MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
The Major League playoffs begin tomorrow, spinning off a dizzying last day of the regular season, and there's a ton of drama to talk about with Joe Lemire, baseball writer for Sports Illustrated. Welcome, Joe.
JOE LEMIRE: Thanks for having me.
BLOCK: That dizzying last day featured a remarkable finish by the Oakland A's. They won the American League West, but they were all but dead three months ago. They were 13 games behind the Texas Rangers. What happened?
LEMIRE: Oakland found its stride. As of June 1 they still had a losing record, but found success in a number of unlikely places. Some players that had been acquired with an eye toward building toward the future stepped up and produced much earlier than they expected. They finished the year with five rookies in their starting rotation. It's really been an all around team effort and certainly managed very well by Bob Melvin, who kept everyone involved and playing at a high level. Coming back from five games in the last nine days is unprecedented.
BLOCK: And a come-from-behind win last night.
LEMIRE: Yes, you know, they fell behind early behind Texas, but rallied and certainly benefitted from a missed play in center field that most people expected Josh Hamilton to make that catch and probably would make 99 times out of 100. But it's been that kind of a charmed season.
BLOCK: Tomorrow we're going to see two single elimination wild card games: the St. Louis Cardinals go up against the Atlanta Braves; the Baltimore Orioles up against the Rangers. This is a new thing for Major League Baseball. How does it change the postseason?
LEMIRE: Previously there was really no detriment to being a wild card. Sure you had one fewer home game, but that home field advantage is less important in baseball than it is in, say, football or basketball. This puts a lot of emphasis on winning the division. It'll add a lot of drama to the game. There's going to be great strategic decisions that managers will have make about when to pitch which pitcher, how long to hold on to him, when to make pinch hits. Some daring risky bold moves are likely to be on display because your whole season you've played 162 games just to come down to this one.
BLOCK: And this means one loss, you're out, you go home.
LEMIRE: Yes, it does. And even if you do advance, you've probably used your best pitcher, so you have to plan your staff accordingly.
BLOCK: Now here in Washington, of course, everybody has Nationals fever. They're bringing post-season baseball to the nation's capital for the first time since 1933. What do you make of their chances?
LEMIRE: They're very good. Certainly anything less than a World Series title and people are going to ask those what-if questions: if they hadn't shut down Stephen Strasburg, their best pitcher, who, in returning from an elbow surgery the previous year, they'd limited the number of innings he had. But they still have four very good pitchers on that team who are plenty capable enough of pitching them deep into the postseason. It seems like their offense the last month or two has really picked up. In particular, Bryce Harper, the 19-year-old phenom, is playing the longest season of his career. The major league season is an extra month longer than the minors. And yet he's actually been better this month, showing no signs of slowing down. So I think the Nationals have a very strong chance.
BLOCK: I want to talk to you also, Joe, about the remarkable feat yesterday by Miguel Cabrera from the Tigers. He got the Triple Crown, hasn't happened since 1967. He got the batting title, home run title and the most RBIs. How did he do it? And why doesn't it happen more often?
LEMIRE: It's a really difficult task to lead the league in those three categories, because it isn't just your own performance which needs to be exceptional, but it's also dependent on players on other teams not having also superlative seasons, even if it is in just one of those three categories. The approach to hitting has changed somewhat. There are players in the game who are basically told swing for the fences every time they swing, and thus, frequently you have players who may lead the league in home runs, but not be competitive in batting average. So, to have a well-rounded game the way Miguel Cabrera has is really quite remarkable.
BLOCK: The last player to win the Triple Crown was Carl Yastrzemski for Boston in 1967. He told the Boston Herald this: We were so involved in the pennant race I didn't know I won the Triple Crown until the next day when I read it in the paper.
LEMIRE: Certainly media attention has changed. You don't have, you know, quite as much coverage, and I think there's an increased focus and emphasis on statistics which, you know, why Miguel Cabrera certainly did not sneak up on it.
BLOCK: Joe Lemire, baseball writer for Sports Illustrated, Joe, thanks so much and enjoy the postseason.
LEMIRE: All right. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.