The Warning Track: A Year of Resurgence

The Warning Track is a blog that covers all things Major League Baseball on a weekly basis, from discussing why some teams are getting hot, who’s in line for awards at season’s end and who is getting ready to make the leap to contender status, as well as off-the-field issues like first-time Commissioner Rob Manfred, which players could be headed to new homes, and A-Rod’s latest conundrum. 

If you have anything MLB-related that you would like to see discussed in the upcoming edition of The Warning Track, or have any comments at all, you may suggest/comment/rant/agree/disagree/tell me I know nothing about baseball at any time on Twitter @RealDavidLynch. 

 

The 2015 major league baseball campaign has been, thus far, dominated by surprising individual performances. Bryce Harper is finally doing what everyone in Washington expected him to do. Shelby Miller has pitched his way into the Cy Young discussion. A-Rod is etching his name into more pages of the records books. And Kershaw hasn’t been Kershaw thus far.

With all the fanfare surrounding individual players, whether for better or for worse, it’s easy to overlook the status of whole ballclubs, some of which are giving their fans new faith after years of holding the position as cellar-dwellar, lending a whole new dimension to a sport that prides itself on parity in the process.

 

Houston Astros

The Astros – who have averaged a 69-93 regular season record since they got swept in the 2005 World Series – have the best record in the American League at 30-18, second-best in the bigs only to St. Louis.

Read that sentence again. Take a deep breath, maybe two. It’s okay, everyone else it just as shocked as you are. Led by AL Cy Young contender Dallas Keuchel (6-1, 1.98 ERA) and hit machine Jose Altuve (.299 batting average, AL-leading 15 swiped bags), the Astros are coming into their own as a team that is completely defying all expectations – which, admittedly, were minimal – and becoming legitimate threats for the AL West crown.

It’s one thing to have brushed the 2015 Astros off as a team that is simply hot for the time being, but it’s nearing the end of May, and they have yet to lose more than three games in a row.

They embarked on a ten-game winning streak from late April to early May to make a statement, and so far they have justified it, as they are one of only five ballclubs in the major leagues (and only one of two in the American League) to have a winning record both on the road (15-8) and at home (15-10).

That being said, it’s time to take the Astros seriously, something I thought was still a couple years away from happening. They’re proving me and many others wrong, and the sport is all the better for it.

And when you take into account the youth that is energizing the team – Altuve is 25, George Springer 25, Luis Valbuena 29, Keuchel 27 – as well as the fact that Carlos Correa and Mark Appel (the 2nd- and 28th-ranked MLB prospects, according to minor league baseball’s Prospect Watch) have yet to arrive, maybe it’s time we settle in and enjoy this team, because their time might just be right now, and it might just last for the better part of the next decade.

 

 

Minnesota Twins

The Twins haven’t won more than 70 games in a season since 2010, when they were swept in the division series for the second consecutive year. They have’t advanced passed that round since 2002, where they lost in the ALCS 4 games to 1.

They’ve set a benchmark for futility and irrelevance for baseball, but lately they’ve been looking like a team ready to forget all of that history, to the tune of an 8-2 record in their last ten games and a 28-18 mark overall.

That’s good enough to tie them for first in an ultra-competitive AL Central division, where the Royals, Twins and Tigers are all separated by just 1.5 games.

But the Twins are the hottest of those three, as well as one of the hottest clubs in all of baseball, having not lost a series in over two weeks and outscoring opponents 27-11 on a current five-game winning streak.

These are the Twins, mind you. It’s been a long long time since they’ve been this intimidating. But they are, and the return of Torii Hunter, who spent his first ten big league season in Minnesota, is a big reason why. He’s 29 RBI and 7 dingers to go along with a .280/.333/.457 line. In addition, their pitching has improved by leaps and bounds this season. An AL-worst 4.57 team ERA from 2014 has undergone a seemingly impossible evolution in 2015, where they now sport a 3.94 team ERA.

They’ve also already won half as many extra-inning games this seasons as they did in all of 2014 (3-1 versus 6-7), showing that they have a newfound resilience to churning out victories.

Time will tell if the Twins can live up to the new expectations they’ve set for themselves, expectations they know they’re capable of. It isn’t the most common thing in baseball for a team to go from worst to first as the Twins are gunning to do this season, but at the very least, for the time being, it makes for a good story, and one that might be worth revisiting in the coming weeks and months.

 

Chicago Cubs

Unlike the Astros and Twins, the Cubs entered 2015 with expectations as high as a ball hit off the bat of Nelson Cruz, looking to end over a century of disappointment.

Although they’ve been inconsistent at time, they will have a record over .500 once the calendar flips to June – they are 25-21 entering play today – which for the Cubs is reason enough to get excited, especially seeing as they would be only one game back of a wild card spot if the season ended today.

