It spelled the end of two teams’ seasons, but for fans whose enjoyment of taut, well-executed baseball runs deeper than the logos on the uniforms, Thursday was a thrill as exquisite as the one Wednesday had been. I’m not going to waste time here. The Games:

Orioles at Yankees: 2-1 Baltimore

We sort of expected the series to unfold this way, on a game-by-game level. The Orioles have been better-managed and have gotten some breaks, so now the series is tied despite the Yankees having outscored Baltimore by four runs in four games. It’s bad science, but one had to figure that whatever voodoo magic has possessed the Orioles this year would help them stay in the series, because they had done it for 163 games already before the series began, and no clear catalyst existed to halt their progress.
The magic was always going to be there, but the Yankees have missed opportunities lately to thwart magic with superior talent. They have a lineup that hits tons of home runs and grinds pitchers into sawdust by the fifth inning. Only the Rays and Braves drew more walks this season, as a percentage of total plate appearances. No team hit as many home runs, either in total or by percentages.
For some combination of reasons, though, they have stopped operating that way the last two games. Raul Ibanez’s home runs stand out so starkly in part because they are virtually the only flashes of real power the team has yet demonstrated. After seeing 186 pitches in 42 plate appearances in Game 1, the team saw the same number in 50 trips Thursday night. The drop is seven fewer pitches seen each time through the lineup.
That’s a problem of approach, but not only a problem of the Yankees’ approach. The Orioles’ pitching staff has also been completely unflinching in their approach to some dangerous hitters. They have poured strikes into the zone, walking just 14 Yankees of the 153 who have come to bat—and two of those intentionally. The distinction between aggressiveness and hyper-aggressiveness in baseball is extraordinarily fine, and right now, the pitchers have the right side of that line in this series. It’s true just as much of the Orioles offense and Yankee pitching staff.
Speaking of the Yankee pitching staff, let’s talk about when the Yankees really lost Game 4. It happened in the top of the ninth inning, when Joe Girardi did something objective analysts of baseball usually love, but in exactly the wrong situation: He brought in Rafael Soriano to pitch in a tie game.
Obviously, that’s not a mistake in and of itself. Soriano’s a very good pitcher, and indeed, he mowed down the O’s for two innings. But Girardi wasn’t inserting Soriano instead of sending Phil Hughes back out for the ninth, or even to replace Boone Logan, who had retired Nate McLouth to finish the seventh. By putting in Soriano, Girardi burned David Robertson, who had so easily cut through the Orioles in the top of the eighth than he had thrown only eight pitches. Eight!
Robertson and Soriano are not exactly the same pitcher, but they’re shockingly close in overall value. By replacing Robertson after eight pitches, Girardi was essentially betting on not going to extra innings. Given the information about his own offense that he should have gleaned from the previous 29 innings of baseball, that was a sucker’s bet. Ron Washington did something similar with Mike Adams in Game 6 of the World Series last season, and it bit him hard.
Girardi got it even worse, as his game stretched into 13 innings. By wasting at least another inning he might have had from Robertson, Girardi set up the eventuality that he’d reach the bottom of his bullpen barrel before Buck Showalter did. That’s what happened, and the Orioles won.
Game 5 will match Jason Hammel and CC Sabathia, who pitched more or less to a draw in Game 1 (although Sabathia got nine more outs). You have to like the Yankees’ chances to win, but the damage has been done, on one level. If New York had finished off Baltimore, CC Sabathia could have started Game 1 of the ALCS Saturday. Now, he takes the mound Friday night instead, and will not be available to pitch against Detroit until at least Game 3, more likely Game 4.
It’s a cruel turn for the team with the best record in each league to get one off day fewer before the start of the LCS than the winner of the other DS. Bud Selig forced the new playoff schedule on us a year early, and the only way to make that work was for the team with the best record (who faced the Wild Card Game winner) to have their Division Series pushed back and their off-day phased out. Probably Selig and company thought a repeat of 2011, when 19 of 20 possible LDS games actually had to be played, would never happen, and they were right: We got all 20 this year. As a result, Verlander and Cain might be able to go twice in seven-game LCSes, but Sabathia, Adam Wainwright and Gio Gonzalez have no such chance.
If Baltimore wins, though, it only narrowly matters. Unlike every other team left in contention, they have no clear ace, so they lose almost nothing by using five games to beat New York. Hammel is better than Wei-Yin Chen, but not by much. Hammel is a much better matchup for Detroit, but then again, matchups don’t matter very much for starters in the playoffs. When the moment of sufficient importance comes, a good manager will get the right matchup guy to the mound out of the bullpen. Short-term advantage: Yankees. Better World Series odds from this moment: Orioles.

