Saturday, October 16, 2010

A Little of the . . . Glory Of

I had a friend was a big baseball player

back in high school
He could throw that speedball by you
Make you look like a fool boy
Saw him the other night at this roadside bar
I was walking in, he was walking out
We went back inside sat down had a few drinks
but all he kept talking about was . . .

"Glory Days" from Born in the U.S.A.

There was something downright Springsteenian about last night's first game of the American League Championship Series. For Yankee fans anyway. Based on the exuberant conversations I had during the game and the text messages flying in, last night had the feeling of . . . well . . . the glory days. And for me and generational compatriots, that means the era of Yankees baseball that ran from 1996-2000.

Last night was a game that could've been left for dead in the first inning. But Jorge Posada redeemed himself for not catching a too-high fastball by pouncing on a ball off the backstop and tossing a perfect throw to a hustling C.C. Sabathia at home plate to prevent the Rangers from adding to their already impressive three-run opening frame tally. It was game that by the third inning, I was prompted to ask another Yankee fan, "What are the chances the Yanks are in this game going into the 9th?" "50/50" was his reply.

It was a game that was left for dead after the Rangers put a sour end to Sabathia's laborious and lost night by knocking in two more runs in the 4th for a two-run lead. By that point, it was on to Phil Hughes Declarations, like:
• We've heard about Phil Hughes for about six years now. He's been groomed to be an elite pitcher for about that long. It's his time to step up in the biggest start of his career.

It was a game that was more amusement than serious business as Joba Chamberlain and Dustin Moseley (Unsung Hero of the Game v.1: 2 IP, all zeros and four Ks) stifled the Texas bats from the 5th through the 7th. Even Robinson Cano's solo shot in the 7th seemed merely a matter of accounting. A fence post to replace a doughnut.

And then the Yankee 8th. My thoughts after the scoreboard had completely reversed: best post-season rally since Game 1 of the '98 World Series. Certainly the Game 7 2003 ALCS could qualify: down 4-0 after 4.5 innings; down 5-2 going into the bottom of the 8th. But that was a "can't take my eyes off the screen game," never a game that was left for dead, never a game that a Yankee fan totally lost hope based on the opponent, the pitcher, the moment. No, last night was a distant cousin to that aforementioned Game 1 in '98 (down 5-2 going into the 7th, with the Padres hitting David Wells hard in the process) and the ultimate left-for-dead game, the blueprint of the current incarnation of Yankee post-season stick-to-it-tiveness, Game 4 of the '96 World Series (down 6-0 to the Braves going into the 6th).

It was a rally not borne on one swing or one decisive moment, but stitched together slowly . . . pitch-by-pitch, good at-bat after good at-bat and, as Ron Washington knows better than anyone: pitcher-by-pitcher.

The Brett Gardner infield single made you glance at the screen an extra time. A shrug of the shoulders. The Jeter double made you take notice. 5-2, but still plenty of work to do. The Swisher walk (great at-bat, 7 pitches, took the bat off his shoulder once to foul off a nasty slider to keep the count at 3-2) started the avalanche. From then a blur.

Well, I soon lost track of m’ kids ’n’ wife
So many people there I never saw in m’ life
That old ship sinkin’ down in the water
Six thousand people tryin’ t’ kill each other
Dogs a-barkin’, cats a-meowin’
Women screamin’, fists a-flyin’, babies cryin’
Cops a-comin’, me a-runnin’
"Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues", Bob Dylan

The thing that struck me about the heart of that rally (specifically the A-Rod and Cano at-bats) was how decisive those plate appearances were. Both swung at the first pitch, both against new pitchers throwing their first pitch of the game. And both drilled the ball for base hits driving in a run apiece.

The futility of Texas in the last two frames (the Ian Kinsler pick-off was a brain lock of Merkleian proportions), only further added fuel to the fire that this was a terrible loss for the Rangers. After the two back-from-the-dead games referenced above, the Yankees didn't lose a game for the rest of those series. Instead of the Yankees playing for their season this afternoon in Arlington, the Rangers are in all likelihood playing for theirs.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

When Winning a Baseball Game . . .
(Becomes The Hardest Thing in the World)

The baseball season is long. When this baseball season, which is now closing in on its winter years, began, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig was still afloat in the Gulf of Mexico. Yes, it's been that long.

And because of the season's length and because of the amount of games in a given season, winning a singular game is not much of an achievement. Almost every team in baseball has won somewhere between five and seven dozen games. Of course, context changes everything.

A singular game in a post-season will take on a substantial amount of weight and pressure. The enormity of a one-game playoff or a Game 7 speaks for itself.

We've now reached the point in the 2010 season where single games are taking on a weight much bigger than what is felt in April, May, June or July. There are the Cardinals, who are trying to stave off the death of their post-season hopes on a daily basis.

There are the White Sox, who feel like they're on borrowed time a bit, but still only 3.5 games behind Minnesota in the A.L. Central. And those two teams have three games left the middle of this month in Chicago. I'm skeptical of their chances, but there's time.

There are the San Francisco Giants, who have weathered August's tumultuous Storm Lincecum and find themselves in the race for both their division and for the National League's Wild Card. While they're not in do-or-die mode quite yet, a bad stretch of say five days or so could knock them out for good.

And then there are the San Diego Padres, the team I was alluding to in my headline. The Padres. Sidenote: whenever I'm inspired to write by a Joe Posnanski column (which is about three times a week), I feel like I'm picking at his table scraps. Earlier this week, Posnanski wrote about these September Padres and in particular an afternoon game that took place in Arizona on Wednesday. I watched some of the game he wrote about, and had some of the exact same sentiment and reaction to what transpired.

If you're late to the station, the Padres have been a great *baseball story this year. Scratch that, they've been the best story in a season whose final tale will make a nice addendum to any baseball library. Beyond that even, they have the potential to be one of the best baseball stories of the last 20 or 25 years.

*Pulling a Posnanski: Off the top of my head, the best team baseball stories since 1990, in no particular order, would have to include:
• the 2004 Red Sox, specifically the 3-0 comeback against New York . . . I'll be right back (races to the medicine cabinet for some Pepto).
• the 1991 worst-to-first World Series and subsequent Game 7
• the 116-win season by Seattle
• the division-winning dominance of the Braves*
• the post-season run of the 2001 Yankees

*Flabbergasting Tidbit of the Week: as Joe Po pointed out in his column the Braves didn't lose seven games in a row once from 1991-2005. That's 15 seasons.

Of course, something has happened on the way to completing Best Baseball Story of the Decade. There is nothing more palpable in sports than the late season collapse of a baseball team. There is no comparison point.

It happens in a day-by-day manner, little-by-little, one loss at a time. As a fan of the Yankees, my only point of reference is the end of their 2000 campaign when they lost 15 of their last 18 games, including their last seven of the season. However, they had an nine game lead in the division when the stretch started, and the fate of the division never truly came in doubt. They ended up winning the East by 2.5 games.

No, the collapse I'm talking about, the kind that's playing out right now on the west coast are those monumental, gut-wrenching slides. The kind that cost teams their post-season dreams (and dignity), and leave everlasting scars. The '64 Phillies . . . the '95 Angels . . . last year's Tigers . . . the '07 Mets.

For those with morbid curiosity, there's a tidy list right here.

On Wednesday, August 18 the Padres beat the Cubs 5-1 in Wrigley to go up six games in the N.L. West for the first time all year. A week later on the 25th, they beat the D-backs to go up 6.5 games, their high-water mark of the season. They had concluded a stretch in which they had gone 13-3, racking up 4.5 games in the standings. They had scored 90 runs (5.6 R/G) in those 16 games and allowed only 45 (2.8 R/G).

On Thursday the 26th, they lost a who-cares laugher 11-5 to Arizona and lost a 1/2 game in the standings. A weekend series with the defending NL champs loomed in their home park, a three-game set seemingly more vital to the Phillies whose post-season return is anything but certain.

The first two games were excellent, well-pitched, tight baseball games and a good showcase for how the Padres have been winning games this season. The thing is though, they didn't win either, losing 3-2 and 3-1, the former being a 12-inning defeat. By Sunday, they were either gassed or simply flummoxed by Cole Hamels. A sweep at home is always ugly, but this was the Phillies, the lead in the division was still five games, and a series with the lowly D-backs loomed in the desert.

