The Tenth Inning – Week 12

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The Tenth Inning – Week 12 ]]> include($base_url . “/includes/header.htm”); ?>

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This week’s column comes with my apologies for being a day late because of a vacation, but never fear, your weekly dose of baseball wisdom and insight is finally here. This week, as a prep for the upcoming power rankings the next two weeks, we’ll look at three teams in each league that have overachieved and exceeded expectations, as well as the one team on the reverse side that has greatly underachieved for a myriad of reasons. With interleague in the rearview mirror and just under half the season in the books, some of these teams are pleasantly surprised with their season thus far, while others have a huge uphill climb to reach their preseason goals by the end of September.

National League – Up
1. San Francisco Giants – The young pitching was well-known and highly touted, especially after ace Tim Lincecum won the NL Cy Young last year, but the offensive support has been just enough to vault the Giants into the lead in the NL Wild Card. The 282 runs allowed leads all of baseball, while Pablo Sandoval and Nate Schierholtz have stepped up offensively to join veterans Bengie Molina, Randy Winn, and Aaron Rowand in scoring just enough runs to win. With the Dodgers continued hot play even without Manny Ramirez, the division might be out of reach, but San Fran still boasts the second best record in the league and has proven too many that they will be around come the final weeks in battling for a playoff spot.

2. Milwaukee Brewers – No Sabathia, no Sheets… no problem. The addition of Trevor Hoffman to the back end of the bullpen has allowed the Brewers to maintain their playoff form from last season despite many expert’s predictions – including yours truly – that they would fall off. Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun are quickly becoming the best 1-2 punch in the NL, and the emergence of Yovani Gallardo as a legitimate front-line pitcher has more than compensated for the offseason losses, and veterans like Mike Cameron, Craig Counsell, and Jason Kendall are providing the leadership needed for this young team to continue their push for consecutive postseasons.

3. Pittsburgh Pirates – A number of good candidates here, including Florida, Cincinnati, and Colorado, but if anyone expected the Pirates to trade their starting centerfielder and best hitter and still be within 6 games of first place halfway through the season, then they need to get their own reality prediction show. Even with dealing Nate McLouth to Atlanta, the Bucs are still in striking distance of the playoffs, which is a testament to the players and coaches, who continue to scrap and claw for every win despite difficult odds. This organization is closing in on an all-time sports record for consecutive losing seasons, and at 35-41 they are certainly on pace to reach that mark, but as far as exceeding expectations, they have to be considered as one of the biggest surprises of 2009.

National League – Down
1a.  Chicago Cubs – It’s a tight race for the most disappointing club between the Cubs and Mets, so it’s a tie, but because most of the Mets’ issues have been injury-related, the Cubs get the top spot. Chicago was the best team in the NL last season and Aramis Ramirez has been their only real casualty this season, and yet the North Siders still can’t seem to climb above fourth place in the Central. This Jekyll and Hyde team swept the Indians last weekend, then promptly got swept by the Tigers before losing two of three to the cross-town White Sox. Perhaps if Alfonso Soriano (.232), Geovany Soto (.224) and Mike Fontenot (.219) were hitting better, they wouldn’t be in this predicament.

1b. New York Mets – And now for the New Yorkers. The disabled list for the Mets could probably beat the current team on the field in a best-of-7 series. The list: Carlos Delgado, Jose Reyes, J.J. Putz, Oliver Perez, Carlos Beltran, Angel Pagan, John Maine, Billy Wagner, and Ramon Martinez. To recap, that’s three of the four top offensive players, two-fifths of the starting rotation, and two-thirds of the back-end of the bullpen. The fact that this team was even at .500 heading into the Milwaukee series this week was borderline ridiculous. That said, the Mets acquired Putz and K-Rod to solidify the lone weak spot on last year’s team in order to win the NL. Third in the East wasn’t the expected position on the final day of June. It now becomes the responsibility of Omar Minaya to make some sort of deal and the training staff to figure out a way to get most of those guys back on the field in order to reverse course.

