The first round of the baseball playoffs – known as the League Divisional Series (LDS) – have just finished and already, the games have provided a nail-biting cornucopia, enough surprises and thrills to last an entire postseason. There have been lots of extra-inning games, one-run games, lead reversals, nervous ninths, late-inning heroics, close plays, strategic brilliance and managerial blunders, clutch-hitting and clutch-whiffing, great pitching and fielding and not-so-great pitching and fielding. Even some of the bad plays have at least been startling and dramatic, not to mention occasionally bizarre and even ironic, such as catcher Buster Posey being involved as a runner in two key outs at the plate, both of which were so close they needed slo-mo reviews. It was the horrific injury to Posey several years ago while blocking the plate that led to the new rule requiring catchers to leave a sliding lane for an oncoming runner – how odd that he would be on the other end of this twice in one series.
None of the games have been boring, so where to start? The first Orioles-Tigers game last Thursday ended up with the laugher score of 12-3, but was a one-run game – 4-3, Orioles entering the bottom of the eighth, when all hell broke loose. There was a double and a Tigers’ error, they yanked Max Scherzer and Baltimore immediately got to Detroit’s fire-brigade of a bullpen, starting with chief arsonist Joba “The Hutt” Chamberlain, who’s looking more and more like an extra from one of the Lord of the Rings movies. Pretty soon it was 6-3 and I went to take care of some peace-keeping domestic missions, figuring the game was over. I was right, only more so than I thought – when I returned, it was still the same inning, the Orioles had sent about ten guys to the plate, and it was 12-3. What the —–?
I can’t recall seeing a playoff team as unbalanced as the Tigers, with such obvious strengths – a star-studded hitting lineup and starting rotation – and equally glaring weaknesses – a leaky bullpen and shoddy defense. Having the past three Cy Young Award winners starting the first three games is great, but saddling them with such combustible relievers is like accompanying Chateaubriand with “Two-Buck Chuck”, or owning three Kentucky Derby winners, but insisting that 220-pound jockeys do the riding.
The same bullpen collapse happened in the eighth inning of Game Two, with the Tigers leading 6-3. The Orioles scored a run on a single and a double, the Tigers yanked Justin Verlander in favour of “The Hutt” and before you could say “Hal Newhouser”, Delmon Young lashed a bases-loaded three-run double to the left-field fence, which J.D. Martinez bobbled just long enough to allow J.J. Hardy to score what would be the winning run on a close play at the plate.
The Tigers tried a new recipe in Game Three, letting David Price pitch eight innings and skipping over the pyromaniacs to give the ball directly to closer Joe Nathan – not exactly lights-out himself all season – in the ninth. There was only one problem – the score was already 2-0 Orioles, thanks to their secret “anti-Tiger” weapon, Nelson Cruz, who hit a two-run bomb earlier off Price, his eighth career postseason homer against the Tigers. Detroit made it close by rallying to score a run in their half of the ninth and left a couple of men on, but, given their flaws, I can’t really say I’m surprised by their early exit.
Many were surprised by the Royals’ sweep of the Angels, but I wasn’t, not really. The Angels have a history of bowing out of the playoffs early (often at the hands of the Red Sox) and the Royals have been playing razor-sharp baseball, especially with their confidence sky-high after the inspired comeback win against the A’s in the wild card game. The Angels played great baseball through August and most of September, but lost two of their key young starters to injury down the stretch and their offense, which had been beating people up, cooled in the closing two weeks.
People make much of the fact the Royals are a track team that led all of baseball with 153 stolen bases while hitting just 95 home runs (the only team with fewer than 100) – but there’s much more to them than speed. They’re alert and defensively gifted, have excellent starting pitching and a terrific three-headed bullpen in Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland. Their lack of power is deceptive – although they seem to win games mostly with the stolen base and other small-ball tactics, they still have some guys who can bash the ball in Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler and Alex Gordon. They stole seven bases in beating the A’s, but overlooked amid all the running was that the key blow was a triple by Hosmer in the twelfth which just missed being a home run. And it’s not how many home runs you hit, but when you hit them that counts. The Royals’ pitchers limited the Angels to just one run in each of the first two games in Anaheim; Moustakas hit an eleventh-inning solo homer to win the first game and Hosmer hit a two-run shot in the eleventh to win the second one. They each hit a home run in the clinching third game, but the key blow was a screaming three-run double by Gordon in the first inning that put the Royals ahead for good and drove Angels’ starter C.J. Wilson from the game. So, two eleven-inning squeakers and a mild blow-out and the Angels’ season was very suddenly over, their slugging triumvirate of Mike Trout (1 for 12), Albert Pujols (2 for 12) and Josh Hamilton (a totally disinterested 0 for 11) utterly overmatched and useless.
