Don’t know if we expected an AL East race like this, but it’s been a pretty exciting journey so far and we may not know the outcome until the final weekend of the season, when Boston hosts Toronto and Baltimore visits New York.
Kudos to the schedule-makers if they had this in mind, because the rest of the schedule has been a train wreck. All three contenders — Baltimore, Boston, and Toronto — have reason to gripe about how demanding the schedule has been on the players both mentally and physically, but of the three, the Red Sox have the biggest gripe.
We understand there are a lot of factors that go into a schedule, but for the Red Sox to have such a lopsided number of games on the road in August and September, including a West Coast trip, is absurd. If the Red Sox emerge as winners in the AL East, they will have deserved it. There’ll be no cries of backing in, for sure.
The constant back and forth between the Blue Jays, Red Sox, and Orioles has been edge-of-your-seat type stuff. All three teams are compelling and flawed, and all three will make the playoffs if they can fend off Detroit and Houston.
None of the AL East contenders wants to play one another in the dreaded one-game wild-card playoff. The league really needs to take a closer look at that sudden-death format. While we understand why it’s liked for its high drama, the fairness of it has to come into question.
Teams spend valuable resources to make themselves better. They make deals, acquire players that change their teams. They add payroll, they shuffle pitchers in and out of the rotation and the bullpen, and for what? One game? Make the wild-card playoff a three-game series, and nobody would gripe. Having to win two games to continue is much more fair than a one-and-done scenario.
So the Red Sox, Blue Jays, and Orioles will fight it out. There’s plenty of head-to-head competition for all three teams to control their own destinies. But they may not be able to set up their rotations for the playoffs.
Given the closeness of everything, they may have to pitch one of their best guys on less rest and see how that works out.
So how do Toronto, Boston, and Baltimore compare as we enter the final four weeks?
Since Aug. 1, Toronto’s bullpen has a 3.38 ERA, second in the AL East to Tampa Bay (2.95). Boston is fourth at 4.70 and Baltimore is surprisingly fifth at 6.43.
If you focus solely on the eighth inning, Toronto has a 2.30 ERA to Baltimore’s 5.79 and Boston’s 6.35.
The bullpen could derail the Red Sox. The hope is that Koji Uehara can return to full-time duty on this road trip and provide an eighth-inning alternative, because that’s where the problem has been. Craig Kimbrel has been excellent in the closing role, but there are too many cries to use Kimbrel for four outs, and that shouldn’t happen too often with a guy who returned from knee surgery after just three weeks.
Of the three contenders, the Orioles are dealing with the most injuries to significant players — Adam Jones (who returned to the lineup Friday), Darren O’Day, Chris Tillman, and Joey Rickard. They’ve been buoyed by good turns from Ubaldo Jimenez and Wade Miley, and GM Dan Duquette acquired Drew Stubbs on waivers and traded for Michael Bourn.
“No one is going to feel sorry for you when they get through playing the anthem. Our fans have high expectations, and that’s what I want them to have,” manager Buck Showalter told reporters last week.
The Blue Jays have had the best pitching in the AL this season, with a formidable rotation of 17-game winner J.A. Happ, Marco Estrada, Marcus Stroman, and young flamethrower Aaron Sanchez.
The Red Sox can throw David Price, Rick Porcello, and Drew Pomeranz as a front three. The Orioles have Tillman (when he returns), Kevin Gausman, and Dylan Bundy. So all three teams have a front three that can shut you down.
The Red Sox have had the top offense all season. They’ve hit a tough spot at third base with Travis Shaw and Aaron Hill not producing. We will see if Yoan Moncada can perhaps fill that role or at least contribute to it.
Since Aug. 1, the Red Sox have a division-leading .276 average, but their 38 home runs are last. But with runners in scoring position, the Red Sox have a division-leading .301 average and 104 RBIs. The Jays are fourth at .252 but have 47 homers, second in the division to the Orioles, who have hit 55 homers but are last with a .250 average.
The Jays have hit .247 with runners in scoring position, which is fourth in the division since Aug. 1. Their 65 RBIs in RISP situations are also last. The Orioles have hit .283 with runners in scoring position, but their 76 RBIs are fourth.
As for the schedule, the Red Sox will have spent the most time on the road in September/October — 19 of 29 games. The Orioles play 15 of their last 29 games on the road. The Blue Jays play 16 of their last 29 on the road (including a West Coast trip to Seattle and Anaheim).
