Dan's Dugout: Where Will Cinderella's Slipper Fit? • Latino Sports

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Dan’s Dugout: Where Will Cinderella’s Slipper Fit?

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Baseball history is filled with Cinderella teams and Cinderella dreams.

Think 1969 Miracle Mets, 1988 Los Angeles Dodgers, 1991 Minnesota Twins, and 2003 Florida Marlins. None were expected to win but came out of nowhere to defeat heavily-favored opponents.

The Marlins, in fact, have twice won world championships without ever winning a division title. Such is the nature of the wild-card system that started in 1995.

Though Cinderella’s slippers have been used sparingly during the 20 years that second or even third-place teams could reach the postseason, there’s no shortage of candidates in this postseason.

The Mets are banking on Matt Harvey Monday Image Credit: Bill Menzel

The Mets are banking on Matt Harvey Monday
Image Credit: Bill Menzel

The Mets, for example, are hoping history repeats. Armed with a strong and youthful starting rotation that draws comparisons to the ’91 Atlanta Braves, the denizens of Flushing turned their season around with a flurry of trades just before the July 31 deadline.

First, they swiped veteran infielders Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe from Atlanta, a team determined to trade potential free agents for minor-league prospects. Then they turned a cancelled trade for Carlos Gomez into a steal of a swap for Yoenis Cespedes.

Cespedes turned into the hottest thing since Vesuvius, pouring hot lava on opposing pitchers in his first tour of the National League. In 230 at-bats over the final two months, the Cuban outfielder collected 38 extra-base hits and carried the ballclub to a seven-game bulge over the veteran Washington Nationals.

Even though team captain David Wright missed most of the season with spinal stenosis, the Mets won by adding Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz to a rotation that already had Matt Harvey, the 2013 All-Star Game starter, and Jacob deGrom, the 2014 NL Rookie of the Year. Even a paunchy Bartolo Colon, determined to show the kids how it’s done, parlayed a hot start into a 14-win finish.

When Jeurys Familia found himself the closer by default following the suspension of Jenrry Mejia, the back end of the bullpen was even better than before. The final pieces of the puzzle were the promotion of Michael Conforto, an outfielder just starting to realize his power potential, and the acquisition of set-up man Tyler Clippard, who had been the closer in Oakland.

White-haired manager Terry Collins, old enough to be a grandfather to most of his charges, steered a

Terry Collins hopes his Mets keep him smiling

Terry Collins hopes his Mets keep him smiling

smooth course — in sharp contrast to his previous stints in Houston and Anaheim — and achieved more than he might have imagined in April. His own failure was blowing the home-field advantage in the playoffs during the final week.

Whether we’re witnessing the second coming of the Miracle Mets remains to be determined this week. The broken leg suffered by shortstop Ruben Tejada Saturday night might even help — it will allow Wilmer Flores, a better hitter, to beef up the lineup that will need help to overcome Dodger aces Clayton Kershaw and Zack Grienke in the final two games (if the best-of-five lasts that long).

If the Mets are not this year’s miracle team, how about the Houston Astros? Like the Mets, they began life as a woeful 1962 expansion team that eventually reached the promised land of the World Series.

Defeated in their lone shot at a world championship, against the Chicago White Sox in 2005, the Astros have a history almost as colorful as their uniforms. Originally called the Houston Colts, they were dubbed Colt .45s for a few years before changing their nickname to match their new domed ballpark, the Astrodome. Then they changed leagues, jumping from the National League to the American in 2013, but suffered several seasons with triple-digit losses, even dropping 111 in 2013.

Evan Gattis led the Astros in homers and RBI

Evan Gattis led the Astros in homers and RBI

Things began to change, albeit gradually, but nobody expected the team to break out so suddenly. Even though it seems strange that a player named Dallas wears a Houston uniform, bearded southpaw Dallas Keuchel went 15-0 at home, started the All-Star Game, led the league with 20 wins, and held the heavy-hitting Yankees scoreless in three appearances — including the win-or-die battle for the wild card in a wildly partisan Yankee Stadium.

