Hats Off to Michael Sam

The first Sunday after the Super Bowl. A day of sorrow for many NFL fans, as basketball begins to take the national stage, and baseball is right around the corner. But on this quiet Sunday it wasn’t basketball, or even the Olympics that stole the spotlight, rather the courage of one young man.

Michael Sam is a first team All-American. He is the reigning SEC defensive player of the year. Next year he will be playing football with an NFL team. His family life has been hard. He has had siblings die. He has had siblings go to prison. He was the first member of his family to go to college. He is also gay. And on this football-less Sunday, that is the news that blew the top off of the sporting world. To this point, there has never been an active player in the four major sports (NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB) to come out as gay. Jason Collins, an NBA forward, came out last year, but has been a free agent since.

All too often there are negative stories coming from the NFL. I wrote a short piece in the fall highlighting some of that negativity. Whether it’s drugs, DUIs, fights, or even murder, off the field stories for the NFL don’t exactly shed a lot of positive light on the league or its players. Enter Michael Sam. When he takes the field at the end of next summer, he will be the first openly gay NFL player in league history (I want to emphasize openly, as some ex NFL players are gay, and almost assuredly some current players are as well). For a league known for its macho stigma, this is momentous.

The first wave of reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. There have been detractors sure, but the fact that the public support has been almost exclusively positive to this point, shows just how far we as a society have come in just the past few years. There will be many uncomfortable moments, and even hateful ones for Michael Sam, but this young man seems well prepared for whatever may come. This is story that brings a smile to the face, and from a personal standpoint, I have not been more pleased with a narrative surrounding the NFL in my entire life. One day stories like this won’t even be stories, but at a time when the Olympics, an event that is supposed to embrace, celebrate and champion the human spirit, is being held in a country that has made a political decision to be bigoted and close minded, this announcement becomes all the more important. There may not be a more consequential, or historic sports story all year. Hats off to Michael Sam. This is a great day for sport.

P(review)ing 2013 and 2014

As the curtain closes on another year, there is plenty of reason to look back on the highs and lows of 2013. In the world of sports there were plenty as always. Bayern Munich dominated European soccer in a historic manner. The U.S. Men’s National Team had their best year in history, which was doubly nice considering U.S. Soccer is celebrating 100 years of existence. The Baltimore Ravens weathered a Superdome blackout to win the Super Bowl in a rocking New Orleans. Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide won its second straight national title. They looked to be well on their way to a third, until an Iron Bowl for the ages that saw Auburn escape with a flabbergasting upset (oddly that word is appropriate there). Baseball saw the Pirates return to the postseason for the first time in two decades, a Cuban sensation light up the sport with immature antics and absurd skill, and the Red Sox go from yuck to yay on the backs of an undersized Japanese man and oversized Dominican one. Lebron James somehow became a better basketball player, and led his Miami Heat to their second consecutive championship, much to the chagrin of much of the country. Tiger Woods won five tournaments, but didn’t win a Major so was considered by many to be a disappointment. Roger Federer had his worst season in what seems like a lifetime, while his greatest rival Rafael Nadal had a comeback for the ages, taking home two major titles. The Blackhawks beat the Bruins in a matchup of Original Six members. A year after Kentucky won the NCAA tournament, Louisville took the 2013 title, proving that North Carolina has serious competition for best college basketball state. Phew. That was just the big stuff.

Enough of the nostalgia. As a sports fan, 2014 poses some big excitement and apprehension. All the usual suspects will be in play, including the NFL circus, the Heat’s quest for the elusive three-peat, a new season of baseball, and the madness of the NHL Playoffs. Tiger will look to get back in the major win column, and Fed will try to pull a thirties comeback. Despite all that sports appeal, 2014 provides some sizable add-ons from the typical calendar. The first big one comes February 6th with the Sochi Olympics. So far most of the press has been on the Russian government’s crackdown on gay rights. Much speculation has arisen about what will happen, and the ante was upped even further when the U.S. announced that Billie Jean King, tennis great, and openly gay woman, would lead their delegation to the games. Recent bombings in Volgograd have shifted focus from the gay discussion to the much more cheery possibility of terrorist attacks at the games. Nothing like hate and violence to get you in the mood for speed skating and ski jumping.

