October 28, 2023 [LINK / comment]

How the mighty have fallen!
Underdogs win both the AL & NL pennants

Few people expected that the Texas Rangers would beat the Houston Astros in the American League Championship Series, and even fewer expected that the Arizona Diamondbacks would beat the Philadelphia Phillies in the National League Championship Series. For that matter, not many people expected that only one of the top four seeded teams (the Astros) would make it beyond their respective divisional series. Yes, sports fans, the 2023 postseason has been one doozy of a confounding mess. "Anything can happen, and probably will!"

So, as World Series 2023 gets underway in Arlington, Texas, let me get make a few observations about the final month of the regular season and the postseason series thus far. There is a lot to catch up on! My previous blog post was on September 3, as I was heading up to Washington to see the Nationals play for the second time this year. (See below.)

Orioles, Braves go down in flames

Unquestionably, the biggest story this month is the failure of the top-seeded teams to advance in the postseason series. Both the Baltimore Orioles and the Atlanta Braves achieved spectacular success in the regular season (win-loss records of 104-58 and 101-61, respectively), and yet both teams were abruptly eliminated in their respective divisional series. Likewise, the third-best Los Angeles Dodgers (100-62) were swept by the Arizona Diamondback. Of the four top-seeded teams with a "bye" in the first round, only the Houston Astros (90-72) made it past the divisional series. The supposed advantage of getting three extra days of rest turned out to be a curse in disguise: the Dodgers and Orioles lost at home in both Games 1 and 2, while the Astros and Braves split the first two games. I share the view of many fans that the new postseason format with an additional wild card series to accommodate the additional wild card teams has made a mess of things, to the disadvantage of the top-seeded teams. Those "byes" are NOT helpful at all! I wish they would go back to the pre-2012 format and only have one wild card team per league, perhaps making the divisional series best-of-seven rather than best-of-five, to offset the loss of advertising revenue that having fewer postseason teams would entail. (Under such a system, neither the Rangers nor the Diamondbacks would have qualified this year.) Fans of the Braves, Dodgers, and Orioles are rightly angry that their teams were not competing on a "level playing field."

Wedenesday October 11 proved to be decisive in that the Braves' ace Bryce Elder (12-4, 3.81 ERA in the regular season) gave up six runs to the Phillies in the third inning, thanks largely to home runs by Nick Castellanos and Bryce Harper, both of whom went on to hit a second homer in the latter innings. Final score: Phillies 10, Braves 2. The next day Castellanos hit two more homers, giving the Phillies a 3-1 win, and that was that. Fears that the Braves would revert to their early-2000s habit of winning the NL East year after year and then falling flat in October were cruelly borne out. Woe is Atlanta! The winningest team in the majors, the one that seemed to be positioning themselves for another World Series run, somehow lost to the Philadelphia Phillies.

Meanwhile, the Baltimore Orioles were also cruising into the postseason, but the Texas Rangers poured cold water on the excited fans in Camden Yards on Saturday afternoon, October 7. (Attendance was 46,450, virtually sold out.) The visitors took a 2-0 lead in the 4th inning, and the home team could never quite seize the opportunity to catch up. In Game 2 the Orioles scored first, but the Rangers came on strong with big rallies in the 2nd and 3rd innings, capped by Mitch Garver's grand slam, thus building a 9-2 lead. The Orioles made liant comeback efforts and actually out-hit the Rangers (14-11), but fell short in terms of runs, 11-8. In Game 3, the Rangers built a 6-0 lead after just two innings, and with the indoor crowd noise amplifying their efforts, the final outcome seemed all but predetermined: 7-1. And thus the mighty Orioles bowed out of the 2023 postseason, failing to win even one game.

D-backs sweep Dodgers

Once again, Dodgers' ace (and future Hall of Famer) Clayton Kershaw was roughed up in the postseason, as the Diamondbacks scored six runs against him in the first inning of Game 1 in L.A. on Saturday, October 7. That effectively took the big crowd (51,653) out of the game, and they never really got back into it. In Game 2 (Monday), the D-backs did it again, with a 3-run first-inning rally, and they ended up winning, 4-2. In Phoenix for Game 3, the D-backs staged a 4-run rally in the third inning -- with all four runs coming on home runs! In all of MLB postseason history, no team had ever homered four times in one inning, and that was all the D-backs needed to clinch the series, with another 4-2 score. (Attendance was 48,175, sold out.) It's hard to feel sorry for a team that has been as consistently dominant in recent years as the Dodgers, but I have to confess that I really did.

