The Tenth Inning – Week 25

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The Tenth Inning – Week 25 ]]> include($base_url . “/includes/header.htm”); ?>

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This is the last week of the regular season, and it has been one of the most anti-climactic seasons in a long time. The Yankees are the best team in the regular season. The Red Sox are the AL Wild Card and are neck in neck with the AL West champion Los Angeles Angels for the second best record in the AL. The AL Central is once again considered the weak link, but the higher-payroll, bigger-named Tigers are leading the small-market, fundamentally-sound Twins in the only real playoff race. In the NL, three big-market, original-16 franchises lead their respective divisions, and the NL Wild Card is once again a team no one expected and has a much lower payroll than most of the other teams. It’s almost getting redundant in baseball nowadays, so much so that when Tampa beats out the Yankees for a playoff spot and the Brewers make the playoffs, it’s the exception, not the rule. I think it lends credence to the article I wrote a few weeks ago on expanding the Wild Card to add a second team, an idea ESPN’s Peter Gammons subsequently ripped off in a column last week (I’m not saying he got the idea from me, just that I voiced it first in 2005 so I have no problem claiming the idea as my own).

All of that said, the schedulers thankfully left us with a little drama for the final week of the season. First, the Twins and Tigers will meet for four games in Detroit this week, with nothing except a division title on the line – no pressure, right? Well the Tigers look to have the advantage, as they will play at home with a stronger pitching staff. That said, the Twins still have to be thinking back to last year, when they led the Central for much of September only to watch the White Sox climb all the way back to within a half game on the final day of the regular season. It forced the White Sox to make up a rainout against the Tigers on the Monday after the season ended – and the Tigers did the Twins no favors by getting spanked, sending the Sox into a one-game playoff against Minnesota that Chicago eventually won. That entire scenario has to be fresh in the minds of every returning Twins player, so they would like nothing more than to avenge their loss to Chicago last year by beating the one team that could have prevented the one-game playoff in the first place. If the Tigers can simply earn at least a split of the 4-game series at home, they will head into the final three games of the season with a 2 game lead, which is pretty much rock solid for any team not named the Mets (but it’s ok, I’m not bitter or anything). The advantage is clearly in favor of Detroit, and if the Tigers can take tonight’s game it puts all of the pressure back on Minnesota.

In the other league, there’s another race occurring that’s not getting much attention but might wind up having an even bigger impact than the AL Central. After all, whoever wins the AL Central will have to play the Yankees, and even though the Tigers knocked off NY in 2006 under a similar scenario, neither of these teams are as good as the 2006 Tigers. In the NL, the matchups are far from set, which makes everything that much more intriguing. The real race is between Philadelphia and Saint Louis for the second first-round homefield slot. The race becomes even more magnified if Colorado does as expected and holds off Atlanta for the Wild Card. If the Braves manage to steal that WC, they would get LA and the Cards and Phils would have to play each other, meaning homefield would only have an impact on game 5. If it’s the Rockies, however, the race then becomes the difference between playing Colorado at home OR Los Angeles on the road. Sure, Philadelphia lost to Colorado at home two years ago and beat the Dodgers last year, but I would be shocked to find a Philly fan (or an honest Philly player) who would rather play LA than Colorado. Thus, the fact that the Phillies are clinging to a half-game lead with a game in hand is actually a bigger deal than anyone has made mention of this entire month. The Phillies will face Houston for 4 and Florida for 3 at home this week, while the Cardinals will be in Cincinnati for 3 before ending the season at home with 3 against Milwaukee. Those 13 games could (and likely will) go a long way to determining who will represent the NL in the World Series this year.

And finally, a few final notes on this season from teams that will NOT be in the postseason:

– The Pirates have now had 17 consecutive losing seasons, the worst for any team in any major professional sport. They do not, however, own the longest streak of missing the playoffs. That distinction belongs to the Kansas City Royals, who haven’t played postseason baseball since 1985.

– There will be no September swoon for the New York Mets. This season, they kindly moved up their demise to June and July, this way I wouldn’t be preoccupied with heartbreaking baseball in the midst of a revival from both the college and NFL football teams for which I root (Michigan and the Jets, respectively).

– Aside from the obvious three of Washington, Pittsburgh, and Kansas City, five other teams are at a crossroads and could really use a winner and playoff team next season in order to re-ignite some fan bases: Cincinnati, Baltimore, Toronto, Texas, and Seattle. Every other team not in the 2009 postseason has either been to the postseason recently, is clearly rebuilding, or, like the first three mentioned, is just downright awful. The middling five, though, really need to inject some life into their fans and cities, so having even one of those make the playoffs next year would be good for baseball as a whole.

– The Washington Nationals need pitching, and they need it badly, which is why getting Strasburg signed is a huge deal. They need to do something quickly before the folks in D.C. lose interest in baseball – for a third time.

– And finally, there’s the now-famous “Super Bowl Hangover,” but what about the “World Series Hangover?” With Tampa finishing third in the AL East, it continues a string of no World Series-losing team having made the postseason since the 2005 Cardinals. Furthermore, no World Series-losing team has made the World Series the next year since the 1992 Atlanta Braves. Throw in heartbreaking losses and poor performances for World Series runner-ups in the following year’s postseason (2002 and 2004 Yankees, 2005 Cardinals, 2003 Giants, 1997 and 2000 Braves, and the 1996 Indians) and perhaps there really is something to a “World Series Hangover” in the post-strike era. Just some food for thought.


Trivia Question
As the season draws to its end, the possibility of a one-game playoff to decide the AL Central is a distinct possibility, especially in Minnesota can take at least three of four from Detroit beginning tonight. It would set up a third one-game playoff to decide an AL division champion since the expansion of the postseason in 1994, adding to last year’s Chicago-Minnesota matchup and 1995’s Angels-Mariners game. In that time, the NL has also had a number of one-game playoffs, but they have all been for the Wild Card. No NL division has needed a one-game playoff to determine a winner in the Wild Card era. When was the last one-game playoff to decide an NL division champion?

Last week’s answer: Prior to this season, 2001 was the last playoff year that all eight teams had been to the postseason within the three years.
Atlanta – 2000
Arizona – 1999
St. Louis – 2000
Houston – 1999
NY Yankees – 2000
Seattle – 2000
Oakland – 2000
Cleveland – 1999

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
July 6 – Oakland Athletics
July 15 – San Diego Padres
July 27 – Pittsburgh Pirates
August 3 – Cincinnati Reds
August 10 – Toronto Blue Jays
August 17 – New York Mets
August 24 – Milwaukee Brewers
August 31 – Houston Astros
September 7 – Chicago White Sox
September 14 – Tampa Bay Rays
September 21 – Seattle Mariners AND Chicago Cubs
September 28 – Florida Marlins, Texas Rangers, Atlanta Braves, San Francisco Giants, AND….
In the final version of the “Dead List,” we’re including the teams that will not make the postseason. Despite my greatest hopes that Colorado would falter, the Rockies have managed to stay ahead of everyone in the NL Wild Card and, barring a complete collapse against Milwaukee and LA, will likely hold off Atlanta, Florida, and San Francisco. Thus, I will see my streak of not having a dead team make the playoffs end, but the bigger question is who is fifth team this week to kill. Only one team can make the playoffs from the AL Central, meaning it’s either the Tigers or Twins added to list. After careful deliberation, the verdict is…

AND the Minnesota Twins.

This week, watch for…
1) Last real race (Twins @ Tigers, 9/28-10/1)
2) Braves chase Rockies in NL Wild Card
3) Cardinals battle Phillies for first-round homefield

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

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