Monday, October 14, 2019

MLB Playoffs: Day Eleven

Well, they played the best baseball game of the year last night in Houston.  The two best teams in baseball, the Astros and Yankees, squared off in a game that Houston had to win to avoid going down two-nil with the next three games in New York.  Big Stars did Big Star things -- Justin Verlander pitched very well for almost seven innings, but Aaron Judge tagged him for a two-run homer.  There were controversial plays and questionable managerial decisions.  And the whole thing ended on a dramatic, game-ending, walk-off home run by the Astros' Carlos Correa -- who is back in the Houston line-up after being hurt most of the year.  It was a spectacular evening for anyone who loves baseball.

Except, of course, for the fact that the game was almost completely unwatchable.  In the first place, it was on Fox Sports One.  In the second place, the Fox TV announcers are horrible.  In the third place, the game didn't start until after 8 o'clock on the East Coast, which meant that it was going head-to-head with a Steelers game on NBC (an over-the-air network with really good announcers).  And in the fourth place, Correa hit his game-winner at around 1 A.M. Eastern Time, long after almost everyone had gone to bed.

Please note that none of these problems relate to the pace of play, or the numbers of pitching changes, or any of the other things that the Powers-that-Be are likely to fix.  Personally, I like all of the strategy associated with the modern game, and the quality of play is superb.  Had the game started at 2 PM, and had it been on a real network with real announcers, a lot more people would have seen Correa's home run.  Some of those people would have been children, and some of those children would have become lifelong fans.

But MLB doesn't care.  While the NBA and NHL do everything possible to promote and support their playoffs, MLB acts as if it can't wait for the season to be over.  Every move MLB makes in the post-season leaves me with the same feeling I have at Barnes & Noble when they start announcing that you better head to the checkout line, because the store is closing in 15 minutes.  MLB's whole attitude to fans like me is "What are you still doing here?  Don't you know it's football season?"  MLB holds playoffs -- but only because some of us fans insist on crowning an actual champion.  If they had it their own way, I honestly think the folks who run MLB would just hand out participation trophies on the last day of the regular season, and send everyone home.

All I know is that I waited six months for a showdown between the Yankees and Astros, and when it finally happened I couldn't stay up long enough to watch the ending.

The Yankees and Astros are off today as they travel to the Bronx.  Meanwhile, tonight the NLCS makes its first-ever appearance in Washington, D.C.

6:38 P.M. Central:  St. Louis at Washington (Washington leads 2-0)

Sunday, October 13, 2019

MLB Playoffs: Day Ten

The Nats and the Cardinals started in the late afternoon yesterday, which gave Max Scherzer and Adam Wainwright a huge advantage over the hitters.  Scherzer had a no-hitter going into the 7th.  Wainwright was almost as good, allowing only a one-run homer by the usually poor-hitting Michael A. Taylor.  So the Nats led 1-0 going into the 8th.  Wainwright finally showed some weakness, allowing a long single by pinch-hitter Matt Adams and a bloop hit by Trea Turner.  With one out and two on, I thought the Cardinals would take Wainwright out, but they let him pitch to Adam Eaton, who hasn't done much from the plate in the post-season.  That proved to be a mistake, as Eaton doubled down the first base line, giving Washington a 3-0 lead.  St. Louis got one run back against the Washington bullpen, but Daniel Hudson was back from paternity leave, and he slammed the door in the ninth for a 3-1 Nats' win.  This is the first time the Nats have ever won the first two games of a playoff series.

Ever since Washington entered the league, Busch Stadium has been a house of horrors for them, mainly because they find it extremely difficult to score runs there.  They didn't score much this time either -- two runs in Game One and three runs in Game Two.  But thanks to spectacular pitching from Sanchez, Scherzer, and their beleaguered bullpen, the Nats have a 2-0 lead.

In Houston for the nightcap, the Yankees had a 1-0 lead going into the sixth inning, when home runs by Gleyber Torres and Giancarlo Stanton (who was out most of the year with injuries) gave them a three-run edge.  Houston's bullpen got a bit ragged after that, and the Yankees rolled to a surprisingly easy 7-0 win.  Houston will not want to have to take two out of three in Yankee Stadium just to survive, so the Astros will regard tonight as a must-win.  Fortunately for them, they have Justin Verlander ready to go.

