Sunday, June 23, 2013
AL East shaping up as race for the ages
By David Schoenfield
The most exciting day in recent baseball history took place on the final day of the 2011 season, when Dan Johnson hit his miracle home run as the Tampa Bay Rays rallied from a 7-0 deficit to beat the New York Yankees in 12 innings, and Evan Longoria delivering the game-winning home run at nearly the same time the Boston Red Sox blew a ninth-inning lead to lose to the Baltimore Orioles. The stunning turn of events put Tampa Bay into the postseason and left Boston on the sidelines.
It was exciting, although it was just a battle for second place -- the Yankees finished six games ahead of the Rays.
But two seasons ago, second place wasn't much different than finishing in first place. Now, with the creation of the one-game wild-card game, finishing in first place means something. Teams obviously want to avoid that one-and-done game. The wild-card game helps bring the pennant back into a pennant race.
That will likely help make this season's AL East race one of the craziest scrambles we've seen in the divisional era. With the Toronto Blue Jays winning their 11th consecutive game Sunday, 13-5 over the Orioles, they've fought back to make this a five-team race, with the Jays and Rays currently five games behind the first-place Red Sox.
As Christina Kahrl pointed out Saturday, the Jays are getting contributions from unlikely sources. Munenori Kawasaki, who hit a big home run on Friday, has posted a .341 OBP filling in for Jose Reyes. Adam Lind is hitting .337 and looking more like the guy who had the monster 2009 than the guy who posted a .296 OBP over the past three seasons. Chien-Ming Wang was found wandering through the wheat fields of Alberta and has posted a 2.18 ERA in three starts.
However, as she wrote, "[W]hat has gotten the Blue Jays this far doesn’t have to be what they win with in the second half. They can thank their surprise heroes for helping get them back into this thing, but the Jays have a tremendous opportunity to build off this run once they're back at full strength."
The most impressive thing about Toronto's streak is who they beat: One win over the Chicago White Sox but four over the Texas Rangers, three over the Colorado Rockies and three over the Orioles. This wasn't a stretch during which they simply beat up on the Houston Astros, Seattle Mariners and Florida Marlins. The pitching has been terrific in these 11 victories (2.07 ERA), and they've hit 20 home runs.
The Red Sox might rate as the favorite right now -- their plus-69 run differential is 55 runs better than any other team in the division -- but the Red Sox are also an uninspiring 13-13 over their past 26 games, perhaps a sign that they're not going to run away with this thing.
I think what this will turn into is a five-team race the likes we haven't seen since, well, a long time. Here's a snapshot of some of the wild multiteam races of the division era (since 1969).
1972 AL East
Through Sept. 12, the Red Sox led the Orioles and Yankees by a half-game, the Tigers by one game. The Yankees quickly faded, and then the Orioles, and so while the final standings reflect a tight two-team race -- the Tigers would end beating the Red Sox twice in the final series of the season to win the division by a half-game -- it was a four-team race up until the final two weeks. What made this race odd, however, was that half-game; the start of the season had been interrupted by a 13-day players' strike. Baseball simply decided to play out the remaining schedule, leaving teams with an uneven number of games. The Tigers would finish 86-70, the Red Sox 85-70.
None of these were great teams, and the Indians and Brewers were nonfactors. The Tigers outscored their opponents by just 44 runs in a sort of last moment of glory for the Al Kaline/Norm Cash team (both were 37 that season). The Orioles were also a veteran team with Brooks Robinson, Boog Powell and Mike Cuellar.
1973 NL East
In the Baseball Prospectus book on great pennant races, "It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over," Alex Belth wrote of the 1973 NL East race, which took place during the Watergate hearings that summer, "In a year when cynicism ran deep, in and out of the game, 'You Gotta Believe' was a rallying cry that every team in the East could have applied to its season. It was a slogan made for Madison Avenue, but made innocently enough -- it was intended to be taken at face value, without guile."
New York Mets reliever Tug McGraw had coined the phrase that summer, and with good reason: On Aug. 30, with the Mets 61-71, 10 games under and in last place -- but only 6½ games behind first-place St. Louis. The Mets would go 21-8 the rest of the way to finish 82-79, good enough to edge out the 81-81 Cardinals. The Phillies had faded, but the other five teams all finished within five games of each other.
1980 NL East
After games of Sept. 1, the defending World Series champion Pittsburgh Pirates, the Philadelphia Phillies and Montreal Expos were tied for first with about 30 games remaining for each club. The Pirates faded, however, and it turned into your more typical two-team race. The Phillies clinched on the penultimate day when they beat the Expos in extra innings on Mike Schmidt's two-run home run. While it was a great three-team race for much of the season, the division also included the horrible Mets and Cubs.
As divisions shrunk in size with the dawn of the wild-card era in 1995, the multiteam race has been a rare thing. The last time we had three teams finish within five games of each other was 2007, when the Phillies, Mets and Braves did it in the NL East, with the Phillies beating the Mets by one game with an 89-73 record. The Braves finished five games back but were never quite in it, entering September 6½ games back. The same season, the NL West featured a fun race, with Arizona finishing 90-72, one game ahead of San Diego and Colorado, who played a one-game tiebreaker for the wild card. That was the famous "Rocktober" run for the Rockies, when they reeled off 14 wins in their final 15 games. The Dodgers were actually just 3½ games back with two weeks left, so, for a time, it was arguably a four-team race. (Although as the Rockies started to surge, the Dodgers faded.)
The AL East could end up resembling the 2005 NL East. All five teams ended up bunched from 81 wins to 90, and while the Washington Nationals -- in their first season in Washington, D.C. -- would finish last, they led the division as late as July 24. But there wasn't a lot of jockeying around in that race -- the Atlanta Braves led from July 26 to the end of the season.
The 2004 AL West was another good three-team race. With one week left, the A's led the Angels by one game and the Rangers by two. The Angels would beat the A's on the final Friday and Saturday to win the division by a game.
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Of course, we probably won't end up with a five-team race. If I had to pick a team that will fade, it would be the Yankees, even if they get their second-half reinforcements in Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson and Alex Rodriguez. The Orioles need to figure out a starting rotation that doesn't include Freddy Garcia, and Chris Davis is unlikely to keep going at this pace (I don't think, but you never know). The Red Sox might have their own pitching problems, especially with Jon Lester cooling down after a hot start. The Rays are tied with the Jays, but you have to think they'll get better second-half results from David Price and Jeremy Hellickson to prop up their rotation.
And while the race for first will be exciting, there is always the wild card to fall back on. But a wild-card race isn't the same as a pennant race. Let's hope, come that final week of the season, we still see five teams within a couple games of each other. Let's see some history.
I'll conclude this column by picking my final order of finish, which I know will be wrong, but here goes: Red Sox, Rays/Blue Jays, Orioles, Yankees. Rays tie the Blue Jays for the second wild card and have a one-game playoff to get to the one-game playoff. How's that sound?