Friday, October 24, 2014

Phillies Biography Series: Mitch Williams

Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams, Phillies 1991-1993
It's hard to believe, but Mitch Williams only pitched for the Philadelphia Phillies for 3 seasons, from 1991-1993.

But in those three short years, particularly for his final game in red pinstripes, he is forever remembered by most as a Fightin' Phil.

That final game was, of course, Game 6 of the 1993 World Series. Williams was the Phils' closer, and was called on by manager Jim Fregosi to protect a 6-5 lead in the 9th inning. The Phillies were now just 3 outs away from tying the series with the Blue Jays and sending it to a decisive Game 7 at Toronto.

Baseball Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson led off with a walk against the "Wild Thing", but Williams got Devon White to fly out to left field. The Phils were now just two outs away from Game 7. But the Jays had yet another Hall of Famer next. Paul Molitor smacked a line single to center, with Henderson stopping at 2nd base.

Up to the plate stepped Jays' cleanup hitter Joe Carter. He was the type of slugger who could easily end it with one swing, and was also veteran enough to not shrink from the moment, and sling a base hit to score Henderson with the game-tier. However, he also had little speed, and could end the game with a doubleplay ball. And he was also a strikeout candidate.

Williams battled with Carter, and the count went to 2-2. One more strike, and the Phils would be just an out away from Game 7. Williams delivered. Carter swung. Every baseball fan alive at the time knows what happened next, and every Jays and Phillies fan will never forget it.

But that next moment should never be the moment for which Williams is remembered exclusively in Philly, or in general baseball circles. The man had an 11-year MLB career, the first 10 of which were fairly successful.

For the Phillies, Mitch saved 102 games across his 3 seasons, striking out 218 in 231.1 innings pitched, while allowing just 181 hits. But in the 200 games that he appeared in that time he fully earned his "Wild Thing" nickname. While he could strikeout a hitter, he was also prone to wildness. He walked 170 batters here, and finished those three seasons with a 1.517 WHIP mark.

In 1993, Williams had his best season ever as the Phillies won the NL East in a wire-to-wire, worst-to-first magical season that was, by far, the most fun full season that this writer and fan ever experienced. Mitch save 43 games that season, then won 2 and saved 2 more in the NLCS vs the Braves. His joyous leap after striking out Bill Pecota to put the Phillies into the World Series for the first time in a decade sent the Veteran's Stadium crowd and the entire city into delirium.

Mitch leaps into Darren Daulton's arms on clinching 1993 NL Pennant

The road to that 1993 World Series had begun for Mitch Williams on the opposite coast. Born in Santa Ana, California, Williams came to the attention of scouts while playing at West Linn High School in Oregon. He was selected by the San Diego Padres in the 8th round of the 1982 MLB Draft, and began his career at age 17 with the Padres low-A affiliate at Walla Walla, Washington.

In those early years with the San Diego organization, Mitch was a starting pitcher, and despite his wildness he rose to the A-ball level at Reno. In 3 seasons across 3 stops in the Padres system, Williams went 20-25 and struck out 362 hitters in 372.2 innings. However, he also walked 314 batters.

Tired of his wildness, the Padres left him unprotected, and he was taken by the Texas Rangers in December of 1984 in the rule 5 draft. The following April, the Rangers worked out a trade to keep Williams, and that season kept him as a starting pitcher where he rose to the AA level.

In 1986, Mitch finally made the big leagues out of spring training, but as a reliever. Still he was with the Texas Rangers, pitching in the Majors. Over his first three Big League seasons with Texas, Williams was a bullpen workhorse. He pitched in 232 games, striking out 280 hitters in 274.2 innings. He remained wild, walking 220. But his ERA was a respectable 3.70, and in his final Rangers season, Williams saved 18 games.

Following the 1988 season, Williams was the key part of an 8-player trade between the Rangers and the Chicago Cubs in which Texas would receive a young pitcher named Jamie Moyer and a young 1st baseman named Rafael Palmeiro.

After 1988 trade involving Jamie Moyer, Mitch became an all-star with Cubs

With the Cubbies, Mitch became an NL All-Star for the first time in 1989. As their full-time closer he would save 36 games and had just a 2.76 ERA. He would finish 9th in the NL Cy Young and 10th in the NL MVP Awards voting. In 1990, however, his ERA ballooned to 3.93, his saves dropped to 16, and his K/BB ratio was just 55/50 in 66.1 innings.

Due to become a free agent the following off-season, Mitch was dealt by the Cubs to the Philadelphia Phillies just before the 1991 season got underway in exchange for pitchers Chuck McElroy and Bob Scanlan. He bounced back with perhaps his best-ever statistical season. In 1991, Williams went 12-5 and saved 30 games for the Phils, registering a career-low 2.34 ERA with 84 strikeouts in the 88.1 innings that he pitched across 69 games.

The off-season came, and Williams became a free agent. But the Phillies and general manager Lee Thomas liked what they had seen of him in 1991, and signed the 26-year old just entering his prime to a multi-year free agent contract that would ultimately earn him over $10 million total.

His Philly history is well known, and was documented here earlier. What I failed to mention was the immediate, short term aftermath of that 1993 finish. Williams received numerous death threats for his personal role in the losses of not only the decisive Game 6, but also the pivotal Game 4 of the World Series. His final two games in a Phillies uniform were a disaster, and a certain vocal, crazed segment of the local fan base was unwilling to forgive.

Believing that the break with Phils fans was untenable, Thomas looked to deal Williams, and in December of 1993 would send him to Houston in exchange for pitchers Doug Jones and Jeff Juden. His brief 2-month stint with the Astros in 1994 would prove to be the beginning of the end. A 7.65 ERA and 2.250 WHIP ended his stay at the end of May. His poor performance and the August work stoppage put an end to his season.

For the 1995 season, Mitch caught on back on the west coast again, this time with the California Angels. As baseball finally got back to business, he got back to pitching and he started well. In a dozen games through May 25th, Mitch had a 3.00 ERA and had yielded just 5 hits in 6 innings. It didn't last, however. He was bombed on back-to-back outings by the Red Sox on May 26th and 27th, his ERA ballooned to 9.82, and he was on his way out of California, gone by the middle of June.

Out of the game for over a year, Mitch was signed as a free agent in July of 1996 with, of all places, the Phillies. Still the GM, Lee Thomas gave him another shot. Williams pitched in the Phils minors with High-A Clearwater and then at AAA Scranton-Wilkes Barre. In AAA, Mitch proved a shell of his former self, and he got shelled, allowing 25 hits and 11 walks in 15 innings. On August 19th, the Phillies released him for the final time.

Still, Mitch wasn't done. Keep in mind that he was that most sought-after commodity, a power-armed and experienced lefty. And he wasn't old. At age 32 in 1997, Mitch signed with the Kansas City Royals. He began by pitching well in 3 games with AAA Omaha, earning his final Big League promotion. With the Royals, Mitch got into the final 7 games of his career. They proved to be unsuccessful. He allowed 11 hits and 7 walks in 6.2 innings, and was released for the final time on May 12th of 1997.