7:08 PM Central:  New York at Houston (New York leads 1-0) (Fox Sports One)

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Houston v. New York

The Astros began life as the Houston Colt .45's, and they entered the National League for the 1962 season -- along with the New York Mets, who returned NL baseball to the Metropolis for the first time since the Dodgers and Giants had decamped for the West Coast.

Three years later, the Colt .45's moved to their new indoor playpen, and were renamed the Astros.  The first game in the Astrodome was an exhibition with the Yankees, who were coming off their fifth consecutive AL pennant.  The Yankees were about to collapse, but Houston didn't do much better, and in fact the Astros would not make the post-season until 1980. 

Six years later, we had the first Houston-New York Championship Series, as the Astros and Mets faced off to decide the 1986 pennant.  The 1986 season is probably one of the ten best seasons in the history of Major League Baseball, and the battle between the Astros and Mets played a big role in its greatness.  You will recall that the Mets won 108 games in 1986.  The 1986 Mets were the 1985 Bears of baseball -- a gloriously charismatic and controversial team that was good for quite a while, but which really put it all together only once.  But Houston had a great team that year as well, and their playoff was incredible:

1.  In Game One (in the Astrodome), Mike Scott (who won the Cy Young Award in 1986), outdueled Dwight Gooden 1-0.  Scott threw a complete game, allowing only five hits and striking out 14.  Gooden was almost as perfect, but a second-inning home run by Glenn Davis gave the game to Houston.

2.  Game Two was back in the Astrodome.  Bob Ojeda pitched a complete game for the Mets, allowing only one run on 10 hits.  The Mets banged out five runs against Nolan Ryan, and tied the series at one apiece.

3.  Game Three was in Shea Stadium.  Houston had an early 4-0 lead, then the Mets tied the game at 4 apiece, then Houston took a 5-4 lead in the top of the 7th.  That lead lasted until the bottom of the 9th, when Lenny Dykstra (who was one of my favorite players of the 1980's) slammed a two-run walk-off homer to win it for the Mets.

4.  Game Four was in Shea Stadium.  Down two games to one, the Astros turned to Mike Scott, who again dominated the Mets -- beating Sid Fernandez 3-1 in another complete game victory.

5.  Game Five was in Shea Stadium.  This game featured Dwight Gooden for the Mets and Nolan Ryan for the Astros.  In nine innings, Ryan allowed one run and had 12 strikeouts.  Gooden went 10 innings, allowing only one run.  Finally, in the bottom of the 12th, Gary Carter singled home Wally Backman to give the Mets a 2-1 victory.

6.  Game Six was back in the Astrodome.  The Mets led the series 3-2, but an Astros victory in Game Six would allow Mike Scott a chance to win the series in Game Seven.  So both sides treated this game as the decider.  It may have been the greatest baseball game ever played.  Houston jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the bottom of the 1st -- and kept that lead all the way to the 9th inning, thanks to a dominant performance by Bob Knepper.  In today's game, the Astros would have brought in a closer and probably won the game.  But back then, they sent out Knepper, and the Mets started a rally.  Knepper left with a 3-2 lead, but the Mets had men on base and eventually tied the score at 3.  Extra innings followed, and followed.  In the top of the 14th, the Mets put one run across to take a 4-3 lead.  But in the bottom of the 14th, Billy Hatcher homered off of Jesse Orosco to re-tie the game.  In the top of the 16th, the Mets put together a three-run rally to take a 7-4 lead.  They looked to finally have the series under control, but the Astros fought back -- scoring two runs before Orosco slammed the door on a 7-6 victory.

This was the last game in which the Astros wore their legendary rainbow-style uniform as their regular uniform.

Thirty-one years later, the world was very different.  The Astrodome was gone.  The Astros still existed, although now they were in the American League.  In 2017, Houston reached the ALCS for the first time, where they played the Yankees.  This was also a spectacular series, that went seven games, with each team winning all of the games in its home park.  That worked out well for the Astros, who had the home field advantage -- and who closed out the Yankees with a 7-1 win in Game Six and a 4-0 win in Game Seven.  The Astros then became the first team from Texas ever to win the World Series, and only the second baseball team to win two Game Sevens in the same year, as they beat the Dodgers to win the title.

