Yankees-Braves series causes unsettling flashbacks

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The Yankees play the Braves starting tonight, and whenever that happens, I get seriously bad flashbacks . . .

I was in my second year of law school in the fall of 1996 and I had a
professor that semester who would just go on and on and on about the
Yankees. He’d use them as the example of greatness, in much the same
way people used to use Cadillacs (e.g. “Goldman Sachs is the New York
Yankees of investment banks,” etc.). I cut him some slack because he
was in his early 50s, which meant that he grew up at a time when the
Yankees won all the time and such comparisons made sense. Because of
his age, he could be forgiven for overlooking the fact that the Yankees
hadn’t won anything in close to 20 years, and had only been in the
playoffs once in the previous 15. The way in which he clinged to the
past was kind of cute and endearing.

But then the Yankees started working their way through the playoffs.
My Braves — the reigning World Series Champions — were too, and
despite a big scare from the Cardinals in the NLCS, I and many others
expected them to coast easily to another title. My professor, high on
New York’s run, noticed my Braves cap in class one day and decided to
taunt me a bit. Asking me how I’d feel when the Yankees thrashed the
Braves. Asking me if I’d need a couple of days off from class to
recover from the epic beatdown that was to come. When I realized that
he was looking for someone to jaw back at him I obliged, and for a
couple of days two or three minutes of class was taken up with our
smack.

When the Braves put the hurt to the Yankees in games one and two, my
professor backed off. I, however, amped it up. I talked about how
unlikely it was for a team — especially a green and untested team like
the Yankees — to come back from a 2-0 deficit. Especially when they’d
have to beat Tom Glavine, Steve Avery, John Smoltz and Greg Maddux —
in that order — to do it. I was a total ass about it, really, and that
would have remained the case even if what happned over the next four
games hadn’t happened.

But it did happen. Oh, God, did it happen, and to this day I can’t
think about that World Series without shuddering, partially because of
just how epic was the Braves’ fail, but even more so for the complete
lack of humility and grace I displayed in the runup to it all. To my
professor’s credit, he only rubbed my nose in it for, oh, three weeks
afterwards. When I got my A in his class, I couldn’t help but wonder if
pity was just as much at play as performance. Since then I’ve done my
best to blot the memory of 1996 out of my mind, and I’ve succeeded to
varying degrees.

But then a blogger like Jay at Fack Youk goes and starts what looks to be an excellent series reviewing the 1996 and 1999 Yankees-Braves World Series,
and the bad memories start flooding back. Not so much for 1999 — every
Braves fan just sort of knew on some level that the Yankees would kill
us — but for that awful, awful 1996.

He has Game one up right now.
Since I knew it would have a happy ending I managed to make it through
it. By tomorrow morning he’s going to have Game Four posted, however. I
can’t decide if I’ll read it yet. It’s been over 12 years so you’d
think I could handle it by now, but I’m not sure I can. Maybe I’ll
email Jay and ask him to move Game Four up to this evening so it will
be a little more acceptable for me to take a belt of scotch or
something before diving in.

Anyway, Jay’s series should be enjoyable for (a) anyone too young to
really remember the details of the 1996 Series; (b) Yankees fans; and
(c) masochistic Braves fans. As for the rest of us? Well, whatever
doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger, and the 1996 Series hasn’t
killed me. Yet.

Kevin Gausman to start Opening Day for the Orioles

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The Orioles have tabbed Kevin Gausman to start on Opening Day, April 3 against the Blue Jays at Camden Yards, MASN’s Roch Kubatko reports. Chris Tillman started the previous three Opening Days for the O’s. This will be Gausman’s first Opening Day nod.

Gausman, 26, finished the 2016 season with a 3.61 ERA and a 174/47 K/BB ratio in 179 2/3 innings. The Orioles selected him in the first round (fourth overall) of the 2012 draft and moved him through their minor league system quickly. Gausman debuted in the majors in May 2013.

2017 Preview: Detroit Tigers

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The Detroit Tigers.

