By SEAN RAPOSA
September 16, 2008
It took nine days, two ugly Patriots wins and a couple of empty handles to get me to crawl out of my dungeon, turn off the Tool music and stop throwing darts at the Bernard “Bleeping” Pollard picture now hanging on my wall. To say it was a tough week would be the equivalent of Pat O’Brien saying he was slightly embarrassed after his infamous voicemail hit the airwaves. But fear not, I’ve come back to the light - and I have baseball to thank.
While watching the Pats vs. Jets game Sunday with toothpicks propping my eyelids open it became apparent that New England would be going back to boring this year and, despite my wildest hallucinations since college, Matt Cassel is not Tom Brady. To make things worse we’ve also been saddled with an ailing Peyton Manning and a blatant conspiracy against the San Diego Chargers, and we are now destined for four months of a Tony Romo love-fest (barf).
To the rescue comes ol’ reliable - big league ball. On Sunday alone (football day) we were treated to the Phillies completing a sweep of the Brewers to tie the N.L. Wild Card race, a pinch-hit eighth-inning grand slam by career minor-leaguer DeWayne Wise that propelled the White Sox to victory and, of course, the no-hitter tossed by Carlos Zambrano in his first start since returning from shoulder tendinitis. The action got my juices flowing once again, and while contemplating today’s topic I was overwhelmed by the potential storylines that will be playing out in a few weeks. Here are My Five truly miraculous tales of triumph that could come to fruition this October:
No. 5: $137 million face-lift
After the Mets’ monumental collapse last September in which they squandered a seven-game lead with only 17 games left to play, everyone knew that change was coming. What we didn’t know until very late in the offseason was that they would add the game’s greatest pitcher to their roster. The trade that sent top prospects Carlos Gomez and Philip Humber to the Twins in exchange for Johan Santana was quickly followed by a six-year, $137.5 million contract extension. All it took for the pundits to start questioning the move was a couple lackluster starts by the 2-time Cy Young winner, most of them citing his age (29) as sufficient evidence of his impending decline.
Of course, this didn’t happen and Santana - as he always does - has really found his groove in the second half. The dazzling lefty last lost a game on June 28 and is 5-0 with a 2.47 ERA since the All-Star break. His overall record of 13-7 is not indicative of his performance, as the Mets’ atrocious bullpen has been costing him wins all year. This problem figures to loom large as the Metropolitans approach postseason play, and could be the only factor keeping them from a title and a changing of the guard in the big city. Unlike the crosstown Yankees, the Mets have an ace to lead their staff for years to come and two MVP-caliber players who are just entering their prime in David Wright and Jose Reyes. Should they capture their first title in 22 years, the move to get The Johan will once again prove that money does matter and pitching still wins.
No. 4: 290 pounds of promise
Speaking of good trades, this CC Sabathia guy is pretty decent too. In fact I feel as though I’ve been compelled to write about him every week for months despite trying to bring a fresh topic each time around in My Five. The story just keeps getting, er, bigger. The baseball world was shocked when the Brewers shook up the National League by trading uber-prospect Matt LaPorta to the Indians for Sabathia almost a month before the July 31 deadline, and to date it has been nothing short of potentially the best in-season acquisition of all time.
Unfortunately for the Brewers, things may have peaked with his laughably controversial one-hitter to close out the month of August. Each of Sabathia’s two starts since have resulted in no-decisions, the team is 3-11 in September and they just fired manager Ned Yost after being swept into a tie with Philly for the Wild Card. It came as no surprise to me that CC didn’t get to pitch in that crucial series, and if the Brew Crew hadn’t beaten on him like a drum maybe they could’ve moved him up in the rotation. Since his Milwaukee debut CC has thrown six complete games and gone fewer than seven innings only twice in 12 starts. His 9-0 record and 1.59 ERA rivals Randy Johnson’s 10-1, 1.28 showing following his trade from Seattle to Houston in 1998 as the best performance by a midseason addition in the past 20 years anyway. The Big Unit’s Astros lost in the Division Series, so if Milwaukee can right the ship quickly and ride the behemoth lefty to a World Series crown, this trade could very well go down as the best ever.
No. 3: I have exorcised the demons!
