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What We Learned From the LCS

Lights-out pitching and late-inning drama set the stage for another memorable week in the MLB playoffs

We’re two games into the League Championship Series, and so much has changed. The Tigers wrested home-field advantage away from the Red Sox by splitting at Fenway, and seemed poised to take a commanding series lead before a gigantic Boston comeback. Meanwhile, the Cardinals seized control against the Dodgers, outplaying and out-managing the team that was favored to win the series, even with St. Louis holding the home-field edge. What happened over the weekend, and what could those events mean for the rest of these two series? Let’s take a look.

Miguel Cabrera is hitting for power again, and that’s great news for the Tigers.

Batting with one out in the sixth during Sunday night’s ALCS Game 2, the best hitter on the planet launched a shot over the Green Monster that gave the Tigers a 2-0 lead (Detroit scored three more runs later that inning, which is confusing given that home runs are supposed to kill rallies).

This continued an emerging trend that we had seen over the past three games. Before Game 5 of the ALDS in Oakland, A’s beat writer Susan Slusser noted that Cabrera was hitting batting-practice bombs way over the center-field wall; Cabrera then went yard during the game on a 96-mph, chest-high Sonny Gray fastball. ESPN’s Buster Olney tweeted similar reports of Cabrera hitting BP missiles over the wall at Fenway, then we got that Game 2 blast from Miggy. With Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter slumping badly in the postseason, Cabrera’s rediscovered power provides a big boost to the Tigers’ chances.

Miguel Cabrera still can’t move at all, and that’s bad news for the Tigers.

We’ve seen Cabrera’s lack of mobility caused by his abdominal and groin injuries lead to ugly plays that didn’t end up having any bearing on a game’s result, and also lead to a less fortunate outcome.

With two outs in the first inning of Game 1, Cabrera followed a near-miss of the Pesky Pole by lashing a ball to the wall in left. Daniel Nava bobbled the carom off the Green Monster. Nearly any other player in the league makes it to second on that hit. Instead, Cabrera was held to just a single. The next batter, Prince Fielder, then laced a single to center. Again, a Red Sox outfielder muffed the play, this time with Jacoby Ellsbury showing the butter fingers. Any non-statue runner that would have made it to second on that first hit would have scored easily on the second. Instead, Cabrera stood at second base, unable to even make it to third after Ellsbury’s misplay. Now, another hitter might’ve simply made the third out of the inning. But as we said at the time, Cabrera is running like a Molina brother strapped to two other Molina brothers. That lost opportunity for a run didn’t hurt the Tigers in Game 1. But it remains a going concern for the rest of this series.

Cabrera’s inability to move had a far greater impact on Game 2’s result. Following a furious eighth-inning Red Sox rally to tie the game in the eighth (more on that shortly), Jonny Gomes led off the ninth with a chopper wide of third. Cabrera was guarding the line to prevent extra-base hits, thus making a clean play a bigger challenge than it might ordinarily be. Still, an elite defensive third baseman like Adrian Beltre or Evan Longoria makes that play without much hassle — and you could argue that some less-spectacular third basemen might’ve been able to do the same. Cabrera has no shot. Instead, Jose Iglesias was forced to range 37 miles to his right, then throw from impossibly deep in the hole to try to get Gomes. After earning a trip to the lava pit with an unnecessary head-first slide, Gomes was awarded second base when Iglesias’s throw sailed out of play. If a non-stationary third baseman were on the field next to him, Iglesias probably wouldn’t have had to make the play in the first place.

Gomes eventually came around to score the winning run, aided further by a terrible play on a dropped pop-up by Prince Fielder. On the play, the umpires could’ve called fan interference when multiple hands grabbed for the ball at the same time the Tigers first baseman did. But ultimately Fielder botched the catch attempt, exacerbating Cabrera’s earlier lack of range and setting the stage for a Red Sox walk-off win. Whatever happens from this point forward, we were reminded that the Red Sox own a clear defensive edge over the poor-fielding Tigers.

For the Red Sox, patience may not be a virtue in this series.

Detroit pitchers nearly threw a combined no-hitter in Game 1, and Max Scherzer had a no-no bid going for a while in Game 2, too. Anibal Sanchez struck out 12 batters in his six no-hit innings Saturday, while Scherzer fanned 13 more in seven innings on Sunday, thus becoming the first pair of starting pitchers to strike out 12 batters or more in consecutive games in major league playoff history.

