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Previewing the N.L. Wild Card Game

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The Rockies and Diamondbacks have played each other 19 times this season. Tonight it’s number 20. The National League Wild Card game. The winner advances and the loser goes home.

The storyline here is going to be all about the glass slipper. Both of these teams were terrible in 2016, with the Dbacks going 69-93 and the Rockies going 75-87. Each fired their managers after the campaign, hiring Torey Lovullo and Bud Black, respectively and each flipped their records for the better. No one expected either team to contend strongly this year, let alone make the playoffs. The “happy to be here” factor should be pretty low, however, as both teams started the season strong and looked to be on a postseason trajectory well before the All-Star break.

Arizona took the season from Colorado, winning 11 to the Rockies’ eight. They outscored the Rockies 101-69 and took five of the seven games the two teams played in September. The teams split the ten games they played at Chase Field. If you care about such things, the Rockies beat the Diamondbacks in the 2007 NLDS. You probably shouldn’t care about such things, though, as there is no one around from back then who will have a say in how this turns out.

Let’s take a quick glance at the matchups.

The starting pitchers:

  • Rockies: RH Jon Gray (10-4, 3.67 ERA in 20 starts, 110 1/3 IP).
  • Diamondbacks: RH Zack Greinke (17-7, 3.20, 215 Ks in 202 1/3 IP).

Gray is 2-1 with a 3.50 ERA in three starts against the Diamondbacks. He didn’t allow more than three runs in any of the starts.  Greinke is 2-1 in five starts against Colorado with a 3.41 ERA. Greinke has playoff experience, going 3-3 with a 3.55 ERA in nine starts. This Gray’s first taste of the postseason.

The lineups:

The Rockies are what the Rockies always are when they’re playing well: powerful and potent, featuring the top offense in the National League. It’s an attack led by NL batting champion Charlie Blackmon, who hit .331/.399/.601 with 37 home runs and 104 RBI and Nolan Arenado, who hit .309/.373/.586 with 37 homers and 130 RBI. As always, you have to take Rockies’ hitters’ numbers with a grain of salt due to the Coors Field factor: both men hit worse on the road than at home, though Arenado’s splits are nowhere near as pronounced of many past Rockies sluggers.

Arizona counters with the fourth best offense in the National League, but one which vastly improved in the second half of the season due to the addition of J.D. Martinez. Martinez’s production after the trade is comic book stuff, as he batted .302/.366/.741 with 29 homers in just 62 games. He’s backed by Paul Goldschmidt who put up another fantastic season — .297/.404/.563 with 36 homers — but who finished the season in a slump. A sharp slump, actually, going 0 for his last 17 heading into the Wild Card game.

The bullpens:

As we’ve seen so often in recent years — and as we saw last night in New York — bullpens are a key factor to postseason success. An outsized one, in fact, with the manager sporting the quickest hook often being the one with the advantage. Greinke, of course, has a $200m+ contract which assumes he’ll pitch long into games that matter. He averages about six and a third innings per start. His counterpart, Gray, averages about five and a half innings per start, but he’s been on a roll of late, tossing five or more innings and allowing three or fewer earned runs in 13 consecutive starts.

Don’t be shocked if Dbacks’ skipper Lovullo uses a starter — possibly even projected NLDS Game 1 starter Robbie Ray — as a reliever. The idea is to get Greinke through the Rockies lineup twice — and likely not more than twice — and then to eventually get the ball to Fernando Rodney to start the ninth in a position for a save. He is not the kind of closer you want to bring in to put out a fire in the eighth. He kinda creates his own fires. Just how he rolls.

As for the Rockies, if Gray falters early, they could use Chris Rusin and possibly starter German Marquez to bridge the gap to relievers Jake McGee, Pat Neshek and Greg Holland. Bud Black has a lot more options in his pen than Rockies managers past.

All in all, this is pretty even matchup. I give the Dbacks the edge as the slightly better team on paper, as the winner of the season series and as the home team who will have close to 50,000 fans in attendance. I knock the Rockies a bit more than I usually knock a road team because that’s just how the Rockies work.

Of course, it’s a one-and-done game and anything can happen. That’s why they call it the Wild Card.

