Anyway, quit interrupting. Sixteen days left in the regular season. Try as I might, there won’t be any ignoring the awful second wild card any longer. Let’s take a quick recap of the standings.
As of today, nobody has clinched a playoff spot just yet. The Reds are the closest, with a magic number of five. The Giants follow them with eight. In fact, they are the only teams with a single digit magic number. The Nationals are sitting at eleven. Over in the American League, every division is more or less a toss up. The Yankees are only a half game above the Orioles, who have to be the surprise team of the year. The White Sox and Rangers are only three games over the Tigers and A’s, respectively. The A’s, not coincidentally, have to be a very close second for surprise team of the year. And if you want to argue them above the Orioles, I can make that argument, too.
In the wild card, Atlanta seems determined to extend the Chipper Jones Farewell Tour. The Cardinals have a white-knuckled grip on the last spot to try to end said tour, but they’re only up a single game on the Dodgers, and the Pirates and Brewers are only two and a half back. In the AL, the A’s and Orioles are practically tied, with the Angels three games back.
This should shape up to be a pretty refreshing playoff. The Reds make a second playoff trip in three years, following a fourteen year absence from the postseason. Their last appearance, though, ended in a curb stomp from the Phillies. This time around has got to go better. Besides, this year they’re flirting with the best record in baseball, just a win behind the Nationals at the moment. There’s no more “just happy to be here.” It’s time to win in Cincy.
Speaking of the Nationals, they’re a big story in themselves. You could see it coming a bit with the moves they made the past couple years. I think every baseball writer to a man* liked Washington’s moves better than the Marlins, and the records have borne that out. But, there’s some historic import to this run. Dating back to their time north of the border, the franchise has only ever made one other trip to the playoffs. And that was mostly due to a fluky, strike-altered season that saw the season split into halves in 1981. I’ve written about it before, but just to reiterate, the Expos never won an outright division title. This would be a first, and a first for the franchise in Washington. And, you know, when it’s only the second time in your franchise’s forty-four year history, that’s still an achievement.
*That does include the women writers, too. I’m sure there are those who would jump all over that sentence for being sexist, and I understand the argument. But “to a person” just doesn’t flow as well. And, to me, it’s much the same difference between saying “the history of mankind” and “the history of humankind.” One captures the imagination. One feels needlessly PC.
Also in the history department, we have the Orioles and A’s. The A’s drought hasn’t been quite so long. Still, the Moneyball era ended six years ago. The book itself was released in 2003. This particular squad wasn’t expected to do anything by anybody. Not even their own front office. Billy Beane pretty well said they were aiming to be good when they’re slated to move in a few years. It was just holding on until then. But, the best laid plans of mice and men and all that. Sometimes plans can go awry in a good way, I suppose.
Turning to Baltimore, they would be breaking a fifteen year drought. As a bit of an aside, the coach of that last playoff Oriole team? Davey Johnson, who you might remember is now coaching the Nationals. 1997 was also their last division championship.
I have to say, it’s awfully nice having some proud franchises back on the map. And, you know, maybe this is Washington’s chance to step into respectability.
In the more-recently-successful franchises, the Giants are the team that catches my attention. Why? Tim Lincecum. That is really the only reason, but it’s a pretty darned good one, I think most would agree. After spending most of the year mired in mediocrity,* he seems to have recently regained his form. And just in time for the playoffs. If you’re going to get hot, this is precisely the time to do it.
Also hanging out in the back of my mind are the Rangers. Is the third time the charm? They’re still a very, very good ball team. It would not surprise me in the least if they have another great run in them. It has been a joy to see Yu Darvish stay strong pretty well all year. As many Cub fans will note, a lot of Japanese players* have amazing starts before fading hard in the second half. Darvish seems to have avoided that. We’ll see if he can keep it up through the playoffs, too.
*Japanese ballplayers not named Ichiro, anyway.
As for my personal teams, the Cubs were a lost cause pretty well all year. But, boy, Anthony Rizzo is everything as advertised and more, isn’t he? There are reasons to be hopeful for the future. The infield is pretty well figured out, and the outfield isn’t awful, just young. Give this team a few years to season and the Northsiders will have something.
The Pirates, on the other hand, have been maddening. They had a great first half, but, boy, what a swoon in the second half. Still, they stayed strong longer than they did after last year’s good first half. And they still have a chance to finish the year with a winning record. They’re sitting at 74-72, which means they’ve got a game for every day left in the season. Sure they can win at least half of them, right? Heck, they’re still not out of the playoff race. Maybe they’ll really catch fire here and still sneak in.
The Pirates and Orioles both making the playoffs in 2012? Maybe the Mayans were on to something.