Sunday, August 31, 2014

New Ulm destroys Winstead in state quarterfinals

 Jordan, MINN.
By Jeff Barthel

The definition of dominance was on display today by the New Ulm Brewers.

Led by an 18-hit, 13-run attack, the Brewers demolished the Winstead Wildcats 18-3 to advance to the Class C amateur baseball tournament semifinals, where New Ulm will battle the hometown Jordan Brewers back here at the Mini Met in this afternoon.

"We just kept giving it to them,” starting pitcher Chris Cariveau said of his team’s offense. “We know it’s the state tournament, so we’ve got to score as many runs as we can.”

New Ulm SP Chris Cariveu
Offense was not the only facet in which the Brewers dominated. Cariveau stumped the Winstead bats to the tune of three hits and one run allowed in seven innings of work.

Following the game, New Ulm veteran catcher Brady Ranweiler could not say enough about his starting pitcher and battery mate.  

“Chris is a kind of a pitcher that I think every single team here would like to have,” Ranweiler said. “ I think for  New Ulm baseball, he’s probably pitched more big games than anybody … He doesn’t have that big power arm, but he definitely has enough stuff to keep the others team off-balanced.”

Cariveau – a righthander and native of New Ulm – struck out seven batters in his seven innings. He was also fortunate to work with a 5-0 lead right out of the gates.

Rightfielder Garrett Fischer ignited the carnage, with a one-out triple off Winstead starter Nik Frank. The next five Brewers batters went as follows:

Single. Single. Single. Fielder’s choice. Walk. And finally another single … Five runs scored before the Wildcats bats even had a chance to rebut.

New Ulm LF Jason Shaul
New Ulm added three more runs in the fifth, followed by a pair of runs in both the sixth and the seventh. Winstead notched a run in the fourth, but that would be all. It was not a good day for Wildcats bats or pitching. Three hits and Winstead's lone run, coupled by a rough performance by Franck (1 IP, 5 H, BB, 4 ER) and the Section 7D representatives were sent packing.

Brady Reinweler (not to be confused with his brother and Brewers second baseman, Cory) finished the game as one of three New Ulm hitters with three hits. He also had a walk, RBI and run scored.

“When he hits the ball, it’s with real authority,” manager Al Flor said of his 20-year veteran. “Everyone looks to him to be the leader. When he does well, everybody follows.”

New Ulm faces its next opponent – Jordan – as it will be Brewers versus Brewers this evening at 5:00.

* Photos for this story were contributed by Chandrasekar Umathurappan. Thanks, Uma!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Orphans' stellar season ends at state, with loss to host Jordan


By Jeff Barthel

It was a fantastic season for the Howard Lake Orphans.

After claiming its region’s No. 3 seed, winning its first two state tournament games and compiling a 22-4 record, there were a lot of optimistic Orphans fans arriving for the team’s game at Mini Met stadium this morning in Jordan.

Unfortunately, mere minutes into the game, those Howard Lake hopes were harder to come by.

Through one-half inning of play, the tournament host Jordan Brewers (32-9) led the Howard Lake Orphans 8-0. Howard Lake fought back a few innings later to get it to 8-2. But it was just too insurmountable of a lead to come back from.

One week after leading Howard Lake past a tough Waconia team, Orphans ace pitcher Adam Koch was knocked out of today’s game before it ever got going – allowing eight earned runs and retiring just one Brewers batter.

Howard Lake manager Mike Gagnon (#10, right) leads a postgame huddle
“He’s had a great year, an outstanding season,” Orphans manager Mike Gagnon said of Koch. “For whatever reason, he just didn’t have it today.”

Jordan won the game 10-2, thereby ending the Orphans run and advancing to the elite eight of the 2014 Class C amateur baseball state tournament.

Gagnon said he felt great after Koch retired Jordan lead-off hitter Joe Lucas.

