Scenes from Spring Training: Leave Maryvale Baseball Park alone!

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Until today I had been to every single Cactus League Park except for Maryvale Baseball Park, spring training home of the Milwaukee Brewers. Everyone who had been here before told me I wasn’t missing much. That it was a dump and in a crappy neighborhood and that my time would be spent better elsewhere.

Well, screw them. I like this place. A lot. Indeed, it’s up there with another hated-on Arizona place — The A’s Phoenix Municipal, where I’ll be tomorrow — on my favorites list.

It’s not as fancy or as architecturally interesting as some of the new places. And sure, the surrounding neighborhood is a bit on the rough side. But there is something unsettling about the Glendales, Surprises, Goodyears and Peorias of the world. They sit out in these wide open spaces in suburbs that seem to have no organic reason for existing. Really: it’s a mega sports complex, some strip malls and some chain restaurants and miles of wide open desert.  It’s enough to throw my gravity off.

Maryvale, in contrast, just fits into the area in an unassuming manner. The trees are bigger, as the place is about a decade older than the others. The team office and the minor league facilities blend in nicely, rather than stand out with huge team logos on them. It reminds me of an oldish professional park. The kind you went to see your pediatrician in back in, oh, 1978 or something. I can’t really explain it, but complexes like this comfort me in a weird way. It’s warmly institutional. I’m not joking. I dig it.

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The park itself is cozy and utilitarian. It kind of reminds me of New Comiskey in some ways, in that it was built just before people started building palaces. But it’s clean and has good sight lines and as long as you’re here for the baseball and not a ten-point entertainment immersion, it’s spiffy.  I’m here for the baseball, so this will do just fine.

After I set up in the press box — a nice one, by the way, in that the windows totally fold up and back and open to the field without walls and partitions and stuff — I wandered.  I get to the park early and usually there aren’t any players out on fields yet when I arrive, but this morning I came across Norichika Aoki working on his bunting:

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Some Japanese reporters and photographers were there too. Like the institutional buildings, I have come to love the presence of the Japanese media everywhere I’ve gone the last two springs. It’s gotta be the roughest beat around. They’re far from home and they’re in pitched competition to get something — anything — new every single day from maybe one player. I really admire them and I feel strange if I go someplace and they’re not around.

After watching Aoki for a while I went into the Brewers’ clubhouse. Not much happening there. Ryan Braun seems to have the day off and both of his lockers were unoccupied. Corey Hart came in on crutches — he had surgery the other day — and gingerly put on a pair of workout shorts and shoes. Dude has a tattoo on top of his foot, by the way. That probably hurt worse than the surgery. Saw Zack Greinke too. He had two cinnamon raisin bagels on a plate and was wearing a polo shirt with baseball pants as if everyone wore that combo all the time. I like Zack Greinke a lot.

I saw Brooks Conrad sitting alone, so I went over there. As a Braves fan I obviously have some mixed feelings about Conrad — he hit some big homers but also made some big errors while in Atlanta — so I wanted to talk to him just to see what he was like. I didn’t tell him I was a Braves fan because I thought that would be strange in that setting, but I did say I follow the Braves closely. He lit up a little bit, as he knew that I was going to ask him about the differences between the Braves and Brewers organizations.

I was told by someone later that he had some not-so-nice things to say about the Braves the other day. On this day, however, he skewed diplomatic, talking about how positive the environment is in Brewers camp. I asked him a bit about the approach to hitting in Milwaukee, hoping he’d say something like “the Braves think walks are for communists.” He didn’t say it in so many words, but he suggested that, yeah, Johnny Narron is a bit more interested in Brewers hitters working the count than Larry Parrish was in Atlanta. Which, honestly, wouldn’t be that hard.

When I got done in the clubhouse Ron Roenicke was getting ready to make himself available to the media. As I waited outside of his office in the lobby, I couldn’t help but notice this gigantic mural behind the receptionist’s desk:

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Doug Melvin had me lol’ing for ten minutes.  Did I mention that I really like it here in Maryvale?

