Ignominy and the MLB Cellar Dweller

As August dwindles and the last month of the MLB season promises an exciting race to the pennant or wild card birth for the playoffs, another race is underway. This is the effort by several teams to avoid the ignominy of finishing last, or in the cellar, as it is called. For some, this motivation is as strong as the passion to win the pennant.

In the AL Central, the suddenly resurgent White Sox, eight wins in the last ten recently, are now pressing the Twins and are three games behind them. The White Sox have been miserable this year, but they have been playing better. However, the schedule maker has them playing against contenders the rest of the way.  Where they play Houston this week, and Houston is trying to avoid setting a record for futility, they then play Boston, New York, Baltimore, Detroit, Cleveland, Minnesota and finish against Kansas City. The three with Minnesota will be critical. The edge Chicago may have is that these teams will be tense and the Sox may be able to pick them off. That, after all, is the role of the spoiler, that team with no chance of winning a pennant, that can have an impact by beating those who do.   

The Twins have a slight schedule advantage by playing Toronto three times, but play contenders most of the time. The last eleven are with Oakland, Detroit and Cleveland, all of these teams need to win at the end. 

In the NL Central, Milwaukee and the Cubs are two games apart, with the Cubs in the cellar. Both teams play contenders, but the Cubs get the Marlins for three and the Brewers finish with the Mets. The critical games are the seven they play against each other. To not finish behind the Cubs should be sufficient incentive motivation to keep the Brewers motivated.

The most interesting race to avoid ignominy is in the NL West, Colorado, 61-71, San Diego, 59-71, and San Francisco, 58-72 are within in two games of each other with San Francisco last.   

San Francisco will play the other members of this trio twelve times in the remaining thirty-two, San Diego plays Colorado and SF nine times, but gets the floundering Phillies three times, and Colorado plays SF and SD nine times, but finish against Boston and the Dodgers. This is a race to watch on a daily basis.

Now that you see the match ups, remember that this is late season baseball and top teams are often “playing with their hands around their throats,”  Hands on Throat Reference and those trying to avoid the ignominy of the cellar can determine the actual pennant and live vicariously during the Winter knowing they were not the worst and helped determine who was the best.  

MLB Pennant Race on August 25

I wrote on August 12 about the Wild Card race here and added the Yankees to the mix recently here. The Yankees have the benefit of the right schedule but they need to win half the time versus Tampa Bay, Boston and Baltimore. So far, they have lost two to Tampa Bay to move 4.5 games behind in the Wild Card race. They must win against the top teams to allow the schedule to work for them.

The most disapointing feature of the race is the Kansas City Royals seven game losing streak. I am a Royals rooter because I like seeing teams improve to the point they can contend. There are three steps to this process, first you learn to play, then you learn to win, finally you learn to win when you have to. The Royals have clearly not learned the last step. Maybe next year.

As an example of this process, the Miami Marlins, who have been playing better, lost a game 3-2 to Colorado because of the failure to cut off a throw from the outfield that allowed Michael Cuddyer to advance to second after a game tying single. He scored the winning run moments later on a double. The Marlins learned the second lesson there as this is the sort of play a winning team makes.

These are the days where winning Fifth Games ( Fifth Game Theory) is all important. Last night, Texas lost 3-2 to the White Sox, who scored in the bottom of the ninth. Oakland won in Baltimore with a run in the top of the ninth. These are examples of Fifth Games that must be won by pennant contenders.

As I look at box scores every day, I look first at the line score to see who won in the last three innings. This is because a baseball game is really two games in one. The first game is a six inning game that is played to gain an advantage in the three inning game. This short game is played by specialists, relief pitchers, closers, pinch hitters, defensive replacements and the like. To win pennants, teams have to have competence in the “specialist” category. Take a look at the line score to gain an appreciation of the nature of the game. As Yogi Berra said,”It ain’t over until it is over,” and that means after the last out.

Indians Choking Again, Maybe the Tigers, too.

