Playoff War Continued, Late Inning Victories

There were two games yesterday in the MLB Playoffs. Boston beat the Rays 3-1 to advance to the League Championship Series and Detroit beat the A’s 8-6 to force a final game in Oakland on Thursday.

Red Sox scored all of their runs in the final three innings and Detroit scored five and the A’s three in the final three innings. This points to the reality of championship baseball where teams have learned the three stages of team success. First, they learn to play, then they learn to win, then they learn to win when they have to. These teams are the demonstrated masters of this art. They know how to win when they have to.

The next rule is that a baseball game is really two games in one. The first game is a six inning game to gain an advantage in the short, three inning game that determines the winner. The short game is played by specialists, relief pitchers, pinch hitters and runners, and defensive replacements. It is the true test of a team as it involves the entire roster.

The Rays entered the short game yesterday with a lead and the Red Sox scored two in the seventh and one in the ninth to win, using three relief pitchers, Craig Breslow, who sruck out three Rays in the seventh, Junichi Tazawa, who struck out the one batter he faced, and Koji Uehara, who struck out the first batter he face in the 8th inning, and the three batters he faced in the ninth went out quietly with a fly ball, a ground ball to the pitcher, and a strike out to end the game.

During this same period, the Rays made wholesale pitching changes and they simply did not work. The game came down to three Red Sox relievers who were perfect. The Rays’ relievers faltered.  In this game, thirty-eight players participated, eleven of them relief pitchers and seven pinch hitters and defensive replacements.  It does take a team! 

In Detoit, with a 8-4 lead in the ninth, Joaquin Benoit, the closer, replaced Max Scherzer, and allowed two runs in the ninth but won. Scherzer, a stating pitcher acting in relief, had faced a baseloaded, no out, situation in the 8th and struck out the next two batters, and got the third, a pinch hitter, to line out to centerfielder Austin Jackson to end the inning. It was a magnificent display after he loaded the bases. Maybe he just likes drama. There were thirty players involved in this game, six relief pitchers, and four pinch hitters, runners and defensive replacements.

The lesson from these games is that teams win and a complete roster of talented players is needed to win pennants. For those teams that finished poorly this year, the road to success is not through free agent signings, but through improvement of the roster overall.  It takes a team to win and all players must be talented as they are for these teams playing for World Series glory. 

MLB Playoffs: Excitement in the Last Innings

The fabulous Wild Card race has given way to a somnambulistic Division Series. The scores of the games, without team names, tells the story. 9 -1, 7-1, 12-2, 7-4, 6-1, 13-6, but the other games give me hope that games will be fought to the last out going forward as four games of the ten played qualify as the epitome of baseball games, the “Fifth Game.” See Fifth Game Theory here .  That theory says that one game in five is a Fifth Game and here we have four of ten as Fifth Games. The teams playing here are the masters of Fifth Games, so this is not surprising.

The contested games in this Division Series started with Detroit scoring three in the first inning and holding on, per Max Scherzer, to three hit the A’s who scored two in the 7th in Oakland on a Yoenis Cespedes homerun. One run short; fifth game stuff. Oakland came back in the next game with a perfect Fifth Game victory 1-0 over Detroit, scoring the one run in the bottom of the ninth. Yoenis Cespedes opened the inning with a single, Seth Smith then singled, Josh Reddick was walked intentionally, and Stephen Vogt singled to win the game. The starting pitchers in that game were Justin Verlander and Sonny Gray (Oakland) who were superb as it was the first time in Playoff history where both pitchers had nine strikeouts and no runs scored.

The Pirates 5-3 win over the Cardinals in game three was a fifth game victory as the winning runs were scored in the eighth inning after St. Louis tied it on a homerun in the top of the inning.

In the second game in Atlanta, the Braves scored two in the seventh to go ahead 4-1, the Dodgers scored twice in the top of the eighth to make it 4-3. In classic Fifth Game style, Atlanta made four defensive changes and brought in a new pitcher to start the inning and changed pitchers again after Hanley Ramirez hit a two run homerun and Yasiel Puig struck out. In the top of the ninth for the Dodgers, after a strike out, A.J. Ellis walked, Dee Gordon pinch ran and was thrown out trying to steal while pinch hitter Andre Eithier was at bat, he ultimately walked and was replace by pinch runner, Scott Van Slyke, but Carl Crawford struck out.  A great game and well played Fifth Game.

I pay attention to Fifth Games. Embrace the theory and you will understand a season and enjoy it well. This theory, by the way, allows Tampa Bay to accept their two losses to the Red Sox as not being Fifth Games. They were never going to win those two in Fenway anyway.  Alex Cobb will pitch for the Rays and he was 7-0 at home this year.

I only want four five game series in the Divisional Series, and seven gamers in the League Championship and World Series. Tag’em.