2017 World Series Preview: How the Astros and Dodgers match up

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The Dodgers are seeking their first World Series championship in 29 years. The Astros are seeking their first in the franchise’s 56-season history. Clayton Kershaw is making his first appearance on baseball’s biggest stage. Justin Verlander is making his third, but looking for his first ring. The Astros two aces are facing the Dodgers’ deep lineup. The Dodgers power throwing bullpen will face off against the Astros powerful lineup. For the first time in 47 years each team in the World Series won 100 games in the regular season.

Stars taking on stars. Power facing power. History, of one kind or another, somewhere between five and nine days from being made. It’s the Fall Classic, and it gets underway tonight. Here’s how it all breaks down:

 

THE ROTATIONS

It’s a bit of a shame that the rotations didn’t line up in order to give us a Verlander-Kershaw battle in Game 1, as it’s not every day you see two pitchers who each won an MVP Award face off. We’re still going to get some great matchups of staters here, however, as Kershaw — who still has something to prove as a big-game pitcher, his pennant-clinching Game 5 NLCS victory notwithstanding — meets 2015 Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel in tonight’s Game 1. Game 2 gives us Rich Hill, who has remade himself into one of baseball’s best in the latter stages of his career, against Verlander, who many though his best days were behind him. That was before his trade to Houston and his 9-0 run for the Astros that culminated in a couple of the most dominant postseason starts in recent memory.

The back end of the rotations, featuring Yu Darvish and Alex Wood for L.A. and Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers for Houston, are pretty evenly matched. At their best the Dodgers back two are probably better, but they have each been touched at times late in the season while both Morton and McCullers found a new gear in the ALCS. Whether driving at that gear has them low on gas at the moment is an open question. ADVANTAGE DODGERS.

 

THE LINEUPS

The Dodgers’ lineup has been top heavy in the postseason, but the top has been really, really heavy, so it’s been just fine. Chris Taylor, Justin Turner, Cody Bellinger and Yasiel Puig have been nearly impossible to pitch to. Fill-in shortstop Charlie Culberson was a revelation in Corey Seager‘s injury absence, but Seager’s back is better and he will be back for the World Series. The bottom half of the lineup has not come through too often — Kiké Hernandez’s big NLCS Game 5 notwithstanding — with left field (Andre Ethier/Hernandez/Curtis Granderson) second base (Logan Forsythe/Chase Utley) and catcher (Austin Barnes, who has pushed Yasmani Grandal to the bench) struggling. The Dodgers can win it all if the top half of the lineup continues doing what it’s doing, but given how slumps can hit at any time, Dave Roberts would like to see a new postseason star emerge.

The Astros bats need no introduction, but they could use a bit more consistency in the postseason. Houston led the majors in runs, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging, were second in homers and struck out less than any team in baseball. The Yankees kept them quiet in the first five games of the ALCS but they roared back to life in Games 6 and 7. The attack will be keyed, as always, by possible AL MVP Jose Altuve, leadoff power source George Springer and shortstop Carlos Correa. As Houston showed all season, however, almost everyone in this lineup is dangerous.  ADVANTAGE ASTROS.

 

THE BULLPENS

This is probably the biggest separator between the clubs, with the Dodgers sporting a big advantage. Unlike in postseasons past, Dave Roberts has not had to use Clayton Kershaw or his other starters as relievers. This is due in part to the Dodgers taking care of their business quickly, sweeping the Dbacks in the NLDS and beating the Cubs in five in the NLCS. It’s mostly, though, due to the uncharacteristic depth and power of L.A’s relief corps. They didn’t allow a run against the Cubs in 17 innings of work in the NLCS.