I feel like every year, for the past several years, our Tigers preview has been some variation of “do the Tigers still have a run left in them with the Cabrera-Verlander core?”

If you’re tired of reading that one I have some bad news for you: it’s the same dang story this year as it has been every year. A great pitcher and a great hitter, a very solid supporting cast, a handful of holes that could be critical weaknesses and enough to make them look strong enough to contend but not enough to contend strongly, if that makes any sense.

Let’s start with the pitching. Justin Verlander returned to Cy Young-caliber form in 2016, thanks mostly to health and a big, big leap in his strikeout rate, suggesting that it was health and not an overall decline which harmed him in 2014 and 2015. He’ll lead the way again, followed by Rookie of the Year Michael Fulmer, who was a wonderful surprise last season. The back end of the rotation is problematic, however, with Jordan Zimmermann and Anibal Sanchez stinking up the joint for most of last year and young Daniel Norris suffering through injuries. For the Tigers to contend, they’ll need at least one of those veterans to return to their old form — or someone like Matt Boyd or Mike Pelfrey to, well, not be Matt Boyd and Mike Pelfrey– and for Norris to be healthy.

Fine, let’s say Verlander and Fulmer repeat their 2016 success and say that Norris is a strong, healthy and effective number three. Who then does Brad Ausmus turn the ball over to in the late innings? If you think the overall take on the Tigers is rehashed from year to year, well, the same goes for the pen. It, as always, is a liability in Detroit. And it’s not going to be terribly different than it was last year. Francisco Rodriguez will close. A couple of Wilsons in Alex and Justin. Shane Greene. Maybe one of the veteran starters who doesn’t make the rotation. The always interesting Bruce Rondon. It’s not terrible but it’s not the strongest bunch in the world and it’s being handled by a guy in Ausmus who has yet to show that he can get the most out of a less-than-steller relief corps. You can Google the phrase “Tigers bullpen woes” and find results from every season for most of the past decade. You’ll probably be able to do it again this year.

The offense, of course, is fantastic, at least at the top end. Miguel Cabrera is still an MVP-caliber player and even when his decline begins he’ll be better than almost any hitter in the game. Ian Kinsler is still low-key excellent. Nick Castellanos took a big leap forward last year. J.D. Martinez is going to miss the first month or so of the season with a sprained ligament in his foot, but he’s in his walk year and will likely be fine once he returns. Justin Upton has always been super uneven and has always failed to meet the insane expectations he set early in his career, but as he showed late last season, he’s capable of carrying a team for a stretch. I’ve been saying it for a pushing a decade, but one of these years he’s going to put it all together.

The big question is going to be the bottom third of the lineup where catcher James McCann, shortstop Jose Iglesias and center fielder Tyler Collins all look to be offensive liabilities at the moment. A bigger than usual year from any of them could help matters greatly.

Of course all of this — the strong lineup with critical holes, the rotation that starts well but has question marks and the spotty bullpen — has been the Tigers story for years. It’s a story that could end happily with 85-90 wins, a playoff spot and a bunch of seasoned veterans getting hot at the right time and riding it to glory. It could just as easily get sprinkled with a slow start or a few injuries and result in a 75-80 win season like they had back in 2015.

In the past, that would lead to yet another “wait until next year.” This year, however, you get the strong sense that there is no next year if this year is disappointing. There was talk that the Tigers could sell off veteran parts this past winter, but they didn’t. Then longtime owner Mike Ilitch, who was seen as a man who pushed to win now despite the costs, passed away in February. It’s not hard to imagine his son giving different instructions to GM Al Avila if the Tigers don’t get off to a fast start this year. It’s not hard to imagine the great unwinding of the core that has kept this Tigers team in contention for so long if 2017 is a disappointment.

I’m still optimistic, though. The Indians are the class of the division but the Royals are likely taking a step back and the Twins and White Sox are not yet a threat. I won’t predict October glory for them, but I think, barring major injuries to key players, the Tigers will be playing meaningful baseball in September.

Prediction: Second place, American League Central