The Monday Night Madness podcast is back!
Luke Jackson, Matt Castello and I bring on Jay Jaffe of Baseball Prospectus to talk about the World Series. We also talk about Week 7 in the NFL and the opening part of the NHL season and how it has been affected by the NBA lockout.
Listen to our interview with Jay right here:
Babe Ruth. Reggie Jackson. Last night, Albert Pujols joined in on the company of those two legends.
Pujols because just the third player in World Series history to smack three home runs in a game. He went 5-for-6 with six runs batted in, becoming the second player in Fall Classic history with five hits, tying Paul Molitor’s 1982 Game 1 performance. His six-RBI night also tied for the most in World Series history with Bobby Richardson (1960 Game 3) and Hideki Matsui (2009 Game 6).
In addition to tying some elusive milestones all in one night, Pujols can also scribble his name alone on top of some records. He had 14 total bases yesterday, a new World Series record that had previously been shared by Ruth and Jackson with 12. Pujols also became the first player ever in a Fall Classic game to have as many as four hits, two home runs and five RBIs in one game. The fact that he was able to accumulate one more of each of those figures in a game makes this performance one of the greatest, if not the greatest, in World Series history.
The best postseason performers throughout history have been able duplicate, or ever raise their regular season numbers against the best competition when the lights shine brightest. Ruth was a career .342/.474/.690 batter in the regular season but hit .326/.467/.744 with 15 home runs and 33 RBIs in 41 career playoff games. Jackson, over his career, was a .262/.356/.490 hitter, but in the postseason, raised those numbers to .278/.358/.527 with 18 homers and 48 RBIs in 78 games. The modern-day Mr. October, Derek Jeter, is a career .313/.383/.449 batter in the regular season and in 152 career playoff games, has hit .307/.374/.465 with 20 homers and 59 RBIs.
Albert Pujols is already the closest modern-day batter to Ruth, Pujols being a career .320/.420/.617 hitter over his career. Pujols has hit more than 40 home runs in a season six times in his career, or one more time than he has finished with fewer than that standard. Since becoming a full-time position player in 1919, Ruth finished with 11 years of over 40 home runs compared to five full seasons of fewer than that number. Granted, Ruth played in 16 full seasons as a position player while Pujols, who is 31 years old, has played in 11 so far.
Pujols, though, has somehow raised his modern-day Ruthian numbers in the playoffs. Over 70 career postseason games, he is a .343/.444/.630 batter with 17 doubles, 18 home runs and 52 RBIs. If you take out his playoff numbers in his first two big league seasons at ages 21 and 22, respectively, Pujols is a .371 batter with a .445 on-base percentage, 16 homers and 45 RBIs over 57 games in the postseason. He is that rare breed who is somehow able to raise an already incredibly high-set bar in the playoffs when the lights shine brightest.
A couple months ago, I wrote that Albert Pujols was the greatest player we will ever see. His postseason performance, not only from his record-setting night in Game 3 of this year’s Fall Classic, is only adding to that legacy.
The very first Major League Baseball game was played on May 4, 1871 between the Cleveland Forest Cities and the Fort Wayne Kekiongas. A lot has changed in the national pastime in the 140 years, four months and 24 days since. Baseball has seen a number of odd and amazing things happen in the 51,281 days pass since then, but last night we may have witnessed the greatest night in baseball history.
The scene set at the beginning of the night was perfect. Two teams in each league tied for the last elusive playoff spot. Each league had one team (the Red Sox in the American League and the Braves in the National League) trying to stave off possibly the greatest collapses in baseball history while two others (the Rays in the AL and the Cardinals in the NL) looked to put the finishing touches on improbable comebacks.
The stories of how each team got here, into a tie on the final day of the season, are all very unique. On September 2, the Red Sox held a nine-game lead over Tampa Bay in the AL Wild Card race. No team in major league history had ever blown a nine-game lead in September. In the 25 games since September 2, the Red Sox gave up six runs or more in a game 18 times as Boston’s pitching staff surrendered an astounding 6.4 runs per game. Their starting pitchers compiled a 7.91 ERA over the last 19 games. The Red Sox would go 7-18 since September 2, falling into a tie for the AL Wild Card with Tampa Bay.
