In game 2 of the National League Division Series the Dodgers came from behind with a 4-run 7th inning to tie their series with the Mets at 1 game each. The pivotal moment that everyone in talking about was when the first run of the inning scored to tie the game. The Dodgers were trailing 2 to 1 at the time. They had two runners on base, Enrique Hernandez was on third and Chase Utley was on first and there was one out. Howie Kendrick faced Bartolo Colon and hit a ground ball up the middle. The Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy flipped the ball to shortstop Ruben Tejada to try to start a double play, but Utley slid in with his head striking Tejada’s legs and knocking him on his back and breaking his leg. To literally add insult to injury, the replay review determined that Tejada never touched the base and because the throw pulled him out of position the “neighborhood play” where infielders just need to be close to second base on a double play didn’t apply.
Now the Mets and their fans are all incensed saying Utley’s slide was dirty. Upon further review, Joe Torre and Major League Baseball has agreed and decided it was an illegal slide and suspended Utley two games, pending an appeal. But honestly, MLB’s suspension seems more like a reaction to the severity of the injury and fan response, than a consistent enforcement of the rules. Attempting to break up a double play by sliding toward a middle infielder happens all the time. The only time I see the illegal slide rule enforced is when the runner is so far out of the baseline, that they can’t possibly touch second base. That was not the case here. Utley was close enough to the bag to touch it if he chose to. He probably assumed he was going to be out and was only interested in preventing the double play so that the critical tying run would score. He did slide high and late, but that has not been considered illegal before. I’ve seen Yasiel Puig slide high and late, not because he was taking out a fielder, but because he had bad judgement on when to slide. Sadly, a big reason why Tejada was injured, had nothing to do with Utley. Tejada was out of position with his back to the runner at the moment of impact. Whether that was because of Murphy’s throw or because he was unadvisedly trying to pirouette to throw to first, he shares some responsibility for not being set for a collision that he should have known was coming. There have been lots of slides to break up double plays that have looked far worse than what Utley did and they were not ruled illegal before. Players have also been hurt before; ask Jung Ho Kang of the Pirates. The umpires ruling during the game was correct, based on how the rule had been interpreted in the past. If MLB wants to outlaw sliding toward fielders to break up double plays, they need to set that precedent ahead of time and pass the memo out to all the umpires and players.
New York versus Los Angeles is a classic, except in baseball it usually involved the Yankees, not the Mets. But the Mets are another team buoyed by youth. Particularly, their starting pitching with Jacob DeGrom, Noah Syndergaard, and Matt Harvey set up to anchor the Mets staff for many years. However, the question is, “Is it too soon?” The whole controversy over Harvey’s innings and his recent tardiness to a workout puts a negative cloud over the team. For the Dodgers, success also begins with their starting pitching. It’s a two-headed monster called Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. We’ve already seen what a difference an ace starting pitcher can make in the Wild Card games and going back to last year’s performance by Bumgarner. The Dodgers are doubly dangerous with the best combo since Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. Kershaw has proved human is previous postseasons, especially in the 7th inning against the Cardinals. But he appears to be peaking as he enters these playoffs and I expect him to have learned from past experience, after all, he’s just entering his prime at 27 years old. The question is what happens after those guys pitch? Brett Anderson and Alex Wood have been good at times, but a bad outing could be costly in a short series. Similarly, the bullpen outside of the closer Kenley Jansen has been inconsistent. There are a lot of young arms with the potential to do well, but they are unproven.
In the first half of the year the Mets had no offense, but the mid-season acquisition of Yoenis Cespedes and the return of David Wright has transformed the Mets into one of the best offenses in baseball. The Dodgers don’t have anyone with 30 or more home runs, but they led the National League in home runs. That tells you there are a lot of guys hitting 10 or more spread throughout the lineup. The Dodgers may have unloaded big names like Matt Kemp and Hanley Ramirez, but they maintain a huge payroll by having a lot of depth. Most of the country may not know about Justin Turner and Enrique Hernandez, but don’t be surprised if they make a contribution in this series. One name the country will know soon is Corey Seager, the rookie shortstop/third baseman for the Dodgers, who only played the last month in the big leagues. The younger brother of Seattle third baseman Kyle Seager, Corey is touted as the more talented of the two, and he’s done nothing to disprove that in his short time in the majors by hitting over .330. The Dodgers are getting healthy at the right time with the recent return of Howie Kendrick, Hernandez and Yasiel Puig. If they score just 3 or 4 runs for Kershaw and Greinke, it usually means a win. Don’t be surprised if the Dodgers sweep.
