Raise your hand if you foresaw a Baltimore-Kansas City ALCS matchup back in April. Anyone? Anybody at all? No? That’s what I thought. It’s a matchup that’s 30 years in the making and it features ball clubs that find a way to win in vastly different ways. The Royals stole more bases than any other team in the league while the Orioles plodded along the base paths, finishing dead last in baseball, 12 behind the next slowest team. Instead the O’s mashed their way to victory, racking up a Major League best 211 homers in the process, more than double the number of dingers hit by Kansas City. Both teams feature solid starting staffs and deep bullpens that have been dynamite this year when protecting a lead. This series has all the makings of a barn burner. So who’s going to win? Let’s take a run-through at some of the more salient points:
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.
How much does momentum matter on a baseball field? Can a team that enters the playoffs at its lowest point top one that’s been riding a hot streak for more than a month now? How much stock do you put into the notion that the team with the most talent eventually wins out? Does being a two-time defending champion with all the benefits of big game experience matter? Or can a team that’s seemingly been playing above its head continue to their magical ways? These are just a sampling of some of the storylines floating around a compelling winner-take-all contest between Texas and Baltimore to kick of the American League playoffs.
As we head into the final two days of the regular season every playoff spot in the
American League has been claimed and still the playoff possibilities remain endless. The dogfight in the AL Central has a victor, with Detroit going all Red Baron on Chicago’s playoff chances, leaving the Sox dead in the water. But in the other two divisions, the fight to stay out of the coin-flip game rages on. New York and Texas are were many prognosticators felt they would be come October, but lurking just a game back in their respective divisions are Baltimore and Oakland, the season’s two biggest surprises. The AL West will have a winner one way or another.
Oakland still has hopes for the biggest division surprise win all time. All the upstart A’s need to do is sweep the two-time defending AL champs in Arlington otherwise the Rangers claim a 3rd straight title. Things are a little more complicated in the AL East, where a combination of either two Yankee wins or Oriole losses will hand the title to the pinstripes. In the event of a tie, both teams will play a game 163, with the winner claiming the division and the loser entering into the coin-flip game. The playoff possibilities are all over the place, with all four of the teams above still in contention for the AL’s best record. In fact, all we know for certain is that Detroit, the AL team with the 7th best record in the league, has the least to sweat out, knowing it will host somebody at Comerica this weekend.
All of which leads us to Friday, October 5th, the date the Wild Card game is scheduled to take place. Baltimore, New York, Oakland, and Texas would all prefer to avoid playing that day, but two of those teams will be left holding the short straws. At that point they will have a decision to make. Who do we start with everything on the line? Let’s take a look at the best option for each franchise.
The Baltimore Orioles, tied for 1st in the AL East, are in action today and currently involved in yet another extra innings game, this time against the 3rd place Tampa Bay Rays. The Orioles are 80-62 and just 2 wins from their first season over .500 since 1997, but they have the run differential of a 69-73 teams, because they’ve been outscored by 21 runs. It’s a baffling feat, particularly in the AL East, which is routinely baseball’s toughest division, and it’s just a part of what makes this team one of the quirkiest in baseball history. Don’t believe me? Well then, let’s take a look at some of the facts.
- The scalding hot St. Louis Cardinals. St. Louis has been red-hot all year and now has the best record in the National League to go along with the best run differential in baseball. New manager Mike Matheny has invigorated the lineup, unleashing the Cardinals on the base paths as well as at the plate. St. Louis is tops in the National League in homeruns, bashing 7 in their last 2 games alone, and is 2nd in the league in steals. Carlos Beltran may be having one the finest seasons of his career, hitting 10 homers and 26 RBI in the first 30 games. Last night he had 2 homers, including a grand slam, to push the Cards to victory. Another recent addition, Rafael Furcal, is also on a tear to begin the season. Furcal has yet to be caught in 6 steal attempts and is hitting .342/.409/.496, scoring 22 runs which is important for a leadoff hitter. Meanwhile the pitching staff hasn’t gotten a single inning out of Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright has an ERA over 5.00, but they rank 2nd in the National League in runs allowed. Jake Westbrook, Kyle Lohse, and Lance Lynn are a combined 14-3. Each pitcher has an ERA under 2.20, with Lohse and Lynn having WHIPs under 1.00. The news keeps getting better in St. Louis because Allen Craig has returned and bashed the ball in his first 6 games, slugging 2 homers and 3 doubles for a .364 batting average. The Cardinals have a lot of depth, both on the mound and in the lineup, and they look to be emerging as the early favorites in a jumbled National League.
