Baseball is awesome. Playoff baseball is even better. Every active playoff series playing on the same day should probably be illegal, just because it feels so good.
We got that Wednesday, with baseball starting in the early afternoon on the East Coast and stretching well past midnight. The National League served up fluffy appetizers, sweet but understated and without much edge. Then the AL simply set itself on fire. In a good way. Call it flambé. And the best part? For dessert, we get a wholesale do over Thursday.
Cardinals at Nationals: 8-0 St. Louis
This was the least surprising and most soporific of the four contests Wednesday. The Cardinals, loaded with good hitters, able to score in many different ways, and very familiar with Nationals starter Edwin Jackson’s vulnerabilities, tore into him and never looked back.
Washington shortstop Ian Desmond called the game a “boat race” in a post-game interview. That term was new to me, but according to Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post, players frequently use it to refer to lopsided, boring games. It’s a perfect phrase for the malaise this game seemed to have hovering over it, a phenomenon not unrelated to the early afternoon start time on a Wednesday.
The NL and its fans seem to have an inferiority complex right now, and it’s not undeserved. The league not only lacks the sheer depth and volume of talent of the AL, but seems to get second-class treatment even in terms of scheduling.
Thanks to the day games in this series, Bryce Harper has basically disappeared in the blinding light. It’s strange that the player least removed from playing in high school, under the sun more often than not, would struggle as much as Harper has, but he appears to have utterly psyched himself out. He’s tried smearing his eye black all over his face (a practice he had abandoned this spring), and some radically red-tinted contact lenses, but he’s nonetheless battled to track tricky fly balls, and is obviously not seeing the ball well at the plate.
On the other hand, David Freese is growing his legend by the day. After two doubles in five trips to the plate Wednesday, Freese has a career .390/.488/.753 triple-slash in his post-season career. He’s batting .455 on balls in play in those 87 plate appearances.
Oddly, though Freese is not especially fast, that BABIP (while wacky high and ultimately unsustainable) is actually a part of his skill set. He has a .359 BABIP in the regular season in his career. This, again, from an only modestly athletic 29-year-old. It’s partially about bat speed, and partially about Freese being part of a generation that gladly trades a slice of its contact rate for harder contact when they make it.
However, it’s also very likely about Freese’s unique ability to hit the ball hard from foul line to foul line. In absolute terms, he is at his best when he pulls the ball. Virtually every hitter is. Relative to league averages in those splits, though, he’s much better hitting the ball to center and right fields (three percent above average when pulling, 65 percent better going back up the middle, 40 percent better hitting the other way). Teams seem to have great trouble getting out of standard, one-size-fits-all defensive positioning philosophies against him.
Freese is but one cog of the Cardinals’ run-scoring machine. They have a bloc of exceptionally well-rounded, multidimensional threats in their lineup. Jon Jay, Allen Craig and Freese may find their success fleeting, as each established themselves fairly late in the life of a ball player. Craig and Jay are each 27. Freese will turn 30 early next season. Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran and Yadier Molina, though, all have long track records and broad skill sets. Even if Craig, Jay and Freese aren’t long-term stars, they’re very good right now. This team would score against anyone.
That said, it’s important to make note of the man they don’t have to face in this series. Stephen Strasburg wouldn’t even need to start in order to have a profound impact on this series. It may not even have been the best way he might have done so. The Cards tend to stack Holliday, Craig, Molina and Freese in the heart of their order, and since the Nats lack a dominant right-handed specialist in relief, Strasburg could have come in once or twice in the series to now down that quartet in a key spot. Alas, he’s been shut down.
Don’t weep for Washington if they get knocked out by St. Louis. They certainly won’t do so. If this opportunity–the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 1981, when they played in another country and their fans had a different first language–were sacrosanct to them, if it meant that much, they would not have asked their best player to put on a bulletproof vest and a hoodie starting in mid-September.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, are simply the best-run franchise in professional sports. Without overwhelming resources, they identify and sign exactly the talented free agents they need each winter. They have been better at long-term reclamations of seemingly lost pitchers than any other team in baseball the last 15 years. They have an excellent scouting and player development operation, and not in a vague way: they find great talents other teams do not see, then get as much out of them as is remotely imaginable.
