October 9, 2012
What is striking about the baseball playoff games thus far is how little benefit there has been for the team playing at home. Six of the first eight games were won by the visiting team, and seven of the first twelve games. The Cardinals, Reds, Nationals, Yankees, and Orioles all won their first postseason games as the visiting team, leaving the Tigers as the only team to begin the postseason with a win at home. Detroit and Cincinnati each took a commanding 2-0 series lead against Oakland and San Francisco, as the industrial Midwest teams prevailed over the ones from California. In the other two divisional series, the Orioles and the Cardinals bounced back after losing Game 1 and won Game 2. Ordinarily, one would think the two "bird" teams face steep odds playing the next three games on the road, but now it's anyone's guess.
The NLDS began on a fine note for the Washington Nationals, if you ignore the ugly details and just look at the final score, that is. Kurt Suzuki hit an RBI single in the top of the second to put the Nationals on the board first, but then the Cardinals scored twice in the bottom of the inning, without even getting a hit. Somehow Gio Gonzalez completely lost control, and walked four batters, plus a wild pitch. He had seven walks total over five innings and left the game behind a run, even though he only gave up one hit! Fortunately, the bullpen bailed him out. The Cards loaded the bases in the bottom of the seventh, but then Ryan Mattheus came in as a relief pitcher and put out the fire with just two pitches. Allen Craig hit a ground ball to shorstop Ian Desmond who threw to home for the force out, and then Yadier Molina grounded into a double play to end the inning. Whew! The Nationals also had the bases loaded twice, in the second and sixth innings, and both times Jayson Werth was out to end the inning. In the sixth inning, Werth did make a great leaping catch at the right field fence, preventing a home run by Daniel Descalso. But the decisive moment came in the top of the eighth inning, when Michael Morse reached first on a hard ground ball to shortstop that was ruled an error, and Ian Desmond singled, sending Morse to third. Danny Espinosa then hit a surprise sacrifice bunt that did advance the Desmond to second. I doubted the wisdom of that move, especially after Kurt Suzuki struck out. But then pinch-hitter Tyler Moore stepped up to the plate and hit a two-run single to give the Washington Nationals a 3-2 lead. A huge clutch hit! Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen shut down the Cardinals in the final two frames, and the Nats claimed a victory in their very first postseason game. Tyler Moore was named the player of the game. NATITUDE!
The game on Monday night started out in much the same way, with the Nats getting on the board first in the second inning, and the Cardinals quickly scoring runs to take the lead in the bottom of the inning. The difference is that it was four runs, not two. Starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann gave up three singles and a double to the first four batters, in sharp contrast to his quick 1-2-3 first inning. After giving up a homer and then a single, he was relieved of duty at the end of the third inning. Craig Stammen couldn't do much better in the fourth inning, giving up two more runs (one earned). The Nationals showed signs of life in the fifth inning, as Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche hit back-to-back solo home runs, but that was about it. A promising rally in the seventh inning was cut short when Bryce Harper tagged up from second base on a sacrifice fly and was thrown out at third. To add insult to injury, the Cardinals tacked on four more runs in the eighth inning, charged to Sean Burnett. Final score: Cards 12, Nats 4.
Well, at least the Nationals came out of St. Louis with a 1-1 split. In Game 3 tomorrow, the first postseason game in Our Nation's Capital since 1933, Edwin Jackson will face his former team mates. The last time against the Cardinals, on September 28, he gave up eight earned runs. Fortunately the team's manager, Davey Johnson, has a calm and reassuring style of leadership that will help to lower the anxiety level. The first pitch will be just after 1:00.
I must say, I was delightfully overwhelmed by the Washington Post's in-depth coverage of the Nationals' NLDS games. Pages and pages of detailed descriptions, statistics, and play by play. Last week the Post also published a commemorative section in honor of the Nationals' historic 2012 season, featuring a detailed recounting of the big stories and a summary of all 162 regular-season games. Worth its weight in gold, just about!
In San Francisco, the Reds trounced the Giants 5-2 and then 9-0, raising hopes of a three-game NLDS sweep once the series returned to Cincinnati. But in tonight's game, they scored a run on three hits in the bottom of the first, but only got one hit after that. The Giants only got one hit and one run (in different innings) through the end of regulation play. Then in the top of the tenth, a passed ball by Reds pitcher Jonathan Broxton allowed a runner to reach third base, and an error by Scott Rolen allowed that runner to score. The Giants won, 2-1, but the odds are still in the Reds' favor.
In Detroit, the Tigers were the only team to use home field advantage, beating the Athletics 3-1 and 5-4. The latter game was a dramatic back-and-forth affair, with a walk-off sacrifice fly by Don Kelly in the bottom of the ninth. So, the A's are still alive as well, with two more games at home. That may prove decisive in this series, in which the home team has won all three games so far.
