Pushing The Narratives

The benefit of my current work schedule is the ability to watch Pardon the Interruption, which remains the only ESPN piece of programming worth investing too much time in.  SportsCenter is not as essential as it used to be; much of the analyst shows focused on individual sports are background fodder. Outside The Lines can be very hit or miss, and is subject to the typical ESPN/mainstream blinders on much of its subject matter. Anyway, back to it.

The Four-Letter’s $3 million a year poaching, Rick Reilly, subbed for Tony Kornheiser on PTI yesterday, via satellite from Denver with Michael Wilbon in-studio in D.C., and parroted what I’m fairly sure may be a common impulse among a certain segment of sportswriters regarding the current state of the baseball playoffs: he stated his preference for a Red Sox-Dodgers World Series, proclaiming the Tampa Bay Rays “bad for baseball.”

We probably need to separate that “bad for baseball” comment into two categories: bad for the sport and bad for the business of the sport. There is a vast difference: any die-hard baseball fan or one who merely follows the sport regularly would say a worst-to-first story is not only good for the sport, but also compelling and justifying smart moves by a front office.  Tampa’s entry into the playoffs already yielded more attention to manager Joe Maddon in SI, a likely Rookie of the Year award for third baseman Evan Longoria, and a front office that assembled a solid starting line-up and a roster of budding stars. That’s good for the sport; it gives some leverage behind the idea that baseball’s uncapped salary structure can still yield good things for teams who use their money wisely.

However, if you look at Reilly’s comment in the business sense, it fits. Tampa was 12th out of 14 AL teams in attendance this year, not helped by the reported shittiness of Tropicana Field, and locals are right to ignore a lousy team in a bad park for a while. That doesn’t change overnight, and it’s also part of the trend of questioning whether Florida is really interested in regular-season baseball. (We really won’t have an idea until both the Rays and Marlins’ new facilities open.)  The Dodgers and Red Sox are two of several “glamour teams”; ones that matter to people outside their home markets (the others, in my eyes, are the Cubs, Yankees, Cardinals, and Braves*.) Those are teams that have bandwagons, intense home fans, and ones who don’t drop loyalties when they move in the age of the Internet and MLB.tv.

Dodgers-Red Sox is an easier World Series to sell, and I’m sure it’s the one Fox is clamoring or as we speak.  The Rays aren’t, although everyone loves an underdog story — because there’s not enough to sell. The lore bheind L.A.-Boston is too much, two big cities, Manny Ramirez back in Betantown, the Sox seeking back-to-back titles, etc.  That’s a narrative that writes columns; that’s how Reilly kind of thinks., and it’s what Bud Selig would love to see. (Philadelphia doesn’t have the same pull as Dodgers-Sox, but it’s better to MLB than the other AL choice.)

The Tampa Bay Rays going from worst to first and capping it with a world championship is just another Marlins team beating Cleveland or the Yankees, or a Diamondbacks bloop single. It’s a blip, and won’t register outside of those of us who pay attention. Of course, you know what happens when the narrative gets openly expressed: the underdog shocks us all, and considering my loathing of both the Dodgers nad Phils, along with a need for Boston teams to cool off, I’m riding the Rays right now.

Fuck the cheap narratives, though. Let ’em do some work. Tampa is full of new stories, and that’s good for the sport.

(*I include the Braves because of their near stranglehold on the South until recently thanks to TBS and the lack of pro baseball anywhere else in that region.)

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Stealing Signals: Round One Is Done

Kind of playing catch-up, since I didn’t recap the weekend’s games….

Rays keep moving on, beating the White Sox in 4 – At least the South Side saved some amount of face by taking one game at home, but watching B.J. Upton jack homers in his first two at bats was a sign that Tampa had so much more in that team to move on. It wound up being an easy 6-2 win, and another tack to an improbable story. I am officially on the Rays’ bandwagon for the rest of the playoffs, despite being an NL guy — because I loathe both teams involved in the NLCS.

Red Sox put the Angels away, 3 games to 1 – While the first two games in Anaheim were ultimately anti-climactic, games 3 and 4 gave us moments actually worthy of baseball’s post-season: the Halos pulling one out in extras, even going to Jered Weaver to do it, and Jed Lowrie’s bottom of the 9th heroics for the Sox to end the series now rather than go back to Southern California.  So, we have both league leaders in wins (more on the Cubs later in this entry) eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.  Baseball’s playoffs are not as capricious as pro football or college basketball (“one game and you’re out” is always much more subject to the whim of whatever team comes in hotter), but the Angels’ faltering again could be a symptom of its lousy division — although considering how they beat teams great and lousy across the AL, that may be too simplistic.

