Column: The Last Time the Cubs Were In the World Series

Saturday night, the Chicago Cubs advanced to the World Series for the first time since 1945, defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers 5-0 to win the National League Championship Series in six games to meet the Cleveland Indians in the Fall Classic, starting Tuesday.

In that 1945 World Series, the Cubs met the Detroit Tigers.  It was the Cubs 10th World Series appearance in the first 42 editions of the World Series, although the North-Siders had only won in two of their previous appearances (1907-08), and would end up losing to the Tigers in seven games.

When that World Series was contested, Harry S. Truman had just become president six months earlier after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Between then and the World Series that October, Truman had already overseen the end of World War II, winning in Europe 25 days after Roosevelt’s death, and in Japan in August.

(Outspoken Cub fan Steve Goodman, known for writing “Go Cubs Go,” pointed out that parallel history in a lyric in his song “The Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request,” saying “You know the law of averages says anything will happen that can, but the last time the Cubs won a National League pennant was the year we dropped the bomb on Japan.”)

In the month before the 1945 World Series, Ho Chi Minh established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and American military occupation of Korea began, with both events setting the stage for major conflicts over the coming years.

The average house cost $4,600 in 1945, and a gallon of gas costs 15 cents.  The Bells of St. Mary’s starring Bing Crosby was the top-grossing film of the year, and Crosby won the Best Actor Oscar for his role in Going My Way, which won the Oscar for Best Picture.  Animal Farm and Stuart Little were among the novels published in 1945.

Microwave ovens and cruise control were invented in 1945, and less than 10,000 homes had television sets, while the credit card, defibrillator, and hair spray were all invented over the next three years.

Don McLean was born the day before the World Series, while fellow entertainers Tom Selleck, Bob Marley, Eric Clapton, Bob Seger, John Fogerty, Steve Martin, Neil Young, and Bette Midler and journalists Chris Matthews and Diane Sawyer were all also born in 1945.  Sports figures Pat Riley, Walt Frazier, Gary Williams, Hale Irwin, Phil Jackson, Jim Palmer, and Larry Bowa were also born in 1945, and Hall of Famer Rod Carew was born two days before the World Series.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton would not be born for another year and two years, respectively.  My grandparents were between 9 and 18 years old.

World War II resulted in the deaths of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Anne Frank in 1945, while general George Patton died shortly after the war’s conclusion.

As the 1945 World Series was played, no black players were on either team, as Jackie Robinson would not break baseball’s color barrier for another two years.  The first Cubs player to appear in the 2016 World Series opener on Tuesday in Cleveland will likely be African-American outfielder Dexter Fowler, the Cubs usual leadoff hitter.

The years 1945 and 2016 are quite different, as society, culture, and even the timeless game of baseball have all seen big changes.  But in 1945 and 2016, one thing is the same:  The Chicago Cubs are National League champions.

The curse of the billy-goat, the black cat, and the Bartman game have blocked potential World Series appearances for the Cubs, but now, finally, 71 years later, the Cubs are back in the World Series.

It’s been a long time coming.

 

 

World Series Schedule (all games on FOX, at 8:08 pm ET unless otherwise noted)
Game 1:  Tuesday, October 25

Game 2:  Wednesday, October 26
Game 3:  Friday, October 28
Game 4:  Saturday, October 29
Game 5:  Sunday, October 30, 8:15 pm ET (if necessary)
Game 6:  Tuesday, November 1 (if necessary)
Game 7:  Wednesday, November 2 (if necessary)

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Fast Five: I Was There

I have been to plenty of sporting events, but some stand out more than others in my memory bank as the best events I’ve ever seen.  Each has their own unique story from my individual perspective.

October 4th marked the release of the new book I Was There, in which 65 of the biggest names in sports media share the five greatest sporting events they have witnessed in person.  The book was compiled by self-described “sports industry lifer” Eric Mirlis.

The criteria for the book is intentionally vague, meaning each contributor to the book can have their own interpretation of what their “greatest events” are.  As a result, in addition to the obvious examples of classic Super Bowls and championship games or series, there are some very outside-the-box events listed by the book’s participants.  Some of the events listed are all-time classics, while others have a deeper personal meaning.

The five events listed by each contributor are listed in chronological order, allowing the writers and broadcasters participating to not have to rank any of their five events over another.

I have seen 14 NASCAR races (10 Cup Series, 3 XFinity Series, 1 Truck Series), 11 MLB games, six ACC men’s basketball games, five PGA Tour events (but nine rounds), 2 FBS college football games, one NBA game, and too many Division II college games, Minor League Baseball games, collegiate summer league baseball games, and high school games to count.

But like anyone else, some of mine stand out, for different reasons.  And while I have not seen a Super Bowl or a World Series game, I have still seen some amazing events.

Here are the five greatest events I have witnessed, plus the five best I have covered:

Five Best Events I’ve Witnessed

Wake Forest at Clemson, Littlejohn Coliseum, Clemson, S.C., January 24, 2015

I attend school at Anderson University, about 30 minutes away from Clemson’s campus, but having grown up in the Triad of North Carolina, I am a Wake Forest fan.  For Christmas a month before, I was given two tickets to Wake Forest’s game at Clemson.  I took my friend Garrett, a Clemson fan, and our seats were in the very last row, near the location of the TV cameras.

Wake Forest was in their first year under coach Danny Manning, after a 2-32 ACC road record under previous coach Jeff Bzdelik, and came in at 9-10 and 1-5 in the ACC, while Clemson entered at 10-8 and 2-4, so this was still a game between two bottom-half teams, but it was still an ACC men’s basketball game.

The Demon Deacons led over 39 minutes of the game, before Clemson took the lead with 0:58 left, and Wake Forest tied the game with a Devin Thomas free throw with 0:35.  Thomas missed the second free throw, but the Deacs got the rebound and looked like they would have the ability to set up the last shot and try to win.  But after Codi Miller-McIntyre turned the ball over with 0:25 left, and after Rod Hall drove inside but missed his shot, little-used reserve Josh Smith, who had just 14 baskets his last 19 games, got an offensive rebound and putback to put Clemson up 59-57 with 0.5 seconds left.  The play was essentially a buzzer-beater, and gave Wake Forest (another) heartbreaking loss on the road in ACC play.

Garrett could not have been more grateful for the free ticket to the game, so when the shot fell in, this was his reaction:  “Yeaaah! Yeaaah! (turns to me) Sorry. (turns back to the court) Yeaaah!”

Wyndham Championship, First Round, Sedgefield Country Club, Greensboro, N.C., August 18, 2015

Growing up in the Piedmont Triad, I attended the Wyndham Championship each year from 2007-09.  I saw the first PGA Tour wins of Brandt Snedeker (2007) and Ryan Moore (2009), as well as hometown favorite Carl Petterson’s lights-out round of 61 on his way to victory (2008).  We moved to South Carolina in late 2009, so I had not been back to Sedgefield since.

