11.20.2016

HOME RUNS, SHUTDOWN PEN KEY KANSANS SWEEP


In a matchup of Grapefruit Division wild cards, the St. Francis Kansans (89-73) advanced in the playoffs for the third time , sweeping a pair of games from the Oakland Larks (85-77) to advance in the 2016 BARB playoffs.  Timely power displays and, more importantly, great relief work allowed the Kansans to overcome a deficit in Game One and then ride out an early lead in Game Two.

GAME ONE:  ST. FRANCIS at OAKLAND

In the first contest, Kansans ace Max Scherzer (12-12, 4.07 ERA) showed both of the characteristics that defined his regular season:  the ability to get strikeouts (his 290 K’s led all BARB righthanders), and an unfortunate propensity to cough up the long ball.  Scherzer tied Arizona RHP James Shields in allowing a BARB-leading 48 HR in the regular season, and when Hunter Pence cranked a solo shot leading off the second inning, it gave his opposite number a 1-0 lead:  LHP Jaime Garcia (9-9, 3.12 ERA in the regular season) would allow only five baserunners to reach in seven frames.
Unfortunately for Garcia and the Larks, two of those baserunners had big blasts connected with them.  RF J.D.  Martinez hit a game-tying solo shot with one down in the top of the fourth, and the mighty mite, Jose Altuve, added another with two down in the sixth to narrow Oakland’s lead to 3-2 in the sixth.  This all came after the Larks had put together a rally with two out in the fifth:  Dee Gordon beat out an infield hit, Gerardo Parra drew a walk, and after a wild pitch allowed both runners to advance, Daniel Murphy hit a clutch two-run single to score both baserunners and put Garcia and the Larks a couple of good relief outings away from winning the opener:

OAKLAND 3, ST. FRANCIS 2!

It was not to be.  Garcia was lifted after throwing 88 pitches, and Francisco Rodriguez was brought on to bridge the 8th to putative closer Hector Rondon (26 saves).  “K-Rod” did exactly that, fanning pinch-hitter Brad Miller on four pitches, but Kansans leadoff man Dexter Fowler hit a solid single to put the tying run on first.  Justin Turner popped up harmlessly to shallow left, but with one down up came Altuve again.  The diminutive Kansans second-sacker, who had only homered 11 times in the regular season, hit his second bomb of the night, in the second row out in left field.  The Kansans, for the first time in the game, had abruptly stolen the lead, bringing the stunned crowd to a murmur.
With that turn of events, the St. Francis brain trust turned to their deep bullpen, and asked lefty Andrew Miller (8-2, more than 100 K’s  in the regular season) to get them a six-out save.  Miller was equal to the task, fanning right-handed hitters  Ian Desmond and Russ Martin in successive frames, then finishing the game by getting pinch-hitting rookie Tim Anderson to roll into a double play:

ST. FRANCIS 4, OAKLAND 3!

Sean Doolittle (1-0, 0.00), who had bailed out Scherzer in the bottom of the seventh, literally made only one pitch (to retire Daniel Murphy), but under the rules was awared win, while Miller earned the save.  Francisco Rodriguez (0-1, 9.00) retired the last four batters he faced, but that was one big Altuve blast too late to console him or his teammates.   The series now shifted back to Kansas, where Scott Hatfield’s club would only need to earn a split to advance.

GAME TWO:  OAKLAND at ST. FRANCIS

The second contest matched enigmatic left-hander Rich Hill (9-3, 2.88) versus young fireballer Jake Odorizzi (12-9, 4.05).   Hill’s work in the 2016 regular BARB season had been exemplary when available, but he had missed most of the summer with complications due to blisters, and his starts had been tantalizing in a bad way:  Hill allowed few runs and struck out more than 10 batters per nine innings (good), allowing no HR (really good), but also seemingly pitching out of at least one bases-loaded jam per start, and usually more than one, with most hitters running up deep counts against him.  Nerve-wrackingly for St. Francis, this playoff start featured more of the same, and Hill would depart after four-plus innings having allowed eight hits, two walks and a hit batter.
And yet, amazingly….NO RUNS.   

In the first, the speedy Dee Gordon singled and Tim Anderson walked to put another rabbit on base.  Daniel Murphy singled SHARPLY to right, but J.D. Martinez threw a one-hop bullet to Yadier Molina, who tagged Gordon out ahead of the throw for the first out!   Anderson took third and Murphy advanced on the throw, so the threat remained.  Yet (right-handed hitting) Nolan Arenado, the Larks’ best power bat, struck out on a high fastball.   DH Chris Carter, another slugging threat, worked a 3-2 count and then walked to load the bases for Hunter Pence, who had homered in the first game.  Pence fanned on Hill’s 25th pitch of the inning, however, leaving them loaded.