The Red Sox clearly recognized how devastating the sliders thrown by Sanchez and Scherzer were and even tweaked their lineup to try to fight against that pitch. But like so many Boston teams of recent vintage, this year’s Sox lineup is stuffed with grinders, patient hitters who like to work deep counts and either get a pitch to drive or take a walk. Sanchez and Scherzer showed how dangerous they can be when they get two strikes on a hitter, and Justin Verlander’s history suggests he might do the same in Game 3. Attacking pitches earlier in the count might be the way to go against this strikeout-crazy Tigers rotation.

David Ortiz is really good.

When Big Papi crushed his game-tying grand slam in the eighth inning of Boston’s 6-5 come-from-behind Game 2 thriller, suggestions started floating that Tigers closer Joaquin Benoit made a bad pitch. He didn’t. Benoit’s catcher, Alex Avila, had set up on the outside edge of the plate, and that’s where the 86-mph changeup went: a bit above knee-high, near the outside corner.

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Ortiz smashed the ball anyway, because he guessed right, and because he’s a terrific hitter who can pull outside changeups 380 feet at exactly the right moment.

Blame Tigers manager Jim Leyland for his bizarre eighth-inning bullpen usage if you like. Pulling Scherzer after 108 pitches and seven dominant innings was a debatable move. Bringing in your fifth-best option, Jose Veras, in Scherzer’s stead was even more puzzling. Burning through three relievers after Veras in that inning was even loopier. And as good as Benoit has been for most of this season, the Tigers activated lefty reliever Phil Coke for this series. If there was ever a situation that called for a lefty destroyer like Coke to come in, it was against a hitter like Ortiz, who historically hasn’t been nearly as dangerous against left-handed pitchers.

Instead, it was Benoit who delivered the game-changing pitch, and Ortiz who added another highlight to his impressive postseason reel, cracking just the third game-tying grand slam in playoff history.

As Rob Neyer noted after the game, the Red Sox’s win expectancy in the eighth inning sat at less than 3 percent. After bad defense by Cabrera and Fielder, questionable managing by the Tigers, some good at-bats by Boston’s top-of-the-order hitters, a tidy inning of relief by Koji Uehara, and especially Ortiz’s big swing, it was 100 percent at game’s end.

The injury woes that plagued the Dodgers for much of this season have come back to hurt them at the worst possible time.

If any team with a $217 million payroll ever deserved a little sympathy, it was this year’s Dodgers squad. Injuries ravaged the roster and were a big reason for the team’s struggles over the first two months of the season. By year’s end, Matt Kemp had missed 89 games, Hanley Ramirez 76, Carl Crawford 46, Mark Ellis 36, and Andre Ethier 20; a few of those missed games were routine days off, but the vast majority happened because of injuries.

Some of those injuries have spilled over to the postseason. Kemp is out for the playoffs with an ankle injury, while Ethier’s own ankle injury has made him day-to-day for the NLCS. But the bigger problem is Ramirez’s latest setback. In the first inning of Game 1, Cardinals starter Joe Kelly plunked Ramirez in the ribs with a 95-mph fastball. At first, not much was made of the injury, and Ramirez stayed in the game to play the final 12 innings. But bruising and soreness built up overnight, knocking the Dodgers shortstop out for Game 2. Yasiel Puig often gets cited as the reason for Los Angeles’s in-season turnaround this year, yet the Dodgers’ big run also coincided with Ramirez’s return to the lineup, and it was Ramirez who was the team’s best hitter this year (by far), hitting a massive .345/.402/.638.

If Ramirez and Ethier again can’t start in Game 3, the Dodgers will be looking at a lineup that includes Punch-and-Judy hitter Skip Schumaker in the lineup, along with the usual blight of Mark Ellis hitting second against a right-handed pitcher. Considering the Cardinals will start the indomitable Adam Wainwright tonight, this could be a major problem.

The Cardinals are, simply, a very good team.

Shame on Randy Choate for tossing three pitches in the Cardinals’ 1-0 win on Saturday. If not for the one batter Choate faced, St. Louis would’ve won Game 2 and shut out the Dodgers using nothing but rookie pitchers. This would’ve marked the second time in the past four playoff games that the Cards had pulled off an all-rookie win — they did it in Game 4 of the NLDS, beating the Pirates 2-1 while allowing just a single hit. If you want a proxy for what makes the Cardinals the best-run organization in baseball, those two games are a good start, as is the Albert Pujols decision.

When Pujols hit the free-agent market after the 2011 season, the pressure to re-sign him was enormous. Here was the team’s best hitter since Stan Musial, the kind of player who gets his own statue in front of the ballpark when he calls it quits. With a new ballpark, regional reach, and a fan base willing to open its collective wallet, the Cardinals could’ve found a way to stretch the budget and re-sign the future Hall of Famer. Instead, they let him walk to the Angels, who offered a quarter-billion dollars to woo him away. The Cards’ reasoning was simple: Even if re-signing Pujols was possible, it wasn’t the right move at the price being offered, not when the team had so much young talent starting to emerge on the major league roster and develop down on the farm. And not when they could acquire different players for a fraction of the cost.