And that's when this thing really started to turn into that boulder at the beginning of Raiders. After scoring three runs in three games vs. Philadelphia, the Padres lost 7-2 then 7-4 in Arizona. Another game chopped off in the standings. Then came the infamous Wednesday afternoon game.

It's Sunday morning and the crisp air (it's definitely a sweatshirt morning) matches the calendar. September. The football season has begun, the baseball season is nearing its conclusion. And in the baseball world, there is no bigger story right now than the plight of the San Diego Padres. The losing streak is now nine; the lead has been whittled, like Chinese water torture I imagine for Padres fans, to 2. Seven games remain with their closest pursuers the San Francisco Giants. The collar is now unbearably tight.

Courtesy of

"It honestly seems like we're going out there not to lose the division, instead of going out there to win the division," Padres pitcher Jon Garland said. "Because there isn't a single soul in baseball that's going to feel sorry for us.
"Right now, we've hit a bad spell, and it plays tricks on your mind. But this is a game of confidence. If you don't have confidence going out there, it's going to show. It's showed. So, we need to find a way to get that confidence back."

Another one:

"We're sitting back, waiting," Padres third baseman Chase Headley said. "It's almost like we're waiting for something bad to happen. We've got to start playing better."

I wrote above that there is nothing like watching a heretofore successful baseball team's season disintegrate. There is no other example when it seems like the athletes are in a vehicle in which they've totally lost control. The brakes don't work, the steering wheel is moving this way and that . . . and they're just hoping the car careens in a nice, grassy field. Instead of into a brick wall.

"It's almost like we're waiting for something bad to happen."

". . . and it plays tricks on your mind"

Yes, the Padres have found themselves in that place where the ghosts of the 2007 Mets and the 1995 Angels and the 2009 Tigers reside. Will they live to tell a post-season tale? Or will they become another addition to baseball's equivalent of a dead letter office?

I'll close with Geoff from Ducksnorts, the preeminent Padres' blog on the net. From September 1:

This team has overachieved all year. People have doubted the Padres, and with good reason. Coming off 99- and 87-loss seasons, and with the second lowest payroll in baseball, they looked like a lost cause.

Now they are playing like one, and I imagine folks are doubting the team again. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have concerns. There are two good ball clubs chasing the Padres, and if the overachievers from San Diego don’t get back to playing smart baseball soon, they could find themselves looking up before long.

The Padres are not the sort of team that can afford to get runners picked off first base down 6-2 or have a pitcher groove an 0-2 fastball to an elite power hitter. They simply do not have the talent to overcome such critical lapses. If the Padres don’t play smart, as they have been doing much of the year, they are toast.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Some Thoughts After This Statistical Soup (Pt. 2 of 2)

The Yanks remain the best offense in the sport, despite the recent dips in scoring average and other stats. The most pressing issues that face the team are nothing new: age and the resultant declining performance. Derek Jeter turned 36 in June. His .273 average entering today would his worst batting average in a full season ever. By 18 points. His .335 OBP the worst by 17 points; his .384 SLG would be the first sub-.400 in that category ever.

Alex Rodriguez just turned 35. He too is on pace to set full-season career lows in all three "slash stats": .264/.335/.467. His previous career lows in the three categories: .285/.350/.496

These aren't the only concerns in the everyday line-up. Brett Gardner hasn't been the same since taking a ball off his hand in late June. Jorge Posada while maintaining his career average production, has daily, physical concerns that have stunted his playing time. And his back-up hits the ball with the kind of authority that's more in line with 1910, not 2010. Curtis Granderson is having the worst full season of his career, and is proving there is such a thing as a disappointing New York season that nobody will notice.

And with the additions of Berkman and Kearns, Coffee Joe (as Giardi has been dubbed by one of my favorite cyber-scribes, Steven Goldman) has already shown a proclivity to pick line-ups like a blind man playing pin the tail on the donkey. Finding a consistent groove for the everyday line-up will be a key by the time the big September games vs. Tampa approach.

While the team can bear some of the havoc that Father Time is wrecking on some of the team's centerpieces, it will not survive many more blows to the pitching staff if it's going to compete for another World Series championship. The absence of Andy Pettitte from the everyday rotation has already been felt as they've had to deal with one terrible Sergio Mitre start, one workmanlike Dustin Moseley start, and a I-gave-you-length-but-gave-up-runs Moseley loss to the Blue Jays last night. The next time Pettitte's spot comes up is Monday vs. Boston and Jon Lester. Good luck with that.

They've had to deal with Chan Ho Park inflating the team's ERA as soon as April dawned, and Joba Chamberlain, while showing glimpses of excellence, being on the whole underwhelming and maddeningly inconsistent.

But that's all cupcakes and rainbows compared to the real albatross around this staff's proverbial neck. I'm referring of course to the Great Pie Tosser himself, A.J. Burnett. Truth be told, Burnett's never been a great pitcher. But he's always been "solid," throwing just enough gems in a given year to off-set those days in which he has his prototypical four-inning/six-run meltdowns. His full season ERAs have bounced from the low 4.00's to the mid-to-high 3.00's. In years that he's healthy, he's good for 200 innings, a bunch of strikeouts and a bushel of walks.

This season, he's simply fallen off the cliff. currently has him projected out to a 14-14 campaign with an unsightly 4.93 (in the year of the pitcher no less). In seasons with at least 13 starts, it would be his worse ERA since he threw to a 4.70 in 13 starts 10 years ago. While his walk rate is relatively steady, his strikeout rate is down, which is never a good sign for a power pitcher. As Goldman would say, you see that and you start asking ugly questions like "Is he losing something in his pitches?" "Is there an injury at play?" His 6.9 K/9 rate would be his lowest since 2001.

The Rubix Cube of the Yankees' season will be how they structure their post-season pitching rotation. Last season with the help of a little luck (favorable scheduling, which allowed for well-placed off days) and genuinely excellent starting pitching, New York was able to win a World Series with a three-man playoff rotation. That feat hadn't been accomplished since the Blue Jays in the early 1990's. Not only will they have to question the worthiness of trying to pull that trick again (Is it realistic? How effective will Pettitte be, for example, on short-rest, especially if the three series go longer?), but figure out how they are going to fill those rotation spots, regardless of whether it's a 3-man or 4-man October staff.

Conventional wisdom (New York sports talk radio) suggests that the Yankees would be be better served by moving Phil Hughes to the bullpen in the post-season, which would take pressure off the Joba/Robertson (and dare I say, Kerry Wood?) combo? Doing this would leave it up to the Sabathia/Burnett/Pettitte triumvirate to again carry the team to another trophy. But Burnett's post-season pedestal has to at least be showing cracks in the foundation in the eyes of the Yankee brass. If Hughes is throwing like he has his past two starts (his fastball is back to popping, with great movement even within the strike zone) do you dare take him out of a playoff start? Especially if Burnett continues on his Season to Nowhere?

Playoff Perspective
It's close enough in the standings to give the series this weekend at Yankee Stadium a fair amount of weight, but not enough for Yankee fans to put on anything other than their usual level of antiperspirant. As if it wasn't looking bleak enough for the Boston Nine, the loss of Kevin Youkilis from line-up further solidifies the chances that Sox will be left out of the post-season party in 2010. BP's Postseason Odds has the Yankees at 77% to make the playoffs. The Rays are at 90% and the Sox at 27%.

Even as much as I respect Boston's grit and their ability to hang in this season when they reasonably could've cashed out two months ago, it's a matter of firepower and I don't see the Yankees going into a big enough slide for Boston to catch them.

The Division
There is nothing in the numbers or my own visual analysis that makes the winner of the A.L. East clear-cut in my mind. With the dip in the Yankee pitching numbers, you can make a case that there's a lean to Tampa now. But Tampa is also playing in the midst of their greatest hot streak of the season and won't win 10 out of every 11 games in August and September. BP gives Tampa a 60% chance to win the division and the Yankees 32%.

October Baseball
When looking at the Yankees' prospects in October, I expect things to be a bit murkier than they were entering October of 2009. For one, there will be no island of preparation in the last month of the regular season, what my friends and I refer to as "October Mode." A time to rest regulars, heal, re-energize, skip spots in the rotation and totally reboot the bullpen. The Yankees value home-field advantage, and rightly so, to the point that they will pursue the Rays into the far reaches of September in order to grab the top spot in the A.L. Win or lose, how much will that chase take out of them by the time they get to October?

