Fast Five: Memorable Sports Farewells

I’ve attended academic classes for five days a week, nine months a year from the time I was three years old, through two years of preschool, 13 years of K-thru-12, and four years of college.

But last week, I walked out of a college classroom for the last time, ahead of my graduation from Anderson University this Saturday.

As the sports aficionado I am, I couldn’t help but compare myself leaving school–retiring from school, in a sense, after what amounts to a 19 year academic “career”–to many of my athletic heroes in recent years walking away from the game.

Sure, the conclusion of my school years has come with much less fanfare than many of the highly-publicized retirements, such as Chipper Jones, David Ortiz, Tony Stewart, Alex Rodriguez, Paul Pierce, Landon Donavan, and even broadcaster Vin Scully, over the last several years in the sports world (in addition to some of the athletes listed below).  But, like many of these stars, I am also unsure of what is next.

But while the finish of my last final exam was as mundane as me handing it to the professor and quietly walking out the door, these athletes had more memorable farewells:

Honorable Mention:  Jeff Gordon

The four-time NASCAR champion’s final season came alive when he won at Martinsville in The Chase for his 93rd career win, clinching a spot in the Championship Round.  Gordon was one of four drivers to compete for the title at Homestead in the season finale, when he finished 6th behind champion Kyle Busch after leading nine laps.  The roar of the fans when Gordon took the lead could be heard over the roar of the engines in the race’s broadcast.  While Gordon has returned as an injury replacement for Dale Earnhardt Jr., his final full season was a memorable and successful farewell in a sport where many stars’ careers have ended either in mediocrity or by injury/death.


Honorable Mention:  David Ross

Ross, a “role player,” was never a household name, playing mostly as a backup or platoon catcher during stints with the Dodgers, Pirates, Padres, Reds, Red Sox, Braves and Cubs.  In his final season with the Cubs, “Grandpa Ross” hit 10 home runs in 67 games in the regular season, most often getting playing time as Jon Lester’s personal catcher, and was a leader of the 103-win Cubs team.  But his farewell will be remembered for his playoff performance.  Ross hit .250 in the postseason with two home runs, with a .400 batting average in the World Series.  In his final at-bat, Ross became the oldest player (39) to homer in a World Series Game 7, helping the Cubs to their first championship since 1908.


5.  Kobe Bryant

The Black Mamba played his entire 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, and by the final season was playing reduced minutes in most games as his body was less durable than in his prime.  But on his final night in the NBA, Bryant played 42 minutes and exploded for 60 points, the most by any player in a game in the 2015-16 NBA season.  Bryant made 22 of his 50 shots, including six threes, and was 10-for-12 on free throws.  Bryant outscored the opposing Utah Jazz 23-21 in the fourth quarter, helping the Lakers to a 101-96 win to eliminate the Jazz from playoff contention.

The only thing that could have made this farewell better was if it were in a game that counted for the Lakers.  But as Bryant ended a career that included five NBA championships, his Lakers struggled to a 17-65 record.


4.  Ted Williams

Teddy Ballgame was one of the greatest hitters in MLB history.  His .482 career on-base percentage is the best of all-time, and he is the last player to hit .400 or better in a season (.406) in 1941.  Williams hit .316 with 29 home runs and 72 RBI in his final season in 1960 with the Boston Red Sox, where he played his entire 19-year career.

The final home run, the 521st of his career, came dramatically, in his final at-bat at Fenway Park on September 28, 1960.  Williams never acknowledged the crowd during his career, but later said he almost tipped his cap while running around the bases after the home run as the fans roared.  The Red Sox’ final three games of the season were in New York, but Williams played in none of them, making the Fenway home run the final at-bat of his illustrious career.


3.  Peyton Manning, John Elway and Jerome Bettis

This group of two Hall of Famers and Manning, who will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer when eligible, each culminated their careers with a Super Bowl title, with each overcoming the criticism of not being able to win “the big one” over the course of their careers.

Manning won Super Bowl XLI with the Colts, but also lost Super Bowls XLIV with the Colts and XLVIII with the Broncos.  He was able to finish with a second championship by winning Super Bowl 50 with a 24-10 win over the Panthers (although it should be noted the defense had more to do with the championship than Manning’s tired arm).  Manning didn’t announce his retirement until weeks later, although fans and the media alike could sense that Super Bowl 50 was very likely his final game.

Elway lost three Super Bowls early in his career (XXI, XXII, XXIV), but reached two more Super Bowls (XXXII, XXXIII) in his final two seasons and finished with back-to-back titles.  After beating the Packers in Super Bowl XXXII for his first championship, Elway led the Broncos to a convincing 34-19 win over the Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII, his final game, and finished his stellar career by winning Super Bowl MVP.  Like Manning, Elway didn’t officially announce his retirement until after the season.

Bettis, the lone player in this group who played running back instead of quarterback, played his final 10 seasons with the Steelers after playing for the Rams his first three years.  Super Bowl XL was the first Super Bowl appearance of his career, which included six Pro Bowl appearances and the 2001 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award.  After Bettis’s Steelers won the Super Bowl with a 21-10 defeat of the Seahawks, Bettis announced during the post-game trophy presentation that “the last stop for ‘The Bus'” would be with the NFL title won in his hometown of Detroit.

2.  Derek Jeter

The Captain, whose jersey will be retired this Sunday night by the New York Yankees, was one of the most beloved players throughout his career as the Yankee shortstop.  The .310 career hitter, who hit .308 in the playoffs in his career while leading the Yankees to five World Series titles, announced before his 20th season in 2014 that he would retire at season’s end.

Through eight innings of Jeter’s final home game at Yankee Stadium on September 25, 2014, Jeter had a double, two RBI, and a run scored.  But after the Yankees blew a 5-2 lead in the top of the ninth, Jeter got an additional at-bat in the bottom half, with the game tied and pinch-runner Antoan Richardson at second.  Jeter delivered one of the great moments in recent MLB memory, collecting a walk-off single to right field in his final home at-bat for his third RBI of the game, giving the Yankees a 6-5 win.

But the season still had three games remaining, which were played in Boston.  Jeter played DH–he wanted his final game at Yankee Stadium to be his final game at shortstop–and on September 28 earned an RBI infield single in his final at-bat, before being pinch-run for by Brian McCann.  As dramatic as his final home at-bat had been, his final overall at-bat in Boston showed how respected Jeter is, as he left the field to a standing ovation from the fans of the Yankees’ archrivals.


1.  Lou Gehrig

Gehrig was the “Iron Horse,” a durable player who was twice American League MVP as the Yankees first baseman, was a part of six World Series titles, and is one of 12 modern-era players to win a Triple Crown.  But Gehrig’s performance began to diminish in late 1938, and by the beginning of the 1939 season, it was clear something was physically wrong.  On May 2nd, Gehrig took himself out of the lineup, ending a streak of 2,130 consecutive games over the previous 14 seasons, a record that would stand until 1995.

Gehrig was diagnosed with ALS (nicknamed Lou Gehrig’s Disease), on June 19, and officially retired on June 21.  On July 4, the Yankees held Lou Gehrig Day.  Between games of a doubleheader, after Gehrig’s #4 became the first number retired by a team in MLB history,  stirring tributes were given by Babe Ruth, New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia, and Yankees manager Joe McCarthy, among others.

Once Gehrig stepped to the mic he was, at first, too emotional to speak.  But once he did, he delivered a speech that has long been remembered beyond the realm of baseball:

“Fans, for the past two weeks, you’ve been reading about a bad break. 

“Today… I consider myself… the luckiest man… on the face of the earth.  I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.

“When you look around, wouldn’t you consider it a privilege to associate yourself with such fine-looking men as are standing in uniform in this ballpark today?  Sure, I’m lucky.  Who wouldn’t consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert?  Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow?  To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins?  Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy?  Sure, I’m lucky.

“When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift – that’s something.  When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies – that’s something.  When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter – that’s something.  When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body – it’s a blessing.  When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed – that’s the finest I know.

“So I close in saying that… I might have… been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for.  Thank you.”

Gehrig’s remarks were followed by a two-minute standing ovation from the sellout Yankee Stadium crowd.

Gehrig was immediately elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, as the writers who vote waived the typical five-year waiting period for eligibility due to Gehrig’s illness.  Gehrig died of ALS on June 2, 1941.

Trends of a World Series Champion, Revisited

As the MLB Postsesason moves into series play today following a couple of fantastic Wild Card Games, many will try to take their pick of who is best equipped to win the World Series.

Last year, I did this by statistically putting the playoff teams up against the previous 20 World Series champions based on the trends that the majority of those champions showed, in a post called “Trends of a World Series Champion.”