The other major event of the year appears to be more festive, but isn’t without concerns of its own. Brazil is a soccer country. However, it is also a country of political turmoil, and great wealth inequality. Those two identities came to a head last summer at the Confederation’s Cup. The Cup, which is essentially a mini dry run for the World Cup, featured mass protests and riots over the billions being poured into World Cup arrangements and construction, while many of the nation’s issues like education and overall infrastructure were being ignored. All signs indicate that more protests are likely to occur when the tournament kicks off in June. Concerns have also arisen over working conditions at the sites of the many new stadiums being built, most recently after two workers were killed in a crane accident this past November. The beautiful game sounds less beautiful in that light.

Despite the unease surrounding both Sochi and Brazil, both events are sure to have their thrill of sporting exciting and disappointment to go along with the political spectacles. The Russians will be looking for a good showing on home soil…or should I say snow. The Brazilians, coming off a convincing win in the Confederation’s Cup, will be desperate to replicate that success in front of their adoring, if often unruly fans. The most popular sporting event in the world will see the defending champions Spain vying for their fourth straight major international title, an unprecedented feat.

Maybe the other largest change coming in 2014, is the end of the BCS. Next season college football will be implementing a four team playoff to decide the national champion, after years of grumbling from fans, players, media, and often times coaches. By no means will the controversy be gone from the sport, but the new format should at least provide some appeasement.

2013 was a great year in the world of sport (even if my teams largely stunk). Here’s hoping that 2014 will provide more excitement, and less controversy. In the meantime have a happy and safe New Year’s Eve and Day!

(Pardon the worse than usual grammar. I blame the piña coladas, my noisy family, and the poolside setting. Vacation life!)

The NFL Circus: A League of Criminality and Buffoonery

Baseball might be America’s pastime, but football has long been America’s sport. The game is more valuable and popular than ever. However, when you start to look at the sport in a larger context, there is a disturbing trend.

Over the past week a troubling story broke out of Miami. Second year OT Jonathan Martin took an indefinite leave from the Dolphins after he had a breakdown over a lunch room hazing prank. As the news filtered out, it was discovered that Martin has been hazed and bullied repeatedly over the past year and a half, even being forced to pay for thousands of dollars worth of vacations for some teammates. The head instigator of this mistreatment seems to be Richie Incognito, a man who has a reputation around the league of being one of the dirtiest and most violent players. As of Sunday night, Incognito has been placed on indefinite suspension pending further review. The story is disturbing in and of itself, but what compounds the issue is it is just one in a series of troubling off the field issues for the NFL this year.

In perhaps the most high-profile criminal case involving an athlete since OJ, former Patriots TE Aaron Hernandez dominated headlines after being charged with murder. Riley Cooper, WR for the Eagles, was caught on videotape using racial slurs while threatening black people. Two high-ranking members of the Broncos front office were charged with DUIs in July. Bronco’s LB Von Miller broke the league’s already lenient substance abuse policy and was then caught trying to cover it up. There was a bad outbreak of MRSA at the Buccaneers training facility, with at least three players being infected. This year has set a record pace for ACL injuries. There has been an alleged coverup of concussion symptoms. There are rumors that the Buccaneers leaked former QB Josh Freeman’s medical files, which is a federal offense. As of September 20th, 43 NFL players have been arrested this calendar year. Those charges include everything from murder, to marijuana possession, to DUIs, to gun charges, to manslaughter even involvement in a prostitution ring.

Yep that is all this year, and it is only week nine of the season. That exhaustive list doesn’t even take into account the numerous off the field issues that have occurred in the past couple of years, like former Cowboy Josh Brent facing manslaughter charges for killing teammate Jimmy Brown while driving drunk.

Justin Blackmon, the Jaguars’ hugely talented young WR, was just suspended indefinitely for breaking the league’s substance abuse policy for the second time. He was suspended the first four games of this season for his first offense. The unnerving part is, almost no one batted an eye. This is a young man who has the talent to be amongst the best at his position in the league, and yet he seems to have a substance abuse problem. Where is the safety net for this young man? A suspension is fine, and warranted, but this is a human being that clearly needs help. He has checked into a rehab facility, but only after being just one of numerous players to be caught, and I emphasize caught, this year. What about the guys that don’t get caught?

The bigger question is, does the NFL care?

