Dennis Eckersley faces Dodgers in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. (Bob Galbraith / Associated…)
Hall of Fame pitcher Dennis Eckersley faced the most pressure-filled moments baseball can present.
In winning the American League Cy Young and most valuable player awards in 1992, and closing games during the Oakland Athletics' World Series-winning 1989 season, Eckersley recorded the biggest outs necessary.
Against Kirk Gibson in the 1988 World Series, well … .
With the Angels and Dodgers among many trying to make the playoffs in an increased field thanks to the extra wild-card entrant, Eckersley, a major leagues analyst for TBS, assesses how late September and early October will play out.
How does the game, the stress of winning change for a player this time of year?
"Things do change, especially now with so many more teams involved. It seems like it used to be mostly clear-cut by this time about who was going to make it in or not. With the extra wild card, there's more teams put into the mix and it creates more interest. And there's so much parity. Everyone's got something, some negative, they're dealing with. There's no real powerhouse running away, except for Washington and Cincinnati. It's a lot closer in the American League, and some amazing stories with Baltimore and Oakland. It's great for baseball, and shows when you put the right bunch of guys together, it can all seem to come together."
A lot of this starts with who'll win the American League East. You're back there close to it. Who wins?
"I think Baltimore. No, let me change my mind. The [New York] Yankees will. You've got to go to the schedule on this one. They end with Minnesota, Toronto and the [Boston] Red Sox, and I think that'll be the difference. But as you see, I change my mind daily on this. They're getting Ivan Nova and Andy Pettitte back, but I think you have to be a little worried about CC Sabathia's elbow. Without Mark Teixeira, that lineup looks tired, and [Derek] Jeter's limping around. My goodness, I saw Joe Girardi the other night and you can just see it in his face. He's exhausted. He's managing his rear off."
When you look at the potential of Baltimore, Oakland and Washington all making the playoffs, is that a credit to how youthful exuberance can trump a big investment in payroll?
"There's so many kids playing a big role this year. They have a voice and it's not, 'be seen and not heard,' like it used to be. No one's telling them they can't, and it plays to chemistry, which I've thought can be overrated. It goes to the managers getting these kids in there. In Washington's case, how can you not be confident sending out one of those young pitchers every day? And look at what the [Mike] Trout kid's doing for the Angels."
Why is it easier for youth to dominate now?
"They're not awestruck. It used to take awhile to figure it out. Kids develop quicker in the game now … things like the Arizona Fall League, playing all year long from such a young age."
Do the Dodgers' rudderless ways since the big trade with the Red Sox reveal the power of clubhouse chemistry?
"It takes time. The idea that you make a trade to bring [Josh] Beckett and [Adrian] Gonzalez, and that wins it for you is asking a lot. It's just not that simple. The Dodgers going forward will be a good ballclub. But to do it in the last month and a half, especially with the offensive problems. They needed Gonzalez to just rake. Beckett's done all right. But the [San Francisco] Giants are hot, playing very well."
One of the things the Angels said during their August pitching collapse is that bad pitching is contagious. Is that true?
"That's true. One guy struggles and it's added pressure on the next guy out. For awhile there, all they could count on in the bullpen is the kid they got from San Diego [Ernesto Frieri] and he's a little wild. When things are going bad like that, you don't dare watch batting practice because you wonder, 'How can I get anyone out?' It was brutal for them. And when it goes off, you can't stop it. The greatest manager with a bad bullpen stinks. … That's a streaky team, and streaky teams are scary."
How did the Red Sox situation turn so toxic under Manager Bobby Valentine?
"All this started in spring training. He rubbed players, like Kevin Youkilis, the wrong way. Bobby didn't help things. You have to know Bobby … his humor gets lost sometimes and it's a respect issue, too. It's a mess."
I'd like to get an old-school opinion on Washington shutting down pitcher Stephen Strasburg.
"There's hindsight questions, like, 'Why not just start him in May?' But did they think they were going to win the division in May? I didn't. Now that they're the team to beat, it makes sense to look back. All I know is that I wish someone had worried about my career like they are his in my first six years. I let it fly and no one said, 'I think he's getting tired.' My gas was never the same after those years. I know the thinking is, 'How many chances do you get to win it all?' And I could go old-school on it, but I also know there's been enough Tommy John surgeries to go around."
Who wins the American League and the National League?
"AL: Texas. They're experience, they have the whole package, solid in every area. NL: Woo, that's tough, especially when you consider what St. Louis did last year. I think it's in the stars for Washington. But your guess is as good as mine."