ALCS: Rangers edge Astros

In the first-ever postseason series between two teams from Texas, the upstart Rangers upset the overconfident Astros in Game 1 by a score of 2-0; Astros' ace Justin Verlander got beat in Game 1, just as he had lost World Series Game 2 four years earlier. In Game 2, the Rangers scored 4 runs in the top of the 1st inning, and a solo homer by Jonah Heim in the 3rd inning provided the vital insurance that they needed to ultimately prevail, 5-4. So, they headed back to Arlington, with high hopes of winning the series at home in Globe Life Field. Such was not to be, however. In Game 3, Max Scherzer took the mound for the first time since early September, having been on the Injured List, but he was soon roughed up, unlike what transpired in late October 2019. Max gave up 5 runs over 4+ innings, and even though the Rangers kept trying to narrow the gap in the latter innings, they ended up losing, 8-5. In Game 4 the Rangers bounced back from a 3-0 first-inning deficit and tied the game, but a Jose Abreu home run in the 4th inning sparked a 4-run rally that put the visitors ahead for good. Final score: 10-3. More eerie parallels with the 2019 World Series soon became apparent: the visiting team had won the first four games, and some wondered whether the same thing could happen three more times. Actually, the Rangers had a 4-2 lead going into the top of the 9th inning, but a 3-run homer by Jose Altuve gave yet another win to the visiting team, 5-4. So now the Astros were back to their accustomed psychological edge as Game 6 began in Houston on Sunday night, October 22. The Rangers took the lead in the top of the 4th inning on another home run by Jonah Heim, and thanks to a 5-run rally in the top of the 9th, the outcome of the game was no longer in doubt when the Astros came up for their final at-bats. Finale score: 9-2, making it six straight victories by the visiting teams! In Game 7 a 3-run homer by Corey Seager put the Rangers ahead in the top of the 1st, quieting the crowd in Minute Maid Park. When the Astros threatened to tie the game in the 3rd inning, Manager Bruce Bochy replaced starting pitcher Max Scherzer, just to be on the safe side. Almost immediately, the Rangers scored 4 more runs, and they went on to win by a lopsided 11-4 score. A seventh visiting-team victory, just like what the Nationals did in the 2019 World Series, in the very same stadium!!

And thus, for the first time since 2016, neither the Los Angeles Dodgers nor the Houston Astros are in the World Series! Those two teams have won, respectively, three and four league pennants during that six-year span. See the Baseball chronology, annual page.

In fairness to the two teams that won the pennants, both the Texas Rangers and the Arizona Diamondbacks had substantial leads in their respective divisions during the first half of the season. In both cases, they gradually receded during July and August, but they managed to keep their heads above water and made it into the postseason as the #5 and #6 -seed teams.

NLCS: D-backs stun the Phillies

The Philadelphia Phillies had a very successful regular season (90-72), and with all those sluggers in their lineup (especially the three former Nationals!), they were a mighty force to be reckoned with. Citizens Bank Park had already proved itself to be an extremely beneficial asset to the Phillies in the Wild Card Series and the Divisional Series, and fans expected more of the same. In Game 1, Kyle Schwarber and Bryce Harper both hit solo homers in the 1st inning, and the Phillies held on to win, 5-3. In Game 2, Trea Turner led the homer parade, but Schwarber later hit two of his own in a 10-0 rout. But the D-backs bounced back with wins at home in Phoenix in Games 3 and 4, with a one-run edge both times, thus evening the series. The Phillies won Game 5 thanks to another homer by Schwarber and two more by Harper. That put them in the driver's seat cruising toward triumph as they returned to Philadelphia for Game 6 on Sunday. But somehow everything changed. The D-backs took an early 3-0 lead while starting pitcher Merrill Kelly managed to contain the Phillies home run machine. The Phillies' Aaron Nola took the loss in the surprising 6-1 outcome. In Game 7, the D-backs took the lead in the top of the 5th inning thanks to clutch RBI singles from Corbin Carroll and Gabriel Moreno, and rookie pitcher Brandon Pfaadt would have been in line for the win had he not been replaced in the bottom of the inning. A succession of relief pitchers took over and prevented any more runs from being scored, and that is how the Arizona Diamondbacks stunned the Philadelphia Phillies 4-2, thereby winning the National League pennant.

