SweetSpot: Joe Maddon

Rays focused on winning, not deadline

July, 24, 2014
Jul 24

ST. LOUIS -- Even with all the trade rumors surrounding David Price, Rays manager Joe Maddon hasn’t pulled Price aside to talk to him about how he should handle the approaching trade deadline.

“I’m really not into that stuff,” said Maddon. “I could only probably hurt that, whatever they are thinking. Furthermore, I’m not the GM. So anytime I’m speaking like that, I’m speaking for a GM, which I’m not that guy.”

The Rays' left-hander (10-7, 3.06) has been the center of trade talks for the past month. With the July 31 trade deadline a week away, Maddon said that instead of getting caught up in all the trade discussion, he’s preparing for each game like it is September baseball.

“Honestly, if you don’t attack it one day at a time, you can get into a lot of trouble,” Maddon said.

Tampa Bay's 3-0 win against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch stadium on Wednesday night marks the team's seventh straight win, matching a seven-game streak in September 2013. If the Rays believe they have a chance to get to the postseason, the landscape of the trade deadline could change.

This is where Maddon’s experience, personality and management style benefit the Rays, because when it comes to a team finding its way into the postseason, he has seen it all.

“I was involved in two really weird moments,” Maddon said.

In 1995 Maddon was the first-base coach for the Angels. On Aug. 1, 1995, the Angels had an 11-game lead in the American League West. What followed was the biggest September collapse in major league history, and the Angels ended up losing a one-game playoff against the Mariners.

“That’s wild,” Maddon recalled about the 1995 season. “A few years ago, [the Rays] were down by nine [games back] and then get there. So I’ve seen it from both sides.”

This year, however, Maddon said the Rays got “into such a horrible hole” early in the season. On June 10, the Rays were 24-42 and last in the AL East.

“It was really weird to watch because we weren’t playing well,” said Maddon, who has managed the Rays to four postseason appearances in eight seasons. “Things were just constantly working against us. We couldn’t hit, we couldn’t make a pitch, our defense wasn’t [good], and everything was just not normal. Why? I have no idea. I can’t say much other than the fact that it is called baseball.”

Then, all of a sudden, Maddon said the team started turning it around and playing better.

“We started playing a more familiar game; hitters started to click, the guys got their swagger back,” Maddon said. “There’s a lot of time left, man. A lot of time.”

What the Rays need most is time. Because being 7.5 games back in the AL East isn’t as big of a challenge as being behind three teams: the Orioles, Yankees and Blue Jays.

A key to how the Rays' season plays out is Price. What can the 28-year-old hurler do, besides not being traded, to help the Rays get into the postseason?

“Everybody needs to continue to do what [they've] been doing,” said Price, who has a 1.72 ERA in his last 10 starts. “Nobody needs to change a thing."

Maddon says Price is a much more mature pitcher right now; he’s pitching better than ever, and he is a big factor in why the Rays' pitching staff has allowed the second-fewest runs (411) in the AL East. Since the Rays' winning streak began on July 12, their pitching staff leads the majors with a 1.33 ERA.

“The difference is he knows what he has and he’s utilizing it better,” Maddon said about the change in Price. “He’s a better pitcher. He’s more self-aware. He knows what he’s got and how to utilize it.”

If the Rays keep winning, they might play their way into making a trade impossible for executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman. The remaining schedule provides lots of room for hope. From Aug. 26 to Sept. 17, the Rays have 26 straight games against AL East opponents.

Is a trade now impossible? “My job is only to look at one side of it, and I’m paid to win,” Maddon said. “The bigger picture for me is October, it’s not 2015. So I really -- again, we’ve talked about this -- it’s my job to do my job only.”

Maddon wants the players to do their jobs, and the front office members to do theirs, and he will do his.

“What you are saying is true,” Maddon acknowledged to the media, though. “The more we win, [there is] less probability of a trade occurring.”

Instead of being sellers, maybe the Rays have turned into buyers at the trade deadline.

“I like our team,” Maddon said, recognizing that when David DeJesus, Ryan Hanigan and Wil Myers come off the disabled list, along with the young talent they already have, the Rays will be much stronger. “I’m forced to say the same thing every year at this time: I like our names.

“We have plenty to get this done with what we have on the field. We just have to get everybody playing to their abilities. I think sometimes, people are fooled by all that, having to go out and get something at the trade deadline in order to make them a contender. Sometimes, you’ve got the answers from within and just aren’t getting people the proper opportunity. So we gave our guys opportunity; that’s what we have to do. So I’m here to tell you, man, with the guys we have here, I’m plenty happy.”

Even more than being happy about the makeup of the team, Maddon, who has managed more than half the games in Rays’ history, likes how the team has turned things around.

“Everybody knows I think we can do this,” Maddon said. “I’ve been saying that for a while. I believe we can do this. I really do. I’m not just trying to make it a feel-good story. We can do this. We’ve come from a lot farther back. … So why not us? We’ve done a lot of firsts around here. Why can’t we do another one this year? I firmly believe we are in this, and everybody in our front office knows how I feel. I’m more optimistic than ever right now.”
One of the great unanswered questions of sabermetrics is how much value a manager brings to a team. Maybe it's ultimately something that can't be properly evaluated, since aside from on-field strategic moves, much of what a manager does is difficult or impossible to measure, like communicating with players and staff, keeping a positive clubhouse or dealing with the front office and the media.

But we all agree that a good manager has value. How responsible was John Farrell for the Red Sox winning the World Series? How much credit do we give Mike Matheny? If Joe Maddon is worth four extra wins a season for the Rays, should he be getting paid $20 million per year instead of an estimated $2 million? When teams are currently paying free agents about $6.5 million per win on the open market, what's a good manager worth? Joe Girardi, probably the highest-paid manager, gets $4 million per season, so you could make the argument that the Yankees aren't placing much value at all on Girardi's abilities. (Not that managers should be paid on the same scale as players, but isn't a win a win, no matter where it comes from?)

Anyway, Jon Shepherd of Camden Depot conducted a study to at least give us to a starting point on evaluating managers. He compared projected records to actual records for every team since 2003 and figured out how many wins each manager was above or below the preseason projection. (He used Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projections for 2003-09, Marcel for 2010-11 and ZiPS for 2012-13.) It's far from perfect -- if Clayton Kershaw blows out his shoulder, that reflects on Don Mattingly's record even though it's no fault of his own -- but it gives us some results to consider.

For managers who have managed at least three seasons, Jon's top five in wins added per 162 games were Farrell (+5.7), Fredi Gonzalez (+5.5), Tony La Russa (+5.0), Mattingly (+4.7) and Ron Washington (+4.4). You can get the rest of the top 10 by clicking the link above. Interesting that Gonzalez, Mattingly and Washington, three managers the stats guys love to criticize, fared very well in this study. It's also worth noting that Farrell, Gonzalez, Mattingly and Washington are regarded as good communicators with their players.

The bottom five (there were 42 managers in all who had managed three seasons) were Manny Acta (-8.1), John Russell (-7.7), Jerry Manuel (-5.9), Bob Geren (-4.7) and Alan Trammell (-3.0), none of whom are managing now. Eric Wedge was next on the list and he's not managing either. The much-maligned Dusty Baker ranked 36th.

The one guy I was surprised to see not in the top 10 was Maddon, the guy I consider the best manager in the game. His year-by-year totals courtesy of Jon:

2006: -8 (61 actual wins versus 69 projected wins)
2007: -12 (66 actual wins versus 78 projected)
2008: +8 (97 actual wins versus 89 projected)
2009: -7 (84 actual wins versus 91 projected)
2010: +6 (96 actual wins versus 90 projected)
2011: +6 (91 actual wins versus 85 projected)
2012: -3 (90 actual wins versus 93 projected)
2013: +4 (92 actual wins versus 88 projected)

Total: -6.

