New York Yankees

MLS Touchline- Week One

Friday marks the start of the 20th season for Major League Soccer.

Or at least it should.

Currently, there is still no CBA, Collective Bargaining Agreement, between MLS and the players, which, if unresolved by Friday, could result in a player’s strike and games not being played.

But we’re going to  go on the assumption that the games will be played as scheduled this weekend.

This season should be an exciting and intriguing year for MLS as soccer is at an all-time high in the U.S. after a tremendous showing in television ratings for the World Cup last year and heightened popularity of the English Premiere League.

Attendance last year for MLS was up across the league, if you take away the stats from now-defunct Chivas U.S.A. The average attendance for the league was just over 19,000, which is roughly near capacity for most of the teams’ stadiums (CenturyLink Field obviously notwithstanding).

There are a number of key storylines going into this year that should keep things intriguing from March to Decemeber. (We’re going to hold off on the CBA issue here.)

First, there are the two new teams coming into this season: New York City F.C., a joint venture between Manchester City and the New York Yankees, and Orlando City F.C. The intrigue here is both on and off the pitch. Both teams ought to do well with their solid rosters and the fact that they’re both in the weaker Eastern Conference. And then there’s the attendance watch for both teams in their first years. Orlando has already announced that their first match on Sunday, coincidently enough against New York City, at the Citrus Bowl is sold out. Whether that keeps up and whether New York City can put up good numbers at Yankee Stadium will be something to keep an eye on.

Then there’s the Western Conference that, much like it’s NBA counterpart, is absolutely stacked with competitors. Last year the conference produced about six or seven teams that would have made the postseason had they been in the Eastern Conference. That goes off both points and the fact they would have had an easier schedule. This year it only gets stronger with the addition of Houston and Sporting Kansas City, though MLS has added an extra playoff slot for each conference which helps. It’s still a long season, but I’d venture a guess that there are four to five teams in the conference with a legitimate shot to win the MLS Cup and another two that could be contenders.

Within that conference are two teams are the biggest contenders to win it all, each with its own big storyline.

First, the Los Angeles Galaxy are going to have to figure out a way to play without Landon Donovan, who retired after last year. The Galaxy are in a good spot, however, with Robbie Keane and Gyasi Zardes up front on the attack. Still, it’s worth watching to see how the defending champs without the league’s best player.

And then there’s the Seattle Sounders who, despite their regular season success, find their trophy cabinet MLS Cup-less. Last year the Sounders were one round away from making it to the MLS Cup final, but fell short to the Galaxy. Seattle returns the same basic squad, minus defender Deandre Yedlin, so expect them to be contenders this season.

These storylines, along with a host of others, will (hopefully) be answered this year in what will likely be the best season in the history of the league.

That season has to start without a strike, but hopefully those differences are settled before the season begins or without a work stoppage. But that’s another story for another day.

Predictions

·      Supporters’ Shield – Seattle

·      Western Conference playoff teams – Seattle, Los Angeles, Sporting Kansas City, Real Salt Lake, FC Dallas, Houston

·      Eastern Conference playoff teams – D.C. United, Orlando City, New York City F.C., New England, Columbus Crew, New York Red Bulls

·      MLS Cup matchup – Seattle vs. Orlando City

·      MLS Cup Winner – Seattle

Power Rankings

1.    Seattle – The Seattle Sounders were the best team in the regular season last year, taking home the Supporter’s Shield and winning the U.S. Open Cup. But the Sounders couldn’t quite catch that elusive MLS Cup title that has dogged them the past few years. This year they’re set up once again to be favorites to take the title with forwards midfielder, and Texan, Clint Dempsey and forward Obafemi Martins, as well as a talented supporting cast. With the experience and passionate fan base, Seattle has to be considered a top team in MLS, if only for the start of the season.

2.    Los Angeles – The Galaxy will take a hit in their chance to repeat with U.S. legend Landon Donovan retiring, but there’s more to this team than Donovan. Forwards Robbie Keane and Gyasi Zardes made a significant impact up front for Los Angeles last year and will again team up to be a potent attacking duo. Add in Steven Gerrard at the summer transfer window and the Galaxy are in a great spot to repeat as champs once again.

3.    Orlando City – Of the two expansion teams joining the league this season, Orlando City is the most likely to make some noise and potentially find itself in a position to make it to the MLS Cup. Of course, everyone knows about Brazilian forward Kaka, but City features more than that. Orlando should set in goal with Jamaican national team goalie Donovan Rickets. And if midfielder Brek Shea can find the same success he had a few years ago with FC Dallas, City might have a solid attack.

4.    New York City F.C. – Of course, the biggest name team coming into this year is New York City F.C. under the combined ownership of Manchester City and the New York Yankees. While some uncertainty still looms over whether or not midfielder Frank Lampard will make the transfer from Manchester, City have a solid team in place anyway with forward David Villa, midfielder Mix Diskerud and defender George John. With a relatively weak Eastern Conference, NYC F.C. will certainly be contenders to make it to the MLS Cup.