The week before the 2015 edition, with the Wyndham marking the last event of the PGA Tour’s “regular season” before the FedEx Cup Playoffs, I wondered if Tiger Woods, who was 187th in points, well below the playoff cutoff, may come to Greensboro for the first time in his career.  It seemed like a long shot, as under similar circumstances in 2011 he did not play in Greensboro and accepted his fate of his season being over.

And yet, the Friday night before the Wyndham, Woods committed to the event.  With one of the greatest athletes of all time coming to the Wyndham, which I still considered my “home event” on the PGA Tour, I bought a ticket for Thursday’s opening round within minutes of the announcement he was coming.  My non-golfing aunt, Terri, also decided to go and take in history–I don’t think she knew who any of the other 155 players in the field were, but she wanted to see Tiger Woods too.

We arrived at Sedgefield early enough to see Tiger warm up, then began following his group when he teed off.  I had seen Tiger at Quail Hollow in Charlotte in 2009, but this day would be much better.  Tiger teed off at 7:50 am, meaning Tiger’s gallery was smaller that day than any other day of the tournament, and seeing him in the Wyndham for the first time was a dream come true.  It became even more amazing when he played very well.

Tiger holed an incredible pitch shot for birdie on the 10th hole (his first hole), then bogeyed 11, leading me to think he had shown a glimmer of his old self before fading back into his struggles.  I was wrong, as he would birdie the 13th, 15th, and 18th holes for a 3-under-par 32 on the back nine, before birdieing the first, fourth, and fifth in a bogey-free front nine to shoot a round of 64.

This was (and still is) Tiger’s lowest round in competition since 2013.  Playing with Tiger were Hideki Matsuyama, who shot 65, and Brooks Koepka (who would eventually be a big part of last week’s U.S. Ryder Cup victory), who shot 67, but this was Tiger’s day.

Tiger, who needed to finish at least second to make the FedEx Cup Playoffs, would shoot a 65 the following day, and entered the weekend tied for the lead, and played well again on Saturday, entering the final round in a tie for second, before a triple-bogey on the 11th on Sunday ended his shot at victory and advancement.

Two weeks later, Tiger announced he had undergone more back surgery, and was out indefinitely.  Throughout 2016 he hinted at a comeback, but the 2015 Wyndham Championship is still his last start on the PGA Tour to date.

*Editor’s note:  to read more on my day following Tiger Woods at the Wyndham Championship, click here.


Bojangles’ Southern 500, Darlington Raceway, Darlington, S.C., September 6, 2015

Early in the 2015 NASCAR season, my friend Kevin told me he would very likely be able to get pit passes to Darlington for Southern 500 weekend.  I made sure he got us a third pit pass so Terri, the reason I am a racing fan to begin with, could come along.  She had never been to Darlington, but now would now, through the pit passes, get the greatest access in all of sports.

Kevin came in on Friday night, and him and I spent Saturday at the track for Cup Series qualifying and the XFinity Series event.  Kevin is friends with Harrison Rhodes, an NC State student by week and racecar driver by weekend, who was driving in the event.  As a result, we sat on his pit box for the entire time that he was in the race (he parked after 80 laps for his team’s financial reasons).  Denny Hamlin, Kevin’s favorite driver, won that Saturday event.

My favorite driver is Jeff Gordon, who was in his last season and was making what was supposed to be his final start at one of his best tracks (he ended up running Darlington again in 2016, filling in for the injured Dale Earnhardt Jr.).  The pit passes allowed me to get his autograph on Sunday, as well as many other drivers.  We watched cars go through technical inspection up close, then made our way to pit road for the race itself.

This was the first year Darlington hosted a “throwback weekend,” so many of the paint schemes were throwbacks to the legends of years past.  The track played 70’s music over the speakers in the hours leading up to the race, and Tanya Tucker sang the national anthem.

Multiple MRN Radio announcers called this the “race of the year,” as there were 24 lead changes among 11 drivers, and 18 caution flags over the 367 laps that make up 500 miles around the venerable egg-shaped oval.  As the race got late, Brad Keselowski appeared to have a strong grip on the race lead, as he led every lap from lap 304 to 356 (except during pit stops) before a late caution bunched up the field.

On the final restart, Carl Edwards took the lead away, and led the remaining laps to win his first Southern 500.  During the “cool-down lap,” as Edwards came back around to the frontstretch, Kevin and I took off running towards the center of pit road to get a view of Edwards’ famous backflip celebration, which was cool to see in person.

One takeaway from this race is how much I found it ironic that with pit passes, the best access a fan can get in any sport, you still ended up essentially watching the race on TV, as we watched the monitors on the back of each team’s pit box.


Racing Electronics 100, Bowman Gray Stadium, Winston-Salem, N.C., August 5, 2016

Bowman Gray Stadium is a bull-ring short track in eastern Winston-Salem, in a stadium that doubles as the home of Winston-Salem State University football.  The track is one of the longest-running short tracks in the country, and is known as “The Madhouse” after many of the wild events which have unfolded on the quarter-mile circuit.

I lived about 20 minutes from Bowman Gray Stadium growing up, but only went to a race there once before we moved to South Carolina.  This summer I lived in the area again, while interning for the Courier-Tribune in Asheboro, so one of the things I wanted to do during the summer was to go to a Bowman Gray race with Terri.  The schedule made it difficult, as the Asheboro Copperheads had a game nearly every Saturday night, but we looked at Bowman Gray’s schedule and saw a Friday night in early August when the Copperheads were away.

We got to the track early enough to see the famous modifieds make their qualifying runs, followed by preliminary races featuring cars called Bandoleros.  These were short races featuring pre-teen up-and-coming drivers in cars that were not very powerful, but could still put on a decent show.

The modifieds then came out for their 100-lapper, and were led to the green by local legend Burt Myers.  Tim Brown, another longtime Bowman Gray driver and multi-time track champion, started at the back after his engine misfired in qualifying.  While I watched the action at the front, I also kept an eye on Brown at the back, and early in the race he struggled to make headway trying to get through the field.

Cautions and restarts helped aide Brown, and eventually on a restart with about 25 to go he was second, on the outside of Myers, who had led from the outset.  On the restart, Brown passed Myers off of turn two on the outside, a hard feat in short-track racing, to take the lead for the first time.

Two laps later, while Myers was trying to chase Brown back down, the skies opened up and a heavy rainstorm hit Bowman Gray.  Brown was awarded the win in the rain-shortened race, a victory that was likely among his finest, considering how hard he had to work to get through the field.

Terri and I got back to my grandparents’ house, where I was spending the summer, in time to watch most of the parade of nations at the Rio Olympics.  I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the last race I attended with Terri before she unexpectedly passed away a month later.

 

Detroit Tigers at Atlanta Braves, Turner Field, Atlanta, Ga., October 2, 2016

Emotions are always higher when you are seeing something happen that will never happen again, and the same is true in sports.  Every MLB game I have ever attended was at Turner Field, home of the Atlanta Braves, and on this day I was fortunate enough to attend the final game in the venue’s history.  I got upper deck tickets for my dad and I for his birthday, knowing how much of an affection both of us have for the stadium.

