What a glorious time of year to be a sports fan. Conference play has begun for most college football teams, the NFL is bursting with new story lines, and baseball has a two-week chase for playoff spots unlike any the sport has ever seen. For this week, let’s focus on the pennant races.
• MLB commissioner Bud Selig is a genius. In some bizarro world (where the likes of Don King and Bobby Riggs have hall passes), Selig is a genius. Seventeen years after adding baseball’s first wild-card playoff teams — to the chagrin of millions of the game’s purists — Selig seems to have solved the problem. By adding a second wild card in each league.
Through Sunday’s games, no fewer than ten teams in the National League are either currently in playoff position, or within five games of the second wild card. Two of these teams — Philadelphia and Arizona — have losing records. (The two wild card teams will play a single game for what amounts to a spot in the league semifinals.) In the American League, eight teams can call themselves playoff contenders with two weeks to play in the regular season. That’s 18 teams (out of a total of 30) playing with hope today. Baseball fans, this Bud’s for you.
• Name three Oakland Athletics for me. (I’d be impressed with two.) The swingin’ A’s are 22 games over .500 with a team that makes the Miami Dolphins’ fabled “No-Name Defense” look star-studded. This club has the second-lowest payroll in the sport ($55.4 million), a figure dwarfed by division rivals Texas ($120.5 million) and the Los Angeles Angels ($154.5 million). The club made famous recently by Moneyball fields a lineup with only three players who have accumulated 100 hits this season (one of them Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes). The dreadful Colorado Rockies have five players with 100 hits, for crying out loud.
Oakland has a starting rotation of pitchers all shy of their 30th birthday (since 39-year-old Bartolo Colon was suspended for violating MLB’s drug policy). Ever heard of Tommy Milone? What about Jarrod Parker? Can these kids compete with the mighty Yankees or Rangers? Let’s hope we get to see. And thanks to that second wild card, we just might.
• I’ve chewed on the Washington Nationals’ decision to lock down their ace, Stephen Strasburg, for the rest of the season. And I can’t reach a point where I agree with the call. (For the uninitiated, the Nats set a ceiling of 160 innings pitched for their expensive young hurler, who underwent Tommy John surgery more than a year ago.) Whatever weight you put on protecting a commodity, for securing future earnings, at some point — in baseball, in sports — you have to compete for NOW. Tomorrow’s not guaranteed . . . choose your favorite such cliché. Cal Ripken Jr. won the World Series with his Baltimore Orioles in 1983. He played 18 more seasons and never got back to the Fall Classic.
If the Nationals are knocked out before the World Series (or in the Series itself), fans and, importantly, National players will forever wonder what might have been had their ace been allowed to pitch on rotation through the end of the season, as every other contender’s ace was. And let’s imagine the Nationals winning the World Series without Strasburg. Think that won’t be considered when the man reaches free agency for the first time? “The World Series ring I wasn’t allowed to earn.” That could get ugly.
• In hitting his 30th home run last week, the Angels’ Albert Pujols became just the fourth player with 12 consecutive 30-homer seasons. The others? Jimmie Foxx, Barry Bonds (13), and Alex Rodriguez (13). I never thought Pujols would have a quiet season, but the MVP campaign of his rookie teammate, Mike Trout, has allowed it.