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Red Sox, Braves let month full of chances slip away

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The collapses of the Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves might have seemed sudden during Wednesday night’s wild action, but in reality they were a long time coming.

Red Sox fans might be tempted to blame Joe Girardi for subbing out his starters early against the Rays, or for leaving Mariano Rivera on the shelf while a host of guys like Boone Logan, Cory Wade and Scott Proctor served the AL wild-card berth to the Rays on a platter.

Maybe blame Terry Francona for failing to inspire his players or for inserting a hint of desperation into his late-season lineup selections.

Braves fans might blame the schedule-makers for allowing the Cardinals to finish in Houston while Atlanta drew the powerful Phillies. Blame the umpires or the managing or Hunter Pence’s dumb luck.

But both teams had a month to wrap things up, and they couldn’t get it done.

As Boston second baseman Dustin Pedroia said after Wednesday’s final insult: “I’m devastated. I’m heartbroken. To play hard for 161 games like we have and have it end like this. … It should not have gone down to the last game of the season to decide if we were going to the postseason.”

And from Atlanta closer Craig Kimbrel: “It was tough to be so close and then have the feeling like it was falling out of your hands. And that’s the feeling I have now.”

Both are right. For as well as the Tampa Bay Rays and St. Louis Cardinals finished the season, it wouldn’t have taken much to end their dreams. It’s not easy to blow a nine-game lead in the final month, as Boston did, or an 8 ½-game edge like Atlanta did. Otherwise it would have happened before.

A couple more wins in the last 30 days. One less mound meltdown. One less injury. One more lucky bounce. That’s all the Red Sox and Braves needed. They had a month to tuck away those playoff berths, and they couldn’t grab them by the throat.

For the Red Sox, it was all about pitching and injuries – and naturally, injuries to pitchers. Yes, Carl Crawford underperformed, but it was the guys on the mound who ultimately caused this collapse.

Clay Buchholz and Daisuke Matsuzaka went down. Josh Beckett tweaked his ankle and wasn’t the same when he returned. Jon Lester lost his touch, Daniel Bard lost his control and John Lackey lost his poise.

Tim Wakefield was thrust into a role he was no longer fit for, and Andrew Miller for one he never should have had. Erik Bedard came in and was mostly … Erik Bedard – showing flashes of brilliance, maddening inconsistency, and a brittle body.

It all added up to a complete meltdown by the pitching staff, including a 5.90 ERA and a 1.54 WHIP during September. It was a collapse that was so complete it could not make up for a truly awesome offense that featured two MVP candidates and led all of baseball in scoring at 5.4 runs per game.

The Braves didn’t have as much trouble with their pitching staff, but the problems they did have – namely injuries to Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson — were devastating, and an offense that was inconsistent all season couldn’t compensate, hitting .235/.301/.359 over the final month.

The injuries also added pressure to a bullpen that has already been ridden hard by manager Fredi Gonzalez, and the seemingly untouchable duo of Kimbrel (4.22 ERA in Sept.), Jonny Venters (5.56), simply wore out.

It was a month full of chances going unclaimed, leading to a pair of historic collapses. Neither the Red Sox nor the Braves could find that one guy to come up with the key hit, or get the key out when they needed it most. The Red Sox finished the season 7-20 and were unable to put together even a two-game win streak in their final 28 games. The Braves went 9-18 in Sept. and lost their final five games.

Both teams missed the playoffs by a single game.

“This is tough,” Braves catcher Brian McCann said. “This is one of the worst feelings I’ve ever had coming off a baseball field.”

That feeling might not go away for a long time.

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What’s on Tap: Previewing Thursday’s action

BALTIMORE, MD - SEPTEMBER 18:  Manny Machado #13 of the Baltimore Orioles celbrates hitting a solo home run in the sixth inning during a baseball game against the against the Tampa Bay Rays at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on September 18, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland.  The Orioles won 2-1.  (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
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With each division now spoken for, our attention now turns to the Wild Card races. The Blue Jays hold a one-game lead over the Orioles for the first Wild Card slot in the American League while the Orioles have a one-game lead over the Tigers for the second slot. The Jays and O’s will do battle on Thursday night and each of the four other teams alive in the AL Wild Card race are rooting for the Jays to win. The Yankees and Astros can both be eliminated from Wild Card contention if the Orioles win one more game or if they each lose one more game. The Mariners are also active in the Wild Card hunt, currently two games behind the Orioles.

Over in the National League, the Giants have a one-game lead over the Cardinals for the second Wild Card slot. The Giants get to play the Rockies while the Cardinals face the lowly Reds. The Mets, who currently own the first Wild Card slot, have the night off.

Asterisks denote that the game is relevant to the Wild Card.