Tigers at Athletics: 6-0 Detroit

The Tigers moved on, as expected. The A’s are an exceptionally ill-suited offense to combat Justin Verlander–not that any team is very well-equipped to do that. Verlander is the most dominant baseball player alive at this moment.

Here’s the problem: Jim Leyland managed scared Thursday. Having been burned by Jose Valverde on Wednesday, he let Verlander pitch a complete game in a six-run contest. It was relatively easy, a four-hitter with one walk, but it took 122 pitches.

Verlander might well weather that unnecessary use. He is the most durable pitcher in baseball, and 122 pitches mean less to him than to any other active hurler. Still, pitchers who pitch as much as he does during the regular season rarely avoid some show of fatigue as October wears on. Asking him to do everything when virtually any bullpen in the league this year could have preserved the lead for the last two innings seems foolish.

The A’s strike out too much to avail themselves of the Tigers’ weaknesses, and without Bartolo Colon (testosterone ban) and Brandon McCarthy (hit in the head with a line drive in September), their rotation went from flat (not led by a usual playoff ace) to flat (unexciting, inferior). They’re still a promising organization with scads of good young arms, but they need to address their entire infield before contending more seriously than they just did. The deal they struck with Yoenis Cespedes last winter limits their window for doing so, but they have a lot of the pieces in place. Better health in the rotation, which would have had the ripple effect of pushing some of their starters to the bullpen, might have saved their season. Instead, they look toward 2013.

Giants at Reds: 6-4 Giants

Buster Posey gets the bold-face headline, with good reason. Although he struggled in this series, he’s growing into a strikingly Piazza-like superstar. He had the big blow, against a very good pitcher. This game, though, was a story mostly about Giants pitchers getting into a lot of jams against a good Reds offense, then worming their way out.

The Reds put two on with one out in the first inning, before Cain fanned both Ryan Ludwick and Jay Bruce to get out of the frame. They scored twice in the fifth, but left a runner at second base with one out on the bases when Zack Cozart and Joey Votto couldn’t get the big hit against Cain.

Things really changed in the sixth. The Reds went homer, walk, single to open the frame, and the fourth plate appearance of the inning was decided on Cain’s 25th pitch without an out. On that pitch, though, Dusty Baker somewhat indefensibly had his runners going, and when Ryan Hanigan took strike three, Jay Bruce was dead to rights at third base. George Kontos then replaced Cain, but instead of doing so in an impossible jam, he did it with a single runner on base and two outs. No further damage.

After that, the rallies kept coming, but they never had quite the same feeling of having the Gaints on the ropes. Two singles in the seventh got them no closer. Two singles in the eighth got them no closer. By the time they mounted another rally that even scored a run, they had just two outs with which to work, and it proved to be too late.

The Reds were actually very impressive in the late innings. They gave away not a single at-bat after the six-run outburst that put San Francisco too far out of reach in the fifth. They scored four runs, brought 27 hitters to the plate, saw 136 pitches (a shade over five per batter) and batted .417/.481/.583. They could hardly have done more.

They didn’t lose because of those last five innings, of course. They lost because of the first four. Specifically, let’s look at the bottom of the fourth. Joey Votto led off, and took Cain’s first four pitches. Two were called strikes, but he was making Cain work, and (probably) looking for something he could drive even in his somewhat diminished state, with a bum knee.

Votto went down swinging on the fifth offering, though, and the next three Reds due—veterans all, the heart of the order—all put the first pitch in play. Jay Bruce managed a single, but it was sandwiched by a pop-up to first base (Ludwick) and a grounder to third (Scott Rolen). As they did more than once during the three games they lost at home to blow their shot at the NLCS, the Reds of the fourth inning on Thursday seemed eager to simply dispense with the Giants and move on. They seemed to think winning the first two games of a race to three was enough. They were wrong.

