“Whoever heard of the Chicago Cubs losing a game they had to win?” –Frank Chance, Cubs player/manager, 1908
The quote above from Frank Chance would become laughable in time, but in the early 20th century it rang true. Are we about to enter another new phase of Chicago Cubs history where they start taking care of business? They took a big step toward that goal in the early evening at Wrigley yesterday with a 6-4 win over the St. Louis Cardinals to dispatch their most hated rival and advance to the National League Championship Series.
As soon as it was announced that St. Louis was sending John Lackey to the mound, I was sending out a text message to friends in opposition. It was a panic move. Game 4 in most series’ is one that you have to try and win with the bats and the bullpen and this was a perfect example.
You’re putting out Lackey out there in a situation where he’s less than effective—giving up four runs in the second inning on a two-out rally triggered by a base hit from the pitcher and finished by a three-run blast off the bat of the immortal Javier Baez. This against a pitcher in Lackey who was basically unhittable in Game 1.
Furthermore, even if St. Louis had won, the Cardinals would have had no good choices to match up with Jon Lester in a Game 5 on Thursday night. Lester was brilliant himself in Game 1 and Lackey is the only one going right now that would have been likely to match up with him. The Cubs were playing with house money and when Anthony Rizzo broke a 4-4 tie with a home run in the sixth, they finally hit the jackpot at Wrigley.
The lack of a good Game 5 starter behind Lackey is what made the difference between the decision to pitch him on short rest and a similar decision made by the Los Angeles Dodgers to run Clayton Kershaw out on three days’ rest in the later game at Citi Field in New York. If the Dodgers get through Game 4—which of course they did—they can come back with Zack Greinke on full rest in Game 5 which they will.
The Cardinals and Dodgers are built different ways, and while I think Mike Matheny is an excellent manager, he didn’t play it that way yesterday. Perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered anyway—his team’s offensive problems, evident all year as they finished 11th in the NL in runs scored, lingered again yesterday as they could only come up with four runs against a #4 starter in Jason Hammel in a great park to hit.
As for Kershaw, he finally came up big in a clutch situation, giving Los Angeles seven brilliant innings of three-hit baseball. The Dodgers got three runs in the fourth off rookie Steven Matz and other than a brief rally in the eighth, the Mets never really seemed to be in the game, even with the score only 3-1. That’s where it ended.
I’m still not ready to proclaim Kershaw to have the October monkey off his back—that takes some great starts deeper in the playoffs than this round—but this outing in particular was clutch.
Speaking of clutch, we’re now set for three Game 5s over the next two days to determine the other three LCS participants. In order, here’s the agenda…
Wednesday, 4 PM ET: Rangers-Blue Jays (FoxSports1)—The acquisition of Cole Hamels is already a rousing success for Texas, having keyed their surge to the AL West title. The deal gets even better if Hamels saves them from blowing a 2-0 series lead this afternoon north of the border.
Wednesday, 8 PM ET: Astros-Royals (FoxSports1)—The acquisition of Johnny Cueto has been less than a rousing success for the Royals. If Johnny delivers in Game 5 and sends this team to its second straight ALCS, then it was all worth it.
Thursday, 8 PM ET—Mets-Dodgers (TBS)—From a pitching standpoint, it doesn’t get much better than Jacob de Grom against Greinke. Mets fans are hoping this game goes a little better than the last time they played a decisive playoff game in Dodger Stadium—that was Game 7 of the 1988 NLCS and New York starter Ron Darling—ironically in the broadcast booth with TBS for this series—had one of the worst nights of an otherwise stellar career in losing to Orel Hershiser.
TheSportsNotebook will post conclusions on all the Division Series, from the deciding games to choices for series MVPs in the early part of Friday. Later on Friday, previews of each LCS matchup will be up. Between now and then there will be some NFL commentary as well, with a new week of games beginning tomorrow. Check out the entire Octoberfest agenda here at TheSportsNotebook.
The city of Houston has endured its share of baseball heartbreak and they look poised to add another chapter. Yesterday, after back-to-back home runs gave the Astros a seemingly insurmountable 6-2 lead going into the eighth inning against the Kansas City Royals—and a ticket to the American League Championship Series—the Houston bullpen completely fell part in a 9-6 loss. The series now goes to a decisive fifth game in KC on Wednesday.
Houston’s track record of heartbreak isn’t as long or as well-documented as that of the Cubs, the pre-2004 Red Sox or other star-crossed franchises in other sports, but they’ve had had some tough losses…
*In 1980, Houston was on the brink of closing out the Philadelphia Phillies at least two different times and ended up losing consecutive games at home in the greatest League Championship Series ever played.
*In 1986, Houston had a three-run lead on the New York Mets in Game 6 of the NLCS. The Mets had the series lead, but the Astros had Cy Young winner Mike Scott ready for Game 7 at home and Mets players were open afterward in how much they wanted to avoid Scott—who completely dominated them in Games 1 & 4. New York rallied to tie Game 6 and won a 16-inning epic.
*Even the year Houston made its lone World Series, as a National League team in 2005 didn’t come without putting the fan base through the ringer. They were an out away from clinching at home in Game 5 against St. Louis when Albert Pujols hit a massive home run that landed somewhere in Oklahoma. The series shifted back to St. Louis where most of us were expecting the Cardinals to continue the momentum.
Instead, Roy Oswalt took matters into his own hands and shut down the Cardinal bats in a Game 6 clincher. Will Collin McHugh, a 19-game winner this season and winner of Game 1 turn into Oswalt this year? That’s Houston’s last hope to avoid a bitter memory at the end of a terrific season.
Elsewhere on day-long festival of playoff baseball…
*David Price might have picked up the cheapest win in the history of playoff baseball. Toronto blew Derek Holland off the mound and grabbed a 7-1 lead over Texas. With two outs in the fifth and one man, Price came on in relief of R.A. Dickey, pitched three innings and got the win.
What was interesting is that even though Price would have been in line to start Game 5 on normal rest, manager John Gibbons instead opted for 24-year-old Marcus Stroman. Good for Gibbons. Price has a bad postseason history, Stroman has been great down the stretch and was solid in Game 2 until a blown save cost him the in.
As for Texas, they’ve been here before too. In 2010, they faced Tampa Bay, won the first two games on the road and then lost two straight at home. Cliff Lee bailed them out with a Game 5 win on the road. Cole Hamels, this year’s version of Lee, will get the ball late Wednesday afternoon for the finale.
*The Cubs & Mets opened up offensively in front of home crows to take 2-1 series leads over the Cardinals & Dodgers respectively. I won’t say I was expecting the New York onslaught, but this was definitely their opportunity—the one game where Clayton Kershaw or Zack Greinke won’t be on the mound and a big dropoff to #3 starter Brett Anderson.
Curtis Granderson drove in five runs from the leadoff spot, and Travis d’Arnaud and Yoenis Cespedes each homered early, as the Mets spotted the Dodgers a 3-zip lead and then ripped off ten unanswered runs in the second, third and fourth innings. The final was 13-7, with Los Angeles tacking on three useless runs in the ninth against the back of the Met bullpen.
*The Cardinals solved one mystery, that of Jake Arrieta. They hit the Cubs ace hard, chasing him in the sixth after scoring four runs. But they didn’t solve the mystery of what’s happened to Michael Wacha, who pitched poorly down the stretch and got lit up in Wrigley yesterday. Chicago homered three times off Wacha and three more times off the Cardinal bullpen n an 8-6 win.
