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Prediction and Preview of the NL Wild Card Game

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On a day that’s only occurred six other times in my 31 ½ years on this earth, the Cubs are hours away from getting their 2015 playoff season under way in Pittsburgh.  As you’ve probably heard by now the game is set for first pitch at 19:08 hrs. Military time on 10-7 or 107 years since the last title.  Let’s try to get past superstitions and try to plant a seed of why this year is different than the past.  Here’s five reasons I’m picking the Cubs to move the Pirates to face their arch nemesis, the St. Louis Cardinals.

  1. Joe Maddon

Maddon has been the talk of baseball all season.  The best move of the offseason, Maddon has made the right moves all season.  Whether it be drawing the media’s attention away from the club when they’d have issues, playing players in different positions so he has as many options as possible, sitting players in a slump to get a spark out of them, or keeping things light around the club house with late arrival days and costume days.  They say managers are responsible for a few wins or loses a season.  Baseball Reference used their Pythagorean W-L formula to calculate the Cubs at 90 wins, so the argument could be made Maddon is responsible for at least seven of the Cubs wins.  Win or lose, Maddon should be manager of the year with how he’s managed this team.

1A.  Jake Arrieta

To say Arrieta has been dominate in the last half of the season would be a true understatement.  In the first half of the season he went 10-5 in 18 starts, giving up 35 earned runs in the process.  In the second half of the season, Arrieta went 12-1 in 15 starts while only surrendering 9 earned runs in those games.  On normal days rest (4 days),  Arrieta is 11-2 with a 1.02 ERA in 16 starts.  In night games, Arrieta is 14-2 with a 1.51 ERA in 20 starts including two complete game shutouts.  In PNC Park this season, he has a 0.82 ERA in three starts this season with 0 home runs and 17 strikeouts.  Lastly, the Cubs ace is 13-1 on the road this season with a 1.60 ERA this season.

Tired of stats?  How about this last goodie:  Against the Pirates, Arrieta is 3-1 in five starts this season with a 0.75 ERA.  It’s the second best ERA he has against a team that he’s faced two or more times.

Feeling better going into this game?  The man has been dominate this season and is well deserved to be in the Cy Young Award conversation.  After listening and seeing interviews with Arrieta leading up to this game, the guy is definitely confident.  Some have even called it cocky, but,on this team, it’s exactly what they need.  This is the biggest reason I’m picking the Cubs.

  1. Starlin Castro

This season Castro has definitely been a hot topic among Cubs fans, whether it be his hitting slumps or his lack of attention in the field.  However, ever since Maddon benched Castro after a pitiful defensive display against the Cincinnati where he had three errors.  Castro has had 17 at-bats against Cole in the last five seasons and has a .353 average with four RBI’s against him.  This could be Castro’s chance to redeem himself in the eyes of Cubs fans and the best news is he’s been hot.  In the last 27 games Castro has hit .369 with five home runs and 21 runs batted in.  The other bright spot about his performance lately, Castro has had only one error since his 3 error game Aug. 31st.  I believe his bat will be alive tonight versus Pittsburgh and he’ll leave the game with no errors.

  1. Defense

The defense has been solid across the board (especially lately with Castro’s head back in the game).  For the 2015 season the eight position players have combined for 85 errors (including Castro’s 24 errors).  The one question a lot of media has brought up yesterday and today is whether having Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber in not at their respective usual positions of third and left field going to cause an issue.  The outfield in Pittsburgh is larger than normal in left and right fields.  The foul line in left is 325 ft. from home plate and left center jumps out to 410 ft. deep which is actually longer than center field (399 ft. deep).  That’ll be the challenge for Bryant and Dexter Fowler to deal with in tonight’s game defensively.

In right, the jump isn’t quite as deep but it goes out to 375 ft. in right center.  Schwarber will have to navigate that on his side of the field along with making sure to not run all the way to the wall if a ball is going to ricochet off the wall.  I believe both guys have the speed and baseball smarts to be able to play well in the outfield.  By the end of the game both may not be in the outfield anyway due to double switches and defensive subs.

The other issue on defense people have been talking about is Tommy La Stella playing third base.  According to Jesse Rogers of ESPN 1000AM, he watched La Stella take several grounders at third base yesterday prepping for tonight’s game.  La Stella only has played 52 innings at third base this season.  Eleven of those games have come since August 26th, and he only had one error in those appearances.

