Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Final Curtain

A Postseason that's been sublime will go the distance, as the Royals and Giants will seal the final chapter on the 2014 Baseball Season with Game 7 of the World Series tonight. The Royals, who returned home to their madhouse of fans in Kansas City needing to win to force a 7th Game, ensured that this would take place rather early in the game, bombarding Jake Peavy for 7 runs in the 2nd inning on their way to a convincing 10-0 victory.

This was a much-needed breakout for the Royals, who hadn't scored a run since the 3rd inning of Game 4 on Saturday night. That night, the Giants put together multiple middle-inning rallies and eventually overwhelmed the Royals, and on Sunday night, the Royals were little more than a minor irritant for Madison Bumgarner, who basically just swatted them aside, throwing a complete game, 5-0 shutout to put the Giants one win away from a World Series Championship.

In fact, take each game of this series individually and it hasn't exactly been the world's most exciting series. The first two games resulted in blowouts. Game 3 on Friday night in San Francisco was, to this point, the only close game of the series as the Royals used some timely hitting and their bullpen, surprise surprise, to eke out a 3-2 victory. Game 4 was wild early until the Giants pulled away late and Game 5 was all Bumgarner. And last night, Yordano Ventura pulled a reverse-Bumgarner, throwing 7 shutout innings at the Giants while his offense exploded for an avalanche of runs.

But consider this World Series, which is indeed going the 7-game distance along with this Postseason as a whole and it's easy to overlook that this series has, at times, lacked in excitement. Perhaps it's excitement enough that it's the World Series. Certainly, that must be true if you're a fan of the Royals or the Giants. Consider the preamble to the World Series—it's been one of the best Postseasons that I can remember as far as pure drama from game-to-game. After the way both LCS's played out, one-sided series with fiercely competitive games, it's hard not to simply be locked into this World Series just to see what happens next.

It hasn't exactly been a by-the-book series. These postseasons are so long now that players who got hot during the Division Series have now cooled off, and new hot hitters have emerged in their place. Players like Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer, who were on a roll in the ALDS, have been supplanted by Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain as the hot hand (though Moustakas did hit his first Home Run of the series last night). For the Giants, it's been someone lesser like Brandon Crawford getting the job done. But that's usually how it works in the Postseason.

And so, it all comes down to one final game tonight, the breathless, frenetic energy that is Game 7 of the World Series. Conventional wisdom and strategy is often eschewed in favor of survival of the fittest. The starting pitchers for the game, Tim Hudson and Jeremy Guthrie, could be considered simply ceremonial—if things don't go well for either of them, the hook will be quick—and anyone could come in, and probably will.

One thing's certain. After tonight's game comes to a close, the next time we worry about live Baseball Games will involve the Mets sometime in Late February of 2015.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Summit

I guess the first thing you can say about the two teams that made it to the World Series this year is that playing in the Wildcard Game doesn't put you at quite the competitive disadvantage we're led to believe. Both the Giants and Royals played in this game, both won, the Giants doing so on the road and the Royals by coming back from a 4-run deficit, and basically rode the momentum from there. Since the Wildcard Game, the Giants have won 7 of their next 9 games to get to the World Series, riding Madison Bumgarner's arm, Pablo Sandoval's bat and Hunter Pence's hair. If you think that's impressive, the Royals won all 7 of the games they played in the ALDS and ALCS, first by outlasting the Angels in a pair of extra inning games and then beating them off the field completely, and sweeping the Orioles behind their bunch of relievers that throw 95+ and some absurdly good Outfield defense.

The point is, rest and Home Field Advantage doesn't exactly hold much water in the MLB Playoffs. If you're going to win, you have to be able to play some real Major League Quality games and pull off some of those out-of-nowhere plays. Both these teams have capitalized on clutch defense as much as anything else, and then they get key hits from unlikely sources. We've all seen the games and I don't think I need to name all the names, but just to give you some example, this has been a Postseason where guys like Travis Ishikawa and Lorenzo Cain have emerged as household names.