Of course, take away those first two seasons and Maddon fares much better. Still, the projection systems are usually high on the Rays, so the perception that Maddon is extracting tons of extra value out of a roster of mediocre talent may not really be true. Even the 2008 team that came out of nowhere was projected to do well, at least by Baseball Prospectus. Of course, you can argue that some of the players project well because Maddon uses them in the right situations (he doesn't play Sean Rodriguez much against right-handed pitchers, for example). And the Rays have mostly kept their starting pitchers healthy, which is a credit to Maddon and pitching coach Jim Hickey.

Maddon is still my No. 1 manager ... and I'd pay him more than $2 million per season.

My AL Manager of the Year ballot, explained

November, 12, 2013
This was as tough a year to pick a top AL skipper as I can remember because you could make a compelling case for at least five guys: finalists John Farrell of the Red Sox, Terry Francona of the Indians and Bob Melvin of the Athletics, as well as Joe Girardi of the Yankees and Joe Maddon of the Rays.

As one of the electors this year, whom did I vote for when the ballots were due at the end of the regular season? In the end, I voted: 3. Joe Maddon; 2. Bob Melvin; 1. Terry Francona. That was after I spent a long time picking Maddon over Farrell, almost as much time as I used picking between Francona and Melvin.

Francona edged Farrell to win his first manager of the year award, the BBWAA announced Tuesday. Melvin finished a distant third.

As I have since the first time I voted on a manager of the year award, I consulted multiple colleagues and spent a couple of days mulling different arguments. In the end, I focus on performance, particularly elective decision-making and managers making the most of what they had on hand, especially because a big problem in choosing between managers is the inequality of resources each man has at his disposal. Admittedly, my way risks leaving out important areas of the job they have to do, the challenge of motivating and managing people. In all five cases, you’ll hear folks argue that each of these men is great at this. Unfortunately, we can’t measure the relative impact of each, which leads me to stick with judging observable actions and outcomes when I make my vote.
[+] EnlargeChris Perez
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesIndians skipper Terry Francona spent a big chunk of the 2013 season on the mound.

Running through my ballot from bottom to top, I ended up voting for Maddon over Farrell because of what he had to deal with -- multiple injuries in the Rays’ rotation (with David Price, Matt Moore and Alex Cobb all missing time). That was on top of Price’s Saberhagen-ish even-odd year drop-off from his 2012 Cy Young season, not to mention an outright bad year from Jeremy Hellickson. The lineup had its share of disappointments, as well.

Despite all that, Maddon still helped get the Rays into the postseason. I don’t believe that, having won the award twice already, Maddon has already gotten his due and we should just change flavors for novelty’s sake. Maddon was faced with big challenges, and he helped provide winning solutions with his usual hyperactive tactical activity.

I tabbed Melvin second because he demonstrated that his positive impact on the Athletics in 2012 was no transient phenomenon. The A’s weren’t expected to beat the Rangers in the AL West a first time, let alone a second. However, Melvin’s effective use of floating playing-time platoons in the outfield, at second base and catcher and through the DH slot helped compensate for cycling through multiple backstops while weathering several injuries and off years (particularly Josh Reddick). The A’s also stayed on top while getting excellent results from a young and unheralded rotation. Melvin deserves credit for delivering a 96-win season that was perhaps even more impressive than the 94-win surprise division winner that earned him manager of the year honors the previous season.

But, although I thought long and hard about putting Melvin atop my ballot, in the end I went with Francona. Like Melvin, Francona made a difference on offense, not with in-game tactics but with his lineup cards, compensating for an offense short of star power by exploiting platoon advantages as often as possible. Francona secured the platoon advantage a remarkable 75 percent of the time, second only to Melvin’s MLB-leading 77 percent. In this, Francona leaned heavily on position-switching regulars such as Nick Swisher and Carlos Santana and plugged in position-flexible journeymen such as Mike Aviles and Ryan Raburn.

That wasn’t Francona’s biggest area of impact, though. Other managers had to deal with injuries within good rotations or breaking in young talent there while contending with it, but Tito had to deal with both challenges. Francona delivered a wild-card team despite getting just 73 quality starts from his rotation (“good” for 13th in the AL). In part, that was because Francona didn’t ask too much of Danny Salazar, Zach McAllister or Corey Kluber, but the frenetic use of his bullpen -- with an MLB-leading 540 relievers used -- compensated for a rotation that pitched only 5.7 innings per start (12th in the AL). If the bullpen is where a manager makes the biggest in-game impact these days, I chose to recognize that a deep Indians bullpen -- and Francona’s cultivation and employment of it -- was critical to their winning one of the AL wild cards despite a rotation that couldn’t contribute as much. Francona got great work from guys such as Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw to paper over the midgame innings gap that could have quickly killed off talk of Cleveland’s contending. So, Francona was my choice for 2013 AL Manager of the Year.
[+] EnlargeJohn Farrell
AP Photo/Paul SancyaIt was tough to exclude John Farrell of the Red Sox from this year's ballot.

So, what about Farrell, you ask? With the Red Sox always commanding outsized attention, win or lose, Farrell’s worst-to-first pitch for top skipper was easy to latch onto after the Sox clambered back from their disastrous 93-loss season in 2012. You might think Farrell’s case sort of resembles those of Bobby Cox and Tom Kelly in 1991, when those two men won manager of the year awards in their respective leagues while skippering the Braves and Twins to the all-time awesomeness of the 1991 World Series.

Not so much, though. Those two teams were genuine surprises. In contrast, with the Red Sox committing a franchise-record $175 million or so to payroll, they were supposed to win, and they did. With most of their success falling within the realm of the expected in terms of player performances, the midseason injury to Clay Buchholz was about the only thing that represented a significant setback, which they amply compensated for by acquiring Jake Peavy.

Does that mean Farrell doesn't deserve a ton of credit for a job well done, in delivering on that huge financial investment? Of course not. He did a great job helping sort and re-sort his bullpen in a fluid situation that forced him to switch closers repeatedly; he also got to pick between three save generators making more than $4 million per annum apiece. I would have loved to have voted for Farrell, but I could not, not within this year’s field of excellent alternatives.

Finally, Girardi did a tremendous job managing a Yankees team stuck spending oodles of cash on players who couldn’t or didn’t contribute, especially early in the season. I think it was his most impressive year in the dugout since his award-winning 78-win rookie season with the Marlins in 2006. But the funny thing was, the stronger the Yankees’ roster got down the stretch -- with Alex Rodriguez, Ivan Nova and Curtis Granderson back, and with Alfonso Soriano added to the mix -- the worse they did overall, putting up a .500 record after the All-Star break. Like Farrell, it would have been easy to vote for Girardi in many years, but that sort of reverse relationship between available assets and team performance put him behind a strong field on my ballot.

It was a tough year to choose because my top three and Farrell didn’t make it easy to pick from among them. Here’s hoping at least one Red Sox fan will do me the favor of letting me know if the Red Sox Nation posse is coming for me. And friends and family in New York might do likewise if they’re joined by a bunch of angry Yankees fans. I’ll take solace in knowing that I brought y’all together as you head west.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

Chess match: Rays versus Red Sox

October, 4, 2013
Continuing our look at the strategies the managers employ, we move on to the American League.

