Edinson Volquez had the high point of his career last night, coming through with six shutout innings against the game’s most potent lineup. Volquez’s work kept Kansas City in command throughout and they finished off a 5-0 win over Toronto to open the American League Championship Series.
The only time the Blue Jays threatened was the sixth. Volquez nearly thought himself into trouble, getting away from the fastball and trying to get cute with off-speed stuff. After two walks to open the inning and Edwin Encarcion and Troy Tulowitzki looming, Volquez received a visit from the pitching coach to get him back on track. Properly re-focused, Volquez returned to the fastball and squelched the rally.
Toronto starter Marco Estrada wasn’t awful, pitching into the sixth inning and leaving with the score 3-0. But the Royal lineup had him back on his heels throughout the night. Kansas City consistently made solid contact, underscored by three laser doubles and a home run from Salvador Perez.
All in all, it added up to a pretty easy evening for the Royals. Once they got the lead, there was never any sense that they would lose.
David Price’s postseason problems have become well-documented in the past week, namely his 0-6 record as a starter. In the last few days, both Clayton Kershaw and Johnny Cueto have answered questions about their own playoff records with lockdown performances in elimination games. Toronto’s situation isn’t that grave—they’ve still got Games 3 thru 5 at home—but it would behoove them for Price to get out of his October funk this afternoon.
Even though the Blue Jays return home after today, I’m sure they don’t want to face Cueto down 0-2 on Monday night. When it comes to today, if nothing else, Toronto’s bats can awaken against Yordano Ventura who’s been spotty in the playoffs (and the regular season for that matter).
The NLCS gets rolling in prime-time, with Cubs-Mets from Citi Field, Jon Lester against Matt Harvey. This is all in addition to a great day of college football highlighted by Michigan State-Michigan, including USC-Notre Dame and Penn State-Ohio State and extending to a big day in the SEC with Alabama-Texas A&M and LSU-Florida. Oh, and the flag football team of nine-year olds that I help coach will go for our fourth straight win. That’s the most important one of all. Octoberfest rolls on, in this great month for sports.
The Toronto Blue Jays and Kansas City Royals each took home Game 5 wins in the Division Series yesterday. The Blue Jays used a wild seventh inning to survive the Texas Rangers 6-3, while the Royals overcame an early 2-0 deficit to beat the Houston Astros 7-2. Thus, the two favorites, Toronto and Kansas City, have advanced to the American League Championship Series. Here’s a look back on how each team survived its first-round opponent and a look ahead to the ALCS…
ROYALS RALLY PAST THE ASTROS
They were in a 2-1 series deficit, a 5-2 deficit with six outs left in Game 4 and then an early 2-0 deficit last night. In shades of 1985, when the only Kansas City team to win the World Series won six elimination games, these Royals also rallied.
The bullpen is the staple of this Kansas City team and it was again an edge in this series. With both pitching staffs melting down at the end of Game 4—a game that was 3-2 going into the seventh ended at 9-6, the Royal stopper Wade Davis came in and put a tourniquet on the bleeding. Davis got six outs, while counterpart Luke Gregorson couldn’t do the same for the Astros. It’s a couple innings of one game, but that’s the difference at this time of year.
Johnny Cueto, after a shaky two months since his acquisition at the trade deadline and then giving up four runs in the first three innings of a must-win Game 2, completely turned it around and justified KC picking him up. Cueto shut down Houston in the middle innings of Game 2 to let his team rally and then threw an October masterpiece last night. He went eight innings and gave up a lone two-run home run in a dominant outing.
Kendry Morales has given this Royal team some pure power that they didn’t have a year ago and his three-run blast in the eighth inning last night broke open a 4-2 game and sealed the deal. Morales also homered twice in a losing cause in Game 1.
All of these players—Davis, Cueto and Morales, were instrumental in the series victory. But if they gave out Division Series MVPs (and they should), my vote would go to second baseman Ben Zobrist. He hit safely in the first four games and in Game 5 delivered a key RBI sac fly that made the score 4-2 and gave Cueto some room to breathe. He made a sparkling defensive play in the late innings when the game was still tight. Zobrist drove in the lead run in the seventh inning of Game 2. For the series, he went 6-for-18 and drew a couple walks. That’s an MVP performance to me.
BLUE JAYS SWEEP PAST THE RANGERS
After Toronto dropped the first two games at home, including a 14-inning heartbreaker in Game 2 when they coughed up a lead in the eighth inning, this series looked over. The Blue Jay bats awoke in Texas with two straight easy wins and they finally finished it off with yesterday’s four-run seventh-inning that was punctuated by Jose Bautista’s tiebreaking three-run blast. It was Bautista’s second home run of the series, along with two doubles and he slugged .636 in the five games.
Prior to the series, TheSportsNotebook said to keep an eye on Ben Revere, that the leftfielder was the kind of pest hitter that could sneak underneath the star-laden Toronto lineup and cause problems. Revere went 7-for-23 in this series. Kevin Pillar was another pest. Known for his defensive brilliance, Kevin Pillar hit .333.
And was anyone a bigger hero than Edwin Encarcion? Not for the .333 average and game-tying home run yesterday, as nice as that was. But for his pleading for the Toronto mob to settle down and quit throwing beer bottles on the field, as the TV cameras showed mothers taking their children to run for cover.
Unlike Houston, which put up a good effort and simply got their hearts broken, Texas will have a lot of coulda shoulda wouldas to look back at and for reasons going well beyond the blown 2-0 series lead. Ranger manager Jeff Bannister didn’t use closer Shawn Tolleson in key spots, including yesterday when Bautista hit the home run that an Eskimo may end up catching.
