It's Here! The September Stretch Drive

ALSO: PRE-INDUCTION THOUGHTS FROM THE NEWEST HALL OF FAMERS

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Pregame Pepper

Did You Know?

Tightest race: the Dodgers and Giants started the weekend tied at the top of the NL West . . .

Atlanta’s Adam Duvall, who hit a 477-foot shot at Coors Field Thursday night, hit the most home runs in the majors last September . . .

San Diego must be desperate for pitching: in his last 11 Cubs games, Jake Arrieta went 0-7 with a 9.92 ERA, averaged under 3 2/3 innings per start, and allowed an opposing 1.120 OPS . . .

Shane Greene, equally bad with the Braves before getting his first Dodgers save in that 16-inning game against the Padres, posted Atlanta stats of an 8.47 ERA and .947 opposing OPS in 19 games . . .

The Dodgers also pounced on pitcher Evan Phillips, mysteriously designated for assignment by Tampa Bay after a three-inning save in his only appearance with the Rays . . .

To replace Phillips, the Rays signed recent Olympian David Robertson, an ex-Yankee who last pitched in the majors on April 14, 2019 but then had Tommy John surgery . . .

Leading Off

The Stretch Drive: Major League Baseball’s Best Time of Year

By Ben Abel

We made it! The best time of the Major League Baseball season is here and with a full season almost behind us after a 60-game season in 2020 due to COVID-19, the playoff races are shaping up to be exciting in both the American and National Leagues.

If the feeling of fall is in the air, it has to because of the playoff races not just the fact that Starbucks has pumpkin spice lattes again.

The American League West

I’ll admit I have a soft spot for this division and am not sure whether it’s because the teams are generally in my Pacific time zone or because I love watching a good race.

The Houston Astros are the team to beat but the Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners should not be counted out. The Athletics took the West last year over Houston by seven games but that was the shortened 60-game season. Houston has won the A.L. West from 2017-2019.

The Astros are second in run differential in Major League Baseball at +172 behind another serious contender in the National League West, the Los Angeles Dodgers, who are at +213. Houston also has the lead in batting average at .267.

We know however that it’s pitching and defense as well as timely hitting that are hallmarks of the postseason at the Dodgers are tops in ERA at 3.01. Houston is fifth at 3.66.

The Athletics face off against the Toronto Blue Jays, another team hanging around in the American League Wild-Card fight starting today for three games. The A’s are 2 games back of the Boston Red Sox for the 2nd Wild-Card spot while Toronto is 5.

The Seattle Mariners sit between Toronto and Oakland four games back of the 2nd Wild-Card Spot. Back in Mid-July many wondered if the Mariners would be buyers or sellers at the trade deadline. Then they were 48-43 for third place in the American League West.

Seattle took two of three and shut out the Astros twice in the teams’ most recent three game series. The Mariners have made a statement about their plans to make the post season and end a monster of a streak: a 20-year absence from the post season.

The American League Central

The Central really is the Chicago White Sox’ division already as they have a 9.5 game lead on the Cleveland Indians, the only other team in the division with a winning record at 67-64.

The White Sox sit fourth in run differential at +144, fifth in batting at .254. Jose Abreu continues  his MVP-like play winning Player Of The Month in August. Abreu slashed .330/.382/.661 (37-for-112) with seven doubles, 10 home runs, 25 RBIs and 22 runs in 28 games.

The White Sox boast a starting rotation that has Carlos Rodon, Lucas Giolito, Lance Lynn and Dylan Cease and a bullpen with Liam Hendriks and Craig Kimbrel.

The American League East

The American League East like the West has a developed into one of the better races. As we mentioned  in the Wild Card breakdown which involves the West teams, The New York Yankees have surged ahead of the Red Sox and are the top Wild Card Team with a slim 1.5 lead.

The Yankees have really caught fire going 22-8 since the start of August and 31-13 since the All-Star break. They saved themselves and Aaron Boone’s job while adding Anthony Rizzo and Joey Gallo. They still won’t catch the Tampa Bay Rays who are the class of this division but the Yankees have really done well with their pitching with a. 3.63 ERA good for fourth overall in the MLB.

Sure they have ace Gerrit Cole but they also had a 2.77 ERA in a 28 game stretch where Cole was on the COVID IL. The bullpen is 12-2 with a 2.09 ERA in 28 games.

The National League East

The National League was led by the New York Mets for 90 days with all the teams scuffling around the .500 mark until the Atlanta Braves went 18-8 in August. They lead the Philadelphia Phillies by 2 games. The Phillies have won six straight games and are 2½ games behind the Cincinnati Reds for the NL’s second wild-card. Since the second half began, the Braves are 26-15.

The Braves are doing this all without Ronald Acuña, Jr. and outfielder Marcell Ozuna, who is no longer part of the Braves because of charges of aggravated assault against him. GM Alex Anthopoulos got Joc Pederson from the The Chicago Cubs on July 16. He has hit .250 with five homers and 17 RBI over 40 games with the Braves which has helped. A bigger help have been Adam Duvall and Jorge Soler, who combined for seven home runs since arriving in Atlanta at the trade deadline. Eddie Rosario helped too.

The National League Central

The National League Central is really a one-course race like its cousin in the American League with the Milwaukee Brewers 10 games up on the Cincinnati Reds. Milwaukee is 32-14 since June 22, the best record in baseball during that time.

The Brewers and Giants faced off recently with the Brewers taking three of four games. The Giants narrowly avoided a sweep by getting four runs late in the last game to win, 5-1.