St. Louis won all year with pitching, but in Games 2 & 3 they’ve been badly let down by otherwise good starters. It’s the Cards, noted for depth, that are having to push starters to the max as they bring back John Lackey on three days’ rest. Chicago gets a home game today and still has a fully rested Jon Lester in reserve for a potential Game 5 on Thursday back in St. Louis.
The American League travels today, while the Game 4s are played in the National League. Here’s the schedule…
4:30 PM ET (TBS): Cardinals-Cubs—Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo hit for the first time in the postseason yesterday. Can they do it again and trigger a big party on the North Side?
8:00 PM ET (TBS): Dodgers-Mets–New York sends untested rookie Steve Matz to the mound against Kershaw. Matz has been solid in six starts in the big leagues, 4-0 with a 2.27 ERA. It’s reminiscent of the Dodgers-Cardinals NLCS in 2013 when Kershaw had to beat an untested Wacha in Game 6 at St. Louis. That night it was Kershaw that came undone while Wacha became a postseason hero. Can Clayton redeem himself tonight in New York?
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….
NATIONALLEAGUE: 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 eightruns 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.
The Los Angeles Dodgers are the first team into the League Championship Series round, the St. Louis Cardinals and Tampa Bay Rays staved off elimination in thrillers, and the Oakland A’sput themselves in control. TheSportsNotebook’s MLB coveragetakes a quick tour of the four games that went down on Monday…
LA Dodgers 4 Atlanta 3: Don Mattingly took a massive risk with his surprise announcement that Clayton Kershaw would pitch last night’s game on three days rest and it was set to blow up in his face, when the Dodgers trailed 3-2 in the eighth inning.
Kershaw pitched very well, allowing just three hits and two runs, but as you would expect from someone making his first start on short rest, he made an early exit after six innings. Atlanta got the lead in the seventh and was in position to go back home for a Game 5 and the Dodgers no longer having a rested Kershaw as an insurance policy.
Then Juan Uribe saved the day. Atlanta’s bullpen has been great all year, but Uribe took Dan Carpenter deep for a two-run blast in the bottom of the eighth and the Dodgers win 4-3. Carl Crawford also hit two solo shots off Freddy Garcia, the veteran Braves starter who turned in an admirable job and had his team in position to win.
I don’t like the decision to use Kershaw. I feel like Los Angeles had a good situation with a home game against Garcia and a rested Kershaw in reserve. Keep in mind, #4 starter Ricky Nolasco is better than Garcia and there’s every reason to think the Dodgers might have won this game anyway, and then Kershaw would have been available on Friday to open the NLCS. If you want to try him on short rest, then do a Games 1/4/7 run.
Of course as it is, Mattingly can throw Zack Greinke in the opener and have Kershaw ready for Game 2. Great talent can make almost any decision look good, but I really think the Los Angeles manager opened the door for Atlanta to win this series and they came close to knocking that door down .
St. Louis 2 Pittsburgh 1: Michael Wacha came within an out of a no-hitter in his last regular season start, and he took another no-no into the eighth inning of this game, before Pedro Alvarez ruined the no-hitter, shutout and nearly the season when he hit a solo home run. Trevor Rosenthal’s relief performance didn’t inspire confidence, but he got Andrew McCutchen with a man aboard in the ninth to close the game.
For Pirate fans, Alvarez’s home run–his third of this Division Series–almost made it a worst-case scenario. It wasn’t enough to win the game and trigger a celebration and it cost them the chance to see just the third postseason no-hitter in baseball history (Don Larsen in 1956 and Roy Halladay in 2010 being the others). Then again, I don’t think anyone in the Steel City was complaining when the ball left the yard.
Tampa Bay 5 Boston 4: This was a great baseball game that ended with Jose Lobaton as an unlikely hero when he hit a two-out solo home run off Boston closer Koji Uehara in the ninth. I also have to say that when a normal nine-inning game takes over four hours to complete, MLB has to do something. Clay Bucholz takes an interminable amount of time between pitches and as one who follows and roots for the Red Sox, I’m tired of it. Pitch the damn ball.
Bucholz didn’t pitch all that well, but was in position to escape it when he had a 3-0 lead and two outs in the fifth with two men on. Then Evan Longoria hit a three-run shot to save the Tampa Bay season. I’m sure Boston manager John Farrell will get some heat for pitching to Longoria with first base open and slumping Wil Myers on deck.
If anyone was first-guessing the manager, they have the right to crow. I just felt like it wasn’t an ideal situation. Slumping or not, Myers is a threat and you don’t want to put the tying run on first base. If Longoria beats you with a two-RBI single you can live with it. There’s only one way it really blows up in your face and it’s what transpired. On balance, the bigger lesson is that when you put two runners on base in front of the middle of the order, good things are likely to happen. Shocking insight, I know.
We also need to note that Tampa Bay closer Fernando Rodney blew a 4-3 lead in the ninth and while the Red Sox didn’t hit him hard, this continues problems for Rodney this season. We’ll see if that issue comes up again tonight or a potential Game 5 back in Fenway on Thursday.
Oakland 6 Detroit 3: Anibal Sanchez had nothing for the Tigers. Josh Reddick, Brandon Moss and Seth Smith all took him deep in the first five innings and this was only briefly a game, after a three-run Detroit outburst in the fourth. That’s the only inning Detroit has scored in the last two games.
AMERICAN LEAGUE TUESDAY
It’s travel time in the National League, as the Pirates and Cards travel to St. Louis for their Game 5 date on Wednesday night. The Red Sox and A’s look to clinch tonight, with each knowing they have home games in reserve.
The Tigers can point to at least having Max Scherzer available for a Game 5 back in Oakland. It would seem that the Rays would turn to David Price on short rest if they can make it back to Boston. Although if that’s the case, I’m curious as to why Joe Maddon wouldn’t just go with Game 1 starter Matt Moore tonight on short rest, given how much Jeremy Hellickson has struggled this year.
I suppose the manager still might–it was about this time yesterday that we learned of Mattingly’s decision to go with Kershaw, but as of 1:30 PM ET, it’s still Hellickson listed as the Game 4 starter in Tampa.
Both games are on TBS, starting at 5 PM ET, with Oakland-Detroit going first and then Boston-Tampa Bay in the nightcap. The Red Sox send Jake Peavy to the mound, while it’s Dan Straily-Doug Fister in the first game.
The American League Division Series each have two games under their belt as the opening sequence of games completed tonight in both Boston and Oakland. Here’s some thoughts on how both are unfolding…
Tampa Bay-Boston: The Red Sox’ offense is certainly the story of the first two games, scoring 19 runs and pounding out 30 hits in their 12-2 and 7-4 wins to grab a 2-0 lead. Boston has been balanced–they’ve used nineteen players in the everyday lineup and not only does every one of them a hit, but seventeen have a hit in both games.
The only exceptions are catcher, where Jarrod Saltalamacchia and David Ross have started one game apiece, and Mike Napoli. And in Napoli’s case, he drew two walks in Game 2, even if he didn’t have a hit.
Nor is the attack built on the long ball. David Ortiz hit two solo home runs in the second game, but the vast majority of the assault has been just stringing hits together. The Sox have scored in eight different innings, precisely half, since they haven’t needed to bat in the ninth inning either game.
Now if this were happening in an August series against Houston, it would be notable, a good example of a good team taking advantage of an opportunity. But this is happening against the Tampa Bay Rays, renowned for great starting pitching. It’s come against 17-game winner Matt Moore and 2012 Cy Young winner David Price, each fresh off clutch starts in must-win games.
