11 a.m. CDT – Welcome to … Closing Day? Don’t think there is a phrase for the final day of the baseball season like there is the first. And since Opening Day was the last time we did this whole blogging thing, today seemed an apropos chance to wrap up this regular season in a nice little package, with your questions, comments, flames, food recommendations, favorite episode of “The Wire” and whatever else has you up at this hour on a Sunday sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For those in need of some football methadone, baseball has provided a nice option today. Rare is the Closing Day on which we haven’t the faintest clue of a single playoff matchup.
The New York Yankees will play the American League wild-card winner, and that could be the Minnesota Twins or the Detroit Tigers. The Oakland Athletics get the bride, and how they must hope it's Detroit.
The National League is far more convoluted: The wild-card winner out West, either the Los Angeles Dodgers or San Diego Padres, face the New York Mets. The West winner takes on the Central winner. And that could be the St. Louis Cardinals. But then they might lose today, as they have done with the regularity of three square meals recently, even with ace Chris Carpenter on the mound, because they're facing Carlos Villanueva.
(Milwaukee’s starter who shut them out for seven innings a week and a half ago. Only 22. From the Dominican Republic. And unlike his American counterpart, basketball Charlie Villanueva, he does have eyebrows.)
Point is, if the Cardinals lose and the Houston Astros win, the San Francisco Giants must fly in to St. Louis on Monday for a makeup game, which I'm sure Barry Bonds would really enjoy. And if the Cardinals lose that one, they must fly to Houston on Tuesday for a one-game playoff. And if the Cardinals lose that one, they may just accuse Roger Clemens of using performance-enhancing drugs.
Whatever the case, it's going to be a wild day, and it’s only as good as your participation. I’ll be sitting here watching all the games on MLB.TV’s fantastic mosaic, which allows you to see six games at once. Here's to hoping you’re with me.
12:23 p.m. CDT – Says a co-worker: "Nice start, Houston."
It has been a rather ugly first inning for the Astros. First Chris Burke airmailed a throw to Cobb County. Then, following an Edgar Renteria bunt that sent Marcus Giles to third, Lance Berkman tried to go home on a Chipper Jones grounder to first.
Bad throw. Atlanta, 1-0.
Still, I'm looking forward to watching Chris Sampson pitch. He had a tremendous year in the minors and is, like Brandon Backe, a converted infielder. Phil Garner has no problem putting unknowns in pressure spots (remember Pete Munro two years ago?), and with the Astros' season on the line, he's certainly doing that.
Next update I'll explain the reasoning behind choosing Ron Gardenhire over Jim Leyland for manager of the year, since I'm still getting e-mails about that.
Noon CDT – I think it's going to be a weird day.
Do you think the Tampa Bay Devil Rays can put together a Tigers-like run in 2007? They've got Crawford, Baldelli, Upton, Young, and Kazmir in place, and top prospects like Jeff Niemann, Evan Longoria, and Reid Brignac set to hit stage sometime next year. I know they play in a tough division, but do you think it's possible?
New Brunswick, N.J.
In a word: No.
The Yankees are loaded and the favorites to add Daisuke Matsuzaka. The Red Sox will retool and are the favorites to add Roger Clemens, if he returns. The Blue Jays have talent, and if they trade Vernon Wells, they'll be getting even more.
Will the Devil Rays be better? I certainly hope so. They've lost at least 90 games all nine seasons they've been in existence.
They need to trade at least one of their position players to get some pitching, because with Longoria, Brignac, B.J. Upton and Ben Zobrist on the left side of the infield, they've got an absolute logjam.
The obvious: Delmon Young can absolutely rake, Crawford has MVP-type talent and Baldelli is hitting .309 with nine homers and 19 RBI in September. So the outfield is set.
Also obvious: Kazmir is hurt, Niemann has had shoulder surgery and the rest of their pitching staff consists of guys who will not be around for the long term.
Point is, you don't win a playoff spot in the American League without some kind of pitching. And even if it's a strong bullpen, like the Yankees have, it would be a start.
Happy first pitch.
Oh, and I'm taking lunch suggestions.
1:14 p.m. CDT – Looks like it's going to be Tigers-A's and Twins-Yankees in the American League.