Dad left home in Mullins before 5 a.m., and was in Anderson before 9, and we were on our way.  We took the MARTA train and bus to the stadium, and arrived shortly after the gates opened.

The Braves Museum and Hall of Fame was open to the public for free, so we walked through and explored the history of the Braves franchise through its years in Boston, Milwaukee, and Atlanta.  It was the first time since 2005 either of us had seen the museum.

We got to our seat about 45 minutes before the 3:10 p.m. first pitch, and took in the pregame ceremony, in which Braves legends including Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones and Javy Lopez all took the field as part of the All-Turner Field Team.  That team also included “The Big Three” of Hall of Fame pitchers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz, who threw out ceremonial first pitches after being delivered baseballs by Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox.

The opponent for the final game was the Detroit Tigers, who were still playing for the possibility of a postseason bid, and needed a win over the Braves and some help to stay alive.  Given those circumstances, the Tigers sent ace Justin Verlander, one of the game’s best pitchers, to the mound, a nice parallel to my first game at Turner Field in 2001 when I saw Maddux pitch.  Julio Teheran, a solid pitcher in his own right, pitched for the Braves.

After Teheran struck out the side in the top of the first, Ender Inciarte and Adonis Garcia led off the bottom half with singles, before Freddie Freeman got his 91st and final RBI of a career year with a sacrifice fly to center, giving the Braves a 1-0 lead.

After the first, it was the pitcher’s duel you would expect from Teheran and Verlander, as the two pitchers put up matching zeros, including many 1-2-3 innings.  Each starter went seven innings, before Jose Ramirez (ATL) and Bruce Rondon (DET) each pitched a scoreless eighth.

Jim Johnson, whose two-year contract extension with the Braves had been announced that morning, came in to close it in the ninth.  After a 1-out single by Miguel Cabrera, Johnson struck out J.D. Martinez and former Brave Justin Upton for the final two outs at Turner Field.

After the game, Hank Aaron threw a ceremonial final pitch to Cox, before Aaron and Braves chairman Terry McGuirk transferred home plate from Turner Field to SunTrust Park, the Braves home starting in 2017, via police escort.  The closing ceremony also featured a “parade of Braves Country states,” a nod to Turner Field’s history as Centennial Olympic Stadium and the 1996 Olympic opening ceremony, before remarks from broadcaster Don Sutton, Cox, Smoltz, and Braves vice-chairman John Schuerholz, who led the crowd in one final rendition of the famous “tomahawk chop” chant.

No, this wasn’t the closing of Yankee Stadium, but this was the final game at a place where we watched our favorite team play for 20 years, and for my entire span of memory (I’m 21).  So many memories were made at Turner Field, and the final game there is one I won’t forget.

Five Best Events I’ve Covered

Coastal Plain League West Division Championship Series, Gastonia Grizzlies vs. Florence RedWolves, August 10-12, 2014

I interned for the Florence RedWolves, a collegiate summer baseball team, in the summers of 2014-15, staying at home and commuting 30 minutes to Sparrow Stadium on the campus of Francis Marion University.  In 2014, the RedWolves won the Coastal Plain League’s West Division in both the first and second half of the season, and had a good shot at winning the franchise’s first Petitt Cup title in the playoffs.

After dispatching the High Point-Thomasville HiToms in an opening round sweep, the West Division Championship Series featured the two teams who had clearly been the division’s best all season, the RedWolves and the Gastonia Grizzlies.  The three games that ensued are collectively on this list, as the drama of playoff baseball and the budding rivalry of the two teams produced the best back-to-back-to-back games I have ever seen, which can be included as events I “covered” as I wrote the postgame press releases for the final two games.

Game 1 at Gastonia:
Several of us interns drove up to the suberb west of Charlotte and Sims Legion Park, the Grizzlies’ home.  Gastonia took a 1-0 lead in the first, but the RedWolves had a 3-1 lead by the seventh inning stretch.  The Grizzlies tied it in the 7th on a 2-RBI single by Weston Lawing, but after that both bullpens were absolutely phenomenal as an extra-inning game ensued late into the night.

RedWolves reliever Jacob Condra-Bogan allowed two runs in the seventh, but none for four innings after, and CPL Pitcher of the Year, closer Michael Morrison (a 2016 College World Series hero at Coastal Carolina), was scoreless in 5.1 innings.  Gastonia hurlers Robert Lawhon and Jared Cheek were just as impressive.

The RedWolves finally took the lead in the 16th on an RBI single by Joe Bialkowski and an RBI double by Brandon Rawe, and got three outs to win 5-3 and take a 1-0 series lead, winning the longest playoff game in CPL history.

Game 2 at Florence:
Back at home, the RedWolves were trying to clinch the best-of-three series in what would be a back-and-forth affair with a lot of “small ball” in the notoriously large Sparrow Stadium.  The RedWolves led 1-0 after the second, trailed 2-1 in the third, and led 3-2 after the third.  Each side scored in the fourth, making it 4-3, before Gastonia tied it 4-4 in the fifth, and Florence retook the lead at 5-4 in the sixth.

The RedWolves kept the one-run lead until the ninth, before Gastonia exploded (and Florence imploded) in the ninth:  double, sacrifice bunt, RBI single, error, RBI single, RBI fielder’s choice (no out recorded), RBI fielder’s choice (no out recorded), strikeout, RBI single, 2-RBI triple, walk, flyout.  This may be the worst inning I have ever sat through, as the RedWolves went from two outs from winning the series to down 11-5 in a matter of minutes.  I didn’t bore you by listing each Gastonia player’s role in the inning, but I will add that Victor Zecca had the leadoff double and the 2-RBI triple.

But there was still a bottom of the ninth.  The RedWolves got the bases loaded with one out, before a Brandon Rawe sacrifice fly made it 11-6, and a wild pitch made it 11-7.  After loading the bases again, team RBI leader Conor Sullivan came to the plate representing the potential tying run.  It seemed like the potential perfect scenario for Florence, but Sullivan flied out to the warning track in straightaway center, the deepest part of a big ballpark, for the final out.

Game 3 at Florence:
The winner-take-all finale was more low-scoring than the first two games, but was just as entertaining.  The RedWolves took a 1-0 lead in the first, after CPL Hitter of the Year Gene Cone walked, was bunted to second, and scored when he stole third and the catcher threw the ball away.

Travis Burnette (FLO) and Sam Theole (GAS) were fantastic for both sides, matching zeroes and enduring a nearly one-hour rain delay mid-game.  Gastonia never had more than one baserunner in an inning through the first eight, meaning the 1-0 Florence lead had been as comfortable as such a lead can be in an elimination game.

In the ninth, Lawing was hit with a pitch, and Chris Robinson doubled with one out.  Morrison, running on fumes after his outing two nights before, came in and intentionally walked Sammy Taormina to load the bases with one out.  I was having flashbacks to the night before, but Morrison struck out Tyler Farmer and got Joe Koehler to ground out to second base, ending the threat and the game, giving the RedWolves a 1-0 win and a 2-1 series victory.