The answer is no. The National Football League is about as ruthless a business as exists in this country. A great example of that was the squabbling over money during the lockout with the refs last year, and the league wide lockout the year before. A more recent, and more disgusting, example was the revelation that the league was profiting heavily off of their pink promotion that they run in conjunction with the shady Susan G. Komen foundation each October for breast cancer awareness. The pink merchandise that is plastered all over teams and commercials during the month, is sold through the control of the league. Well it turns out only about 8%  of the money goes to actual breast cancer research funding. Almost all of it goes to the League, the merchandising companies, or the Komen Foundation (look up their practices, just an awful “non-profit”). The League cares about money, and money has never been better. As long as they can get their superficial charity stunts to work, the grass is green and the sky is blue.

The other professional sports leagues in North America look saintly compared to the NFL, when closely inspected. Baseball gets a ton of flack, as it should, for the ongoing steroid debacle. However, much of the issue with that largely has to do with the perceived sanctity of the game, not dangerous crimes and TMZ like shenanigans (Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun aside). To MLB’s credit, they have made a concerted effort to crack down on steroids. There doesn’t seem to be the same sense of urgency from the NFL. For other leagues it has become the exception to behave like this. In the NFL it seems to becoming more and more the rule.

The fans and media deserve a share of the blame. Sure there is the automated wringing of hands that goes on for a designated period of time after each of these stories breaks, but the NFL sweeps it under their very large proverbial rug, and it is on to the next. Maybe our reality TV saturated, drama craving, ADD diagnosed society has just come to enjoy this added side of football. If that’s the case then there is no hope of this trend ever reversing. As someone who loves sports, I hope that’s not the case. There is already a lot of talking in football (by my estimation, too much). Each week, the games, match ups, and story lines are beaten over the heads of fans, who seem all too eager to keep being hit. Much of this media coverage glosses over these negative stories, never seeming to delve into why this has become a trend in the NFL. Some of that can be chalked up to the NFL’s power. No one wants to get on the League’s bad side, but as media there is an obligation to investigate, even if you cover sports.

This cycle is bad for the game, and bad for the fans. It may not seem like it yet, what with the record media deals, and revenues. But after a certain point lives need to come first. Players have seemingly no support system, and it has become tiresome watching twenty something, rich, bored men ruining their lives, and lives around them. The NFL has become a bad circus, and that needs to change. It doesn’t look likely, but as fans of the sport we must do everything in our power to see that it does.

Looking Back on October

Thank you to the Boston Red Sox for making me look smart. Also congrats on winning the World Series…I guess. For the Red Sox it was a happy ending to a strange postseason ride. Who knew the key for the Red Sox all along was for Shane Victorino to hit with the bases loaded? Joking aside, this team couldn’t seem to hit for its life, save for the super human stats of WS MVP David Ortiz. Ortiz hit .688 during the WS. Yes, .688. That is not a typo. However, neither is this: no other player on the Red Sox hit higher than .250. As a team they were closer to the Mendoza Line than that .250 mark. That’s abysmal for a group that finished the regular season as MLB’s best offense. Their saving grace was that they were CLUTCH. Mike Napoli had two hits in the series: one a three run double, the other an RBI single. Victorino also had only two hits. Can you guess what they were? Yep, a three run double and an RBI single. Jonny Gomes was hitless in the series before launching a three run, go ahead home run in game four. The list goes on.

Despite that lack of offensive production, pitching will keep you in games, and the Red Sox pitchers, primarily Jon Lester, did just that. A good way to cancel out a team batting average of around .200, is to have a team ERA of about 2.00. What do you get when you combine that bad offense and good pitching? You get a lot of close games. Of the Red Sox sixteen postseason games, only four were decided by more than three runs. Their pitchers put themselves in the position for their hitters to be clutch. Lester himself was clutch, pitching two brilliant games opposite Cards ace, Adam Wainright. It may seem like an oversimplification, but if your ace loses twice in a best of seven series, your chances are very slim. Overall, this probably wasn’t how John Farrell would have drawn it up, but Beantown is celebrating, and for the Fenway Faithful, that’s all that matters.

