Sunday, October 6, 2013

MLB Playoffs, Day Three

This year the Boston Red Sox and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays were in the same division (the AL East), and played the same schedule (with only minor variations) over the course of 162 games spread over six months.  The Red Sox won 97 games; the Devil Rays won 92.  (And yes, I know they call themselves the "Rays" now.  I don't care; they are still the Devil Rays to me.)  In other words, it is as certain as anything can be in the world of sports that the 2013 Boston Red Sox are better than the 2013 Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

This is not enough for Major League Baseball, of course.  In order to satisfy MLB's somewhat whimsical notions about how to grow the game, the Red Sox must now defeat the Devil Rays again in a best-of-5 series (with games 3 and 4 being played at Tampa Bay.)  It is a goofy and unfair system more akin to Calvinball than to anything a professional sports league would attempt.  (St. Louis is having to do the same thing against Pittsburgh in the NL Central.)  Yes, I know they have wild cards in the NFL, and that almost everyone makes the playoffs in the NBA.  But the NFL only plays a 16-game schedule, and it is difficult to distinguish teams that have played so few games.  And in the NBA, it is nigh impossible for an inferior team to beat a better team in a best-of-seven playoff.  So only in Major League Baseball do fans have serious concerns about whether the "champion" is actually worthy of the title.  Last year, for example, the Giants were almost certainly not the best team in the National League, much less in all of MLB.  And yet they won the trophy.

Anyway, so far Boston is beating the Devil Rays -- just as it is supposed to.  The Bosox followed up their very easy 12-2 win in Game One with an easy 7-4 win in Game Two.  We will hope that the Bostons can wrap this series up quickly.

The nightcap, on the other hand, was much more worthy of our attention.  The Oakland Athletics have won the AL West for the second year in a row, while the Detroit Tigers have won the AL Central three years in a row.  Last year the A's and the Tigers hooked up in an epic series:

Game One:  Detroit 3, Oakland 1
Game Two:  Detroit 5, Oakland 4
Game Three:  Oakland 2, Detroit 0
Game Four:  Oakland 4, Detroit 3
Game Five:  Detroit 6, Oakland 0

The difference in that series was Justin Verlander, who won Games One and Five and who was absolutely dominating in both of them.  It should also be noted that Oakland scored only 11 runs in five games against Detroit.  Oakland is famous for its use of the so-called "Moneyball" system, which eschews sacrifice bunts, stolen bases, and other elements of small ball in the hopes of maximizing the number of opportunities for three-run homers.  It has proven to be an excellent approach for regular season baseball, where teams face a number of mediocre pitchers, and where Oakland has 19 games to take the measure of division rivals such as Texas.  But it has not worked well for Oakland in the playoffs, in large part because pitchers of the quality of Justin Verlander do not fall behind on the count, do not give up very many walks, do not tire after five or six innings, and do not give up significant volumes of three-run homers.

Verlander had killed the A's last year, Verlander was on the mound tonight seeking to drive the A's into an 0-2 hole, and Verlander was on his game.  After the first few innings it was obvious that the Athletics would not be doing much with Mr. Verlander, and I switched away to check on football -- thinking to check in later as Detroit finished off the inevitable 4-0 or 5-0 victory.  But as I watched Ohio State's exciting battle with Northwestern, I noticed the ticker at the bottom of the television screen kept showing "DET 0, OAK 0" as the innings went higher and higher.  By the time the Buckeyes put their game away, the game was still scoreless in the bottom of the seventh, and the A's had a man on first.  I tuned in to find that this year's MLB playoffs had finally begun in earnest.

The first batter I saw for Oakland in the bottom of the seventh was the left fielder, Yoenis Cespedes.  I have not seen the A's play all that often, but whenever I do watch them Cespedes appears to be by far their best player.  Sure enough, he immediately smacked a rope to right field that looked like a sure double -- but the ball stayed in the air for too long, and Tigers right fielder Torii Hunter snagged it out of the air.  At that moment, I was suddenly and irrationally convinced that the Athletics had no chance of scoring until Cespedes got another chance to bat.

Sure enough, Verlander pitched his way out of the seventh, even though the A's got runners to second and third with two out.  Verlander struck out Oakland's journeyman catcher, Stephen Vogt, to end the inning and a spectacular performance.  Verlander pitched 7 innings, gave up only 4 hits, walked only 1 batter, and fanned 11.  He must wish he could pitch against Oakland every week.