5.    Sporting Kansas City – Last year was a disappointment for Sporting K.C., dropping out of the postseason in the wild card round a year after making it to the MLS Cup. And things won’t get much easier for them this season either as Kansas City, along with Houston, make the jump to the stacked Western Conference. Still, SKC boasts of U.S. national team players midfielder Graham Zusi and defender Matt Besler, and forward Dom Dwyer became a force to be reckoned with last year. It won’t be easy in the Western Conference, but Sporting will not be an easier out for anybody this season.

The Bench – 6. Real Salt Lake, 7. New York Red Bulls, 8. D.C. United, 9. Houston, 10. FC Dallas

Games to Watch

·      New York City F.C. at Orlando City, 4 p.m. Sunday, ESPN2
Great scheduling from the MLS scheduling crew resulted in the two expansion teams facing off against each other to start off the season. But while it seems like a gimmick, this should still be a great match. Both teams come is as contenders right off the bat to top the Eastern Conference. Both teams also feature big names such as Kaka and Villa. This game should be the best game of the weekend.

·      New England at Seattle, 8:30 p.m. Sunday, Fox Sports 1
Of the teams we know about and are returning, this should be the best match of the weekend. New England was oh so close to coming away with the MLS Cup last year, falling in the final minutes to Los Angeles. The Revolution have a bright star in midfielder Lee Nguyen and also feature U.S. national team defender Jermaine Jones. Seattle, as mentioned earlier, have been close to getting to the MLS Cup, but have yet to fulfill that goal. With the great Seattle fans providing the backdrop, this should be a fun one.

Rest of the Schedule

·      Chicago at Los Angeles – 9 p.m., Friday, MLS Live, UniMas

·      Montreal at D.C. United – 2 p.m., Saturday, MLS Live

·      Colorado at Philadelphia – 3 p.m., Saturday, MLS Live

·      Toronto F.C. at Vancouver – 5 p.m., Satuday, MLS Live

·      San Jose at FC Dallas – 7:30 p.m., Saturday, MLS Live

·      Columbus at Houston – 7:30 p.m., Saturday, MLS Live

·      Real Salt Lake at Portland – 9:30 p.m., Saturday, MLS Live

·      New York Red Bulls at Sporting Kansas City – 6:00 p.m., Fox Sports 1

Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball when the Brooklyn Dodgers started him at first base on April 15, 1947. His career numbers and impact on the game earned him an induction into Cooperstown the first time he was on the ballot. In 1997, 50 years after Robinson changed baseball forever, Major League Baseball retired his number 42 throughout the entire league.

There were 14 players currently wearing 42 when MLB decided to honor Robinson by retiring his number, allowing them to wear it through the end of their career.
In 2013, only one of those 14 are still wearing number 42 on the baseball diamond, Mariano Rivera.

Rivera was signed out of Panama City, Panama by the New York Yankees on February 17,1990 for $3,000. When the Yankees flew him to the states to get started on his professional career, Rivera had never been on an airplane, spoke no English, and by his own account, wasn’t even a pitcher.

He made his major league debut in a start against the Angels on May 23, 1995, giving up eight runs in 3 1/3 innings in a 10-0 Yankees loss. A few weeks later, he was sent right back tot he minors.
Rivera was recalled by the Yankees later that June and would go on to make six more starts that year. His first relief appearance came on August 1, 1995, and no one could have foreseen the greatness that was about to proceed for the next 19 years.

Led by his infamous cutter, Mariano Rivera would start his ascent in the Yankee bullpen, garnering Cy Young votes as the Yankee set-up man in 1996 and finally claiming the closer job in 1997. As the saying goes, the rest was history.

With a week left to go in his career, Rivera is the most dominate reliever in a century of baseball. His 652 saves are better than future Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman’s by 51. Rollie Fingers had 341 in his 17 years, Dennis Eckersley had 390 in his 24-year career, and Goose Gossage had 310 career saves, and each of those greats are already  in Cooperstown.

Known as the “Sandman” for his entrance song “Enter Sandman” by Metallica that plays through Yankee Stadium when he comes jogging in from the Yankees bullpen to get the final three outs, Rivera has been a transcendent athlete during his time in the Pinstripes.

He is the only player in Major League Baseball to record the final out in four World Series, doing it in 1998, 1999, 2000, and the 2009. Rivera closed out 16 postseason series, and is the only player to be named Most Valuable Player in a World Series (1999), League Championship Series (2003), and All Star game (2013). Rivera set the standard for closer efficiency in his role at the back of the Yankees bullpen, essentially doing it all with one devastating pitch.

The Yankees are arguably the most polarizing franchise in American sports, but one thing nearly everyone can agree on is a mutual infatuation with Rivera, who did it with class and a smile the entire time.

If Robinson hadn’t done what he did way back in 1947, there is a chance that the greatness of Rivera wouldn’t be a tale that we tell our children for decades to come. Rivera will be the last player to ever wear number 42 for a Major League Baseball team, and I’m sure Robinson couldn’t be more proud, smiling down on his number for the last time in this closing week of 2013.

