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Regular Season Success Means Little In October

By bullpenbrian - October 13, 2012 - 4:15 pm Leave a comment.

Four teams won 90-plus games after finishing the 2011 season below .500: Nationals (98), Reds (97), Athletics (94) & Orioles (93)–a first in major league history. But, not a one remains in this year’s postseason.

The Orioles, despite a convincing 5-1 win against Texas in the AL play-in game, fell victim to Yankee Stadium’s postseason magic. Or in other words, they blew it.

Baltimore not only let Raul Ibanez beat them once, but twice in Game 3…and then floundered with the bases loaded in the top of the eighth with the tying and winning runs aboard against CC Sabathia in a decisive Game 5.

The Yankees left the door wide open for the O’s to take the series. Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson, Nick Swisher and A-Rod went a combined 9-for-75 (.120) with 26 strikeouts. Baltimore, however, went 8-for-37 with RISP, the worst mark in the AL in the Division Series.

The A’s, conversely, just couldn’t get on base against the Tigers, whose 88 regular season wins were the fewest among AL playoff teams. Granted, the A’s did face Justin Verlander twice, but the Athletics had the fewest hits (30) and most strikeouts (50) of any team in either league in the Division Series.

Cincinnati inexplicitly lost its Division Series after winning the first 2-games on the road at San Francisco, allowing the Giants to become the first-ever National League team to recover from an 0-2 deficit after losing the first 2-games. Not to mention, the Reds had 3 straight home games to close the series in this year’s 2-3 format, but failed to do so.

The Giants hit .185 with RISP for the series, the worst mark of any postseason team in 2012. The Reds, meanwhile, had the highest NL average with RISP (.220), but didn’t drive in runs when it mattered most, including having the tying runs aboard in the final four innings in Game 5.

Ah, then the Nationals, who now famously will be remembered for not only shutting down its best power-arm before the postseason, but also allowing St. Louis to overcome the largest-ever deficit in a winner-take-all game…rallying from 6-runs down in Game 5–four of which were plated in the top of the ninth.

So what does it all mean? Basically, the regular season means little, if anything, when it comes to postseason baseball. Some teams, like St. Louis and New York live for moment, and some teams, like the four above, crumble under the pressure. How else do you explain the slumping Bombers and cockroach Cardinals advancing?

The Reds, with arguably the most formidable bullpen in the majors, were suppose to be battle tested after being swept out of the Division Series in 2010 against the Phillies. The Orioles were figured to be battled tested having survived the tough AL East. Oakland was riding the huge momentum from its thrilling season ending sweep vs. Texas to win the AL West…and the Nationals entered the tournament with the most wins in all of baseball (98).

And not one of them has anything to show for it—eliminated, finished, collapsed.

It’s the teams that advanced who understand the postseason is not the same as the grind of a 162-game regular season schedule, but rather the awareness, ability and determination to not let a summer’s worth of hard work be undone.

Hey, 90-plus wins coming off a losing season, that’s nothing to sneeze at…we’re all happy for ya. But to actually make those wins mean something…you’ve got to make them count in October.

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Nats Season Should Be In Strasburg’s Hands

By bullpenbrian - October 12, 2012 - 2:45 am 2 comments.

I’ve never been in favor of shutting Stephen Strasburg down.

When you have the best team in the league (at least record wise) and one of the game’s best power-pitchers…you have a real shot at winning the World Series.

That opportunity doesn’t come around often, and when it does, I want my team to be all-in–not playing it safe as Washington is chosing to do.

If you think the Nats haven’t missed Strasburg this series, you’re kidding yourself. St. Louis embarrassed Washington in Games 2 & 3 outscoring them 20-4 while going 27-for-72 at the plate, including 8 doubles, 5 homers and a triple. Nats starters Jordan Zimmermann and Edwin Jackson were roughed up for a combined 9 earned runs on 15 hits.

Game 4 was a different story, if for one day, with the Cards managing just 1-run on 3-hits. But it was nearly good enough to knock off the Nats, who won by the slimmest of margins–2-1 on Jason Werth’s walkoff HR.

Strasburg, of course, may not have changed the series with a Game 1 start, but he easily could’ve given a second opportunity the likes of Matt Cain’s stellar outing vs. Cincinnati in Game 5, which was the difference maker in the Giants advancing to the NLCS…or Justin Verlander’s terrific outing vs. Oakland in Game 5, sending the Tigers to the ALCS.