With four series happening simultaneously, the first round is a crowded place and Friday offered a Falstaffian baseball banquet – four games, stretching from before noon till after midnight. The games overlapped and bled into each other, so unless you had two TVs in the same room, you couldn’t see all the action, even if you could last that long. I managed to catch the last half of the Tigers-Orioles game and most of the Nationals-Giants opener, which was a taut, minimal affair. The Giants opened a 3-0 lead with runs in the third, fourth and seventh innings, then withstood a Washington rally in the bottom of the seventh, which consisted of a tape-measure bomb to the third deck by Bryce Harper, followed one batter later by another solo shot by Asdrubal Cabrera, both struck off a fire-balling rookie reliever named Hunter Strickland. The Giants won 3-2 and these two teams seemed very evenly matched, just how evenly we would find out the next day.
The opener of the Dodgers-Cards series was not on “regular” TV but exclusively on the MLB Network, which my long-suffering wife Anna took the trouble to find out we actually get on the “non-sports-lair” TV upstairs, much to my shock. The Cards hit a surprise early homer off Clayton Kershaw, but when I tuned back in the score was 6-1 Dodgers in the sixth, they’d touched up Adam Wainwright pretty good. The way Kershaw has been pitching, I figured the game was all but over and I tuned out to watch something else with Anna, which was, at least in baseball terms, a mistake. The Cardinals shocked everyone by suddenly scoring eight runs in the seventh, the crucial hit being a bases-clearing double off Kershaw by Matt Carpenter, who had also hit a solo homer off Kershaw in the sixth. Anna, of all people, tuned back into the game later only to find the score was 10-9 Cardinals in the bottom of the ninth. I couldn’t believe it, but should know better by now, it’s baseball. It was pretty exciting, the Dodgers had a man on third with two out and Yasiel Puig at the plate, but Trevor Rosenthal fanned the Cuban Flame to end the game.
I should have remembered that the Cardinals handed Kershaw his head in the sixth and final game of last year’s NLCS in Dodger Stadium, scoring seven runs off him en route to a 9-0 blowout. Kershaw led his league in ERA this year for the fourth straight season, surpassed only by Sandy Koufax, with five straight. During the regular season, he’s as good a pitcher as you’ll see, but his October resume is disastrous and the Cardinals have a lot to do with this. After this year’s Game Four loss, his postseason record is 1-5, with an ERA of 5.11, but against St. Louis in October, he’s 0-3 with an ERA over 9.00.
I never thought I’d say this and it pains me to admit it, but Saturday’s eighteen-inning marathon between the Giants and Nationals, clocking in at a postseason record of six hours and twenty-three minutes, gave me more baseball in a single game (two games really) than I could handle. It had me crying “uncle” by about the fifteenth, my backside and lower extremities totally numb, my mind a blank desert corridor of stranded base-runners and futile swings, my eyes cobwebbed rumours, drool running everywhere. You just knew it would end with someone hitting a solo homer, it was that kind of game where neither team seemed capable of stringing any sequence of hits together. By about the four and-a-half-hour mark – say the thirteenth inning or so – I began playing superstitious games with myself to speed it along to a conclusion. I figured if I crossed my left leg over my right, maybe the Nationals would hit a homer to end it and when that didn’t work, I reversed it to see if the Giants would take the lead. I tried everything – slippers on, slippers off, only sipping coffee between innings, undoing the top button of my shirt after the first batter of each inning – but still it lurched on, Wilson Ramos continuing to strike out swinging at pitches so far outside he might as well have been blindfolded.
