ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Major League Baseball is in the home stretch of the regular season. That means that there are pennant races and milestones to discuss. And to do that, were joined now by our regular Friday sports contributor, Stefan Fatsis.
STEFAN FATSIS (Sportswriter): Hey, Robert.
SIEGEL: Lets start with some milestones. Last night, Jose Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays, hit his 50th home run of the season. And in the same game, Ichiro Suzuki, of the Seattle Mariners, broke his own Major League record by collecting 200 hits for the 10th straight season.
First, the homers: If youre like a lot of baseball fans, you might be saying, Jose Bautista?
FATSIS: Yeah, Jose Bautista. He's 29. He's in his seventh season in the big leagues. Never before has hit more than 16 home runs in a season. But he also had played a full season as starter just once in career. Still, you think of all the great players who never hit 50 - Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Lou Gehrig - and then you consider that no one had hit 50 since 2007, and only one other player, the great Albert Pujols of St. Louis, will probably wind up with more than 40 this year. And, yeah, Jose Bautista at 50 seems like a fluke.
SIEGEL: Yeah. And one consequence of baseballs steroid scandals is, of course, that whenever somebody suddenly hits lost of home runs - never having done so before - the questions are raised: might he have been taking something. Is that the case with Jose Bautista?
FATSIS: A columnist for a Toronto newspaper did that just last month, and it very McCarthy-like: innuendo, supposition, how could he not be on something.
Bautista has denied the non-accusation accusation and noted that baseball now actually tests for performance-enhancing drugs and attributed his surge to what most scouts and people who follow baseball attribute it to: He's just become a better baseball player.
He'd long been long been viewed as a potentially very talented one. So we're stuck, though, with worst assumptions now. Sometimes, though, athletes do just improve over time and even later in their careers.
SIEGEL: Bautista got his 50th home run in the first inning of that game. Ichiro picked up his 200th hit in the fifth inning, his 10 seasons with 200 hits, thats every year that hes played in the Majors. That's just incredible.
FATSIS: It is incredible, and a lot of people forget that because of Japanese free-agency rules, Ichiro didnt come to the U.S. until age 27. For the Mariners now, he's got 2,230 hits. And if he plays into his 40s, and he's been very durable, another 1,300 to 1,500 hits is plausible. And I think it's fair to say that if he had been able to start his big-league career earlier - not at 18 like in Japan but say 22 or 23 right now I think we'd be talking about Ichiro challenging Pete Roses all-time hits record.
SIEGEL: Now before we turn to the pennant races, lets talk about Ichiros teammate, Felix Hernandez, who gave up that home run to Jose Bautista. His record is 12 wins and 12 losses, and yet he could win the Cy Young Award for best pitcher in American League.
FATSIS: Should win the Cy Young Award, Robert. He leads or is among the leaders is just about every major statistical category, everything but wins, and wins are the worst pitching metric because they are dependent on how the team performs on offense, something the pitcher obviously can't control.
And the Mariners are epically bad. As Joe Posnanski of Sports Illustrated points out, they're likely to score the fewest runs in a full season by any team since 1971. So don't listen to the commentators who say a Hernandez Cy Young is a revenge of the stat nerds. He has been the best.
SIEGEL: Okay, lets take a look at the division races now. The Minnesota Twins this week became the first team to clinch a playoff berth. And the rest of the American League looks pretty set, with Texas, New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays likely to qualify for the postseason, but in the National League not so clear.
FATSIS: Yeah, only the Cincinnati Reds and Philadelphia Phillies are virtual locks at this point. Four other teams - Atlanta, San Diego, San Francisco, Colorado - are contending for last two spots.
But lets talk about Reds. They've got young hitters, good defense, solid if unspectacular pitching. This would be the first time in 15 years that the Reds make the playoffs, which seems like a long time for such a great franchise. It demonstrates, I think, how baseball's power balance shifted so dramatically in the last couple decades.
The great teams of '70s and '80s - Cincinnati, the Kansas City Royals, Pittsburgh Pirates, Baltimore Orioles - an entire generation of fans thinks of them as perennial losers. At least now maybe we'll be able to scratch one from list.
SIEGEL: Okay, have a good weekend, Stefan.
FATSIS: You, too, Robert.
SIEGEL: Stefan Fatsis joins us most Fridays to talk about sports and the business of sports. You can hear more of him on Slate.com's sports podcast Hang Up and Listen.
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