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And That Happened: Friday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores and highlights from Friday’s slate, none cooler than the way Red Sox fan Thomas Hastings has been spending his days lately.

Pirates 5, Braves 4: The most impressive part of Ivan Nova‘s season debut wasn’t the way he stifled the Braves’ offense through six innings, allowing one run on an Ender Inciarte RBI double, nor was it the four scoreless frames he pitched to start the game nor the four strikeouts he collected. It was the way he managed all of these things while pitching in 37-degree weather during the Pirates’ home opener. The cold didn’t appear to bother the rest of the lineup, either, as they collected 11 hits against the Braves with RBI hits from Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte and back-to-back homers from David Freese and Francisco Cervelli.

Tigers 6, Red Sox 5: For all the back-and-forth on Pablo Sandoval‘s ideal weight, his attitude in the clubhouse, and his waning production over the last two seasons, it’s difficult to remember he’s still capable of doing this:

Unfortunately, the Red Sox needed more than the three-run blast to power their efforts against the Tigers, and were unseated by a two-run rally in the eighth inning.

Nationals 7, Phillies 6: Remember when a fractured finger cost Max Scherzer his Opening Day start? Apparently he doesn’t. The 32-year-old ace looked no worse for wear on Friday, firing seven strikeouts and allowing two runs over 6 2/3 frames against the Phillies. He held opposing batters scoreless through the first five frames, backed by a comfortable seven-run cushion with home runs from Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy and Jayson Werth.

Rockies 2, Dodgers 1: The Rockies kicked off their first homestand of the season with a dominant major league debut by southpaw Kyle Freeland. Freeland snagged a roster spot after impressing in spring training with a 3.48 ERA and looked just as solid against the Dodgers in regular season play, holding them to four hits, one run and six strikeouts through six quality innings.

Padres 7, Giants 6: One man can only do so much for his team in a single game. That was likely how Giants’ first baseman Brandon Belt felt during a 7-6 loss to the Padres, during which Belt drove in five runs on two home runs, including his first career grand slam. The bullpen blew their tenuous one-run advantage in the sixth inning, allowing San Diego to notch three runs on a two-run double and an RBI bunt and take their second win of the season.

Orioles 6, Yankees 5: The Orioles are one of two undefeated teams left in the American League (along with the Twins, which we all predicted) after squeezing past the Yankees in Friday night’s series opener. Neither pitching staff could suppress the other’s offensive drive, but it was Seth Smith‘s first home run in a Baltimore uniform that became the deciding factor for the Orioles in the seventh inning.

Marlins 7, Mets 2: According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only four players since 1900 have started their major league careers with hitless streaks greater than 50 consecutive at-bats. Marlins’ left-hander Wei-Yin Chen broke his streak of 51 at-bats with his first career hit on Friday, a blooper that rolled toward shortstop for an infield hit against the Mets’ Zack Wheeler.

Rays 10, Blue Jays 8: After taking home their first win of the year on Thursday, the Blue Jays hit another speed bump with shaky performances from Francisco Liriano and their bullpen on Friday. Whatever stability Liriano found with his 2.00 spring training ERA dissolved in Tropicana Field, as the veteran right-hander was forced out of the game after giving up three hits, four walks and five runs through the first 1/3 of the first inning.

Rangers 10, Athletics 5: If there’s been one bright spot in the Rangers’ lineup this week, it’s 21-year-old Nomar Mazara, who helped catapult the team to their first win of the season with an RBI single and grand slam against the A’s. Mazara is looking to follow up an impressive rookie performance in 2016, during which he batted .266/.320/.419 with 20 home runs and a .739 OPS. Sample sizes notwithstanding, his .588/1.059/1.647 slash line through the first four games of 2017 indicate that he’s on the right track.

Brewers 2, Cubs 1 (11 innings): After ten innings of mostly dominant pitching, this wasn’t the way the Cubs planned to lose. In the eleventh, with one out and the bases loaded, Chicago right-hander Mike Montgomery served up a wild pitch that bounced over the shoulder of catcher Wilson Contreras. Contreras missed the throw to home plate and the ball skirted back into the infield as Ryan Braun crossed the plate for the game-winning run.

Royals 5, Astros 1: Carlos Beltran slugged his way into the history books during the Astros’ second loss of the season. He snagged an RBI double in the seventh inning, scoring Carlos Correa and tying the Yankees’ Joe DiMaggio with 1,537 career RBI — good for 49th-most among all past and present major leaguers.

Twins 3, White Sox 1: There are two ways to consider Twins’ center fielder Byron Buxton. You can choose to isolate his superb defense…

…or you can focus on the fact that he’s collected 11 strikeouts in 19 PA this season, including a coveted “golden sombrero” during Friday’s fiesta.

In other news, the Twins haven’t started a season 4-0 since 1987. If they can stretch their streak to five wins, it’ll be the club’s most successful start to a season since the Washington Senators went 5-0 in 1913.

Reds 2, Cardinals 0: Rookie left-hander Amir Garrett looked calmer and more polished than many veteran major leaguers on Friday. He made his major league debut with six dazzling frames against the Cardinals, striking out four and issuing just two walks and two hits.

Diamondbacks 7, Indians 3: The Indians’ AL Central crown won’t be tossed aside anytime soon, but they had a rough go of it in their season opener against the Diamondbacks. Arizona came close to a collective cycle in the fifth inning, stockpiling five runs on a single from Jake Lamb, doubles from Paul Goldschmidt and Yasmany Tomas, and a two-run triple from Brandon Drury.