The feeling is that Maddon is trying to load his lineup with lefties to face the right-handed Garrit Cole tonight.  This season La Stella has hit .286 with one home run and 11 RBI against right-handed pitchers.  There probably come a time in the game where for defensive reasons or even just straight up pitching hitting substituting, La Stella will probably exit the game in the 7th inning or later.

  1. Anthony Rizzo

If you’re looking for a side bet heading into these playoffs, bet on who will be hit more in the playoffs:  Anthony Rizzo or every other team’s players?  Rizzo has been hit by a pitch a whopping 30 times this season.  Since he covers the plate so much, I wouldn’t be shock if while trying to jam Rizzo, Cole hits him at least one time.

Rizzo stands the best chance at seeing a pitch over the plate.  He’ll have to do as much damage as he can with those pitches.  He carries a .353 batting average against Cole with one RBI.  If the Pirates decide to shift on Rizzo, don’t be shocked if the bases are empty, and Rizzo actually attempts to lay down a bunt or a chop swing to the left side to try to beat the shift.

This game will come down to cleverness.  Something like Rizzo bunting to the left side could lead to a big inning or even the one run Arrieta needs to carry the Cubs.  The Cubs have a clever manager and young, fun, clever players who would do anything Maddon asks them to do.

Prediction for the game

5-1 Cubs win.  Arrieta goes eight innings with one earned run on 4 hits, 7 strikeouts, and one walk.  Rodon comes into the game in the 9th and will give up one hit, a double-play and a strike out to close out the game.

BASEBALL AND GAMBLING: MLB Has No Excuse To Not Reinstate Rose, Jackson

“Shoeless” Joe Jackson with the White Sox

This season marks a new era in Major League Baseball. MLB has announced an “official” partnership with DraftKings. Draftkings is an app for playing fantasy sports. Basically, once you download the app you can “buy in” and begin playing on a day-by-day basis, and you can win money based upon the performances of the players you select.

Why do I say this is a new era? Because for the first time, Major League Baseball is in the business of gambling on baseball. Let me repeat that…Major League Baseball is in the business of gambling on baseball.

In the past, MLB has always had a zero tolerance policy when it comes to gambling. Great players like Joe Jackson have been banned for life for merely taking money from gamblers, despite not doing anything to throw games. Pete Rose, the all-time leader in hits, has been banned for betting on his own team. As many times as Rose has asked for reinstatement, or as many times as people have petitioned on behalf of Jackson (or his teammate Buck Weaver), baseball has always refused on the basis of zero-tolerance.

Pete Rose hits the dirt in Wrigley Field

Pete Rose hits the dirt in Wrigley Field

Now that MLB has entered into a partnership with DraftKings, any attempt to justify keeping Rose or Jackson from being reinstated, and ultimately considered for the Baseball Hall Of Fame, is a false equivalency on MLB’s part.

In the past, MLB has always been able to claim a moral high ground when it comes to gambling. Now they are active participants. As such, there is now implicit approval toward gambling on baseball. In fact, as much as they may want to believe this will never find its way down to players, they have accepted the very real risk that it will.

In fact, at this point, how would they punish any players who use a product endorsed by MLB? What if some relief pitcher is in a game, 4 or 5 runs ahead or behind, facing a hitter that he picked on DraftKings? What if a manager picked one of his guys on DraftKings and leaves him in or takes him out based upon his value in fantasy points? Isn’t that exactly why Rose was suspended?

Yet here we are. MLB has decided to take the revenue from gambling, and therefore must take all the circumstances ot that revenue. And a huge circumstance is that they no longer have any justification to preserve the banishments of players who have been involved with gambling on baseball.

They’ve sold their guardianship of the integrity of the game.

White Sox Look to Reset in Home Opener

After a dreadful start to the 2015 season in which the team scored only two runs in two of the three games against the division rival Kansas City Royals, the White Sox will face the dismal Minnesota Twins in front of a packed house, on beautiful day on the south side.

The Sox will send right-hander Hector Noesi out to the mound against a Twins team that has combined to score one run in three games in their opening series against the Tigers. In his career Noesi has a 2-1 win-loss record against the Twins with a 4.19 ERA.