The Tigers just scored five runs in the bottom of the third against the Royals. Brandon Inge hit his 27th home run, and his defense at third base this season has been absolutely magnificent. The Gold Glove race between him, Eric Chavez, Mike Lowell and Joe Crede (my choice) is a tough call, one we'll get into more later.
Interesting stuff out of St. Louis, too, in question form from Jeremy Littau:
What do you think of the Cardinals' decision to hold Chris Carpenter and set their rotation for the playoffs? Don't you have to actually make the playoffs first? It would seem that if he'd started today he could've pitched Game 3, maybe Game 2 at least. But now let's say the team pushes it today and has to play the makeup against San Francisco tomorrow and holds him then, he'd have to start Tuesday. That means he potentially pitches one game in their NLDS series (if they make it).
I don't get it. I think La Russa is going senile.
Not sure if he's going crazy, but I don't get it, either. Not to go all Herm Edwards, but you play … to win … the game. I understand wanting Carpenter for Game 1, but he does have a 4.70 ERA away from Busch Stadium this season. And by no means am I suggesting they keep Carpenter for Game 3, but just because Houston is down early doesn't lessen the importance of today's game.
Lots of buts. Which indicates lots of ambivalence about La Russa's decision.
12:54 p.m. CDT – Wow. Are the Astros trying to give away their potential playoff spot? With runners on second and third, Humberto Quintero lined a ball to right field. Jeff Francoeur made a nice diving catch, and Aubrey Huff must have momentarily forgotten that Francoeur has one of the five best arms in baseball, because he ran. Even though Francoeur's throw was up the line, Huff was still out by 15 feet. John Smoltz pumped his fist, like this was a playoff game.
More later on the Braves and what they need to do next year.
From Brendan in Everett, Wash.
Ron Gardenhire? Maybe you need another mulligan. The Twins are right where everyone thought they'd be. Jim Leyland ought to get Manager of the Decade for the job he's done – and the fact that you think the Twins are a better team (as shown by your assertion that the A's would prefer to face Detroit) kind of proves it, doesn't it?
I've written about the great job Jim Leyland has done. He turned around a moribund franchise and made it into a winner. The Tigers certainly exceeded expectations.
That said, the way Gardenhire took a dead-in-the-water team in June and made it into the one team nobody wants to face was, to me, the better job of managing. He did not choose Tony Batista. That was Terry Ryan. He did not keep Jason Bartlett in the minor leagues. That was Terry Ryan. And I can point out those mistakes because Ryan is one of the best GMs in the game, and his good moves far outweigh his poor ones.
Gardenhire's malleability – his willingness to stray from what has been the status quo in Minnesota – is what swayed me. Though don't think there wasn't a lot of teeth-gnashing over that choice, as there were over plenty more, including Derek Jeter's MVP candidacy, which I'll also get to later.
A few more quick hitters:
Why isn't the Cardinals/Astros tiebreaker decided head to head (Houston wins that 9-7) like the Dodgers/Padres and Twins/Tigers are?
Because the Cardinals and Astros are fighting for one playoff spot, whereas the other cases will determine the division winner versus the wild-card team.
I just quit my job today because I hated it so much. I sooooo need a job like yours. If you need an assistant, let me know! Seriously, keep up the great work, and the sheer volume of work as well. I think you write more columns than anyone ever. And as far as food recommendations, get yourself a half-pound hamburger, top it with ranch, banana peppers, jalapenos and pickles. And amazingly, I'm 157 pounds and not 300.
I don't think The Boss will let me hire quite yet. So anyone got a job for Ben?
Good call on the burgers. They're on their way.
1:50 p.m. CDT – One thing can be said for Jim Leyland: He is managing to win the division.
With two runners on and the Tigers' lead cut to 6-4, Leyland summoned Joel Zumaya from the bullpen in the fifth inning. Zumaya stranded the runners, and the Tigers still lead the Royals.
By the way, Anthony Reyes, who was Tony La Russa's choice to start instead of Chris Carpenter, got yanked after giving up four runs in 2/3 of an inning.
Onto the mail:
What do you think of the Phillies next year? Myers and Hamels should continue to grow, and the lineup will always be dangerous with guys like Utley and Howard. Do you see them doing anything in the offseason?