Looking back on the playoffs as a whole I did alright (ok fine, I was brilliantly lucky). I missed one game in the DS, picking Oakland in 5 (Tigers won in 5). I missed one game in the CS, picking the Cards in 7 (they won in 6). And though it looked iffy after the Cards took a 2-1 lead in the WS, I got it right, with the Sox winning in 6. Overall that is about as good (lucky) as I could have hoped. I have no doubt my next prediction will be as wrong as humanly possible. Such is the law of sports predictions: genius one minute, idiot the next. For now I will take the Red Sox lead and enjoy my prognostication.

I will miss baseball though. With three and a half months until pitchers and catchers report to spring training, gotta make do. Luckily there is a lot to tide me over. Football is in full swing. Soccer is too. Basketball is just getting under way. Plus, the Sochi Olympics will be taking the spotlight in February. It has been a fun season, but until spring I bid baseball (in the words of Orioles’ announcer Gary Thorne) “Adieu, adieu!”

Notes:

  • Red Sox are first team since 1991 Twins to win the World Series a year after finishing last in their division.
  • Tim McCarver announced his final World Series game
  • First time the Red Sox clinch the World Series at home since 1918
  • Ortiz is third oldest WS MVP

Bowl Wave

Tulane is bowl eligible for the first time since 2002. Yes it is against a very weak schedule, but two years ago Tulane was getting blown out by teams they were supposed to beat. The progress this team has made in one and a half years is nothing short of remarkable.

Coach Curtis Johnson has a led the turnaround of a team that had four wins in the past two years combined, a team that was routinely ridiculed as one of the worst in the country, a team that had become largely an afterthought to the student population of the school. CJ, as Johnson is affectionately called around campus, was an assistant at University of Miami last time Tulane played in a bowl game. That Miami team was playing in their second consecutive national title that year, and CJ was also an assistant with the Saints during the 2009 Super Bowl season, yet he said after tonight this was his happiest moment in coaching. Those are strong words from a man that has been around some big moments, but as he pointed out, this is his first go round as head guy and that means a lot. CJ even got his first Gatorade bath after the game, joking “They don’t shower assistants!”

The Green Wave clinched bowl eligibility against a team, in Tulsa, they hadn’t beaten since 1968. Tulsa is also the team that Devon Walker was paralyzed against last season. Walker has been a galvanizing force for the team all year, and the fact that they were able to get this win at home, against Tulsa, made an emotional moment that much more special. Julius Wormsley, the senior defensive end who was involved in the collision that injured Walker, admitted after the game that this provided some good, and much needed, closure for him personally.

For the older players on this team, this was a moment they had been dreaming about for a long time. Senior RB Orleans Darkwa confessed he didn’t know if he would see this moment during his time at Tulane. Some of the younger players saw the promises made to them during CJ’s recruiting pitch come to fruition faster than even they could have hoped. Guys like Darion Monroe and Lorenzo Doss are a big part of the reason this team has reached this point, and their swagger seems to have permeated throughout the locker room. It was quite apparent how much this game and this season has meant to not only players, but  to everyone at the school. Tulane AD Rick Dickson was seen crying after the game, as were many of the parents in the stands. The student section was rocking as players jumped into their waiting arms. Plastic bowls were thrown in the air as chants of “Bowl Game! Bowl Game” broke out around the Dome.

Tulane players celebrating with the student section

Tulane players celebrating with the student section

Perhaps more important than the the bowl eligibility is the fact that Tulane improved to 4-0 in Conference USA. Tulane is celebrating their last year in the SuperDome, but they are also participating in their last year in the conference before moving on to the AAC. A conference title is well within reach, and CJ knows how sweet it would be to go out on a high note.

There is work to be done, especially on the offensive side of the ball, and there is a lot of time left for this team to accomplish much more, but for a school and a team, today was special and it is an accomplishment that deserves to be celebrated, if only for the night. I certainly did not expect to see a bowl game in my time here, but with pride I say, ROLL DAMN WAVE! We’re going bowling!

Baseball’s Second Season: Previewing October

Alright, so I cheated a little bit. I waited until after the wild card games to preview and give my predictions for the postseason. It was my birthday Monday, and I’m using that as my lame holdover excuse (definitely not the fact that one game is much harder to predict than a five or seven game series). So now the Division Series is set and we have Detroit-Oakland and Boston-Tampa in the AL, and L.A.-Atlanta and St. Louis-Pittsburgh representing the NL. Here is how it will all absolutely, without question, pan out.

