Sports

Ron Darling On How He’s Ready For Postseason Baseball And Why He Loves The Wild Card


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TBS already has one of the best baseball studio shows out there, and this season the network is fortunate to air the gauntlet that will be the American League playoffs. Ron Darling will be part of the broadcast for TBS, which handles the AL all the way through to the World Series this month. And while there’s no telling who survives the AL Wild Card Game and the resulting series between the Cleveland Indians, Boston Red Sox and defending World Series champion Houston Astros, he’s sure the assignment will be the “most exciting three weeks I’ll ever have.”

Unlike many current players (and especially Chicago Cubs fans) Darling loves the Wild Card Game format, which is good because he’ll be on the broadcast for TBS starting with Wednesday’s American League Wild Card Game between the New York Yankees and the Oakland Athletics. Billed as a “David vs. Golliath” matchup, the two sides are approaching it from very different perspectives as well. The Yankees will start their ace, Louis Severino, while Oakland looks to use its strong bullpen to save its starters for what would be a matchup against the Boston Red Sox in Game 1 of the ALDS on Friday.

Both Wild Card teams will await a Sale Day in Boston, and Darling is excited to see what happens over the course of this October as one of the most loaded American League playoffs gets underway. He spoke to Uproxx about what’s to come in the postseason, whether the Astros can defend a World Series title and the difference between Mookie Betts and Mike Trout’s appeal to fans.

Is there anything different about broadcasting for TBS this year for you?

Nothing different, but I just think we’re honored to do the American League this year because of how many talented teams and athletes are on those teams. And you could have some historic matchups. Red Sox/Yankees. A defending champion against a team that’s won more than 105+ games. A David vs. Goliath in the Wild Card. All of that stuff is just going to make it the most exciting three weeks I’ll ever have. So I can’t wait.

The Boston Red Sox had a record-breaking season in an American League that still had three 100-game winners. Are they the true favorite in the AL?

They’re certainly a true favorite. This is not without precedent. The 2001 Mariners, of course, won 116 and didn’t get through. So it can happen. But I think their greatest strength, to me, is their depth of lineup. I just think if you’re a pitcher facing that lineup there’s so many different ways they can beat you. The home run, extra base hits, the stolen base, first to third.

That, to me, is what separates them from other teams is that they really have a complete lineup.

There’s two things I see getting in (Boston’s) way. Only two. That is the health of Chris Sale — if he is 100 percent then they’re going to have a great chance to get the ring. If he’s not, I think that changes things a bit.

And the second part is, and I think this will be a decision for Alex (Cora) and the organization is who are they going to put in the bullpen in what roles? Are they comfortable having a knuckleball guy pitch the seventh in Stephen Wright. So I think the people in front of (Craig) Kimbrel, how will they do? It’s going to mean a lot.

But like I said, if Chris Sale is 100 percent it changes the narrative. Now you have starters with the chance to go deeper into games.

Is the bullpen going to be the tipping point in the postseason in general? It seems like the last couple of years a team will have one reliever that catches fire and changes the entire arc of a series.

I think that will be the tipping point for all teams. Because I think what has happened, and I think it’s very difficult for a manager to be on the different side of things right now, is that we have a game now where the managers will not go deep with a starter. They’ll have short leashes on all of them. So that means getting into the bullpen earlier. And the only reason this works is the days off to reboot their bullpens every two games.

But I think that’s the big thing for me because the way the game has been managed. You’re starting the game and you don’t want your starting pitcher to go three times through the lineup so you can just imagine how you can get in trouble and be quick with that trigger.

With the Yankees in the Wild Card game, who would you start? They’re starting Luis Severino, but there was a lot of talk about maybe going a different direction before that announcement.

Yeah I think in the Wild Card Game I would have gone, in my opinion, with Tanaka or Happ. Happ’s numbers in Yankee Stadium are amazing. You think that the left-handed starter is going to give you some protection against that right field fence, the short porch. So I think it’s going to be interesting. Either Happ because of his number at Yankee Stadium, or Tanaka because he’s facing a young lineup and Tanka’s a real professonial in how he dissects lineups.

Now I say that, why not Severino? He’s their best starter. But he hasn’t pitched like it. And I think that it really gives you a leg up because the whole thing for the Wild Card is it’s one and done, but if you use everybody up you’re one and done anyway. If they are able to get a good game from Happ or Tanaka and then start Severino in a new 7-game series, I think that gives the Yankees a real good chance to compete in the next round.

We saw bullpen usage change a lot over the last five years and the A’s appear ready to do an all-bullpen game for the Wild Card. Is this the year where teams really explore what their bullpens can do in games?

I think the day after the Wild Card before the Division Series gives you ample time to get your relievers back. So let’s say you need, I’m just using the A’s as an example. Let’s say you need (Jeurys) Familia for two innings and (Blake) Treinen for two innings, that gives them enough opportunity to get ready and at least give you an inning on Friday.

So I think this is a unique time in baseball. It’s going to be interesting to see the macro/micro use of bullpens. You saw the macro use of it by the Tampa Bay Rays this year, and some other teams. But the micro use of it… doing it is one thing and winning with it is one thing, but losing that game bullpenning: it’ll be interesting to see what the fallout would be from that.

Do you think the Wild Card in its current state is ideal for baseball? Should it be expanded or is the one game enough to settle things?

