Three Teams Vie To Be Beast Of The East

ALSO: NOLAN RYAN NEVER NEEDED LONG GAMES FOR HIS NO-HITTERS

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Pregame Pepper

Did You Know?

Yankees shortstop Gleyber Torres, wearing a sliding glove on his right hand, injured his bare left hand with a head-first slide Sunday and went straight for an MRI . . .

Teammate Anthony Rizzo, the team’s new first baseman, tested positive and showed symptoms of COVID-19 after stubbornly refusing shots because he “needed to learn more about the vaccine” . . .

Unless the Diamondbacks decide to renovate 23-year-old Chase Field, the Arizona ballpark and franchise could soon be history . . .

Cleveland, on the other hand, will spend $202.5 million over the next five years to bring Progressive Field up to current major-league standards . . .

Though jilted in 2021, Atlanta remains in play for future All-Star games, according to Commissioner Rob Manfred. “Atlanta is an important market for us and it certainly would be an option at some point,” he said when asked whether future Midsummer Classics could be held there. “I think the decision with respect to Atlanta was probably the hardest thing I’ve been asked to do so far. I’m hoping it’s going to be the hardest thing I get asked to do, period.”

Manfred is steamed that Mookie Betts, Buster Posey, and the entire four-man Astros contingent played hookey instead of the All-Star Game. “We think it’s important for our fans to see the very best players at the All-Star Game,” he said. “We will review with the union to make sure we’re getting the benefit of our bargain on the provision that’s in the Basic Agreement. We bargained for that and we intend to enforce the rule.”

Leading Off

Handicapping the NL East Title Chase

By Dan Schlossberg

Before the start of the 2021 baseball season, most prognosticators agreed the best divisional title chase would take place in the National League East.

Even though the Atlanta Braves had won three consecutive NL East crowns, the New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies, and Washington Nationals all made major off-season improvements.

Even the Miami Marlins, after a second-place finish and playoff appearance during the virus-shortened 2020 campaign, seemed stronger.

After four months, however, things have changed.

Washington was the first to fold, losing star pitcher Stephen Strasburg to season-ending surgery and then paring payroll so decisively that they almost became the 21st century edition of the Senators: first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.

Miami reverted to its usual moribund form, gripping last place like a long-lost friend and running up a FOR SALE sign on outfielders Adam Duvall, Starling Marte, and Corey Dickerson, among others.

And then there were three.

The Mets occupied first place from May 7 until August 8, when Philadelphia knocked them out by completing a three-game series sweep. But can the Phillies sustain success?

Here’s a look at the tightest three-way race in the majors, with only two games separating the three contenders as play began on August 12:

Philadelphia Phillies

Good news: The Phils face the easiest opposition over the final two months, playing more under-.500 teams than anybody else. They play exceptionally well at home and have a strong-hitting club known for late-inning rallies. Zack Wheeler leads the league in strikeouts and has become the front-runner for the Cy Young Award. He has a strong rotation partner in Aaron Nola, especially at Citizens Bank Park. Most importantly, Bryce Harper is becoming part of the MVP conversation again.

Bad news: If the Phils fail down the stretch, the infield defense could be the chief culprit. That’s why the team brought back shortstop Freddy Galvis. Even the additions of Archie Bradley and Ian Kennedy haven’t done much to bolster a bullpen that was historically bad last year. Kyle Gibson may help the rotation but was not the best available starter in the trade market. Losing slugging first baseman Rhys Hoskins (groin) to the IL earlier this week is a huge problem.

Bottom line: Philadelphia hasn’t made the playoffs or finished above .500 since 2011. They may win more than they lose this season but there’s no guarantee of any NL East team in the playoffs other than the one that finishes in first place. At least manager Joe Girardi has great stretch-drive and postseason experience.