GM Pat Gillick will try, as he has been for a while, to unload the albatross contract of Pat Burrell, because the Phillies are going to need an awful lot of money to give Utley and Howard contract extensions (or simply the pay raises they'll get in their fourth seasons). In Cole Hamels, the Phillies have a potential No. 1 starter, and Myers, for whatever you think of him personally – and with the allegations that he beat his wife, the opinion can't be terribly high – has been tremendous in the second half.
Of course, being in the same division as the Mets and Braves, who are bound to rebound, the Phillies are going to have a tough time winning anything other than the wild card.
Is it ridiculous to think that the Padres can win the division, have L.A. beat the Mets, dispatch the sad Cardinals, then trounce L.A. in the NLCS like they've done all season? It's quite possible I'm just dreaming.
San Diego born and raised, transplanted in St. Louis
Not dreaming at all. The Mets are vulnerable, the Cardinals don't seem to pose much of a threat and I'll take San Diego's pitching over any team in the National League, if not all of baseball. Tonight I'll be making my playoff picks with Tony Gwynn and The Boss, Mark Pesavento, and I'm very tempted to put San Diego in the World Series. If only they had one more bat, it would be an easy choice.
Speaking of San Diego, I'd like to share a moment from last night. I was out with a few friends, and Scottie Pippen came into the restaurant. People stared, gawked, did all of the usual celebrity stuff, and we thought the moment had passed. When Scottie eventually left, the hubbub died down, until a voice ringed out.
"San Diego loves you, Scottie Pippen!"
So, are the words of one inebriated woman true? I ask: Does San Diego really love Scottie Pippen?
1:55 p.m. CDT – Just got an e-mail from Pete Abraham, who covers the Yankees for The Journal News and keeps a great blog. Pete is also the man who told the world that Chien-Ming Wang loves Snoop Dogg.
Anyway, Pete said Randy Johnson threw a 41-pitch bullpen session and looked good, which means we'll likely have a Battle of the Broken Bodies between Johnson and Brad Radke on Friday.
Some bits and pieces:
Houston manager Phil Garner is chewing his mustache right now. The Astros, per usual, just can't score.
Do you think Jim Leyland isn't exactly the biggest Ozzie Guillen fan in the world for the lineups he has trotted out against Minnesota the last two days?
I'm sorry to have missed Frank Robinson's farewell speech. A few readers said it was classy, and with the way the Nationals have hung him out to dry in recent weeks, he didn't need to say anything.
2:22 p.m. CDT – Now, I'm not one to give away outs. And I don't know how well Luke Scott can bunt. But with no outs, the Astros had runners on first and second following Lance Berkman's RBI single. Phil Garner let Scott – his cleanup hitter, yes – swing away, and Macay McBride struck him out. Then McBride struck out Aubrey Huff. Chris Burke's flyout to center field ended the inning, stranding two runners. Astros still down 3-1, and that might have been their best opportunity, particularly since St. Louis is now down 5-0 and showing absolutely no signs of life against Carlos Villanueva.
Why does everybody keep saying things like the Twins are the team nobody wants to face? I'm a huge Twins fan and I've been watching this team all season, but I don't have a great feeling about the playoffs. The hitting has been maddeningly inconsistent, especially lately, and beyond Santana (who has looked like a mere mortal himself in his last 3 starts), the rotation is a shambles. The bullpen is strong, yes. But with the 800-pound gorilla known as the Yankees looming, the Twins, like every other AL team, are going to have to hope to get lucky to make it to the Series.
St. Paul, Minn.
What I'm saying is no one wants to face Santana, and Santana just happens to wear a Twins uniform. And I'll take a lineup with Mauer, Cuddyer and Morneau in the 3-4-5 hole over every team in the postseason except the Mets and Yankees.
Will it be enough to beat New York? That I can't say.
2:45 p.m. CDT – The Astros' season is over, mercifully. This was not a playoff-caliber team. Neither are the Cardinals, for that matter, but they are in anyway, and the fans at Busch Stadium are doing the tomahawk chop to thank the Braves for taking care of what they barely could themselves.
Since an incredible start, Houston has been varying degrees of mediocre. Roger Clemens' return and subsequent brilliant pitching did nothing to change the Astros' fortunes. In the end – of this game, and of their season – they couldn't hit.
Looks like Tony La Russa's mistake of not starting Chris Carpenter worked out all right. He's going to need all the luck he can get in the postseason, because whatever series the Cardinals are in, they will be decided underdogs.
