Sunday, October 29, 2017

A Tribute to My Grandfather, Who Taught Me Love and Baseball

My grandparents moved to Puerto Rico when I was three years old.  After they moved to San Juan, I would only see them for a few weeks at a time when my parents and I would visit them during my summer vacation from school.  Because those trips would coincide with the middle of baseball season, my grandfather would always want to talk to me about the game.

When I was eight years old, I discovered that Abuelo (that's Spanish for "grandfather") was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan.  He, my grandmother and their four children (one of which is my father) moved from the Island of Enchantment to New York in 1947, the same year Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball.  Robinson wasn't the only reason he became a Dodger fan, as 1947 was also the year Gil Hodges and Duke Snider came up to the major leagues to stay.  The Dodgers won the pennant in 1947, making only their second trip to the World Series since 1920.  They would make many more over the next few decades.  Abuelo was hooked for life.

The summer of 1981 was special for both Abuelo and I.  It was the year I became a Mets fan, but it was also the year of Fernandomania.  That summer, when my parents and I went to visit my grandparents in Puerto Rico, the players' strike was nearing its conclusion.  But just because there was no baseball to watch didn't mean there were no baseball stories to share. 

Any time I wanted to talk about Mookie Wilson, my grandfather would remind me that he wasn't as fast as Maury Wills.  (Wills was the first major league player in the modern era to steal 100 bases in a season, swiping 104 bags for the Dodgers in 1962, which was 45 more than the entire Mets team stole in their inaugural season.)  I knew better than to argue with him.

After a few minutes, the conversation would always turn to Fernando Valenzuela, who had taken the country by storm during his rookie season.  Abuelo would normally be in bed by 10 PM every night, but if Valenzuela was pitching and the game just happened to be broadcast on the local television channel, he'd always stay up to watch the game on a 13-inch black and white TV.  He'd keep the volume low so as not to wake my grandmother, telling me that he didn't need to hear the game because Fernando's pitching would tell the story.  In the summer of 1981, he was absolutely right.

I'll always remember talking to him on the phone after the Mets won the World Series in 1986.  He was thrilled that I was finally able to celebrate a championship, but he was also quick to remind me that despite the Mets boasting a pitching staff that included Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling, Bob Ojeda and Sid Fernandez, it was Fernando Valenzuela who led the National League in wins.  (Valenzuela won 21 games for the Dodgers in 1986; his only 20-win campaign in 17 years in the big leagues.)

Oh, Abuelo.  He really loved his Dodgers.

Two years after the Mets won the World Series, they played for the right to appear in another.  But this time it was different.  This time, the Mets were playing the Dodgers for the pennant.  A member of the Leyro family was going to see his favorite team play in the World Series in 1988.  But for that to happen, another member of the Leyro family was going to be disappointed that his team failed to reach the Fall Classic.  It was about as awkward as it was ever going to get between me and Abuelo when it came to our shared love of the national pastime.  In the end, it became one of the most important times in our relationship.

The Dodgers defeated the Mets in the 1988 NLCS, upsetting them in seven games.  The Mets weren't the only ones upset by that result.  The day after Game Seven, the phone rang in our house.  My mother picked it up, spoke for a few seconds, then called me over to the phone.  It was for me, she said.  It was Abuelo.

I thought it was strange that Abuelo would call me.  After all, any time I'd speak to him on the phone, it would be my grandmother who called us and then she'd pass the phone over to Abuelo.  (The men in the Leyro family have never been known as "phone people".)  But this time, my grandfather let his fingers do the walking and he called me directly.  Nearly three decades have passed since this call was made, but I'll never forget that conversation.

Not once did he mention the Dodgers while talking to me.  Nor did he mention the Mets.  Instead, he reminded me that there would be times in life when we'd question why things happened the way they did.  He told me that he once went on a date with a girl when he was 18.  She was his definition of "the perfect girl".  She was smart, beautiful and came from a great family.  He was sure after one date that he was going to marry her.  Two dates later, she decided she didn't want to see him anymore.  He was crushed.

After two years of wondering where he went wrong, he made the acquaintance of another local girl.  Abuelo admitted to me that he wasn't attracted to her at first, but she listened to his story of lost love and gave him words of encouragement.  They continued to talk as friends for nearly a year until he realized something.

He was falling in love.  And this time, the girl he loved felt the same way about him.

The year was 1933.  In 1934, they were married.

When Abuelo finished telling me the story of how he and Abuela met and fell in love, I thanked him for making me smile.  I thought that was the reason he was sharing his story with me, because I was upset that my Mets had lost to his Dodgers and I would need some cheering up.  But that wasn't why he told me the story.  He then went back to the beginning of our conversation, the part where he said there would be times in life when we'd question why things happened the way they did.