Rivera may not have impacted the game in the same fashion as Robinson, but his presence will surely never be forgotten, and baseball will miss him. There isn’t a better player, or man, to close the book on number 42 for the last time.

 

Useless division projections: American League East

The weather is getting warmer. The days are getting longer. Spring training is in full swing, and you can almost smell the freshly cut grass, hot dogs and peanuts of your local ballpark. The Rangers and Astros will kick off the season in just a few short weeks, and it is now time for a round of useless division predictions so we can all start getting our mind out of basketball mode and into its baseball preset.  If you saw the Orioles finishing in second place in the notorious American League East or the Oakland A’s winning the AL west, then these projections aren’t useless. As it stands, we never know what twists and turns will take place over the course of 162, but we’re going to try to look into the future and see where things will stand come October.

American League East:

Baltimore Orioles, 5th place

Falling back into the same trap I did a year ago, picking them to finish last. But I feel more confident this time around. Kind of. Similar to the Oakland A’s, I refuse to believe Buck Showalter and Co. can repeat the magic of a year ago. Wei-Yin Chen will lead the way on the mound for the Orioles, and he’ll have to repeat his stellar campaign from 2012. Matt Weiters, Adam Jones and Chris Davis are also going to have to continue to build on their 2012 seasons, and while one or two of them may, I don’t see all three sustaining that performance. Like I said, I picked them to finish dead last a year ago and they won 93 games, so maybe that is their good luck charm.

Tampa Bay Rays, 4th place

For the first time in awhile, the Rays will start to fall back to Earth. David Price is still the best pitcher in the American League, and Matt Moore is going to be great too, but Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist and Desmond Jennings cannot do all the heavy lifting for the offense. The pitching should be strong, which will give them a chance, but the offense will rank up there with one of the worst.

New York Yankees, 3rd place

Oh how the mighty have fallen. Karma is good when it finally hits the right people, isn’t it? The Yankees will start the season looking more like a M.A.S.H unit than a baseball team following the injuries of Mark Teixera and Curtis Granderson in Spring Training, not to mention they probably won’t have Alex Rodriguez for most of the year. That’s probably not a negative though. Derek Jeter is working to recover from the broken ankle he received in the ALCS last year, and the best closer to ever live, Mariano Rivera is on the comeback trail from injury as well. C.C. Sabathia at the top of the rotation along with Robinson Cano should give them a fighting chance until everyone returns from injury, but it may be too little too late. The Yankees may eat up one of the two wild card spots when the marathon finishes, but right now, things look bleak for the Bronx Bombers.

Boston Red Sox, 2nd  place

How forgettable was 2012? Probably not as forgettable as the choke job of 2011, but it was pretty rough. 69 wins and a major salary dump can do that to a fan base that has been spoiled for the last decade. However, the Red Sox should bounce back to prominence in 2013 if John Lester can return to his ace form and Clay Bucholz can put together an entire season. The tip of the offensive spear doesn’t change from years past, led by Jacoby Ellsbury, David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia. The addition of Mike Napoli should provide a boost as well. Napoli has had success in the 19 career games he has had at Fenway, posting a .306 batting average along with seven homeruns. If the Red Sox can avoid the injury plague they caught a year ago, they could be in a good position coming down the stretch.

Toronto Blue Jays, 1st place

Yeah, I’m taking the bait. The unanimous winners of the winter, the Blue Jays added Jose Reyes, Melky Cabrera, Josh Johnson, R.A. Dickey, and Mark Buerhle. Taking a glance at the Miami Marlins of a year ago, this blue print doesn’t appear to work very well, but the AL East is down for the first time in almost two decades, and the Blue Jays are in shape to make a serious run for the first time since they won back-to-back World Series titles in ’92 and ’93. The rotation looks solid, and the lineup looks potent with Reyes at the top, followed by Cabrera and super sluggers Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. They could follow the exact same footsteps of the Marlins a year ago, since they did acquire half their roster, but on paper, this team looks sexy, and I’m buying.

The use of PEDs wreaking more havoc across baseball landscape, further tarnishing integrity of the game

Once again, the use of performance-enhancing drugs has been dominating the MLB headlines lately. Records from now-closed, Miami-based clinic, Biogenesis, have recently been released, linking multiple baseball stars’ names to buying PEDs from the clinic.

The two biggest names mentioned so far are superstars Alex Rodriguez, of the New York Yankees, and Ryan Braun, of the Milwaukee Brewers. This is neither player’s first encounter with PED accusations. 

In 2009, Rodriguez admitted to taking PEDs from 2001 to 2003 while with the Texas Rangers but added that he had not used them since. Alex Rodriguez has already tainted his reputation and severely decreased his chances of being elected into the Hall of Fame because of his steroid use. As seen in this year’s BBWAA Hall of Fame vote, any suspicion of steroid use can severely stain a career. This year, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa didn’t even come close to receiving the required percentage of votes for induction to Cooperstown because of PED links and scandals. Like A-Rod, all had legendary numbers and should have been shoe ins, but with how rampant PED use is in the game today, one of the few options left for baseball authorities to try and eradicate the problem is to treat suspicion as guilt.