The Rays, despite vaulting nine games in the standings to catch Boston, had been on a rollercoaster ride in September. Tampa Bay was just 10-9 against every other team in baseball during the month. However, the Rays were able to make up ground so quickly because they dominated the Red Sox, winning six of seven games against Boston. By the time each team would play its final series of the year on September 26, Tampa Bay had vaulted itself into a tie atop the AL Wild Card standings.
On the National League side, the Braves were faltering in similar fashion to the Red Sox. Atlanta held an 8.5 game lead over St. Louis on September 5. However, since then, the Braves went 7-15, with 11 different pitchers taking a loss. During that stretch, Atlanta averaged only 3.09 runs per game and allowed 4.36 runs per game. Over the course of the season, those numbers were 3.96 and 3.73, respectively.
As Atlanta cooled off, the Cardinals began to catch fire. St. Louis’ run actually began a little bit earlier than the Braves’ collapse though, which allowed them to gain slightly more ground. On August 25, the Cardinals were 10.5 games behind Atlanta in the NL Wild Card race. In the 31 games since then though, St. Louis went 22-9, including a three-game sweep of the Braves from September 9 through 11. During that stretch, the Cardinals averaged 4.84 runs per game while surrendering just 3.84 runs per contest. With their 13-6 victory Tuesday over the Astros, St. Louis was finally able to erase the deficit and move into a tie atop the NL Wild Card leaders.
The final night of the season proved to be the final stop on the magical carpet ride the Rays and Cardinals had taken throughout September. However, for most of the night, it looked as if both of those teams would either not get the job done or be forced into a one-game playoff to decide their playoff faith the next day.
The Cardinals erased any chance of doubt early on by taking a 5-0 lead in the top of the first inning. They would cruise to an 8-0 victory, the only game of the four teams tied for a Wild Card spot that lacked drama.
Meanwhile, after a Ryan Howard RBI-double in the top of the first for Philadelphia, the Braves responded by tying the game on a Chipper Jones sacrifice fly in the bottom half of the frame. In the bottom of the third, Dan Uggla gave Atlanta their first lead of the game with a two-run home run to left to make it 3-1. However, the Phillies began to inch closer as the late innings fell upon Turner Field. A Jack Wilson error in the top of the seventh allowed Raul Ibanez to score to make it 3-2.
The score would stay that way as Braves manager Freddi Gonzalez summoned Craig Kimbrel, who saved a rookie-record 46 games this year, into the game to close things out in the ninth. Kimbrel immediately allowed a single to Placido Polanco, who was pinch-run for by Pete Orr. After striking out Carlos Ruiz for the first out, Kimbrel committed the worst sin that a pitcher can make; giving out free passes to first base for batters. He walked pinch-hitter Ben Francisco and followed that up with the same result to Jimmy Rollins to load the bases with one out. The free passes allowed Chase Utley to hit a sacrific fly to left and just like that, Kimbrel blew his eighth save of the season as the Phillies tied the game at three.
The game would remain scoreless until the 13th, with Atlanta missing a golden opportunity to win with runners on the corners and two outs in the 12th. Scott Linebrink entered the game out of the Braves bullpen for the top half of the inning and made the same egregious mistakes as Kimbrel. After striking out Dominic Brown, Linebrink walked Brian Schneider. Rollins flied to center for the second out but then an Utley single pushed Schneider to third. With runners on the corners and two outs, the same situation the Braves failed to score with in the bottom of the 12th, Hunter Pence hit a weak line drive that found a hole in the right side of the infield to give the Phillies a 4-3 lead.
Atlanta had one final opportunity to extend their season in the bottom frame of the 13th. However, with a runner on first and one out, Freddie Freeman grounded into a double play as the Braves’ season suddenly and shockingly ended. With five games to play, Atlanta had owned a three-game lead over St. Louis. In those five games, though, the Braves scored just seven runs, going 0-5. However, their bullpen implosion would not be the only one by a team on this night to put the finishing touches on a sinking season.