2:55 p.m. CDT – Here I am touting Brandon Inge's defense, and he chucks away a ball to let the Royals back into the game. Normally, Joel Zumaya would be in to clean up this mess. Instead, Jim Leyland used Zumaya in the fifth inning, and now Todd Jones – their flammable closer – blew the lead on a bases-loaded infield single by David DeJesus.
If the Royals do beat the Tigers, and if the Twins hold on, Detroit will have blown a double-digit lead and the Central title. Even worse, they'll have to play the Yankees in the first round.
Then again, we are talking about the Royals bullpen holding a lead. So let's not get ahead of ourselves.
3:01 p.m. CDT – Now this is funny:
As a Rays fan, I can't believe you are not on the edge of your seat following the Royals/Rays battle for the No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft.
The Rays came up big with a loss to Cleveland.
It's all up to the Royals, who appear to be choking. They've rallied to tie the Tigers. Surely, the KC bullpen will snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and thus grab the No. 1 pick.
3:03 p.m. CDT – Former Royal Matt Stairs just hit a home run off Royals reliever Scott Dohmann. Your wish is their command, Will.
The game is now tied at 8 in the eighth.
3:35 p.m. CDT – The Dodgers are up 1-0 already, and they would absolutely love to win the NL West, more for convenience's sake than pride's.
If the Dodgers win and the Padres lose, Los Angeles has half the country to traverse (to St. Louis) instead of an L.A.-to-New York flight. Plus, St. Louis is the opposite of Minnesota – the team everyone wants to face.
Rookie Carlos Villanueva shut the Cardinals out through eight before Chris Duncan and Albert Pujols hit back-to-back home runs. The announcers are talking about how the national media has been disparaging them recently. Well, when you lose seven games in the standings in seven days, have no demonstrable sign of a lineup and don't know who your closer is, skepticism tends to root.
Though, hey, it's not just me.
1. Why don't LaRussa's teams do better in postseason? Is he overwound?
2. On an A-F scale, where does Jocketty's 2005-06 offseason rank?
3. The new Busch, by stats, is much more a pitchers' park, at least compared to a year ago. How much of that do you think is the park, and how much is a weaker lineup?
4. I've not been to the new Busch. I read one writer calling it "sterile." True? (Note: I hate most of the "retro" parks, because they aren't retro in one area … they've got no bleacher seats, thanks to money-grubbing owners.)
Dallas (and onetime of St. Louis)
1. He did win a World Series in Oakland, so don't sell him too short. That said, the mystery behind La Russa's postseason failures could be multi-pronged. Maybe his teams are too tight. Maybe he misuses his bullpen. Maybe he doesn't prepare them for the mental rigors. More than likely, the issues are more with the players than La Russa.
2. D. Juan Encarnacion has been OK. Aaron Miles is slightly better than a replacement-level player. His best moves were probably letting Matt Morris and Reggie Sanders go. Jocketty certainly should have brought back Mark Grudzielanek.
3. I know the park can affect teams. But this is just a weak lineup.
4. I was the one who called it sterile, actually. A lot of these newer ballparks are. It's funny. People used to crack on the cookie-cutter stadiums like the old Busch, the Vet and Shea. Well, there's a new generation of cookie cutters: They've got brick exteriors, are intentionally made to feel "old" and, by and large, look no different than any of the newer ones.
3:40 p.m. CDT – So, did I speak too early about the Cardinals? Scott Spiezio, home run, 5-3.
3:42 p.m. CDT – Nope. Juan Encarnacion strikes out to end the game.
3:45 p.m. CDT – Extra innings for the Royals and Tigers. Mike Maroth's wife, Brooke, is passing out Big League Chew to fans. Seriously.
Nate Robertson started the trend, and he blogs about his affinity for gum. Seriously.
The Piranhas vs. Gum Time. Which is the better 2006 baseball trend?
4:29 p.m. CDT – Esteban German, professional hitter. His single to right field put the Royals up, 9-8. If the Royals can hold the lead – remember, we warned you about their bullpen – the Yankees loom for the Tigers. Which means maybe we can save the real World Series – the Twins and Yankees – for the ALCS.