Boston Red Sox versus Tampa Bay Rays

What John Farrell likes to do: Maybe it's the ex-pitcher in him, and maybe it's just having Jacoby Ellsbury and Shane Victorino around, but Farrell likes to push his baserunners. The Sox led the majors in successful double steals (a perfect eight-for-eight), and stole third more than any team in the postseason (successful 17 out of 19 times). All while swiping bases at an MLB-best 87 percent clip, ranking fourth in the majors in steals. The downside of that aggressiveness is reflected in their making the most outs at home plate in the league (25).

What Farrell doesn't do is order intentional walks, because the 10 he had his pitchers hand out was easily the lowest tally in baseball. Or pull his starting pitchers -- only Jim Leyland and Robin Ventura had fewer quick hooks in the AL than Farrell's total of 28. That works well in the regular seasons, especially when you have a solid and deep rotation like Boston had, but managing in the postseason is often about knowing exactly when to go to the bullpen. Farrell also avoided using relievers on consecutive days, doing that just 71 times -- only John Gibbons did so less often in the majors. We'll see if that ends up having an impact on his decision-making in Games 2 or 4 of the LDS.

On offense, Farrell will platoon Jonny Gomes and Daniel Nava in left, so expect to see a lot of Gomes in this series with Matt Moore and David Price lined up to start three of the five games if necessary. Some fans will call for rookie Xander Bogaerts and his right-handed bat to get some time at shortstop, but Stephen Drew will likely be in there every day. But Bogaerts and Mike Carp do provide good pinch-hitting options off the bench if Farrell needs a better matchup against a Tampa Bay reliever.

What Joe Maddon likes to do: Just about everything. If you're keeping score in a Maddon game, use a pencil, not a pen. He shifts his fielders aggressively, but he also uses more defensive replacements (56) and pinch-hitters (193) than any other manager in the AL. He platoons across multiple positions (especially with infield-outfield dual-purpose assets like Ben Zobrist, Kelly Johnson and Sean Rodriguez). Beyond a general commitment to bat Evan Longoria third or fourth and his catchers eighth, he designs every lineup card with an eye to that day's specific matchup, leading to the highest tally of unique lineup cards this year (147 in 162 games). In short, John McNamara he ain't.

With his pitching staff, using Baseball Info Solutions' Quick Hook metric, Maddon is the quickest hook in the league -- if a starter struggles early, he'll reach for his pen and sort out his subsequent needs tomorrow while there's a game to win today. Of course, he rode Price all the way in the tiebreaker game and stuck with Alex Cobb for 107 pitches in the wild-card game, so he may have a little more faith right now in his starters. He's asked more relievers to work on consecutive days than any other AL postseason manager, something you usually can't avoid having to do in the postseason.

Substantively, he doesn't avoid the intentional walk -- with 38 he had the second-highest tally in the AL behind Eric Wedge. But even there, he had his reasons, usually resorting to them with bullpen lefties to avoid a bad matchup (instead of pulling his pitcher), or with starter Roberto Hernandez against a tough lefty bat.

Minus B.J. Upton, this Rays team doesn't run as often as previous versions, with just 73 steals. And as you might expect from a sabermetrically inclined manager like Maddon, the Rays don't bunt much, with just 24 sacrifice bunts (the Red Sox also had just 24).

Advantage: It's an interesting matchup between two very different types of managers. Farrell doesn't make mistakes, while Maddon tries everything because he has to. I'm leaning Farrell if only because I expect his way wins out in this series.

Well, you can't say this American League wild-card race is lacking in drama. Hey, the eventual payoff is small -- one game to keep your season going! -- but it sure is giving us a fun September.

A crazy Wednesday was followed by a crazy Thursday as AL East teams battled each other. Some thoughts on another night of playoff-like baseball.
  • It's been an awful stretch of baseball for the Tampa Bay Rays. Go back two-plus weeks, to Aug. 24, after they had just defeated the New York Yankees for the second game in a row. They were 74-53, tied for first place with the Boston Red Sox and humming along as The Little Engine That Could and looking like a playoff lock, either as division champion or a wild card.

    Things can turn quickly in baseball, however. The Rays lost to the Yankees in 11 innings on Aug. 25. Jeremy Hellickson got pounded in a makeup game in Kansas City. Evan Longoria stopped hitting. They went 3-7 on a 10-game road trip -- the offense dying -- and went home and got shut out on Tuesday and lost on a grand slam in extra innings on Wednesday.

    So when they jumped out to a 3-1 lead over Jake Peavy in the series finale against Boston only to see the Red Sox rally to tie it, the sense of dread had to be sweating out of the pores of Rays fans, maybe even manager Joe Maddon. But Red Sox manager John Farrell gave him a little lifeline in the eighth inning. After taxing his bullpen in recent days, Farrell brought in little-used rookies Drake Britton and Rubby De La Rosa. Britton got the first out, but then Longoria hit a ground rule double to left center off De La Rosa. Longoria had swung through an 0-1 slider, and De La Rosa came back with the same pitch, but left it over the plate. After Matt Joyce popped out, Wil Myers doubled to right off an 0-1 fastball.

    The Red Sox got an infield single and walk off Fernando Rodney in the ninth, but Will Middlebrooks' screaming liner went right to Longoria and Dustin Pedroia popped out. The Rays kept their one-game margin over the Yankees for at least one more day.
  • Longoria had been hitting .190 with just three extra-base hits in his past 16 games, but two of those were doubles on Wednesday. He also tripled on Thursday, so maybe he's getting back on track. Myers, meanwhile, had two homers and three RBIs against the Los Angeles Angels on Sept. 4, but that had been the only game in which he'd driven in a run in his past 18, so his RBI double was a much-needed lift.
  • I thought Maddon tried to go one inning too far with Hellickson, who had scuffled through the first five innings but allowed just one run. Other than his previous start, when he tossed 5⅓ scoreless innings, Hellickson has been awful since late July. David Ortiz homered off him leading off the sixth and he walked Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who later scored when Stephen Drew doubled off Jamey Wright.
  • The Yankees-Orioles game had an even more dramatic eighth and ninth inning. The Yankees led 5-2 in the bottom of the eighth. Alfonso Soriano made a leaping grab in left to rob Manny Machado of a home run and David Robertson fanned Chris Davis, but Adam Jones singled, Nick Markakis singled and Danny Valencia crushed a first-pitch cut fastball over the fence in left center to tie it up. After J.J. Hardy doubled, Robertson finally struck out Matt Wieters for the final out of the inning. For Robertson, it was his first back-to-back appearances since missing several days with shoulder tendinitis, and he didn't face too many batters on this night.

    The Yankees then rallied off Orioles closer Jim Johnson with help from one of baseball's worst sins: not taking an out when the other team gives it you. Brendan Ryan led off the ninth inning by lining a single to right, and Chris Stewart sacrificed, but Johnson fielded the bunt and shot-putted the ball into center with a ghastly throw. The winning run eventually scored on a wild pitch and then Mariano Rivera got the save, and the Yankees remained a game behind the Rays while the Orioles fell 2½ back (tied with the Royals).
  • As for Johnson, I called him baseball's least valuable player this season on Twitter. The Orioles have blown nine games they led heading into the ninth inning this season, compared to the MLB average of three. This was a tie game entering the ninth, but Johnson is now 3-8. When your closer has eight losses, bad things have happened, and Buck Showalter's decision to stick with Johnson all season has proved costly.
  • Last season, the Orioles set the major league record with a 29-9 record in one-run games. Were they good, or was there a degree of luck involved? As Joe Posnanski pointed out today: The Orioles are now 16-27 in one-run games in 2013, the worst record in the majors -- worse than the Astros or Marlins or anybody else. So they've gone from being THE BEST TEAM EVER in one-run games to the worst in the majors in one season. And you wonder why the Orioles are miserable right now.
  • The Orioles gave Rivera a bronzed broken bat. Isn't all this Rivera love getting to be a bit much? I mean, it's kind of like, "Hey, Mariano, thanks for beating the crap out of us all these years!"
  • I liked the way Joe Girardi managed his pitchers. He started the awful-of-late Phil Hughes but took him out after three innings and went to lefty David Huff. Of course, that decision looked good only because Hughes and Huff combined to allow only two runs in six innings.
  • You do wonder, however, if the Yankees bullpen -- so good most of the season -- can hold on down the stretch. Robertson looked awful in the eighth and Rivera has been used heavily down the stretch and has five blown saves in his past 16 appearances.