What’s further disconcerting for Tampa Bay is that they just don’t look sharp. We’ve now seen endless replays of Wil Myers misplaying an Ortiz fly ball in Game 1 into a double. We haven’t seen nearly enough of a passed ball on a strikeout, two more errors in Game 2, all the while Boston is turning key double plays with precision.
This is the area of the game the Rays have always excelled in, making up for the fact their offense isn’t quite as deep. When they don’t play sharp defense, results like the last two games are what happens.
The series will revert to Tampa, and maybe the change of scenery will help the Rays. Any kind of change is good for Myers right now, whose 0-for-9 is more alarming that his one fielding miscue in a game that ended up a blowout. His inability to get on base is allowing Boston to pitch around Evan Longoria.
But if you broke this series down by pitching matchups, which is at least as relevant as doing so by homefield, you would certainly have circled Saturday’s Price-Lackey one as a game Tampa had to have. Lackey was not sharp, giving up four runs in 5.1 IP, but the Rays still lost. Now Alex Cobb has to beat Clay Bucholz on Monday, and then the Rays have to hope Jeremy Hellickson, he of the 5.17 ERA, can re-find his form against Jake Peavy on Tuesday.
And if that works out for Tampa? There’s still a return trip to Fenway to deal with Jon Lester, who threw 7.2 IP of four-hit ball in the opener. The Rays climbed a much higher mountain when they chased down the Red Sox in the 2011 AL wild-card race, but make no mistake about it–this is another tough hill they have to make it up.
Detroit-Oakland: I don’t mean to give this series short shrift, because it’s been by far the best of all four Division Series thus far, with Detroit taking the opener 3-2 and Oakland coming back in Game 2 with a 1-0 win. But from an analytical/summation standpoint, it’s by far the most straightforward of the series. We’ve seen great pitching–everyone from Max Scherzer to Sonny Gray to Justin Verlander to Bartolo Colon has met the moment.
The Tigers were able to strike at Colon quickly, with three runs in the top of the first in the opener and even though Colon settled in, Scherzer was in lockdown form and Joaquin Benoit got the last four outs, three on strike outs.
You can’t say enough about Gray. This is a kid making his 11th big league start, his team’s season is all but on the line in Game 2 and Verlander is his opponent. Gray tossed eight shutout innings. Verlander was brilliant, retiring the first 11 batters and throwing seven goose-egg frames of his own. But even though it was the ninth when Oakland broke through and got the run that won it, to me the key inning was the seventh.
Oakland put runners on second and third with two outs and Stephen Vogt at the plate. The catcher put on an epic at-bat against Verlander, repeatedly fouling off pitches and even though he struck out, Verlander’s pitch count was pushed close to 120 and ended his night. Once the battle shifts from the rotation to the bullpen, Oakland has the advantage and they loaded up the bases with no outs in the ninth. Fittingly, Vogt had the walkoff single that sends the series back to the Rustbelt tied at a game apiece.
THE GAME 3 SCHEDULE
The American League will take off on Sunday to travel. The games resume on Monday as part of a baseball Grand Slam, with all four series in action. The A’s-Tigers will start it off at 1 PM ET from Comerica, with Jarrod Parker facing Anibal Sanchez and MLB Network on the coverage. The Red Sox-Rays will play in the Trop at 6 PM ET on TBS.
The MLB playoffs are two days in and the National League has completed the first two games of each series. In both cases, the road teams–the Los Angeles Dodgers and Pittsburgh Pirates–found ways to get one win and take homefield advantage as the teams now shift venues for the middle games on Sunday and Monday.
There hasn’t been a lot of drama in these games thus far, with three of the four being blowouts, but Game 2 of the Braves-Dodgers series started to make up for it, a tight 4-3 win for Atlanta. Let’s briefly summarize what’s transpired in each series and look ahead to Sunday.
LA Dodgers-Atlanta: Game 1 was no contest, an easy 6-1 win for the Dodgers. Clayton Kershaw was brilliant, pitching seven innings of three-hit ball. Adrian Gonzalez hit a two-run shot of Kris Medlen in the third that opened the game up and the outcome was never in doubt. Atlanta simply did not look sharp, the second straight year they’ve opened the postseason with a home game by playing some sloppy baseball. At least this year it wasn’t the one-game wild-card knockout.
All the pressure shifted to Mike Minor for Game 2 and he delivered, battling Zack Greinke in a good pitcher’s duel and leaving with a 2-1 lead in the seventh. The Dodgers had a couple chances to tie the game, but in one case couldn’t get the two-out hit and in another hit into a double play with runners on first and third and one out.
It still had the feel of a game where Los Angeles would rip Atlanta’s heart out late, but the Braves grabbed two huge runs in the bottom of the seventh to stretch the lead to 4-1. Those runs proved necessary when Hanley Ramirez–who had three hits on the night–hit a two-run homer off David Carpenter in the eighth.
The Dodger ninth provided more drama. Craig Kimbrel came in and looked unsettled with his control. Mark Ellis drew a walk and Dee Gordon pinch-ran. Gordon took off for second and appeared to make it, but was called out. Replays showed that the call was closer than it appeared, as shortstop Andrelton Simmons skillfully kept his glove on Gordon’s rear end as the ball arrived. Even with replay, I can’t tell you for sure if Gordon was safe or out.
Kimbrel walked one more batter, and finally struck out Carl Crawford to end the inning.
The Dodgers have taken homefield advantage, but Kershaw is not scheduled to pitch either game back in Los Angeles. Maybe it’s the Braves who need to take advantage of this and win Games 3 & 4, because I think you’d rather have the ace in Game 5 as opposed to homefield.
Pittsburgh-St. Louis: Carlos Beltran hit a three-run homer in the third inning of Game 1 and St. Louis scored seven times off a floundering A.J. Burnett to win 9-1. I had to question why Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle left Burnett out there to give up seven runs. In the postseason, you can’t let a game get away that early and you can’t lose in routs, lest there to be too much pressure to get all the breaks in every close game.
Pittsburgh addressed that latter problem–the law of averages in close games–in a way I was not expecting in Game 2. They came out and peppered Lance Lynn, scoring in three different innings early and taking a 5-0 lead by the fifth. Pedro Alvarez homered for the second straight game. The first one was no big deal because it came swinging from his heels when his team was getting blown out. The second one was huge and staked rookie Gerrit Cole to a 3-zip lead.
St. Louis manager Mike Matheny was quicker on the hook with Lynn than Hurdle had been with Burnett, but Cole was pitching too well for it to matter. Here, I have a different bone to pick with the Cardinal manager–Lynn is notoriously inconsistent, while Shelby Miller has had a solid year. Even if he’s a rookie, Miller was a better choice than Lynn to get a start in this series.
Pittsburgh now has some real opportunity in front of them. Francisco Liriano pitches Game 3, after winning the wild-card game and Liriano is demonstrably better at home. Then St. Louis throws rookie Michael Wacha. Even allowing that Wacha nearly pitched a no-hitter in the last week of the season, I’m not sure he’s who Matheny wants pitching if the season is on the line.
This is now a real battle to see if St. Louis can get the scenario of Adam Wainwright–dominant in Game 1–to be on the mound at home for a Game 5.
GAME 3 SCHEDULE
TBS will carry a National League doubleheader on Sunday with Cards-Pirates at 4:30 PM ET, followed by Braves-Dodgers at 8 PM ET. The pitching matchups are Liriano-Joe Kelly and Hyun-Jin Ru against Julio Teheran.
