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.