Baseball is incremental. Steps forward are accompanied by steps back, over and over, and what separates the good teams from the bad mostly comes down to details. When it comes to the traditional three-game series, most all teams will split the first two and only the best of the best will routinely win the third. The worst of the worst also split the first two, for that matter. The third game is where the difference is made, and after 162 games and something like 54 different series, a few extra steps forward rather than back gives us the standings.
And then sometimes that's just not the way it goes at all, and one team blows the hell out of the other. That's a sweep, and from a baseball scheduling standpoint it is as beautiful as blood and as violent as punch to the neck. This past weekend we've seen three series end in sweeps, and as they all involved rather important teams as well, it's worth talking about.
We'll start in Chicago. On May 15, two Saturdays ago, the White Sox were five games up in the AL Central division. Since, they are 3-11 and Sunday they got the wind kicked out of them by the now-first place Royals, who managed to come back from deficits of two, four, and six runs; the White Sox somehow lost a 7-1 ninth inning lead with their closer on the mound. Oh, and the White Sox have now been passed by the Indians as well. Drake LaRoche would never stand for this. Chicago has won one series this month, and that was against the woeful Twins.
Which, sadly, brings us to our second sweep, and considering the Twins are involved the reasonable question is "Oof, who swept them this time?" Nobody. The Twins did the sweeping, and the first-place Mariners were reduced to the regular old Mariners because of it. In addition to losing first place, Mariners starters gave up 16 runs in 14.1 innings over the three game set, and that's to an offense that's still the lowest scoring in the American League even after that outburst. And yes, that included a Felix Hernandez start. It's not a total disaster if your best players aren't at fault.
Finally, I've spent some time around these parts talking up the Phillies, who have been competitive this season for reasons passing far beyond understanding. But, before we could get a handle on it, that competitiveness became a thing of the past, at least as far as the standings go. RIP to the spunky Phillies, devoured whole by bears. The Cubs out-scored the erstwhile upstarts from Philly 17-5 over their just-concluded three game sweep, dropping the Phils into a tie with the third place Marlins. That's still not so bad for a team that has been outscored by 43 runs on the season, so maybe this is more of a correction than a tragedy.
There's still time for the Phillies to make something interesting out of what was supposed to be a lost season, as they are only 3.5 games behind division-leading Washington, but the Phils lack of offensive firepower and big league-grade depth just doesn't play against a team like the Cubs. Or at least it didn't this weekend. There are still 112 games to go, after all, and room for plenty more sweeps.
If you're looking for a World Series favorite in the American League and you're not sold on the Royals, White Sox, or Mariners, and the Red Sox seem like a one trick pony, perhaps we could interest you in the Texas Rangers. You, or anyone shopping for a World Series wildcard in late May, could do worse than young talent like Nomar Mazara and Joey Gallo—who was just sent back to Triple-A after a short visit, but will undoubtedly be back in short order—and a middle of the order built around Adrian Beltre and a resurgent Ian Desmond. Add in a rotation whose top two are Cole Hamels and a newly healthy Yu Darvish, and the appeal is easy to see. The Rangers might not be the best team in the AL right now—the standings say they're only a half-game better than the Mariners in the American League West—but they can compete in just about all facets of the game, Mazara is cool as hell, and what are you doing trying to pick a World Series winner before June anyway?
Time for the best of the best and the worst of the worst. First the...
Top Three Of The Moment
We're cutting the fat a bit here at the Top Five Of The Moment so the Dodgers and Giants are, for the moment, on the outside looking in because it's now the Top Three Of The Moment. Also it's May, so there's nothing to feel bad about, here. Maybe have some lemonade and hang by the pool, guys. Be good and maybe we'll see you in a few weeks.
3. Red Sox
On average, the Red Sox score nine runs or more once every five games. They lead baseball in runs scored, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and just about any other offensive stat you could cite, note, or invent on the spot. They're on pace to score 956 runs this season, which would be the most since the Yankees scored 968 runs in 2007. Xander Bogaerts, David Ortiz, and bizarrely Jackie Bradley Jr. are all legitimate MVP candidates. I'm sure you bet on that, so enjoy your winnings! Also, feel free to ignore that none of the above mentions, in any way, pitching.
It's not that the Mets aren't legitimate competition. They are. They might even be a bit better than Washington. And yet, this season for the Nationals already feels like an intelligently run marathon; their job now, more or less, is to spend the next 110 games staying and/or getting healthy for the playoffs. The goal is to see what a rotation headed by Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer can accomplish in the post-season. Washington is 16-5 when one of those guys starts, so we have some sense that it might be good. But also marathons are long.
This probably has nothing to do with the Cubs who are, far and away, the best team in baseball. So know that going in. However, has it escaped everyone's attention that the best teams in all the major sports are blowing away the competition in the regular season and then losing in the playoffs? The Carolina Panthers went 15-1 and lost to a geriatric Peyton Manning. The Washington Capitals had one of the best regular seasons in hockey in the last decade and didn't make it out of the second round. The Golden State Warriors have spent the NBA season redefining greatness and they're about to face their second consecutive elimination game. The Cubs are fantastic and wonderful, and absolutely belong in this conversation, but no sport's postseason is more luck-dependent than baseball's. This hasn't been a great year for regular season champions repeating their regular season success in the playoffs, but maybe the Cubs can work on that, too.
Bottom Three Of The Moment
How bad do you have to be to sweep a series against a first place team and still maintain your position as one of the worst teams in baseball? You have to be Twins Bad™, and the Twins are Twins Bad™. The Twins are, as mentioned above, the AL's lowest scoring team, and they are also the only team in the American League with a team ERA above 5.00. As a baseball team, they're not great. But if lousiness was edible, the Twins would be a fresh batch of cookies!
I bet you're wondering about the identity of the only other MLB team with an ERA above 5.00. It's the Reds! Not original though, I know, so try this on for size: who is the only team in baseball with a bullpen ERA above 6.00? It's the Reds! They're a full 1.21 worse than the second worst team in baseball! That's not a cookie recipe, that's actually a recipe for hot garbage. Do not serve anyone hot garbage. It's rude.
The Braves front office has decided the days of trading major leaguers for prospects are over, and it only took a .286 winning percentage over the first third of the season to make that happen. Atlanta is presently on a 116 loss pace. As their season has already burned to the ground, allow me to ask the question: what the hell difference does it make if they trade for prospects or actual major leaguers at this point? What positive are Braves fans to draw from this, other than this (already incredibly shitty) season not getting shittier?
Anyway, Braves fans can at least smile weakly at the news. It must be good to know that this much densely packed losing has finally made the people running the team queasy enough that they are no longer actively seeking to make their team worse. It's hard to know how that would be possible, but it's at least nice to know that the Braves brass is still capable of embarrassment. That's a human emotion, so at least we're on the right track.
The Match-Up of the Year of the Week: Red Sox at Orioles
The Red Sox have the best record in the American League and, as detailed above, the best offense in baseball. They also hold just a one-game lead over the Orioles, the gum on the bottom of every AL East team's shoe. The two teams are going to play four in Baltimore this week and, this being baseball, they'll probably split them. But.
But, if one team sweeps, or even manages three of four, the entire AL East and indeed the AL itself will look substantially different than it does right now. That possibility always exists with baseball, and although we may always look for the dramatic punch to the neck, but in baseball an extra win here and there is really all that's required.