For the first time, long-time rivals, the Chicago Cubs face the St. Louis Cardinals in the playoffs. Primarily, because the Cubs have rarely been in the postseason. However, with a young team guided by manager Joe Maddon, this could be the first of many October appearances for the Cubs. Meanwhile, the Cardinals are perennial playoff participants. I’m not sure what “the Cardinal Way” means, but their secret to success is depth from a strong farm system. Albert Pujols can leave as a free agent, Adam Wainwright can get injured, but the team keeps winning because someone from the minor leagues rises up to take their place. However, this year the injury bug may be too much for the Cardinals to overcome. Carlos Martinez was the ace of the staff and his loss due to shoulder stiffness is a big blow. Another big blow could be the torn ligament in Yadier Molina’s thumb. He’ll try to play with it, but how effective will the team MVP be? Also, hurting the Cardinals is the late season collapse of Michael Wacha who sported a 7.88 ERA in September. Wainwright has returned, but he’s relegated to the bullpen. The bad news for the Cubs is that they had to play a Wild Card game, so Arrieta can only pitch once in this series. Also, Jason Hammel hasn’t been that sharp lately. This should be quite a battle and I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a bench-clearing incident before it’s over. My guess is that the wounded Cardinals succumb to the youthful Cubs, but it won’t be easy.
In a one game Wild-Card format, there’s nothing like a dominant starting pitcher. Last year, the Pittsburgh Pirates were hit by the Madison Bumgarner steamroller. This year, they had the misfortune of facing Jake Arrieta. Rookie Kyle Schwarber provided all the offensive support needed with an RBI single and a two-run home run, while Arrieta tossed a shutout. Similarly, Dallas Keuchel ended the Yankees season with a shutout of his own.
So now the Divisional Series matchups are set. First, the American League, where the Houston Astros go on to face the Kansas City Royals. The Astros are a young team and as Keuchel demonstrated, they have good pitching. The offense is led by Carlos Correa and it is all or nothing; they hit a lot of home runs, but they strikeout a lot. It’s a formula that can work well in the playoffs, where it’s difficult to mount rallies against good pitching. Good pitchers don’t make many mistakes, but if they make one bad pitch and you can convert it into runs with one swing…The Royals are also a young team that had an amazing run in last year’s playoffs and this year they look like an even stronger team. They picked up Johnny Cueto at the trade deadline and he’s not even starting the first game. Despite the loss of closer Greg Holland, they have a solid bullpen. The lineup is solid from 1 through 9. They might not be superstars, but no one is an easy out and that can wear out opposing pitchers. I like the Royals to advance again.
Proving that a trade deadline acquisition can make a difference, the Toronto Blue Jays went all-in to pick up David Price and Troy Tulowitsky, while the Texas Rangers traded their farm system for Cole Hamels. It’ll be interesting to see who made a better investment. Both teams have powerhouse offenses that no one would want to face. The Blue Jays have Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion, and Jose Bautista while the Rangers have Prince Fielder, Adrian Beltre and Shin-Soo Choo. So if you like offense, this could be the series to watch. However, the difference will be the pitching, and I think the Blue Jays have more depth there.
The Major League Baseball regular season is over and the playoffs are ready to begin with the American League Wild Card game tonight. The New York Yankees, the most successful team in the history of baseball take on the young, upstart Houston Astros, who only recently moved into the league.
The Astros struggled in the final weeks of the season and barely hung on by a single game, over the Los Angeles Angels. They can thank an improbable 5-run rally with two outs in the ninth inning against the Angels on September 13 for making the difference between playing tonight and watching.
The Yankees also limped to the finish, after losing their MVP Mark Texeira to injury. They are also jarred by the news that CC Sabathia has checked into rehab for alcohol abuse. This will only be relevant if the Yankees survive beyond today. One game is definitely a crap shoot, but in a battle of young versus old, youth is usually the better bet. I’ll expect the Astros to advance.
Personally, I think these are the two weakest teams in the playoffs. Normally, as the San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals demonstrated last year, any team that reaches the post season has the potential to win it all. But I would be stunned, if the Astros or Yankees reach the 2015 World Series.
In contrast, the National League Wild Card game might be a matchup of the two best teams in baseball. The Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs are two young teams on the rise. As fate would have it, they shared a division with the 100-win St. Louis Cardinals. So Gerritt Cole will face-off against Jake Arrieta in a winner-take-all game that will be no fun for hitters. If the Pirates have a weakness, it’s their porous defense. In a tight ballgame it might cost them. Arrieta has been virtually unhittable in the second half of the season. Just ask the Dodgers. So the Cubs have a good chance to advance. Aside from Pirate fans, who wouldn’t want to see a Cubs versus Cardinals brawl.