It should be a wild ride to the finish
September is always the best month of the baseball season, and with tight races in four of the six divisions and in both wild-card hunts, it could be one of the more memorable finishes in years.
Here are a few things to watch as we head into the stretch run:
BRAVE NEW WORLD: Perhaps the best part of the 2014 season is the influx of small-market teams in contention and the possibility the Big 2 of the American League East could be home in October.
Unless the Yankees get their act together in the final three weeks, we’re about to see history made. Since the start of the division series in 1995, we never have had a postseason without either the Yankees or the Red Sox.
And since the ’94 postseason was canceled because of the strike, that means the last time one of those two perennial network favorites wasn’t available in October was 1993, the year the Blue Jays and White Sox met in the American League Championship Series (and took a back seat to Michael Jordan’s shocking retirement.)
That’s bad news for TBS and Fox Sports 1, which will have to anoint different teams as their prime-time favorites in October. If the Dodgers and the Angels win their divisions, expect one or both of the California teams to get the royal treatment.
The not-ready-for-prime-time teams in contention include the Royals, Orioles, Nationals, A’s, Mariners and Cardinals. It has nothing to do with whether they’re deserving of the best time slots, but what kind of ratings the TV honchos believe they will pull in.
Everyone may hate the Yankees and Red Sox, but they almost always get viewers.
BULLPEN EXPLOSION: September call-ups have arrived, meaning teams can play with unequal rosters, depending on how many players they want to see play.
It’s one of the craziest things in sports — changing the rules at the end of the season when the games grow in importance. Look for managers with bloated bullpens to make a lot of pitching changes. The Cubs, for instance, have 19 pitchers available, including a 13-man bullpen.
Some have called for changes, including Brewers general manager Doug Melvin.
“I’ve been harping on the September call-ups, that teams should be playing with even teams, 30 on 30,” Melvin said. “That could come into play with competitive balance, with the draft picks.
“The draft picks are so valuable. It’s not totally like the NBA, but a team that wants the higher pick, where I can get excluded from giving up my first-round pick and still get involved in free agency, I might just say I’m only going to play with 25 (players) in September. If someone else wants to play with 35, let them play with 35. Well, that hurts the integrity of the game, but it helps you in the draft.”
Orioles manager Buck Showalter believes having bullpens big enough to throw a new reliever every batter from the seventh inning on is inherently wrong.
“After the seventh inning, you’re never going to get a matchup that’s in your favor necessarily,” Showalter told the Baltimore Sun. “It’s just a different game. I would make every team designate 25 guys before a series — not each game — so it’s fair to everybody.”
CATCH-22: While Major League Baseball executive director Joe Torre said Rule 7.13 — a.k.a. the “Posey Rule” — is here to stay, albeit with some tweaks, opposition seems to be growing.
The rule, which stipulates catchers have to provide a lane to baserunners attempting to score, is intended to prevent serious injuries from collisions.
White Sox manager Robin Ventura may be the most vocal opponent as his team was penalized on both offense and defense. Now Rays manager Joe Maddon has chimed in and even questioned the impetus of the rules change — Buster Posey’s injury from a 2011 collision, when Posey’s leg was broken.
“It should have never happened in the first place; that simple,” Maddon told he Tampa Bay Times. “There was no reason to do it. When it originally occurred, the catcher involved (Posey) was in a bad position. I hate to say it was his fault.
“It was a lot made to do of nothing. I’ll give you the whole speech. I’m not into over-legislation of anything. When you start doing that, you’re running risks. So that was an overreaction to one play.”
MLB is quick to point out no one has been injured seriously under the new rule, which was the point of instituting it.
FAST FORWARD: Two years ago around this time the Nationals shut down ace Stephen Strasburg after 28 starts under a plan designed before the season to protect his surgically repaired elbow, which had kept him out in 2011.
Just before the shutdown, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said he knew he was going to be criticized. The Nationals were having a dream season, and Strasburg was en route to a 15-6 year with a 3.14 ERA.
“I take my beatings,” Rizzo told the Tribune. “But I’m a thick-skinned Italian from Chicago, so that stuff doesn’t bother me. You take it because in the end you can say, ‘I did it my way, and I did it right.’ The easiest thing I could do is say, ‘Take the ball and lead us to the promised land.’ But I wouldn’t be doing the plan justice, and I’d be doing a disservice to Stephen and the Nationals.”
The Nationals wound up losing to the Cardinals in the NL Division Series and didn’t make the playoffs last year, when Strasburg went 8-9 with a 3.00 ERA. Rizzo’s controversial move was debated non-stop.
But now the Nationals are in command in the NL East and Strasburg is dealing again, going 4-1 in August with an 0.98 WHIP, averaging 10 strikeouts per nine innings. Now he’s ready to finish the job he started and has become a better pitcher.
“As you get older, it becomes easier for you to relax out there,” Strasburg told the Washington Post. “I’ve become more comfortable with myself, where I’m at physically. You get out there, and you feel like there’s this overwhelming pressure to live up to the hype of being a No. 1 pick. It’s unfortunate because there’s no learning curve. You are expected to produce. If you don’t, everybody is saying you’re overhyped or overrated.
“It makes you a tougher person, going through all that. (Then) it becomes easier to roll with the highs and lows of the season. The majority of guys have highs and lows. The good ones know how to learn from the negative and stay consistent.”