In the years following the 1993 World Series debacle and subsequent harsh feelings from many Phillies fans, Mitch Williams' cold relationship with them slowly began to thaw. The biggest single factor was that Mitch never ran. He fully embraced his responsibility in the defeat, and combated it with both honesty and self-deprecating humor.

Phillies fans learned to embrace Mitch's responsibility, honesty, and humor

Philly fans, notorious for ganging up on perceived whiners, babies, and "losers" began to feel both sympathy and respect for the way in which Williams handled himself. Within a decade, Mitch Williams became not only a tolerated, forgiven player, but a beloved personality again here in the City of Brotherly Love.

He caught on with an independent league team at the nearby Jersey Shore as both a pitcher and pitching coach with the Atlantic City Surf for the 2001-02 seasons. In 2007, Mitch became a regular with local Philly talk radio and cable TV stations. And then in 2009, with the launch of the new MLB Network, Mitch was hired there as a baseball analyst.

Firmly re-established both in Philadelphia and in the game at large, the married family man with 5 children became a countrified voice of the common man to many. Then came May of 2014. While coaching his 10-year old son's Little League team, Mitch was ejected from a tournament game for yelling profanities at an umpire. He also faced accusations that he had ordered one of the pitchers on his team to throw a beanball at an opposing child.

While the details of the controversial incidents this past spring were disputed and being fought out, Mitch was first suspended and then released from his appearances on the MLB Network. He has since resurfaced in recent weeks, both at his Twitter handle and as host of a Wildfire Radio program which begins broadcasting at 6pm tonight.

For the past three decades, Mitch Williams has been a unique, controversial, colorful character within the game of professional baseball. With his often outstanding, and just as often frustrating, three seasons of baseball played here, Mitch has also proven to be an unforgettable Phillies character.

Follow Mitch: @Mitch99Williams on Twitter
his new radio show "Unleashed" is @99Unleashed 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Other Team Shows Up

Omar Infante's HR twisted dagger into Hunter Strickland
A funny thing happened last night on the way to the San Francisco Giants inevitable World Series championship. The other team showed up.

The Kansas City Royals erupted for five runs in the 6th inning, then turned the game over to their shutdown back-end bullpen. The result was a 7-2 victory and a 1-1 tie in the 2014 World Series.

That 6th inning eruption likely came as a surprise to many pundits and scribes who, particularly after San Fran's 7-1 romp in the opener, had already begun the Giants coronation as 2014 champions.

A gentle reminder to them: it's a best-of-seven series, not a one game elimination.

The Giants still may win this thing. They accomplished the bottom line basic of any team that opens such a series with a pair of games on the road, they won at least one. They go home now for three straight in front of their raucous fans. They hold home field advantage in what has become a best-of-five.

But they did not drive a stake into the bodies of the Kansas City team. Instead, it was the hosts who showed the visitors that they'll never be Royals (apologies, Lorde.) Kansas City won for the 10th time in 11 postseason games this Fall. Not only did they stay alive, they made a statement.

In a tight 2-2 game in the 6th inning, longtime Royals slugger Billy "Country Breakfast" Butler, whose 1st inning single had tied it early and kept the Giants from mentally burying KC, delivered again. His 2nd rbi single put the Royals on top 3-2 and opened the flood gates.

Butler served up some Country Breakfast in the 6th to put KC on top

Many of those same scribes and pundits who had already buried the Royals have also taken frequent potshots at manager Ned Yost. But it was Yost, again, who pushed the right buttons with his team. He pinch-ran for Butler, and when Salvador Perez ripped a 2-run double to the power alley just to the left of centerfield that runner, Terrance Gore, came around to score, and the Royals had a 5-2 lead.

The damage was done by the Royals against Giants' reliever Hunter Strickland, who has been consistently crushed during this postseason. But Giants skipper Bruce Bochy, the World Series' "genius" manager in the eyes of the scribes and pundits, continued to run him out there in key moments.

Strickland wasn't done making Bochy, or himself, look bad. The next batter, contact hitter Omar Infante, drove a no-doubt-about-it homerun over the left field fence. It was 7-2, and Strickland lost his mind, as he has previously. His screaming tirade directed towards who-knows-who appeared aimed towards Perez, and the two jawed.

In the end, Hunter Strickland devolved from simply a young flame-thrower who got beat in a couple key moments to a young man acting the fool on the biggest stage that baseball has to offer. For Bochy, it has to go down as a "fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me" moment.

The overmatched (sic) Yost then turned to that shutdown back-end bullpen of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and closer Greg Holland. Herrera dominated in the 6th to get starter Yordano Ventura out of a jam, then struggled a bit when called in to also do the 7th after the long wait while KC scored their runs. But he kicked it up a gear, got out of his own jam, and the Giants were effectively done.

Kelvin Herrera did a nice job powering KC out of two jams

Over the final two innings, Davis and Holland did what Davis and Holland do: they allowed next-to-nothing, and they got touched almost as infrequently. The two allowed just one combined hit, and struck out 5 of the 6 batters they faced.

The bottom line of this affair was that the other team in this series, the Kansas City Royals, finally showed up. Maybe it was a game late, but they answered the Giants romp in the opener with one of their own, looking every bit as dominant on this night as the GMen had on Tuesday.

If there is one lesson that those many scribes and pundits learned as a result, it is that you don't bury a good team because of one bad game. The Kansas City Royals are a very good team.

In my Power Ranking at the end of the regular season, the Royals finished as the top-ranked team in all of baseball. That team showed up last night, and now we have a series. It probably should have been expected. It was by me.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Giants Continue to Confound Me

Hunter Pence and Giants crush Royals in Series opener
I have nothing against the San Francisco Giants. I just don't think they are as good as they have been playing this month. I may be wrong.

The Giants continue to confound me with their high level of play, and last night's opening game of the 2014 World Series continued that streak.

San Francisco crushed the previously postseason unbeaten Kansas City Royals, on the road, with the Royals top starting pitcher on the mound. They did it the way that they've been doing much of their winning this October.

The Giants basic formula in their best games is to have ace Madison Bumgarner pitch a gem, shut the opposition down, and allow the clutch bats of Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval, and Hunter Pence to come through with enough offense at some point to win the game. That is exactly what happened last night.

Bumgarner was fabulous. He went 7 innings, allowing just 3 hits, striking out 5, walking just one, and yielding just a single run. That run came via a 7th inning homer by Salvador Perez, my pick at the start to win World Series MVP honors. The Giants ace threw 106 pitches, 71 for strikes.

Meanwhile, the Posey-Panda-Pence combination all struck first inning blows, with the capper being a blast by Pence to dead centerfield. His homerun put San Fran up 3-0 on Shields, who struggled the entire game.

The Royals ace, nicknamed "Big Game James" during his time with Tampa Bay, was acquired by KC to push their young team to the next level. Mission accomplished. But he was also acquired, once there, to deliver in these biggest of games. So far this October, that has not been the case. Just 40 of his 71 pitches went for strikes, and he was gone after 3 innings.

Shields did not pitch the big game that the Royals needed

If there was one saving grace for the Royals, it was that they didn't burn out their starter or their vaunted bullpen in this one. Shields 71 pitches will easily allow him to return for a rematch with Bumgarner in a Game 5, should the Series last that long. Manager Ned Yost used 3 relievers, but none of Danny Duffy, Tim Collins, or Jason Frasor are among the group that have made a real difference in the Royals success.

