If asked which team deserves the label “most surprising” as the season’s halfway mark approaches, click two clubs come to mind: the Marlins, sales cure close on the heels of the Nationals and Braves in NL East, and a team showing its heels to the rest of its division. Milwaukee, expected to be an also-ran in the NL Central, took command there in early April. Skipper Ron Roenicke’s men were supposed to fade as the weather warmed and the Cardinals moved into gear. But here the Brewers are, still in the lead by four-and-a-half games, with no sign of falling flat.
Stats tell the story of why little Costa Rica, from Central America’s political hotbed (about more below), is the surprise team of soccer’s World Cup. Ranked near the bottom of the 32 competing teams, Costa Rica (population under 5 million) was assigned to a division that also included Italy, England and Uruguay. Those are three of only eight teams that have won the tournament over its 84-year history. The Costa Ricans upset Uruguay two weeks ago, and Italy last Saturday. They now advance to the “knockout” round of 16, leading to the championship final early next month.
Costa Rica has been proud of its political neutrality through the years. In the eighties, however, it swung briefly to the right, allowing Team USA, Skippered by Ronald Reagan, to train anti-Nicaraguan volunteers – “contras” – as part of the effort to overthrow the neighboring leftist government of Daniel Ortega. Costa Rica’s Skipper Oscar Arias belatedly acted to end that CIA-arranged purposeful pass in 1988.
The little World Cup team that Could takes on 0-2 England today at noon; a Costa Rican victory or a draw will clinch first place in its division before knockout time. (If a minor miracle occurs Thursday when Team USA plays Germany, the Costa Ricans, could, via major miracle, meet Team USA in the knockout round.)
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Luck, Mostly Bad: Speaking (again) of surprises, it will be a surprise if the Blue Jays, hit by the hand injury to Brett Lawrie and nagging concern about injury-prone Jose Bautista, maintain their AL East lead into the All-Star break. The Cardinals must get along without shoulder-strained Michael Wacha until early next month and fellow pitcher Jaime Garcia, out indefinitely. The bad luck for St.Louis reinforces the likelihood that the Brewers will remain atop the AL Central at least until mid-July. The most devastating loss of a regular has compromised Baltimore’s playoff hopes. Catcher Matt Wieters, out for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, is irreplaceable. The above negativity is pitched despite morale-boosting performances last night by the Jays and O’s.
Idolatry: The near-reverence on Old Timers Day Sunday with which Yankee broadcasters and former players invoked the name of George Steinbrenner tainted the event for some of us who remember what a loud, bullying, non-classy team owner he was. He is a respectful “Mr. Steinbrenner” to most of the employees he paid well. Ron Guidry was a welcome exception. The one-time ace talked of taking a nap under a training-table sheet in Boston before pitching the playoff game in 1978. “I was staying out of sight,” he said, “while the ‘old man’ was looking for me.”
A Why? Rule: Last Saturday in Oakland, Red Sox first baseman Mike Napoli struck out, leaving two men on base in the eighth inning with the A’s ahead by one-run…Except, Napoli claimed he had fouled the ball into the ground before catcher Stephen Vogt gloved it. The home-plate umpire agreed with Napoli, setting up an ensuing wild pitch that tied the game. A’s Skipper Bob Melvin was ejected when he approached the umpire, Quinn Wolcott. Melvin was out of order because an ill-conceived rule states trap/catch plays are only reviewable if they occur in the outfield. So it didn’t matter that video replays showed the world Napoli and Wolcott were wrong. All of which raises a familiar question: why should a close, controversial play at any stage of – or on-field location in – the game be denied review? P.S. Oakland won in the 10th, 2-1.
Back to the Future: It was MLB-TV’s Eric Byrnes who noted the other night that Coors Field, known as a hitter’s paradise – and pitcher’s nightmare – when it opened in 1995 has reverted to what it was before 2002. That was the year the team began storing game baseballs in a room-size humidor to make them less dry-air lively. In the Rockies’ last 13 home games, 12-and-a-half runs were the average total, far more than at the other 29 ballparks.
Streakers: White Sox – 5; Rangers – 5; Rockies – 7
(The Nub is a team effort skippered by Dick Starkey. Comments about blog issues are welcome when addressed to the skipper at firstname.lastname@example.org. Previous Nubs may be found by scrolling below.)