But remarkably, Verlander was matched frame for frame by Sonny Gray, a Nashvillian who played for Vanderbilt and who was drafted by Oakland in 2011.  Gray went 5-3 with a 2.67 ERA this year, and he was magnificent tonight.  He pitched 8 innings, gave up 4 hits, walked 2, and struck out 9.  So the score was still 0-0 in the bottom of the 8th.

Verlander was finally gone, and A's pinch hitter Alberto Callaspo celebrated by smacking a leadoff double down the left field line.  On ESPN Radio, commentator Aaron Boone was completely flummoxed by Oakland's refusal to bunt Callaspo to third -- but the A's remained true to their philosophy, and it let them down, with Coco Crisp popping out into foul territory, and Oakland's three and four hitters -- Josh Donaldson and Brandon Moss -- looking utterly hapless as Detroit reliever Al Alburquerque struck them out to end the inning.

For the 9th, Oakland turned to their closer, Grant Balfour, who retired the heart of the Detroit order in only 11 pitches.  And now, at last, Cespedes got another chance to hit.

(At this point, I want to interject a point about the Oakland fans.  Oakland is a relatively poor city, and the A's play in the old Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum -- the last of the 1970's-style dual-purpose stadiums still in use.  The A's owner has never been willing to carry a large payroll, and has in fact long announced his intention of moving the franchise to San Jose.  And yet, whenever anyone comments on Oakland's attendance, they act as though the problem is lack of fan support, not any of the problems I just mentioned.  My own view is that Oakland's fan base suffers only from a lack of the yuppies who are willing in so many cities to support even a poor baseball team by taking kids and clients to the games.  Oakland's fan base reminds me of what baseball fans were like in my childhood -- canny, blue-collar people who saved their money and stayed home for most of the season, but who lived and died with the team nonetheless.  Tonight, in what may have been the last home game of the year, the Oakland fans splurged, packing the old hulk and sending vast amounts of noise into the night.  They wore their ugly green-and-yellow tee-shirts without irony, they chanted, booed, and cheered as appropriate -- they even brought those old blanket-style banners that used to hang in stadiums for big games (I saw a "John 3:16" banner for what was probably the first time since I was in college.)  The Coliseum doesn't have all the fancy bells and whistles of newer arenas -- the scoreboard is plain old black-and-gold, and the fans must entertain themselves by watching the game.  But from beginning to end, they were magnificent.)

Back to Cespedes.  Watching him at the plate, I was certain the entire season hung on this at-bat -- the A's had already used Balfour, and I was afraid the Tigers would get to any other pitcher.  Cespedes soon whacked what appeared to be an ordinary grounder to third -- but Miguel Cabrera was guarding the line against a potential double, and the ball trickled into left for a single.  Seth Smith cued a similar hit past Prince Fielder into right, and Cespedes raced to third.  The Tigers walked Josh Reddick to load the bases and bring up Stephen Vogt, a 28-year-old catcher who has batted .213 in only 160 career at-bats.  He had been useless throughout this game, with no hits and several strikeouts.  But his well-hit grounder squirted through the drawn-in infield and into center field, plating Cespedes.  As soon as Cespedes scored, he quickly headed for Vogt, who was already being swarmed by the rest of the Oakland team between first and second base.  Against all odds, the Athletics had survived Verlander, and the series was tied.  The two teams now head to the Motor City for games 3 and 4.  What a game.

So here's where everything stands:

National League Divisional Series (Best of Five):
Atlanta and Los Angeles are tied 1-1
St. Louis and Pittsburgh are tied 1-1

American League Divisional Series (Best of Five):
Boston leads Tampa Bay 2-0
Oakland and Detroit are tied 1-1

Here are tomorrow's games (all times Central):

St. Louis @ Pittsburgh (3:37 P.M. on TBS)
Atlanta @ Los Angeles (7:07 P.M. on TBS)

1 comment:

  1. Good report on the A's game! That was an amazing game. I thought what you thought about Cespedes, and I thought what you thought about Balfour. I also suspect what you think about "Moneyball" is basically correct, but, man, I hope the A's slip one by the goalie this season. This team is so totally satisfying to root for.