The Brewers are third in ERA at 3.34 in the majors and first among all teams in wins above replacement from starting pitchers in 2021. Corbin Burnes, Freddy Peralta, and Brandon Woodruff are all part of that strong starting rotation.

Christian Yelich, on the other hand, has been in decline since his 2018 National League MVP win and second-place finish in 2019. The 2020 campaign was only 60 games but his decline continued this season as well.

The Brewers rank 19th in batting runs above average and 16th in weighted runs created plus.

The National League West

That brings us to the National League West, the home of the World Champion Dodgers, surprising San Francisco Giants, and under-achieving San Diego Padres.

Entering this weekend, the Dodgers were tied with the Giants with identical 85-49 records as the two teams faced off for three games. That is really a playoff in itself even though it’s the regular season.  The Giants as we know narrowly avoided being swept by the Brewers while the Dodgers swept the Braves.

L.A. made big deadline moves, acquiring Max Scherzer and Trea Turner, with Scherzer going 4-0 with a 1.55 ERA in five starts.

Giants left-hander Alex Wood tested positive for COVID-19 prior to the Brewers series and right-hander Johnny Cueto felt sick enough that he was scratched from his scheduled start. He was removed from the lineup for elbow strain issues though and not COVID-19.

The Padres find themselves in a distant third in the West 14 games back of L.A. and San Francisco.   That is the team that had the core of Fernando Tatis, Jr., Manny Machado, and Trent Grisham, adding Yu Darvish and Blake Snell in the off-season. It was the team that was being hyped to make serious noise in the National League but has not done it.

They are close to the Reds for the second Wild Card spot but face the Astros, Dodgers, Giants, and Braves before seasons end. San Diego was supposed to be the team with all the answers — not a lot of questions.

Ben Abel has been an avid sports fan since the 1980s. He has contributed to Sports Betting Dime and Overtime Heroics covering hockey, baseball, and football as well as other sports. He lives in Vancouver, Canada. Contact him on Twitter @lebaneb or via email at info@abelmarketing.ca

Cleaning Up

Last-Minute Thoughts From The New Cooperstown Inductees

By Dan Schlossberg

The three living members of the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Class of 2020 gathered for separate media Zoom calls Thursday and provided a variety of surprising comments.

Derek Jeter, who fell one vote shy of unanimous selection, said his dad coached him, insisting he try other positions than shortstop. “He hit me some fly balls but I wasn’t very good, so that was the end of that experiment,” said Jeter, who spent 20 years as shortstop for the New York Yankees.

Jeter, who even pitched a little, wanted to be an everyday player. But his defensive prowess at short waned as he got older.

“Analytics entered the picture toward the end of my career,” he said. “My job was to be consistent and be accountable. I started at 20 but ended at 40. And you slow down a bit toward the end of your career.”

Larry Walker, who grew up in British Columbia before signing with the Montreal Expos, now has a winter home in Palm Beach, where the Expos trained, and a summer cabin in Canada that he calls “my comfort place.”

The one-time National League MVP never followed baseball growing up because the game wasn’t big in hockey-crazy Canada. In fact, the only live games Walker saw involved the Seattle Mariners, who were three hours from his home.

Walker, who also won three batting titles and five Gold Gloves as an outfielder, once played for a minor-league team managed by Ken Brett, best-known as a good-hitting pitcher who was also the brother of Hall of Famer George Brett.

A winter ball knee injury suffered in Hermosillo, Mexico almost killed his career. Among other things, he ripped his ACL – the same injury suffered two months ago by Ronald Acuna Jr.

Once he recovered and reached the majors, Walker was a sensation in right field. He once threw out Tony Fernandez at first base – and then had to face him in the same clubhouse at the All-Star Game.

Simmons, picked by a veterans committee, said he started working on his speech the second he was selected. Inductees are told to keep speeches short and simple, no longer than 10-12 minutes, and to submit them a month ahead of time – something neither Jeter nor Walker did.

Even after Walker learned all the nuances of outfield defense, he once lost track of the number of outs and handed a ball he caught to a batboy – with one out left to go.

“I’m just an average guy,” said Walker, whose humility makes a great addition to a Hall populated by such boisterous figures as Reggie Jackson.

Simmons and Jeter also were gracious and low-keyed about their impending baseball immortality.

Marvin Miller, who died at age 95 after going 0-for-7 in previous veterans committee votes, will be represented at the Sept. 8 inductions by Donald Fehr, who succeeded him as union chief. Like Simmons, Miller was named by a veterans committee.

HTP weekend editor Dan Schlossberg writes baseball for forbes.com, Latino Sports, USA TODAY Sports Weekly, Ball Nine, and Sports Collectors Digest. He is also the author of 38 baseball books. E.mail him at ballauthor@gmail.com.

Timeless Trivia

While pitching four scoreless innings of relief for the Dodgers in his debut, Andre Jackson became the first pitcher of the Modern Era (since 1901) with at least five strikeouts and four walks but no runs allowed in a debut relief appearance . . .

Switch-hitting Yankees shortstop Andrew Velasquez, a Fordham Prep grad, lives in the Bronx with his parents because he says it’s “way closer than staying in Manhattan and cheaper too” . . .

The stingiest bullpen in the majors belongs to the Miami Marlins, who have yielded the fewest walks per nine innings . . .

The late-season return of Corey Kluber, Domingo German, and Luis Severino has created an abundance of riches in a Yankees rotation populated by people like Nestor Cortes and Andrew Heaney . . .

Texas right-hander Glenn Otto, a 25-year-old Rice University product, threw five scoreless innings against the powerful Astros in his big-league bow after arriving from the Yankees in the Joey Gallo deal.


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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