It had started as an extreme pitcher’s duel between Tim Hudson of the Giants, who’s basically Roy Halladay with less hardware, and Jordan Zimmerman, the longest-tenured Nationals pitcher, who threw a stunning no-hitter on the last day of the season. Hudson started the season very strong, but injuries affected his delivery and mechanics and led to a dreadful 2-13 second half. His manager Bruce Bochy must have rubbed some of the magic, even-year October-Giants elixir on Hudson’s pitching arm because he tossed a great game, giving up just one run and striking out eight in seven and two-thirds innings.
Zimmerman was even better, he had a shutout going and walked his first batter after retiring the first two Giants in the top of the ninth. Incredibly, that was enough for manager Matt Williams to come trundling out and pull him from the game after just 100 pitches. This will sound like second-guessing after what ensued, but I didn’t like it at the time, actually sitting there alone as a grown man asking the TV screen, “Williams, what are you doing !?”. Zimmerman had total command of the game and just one more out to get, and with Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval due up, Williams wanted to turn it over to a pitcher who had just warmed up? I didn’t get it, even if that pitcher was Drew Storen, who’s normally reliable. Posey promptly lined a sharp single and then Sandoval, who looks like a bean-bag chair with legs, but has a growing October resume as a great clutch-hitter, bashed a double into the right-field corner which cashed Joe Panik with the tying run and very nearly Posey with the go-ahead run, it was bang-bang at the plate. The umpire called him out, but it could have gone either way. There was a review, but the video evidence didn’t show enough to overturn the call. Even so, the game was tied and the park grew deathly silent; just inches from death, the Giants had snatched life.
And so the game went into extras, and on and on in a battle of attrition, each team stranding base-runners and going through pitchers like sunflower seeds – the Nationals used nine and the Giants eight. The pitching hero for the Giants was one of their starters, Yusmeiro Petit, who actually had a “quality start” in relief – six innings pitched, one hit, zero runs, three walks and seven strikeouts – not something you see every day. By the fifteenth inning, my arse felt like a tortured and seared piece of coral reef and it finally dawned on me that maybe I should stand up, maybe go do something else for a while, I couldn’t take anymore. In all likelihood, someone would win this game eventually, if not that night, then maybe the next day. When they say that baseball can be riveting, they don’t actually mean that you’re literally riveted to your seat, it just felt that way. I went upstairs to look in on Anna, who couldn’t believe that I was still actually watching the same game that had started at 5:40 – it was now about 11:00. We watched some Mad Men and after an episode, I switched back to the game just as Brandon Belt was circling the bases after homering off Tanner Roark. Normally, I would be fairly certain that this would have decided it, but the way things have been going with improbable late rallies this October, I wasn’t sure and the Nationals have some hitters who can park one too – Harper, Jayson Werth, Adam LaRoche. But Bochy brought in Strickland, still confident in his stuff even after he’d surrendered the two homers the day before, and he retired the side with some serious heat to earn the save, just after midnight. Hummmmmdinger.
If I were the betting type, I would have put the house on the Giants sweeping the series back at home, with Madison Bumgarner on the mound. And I would have lost, of course it didn’t work out that way. Bumgarner did pitch well – it was tied 0-0 in the seventh inning, when the game turned on his ill-fated decision to field a Wilson Ramos bunt and throw to third base rather than taking the sure out at first. His throw went badly wide – Sandoval looked like a suddenly collapsing lawn chair trying to snag it – and two runners scored as it skittered down the right-field line and rolled around. The Nationals added another run right away and later Bryce Harper hit another monster shot, the Giants managed a late run in losing 4-1. It was an uncharacteristic stumble by the Giants, who have a lot of people talking about their October mojo in even years – champs in 2010 and 2012 – and looking poised and opportunistic this year too, right up until Bummer’s gaffe. So far, they’d stolen one game and given another right back.
