October 2009

Tiebreaker springs Baker, Porcello into starring roles

A
strange thing happened during the final moments of the 1972 Olympic men’s gold
medal game, which pitted Cold War rivals USA and USSR against one another.

 

Team
USA began celebrating a 50-49 victory upon hearing the final buzzer. But the
game wasn’t over. The horn sounded prematurely, the referees claimed, adding
two more seconds to the clock and replaying the final possession. The Soviets wound
up scoring an uncontested layup to win the gold.

 

It
has to go down as one of the most memorable premature celebrations in sports
history.

 

Over
the past few days, we’ve seen some of the most premature celebrations in
fantasy sports history. Across America, countless owners could be seen dancing
around their computers singing sweet victory.

 

What
most neglected to realize was this:

 

The
regular season wasn’t over.  

 

And
until the American League Central tiebreaker between the Tigers and Twins is finished
Tuesday, fantasy owners, whose fortunes seemed doomed on Sunday, still have a
chance to pull off another 1972 Summer Olympics moment.

 

Mind
you, this doesn’t apply to leagues where the first-place team sits miles ahead of
the second-place team.

 

This
is solely for races that went down to the wire, where one win, one save, a
couple of homers and a few RBIs and/or stolen bases can be the difference
between winning and losing.  

 

Cory
Schwartz, co-host of MLB.com’s Fantasy 411, recounted how the 2007 tiebreaker
between the Rockies and Padres left him heartbroken.

 

“I
was leading the 411 listener league at the end of the regular season, but my
prescient opponent picked up every Rockies and Padres scrubeenie as soon as
Sunday’s games started; he got an RBI triple from Seth Smith to catch me in
that category, a run from some other benchie, and we ended up in a flat-footed
tie for the league championship.”

 

Which
Twins and Tigers players will turn the tides this time around?

 

You
have to start with Rick Porcello of Detroit and Scott Baker of Minnesota, each
of whom take the mound in the highest-pressure outings of their careers.

 

That’s
especially true for Porcello. I don’t know about you, but when I was 20 years
old, the idea of starting a one-game playoff, in front of a combined audience
that figures to top one-million people, would be enough to put me on the first
plane to Mexico.

 

But
Porcello isn’t your average 20-year-old. He’s coming off a Rookie of the
Year-caliber campaign in which he notched 14 wins and a 4.04 ERA, including six
strong innings against the Twins last time out. Throw in the fact that he leaped
from Single-A to Detroit, and it’s tough to rule him out altogether.

 

Still,
the odds favor Baker for a number of reasons. He has the luxury of pitching in
front of a raucous home crowd after a smooth second half that included an 8-2
record and a 3.21 ERA. It can’t hurt that he’s pitching for a Twins club that
staged in an improbable comeback without 2006 MVP Justin Morneau, winning 16 of
their last 20 games to force a do-or-die matchup. Porcello lost his only two
starts at the Metrodome, getting shelled for seven earned runs over 10 innings
(6.30 ERA).

 

And
if the Twins ride their momentum to victory, count on Joe Nathan contributing
in some fashion, possibly even picking up his 48th save, which would tie him
with Brian Fuentes for the Major League lead. The same goes for Tigers fireman
Fernando Rodney, who showed a knack for bringing his “A” game during save
chances.     

 

Other
usual suspects include MVP candidates Joe Mauer and Miguel Cabrera.  It might be tempting to sit Cabrera amid an
0-for-14 funk and off-the-field troubles, but you don’t sit a .323 hitter who’s
finishing his third straight 30-homer, 100-RBI campaign.

 

An
even bigger mistake would be sitting Jason Kubel, who went 8-for-11 against
Porcello (.727 AVG) and owned Tigers pitchers this season with a .383 average
against them collectively. Oh, and Kubel is also in the midst of a career year
and coming off a scorching stretch that earned him AL Co-Player of the Week honors
Monday.

 

There’s
no shortage of Twins players riding a wave of momentum.     

 

Take
Delmon Young, who shared AL Player of the Week with Kubel and went 4-for-9
(.444) vs. Porcello.

 

Fellow
outfielder Denard Span struggled in limited time against Porcello (3-for-11),
but he brings a ******** .432 average against Tigers pitchers into Tuesday’s
game, after quietly establishing himself as one of the more valuable
five-category threats.

 

And
how could anyone bench Michael Cuddyer after effectively channeling Morneau’s power
with 10 homers and 29 RBIs since the start of September, single-handedly
ruining my chances of winning an office fantasy league?

 

Even
Nick Punto contributed to the comeback run, posting seven stolen bases from
September on.

 

It
would be foolish to talk about the Tigers lineup without mentioning Magglio
Ordonez, who has regained credibility in the average department after nearly
being released/traded in July. The sweet-swinging righty heads into Tuesday
sporting a .441 average since the start of September.

 

Also
riding his hottest stretch into Tuesday is Placido Polanco, who found his
rhythm in September with a .361 average.