Every world champion did not necessarily fit every one of the 10 criteria, but most were within the trend in a majority of the categories.  Last year’s Kansas City Royals fit eight of the 10 criteria and won the World Series.

Eight teams are still alive in the chase for the Commissioner’s Trophy:  The Chicago Cubs, Washington Nationals, Los Angeles Dodgers, and San Francisco Giants from the National League, and the Texas Rangers, Cleveland Indians, Boston Red Sox, and Toronto Blue Jays in the American League.

Here is how each of the eight fit the trends of a World Series champion:

 

Trend:  Team batting average of .250 or better
Within the trend:  Red Sox (.282), Rangers (.262), Indians (.262), Giants (.258), Cubs (.256), Nationals (.256)
Outside the trend:  Dodgers (.249), Blue Jays (.248)

Trend:  Number of offensive starters hitting .290 or better (min. 50 games)
Within the trend:  Red Sox (5), Indians (3), Nationals (3), Cubs (2), Rangers (2)
Outside the trend:  Dodgers (1), Blue Jays (1), Giants (0)

Trend:  Team ERA of 4.00 or better
Within the trend:  Cubs (3.15), Nationals (3.51), Giants (3.65), Dodgers (3.70), Blue Jays (3.78), Indians (3.84), Red Sox (4.00)
Outside the trend:  Rangers (4.37)

Trend:  Starting rotation ERA of 4.25 or better
Within the trend:  Cubs (2.96), Nationals (3.60), Blue Jays (3.64), Giants (3.71), Dodgers (3.95), Indians (4.08), Red Sox (4.22)
Outside the trend:  Rangers (4.38)

Trend:  Bullpen ERA of 3.92 or better
Within the trend:  Dodgers (3.35), Nationals (3.37), Indians (3.45), Red Sox (3.56), Cubs (3.56), Giants (3.65)
Outside the trend:  Blue Jays (4.11), Rangers (4.40)

Trend:  Home winning percentage of .550 or better
Within the trend:  Cubs (.704), Rangers (.654), Indians (.654), Dodgers (.654), Nationals (.617), Red Sox (.580), Blue Jays (.568), Giants (.556)
Outside the trend:  none

Trend:  Away winning percentage of .520 or better
Within the trend:  Cubs (.575), Red Sox (.568), Nationals (.556), Blue Jays (.531)
Outside the trend:  Rangers (.519), Giants (.519), Indians (.513), Dodgers (.469)

Trend:  Win percentage after Sept. 1 of .500 or better
Within the trend:  Red Sox (.655), Cubs (.621), Indians (.621), Nationals (.586), Dodgers (.586), Rangers (.536), Giants (.500)
Outside the trend:  Blue Jays (.448)

Trend:  Baseball-Reference.com Simple Rating System of 0.2 or better
Within the trend:  Cubs (1.3), Red Sox (1.3), Blue Jays (0.8), Nationals (0.6), Indians (0.6), Dodgers (0.4), Giants (0.3), Rangers (0.2)
Outside the trend:  none

 

Here are how many of the criteria each team fits the trend:

Nationals 10
Cubs 9
Indians 9
Red Sox 9
Giants 8
Dodgers 7
Rangers 6
Blue Jays 5

By this token, the Nationals should be the favorites to win the 2016 World Series.  But as I mentioned, last year’s Royals only fit eight of the criteria, so that would suggest that the top five all have a legitimate chance to win it all.

With five teams qualifying so well to make a deep run, and four rating better than the Royals (or anyone else) did last year, it shows the strength of this year’s playoff field.

In other words, it should be quite a postseason.

MLB Playoffs: ALDS Preview

After two fantastic Wild Card Games, League Division Series play begins this afternoon in the MLB Postseason.  The American League is up first, with a pair of series openers in Arlington and Cleveland.  National League Division Series matchups will start tomorrow, so stay tuned for a preview of those matchups as well.

Toronto Blue Jays (89-73 AL Wild Card Game winner) vs. Texas Rangers (95-67, AL West champion)
(Game 1:  Thursday, 4:38 pm ET, TBS)

This series, a rematch of last year’s contentious ALDS matchup won in five games by Toronto, matches two strong lineups against each other.  The Rangers were fourth in the AL in runs, and the Blue Jays fifth, and both teams are also among the top five in the AL in home runs.  Texas is led by Adrian Beltre (.300 BA, 32 HR, 104 RBI) and midseason acquisition Carlos Beltran (.295 BA, 29 HR, 93 RBI), two of the five players with 81 or more RBI.

Toronto counters with Wild Card game hero Edwin Encarnacion (.263 BA, 42 HR, 127 RBI) and 2015 AL MVP Josh Donaldson (.284 BA, 37 HR, 99 RBI).  The Rangers do have a better team batting average at .262, compared to .248 for the Blue Jays.

Overall team ERA favors Toronto (3.78) over Texas (4.37), but both sides have some solid pitching in the rotation, with Cole Hamels (15-5, 3.32 ERA) leading Texas in Game 1, and Marco Estrada (9-9, 3.48 ERA) getting the Game 1 nod for Toronto over Cy Young contender Aaron Sanchez (15-2, 3.00 ERA).  The experience factor favors Texas pitching, and neither bullpen has a great ERA, with Toronto at 4.11 and Texas at 4.40.

There are definitely some similarities between these two teams, and last year’s series went the distance, including a classic Game 5 at the SkyDome.  This time around, with Toronto on an emotional high after their Wild Card Game win, I think Texas, with the slightly better team, will get down to business and get revenge on the Blue Jays.

Prediction:  The Rangers will win the series, 3-1.

Boston Red Sox (93-69, AL East champion) vs. Cleveland Indians (94-67, AL Central champion)
(Game 1:  Thursday, 8:08 pm ET, TBS)

These two franchises met four times in the postseason between 1995-2007.  After the Red Sox won the season series, 4-2, this series matches two “even teams,” but two teams who aren’t necessarily even in every facet of the game.  Boston has a great offense, with good pitching sufficient to support the offense.  Cleveland has a strong pitching staff, with the sufficient offense to support that.

The Red Sox offense leads the AL in runs, hits, and batting average, and features five players with 87 or more RBI, and three with 111 or more in David Ortiz (.315 BA, 38 HR, 127 RBI), Mookie Betts (.318 BA, 31 HR, 113 RBI), and Hanley Ramirez (.286 BA, 30 HR, 111 RBI).  The Sox have five starters hitting at .290 or better (well within the categorical trend of teams that normally do well in the playoffs), and their .282 team batting average is 20 points higher than the Indians (.262).

On the mound, the Red Sox team ERA is 4.00, but 3.50 since the All-Star Break.  Starter Rick Porcello (22-4, 3.15 ERA) has had a breakout year, while David Price (17-9, 3.99 ERA) pitched very well down the stretch (8-2, 3.24 since July 28), and the bullpen (3.56 ERA) is anchored by one of the game’s best closers in Craig Kimbrel (31/33 saves, 3.40 ERA).

The Indians pitching staff is led by Corey Kluber (18-9, 3.14 ERA), the 2014 AL Cy Young winner who is one of the favorites for that award this season.  A very strong bullpen is led by closer Cody Allen (32/35 saves, 2.51 ERA), and setup men Dan Otero (5-1, 1.53 ERA), Bryan Shaw (25 holds, 3.24 ERA), and Andrew Miller (for the season with NYY/CLE combined: 12 saves, 25 holds, 1.45 ERA).  This relief corps collectively has a very good 3.45 ERA, the best among AL playoff teams.

The Indians offense is nothing historic, but is solid, led by former Red Sox 1B Mike Napoli (.239 BA, 34 HR, 101 RBI).  Two great young players, Francisco Lindor (.301 BA, 15 HR, 78 RBI) and Jose Ramirez (.312 BA, 11 HR, 76 RBI), hit ahead of and set the stage for Napoli.

The Boston offense against the Cleveland pitching and the Cleveland offense against the Boston pitching is each an even matchup, making this an even series.  More often than not in these kinds of series, the team with the better pitching staff is the one that prevails.  Add to that Cleveland’s home-field advantage, plus their better win percentage in one-run games (.571 for Cleveland, .455 for Boston), and the Indians will narrowly find a way to win the series.

Prediction:  The Indians will win the series, 3-2.

Column: A Sentimental Sunday of Baseball

On Sundays in October, the focus in the sports world is typically on the NFL.  NASCAR in The Chase, its version of playoffs, and today is also the final day of the Ryder Cup.

But even with everything else going on, today is baseball’s day, as it will be one of the most historic days of regular season play in the game’s history.

