Baseball Season Preview: Who Plays In 2019 Fall Classic?

The magazine Sports Illustrated, also known as SI, publishes an annual baseball season preview. In addition to the MLB, it produces season previews for several other major sports, such as the NBA, NFL, and FIFA World Cup. The cover athlete of the piece is the feature’s most celebrated achievement, and is supposed to symbolize the value of that player and his/her team heading into that particular season. In some years, the publication’s choice strikes luck. In others, their choice becomes almost laughable by season’s end.

In March 2007, the magazine selected Red Sox’s starting pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka asBaseball Season their cover athlete. The Japanese right-hander had just signed a $52 million, six-year contract and had not yet pitched in the MLB. He finished fourth in the Rookie of the Year voting that year. More importantly, the Red Sox won the World Series. With the 2019 regular season set to begin tomorrow in Tokyo, here is a breakdown of each division’s expectations for 2019, followed by playoff predictions.

AL East – The Red Sox are the two-time reigning division champs. Boston’s outfield of Andrew Benintendi, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Mookie Betts were featured on SI‘s Baseball Season Preview in 2017. The Yankees have two straight seasons of 90-plus wins. Both Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton were the centerpiece on the SI‘s Baseball Season Preview last year. The Rays have two straight seasons of 80-plus wins. The Blue Jays should win more games than last year’s 73 with a balanced lineup and better starting pitching depth. The Orioles are in a complete rebuild and should finish close to the bottom of the league. Prediction? Yankees win first division title since 2012 and Red Sox finish second to secure Wild Card berth.

AL Central – The Indians have finished on top of the Central for the last three seasons. Their ace Corey Kluber and former outfielder Michael Brantley were highlighted on SI‘s Baseball Season Preview in 2015. The Twins have finished three of the past four seasons with at least 78 wins. The Tigers, White Sox, and Royals are all in flux, rebuilding, and are destined to finish at the bottom of the division again. Prediction? With Minnesota adding Nelson Cruz, Jonathan Schoop, C.J. Cron, Marwin Gonzalez, and Michael Pineda since last season, expect them to be neck and neck with the Indians all the way down to the wire. The Twins will edge out the Indians by a hair.

AL West – This is one of the more underrated divisions in baseball. The Astros have two consecutive 100-win seasons, have played in two consecutive ALCS series, and won the World Series in 2017. The Athletics increased their win total by 22 games last year and made the playoffs as a wild card team. The Mariners won 89 games last season, but missed a postseason berth by eight games. The Angels, who have the best player in baseball in Mike Trout, have neither improved nor worsened in the past two years, as their record has stayed locked at 80-82. And the Rangers record has been in decline for three straight seasons. Prediction? Houston finishes the season with their third consecutive division title and 100-win season. The Angels sneak into October baseball for their first playoff appearance since 2014.

Fun fact: the first athlete to appear on the cover of SI‘s Baseball Season Preview was Giants center fielder Willie Mays in 1955.

NL East – The Atlanta Braves surprised nearly everyone last year and won the NL East. It was a down year for the Washington Nationals, as they finished with their worst record since 2011. In opposition, the Phillies exceed expectations by winning 80 games for the first time since 2012. The Mets finished fourth in the division in 2018 and have just two winning seasons in the past ten years. Starting pitcher Noah Syndergaard, former starter Matt Harvey, and relief pitcher Jeurys Familia were all chosen to represent SI‘s Baseball Season Preview in 2016. The Marlins have nine consecutive losing seasons. Prediction? The Phillies added five All-Star players this off-season: Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen, J.T. Realmuto, Jean Segura, and David Robertson. That should be enough to win the division and secure their first playoff berth in eight years. Both the Braves and Nationals secure Wild Card berths.

NL Central – This is another division that gets overlooked. The Milwaukee Brewers won 96 wins in 2018 and captured the National League’s best record. They came within one game of a trip to the World Series. The Cubs were a playoff team for the fourth successive season. St. Louis finished with their eleventh winning season in a row, however, missed the postseason for the third straight time. Pittsburgh went 82-79 and missed the playoffs, even after acquiring All-Star starting pitcher Chris Archer at the Trade Deadline. And the Reds finished with less than 70 wins for the fourth go around in a row. Prediction? The Cubbies take back the division and win the NL Central for the third time in four years.