As I've stated a few times already in evaluating them, the Giants did not fare well in my final regular season Power Ranking. They finished just 17 of 30 MLB teams despite reaching the playoffs as a Wildcard. The PR doesn't factor a team's record. It is purely a reflection of their statistical performance in the areas of Hitting, Pitching, and Defense. The GMen were rated so low because, at least during the season, their defense was mediocre and their pitching often poor.

I did pick them to beat an overrated Pittsburgh team in that one-off Wildcard game. But since then, I had them losing in the NLDS to an all-around superior Washington Nationals squad, in the NLCS to a slightly better LA Dodgers team, and here in the World Series to a hot Royals squad .

What has happened is, the Giants have drawn on the experience of having won in October in both 2010 and 2012 to produce more consistently than any of their opponents in the increased pressure of playoff baseball. It is clear that, once a team reaches October and starts to get on a roll, you can toss the regular season statistics out the window.

Experience and momentum are clearly at work this Fall for the San Francisco Giants. The Royals are a very talented ballclub. They can still recover and win this thing. But if those two factors stay intact for the Giants for just a few more days, KC's talent won't matter a lick.

For the Royals to recover from the Game One debacle, they need to quickly develop some tough skin of their own. There is no magic button to push in order to make that happen. Someone, probably at least a couple of players, need to step up and make it happen. Someone needs to lead the Royals in voice, and more importantly, in deed. If not, the Giants will continue to confound me, all the way to their 3rd World Series title in 5 seasons.

Monday, October 20, 2014

World Series 2014: These Wildcards Are No Jokers

Greg Holland and the KC bullpen should emerge victorious
A year ago when I made my prediction of the Boston Red Sox defeating the Saint Louis Cardinals in the 2013 World Series, it wasn't a difficult prediction to make.

Despite the fact that the 2013 Series featured the best teams by record in both the NL and AL for the first time in 14 years, I felt that Boston was clearly the better team. This time around, I found it much more difficult.

In 2014, we don't have the best regular season teams involved in the World Series from either league. Not only that, but we also don't have a division winner. Both the Kansas City Royals, who finished a game behind the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central, and San Francisco Giants, who finished 6 back of the LA Dodgers in the NL West, were Wildcard teams.

This marks just the 2nd time since the concept was introduced for the 1995 season that two Wildcard teams will faceoff in the World Series. In the only other such meeting, the then-Anaheim Angels defeated the San Francisco Giants in a dramatic 7-game series in 2002.

It's my call here that these current San Francisco Giants will again fall short in the Fall Classic to their AL Wildcard counterparts. I am going to call it Kansas City in 6 games.

The Giants have overcome more than the Royals to get this far. Back at the beginning of October, in the final 2014 MLB Power Ranking, San Fran was ranked just 17th of the 30 teams in baseball. Poor pitching and mediocre defense were the main reasons.

But that was the regular season, and frankly, that matters little right now. The Giants are a battle-tested group that has a number of key players still around who won the World Series in both 2010 and 2012. In the increased pressure of the postseason, winning experience can make a difference.

The case for the Giants begins with their bats. Buster Posey at catcher is one of the best and most valuable players in the game today. He is joined by 3rd baseman Pablo 'Kung Fu Panda' Sandoval and right fielder Hunter Pence in a dynamic, clutch middle-of-the-order.

Posey, Pence, and Panda pace the Giants offense

While those three are the engine that drives the Giants offense, the club must get production from supporting players if they want to win this series. In Mike Morse, they will have a true DH-type option when the series opens in KC. Guys like Gregor Blanco, Joe Panik, Brandon Belt, Brandon Hicks, and NLCS walkoff hero Travis Ishikawa are going to have to step up.

On the mound, Madison Bumgarner will start Game 1, and he is a true legit shutdown ace. He has the ability to win at least two games all by himself. Behind him, the Giants must continue to receive fountain-of-youth performances from veterans Jake Peavy and Tim Hudson. Ryan Vogelsong, likely in his last hurrah with the team, will start Game 4.

The Giants bullpen has been coming through in the postseason where it was a bit inconsistent in the regular season. Starters Yusmeiro Petit and Tim Lincecum lengthen that pen now, and the back end will feature the combination of Sergio Romo, Santiago Casilla, Jean Machi, Jeremy Affeldt, Javier Lopez, and J.C. Guiterrez.

Trout's July All-Star MVP performance gave Royals home field 

Meanwhile, the Royals will have home field advantage thanks to Mike Trout. Back in July, Trout was the MVP of the All-Star Game, leading the American League to a 5-3 victory and giving it's representative the home field. So baseball's best player has had an effect on the World Series without even playing in it.

They Royals have hitting, but let's face it, talk about their dominance begins with their pitching, defense, and speed. Kansas City finished at the very top of the final MLB Power Ranking thanks to the game's #5 pitching staff, and with the top defense in all of baseball by a wide margin. That defense has been electric so far in the postseason.

On the pitching front, the bullpen back-end of closer Greg Holland setup by Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera has been as impenetrable as the "Massey pre-nup", and been just as intolerably cruel to opposing hitters in the postseason as they were in the regular season. These guys just don't allow anything, meaning you had best do something with the Royals starting pitchers if you want to beat them.

Those starters are no slouches themselves. It all starts with lead man "Big Game" James Shields. While he has been a bit up and down this postseason, he has the experience and repertoire to match Bumgarner pitch-for-pitch, at least for the 6 innings that he needs to last. Yordano Ventura is a power option in the #2 spot, while both Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie are reliable workmanlike 3-4 starters.

On offense, the Royals have emerging star Lorenzo Cain in the outfield, an All-Star catcher of their own in Salvador Perez, and a quartet of organizational veterans in leftfielder Alex Gordon, DH Billy Butler, 1B Eric Hosmer, and 3B Mike Moustakas. They also have solid contributors in Omar Infante, Nori Aoki and Alcides Escobar. Perez is a star in-the-making, and my choice to emerge as the World Series MVP.

Catcher Salvador Perez: my choice to emerge as MVP

Perhaps the most interesting decision for manager Ned Yost will come right up front. Does he continue to carry the blazing speed of Terrance Gore, perfect for an AL series but limited for 3 possible NL-city games, or does he turn to veteran Raul Ibanez off his bench?

That managerial matchup again appears on paper to be a significant advantage for the Giants, who have the highly respected, 2-time World Series-winning skipper Bruce Bochy calling the shots. Some of Yost's calls this postseason have been so unorthodox that he has received extreme criticism. Unfortunately for all his critics, his way has resulted in a World Series appearance.