Much of what the Cubs are expected to do this season and in the coming years is dependent on the performances of their stars – experienced ace Jon Lester, inexperienced phenom Kris Bryant, and budding MVP candidate Anthony Rizzo. So far the potential has not only been warranted, but fulfilled.

After struggling in April to begin his National League career, Lester (has pitched his way back into his starring role as rotation leader, giving up two earned runs or less in 5 of his last 6 starts. He hasn’t quite performed at the plate, but Rizzo, the undisputed face of the franchise at just 25 years old, has more than made up for it, batting his way to a .315 average to go along with 9 homers and 29 RBI.

But the star of the show, and the storyline of the season on the North Side, has been the arrival of basher Kris Bryant. After taking a couple weeks to adjust to the big leagues upon his advent, the third baseman began to hit like we all knew he would. He leads the team in RBI (31) and also has hit 7 longballs and crossed home plate 26 times, all top three for the Cubs.

Although a struggling bullpen (4.07 ERA) has caused them to drop some games in the late innings, the Cubs so far have been making their fans happy.

There’s excitement in the air on the North Side of the Windy City, and if the Cardinals ever cool off on their historic start, the NL Central race should be a fun one to watch down the stretch, especially with the Pirates winning their last seven and making a move toward the front of the pack.

 

 

David Lynch likes to talk about and write about movies, sports, and important happenings around the world. He can be reached at alex.695@hotmail.com or on Twitter @RealDavidLynch.

The Warning Track: Opening Week

The Warning Track is a blog that covers all things Major League Baseball on a weekly basis, from discussing why some teams are getting hot, who’s in line for awards at season’s end and who is getting ready to make the leap to contender status, as well as off-the-field issues like first-time Commissioner Rob Manfred, which players could be headed to new homes, and A-Rod’s latest lie. 

If you have anything MLB-related that you would like to see discussed in the upcoming edition of The Warning Track, or have any comments at all, you may suggest/comment/rant/agree/disagree/tell me I know nothing about baseball at any time on Twitter @RealDavidLynch. 

 

The Longball Takes Center Stage

It’s a common philosophy with sports, however tough it is to follow at time, not to overreact to anything….especially at the end of Opening Week in baseball, with 155-plus games still to be played.

But it would be unwise not to at least take a look at how the homerun ball dominated the first week of the 2015 season.

Exhibit A: Adrian Gonzalez, who after homering three times in one game earlier in the week, is being affectionately dubbed A-Gone by the baseball world. Gonzalez became the first player to hit five home runs in his team’s first three games of a season, and in the process has early MVP stamped all over him (yes, it’s week 1, but this is what I meant by overreacting).

A-Gone hasn’t hit forty home runs since a career year in 2009, but if he keeps it up he’ll smash that personal record, as well as help break a bigger one that I predicted will happen this year.

Gonzalez isn’t the only one who put on a power display this week. In an Opening Day that was dominated by pitching, the Boston Red Sox unveiled their revamped lineup in style, hitting five moonshots in an 8-0 victory over the Phillies.

Just as impressive? Four of them were hit off of Cole Hamels, who is trying to impress other teams as he will almost surely be wearing a different uniform by the trade deadline this summer.

I’ve got to admit…I thought Boston came into this season a little overrated. When you acquire the big-name talent they did in the offseason – Pablo Sandoval, who pretty much becomes Babe Ruth in October, as well as ex-Dodger Hanley Ramirez – people are either going to label you as automatic postseason contenders…or see the club as one that may have trouble developing a homogeneous identity.

I belong to the latter. I just got the sense that this team would have a tough time gelling together, spending too much of the season trying to form a clubhouse dynamic that once they did it would be too late.

Then again, when you have the pure power that the BoSox showed off on Monday, that doesn’t matter as much. Homers score runs, and scoring runs wins games.

Another home run display to note, although just a single longball…A-Rod’s first since September of 2013.

Although that alone will add drama to the hit, the real story – now that we know supposedly-steroid-free-Alex-Rodriguez can still hit ‘em far and hit ‘em deep – is what happens if he when he hits five more and passes Willie Mays for fourth all time on the career homer list.

When he does, the Yankees, per the contract they gave him in 2007, are obligated to pay him a $6 million bonus…something they said in the offseason they will no longer do.

It’s a shame, really, to see what once was a journey toward making epic major league history become a cheating-fueled soap opera of undeserved greatness.

However.

As polarizing as A-Rod and his legacy has become – to this writer especially – the Yankees should do their due diligence once he gets to that mark, and you know he will. Aside from the fact that the Yankees already popped up to shallow left by putting the bonus in a signed contract…his home runs will be helping the Yanks win games, and they should thank him as they are contractually obligated to do so.