Over on the American League side, things could not have started off any better for the Red Sox. For just the third time in 15 games, the Red Sox would able to put a crooked number on the scoreboard before the opposing team, using a Dustin Pedroia single to take a 1-0 lead in the third. However, Boston coughed the lead right up on a two-run J.J. Hardy homer in the bottom half of the inning. The Red Sox continued to claw back though, scoring one in the fourth on a balk by Orioles pitcher Alfredo Simon and then using a Pedroia home run to take a 3-2 lead in the fifth.
As Boston was taking the lead and the reigns in the Wild Card race, Tampa Bay looked like their season would end because of their struggles against every other team besides the Red Sox. By the end of the fifth inning, the Yankees had a 7-0 lead and the Rays’ postseason hopes looked pretty much dead.
However, just like that though, a funny thing happened. It was almost as if the baseball gods intervened to suddenly change the fortunes of the games. As the Orioles and Red Sox stopped play for a rain delay, Tampa Bay suddenly began a miraculous comeback. With Boston watching from the locker room, the Rays got their first three men on base against Boone Logan in the bottom of the eighth. New York manager Joe Girardi decided to bring in Luis Ayala and Tampa Bay capitalized immediately. Sam Fuld walked score Johnny Damon to make it 7-1. Ayala hit Sean Rodriguez with a pitch to force in another run to make it 7-2 before striking out Desmond Jennings for the first out of the innings. B.J. Upton then hit a sacrifice fly to make it 7-3 with two outs and the Rays’ hottest hitter, Evan Longoria, coming to the plate. Suddenly, with two men on, a glimmer of hope appeared at the end of the tunnel for Tampa Bay. Longoria crushed a pitch over the fence in left field, and just like that the Rays were within one at 7-6. John Jaso singled before Ayala retired Damon to end the inning and stop the bleeding.
Tampa Bay was afforded one more shot in the bottom of the ninth inning to put their playoff destiny in their own hands. The Yankees’ new pitcher, Cory Wade, retired the first two hitters of the plate though, and suddenly the Rays were down to their final out. With light-hitting Sam Fuld due up next, Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon made the curious decision of pinch-hitting Dan Johnson. Among non-pitchers with at least 50 plate appearances this year, Johnson (.119) had the lowest batting average this season of any hitter in baseball. However, be it the baseball gods or Maddon’s knowledge that since 2008, Johnson was 17-for-52 (.327) with eight home runs and 14 RBIs in 22 games against the Red Sox and Yankees and just . 20 for 168 (.119 with three homers and 17 RBIs in 56 games against the rest baseball, Johnson came through. Down to his final strike, Johnson crushed a ball over the fence in right field to miraculously tie the game and send it to extra innings.
Soon afterwards, the Red Sox and Orioles resumed play at Camden Yards. The Boston bullpen was able to keep Baltimore off the scoreboard in the seventh and the eighth and hand the ball to closer Jonathan Papelbon for the ninth inning with a 3-2 lead. Coming into this game, the Red Sox were 77-0 this season when leading after eight innings. Papelbon struck out the first two batters of the inning and the Red Sox were one out away from controlling their own destiny once again in the postseason hunt. However, fate kicked in against Boston. Chris Davis hit a double and then Nolan Reimold stepped to the plate. Papelbon pumped two fastballs by the bat of Reimold and Boston was just one strike away. However, Reimold smashed a ground-rule double into right to tie it at three. Robert Andino then digged into the box. It would be the last batter of the Red Sox’s miserable and depressing fall from grace. Andino lined a ball hard into left field. Charging hard was Carl Crawford, who slid feet first, but the ball clanked off his glove, scoring Reimold and sending Boston back into the clubhouse with a loss after leading in the eighth inning for the first time all season.
At this time, the Yankees and Rays had moved into the bottom of the 13th inning. Pitching for New York was Scott Proctor, who had throw 2.1 innings of scoreless baseball as Longoria stepped back into the box. With the eyes of a tormented Red Sox Nation now upon him, Longoria worked the count to 2-2. He then fouled off a pitch before lining a rocket down the left field line. The ball stayed fair and flew just over the fence as the Rays celebrated being the first team in baseball history to overcome a nine-game deficit to make the postseason. It was just the third time in Yankees history, and first since 1953, that New York blew a seven-run lead in the 8th inning or later. Like what happened to the Braves, it took one final bullpen collapse to be the final straw of the Red Sox’s season, finishing off the most epic collapse of all-time.