With help from ex-Met Collin McHugh, who won 19, and newly-annointed closer Luke Gregorson, the Astros parlayed pitching and power into a winning machine that went 86-76, a huge improvement over their 70-92 mark in 2014. Little leadoff man Jose Altuve set the table for Chris Carter, Colby Rasmus, and three huge additions: Rookie of the Year candidate Carlos Correa, ex-Cub Luis Valbuena, and muscular DH Evan Gattis, whose 27 homers and 88 rbi’s led the team after Atlanta deemed him expendable.

Playing half their schedule in Minute Maid Park turned the Astros — where Nolan Ryan once begged for support — into a nightly juggernaut. They connected 230 times, second to Toronto in the major leagues.

Ah, yes, the Blue Jays. Another Cinderella entry. Absent from the postseason since winning consecutive World Series in 1992 and 1993, the Jays jumped into the fray this year after snagging the two top prizes in the July trading sweepstakes: David Price, who went 9-1 and stabilized the starting staff after arriving from Detroit, and slugging shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, secured in a blockbuster swap that sent Jose Reyes to the Colorado Rockies.

Under .500 at the All-Star break, the Jays climbed out of their mid-season rut to finish seven games

Tulo made a big difference in Toronto

Tulo made a big difference in Toronto

ahead of the favored Yankees. They led the majors in runs, hits, hitting, and home runs, thanks mostly to the trio of Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, and MVP contender Josh Donaldson.

Both Donaldson, who solidified third base, and catcher Russell Martin were off-season acquisitions who thrived north of the border.

After winning 93 times, the Jays were favored to trump the Texas Rangers, champions of the AL West, in the Division Series. Instead, they lost the first two ALDS games at home, in raucous Rogers Centre, and needed three straight to keep their World Series hopes alive.

Like Toronto, the Chicago Cubs counted on a combination of a dominant pitcher plus consistent clout from a collection of sluggers.

Jake Arrieta, with 22 wins and a 1.77 ERA, will probably win the Cy Young Award after a historic second half of the season. But lefty Jon Lester disappointed in the first year of a six-year $155 million contract. His 11 wins ranked second on the staff but he lost more often than he won.

Jake Arrieta has had a historic season

Jake Arrieta has had a historic season

The Cubs thrived on a diet of slugfests, thanks to Rookie of the Year favorite Kris Bryant and fellow freshmen Kyle Schwarber, Jorge Soler, and Addison Russell. The oldest regular, MVP contender Anthony Rizzo, led the club with 31 homers and 101 rbi while supplying Gold Glove defense at first base.

In his first National League season, manager Joe Maddon kept his young club loose with laughter plus a penchant for utilizing every man on the bench. Versatility was a hallmark of this club, which had nine players reach double digits in home runs and four do the same in stolen bases.

Maddon didn’t have much pitching after Arrieta but Hector Rondon — in his second year as a closer — had six wins, 30 saves, and a 1.67 ERA in 72 appearances.

Elsewhere in baseball:

The Washington Nationals and Seattle Mariners are hunting for new managers after firing Matt Williams and Lloyd McClendon, respectively . . .

Before he did it in the NL Division Series opener, Dodgers ace Zack Grienke had yielded two home runs in

Zack Greinke (left) and Clayton Kershaw are feared by the Mets

Zack Greinke (left) and Clayton Kershaw are feared by the Mets

a game just twice . . .

Many experts had predicted a fulfilling postseason for the Pittsburgh Pirates, who won 98 regular-seas0n before falling victim to Arrieta in the one-game playoff for the NL’s wild-card spot . . .

John Ueberroth, younger brother of former Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, was a featured speaker at the Historic Hotels of America gala in French Lick, Indiana last week . . .

One of the reasons the Yankees failed to win the AL East was the late-summer drought of Alex Rodriguez, who batted .191 after August 1.

 

 

 

 

 

About Dan Schlossberg

Former AP sportswriter Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ has produced 35 baseball books, including autobiographies of Ron Blomberg, Al Clark, and Milo Hamilton. Also a broadcaster, he is the host and executive producer of Braves Banter and Travel Itch Radio and a contributor to Sirius XM.

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