Posted on: September 5, 2011 8:59 pm
Edited on: September 5, 2011 11:05 pm

Braves are closer to Phils than it looks

PHILADELPHIA -- When the Braves came here last September, they trailed the Phillies by three games. When they showed up this week, they were 7 1/2 games back.

That's fine, but when the Braves came here last September, they looked like no match for the Phillies, either in the division race or in a potential playoff series. They came here this week looking -- and feeling -- like a team with a chance, if the teams end up meeting in the National League Championship Series.

"I think we match up with these guys better than we ever have," pitcher Tim Hudson said Monday, and you can be sure that even a 9-0 loss to Cliff Lee didn't change his mind.

The Braves acknowledge that the Phillies are the National League's best team. They acknowledge that they'd need to be at their best to win, even in a short series.

"You've got to play a perfect game against the Phillies," Chipper Jones said. "But we know we have a chance."

They also know that it's no guarantee they'll ever see the Phillies in October. Both teams would need to advance through the first round, and as of now the Braves are looking at a tricky first-round series against the Brewers.

But the point isn't that the Braves should be considered the favorite in the NL playoffs. The point is that unlike last year, when the Braves stumbled into the playoffs undermanned, this year a Braves-Phillies NLCS would seem to be worth watching.

The Braves know that they're the only team in baseball that owns wins this year over each of the Phillies' Big 3 starting pitchers -- Roy Halladay, Lee and Cole Hamels.

Against the Braves, the Phillies are just 5-5 with Halladay, Lee or Hamels on the mound (including Monday's win). Against everyone else in baseball, they were 52-21 with one of those three starting.

"Look, those three are as good as it gets," Jones said. "We know it. Everyone else knows it. But when you see them as much as we have, we've made some adjustments."

Adjustments or not, the Braves are a different team than the one the Phillies completely outclassed last September. That's true even with Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens on the disabled list, although obviously the Braves' chances improve if either or both returns in time for the playoffs.

Without Hanson and Jurrjens, the Braves would have a postseason rotation of two veterans -- Hudson and Derek Lowe -- and two rookies -- Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor.

"We feel like we'd be in pretty good shape," Braves general manager Frank Wren said.

A year ago, they weren't. Jones was hurt and missed the playoffs. Martin Prado was also hurt, which is why Brooks Conrad had to play (and committed the key errors that helped knock the Braves out of the playoffs against the Giants). Jurrjens was hurt. Billy Wagner was hurt.

"We were a shell of the team we had been in August," Wren said.

They looked like no match at all for the Phillies, no matter what the standings said in mid-September.

They look like an underdog this year, but one with a shot.

"We feel like we're very competitive," Wren said. "I think [the Phillies] are the best team in the NL, but we feel like every time we play them, we can win.

"I don't think there's much separation between the two teams."

I'm not sure I'd go that far. The Phillies clearly look like the best team in the league, and maybe in all of baseball, just as they did entering the playoffs last year.

But last year, I'd have given the Braves no chance. This year, I'd say, they've got a shot.

Category: MLB
Posted on: September 5, 2011 7:40 pm

Phils file protest from Sunday game in Florida

PHILADELPHIA -- The Phillies began play Monday with a 7 1/2-game lead in the National League East. They basically held a 16-game lead in the race to make the playoffs.

In the 26 days remaining in the regular season, the Phillies have 28 games left to play.

There's no time to replay Sunday's disputed game in Florida, and no need to play it.

And yet, the Phillies have filed a formal protest of the game, saying that umpire Joe West erred in using video replay to call Hunter Pence out because of fan interference on a play in the sixth inning. Pence lost a double on the overturned call, and the Phillies eventually lost the game to the Marlins, 5-4 in 14 innings.

"I think we're just trying to do what we think is right," Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro said Monday.

It's really not clear what is right. Replay is only allowed if the umpires have a question of whether a ball left the park for a home run, or whether a ball would have been a home run if not for fan interference.

The Phillies contend that Pence's ball was never going to be, and was never ruled as, a home run.

It seems unlikely that the Phillies' protest would be upheld, but even if it is, it seems unlikely that the game would be replayed. The Phillies and Marlins are scheduled to meet on Sept. 15, but that is already a doubleheader to make up games lost to Hurricane Irene.

The Phillies have no scheduled off-days, and unless they somehow lost the 16-game advantage on the Cardinals (who began Monday second in the wild-card race), there would be no reason to complete the game in Florida.