Last year, both the Yankees and the Astros were flattened by a Red Sox team that looked like the Big Red Machine of the 1970's.  But Red Sox pitching collapsed this year, and the Astros and Yankees -- both of whom appear to be even stronger than they were in 2017 -- dominated the Junior Circuit all year.  The Astros won 107 games.  The Yankees won 103.  Now they are meeting in a rematch of that 2017 showdown.  It should be a classic.

Here is the teams' record in Championship Series.  Victories are in bold.  Please note that for Houston, all LCS appearances before 2017 refer to the National League Championship Series:

New York (11-5):  1976, 1977, 1978, 1980, 1981, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2004, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2017

Houston (2-4):  1980, 1986, 2004, 2005, 2017, 2018

MLB Playoffs: Day Nine

Prior to the season, the Nats picked up Anibal Sanchez to the their fourth starter.  Sanchez is 35 years old, and he had gone 7-6 with Atlanta in 2018.  He's been in the majors since 2006, and he had a lifetime record of 97-100.  He really struggled at the beginning of the year, as did the Nats.  On the morning of May 29, his record was 0-6, and the Nats were eight games under .500.  But he beat the Braves that day, and pitched well for the rest of the season -- finishing with a record of 11-8.  He made it through the first five innings of Game Three against the Dodgers, giving up only a single run.  But the roof fell in on the Nats after they took him out, and the Dodgers won that game.  But of course, the Nats won Games Four and Five to take the series, and now found themselves needing a starter for Game One in St. Louis.  They went with Sanchez.

He was magnificent.  It was really cold in St. Louis -- the temperature was somewhere in the 40's for much of the evening -- and the Cardinals couldn't do much with Sanchez's soft tosses.  In fact, he went into the 8th inning with a no-hitter and a 2-0 lead.  The Nats had scratched out one run when Yan Gomes, their light-hitting catcher, doubled in Howie Kendrick in the second.  Kendrick had singled home Adam Eaton with another run in the seventh, and it was up to Nats' pitching to make that lead stand up.  This task was complicated by the fact that Daniel Hudson, the nearest thing Washington has to a closer these days, was away on paternity leave.  But Sanchez did his part, eventually going 7 2/3 innings before allowing a single.  And Sean Doolittle did the rest, retiring the last four Cardinals and giving Washington a huge road victory.

This afternoon the Cards and Nats will have a rematch in St. Louis, with Adam Wainwright dueling Max Scherzer.  And then the American League will finally get started, with the Yankees and Astros meeting in Houston.  That game will actually be on real Fox, instead of Fox Sports One.

All Times Central:

3:07 PM:  Washington at St. Louis (Washington leads 1-0) (TBS)
7:07 PM:  New York at Houston (Series tied 0-0) (FOX)

Friday, October 11, 2019

St. Louis v. Washington

For more than 50 years, from 1902 through 1953, the Washington Senators and the St. Louis Browns played each other 22 times per year in the American League.  As far as I can tell, very few of these games were important -- most of the time, the Browns and Senators were two of the worst teams in the League.  The Senators won the pennant in 1924, 1925, and 1933.  The Browns won the pennant in 1944.  They were never involved in a pennant race against each other.

Their last meeting was on September 9, 1953 in Griffith Stadium in Washington.  It was one of those late-season double-headers that MLB teams have to play at the end of the season in order to have a complete schedule.  There were 4,216 Washingtonians present.  Both games were day games.  In the first game, Don Larsen through a complete game shutout, beating the Senators 2-0.  Not much happened, and the whole game was played in one hour and 50 minutes.  In the second game, Bob Turley of the Browns got into a pitching duel with Connie Marrero of the Senators.  For nine innings, the game was scoreless.  The Browns finally scored in the top of the 10th -- Turley did a lot of it himself, hitting a leadoff single and eventually coming home to put himself in the lead.  But he walked the leadoff man in the bottom of the 10th, and the Senators got two singles to tie the game.  Washington finally beat Turley in the bottom of the 11th, when Mickey Vernon doubled in Eddie Yost to win the game by 2 to 1.

I wonder how many of the 4,216 fans who were there are still alive?  They had lived through a very stable period in sports history -- but all that was about to change.  The next year the Browns moved to Baltimore, where they were a huge success.  The Senators left town twice -- for good in 1971 -- and baseball season fell silent in Washington for 34 years.