- Josh Hamilton’s monster night. Last night in Baltimore Josh Hamilton became the 16th player in history to hit 4 homers in a game, and the first since Carlos Delgado accomplished the feat in 2003. Hamilton’s production also included one double and 8 RBI to cap off a perfect 5-5 night. He totaled up 18 bases for his efforts, 1 shy of Shaun Green’s major league record 19 from a May 2003 game. Hamilton also took over first in baseball in the batting average, slugging %, total bases, and in the home run race after just this one game. And what’s more impressive may be the home runs. Baltimore’s Camden Yards is a hitter neutral park, and 3 of Hamilton’s 4 jacks were to straightaway center, over 400 feet away. The one homer he didn’t hit to centerfield was no cheapie either. Hamilton bombed it to opposite field, for a 380-foot blast. Hamilton is completely locked in at the plate and the rest of the league needs to look out right now.
- Baltimore’s Bullpen. The biggest reason the Orioles are surging right now? Their bullpen has been lights out. When Buck Showalter turns the game over to his bullpen, Baltimore has not let him down. Out of the Orioles 6 most frequently used relievers (all with more than 13 innings pitched), only 1 has allowed more than 3 runs. Closer Jim Johnson and middleman Luis Ayala have yet to allow an earned run over a combined 28 innings. Even the position players are getting in on the act. During Sunday’s 17-inning marathon against the Boston Red Sox, DH Chris Davis was called upon to pitch. He responded by throwing 2 scoreless innings striking out 2, while Adam Jones provided the offensive lift, hitting a 3-run homer. If Baltimore’s firemen continue to pitch this well, the O’s could stay in the race for the long run.
- Milwaukee’s infield situation. On Sunday the Brewers lost the 2nd member of their Opening Day infield, when Alex Gonzalez went down with a torn ACL after Mat Gamel had already gone down with a season-ending knee injury. The Brewers have responded by going uber-defensive, starting Cesar Izturis at short and Travis Ishikawa at 1st. Izturis is one of the worst hitters in the majors with a career 64 OPS+ in 4000 at-bats. Ishikawa is also a very light hitting 1st baseman, with 17 career homers in 643 at-bats. Milwaukee will need to find an upgrade if they want to compete for the playoffs this season, because they can’t afford any more light hitting bats. Nyjer Morgan and Rickie Weeks are off to terrible starts, hitting under .200 apiece, and Aramis Ramirez hasn’t been much better, batting only .216. Milwaukee has already fallen into 5th place in the NL Central, 6 behind St. Louis, and they need to get things turned around quickly.
- Colorado’s Starting Pitching Staff. You know its bad when your best pitcher to date has been 49-year-old Jamie Moyer. The Rockies have gotten almost nothing out of their pitching staff, ranking last in the National League in runs allowed, homeruns allowed, hits allowed, and ERA. The aforementioned Moyer is the only Rockie checking in with an ERA+ above league average, and he’s just barely over at 110. The biggest issues so far have been the inability to strike batters out and locating pitches in the strike zone. We knew Moyer would struggle with this, but who would have thought that Jeremey Guthrie would post a 1.8 Ks/9 rate in his first 24 innings? No one on the staff has a K/BB rate better than the league average of 3. The worst perpatrator has been poor Jhoulys Chacin, who has been bombed so far, giving up 7 homers, 31 hits, and 15 walks in just 24.2 innings of work. It’s a shame too, because the Rockies offense is rolling, ranking 2nd in the National League in homeruns and OPS, as well as 3rd in runs scored behind a resurgent Carlos Gonzalez.
- Daniel Bard’s balky 2nd inning. Last night in Kansas City Daniel Bard had a little bit of a problem with balking. On his 1st balk, Bard had a runner on 1st and 3rd. He attempted the old fake-to-3rd-throw-to-1st, but never made a legitimate move to the 3rd base bag. Bard attempted to argue, but the umpires made the correct call, because Bard’s foot came up but never got close to moving in the direction of 3rd. The move led to the Royals’ 1st run of the game, and moved the runner on 1st down to 2nd. The 2nd balk was also an easy call the umpires got right, and occurred during the same at-bat 2 pitches later. A pitcher is not allowed to make a move toward a base and not throw the ball and when Bard brought his foot down, then turned to 2nd, he was caught red-handed. It ended up costing Bard and the Red Sox another run when Chris Getz singled home Moustakas. Bard appeared to get a little jumpy with the base runners on, which is interesting because the runner both times was Mike Moustakas, the owner of 3 career steals in nearly 500 at-bats. Moustakas is a very nice looking young hitter, but he’s not exactly Ricky Henderson out there.
