Thursday, October 6, 2011

Seven Games in September, Part I


Jonathan Bernhardt is a freelance writer born in Baltimore, Maryland who lives and works in New York City. His very first concrete memory of the Baltimore Orioles is Game 1 of the 1996 American League Championship Series. He hopes they either get good or move to the American League Central before his liver fails. You can follow him on Twitter.

I. The Mathematics of Emotion
Since the last round of expansion in 1998, the 30 teams of Major League Baseball play a regular season of 2,430 games across six months—roughly 13 of them a day, sometimes more, sometimes less. Each of these games in turn lasts nine innings; some go longer, but for simplicity, let's say nine innings. That's 21,870 innings, bare minimum, each year.

Each team plays 162 of these games, roughly 26 per month. One thousand, four hundred fifty-eight innings—the regular season is unkind. It is long and grueling, and it bleeds together until games are just moments of madness linked by double plays, blown saves and fat men behind home plate. In the end, the difference between elite and hopeless teams is 40. A 100-win team is going direct to the playoffs; a 100-loss team is going direct the other way.

The Baltimore Orioles won 98 games in the 1997 regular season. Between then and last Monday, the team played 2,096 games of regulation baseball. In a few years, they will pass that 2,430 number. When you dream of Hell, pray you dream of lakes of fire and men with farm tools, not of 20,000-odd innings of the Baltimore Orioles playing the Baltimore Orioles, 13 hours a day, every day, all the way down. If you do, pray you wake up. If you don't, pay attention to Daniel Cabrera's year; it's possible this is the change of scenery he needed.

But that moment is still terrible basement-dwelling seasons away. Last Monday, the number stood at 2,096. Our story begins before the first of those; it begins with one last great fight between Could Have Been and Never Was.

It has been 14 years since the Orioles lost four games to the Cleveland Indians.

That they lost is not remarkable; the Orioles lose games all the time. They lose in March, May, July and even September. These four games, however, were played in October—in the middle of the month, over the course of one week, from the second Wednesday to the third. These losses are special because they are the last losses the Orioles recorded in postseason play. They may be the last losses the Orioles ever record in postseason play. They certainly will be for the foreseeable future.

To hear Orioles fans tell it now, the Good Years ended one postseason prior, at the hands of Derek Jeter, Jeffrey Maier and Rich Garcia—the Hall of Fame shortstop, the infamous fan and the all-but-forgotten umpire. But the 1997 American League Championship Series is a more fitting goodbye to all that—a meaningless footnote of a series between the two nearly-great also-rans of the American League in the 1990s, the high-water mark for both the Cleveland and Baltimore franchises before their waves rolled back. The Orioles went wire-to-wire in the American League East and had the second-highest payroll in baseball behind the Yankees; the Indians went to the World Series, only to be humiliated by an expansion team. The Indians lost the ALCS to the Yankees the next year; they would not be back for another decade. Both rosters had multiple Hall of Fame-caliber players: Ripken, Jr., Palmiero and Mussina for Baltimore, Thome and Ramirez for Cleveland. By the end of 2001, only Thome remained. By the end of 2002, none did.

Cleveland has had hope, in part because of better ownership, in part because of weaker competition, in part because of luck. They contended this year. The last time the Orioles contended was 2005, when they and their new neighbors, the Washington Nationals, were the best teams in their leagues going into the All-Star Break. Both humiliated themselves with mirror-image, awe-inspiring second-half collapses, losing 48 and 45 games of their last 75 respectively.

Those collapses happened for a reason: those teams weren't that good. They played over their heads. They relied on pitchers like Rodrigo Lopez, Ryan Drese and Bruce Chen. Remember Bruce Chen. We'll get back to him.

2005 broke the Orioles. Rafael Palmiero's second stint with the team ended in a fireball of steroids recriminations and public embarrassment, his behavior likely costing him a place in Cooperstown. To his credit, Sidney Ponson spread his malefactions over the next few years and had the good grace to do most of his worst shit in Aruba. Meanwhile, in New York, Mike Mussina became a fan favorite.

The next few years are best signified with names. Free associate the following:

Miguel Tejada.

Jay Gibbons.

Adam Loewen.

Kevin Millar.

Steve Trachsel.

Brandon Fahey, Juan Castro, Alex Cintron, Luis Hernandez, and Freddie Bynum, Jr.

There are too many—Jamie Walker—to properly name them all—Danys Baez—and give each awful little star amongst them—Garrett Atkins—his due time to shine. Corey Patterson.

That said, they paint a picture of a franchise so bad it was accused of intentionally hurting the on-field product to prevent Washington from getting the Expos; of an owner who strives in vain, year in and year out, to become the tinpot Steinbrenner of the Mid-Atlantic; of a breathtaking series of clueless, inane and downright bizarre front-office hires. At one point, the franchise had two General Managers. On purpose.

Take a long, hard look at that picture; fix it in your mind. Then forget it. All that matters is seven games in September: four in Massachusetts, three in Maryland. At least for now, the insane mathematics of emotion have made seven greater than 2,096.

The Boston Red Sox walk a considerably different road to reach Fenway the third Monday in September.

