MLB sea­son head­ing to­ward a crazy fin­ish

The Arizona Republic - - SPORTS - Reach Bick­ley at dan.bick­ley@ ari­zonare­pub­lic.com or 602-444-8253. Fol­low him on twit­ter.com/dan.bick­ley. Lis­ten to “Bick­ley and Marotta” week­days from 12-2 p.m. on 98.7 Ari­zona’s Sports Sta­tion.

Re­demp­tion is all the rage in Amer­i­can sports. North Carolina won a col­lege bas­ket­ball cham­pi­onship in April, aton­ing for its heart­break­ing loss in the 2016 NCAA ti­tle game. Golden State re­claimed the NBA cham­pi­onship in June, aveng­ing their Fi­nals col­lapse against Cleve­land the pre­vi­ous sea­son. The In­di­ans will roll into Oc­to­ber as post­sea­son fa­vorites, a team that coughed up a 3-1 se­ries lead in last year’s World Se­ries.

Cleve­land’s sta­tus was bol­stered by a re­cent 22-game win­ning streak, prov­ing you never know what lurks around the cor­ner in Ma­jor League Base­ball.

We are all wit­ness­ing a sea­son for the ages. The Dodgers won 91of their first 127 games. They rat­tled off 43 wins in the best 50-game

stretch of all-time. They were mak­ing their case as the great­est team in his­tory … un­til los­ing 16 of 17 games down the stretch.

Re­mem­ber, you can’t spell col­lapse with­out LA.

The Diamondbacks were once mired in a 6 1⁄2- weeek slump. While the team slum­bered, their man­ager showed up at postgame press con­fer­ences with deep bags un­der his eyes. That was be­fore a 13-game win­ning streak, where the Diamondbacks some­how went 98 con­sec­u­tive in­nings with­out trail­ing an op­po­nent.

The In­di­ans’ streak was just the lat­est ab­sur­dity. They had more home runs (41) than runs al­lowed (37). They posted seven shutouts. They did all of this while get­ting just one in­ning from star closer An­drew Miller, who was re­cov­er­ing from an in­jury.

“I can’t re­mem­ber a sea­son where so many teams are go­ing on so many long streaks,” Diamondbacks Gen­eral Man­ager Mike Hazen said. “It’s been fun to watch.”

Od­di­ties are ev­ery­where in 2017. To wit:

Play­ers Week­end forced the Yan­kees to break tra­di­tion and wear nick­names on the back of their jer­seys. Joe DiMag­gio would’ve surely cringed at the sight of Sonny Gray tak­ing the field with “Pick­les” stitched on the back of a gim­mick uni­form.

The Cubs sent Steve Bart­man a cham­pi­onship ring, an apol­ogy worth $70,000. Mr. Met, a beloved team mas­cot, flipped off a fan. The Car­di­nals had a rally cat wan­der on the field, ig­nit­ing a spat be­tween the team and a feral res­cue group. The Red Sox were busted us­ing Ap­ple Watches to steal signs, an act of thiev­ery with huge im­pli­ca­tions.

Teams like the Diamondbacks coun­tered the sab­o­tage with a time-con­sum­ing strat­egy. In­stead of us­ing hand sig­nals to di­rect a game, catch­ers made end­less vis­its to the mound to script an up­com­ing se­quence of pitches. You can bet this will be ad­dressed in the off­sea­son and ul­ti­mately lead to a pitch clock in Ma­jor League Base­ball.

But the cra­zi­est twist comes from the on­go­ing power surge. Cody Bellinger be­came the first rookie to hit 10 home runs in 10 games. Eric Thames had just 30 home runs in four sea­sons be­fore flam­ing out as a prospect, forced to spend three sea­sons in Korea. He re­turned in 2017 and hit 13 home runs in his first 36 games.

Aaron Judge is a 6-foot-7 mon­ster and just the sec­ond rookie to ex­ceed 40 home runs. Rhys Hoskins joined the Phillies on Aug. 10 and promptly bashed 18 home runs in his first 39 games. Gian­carlo Stan­ton has an out­side shot to sur­pass the 61 home runs hit by Roger Maris in 1961, a mark that stood for 27 years be­fore steroids in­fil­trated the sport and killed the record book.

There’s a strange am­biva­lence to­ward the cur­rent bar­rage of long balls. From May 30 to June 26, at least one player posted a multi-HR game, a stretch that lasted 28 days. Yet fans don’t seem alarmed or sus­pi­cious, even though the to­tal home runs hit in 2017 will sur­pass the record set in 2000, when the best slug­gers turned out to be frauds.

Many be­lieve the ball is juiced in 2017, and not the play­ers. Former Diamondbacks re­liever Brad Ziegler noted how cur­rent base­balls no longer give when he presses hard against the seams.

Some be­lieve the con­flu­ence of power arms and a new breed of hit­ters have cre­ated the per­fect storm. Ev­ery team has pitch­ers who can throw 100 miles per hour. There is a new gen­er­a­tion of hit­ters who sub­scribe to the launch the­ory, swing­ing with up­per­cuts to get the ball air­borne, us­ing a pitcher’s ve­loc­ity to his ad­van­tage.

The Diamondbacks’ J.D. Martinez is the per­fect ex­am­ple. He was once a ground­ball hit­ter with a fad­ing ca­reer. He re­worked his swing and dis­cov­ered his golden ticket. He be­came just the 18th player in his­tory to hit four home runs in a game. He came to Ari­zona to pro­tect the in­cum­bent slug­ger, Paul Gold­schmidt. And he might end up steal­ing away some MVP votes.

The cur­rent trend should open the door for a new gen­er­a­tion of pitch­ers who don’t pro­duce max­i­mum ve­loc­ity, who get by on com­mand, guile and a vast ar­ray of pitches. It also bodes well for the Diamondbacks, who are well ahead of that game.

“Look at our ro­ta­tion,” Hazen said. “Zack (Greinke) is pitch­ing at 90-92 (mph); (Zack) God­ley is around 93. Guys who are able to nav­i­gate the base­ball, com­mand the strike zone and throw 3-4 dif­fer­ent pitch­ers will be in de­mand. Guys who can go up, get outs and ex­ploit weak­nesses. We need to go find those guys.”

So buckle up, base­ball fans. The play­offs should be com­pelling and highly un­pre­dictable. The Na­tional League pen­nant is up for grabs, while there’s a new heavy­weight in the Amer­i­can League. And if the In­di­ans are the lat­est team to find re­demp­tion, I’m chang­ing my Su­per Bowl pick to the At­lanta Fal­cons – the team that blew a 25point lead in the Su­per Bowl.

DAN BICK­LEY

DAVID RICHARD/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

The Cleve­land In­di­ans cel­e­brate their 10-in­ning win over the Kansas City Roy­als at Pro­gres­sive Field on Thurs­day night. The win was Cleve­land’s 22nd vic­tory in a row, set­ting an Amer­i­can League record.

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