Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 19, 2017

Ainge’s Plan A Lasts Less Than Six Minutes

But, Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

Robert Burns, 1785

The legend is that the Bard of Ayrshire wrote “To a Mouse,” the familiar next-to-last stanza of which appears above, after accidentally destroying a mouse’s nest while ploughing his fields in southwest Scotland. Burns’s brother went so far as to claim that the poem was conceived on the spot, while Burns still held the plough.

However the verse came to be, Danny Ainge, Brad Stevens and fans of the Boston Celtics are now acutely aware of the bitter truth contained in those old lines written by a young Scot, for they are a firm reminder that in sports, as in life, no amount of calculation and planning can guarantee a sure result.

As noted here just two months ago, Boston fans cheered when general manager Ainge finally saw fit to part with some of the plethora of potential he had obtained in various trades, beginning with the wholesale fleecing of the Brooklyn Nets for the aging Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett in 2013. With that and subsequent deals Ainge’s stockpile of draft picks and young players – assets, as he often refers to them – grew, but he repeatedly passed up opportunities to exchange some of them for a proven star.

Celtics fans grumbled at each perceived missed opportunity, but the disappointment turned to delight when Ainge sent star point guard Isaiah Thomas along with three of the assets, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and a first round pick in next year’s draft to Cleveland in exchange for All-Star Kyrie Irving, who scored the basket that won the 2016 NBA title for the Cavaliers. Irving longed to escape Cleveland, where he played in the oversized shadow of LeBron James, for a new team where he would be the focal point. The trade made him part of a new Big Three at the TD Garden, with center Al Horford and the Celtics’ prize free agent signing, former Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward. The 27-year old, who played his two seasons of college basketball under Stevens at Butler, was the most highly coveted player eligible for free agency in the recent offseason.

Boston’s record has improved every year since Stevens arrived in the summer of 2013, with the team winning 53 games in the regular season and advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals last year. But there the Celtics appeared overmatched while losing to the Cavaliers, four games to one. Ainge’s reshaping of the roster and the arrivals of Irving and Hayward gave fans hope that their team might finally be ready to join the NBA’s elite.

Perhaps in time that hope will be realized, but the Celtics immediate prospects shifted dramatically just five minutes and fifteen seconds into the new season on Tuesday night. The opening game against Cleveland, billed as a rematch of the Conference Finals and featuring Irving’s return to his former arena, took on a wholly different storyline when Hayward landed awkwardly on his left foot after trying to convert an alley-oop play on a pass from Irving. Television viewers and the sold-out crowd at Quicken Loans Arena saw Hayward’s ankle bend most unnaturally as he collapsed to the hardwood. Players on both squads were visibly shaken by the gruesome injury, which proved to be a fractured tibia and dislocated ankle.

Hayward was taken to the locker room on a stretcher. He was later flown back to Boston, where Wednesday evening he underwent what a team release described as “successful bony and ligamentous stabilization surgery” at New England Baptist, one of the country’s premier orthopedic hospitals. While the Celtics’ statement said there “is no timetable for his return,” the one certainty is that it won’t be this season. And while the press release also assured fans that Hayward is “expected to make a full recovery,” there is no guarantee, given the devastating nature of the injury, that he will return to the All-Star level of performance that led the Celtics to offer him a four-year, $128 million contract.

With one-third of their new Big Three gone, the Celtics quickly fell behind the Cavaliers, trailing by as many as eighteen in the second quarter. Boston rallied, nudging ahead late in the third quarter and leading by three with just over two minutes to play. But from there Cleveland closed on a 7-1 run, winning 102-99. One night later the Celtics were back in Boston for their home opener. Fans cheered a video message from Hayward played on the Jumbotron before the start of the game. But the contest against the Milwaukee Bucks gave the TD Garden faithful little reason to applaud, as Boston faded late for the second night in a row. Leading 89-86 with about seven minutes remaining, the Celtics were outscored 11-1 over the next four minutes. From there the Bucks coasted to a 108-100 victory.

Two games out of eighty-two are scarcely definitive, but the sabermetric projection at FiveThirtyEight.com now forecasts a sub-.500, 37-win season for Boston. If that proves accurate the Celtics won’t be contending for a title because they will almost certainly miss the playoffs.

Boston’s actual record will be determined by the team’s play on the court rather than a computer algorithm. Much is now going to be asked of two very young Celtics, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. In his second season after being chosen by Boston with the third overall pick in the 2016 draft, the 20-year old Brown is showing early promise. With 25 points against Cleveland and 18 against Milwaukee, he’s been the leading Boston scorer in the first two games. In that miniscule sample, he’s also shooting 50% from the floor. Tatum, a year younger than Brown and the third overall pick in this year’s draft, was expected to fill a reserve role in his rookie year. Now he will see many more minutes than planned and must mature in a hurry.

If Brown and Tatum both grow into their suddenly expanded roles, taking some of the pressure off Irving, the Celtics may yet have a winning season. Brad Stevens has proven adept at getting the most out of whatever roster he is given, so perhaps he will find a way to guide his squad to the playoffs. But for Celtics fans, after all of Ainge’s dramatic offseason moves, dreams of an 18th title run became dreams deferred less than six minutes into the new season. You know what they say about best-laid plans.

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Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 15, 2017

Dominance And Disappointment, Together Again In D.C.

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
the band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
and somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
but there is no joy in D.C. — mighty Harper has struck out.

When Bryce Harper swung at and missed a 90 mile an hour cutter from the right hand of Cubs closer Wade Davis not long after Thursday night had given way to Friday morning, another Washington Nationals season came to an abrupt and what surely felt like a premature end. As Harper and his teammates headed for the home clubhouse at Nationals Park while Cubs players raced onto the field to celebrate their NLDS triumph over Washington, no one could blame Nats fans for feeling like they had once again been rooting for the Mudville Nine.

Since Harper’s Rookie of the Year season in 2012, Washington has won the NL East four times in six years. The team averaged more than 96 wins in those four campaigns, and even counting the two “down” years when they finished second in the division and missed the playoffs, the Nationals have averaged more than 92 wins over the last six years. This year Washington was the first team to secure a spot in the postseason, clinching the division less than a week after Labor Day. When the final out of the longest season was recorded, the standings showed the Nationals a whopping twenty games clear of the second place Miami Marlins.

All that regular season success has brought with it no shortage of individual honors. In addition to his rookie award, Harper was named the National League MVP two years ago, and both he and third baseman Anthony Rendon will likely appear on some best player ballots this year. Max Scherzer is the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner, and is thought to be locked in a tight race with the Dodgers Clayton Kershaw for this year’s honor. Fellow starter Stephen Strasburg will also receive Cy Young consideration. Rendon was last year’s NL Comeback Player of the Year, and this year’s award is likely to find its way to the other corner of the diamond, where first baseman Ryan Zimmerman has had a renaissance season. Washington skippers have also won a pair of Manager of the Year Awards during this run, with Davey Johnson honored in 2012 and the now unlamented Matt Williams winning in 2014; the latter proving that the voting members of the Baseball Writers Association don’t always get it right.