Ned Yost continues to confound his critics, every single one of whom I trust will talk about how Kansas City won despite, not because of, the decisions made by their manager. Their defense remains air-tight, their bullpen remains impenetrable, and their offense and starting pitching remain competitive. The Kansas City Royals give their fans a treat, winning at home in the 6th game.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Phillies Biography Series: Greg Luzinski

Greg "The Bull" Luzinski, Phillies 1970-1980
With next year’s 2015 season being the 45th that I hope to enjoy as a fan of the Fightin’ Phils, I’ve decided to take on a Phillies history project moving forward.
Once a week, I’ll be presenting a short biography of an interesting figure from the Philadelphia Phillies long and storied past. This might be a player, a coach or manager, a team executive, a broadcaster, maybe even the occasional fan.
To kick things off, we’ll start with someone who not only has nostalgic interest to me personally, but also someone who the majority of today’s Phillies fans are familiar with: Greg “the Bull” Luzinski.
If you were born in the early-1970’s or beyond, your memories of ‘the Bull’ as an active ballplayer are likely few or none at all. But many of today’s younger generation of fans know him from “Bull’s BBQ”, the popular food joint out in right field adjoining Ashburn Alley at Citizens Bank Park.
Luzinski is a Windy City native, born in Chicago on November 22nd, 1950. He became a slugging high school star at Notre Dame College Prep in Niles, Illinois, and the Phillies made him their 1st round selection, 11th overall, in the 1968 MLB Draft.
At age 17, Luzinski headed for Huron in the Northern League, where he belted 13 homers in his first 212 professional at-bats. The following season he was moved up to the High-A Carolina League, where at Raleigh-Durham he crushed 31 homers and had 92 rbi.
With the big league club struggling in the final years of Connie Mack Stadium, speculation was quickly rising as to how fast the kid masher would reach Philly. The talk grew louder when he moved to AA Reading in 1970 and, at age 19, he hit .325 while powering 33 homers and driving in 120 runs.
It was then, at the tail end of the 1970 season, in the final month of the club’s stay at old Connie Mack, that Luzinski got the call. It would prove to be an inauspicious debut. Wearing uniform #42, Luzinski recorded just a pair of hits in a dozen at-bats spread across 8 games, appearing mostly as a pinch-hitter or at 1st base.
1971 found the Phillies opening Veteran’s Stadium in South Philly. It also found Luzinski back in the minors. He would spend most of the year at AAA Eugene, again tuning up minor league pitching. At age 20, the young slugger crushed 36 homers, drove in 114 runs, and hit .312.
As the 1971 season wound down, Luzinski again got the call to the parent club. This time it would be for good. Donning what would become his familiar #19, he again played solely at 1st base. Thickly built and possessing no speed, the Phillies were not sure that he could handle the outfield. In just 100 at-bats, Luzinski hit .300, and he registered his first 3 career homeruns.
With his powerful build, he was given the nickname “The Bull”, and his homeruns became more frequent and impressive in 1972. These powerful blasts were becoming known as “Bull Blasts” to writers, broadcasters, and fans. He hit .281 with 18 homers and 68 rbi in that first full MLB season as he made a permanent move to left field.
1973 would be the true coming-out party for The Bull. He hit .285 with 29 homers and 97 rbi. He was joined that year by a new regular at 3rd base for the Phillies, as 23-year old Mike Schmidt hit 18 homers in his own first full season. The two young sluggers would now become a powerful combination in the Phillies lineups for the rest of the decade.
In both the ’72 and ’73 seasons, Luzinski had put on impressive performances down in Clearwater, Florida for spring training. But both seasons, late spring injuries had actually hindered him and held his regular season numbers down. In 1974, that bad luck run got worse.
Off to a slow start already, Luzinski tore the ligaments in his right knee on June 1st of that 1974 season. He would miss 3 full months, and the injury sapped him of much of his power. He hit just 7 homers and knocked in only 48 runs, both of which would prove to be career-low figures.
Perhaps worse yet, the Phillies were beginning to contend as a team. They finished just 8 games out of first place in that ’74 season, with Schmidt breaking out as an NL All-Star, hitting 36 homers and driving in 116 runs. Dave Cash had come over from the Pirates, becoming an All-Star himself and inspiring the Phillies to believe in themselves with the motto “Yes We Can!” Could the Phils, with a healthy Luzinski, have made a run at the NL East crown in 1974?
Hopes were high as the 1975 season rolled around. The Phillies were clearly an emerging threat to the perennial NL East pace setters, the Pittsburgh Pirates and Saint Louis Cardinals. Luzinski came back with a vengeance. He not only stayed healthy, he dominated, hitting .300 with 34 homers and 120 rbi.
The performance earned him his first NL All-Star nod, and he finished 2nd in the National League Most Valuable Player Award balloting to the more charismatic LA Dodgers young 1st baseman Steve Garvey. Schmidt had 38 homers and 95 rbi himself. Cash hit .305 and scored 111 runs. Still, despite the obvious improvements, the Phils finished in 2nd place in the NL East, 6 1/2 games behind the Pirates.
It would be the following season where the team would finally kick in the door, win the division, and establish itself as longterm favorites. The 1976 and 1977 Phillies teams each won 101 games in the regular season, establishing a franchise record that would last for 3 1/2 decades, and the 1978 club won a 3rd straight NL East crown. Bull did his part: 1976 – .304/21HR/95RBI, 1977 – .309/39HR/130RBI, 1978 – 35HR/101RBI. He was an NL All-Star each season, and again was NL MVP runner-up in 1977.
Luzinski had established himself as not only one of the game’s great sluggers, but one of it’s best hitters, period. He was a perennial All-Star. And his team was a perennial contender. But still, something was missing. Each year, the Phillies fell short, losing in the postseason. In ’76 it was acceptable. The Phils were first-time playoff participants, and they lost to the defending World Series champion Cincinnati Reds during the ‘Big Red Machine’ heyday.
The losses in both the 1977 and 78 playoffs were a bit harder to swallow, however. Particularly in 1977, when the Phils had the best record in the National League, were tied with the Dodgers at 1-1 in the NLCS, and had a 5-3 lead with 2 outs and nobody on for LA in the 9th inning of Game 3.
The Phillies were just a step away from a 2-1 lead in the series, which would put them a win away from reaching the World Series, with ace Steve Carlton scheduled for Game 4. One more out. Luzinski was in left field. This was unusual, because in such situations, manager Danny Ozark frequently used Jerry Martin as a defensive replacement for The Bull. But for some reason, not this time.
Phils’ closer Gene Garber got those first two outs, and got ahead of Dodgers pinch-hitter Vic Davalillo 0-2. Just one strike away from victory, the unspeakable began to happen. Davalillo surprised the Phils defense with a 2-strike drag bunt single. Another pinch-hitter, Manny Mota, stepped to the plate. Again, Garber got ahead of the hitter 0-2. This time, Mota sent a fly ball to deep left field. It is a ball that Martin likely would have tracked down fairly easily for the 3rd and final out.
But Martin wasn’t out there, Luzinski was. He tracked back towards the left field wall at The Vet, reached up, and momentarily appeared to have it. But he didn’t have it. The ball clanked off his glove, hit the wall, and bounced back to him. Luzinski fired wildly towards the infield, trying to nail Mota at 2nd base, but his throw skipped past 2nd baseman Ted Sizemore allowing Davalillo to score and sending Mota to 3rd as the tying run.
Davey Lopes then followed with another crazy play. His hot-shot careened off Schmidt’s leg at 3rd base and redirected to shortstop Larry Bowa, who gunned a throw that appeared to reach 1st baseman Richie Hebner’s glove for the final out just before Lopes hit the 1st base bag. But umpire Bruce Froemming called Lopes safe, and Mota scored the tying run. And still, it didn’t end.
Garber tried to pick the speedy Lopes off, and threw the ball past Hebner. Lopes moved up to 2nd base on the error. When shortstop Bill Russell followed with a single, Lopes scored, and incredibly the Dodgers, one strike away from defeat twice with weak-hitting pinch-hitters at the plate, were ahead 6-5. The Phils went down without as much as a whimper in the their half of the 9th. The defeat, snatched from the jaws of victory, has forever become known as “Black Friday” in Phillies lore.
The following day, Carlton was bested in the rain by Tommy John. Yes, that Tommy John, of surgery fame. The Dodgers 4-1 victory put them into the World Series, and left the Phillies shell-shocked in defeat. Los Angeles would do it again in 1978, dumping the Phils in the NLCS.
In 1979, the Phils signed star free agent 1st baseman Pete Rose away from the Big Red Machine to help get them over the playoff hump. The addition of “Charlie Hustle” to the team didn’t help, as the club let an early fast start deteriorate into a horrid 4th place finish, 14 games behind the Pirates.
In that disappointing 1979 season, Luzinski had slumped to a .252 average with 18 homers and 81 rbi. In 1980, things didn’t go much better. He slumped further to a .228 average, with 19 homers and just 56 rbi. His decreased offensive production combined with his defensive shortcomings, and with the emergence of speedy, exciting rookie Lonnie Smith, to reduce The Bull’s overall playing time.
But in that 1980 season, the team under new manager Dallas Green was able to fight its way to the NL East crown and a return to the playoffs. They engaged in perhaps the greatest NLCS in history, coming from behind to edge the Houston Astros 3-2 in games. A titanic “Bull Blast” homer from Luzinski helped put the Phillies in front in the opener. And then finally, in six games against the Kansas City Royals, the Phillies and The Bull won the World Series. It was the first championship in the 128-season history of the franchise.
The World Series victory would prove to be the final official appearance of The Bull in a Phillies uniform under competitive circumstances. At the end of spring training prior to the 1981 season, Luzinski was sold to the Chicago White Sox. Now in the American League, free from having to play defense regularly, The Bull returned to being an offensive force. With Chicago he became one of the top DH’s in the game, hitting 84 homers and driving in 317 runs over 4 final seasons.
luzinski white sox
Following the 1984 season, Luzinski officially retired. He would take a job as the combined baseball/football coach at a New Jersey high school for a few years, and showed up at Phillies old-timer’s and reunion events. When the Phillies moved out of The Vet and into their new home at Citizens Bank Park for 2004, one of the food attractions was named for him, with Luzinski as part owner. “Bull’s BBQ” remains a fan favorite to this day, and most home games The Bull himself can be found there, meeting and greeting fans, signing autographs, and posing for pictures.

