Royals have a shot

The Royals have a relatively easy schedule, the Rays have a relatively difficult schedule, and the Rangers have been iffy the last few weeks (but are playing league-worst Houston at the moment).

A lot would have to go right for the Royals to nab a wild card spot, but it’s not too far-fetched.  If they keep winning, I like their chances.


6-team AL wildcard race now looking like a 3-team race

It’s been exciting watching the wild card race in the American League evolving these last couple of weeks, with 6 teams having a real shot.  With division leaders pulling away, making the division races relatively uninteresting, and with the National League’s 5 playoff entrants pretty much a done deal (with only positioning remaining a question), this race has provided most of the late-season playoff race drama.

But as we approach the last week of play of the regular season, 3 of those 6 contending teams now look like outside longshots.

Each of these 6 teams has either 7 or 8 games remaining in the season.  It’s not likely that any of them will lose more than 3 or 4 of these remaining games.  However, the Yankees, Orioles, and Royals, each with 73 losses, will require at least two of the Rays (now at 69 losses) , Indians, and Rangers (70 losses each) to lose 3 or 4 games just to have a chance at tying.  Were the Indians and Rangers both to lose exactly 3 of their remaining games, one of the 73-loss teams would have to win all their remaining games just to tie.  Not unheard of; the 2007 Rockies faced this sort of scenario with just over 2 weeks to go that season, needing to win their last 15 games to make a wild card berth probable; they won 14 of those 15 to tie for the wild card and force a one-game playoff for the spot (which they won).  These streaks would be half as long, and with 3 teams poised to try for it, it’s not too out-of-the-question that one may do it.

At this point, scheduled opponents can make a big difference.  The Orioles seem to have the short end of the stick here, with 2 of their remaining 8 games against the Rays (who are fighting to keep their slim wild card lead). and 3 against the Red Sox (who will likely be trying to maintain their lead for home-field advantage against the other division leaders, Detroit and Oakland).  The Yankees also have 3 games against the Rays, but otherwise have an easy schedule, with 3 games against the bottom-dwelling Astros.  The Royals seem to have the best schedule of all though, with today’s game against the Rangers their only one against a contending opponent.

Though the Rays have the best record right now by a slim margin, if the Yankees or Orioles make a charge now, the Rays’ position in the standings will fall rapidly, while the Rangers and Indians, with easier schedules, would most likely stay put at the lead of the wildcard race.  Unfortunately for the Yankees and Orioles, this would only allow them to leapfrog one of the three leading teams; not enough to take a wildcard berth.

In the end, two of the 3 leading teams must falter, and that just doesn’t seem all that likely.  The Yankees, Orioles, and Royals are all positioned to make it interesting by winning, but won’t likely catch a wild card berth even if they do.

Seriously, Mr. McCain?

I like Senator John McCain, most of the time.  He’s a rare beast as a Republican politician with integrity.  But I don’t usually agree with his positions on things, and that’s okay when it comes to political positions.  But he’s overreached with his Twitter comments on the Los Angeles Dodgers’ celebration of their division title win by jumping into the Arizona Diamondbacks’ outfield pool.

I actually kind of dislike the Dodgers, but I think their celebration was great.  In baseball it’s understood that you get to celebrate at times like this, and I’m sure the Diamondbacks don’t mind it.  I recall the Red Sox two recent World Series victories happening on the road, and both the Cardinals and the Rockies organizations were very gracious about allowing the Red Sox to linger through extended celebrations on their fields.  I bet if there were pools to jump in there, the Sox would have been jumping.  Because it’s FUN.  The baseball season is long … so what’s wrong with a little fun at the end of it?

Now I think I see the problem.  McCain probably doesn’t get this concept of fun.  Which actually kind of makes me feel sad for him.

Lester determined

Jon Lester has been pitching like an ace of late, in every outing.  Watching him do so, it’s been very apparent how highly motivated he’s been over these past several weeks.

Tonight, he’ll have some extra motivation, being able to clinch the division title for his team with a win.  It would be only the second division title in the last 18 years for the Red Sox.

I pity the poor Blue Jays hitters.

Red Sox: falling in love with the home run loses close games

I have little patience for seeing a rally squashed by a big swing-and-miss.  I’m talking about hittable pitches here.  My patience for this is especially thin in close games in which runs are at a premium.  The intent of these batters is clear: to hit a “big smash” over the fence, with all the glory, cheering, and maximal dramatic impact that that entails.

