Friday, October 11, 2013

Fate is Just a Red Herring: The Best Divisional Round Ever and Finding Beauty in the Inevitability of the Status Quo

The underdog is a fickle beast. Though strides from irrelevance to infamy will create hallowed legends for a franchise, seldom is the winner of this sort. Conventional reasoning will say that through proper management, those quirky exceptions will someday become standards of success, but for now they are relegated to the mire of thanking fans for their support that year. Detroit, Boston, St. Louis, and Los Angeles were supposed to be here. Be it via high payroll, player development, a winning culture, or all of the above, the finest teams now sit atop the baseball mountain. While many will find fault in the lack of an underdog legend team to cheer for, what awaits those close to the heart of the game is baseball at its highest level.

When the postseason began, the story was, above and beyond anything else, the Pittsburgh Pirates. They were a franchise so malnourished to relevant October baseball that the three games played this month at PNC Park were the highest ticketed attendance in the stadium's history. Yet there were the St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh's ancient rival to the West. The Cardinals are what some consider to be the game's model franchise. Despite having only the eleventh-highest payroll in baseball this year, they fielded a team stacked with well-developed and seasoned talent as they seem to do every year without fail. What shone brightest in the Cardinals' journey to a third consecutive National League Championship Series appearance was not the veteran stability, but the impressive quality of youth. On the arms of Michael Wacha and Adam Wainwright, the Cardinals came back from a two games to one deficit to stun the longsuffering Pirate faithful.. Wacha tossed a no-hitter into the eighth inning of the penultimate game in the series. Once he sniffed at anything resembling trouble, in came Carlos Martinez- another rookie, to polish off the eighth. In the ninth it was Trevor Rosenthal, a 23-year old closer with less than one hundred career Major League innings, who sent the series home to St. Louis for the decisive game five.

In the short term, the disappointment of Pittsburgh's season ending in such a matter-of-fact way will be what is remembered. The real legacy of the series should be how well-oiled the St. Louis machine has become and how the stalwarts of the National League will not fade from prominence anytime soon. The recurring nightmare to the rest of the senior circuit may not have even hit its prime yet. The constant flow of new and immediate impact talent is a testament to patience and a goal-oriented mindset in the front office. Rarely, if ever, are improper moves made by the club. They have lost premier talent to free agency, only to regain those now-gone attributes somewhere else. Out goes Albert Pujols, in comes Carlos Beltran. Beltran once famously punished the Cardinals in the postseason as a member of the Houston Astros by hitting a home run in each of the first four games of their series. Now, as a member of the Cardinals, he continues to add to an already historic postseason career. Beltran's one elusive playoff achievement- a World Series title.

Their opponent, appropriately counter-clad in bright blue, will be the Los Angeles Dodgers. If this paragraph was a cheaply created morning news block, it would be sound tracked by the O'Jays. At the start of the 2012 season, the Dodgers had a payroll of $114 million. While impressive, it would only rank a measly twelfth on this year's list. Luckily, the new ownership committee decided to open up their seemingly bottomless pockets and upgrade their team's payroll to just over $216 million to start this season. For a point of reference, the $102 million difference is actually more than the total payrolls of sixteen teams. Now I will not banter much more upon the topic of money. I will leave that to Jimmy and his insight into the startling perspective of baseball salaries. The main attack point to bought-not-built teams is a lack of chemistry. Considering their start to the season, the case could be made that their lack of team comfort-ability would be their downfall. On the contrary, once the team came together midsummer, the West division crown was a foregone conclusion. The off-season acquisitions of Zack Grienke and Ryu Hyun-Jin bolstered a rotation already anchored by one of the game's best in Clayton Kershaw. Then there was the 2012 trade that brought the big bats of Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez to Los Angeles. Add in a bit of youthful exuberance in the firecracker Yasiel Puig, and the recipe for a title run was complete.

While the Dodgers did not dispatch of the Atlanta Braves with ease, the two games played in Chavez Ravine sure made the outcome feel inevitable. With Atlanta hosting the first two games of the series, the Dodgers split and were then able to clinch their next trip at home. There was a brief moment in game three where the Braves had a chance, but then came the home halves of the third, fourth, and eighth innings. When the mercy bell rang for Atlanta, the score was 13-6, matching a sixty-seven year old Dodgers record for runs in a postseason game. The following night felt a similar script. Carl Crawford hit two solo home runs in the first three innings. Over the succeeding four frames, Atlanta crawled back to contention and took a late lead. Then, as Puig waited on second, Juan Uribe bunted foul twice, then reared back a drove a moonshot beyond the left field wall. Final score- 4-3 Dodgers. Now, the team that is ostensibly an outsider in the final four looks to end a World Series drought dating back to 1988 and, well, this.

