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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Never Say “Never” in September

For those of you not familiar with Major League Baseball, the game has a concept called the “magic number”. The magic number is the number of wins needed to secure a playoff spot by the leading team and/or losses by the team immediately trailing the leading team for a playoff position. For example, if a team has a magic number of 3 to win a division and it wins one game and the second place team loses twice, the magic number is reached and that team wins its division.

There have been many times, in the beginning of September, when I have questioned why sports reporters even bother to publish a magic number. In those instances, the team in first place (or in the lead for the Wild Card spot) is so far ahead that the fate of the teams involved is all but mathematically determined. I, and the rest of the fans of Major League Baseball, learned the value of the magic number and the phrase “all but” in 2007 and 2008, when the New York Mets squandered September leads of 7 and 3 games, respectively, to the Philadelphia Phillies.

This is no place to be. 1


In August, the Hat Trick reviewed the season through its three quarters complete point of 120 games. Just last week, we previewed the September stretch.
In one or both of these reviews, I had all but written off the Tampa Bay Rays, St. Louis Cardinals, and San Francisco Giants as being dead in the water. Since then, the playoff hopes of all of these teams have come back from the dead.

The idea of the Boston Red Sox missing the playoffs seemed inconceivable just a month ago. Yet with injuries to starting pitchers Clay Buchholz and Josh Beckett, the Sox have gone into a vicious tailspin. The BoSox, at some points this season, has the best record in the Major Leagues and appeared to be challenged only by the New York Yankees for the division lead.

However, having lost 11 of their last 13 games as of Tuesday morning, the door has swung back open to the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays, for much of this year, appeared to be the third best team in the American League with only a slim chance of reaching the playoffs because they were in the same division as the Yankees and Red Sox. The Rays have remained consistent and resilient, though. Winners of 8 of their last 9 games as of Tuesday morning, including a three game sweep over the Red Sox, the Rays have forced themselves back into the Wild Card chase, just three games back of Boston as of yesterday morning.

Well, this is one way the Red Sox could try to stop Rays starting pitcher James Shields. It didn't work in 2008, so I wouldn't expect it to work now. 2

The Atlanta Braves, just a week ago, while hopelessly behind the Phillies for the N.L. East division crown, appeared to be too far in front of any other National League team to have its pending Wild Card berth threatened. As of yesterday, the Braves had lost 9 of 12. They are still hopelessly trailing the Phillies, but are now very vulnerable to missing the playoffs altogether, just 4.5 games in front of the St. Louis Cardinals as of Tuesday morning.

The San Francisco Giants, who appeared to be completely dead in the water in late August after falling behind the surging Arizona Diamondbacks in the National League West race, still have a measurable, though very remote chance of reaching the Wild Card, 6.5 games back of Atlanta as of yesterday. The Giants, however, are in desperate need of a lengthy winning streak with less than 20 games remaining in the regular season and bats that have turned to rubber hoses at the plate of late.

Pujols timing is impeccable. He can just smell the $300 I meant .300 average. Yeah, that's it. 3


While the Red Sox have every right to blame the injury bug for its sudden playoff jeopardy, some of the blame must lie at the failure of the reserves to pick up the slack of the injured players. John Lackey has been shelled with two losses in two starts and a 12.39 ERA in the month of September while fellow fill-in starter Andrew Miller has been more dreadful, giving up 3 homeruns in just over six innings pitched and an ERA just less than the legal age to drive a car in most states.

The Atlanta Braves’ struggles are a bit more subtle. They are batting .258 as a team in September. That is not great, but it isn’t offensive impotence. The problem for the Braves is that they have had superhuman pitching performances for most of the season and they have had some not so super outings from their normally reliable starters.

Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe, normally pillars of consistency in the pitching rotation, are a combined 1-4 in five starts in September. Both pitchers have an ERA over 5.50. Opponents are batting .362 against Lowe this month. Atlanta’s bats have been underwhelming all season and now, when their pitchers need some additional support, it is not available.

Meanwhile, the Rays have a team ERA of 3.30 this month, with ace starter James Shields at a 1.04 ERA in September. As a staff, the Rays pitchers have held their September opponents to a paltry .214 batting average. Albert Pujols of the Cardinals is batting over .400 this month with an on base plus slugging percentage of close to 1.200! The Cards have already hit 12 homeruns this month and are batting just under .300 as a team in September. In spite of a slough of injuries to pitchers and pitching cold streaks, the bats have helped keep St. Louis’ slim playoff hopes alive.

A little recommended reading for Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez and Red Sox Manager Terry Francona. 4

With the sudden reversals of fortunes late in the season, the Wild Card race may be one of the more memorable ones in recent history. If you are a fan of the Braves and Red Sox, teams with high expectations and one time owners of large Wild Card race leads, it could be a finish to forget.

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