The Final Season: Close It Out

Atlanta 4 – Pittsburgh 0; CJ: 1-1, R

Final Season Stats: .287/.377/.455, 14 HR, 62 RBI, 111 H, 58 R

Final Career Stats: .303/.401/.529, 468 HR, 1623 RBI, 2725 H, 1618 R

It happened. The regular season ended. It always seems to do that, though, no matter how much I protest. At least this year Atlanta will see the postseason, even if only for a brief few hours.

But this last game also means the last day of blogging for me in this epic marathon gauntlet I voluntarily ran into. Today’s post will mark the 162nd time I have posted in the last 6+ months. That’s… a lot. Even I can acknowledge that. I can also acknowledge that it is not a pace I can maintain. In fact, I imagine this being the last post for at least a few days, if not a week or more. I need a little break.

But instead of waxing philosophical about what the last six months have meant to me or shown me, what I got out of all this, if anything, I’m going to finish like I started – writing about baseball. And not writing about what I feel when the season ends or how I long for baseball during the winter (and I do), but writing about a completely random thought I’ve had about this game I love.

Cue the closers (which is fitting as it is my last post).

I had this great conversation with my dad, as I often due, while watching a baseball game recently. Actually, it was a highlight MLB or ESPN or whoever chose to show during the game we were watching, and it was of Tampa Bay Rays closer Fernando Rodney finishing off a game for the team. And if you know anything about Rodney, you know he seems like kind of an intense, yet animated dude. He cocks his hat to one side, has a long-ish, unkempt beard, and makes large gestures with his arms when he completes a save.

This display of, what I assume to be, machoness prompted a comment to my dad about how all closers are crazy. His response: “Well, they need to be.” This led to me saying the expected, ‘Go on.’

It’s my father’s theory that, to be an effective closer, you have to be a little left of center. His reasoning is that it takes a special kind of person to get amped up for coming in with the game on the line. Typically, when closers get the ball, their team is up by only a run or two, and they are tasked with making sure it stays that way. Their team has battled for eight innings to force themselves out in front with only one half inning standing between them and victory. “So, here’s the ball, closer, and don’t screw it up for the rest of us.’

Being a closer is a high pressure job, for sure. Your sole purpose is to ensure wins. No matter how good the batters are that you’re facing and no matter what the situation as far as men on base threatening to score, you are to come in and close the door. The stress, the adrenaline, the nerves, the sense of control. I could see how some players would enjoy all that. I, personally, not so much. I’m non-confrontational. Put me in for some long relief early in the game with the team down seven because the starter blew up. That I can do. But close? I’d have a stress-induced asthma, panic, and heart attack all at once. But those guys that do it and are good at it seem to love it. Obsess over it. ‘Give me the ball, coach! I’m ready.’

That sort of reckless disregard for anxiety is probably where the tattoos, beards and antics come from. They let loose both literally, with their pitches, and figuratively, with their emotions and, possibly, self-control.

Don’t get me wrong. I love closers. The Braves have one of the best in the game in Craig Kimbrel, and he is certainly a big part of their success. So definitely love closers. I just think it’s funny how so many of them fit into that characterization. Crazy guy with long hair, wild gestures and Technicolor tattoos. The kind of guy that looks prone to getting into bar fights with bikers. And I realize while Kimbrel may not look that way, he does look as intense as any of them when he’s out there.

The best exception I can think of, to offer a counterpoint, is Mariano Rivera. He was, for what seems like decades, the Yankees’ closer. (He’s hurt now but looking to make a comeback.) He is a guy that calmly goes out to the mound, void of all tattoos and piercing holes and flashy gestures, and mows opponents down like they’re blades of grass, just sitting and waiting to be chopped up. But he seems like the exception much more so than the rule.

But, hey, if it’s late in a game and the team needs to shut the door, I don’t mind a guy with a questionable appearance or behavior. As long as he’s effective, we’re good. Again – as long as he’s effective. If he is, I’ll wear as many fake beards in as many fake colors as I can find.