Atlanta Braves

Good news: After a terrible start and a slew of serious injuries, the Braves have regrouped. All of the six veterans acquired since mid-July have contributed, helping the offense and tightening the defense. All-Stars Freddie Freeman and Ozzie Albies anchor an infield that also includes future All-Stars Austin Riley and Dansby Swanson. Getting Adam Duvall back was a master stroke but the return of heavy-hitting catcher Travis d’Arnaud – out from May 1 to August 11 – bolsters a batting order that is already the Beast of the East. Charlie Morton, Max Fried, and Drew Smyly head a good rotation that will be better when Ian Anderson and Huascar Ynoa return in a week or so.

Bad news: The bullpen never recovered from the loss of Mark Melancon, now San Diego’s savior. Shane Greene was a bust in his return and A.J. Minter (since recalled) went back to the minors. Severe injuries knocked out star corner outfielders Ronald Acuna Jr. and Marcell Ozuna (who also has big legal problems), in addition to d’Arnaud and Ynoa. Unbeatable (27-0) last year in games tied after seven innings last year, Atlanta has blown more than its share of late leads, especially when closer Will Smith pitches.

Bottom line: When Fried plays, the Braves have the best top-to-bottom lineup in the NL. Albies leads the league in extra-base hits and Freeman has found last year’s MVP form. Trade acquisitions Duvall, Joc Pederson, and Jorge Soler (the 2019 AL home run king) have helped a team that was wildly inconsistent, scoring 20 runs one night and a handful the next night. The Braves are also strong defensively, especially in the infield. Only a shaky bullpen can prevent Atlanta from keeping the division crown, though newcomer Richard Rodriguez fills the void.

New York Mets

Good news: Pitching, especially if two-time Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom is healthy. The September return of Noah Syndergaard should help even if he’s deployed in relief. The Mets already have a formidable bullpen led by Edwin Diaz but shared by a flock of fine set-up men. New York has no trouble getting hits but needs erstwhile All-Star Francisco Lindor and pending free agent Michael Conforto to recapture their former form and Pete Alonso to avoid prolonged slumps. Dom Smith has become a decent hitter who is dangerous in the clutch. Versatile Javier Baez, acquired from the Cubs at the trade deadline, helps in the field and supplies a high-power, low-average bat. The bench, including Kevin Pillar and Jonathan Villar, has been a big help in overcoming injuries.

Bad news: The Mets haven’t hit with men on base, scoring fewer runs than any team outside of Pittsburgh. A recent 2-8 slide included a three-game sweep by the rival Phillies and showed weaknesses in a rotation that has missed deGrom since July 7. Taijuan Walker and Carlos Carrasco – just back from injury – have been recent disappointments. So has the high-salaried Lindor, at least as a hitter. In addition, outfielders Brandon Nimmo and Dom Smith are playing the wrong positions.

Bottom line: The club’s long ride at the top of the standings is over. A tough trip against NL West contenders — starting with the Dodgers tonight — is on the horizon and both the Braves and Phillies are playing better. The Mets haven’t been a playoff team since 2015 and won’t be this year either.

Former AP sportswriter Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ is weekend editor of Here’s The Pitch, national baseball writer for forbes.com, senior baseball writer for Latino Sports, columnist for Sports Collectors Digest, and contributor to USA TODAY Sports Weekly and Sports Collectors Digest. The author of 38 baseball books can be reached at ballauthor@gmail.com.

Cleaning Up

Nolan Ryan Was a Master Of Good Timing

By Dan Schlossberg

We’ve been hearing for years that baseball games take too long.

Even with recent rules changes that required relief pitchers to face three batters and placed automatic runners on second base to start every half-inning after the ninth, games stretch well past three hours with regularity.

The culprits are many: long commercial breaks, frequent videotape challenges, and too many players showboating entrance music, bat flips, and home run trots.

Time is one of the big reasons baseball purists say The Good Old Days were better for The Grand Old Game.

Consider Nolan Ryan’s no-hitters as Exhibit A.