Here are some of the position players to suit up for the Yankees in 2013: Vernon Wells, Chris Stewart, Jayson Nix, Eduardo Nunez, Austin Romine, David Adams, Zoilo Almonte, Luis Cruz, Ben Francisco, Reid Brignac, Chris Nelson, Brent Lillibridge, Alberto Gonzalez, Thomas Neal, Corban Joseph and Travis Ishikawa. (What you don't remember the two at-bats -- both strikeouts -- Ishikawa received?)

Those 16 players had combined for 1,988 plate appearances entering Wednesday's game in Baltimore, about the playing time of three full-time players. None have provided a positive offensive contribution, Nunez being the best, and he's hittng .257 with one home run. This group had combined to hit .223 with 24 home runs and 162 RBIs and on-base percentage well south of .300.

Those totals don't even include the 73 awful plate appearances Derek Jeter made or the 63 bad ones from Mark Teixeira or the 118 from Kevin Youkilis. You get the idea. This is a Yankees team that the rest of the American League should have kicked to the curb, elbowed in the stomach and then thrown into the gutter alongside the Astros and Mariners.

For much of the season, it's been a team with a $228 million payroll fielding a replacement-level lineup. Well ... replacement level plus Robinson Cano.

It's the ninth inning on Wednesday night. The Yankees had trailed 3-1 before Curtis Granderson and Alex Rodriguez tied the game with home runs in the fifth and sixth. You can guess which guy received a loud chorus of boos as he rounded the bases.

[+] EnlargeTommy Hunter
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyTommy Hunter wasn't the only one who averted his eyes after what was done to him.
Cano is leading off the inning. Tommy Hunter, who got the final out in the eighth, is pitching for Baltimore, the only reliever Buck Showalter has used all night. Cano eats up right-handers like Adam Richman facing a plate of pancakes. He has the sixth-best OPS against right-handers in the majors, nearly 200 points better than his mark against lefties. The game before Showalter had let Cano face righty Kevin Gausman in the eighth and Cano singled to tie a game the Yankees went on to win. Surely he wouldn't let Cano face a righty again in a key situation?

Left-handers were hitting .175 off Brian Matusz. Showalter didn't bring him -- and, no, it doesn't look like rest was an issue. Matusz had thrown 14 pitches on Tuesday, his first appearance in eight days. Troy Patton is another lefty in the pen although he hasn't been all that great against lefties this year, .275 with five home runs allowed. Still ... Tommy Hunter. Left-handed batters were slugging .527 off him before this night; he'd allowed nine home runs on the season, all to lefties. He crushes righties; he's not good versus lefties. Clear?

Cano saw two pitches. He fouled off a 95-mph fastball. Then he swatted an 88 mph changeup to center field. The Yankees would add another run when Adam Jones misplayed a catchable deep fly ball into a Granderson triple, a key run as it turned out when the Orioles scored once off Mariano Rivera in the ninth. Yankees 5, Orioles 4.

Orioles fans forced live through another ninth-inning meltdown. Yankees fans, somehow seeing their underdog team getting a game closer to the playoffs. Tommy Hunter versus Robinson Cano, a matchup that never should have happened.

* * * *

We're in the top of the 10th inning in St. Petersburg. Rays manager Joe Maddon had already run through five relievers, including closer Fernando Rodney, who had thrown 15 pitches in the ninth. Closers don't pitch two innings these days -- even Maddon, the guy all the smart kids love, doesn't buck that trend -- so Joel Peralta started the 10th. Dustin Pedroia walked. Shane Victorino sacrificed him to second, bringing up David Ortiz. You can actually argue that John Farrell should have let Victorino hit away considering (A) Victorino has been hot; and (B) Maddon would likely intentionally walk Ortiz.

Which is what he did, a predictable move since he'd already used his two best lefties in the pen, Jake McGee and Alex Torres.

Like he did in the third inning, when he walked Ortiz to load the bases to face Mike Napoli (who singled in two runs), Maddon again elected to face Napoli. He replaced the fly-balling Peralta with the ground-balling Roberto Hernandez. The right move? Overthinking it? Hernandez versus righties: .254/.281/.377; Peralta versus righties: .206/.287/.299.

Napoli walked on four pitches. Oops.

What was the biggest mistake of the night


Discuss (Total votes: 3,094)

Farrell sent southpaw-swinging Mike Carp up to hit for Jonny Gomes. Hernandez has a huge platoon split -- lefties were hitting .303 and slugging .529 off him. Maddon did have one left-hander left in the pen in Cesar Ramos but he was starting to run out of relievers by now, so he stuck with Hernandez, still hoping for a double play.

Rays pitching coach Kevin Hickey visited the mound. We can assume his advice was not "Throw a first-pitch hanging slider."

Carp crushed it to dead center for a grand slam. With expanded rosters and with the depth the Red Sox have coming off their bench, it's hard to win a matchup game with them right now. Maddon tried and got burned.

* * * *

Did Showalter and Maddon make mistakes? Hey, we all second-guess when the moves don't work. The key is to second-guess before it happens. I was definitely surprised Showalter didn't bring in Matusz to face Cano; it's just not a good matchup for Hunter. Maddon had started his matchup game back in the sixth inning -- he used Wesley Wright to get Jackie Bradley Jr. to get out of a jam and then McGee got Ortiz to ground into a double play in the seventh. That kept the game close, which the Rays eventually tied in the eighth, but limited Maddon's options later in the game. I think he got a little too cute there in the 10th. He probably should have just let Peralta pitch to Ortiz. Any intentional walk helps increase the chances of a big inning. That's what happened.

This is what makes September baseball so much fun. Every move gets scrutinized. Every bad pitch that turns into a bad result gets amplified. We debate, discuss, watch the out-of-town scoreboard with intense scrutiny and suffer through the pain or revel in the joy when Robinson Cano and Mike Carp turn into heroes.

AL Wild-Card Standings

Texas 81 64 --
Tampa Bay 78 66 --
New York 78 68 1
Cleveland 77 68 1.5
Baltimore 77 68 1.5
Kansas City 77 69 2

Thursday night: Yankees at Orioles, Red Sox at Rays. Let's do it again. The five-way tie is still very much in play!
Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon is known for his unconventional approach to managing. Before embarking on the team's current 10-game West Coast road trip, for example, he had his players don the jerseys of their favorite college football team. In August, he had a 20-foot python brought into the clubhouse because the team needed "a little motivation." He's had a magician, a merengue band and a DJ perform in the clubhouse as well.

Those are all methods to loosen up the atmosphere a bit, a reminder that too much baseball can, well, be too much baseball.

It's more difficult to be unconventional in on-the-field strategies these days, but even there Maddon has found ways to question the norm. The Rays were one of the early proponents of using more defensive shifts, a trend that has spread across the majors. Baseball Info Solutions reports teams will end up shifting about three times as often as they did in 2011. You can thank the Rays' defensive success for pushing that trend.