ALDS

  • Detroit Tigers – Oakland Athletics

It seems the past couple of seasons Detroit has been the best team in the league on paper. In 2012 that didn’t manifest until well into the year, but the Tigers kicked it into high gear in time to make a run to the World Series. This year’s Detroit squad played better throughout the regular season. They were led by probable back-to-back MVP Miguel Cabrera and his demigod ability to hit, coupled with likely Cy-Young Max Scherzer’s breakout year. That talent on both sides of the ball means they are looking at another deep run, right? Well maybe not. Cabrera has been nursing injuries down the stretch, and I really like this Oakland team. Last year they shocked the baseball world with the best record after May, and ended up stealing the AL West title from the Rangers on the last day of the regular season. That did not translate to the playoffs and some were skeptical if the A’s could continue their good play this year. Well they answered that question emphatically. For most of the season they battled with the Rangers for first place out West before turning on the afterburners down the stretch and leaving Texas in the dust. Detroit has too much pitching and a good enough lineup even without a fully healthy Cabrera to go quietly, but Oakland has been lights out in September and I think that carries over. Bob Melvin’s boys in five games. 

  • Boston Red Sox – Tampa Bay Rays

The Sox have been the most consistent team in baseball all year. That would have been hard to imagine a year ago this time, but after a couple tough seasons, Beantown will experience October baseball again. Not much was expected from this team coming into the season. The blockbuster trade last August with the Dodgers looked like the beginning of a long rebuilding process, but John Farrell was hired away from Toronto in a trade, and some key free agent signings like Shane Victorino (who I thought they overpaid) have been huge for them. The pitching staff rebounded well, and Koji Uehara did a historic job as closer after some injuries at the position early in the season. This teams scores a ton too, in fact the most in baseball, All that doesn’t phase a Rays team that just won back-to-back road win-or-go-home games just to get to this point. I think that does hurt them with David Price not pitching opening game against the Sox, and at some point all that travel is going to be a negative. In these five game series it’s so important to set the tone in that first game.The Rays staff is very good, but Fenway is going to be a madhouse, and the Sox have had their number for most of the year, winning the season series 12-7. That doesn’t change now, Sox in four.

NLDS

  • Los Angeles Dodgers-Atlanta Braves

The two best staff ERAs in baseball meet head-to-head. By now most people know about the Dodgers’ story this year. They got off to an absolutely terrible start, and many were calling for Don Mattingly’s job by early June. Enter some guy named Yasiel Puig and suddenly the Dodgers go from arctic cold to volcano hot. That’s an oversimplification, but you get the picture. The Braves had a couple streaks of their own, but weren’t as flashy. They were expected to be in a dogfight with the Nationals all season, but the Nats lackluster form for much of the year essentially handed the division to the Braves. Baseball is a long season, and these two teams had their peaks and valleys, quite drastic ones in LA’s case. I do think the Dodgers may have peaked a bit too soon, but I also think the Braves got no benefit from playing with house money most of the second half. A one-two punch of Clayton Kershaw and Zach Grienke is built for October baseball, and the Braves are a team that can rely a bit too much on the long ball at times. If Atlanta can get some leads and hand it off to their killer bullpen led by Craig Kimbrel, I give them a chance, but I really like Kershaw to get this started right, and the Braves have made a habit of underperforming in October. Puig Mania continues for at least a little while longer, Dodgers in four. 

  • Pittsburgh Pirates – St. Louis Cardinals

Pittsburgh has been the darling of the baseball world this season. The past two years they got off to good starts only to see second half fades derail their goals. There was no such letdown this year. The Buccos posted their first winning season since 1992 (I had just celebrated my first birthday for perspective), and went to the playoffs for the first time since that year as well. The magic of their season continued into the Wild Card game against division rivals the Reds. PNC Park was rocking for its first ever taste of playoff baseball. One of the prettiest spots in the game, the park opened in 2001, smack dab in the middle of Pittsburgh’s stretch of futility. The Pirates handled the Reds thanks to a great start for Francisco Liriano, and some big early home runs. So what is their reward? Well a date with their other division rivals, the Cards. While the Pirates have long been the poster child for organizational dysfunction, the Cardinals have arguably been MLB’s model franchise. With a couple of World Series titles in the last decade, St. Louis is a player every year. They seem to have “it.” Both teams are top five in team ERA, with the slight edge to Pittsburgh, but St. Louis dominates in the offensive categories.  The Pirates are a good team, and have a great defense, but they are new to this postseason stuff. The Cardinals know what they’re doing. Allen Craig’s absence will hurt the Cards, and I see the Pirates making it competitive, but St. Louis in five. 

