Teams battle for playoffs as baseball makes some changes
As September comes to a close, it’s time for the Boys of Summer to get prepared for the Fall Classic.
As usual, the teams’ rosters have been expanded since the beginning of the month and the mad scramble for playoff berths is under way.
But 2012 has had the feeling of a transitional year for baseball.
The first, most noticeable, change is the introduction this season of a second wildcard team, meaning a winner-takes-all single game playoff in each league for the two teams with the best records that did not win their divisions.
The second is that this is the final year of the 16-team National League and 14-team American League standings.
Next year, the woeful Houston Astros will join the American League to even out the numbers, creating a whole other set of headaches.
With 15 teams in each league, it means there will have to be an inter-league game every day instead of in a short mid-season frenzy.
While this, in theory at least, brings more intra-city series, such as in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco, it’s not really going to mean that many more inter-league games.
It will just mean the main difference between the leagues — the American League uses a designated hitter who bats instead of the pitcher — will be highlighted throughout the year.
And, somehow, I think it will benefit the AL teams, who won’t have to shelve their DHs for weeks at a time. That’s besides having the Astros to beat up on all year.
Besides these structural changes — and there are more to come, probably concerning expanded use of video replay — there’s a feeling of a changing of the guard on the field as well.
The National League seems fairly wrapped up, with the Washington Nationals surprising one and all by setting the best record in baseball in 2012.
Joining them in October should be late astronaut Neil Armstrong’s beloved Big Red Machine from Cincinnati and the San Francisco Giants — who have easily overcome the loss to a doping ban of Melky Cabrera and the loss of form of pitching ace Tim Lincecum.
The Atlanta Braves, in third base legend Chipper Jones’s final season, seem to have one of the wildcard spots wrapped up, while the other looks to be a fight between last season’s World Series-winning St Louis Cardinals, the big-spending Los Angeles Dodgers (recently saved from the McCourt family troubles by a group fronted by Magic Johnson) and the late-charging Philadelphia Phillies.
At the moment, the New York Yankees, Texas Rangers and Chicago White Sox lead the American League divisions, with only the Rangers having any cushion over their chasing pack.
The teams pushing for the wildcards are not your usual suspects: the Baltimore Orioles and Oakland Athletics are looking good for that one-game showdown in the AL.
The big-spending Detroit Tigers and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are still there or thereabouts in the wildcard reckoning, as are the Tampa Bay Rays, but the biggest bust of the season has to be the Boston Red Sox.
John Henry’s group (which also owns Liverpool FC) took out a full-page advert in New England newspapers last year to apologise to fans for missing out on the playoffs on the last day of the season.
This season Henry might as well book some more space — with two weeks to go, Red Sox Nation knows their team are out of contention for even the wild card.
But Boston, who won the World Series in 2004 to break the Curse of the Bambino (and won again 2007), are not the story of a superb team slowly ageing and failing. It’s a tale of excess, spoilt brats and dysfunctional relationships.
At the end of last season Henry and his colleagues fired manager Terry Francona to try to stop the rot.
When things went the same way under Bobby Valentine, they took the unprecedented step of effectively firing the team.
First Kevin Youklis went to the White Sox, then in a Fenway equivalent of the Augean stables, out went Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and others to the Dodgers.
It that doesn’t work, it might be another 86-year wait for the World Series.