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Mudville: October 30, 2020 5:51 am PDT
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Baseball or Bust! Trent Grisham

Far off into the distance, there is light. It is small. But it is bright.

There remains hope for Major League Baseball and it was offered in these telling words this week from Kevin Kiermaier, Rays centerfielder.

“All I had to do was try to hit it where they weren’t,’’ the lefty hitting Kiermaier said of a two-run single he laced the other way to left field in a Rays win over the Nationals.

“And I did just that, so I’ll take it.’’

Shades of Hall of Famer Wee Wille Keeler whose 19-year career ended in 1910 with a .341 lifetime average.

Keeler’s motto: “Hit ‘em where they ain’t.’’

Today’s ballplayer probably thinks Wee Willie Keeler supplied the cookies in the post-game spread, but give Kiermaier credit.

Of his AL East first-place Rays teammates Kiermaier said, “We are all students of the game.’’

When was the last time you heard a player talk like that? In the 1980s?

In a re-run of Bull Durham or Major League?

Usually the quote goes something like this: “I wanted to put my best swing on the ball.’’ Translated: “I’m swinging from my ass whether you like it or not. If I strike out, so be it.’’

In 2020, a different kind of shift is taking place in baseball, if you are watching the games carefully.

But the real difference is just about to start when the postseason hits.

This will not be a standard postseason. I said before the start of the season, something that is now obvious to all, this is going to be World Baseball Classic version of Major League Baseball and it has become just that.

Welcome to Bubble Ball

Kevin Kiermaier

Kevin Kiermaier isn't Wee Willie Keeler, but he sure is heeding Keeler's advice. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images) Getty Images

The bubble makes it like the WBC when teams would gather at one site and get it on. Welcome to March Madness tournament baseball in October.

This World Series winner will take a much different path than ever before.

The marathon used to be the season, the marathon now will be the postseason with just about no off days, having to remain in the bubble, and what will that mean to teams?

Most importantly it will change the approach of shortening a rotation like in years past to the three best starters.

Now the entire pitching staff is vital and interestingly enough that is the approach the Rays have taken all season as they have battled through 11 pitchers being on the Injured List.

In a short time, the Rays’ regular season will mean nothing, just an admission ticket to the postseason, and every one of the 16 teams will have the same chance to advance.

There is only homefield advantage for the opening round and since there are no fans, it’s an advantage only if your ballpark fits your needs.

Needing an every-arm approach also filters down to the entire roster. Every player will have an important role. Backups will find themselves in key bubble situations. Stealing bases will be important.

Getting the advantage any way you can over an opponent. Taking the extra base when a framing catcher can’t react. If the defense falls asleep, make them pay as the Cubs Javier Baez did when he dashed home from third against the Brewers – when a lazy throw was made back to second base on an appeal play on Sunday.

On Tuesday he scored from first on a strike out. He also hit a 450-foot home run against the Indians.

You’ll notice Baez never takes his eye off the ball while on base.

Suddenly, baseball has become a more athletic game than in recent years. Look at the storming White Sox across town from the Cubs.

Tim Anderson

Tim Anderson

They have won 22 of their last 27 games with shortstop Tim Anderson leading the way by using the whole field when hitting.

“The things he’s doing, spraying balls all over the field and getting big hits, it will be memorable,’’ said White Sox catcher James McCann.

Hitters are starting to hit the ball the other way again to drive in runs.

They are beating the shift and when a ground ball follows a path that used to take it directly to the shortstop or second baseman, or where the third baseman used to play – oh, for about 100 years, there is an explosion of cheers from the hitter’s dugout as the ball finds the green grass of the outfield.

One of the great unintended consequences of making it through the quicksand of this 2020 Covid season is a return to common sense in some hitters’ approach.

It’s not the entire league or even half the league, but some teams in big moments are playing for a base hit to knock in a run or two.

They are trying to put the ball in play.

The shortness of the 60-game season has forced them to go the other way in key situations. You can’t get through the highlights on any given day now without seeing such a hit.

The camera quickly pans to first base and the hitter lets out a huge smile as if to say, “It’s a cheap hit, but I’ll take it.’’

Just as Kiermaier said.

Showcase swings are being replaced by winning swings

“I’m noticing more hitters are taking what they are given,’’ one of the most astute observers of the game, a longtime scout, told BallNine.

In doing these small things hitters are realizing baseball can be fun in a different way. It is more than just a trip around the sun after a home run. The home runs continue to happen at a dizzying pace because the Manfred Ball has the same aerodynamic principles as say, an F-15. You can achieve the small contact hit or the booming home run these days to all fields with the F-15 ball.

The Padres are refining the art of the base hit. Some of that is the approach of Jurickson Profar, who has spread his hits around the diamond much to the pleasure of his teammates. Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr. have followed suit, in tight games taking what the defense gives them, and even on that 3-0 grand slam Tatis hit at Globe Life Field in mid-August that caused so much controversy, Tatis simply went with the pitch. Good hitting.

The F-15 ball took off for the right-field seats. Wouldn’t it be fun if Tatis gets to play at Globe Life Field again in the Bubble World Series?

Hitters are also laughing at first base because they see the defense playing them one way and the pitcher – for some absurd reason only the Nerds know – pitching them a different way, usually away.

It is happening in the outfield, too. Fly balls that used to land softly in the glove of an outfielder are now landing on the grass because so many outfielders are in the gaps and they can’t get to innocent fly balls as easily as in the past. Same for third basemen. I’ve never seen so many balls you think off the bat are going to be snagged but make it into left field because the third baseman can’t get there. He is shaded too far in the hole.

Lots of Shift Hits.

The Yankees' Luke Voit now leads the Majors in HR with 19. That F-15 ball sure can fly when the man with the bat knows how to handle it.