So, that brings us down to the World Series, where we have the San Francisco Giants, winners of 2 of the last 4 World Series Championships, against the Kansas City Royals, winners of 1 of the last 30 World Series Championships. I'd like to think that America would decidedly be behind the Royals, and that's certainly where I'm throwing my support, but I've seen quite a bit of ink in favor of the Giants. I can understand it. The Giants are going to come out tonight with Bumgarner and they're probably going to win and beat KC's best starter, James Shields. But after that, the Royals have some pluck and guts of their own that can match the Giants in Yordano Ventura, Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie. The Giants counter with a trio of the wiliest of veterans, Jake Peavy, Tim Hudson and Ryan Vogelsong. Bumgarner can turn a game by himself. None of these other guys can. When the bullpens are inevitably summoned, conventional wisdom favors the Royals because they have 3 guys in Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland that can lights-out you. The Giants lights out guy is Yusmeiro Petit, a middle reliever who ought to be under consideration for a Game 4 start given how well he's pitched lately. Otherwise, their relievers don't strike fear into the hearts of men, but they do manage to get the job done more often than not. Offensively, the Giants also gain an advantage by getting to use Michael Morse as the DH in Kansas City and KC loses out by having to sit Billy Butler in the middle games in San Francisco.

Ultimately, I'm going to go with the Royals in 7, because that's just how I see it. I don't know if there's going to be anything crazy, but I'd look out for some weird happening sometime around Game 6. Figure Bumgarner will win his games, KC will win Game 2 at home, one game in SF and come back and win the final two games at home. Maybe something out of the ghosts of Don Denkinger will take place and the Giants will cough up the 6th game, but Whitey Herzog and Joaquin Andujar won't be around to get tossed from Game 7 and I think Bruce Bochy is a little too mild-mannered. Still, the Royals seem like the team of destiny here.

Monday, October 20, 2014

A Forgettable Affair

It wasn't going to be an easy matchup for the 49ers on Sunday night, heading into the rarefied air of Denver's Mile High Stadium to take on the Crown Prince of Football Peyton Manning and the unstoppable Denver Broncos. These Broncos could have gone to the Super Bowl two years ago, and last year they did, only to find themselves flattened by the Seattle Seahawks. Now, they appear primed to make another run, solely because Peyton Manning is still standing. The 49ers, well, have been uneven to this point this year. At 4-2, they were in a decent position but they hadn't yet played their best game. But you harkened back to last January and you had to think that if the 49ers had managed to make it through Seattle and gone on to play Denver, they likely would have stomped the Broncos themselves. You carried that thought in the back of your mind as the 49ers went into Denver for a glitzy, glamorous, Sunday night affair. Certainly, they could hang with these guys, right?

DAHHHHHHH...NOPE!

The 49ers, playing with a patchwork offensive line and a porous linebacking corps that already didn't have Navorro Bowman and Aldon Smith and for this week also didn't have Patrick Willis were little match for the Peyton Manning Parade, as Mr. Man lit up the 49ers for 318 yards and 4 Touchdowns as the Broncos pretty much wiped the floor with the 49ers, 42-17.

There was very little redeeming about this effort from the 49ers. They were behind from the start; after Colin Kaepernick was sacked by DeMarcus Ware on the 49ers first possession, they punted away and the Broncos offense shot right down the field for a Touchdown. The 49ers miss a Field Goal, Broncos Touchdown. Down 14 on the road in St. Louis was one thing, but in Denver, with the Broncos rolling and their stadium of 800,000 rocking, things looked rather grim really early. Though the 49ers defense eventually did stop the Broncos, the offense was stagnant and could only generate a Phil Dawson Field Goal early in the 2nd Quarter. What happened next? You guessed it, Broncos Touchdown. All on passes from Manning to one of the Broncos receivers that looks infinitely better than they deserve to because of who's throwing him the ball.

