Up until a couple days ago, the Baltimore Orioles hadn't qualified for the playoffs since the days when Cal Ripken, Jr. was still manning the left side of their infield.
After a 15-year hiatus, the Orioles are back. They don't know whether they'll be going in as the AL East champion or as one of the American League's wild-card teams just yet, but the important part for now is that they're going to be playing postseason baseball one way or the other.
Does the Iron Man himself have any thoughts on this year's Orioles team by any chance?
Heck, of course he does. For that matter, Ripken has plenty of thoughts on the 2012 postseason in general that he doesn't mind sharing.
On Tuesday, I got a chance to talk one-on-one with the former Orioles great and current TBS analyst. Ahead of you lie his thoughts on the Orioles' World Series chances, pitching staffs that will be dangerous, which players fans should be watching in October and more.
Note: Any stats that appear within are courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.
After winning the AL East in 1997, the Orioles finished no higher than third in the division in each of the ensuing 14 years.
Heading into this season, expectations were that the status quo would hold for the Orioles. The cellar of the AL East was to be their home once again.
Now we know better. The Orioles still have a shot at winning the AL East, and they've made it clear enough along the way this season that they're not to be underestimated heading into the playoffs.
Of course, people still underestimate them anyway, in no small part because the Orioles don't feature a star-studded starting pitching staff. Surely that will keep them out of the World Series, right?
Ripken isn't so sure. He refused to characterize Baltimore's starting pitching as "weak," crediting the team for continuing to come up with solid starters despite oftentimes desperate circumstances.
Plus, the starting pitchers the Orioles have used this season have done a fine job of at least putting the team in a position to win games once the club's "lights-out" bullpen takes over.
This is a bullpen, by the way, that leads the AL with 32 wins. All those wins aren't there without the team's ability to win close games, and that's a quality that Ripken very much appreciates:
The cool part about this team is that they’re very comfortable playing in a tight game...I think that’s one of the few things that [can allow] your confidence to roll over. When you find yourself in those games where you’ve had success before, you have a little bit more confidence that things will turn out. Then you’ll be able to relax and execute. When things are going bad, you tend to put pressure on yourself and worry what can happen next.
The proof of Baltimore's collective clutch gene is plainly evident. The O's are 28-9 in one-run games, and 16-2 in extra-inning games. To use Ripken's words, "They’ve really figured out how to capture lightning."
The Orioles' ability to win the close ones isn't the only reason they can work wonders in the postseason. They also have a revived fanbase at their back.
A quick look at the attendance charts won't reveal Baltimore to be one of the league's premiere baseball hot spots. The Orioles are drawing just under 26,000 fans per game, good for just 23rd in the league.
However, that number is misleading. In recent weeks, the O's have been drawing much better, and it's clear enough when you watch Baltimore home games that the local fans have started to drink the Kool-Aid.
It took a while for the fans to come back, in Ripken's opinion, because they may have been reading too much into what all the "experts" were saying:
The experts were saying, 'When are the Orioles going to fade?' Maybe they were saying the same thing about the Oakland A’s. And it almost seemed like the fans were saying, 'OK, well, we might fade.'
The turning point happened less than a month ago on September 6 when a crowd of over 46,000 showed up at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. There were two things going on that night. One, the Orioles were unveiling a statue of none other than the Iron Man himself. And two, the O's were playing the Yankees.
Orioles games always draw well when the Yankees are in town, but Ripken was one of many who noticed something a little different that night:
Normally in many instances when you’re playing the Yankees, it’s almost like a Yankee home game. Many Yankee fans come down and they fill the ballpark and there are a lot of Yankee chants. In this particular game, you looked around and there was orange everywhere. I guess they bought enough tickets fast enough to shut out the Yankees guys.
The crowd made its presence felt that night, cheering the Orioles on to a crucial 10-6 win that saw them launch a total of six home runs. The club has been drawing big crowds pretty regularly ever since.
"The excitement is very genuine," says Ripken, adding that the Orioles have definitely "earned everyone’s attention."
And they're not done yet.
The 2012 MLB season has been a year of pitching feats. Seven no-hitters have been thrown, including three perfect games, a combined no-hitter and the first no-hitter in the history of the New York Mets. To date, there have also been nine one-hitters, including two by knuckleballer R.A. Dickey.
Is it any surprise that most of the teams marching into the playoffs feature pretty deep pitching staffs? Not really. It's so not surprising, in fact, that Ripken had trouble picking out which one he likes the most.
Atlanta Braves fans will be happy to know that the Iron Man has them pegged as a team with a strong staff. In particular, he likes Craig Kimbrel coming in and "striking out everybody he faces."
Don't worry, Cincinnati Reds fans. Ripken thinks that flamethrowing closer Aroldis Chapman is just as nasty as Mr. Kimbrel.
Other teams featuring strong pitching staffs in Ripken's mind are the San Francisco Giants and Texas Rangers, who Ripken says are dangerous because of the power arms they feature up and down their pitching staff.
But the most dangerous staff? It may belong to the Detroit Tigers:
Detroit’s the one team in my opinion that could be really dangerous just because of the power pitching styles of [Justin] Verlander and [Max] Scherzer. You’ve got [Doug] Fister too who can strike out a ton, and I think that’s a really important measurement when you get into [the postseason].