American League – Up
1. Detroit Tigers – In a city that desperately needs some hope, the Tigers are providing just that. In ’06, they proved that amazing turnarounds can happen, as they reached the World Series just three years removed from a 119-loss season. Now after a two-year hiatus, Detroit is once again back among the best in the AL. The return of Joel Zumaya has helped the bullpen tremendously, even if it’s still more of a mental aspect that a physical one (Zumaya’s still carrying a 4.32 ERA, though he’s averaging a strikeout per inning). Add to that the emergence of Edwin Jackson to solidify the rotation behind Justin Verlander, and the Tigers are third in the AL in runs allowed. Also, getting 18 homeruns from both Brandon Inge and Curtis Granderson in support of Miguel Cabrera’s .331 batting average certainly helps.

2. Texas Rangers – Even though they lost their lead in the AL West over the past week to the Angels, fans in the Dallas/Fort Worth area have to be pleased with the play of the Rangers. Always known as an offensive club, this year’s team has certainly lived up to the billing on that end, behind solid seasons from Ian Kinsler and Michael Young. The difference is that this year’s team can pitch, tied for fifth in the AL in runs allowed. Kevin Millwood currently posts a 2.64 ERA, and the trio in the back end of the bullpen of Frank Francisco, Darren O’Day, and C.J. Wilson has held the leads that the offense and starters have handed them. If Josh Hamilton can regain even half of his ’08 form, the additional punch could be enough to leapfrog Texas back over LA in the West.

3. Toronto Blue Jays – In what was expected to be a three-team race for the AL East, it was a fourth team – Toronto – that led the division for most of April and a good part of May. After dropping 2 of 3 to Philadelphia, the Jays now sit where many expected (fourth) but are having a much better season than many predicted. The AL records are all skewed a bit after they once again drubbed the NL in interleague, but Toronto is still four games over .500 at 41-37, even with Roy Halladay missing his most recent start. The team may lack the big name stars of their Eastern brethren, but Alex Rios and Vernon Wells lead what is still a very good offensive unit. Now if they could just figure out a way to get out of the AL East.

American League – Down
1. Cleveland Indians – The trade of Mark DeRosa last weekend to St. Louis signifies the end of this season for the Indians, confirming what many knew a while ago. The lineup has big name players who can and should be perennial All-Stars in Grady Sizemore, Victor Martinez, and Travis Hafner, while the rotation is headed by last year’s AL Cy Young winner Cliff Lee. The back end of the bullpen has two big-time arms with a pair of Rafaels, both Betancourt and Perez. They even have good role players in Jhonny Peralta and Ryan Garko, and yet they simply can’t put it all together for more than a game or two. Only Oakland rivals the Indians in the disappointment department, as both teams were expecting to at least compete for the playoffs, both Cleveland takes the cake, only two years removed from falling one game short of the World Series.

Trivia Question
The Philadelphia Phillies currently lead the NL East with a 39-34 record, yet they are only 13-22 at home this season. Who was the last team to win a division with a losing record at home?

Last week’s answer: Along with the Kansas City Royals, the Toronto Blue Jays, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals are the only other teams that have failed to reach the postseason since the 1994 strike.

2009 Playoff “Dead List”
May 25 – Washington Nationals
June 1 – Colorado Rockies
June 8 – Baltimore Orioles
June 15 – Arizona Diamondbacks
June 22 – Kansas City Royals
June 29 – Cleveland Indians
If you need the reasons, scroll up and read the AL Down portion of this column. Otherwise, suffice it to say that the miracle turnaround I’ve been hoping for will not be happening, meaning I have now “killed” two of my preseason playoff teams, and it’s not even July yet. Simply awesome.

This week, watch for…
1) Tough Toronto week (vs TB, 6/29-7/1; @NYY 7/3-5)
2) AL West Lonestar Showdown (LAA @ Tex, 6/29-7/1)
3) July 4 Fireworks (NYM @ Phi, TB @ Tex, Atl @ Was)

Look for my column, “The Tenth Inning,” every Monday for the UltimateCapper

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