ALCS

  • Boston Redsox – Oakland A’s

Oakland didn’t get a whole lot of love this season. They play in a dump of a stadium, and have a small payroll, but they are legit. However, I think the East Coast/West Coast travel thing plays a part here, and Boston getting to open at home gives them an advantage. I’m going with the team from the much tougher division. Big Papi has a big series, and Koji closes out some close games. John Farrell continues to make his hire look genius. Oakland will give them a headache, but Boston wins in 6.

NLCS

  • Los Angeles Dodgers – St. Louis Cardinals

Two storied franchises whose styles mimic their cities. St. Louis is unglamorous, but there is an attraction to their consistency and rhythm, while the boys in blue bring the A-List star power that rivals their neighbors over in Hollywood. The Dodgers had a truly jaw dropping run, but I think in the playoffs, experience matters. The Dodgers are going to be the team to beat in the NL in 2014 as Magic Johnson’s ownership group will likely throw more cash around, but I’m sticking with the “it” factor for the present. Adam Wainright will pull out two huge wins much like Chris Carpenter did a couple of years ago, and the offense led my Matt Carpenter and Yadier Molina will do enough. Cardinals in seven great games.

World Series

  • Boston Red Sox – St. Louis Cardinals

The two teams tied for the best record in baseball. How boring and predictable can I get, right? While I admit my picks haven’t been risky, I truly think the consistency over the year sets these teams apart. Both squads came out of the best division in their respective leagues, and that competition throughout the year matters. Home field advantage is a biggie here, but the Sox also have a good story on their side. No one outside of Mass. gave the Sox much of a chance to be playing this late in fall. Boston will have to be more offensively consistent in this series. They were streaky against the Tigers, and certainly can’t count on two late Grand Slams again. In a rematch of that lopsided 2004 World Series, I think Pedroia leads by example and nets MVP, leading the Sox in a closer than it appears six game series.

Added Notes on the World Series matchup:

  • Yadier Molina is the only player left from that 2004 World Series Cardinals team. Molina was current Cardinals manager Mike Matheny’s backup.
  • David Ortiz remains for the Sox
  • The Red Sox have won eight straight World Series games, longest streak in history by any team other than the New York Yankees.
  • This marks the first time since 1995 that the two teams with the best records will be facing off in the Fall Classic.
  • Allen Craig will be available for the Cardinals for the first time during the postseason

There you have it. I can’t wait to revisit these picks in a month and smugly gloat about my terrific insight (definitely won’t weep openly at my woefully inaccurate selections). You can weigh in on who you think will be king of October below.

Context for DMV Baseball: All Tied UP

Last summer was a revival for Mid-Atlantic baseball. Going into the season the Orioles and Nationals were mired in long stretches of losing campaigns, and at least for the Orioles, the end to that futility didn’t seem close. The Nationals had some young promise with Bryce Harper waiting in the wings, and Stephen Strasburg leading a young pitching staff with potential, but even then many media members were expecting only minor improvement.

Well the year was a rounding success in Baltimore and in DC. The Nationals ended up with the best record in baseball, while the Orioles fought their way into the playoffs thanks to the introduction of the second wildcard. Their were plenty of positive story lines to throw around: the O’s clutch record in 1 run games and extra innings, the Nats brilliant pitching staff, the emergence of the young stars (Harper for DC, and Manny Machado for Baltimore), etc. The Orioles beat the Rangers in the wildcard game, before losing a hard-fought five game series to the Yankees. The Nationals lost a heartbreaking game five in DC to the St. Louis Cardinals after staying alive in the series the night before. Both teams looked a bit lost at times in the postseason, but still the seasons were more than most fans could have hoped for after 2011.

The offseason saw the Nationals hailed as the next great baseball dynasty, while the Orioles season had largely been called flukey. The Nats went out and got Dan Haren, Rafael Soriano, and Denard Span. The Orioles made very few moves, choosing instead to rely on in-house solutions. Spring training 2013 rolled around and just about everyone and their mother was picking the Nats to make an appearance in the World Series. The Orioles got largely mixed reviews. Many said they couldn’t repeat their luck in close games, and would fall back to earth because of their lack of pitching. Though the teams had different projections, both clubhouses were quite confident in their ability. Davey Johnson, going into his last year as Nats manager, proclaimed “World Series or bust,” while Orioles like centerfielder Adam Jones and manager Buck Showalter, talked about the unity and drive of the guys in their clubhouse.

