Wednesday, September 30, 2009

And then there were two

I refer to the number of undecided races remaining in baseball's hunt for October. It has been an inordinately uninteresting stretch run, with only the NL Wild Card (the Rockies lead the Braves by three games) and the AL Central (the Tigers lead the Twins by two games after the two teams split a doubleheader yesterday) races undetermined.

All the way back on September 10, the Yankees had built up a nine-game lead over the Red Sox, and the Angels and Phillies had five-game leads over the Rangers and Marlins, respectively. The Rockies had reduced their NL West deficit all the way down to two games, but the race lacked drama because the average fan knew only that the Dodgers had built up a seemingly insurmountable lead early in the season. And as you'll begrudgingly recall, the Cubs were approximately 70 games out of first by the time the September 10th rolled around.

The Tigers and Twins are 11 and 9 games over .500, respectively, and are vying for the chance to play the Yankees, who are 46 games over. Anything can happen in a best-of-five series (cough 2008 Cubs cough), but the two AL Central contenders would seem to be battling for the chance to get trounced and bounced by the Yanks. I hope I'm wrong. I'm especially rooting for the Tigers after reading this cliched ("Detroit's economy is struggling," etc., etc.) but still interesting story about the importance of a strong season for a team representing a city with a 29% unemployment rate and an average home price under $12,000.

There is actually one other race to watch: the Cardinals and Phillies are battling for home field in the first round of the playoffs. After yesterday's games, the Phillies are one up on the Cards. While the NLDS match-ups won't be determined until the Wild Card race is over, only one of those teams will host a series next week. So while it would seem that the Cardinals and Phillies are simply playing out the string at this point, every win still matters. With the Phillies owning the tiebreaker by virtue of their 4-1 record against the Cards this season, the Cardinals would have to end up with a better record than the Phillies in order to earn the home field advantage, so the Phils are effectively up by two games. (Note: technically, the Dodgers haven't yet clinched a better record than the Phillies or Cardinals, but they're close enough that we're going to ignore that for the sake of the sanity and readability of this paragraph.)

Tuesday: Cubs 6, Pirates 0

Ryan Dempster is starting to make the four-year, $52 million contract he signed last November look a little more reasonable. After tossing the third complete game shutout of his career, he's 11-8 with a 3.51 ERA on the season. He has a 1.39 ERA in September, and will hit the 200-inning mark if he can last just five innings this Sunday against Arizona. His stats definitely aren't akin to the ridiculous 17-6, 2.96 he put up last year to earn that contract, but he's finishing the season on a very high note.

And while it hasn't been talked about much of late, Gordon Wittenmyer reminded us today that for Dempster, the real drama this season has taken place off the field. Dempster and his wife have had to deal with their infant daughter Riley's unique affliction, and no doubt it took a toll on his on-field performance.

From the article:
Ryan's early season involved commuting from Chicago to Arizona, crib-side vigils when possible, giving blood for surgical procedures and countless sleepless nights followed by mind-numbed starts for a team that was supposed to contend for a pennant yet couldn't find its footing.

As recently as a few starts ago, Dempster's most recent rough start coincided with another hospital procedure for Riley.

''He's human,'' pitching coach Larry Rothschild said. ''And he handled it better than most people. But that doesn't mean it didn't have an effect. It did. Clearly.''

While Riley still suffers from DiGeorge's Syndrome, she is now home and doing better than she was, and hopefully Riley will continue to get better and 2010 Dempster will look more like today's version than the guy we saw in the first half of 2009.

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