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The Final Season: Aroldis Chapman

Atlanta 8 – Philadelphia 2; CJ: 2-5, RBI (61), R

As the baseball season winds down, it’s tradition to ramp up the debate over who should win the postseason awards – MVP, Cy Young, Rookie of the Year, etc. And lately, when it comes to the Cy Young, there’s been a lot of debate about whether or not a reliever can win it. And when they’re talking about relievers, they’re really only talking about two: the Braves’ Craig Kimbrel or the Reds’ Aroldis Chapman.

You know who I’m going to vote for, so I’ll spare you the arguments as to why. However, I will say, if you don’t vote for Kimbrel, you’re not paying attention. Statistically he’s having the best season a reliever has EVER had in the history of baseball. In nearly every pitching category you have for relievers, he’s doing things that have never been done before. Not even by Chapman. If that’s not reason enough to vote a reliever as a Cy Young winner, I don’t know what is.

Speaking of Chapman. Another flame thrower. I think he’s got a great story. The kid’s a Cuban defector who walked out of his team’s hotel room while on a road trip to the Netherlands knowing he could never see his family again, a family that included his young child. And I don’t think he has seen them since. That’s courage, I think.

Oh, and he’s also got a fastball that reaches triple digits consistently. I remember when he debuted, the stadium was going nuts. He only struck out one guy and got two groundouts, but his fastball hit 100 plus five times. Never saw people cheer so loudly for a ball.

It was impressive. Yet, as I was watching, I kept thinking, and when will you need Tommy John? How long will I get to watch this before your elbow or shoulder explodes? Or maybe, if they keep you in a relief role, say closer, you may be able to escape due to lack of strain. I hope he doesn’t go that way, but you never know.

I know I’ve talked ad nauseam about the “hype machine,” but I feel like it’s always been turned up to 11 for Chapman. I could actually see him getting more votes than Kimbrel for the Cy Young because of it, despite their stats. Although the ratio of hyperboles to innings-pitched probably does go in Chapman’s favor. The typical dominant, explosive, and unhittable are thrown around and that’s usually before he makes an appearance. It’s on par for the hype media, but still.

Of course it was the most absurd when he debuted. I’ll never forget how one announcer said he would be “key to the Reds’ post season success.” Again, this is during his first ever major league appearance. I just remember thinking, I’m sure the other Reds who have played 130+ games and gotten their team on the brink of the playoffs for the first time in 15 years might disagree with you, sir.

I just wonder if the media will ever learn its lesson. If it will ever approach potentially game changing talent with a bit of caution. Or certainly less attention. Let them develop a bit before they put them on the cover of Sports Illustrated. So, in the chance they don’t pan out, they don’t look like an epic fail, but just what they are, which is a young kid with potential that didn’t succeed. Which is, by far, the more common narrative in sport.

I know, ESPN, you have to sell us all soap we don’t need, but if you could turn the dial just down to 10, it would be appreciated, particularly by those young kids and their families that wouldn’t have to suffer through your crash course in unparalleled success followed by biggest failure in history in the span of a few weeks. Something like that can be rough on the psyche, you know?

Anyway, I got off on a tangent, something I never do. The point is, Chapman is amazing, yet I’m pretty sure the Earth is still spinning at the same speed it was before he started pitching, ergo he did not change the world, including the world of baseball.And, even with his monumental success, it is not unparalleled, as Kimbrel has done him one better, and that is something I hope he gets awarded for. Let the debating continue.

The Final Season: The NL’s Best Closer

New York 6 – Atlanta 5; CJ: 0-3, R, BB

There’s been a lot of talk lately (including from ESPN’s announcers tonight) about who’s the better closer in the NL, the Braves’ Craig Kimbrel or the Reds’ Aroldis Chapman. They have identical ERA’s, Kimbrel has a few more saves and Chapman has a lot more strikeouts. So… you decide.