I've already talked about the playoff rotation, the construction of the line-up and age and barking injuries taking their quiet toll. However, one the biggest factors of all may be the improved competition the Yankees are likely to face before playing a National League opponent. Texas and Tampa in particular are likely to present much more of a challenge than the Twins or Angels were able to muster in the ALDS and ALCS last season. The Yankees never saw a "deciding game" in any of their three playoff series: no game 5 in the first round, no game 7's. That will not be the case this time around.

In another year, I'd be more likely celebrating a team that has been rubbing elbows with some of the great Yankee teams of all-time and is on pace for over 100 wins. But Tampa, with their stellar pitching staff, very good defense and solid offense, are presenting a difficult challenge not only for the division, but may end up being the biggest obstacle to banner #28 come October.

Into the Statistical Soup: A.L. East (Part 1 of 2)

June 12. That was the last time before the conclusion of last night's games in the majors that the Yankees didn't have at least a share of first place in the American League's eastern division.

Through 6/12:
40-22 Tampa Bay
39-23 New York
37-27 Boston

The Yankees played so well from June 13-July 29, that there was a sense that they had plopped down a flag on first place and by some baseball decree would remain there for the duration of the season.

In that span of about one-and-a-half months, the Yanks went 26-13, with the course of business as easy as in any team season in recent memory. After 100 games, they had the third best record in the history of the franchise, behind only two all-time teams: the 1998 juggernaut and the last great Mantle team of 1961.

However, over that same time, Tampa went 23-16, essentially staying step-for-step with the history chasers, and especially peaking as the month of August was approaching.

The Red Sox meanwhile, dealing the type of adversity usually reserved for Job, played at a level respectable enough to keep their season breathing: 21-17.

Through June 13th, the Yanks were first in the American League in runs per game at 5.63. Boston was second at 5.43. Tampa was third at 5.29.

Some of the important underlying numbers to runs scored, i.e. either good correlations to scoring runs or indicators of future performance, include OBP, OPS+ (on-base plus slugging, adjusted for park effects and league contexts) and batting average with runners in scoring position.

Through June 13, AL ranks:
01. New York, .365
02. Boston, .352
T7. Tampa Bay and Texas, .339

01. New York, +121
03. Boston, +114
05. Tampa Bay, +103

01. New York, .278
T2. Boston and Minnesota, .276
T5. Kansas City and Tampa Bay, .274

While Tampa has drifted towards more of a good-but-not-great offense over the course of the season, Boston and New York in particular have been among the cream-of-the-crop offenses in the sport for the duration of the season.

Now to the pitching ledger. Looking at runs allowed per game, ERA+ (ERA adjusted for park and league contexts) and WHIP.

Through June 13 AL ranks:
01. Tampa Bay, 3.75
03. New York, 4.00
10. Boston, 4.69

01. Tampa Bay, +125
T3. Texas and New York, +108
08. Boston, +103

01. Tampa Bay, 1.236
02. New York, 1.248
09. Boston, 1.366

In line with looking at the pitching statistics, it's worth looking at a couple of defensive metrics. Admittedly, I tread very lightly among some of these numbers, as there is constant debate about the best statistics to use for evaluating defensive play, how to apply those statistics and then how to analyze the results. I'll stick with two that I can consider basic barometers of defensive work on a team level and can be used alongside traditional numbers such as chances, putouts, errors and fielding percentage. 1. PADE: Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. A metric courtesy of Baseball Prospectus (BP), it's simply how well a defense turns batted balls into outs adjusted for park factors. 2. BAbip: batting average on balls in play.

Through June 13 A.L. Ranks:
02. Boston, 2.24
03. New York, 1.64
04. Tampa Bay, 1.60

01. Tampa Bay, .275
02. New York, .280
04. Boston, .285

*Although there are different ways to use and look at BAbip, it can used to gauge a team's defense (the more batted balls in play that are turned into outs, means the more balls that are being run down and caught, means the better the defense). But it could also be indicative of having good pitchers that don't allow a lot of good swings, line drives, well-hit balls, etc. And these factors are not mutually exclusive: a good pitching staff and a good defense typically go hand-in-hand. It could be a gauge of luck.

One of the underrated aspects of this Yankees team has been their defensive play. They've ranked high among BP's defensive metrics nearly all season long. That's how you keep pace with the 1961 Yankees: you do everything well - hit, pitch and field the ball.

While the Yankees have been on cruise control since the speed bump of mid- to late-May, they still found themselves sitting one game out of first place entering today's action. They haven't totally shaken a game Boston team that despite fielding a bunch of vagabonds and no-names were only six back of the Bombers in the loss column with a four-game series slated for the upcoming weekend.

Another look at the stats I listed above through August 3, all American League rankings.

Runs Per Game
01. New York, 5.39
02. Boston, 5.18
03. Tampa Bay, 5.06

In the year of the pitcher, all three teams have cooled off their scoring pace since June 13, losing 0.24, 0.25, and 0.23 respectively.

02. New York, .350
03. Boston, .347
T4. Texas and Tampa Bay, .340

The Yankees have slid the most of the three teams, as they've lost 15 points of OBP since 6/13. Tampa is virtually the same (.339 vs. 340) and Boston's only down five points.

01. New York, +115
T2. Boston and Minnesota, +111
T6. Detroit, Kansas City and Tampa Bay, +100

In line with the shift in OBP, the Yanks have the biggest crash here (-6), while Boston (-3) and Tampa (-3) have seen smaller dips.

5. Boston, .270
6. Tampa Bay, .267
7. New York, .266

There's been a considerable drop-off in this category by all three teams, but none more so than the Yankees, who've gone from 1st in the A.L. at .278 on June 13 to .266 and essentially league average.

Now for the defense.
01. Tampa Bay, 3.80
06. New York, 4.16
09. Boston, 4.53

The Yankees pitching-and-defense is almost equally distant from Tampa as it is from the Red Sox; that's how much Tampa has separated their run prevention from New York. They have maintained their league-best R/G rate losing adding only 0.05 since 6/13, while the Yanks have jumped 0.16. The Sox have improved.

01. Tampa, +119
06. Boston, +106
07. New York, +103

The Yanks have fallen from tied for third to 7th in the league.

01. Tampa Bay, 1.224
03. New York, 1.286
09. Boston, 1.341

Tampa and Boston have lowered their WHIPs since 6/13; the Yanks' number has gone up.

02. Tampa Bay, 1.72
03. Boston, 1.66
04. New York, 1.33

Tampa's improved their number, their division mates have slid.

01. Tampa Bay, .275
04. New York, .285
06. Boston, .288

(Part 0f 2 and some general conclusions to follow)

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Music Writing Samples
(5 total: 4 albums and 1 concert)

1. A few years ago I worked on a project, a "Top 50 albums" type of thing. These are some snippets from that.

29: Elliot Smith, XO
In the midst of the weariest and dreariest week that an October could bestow upon us – it’s been raining steadily since Friday; today is Thursday – I dreamed one night that I was listening to a live and perfect rendition of “Sweet Adeline.”

The next day I saw that there was a live show from ’97 waiting to be downloaded. As an old friend wrote to me this week, “what an odd planet.” That show didn’t have “Sweet Adeline,” but the next day I found a show that did. And I listened to that song last night. Fairly muddy sound quality, but soothing nonetheless.

Since purchasing it in the fall of ’98, I’ve always associated this album with the slow and long descent into winter, the fading days, the ever-present nights: sometimes with crystal amazing stars, other times without.

Very steady, purposeful, confident and bursting with life. So sad (or is it simply ironic?) that it is now so clearly associated with death.

I wrote a review of this album within a couple months of first hearing it, and I was effusive in my praise. Used references to Brian Wilson and Paul Simon, among other things. In many ways, all of that still holds up. There are elements to this album, moments, that I find amazing, soul-shaking.

Case in point: virtually every single second of “Tomorrow Tomorrow,”which is one of the great exhalations you’ll ever hear on record. The timbre of the acoustic guitar strings, the perfect rhythm, the layering of the vocal tracks, the in-synchness of it all. An amazing work.