A 300-game winner who was also the lifetime leader in strikeouts, Ryan threw seven no-hitters – three more than anyone else – but wasted no time in any of them.

None consumed three hours, with the longest lasting a grand total of two hours and 49 minutes.

Here’s how he did it:

1. On May 15, 1973, Ryan was an Angel when he blanked Kansas City, 3-0, at Royals Stadium in front of 12,205 fans. Time of game was only 2:20.

2. Exactly two months later, on July 15, California clipped Detroit, 6-0, at old Tiger Stadium as 41,411 watched in awe. They were happy to go home in 2:21, just a minute longer than Ryan’s gem earlier that season even though the pitcher fanned 17, his high for a hitless game.

3. The score was 4-0 when the righthander blanked the Minnesota Twins at Anaheim Stadium on September 28, 1974 but only 10,872 saw it as both teams were playing out the string. Time was 2:22 – even though Ryan walked eight men, the most he ever passed in a hitless game.

4. On June 1, 1975, Ryan’s Angels eked out a 1-0 win at The Big A over the Baltimore Orioles. The shortest of his gems took only two hours and one minute, thrilling the crowd of 18,492.

5. Six years later, Ryan was wearing the rainbow livery of the Houston Astros on September 26, 1981 for his 5-0 no-hitter against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Astrodome. The game was witnessed by 32,115 and took 2:46.

6. Just to prove he hadn’t lost his touch, Ryan threw a no-hitter for the Texas Rangers, beating Oakland 5-0, on June 11, 1990 – nearly nine years after his previous one. The longest of his no-nos took 2:49 but the crowd of 33,436 didn’t mind.

7. On May 1, 1991, Ryan was 44 years old when he delighted Texas fans with his final no-hitter, topping the Toronto Blue Jays, 3-0, in 2:25 while 33,439 watched.

Ryan will always be remembered for defying Father Time, winning 324 games, 11 strikeout crowns, and two ERA titles while playing a record 27 years in the majors.

Baseball needs more like him.

HERE’S THE PITCH weekend editor Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ is the author of 38 baseball books. He covers the game for forbes.com, Latino Sports, USA TODAY Sports Weekly, Sports Collectors Digest, Ball Nine, and others. Dan’s e.mail is ballauthor@gmail.com.

Timeless Trivia

Five of the six players who produced 25-homer seasons before age 21 are in Cooperstown, with the other (Ronald Acuna Jr.) on his way . . .

George Springer, now with Toronto, was the first player to lead off consecutive Opening Days with home runs . . .

Cal Ripken Jr. broke into the big leagues as a third baseman with the 1982 Baltimore Orioles, shifted to short at the suggestion of manager Earl Weaver, and started a consecutive games playing streak that ended in 1998 at a record 2,632 . . .

Kevin Pillar is not only the lone Jewish player on the Mets but also one of the most valuable because of his versatility, justifying his two-year, $6.5 million deal by providing a much-needed right-handed bat and by filling in admirably for J.D. Davis at third base and Brandon Nimmo in center field . . .

Bob Feller pitched the only Opening Day no-hitter in 1940 but Herb Pennock came close. On April 14, 1915, the Philadelphia A’s star blanked Boston, 5-0, allowing only a scratch single by Harry Hooper with two down in the ninth . . .

With a 21-14 win over the St. Louis Browns on April 14, 1925, the Cleveland Indians took advantage of five errors to score the most runs in any opening game.


Know Your Editors

HERE’S THE PITCH is published daily except Sundays and holidays. Brian Harl [bchrom831@gmail.com] handles Monday and Tuesday editions, Elizabeth Muratore [nymfan97@gmail.com] does Wednesday and Thursday, and Dan Schlossberg [ballauthor@gmail.com] edits the weekend editions on Friday and Saturday. Readers are encouraged to contribute comments, articles, and letters to the editor. HTP reserves the right to edit for brevity, clarity, and good taste.

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