September 2011

Before things get real …

I wanted to end this regular season properly — by giving you a way to totally disagree with me.

Here are my awards picks …

NL MVP: Ryan Braun

As I wrote recently, Braun deserves the hardware because his numbers are very comparable to those of his only competition — Matt Kemp — except he performed for a playoff team. Sure, it isn’t Kemp’s fault the Dodgers weren’t even close to the NL West title (and if it weren’t for him, they may be one of baseball’s worst clubs). But I believe that in order for a player on a non-playoff team to win MVP, his numbers have to easily be better than everyone else’s. I think Braun’s stack up pretty well. 

AL MVP: Justin Verlander

Yes, I wrote a month ago that Verlander isn’t worthy of the MVP. But a lot has changed in a month. I’m not totally against giving a pitcher the MVP trophy. I just think that a starting pitcher (especially a starting pitcher in these days, when workloads aren’t as expansive as they used to be) should only get it in the most extreme of circumstances — during a transcendent season when no position player sticks out. Well, that is now the case. Adrian Gonzalez and Jacoby Ellsbury can’t get it for a collapsing Red Sox team, Jose Bautista fell off a bit down the stretch, and I’m not comfortable giving it to Curtis Granderson when teammate Robinson Cano is clearly the better player. Verlander had been outstanding this season, and that continued in the final month. It’s time. 

NL Cy Young: Clayton Kershaw

There’s a lot of deserving pitchers in the Senior Circuit, but when you win a Triple Crown like Kershaw did — leading in wins, ERA and strikeouts — you get the Cy Young. I prioritize players on playoff teams for the MVP; not for the Cy. 

AL Cy Young: Verlander

I’m giving it to the Tigers’ ace — even though I’d be tempted to try and create history by having the first pitcher win an MVP and not a Cy Young. 

NL Rookie of the Year: Craig Kimbrel

Kimbrel may have fallen off when his team needed him down the stretch, but he was still fantastic all season, setting a rookie saves record and (until the very end) having a major impact for a contending team. No NL rookie had close to as big an impact. 

AL Rookie of the Year: Jeremy Hellickson

Ivan Nova’s numbers (16 wins, 3.70 ERA) are pretty comparable, but Hellickson put up 13 wins, had a 2.95 ERA and was the heavily-relied-upon No. 3 starter for a Rays team that rode its starting rotation to a surprising trip to the playoffs. 

NL Manager of the Year: Kirk Gibson

Is there any question? The D-backs went from last in the NL West to first in the NL West without adding any high-impact players to their roster. Gibson, in his first full season as manager, gets a lot of credit for that. 

AL Manager of the Year: Joe Maddon 

Nothing to really argue about here, either. Maddon guided a team with the second-lowest payroll in baseball’s toughest division to the most improbable of playoff runs. A big reason why the Rays made it stems from the culture the easy-going Maddon has created. It works. 

AL All-Stars
C: Mike Napoli (.320 BA, 30 HR, 75 RBI)
1B: Adrian Gonzalez (.338 BA, 27 HR, 117 RBI)
2B: Robinson Cano (.302 BA, 28 HR, 118 RBI)
3B: Michael Young (.338 BA, 11 HR, 106 RBI)
SS: Asdrubal Cabrera (.273 BA, 25 HR, 92 RBI)
LF: Curtis Granderson (.262 BA, 41 HR, 119 RBI)
CF: Jacoby Ellsbury (.321 BA, 32 HR, 105 RBI)
RF: Jose Bautista (.302 BA, 43 HR, 103 RBI)
DH: Miguel Cabrera (.344 BA, 30 HR, 105 RBI)
SP: Justin Verlander (24-5, 2.40 ERA)
SP: CC Sabathia (19-8, 3.00 ERA)
SP: Jered Weaver (18-8, 2.41 ERA)
RP: Jose Valverde (2.24 ERA, 49-49 SV)
RP: Mariano Rivera (1.91 ERA, 44 SV)

NL All-Stars
C: Brian McCann (.270 BA, 24 HR, 71 RBI)
1B: Albert Pujols (.299 BA, 37 HR, 99 RBI)
2B: Brandon Phillips (.300 BA, 18 HR, 82 RBI)
3B: Aramis Ramirez (.306 BA, 26 HR, 93 RBI)
SS: Jose Reyes (.337 BA, 44 RBI, 39 SB)
LF: Ryan Braun (.332 BA, 33 HR, 111 RBI)
CF: Matt Kemp (.324 BA, 39 HR, 126 RBI)
RF: Justin Upton (.289 BA, 31 HR, 88 RBI)
DH: Prince Fielder (.299 BA, 38 HR, 120 RBI)
SP: Clayton Kershaw (21-5, 2.28 ERA)
SP: Roy Halladay (19-6, 2.35 ERA)
SP: Cliff Lee (17-8, 2.40 ERA)
RP: Craig Kimbrel (2.10 ERA, 46 SV)
RP: J.J. Putz (2.17 ERA, 45 SV)

World Series prediction: Phillies over Tigers in 6

– Alden 

* Filed recently: Collapses lead to second thoughts; resilient Rays can’t be counted out; Ozzie can bring new dimension to Marlins; and goodbye, Joe Robbie Stadium. 