For two years, he wondered to himself why the love of his life didn't love him back.  But without that unexpected breakup, he never would have met my grandmother, a woman he would be married to until she passed away in 2001.  He then told me to think about his words and to "never stop believing" before hanging up.

It took me until that evening, but as I was getting ready for bed, it finally hit me.  Abuelo was using his story as an analogy.  I was questioning how the Mets could lose to the Dodgers in the playoffs after defeating them 10 of 11 times during the regular season, just like he had questioned why the girl he loved couldn't reciprocate those feelings for him.  He had to wait two years after suffering through a devastating heartbreak, but in the end, it netted him the love of his life.  Therefore, what Abuelo was telling me was that he knew I was heartbroken because of the Mets' loss to the Dodgers, but before long, they'd be back and I'd love them more than ever.

You know what?  He was right.

Sure, it took 11 years for the Mets to make it back to the postseason, but when they did, they went to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons and made their first trip to the World Series since 1986.  And when they did, Abuelo was the first person who called me to offer a congratulatory message.

Abuelo didn't make it to see the next two Mets/Dodgers postseason matchups in 2006 and 2015, as he passed away five days after his 90th birthday in 2002.  But when the Mets defeated the Dodgers to advance to the NLCS in both campaigns, the first person I thought of was him.  What did I think of?  That he didn't have to feel sad because the team he loved would be back.  And they did, as the Dodgers have won seven division titles in the last ten seasons.  Somewhere in Heaven, I knew Abuelo was smiling.  And now he's probably smiling even more, as the Dodgers are playing for their first World Series title since the year he called me to tell me a story about love and patience.

There is a point to this personal story.  You see, Abuelo was born on October 29, 1912.  That means today would have been his 105th birthday.  He and I never went to a Mets/Dodgers game together, but we didn't have to.  The stories took us there.

When I was eight years old, Abuelo shared his love of the Dodgers with me at the same time I was trying to share my love of the Mets with him.  He never became a Mets fan, just as I never became a Dodgers fan.  But we shared that love of baseball that no rivalry can break.  That love brought us together and provided me with some of my most wonderful childhood memories - memories that I continue to cherish as an adult.

Sometimes we question why things happen the way they do.  I never have to question why I loved my grandfather.  He was the most important man I've ever known.

Happy 105th birthday, Abuelo.  And thank you for always taking me out to the ballgame.

Dedicated to Horacio Leyro (October 29, 1912 - November 3, 2002)

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Joey's Soapbox: My 2017 Not-At-All Biased World Series Pick

Pardon me for being a little distracted.  The Astros are trying to bribe me with food.

What's going on, everyone?  It's me, Joey Beartran.  After nearly a month of watching several opening acts, the band we came to see is finally taking the stage, as the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers will face off in this year's World Series.

As a Mets fan, I'm pleased that the Astros took care of business and got to the good part, eliminating the Yankees in the ALCS.  Of course, with Houston reaching the World Series, that means Carlos Beltran will once again be trying to win his first ring.  (YAY!)  But since he and his teammates are facing the Dodgers, that means Chase Utley is still playing, and that's never something to root for.  (BOO!)

But as you know, my postseason predictions are never biased.  Not at all.  Therefore, when I picked the Astros to win the ALCS, it was because I thought they were a better team than the Yankees (and I was right).  I also chose the Cubs to go back to the World Series because I assumed the Dodgers didn't have what it took to dethrone them (and I was wrong).

And now, I have the difficult decision of trying to figure out if I want the World Series champion to be the team that employs Carlos Beltran, is in search of its first championship and is a lot of fun to watch.  Or will I go with the team that still gives Mets fans nightmares when they think of 1988, is currently paying Utley's salary and kept head cheerleader Curtis Granderson off its World Series roster?

I'm going to be totally professional with this pick.  Just like annoying and predictable Yankee fans and their team's rings, you can count on it!

World Series

Houston Astros vs. Los Angeles Dodgers

In September 2010, the Philadelphia Phillies were on their way to a fourth consecutive N.L. East crown.  The Mets, meanwhile, were just playing out the schedule and trying to avoid having their division rivals clinch that title against them.

In the series opener, Ruben Tejada was upended at second base by Chase Utley, who slid hard and late into the neophyte.  Carlos Beltran, Tejada's teammate at the time, took exception to Utley's act and decided to go eye-for-an-eye, leg-for-a-leg the following day.  After the game, the normally soft-spoken Beltran shared his feelings on what Utley did and his attempt at payback.