Tolleson was brilliant this year for Texas, closing 35/37 chances. He didn’t pitch in the most important moments of this series. Presumably Bannister felt that finesse pitchers had a better chance against Toronto. I understand the thought process and won’t crush Bannister for it. But I do think the manager out-thought himself. Give your best guy a shot.
And then there’s Elvis Andrus, responsible for two of the errors in the Texas defensive meltdown of the seventh inning, the worst I can recall seeing in a postseason baseball game. The Rangers effectively gave the Blue Jays seven outs in the seventh inning. I’m not an analytics guy, but I’m going to guess your odds of winning go down drastically when that happens.
On this 30th anniversary of the Royals’ 1985 championship, it’s appropriate that we have a rematch of the 1985 ALCS. Toronto was the best team in the American League that year. This season, Kansas City has the best record, with 95 wins to Toronto’s 93. But the Blue Jays are the betting favorite, pegged as a (-155) favorite to bring home this series.
I’m inclined to agree, but it’s not because of Toronto’s offense. As explosive as the Blue Jay attack is, the Royals can match them, or at least come reasonably close to it. I like Toronto because I think the pitching depth is more reliable.
In a series where neither team has its rotation lined up, I like Toronto’s Game 1 starter Marco Estrada over Edinson Volquez. I’ll take arms like R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle over Jeremy Guthrie every day of the week and twice on Sundays. David Price has his postseason issues, but so does KC’s Yordano Ventura, and those two match up in Game 2.
Furthermore, while the Blue Jay bullpen isn’t as renowned as the Royals’ relief corps, Roberto Osuna is a good young closer and manager John Gibbons has depth to work with. An area that Kansas City has won three postseason series over the last two years doesn’t offer anything more than a marginal advantage.
The Royals do have a path to victory and it’s called the Johnny Brent Cueto Trail. Cueto would be lined up to pitch Game 3 and would presumably come back for a Game 7, which would be at home. Homefield advantage, while not as important as in the NFL and certainly not the NBA, is also not as incidental as it is in the NHL. In baseball, the homefield advantage tends to show up on the back end. Which means that if the Royals can get the ball to Cueto in Game 7 in KC, they have the advantage.
But I don’t think they’ll get that far. Johnny will win his start in Game 3, but Toronto takes the series in six games.
Game 1 is Friday at 7 PM ET, with Fox having the coverage.
The Boston Red Sox win two hard-fought games in Detroit, while the Tigers grab one in easier fashion, as the American League Championship Series played out its three middle games in Motown. TheSportsNotebook’s MLB coverage looks back on the middle trio of the ALCS and ahead to the weekend’s conclusion in Fenway Park.
Game 3: After Boston lost Game 1, and the Jon Lester-Anibal Sanchez matchup, the math of this ALCS required the Red Sox strike a counterblow. They got it here, as their own #3 starter, John Lackey, outdueled Justin Verlander.
Both pitchers were completely dominant, with Verlander striking out ten in eight innings and Lackey K’ing eight in 6.2 IP. It was like watching a hockey game where the goalies were locked in. Mike Napoli delivered the baseball equivalent of the long slapshot, when he took Verlander deep in the seventh for the only run in Boston’s 1-0 win.
Game 4: The story of Detroit’s 7-3 win was the lineup shuffling of Tiger manager Jim Leyland. He dropped struggling leadoff man Austin Jackson to eighth, hit Tori Hunter leadoff and had Miguel Cabrera in the two-hole. When Detroit scored five runs in the second and was never seriously threatened, the manager won some rightful plaudits.
But if you go a little deeper, the bigger cause of this game was the complete lack of control by Boston starter Jake Peavy. He walked Jackson on four pitches in the second, a part of walking the bases loaded. Peavy got a bad break–with the score 1-0 and runners on first and third, Dustin Pedroia flubbed a room service double play grounder, only got one out and allowed the second run to come in through the backdoor.
But how much does that excuse Peavy immediately allowing two more hits and letting the score balloon to 5-zip? In an LCS dominated by pitching in both leagues, Peavy is the only starter to be completely lit up. Peavy gave up two more runs in the fourth, an inning he did not record an out. The revamped Detroit lineup did not score in six innings against non-Peavy pitchers .
Jackson still went 2-for-2 with two walks and got two more hits in Game 5, so it’s eminently reasonable to credit the reduced pressure on him as triggering the change. That alone makes Leyland’s move a smart managerial gambit. I simply suggest we keep it in perspective and that its effects might not be as far-reaching as the media reaction would imply.
Game 5: Sanchez’s Game 1 magic was gone. Napoli hit what might be the longest home run in Detroit since Reggie Jackson blasted one into the lights at old Tiger Stadium in the 1971 All-Star Game and the Red Sox chipped away for an early 4-0 lead. Lester pitched well, but he too, was not as dominant in Game 1, though he got key outs and kept the ball in the park.
Boston manager John Farrell gets some kudos for managing this pivotal game with the urgency it deserved, especially with a travel day coming up. He pulled Lester with two outs in the sixth at 98 pitches, when you normally might have tried to squeeze a few more outs from the nominal staff ace. But Farrell essentially moved everything up an inning, brought closer Koji Uehara on for five outs and watched his closer nail down a 4-3 win.
SHIPPING UP TO BOSTON
The Red Sox now go home for Game 6 on Saturday and a potential Game 7 on Sunday night. On the surface, they would seem in firm command. But here again, we come to a question of whether you’d rather have homefield or a pitching advantage.