34: Husker Du, New Day Rising
For the sake of dividing and conquering, there are two schools of Husker Du fans. The first school, the dominant of the two, gravitates toward the band’s earlier work, i.e. pre-Flip Your Wig. The other school prefers the back end of the catalog: the Warner Bros. years. Of course, the large majority of Husker fans, especially ones who got into the band after their demise, generally waver between all the releases, finding strengths in everything.

In a poll of fans, you’re probably likely to get two answers for the band’s epoch: Zen Arcade (by far the band’s most publicized work over the last 20 years) would be one choice; the follow-up, New Day Rising, would be the other. This album is firmly entrenched with punk sensibilities (there is truly desperate, manic vocalizations in the title track), and yet foreshadows the more precise pop structures to come. “I Apologize” is Mould’s first clearly identifiable everyman-relationship song, with lines like “Take out the garbage / Anyway the dishes don’t get done,” and features a catchy chord progression that could pass for British invasion pop if not for the amplified guitar fuzz. Hart’s goofy-yet-convincing “Books About UFOs” is like nothing in the band’s catalog, and certainly convinces the audience that this band isn’t adhering to any notions of what they should be doing.

There is also a great leap forward for the band in terms of lyrical content on this album. While Zen Arcade has its memorable lines and imagery, there is nothing on that magnum opus as subtly brilliant as Hart’s “Terms of Psychic Warfare” or Mould’s musings on lost youth and the landscapes of our lives in “Celebrated Summer.”

The more the Huskers moved forward, it seems the more conventional they became. That might not be totally fair; Warehouse: Songs and Stories, for sure, is groundbreaking in many ways, mostly for the intense, honest atmosphere it creates and sustains over four LP sides. But here, in New Day Rising is a wonderful melding of talent, ambition, past, present and future.

43: Bob Dylan, John Wesley Harding

This might be the oddest album in my collection. This is just a bizarre, odd album. On one level, it sounds like a man who’s losing his mind. But that’s just one level. There’s another level that sounds like this singer is just toying with us, getting a laugh on our behalf. Placing all of these seamless riddles in front of us with no plausible answers. On another level, the album sounds brutally honest, a weary man breathing out the only air he can.

A fascinating collection of songs.

There are some amazingly vivid landscapes and characters in these songs; it plays in your mind almost like a moving picture, with all the dialogue and colorful characters. John Wesley Harding, the air around Tom Paine, St. Augustine, the little neighbor boy, Frankie Lee and Judas Priest, the Wicked Messenger, the distraught and emotionally disabled tenant pleading to his landlord for leniency… and on and on.

While not his most uplifting or energetic work, it is simply inexhaustible.

44: Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska
I’ve heard some sketchy things about Bruce Springsteen over the years, things that make him seem more ingenuous than he probably is on his worst day. Was he a record company’s pawn for awhile? Probably. Did he contrive an image that could be packaged and sold like a can of beans on a store shelf? Maybe. But so did the Beatles and Elvis Presley and nearly every other big-name act in the history of popular music.

I’m not a huge Springsteen fan, mind you, but I do think he’s written some memorable songs. And if he doesn’t deserve 100% of the fame and fortune that he has gained in his life (based on his talent:fame quotient), then I can’t say it’s less than 75% or so.

Taped directly to a Tascam four-track recorder (with a few overdubs sprinkled throughout), this album plays like a collection of demos. There’s the vocal flub in one of the last choruses in “Atlantic City.” A similar trip of the tongue in “Johnny 99.” It’s Springsteen with his guard down a bit, which gives the proceedings the appearance (if not the reality) of being more honest, more genuine, more real. It’s certainly his rawest effort to date.

Four years ago I took a graduate class, The Modern Short Story. Great class. Studied the masters of the genre in chronological order: Poe, Chekov, Hemingway, Joyce, O’Connor . . . When we got to the part of the course that focused on Raymond Carver, our professor urged us to break out our copies of Nebraska, which was, in his estimation, the perfect soundtrack to Carver’s stories.

It was a cute pop-culture reference, but there’s also the ring of the truth to the comparison.

Nebraska is this little compact collection of songs, all intertwining and working together, like a true thematic collection of short stories. And, like Carver’s work, landscape is key. The barren landscapes, empty lives and lost dreams that echo and reverberate throughout the record at once arouse feelings of sadness, hope, melancholia and nostalgia.

Cynics, I’m sure, would say this is Springsteen’s overt homage to Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, an attempt at striving for an ideal that he can’t quite reach resulting in a faux folk record. I say “hooey” to that. Characterize it however you want, this is a startling collection of songs. From the wistful ruminations of “Mansion on the Hill,” to the charged and energetic “Johnny 99,” to the urgent and subtly intense brooding of the singer in “State Trooper,” the album, like Carver’s stories, are reflections of the down trodden at the end of the 20th Century in America. The road weary. The Tom Joads of the American 1980s.

Devotees of Springsteen’s will swear that he is the Chosen One for the working class of the modern times. A performer with a blue-collar ethic. A spinster of honest tales and poignant insights.

I’m not willing to put him in the same class as many of his singer/songwriter contemporaries. Suffice to say, he’s no Neil Young. Paul Simon can run songwriting circles around him. And he’s not even on the same planet as Dylan.

However, when things do come together for him, when he is at his pinnacle, he deserves to be noticed. The way he delivers and sings the line, “There’s a beautiful full moon rising … above the mansion on the hill…” That is as good as he gets, and it can be very, very good. This album is Springsteen at his best.

2. Review of a Bob Mould solo acoustic show, Northamption, MA, August, 2003
Saturday night’s show at the Iron Horse didn’t start out with words that you want to hear at a Bob show. “This is going to be the laid-back show tonight.” In my mind I heard “Lack of Intensity,” and groaned a little bit at the prospect of an unspirited show.

That proclamation, or warning, hung around the night like a neon sign in the back of the stage. However, as the show progressed it became less important that this wasn’t raging Bob (“Poison Years” wouldn’t have fit in at all) than the fact he found a unique groove, stuck with it, and by the end yielded some amazing results as the set wore on.

This is one of those shows that it wouldn’t do it justice to just pick out the highlights; I really have to start at the beginning and move forward. Maybe a little longer review as a result, but necessary to capture the feel of the night.

“Wishing Well,” true to his opening comment, was definitely “laid back” – played in a slower tempo than past versions, lacking that familiar manic drive that usually starts things off. But in its own way, it became mesmerizing, almost a little hypnotic. He didn’t lose the unique feel he created from the onset, and as he hit the instrumental break in the middle, the song went to another level. That was the beginning of a theme that would dominate the night. His instrumental breaks and solos were awe-inspiring tonight.

It was evident early that what he was lacking in raw-emotion-intensity, he was making up for with honesty, *excellent* playing and vocals to fit the theme, i.e. more singing, less shouting.

The first nine songs all stayed within this framework, some lacking the electricity to make them noteworthy (“Your Favorite Thing,” “No Reservations,” “High Fidelity”). Others were very sharp, keeping the set from floating away into the ether; indeed, it struck me at some points that Bob was a bit detached. Not much interaction with the crowd at all ... a couple of smiles or shrugs after a song was over, but that's about it.

“I Apologize” was great, although I think he might have clipped the last verse (“same as the first”). Rhythm was right-on, and didn’t waver one iota. Received one of the best crowd reactions of the night. “Thumbtack” was also an early stand-out. Great guitar work, as he mixed up the playing quite a bit. It was far from just straight-ahead strumming. A lot of arpeggio-type work with the lower strings, and one of his best vocals of the night. Really strong. “Hoover Dam,” for a more melodic vocal that harkened back to the early days of the song, and the instrumental break in “Hear Me Calling” also deserve a quick mention.

Turning point #1 was “Brasilia.” Not the focused, steady versions of the past that build and build to that final crescendo. But it was unique. At the end, Bob dubbed it as an “interesting version,” and when someone shouted that it was great, he confirmed that it was a good one.

The best way to describe it is ‘all over the map.’ At the start it seemed to have that potential for being a classic quiet-to-loud version, as he was barely strumming at all. It didn’t take long for the song to become the night’s exploratory statement. It seemed to wander away, then re-focus. He toyed with his vocal throughout, even throwing in a falsetto-type voice for a couple of lines.

