Nation STATion: Peaks and Valleys


Nation STATion: Peaks and Valleys

By Bill Chuck
Special to

The baseball season is often described as a marathon, not a dash. But I see it as a long, 162-game game journey that starts with preparation in the March Florida sun, and ends in the cool evenings of September, with the ultimate destination being the Promised Land of postseason baseball in October. With that in mind, I would love to see a topographical map of the 2011 Red Sox season.

I can picture the climb up the mountain in April, as the team began below sea level (or C level for you academics) until they arrived at the top of Mt. Aleast (that is AL East, in case you dont recognize my fantasy mountain), viewing out on the rest of the baseball world. Then came the long descent of September deep into the valley (reminiscent of the quote, Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil empire, especially when they dont play their full starting lineup.) Finally, last night, as the team was about to step off the precipice, the bullpen and Jacoby Ellsbury enabled them to remain on terra firma.

But thats just the big picture. The journey of the season began on the wrong path, in the Red Sox famous 0-6 beginning, which, after this month, almost feels like the good old days. Really the farthest underwater this team went was on April 15 when they were at 2-10 after a loss to Toronto. But things started improving from that point on. After a few false steps, the team finally reached level ground, also known as the .500 mark, on May 15 when they finished off a three-game sweep of the Yankees. They stood at 20-20 on that date. I want to remind you that from that point on, the Sox and the Tigers, who everybody feels really good about, have played at virtually the same level. Boston is 69-50 and Detroit is 70-49.

Returning to our map, by the time the Sox completed that first ascent from the muck and mire of below .500, they put together a seven-game winning streak and they were on their way to the scenic route where they could begin to look down on the rest of baseball. One of the great breaks the Sox had on this journey was that neither New York nor Tampa had gotten off to a particularly great start either. Even as Boston was underwater, they were never further than five games out of first. That May day when they reached the .500 mark, the Yanks were only 20-18 and Tampa was 23-17. The Indians were 24-13 on May 15 (they are 56-66 since).

Their climb to the top of Mt. Aleast took 50 games. On May 26, they defeated Detroit and, at 28-22, they were in a virtual tie for first with the Yanks. And they kept working their way above .500. These intrepid travelers were becoming an A-team. By game 65 on June 12, the team had won a season high nine games in a row and were 39-26 overall.

Okay, take off your backpacks for a moment and as we enjoy the view; I want to give you a little perspective. Yes, the Sox were in first place at this point, with a game-and-a-half lead, but our memory is a weird tool. It can remember some things perfectly well, but can also distort others just as well. Perhaps it is the thin air you breathe at the high level of great success that may make you a little lightheaded and not enable you to think or remember clearly, but let me set the record straight: Even after the Sox went 16-9 in June and 20-6 in July, at a time when they were called the greatest team in baseball, they never had a first place lead larger than three games. Yes, I know we are talking now about the diminution of their Wild Card lead, but it is important to understand they never pulled away from the pack (read that as the Yankees) to have breathing room.

Along the 2011 Red Sox season, there are a number of key dates. We have discussed reaching .500, and moving into first place, but for me June 16 is a critical point on the map. On that date, the Sox beat the Rays, 4-2. They were in first place with a game and a half lead. Clay Buchholz earned the win going five innings. Thats the last time he pitched this season. It was exactly one month since Daisuke Matsuzaka last pitched before Boston lost him for the season. That May 16 date, to me, wasnt as significant because I regarded that as addition by subtraction. But on June 16, to lose not only another 20 of your starting five, but also to lose one of the big three of Beckett, Lester, and Buchholz, became a milestone moment on this journey. But there were six weeks to go until the trading deadline; surely the Sox would add another starter beyond the caliber of Erik Bedard. They didnt and dont call me Shirley.

It was also significant because the next day, the Sox' map led them to distant lands: the National League. This proved treacherous because of the one dimensional skill of David Ortiz (I dont regarded home run preening as a skill). Big Papi can hit. He can hit with the best of the designated hitters in MLB history. But while the Sox played eight games in a row in NL parks from June 24 to July 3 and went 5-3 (Pittsburgh and Houston helped), Ortiz came to the plate just 13 times and went 0-for-11. By the time interleague play was over, the lead again was a game and a half, but this time it was held by NY as Boston was back in second place. By the way, they led Tampa by just 2.5.

With the July 31 trading deadline approaching, on July 27 the team had reached its highest peak to date. They were 26 games over .500 at 64-38, and for the third time in three days held a three game lead over the Yankees in the division. In the Wild Card hunt, their lead was 8.5 over the Angels and 11.5 over the Rays. And John Lackey had just won his fourth straight start. All was good, but we know now that what the front office and Red Sox Nation was seeing was actually a mirage.

But it took a little over a month before the vision became clear.