I saw this a few times in last night’s Red Sox loss in extra innings.  When all the Red Sox needed was a base hit to break the tie and score the run that would have won the game eventually, I saw two players take big, swinging-for-the-fences types of cuts to strike out.  They’re players who’ve had this problem before, and have overcome it before, so it’s troubling to see them regressing at this time.  Perhaps you know who I’m talking about.

In the fifth inning, the game tied at 2, David Ortiz is up with 2 outs and a runner on 3rd.  On a pretty straight pitch down the middle of the plate and slightly in, the kind of pitch he’ll normally demolish, Ortiz took a bigger cut than usual and completely missed.  Contrast that to his first inning home run, on a very controlled swing in which he looks like a guy who’s trying to make good contact.  He did, and it went plenty far enough, several rows deep into the stands.

In the ninth, with the game tied at 3 and a runner on first, Jarrod Saltalamacchia struck out taking a big cut on a pitch unquestionably over the plate, while slightly down and away.  A pitch he would probably do well to go the other way with for a base hit.  But instead, he tried to yank it over the fence, and shortened what could have been a game-ending half inning for the Red Sox.  Contrast that to his 12th inning leadoff base hit, a controlled swing on which he made good contact and lined one down the right field line.

These guys have both fallen in love with the home run in the past, and it’s gotten them into trouble, causing their on base percentages to plummet.  Thankfully, neither one has been that guy over the latter part of this year.  But with the amazing roll the Red Sox have been on lately, perhaps the feeling that “nothing can go wrong” has set in, and they’ve forgotten two crucial facts:

  1. The hardest part of hitting a baseball is lining up the ball with the sweet part of the bat.
  2. Guys like Papi and Salty are big and strong enough that they don’t need to swing their hardest to send the ball far over the fence – especially when they hit that sweet spot on the bat.

Succeeding at hitting at the major level is hard to do.  The Red Sox have made it look easy lately, and perhaps they’re starting to forget how much effort and focus it takes to make it look easy.  Guys, don’t get carried away now!

Red Sox have a better than 99.99999999999% chance of making the playoffs

For the Red Sox to not at least tie for a playoff spot, a lot of things would have to go exactly right (or wrong, depending on your perspective) at this point.  3 teams would have to overtake Boston to knock the Red Sox out of both the division title and both wild card spots.  As it turns out, only 3 teams in the American League that can still overtake the Red Sox in the race for the 3 playoff spots available to the Red Sox:  the Rays, the Indians, and the Rangers.  Since Baltimore can only tie at this point by winning all their remaining games, and since doing so would knock the Rays out of contention by giving the Rays at least 4 losses when they can only afford 3 to catch the Red Sox, the only scenario that can work is the Rays beating Baltimore.

Because Cleveland has 69 losses against Boston’s 92 wins, they must win all their 12 remaining games, and the Red Sox must lose all their 11 remaining games, for Cleveland to overtake them.

Tampa Bay, with 67 losses, can afford to lose no more than 2 games and still overtake the Sox; Texas, with 68 losses, can afford to lose no more than 1 game.  These teams are scheduled to play 3 more games against each other, however, so between them they must lose at least 3 more games.  Therefore, for both to overtake the Sox, the Rangers must beat the Rays 2 games out of 3, and both teams must win all their other remaining games (10 each).

So between the 4 teams, Boston, Cleveland, Tampa Bay, and Texas, 43 scheduled games must go a certain way, while the other 3 have a little more flexibility, with 3 of the 8 possible outcomes working to bump out the Red Sox.

If we assume each game has a 50-50 chance of going to one team or the other, that makes (3/8)*(1/2 to the 43rd power) as the chances of this happening: that’s less than one in 23 trillion.

However, the chances of the Red Sox losing any one of their games has to be less than 50% right now, and with Texas scuffling through a 7-game losing streak right now, I’d say the odds are even slimmer.

Yeah, it’s not yet a mathematical gaurantee, but come on, do you really need better odds than that?

Red Sox fans: enjoy what may be the peak point of optimism in this season

Red Sox fans are probably feeling pretty darn optimistic right now, and rightfully so.

The Red Sox have won 13 of their last 16.  They’ve grown their division lead to 8 1/2 games, with only 16 games to go.

Their two mid-season rally-killing strikeout artists, Napoli and Saltalamacchia, have stopped striking out, have started making contact, and in Napoli’s case, have started mashing the ball.  Middlebrooks’ lost swing has been found again, and is better than ever.  Their backup infielders are performing about as good as, and in some ways possibly better than, their very good starters.

They’re assured that Ellsbury will be back in time for the playoffs.

And there is enough of a lead in the playoff race and enough off days in the schedule that the starters should be able to get ample rest before the playoffs arrive, and start the postseason sharp and fresh.