These allegations could not come at a worse time in Rodriguez’s career, as he is coming off a hip impingement, which required surgery in early January. Doctors say he should be back by the All-Star break, but the chances he’ll return as even half the player he was in his prime seems unlikely. The Yankees have already signed Kevin Youkilis to play third base for the Yanks this season. In other words, A-Rod’s career in pinstripes, or career, in general, could be over.

The second superstar linked to Biogenesis is Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun. Coming off a National League MVP in 2011, Braun was slated to be suspended for the first 50 games of last season but was  reinstated before the season began, as a result of winning an appeal for his positive test for elevated levels of testosterone. Braun is no doubt one of the most consistent, all-around players in baseball, so this is unfortunate for the game and for the all-star, especially if he is clean. Braun insists that his name is listed under a ‘moneys owed’ category in Biogenesis documents because his attorneys used Anthony Bosch, the clinic operator, as a consultant, and that any tie to Biogenesis is merely “over a dispute over compensation for Bosch’s work.” Like last year, Braun claims innocence and “will fully cooperate with any inquiry into this matter."

Other names involved in the Biogenesis mess are former Toronto Blue Jays’ outfielder Melky Cabrera (also his second PED scandal); Detroit Tigers shortstop Jhonny Peralta; Baltimore Orioles third baseman Danny Valencia and New York Yankees catcher, Francisco Cervelli, among others.

In 2009, after Alex Rodriguez admitted to “juicing,” President Obama gave his opinion about the dark shadow PEDs are casting over the game in his first primetime press conference. He stated, “If you’re a fan of Major League Baseball, I think it tarnishes an era, to some degree.” That was 2009. Now, in 2013, the words “think” and “to some degree” can be deleted from the latter part of the president’s quote. As one can see, PEDs have tarnished the game and extensive use continues to rear its ugly head.

Use of PEDs wreaking more havoc across baseball landscape, further tarnishing integrity of game

Once again, the use of performance-enhancing drugs is dominating the MLB headlines. Records from the now-closed Miami-based clinic Biogenesis have recently been released, linking multiple baseball stars’ names to buying PEDs from the clinic, according to a Miami New Times report.

The two biggest names mentioned so far are Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees and Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers. This is neither player’s first encounter with PED accusations.

In 2009, Rodriguez admitted to taking PEDs from 2001 to 2003 while with the Texas Rangers, but added that he had not used them since. Rodriguez has already tainted his reputation and severely decreased his chances of being elected into the Hall of Fame because of his steroid use. As seen in this year’s BBWAA Hall of Fame vote, any suspicion of steroid use can severely stain a career. This year, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa didn’t even come close to receiving the required percentage of votes for induction to Cooperstown because of PED links and scandals. Like A-Rod, all had legendary numbers and should have been shoo-ins, but with the rampant PED use in the game today, one of the few options left for baseball authorities to try and eradicate the problem is to treat suspicion as guilt.

These allegations could not come at a worse time in Rodriguez’s career, as he is coming off a hip impingement, which required surgery in early January. Doctors say he should be back by the All-Star break, but the chances he’ll return as even half the player he was in his prime seems unlikely. The Yankees have already signed Kevin Youkilis to play third base for the Yankees this season. In other words, A-Rod’s career in pinstripes, or career, could be over.

Coming off a National League MVP title in 2011, Braun was slated to be suspended for the first 50 games of last season but was reinstated before the season began, as a result of winning an appeal for his positive test for elevated levels of testosterone. Braun is no doubt one of the most consistent, all-around players in baseball, so this is unfortunate for the game and for the All-Star, especially if he is clean. In a statement he released this week, Braun insists that his name is listed under a ‘moneys owed’ category in Biogenesis documents because his attorneys used Anthony Bosch, the clinic operator, as a consultant, and that any tie to Biogenesis is merely “over a dispute over compensation for Bosch’s work.” Like last year, Braun claims innocence and “will fully cooperate with any inquiry into this matter."

Other names reportedly involved in the Biogenesis mess include, among others, former Toronto Blue Jays’ outfielder Melky Cabrera (also his second PED scandal), Detroit Tigers shortstop Jhonny Peralta, Baltimore Orioles third baseman Danny Valencia and New York Yankees catcher Francisco Cervelli.

In 2009, after Alex Rodriguez admitted to “juicing,” President Obama gave his opinion about the dark shadow PEDs are casting over the game in his first primetime press conference. He stated, “If you’re a fan of Major League Baseball, I think it tarnishes an era, to some degree.” That was 2009. Now, in 2013, the words “think” and “to some degree” can be deleted from the latter part of the president’s quote. As one can see, PEDs have tarnished the game and extensive use continues to rear its ugly head.

The Detroit Tigers took game four against the New York Yankees 8-1, ending the series and propelling the Tigers to the World Series. With the win the Tigers also claimed the American League Penant. This will be their first trip to the World Series since 2006, when they lost to the St. Louis Cardinals 4-1. Detroit will face the winner of the National League Championship Series. The Cardinals are currently leading the NLCS, 3-1, against the San Francisco Giants.