NL West – L.A. has held down the West for six years running. They are also the only team to have made it to the Fall Classic in each of the past two seasons. The Rockies have been sneaky good, making the postseason in both 2017 and 2018. The Diamondbacks begin a new era after trading away six-time All-Star Paul Goldschmidt to the Cardinals. Seems to make sense after Arizona won just a single playoff game since Goldschmidt became an everyday player in 2012. After winning it all in 2010, 2012, and 2014, San Francisco has won just two playoff games since. San Diego came away with arguably the franchise’s best signing this off-season, Manny Machado, but still face an upward climb. They have not made the postseason since 2006. Prediction? Colorado surprises everyone and wins their first ever NL West title since the team’s inception in 1993.

AL Wild Card Game: Angels @ Red Sox

NL Wild Card Game: Nationals @ Braves

ALDS: Red Sox – Astros; Twins – Yankees

NLDS: Nationals – Cubs; Rockies – Phillies

ALCS: Yankees – Astros

NLCS: Phillies – Cubs

World Series: Cubs – Astros

 

Could Ortiz Match Williams In His Final At-Bat?

Few Hall of Famers can say that their final Major League at-bat was a memorable one. Mickey Mantle popped out to Red Sox shortstop Rico Petrocello in 1968, who by then was merely a shadow of the player he once was. Babe Ruth, playing his final year for the Boston Braves in 1935, grounded out, a less than stellar ending to a career that had all but turned into an embarrassment (A pinch runner often took Ruth’s place in his last season because he had become too heavy to run). Even our own Carl Yazstrezemski’s final at-bat was uninspiring as he popped out in the bottom of the seventh against the Indians in Ortiz Match Williams1983. Many in the Red Sox Nation are hoping that David Ortiz won’t go the way of Mantle, Ruth, and Yazstremski when he takes his last at bat this season. In fact, I’m hoping he’ll leave the game the same way Ted Williams did, but in the post-season instead  of the regular season.

Ted Williams, a.k.a. the Splendid Splinter, bid adieu to baseball on September 28th, 1960 when he hit a solo home run to center off of Baltimore’s Jack Fisher in the bottom of the eighth, giving the Sox the edge in a 5-4 win. No other Hall of Famer had ever homered in his last at-bat, and none to date have done it since (as far as I know). But that was in a year when the Red Sox weren’t playoff contenders (they finished 7th in the American League with a 65-89 record). So if the Red Sox make the playoffs this season after a two-year hiatus, Ortiz might not only leave the game in a memorable way of his own, but might do so at Fenway Park during the World Series, perhaps with a home run of his own.

Winning the World Series for Boston with a home run is a LONG shot for Ortiz, and many factors would have to align perfectly in order for there to even be a chance of that happening (If Ortiz pulled that off I’d push to have the Baseball Hall of Fame’s five-year waiting period waived so he could be inducted right away). But if the Sox reach the playoffs, then Ortiz will have a chance to reclaim his role as a clutch hitter (he did hit five home runs and batted .400 in fourteen playoff games in 2004, including a game-winning home run in Game 4 of the ALCS). So if Price and Bucholtz throw the heat, Bogaerts hits over .300, and Betts and Bradley Jr. keep playing like the Gold Glove winners that they are, then I think it will be safe to dream about what Big Papi will do in his final at-bat. Whether it will be with a home run or not remains to be seen. But when we’re talking about Big Papi, anything is possible!

Overview and Commentary on ALCS Games 3-5

ALCS Games 3-5

Mike Napoli crushing the ball in Game 3. Courtesy of fdlreporter.com.

Let’s take a look at the rundown of ALCS Games 3-5.