Max Scherzer is lined up to pitch Game 6 for Detroit, and Verlander is set for Sunday night. Boston has already won each game these two pitchers have started (through no fault of Scherzer or Verlander), and it’s asking a lot to go 3-1 (or 3-0) in games started by aces the caliber of these. But that’s what the Sox have to do.
Now flip that around, and note that Detroit has already split two games in Boston. The path to the pennant is going to require them to go 3-1 in games played at Fenway Park, a scenario no Tiger fan would have welcomed at the start of the series.
What it makes is for a potentially dramatic weekend, both here in Boston and in St. Louis where the National League Championship Series resumes tonight. The Red Sox and Cardinals are at home with chances to clinch in Game 6. The Tigers and Dodgers have the presumptive Cy Young Award winners lined up to pitch Game 6, and Detroit has the consensus best pitcher in the American League for Sunday.
The best-of-seven format for LCS play was instituted in 1985, and since then we’ve only seen four occasions of a team winning Games 6 & 7 on the road, twice in the each league. The trivia answers are the 1985 Kansas City Royals and 2004 Boston Red Sox in the AL, with the 1991 Atlanta Braves and 2003 Florida Marlins in the NL. But every year has its own unique features, and with the way the pitching shapes up, Los Angeles, and certainly Detroit, should not feel bound by the burdens of history.
TV scheduling for the ALCS is not final. The Cards-Dodgers go tonight in Game 6 at 8 PM ET on TBS. If the NL goes seven games, that will get the same time slot for prime-time on Saturday and the Red Sox-Tigers will go at 4:30 PM ET on Fox. If St. Louis clinches on Friday, then Fox’s American League coverage on Saturday moves into prime-time. A potential ALCS Game 7 is on Sunday at 8 PM ET on Fox.
The League Championship Series action in the MLB playoffs has been outstanding as we go into Wednesday’s games, with St. Louis now having three shots at clinching the pennant in the National League and Boston halfway home with a 2-1 lead in the American League.
But all seven games played in the LCS round have been competitive and entertaining, five have been decided by one run, one went to extra innings and one was turned around by the Shot Heard ‘Round Boston–David Ortiz’s grand slam that tied Game 2 against Detroit in the eighth inning.
It’s that home run and its potential place in history that we’re going to take up here, as we let both series continue through their middle sequence of games, the three played in both Los Angeles and Detroit.
The question TheSportsNotebook poses and seeks to answer is this–where, in the tapestry of American League Championship Series history, does the grand slam of Ortiz rank in the pantheon of big home runs?
To keep the focus narrow, we’re focusing only on games in the League Championship Series, and specifically in the American League. In time, we can broaden it to the NL, but for the sake of space, clarity and narrowing things down, we’re going to make a run through ALCS lore and first look at the biggest home runs hit, and then speculate where the Papi Bomb might fit in. The Decisive Walkoffs: On two occasions, the ALCS has reached a decisive game and been decided by a walkoff jack, both times in Yankee Stadium. The first game in the 1976 American League Championship Series, when it was still best-of-five. New York first baseman Chris Chambliss hit one over the right-center fence to break a 6-6 tie. It’s worth nothing that Chambliss overshadowed George Brett–the Royal third baseman had unloaded a three-run bomb in the eighth to tie the game.
Then in 2003 came Aaron Boone’s 11th-inning Game 7 blast off Tim Wakefield and the Yankees broke the Red Sox’s hearts again. Boston manager Grady Little would lose his job over leaving staff ace Pedro Martinez in the game with a 5-2 lead in the eighth and Pedro clearly tired. But in fairness to Little, the Sox did not have a good bullpen in ’03. A more valid question is why a knuckleballer like Wakefield, who is only one floater away from a season-ending solo shot, was in the game prior to the entire pen being emptied in extra innings. Sealing The Pennant: There were three more shots that either clinched a pennant in walkoff fashion or came close to doing so. Brett finally got his revenge in Yankee Stadium, when he hit a massive three-run blast off Goose Gossage into the third deck in 1980. The home run put the Royals up 4-2 and all but clinched a three-game sweep.
Magglio Ordonez put the finishing touches on Detroit’s four-game sweep of the Oakland A’s in 2006 with a three-run shot of his own that broke a tie game in extra innings. And Tito Landrum, of the 1983 Baltimore Orioles, broke a scoreless tie in Game 4 against the Chicago White Sox with a three-run homer in the top of the 10th. Had Baltimore lost and been forced into a Game 5 on the South Side, the Cy Young winner, in Lamar Hoyt, would have opposed them.
There was a fourth home run that meets the framework for this section, but we’re going to mention it in conjunction with another blast below. Turning The Tide: These four home runs didn’t come in decisive games, but all had a decisive effect on momentum, and ultimately led the way to a pennant.
*In 1986, the Boston Red Sox were down to their last out, trailing 5-4 in Anaheim with a man aboard in the ninth inning of Game 5. Dave Henderson hit one out and gave Boston the lead. The Angels were able to tie the game, but the Red Sox won in extra frames, went back home and routed the Angels twice more to win the AL flag.
*The 1978 ALCS was the third straight between the Yankees and Royals, teams that would ultimately play four times in five years, the most oft-recurring matchup in ALCS history. The series was tied 1-1 and the Royals led Game 3 by a 5-4 count in the eighth, thanks to three home runs from Brett. Thurman Munson, the Yankee captain, came up with a man on and hit a 460-foot bomb into left-center at the old Yankee Stadium, a gap so deep that at the time it was called “Death Valley.” The Yanks closed out the win and a third straight pennant one game later.