Gagnon said Lucas – Jordan’s star player, who leads the Brewers with a whopping .448 batting average, 29 stolen bases and 49 runs – was a key force he knew his team had to stop today. So he was thrilled to limit Lucas’ damage to 0-for-3 with a walk and a hit-by-pitch.

“If someone told me we kept the [Lucas] off the bases all but one time,  I’d say we’d have a good chance to win,” Gagnon said. “But it was just not meant to be.”

Koch, who was 7-1 with a 1.43 ERA in the Northstar League this year, could not locate his pitches today. Following the game-opening Lucas groundout, the game unraveled in a hurry.

The next nine Brewers hitters reached base – five base hits and four hit batsmen. Koch was pulled from the game after he beaned Lucas the second time he faced him.

Howard Lake kept alive after the early damage as relief pitcher Adam Gregg – a draftee from Maple Plain – kept Brewers bats at bay.

Gregg allowed just two hits and one walk in six and two-thirds innings.
Howard Lake reliever Adam Gregg - a draftee of Maple Plain

But while Gregg was cruising, the Orphans offense struggled.

Jordan starting pitcher Trent Bohnsack had pinpoint control of his pitches, using the umpire’s penchant for the outside strike to his advantage.

“[Bohnsack] did a fantastic job,” Orphans second baseman Luke Gagnon said, “getting the leadoff guy out, throwing strikes, I’m not sure how many free passes we had but it was very few.”

“He had a nice fastball and he located really well. The umpire gave him a couple inches on the outside and he hit it.”

Whether by swing or by call, Bohnsack stretched the outside of the plate to a tee – of the 20 outs he recorded, he retired 11 on strikeouts. At 37 years of age, the wily Jordan veteran had no walks today either.

Howard Lake bats were able to lay some lumber on the ball eventually. After five scoreless frames, Howard Lake came up with a run in the sixth.

Yearning for something to cheer for, with one out and a runner on first, designated hitter Jason Mix ignited Orphans fans by belting a double to deep right-center.

Following Mix, Bohnsack lost control off a 0-2 pitch and hit Steve Boger to load the bases with one out. Up came Orphans third baseman Chris Hardie, who hammered a pitch to right.

Hardie’s fly was caught, but the ball was hit well enough to bring home John Steuven to score Howard Lake’s first run. That would be it, however. A foul pop out to first left two runners on base and the score was 8-1 through six.

Orphans SS Luke Gagnon, at second after doubling in the 7th
In the seventh inning, Howard Lake had another chance to rally. Luke Gagnon, who doubled off the left field wall in the third, cracked a two-out double off the fence in right. Teammate Eric Schreifels followed suit with a double of his own and the score was 8-2 Jordan.

Schreifels' double not only knocked in Gagnon, it knocked out Bohnsack. Brewers reliever Dillon Lee entered the game in Bohnsack’s place. Lee promptly walked his first batter – Stueven – and up came Mix again.

Hoping for another double, the Orphans five-hitter bounced a grounder to third this time. The ball was bobbled, however, as Jordan third baseman Alex Beckman could not come up with it cleanly and the rally was alive.

The bases were loaded now, as Boger arrived at the plate for Howard Lake. Boger offered on the first pitch from Lee and grounded to third as well. This time, however, Beckman handled it, as the rally was stymied and three more Orphans runners were left stranded.

“The first three at-bats I had been getting down in the count, watching some pitches I felt were outside and a little tough to get after,” Boger said, describing his approach on the at-bat. “[This time] I told myself if it was right down the middle, first pitch, the bases loaded and I could give our team a shot, I’d take a hack at it.”

“Unfortunately I topped it,” he said. “But I was trying to go down aggressive at least and not get down in the count again, especially when we needed some runs.”

The final two innings went down rather quietly. Howard Lake was retired in order in the eighth. The Brewers added a pair of runs in the ninth and the game finished up as an eight-run loss.

It was an impressive season for the Orphans nonetheless. One both manager Gagnon and six-year veteran Boger were very proud of.

