Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 19, 2013

Ten Days To Go, And Tito Has Cleveland In The Mix

From the first days of early spring through the hot summer months the longest season has unfolded. Now at last, as chill nights return and the calendar prepares to turn to autumn, we come to the final ten days. No race is over until it’s over, as fans of the 1964 Phillies and 2007 Mets were so brutally reminded, to pick just two of many teams that appeared to have titles well in hand until they didn’t. But it would take a collapse of similarly epic proportions for five of the six division races to go to any squad other than the one currently in first place.

With the best record in the majors, the Red Sox should clinch the AL East before the coming weekend is out. But they won’t be the first team to claim a division title. That honor went to the Dodgers, who became NL West champions Thursday afternoon with a 7-6 come from behind victory over the second place Diamondbacks. The win and the title capped a remarkable second half for Los Angeles, who seemed to be going nowhere early in the season; to the point that manager Don Mattingly was widely presumed to be on his way out.

Now the Atlanta Braves, with a wide margin in the NL East, will race Boston to be the next team across a divisional championship finish line. And while their leads are narrower, both the Tigers and A’s in the AL Central and West have opened up some daylight over their closest pursuers. Only the NL Central crown remains in serious doubt. There in the heartland the Cardinals, Pirates and Reds have spent all season battling one another and taking turns atop the division. For the moment at least, the Cardinals rule.

The likely consolation prize for whichever two NL Central teams fall short of winning the division is a matchup in the Wild Card play-in game. While the Nationals have been the Great Game’s hottest team in September and remain alive in the NL Wild Card race, Washington faces daunting odds and little time. The Nats need to run the table while one of the Central Division franchises plays sub-.500 ball in order to make up the 5 ½ game deficit they faced at the start of play on Thursday. Coming off a 98 win season, Washington was a popular pick to go to the Series back in the halcyon days of Spring Training. But there were too many days with too little offense at Nationals Park; and GM Mike Rizzo lost his bet, made last winter when he signed free agent Dan Haren to fill out Washington’s rotation, that the right hander’s mediocre 2012 was an aberration rather than a sign of things to come.

But if little drama remains in all but one of the division races and if the only real question about the NL Wild Card is which team will host the play-in game, things are far from settled in the battle for the two AL Wild Card spots. The Rays and Rangers should have emerged as the likely winners by now, but both teams have stumbled down the stretch. In the process of doing so Texas turned what looked like a repeat of last year’s thrilling division race with Oakland into a comfortable lead for the A’s.

Four teams sit right behind Tampa Bay and Texas, all believing that they have a legitimate shot at a ticket to the postseason. In truth for Kansas City and New York the shot would better be described as long. It’s not the amount of ground that the Royals and Yankees need to make up. Both started Thursday with identical 82-70 records, just 2 ½ games behind the Rangers and 3 ½ behind the Rays. But between them and the current Wild Card leaders sit both Cleveland and Baltimore. That means that in order to claim a Wild Card slot either the Royals or the Yankees need to both win most of their remaining games and have at least three of the four teams ahead of them go into a swoon. That’s asking for an extraordinary amount of help, and explains why the Baseball Prospectus Postseason Probability Index gives both Kansas City and New York less than a 5% chance of playing in October.

But that still leaves the Rays, Rangers, Indians and Orioles fighting for the chance to extend their season by at least one game, with the winner of that game moving on to the ALDS. If that series started today the opponent for the Wild Card winner would be Boston. For one reason alone a lot of Sox fans are hoping that the team that arrives at Fenway Park for Game One of the ALDS turns out to be Cleveland. That reason is Indians’ manager Terry “Tito” Francona.

Beginning in 2004 Francona spent eight mostly successful seasons at Fenway as manager of the Red Sox. In his very first campaign he led Boston through a torrid second half to a 98-64 finish, good for the then single Wild Card spot in the playoffs. After sweeping the Angels in the divisional round, Francona’s Sox fell behind the Yankees three games to none in the ALCS. But Boston didn’t lose again that year, rallying to beat their hated rivals in seven and then sweeping the Cardinals in the World Series. In his first year as Boston’s manager Francona had guided his team to the Great Game’s first ever playoff rally from a three game deficit, and then ended 86 years of misery for an entire region of baseball fans.

Had he done nothing else while managing the Red Sox, 2004 alone would have been enough for Francona to be forever loved in New England. But he added a second title three years later, as well as three other appearances in the playoffs. Sox fans are quick to point out that while the Yankees may have 27 championships, in this century New York has only half as many as the Old Towne Team.

In 2011 Boston won 90 games, but a win total that in other years might be impressive was in fact a sign of dismal failure. Leading the AL East by 9 games at the beginning of September, the Red Sox collapsed to a 7-20 record over the final month, tumbling all the way to third place in the division. Shortly after the final game the team announced it was not exercising its 2012 option on Francona’s contract.

Had it ended there, fans probably would have understood that it was time for a change. But the parting of the ways was followed by a series of media leaks disparaging Francona and suggesting that he had lost control of the team. Francona is a player-friendly manager, and there’s no question that some players on that year’s roster took advantage of that fact. But the campaign to impugn a popular manager backfired, and stirred up fan resentment. That only grew when 2012 turned into a disaster under the leadership, if one could call it that, of the anything but player-friendly Bobby Valentine. The 2012 Red Sox played to wide swaths of empty seats, and when Francona returned for the 100th anniversary celebration of the ballpark he walked on the field to a raucous reception.

Now the manager who helped Boston break the Curse of the Bambino has moved on to Cleveland, a club with which he has a history. Francona’s father was an All-Star outfielder for the Indians half a century ago; and the son spent one season of his journeyman career with the team, then another in the front office after his playing days ended. Cleveland hasn’t had a winning season in five years, but in his first year as manager Francona’s Indians are assured of a winning record and took the field Thursday night just a half game behind Texas for the second Wild Card spot. Their remaining games are all against Houston, Minnesota and Chicago, the teams with the three worst records in the American League.

Whether or not Cleveland emerges from the tight AL Wild Card scramble to play on into October, Francona’s first season as manager there has already been a success, and will only add to his reputation as one of the game’s best skippers. But perhaps the stars will align. Perhaps the Indians will make the most of their soft closing schedule to grab one of the two Wild Card slots, and then go on to win the play-in game. Perhaps the Red Sox will maintain their slight lead for the league’s best record, and thus face the Wild Card winner in the divisional round. If that’s how the longest season’s final ten days play out, the one certainty is that one of the biggest ovations at Fenway Park during the introductions before Game One will be for the manager of the visiting team.

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