*The 1992 Toronto Blue Jays led the Oakland A’s 2-1 in games, but the recent history of each franchise in LCS play was quite the opposite and it favored Oakland. They led 6-1 in Game 4 and had staff ace and big-game master Dave Stewart waiting in Game 5. The Blue Jays scored three times in the eighth to close the gap, but closer Dennis Eckersley had still been the AL MVP in 1992. Roberto Alomar hit what was, at the time, the biggest home run in Toronto history, taking Eckersley deep to tie a game the Jays would win in extra innings.
Alomar’s status as having hit the biggest home run in Toronto history lasted about a week and a half, as they won the 1992 World Series when Joe Carter hit a walkoff to clinch Game 6.
*The 1997 Cleveland Indianswere underdogs to the Baltimore Orioles, had lost the first game and trailed Game 2 by three runs in the eighth. Centerfielder Marquis Grissom then stunned everyone with a three-run shot that tied the game. Cleveland won in extra innings and won two of the next three. When the series came back to Baltimore, Tony Fernandez would be a hero, breaking a scoreless tie with a 10th-inning home run that won the pennant. Honorable Mention: Four home runs deserve at least a passing mention. Alfonso Soriano’s two-run shot to win Game 4 of the2001 American League Championship Series was close to being the dagger by which the Yankees ended the dream season of the 116-win Seattle Mariners.
Also in Yankee Stadium, Alex Rodriguez’s game-tying blast in Game 2 of the 2009 ALCS came in the 11th inning against the Angels and set up the Pinstripes for a commanding 2-0 series lead. Noteworthy is that no one in the Yankee front office wanted to void A-Rod’s contract for PED use even though he was an admitted user by that time.
In 2012, Raul Ibanez hit a stunning two-run ninth inning shot to tie the series opener against Detroit. The Yanks would lose that game and be swept, but this was the third game-tying or game-winning shot by Ibanez in the postseason, all in the ninth or in extra frames.
Finally we come to Ortiz himself, who hit the two-run shot that won Game 4 of the 2004 American League Championship Series and started Boston’s epic comeback against the Yankees.
Since we’ve come full circle to Big Papi, we have to ask where his blast fits. The ultimate answer will be determined by whether this leads to a pennant.
With Boston winning Game 2, and then taking Game 3, the momentum is there for Ortiz’s grand slam to fit with Grissom’s 1997 heroics for Cleveland–a true turn-of-the-tide moment early in a series that everyone looks back on.
Should Detroit rally and take the pennant, we’d have to rank Ortiz’s blast as similar in tone to Ibanez of 2012–clutch to be sure, but not ultimately decisive. Ortiz would deserve to rank ahead of Ibanez in either case, because the 2013 Red Sox at least won the game the heroics were performed in and tacked on another win, moving the fan base from complete despair to a reasonable hope of reaching the World Series.
Miguel Cabrera came to the plate in the fourth inning with one on and one out, as he faced C.C. Sabathia in a showdown of the stars in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series. It was already looking like Detroit’s day—though their lead was only 2-0, the Tigers had five this and two walks, while the Yanks’ normally reliable Mark Teixeira had committed an error. Not to mention the Yanks had gone 12-up, 12-down and that 2-zip lead looked as solid as it would in hockey.
But when Cabrera won the battle of the stars by hitting a monster home run into left field, it was all over but the shouting. A series that had been at least closely contested in each of the first three games, turned into a rout as Detroit win 8-1 and completed a four-game sweep for the American League pennant.
Delmon Young was one of seven Tigers to have a multiple-hit game and it wrapped up ALCS MVP honors for the designated hitter. With the series being dominated mostly by starting pitching and no starter getting more than one outing because of the sweep, there weren’t a ton of great candidates for the award, but Young was a logical pick. He’d also hit a key home run in Yankee Stadium, had some big RBI base hits and only reliever Phil Coke came anywhere close to impacting the series as much.
As far as yesterday’s game per se goes, there’s really not a lot to say since it was complete domination by Detroit. It reminded me of the clinching game in last June’s NBA Finals. You might recall in that series the Miami Heat led 3-1 in games, but all four had been close, compelling games. But in the finale the roof fell in for the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Heat won going away for the home fans.
What’s perhaps more surprising is that the Thunder were a young team and the Yankees are a veteran one, presumably less immune to the complete collapse. And the nature of baseball, with its emphasis on the starting pitcher, should have said that a Sabathia matchup with Max Scherzer should be a win for the Yanks—at the very least a good game. But the big fella didn’t have it, Scherzer tossed five perfect innings before coming out in the sixth, Jhonny Peralta and Austin Jackson tacked on home runs after Cabrera’s big blast and it’s time for Detroit to celebrate.
Because it’s time for Detroit to celebrate, I’m not going to participate in the speculation about what happens in New York this offseason. Yes, it’s an interesting story and important in the bigger picture of baseball in 2013. No, it’s not nearly as important as one team clinching a pennant and getting a shot at its first World Series title since 1984.
Yesterday was about the Tigers continuing their late-season push into the team a lot of people thought they were in March. Congrats to Jim Leyland and his staff, and to Justin Verlander, whose three dominating starts in the postseason over Oakland and New York are lifting him to a new level of greatness.
The late afternoon in Detroit gave way to prime-time in St. Louis yesterday in the MLB playoffs, and the Cardinals moved one win closer to creating a rematch of the 2006 World Series. St. Louis got a great performance from Adam Wainwright, while their own bats chipped away at San Francisco starter Tim Lincecum, then opened it up against the Giant bullpen en route to an 8-3 win.