“I told the guys we had an excellent season,” Gagnon said. “One game does not make a season, and we had a good season.

“It was probably the best chemistry, best team we’ve had in a long time,” Boger said, proud of both  his team’s season as a whole and how it fought through the first two rounds of the tournament.

“We played hard every week, had a great group of guys playing hard every week," he said. "We had a great game against Waconia, won a close game 3-2, a team that we were underdogs against coming into. So it was fun to go in there and get a win in the second round and keep on going …”

Prior to today’s loss to Jordan, Howard Lake defeated Montevideo 5-0 Aug. 15 in round one. On Aug. 23, the team upset Section 7 top-seed Waconia 3-2, led by five and two-thirds strong innings from Koch.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Missed opportunities cost Greyhounds at state

Saturday, Aug. 23
LeSueur, MINN.
By Jeff Barthel
It was a rainy morning at Bruce Frank Field in LeSeueur. Nine innings later, the Austin Greyhounds were cloudy with a chance of missed opportunities. 

“There were a lot of runners on base [today] and it’s my job to get them in” Greyhounds manager Matt Cano said, “and I didn’t do my job today.”

Cano, Austin’s No. 3 hitter, particularly regretted a key opportunity in the seventh inning, where he swung and missed on a high fastball from Burnsville pitcher Casey Jacobson. 
Greyhounds 3B John Frien, bunting

Jacobson ended up going the distance for the Bobcats, leading his team to a 4-1 win over Austin, eliminating the Greyhounds from the Class B amateur baseball state tournament today.

“Cano’s been automatic for us, I was at second [base] amped up and ready to score,” third baseman John Frien said, “I was just hoping I didn’t do anything stupid or get picked off … anywhere he puts it in play and I’m going to score.” 

Clutch for Austin all season long and all it took was one poor swing to kill a potential key rally in a costly situation. 

“Leaving the bases loaded with one out …” Cano said, “momentum in baseball can mean everything at times, and this was definitely one of [those times].”

Cano was not only speaking for himself. Prior to Cano’s at-bat, Austin second baseman Joe Kroc left the sacks packed with an infield fly.

Until the late innings, this game was a pure pitchers’ duel. Jacobson and Austin starter Joe Huffman held opposing bats at bay through four.

Greyhounds Jamey Pratt scores Austin's run

The scoring opened in the fifth when Burnsville’s Matt Trocke smacked a single up the middle to score teammate Bryce Pruszinske. Austin went scoreless through its half of the fifth but would notch its first run in the sixth.

Cano started a rally with a single. Jamey Pratt pinch-ran for Cano and advanced to second on a ground ball. Two batters later, with two outs, centerfielder Andy Swank came through with an RBI single to tie the game 1-1.

In the eighth inning, reliever Nels Nelson found himself in trouble. But it was not all of his own doing.

With two runners on and one out, Burnsville’s Robby Wiens lofted a soft pop fly to right that Greyhounds outfielder Josh Evans could not quite come up with. Not ruled an error because it didn’t hit Evans glove, it was a tough luck single for Nelson to take.  

Now facing the bases loaded with one out, Nelson faced Bobcats catcher Zach Harazin. Harazin promptly greeted Nelson with a hard line drive to center. Greyhounds centerfielder Swank raced to his left to make a fine running catch. But the hit was strong enough to score Trocke (who singled to start the inning) and give Burnsville a 2-1 lead.
Greyhounds RP Nels Nelson

Nelson was able to stymie further damage by retiring Burnsville’s Bryce Pruszinske on a pop-up to first base. Rather than dejected by the deficit, the Greyhounds were visibly pumped as they escaped trouble and hustled into the dugout with beaming shouts of optimism.

Nelson described retiring Pruszinkske and keeping the team’s faith.

“It was a fastball outside, and I was able to hit my spot and get him to pop up,” Nelson said. “We came in [to the dugout] ready to swing the bats, feeling we had a great chance to tie it up again.”

It was not to be, however.