4:19 p.m. CDT – And here I had this whole post ready about the Tigers clinching. They had the bases loaded with one out in the 11th against the Royals. Brandon Inge struck out. Curtis Granderson struck out. Kansas City escaped.
Strikeouts are going to be an awfully big problem for the Tigers. They miss the ball an alarming amount – 1,123 Ks as a team, the worst, by a long shot, of the eight playoff teams.
Also, Jim Leyland really doesn't want to face the Yankees.
Otherwise, it would make zero sense for him to throw his presumed Game 1 playoff starter, Kenny Rogers, in relief, where Rogers is still pitching – and not well. Bases are loaded with one out.
All of this matters because Minnesota won. Not only that, Joe Mauer became the first American League catcher in history to win a batting title, going 2 for 4 with a double to finish the season at .347. Derek Jeter finished second at .343 and his Yankees teammate Robinson Cano third at .342
4:39 p.m. CDT – Love the long memories of New Yorkers:
There can't be any shock over Kenny Rogers spitting the bit in this game. In case no one noticed, the calendar now reads October. And the game actually means something.
4:44 p.m. CDT – Glurgh.
That is the sound of the Detroit Tigers completing their gag of the AL Central. Kansas City just finished a sweep of the Tigers, who go into the playoffs having lost five consecutive games and with their top starter, Kenny Rogers, unavailable until at earliest Game 2, and even then he would be going on three days' rest.
In the end, the Tigers frittered away a 10-game lead and, from Aug. 8 on, finished 19-31. That can't inspire too much confidence in Motown.
4:55 p.m. CDT – Quite the dramatic day, and it's not even close to being over. The NL West still needs a champion, and the NL still needs a wild card. And with San Diego jumping all over Cy Young candidate Brandon Webb, 4-0, and holding the tiebreaker to win the division, it looks like the dangerous Padres will get St. Louis and a major-media-market showdown between New York and Los Angeles is in the offing.
If that holds up, here are the matchups:
• Oakland (AL West champ) at Minnesota (AL Central champ)
• Detroit (AL wild card) at New York (AL East champ)
• St. Louis (NL Central champ) at San Diego (NL West champ)
• Los Angeles (NL wild card) at New York (NL East champ)
5:00 p.m. CDT – The Dodgers just tied the Giants at 3, even though they're using a lineup, as reader Kreg Atterberry pointed out, that doesn't include Nomar Garciaparra, Kenny Lofton, J.D. Drew, Russell Martin or Jeff Kent.
5:11 p.m. CDT – All this game watching and I missed perhaps the biggest news of the day: Cubs president Andy MacPhail resigned.
While the Cubs are still expected to fire Dusty Baker, MacPhail's resignation could indicate a shakeup of their entire management team. The new president likely will want to bring in his own general manager, and current GM Jim Hendry has not exactly distinguished himself over the last two seasons.
This might be the best thing for the Cubs. MacPhail was entrenched, spending 12 years as president and allowing the culture to spoil. The Cubs of today are not the Cubs of 2003, and to see their fortunes degrade that quickly left fans in Chicago – a group that is used to losing, mind you – particularly plucky.
Running the Cubs is a trying job. MacPhail was no longer the man for it.
6:03 p.m. CDT – Sorry, friends. Your humble narrator had to make sure the house looked tidy before his spouse got home. She leaves to visit family for the weekend, I throw a 22-kegger … you know how it goes.
Anyway, the Dodgers are just wrapping up their victory against the Giants, which puts the impetus on the Padres to finish out their game against the Diamondbacks if they want the division title. San Diego is ahead 7-4, and with "Hell's Bells" about to chime and Trevor Hoffman coming on, chances are that the Padres take the West.
Catching up on some e-mail:
Regardless of Wetzel's column saying the Twins should want to face the Yanks in the ALDS, I can't even begin to explain how happy I am to see the Twinkies win the division.
The thought of Boof Bonser, Matt Garza, Nick Punto, Jason Bartlett and Jason Tyner making their postseason debuts under the harsh glare of Yankee Stadium gave me sweats. With a couple games under their belts in Oakland, should they pull out the series win, they might not be so shocked at the playoff atmosphere.
First things first – Twins and Oakland. Who has the edge?
Las Vegas (via Stillwater, Minn.)