— Sara Beth Purdy

 

Rangers’ manager Ron Washington converses with second base umpire Lance Barksdale after Adrian Beltre  was forced out of second base in the third inning in a 12-5 loss to the A’s.  

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

OAKLAND, Calif. — Josh Hamilton made one thing clear: The Texas Rangers will forget their stunning season-ending sweep at Oakland and regroup as an American League Wild Card.

So much for a third straight AL West crown. Texas needed one win against the upstart Athletics in three games, and didn’t get it.

“You guys have a hard time believing we can forget about it and move ahead,” Hamilton said. “But that’s what we get paid to do. We’ll go home, regroup and go figure out what we have to do.”

The Athletics captured the AL West with another improbable rally in a season full of them, coming back from four runs down and a 13-game division deficit to beat the two-time defending league champion Rangers 12-5 on Wednesday.

Hamilton dropped a fly ball in center field for a two-run error that put the A’s (94-68) ahead 7-5 in a six-run fourth inning. The A’s only added to Texas’ troubles the rest of the way.

“You can have all the experience as you want but when you run into a team that’s hot, experience has nothing to do with it,” Rangers manager Ron Washington said.

Texas (93-69) is headed to the new one-game, Wild Card playoff at home against Baltimore on Friday night, with the winner playing the New York Yankees in the division series.

The A’s get some time off before opening the division series in their first postseason appearance since 2006, playing Game 1 at Detroit on Saturday.

The Athletics needed a sweep and they delivered to win their first division crown in six years and 15th in all. They overcame a five-game deficit in the final nine days and took sole possession of the West’s top spot for the first time this year.

“We knew this is a beast of a team we would have to beat, and to be able to beat them three games in a row and win the division on top of it, really it’s a magical type thing,” manager Bob Melvin said.

Grant Balfour retired Michael Young on a fly to center for the final out, then raised his arms in the air as the A’s streamed out of the dugout and began bouncing up and down in the infield.

“2012 AL WEST CHAMPIONS” flashed on the scoreboard two days after the A’s clinched a playoff spot Monday and held a wild dance party in the clubhouse.

“I’m glad there’s not one tomorrow or Friday,” owner Lew Wolff said. “I can relax and go home. I’m running out of underwear.”

Players high-fived fans while taking a victory lap through the rundown Coliseum, where the outfield still has a light patch of grass from football in the venue shared by the NFL’s Raiders.

Soon, the celebratory champagne and beer made its way to the field — and players sprayed it into the stands. The A’s returned to the field almost an hour later to greet fans still gathered along the top of the dugout.

Oakland pulled off another remarkable performance in a season defined by thrilling walkoffs, rallies and whipped-cream pie celebrations by a team that was never supposed to be here.

A club that trailed Texas by 13 games on June 30. A club with a $59.5 million payroll, the lowest in baseball. General manager Billy Beane found ways to get a blue-collar franchise back to the playoffs for the first time since being swept by Detroit in the 2006 AL championship series.

Coco Crisp hit a tying two-run double in the fourth against Derek Holland (12-7) and Brandon Moss drove in three runs, including a two-run single in the four-run eighth.

Rookie winning pitcher Evan Scribner (2-0) left the mound in the sixth to a standing ovation from the sellout crowd of 30,067. He allowed two hits and struck out two in three scoreless innings after replacing struggling starter A.J. Griffin.

Ryan Cook, pitching for a fifth consecutive game, gave up a double to Nelson Cruz before retiring the next three Texas hitters with strikeouts of David Murphy and Mike Napoli. Catcher Derek Norris pumped his right arm as the Coliseum fans jumped to their feet.

Norris then homered leading off the bottom of the eighth for his second RBI. It was his seventh homer and Oakland’s majors-leading 112th since the All-Star break.

“Ever since Day 1 I’ve been here, it’s been, the A’s can’t compete with the payroll, can’t compete with this team or that team,” Norris said. “We’re better off if we’re down. It just gives us the extra energy.”

The A’s join the NL West champion San Francisco Giants as division champions. The Bay Area is already buzzing about a possible Bay Bridge World Series like the 1989 championship swept by Oakland, one interrupted by an earthquake.

Hamilton’s miscue while charging forward might haunt the to-be free agent if his Rangers don’t get past their Wild Card game.

“I just missed it, man,” Hamilton said.

Murphy’s two-run single highlighted a five-run third inning that put Texas in prime position.

In the fourth, Moss drew a leadoff walk and Josh Reddick followed with an RBI double. Josh Donaldson singled and Seth Smith’s base hit made it 5-3 and chased Ryan Dempster with none out and runners on first and second.

Washington turned to the lefty Holland, a starter who was tagged for four runs in the first inning of the second game of Sunday’s doubleheader with the Angels before working into the seventh.

He retired the first two batters before Crisp’s double down the right-field line.

The only other teams to come back from at least 13 games down to win the division were the 1914 Boston Braves, the 1951 New York Giants, the ‘78 Yankees and the ‘95 Seattle Mariners.

“Anything can happen in the long season,” said Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish, who will start the Wild Card game. “That’s why we play 162 games. We’re going to forget about this and get ready for the next one.”