** I’ll be at Yankees-Tigers in the first round. CC-Verlander in Game 1. Can’t complain. 

Playoffs or not, Rays’ resurgence has been remarkable

NEW YORK – History will forget about the Rays if they fail to complete their improbable run. Few remember that the 2006 Astros went from 7 1/2 games out with 11 to go to a half-game out with three left before finishing just short of the Cardinals for the National League Central title. Or that the 1988 Tigers were six out with 11 left and fell a game shy of the Red Sox in the old American League East.

But playing meaningful games in September is an experience that will never leave these young Rays.

“We have a lot of young guys that some of this is new to,” center fielder B.J. Upton said, “and they’re out getting a taste of it right now, and that’s going to help them down the road.”

The Rays may have just dropped three of four to the Yankees, but the Red Sox have lost 12 of their last 15, are falling apart and only hold a two-game lead on Tampa Bay in the AL Wild Card race.

Regardless of how the Rays performed against the Yankees, and regardless of the fact there’s less than a week remaining, two back with six to go doesn’t seem so daunting.

“We’re very fortunate that Baltimore has played as well as they have,” Rays manager Joe Maddon (pictured right by The Associated Press) said. “They played well against us also. They have a nice team, they have a bunch of veterans. So yeah, we’re very fortunate, there’s no question. … I’m not disheartened. I believe we can do this, I believe our players do also. We have to be more efficient on offense.”

The Rays are still in it this late because they pitch and play defense. Their starting rotation has the lowest ERA in the AL (3.51), and they have a chance to become just the seventh AL team since 1970 to lead the league in both total ERA and fielding percentage (they rank second and first, respectively, in the two categories).

But they just don’t hit enough.

Even while taking three of four from the Red Sox over the weekend, the Rays hit just .226 in the series. Before a 15-run barrage against the Yankees on Thursday, they were hitting They’re hitting .224 on this road trip combined, and their batting average sits at just .215 in their last nine games.

It’s very simple with the Rays: To win, they need to keep the score real low.

And when 11 of your last 14 games to finish the season are against the two teams that have scored the most runs in baseball, eventually the odds will turn against you.

“It’s just the way it is,” Maddon said. “We know this is our method, and you know that you’re normally going to have to keep the other team down. We’re normally not going to score a lot of runs.”

Playoffs or not, though, what the Rays have done is truly remarkable.

Their $41 million payroll is four times less than that of the Red Sox (about $161 million) and almost five times less than that of the Yankees ($202 million), and they let go of almost everyone this offseason – from Carl Crawford to Carlos Pena to Matt Garza to Rafael Soriano. But somehow, Maddon and Andrew Friedman continue to churn out winning ballclubs.

The Rays have now clinched four straight winning seasons, still have a shot at their third postseason appearance in four years and, at 12-9, are on their way to their first ever winning September.

They’re amazing everyone but themselves right now.

“We always thought we’d have a chance; we all thought we were still in it,” infielder Sean Rodriguez said. “We never lost hope, just because we knew the teams we played and we knew we could beat them.”

The Rays found themselves 10 games back in the AL Wild Card race on Aug. 7, but thanks to great starting pitching, air-tight defense and the bats of Upton, Evan Longoria and rookie Desmond Jennings (pictured left with Upton by the AP), they’ve since gone 27-16.

Now they’re trying to do what no team in baseball history ever has – make the playoffs despite trailing by nine games in September.

It’d be foolish to count them out now.

“A lot of people didn’t give us a chance, obviously because of the two teams in our division,” Upton said. “But, again, we find a way to do it, found a way to keep ourselves in this race.”

– Alden

* Recently filed: Girardi the unsung hero behind Yanks in ’11; Yanks will face quandary over playoff rotation; Phils’ clincher reflects importance of starting pitching; in playoffs, Rivera is tops

Tragedy strikes 9/11 ‘Faces of Hope’

NEW YORK — When Christine Naman went about compiling her book “Faces of Hope: Babies Born on 9/11″ shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, she sought to bring a positive angle to what would long be considered a national tragedy.

But thinking about it now just takes Naman to another tragedy.

This past Jan. 8, 9-year-old Christine-Taylor Green — among those mentioned in the original “Faces of Hope” book that came out in ’02 — was one of six killed in Tucson, Ariz., during an open meeting U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords held for members of her constituency in a supermarket parking lot.