Where the song really came together was during the choppy section (“I wish I could tell my story…). At that point, he really let loose on the guitar, not just settling for the strum/mute technique he usually uses. There were a variety of hammer-ons, creating an instrumental flourish that I’ve never heard in that part of the song. Instead of belting out “Oh Lord, what happened,” he held back the yell for a few moments and instead stressed “this way.” As my friend pointed out, definitely a candidate for moment of the night.

The crowd was especially appreciative, and the mood of the night changed for good. A show that had meandered a little bit had found a focal point, and from here on out, I enjoyed it as much as any Bob show since ’98 at the Fez in New York.

One more acoustic song left, and it was a strong one: “Gauze of Friendship.” I don’t know if I should go on at length at how good the new songs sounded, and how that relates to what I think of how Body of Song is progressing. I guess I’ll leave that for another post, and just say that the new stuff sounded great. I can only hope their studio incarnations retain the energy and enthusiasm they were played with tonight.

At that point, I thought he’d be switching to the backing tracks. Although I wouldn’t have minded a live “180 Rain” or “Slay/Sway,” I’m glad he took a break from the DAT. Instead we got *one* of the best electric sets I’ve seen him play. I don’t think anything will ever top Tramps from March of ’97, but this felt downright triumphant in spots. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face for the rest of the night.

Nine electric songs, including the three in the encore. Not a weak one in the bunch, and it just seemed to get better and better as it went along. It didn’t hurt that the sound in the room was warm and loud and clear by that point. Exactly how you’d want it to be. The timbre of the guitar was *perfect*, and although Bob’s vocals were drowned out a little as you’d expect, they were in a good spot in the mix. Gone was the troublesome reverb that plagued the sound of the last Iron Horse show back in November.

Although most of us appreciate Bob’s willingness to move forward in his career and keep things fresh, I’m guessing all of us, on a given night, want to catch that glimpse of what was: the raging guitar, that energy of bands past. And I know I’ve voiced my displeasure in this space over his under-utilized guitar skills in recent years. That, as much as anything, is what made Saturday night special. Not that I hadn’t seen or heard this before, but it was nice to be reminded that it’s still there. He was flying on the guitar during the electric set.

“Weak From Desire” (a distant relative to “First Drag of the Day”) set-up the feel of the electric set immediately: great sound in the room, excellent vocals, good vibe. The solo in “Trade” fit in well with the slower tempo – he didn’t rush through it, took his time and didn’t miss a note. I don’t think the gorge between the studio version on Modulate and how this song comes across live can be over-emphasized. “Surveyors and Cranes” was probably the best I’ve heard it; granted, that’s only about four versions’ worth of listening.

The three-song run to finish the set … geez, I’ve feel like I’ve gushed enough, but it’s worthy of any praise I have left. “Circles” (a distant relative to “Black Sheets of Rain”), may have been the song of the night. Amazing guitar work. Here’s hoping he can bottle some of that up when it comes to getting it on record. If this was the version to be released, I would take it in a second.

He followed that with renditions of “Act We Act” and “Celebrated Summer” that were off the charts. They’re almost a blur now. It was just great to see him play that well… It didn’t hurt my impression that it was the first electric “Celebrated Summer” I’ve seen. It seems like I’d been waiting to see him play that song electric for years.

When Bob returned for the encore, he said something like, “Sorry I haven’t talked much, but I got in the ‘zone,’ and I just wanted to stay there,” which drew a nice response from the crowd.

The perfunctory combo of IICCYM—Egoverride—Makes No Sense could have put a typical end on an atypical night. But it didn’t; Bob didn’t lose a step to the finish. The IICCYM solo, especially, stood-out. “Ego,” which never has grabbed me much in the live setting, was strong – at this point I knew it was coming down the stretch and I was just enjoying the moment. Ditto for Makes No Sense – it always seems a little ordinary, but here it was just smooth. A nice version.

I could’ve listened to him play till about 4 in the morning. It was that kind of night.

After the show, he said something to the effect that he wouldn’t dub the show as “good or bad. But that it was an interesting one.” I reiterated that I thought his playing, the solos and instrumental breaks in particular, was something to behold. And he confirmed that it was “a player’s night” and that he had all of his “chops” working. Considering that he hadn’t played the guitar between the West Coast shows and Boston the night before, he suggested that he plays better when he hasn’t picked up the guitar much.

Whatever the reason, it was a good one. A reaffirmation.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

One-Game Playoff in Minnesota
updated: 8:23 p.m.

I was about to write "Rick Porcello is writing a story that will go down in Tigers' lore." It was the bottom of the 6th and the rookie had just struck out American League batting champion Joe Mauer for the second out of the inning. I walked out of the room to reset the internet connection and came back just in time to see Jason Kubel launching a home run into the seats above the baggy in right. 3-2 Tigers.

One batter later (a walk to Cuddyer), and now he's been yanked by Jim Leyland. Zach Miner coming in from the pen.

Porcello was excellent today: 5.2, 4 hits, 2 runs (as of right now), 1 earned, 2 walks, and a career-high tying 8 K's.

An excellent start to post-season baseball.

Update 1: 7:01 p.m.

Bases loaded for the Twins now. Miner's given up a single and hit a batter, pinch-hitter Brendan Harris. Two outs.

Ron Darling as the analyst makes Chip Carey (edited, orig. I wrote "Skip") tolerable. Darling is excellent. Wish I could combine the radio broadcast PBP announcer (Dan Shulman) with the TV color guy . . . how could a team would that be?

Tolbert's up, and Miner's behind in the count 2-1 and looks very shaky.

Hit decently, but directly to dead center. Can o' corn for Granderson.

3-2 going to the 7th.

Gotta like the Twins' chances though, especially considering how maligned the Detroit pen has been this year.

Update 2: 7:07 p.m.

Baker still in the game. At 84 pitches to start the inning.

Inge/Laird/Santiago due up.

In case you're wondering here's the complete list of all the tie-breaker games in baseball history, courtesy of Baseball Reference.

Inge walks to lead-off the 7th and Gardy's going to the Pen to bring in Jon Rauch.

Baker really hung in there. He gave up the three-spot in the 3rd and didn't look long for this game. But he really cruised through the middle innings. A workmanlike performance.

Update 3: 7:18 p.m.

Laird pops up the sac bunt attempt. One out. Laird really pulled the bat back on the heater, and wound up in a bad bunt position.

After getting a fly out from Santiago, Gardenhire is changing pitchers again. This time going with Jose Mijares to face Granderson.

The Twins are the first team to play in a tiebreaker playoff in back-to-back years. In looking at that list it's interesting to note that there were no extra games to decide a playoff spot from 1981-1994. Obviously the implementation of the Wild Card round has increased the occurrence of these games: this is the sixth since 1995 and the third in three seasons.

Mijares not missing by much, but down 3-1 in the count.

The other sizable gap between games like this was 1963-1977, years that were book-ended by the Dodgers-Giants playoff series in '62 and the Bucky Dent game in '78.

Base hit for Granderson on a 3-2 count. A guy who is a tougher out in my mind than his numbers suggest. The Tigers have a bunch of those types of guys . . . Polanco . . . Guillen.

1st & 3rd, 2 outs.

Another pitcher for the Twins as the conveyor belt continues to roll: Matt Guerrier on the way in to pitch to Polanco.

Update 4: 7:21 p.m.

Huge spot in the game. Base hit here really opens up some breathing room for the Tigers.

Got out of it. Fastball in on the hands, ground ball to short.

Update 5: 7:33 p.m.

Miner still in. Punto leading off.

Nick Punto is not one of those guys that I envision as "better than his numbers." When I see .227, that pretty much sums it up.

Good at-bat here though. Seven pitches in, 2-2 count. Now 3-2.

Base hit, of course. Line drive to left.

For all the crap that the Metrodome has gotten over the years (and one of my new favorite writers playfully piled it on this morning), it sure looks like a fun building to be in for big games. My memories of '87 and '91 are still vivid; I just remember the place absolutely rocking back in those years. And it's jumping tonight as well.

Gardy decided not to bunt with Span. Darling was surprised, for what it's worth.

Struck him out on a sharp slider. No advance of the runner. Remember that at-bat if the Twins don't score in this inning.

Orlando Cabrera, with the reputation as a good situational player . . . just drilled one into the left field seats. 4-3 Twinkies.

Well maybe "drilled" is being generous. A low line-drive it just sneaked over the fence in left, beyond the outstretched glove of Raburn in left. Unbelievable.

