Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 13, 2013

Pitchers Rule The Playoffs, So Far

In a game with a history long enough to produce scores of maxims; it has to be one of the most familiar. More times than one could possibly count we have been reminded by some earnest sage that good pitching always beats good hitting. Of course sometimes a phrase becomes cliché because it happens to carry the hefty weight of truth. So it has seemed through the first two rounds of the playoffs and the first three games of both leagues’ Championship Series.

In the NLCS opener Friday night the Dodgers’ Zack Greinke retired the first eight men he faced, striking out four. By the time he left after 8 innings and 104 pitches, Greinke had fanned ten Cardinals while walking only one and allowing but four hits, three of them singles. The only blemish on his stellar pitching line came in the 3rd. After a two-out single by Joe Kelly and a walk to Matt Carpenter, the Cardinals’ Carlos Beltran lined a Greinke two-seamer to the wall in center field. A rusty Andre Ethier, making his first start in four weeks after being sidelined by a left leg injury, ran the drive down but wasn’t able to handle the conjunction of ball, wall, and glove. The resulting double plated both Kelly and Carpenter. After Greinke left the game five Los Angeles relievers were very nearly as stout, surrendering just three hits and one more run over 4 1/3 innings of a game that took 13 to achieve a resolution.

Saturday afternoon Clayton Kershaw was equally impressive in an outing cut short by manager Don Mattingly’s decision to pinch hit for the Dodgers’ ace in the top of the 7th. Kershaw needed just 72 pitches to work his 6 innings. After Carpenter sent his very first pitch to right field for a leadoff triple, Kershaw retired the next nine Cardinals before a 4th inning walk to Carlos Beltran ended the string. The only other St. Louis base runner against Kershaw was David Freese, who led off the 6th inning with a double to left field. Freese moved to third on a passed ball and scored the Cardinals only run on a sacrifice fly. Just as the night before, the Los Angeles bullpen was every bit as effective as the team’s starting pitcher, with right hander Ronald Belisario and lefty J.P. Howell each working a scoreless frame.

Red Sox ace Jon Lester added his own fine performance when the ALCS finally got underway in Boston Saturday evening. Lester opened the game by striking out Detroit’s Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter, and wound up scattering six hits over 6 1/3 innings. The only run that the Tigers were able to score against Lester came in the 6th, when Detroit was able to get Miguel Cabrera to third base without the benefit of a hit. Cabrera drew a one-out walk, and went to second when Lester hit Prince Fielder. He advanced another ninety feet when Victor Martinez grounded into a fielder’s choice. When Jhonny Peralta followed with a softly lined single to center, Cabrera trotted home. Just as was the case with the Dodgers’ bullpen in the first two NLCS games, Boston’s relievers kept their opponent off the board through the remainder of ALCS Game One after Lester departed.

Of course the real measure of just how dominant the pitching was in these three games lies in the fact that, as readers well know, each of the fine performances described above was made in a losing effort. The bespectacled Joe Kelly wasn’t quite as dominant as Greinke, but he was tough when he needed to be. The Dodgers put runners on second and third with just one out in their very first at-bats in Game One. Kelly responded by getting Adrian Gonzalez to chase a full count changeup for strike three, and then fooled Yasiel Puig with a nasty slider to escape the jam. After allowing a pair of L.A. runs in the top of the 3rd, Kelly retired ten of the final twelve men he faced, allowing just a pair of singles on ground balls through the infield. Six St. Louis relievers then worked seven scoreless innings, until Beltran finally singled home Daniel Descalso from second with one out in the bottom of the 13th, sending the fans at Busch Stadium into a frenzy.

The legions of Mattingly second-guessers were quick with their harsh assessments of the Dodgers manager after the 3-2 loss. Aside from questioning whether Ethier should have been playing center field, they pointed to the decision to pull slugger Adrian Gonzalez in favor of a pinch runner in the top of the 8th. The speedy Dee Gordon mystifyingly made no attempt to steal second, instead being cut down on a force out when Puig followed with a grounder to short. Then with A-Gon’s bat out of the lineup, replacement first baseman Michael Young hit into a pair of double plays.

On Saturday the one run off Kershaw was all St. Louis needed, because rookie Michael Wacha matched the once and likely future Cy Young Award winner pitch for pitch. Wacha, who flirted with no-hitters in both of his two previous outings, fanned eight in 6 2/3 innings. Four relievers shut out Los Angeles the rest of the way. Carlos Martinez, who came on with one out in the 9th, and Trevor Rosenthal, who pitched the 9th, were the last two Cardinals to walk through the bullpen door. They combined to strike out the final five Dodgers hitters.

At Fenway Park the game plan for the Red Sox was to work the count against the formidable starting rotation of the Tigers, in the hopes of getting to Detroit’s sometimes suspect bullpen. On the surface that plan worked perfectly Saturday evening. Anibal Sanchez needed 116 pitches to get through six innings, issuing a half-dozen walks along the way. But he also struck out twelve and didn’t surrender a hit.

Detroit manager Jim Leyland went to his bullpen four times over the final three innings and the hurlers he called upon were more than up to the task, adding five more strikeouts to bring the total to seventeen Red Sox sent back to the dugout, bat in hand. Meanwhile the zero under the big white “H” in Boston’s line on the left field scoreboard appeared welded in place. Not until there was one out in the 9th did Daniel Nava finally send a Joaquin Benoit fastball into center, where it fell in front of Jackson for the only Red Sox hit of the night.

There were twenty games played in the Wild Card and Division Series rounds of the playoffs. In nine of those games the losing team was either shut out or held to a single run. Only four times did the team that lost score more than three runs. That pattern hasn’t changed, with just seven runners crossing the plate in these first three LCS games. The pair of 1-0 shutouts on Saturday is all the more remarkable given the offensive capabilities of the four teams that remain. The Tigers had the highest regular season team batting average in the majors, with the Red Sox in second place. The two squads reversed places for on-base and slugging percentages. Among National League franchises the Cardinals and Dodgers were second and third in average, first and third in OBP, and both were in the top six in slugging percentage.

All of which suggests that as dominant as the pitching has been so far in this year’s playoffs, sooner or later the hitters will have their day. For there is after all the alternative version of that old Great Game maxim, its origin variously attributed to Yogi Berra, Casey Stengel, or some other old master of the English language. That’s the version that goes, good pitching always beats good hitting and vice versa.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: