Hard to see any of these surprises coming

Updated: October 2, 2009, 12:40 AM ET

AP Photo/Bill Kostroun

The Cubs had high hopes at the beginning of the season, but things quickly fell apart.

Baseball's greatest beauty is its unpredictability. Every year, the game makes us slap our foreheads and ask, "How in the world did that happen?" The game is full of surprises -- good and bad.

The Good

The Rockies were picked by most to finish fourth in the NL West. They had, after all, traded their best player, Matt Holliday, and lost one of their best pitchers, Jeff Francis, to injury for the season. They started poorly, as expected, and fired manager Clint Hurdle and named Jim Tracy, who went on to become the first manager in history to inherit a team that was 10 games under .500 and take it to 20 games over .500. Tracy stabilized the infield, putting Ian Stewart at third base every day, and he challenged the team to play with more passion. And now, it appears, the Colorado is on its way to the playoffs. Jorge De La Rosa symbolizes the Rockies: He is the first pitcher since 1900 to win at least 16 games after being 0-6 as late as May 31.

The Rockies aren't alone in the "Good" category. The Rangers were not supposed to contend in 2009 but weren't officially eliminated from contention until Sept. 29. They completely changed the way they play, emphasizing pitching (see pitching coach Mike Maddux) and defense (see shortstop Elvis Andrus) instead of trying to outscore everyone. This was not an aberrant season. The Rangers have more young players on the way. Now, if they can keep Josh Hamilton healthy next year, they will have a chance to make another run at the Angels in the AL West or a run at the wild card. The Giants also made huge strides this year, contending for a playoff spot late into the season. Their pitching is terrific, and it's bound to get even better. They made moves to upgrade their offense, but 25th in the major leagues in runs scored usually keeps a team out of the playoffs.

The Bad

The Cubs were supposed to win the NL Central and make it three straight trips to the playoffs, but they fell hopelessly behind the Cardinals in August and were barely a factor in the wild-card race. The Cubs went from the highest-scoring team in the National League to the ninth-highest-scoring team, proving what some contended last year when they were eliminated from the playoffs: Chicago doesn't have a dominant hitter in the middle of the order. And, it seems, the Cubs don't have a dominant personality in the clubhouse. So, they'll try again next year, and they'll start by trying to move troublesome Milton Bradley.

The Indians were supposed to contend, also, but they were never a factor in the race. They were out of it by May and fired their manager, Eric Wedge, on Wednesday. The Indians did very well at acquiring prospects for all the veterans they moved before the trade deadline, but those prospects won't arrive in time to allow them to contend next year. Cleveland's fall has been so sudden. Two years ago, the Indians were one win from the World Series. Now you look at their team and ask the question, "Who is their best starting pitcher?" And it is difficult to come up with an answer.

The Mets also were supposed to contend, but they will finish fourth in the NL East. They have an excuse, as they had major injuries to key players, including Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado and J.J. Putz. But those injuries mask bigger issues with the Mets. Who is their No. 2 starter? Will ace Johan Santana be 100 percent next year after surgery? Who is their first baseman? Is Jeff Francoeur the answer in right field? New York is going to need the whole offseason to answer these questions and, chances are, will not answer enough of them to allow it to contend next year.

Past Baseball Tonight Clubhouses: Sept. 29 | Sept. 28 | Sept. 27 | Sept. 24 | Sept. 23

TOUCH 'EM ALL

Touch 'Em AllWho went deep? Keep track of all the home runs hit each day on "Baseball Tonight" and on the Baseball Tonight Clubhouse page.

For more, check out the Home Run Tracker page.

Home Run Tracker
NAME HR OPPSITUATION
Prince Fielder, MIL44HammelTop 2: 2-1, 0 Outs. None on.
Ryan Zimmerman, WAS33ParnellBot 8: 1-0, 1 Out. None on.
Nick Swisher, NYY29TejedaBot 5: 0-1, 0 Outs. 1 on.
Ben Zobrist, TB26HernandezBot 3: 1-1, 2 Outs. 2 on.
Derek Jeter, NYY18TejedaBot 1: 2-0, 0 Outs. None on.
The complete list of Wednesday's homers

ON DECK: THURSDAY'S BEST MATCHUPS

Twins at Tigers, 1:05 p.m. ET

The Twins were one win from tying the AL Central race earlier in the week. Now, they're one loss from being done. The Tigers can clinch the division with a victory in the series finale at Comerica Park. Scott Baker tries to keep Minnesota alive. That could be trouble, considering Baker is 0-1 with a 9.00 ERA in three starts against Detroit this season.