"The way Chase Utley slid into second base, I felt like it was time for me to do the same thing he did - slide hard and try to hit somebody," Beltran said.  "He did cross the line.  Not only in that play, he has done things in the past, like blocking bases.  It's okay to play hard.  It's okay to get outs.  Once you try to hurt somebody, that's not fun."

Fast forward five years to 2015.  Beltran is long gone, having played for the Giants, Cardinals and Yankees since his close encounter of the turd kind.  (And by turd, I mean Utley.)  Meanwhile, Utley is now a Dodger and Tejada is still playing the middle infield for the Mets.  The two got reacquainted in October when Los Angeles and New York hooked up in the NLDS.  And five years didn't change Utley's penchant for ordering take out at second base.

As all Mets fans know, Utley broke Tejada's leg with a slide that was harder and more deliberate than the original 2010 model.  Beltran could only watch on television, as his Yankees were eliminated by the Houston Astros in that year's American League wild card game.

Now, Beltran is a member of the Astros, Utley is reading the latest Dodger Blue edition of "How to Get Away With Murdering a Middle Infielder" and Tejada is playing Musical Teams, having played for the Cardinals, Giants, Yankees and Orioles organizations in the two years since his leg fracture.  I wonder which player Tejada is rooting for in this year's World Series...

Seven years after Beltran defended his former Mets teammate and two years after he couldn't do a thing to help his fallen friend, Beltran can finally get the ultimate payback by denying Utley the World Series ring that has eluded Beltran for his entire 20-year career.  And you better believe he's going to go all out to get that ring, even if he has to take out Utley to get it.

Oh, I was supposed to pick a World Series winner, wasn't I?  And it was supposed to be my unbiased opinion as a professional prognosticator, right?  Okay, I can do that.

Houston will find a way to solve Justin Turner and his Dodger colleagues.  The Astros' mostly right-handed hitting lineup will tee off on southpaw Clayton Kershaw, also known as the guy with the most postseason losses in Dodgers history.  Yasiel Puig will go home without flipping his bat once, unless you want to count throwing the bat away in disgust after each time Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander strike him out.  Jose Altuve will be the World Series MVP.  And Carlos Beltran will come off the bench to deliver a key double, one that will require a slide into second base.  The Dodgers better hope Logan Forsythe is starting at second base that night instead of their other second sacker.

Take my unbiased opinion and shove it, Chase Utley.

Prediction: Astros in 7.

Like a knee to the face, the Astros will make things uncomfortable for the Dodgers.  (Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

Friday, October 20, 2017

I'm Keith Hernandez! I Wish Me a Happy Birthday!

Hello, my friends.  I'm Keith Hernandez.  And today is a special day for me.  You see, today is my birthday.  That's right, all you kids out there.  I'm now 64 years old.

In honor of my 64th birthday, the cast and crew at Studious Metsimus asked me to give you a brief recap of my life.  To be honest with you, I've never heard of Studious Metsimus, but the offer of unlimited Tootsie Pops was too much to refuse.  Plus, they promised me there would be no traffic on the Long Island Expressway so I could make a quick getaway after writing this piece.  How could I pass that up?

Anyway, I was born in San Francisco on October 20, 1953.  Contrary to popular belief, I was not born with a mustache.  The picture you see below is one of my early photos.  Yes, the ladies loved me even then.  Can you blame them?  I mean, look at me!  I'm Keith Hernandez!

Unfortunately, I failed in my petition to get my own name on my Little League jersey.

After my days as a Little League Lothario were done, I was drafted in the 42nd round by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1971.  (Yes, I did go to high school between my Little League days and my high school graduation, but that was an awkward time for me, so I'd rather not talk about it.)  Clearly, the scouts back then were terrible judges of talent if they waited that long to draft me.  Unfortunately, I did nothing to earn that selection early on in my minor league career until I was promoted to Triple-A Tulsa in 1973, where I hit .333 and showed those other kids out there how a real baseball player was supposed to play the game.

In 1974, I hit .351 for Tulsa and was promoted to the big show on August 30 of that year against my hometown San Francisco Giants at Candlestick Park.  I reached base three times in my first big league game, drawing two walks before collecting my first big league hit and RBI in the ninth inning off Giants' starter Mike Caldwell.  Unfortunately, we lost that game 8-2, but I let it be known to my teammates and the rest of the league that I was here to stay.

