And so here we go again! After six grueling months, plus a couple more for tune-ups, with a total expenditure for performers alone exceeding five billion bucks, featuring roughly 6,000 homers and more than 40,000 strikeouts in 2,430 games incurring quite as many trips of the wounded to the disabled list, Baseball’s interminable regular season is done, gone, over, and in the books.
So what do we have to show for that gargantuan effort? Ten teams officially contending for the laurels, seven of which were overwhelming choices bordering on lead-pipe-cinches to make it before the season even began. All six of the National and American League Division winners – Washington, Chicago, and LA in the NL, and Boston, Cleveland and Houston in the AL – were nearly universal picks in pre-season calculations.
In other words, they were no-brainers.
It’s not unprecedented, maybe, but rarely has such a top-heavy pre-season consensus been so thoroughly validated after 2,430 trials on the ball field. It tends, sometimes, to make you wonder how much the regular season is really worth. Consider that in the end only one of the six division races was remotely close.
Of the four wild-card post-season teams, at best a limp distinction for only faintly deserving teams that thankfully get very far only rarely, both Arizona and Colorado were regarded as legitimate contenders. So for them to qualify hardly surprises. And while few picked the rebuilding Yankees to make it this far (at least for the moment), it can never be termed any kind of a surprise when the game’s historically most dominant franchise does so.
Only one team truly bucked the odds this season, and those odds were huge. Under the cool and wise guidance of Paul Molitor, the Minnesota Twins – losers of more than a hundred games a year ago and widely expected to do little better this season with a patchwork roster – turned the tables on us know-it-alls to limp into October at least for a few hours. This, maybe, gives the regular seasons a touch more validity. If they were only a couple of games over .500, but three cheers for the Twins, nonetheless.
So how does the post-season field shape up? Here’s some guarded and pithy handicapping.
Dodgers: In mid-August, they were soaring, bombastically aiming at a record-breaking season. Sports Illustrated asked, “Are they the greatest team ever?” Whereupon September dawned, and they lost 16 of 17. It’s arguably the most astounding late-season flip-flop in baseball history, and now who knows what to expect. With a fragile Clayton Kershaw and a disappointing Yu Darvish, they may again end up being Bums.
Cubs: While they managed to survive the ho-hum NL Central, they really never shook off their epic World Series hangover. The young studs in their lineup remain dangerous, but the Arrieta-Lackey- Lester-Hendricks pitching rotation looks mighty vulnerable for the post-season. Expect no miracles from Joe Maddon, either. He’s still recovering from last year.
Nationals: They are seeking to bring Washington its first baseball championship since the halcyon days of Calvin Coolidge. It was 1924: Walter Johnson was heroic for the Senators of sainted memory, with Sam Rice and Goose Goslin sublime. Win one for the Big Train and the Goose should be the Nats’ rallying cry, and with great chips in place, and a sufficiently improved bullpen, they ought be favorites. But is Dusty Baker equal to it?
Astros: A very nice young team that has come of age earlier than expected and has made of the terrible hurricane that ravaged their home turf an extraordinary inspiration. The Houston Astros yearn to win for their beleaguered constituency. It’s not mere ragtime. Justin Verlander may prove a more vital factor. But if they prevail, Harvey will get credit. An incredible irony.
Red Sox: Gave up messing with this team’s hopes and fancies a long time ago and confess to not knowing what to expect. Can Dustin Pedroia – still their best money player – stay healthy? Is the alleged conversion of Dustin Price sustainable? Have their kids come of age? Are they as nicked and bruised as much as advertised? Is John Farrell equal to all of it? Questions, as ever, abound. But they are here and deserve to be.
Indians: With their electrifying surge at season’s end, they seem almost anointed to end what’s now, with the Cubs’ redemption last year, baseball’s longest exile. 1948 was a long time ago, but for a town that has caught few breaks since, the wait would prove well worth it. They deserve to be sentimental favorites. Moreover, the cast Tito Francona has assembled is immensely likeable. They play the game the right way.
The Wild Cards
Twins & Yanks, Rockies & Diamondbacks are all still kicking as this is written, but two of them will have departed by the time it reaches you. Most expect the Yanks and D’Backs to prevail, but there’s an uncontrollable madness to a one-game playoff that tosses the conventional wisdom out the window.
No fan of the wild card – especially as it’s now contrived – one looks for all four to be gone soon enough. It cheapens the still glorious World Series to have it swiped by inferior hotshots who suddenly get lucky enough to steal the thing after barely making it to the prom. But it’s happened before, and it could again. Yanks versus Red Sox in the AL finals anyone? Dream on McDuff!
As you know, we don’t favor prophecy here. But I think the needs of history would be best served by having Washington and Cleveland in the final round, with the Indians prevailing. Washington has already had enough melodrama, hyperbole, frenzy, and madness this year.