All Eyes On Dusty Baker: Calm Before the Playoff Storm

20110625-1274For teams who have had little go wrong this season there is always this annoying feeling of waiting for the other shoe to drop no matter how well they have it. And while everything has come up roses from the start of the 2012 season for the Cincinnati Reds until a few days ago, the other shoe has fallen following the recent news concerning the health of manager Dusty Baker.

To say the news that Baker suffered a minor stroke is unsettling is an understatement. A stroke, by any measure is serious stuff and one has to wonder what effect real life news will have on a team that has in no uncertain terms has enjoyed a magic carpet ride.

The good news, I suppose, is all reports indicate Baker will be fine, but one also has to wonder what effects it will have on a team when the players know only too well what kind of stress a manager is under as it continues its quest to the holy land of baseball known as the World Series.

Worrying about getting on base is one thing, or making the right pitch at the right time. Now each player’s concern seems far greater worrying about the health of a man they seem to collectively love dearly in that clubhouse.

Players, no matter how immortal they seem, are human and this news has to weigh heavily on their collective minds. If you thought the loss of superstar Joey Votto was a challenge, it may pale in comparison to what the players may now face, even if little indication outwardly.

Then again they are to a man professionals, all with a common goal and if possible, a return to business as usual on the diamond is a must, but this will be the truest test of this team’s mettle thus far this season.

If there is such a thing as a silver lining here, the Reds are quite blessed to have Chris Spier around to take over in Baker’s absence and at the ready if it is for the long haul that they hope enjoy through the postseason if necessary. A great ace in the hole.

Spier is a good baseball man, well-respected by the players and quite capable of managing any team in baseball and the Reds, no matter how agonizing it may be worrying about Baker, are in very good hands.

This is the time of year that could well be the harbinger of things to come, how well a team is playing in September as teams not only fight to make the postseason, but ready for the playoffs once they have qualified.

The Reds have to be thankful they are not one of the teams now facing the ticking clock as so many fight for so few spots to get to what has become baseball’s version of the Big Dance with an extra Wild Card and seedings.

Speaking of which, sure it would be nice to have the best record in the league and be the top seed, but it is hardly critical. It is how a team is playing now and who is hot and the rest will take care of itself no matter where they games are played, who has the home field advantage and who they are playing. Take a look at how many Wild Card teams have gone on to win the World Series.

In past essays I have suggested it is essential to continue to win to maintain a winning edge despite clinching. But it too is important to field your best team now for the integrity of the game as so many teams are involved in races and it is, well, just not right to put an exhibition game lineup on the field.

Milwaukee is in town for three games trying to remain in the Wild Card chase and the right thing to do is play your best players against the Brewers, not only for integrity but to keep those players sharp.

True fans of any team are also baseball fans in general and undoubtedly cast an eye around the league at this time and with so much going on, postseason chases and individual title races, it is dizzying.

Although the New York Yankees are having a very difficult time trying to shake Baltimore, they seem to have things together not only because they have been there so many times before, but the deal that landed then Ichiro Suzuki is finally paying off. The struggling superstar has recently caught fire after a modest season in Seattle, although hitting .260 is abysmal for this guy at his time of arrival in the Big Apple.

The Yanks got another real boost to a suspect starting rotation with the recent return of veteran southpaw Andy Pettitte who has pitched very well.

Yours truly has continued to hammer home the point that teams going nowhere are ever so dangerous and that point has been in evidence time and time again this month. What better example than earlier this week in the bitterly fought AL Central Division race between Detroit and Chicago when the Twins swept a doubleheader from the Tigers who continue to baffle me while the ChiSox just simply refuse to let go of first place.

Incidentally it baffles me even further when I consider both Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder have surpassed the 100 RBI mark and Cabrera is a legitimate Triple Crown threat, although if you have read this column in the past, that comes as little surprise here.

While on great hitters, the Angels’ Albert Pujols has done it yet again, reaching the 30-homer 100 RBI plateau. Only once in his illustrious career has he failed to drive in 100, slumping last season with only 99!

Despite the Cards’ loss of Pujols, Carlos Beltran’s numbers are that of most Pujols seasons this year and in that regard, he has not been as missed as one might have thought.

The Cardinals not only got right-hander Chris Carpenter back last week, which was a shocker, but Lance Lynn (17-7) who was temporarily put in the bullpen after being one of the game’s top starters much of the season, has righted things and hope remains alive for the Cardinals even if the division title has been lost.

When it comes to individual awards, the Reds have been thinking winning as a team first and let the chips fall as they may for the players. For a good portion of the season Johnny Queto was the NL Cy Young front-runner. Truthfully, Washington’s Gio Gonzalez, now a 20-game winner and R.A. Dickey have both passed him on the list of potential candidates.

For the longest time many thought the Reds Todd Frazier was the top candidate for NL Rookie of the Year, but a sudden batting average surge by Colorado’s Will Rosario has sent him soaring on the charts and Arizona southpaw Wade Miley is a 17-game winner making that race quite tight.

Although an in depth look will soon follow, LA’s Mike Trout is a lock for AL Rookie of the Year, but in most years, the season Oakland’s Yoenis Cespedes has had would have been plenty to win it. Most years that is as Trout has been nothing short of amazing.

There are so many fine players in smaller cities playing under the radar and Adam Jones is Baltimore is one of them. However, I still don’t know how he has but 81 RBI with 32 homers and is hitting .292? Hmmm. Just the kind of things baseball junkies ponder.

When it comes to flying under the proverbial radar, a few of the many names include Jason Kubel (Arizona), Adam LaRoche (Washington) and maybe most of all, Josh Willingham (Minnesota).

Not that it matters much this season and these guys are yesterday’s news in Cincinnati, but a pair of former Reds have each hit 41 homers to date, Adam Dunn and Edwin Encarnacion. Just saying.

Looking over the plethora of mega moves teams made at the trading deadline, the one that seems to have worked out the best is Ryan Dempster who is 7-2 since joining Texas and frankly is a large part of the reason the Rangers have kept the amazing A’s at arm’s length.

It appeared that best moves overall were all the moves made by the Dodgers. But they actually lost ground in what was a great race with rival San Francisco for the NL West title. One look at their current roster produces a single word. “Loaded.” Oh they may not make the playoffs this season, but those very moves could pay real dividends in the future I suspect.

Ok, maybe I am the only one outside of San Diego or Milwaukee who is closely following the NL RBI race between Chase Headley and Ryan Braun, but out of nowhere, there is a third horse coming hard down the backstretch, the Cubs Alfonso Soriano who at last check had 106.