They need no introduction, the dirt dogs, the lovable losers, the—let's stop there lest we vomit. The Sox are a billion dollar organization with a strong, national brand. Once John Henry showed up, they started acting like it: World Series Champions in 2004 and 2007, consistently top three in payroll, an excellent organization in all aspects, from drafting to scouting to roster acquisitions. No one wants to hear, "But Crawford—" or, "But Lackey...." If Red Sox Nation is dissatisfied with the operating costs of Theo Epstein's tenure, they're more than welcome to have Daniel Duquette and a bullet for free.

This year was supposed to be a very good year in Boston; even better than the past two or three. Their fanbase built themselves into a war frenzy over Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, the offseason's two primary acquisitions. It failed to register that Adrian Beltre signed with the Texas Rangers, and Victor Martinez left for the Detroit Tigers. This came close to a push. Beltre is elite in every facet of the game, and Martinez joins the short list of catchers whose bat is not a bonus but a force. On the other hand, Gonzalez is an elite first baseman and one of the top ten hitters currently playing, and Carl Crawford is... fast. Boston media looked at the lineup and pronounced the Red Sox the best team in baseball, and, though they should have known better, Red Sox Nation believed them.

By the beginning of September it's not only clear that the Sox aren't the best team in baseball, they're not even the best team in their division. Nevertheless they hold a commanding nine-game wild card lead over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim — Mike Scoscia's annual enigma wrapped in a mystery being bunted over to second — and the Tampa Bay Rays, who are in something of a rebuilding year. Since Tampa Bay General Manager Andrew Friedman's front office is nothing short of amazing, they're still starting the last month of the season 13 games above .500. They play lots of young guys. Lots of cost-controlled young guys. And while Boston is the clear offensive powerhouse in the wild card chase, both the Angels and the Rays have something the Sox dearly need: elite, healthy, deep starting pitching.

Jon Lester is a Cy Young candidate. That is the best that can be said about the Boston staff that straggles into the home clubhouse on September 19. Josh Beckett looks old and inconsistent. He's had a very good—potentially great—year, but he's also pitched through an ankle injury. Tim Wakefield actually is old and inconsistent, yet he's repeatedly run out to get his 200th win as a Sox pitcher. He limped to this milestone a scant few days earlier against the Toronto Blue Jays on attempt number six, after giving up 22 runs in his last 26 innings.

Daisuke Matzusaka is long gone; after 37 horrendous innings, he vanished in June either for Tommy John surgery or the Witness Protection Program. Issues off the field and terrible performances on it have ruined John Lackey's season. The Sox acquired Erik Bedard, the ex-Oriole starter, from the Seattle Mariners at the trade deadline to shore up their rotation; his shoulder and hips and ankle and everything else aren't what they once were. The expanded September rosters have also allowed them to bring pitching prospects up from Triple A Pawtucket to see if they're a match for Major League hitters. They're not.

By Monday, Tampa Bay is no longer knocking on the door; they kicked it down four days ago and have just finished taking three games from the Sox in Fenway. All is not lost. Boston still has a two-game lead in the wild card, and the season series with Tampa is over. The Rays can't directly gain ground on Boston: if the Sox and Rays win out, the Sox are in; if the Sox and Rays lose out, the Sox are in. The Rays have to win two more games than the Sox to even tie. Boston controls its own destiny.

And the Angels? They're four games back with ten to play. While Boston got knocked around over the weekend, Los Angeles dropped two of three to the last-place Orioles. Tonight the Angels begin a four-game series in Toronto that they'll split, and they'll close out the season with a six-game homestand—three against the Oakland Athletics, three against the Rangers. They will win only one of these. A week from now, on September 26, 2011, the AL West champion Rangers will eliminate them from contention for postseason play.

But on the third Monday in September, it's quite likely that Boston manager Terry Francona doesn't give a rat's ass about the Angels, the Rangers or any other team in baseball with three exceptions: the Rays, who loom in Boston's rear-view mirror; the first-place Yankees, who host the Sox for one more three-game set six days from now, and those same Orioles that just finished helping Boston by taking two of three from Anaheim. In fact, the only reason the wild card race isn't even closer—or, heaven forfend, tied—is that, before the series against the Angels, the Orioles hosted Tampa Bay for three games and took two from them as well.

Over the last 11 days of September, due to a combination of intentional scheduling and postponed bouts from the earlier months of this rain-soaked season, both Boston and the Rays will play one divisional opponent seven times. The Sox have drawn the 62-win Orioles; the Rays, the 91-win Yankees. Boston's season hinges on whether the Sox can beat the worst team in the American League more times than Tampa Bay can beat the best.

Since Francona is a very good manager, he knows that the gulf between how hard this sounds and how hard it is yawns wider than outsiders imagine. This is not professional football; this is a sport where going 18-1 isn't a tragedy but a phenomenal three weeks, where legends fail only sixty percent of the time, where the greatest gap between world-beaters and cupcakes is 40 wins.

Forget narratives. Forget momentum. Forget chemistry and clubhouse leadership, and while you're at it, toss out matchups, splits, spreadsheets and statistical models. The only time a Bill James almanac should come out over seven games is if you find your chair leg wobbling as you lean back and watch. Great teams lose seven games all the time. Terrible teams win seven games all the time. Sometimes, all the brilliance and experience money can buy amounts to nothing more than knowing the consequences of guessing poorly.

This how the day-night doubleheader on September 19, 2011 begins.

II: The ChaseIII: Birds in Fall