In Boston, the spoils of winning more than anyone else in the American League meant playing host to Tampa Bay. The Rays, fresh from a string of win-or-go-home games played in Toronto, Texas, and Cleveland, had to travel to a fourth city in four games to start the American League Division Series. The gravity of their week was evident from the first pitch. Boston's rowdy, thick-bearded sluggers manhandled the perennially-scrappy Rays in both games held in Boston. The only hiccup was from a near-miraculous walk-off home run in game three. Aside from that night, Tampa Bay was but a stepping stone to what Boston had designed from the get-go. In 2012, the hapless Red Sox lost ninety-three games. What appeared to be the start to a new phase of the old Boston struggle turned out to be an anomaly in an otherwise brilliant decade of baseball. Bostons immediate return to providence was carried out by a new manager in John Farrell. Exorcising the demons of the "Bobby Valentine experiment," Farrell's wit landed parallel with the attitude of his players. If chemistry was a worry in Southern California, it was a way of life in Massachusetts.

Despite losing Crawford and Gonzalez last year, the team filled their gaps with well-enough talent. Mike Napoli slid into first base. Shane Victorino landed in right field. Future cornerstone Will Middlebrooks took over third base. And a trade deadline deal with the White Sox landed a solid rotation piece in Jake Peavy. The script was written for a Boston comeback season and the cast played their roles up to the standard that has become expected in Bean Town. For the Red Sox, the culture of winning and contending every year is still in its infancy, but a third appearance in the fall classic now sits just four wins away.

Much like the Dodgers, Detroit began their series on the road. Oakland, despite finishing with a better record, faced an uphill battle against their repeat foes from many years past. Justin Verlander, Cy Young Award shoe-in and heterochromia enthusiast Max Scherzer, Doug Fister, Annibal Sanchez, and Rick Porcello created a five-man gauntlet of hurlers, the likes of which have not been seen in nearly two decades. Team that with a combination of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder in the lineup and the result was as obvious as the outcome. The Tigers are back. Last season's awkward ending left some wondering if Detroit could return to the pinnacle. When Jhonny Peralta was suspended fifty games for violating the league's substance abuse policy, the Tigers traded for the twenty-three year old defensive wizard Jose Iglesias. Detroit locked up the Central division fast enough to rest their weary heads while Cleveland scrapped together a ten game win streak that left them as the home wild card team, one game behind the Tigers. This was necessary for Detroit's success against the A's. Miguel Cabrera, the best hitter on the planet, had not hit a home run in weeks. Luckily the rest of the Tiger bats were ready.

The series between Detroit and Oakland can be summed up in the tired, yet apt metaphor of a roller coaster. Leads were rarely safe, and comebacks were often delivered via home run. Just as St. Louis was forced to win two straight to move on. The series will likely fall by the wayside as the years pass, but history will be doing a disservice the brilliantly tense five game series if that is the case. While Detroit is the reigning American League Champion and spent nearly $100 million more than Oakland this season, at no point did the series feel anything less than a fair fight. MVP candidate Josh Donaldson struggled, but in his place came Yoenis Cespedes, eager to right the wrongs of his rather mediocre regular season. In the end, however, it was the mundane spectacle of a Miguel Cabrera home run, matched with eight brilliant innings from Justin Verlander, that sealed each team's fate. The American League Champions remain alive and well, one step from another shot at a World Series title.

The sentiment of the underdog is not lost on me. While I can appreciate the game's four best teams vying for the crown, I love an upset story. However, in the event that what is laid out on a platter before me is the former situation, I will happily accept. Four teams remain. Not one spent less than one hundred million dollars this year. Each team comes complete with a similar formula of relentless pitching, veteran bats, and young cornerstones to what is already a bright immediate future. In the coming days, some people may complain about the prevailing status-quo in Major League Baseball. For what its worth, the next few weeks should be nothing short of a gift to anyone who can appreciate a sport played at the pinnacle of its craft.

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