Now, Texas has all the pressure as they try to make another run deep into October.

These are the same Rangers who twice came within one strike of the franchise’s first World Series championship before losing Games 6 and 7 to the wild-card St. Louis Cardinals. It was Texas’ second near miss in as many years after losing the 2010 World Series to the Giants.

“We have to go win that playoff game,” Napoli said. “We didn’t come here to lose. They got it done and we didn’t, plain and simple. It’s going to be a tough road.”

The life and times of Sam Stafford

Sam Stafford, shown here after being drafted by the Yankees in 2011, had quite a year.
Sam Stafford, shown here after being drafted by the Yankees in 2011, had quite a year.

You have been drafted by the Boston Red Sox, the New York Yankees and the Texas Rangers.

 

You have, in the same season, started inconsequential Tuesday games and the postseason opening -- and in that time period have fluctuated from the most inconsistent starter to the staff's best.

 

You are Sam Stafford, if you haven't figured it out by now.

 

It has been a wild ride for Stafford, who was drafted by the Yankees in the second round of the 2011 First-Year Player Draft. Concerns over a slight tear in Stafford's left shoulder cooled New York's interest, and Stafford returned for his senior campaign, but lost it to shoulder surgery in February. Despite missing a year, Stafford was drafted by the Texas Rangers in the 13th round of this years draft.

 

So, what's the talented left-hander up to now? Well, thanks to that shoulder injury, he's just waiting until next month.

 

"I should start my throwing program at the beginning of August," Stafford said via text this week. "I'll start slow with it, and see how my shoulder responds."

 

Stafford, one of four Longhorns drafted, doesn't expect to be "game ready" until Spring Training in February.

 

But until then, let's recap -- blurb by blurb, quote by quote -- Stafford's last 16 months.

 

Feb. 19, 2011: In his first action of his junior season, Stafford yields four runs in 5 2/3 innings pitched against Maryland.

 

March 6, 2011: Earns a win with 5 1/3 scoreless innings, striking out seven, against Stanford.

 

March 23, 2011: After giving way to Hoby Milner in the weekend rotation on March 15, Stafford is given the weekday pitching spot -- charged with stopping Houston Baptist (at the time, 1-16). It's not primetime, but Stafford approaches it as such.

 

"We have to make sure we're focused [on weekday series]," Stafford told The Daily Texan the day before the game. "I'm not going to look at Houston Baptist any differently than I would another team."

 

April 5, 2011: Improved to 4-0 with seven innings of no-hit ball, with seven strikeouts, against Texas A&M Corpus Christi.

 

April 15, 2011: Texas' middle-relief is struggling, so head coach Augie Garrido moves Milner to the bullpen and names Stafford the Sunday starter. Again, same mental approach.

 

"The dugout and the environment will be a little more intense during the weekend games, but I have to have the same approach," Stafford said on the day Garrido announced the news.*

 

*Of all my interviews with Stafford, this remains my favorite: in the Texas training room, holding my voice recorder up to Stafford's mouth as he spins on the stationary bike.

 

Let's skip ahead to June 2, 2011, when Garrido announces Stafford will start the postseason opener against Princeton in the Austin Regional. At this point, Stafford has five wins with a 1.70 ERA. But, evidenced by his 37 walks in 63 innings, there are some command issues.

 

"He's had trouble being consistent from inning to inning, pitch to pitch, but he's brought most of that under control now," Garrido says at the time.

 

It doesn't hurt that Stafford has experience facing something-to-prove teams, as he did most Tuesdays.

 

"Princeton is going to come in with a chip on its shoulder," Stafford said.

 

June 3, 2011: Stafford tosses seven innings, giving up two hits and one run, as Texas beats Princeton 5-3.

 

June 6, 2011: With the season on the brink, Stafford takes the ball against Kent State in the Austin Regional Championship. The Longhorns used six pitchers in the game -- including Taylor Jungmann and Cole Green in relief scenarios -- but it was Stafford who set the tone, going 3 2/3 innings and striking out five. Texas wins, 5-0.

 

June 7, 2011: One day later, the New York Yankees take Stafford No. 88 overall in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft. Stafford is definitely ready for the jump, and that's apparent to all in his same-day availability.

 

"Who wouldn't want to be drafted by the Yankees?" Stafford said. "To go from the University of Texas to New York is awesome. I couldn't imagine myself going to a better ballclub. I've always loved the watch them play."

 

June 13, 2011: With a trip to Omaha on the line, Stafford pitches four innings against Arizona State in the Super Regional Championship, giving up two runs, all off a home run in the first inning.

 

June 20, 2011: In a win-or-go-home situation in the College World Series, Stafford enters the game against North Carolina in the sixth inning, with his team trailing, 2-0. He goes three innings, giving up run. Texas loses, 3-0. Stafford's last ever pitch as a Longhorn? A swinging strike.

 

August 15, 2011: Shockingly, MLB's deadline to sign draft picks passes without Stafford inking with the Yankees. Whispers of "shoulder tear" are prevalent.

