After yesterday’s late-game heroics in Washington and New York, the first round of the 2012 playoffs has been deemed a rousing success. Thanks to Jason Werth, Manny Machado, and JJ Hardy we were guaranteed to have all four Divisional Series end with game 5’s. The first two game 5’s were full of excitement as well. In the National League, the Giants completed their comeback from 2-0 down thanks to some nifty bullpen work and a Buster Posey moonshot grand slam, while over in the AL, Justin Verlander struck out 11 A’s en route to a 6-0 win. Tonight we have another pair of fantastic looking pitching match-ups on our hands. In New York, the Orioles nominal ace Jason Hammel takes the mound against former Cy Young winner CC Sabathia in a series that’s featured surprisingly little offense thus far. In the nation’s capital, Cy Young candidate Gio Gonzalez looks to give Washington its first playoff series since the 1924 World Series. He faces Adam Wainwright, who was one of the top-3 pitchers in the National League in 2009 and 2010 before having Tommy John surgery a year-and-a-half ago. San Francisco and Detroit await in the League Championship Series. Let’s take a look at which aces are best suited to punch their team’s ticket to the next round.
Baltimore Orioles – New York Yankees
Jason Hammel – 8-6, 3.43 ERA, 123 ERA+, 118 IP, 113 K, 42 BB, 2.69 K/BB
Hammel has had some decent success against the Yankees this season (3.94 ERA) and aptly displayed why in his game 1 start. He went 5.2 innings allowing just 2 runs while striking out 5, which pretty much mimics most of his outings against the Yankees this year. Hammels does a good job mixing his breaking pitches, a slider and curveball, in with his fastball to keep Yankee hitters off-balance. Expect him to attack the Bronx Bombers in a similar fashion tonight, with around a 50%-50% split between his off-speed stuff and his fastball.
Hammel’s steady diet of breaking pitches is highly effective against the Yankees fastball-hungry lineup. Raul Ibanez is 0-11 this year (including playoffs) against Hammel, which means Girardi should probably relegate him to the pinch-hitting role again. Ibanez has seen a heavy dose of low-and-away sliders from Hammel this season, and they appear to be his kryptonite. Alex Rodriguez has had problems with the Baltimore starter as well. The Yankee 3rd baseman has just 2 singles and 4 walks in 15 plate appearances against the Baltimore right-hander. Other Yankee hitters like Ichiro and Derek Jeter have done a solid job against Hammel, but for the most part he’s been able to prevent the Yankees’ middle of the order from doing any major damage, which is the best way to shut them down.
UPDATE: Alex Rodriguez is out of the starting lineup tonight. Eric Chavez will take his spot at 3rd base and Raul Ibanez will be the DH. Chavez is 1-6 in his career against Hammel, although that 1 hit his a home run.
CC Sabathia – 15-6, 3.38 ERA, 124 ERA+, 200 IP, 197 K, 44 BB, 4.48 K/BB
The big left-handed ace is on an absolute roll right now, dominating all hitters in his path. He’s gone at least 8 innings in his last 4 starts, allowing 2 runs or fewer in each start, while striking out at least 7 hitters. Prior to his game 1 start, CC had struggle a little bit with the Orioles this year, posting a 6.38 ERA and an 0-2 record against the orange-cladded division rivals. Adam Jones and JJ Hardy both hit Sabathia with a good amount of consistency during the regular season, and Matt Wieters took him deep as well.
Game 1 was a different story however. CC threw 120 pitches, coming 1 out shy of a complete game while striking out 7 batters and allowing just 2 runs. Sabathia leaned heavily on his change-up, throwing it a season-high 31 times in order to properly sedate the Orioles hitters into a mirage of pop-ups and weak ground balls. Sabathia did an excellent job of pitching to the knees as well, keeping the ball down in the zone and inside the park against an Orioles lineup that loves to go deep. Lew Ford will probably get the call to DH again, because he has absolutely light Sabathia up like a Christmas tree this year. Including the playoffs, the former Twins castoff is 6-11 against CC with 2 doubles and a homer.
I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Buck Showalter play the odds and move Ford up in the lineup on a hunch. Everything else he’s done this year has payed off big time for the O’s, and that’s what makes this team so dangerous. They play solid defense thanks to having excellent glove men at shortstop (JJ Hardy) and catcher (Matt Wieters), and the O’s are playing with house money at this point. Nobody thought they’d be here.
However, with all that being said, I’ve been yelling “Regression, Regression!!!! at this team all year, and I think the Yankees are the more talented team with a pitcher, CC Sabathia, who’s dealing better than everyone this side of Justin Verlander. I think the Yankees will advance.
St. Louis Cardinals – Washington Nationals
Adam Wainwright – 14-13, 3.94 ERA, 97 ERA+, 198.2 IP, 184 K, 52 BB, 3.54 K/BB
Adam Wainwright spent most of 2009 and 2010 dominating National League hitters with an absolutely devastating curveball. The pitch was not only devastating to National League hitters, but to Wainwright’s elbow as well, and he missed the entirety of the 2011 championship season after having Tommy John. This year the right-hander has come back with an inconsistent vengeance. He’s piled up strikeouts at a near elite rate, but far too often, Wainwright has left hangers just begging to be hit over the middle of the plate. All of which is normal for pitcher’s in their first year after Tommy John.
He’s been better lately, and if last Sunday’s game 1 performance is any indication, the big strikeout ability hasn’t gone anywhere. Wainwright only lasted 5.2 innings but he struck out an impressive 10 Nationals hitters while allowing just 1 run. He worked around 6 of hits and a couple of walks by using his big curveball to dominate the Washington lineup whenever trouble came up. Wainwright threw the pitch just 28 times according to Brooks-Baseball.com and generated a ludicrous 14 whiffs on the pitch. Many of Washington’s young hitters, guys like Bryce Harper and Danny Espinosa, love to swing at the first pitch and can be easily fooled with a good breaking ball. Look for the Cardinals and Wainwright to continue to take advantage of the National’s overaggressiveness on offense.
Gio Gonzalez – 21-8, 2.89 ERA, 137 ERA+, 199.1 IP, 207 K, 76 BB, 2.72 K/BB
Gonzalez was acquired in a brilliant offseason trade with the Oakland A’s that has paid off nicely for both teams so far. The Nationals got a hard-throwing strikeout machine in Gonzalez while the A’s added Tommy Millone and Derek Norris, two key cogs in Oakland’s surprising 2012 AL West title run. Gonzalez was nowhere near his best in game 1, but he was still able to plow throw 5 innings of 2-run ball while working around 7 walks. Gonzalez was all over the map with his curveball, locating it for a strike just 5 times in 19 total attempts at the pitch, while inducing no swing-and-misses with it. The Cardinals have a deep and patient lineup of professional hitters who know how to grind out at bats, which means Gio will need better command tonight if he wants to come away victorious.
The entire Stephen Strasburg debate should also be put to bed now as well. The Nationals would have picked Gonzalez as their #1 starter entering the playoffs even if the former #1 overall pick was still available. Gonzalez posted a lower ERA over the course of the season while allowing fewer hits and home runs per 9 innings. He probably would have been the pick no matter what. We’re all disappointed we don’t get to see what Strasburg would do under the bright lights of October, but on the bright side, there’s always next year.
As far as tonight’s game 5 goes. I think the Cardinals have proven time after time that they should be trusted in these big game situations. St. Louis has the offensive firepower and patience to get to Gio, especially if the National’s ace struggles with his control. As fun as it would be to see Washington’s first playoff series win since the 1924 World Series, I think St. Louis will prevail.