Yesterday’s Yankees-Orioles clash was an exciting game for quite a few reasons. It was the first opportunity to get a look at one of the most dominant pitchers from the Nippon Baseball League in Wei-Yin Chen. It was also a game that featured 2 of the finest shortstops in baseball, Derek Jeter and JJ Hardy. By the end of 12 innings there had been, 5 wild pitches, a great relay throw to the plate, and countless clutch plays.
In the top of the 1st Derek Jeter came up to the plate and got the game started right for New York, smashing a homer deep to centerfield, well clear of the wall. Wei-Yin Chen looked a little nervous, much like Yu Darvish two nights ago, during the first inning. He admitted as much after the game saying “To be honest with you guys, this is my first major league outing. I was so nervous,” Chen said. “But after the first inning everything was fine for me.” His location was poor, and he was leaving plenty of pitches over the plate, and the Yankees hit him hard but only got the 1 run, leaving 2 men on base. Not to be outdone in the bottom of the 1st inning, JJ Hardy also took an upstairs fastball deep, tying the score at 1. From there the game really got interesting.
After escaping the 1st inning Wei-Yin Chen really began to settle in and show what he can do. Chen showed an array of pitches, featuring a lower 90s fastball, a plus changeup that Yankee hitters struggled with, and an average slider. He locates all 3 pitches well, keeping hitters off-balance, which is the mark of a successful big leaguer. At one point he ran of a streak of 12 consecutive batters retired. He looked every bit the part of a successful major league pitcher, and will fit nicely in the middle of the Orioles rotation. Chen is an excellent find for Baltimore, and their front office and scouts should be applauded for the pickup.
His counterpart on the mound, Freddy Garcia, struggled mightily all night with his command. Garcia threw 5 wild pitches, the most in one game since 1989, and was downright AJ Burnett-like. Garcia also walked 3 batters and hit another despite only making it through 4.2 innings. His breaking pitches in particular were terrible, with at least 50% of them bouncing in the dirt. Some pitches were missing the plate by more than 2 feet. Two of Baltimore’s runs were directly attributable to Garcia’s wildness and it makes one wonder why Joe Girardi stuck with him for so long, because the Yankee bullpen was dynamite.
By the 6th inning, the O’s were cruising, up 4-1, when Chen began to wear down. As he approached 90 pitches his command started slipping, and he started leaving pitches out over the middle of the plate. The Yankees managed a couple of singles, and then Chen walked his first batter of the night, Curtis Granderson, to load ‘em up. With one out Andrew Jones hit a meager fly ball to right and Robinson Cano was able to tag-up and score on a slick slide at the plate. Showalter decided to leave the tiring Chen in the game to face Russell Martin, and he was able to induce a grounder to 3rd, where Mark “Iron Hands” Reynolds plays. Reynolds botched the play badly, allowing a 3rd run to score. The next batter Brett Gardner hit a sharp single and the game was tied at 4 and the Yankees had chased Chen from the game. A battle of the bullpens ensued.
For the next 3 innings neither team was able to push across a run and the game would go into extras. The Yankees had their best chance in the 7th inning, with Nick Swisher on 1st and Robinson Cano at the plate. Cano laced a sharp double down the 3rd base line and it went all the way to the wall, where Endy Chavez picked it up. Chavez fired the ball in to shortstop JJ Hardy, who was perfectly positioned 10-15 feet into the outfield grass along the foul line. Hardy turned and fired a perfect line drive strike to the plate from 120 feet away, just in time to nab a sliding Swisher. If either throw had been less than perfect Swisher would have scored. The Chavez-Hardy-Wieters relay was executed with textbook precision, and should be used as a model for how the play properly works.
By the 12th inning, the Yankees were able to muster another offensive rally. Robby Cano hit a leadoff double, and 3 batters later, Raul Ibanez brought him home with an RBI double. Mariano Rivera was brought in for the save, and collected the 604th of his illustrious career.
Box Score Observations:
-The final line for Wei-Yin Chen: 5.2 IP/4R/2ER/7H/1BB/6K/101 pitches. Chen showed me a lot of ability tonight. He has excellent control with and understands how to mix his pitches, which will serve him well. He could be the most productive pitcher on the Baltimore staff this season. The 26-year-old has a bright future ahead.
-The Yankees bullpen was superb. They pitched 7.1 innings, allowing no runs while striking out 12 batters. Corey Wade and David Phelps were both individually impressive, striking out 4 batters apiece.
-The middle infield is carrying the Yankees so far in the young season. Jeter and Cano are the only regulars hitting above .300, and they combined to go 5-12 with 3 runs, 3 extra-base hits, and 1 RBI. Both have played solid defense as well.
-The Yankees were 2-18 with runners in scoring position. Baltimore was 0-8. Ouch.