I’m not changing my picks of St. Louis and Los Angeles to advance, but I will pick Pittsburgh to win on Sunday. The Dodgers can’t get the sweep I predicted, but Ru should at least ensure they get their chance with Kershaw in a fifth game.
The Oakland A’s and Detroit Tigers meet in the American League Division Series for the second straight year, and for the third time in the playoffs since 2006. TheSportsNotebook’s MLB coverage breaks down the series by comparing each team in the key areas of getting on base, hitting for power, starting pitching and the bullpen. Then we’ll conclude with some historical context and make a prediction.
ABILITY TO GET ON BASE: Of all the countless amazing things we can say about Detroit third baseman Miguel Cabrera, how about we start with this–the man gets on base successfully a little more than 44 percent of the time. Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez aren’t in Miggy’s ballpark, but both fit the mold of power hitters who are also patient, thereby allowing them to continue to help the team, even if they don’t hit home runs.
Detroit’s challenge is going to be getting other runners on base to create big innings. Austin Jackson’s .337 OBP isn’t bad, but he’s not the same threat he was in 2012. Tori Hunter is in the same neighborhood. And Alex Avila had just a .317 OBP, which rendered him a liability.
Oakland made a big midseason acquisition when they picked up Alberto Callaspo, and the second baseman posted a .350 OBP. Josh Lowrie and Derek Norris were in that same neighborhood, with Crisp not far behind. Crisp, in particular, is important for setting the table for the middle of the lineup.
Josh Donaldson and Brandon Moss are that middle of the lineup, and play on the corner of the infield, at third and first respectively. Donaldson is a very productive player who will get introduced to the country in these playoffs, and Moss is a steady on-base threat.
POWER HITTING: Cabrera’s slugging percentage was .636, narrowly edging out Baltimore’s Chris Davis for the best in baseball. This in spite of hitting in Detroit’s vast Comerica Park. Fielder’s power was down this year, but he still slugged a solid .457, and Omar Infante picked up some of the slack with a surprising .450 showing at second base. Hunter and Martinez are both legitimate power threats.
Donaldson, who slugged .499, and Moss, who hit 30 home runs, and let’s note that Oakland’s home park is no more hitter-friendly than Detroit’s. Like the Tigers, the A’s have a middle infielder who showed surprising pop, as Lowrie slugged .446. Even Crisp got in the act, with a .444 slugging percentage.
We should note that all four of these players have higher slugging percentages than Yoenis Cespedes, the man who won the Home Run Derby this past summer at Citi Field in New York, but is dealing with a sore shoulder coming into the playoffs. Oakland could use Cespedes, or rightfielder Josh Reddick, who had a miserably disappointing season, to find their stroke in the next week.
STARTING PITCHING: The strength of the Detroit rotation is underscored by the fact that Justin Verlander won’t pitch Game 1. That honor will go to Max Scherzer, who went 21-3 and should win the AL Cy Young Award. Anibal Sanchez and Doug Fister are solid starting pitchers in any circumstance, and when they’re your 3-4 hurlers, you know have a tough rotation.
Bartolo Colon won 18 games for Oakland and gets the ball against Scherzer in Game 1. A.J. Griffin and Jarrod Parker are above-average starters with ERAs in the high 3s, as is Dan Straily. A potential X-factor could be Sonny Gray, who got his shot this season and went 5-3 with a 2.67 ERA. We’ll see if that earns him an opportunity to start in this series.
BULLPEN: This topic has been the rub with the Tigers all season long, and while the strength of the rotation, the muscle in the offense and the expertise of manager Jim Leyland covered it up en route to 93 wins, this is still the one area that can prevent a World Series celebration in Detroit.
Joaquin Benoit has handled the closer’s role, nailing 24/26 save chances with a 2.01 ERA. But he’s also never closed really big games. The setup team is basically Leyland taking his chances and hoping to get lucky. The challenges don’t stop, as Bruce Rondon and Phil Coke are each nursing some elbow injuries and their status for their series is uncertain.
Whether Oakland has a World Series celebration remains to be seen, but it won’t be the bullpen that costs them. Grant Balfour is a reliable closer, who only blew three saves all year. The setup crew is deep, and while the A’s starters might not match up with the Tigers, Oakland can spread the workload by going to the bullpen early.
One caveat whose importance remains to be seen–one of Balfour’s blown saves, and his low point of the season came in Detroit when he blew a four-run lead and lost the game on a Tori Hunter walkoff grand slam.
HISTORICAL CONTEXT: We mentioned at the top that this is a rematch from last season. We can also go back further into history and find a meeting in the 1972 ALCS, when the A’s won a hard-fought series in what was then a decisive fifth game. In fact each time these teams have met in a best-of-five series (1972 ALCS and 2012 ALDS) it has gone the distance, each team winning twice. The 2006 ALCS ended in a sweep for Detroit.
PICK: I picked the Tigers to win the World Series at the start of the year and won’t pull back now, even though Oakland does hold homefield advantage in this series. In fact, I think Detroit will dominate this series. I’ll allow their bullpen to blow one game, but otherwise look for the Tigers to win in four.
In recent years, Detroit has had the number of both Oakland and the New York Yankees, of whom they are a combined 5-0 in series since 2006. The Tigers don’t have the Yanks to beat up on this year, but at least the A’s are still around.
The American League Division Series matchups are ready to start on Friday, and this installment of TheSportsNotebook’s MLB coverage will break down the AL East rivalry battle between the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays.
We’ll compare each team in the four key component parts of the game, from ability to get runners on base, to hitting for power, to starting pitching to the bullpen. Then we’ll conclude with some historical context and make a pick.
ABILITY TO GET ON BASE: The Red Sox have long been renowned for their ability to drive up pitch counts and grind up starting pitchers. Jacoby Ellsbury, Shane Victorino and Dustin Pedroia have high OBPs in the top of the order, while Mike Napoli and David Ortiz have the same in the middle. Each half of the left field platoon, Jonny Gomes and Danny Nava, particularly Nava, are solid and consistent.
Based on season-long numbers the only liability is third baseman Will Middlebrooks, but that’s based on performance prior to Middlebrooks’ temporary demotion to Triple A. Since his return, the highly touted righthanded hitter has been productive.
Tampa Bay doesn’t have nearly the assets. Ben Zobrist and Wil Myers are both at .354, which is good. Evan Longoria’s .343 isn’t bad, but the best superstar power hitters today will usually get into the high .300s. The positive for the Rays is that only catcher Jose Molina is a liability. It’s mostly a series of so-so offensive players–Desmond Jennings, Yunel Escobar, David DeJesus and Matt Joyce, who don’t excite you, but do have the ability to play well in a short series.
HITTING FOR POWER: Ortiz leads the way for Boston, slugging .564 and solidifying his place as baseball’s best designated hitter since the position was created in 1973. Napoli has plenty of muscle, as does catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Middlebrooks has been showcasing his power since the return from Triple A, and even pure contact hitters like Ellsbury, Pedroia and shortstop Stephen Drew can go deep. The same can be said for Gomes and Nava. There’s no spot in this lineup a pitcher can overlook.
Tampa Bay is not nearly as deep. Longoria and Myers are very good power threats, but there is little around them. The good news for the Rays is that Longoria is a clutch postseason player and Matt Joyce has shown the ability to generate some muscle, even if that hasn’t necessarily been evident this season, with a pedestrian .419 slugging percentage.
