Tag Archives: Clayton Kershaw

Recalling the Cubs last NLCS Game Six 

Saturday could be a historic night in Chicago – to put it mildly. Last night the Chicago Cubs defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers 8-4 to take a 3-2 lead in the best of seven National League Championship Series. The series moves to Wrigley Field on Saturday with the Cubs needing one win to do the unthinkable – reach the World Series for the first time since 1945 (the franchise has not won the World Series since 1908 – which must be a world record barren spell never mind a record in US sport.) The atmosphere at Wrigley will be incredible the tension unbelievable. But the Cubs and their fans will know that recent history is against them…

October 2003 was a strange time. Italian Serie A men’s team Perugia were trying to sign a woman (no seriously), WWE chairman Mr McMahon fought his own daughter Stephanie in a father v daughter “I Quit” match (no seriously), and UK Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith was overthrown by his party before he could lead it in a General Election (a first in post war UK politics). The Cubs meanwhile were 3-2 up in the 2003 National League Championship Series against the Florida – now Miami – Marlins needing one win to get to the World Series – the same position as they are in right now. What happened next has gone into infamy. 

For seven innings all went well. The Cubs were 2-0 up in the middle of the seventh with Mark Prior showing why he had been the Cubs best pitcher all year. During the seventh-inning stretch Chicago celebrity – and ironically a Chicago White Sox fan – Bernie Mac sung “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” but instead of singing “Let’s Root for the Cubbies” he sung “Let’s Root for the Champs”. Some Cubs fans feared that he was tempting fate but an insurance run in the bottom of the seventh and an out at the start of the eighth left the Cubs five outs away from the World Series. Juan Pierre then hit a double for the Marlins but still no trouble right…

There wasn’t no trouble. In fact there was a lot of trouble. And it started with one of the most infamous plays in baseball. Batter Luis Castillo hit a foul ball to the left field wall. Cubs fielder Moises Alou went for the ball…but unfortunately Cubs fan Steve Bartman stuck out his hand and deflected the ball away from Alou. This meant it counted as a foul not an out and Castillo continued his at bat. Still no problem. Well they wouldn’t have been if Alou didn’t show his frustration at not getting the catch.

And after that play came one of the most spectacular implosions in all of sport never mind baseball. Prior’s next pitch to Castillo was a wild pitch that walked Castillo and let Pierre go to third. Ivan Rodriguez then hit an RBI single to put the Marlins first run on the board. Still no problem. Future MVP Miguel Cabrera then ground the ball to short stop Alex Gonzalez which shouldould have produced at least one out and probably an inning ending double play. Instead he fumbled it and everyone was safe leaving the bases loaded.

Now the wheels really came off. Here is how the rest of the horror show of an inning unfolded: 

Derrek Lee hit a two RBI double tying the game and chasing Prior from the mound.

New pitcher Kyle Farnsworth issues an intentional walk.

A sacrifice fly that gave the Marlins the lead and put Prior in line for the loss. 

Another intentional walk which loaded the bases yet again. 

A three RBI double from Mike Mordecai that cleared the bases and blew the game open putting the Marlins 7-3 up and ending Farnsworth’s night. 

Pierre gets his second hit of the inning off new pitcher Mike Remlinger to score Mordecai and make it 8-3.

And finally Castillo who could have been the second out of the inning in his first at bat pops out to end the inning from hell. The score went from 3-0 Cubs to 8-3 Marlins.

And the series was to all practical purposes over. The shell shocked Cubs still had six outs left but couldn’t score. The series was tied 3-3 and there was a seventh game at Wrigley with Cubs second best pitcher Kerry Wood pitching but I never thought the Cubs would win. And although they went 5-3 up after being 0-3 down – including a two run homer from pitcher Wood – they still lost not to my surprise 9-6. The dream was over. Again. 

Obviously the press and fans in Chicago were not happy. So who do you blame? The logical thing would be to blame the whole team since they were 3-1 up but collapsed. You could blame Prior for the wild pitch, Gonzalez for the error, Farnsworth for not getting any outs apart from the sac fly that was a still a RBI. The whole team lost their bottle. 

Of course they blamed none of those. They blamed Bartman. Even though the ESPN programme “Catching Hell”showed plenty of other fans were sticking their hands out too. Even though the Cubs subsequently had chances to get out of the inning poor Bartman copped the flack. Once the fans found out who had caught the ball – he was lucky Wrigley did not have a Jumbotron otherwise it would have happened much quicker than it did – the fans at Wrigley chanted “Asshole” at him and pointed him out. He had to be escorted from the park along with his two friends and he was pelted with debris and had beer over him. It was ugly and it was shameful. Florida Governer Jeb Bush – brother of future US President George W Bush – offered him asylum while Illinois Governer Rob Blagojevic said if Barman ever committed a crime he would not get a pardon from this Governer (ironically Blagojevic was inpeached on corruption charges and forced to resign – poetic justice). It was not good. The only people who defended Bartman were the 13-14 year old boys in the Little League team the Renegades that he coached. 