After the infamous 9/11 attacks, Naman set out to compile pictures and stories from one baby in each state born on that day, then touch base with each of them as their lives progressed every 10 years. In accordance with her new book, “Faces of Hope 10 Years Later: Babies Born on 9/11,” almost half of those kids made their way to New York this week — to meet, to take part in activities and, mostly, to learn about the history of their birthday.

But Naman keeps thinking about the one who can’t be there.

“I can say there wasn’t a word that I wrote, a thought that I had, a photograph I collected or an interview that I did for that second book, where I didn’t wish I could’ve said, ‘Yes, we have all 50 of them,'” Naman said. “We do have all 50 because Christina’s family has blessed us with their participation. But I know that they would’ve been in New York [this] week. I just would give everything if [Christina] would be here, to give her a hug and get to meet her. I know she was an incredible young lady.”

Green was the daughter of Dodgers scout John Green and granddaughter of former Major League pitcher, manager and executive Dallas Green.

Naman will never forget the day she found out about the girl’s tragic death.

That Saturday night at around 11, she received a phone call from a Tucson reporter telling her one of the children in her “Faces of Hope” book had been killed. Since there were no last names in the book, Naman thought it was a mistake. A few hours later, she realized it wasn’t.

“I have a 9-year-old, too, and you just can’t imagine that,” Naman said. “You just can’t wrap your head around that happening, and when it does, it shakes you; just shakes you.”

Naman’s first “Faces of Hope” book was the result of journal entries about how bittersweet it was to give birth to her son, Trevor, on such a tragic day. Naman, she explained, “then felt the need to go beyond that.”

“At first I felt alone,” Naman said. “I felt I was in a solitary position, and then I thought, ‘That’s silly. There have to be other moms out there feeling these mixed emotions.'”

It turns out there were plenty. The following January, Naman began searching online for Sept. 11, 2001, birth announcements in 49 states and quickly got 49 names while hardly having to make more than 49 phone calls.

In the first book, each of the 50 newborns — one of whom is Trevor, who represents Pennsylvania — had a picture and a quote.

In the second, released Aug. 1, they each have an updated photo, a coloring page of how they see America and another quote.

Naman had always planned on doing a 10-year-anniversary book, but she didn’t begin contacting families until after she found out about Green. When Naman spoke to Green’s mother, Roxanna, the two agreed she’d be honored posthumously and would continue to be represented when a new version comes out every decade.

“[Roxanna] was very receptive to that,” Naman said. “She felt it was a kind gesture. I wanted Christina to still have her pages, and she wanted Christina to still have her pages. She’d still be proud of the book because she was always very proud of being in it.”

– Alden 

* Filed this week: Tigers biggest Trade Deadline winners so far; bullpen combos key for contenders; some stars from ’01 still an impact today

** Photo: The Associated Press

DET or TEX — which is the better NYY fit?

Here’s an interesting question: If you’re the Yankees, do you want to win the American League East?

With the Yankees coming off three straight wins and currently leading their division by a half-game over the Red Sox, I found myself doing something managers and players shouldn’t (and wouldn’t) ever do: Thinking about playoff matchups with an entire month of the regular season left.

Barring a late charge by the White Sox, Indians and Angels, the playoff picture looks pretty set right now, with the Yankees, Red Sox, Tigers and Rangers making up the slate. What we don’t know is who will face who in the two five-game AL Division Series, which comes down to matchups more than anything else.

As of right now, the winner of the AL East would face the Tigers and the winner of the AL Wild Card would face the Rangers. Of course, Detroit and Texas can flip-flop, since only a couple of games separate the two. But that brings me to an interesting question: If you’re the Yankees, do you prefer to face the Tigers or the Rangers?

The Rangers are a better all-around team, with a fierce offense, a loaded bullpen and a solid rotation. But with the Tigers, you have to face Cy Young favorite Justin Verlander twice — and we all know how big an impact a staff ace can have on a short series.