The highest peak of the season was reached on August 31, when Beckett and company defeated the Yankees (again), 9-5. They were 31 games over .500 and in first place by a game and a half over New York, leading Tampa Bay by nine games in the Wild Card race. It was time for the final leg of the journey. There was just a month to go to reach the Promised Land: the postseason. This should be so much fun, well even bring the kids along. What could go wrong?

In game 137, on September 2, the Sox lost to Texas, 10-0. You can see it as just another loss, just their second in a row, or you can look back and notice that less than a week before they had lost to Oakland, 15-5. Two losses in a week by 10 runs each is not a good indicator. Their largest losses of the season were way back in April and early May, each by 11 runs, ironically by the two teams that are chasing them now, the Rays and the Angels. But that was then. This was September and the Sox were a mere half-game out of first place and 9.5 up in the Wild Card.

But we know what happened: potholes, mudslides, and alligators biting butts. The map never showed how dangerous traversing the land could be. It got so bad that last night, in the Yankee Stadium darkness, they were just one step from stepping into the abyss of being tied for the Wild Card with three games left. But the Yanks brought in Scott Proctor, who is a one-run-worse-per-game pitcher than John Lackey (7.41 to 6.41) and, between him and Jacoby, the night had a happy ending.

Maybe this long 2011 journey can have a happy ending as well. The homer last night might prove to be the impetus to help this team unload the baggage it has been carrying and reach its destiny. Im referring to the postseason, not Baltimore. Maybe they have peaks ahead, maybe they have valleyed-out. Maybe they stop singing Paul Simons Slip Slidin Away and start singing the Grateful Deads Truckin because, as Jerome Garcia and the boys sang, Lately it occurs to me, what a long, strange trip it's been.

McAdam: World Series win could clear path to Cooperstown for Epstein or Francona


McAdam: World Series win could clear path to Cooperstown for Epstein or Francona

Sometime over the next 10 or so days, either the Chicago Cubs or Cleveland Indians will win the 2016 World Series.

Naturally, that will mean one of baseball's two longest-suffering franchises will end their championship drought. Either the Cubs will win their first title since 1908, or the Indians will win for the first time since 1948.

That alone should make for an epic World Series.

But there's another bit of history at stake, too - one of legacies.

In addition to the great discomfort felt by Red Sox ownership -- which fired the manager of one participating team and was seemingly happy to hold the door open for the exit of an executive now running the other - it will also almost certainly result, eventually, in either Terry Francona or Theo Epstein being enshrined into the Hall of Fame.

Epstein would go down as the architect who helped two star-crossed franchises win titles - the Red Sox in 2004, and the Cubs this fall.

The Red Sox went 86 years between championships; the Cubs would be ending a run of futility that stretched across 108 seasons.

That would provide Epstein with an unmatched resume when it comes to degree of difficulty. It's one thing to win it all; it's another altogether to do so with the Sox and Cubs, two clubs, until Epstein's arrival, linked in ignominy.

Epstein could become only the fourth GM in modern history win a World Series in both leagues. Frank Cashen (Orioles and Mets); John Schuerholz (Royals and Braves) and Pat Gillick (Blue Jays and Phillies).

He would also join a short list of executives who have won three rings, a list that includes contemporaries Brian Cashman and Brian Sabean.

Of course, Epstein can't claim to have constructed the entire Cubs roster, no more than he could have done when the Red Sox won in '04.

In Boston, Epstein inherited key players such as Manny Ramirez, Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek. Similarly, Javier Baez and Willson Contreras pre-date Epstein's arrival on the North Side.

But Epstein is responsible for nearly the remainder of the roster, and hiring manager Joe Maddon, the coaching staff and most of the Baseball Operations staff, including GM Jed Hoyer and scouting director Jason McLeod.

Francona's influence on the Indians is just as obvious.

Hired in late 2012 after spending a year in the ESPN broadcast booth, he inherited a team which had suffered through four straight losing seasons. In the five previous years before Francona's hiring, the Indians averaged just over 72 wins per season.

Since his arrival, the Indians have posted four straight winning seasons, with two playoff appearances, while averaging 88 wins per season.

It hasn't seemed to matter to the Indians that they've been without two of their three best starters (Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco) this postseason or arguably, their best offensive player for all but 11 games this season (Michael Brantley).

The Indians don't make excuses for injuries, or bemoan their modest payroll. Under Francona, they just win.

This postseason, he's made up for the absences in the rotation by masterfully utilizing reliever Andrew Miller anywhere from the fifth to the ninth inning.

A third World Series would put Francona in similarly rare company. Only 10 managers have won three or more World Series and just six have done so since World War 2 - Walter Alston, Joe Torre, Tony La Russa, Bruce Bochy Sparky Anderson and Casey Stengel.

The individual accomplishments of Epstein and Francona won't take center stage this week and next -- that attention will, rightly, go to their respective beleaguered franchises.

