What World Series storylines will we get tired of soon?


Between this Wednesday and a week from Thursday there are going to be between four and seven cool baseball games which will result in one team being crowned world champion. They will win this championship by scoring more runs in more games than their opponent does. After each game we will be able to look back easily and see how and why the winner won and the loser lost, as all of the relevant data will be there for us to see in video, digital, numerical and narrative form.

But seeing what happens and then trying to make something of it is boring! The real fun part of the World Series is to create and/or identify “storylines” and assert that they cause and influence the game action. Sometimes these storylines have the benefit of being relevant, accurate and even prescient. Often they merely serve as blah-blah-blah fodder for baseball’s talking heads and writing hands to use to kill time before and between ballgames.*

So, what are some of the pre-facto, post-facto and beside-the-point-factor stories baseball’s bards will be recounting over the coming days? What are the apparently random and inconsequential events from earlier in the season or earlier in history which, after we see how history unfolds, will be claimed as evidence that history was going to unfold just so?  Here are some possibilities!

  • Hairs vs. Squares

The 1972 World Series famously pitted the mustachioed and long-haired Oakland A’s against the Reds, whose players had haircuts you could set your watch to. It was called the “Hairs vs. Squares” series by some and was seen as some sort of microcosm of the culture at large. Of course because it’s baseball and baseball tends to lag the culture, it was a microcosm which captured a cultural rift that was five or six years old at that point, but that’s neither here nor there.

These days there isn’t some huge cultural rift regarding hairstyles — anything goes, right? — but don’t be surprised if you hear a great deal of talk about how the Red Sox all have crazy beards and the Cardinals are upholders of baseball conservatism. When you hear this, try to forget that (a) beyond the Sox’ beards, there is nothing at all radical about the Red Sox and/or their style of play; and (b) that several members of the Cardinals have beards, even if they aren’t crazy.  Indeed, the whole Cardinals stereotype is based on “unwritten rules” nonsense, not fashion sense or personal style, so best to ignore this phony construct before you think too deeply about it.

  • The Best vs. The Best

This one is far less specious in that it does actually tell us something about baseball. The Cardinals and the Red Sox each have the best record in their respective leagues and thus represent some sort of throwback to the pre-divisional play days in which the two best teams would face each other in the World Series.

As a fan of pre-divisional baseball, I like the idea of the two best teams meeting one another. I will acknowledge, however, as you should too, that simply pitting the best teams against one another is no guarantee of a good World Series.  The last time this happened was 1999, and that was a clunker of a snooze-fest of a matchup for all but partisans of the winning Yankees. Meanwhile, lots of good World Series — including several involving the Cardinals — were humdingers despite featuring less-than-the-best. 2011 went seven games with a wild card winning Cards team. 2002 featured two wild card teams in the Angels and Giants going the distance in pretty dramatic fashion. Neither the Yankees nor the Diamondbacks were the best in their leagues in 2001 yet played one of the best World Series you’ll ever see.

The best vs. the best is fun. But it kinda doesn’t matter either.

  • A Matchup of Storied Franchises

Baseball doesn’t play up its founding franchises like the NHL does — “The Original 16” doesn’t have quite the same ring as “Original Six” — but this year’s series is a sepia-tone lover’s wet dream. The Yankees may be baseball’s most storied franchise, but the Cardinals and Red Sox are probably in the top four. As I noted this morning, the Sox and Cards have met in the World Series several times, so you’ll be certain to get a heavy dose of 1946, 1967 and 2004 — as well as all manner of Ted Williams, Bob Gibson and Stan Musial stuff on the side — in the coming days.

All of that will certainly make for some nice sidebar material, but it obviously has no bearing on the 2013 World Series given that, with the exception of David Ortiz and Yadier Molina, none of these guys met in those previous matchups and certainly none of these guys are properly pictured in those sepia tones. Because they’re, like, in their 20s and 30s.