In the National League, meanwhile, Ripken doesn't think people should be sleeping on the Washington Nationals just because they won't have ace righty Stephen Strasburg:
The Nationals still are pretty deep in their pitching staff, [even] without Strasburg. Strasburg played an important role as a No. 1 matching up against other No. 1s, but they have two other No. 1s that people forget about in Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann. And Edwin Jackson, all he does is go out there and give you innings and he gives you a chance to win all the time.
As for which team has the scariest bats, there's one team in particular that has Ripken's full attention.
The numbers all say that the Texas Rangers have the best offense in all of baseball. They lead MLB in runs scored with 802, and they're among the league leaders in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and home runs.
Ripken is in the same boat as pretty much everyone else in that he's a big fan of the Rangers' bats, but Ripken would advise everyone not to underestimate the versatility of Texas' attack and how well it's going to play in October:
The combination of their hit-and-run, the way they run the bases, they can produce, they can manufacture, they can bunt. They can score runs in many different ways. I think that diverse sort of offense plays well. With the lefty-righty combination they have, they’re just difficult to pitch to.
Star slugger Josh Hamilton leads the way with 43 home runs and 127 RBI, but it's not exactly a closely-guarded secret that he isn't the most consistent hitter under the sun. He strikes out over 25 percent of the time he comes to plate, and he often looks bad doing so. Good, sharp breaking balls can make him look like a first-year hitter with planet-sized holes in his swing.
However, pitchers have to know not to push their luck when it comes to throwing Hamilton breaking balls.
"He can look bad on a few breaking balls, but throw him another breaking ball and he’ll hit it 450 feet," says Ripken.
Hamilton will definitely be a player to watch in the postseason. To this end, Ripken shared a few other viewing suggestions.
We're all equally disappointed that Angels' super-rookie Mike Trout won't be showcased in October, and Ripken feels our pain. He's going to miss watching Trout too.
But if fans are looking to key in on a young player, there's always Nats rookie Bryce Harper. Ripken noted his strong finish—Harper is hitting .327/.385/.667 with 12 homers in his last 42 games—but also noted that Harper's bat isn't the only reason to watch him play. He hustles as much as any player in the big leagues, especially on the basepaths.
"Maybe some of [the hustle plays] will turn into dumb baserunning mistakes, but it’s not because of a lack of effort. That’s refreshing to me to watch that," says Ripken.
American League fans, meanwhile, should just turn their attention to Miguel Cabrera, who is just two games away from finishing off the first triple crown season in 45 years.
"Miguel Cabrera is just flat-out amazing, period," says Ripken. He then added: "He doesn’t look like he has a weakness, he doesn’t look like he has a bad at-bat."
A .329 average, 44 home runs and 137 RBI (so far) would all confirm said points. And like Harper, Cabrera has heated up as the weather has gotten cooler. He's hitting .346/.401/.693 with 12 home runs in his last 33 games.
As for pitchers that fans should tune in to watch this postseason...
While Ripken will defend the pitching staff of his beloved Orioles, he's not about to start hiding his appreciation for the pitching staff featured by the team just down the road a ways.
His favorite Nationals pitcher? He likes Gio Gonzalez quite a bit. He's spent much of the season in Stephen Strasburg's shadow, but Ripken thinks fans who haven't gotten to watch Gonzalez pitch all that much are in for a treat.
"For the rest of the country that hasn’t really watched the Nationals play a lot, they’d be really surprised," says Ripken of Gonzalez. "He’s got a good 94, 94 mile per hour fastball and a big lefty breaking ball."
For American League fans, Ripken likes to watch Justin Verlander just as much as the next guy.
"He can just take over a game. To me, the amazing part is how his velocity can continue to go up and increase and he can still throw 100 miles per hour in the eighth inning."
Reds fans will be happy to know that Ripken is also a big Mat Latos fan, and Giants fans will be happy to know that he's a big Matt Cain fan. Cain may not be flashy, but he "gets it done each and every time."
If things work out, Ripken is going to get a chance to watch some of his favorites up close from one of the best seats in the house.
Ripken has been working as a baseball analyst for TBS for quite a while now, but he typically doesn't stray far from the studio. He's grown accustomed to watching several games at once while chiming in with analysis here and there, oftentimes in the wee hours of the morning.
Things will be a little different for the playoffs. For the wild-card and division series rounds, Ripken is going to be in the broadcast booth alongside former Braves great John Smoltz and play-by-play man Ernie Johnson.
Ripken has worked with Smoltz and Johnson in the booth before, giving in-game analysis a shot for the first time in a Yankees vs. Orioles game early last month.
When he was asked if he wanted to rejoin Smoltz and Johnson for playoff coverage, Ripken said the choice was a no-brainer. He noted that his colleagues are a big reason why he was willing to go back:
It’s pretty easy to be in the booth with a really smart baseball guy like Smoltzy, and then have Ernie Johnson, who I think is the best.
It will be a lot of fun. I’m looking forward to it. I’m not looking at it for any other reasons but to try to bring a perspective to the audience and to have a little fun watching the games.
Barring any tie-breaking games to decide division championships, which would be played on Thursday, the 2012 postseason will officially get underway on Friday when both wild-card games are played.
Therefore, it's a possibility that Ripken will find himself in Baltimore on Friday. If so, one assumes he won't complain.
At last check, it's not in his character.
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