The emotional release of the final out led to me, as public address announcer, borrowing Yankees radio broadcaster John Sterling’s line of “Yankees win! Thaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa Yankees wwwwwwin!” and exclaiming “RedWolves win! Thaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa RedWolves wwwwwwin!”

The RedWolves moved on to the Petitt Cup Finals, where they won the opener over the Peninsula Pilots in Florence, before losing two heartbreaking games at Peninsula’s home in Hampton, Va.

(Box score and play-by-play for:  Game 1    Game 2    Game 3)

 

Westside at T.L. Hanna, T.L. Hanna Gymnasium, Anderson, S.C., January 16, 2015

I began covering high school sports for the Anderson Independent-Mail on a freelance basis in the fall of 2014, under prep editor Adam Regan.  He left at the end of the year, taking another job in Florida, leaving me to cover the lead games in the area while the paper looked for a replacement, leading to my best assignment to that point when I got to cover a basketball game between crosstown rivals T.L. Hanna and Westside.

For someone covering high school sports in Anderson County, T.L. Hanna and Westside games might as well be the Super Bowl.  The entire town turns out for these games, and it is loud as everyone cheers boisterously for their chosen team.

After the Westside girls team defeated T.L. Hanna 49-33, attention turned to the boys game.  There was honestly more tension in the building as the boys warmed up then there had been at any time during the girls game.

After an even first quarter, T.L. Hanna led 18-14, and they stretched that lead to 30-21 at halftime.  Hanna led by as many as 11 in the third, at 48-37, before Westside started to come back, using seven points in the final 52 seconds of the period to cut it to 53-46.

Westside’s momentum continued in the fourth, as a 10-2 run gave them a 56-55 lead, their first since 3-1.  Hanna tied it again at 57-57, but did not score again, with Westside leading 59-57 in the final minute before an Austin Walker driving shot with 0:31 left make it 61-57 Westside, and two free throws further sealed the win, as the Rams stunned the Yellow Jackets, 63-57.

I have seen a football game and a basketball game between the two schools since as a spectator (and both went to overtime), but this remains the only game in either of the two big high school sports that I have covered between the two (although I have covered many games featuring one or the other, as well as two softball games between the two).  Sitting courtside, and being a part of the game (at least in the sense of covering it) was a treat.

(Independent-Mail:  Westside boys, girls defeat T.L. Hanna)

 

Clemson at Anderson, Abney Athletic Center, Anderson, S.C., November 8, 2015

As an Anderson University student, this game had been circled on my calendar for months.  The Trojan women had won the regular-season conference title the year before, and were, even as a Division II team, getting the chance to host Division I Clemson from the ACC in a preseason exhibition.  A week or so before the game, Scott Adamson, who was Independent-Mail sports editor at the time, approached me about covering the game.  The writers who normally covered Clemson were focusing on the undefeated football team, and Scott, who normally covered Anderson games, would be busy working a Clemson soccer game, giving me the opportunity to cover a game I could literally have walked to.

The Anderson men had played Clemson 52 weeks before at Littlejohn Coliseum, and I had attended that game as a fan, but this game was even cooler to me because I thought Anderson had a shot to win.  The Trojan women were preseason favorites in the South Atlantic Conference, while Clemson was picked to finished last in the ACC.

A record crowd of 1,027 packed the Abney Athletic Center on a Sunday afternoon, with the student section doing a “blackout” of the section of seats across from the two benches.

The first half was back-and-forth throughout, with Anderson leading 34-31 at the break.  A 22-9 Trojans run gave Anderson a 54-40 in the third, before Clemson fought back to make it 56-48 at the end of the third, but from that point it was all Trojans, closing the game on a 23-7 run to win 79-55.

The game was better than the final score would indicate, but beyond that, this was the first (and so far only) collegiate game I covered for Independent-Mail, and featured my school beating our ACC neighbors.  I was thrilled with the outcome, although I was there in a professional capacity, so I did no cheering and probably did not even smile during the game.  I was there covering the game, not as a fan or student.

I kept that poker face through postgame interviews, and through the 90-second car ride back to my room, until I walked through the door.  Once I was in the privacy of my room, I finally let out a huge fist pump in celebration of the Trojans’ big win.

Anderson would win the SAC regular season title for the second straight year, while Clemson went winless in conference play to finish last in the ACC, with the results for both teams reflecting what had been foreshadowed in November at the Abney Athletic Center.

(Independent-Mail:  AU women demolish Clemson)


Florence RedWolves at Asheboro Copperheads, McCrary Park, Asheboro, N.C., July 16, 2016

For the summer of 2016, I interned with the Courier-Tribune in Asheboro.  My role was originally to cover American Legion baseball games and the Asheboro Copperheads, a team in the same league as the RedWolves, for the paper.  However, once sports editor Dennis Garcia, who was also the play-by-play broadcaster for the Copperheads on CPL Webpass, found out I had called a few games on Webpass for the RedWolves two years before, he invited me to do some games with him on Webpass.  I would end up broadcasting every Copperheads home game except one on Webpass, even doing some games solo when Dennis was stuck at the office finishing the layout of the sports section of the paper, including this one.

It was weird when the RedWolves, who I had spent the previous two summers interning for, came to Asheboro for games.  Before the July 16 contest, the two teams had already played in Asheboro on June 13 and July 13, and five times in all, but this game stands out as not just the best these two teams played that season, but the best game overall that I covered that season.

It didn’t look that way at first, as Florence scored six runs in the top of the first, on just three hits with two Asheboro errors, and two more in the second to make it 8-0.  In the bottom of the second, Connor Lind showed a small sign of the offensive onslaught that was to come for Asheboro with a solo homer, although at the time it just made the score 8-1.

In the fourth, T.J. Nichting singled, and Lind homered again, making it 8-3.  Colin Rosenbaum then walked, and Vito Friscia homered, making it 8-5.  Later in the inning, Zach Duff joined the home run party with a solo shot to make it 8-6.

After a Ryan Kent sacrifice fly for Florence in the fifth made it 9-6, Nichting led off the bottom half with a homer, before Rosenbaum singled and Friscia homered again, tying the game at 9-9.  Asheboro would then take a 10-9 lead in the sixth when Rosenbaum doubled to score Lind, before holding that lead until the ninth.

Bryan Blanton, who had been a CPL All-Star but was beginning a set of struggles that would haunt both he and the Copperheads in the second half, came in in the ninth, and even after three walks in the inning was an out away from getting out of the jam, before CPL All-Star Zach Files singled, scoring two to give the RedWolves an 11-10 lead.  The Copperheads threatened in the ninth when RedWolves closer Tom Colletti walked a pair, but could not score, and the RedWolves had a wild 11-10 victory.

The Copperheads, who had won the CPL West first half title, continued to struggle through the rest of the second half after this game, and eventually lost at Savannah in the first round of the playoffs on a walkoff hit.  Florence, who had finished seventh out of eight in the first half, had a much better second half and missed the second half title, and therefore the playoffs, by one game.