Maddon used another unique trick in Sunday's game against the A's, utilizing an old strategy that most managers wouldn't have the guts to use in 2013.

Roberto Hernandez would have started for Tampa Bay, but Maddon didn't want to start him for two reasons: (1) Hernandez has a large platoon split, allowing .903 OPS against left-handed batters and .681 against right-handers; (2) With all their platoons, the A's can run out a lot of left-handed bats (the A's are tied with the Indians by having the platoon advantage 70 percent of the time, compared to the league average of 59 percent).

The Rays had already lost the first two games of the series, the offense has been slumping, and the Red Sox were pulling away in the AL East. So rather than throw Hernandez and create a bad matchup on paper, Maddon started right-handed reliever Jamey Wright, who would be making his first start since 2007. Maddon would then shift to lefty reliever Alex Torres, forcing Bob Melvin to either leave in his left-handed batters or pinch-hit early in the game.

It's an old Strat-o-Matic strategy, although Jim Leyland and Dick Howser famously applied it in playoff games. Managing the Pirates against the Reds in the 1990 National League Championship Series, in Game 6 Leyland started reliever Ted Power -- he hadn't started all season -- and then brought in lefty starter Zane Smith, mainly to try to gain the platoon edge against Paul O'Neill, who had been killing the Pirates. The strategy essentially worked, though the Reds won 2-1.

Howser had done something similar in Game 7 of the 1985 American League Championship Series. Al Oliver, a left-handed batter, had been killing Royals relief ace Dan Quisenberry with big hits all series for the Blue Jays. Bret Saberhagen started for the Royals, putting Oliver (and other Toronto platoon players) in the starting lineup. After three innings, Howser switched to left-hander Charlie Leibrandt. When Oliver’s turn came around in the fifth, Toronto manager Bobby Cox pinch-hit for him. Howser didn't have to worry about an Oliver-Quisenberry showdown and the Royals would win 6-2.

[+] EnlargeCrisp
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesCoco Crisp has provided a lot of muscle for the A's offense lately.
It's a strategy that isn't really necessary or usable in the regular season for a few reasons, including:

1. Most teams don't platoon as much as the A’s.
2. Most teams don't carry a long reliever, or at least one that managers want to use for more than two innings at a time. But Torres started in the minors earlier in the season, so Maddon was comfortable letting him go three-plus innings.
3. Most managers would be afraid of burning out their bullpen.

It would have been interesting to see if Maddon would have used this strategy on Saturday -- the day before rosters expanded. Knowing he had a couple extra relievers in the bullpen with the expanded rosters undoubtedly made the decision a little easier.

So it was a creative approach, but in the end the Rays still lost 5-1, their seventh loss in eight games, although Maddon’s strategy wasn’t to blame. Coco Crisp did lead off the bottom of the first with a home run off Wright, who lasted 1 2/3 innings. Torres pitched 3 1/3 innings, allowing an unearned run as Evan Longoria threw away a Jed Lowrie bunt in the third, allowing Lowrie to reach third and eventually score. The A’s added two more runs in the eighth off the back of the Tampa pen.

The biggest problem for the Rays right now is the offense has hit .217 with just two home runs over this eight-game stretch, which dropped the Rays from a first-place tie in the AL East to 5.5 games behind the Red Sox. While we can't ignore what happened two years ago, when the Rays miraculously caught the Red Sox, in just more than a week the Rays went from being part of the best-team-in-baseball discussion to suddenly trying to fight off the Orioles, Yankees and Indians for the second wild card.

Rookie Wil Myers is in a 2-for-27 slump. Evan Longoria is 2-for-26. Desmond Jennings has one RBI his past 22 games. The Rays are 31-35 on the road and have four games against the Angels and three against the Mariners on this trip. After that, four of their final six series against the Red Sox, Rangers, Orioles and Yankees.

Pythons and magicians aren't the answer right now. It's up to the bats to start delivering the magic, or the Rays might find themselves sitting at home in October.

1. OK, the call was wrong. Daniel Nava was safe, sliding under Jose Molina's tag. Jerry Meals missed the call. Rays 2, Red Sox 1.

2. It probably wasn't one of the 100 worst calls of the season -- certainly not in the league of Angel Hernandez not overturning the blown home run call in the A's-Indians game back in May.

3. Or a dozen other Angel Hernandez calls.

4. How did Nava not score from second base on Stephen Drew's double to right on the play before Monday night’s Fenway edition of "The Play"? The Red Sox can blame Meals, but there's blame to go around here, even if Nava thought the ball was going to be caught.
[+] EnlargeJerry Meals
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesAt first Jerry Meals didn't like hearing about the call, tossing John Farrell.

5. I suspect since this happened to the Red Sox -- as opposed to, say, the A's -- the uproar will be a thousand times louder. So at least we'll be that much closer to instant replay, at least on plays at home plate.

6. It's sort of like the infamous "Snowplow Game" in the NFL, when the Patriots beat the Dolphins 3-0 in 1982. You don't mess with Don Shula. After that game, the NFL outlawed the use of snowplows during games. You don't mess with the Red Sox or Yankees, either.

7. Did Joe Maddon actually intentionally walk the potential winning run in the bottom of the ninth when he had Fernando Rodney give a free pass to David Ortiz?

8. Yes, he did.

9. If Dusty Baker did that, he'd be called many awful names. When Maddon does it, he's a genius.

10. By the way, remember when Rodney was really bad, blowing five saves through May 25? He's 2-0 and 16-for-16 in saves since then, with a 2.31 ERA and 32/9 strikeout/walk ratio.

11. The real hero of the game, of course, was David Price, brilliant once again, allowing two hits and one run in 7 1/3 innings.

12. If not for a 39-minute rain delay, Price may have tossed his fourth complete game in five starts (in the three he did throw, he was under 100 pitches each game). He did come back after the delay to face one batter before leaving after 90 pitches.

13. Price didn't walk a batter, either. Since returning from the DL on July 2, he has 35 strikeouts and just one walk. I'd feel pretty good about Price starting Game 1 of a playoff series right now.

14. Tampa Bay is 20-4 in July. A patented Tampa Bay run.

15. The Rays and Red Sox have just three games left against each other -- Sept. 10-12 in St. Petersburg.

16. Evan Longoria is batting second. Rookie Wil Myers is batting cleanup. Maddon is a genius.

17. Jerry Meals ... that's right, he's the ump who blew the call at home plate in that 19-inning Pirates-Braves game in 2011. The Pirates lost and a huge collapse followed.

18. Jerry Meals ... that's right, he's also the guy who called Mark Teixeira out at first base on a game-ending double play last September, giving the win to the Orioles.

19. Can we get more instant replay before the playoffs begin? Especially if the Red Sox make it.

20. This is going be a very fun race.

I know, I know: You're tired of stat nerds professing their love for the Tampa Bay Rays, a franchise that hasn't even reached the World Series since 2008, let alone ever won one.

Why do we love the Rays? They compete despite usually ranking near the bottom in payroll. Why write about them on a night they lost 10-8 to the Boston Red Sox in 14 innings? They always find a way to compete, a credit to the front office's ability to build depth; a credit to the managerial genius of Joe Maddon and his coaching staff; a credit to the players, for their ability to adapt to situations that Maddon creates for them.

This year, the Rays are winning in a new way: They score runs. Cy Young winner David Price won just once in nine starts before landing on the disabled list; like Price, starters Jeremy Hellickson and Roberto Hernandez have ERAs of more than 5.00. In fact, of the 73 American League pitchers who have thrown at least 40 innings, those three rank Nos. 54, 59 and 63 in ERA; that is decidedly un-Tampa like.