Angels 5, Mariners 1: The Mariners are averaging just 1.8 runs per game in 2017. While a slump isn’t unusual this early in the season, it’s not exactly a good sign, either. Angels’ right-hander Jesse Chavez served up 5 1/3 innings of one-run ball, backed by an airtight performance from the bullpen and a four-run lead.

Major League Baseball considering expansion, radical realignment

Don Ryan/Associated Press
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Tracy Ringolsby of Baseball America wrote yesterday about a “growing consensus” within baseball that expansion and realignment are inevitable. The likely expansion cities: Portland and Montreal. The 32-team league would then undergo a radical realignment that would also involve reducing the season from 162 to 156 games while expanding the playoffs to 12 teams.

To be clear, Ringolsby’s actual reporting here is limited to that “growing consensus” about expansion, and the most likely cities involved, not regarding the specific realignment or game reduction plan. That I take to be speculative — he refers to it as “one proposal” — though it seems like reasonable and informed speculation. The general idea is that, if you expand, you have to realign, and if you realign you have to change the playoff structure lest too many teams in any one division become also-rans. That, combined with the near impossibility of changing the early-April-to-late-October footprint of the season and the desire of players to have less arduous travel schedules and some extra time off, leads to the shorter season.

The details of the plan:

  • The American and National Leagues would be disposed of, with MLB putting all 32 teams into four, eight-team, regionally-based divisions: East, North, Midwest, West. This is designed to (a) maintain regional and traditional rivalries while (b) cutting way back on cross-time zone travel. Both New York teams and Boston are in the “North,” both Chicago teams and St. Louis are in the “Midwest,” etc. Texas and Houston are in the “Midwest” too, but we’ll let the Texans get mad about that later.
  • The playoffs would feature a LOT of play-in games. Specifically, Ringolsby would have the four division winners go to the Division Series, where they would play the winner of four different Wild Card games, the participants in which would come from the eight non-division winners with the best records, regardless of which division they came from.
  • The schedule would go back to 156 games, giving every team an off-day every week. Between that and the more compact, almost all single-time-zone divisions, the travel schedules would be far less taxing, with shorter flights and more flights which could leave the day after a night game as opposed to directly after a night game, causing teams to arrive in the next city in the wee hours of the morning.

Thoughts:

  • Obviously this would piss off the purists.  The elimination of the traditional leagues, the shorter season, a (slightly) altered standard for records and milestones, and a doubling of one-and-done playoff series would make a lot of fans dizzy. On the one hand, I could argue that baseball has NEVER been as pure and unchanging as people like to pretend it is so maybe people shouldn’t get too bent out of shape over this, but it’s simply unavoidable that this would rattle a lot of baseball fans, and not just the ones hopelessly stuck in the past. Baseball should not be slavishly devoted to its history, but it needs to recognize that its history is a selling point and an important touchstone for many, many fans.
  • Ringolsby’s specific realignment idea is kind of fun, but will inevitably lead to some winners and losers. For example, many traditional rivalries or regional rivalries would be maintained — Chicago and St. Louis and Boston and New York would remain division rivals — but other, less-sexy but very real rivalries would be disposed of. The Mets, for example, would have no old NL rivals in their division. There will also be some teams which get screwed logistically. Here, all of Minnesota’s division rivals would be Eastern Time Zone teams, so all of its road games would be played in a different time zone. You could fix that somehow, but someone else would likely be inconvenienced. There isn’t a perfect way to do it. As such, implementation could be pretty messy, with some owners opposing it, possibly vehemently.
  • The playoff idea would make for a lot of drama with four play-in games, but I don’t think it’s a sustainable model. Yes, division winners would all be guaranteed a five-game playoff series, but having two-thirds of all of the playoff teams subjected to a random one-and-done game as opposed to the current four of ten would inevitably lead to calls for longer Wild Card series. And it would likely, over time, diminish the cachet of the Wild Card itself. Now most people think of Wild Card teams as having made the playoffs, With this plan, I suspect fewer people will think of it that way as opposed to some sort of weird, non-quite-the-playoffs limbo, thus hurting late season interest among fans of non-division winners.
  • A 156-game season wouldn’t be the end of the world. We had a 154-game season for a little over half a century total and a 162 game season for 56 seasons so far. Changing it might cause people to get grumpy about records and milestones, but other changes in the game, be it pitcher usage patterns or juiced baseballs or integration or night games or any number of other things have already changed the context in such a way that such standards were never as set-in-stone as people tend to believe. At the same time, extra off days might very well improve the caliber of play as players are more rested and therefore sharper.

In the end, it’s important to recognize that Ringolsby’s article is, in all likelihood, a trial balloon leaked by Major League Baseball, so don’t take any one aspect of it too seriously, even if we should all take the idea of some radical shift involving expansion and realignment in the not-too-distant future seriously.

Why? Money mostly. There are huge financial incentives for baseball to do this. Part of this involves the cost-savings which would result from better scheduling and less travel that Ringolsby mentions. A much greater incentive would come from the franchise fees the owners of the two new teams would pay the 30 current owners in order to be allowed into the MLB fraternity.  In the last round of expansion, the Diamondbacks and Devil Rays owners paid $150 million each for their teams. Given that franchises have gone up in value by a factor of ten twenty, it’s not inconceivable that new owners in Montreal and Portland would have to fork over well north of a billion dollars each to enter the league. That’s a check for $66 million written to each owner in exchange for simply voting “yes” at some meeting in Scottsdale on some fine December afternoon.

So, while there may be no uncertainly on the “how” of it all, the very fact of expansion and subsequent realignment seems inevitable. Now is a good time for us to start thinking about how the details of it all would work.