Once I settled in to the big leagues, I made my presence felt in the clubhouse and on the field.  The Cardinals just had to keep me around.  Therefore, they traded incumbent first baseman Joe Torre to the Mets after the 1974 season (more on first basemen being traded to the Mets a little later ... after a few more paragraphs and my first Tootsie Pop).  I was a Cardinal now, and St. Louis was about to see what Keith Hernandez was all about.

It was in St. Louis that I let my trademark mustache grow.  The Gateway City was also where I earned my first Gold Glove in 1978 and my first MVP Award one year later.  (Okay, so it was a co-MVP award that I shared with Willie Stargell.  But in Strat-O-Matic, I kicked Willie's posterior.)  In addition, St. Louis was the place where I claimed my first batting title (also in 1979), my first World Series championship (1982), my first line of... umm ... baseball cards (yeah, that's the ticket) and my first comparison to adult film thespian Ron Jeremy.

If my brother Gary were in this collage, you'd have the original Gary, Keith and Ron.

If you ask me, I don't see the resemblance.   He looks more like Mike Piazza than he does me.  Also, my acting skills are far superior to his.  Was he on "Seinfeld"?  I don't think so.  That was me.  Why did they choose me over him?  Because I'm Keith Hernandez!

Anyway, less than eight months after bringing home St. Louis' first World Series championship since 1967, I experienced one of the saddest days of my life, or so it seemed at the time.  On June 15, 1983, I was traded from the defending world champion Cardinals to the perennial cellar dweller New York Mets.  Shockingly, I wasn't even traded for future Hall of Famers.  I was shipped off to the Mets for Neil Allen, Rick Ownbey (who also celebrates a birthday with me today, but he's four years my junior) and a half-empty box of Tender Vittles.  Even my beloved cat, Hadji, wouldn't be impressed with that transaction.

It was already an insult to me that I was traded to the team known as "Pond Scum" and the "Stems" in St. Louis.  But come on!  Couldn't the Mets have offered some 9 Lives to the Cardinals instead of Tender Vittles?  After all, Morris the Cat was all the rage back then.  I mean, he was the O.G.  (Original Grumpy cat).   I would have accepted a trade for Allen, Ownbey and 9 Lives, not Allen, Ownbey and half-eaten Tender Vittles.  Sheesh!

I guess since the Cardinals already had the Clydesdale Horses, they didn't need another animal in the barn.

Anyway, the Mets didn't do too well after I got traded there.  We finished 68-94 in 1983, but showed some signs of life.  Old punching buddy Darryl Strawberry came up in May and future broadcast colleague R.J. (that's Ron Darling for all you casual Mets fans out there) was called up when rosters expanded in September.

Big Brother didn't come around in 1984 like he was supposed to, but we had our own little Animal Farm at Shea Stadium.  Top pitching prospect Dwight Gooden was called up in 1984 and Davey Johnson became the new Mets manager.  The team responded by going 90-72 and giving the Cubs all they could handle in the N.L. East.  As a result, I was no longer saddened by my trade to New York and only occasionally did I wonder if Whitey Herzog had finished what was left over in the box of Tender Vittles.

After falling short in the N.L. East race again in 1985, we put it all together in 1986.  That was the year I won my second World Series championship and helped bring the first title to Flushing since the Miracle Mets did the same in 1969.  I also paired up with another Ronnie after bringing the trophy home in 1986. 

What?  No Gary?  Fine.  Then we'll just have to make do with Keith and Ron instead.

Just as my tenure with the Mets was coming to an end, I decided I should give acting a try.  I wasn't planning on telling you this, but the Tootsie Pop dangling in front of my face has convinced me to do so.

Did you know that "Seinfeld" was not my first attempt at acting?  Before TV immortality, I wanted to be a movie star.  My time with former actor Ronald Reagan in the White House showed me that if he could be President and a movie star, then I could be a baseball legend and a matinee idol as well, so it was off to Hollywood for me.

I first gave acting a shot when I auditioned for the movie "Major League".  However, it ended up being a bad dream and instead of playing for the Cleveland Indians in the film alongside noted actors Charlie Sheen, Corbin Bernsen, Dennis Haysbert and Wesley Snipes, I ended up playing for the REAL Cleveland Indians, who were not nearly as talented as their counterparts from this past season.  You know, the team that won an A.L. record 22 consecutive games en route to a second straight A.L. Central title.  Needless to say, it was not a good time to be Keith Hernandez.

There's no way I would've let Roger Dorn get away with not diving for ground balls.

I was injured for most of my time in Cleveland.  Because of that, I only played in 45 games for the Indians, batting .200 with one HR and eight RBI.  You know it wasn't a good season when my Studious Metsimus editor reminded me that I had to write out my home run and RBI totals in words (one and eight) instead of numbers (1 and 8).  Needless to say, I retired after the 1990 season and went back home...