Mostly because of timing, the series I saw the least of was the Dodgers/Cards, which was edgy and packed with drama – three one-run games, the other ending up 3-1, with almost all of the decisive action coming late in each game. What is it with the Cardinals and the seventh inning this year? It was just ridiculous, the only time they didn’t score big in the seventh was in the second game, which they lost – Matt Carpenter hit his game-tying two-run shot in the eighth, only to see Matt Kemp give the Dodgers back the lead in the bottom half with a solo homer, 3-2, Dodgers. Carpenter has become one of my very favourite players, and not just because of his brilliance in this series – .500, with three homers and seven RBI in four games. He’s a throwback, a sharp-eyed, twitchy player in the mold of past Cardinal slash-and-dash third sackers – Pepper Martin, Whitey Kurowski, Mike Shannon, Ken Reitz – a leadoff hitter with speed and pop who has a habit of coming up big and is pretty much a Dodger-killer at this point.
I managed to see the last few innings of Games Three and Four in this series, both of them suddenly turning on home runs by the Cardinals in – when else? – the seventh. The Cards are a less extreme version of their Midwestern neighbours, the Royals. The Cards were second-last in all of baseball with just 105 home runs and also rely on pitching, speed and defense but, like the Royals, can surprise you with their power, hitting seven homers in the four games. Rookie second baseman Kolton Wong broke a 1-1 tie in Game Three with a two-run homer in the seventh off Dodgers’ reliever Scott Elbert, guaranteeing Wong won’t just be remembered for being picked off to end a game in last year’s World Series. And again in the seventh, Matt Adams hit a three-run shot in Game Four off Kershaw, who had been cruising the whole game, to clinch it for the Cards, 3-2. The two teams were very even, the difference in the Series was really the relief pitching – the St. Louis relievers were airtight after Game One, whereas the Dodgers’ pen was shaky and cost them when they went to it in Game Three and, because of a lack of confidence, when they didn’t in Game Four. There’s something rotten in the state of Dodgerville though, they don’t seem like a team so much as a collection of highly paid and self-interested superstars mingled with some grinding role-players, whereas the Cardinals are all role-players, some of whom perform like superstars when it counts.
The last series to be settled was the Giants-Nationals in Game Four, and the seemingly staid 3-2 final score belied a game packed with surprising and wacky action, plays seldom seen before. The Nationals kept trying to hand the game to the Giants by gifting them scads of base-runners and the Giants kept handing it back by refusing to take advantage of their chances. The first strange play was Ryan Vogelsong’s bunt with two men on in the second inning, which died on the grass about five feet in front of home plate as if the ball was covered in glue. Several Nationals stared at in disbelief as Vogelsong reached first – bases loaded, nobody out. Gio Gonzalez walked Gregor Blanco for one run and Joe Panik grounded out to first for another to make it 2-0, but the Giants missed an opportunity to break the game wide open by making two quick, feeble outs. The Nationals clawed their way back with a run in the fifth inning off Bryce Harper’s sharp double to left and Hunter Pence made an awkward-looking but sensational catch in the sixth inning off Jayson Werth’s deep drive to right. Running as far back as he could then turning to face the ball, he leapt with his back to the wall to snag it, his glove in just the right place. The Giants left the bases loaded again in the bottom of the sixth, when Sandoval struck out on a gutsy inside change-up from Jerry Blevins. Harper and Hunter Strickland resumed their fast-growing history in the seventh and once more Harper took him deep, the ball zooming right out of the park and into the cove, the game tied at two. As he rounded the bases, Harper gave Strickland the gloating stare-down treatment and continued to jabber at him as he headed to the jubilant Washington dugout. I have to say I don’t care for this, or Harper, who’s just 21. Do me a favour Bryce, grow up a little and get a couple of championships under your belt, then crack wise.
Having tied the game, the Nationals promptly resumed their charitable ways by handing the lead right back in the bottom of the seventh. Matt Thornton gave up singles to Panik (calm as ever despite his name) and Buster Posey, then Aaron Barrett came in to pitch and Hunter Pence worked him for a really tough walk – bases loaded again. Then Barrett, looking a little rattled, uncorked a wild one to Sandoval that bounced in the dirt and all the way to the backstop as Panik scored, Posey and Pence advancing. This opened up a base and the Nats decided to intentionally walk Sandoval. But, as Wilson Ramos stood to receive the outside pitch, Barrett threw wildly again and the ball clanged off the catcher’s glove and Posey, understandably surprised, began racing home from third after a slight hesitation. Ramos retrieved the ball quickly and tossed it to Barrett covering the plate, who swiped Posey with the tag just in time to get him – OUT! signalled the ump. This was astounding, I’ve never seen a wild pitch on an intentional walk ever before, never mind in such a crucial situation. And it was Posey again as a runner called out on a close play at the plate, unbelievable. Like the play from the ninth inning of Game Two, there was a challenge and a video review, which upheld the call on the field. This took a while and in the interim the announcers discussed the new rule about catchers blocking the plate and whether this applies to other players covering home, which it should. I thought Posey should have been called safe because Barrett had blocked him, but at any rate the Giants now led 3-2.