The rest of Thursday’s action…

*Boston Red Sox (Henry Owens) @ New York Yankees (CC Sabathia), 7:05 PM EDT

Chicago Cubs (Rob Zastryzny) @ Pittsburgh Pirates (Ivan Nova), 7:05 PM EDT

*Baltimore Orioles (Ubaldo Jimenez) @ Toronto Blue Jays (Marcus Stroman), 7:07 PM EDT

Philadelphia Phillies (Jeremy Hellickson) @ Atlanta Braves (Josh Collmenter), 7:10 PM EDT

*Cincinnati Reds (Dan Straily) @ St. Louis Cardinals (Alex Reyes), 7:15 PM EDT

Minnesota Twins (Kyle Gibson) @ Kansas City Royals (Danny Duffy), 7:15 PM EDT

Tampa Bay Rays (Chris Archer) @ Chicago White Sox (Jose Quintana), 8:10 PM EDT

Los Angeles Dodgers (Julio Urias) @ San Diego Padres (Christian Friedrich), 9:10 PM EDT

*Oakland Athletics (Kendall Graveman) @ Seattle Mariners (Ariel Miranda), 10:10 PM EDT

*Colorado Rockies (Jon Gray) @ San Francisco Giants (Johnny Cueto), 10:15 PM EDT

Who should win the MVP Awards? Who will?

CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 20:  Kris Bryant #17 of the Chicago Cubs bats during the second inning against the St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field on September 20, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. The Cardinals defeated the Cubs 4-3. (Photo by John Konstantaras/Getty Images)
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With the regular season ending on Sunday and most of the playoff spots locked up, there’s really only one big thing left to argue about: postseason awards. So let’s spend some time looking at who should win each of the four major awards and who will win them. Which are often totally different things. First up: The MVP Awards. 

Who should win the AL MVP Award? 

We at HBT have tended to lean toward the idea that the best player should win the MVP Award, regardless of whether his team wins or not. It’s not an iron-clad thing, of course. In the past I’ve supported some more narrative-driven MVP candidates and, more importantly, deciding who is “the best player” in an objective sense is not always a cut-and-dried endeavor. Defense is an inexact science. Players often have competing apples and oranges arguments for their candidacies.

If you look at “best overall player” this year, however, it’s hard to say that Mike Trout and his line of .318/.441/.556 with 29 homers and his usual solid-to-outstanding center field defense is not that guy. Yes, his team stinks, and no, his 2016 season isn’t head and shoulders above any number of his other excellent seasons, making him a less-than-sexy choice in a lot of ways. But it’s hard to stand head and shoulders above uniform excellence and no matter what you think of stuff like WAR and all that goes into it, Trout has a 1.5 WAR lead over Mookie Betts according to FanGraphs and 1.3 according to Baseball Reference. It’s a pretty significant separation, especially when you realize that, dang, Betts is having a whale of a season himself (.320/.365/.538).

Still, Trout isn’t a unanimous pick even with the HBT team, which has it this way:

Craig: Trout
Bill: Trout
Ashley: Betts

Who will win the AL MVP Award?

There has been a lot of talk about Betts and his teammate, David Ortiz, splitting the vote, as it were. Maybe that was a thing that happened more often back in the day when narrative-driven awards were more common, but I think today’s BBWAA voters are way more savvy than that. I think that Ortiz will get some votes thrown his way by virtue of his outstanding offensive season (.316/.401/.622, 37 HR, 124 RBI) and the storybook ending to his career, but I think Betts will ultimately carry the day with the better overall and all-around performance. MVP PREDICTION: MOOKIE BETTS.

Who should win the NL MVP Award?

There are a lot of guys putting up years that, under different circumstances, would be MVP worthy. Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Freddie Freeman, Nolan Arenado, Daniel Murphy, Joey Votto and Corey Seager are all having outstanding campaigns. Most of them are bunched up as far as WAR goes, more so with Baseball-Reference.com’s version, a little less so with FanGraphs. Bryant leads both versions and is putting up outstanding offensive numbers. Murphy, Freeman and Votto are hitting a tad better than him depending on how you measure it, but have less defensive value. Seager’s mix of defense and offense may be closer to what Bryant is doing, although Arenado might have something to say about that. There are a lot of good choices.

Bryant is the best choice, however. His hitting — .293/.387/.560, 39 HR, 101 RBI — is better than the other all-around candidates and his defensive versatility — he’s played all three outfield positions as well as his usual third base — sets him apart. He’s been the best player in the NL this year.

Craig: Bryant
Bill: Bryant
Ashley:Bryant

Who will win the NL MVP Award?

This is one of those years where I suspect our views will match that of the voters. MVP PREDICTION: Bryant, possibly unanimously.