The Red Sox have a .264 road average, 29 points better than Toronto and 10 points better than Baltimore. Their 81 homers are 15 fewer than Baltimore and 20 fewer than Toronto.
The Jays have the best road ERA of 3.51 and opposing hitters are batting .238. The Red Sox have a 3.96 ERA and opposing hitters are batting .237. The Orioles have a 4.93 ERA and opposing batters are hitting .267.
The three teams have two series apiece against the spoiler Yankees. The Blue Jays are 9-3 vs. the Yankees with a .203 opponents’ average and 2.63 ERA. The Red Sox are 7-5 with a .232 opponents’ average and 3.86 ERA, and the Orioles are 6-7 with a 4.94 ERA, plus a .286 opponents’ average and 14 homers allowed.
What does it all mean? All we know is we couldn’t have asked for a better ending.
Weaver always quick with quip
Ken Nigro, an adviser to the Red Sox, was one of an outstanding troika of reporters who covered Earl Weaver’s Orioles. Dan Shaughnessy of the Globe and Peter Pascarelli of ESPN were the others.
To this day, the threesome often talk about what it was like covering one of the game’s most colorful managers.
Nigro recently jotted down some memorable Weaverisms. While you’re reading, imagine a major league manager saying these things today.
“Outfielder Pat Kelly was a very religious man and one day in spring training he poked his head in the manager’s office and said, ‘Skip, you got to walk with the Lord.’ And Earl shot back immediately, ‘I’d rather you walk with the bases loaded.’ ”
“Al Bumbry got hurt and was going to be out of the lineup for quite a while. I recall asking Earl what he was going to do without Bumbry. I asked it two or three days in a row. Finally Earl turned to me and said, ‘Don’t ask me about him again. As far as I’m concerned he’s dead. I only deal with the living.’ I realized as I walked away what Earl meant. If you’re a manager, you should not concern yourself with those players on the disabled list.”
“Weaver smoked so much back in those days that he had a small pocket sewn inside of his jersey, so he could place a pack of cigarettes in there. He would often sneak back into the runway to the clubhouse to take a puff or two during the game. And he smoked the most when relief pitcher Don Stanhouse came into the game. Stanhouse would usually work his way out of trouble, but almost always left two or three runners on base. After the game, Earl would wipe his brow and refer to Stanhouse as ‘Full Pack.’ In other words, he made Earl smoke a full pack.”
“I forget which pitcher it was, but one of them complained to Earl about not getting enough chances. Weaver turned to him and said, ‘I gave you more chances than my first wife.’ ”
“I recall one September at Fenway Park. The teams could carry more players and here is the incredibly brilliant thing Earl did one game. He had Royle Stillman (a good hitter) leading off. Then, when the Orioles took the field in the bottom of the first, Mark Belanger (a great fielder, but not a very good hitter) went out to play shortstop.”
“Earl was easily the best manager around when it came to dealing with the media. He always had something to say, win or lose. And he did, what I still regard as, a world famous thing on a road trip to Seattle. He realized that with the three-hour time difference, the reporters were going to have a hard time coming down to the clubhouse for a postgame interview because of the tight deadline. So he said, ‘OK, here is what I’ll say if we win and here is what I’ll say if we lose.’ And he proceeded to give us quotes. Unbelievable.”
Apropos of nothing
1. Dustin Pedroia has the best average in baseball on Thursdays — .464 (26 for 56). Of course, the Red Sox were off this past Thursday.
2. According to MLB.com Statcast, Billy Hamilton of the Reds is the fastest player from home to first with an average time of 3.93 seconds. Amazingly, 42-year-old Ichiro Suzuki of the Marlins has the fifth-fastest average at 4.03. Ichiro, by the way, has a $2 million option that the Marlins are expected to pick up.
3. It’s amazing the number of people who blame John Farrell or Dave Dombrowski for the failures of the Red Sox bullpen. Does anybody ever blame the people who actually serve up the meatballs?
4. The Astros were only one game out of the wild card entering Friday, but their schedule over the next couple of weeks may keep them out of the playoffs. Following their three-game set at Texas this weekend, they have four games at the Indians, three games vs. the Cubs, then three more vs. the Rangers.
