Wednesday and Thursday each gave us the thrill of four playoff games and 12 hours of engrossment. It couldn’t last. (Thank goodness for that small favor, by the way, because I’ve written nearly 8,000 words in the last 50 hours, working around a full-time job, all on my cell phone, and sleep beckons.)
Instead, Friday offered just two games. In each, though, there was the perfect drama of ultimate decision in the balance, and each turned out to be a good game. Here’s a brief recap, summation, and look ahead:
Orioles at Yankees: 3-1 New York
CC Sabathia sliced fairly easily through the Oriole order. No surprise there. Baltimore’s offense, acknowledged all along as having played somewhat over its head, looked simply helpless in this series. They are a one-dimensional group, needing to homer to score. When they lost Nick Markakis for the season in September, the Orioles lost their last vestige of plate discipline and long-sequence offense. It’s fine to have an offense predicated on power, but you have to have better power hitters to pull it off. Mark Reynolds, Chris Davis and Adam Jones had such large holes in their swings, and the Yankees’ pitchers learned so well how to target those holes, that the power never materialized. They collected 34 hits in 182 at-bats during the series, walked eight (!) times, and gained 15 total extra bases through power. The warts showed up in the face of superior competition.
The Yankees weren’t that much better, of course. Strange though it may sound, this team has the best and deepest bench (by a huge, really a shocking margin) of any team still standing. Joe Girardi did not use it well. Raul Ibanez may have saved Girardi’s job Thursday night, but that was about outcomes, not process.
Even in winning on Friday, New York looked tepid at the plate. Curtis Granderson showed a welcome resurgence in power, against a left-hander and at a crucial moment. The top of the order acted a bit more like the top of an order, getting on base and working counts. They still scored only three runs.
Looking ahead, I see a rather disjointed matchup in the ALCS. The Tigers are thin, but have a day’s rest in their favor, and are likely to have the better pitcher on the mound in the first three games of the series. They do not, however, have a left-handed reliever the caliber of Brian Matusz to neutralize Robinson Cano and Granderson.
Since the Tigers’ pitching staff is so overwhelmingly right-handed, expect to keep seeing what you saw of Alex Rodriguez on Friday: a lot of shadowy gotcha shots in the dugout. If Girardi really benched his $30-million third baseman because he felt he would have a better chance with Eric Chavez in the lineup, no matchup is coming in the ALCS to change that equation.
If this series goes to seven games–and it would take a fully possible, even probable, but inherently and entirely unpredictable sudden surge from one aide or the other, far above their recent respective levels of play, in order for that not to happen–the Tigers will get two fully-rested starts from Justin Verlander. The only way the Yankees can get CC Sabathia to the mound twice is to use him on short rest once. That’s a narrow edge for Detroit.
The big Yankee advantage is the bullpen. Detroit’s was poor last year, but might be worse this time. They’re too one-dimensional, too right-handed and too wild. Note that the Yankees won Game 3 because their bullpen shut Baltimore down completely, and that they lost Game 4 only because Girardi removed David Robertson way too early and ran out of talented relievers sooner than was warranted. I picked the Tigers in this series, but the margins are small. If Detroit’s starters make the games their own, Detroit wins. If the decisions go to relievers four times in seven, the pennant will fly over the Bronx.
Cardinals at Nationals: 9-7 St. Louis
Sometimes, winning in the playoffs means extending the game. I talk mostly about short-sequence offense in October, because managers are quicker with their hooks, focus more on matchups and trot out better starters in the first place. All of those things make stringing together a bunch of hits and scoring three runs without power very difficult.
That said, the Cardinals demonstrated Friday night how a team can still benefit from not giving away at-bats. They put a total of 19 runners on base in the game, drawing eight walks. They saw exactly 23 pitches in each of the seventh and eighth innings, and it was on the twenty-third pitch of the top of the ninth that Daniel Descalso tied the game with his two-run single. Descalso and Pete Kozma will be remembered as the heroes of this game, but Yadier Molina and David Freese drew two-out walks while representing the tying and go-ahead run, respectively. Molina’s walk was impressive; Freese’s was truly awesome. You can count on one hand the number of hitters on the four teams who played Friday who would be willing to take ball four in that situation, knowing he was thrusting his team’s final hopes onto a light-hitting second baseman. The only others would be one or two of Freese’s teammates, plus Jayson Werth of Washington.
As an aside, the NLDS were played much better, all things objectively considered, than the ALDS. It wasn’t really close. The aesthetics of play, the pace of the games, the strategies employed and the approaches of all parties to each at bat see simply better. That is not an assault on the superiority of the AL’s talent base. As Joe Sheehan said to me on Twitter recently, the AL remains better because the top-echelon teams have set a higher standard for reaching the postseason. I think that’s still true, although the gap is shrinking. Once the teams reached October, though, at least this time around, the NL has put on a much better, more professional show.
Anyway, kudos to the Cardinals for some excellent offensive methodology. Their bullpen also deserves particular praise, since the Nationals knocked Adam Wainwright out seven outs into a 6-0 blowout. From Wainwright’s exit onward, Washington went 4-24, walking just once, scoring just once. The quick hook and all-hands-on-deck approach was La Russean on Mike Matheny’s part, and I mean that in a good way. It was also necessary, though, as the team decided before the game began that Lance Lynn (their NLCS Game 1 starter) would be unavailable. Matheny thought, and he probably wasn’t wrong, that asking Shelby Miller to enter at such a critical stage would be unfair and unproductive. Beyond that, no one was sufficiently stretched out to fill innings, so Matheny sent in the parade.
Don’t weep for the Nationals; they certainly won’t do so. If GM Mike Rizzo was invested in this season, and cares much about this iteration of the team, he would not have sacrificed Stephen Strasburg on the altar of future pitching health. He did though, and if you don’t think it is one major reason Washington’s season is over, I can’t help you.
Bryce Harper, at least, found his feet in time to enter the off-season without his rough playoff initiation hanging over his head. The skills he put on display this season seem ready to translate into major growth as a 20-year-old. His stat line will be shaped differently, but Mike Trout territory is not off limits to Harper in 2013. A year from now, prepare for some convicted controversy over whether Bryce Harper or Joey Votto should win the NL MVP award.
The Cardinals have a tough task ahead in matching up with the Giants. Wainwright could pitch as soon as Game 3 of that series, given his abrupted start Friday. In the meantime, though, the Cards will be asking Lynn and Chris Carpenter to beat Madison Bumgarner and Tim Lincecum. It’s certainly possible to do so, but in San Francisco, both matchups favor the home nine.
Matheny needs to make some adjustments to his lineup to keep the St. Louis runs machine chugging. He batted Matt Holliday, Allen Craig, Yadier Molina and David Freese in that order, uninterrupted, throughout the Division Series. A run of right-handed batters that long is a bad idea in the playoffs, as it can be exploited by plenty of good right-handed relievers. Craig needs to move up to second in the order, flipping with Carlos Beltran. Then, because David Freese is just a better hitter than Yadier Molina, those two should also flip. Despite San Francisco’s stirring comeback in their series against Cincinnati, I like St. Louis in this one, so long as Matheny puts his charges in position to succeed.Next post: The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty
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