As you can imagine, some of the Phillies fans at Citizens Bank Park did not take that defeat very well. There were some rude comments about the hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on the above-mentioned sluggers (and others), who were almost hitless in the two final games. Baseball can be a very cruel sport, as the Washington Nationals learned in October 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2017. Crazy, unpredictable things -- dare I say cursed? -- seem to happen during Halloween season...

World Series: Rangers win Game 1

Game 1 of the 2023 World Series lasted 11 innings, the very first extra-inning game of this postseason. The D-backs had a 5-3 lead going into the bottom of the 9th, whereupon Corey Seager tied it with a 2-run homer. Two innings later, Adolis Garcia hit a home run that just cleared the right field fence, as the Rangers won it in thrilling walk-off fashion!!! 42,472 fans went wild, setting an attendance record for the ballpark. It was Garcia's 5th homer in the five games, and I heard somebody say it was the first walk-off home run in a World Series game in 35 years.

FUN FACT: Whereas the Diamondbacks have played (and won) the World Series in Chase Field before (that would be 2001), the Texas Rangers are playing a World Series game for the first time in their almost-new stadium, Globe Life Field. (They played the 2010 and 2011 World Series in Globe Life Park, when it was called "Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.") Oddly, however, this is not the first time the World Series has been played in Globe Life Field. In 2020, during the covid-19 pandemic, all seven games of the World Series were played there, between the Tampa Bay Rays and the L.A. Dodgers, who ended up winning. This happens to be the second time in MLB history in which a team has played a World Series game in their home stadium for the first time, but in which other teams have played World Series games there. The first such occasion was in 1915, when the Boston Red Sox used brand-new Braves Field in the World Series. They ended up winning that year, and also in the following year -- also using Braves Field!

R.I.P. Brooks Robinson

The long-time third baseman for the Baltimore Orioles, Brooks Robinson, passed away on September 26, at the age of 86. He is widely regarded as one of the best defensive third basemen in baseball history, known as the "Human Vacuum Cleaner." During his 23-year career he played a crucial role in the Orioles' first two World Series titles, in 1966 (beating the Dodgers) and 1970 (beating the Reds). In the latter, he hit two home runs and was named World Series MVP. He retired after the 1977 season, with a respectable .267 career batting average, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1983. The smiling, hustling, ebullient athlete was an inspiration not only to his team mates but to the whole city of Baltimore, where he was regarded with love and admiration. He outlived his equally-admired team mate Frank Robinson (who died in February 2019) by four years. For more on his career and life, see the Washington Post.

R.I.P. Tim Wakefield

Early in October, former Boston Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield succumbed to cancer of the brain at the age of 57. He began his career as an infielder with the Pittsburgh Pirates, but wasn't doing too well. Somebody noticed him tossing a knuckleball during warmups and suggested that he try pitching ... and the rest was history! He learned from knuckleballer Phil Niekro and spent 17 of his 19 big league seasons with the Red Sox, helping them to win their first World Series in over a century in 2004. But in the 2003 ALCS he had the dubious distinction of pitching to Aaron Boone, who hit the extra-inning walk-off home run in Yankee Stadium, sending the Yankees to the World Series. That was an example of how sometimes knuckleballs don't make the expected weird twists and turns.