You can’t blame the leadoff hitters for San Francisco. Angel Pagan and Marco Scutaro had two hits apiece in the table-setting spots, but the middle of the order came up short. Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval and Hector Sanchez went 1-for-12 and the one hit was Sandoval’s two-run homer in the ninth inning of a game long decided.
Sanchez was the starter behind the plate last night, as Posey moved to first base and the switch cost San Francisco a run. Pagan, who played even better defensively than he did at the plate, had made started a relay that appeared to have Matt Carpenter gunned at the plate by a decent margin. But Sanchez did not make the play, the Cardinals took a 3-1 lead and the rout was slowly on.
One San Francisco player that deserves some kudos is Hunter Pence. TheSportsNotebook was quite hard on him yesterday for his failure in a couple key at-bats in Game 3. Pence apparently shared the view, telling the media he was a goat and he came out and hit an early home run.
I felt a little guilty over my panning of Pence yesterday, since I wonder if I’d have had the guts to say the same things to his face (answer: probably not). And hearing the player call himself out made me respect him for the effort, even if we can’t ignore the struggles in performance. It was good to see him succeed yesterday.
But no one succeeded like the Cardinals and Wainwright, who went seven strong innings and gave up just one run, exorcising the memory of his poor start in the decisive game of the Division Series against Washington.
Both teams send questionable starters to the mound tonight, with Barry Zito getting the ball for San Francisco, while Lance Lynn goes for St. Louis. The Cards may be up 3-1 in games, but all it takes is one win to push the series back west. San Francisco then has Ryan Vogelsong, who’s been brilliant in two postseason starts and ace Matt Cain would get the ball for a Game 7.
For St. Louis tonight, the question is how much urgency will Cardinal manager Mike Matheny show if Lynn struggles early, like he did in the series opener? With a travel day to reset the bullpen, the guess here is that Matheny doesn’t hesitate to treat it like a Game 7 .
The question for San Francisco is more intangible—we saw how the prospect of getting a series back home did nothing to motivate New York. Will the Giants feel any differently? I’m not saying that a loss means they didn’t try, but given the lack of soap opera drama around this team, the guess here is they at least come out and give tonight everything they’ve got. Right now though, I don’t know that the effort alone is going to be enough. St. Loo just seems to be feeling it.
Before we get into a recap of Detroit’s Game 3 win in the American League Championship Series last night over New York, let’s be clear on one thing—the Yankees are not dead. Yes, I know they’re in a 3-0 hole in games. Yes, I know their offense shows zero signs of life. But just hear me out.
If anyone knows that a 3-0 deficit can be overcome it’s the Yankees, being the only team in the history of baseball to blow such a lead. Throughout the MLB playoffs, I’ve allowed my pedigree as a Red Sox fan to push my luck on historical references that would get the dysfunctional Sox inserted into the October baseball discussion. But in this case, the historical analogy is obvious and important.
It’s not just that the 2004 Red Sox showed winning four in a row can happen. They showed it can happen when some good pitching matchups are coming your way. The ’04 Sox needed one miracle—they needed a slumping Derek Lowe to stop the bleeding in Game 4. They got it, then Mariano Rivera inexplicably walked the leadoff batter in the ninth, then Dave Roberts stole second and the rest was history. After that Boston trotted out Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling the next two games, and before you knew it was a seventh game in which all the pressure was on the Yankees.
Consider what New York has ahead. C.C. Sabathia gets the ball tonight and the big fella has been every bit as dominant as Justin Verlander has been this October. Even if you think the 2012 Yankees are frauds, as ESPN New York’s Ian O’Connor wrote this morning, you have to think they should win tonight.
Then tomorrow it’s Andy Pettite facing Doug Fister. The Tiger starter was great in Game 1, but Pettite was extremely good too. Is it really that unthinkable that the Yankees win a postseason game with Andy Pettite on the mound?
If that happens then all bets are off. The series goes back to New York. Even Detroit’s great insurance policy—Verlander on full rest for a Game 7—wouldn’t be the same big edge it appeared at the start of the series. When a series that starts 3-0 gets to Game 7 all the pressure is on the team blowing the lead.
As unbelievable as it sounds, if we’re still playing baseball on Sunday in the ALCS, the Yankees would be playing a home game with the pressure on the visiting team. Who knows what happens then.
Furthermore, the events of last night—the adventure Detroit reliever Phil Coke turned the ninth inning into—show us just how small the margin of error is in this series. Coke gave up two hits, had the tying run at second and ran Raul Ibanez to a full count before finally getting the strikeout to end the game. All of these games are close and the Detroit bullpen still doesn’t inspire confidence.
Finally let’s come to the New York starting pitching. I’m going to ask this—if the Yankees had lost the early games of this series by scores like 5-4, 7-5 and 8-7, would everyone be crying that they’re frauds? I don’t think so. People focus on hitting at the expense of pitching and the fact remains that in every single postseason game this year, New York has gotten a high-quality outing from its starting pitcher. Every single game has been close.
Sure, A-Rod and Swisher are in the tank on the bench. Robinson Cano is an epic slump. But Sabathia, Pettite and Hiroki Kuroda are all locked in and it’s these three who will define whether the Yankees have a chance to win the next three games.
Am I saying New York will do it? No, because anyone who actually predicted such would be doing it for shock value. I’m saying the same thing a friend of mine told me on a Sunday morning in October in 2004 when I was writing off the Red Sox season—if you win tonight, who knows what happens. The ’04 Red Sox didn’t have to worry about the equivalent of a rested Verlander at the end of the comeback trail, but nor did they have a rested Sabathia to start it.