The key player to watch in the Twins lineup today is an obvious one in Joe Mauer. The first baseman is the only player on the twins with more than two hits and is the Twins only run on the season. Mauer has been Mr. Consistent in his career, although he is coming off a career low .277 average last season. With the White Sox having issues getting their offense going, it’ll be important to keep Mauer from causing too much damage by keeping second baseman Brian Dozier and Eduardo Escobar off the bases.

On the White Sox side of the field, the team needs to focus on trying to find a spark against a bad team to get the offense going. Against the Twins left-hander Tommy Milone, Adam Eaton needs to get the lineup going at the top of the order. Eaton’s had only one hit in twelve at-bats and is a key to making the pitchers uncomfortable on the mound by being on base when Melky Cabrera, Jose Abreu and Adam LaRoche come up to the plate.

While starting 0-3 isn’t ideal and not what every White Sox fan expected it’s also not the end of the world. However 26 out of the first 29 games are against the central division so it’s important the White Sox find their stride quicker than usual.

Lineup for the Sox according to WhiteSox.com:
1. Eaton – CF
2. Cabrera – LF
3. Abreu – 1B
4. Garcia – RF
5. LaRoche – DH
6. Ramirez – SS
7. Beckham – 3B
8. Flowers – C
9. Johnson – 2B

Noesi – SP

OPENING DAY: Remembering Minnie

Minnie in 1956 Spring Training, thanks to Sports Illustrated.

Minnie in 1956 Spring Training, thanks to Sports Illustrated.

When the White Sox take the field in US Cellular Field for their home opener, there will be less sunshine than there has been in years past. Part of their ceremonies will have to include saying goodbye to Minnie Minoso.

Orestes “Minnie” Minoso was born in Cuba in 1922, and began playing baseball in Cuba before coming to the United States in 1946 to play for the New York Cubans in the Negro National League. He played third base for the Cubans for three years, playing in the East-West All Star Game in his future home, Comiskey Park.

After the 1948 season, Bill Veeck signed him for the Cleveland Indians. Veeck had already signed Negro Leaguers such as Larry Doby and Satchel Paige, and the Indians won the World Series in 1948, the first integrated team to do so.

When Minoso played his first game for the Indians, he became the first black Cuban to play in the major leagues, getting the chance that greats like Martin Dihigo never got. He played a handful of games for Cleveland in 1949, and a few mre in 1951 before being traded to the Sox.

He then had an outstanding rookie season, hitting .324 with 10 home runs and 14 triples playing in cavernous Comiskey. He finished second in the AL Rookie of the Year race to Gil McDougald, despite having a statistically superior year. He also outshone another Yankee rookie, Mickey Mantle.

Minoso became one of baseball’s most exciting players, combining speed and power to become the Sox version of Mantle or Willie Mays. He never put up the huge numbers those players did, particularly home runs, but he still managed 4 years where he finished top 5 in MVP voting, and he (along with the oother members of the Go-Go Sox) were responsible for bringing the stolen base back as an offensive weapon.

He played with the Sox until December 1957, when he was traded along with Fred Hatfield back to Cleveland for Al Smith and Early Wynn. While that trade took away Minoso’s opportunity to play on the 1959 pennant winners, the team may not have made it to the World Series withut Smith or Wynn.

He was traded back to the Sox in December 1959, and his once-again owner Veeck gave him an honorary American League Champion ring. He had his last great season in 1960, hitting .311 and winning his third Gold Glove.

After the 1961 season, he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals. He spent a year there, then was sold to Washington. In the 1964 season, the Sox brought him back for his third tour. He played 30 games, mainly as a pinch hitter, before being released during the season.

You’d think that would be it, right? Minnie went to Mexico and played and coached there until 1973, when he came back to the Sox as a coach. When Veeck re-bought the Sox before the 1976 season, he signed the 50 year old Minoso to a player contract. Minnie played 3 games, going 1-for-8 as a DH.

Minnie also was activated in 1980 at age 54, and was hitless in 2 at bats. This meant he played in the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. He also played in the 90s for an independent minor league team owned by Veeck’s son.