STARTING PITCHING: Now we get to the real battle between two very good rotations. Jon Lester won 15 games with 3.75 ERA and pitched his best baseball after the All-Star break. The lefthander is set to go for Games 1 & 5, and he’s got a track record of postseason success–winning the clinching game of the 2007 World Series, winning twice to lead a series win the 2008 Division Series and pitching very well, albeit in defeat in Game 7 of 2008 ALCS.
Lester will be countered with Matt Moore, who will ascend to the role of #1 starter, since David Price had to be used in Monday’s wild-card game. Moore won 17 games with a 3.29 ERA and has electric stuff, so this is not exactly a huge dropoff. Then the Rays turn to Price for Game 2 and Alex Cobb, who won the wild-card game, in Game 3.
Joe Maddon has a decision to make regarding a Game 4. Chris Archer has easily been better than Jeremy Hellickson this season, so you’d have to think Archer would get the nod. But Hellickson does have a longer track record of success, even if his 5.17 ERA this year marked him one of 2013’s big disappointments.
Boston manager John Farrell has already thrown the first curveball of this series, is settling on John Lackey, over and above Clay Bucholz or Jake Peavy to pitch Game 2. Lackey has been steady all year, with a 3.52 ERA, even if poor run support left his record at 10-13. But Bucholz has been dominant, at 12-1 with a 1.74 ERA and a good month to get his rhythm back after a lengthy DL run. Peavy finished with a 4.04 ERA, but pitched well for the Red Sox since his acquisition at the trade deadline.
In reality though, both Maddon and Farrell are choosing from riches. These are both rotations that you can a World Series with. If there’s an X-factor it’s that the difference between winning the division and being the wild-card it’s that the Red Sox rotation is lined up, while the Rays are out of order, with Price able to only pitch once.
BULLPEN: Here we came to the sore spot with both teams. Boston is steady in the ninth inning. Koji Uehara closed 21/24 save chances with a 1.09 ERA and was spectacular after taking over the role midway through the season. The rest of the pen is hit and miss. Craig Breslow, with his buck-81 ERA has been the best, and the Sox will need Junichi Tazawa to pitch well. It remains to be seen if displaced starters Felix Doubront and Ryan Dempster could add something to the bridge between the starters and Uehara.
A least Boston can be confident in the ninth inning. Tampa’s Fernando Rodney has given fans heart attacks all year long, blowing eight saves and ending with a 3.38 ERA that’s not all that special for a closer. Alex Torres has been the best setup man, though Joel Peralta and Jake McGee, both inconsistent, get more work.
The bottom line? Each team needs its starters to work deep into games.
CONTEXT: This is an under-the-radar rivalry in the AL East now, as there is some chippiness between the front offices and the staffs of each team. Boston obviously has the more storied history, even if we restrict that to recent years, since the Rays came into existence, with two recent World Series titles (2004 & 2007) while Tampa seeks its first crown.
But Tampa Bay has come out on top in both of the most fabled battles between the two teams–the 2008 American League championship race and their incredible September comeback in the wild-card race of 2011.
There’s even some rivalry among the fan bases that extends into other sports. The Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning played a dramatic seven-game Eastern Conference Final in the 2011 NHL playoffs, replete with further chippiness regarding a Bruins’ promotional campaign that questioned the existence of Tampa Bay sports fans. And the NBA option in Tampa Bay is the nearby Orlando Magic, who played two hotly contested playoff series with the Boston Celtics in 2009 and 2010, each team winning once.
PICK: I’m a Boston fan and hardly unbiased. In my case though, the bias tends to make me exceptionally nervous. I have extraordinary respect for the Rays’ starting pitching, which is entirely appropriate. And we have seen, repeatedly in the playoffs, that strength in this area covers a lot of weaknesses.
But objectively, the Red Sox are awfully good here, have a deeper lineup and if the series comes down to the bullpens, the Sox relievers have been a little less worrisome than those of the Rays. Since I don’t believe in the ability of writers to jinx games with predictions, I’m going to say Boston wins it in the full five games.
The Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals spent all year fighting it out for the NL Central title and the right to avoid the one-game wild-card playoff. The Pirates survived the knockout game against the Cincinnati Reds on Tuesday and now that whole Pittsburgh-St. Louis conversation all year simply boiled down to where this Division Series matchup would open and close. TheSportsNotebook’s MLB coverage previews Pirates-Cards.
We’ll compare each team in their four key component parts–the ability to put runners on base, power hitting, starting pitching and the bullpen. Then we’ll close with some historical context and a prediction.
GETTING ON BASE: This is a big problem area for Pittsburgh, and if they lose this series it likely comes down to this. While Andrew McCutchen is great in all phases of the game and has a .404 OBP, and the Pirates have gotten some help in late-season acquisitions Justin Morneau (.370) and Marlon Byrd (.357), this is an offense that is just not very consistent.
Pittsburgh needs someone like a Neil Walker or Starling Marte, who have each shown flashes of consistency at getting on base to have a good series, or else they’ll be stuck playing for the long ball.
St. Louis, on the other hand, is a lineup that we’re more accustomed to seeing in the American League. The Cardinals are stacked with players who grind out at-bats. Whether it’s someone like a John Jay at the top of the order (.351), a power hitter like Matt Holliday (.389) or MVP candidates Yadier Molina and Matt Carpenter (.359 and .392 respectively), the Cardinals make you work and they keep the pressure on.
The Pirates won the wild-card game in part because Reds’ hitters repeatedly chased balls out of the strike zone. That won’t work here. Big advantage to St. Louis in this area of the game.
POWER HITTING: McCutchen is again outstanding at hitting the long ball. He got off to a slower start to the season, and ended up with a .508 slugging percentage. It’s a mark of how good he is that we look at this number and think of it as a little bit of a down year. But there’s no question he can take over a short series.
Byrd homered in the wild-card win, and slugged .486 in the thirty games he’s played with the Pirates. Marte, at .441, isn’t great, but good enough that he could be asked to step it up at a moment like this.
It’s the X-factors that make Pittsburgh interesting here and the biggest of third baseman Pedro Alvarez. With 36 home runs, he’s got the ability to change a game–and in a best-of-five, changing one game can change the outcome of a series–but he’s also got the “ability” to disappear completely from the offense.
The other X-factor is Russell Martin. The catcher does not have good power numbers. But he homered in the wild-card game and in the 2012 playoffs, playing for the Yankees, he hit a big home run to help win a game against the Orioles. Martin is a veteran with a clutch track record and we shouldn’t underestimate him.
St. Louis, again, is loaded. From Molina to Carpenter to Holliday to Carlos Beltran, they have players who can drive the ball in the alleys and into the seats. Even though David Freese had a bad year (.381 slugging) is anyone ready to bet against him in a postseason series? And while St. Louis is going to be hurt by the loss of Allen Craig, who’s still suffering from his September foot injury and is out for this series, Craig was replaced by Matt Adams, a big horse who slugged .503 in limited duty. The Cardinals have their share of game-changers.
STARTING PITCHING: Here’s where being the division winner rather than the wild-card matters, even if you survive the one-game knockout. St. Louis has Adam Wainwright ready to pitch Games 1 & 5, as the ace comes off a 19-win season with a 2.94 ERA.
The middle games are more up in the air. Cardinal manager Mike Matheny has announced Lance Lynn as his Game 2 starter, even though Lynn’s 3.97 ERA is higher than the other candidates. I’d rather see someone like a Shelby Miller (15-9, 3.06) or Joe Kelly (10-5, 2.69) get the opportunity. Or how about Michael Wacha, whose ERA is 2.78 and came within an out of a no-hitter in the season’s final week? Matheny and the Cardinals have earned a lot of benefit of the doubt in decisions like this, so I’ll give it to them…but that doesn’t mean I don’t have my doubts about Lynn.