Boston did not win consecutive games since beating Oakland in a doubleheader on August 27. The Red Sox were 1-2 against Texas, 2-5 against Toronto, 1-6 against Tampa Bay, 2-5 against Baltimore and 1-4 against the Yankees in September, finishing 7-20 overall in the month. The 20 losses in September were the most by a Red Sox team in the month since 1952. The team with baseball’s third-highest payroll will be watching the playoffs from home for the second season in a row while the Rays, who own the major’s second-smallest payroll, will be going to the postseason for the third time in four years.
The night started with the potential to be magical, but it proved to be even better than that. The Rays were one strike away from losing. The Red Sox were one strike away from winning. But in each case, the opposite happened. The timing of the games and the simple brilliance of ninth-inning rallies, two teams’ bullpen collapses and a walk-off home run proved to be as dramatic as baseball can get. With so much on the line, seeing all of this was unbelievable. When the dust settled, the only word that could even come close to describing the enchantment of the cascade of events crashing down last night is this one: Amazing.
There have been 51,282 nights in baseball history. None of them were better and filled with more collective drama and magic than what we witnessed last night.
I was on the airwaves by myself this week. Monday Night Madness began with discussion of both the American League and National League Wild Card races. I then discussed Week 3 in the NFL with the excitement surrounding the Buffalo Bills and Detroit Lions and why the Philadelphia Eagles, New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers. The show wraps up with the decline of Maryland football.
After losing two of three games to the San Francisco Giants, the Milwaukee Brewers began their July 25th off-day in a three-way tie for first place with the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League Central. Milwaukee had been very aggressive in looking for ways to improve a pitching staff that ranked 26th in the majors in ERA (4.58) last season. The Brewers traded for starters Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum in the offseason and then acquired New York Mets closer Francisco Rodriguez on July 13 to shore up the back end of the bullpen. However, Milwaukee’s moves had not paid off in the standings, as the upstart Pirates and a Cardinals team that had dealt with injuries to Albert Pujols and Adam Wainwright had both stuck with the more talented and healthier Brewers through the first 103 games of the season.
Just like that though, it seemed that everything clicked for Milwaukee while Pittsburgh and St. Louis’ seasons fell apart. The Brewers have won 22 of their last 25 games. In the same span, the Cardinals have gone 13-12 while the Pirates’ season has bottomed out by going 7-18. Suddenly, in a division that one month ago looked like it would be a sprint to the finish, Milwaukee is enjoying a very-comfortable 8.5 game lead on second-place St. Louis.
Over the last 25 games, the Brewers have outscored their opponents 117-63. Their offense, which has the second-best OPS of any NL team but only the sixth-most runs, has taken off, scoring 4.68 runs per game. MVP candidates Prince Fielder, batting .384/.462/.663 with six doubles, six home runs and 23 runs batted since July 24, and Ryan Braun, hitting .348/.398/.573 with six doubles, four homers and 12 RBIs since July 24, have continued to form one of the best 3-4 duos of any lineup in baseball. However, it has been Milwaukee’s role players who have stepped up in wake of All-Star second baseman Rickie Weeks being sent to the Disabled List July 27 with an ankle injury. Since July 24, Casey McGehee is batting .310/.361/.540 with four doubles, two triples, four round trippers and 20 RBIs, Corey Hart is hitting .281/.343/.458 with two doubles, five home runs and 14 RBIs, Jonathan Lucroy has hit four doubles and two home runs while driving in 11 runs and batting .288/.342/.425 and Yuniesky Betancourt has knocked in 18 runs while hitting six doubles and three homers, hitting .278/.294/.433.