The final day of the regular season is often frantic as the final playoff spots are up for grabs, and this year is no different.  While each division race has already been decided, both the NL and AL Wild Card races are coming down to the final day.  In the NL Wild Card race, the Giants lead the Cardinals by one game for the final spot (the Mets clinched their spot Saturday), while in the AL Wild Card, the Orioles and Blue Jays currently hold the spots, but the Tigers can make it interesting with a win on Sunday (Detroit also has a potential makeup game on Monday, and needs help from Baltimore and/or Toronto).  To learn what would happen in the event of a three-way tie (which is a very real possibility), click here.

All games are scheduled for 3 p.m. ET, so the games with postseason implications will all play out at the same time (L.A. Dodgers at San Francisco, Pittsburgh at St. Louis, Baltimore at N.Y. Yankees, Toronto at Boston, Detroit at Atlanta).

But in addition to the jostling for playoff berths and positioning, there will be three farewells within the game taking place this afternoon.

David Ortiz

David Ortiz will be playing his final regular season game, as his Boston Red Sox host the Toronto Blue Jays.  In over 2,400 games, the 10-time All-Star is a career .286 hitter, and has hit 541 home runs, which is 17th all-time.  He has won three World Series titles in 14 seasons with the Red Sox, including winning World Series MVP in 2013, after playing his first six seasons with the Minnesota Twins.

Big Papi has had an exceptional final season, with 38 HR and 127 RBI, while leading the league in doubles (48), slugging percentage (.625), and OPS (1.027).  This strong season has left Ortiz as a contender for his first MVP award, as he could become the first player to win an MVP in his final season, and would be the oldest MVP in history (40). Ortiz has led the Red Sox to an AL East Division title in 2016, and his farewell will continue into the postseason, beginning Thursday against the Cleveland Indians in the ALDS.

Other players who have already announced their retirement after the season include Yankees 1B Mark Teixeira and Cubs C David Ross, although Ross’s Cubs will continue into the postseason after the regular season ends.

Vin Scully

Sunday also marks the final game of the incomparable career of legendary Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully.  Scully will make his final broadcast this afternoon when the Dodgers take on the Giants in San Francisco.

Scully already had one fantastic farewell at his final home game at Dodger Stadium last Sunday, calling Charlie Culbertson’s walkoff homer to clinch the NL West Division title for the Dodgers, before the team played a beautiful recording of Scully singing “Wind Beneath My Wings” for Dodger fans after the game.  While the Dodgers are headed for an NLDS matchup with the Washington Nationals, Scully will not be working any playoff games.

Scully’s final game is the 88-year old’s 10,640th game with the Dodgers over his 67 years with the team, since starting in the 1950 season when the team was still in Brooklyn.  The game will be the 1,216th game Scully has called in the Dodgers-Giants rivalry, one of the most heated in the game, and Scully has covered 975 Dodgers players.

Baseball’s greatest storyteller has captivated audiences since the days of Jackie Robinson with his grand and elegant style, one that will never be duplicated.

Turner Field

Lastly, I will be in attendance for the final game at Turner Field in Atlanta, as the Braves bid farewell to “The Ted” before moving into SunTrust Park in northern Atlanta in 2017.

Turner Field was built as Centennial Olympic Stadium for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, then retro-fitted and downsized into a baseball stadium for the Braves, who played across the street at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium from 1966-96.  The Braves beat the Cubs, 5-4, in the first game at Turner Field on April 4, 1997.

In 20 seasons at Turner Field, the Braves have won 10 division titles (including the final eight of the team’s record 14 consecutive from 1991-2005), and appeared in 12 postseasons.  Turner Field has hosted 39 playoff games, including two games in the 1999 World Series, and the first ever National League Wild Card Game in 2012, which was the final game in the career of sure-fire future Hall-of-Famer Chipper Jones.

Turner Field also hosted the 2000 MLB All-Star Game and was site of Diamondbacks LHP Randy Johnson’s 2004 perfect game and manager Bobby Cox’s 2000th win later that year, as well as Braves RHP John Smoltz’s 3000th strikeout in 2008.

Sunday’s final game at Turner Field is against the Detroit Tigers who, as previously mentioned, are fighting for their postseason lives.  There will be a pregame ceremony featuring Braves alumni who played at Turner Field, and a ceremonial first pitch, and a postgame ceremony that will include a ceremonial final pitch and the transfer of home plate to SunTrust Park.  Braves ace pitcher Julio Teheran will be facing Tigers ace Justin Verlander in the finale.

This day is not a normal final day of the regular season in Major League Baseball.  Instead, it is a historic and sentimental Sunday, as one of the games most popular players, its greatest broadcaster, and the home ballpark of its longest continuously operated franchise all bid farewell.

 

 

MLB Races

AL Wild Card
1. Toronto 88-73, 0 games ahead (at Boston)
2. Baltimore 88-73 (at N.Y. Yankees)
3. Detroit 86-74, 1.5 games back (at Atlanta)

NL Wild Card
1. N.Y. Mets 87-74, 1 game ahead (at Philadelphia)
2. San Francisco 86-75 (vs. L.A. Dodgers)
3. St. Louis 85-76, 1 game back (vs. Pittsburgh)

Fast Five: Greatest Games at Turner Field

Turner Field in Atlanta will host its final game on Sunday after 20 seasons as the home of the Atlanta Braves.

The ballpark, named for Atlanta media tycoon Ted Turner, was originally built as Centennial Olympic Stadium for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and was retrofitted into a baseball stadium, opening on April 4, 1997 with a 5-4 win over the Chicago Cubs.  Its final game is Sunday against the Detroit Tigers, before the Braves move to SunTrust Park in northern Atlanta for the 2017 season.

Turner Field has hosted 39 playoff games, including two games in the 1999 World Series, and the first ever National League Wild Card Game in 2012.  The 2000 MLB All-Star Game was at Turner Field, as was Braves manager Bobby Cox’s 2000th win in 2004, pitcher John Smoltz’s 3000th strikeout in 2008, and three no-hitters (in 2004, 2010, and 2014, all by visiting teams).

Greatest Games at Turner Field

Some games at “The Ted” are more memorable than others.  Here are the five greatest games at Turner Field, listed in chronological order:

Oct. 19, 1999: Braves 10, New York Mets 9 (11 inn.), NL Championship Series, Game 6
The Braves and division-rival Mets met in the 1999 National League Championship Series, and after the Braves won the first three games, the Mets won the next two to bring the series back to Atlanta, including a 15-inning thriller in Game 5 that ended on Robin Ventura’s “Grand Slam Single.”  The Braves, looking to clinch the series, led 5-0 after an inning, and 7-3 after six, but Mets C Mike Piazza capped off a four-run seventh with a game-tying homer to make it 7-7.

The Mets scored again in the eighth and 10th innings, but the Braves answered in each bottom half, taking the game to the 11th at 9-9.  In the bottom of the 11th, starter Kenny Rogers came on in relief for New York, and after Gerald Williams led off with a double and was bunted to third, Rogers intentionally walked the bases loaded to face Andruw Jones.  Jones drew a walk-off walk, winning the game, 10-9, and the series, 4-2.

With the win, Braves were in the World Series for the fifth time in nine seasons, but this season was the only World Series appearance for the Braves in the Turner Field era.  The Braves were swept by the Yankees in the World Series.

May 18, 2004:  Arizona Diamondbacks 2, Braves 0
Sorry, Braves fans, for including a loss, but when something happens that has only been done 23 times in the long history of baseball, it qualifies for this list.  The Braves entered this game having struck out 18 times against Ben Sheets in a May 16 loss in Milwaukee, and after a day off returned home to face Randy Johnson and the Diamondbacks.  Johnson, whose 4,875 career strikeouts are second all-time, was already well on his way to the Hall of Fame, but “The Big Unit” added to his legend on this night.

Johnson retired all 27 men he faced, throwing the 17th perfect game in MLB history (there have now been 23).  Johnson, the tall left-hander, struck out 13 Braves (including Chipper Jones in all three of his at-bats), throwing 87 of his 117 pitches for strikes.  The Diamondbacks got a run in the second on an Alex Cintron RBI double, and another in the seventh on a Chad Tracy RBI single, and the two runs were more than enough for Johnson on this night.  Pinch-hitter Eddie Perez (now the Braves first base coach) struck out for the historic final out.

Johnson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2015, becoming the sixth Hall of Famer to have thrown a perfect game, and at 40 years old is the oldest pitcher to throw a perfect game.  Johnson’s perfect game is the only perfect game the Braves have been involved in, and the 2004 Braves are the second-winningest team to be the victim of a perfect game.

Oct. 3, 2010:  Braves 8, Philadelphia Phillies 7
Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox was in his final season, and a sold out crowd packed Turner Field for his final regular season game, with the Braves entered the day tied with the San Diego Padres for the NL Wild Card (back when only one Wild Card team qualified for the playoffs).  The test in the finale was not easy, as the Phillies had won the NL East, and was the two-time defending National League champions.