Major League Baseball pennant races are a psychological as well as physical test. For the last two days I have written about the race to the pennant and the pressures felt by the division leaders. I have focused on the Tigers and Indians and how it is hard to play with your hands on your throat. On Friday, the Indians gave away a game to Minnesota by errors that lead to two unearned runs and a tainted run that could have, had the players Chisenhall and Swisher caught baseballs, resulted in an Indian’s victory. Last night the Indians lost by the same 3-2 score and gave that one away as well.

In the top of the sixth, Jason Kipnis, the Indians best hitter, homered to give them a 2-0 lead. In the bottom of the sixth, however, the Indians gave it back. After Mauer had singled and moved to third on a Morneau single, a grounder to Chisenhall at third was fielded cleanly, but Chisenhall, trying to put Mauer out at home, threw the ball into the Twins’s first base dugout. Now think about this play. With no one out and Morneau on first, Mauer, not a fast runner, was running to avoid a double play by forcing Chisenhall to throw home rather than to second to start the double play. Mauer’s hope was that by sacrificing himself, the Twins would have two runners on and only one out rather than one on and two out.  Chisenhall, who booted the ball Friday night, threw the ball past the catcher.

How hard is it for a major league player to throw a ball ninety feet so errantly so as to fly past the catcher and end up in the dugout? Well, it may happen once a season for some and never in a career for most. These are the plays that are made a thousand times in practice and games by those who make it to the major leagues. It seldom happens in highschool because the throw has to be horrible and the recipient of the throw has demonstrated ability to catch everything, even moderately errant tosses. The “hands on the throat” factor is why this happened and it infects the entire team.

This infection got to  second baseman Jason Kipnis, who, after the score was tied on a bloop to right, dropped a double play ball and only made one out as the winning run scored. Hand on his throat, I think so!

The Twins played perfect defense, by the way, with right fielder Ryan Doumit making a spectaclular play to throw Asdrubal Cabrera out at second. Cabrera represented the tying run.

In Kansas CIty the Tigers lost 6-5 as Justin Verlander lost to KC for the first time since 2009. A little tense, Justin, maybe?

The results of Friday’s and Saturday’s games, is that the 1 1/2 game Tiger lead is still there, but KC is now 6 behind. Almost close enough.

Keep watching this race, as nerves are already taking a toll and either team may collapse. For the Indians, they have Justin Masterson pitching today and he is their best. If he wins, they may get their groove back. In Kansas City, James Shields is pitching for KC; they may be five behind after today. 

By the way, Aviles is playing 3rd for the Indians today as Terry Francona is keeping Chisenhall on the bench for his, Francona’s, benefit.

For further reading see “Fifth Game Theory” in the archives for June 19, 2013 and “Kansas City Royals Emerge” in the archives for June 18, 2013.

Detroit v. Cleveland for the AL Central TItle

As a follow up to yesterday’s post on the American League pennant race that focused on the Tigers and Indians, last night was very interesting. In the post, I mentioned that in September, when both teams will be playing sub  .500 teams, they will be “playing with their hands around their throats.” 

Well, it seems that may have started early.

Last  night the Indians gave up two unearned runs and one tainted run in a 3-2 loss to Minnesota, who played like a team that wanted to beat a contender. Indian 3b Chisenhall booted one ball that lead to two runs and 1b Swisher simply dropped a thrown ball that happen to “hit him in the glove.” In  baseball lore, it is well known that it is “hard to catch the ball with your free hand around your neck.”  That quote is attributed to Gary Gaetti who said it after screwing up a play in Cleveland in September 1984 that may have cost the Twins a chance at the division lead.

What made the game all that important was that Cleveland was watching the scoreboard that showed KC beating Detroit 1-0, the final score as it turns out. Of course, in KC, Detroit was watching the Twins and Cleveland tied at 2 until Swisher dropped that ball and Mauer singled in the winning run in the 8th.

This going to be a very interesting last two months. Stay tuned.