Category: MLB
Tags: Marlins, Phillies
Posted on: September 4, 2011 9:42 pm

3 to Watch: The return of Strasburg edition

Stephen Strasburg returns to the major leagues Tuesday night, and as interesting as it will be to see how he pitches, it'll be even more interesting to see if the buzz is back.

Can he make us care, the way he did last year? Can he make us ask every day, "Is Strasburg pitching tonight?"

It's different, I know. He's been out for a year after Tommy John surgery. It's September, not June. He's only going to make four starts at a time when we're more focused on pennant races (if there are any) or football. He's going to be on a pitch limit even stricter than the one the Nationals held him to last year (and will be limited to four innings and 60 pitches in his debut, according to the Washington Post).

"I'm not going to win a Cy Young in four starts," Strasburg told reporters, according to MLB.com.

He didn't win a Cy Young last year. He was 5-3 with a 2.91 ERA in 12 starts, before hurting his elbow in August.

But we were fascinated by him, more than we've been fascinated by any player coming through the minor leagues. We couldn't wait for him to get to the majors, and when he got there, we couldn't wait for his every start.

His debut, with 14 strikeouts in seven innings, was one of the biggest events of the entire season.

It won't be like that Tuesday. It can't be like that Tuesday.

According to the Nationals, there are still tickets available, although they say it should be a bigger crowd than they'd normally have for a September Tuesday against the Dodgers.

There is some anticipation. Strasburg's rehabilitation starts in the minor leagues made national news, and in those six starts he struck out 29 while walking just four.

In his last start, according to the Washington Times, Strasburg topped out at 99 mph on the radar gun.

He threw 99 last June, on his 94th and final pitch of a magical night.

I'm not saying that Tuesday will be as magical, or that it even could be. But I'll be back in Washington to see it, and more than that to feel it.

Will the buzz be back?

On to 3 to Watch:

1. Strasburg underwent surgery on Sept. 3, 2010. He returns to the big leagues on Sept. 6, 2011, in Dodgers at Nationals, Tuesday night (7:05 ET) at Nationals Park. That's a fairly normal progression; Strasburg's teammate Jordan Zimmermann returned one year and seven days after he had Tommy John surgery. Zimmermann returned on the same day that Bryce Harper had his introductory press conference and Strasburg underwent an arthogram that showed he would need Tommy John surgery, too.

2. On Aug. 15, the Rangers had a four-game lead in the American League West, and that night they began a 23-game stretch in which they played every game against a team that (as of Sunday morning) had a record of .500 or better. The Rangers ended the weekend with a 3 1/2-game lead over the Angels, and they'll end that tough stretch with Rangers at Rays, Thursday afternoon (1:10 ET) at Tropicana Field. After that game, the Rangers will have 18 games left on their schedule, and only six of those 18 (three at home against the Indians, three in Anaheim against the Angels) will be against teams with winning records. So if the Angels want to catch up, this week (when they play three home games against the Mariners) could be crucial. It's an interesting pitching matchup for the Rangers Wednesday, with Derek Holland (seven shutout innings last Friday against the Red Sox) facing David Price (who threw eight shutout innings the last time he faced the Red Sox).

3. Last year, both the Phillies and the Braves made the playoffs, but when the teams met in two September series, it was obvious that the Braves were no match. They meet again this week, in a series that ends with Braves at Phillies, Wednesday night (7:05 ET) at Citizens Bank Park. Once again, the Phillies have basically wrapped up the division title (which will be their fifth straight), and this time the Braves are far ahead in the wild-card race. This time, at least going in, the Braves seem a more competitive match for the Phils. But with Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens both battling injuries, the Braves might need to rely more than they'd like on rookie Brandon Beachy, who starts Wednesday against Roy Oswalt (who the Phillies will be watching carefully).

Posted on: August 24, 2011 11:37 am
Edited on: August 24, 2011 12:03 pm

So maybe it really isn't about the money

Players always go for the most money.

Except when they don't.

Except when Cliff Lee says, "At some point, enough is enough." Except when Jered Weaver says, "Could have got more. Whatever. Who cares?"

Except when Zack Greinke says, sorry Nationals, it's not your money, it's your team. Except when Roy Halladay says, "This is where we wanted to be."

There's a trend developing here, and it might be bad news for the Yankees.

The old rule of thumb was that free agents -- or even free-agents-to-be -- always signed for the biggest contract. And the Yankees always knew they could offer that biggest contract, if they wanted to.

But what if that's not true anymore?