  

The Significance of This MLB Playoff Season

The Pittsburgh Pirates beat the Cincinnati Reds in the one game that determined the NL Wild Card last night. It was an easy game for the Pirates. What occurred to me as the game unfolded that the oldest professional baseball team, the CIncinnati Reds (nee Redlegs or Red Stockings) was playing an original National League team. The league was formed in 1876. From there, it occurred to me that every team, except the Tampa Bay Rays, in the playoffs this year was an original team either from the original National League or the ‘upstart’ American League, formed in 1901.

The Detroit TIgers, Boston Red Sox, Pittsburgh Pirates, Cleveland Indians, and St. Louis Cardinals are in their original cities. The Cardinals actually became the Cardinals later. The Atlanta Braves started as the Boston Beaneaters, Red Stockings, and then Braves, moved to Milwaukee in 1955, and Atlanta in 1966. The Oakland Athletics started as the Philadelphia Athletics, moved to Kansas City in 1955, then to Oakland in 1968.  The Brooklyn Dodgers, (nee the Trolley Dodgers) moved to LA in 1957. (It is curious that LA’s two top teams are named after Brooklyn trolley dodging and Minneapolis Lakes.)

There is an additional aspect to these playoffs that is of importance as well. The Cardinals, Pirates, Athletics, Rays, and Indians are all small market teams with low payrolls compared to the much more afluent Yankees, White Sox, Giants, Cubs, Angels, Astros, Rangers, Phillies, and Nationals. The Cubs and White Sox, two original teams, finished last in their divisions, by the way.

The provenance of the teams may be only a historical anomaly, but the small market teams victories, and I must add the expansion Tampa Bay Rays to this mix, are there because of the exquisite way they play baseball, from the scouting of amatuer players to finesse baserunning in the playoffs (Tampa’s Fuld stole a run in Texas Monday night).

This indicates the precision these teams give to the operation of their teams. Much has been said about sabermetrics, that computer generated analysis of everything that occurs on a baseball field, and all teams engage in some sort of sabermetric analysis, but it is the scouting and player development they engage in that makes them successful. The Cardinals and Rays are prime examples of this and the play of those teams shows great discipline, energy and thought to the way they play the game. Among these disciplines is the act of throwing first pitch strikes. A small thing you may think, but getting pitchers to do it is daunting, but the Cardinals and Rays do it. Also, these teams catch and throw the ball with precision. This takes skill and discipline, but that’s how you win pennants.

The Indians and Rays play for the AL WIld Card tonight and then the real playoffs begin. Watch to see who plays the game correctly.

Tampa Bay Wins In Texas

The 2013 MLB regular season ended last night when Tampa Bay won in Texas. The game was to determine the second wild card team that will play the Cleveland Indians on Wednesday in Cleveland for the wild card that then plays in the Division Series. Tampa Bay and Texas were tied after the 162nd game necessitating the 163rd game.

The game was determined by Cy Young winner David Price’s superb pitching in this complete game victory. Tampa Bay hitting was timely, as well, with Evan Longoria hitting a two run homerun, and baserunning superior as Centerfielder Fuld stole a run by stealing third while the pitcher was still holding the ball! Fuld was on second when he noticed that the pitcher took a very wide stance while getting the sign from the catcher and would have to step, back, off the rubber, further extending his stance, and putting him into a very awkward position to throw to third. The throw was errant and Fuld got up from his slide and scored a very important fifth run. It was my favorite play of the game.

Texas had the misfortune of having its balls hit to fielders or fall just short of the outfield fence. It is a game of inches, by the way. It benefited from a missed call on an outfield play where its centerfielder trapped a ball that was called an out by the umpire, saving a run. Next year that play will be reviewed by the umpires.

The playoffs start today in Pittsburgh with the Pirates playing the Reds, then the Rays play the Indians in Cleveland Wednesday. This will be a fun run and I look forward to it.

For the full Playoff Schedule look here.

Ron Gardenhire Returns Victorious

Twins manager, Ron Gardenhire, will return with a two year contract along with all of his coaches. This means Gardenhire has prevailed in his discussions with the Twins. I assume he has obtained promises that the Twins will add players in the off season. How specific these promises are is not known, but the fact is that Gardenhire has done his job well and is not responsible for the three year 90 plus loss seasons the Twins have endured.

I think Gardenhire kept this team together this year and without his leadership a total collapse would have occured.  When Tom Kelly decided to retire, I remember telling a high place Twins executive that they had no choice but to hire Gardenhire. That was and still is the right move.

By the way, the Cubs just fired Dale Sveum as manager, and Gardenhire could have moved there.

Matt Harvey and the Ulnar Collateral Ligament

Major league pitchers are remarkable athletes who have the ability to throw a baseball at high velocity, often spinning it so it bends in its flight, with such accuracy that they could “drive a nail” with the pitch from a distance of 60’6″. In doing this, they are able to earn huge salaries for mutlitple years. Teams depend on the stars to provide stability by providing consistent performance. However, each pitcher has a constant fear that he will injure his arm. Where this can be an injury to almost any part of the arm, it is the ulnar collateral ligament here that causes the most trouble.