Still: I’d bet my first born that on media day tomorrow and throughout the series, you will hear and see ballplayers being asked what it feels like to be part of a matchup of historic franchises. Because MLB media relations people are sharp, you can bet that these ballplayers will all have semi-good, though certainly canned responses to these questions, all of which give respectful nods to the greats of Cardinals and Red Sox past. As you hear those answers, remember that the hard sliders, ungodly heat and fearsome power of their opponents in the upcoming games is taking up approximately 98.75% of their actual concentration and history means nothing to them at the moment.

  • Worst to First

I don’t think this one will get a ton of play, but be on the lookout for it: the Boston Red Sox, you may not realize, finished in last place in 2012 and now here they are in the big dance. Some may even note that the Cardinals, despite playing in the NLCS last year, had a down year themselves, winning only 88 games. Forget, if and when you hear this, that many of the same people trying to peddle this quasi-underdog thing just got done telling you that this World Series pits The Best vs. The Best.

Either way, it’s kinda hard to even buy into the Red Sox’ worst-to-first thing as anything truly meaningful. Yes 2012 was awful, and the 2011 collapse will be sung about for ages. But prior to 2012 the Sox won 90, 89, 95, 95 and 96 games in their previous five years and are still among the most successful teams in all of baseball over the past 10-15 years. Last year was a function of injuries, some bad leadership and less-than-ideal roster construction, it wasn’t some sort of pit they had found themselves in for anything but the briefest of moments, historically speaking. Yes, give credit to the Sox’ front office for fixing what ailed this club last year, but with 2013’s great year almost in the books, it’s looking less like a classic “worst to first” scenario than it is an “outlier year to first” kind of thing.

Those are the top storylines I can think of at the moment.  I’m sure as the games progress — and as the creative minds of producers and editors ramp up today and tomorrow — we’ll hear some more angles that, however interesting they may seem, are something less than illuminating in a purely baseball sense.

Which is fine, because there’s a lot of downtime between games and sometimes you need weird things like “Jerome Bettis is from Detroit” and “so-and-so and what’s-his-face used to play on the same high school team” or whatever it is we’ll get.  Just don’t mistake the fun for the meaningful. Because all that is meaningful will take place between the lines, not outside of them.

*Note: be sure to catch me on “SportsDash” on the NBC Sports Network at noon eastern weekdays! And don’t forget to read HBT for all of your baseball analysis needs during the World Series!

ALDS, Game 2: Rangers vs. Blue Jays lineups

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Here are the Rangers and Blue Jays lineups for Game 2 of the ALDS in Toronto:

CF Delino DeShields
RF Shin-Soo Choo
DH Prince Fielder
1B Mitch Moreland
SS Elvis Andrus
LF Josh Hamilton
2B Rougned Odor
C Chris Gimenez
3B Hanser Alberto

SP Cole Hamels

Adrian Beltre is out of the starting lineup after leaving Game 1 with what appeared to be a significant back injury, leaving Hanser Alberto to fill in at third base. With a right-hander on the mound Mike Napoli goes to the bench and Mitch Moreland starts at first base, and manager Jeff Banister also switched up the batting order a bit without Beltre in the No. 3 spot. Robinson Chirinos homered in Game 1, but he takes a seat in Game 2 so that Chris Gimenez can catch Cole Hamels.

LF Ben Revere
3B Josh Donaldson
RF Jose Bautista
DH Edwin Encarnacion
SS Troy Tulowitzki
1B Chris Colabello
C Russell Martin
2B Ryan Goins
CF Kevin Pillar

SP Marcus Stroman

Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista are both in the starting lineup after leaving Game 1 with injuries, which is particularly good news in Donaldson’s case because he suffered a potentially serious head injury sliding into second base. Toronto’s only change from Game 1 is subbing Chris Colabello for Justin Smoak at first base with a left-hander on the mound. There’s right-handed power all over the place, so Hamels’ changeup may be the key to the entire game.

Royals will bring back Yordano Ventura to start Game 4

Yordano Ventura
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Thursday night’s rain delay cut Yordano Ventura‘s start short after just two innings, as the Royals opted to turn to reliever Chris Young instead of bringing the 24-year-old right-hander back out to the mound following the delay.