There’s probably, definitely a little more to it than that but debating that made me remember what it was like when Chapman made his debut. (No offense to the very talented Kimbrel, but it wasn’t quiet the same.) For one thing, it took him only a few appearances to record the fastest pitch ever officially clocked in a Major League Baseball game, hitting 105 on the gun. Pretty awesome. (If memory serves me well, that pitch wasn’t a strike, but he’s thrown plenty since over a hundred that were.) In fact, if you have a moment, YouTube that highlight. When the pitch speed tracker shows how fast the pitch was, the crowd just goes crazy. It’s probably the loudest a meaningless ball has ever been cheered in MLB history.

Get this. In that same appearance, he threw 25 pitches that night and EVERY SINGLE ONE was clocked at 100 mph or faster. That’s unbelievable! Dude is a serious fireballer.

But what really cemented his debut was his rough story. He’s a Cuban defector that walked out of his team’s hotel in the Netherlands while they were playing a tournament there, never to return. He had to leave behind his family, including a fiancé and a child.

It’s fun to compare him to Kimbrel, though, because they’re certainly similar in a few ways, but complete opposites in others. Just look at the size comparison. Kimbrel is short and stocky, while Chapman is long and lanky, which certainly helps him. He strides to the plate faster and further, torques his body at a greater angle and releases the ball a whole foot later than more big league pitchers. The length that he generates with his body, along with the way he whips the ball around, is unequalled.

Kimbrel just seems to use his mass to move the mass of the baseball that much faster. All of his strength always looks to be focused on driving the ball to the plate, not so much whipping it like Chapman.

But it’s not all upper body for Chapman. He drives with his lower legs, too, which is good for his longevity. It always makes me nervous when such fast throwers are using so much of their upper body. Usually leads to arm troubles and burnout. Not to say that this kid won’t do that. But I think it will help him to avoid it if all they say about him is true, i.e., he’s developed a very unique motion that can support his power.

And nobody wants to see a “fireballer” get hurt. A “flamethrower.” Those guys that can throw over 100 mphs consistently. Billy Wagner was one of those guys in his prime. There’s a fireballer that lasted for a while. Randy Johnson was another.

There’s something to watch when a guy can throw that fast. It’s like you’re witnessing something super-human. I mean, we have respect for the guy that can throw an amazing curve or an amazing change, like Pedro Martinez, but we go crazy for the guy that can throw over 100. It creates a palpable excitement. We’re always in awe of him. We’re impressed by the breaking-ballers, while we’re mesmerized by the fastballers.

Nolan Ryan is probably the most revered and arguably best fastball pitcher in history. He threw over 100 mph into his 40’s. He threw seven no-hitters and has 5,700+ strikeouts. Oh, and by the way, a first ballot Hall of Famer with almost 99% of the votes never won a Cy Young award. He also played 27 seasons. Anyway, he was special.

I know I’ve argued that watching a curveball break is, for me, the prettiest sight in baseball. But the most eye-popping is probably the 100+ mph fastball. It’s impressive to see someone hit that fast of a pitch.

And I think that’s what it is. It seems super human. When something that seems impossible for a mere mortal to do, something that we’re forced to recognize is not something we can do, is not something we’re capable of, we are truly in awe and willing to dole out the praise. We are quicker to acknowledge the spectacle.

It’s deceiving, of course, because we couldn’t do anything on the baseball field the way the professionals do. But that deception keeps our jubilation at bay somewhat. And, I think, those other pitches are expected. I expect a big league pitcher to have a good breaking pitch and fastball that is 90 mph+. But I do not expect anyone to be able to throw over 100 mph for 25 straight pitches. Seeing the unexpected just adds to the amazement, for me at least.

And, after all that, who’s the better closer? Well how should I know?

The Final Season: Amazing Comebacks

Atlanta 4 – Washington 0; CJ: 1-1, 2 RBI (39), R

The Braves win yesterday, in case you missed it, was awesome. Simply awesome, and in the true sense of the word. Down 9-0, with Stephen Strasburg on the mound no less, and they come back and win in extra innings. Awesome.