The Braves fell behind 2-0 in the top of the third, but took an 8-2 lead through six innings, using 2 RBI each from Omar Infante and Brooks Conrad, and an RBI from starting pitcher Tim Hudson.  Jayson Werth hit a two-run homer in the seventh to make it 8-4, and in the eighth, an RBI single by Wilson Valdez and a two-RBI double by Ben Francisco cut the Braves’ lead to 8-7.  But in the ninth, Braves closer Billy Wagner, who had allowed both RBI hits in the eighth, struck out all three batters looking to seal the Braves 91st win of the season, and ensure they would not be eliminated from playoff contention. My dad was more excited after the final out of this game than any other I can remember (although I do not remember the 1995 World Series championship).  When the Padres lost in San Francisco, the Braves won the NL Wild Card for the first time in their history, and in celebration the players carried Cox off the field on their shoulders.

The Phillies were in another historic game three days later, when pitcher Roy Halladay threw the second postseason no-hitter in their playoff opener against the Reds, before eventually falling in the NLCS to the Giants.  The Giants had defeated the Braves in four games in the NLDS, with each game of the series decided by one run.  The series clincher, and Cox’s final game, also came at Turner Field on Oct. 11, and in one of the classiest moves in baseball history, the Giants stopped their celebration on the field to applaud Cox as he took his final curtain call.


July 26-27, 2011:  Braves 4, Pittsburgh Pirates 3 (19 inn.)
The Braves (entered at 59-44) and Pirates (53-47) both entered this game in the midst of pennant races in their respective divisions, and while the Braves had been to the playoff the season before, the Pirates were looking for their first winning record since 1992 (the year of “Sid’s Slide” in the NLCS at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium).  Even with the playoff races, this game looked pedestrian on the surface, but it became one of the craziest games in baseball history.

Pittsburgh scored two in the first on RBIs by Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez, before Michael McKenry homered in the second to give the Pirates a 3-0 lead.  The Braves answered in the third, with an RBI single by Dan Uggla and a two-RBI single by Jason Heyward, and after that, the run of zeros in the line score began.  Neither team scored for 15 consecutive innings (although for the game the teams combined to leave 39 men on base), and Tuesday night turned to Wednesday morning.  In the bottom of the 19th, Julio Lugo walked and Jordan Schafer singled him to third, before relief pitcher Scott Proctor, whose only two at-bats of the season were in this marathon, grounded to third, and Pedro Alvarez appeared to throw Lugo out at the plate easily–but umpire Jerry Meals called Lugo safe, and the Braves won 4-3.

In 2011, instant replay in MLB only entailed reviewing boundary home run calls, meaning this play was not reviewable.  The six hour, 39 minute game was the longest for the Braves since moving to Atlanta, and the two teams combined used 15 pitchers and 41 total players.  The Braves collapsed in September to miss the playoffs by one game at 89-73, while the Pirates’ loss in this game began a 1-12 stretch that doomed their playoff hopes, and they finished 72-90 before finally getting the elusive winning record (and playoff berth) in 2013.

Sept. 2, 2012:  Braves 8, Philadelphia Phillies 7
2012 was the final season in the career of legendary Braves 3B Chipper Jones, and leading into this game on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, the Braves were 6.5 games behind Washington for the division lead, but 3.5 games clear in the Wild Card race.  The Phillies had won the division the previous five seasons, but entered this game 64-69 on their way to a third-place finish in the NL East.

The Phillies jumped out to a 5-0 lead in the first, with a two-RBI double by Ryan Howard, and a three-RBI double by Erik Kratz, and after the Braves scored on a Reed Johnson RBI double in the second, the Phillies made it 7-1 when pitcher Cole Hamels had a two-RBI double of his own.  Johnson added two more RBI on a single in the sixth to make it 7-3, and the score remained there until the ninth, Johnson singled, and Paul Janish and Michael Bourn walked to load the bases.  An error by Phillies 3B Kevin Frandsen scored two, making it 7-5, before Chipper Jones came up to face Jonathan Papelbon.  Jones launched a long walk-off homer, giving the Braves a wild, come-from-behind 8-7 victory.

The game-winning homer by Jones would be the last of his 468 career home runs, and was his second walk-off homer of his final season, both against Philadelphia.  The Braves won the first NL Wild Card, clinching the title when Freddie Freeman got a walk-off homer of his own, and hosted the first ever NL Wild Card Game on Oct. 5, in a game that became known as the “Infield Fly Game” in Atlanta, as the Braves lost 6-3 to the St. Louis Cardinals, ending Jones’s career.

Honarable Mentions:
May 20, 2010:  Braves 10, Cincinnati Reds 9
After the Braves trailed 9-3 entering the ninth, four singles, a walk, and an error set the stage for Brooks Conrad’s pinch-hit, walk-off grand slam to win 10-9.  The homer bounced off the glove of Reds LF Laynce Nix into the stands (and Conrad thought he caught it), and after the wild finish, Braves broadcaster Joe Simpson said, “I’ve been to two rodeos and three goat ropings, but I’ve never seen anything like that!”

April 6, 2013:  Braves 6, Chicago Cubs 5
Melvin and Justin Upton, both new Braves in 2013, hit game-tying and walk-off homers in the ninth, finishing a Braves rally to win after trailing the Cubs 5-1 after the seventh.  The Uptons became the first brothers to hit game-tying and walk-off home runs in the same inning in MLB history.  This game was part of a 12-1 start, and the second of a 10-game winning streak, as the Braves never looked back and went on to win the NL East.

Greatest Games I Witnessed at Turner Field

While I can’t say that I was in the ballpark for any of the moments listed above (although I will be for the park’s historic final game on Sunday), I was at Turner Field for these games, the five greatest I saw at the venue:

June 15, 2001:  Boston Red Sox 9, Atlanta Braves 5 (10 inn.)
This was my first game at Turner Field, but I was 6 years old so I don’t remember much.  I do remember that we got to see Hall of Famer Greg Maddux pitch for the Braves.  I thought Red Sox RF Trot Nixon must have been the son or grandson of Richard Nixon (again, I was 6).  We sat through a rain delay, then once the game resumed, those of us way up in the upper deck near the lights sat through the pummeling of a swarm of moths.  I thought I remembered the crowd groaning after a Chipper Jones strikeout, but according to the box score, he never struck out in the game (and, if you’re wondering, Andruw Jones did not either, so this wasn’t just a name confusion).

As it turns out, Boston scored three in the first, but the Braves pulled to within 3-2 in the third, and took a 5-3 lead in the seventh on an Andruw Jones RBI single.  The Red Sox scored a run each in the eighth and ninth (with the aforementioned Nixon responsible for the latter) to tie it at 5-5, before scoring four runs (three unearned) in the tenth to win 9-5.  Due to the rain and the extra innings, the game ended after midnight, which gave us problems getting back to our camping site at Stone Mountain State Park.

July 4, 2005:  Atlanta Braves 4, Chicago Cubs 0
My family vacationed at Stone Mountain again in 2005, and saw the Braves beat the Angels, 3-2, on July 7.  Less than a month later, friends of ours won four tickets about 25 rows up behind home plate for the Braves’ July 4 game with the Chicago Cubs.  Me, my parents, and our friend Marcia drove over six hours from Kernersville, N.C. to Atlanta that afternoon.  The always-attract-a-crowd Cubs, in addition to the holiday, made this a big crowd–the 52,274 in attendance set a regular season attendance record for a game at Turner Field at the time.  Every fan in attendance was given a dark blue, patriotic Braves cap, leading to a comical moment when my mom called my grandfather on the phone and he asked “What color hat is Christopher wearing?”

Cubs star Kerry Wood was on the mound against Kyle Davies, one of the “Baby Braves” who came up from the minors in 2005 and had such a big impact on that year’s division-winning team.  Wood struggled early, allowing an Andruw Jones RBI single and an Adam LaRoche 2-run homer in the first, making it 3-0 Braves.  No one scored again until the eighth, when LaRoche hit his second homer of the game, a solo shot to make it 4-0 (this is one of two major league multi-homer games I have seen in person).  This game was simply an excellently-pitched game by Davies, John Foster, Blaine Boyer (another of the “Baby Braves”), and Chris Reitsma.