Now, I’m not naive to the other side of the Strasburg discussion, or even suggesting it doesn’t make sense long-term. But if we’ve learned anything this October it’s that there are no guarantees in the postseason.

So while the Nationals starved off elimination for a day, there’s still no question they would be better positioned to win Game 5 with Strasburg on the bump facing the team who finished second in the NL in runs scored this season, and eager to bounce back after a lackluster performance yesterday.

Gio Gonzalez, who will start Game 5, is no pushover, but in fact, a formidable starter who won 21-games this season–but one who also walked 7 batters in 5 rather unimpressive innings in Game 1 of this series.

The bottom line is this: if the Nationals not only fail to advance later this evening, but also fail to win the World Series, they’ll forever have to live with the decision to shut down their best pitcher before the postseason.

Maybe sitting Strasburg pays off in the long run…maybe not. But that’s not a decision I’d be as comfortable with as Nats’ GM Mike Rizzo appears to be. And I say this simply because who’s to say you’ll ever be in this strong of a position to win the World Series again?

Great achievement is reached by taking great risks…and shutting down Strasburg could quickly become the Nationals’ greatest mistake.

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MLB Playoffs Best In Years

By bullpenbrian - October 12, 2012 - 2:15 am Leave a comment.

The baseball playoffs couldn’t be any better. Dramatic finishes, unlikely heroes and for the first time in Division Series play each series has gone 5-games.

Thank goodness the Nationals and Orioles won on Thursday. It can only get better if both teams win again today eliminating the Cardinals and Yankees.

Meanwhile, what a terrific and improbable comeback for the Giants. They win three-straight to become the first team in the National League to advance in the Division Series after trailing 0-2…and they sweep the Reds at Great American Ballpark to do it, no less.

Moneyball officially filed for bankruptcy, losing a decisive Game 5 to Detroit. It does little to diminish what became a surprising and thrilling season for the Athletics, who were hardly picked to have a winning season, let alone win the AL West.

Unfortunately, I was pulling for the A’s to make a deep run and even had them pegged to face the Reds in the World Series–a prediction that seemed very likely just days ago.

If all holds steady, however, we’re in for another wild round of nail-biting games this evening. I can hardly wait!

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Cubs Hand Cards NL Wild Card

By bullpenbrian - September 25, 2012 - 10:30 am Leave a comment.

The Cubs’ inability to win its weekend series against St. Louis effectively ended the National League wild card chase, which I found more frustrating than the club’s pursuit of avoiding a 100-loss season. Chicago still needs four more victories, by the way, to reach 63-wins.

So go ahead and pencil the Cardinals in as the second wild card team (Atlanta) now that both the Dodgers and Brewers find themselves 3.5 games back of St. Louis.

The Cards, meanwhile, began its season-ending stretch with another win against the pathetic Astros Monday night…and they’re certain to win at least one more game at Houston to wrap up the three-game series.

Although the NL East champion Nationals visit the Cardinals next, Davey Johnson says he’ll rest his starters before the postseason. And it’s likely the same will be said for Dusty Baker’s NL Central champion Reds, who follow Washington to St. Louis to finish out the 162-game schedule.

Even if St. Louis only manages to go .500 the rest of the way (4-4) they’ll finish with 87-wins, meaning Los Angeles and Milwaukee will need to win eight of its remaining nine-games just to tie the Cardinals…hard to believe that happens. Sigh…

So which teams roll-over against St. Louis this October? Nats, Reds, Giants, Braves…Rangers? I’d count on the Brewers and Phillies, but neither apparently wanted to wait as long as last year to disappoint.

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Defining Moment Awaits Dale Sveum

By bullpenbrian - September 7, 2012 - 3:45 am 4 comments.

Recovering from this bloody beating against Washington is Dale Sveum’s biggest challenge to date with the Cubs. Not his win/loss record, not the 12-game losing streak, nor anything else this season compares to the immediate difficulty ahead.

Sveum’s club wasn’t just crushed on the scoreboard, they were crushed emotionally, which presents a threatening danger for the manager and his troops.

The carry-over effect could turn daunting for a team practically sprinting towards a franchise-worst record.

“Probably one of the biggest butt-whippings I’ve gotten in my career, as a coach or player.” “I don’t remember getting manhandled that bad in any kind of series I’ve ever been a part of.” –Dale Sveum

Being bludgeoned so decisively further weakens the shaky confidence of his younger players, diminishes his team’s moral and puts the club at risk of falling into a season-ending tailspin—essentially reaching depths more damaging than 103-losses.