At this point, it was 21-3 and I was beginning to lose interest. The 49ers scored a cosmetic Touchdown shortly before halftime when Kaepernick strung together a nice drive, finding Brandon Lloyd for a long gain to set up a Stevie Johnson TD, and maybe at 21-10 at the Half you might think things could turn, but I wasn't fooled. The 49ers came out in the 2nd half and Kaepernick almost immediately threw an Interception to Aqib Taqib on a play where he ostensibly threw a pass to where Stevie Johnson wasn't. Guess what. Another Broncos Touchdown, one play later.

At this point, I'd had enough. I was getting tired and the 49ers were getting creamed. And yet there was nothing else on to watch, so I was stuck. At some point, both Quarterbacks exited the game, so when the 49ers scored their inevitable Garbage Time TD, it was off the arm of Blaine Gabbert and into the hands of Bruce Ellington, not exactly the combination you expected to see on this night. But with the score an embarrassing 42-17, I suppose not much more could be done.

Fortunately, the 49ers now go into their bye week, sitting at 4-3, in the middle of the pack in the NFC West. They can take some small solace in knowing that the ballyhooed Seahawks are faring poorly as well, having lost two in a row and sit at 3-3 among some internal turmoil of their own. But for the 49ers, the bye week hits at a good time. Patrick Willis will be back, and perhaps Aldon Smith may return after the bye as well. Plus players like Frank Gore, who was a non-factor last night, and Vernon Davis who's been battling all kinds of injuries, can re-establish themselves in the fold. The schedule over the remaining games isn't exactly easy, particularly when you consider that they have to play Seattle twice and struggling or not, those are games where these two teams just beat the crap out of each other. So, it would behoove the 49ers to get healthy and get their act together over the next couple of weeks.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Tough To Top

The NLCS pitted a pair of teams I don't especially care much for in the Giants and Cardinals against each other for the second time in 3 years. I had to root for the Giants, because as I've said many times over, I'm just sick of the Cardinals and I just want them to go away and stop being so smarmily successful.

But if I have to throw some praise at these two teams, I will, and after watching this 5-game NLCS play out, both teams deserve some praise because this was one hell of a series. Sure, the Giants ended up winning 4 games to 1, and if you look back on it 20 years from now, you might think this was sort of a ho-hum kind of series, and you'd be severely wrong. Every game in this series had some sort of weird drama going on, starting with Madison Bumgarner's shutout in Game 1, followed by the Cardinals Home Run barrage in Game 2, an extra-inning throwing error in Game 3 and the back-and-forth Game 4. But it was capped last night by perhaps the most memorable game of them all. In a game that really had just about everything you could want in a Baseball game, the Giants won 6-3 on a walk-off Home Run from unlikely hero Travis Ishikawa. That's what everyone will recall. But what got the game to that point was sort of the epitome of everything that makes Baseball great.

Start with the classic Pitcher's duel that ensued between Madison Bumgarner and Adam Wainwright, a pair of sage veterans (if you can call the 25-year old Bumgarner a veteran—considering he's going to his 3rd World Series, that's all the street cred he needs) that can boast all sorts of accolades. They both got dinged for some early runs but by time the middle innings rolled around, they'd settled in and were just throwing darts at each other. At one point, Wainwright had retired something like 10 in a row which was pretty good, except that Bumgarner had retired 13 in a row. Still, the Cardinals clung to a slim 3-2 lead, which they needed to hang on to if they had any kind of hope of getting the series back to their home park in a situation that could have been demoralizing for the Giants.

But the Cardinals removed Wainwright in the 8th in favor of crafty submariner Pat Neshek and immediately the Giants got off the mat and tied the game courtesy of a lightning-like Home Run off the bat of Michael Morse. Again, the kind of play that might get forgotten given how the rest of the game played out, but a huge hit that tied the game and changed the way the Cardinals handled the remainder of the proceedings. Rather than setting things up for their closer Trevor Rosenthal, the Cardinals went to Michael Wacha for the 9th inning in a tie game. This is all fine and good, considering Wacha's outstanding postseason in 2013. But Wacha was injured for a good share of this year, returned very late in September, was kind of erratic and hadn't pitched in a game at all since September 26th. And now, Mike Matheny threw him out there in the 9th inning of a tie game he couldn't lose? A calculated risk, but it didn't work. Wacha gave up a leadoff single to Pablo Sandoval, followed by a Hunter Pence fly out, but then Wacha essentially lost the plate. He walked Brandon Belt on 4 pitches and then, after Matheny elected to leave him in to face Ishikawa, fell behind 2-0. Needing to throw a strike, Wacha more or less aimed one and the result for him was instant disaster, because Ishikawa shot the pitch straight out over the Right field wall, and the Giants Won The Pennant, the Giants Won the Pennant.