Like with all sports, talk is cheap until proven on the field, or in this case diamond. The first three-quarters of the season could not have gone much more differently for the two clubs. The Nats crumbled under the pressure. They played sloppy D, they couldn’t score, and though the pitching staff was good at times, the bullpen often struggled. Guys like Ryan Zimmerman and Danny Espinosa got off to slow starts (Espinosa is now struggling in the minors), and the team couldn’t seem to find its identity. The Orioles on the other hand seemed to be proving people wrong. Chris Davis blasted his way into the MVP conversation by hitting towering home run after towering home run. If it weren’t for some guy named Miguel Cabrera, he would probably be a lock for the award. Manny Machado followed up a short rookie campaign with a torrid start highlighted by his ability to spray doubles all over the field, and make quasi-miraculous plays at third base. Jones put in the best start to any season of his career and yet found himself playing third fiddle. Where the Nats couldn’t score runs, the O’s were leading the majors in homers. Where the Nats D seemed to be making stupid errors, the O’s started historically error free. The O’s rotation was still shaky, and a bullpen that had been one of the best in baseball in 2012 was suddenly very hittable, but the Orioles were sticking around, as the Nats fell off the face of the earth.

Enter September. The homestretch. The Nats appeared to be completely out of it. The Braves had seemingly long ago run away with the division, and the torrid pace of the three Central teams (Pirates, Reds, and Cardinals) left them way off the wild-card pace too. The Orioles seemed poised for a September push that had been the norm during Showalter’s time at the team’s helm. With their fate in their hands they couldn’t ask for more.

The calendar turned and boom, the Nats came alive. An anemic offense all season, suddenly guys found their groove. Span extended his hitting streak to 23 games, second in club history to Zimmerman’s 30 game streak in spring of 2009. Speaking of Zimmerman, the guy has 8 homers in his last 10 games. Not too shabby. A team that looked all but out of it, the Nats suddenly have an outside chance (a very outside chance) of sneaking into the playoffs as they ended the evening 5.5 games back of the Reds. Tonight they completed a four game sweep of the Mets in New York, out homering them 13-0 in the process. Can you say caliente? There is not a team in baseball that wants to face these guys right now, and should they squeeze into October play, the swagger they have right now makes them a dangerous team. It may be too little too late for the Nats, but it appears as though they at least have some confidence for next season.

September has been much less kind to the Orioles. They came into the month third in their division and third in the wild card standings. And while they are still right there, they have failed to capitalize on almost every opportunity given them. Perhaps the only team in the AL race that has been worse than the O’s are the Rays, but the O’s still have made up almost no ground. The Yankees, those old decrepit Yankees whom everyone seemed down on, just finished taking 3 of 4 from the Orioles in Baltimore, including a heartbreaking loss tonight. After what looked to be shaping up as a good year for Baltimore and a bad one for New York, the Orioles find themselves 1.5 back of the Bronx Bombers, and 2.5 out of the wildcard with 16 games remaining. Last years stellar record in close games? Well forget about that. The O’s have one of the worst records in close games in the majors this year, not a good stat when playing important stretch baseball.

The biggest kicker is that the Nationals and Orioles finished with identical records tonight. 77-69 is the result of a 6 game win streak for the Nats and a 3 game skid for the O’s. After five months that saw the Nats in the baseball doghouse, while the Orioles seemed to be darlings again, the two clubs are in the same position: fighting for their proverbial lives. By no means are the Orioles out of it. They still have time, but they are gonna have to turn it around in a hurry. The Nationals are fighting every time they take the field right now, and though they aren’t mathematically out of it yet, they need to keep up their scorching pace and hope for some help from Cincinnati.

This year looks like it won’t end the way Davey Johnson envisioned with the Nats as World Champs. The Orioles look like they might not be making a return trip to the postseason. But both organizations are in a good place going forward, and compared to a couple of years ago, that’s a great thing to be able to say. Like it says up top, context. At least they aren’t tied for last.