Tuesday December 23rd, 2014

The last twelve months in baseball have brought the expansion of instant replay, the outlawing of home plate collisions, the election of the a new commissioner, the induction of six Hall of Famers, and the first real hope in nearly 60 years of a safe and regulated flow of players from Cuba to the majors. But when it comes to things that hit the baseball pleasure centers in my brain, these were the ten best reasons to be a baseball fan in 2014.

1. The Royals' postseason run

The baseball story of the year was the Royals' return to the postseason for the first time in 29 years. The Royals won their first eight games this postseason to sweep their way to the AL pennant, then pushed the Giants to the brink in the World Series, forcing Game 7 and getting the tying run to third base with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning before finally falling to San Francisco. They were the first team ever to go 8-0 to start a postseason, and at 11-4, Kansas City posted the best postseason winning percentage (.733) by a team that did not win the World Series.

Exciting and unexpected as all of that was, the Wild-Card Game against the Athletics was the clear highlight, one that will go down as one of the greatest games in major league history. The game itself was a twelve-inning nail-biter with five lead changes that saw the Royals steal seven bases, each by a different runner, and drop down four sacrifice bunts in a record-setting exhibition of small ball. Oakland took a 7-3 lead into the bottom of the eighth and came within two outs of victory in the bottom of the ninth, only to have the Royals tie the game and force extra innings. The A's were again two outs from victory in the bottom of the 13th, but Eric Hosmer's one-out triple, Christian Colon's RBI single, and Salvador Perez's walkoff hit down the leftfield line sent the Royals to the Division Series.

2. Clayton Kershaw's dominance

Though it was bookended by disappointment — the muscle strain that put him on the disabled list through April and the two postseason losses that led to the Dodgers' elimination in October — Clayton Kershaw turned in five months of pitching that were among the best the sport has ever seen. Over his final 21 starts, he went 18-1 with a 1.38 ERA, with 19 of those starts being quality, 15 of them lasting at least eight innings, and the Dodgers going 20-1 in those games.

On the regular season as a whole, Kershaw became just the third pitcher ever to combine an ERA+ of 190 or better, a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 7.00 or better, and a WHIP of 0.90 or lower in a qualified season. He was the first National League pitcher to win the Most Valuable Player award since Bob Gibson in 1968, and the first pitcher ever to lead the majors in ERA four years in a row.

As if that weren't enough, on June 18, Kershaw turned in one of the most dominant nine-inning pitching performances in major league history, falling only a Hanley Ramirez error shy of a perfect game in striking out 15 and posting the second-highest nine-inning game score in the last 101 years.

3. Madison Bumgarner carrying the Giants to their third world championship in five years

The fact that Bumgarner's dominant World Series performance came at the expense of No. 1 on this list muted its impact for me, but there's no denying his excellence or its significance. Across six starts and one relief appearance, Bumgarner posted a 1.03 ERA in 52 2/3 innings in the playoffs, the latter a postseason record and the former the lowest mark for a pitcher with more than 38 innings pitched in a single postseason. His shutout of the Pirates in the NL Wild-Card Game put the Giants in the Division Series, but his most impressive work came in the World Series.

After beating the Royals in Game 1, Bumgarner broke a 2-2 series tie in Game 5 with arguably his best game of the postseason. In the complete-game shutout, he struck out eight without issuing a walk and allowed just four runners, none of whom advanced after reaching base and only one of whom reached second. Bumgarner threw 117 pitches in that game, but three days later, he was back on the mound to throw five more innings of shutout baseball to nail down the Giants' 3-2 win in Game 7. He was every bit as dominant in that outing, striking out four against no walks and retiring 14 straight after giving up a single to the first man he faced.

That streak was snapped by a well-placed Alex Gordon single that got by Gregor Blanco in center to put Gordon on third with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. Unfazed, Bumgarner got the next man, Perez, to hit a foul pop-out to Pablo Sandoval to clinch the Giants' title. Altogether, Bumgarner's World Series performance — 2-0 plus a five-inning save in Game 7, one run allowed in 21 innings for a 0.43 ERA, to go with a 0.48 WHIP and a 17:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio — stands as the fifth best by a pitcher in World Series history.