One trivial note is that this is the same series when Jeff Francoeur made his Braves debut, which included a homer as his first MLB hit.  That game was three nights later.  Since no YouTube highlights exist of the July 4 game, here if Francoeur’s homer on July 7, another one of the great moments at Turner Field:

Sept. 28, 2013:  Philadelphia Phillies 5, Atlanta Braves 4
Student Activities at Anderson University, which I attend, sponsored a trip to a Braves game in the fall of my freshman year.  I had actually considered going to watch the Wake Forest-Clemson game (Clemson is about 30 minutes away), so this saved me seeing that 42-13 drubbing.  We carpooled, and the van I was in (me and six ladies!) got to Turner Field about an hour before first pitch, for my first game at Turner Field in eight years.  The Braves had clinched the NL East six days earlier, and were playing for playoff seeding.

Cesar Hernandez got a bunt hit on the first pitch, and Jimmy Rollins doubled on the second pitch, putting men at second and third after two quick pitches.  Mike Minor almost escaped the jam, but with two outs, Cameron Rupp singled to score both runners, making it 2-0, before a Freddie Freeman sacrifice fly in the bottom half made it 2-1.  It stayed that way until the seventh, as Mike Minor was solid for the Braves, while “Johnny Wholestaff” was strong for the Phillies.  The Phillies added two in the seventh and one in the eighth on RBIs by Rollins, Dominic Brown, and Chase Utley, making it 5-1, at which point one of the other cars of AU students actually left the game.

They were nearly embarrassed by leaving before the ninth, as the Braves made a valiant comeback.  After two singles, Justin Upton homered to make it 5-4.  Even from my seat in right field (the ball was hit to left), I knew the ball was gone on contact and leaped in the air to celebrate–before it actually just barely cleared the wall (had it been two feet shorter, I would have looked like an idiot).  After Freeman singled and Evan Gattis walked, Chris Johnson was robbed of a hit by an excellent play by Rollins at shortstop.  Just over a week later, the Braves lost in the NLDS to the Dodgers, three games to one.

Apr. 10, 2015:  Atlanta Braves 5, New York Mets 3
This is another game I got tickets to from AU Student Activities, and this game was the home opener of the Braves’ 50th season in Atlanta.  Once me and friends Ryan and Brady got out of class, we drove right into the infamous Atlanta rush hour, joined Ryan’s sister at her apartment, and rode MARTA to the stadium.  Pregame ceremonies included appearances by Chipper Jones, Bobby Cox, and Hank Aaron.  The game was delayed by rain, which seemed to make the crowd even more excited once the game finally began.

After a perfect top of the first by Eric Stults, Cameron Maybin, making his Braves home debut, led off the bottom half with a homer, before a Jonny Gomes single later in the inning made it 2-0, and an unearned run in the third made it 3-0.  In the fourth, the Mets tied it 3-3 on back-to-back pitches, with homers by David Wright (2-run homer) and John Mayberry (solo).  The score remained tied until the eighth, when Phil Gosselin came through with a two-out, two-run single to give the Braves a 5-3 lead (likely the biggest hit of the utility man’s career).  This was the first Braves home game after the trade of closer Craig Kimbrel, so we were all curious what the entry would be like for new closer Jason Grilli going to the ninth; “Fire Up The Grilli” became a catchphrase in Atlanta as he came through the bullpen gate, and the veteran slammed the door on the Mets for the 5-3 win.

This game also included the greatest defensive play I’ve ever seen live, as Andrelton Simmons threw out Travis d’Arnaud from deep shortstop on a jump throw with all of his momentum going the opposite direction (see below).  Simmons got a well-deserved prolonged standing ovation after the phenomenal play.

This game was part of a 5-0 start for the 2015 team, which included another 5-3 win over the Mets the following night, which the four of us also attended.  The 2015 Braves were 67-95, but won all five games I saw that year, which also included Aug. 24 over the Rockies (also 5-3), and a season-ending double-header sweep of the Cardinals on Oct. 4.  This Mets team, who did not look very good in April, slowly improved all season, and eventually became the only team to date I have seen in person who played in the World Series the same season.


Apr. 4, 2016:  Washington Nationals 4, Atlanta Braves 3 (10 inn.)
This was also an AU Student Activities ticket, but I would not have gone to this game were it not Opening Day and, for that matter, the last Opening Day at Turner Field.  With first pitch at 4:10 pm, Ryan, our friend Danny, and I left Anderson (on a good day, two hours northeast of Atlanta) at 1:15 when Ryan got out of class.  We got caught in bad Atlanta traffic before we were even around the stadium, and then once we got to Turner Field, parking was sold out, and we eventually had to park for $20 in someone’s driveway about three blocks south of the stadium.  The neighborhood around Turner Field isn’t exactly Beverly Hills, and to be honest we, jokingly, wondered if the car or its contents would still be there when we got back.

The game got underway as we stood in line at the gate, and I was listening to the game on the MLB At Bat app on my phone, although we heard cheers (which we figured, in the top of the first, were outs) and boos (which we absolutely knew meant Bryce Harper was coming to bat) before the delayed broadcast could tell us what was going on.  Harper, the defending NL MVP, homered on his first swing of the year, and we heard that reaction too.

We reached our seats, in the upper deck down the right field line, a couple batters after Harper, and saw Julio Teheran get the final out of the top of the first.  In the bottom half, Freddie Freeman hit a solo homer of his own to tie the score at 1-1.  In the fourth, the pattern repeated, as Daniel Murphy homered for Washington and Adonis Garcia answered with a homer for Atlanta, making it 2-2.

With the same score in the bottom of the eighth, Jeff Francoeur, the beloved outfielder and Atlanta native who had been traded away in 2009, came to the plate to pinch-hit.  “Frenchy” received a standing ovation, and the crowd stood for the whole at-bat, which ended in a walk.  After Felipe Rivero loaded the bases, Shawn Kelley walked Garcia, scoring Francoeur and giving the Braves a 3-2 lead.

Washington tied the game, 3-3, in the ninth on a sacrifice fly by Michael A. Taylor, although CF Ender Inciarte nearly threw Jayson Werth out at home plate (live, I thought he had, but C A.J. Pierzynski dropped the ball).  The game went extra innings, and in the 10th, defensive replacement Gordon Beckham made an error, and Murphy capitalized with an RBI double, giving the Nationals a 4-3 lead.  The sight of Nationals closer Jonathan Papelbon riled up the crowd one more time (he is not one of MLB’s most popular players), but the Braves went down in order.

Traffic was just as congested on the way out, but we eventually made it out of the Turner Field area, and then made it back to Anderson in time to watch the final 10 minutes of the classic Villanova-North Carolina NCAA Tournament title game on TV.


 

 

***Editor’s note:  This post would not be possible without the help of baseball-reference.com, which helped me turn my memories (quite vague ones in some cases) into more detailed accounts.

Impressions After One Month of the MLB Season

Just over one month has passed in the MLB season, and a lot has changed since I made my picks for the season back in early April.  That being said, it’s still very early in the season’s proceedings, so a lot can change, but a month of games is still enough to have some idea of what is going to take place over the next five months before the postseason in October.

Here’s a look at my impressions after roughly 35 games, or about one-fifth, of the 2015 campaign.

The Cardinals are really good

St. Louis was my World Series pick before the season, and so far they haven’t disappointed, starting the season a big league-best 23-10 to take a five game lead over the Cubs in the NL Central, which is tied for the largest current division lead in baseball.  The Cardinals are doing it with pitching, as they always seem to do, as they lead all of baseball with a 2.74 team ERA, which is 0.25 better than anyone else, and is due in large part to a 1.61 bullpen ERA.  And those numbers are, since April 25, without ace Adam Wainwright, who is out for the year with a torn Achilles.  The Cards won the World Series without him in 2011, although they did have Chris Carpenter at the time.  Complementing the pitching is an offense that ranks fourth in batting average (.273) and 11th in runs (150), and the offense and the pitching staff have merged to create the second best run differential in baseball (+50).  A lot is made of the Giants’ streak of winning the World Series the last three even-numbered years, and rightfully so, but the Cardinals have reached the Fall Classic in the last two ensuing odd-numbered years.  It’s 2015, an odd-numbered year right after another Giants title, and the Cardinals are positioned very well to continue that pattern and potentially reach another World Series.

The Dodgers are good too… and they’re not even healthy

Don Mattingly’s team is playing very well to begin their quest for a third straight NL West division title, which they were favored for coming into the season.  Their 22-11 record has given them a five game lead over the Padres, which is tied for the biggest division lead.  They lead baseball in homers (53), are second in runs (174), and are third in batting average (.269), supplementing a pitching staff that is fourth in team ERA (3.19).  That combination of pitching and hitting has given the Dodgers the best run differential in baseball (+63).  These numbers are remarkable, considering that Carl Crawford, Kenley Jansen, Joel Peralta, Yasiel Puig, and Hyun-Jin Ryu are all currently on the disabled list temporarily, and Brandon League and Brandon McCarthy both out for an extended period of time.  This team will only get better when they get healthier, which is a scary thought for the rest of the National League.