Can you say ‘snakebit’?  Oakland put two baserunners on each of the next three innings as well.  But Tim Anderson fouled off three sliders before fanning to end the second,  Hunter Pence hit into a double play in the third after Chris Carter was hit by a pitch, and J.D. Martinez threw out ANOTHER runner (C Russell Martin) attempting to score at home on a Dee Gordon single for the final out of the fourth. 

Meanwhile, as unlucky as Oakland’s lineup was, fortune smiled on the Kansans, who somehow scored two runs without a hard-hit ball in the third.  Light-hitting SS Danny Espinosa drew a leadoff walk off a wild Odorizzi to start the frame, and Dexter Fowler beat out an infield hit to short.  Odorizzi then hit Altuve to load the bases.  Justin Turner’s fly to right scored Espinosa, advancing Fowler…then David Ortiz a deeper fly to the wall in left-center to plate the Kansans CF.  J.D. Martinez then singled softly to right just over the leaping Murphy, and Oakland GM Jay Parks had seen enough:  control specialist Marco Estrada, a force in the Larks bullpen this year (135 relief IP), was brought in to get the final out, and he did:

ST. FRANCIS 2, OAKLAND 0!

For the FIFTH inning a row, however, the Larks put two baserunners on . . . this time with one out.  Having used up his daily Xanax prescription in the first four innings, St. Francis went to the bullpen as well, summoning Dave Robertson to finish the frame, which he did, getting Arenado to fly the wall in left, then fanning Chris Carter to end the threat. 
Estrada worked a scoreless fourth and fifth to keep things close, but with one down in his third inning of work finally hung a breaking ball, that RF Jay Bruce (a cunning final-week pickup by the Kansans) deposited over the wall to expand his club’s lead to three runs.  With that gap in play, St. Francis allowed hard-throwing southpaw Carlos Rodon an opportunity to contribute working the top of the seventh to left-handed hitting Charlie Blackmon . . . who promptly tripled into the RF corner, where he scored on a solid single by Dee Gordon:

ST. FRANCIS 3, OAKLAND 1!

Things were getting interesting.  Playing mix-and-match with his deep bullpen, GM Scott Hatfield use Ian Kennedy to face Ian Anderson (K), Sean Doolittle to work to Dan Murphy (HBP) and Ken Giles to work to Nolan Arenado, a slugger who . . . .

TOPPED a softly-hit ground ball just past a diving Brad Miller, into left field, loading the bases, putting the tying run on second for Chris Carter.  Having already used four pitchers in the frame, the St. Francis brain trust decided to continue to put their trust in Giles, whose BARB regular-season numbers (2-3, 5.60) inspired no confidence.  But Giles got Carter to take a slider for ‘strike 3’, and then induced Pence to chase a slider in the dirt:  TWO STRIKEOUTS, and a potential rally denied, by dominant pitching from an unexpected source.

Oakland brought on Hector Rondon to start the bottom of the 7th, and their erstwhile closer gave them a scoreless frame.   Impressed by the way Giles finished the previous inning, the Kansans let him begin the top of the 8th by fanning Ian Desmond, but when he walked Russell Martin, lifted him in favor of Andrew Miller, the hero of Game One.  Miller uncorked a wild pitch against pinch-hitter Ketel Marte, and eventually walked him.  But Dee Gordon swung through a 2-2 cutter for the second out, and Tim Anderson forced Marte at second to end the inning.

Francisco Rodriguez, the loser of Game One, got a chance to redeem himself in the bottom of the eighth, but walked J.D. Martinez on five pitches.   Previously-hitless Chris Davis doubled off the top of the wall in right-center to send Martinez to third, and when Jay Bruce walked, the bases were loaded with none down.  Yadier Molina, batting with a chance to deliver a ‘kill shot’ to Oakland’s hopes, still stung them with a scoring fly ball to left.  Pinch-hitter Danny Valencia and Dexter Fowler couldn’t cash in further, however, leading to this score after eight frames:

ST. FRANCIS 4, OAKLAND 1!

Andrew Miller got to start his fourth inning of the series in order to pitch to the left-handed hitting Daniel Murphy, who hit a HOT shot, but right at Altuve.  The ball popped out of his extended mitt, but he stayed with the play and retired Murphy at first.  Kenley Jansen (another late August ‘get’ for the Kansans) then came on after a September that saw him win two and save three more games.  Jansen had fanned an incredible 146 batters in the BARB regular season, more than any other reliever in the league.  But the Larks weren’t having any of THAT.   Nolan Arenado hit an 0-1 pitch sharply, but right at Brad Miller, who had been brought in for ‘defense’ after Valencia had hit for the (much better-fielding) Danny Espinosa.  But Miller stayed with the smash, and his throw across the diamond was in time to nip Arenado at first.  Down to their last out, the Larks called on left-handed power source Brandon Moss off the bench, who swung at the first pitch, and hit it HARD . . . .