There is a Hallelujah Moment going on this season. Usually you only see this approach by the team that wins the World Series, last year’s Nationals for example.

Baseball is becoming a less selfish game.

Perhaps as a result of Covid and all the restrictions and everything else, players are thinking more about their teammates than in years past when in a 162-game season it was all about putting up the biggest numbers.

In a 60-game schedule those numbers don’t translate. No one is hitting 50 home runs or driving in 100 runs. Just get the job done. At the same time, teams that live and die by the home run are getting those kinds of “take what the defense gives them” hits from some players. With the Yankees, think Gio Urshela. Luke Voit has 19 dingers, but he realized early on with the way the F-15 ball travels he can shoot the ball the other way and collect long home runs.

Of course, smart pitchers are starting to see this as well and are throwing fastballs up and in for strikes. Adjustments will be made. But with the way this season has gone, and with Bubble Ball now the essence of postseason baseball and homefield advantage negated after the first round,  teams that continue to make these positive adjustments like “hit it where they weren’t,’’ will continue to travel deeper into the bubble, avoiding Bubble Trouble.

Another positive unintended consequence of this season is real blood rivalries have been formed.

The Rays and the Yankees are now a keeper, that 101-mph Aroldis Chapman fastball fired at the head of Mike Brosseau left an emotional mark. After playing a period of excuse-making baseball the Yankees woke up. They seemed to have found their game again, which will make the postseason that much more interesting.

The Yankees and Rays don’t like each other. I’m all for that. A matchup featuring the Rays and Yankees with one game after another will be a tremendous series.

Just imagine if the Cubs and White Sox wind up playing a Chicago World Series at Globe Life Field in Texas. That would a weird finish to a weird year.

Out west in the NL, the same goes for Dodgers and Padres. This SoCal Rivalry may be the best rivalry in the game right now and it reached a new level when Trent Grisham sent a Clayton Kershaw fastball into orbit.

The swing was made with such force, no opposite field approach here, the lefty wound up looking into his own dugout and posed dramatically.

I’m not an Unwritten Rules guy and I covered the Padres back when they used to wear the color scheme they are wearing now. They have too often been beaten to a pulp by the Dodgers so that home run at Petco Park was a cleansing moment for the Padres.

I had no problem with it but the Dodgers sure did, saying Grisham disrespected Hall of Famer Kershaw.

Trent Grisham

Trent Grisham strikes a pose after launching a Clayton Kershaw pitch into the sun. Photo: USATSI

Get over it.

“We look forward to playing them, our rivals right up the street,’’ Grisham said. “We are amped. Getting a home run against that pitcher, that was a lot of fun. For this group of guys when we get excited and get after it and have fun playing the game, we go. We’ve been going all year and that is exactly what that homer did for us.

“(The Dodgers) wanted me to run. They told me to get going,’’ Grisham said of the LA reaction. “It happened naturally in the moment. The look in the dugout was ‘Hey, let’s go. Let’s get after it and let’s go get this game’ … I was celebrating a big moment against a Hall of Fame pitcher. It was emotional. It was fun and it got us going.’’

In a way, Grisham’s home run reaction epitomized old school baseball. In the old days teams did not like one another. They did not talk to one another. They went after each other and to the Dodgers credit the next night Dave Roberts feisty crew came back and beat the Padres. They showed their displeasure with Grisham’s pose and jaunt around the bases in their old school way, coming back to beat the opponent.

On the Dodgers TV broadcast, old-schooler Orel Hershiser, noted, “That was quite a pose … That just created a rivalry.’’

Don’t forget Hershiser had his way with the Padres during his consecutive innings streak of 59 innings, setting the mark against the Padres on September 28, 1988 at Jack Murphy Stadium and I was there.

The Padres have been the Dodgers’ punching bag for a long, long time.

Over on the Padres broadcast Don Orsillo proclaimed, “It’s on.’’ His partner Mark Grant readily agreed. Grant, by the way, was on that 1988 Padres team that Hershiser vanquished.

Again, all this is a good thing. Baseball needs rivalries.

Tensions have been high between the Yankees and Rays for a few years, but familiarity in 2020 breeds contempt.

There is no doubt in my mind that this all is an unintended consequence of teams playing one another in the division so much over a short schedule in this short season.

I said before this bizarre season started that teams that could emotionally get themselves up night after night without fans in the ballpark, would be the teams that excel, and the Padres are a perfect example of that.

They celebrate every positive offensive moment, especially when a hitter ekes a hit out the other way.

Batting Average Matters

It gets back to taking advantage of the other team. That is what baseball is all about.

In a way this season is more like an American Legion baseball from an emotional standpoint than a Major League season. For one, the players aren’t coddled as much as they have been in regular years, hanging out all day in the clubhouse doing their workout/video thing and eating in the food room and just enjoying The Show, enjoying the life, the adoration.

This year is show up at the ballpark and try to win. That’s it. No fans. No cheers, other than your own teammates and, in the end, those are the most important cheers.

There will be barking from the opposing team dugout just like in the 1970s and that’s a beautiful thing too.

Something the game lost because of the incessant artificial noise in ballparks between pitches; combined with the buzz of the crowd, and the coziness of the players who are often represented by the same agents.

The players are into the chirping this year.

They hear each other.

It’s on.

The fans aren’t there, the atmosphere is much different.

The happy dance Baby Shark (doo doo doo doo doo doo) days of the past few seasons has been replaced by a Jaws (duuun dun duuun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun BOM BOM) approach.

Attack and rip.

Win even if you have to slap the ball to the opposite field.

When this postseason starts, avoid Trouble in the Bubble any way you can.

44+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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