(Box score and play-by-play)

 

Greenwood at T.L. Hanna, Jim Fraser Field, Anderson, S.C., September 23, 2016

This was my first trip to T.L. Hanna in the 2016 season, and it seemed like just a run-of-the-mill game at first.  It was homecoming for the Yellow Jackets, who had lost to Greenwood 18 straight seasons before ending the streak last year.  What seemed like an ordinary game would become the greatest football game I’ve ever covered.

After a scoreless first quarter, Greenwood and Hanna both scored on long touchdown passes, then both kicked field goals in the final 1:04 of the half, making it 10-10 at the break.

Greenwood started the second half with a 15-play scoring drive of 65 yards, before Hanna went 65 yards themselves in one play, an Alex Meredith-to-A.J. Bryant connection to tie the score at 17-17.  This remained the score into the early stages of the fourth, before Greenwood scored on another lengthy drive on a Dre Yarbough touchdown pass to highly touted receiver Sam Pinckney, but the Eagles missed the extra point, keeping it 23-17.

Braylon Peterson returned the ensuing kickoff 80 yards for a touchdown, as Hanna provided another answer and took a 24-23 lead.  Greenwood had their own answer, an 11-play scoring drive culminating in another Yarbough-to-Pinckney touchdown, and a two-point conversion to make it 31-24 with 2:03 to play.

Hanna calmly marched down the field in five plays, scoring to tie the game at 31-31 with 1:06 to go when Meredith found Reel Wise from 35 yards, sending the game to overtime.

In the extra session, Greenwood scored when Yarbough found Pinckney again from 10 yards on the first play of overtime (high school overtime in South Carolina gives each team a possession from the 10-yard line).  The Yellow Jackets answered again, when Meredith turned a broken play into a 9-yard touchdown run to tie the score at 38-38.

In double overtime, Hanna went for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, as Jaydon McKinney scored for the 45-38 lead.  On the first play of Greenwood’s possession, they ran the same play they scored on in the first overtime, and Hanna LB Shai Thomas jumped the route and intercepted Yarbough to end the game and give Hanna a 45-38 win.

I finished postgame interviews about 10:55, and the Independent-Mail has an 11:00 deadline, but one which is stretchable.  Prep editor Lake Morris said it could be stretched to 11:40 at the latest, and I finished writing about 11:35; I was glad to make sure the story of this crazy game got in the next morning’s paper.

(Independent-Mail:  Thomas INT leads Hanna over Eagles)

 

Honorable Mention:
Pickens at Belton-Honea Path,  April 22, 2016
The game itself was nothing spectacular, as B.H.P. took an early lead before putting the game away with a 8-run sixth inning to win 10-0, but it was historic as, on Senior Night, Bears coach Steve Williams won his 500th game.  His postgame interview is the only time an interview subject of mine was moved to the point of tears, as Williams was humbled and grateful for his accomplishment, and how many former players came back to witness the milestone game.  I got lucky on this one–I was scheduled to cover a different game until late that afternoon when weather changed the Independent-Mail‘s plans.

(Independent-Mail:  Williams wins No. 500 as Bears top Pickens)
***Editor’s Note:  This game was one of the five in the original draft of this post, which was written before the Greenwood-T.L. Hanna game occurred, so I felt it appropriate to include it as an honorable mention.

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)

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

MLB Playoffs: ALDS Recap

The Division Series round of the AL Playoffs is now complete, with both series resulting in sweeps.  Now the Kansas City Royals and the Baltimore Orioles will face each other in perhaps the most unlikely ALCS in recent memory, with neither team having been to the World Series since the mid-1980s.  Here’s how they got there:

Kansas City Royals def. Los Angeles Angels, 3 games to 0.
Game 1 in Los Angeles:  Royals 3, Angels 2, 11 innings
Game 2 in Los Angeles:  Royals 4, Angels 1, 11 innings
Game 3 in Kansas City:  Royals 8, Angels 3

The Royals continued their magical run with a sweep of the AL’s top seed, the Angels.  But while the sweep makes it sound like the matchup was uneven, the games were extremely competitive (except for Game 3), with each of the first two games going 11 innings.  The Royals found a way to win those games, on their way to the series win.

Starting Point: Mike Moustakas’s homer in the 11th inning of Game 1.
After both sides scored single runs in both the 3rd and 5th innings of the series opener, the game went into extra innings.  Moustakas hit his first home run since August 25 to put the Royals ahead in the top of the 11th. adding to their extra inning magic from the AL Wild Card Game.  When Greg Holland got three outs in the bottom half, the Royals had won Game 1.

Turning Point:  Eric Hosmer’s homer in the 11th inning of Game 2.
Game 2 was similar to Game 1, with the game going to extra innings after a Royals run in the 2nd, on an Alex Gordon RBI single, and an Angels run in the 6th, on an Albert Pujols RBI single.  The Royals superb play in extra innings continued with an Eric Hosmer 2-run homer that was set up by an infield hit by Lorenzo Cain.  Salvador Perez added a run with an RBI infield single, giving the Royals a 4-1 win.  If the Angels had won Game 2, the series might have been much different.  Instead, the Royals headed home up 2-0 in the series.

Ending Point:  Alex Gordon and Eric Hosmer’s Game 3 heroics.
With the Angels facing elimination, Mike Trout homered in the top of the 1st to give them a 1-0 lead (his only hit of the series), but Alex Gordon answered in the bottom half with a 3-RBI triple to give the Royals a 3-1 lead, a lead they would never relinquish.  A 2-run homer by Hosmer in the 3rd stretched the lead to 5-1, and after that the Angels never got closer than a three run deficit, as the Royals and their fans were able to enjoy the lead as they counted down the outs to the ALCS.

 

Baltimore Orioles def. Detroit Tigers, 3 games to 0.
Game 1 in Baltimore:  Orioles 12, Tigers 3
Game 2 in Baltimore:  Orioles 7, Tigers 6
Game 3 in Detroit:  Orioles 2, Tigers 1

The Orioles sweeping the Tigers was almost as surprising as the Royals seeping the Angels. While the O’s had a better regular season record, and had home field advantage in the series, the mere thought of the Tigers being swept, particularly considering the Orioles beat three former Cy Young winners to do it (Scherzer, Verlander, Price), was nearly unthinkable a week ago.  But due to the struggles of the Tigers bullpen, as well as the clutch hitting of the Orioles lineup, that is exactly how it happened.

Starting Point:  The 8-run 8th for the Orioles in Game 1.
After a pretty even back-and-forth game for seven and a half innings, the Orioles took a 4-3 lead to the bottom of the 8th in Game 1, looking for a little insurance for closer Zach Britton.  They got plenty, as an 8-run inning against a trio of Tigers relief pitchers, making the lead 12-3.  There wasn’t really one big hit in the inning, but instead single RBIs for Nelson Cruz, Ryan Flaherty, and Nick Hundley, two RBIs for Jonathan Schoop and Alejandro De Aza, and a run on an error for De Aza as well.  A game that was close for three hours ended up as the biggest blowout, at least by margin, of the playoffs so far.

