Monday, September 27, 2010

Tough But Winnable Final Week

Imagine, Mariano Rivera and Jonathan Papelbon blowing 9th-inning saves. In the same game. How often does that happen?

About as often as Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur all fail to win on the same weekend. Which happened: Liverpool blew a late lead and got only a draw, ManUre erased a late deficit to escape with a draw, and the rest all lost.

But after Phil Hughes pitched well, leaving losing 1-0, Alex Rodriguez hit his 611th career home run (152 to go), and gifted Mariano a 2-1 lead. But Mo blew it, and Papelbum was handed a 3-2 lead by the Red Sox. The Yankees loaded the bases with one out in the 9th, and only got one run. Still, it was enough to extend the game to extra innings -- or "free baseball" as Yankee broadcaster Michael Kay calls it. They loaded the bases again in the 10th, this time with nobody out, Hideki Okajima got the first out for the Sox, but he walked Juan Miranda with the bases loaded, forcing home Brett Gardner, and it was, as Yankee broadcaster John Sterling would say, "Ballgame over! Yankees win! Theeeeeeee Yankees win!" I don't know if he's ever said that after a walkoff walk -- it was very nearly a walkoff hit-by-pitch, which I think I've seen once in 34 seasons of watching baseball on television or live at the ballpark -- but Sterling, and I, gladly take it.

4-3! We beat The Scum, 4-3! We beat The Scum, 4-3! We beat The Scum, 4-3!

The Rays also lost, so the gap is closed. Right now, the Yankees are 93-63, the Rays are 93-62, half a game ahead, 1 in the loss column, and the Rays have a Magic Number of 7 to clinch the AL East.

What's more, the Yankees Magic Number to clinch a Playoff berth of some kind or other is 1. Any Yankee win in our last 6 games, or any Red Sox loss in their last 7 games, and the Yanks are in. As Jon Miller of ESPN pointed out, officially, the Yanks have clinched at least a tie for the Wild Card: If the Yanks and Sox end in a tie, there would be a Playoff, a la 1978. (Although that was for the AL East, no Wild Card in those days. If there had been, the Bucky Dent Game might not have been played at all, or at least not when it was.) So, technically, the Yankees clinched a playoff berth -- if not, officially, a Playoff berth. They're no worse than in a playoff for the Playoffs.

The Minnesota Twins have clinched the AL Central, the Texas Rangers the AL West, the Philadelphia Phillies no worse than the NL Wild Card. The Phils' Magic Number to clinch the NL East, and the Cincinnati Reds' to clinch the NL Central, are both 1: Both can finish it off tonight. The NL West remains in doubt: The San Francisco Giants lead the San Diego Padres by half a game. It looks like the Colorado Rockies have slipped out of it, as they're now 4 1/2 back. The Padres are in the NL Wild Card lead, half a game (1 in the loss column) ahead of the Atlanta Braves, 4 ahead of the Rockies.

So here's what's left: The Yankees play 3 games in Toronto, and then 3 in Boston. Tampa Bay plays 3 at home against Baltimore, and 4 in Kansas City.

If the Yankees take 2 out of 3 in each series, that will put them at 97-65. Since the AL went to the 3-Division setup in 1995 (well, 1994), only once has a team won as many as 97 games and not won the Division. And that was the 2004 Red Sox (98 to the Yanks' 101), who, A, won the Pennant and World Series anyway, and B, cheated.

Since the AL went to a Divisional setup at all in 1969, the only other times a team has won as many as 97 and not won the Division have been the 1977 Red Sox and Orioles (each 97 to the Yanks' 100), the 1978 Red Sox (99 to the Yanks' 100 due to the Playoff, as referenced above), the 1980 Orioles (100 to the Yanks' 103), and the 1985 Yankees (97 to the Jays' 99). So, not counting the strike-shortened seasons of 1972, '81, '94 and '95, 97 wins has been enough to win the AL East in 31 out of 36 full 162-game seasons -- 86 percent of the time.

Sidelight: Think about that 1978 season for a moment. When it ended on October 1, the Yankees and Red Sox both had 99 wins, necessitating a Playoff to deliver one of them the 100th win. The Milwaukee Brewers (then in the AL) won 93. That's 3 teams in 1 Division with at least 93 wins, which is sometimes enough to win the Division. (Just 4 years later, the Brewers won the Division with 95.) The Orioles finished 4th and still won 90. The Detroit Tigers, then in the East, won 86, not a bad total at all considering they lost 105 just 3 years earlier. So 4 teams won at least 90 and 5 teams won at least 86. In one Division! The Kansas City Royals won the West with "only" 92.

However, if the Yankees do take 4 out of 6 to finish with 97 wins, it won't mean anything if the Rays don't lost 4 out of 7 against the 94-loss Orioles and the 92-loss Royals. That would leave them at 96-66, a game behind the Yankees in this scenario. If the Rays win 4 out of 7, then they win 97, and the Yanks would have to take 5 of 6 to win the Division, as a tie for first would give the Rays the Division due to the facts that, A, The loser of this Division race is guaranteed the Wild Card, thus making a playoff for the Playoffs unnecessary; and B, the Rays won the head-to-head season series.

I still want to win the Division. The Rays are getting too big for their britches, as my Grandma would say. Actually, she might not have agreed: I think she would have liked the way this team plays. They might have reminded her of the 1980s Mets. But she did use that expression all the time.

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Jets last night, in Miami, the city where they won their one and only Super Bowl, and where the Dolphins have spent the last 41 years, more often than not, making them pay dearly for that? Very good. Considering they started the season with a very tough first 3 games, vs. Baltimore, vs. New England and at Miami (which, as I said, has been a tough city to play in for the Jets, even on those rare occasions when the Dolphins haven't been good), 2-1 is nothing to sneeze at. Considering how the Minnesota Vikings have been doing under Brett Favre, I think their only really tough game until Week 13 at New England is going to be in Week 6 at Denver. (That includes a bye in Week 7.) It is not that hard to believe that, going into Foxboro on that occasion, the Jets could be 10-2. Certainly, talent-wise, they should be no worse than 8-4.

Giants yesterday afternoon, at home, against the Tennessee Titans? Very bad. 1-2 is not going to cut it in the NFC East, especially since the Dallas Cowboys got off the deck yesterday and won their first. Tom Coughlin is now Number 3 out of 9 on the Tri-State Area hot seats.

Jerry Manuel of the Mets, clearly, is Number 1. If he is still the Mets' manager on Halloween, we will all be shocked. Including him.

And, at the rate that Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello (who has been allowed, first by the late Dr. John McMullen and now by Jeff Vanderbeek, to pretty much be the de facto owner) goes through head coaches, new hiring John MacLean will always have to look over his shoulder, even if he has the Mulberry Street Marauders in first place in the Patrick -- I mean, Atlantic Division toward the end of the regular season. His status as the franchise's all-time leading goalscorer will not help him as head coach.

MacLean scored 347 goals for the Scarlet & Green, later the Scarlet & Black. Patrik Elias, who has surpassed Johnny Mac as the all-time scoring leader, 754 and counting to 699 due to having a lot more assists, has 314 goals, but is unlikely to surpass him in goals at this stage of his career. Zach Parise has 160, and is likely to surpass MacLean's team record, barring injury, in 2015.

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Curse you, CBS! You put the new Hawaii Five-O on at Mondays at 10:00! Opposite Castle on ABC! How dare you!

As CBS icon (and noted New York Giants fan) Andy Rooney might say, "You know what really gets my goat? Having 2 of your favorite TV shows on at the same time. Did you ever wonder why the networks do that? I have."

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