Thursday was a fantastic day of baseball in the MLB playoffs, with three great games, one epic performance and two teams moving into the League Championship Series. Let’s look back on a day that saw Detroit & San Francisco advance, Justin Verlander dominate and baseball in the Beltway find a way to live for Friday.
San Francisco 6 Cincinnati 4: The big blow was Buster Posey’s grand slam with two outs in the fifth turning a 2-0 lead into a 6-zip cushion that would be enough to hold off the Reds. I’ve got to fault Dusty Baker here for not firing all the bullets in his holster.
The Cincy manager didn’t have the best starting pitcher—Mat Latos is good, but no one would pick him over Frisco starter Matt Cain. What Baker did have was the possibility of Bronson Arroyo doing some short relief on three days’ rest. Latos was clearly struggling the entire inning—the Giants had also scored their first two runs in the fifth and obviously had time to load the bases. Arroyo should have been kept an alert to be ready, and gotten into the game.
Cincinnati then made a huge mistake in the sixth, having gotten two runs back and having first and second with no one out. On a full count the runners went, Ryan Hanigan was punched out on a full-count pitch that was replays showed was a bit off the plate and Jay Bruce was gunned at third.
In this case, I’m not tough on the manager—it was a risky move to send the runners, but Hanigan handles the bat well and could be reasonably counted on to put the ball in play. He’s got to swing at the pitch—I know if we used instant replay on balls and strikes he’d have been given a walk, but the pitch barely missed and Hanigan has to swing at it.
To their credit, the Reds still didn’t go quietly. They got the tying run to the plate in the seventh and eighth, and the winning run up in the ninth in the person of Jay Bruce and Scott Rolen. Bruce, in particular, had a tremendous at-bat against Sergio Romo, fouling off pitch after pitching before finally flying out.
The Reds are going to be remembered for losing three in a row at home, but they need to be cut a little slack for having to go without their ace in Johnny Cueto. I also feel the need to clarify a stat shown by TBS which says they are the first National League team to lose a 2-0 lead in the Division Series. That’s since 1995, when this playoff format was permanently instituted.
But in 1981 it was temporarily put in place during a strike year, when baseball salvaged the playoffs by having the teams who led their divisions on the strike date of June 12 play the teams who won the “pennant race” that was re-set to the beginning in August when the strike ended. In that year’s ad hoc Division Series the Los Angeles Dodgers won the old NL West over the Houston by taking the final three. Although even in that case, the Dodgers rallied at home not on the road.
So that brings us to San Francisco. The fact we cut the Reds some slack shouldn’t diminish the salute to the Giants, who kept it and swung the bats well in the final two games of the series to complete what’s still a historic comeback—three in a row on the road. Now it’s on the NLCS.
Detroit 6 Oakland 0: It’s on the ALCS for Detroit behind Justin Verlander, who was unhittable all night long in Oakland, pitching a complete-game four-hitter. In this series preview, I wrote that Verlander needed to take the next step as a pitcher—to move from one of baseball’s best, to the status of unique athlete whose greatness transcends his own sport. I’d say two wins, a 0.56 ERA in the starts, and a complete-game gem with all the money on the table qualifies as just that.
Austin Jackson gave him the support he needed with an RBI double in the third and later scoring on a passed ball. Jackson also drove in a run in a seventh inning where Detroit broke open a 2-0 game by scoring four times.
This is two straight years for Detroit in the ALCS and two straight times they’ve won a fifth game on the road to get there. They’re not without flaws—the bullpen in particular, but we know the pressure of the moment doesn’t get to them.
Baltimore 2 NY Yanks 1 (13): This has to be the worst good game I’ve ever seen. The quality of the at-bats on both sides was absolutely terrible. TBS analyst John Smoltz regularly noted that hitters weren’t even making pitchers work, chasing breaking pitches in the dirt and getting over-anxious.
Even Derek Jeter, normally impervious to October pressure swung at a pitch about two feet into the batters’ box on the first-base side. In fairness to Jeter he came back and bounced a single through the middle the same at-bat and is one of the few hitters having a credible series overall, but that the Captain is chasing pitches like this seemed to underscore the poor hitting we’re seeing here.
Nate McLouth was a key hero for Baltimore, hitting a home run in the fourth and making a running catch later in the game that resulted in doubling off Russell Martin from first base—as the catcher added a baserunning blunder to the poor hitting.
Each team missed huge opportunities. The Orioles had two on with nobody out twice in the first three innings and failed to score. The Yankees were poised to clinch when they had two on and no outs in the eighth. New York starter Phil Hughes pitched his way out of trouble early, while Baltimore manager Buck Showalter mixed and matched relievers to survive the eighth.
Finally it was J.J. Hardy who delivered. He followed up a double by Manny Machado with one of his own to drive in the game-winning run in the 13th.
I know I’m not the most sympathetic observer when it comes to Yankee fans, but I was stunned at how quiet the place was throughout the extra innings. It almost annoyed me because I couldn’t even work up my usual animosity for the Pinstripe-backers. It seemed like a corporate crowd or one that you’d find on the West Coast, that only cheers in obvious situations.
The reaction stood in sharp contrast to what happened in Oakland when the crowd was screaming and trying to will its team to victory in a 6-0 hole against the best pitcher in baseball!!! The New York fans couldn’t do the same in a tie game in extra innings?
Washington 2 St. Louis 1: A walk-off home run by Jayson Werth in the ninth inning sent this series to Game 5. I was in and out of this game throughout, so I’m not sure if the at-bat quality was as bad as it would be later that night about four hours north in the Bronx. Whether it was the pitching or the hitting, each team only had three hits. The Nats made theirs count, with Adam LaRoche also homering and the bullpen providing three perfect innings after Ross Detwiler ably matched Kyle Lohse to get the game to the spot where the Nats would have the edge.
GAME 5 FRIDAY
TBS carries the final two games of the greatest Division Series round ever—the first time all four series have gone five games and it seems like most individual games are marked by constant plot twists and high tension. The action starts at 5 PM ET with Baltimore-New York and then rolls into St. Louis-Washington.
The Yankees and the Nationals have the lefty aces on hand with C.C. Sabathia and Gio Gonzalez and have to be considered the favorites.
But if the Orioles can get the game into the bullpen, the advantage shifts their way—and we’ve seen in recent years that Yankee Stadium has not been a magic elixir for the home team in big postseason situations (a Game 5 loss lost year and decisive losses in 2003, 2004 and 2007).
As for St. Louis, they send Adam Wainwright to the mound, but are still at a starting pitching disadvantage and still are weaker in the bullpen. What the Cardinals have going for them is a demonstrated ability to hit on the road in big postseason situations.
I’ve successfully picked Detroit and San Francisco to advance. I took Baltimore and St. Louis at the start of each series, so there’s no reason to change course now.