Turning Point:  Delmon Young’s go-ahead double in Game 2
A 3-run homer by JD Martinez, a solo homer by Nick Castellanos, and a pair of RBI hits by Victor Martinez gave the Tigers a 6-3 lead going to the bottom of the 8th in their effort to tie the series at 1-1.  Orioles runs had scored on a 2-run homer by Nick Markakis and an RBI single by JJ Hardy, and another scored in the 8th on a Steve Pearce RBI single.  After JJ Hardy walked to load the bases, Delmon Young pinch hit, and cleared the bases with a 3-RBI double to give the Orioles a 7-6 lead.  The Tigers bullpen had failed them again, and they now headed back home in a 2-0 hole in the series.

Ending Point:  Nelson Cruz’s homer in the 6th inning of Game 3.
Game 3 was an excellent pitcher’s duel between David Price of the Tigers and Bud Norris of the Orioles, and it turned in the 6th.  After five scoreless innings, Adam Jones singled, and Nelson Cruz homered, giving the Orioles a 2-0 lead with 12 outs to get to advance.  The Tigers didn’t even really threaten until the ninth, when an RBI double by JD Martiniez made the score 2-1, and Buck Showalter intentionally walked the potential winning run to set up a double play, which is exactly what pitcher Zach Britton got, clinching the series and ending the Tigers seaaon.

MLB Playoffs: ALDS Preview

Kansas City Royals vs Los Angeles Angels

Fresh off their momentous, come-from-behind, 9-8 victory in the 12-inning AL Wild Card game over the Oakland Athletics, the Royals head into Division Series play for the first time ever (the Division Series didn’t exist the last time they were in the playoffs in 1985, excluding their appearance in the Division Series of 1981 after that year’s strike) to face the Angels, who come in with the best record in baseball.  If the Royals want to continue their Cinderella run, they have their work cut out for them.  The series begins with Game 1 tonight at Angel Stadium (9:07 pm ET, TBS), with the Royals guaranteed at least home game, hosting Game 3 and, if necessary, Game 4 of the best-of-five series.

Pitching:  Royals ace James Shields (14-8, 3.21 ERA) struggled in the Wild Card win over Oakland, but got off the hook thanks to the Royals’ late-inning rally.  One of the negatives of a team playing in the Wild Card Game is that the rotation is now turned over, meaning Jason Vargas (11-10, 3.71) will start Game 1 instead of Shields.  In Game 2, the saga of Yordano Ventura (14-10, 3.20) continues.  The rookie threw 73 pitches Sunday, then was controversially brought into a tough spot in the sixth inning of the Wild Card Game (he didn’t do well) instead of a more experienced player or a reliever, and he will now make another start on Friday, before Shields returns to the mound for Game 3.  While the Royals haven’t named starters after the first three games, Danny Duffy (9-12, 2.53) will likely be used at some point.  On the other side, the Angels will go straight down the pitching depth chart, using Jered Weaver (18-9, 3.59), rookie Matt Shoemaker (16-4, 3.04), and CJ Wilson (13-10, 4.51) for the first three games.  However, the loss of Garrett Richards to injury will hurt the Angels rotation.  Later in games, Kansas City has the better bullpen, with the shutdown trio of Kelvin Herrera (1.41 ERA), Wade Davis (1.00), and closer Greg Holland (1.44, 46 saves) pitching the seventh, eighth, and ninth, although the Angels do have three players with 11 or more saves, including Huston Street (1.71, 17 saves) and Joe Smith (1.81, 15 saves), who have each had stints as the closer throughout the season.

Hitting:  On paper, the Angels have the better lineup of the two teams.  The team is led by MVP candidate Mike Trout (.287 average, 36 HR, 111 RBI), who certainly doesn’t play like the 22-year old he is.  Albert Pujols (.272, 28 HR, 105 RBI) has been closer to his old self this year, and when Josh Hamilton (.263, 10 HR, 44 RBI) can say the same when he’s been healthy (played 89 games).  While these players have led the team, every player in the offense has greatly contributed to the team’s success, winning 98 regular season games, and ranking fourth in the AL in homers and third in batting average, a combination that doesn’t always exist.  The Royals are last in the AL in homers, but second in average, with six of the nine players with enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title above .266, and Lorenzo Cain (.301) leading the team.  The Royals team leader in homers and RBI is Alex Gordon (.266, 19 HR, 74 RBI), which is less than overwhelming for the unit.  But the team showed everyone on Tuesday night in the Wild Card Game what they do excel at, and that is stolen bases and sacrifice bunts.  The team leads the AL in steals with 153, 21 more than the next team, and had seven on Tuesday, in addition to four sacrifice bunts.  The old baseball saying of “get him on, get him over, get him in” certainly applies to the way this Royals team plays.

Other:  Some have criticized Royals manager Ned Yost for his handling of Yordano Ventura in the Wild Card Game in what was Yost’s first postseason game as a manager.  Now we will get to see how Yost strategically handles series play.  Mike Scioscia in the Angels dugout has plenty of playoff experience, although it is not necessarily recent, with his team returning this year to the playoffs for the first time since 2009.  That trip five years ago, however, was the Angels fifth trip in six years, all under Scioscia’s leadership, in addition to a World Series title in 2002 under Scioscia.  The Angels have home-field advantage in the series, playing in front of a crowd that ranked second in the AL in attendance, and could go to Kansas City up 2-0 if they play well.  The Royals come in with momentum, but may also be emotionally exhausted after their Wild Card win, and will have to play nearly perfect to beat the Angels.

The Angels will win the series, 3 games to 1.

 

Detroit Tigers vs Baltimore Orioles

In the other Division Series matchup in the AL, the Tigers meet the Orioles.  Detroit is one of the favorites in the AL, led by a strong rotation in addition to a strong lineup, but many are saying the Orioles also have an excellent chance to make a deep run in these playoffs.   The Tigers have become a perennial playoff team, with Jim Leyland leading the team to playoff appearances the last three seasons, winning at least one series in each appearance, with a loss in the 2012 World Series after beating the Yankees in the ALCS.  After Leyland resigned after last season, it’s Brad Ausmus’ turn to try to win a World Series, something the franchise hasn’t done since 1984.  To do that, the first step will be to beat the Orioles, who won the AL East by 12 games (compared to the Tigers winning the AL Central by a single game), and have had plenty of time to prepare for the postseason.  The division title was their first since 1997, and the postseason bid is just their second since then, along with a Wild Card berth in 2012.  The series begins today in Baltimore (5:37 pm ET, TBS) as they have home field advantage in a playoff series for the first time since the 1997 ALCS.