Pittsburgh used up Francisco Liriano to win on Tuesday, so he won’t be available until Sunday’s Game 3. This isn’t the worst thing–Liriano is a vastly better pitcher at home, so perhaps it’s best to save him for when the series reverts to PNC Park.
A.J. Burnett posted a 3.30 ERA and has some solid postseason experience. He won a must-win Game 2 in the 2009 World Series after the New York Yankees had lost the opener. And Burnett won a literal must-win Game 4 of the 2011 Division Series when the Yankees played the Tigers. In both games, Burnett truly won them, as opposed to riding the coattails of his offense. He’s got a tough assignment as Wainwright’s sparring partner, but we know Burnett won’t blink on this stage.
Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle has not announced any pitching matchups beyond Game 1, but Gerritt Cole, Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke are all more or less interchangeable, as solid, but not great starters. Two will get starts (presuming Burnett pitches twice and Liriano goes once) and the odd man out can strengthen the bullpen.
BULLPEN: This is the area where the Pirates can get some separation. The relief pitching in Pittsburgh has been outstanding all season long. Jason Grilli closed 33/35 save chances with a 2.70 ERA and was having an MVP-worthy season until an injury after the All-Star break slowed him up. Grilli is healthy now.
Mark Melancon and Tony Watson are the two best setup men in the National League. And Vin Mazzaro and Justin Wilson would each be among the best setup pitchers on a lot of other playoff teams. Then add in the fact that a starting pitcher comes into the bullpen for the postseason and Hurdle has the depth to lock down any game he leads after five innings.
You can look at the stats for St. Louis and feel good about the pen. Edward Mujica closed 37/41 chances at a 2.78 ERA. Trevor Rosenthal and Seth Maness had very good years, as did Kyle Siegrest and Randy Choate in more limited work. The Cards will also have a reliable starting pitcher join their relief corps for the playoffs.
But St. Louis also coughed up some games late–or more accurately, relied on their offense to bail them out after coughing up some games. Maybe this was just a case of a couple hiccups, the kind of which every team has. The problem I have is that relief pitching, more than any other aspect of baseball, is subject to getting hot at the right time. The Cards have been on the right side of that wave in 2006 and 2011. I have a feeling they be on the wrong side right now.
HISTORICAL CONTEXT: There is surprisingly little history between these two teams, at least in the modern era of 1976 and beyond. Over that time, each franchise has had some great high points and they’ve been in the same division both before and after the realignment of 1994. But they have rarely been good simultaneously, so in a lot of ways, these two historic franchises will write the best chapter of their rivalry over the next week.
Nor have the fan bases really rivaled each other in any other sport. There’s no Steelers-Rams matchups–they just missed each other in the 2001 Super Bowl and their 1979 Super Bowlcame when the Rams were still in Los Angeles. There’s no epic Penguins-Blues series in hockey to look back on. It’s long overdue for Pittsburgh and St. Louis fans to work up some loathing and it starts now.
THESPORTSNOTEBOOK’S PICK: I’ll take St. Louis. The only reason I have to go against them is the concern over their bullpen, which is more hunch-based than anything. I think Wainwright will win any game he starts, which naturally includes Game 1 and could include Game 5. But I don’t think it gets that far. St. Louis wins in four, with the storyline being the Pirates’ inability to get runners on base consistently.
The most storied franchises of each league won decisive Game 5s on Friday, as the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Yankees broke baseball hearts up and down the Beltway. One was a taut pitcher’s duel, the other dominated by offense and marked by a wild finish, but what they had in common was that both games were fitting conclusions to a Division Series round that’s a runaway winner for best week of playoff baseball ever. Let’s recap the games as we wrap up the first full round of the MLB playoffs…
St. Louis 9 Washington 7: The Cardinals have developed the reputation as the Kings of Comeback and this one makes last year’s World Series rally against Texas look positively minute by comparison. The Cards were in a 6-0 hole against Washington, who had the potential Cy Young Award winner in Gio Gonzalez on the mound. They had a deep bullpen. And St. Louis lacked the kind of depth in the relief corps that even gave you confidence they could stop the bleeding. Once again though, the Cardinals got to within an out of elimination and then staved it off.
Adam Wainwright took the mound, but had nothing. Bryce Harper tripled and homered, Ryan Zimmerman homered and Michael Morse also went deep, building the 6-zip lead by the third inning. It was the second straight time an NLDS Game 5 had seen a team go ahead 6-0, and it would also be the second time things would get interesting before it was over.
It looked like St. Louis was going to follow the same path as Cincinnati had the day before and just miss opportunities. The Cardinals cut the lead to 6-3, but left the bases loaded in the fifth when Yadier Molina flied out to right. A leadoff single went for naught in the sixth. St. Louis picked up a run in the seventh, but with two on and two out, David Freese struck out.
A Daniel Descalco home run in the eighth was perhaps the biggest sign something remarkable might be in the works—a utility infielder who’s been starting at second base, Descalco is not the hitter in the Cardinal lineup you fear. But Washington scraped out an insurance run and handed closer Drew Storen a two-run lead.
There were two outs and one man aboard. Washington manager Davey Johnson had been on the other end of comebacks before—he managed the 1986 New York Mets who won the World Series over the Boston Red Sox, the year of the infamous Bill Buckner ground ball. Now Johnson was going to end up on the other side of history.
Storen lost his control and walked two consecutive hitters. Descalco came through again with a game-tying single, and then Pete Kozma delivered another single to drive in two more runs and get the lead. Washington went quietly in the ninth.
The St. Louis lineup is stacked up and down with hitters that make it a match for any American League lineup—from Freese to Molina to Matt Holliday to Allen Craig to Carlos Beltran, the latter two of which had big performances all series long. But it’s the mark of a team that always finds a way to win that Descalco and Kozma—who had a grand total of 72 at-bats this year—would end up as the heroes.
NY Yanks 3 Baltimore 1: Just as Justin Verlander had his lights-out moment in dominating the Oakland A’s in one American League Division Series, C.C. Sabathia would prove to own this one. Sabathia, who’d worked into the ninth inning in a Game 1 win went a little bit better this time around and tossed a four-hit complete game, his big lefthanded frame willing the Yankees into the ALCS. Baltimore’s Jason Hammel pitched well on his own end, but in a series when runs were few and far between to begin with, there was no margin for error and New York was able to scrape out a couple.
Mark Teixeira singled in the fifth, and in a mark of how desperate managers were to create offense, the slugger stole second and scored on a base hit by Raul Ibanez. The Derek Jeter-Ichiro Suzuki combo created a run in the sixth with a walk and double. And Curtis Granderson broke out of a slump that, unlike other New York hitters, predates the postseason by quite a bit, when he homered.
Baltimore made its move in the eighth, scoring a run and having the bases loaded with one out. Nate McLouth, who’s been one of the few Oriole hitters capable of anything in this series struck out, and J.J. Hardy—one night removed from the extra-inning double that won Game 4 grounded to short and the best Baltimore chance went by the boards.
The League Championship Series action begins this weekend. New York is right back in action on their home field as they host Detroit for Game 1 on Saturday night. St. Louis will travel to San Francisco, a series that begins on Sunday night. TheSportsNotebook’s ALCS preview is online, and the NLCS preview will follow on Sunday morning.