 

As
far as sleepers go, Ryan Raburn stands out after hammering two homers on Sunday
and putting up a .321 average and four homers as a part-timer in September. Tigers
outfielder (also qualifies at third base) Carlos Guillen and Twins shortstop Orlando
Cabrera could also emerge as unlikely heroes, given their years of seasoning
and big-game know-how.  

 

The
only players truly worth benching are Gerald Laird, among the least valuable
fantasy catchers around, and Brandon Inge, who has seemingly vanished after
appearing in his first All-Star game (.216 AVG).

 

Otherwise,
Tuesday is the day that every Twins and Tigers player merits starting status.   

 

Beggars
can’t be choosers when opportunity knocks this loudly with game No. 163.  

Late awakenings give new life to Quentin, Wieters

What’s most memorable — the last impression or the first impression?

 

It
took Matt Wieters months before he truly arrived in September, clawing his way
to the third spot in Baltimore’s lineup thanks to a .362 average. After 95 games
and 350 at-bats in the bigs, he’s batting .291 with nine homers and 93 RBIs —
a fairly strong showing for a June callup. Still, it’s hard to erase that
disappointing memory, those first several weeks of coming up short, of, well,
rookie mistakes.

 

Just
as one heroic moment can overshadow every other meaningful moment of a game  — a poised Derek Jeter lacing a walk-off hit
into left-center field, Jonathan Papelbon jumping for joy after a game-ending
strikeout  — the first few months often skew the perception of one player’s season-long performance. If, say, a blue-chip prospect, franchise bat or any player coming off his career year doesn’t produce by Labor Day, they’re disappointments.

 

Take
Carlos Quentin. On Saturday, the guy homered for the fourth time in his last
five games while producing 10 RBIs. It’s his hottest stretch of the season, but
will it matter six months from now? No — the verdict has already been cast. Quentin’s
2009 season will be looked back on as a vanishing act, a huge disappointment after
taking the American League by storm one year earlier. Why? Because of an injury-riddled
first half that ended with him hitting just .229 and eight homers.

 

His
teammate, Jake Peavy, will be remembered more for the early rough patch and
injuries struggled with San Diego than for persevering through trade rumors, a
midseason move to the White Sox and several setbacks en route to a dominant
finish that included three straight wins and 15 scoreless innings.

 

Still, just because the first couple of months are easier to remember than the last few weeks hardly makes it right.


In fact, there’s plenty of good value to
be had among this group of late awakenings. Even if Wieters and Quentin are
dubbed as 2010 sleepers, chances are strong that you’ll still be able to draft
them considerably later than they’ll fall in 2011.

 

You
could also say the same for outfielders Jay Bruce and Cameron Maybin, corner
infielders Chris Davis and Andy LaRoche and lefty Brett Anderson.

 

In
one way or another, all these players showed they could get back up again after getting knocked down. .

 

 

–Alex
Cushing, MLB.com

End offers new beginnings for Desmond, Ruiz, Thornton

For
most, this time of year is seen as the end of the road. 

 

Veteran
players can finally take a load off, either in preparation for the postseason
or simply to get a head start on offseason vacation.

 

But
for those lesser-known characters filling their shoes, these final few games are rife
with new beginnings.  

 

Take
Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond, who wasted no time carving out regular playing
time when he arrived from Triple-A Syracuse some three weeks ago. After making
headlines with a homer in his four-RBI big league debut, Desmond added to it by
going 4-for-4 with a pair of doubles one day later. Before you knew it, the
Nationals were holding meetings with Cristian Guzman, with the idea of politely
nudging the veteran shortstop over to second base permanently next year,
clearing the way for the new guy. Never mind what happens next year. What’s
important now is that Desmond is in audition mode after turning in his best
professional season to date.

When
it comes to late auditions, Desmond is hardly alone. There’s Randy Ruiz, who is
hoping to ride his Jack Cust impersonation into the 2010 season while holding
onto a full-time spot, be it as designated hitter or first baseman. And when
you look closely at his 2009 production (32 HR, 120 RBIs between Minors, Majors),
chalking up his 31 years and big league freshness to lack of opportunity, it’s
not hard to imagine Ruiz following in the footsteps of Russell Branyan as the
next late-blooming basher.

 

Another
potential late-bloomer worth targeting is 33-year-old lefty reliever Matt
Thornton
, who fanned two Indians en route to a perfect inning and his fourth
save. It just so happens that three came in the past week, without much of a
peep. Injuries to Bobby Jenks and Octavio Dotel — the club’s most experienced
finishers — have left openings for Thornton to fill in as closer, and for good
reason. The veteran reliever has not only proven himself capable of filling in
the gap, he’s excelled against righty hitters this year by compiling a
career-high 86 strikeouts, 24 holds and 19 over 71 1/3 innings. If he continues
to thrive, Thornton could find himself on the hot chair before long.

–Alex Cushing, MLB.com