Instead, the Rays are averaging 4.97 runs per game, a sizable increase from last year's 4.30 per game. If they keep up that pace, that's a 107-run jump from 2012. After a 4-9 start in which the offense hit just .204 and averaged 3.0 runs per game, the Rays are 30-20 and have scored the most runs per game in the majors.

Yes, there's Evan Longoria, and he's hitting well, but one man does not make an offense. What Maddon and general manager Andrew Friedman have done is construct a team of multi-position platoons. The Rays really have only four regulars: third baseman Longoria, shortstop Yunel Escobar, center fielder Desmond Jennings and first baseman James Loney, although even Loney sits against some left-handers.

Beyond that it's a bunch of interlocking parts that exploit the positional flexibility of the roster. Second baseman/right fielder Ben Zobrist has started 33 games at second and 21 in right (plus four at shortstop) and often changes positions within a game. How rare is his ability to do this? Well, he's the only player in more than 100 years to play at least 50 games at second and 50 games in right field in the same season, and he has done it three times. The only other player to do it was Danny Murphy, back in 1908.

It's so rare that even if you cut the games played down to 35 at each position, you find only four players since World War II to do it: Mark DeRosa in 2008, Tony Phillips in 1992, Bill Russell in 1971 and Billy Goodman in 1951. Basically, Zobrist is a freak, especially since he plays both positions well. But it also takes a manager to think outside the box, and it's easy to forget that Maddon basically created a new position for Zobrist, the hybrid right fielder/second baseman. Longoria is the most valuable player on the roster, but Zobrist is the fulcrum around which the roster operates. Matt Joyce plays right field and left field; Kelly Johnson has played left and second base; Sean Rodriguez has started at four different positions.

Aside from the versatility in the field, it's not an accident the Rays have found success at the plate. Loney was a disappointment with the Dodgers, a first baseman who never hit with the power he flashed early in his career. The Rays didn't see a disappointment, but a guy who could hit right-handers and carry a good glove. With a .327/.387/.519 line, Loney is certainly exceeding expectations, but he did hit a respectable .293/.358/.424 against right-handers from 2009 to 2011 before struggling in 2012. Kelly Johnson had 20-homer seasons in 2010 and 2011; the Rays saw those numbers instead of the guy who struggled in 2012.

There's also room for the offense to improve: Top prospect Wil Myers is heating up in Triple-A, hitting .380 with eight home runs and 27 RBIs over his past 16 games heading into Monday night. The headline on a Tampa Bay Times story on Monday read "Myers looks ready but has nowhere to play," which I don't quite agree with. Designated hitter Luke Scott is hitting .215/.320/.336 -- after not hitting last year -- so it may be time to give up on him. Maddon has somehow found 97 plate appearances for Sam Fuld and his .190 average. So there's pretty clearly room for Myers. Sure, it may mean making Zobrist a -- gasp! -- permanent second baseman, with Ryan Roberts not really contributing, and pushing Joyce or Johnson to the DH slot. Or maybe Zobrist plays more shortstop, like he did at the end of last season.

Either way, Myers should be up soon. I'm pretty sure Maddon can figure out a way to use everybody.

Now, about that pitching staff. ...

Joe Maddon, once again trying to be the smartest kid on the block, with your fancy glasses and wacky pregame guests and funny haircuts.

How dare you bring your closer in during the eighth inning. With runners on base, no less! Who do you think you are to manage outside the box and pretend it's still 1985 or something? Push your buttons! That's how you manage in this day and age. Your setup guy pitches the eighth. Your closer pitches the ninth. Don't try to think out there; it'll only get you in trouble.

Like it did on Monday night. You were doing fine. Your Tampa Bay Rays led the struggling Toronto Blue Jays 7-5 entering the top of the eighth and Joel Peralta was on the mound. That may have been your first problem: You had actually used Peralta to get out of a jam in the seventh. So when J.P. Arencibia singled and then Peralta walked Brett Lawrie with one out, you faced a dilemma: Keep in Peralta, who had thrown 22 pitches, or bring in Fernando Rodney?

I know you trust Rodney. He was so, so good a year ago; dude allowed only five earned runs all season. It was an Eckersley-like season in its efficiency and dominance. He'd been a little shaky so far in 2013 -- nine hits and seven walks and four earned runs in just 9.1 innings -- but he'd blown only that one save back in the second game of the year, when he may have still been a little fatigued from the World Baseball Classic, and the Rays won anyway. I mean, sure, it's Fernando Rodney, career journeyman with one miracle season under his belt, but he's your closer. He's your ninth-inning guy.

And that's my point. He's the ninth-inning guy. You know how many times he'd entered a game before the ninth this year? Zero. You know how many of his 48 saves last year saw him entering in the eighth inning? Just two, and both of those were in September, during a desperate drive for the postseason.

But you brought him in, hoping he could get five outs. By the way, entering Monday night there had been 237 saves in the majors this season. Not including these ridiculous three-inning saves in blowouts, you know how many of those 237 saves were more than three outs? Seven. And only three of those were more than four outs and those probably happened because the manager fell asleep.

I mean, did you really want to answer to the media if Rodney blew this one? Your thesaurus doesn't do much good when trying to explain losing a game because you brought your closer in too soon.

So Rodney got out of the eighth, although he did give up a sacrifice fly to cut the lead to 7-6. In the ninth, Adam Lind walked on a 3-2 changeup. That was Rodney's wipeout pitch in 2012; in 120 plate appearances ending with a changeup, he recorded 55 strikeouts and just five walks and batters hit .071. It was nearly untouchable. But that was already the fifth walk he'd allowed off the changeup in 2013.

Pinch-runner Emilio Bonifacio then stole second and reached when Jose Molina threw wildly. But then Colby Rasmus struck out -- on a 3-2 changeup -- and Maicer Izturis grounded out to first baseman James Loney, leaving Bonifacio still at third with two outs. That brought up power-hitting catcher J.P. Arencibia, who had hit eight home runs but had season totals of 42 strikeouts and two walks. I'm not making that up. He pretty much will swing at anything between the two dugouts.

Here's what happened:

Rodney vs ArencibiaESPN Stats & Information The locations of Rodney's five pitches to Arencibia (pitch No. 3 is hidden behind pitch No. 4).

Rodney threw four straight 97-mph fastballs to get the count to 2-2. Arencibia can still be dangerous with two strikes -- six of his eight home runs had come with two strikes -- but considering his free-swinging ways, a changeup somewhere off the plate may have been a good idea. That No. 5 circle was another 97-mph fastball and Arencibia made the home crowd very sad with a two-run homer to left field.

A crushing 8-7 defeat for the Rays. A great win for the Blue Jays, who survived another bad Mark Buehrle start (Tampa Bay scored all seven of its runs in the third inning, including an Evan Longoria grand slam).

Look, we could make a point that bullpens are volatile, and that maybe we shouldn't have expected the Tampa Bay's pen to be as good as it was last year when the Rays led the majors with a 3.19 bullpen ERA. The Rays now have a 4.80 bullpen ERA, 28th in the majors. We could point out that Rodney wasn't going to be as good as last season even if he was good again. I think the point from this game is clear, however: Joe Maddon outsmarted himself. Push the buttons next time, Joe, push the buttons.

Don't dare to make the unconventional move. Even if it was the right one to make.
From Roger Mooney in the Tampa Tribune:

All manager Joe Maddon would say about this afternoon’s pregame guest is that it will be another member of the animal kingdom.

Maddon, who brought in a DJ on Saturday and a magician Sunday, walked around the clubhouse Tuesday afternoon and conducted his pregame media session with Mindy, a 22-year-old Umbrella Cockatoo, perched on his arm and left shoulder.

