What an epic day of baseball Friday was. Four MLB Division Series playoff games in action, three decided by one run and the other in extra innings. Established starting pitchers failed—Clayton Kershaw and Adam Wainwright were awful, Justin Verlander was so-so (though I suppose by the standards of this year alone we shouldn’t have Verlander on this list) and Stephen Strasburg was touched just enough to lose.
The Kansas City Royals and Baltimore Orioles took control of their American League Division Series, while the St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants grabbed openers on the road on the National League side.
Here’s some thoughts on all four games. I’ve broken each game down into two segments—my own personal reflections on each game, which range from the strategic to the more general, then a celebration of the heroes of each game….
NATIONAL LEAGUE: GAME 1 OPENERS
San Francisco 3 Washington 2
I was just happy for Jake Peavy in this one. As a Red Sox fan who subscribes to the Extra Innings Package, I grew to love watching Peavy pitch, with his manic intensity. Last November, I saw him on ESPN’s College Gameday as the guest picker, and he just seems like a good guy on top of it.
Peavy had such tough luck for Boston this season and never complained. He finally started getting some support after being traded to San Francisco, and now he beats Stephen Strasburg on the October stage. Big-Game Jake comes through (actually, he’s never been called that, but I like the ring of it)
The Heroes: Start with Peavy and his 5.2 IP of shutout baseball. And how about little Joe Panik, the second baseman who just peppers away singles. Panik had two hits and plays stellar defense.
St. Louis 10 LA Dodgers 9
I’ve been crusading all year for Cincinnati Reds’ pitcher Johnny Cueto as the best in the National League. Why don’t we just say that yesterday didn’t exactly leave me feeling humbled and ready to genuflect towards the altar of conventional wisdom. Wainwright was terrible from the outset. Kershaw was great for six innings, but his meltdown in the seventh was so thorough, as to defy belief.
I understand that not every pitcher is going to have a great game each time out. I understand that every postseason failure doesn’t make one a choker. I even understand those who feel Kershaw is the best pitcher in baseball. But if you want to argue that he is so indisputably above the pack (i.e., Cueto), is it really unreasonable to suggest Kershaw should avoid giving up eight runs in one inning of a playoff opener?
The Heroes: Matt Carpenter hit a bases-clearing double off Kershaw in the seventh to turn a 6-4 deficit into a 7-6 lead. The Dodgers might still have won, but when the bullpen came in, Matt Holliday ripped a three-run blast, insurance runs of which all were needed.
AMERICAN LEAGUE: GAME 2
Baltimore 7 Detroit 6
Why did Tiger manager Brad Ausmus lift Justin Verlander so quickly? It’s not like Verlander was lights out, having given up three runs in five innings. With a lot of teams, I’d say the quick hook was appropriate management of playoff baseball. But the Tigers are not most teams. Their bullpen failings are now taking national media heat and it was eminently predictable.
What is so hard about the strategic concept of letting your best players, or best strengths win or lose games for you in the postseason? Detroit’s edge in this series is the Verlander/Max Scherzer/David Price troika. I’m not saying Verlander would have held the lead, that eventually grew to 6-3, but he was a better bet than the train wreck that is the Tiger relief corps.
At the very least, let Verlander try and get through six or seven, and then maybe Anibal Sanchez—a natural starter who threw a couple good innings in relief—could finish the game up.
The Heroes: Delmon Young’s bases-clearing double in the eighth with the Orioles down 6-4 is the headliner. But there are three others worth mentioning…
J.J. Hardy, who was on first base for Young’s hit, made it home by the narrowest of margins. If you watch the replay, Hardy did not do what most major leaguers do today and look at the ball. He looked at the third base coach and never slowed up. It’s the reason he was safe. Gee, look at the coach, not the ball. What a novel concept.
Kevin Gausman got 11 big outs for Buck Showalter, preserving the best arms in the bullpen and keeping the game close after the Tigers were threatening to pull away. And the Orioles also need to thank Detroit’s third base coach for foolishly trying to score Miguel Cabrera in the top of the eighth with no one out. The Tigers had added one run and would have almost certainly added another if Miggy just gets held at third.
Kansas City 4 LA Angels 1 (11)
The Los Angeles bats have just gone silent in the face of steady starting pitching from Kansas City and a lights-out bullpen. Most of this game went by with only a handful of threats, and even those mostly constituted a runner getting to second base, and not full-scale pressure on a starting pitcher.
Kansas City’s base-stealing is still on everyone’s mind after their seven-steal display against Oakland in the wild-card game. But before proclaiming the death of Moneyball too quickly, the Royals have reverted to winning in a more sabermetically-approved way in these first two games of the ALDS—with the long ball. Eric Hosmer’s two-run shot broke the 1-1 tie in the 11th, one night after Mike Moustakas hit an extra-inning home run to win.
The Heroes: Hosmer had three hits, in addition to his home run. Shout-outs also go to both starting pitchers, Yordano Ventura and Mike Shoemaker. The Angels’ problem is that when the starting pitchers are a wash, the bullpen arms will decide the game. And that’s a battle KC wins almost every time.