But the subtext shouldn't be overlooked. Once the partying and the parades come to an end, a path to Cooperstown for either the winning manager or winning president of baseball operations can be cleared.


NLCS: Cubs eliminate Dodgers, reach Series for first time since 1945


NLCS: Cubs eliminate Dodgers, reach Series for first time since 1945

CHICAGO -- Cursed by a Billy Goat, bedeviled by Bartman and crushed by decades of disappointment, the Chicago Cubs are at long last headed back to the World Series.

Kyle Hendricks outpitched Clayton KershawAnthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras homered early and the Cubs won their first pennant since 1945, beating the Los Angeles Dodgers 5-0 Saturday night in Game 6 of the NL Championship Series.

The drought ended when closer Aroldis Chapman got Yasiel Puig to ground into a double play, setting off a wild celebration inside Wrigley Field, outside the ballpark and all over the city.

Seeking their first crown since 1908, manager Joe Maddon's team opens the World Series at Cleveland on Tuesday night. The Indians haven't won it all since 1948 - Cleveland and Cubs have the two longest title waits in the majors.

"This city deserves it so much," Rizzo said. "We got four more big ones to go, but we're going to enjoy this. We're going to the World Series. I can't even believe that."

All-everything Javier Baez and pitcher Jon Lester shared the NLCS MVP. Baez hit .318, drove in five runs and made several sharp plays at second base. Lester, a former World Series champion in Boston, was 1-0 with a 1.38 ERA in two starts against the Dodgers.

Deemed World Series favorites since opening day, the Cubs topped the majors with 103 wins to win the NL Central, then beat the Giants and Dodgers in the playoffs.

The Cubs overcame a 2-1 deficit against the Dodgers and won their 17th pennant. They had not earned a World Series trip since winning a doubleheader opener 4-3 at Pittsburgh on Sept. 29, 1945, to clinch the pennant on the next-to-last day of the season.

The eternal "wait till next year" is over. No more dwelling on a history of failure - the future is now.

"We're too young. We don't care about it," star slugger Kris Bryant said. "We don't look into it. This is a new team, this is a completely different time of our lives. We're enjoying it and our work's just getting started."

Hendricks pitched two-hit ball for 7 1/3 innings. Chapman took over and closed with hitless relief, then threw both arms in the air as he was mobbed by teammates and coaches.

The crowd joined in, chanting and serenading their team.

"Chicago!" shouted popular backup catcher David Ross.

The Cubs shook off back-to-back shutout losses earlier in this series by pounding the Dodgers for 23 runs to win the final three games.

And they were in no way overwhelmed by the moment on Saturday, putting aside previous frustration.

In 1945, the Billy Goat Curse supposedly began when a tavern owner wasn't allowed to bring his goat to Wrigley. In 2003, the Cubs lost the final three games of the NLCS to Florida, punctuated with a Game 6 defeat when fan Steve Bartman deflected a foul ball.

Even as recently as 2012, the Cubs lost 101 times.

This time, no such ill luck.

Bryant had an RBI single and scored in a two-run first. Dexter Fowler added two hits, drove in a run and scored one.

Contreras led off the fourth with a homer. Rizzo continued his resurgence with a solo drive in the fifth.

That was plenty for Hendricks, the major league ERA leader.

Hendricks left to a standing ovation after Josh Reddick singled with one out in the eighth. The only other hit Hendricks allowed was a single by Andrew Toles on the game's first pitch.

Kershaw, dominant in Game 2 shutout, gave up five runs and seven hits before being lifted for a pinch hitter in the sixth. He fell to 4-7 in the postseason.

The Dodgers haven't been to the World Series since winning in 1988.

Pitching on five days' rest, the three-time NL Cy Young Award winner threw 30 pitches in the first. Fowler led off with a double, and Bryant's single had the crowd shaking the 102-year-old ballpark.

They had more to cheer when left fielder Andrew Toles dropped Rizzo's fly, putting runners on second and third, and Ben Zobrist made it 2-0 a sacrifice fly.

The Cubs added a run in the second when Addison Russell doubled to deep left and scored on a two-out single by Fowler.


Maddon benched slumping right fielder Jason Heyward in favor of Albert Almora Jr.

"Kershaw's pitching, so I wanted to get one more right-handed bat in the lineup, and also with Albert I don't feel like we're losing anything on defense," Maddon said. "I know Jason's a Gold Glover, but I think Albert, given an opportunity to play often enough would be considered a Gold Glove-caliber outfielder, too."

Heyward was 2 for 28 in the playoffs - 1 for 16 in the NLCS.


Kerry Wood, wearing a Ron Santo jersey, threw out the first pitch and actor Jim Belushi delivered the "Play Ball!" call before the game. Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder and actor John Cusack were also in attendance. And Bulls great Scottie Pippen led the seventh-inning stretch.