...which didn't last long.  In 1992, I appeared on Episode No. 34 of "Seinfeld".  The special one-hour episode, named "The Boyfriend", featured me trying to date Elaine Benes, but not being able to get past first base because I used to smoke back then.  Another subplot involved me being accused of spitting a magic loogie on Kramer and Newman, when in fact it was my former Met teammate, Roger McDowell, whose mouth shot the viscous projectile from the grassy knoll.

"That is one magic loogie."

My appearance on "Seinfeld" in 1992 and my subsequent cameo in the series finale in 1998 parlayed into several broadcasting appearances for the Mets.  When SNY debuted in 2006, I teamed up with former radio play-by-play man Gary Cohen and analyst/former teammate Ron Darling as the new broadcast team for the New York Mets.  My boothmates and I are also part of Gary, Keith and Ron, or GKR for short.  Together, we've raised money for our favorite charities, such as the Cobble Hill Health Center (for Alzheimer's care) and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (hoping to find a cure for Type 1 diabetes).  In addition, we've also focused on helping victims of domestic abuse.  And for all you kids out there, there's nothing funny about domestic abuse.

Fans might know me for my baseball career.  Others might know me for my excellent acting on "Seinfeld".  Some of you might even know me for my Just For Men commercials with Walt "Clyde" Frazier.  Current Met fans certainly know me for my unabashed analysis on SNY telecasts of Mets games.  And now, the rest of the country is getting reacquainted with me as I offer colorful commentary in the FOX Sports/FS1 studio for that network's pre-game and post-game shows.

I'm all of those people.  Although I'm a year older today, I'm still only 64 so I have plenty left to accomplish.  Maybe I'll mass produce my Mex Burgers.  Or perhaps I'll go from flashing the leather to wearing it on a broadcast.  Hey, I might even create a fantasy league for Strat-O-Matic players.  (Why haven't I thought of that before?)  Who knows?  One thing is for sure.  No matter what job I have or what position I fill, I'll always be around.  Why wouldn't I be?  After all, I'm Keith Hernandez!

It's not easy being me, but I wouldn't trade it for the world.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Joey's Soapbox: My 2017 Not-At-All Biased LCS Picks

I feel like I've been here before.  I think the Cubs have been here before, too.

Hey, everyone!  It's just me, Joey Beartran.  And I'm back to tell you what will undoubtedly be the correct World Series matchup.  For about a nanosecond, I thought the Nationals were actually going to join the 1981 Expos as the only team in Montreal/Washington history to win a playoff series in the franchise's 49 seasons of existence, but then I remembered we're talking about the Nationals here.  To paraphrase an old saying, Washington is first in war, first in peace and first to make golf plans when the NLCS is being played.

In the Senior Circuit, we have a rematch of last year's semifinal series, but this time it's the Dodgers who finished the regular season with the best record and home field advantage, while the Cubs will be faced with playing a potential Game Seven on the road.  Over in the American League, the Houston Astros will attempt to become the first team to win pennants in both leagues, but to accomplish that feat, they'll have to defeat the team with the most pennants in history.

Will Los Angeles advance to the Fall Classic for the first time since they defeated the Mets in the 1988 NLCS?  Will Chicago become the first National League team to win consecutive pennants since the 2008-09 Phillies?  Will Houston stay strong all the way to baseball's greatest stage?  Or will that other New York team rise to the occasion?

There are only two ways to find out.  One is actually watching the games, but since they're all taking four-plus hours to play, you'll probably fall asleep before they end.  The easier way is to read my fearless predictions, because you know they're going to be correct.  And they certainly won't be biased.  At all.

American League Championship Series

New York Yankees vs. Houston Astros

In 1986, the Mets defeated Houston to advance to the World Series.  Nine years later, a certain Yankees employee named George Costanza told Astros executives that "no Yankee is ever coming to Houston."  Well, he was right for a little over 20 years.

Video courtesy of YouTube user thejog2k and his television set

The wild card Yankees have already knocked off the overachieving Twins and the underachieving Indians in the postseason to make it this far, while Houston coasted to a division title and made things look easy against the Red Sox in the division series.  The Yankees lost five of seven to the Astros during the regular season, but then again, they also lost five of seven to the Indians before taking three of five from Cleveland in the postseason.

Houston has two aces in its rotation in Dallas Kuechel and Justin Verlander.  Both pitchers have been successful against the Yankees in the postseason, as Kuechel and Verlander have combined to go 3-0 with a 2.83 ERA versus New York in five starts.  If they combine for four solid starts in this series, the Yankees won't be going to the World Series for the 41st time.

