Indians, Astros battle for AL’s top record and home field advantage

Houston routed Boston at Fenway Park on Thursday 

The Cleveland Indians and Houston Astros have long ago clinched their respective divisional crowns.

But as Major League Baseball’s regular season opens its final weekend, the two teams find that there is still an important battle to be fought.

With a record of 100-59, the Tribe have the top record in the American League. The Astros at 99-60 are just a game behind.

Should the two teams eventually meet, which would likely only happen in an ALCS matchup, then Cleveland would be awarded home field advantage, were the season to end today.

Of course, the 2017 season does not end today. The Astros and Indians still have three games each to play. Those games will determine which actually finishes with that best overall mark.

Terry Francona and his Indians will be at home this weekend, hosting the Chicago White Sox at Progressive Field. At 66-93, the Chisox have the second-worst record in the league.

The Astros and their skipper, A.J. Hinch, are up in Boston, where they opened a four-game series with a 12-2 rout on Thursday.

John Farrell and his Bosox team are trying to nail down the AL East crown for themselves. Boston is three games up on the traditional arch-rival New York Yankees with three to play.

Despite the loss to Houston, the Red Sox ‘Magic Number’ dropped to just 1 in order to clinch a second straight division title. That happened when the Yanks were taken down 9-6 by the Tampa Bay Rays on Thursday.

New York skipper Joe Girardi will be home this weekend at Yankee Stadium. There they will host the Toronto Blue Jays, still with a longshot hope to force a playoff for that AL East title. The Yankees would need a sweep, combined with a Boston sweep at the hands of Houston.

The likelihood is that at some point this weekend, Boston will indeed clinch that divisional crown, leaving the Houston-Cleveland fight for the top spot in the American League as the spotlight battle.

Should the two teams finish in a tie, the tie-breaker favors the Indians. During the regular season, Cleveland dominated Houston, winning five of their six head-to-head matchups.

The Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League have clinched the top overall mark in the senior circuit. The ‘Magic Number’ for the Dodgers to clinch home field in a potential World Series matchup is down to just 2 for Cleveland and 1 for Houston.

While the 2017 MLB season draws to a close for the majority of clubs this weekend, a handful still have something to play for, and it will be interesting for fans of the game to watch as final playoff berths and seeding are determined.

The MLB Postseason officially opens on Tuesday, October 3, with the American League Wildcard Game. That matchup is likely to find the Minnesota Twins facing New York at Yankee Stadium.

The National League Wildcard Game will be held the following day, on Wednesday, October 4. The Colorado Rockies are on the verge of clinching the final spot. Should they do so, they would visit the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field.

If any tie-breaker games are necessary, and those are still mathematically possible in the AL East and NL Wildcard, then those would be played on Monday, October 2, with locations to be determined.

As you can see, there are still a few details to be finalized. But we are now on the verge of October baseball. As temperatures cool down over the next four weeks, the drama and excitement will only heat up in America’s pastime.

Twins Paul Molitor should be the AL Manager of the Year

Molitor has guided surprising Twins to verge of postseason

The Minnesota Twins downed the repeat AL Central Division champion Cleveland Indians on Tuesday by an 8-6 score at Progressive Field.

With the victory, Minnesota lowered it’s ‘Magic Number’ to just 1 in order to clinch the final American League Wildcard playoff berth.

It appears to be a forgone conclusion at this point. A year after finishing 59-103, the worst record in all of MLB, the Twins are going to the playoffs.

There are many reasons that one can point to when looking for reasons as to how this happened. They have developed a versatile lineup. There is a chance that they finish with five hitters who each slam 20+ home runs, and 4-5 players who could steal bases in double digits.

On the mound, rookie Jose Berrios has been everything that the organization hoped as he climbed through their system to become a top prospect.

Berrios has gone 13-8 with a 3.93 ERA. The 23-year old righty has allowed just 129 hits over 144.1 innings in his 25 starts. His emergence has given the Twins a legit 1-2 rotation punch with veteran Ervin Santana.

They are receiving strong leadership and somewhat of a turn-back-the clock season of production from veteran Joe Mauer.

The popular St. Paul native is enjoying his best season since 2013, when he was honored with the last of his six career AL All-Star appearances and his fifth career Silver Slugger.

But possibly the biggest reason for Minnesota’s success has been the performance of yet another homegrown product, manager Paul Molitor.

Molitor is another St. Paul native. Like Mauer, he was a product of Cretin High School and Cretin-Derham High School. Unlike his first baseman, who was drafted right out of those high school ranks, Molitor also attended the University of Minnesota.

Following a 21-year career that ended with three final seasons playing for the Twins from 1996-98, Molitor was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

He finished that playing career with 3,319 hits as well as a career .304 average and 504 stolen bases. This made him one of just five players in history to finish with at least 3,000 hits, a .300 average, and 500 steals.