The Brewers’ pitching staff has also cranked it up a couple of notches over the last 25 games. Milwaukee has allowed only 2.52 runs per game since July 24. To put that in perspective, the Philadelphia Phillies’ vaunted pitching staff has allowed the fewest runs in the majors (405) and gives up only 3.29 runs per game. Brewers’ starting pitches have lost only one decision over the last 25 games. Greinke has been lights-out, pitching up to his potential by going 5-0 with a 1.57 ERA while striking out 37 and allowing 25 hits and 11 walks in 34.1 innings pitched. Yovani Gallardo (3-1, 2.06 ERA with 31 strikeouts, four walks and 25 hits allowed in 35 innings), Randy Wolf (4-0, 2.80 ERA with 16 punch outs, 32 hits allowed and 11 walks issued in 35.1 innings) and Marcum (2-0, 3.58 ERA with 17 strikeouts, six walks issued and 33 hits allowed in 32.2 innings) have all been stellar in putting zeroes up on the scoreboard since July 24 before handing it over to the bullpen.
Milwaukee’s bullpen ranks 17th in the majors with a 3.67 ERA. However, it has been integral to the Brewers’ success since July 24. Over the last 25 games, Kameron Loe (10 games, 0.79 ERA, 10 strikeouts, two walks, five hits in 11.1 innings), LaTroy Hawkins (10 games, 0.00 ERA, four hits, three walks, four punch outs in 10.1 innings), Takashi Saito (10 games, 2.25 ERA, three hits, four walks, four strikeouts in eight innings) and Rodriguez (12 games, 3.18 ERA, 10 hits, four walks, 13 strikeouts in 11.1 innings) have helped Milwaukee bridge the gap perfectly to closer John Axford, who, in 13 games since July 24, has 10 saves and a 0.69 ERA with eight hits allowed, three walks issued and 14 strikeouts in 13 innings of work.
On their off-day July 25, the Brewers woke up to a first-place tie with the Cardinals and Pirates in the Central. Milwaukee had loaded up on pitching to try to make one final playoff run in Prince Fielder’s last season under contract, but their aggressiveness in trading for Greinke, Marcum and Rodriguez had not paid many dividends. Then, all of a sudden, everything has come together for Milwaukee. The Brewers have won 22 of their past 25 games, building an 8.5 game lead on the second-place Cardinals in the Central. Milwaukee has hit well even with injured All-Star Rickie Weeks on the DL and their pitching has been superb. While the Phillies have baseball’s best record, the Brewers have become the biggest challenge to them in the National League. If Milwaukee can continue to stay hot, a team that has never won the Central or a National League Pennant may make history.
Last night was the first time I was able to see Albert Pujols play baseball in person. He did not disappoint. In his first at-bat, Pujols blasted a solo home run to tie the game at two. He finished with a perfect night at the plate, going four-for-four with two runs batted in a 5-2 St. Louis Cardinals victory over the Milwaukee Brewers. Pujols scored two runs, one on a wild pitch in which he did not hesitate and sprinted home, and also played flawless defense at first base. He flashed the complete game he has worked so hard to hone, one that has made him the greatest player we will ever see.
Albert Pujols seems to do everything well on the baseball diamond. He hits for average; Pujols has never hit lower than .312 in a full season and has five different years in which he batted at least .330. There is no one in the majors who is a more consistent power hitter; Pujols has 436 career home runs, topping at least 40 bombs in six different seasons. He is currently tied for the National League with 28 dingers. In the field, he is a two-time Gold Glove Award winner, despite not playing first base fulltime until 2004. He also provides versatility to the Cardinals, as he can play third base or the outfield in addition to a Gold-Glove-caliber first base. Pujols may not possess top-flight speed, but he is one of the best baserunners in the league. By scoring on a wild pitch yesterday, he demonstrated the perfect instincts of when to take off towards home. He always knows when he can or cannot take an extra-base on a hit because he always checks where the outfielders are positioned and how strong their arms are.
With everything Pujols brings to St. Louis, there is no one who is a more steady force in every facet of the game than him. His finishes in the Most Valuable Player voting at the end of each season reflects that consistency. He is a three-time Most Valuable Player award winner. In his rookie year, he finished fourth in the MVP voting. Since then, he has finished outside the top three of the MVP voting just once in nine seasons, finishing second four times.
