One of the wonderful things about a baseball season is its unpredictability, and in 2012, the first half of the season has been about as predictable as one of R.A. Dickey’s dancing knuckleballs. No one expected — or could have predicted — what’s happening in the National League East.
The New York Mets are 45-38, in second place in the N.L. East. The baseball writers at Yahoo! Sports predicted the team would win at most 74 games; at least, 64 games. Sports Illustrated projected the Mets to win 74 games and finish in last place. At ESPN, 49 baseball “experts” made their predictions before the first pitch of the season. Guys like Tim Kurkjian, Buster Olney and the like selected their division winners, playoff teams and World Series winner. The consensus was the Philadelphia Phillies winning the N.L. East with 27 of the 49 votes, Marlins (11 votes), Braves (10) and the Nationals (1). The Wild Card: Marlins (17), Phillies (16), Nationals (14) and Braves (3). The Mets did not receive a single vote in either category.
Which 2011 loser will wind up in the 2012 postseason? Rule out the Orioles, Athletics, Mariners, Mets, Pirates, Cubs and Astros for various reasons and you are left with nine possibilities. The most likely? In order: Reds, Nationals, Marlins, Rockies, Indians and Royals. The Royals? Now that is upheaval.
In hindsight, predictability was served in the fact that no one gave the Mets even the slightest chance of backing into the postseason.
Jeff Passan at Yahoo! predicted Cliff Lee would win the National League Cy Young Award. Lee is 1-5 in 14 starts. He didn’t win his first game of 2012 until the 4th of July, and who did he beat? The New York Mets, whose success is directly related to 37-year old knuckleballer R.A. Dickey. Anyone have Dickey on their short list of potential N.L. Cy Young candidates? Didn’t think so.
As of today, the ESPN “Cy Young Award Predictor” has R.A. Dickey on top of the National League list of pitchers. In the immortal words of ESPN Baseball Tonight host Karl Ravech, “Who knew?”
So, here we are on the final weekend before the 2012 All-Star Break. Phillies manager Charlie Manuel can be found strolling around his team’s clubhouse, talking to his players one-on-one and looking them in the eye, looking for hope and the smallest ember to fan.
The Phillies promptly went out and lost 6-3 to the Atlanta Braves, falling to 37-49. No one expected this. Now, Philadelphia’s back is against the wall. As Phillies beat writer David Murphy reported Friday, if the Phillies make the playoffs in 2012, they will also make history, writing:
In the Wild Card era, only three teams have ever come back from 10 games below .500 to qualify for the postseason. None of the three teams that accomplished the feat were 10 games under .500 as late as July 5. At 37-47, the Phillies would have to go 51-27 just to reach 88 wins, which is the mark they’ll likely need to reach to have a shot at the second wild card spot. That a .653 winning percentage. To put that in perspective, the Phillies went 49-29 over the last 78 games of last season, although they did have several 78-game stretches above .653 at other points during the season.
And the Marlins? The team opened a new stadium, hired a new manager and gobbled up free agents Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes, Heath Bell and traded for Carlos Zambrano and, more recently, Carlos Lee. All that money spent on all those stars and Miami will go into the break with a sub .500 record and in fourth place.
Miami’s season can be summarized in a single game. Five days ago, in Milwaukee, the Marlins fought back from a 9-0 deficit against the Brewers. After taking the lead in extra innings, Bell surrendered a walk-off home run and the pre-July 4th fireworks ignited in the clubhouse. It was the long-awaited first Ozzie Guillen meltdown. F-bombs rained down on the media, players, anyone within earshot.
“Make sure Miami people don’t (expletive) Bell. Bell gave up two runs. How about the rest of the (expletives) 10 or 12 runs they scored? That’s why this (expletive) game is not (expletive) fair. It’s Ozzie talking (expletive)? No. It’s Ozzie talking the truth, about how (expletive) we were before that (expletive) inning. Put that (expletive) down!”
Guillen dropped seven unmentionables in seven sentences. If you were looking for predictability, that was it. Everyone knew that was coming, it was just a matter of when and where.
The collision of unpredictable first-half performances in the N.L. East is creating new debates. How will the Mets respond to this unpredictable success? Will a team trying to rebuild their minor league system be willing to “sell the farm” to make a big splash? What are the financial boundaries? To what extent will the financial challenges dictate the Mets direction?
The Mets open the second half of the season on the road in Atlanta and Washington, followed by series against Los Angeles and Washington at home. They could win eight of 12, making a declaration that says, the Mets are real contenders … or, they could drop eight of 12 and slip past the Braves (and maybe the Marlins) into fourth place.
Over the next three weeks the Phillies and Marlins will either play their way back into contention (and become buyers) or wobble to July 31 trade deadline and a potential fire sale that could result in new homes for Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Shane Victorino.
A lot can — and will — happen on and off the field in the N.L. East over the next three weeks. I, for one, am not going to try to predict where the chips will fall.