KITTREDGE: Baseball’s worst features some of its best

BobKittredge

The last time the Pittsburgh Pirates had a winning season, Brett Favre was making his first start as a Green Bay Packer. The average price of a gallon of gasoline was $1.05 and Miley Cyrus was not even born yet. The Pirates’ current centerfielder, Andrew McCutchen, was just shy of his fifth birthday.

In other words, it has been a while, (17 consecutive seasons, to be exact), and as the 2009 regular season comes to a close, the Pirates will join the 22 other teams who failed to make the postseason for their 17th straight time. Pittsburgh’s finest did manage to entertain us briefly in the offseason by signing a pair of Indian cricket players, Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, who were discovered via an Indian reality show called “Million-Dollar Arm.” But when the final games of the season are played on October 4, our attention will be devoted solely to the eight teams that make the playoffs.

So before we forget about the others, let’s pay this year’s final respects to baseball’s bottom-feeders. Each year, the perennial sub-.500 teams do more than provide easy record-boosting series for the better teams in their divisions. They give us great stories.

First of all, the start of each season renews the possibility for last year’s 100-game-losers to have a breakout season. In 2007, the Tampa Bay Rays finished last in the AL East for the third consecutive season, 30 games behind the division-winning Boston Red Sox. One year later, a team built on young talent grown in its own farm system won them the pennant and took them all the way to the World Series. The fact that they had been so terrible in the preceding years only made it more exciting.

Even more importantly, however, is that some of the worst teams in the league are often home to some of each season’s best individual efforts. The Washington Nationals’ Adam Dunn has clubbed 38 home runs this year, and has eclipsed the 100 RBI mark for the fifth time in his last six seasons. Mark Reynolds has gone deep 44 times for the Arizona Diamondbacks, the second most in the MLB. And Prince Fielder, with 43 homers and the most RBIs in baseball (137), not only won the homerun derby at the All-Star game in July, but has been a season-long force for the Brewers in Milwaukee. Both Washington and Arizona are in last place in their divisions, and all three teams are under .500.

Arguably the most notable individual effort of the season, however, came out of Kansas City. Zack Greinke has had an unbelievable year for the Royals, boasting a Major League best 2.08 earned run average, more than a full earned run below his average in any other season of his career, which began in 2004. The 25 year-old’s 237 strikeouts are the third most in baseball, and his 16 wins are only three less than that of the league leaders, despite the fact that the Royals rank 23rd in offensive production this year.

Greinke’s season began on a particularly extraordinary note, as he kicked the year off with six straight wins. He did not allow a single earned run in the first four of those games, and finished the streak with three complete games in four starts. Two of those complete games were shutouts, and his win streak only ended after an eight inning effort in his seventh start of the season, a game that the Royals managed to lose 1-0.

Kansas City’s ace has remained consistent all season long, allowing more than three earned runs in only four of his thirty-one starts. He has thrown six complete games, and reached double digits in strikeouts on five separate occasions. Despite the Royals’ position at the bottom of the AL Central, Greinke has maintained his motivation and allowed only two earned runs en route to a 4-1 record in September. While Kansas City will not make it to the post-season this year, something they have been unable to do since winning the World Series in 1985, Greinke has thrown himself into consideration for the Cy Young Award – an enormous individual achievement amidst his team’s peril.

So before we jump headlong into the post-season, let’s take a moment to remember Greinke, his Royals and all the other players and teams who haven’t had a real shot at the playoffs since mid-June. Whether or not Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel become a fearsome one-two punch in the woeful Pirates’ pitching rotation next year, and whether or not the Nationals (formerly the Montreal Expos) can, by some miracle, make the franchise’s first postseason appearance in remotely recent history, only time will tell. But it would be awesome if they did. And with that being said, we can now ready ourselves, free of any guilt, for the best part of the baseball season’s calendar: October.

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Bobby Kittredge is an undeclared junior from Northbridge, Mass. He can be reached at [email protected]