The Glass Eye: October Baseball!
I ALWAYS love October baseball – the stakes are higher, the pressure is intense, and heroes (and goats) are made. Even though we are less than halfway through the playoff season, there have already been some amazing stories – let’s look back at the Division Series, and look ahead to the remainder of the League Championship Series.
St. Louis is either the luckiest team in MLB history, the most determined, or some combination of both. Keep in mind, this is a team that did not qualify for the postseason in 2011 until the last day of the season, won the last two games (including a 1-0 thriller) to knock off the Phillies in five games, then came back TWICE in Game 6 of the World Series to force a Game 7, which, of course, they won.
In 2012, MLB added a second wild-card entry – and without that addition, the Cardinals would have been home for October, as they finished nine games behind the Reds for the division and six games behind the Braves for the top wildcard. They won the 1-game playoff with Atlanta, aided in part by a very strange (but in my view, absolutely correct) infield fly call. In the deciding game of the Division Series against Washington, they were down 6-0 early and 7-5 headed to the 9th inning – and once again, down to their last out, they scored four runs to win the game and the series – working two consecutive walks on 3-2 counts, then getting two singles.
The Cardinals get extremely high marks for resiliency – their comeback record over the last two years is almost certainly unparalleled in MLB history – but we also have to acknowledge their extremely good fortune. In ANY other year in MLB history, the 2012 Cardinals would be an afterthought, a talented team that somehow missed the playoffs. In 95% of baseball history the 2011 Cardinals would have had a similar tale, because they not only had to stage a HUGE comeback in September, but the Braves had to perform their own collapse. As of this writing the Cards and Giants are 1-1 in their series, and given their superior offense it seems reasonable to favor the Cards to return to the World Series. They very well might be back-to-back champs…who would have thought THAT in August of 2011??
The Cards might be the most prominent comeback team, but this postseason was chock-full of those stories early on. As I mentioned before, Oakland overcame a 10-game deficit to catch the Rangers for the division title, went down 2-0 to the Tigers before staging a remarkable comeback – highlighted by a 3-run walk-off 9th inning in Game 4. Only the brilliance of Justin Verlander (2 wins, 16 innings, 7 hits, 5 walks, 1 run, 22 strikeouts) allowed Detroit to advance.
San Francisco had an even more improbable comeback in the Division Series – they were also down 2-0 in their series, but they lost both games at home. The injury to Reds’ ace Johnny Cueto surely helped, but even with that bit of fortune sweeping the Reds in Cincy is a marvelous achievement – even more amazing when you consider that the Giants’ vaunted rotation did not have one start of more than five innings in the entire series! The Giants’ bullpen was collectively the MVP of that series, and allowed them to get a shot at the Cardinals.
The most amazing story of the postseason in my eyes to this point, however, has been the Baltimore Orioles. Outscored for most of the season, they rode a 29-9 record in 1-run games, and a 16-2 record in extra-inning games, to a most improbable 93-69 season. Their leadoff hitter is none other than former Pirate Nate McLouth, released by Pittsburgh in June after batting .140 with no power for the Bucs. Somehow, McLouth re-discovered his stroke in AAA and hit .268 with power and patience for Baltimore down the stretch. Overall their lineup looked ridiculously weak when compared to the mighty Yankees, yet, somehow, Baltimore clawed out a couple more 1-run wins, held the Yankees to a total of 13 runs in four games (five of those in the 9th inning of Game 1), and forced a decisive Game 5. Much like Detroit, the Yankees were saved by their ace – CC Sabathia threw a complete-game 4-hitter to close out the series, and overall Sabathia threw 17.2 innings, allowed only three runs on 12 hits and carried the Yankees to victory.
Raul Ibanez has also been a hero – pinch-hitting for the slumping Alex Rodriguez, he hit two home runs in Game 3 – one in the 9th inning, one in the 12th – to win that game for New York. He repeated his 9th-inning heroics in Game 1 against Detroit, only to see his team fall short in 12 innings. Ibanez was incredibly mediocre during the regular season, but he’s gone 7-for-16 with those three home runs in the playoffs – regardless of the outcome, Ibanez will be revered in the Bronx for years to come.
Speaking of that Game 1 loss – I feel that game really determined the series, not just because the Yankees could not complete the comeback (which would have been VERY demoralizing to the Tigers, who led 4-0 entering the 9th inning), but because in the 12th inning New York lost Derek Jeter for the season with a broken ankle. Now, I’m no Yankee fan, but seeing Jeter go down really saddened me – in so many ways, he epitomizes the Yankees and in my mind he’s always played the game the right way – no showboating, no lollygagging, just a solid effort almost every day for 16 years. Without him, and with a rested Verlander ready to go in Game 3 (and again in Game 7 if needed), the Yankees’ chances are slim indeed – and nonexistent if their big bats do not wake up. Robbie Cano has gone hitless in 27 straight at-bats, unthinkable for a hitter of his caliber, and the likes of Swisher, Granderson, and yes, A-Rod also have struggled badly. Yankee pitching has actually exceeded expectations, but after two games of each LCS, my prediction is that we will see a Tigers-Cardinals World Series.
Dave Glass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.