“Just another little diversion,” Maddon said. “I’ve always loved birds. I’ve always wanted one of these.”

Mindy has been living in Sunken Gardens for the past five years. She has a life expectancy of 80 to 90 years, according to her owner, P.J. Murray of Tierra Verde.

The acts and animals are all part of Maddon’s way to take some of the pressure off as players tried to rebound from a 2-7 road trip.

“Let’s take the other road less traveled by which would be the one with birds in your clubhouse,” Maddon said.

Stay tuned. Let's just hope it's not one of these giant snails. Unless it can hit.

Fernando Rodney is awesome

September, 28, 2012
Adam Dunn is at the plate, looking relaxed, just another of his more than 7,000 career plate appearances in the major leagues.

Dunn may appear relaxed, but Chicago White Sox fans certainly aren't, as they stand in unison, knowing the season has come down to this: one pitch. The cameras pan to the White Sox dugout and bullpen and Dunn's teammates have that look of dead men walking -- the depressing look of a team falling apart at the wrong time of the year, not knowing or understanding how this happened.

The count is three balls, two strikes, Fernando Rodney on the mound for the Tampa Bay Rays, his hat askew and beard groomed in a long goatee hanging in a point off his chin. It seems more goofy than intimidating -- if that's what Rodney is going for -- but when you have an ERA of less than 1.00 and have allowed two earned runs since the All-Star break, nobody cares what you look like.

Dunn has one thing on his mind: home run. The Rays lead 3-2, there is a runner on base, the White Sox in danger of losing for the eighth time in nine games. On the previous pitch, Dunn somehow laid off a changeup that dipped just below the knees. The pitch before he was late on a 98-mph fastball.

Fastball or changeup?

Good luck.

Rodney throws the changeup, it drops at the last moment, and Dunn swings over the top of it, and the air is let out of 18,000-plus at The Cell. The White Sox, 3-2 losers, are now two games behind the Detroit Tigers in the American League Central and their season feels over. The Rays have now won eight in a row and are two games behind the Oakland A's in the wild-card race. They've done this miracle surge thing before.

* * * *

Evan Longoria belted the winning home run off Brett Myers in the ninth inning, a sloppy curveball that a player of Longoria's caliber doesn't miss. But let's write about Rodney, because of his superlative season and because we really haven't talked much about him this year.

There was a tweet I saw as Rodney came in to close it out, from a guy named Dave Hogg (@stareagle): "Guess what, Tigers fans? You are about to relive the past -- it's going to be Fernando Rodney closing out a huge game for Detroit."

That's kind of a joke. Rodney used to pitch for the Tigers but wasn't that great for them. He was the closer one year for them, saved 37 games, but with a 4.40 ERA. The Tigers let him walk and he signed with the Los Angeles Angels, where his ERA was 4.32 the past two seasons. He had more walks than strikeouts for them last season. Of course they let him walk. Why wouldn't they?

And now he's put together one of the great relief seasons in history. How do you explain this?

You can't. The Rays have said it's all about improved fastball command from previous years, helping set up that lethal changeup. It's not just the drop in the pitch, but the separation from his fastball; his heater averages 96.1 mph, his changeup 82.4 mph.

"I'm surprised, to tell you the truth, whenever anybody puts the bat on one of them," Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey told Marc Tompkin of the Tampa Bay Times back in July. "Because this is not just a changeup."

Here's one heat map example of his improved fastball command against left-handed batters, 2011 versus 2012:

Fernando RodneyESPN Stats & InformationRodney's fastball command has been much improved in 2012.

Before this season, Rodney had averaged 4.9 walks per nine innings in his career (and a staggering 7.9 with the Angels in 2011). In 2012, that number is less than 2 per nine.

That command sets up the change. In 64 plate appearances ending with a changeup, batters are hitting .102 against -- 6-for-59, one double, no home runs, 25 strikeouts. And because of that, Rodney's ERA is now 0.62. Talk about staggering. The lowest ever for a pitcher with at least 50 innings: Dennis Eckersely, 0.61 in 1990. With more scoreless inning, Rodney will match exactly Eck's totals: 73.1 innings, nine runs, five earned runs. (To be fair: Craig Kimbrel of the Braves has actually allowed fewer runs per nine innings this year.)

Not bad for a guy the Rays signed for $1.75 million and $2.5 team option (after the Angels had thrown away $11 million on him over two season). Rodney got a chance to close only when Kyle Farnsworth was injured in spring training.

"We thought he was ripe for a good year," Rays manager Joe Maddon had said back in July. "I think it's a combination of him feeling good about himself and liking it here, and maybe some nice physical and mental adjustments, and all of a sudden, you've got an All-Star."

Score one for the Rays. As our pal Jonah Keri said, in reference to Rodney's infamous post-save celebrations: He is an arrow-firing cyborg.

That cyborg is a reason the Rays are still alive. Very much alive.

Who should win the AL wild cards?

September, 27, 2012

I sent an email to my pal Jim Caple, asking: Would you rather see the A’s or Angels in the playoffs?

I could also ask: Would you rather see the Orioles or the Rays?

All four teams won on Wednesday, which means good news for the Orioles and A’s -- one game closer to the playoffs! -- and bad news for the Rays and Angels, who need to keep winning and get some help.

My thought on the A’s is I want them to make it because they’re the ultimate underdog, Cinderella, small-market franchise, and it’s good for baseball for a team like that to make it to show success doesn’t depend solely on a high payroll. But I’d also like to see Mike Trout and Albert Pujols in the postseason. And I’d like to see if the Orioles can keep their magical success in one-run games and extra-inning games going. And I’d like to see the Rays make it, because how can you not root for the Rays?

But only two of the four teams can win the wild cards (and we shouldn’t discount the Orioles’ chances of winning the American League East). Here’s the case for each on why we want them to make it.


Which of these teams do you most want to see in the playoffs?


Discuss (Total votes: 10,309)

Baltimore Orioles: Because there are Orioles fans now in high school who haven't seen their team post a winning record. … Because they were once baseball’s premier franchise from the late 1960s to the early '80s (18 consecutive winning seasons, including 13 with 90-plus wins) and Baltimore was once a great baseball town, finishing first or second in the American League in attendance every year from 1992 to 2000. … Because we need to see if Adam Jones can hit another home run in extra innings. … Because we have no idea who Buck Showalter would start in the wild-card game. … Because we may see Cal Ripken throw out a first pitch. … Because they wear orange jerseys. … Because nobody believed in them when they won five in a row in New York and Boston in May -- including The Chris Davis Game -- to improve to 19-9, or when they tossed back-to-back shutouts in Atlanta in June to go to 39-27, and certainly not when they lost 17 of their next 24. … Because they’ve won 16 extra-inning games in a row. … Because they’ve brought back the tri-colored '80s hats. … Because they had the guts to call up 20-year-old shortstop Manny Machado and make him their starting third baseman down the stretch. … Because an Orioles-Nationals World Series would be pretty cool. … Because it’s time to exorcise the demons of that brat in the Yankees cap.

Tampa Bay Rays: Because they keep doing this every season despite one of the lowest payrolls in baseball and it’s time to see them go all the way. … Because we could see a David Price vs. Justin Verlander showdown at some point. … Because Evan Longoria is a stud and deserves some time on the big stage and 11 Yankees make more money than he does. … Because we want to see if Matt Moore can replicate that “Welcome to the big leagues, kid!” performance from last October, when he blanked the Rangers for seven innings on two hits in Game 1 of the Division Series. … Because Fernando Rodney has had a season for the ages (45 saves, 0.63 ERA) and nobody has paid much attention to it. … Because Joe Maddon had the guts to move Ben Zobrist to shortstop in August and the Rays have gone 27-18 since. … Because they have a 2.48 ERA over their past 63 games and if pitching is what takes you all the way then this team can go all the way. … Because we could get Jose Molina facing brother Yadier in the World Series. … Because at least it won’t be 38 degrees inside Tropicana Field.