Pitching:  Many consider the Tigers rotation one of the best in baseball, and one of its aces (yes, they have more than one “ace”) gets the ball in Game 1 in Max Scherzer (18-5, 3.15 ERA), the 2013 AL Cy Young winner.  He will be followed by another former Cy Young winner in Justin Verlander (15-12, 4.54), whose numbers seem lackluster due to a midseason rough patch, and who comes in pitching well.  Midseason trade acquisition David Price (15-12, 3.26 overall, 4-4, 3.59 with Tigers), another former Cy Young winner, will pitch Game 3, followed by Rick Porcello (15-13, 3.43) in Game 4.  While Detroit has a rotation which can certainly lead to a deep postseason run,  the Orioles rotation as a whole actually has a better ERA (3.61 to 3.89).  While the staff has no clear leader, all of the pitchers expected to throw in the series could make their case that they are the best on the staff, starting with Game 1 pitcher Chris Tillman (13-6, 3.34), and continuing with Wei-Yin Chen (16-6, 3.54) in Game 2.  The team has not announced a starter for either game in Detroit, but expect two out of the trio of Bud Norris (15-8, 3.65), Kevin Gausman (7-7, 3.57), and Miguel Gonzalez (10-9, 3.23) to get the ball for Games 3 and 4.  In the bullpen, the Tigers have their biggest weakness, one that could potentially prevent a deep postseason run if the cards don’t fall right.  Closer Joe Nathan (4.81 ERA, 35 saves) has struggled all season, and only one of the other major contributors in the bullpen (Al Alburquerque, 2.51) has an ERA under 3.57.  On the other side, the Orioles bullpen has quietly become one of the best statistically in the AL.  Normally, someone in their first season in the closer’s role wouldn’t have an advantage over a veteran like Joe Nathan, but Zach Britton (1.65, 37 saves) has been better and more consistent all season.  The supporting cast around Britton also had 16 saves between them, as Baltimore led the league in that category, with Darren O’Day (1.70), Tommy Hunter (2.97), and midseason trade pickup Andrew Miller (2.02 overall, 1.35 with Baltimore) all serving as valuable assets for Buck Showalter’s team.

Hitting:  The Tigers are known for their pitching, but they also have a very stout offense, leading the AL in batting average and ranking second in runs scored.  They are led by two-time defending AL MVP Miguel Cabrera (.313 average, 25 HR, 109 RBI), who has once again put up MVP-worthy numbers.  So has Victor Martinez (.335, 32 HR, 103 RBI), who has had arguably his best season at age 35, falling just short of the AL batting title.  JD Martinez (.315, 23 HR, 76 RBI) has seemingly come from out of nowhere to be a force behind Cabrera and the other Martinez, and Ian Kinsler (.275, 17 HR, 92 RBI) has done a nice job in the leadoff role despite not necessarily being a prototypical leadoff hitter.  The Orioles offense is led by MVP candidate Nelson Cruz (.271, 40 HR, 108 RBI), a player who found a home when the Orioles took a chance on him when no one else wanted him following a 2013 performance enhancing drug suspension.  Adam Jones (.281, 29 HR, 96 RBI) was a leader before the Orioles became a good team, and continued to lead them through their regular season success.  While no one on the team hits higher than Steve Pearce (.293), the team ranks fifth in the AL in batting average, with nearly all of the usual starting lineup hitting at .268 or better.  A late waiver trade for Alejandro De Aza (.293, 3 HR, 10 RBI in 20 games for Orioles) benefited both De Aza and the team, as both played better.  One player who does not have a good average is Chris Davis (.196, 26 HR, 72 RBI), who is suspended the first eight games of the postseason as part of a 25-game drug suspension.

Other:  Brad Ausmus is in his first season as a big league manager, so obviously this is his first postseason series.  Buck Showalter led the Orioles to the playoffs for the second time in three years, after having led the Yankees and Diamondbacks to playoff berths in the 1990s, but is still looking to win his first postseason series.  Both of these teams are very capable of winning the series, but the Tigers have been here before have had moderate postseason success, and sometimes in sports a team that has been successful in the past finds a way (perhaps simply out of habit) to defeat a team new to the big stage.  With these two teams very even, that could very well happen here.

The Tigers will win the series, 3 games to 2.

Leyland Steps Down As Tigers Manager

Jim Leyland

Jim Leyland (Photo credit: Keith Allison/Public Domain)

Jim Leyland announced this morning he is resigning as manager of the Detroit Tigers, after the Tigers loss to the Boston Red Sox in the AL Championship Series, 4 games to 2.  Leyland had informed the Tigers front office of his decision on September 7, while on a road trip in Kansas City, and told his players after they were eliminated on Saturday night.  Leyland has been in professional baseball as a player, coach, and manager for the last 50 years, and says he will continue to be involved in the Tigers organization in a role yet to be determined.

Leyland, in his 8 seasons in Detroit, has become one of the Tigers all-time greats.  His 700 regular-season managerial wins rank 3rd in franchise history, behind Hall-of-Famer Sparky Anderson and Hughie Jennings (who managed the Tigers from 1907-1920).  This year Leyland joined Jennings as the only two managers to take the Tigers to the playoffs in 3 consecutive seasons.

Leyland took over in 2006 for a franchise that had not had a winning season since 1993, and had finished either last or next to last in their division in 9 of those 13 seasons.  In one season Leyland took a previously struggling franchise to the AL Wild Card title, before winning the ALCS over the Oakland Athletics on a Magglio Ordonez walk-off homer to win Game 4 and complete a series sweep.  The Tigers eventually lost in the World Series, 4-1, to the St. Louis Cardinals, but baseball was back in Detroit.

In 2007, the Tigers finished 2nd in the division, behind a Cleveland Indians team who would get within a win of the World Series.  The next year the Tigers were in rebuilding mode, and finished 5th in the AL Central.  In 2009, the Tigers were back in contention, and tied for the AL Central title, but lost the tiebreaker game to the Minnesota Twins.  The following year the Tigers contended, but fell short, finishing at .500 with an 81-81 record.  In 2011, the Tigers returned to the playoffs, winning the AL Central by 15 games, and made it to the ALCS, before losing to the Texas Rangers in 6 games in the ALCS.  Last year, Detroit won a tight division race with the Chicago White Sox, before beating the Oakland Athletics 3-2 in the ALDS and sweeping the New York Yankees in the ALCS to return to the World Series.  Unfortunately for Leyland and company, the San Francisco Giants swept the Tigers to win the World Series.

It can be said a big part of the TIgers’ success is Leyland in the dugout.

After the 2006 and 2012 World Series losses, and this year’s elimination, the Tigers franchise is still looking for its first World Series title since 1984.

But managing the Tigers isn’t the entire story of Leyland’s managerial career.  His managerial career also included stints with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Florida Marlins, and the Colorado Rockies.

Before that, he spent years in the minor leagues as both a player and a manager.  He was signed as a 19-year old catcher by, ironically, the Detroit Tigers, in 1963, and played 7 seasons in the minors, never getting past Double-A.  By his final year of playing career, he was already acting as an unofficial coach for the Montgomery Rebels, the Tigers Double-A affiliate.   He then managed around the Tigers farm system from 1972-1981.  He left the Tigers franchise in 1982 to become Tony La Russa’s third-base coach with the Chicago White Sox from 1982-1985 (that’s quite a coaching staff).