4. Derek Jeter's walkoff single in his final Yankee Stadium at-bat

Derek Jeter's final season was mostly forgettable. Turning 40 on June 26, Jeter posted full-season career lows in almost every offensive category and was effectively a replacement-level player on a team that finished short of the postseason for just the second time in his 18 full major league seasons. However, in the two biggest moments of his season, Jeter rose to the occasion.

First, he went 2-for-2 with a double and a run scored in the All-Star Game, muting the criticism that he shouldn't have been on the All-Star roster, never mind starting the game. Then, in his final home game, he delivered an RBI double in his first at-bat and hit a grounder that led to two more runs in the seventh (thanks to a J.J. Hardy error).

The denouement came in the bottom of the ninth. With the score tied 5-5 thanks to David Robertson blowing a save in the top of the inning, rookie Jose Pirela led off with a single against Baltimore righty Evan Meek. Brett Gardner then bunted pinch-runner Antoan Richardson to second to bring Jeter up with the winning run in scoring position. Jeter didn't wait, jumping on the first pitch and sending it into rightfield for a game-winning opposite-field single. Perfection.

5. Felix Hernandez's record-breaking streak of dominant starts

Kershaw may have been the best pitcher in baseball during the regular season, Bumgarner may have been the best pitcher in the posteason, and Corey Kluber, another great 2014 story, may have been the AL Cy Young award winner, but none of them could match Hernandez's performance across 16 starts from May 18 to Aug. 11.

Over that span of nearly three months, Hernandez took the ball 16 times and threw at least seven innings while allowing no more than two runs each and every time. That stands as the longest such streak since 1900, out-distancing Tom Seaver's previous record of 13 such starts set back in 1971. If what you want out of your starting pitcher is for him to give you a chance to win every time out, no one has ever done that more consistently than Hernandez did over those 16 starts.

6. Steven Souza Jr.'s leaping catch for the final out of Jordan Zimmermann's no-hitter on the last day of the season

The last Washington pitcher to throw a no-hitter was the Senators' Bobby Burke in 1931, which also happened to be the last major league no-hitter thrown in the nation's capital. Through the first eight innings of his Game 162 start on Sept. 28 against the Marlins, however, the Nationals' Zimmermann had allowed just two baserunners and was on the brink of giving D.C. its first no-hitter in eight decades.

In the ninth, Zimmermann quickly got through the first two outs, getting a groundout to second base by Adeiny Hechavarria and a flyout from Jarrod Saltalamacchia. But the third batter, Christian Yelich, laced a pitch into the left-centerfield gap. Fortunately for Zimmermann, his manager, Matt Williams, had inserted rookie Stephen Souza Jr. into leftfield at the start of the inning as a defensive replacement. The switch paid off, as Souza raced over and made a diving catch for the 27th out to deliver Zimmermann and the Nationals their first no-hitter.

7. Giancarlo Stanton's breakout season

After a comparatively weak 2013 season, it didn't take long for Stanton to signal that this year would be different. His second home run of the season, hit in the Marlins' fifth game, went 484 feet and would stand as the longest hit in the NL on the year. From there, Stanton proceeded to have the breakout season we'd all been waiting for from him, hitting .288/.395/.555 with 37 home runs and 105 RBI (the average, OBP, homers and RBI were all career highs) and leading the league in homers, slugging, total bases (299) and intentional walks (24). He also set career highs in hits (155), doubles (31), walks (94), OPS+ (160), stolen bases (13 in 14 attempts), and, factoring in an excellent defensive performance in rightfield, Wins Above Replacement (6.5). It was an MVP-worthy performance from a 24-year-old stud with Hall of Fame talent who has as bright a future as any player in the game.

8. Mo'ne Davis throwing like a girl

It doesn't matter what Mo'ne Davis, the 13-year-old pitching star of this year's Little League World Series, grows up to be. What matters is the impact she has already had, both as a role model for other young girls looking to compete in traditionally male sports, and as a trailblazer proving to the boys and their coaches that girls not only belong but can also compete at the highest level. She's been everywhere, from the cover of Sports Illustrated to the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon to a legitimately inspirational Chevy commercial that ran during the World Series.