What if the best players decide that once the money gets big enough -- $17 million a year, or $20 million a year, or $24 million a year -- an extra $1 million or $2 million or $30 million isn't going to buy happiness?

What happens is that Halladay gets himself traded to the one team he wanted to play for. What happens is that Greinke turns down a non-contending Nationals team (that offered him a big-money extension) so he can go to a contender in Milwaukee (under his current contract). What happens is that Lee turns down more guaranteed money, because he wants to be back in Philladelphia.

And what happens is that Weaver, as colleague Scott Miller details, bucks the Scott Boras trend. Instead of waiting for free agency (after 2012) and even bigger bucks, he tells Boras that "money really wasn't an option for me" and re-signs with the Angels.

Actually, two trends are at work here. With more money available throughout the game, more and more young aces -- Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander and now Weaver -- never get to free agency. Hernandez and Verlander both would have been free agents this winter, if they hadn't signed extensions.

Imagine that bidding frenzy.

Or maybe not. Maybe, even if they had gone to the market, both would have signed for less than the last available dollar. Maybe both would have turned down the Yankees.

We always snickered when free agents said, "It's not about the money," before or after taking the biggest deal they could find.

But maybe there's a point where it really isn't "all about the money." And maybe now, we're reaching that point.

Posted on: August 17, 2011 7:51 pm
Edited on: August 17, 2011 10:50 pm

Diamondbacks are the true surprise team

PHILADELPHIA -- The Pirates have fallen back under .500.

The Indians have fallen out of first place.

The summer of surprise in baseball seems to have ended a little early . . . unless you count the Diamondbacks.

And why shouldn't we be counting them?

"These guys have been flying under the radar," said Lyle Overbay, who spent the first four months of the season with the surprising Pirates, and is in his first week with the surprising Diamondbacks.

They lost more games last year than the Indians did. They looked as bad this spring as the Indians and Pirates, too.

And almost three weeks into August, the Diamondbacks began play Wednesday 3 1/2 games up on the defending World Series champions.

They're far from the point that we should consider them a lock for the postseason, and in fact that 3 1/2-game lead shrunk to 2 1/2 games on Wednesday night. It's worth remembering that the Padres held a four-game lead over the Giants on this date a year ago, and that the Diamondbacks held a 4 1/2-game lead over the Dodgers in late August 2008.

"We fell apart at the seams [that year]," Justin Upton said.

It took two years to put them back together, two years of 90-plus losses. It took two managerial changes, a general manager change, and enough roster turnover so that Upton, Chris Young and injured shortstop Stephen Drew are the only regulars remaining from that team.

It took Upton becoming a true MVP candidate at age 23, after a winter in which the Diamondbacks briefly considered trading him away.

But here they are, the only one of baseball's surprise teams that's still in a playoff spot, a spot that would most likely see them right back here in Philadelphia in six weeks' time. Here they are, the surprise team that got overlooked while we were focused on those other surprise teams.

"That's OK," Young said. "If everybody's talking about you too much, maybe your head gets too big. But if nobody's talking about you, maybe your confidence gets down."

The Diamondbacks seem to have little problem with confidence. They're 3-1 this year against the Phillies, including a Tuesday night win in which they became the first team ever (in 53 attempts) to come from behind in the ninth inning to beat Roy Halladay.

"We feel like we can play at this level, no doubt," Upton said.

The Diamondbacks came into their clubhouse after that game and watched the second-place Giants lose in extra innings against the Braves. But those who were there noticed that the Diamondbacks weren't fixated on the Giants, and didn't spend much time celebrating their loss.

"As long as we win, it's fine," closer J.J. Putz said.

As with so many other things that Diamondbacks players say, those words could easily have come out of manager Kirk Gibson's mouth.

There's no doubt that Gibson sets the tone for this team. They believe in themselves the way he believed in himself, and they fight back the way he fought back (as evidenced by their big-league high 35 come-from-behinid wins).

He would never want to admit surprise, because he begins every season thinking his team can win. Besides, he would never celebrate staying in the race through mid-August.

"We'll stay humble," Gibson said. "We've accomplished nothing. We put our head in there the first day of the season -- the Diamondbacks are in. The only thing we can say now is that the Diamondbacks are still in."

They're still in, while the Pirates have slid out and the Indians are in danger of doing the same.

There is a surprise team in baseball this year. The Diamondbacks are it.

Posted on: August 14, 2011 7:48 pm
Edited on: August 14, 2011 7:58 pm

3 to Watch: The Giant series in Atlanta edition

Before they were champions, the Giants were just trying to get out of Turner Field with their season still alive.