After his playing days were done, he was an ambassador for the Sox, always livening up the ballpark. He was also an elder statesman among Cuban baseball players, bridging the eras between the Negro Leagues and players who came later, like Tony Oliva and Luis Tiant, then Freddy Garcia and Jose Canseco, then Yasiel Puig and Jose Abreu.

He’s got a statue outside US Cellular Park, and he’ll always be beloved among Sox fans.

Thanks Minnie.

OPENING NIGHT: Remembering Mr. Cub

I kept this card in my pocket until is was just a blank wad of cardboard.

I kept this card in my pocket until is was just a blank wad of cardboard.

This winter, as we Cub fans thought about the team that was taking shape for the 2015 season and beyond, we could think about experiencing things that Cub fans haven’t experienced for decades, or even a century. However, there was one thing we hadn’t counted on.

This marks the first baseball season in over six decades without Ernie Banks. Ernie left us the night of January 23, and it makes perfect sense that he went at night. Ernie lived in the sunshine, just as the sunshine lived in him. He brought joy to a game that should always have joy. Every time you saw Ernie Banks, he was always cheerful. In fact, he once said, “I treat everyone as if they have a sign that says, ‘make me happy.'” That sunshine within Banks was why everyone, Cub fan or not, even those who were born after he no longer played, loved him.

Everyone who ever met him was always treated like the most important person in the room by him. I took my wife to the 1994 Emil Verban Memorial Society luncheon (it’s a real thing, I promise), and Banks was holding court. As my wife approached, he turned and introduced himself, “Hi, I’m Ernie Banks.” Of course the fact that my wife happens to be a knockout didn’t hurt either But everyone got the thrill of not only meeting this great player, but also a great man.

As a four-year-old going to his first Cub game in 1967, all I knew going in was that the Cubs wore blue hats like mine, and Ernie Banks was Mr. Cub. All I wanted was for Banks to hit a home run that day. And he did. I don’t remember much about it (again, 4 years old), but my dad told me it was pretty much the same as every Banks home run, a rope to left field that you were never quite sure would clear the wall.

My dad was actually there the day Ernie hit #500. When I heard he was blowing off work to go, I wanted to blow off school to go too. He nixed that, but I managed to let the Cubs interfere with my education enough in later years…it was their fault, putting Wrigley Field right between Uptown and Lane Tech. But I digress…#500 was, again, classic Banks. Another rope into left. In fact, one habit I picked up from my dad was this kind of lifting motion with my hands, urging the ball over the wall. Kind of how a bowler waves at his ball trying to get it into the pocket. I know Dad was doing that as soon as Banks hit the ball. In fact, one of the biggest kicks I ever got was finding that ticket stub and showing it to Banks.

The name Mr. Cub fit him perfectly too. Not only because he was the greatest player in the history of the franchise, but he embodied the hope and optimism that we all feel, particularly then. The Cubs were contending for the first time in Banks’ career, and he believed as we all did…the Cubs would be great in ’68, the Cubs would shine in ’69, the Cubs would glow in 7-0. Something about the way he’d say it, we’d all believe. Hell, he had me believing those early 80s teams weren’t all that bad.

He had the same love for the game as I felt…when you’re a kid and school’s out, who didn’t want to play two? Three? Hell, as many as you could squeeze in before either the sun went down or it was time to eat. Ernie was right there with us, he just loved playing ball. Hell, his love of the game is why now that I’m in my 50s I still wear #14 when I play softball. Ernie was also a nightmare for baseball coaches all over Chicago, as every kid mimicked that finger-wiggling thing he did when he held the bat.

It was perfectly fitting that he was a Cub. When he got bought from the Kansas City Monarchs, the Cubs narrowly won a bidding war over the White Sox and Yankees. If Banks had been a Yankee, would his desire to play two every day have had the same ring? It’s easy to want to play more when you’re winning the pennant every year. If he had plied his trade in Comiskey Park, he would have turned the 1950s Sox teams from pretty good ones to great ones.

Instead, he was a Cub. In the late 50s, as he won back-to-back MVP trophies for second-division teams, it was said, “without Banks, the Cubs would finish in Albequerque.” Then once he got some help in the form of Ron Santo and Billy Williams, he had some more of his prime wasted with the “College of Coaches”. He was a diamond on a trash heap for the majority of his career.

