Thursday, October 16, 2014

MLB Playoffs, Day 14

When the playoffs began, the Royals and Giants were the two wild cards -- teams that had just barely scraped their way into the Divisional Series at all, and who were major underdogs to survive.  In fact, I can rarely remember two teams who have rolled through the playoffs with such apparent ease.  The Royals won the American League Pennant with a perfect 7-0 record in the Divisional and League Championship Series.  The Giants are 6-2 in their playoffs, and they are now only one game away from winning the National League for the third time in the last five years.

What explains this paradox?  How can teams be so much better in the playoffs than they were in the regular season?  Much of it, of course, is simple luck -- even a mediocre baseball team can go on a hot streak; in fact, almost all of them do at one point or another during the season.  If your hot streak happens to take place in the playoffs, you can look awfully good.  I can still remember the 2007 Colorado Rockies storming to the World Series in much this same fashion -- they swept the Phillies and Diamondbacks and rode their own 7-0 record to the pennant.  But the Rockies were flattened 4-0 by Boston in the World Series.  The next year they skidded to a record of 74-88 and they were never heard from again.

On the other hand, it often appears that something more than luck is at play.  In 2011, the Cardinals stunned the baseball world by upsetting a very powerful Phillies team.  But the Cards went on to win the World Series and have since been to the NLCS four straight times, while the Phillies haven't been back to the playoffs.  If the Giants can beat St. Louis one more time, they will be 8-for-8 in post-season series since 2010.  In six seasons from 1996 to 2001, the Yankees went 14-2 in post-season series.

Yesterday's games tilted toward the non-random side.  The Royals beat Baltimore in the most lop-sided 2-1 game you will ever see.  Kansas City scratched out two runs in the first inning with an infield single, a hit batsman, a sacrifice bunt, an a two-run error.  So the Orioles had eight innings left to save their season, and as usual, they spent all eight innings trying to hit home runs.  They got one -- a last dying firework by Ryan Flaherty in the third.  But that wasn't enough.  The Royals had another 2-1 victory, and their first American League pennant since 1985.  In 18 innings of baseball in Kansas City, the Orioles got two runs and only seven hits.

In San Francisco, the Cardinals came out as if they were determined to even their series with the Giants, and had a 4-1 lead after two and one-half innings.  Now that would have pretty much been the end of the game for the Orioles, Nats, or Dodgers, which would have spent the rest of the game trying to hit balls into McCovey Cove.  But the Giants have a different approach.  In the bottom of the third, San Francisco got two runs on three singles and a walk.  The game stayed 4-3 until the bottom of the sixth, when the Giants broke things open:

1.  Juan Perez, leading off as a pinch-hitter, drew a walk.
2.  Brandon Crawford singled to right, Perez advancing to second.
3.  Matt Duffy, a pinch-hitter, bunted the runners to second and third.  One out.
4.  Gregor Blanco hit a soft grounder to first.  Cardinal first baseman Matt Adams tried to throw Perez out at the plate, but Perez was safe!  4-4, with Crawford on third and Blanco on first.
5.  Joe Panik hit a grounder to Adams, who stepped on first for the out -- and then threw to second trying to get Blanco.  Not only did he fail to get Blanco, the throw allowed Crawford to scoot home from third, putting the Giants in the lead.  5-4, with two out and Blanco on second.
6.  Now the Cardinals changed pitchers, bringing in Seth Maness.  But now the Giants had worked around to their best hitter, Buster Posey.  Posey laced a single to bring home Blanco.  6-4 Giants.  Three runs on a walk and two singles.  So long, thanks for playing.

The Giants shut down the Cardinals in the last three innings, which is no surprise given how great their bullpen has been in these playoffs.  So now the Cardinals have to win tonight or their season is over.  On the other hand, the Cardinals had a 3-1 lead on the Giants two years ago, and the Giants swept the last three games to take the pennant.  Can history repeat?

American League Championship Series:
Kansas City beats Baltimore 4-0

National League Championship Series:
San Francisco leads St. Louis 3-1

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