 

September 29, 2011: The Longhorns begin fall practice, and 'ole No. 19 looks ready to fill the role as staff ace.

 

"At first there were mixed emotions about coming back," Stafford said. "I thought I was about to start my professional career...but it's a business. I keep saying everything happens for a reason, though, and I'm excited to begin this year."

 

February 13, 2012: A crushing blow: Texas announces Stafford will have season-ending shoulder surgery a week before the opener. Continued tightness had led Stafford to get an MRI, which told him his left shoulder -- the one the Yankees were so worried about -- had not fully healed.

 

May 24, 2012: The Longhorns lose to Kansas, 4-2, in the Big 12 Conference Tournament, and are not invited to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998.

 

June 5, 2012: Despite being out of baseball a full year, Stafford is selected in the 13th round of the 2012 First-Year Player Draft by the Texas Rangers. No. 426 isn't quite No. 88, but there's no way Stafford is passing it up. Stafford signs two days later.

 

"I'm extremely excited," he told MLB.com. "In my opinion, as a pitcher, you can't have a better boss than Nolan Ryan. He's the best one to do it. It'll be a lot of fun. I'm a Texas guy, so I'm extremely excited to be staying with a Texas team."

 

Some things just don't change. 

A Derek Jeter tribute: A lot of words for a lot of hits

“Perfect” — the most overused and inappropriate of all the sports hyperbole. Rarely is anything ever “without error, flaw, or fault, or excellent and ideal in every way” (Merriam Webster’s). Hardly is any sports feat truly perfect.

When perfection does happen, it’s immortalized — there have been 20 perfect games thrown in baseball, and each of those pitchers is labeled as the “man who threw the perfect game.” It’s remembered — unlike an all-time hits list, nobody who has thrown a perfect game will ever be bumped off. Perfection is perfection is perfection, and it can never be topped.

Or can it?

You can make the case that Derek Jeter’s day on July 9 of 2011 was better than perfect, and here’s how.

To start, topping perfection can only happen if the moment is bigger than the box score. If it’s September (or August) and the Astros are officially out of the playoff race and, say, Hunter Pence goes 4-for-4 with four home runs and 16 runs batted in, then that’s perfect. But it’s not better than perfect, because it really means nothing on a larger scale.

So the stage was set, before he ever stepped into the batters box, for Jeter’s Saturday in the Bronx to be perfect. The chase for 3,000 hits was still on, the Yankees only had two games left before the All-Star break, which would be followed by eight consecutive away games. So the pressure was on for Jeter to get hits No. 2,999 and 3,000 in front of the fans he grew up playing in front of. Those circumstances are grand enough.

Jeter needed two hits. He got five.

Before Saturday, he had hit 236 home runs — with just two this season, both coming on the same day earlier this year against Texas. So, in the middle of season No. 17 in the bigs, Jeter has averaged just under 14 long balls a year. It’s likely that he won’t get 10 this season.

That’s necessary information to know when looking at Jeter’s career. As almost anybody can tell just by watching him and by looking at statistics, he is the farthest thing from a power hitter. The single is his thing, an inside-outside swing with which he drives balls barreling toward him right back to right field. Before July 9, only 778 of Jeter’s hits were for extra bases. He doesn’t reach on triples very much, because he has played his whole career in Yankee Stadium — the new one has the same dimensions as the old one — which lacks the sort of gap capabilities triples require. He had 480 doubles, which seems like a lot, but nothing compared to 2,220 singles. Jeter has mastered the art of the single.

Hit No. 2,999 was a single; a slow roller through the third baseman and the shortstop. As he has gotten older and his skills have decreased, many of his hits of been weak rollers, finding some small hole in the infield.

Then Jeter turned back the clock 10 years and did something that you see only in movies: He belted a home run for his 3,000th hit, the second player ever to accomplish that feat. The pitch from lefthander David Price was a curveball on a 3-2 count. In his Yankee life, Jeter had hit just 6 percent of his home runs on a full count.

More hits were to come — a double, a single, and then the game-winning RBI in the eighth inning. The Yankees beat the Rays 5-4.

In his career, Jeter has gone long in every 40 at-bats. This season, he has hit a home run in every 95 at-bats.

Those numbers equate to some ridiculously low probabilities that Jeter’s 3,000th hit would be a home run on a 3-2 count off a curveball, when he was surely looking for a fastball.

Perfect.

Unlike most other historic Yankees, Jeter doesn’t have a true nickname — ‘Captain’ is more of a title, not really a moniker.

The Yankee Clipper is a nickname; The Iron Horse is a nickname. Mr. October is one, The Commerce Comet is one, Sultan of Swat is one. He is not known affectionately by just a single name, like Yogi, Whitey, and Billy.

He is not The Derek, or The Jeter — unlike The Babe or The Mick. He is just Derek Jeter, No. 2, shortstop, captain of the New York Yankees.

Except for that one night when, for a fleeting moment, he was Mr. November.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 delayed the start of that year’s baseball postseason, which meant the New York Yankees would play Game 4 of the 2001 World Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Halloween night, October 31.