Comebacks were the story of the day in the MLB playoffs yesterday. The Oakland A’s were three outs from going home before they rallied to beat Detroit. The New York Yankees trailed in the ninth inning, before making what will surely be one of the most celebrated pinch-hit decisions in baseball history and then winning a 12-inning game over Baltimore. And the San Francisco Giants won their second straight elimination game on the road and forced a decisive fifth game in Cincinnati.
We’ll run down all four games from yesterday, including St. Louis’ win over Washington, and look ahead to another quartet today…
Oakland 4 Detroit 3: The worst-case scenario for Detroit finally materialized. They played a good game for eight innings, getting a solid five-plus from Max Scherzer, got a home run from Prince Fielder and had chipped their way to a 3-1 lead in the ninth. They were things you could pick some nits over—a scoring opportunity in the fourth went by the boards when Jhonny Peralta hit into a double play and a Fielder error set up Oakland’s lone run to that point, but the Tigers were—for the third straight game—getting good starting pitching from guy not named Verlander—and just enough offense.
But the Detroit bullpen has been problematic all year and for a high-save closer, Jose Valverde flirts with danger way too often. On Wednesday night he quickly gave up a single to Josh Reddick and consecutive doubles to Josh Donaldson and Seth Smith, tying the game before an out was recorded. Then when Valverde got the brink of escaping, the Coco Crisp beats him with a walk-off single.
Crisp is hitting .222 for the series, but he seems in the middle of everything, from key hits to start games and now a season-saving hit to end one. Now the miracle A’s are one win away—sure, it’s against Verlander, but do they really believe they can lose?
NY Yanks 3 Baltimore 2 (12): There was one out in the ninth and Joe Girardi was apparently less than inspired by Alex Rodriguez’ .083 series batting average as the $30 Million Man strode to the plate. Girardi rolled the dice and pinch-hit for A-Rod, sending Raul Ibanez to the plate. Strategically the move was a no-brainer. A-Rod was slumping, his power had been down all year, Ibanez had the lefty-righty matchup against Baltimore closer Jim Johnson and Ibanez was more than capable of reaching the short rightfield porch to tie the game.
Still, the odds in any single situation favor the pitcher in baseball if only because of the numbers. Was Girardi going to lose A-Rod and subject both to a sea of questions for no gain? The sea of questions are going to be in A-Rod’s future, but no one else will care, because Ibanez not only delivered the unlikely home run to tie the game, he homered again in the 12th to win it.
Neither team produced any kind of consistent offensive threats—the Orioles got their runs on the long ball from Ryan Flaherty and Manny Machado, while the Yankees other run came on a two-out triple from Derek Jeter early on.
The Captain again made his mark on a key game with this hit, along with catching Baltimore’s Nate McLouth off the base after the latter stole second in the first inning. It was part of a tough night for McLouth who had what might have been the game-winning hit in 10th, but his bullet line drive was snared by Jeter, who doubled Robert Andino off of second.
My intense distaste for the Yankees, combined with four recent years living in Baltimore have given me a strong passion in this series even if I’m not an Oriole fan per se. This game was a tough one to swallow, but there’s no denying Ibanez’ heroics fall into that unique baseball category we call “Iconic October Moments.”
San Francisco 8 Cincinnati 3: The loss of Johnny Cueto came to roost yesterday for the Cincinnati Reds. Cueto’s back spasms have forced him off the postseason roster, not to return unless his team makes the World Series and just days after winning the first two games of this series out west, Cincinnati suddenly looks unlikely to survive today’s finale at home.
Mike Leake got the start for the injured Cueto and had nothing, as Angel Pagan demonstrated with a long home run to start the game. Gregor Blanco homered in the fourth, and the Cincy bullpen couldn’t hold down the fort when the game was still a competitive 5-3 in the seventh. Pablo Sandoval delivered the last of his three hits, a monster shot to center off Jose Arredondo to break the game open and send the normally polite folks from Cincy into a round of boos.
Barry Zito struggled for San Francisco, having giving up two runs by the third and Bruce Bochy showed no hesitation in pulling him. Not only was Bochy facing elimination, but he had Tim Lincecum available in relief and the former Cy Young Award winner came up with a quality 4.1 IP/1 ER line that enabled the Giants to gradually take control of the game before eventually breaking it open.
The poor city of Cincinnati once watched San Francisco rally late and take a Super Bowl from them back in 1988, when Joe Montana led a last-minute drive. Now they’re watching it unfold in baseball, as the good right arm of Matt Cain is the opponent tomorrow.
St. Louis 8 Washington 0: Throughout the MLB Network broadcast of this game, Bob Costas and Jim Kaat noted that the decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg would be a big deal if Washington couldn’t win this series. Because as discussed here at TheSportsNotebook, it’s not the top of the rotation where Washington would be hurt—they still had Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmerman, even if the latter did not pitch well. But now when the series got late, they were going to Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler, while the Cardinals had Chris Carpenter in the bag.
The game went as might be expected. Jackson looked like a veteran pitcher that’s serviceable in the regular season, but overmatched by a good lineup in the postseason as St. Louis lit up their old teammate quickly, grabbing a 4-0 lead that was keyed by a three-run shot by rookie shortstop Pete Kozma. As a team St. Louis had fourteen hits, five of them for extra bases.
Carpenter had some problems early, and was in and out of trouble, but Washington never got to him, as the postseason master did it again, working 5.2 IP of shutout ball and turning it over to the bullpen. Now the St. Louis rotation goes back to the top, with Kyle Lohse getting the ball and the Nationals forced to rely on talented, but inconsistent Ross Detwiler.
THE THURSDAY QUARTET
We could know the League Championship Series participants by the end of tonight, and we’ll for sure know at least two of them, as another day of all-day baseball awaits…
*A TBS tripleheader starts at 1 PM EST with the winner-take-all Game 5 in Cincinnati. While San Francisco has Cain ready, the Reds have Mat Latos ready to start on full rest and Dusty Baker will have the option of using Bronson Arroyo on three day’s rest for some middle relief duty if Latos has trouble, or if the game goes extra innings. Conversely, San Francisco realistically burnt up Lincecum yesterday. While San Francisco has the starting pitching edge, there are some bullpen factors that can break Cincy’s way today.
Up next is St. Louis-Washington where it’s Lohse-Detwiler. The Cardinals have scored 20 runs in the last two games and I can’t think of a reason they shouldn’t win today. If Washington does survive, they can go to Gio Gonzalez for tomorrow’s finale in a rematch of his Game 1 duel with Adam Wainwright.
Then it’s Baltimore-New York. The Orioles have shown an admirable ability to bounce back from adversity all year, including the loss of their best on-base percentage hitter in Nick Markakis. I don’t think emotional fallout will be an issue here.
What the Birds have to be plainly concerned about is that New York has been able to hit their closer, beating Johnson for both of their games. And they need to get into the Yankee bullpen quicker—Hiroki Kuroda worked eight-plus last night and a Yankee deficiency—lack of depth in relief, is not being exploited.
At 9:30 PM ET, Turner Broadcasting Network takes the baton and we head out west for the Oakland-Detroit finale, with A.J. Griffin facing Justin Verlander.
One thing to note—the Yankees and Cardinals are baseball’s two most decorated franchises, both recent appearances, but they haven’t gone head-to-head since 1964. It looked like they were set to play in 2004 when New York was three outs away from the pennant and had Mariano Rivera on the mound, but then Boston rallied and won that game, plus three more in the most epic comeback of playoff history, and it was they who would face the Cardinals (this is another edition of my repeated efforts, as a Red Sox fan, to insert them into the postseason discussion this year even when the relevance is almost non-existent).