What Washington’s dominance over the 162-game schedule has not presaged is postseason success. When Harper went down swinging in Friday’s wee hours, it marked the fourth time in as many tries that the Nationals failed to advance beyond the divisional round. Fans in D.C. know the tale of woe all too well.

In 2012’s decisive Game Five, Washington jumped ahead of St. Louis 6-0 after just three innings, to the delight of the full house at Nationals Park. But the Cardinals pecked away, closing to 6-5 after the top of the 8th. Washington tacked on an insurance run in the bottom of the frame, and closer Drew Storen came on in the 9th to send the Nationals on to the NLCS. But after retiring two of the first three batters he faced, Storen imploded. Two walks and two singles later St. Louis had plated four runs, and led by the eventual final score of 9-7.

Two seasons later Storen was again the goat, this time in Game Two. Washington had dropped the first game of the series to visiting San Francisco, but looked ready to even the series behind a magnificent pitching performance by Jordan Zimmermann. With two outs in the 9th and after retiring twenty consecutive batters, Zimmermann walked Joe Panik. Manager Williams summoned Storen to protect the 1-0 lead. Instead he yielded a single and a double that tied the score. After 18 innings and nearly six and one-half hours of play, the Giants finally pushed across the go-ahead score. Down two games to none and heading west, the Nationals never recovered, losing in four games.

Last season the Division Series again stretched to its maximum, and the Nationals sad denouement again came in front of their frustrated fans. Washington led Los Angeles 1-0 going to the 7th inning. More than an hour later, after seven pitching changes, four pinch-hitters, two pinch-runners, and a double switch, the inning ended with six runs having crossed the plate. Four of the six scored in the top half, putting the Dodgers on top by the eventual final score of 4-3.

And now another year and another final Division Series loss at home. Thursday night’s game turned in the 5th inning, when the Cubs turned a 4-3 deficit into a 7-4 lead. Chicago managed just one well-hit ball in the inning, a double by Addison Russell. But around that blow the Cubs used an infield hit, a bloop single in front of two charging outfielders, a wild pitch, a throwing error by the catcher, catcher’s interference and a hit batsman to maximum effect. This time it was Washington trying desperately to rally through the late innings, but in the end coming up just short, with the 9-8 final.

The pill is especially bitter because over these six seasons, the six other teams that have played in three or more Division Series have all managed to advance at least once, and all but Boston have made multiple trips to the LCS. The Red Sox, Tigers, Cardinals, Giants and Cubs have also further advanced to at least one World Series, with Boston, San Francisco, and Chicago all winning championships. The Dodgers have the most Division Series appearances with five. While L.A., like Washington, hasn’t made it to the final round, the Dodgers have at least moved on to three League Championship Series, including the one in which they are now battling the Cubs.

The multiple disappointments and the often bizarre way that games have played out has left some fans wondering whether the Nationals are somehow jinxed. They aren’t of course, any more than the Red Sox were cursed by selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees or the Cubs by the ejection of Billy Sianis and his odiferous goat from Wrigley Field. Rather it is all just a sad reminder that no matter the talent on the field, the random nature of the Great Game always plays an outsized role in the short Division Series.

Of greater concern to the Washington faithful should be the very real possibility that the window for this version of their team is closing. Much was made of the team signing Strasburg to a seven-year deal, but that contract includes player opt-outs that he could exercise after either the 2019 or 2020 seasons. As good as Scherzer has been for Washington, he’ll turn 34 in the middle of next season, just a couple of months before the resurgent Zimmerman does the same. And of course, Harper is on track to test the free agent market after next year. He’s expected to command a record-setting contract that’s likely to be well beyond the reach of the Nationals.

As they have so often in recent seasons, the Nationals will gather in Florida for next year’s spring training as the early favorite to win their division. Should they go on to do so, they will open play in a fifth NLDS with a renewed sense of urgency, knowing that for this team and its fans, time is running out. Maybe, just maybe, in that potential series the gods of the Great Game will acknowledge that by now, they surely owe the Nationals one.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 12, 2017

Underdog Yankees Embrace Their Unusual Role

The New York Yankees are in the American League Championship Series. Love or loathe the boys from the Bronx, fans of the Great Game would all concur there have been plenty of years when that sentence would be regarded as a statement of the obvious rather than noteworthy. This will be the Yankees sixteenth appearance in the LCS, more than any other team in either league. With eleven wins in their fifteen previous trips, New York also has the highest LCS winning percentage of any major league franchise with more than two trips to the penultimate round of the postseason. None of those numbers are surprising, given the franchise’s forty World Series appearances and twenty-seven titles, numbers that dwarf the runners-up in both categories.

But this was not supposed to be one of those years. When the Yankees left training camp in Tampa for the short trip across the Howard Frankland Bridge to St. Petersburg and Tropicana Field to begin their regular season with three games against the Rays, the conventional wisdom was that while the team had the potential of youth, it was still a couple of seasons and some improved starting pitching away from contending. A finish a game or two on either side of .500 was the common forecast, good enough for perhaps third place in the AL East.

The collective judgment of the baseball media seemed, if anything, a bit optimistic when the Yankees dropped two of those three to Tampa Bay, and then the first two of their next series in Baltimore, to finish the first week of the longest season at 1-4. But then they ran off eight wins in a row, vaulting to the top of the division. By the middle of June New York was fifteen games over .500 and four games in front of Boston. But as spring gave way to summer the Yankees were unable to sustain their hot start, gradually losing their grip on first place and for a time seeming headed for that middling finish predicted by so many. Then just as any number of pundits were clearing their throats before issuing a collective “we told you so,” New York tore through September with a 20-9 record, staying in the division chase until the regular season’s next to last day and easily capturing the AL’s top Wild Card slot.

Given those early expectations, it was a finish that marked the season as a highly successful one. Had the Yankees gone quietly in the Wild Card play-in game, as they did in 2015, fans in the Bronx would have tempered any disappointment with thoughts of a job well done and looked hopefully to the future. But it is now apparent that the members of this team have other ideas. The Yankees have now won four elimination games, coming back in both the Wild Card contest and the Division Series just when their situation seemed most dire.

They trailed Minnesota 3-0 within the first twenty minutes of the Wild Card game, with starter Luis Severino able to record but a single out before being pulled. They trailed Cleveland two games to none in the best-of-five ALDS after manager Joe Girardi bumbled away Game Two with errors of both commission and omission. But this surprisingly resilient team, displaying a resolve that belies the youth and playoff inexperience of so much of its roster, picked up its ace in the Wild Card and its manager in the Division Series, rallying first to beat Minnesota 8-4, and then to take three straight against heavily favored Cleveland, the last in front of a partisan crowd at Progressive Field.

The young Yankees played crucial roles in those victories. Didi Gregorius evened the score with a three-run homer in the bottom of the 1st of the Wild Card game. The 27-year old shortstop added a pair of home runs in the deciding game of the Division Series, both off Corey Kluber, a favorite for the AL Cy Young Award. Gregorius has now come fully into his own, known from here on simply as the Yankees shortstop rather than Derek Jeter’s successor.

Greg Bird, New York’s 24-year old first baseman, scored the only run of ALDS Game Three with a 7th inning home run to right, one inning after 25-year old Aaron Judge made a leaping catch at the wall to rob Francisco Lindor of a homer that would have staked Cleveland to a 2-0 lead. While he was largely absent at the plate in the Division Series, Judge did provide an RBI double in Game Four after clubbing his first postseason home run against the Twins in the Wild Card game. Gary Sanchez, the 24-year old catcher, added a homer of his own in Game Four, while the 23-year old Severino rebounded from his Wild Card disaster with seven strong innings.

But in the end, on Wednesday night, when New York sent Cleveland and its fans home for the winter, it was three veterans who made the difference. CC Sabathia, David Robertson, and Brett Gardner are the only members of the current Yankees roster who also played on the 2009 team that won New York’s last title. After all the heroics of the kids, it was the performances by these three 30-somethings that vaulted the Yankees to their sixteenth LCS.

At age 37 and with a bulky brace on his right knee every time he takes the mound, Sabathia is at the end of his career. Potentially overmatched against Kluber, Sabathia held Cleveland at bay into the 5th inning. When the Cleveland ace was lifted in the top of the 4th, Sabathia had yet to allow a base runner. Of the thirteen outs he registered, nine were by strikeout.

When Sabathia tired in the 5th, allowing four straight singles and a pair of runs, Girardi signaled for the 32-year old Robertson. He needed just two pitches to escape the jam, inducing a double play grounder off the bat of Lindor. Robertson then shut down Cleveland’s bats through the 7th, giving New York 2 2/3 innings of stellar relief while allowing but a single base runner.

Then in the top of the 9th, with New York clinging to a one run lead and the heart of the Cleveland order ready to bat in the bottom of the frame, the 34-year old Gardner, the longest-tenured Yankee, came to the plate with two on and two out. Cleveland closer Cody Allen quickly got ahead in the count, a ball and two strikes. A curve in the dirt evened things up. Gardner fouled a 95 mile an hour fastball back, then checked his swing on another one that was out of the strike zone. With the count full and the runners going, the Yankees left fielder then fouled off five straight pitches, refusing to yield in an epic battle between moundsman and batter. Finally, on the twelfth pitch of the at-bat, Gardner lashed a single to right, easily scoring Aaron Hicks from second. When Austin Jackson’s throw from the outfield was wild, Todd Frazier scampered home as well, giving New York and closer Aroldis Chapman room to breathe at the last.

So, the New York Yankees are in the American League Championship Series. Whether they end their season with a parade up the Canyon of Heroes or are swept out of the ALCS by an outstanding Houston squad, this band of Yankees has already succeeded wildly beyond all expectations. Next year of course, things will be different. Having proven they can win, fans and the media will once again demand nothing less of these Yankees, as they have of so many previous editions. But for the moment this unheralded team, kids and veterans alike, are just basking in the moment, and playing like they have nothing to lose.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 8, 2017

A Really Bad Time To Have A Really Bad Night

It’s the job of a manager to make decisions in the heat of the moment, and the prerogative of fans and pundits to second guess those calls with the luxury of hindsight. Managerial judgment is exercised in every game, but scrutiny of many of the calls made from April to October gives way to the grind of the longest season. However, once the playoffs start the spotlight burns brighter, and every time a field skipper makes a choice that impacts a game, both the media and the paying patrons are quick to weigh in.

The truth of that statement was accentuated by a New York Times article published as the Division Series round was getting under way. In it the veteran sportswriter Filip Bondy suggests that this year’s playoffs will provide an opportunity for Chicago Cubs skipper Joe Maddon to redeem himself. Bondy criticizes Maddon’s handling of closer Aroldis Chapman in the final two games of last season’s World Series, and suggests that Cubs fans “have a natural fear that Maddon will go slightly bonkers again.” The minor detail that Chicago triumphed in that World Series, ending the Great Game’s longest title drought, is apparently an insufficient accomplishment to absolve Maddon of the need for managerial redemption.

But whatever moves Maddon or any of the other managers still filling out lineup cards make between now and the time Rob Manfred hands the Commissioner’s Trophy to some happy team owner, it seems certain that the field general judged most deficient in the 2017 postseason will be the Yankees Joe Girardi. On Friday night, with his team poised to even their Division Series against Cleveland at a game apiece, a combination of actions and inaction by Girardi paved the way for a crushing loss that left New York’s playoff hopes on life support.

After being stymied by Cleveland’s Trevor Bauer and two relievers in a 4-0 first game loss, the Yankee offense came alive against Corey Kluber. Gary Sanchez launched a two-run homer in the 1st inning, and two innings later, after Sanchez had scored from second on Starlin Castro’s sharp single, Aaron Hicks belted a three-run shot to right field that chased Cleveland’s ace. The Yankees added two more in the 5th and appeared to be cruising, leading 8-3 behind the pitching of CC Sabathia. The veteran left hander had settled in after some early difficulty, retiring eleven in a row heading to the 6th inning. He had also been working efficiently, with a pitch count that stood at just 70 through five frames. So after walking Carlos Santana to start the 6th, then getting Jay Bruce to line out to short, Sabathia must have been surprised to see Girardi come out of the dugout, signaling to the bullpen.

The decision to end Sabathia’s night early was debatable, but the accompanying choice to rely on the same set of relievers Girardi had taxed in the Wild Card play-in game was downright ill-advised. Chad Green threw 41 pitches in that contest, and David Robertson threw a career-high 52. Yet Green and Robertson were the first two relievers Girardi called for Friday night. Ultimately both would surrender critical home runs.

But first the game and very possibly the Yankees season turned on something Girardi didn’t do. After Green got Austin Jackson to fly to right for the second out, he surrendered a double to Yan Gomes, with Santana moving to third. Pinch hitter Lonnie Chisenhall then fouled off six straight pitches, before Green’s seventh offering came in tight on Chisenhall’s hands. Home plate umpire Don Iasoggna ruled that Green had hit the batter, sending Chisenhall to first and loading the bases. Catcher Sanchez immediately signaled to the Yankee dugout to check the replay video, believing the ball had hit not Chisenhall’s hand but the end of his bat. Since it then deflected into Sanchez’s glove, the call should have been a foul tip caught for the third strike, ending the inning. On the bench Chase Headley was also calling for a replay challenge, having seen that the batter never flinched, a natural reaction when one is hit by a 96 mile per hour fastball.

Replays clearly showed that both Sanchez and Headley were correct, and that New York should have been out of the inning, its 8-3 lead intact. But Girardi never signaled for a replay review, because Brett Weber, the assistant coach who reviews replays in the clubhouse, was unable to communicate what had happened to the dugout in time. When Francisco Lindor hit Green’s next pitch over the right field fence for a grand slam, the tide had turned. The overworked Robertson surrendered a solo homer that tied the game in the 8th, and Cleveland eventually walked off 9-8 in 13 innings.

After the game New York’s manager first offered the feeble excuse that he hadn’t wanted to disrupt his pitcher’s rhythm with the delay of a review. By Saturday, amid a barrage of fan and media criticism, Girardi offered a more honest answer. “I screwed up,” he said, adding, “And it’s hard. It’s a hard day for me.”

As screw ups go, this one was catastrophic. A team that knocks out the opponent’s ace in the postseason must win that game, because if a short playoff series goes the distance one can expect to face that ace twice, with long odds of being able to rough him up in back-to-back appearances. Instead of a huge victory the Yankees left Cleveland in the deepest of holes, facing elimination from the postseason.

More than anything, Girardi’s decisions in Friday’s game reflect his over reliance on systems and statistics. For years he had with him in the dugout a thick binder containing information on the opposing team, history of matchups between pitchers and hitters, and charts showing various tendencies of every member of both rosters. While the binder is no longer immediately at hand during games, he’s never denied that it’s still back in the clubhouse. Before the meaningless final game of the regular season Girardi allowed that he prepared a “few less charts.” While the statistics may have indicated that Chad Green was the better matchup than Sabathia for the situation in the 6th inning, being a slave to the binder blinded the manager from seeing that his starter was still effective, or that his favored reliever may have been gassed.

Similarly, the Yankees have the best record in baseball at winning replay reviews, thanks to Weber and the system in place to quickly study the tape and signal the dugout when to challenge. But Girardi’s devotion to that system meant that the failed to trust his players, including Sanchez who was closest to what should have been the inning-ending foul tip.

Sunday evening fans at the Stadium showered Girardi with boos when he was introduced prior to Game 3 of the ALDS. His contract is up at the end of this year, and there are now plenty of folks in both the stands and the press box calling for his head. But as badly as he failed on Friday, Joe Girardi has been very successful since taking over the Yankees helm in 2008. His .562 winning percentage is best in the Great Game over that period. From 2012, the last time New York played a postseason series, through last season, Girardi’s teams met or exceeded their sabermetric expected wins based on runs scored and allowed every year, three times by six wins or more. That is a testament to his ability to coax everything possible out of the roster he’s given.

Whether that will be enough to extend his tenure in the Bronx remains to be seen. Hopefully Hal Steinbrenner and Brian Cashman will consider the full body of Girardi’s work, and not just one abject night. And hopefully Joe Girardi will learn from the disaster at Progressive Field that great managers may rely on systems and statistics, but also know there are times to trust one’s instincts, and one’s players. The only certainty is that like author Judith Viorst’s famous character Alexander, on Friday the Yankees manager had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 5, 2017

The Postseason Starts With Wild Card Drama

For both the participants and their fans, the two opening games of the baseball playoffs are a jarring change from the routine of the longest season. For six months, from the chill of early spring through midsummer’s heat and on into the crisp days of autumn, the Great Game’s calendar unfolds at a languid pace. Teams meet in multi-game series, more often than not of three contests at a time. String together two or three of those and one has defined a home stand for the host squad. While traditional rivalries capture attention, ultimately each game, all 162 of them, is equally important in the standings.

Then the postseason begins with each league’s Wild Card Game, and suddenly for four teams all the work that has gone before hangs in the balance of a single contest, and the sense of desperation in both the dugouts and the stands is palpable. Mutual elimination games are common in the postseason tournaments of other sports. The win or go home atmosphere adds to the frenzy of March Madness and the theater of the NFL’s road to the Super Bowl. But starting with the Boston Americans’ rallying from a three games to one deficit for four straight wins to defeat the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1903’s inaugural best-of-nine World Series, baseball’s postseason has always been about multi-game series.

That was true through the long decades of the last century, as the World Series settled in at a best-of-seven affair, and even as each expanding league split into divisions and an opening League Championship Series was added in 1969, and then further expansion created three-division leagues that necessitated the addition of a Wild Card team and a preliminary Division Series round in 1995.

The Marlins became the first Wild Card entrant to claim a title in 1997. Five years later a second Wild Card turned World Series champion was guaranteed when the best second place team in both leagues advanced to the Fall Classic, with the Angels beating the Giants in seven games. That was the first of three straight Series going to a Wild Card and six consecutive years in which one made it to October’s final round. The success rate led to the suggestion that teams that were making it into the postseason without even winning their division were not being penalized sufficiently for their regular season shortcomings. Along with a desire to bring more franchises into the late season playoff chase mix, this in turn resulted in 2012’s introduction of a second Wild Card in each league, with the two best second place squads engaging in a one game play-in game for the right to advance to the Division Series.

Mutual elimination games are obviously possible in a multi-game series, but most of the time a winner is crowned before the maximum number of contests is reached. Since the advent of the second Wild Card there have been thirty-five multi-game series in the three playoff rounds, with just thirteen, or less than forty percent, going the distance. Ten of the thirteen have been in the best-of-five Division Series. In the longer best-of-seven series, only the 2012 NLCS and the 2014 and 2016 World Series have been stretched to a Game Seven.

In that same period fans have seen St. Louis spot Atlanta a pair of runs in 2012 before rallying to win the first National League play-in game 6-3. As the first Wild Card the luckless Pittsburgh Pirates had home field three years running. But after easily handling the Reds 6-2 in 2013, Pittsburgh’s batters managed just nine hits and not a single run in the next two Wild Card games combined, losing 8-0 to the Giants in 2014 and 4-0 to the Cubs one year later. The Giants prevailed again on the road in last year’s NL Wild Card, breaking a scoreless tie with three 9th inning runs to silence a full house of Mets fans at Citi Field.

The American League has seen Houston’s Dallas Keuchel dominate the Yankees in the Bronx in 2015, just one of several reminders that in any single game home field may not prove that much of an advantage. In the ten play-in games prior to this year, the visiting team won seven. That trend started in the very first year, when the Cardinals won on the road and Tampa Bay shut out Cleveland at Progressive Field, after surviving a one-game playoff against Texas, needed when the Rays and Rangers finished tied for the second Wild Card spot.

The most dramatic victory by a home team prior to this year was in 2014, when the Kansas City Royals came to bat in the bottom of the 8th trailing Oakland 7-3, just six outs from the end of their season. But the home squad plated three in the 8th and one more in the 9th to force extra innings. The A’s reclaimed the lead in the top of the 12th, only to have the Royals respond with two of their own for the victory. Catcher Salvador Perez struck the decisive blow, a single to left that brought Christian Colon home from second with the winning run.

This year’s contests were especially worthy of the title “wild.” In the Bronx on Tuesday night, the Stadium went from raucous to funereal and back in the space of a very long 1st inning. Yankee fans roared with approval when ace Luis Severino took the mound, only to sit in stunned silence when he allowed a leadoff home run by Minnesota’s Brian Dozier, and a two-run shot by Eddie Rosario just three batters later. A single and a double followed, prompting New York manager Joe Girardi to go to his bullpen with just one out in the 1st inning.

But reliever Chad Green slammed to door on the Twins with a pair of strikeouts, and then New York evened the score in the bottom of the frame, with shortstop Didi Gregorius stroking a three-run homer to right after Brett Gardner led off with a walk and Aaron Judge followed with a single. Green, David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle and Aroldis Chapman combined for twenty-six outs from the Yankees bullpen, while Gardner and Judge both homered as New York pulled away from Minnesota 8-4.

One night later and more than 2,000 miles to the west, the Arizona Diamondbacks jumped on the Colorado Rockies early, scoring three in the 1st, one in the 2nd and two more in the 3rd to take a commanding lead. But the Rockies refused to go quietly, finally getting to Arizona starter Zack Greinke in the 4th inning. As fans in Phoenix nervously cheered on their heroes, Colorado twice closed to within a run, at 6-5 and 8-7. Finally, in the bottom of the 8th center fielder A. J. Pollock plated two with Arizona’s fourth triple of the game, sealing the win for the Diamondbacks.

There are plenty of baseball people who don’t like the play-in game. They lobby for a best-of-three and cite, with good reason, not just tradition but the random nature of the Great Game. For all that has gone before, a season could be undone by a single fluky play in a game that is win or go home. But the reality of the schedule is that short of having the World Series compete with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, this contest is here to stay. And with plenty of drama and tension on every pitch, the Wild Card play-in game makes for an electric start to the Great Game’s postseason.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 1, 2017

Postseason On Tap, Three Starters Tell Three Stories

“You can never have too much starting pitching” is one of the fundamental truisms of the Great Game. Proof of that can be found at Citi Field, where a once promising Mets season ended in despair in no small part due to a host of injuries to what had so recently been deemed one of the best starting rotations in baseball. While the Metropolitans may be this season’s prime example of the adage, they are just the latest franchise to see hopes come a cropper when starting pitchers underperform.

What is true over the grind of the longest season is amplified once the playoffs begin. Whether it’s the crap shoot of the Wild Card play-in game, the best of five Division Series, or the best of seven League Championship and World Series that follow, teams that can send out reliable hurlers capable of shutting down opposing batsmen through the first five or six innings are at a decided advantage. Those with a truly dominant ace, one who can work his magic deep into a contest’s later frames, begin the postseason with at least one hand on the Commissioner’s Trophy.

Over their final three meaningful games of the 2017 regular season, the Yankees reminded their fans of the crucial role of the starting pitcher. The first of those contests was Thursday evening in the Bronx, the final of a three game set against the Tampa Bay Rays. The Yankees had won the first two and were assured of hosting the AL Wild Card game on Tuesday. But they were hoping for a sweep as they continued their longshot chase of the Boston Red Sox for the AL East title. New York was three back of Boston with four to play as the teams took the field. Sonny Gray, the 27-year old right hander acquired from Oakland at the trade deadline was given the task of holding the visitors’ bats in check.

That he might have trouble doing so quickly became evident. After striking out the Rays’ leadoff hitter, Gray sent a four-seam fastball in to Corey Dickerson, who deposited it into the second deck in right field to give Tampa Bay a 1-0 lead. While that was the only run plated by the Rays, before the inning was over Gray walked Lucas Duda, the first of four free passes he issued in just the first three innings.

Yankee batters did their part. Brett Gardner evened the score with a leadoff home run in the bottom of the first, and Aaron Judge followed with a long ball of his own, his league-leading 51st of the year. Todd Frazier singled home Jacoby Ellsbury in the 2nd, and Greg Bird smacked the third New York homer of the game in the 4th inning, giving Gray a 4-1 lead.

But as Gray took the mound in the 5th the vibe in the Stadium was not what one might expect given the score. It had taken the Yankees’ starter until the 4th inning to hurl a clean frame. He’d been saved in the 2nd when a fine throw by left fielder Gardner gunned down Daniel Robertson, who was trying to score from second on a Mallex Smith single. Just as fans feared, the roof caved in on the shaky Gray. In the course of twenty-six increasingly labored pitches, he surrendered two sharp singles, allowed runners to advance and score on a pair of errant deliveries – the first ruled a wild pitch, the second, although arguably just as wild, a passed ball – issued yet another walk and then gave up a lead-changing home run before yielding one last single. By the time manager Joe Girardi pulled his starter the 4-1 lead had vanished, and the Rays were on their way to a 9-6 victory.

Less than 24 hours later the Yankees were back out on the Stadium’s field, this time facing the Toronto Blue Jays in an unusual Friday afternoon game, the start time of which reflected the franchise’s desire to get the game in before the start of the Yom Kippur holiday. This time it was Masahiro Tanaka on the mound, and this time the feeling in the Stadium was different from the start. Tanaka struck out the side in the 1st before the Yankees plated a pair to take the lead after the opening inning. New York’s starter added another strikeout in the 2nd and two more in the 3rd. Mixing splitters and sliders with extraordinary movement, and the occasional fastball to keep Blue Jay hitters guessing, Tanaka retired the first fourteen batters he faced before Ezequiel Carrera managed an infield single with two outs in the 5th. Carrera stole second, which apparently angered the normally mild-mannered Tanaka. After four pitches to the next hitter, Tanaka suddenly whirled and picked Carrera off with a perfect throw to shortstop Didi Gregorius.

When he walked off the mound at the end of the 7th inning, Tanaka had allowed no runs and just three hits. Striking out at least one batter in every inning, New York’s starter finished with a career high fifteen K’s and no walks. Tanaka acknowledged the raucous standing ovation with a tip of his cap after perhaps his finest outing as a Yankee. David Robertson, Dellin Betances, and Aroldis Chapman finished up the 4-0 shutout.

Saturday afternoon’s start went to the 37-year old veteran CC Sabathia. The one-time fireballer now relies on guile more than power, and with his contract at an end and his right knee in a brace every time he pitches, this was almost certainly his last regular season appearance in pinstripes. If so, the pitcher who was instrumental in bringing a championship to the Bronx in 2009 made it a memorable one. For 5 2/3 innings he flummoxed Toronto batters with a mix of pitches. Sabathia struck out six and walked no one while allowing only four hits and just one batter to reach second base. Always proud of his work, Sabathia has been known to argue with Girardi if he feels he’s being pulled too soon. But on Saturday he left the mound with a big grin even as Yankee fans rose as one to salute him.

By that time New York had a 2-0 lead, thanks to Aaron Judge doing what Aaron Judge does; namely sending a ball 484 feet into the wind over the left field bleachers and onto a walkway in front of the wall displaying retired numbers. Judge’s 4th inning monster blast was followed by a second run plated in the more mundane way of single, advance on a wild pitch, score on another single. While the Blue Jays did finally end their scoreless streak with a run in the 8th, the fine outing by the Yankees’ starter paved the way to a 2-1 New York win.

The Yankees and all other major league teams played one final game on Sunday, with the new tradition of all games on the season’s last day starting at the same time. But this year there was not a single race or even postseason seeding at stake, so in place of scoreboard watching the longest season’s final day saw fifteen exhibitions. Now it’s on to the playoffs, which open in the Bronx Tuesday evening with the AL Wild Card play-in game between New York and Minnesota.

So many months ago, when teams broke training camps in Florida and Arizona and headed for Opening Day, the biggest question mark for the Yankees was the quality of their starting pitching. Now a team that was supposed to be in a rebuilding year is in the playoffs, about to face another feel-good story in the Twins, who rebounded from 103 losses in 2016 to the second Wild Card this year. As Yankee fans saw this weekend, how far their heroes or any of the ten playoff contestants go will depend ever so much on their starters. Because as someone once said, you can never have too much starting pitching.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 29, 2017

September Falls Silent At NH Motor Speedway

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life is traveling, and this post was slightly delayed as a result.  Thanks as always for your support.

They were the first days of autumn, but one wouldn’t have known it from the summer heat in central New Hampshire last weekend, when NASCAR brought its traveling road show to the Granite State. Temperatures that called to mind days at the beach rather than apple picking were a reminder that starting next year stock car racing’s premier circuit will make only one stop at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, in July. The second weekend, a part of NASCAR’s September schedule for more than two decades, is being transferred to Las Vegas, one of eight other tracks owned by Speedway Motorsports, Inc., better known as SMI.

The decision to move both the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and the Camping World Truck Series races to the Nevada desert was announced last March, and was as unwelcome to racing fans in this part of the country as a late winter blizzard. Still while undeniably bad news the loss of the fall race weekend was not unexpected. The Magic Mile, the concrete oval set in its unlikely location along a secondary road in tiny Loudon (population 5,317), came into existence in 1990, realizing the dream of local businessman Bob Bahre. He had bought Bryar Motorsports Park and almost 1,200 acres surrounding the old road course less than a year earlier. With the help of just a single surveyor, Bahre supervised construction of the 1.06 mile speedway and grandstands in a mere nine months.

Within weeks of its opening Bahre’s New Hampshire International Speedway hosted its first NASCAR event, a race in the developmental Busch Series (now the Xfinity Series). Just three years later the first NASCAR Cup Series race was held, and in 1996 the second Cup Series race was added to the schedule. Fans flocked to the track from all six New England states and the provinces of eastern Canada, drawn by the growing popularity of stock car racing as the sport aggressively sought to expand far beyond its southern roots. Additions to the speedway’s grandstands pushed capacity to 101,000, making the track New England’s largest sports and entertainment venue. Twice a year the stands were packed with cheering throngs, each person doing his or her best to will their favorite driver to victory lane. Exiting the track after a Cup Series race on Sunday was an exercise in extreme patience, as long lines of traffic inched out of the parking lots onto Route 106.

The second race in New Hampshire became possible when Bahre and Bruton Smith, head of SMI, joined forces to purchase North Wilkesboro Speedway, an aging short track in the North Carolina mountains. North Wilkesboro was the very first track sanctioned by NASCAR in 1949. But its remote location, small seating capacity and aging infrastructure made the venue expendable to the leaders of a rapidly expanding sport. Bahre and Smith shuttered the track, with each taking one of North Wilkesboro’s two Cup Series races for their own facilities.

A bit more than a decade later his relationship with Smith made SMI the obvious entity to turn to when Bahre, now ready to retire, decided to sell. The transaction led to the renaming of the Loudon oval to the “Motor Speedway” title used by almost all of SMI’s facilities. But of far greater concern than a name was the possibility of SMI transferring one of New Hampshire’s dates to a larger track with only a single Cup Series race. It took almost a decade, but the news New England race fans had long dreaded finally arrived.  The maneuver that gave the Loudon track its second race was now used against it, with Smith opting to reward one of his other properties at the expense of his recent acquisition.

So this time the usual excitement of race weekend was tinged with melancholy. The last September race did bring a larger crowd than has been the case of late. Like virtually every NASCAR facility, the track at Loudon has felt the pressures of a sport that went from rapid expansion to serious retrenchment through last decade’s recession. Large sections of the north grandstand have been replaced by a hospitality platform and parking for RVs, reducing seating capacity to 88,000. Even with those changes recent years have seen empty rows throughout the remaining grandstands. But declining attendance is a NASCAR problem, not just a New Hampshire one. Other tracks have made far more drastic changes, including removing 58,000 seats at Daytona and 67,000 at Charlotte.

Part of NASCAR’s response to its attendance issues has been to cease announcing attendance figures. But an eyeball estimate put the crowd for Saturday’s doubleheader of the 175 mile truck race and a Whelen Modified 100 mile event at perhaps 30,000, with upwards of 75,000 on hand for Sunday’s main event, both decidedly higher than the recent norms.

Saturday the familiar face of Bobby Santos took the checkered flag in the Modified race. The Massachusetts native had driven to victory in July’s Modified event as well, making Santos the first driver to sweep that division’s races at New Hampshire since Ryan Newman in 2010. The emotional win came just one week after his close friend and mentor Ted Christopher, one of the Modified division’s most successful drivers, was killed in a plane crash in Connecticut.

Before Santos’s win Christopher Bell dominated the truck race as he has dominated that division’s season. Bell’s win was his fifth of the year; no other regular truck series driver has more than two.

Sunday’s ISM Connect 300 went to Kyle Busch, in a race that was upended near its midpoint. Martin Truex Jr. had the best car through practice runs and qualifying, and led through most of the early going. But on lap 150 Kevin Harvick and Austin Dillon bumped coming out of turn two, with the former going sideways down the back stretch. The massive smoke cloud created by Harvick’s squealing rubber blinded the drivers following, causing a multi-car wreck. Truex was among those dinged in the pileup, while Busch managed to maneuver his way through unscathed. After that Truex’s car was never the same, and Busch sailed to victory, his 12th overall in various series at the Loudon oval.

Now NASCAR moves on, beset by distractions and doubt. Dale Earnhardt Jr., the face of the sport, is retiring at the end of the year. Fan favorites Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, and Carl Edwards have all recently climbed out of their cars. Matt Kenseth and Danica Patrick, the former a two-time Daytona 500 winner and 2003 Cup Series champion and the latter the only female Cup Series driver and NASCAR’s second most popular driver behind only Earnhardt, are both without rides for next year. The competition among manufacturers has become one-sided with Toyotas winning eight of the last eleven races.

Despite those issues, with just a single visit next year the grandstands at New Hampshire Motor Speedway may once again be filled to overflowing. Or perhaps, between those problems and feeling abandoned by the sport, many fans in New England will decide they’ve seen enough.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 24, 2017

The Annual Reprise: Closing Time In The Bronx

A NOTE TO READERS: The following reflection, originally written after the final game played at the old Yankee Stadium on September 21, 2008, is republished every year near the anniversary of that event. That grand cathedral of the Great Game is long gone now. In its place is Heritage Field, a public park with baseball, Little League and softball diamonds sharing a common outfield. As the regular season winds down, fans headed for the new Stadium across East 161st Street sometimes pause to watch the young people playing on the old hallowed ground. If they are lucky and the fading light of late afternoon is just right, they may catch a fleeting glimpse of the ghosts of baseball glory.

One more Sunday in the Bronx. One more ride on the 4 train from midtown Manhattan up to the 161st Street station. One more winding one’s way up the ramps and along the narrow passageways of The Stadium. One more walk up the entryway directly behind home plate, and at last out into the open of the Tier, the upper deck with its vertigo-inducing pitch. Down the steep steps of Section 607 to Row A, Seat 16. Second row on the aisle, looking down on the batter’s box for left-handed hitters. All of the ballpark is once again spread out before me; from the huge interlocked NY in foul ground behind home plate, out to Monument Park. It is the same routine as at all the many previous games this season, and in seasons past. It is the same, but of course it is entirely different; because this Sunday evening, it’s closing time.