Davis, whose 70 mph fastball would be the equivalent of 93 in the majors, was just the fourth American girl to participate in the Little League World Series and only the 18th female of any nationality in the tournament's 68-year history. All she did to get her Taney Dragons there was pitch a shutout against Newark in the Mid-Atlantic Final, following that by pitching another shutout against Nashville in Taney's first World Series game, then picking up an RBI single in a one-run win as Taney's third baseman in their second game. That made Davis the first girl to earn a pitching win or throw a shutout in the tournament's history and just the sixth to collect a hit.

Her SI cover made her the first little leaguer and youngest athlete to earn that honor in the magazine's history, and the rare female athlete to appear alone and in uniform on the cover in recent years. Davis' second World Series start (which, yes, came after the cover) didn't go as well, but in her two starts combined, she allowed just three runs in 8 1/3 innings (a 2.16 ERA when averaged across six-inning games), walking just one and striking out 14. If my daughter ever asks me what it means to throw like a girl, I'll show her video of Mo'ne Davis.

9. The first major league games in Montreal since 2004

I never thought I'd put an exhibition game on a list like this, but the two matches played between the Mets and Blue Jays in Montreal's Stade Olympique were a reminder of the hold the game can have over a community, even after it has left town. The Blue Jays, the de facto home team, won the first game 5-4 on a walkoff single by minor league veteran Ricardo Nanita in the bottom of the ninth. More than 50,000 fans turned out for the second game to see a pitchers' duel between Daisuke Matsuzaka and Brandon Morrow that the Blue Jays ultimately won 2-0, with both runs coming on a Melky Cabrera home run with two outs in the bottom of the eighth.

Add in tributes to the 1994 Expos and the late Gary Carter before the games and the preponderance of Expos gear in the crowd, and the experiment was such a success that MLB is doing it again this year, this time with the Blue Jays hosting the Reds in Montreal on April 3 and 4.

10. Dale Scott coming out quietly and with the full support of his fellow umpires and MLB

If you weren't paying attention, you likely missed this one, but in an October profile in Referee magazine, umpire Dale Scott — a 29-year major league veteran who has umpired three World Series, three All-Star games and has been a crew chief for the last 12 years — came out publicly as gay. This was no big-splash announcement: Scott did it in the quietest way possible, including a photograph in the profile of himself with his partner of 28 years, one which made no mention of his sexuality beyond describing the man as Scott's "long-time companion."

In a subsequent interview with SB Nation's OutSports blog, Scott filled in some of the heartening details. As it turns out, Scott has been out to his fellow umpires since at least the late 1990s, and his partner, Michael Rausch, whom he married last November, has had domestic partner benefits through MLB since 2010. Scott has been living openly as a gay man within baseball for decades with, from his telling, nothing but support from his peers and superiors in the game. Per his list of accomplishments above, his sexuality has had no impact on his ability to advance in his field, and his fellow umpires have been outspoken in their support of Scott behind the scenes. With that strong network of support, Scott is now the first on-field official in any of the four major North American sports leagues to come out as gay.

Scott's coming out, the subtlety of which communicates just how little one's sexuality should matter in the other facets of their life, comes just months after Bud Selig appointed former player Billy Bean, who came out in 1999, four years after his final major league game, as MLB's first "ambassador for inclusion" and charged him with fostering that culture of acceptance in major and minor league clubhouses. The message is clear: Even if some players and fans may lack the maturity to do so, Major League Baseball as an organization and a collective culture is ready to accept openly gay players and executives. A year after Jason Collins became the first out player in the NBA, and in the same year that Michael Sam became the first out player drafted into the NFL, Scott has emerged as MLB's latest civil rights hero.

Honorable mention: Jose Abreu, Jose Altuve, Josh Harrison, Jacob deGrom's hair, Johnny Cueto's health, Yoenis Cespedes' arm and Home Run Derby repeat, Troy Tulowitzki's April, Yasiel Puig's three triples in one game, and the surge in trade activity at the non-waiver deadline and in the offseason.

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