The Nationals will be just fine

A Nationals team picked by many to reach and even win the World Series didn’t live up to the billing for the first three weeks of the season.  After a loss to the Braves on April 27, Washington was 7-13 and in the midst of a six game losing streak, and was in last place in the NL East, eight games behind the division-leading Mets.  The next night, they trailed 10-2 in the fifth before coming all the way back to win 13-12 on a ninth inning Dan Uggla homer, and since they have won games in groups of no less than three games, and haven’t lost back to back games, resulting in an 12-3 stretch to move them to second in the East, one and a half games behind the Mets.  While their pitching has been solid the entire season, the Nationals team average was .236 in April, but is .296 in May, thanks in large part to Bryce Harper catching fire, hitting six homers in a three game stretch last week.  The offensive success has been without Anthony Rendon, who hasn’t played a game yet due to knee and oblique injuries.  Once he gets healthy, a Nationals team that is now suddenly playing up to its potential will be even better, so the team’s current record of 19-16 shouldn’t worry anyone in Washington, but rather the rest of the NL East.

That being said, with the Mets pitching being so strong, ranking second in baseball with a 2.99 team ERA, I don’t see them going on any extended losing streaks.  The NL East race between the Nationals and Mets should be a great one all year, although I expect the second place finisher in the division to be one of the National League’s Wild Card teams.

Tigers-Royals should be an excellent race

Speaking of excellent division races, the AL Central race between Detroit and Kansas City should be great to watch all year long.  This is another race where I expect the team who finishes second to play in the Wild Card Game, but there is such an advantage to winning the division and advancing to the Division Series that the teams surely will want to avoid the one-off Wild Card playoff at all costs.  Last year, these two teams fought all the way to the finish, with the Tigers winning the Central by a single game, but the Royals advancing from the Wild Card Game all the way to the American League pennant.  The Royals are off to the better start, ever so slightly, at 21-13, tied for the best record in the American League, while the Tigers are a game back at 20-14.  The Royals are doing it with pitching, as they are fourth in the AL with a 3.52 team ERA, featuring a 1.63 bullpen ERA which is the best in baseball, but also with their offense, with the team leading MLB in batting average (.285, which is 15 points higher than the next best), and tied for third in runs scored (167).  The Tigers are just behind the Royals with the second best batting average in baseball (.270), but strangely are 16th in runs (142).  Detroit is also mid-pack in the major pitching categories, and it is very curious that they are 20-14 despite a run differential of only +2 (142 for, 140 against).  The Royals look much better statistically than the Tigers, and have won four out of seven head-to-head meetings thus far, so the Royals, who I picked to win the American League, remain the favorites to win the Central and then the pennant.

The Astros could be for real

It’s been a long few years in Houston since reaching the World Series in 2005.  The Astros have only had more 100-loss seasons (3) than winning seasons (2) since, and were 72-90 last year with a lot of young players as they continued their rebuilding process.  Before the season I thought this year’s team, which had added the likes of veterans Evan Gattis, Colby Rasmus, Jed Lowrie, Luke Gregerson, and Pat Neshek to solidify their young roster, reminded me a little of the 1991 Braves, who went from “worst-to-first” and nearly won the World Series, with strong pitching, young hitting with potential, and some veterans brought in in the offseason.  That being said, I picked the Astros fourth in the decent AL West, but they are off to a 21-13 start, which is tied for the best record in the AL, and have a four game lead over the Angels.  The pitching is the key, with a 3.43 team ERA ranking second in the AL, with a bullpen ERA of 2.18 also second in the league.  The team’s starter’s ERA is 4.13, which ranks 16th out of the 30 teams, but the rotation is led by two very strong pitchers in Dallas Kuechel (4-0, 1.39), who is one of the early favorites for the Cy Young Award, and Collin McHugh (4-1, 3.50).

There are two big questions for whether or not the Astros can contain their early season success.  One is their offense, which ranks in the middle of the pack in runs scored (12th, 145), and second in home runs (49), but dead last in batting average (.225).  That last stat likely needs to improve for the team to continue its success over the course of 162 games.  The other question is how the Astros will handle the pressure over the summer from the chasers, particularly from the Mariners and Angels.  Both teams have started around .500 but are playing well the last few days, and as divisional opponents of the Astros will have plenty of head-to-head opportunities to gain ground.  The Astros look very solid right now, but there’s still too many questions around this team to say whether or not they should be a playoff team.  The Astros could be for real.

The Yankees could be the Yankees again

The New York Yankees are the most successful franchise in baseball, with 27 World Series championships to prove it, but have missed the playoffs in back-to-back years, finishing 12 games behind the Red Sox in 2013 and the Orioles in 2014 in the AL East.  Without any major offseason acquisitions coming into this season, expectations were for the team to likely finish over .500, as they’ve done every year since 1992, but not necessarily be a postseason threat.  After a 1-3 start, however, the Yankees are now 21-14, and lead the Rays by two games in the AL East.  Some (including me) thought pitching could be a concern, but the Yankees’ staff leads the AL with a 3.33 team ERA, with the bullpen’s 2.18 ERA ranking third in the AL. Michael Pineda (5-0, 2.72) is leading the rotation, while the best one-two punch in any bullpen so far this season, closer Andrew Miller and setup man Dellin Betances, have yet to allow an earned run in 36.2 innings between them.  The Yanks have also struck out more batters (311) than anyone.  Offensively the team ranks sixth in runs (164), tied for third in home runs (43), and they are eighth in OBP (.324) despite ranking just 17th in batting average (.251).  Pretty much the entire Yankee lineup is performing well, but particularly Mark Teixiera (.246, 11 HR, 28 RBI) and Alex Rodriguez (.241, 8 HR, 20 RBI), who is outperforming expectations after coming back from a year-long suspension at age 39.  The Yankees are the fourth oldest team in baseball, and have the oldest offense by nearly two years, so health will be a question.  But if this team can stay healthy, they can be a real threat, as on baseball-reference.com‘s Simple Rating System (combining run differential and strength of schedule), they have the best rating in all of baseball by a fairly wide margin.

The Red Sox aren’t what we thought they were

Below the Yankees, and below everyone else in the AL East too, sit the Boston Red Sox.  The team is trying to become the first worst-to-first-to-worst-to-first team in MLB history, after winning the 2013 World Series in between two last-place seasons, but is not off to a good start at 16-18.  To their defense, the AL East is the only division where that record would even be close to last place.  But there are definitely some issues this team needs to address if it wants any chance at the division title they were predicted to win.  The team ranks in the top half of the league in runs and home runs, although they are 27th in team batting average (.230).  With the slugging types of David Ortiz, Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval, and Mike Napoli, those ups and downs offensively could be expected.  The issue for the Red Sox is their pitching staff, with a team ERA of 4.90, which ranks next to last in baseball (last place Colorado plays half their games at altitude, and generally has a high ERA).  While the bullpen ERA is 3.75, which isn’t terrible but does rank 12th out of 15 in the AL, the rotation ERA is 5.65, the worst in baseball.  The best Sox starter in terms of ERA is Rick Porcello at 4.50, and the next lowest is Wade Miley at 5.60, with two of Boston’s starters at 6.35 or worse.  It doesn’t matter how good the offense is when the pitching is that bad, plain and simple.  The current result is that the team is still winning about half their games despite a fifth-worst run differential of -30, but they can’t keep the record even this decent all year unless their pitching really improves.

