The Tenth Inning – Week 14 – Part 2 ]]> include($base_url . “/includes/header.htm”); ?>
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By Mike Ivcic
Something totally unbelievable happened Tuesday. It was something so totally incredible and unthinkable, so inconceivable, that the entire sports world stopped dead in its tracks and wondered, “What just happened?”
Ladies and gentlemen, the Kansas City Chiefs gave Matt Cassel a 6-year, $63 million deal.
If you were thinking, after that first paragraph, that possibly, just maybe, the National League had managed to win an All-Star game, well then I’m sorry, but you are sorely mistaken. Once again, the American League proved its dominance with a 4-3 victory, but once again it was not the offense that stole the show. Quite often, the AL is deemed a hitter’s league, while the NL is considered to have better pitching. But on July 14, 2009 in St. Louis, Missouri, those thoughts should have all been put to rest – if there even were any of those thoughts left after the past couple of years.
Papelbon, Nathan, Rivera. Three of the best closers in the game trotted out of the back-end of the AL bullpen and made the NL sluggers look like high school freshmen taking their first at-bat against the senior ace. And all those three men did – save for a walk and infield single allowed by Nathan – is continue what the starters had thrown together for the first six innings. Halladay wasn’t sharp, but by the time Papelbon entered in the seventh, AL pitchers had combined to retire 13 straight NL hitters. That soon became 16, and then 18 before Nathan walked Adrian Gonzalez with two outs in the eighth. After Orlando Hudson’s single, Nathan struck out Ryan Howard (a total shock to Phillies fans and non-Phillies fans alike) and turned the game over to the best closer ever. Rivera didn’t disappoint, though in fairness Justin Upton, Brad Hawpe, and Miguel Tejada aren’t exactly the three most feared hitters on the NL roster. And just like that, AL 4, NL 3.
One final mention has to go to the sweet catch made by Carl Crawford, who took a sure-fire homerun away from Brad Hawpe to start Papelbon’s seventh inning. It was reminiscent, as a Mets fan, of the catch Endy Chavez made in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS to rob Scott Rolen of a homerun and give the Mets a temporary reprieve in what became one of the most painful losses in franchise history. In this game, however, Crawford’s game-saving catch proved to be a pivotal turning point, keeping the NL from taking the lead an allowing his AL club to eventually pull out the victory.
Now, on to the promised portion of the column – NL power rankings.
1. Los Angeles Dodgers – This club didn’t miss a beat without Manny, and they’re now that much more dangerous WITH Ramirez. They still could use another veteran in the bullpen, but there’s simply no way, even with the team they have now, that they shouldn’t win the pennant.
2. San Francisco Giants – Pitching, pitching, and more pitching has earned the Giants a faster rise to respectability and contention than anyone expected. The emergence of Tim Lincecum as a bonafide ace, along with the continued rise of Matt Cain, gives this team a chance to really make some noise in October.
3. Philadelphia Phillies – The defending champs would have been fifth or sixth two weeks ago, and going 9-1 against the Mets, Reds, and Pirates isn’t the most amazing feat ever accomplished, but they’re now only one game under .500 at home and once again control what has proven to be a weaker than expected NL East.
4. Saint Louis Cardinals – Back atop the Central, the Cards are thrilled to have Chris Carpenter back in the rotation as well. Ryan Franklin might not be the world’s best closer, but they said the same thing about Adam Wainwright in 2006, and I’m pretty sure I remember him striking out Carlos Beltran with two outs and the bases loaded in Game 7 of the NLCS at Shea Stadium. Yup, yup I do. Excuse me for a second…
5. Milwaukee Brewers – Like last season, the Brewers are in contention but desperately need some sort of lift to push them back into the playoffs. I mentioned Halladay in the AL rankings, and he would be a good choice to lead the staff and mentor a very good Yovany Gallardo.
Editor’s Note: Please understand that due to the mediocrity prevalent in the NL this year, the next seven teams were written onto pieces of paper and picked out of a hat to determine the order
6. Chicago Cubs – There really is no discernable way to separate the next seven teams, but we’ll try anyway. The Cubs get sixth based upon the current healthy roster and ability to still get into the postseason. This team has too much talent to be .500, but then again, we are talking about the Cubs here, so nothing is really that surprising anymore.
7. Colorado Rockies – It’s rare that changing managers works in the middle of the season, but the Mets had success before falling apart last year, and now here are the Rockies trying to do the same thing. They’ve lost some of that momentum and are playing in a tough division, but if they can hang around they might be able to pull off another 2007.
8. New York Mets – This is easily the hardest team to rank. Based upon talent alone, they should be a top three NL team, but missing Reyes, Delgado, Maine, Beltran, Putz, and Wagner is not a recipe for success. That said, if they can tread water until some or all of those guys get back in projected early-August, they have a chance to reverse the script on the Phillies.
9. Houston Astros – One of the hotter teams going, Houston has risen from a battle with Pittsburgh for fifth to a tie for third with the Cubs at .500. The depth likely isn’t there for this to continue, but again, mediocrity is the name of the game, so catching Milwaukee and ultimately St. Louis isn’t totally absurd.
10. Florida Marlins – Up, then down, and now up again, it’s the classic sign of a young team playing through a 162-game schedule. Having Hanley Ramirez at full strength is crucial, as is the opening four-game series with the Phillies in Miami coming off the break. Win at least three and the bump would be tremendous.
11. Atlanta Braves – Like Florida, the Braves have a huge series returning from the break with the Mets. A little extra incentive was added with the Jeff Francoeur-Ryan Church deal last weekend, but one of these teams will be behind the eight-ball big time by losing the series, while a split might just postpone the inevitable.
12. Cincinnati Reds – Just when hope was rising in Cincinnati, the Reds go east and drop five of seven to the Phillies and Mets. This team desperately needs another bat for the middle of that order, but if this downward trend continues the Reds could be sellers rather than buyers come July 31.
13. Pittsburgh Pirates – Another losing season is on the horizon, which would put them all alone for consecutive losing seasons by any professional sports franchise in North America at 16. I’m guessing the marked improvement and chance to compete as early as next season isn’t much of a consolation to the fans, but this might be: Steelers and Penguins. There. Feel better now?
14. San Diego Padres – Talk about a nosedive. I didn’t really think the Friars were as good as they appeared in April, and once the calendar flipped to June this team went south quickly. The pitching staff is certainly formidable, but they have no offense outside of Adrian Gonzalez and who knows how long Peavy will remain in San Diego.
15. Arizona Diamondbacks – Dan Haren will probably win the Cy Young, but even if Brandon Webb was healthy, this team is simply too thin to compete right now. They do have the pieces in place, but the front office needs to make a move in the offseason to bring in one or two top-level free agents to compete with LA and SF.
16. Washington Nationals – And then there’s that team in DC. The Nationals pitching has started to come around – albeit slowly – but the offense is still lacking. Trading Adam Dunn would be a smart move at this point, as this team needs all the help they can get to compete with in the tough NL East.
Last week’s answer: Mark McGwire, Harmon Killebrew, Ralph Kiner, and some guy named Babe Ruth all hit their 300th homerun in less at-bats than Adam Dunn.
2009 Playoff “Dead List”
This week, watch for…
Look a special edition of my weekly column, “The Tenth Inning,” this Wednesday, and the regular column every Monday for the Ultimate Capper.
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