Labour Day looks and lamentations

2019-09-02 WashingtonNationals
Brian Dozier (9) has a feature spot in the Nationals’ dugout dancing. But can baseball’s version of Dance Fever dance themselves into the postseason?

Maybe you did figure on things like this coming. Maybe you didn’t. But it might still be fun to consider them anyway. Prowling around early morning on Labour Day, you can discover, among other things recent past and present:

Looks Aren’t Everything Dept.—Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto looking as though someone spiked his Raisin Bran with castor oil as he arrived at the mound and saw the bullpen gate open. Realmuto calls it poor timing, and we’ll take his word for it, but the Phillies’ bullpen isn’t exactly disaster free.

Mercy, Mercy, Me Dept.—You really want a mercy rule after Dodgers catcher Russell Martin threw the final inning of a blowout shutout? According to the irreplaceable Jayson Stark, no position player turned that trick since 1917.

Merciless Dept.—Royals shortstop Alex Gordon started a game as the cleanup hitter and finished it pitching two innings. The previous men to start a game hitting cleanup and end up pitching more than one inning in the same game? Ted Williams (1940) and Babe Ruth (1919). Gordon has bragging rights on Martin and a passel of other pitching position players now.

The Basement Tapes Dept.—Six teams came into September with excellent chances of finishing 35 games or more out of first place in their divisions. Two have better chances than that of finishing 40+ games out of first. And one (the Royals) stands to finish 35+ games out of first in the American League Central without being in last place.

But six that far out of first never happened before in the divisional play era. And, according to Stark, it only happened twice before that: in 1906, when the Cubs won 116 games; and, in 1954, when the Indians won 111. (And, when the Yankees won 103—but finished second.)

Houston, We Have No Problem Dept.—The Astros have their third straight American League West title pretty much in the safe deposit box. There’s only one good reason for them to keep grinding aside from their comparatively simple schedule the rest of the way: home field advantage in the American League Championship Series.

The other American League guys who rival the Astros for the greatest ratio of 2019 success to injured list crowding, the Yankees, also rival the Astros for gorging on home cooking: At this writing, the Astros are 51-17 in Minute Maid Park and the Yankees are 49-20 in the House That Ruthless Built.

And only one team since the advent of the wild card has played .700+ lights-out at home without winning a League Championship Series: the 2001 Mariners.

Bronx Bombing Dept.—When it was time to awaken on Labour Day, the Yankees needed one more ninth-inning home run to become baseball’s first. team. ever. to get at least twenty homers on a season in every inning, first through ninth.

Strike The Stage Dept.—With Justin Verlander throwing a fourteen-strikeout no-hitter Sunday, the Astros got closer to setting a precedent: they could finish the season as baseball’s first. team. ever. whose pitching staff will lead the game in strikeouts and whose hitters will finish dead last in striking out.

St. Elsewhere Dept., Continued—Looks like I wasn’t kidding about the Yankees being the American League East’s best and baseball’s version of a M*A*S*H post-op section. Gio Ursehla hitting the injured list with a groin injury Friday made for the 29th Yankee to go to the infirmary this year, breaking the record of 28 by the Dodgers three years ago. Paging Dr. Westphall . . .

Twin City Rockers Dept.—Maybe the Twins can bomb their way to the American League Central title. They’re now baseball’s most prolific single-season smashers with 268 clearing the fences, passing last year’s Yankees. And they’ve also re-gained a five-and-a-half game lead over the Indians as of this morning, with the Indians both a half game behind for the first AL wild card and only a half game ahead for the second card.

It Ain’t Over Until It’s Over Dept.—The Braves went 19-9 in August including an 11-2 finish to the month. The National League East is still theirs to lose right now. But could they lose it? They could, theoretically—to the Nationals. You know. The guys who were among those left for dead before 23 May.

But since 23 May, according to The Athletic, the Nats have a better record (58-27) than the Braves (56-31) and have thus been baseball’s best team since that date. Unfortunately, that 19-31 season opening counts, too. And guess who get to play each other for seven games early this new month?