Game 3 was an exciting one with John Lackey providing, in my opinion, one of his finest performances, in both regular and post-season play, against an always tough Justin Verlander. Management of the pitching staff was close to perfect, too. John Farrell got it right. He pulled his starter at the right time, whether the starter liked it or not (and Lackey didn’t)! He let Craig Breslow, Junichi Tazawa, and, of course, Koji Uehara, do their thing in the final innings, but not overdue it, which can be tempting. This strategy worked. And would you believe it, Mike Napoli provided the home run that would clinch the win 1-0. Yes, Napoli is awake! The trend continued through Game 4 and 5 as he continued to contribute to the offense.

Jake Peavy didn’t seem to help the Red Sox in ALCS Game 4. What happened in the second inning was soul crushing. There was talk by sportscasters that his vision is poor at 20/300. You’ve got to wonder whether he can see anything at all. Furthermore, with such bad eye sight how is Peavy effective as a pitcher? The Tigers took advantage, living up to their name, and scored so many runs that by the 3rd inning a Detroit win seemed a foregone conclusion. After all, the bullpen was not ready to perform so early in the game.  In addition, the Sox defense was just horrific during Game 4. I don’t think I have seen this team play such poor defense all season! It seemed everyone took a bite out of a Butterfinger before Wednesday night’s tilt.

The only good that came of Game 4 was one Xander Bogaerts.  He made a name for himself as a major league offensive player, making management think twice about his potential.  He made people think “Hey why isn’t this guy in the lineup?” Sure enough, Thursday night’s Game 5 rolled around and he was in the lineup batting just before David Ross.

Game 5 was the polar opposite of Game 4. The Red Sox got the momentum going early off of pitcher Anibal Sanchez. Clearly, they learned a lot from Game 1. Jon Lester remained fairly solid, but faltered a bit; the offense saved him. Farrell turned to Junichi Tazawa first, and Craig Breslow next, to toss the middle innings. I believe that middle reliever combination was far more effective and should be utilized more often. It was right for the Tigers lineup, and also for Breslow, as I feel he needs additional bullpen time to warm up before taking the mound.

The Red Sox seem poised to earn a victory at home either Saturday or Sunday night. I look forward to the outcome. Though I wanted (and misguidedly predicted) the Sox to win in 5 games, I am glad our beloved team will be back on the grass at Fenway.

Just like Dorothy said, “there is no place like home,” and that could not be truer for this team.

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With ALCS Game 2 Won, Sox Must Prepare Offense for Game 3

ALCS Game 2

Courtesy of nydailynews.com/sports

What just happened? I thought we were cooked for sure during last night’s ALCS Game 2. The comeback kids of Yawkey Way do it again against the Detroit Tigers bullpen. Never, I mean, never, count these guys out! Red Sox Nation is grateful for Detroit’s weak bullpen and Superman, David Ortiz, to save the day with a four run homer. WOW! Rarely am I speechless, but tonight I am at a loss for words.

We squeaked that game out. Where do we go from here, as the series moves to Comerica Park in Detroit?

The Red Sox players must focus on believing in their offensive talent. The hitters already show great plate patience. If a Sox player decides to hit, they must start the swing a bit earlier. Unfortunately, there is little time to work on this with the hitting coach with only one day off for travel. My second suggestion, one a bit more likely to take place, would be watching some game tape of Justin Verlander.  Finally, adding pinch hitters and pinch runners earlier in the game may throw off Detroit’s defense. Inserting players that the Tigers are not expecting may be the key to run production earlier in the game.

On the defensive side, pitchers must keep the pitches low and inside. Big guys like Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder seem to love the high fastballs. For this fan, it looks like Cabrera and Fielder see these pitches as mere lobs over the plate. Pitchers must keep their emotions in check. One cannot be too pumped up like Jake Peavy or too down in the dumps like Clay Buchholz.

I’m not sure if any of these strategies will work. The Sox seem comfortable allowing the game to unfold naturally, relying just as much on skill and experience as they do grit and hope. Red Sox Nation and Sox players must dig deep for the kind of hope that helped us win Sunday night.

What do you believe will happen on Tuesday night?