Molitor had been the 1978 AL Rookie of the Year runner-up, was a 7x AL All-Star, and a 4x Silver Slugger. In 1993, Molitor was the runner-up in the AL Most Valuable Player voting. Also that year he helped lead the Toronto Blue Jays to their second straight World Series crown, becoming MVP of the Fall Classic.

Following his retirement as an active player, “Molly” was hired as the Twins bench coach to longtime skipper Tom Kelly, serving three years in that position before joining the Seattle Mariners as their hitting coach.

Molitor returned to the Minnesota organization after just one year in Seattle, and spent the next nine years coaching throughout the Twins minor league system. In 2014 he was brought back to help coach the big leaguers.

Finally in 2015, Molitor was offered and accepted the chance to manage the Twins. His first season resulted in a winning 83-79 record, the club’s first winning campaign in five years. That was followed by last season’s worst-in-baseball debacle.

Kelly has seen this before in Minnesota, first-hand. The Twins skipper from 1986-2001, he led the franchise to it’s only two World Series championships in 1987 and 1991. That ’91 Twins club went from being the AL’s worst team in 1990 to world champions the following season.

I think Mr. Molitor and the staff have gotten a lot out of the players this year,” said Kelly per Sid Hartman of the Star Tribune. “…Paul has gotten an awful lot out of these guys and they’re playing the game well. I think Paul has done a very good job, without question.”

When your pitching staff ranks 22nd in all of baseball in ERA, 26th in Batting Average Against, and just 29th in MLB in strikeouts, yet you are on the verge of a playoff berth, the skipper is doing something right.

Outside of Santana, Berrios, and 3-4 others, there are few consistently reliable arms. Molitor has done a fabulous job of juggling what he has available, mixing and matching to near perfection.

He’s done a good job of using information that’s available,” said Mauer per Pat Borzi at MinnPost. “Nowadays sometimes there’s a lot more information than you might need, but I think he’s good at deciphering, trying something out, hearing things, and then applying it where you can.” 

There are certainly other strong candidates for the honors as American League Manager of the Year. Other leading contenders include A.J. Hinch of the Houston Astros, Joe Girardo of the New York Yankees, and Terry Francona of the Cleveland Indians.

But I could make an easy argument with you by simply scanning their rosters. Each of those men operates with a more talented roster than Molitor does in Minnesota. That’s not a slight to the Twins, but instead a nod to those other organizations overall talent.

For my money, the Twins aren’t sniffing a postseason berth, let alone on the verge of playing meaningful October baseball, without the job that Molitor has done at the helm. He is absolutely deserving of being honored as the 2017 AL Manager of the Year.

NFL players and other athletes getting it wrong with anthem/flag protests

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A major firestorm broke out in the American professional sports world this past week. That fire took the form of athletes protesting by kneeling, or not showing up at all, at the playing of the United States national anthem prior to games.

The protests were allegedly in response to comments made by the President of the United States, Donald Trump, in regards to a small number of NFL players who had taken part in such protests during the league’s opening week.

Trump stated that NFL owners should fire any player who undertakes such a protest, which he (and many others) deemed disrespectful to our nation. Specifically, the President was quoted:

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired. He’s fired!’

Various NFL teams responded by protesting the President’s comments in different ways. Some linked arms while the anthem was played. In some of those cases, team owners and other management personnel linked arms with their players in a show of solidarity.

In most cities, some of the players “took a knee”, knelt down in place, as “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played. In other cases, players simply sat on the bench.

In Oakland, rookie catcher Bruce Maxwell became the first, and thus far only, player in Major League Baseball to kneel during the anthem. Maxwell is the son of a United States Army veteran.

In Pittsburgh, the Steelers refused to even take the field, choosing to remain in their locker room while the anthem was played.

That action was taken, rather than standing with arms together, after a team vote which was reportedly very close. So they all remained in the locker room. Well, all except one player.

Alejandro Villanueva, a 6’9″, 320-lb offensive tackle, came and stood alone outside the tunnel which leads under the stands to the locker room. He stood honorably, at attention, with his hand over his heart as the anthem was played.

You see, Villanueva is not just a football player. He is also a former U.S. Army Ranger, a Bronze Star recipient, who served three tours in Afghanistan.

Last year, Villanueva spoke publicly about former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who set this anthem protest ball rolling when he knelt as it was played in San Francisco. Kaepernick was protesting what he feels is ongoing racial injustice in America.

Per Greg Norman of Fox News, Villanueva had been quoted by ESPN:

“I don’t know if the most effective way is to sit down during the national anthem with a country that’s providing you freedom, providing you $16 million a year…when there are black minorities that are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan for less than $20,000 a year.”

