‘Weekly’ Hit Ground Ball 2008 – Week Twenty Two

One month to go

Five months ago, the thirty Major League teams were getting ready for the 2008 season with hopes, dreams and great expectations of what the year may bring.  On the final day of August, those teams are now facing the reality of what their season may amount to.  For some, September will be a thirty day period that they want to get over and done with as soon as possible.  For others, the coming month could end in triumph and lead to even greater glory. 

The Tampa Bay Rays have undoubtedly been the story of 2008 so far.  Most people predicted that they would have a successful year, but that this would mean recording their first winning season while falling in line behind the Red Sox and the Yankees.  2008 would be a stepping stone for greater things in ’09 and beyond.  Well, the Rays decided that they had already waited long enough.  They have a decent cushion at the top of the AL East and, with their two main rivals not firing on all cylinders, it’s unlikely that they will let their excellent first five months go to waste.

If the Rays have been the team of the AL, the Cubs have been the kings of the senior circuit.  In contrast to Tampa Bay, Chicago were expected to be the NL Central leaders at this point in the season and they haven’t disappointed.  On paper they were strong in all aspects: batting, starting rotation and bullpen.  Add in a sensational rookie season from Geovany Soto, the rousing success of Ryan Dempster’s move back to the rotation and the inspired addition of Rich Harden and there’s really no reason why this team cannot go on and win the World Series.  Except, of course, for the weight of that 100 year wait. 

It’s a great time to be a baseball fan in Chicago as the north-siders are defying the pessimistic predictions that, at best, put them as the third best team in the Central.  Their 2007 campaign was a disaster, ending with a 72-90 record, and the ageing core of the batting lineup seemed more likely to slip backwards than to power the team forwards.  What we didn’t count on was the stunning form of Carlos Quentin, an off-season master-stroke of a trade by Kenny Williams.  The former D-Back has been the catalyst for a White Sox resurgence.  After stuttering a little in July, they’ve had a good August and have put themselves in a position ahead of the final month that few thought possible. 

The same could be said for the other team battling for the AL Central.  In fact, the Twins’ challenge is even more unexpected than Chicago’s.  Consider their build-up to the 2008 season: finishing with a 79-83 record in ’07 and then losing the face of their franchise (Torii Hunter) and arguably the best pitcher in the game (Johan Santana) over the off-season.   The expectation was that this time would go from mediocre to bad, but Ron Gardenhire has once again proved the doubters wrong. 

The fortunes of the White Sox and the Twins are linked to the two biggest disappointments of the 2008 season.  The pressing question in the AL Central prior to the season was whether Detroit or Cleveland would win the division?  Neither side could have envisaged being out of the running by the All Star break, but that’s the position both teams found themselves in.  They won’t be able to make amends over the rest of this season either.  Cleveland raised the white flag at the start of July when trading away CC Sabathia, writing the season off and looking to the future.  Meanwhile the Tigers are in a bit of trouble: an expensive ‘win now’ team that isn’t winning now and might not win for a few years to come due to the way they have largely gutted their farm system.

The Braves were another team who began the season with high hopes and then traded away various players when they knew all hope had gone.  With Teixeira in the lineup and Smoltz, Hudson and Glavine in the rotation, they began the season with the belief that they could challenge the Phillies and the Mets in the NL East.  Unforeseen injuries (all three of those starters are on the shelf) and the faltering form of Jeff Francouer shattered their dreams even before the All Star break.

Which all leads us on to Colorado.  After making the World Series last year, the Rockies appeared to be primed to go deep into October yet again.  Troy Tulowitzki’s early season injury and the mystifying collapse of last year’s pitching hero Jeff Francis were two of the main reasons that they had a terrible first two months (20-36).  Partly due to an improvement in their own form and partly due to the D-Backs and the Dodgers seemingly not wanting to win the NL West, the Rockies have at least given themselves an outside chance of storming through in the final month.  Of all the teams that have disappointed so far, the Rockies are the one team who could still turn their season around.  And they know a thing or two about getting hot in September.

So, five months in and it’s becoming clear which teams have exceeded their pre-season expectations and which have failed to live up to them.  There’s still one month of the season left though and, while several teams already know their fate, that leaves plenty of opportunities to change the course of a season.

Week 22 wrap-up

The first couple of days of the ‘instant replay’ era haven’t produced any reviewable moments, but no doubt there will be some controversy as teams fight for division crowns and wild cards over the next four weeks.  The Tampa Bay Rays (83-51: 4.5 games ahead of Boston), the Angels (83-52: 18 games ahead of Texas), the Cubs (51-5: 5.5 games ahead of Milwaukee) and the D-Backs (69-66: 3.5 games ahead of Los Angeles) will all be hoping that any instant replay calls will not impact their current marches to October. 

The Mets (75-61) lead the Phillies by a single game in the NL East, although they appear to have shaken off the Marlins for the time being at least.  The White Sox (76-59) currently occupy the top spot in the AL Central, with the Twins just half a game back.  Minnesota trail the Red Sox by 3.5 games in the AL wild card race and the Yankees look like they may now have fallen out of contention after Boston won two of three in the final series between the two sides at the current Yankee Stadium.  The Brewers hold what should be a comfortable 5.5 lead over the Phillies and the Cardinals in the NL wild card, although they will be weary of stumbling down the stretch after last year’s disappointment.

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