Yet, they never sacrifice today for tomorrow. Their great good fortune, hard-earned by a quarter-century of doing the above well, is to have such a relentlessly strong organization as to never need to rebuild. They saw a window to win big in what they already knew would be Albert Pujols’ last season in St. Louis in 2011, so even after Adam Wainwright went down for the year in February, they pushed hard. They asked Lance Berkman to condition himself well enough to play right field every day. He did it. They asked Pujols to play third base four times. He did it. They rode Chris Carpenter harder, in terms of total seasonal batters faced, than any pitcher had been ridden since Randy Johnson in 2001. They traded Colby Rasmus for Edwin Jackson, Mark Rzepczynski and Octavio Dotel (plus some detritus floating on each direction), and installed Jon Jay as their everyday center fielder. They upgraded at shortstop, too, by adding Rafael Furcal.
It all worked. Tony La Russa managed his bullpen (his whole staff, really), better than anyone who occupied opposing dugouts during the playoffs, and Freese and Pujols carried the day.
After waving farewell to their lone superstar in December, the team simply slid Berkman in to first base, signed Beltran and effectively filled the hole in their outfield that had threatened to crop up when they traded Rasmus. Their overuse of Carpenter caught up to them, and he missed the bulk of 2012, but Wainwright’s return and Kyle Lohse’s sterling walk-year performance allowed them to overcome that loss.
Now they’re back at the door of the NLCS, having treated their fans and their success with much more respect than did the Nationals, and they have done so without hurting themselves in the long run. They have Shelby Miller on the playoff roster as an injury replacement and long reliever, but by next season, he might be one of the 25 best starters in the NL. They also have Oscar Taveras, arguably the best offensive prospect in baseball, at the cusp of big-league readiness for next year.
St. Louis is not invincible. Their bullpen is fairly thin this year, especially so now that Jaime Garcia has been removed from the NL playoff roster due to injury and they have filled his rotation slot from their relief ranks. Their middle infield remains a dubious patchwork, albeit an effective one recently. Pete Kozma may have a full October of magic beans, but it’s unlikely. Daniel Descalso and Skip Schumaker add up to one good player up the middle, perhaps, bit neither is very good alone. Nonetheless, it’s hard not to think they’re in the best position of all eight teams at this moment.
Giants at Reds: 8-3 San Francisco
The Giants are a very interesting team. I got into a discussion on Twitter about their offense, which has been grossly underrated all season, and is just very difficult to get an accurate picture of. They scored a lower percentage of their total runs on homers in the regular season than any other team in baseball, but of course, that has a lot to do with their home park. It just isn’t possible to hit home runs from deep left-center field to straight-away right field at AT&T Park on a consistent basis. The offense thrives most when Buster Posey and Angel Pagan and Pablo Sandoval and Brandon Belt rack up extra-base hits, regardless of species. This is especially true in the post-Melky era of Giants offense.
On the other hand, the team actually has more decent OBP guys than you might suspect. The 2010 Giants these ain’t. Back then, Aaron Rowland, Nate Schierholtz and Juan Uribe played every day with an average OBP around .300. This year, Ryan Theriot (.316) lost his gig mid-season to Marco Scutaro (.385), and the only OBP sink in the lineup (Hunter Pence, .287 since behind dealt westward) is a guy you expect to snap out of it any minute. San Francisco finished with 718 regular-season runs, 35 more than the average NL club, and tied with St. Louis for the best park-adjusted OPS in the league.
It cuts the other way, too. The 2010 Giants these ain’t. Matt Cain was John Smoltz in his first postseason trip; he’s been more human this time. Jonathan Sanchez missed so many bats that he could hide some of his flaws really well in 2010. He’s gone, and Ryan Vogelsong is not the same sort of well-tuned playoff pitching machine. Barry Zito got the start in Game 4 Wednesday, recording all of eight outs. He took the spot that should have gone to the man who pitched the bulk of Zito’s relief, Tim Lincecum.