He’s still Alex Rodriguez, which means he puts the Jeter-less Yankees on an entirely other tier, maybe not in terms of competition but in recognition. Paying his bonus is the least they can do to compensate for his services.

Home runs provided plenty of storylines and drama in Opening Week. In what has become the Golden Age of Pitching, let’s hope it stays that way.

 

On the Cusp of Going to Infinity and Beyond in Houston

The Houston Astros, perennial cellar dwellers for the better part of the last decade, are making their way to the stairs.

Slowly. But ever so surely.

Much like the position the Cubs occupied in recent years, Houston is full-on retooling, rearming, and reenergizing their fanbase with a team that should only be a year or two away from playing .500 baseball.

Their youngsters, high picks resulting from last-place regular season finishes, are the Kris Bryants and Jose Fernandez’s of tomorrow. Players like George Springer and Dallas Keuchel are on the cusp of breaking into their own and leading this team.

The Astros, like the Cubs were a couple years back, are on the brink of relevance. And general manager Jeff Luhnow knows it, which is why he manufactured one of the busiest offseasons the Astros have had in recent memory, however much it was shaded by the offseason lusting spending of other teams (looking at you, San Diego, Boston).

Beyond acquiring new manager A.J. Hinch, Luhnow went out and nabbed All-Star relief pitcher Pat Neshek as well as Jed Lowrie and basher Evan Gattis.

And don’t forget about star Jose Altuve, who led the league in hits in 2014 with an astounding 225. When a guy puts in this kind of effort, opposing pitchers know he’s never going to be an easy out.

The Astros have a healthy dose of young – very young – guys and experienced players. They’re 2-2 on the young season (as of the time I am writing this) and were already very nearly held hitless in a 5-1 loss to the Indians on Thursday. Needless to say, it was the kind of game that we’ve come to expect from Houston’s club.

At a time when the National League is experiencing a wealth of young talent, Springer hopes to make the same kind of impact in the American League

At a time when the National League is experiencing a wealth of young talent, Springer hopes to make the same kind of impact in the American League

But they’ve also had victories that have showcased their potential, like a 5-1 score going in their favor against the lowly Rangers on Friday, in which Lowrie and newcomer Colby Rasmus both homered and Collin McHugh gave a sterling first start of the season after delighting fans with a 7-0 record and 1.77 ERA in ten starts as a rookie last season.

But if Houston is going to entice their fans with any kind of major  jump this season, it’s going to have to be on George Springer, their budding face of the franchise who hit 20 home runs and drove in 51 in 78 games in 2014, his rookie season. With Major League Baseball abuzz over the arrivals of Joc Pederson, Jorge Soler and soon-to-be-big league superstar Kris Bryant, the baseball world isn’t paying too much attention to Springer.

They’ll regret that.

So keep your heads high, Astros fans. The torment is almost over.

astros fail

 

 

I See Your Pace-of-Play Rules and Raise You A Marathon

How ironic is it that soon after major pace-of-play rules meant to shorten game length are introduced to regular season baseball, we get an epic 19-inning battle as part of the fiercest rivalry in American sports?

The Red Sox and Yankees battled for the length of two baseball games, and then added another inning for good measure before Boston finally pulled out a 6-5 victory 6 hours and 49 minutes after first pitch. It came close to being the first 20-inning game since 2013, and only the fifth this millennia.

Oh and the game set some records for two already historic franchises.

Take that, pace of play rules. Even you can’t take away one of the most unique aspects of baseball – it ain’t over till it’s over.

Truthfully, we should thank the Red Sox and Yankees for giving us a game like this at a time when Commissioner Rob Manfred is working so hard to quicken the game to supposedly appeal to a younger crowd of sports fans.

The means are worth experimenting but in my opinion that motivation driving the initiative is going to hurt the sport.

Just let ‘em play. True baseball fans won’t leave the game as the clock ticks closer and closer until morning just because it goes on for a little longer. When are extra innings not tense? Every base hit has added drama, every defensive play more weight, every inning a chance for walk-off victory for the home crowd.

If baseball fans can’t see the fun in that, whether young or old, then they probably don’t appreciate the game like some people would say it’s meant to be experienced – as naturally as possible.

Sometimes the nature of baseball takes a game twice as long as it is meant to go, and by the baseball gods….let ‘em play. And allow what makes the sport so special to be on display for the true baseball fan, the kind who doesn’t care if it takes nine innings or 19 to decide an outcome.

So thank you, Red Sox and Yankees. For giving us a nailbiter. For giving spectators two games for the price of one. For reminding us why we love your sport.

bosox

 

David Lynch likes to talk about and write about movies, sports, and important happenings around the world. He can be reached at alex.695@hotmail.com or on Twitter @RealDavidLynch. He is a student at the University of New Mexico.