Let’s just keep a cork in the champagne bottles for now. This has nothing to do with buying into Yankee mythology. This is just looking at pitching matchups, the closeness of games and Detroit’s bullpen issues and saying this is a series that could have a momentum shift in it if New York is allowed off the mat and makes it back to the Bronx.
Last night’s game seemed to fly by and Detroit missed a lot of opportunities to put the game away. The biggest came in the sixth when they had the bases loaded and one out, with Miguel Cabrera at the plate. The Triple Crown winner hit the ball hard-a bullet grounder to third. But Eric Chavez, playing in A-Rod’s stead—made a great backhand and started a double-play that kept the score 2-0 and allowed the Yanks to make it interesting in the ninth.
Similar defense was not shown by Curtis Granderson on another Cabrera hit. In this case, a long fly ball tailing to the right-field side of Granderson looked playable. I wish I had seen the play live with the full camera view, because it appeared the centerfielder got an extremely poor break on the ball and it landed for an RBI double. With Granderson looking the worst of the Yankee hitters, he needs to play defense and this hardly helped his cause.
Finally let’s come to Yankee manager Joe Girardi. Why didn’t he bring in A-Rod to pinch-hit for Ibanez in the ninth inning? Say what you will about A-Rod’s slump and Ibanez’ heroics so far in October. That was when Ibanez hit against right-handed pitchers. Here it was the lefty Coke on the mound and all that was needed was a single to tie the game. That Rodriguez didn’t even get the chance to try it suggests either that Girardi has lost his mind or there’s something even more wrong in A-Rod’s relationship to the team than has been visible so far. Take your own guess as to what it might be.
The MLB playoffs return to doubleheader action today. We start in St. Louis at 4 PM ET with a great pitching matchup as Matt Cain meets Kyle Lohse. Then it’s Sabathia trying to save the Yankee season against Tiger lefty Max Scherzer in prime-time.
A key player who struggled in the Division Series and had to be lifted early saw his chances for redemption in the League Championship Series go by the boards, at least for now. I’m not talking about Alex Rodriguez or anyone in the New York Yankee lineup, but San Francisco Giants’ starting pitcher Madison Bumgarner, who turned in his second straight shaky outing of the playoffs in a Game 1 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals that begins our recap of Sunday’s action in the MLB playoffs…
St. Louis 6 San Francisco 4: With the Cards starting Lance Lynn, this needed to be the game the Giants could exploit their starting pitching depth. It didn’t work out that way and not because of anything Lynn did. San Fran’s offense chased the St. Louis starter in the fourth inning, but by that point they’d already dug a 6-0 hole and the four runs scored off Lynn were the last of the night.
David Freese looks ready to make a run at his second straight LCS MVP honor, as he started the scoring with a two-run homer in the second. In the St. Louis fourth, they knocked out Bumgarner with a two-run blast by Carlos Beltran being the big blow. Daniel Descalco also had two hits, including a double that continued what’s been a little postseason power surge for the normally light-hitting second baseman.
San Francisco came back, first scoring one run and having two men aboard when Gregor Blanco tripled, then Brandon Crawford doubled, and suddenly the score was 6-4 with more than half the game to play.
Bullpen length is another area that was supposed to be a Giants’ advantage coming in, but it didn’t work out that way. Not through any fault of their own pen, as Tim Lincecum again gave two quality innings in relief and led an effort that shut down St. Louis the rest of the way. But the Cards’ relievers were equal to the task, with arms like Joe Kelly and Trevor Rosenthal delivering in the middle innings and the closing tandem of Mitchell Boggs and Jason Motte locking down the final six outs.
This series continues tonight with October veteran Chris Carpenter taking on Ryan Vogelsong. It’s not the most ideal of circumstances for the Giants to try and get their first home win of the playoffs, and I wouldn’t count on a sudden turnaround like they had against Cincinnati. Also, the last three games played involving these two teams (last night, plus the Game 5s each had in the Division Series) have seen someone get out to a 6-0 lead. Wonder what the odds are for doing four in a row?
Detroit 3 NY Yanks 0: Anibal Sanchez joined the parade of pitchers who have been shutting down the New York bats this October. The Yankee offense in the postseason is built around two ninth-inning bursts against closers—one against Jim Johnson in the opener of the Baltimore series, the other against Jose Valverde on Saturday night to open the LCS. Other than that, it’s been dead silent and never more than yesterday when Sanchez and reliever Phil Coke combined on a four-hit shutout.
Hiroki Kuroda continues to excellent work of New York’s own starting pitching, which has now been solid in seven straight postseason games and a reminder of what could happen if this offense can find any life at all. But Detroit chipped over a run in the seventh and then New York couldn’t overcome a bad break in the eighth.
With two outs and a man on first, Austin Jackson singled to right. The baserunner, Omar Infante, foolishly took a wide turn around second, dove back and was clearly tagged out by Robinson Cano. I mean tagged out by a lot, with the umpire right in front of the play. But the call was missed and the inning continued, A bloop single by Avisail Garcia scored one run and then Miguel Cabrera got the second of his two hits for the game by lining a base hit to right. It was 3-0 and the game was all but over.
Joe Girardi was ejected after the game and in the press conference absolved the umpire on the call, while also insisting on instant replay. I agree with everything Girardi said, as well as the tone in which he said it. He acknowledged it might not have made a difference in the game, but that “I’d like to take my chances” when it came to dealing with a relief pitcher down 1-0 instead of down 3-0. I’m not quite as understanding in how the call was blown to begin with, but there’s no reason not to give baseball managers the challenge flag in spots like this.