Villanueva had it absolutely right in my opinion. And I’ll go a step further. Not only is kneeling or sitting during the anthem not “the most effective way” to protest, but it is utterly disrespectful to our nation, and to the men and women who, like Villanueva, have served to protect us all.

You can disagree with the President of the United States all you like. I would be willing to bet that the vast majority of NFL players did not support him to begin with, and did not vote for him. As a group, most are already biased in their opinions of him, his policies, and his opinions.

However, where they get it wrong is in thinking that the American flag and the national anthem somehow are symbolic of the Presidency. That protesting as the anthem is being played is a viable protest of the man and/or his office and statements.

If you want to protest the President, pick up a sign and go march outside the White House. If you don’t like something he said, get the leader of your labor organization to request a sit-down with the man, and express your views in that formal manner.

When you kneel at the game as the anthem is being played, you are disrespecting millions of fans around the country. Hundreds of thousands are standing in those NFL stadiums, many with their hands over the hearts, singing the song.

Many of those fans served their country in the armed forces, or their country and/or community in law enforcement. They put on a uniform and put their lives on the line so that our way of life can continue. So that people like those NFL players can enjoy the freedom to make millions of dollars a year playing a game.

Talk to fans who stand at sporting events as the national anthem is played, holding their hats and hands over their hearts. Ask them why they do it. You’ll get similar answers. Love of country. Respect for those who serve. Honor for having served themselves.

There are many problems in America, still the greatest nation in the history of this planet, as we begin to move through the 21st century. There will always be problems. And there will also always be political and social differences of opinion as to how to best address those problems.

But in the end, the bottom line for all of us should be love of our country. Appreciation of the beauty of our Constitution. Respect towards those who have in the past, and those who still do today, courageously battle on the front lines for the rest of us.

You show that love of country, that appreciation for American, and that respect for those who fight our battles in many ways. One small way is to stand respectfully to honor our flag as our anthem is played, whenever and wherever that happens, any time you are able to do so.

When you do anything other than that intentionally, you are doing nothing but showing disrespect. And you are doing nothing other than dishonoring yourself.

NFL players and any other athlete, entertainer, politician, or other U.S. citizen who doesn’t like something that is happening in this country, or something that someone says, should indeed feel welcome to passionately but peacefully protest – in appropriate ways, at appropriate venues.

While hundreds of thousands of fans “live” are being respectful to the flag and anthem, and millions more around the country are tuning in only to watch the athletes perform in their sport, that is not an appropriate time or venue.

To those who would argue “but this is the athlete’s platform, they have to take advantage”, I would say that is a cop out. Games are not an athlete’s platform. The game doesn’t belong to the players, it belongs to us all.

Those games are his or her stage, not their platform or podium. There is a difference. The paying public are their patrons. We should not be subjected to players personal social or political opinions.

If a player wishes to express his or her views in a pre- or post-game interview, and some writer, broadcaster, and publication wishes to give them that time, then that is an appropriate platform.

If a player, on their own time, wishes to pick up a picket sign and march in front of the White House, or their State House, that is fine. If a player wishes to call a press conference to speak on social issues, that is fine. Those are all forms of appropriate protest platforms.

Someone tried to argue to me today that when NFL or MLB players or other athletes wear pink to support the battle against cancer, or make other similar public gestures during games in support of charities, isn’t that them using their platform?

No, it is not. It is the player and organization using our platform to raise awareness, and possibly funding, to battle illness and disease. Are you trying to argue that there is someone out there who is offended by a battle against cancer? Ludicrous to even compare the two issues.

Now, if players believe that there is systemic racism in sports and American society, and wish to band together and all wear black bands, or patches, or whatever, then that is fine. It doesn’t offend any reasonable person.

But while you are wearing your pink wrist bands or cleats, or protesting with your black arm band, stand for your national anthem, and put your hand over your heart for your flag. Show America that we are all Americans, and no matter what issues may divide us, that bottom line will always remain the single most important thing that brings us together.

Honor America. Stand for the anthem. Put your hand and hat over your heart for the flag. If you can, sing the song. Those who want respect, give respect. It’s an idea that is as old as time, and one that we need to begin showing to one another, no matter who occupies the White House, or what they may say or what policies they may pursue.

Rockies draw close enough to earn their own ‘Magic Number’

Pat Valaika hustles one of his two key hits in Rox victory

The Colorado Rockies defeated the host San Diego Padres on Sunday by an 8-4 score at Petco Park. In so doing, the Rockies lowered their ‘Magic Number’ to just six in order to clinch the second NL Wildcard playoff berth.

Colorado sits with an 84-72 record following victory. Also on Sunday, the Milwaukee Brewers (82-74) and Saint Louis Cardinals (82-74) both lost.

They are the only two teams capable of catching the Rockies as we enter the final week of the 2017 MLB regular season.

The win also raised the Rockies final road record on the season to 41-40. It marks just the club’s second winning season on the road in their quarter-century existence. The only other team to finish with a winning road record was the 2009 club, the last Rockies team to reach the postseason.