A 3-3 tie took the game into extra innings, past midnight, and the scoreboard at old Yankee Stadium read: “Attention Fans, Welcome to NOVEMBER BASEBALL.”

In the bottom of the 10th, at 12:03 a.m., Derek Jeter hit a walk-off home run to right field off Byung-Hyun Kim on — wait for the kicker — a 3-2 count.

It was the first non-exhibition November game in MLB history, and it made Jeter, for a night at least, Mr. November — a spin-off of Reggie Jackson’s Mr. October, which was given to him when he torched the Dodgers with three home runs in the deciding game of the 1977 World Series.

Taking Kim deep remains one of the most iconic memories of Jeter’s career. So, for a player not known for power, 3-2 count home runs were linked on Jeter’s 3,000th hit.

Perfect.

The 5-for-5 day Jeter turned in against the Rays Saturday was technically a perfect hitter’s box score. For every time he came up, he successfully came through.

So that makes him perfect, but not anything more.

What does make him better than perfection is this: His team won.

Jeter is not the best winner ever — Yogi Berra is. And he’s not the best Yankee ever. Even crazier, he’s not the best modern-day Yankee — that’s Mariano Rivera.

He’s not some once-in-a-lifetime talent. Honestly, he’s not. When you have almost 10,000 at-bats in your career, and if you remain healthy, you will most likely reach 3,000 hits. Just ask Craig Biggio. What he is a once-in-a-lifetime professional. He plays the game the right way. He handles the notorious New York media. He has handled all the criticism this season that comes with a nasty off-season contract dispute, and has for years listened to people call him “overrated.”

Given how much coverage he is given — it seems like if Derek Jeter wakes up in the morning and eats Cheerios instead of his usual Wheaties, it makes Sportscenter — he probably is overrated.

But he wins. He has enough rings to fill a hand and he will be in contention for more. He has been a part of 1,513 wins since 1996.

Winning, above all else, is what Jeter does.

Getting hit No. 3,000 made his day perfect. That it came off another unlikely 3-2 pitch did too. Going 5-for-5 made it perfect as well.

But winning the game, as usual, made Derek Jeter’s day better than perfect. 

Rangers manager Ron Washington throws during batting practice Thursday, in Arlington. The Rangers are scheduled to play the New York Yankees or the Detroit Tigers in the AL championship series that begin on Saturday.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

ARLINGTON — The Texas Rangers are back in the AL championship series and waiting for an opponent.

This is a team that didn’t win a postseason series in the franchise’s first 49 seasons before getting to the World Series last year. Now the Rangers have advanced in the playoffs two years in a row.

“We committed ourselves to a goal [last spring] and they made it to that goal, we are getting another opportunity to play to go to the World Series,” manager Ron Washington said Wednesday, a day after the Rangers wrapped up their AL division series with a 4-3 victory at Tampa Bay.

“I don’t see where it gives us any advantage,” he said. “The only thing it does, we certainly know what we have to do. I think our guys are more aware of getting to this point is not where we want to be. We want to be playing in the
World Series.”

Game 1 of the AL championship series is Saturday. For the Rangers, it will be either an ALCS rematch starting at the New York Yankees or at home against Detroit.

Texas won its first-ever playoff game 15 years ago at old Yankee Stadium before New York won three in a row to clinch that series. The Yankees swept the 1998 and 1999 series, outscoring Texas 23-2 in those six games. New York went to the World Series all three times.

Fittingly, the Rangers clinched its first World Series berth after beating the Yankees in a six-game AL championship series last October before losing in five games to San Francisco.

Texas backed up its first AL pennant by setting a franchise record with 96 wins this season. They have won three AL playoff series in a row after eliminating the Rays in four games.

“You don’t accomplish things like that unless you’ve got a lot of people with the same vision pulling hard and pulling together,” said general manager Jon Daniels, who is wrapping up his sixth season in that position. “We set out a few years ago to try to build something that would sustain over time, and we’re not there yet. But hopefully we’ll be able to look back 10 years from now and say, ‘Hey, we did something pretty special.’”

Rangers players got a day off Wednesday, their first at home since Sept. 12 when they had a break during a homestand.

“We take the rest today. ... We need it,” Washington said. “We played down the stretch. Although I gave a few guys some days off, I certainly didn’t give them as many days off or as much time off as I wanted to, but we were constantly playing at a high level because even though we won the division, we still had to play at a high level to make sure we kept the home-field advantage.”

C.J. Wilson, who lost the AL division series opener against Tampa Bay, is set to start Game 1 of the AL championship series. Washington said the rest of the rotation would be determined once the Rangers know who they are playing.
During the regular season, the Rangers struggled against both Detroit and New York.

Texas was 2-7 and outscored 62-35 by the Yankees, including a 1-5 mark in New York. CC Sabathia, the likely starter for the ALCS opener if New York advances, beat the Rangers twice this season and in Game 5 in last year’s series.

The Rangers were 3-6 against Detroit. The winning pitcher for all three Texas victories was Alexi Ogando, who is now in the bullpen instead of the rotation for the playoffs. Ogando had three scoreless appearances against the Rays.