Rockies at Brewers, 3:10 p.m. ET

Colorado can wrap up the NL wild-card race with a win. Aaron Cook, after a month on the disabled list, pitched well in his return for the Rockies this past Friday, tossing five shutout innings against the Cardinals. Cook did not factor in the decision in Colorado's 2-1 win.

Diamondbacks at Giants, 3:45 p.m. ET

No, this game doesn't mean a thing for the postseason. It is important because Tim Lincecum gets to make one last case for his second straight Cy Young Award. He does so in an interesting pitching matchup, in that he goes head-to-head with Dan Haren. Lincecum's record has taken a hit this month; he is 1-3 so far in September.

For the rest of Thursday's schedule, click here.

Comments

You must be signed in to post a comment

Already have an account?

BBTN ON THE AIR: THURSDAY

TIME WHO'S ON?
7:30 p.m. ET
ESPN2
Host: Karl Ravech
Analysts: Tim Kurkjian, Eduardo Perez, Buck Showalter
12 a.m. ET
ESPN
Host: Steve Berthiaume
Analysts: Tim Kurkjian, Eduardo Perez, Buck Showalter

BBTN MINUTE: ARE THE TWINS DONE?

SIMON SAYS

Simon Says ESPN researcher Mark Simon digs deep looking for the night's best baseball numbers.

Tonight, he looks at those players who have tormented the Twins over the years. Detroit's Magglio Ordonez, who has had consecutive big games against Minnesota, is on the list:

.300+ BA, 120+ RBIs vs. Twins
Team history
BA RBIs
Magglio Ordonez .326 134
Fred Lynn .325 126
George Brett .316 128
Jim Thome .311 142
Eddie Murray .305 133

WEB GEMS

WEDNESDAY'S BEST AND WORST

BEST
Ricky NolascoRicky Nolasco put a serious dent in the Braves' playoff hopes with a dominant performance. Nolasco struck out 16 hitters -- he whiffed nine consecutive hitters during one stretch -- in the Marlins' 5-4 win. The loss pushed Atlanta four behind Colorado in the wild-card race.
WORST
Brad Lidge• The Cubs were swept at home in a doubleheader by the Pirates. It was the first time since 1983 the Cubs were swept in a doubleheader at Wrigley Field. Carlos Zambrano couldn't stop the sweep; he gave up four runs in the first three innings in the nightcap as the Cubs lost 8-2.

NUMBERS TO KNOW

Tommy HansonThe Atlanta Braves start what is basically a sweep-or-go-home series Thursday night against the Nationals in Atlanta. (The Braves are four back in the wild card).

The Braves will send Tommy Hanson to the hill for the most important start of his rookie year. Not only is Hanson (11-4) looking to polish his Rookie of the Year résumé, but one loss in this series could eliminate the Braves from the NL wild-card race.

Hanson has gone 2-1 in three starts against the Nats this season, including a win this past Saturday when Hanson went seven innings and struck out seven in an 11-5 Braves victory. Hanson was dominant with his slider in that start, as Nationals hitters went 0-for-8 with five strikeouts.

Hanson's slider (2009)
vs. Nationals vs. rest of MLB
BA .056 .241
Chase pct. 36.7 39.6
Miss pct. 31.6 40.0
K pct. of PA 36.8 28.1

-- ESPN Stats & Information

FANTASY: PREVIEW OF THURSDAY'S GAMES

Fantasy AJ Mass examines the 11 games on Thursday's slate.

Mass ranks the pitchers scheduled to take the mound and supplies loads of other information that could help shape your roster for Thursday. Daily Notes

HUNT FOR OCTOBER

Here's the latest in the wild-card races:

AL CENTRAL
TEAM W-L GB POFF
Tigers 85-73 -- 96.0%
Twins 82-76 3.0 4.0%
NL WILD CARD
TEAM W-L GB POFF
Rockies 90-68 -- 99.2%
Braves 86-72 4.0 0.8%

For more on all the playoff races, see the Hunt for October.