The one remaining piece of drama was that Bryce Harper would hit again in the ninth inning and the task for the Giants’ relievers was to make sure he batted with the bases empty and two out, which they took care of. When Harper came up in that very situation in the ninth, I just assumed the Giants would intentionally walk him but they didn’t, not quite. With two quick strikes on Harper, Santiago Casilla gave him four very low pitches and put him on, then induced Ramos to hit a weak grounder to take the game and the series. The Giants and Nationals had each scored the grand total of nine runs in the four games, but typically, the Giants had made theirs count for three wins.
There was some grumbling that with none of the series going the full five games, they were less than satisfying, but I can’t agree. Nine of the twelve games were extremely tight and tense and two of the other three games were very close up until the seventh or eighth inning. The only exception was the Royals’ 8-3 victory over the Angels in Game Three of their series, I don’t see how baseball fans could ask for much more. Miraculously enough, all four of the teams I’d been rooting for went through, which will make the next round interesting.
There’s history between the Cards and Giants dating back to the 2011 NLCS and both have the kind of top-to-bottom pitching that allows them to win games when they score as few as three runs, or even two. This year the Cards look to be the better team by a considerable margin, but it’s tough to bet against Bruce Bochy and the Giants, a battle-hardened, stubborn and proud bunch who don’t particularly care about looking pretty, just about winning. It should be close, something has to give and we’ll see.
The Royals and Orioles matchup provides a rare and intriguing battle between extremes in offensive style. The strengths each team have in common – good starting pitching, excellent defense and airtight relief pitching – cancel each other out, leaving the contrast between the Royals’ speed and the Orioles’ power in bold relief. (I actually think the Royals’ starting pitching and defense are a shade better, but basically it’s a wash.) The Royals not only hit the fewest home runs in baseball, but also drew the fewest walks, not generally a winning combination. However, they made up for this by leading not only in stolen bases with 153, but in infield hits, with 158 – they use their speed and great execution of small-ball fundamentals to exert pressure in all phases, including on defense. The Orioles don’t walk a whole lot either, but led all of baseball with 211 home runs and were dead-last in steals with just 44, so the contrast couldn’t be any greater.
Speed and small-ball rarely win out against raw power, but the Royals are not your average speed-built team, they’re probably the best team assembled along these lines since the Cardinals of the early to mid-’80s. When this style of game is executed this well and is backed up by great pitching and defense like the Royals have shown, it can win. As mentioned earlier, the Royals’ lack of home-run hitting is also deceptive – they have players who can turn on the power, whereas the Orioles are not likely to suddenly turn on any speed. One of the key story lines may be how Baltimore’s young catchers Nick Hundley and Caleb Joseph – each playing in place of the injured all-star Matt Wieters – handle the pressure of K.C.’s relentless running game. The Orioles, with a better record and the extra home-game, have to be favoured but personally, I like the looks of the Royals.
The early exits of the A’s, Angels, Dodgers and Nationals have scuppered some intriguing regional possibilities in the coming World Series. No longer possible are a Beltway series between Baltimore and Washington, a Freeway Series between the two L.A. teams, a Bay Area Series between Oakland and San Francisco or an all-California Series involving the Angels or A’s against the Dodgers or Giants. The one remaining possibility is a rematch of the 1985 Midwest Series between the Royals and Cardinals, which would be great. The two teams are very even and similar in style and play before some of the greatest baseball fans in the country. Or how about an all-black-and-orange final between the Orioles and Giants, in honour of Halloween? I could easily live with that.
Whatever the coming matchups, if the games continue to be as compelling as the ones in this opening round, then we’re in for some baseball of Dickensian proportions.
© 2014, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.