Lester is Lester again.  Lackey is Lackey again.  They have three other starting pitchers who have been very good for most of the year, and are now getting rest as needed to assure they stay very good into the postseason.

Their closer Koji Uehara is unreal – with his last 28+ innings scoreless, and his last 31 consecutive batters faced retired, a team-record-matching feat.  He just seems to keep getting better, but then how can you do any better than GETTING EVERYBODY OUT?

They’re beating the best teams in dramatic ways, starting with a defeat of this year’s certain Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, who was aiming to tie the record for the most wins with only one loss at 20, thowing John Lester in his path and winning with a 2-1 score, giving Scherzer only his second loss of the season.  Follow that with a record-breaking 20-4 outburst with seven different Red Sox players hitting home runs.  Follow that with a thrilling comeback win against Mariano Rivera with an inning that brought to mind that most pivotal moment in the last 9 decades of Red Sox history, the stolen base heard ’round the world in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS against this very same closer.  And two more thrilling wins to follow that left the Red Sox offense looking like an unstoppable force, scoring 54 runs over 4 games.

And now after Tuesday’s game against the Rays, everyone’s favorite remaining question mark has been answered – Clay is still Clay.  That’s saying a lot.  Clay Buchholz is a guy who was the game’s best starting pitcher through the first 2+ months of the season, with a 1.71 ERA and a 9-0 record in 12 starts, on the best run of his career, a career peppered with some very good runs.  Was his spectacular start to the season just that, another “hot streak”, or has Clay matured into the kind of player who can produce at an elite level consistently?  Did the 3 months off throw him off whatever sweet spot he was in in terms of feel for his pitches and precise mechanics?  We his not-so-elite results in his minor league rehab starts an indication that he hadn’t refound whatever made him so dominant before?

Fans watching Buchholz’ start this Tuesday saw a guy that earned a win against long odds considering the circumstances.  With a pitch limit of 75 to 80 pitches, things would have to go very well for him to complete the number of innings (5) required for a starter to earn the win.  Also, he was facing last year’s Cy Young Award winner David Price in a game with big playoff consequences, a pitcher who, it turns out, brought his best game.  But the Red Sox just happened to string together a few good at bats against him in the fifth, just in time to put Buchholz ahead before exiting the game.  And Buchholz, with some help from his catcher Saltalamacchia gunning down two stolen base attempts to shorten his time on the mound and allow him to go deeper into the game, managed to get through 5 innings in 74 pitches and exit with a 2-0 lead which the bullpen made stand.

Shutting out a playoff-quality team, earning a difficult win, hearing the catcher say how all his pitches were working, and actually lowering his already miniscule season ERA, Buchholz exceeded expectations and hopes for this start and gave Red Sox fans something to be thrilled about.  A lot of people have probably stopped worrying about what Buchholz will do in his remaining starts.  But should they?

We all know that pitchers can look great in one start but poor in the next.  A different lineup, a different city, different weather, and suddenly everything that was going right could start going wrong.  We don’t know yet that Buchholz can keep giving the Red Sox what he gave them Tuesday or what he gave them in the rest of the season.  Things could go downhill …

Also, while everyone seems to be hot at the same time, “being hot” doesn’t always last.  Is it the time of year and anticipation of a playoff spot that has them playing at this level now?  Or is it just good timing?

What if the injury bug bites over the remaining 2 and a half weeks of the season?

Things rarely stay as good for a team as they have been going for the Red Sox these last few weeks.  While there’s plenty of reason to believe the Red Sox can keep producing as they have been, there’s also plenty of ways things can get derailed a bit, if only because of “regression to the mean” – return to a more normal level of “good” after the statistical anomaly that is a hot streak.  And if that happens, the optimism of the Red Sox fan could wane a bit.

So enjoy this moment Sox fans.  Enjoy it to its utmost!  It may be the high point of your optimism for the season.

My prediction: wrong!

Well, no opening day HR for Big Papi.  I was wrong.

No excuses, right?  But I feel I must state:

I envisioned a day game.  Who the heck plays their opening day game at night?  The Red Sox have never done so in their entire history!  So I’m curious to see how he does in the first day game, as I believe he does better in day games.

I didn’t realize he’d be facing possibly the toughest lefty in the game.

They didn’t throw him much near the strike zone.  He got one pretty hittable pitch by my recollection, slightly up and in.  Jammed him, but when he’s on his game he destroys that pitch.

I’ll be watching carefully to see if he can launch one in his next couple of day games.  Hoping he does.