Why should it matter really? The Stadium is ancient. They’ve played the Great Game here for nearly 90 years. The mid-70’s renovation made it an entirely different place that the old heroes would scarcely recognize. Long gone are the days when the monuments were in play in that deepest of center fields, while the right field foul pole seemed but a pop fly away from home plate. It’s only concrete and steel. And the new stadium being built across the street will offer far superior creature comforts for both players and fans. But still, we all know that tonight it’s closing time.

What does it matter? The pre-game ceremonies serve to remind. The introduction of a pantheon of heroes, whether by video, by actors walking into center field, or by their presence in the flesh, brings back a flood of memories of all that has happened here. Right here, on the southwest corner of 161st Street and River Avenue in the Bronx. Whatever form the concrete and steel around it may have taken, it all happened on this field.

It was here that the Babe homered in the very first game; and here was where he set the home run record that stood for almost two generations. On this field Roger broke it on an October afternoon in 1961.

At this location a still-young hero, cut down by an insidious disease, stared death in the face and pronounced himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

Right here in the months before America went to war, Joltin’ Joe hit, and hit, and hit again; until a record was established that still stands, and may well defy the maxim that they are all made to be broken.

In this infield, along the first baseline, Yogi leapt into Larsen’s arms to celebrate something that had never been done before in a World Series, and has yet to be repeated in the Fall Classic.

Across the impossible green of this outfield Mickey ranged, for more games than any other Yankee (a record eventually broken by a certain shortstop several years after this was written).

Right here, right in that left-handed batter’s box below me, Reggie flicked his wrists three times and became Mr. October. With those three magnificent swings he brought new hope to a city obsessed with the Son of Sam.

And here too it was that a previously unsuccessful manager was given one more chance, and found a way to lead a team to phenomenal and repeated success, as an old century ended and a new one began. We are reminded of all of that as prelude, and still we have a game to play.

That game unfolds like so many others, because the ebb and flow of the Great Game is unfailing. The visiting Orioles take the early lead, then we come back; but the question of who leads at the end is somehow more important this time. Because it is the last time. Tonight it’s closing time.

Andy Pettitte is not dominant, but then domination is not his style. Pettitte is a grinder who pitches to contact and counts on being good enough to win. After we trail early Johnny Damon homers to bring us back. And then Jose Molina homers into the visitors’ bullpen in left field to put us ahead. So now we wait for the last home run at The Stadium. Because it cannot come from Molina, a .215 hitter whose most recent blast was just his third homer of the year. But after more than eight decades The Stadium appears to have its own mind; and it gives Molina a place in its history to remind us that along with the stars, there were thousands of bit players without whom 26 championships would never have been won.

So it comes down to the 9th inning, which for the Yankees and their fans means but one thing. The bullpen gate opens, he walks through a step or two before pausing a moment on the outfield warning track as always; and then Mariano Rivera, the last active player wearing number 42, begins his jog in to the mound. We fans erupt, and in doing so relax; for we know that victory is at hand. Mo faces three batters, throws eleven pitches, and the final game is won.

And so, at last, it really is closing time.

But we stay. We stay and cheer for this ground and all that has happened right here. Then the captain, that aforementioned shortstop, assembles the entire team in the middle of the infield. He acknowledges the history, the tradition, the excellence, and most of all, the fans. He invites us to bring our memories across the street, and by so doing wed them to new memories as yet uncreated and pass the whole history on to the next generation. Then he leads his team around the field in appreciation of us, all four million of us who have walked the aging ramps and passageways this final year. We are grateful for the latter, and we will of course do the former. But as the clock strikes the beginning of a new day we all know, players and fans alike, that on this side of 161st Street, it’s closing time.

But still we stay. We cheer. We take pictures. We stand silently. We gaze at the immaculate swath of green and brown through eyes moistened by a flood of remembrances. We are in awe, fans and players alike; not of each other nor of the cement and steel and cantilevered decks, but of all that has happened here. Right here. Right here. We stay in the stands. They stay on the field.

It’s closing time. But on the field and in the stands, there is not one among us who is ready to leave.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 21, 2017

The Era Of The Dinger Has Arrived

Let’s return to the very first game of the longest season, all those months ago. In the bottom of the 2nd inning, before decidedly less than a full house at Tropicana Field, Tampa Bay’s Evan Longoria lined the second pitch he saw from the Yankees’ Masahiro Tanaka into the left field seats. It was the first home run of Major League Baseball’s 2017 campaign. It would not be the last. The Rays added another homer later in that first contest, and five more were hit that Sunday in the two games that followed, three in the contest between the Giants and the Diamondbacks, and a pair in the matchup between the Cardinals and the Cubs.

The long balls continued the next day, as almost all the other teams got into action (the Tigers and White Sox were rained out). There was the season’s first walkoff blast in Baltimore, a pair of leadoff homers that staked the Phillies and Astros to quick leads neither team would relinquish, and the fifth moonshot in as many Opening Days by Bryce Harper, to highlight but a few of the 26 balls soaring over fences on that first Monday of play.

April turned to May, and in time spring yielded to summer, and now the first day of autumn is at hand; just two weekends remain in the regular season. Through all of the games from that opening Sunday until this week, the surge in home run production has continued. Giancarlo Stanton of the Marlins leads the majors, stroking his 56th Wednesday night, helping Miami rout the Mets. The Yankees’ Aaron Judge hit his AL best 45th earlier the same day as New York rolled over the Twins. Stanton still has a shot at the non-steroid record of 61, and Judge might still overtake the rookie mark of 49, set by Mark McGwire in 1987.

But this season of home runs has not just been about a couple of sluggers chasing records. All up and down lineups for both contenders and also-rans, batters have been swinging for the fences and connecting with never before seen frequency.

During the 2000 regular season hitters racked up 5,693 home runs, the most in the history of the majors. The Great Game last expanded in 1998 with the addition of the Diamondbacks and Rays. With two more teams in the mix that was the first year that total home run production topped 5,000 and it remained above that threshold for nine straight seasons, including 2000’s high water mark. Of course most of those years were during a time when the swings of some number of sluggers were chemically enhanced. The record was set four years before MLB introduced mandatory testing for PEDs.

Whether because of stiffer drug testing or other factors, home run production dropped below 5,000 in 2007. From that season through 2015 the 5,000 homer barrier was breached only once, in 2009. Just three seasons ago, in 2014, total home runs fell to 4,186, the lowest number in two decades. From that trough the rise has been as dramatic as any towering drive by Stanton or Judge. There was an increase to 4,909 in 2015 and a further jump to 5,610 last season. Which bring us to Tuesday of this week, and its full slate of fifteen contests. As the games got underway a record was ready to fall.

The season long tally stood at 5,677 as play began. In Miami, the Mets’ Jose Reyes quickly added to the total by leading off the game against the Marlins with a drive to right. A short while later, on Florida’s other coast, Chicago’s Kyle Schwarber got the Cubs on the board with a 2nd inning solo shot in a game against Tampa Bay. The evening wore on and the home runs kept flying, as they have all season long, until finally Detroit’s Alex Presley hit the 5,693rd homer of 2017, the fourth of six balls hit out of Comerica Park on Tuesday.

