Saturday, September 17, 2005

Baseball Heads Toward Awesome Finish

With only two weeks left in the baseball season, this is shaping up as one of the most interesting campaigns in many a year. Let's look at the leagues:

What looked early on like easy pickings for teams like the White Sox, Red Sox, and Angels, has suddenly become an anything-can-happen proposition. This is due to the incredible tenacity of teams like the Yankees, A's, and most notably, the Cleveland Indians. As of this writing, the Indians are only 4 1/2 games behind the AL Central-leading White Sox. The Tribe has made up five games on the Chisox in the past 10 days, having won 9 out of their last 10 games. The Indians also have the lead in the AL Wild Card standings, yet their torrid pace doesn't guarantee anything because the Yankees are nipping furiously at the heels of the Red Sox, having themselves won 7 out of 10. The Angels looked good early, but don't look good late, and the A's are in a virtual tie wth the Halos, only 1/2 game back. At the moment, it looks like the Red Sox, White Sox and Angels as division winners, with the Indians in the Wild Card; yet it would only take a few minor surges and a few minor failings for the final standings to read Yankees, Indians and A's, with maybe the White Sox in the Wild Card slot. Pay attention. This could be a ton of fun.

About the Indians: I'll leave the heavy research to the wonks at Elias Sports Bureau, but I don't ever recall seeing a team in which players at every starting position, plus the DH, have double digits in home runs. Maybe it's happened before, but it's got to be rare. And who the heck ARE these guys? With their positions and accompanying current HR total, they are, from A-Z:

Ronnie Belliard, 2B, 14
Casey Blake, RF, 20
Aaron Boone, 3B, 14
Ben Broussard, 1B, 18
Coco Crisp, LF, 13
Travis Hafner, DH, 25
Victor Martinez, C, 19
Jhonny Peralta, SS, 21
Grady Sizemore, CF, 19

Boone we know. Maybe Belliard. The others are just vague names to casual fans outside of Cleveland. And Coco Crisp, by the way, has to be the best name in that sports town since Charlie Spikes was around for the Tribe in the '70s.

Pop Quiz: Who are Scott Elarton, Cliff Lee, Jake Westbrook and C.C. Sabathia?

Answer: No, they're not the singers in a boy band. They're the starting pitching rotation for the Cleveland Indians. These four guys have combined for a 54-35 W-L record as of this writing. Who knew? Lee is 16-4, and the others are all at double digits in victories. The Indians' best-known hurler is actually Kevin Millwood, who at 8-11 has struggled to win games, yet is leading all AL starters in ERA at this juncture at 3.02.

The fact is, on paper, no other AL team exhibits such a combination of consistent numbers throughout its lineup and starting rotation. The other teams may have big stars (Ortiz, Ramirez, ARod, Jeter, Guerrero, etc.), but the Indians look balanced--and hungry.

There's more clarity here. The Cardinals and Braves are divisional locks, and one presumes that the Padres will muddle through to the NL West title despite their current, incredibly mediocre 72-74 W-L record. Everyone else in that division is bad, and the Padres hold a 5 1/2 game lead.

Yet there's excitement aplenty in the Wild Card race, where four teams--Astros, Phillies, Marlins and Nationals--are separated by a mere 2 1/2 games. None of these teams is really stepping up the pace, and the funny thing is that the Nationals, a scrappy bunch that's been riddled with injuries and looked to be an absolute mediocrity to begin with back in April, just won't go away, even despite faltering badly since the All-Star break. They won their fourth straight today against the Padres, with late-blooming starter John Patterson pitching a gem. The numbers game doesn't favor the Nats, but if they keep winning, who knows?


Last year, the Red Sox, Cardinals and Angels all made the playoffs, with, of course, the Sox and Cards meeting in a historic World Series. In the off-season, a strange little episode of free-agency flip-flops saw these three teams mix and match their shortstops. David Eckstein (above, left), a popular Angel who won a World Series in 2002, moved to the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals' shortstop, Edgar Renteria (above, center), moved out to Boston. Then Orlando Cabrera (above, right), flush from the Sox' 2004 World Series success, left Boston and moved to California to plug the gap left by Eckstein's departure to St. Louis. All three teams are again headed for post-season play, most likely. So who's the winner in the shortstop derby? It looks like a virtual wash here, with all three guys putting up the kind of offensive numbers we'd expect and generally playing solid defense. (Renteria's errors are surprisingly up this year. No one's quite sure why.) The nod would have to go to Eckstein, however; he's been a galvanizing force of late for the Redbirds, particularly since they've had to deal with a rash of injuries, especially to fellow infielders Mark Grudzielanek and Scott Rolen. Eckstein is a persistently combative ballplayer. At 5'7" 165 lbs., he doesn't look like much physically, but he's a classic case of the fight in the dog. Here are the comparative current batting statistics:

Eckstein G-144 AB-574 R-80 H-165 2B-23 3B-7 HR-7 RBI-54 AVG.-.287
Renteria G-138 AB-564 R-88 H-156 2B-32 3B-3 HR-7 RBI-61 AVG.-.277
Cabrera G-125 AB-481 R-56 H-123 2B-25 3B-2 HR-7 RBI-48 AVG.-.256

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