In a season already long lost, that’s not something Sveum or the organization can afford to let happen.

CUBS SHOWING LACK OF DESIRE

I don’t know for certain if the Cubs mailed-it-in at the nation’s capitol, but it sure came across that way on television.

Chicago appeared mostly unresponsive, disinterested and content while getting their collective heads kicked-in by the Nats. For all intents and purposes, Chicago rolled-over in awe of the team with the major’s best record (85-52). It’s not about why the Cubs got swept, it’s how they got swept that’s troubling. 

The outcome doesn’t necessarily come as a shock given how young, inexperienced and out of contention the Cubs are this year. But it’s also not the kind of unacceptable effort Sveum can allow to fester.

Letting bad energy and raw emotions, the likes of which we saw from bench coach Jamie Quirk Thursday night, run a muck is kryptonite for a clubhouse. And once a skipper losses his clubhouse, there’s no getting it back (Bobby Valentine), not even Sveum, who’s being judged aside from mere wins and losses, can overcome such disruption.

Now, I’m not suggesting Sveum’s lost anything yet, but the risk is most definitely there after a humiliating series like this one.

IS SVEUM THE RIGHT MAN FOR THE JOB?

Have I lost faith in Dale Sveum? Not at all. He’s pulled through numerous trials and tribulations this season …everything from clubhouse leader Kerry Wood’s early-season retirement, to lengthy losing streaks, to Bryan LaHair’s demise from All Star to bench-warmer, to watching the few good players he did have depart via trade at the end of July.

In fact, Sveum’s leadership has hardly come under question at all this season. He’s overcome every setback, taken every punch, and all the while continues to steady a sinking ship we believe is on course for brighter days ahead–for the Cubs and its manager.

That’s why I’d hate to see Sveum lose our faith and that of his players so close to season’s end. And I’d hate to think of the repercussions this offseason if he does lose the support on both sides.

Sveum’s done too good a job to lose it all now, but that’s what could be on the line as the Cubs continues its road trip through Pittsburgh and Houston…and over the final month of the regular season for that matter.

It’s going to take a lot more than one god-awful series to warrant Sveum’s dismissal. But failing to extinguish the dumpster-fire in DC only allows the chance for it to grow into a burning inferno.

So while there’s not much for Cubs fans to care about the rest of the way, Sveum’s response, and more importantly, his players’ response, from such an embarrassing series is well worth paying attention to.

If Sveum has anything left to prove in 2012, it’s that he can put out this fire–and pronto.

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Cubs’ Quirk, Nats’ Porter Ignite Bench Clearings

By bullpenbrian - September 7, 2012 - 3:30 am 8 comments.

Did anyone else feel Nationals’ third base coach Bo Porter should’ve been ejected from last night’s game?

I understand Porter felt the need to defend his turf from Cubs’ bench coach Jamie Quirk, who was chirping up a storm from the visitor’s dugout. But then for Porter to meander all the way over to the dugout steps, be restrained by Sveum, and still continuing taunting Quirk was equally unnecessary.

Porter’s tirade was aggressive, it was uncalled for and it was unsportsmanlike. His actions, in large part, led to both benches clearing not once, but twice. 

Washington, mind you, outscored the Cubs 31-9 this series. The Nats humiliated Chicago; beating them badly in every facet of the game. What did Porter need to say that the scoreboard didn’t show already? And what more did Porter need to do to be tossed?

By letting his emotions boil over Quirk crossed the line. The umpires ran him for it and I’ve got no problem with that decision. But Porter’s reaction to Quirk’s apparent frustrations crossed-the-line too, and there’s no reason he shouldn’t have hit the showers as early as Quirk did.

“The fracas was started because all that stuff that happened that was instigated by Quirk screaming out at Porter,” umpiring crew chief Jerry Layne said. “And the obscenities that he screamed out, I just felt was inappropriate and that’s what caused everything.”

Obviously, whether or not Porter gets tossed is trivial. But getting killed on the scoreboard is ever more frustrating when it feels the officiating isn’t calling a fair fight, at least in the moment. 

Whatever. The entire series was bad all-around baseball for the Cubs. Thank goodness the butt-kicking wrapped up when it did. One more night watching the Cubs in the nation’s capitol and my head could explode. Now it’s on to Pittsburgh. Thank gawd it’s Friday.

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Weighing In On Stephen Strasburg

By bullpenbrian - September 6, 2012 - 2:15 am 6 comments.

