Playoffs Mean War, Baseball at Its Best

Yesterday I lamented the one sided games that had dominated the playoffs to that point. Last night saw a flurry of heated, competitive, last gasp wins that showed baseball at its best. The best is where games are determined by a hit, pitch or catch that wins or saves a game in the last innings. These games are the Fifth Games that determine championships. See “Fifth Game Theory” here.
The first of these games was St. Louis 2-1 win at Pittsburgh. Rookie pitcher Michael Wacha took a no hitter into the eighth inning where the Pirates scored their lone run on their only hit, a homerun by Pedro Alvarez.. St. Louis had scored two on a Matt Holiday homer in the sixth. The Cardinals made the pitches and plays in the field, scored enough and the Pirates failed to do so. The last out was on a fly ball to center by Andrew McCutchen, the Pirates best player, who said “I wish it got more of the barrel (of the bat).” Such is the way Fifth Games are decided. He took his swing and just missed, and his team lost

The next such game was in Tampa Bay where the Rays beat the Red Sox 5-4 on a walk-off homerun, and this one had an incredible twist involving the DH rule.  The game was tied through seven innings at 3-3, when the Rays scored their fourth run, setting up the incredible ninth. The eighth had its incredible moments as well. It started with a walk to James Loney who was replaced by Sam Fuld, the fellow who stole a run against Cleveland this week. Desmond Morriss then bunted the ball (not a sacrifice as he was bunting for a hit) that was fielded by the pitcher Morales. As the first baseman had also tried to field the ball, no one was covering first and Morriss beat Morales to the bag. Two on, no outs.  Matt Joyce then popped up his attempted sacrifice bunt in foul territory and Red Sox catcher Matt Saltalamachia made a sliding catch behind homeplate. Two on, one out.  Yunel Escobar then singled up the middle on a ball fielded by Stephen Drew who could not make a play on it. Bases loaded, one out, and the ball has not yet left the infield!! Delmon Young then hit a ground ball to short and was thrown out as the runner on third scored. That runner had reached base on a lead off walk. The next batter flied out. 4-3 Rays, ninth innning.

The Red Sox lead off hitter was walked by close Fernando Rodney. Walking the lead off hitter is a cardinal sin in baseball and it happened twice here and both runners scored.  Jacoby Ellsbury then blooped the ball over third. Two on, no outs. The next batter, sacrificed the runners to second and third. Dustin Pedroia then drove in the tying run on a grounder to short. One on, two out, game tied. Then Jacoby Ellsbury stole third but Mike Carp was called out on strikes.

In the bottom of the ninth the first two batters made outs so up comes Jose Lobaton. He was in the game because of a subtley in the Designated Hitter rule. Will Myer had injured himself striking out in the seventh. The rule says that if a DH enters the game in a defensive position, the DH is lost for the rest of the game. This prevents managers from substituting players in and out of the DH slot during a game. The best substitute was DH Matt Joyce who entered the game in right field, eliminated the DH. There was the a double switch and Lobaton entered the game as catcher batting fifth, Myers’ slot. He hit a homerun on a 0-1 pitch to win the game. Such is the stuff of Fifth Game baseball. The Rays and Red Sox play tonight in St. Petersburgh. The Red Sox lead 2-1.

The third incredible game of the night was in Los Angeles where the Dodgers won the series on an eighth inning, two run homerun by Juan Uribe.
The Braves had taken the lead in the seventh on a triple by Elliott Johnson and a single  by Jose Constanza. Again, a magical Fifth Game.

The other game was an A’s 6-3 victory over the Tigers to take a 2-1 lead in the series that continues in Detroit today. 

The three games described above were played in the best baseball tradition, Fifth Game victories.  Those games came down to a hit made, a ball missed, and the other small events that determine baseball games that are bitterly contested. There will be more such games in this playoff season, stay tuned and pay attention.

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.