The Top 10 Baseball Stories Of 2011

10) Can Theo Save The Cubs?

After some success in 2007 and 2008, the Cubs and GM Jim Hendry had a core of players with extremely large contracts, most notably the deals of Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Zambrano and Ryan Dempster. When the skill-sets of those three players eroded earlier than management expected, Wrigleyville was saddled with an underachieving, old team riddled with toxic contracts.

It was no surprise that Hendry was let go after his contract expired after this past season, but his replacement was certainly a shock. After Boston’s historic collapse (coming later in the top 10), longtime GM Theo Epstein decided to take on a new challenge and try to end the Cubs’ century-old championship drought. Epstein became the team president and he lured Jed Hoyer away from San Diego to be his GM. Success won’t come right away for Epstein and the Cubs, but North Siders hope it’s only a matter of time before Epstein is able to reverse another curse.

9) McCourt Hijacks The Dodgers, Baseball Takes Control

During messy divorce proceedings between Frank and Jaime McCourt, who had agreed to split ownership of the Dodgers, CEO Frank was essentially running out of money to pay the players and afford the day-to-day expenses of the team.

His refusal to sell the team angered and alienated Dodger fans around the world and upset higher ups in the league office, so much so that Bud Selig took over day-to-day operations of the team. On June 17, the McCourt’s agreed to settle their divorce and give Frank sole ownership of the team only if baseball approved a 17-year television rights contract with FOX which paid McCourt up front so he could maintain control of the team.

In the only wise commissioner intervention in sports (are you listening, David Stern?), Selig rejected the offer and the Dodgers filed for bankruptcy 10 days later. After a large legal battle, McCourt agreed to put the team up for auction and new owners should be found in the beginning of 2012. For Dodger fans, McCourt and 2011 could not get away fast enough.

8. Phillies’ Big Four Fails To Deliver The Title

The historical comparisons and fear from National League foes cam quickly when Philadelphia assembled a four-man starting pitching group featuring Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels. The Phillies emerged as the clear frontrunner to win the NL pennant and the group was said to be on par with the Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz-Avery group of the mid 1990’s.

Success came with ease during the regular season. While Oswalt endured an injury plagued season, winning only nine games with a 3.69 ERA, the other three combined for 50 wins in nearly 700 innings and Hamels recorded the highest ERA at 2.79. With Vance Worley, 11 wins, emerging as a quality fifth starter, and Oswalt healthy for the postseason, it was hard to imagine Philadelphia being defeated in the playoffs. They were.

Philadelphia was heavily favored against the Cardinals, a wild card team which only got in because of Atlanta’s collapse (more on them later), but a funny thing happened during the Division Series: they were outpitched. The series culminated with a classic game five between Halladay and Chris Carpenter, former teammates in Toronto, and the St. Louis ace was up to the task. Carpenter tossed a complete game, three-hit shutout to win 1-0 and shockingly eliminate the Phils.

With Oswalt departing via free agency, the big four will only last one season. While the group was fun to watch during the season, it failed to achieve its ultimate goal.

7) Jeter And Rivera Reach Historic Milestones

While the Yankees disappointingly lost in the Division Series to Detroit, two Bronx Bombers made their way into the record books with astounding achievements.

Longtime shortstop Derek Jeter became the first ever Yankee to reach 3,000 hits, going 5-5 and getting his record hit on a home run, and closer Mariano Rivera broke Trevor Hoffman’s all-time saves record with his 602nd career save in a 6-4 win over Minnesota on September 19. Both achievements were a long time coming for the two future Hall of Famers and Yankee fans were treated to two momentous occasions in one season.

6) Pujols Goes West

Universally regarded as one of the greatest hitters who ever lived, 1B Albert Pujols was supposed to spend his entire career with the St. Louis Cardinals. After winning his second championship with the team, the Cardinals barely improved its $200 million offer to the team. However, nobody actually expected El Hombre to be anywhere else but with the Redbirds. That is, except for the Angels.