After two quick outs Nelson tried to pick up his team’s offense, lacing a double to left. But a groundout to short ended Austin’s chances in the eighth.

Burnsville then answered in the ninth, scoring two runs on three hits and an error. It was all she wrote from there, as the Bobcats wiped up the Greyhounds with a final score of 4-1.

Statistical highlights:
Burnsville: Jacobsen (CG, ER, 7 H, 7 K, 3 BB); Trocke (3-for-5, R, RBI)
Greyhounds: Swank (2-for-3, BB, RBI); Joe Huffman (5 IP, ER, 4 H, 8 K, BB)
Greyhounds SS Henry Fleek
Burnsville SP Casey Jacobson
Greyhounds SP Joe Huffman

Photos: All Greyhounds photos were courtesy of Mary Nelson; the photo of Burnsville SP Casey Jacobson is a file photo ... Thanks for the great photos, Mary!

Note: I wrote this story as coverage of the Austin Greyhounds for the Rochester Post-Bulletin.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Dundas defeats Eagan to advance in Class B

Dundas Dukes vs. Eagan Bandits
Jordan, MINN.
By Jeff Barthel

On a hot, humid afternoon in Jordan, the Dundas Dukes and Eagan Bandits’ bats were cold in the early going.

The game was scoreless through four innings. But the Dukes rallied for a three-run fifth and never looked back.

Behind the stellar pitching of Todd Mathison and a clutch hit by Carson Jones, Dundas defeated Eagan 5-3 to keep its season alive and extend its Class B state tournament hopes.

“I’ve watched him for a lot of years and that’s the best he’s ever been” Dundas centerfielder Carson Jones said of Mathison.
Dundas CF Carson Jones, takes his lead at first base

Lined up directly behind his starting pitcher, centerfielder Jones had a perfect view of Mathison, who treated him and his fellow Dukes to a 13-strikeout, complete game performance against the 22-win Bandits.

“My fastball was popping, two-seam was moving, they were swinging early and I was getting my pitcher’s pitches put in to play” Mathison said of his performance today.

Eagan hitters were found shaking their heads one after another. Frustrated by perhaps an arguably extended strike zone today, Bandits batters either looked quizzical from being rung up or contemptuous toward the home plate umpire having flailed at a pitch they struggled to reach.

Dundas ran into trouble in the bottom of the fourth. With Bandits leadoff hitter Tony Johnson at first following a single, Eagan second baseman Louie Lachapelle faced a 3-2 pitched from Mathison. The pitch appeared outside of the right-hand hitter’s grasp, as he took the pitch for a called third strike. Confused over the call, LaChappelle let the umpire feel his ire as he jaunted back to his dugout.

Eagan’s next hitter, catcher Mark Tatera, was at the plate, when the Bandits sent its speedster Johnson to second. Dukes catcher Pat Wadzinski delivered a perfect throw but shortstop Todd Maus could not hold onto it and Eagan had a runner in scoring position with one out. Eagan’s threat quickly expanded as Tatera hit a grounder to short that could not be handled by Maus, leaving Eagan with runners were at first and third with one out.
Dundas 1B on-deck in the 8th

In position to surrender the game’s first run, Mathison faced Eagan cleanup hitter Roy Larson, who smashed a bullet to center. But Dukes centerfielder Carson Jones snatched the liner and made a strong throw cut-off by Mathison to keep the Johnson at third. Mathison then sqeaked out trouble, retiring Eagan’s Matt Fielder on a close play at first to keep the Bandits scoreless.

Eagan would regret not being able to score there, as the Dukes were poised to swing its bats in the fifth.

A double, walk and hit batsman led to a bases-loaded, one-out situation for Dukes first baseman Steve Loos. Loos lofted a fly ball to left to score the game’s first run.