Apart from the Renegades the only man who came out of this mess with any credit was Bartman himself. He declined interviews rewards from Marlins fans and offers of $25000 for an autograph and $100000 to appear in a Super Bowl commercial. He apologised (though he shouldn’t have) didn’t make any money out of his “error” and conducted himself with dignity. Sadly but understandably he has never been to Wrigley Field since. But he responded far more better than the fans who should have blamed the players since it was their job to win the game and it was them who lost their bottle so spectacularly. 

So can the 2016 Cubs succeed where the 2003 team failed? It’s likely but not a certainty. The two Dodger starting pitchers that they will face – the world’s best pitcher Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill – both helped to shut out the Cubs in Games two and three. And then they have the curse of 1908 to deal with. But this is a far better team than 2003.They had the best record in the Majors this year. I suspect they will hold their nerve but it will be fun to find out (unless you’re a Cubs fan).

I have one wish. If the Cubs beat the Dodgers then go on to beat the Cleveland Indians – who themselves have not won the World Series since 1948 – to win the World Series I hope Steve Bartman will turn up at Wrigley at the start of next year just like the Red Sox 1986 scapegoat Bill Buckner turned up at Fenway Park at the start of the 2008 season. The Cubs 2003 collapse was not Steve Bartman’s fault. He does not owe Chicago anything. Instead Chicago owes him. Maybe if the Cubs succeed where they failed in 2003 – or even better win the World Series – the rapprochement between Bartman and the city of Chicago can begin. I certainly hope so.

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Fortune favours the brave

So the 2,429* game marathon of baseball’s regular season is over and the postseason is about to begin. And if we have learnt anything from the regular season it is that it is a marathon not a sprint – hardly surprising when the season lasts 162 games – and sometimes fortune favours the brave.

Three of the six division winners – the Royals, Cardinals and the Dodgers – were top on July 12th – the last day before the All Star Break – and no one was really surprised that they were still there at the end of the season yesterday. But the other three division winners no one could have predicted at the All Star Break.

On July 12th the Toronto Blue Jays – no post season appearance since 1993 – were actually below .500 (45-46) and were above only the Red Sox in the AL East. The Texas Rangers were even worse (42-46) and were third in the AL West. While the New York Mets were only two games behind in the NL East  that was more because of the poor quality of the division than their own form. The Mets hit a new low on July 23rd when they became only the second franchise since 1920 to field number 4 and 5 hitters with an average below .180 (for a position player in the majors anything below .200 is considered unacceptable). Against Clayton Kershaw! The biggest surprise was not that Kershaw tossed a complete game three hit shut out but that he gave up three hits. The Mets offence was the laughing stock of baseball and that the idea that these two teams would meet in the post season was absurd. But as it turned out not only will they meet but the meeting has been on the cards since the start of September

So how did the Mets (as well as the Blue Jays and Rangers) turn it round? Well in the case of the first two they both had strengths. The Blue Jays offence was seriously good but they lacked an ace on the mound. The Mets had the opposite problem. Their young pitching staff were outstanding – so much so that Matt Harvey is arguably the third best pitcher in the team but their offence as mentioned above was awful. But to their credit both franchises did something about it. The Blue Jays traded for ace David Price while the Mets traded for hitting star Yoenis Cespedes. Both were gambles especially as they would be free agents at the end of the season so in effect they were “rentals”. But their bravery paid off. Price only started 11 games for the Blue Jays but had a 9-1 record providing them with the missing piece in their jigsaw since the offence was already the best in baseball. Cespedes was so successful for the Mets that some people considered him a candidate for National League MVP despite only playing 57 games for the Mets. His average – .287 – was higher than any of his team mates and his 17 home run tally was the third highest for the Mets. It could be said that for the second year in a row he transformed a franchise’s season (last year the Athletics collapsed after they traded him). While in both cases the new stars were not the only factor it is clear they were a major factor and the teams courage was rewarded.

The case of the Texas Rangers** is more complicated. Experienced players like Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo got their form back after an injury ravaged 2014 and the bullpen – a liability early season – became the best in baseball by September. While talisman Adrian Beltre has been outstanding. But again they had the courage to trade for Cole Hamels – an ace – when it seemed they had no chance of reaching the post season (It was reckoned to be a signing for 2016). But although his ERA was actually higher with the Rangers than it was with the Phillies – 3.66 to 3.64 –  the Rangers won his last ten starts and when needed most he pitched a complete game against the Angels to clinch a remarkable Division win (considering it took until August 15th – the team’s 115th game of the season – to go above .500 for good). I don’t think the Rangers win the Division without Hamels.

Whether the Mets and the Blue Jays win their divisions without Cespedes and Price is harder to say. It certainly helped the Mets that their only rivals the Nationals imploded so spectacularly that two of their players Bryce Harper and Johnathan Papelbon ended up fighting each other in the dugout!*** But they were certainly key players. One suspects that if the Blue Jays, Mets or Rangers are to win a League pennant or World Series Price, Cespedes and Hamels will play a part. Proving that in sport fortune can favour the brave.