“Way Too Early” Award Winners

American League
MVP:  Nelson Cruz, Mariners (.346, 15 HR, 29 RBI) (Also considered: Stephen Vogt, Athletics; Mark Teixiera, Yankees; Mike Trout, Angels)
Cy Young:  Dallas Kuechel, Astros (4-0, 1.39 ERA) (Also considered: Felix Hernandez, Mariners; Andrew Miller, Yankees; Sonny Gray, Athletics)
Rookie of the Year:  Devon Travis, Blue Jays (.275, 7 HR, 25 RBI) (Also considered: Mark Canha, Athletics; Steven Souza Jr., Rays; Roberto Osuna, Blue Jays)
Manager of the Year:  A.J. Hinch, Astros (Also considered: Paul Molitor, Twins; Joe Girardi, Yankees; Kevin Cash, Rays)

National League
MVP:  Bryce Harper, Nationals (.308, 12 HR, 31 RBI) (Also considered: Adrian Gonzalez, Dodgers; Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks; Matt Carpenter, Cardinals; Joey Votto, Reds)
Cy Young:  Zack Greinke, Dodgers (5-0, 1.52 ERA) (Also considered: Max Scherzer, Nationals; Matt Harvey, Mets; Shelby Miller, Braves; Bartolo Colon, Mets; A.J. Burnett, Pirates; Michael Wacha, Cardinals)
Rookie of the Year:  Joc Pedersen, Dodgers (.255, 10 HR, 21 RBI) (Also considered: Kris Bryant, Cubs; Jung Ho Kang, Pirates; Archie Bradley, Diamondbacks)
Manager of the Year:  Terry Collins, Mets (Also considered: Joe Maddon, Cubs; Don Mattingly, Dodgers; Mike Matheny, Cardinals)

 

 

MLB Standings

AL East
1. N.Y. Yankees 21-14
2. Tampa Bay 19-16, 2 GB
3. Toronto 17-18, 4 GB
4. Baltimore 15-17, 4.5 GB
4. Boston 16-18, 4.5 GB

AL Central
1. Kansas City 21-13
2. Detroit 20-14, 1 GB
3. Minnesota 19-15, 2 GB
4. Chi. White Sox 14-17, 5.5 GB
5. Cleveland 12-20, 8 GB

AL West
1. Houston 21-13
2. L.A. Angels 17-17, 4 GB
3. Seattle 15-18, 5.5 GB
4. Texas 15-19, 6 GB
5. Oakland 13-23, 9 GB

NL East
1. N.Y. Mets 20-14
2. Washington 19-16, 1.5 GB
3. Miami 16-19, 4.5 GB
4. Atlanta 15-19, 5 GB
5. Philadelphia 12-23, 8.5 GB

NL Central
1. St. Louis 23-10
2. Chi. Cubs 18-15, 5 GB
3. Cincinnati 17-17, 6.5 GB
3. Pittsburgh 17-17, 6.5 GB
5. Milwaukee 12-23, 12 GB

NL West
1. L.A. Dodgers 22-11
2. San Diego 18-17, 5 GB
3. San Francisco 17-17, 5.5 GB
4. Arizona 15-18, 7 GB
5. Colorado 11-19, 9.5 GB

World Series Recap: Red Sox def. Cardinals, 4-2

The 2004 World Series Trophy in City Hall Plaz...

The Commissioner’s Trophy (File) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For the 3rd time in the last 10 baseball seasons, the team celebrating a World Series title is the Boston Red Sox, who defeated the St. Louis Cardinals in 6 games to win their 8th championship.  This title was historic, since it was the first one clinched at Fenway Park in Boston since 1918 (their titles in 2004 and 2007 were both clinched on their opponent’s field).  This was an odd series that included a lot of big hits, some big calls, and one Big Papi.  This was the 4th World Series meeting between the Red Sox and Cardinals, after the Cardinals won in 1946 and 1967, and the Red Sox won in 2004.  Let’s look at each game of this World Series.

Game 1:  Red Sox 8, Cardinals 1.  The Red Sox wasted no time making a statement in Game 1.  In the top of the 1st, with the bases loaded, Mike Napoli hit a 3-run double to make the score 3-0.  That occurred in the at-bat after a controversial sequence that included a Pete Kozma error, first incorrectly called as an out, before a conference of the umpires led to an overturned call.  In the 2nd, Dustin Pedroia singled, making it 4-0.  David Ortiz hit a fly ball to deep right, and Carlos Beltran made a tough catch to save a grand slam, but David Ross scored on the sacrifice, making the score 5-0 Boston.  Adam Wainwright settled down after that, but the damage was done.  David Ortiz added a 2-run homer in the 7th to make the score 7-0, and in the 8th, 21-year-old Xander Bogaerts added a run on a sacrifice fly that scored Daniel Nava, making the score 8-0.  Jon Lester threw 7 2/3 scoreless innings for the Red Sox, and the Cardinals scored their only run on a Matt Holliday solo homer off Ryan Dempster in the top of the 9th, once the game was practically out of reach.  The Red Sox had dominated Game 1, and had a 1-0 lead (this was their 9th consecutive win in World Series play, tied for 4th all-time).

Game 2:  Cardinals 4, Red Sox 2.  Game 2 featured a pitcher’s duel between John Lackey and Michael Wacha, and the game was scoreless through the first 3 innings.  The first run of the game scored on an RBI groundout, as Yadier Molina’s grounder to 2nd scored Matt Holliday, giving the Cardinals their first lead of the series.  When Michael Wacha threw a scoreless 4th, he became just the 4th pitcher in MLB history to allow 1 run or less in his first 25 postseason innings, joining Christy Mathewson (who didn’t allow a run), Babe Ruth (1 run) and Don Sutton (1 run); not bad company.  Both pitchers continued to dazzle until the bottom of the 6th.  In that inning, after a Dustin Pedroia 1-out walk, David Ortiz hit a Michael Wacha changeup the other way, elevating it enough to clear the Green Monster in left.  The homer gave the Red Sox a 2-1 lead.  The Red Sox needed a shutdown inning in the top of the 7th, but the Cardinals did not cooperate.  A Matt Carpenter sacrifice fly tied the game at 2-2 when Pete Kozma scored, before a throwing error on the play allowed Jon Jay to score, giving the Cardinals a 3-2 lead.  The next batter, Carlos Beltran, hit a single that scored Daniel Descalso and the Cardinals had a 4-2 lead.  Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal got the final 9 outs, and the series was tied.

Game 3:  Cardinals 5, Red Sox 4.  Game 3 will long be remembered for a certain controversial call in the 9th inning (I’ll get there in a minute), but first let’s look at what was otherwise an excellent baseball game.  The Cardinals began the scoring in the bottom of the 1st, after Joe Kelly’s perfect inning in the top half, with RBI singles by Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina.  Nobody got past 2nd for either side until the bottom of the 4th, when the Cardinals had the bases loaded with nobody out but failed to score.  In the top of the 5th, Xander Bogaerts scored when pinch-hitter Mike Carp grounded out, making the score 2-1 Cardinals.  In the top of the 6th, a Daniel Nava singled scored Shane Victorino, tying the game at 2-2.  In the bottom of the 7th, a Matt Holliday RBI double scored 2, giving the Cardinals a 4-2 lead.  In the top of the 8th, the Red Sox answered, with runs scoring on a Daniel Nava fielder’s choice groundout and a short single by Xander Bogaerts, tying the score at 4-4.  In the top of the 9th, Red Sox manager John Farrell made a managerial mistake that may have impaired the Red Sox chances.  Believing that the game may go into extra innings, he sent relief pitcher Brandon Workman to the plate, instead of opting to pinch-hit Mike Napoli, who was on the bench since there was no DH (the game was being played in a NL park, under NL rules).  This was Workman’s first MLB at-bat, and he struck out.  That situation was only compounded when Workman didn’t pitch an extended outing, throwing just 1/3 of an inning and being pulled after giving up a hit to Yadier Molina.  Koji Uehara relieved Workman, and gave up a double to Allen Craig setting the stage for Jon Jay.  Jay hit a liner to 2B Dustin Pedroia, who somehow picked it and threw it to the plate, cutting down Yadier Molina.  Craig broke for 3rd late, so C Jarrod Saltalamacchia saw a potential play at 3rd.  3B Will Middlebrooks had to dive for his throw, which eventually went down the left field line.  Middlebrooks ended up on the ground after the dive, and Craig inadvertently tripped over Middlebrooks’ legs/feet as he broke for the plate.  LF Daniel Nava got to the ball and threw home, appearing to throw out Craig, but umpire Jim Joyce had called obstruction on Middlebrooks, which awarded Craig the next base.  Since the next base happened to be home plate, the Cardinals had a run, and a 5-4 win, giving them a 2-1 series lead.

Yes, the play looked awkward; it was.  That’s the first time any postseason game (much less one in the World Series) has ever ended on obstruction, and the first time I’ve ever seen any game end on obstruction.  In fact, I think I’ve only seen obstruction 2 or 3 times in my life.  Jim Joyce took some heat from the media, something he’s unfortunately used to after he blew a call in 2010 on what would have been the final out of a perfect game by Armando Galarraga.  Like that situation, he handled this one with class and dignity, or in other words, the right way.  But in this case, unlike the call he so obviously missed 3 years ago, he got the call right.  Whether there was intent or not (and I have no evidence that there was intent), Will Middlebrooks tripped Allen Craig, impeding his path toward home plate.  I went back and timed a couple of things on that final play.  First, I timed how long it took the ball to get to home from the time it got past Middlebrooks and went up the line, which was 6.5 seconds.  Next, I timed how long it took Craig to get home once he got up from the trip, which is how long it would have taken him had he not tripped, and that was 4.5 seconds.  In other words, if the trip had not occurred, Craig would have beat the ball to the plate by 2 whole seconds.  As is, he would’ve been out by a wide margin in the event Joyce had not called obstruction.  Therefore, this was absolutely te right call, as Middlebrooks inadvertent trip of Craig cost him the next base, which he was awarded.  The fact that next base happened to be home plate was a big part of the reason for the ensuing controversy.