The Nationals have the best record in the major leagues (84-52) and a Magic Number of (19). They ‘re 7.5 games up on Atlanta with four weeks remaining in the regular season–the division crown is all but a formality.

More importantly, Washington is fit to win the NL pennant, unless of course, they were to shut down their best pitcher for the rest of the season.

I understand Steven Strasburg is a huge investment. I understand the Nationals want to protect that investment. But if the decision is left up to me, he pitches the remainder of the season, including the playoffs.

That doesn’t mean I throw caution to the wind with Strasburg. Instead, I’d limit his workload; less innings and fewer games started down the stretch (as suggested by Tom Glavine).

There’s no question postseason pitching is a different animal than the regular season. Every pitch matters, and nearly every pitch is thrown with maxed-out effort. Is that a risk worth taking with Strasburg? I think it is, and here’s why.

A chance to win the World Series should be cherished. So much has to go right to reach such heights and so much cannot be controlled. There’s no guarantee the Nationals find themselves in the same position next year, or even in the coming seasons–with or without Strasburg.

Power-pitching is gold in October. It’s the difference-maker. It’s exactly what Strasburg should be for the Nationals. Shutting him down greatly limits that often fleeting opportunity to win now on a team poised to reach the Fall Classic.

“I’m not sure any of us understand, but it’s the right thing to do,” said Nats manager Davey Johnson.

I don’t think it’s the right move, and judging by Davey’s comment, he doesn’t think so, either.

Johnson himself is a fantastic manager. In fact, I’d consider him a saving grace if Washington sticks to its guns about shelving Strasburg. But good managing is hardly a replacement for a power-pitching ace like Strasburg in any postseason series.

Not to mention, if the Nationals don’t win the NL Pennant the thoughts of ‘what might have been’ could haunt this club for a long, long time. And that’s the last thing I want on my mind if I’m a member of the Nats organization.

When the time’s right to win, you go for it. You don’t play for next year and you don’t play scared. That’s how championships are won.

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Opening Day Still Fun Despite Loss

By bullpenbrian - April 6, 2012 - 12:30 am 3 comments.

2012-04-05 13.09.34

I had the wonderful privilege of joining staff sergeant Josh Helms as his honorary guest for Opening Day.

He’s a proud father of two, loving husband and member of our armed forces, including having served three tours of duty in the Middle East.

Of course, I’d be remised not to point out Josh’s faithful commitment to Cubdom, of which we discussed at length while eating hot dogs, drinking Old Style and shivering our way through the Cubs lid-lifter–despite the outcome, as Pat Foley would say.

The tickets, behind home plate in section 120, came courtesy of Cubs left-hander Paul Maholm, who raffled them off through Twitter last Thursday.

Maholm was also kind enough to speak with Josh & I beforehand this afternoon near the Cubs dugout. A class move from the southpaw, indeed.

As Bill Murray whipped the fans into a frenzy with his ceremonial first pitch  sprint around the bases, I knew we were in for an unforgettable day at Wrigley.

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Cubs Wish | Opening Day

By bullpenbrian - April 5, 2012 - 1:30 am Leave a comment.

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Dag Wang-It Cubs!

By bullpenbrian - August 10, 2011 - 1:01 am Leave a comment.

In the words of Harry Doyle: That’s all we got, one goddamn hit?

Yep. That’s all the Cubs could mustard through six innings against Chien-Ming Wang Tuesday night.

And if it wasn’t for Campana’s pinch-hit infield single, who knows how long Wang would have no-hit the Cubs?

Despite the fact Wang has struggled, as expected, in his two year return from shoulder surgery, let us not forget this guy was a two-time 19-game winner for the Yankees.

And the 31-year-old had his old form working during his first ever start at Wrigley Field.

In fact, Wang appeared just as strong as his only start against the Cubs coming six years earlier–8.0 innings of five hit, 1-R baseball in an 8-1 win for New York.

True to form, Wang was aggressive Tuesday night throwing strikes and his patented sinker…a pitch that’s produced a 2.72 ground ball-to-fly ball ratio for Wang–2nd highest in the bigs among active pitchers.

The Cubs obliged by pounding 11 ground balls into the dirt vs. four fly balls. Six innings, 81 pitches–Game. Over.

I have no problem tipping my cap to Wang. But let’s hope the Cubs lineup isn’t as accommodating Wednesday night to Ross Detwiler (1-1) 2.66 ERA, who’s still in search of his first career road win in nine starts.

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