Oakland A's: Because they were ranked No. 29 in the first week of the ESPN.com Power Rankings, one slot below the Orioles (hey, at least we got the Astros right). … Because it was just announced that Travis Blackley is officially a rookie, meaning the A’s are currently going with an all-rookie rotation -- and that is just awesome. … Because they signed Yoenis Cespedes and nobody else did. … Because Jarrod Parker's changeup is so good it can be compared with Felix Hernandez's and not make anyone think you’re crazy saying that. … Because Chris Carter has more power in one arm than many big leaguers have in two. … Because maybe we’ll get a wild-card game against the Orioles featuring yellow jerseys versus orange jerseys and we can pretend it’s the '70s all over again. … Because they have the sixth-best record since 2000 and four of the other five teams won a World Series (Yankees, Cardinals, Red Sox, Angels; the Braves being the exception). … Because they’ve used 18 different rookies. … Because Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Pedro Feliciano make more money combined than the entire A’s roster. … Because they have 13 walk-off wins, most in the majors, and is there anything sweeter than a walk-off win in the postseason? … Because we could see an A’s-Giants Bay Area World Series. … Because with Blackley and Grant Balfour, a World Series with the A’s in it would be HUGE in Australia.

Los Angeles Angels: Because America wants to see Mike Trout in the postseason. … Because America needs to see Mike Trout in the postseason. … Because we could get Albert Pujols going back to St. Louis and we can all spend three days wondering if Cardinals fans will boo him or cheer him. … Because Jered Weaver throws high fastballs in the upper 80s and gets away with it. … Because when he’s on, few pitchers are as fun to watch as Zack Greinke. … Because a World Series featuring Trout and Bryce Harper would remind us of the 1951 World Series that also featured two rookie center fielders named Mays and Mantle. … Because Mark Trumbo may hit one 500 feet. … Because maybe we’ll see C.J. Wilson face off against Yu Darvish and his ex-Rangers teammates. … Because you know a World Series game in Anaheim means we won’t see players wearing earflap caps and drinking coffee in the dugout while wearing ski gloves.

As for my question to Jim, what was his response? "I want them both to make it!"

Thanks, Jim. Way to take a stand.

Yadier MolinaTroy Taormina/US PresswireYadier Molina shows why he's incomparable when it comes to the rough dance around home plate.

If you missed it the other day, check out Steve Wulf's excellent story on Nationals manager Davey Johnson. Is he the top manager of 2012? Eric Karabell and myself each rank our top five managers ... and discuss the worst.

The best time of the season is here

September, 14, 2012

As the Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles played on in the late-afternoon shadows, the managers turned to Chris Archer and Tommy Hunter, a rookie with just 18 innings of big league experience making his first relief appearance of the season and a veteran starter banished to the bullpen, respectively.

This is pennant-race baseball.

In Anaheim, Angels ace Jered Weaver took the mound, making his first start in 11 days because of biceps tendinitis, and all he had to do was prevent the A's from completing a four-game sweep and keep the Angels within shouting distance of the playoffs.

This is playoff-race baseball.

In Houston, the Phillies -- who punted back in July when they traded two-thirds of their starting outfield -- had suddenly found themselves smelling the sweat of the Cardinals, Dodgers and Pirates. They started a rookie named Tyler Cloyd, making his fourth major league start. Not only that, he was starting on three days' rest. I knew nothing about him, so I looked up a few facts. He was the International League pitcher of the year, but he's a finesse right-hander who rarely reaches 90 mph. He was an 18th-round draft pick in 2008 out of Nebraska-Omaha, but his lack of velocity meant he wasn't one of Baseball America's top 30 Phillies prospects entering the season despite good minor league numbers in 2011.

This is wild-card baseball.

I intended to watch the monumental Chris Sale-Justin Verlander showdown, two Cy Young contenders facing off in a crucial game in the American League Central, but that game was rained out, so I focused on the Yankees-Red Sox showdown at Fenway Park. Phil Hughes, a pitcher who had allowed the second-most home runs in the major leagues, was trying to pitch the Yankees back into a first-place tie with the Orioles. All he did was pitch one of the best games of his career, allowing no runs for just the second time this season.

This is baseball.

[+] EnlargeManny Machado
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyThe Orioles should be celebrating. They're in playoff contention after not having a winning record in 15 seasons.
I'm riveted to my television set, flipping channels, checking box scores, watching a second game on my laptop. It's the best time of the year, when nearly every game matters, when important outs in important games start taking on an October-like intensity. It's why we watch the first 140 games, to build up to these moments: Archer versus 20-year-old rookie Manny Machado with the game on the line.

Archer had used a little magic in the 13th inning, when he escaped a bases-loaded, no-outs jam to extend the game another inning. During that high-wire act, he fell behind Matt Wieters 3-0 but came back to strike him out on a 94 mph fastball, his seventh consecutive fastball of the at-bat. No tricks, just heat, and it worked. I tweeted something along the lines of: "If the Rays win this game and eventually make the playoffs, remember this inning."

But Buck Showalter has been around this game a few years. They say he's pretty wise. In the 14th inning, Archer got the first batters out, but Adam Jones fouled off a 3-2 slider and then drew ball four. Endy Chavez singled to left. That brought up the rookie Machado, 0-for-5 on the day, 2-for-his-past-20. Archer fell behind 3-and-0.

You don't give a rookie the green light.

Buck gave Machado the green light.

Machado swung and lofted a sinking line drive near the left-field line. Matt Joyce ran in, dove, stretched out, his glove reaching for the baseball, reaching for hope -- to keep the game going, to give the Rays hope of getting a win closer to the playoffs rather than a loss further away. Off the glove. Base hit. Orioles win 3-2 -- their 13th in a row in extra innings; 27-7 in one-run games, the best percentage in history. How can you not believe in the Orioles?

Joyce came up a few inches short. If Sam Fuld, an outfielder with more range, had been in left field, he makes the play. But Fuld had been removed in the 13th inning when Joe Maddon had replaced him with Reid Brignac to give the Rays five infielders after the Orioles loaded the bases. And that strategy worked when the Rays got the first out of the inning on a force at home. Maddon used 26 players in the game, clawing for any little edge.

That's what you do this time of year.

* * * *

Cloyd pitched three scoreless innings against the Astros but then gave up a single -- single -- home run and got the hook. He was replaced by another rookie, B.J. Rosenberg, with an ERA of 9.00. Rosenberg pitched two scoreless innings. In the eighth, the Phillies clinging to a 4-3 lead, Charlie Manuel turned to yet another rookie, Phillippe Aumont, once the prize of the Cliff Lee trade with the Mariners. Big stuff, no command: He averaged 6.9 walks per nine innings in Triple-A. He walked a guy, but got a caught stealing. He walked another guy. He hit a batter.

Two outs, two on, the Phillies cannot afford to lose. They have a $50 million closer in the bullpen.

Manuel brought in yet another rookie, Jake Diekman. He gave up a two-run double and an RBI single, and the Phillies lost 6-4.

Jonathan Papelbon sat in the bullpen, and suddenly that playoff run seems a little less likely.

The victories are extra sweet. The losses extra bitter. Welcome to the best time of the season.