enough to capture attention. He tried hard, and he could hit a bit, but he couldn’t run much, his defense was effort-based, he didn’t hit with a lot of power, Raul Ibanez-type players will often fall through the cracks.
"The Royals gave him a chance on the hunch of general manager Allard Baird, and because they really had no one else. “I’m telling you,” Baird would say, “if you give him 500 at-bats, he’s going to hit.” After two months of irregular play, Ibanez was hitting .132. Then in mid-June, in the middle of another lost season, Baird decided to play his hunch. Ibanez was 28 years old, and had been labeled all around baseball as a guy who couldn’t do anything quite well enough -- and one of the hardest things to do is get people to see you in a new way. Ibanez did. He hit .301 and slugged .552 the rest of the season. The next two years, he was an everyday player. He hit .294 each season. That’s a professional hitter batting average, by the way: .294. The Mariners brought him back to Seattle for a big-money deal. Then Philadelphia signed him. Now he’s with the Yankees.
Raul is a thoughtful man. The line that reporters in Kansas City used about him was that he was the go-to guy on any story … except a story about Raul Ibanez. If you want to talk music or books or current events, he’s your guy. If you want to talk about what makes Derek Jeter special or why the Phillies were so good for a while there or how ballplayers are in awe of Ichiro, he will fill your notebook. If you want to talk about Raul Ibanez … you need to go somewhere else. It isn’t just humbleness, I don’t think. He has this deep commitment to the idea that he’s doing a job out there. You don’t ask the person who paints your house afterward what it felt like. “I just try not to do too much,” he always says.
When Ibanez came up in the ninth inning on Tuesday night against Boston’s Andrew Bailey, the tying run at the plate with the Yankees down two runs, I thought he would hit a home run. It’s easy to say that afterward, but it’s just what I thought would happen. It was misting rain, like it had all night, and Yankee Stadium is a bandbox for lefty hitters, and Bailey did not look comfortable, and it’s been that kind of year for the Red Sox. It’s been that kind of year for the Yankees too. Ibanez is no longer a fully bonded professional hitter -- he’s 40, and his averages have sagged, and his reflexes have slowed, and he struggles to recognize pitches that will slide or drop out of the strike zone.
But I thought that this was the right time for him. I thought that Bailey was likely to make a mistake. And it doesn’t matter how old Raul gets; he can deposit a mistake. Bailey threw the 93-mph fastball right down the middle of the plate. Ibanez turned on it. Home run. Game tied.
When Ibanez came up in the 12th against lefty Andrew Miller -- this time with the score tied and runners on first and second -- I thought that he’d get the game-winning hit. Miller is ferocious against left-handed hitters because he’s huge (6-foot-7) and throws from an angle that would make any left-handed batter wince. But, again, I thought that Ibanez would hang in there -- “not do too much,” as he had said in hundreds of interviews -- and punch a ball through. I don’t want to make it sound like I’m an oracle, almost all of my premonitions are way wrong. Heck, I thought the U.S. Ryder Cup team had no chance of losing on Sunday. But I know Raul a little bit. He picked out a 94-mph fastball, punched it the other way, drove in the run, and the Yankees won.
The YES Network’s Meredith Marakovits interviewed him afterward on the field, and I was waiting for him to say that he did not want to do too much. Marakovits asked him how it felt to be a hero not just once but twice. “I tried not to do too much,” he said, and I smiled and turned off the television. The baseball season is filled with a million stories. The Yankees can wrap up the division tonight with a victory, and if they do then this was perhaps the most memorable moment of all, and Raul Ibanez will be one of the heroes of the season. But, Raul, being Raul, would scoff at that and tell you (I’m sure) that everyone on the team is a hero. And that whatever success he’s been lucky enough to have came from never trying to do too much.
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The big news: The Cardinals clinched their playoff appearance. Well, they didn’t clinch it -- they lost to the Reds -- but later in the evening the Dodgers were beaten 4-3 by San Francisco’s Barry Zito, six other pitchers and Buster Posey, who homered.
The little news: Cincinnati and Washington both won, so they remain tied for the best record in the National League.
Who is in: Nothing left to set, except best overall record. Washington, Cincinnati and San Francisco are your division winners. Atlanta and St. Louis are your wild cards. Let the playoffs begin. Meet me in the land of hope and dreams.
The Pirates: They won again. They do have a shot at winning 80 games for the first time in 20 years. It’s not a winning record. But it’s something.
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Since the beginning of July, Buster Posey is hitting .374/.451/.622. I’ve mentioned that stat before. But it doesn’t become any less amazing. This is a guy who saw his season crushed a year ago in that collision with Scott Cousins at home plate. There were people I talked to in the game who wondered if he would ever be the same after that.
Posey, who’s hitting .337, will win the National League batting title tonight -- this because teammate Melky Cabrera has removed himself from consideration. As you know, Cabrera was one plate appearance short of qualifying for the title when he was suspended for failing a drug test. There is a rule in place under which Cabrera, who batted .346, could have been charged an out for that one plate appearance, and he still would have won the batting title by a lot. Cabrera refused to take advantage of the rule and disqualified himself.
This will make Posey the first National League catcher since Ernie Lombardi in 1942 to win a batting title.