Young ready for playoff breakthrough
The National League wild-card race has turned into an onside-kick scrum, only far more entertaining. The Yankees and Rays, maybe the best teams in either league, are locked in a theatrical struggle of rich versus less rich. Bobby Cox might reach the playoffs one last time.
But let’s not neglect one of the most compelling — yet least-talked-about — figures of the forthcoming postseason.
Please, say hello to Michael Young.
He's the new guy.
With the Texas Rangers' magic number down to six, Young's understated brilliance is about to make its October debut.
The 33-year-old's been one of the game's steadiest performers over the last decade — with overlapping streaks of six All-Star appearances and five 200-hit seasons. However, he's never received the national acclaim he deserves. The biggest reason for that: He's taken as many postseason at-bats as you and me.
Entering Monday, Young had played 1,496 games in the big leagues. Among active players, according to STATS LLC, only Randy Winn of St. Louis has appeared in more without reaching the playoffs.
That's about to change.
The Rangers are on the verge of their first postseason berth since 1999, back when Young was a Toronto Blue Jays farmhand.
And in less than three weeks, the third baseman will emerge from the home dugout at Rangers Ballpark as the starting lineups are announced. The crowd will give him a warm salute, 10 seasons in the making.
You won't need HD to see the emotion on his face.
“There will probably be some chills,” he said over the phone Sunday. “It's something I've wanted for a long time. My teammates and our fans have waited for a while now. It's going to be a great atmosphere.”
“But I'm trying not to get too far ahead of myself.”
Of course. To lose perspective at a time like this would run contrary to everything we know about Michael Young.
I remember a spring interview with C.J. Wilson, during which the Rangers lefty marveled at the consistency of Young's tee work and weight training during the season. Night, day, home, road — it didn't matter. Young's focus never wavered, not even in the August humidity, leading Dr. Wilson to diagnose him with “the exact opposite of A.D.D.”
But baseball players — particularly those who have signed $80 million contracts — are supposed to work hard. What stands out about Young is the dignity and excellence with which he does his job.
Example No. 1: The AL was down to its last out in the 2006 All-Star Game when Young stepped in against a still-in-his-prime Trevor Hoffman. He calmly stroked a two-run triple — on an 0-2 count — and put the AL ahead to stay. Young took MVP honors. The AL's unbeaten streak survived another three years.
Example No. 2: Before last season, the Rangers decided to install Elvis Andrus at shortstop and shift Young from short to third. Initially, Young requested a trade. It never came. So, he reported to spring training, learned a new position, helped Andrus adjust to the big leagues and made another All-Star team while batting .322.
Example No. 3: The Rangers were at the center of a spring training media blitz this year after news broke that manager Ron Washington had tested positive for cocaine in 2009. Young publicly supported Washington during the uncertain aftermath. On Sunday, he said Washington deserves to be named AL Manager of the Year.
Yes, in every clubhouse across the big leagues you can find someone who's happy for Michael Young.
“One of the best hitters in the game,” said Phillies infielder Mike Sweeney, who ranks right behind Winn and Young on The Wait List and should see his own drought end this year. “If he played in New York or Boston, his name would be as popular as Derek Jeter, David Wright and David Ortiz. He's played three positions and been great at all of them.
“The position, though, that has eluded both of us to this point is the playoffs. I pray this is our year.”
For a time, it appeared Young would get his bid last year. The Rangers were within range of the AL wild card on Sept. 1, when he sustained a severe hamstring injury while sprinting to first on a routine grounder. He barely played over the rest of the season. Not coincidentally, the Rangers faded.
One year later, Young's in the lineup with the champagne on order. An eyeball estimate says the Rangers will clinch this weekend at second-place Oakland — not in Anaheim, close to Young's hometown; not in Arlington, before an adoring home crowd.
But after a wait of nearly 1,500 games, do you expect that to bother him?
“You know what? I'd clinch on a street corner,” he said. “Home, road, I'm not picky. I just want it to happen as soon as possible so we can go into the playoffs with a full head of steam.”
Speaking of that, Young admits his regular season was just “OK,” because of what he described as “a couple bouts of inconsistency.” He missed some time last month because of a stiff neck. He batted .301 in the first half, but just .267 since the break.
Soon, none of that will matter.
“My season’s in front of me,” he said.
A relatively small number of ballplayers can utter those words in late September.
At long last, Michael Young is one of them.