Phillies take out the Brew Crew on Sunday – I turned Game 4 off on Sunday after Pat Burrell hit his three-run job off Jeff Suppan, and I suppose we all knew the ending was going to come for Milwaukee in this series at some point, because, sadly, CC Sabathia does not have a bionic left arm.  The Phillies are set up well to try and compete for a World Series championship: plenty of mashers and htiters in that line-up, enough good starting pitching, a decent bullpen, etc.

The Dodgers make a mockery of the Cubs – I’ve written before that these Dodgers reek of 2006 Cardinals, except this team probalby hits a bit better than they did (Albert Pujols notwithstanding; I remember that series being more about good pitching and timely hits rather than offensive assaults.)   The Dodgers feel like one of those unlikely post-season teams that are supposed to go deep; they’re playing with a line-up that hadn’t playing together until the Division Series: it was a combination of injuries (Rafael Furcal), trades (Manny Ramirez, Casey Blake), old age (Blake DeWitt, who shifted from third to second base to replace the aging and bitchy Jeff Kent), and Joe Torre finally giving up on Ned Colletti’s mistakes (Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, and James Loney all not having to cede time to Andruw Jones, Juan Pierre, and Nomar Garciaparra.) That line-up and the Bums’ starting pitching laid waste to the Cubs’, whom, outside of Derrek Lee, appeared to give an effort that would make Little Leaguers ashamed. I have two Cub fans for co-workers, and there is something about that kind of abject failure that inspires streams of swearing usually reserved for those suffering from Tourette’s.

Stealing Signals: Behind The 8-Ball

Dodgers 10, Cubs 3 – Four errors, a bases-loaded double by Russell Martin, another homer from Manny Ramirez, and seven two-out RBIs have Los Angeels one win away from their first playoff series win since 1988.  Two of the four errors came in a five-run second inning against Carlos Zambrano; they were by the usually steady Mark DeRosa and Derrek Lee. Now, they face a hell of task trying to crawl back in with the series headed to Chavez Ravine.

Phillies 5, Brewers 2 – It looks like both NL Central teams may be saying so long to the playoffs sooner than later. Eventually, running on CC Sabathia’s arm was going to produce a problem, and when Shane Victorino took Sabathia out for a grand slam in the second. Brett Myers gave up two runs and two hits in seven innings.

Rays 6, White Sox 4 – Evan Longoria is a fucking beast. Three pitches in his first two at-bats = two homers off Javier VazquezJames Shields threw 6.1 innings, gave up three runs (all on a homer to Dewayne Wise) and the bullpen kept the Pale Hose mostly in check. Carlos Pena left early with an eye injury, not serious — he’ll be back for Game 2 on Friday.

Stealing Signals: Bashing At Wrigley

Dodgers 7, Cubs 2 – Six of the seven Bums runs came off the longball: James Loney’s 5th inning grand slam, Manny Ramirez’s 7th inning solo shot, and Russell Martin added a third blast for another run in the 9th. Wait a minute: the offensively challenged (or so we thought) Dodgers are the ones beating up on Ryan Dempster and the Cubs bullpen? Someone completely flipped this script on us (read: Ramirez.)

Red Sox 4, Angels 1 – The other SoCal team in the playoffs didn’t handle it as well, losing another playoff game to Boston thanks to a go-ahead home run from Jason BayJon Lester handed it off to Justin Masterson, who got out of a jam in the 8th thanks to a bone-headed base-running error by Vladimir Guerrero.

Phillies 3, Brewers 1 – The Cole Hamels Show: 8 innings, 9 strikeoutts, two hits, first 14 retired.  Milwaukee was probably happy to see Brad Lidge in the 9th, but he got out of a jam for the save.

Ill-Advised MLB Divison Series Predictions

So, now that we’ve locked up that last AL playoff spot thanks to a Jim Thome home-run in the bottom of the 7th in what was a fucking epic pitching duel between John Danks and Nick Blackburn, it’s worth taking a quick look at the Division Series.

Red Sox vs. Angels – In previous years, I would have said that Boston is moving on in four or five games. NOt this time. My objection has less to do with any offensive factor missing since Manny Ramirez has been traded than it does with the questionable status of Josh Beckett — he’s set to start Game 3 right now, and is probably the one to go for Game 5 even though the preview says Daisuke Matsuzaka would start a Game 5. Nothing but impressed with Jon Lester, but until proven in the playoffs, he ain’t Beckett. In a battle where both offenses can be very productive, this is a bulllpen matter — and I like the guys the Angels use to get the ball to Francisco Rodriguez better than I like the guys that Boston uses to get to Jonathan Papelbon.  Halos in 4.

White Sox vs. Rays – Whether John Danks and Gavin Floyd can do it in the playoffs has yet to be seen; starting a series with Javier Vazquez does not inspire confidence against the general good work that Tampa’s starting staff has done.  Another concern: not sure how Chicago will hit outside the bandbox that is Not-Comiskey (or U.S. Cellular Field, whatever) in the playoffs. Tampa in 4.