Derek Jeter: no longer the media’s darling

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There was a time, not too long ago, where the baseball press practically gave Derek Jeter awards for providing them no information whatsoever. As a player, he turned not answering questions into an art form. To the point where, eventually, the press just stopped asking him substantive questions almost entirely.

Unlike a lot of players who shut out the media, Jeter did it rather politely, so he did not get that passive aggressive treatment — or, occasionally, the aggressive-aggressive treatment — the press often gives uncommunicative players. To the contrary. He was positively lauded for his lack of communication. Lionized, even.

Take this column from Jeff Peralman at CNN.com from 2014, under the headline “Derek Jeter: Baseball’s Humble Hero”:

Throughout the first 18 seasons of his career, Jeter has often been labeled “dull” by the media. His answers to questions are unimaginative and full of cliché baseball nothingness blather. In hindsight, however, such lameness is almost to be admired. We live in an era where too many athletes feel as if they need to draw attention to themselves — for confidence, for commercials. If you’re not tweeting trash talk, you’re texting trash talk. Or making bold promises. Or demanding money or respect . . . he’s a guy who merely wanted to be a guy.

How about this from the New York Times around the time of his retirement:

Jeter’s ability to maintain a posture of sustained inscrutability — or, if you must, dignified comportment — has extended especially to the spoken word . . . he has played his best defense in front of his locker: catching every controversial question thrown to him and tossing it aside as if it were a scuffed ball unsuitable for play.

In a major league career that dates to the Clinton administration’s first term — he is the only Yankees shortstop a generation of fans has known — inquiring reporters have gathered around Jeter in the clubhouse thousands of times. He has maintained eye contact, answered nearly every question posed to him — and said nothing. This is not a complaint, but rather an expression of awe; of admiration, even. His batting average and fielding percentage aside, this kid from Kalamazoo, Mich., entered the New York meat grinder two decades ago and came out the other end looking as sharp as Joe DiMaggio’s suit.

This opinion of Jeter was pervasive throughout his career, but especially pronounced at its end of it. Jeter was deified by the press for saying nothing to the press. Praised for making the media’s job harder by the media itself. That’s pretty amazing when you think about it.

Times, however, have changed.

Some minor grumbling about Jeter’s non-answers to media questions began soon after he took over as Marlins co-owner. Ken Davidoff of the New York Post wrote a column about it all back in October, saying Jeter’s “Crash Davis Rules of Media Relations don’t apply anymore.” Not too many people echoed that at the time, probably because it came in the wake of a pretty boring introductory press conference and the stakes were pretty low. I did wonder at the time, though, if the media was waiting to turn on Jeter once he actually started making moves in his new role.

I think we can now say the answer to that is yes.

In the wake of the Giancarlo Stanton trade, a lot of baseball writers had a lot of questions for Derek Jeter. Jeter, however, decided that he didn’t even need to show up here at the Winter Meetings to answer them, despite the fact that he lives just a couple of hours away.

On Monday morning Buster Olney of ESPN made conspicuous note of it:

Later in the day Jeter deigned to talk to the media via a conference call. As usual, he said mostly nothing, but unlike 1997, 2007 or 2014 (a) he got testy about it; and (b) the press made a note of it:

They likewise noted when he passed the buck to someone below him on the org chart:

Last night I think a dam broke, and I don’t think Jeter will ever be able to sweet non-talk his way out criticism again. It all happened at a football game:

To sum up:

  • Jeter is now bad for not talking to the press;
  • Jeter is not lauded for his composure anymore; and
  • Jeter is being called out as a poor leader who does not face the music.

What a difference a few years and a change of role makes.

All of which, one would think, would make me at least a little happy. I mean, I’ll totally own up to rolling my eyes at the kid glove treatment Jeter got back when he played. About how his attributes, however great, were elevated even above their actual greatness and how his faults were, perversely, spun into attributes. You’d expect that, in light of that, I’d be sorta pleased that the tables have turned.

I’m not happy, though. Indeed, I have something approaching sympathy for Captian Jeets.

Why? Because, while I’d like to see him face the press, defend his moves as owner and explain his vision to Marlins fans everywhere, I know that he cannot. I know that he has no good answers to any of the questions he might be asked because the real answer to all of them is “hey, we need to make money for the ownership group and everything flows from that” and that’s not an answer he’s prepared to give.

Have some sympathy for Derek Jeter. He’s really in a tough, tough spot. Even if he put himself into it.