They trailed the Braves by a run with two out in the ninth inning of Game 3, an out away from going down in the series two games to one and facing elimination the following night. In 27 2/3 innings against Braves pitching, they had scored just five earned runs.

In their entire magical month, the Giants would never come closer to going home disappointed.

They made it out of Atlanta, thanks to a big hit from Aubrey Huff and a couple of big errors from Brooks Conrad, and then an Alex Gonzalez error and a Cody Ross hit the following night.

They went on to win it all, and they never came as close to elimination as they were on that Sunday night at Turner Field.

The Giants are back in Atlanta this week, and while it's an exaggeration to say that they need to save their season again, they certainly aren't coasting back to the playoffs. With 11 losses in their last 16 games, the Giants have allowed the Diamondbacks to grab a two-game lead in the National League West.

If they get to October, the Giants could well run into the Braves again (although based on the standings after the weekend, the NL West winner would open against the Phillies). They'd face a different Braves team than the one they beat last October, because Chipper Jones, Martin Prado and Jair Jurrjens missed that series with injuries, and Dan Uggla and Michael Bourn weren't yet with the Braves.

Even so, the Giants only outscored Atlanta 11-9 in the four playoff games, and just eight of the Giants' 11 runs were earned. The Giants hit .212 with a .583 OPS in the series.

They won, and they went on to win it all.

But they'll never forget those nights at Turner Field.

On to 3 to Watch:

1. At the July 31 deadline, the Braves refused to trade any of their four big pitching prospects. Now two of the four are in the big leagues, and a third -- Randall Delgado -- will arrive in time to start in Giants at Braves, Tuesday night (7:10 ET) at Turner Field. The 21-year-old Delgado has made just two starts in Triple-A, but he won both and didn't give up a run in either of them. Delgado made a spot start for the Braves earlier this year, losing to the Rangers. He joines Mike Minor in the rotation (Minor will face Tim Lincecum on Thursday), while Arodys Vizcaino is in the bullpen, and Julio Teheran (who made two spot starts earlier in the year remains in Triple-A.

2. Justin Verlander, who won his 100th game last Thursday in Cleveland, has the most wins of any active pitcher under 30. No surprise there. But did you realize that Ervin Santana is second, with 85? And did you realize that Santana's ERA since the All-Star break is 1.09, the best of any big-league starter? Santana makes his most important start yet, facing C.J. Wilson in Rangers at Angels, Wednesday night (10:05 ET) at Angel Stadium. The Rangers, who led the second-place Angels by just one game a week ago, opened up a four-game lead on Sunday, heading into the four-game series that begins Monday night.

3. Santana has the best ERA in baseball since the All-Star break. Ian Kennedy has the most wins, with six (to go with a 2.14 ERA). Kennedy and the surprising Diamondbacks get a big test this week, with a trip that will take them to Philadelphia (where they'll see both Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee) and to Atlanta. Kennedy faces Vance Worley in Diamondbacks at Phillies, Thursday night (7:05 ET) at Citizens Bank Park.

Posted on: August 4, 2011 9:09 pm
Edited on: August 4, 2011 10:16 pm

3 to Watch: The second wild card (now!) edition

The teams with the two best records in the American League meet this weekend, and it means next to nothing.

Baseball's top rivalry resumes this weekend, with first place on the line, except that in this case, second place is basically as good as first.

If commissioner Bud Selig has the best interests of baseball in mind, he'll forget about Alex Rodriguez's supposed poker games, and do the one thing that would make this version of Yankees-Red Sox truly important.

Can we get the second wild-card team added for this year?

I realize it can't happen. I realize baseball is heading towards adding the second wild-card team in 2012, and that's the best we're going to get.

But if you're one of those who still don't believe in the concept, just look at what the current system has done to a series that should be great.

The Red Sox and Yankees have been separated by no more than 2 1/2 games in the standings since the middle of May. The Red Sox have dominated the first nine head-to-head meetings, winning eight of them, but the Yankees have done better against everyone else.

The Red Sox have been winning like crazy, but so have the Yankees.

It's a great race, except for one thing: They're both going to the playoffs, and there's only a minimal reward for winning the division rather than the wild card.

In fact, if the season ended today, the division winner would play the Tigers, which means facing Justin Verlander twice in a five-game series. The wild card would play the Rangers, who may be better overall, but don't have a Verlander-like ace.

A second wild-card team solves most of this.