Emboldened by a new television contract which pays the team an extra $100 million per season, the Angels planned to permanently solve their power problem at first base. They did that and a whole lot more, stunning the sports universe by signing a 10-year deal worth $254 million with another 10-year personal services deal added onto that for after his illustrious playing days are over. As Pujols, and LeBron James before him, proved, loyalty in sports will never again be as important as they money which goes with it.

Bonus Story- Marlins Go On Unprecedented Spending Spree

After years of penny-pinchingly low payrolls in south Florida, Miami Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria cashed in all his revenue sharing money and the revenue he expects to get from his new ballpark in Miami on a trio of premium players. First, Loria signed All-Star closer Heath Bell from San Diego to further improve a bullpen which ranked seventh in the major leagues in ERA.

Then Loria made his biggest splash, inking reigning NL batting champion Jose Reyes to a six-year contract worth over $100 million and appealing to the large Latin community in the market. Reyes will stay at shortstop with the Marlins, while incumbent star Hanley Ramirez reluctantly moves to third base. This will give Miami a stacked and balance lineup, with Reyes and Ramirez providing speed and Mike Stanton providing the power.

Loria said that these two signings were not enough, obtaining Mark Buehrle in free agency from the White Sox on a three-year deal, further improving a rotation already including Josh Johnson and Ricky Nolasco. In one fell swoop during the Winter Meetings, Miami changed its reputation and its franchise with a trio of moves that rocked the baseball landscape.

5) Rangers Again Take AL Crown

The Texas Rangers always seem to be overlooked. Their pitching wasn’t good enough to compete in 2010, until C.J. Wilson emerged as a really good starter and they pulled off a trade for Cliff Lee. After Lee left for Philadelphia before the 2011 season, the pitching wasn’t going to be good enough for the Rangers to successfully defend their American League title.

In 2011, more players stepped up for manager Ron Washington and general manager Jon Daniels. Alexi Ogando and Matt Harrison became mainstays, the team acquired Mike Adams and Koji Uehara to shore up the bullpen and the Rangers were once again AL West champs and legitimate contenders to reach the World Series in consecutive years after having won its first playoff series just a short year ago.

Adrian Beltre was signed from Boston, and he hit 32 home runs and drove in 105. Michael Young hit .338 after nearly being traded to Colorado before the start of the season and Mike Napoli hit 30 homers after being acquired in an offseason trade from Toronto. If not for David Freese and a few of the most unbelievable moments in World Series moments, the 2011 playoffs would have been known as “The Year of the Napoli.”

Napoli hit .357 in a four-game Division Series win over the Rays, with Beltre hitting three solo homers in the decisive game four, a 4-3 win over Tampa Bay. The League Championship Series against Detrit decidedly belonged to slugging outfielder Nelson Cruz. Cruz hit six homers and drove in a whopping 13 runs as Texas dispatched Detroit in six games.

Napoli was tremendous in the World Series, hitting .350 with two homers and 10 RBI’s, and would have been the World Series MVP if not for an incredible set of unforseen circumstances that led to the Rangers’ Fall Classic defeat to the St. Louis Cardinals. The chants of Na-Po-Li still echo in the minds of Texas fans, who know how close they truly were to their first ever championship.

4) The Rise and Fall Of Ryan Braun

He was the epitome of the talented, clean, moral baseball superstar. Bud Selig, who used to own Braun’s Brewers, used Braun as the example of a new age of drug-free superstars fans could embrace for the 21st century. For the first 11 months of the 2011 calendar year, Selig’s statement looked pretty, pretty smart.

Braun, who will be the face of the Milwaukee franchise after Prince Fielder leaves in free agency, was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player after a sensational 2011 season. Braun hit .332/.397/.597 with 33 home runs, 111 RBI’s and 33 stolen bases. He was a huge reason why the Brewers won the NL Central and was beloved by fans across the country.