Kenley Jansen needs no introduction. He continues to be one of the best if not the best closer in the game. Roberts will not hesitate to use him for multiple innings if need be. Has retired 24 of the 28 batters he has faced in the playoffs. He’s yet to be challenged. Hard throwing Brandon Morrow looks like an ace closer this postseason. Kenta Maeda has been a revelation as a setup man who can go multiple innings if need be. Tony Cingrani, Tony Watson and Josh Fields have not been used heavily, but each provides Roberts with an embarrassment of matchup possibilities.

Houston has talent in their pen, but it’s been somewhat shaky in the postseason. Chris Devenski, Will Harris and Joe Musgrove were all gotten to by Yankees hitters in the ALCS. Ken Giles has been OK, but not dominant, and A.J. Hinch has leaned a bit heavier than usual on him at times. More tellingly, Hinch has leaned on starters in relief, using Justin Verlander in that role in the ALDS against the Red Sox and using McCullers for four innings of relief in Game 7 of the ALCS. Hinch’s best hope is that he gets a lot of innings from Keuchel and Verlander in Games 1 and 2 and then has everyone in the pen well-rested for he middle games of the Series. If not, he’s going to be doing a lot of shuffling and, yes, we may see a lot of short rest work from starters in relief roles. ADVANTAGE DODGERS.

 

THE MANAGERS

Dave Roberts is the reigning NL Manager of the Year and both he and A.J. Hinch has a good shot of winning the award this year. Neither man has been second guessed very often in this postseason, as Roberts has not had to gamble at all and Hinch’s gambles have largely paid off. Unlike in some years, there are few dramatic storylines and little philosophical tension at play here. Both of these guys played the game, both work well with analytically-minded front offices yet both have shown that they have a free hand to use their instincts to make changes on the fly and manage the game on the field rather than simply carry out a game plan. If either of these two guys make themselves into a big story in this series it’ll be pretty surprising. EVEN.

 

THE BENCHES

The Dodgers lineup is a bit more fluid than Houston’s, with Roberts subbing in different guys at left field and second base in various postseason games. As such, if they’re not starting they may be a bit more game-ready than your usual benchwarmer. Houston tends to roll with the same lineup most nights, but Hinch has some flexibility at catcher where Evan Gattis and Brian McCann are both options and at DH in the home games, where either of them or Carlos Beltran can see action. ADVANTAGE DODGERS.

 

X-FACTOR

We don’t put much stock in intangibles, history or dramatic storylines when it comes to the World Series. We’ll leave that to the producers at Fox. Buy we will throw one wild card into the mix: home field advantage.

It’s not often the most important thing going in baseball, but it’s been an usually big boost in the 2017 postseason. Home teams are 23-8 (.742) this October, which is the best mark since the playoffs expanded to include Wild Card teams. So far the Astros are 6-0 in Houston and the Dodgers are 4-0 in Dodger Stadium. The Dodgers, likewise, had the best home record in all of baseball in the regular season. L.A. hasn’t yet had to bring a playoff series back home after it began, but the chance to host four home games in a best of seven may loom a bit larger this year than most. Oh, and keep an eye on guys’ stamina levels in Games 1 and 2. It’s gonna be close to 100 degrees at Dodger Stadium at game time for each of those tiltsADVANTAGE DODGERS.

 

PREDICTION

This is the matchup many of us were hoping for as early as late July. The Dodgers swooned in late August and early September, but the fact that they still won 104 games tells you just how dominant a club they were in 2017. While the Indians had the AL’s best record thanks to their late season winning streak, the Astros were, in our view, the best team in the American League all season long. This is the first matchup of 100-win teams in the Fall Classic in 47 years. It is, quite simply, the best on-paper World Series matchup we’ve had in many, many years. It’s sad someone has to lose this thing, but that’s how it goes.

Los Angeles hasn’t had to come back to Dodger Stadium to finish off a series yet. We don’t think they’ll be that lucky this time around, but we do think that their bullpen gives them a clear advantage and will work to neutralize those dangerous Astros bats in the final 3-4 innings of every game. That’s enough daylight for us to say that, in our view it’ll be . . .

DODGERS IN SIX