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. 

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.

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.

The American League Race as MLB Starts the Final Run to the Pennant.

The All-Star Game is history and the American League won to give Manager Jim Leyland’s Tigers home field advantage in the World Series, if they can get there. The problem he faces is that there are nine other American League teams with a credible chance to also enjoy the home field advantage the All-Star Game victory awarded to the league.
A credible chance means that a team is within nine games of the lead or wild card race. The LA Angels are arguably part of this race, but too far back in both categories to have that credible chance.
The reason I cut it off at nine games is that there are just over ten weeks left in the season and that means a team nine games out now must gain a game a week and then one more in the tenth week to win. Baseball’s rigid math makes that very difficult. Not impossible, just very difficult.
For example, if the A’s win at  .589 as they have so far over the next 71 games, they will win 95 games, for the Angels to win 95 games, they will have to win 51 of the remainng 69 games. I said “very difficult” but not “impossible.”  To make it reasonably possible, the Angels would have to win fifteen in a row. If the A’s won eight times duting that period, the Angels would only be five behind, but with just over six weeks to play. The math in the game is relentless.   
Tampa Bay is 2 1/2 behind the Red Sox and Baltimore is 4 1/2 behind.  A real horse race. The Rays play the Red Sox and Orioles seven times going forward. That division will go to the last week.
The race that really has my attention is Detroit and Cleveland. The gap today is 1 1/2 games. The Tigers have 68 games to go, the Indians 66. They will play each other seven games in the last ten weeks. It is the way the season ends for the two teams that really has my attention.
The Tigers finish with nine games againt the last place White Sox, three at home, then three with the Twins and three with Miami on the road. The Indians finish with last place Houston (four at home and the White Sox, two at home, then finish in Minnesota with four at Target Field. In fact the Indians and Tigers don’t play a  .500 team for the last 21 games of the season. The schedule maker does have a sense of drama.
What makes this interesting is that the two contenders will be playing with their hands around their throats, where every pitch is significant and they will be playing against teams that are trying to have an impact by determining winners. The Twins, for example, may be trying to avoid losing 100 games that last four game series. If history is helpful, they play very will trying to avoid that ignomy.
The National League has its close races too, and I will write about those soon. But the Tiger Indian race is the one I am focused on because both teams have strengths and demonstrable weakness as well.

Jim Leyland managed  the All-Star Game to gain home field advantage, Let’s see if this works out for him., L