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Bracket: Best baseball moments of 2019

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It may be March, but sadly there will not be any March Madness to watch due to coronavirus (COVID-19). Filling out brackets is always such a fun part of the experience. This is a baseball blog, but I thought I’d create my own bracket fun by pitting some of the most uplifting and fun moments of 2019 against each other, bracket-style. As usual, I don’t expect everyone to agree with my picks, so feel free to fill out the bracket how you see fit in the comments. I will also inevitably miss some moments that might have merited inclusion, so be sure to mention those as well.

Today’s theme is the best moments of 2019. With everything going on right now, we could all use a little positivity. The (1) and (2) seeds for this are incredibly strong, so it should be no surprise to see how the bracket pans out. An explanation of each matchup is underneath the bracket. I used BracketHQ.com to create the bracket.

1. Angels honor Tyler Skaggs with combined no-hitter

On July 1 last year, we learned that Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs was found dead in his hotel room in Texas while his team was in town to play the Rangers. An autopsy found fentanyl, oxycodone, and alcohol in his system, prompting a federal investigation into his death. The last we heard of that was earlier this month, when a grand jury convened to examine the situation.

Skaggs’ death hit the Angels and the baseball world hard. Thankfully, a moment of solace came quickly. On July 12, the Angels’ first home game since Skaggs died, the club honored him with everyone wearing his No. 45 on their uniforms and running a pregame video tribute. The Angels proceeded to jump out to a 7-0 first-inning lead against the Mariners. It got better from there. After throwing two perfect innings, Taylor Cole gave way to Felix Peña. Peña went the rest of the way without allowing a hit, completing the combined no-hitter in a 13-0 rout. It marked the Angels’ first no-hitter since Jered Weaver in 2012.

The celebration was understandably subdued. The Angels players slowly walked out to the mound, removed their jerseys, and placed them on the mound. The players huddled around each other and had a moment of silence, and the fans at Angels Stadium quickly followed suit. The whole sequence of events was like something out of a movie. Usually, real life doesn’t work like that, giving you a statistically unlikely way to honor a fallen one, but it did on this night. It was not only the best moment of the 2019 season, but one of the best in baseball history. We will be talking about it for years and years.

2. Carlos “Cookie” Carrasco returns after battling leukemia

The Indians’ right-hander, nicknamed “Cookie” by former teammate Chris Pérez, was diagnosed with leukemia in early July. He underwent treatment and returned to the mound in early September. The Indians were on the road playing the Rays and received a hearty standing ovation from the Tropicana Field crowd. Carrasco didn’t have the storybook performance, yielding a run on two hits in an inning of relief work, but it was nonetheless inspiring.

Normally a starter, Carrasco pitched in relief down the stretch. He had his share of struggles, posting a 6.60 ERA in 15 September innings, but it showed that he would be able to eventually reclaim his spot in the Indians’ rotation in 2020.

Carrasco went on to win the Roberto Clemente Award, given to the player who “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual’s contribution to his team.” But it wasn’t Carrasco’s battle with leukemia that earned him the hardware. Among other gestures, here are some of the charitable endeavors from Carlos and his wife Karry:

  • Helped cook, box, and distribute 500 lunches to the homeless from the front porch of their home
  • Donated two $10,000 scholarships for single moms
  • Donated $5,000 to veterans
  • Read to students at Cleveland Stepstone Academy’s “Carlos Carrasco Major League Reading Corner.”
  • Distributed shoes, shirts, and backpacks to underprivileged children in Africa
  • Donated more than $70,000 to families in need in African villages
  • Donated $3000,000 to Casa Venezuela Cúcuta in Colombia
  • Donates $400 per day and $200 per month to cover the cost of a refugee camp at the Colombian/Venezuelan border
  • Donated tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of food, medicine, medical supplies, diapers, etc.

Needless to say, Carrasco’s return was inspiring for a lot of people for a lot of reasons.