The Rockies received a workmanlike effort over five innings on the mound from rookie German Marquez. The 22-year old righty allowed five hits and walked three batters, striking out two. He also earned the official win, raising his record to 11-7 on the season.

Manager Bud Black then utilized five different relievers to battle through the rest of the game. The Padres got to the first of those, Scott Oberg, for a pair of runs.

But the final four arms out of the Rockies bullpen totally shut down the San Diego bats. Pat Neshek, Jake McGee, Carlos Estevez, and closer Greg Holland combined to strike out seven over the final three innings, allowing no base runners.

In what would prove to be a back-and-forth game, Colorado took a slim 5-4 lead into the top of the 9th inning. Padres skipper Andy Green turned to 29-year old lef-hander Buddy Baumann out of his bullpen.

Baumann retired the first batter he faced. But then Pat Valaika and Charlie Blackmon each took him deep, Valaika homering to left field and Blackmon to right. An RBI double from Mark Reynolds later in the frame provided the Rockies final margin of victory.

“We’re in the driver’s seat,” Valaika said per’s Thomas Harding. “We’re not really chasing. This is on us. All we have to do is win some games. That’s a good feeling for us.

Now any combination of the Rockies winning games and the Brewers losing games that equals six, and five with the Cardinals, will clinch it for Colorado.

The games are magnified,” Black said per an AP story at Fox Sports. ”Our guys are embracing it.

Black’s squad will finish up this week at home in Coors Field. There the Rockies will host the Miami Marlins for three games beginning tonight. Then following an off-day on Thursday, the NL West champion Los Angeles Dodgers will come in for a three-game weekend set to end the regular season.

Milwaukee is off on Monday, then will host the Cincinnati Reds for three games. The Brewers close out the regular season next weekend with three at Saint Louis. Prior to that series, the Cardinals will host the Chicago Cubs for four games beginning on Monday.

Twins win, draw closer to AL Wildcard as pursuers all lose

Gibson’s solid outing helped Twins draw closer to playoffs

It’s become monotonous to call them the “surprising” Minnesota Twins. After all, it’s been five months now that Paul Molitor’s club has been a solid contender in the American League.

The Twins have been in control of the second AL Wildcard berth for weeks now. Last night behind an excellent start on the mound from Kyle Gibson and the timely hitting of Brian Dozier, Byron Buxton, and Max Kepler, they drew closer to clinching a place in the postseason.

Minnesota downed the depleted and demoralized host Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park by a 7-3 score. Meanwhile, their nearest pursuers in the playoff race all lost. The LA Angels were shut out by Houston 3-0, the Texas Rangers dropped a 4-1 decision at Oakland, and the Kansas City Royals were edged 7-6 by the Chicago White Sox.

The result of all that Friday night action is that the ‘Magic Number’ has dropped to just 6 for Minnesota to clinch the franchise’ first playoff berth since being swept out of the ALDS in both 2009 and 2010.

Gibson went seven strong innings, allowing three earned runs on five hits. The 29-year old right-hander struck out six and walked two in raising his record to the 12-10 mark. Those dozen wins leave him one shy of his career high of 13 set back in the 2014 season.

These two games were big for us and the next two are as well,” Gibson said per’s Rhett Bollinger after the Twins second straight victory in Detroit. “Coming off a rough series in New York, we definitely wanted to get one or two there and getting zero hurt a little bit. But these games were big to get the ship going in the right direction and hopefully we can keep it going.

Kepler banged his 19th home run of the season, a solo shot, in the top of the 3rd inning off Tigers starter Daniel Norris (4-8) to tie the game.

After falling behind again 2-1, Buxton lined a two-run double to left in the top of the 4th to push the Twins on top. He then scored on a base hit by Kepler, making it a 4-2 lead for Minnesota after four innings.

Run-scoring hits by Eduardo Escobar in the top of the 5th and Robbie Grossman in the 6th stretched that lead out to a 6-2 margin. In the bottom of the 6th, Ian Kinsler tagged Gibson for his 21st homer of the year, the solo shot cutting the Twins lead down to 6-3 at that point.

In the top of the 9th, Dozier got that one back by cracking his 32nd home run of the year. Matt Belisle came on to retire three of the four batters he faced in the bottom of the 9th to close out the victory.

I think the guys played a fairly loose game,” Molitor said per Bollinger. “We know we’re in for a fight and these guys have played us tough the last few years, and probably dominated us in some regards. There’s a lot on the line and we have to find a way to keep playing good baseball.

His team will continue the series in Motown on Saturday and Sunday. Then it’s off to Cleveland for a real test against the defending AL champion Indians, who have the best record in the American League. The Twins wrap the regular season next weekend back home at Target Field with three more against the Tigers.