Greg Luzinski finished up his MLB career with 307 homeruns and 1,128 rbi across parts of 15 seasons. 223 of those longballs were hit in a Phillies uniform, leaving him currently 7th all-time on the club Homeruns ranking. He is 12th in RBI, tied for 14th in Doubles, 21st in Games played,  and 21st in Hits. In 1989, Luzinski received the honor of being inducted into the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame, and in 1998 was honored with a place on the Phillies Wall of Fame.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Little Girl Who Stole My Ball

I have a theory that if you attend enough professional baseball games over a long enough period of time, eventually you are going to see and experience almost everything that the great game has to offer.
I just completed my 44th season of attending Philadelphia Phillies games. I’ve seen a lot of things in person: a World Series game in 1980. Numerous playoff games, including Doc’s 2010 no-hitter.
But over the course of hundreds of games during that span, there is one thing that I’ve never experienced: catching a foul ball at a game. I did get close once. Should have had one. And then a little girl stole my ball. Sort of.
I’ll always remember the night of my should-have-been foul ball, because after 30 years it would be my final night at Veteran’s Stadium. For three decades, since the stadium opened in my South Philly neighborhood at age 9, I had been attending games here, and this would be the last.
The date was Thursday, September 4th, 2003. The Phillies were in a battle for the NL Wildcard playoff berth, tied with the upstart Florida Marlins for that position. And they were sending my favorite pitcher, lefty Randy Wolf, to the mound against the New York Mets.
Manager Larry Bowa wrote out his lineup card for the game: Marlon Byrd in center field, Jimmy Rollins at shortstop, Bobby Abreu in right field, Mike Lieberthal at catcher, Jim Thome at 1st base, Pat Burrell in left field, Tomas Perez at 3rd base, and Nick Punto at 2nd base, with Wolf in the pitcher slot hitting 9th.
The Mets countered with Hall of Fame lefty Tom Glavine on the mound, and his battery mate was future Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza. But aside from those two, the Mets didn’t have much. They were a shell of the team that just 3 years earlier had reached the World Series, and now floundered in last place in the NL East.
New York scored a run in the first off Wolf, and then another in the top of the 5th, both knocked in by shortstop Jorge Velandia. But then the Phils erupted for a 4-spot in the bottom of the 5th. Wolf helped himself with a rbi double, and then a 3-run homer by a then 24-year old JRoll put the Phils on top.
Not the smile I was referring to, but it does the trick.
The Mets scored again off Wolf in the top of the 7th, cutting the Phils lead to a single run. But in the Phillies half, Bowa sent up Jason Michaels to pinch-hit for his pitcher. Michaels drove a homerun to left field, putting the Phils back up by a pair.
I had missed the top of the 7th, because I decided that, with this being my likely final trip to a Phillies game here at The Vet, I wanted one final hotdog. So I had gone down to a stand just under our seats, which were pretty good, right behind the first base bag.
I was scarfing down my dog when Michaels homered, and it seemed that this was going to be a fitting way to end my three decades relationship with the old concrete giant at Broad and Pattison. Enjoying a hotdog during a clinching homerun of my final Phillies game while they were in serious playoff contention.
And then Byrd stepped up to the plate.
Aug 27, 2014; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies right fielder Marlon Byrd (3) hits a single during the fourth inning of a game against the Washington Nationals at Citizens Bank Park. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
At some point in his at-bat, he got around late on a pitch, and shot a foul ball my way. This was no popup or looper. A screaming line drive was honing in on me like a Patriot missile on a Scud in Desert Storm.
As soon as the ball was off the bat and headed in our direction, myself and those around us stood up. I was on the end seat in our aisle, with my wife directly to my right. I had just a couple of seconds to react, tops. With no glove to defend me, I used the only padded object available to me. I turned my butt.
The screaming missile found it’s target, nailing me directly on my turned left butt cheek. My thought in the next split second was “Oh my God, at my last Phillies game here at The Vet, I’m FINALLY going to get a foul ball!” Though the first small pangs of pain were creeping into my consciousness from that left cheek, I was happy. For a second.
It’s funny how much your mind can take in with just a couple of seconds to react. I knew that I had been hit by the foul ball, square on that butt cheek. I knew also that there was no one really close to me except my wife. There were just over 19,000 in attendance that night, and the crowd directly around us was spread out.
In the split-second after the ball met the cheek, I had heard a sound. Later, the best way that I was able to describe this sound would be, if you ever have played a game of Skee-Ball on an amusement pier or at a carnival, the sound that the wooden balls make when they plop into the hole? That was the sound that I heard in the second after getting hit with it.
I turned to try to find the baseball, knowing that after it hit me, it must have dropped right down at my feet. I didn’t see it, and turned around to observe that when I had stood up, my plastic seat had flipped back to the upright position. The ball must have hit my butt cheeck, and dropped down into the space between my seat and the seat-back. That was the Skee-Ball sound I had heard.