The on Dec. 12, ESPN reported that Braun had tested positive for a banned substance and that he would be suspended for the first 50 games of the 2012 season. Braun, who knew of the positive test during the playoffs, says that he tested positive for something prescribed to him by a doctor and he is appealing the suspension through arbitration. No one has ever had a suspension reversed through appeal in baseball history. Whatever becomes of Braun’s legacy is yet to be determined, but his credibility and his MVP season was certainly undermined.

3) Verlander’s Incredible Season

As 2011 began, Tigers ace Justin Verlander was regarded as one of the 10 best pitchers in the game. After the historic season he had, it’s hard to argue against Verlander being the best pitcher in baseball.

Not only did Verlander throw a no-hitter on May 7 against Toronto, the second of his career, he also went 24-5 with a 2.40 ERA this past season. He led the American League in wins, winning percentage, ERA, strikeouts, innings pitched and WHIP. Those accomplishments led to Verlander being named the Cy Young Award winner (unanimously) and AL MVP, becoming the first AL pitcher to sweep both awards since Dennis Eckersley in 1992 for the A’s.

2) Two Historic Collapses Doom Atlanta and Boston

The Braves and Red Sox had practically stamped their tickets to the postseason when everything went unprecedently, horribly wrong for the two wild card shoe-ins at the same exact time.

After leading the NL Wild Card race by 8.5 games on Sept. 5, the Braves missed the playoffs and matched the 1964 Phillies for blowing the largest September advantage. The Atlanta bullpen duo of Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters, who were so dominant in the season’s first five months, completely ran out of has and were major factors in the team’s implosion. The offense hit just .235 in the month of September and the Braves lost 17 of its last 23 games and missed the playoffs. The Cardinals ended up winning the NL Wild Card and the World Series.

For the Boston Red Sox, their collapse was a lot more than what happened on the field. After leading the Rays by nine games on Sept. 3, Boston went 7-19 after that and lost the AL Wild Card to the Rays. Jonathan Papelbon allowed two runs in the ninth inning to fall to Baltimore 4-3 on the last game of the season. At the same time Tampa Bay made an incredible comeback, coming back from 7-0 down to the Yankees in the eighth inning to win 8-7 in 12 innings. The fallout that ensued in Beantown was historic.

It came out that starting pitchers Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and John Lackey were eating fried chicken, drinking beer and playing video games in the clubhouse on days they didn’t start. Boston and GM Theo Epstein had no choice but to fire longtime manager Terry Francona, and reports even surfaced that Francona was distracted during the season because of an addiction to pain killers.

Francona was the first of three key members of their championship teams to not survive the fallout of the collapse. Epstein left to take over as president of the Chicago Cubs and Papelbon signed a long-term deal to be Philadelphia’s closer. No matter the reasons or circumstances, 2011 will always be known as the year of to historic collapses.

1) St. Louis’ Incredible Title Run

If not for Atlanta’s September collapse (see above), we could easily be talking about a failed season for the Redbirds where Tony La Russa retired, Adam Wainwright didn’t throw a pitch and Albert Pujols left for the Angels. Instead, we celebrate the Cards’ improbable title run in one of the greatest World Series ever played.

Pujols hit 37 home runs to lead the team, but the enormous surprise of the season was the late-career renaissance of Lance Berkman, who put up a phenomenal .301/.412/.547 line with 31 homers. Surprisingly strong seasons from Kyle McLellen, Jaime Garcia and Kyle Lohse made up for the loss of Wainwright, and late season additions including Edwin Jackson in the rotation and Arthur Rhodes, Octavio Dotel and Marc Rzepczynski saved the bullpen.

In the postseason, it became all about World Series MVP David Freese. He drove in five and got St. Louis to the NLDS game five against the Phillies where Chris Carpenter threw a complete-game three-hit shutout. In the League Championship Series against Milwaukee, Freese went an astounding 12-22 with three homers and nine RBI’s over the six LCS games.

Freese saved his best for the World Series, including the epic game six where Freese tripled home the tying run in the ninth inning and hit the walkoff shot in the 11th to keep the Cards alive in two instances. Freese’s two-run double in game seven led to a 6-2 win over Texas and one of the most unlikely championships in history.

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