5. The greatest, Peter Gammons, informs me he’s on the upswing after a recent illness floored him for a few weeks.
6. There are going to be serious attempts by Cubs players and executives to change David Ross’s mind about retiring.
7. One of the unsung MVPs of the Red Sox is groundskeeper Dave Mellor, who has been able to keep the Fenway lawn beautiful amid concerts that damage the field badly. “I welcome the challenges of concerts and extra events. I’m very proud of the grounds crew’s hard work and attention to details for taking on the challenges of the concerts. Our first priority is to always provide a safe and playable field,” Mellor said. Jackie Bradley Jr. seemed to trip over a spot in center field a couple of weeks ago, but that was more of a fluke than a bad spot on the field.
Updates on nine
1. Jason McLeod, assistant GM, Cubs — Given the Cubs’ success and McLeod’s outstanding draft record, it’s apparent the search firm hired to find qualified candidates for the Twins’ GM job will spit out McLeod’s name. McLeod did not respond to questioning on whether he would accept such a job at this time. In our last interview with McLeod, he expressed a desire to stay in Chicago to be close to his children and finish off the business of winning a championship. The Twins may also hire a president of baseball operations. Suffice to say, the running of the Twins, one of the more traditional teams in the league, will never be the same.
2. Rich Hill, LHP, Dodgers — It took a while for Hill to get back on the mound after his blister issues, but now that he’s back, the Dodgers are in love. They would like to re-sign Hill to a multiyear deal before he becomes a free agent this winter.
3. Ben Cherington, former GM, Red Sox — Cherington will also likely be a candidate for the Twins’ job. A year later, Cherington’s moves in Boston look much different. Among them, acquiring Rick Porcello for Yoenis Cespedes; not trading his top prospects for Cole Hamels (who has been excellent in Texas); signing Hanley Ramirez, who has worked out at first base and at the plate (though the left field experiment was a failure); the signing of Yoan Moncada; and the drafting of Andrew Benintendi.
4. Chris Colabello, OF, Blue Jays — He has scuffled at Triple A Buffalo (.186 average, .302 slugging in 37 games) and hasn’t had a sniff of getting back with the Jays after his 80-game suspension for a positive PED test. Colabello is not eligible for the playoffs because of the suspension. With Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion scheduled to be free agents, an opportunity could still exist for Colabello in Toronto.
5. Desmond Jennings, OF, free agent — You never thought Jennings would be released by a team given his skills, but leg and knee injuries really caused a steady and noticeable decline in his play. Can a player who hasn’t yet reached 30 years old get it back? That’s the hope Jennings has. A few teams looked into signing him, but it was obvious he wouldn’t be able to help anyone. Perhaps an offseason of rehab will get him back on some teams’ radar.
6. Carl Crawford, OF, free agent — A person who knows Crawford thinks he’ll give baseball another go next season. Crawford, cut by the Dodgers in June, is still being paid $21.8 million next season, the final year of that enormous contract that Theo Epstein negotiated with him as a Red Sox. Crawford is expected to focus on Tampa Bay and Houston (his hometown) as possible destinations.
7. Rusney Castillo, OF, Red Sox — The Red Sox will likely try to move Castillo in the offseason even though their attempts this year have failed, just as the Dodgers have had no takers on Yasiel Puig. Castillo is off the Red Sox’ 40-man roster and remains in limbo along with Allen Craig.
8. Tony La Russa, chief baseball officer, Diamondbacks — That there are rumors about whether La Russa keeps his job in Arizona is amazing. The only thing you need to contemplate is this: Who didn’t think the moves made by the D-Backs were good? Not many. What happened with injuries, especially to A.J. Pollock and Zack Greinke, sunk this team from the start. The fact that Shelby Miller stunk was a complete surprise. Again, nobody thought acquiring Miller from the Braves was a bad move.
9. Pablo Sandoval, 3B, Red Sox — Travis Shaw’s extended slump has given Sandoval an opening to get his old job back. The fact he looked 15-20 pounds lighter last week in Tampa was positive, but the big test will be how he looks next spring training when he reports fully healthy and ready to play again.
From the Bill Chuck files: “Four Red Sox have had hitting streaks of at least 29 games. Here is the final batting average for the season in which they had the streak: Dom DiMaggio, 1949, 34 games — .307; Nomar Garciaparra, 1997, 30 games — .306; Johnny Damon, 2005, 29 games — .316; Jackie Bradley Jr., 2016, 29 games, — .273, as of Sept. 1.” . . . Happy birthday, Sun-Woo Kim (39), Bobby Guindon (73), and Ken Harrelson (75).