In Baltimore, the Yankees trounced the Orioles 7-2 in Game 1, thanks to a five-run rally in the top of the ninth. Otherwise, it was a very close game. In Game 2, aging veteran Andy Pettitte pitched well over seven innings, but gave up three runs and the Yankees ended up losing, 3-2. Game 3 will be tomorrow, in The Bronx.
The brutal one-game "play-in" wild card teams took two very worthy victims: the Atlanta Braves, who really put the heat on the Nationals in the NL East divisional race, and the Texas Rangers, who slumped badly at the end, much like the Braves did last year. In the former case, all the momentum from September dissipated in the blink of an eye, as the Cardinals won, 6-3. It was the first game stared by Chris Medlen that the Braves lost since 2010. In the other case, the once-dominant Rangers just crumpled, losing to the Orioles, 5-1. In both cases, subjectively speaking, it's just a real shame.
In this week's Sports Illustrated (print edition), Tom Verducci asks "What It Takes" to go all the way in the baseball playoffs. He addresses four big myths:
Regarding the second item, Verducci writes, "The good news for Bryce Harper and the young Nationals: Outside of the New York dynasty, experience has been a non-factor." His general point is that we should ignore conventional wisdom and recognize how trends in the sport and the new wild card format have changed things. With the "tournament" atmosphere, "the hot team trumps the better team." That may not bode well for the Nats. Also, "The high strikeout rates could make October rough for Danny Espinosa and the Nats, and Drew Stubbs and the Reds." Or Bryce Harper, who has struck out six times in ten at bats so far, with just one hit.
The table below shows that the Yankees and the Cardinals are the two "regular" postseason contenders, with predictable diminutions of frequency in reaching subsequent rounds. The Athletics and the Braves have reached the postseason several times, but they rarely make it past the first round. In contrast, the Tigers and Rangers have only reached the postseason twice in this century, but they have each gone at least one more round both times. The Postseason scores page has the scores going back to 2002, when I started this Web site.
Among the teams with zero postseason experience this century, the Baltimore Orioles last made the playoffs in 1997, defeating the Mariners in the ALDS and losing to the Indians in the ALCS. Before that, they won the World Series in 1983. The Washington Nationals' franchise predecessors, the Montreal Expos, reached the playoffs only once: in the strike-shortened 1981 split season.
|Team||Divisional Series||League Championship Series||World Series|
|New York Yankees||11||6||4|
|St. Louis Cardinals||8||5||3|
|San Francisco Giants||4||2||2|
As mentioned recently, I realized there was another correction to the Nationals Park diagram, so I got that out of the way. The upper decks on the third base side do not curve as sharply as I had originally estimated. The far end is now about 10 feet farther from the left field foul pole than it was before. There are a few other tiny tweaks as well. Plus, I added some photos from the September 22 game (against the Milwaukee Brewers) to that page.
Mike Zurawski sent me another batch of ballpark news. First, the Seattle Mariners announced they will reduce the outfield dimensions at Safeco Field next year, to help their hitters get home runs. The fence will be brought in about four feet in left field and in right-center field, and by as much as 17 feet in left-center field. Call me skeptical; why should all ballparks have similar outfield sizes? Also, the hand-operated scoreboard in left field will be moved back and out of play, which is too bad. The foul poles will remain put. See MLB.com and/or ballparkdigest.com. That'll keep me busy...
Second, Tampa Bay developer Darryl LeClair released a proposed stadium for the Rays. The key feature is that office buildings and apartments would be an integral part of the structure, forming the ballpark's exterior. The complex would have a small architecctural "footprint," saving money by sharing the foundation and utilities. The ballpark itself would either have a retractable roof or a hard, clear plastic roof to allow the sun to get in. Political tensions and jealousy between Tampa and St. Petersburg may be a key part of whether the Rays get the kind of ballpark they deserve. Otherwise, as Mike says, they'll "have to stay in Tropicana Field for the remaining 15 years of the lease." See tampabay.com, via ballparkdigest.com. Well, it doesn't hurt to dream, does it?
Third, there will be a soccer match at Marlins Park on November 14, between the national teams of Venezuela and Nigeria. The soccer "pitch" (as the field is called in that sport) will be roughly parallel to the right field line. It will be the first of many non-baseball events at Marlins Park. See MLB.com. More ballpark news to come soon...
Finally, on a separate matter, thanks to Jonathan Karberg for fact-checking a statement I made last Tuesday. I wrote that Tony Conigliaro had the record for most home runs by a rookie, because there have been a lot of comparisons between Bryce Harper and him, but it was actually the most home runs by a teenager. So, I used the comment feature to make the correction on that blog post. For more on Tony's tragically-curtailed career and life, see sabr.org.