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The pennant races have ended. The Dodgers, Cubs, Nationals, Astros, Red Sox and Indians have either clinched or are confidently in command of their respective divisions with two weeks to go in the 2017 baseball season.
There is just one more wild card playoff spot to be determined - between the Twins, 103-game losers just a year ago, and the Angels.
What with the NFL season underway and the Blackhawks skating to get in shape for the 2017-18 campaign, why would anyone continue to keep an eye on baseball?
Until they got beat 4-3 in Kansas City last Friday night, the Cleveland Indians certainly were in the national spotlight as they ran up 22 straight victories. But few noticed that the Tribe ran off two more wins over the weekend to make it 24 out of 25 to clinch the Central Division. Can they top the Astros for the league's best record? Maybe so, but outside of Cleveland and Houston, who cares?
Nevertheless, historically once the pennant and/or wild card races are decided, there have been instances worth noticing as the season winds down.
Long ago in 1941, then 23-year-old Ted Williams sported a .39955 batting average on the final day of the season. Rounded up, Williams would have entered the record books with a .400 average, a feat that hadn't been attained since 1925 when Rogers Hornsby hit .403 and hasn't been reached since. (Hornsby his .400 three times in his 23-year career.)
Red Sox manager Joe Cronin, whose team finished second, 17 games behind the Yankees, intimated to Williams that he could sit out a season-closing doubleheader against the last-place Philadelphia A's. It's a fairly well-known fact that Teddy Ballgame said, "No way." With an ego that even Fenway Park couldn't contain, Williams didn't see himself as a .400 hitter since he was .00045 away from that magic mark. He proceeded to go 6-for-8 in the twinbill to finish at .406.
A few other tidbits from that season attract attention. Williams led the American League with 37 home runs while driving in 120. He walked 147 times, more than anyone in the league, bringing his slash line to .406/.553/1.287. In 606 plate appearances, he struck out just 27 times.
Obviously, Williams was the league's most valuable player. Well, not so fast. That was the same campaign in which Joe DiMaggio hit safely in 56 consecutive games, and Joe played in New York on a pennant winner. He was MVP.
Here's one more. For former players who have died, Baseball Reference provides the date of death and where the individual is buried. For Williams, it says, "Buried: Frozen."
Compare Williams' intrepid performance with Jose Reyes in 2011 when the Mets' shortstop was locked in a battle with Milwaukee's Ryan Braun for the National League batting title. Going into the season's final game, Reyes was hitting .336, just a point higher than Braun. In a totally meaningless game against the Reds - the Mets finished 77-85 while Cincinnati was a third-place team as Braun's Brewers were division champs - Reyes led off the bottom of the first inning and bunted for a base hit to raise his average to .337. Choosing not to swing away might have been enough to thaw Teddy Ballgame.
At that point, Mets manager Terry Collins pulled Reyes for a pinch runner, "leaving the boisterous crowd momentarily dumbfounded," as the New York Times reported. Now even Rogers Hornsby was rolling around in his grave.
As things turned out, Braun went 0-for-4, making Reyes the league's top hitter. Since then, Reyes has never hit higher than .296.
After the game, Collins' meeting with the press was epic.
"I wanted to take him out at the appropriate time," said Manager Terry Collins, who met with Reyes before the game to discuss possible outcomes. "He said if he got a hit his first time out, he'd like to come out. It was decided then . . . "
"I understand," said Collins of the scattered jeers. "I heard some comments from the stands. I don't blame them. People pay a good price to come to these games. You got to understand that I ask these players to do a lot . . .
Collins began to cry and did not finish the sentence. Then, after 15 seconds, still fighting tears, he continued, "We worked hard to get their respect this year, and they deserve ours."
Let's also consider the player hitting just below .300 the final day of the season. Foremost in his mind is his agent negotiating a contract or going to arbitration where hitting .300 is a strategic tool possibly worth as much as a seven-figure number. A pair of Wharton professors, Devin Pope and Uri Simonsohn, studied hitters from 1975 to 2009 who were hitting .299 in their final at-bat of the season.
What did the scholars learn? That over the course of 34 years, not one of these players drew a base on balls. They swung at everything in their quest to hit .300.
As we enter the final weeks of the season, the athletes of the rebuilding White Sox have more than individual numbers motivating them. Many are auditioning to remain members of a team whose future prospects look more promising with each passing day.
Despite the fact that the Sox lost four straight to the Indians, who were beating everyone, the ballclub has had a decent September, even considering that they were almost no-hit Sunday in Detroit. Tim Anderson's ninth-inning, two-out double was the lone safety off Tiger lefthander Matt Boyd.
That loss left Rick Renteria's crew with an 8-9 mark for the month, not so horrible for a team that is 29 games under .500.
The offense has come alive with a team batting average of .288 and an average of almost 5 1/2 runs per game for the month. The Sox have recorded double digits in hits nine times in September and even slammed out 25 knocks last Thursday in beating Detroit 17-7.
Individually, Avisail Garcia is hitting .394 this month after posting a .423 mark in August. Jose Abreu is sailing along at .344 the past 17 days with five homers and 17 RBI. He's just three RBI short of 100, the fourth straight season he'll reach the century mark. Anderson is hitting .418 in September, and he's stolen seven bases in as many attempts. While he still leads the major leagues with 26 errors, he's yet to make an error this month.
And top prospect Yoan Moncada has raised his average from .188 to .227 by hitting .302 with three home runs and seven RBI.
Meanwhile, Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Carson Fulmer, three young pitchers who spent most of the season at Charlotte, have been truly impressive this month. In three starts and almost 19 innings, Giolito is 1-1, giving up a paltry 10 hits, walking eight and fanning 18. His ERA is 2.41 for September.
Fulmer has pitched in four games, two in relief with as many starts. In 16-plus innings, he's struck out 17 while allowing only nine hits and six walks for a 1.62 ERA. And Lopez is 2-2 in four starts, having pitched at least six innings in all of them. He's walked only five batters over 25 innings with a 3.96 ERA.
This has been an entertaining team to watch the past few weeks. The individual numbers are fun to track, but it's apparent that this young team is playing out the string, not merely for person accomplishments for contract time, but to win as many games as possible. That's certainly miles apart from a guy bunting for a hit in the first inning and then being replaced by a pinch runner.
1. From Terry Yale Feiertag:
Bill Terry of the Giants hit .401 in 1930.
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