Even if the starters are ineffective, the Astros' bats can pick them up.  Jose Altuve, also known as the only player in baseball who's my height, will probably have as many hits in the series as Aaron Judge has strikeouts.  Marwin Gonzalez and Carlos Correa are both .300 hitters with power.  And you can bet former Yankees Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran are going to want to show their former team a thing or two about going far in the postseason.

I promise you I'm not being biased at all, but I'm convinced that not only will Houston defeat the Yankees in this series to advance to the World Series, they'll make it look easy.  As easy as Wally Backman was able to rattle Charlie Kerfeld over three decades ago when the Astros couldn't do to the Mets what they're about to do to the Yankees.

Prediction: Astros in 5.

National League Championship Series

Chicago Cubs vs. Los Angeles Dodgers

This is the Dodgers' fifth trip to the NLCS in the last ten seasons.  They've yet to win four games in any of their previous four appearances.  Meanwhile, the Cubs are making their third consecutive voyage to the NLCS, defeating L.A. last year after being pulverized by the Mets the year before.

Eventually, the Dodgers have to win a pennant, right?  After all, they've been to the World Series a total of 18 times in their proud history.  Well, eventually the Cubs had to win one as well.  And until last year, they went over 70 seasons without a World Series appearance.  The Dodgers can wait a little more before they consider themselves a long-suffering franchise.

Chicago just played a hard-fought series against Washington, eventually prevailing in five games.  Los Angeles made short work of the Arizona Diamondbacks and have been collecting dust waiting for the winner of the Cubs-Nationals series.  All that dust is going to make them cough a little through the early part of their series against the Cubs.

The North Siders pitched beautifully in the division series against the hard-hitting Nats, save for Game Five, when no one on either team could get anyone out.  They'll figure things out against the Dodgers and will take an early lead in the series.  But will they be able to close out the series and advance to defend their World Series title?  As long as they silence Justin Turner in the series (I can't believe I just said that), they shouldn't have a problem against the likes of Austin Barnes, Logan Forsythe and Yasiel Puig, who somehow combined to put a ridiculous .464/.531/.714 slash line in the Arizona series.

Clayton Kershaw isn't starting all seven games for the Dodgers, and even if he did, he'd probably give up another four homers like he did in his one start against the Diamondbacks.  Wait till next year, Dodgers.  Wait till next year.

Prediction: Cubs in 7.

After this NLCS, cubs like us might become Public Enemy No. 1 in Los Angeles.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Joey's Soapbox: My 2017 Not-At-All Biased Division Series Picks

The Indians progressed pretty well over the last month and a half of the season.

Howdy doody!  'Tis I, Joey Beartran, your fearless forecaster of all things playoffs.  And today I'm going to share my opinions on which teams will advance to the League Championship Series.  There are seven great teams to choose from (and the Yankees), but only four will advance (not the Yankees).

In the American League, we have the matchup that could have been a rematch of the 1986 World Series had Mike Scott gotten a chance to pitch in a Game Seven in the NLCS.  We also have the Cleveland Indians and their quest to repeat as league champions for the first time in franchise history.

In the N.L., the Chicago Cubs, who kept the Indians from winning their first title since Scott Atchison was in grade school, will be trying to repeat as world champions.  To do so, they'll have to get through Daniel Murphy, Bryce Harper, 'Ol Two Eyes (Max Scherzer) and the rest of the Washington Nationals.  And the Dodgers will be looking to inch one step closer to their first World Series berth since Mike Scioscia, Kirk Gibson and Orel Hershiser got in the Mets' way of what should have been their pennant.

Who will advance?  Who will go home?  (Spoiler alert: The Yankees)  And how many former members of the 2017 Mets will still be playing when I do my ALCS and NLCS predictions?  Enough with the questions!  On with the predictions!

American League Division Series

Boston Red Sox vs. Houston Astros

The Red Sox have made the playoffs 15 times in the last 32 seasons, yet this is the first time in over a century that they finished the regular season in first place in consecutive campaigns.  (They last accomplished this feat in 1915 and 1916, winning the World Series in both seasons.)  Meanwhile, this is just the Astros' second trip to the postseason in the last 12 years and their 11th overall.

All the experience goes to the Red Sox in this series, and they also have an ace starter (Chris Sale) and a game-over closer in Craig Kimbrel, who allowed 33 hits in 69 innings this season, or about the same number of hits Hansel Robles would give up in a week.