Finally in the twilight of his career, he had a shot at contention. But as we all know, it was never to be. Still, his career spanned a watershed period for Major League Baseball. It started with him and Gene Baker integrating the Cubs in 1953, in an era where there were 16 major league teams, and none farther west than St. Louis. By the time he retired in 1971, there were 24 teams, including 5 in California. Of course, every team was integrated. When he came to Chicago, the great Cub power hitter of the era was Hank Sauer, a tobacco-chewing behemoth who swung a 40 ounce bat. Banks swung one in the low 30s, and looked like a buggy-whip when he unleashed into a pitch.

But his career was also a great one. One of the ten greatest shortstops of all time. 512 career home runs (including one on that day in 1967). An equal to his contemporaries, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.

But his joy, his optimism, it embodied what the Cubs are all about. Without that optimism, you could never endure the heartbreaks of 1969, 1970, 1984 or 2003. That optimism is what makes you believe that he’s in whatever astral plane you believe in, lobbying for cosmic intervention.

And if the time ever comes when the Cubs finally become the last team to win a baseball game in a season, you can believe a lot of us will find our thoughts going to Ernie Banks.

Thanks for that, Ernie.

Let’s play two.

Johnson, Relievers Give Royals First Loss in Spring

In the first division game of 2015, the Sox took on the undefeated American League Champion Kansas City Royals on Tuesday.
Jose Abreu, J.B Shuck, and Gordon Beckham helped give starting pitcher Tyler Danish some cushion in the first inning as all three knocked in a run each.
Danish would give up a solo home run to right in the bottom of the inning to Royals outfielder Jarrod Dyson. Danish, the seventh overall top prospect in the organization according to MLB.com, would go on to give up 2 more hits and another earned run in 2 1/3 innings in his first start of the spring.
Top hitter of the day goes to White Sox second baseman Micah Johnson who went four for four, scoring twice and had a RBI. In a battle for second base, Johnson’s doing his best to make a statement having hit six straight times in six at bats.
WhiteSox.com quoted manager Robin Ventura on Johnson’s spring, “You notice his speed and his range, even his at-bats, you start seeing what people are talking about and he’s getting in the middle of everything. He had some nice turns defensively, I thought he showed some of the range. He had the one ball that came out of his glove, but he still was able to get to it. He just continues to play hard and play with purpose.”
Relievers Zach Phillips, Raul Fernandez, Scott Carroll, Eric Surkamp combined for 6 2/3 scoreless innings and seven strikeouts.
The White Sox will take on the Texas Rangers next at Camelback Ranch at 3:05 PM Central Time today. Top prospect Carlos Rodon will return to the mound for the second time this spring. The last time he was on the mound he only gave up one hit in two innings with four strikeouts.

Quintana, White Sox Take on the Dodgers in Spring Training Opener

Under the blue skies at Camelback Ranch in Arizona the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers are getting ready to toss the first pitches in the 2015 spring training season for both teams.

Jose Quintana will take the mound for the north side against the stout Dodgers lineup that features Jimmy Rollins and Carl Crawford at the top of the lineup and a healthy mix of lefties and righties throughout the lineup. The mix in the lineup will give Quintana an excellent chance to work on whatever he needs to for hitters on both sides.

A couple players to keep an eye on during the game would be how Gordon Beckham does at third base and Carlos Sanchez at second base,  Both players are looking to make a statement this spring, going forward it’ll be interesting to see how both positions play out in the next month.

Another thing to watch out for is the lineup in general for the White Sox.  Throughout the offsesason it was expected that the lineup would feature Adam Eaton, Melky Cabrera, Jose Abreu, Adam LaRoche, Avisail Garcia, and Alexei Ramirez as the order of the top six.  It’ll be interesting to see if this lineup will prosper as is or how Manager Robin Ventura might tweak the lineup throughout the spring to see what different combinations are the most successful since a majority of the positions are already set.

The rest of the week will see the south side ball club take on the Dodgers again tomorrow, then will go to the Padres at , come back to Camelback Ranch to take on the Mariners Saturday and will go to the Athletics on Sunday.  Thursday, Friday and Saturday’s games are at 2:05 Central Time and Sunday’s game will be at 3:05 Central Time.