October 13, 2012
The Major League Baseball playoffs are well underway, with the win or go home wild card game well in the rear view mirror. Last night saw the conclusion of the divisional round, setting the stage for the American and National League Championship Series. The American League gets things started tonight at Yankee Stadium, with the National League series starting Sunday night from AT&T Park in San Francisco.
It’s been an up and down thrill ride so far in the playoffs, with plenty of action on any given night. For the first time since baseball expanded to the division series in 1995, all four series went the distance, meaning no team has a distinct advantage heading to their respective league championship series as they had to throw their aces in the win or go home Game Five that took place on Thursday and Friday nights depending on the series.
As we prepare to see what team has the ability to withstand the rigors of another potentially long series in order to claim the pennant and move on to the World Series, let’s take a look at some of the major storylines that have unfolded over the past week or so in the playoffs and what it might mean going forward as the pursuit of a World Series title continues for the four remaining clubs in the hunt.
End of the Line for A-Rod?: With the Yankees facing a do or die Game Five on Friday, manager Joe Girardi made a bold but difficult decision, benching Alex Rodriguez in favor of Eric Chavez. Rodriguez had scuffled throughout the first round, going 2 for 16 with nine strikeouts. Raul Ibanez pinch hit for him in the ninth inning of Game Three and slammed a solo home run off Baltimore’s Jim Johnson to tie the game. He then won it with a solo blast in the bottom of the twelfth, giving the Yankees a 3-2 win and a 2-1 lead in the series.
After Baltimore won Game Four to force the decisive fifth game, Girardi made the decision to sit Rodriguez and his 647 career regular season home runs. As it turned out, Chavez didn’t do anything at the plate in Game Five, finishing 0 for 3 with a pair of strikeouts while hitting ninth and playing third base but Ibanez delivered a run scoring single, giving him three RBI in the series. Rodriguez had none. The Yankees survived, 3-1, thanks to CC Sabathia’s complete game performance.
Things don’t get any easier for the Yankees in the American League Championship Series as the Detroit Tigers are the opposition. Doug Fister gets the Game 1 nod for the Tigers, while the Yankees counter with Andy Pettitte. It will be interesting to see if Girardi sits Rodriguez again or not; he’s 1 for 9 lifetime against Fister in his career with three strikeouts, including an 0 for 4 performance in the American League Division Series a year ago.
Cardiac Cardinals Rise to the Occasion Again: The St. Louis Cardinals are the defending World Series champions, though they aren’t known for taking the easy way in any format. The Cardinals needed a torrid September last season coupled with a Braves collapse to make the playoffs as the wild card on the final day of the season. They battled their way through the playoffs and were in a last strike situation in the World Series against Texas on a couple of occasions before rallying to win the championship in seven games.
Flash forward to this year when the Cardinals were without Albert Pujols, Tony LaRussa or Dave Duncan. They again struggled, clinching the final wild card spot on the next to last day of the season. St. Louis battled to beat the Braves on the road in the wild card game, helped by a questionable infield fly rule call in the eighth inning. That gave them a date in the division series with the Washington Nationals, a team that won a league best 98 games in the regular season.
After dropping the series opener, the Cardinals rebounded with back to back wins in Games Two and Three. Ross Detweiler kept St. Louis in check during Game Four and Jayson Werth’s home run in the bottom of the ninth, capping an epic 13 pitch at bat against St. Louis’ Lance Lynn, gave Washington a walk-off win, setting the stage for Friday’s winner take all. Washington threw Gio Gonzalez, a NL Cy Young contender, against Adam Wainwright.
Washington bolted to a 6-0 lead after three innings, sending Wainwright to the showers after just 2.1 innings. It seemed a foregone conclusion that the Nationals would finish off St. Louis and move on to the National League Championship Series against the Giants. Problem is, no one told the Cardinals they were finished: they clawed back to within 6-5 before Jason Motte gave up a run in the bottom of the eighth to halt momentum and give Washington a two run lead heading to the ninth with Drew Storen coming on to close it out.
Unfortunately for the Nationals and their fans, they’re still waiting. Storen gave up a leadoff double to Carlos Beltran and then recorded a pair of quick outs, leaving Beltran at third with two gone, still with a two run lead. By the time he recorded the third and final out of the inning, things had completely changed for the worse. Storen had the Cardinals down to their final strike twice but walked both Yadier Molina and David Freese to load the bases.
Daniel Descalso, who had doubled and homered earlier in the game, scorched a first pitch fastball up the middle off Ian Desmond’s glove and into center field. Two runs scored and the game suddenly was tied. It was as if all the air in the ballpark suddenly had been sucked out of the Nationals and their fans. Pete Kozma, who was called up once Rafael Furcal was lost for the season, went the other way with a Storen pitch, dropping it into right field for a two-run single. Suddenly, after facing a two run deficit and down to their last strike, the Cardinals held a two run lead, one that Jason Motte preserved in the bottom of the inning, sending St. Louis on and Washington home.
Never Say Die: No team had ever rallied from a 2-0 deficit to win a best of five series in baseball playoff history. That changed this week, as the San Francisco Giants, after dropping two games at home, came back to take three straight off the Cincinnati Reds at the Great American Ball Park. The Reds hadn’t lost three games in a row all season long, picking the worst time for a swoon.
Cincinnati was hurt by the loss of Johnny Cueto, the ace of their rotation, who was injured in the first inning of his Game One start. In the end, the Giants did just enough to squeak out enough offense to win the series. Buster Posey’s grand slam off Mat Latos in Game Five proved to be the decisive blast and solidified his MVP candidacy as well. Melky Cabrera has now served his 50 game suspension for PEDs and was reinstated by Major League Baseball but he will not play for the Giants in the National League Championship Series.
The stinging loss leaves the Reds at a crossroads. Having extended the Giants to the limit after winning the National League Central comfortably, the Reds have decisions to make. Dusty Baker’s contract is up and Cincinnati must decide whether to bring him back or to go a different direction as far as their managerial position goes for 2013 and beyond. They’ll have personnel decisions to make as well: veterans like Scott Rolen may not be with the team when they break camp next year.
A’s Show Grit in Defeat: We just talked about how no team had rallied from a 0-2 deficit to win a best of five series prior to the Giants accomplishing the feat. The Oakland A’s had an opportunity to do the same thing after posting a couple of stirring victories, including a ninth inning rally off Jose Valverde. However in a Game Five situation with Justin Verlander on the hill for Detroit, Oakland’s Cinderella ride turned back into a pumpkin.
Still, there is plenty for A’s fans to be excited about. They persevered and were the hottest team in baseball during the second half of the season, qualifying for the playoffs despite one of the lowest payrolls in all of Major League Baseball. Oakland had a rotation full of rookie pitchers down the stretch after the injury to Brandon McCarthy and the suspension of Bartolo Colon but battled on, eventually besting the Rangers in a winner take all final game of the regular season that gave them the American League West title and sending the two time defending American League champions to the wild card round, where they were shut down by Baltimore.
With plenty of action to come, who are you looking at as your World Series favorites?