After a day off today, it’s on to Detroit for the next three games of the series starting Tuesday. Are the Yankees dead in the water with Justin Verlander scheduled for Tuesday? Given that I picked Detroit to win the series so long as they got even one win in the Bronx to open things up I’d be inclined to say yes.
But let’s just spin this from a different perspective. New York throws C.C. Sabathia in Game 4, and all they need to do is either upset Verlander on Tuesday or win Game 5 on Thursday and they at least get the series back to the Bronx. While Detroit would still have Verlander for a Game 7, by that point the Yankees would get him in their home park and all the pressure would be on Detroit because of the way the series began. I’m not ready to predict it, but the Tigers might want to hold the champagne for the time being.
The New York Yankees got a good outing from Andy Pettite. The Detroit Tigers got a disastrous showing from Jose Valverde out of the bullpen. That should have added up to a Yankee win, but instead Detroit wins a 6-4 game in 12 innings, Derek Jeter is done for the year and media types in New York are already talking about a Tiger sweep. Let’s start by saying that’s getting a little carried away and review Game 1 of the American League Championship Series last night in the Bronx…
*The Yankee problems with hitting with men on base continue in a big way. Three times in the first six innings, New York loaded the bases and three times they came up empty. Alex Rodriguez was one of the culprits, and he was later pinch-hit for again. Curtis Granderson was a big culprit, striking out when a ball in play would have scored a run. Granderson again failed to deliver with two outs and a man aboard in the eighth.
*Both starting pitchers were sharp. Pettite, as mentioned, was solid working into the seventh and giving up just two runs. Doug Fister was even better for Detroit, also going into the seventh and leaving with a 2-0 lead that turned into a 4-zip cushion.
*It was after the 2009 season that New York traded three players to Detroit to get Granderson. The big piece was Austin Jackson. The Tiger centerfielder had two hits and a fantastic running catch in the eighth. Another piece was lefty reliever Phil Coke who got three key outs after Fister’s departure. Undoubtedly that doesn’t help New York fans appreciate Granderson’s struggles at all.
*Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder didn’t leave their marks all over this game, but they did combine to go 3-for-10 with two walks. For the short term, I’m sure the Yankees will live with that, so long as this duo doesn’t beat them deep. For the long-term, the fact the Detroit stars keep in the flow of the offense increases their chances of doing just that.
*In that same light, Mark Teixeira continues to quietly pepper singles and draw walks in the MLB playoffs. He singled and walked twice last night. Again, New York isn’t paying him $20 million a year to set the table, but as long as he continues to swing the bat well you have to respect that some of these balls might start be driven in the air.
*Now let’s get to Jose Valverde. In the bottom of the ninth Detroit led 4-0 and was in complete control of the game. Valverde promptly gave up a two-run shot to Ichiro Suzuki—who had a four-hit night, and then with two outs the incredible postseason story of Raul Ibanez continued. He hit a game-tying two-run shot that seemed to make an eventual Yankee victory all but certain.
This is more than just the second blown save for Valverde. It’s the second straight catastrophic meltdown, following Game 4 of the Division Series against Oakland. And it’s more than just another clutch home run for Raul Ibanez—between last night and his heroics against Baltimore, Ibanez is the best run of big-game hitting since David Ortiz did it for Boston in 2004.
*But a ninth-inning that seemed destined to be a part of Yankee lore ended up in the worst possible way—yes, New York loses the game as David Phelps fails in his second straight postseason outing (he also lost a 13-inning marathon against Baltimore in Game 4). But Jeter broke his ankle and his done for the year. There’s not a lot to say about the implications other than the obvious—this is really bad for New York. In addition to Jeter’s October reputation there’s also the reality he was one of the few New York hitters actually producing this postseason.
*So is it all set up for a Detroit sweep, as ESPN.com’s Wallace Matthews indicates? New York pitches Hiroki Kuroda in Game 2 late this afternoon and he’s going on short rest. Then it’s Justin Verlander for Detroit in Game 3. And if the Tigers get up 3-0, who knows how the Yankees react, even with C.C. Sabathia on the mound. I think that’s really pushing it.
The biggest reason is Valverde. He’s a complete disaster right now for Detroit and Joaquin Benoit in the eighth inning isn’t much better—Benoit only escaped because of two very loud outs, including Jackson’s defensive masterpiece. The two are so bad that if New York trails by a run after seven innings they should feel like they’re in the lead.
Detroit is certainly in control, having gotten one of the two non-Verlander wins they’ll need. The loss of Jeter can’t be overstated, but for the short-term that might be a motivational lift for other players. Maybe Jeter’s injury will go down in Detroit sports lore the way Magic Johnson’s pulled hamstring set the stage for the Pistons in the 1989 NBA Finals. But for now, the Tigers’ shakiness at the end of games mean taking nothing for granted.
There’s no rest for the weary, as the New York Yankees just completed the Division Series against Baltimore on Friday and the Detroit Tigers got a plane back from Oakland in the wee hours of the same morning. But the pursuit of the pennant begins immediately, as the American League Championship Series starts Saturday night in the Bronx.
TheSportsNotebook previews the ALCS, looking at each team’s ability to get on base, generate power production, along with their starting pitching and bullpen. We’ll also mix in some historical context and see what the smart money in Las Vegas thinks. On Sunday morning we’ll do the same for the National League Championship Series matchup between St. Louis & San Francisco, a series that opens later that night.
