Wednesday, September 11, 2013
10 X factors down the stretch
By Jim Bowden
With just two and a half weeks left in the regular season, we still have dramatic division races in the National League Central and American League West as well as an intense wild-card race in the AL where five teams are separated by just three games for the final playoff berth.
Most fans following these races will concentrate on the teams’ best players, such as Yadier Molina, Joey Votto, Yu Darvish and David Price. However, the reality is that the difference-makers aren't whom you would expect.
Here are 10 X factors to watch in the final few weeks of the season:
Hamilton is by far the fastest human to wear a Reds uniform since I was their general manager and acquired Deion Sanders from the Atlanta Braves for Roberto Kelly in 1994. Hamilton already is in the record books having stolen four bases in his first four major league appearances, and most impressively, his first two were against Molina, the game’s best defensive catcher.
Hamilton has a chance to affect the pennant race with his legs, bringing back memories of Dave Roberts’ stolen base in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS.
2. Remaining schedule | Impact: Feast on bad teams
Most experts think the Rays, Orioles and Yankees have a better chance than the Indians to grab the final AL wild-card playoff spot. However, the Indians’ schedule should not be overlooked. They have 14 games remaining against three of the worst teams in the AL -- the Chicago White Sox, Minnesota Twins and Houston Astros -- along with three against the Kansas City Royals. To make the playoffs, all they really have to prove is how much better they are than those three clubs.
Baseball fans have witnessed this summer all the tantalizing talent that has come from Cuba over the past few years. Aroldis Chapman is breaking fastball velocity records in Cincinnati; Yasiel Puig has hit around .350 for the Dodgers since early June; and Yoenis Cespedes continues to hit big home runs for Oakland.
However, don’t forget about Martin. His speed and throwing arm have been real difference-makers. With his quick legs, he’s stolen 32 bases and run down many balls in the gap, and his incredible throwing arm has accounted for an astounding 12 assists. Bet that he’ll end up throwing out a key runner trying to score down the stretch.
The A’s starting rotation is the most underrated in baseball. Bartolo Colon has been a Cy Young candidate all year, and Jarrod Parker -- after overcoming a slow start -- hasn’t lost in the second half of the season, going 5-0 with a 2.90 ERA. Calling up rookie Sonny Gray has been as big a move as the Rangers trade for Matt Garza. His 92-93 mph fastball and knee-buckling curve are a devastating pair.
But Straily has won his last three starts with a 1.50 ERA and 15 strikeouts. His swing-and-miss slider, above-average changeup and improved fastball command have given the A’s a deep rotation.
When the MVP conversation comes up, the two Cardinals most experts jump on are Molina and Allen Craig, who has been one of the game’s best hitters with runners in scoring position. However, the player who shouldn’t get overlooked is Carpenter.
He leads the NL in runs, hits, doubles and multihit games. He’s quickly developed into one of the league's best leadoff hitters, setting the table for Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran, Craig and Molina.
Rivera is the greatest closer to have put on a major league uniform, and I believe he will become the first player elected to the Hall of Fame based on a unanimous vote. His farewell ceremonies from opponents have been as classy as Rivera.
So how can the future Hall of Famer be an X factor? Maybe it’s fate, but it just seems the final chapter of his career will include a script of him getting a postseason save to add to his astounding postseason statistics, which include 42 saves and a 0.70 ERA.
7. Terry Francona | Impact: Competitive edge and attitude
Francona has changed the Indians’ clubhouse culture to one filled with positive and professional energy. He’s built good rapport with the players, front office, media and fan base. No one is surprised with his game strategy, lineups or handling of pitching staffs. His sense of urgency game to game, inning to inning and pitch to pitch has been impressive. He’s always looking for a competitive edge with endless energy and enthusiasm, and it’s that attitude that’s been adopted by his players and shows on the field.
The acquisition of Byrd has not only lengthened the Pirates' lineup but also given a quiet veteran presence and calming influence during the pennant chase. An interesting note from ESPN’s Mark Simon: Since the All-Star break, Byrd ranks fifth in MLB in terms of hard-hit balls. In short, he’s been making great contact and putting balls in play.
When healthy, the left-handed Moore has been an ace, posting a 15-3 record, 3.18 ERA and a 1.24 WHIP. His trip to the DL in late July was a severe blow to the Rays, as he wasn't healthy enough to make a start in August.
He returned in September and in his first two starts has looked like the vintage Moore, pitching into the sixth inning both times and allowing just one run in each start. If the Rays get a wild-card berth, it will be because of the strong rotation led by the team’s ace Price, Alex Cobb and rookie Chris Archer. But Moore gives the Rays two No. 1 starters, something the Orioles, Yankees, Indians and Royals don’t have.
How can a DH against left-handed pitching be an X factor down the stretch? Well, Valencia has been just that. Over his last nine starts dating to Aug. 4, Valencia has had eight multihit games, racking up three home runs and seven RBIs.
With key games against left-handed starters including CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte of the Yankees, Price and Moore of the Rays, and Jon Lester and Felix Doubront of the Red Sox, Valencia’s .360/.385/.667 slash line and four home runs against left-handed pitchers could make all the difference with just one swing.