This was the first World Series game to end on an error since, ironically, the Red Sox lost Game 6 in 1986 on Bill Buckner’s infamous error.  Luckily for Middlebrooks he will, unlike Buckner, not be the scapegoat, since the Red Sox went on to win the series in this case.  In fact, the unusual celebration at home plate by a shocked Cardinals team (Adam Wainwright claimed he thought he’d seen “the worst call of all-time” when plate umpire Dana DeMuth called Craig safe, before realizing it was the result of the events at 3rd base) was the last such celebration they would have in the series.

Game 4:  Red Sox 4, Cardinals 2.  As bizarre as the ending to Game 3 was, Game 4 also had a strange ending, although this time, there was very little controversy.  The pitching matchup was between Lance Lynn of the Cardinals and Clay Buchholz of the Red Sox, who pitched through nagging injury.  In the bottom of the 3rd, Carlos Beltran singled, scoring Matt Carpenter and giving the Cardinals a 1-0 lead.  Lance Lynn was perfect through 4 innings, but in the top of the 5th, after a double and 2 walks loaded the bases, a Stephen Drew sacrifice fly allowed David Ortiz to score, tying the game at 1-1.  Just before the top of the 6th, David Ortiz appeared to give a motivational speech to his teammates in the dugout.  Whatever he said worked; Jonny Gomes (who had been put in the lineup only 75 minutes before first pitch due to Shane Victorino’s back issues) hit a 3-run homer giving the Red Sox a 4-1 lead.  This game had become a bullpen game for Boston, as Buchholz only lasted 4 innings.  Felix Doubront and John Lackey were among the relievers who pitched for the Red Sox, although both had been starters in the regular season and Lackey had started Game 2, and was scheduled to start Game 6.  A Matt Holliday RBI single made the score 4-2, but the Red Sox were still in control.  Advance to the bottom of the 9th, when closer Koji Uehara was in to pitch for the Red Sox.  Allen Craig hit a 1-out single, and was pinch-run for by Kolten Wong (Craig battled a foot injury all series, he actually had not played since September 4 before the series began).  That single game Allen Craig a World Series-record 4th pinch-hit of the series.  After Matt Carpenter popped out, Carlos Beltran came to the plate, but didn’t get a chance to hit; Wong was picked off by Uehara, ending the game, with the Red Sox winning 4-2, and tying the series at 2-2.  Like Game 3, this was the first postseason game in history to end on a pickoff (according to STATS, only 1 game ended on a pickoff during the 2013 regular season).

Game 5:  Red Sox 3, Cardinals 1.  Naturally, Game 5 was a big game, as the winner would be up 3-2 going back to Boston.  After the finishes of Games 3 and 4, people were wondering what oddity would occur in Game 5, but the game ended up being pretty pedestrian.  Game 5 was a pitching rematch of Game 1 between Jon Lester and Adam Wainwright.  The Red Sox hit Wainwright first, with David Ortiz doubling in Dustin Pedroia, giving the Red Sox a 1-0 lead.  After the pitchers exchanged a hand-full of scoreless half-innings, Matt Holliday tied the game at 1-1 on a solo homer in the 4th.  That was the first run Jon Lester had ever given up in World Series play, ending a streak of 16 1/3 scoreless innings to start his career, the 3rd longest in history behind Christy Mathewson and Jim Lonborg.  The pitchers continued to match scoreless innings until the top of the 7th.  After Daniel Nava struck out to lead off, Xander Bogaerts singled.  Stephen Drew came up to bat, and was behind 1-2, before taking 3 straight balls that were probably tempting to hit, and drawing a walk.  Immediately I remarked to some friends in the room that the Drew at-bat may have been one of the biggest of the series.  David Ross made that hypothesis possibly correct when he hit a ground-rule double down the left field line, scoring Bogaerts.  After Jon Lester grounded out, Jacoby Ellsbury singled, scoring Stephen Drew, and although David Ross was thrown out at home, the Red Sox now had a 3-1 lead.  Jon Lester was pulled after 7 2/3 innings, and Koji Uehara came in for the 4-out save.  When he retired his 4 hitters in order, the Red Sox were going back home with a 3-2 series lead.  By the way, Adam Wainwright became the first Cardinals pitcher with 10 strikeouts in a World Series game since Bob Gibson’s 5th such game in 1968, and the first with 10 strikeouts in a loss since Josh Beckett in 2003.

Game 6:  Red Sox 6, Cardinals 1.  The Red Sox came into Game 6 with an opportunity to clinch a World Series at home for the first time since 1918.  In the 1st inning, neither John Lackey of the Red Sox or Michael Wacha of the Cardinals allowed a hit.  In the 2nd, both pitchers allowed two baserunners but did not allow a run.  After Lackey pitched a perfect top of the 3rd, Jacoby Ellsbury led off the bottom half with a single.  A Dustin Pedroia groundout advanced Ellsbury to 2nd (only after Pedroia hit a foul ball that missed being a homer by inches), and David Ortiz was walked intentionally.  After Mike Napoli struck out, Jonny Gomes was hit by a pitch, loading the bases for Shane Victorino.  In Victorino’s last at-bat with the bases loaded, he had hit a grand slam in Game 6 of the ALCS.  This time, he missed a homer by a few feet, but hit it off the Green Monster for a 3-RBI double, giving the Red Sox a 3-0 lead.  In the 4th, after a Stephen Drew solo homer made it 4-0, Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino both added RBI singles, scoring 2 more and making the score 6-0.  Victorino’s hit came, once again, with the bases loaded, joining Billy Rogell in 1934 and Bobby Richardson in 1960 as the only players with 2 bases-loaded hits in a World Series game.  All 6 runs were charged to Wacha, after he had given up just 1 run coming into the World Series, and just 2 runs in Game 2 of the Series.  The rookie sensation had finally cracked, costing the Cardinals.  In their remaining 5 turns at bat, the Cardinals only had baserunners in 2 of them, and while a Carlos Beltran RBI single in the 7th made the score 6-1, and Allen Craig hit with the bases loaded in that same half-inning, it was the Red Sox night and the outcome of the game was never really in doubt.  Jon Lester went 6 2/3, and was relieved by Junichi Tazawa (1/3 inning), Brandon Workman (1 inning) and Koji Uehara (1 inning), who came in to pitch the 9th and retired the side, striking out Matt Carpenter for the final out, becoming the first Asian-born pitcher to record the final out of a World Series clincher.  The Red Sox had won the game 6-1, and the series 4-2, taking home another World Series championship.

David Ortiz was intentionally walked 3 times over the course of the game, and was unintentionally walked in the 1st, becoming the 7th player to draw 4 walks in a World Series game, and the 4th to be intentionally walked 3 times in a World Series game (Albert Pujols in 2011, Barry Bonds in 2002, Rudy York in 1946).  Ortiz was the series MVP, after hitting .688 with a .760 on-base percentage, becoming the 3rd oldest World Series MVP (37 years, 346 days), behind Willie Stargell in 1979 and Randy Johnson in 2001.  His .760 OBP was 2nd all-time behind Billy Hatcher (.800 in 1990).  He was the 2nd player in World Series history to reach base 3 times in 5 straight games, joining Barry Bonds in 2002 (although Bonds’ Giants didn’t win that Series).  Even with Ortiz’s success, the Red Sox hit just .211 for the series, which is the 2nd lowest average by a World Series winner since 1969, behind only the 1972 Orioles, who hit .209.  John Lackey became the 7th pitcher in history to win two World Series-clinching games, but the first to do it for 2 different teams, after he won Game 7 for the Angels in 2002 as a rookie.  The Cardinals did have 9 hits, meaning Lackey became just the 2nd pitcher to allow 9 hits and 1 run or less in a World Series clincher, joining Spud Chandler in 1943.

Red Sox fans could finally celebrate at fabled Fenway Park.  A few minutes after the game ended, as I absorbed the history unfolding on my TV, I said to everyone in the room that the curse (referring to the so-called Curse of the Bambino, often cited as a reason for the Red Sox World Series drought from 1918-2004) was now officially, completely over, since a title had now been clinched and celebrated on the field at Fenway Park.

This is the 3rd title for David Ortiz, the final holdover from the 2004 team that won the Red Sox first title in 86 years.  This was also manager John Farrell’s first title, in his first year with the Red Sox, after spending the previous two years with the Toronto Blue Jays.

Boston has the winter to celebrate.  As for the rest of us baseball fans, the countdown to spring training (which stands at about 15 weeks) now begins.