After the stint working under La Russa, who would go on to win 6 pennants and 3 World Series with the Athletics and Cardinals, Leyland got his first major league managerial job, working for the Pittsburgh Pirates, beginning in 1986.  The Pirates had been struggling through the previous few seasons since their 1979 World Series title.  In Leyland’s first three seasons, the Pirates finished 6th, 4th, and 2nd in the old NL East (the Pirates are now in the NL Central after the 1994 re-alignment).  After a setback in 1989, the Pirates won 3 straight division titles in 1990-92, losing the NL Championship Series to the Reds in 6 games in 1990 and to the Braves in 7 games in 1991 and 1992.  After the 1992 season, much of the Pirates roster and front office was completely revamped, and the team lost talent such as Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla, Tim Wakefield, and Andy Van Slyke.  As a result, Leyland struggled for the next four seasons, before resigning at the end of the 1996 season.  One of his staff in Pittsburgh was current New York Mets manager Terry Collins, who today wears #10 in honor of Leyland, who also wears #10.

After Leyland resigned in Pittsburgh, he was quickly hired by the Florida Marlins, a 1993 expansion who had struggled in their first four seasons but had built a little bit of momentum with a 80-82 record in 1996.  In 1997, Leyland’s first year, he led the Marlins to the Wild Card title, before defeating the Atlanta Braves in 6 games for the NL Pennant, and winning the World Series in 7 games over the Cleveland Indians.  Edgar Renteria’s walk-off hit in the bottom of the 11th of Game 7 is a classic World Series moment often played today during collections of postseason moments.  The Marlins had become the fastest expansion team to win a World Series (a record since broken by the Arizona Diamondbacks).  After the title, the team was dismantled in the so-called “fire-sale”, a technique repeated when the Marlins won another title six years later.  Leyland remained as manager, but after a 54-108 record in 1998, he resigned, saying he thought his job was to win championships, but that wasn’t what the ownership wanted.  The title he won in Florida was his only World Series championship as a manager.

After leaving Florida, Leyland had an insignificant stint as manager of the Colorado Rockies, going 72-90 in 1999, before resigning just one year into a three-year contract.  Leyland would later regret his abrupt departure from an organization that had treated him well, saying he was frustrated with trying to manage a pitching staff in the Denver altitude (this was in the days before baseballs used at Coors Field were placed in a humidor), and thought he would never manage again.

From 2000 until 2005, Leyland worked as a scout for the St. Louis Cardinals in the Pittsburgh area, generally scouting Pirates games.  He wanted to get back into managing, and saw an opportunity when the Phillies job was open in the offseason after the 2004 season.  That job eventually went to Charlie Manuel, but Leyland saw another opportunity to manage the Tigers, the organization he had begun his career with, when Alan Trammel was released as manager.  The Tigers hired Leyland, who was 61 at the time, and they haven’t regretted it.

Leyland is one of seven managers to win pennants in both leagues, and joins La Russa and Bobby Cox as one of three managers to win Manager of the Year in both leagues.

Now the question will be raised if Jim Leyland should be a Hall-of-Famer (assuming his managerial career is over).  Leyland won 1,769 major league games (regular-season), which is 15th all-time, won 3 Manager of the Year awards, 6 division titles, 3 pennants, and a World Series in an organization that may be the least likely in baseball to ever win a title.  If I had a Hall of Fame ballot, there would be no doubt in my mind that I would definitely vote for him.  The fact Leyland is such a class act should nail it down even more.  Yet, there are still skeptics (then again, there are a few people who argue that Chipper Jones is not a Hall-of-Famer).  In an ESPN.com survey today, 80% of readers said that Leyland should be in the Hall of Fame, while only 20% of readers said he should not.

Leyland had, as recently as this summer, shown a desire to manage into next year and beyond.  Tigers executives said both publicly and to Leyland that he was welcome to manage as long as he wanted.  Leyland, however, said the fuel was running low, particularly on long road trips late this season, and that “it’s time”.  I personally thought that if the Tigers had won the World Series or even if they had won the AL Pennant that Leyland would retire (going out on top), similar to Tony La Russa in 2011.  Leyland, however, had already made his decision privately in early September, before publicly announcing his plans today.

Who will replace Leyland?  If the Tigers choose to promote someone within the organization, there would be a couple of likely candidates.  Hitting coach Lloyd McClendon and bench coach Gene Lamont both have major league managerial experience, with Lamont being named AL Manager of the Year in 1993.  Third-base coach Tom Brookens has minor league managerial experience.  Another less likely candidates would be first-base coach Rafael Belliard.  If the Tigers choose to go the route of the St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago White Sox, Philadelphia Phillies, and Miami Marlins in recent hirings of recent major league players, there are a couple of candidates.  One would be Phil Nevin, who played until 2006 and is currently the manager of the Toledo Mud Hens, the Tigers AAA affiliate.  Other candidates would be Dave Martinez, currently the Rays bench coach, and Brad Ausmus, a former Tiger.  Current and/or recent managers that could be pursued include Dusty Baker, Charlie Manuel (although the age of both Baker and Manuel may be a deterrent), Kirk Gibson (former Tiger), and Ozzie Guillen.  Actually, the only one of those four with a current job is Gibson, with the Diamondbacks.  Tony Pena recently managed the Dominican Republic team to the World Baseball Classic title, and Red Sox bench coach Torey Lovullo has Tigers ties.  Lastly, Alan Trammell is a Tigers legend from his playing days, but is also a former manager; his miserable stint came with some terrible rosters, so perhaps he’ll be given another chance.  Don’t be surprised at all if the Tigers manager next year is someone not on this list, as I have read other names mentioned in news articles and blog posts today.

 

 

Jim Leyland Managerial Record
(Year:  Team, Record, Finish, Postseason)
1986:  Pittsburgh, 64-98, 6th, none
1987:  Pittsburgh, 80-82, 4th, none
1988:  Pittsburgh, 85-75, 2nd, none
1989:  Pittsburgh, 74-88, 5th, none
1990:  Pittsburgh, 95-67, 1st, lost to Reds in NLCS (NL Manager of the Year)
1991:  Pittsburgh, 98-64, 1st, lost to Braves in NLCS
1992:  Pittsburgh, 96-66, 1st, lost to Braves in NLCS (NL Manager of the Year)
1993:  Pittsburgh, 75-87, 5th, none
1994:  Pittsburgh, 53-61, 3rd, n/a (strike-shortened season)
1995:  Pittsburgh, 58-86, 5th, none
1996:  Pittsburgh, 73-89, 5th
1997:  Florida, 92-70, 2nd, def. Indians to win World Series
1998:  Florida, 54-108, 5th, none
1999:  Colorado, 72-90, 5th, none
2006:  Detroit, 95-67, 2nd, lost to Cardinals in World Series (AL Manager of the Year)
2007:  Detroit, 88-74, 2nd, none
2008:  Detroit, 74-88, 5th, none
2009:  Detroit, 86-77, 2nd, none
2010:  Detroit, 81-81, 3rd, none
2011:  Detroit, 95-67, 1st, lost to Rangers in ALCS
2012:  Detroit, 88-74, 1st, lost to Giants in World Series
2013:  Detroit, 93-69, 1st, lost to Red Sox in ALCS
Career record:  1,769-1,728 (.506), 44-40 in postseason (.524)