Eagan pitcher Neil Kunik was now faced with Dundas’ four-hitter, Carson Jones. On a 0-1 pitch, Kunik threw a costly wild pitch, advancing Duke runners to second and third. Jones cashed in on the gaffe, sending a single to right to plate two runs.
Jones at bat in the 8th

“It was a 2-1 pitch and I was looking for a fastball,” Jones said. “He threw it inside and I got jammed a little bit and was able to just fist it into right center.”

Jones’ contact would prove huge as that two-run hit propelled his pitcher’s performance through the next four innings.

“It’s a heck of a lot easier to pitch with a lead” Mathison said, given a three-run lead on Jones’ hit. “What it allowed me to do was throw a lot of fastballs and attack the zone more later in the game knowing a solo home run doesn’t affect us.”

Mathison allowed a run in the bottom of the fifth, but followed it up with three scoreless frames.

An eighth-inning rally for Dundas resulted in two runs of valuable insurance for the Dukes.

Down 5-1, Eagan would not go down without a fight. With one out in the ninth, Tatera slashed a single to right. Bandits imposing force Larson was at the plate again. Having hit the ball hard for an out earlier, Larson won the battle against Mathison this time.

Larson woke up Eagan faithful – and everyone in attendance for that matter – delivering a 360-foot bomb onto the railroad over the fence in left-center.

“I just hung a slider,” Mathison said, describing the pitch to Larson, “it started in and broke over the middle.”

“I’ve played against Roy in college and he’s a guy if he gets the right pitch he can do some damage,” he added. “I tip my hat to him … but in the end it didn’t cost us the game."

The bases empty now, Mathison was able to mitigate further damage, promptly retiring the following two batters to stymie any final hope the Bandits’ had.

Dundas’ win sets up an epic matchup next weekend. The Dukes (28-9) will face the reigning champion Springers of Cold Spring (26-6), who defeated the Austin Blue Sox in its first-round game.

The game takes place Friday, 7:30 p.m. at Belle Plaine’s Tiger Field.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The 2014 MLB Playoff Chase - American League

It’s early August, and baseball fans know what that means …

It’s playoff chase time!

So who’s a shoo-in? Who’s teetering? Who will be left on the outside looking in?

Here’s one baseball fan’s perspective:

American League

Detroit Tigers

In the American League, the cream of the crop has got to be the Detroit Tigers.

With apologies to the Oakland Athletics, who have owned baseball’s best record almost all season, and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, the Tigers, in my opinion, will be a little too loaded for its competitors come playoff time.

Tigers starting pitcher David Price - acquired July 31
Detroit just signed longtime Tampa Bay Rays ace David Price, adding baseball's strikeout leader (199 and counting) to a supremely talented staff also featuring the past two Cy Young award winners and the 2012 AL MVP. And beyond Price, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, the team has a pair of other hurlers who could be a No.1 or 2 start for several other teams in the majors in Anibal Sanchez and Rick Porcello.

Sure, Verlander has not been his six-time All-Star self yet – having a well out of character 4.66 ERA and 1.42 WHIP. But he’s 31 years old, he’s healthy and when he finds his groove again the Tigers will be all the better for it.

As for the Tigers bullpen – well documented as its weak link in recent years – the addition of Joakim Soria will help solidify its corps enough to protect late leads … Joe Nathan, as with Verlander, has had a rough go this year as well (5.31 ERA, 5 blown saves) and despite his struggles, he’s remained the team’s closer. It’s my belief, though, that Soria usurps Nathan as closer. But I do think the wily, 39-year-old will find himself again and he will join Joba Chamberlain (2.93 ERA in 50 appearances) to become a valuable bridge to Soria down the stretch.

As for Detroit’s offense: The Tigers look like a well-oiled machine poised to destruct any opposing pitcher that stands in its way.

Tigers designated hitter Miguel Cabrera
Miguel Cabrera remains one of the most imposing offensive forces in baseball. The reigning MVP currently holds a .311 batting average, has 36 doubles and 83 RBI. But as excellent as he’s been, I think his best is yet to come for Cabrera – that’s just how good a hitter this guy is.

The Tigers have plenty of pop surrounding Cabrera as well.