Six outs away from a historic collapse by the Tigers.

Base hit Mauer.

The game is starting to reach it's "inevitable feeling" stage. As in it's hard to envision Minnesota not winning this game now. Posnanski is right: this building just doesn't want to die.

New pitcher for Detroit.

Update 6: 7:41 p.m.

Fu Te-Ni got Kubel and Brandon Lyon was brought in to get Michael Cuddyer, which he did on a comebacker to the mound.

Onto the 8th.

Update 7: 7:56 p.m.

Guerrier still in. Ordonez/Cabrera/Guillen.

And now the only sound in the building is the hootin' and hollerin' in the Tigers dugout. Home run Magglio Ordonez.

Four to four.

Three outs away from Nathan facing the bottom of the order . . . oh well. It's a new game.

Cabrera grounds out.

Darling: "They were tied after 162. Why wouldn't they be tied now?"

Juice in the Metrodome, on a scale of 1-10, went from about a 15 to a 2.5 on one swing. Flat, flat, flatsky.

Guillen walks with one out.

Good AB by Raburn, and the crowd is slowly starting to resuscitate itself. Full count.

A lot of throws over to first to check on the pinch-runner Ramirez.

Ball 4. 1st and 2nd now, 1 out.

Guerrier out. I think Nathan's coming in, as he was the only one I saw warming up before the commercial break. Makes you think they probably would've been better off just having Nathan start the 8th, but I know Gardenhire was trying to avoid having to use his closer at all costs in the 8th.

Update 8: 8:02 p.m.

It is Nathan.

Big out. Got Inge to pop up to 2nd on a high fastball, 2-0 count. Ball was high, probably was ball three.

Two outs.


Shocker: Nathan's fastball looks great. Crisp, good movement.

Nice stop by Mauer on a slider in the dirt. 2-1 count.

Buried a fastball in on the fists to tie him up. 2-2

Gotta stick with the fastball here, no?

Slider, of course. A beauty on the outside corner that froze Laird looking.

Onto the bottom of the 8th.

Great game.

Update 9: 8:10 p.m.

I've now been live blogging for over an hour, which is probably some kind of record for this venerable, old blog. It just struck me that this site is the baseball blogosphere's equivalent of the Metrodome! Yes, it's a perfect fit. Under-utilized, ugly, not the best place to get your baseball information, but dadgumit (and yes, I just wrote "dadgumit"), this blog just refuses to die.

Lyon still in for Detroit. One out on a groundout.

Another ground ball, this time to third. Two outs.

That should be my new tagline: The Metrodome of Baseball Blogs. Perfect.

Matt Tolbert. A name I wasn't familiar with at all until the last couple of weeks.

Swing and a miss. End of inning.

Onto the 9th, game tied at four.

Update 10: 8:23 p.m.

So sick of the $5 footlong song.

9-1-2 for the Tigers here in the 9th.

Beautiful bunt by Santiago down the first base line for a base hit. And just as impressive of a slide into the first base bag to avoid the tag by Cuddyer. Spectacular play.

I think you have to bunt Granderson here . . . but maybe that's just me. He does have good numbers against Nathan, but with those three guys behind him I'd be very tempted to get that runner into scoring position.

First pitch: wasn't squaring, strike one.

Swing and a miss, strike two.

Worked out well. 1st and 3rd with nobody out after a jam-shot base hit to right field.

Polanco. Nathan's fastball doesn't look as good as it did in the 8th, and Darling just alluded to that. TBS gun showed it at 94-95. This inning it's been at 93.

1-2 after a good slider.

Cooked a fastball up to 95. Foul ball.


Great slider on the inside corner to freeze him. 1 out. Miles to go before he sleeps, however.



Line shot to short and Cabrera threw back to 1st to double off Granderson who went way too far off the bag.

A double play sends the game to the bottom of the 9th tied at four.

A classic considering the circumstances. Other duties call at this point, but I'll try and check back in for a wrap-up later tonight.

Good stuff.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Breaking Up the Day-to-Day Routine
The Shaken Not Stirred Edition

The post-season begins three weeks from today, Wednesday, October 7. This September has been one of the worst in recent baseball history, with barely a race to be found. The Yankees dashed out to the best record in baseball by mid- to late-August, and have been able to maintain a healthy lead both for the division and homefield throughout the playoffs. It's been a snooze-fest, as it's mostly been a month of housekeeping: keeping players healthy; giving regulars consistent time off; and at the same time maintaining some semblance of a competitive edge. This has been the case for New York and St. Louis, and to a lesser extent Anaheim, Philadelphia and Los Angeles.

The Yankees in particular have done an admirable job, going 10-5 through the first half of this month, beating up mostly on the bottom-feeders of their own division, including the comatose Rays who simply ran out of steam after a great year-and-a-half run

Which brings me to yesterday's fracas in the Bronx, which got a lot of attention both on national radio this morning, and on WFAN this afternoon. My initial impression was that last night's on-field brawl reeked of being borne out of boredom, more than any real brooding rivalry with the Jays or a vendetta against a junkball-throwing lefty. Toronto has probably been ready for this season to end for two months now, are sick of looking at the Yankees, and the Yankees (really Jorge Posada) had no problem obliging as I'm sure the day-to-day routine has grown monotonous; they've been waiting for the post-season to start for weeks now. Throwing a little spark into an otherwise meaningless night is not the worst thing in the world for a team that's been playing warm-up games for the better part of a month now.

I heard reels and reels of admonishment directed at Posada for "being dumb" and for putting the season at risk; his own manager in fact stated his disapproval of the turn of events. And all that is fine & well, but as far as I know no one did get hurt, and I don't think there is going to be any long-term damage from the fight. I'm not saying I condone Posada's actions; he clearly lost his head and perspective of the situation. But sometimes it's not the worse thing to have teams riled up and woken up and shaken up a bit, especially in the midst of tedium. Even if it's not for a particularly smart reason.

This installment of the Yankees has handled October Mode better than any other outfit since the 1998 juggernaut that never let the peddle off the metal and rolled to 114 wins in the regular season. Like that Yankees team, this once really hasn't let down on the throttle, despite subtle signs of fatigue and some lethargy in the past five games (2-3). How this will translate into October is anyone's guess, although some will at least try and make an educated one.

Last week in the esteemed Pinstriped Bible, Steven Goldman ranked the fortunes of all the probable post-season combatants by what the Baseball Prospectus guys have dubbed the "Secret Sauce." Although predicting post-season series outcomes can be bit of a fool's game, there are three key areas that correlate to post-season wins better than others. They are:

1. A power pitching staff, as measured by strikeout rate.
2. A good closer.
3. A good defense.

Nate Silver first wrote about this in 2006 at Baseball Prospectus, before he moved on to bigger things like predicting presidential elections:

Of the dozens of team characteristics that we tested for statistical significance, in terms of their relationship with winning post-season games and series, these were the only three that mattered. Ending the year hot doesn’t make a whit of difference, for example, nor does having a veteran club, or a smallball offense.

More remarkably, all three of these characteristics relate to run prevention, rather than run scoring. That does not mean that offense is of no importance in the playoffs. But there is a lot of noise in the postseason record, and offense did not produce enough signal to emerge through it. The reasons are too complicated to get into here, but have to do with what happens when good offenses face good pitching. Pitching does have some tendency to dominate these match-ups, whether they occur in the regular season or in the playoffs. Because "plus pitching" versus "plus hitting" duels occur more frequently in the post-season, we tend to notice the effects more then.

So the huge emphasis that the general populace (measured by stations like this one and shows like this one and when I'm talking with my buddies over a couple of cold ones) puts on pitching in the post-season is sound. What our experience and eyes and ears tell us is backed up the stats in this case.

Back to Goldman's round-up, here is how the likely post-season entrants rank in this three-ring measurement in MLB:

20 - Philadelphia Phillies
11 - Los Angeles Angles of Anaheim
10 - St. Louis Cardinals
06 - Colorado Rockies
05 - Detroit Tigers
04 - Boston Red Sox
02 - Los Angeles Dodgers
01 - New York Yankees

Some random thoughts on this list:

1. There is nothing easy about the Yankees 1st round ALDS match-up with the Tigers, which is something I've been alluding to on & off throughout the summer. And that's because of Detroit's starters (namely their ace) and their wily, old manager. Would anyone be surprised if Justin Verlander outduels C.C. Sabathia in a 3-2 ballgame in Game 1? Of course not. And that would lead to a season-on-the-line Game 2 at Yankee Stadium for 2009's best team, which deserves more attention. I'll try and do that tomorrow.