I looked down, but didn’t see the ball. And then I did, it was rolling out into the aisle. I got to see the ball. I got to watch it slowly, excrutiatingly slow, roll out into the aisle. I had just enough time to think about how I was going to just reach out and scoop up my prize.
And then SHE appeared. Out of nowhere. A little girl, couldn’t have been more than 5-6 years old. She wasn’t running for the foul ball. She just happened to be walking up the steps in the aisle as MY ball rolled out into it. The ball rolled directly into her path, and in one motion she reached down and picked it up.
My foul ball was gone: that fast, and that simple.
I am not proud of the thought that passed through my then 41-year old head in that moment. It involved swearing and cussing and all manner of outrage. But none of that came out of me. You had to see this little girl. She was like a little, innocent angel who had simply stumbled into something at age 5, maybe at her first Phils game, that I had waited a lifetime to have happen.
I smiled at her as she looked up at me, holding my foul ball in her little hands. Then I looked up and saw what must have been her Dad right behind her, and I smiled at him. If he was a human being at all, he had to see the hurt in my eyes behind my half-hearted, purely polite smile.
He scooped up his little girl, and I watched the smiles on their faces as they looked at each other and the ball, and he offered her some sort of congratulations. And I was happy for her. Genuinely happy. She would have a story to tell for the rest of her life. And a ball. My ball. Her ball.
But she wouldn’t be the only one with a story to tell, so would I. My wife and I sat down, and with my butt still throbbing a bit, we talked about what had just happened, wondering how it was possible that things could have turned out the way that they did.
Back in the ballgame, the Mets tied things up in the top of the 9th. In the bottom, tied at 5-5, Lieberthal singled to score Byrd, and the Phillies walked off with a 6-5 win that kept them tied with the Marlins for the Wildcard berth for another day.
We walked out of the old stadium generally happy, but also melancholy. The Phils had won and were contending still. My butt was feeling better, but my psyche was still a bit bruised from the loss of the ball. I asked my wife to wait for a moment as we walked down the ramps to leave, and one last time, I walked out to look on the field.
The lights had been turned down, giving the old Vet a shadowy feeling. For a few seconds, I thought back on all I had seen here over 30 years: astroturf and dancing fountains, Bull Blasts, Schmidty going Outta Here, Lefty gems, Bowa’s glove, Charlie Hustle, Tugger slapping his thigh, the Phanatic, Dutch, the Dude, Krukker, the Wild Thing, now a new generation with JRoll and Pat the Bat and The Wolf Pack.

Veteran’s Stadium gave me a thousand great memories over three decades. I soaked it all in one last time, thinking about all of these things. Then I smiled, thinking again about the one thing that I had never got, but so nearly did on that final night, thanks to the little girl who stole my ball.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

NLCS: Cardinals over Giants

Managers Bruce Bochy & Mike Matheny meet again in NLCS
For the last four years, either the Saint Louis Cardinals (2011, 2013) or the San Francisco Giants (2010, 2012) have won the National League pennant.

The Giants in both their winning years, and the Cards in 2011, would ultimately also win the World series.

During these last four years in which the two franchise' have dominated the NL postseason, they met just once. The Giants edged out the Cardinals in 7 games in the 2012 NLCS, rallying after falling behind 3-1 in games.

The two clubs took different paths to this 2014 rematch. The Cards again won the NL Central Division crown for the 2nd straight season, and for the 8th time in the last 15 years. The Giants got in as an NL Wildcard team after finishing 6 games behind the LA Dodgers in the NL West race.

Despite their different methods of reaching the NLCS, both are here again, and that can likely be attributed to their previous recent playoff experience. Both of these teams, their managers, and many of the individual players are used to competing in the increased glare and under the added pressure of October baseball.

The teams met twice during the regular season. Back at the end of May, the Giants took 3 of 4 at Busch Stadium. Then at the very beginning of July, the Cards travelled to AT&T Park and took 2 of 3. So the GMen owned a 4-3 edge in the regular season series. It's my pick here that this series will be decided by that same margin, just as their 2012 NLCS. But this time, Saint Louis comes out on top.

The Cardinals finished as the 3rd best team in the National League, and at #9 overall, in the final Power Ranking back at the beginning of October. The Giants meanwhile finished just 17th overall in MLB. The belief here is that the holes causing San Fran to finish that low will ultimately prove the difference between these battled-tested squads.

Cards' ace Adam Wainwright is one of the best pitchers in baseball today

The difference makers between the teams are team pitching and defense. While the Cards were the 5th-ranked team in all of baseball in the Fangraphs WAR team defensive rankings, the GMen finished just 16th. Now especially missing injured outfielder Angel Pagan, the Giants lineup is even more challenged.

On the mound, the Cards staff rated out at #18, not an impressive finish at all. However, the Giants at #28 had some of MLB's worst-performing overall pitching. Saint Louis should be able to parlay those pitching and defensive edges to a victory in the series.

As for the offense, the Giants 6th-rated offense gives them the old "puncher's chance" against a Cardinals offensive group that finished as MLB's 11th-rated WAR group. But again, injuries have weakened San Fran on offense as well. Not just the loss of Pagan, but an oblique strain has made slugger Mike Morse' ability to contribute questionable at best, sapping the Giants of some clout.

Historically, these are two of the most storied, successful teams in all of Major League Baseball, and in the National League in particular. The Cardinals have won 19 NL Pennants and 11 World Series crowns, most in NL history and 2nd only to the Yankees overall. The Giants have won 22 NL Pennants, a league record, and 7 World Series crowns.

There is star power to be had here, with the Giants led by the hitting trio of Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval, and Hunter Pence, and the Cardinals hitters by Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, and Matt Carpenter.

"The Big Panda", Pablo Sandoval, is a proven postseason clutch performer

On the mound, the Giants rotation has a true young ace in lefty Madison Bumgarner, and they also rely on unflappable veterans Jake Peavy and Tim Hudson. Yusmeiro Petit has developed into a reliable option as well. For the Cards, it's righty Adam Wainwright as the ace, with Lance Lynn a solid #2, Carlos Martinez emerging as a strong 3rd option, and either John Lackey or Shelby Miller also likely to see work.

The bullpens of both clubs can be schizophrenic, with the Giants having changed from Sergio Romo to Santiago Casilla in the closer role, and with Cards closer Trevor Rosenthal alternating between dominant and erratic. The Cards have a tremendous arm in Pat Neshek in reserve. He may be the best reliever on either team. Both clubs have an assortment of options that run hot and cold.

The best chance for the Giants would be for Bumgarner, Peavy, and Hudson to all be at their best through the series, giving their veteran bats a chance to win it with clutch hits. For the Cards, it should be simply about playing to their full potential as an overall team.