Here’s a look at how those matchups played out in the regular season …

VERSUS TIGERS

Season series: Tigers, 4-3 (1-2 at Yankee Stadium, 3-1 at Comerica Park)

Key Yankees pitchers: CC Sabathia (0-1, 4.15 ERA in 2 GS); Freddy Garcia (0-1, 5.14 ERA in 1 GS); Bartolo Colon (5.73 ERA in 2 G, 1 GS); Phil Hughes (11.25 ERA, 1 GS); A.J. Burnett (1-1, 3.75 ERA, 2 GS); Mariano Rivera (0 ER, 2 1/3 IP); Rafael Soriano (0 ER, 1 IP); David Robertson (0 ER, 2 IP); Boone Logan (1 ER, 1 2/3 IP)

Key Tigers pitchers: Justin Verlander (4.50 ERA, 2 GS); Rick Porcello (1-0, 2.57 ERA, 1 GS); Max Scherzer (2-0, 4.15 ERA, 2 GS); Brad Penny (1-1, 6.97 ERA, 2 GS); Jose Valverde (2 ER, 4 2/3 IP); Phil Coke (2 ER, 2 1/3 IP); Joaquin Benoit (0 ER, 2 IP); Daniel Schlereth (1 ER, 4 IP)

Key Yankees hitters: Robinson Cano (.200 BA, 1 HR, 2 RBI); Curtis Granderson (.160 BA, 1 HR, 1 RBI); Alex Rodriguez (.320 BA, 1 HR, 2 RBI); Derek Jeter (.261 BA, 1 RBI, 2 BB); Mark Teixeira (.280 BA, 4 HR, 8 RBI); Brett Gardner (.273 BA, 1 RBI, 4 BB)

Key Tigers hitters: Miguel Cabrera (.417 BA, 2 HR, 8 RBI); Austin Jackson (.167 BA, 1 HR, 2 RBI); Alex Avila (.263 BA, 2 HR, 3 RBI); Victor Martinez (.263 BA, 1 HR, 2 RBI); Jhonny Peralta (.261 BA, 2 RBI, 2 SO); Brennan Boesch (.474 BA, 4 HR, 7 RBI)

Worth noting: The fact the Tigers and Yankees got all their regular-season games against each other out of the way in early May makes it difficult to give these numbers much weight. The Yankees beat up on sub-par pitching, which is what they’ll get every time Verlander doesn’t toe the rubber against them (minus Verlander, Tigers starters are 38-39 with a 4.84 ERA). Verlander is 4-3 with a 3.97 ERA in his career against the Yankees. But the way he’s going right now, two starts in a series for him essentially means two wins for the Tigers, no matter what other factors revolve around him.

VERSUS RANGERS

Season series: Yankees, 7-2 (5-1 at Yankee Stadium, 2-1 at Rangers Ballpark)

Key Yankees pitchers: CC Sabathia (2-0, 5.12 ERA in 2 GS); Freddy Garcia (1-0, 0.00 ERA in 1 GS); Bartolo Colon (10.38 ERA in 1 GS); Mariano Rivera (0 ER, 5 IP); Rafael Soriano (2 ER, 3 2/3 IP); David Robertson (0 ER, 3 1/3 IP); Boone Logan (2 ER, 2 IP)

Key Rangers pitchers: CJ Wilson (2.25 ERA in 1 GS); Alexi Ogando (0-1, 12.38 ERA in 2 GS); Matt Harrison (1-1, 1.93 ERA in 2 GS); Derek Holland (0-2, 8.62 ERA in 3 GS); Neftali Feliz (4 ER, 3 IP); Darren Oliver (0 ER, 4 1/3 IP)

Key Yankees hitters: Robinson Cano (.270 BA, 4 HR, 10 RBI); Brett Gardner (.381 BA, 2 RBI, 1 BB); Curtis Granderson (.438 BA, 6 HR, 13 RBI); Mark Teixeira (.263 BA, 4 HR, 12 RBI); Alex Rodriguez (.208 BA, 3 RBI, 6 BB); Derek Jeter (.385 BA, 2 HR, 3 RBI)

Key Rangers hitters: Elvis Andrus (.263 BA, 2 RBI, 2 BB); Adrian Beltre (.265 BA, 1 HR, 7 RBI); Ian Kinsler (.111, 1 HR, 4 RBI); Michael Young (.400 BA, 1 HR, 4 RBI); Nelson Cruz (.059 BA, 3 BB, 9 SO); Josh Hamilton (.231 BA, 1 RBI, 2 BB)

Worth noting: The Rangers may be the better all-around team, and they may have beaten them in last year’s ALCS, but the Yankees have absolutely dominated the series this year, and their hitters have mashed their good-but-not-great pitching. The Yankees are one of the most difficult teams in baseball to pitch against, because they’re loaded with firepower and because they’re one of the best at working the count and taking pitches. Last year, the Rangers were able to beat them with a clear-cut ace in Cliff Lee leading their staff. This year, the Rangers’ rotation has been very good, but there is no Lee or Verlander in there, which means the Yankees can beat everybody in their rotation.

If you’re New York, do you prefer that matchup, even if it means playing three out of five on the road? Or do you go up against an inferior Tigers team with a superior ace?

That’s the question.

– Alden 

** Filed this week: Verlander remarkable but not worthy of MVP; NL Cy Young a three-man race; former Yankee Bernie goes into Latino HOF; Moore living proof of UYA’s success

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