Victor Martinez is having quite the renaissance year. The 11-year vet is batting .324 with 23 homers and 66 RBI. His on-base percentage is .383 and he’s struck out a mere 33 times in 373 at-bats. It’s been the best season Martinez has looked since 2010 (the end of a four-year stretch in which he made three All-Star appearances), and batting fourth, one spot ahead of Cabrera, V-Mart is providing superior protection to his team’s superstar.

In the five spot, Torii Hunter has been hitting very well of late (.364, 6 HR, 24 RBI in July). Batting sixth, Tigers late-April pickup J.D. Martinez has been a pleasant surprise – batting .312 with 15 HR and 48 RBI in 247 at-bats.

Detroit holds a 4.5-game lead on Kansas City in the Central. But while KC is having a fine season, I expect the Tigers to extend its lead to 10 by season’s end. The Tigers, currently 62-48, finish the season as AL Central champs at 92 wins, 70 losses.

Oakland Athletics

The A’s have set the bar in the American League this season. The team has the most wins (69), the highest run total (551) and the second-highest ERA (3.13).

Athletics starting pitcher Jon Lester - acquired July 31
On top of this, the A’s just stole away Boston ace Jon Lester to add to its already supremely talented rotation. Yes, Oakland has dominated on the field and in the minds of many of baseball’s top experts this season.

Oakland, as always seems to be the case (at least in recent memory), will be very, very tough to score runs against. Lester is expected to headline a rotation featuring three starters in the AL’s top ten in ERA – Scott Kazmir (fourth place, at 2.53), Lester (7th, 2.59) and Sonny Gray (9th, 2.87). The team also has Jeff Samardzjia (2.91 ERA) and Jason Hammel, both acquired July 5 from the Cubs.

(An interesting note on Samardzija: Samardzija began the season as the world’s preeminent hard luck loser. Boasting a 1.46 ERA through his first 10 starts despite an 0-4 record, he set a major league record for winless pitchers through their first 10 starts of a season ... So far with Oakland, he’s 2-1 with a 3.09 ERA in six starts.)

In the A’s bullpen, closer Jim Johnson did not turn out as expected – he was a disaster, in fact (a 7.14 ERA in 40.1 innings pitched). But the team remedied Johnson’s failure by promoting Sean Doolittle, who has filled in admirably with a 2.49 ERA, a microscopic 0.63 WHIP and 71 strikeouts in 50.2 IP.

The A’s also have plenty of arms surrounding Doolittle in the pen. Fernando Abad has made 53 appearances with a 1.83 ERA, Luke Gregerson has a 1.84 ERA through 53.2 IP, and Dan Otero has been a stalwart with a 2.25 ERA and a team-high 64 innings pitched.

Offensively is where Oakland could begin to crumble a bit.

Not that the A’s will go from league leaders to pushovers, but …

Ex-Athletics outfielder Yoenis Cespedes
In acquiring Lester, the A’s surrendered a really valuable chip. The team gave up its cleanup hitter, home run derby champ Yoenis Cespedes. The 28-year-old defector of Cuba batted .256 with 17 home runs and 67 RBI prior to his July 30 trade to Boston. But while those are nice power numbers, it’s his presence that Oakland will miss. Brandon Moss (23 HR, 72 RBI) has been great, but Cespedes’ cannon in the outfield and menacing plate presence is irreplaceable.

By season’s end Oakland will most likely finish with baseball’s best pitching staff. And with the additions of Lester and Samardzija, that is obviously the plan.

Yes, pitching wins in the postseason and the A’s sure are loaded … But, will the team’s offense be good enough to stack up against the Tigers and or the team’s division rival Los Angeles Angels?

Oakland outlasts the Angels for the AL West pennant. The team makes it to its third consecutive postseason, finishing its regular season with a 94-68 record.

Los Angeles Angels (of Anaheim)

After a relatively slow start to its season, the Angels are on fire as of late – winning 15 of its past 24 games and narrowing its gap against division-leading Oakland to a mere one game.