There's only one problem here.  After Sale, Boston's best starter is Drew Pomeranz, who somehow went 17-6 despite averaging barely over 5⅓ innings per start (32 starts, 173⅔ IP).  And manager John Farrell allowed last year's Cy Young Award winner, Rick Porcello, to throw over 200 innings despite the fact that he led the league in hits allowed and home runs given up, not to mention losses.  Since Sale can't pitch more than two games in the series, all Houston has to do is win the games not started by the 300-K southpaw.  You know, like the Mets had to do in '86 when the Astros had Mike Scott.

Challenge accepted.

Houston led the majors in batting average, OBP, slugging percentage, OPS and runs scored.  Only the Yankees hit more home runs than the Astros, but no team struck out fewer times than the A.L. West champions.  The Astros will batter the not-so-killer Ps (Pomeranz, Porcello and playoff pariah David Price) and may even steal a win when Sale starts.

And on a personal note, I'm stoked to see Justin Verlander start against Sale in Game One, especially since I flew to Chicago in 2012 to see then-Tiger Verlander face then-White Sox pitcher Sale, only to have that game rained out.  The Red Sox will be praying for rainouts of their own once the Astros start pummeling their pitchers.

Prediction: Astros in 5.

New York Yankees vs. Cleveland Indians

The Yankees won their first playoff game in five years on Tuesday.  The Cleveland Indians are a team on a mission, winning an American League record 22 straight games last month.  When the Yankees won four World Series titles in five seasons from 1996 to 2000, the only team to defeat them in the postseason was the Indians.

Those Yankee teams were far better than this year's model.  And this Indians club is looking World Serious.

Prediction: Indians in 3.

National League Division Series

Chicago Cubs vs. Washington Nationals

Daniel Murphy will pay homage to Leon Durham at some point.  (Jonathan Newton/Washington Post/Getty Images)

The Cubs finally ended their two-thousand year old championship drought (give or take a couple of years) in 2016, then remained hung over for the first half of the 2017 campaign.  Meanwhile, the Nationals had no real competition in the N.L. East and won the division title by 20 games over the Marlins.

Washington is counting on the three-headed pitching monster of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez to lead the team past the defending champions.  However, Scherzer tweaked his hamstring in his final tuneup last week, Strasburg has pitched all of five postseason innings in his career and Gonzalez has not fared well in four playoff starts, pitching just 18⅓ innings over the mostly abbreviated outings.  (Gio has not thrown a postseason pitch after the fifth inning in any of his four starts.)  If Washington's starters can't go deep in games, the team could be in trouble.  The combined ERAs of all Nationals pitchers not named Scherzer, Strasburg and Gonzalez was a bloated 4.69.

Meanwhile, the Cubs' starters (Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Kyle Hendricks) were mostly pedestrian this year, but their bullpen was absolutely stellar, with Pedro Strop, Brian Duensing, Carl Edwards and closer Wade Davis combining to produce a 2.73 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and just under 11 strikeouts per nine innings.

The Nationals need to keep their starters on the mound to have a chance to win the series.  The Cubs need to keep games close so that their lockdown bullpen can take over.  But of course, the only thing that matters is that by the time this series is over, the Expos will still be the owners of the sole playoff series victory in Montreal/Washington franchise history.

Prediction: Cubs in 4.

Arizona Diamondbacks vs. Los Angeles Dodgers

The Dodgers went through a stretch during the summer when people were talking about them winning more games than any team in major league history.  Then they lost 12 straight games.  It got to the point where Los Angeles actually had to pay attention to what Arizona was doing because the D-Backs had cut their once insurmountable lead in the division to single digit games.  In fact, Arizona won 11 games against L.A. in 2017; the most of any team in the majors.  Included in their season-series victory was a three-game sweep in September in which the Diamondbacks outscored the Dodgers, 19-2.

Los Angeles hit 221 home runs during the regular season, but who didn't?  What didn't impress me was their .249 team batting average, and the only reason it was that high is because Justin Turner batted .322.

Despite making just 27 starts in 2017, Clayton Kershaw allowed a career-high 23 homers.  Now the southpaw has to face the right-handed hitting Paul Goldschmidt (36 HR, 120 RBI) and J.D. Martinez (29 HR, 65 RBI in 62 games with Arizona) in the division series.  And let's just say they're not .249 hitters like Kershaw's teammates on the Dodgers are.  Then there's the matter of that 4-7 record and 4.55 ERA in the postseason for the three-time Cy Young Award winner.

So you have a team that went 26-12 over the last six weeks of the season against a team that was 13-25 over the same time period.  I don't know about you, but I can't go with the team that recently lost a dozen consecutive games.  That 91-36 start seems like a long time ago for the Dodgers.