Straight up.  To the infield.  To Justin Turner, who SQUEEZED it for the final out, to complete the sweep and send St. Francis to face the powerhouse Squirrels lineup:


KANSANS WIN THE SERIES, 2-0!

Playoff MVP Jose Altuve being bear-hugged by teammate Justin Turner.

11.08.2016

YUMA TAKES BATTLE OF BARB ORIGINALS

The only two founding BARB teams to remain in their original location fought tooth-and-nail, but two-time defending champion Yuma prevailed in three games.

GAME ONE:

In the only home game for lower-seeded Brooklyn, the hosts held a 5-3 lead into the sixth before their pitching collapsed.

Anthony DeSclafani, a mid-season trade pickup, got the start and pitched through solo home runs in the first and fourth innings. He didn’t quite make it far enough to qualify for a win, allowing one run and leaving with the bases loaded and two out in the fifth. Alex Reyes came on in relief – nary an appearance in the regular season, but he was still put on the playoff roster – and induced a groundout to keep Brooklyn in the lead.

The advantage at that point was 4-3. A second-inning run tied the score and Jose Bautista homered to left in the third to put two more on the board before Jung-Ho Kang added a solo shot in the fourth. The Moab lead extended back to a pair in the bottom of the fifth on a Marcell Ozuna double.

That was all for Brooklyn, but Yuma was just getting started.

The top of the sixth inning turned into one of the biggest on the year for the visiting Firebirds. Reyes came back out to start the frame and promptly allowed a Joe Panik double and Brandon Crawford triple before losing the strike zone to two straight batters as the legendary Harry Doyle again uttered his famous line: “Ball four…ball eight…” Reyes didn’t make it to walking the bases loaded on twelve straight pitches, as Mychal Givens was handed the ball.

Givens didn’t fare any better. In the span of eight pitches, Yuma plated four runs (a two-run Corey Seager single and Andrew McCutchen doubling in another pair) for an 8-5 lead. The righty seemed to settle down, getting a strikeout and groundout, but a walk and two more singles added two runs and brought Sonny Gray out of the bullpen to face the 12th (and final) batter of the inning.

Moabs fans must have been thinking, “Enough’s enough!” Yuma’s scoring didn’t stop, but it did slow to a trickle the final three innings. A walk and two wild pitches allowed Joey Votto to be in position to score on a McCutchen single in the seventh, and the slugging Canadian put the finishing touches on a 4-for-4, five runs scored night with his second solo blast of the game in the ninth.

Chris Sale, Yuma’s starting pitcher, had a night to forget after allowing five earned runs on 10 hits in seven innings.

GAME TWO:

For the second straight night – this time on the road – Eric Caskey’s side roughed up a Yuma lefty.

David Price was called upon in an attempt to sweep and give the Firebirds two days of rest before facing New England in the divisional round, but one early swing of the bat and clutch pitches from Carlos Martinez and three relievers would force a third and deciding game.

Price, coming off a stellar 16-9, 2.93 ERA campaign, allowed singles on each of his first two pitches before Rougned Odor pulled a full-count pitch inside the Safeco Field foul pole for a three-run blast. The Firebird faithful had yet to sit down and fell silent as the team they had cheered to four BARB titles was immediately trailing by a crooked number.

The lineup put together by Chris Melkonian picked up where they left off in Game One by smashing the ball to the outfield, but this time it seemed every rocket found Brooklyn leather. Four straight Yuma hitters, in fact, pestered Moabs left fielder Christian Yelich between the second and third innings; the spry fly-catcher ran them all down with ease.

Martinez mostly cruised until the bottom of the sixth, when with two away and Denard Span on third McCutchen hammered a ball 10 rows back in left field to pull the home team within one.

Zach Britton was inserted to start the seventh – it seems the anti-Buck Showalter is in charge of the Moabs – and he and Roberto Osuna combined for three scoreless innings to put Brooklyn on the board in the best-of-three by a 4-2 final.

GAME THREE:

Yuma’s hurler for the rubber match was a righty, Marcus Stroman, but the Firebird-leaning crowd again exhibited blank stares after a big Brooklyn first.

Yelich, David Dahl and Odor all singled to score one and Troy Tulowitzki walked to load the bases. Jake Lamb’s swinging bunt plated a run despite an out call on a close play at first, and Bautista made it 3-0 with a sacrifice fly.

Stroman, however, clamped down as the Yuma offense started scratching back in the second. Mookie Betts singled and advanced on a Rick Porcello wild pitch before Buster Posey brought him around with a line drive.

The Moabs continued to put men on but could not add to their lead, which hurt when the Firebirds sent nine men to the plate in a five-run fifth.