3. Larry Walker enshrined in the Hall of Fame

Larry Walker’s career was, sadly, undervalued by many because he benefited from playing in Coors Field. He had a 1.172 OPS at Coors Field, way higher than his career .965 OPS (which is lower if you exclude Coors Field). But his offense was still really, really good and he did plenty of other things on the field that weren’t impacted by Coors Field, like his ability to steal bases and play great defense. Walker won seven Gold Gloves and retired with 230 steals.

It was frustrating to fans of Walker’s, as well as to those who utilize more advanced statistics, that Walker was heading into his 10th and final year on the ballot. Optimism was muted even as projections, based on those who had sent in their ballots and publicized them ahead of the deadline, showed Walker getting the requisite 75 percent support to earn enshrinement in Cooperstown.

Derek Jeter, also on the ballot with Walker, was expected to get in easily if not unanimously. Curt Schilling was also seeing a decent amount of support and some wondered if we’d be seeing a Jeter-Schilling ticket as opposed to Jeter-Walker.

The day finally came and Walker ended up with 76.6 percent of the vote. He was visibly emotional as he received the good news from BBWAA secretary-treasurer Jack O’Connell on January 21. It was great to see Walker – an outstanding all-around player and a seemingly great person – finally get his due. Amid all of the bad news that had been surrounding baseball, particularly with the Houston Astros, it was nice for a little light to shine through.

4. Nationals win their first championship

The Nationals weren’t in good shape early in the season. On May 23, they had just been swept in a four-game road series by the Mets, dropping their record to 19-31. They were in fourth place in the NL East, 10 games out of first, and manager Dave Martinez’s job was on the line. The Nationals, however, rattled off 12 wins in their next 16 games and never looked back. They finished 93-69, earning the right to host the Brewers in the NL Wild Card game. They won that game, then edged out the mighty Dodgers from the NLDS in five games, swept the Cardinals in four games in the NLCS, and proceeded to escape the World Series victorious over the Astros in seven to win the first championship in franchise history.

The victory was cathartic for many reasons. For one, it was a fun group of guys that had a good mix of young players and veterans. The club had Juan Soto but it also had Brian Dozier. Some of the players could have potentially been departing for free agency in Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg. Patrick Corbin had something to prove after signing a big contract with the club. Howie Kendrick was a part-time player who played a huge role in the Nats’ postseason success. And the club won in spite of one of the league’s worst and most frustrating bullpens.

Adding to the sweetness, the Nats felled the behemoth Astros who had gone from lovable to loathsome in record time, and that was before we found out they were cheating. The Astros won it all in 2017, justifying a front office that was ruthless and viewed players simply as numbers in a spreadsheet. There were a lot of people happy that the Astros didn’t win it all for the second time in three years.

5. Pete Alonso wins the 2019 Home Run Derby

The 2019 Home Run Derby was arguably the best HR Derby of all-time. While the contest was missing the likes of Mike Trout and Mookie Betts, it had a lot of exciting younger players who hadn’t yet become household names. Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., Ronald Acuña Jr., and Pete Alonso were among the eight participants. The first place prize had also been bumped up to $1 million, providing plenty of incentive.

Guerrero set records, rampaging into the finals by defeating Matt Chapman 29-13, then edging Joc Pederson 40 to 39. Alonso, meanwhile, had a quieter run. He nudged out Carlos Santana 14-13, then knocked out Acuña 20-19. Guerrero and Alonso then had a tense and utterly memorable finals that ultimately went to Alonso, 23-22. Alonso donated 10 percent of his prize, $100,000, by donating $50,000 each to the Wounded Warrior Project and the Tunnel to Towers Foundation.

Seeing the mild-mannered and polite Alonso win the Derby was great because it was clear he was embracing his rise to stardom. He has only gotten better as time has gone on, becoming one of the game’s great ambassadors after leading the majors in homers with 53, finishing seventh in NL MVP balloting, and winning the NL Rookie of the Year Award.

6. Bryce Harper hits walk-off grand slam against the Cubs

Harper inked a record 13-year, $330 million contract with the Phillies, but through the first four months of the season, he hadn’t yet had a moment with the team. He had been objectively productive, carrying an .859 OPS into the final game of a home series against the Cubs on August 15, but he had yet to ingratiate himself with Phillies fans. That all changed on this Thursday night against the Cubs.