As a former player I certainly wouldn’t want to have a one and done season. Especially if you’re the Yankees, who win 100 games this year. But as a broadcaster I love it because I get a Game 7 before I even start a series. To me, these Wild Card games have been so compelling and so great, especially on television. I love the format, I hope it never changes. I know that there’s a lot of people who feel that their team has kind of wasted six months because they only get one playoff game, but in those six months you’re supposed to be the best team in your division. If you’re not, that’s where you put yourself.

The Yankees and Red Sox both break 100 wins this year, largely thanks to who they played in the AL East this year. Do you think playing more games against weaker teams, the Orioles in particular, gives them a disadvantage when the postseason comes around?

I don’t know. I think that the teams that make the playoffs don’t think of any of those kind of things. I don’t think Cleveland is spending any time thinking about ‘We played in a sh*tty division so I don’t think we have a chance in the postseason.’ I don’t think they spend one second thinking about that. They spend all their time thinking ‘we were able to get our players rested. We were able to get our injured players better. If we had pushed on the pedal we could have…’

I don’t think teams think like that. I don’t think the Red Sox are saying ‘We won 108 games so we automatically get to play in the World Series.’ If they’re managed by the right people, they’re thinking ‘How do I, today, do something to help my team win?’ The best teams always do that.

Alex Cora is a first year manager with Boston and one interesting thing about him is how he’s handled David Price. We talked about Price last year in a much different context, but he seems maybe the best prepared for the postseason in his career at this point. Will things go different for him this October than in the past?

I don’t know if it’s the best he’s pitched — he’s a former Cy Young winner. He has had a stretch, if you take away the Yankee game, that’s as good as he’s ever had in his career. So yes I think he is best prepared but you know, the whole thing for David is that he’s been ill-prepared at times and greatly prepared at times and gone into the postseason and it hasn’t worked out.

Listen, he’s a great pitcher with great stuff. There’s no reason that he should have the record he has in the postseason as a starting pitcher. No reason. But he does. So that’s a hurdle that I think if you were honest about it, any player would say ‘That’s a hurdle that I have to get over. Until I get over it, I have to wear it.’ And I think that he’s best positioned this year to get over that hurdle so he doesn’t have to wear it anymore.

With Cleveland, is pitching still the strength of the Tribe?

I think having four guys strike out over 200, having a guy like (Shane) Bieber or (Adam) Plutko going into the bullpen, which adds an arm. I think adding Josh Donaldson, if he is healthy, is the steal of July. But I still think it rests, to me, is on Terry Francona, who I think is one of the best managers in the history of the game. And it also rests on the health of Andrew Miller. If he’s able to throw the way he can and Terry can use him the way he wants to use him, early or late, I think that could be a difference-maker for the Indians and put them in a place where maybe they can erase their own history and have a historic run.

But I think with Cleveland you have all the pieces you need but Miller’s health, and how he rebounds from a couple of innings of work, will be the big story.

Houston is quietly having one of the best title defenses in recent history. They’ve put together another good season, but what is it about them that stands out this year compared to last year?

What stands out for me is the depth of the ballclub. They spent a lot of time without (Jose) Altuve in the lineup, they haven’t really had an affective Carlos Correa all season long. One of their young players has developed into one of the best players in the game in Alex Bregman, so I think it’s really their depth to me. I don’t know they were that deep, that they could be missing those players for that length of time and still put up the wins they did.

And, of course, the most obvious thing is that they’ve had some wipeout pitching. With (Justin) Verlander and (Gerrit) Cole, they’ve got two guys at the top who can dominate a lineup. They’re well-prepared to try and defend and I wouldn’t count them out. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s Astros/Red Sox in the ALCS, and what a matchup that would be.

I’d imagine the NL team you saw the most of this season with your other broadcast duties with the Mets would be Atlanta. What do you think of the Braves this year? Are they for real?

Well I think the Braves are for real. And the reason I’m saying that is because I like Chicago, but don’t love them. I like LA, I don’t love them. If you would have asked me that last year I would have said I love them both. So I don’t think they’re as strong as they were last season for a myriad of reasons.

And the Braves have two things going for them that’s hard to measure. They have two young kids in Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies who are as good as any young players in the game. And you combine that with veterans like (Freddie) Freeman and (Nick) Markakis. On the field, depth of lineup they are strong.

Their thing is that they kind of have a no-name bullpen and their starters have been good at times. Sean Newcomb, who is a Boston kid, has been great the first half. (Julio) Teheran has been up and down. Kevin Gausman was a great pickup. Mike Foltynewicz has been their best starting pitcher but most of their guys are untested in the postseason. So it’ll be interesting to see if they’ll get enough pitching to back up the depth of their lineup.

So Mookie Betts and Mike Trout are the favorites for AL MVP. I think it comes down to an argument between the best player in the game and maybe the face of the game. So who do you think is the face of baseball?

Well I think Mookie gets a lot of publicity just because he plays for the Red Sox. I think Trout probably gets less. If you correlate it to how good he is. But a lot of it has to do with, whether you like it or not, do you make players better around you and do you play for a winning team?

Mookie seems to answer both of those questions in the affirmative. I just think when I watch Mookie Betts play, maybe some of it has to do with his size, or with his style or grace, or maybe how confident he is on both sides of the ball, but to me how much he enjoys playing the game makes me feel like he’s the face of the game.

Obviously a lot of that might have to do with Mike’s playing at 10 p.m. at night on the East Coast. Whether you think there’s a bias or not, if you don’t see someone play, if he’s not on national TV a lot, you don’t feel the same about a guy. You don’t covet someone you don’t see as much.

To me, Betts has just had the best year, on the best team, and a historical year. So he gets my vote.

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