With a second wild-card, winning the division means avoiding a one-game play-in against a team like the Angels. It means not just an extra day of rest, but also the chance to save your best available pitcher for the first game of the Division Series.

Yes, the Yankees already want to beat the Red Sox, and vice versa. But in the current system, in a year like this, with both teams nearly guaranteed a playoff spot and little distinction between a division winner and a wild card, there's very little penalty for not winning the division.

And that's too bad.

On to 3 to Watch:

1. When the Yankees didn't trade for a starting pitcher at the deadline, general manager Brian Cashman suggested that Bartolo Colon would be as good a No. 2 starter as anyone he could acquire. So let's see how Colon matches up against Jon Lester, his mound opponent in Yankees at Red Sox, Friday night (7:10 ET) at Fenway Park. Lester has won both his starts against the Yankees this year, despite giving up seven runs in 12 innings. He's won his last five starts against the Yankees, dating back to last year. Colon has lost both of his 2011 starts against the Red Sox, despite going 10 1/3 innings and allowing just three earned runs.

2. One of those pitchers the Yankees passed on, and the only one who realistically could have slotted as a No. 2 starter, was Ubaldo Jimenez, who debuts for Cleveland in Indians at Rangers, Friday night (8:05 ET) at Rangers Ballpark. He faces Derek Holland, who has three complete-game shutouts in his last five starts, and also shut out the Indians in June at Progressive Field.

3. The Phillies broke their five-year string of trading for a starting pitcher at midseason, in large part because they knew Roy Oswalt was coming back from the disabled list. The Phillies also decided against trading for a reliever, in part because Oswalt's return means that either he or Vance Worley can move to the bullpen for the playoffs. Oswalt returns from the DL in Phillies at Giants, Sunday afternoon (4:05 ET) at AT&T Park. Tim Lincecum, the guy Charlie Manuel said was "good, not great," starts for the Giants.

Posted on: August 3, 2011 1:11 pm

So you're saying there's a chance?

I understand not giving up hope, especially with two months to go.

I understand that weird things can happen in the final two weeks of a baseball season, let alone the final two months. I saw the 2006 and 2009 Tigers up close, and the 2008 Mets, too. I saw the 2007 Mets from a distance.

But as I sat at Citi Field on Tuesday, listening to the .500 Mets and Marlins talk about their "pennant race," I found myself nodding to keep from laughing.

Pennant race? Mets? Marlins?

So I went to consult the friendly computers at Cool Standings, which look at these things without laughing. They assured me that the Mets have just a 4.8 percent chance of making the playoffs, with the Marlins even further behind, at 2.2 percent.  (You can use the computers at Baseball Prospectus if you prefer, but I use Cool Standings because it's, well, cool -- and besides, BP gives the Mets and Marlins even less chance at the playoffs).

But here's the question: What exactly does that mean? A 4.8 percent chance is just about 1 in 20. Does that mean that if the Mets were in this spot 20 consecutive years -- and sometimes it feels like they have been -- they would make the playoffs one time?

Perhaps that's true, but when I went back through the entire wild-card era (back to 1995), I couldn't find one team that had a 4.8 percent chance on Aug. 3 and made it. The closest was Phil Garner's 2004 Astros, who were at 9.0 percent on Aug. 3.

Those same cool computers say that the Phillies (99.6 percent), the Yankees (97.6) and the Red Sox (97.3) are all virtual locks to be in the postseason (the fourth highest percentage belongs to the Braves, at 66.1). Your eyes probably tell you the same thing.

But 99.6 isn't 100, as anyone who remembers the 1995 Angels could tell you. Cool Standings wasn't around in '95, but when they went back and calculated the Angels' playoff chances as of Aug. 3 that year, they came up with 99.8 -- and the Angels went 22-34 from that point on and missed the playoffs.

So yes, I am saying there's a chance.

But not for the Mets and Marlins.


A couple of other things that surprised or interested me, and may surprise or interest you:

-- The Tigers, according to the computers, now have far and away the best chance of winning the American League Central. Cool Standings put them at 61.3 percent (just about exactly the same as the Rangers' chance of winning the AL West), while Baseball Prospectus says it's 74.5 percent.

-- The computers totally disagree on the National League West. Cool says the Diamondbacks are now favorites, at 55.8 percent. BP still loves the Giants, at 85.8 percent.

-- The computers come up with the percentages by simulating the rest of the season 1 million times. According to the Cool computer, the only teams that didn't make the playoffs in any of those 1 million simulations were the Orioles and Astros.

Category: MLB
The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com