The Phillies entered the bottom of the ninth inning trailing 5-1, seemingly in their way to another loss in a ho-hum season. Something began to brew, however, as César Hernández reached with one out on a fielding error by Kris Bryant. Scott Kingery then singled, and Brad Miller followed up with a single of his own, sneaking it up the middle to bring home a run against Cubs reliever Rowan Wick. Pedro Strop was brought in to relieve Wick, but couldn’t stop the bleeding. He surrendered an RBI single to Roman Quinn to make it 5-3. Strop hit Rhys Hoskins with a pitch to load the bases, prompting manager Joe Maddon to bring in lefty Derek Holland to face Harper. Harper quickly fell behind 0-2, but battled back to even the count. After fouling off the fifth pitch, Holland threw an inside fastball that Harper absolutely destroyed, landing in the second deck at Citizens Bank Park for a walk-off grand slam. Phillies win, 6-5.

Harper finally had his moment. He went on to finish the season with a quite solid .882 OPS, but he was never going to meet the sky-high expectations that Phillies fans and others had set for him. The Phillies finished a disappointing 81-81 in fourth place. The Harper grand slam remains an indelible moment from an otherwise forgettable season.

7. Michael Lorenzen has a Ruthian game

On September 4, the Reds hosted the Phillies for the third game of a four-game series. The Reds gave up a one-run lead in the top of the seventh inning when reliever Michael Lorenzen served up a solo home run to former Red Jay Bruce. The Reds fought back to take the lead in the bottom half of the inning, then received two more insurance runs when Lorenzen belted a two-run home run off of Blake Parker. Closer Raisel Iglesias took over on the mound in the top of the ninth, so Lorenzen moved to center field. The Reds won the game 8-5 with Lorenzen earning the win in the box score.

Lorenzen had quite an uncommon game: He pitched two innings, hit a home run, and played in the outfield. According to STATS, the last player to do all three in the same game was Babe Ruth on June 13, 1921. Lorenzen, of course, was the Reds’ starting center fielder the next day. He pitched in relief the day after that.

Angels star Shohei Ohtani popularized the two-way player last year, but Lorenzen had always shown an aptitude for being a two-way player if only because of his bat. He has homered in each of the last four seasons, including four total in 2018. He has a career .710 OPS, more than double the league average for pitchers (.329).

8. Max Muncy and Madison Bumgarner‘s hilarious feud

Pitcher Madison Bumgarner has had issues with a lot of hitters over the years. He’s known around the league as a “red ass.” It was no surprise, then, that the lefty was unhappy when Dodgers first baseman Max Muncy went yard at Oracle Park, dunking a Bumgarner offering into McCovey Cove in the first inning. Muncy, to Bumgarner’s chagrin, dropped his bat with a little pizzazz and admired the ball as it flew out beyond right field. Bumgarner started yelling at Muncy as he rounded the bases. Muncy returned fire. The homer turned out to be the deciding factor as the Dodgers won 1-0.

After the game, Muncy offered perhaps the quote of the year when he explained what was said between the two rivals. “Bumgarner said, ‘Don’t watch the ball. Run.’ And I just told him if he doesn’t want me to watch the ball, go get it out of the ocean.” Fans immediately made “Go Get It Out of the Ocean” t-shirts, and Muncy naturally bought and wore one proudly.

The quote was a perfect blend of sassiness and wrongness. Muncy didn’t hit the ball into the Pacific Ocean; rather, he hit it into the mouth of Mission Creek as it meets the San Francisco Bay. In fact, the Pacific Ocean is on the other side of the strip of land that constitutes north San Francisco. If you’ve watched an iota of reality TV over the past two decades, you know what a great combination unjustified and uneducated anger are. Baseball needs rivalries, justified or not, to be interesting. Two players from the Dodgers and Giants were perfect fits.

. . .

It won’t be surprising to see how my ballot panned out.

What were the best moments of the 2019 season to you? How different would your bracket look compared to mine?