Brewers vs. Phillies – Never count the bats of guys like Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder out, and it was enought o see the Brew Crew battle back to get into the Wild Card slot with plenty of help from a failing Mets team.  However, unless CC Sabathia could be run out to start every game, the rest of the Brewers’ staff will be run down by having to face Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Pat Burrell every game (although Burrell is suffering a slight injury.)  Phillies in 4 games.

Dodgers vs. Cubs – It’s not that I don’t think the Dodgers’ rotation has some good pitchers in it; it’s that outside of Derek Lowe and Greg Maddux, we’re not dealing with anyone particularly experienced in the playoffs. You could say the same about Carlos Zambrano and Ted Lilly, who were there only for a short time last year.  However, the Cubs are much better and more consistent offensively, and while this isn’t a sweep to me, Manny Ramirez alone can’t bring enough playoff swagger to beat a better team. Cubs in 4.

Stealing Signals: NL West Teams Get The Brooms Out.

Rockies 2, Phillies 1 – Crucial stat of the series: the Phillies hit .180 over three games against the Rockies, and failed to really get anything going offensively over a series set in hitters’ parks. Credit Rocky pitching for this: once again Ubaldo Jimenez came through big time for the team, throwing one-run ball in 6.1 innings. Now, Jamie Moyer didn’t do too badly himself, giving up the same number in 6. Pinch hitter Jeff Baker drove in the go-ahead run after Garrett Atkins and Brad Hawpe nailed singles off J.C. Romero in the eighth. I’m just having a hard time even typing “The Colorado Rockies are in the NLCS.” It’s just not quite processing yet. Even if they continue to advance, it won’t exactly go through, and they’re perfectly capable of getting further.

Diamondbacks 5, Cubs 1 – This is old hat for the Arizona franchise and a beat-up fedora for Livan Hernandez, who knows some things about getting to the playoffs and coming up big. It’s new for a lot of the members of this particular Arizona clubhouse, semi-divorced from the days of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. Chris Young wound up giving Livan the lead on Rich Hill’s first pitch, going Alfonso Soriano and driving it into the left field Wrigley bleachers, and Justin Upton drove in the Drew brother that doesn’t suck for a 2-0 lead after half a frame (Stephen hit .500 for the series.) Lou Piniella can now enjoy the six months of rest that Carlos Zambrano so sorely needed after 85 pitches in Game 1. Soriano went 2-for-14 in the series; Aramis Ramirez went 0-for-12.

No one east of the Rockies will give a shit about the NLCS, and we’ll see plenty of cracks about TBS/Fox being less than thrilled with the markets. Fuck ’em. As for the ALDS, let the Red Sox and Indians put the Angels and Yankees out of their misery. Both of the latter teams are hobbled in ways that make them pathetic to watch right now.

Photo: AP/David Zalubowski

Totally Ill-Advised Playoff Predictions For The Division Series.

Let’s get down to brass tacks.

Angels vs. Red Sox — On the mound, the Halos will send John Lackey, Kelvim Escobar, and Jered Weaver against Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Curt Schilling. The first matchup is a wash. Escobar’s a bit more consistent than Dice-K, and Schilling gets the nod over Weaver in terms of quality. Offensively, we all know about Boston’s line-up, but it’s the Angels that have problems, as Gary Matthews Jr. is off the roster for this round with a bad left knee. That leaves only Vlad Guerrero and Garret Anderson with any kind of pop in the bat. Red Sox in four.

Rockies vs. Phillies — Both teams will send four man rotations: Francis, Redman Morales, Fogg, and Jimenez will go for the Rox against the Phillies’ Hamels, Kendrick, Moyer, and Lohse. I’m going to give the Rockies the games not pitched by Hamels or Moyer in terms of advantage. Offensively, the Phillies can out-slug the Rockies, despite how hot the team is right now. Home-field makes a difference here. Phillies in five.

Cubs vs. Diamondbacks — Three starters for the Cubs (Zambrano, Lilly, and Hill) against four for the DBs (Webb, Davis, Livan Hernandez, and Owings). It all depends on which Zambrano we see here. As for offensive production, I give this to the Cubs, who have a more seasoned team playing against one consisting mostly of young’uns with very little experience. Cubs in four.

Yankees vs. Indians — Yes, I’m aware the Indians haven’t beaten the Yankees this season. Trouble is, I don’t know how the Yankee starters will hold up in a short series. They’re running Wang, Pettitte, Clemens, and Mussina out against Sabathia, Carmona, Westbrook, and Byrd. If the Indians have an advantage in starting pitching, the Yanks own the bullpen. Even Mariano Rivera in his declining skill is more trustworthy than Joe Borowski’s 5.00+ ERA as a closer. The Yankees’ bats will crank up for at least two or three of these contests, so New York in five.

Photo: AP/Charles Krupa