Nationals end bad month very well

After a very successful month of August, the Washington Nationals fell into a slump and looked just terrible throughout much of September on the field. My old friend Dave Givens and I attended the game on Sunday, September 3rd, when Josiah Gray was pitching. He gave up 3 runs in the first inning, which really stunk, but Lane Thomas narrowed the gap with a gigantic solo homer to left field in the bottom of the first. I didn't realize it at the time, even though we had an excellent view from the third deck on the third base side, but after watching videos of that blast later, it became clear that the ball either hit the back row of seats or cleared the seating area entirely. I estimate it went 415 feet in the air, and probably would have gone 440 feet on a flat surface. The Nats staged a big rally and took a 4-3 lead in the 5th inning, but the Marlins tied it one inning later, thanks to a fielding error by third baseman Ildemaro Vargas. In the top of the 9th, with the game tied 4-4, Kyle Finnegan took the mound even though it wasn't a closeing situation. He gave up two runs that the Nats could not answer, and that is how the Miami Marlins won. The Nats had two errors, and the Marlins had three; kind of a sloppy game. Joey Meneses came up to pinch hit late in the game, but did not take the field defensively. Completing 4-game sweep of the Nats helped the Marlins in their march to the postseason, as their final 84-77 record qualified them as the 2nd wild card team in the National League, just ahead of the ... Arizona Diamondbacks!!! For the year as a whole, the Marlins beat the Nats 11 times, and lost just twice. Good grief! frown

As you can see, there were a lot of new faces in the Nats lineup that day. The two that have impressed me the most are Jake Alu and Jacob Young. Among the players shown here, only Hunter Harvey and Lane Thomas were on the Nationals roster last year.

Nationals 03 Sept 2023

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Travis Blankenhorn (LF), Jake Alu (2B), Jacob Young (CF), Drew Millas (C), Hunter Harvey (P), Lane Thomas (RF), Jordan Weems (P), and Robert Garcia (P). (September 3, 2023)

Nationals Park, US Capitol

Nationals Park, shortly before the game. One mile to the north, in the United States Capitol, a bunch of clowns were plotting to shut down the government. (September 3, 2023)

After the game I walked past Audi Field (two blocks southwest of Nationals Park), the first time I had done so while a soccer game was being played there. (I later learned that the Washington Spirit women's team had lost.) Had I known about that other sporting event, I would have anticipated the squeeze on parking and taken the Metro rather than driving in and parking south of Audi Field, where I paid -- are you ready for this? -- $70. SEVENTY #&%@*^ DOLLARS!!! frown I had no choice, however, because my friend Dave had already bought tickets for the Nats game, and there wasn't enough time to find somewhere else to park close by.

For the rest of September, the Nats struggled to win, but at least they weren't swept again -- unless you count the two games they lost to the Orioles late in the month. They basically won just one game in almost all their series -- Mets, Dodgers, Pirates, Brewers, and Braves; they did beat the White Sox in 2 of 3 games at Nationals Park from September 18 through 20, however. with few exceptions, it was a dreary, melancholy performance, putting in jeopardy the one symbolic goal that I had set at the beginning of the season as a mark of success: reaching the 70-win plateau. Somehow, on the 29th of September, playing in Atlanta against an incredibly powerful and well-balanced Braves team, the Nats managed to pull off a victory. Trevor Williams could only pitch 3 1/3 innings, but FIVE (5) different Nationals players hit home runs in Truist Park: Carter Kieboom, Jake Alu, Keibert Ruiz, Dominic Smith, and Lane Thomas. Final score: 10-6. In the Saturday game, the Nats fell short, 5-3, but in the final game of the regular season on Sunday, the Nats really gave it their all. They scored 4 runs in the top of the 1st, sparked by an RBI double by Joey Meneses. But the Braves came back and the game was tied 5-5 for the middle part of the game. The last 3 innings were a crazy back-and-forth affair, and a clutch 2-run single by Jacob Young in the top of the 9th inning gave the Nats a 2-run lead. In the bottom of the 9th, Kyle Finnegan gave up a solo home run to Marcell Ozuna, but otherwise did his job, and the Nats prevailed 10-9. It didn't mean anything as far as postseason play, but it was a tremendous and much-needed psychological boost for the Nationals. smile They finished the 2023 season 71-91, a vast improvement over their just plain awful 55-107 record in 2022. See the soon-to-be-updated Washington Nationals page.