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NL Central Division title up for grabs at All-Star break

By DAVID RISLEY - drisley@thecouriertimes.com

As I am typing this column, it is early afternoon Tuesday, July 9 and the annual Major League Baseball All-Star Game is tonight in Cleveland.

I have fond memories of the ballpark in Cleveland, not because I’ve been there but because the Chicago Cubs won three of four games there to defeat the Indians in the 2016 World Series.

I suppose this is a good time to look at the various “races” in both the American and National Leagues and get a sense of how things might play out in the second half of the season.

In the American League, the New York Yankees are 6.5 games ahead of Tampa Bay (eight in the loss column) in the East; Minnesota is 5.5 games in front of Cleveland (five in the loss column) in the Central; and Houston is 7.5 games ahead of Oakland (eight in the loss column) in the West.

If the AL playoffs were held today, Tampa Bay and Cleveland would be the wild cards and the winner of that game would play New York in one of the divisional series while Minnesota and Houston would tangle in the other divisional series.

In the National League, Atlanta is six games ahead of Washington and 6.5 up on Philadelphia in the East; the Chicago Cubs are a mere half game ahead of Milwaukee in the Central; and the Los Angeles Dodgers are a whopping 13.5 games in front of Arizona in the West.

If the NL playoffs were held today, Washington and Philadelphia would be the wild cards and the winner of that game would play Los Angeles in one divisional series while Atlanta and Chicago would meet in the other divisional series.

There still are a lot of games left to be played, but I expect the Yankees, Twins, and Astros to continue to lead their divisions the rest of the season in the American League, and the Dodgers and Braves to do the same in the National League.

The big question is, “Who will emerge with the NL Central title?” No one is playing particularly well in that division and the Cubs lead it with a record of just 47-43. Last-place Cincinnati still is very much in the thick of it, trailing Chicago by just 4.5 games.

I’ll bet the Reds (at least this season) would love to play the Cubs every game, as they have a .667 winning percentage against them in the nine games played between the two this year.

This division is a toss-up and probably will remain so the rest of the season. Last year, Milwaukee won 10 games in a row at the end of the season to tie the Cubs for the NL Central and force a one-game playoff at Wrigley Field to decide who would be the division champ and who would be the other wild card team. The Brewers won.

I would like to see the Cubs prevail. But as I stated in an RR&R column shortly after the Cubs became World Champions in November 2016, the Cubs finally won a World Series in my lifetime and I’m content no matter what happens going forward.

The Cubs have 72 games remaining, 36 at home and 36 away. We shall see what transpires.

I didn’t watch on TV any of the home run derby Monday night in Cleveland. And why pay an incredible sum of $1 million to the winner of it. It’s just the rich becoming richer.

Here’s how I would change the home-run derby at the All-Star break. Have the game’s best pitchers throw to the game’s best power hitters and then see how many home runs would be hit.

Or better still, invite good players who didn’t get selected to the All-Star teams be the ones competing in the home-run derby. It’s likely they don’t earn as much money as the players who are on the All-Star teams and would appreciate more the extra $1 million in pay.

I remember 50 years ago tonight (July 9, 1969), the New York Mets’ Tom Seaver almost pitched a perfect game against the Chicago Cubs at Shea Stadium. I remember most of what happened that night. Even Chicago Manager Leo Durocher admitted that no one was going to beat Seaver that night the way he was pitching.

There was no cable TV here then, so I was sitting in my parents’ house here in New Castle pulling in the broadcast on my transistor radio from WGN 720-AM in Chicago. For games during the day, I usually tuned in to WGOM-AM out of Marion for Cubs’ broadcasts, but its signal was weak at night.

The Mets were ahead 4-0 and Seaver had thrown a perfect game through eight innings. I don’t remember how many strikeouts he had, but it was a lot. The Cubs came to bat in the top of the ninth about 10 p.m and the first batter Seaver faced grounded the ball right back to him, and he tossed the ball to first base for the first out.

Then Jimmy Qualls came to bat for Chicago. He wasn’t the Cubs’ best hitter by any means (batting below .250 at the time) and was in the game only because Durocher was upset with Don Young for two misplays in the field in the bottom of the ninth inning of the previous day’s game. Those mistakes enabled the Mets to rally from a 3-1 deficit against Ferguson Jenkins to a 4-3 victory, so Young was benched.

Qualls almost had gotten a hit against Seaver earlier in the game, driving the ball to the outfield where Ron Swoboda made the catch with his back at the wall. This time, Qualls connected on a Seaver pitch to the outfield where Cleon Jones and Tommy Agee couldn’t reach it, and it fell in for a hit to rob Seaver of his perfect game after 8.1 innings. 

Seaver retired the next two batters easily and the Mets won 4-0, but their celebration was subdued. The Cubs won 6-2 the next afternoon to take a 4.5 game lead out of New York, which they extended to 9.5 games on Aug. 17 before they collapsed and the Mets rolled to the World Series championship.

I stated in a previous column I remembered the 1969 Chicago Cubs more than any other Cubs team, and that night was one of my most vivid memories of that season.

David Risley is sports editor of The Courier-Times and doesn’t think the Cubs will win the World Series in 2019 (but hopes they do)