We’re two games in to each of the four Division Series and there have been plenty of talking points to set up the rest of each series.
The Toronto Blue Jays are the team in the biggest hole, trailing the Texas Rangers 2-0 having lost the first two games in their home ballpark. The second game on Friday night was a real killer as their 14-inning effort went for nought.
Both teams had their issues with the strike zone being called and there was certainly some variance there during the course of the game. However, the MLB Network coverage was no help at all. On numerous occasions their commentators, Bob Costas and Jim Kaat, confidently complained about the strike/ball call only to then see a replay including their ‘Strike Zone’ box that showed either the umpire had got it spot on or that the pitch was very close (so hardly a grave error by the umpire).
Time and again, they chose to make excuses when the evidence before them didn’t match their original comments, only making themselves look ridiculous in the process. Kaat was particularly bad at this and it was symptomatic of a disappointingly poor presentation by MLB Network that can be summed up as being ‘by the over-50s, for the over-50s’ (right down to the pre-advert music that included such current acts as Phil Collins).
MLB knows its audience in America tends to be on the older side, but they rightly have the ambition to market the game for a younger audience too. It’s a shame that despite bringing in features such as Statcast, the strikezone box and their defensive shift graphics, the overall tone of their own TV coverage is old fashioned.
In the other American League series, the Kansas City Royals won a crucial Game Two at their Kauffman Stadium to level the series at a game apiece. Every team is desperate to avoid losing the first two games at home, but in the Royals’ case it was more imperative than ever to ensure Game Three couldn’t seal their fate.
Dallas Keuchel will start for the Houston Astros on Sunday night (a 21.05. BST start, although unfortunately on MLB Network coverage) and he has been unbeatable at home this season. His home record – 15-0 with a 1.46 ERA – shows just how tough it will be for the Royals, yet, as you always find in these extreme situations, there is a positive spin that they can put on it. If they can somehow find a way to beat him, or perhaps more likely to knock him out of the game and then get the better of the Astros’ bullpen, that will be a huge blow for Houston and you’d fancy the Royals to go on and take the series from there.
It will be a similar scenario in Chicago for the St Louis Cardinals. They have to face the Cubs’ Jake Arrieta in Game Three, whose masterful display in the Wild Card win against the Pittsburgh Pirates only enhanced the seemingly invincible force that surrounds him right now. The Cardinals at least now Arrieta can’t knock them out on Monday, although a 2-0 series lead rather than a 1-1 series split would have made a potential Game Three loss easier to recover from.
The added ingredient here is this being the first ever play-off game between the two teams at Wrigley Field. Cubs-Cardinals is one of the game’s most publicised rivalries and I’m sure that I am far from the only baseball fan who didn’t realise until a few days ago that the two had never actually met in the postseason during their 100+ year existences.
The LA Dodgers and New York Mets have their own rivalry due to both claiming a link back to the Brooklyn Dodgers. As two teams from mass-media markets, they didn’t need anything extra to hype this series up but their Game Two on Saturday produced it anyway thanks to Chase Utley’s slide into second that left the Mets’ Ruben Tejada with a fractured fibula.
We’ve been here before recently with the Pirates’ Jung Ho Kang suffering a similar fate to Tejada in mid-September. In this case, it was a decisive moment in the contest as it fed into a game-winning inning for the Dodgers that allowed them to draw level in the series 1-1. The Mets are rightfully aggrieved by the incident, although had the shoe been on the other foot, or more accurately the protective splint on the other leg, they would be making the same supportive comments as the Dodgers in the aftermath.
The added issue here came in replay being used to call Utley safe and the ruling that it wasn’t a ‘neighbourhood play’. It has long been accepted that an infielder turning a double-play just needs to be close to second base to record the out, rather than actually touching it, precisely because of the risk of injury that is inherent in forcing the player on the pivot to leave their legs in harm’s way. Consequently those plays cannot be challenged on replay and the explanations as to why it was allowed here have not been convincing. It’s definitely an area that needs to be clarified or else you will just see more players in hospital.
So, we have a bit of controversy thrown into the mix here even before the Mets’ self-made controversy around Game Three starter Matt Harvey. Much was made about a potential innings limit on the ace pitcher following his return from elbow surgery, something stirred up in part by Harvey’s own apparent taste for the limelight. Actions always speak louder than words and we all know how dominant Harvey can be. How he performs on the mound at Citi Field on Monday night could go a long way to determining the outcome of this series.