2. So much of the post-season's final outcome lies in the hands of match-ups. While the Phillies don't rank well in the numbers that correlate the best with post-season success, would anyone rank them as the team least likely to win it all? No way, man. I'd put them ahead of the Angels (who are going to have get through Boston & most likely NY); the Tigers (ditto); the Rockies; and at the very least on equal footing with the two other N.L. teams.

3. I still think the two best teams in baseball are Boston & New York, and they're well represented in the Top 3. And the Dodgers, despite their mid-summer malaise have been the best team in the N.L. virtually from wire-to-wire. The Phils, Cards & Dodgers are all bunched up as far as number of wins, but the Dodgers +154 run differential is tops in the bigs, ahead of New York (+148) and Boston (+126).

4. It would be ironic if this is the year the Angels finally get the better of the Red Sox in a big spot. Their 790 runs scored is second best in the sport, but they've allowed 688, which is good for only 8th in the American League. The pendulum swinging away from pitching & defense and more to offensive has made for smooth sailing in the regular season, but as the sauce suggests doesn't bode well for October.

As a sidenote, yes I'm well aware that the Sox have knocked 2.5 games off the Yankees lead in the blink of an eye. The 8-game loss-column lead six days ago has drifted down to 5, as Boston has made us all feel a little foolish for giving a moment's thought that Texas could challenge them for the Wild Card. I'll address this if & when that number hits 3, and only if that happens before next weekend's series in New York.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Sunday Morning Coffee
(The Mid-Field Collision Edition)

Things remain status quo in the Wild Card races after yesterday's action. The Red Sox and Rangers both lost on the road; the Giants and Rockies both won behind excellent starting pitching performances. Matt Cain shutdown the Brewers for his 13th win of the season. Jose Contreras had enough gumption & guile to quiet the snakes' bats, in his first National League start.

We go again today: Boston up two on Texas, Colorado up one game on San Fran.

Yesterday goes on the calendar as one of the best dozen or so sports days of the year. Has to. The formula is pretty simple. You take a dose of crisp, late-summer weather as a backdrop and a holiday weekend to boot. And in that context you have the first full day of football (as in noon to midnight) since last winter, and meaningful baseball games. As I tend to, add some music to the proceedings and you have one of those decompression days that the routine of daily life and the work week make essential.

The kickoff of the college football season must've sharpened my sports antennae, because I found myself wrapped into the baseball more than I've been all week. Picked up the Sox game when they were already down 3-0 and getting perfectly blanked by Floyd. (The 2009 White Sox are going to be forgotten by history, but two perfect games in one season would've made them referenced forever.) Watched a good chunk of the Rockies-Arizona game while also keep my eyes on a very entertaining Virginia Tech-Alabama prime time game on ABC.

And so much for Nevada hanging with Notre Dame . . . read a lot of analysis that at least liked the dog to cover. It didn't even look like they belonged on the same field, as the Irish had their first shutout in seven years, and their QB kept his detractors at bay for at least one week with a flawless performance against an over-matched defense.

It sets up an interesting installment in the match-up of old war horses next week in Ann Arbor. Both teams coming off cakewalks against inferior competition; both coaches on extremely warm seats; the fates of both programs in somewhat of a purgatory right now, as both have been passed by more modern offenses and more talented rosters in recent years (USC, Florida, Ohio State, etc.). At one point I was much more into college football than I am today. As I got older and time constraints became tighter, there was no way I could justify doing do two full days of football viewing in the fall. And without a true connection to an alma mater or growing up weened on the gameday culture like kids in Alabama and Oklahoma, college football was the sport to go. I'm still tuned in enough to know the basics: head coaches; best teams; title favorites, etc. But if you're looking me to name the skill position players, let alone the offensive linemen, on USC or Florida, forget about it. I could name maybe half-a-dozen starting quarterbacks.

From the late 80's and through the 90's, my favorite college football game of the year was Michigan-Notre Dame, and some of those echoes still remain. It will be a centerpiece of next weekend.
The local daily runs a section every Sunday called "5 Things We Learned About the Red Sox (or Yankees) Last Week." #2 this week is: Billy Wagner, Daniel Bard and Papelbon could make for a six-inning game against the Red Sox down the road.

And I'm reminded about how transient success on the baseball diamond can be when it comes to October. The Yankees' meteoric rise to top of the baseball pyramid could be just wisps of a vapor trail if they lose that first game against Detroit. Boston's walking-wounded journey to the post-season, so grueling and ugly in nature right now, could be a forgotten trip of the past if Beckett & Lester are clicking and their bullpen is missing bats in the late innings.

The only thing that can stamp this season for the Yankees as a success and something memorable is a championship. Is it harsh to pull the historical rug out on a unit that will win 100+ games and have some of the most gaudy power numbers of all time? Not in the context of a cap-less league and a $208 million payroll. As a Yankee fan, that's what comes with the package when you sign on the dotted line. True enjoyment of success is always held at bay. It's always an extended October away.
Billy Wagner has been almost perfect in his three appearances with the Red Sox so far. Here's his situational usage so far:

083009: Pitched with the lead in top of the 8th in a 7-0 game at Fenway Park against Toronto. 1/1/0/0/0/3
090109: Pitched with the lead (6-2) in the bottom of 7th in an 8-4 game at Tampa. 1/0/0/0/0/2
090903: Pitched with the lead (6-3) in the bottom of the 7th in a 6-3 game at Tampa. 1/0/0/0/1/2

His total line: 3/1/0/0/1/7

Right now Boston's having a tough time just getting the ball to bullpen with the game in good shape. But once it's there, it's in good hands. Even Bard, who has struggled over the last month, still has some great peripheral numbers. Since the two-homer game in New York on August 9, Bard has thrown nine innings. His line in that time, almost a full month of work: 9/8/5/5/4/14. That's a crummy ERA, but the walk total isn't terrible and the strikeout number is excellent. He's only given up one home run in that time as well.

This is still a bullpen that misses bats as well as any in baseball. In the grind of post-season games, that is typically a weapon that is very difficult to counter.
Enjoy the rest of the holiday weekend.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Saturday Morning Snapshot
History's Horizons

I've watched very little baseball this week. The Yankees have been on autopilot for two weeks now, maintaining October Mode better than they have at any time in the last decade. Overall, it's shaping up to be a ho-hum September.

The races in baseball's two eastern divisions are over. The N.L. Central is cooked with the Cards now up 11.5 on the Cubs, and the A.L. Central is on the verge of being locked up with Detroit now six up after last night.

The Dodgers are maintaining a comfortable cushion, while the Angels are doing enough to keep breathing space between themselves and the plucky Rangers.

All that remains are the two Wild Card races to whet our appetite before the October tournament begins. It looks like the Giants & Rockies are going to have great race to the last week of the season. Unfortunately, the teams have only one series left with each other: September 14-16, at San Francisco.

My words from Thursday, July 30:

It is interesting, however, that Boston's Wild Card lead is tenuous at the current moment: a one game lead on Texas, who has been playing well of late. The Rangers are enjoying a fine July, a month that includes a 3-1 mark vs. Anaheim; sweeps over Boston & Tampa; and a series win against the Tigers. For the most part they've kept pace with the surging Angels (a manageable 3.5 back), and are clearly in the Wild Card mix as we approach the first of August.

If I were them, I'd enjoy the moment because I'm not convinced it's going to last. Their next month is brutal. Their home/road split is 10 in Arlington, 19 on the road. All but one of the home games are versus teams with winning records (including three vs. Boston) and although they get to play in some disinterested ballparks such as Oakland & Cleveland, they also have to make trips to Tampa, New York and Minnesota.

If the Rangers are sitting a game or two out in the Wild Card a month from now, it will be something of a minor miracle.

Minor miracle or not, the Rangers are now two behind the Red Sox for the American League's last post-season ticket. No other team is even in the mix.

On the morning of August 1, Boston had a 2.5 game advantage on Texas. Since that day the Sox have gone 17-14, while the Rangers have gone 18-14. In a difficult stretch that I figured would knock them out for good, Texas has stood toe-to-toe with the beast from the east.