Posey (L) and Molina (R) may be two best catchers in baseball today

Perhaps the biggest highlight of this series will be the showdown between two of the best all-around catchers in the game. Posey led the Giants to titles when he was the NL Rookie of the Year in 2010 and the NL MVP in 2012. Molina, widely considered the best defensive catcher in the game, is a 6-time Gold Glover and All-Star.

The Cardinals will have the home field advantage here. While I don't think that is necessarily a very big factor in the playoffs, I do think that in the end it will be those Saint Louis fans at Busch Stadium who are witnessing their team in a victorious pileup after a win in that ultimate Game 7 next weekend.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

ALCS: Royals over Orioles

On Sunday night, October 27th, 1985, Hall of Famer George Brett and the Kansas City Royals put an 11-0 beat down on the Saint Louis Cardinals to win Game 7 of the 1985 World Series.

The victory clinched the first and only World Series championship in the history of the Royals organization. It would also prove to be the last time the team would reach the MLB postseason until now.

The current incarnation of the team ended that postseason drought by clinching an American League Wildcard playoff berth on the final weekend of the regular season. Then they put on one of the wildest comebacks in history to win that Wildcard Game over the Oakland Athletics.

This past weekend, KC put the capper on an ALDS sweep of the West-champion Los Angeles Angels with an 8-3 thrashing. That victory advanced them to the ALCS beginning on Friday night, where their opponents will be the equally impressive Baltimore Orioles.

The O's had to overcome the losses of multiple major pieces to their puzzle this season. Catcher and team leader Matt Wieters early on, and mega-talented kid 3rd baseman Manny Machado at midseason, both for the rest of the year. And then slugging 1st baseman Chris Davis for the final month and into the playoffs thanks to a violation of MLB's substance abuse policy.

Despite those losses, Baltimore won the AL East by a dozen games. In their ALDS against the playoff-tested Detroit Tigers, winners of the AL Central, the O's slugged their way to 12-3 and 7-6 wins before clinching the sweep with a tight 2-1 victory that showed they can win the low-scoring duels as well.

The ALCS will be an extreme contrast in managerial styles, and possibly competency. Buck Showalter has been widely lauded for his guidance of the Orioles to the AL East crown, overcoming those previously mentioned position player losses and a pitching staff loaded with no-names.

Buck Showalter: O's skipper has been AL's best in 2014

Royals manager Ned Yost, on the other hand, has been widely criticized for many of his moves. There is a perception among a large and growing segment of baseball evaluators that Kansas City is winning despite, not due to, the ability of it's skipper.

Whatever your feeling about Yost and the tactical job that he does in-game, there is a fact that you cannot dispute: he is winning. He has his team in this postseason for the first time in almost three decades. He has led them past the team that was atop baseball for much of the summer (Oakland) and the team that finished on top of baseball (Angels) in the playoffs.

The Royals generally do not bash the ball around the yard. They beat you with defense, speed, pitching, and timely hitting. They were the top defensive club in the sport for the entire season, and finished there by a wide margin. Their bullpen may be the best and deepest in the game. They can run like the wind. Those are three tough-to-beat weapons this time of year.

In comparing the two clubs, the O's are clearly the more powerful offensive team. They finished as the #3 offensive club in the game, while the Royals finished in the #10 ranked position. Baltimore crushed 211 homeruns, tops in MLB, while KC's total of 95 round-trippers was last in baseball. The O's outscored the Royals by 705-651.

But the Royals have an element of their offensive game that completely off-sets the Orioles power advantage: their speed advantage. Kansas City stole 153 bases in the regular season, more than 30 better than the next best AL club. The Orioles swiped just 44 bags total. Offensively, on paper, this looks like a classic power (Baltimore) versus speed (Kansas City) matchup on the offensive side of the game.

Jarrod Dyson (36), Alcides Escobar (31), and Lorenzo Cain (28) all play regularly and run regularly. Both Nori Aoki (17) and Alex Gordon (12) are also willing to run. And Yost carries Terrance Gore (5 steals in 11 regular season games) as a pinch-running weapon this postseason. He is one of the fastest men in the game.

Lorenzo Cain is a Royals star emerging from obscurity

On defense, the Orioles were the 2nd best team in the entire sport. The Cincinnati Reds in the NL, and the Boston Red Sox in the AL (when Jackie Bradley Jr was playing centerfield) were the only teams in MLB who were in their neighborhood as far as overall quality defense.

Problem there is, while the other 26 MLB teams were behind those three, there was one team that was not in their neighborhood, only because they were way ahead of them. That team was the Royals. So in the end, you have a really good defensive team in Baltimore, but a truly great defensive team in KC.

On the mound is where the disparity between these two clubs shows up. The Royals finished as the #5 pitching team in MLB, while the Orioles were middle-of-the-pack at just the #15 spot. The Royals pitchers are better across the board than the O's.

KC's rotation is led by the best starting pitcher in this series, "Big Game" James Shields. Yordano Ventura and Jason Vargas are solid #2-3 options, while either Danny Duffy or Jeremy Guthrie can keep them in games as well. The rotation guys really just have to be able to last 5-6 innings, because the bullpen is so dominating.

When the games start to get late, or the middle innings start to get dicey, Yost can turn to a group of dominating relief pitchers. Righty Wade Davis pitched 72 of the most valuable innings in baseball this season. Greg Holland is a shutdown closer. And the Royals will mix in Kelvin Herrera and rookie lefty Brandon Finnegan as well.

The Orioles have a solid lefty-righty combo at the front of the rotation in Wei-Yin Chen and Chris Tillman, and a solid back-end pair of Miguel Gonzalez and Bud Norris. They have an effective closer in Zach Britton, and in between you'll see Buck bring in a parade of relievers including Kevin Gausman, Andrew Miller, Darren O'Day, Tommy Hunter, and T.J. McFarland.

On offense, it will be about the power of Nelson Cruz, Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, and Steve Pearce for Baltimore. These guys will need to produce a few long balls if the O's are to have any shot, and that will be difficult against this Royals pitching staff.

The series begins at the beautiful, iconic Orioles Park at Camden Yards

One great thing about the return of these two teams to postseason prominence this year is that it gives baseball fans a chance to revisit two of the truly beautiful ballparks in the game. Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which will host the first two, and Royals Stadium are each unique, and will provide an aesthetically pleasing setting for the entire affair.

Expect plenty of references to the two franchise' great living iconic players: Cal Ripken Jr for Baltimore, who is scheduled to broadcast the games nationally, and George Brett for Kansas City, who will be rooting the club on from it's Executive boxes as the Royals VP for Baseball Operations.

In my final Power Ranking a week ago, based solely on regular season performance, Kansas City finished on top, with Baltimore finishing 3rd overall. They were the top two teams in the American League in those final rankings. So it is fitting that they have reached this point. Whichever team wins will be my pick to win the World Series, barring key major injuries.

I think that we will see a tremendous pitching and defense series here, with both clubs fairing well in those areas. I think we'll see the offense play out generally as it appears: power vs. speed.

A popular song getting a lot of new attention around their postseason run has been "Royals" by Lorde. At the end she sings: "And baby I'll rule, I'll rule, I'll rule, I'll rule. Let me live that fantasy."