ABILITY TO GET ON BASE: This is an area that should be a big New York edge, at least based on regular season numbers. The big caveat is that in the first round of the playoffs, everyone except Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira did nothing. Robinson Cano hit just .091 in the five games against Baltimore. For now, the benefit of the doubt has to given to the 162-game body of work, but if Detroit’s pitching can open the ALCS in a similarly strong way, we have to assume a trend is underway.
Detroit got what they needed in the series win over Oakland, getting contributions from Omar Infante, Jhonny Peralta and Quintin Berry. The Tigers are heavily reliant on the combination of leadoff man Austin Jackson and catcher Alex Avila, along with big guns Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera. None of them really impressed against Oakland, although playing all five games in pitchers’ parks didn’t help anyone.
POWER: New York has the superior season numbers, but the two teams are close enough that we can attribute this to Yankee Stadium being an extreme hitters’ park and Comerica Park in Detroit having a vast outfield. Fielder and Avila, who each bat from the left side, are threats to hit the short porch in right. Cabrera is a threat anytime, and while he only had five hits and a walk in the Oakland series, we should note that two of the hits did go for extra bases and there was never a time when the Triple Crown winner seemed completely out of it.
New York, on the other hand, has a lot of power hitters that look out of it. The Alex Rodriguez story is well-known, with his struggles so thorough that he was pinch-hit for in Game 3 and benched in Game 5. Cano’s struggles were noted above. And the Yankees have to hope that Curtis Granderson’s home run on Friday night is a sign of things to come, because the centerfielder has otherwise been in a slump going back several weeks. Teixeira is hitting, but it’s all singles.
In short, there’s a lot of names and some long resumes in this lineup when it comes to power hitting, but other than Game 3 hero Raul Ibanez—and Cano, who was scorching hot at the end of the regular season—there’s little in the way of recent performance.
STARTING PITCHING: Just as we elevate the Tiger hitters and knock down the Yankee ones because of their home park dimensions, now we have to do the reverse. If New York’s starting pitching—C.C. Sabathia, Andy Pettite, Hiroki Kuroda and Phil Hughes—could turn in shutdown efforts in a series played entirely at hitters’ parks, what will they do in the middle three games at Detroit?
Conversely, will Detroit’s starters be able to translate their strong success of late to the tighter dimensions of the Bronx? The shorter park means pitching to contact is dangerous. Doug Fister and Anibal Sanchez, the Games 1 & 2 starters, need to get their pitches down in the zone or balls that have been long fly outs at forgiving Comerica will be short home runs in the merciless Bronx. And on the flip side, pitch-to-contact hurlers like Pettite and Kuroda will be in great shape at Comerica.
The playoff schedule gave Detroit a huge break. Both Verlander and Sabathia were forced into Game 5 starts in the Division Series, but the Tigers played Thursday and the Yanks on Friday. This in turn means that Verlander can go Games 3 & 7 of the ALCS on full rest. The only game Sabathia can pitch on regular rest would be Game 4. I’d find it hard to believe that Joe Girardi won’t push the big man for one start on short rest and get him in twice, but a fluke of the schedule clearly played in Detroit’s favor.
BULLPEN: Neither team is deep in the pen, but New York is more reliable on the back end, with David Robertson and Rafael Soriano making a better 8th/9th inning tag-team that Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde. The potential of Detroit’s Al Albuquerqe gives them an X-factor that could change the situation. Overall though, we’d have to call this area for the Yankees, though both teams will push the starters as long as they can.
HISTORICAL NOTE: For two of baseball’s historic franchises, the best history is surprisingly recent. The three most significant meetings were all in the last 13 years. We can go back to last season, when Detroit won Game 5 of the Division Series in Yankee Stadium. In 2006, the Tigers also ousted the Yanks in the Division Series round.
Finally, in 1999, the movie For Love Of The Game featured Kevin Costner as a Detroit pitcher who threw a perfect game at New York and denied them the pennant. Cynics will say that didn’t actually happen, but is it really a coincidence that since the movie’s release, Detroit’s beaten New York in the postseason twice? Call it the Costner Curse.
THE VIEW FROM VEGAS: As of now there are no odds posted for this series at BetDSI.com or Scoresandodds.com, the two sources I use for betting information. The ALCS starts at 8 PM ET on Saturday, so it’s safe to assume the numbers will be there by early afternoon. If I had to guess, the Yankees will probably be a narrow favorite—maybe somewhere from (-105) to (-115). Wait, am I now predicting the lines in addition to predicting the games? I need to stop.
THESPORTSNOTEBOOK PICK: If this plays out on the field the way it does on paper, this series is going to be a nail-biter, the kind of which both teams already survived. I think the park effects factor is the most intriguing storyline, since we get to see how Detroit’s hitting and New York’s pitching will function in more favorable environments when they go on the road.
Assuming that’s a wash, it gives an edge to the Yankees, since I’d rather have good pitching than good hitting, and they have the better bullpen. If all things were equal, I’d say New York in six, possibly seven.
But all things aren’t equal. I think this is the October where Justin Verlander pushes himself to a new level of big-game pitching, something he’s already off to a fine start with. He’ll win Game 3 in his home park. And as good as C.C. was against Baltimore, even if those two face off in the Bronx for Game 7, I’m not going against Verlander. That’s why I’m picking Detroit to win this series in seven games.
Let’s just take that in though—if Girardi opts for pitching Sabathia on short rest in Game 3 (intentions are unannounced, but this is the most logical move unless the Yankees win the first two), that would set up a showdown of the aces in Yankee Stadium for a Game 7. Kevin Costner would have to take a back seat, because that would be too good to be true.