I understand Josh's thinking. I happen to agree with Wetz, though, because playing at Yankee Stadium under the playoff glare is going to be intimidating today, tomorrow and even in a player's 20th year. Anyway, the Twins, as much as any team I've seen this year, are level-headed. Torii Hunter keeps them that way. Brad Radke keeps them that way. Mike Redmond keeps them that way.
I like the Twins in five. This is primed to be an epic series, and not just by division series standards.
I think your analysis of the Cardinals' pitching situation today missed something important: this is not a must-win game for them, and wasn't even before Atlanta won. Tomorrow would have been the must-win game. By not starting Carpenter, La Russa kept his options open, having him available for use in the next game that really is must-win, whether that's the first game of the playoffs or tomorrow if things had gone badly today. In my opinion (and I've been on the opposite side of a lot of opinions from TLR this year), this was the correct thing to do.
Los Alamos, N.M.
Bill had some other very nice things to say, so I'll just chalk this up to a respectful disagreement on philosophies. To me, you go for the prize if you can. This would be the equivalent of John Paxson taking the 3-pointer to win the NBA championship. Sure, the Bulls were ahead in the series comfortably – sort of like having to win one out of three, which was the Cardinals' situation – but he went for the jugular. It was like La Russa didn't mind playing that extra game against San Francisco, or, if it came to it, the one-game playoff against Houston.
Oh, well. It's moot now. The Cardinals have Carpenter for Game 1, which is all they care about. Just something to keep in mind when it comes to La Russa's decision making.
6:29 p.m. CDT – What a weird way to end the regular season. San Diego is the NL West champ, Los Angeles the wild card.
Padres closer Trevor Hoffman seemed like he wanted to repeat his Los Angeles debacle, giving up ninth-inning home runs to Chad Tracy and Conor Jackson. With the score 7-6 and a runner on first, a ball was hit to second baseman Josh Barfield, who made a diving stop. Barfield threw to first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, but Gonzalez, seeing that Alberto Callaspo was going to be safe at first, cut the ball off and threw it to second base. Khalil Greene, straddling the bag, tried to place the tag on rookie Chris Young. The tag was late, and even so, he could have just stepped on the bag for the force. He didn't.
For some reason, though, the umpiring crew thought Greene's foot was on the bag and called Young out. So a 4-3-6 force out ends the regular season.
By the way, forgot San Diego was playing in Phoenix. No "Hell's Bells." My bad.
6:46 p.m. CDT – Quick hits on what I said I'd get to later (and never did):
• Derek Jeter: I'm going to stand by this one until the end. And for those who said I didn't apply the same arguments to both leagues: Different circumstances count in different cases. It's not like David Ortiz was in a lineup full of shlubs like Albert Pujols. Were Ortiz carrying a team by himself – he did, at time, but not for the entire season – it would have been a different case.
• Joe Crede: I always get letters accusing me of biases. They're rather funny. One says I am biased toward the Yankees, and the next says I'm biased toward the Red Sox. I understand I cannot win, so I just take them for what they are: letters from impassioned fans. That said, if there is a bias I – or any of my colleagues – can be accused of, it is toward those who we see the most. And I happened to see Joe Crede more than any other third baseman this season. I watched plenty of A's games, Red Sox games and Tigers games, and Eric Chavez, Mike Lowell or Brandon Inge would all be fine choices. Crede's hallmarks, though, were consistency and range, things not judged by errors or putouts, and, for my money, he barehands balls better than anyone in the game, something that goes a long way when choosing the best fielders.
• The Braves: Brian McCann is one of the five best young players in the game. Chuck James has shown how good he can be in the second half. And with a farm system that's still flush, Bob Wickman under contract for next season and John Smoltz and Andruw Jones looking like they'll be back, the Braves – who, incidentally, finished ahead of the Marlins – might not put a huge scare into the Mets, but they will be plenty more competitive than they were this season.
And that is that. The regular season is finito. The first game of the division series are as follows (EDT):
• Tuesday: Oakland at Minnesota, 1 p.m.
• Tuesday: St. Louis at San Diego, 4 p.m.
• Tuesday: Detroit at New York, 8 p.m.
• Wednesday: Los Angeles at New York, 8 p.m.
Thanks to everyone who read along. I realize it's a football Sunday, but I'll take an afternoon of playoff races over that any day.
Keep reading in October. I'll be here every day.