Panik got it started with a bloop to left and stolen base. Brian Dozier doubled with one out, Span was nailed by a fastball and Votto laced an RBI single to tie the game. Seager came up next with the big hit, hitting a no-doubter to left center for a 6-3 lead and knocking Porcello out of the game.

The five-run frame took all of the air out of the Brooklyn offense. They managed to put only one runner on base in their final four trips to the plate, and A.J. Ramos hurled a perfect ninth to clinch the Cactus wild card series and a visit to Grapefruit champion New England.

10.25.2016

RACES TIGHT AS SEASON WINDS DOWN

One week remains in the 14th Bullard Alternative Reality Baseball season, and while a few spots at the top (and bottom) of each division have been locked up, more still needs to be ironed out to finalize the 2016 playoff picture and 2017 draft.

Who will take home the 2016 BARB crown? Who has the edge for the first pick in the 2017 draft? Both questions will be answered soon, and with the help of one more week of regular season play.

With six or seven games left (depending on the team), five teams had clinched playoff spots. The Frostbite Falls Flying Squirrels sewed up the Cactus division thanks to New England’s win over Yuma on September 23.

The one playoff position still up for grabs is the Cactus wild card second seed. The Santa Barbara Angels, in that spot for much of the campaign, have suffered a 2-8 record in their last 10 games as the Brooklyn Moabs have gone 6-4. Those marks give Brooklyn a one-game advantage over Santa Barbara. Eric Caskey’s team finished with three games at Carolina, a day off and three hosting the Pottsylvania Creepers. Santa Barbara’s final six feature a three-game set at Grapefruit front-runner New England and then three hosting Cactus cellar-dweller Arizona. Carolina hasn’t been officially eliminated, but at five games behind Brooklyn they’ll need to win out and receive help.

Of course, lurking for the second wild card will be the Yuma Firebirds. Yuma has been long guaranteed a playoff spot despite hovering around 10 games behind Frostbite since the All-Star break, and they’ll have the higher seed in the Cactus wild card series. Chris Melkonian’s charges will have a chip on their shoulder entering postseason play after becoming only the third Yuma squad to fail to win their division (following the 2003 and 2008 Firebirds). Yuma is coming off back-to-back BARB championships and has won four of the first 13 titles.

On the Grapefruit side, the New England Yankee Stompers hold the top spot but have not quite wrapped up the division title. The magic number for James Herndon’s side is four, but the second-place St. Francis Kansans have won nine straight and trail by just three in the loss column. The darkhorse Oakland Larks, in Jay Parks’ first season heading up the team, remain mathematically in the division title race – but they would need New England to fall in each of their last six while Oakland wins every one of their final seven contests.

No matter what happens in the Grapefruit, all three playoff spots have been claimed. With Oakland three back of St. Francis for the first wild card, it’s likely Scott Hatfield will have homefield advantage in the wild card round as he continues to chase his first BARB championship.

As in 2015, the playoffs will start the day after the regular season ends (barring a need for a one-game playoff to decide the second Cactus wild card). The lower seed will host the first game of the best-of-three wild card round, and the higher wild card will host game two and the if-necessary third game. No days off will be scheduled into the wild card round. Each division’s wild card winner will then cross over and play the opposite division’s champion in a 2-2-1 best-of-five. The World Series will feature the two divisional-round winners in a best-of-seven, with the better record between the two earning home field advantage.

RECORD CHASES:

The Frostbite Falls club has, for much of the season, been chasing two separate marks from BARB annals. Until early-September, they had a winning percentage over .700. That has only been achieved once in league history – by the 2013 Worcester Eliminators. Matt Caskey’s club won 114 games that season and will not be passed in that category by the Flying Squirrels this year. The most Frostbite can win is 113. The squad of Rocky and Bullwinkle has already beaten their franchise high-water mark of 101, set in a second-place finish to Worcester in 2013.

The Flying Squirrel offense has already pounded out a league record in runs scored at 973, and becoming the first club with 1,000 on the season is within reach. Barring double digits in each of their last six, however, they’ll fall short of the loop mark for runs per game. That was set in 2004 by Brooklyn, who plated 968 in a 150-game campaign for a 6.45 average. Frostbite is averaging 6.23 per game and will need to score 1046 by the end of game 162 for the scoring average record.

2017 DRAFT:


One other position remains up in the air: the dubious mark of WORST team in the league. Of course, the team with the worst record will “earn” the first pick in each round in the 2017 draft (barring expansion). Riverside, at 57-98, and Casselton, 58-97, are neck-and-neck in the futility department after both teams suffered multiple injuries during the season. Lurking just a few games above those two is the traditionally cellar-dwelling Arizona D-Backs, 62-94. It will be an interesting end to the season, as Riverside and Casselton face off three times at the Rum Runners’ ballpark to finish the campaign. If the current results stand, it would be the first time since 2012 that Ronald Melkonian didn’t pick in the top-two.