A few minutes later and a couple hundred miles to the northeast, Kansas City’s Alex Gordon strode to the plate at the Rogers Centre in Toronto. It was the 8th inning of a late season game between two teams with losing records. The Blue Jays had a comfortable 5-1 lead, and Toronto manager John Gibbons had just gone to his bullpen, bringing in Ryan Tepera in relief of starter Marcus Stroman. Gordon, the Royals’ leadoff batter in the inning, gradually worked the count full before fouling off a 95 mile per hour fastball. Finally, on the seventh pitch of the at-bat, Blue Jay’s catcher Russell Martin set up inside, but Tepera’s cutter drifted back over the heart of the plate, and Gordon squared up. The ball sailed into right center, easily clearing the fence, and history was made.

Before the night was out another thirteen homers were hit, the last one a solo shot by the Angels’ Justin Upton, long after fans on the east coast had gone to bed. At the season-long rate of about 2.5 homers per game, the old record will be thoroughly shattered by the time the final regular season out is recorded next Sunday, with 2017 almost certainly becoming the first 6,000 homer year.

The dramatic power surge has left both fans and pundits searching for an explanation. Mindful of baseball’s problems at the turn of the century, questions about performance enhancers naturally come to mind. But while all our sports will always have those participants who believe they can get away with cheating, MLB’s testing program is sufficiently rigorous that the idea of wholesale abuse is highly improbable, if not outright laughable. Some players firmly believe that it’s not the hitters but the ball that is juiced, but commissioner Rob Manfred insists that no changes have been made in either the specifications or manufacturing process of the official Rawlings baseball.

The most likely answer lies in a fundamental shift in the approach to batting now taken by most players. Vastly more data is available to players now than at any time in the past, allowing hitters to develop swings that maximize launch angle and exit velocity. Modern metrics have largely eliminated the curse of the strikeout, once every hitter’s bane. Now the “K” is regarded as just another out, no worse than a flyball to the warning track. That frees up batters to swing away, and yes, along with home runs, total strikeouts are up as well.

The result is a shift to a power game, which has some traditionalists lamenting the demise of the old strategies of hit-and-runs, stolen bases, and the timely bunt. But the truth is that for all its timelessness, the Great Game is also always changing, and players, both at the plate and in the field, are always finding ways to adapt. These years may one day be known as the Home Run Era, but keep in mind that we’re but two years removed from Alex Gordon’s Royals winning the World Series while hitting just two homers, and one of those didn’t leave the park.

Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 17, 2017

Leishman Turns Boston Debacle Into Chicago Triumph

When last we saw Marc Leishman he was taking 40 shots to complete his walk around the back nine of TPC Boston in the final round of the Dell Technologies Championship. The 33-year old Australian had arrived at the first tee on Labor Day sharing the 54-hole lead with playing partner Justin Thomas. Leishman vaulted into sole possession of first place by the turn, scorching TPC Boston’s front nine with six birdies to go out in 30. But as the bogeys piled up on the more demanding inward half of the golf course, he sank back down the leader board just as quickly. By the time he arrived at the 18th green, Leishman’s round had descended into slapstick. From thick rough in front of the putting surface, he shanked a chip shot through the legs of an NBC cameraman standing to his right.

In his eighth season on the PGA Tour, Leishman has recorded a pair of wins, the most recent earlier this year at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. That’s enough for his name to be recognizable to close followers of the Tour, though he readily acknowledges that he still flies under the radar to casual golf fans. His closest brush with real golfing fame came at the 2015 Open Championship. At soggy St. Andrews Leishman and Zach Johnson both came from three shots back in the final round to catch Louis Oosthuizen and force a four-hole playoff. But he immediately bogeyed the 1st hole while Johnson and Oosthuizen were both making birdies. In the end Leishman was just one more applauding spectator when Johnson lifted the Claret Jug.

Sunday at the BMW Championship, the penultimate event in the Tour’s FedEx Cup Playoffs, the question for Leishman was not about what happened two years ago and an ocean away, but rather the far more recent debacle outside of Boston. For after hacking his way home at the Dell, Leishman returned to action at the BMW and immediately made his presence known. He birdied three of his first four holes on Thursday on his way to an opening 62 to seize the first day’s lead at 9-under par. Leishman followed that up with nearly as good a round on Friday, settling for a 7-under par 64 that left him three shots clear of fan favorite Rickie Fowler and fellow countryman Jason Day.

In Saturday’s third round Leishman saw his lead reduced to one before he had played even a single hole, when ahead of him Fowler nearly drove the green on the short par-4 opening hole and then sank a curling 24-footer from just off the putting surface for an eagle. But Fowler couldn’t follow up on his flashy start, making ten straight pars before dropping a shot at the 12th. In the end, he signed for a 1-under round of 70, the exact score recorded by Day and Patrick Cantlay, Leishman’s next closest pursuer.

With his closest competitors stuck in neutral, Leishman expanded his lead going into Sunday. Playing with Day, he went out in 1-under 34 thanks to three birdies offsetting a pair of bogeys, then birdied the par-4 13th and par-5 18th for a 3-under 68, moving him to 19-under par through 54 holes.

The final birdie by the straight-hitting and unassuming Leishman was instructive. Day, the 2015 PGA Championship winner and former world number one who is still in the top ten in the rankings, outdrove Leishman by a good forty yards on the reachable par-5. But he then hooked his second into a greenside bunker, where it plugged near the lip. From an awkward stance and impossible lie, Day did well to splash the ball onto the green, twenty feet from the hole. Leishman’s approach with a longer club was straight, as they almost always are, and rolled just through the green. From there he chipped close to the hole for the tap-in birdie, while his better known and longer hitting but more erratic companion settled for a par. That exchange gave Leishman a comfortable five shot edge; with one round to play any remaining doubt about the outcome centered on his recent collapse.

Golf is a game that requires both perfect memory and absolute amnesia. The sport’s top practitioners hone their skills through repeated practice, training their muscles to respond in exactly the same way every time the club is swung. But the mental aspect of the game is every bit as important, and it is there that memories can often do more harm than good. Like baseball, golf is one of our games that is as much about managing failure as it is about reveling in success. The greatest golfer of his time, Tiger Woods has won just over 25% of the PGA Tour events in which he has played, meaning of course that almost three-quarters of the time he has come up short of victory. And Woods’s winning percentage is phenomenally high!

So Leishman’s job on Sunday was to keep his mind clear of any thoughts of his most recent final round, to avoid any moment of self-doubt when a shot went astray. He helped himself with a birdie on the opening hole, and showed his resolve when after recording a bogey on the par-4 5th hole he immediately bounced back, holing a 25-footer for birdie on the 6th. He turned in 2-under 33, with Fowler and Day keeping pace but not charging. Rather it was Justin Rose, who started seven shots adrift, who came barreling through the pack.

But when Rose closed to within two late in the round, Leishman more than held his nerve. Two weeks after closing with back-to-back bogeys, this time he sank a long birdie putt on the 15th, a short one on the 16th, and added one final birdie at the last to balloon his final margin back to where it had started, five shots. With the win, he jumped to fourth place in the FedEx Cup standings heading into next week’s Tour Championship, where each of the top five players can win the Cup and its $10 million bonus by winning the tournament. Given a second chance, Marc Leishman forgot about failure and by doing so captured the biggest win of his PGA Tour career.

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