* There are 2,430 games in the regular season but a September washout between the Tigers and Indians was not made up as neither team could make the post season.

**I must declare that I support the Texas Rangers but I hope I can write impartiality about them.

***And today Nationals manager Matt Williams and his entire coaching staff were fired paying the price for the failure of a franchise that many – including myself – expected to be challenging for at least the NL pennant if not the World Series itself.

Why Jeter is an all time great, Kershaw should be NL MVP…and other baseball thoughts

So the 162-game marathon of the baseball regular season is over for another year and it will be remembered as Derek Jeter’s last. Was anyone surprised his last AB at Yankee Stadium was a walk-off hit? Not me. Some things are just meant to be. But inevitably in sport these days a backlash occurs. And in Jeter’s case it came from Keith Olbermann of ESPN who claims that Jeter is not that great. Sorry anyone who has the sixth highest number of hits of all time, plus the most hits and games for the most successful franchise in baseball history has to be great – and add to that he was a perfect gentleman and a credit to the sport. That is important because when he made his debut in 1995 baseball was in the doldrums after the shambles of the 1994-5 strike and needed an image boost. He’s not the greatest Yankee of all time – that is still Babe Ruth who changed the whole way the game was played – but to say he’s not great is ridiculous. Olbermann is on firmer ground when he attacks the season long “Jeter fest” his retirement has brought but that is the media and MLB’s fault and not Jeter’s. And no one complained when Mariano Rivera went through the same retirement hoopla last year. Jeter might be past his best but I would still hate to be the 2015 Yankees shortstop. The first time “E6” is written on a scorecard in the Bronx next year one suspects the poor guy will be reminded that he is not Derek Jeter. I would also just like to say thanks to Paul Konerko and Bobby Abreu who are two very good players whose retirements went under the radar because of the tributes to Jeter.
So with the regular season ending, we think of the MVP awards. A lot of experts on ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight” seem to think a pitcher shouldn’t be MVP because they have their own award namely the Cy Young . Yet 24 pitchers have won the MVP and two rookies have been MVP in the same year they were Rookie of the year – Fred Lynn in 1975 and Ichiro Suzuki in 2001 – and no one said that was wrong or that is should stop Mike Trout from being considered for MVP in 2012 so that argument is false. It is true that position players play every day and starting pitchers only every five days but if one of the latter has an exceptional season he should be considered. And Kershaw’s season was exceptional. You want proof? Johnny Cueto and Adam Wainwright both won 20 games. In any other season there would be a big debate over which one of them would win the NL Cy Young. They have as much chance of winning it as I have. Why? Kershaw. By winning 21 out of 27 starts he has done something no pitcher has gone since 1880. Counting two games the Dodgers won when Kershaw had no decisions their win rate is .852(23-4) when he pitches…and .526(71-64) when he doesn’t. That is an MVP season. His only rival is Andrew McCutchen but while his season was a repeat of his 2013 Kershaw was outstanding. The Dodgers fans were right when during his last start they chanted “MVP”.
And so on to the post season. The good thing about this post season is there is no outstanding team this year and anyone of the ten teams in the post season can win the world Series. So many questions. I’ll be fascinated to see how the Angels’ young star Mike Trout fares in his first post season. He’s arguably the best player in MLB today but he has yet to be tested in the post season where there are no rubbish fifth starters to feast on and the pressure is greater. On the other side of the scale tonight is a big night for Adam Dunn of the As who plays his first post season game after 14 years 2001 regular season games and 462 home runs – to say nothing of the Kansas City Royals for whom tonight is their first post season game since 1985.
But two people who are under pressure this post season are Jon Lester and Brad Assmus. First Lester. Ever since the As traded for him – trading their best hitter Yoenis Cespedes in the process – the As offense collapsed. Their second half win percentage (.433) is the worst of any post season team in MLB history and but for the second wild card we’d be comparing the As to the 2011 Red Sox and the 2007 Mets for September collapses. But they are still in the hunt. And this is the game they brought Lester to Oakland for. A must win post season game. The pressure is huge. Oh and the other team’s starting pitcher is known as “Big Game James”. Both offences are poor and this game could be 1-0 either way. The margin for error could be nil. And if the As lose Oakland fans will think “why did we trade for this guy and lose Cespedes?” No pressure Jon..
But the man I would not swap places with is Assmus. You are a rookie manager. Its Game one of the postseason. Who do you put on the mound? Your choice is between Justin Verlander (Cy Young winner), David Price (Cy Young winner) and Max Scherzer (the reigning Cy Young winner). Its like being a kid in a sweet shop. Which one do you pick? And if the one who you do pick gets roughed up by the home run happy Os every one will use hindsight and say you picked the wrong one! I would NOT like to be Mr assmus.
Still I think it will be a happy ending for Assmus. Pre season I tipped the Tigers and the Dodgers to be in the World Series and the winner to be whatever League won the All-Star Game. They are both in the post season. I do not change horses mid race. Still the question remains. Who will be 2014’s David Freese – or 2014’s Bill Bucknor? There’s only one way to find out….
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