The team’s strength is undoubtedly its offense. Led by its star centerfielder, Mike Trout, LA has led the majors in runs scored since the beginning of July.

Trout has been sensational of late. The 25-year-old leads his team in nearly every offensive category. Moreover, his on-base percentage (.394), slugging percentage (.586), home runs (25), runs (78) and RBI (81) all rank among the top five in the AL. He’s also batting .305 and ranks second in the league with 33 doubles.

Angels centerfielder Mike Trout
One more Trout note and then I’ll move on … Trout’s WAR (Wins Above Replacement) – a measurement of a player’s overall value to his team (including defense and speed) - tops MLB at 6.3. That’s a healthy .7 margin above second-placed Troy Tulowitzki of Colorado.

Hitting behind Trout, Albert Pujols seems to be healthy and is enjoying and fine season. The nine-time All-Star first baseman is batting .277 with 21 HR and 70 RBI. Other than Pujols fellow infielders second baseman Erick Aybar and Howie Kendrick have contributed nicely as well: Aybar, a first-time All-Star this year, has 23 doubles, 12 stolen bases and 52 RBI. Kendrick has a .283 BA with 24 doubles and 47 RBI.

More offense? Right-fielder Kole Calhoun has blossomed in his second year, batting .280 with 11 homers and 32 RBI in 293 at-bats … and then there’s former AL MVP Josh Hamilton. Hamilton missed most of April and all of May, but he has provided steady production overall – batting .283 with 8 HR and 35 RBI in 244 at-bats. If Hamilton finds his power stroke, the Angels will be all the more formidable for it.

The Angels pitching has been okay this season. The team ranks 14th in the majors in ERA (sixth in the AL), but, it has been improving.

Taking the reigns as the team’s unofficial ace, Garret Richards leads LA with 12 wins a 2.58 ERA. Jared Weaver, the team’s more official ace, shares Richards’ win total, but it’s Richards who’s shown the most dominant this season.

Angels starting pitcher Garret Richards
Los Angeles’ first-round pick in 2009, Richards has progressed impressively from last year. In 2013, his first season of any tangible workload (145 innings pitched), Richards made 17 starts. He finished 7-8 with a 4.16 ERA, a 1.35 WHIP and 101 strikeouts. This season, he currently boasts a 1.02 ERA and has 152 strikeouts already. The man has been impressive; most recently evidenced by his complete-game win over Zack Greinke and the Dodgers this past Monday.

Leading the Angels pitching with Richards is Weaver, whom I meant no disrespect for earlier. Weaver’s definitely had fine campaign as well. The team’s three-time All-Star is 12-6 with a 3.59 ERA in 150.1 innings pitched. Behind him and Richards, the Angels rotation is decent; but it’s not the kind that rivals either Detroit or Oakland.

The Angels bullpen had its struggles earlier this season, but has been shored up of late. The team signed Jason Grilli in late August. The team then really made a splash, signing Padres closer Huston Street on July 18th. Buried in the depths of a poor Padres team, Street has been dominant this year – saving 30 games in 31 chances. So far with the Angels, he’s 6 for 6 in saves with no earned runs allowed.

Joe Smith (4-0, 1.83 ERA) and Kevin Jepsen (1.74 ERA, 56 K in 46.2 IP) have been reliable relievers for Los Angeles as well.

I’m buying the Angels as a wildcard with a decent shot of making some noise in the playoffs this year. LA finishes with a 92-70 record, 2 games behind the Oakland.

Baltimore Orioles

The Orioles have been on quite a tear lately. After spending its first half of the season in mediocrity, the team’s won 21 of its last 31 games.

While the O’s have a very talented lineup, it's the team’s pitching that has led the way as of late and that could lead them to wins in the postseason.

Orioles starting pitcher Wei-Yin Chen
Baltimore’s pitching staff has no big names whatsoever. The current rotation, however, does have five guys who’ve been pretty effective in recent weeks.