Oh yeah, Tim Lincecum! He’s hardly what he was in 2010 either, but on Wednesday, he did his best 2010 Tim Lincecum impression. His velocity ticked up in relief, and he fanned six Reds without a walk over 4.1 innings. It was a terrific example of what it can do for a guy to not have to pace himself as much, and a big vote for using pitchers more flexibly, especially but not exclusively in October. Lincecum now has a 1.42 ERA in two relief outings, and (if wishing made it so) said he would be ready if the team needed him Thursday.
Kevin Goldstein, who now works in the pro scouting department for the Houston Astros, said while he worked for Baseball Prospectus that Lincecum would have been a great candidate to become, if you will, the modern Mike Marshall. Goldstein felt, and spoke to scouts who saw Lincecum in college and felt, that Lincecum could pitch well over 100 innings a year as a high-leverage, completely malleable relief weapon. The Giants should have started Lincecum in this series, but now that they have gone down another road, they should pursue the course aggressively and get him into the game when it matters Thursday. The 2010 Giants these ain’t. Brian Wilson is on the shelf. The bullpen is not now what it was two years ago. If Guillermo Mota takes the mound in a winner-take-all game, you’re doing it wrong.
Meanwhile, the Reds seem to be reeling. They probably should have brought Mat Latos back after his relief appearance in Game 1 to pitch Wednesday. They started Mike Leake instead, and he faced 20 batters, retiring only 13, striking out only one.
Joey Votto is still a great hitter, but it’s clear his knee is not 100 percent. He can get on base, but when he feels pressure to drive on runs, he favors the knee, and slows down his swing in an effort to swing harder, since he can’t swing faster and keep the balance necessary to drive the ball.
The 2010 Reds these ain’t. Roy Halladay may have no-hit them, but that team led the NL in OBP and runs. This version calls Zack Cozart a second hitter, and the fadeout of Scott Rolen is conspicuous. Their bullpen is excellent, but they don’t have a long man (particularly not now that Johnny Cueto is shelved), so they need a good start from Latos.
As implied above, I expect St. Louis to oust Washington. Whichever of those teams ultimately advances, though, I would favor them over the winner of this series at this stage. St. Louis-San Francisco and Cincinnati-Washington are the interesting potential matchups.
Orioles at Yankees: 3-2 YankeesM
If I had only had the good sense to bet, on July 31, that the last recent alumnus of the Chicago Cubs organization left in the playoffs would be neither Ryan Dempster (Rangers), nor Paul Maholm (Braves), but Orioles Rule V pick Ryan Flaherty… well, if that, nothing. Because you might actually get paid on such a bet, but you’ll have to fork over everything you made in hospital bills.
Anyway, the Orioles plowed straight ahead with a laughably, hysterically, just ridiculously untenable offensive framework again on Wednesday. They once again got virtually their entire offense from the bottom third of their order. Flaherty and Manny Machado homered, but that was it.
They still got within one out of winning the game. The story of this series isn’t that Oriole magic has evaporated, but that they have tested its limits so ardently, and the series is somehow not over. Baltimore is 22-106 in this series, with three walks and five extra-base hits as a team. They have scored eight total runs.
Still, they won once. They have been outperforming their expectations based on runs scored and allowed all year. What changed? What’s wrong?
Jim Johnson can’t fool the Yankees, is what. He’s a one-inning reliever who strikes out roughly 70 percent as many batters, as a percentage of the number faced, as an average reliever. That’s not a sustainable model for success in the modern game. The Yankees have seen a lot of him this year, they are better hitters than he is a pitcher, and it has caught up to Baltimore two games in three.
I want to talk about Rodriguez and Ibanez, but first, let’s look at the ninth inning from the Baltimore perspective. Miguel Gonzalez gave the team seven excellent frames, lending Baltimore flexibility in their use of relievers from then on. They had a one-run lead. Darren O’Day worked the eighth, and cruised through on 12 pitches.
Stop. Here we are. It’s the AL, so no worry about the pitcher batting. The Yankees had Ichiro, Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano due in the ninth. Importantly, Ichiro is the exceptionally rare batter with a true reverse platoon split skill. O’Day is a better pitcher than Johnson. Both have large platoon splits. What do you do?
