Thursday, August 21, 2014

Local Color

With our Giants enjoying a rare string of positive developments in Chicago, our attention this morning was called to the two teams who right now hold the biggest division leads in baseball: the Baltimore Orioles, who are burying the AL East to the tune of a nine-game advantage, and the Washington Nationals, who have opened up a seven-game lead over the Atlanta Braves in the NL East.

These two clubs are, of course, the two "local" or "local-est" teams we have here in western Virginia, and it's a rare occurrence when we don't visit Camden Yards or the "Nat" at least once per season. Two years ago, both teams made the postseason and were quickly shown the door in the opening-round division series. Now they're back, kicking butt and taking names and clearly, at the moment, the two teams most likely to qualify.

We must confess: if the Giants fail to win a third championship this year, we're pulling for one of these teams to do it, and, if the Giants fail to reach the World Series, we'd just as soon see a "I-95 Series" (or whatever lame label the punditry hangs on it) as any other.

One dog in this hunt is the Nats' manager, former Giant Matt Williams, a certified Good Guy who graced third base at Candlestick from 1989 through 1996 and for much of that time was the best in the business. When he departed in a then-controversial trade, he left with class and dignity, and brought Jeff (700 RBI in six years) Kent in exchange.  

Another is the return of the Orioles to the top of the league, or near it, anyway. We grew up with the "Birds", under Earl Weaver, being the one team everyone could count on to play well and contend year after year after year. (Believe it or not, Cleveland Browns fans enjoyed this distinction too, back in the fifties and sixties.) The decline of the Orioles from baseball's elite to baseball's junkyard over the past couple of decades was a sad spectacle. It's good to see baseball booming in Baltimore again-- and a local World Series? Whoa, Nellie-- there hasn't been one since 2000 (the most recent "Subway Series") and it'd certainly keep things lively around these parts.

Yes, it was the Nationals who pricked the Giants' early-June balloon by taking three of four in our own ballpark, and things haven't been the same since. Our Boys are 24-37 since that debacle and still in the race primarily because LA aren't playing a whole lot better (ditto St Louis and Atlanta, our principal wild-card rivals du jour). But there's a rematch coming up in DC starting tomorrow, and a little payback would be a most timely development right now.

What makes these clubs tick? The Nationals are top-to-bottom impressive: fourth in the league in runs scored (third among "real" ballclubs), and best in ERA.   Their Pythagorean projection shows them to be a couple of games better than their impressive actual record. Their pitchers have issued the fewest walks in baseball. Tanner Roark and Jordan Zimmermannn are among the top ten in ERA, and Stephen Strasburg, though no longer wearing Superman's cape, clocks in at 3.41, still better than league average. The remarkable Anthony Rendon leads the NL with 88 runs scored, and Denard Span is close behind. Adam LaRoche (68 walks to 85 Ks, .377 OBP), Jayson Werth, and Ian Desmond (despite 144 Ks and a terrible .306 OBP) drive in a lot of runs. They even do the little things well: very few caught stealings, but their catching combo, led by Wilson Ramos, throws out 37% of enemy would-be base-stealers.

Baltimore is harder to figure. They're in the middle of the pack in runs scored and ERA. Nelson Cruz and Adam Jones provide some serious punch in the lineup, and Chris Davis despite a wretched (.192) season, still has 21 homers in 107 games. No pitcher really stands out; Chris Tillman's 3.55 ERA is best on the team but 25th in the AL. The O's biggest advantage would seem to be their weak division: the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays are the league's three lowest-scoring teams and Toronto, as usual, has lousy pitching. Baltimore is 30-19 within the division, 43-33 without. They win as often on the road as they do at home. Some credit has to go to Buck Showalter, who seems to bring wins wherever he goes; but we're a bit skeptical of the "Birds" ability to go deep into the postseason. We have no such reservations about the Nats.

We trust everyone was encouraged by the National League's obviously correct decision to suspend Tuesday night's game and overrule the summary decision which declared it completed. As with the Pine Tar ruling three decades ago, this was a clear case of the Rules of the Game being misapplied and/or misunderstood despite honest intentions. Rules (4.12), (4.15), and (4.16) all are in view here; it's indisputable that the field was rendered unplayable not by weather-- the rain had long since stopped-- but by the groundskeepers' simple failure to cover the field during the brief earlier downpour. Now, it's ridiculous to presume the Cubs' groundskeepers deliberately fouled up the process in order to award the home team an unearned "win"; it's also unnecessary. Some have exhibited confusion over the term "palpably" in the rule; it does not mean "deliberately", it means "obviously." Video evidence incontrovertibly proved that the mechanical spool which rolls and unrolls the tarp malfunctioned, almost certainly due to human error; in such case all three cited rules apply. The right decision was made, and that gives the Giants a fighting chance to sweep the today's short doubleheader and the three-game series. Heaven knows, we could use some momentum going up against the NL's best team this weekend!

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