Not surprisingly, a case could be made for Pujols to be the MVP in almost every season he has played in. His numbers are so consistent that what I might consider his best season, someone else might consider it his worst. There is almost no way to differentiate his .359/.439/.667, 51-double, 43-homer, 124-RBI, 137-run 2003 season (second in NL MVP voting) from his .357/.462/.653, 44-double, 37-homer, 116-RBI, 100-run 2008 year (MVP winner). Those seasons look similar to a .331/.431/.671, 33-double, 49-homer, 137-RBI, 119-run 2006 (second in MVP) and his 2009 season in which he won the NL MVP by batting .327/.443/.658 with 45 doubles, 47 home runs, 135 RBIs and 124 runs scored. Pujols may have won the MVP in 2005 (.330/.430/.609, 38 doubles, 41 home runs, 117 RBIs, 129 runs scored), but his 2004 numbers (.331/.415/.657, 51 doubles, 46 home runs, 123 RBIs, 133 runs) and 2010 stats (.312/.414/.596, 39 doubles, 42 homers, 118 RBIs, 115 runs) are probably better, yet he finished third in the MVP balloting in 2004 and second in 2010. Pujols’ yearly statistics are almost interchangeable. His numbers are so consistent that it almost feels like voters decide they have to give the award to someone else because Pujols has no “best” season. He never surpasses his lofty standards, but he doesn’t underperform, either. He is just constantly great.
Albert Pujols brings everything a baseball player can to a the diamond everyday. He is a terrific hitter who hits for both average and power. He plays a flawless first base but can also play other places in the field to help out his team. He is not fast, yet is possibly the best baserunner in baseball. Pujols has been so good for so long that his numbers each season are pretty much interchangeable. He has set the bar so high for himself that he has no “best” season. However, Pujols almost never fails to reach his standard for excellence. Only the greatest players in baseball history have been this consistent for this long. For our generation, Albert Pujols is the greatest player we will ever see.
We are officially at, or just past (depending on the team), the midway point in the Major League Baseball season. In the sport with the fewest playoff spots, there are so many teams competing for the right to play in October. The lack of playoff spots is one of the many things that makes this sport so special. Just eight of the 30 MLB teams will make the postseason, compared to the 16 playoff teams in both the NBA and NHL and the 12 NFL teams that vie for the right to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
Having such few teams make the playoffs creates a strong emphasis on succeeding in the regular season, and as long as baseball’s regular season is, we have the potential to see some very compelling races in August and September. Twenty teams either lead a division or are within seven games of a playoff spot. There is no division separated by more than a four game lead.
A number of surprise teams remain in the mix for a playoff spot. Behind Andrew McCutchen, the Pittsburgh Pirates sit at 41-39, just two games behind the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Central. The Arizona Diamondbacks are two games behind the San Francisco Giants in the NL West and three games behind the Atlanta Braves in the NL Wild Card race with a record of 44-38. The New York Mets and Washington Nationals are 5.5 and 6.5 games behind Atlanta in the Wild Card race, respectively.
In the American League, few thought that the Cleveland Indians would spend 80 days during the first half of the year leading the Central. The Indians have stumbled slightly, but are 0.5 games behind the Detroit Tigers right now. Rookie sensation Michael Pineda has helped the Seattle Mariners come within 3.5 games of the defending AL Champion Texas Rangers in the West, even though the Mariners have been outscored by 13 runs this season and have a record below .500, at 39-42. After losing Carlos Pena, Carl Crawford, Jason Bartlett, Matt Garza, Rafael Soriano and their entire 2010 bullpen to free agency and various trades, the Tampa Bay Rays sit just four games behind the New York Yankees in the East and 1.5 games behind the Boston Red Sox for the AL Wild Card. The Rays are 45-36 despite having star third baseman Evan Longoria play in only 53 games during the first half of the season.
The first half of the Major League Baseball season featured many storylines, but none may be more compelling than the playoff races that will determine the fate of the 20 teams who have their eyes on the postseason. There will be teams who falter down the stretch during the second half of the season. However, with so many teams fighting year in and year out for one of the precious few trips to the postseason, baseball’s emphasis on a strong regular season is unrivaled by any sport. With 20 teams in competition for just eight playoff spots, the next three months of the season will feature postseason races that come down to the wire and show just why baseball is so special.