Lorde: you can call her Queen Bee

I think these Royals from Kansas City will indeed rule, will indeed live a fantasy, and will get a trip to the 2014 World Series as their reality. The games will be mostly close battles, but I think the KC pitching and defense combo will overcome the Orioles offense. Call it Kansas City in five games.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Bryce Harper's Coming Out Party

In writing up my final MLB Power Ranking last week, I finished up the Washington Nationals comments with this line: "I believe that this postseason could very well be Bryce Harper's true launching pad to on-field stardom."

The Nats finished 2nd in the Power Ranking and were the team that I believed were best positioned to win the World Series. The San Francisco Giants killed that possibility by dumping Washington in four games in one of the National League Division Series.

But the postseason performance of Harper, limited to those four games as it was, may indeed have been that launching pad. Harper launched a few himself, blasting 3 homeruns. He also scored 4 runs and knocked in 4. He hit .294, registering a .368 on-base percentage, an .882 slugging percentage, and had an OPS of 1.251 as well.

Harper began his assault on Giants pitching in the bottom of the 7th inning of Game 1 with the Nats trailing 3-0. Against reliever Hunter Strickland, Harper led off and absolutely crushed a titanic shot into the right field upper deck at Nationals Park to get the Nats on the board.

Harper, who appears to thrive under pressure in dramatic situations, sensed the importance of getting the Nats crowd back into the game: "Get some runs on the board, get this crowd back into it. Getting them going was very exciting." It wouldn't ultimately be enough, as San Fran held on to win 3-2, going up 1-0 in the series.

Game 2 would prove to be historic, the longest postseason game by time in MLB history, tied for the longest by innings. The affair wasn't ended until Brandon Belt's 18th inning homerun gave the Giants a 2-1 victory. Harper was conspicuous by his absence in the game, going 0-7, striking out twice and leaving a pair in scoring position.

With their backs to the wall as Game 3 headed out west to AT&T Park in San Francisco, the Nationals staved off elimination with a 4-1 victory. Harper was the centerpiece player. He scored all the way from 1st base on a throwing error by Madison Bumgarner in the top of the 7th, part of a 3-run rally that broke a scoreless tie.

Then, in the top of the 9th, Harper blasted a pitch from reliever Jean Machi over the right-centerfield fence to extend the lead out to 4-0 in what would end up as a 4-1 win, keeping the Nationals alive and moving them within a game of evening up the best-of-five NLDS.

Harper's HR into McCovey Cove tied Game 4 of the NLDS

In yesterday's game 4, again needing to win to stay alive, the Nats fell behind again, the Giants taking a 2-1 lead into the top of the 7th inning. With one out and Strickland, his Game 1 victim, again on in relief, Harper crushed a pitch well over the right field wall and out into McCovey Cove to tie the game.

Ultimately the Giants would again prevail in a 1-run game, winning the series 3 games to 1, all of their victories coming by that single-run margin. Except for his collar in Game 2, when most of the Nats failed to produce, Bryce Harper was producing the entire series. Great defensive plays, hustling on the bases, blasting homeruns.

Even since appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated in June of 2009 as a 16-year old, Harper has been a marked man to some. Back then, SI's highly respected baseball writer Tom Verducci called him the most exciting sports prodigy "since Lebron (James)" and commented that he "has faster bat speed than Mark McGwire in his prime."

Harper's 2009 SI cover at age 16

Harper became the 2010 winner of the Golden Spikes Award, given annually to the best amateur baseball player in the United States. He was then taken that year by the Nationals with the 1st overall pick in the MLB Draft. Thereafter he was consistently rated as one of the top 3 prospects in the game.

In the fall of 2010, Harper was selected to participate in the Arizona Fall League, a showcase league for many of the game's top prospects. There he hit .343 and helped his Scottsdale Scorpions win the league championship. In 2011 at midseason, he was selected to play for the United States in the All-Star Futures Game, another top prospect showcase.

After rising through two levels in the minors over the last couple seasons, Harper was finally called up to the Majors on the same exact date as another phenom, Mike Trout, on April 27th, 2012, and made his much-anticipated MLB debut the following day. Ever since, Harper has routinely and unfairly been compared to Trout, a far different type player and personality.

Harper & Trout both called up to Majors on same day

Both Harper and Trout became MLB All-Star Game participants in their first year, and at season's end it was Bryce Harper winning the NL Rookie of the Year Award, with Trout taking the honors in the American League.

Ever since that strong debut season, while Trout has become a regular AL MVP contender and a smiling future face of the game, Harper has battled injuries and perceptions by fans in road cities that he is spoiled at best, petulant and ornery at worst. Though snake-bitten by the injury bug, he has proven not spoiled and petulant, but simply one of the game's great, all-out, hard-driving competitors.

On the injury front, early in the 2013 season he crashed into the outfield wall at Nationals Park on both April 29th and May 13th, injuring his ribcage in the first collision and his left knee in the second. He would aggravate the knee in a headfirst slide at the end of May. Likely compensating for the injured knee, Harper began to feel discomfort in his left hip, and the combination of all these injuries directly led to decreased production.

His one highlight was being elected to the MLB All-Star Game, and being selected to participate in the Homerun Derby. Despite battling his injuries, Harper advanced all the way to the Finals, where he was edged out by Yoenis Cespedes by 9-8. Harper is the youngest player to ever advance to the Derby Finals. In the off-season, he had surgery to remove a bursa sac from the left knee.

Hoping to put it all behind him and get a full, healthy 2014 season under his belt, Harper again suffered a debilitating injury, tearing a ligament in his left thumb while sliding headfirst into 3rd base in late April. He would miss 57 games, more than 1/3 of the season, and wouldn't regain his full power stroke until the late stages.

While I am calling the 2014 MLB postseason the Bryce Harper coming-out party, he actually started bashing before the playoffs even began. As the 2nd half of 2014 moved along and the Nats pulled away to an easy NL East crown, Harper hit .305 with 9 homers after August 12th.

Based on his performances in MLB when healthy, it is clear that Bryce Harper is a special talent. He is still just 21 years old, turning 22 in the middle of next week. He has never, in college, the minor leagues, or the Majors, faced a pitcher who was younger than him.

Off the field, Harper became engaged this past spring to his hometown Las Vegas girlfriend, Kayla Varner. She is a soccer player at Ohio State University now, after transferring from Brigham Young. Both Harper and Varner are Mormons, with strong faith and family principles guiding their lives.

Harper and fiancee' Kayla Varner

There is no doubt that Bryce Harper has been immature at times. Remember fans, he is 21 years old. Tell me about how mature you were at that age. There is also no doubt that Harper is one of the hardest working players on the field, in the batting cage, and in the workout room.

Bryce Harper still has some growth and maturity to add to his game. As he ages and settles down in his personal life, that is likely to come naturally. He also needs to find a way to stay healthy, which may require nothing more than simple fortune smiling on him for a change.

I believe that given health, the baseball world is about to be treated to the real Bryce Harper. He will become one of the game's great all-around players, a regular contender for home run crowns, Gold Glove awards, and Most Valuable Player awards.

When we read back and look over what I believe will be his great career, for many of us it will be the titanic blasts struck in the 2014 NLDS that we will remember as the young man's true coming out party to the larger baseball world. Bryce Harper is excitement. Bryce Harper is hustle. Bryce Harper is baseball.