Where Do We Go From Here?
Over the last 30 days, as their records were suggest, Texas & Boston have played almost dead-even baseball, offensively. Boston's scored 158 runs. Texas: 148. Boston's hitting at a .270/.351/.483 clip. Texas: .283/.345/.468.

Boston has hit seven more homers in that time span, 13 more doubles.

Where the two teams' paths have diverged is on the mound. In the last 30 days, Texas has allowed 117 runs, 2nd fewest in the A.L. to the Yankees' 116. Boston has allowed 150 in that same time period, better than only Toronto and Baltimore.

The Red Sox rotation now has a perch for Paul Byrd, called off his couch like Vinny Testeverde used to be. And it's never good when a roster move is analogous to picking up ol' man Vinny. The venerable and heretofore reliable Tim Wakefield is trying to trick Father Time just like he tricks American League batters with his unpredictable knuckleballs. Wakefield gets the ball today in Chicago, but it's been revealed that his back troubles this year ain't the kind that a few Advil are going to make go away. According to, there is a loose fragment in his back will have to be surgically removed during the offseason, and officially he's on a start-to-start basis. "He might not be able to take the ball every five days or six," manager Terry Francona said. "But we'll just kind of see how he does."

If he can get out to the mound, good things can still happen for Wake; see his last start on August 26, the only appearance between July 8 and today, for proof of that: 7/6/1/1/1/3. But the Sox need him to take the ball every fifth day now from here to the first weekend in October. The alternative is throwing the not-quite-ready-for-prime-time rookie, Junichi Tazawa back into the rotation.

Boston's seemingly well-crafted plans for their starting rotation have crumbled into flawed blueprints at this point. They're now holding their five-man together with chicken wire, spit and chewing gum.

Of course, the Sox bullpen remains a strong suit. I can't find a site that allows to do a double-split (relievers numbers over the last 30 days, for example), but as far as season-to-date, Boston's pen ranks 1st in ERA (3.57); 5th in BAA; 4th in K/BB; 3rd in K/9; they rank a modest 7th in bullpen WHIP.

So some of the underlying numbers aren't eye-popping, but the overall body of work is still pretty darn good.

In the meantime, Texas made it through the hornet's nest portion of their schedule in August relatively unscathed and now enjoy a stretch where they are playing the Orioles, Indians, Mariners and A's from now until September 16. They have seven games still to play against the Angels, so the division title is still up for grabs to a certain extent. But even if they're relegated just to the Wild Card hunt, the Rangers have to be considered worthy challengers now.

In the same stretch, the Sox will be going against the White Sox, O's, Tampa & the Angels. This is the Rangers' chance to make a definitive move at Boston, as after September 17, the Sox play at Baltimore (their second home); at Kansas City (for four!); at New York (games the Sox will need, and the Yanks' will be sleep-walking); and two carcasses at home in Toronto & Cleveland to wrap things up.

If I stretch my imagination out to its furthest perimeter, I still can't envision the Sox not making it to October Baseball. Things will have to seriously malfunction: a sweep in Chicago; a split in Kansas City; a series loss to a Toronto or a Baltimore. By Boston taking two out of three in Tampa this week, essentially knocking the Rays dead for the winter in the process, they showed me there's still enough in the tank to shuffle through this starting pitching wasteland, gut things out and start anew in the first week of October. It would be shocking if they weren't around to see it.

There's been a lot chatter lately about this Yankee team being the best Bomber outfit since the late 90's. And indeed, over the last month New York has scored the most runs in the American League and allowed the fewest. Something the '98 team did over a full season by a wide margin.

Gammons said yesterday that their pitching is in the best shape it has been in since "the late 90's." Pete Abraham shared some revealing trends & figures that suggest this team is setting up some fancy historical footnotes, that can only be validated by a successful post-season. When the Yankees were establishing a dynasty a decade ago, they played the Rangers in three out of four opening rounds: '96, '98, '99. The fortunes of that first series turned on a late-inning rally and subsequent defensive misplay in Game 2, with the Yankees down 0-1 in the series and on the verge of a quiet exit. (How different would history look if that had happened?) The other series were two of the cleanest white-washes in the history of the post-season.

It would be a surprising coincidence if the Yankees, in a season that is beginning to summon up only recently departed ghosts, play Texas in the 1st round once again.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Object of the World's Loathing
(The Yankees' October Mode Edition)

The Yankees are back home in New York tonight after completing a 7-3 road trip over the last two weeks. In the process of that trip, they put to rest all realistic thoughts that they'll be challenged for the American League East title over the final six weeks of the regular season. For the first time since 2006, the Yanks have entered what myself and a few of my buddies have dubbed "October Mode." As a baseball fan of a particular team, it's a comfortable place to be. Without putting any kind of moniker on it, Joe Girardi, a veteran of a couple of October Mode seasons during his days as the Yankee catcher, is apparently well aware of what this phase of the season means.

From Pete Abraham's blog yesterday, in relation to how hard the Yankees are going to push for homefield advantage throughout the playoffs:

The race is on for home field advantage in the playoffs. The Yankees are 78-46 and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Orange County and Planet Earth are 74-48.
The teams will play four more times head to head. Once at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 14 in a makeup game and three times in Anaheim starting Sept. 21.
Joe Girardi said yesterday that his team will push for home field but not at the expense of making sure his players, especially the pitchers, get the right amount of time off. That makes good sense.

October Mode means balancing out the house cleaning necessary for the rest of the season (and to be sure, for the Yankees home field advantage would be advantageous against a team like the Angels) & making sure the regulars are healed and well-rested. It doesn't make for the most compelling baseball in the world, but it's a small price to pay to assured of October baseball, and to put a team in the best possible position for success in the post-season.

Of course, the last time the Yankees were able to enjoy October Mode, without any blip on the September radar, in the same season that resulted in a World Championship was 11 years ago - 1998. Going into September of that year the Yankees had an 18.5 game lead on the way to 114 regular season wins. That team was in October Mode by the All Star Break.

In 1999, they slipped into October Mode, then out, then comfortably back in for the last couple weeks of the season. Going into September, they had a comfortable 7.5 game lead over Boston and appeared to be at a cruising altitude. However, by the morning of September 14, the lead was down to 3.5 as Boston completed an improbable four-game weekend sweep at Yankee Stadium. A series that included the infamous Pedro 17-strikeout game, which took its rightful place in Yankee-Sox lore.

On the night of the 14th, the Yanks were down 6-1 going into the top of the 8th at Toronto, and with the Sox winning easily, the division lead was about to drop to 2.5. Of course, the dynasty was still alive & kicking at that point, and the Yankees bombed their way to nine runs in the final two frames for a 10-6 victory.

From that point they wheeled out an 8-1 run in their next nine games pushing their lead to a definitive six games, and enabling a final taste of October Mode in the process.

In 2000, the season of their last title, they bungled their way through October Mode, gasping their way to the finish line. Entering September of that year they had a comfortable 5 game lead on Boston and 5.5 on the Blue Jays. Tripped up by a poor final month, including a stretch in which they went 3-15, the Yankees saw their lead fall to 2.5 games by the last day of the season. Of course, they were able to right the ship quickly once the playoffs started and bounced back to win their third title in a row.

In more recent time, any October Modes (2006 comes to mind, when they were up eight games heading into September) have done little to benefit the team's final fate in the post-season.

We'll see where this early entry into October Mode leads this time around.
Pennant races, all good ones, all memorable ones, have those catalyst games that remain the mile markers for history. I don't know that a good race remains - the Rockies are looking more & more like a lock for October with each passing day - but Colorado's remarkable extra-inning, walk-off win against the Giants last night felt like one of those definitive games that marks a season. It stamped the Rockies as the clear favorites for the N.L.'s Wild Card (the lead is now up to four on the Giants after the 3-1 series win) and has put the Dodgers on notice that they're going into a hornet's nest starting tonight. In the race for homefield advantage in the N.L. playoffs, the Phillies have the current lead, with the Dodgers one behind in the loss column and the Rockies and Cards both four games behind. Do the Giants have another push at this final spot in them? Everyone else in the N.L. (Braves, Marlins, Cubs, et. al.) are clearly on the fringe of being legitimate participants.

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