I’m not sure whose idea it was to bring Ace Ventura: Pet Detective into the Tampa Bay front office this year, but that person deserves a raise. So much for there being nothing in a name, aye? In their first post-Devil season, the Rays have gone from biggest laughing stock in baseball to a legitimate title contender for years to come. The challenges keep on mounting and this team just keeps on conquering them. Just last week I claimed that their trip through Boston and New York would push them out of first place, but I was wrong. Injuries - like those to studs Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria - have plagued the Rays all year, but Joe Maddon and his madmen are still tied for the A.L. East lead and have the inside track on the Wild Card, and have a magic number of seven to get to the postseason for the first time in club history.
Although it’s probably a lot to ask at this point, if the Rays can win 12 of their last 15 to get to 100 wins they will have completed the greatest turnaround in American League history - not to mention the accomplishment of winning 100 games after never winning more than 70 previously (The 1946 Red Sox and the 1989 Orioles both had 33-win improvements from their previous season). The real beauty of the Tampa situation is how they got here. I hesitate to say their improvement reminds me of the 2007-08 Boston Celtics because they are doing it without a Kevin Garnett/Ray Allen acquisition (unless you want to count Matt Garza/Troy Percival - admittedly a stretch). The Rays have ascended the ladder through pure growth, building with youth from within. This not only makes their feat that much more impressive, it also portends big things for their future as well. Can you imagine them with a healthy Longoria, Crawford and Rocco Baldelli, and a few more pieces added over the winter? Scary.
No. 2: Three out of five?
My fellow New Englanders and I saw this before when the Pats reeled off three Super Bowls in four years, and hopefully the aforementioned KG-led Celtics can accomplish a similar mini-dynasty (for all you other fans, avoid spitting at your computer - after all, it’s your computer), but the Red Sox winning like this is just weird. It’s easy to forget all the suffering, the Clemens exit, Bucky Dent, Bill Buckner and so on, but the real fans never forget these times and it makes the present success that much sweeter. Sure, they don’t exactly look like world-beaters with the most recent Jonanthan Papelbon rollercoaster, but as I said when the Manny Ramirez trade went down, they will continue to play hard and scrap. Wes Welker-clone Dustin Pedroia is doing his best Spud Webb 1986 dunk contest impression in his charge for the AL MVP and with the team even with Tampa in the East and well ahead of upstart Minnesota in the Wild Card chase, they are right where they need to be.
With another World Series title the Sox would join the Yankees (1998-2000) and the Blue Jays (1992 and 1993) as the only MLB teams to successfully defend their title in the last 30 years. I still think Ramirez’ absence will loom larger in October, as it did in last week’s Tampa game when David Ortiz came up in a three-run game in the 14th inning with two on and no one out and didn’t see a single pitch close to the plate. Needless to say, the rest of the order produced a meaningless run and they lost 4-2.
No. 1: Curse this!
It seems only fitting that I should flow from a Red Sox topic to one about curses. That’s right - those Cubs again. A 1-6 start to September coupled with “extra rest” for Rich “Glass Joe” Harden and a sore shoulder for long-time ace Carlos Zambrano had the Chicago police doing double duty on rooftop watch. How quickly things can change. Harden had a triumphant return Thursday, throwing six innings of two-run ball - and, incredibly, came out of it healthy. After taking two of three from division rival St. Louis, Zambrano returned from the shelf and pitched a no-no. Yesterday Ted Lilly matched his feat for six innings before yielding a hit and led the Cubs to their fourth straight win. The Brewers are riding the Geronimo straight down, the playoffs seem to be a lock and the North Siders are believers again. It seems so fitting, such an even number - 100 years.
So, what’s going to happen next, Cubbie fans? All I’ll say in closing is that outside of my BoSox I’m pulling for you, and I expect one of my wealthy readers to provide me with a ticket to the Windy City for the party of the millennium should this be THE fabled finish you’ve been waiting an entire century for. Oh yeah - as far as crazy stories go, it’s possible that I could have predicted the most improbable run to a title if those Phils keep on rolling too. Well, maybe not, but these other compelling dramas will be well worth watching, or at least much more entertaining than an afternoon with Matt Cassel. See you next week, troops.
Sean Raposa’s My Five column runs every Tuesday here on National Pastime. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos by The Associated Press
Be sure to check out our previous My Five columns: Starting rotations, The power alleys, MLB’s best bullpens, The table setters, Young guns, Burgeoning bats, Favorite first-half storylines, X-Factors, Financial blunders, Superbad Awards, Rounders, Contenders, Spoilers, What if?, Ways to make MLB better, Questions and answers.