Prediction: Diamondbacks in 5.

Tom Lasorda might not want to watch what Arizona is going to do to his beloved Dodgers.  (Fox Sports South screen grab)

Monday, October 2, 2017

Joey's Soapbox: My 2017 Not-At-All Biased Wild Card Game Picks

I wonder who I'm picking to win the N.L. Wild Card game.  If only I had a sign to help me...

Hey, how's everybody doing?  I'm playoff prognosticator Joey Beartran and I'm ready for some postseason baseball.  This is the first season since 2014 that the Mets were not invited to the playoff party but many players who called Flushing home at some point in 2017 did receive - and accept - their invitations.

The Indians and Dodgers, owners of the best regular season records in their respective leagues, are bringing Jay Bruce and Curtis Granderson, respectively, to the postseason.  Addison Reed will be coming out of the bullpen for the A.L. East champion Red Sox.  Even Rene Rivera could crack the defending World Series champion Cubs' 25-man postseason roster.

Last year, the Yankees stayed home and the Mets played past their 162nd game.  This year, New York (AL) is hosting the Minnesota Twins in the wild card game and New York (NL) is busy showing off videos of Jacob deGrom's haircut.  Seriously, that's how the Mets are making news this October.  (Well, that and Terry Collins saying adios to Mets fans.)

Say it ain't so, Jake!  (Screen grab courtesy of Jose Reyes' Snapchat)

So since we don't have meaningful Mets baseball games until next March 29, we should probably focus on the wild card games set for Tuesday and Wednesday night.  Will the Yankees win their first postseason game since Zach Lutz was a Met?  Will the Twins finally end their 12-game postseason losing streak?  Will the Rockies ride Chuck Nazty to the division series?  Or will Arizona get their revenge on Colorado for the 2007 NLCS?

There's only one way to know what's going to happen before it happens.  And that's by reading my wild card picks below; picks that are not biased at all.  Trust me.  I'm an expert.

American League Wild Card Game

Minnesota Twins vs. New York Yankees

The Twins have never defeated the Yankees in a postseason series, having dropped the ALDS to the Bronx Bummers in 2003, 2004, 2009 and 2010.  More recently, New York won all three games played against Minnesota at Yankee Stadium in 2017.  And to make matters worse for the Twins, their starting pitcher for the wild card game - Ervin Santana - has an 0-5 record with a 6.43 ERA in six career starts at the new House That Juice Built.

For the Yankees, starting pitcher Luis Severino struck out 230 batters during the regular season, which was tied for the third-highest total in Yankees history.  In addition, his 153 ERA+ made him the first Yankees starting pitcher to register an ERA+ over 150 since David Cone had a 159 ERA+ in 1997.

I heart Bart.  (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
The Yankees go into the postseason on a roll, having won 21 of their last 30 games.  The Twins were a .500 team in September, going 14-14 in the month.  New York has ten-foot tall Aaron Judge clubbing everything out of sight.  Minnesota's top home run hitter is Brian Dozier, who's half the size of Judge and hit 18 fewer homers.  Everything seems to be coming up Yankees in this game, right?


Santana wins his first game at the new Yankee Stadium, Miguel Sanó does his best David Ortiz impression (but from the right side of the plate) and Bartolo Colón's career lives to see another round.

Prediction: Minnesota will advance to the ALDS.

National League Wild Card Game

Colorado Rockies vs. Arizona Diamondbacks

Both Colorado and Arizona reversed their fortunes in 2017.  Literally.  The Rockies improved their record from 75-87 to 87-75, while the D-Backs went from 69-93 to 93-69.  But neither team came within striking distance of the first place Dodgers, necessitating this one-game face-off for the right to be swept by Justin Turner and Friends.

Last year, the Mets played in this game and ran into a buzzsaw on the mound in Madison Bumgarner.  This season, Jon Gray and Zack Greinke will try to be this year's Bumgarner.  It's too bad both pitchers will fail, as this game will be a Wild West shootout.

Gray will have to control the bats of Paul Goldschmidt and J.D. Martinez.  It will not go smoothly.  Greinke, on the other hand, will be staring down Nolan Arenado and batting champion Charlie Blackmon, among others.  Because of his reputation, Greinke will be left in the game a little too long.  Like five or six runs on the scoreboard too long.

Arizona may have finished ahead of Colorado in the standings, but the Rockies will finish ahead of the Diamondbacks in this game.  And if Arizona ordered a large number of churro dogs in anticipation of a lengthy postseason run, I know someone who can help them reduce their inventory.

Prediction: Colorado will advance to the NLDS.