By SEAN RAPOSA
August 19, 2008
The day was going great. The SoCal sun was shining, the cocktails were flowing and there was no shortage of elegant ladies donning their best sun dresses, floppy white hats and Jackie-O shades - always a winner. I had hit on two of the first four races and my buddies Lipson and Culver and I were navigating the Del Mar infield for the perfect view of what was supposed to be the crown jewel of our Friday afternoon. Earlier, while celebrating my first victory in line, I ran into “that guy,” who had the pick of the day all lined up and ready to share, the 3-5-11 boxed in the fifth. Race five - how could I miss?
After splitting off just enough from my pile to keep drinks on the house for the day I punched my ticket and headed over to the rail. They were off. It was a 12-horse race so the track was crowded and it was tough to see, but the 11 was out in front and the 3 was just trailing. We were going nuts, jumping up and down and spilling precious beer without regard. Around the bend they came … and there was the 5 - oh MY FIVE, come on! They broke four-wide into the stretch as my chants pitched to deafening levels. Then, pure silence. All Saint was the name of the number ten-horse that crushed our dreams of popping Cristal and making it rain - the spoiler. Just like a 12th-seed NCAA bracket-buster, the jig was up.
The trend started on Tuesday when I tabbed the Philadelphia Phillies as my No. 1 contender in this space. What followed was a week in which I had to endure them getting handed a four-game brooming by the surging Dodgers, getting beaten by the lowly Padres and having their reigning National League MVP proclaim his own fans “front-runners” days after I had praised his past leadership. I’m not waffling on them yet; there are still 38 games to be played, including five against the Mets, whom the Phils trail by two games. Let’s just say they failed to back me up and this week, I’m exploring other angles. Today we dip outside my contenders in search of the top spoilers who could nose baseball’s front-runners out of the money.
No. 5: Minnesota Twins
To think that a franchise could sell off its biggest star on each side of the ball then be 17 games over .500 and tied for their division lead in mid-August the next season is ridiculous. And yet the Twins have accomplished just that as they sit neck and neck with the White Sox atop the American League Central months after parting ways with superstars Torii Hunter and Johan Santana. The Twins are like the Angels Lite; the Halos before they added the big boppers. They play small-ball in the longball league, moving runners and manufacturing runs however they can. They play solid defense behind what is an effective - albeit unspectacular - starting rotation, al a the Angels of the past three or four years.
While Rays maestro Joe Maddon has received a lot of praise from me in this space, that Ron Gardenhire sure can manage too. He took over the Twins in 2002 amid contraction rumors I remember like yesterday. His team’s response to these rumors of their irrelevance was to win three straight division titles. I remember wondering how so many people could be so wrong about an organization. This year’s A.L. Central race could come right down to the last week when the White Sox travel to Minny, and if Gardy can add another it would make five in seven years for the Twinkies.
The problem is they just don’t have enough talent or experience. Francisco Liriano has burst back onto the scene at just the right time and I expect him to excel, but his workload will be managed and his youthful compadres should start to slow. Kevin Slowey, Glen Perkins, Scott Baker and Nick Blackburn round out a rotation with an average age of 25 and a grand total of 538 big league innings coming into the year. I could see them hanging on to spoil October for the Sox - or the Sawx - but not winning it all … yet.
No. 4: Arizona Diamondbacks
At last, someone took my advice. I mean, I knew the general managers around baseball were reading my stuff; I’m just glad Josh Byrnes took action. As I suggested they should a month ago, the Diamondbacks finally traded for former Reds slugger Adam Dunn last week, giving the team a much needed left-handed power bat. Unfortunately, the move will prove to be too little, too late. Much like the Twins’ pitching, the D-Backs four hitters around Dunn have an average age of 25 and lack experience. Stephen Drew, Chris Young, Conor Jackson and Mark Reynolds could each develop into stars and it would be nice to see Dunn, only 28 himself, around past this year for that party.
If you have pitching, you always have a chance, which is why the Diamondbacks made this list today. Brandon Webb continues to grow as a pitcher. His 18-4 record and 2.85 ERA have him poised to take down his second Cy Young Award. Dan Haren has been all the D-Backs could have dreamed for when they acquired him from (who else?) Billy Beane and the Athletics to form the game’s most dominant 1-2 punch. He has matched his partner in crime with 20 quality starts and boasts a not-too-shabby 13-6 record, 2.96 ERA and eye-popping 156-to-29 K-to-walk ratio. The two have combined to lead the way as Arizona’s starters have compiled the league’s second best ERA at 3.87. It is conceivable that this team could do real damage should they make it to the dance, but last year’s fire, which was stoked by veteran leaders Eric Byrnes and Orlando Hudson, will be very hard to replicate.