One benefit to that is what manager Ned Yost has decided to do now, which is use Ventura to start Game 4 on Monday. Had he thrown, say, 102 pitches instead of 42 pitches Ventura likely would have started Game 5, forcing the Royals to go four starters deep in their ALDS rotation.

Ventura struggled before the delay Monday, allowing three runs in two innings. However, he finished the regular season by going 7-1 with a 2.38 ERA and 81 strikeouts in 68 innings over his final 11 starts, which was enough to convince Yost he was the right pitcher to start Game 1 rather than trade deadline pickup Johnny Cueto.

Playoff Reset: Four games in one day!

Cole Hamels

Oh baby.

There’s baseball from noon to midnight today, with a pair of Game 2s in the American League and a pair of Game 1s in the National League.

Tons of great starting pitchers–including the best in the world and a trio of big-name trade deadline acquisitions–and we’ll find out if a home team can actually win a game after starting the playoffs 0-4.

The Game: Texas Rangers vs. Toronto Blue Jays
The Time: 12:45 PM Eastern
The Place: Rogers Centre, Toronto
The Channel: MLB Network
The Starters: Cole Hamels vs. Marcus Stroman
The Upshot: Stroman coming back from what was deemed a season-ending knee injury in spring training to start Game 2 of the ALDS is a helluva story and the Blue Jays need him to come up big after David Price failed to do his part in Game 1. Yovani Gallardo somehow wriggled out of trouble against Toronto’s scary lineup, but as a left-hander Hamels has an even tougher assignment versus the never-ending right-handed power. Assuming it’s all in the lineup, of course. There are big health question marks for both sides, as Adrian Beltre, Josh Donaldson, and Jose Bautista all exited Game 1 with injuries and their respective statuses could swing the balance of power in the series.

The Game: Houston Astros vs. Kansas City Royals
The Time: 3:45 PM Eastern
The Place: Kauffman Stadium, Kansas City
The Channel: FOX Sports 1
The Starters: Scott Kazmir vs. Johnny Cueto
The Upshot: Two headline-grabbing trade deadline pickups with a lot to prove, as Kazmir and Cueto both struggled for their new teams. Cueto was bumped back to Game 2 after being acquired to front the Royals’ rotation and there was some speculation that Kazmir might not even have a spot in the ALDS rotation. Kansas City losing Game 1 last night and Houston having Dallas Keuchel waiting in the wings for Game 3 puts a ton of pressure on Cueto’s shoulders. Generally one of the toughest pitchers to homer against, he allowed 10 homers in 13 starts for the Royals and the Astros’ power-packed lineup will put him to the test all afternoon. Can the defending AL champs get off the mat quickly or will they head to Houston in need of a win to keep the season alive?

The Game: Chicago Cubs vs. St. Louis Cardinals
The Time: 6:45 PM Eastern
The Place: Busch Stadium, St. Louis
The Channel: TBS
The Starters: Jon Lester vs. John Lackey
The Upshot: Former Red Sox teammates Lester and Lackey square off in Game 1 of the first ever playoff series between two of the biggest rivals in baseball, with the Cubs fresh off their Wild Card game triumph over the Pirates and the Cardinals coming off an MLB-high 100 wins. Yadier Molina‘s ability to play through a thumb injury will be key for the Cardinals and it’ll also be interesting to see how much faith manager Mike Matheny has in Adam Wainwright to get late-inning outs as a reliever after returning from a torn Achilles’ tendon.

The Game: New York Mets vs. Los Angeles Dodgers
The Time: 9:45 PM Eastern
The Place: Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles
The Channel: TBS
The Starters: Jacob deGrom vs. Clayton Kershaw
The Upshot: Quite a way to finish an entire day of baseball, as the Mets go looking for their first playoff win since 2006 and Kershaw tries to cement his legacy as an all-time great by dominating in the playoffs like he does in the regular season. And don’t overlook deGrom, because last year’s Rookie of the Year winner has a 2.61 ERA and 349 strikeouts in 331 innings since debuting last May. Among all starters with at least 300 innings during the past two seasons Kershaw ranks first in ERA and deGrom ranks fourth, with Jake Arrieta and Zack Greinke in the 2-3 slots. This is a speculator pitching matchup.