Last night, 120 grown men and a handful of their coaches transformed into something usually reserved for Little League. These men became jubilant little boys with smiles a mile wide. They jumped and shouted, cheered and clapped. They donned championship shirts and caps, and they took celebratory dips in the pool. The daily grind of playing 162 games slipped away for a night, and these men became the boys they once were, more concerned about celebrating with their friends than multi-million dollar contracts.
The Arizona Diamondbacks, Milwaukee Brewera, and Texas Rangers all clinched division titles last night. Each of them did it at home and were given the opportunity to celebrate with their fans. The Diamondbacks ran around the infield and dog-piled J.J. Putz, then took a trip to the outfield pool. The Rangers sat on the field after their win and watched, with many of the night’s fans still in attendance, the Angels lose to the Athletics giving the Rangers the division. The Brewers left little doubt about their division title with monster home runs and great defensive plays. They all experienced the joy that only baseball can bring.
The Diamondbacks, Brewers, and the Rangers joined the Yankees, Phillies, and Tigers as division champs for 2011. Let’s take a look at how these three newest entries to the 2011 postseason did it.
There were two men specifically responsible for the Dbacks success this season, and neither of them played a single game. Kirk Gibson and Kevin Towers have changed the culture of this team and helped build the chemistry necessary for success. Kirk Gibson’s no-nonsense approach and his championship pedigree made him instantly credible in the clubhouse. His leadership has brought a group of relatively dysfunctional players together. Kevin Towers has continued his tradition of making the most of his trades and signings. He may go down in history as a genius with his Kelly Johnson for Aaron Hill move. Everyone, myself included, thought that was a bad move, but Towers saw something in Hill that none of us could see.
Justin Upton has finally lived up to his potential and is having an MVP caliber season. Maybe it’s the comfort he feels with this team. Maybe it’s the fact that he isn’t the only one expected to produce. Whatever the case, Upton has put all of his talents to use this season and carried the Diamondbacks offensively.
Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson have provided a one-two punch the Diamondbacks haven’t seen since Johnson and Schilling led them to the World Series. Kennedy quietly put together a Cy Young caliber season, and Daniel Hudson is continuing to improve as a Diamondback.
Two words: Braun and Fielder. Ryan Braun will likely win the National League MVP, and Fielder is having -well- a Fielder-like season. The Brewers have been together long enough to have multiple veterans leading the team. They’ve improved their pitching quite a bit since their last play-off appearance, and they are hungry for success.
Zach Greinke has been unstoppable at home, which is part of why the Brewers have also been unstoppable at home. With the best home record in baseball, the Brewers have made it look easy. As they battle with Arizona for home-field advantage during the first round, each game remains increasingly important to a team who doesn’t lose at home.
Nolan Ryan has infused new life into this ball club since taking over ownership. With a combination a new pitching philosophies and power hitting, the Ranger have made themselves a force to be reckoned with. Like many great teams before them, much of the Rangers’ pitching value comes from a shutdown bullpen. Neftali Feliz, Koji Uehara, Darren Oliver, Mike Adams, and just about anyone else that trots out from that bullpen has been lights out this season.
Then there’s the offense. Josh Hamilton has been healthy all of September unlike last season which should give him some confidence and momentum heading into the postseason. He has helped the Ranger widen the gap this month and take the division away from the Angels last night. Nelson Cruz has battled injuries this year, but when healthy has been as good as he always has been. Adrian Beltre has slowly been worked back into the line up after injury, but is already contributing. Beltre’s power gives the Rangers another boost that can only help them as they enter the postseason.
All year long, the Rangers have had one of the most potent offenses in the league. Mike Napoli, who is playing out of his mind, Hamilton, Beltre, Cruz, Young, Kinsler. There is not an easy outin this line up. That’s why they are back-to-back division champions in the AL West.
Soak in the joy of a division crown boys, but don’t linger too long in celebration because there’s still work to be done by all of you