Of course, it runs a bit deeper. Ryan Hanigan is a singularly underrated hitter. He has a .370 career OBP, but no power. He should have batted second during this series, especially Thursday. Zack Cozart is not an acceptable top-of-the-order hitter, and Hanigan suffered in this case from the biases against batting catchers or slow runners second.

Joey Votto also didn’t come up especially big for the Reds in this series, through no fault of his own. He is a true student of the game and one of the best pure hitters in the game. No batter commands the strike zone like him. He had a .500 OBP in this series, including three times on base (two singles and a walk) on Thursday. Missing, though, and missing ever since his knee surgery this summer, was any trace of power. He batted .389 for the series; he slugged .389 for the series. In the seventh and ninth innings of Game 5, he came up with a chance to change the game substantially via extra-base hit—and inadvertently passed the buck by singling each time. Between Votto and Cueto, the Reds lost this season largely for the want of healthy star power.

The Giants won it, as we might have guessed they would, with power and pitching. Ten of their 18 runs in the series came on homers, and their pitching staff racked up a 43:15 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Tim Lincecum should get some honorary mention here. He pitched so deep in relief in Game 4 that the Giants didn’t need to use Sergio Romo. Romo entered Game 5 in the eighth inning, stranded two runners, then saved it in the ninth. He used 35 total pitches, a number that would have spelled disaster is he had pitched the day before.

Going forward, Madison Bumgarner is the easy choice to start Game 1 of the NLCS for the Giants on Sunday. For Game 2, it would behoove San Francisco to reconsider the Barry Zito thing and start Lincecum, who would be on normal rest after pitching Wednesday. Since their ace won’t get a second start unless the LCS reaches Game 7, the Giants need to get Lincecum back into the rotation. If nothing else, considering how the Nationals and Cardinals each hit left-handed pitching, it should be an easy choice. Hey, that felt likea segue, didn’t it?

Cardinals at Nationals: 2-1 Washington

Mike Matheny had essentially no managerial experience, which might seem like an excuse for all the mistakes he has made this season, and even in this series, but wait a minute: Are experienced managers any good at these things, either?

In the playoffs, idiots say, you have to play small ball. You have to execute. You have to focus on pitching and defense. They’re wrong. In the playoffs, because the pitching is better than it is in the regular season, you have to maximize your runs scored when you get opportunities, and you have to give your offense the best chance it can get to score.

Matheny didn’t do it for the Cardinals Thursday. He let Kyle Lohse hit for himself in the seventh inning, with one out, in a tied game. That doesn’t make sense. The Cardinals have perhaps the deepest roster of position players available of any team left standing, but Matheny let Kyle Lohse hit for himself in order to get a few more outs from him before turning things over to the bullpen.

Lohse got those outs, but Matheny replaced him in the eighth inning anyway. Then, in a tied game in the bottom of the ninth, Matheny went to his bullpen again—and came up with Lance Lynn. Lynn has been jerked around all year, used as a starter, then a reliever, then back to the rotation, now back to the bullpen in October, but used in one long and one short outing thus far.

This situation screamed for the closer. In that situation, with the top of the Nationals’ order up, Matheny had one imperative: preserve the tie. Extend the game. Unless it went 11 or longer, no better situation in which to use closer Jason Motte was coming. Yet, Matheny went with Lynn. The Nationals sent up Jayson Werth, in his turn.

The rest is history.

St. Louis has an .815 OPS in this series. Washington has a .608 OPS. The Cardinals have outscored the Nationals 23-9. Yet, thanks to bad decision-making by St. Louis (and very good choices by Washington manager Davey Johnson, who got three smooth outs from usual starter Jordan Zimmermann yesterday), both teams’ seasons hang by the same thin thread.

Tonight will be the first true night game of this series, since Game 1. It’s a good opportunity for Bryce Harper to stop thinking so much—about sightlines, eye black, contacts, and recovering from his slump with one swing—and let the game come to him. The Nationals have few hitters well-equipped to wrestle with Adam Wainwright and his big curve. Harper might be the key to advancing beyond Friday for Washington.


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