September 2009

Spoilers’ Banquet

More and more teams are becoming spoiler-proof, as they clinch playoff spots — and heave sighs of relief. But this September has offered vivid proof why contenders hate engaging also-rans at the end of the season.
Wondering where all these frantic finishes — the Twins and Tigers in the AL Central, the Rockies and the Braves in the NL truly-Wild Card — came from? After all, recall that when the month began, this was supposed to be the September to not-remember?
Here’s where: Those hopeless last-place teams, making life miserable for the elite.
Funny, “spoiler” is one of baseball’s venerable concepts, but seldom defined. Let us Webster on it.
The Majors’ six cellar-dwellers have engaged contenders in 92 games thus far this September. They’ve won 38 of them.
While a 38-54 record may seem unimpressive — heck, it is unimpressive — the winning percentage of .413 actually is superior to the six teams’ full-season body of work.
The best finishing kick among the six belongs to the A’s, who are 17-8 this month and personally ruined the Rangers’ postseason dreams by beating Texas five out of seven.
But the Royals also rate. They’re responsible for throwing the AL Central race into a pretzel. Kansas City’s 14-12 month includes a 5-1 low-blow to the Tigers.
Seems like taking championship hopes against teams long in wait-till-next-year mode is like leaving milk out of the refrigerator.

Chipper’s misery has little company

Larry Jones isn’t so Chipper these days.
The guy at the not-so-hot corner for the Braves keeps talking about making next season his last if 2010 turns out to be as personally frustrating as 2009 has been.
“The game is not fun to me when I’m not playing up to my standards,” is how Chipper Jones puts it.
And this is what he’s talking about:
Jones is in danger of the biggest decline of any reigning batting champ in National League history (among batting-race qualifiers, to discount injury-caused drops).
His average of .269 entering tonight’s key game against the Phillies represents a drop of 95 points off his NL-leading .364 average of last season.
The “record” drop of 97 points belongs to the Cardinals’ Willie McGee, who led the NL with .353 in 1985 then slumped to .256 in 1986.
You might say that Willie’s average fell down an elevator shaft, but two decades earlier Norm Cash had gone for the full ride in that elevator.
Up: Cash, a slugging Detroit first baseman, jacked his average by 75 points to take the 1961 title at .361.
Down: In 1962, Cash hit .243. That 118-point drop is the Major League record for defending batting champs.

Rays’ record slide

The Tampa Bay Rays will be out to dodge a dubious record tonight in Camden Yards: Longest losing streak in history for a team coming off a World Series appearance.
The still-reigning AL champs have dropped 11 straight, which matches an implosion endured by four previous World Series alumnae as revealed by research:
  • 1998 Florida Marlins
  • 1986 Kansas City Royals
  • 1929 St. Louis Cardinals
  • 1915 Philadelphia Athletics
The Rays were already in free-fall before Carlos Pena cracked two fingers on a CC Sabathia pitch, so don’t go blaming that injury for their disappearance.
Guess one might say that for Joe Maddon,  whose post-2008 celebration included nuptials, the honeymoon is over.

Brian Downing: Still Driven

When I had the pleasure of covering the California Angels of the ’80s, my favorite person was Brian Downing.

Oh,  Downing was a fave player, too. An ultimate gamer, who turned early-career criticism into the motivation to work hard to become a truly impact player. His hard-nosed conversion to the outfield after an arm injury rendered him unable to throw from behind the plate — he was originally a catcher, for both the White Sox and the Angels — was stupendous.

But the person was even more special. Thoughtful, articulate, passionate, selfless. Nearly two decades after his final Major League at-bat, I just became aware of another example of his admirable make-up … more on that in a few graphs.

My view of Downing certainly wasn’t isolated. Teammates felt about him the same way.

A special memory is of Downing receiving a standing ovation — from the Angels dugout — when he got his last career hit in Anaheim Stadium on Oct. 4, 1992 as a member of the Rangers.

Downing played the last two of his 20 seasons in Texas and, having already disclosed retirement plans, as Karma would have it the schedule had the Rangers in the Big A to end the ’92 season. Rangers manager Toby Harrah played along, starting Downing at second base — a position he had never played in his first 2,344 games.

Didn’t play it in this one, either — Downing singled in the first, dashed down the line as the crowd appreciatively erupted, and was replaced by a pinch-runner.

As he made his way off the field for the final time, all the Angels moved to the front of the opposite dugout and joined the ovation. Class.

Now for that Downing update … 

He and former lefty ace Chuck Finley were chosen in the spring as the first inductees in 15 years into the Angels’ Hall of Fame, a ceremony scheduled to take place at Angel Stadium on April 9.

Downing was always a nervous flyer. As a player, he had no alternative, but the experience drained him. Now he simply won’t fly, so he made the long drive from his Texas home to southern California for the induction.

It never happened, tragically. Nick Adenhart and two friends were the fatal victims of a drunk hit-and-run driver in the wee hours of April 9, and that night’s game against Oakland was postponed.

Downing respectfully stayed out of sight the whole time, and left as stealthily as he had come, driving back to Texas.

A couple of weeks ago, Downing climbed back into that SUV, got back on the highway, and again made the long drive, finally taking his well-deserved bows on Aug. 27 as he and Finley donned the red jackets emblematic of the Angels’ shrine.

Alas, a Carlos redux

The CC Sabathia pitch which yesterday ended Carlos Pena’s season is unfortunate for many reasons.
There goes the Rays’ big gun at about the time they’ve lost all hope. There goes Pena’s shot at leading the AL in homers.
And there goes one of the funkiest offensive seasons on record. You knew Nickel would have its own perspective.
Too bad Carlos didn’t get to stick around to hit a 40th homer. He would have become the first in MLB history to have 40 with as few total hits and as low a batting average.
As it is, Pena’s 39 homers (among 102 hits) has been rivaled only once, and that came with an asterisk. In 1995, Mark McGwire had 39 homers and only 48 other hits. But that came in one of his final injury-plagued  seasons in Oakland, and McGwire played only 104 games and did hit .274.
Pena winds up with a .227 average — and 100 RBIs. Could be the lowest average ever for a 100 RBI guy. Dave Kingman batted .204 in 1982, but he stopped at 99 RBIs along with 37 homers.
By the way, lightning apparently can strike the AL homer leader twice, as long as his name is Carlos.
A year ago, Carlos Quentin led the league with 36 homers when a fractured wrist ended his season and allowed Miguel Cabrera to barely edge him for the home-run crown.