Whichever team ended up winning this series would have done so falling in line with the "Team Above All" theory, because there's no one breakaway star on either side. True, Bumgarner was particularly dominant for the Giants and his NLCS MVP was well-earned. But the Giants still had to win on the days he wasn't pitching, and in those instances, it was usually someone like Hunter Pence or Gregor Blanco stepping up and getting the job done. They continued this little every other year thing they have going on and advanced to the World Series for the 3rd time in 5 years, with mostly the same group of guys that have done it for them twice previously. They'll now match up with the Great Cinderella Story that is the Kansas City Royals in a series that, for once, they'll probably be favored to win. But whatever happens, this should be a real treat of a World Series coming up next week, because these two teams really know how to play the game, and they've already put forth several top-quality efforts this Postseason. I'm looking forward to it.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Hope For Us All

It's not exactly a secret at this point that the Kansas City Royals, who stamped their ticket to the 2014 World Series last night, are here after 29 years in the wilderness. But after years of general mediocrity, rebuilding projects that went nowhere, stars that were dealt away for never-will-bes and so many Runelvys Hernandez-types that blew threw the system, they've finally put it together. And it wasn't even quite a sure thing this year, when they sat however many games back in August, but somehow, they caught fire, got into the Playoffs and just took off from there.

Perhaps the Greatest 8-game winning streak in Royals history culminated yesterday with the completion of a convincing ALCS Sweep over the Baltimore Orioles, in which they outhit the O's for two games in Baltimore, outpitched them in two games in KC and basically shoved them off the field with a near-miraculous string of defensive gems. This is a team that's completely unheralded, a group of mostly young players mixed in with some shrewdly-acquired veteran leaders that has banded together in the name of speed, defense and a dominant bullpen. Though they managed only 4 runs over the final two games of the ALCS, and those runs scored on a Sacrifice Fly, an Infield Out and a 2-run Error, their pitching and defense held the Orioles and their lineup of power hitters to 2 runs, which is usually good enough to win every time. Tuesday, the Royals won 2-1. Wednesday, 2-1 again. Both days, all they needed their starting pitchers to do was get the game through 6 innings so that they could turn things over to the 1-2-3 punch of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland to finish things off, and finish it off they did.

During the Division Series, I wrote about how the Postseason chooses who becomes a legend, and how perhaps the Royals Eric Hosmer had been chosen. Hosmer hit .400 for the ALCS, but he didn't stand out among this group. No one player rose up to carry the Royals to victory, they did it all together. Whether it was Alex Gordon or Mike Moustakas, whose Extra-inning Home Runs were key in Game 1, or Salvador Perez, who shook off getting banged around behind the plate to call consistently solid games, or Alcides Escobar, who's emerged as one of those Edgardo Alfonzo-like "Knows How To Play" types, or Lorenzo Cain, who it seems was chosen as the series MVP just because they had to pick someone. This is the recipe for winners. Look at some of the teams that have won World Series Championships in recent years. Like a team the Royals could end up meeting in the World Series, the Giants. Above all, a Team.

A team that only hit 95 Home Runs in the regular season and won only 89 games. A team that was down 4 runs in the Wildcard Game with time running out. But a team that caught fire at the right time and hasn't come down yet. That's the Kansas City Royals of 2014, a team above all, and that's why they're going to represent the American League in the World Series.

And if they can do it, well, hey, anything's possible, isn't it?