By the way, the Nats since the All-Star break are 30-16 and the Braves are 30-17. If there’s a time for the NL East leaders to be overthrown, it starts with a four-game set in Sun Trust Park 5 September and could continue with three in Nationals Park starting—wait for it!—Friday the 13th.

The Nats may have the slightly tougher tuneup for the first set, though: the Mets haven’t looked as good in the last two weeks as they did coming out of the All-Star break, but they’re not exactly pushovers just yet, either. And the Nats get to tune up for the Braves against the Mets at home before hitting the road. The Braves get a two-game tune up against the Blue Jays before greeting the Nats.

Too Little, Too Late Dept.—Unless they have a not-too-likely third wind in them, the Mets’ season may be cooked. They were 24-10 after the break and before they swept the Indians last month; they’re 2-7 since, thanks to a sweep by the Braves, in games they could have won, and thanks to a followup sweep by a Cubs club that sometimes hasn’t looked quite as good or at least as consistent as their record.

The Mets had to prove they could hang with the big boys after fashioning that staggering post-break run against mostly the also-rans and the never-woulds. But getting swept by the Braves at a moment when they could have turned the NL East at last into the dogfight everyone predicted out of spring training hurt. So did the followup sweep by the Cubs. They’re four out for the second wild card. Their postseason hope is slimmer than a thread.

Taking two of three from the Phillies in Citizens Bank Park this weekend wasn’t exactly meaningless, but they get three with the Nats in D.C. this week and another set with the Phillies at home this coming weekend. And even if their post-break record is 29-17 (one less win than the Braves), and almost wholly dependent upon how everyone else still in the picture does, this is crunch time for the Mets, whose postseason odds still sit at a seven percent chance at the postseason. This makes or breaks them.

Monsters of the Midwest Dept.—The Cardinals’ self-resurrection makes life even more interesting for the Cubs, who now sit in the second NL wild card spot and only three games behind the Cardinals for the NL Central. And other than two sets to come against the Cardinals, the Cubs have as cream puff a schedule to come as you could ask. The worst the Cardinals seem to face the rest of the stretch is a set with the Nationals starting 16 September.

So at least one and possibly both the sets to come against each other could find both the Cardinals and the Cubs in duel-to-the-death mode. But don’t rule out the spoiler factors to come, either. Pride still counts for plenty among the also-rans who’d like nothing better than to be the ones who make life miserable, or at least more challenging than it ought to be, for the big boys.

Brief Candles Dept.Who says Astros strongman Yordan Alvarez can’t walk home for the year with the American League’s Rookie of the Year award? Only 62 games, you say? It isn’t exactly unprecedented. I can name you a Hall of Famer who won a Rookie of the Year award despite playing in only (count them) 52 games the year he copped the prize: Willie McCovey, 1959.

Aside from which, Alvarez is liable to play in just about all the Astros’ remaining regular season games, giving him possibly 85 games. Ryan Howard copped an ROY playing 88. So if the Rookie of the Year should be the guy who does some of the most unheard-of things you ever heard of among rooks, Alvarez ought to have the award in the bank the same way it looks as though the Mets’ Pete Alonso does in the National League.

It’s just a shame in that regard that the Astros have a great chance of reaching the World Series and the Mets need the rest of the league to drop dead to get there, just about. Because the idea of Alonso and Alvarez tangling in a Series with their rookie credentials and plate firepower would be . . . forget must-see TV. It’d be damn-well-better-see TV.

He’s the Greatest Dancer Dept.—Remember the Sister Sledge disco hit of that name? If they gave that award out in baseball, this year’s Nats—those Dancing Fools, thoseĀ  Tighten-Uppers, those Dance Fevered, who turn dugout celebrations into Arthur Murray clinics and Nationals Park into the Land of a Thousand Dances—would win the prize without even a sliver of competition.

But if they get to the postseason, would the Nats think of doing the Stroll for their on-field victory celebrations? Why the hell not?

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