Since it began just over three months ago, the 2011 major league baseball season has been one of the craziest and most unexpected in recent memory.
Heading into this week’s All-Star break, the Cleveland Indians and Pittsburg Pirates were title contenders in the same season for the first time since...well, maybe for the first time ever. The Tampa Bay Rays had made a more than respectable showing in the rugged American League East despite the loss of one star, Carl Crawford, to free agency and another, Evan Longoria, to an injury that kept him out for the first month and a half of the season.
In San Franciso, the defending world champion Giants are showing their title from 2010 was no fluke, winning one close game after another despite an offense that a lot of minor league teams would be embarrassed to put on the field. Instead, they’re doing it with a pitching staff that will have four representatives — starters Tim Lincecum, Ryan Vogelsong and Matt Cain and closer Brian Wilson — on the National League team for Tuesday night’s All-Star Game.
Halfway across the country, Tony LaRussa has done a masterful job keeping the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central hunt, despite losing his top pitcher (Adam Wainwright) to a season-ending injury in spring training, seeing his No. 2 starter (Chris Carpenter) open the season 1-7 and having three of his top four offensive players — Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday and David Freese — on the field together for only a handful of games because of injuries.
The Boston Red Sox, almost everybody’s favorite to win a third world title in eight seasons (can that be right?) after the offseason signings of Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, got off to the worst start in team history but recovered to take over the top spot in the AL East from their old rivals, the Yankees, in the week before the All-Star break.
In Texas, the Rangers were, as expected, atop the AL West but not without some drama. Josh Hamilton, the reigning American League Most Valuable Player, broke his arm while trying to score from third on a foul pop in front of the third base dugout in the first week of the season, and fellow slugger Nelson Cruz also made his annual trip to the disabled list — one of dozens by baseball’s brightest stars to do so — during the first half of the season.
But Michael Young, almost an afterthought when the year began, has been putting up MVP numbers of his own, and the Texas pitching staff — always a sore spot before Nolan Ryan took over the team and established his own list of priorities — has been a solid complement to an offense that is one of the best in baseball now that Hamilton and Cruz are healthy.
But the Rangers’ road to another AL West title — which still has to survive challenges from the Angels and an upstart Mariner squad that has one of the league’s top pitching staffs — took a tragic turn last week. A 39-year-old fireman, Shannon Stone, who was at Thursday’s Rangers-A’s game in Arlington with his six-year-old son, died in a fall from the second deck of the stadium after catching a ball flipped into the stands by Hamilton.
Despite all of the season’s unexpected twists and turns so far, baseball entered the All-Star break as the only major American sport not currently in a lockout, and, ironically, Hamilton’s flip to Stone Thursday was a carryover from baseball’s last strike (in 1994). To curry favor with fans who were disgusted with their labor strife, baseball’s powers-that-be encouraged players to begin throwing foul balls into the stands as gestures of good will once play resumed. In a roundabout way, Stone was a casualty (and hopefully the final one) of baseball’s last lockout.
The craziness of the season even extended to selections for the All-Star game. Texas manager Ron Washington and San Francisco’s Bruce Bochy obviously faced some tough decisions this year, but some of their selections — or snubs — were pretty strange.
Washington can be excused for having a bias toward the New York Yankees (heck, anybody who isn’t a Yankee fan is biased toward them), and he could have been influenced by the fact that four pinstripers — Robinson Cano, Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Curtis Granderson — were voted to start Tuesday (although Rodriguez and Jeter won’t play).
We can also cut him a little slack for leaving former Ranger Mark Teixeira — second in the AL in home runs with 25 and third in RBIs with 65 — off the team because of the depth at first base this season — but just a little.
Teixeira’s snub might be attributed to his .243 batting average, but that doesn’t explain why Washington failed to add Chicago’s Paul Konerko to the AL reserves. Konerko, who will play in the game because he was voted in by the fans as the AL’s at-large final pick, entered Saturday’s action with 22 home runs and 65 RBIs and was hitting .319 to rank fourth in the AL.
Washington also showed his pinstripe bias on the pitching staff, where he included six relief pitchers and his own ace, C.J. Wilson (9-3, 3.20 ERA) but excluded Yankee ace C.C. Sabathia, who is tied with Atlanta’s Jair Jurrjens for the major league lead in wins with 12 and has a solid 2.90 ERA.
Also, Washington included set-up man Aaron Crow on his pitching staff as Kansas City’s only representative on the team (every club has to have at least one) and left off two other Royals — Melky Cabrera (.291 average with 11 home runs, 49 RBIs, 23 doubles and 12 stolen bases) and Alex Gordon (.301, 10 homers, 47 RBIs, 24 doubles) — who have All-Star numbers.
While Cabrera and Gordon sit at home, Matt Joyce was named to the team. Joyce led the American League in hitting for the first month and a half of the season, but his average has dropped to .287, he has only 11 home runs and 40 RBIs, and he entered Saturday’s play with three hits in his last nine games.
Bochy also made several questionable additions to his roster while snubbing the best offensive player on the team with the best record in baseball and the offensive catalyst of the most surprising team in the majors this summer.
While Philadelphia’s Placido Polanco — hitting .287 but without a hit in four straight games or an RBI in 10 straight before Saturday — will start at third base for the National League, teammate Ryan Howard will be only a spectator.
Howard entered the weekend with 18 home runs, 71 RBIs (second in the NL), 18 doubles and a respectable .258 average. In the fans’ defense, third base is an exceedling shallow position in the NL this summer; in Bochy’s, Howard might simply have been a casualty of the numbers game at first base, where Milwaukee’s Prince Fielder (the NL starter) and Cincinnati’s Joey Votto were hard to choices to argue with and the third first baseman on the roster, Gaby Sanchez, is Florida’s only All-Star.
It’s a little harder to make a case for leaving Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutcheon off the NL squad, though.
McCutcheon has been the sparkplug of an offense with no other proven stars, and he entered the weekend on an amazing roll. He had hit .361 in his previous 10 games to raise his average for the season to .291, and he also had 13 home runs, 49 RBIs, 15 stolen bases, 53 runs scored and 22 doubles heading into Saturday.
In contrast, Andre Ethier — named to replace the injured Shane Victorino late last week — has seven home runs, 42 RBIs and 23 doubles and, despite a .311 average, has just 10 hits and five RBIs with 13 strikeouts (in just 38 at-bats) in his last 10 games.
Another NL reserve, Cincinnati’s Jay Bruce, also started the season on fire but, like Ethier, has cooled off considerably. Bruce’s power numbers (20 home runs, 56 RBIs) aren’t a lot better than those of McCutcheon, and he was hitting just .158 in his previous 10 games before going 2-for-4 Friday.
And Bochy’s prejudice toward his own pitching staff was also apparent. While Lincecum (6-7, 3.14) and Cain (7-5, 3.22) are on the NL pitching staff, Atlanta’s Tommy Hanson (10-4, 2.52), Pittsburg’s Jeff Karstens (7-4, 2.55), Milwaukee’s Yovani Gallardo (10-5, 3.76) and Arizona’s Ian Kennedy (9-3, 3.44) won’t be.