Showalter did what every manager does. He inserted his closer. Joe Girardi knew Johnson wasn’t going to be lifted from the game, and ambushed Showalter with a pinch-hitter for whom Johnson had no answer. Raul Ibanez is forever famous because Showalter did that.
Here’s how I would have played that, as Showalter. O’Day stays in the game. He has dominated Rodriguez all season. It is to 2012 as Octavio Dotel and Ryan Braun were to 2011. He would probably have gotten Ichiro, and then Girardi could, if he had chosen, made the same substitution he actually made.
Only I would have also had Brian Matusz warming for that possibility. Girardi would have had to choose between Ibanez v Matusz and Rodriguez v O’Day, and there’s just no way he sends up Ibanez if you make him make that choice. Matusz would then come in to face Cano. It may be unconventional, but you can ask Tony La Russa: Unconventional wins in October. Showalter lost a chess match with a man who is pretty easy to beat in chess, and as a result, the Orioles are Joe Saunders against Phil Hughes from going home.
Now, about A-Rod: He’s clearly nowhere near 100 percent. DHing him in favor of Eric Chavez was a fine stroke, but the Yankees might be better off without him Thursday. It requires no lineup adjustment: Saunders is a southpaw, so you let Rodriguez start. Then, much earlier than the ninth inning, Raul Ibanez pinch hits. Get him in as soon as the Orioles turn things over to their almost completely right-handed rotation.
Rodriguez didn’t object to being pulled. He acknowledged it was the right move. That’s an admission of defeat. Let him be Willis Reed later on, but for now, Chavez and Ibanez have to play ahead of him.
In another time, I would recommend yanking Rodriguez from the series roster. Nowadays, pitcher usage has ravaged the depth of usable position players all the way down teams’ 40-man rosters, so there’s no viable option waiting for the call. But Rodriguez must be relegated to pinch-hitting and decoy duty in order for New York to win the pennant.
Tigers at A’s: 4-3 Oakland
Detroit had a long look at a very nice scenario Wednesday night. They led mid-game in Oakland, the Yankees trailed, and one could see the way clear to a three-day break before starting the ALCS. Meanwhile, the Yankees were staring at the probable need to go five games to beat Baltimore, and CC Sabathia would have been available no sooner than Game 3 of the Championship Series, and that on short rest. Detroit would have been able to start Justin Verlander on extended rest in Game 1, likely stealing a game in New York.
Then the worm turned. The Tigers have a poor defense and a weak bullpen, and the A’s exploited both. The Yankees won, the A’s won, and now Detroit faces its worst-case scenario. They have to send Verlander to the hill in a road game to save the season. Even if he does it, he’s now unavailable in the potential ALCS until Game 3. The Yankees could well close out Baltimore Thursday, and the times would have completely reversed.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that no team has any right to feel as confident headed into QuadHead2 as Detroit. Prince Fielder has snapped out of a mini-slump into which he had fallen at the end of September. Verlander is pitching. This team might have a better top three (leaving out Anibal Sanchez there) in its rotation than any other remaining contestant. If Chris Carpenter keeps ramping back up, the Cardinals would also have a case, but for now, it’s Detroit.
The Tigers match up well with everyone left, save St. Louis and San Francisco. But that won’t matter if the coin lands on tails for them in Game 5.
The A’s will share history’s spotlight on 2012 with the Orioles, no matter what happens Thursday. The new playoff format changed those two clubs’ seasons perhaps more than it changed those of any others. Both teams are compelling for their unexpected, even unsustainable success, which each sustained for a full season. Both are the kind of teams we remember, not despite their flaws, but because of them.
It’d be great to see those two in the ALCS, but the way to bet (and the more legitimate contest for the American League championship) is Tigers-Yankees. I put my picks down on a notepad, but not yet on the Internet, so here they are:
Cards over Nats
Reds over Giants (want that one back right now, but too late)
Cards over Reds
Tigers over A’s
Yankees over O’s
Tigers over Yankees
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