Led by the efforts of Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris and closer Zach Britton, Baltimore ranked fourth in baseball for team ERA in the month of July.

Tillman has given up three earned runs or fewer over his last 11 starts. Chen leads the team in overall wins (12) and earned wins for five straight starts prior to Wednesday. Norris, meanwhile, has been steady all season - posting nine wins and owning the best ERA among O’s starters at 3.68.

As for Britton: Since being promoted to closer in mid-May, the 26-year-old has 23 saves in 26 attempts with a 2.16 ERA.

Nelson Cruz leads the Orioles offense with 29 home runs and 77 RBI. However, the All-Star slugger has cooled off mightily since the All-Star break – batting .104 (just seven hits in 67 at-bats!) since July 18. Fellow All-Star Adam Jones has not been too hot either – batting .133 with 2 RBI over his past seven games.

Orioles outfielders Adam Jones and Nelson Cruz
I have no doubts, however, that Baltimore’s offense will be stronger again as the playoffs approach … Cruz and Jones will eventually re-emerge. Also, if Chris Davis – who has 19 homers and 54 RBI, but a .197 batting average – can pick up his hitting consistence overall, the O’s offense will be all the more dangerous for it.

I’m picking Baltimore to finish 85-77 and AL East champs. However, I think the team’s pitchers have overachieved a little and it might a challenge for them to match up with the wildcard winner.

Seattle Mariners

I’ve pondered my second wildcard choice over and over (and over) again. And as much as I’d love to see my Kansas City Royals get it, my scales of reality eventually tipped to Seattle.

Yes, the Mariners make the postseason and Felix Hernandez finally makes his first playoff appearance.

Hernandez has been one of – if not thee – most consistent pitchers in baseball for nearly a decade now. The problem has been his surroundings – an offense mired toward the bottom of baseball nearly every season. But, this season there’s been just enough Felix, just enough complementary starters and bullpen, and just enough offense to nab that elusive playoff bid.

Mariners ace pitcher Felix Hernandez
King Felix – as he’s known among baseball followers – has always been excellent. However, he’s been especially spectacular as of late …

Following his start Tuesday against Atlanta, Hernandez has 15 consecutive starts throwing seven-plus innings while allowing no more than two earned runs – setting a new MLB record for a streak of such pitching prowess. Hernandez now not only holds the record– a record formerly held by Hall-Of-Famer Tom Seaver (12 games in 1971) – he’s eclipsed Seaver by two games … Talk about consistency! It’s simply remarkable. (Note: King Felix will go for 16 straight this Monday, when Seattle hosts Toronto.)

As you could imagine, Hernandez leads Mariners pitching in almost every statistical category imaginable. As for the American League overall rankings, he’s either at the top or very near it – Hernandez leads the lead in ERA and WHIP, at 1.97 and 0.88, respectively, and ranks second in both innings pitched (179.1) and strikeouts (186).

Mariners starting pitcher Chris Young
Pitching in around Felix (pun unintended) are fellow starters Hisashi Iwakuma (9 wins, 2.94 ERA) and Chris Young, as well as relievers Tom Wilhelmsen (2.21 ERA in 61 IP), Dominic Leone (2.14 ERA, 46.1 IP), Yoervis Medina (17 holds, 2.31 ERA) and closer Fernando Rodney (31 saves, 2.36 ERA) … Young – a nine-year veteran – is having his best season since his lone All-Star appearance, in 2007. Young is currently 10-6 with a 3.27 ERA through 134.2 innings pitched. In ’07, the crafty righthander posted a 9-8 record with a 3.12 ERA for the Padres.

Seattle’s offense currently ranks 26th in all of baseball. So as good as their pitching is, the Mariners offense is bound to slow them down come October.

I’m predicting a final record of 84-78 for the M’s. Thereby edging out the Royals, New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays for AL wildcard No. 2.

* Note: All statistics in this column are as of end of play on Wednesday, August 6th.