Yesterday, the New York Mets announced that its All-Star, Matt Harvey, has torn this ligament. Harvey, 9 wins and 5 losses, is leading the National League in strikeouts with 191 in 1781/3 innings pitched and is second with an earned run average of 2.27. He is a remarkable pitcher, who, at 24, could perform at this level for ten years or more. That is, if he over comes this injury.

The ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) is located on the medial or inside of the elbow. I has three parts that serve to keep the elbow, involing the Ulna and Radius of the upper arm and the Humerus of the lower arm, together. The UCL connects the Ulna to the Humerus and tries to keep the connection firm and tight. Where there is injury to the UCL, a valgus force occurs and that means the connection is not tight and the elbow bows slightly.

What this means for a pitcher is that the last two actions of the pitching motion, elbow flex and then wrist flex in a curve ball, is disrupted and control and velocity is impaired. That is why Mets’ Manage, Terry Collins, mentioned that Harvey’s pitches were “not as crisp” as they had been. Some pitchers can pitch with this problem, but normally a power pitcher like Harvey (see: strikeouts, above) can not do so. I have seen power pitchers try to become breaking ball, change-up pitches, but rarely with success.

The cure for UCL injury is what is called Tommy John surgery, named for the Dodger lefthander who first underwent the procedure. A video of the precedure is here. As you can see, this is involved surgery with holes drilled into bones and tendons harvested from other parts of the body. However, there is a high degree of success for those pitchers who have undergone this procedure. Tommy John, Chris Carpenter and John Smoltz come to mind, and some have suggested that this may become mandatory surgery for young pitchers because the reconstructed elbow may be more stable than a normal elbow. However there is a better way and that is by compelling pitchers to pursue a rigorous training program that strengthens the ligaments.
Briefly, they should follow the UCL surgery, post-op proceedures, as religiously as someone who is recovering from the surgery does. Benefits are well worth the effort.

Matt Harvey is the latest of the power pitchers to damage his UCL. This may cost him a year of rehabilitation, but he will be back. Tommy John procedures are refined now and are more effective. The only question I have is why this sudden rash of such injuries. I was told once that a pitchers arm should be “loosey goosey,” that is, it should look like a “woman’s” arm (sorry, that is an old reference, ladies). Now, players are ripped and maybe the muscles are stronger than the ligaments and that power causes the tears. Once, I heard a pitcher’s (Ralph Lumenti) arm break while throwing a fastball. Clearly, the forces are there to do the damage, so strength in the elbow should me emphasized. But this is not a death sentence for Matt Harvey, he will be back, and, I might add, will be well paid during his rehab.

Ignominy and the MLB Cellar Dweller

As August dwindles and the last month of the MLB season promises an exciting race to the pennant or wild card birth for the playoffs, another race is underway. This is the effort by several teams to avoid the ignominy of finishing last, or in the cellar, as it is called. For some, this motivation is as strong as the passion to win the pennant.

In the AL Central, the suddenly resurgent White Sox, eight wins in the last ten recently, are now pressing the Twins and are three games behind them. The White Sox have been miserable this year, but they have been playing better. However, the schedule maker has them playing against contenders the rest of the way.  Where they play Houston this week, and Houston is trying to avoid setting a record for futility, they then play Boston, New York, Baltimore, Detroit, Cleveland, Minnesota and finish against Kansas City. The three with Minnesota will be critical. The edge Chicago may have is that these teams will be tense and the Sox may be able to pick them off. That, after all, is the role of the spoiler, that team with no chance of winning a pennant, that can have an impact by beating those who do.   

The Twins have a slight schedule advantage by playing Toronto three times, but play contenders most of the time. The last eleven are with Oakland, Detroit and Cleveland, all of these teams need to win at the end. 

In the NL Central, Milwaukee and the Cubs are two games apart, with the Cubs in the cellar. Both teams play contenders, but the Cubs get the Marlins for three and the Brewers finish with the Mets. The critical games are the seven they play against each other. To not finish behind the Cubs should be sufficient incentive motivation to keep the Brewers motivated.

The most interesting race to avoid ignominy is in the NL West, Colorado, 61-71, San Diego, 59-71, and San Francisco, 58-72 are within in two games of each other with San Francisco last.   

San Francisco will play the other members of this trio twelve times in the remaining thirty-two, San Diego plays Colorado and SF nine times, but gets the floundering Phillies three times, and Colorado plays SF and SD nine times, but finish against Boston and the Dodgers. This is a race to watch on a daily basis.

Now that you see the match ups, remember that this is late season baseball and top teams are often “playing with their hands around their throats,”  Hands on Throat Reference and those trying to avoid the ignominy of the cellar can determine the actual pennant and live vicariously during the Winter knowing they were not the worst and helped determine who was the best.