Final-day baseball dramatics? Probably not this year but if there are, these teams might be involved
A year ago at this time, the Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves were sure bets to make the playoffs, while the St. Louis Cardinals and Tampa Bay Rays offered little reason for their fans to think about October baseball.
Of course, the Red Sox and Braves had epic collapses that sent them home after the season while the Cardinals and Rays played great baseball and improbably made the playoffs.
It’s tempting to expect that again this year. An extra wild card berth this year does increase the odds of it happening again. Even so, those kinds of dramatic final days don’t come along every year, as much as Bud Selig would like to force the issue with his expanded playoffs.
I don’t expect to see a repeat of September 2011 this year. I expect we’ll probably see Washington, Cincinnati, San Francisco and Atlanta, Los Angeles or St. Louis in the NL playoffs, and New York, Detroit, Texas, Baltimore, Chicago, Tampa Bay or Oakland in the AL post season. But if there are going to be some dramatic collapses or surprise runs, here’s who they might be.
Teams that might collapse down the stretch
New York Yankees
This one already seems to be in full force as the Yankees fell from 10 games up a month ago to being in a first-place tie. Yet the Yankees’ collapse probably isn’t as surprising as the fact that they’ve played so well for so long this season.
No team has been more devastated by injuries than the Yankees. They’ve played most of the season without their potential No. 2 starter (Michael Pineda), one of the best leftfielders in the game (Brett Gardner) and the best reliever in history (Mariano Rivera); their No. 3 starter (Andy Pettitte) and third baseman (Alex Rodriguez) spent extended time on the disabled list; two key relievers (David Robertson and Joba Chamberlain) suffered freak injuries; their No. 1 starter (C.C. Sabathia) and No. 3 starter (Ivan Nova) spent time on the DL; and their first baseman (Mark Teixeira) and rightfielder (Nick Swisher) both have struggled with injuries.
The Yankees had managed to stay atop the AL East because of a great season by Derek Jeter, continued production from Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson and performances in key situations from a cast of former stars like Eric Chavez, Andruw Jones, Raul Ibanez and Hiroki Kuroda.
Now the extra work by the bullpen earlier in the season and the overuse of role players, along with an extended slump by Granderson, seems to be catching up to the Yankees. New York is far from finished, of course, with a group of veterans who know how to win. But the poor performance by the bullpen in recent days might be too much for them to overcome.
Odd as it sounds, sweeping the Yankees this weekend could be one of the worst things for the Orioles. The excitement of chasing a team is very different from the pressure of being chased. Baltimore has some good young players like Adam Jones, Matt Wieters and Manny Machado, as well as good mid-level players like Mark Reynolds, Nick Markakis and J.J. Hardy. They have one of the best relievers in Jim Johnson.
Yet much of their success has a David Copperfield feel to it, that it all may be an illusion that could collapse on itself once the trick is revealed. They’ve been ridiculously good in one-run games and those things have a way of eventually evening out. They’ve given up a lot more runs than they’ve scored. Their starting pitching has been shaky at times.
But perhaps the biggest potential for collapse will be the fish bowl of being a first-place team. It’s not something most of the players have experienced. The biggest pressure will be on manager Buck Showalter to not let the pressure get to them.
San Francisco Giants
When Melky Cabrera was suspended for PEDs and the Dodgers traded for Hanley Ramirez and Adrian Gonzalez, most people expected the Dodgers to be in first place in the NL West by now. Instead, the Giants have pulled farther away from them.
But, like with the Orioles, you expect any day now to discover that the Giants success has been obtained by cleverly placed mirrors and a little misdirection. True, Buster Posey is having the breakout superstar season everyone expected from him. They have a trio of pitchers – Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsang – who don’t allow many baserunners and have ERAs under 3.30. And Marco Scutaro has been playing out of his mind since joining the Giants.
But then you have a bunch of players having OK seasons. Pablo Sandoval, Angel Pagan, Brandon Belt, Barry Zito – they’re not hurting the Giants but they aren’t making any general managers salivate hoping they can trade for them. The bullpen is anchored by Santiago Casilla, who probably isn’t a household name in his own household. Tim Lincecum has had times where he’s been downright terrible and Hunter Pence brought nothing with him from Philadelphia except his freaky visage.
The Nationals seem for real with a boatload of budding superstars. Bryce Harper is having a nice rookie season but an amazing season when you consider he’s still a teenager. Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa have nice power for middle infielders and Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth and Mike Morse bounced back after battling injuries early in the season.
Their strength, of course, is on the mound. Everyone talks about Stephen Strasburg but, depending on how you look at things, he may only be the third-best pitcher on the staff. Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmerman have both been amazing this season, too, and Ross Detwiler and Edwin Jackson haven’t been dead weight by any means. The bullpen has pitched well and Tyler Clippard proved you can pitch well even if you wear glasses that make you look like you’re competing against Michael Phelps.
But, like with the Orioles, the Nationals are young and most are not inured to pennant-chase pressure yet. After the Marlins this weekend followed by the Mets, the Nationals go on the road against the Braves. They then face the Dodgers and the Brewers at home before going on the road to Philadelphia and St. Louis. They finish the season at home against the Phillies.
While none of those opponents has been overwhelming this season, the final 19 games will be against teams that have a strong track record of winning. Those are the kinds of games where epic collapses happen.
Teams that could make surprise runs
One aspect of a surprise team is having the players who can put together a hot streak for a couple of weeks and the Diamondbacks have that. Justin Upton, Jason Kubel, Chris Young, Aaron Hill and Miguel Montero all have that potential with the bat. On the mound, rookie Wade Miley has been solid all season, but Ian Kennedy, Joe Saunders and Trevor Cahill all have that potential as well. Plus they have a manager who looks like he could whip them like a jockey coming down the home stretch. A very big, menacing jockey.
In addition, the D-backs have the right schedule for a hot streak. The bulk of their remaining games are against the underachievers – the Rockies, Padres and Cubs. They have two games left with Los Angeles and three with San Fran.
Los Angeles Angels
This seems almost laughable considering that many people picked them to be the best team in the league when the season started. But so far they’ve looked as shaky as a first-year driver navigating an icy road.
But they have one of the most exciting rookies in the history of baseball in Mike Trout, and they have veteran talent in Torii Hunter and Albert Pujols, lots of power from Mark Trumbo and Kendrys Morales and pitchers who have all been considered aces at some point in Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Dan Haren and Zack Greinke. It’s actually kind of hard to see why they aren’t winning this division.
The Angels are 36-29 at home this season, so the good news for them is that they have 16 home games in the next 21 days. They face the Rangers six times and the A’s three times the rest of the way, giving them the potential to make the big move up in the standings.
St. Louis Cardinals
Yep, the Cardinals again. This may not be a true surprise since they currently are a game ahead of the Dodgers for the second wild card spot. But they could make a run at the division title if they finish the season strong.
They don’t have Albert Pujols but they have a core of good sluggers in Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday, Allen Craig, David Freese and Yadier Molina. The starting pitching is strong with Kyle Lohse, Lance Lynn, Adam Wainwright and Jake Westbrook.
Best of all for them is a favorable schedule down the stretch. They have 12 games at home, where they’ve enjoyed a .608 winning percentage. They’ve been under .500 on the road, but of their remaining 13 road games, 10 are against three of the four worst teams in the NL – the Astros, Cubs and Padres. And if they’re close to first when September ends, their final three games are at home against Cincinnati.