Anyway, the point of all this is that both teams seem to have their paths opening up. New York not only goes from facing elimination to having a game in hand, plus Sabathia in reserve, but they also know that even if Detroit wins tonight, Verlander is burned up until Game 3 of the ALCS.
On the National League side, St. Louis first benefits from the most bizarre interpretation of the infield fly rule in baseball history, then faces a team that voluntarily shut down its ace and now will either face one team whose ace is injured (Cincinnati) or another whose ace won’t be available until Game 3 of the NLCS (SF).
Both the Yankees and Cardinals have to pick up another win over the next two nights before they can think about LCS matchups, but the pathway to a historic World Series matchup is there.
If you wanted to watch hitting, then Tuesday night in the MLB playoffs wasn’t for you. There were a combined 16 hits in the two games, and 15 of them were singles. But no one in San Francisco or Oakland was complaining, as the Giants beat the Reds, the A’s beat the Tigers and both teams averted sweeps in Game 3 of their respective Division Series matchups. Let’s look back on Tuesday and ahead to Wednesday’s all-day quadruple header…
San Francisco 2 Cincinnati 1 (10): CIncy might have pitched well—Homer Bailey was exceptional in going seven innings—but they didn’t play defense at the end and they essentially gifted San Francisco both of their runs, while costing themselves a key scoring chance on the bases.
In the bottom of the first, Brandon Phillips stole second, but then tried to take third after an errant throw and was out. Cincinnati still scored, thanks to a walk from Zack Cozart and consecutive singles by Ryan Ludwick and Jay Bruce, but they might have gotten a multiple-run inning and put San Fran in an early hole. As it was, Ryan Vogelsong settled in, and Cincinnati not only never scored again, they never really threatened again.
It might have not mattered the way Bailey was pitching, but in the fourth he opened the inning with a walk and a hit batter. Bruce Bochy manufactured the run from there, with a sac bunt, then a sac fly and even though the Giants didn’t get their first hit until the sixth, the game was tied.
Finally we come to the fateful 10th inning. Baker had used Aroldis Chapman for one inning, but declined to bring him back out of the 10th. In of itself, this is worth a raised eyebrow. Playing at home, an inning from Chapman meant buying six extra outs at the plate. This series had also been off the previous day, so the flamethrowing Cuban lefty should have been rested enough to go. And to top it off, Chapman was leading off the bottom of the 10th anyway, so it would have been a good shot to pinch-hit for him.
Instead, Jonathan Broxton was summoned and the San Francisco stars—Buster Posey and Hunter Pence—each touched him for singles. Broxton still got the next two batters and looked ready to escape the inning. Then he uncorked a wild pitch, then Scott Rolen made an error and the winning run was home.
I like Dusty Baker—how can you not, given his track record of success everywhere he goes? But the decision on Chapman enabled San Francisco’s best hitters to avoid facing his own best reliever. And I’ve been shouting from the start of this series that Rolen should be out and Todd Frazier should be in at third base. Those decisions bit the Cincy manager on Tuesday in a game where the margin for error was somewhere less than zero.
Oakland 2 Detroit 0—The decisive sequence of this game was in the second inning. Detroit came to the plate trailing 1-0, but with the potential for some early momentum. Oakland started the scoring with a leadoff single from Coco Crisp, a walk from Stephen Drew and an RBI single from Yoenis Cespedes before the fans could get settled in their seats. But Detroit starter Anibal Sanchez induced a double-play ball from Josh Reddick and a potential big inning ended with one run.
Then Prince Fielder led off the second with a massive shot to centerfield, but Crisp made a great defensive play and ran it down. Crisp has now started Game 1 with a home run, Game 3 with a rally-starting single and made two defensive gems in the outfield. I’d say he’s enjoying his return to the postseason, a place he was last found in 2007 when he ran down a deep fly in the Fenway Park triangle for the final out of the ALCS (as a Boston fan, this is my shameless way of inserting the Red Sox into the postseason discussion when the relevance is peripheral at best).
Detroit looked unfazed though, and got consecutive singles. But Oakland starter Brett Anderson got out of the inning unscathed, got a home run from Seth Smith in the fifth and the A’s cruised home on a day when a two-run lead in either game felt like it was about a five-run cushion. The closest Detroit really got to doing anything was a one-out single from Miguel Cabrera in the ninth, bringing up Fielder, But A’s closer Grant Balfour, after having lost Game 2, induced a game-ending double play.
WEDNESDAY’S GRAND SLAM
If there was ever a day to call in sick, this is it. The baseball starts at 1 PM ET on the MLB Network, and then at 3 PM ET, TBS takes over with a tripleheader that carries us well past midnight on the East Coast. Here’s a rundown of the games, in the order they start…
*St. Louis-Washington: The last time Chris Carpenter and Edwin Jackson were seen pitching in the playoffs, both were leading the Cardinals to the 2011 World Series title. Carpenter makes his first start of this year’s playoffs after a year in which he pitched only three times after elbow surgery. The former ace did pitch well all three times, but two of those were against the Cubs & Astros.
Jackson is now filling the role of solid middle-of-the-rotation veteran for Washington. Ideally you’d like someone a little bit better to pitch a game of this magnitude—the pivot game of a best-of-five series tied 1-1, but Jackson is a natural fourth starter moved up after the Strasburg Shutdown.
*San Francisco-Cincinnati: Yesterday’s loss moved Cincinnati from the team in the most command, needing just one win in three tries at home, to one of the most vulnerable. We don’t know who’s going to pitch today for the Reds, as Johnny Cueto is still ruled out.
It’s either Mat Latos on three days’ rest (although he only pitched four innings of relief in Game 1 after Cueto left with back spasms), or Mike Leake. And since Leake is not currently on the active roster, starting him means Cueto would have to be shelved and not able to return unless the team made the World Series. All of that’s reason enough for me to go with Latos. I don’t have confidence in Leake, and somewhere along the line the Reds’ hitters have to do something against Barry Zito.
*Baltimore-NY Yanks: The Orioles are sending lefty Miguel Gonzalez to the mound, who has pitched well for them in the second half of the season, and you ideally prefer a southpaw in the Bronx when pitching to lefthanded Yankee hitters like Curtis Granderson, Robinson Cano and Raul Ibanez who can target the short porch in right. It also turns switch-hitters Mark Teixeira and Nick Swisher around to their weaker side.
New York turns to Hiroki Kuroda to try and get control of the series. Based on regular season performance, Kuroda can be every bit as reliable as C.C. Sabathia and Andy Pettite were in the first two games, but tonight’s starter doesn’t have the same October pedigree. He won a clinching game for the Dodgers over the Cubs back in 2008 but that was a Game 3 spot when his team had won the first two and Chicago was disintegrating. The pressure will be more intense tonight and we’ll see how Kuroda responds.
*Detroit-Oakland: Max Scherzer has gotten the job done for Detroit down the stretch, and it’s worth noting that every Detroit starter—not just Justin Verlander—has pitched well in this series. Now it’s up to Scherzer to beat rookie A.J. Griffin. While Detroit has Verlander in reserve for Game 5, I don’t think they relish the thought of a road Game 5 against an Oakland team that would be feeling its Cinderella oats all over again. And even if you assume Verlander still wins, wouldn’t you rather have him for Game 1 of the ALCS?