Awesome the way the team never stopped trying to win. At 9-0, I think it’d be so easy to say, you know what, today’s not our day. We’ll get them tomorrow. But apparently their response was to say, just keep getting back in it, little by little. And they did! Four runs in the 6th, then four more in the 8th. The ninth was the best, though. Down 9-8, Michael Bourn just missed hitting a three-run homerun, driving in two with a triple that gave the Braves the lead. We’ll gloss over the bottom of the ninth, when Craig Kimbrel blew the save by giving up a solo homerun – but hey, at least it was just a solo shot! They came through again in the top of the 11th, when Paul Janish – that’s right, I wrote Paul Janish, the newly acquired shortstop brought in to be a temp defensive fix – drove in the winning run. Awesome!

Awesome how Chipper, who had an okay day, set the record for most RBI’s hit by a third baseman in MLB history. His one base hit drove in a couple in that four run 8th, and, as it was obvious every little bit helped, I can’t be mad at him for not doing more.

Awesome that I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Braves do anything like that. I have seen them do something close to it, though. That game last night reminded me of a game they played a couple years ago against the Cincinnati Reds at Turner Field. The Braves were losing 9-3 going into the bottom of the ninth, and they’d pretty much had it handed to them all day, being down 9-1 at one point.

But in the bottom of the ninth, they exploded. No other way to describe it. (Nothing like waiting for the last minute, I suppose.) With the score at 9-6, one out, and the bases loaded, enter that games Janish. Brooks Conrad hit a walk-off grand slam. Unbelievable. That hadn’t happened in the Bigs since 2002, and I don’t think it had ever happened in Atlanta Braves history.

And for it to be Brooks Conrad, too, who was pinch-hitting in Chipper Jones spot no less, was just great. Journeyman. Gamer. Minor league lifer. ‘Mud dog’ they called him for how he always seemed to get his uniform dirty. The kind of guy who, what he lacks in talent he makes up in hard work. If you’re a baseball fan, you know exactly what kind of guy he is. Oh, and he played for the Round Rock Express for years.

That whole moment of him hitting the grand slam was awesome. I remember he hit it, and it was not an obvious homerun, but it had a chance. The Red’s leftfielder, Lanyce Nix, went up for it and actually got leather on the ball, so for a second it looked like he caught it, but it really just deflected off his glove and over the wall for the grand slam. The best part, and the part I’ll never forget, was Conrad’s reaction. He though Nix caught it, so he actually put his hands on his head in exasperation and turned to start walking back to the dugout.

Only problem was, he couldn’t get back to the dugout if he wanted to because all his teammates are pouring out of it, cheering. That sight, along with the roar of the crowd, finally clued him in that that ball did go out, he did hit the game-winning grand slam, and the game was over, pending his completion of the homerun trot, which he preceded to do much too quickly for someone in his position. A veteran would have taken his time, enjoyed every step. Conrad could have given Usain Bolt a race around those bases. And of course, once he touched home plate, the now required jumping and screaming in a circle to celebrate commenced with his teammates. It was great to see. Seven runs in the bottom of the ninth to win – are you kidding me?

I wondered then, like I wrote above, how many players, if you asked them, honestly thought they were done, that the game was over. I mean, they carry themselves like anything could happen. Their manager doesn’t want to see anyone down, so they keep clapping, cheering everyone on. But you have to think that, in the back of their minds, their like, ‘Down 9-1 and we’re going to come back? Yeah, right.’ But then, I suppose, in the back, back of their minds they might be thinking, ‘Well, you know, crazier things have happened.’ And crazy things like a nine run comeback seem to happen weekly in sports. That’s why we love them. ‘So maybe, just maybe…’ And every once in a while that cheer and hand-clap is for real.

But both wins were awesome. Hopefully this year’s version will be as good for the team as the 2010 version. If I remember correctly, they started playing pretty well after that win. After all, those can be turning-point moments for a team. It’s all about how they use them, feed off of them. Yesterday can be a kick in the butt for the Braves to get it together and turn the leaf and get moving and all those clichés that mean they start playing like they are supposed to and win baseball games. It can also be the end of the Nationals sitting atop the NL East. Us baseball fans might just look back at this game and say neither team was the same again. It happens all the time in sports with games like that. Heart-breaking losses, heart-making wins. Here’s hoping.