Wooden's World of Baseball

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Down The Stretch They Come!

The last two weeks of August are always the best in the Can-Am League. For better or worse, it can be the most intense time of the year, especially now that the overall records actually mean something. One team is in (New Jersey) another (North Shore) is two games up in the 2nd half standings and five games up in the wild card race. With 14 games to play after today, that's pretty close to assured.

Atlantic City and Nashua are in the driver's seat to join the Jackals and the Spirit in the playoffs, both by virtue of their overall records, though the Surf have a chance to win the 2nd-half title. Atlantic City finishes the schedule against the also-rans, with the final seven played in its home stadium. Nashua leaves New Hampshire just once, albeit to visit New Jersey next weekend, and plays the travelling team seven times, with four this week and three on Labor Day weekend.

Last year's "champion," the Quebec Capitales are 2½ games out of playoff contention, but with a four-game series at Nashua, there's a chance that they can weasel their way in, particularly if they maintain their tradition of raiding the third-place teams of the American Association, a.k.a. Uncle Miles' other league.

Until this weekend, the Grays and New Haven had the opportunity to make a push for contention and both have been pushed back, as neither were able to sweep or win three of four games. But collapses can happen, so it'll probably be another series before we can write them off and start looking at the playoff race as purely whether or not the Pride can hold the line against Quebec and where and when the other teams will play.

Which brings us back to the Spirit and the Jackals. These two teams will play each other eight times over the next two weeks, and it's basically for playoff positioning, since the home-field advantage goes to the team with the best overall record. They will only face each other in the first round if North Shore loses the 2nd half race and the #1 wild-card position. New Jersey has been decimated by the affiliates, but still has Joel Bennett, a.k.a. the Spirit-killer of 2004, so until they are actually eliminated in the first round, I'm not writing them off. But should they meet again in the Finals, they'll be quite familiar with one another!

Sunday, August 05, 2007

One month to go (or not)

A little more than a month ago, I sat down to write at my frustration with bad baseball, but either the baseball has gotten better or I've gotten recharged by seeing my beloved North Shore Spirit.

The P-Nats are starting to play a little better. Overall, they're much like the parent club — about 8 games under .500 — but in the 2nd half, they're 22-20 and just 4 games out of first place. Granted, should they get there, they'd be playing for the right to lose to Kinston in the finals, but considering that half the starters were in Hagerstown six weeks ago, it'd be a great accomplishment. Plus, with a best-of-three and a best-of-five, anything can truly happen (though I doubt it — Kinston is 11 games better than the next-best team overall).

And speaking of the parent club, a lot folks around here were moaning that they did nothing at the trade deadline, but six straight wins, including an 8th inning rally today, a walkoff on Friday, and a 12-1 pounding last night (which I got to attend) should have folks rallying around them. There is reason for optimism, and as I've written before, I'm excited to see it. And I've already gotten my wish of seeing a Potomac player make the club, with John Lannan making a memorable (thrown out after hitting two batters) MLB debut in his first start and a 7-2 win in his second start. Tomorrow, he's got a shot at giving up No. 756 to Big Head, but here's to Johnny going right at him and dropping that 12-6 curveball on him, preferably for a called 3rd strike.

But back to the real reason there's joy in my Mudville again. The Spirit are again playing like the Spirit of old. When I last wrote about them, they were 11-12, having been swept four straight by the Worcester. Today, they returned the favor with a three-game sweep of the Tornadoes to improve to 15-5 in the 2nd half, good for first place, and 40-26, tied for the best overall record. Since hitting their low point of 14-16 on June 26, they're 26-10 (.722) and it's been an interesting ride:

  • The last original Spirit, Bryan Morse, was traded, ostensibly because he refused to pitch BP to college players trying out
  • His replacement is 2-1 with a 3.26 ERA in 4 starts
  • They signed a 270-lb hitter named Josue Lopez, who's hitting .326 in 40 games
  • They released a veteran for breaking unspecified team rules
  • They brought him back as a coach
  • They activated this past weekend and he's got 4 hits and 4 RBI in his first two games back
  • Vic Davilla reactivated himself for the third time, flirting with .400 in his first 10 games before a wrist injury sidelines him
  • The team's best pitcher gets signed by the Yankees
  • The starting SS goes down with a hamstring injury in mid-June
  • He returns two weeks later, then raises his average from .211 to .300 by the end of July

The secret to all this? Pitching. If there's one thing that's been a given with the North Shore Spirit, it's been great pitching. They've never had a team ERA lower than third-best, leading the Can-Am league in 2006 and allowing the fewest runs in the Northeast League in 2003. This year, they're once again leading the league in ERA at 3.19, with the 2nd-best team at 3.80. And, believe it or not, they're also committed the fewest errors, 66 in 66 games

As the title suggests, it's about month to go until the end of the two teams' regular seasons. The P-Nats are done at home on 8/31 and finish against the current division leader (Wilmington) on Labor Day weekend. The Spirit are looking at yet another first-round matchup against the Quebec Capitales, whom they've defeated twice before losing last year. With any luck, I'll be booking plane tickets in a couple of weeks... or booking a Motel 8 for another road trip!