Meanwhile, Washington and St. Louis had started a new rivalry.  After the 1959 season, the Chicago Cardinals moved to St. Louis.  The Cardinals were in the Eastern Conference, while the Bears had been in the West.  The Cardinals stayed in the Eastern Conference, and so they started playing Washington twice a year.  They would keep it up through the 1987 season, and these games are what I think of when I hear that Washington is playing St. Louis.  The NFC East from 1970 to 1987 was the best division that the NFL ever had, and the Cardinals played a small but significant part in that division.  They usually weren't very good on the road, but they were tough at home, and they loved to knock off their more famous rivals at least once or twice each year.  So a NFC East game in St. Louis was often a pretty good game.

The last meeting between the Washington Redskins and the St. Louis Cardinals took place on December 6, 1987.  Joe Gibbs coached the Skins, who were 8-3 going into the game.  Gene Stallings coached the 5-6 Cardinals.  It was 39 degrees in St. Louis.  In Nashville, I was getting ready to take my finals for the fall semester.  George Bush and Bob Dole were about to square off for the Republican presidential nomination.  At the half, the Cardinals led 14-10.  But in the third quarter, the Skins got touchdowns from Jay Schroeder, George Rogers, and Clint Didier, and the Skins rolled to a 34-17 victory.  A few weeks later, in the last game of the regular season, Schroeder would get off to a bad start against the Vikings -- going 9-17 for 85 yards and two interceptions.  Gibbs would replace him with Doug Williams, who would win that game -- and then take the Skins all the way to the Lombardi Trophy.  (Why isn't this remembered as one of the most brilliant moves in coaching history?)  Meanwhile, the Cardinals left St. Louis for good, and Gene Stallings ended up winning a national championship at Alabama -- where he showed that SEC teams could, in fact, beat the University of Miami.

So Washington and St. Louis didn't see each other much in sports until 2005, when the Nats appeared in the National League.  Since then, they've had some dogfights with the Cardinals.  The biggest showdown between the two took place in the 2012 Divisional Series.  The 2012 Cardinals were the defending world champions, while the 2012 Nats had the best record in the National League.  (This was the year that Washington shut down Strasburg to protect his arm, so he was not available for the playoffs.)  This series was a cracker:

In Game One, in St. Louis, the Nats scored two runs in the top of the 8th for a come-from-behind 3-2 win.  (This is the only time the Nats have ever won the first game of a playoff series).

In Game Two, in St. Louis, the Cards jumped all over Jordan Zimmermann and hammered the Nats 12 to 4.

In Game Three, in Washington, the Cards hammered Edwin Jackson and a series of Nats pitchers, and cruised to an easy 8-0 win.

In Game Four, in Washington, the two teams locked themselves into a pitching duel.  The score was 1-1 in the bottom of the 9th, when Jayson Werth saved the Nationals' season with a walk-off homer.  (Until the other day, this blow was the most famous home run in the Nats' short history.)

In Game Five, in Washington, the Nats finally started to show what their offense could do.  A triple from Bryce Harper and a homer from Ryan Zimmerman put Washington up 3-0 in the first, and then home runs by Harper and Mike Morse gave Washington a 6-0 lead after three.  The Cardinals fought back after that, but Washington still led 7-5 going into the top of the 9th.  The Nats' sent out their closer, Drew Storen, to clinch the series.  Storen had gone 3-1 with an ERA of 2.37 in the regular season -- and he soon had two outs with a runner on second.  Here's what he did next:

Walk to Yadier Molina (2 outs, men on 1st and 2d)
Walk to David Freese (2 outs, bases loaded)
Single by Daniel Descalso (2 outs, 2 runs, men on 1st and 3d).
Descalso steals second (2 outs, 2 runs, men on 2d and 3d)
Single by Pete Kozma (2 outs, 4 runs, man on 1st)

And that was that.  The Cardinals won 9 to 7, and it was seven long years before Washington would reach the NLCS -- where they will meet the Cardinals.

Here is each team's appearances in the NLCS (wins in bold):

St. Louis (7-6):  1982, 1985, 1987, 1996, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014

Washington (0-0):  none

(Please note that this web page does not regard the Nats as a continuation of the Montreal Expos franchise that reached the NLCS in 1981.  That franchise is currently defunct, just as the Washington franchise was defunct from 1972 through 2004.  The Nats are the continuation of the Washington franchise that existed prior to 1971 (we treat both iterations of the Senators as a single franchise.)  So this franchise has never played in the NLCS (or the ALCS, for that matter).