No. 3: Milwaukee Brewers
The Brewers rank No. 3 on this list not due to their level of talent but their spot on the rotten-egg spoilage meter. I don’t think anyone will be that surprised to see the Brewers mashing deep into October and crushing the dreams of rival N.L. hopefuls. The hoopla of the CC Sabathia era is in full swing in beer country. He is now undefeated with a 1.55 ERA in eight National League starts, and is stirring talks of contending for the Senior Circuit Cy Young. This won’t happen because of the aforementioned Webb, but is quite the accomplishment nonetheless. The team has gone 7-3 over its last 10 games, but to their dismay, the Cubs and Cardinals are just as hot, preventing them from making up any ground in the division or gaining any separation in the Wild Card.
The race in the Central figures to go a long way toward determining the N.L.’s representative this year as Central Division teams boats the league’s top three records. To keep pace the Brewers are going to need Ben Sheets to get back on track. Lost amidst the CC-mania is the fact that the one-time ace has gone 1-4 since the arrival of the big lefty. It’s true that his mere one post-All-Star break victory can largely be attributed to a lack of run support, but if he’s on the bump during any of the six games they play against the Cubs the last two weeks of September, zeros might be needed.
No. 2: Chicago White Sox
The White Sox are the first of two super-spoilers lurking in the shallows. There are dual reasons for their high ranking. As manager Ozzie Guillen said - well, maybe I shouldn’t quote Ozzie directly in order to keep this PG. Basically, in their own town he feels the Sox don’t get any respect - it’s all about the Cubs. From my personal experience and everything that’s been said, it seems to be true. Ah, but that makes it all the more satisfying of a death blow should it come. The Cubs will make the playoffs and we can only venture a guess as to whether Chicago would still be standing should they face off against the crosstown rival, and the South Siders win another title before those poor Cubs’ souls can be freed from their bonds of ineptitude.
The second reason I have them so high is that they are really good. The Twins have negated their lead in the A.L Central, but it’s not because the Sox are playing poorly. They have won seven of their last 10, they are very strong at home (42-19) and play well within their division (36-21). Their biggest weakness is probably their front-line starters, although Mark Buehrle occasionally shows flashes of greatness. On four occasions this year he has thrown eight innings and given up one earned run or less. On the other hand, he’s also had five starts where he allowed six earned runs or more. During the Sox’ 2005 Championship run Buehrle went 2-0 in three starts with a 3.47 ERA, so he has succeeded on the big stage.
The characteristic of this squad that makes me hearken back to 2005 is the brute size and strength of their lineup. I recall that when the Red Sox faced them that postseason every batter seemed like a legitimate threat, and this year’s team fits the same bill. They lead the league in homers and rank third in slugging and sixth in runs scored. Fourteen times they have scored 10 or more runs, going 13-1 in those games. In other words, they can mash. The roll call is paced by phenom and MVP candidate Carlos Quentin, he of the major league-best 34 homers, 95 RBI and impressive .292 average and .395 OBP, but also includes sluggers Jim Thome, Ken Griffey Jr., Nick Swisher, Paul Konerko and Jermaine Dye and table-setters Orlando Cabrera and A.J. Pierzynski. My guess is that there are plenty of pitchers on playoff hopefuls who would love to miss this team.
No. 1: Los Angeles Dodgers
As the immortal Mars Blackmon once said, “it’s gotta be the shoes.” In this case, we’ve been educated that it’s actually the hair. What, you expected Manny Ramirez to be docile? Ha - not in this lifetime. With the way he’s hitting, I’m thinking that Joe Torre will be able to tolerate the dreds. In his 16 games since sporting Dodger blue, Ramirez is batting a sizzling .424 with six homers and 21 RBI. The team has gone 10-6 over that same period, including a 6-1 mark against the formidable Brewers and Phillies last week to crawl into a tie for first place in the West with Arizona.
Ramirez’ biggest contribution might be seen in his teammates’ production. Budding superstar Matt Kemp has struggled mightily in classic Pedro Cerrano fashion with the breaking ball early in his career. I would think, and hope, that Kemp is picking whatever happens to be in Manny’s brain. Over the last 14 days Kemp is batting .333, slugging .550 and has scored 13 runs. Veteran Jeff Kent has also been rejuvenated since finding himself in the enviable position of hitting in the spot ahead of Ramirez. With the extra protection behind him, Kent is batting .467.
The real reason the Dodgers take the cake this week is all in the title: The Spoiler. Can you imagine the pain and suffering inflicted should the Dodgers steal the Yankees manager and the Red Sox’ best player and win a World Series title? It’s all about the emotions: Love and hate. We all hate the Yankees, and now most people hate the Sox, and the love is just as passionate on the supportive sides, so this would be the spoiler of spoilers. Oh yeah - that would mean you’re still hurting too, Chicago. The pain!
Sean Raposa’s My Five column runs every Tuesday here on National Pastime. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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.