We’ve seen that young talent come through in a big way this year, both in the regular season and the postseason. There’s Allen Craig, the slugger who has come through with so many big hits in big spots that it has defied numerical explanation. There’s Matt Adams, the younger slugger who grabbed a starting job when injuries forced Craig out of the lineup. There’s Matt Carpenter, the player who looked like he might become a useful utility infielder only to emerge as one of the five best players in the National League this year. Then there are all the great, young pitchers whom the Cards can throw out on any given day. In that Game 2 win, the first reliever out of the bullpen was Kevin Siegrist, whose 0.45 ERA was the lowest by any relief pitcher in baseball history with as many innings pitched as he had. Carlos Martinez was the next electric arm out of the pen, blessed with a 97 mph fastball, wicked breaking stuff, and a deceptive changeup that have the Cardinals seeing a potential top-of-the-rotation starter in the future. Finally, there was Trevor Rosenthal, the fire-breathing right-hander who threw two innings and 33 pitches in Game 1, then came back the next day and tossed another 14 pitches to save the game. Those 14 pitches were all fastballs, thrown at the following velocities: 97, 98, 99, 99, 99, 97, 98, 99, 99, 99, 99, 98, 101, 98.

The two biggest kickers, though, were the two players who came closest to directly replacing Pujols. Seeking a hitter to pick up at least some of the offense left behind by Pujols’s departure, the Cards inked Carlos Beltran to a two-year, $26 million contract. Since then, Beltran has produced very good offensive numbers for the past two regular seasons and been a one-man wrecking crew in the playoffs, his latest masterpiece a Game 1 NLCS barrage in which he knocked in all three of the Cardinals’ runs, including the game winner in extra innings. Meanwhile, the Cardinals got a compensation pick from the Angels in the 2012 draft after losing Pujols. With that 19th overall pick, St. Louis selected Michael Wacha. That’s the same Wacha who threw 8⅔ no-hit innings in the final regular-season start of his 2013 rookie season, took a no-no into the eighth inning of that Cardinals 2-1 win over Pittsburgh in the NLDS, then twirled 6⅔ shutout innings on Saturday in winning Game 2 of the NLCS.

The Dodgers were viewed as the favorites in this series thanks to some incredible star power that includes the best pitcher on earth (Clayton Kershaw), as well as $147 million man Zack Greinke, Ramirez, Puig, and other big names. But thanks to the Cardinals’ restraint with Pujols, their ability to go outside the organization and bring in good, affordable players, and especially a farm system that continues to churn out excellent talent, they have a better roster one through 25 than do the Dodgers — even more so with L.A.’s injuries. Those are big reasons why we were bullish on the Cardinals coming into this series, and big reasons why they’re two games away from advancing to the World Series.

The Dodgers’ manager is only making things worse.

Mattingly has received plenty of criticism for some high-profile managing mistakes in October. We’ll get to those in a minute.

It’s the systemic tactical errors that should make you even more worried as a Dodgers fan, both for the rest of this postseason and as long as Mattingly remains the team’s manager. On a broad level, batting order doesn’t matter as much as whom the manager chooses to play. But that doesn’t mean you can’t improve your team’s chances to win by building a lineup that makes sense. We have research that helps us understand how to build an optimal batting order. Even if you don’t want to delve too deeply into statistical studies, think of lineup decisions like this: The higher in an order a player bats, the more plate appearances he’s going to get. So if you’re building a lineup, starting with the idea that your best hitters should bat more often is a great way to start.

Having Ellis bat second in the postseason, particularly against right-handed pitchers, takes a big, fat crap on logic and reason. This season, the Dodgers’ 36-year-old second baseman hit .265/.319/.325 against righties, with two home runs in 302 at-bats. In what universe would you want a player like that to bat more often than someone like Yasiel Puig, who hit fifth in Game 1 when the Dodgers had Ramirez healthy and in the lineup? The notion of having a slap hitter who bunts and makes productive outs bat second is an archaic concept that does little more than make the pitcher breathe a sigh of relief that an easy out is coming to the plate.

Then, of course, there are the mistakes Mattingly made in acute, high-leverage situations. In the NLDS, it was the series of decisions that led to Jose Constanza’s game-winning single. Then in Game 1 of the NLCS Friday night, we got the weirdest pinch-running decision of the playoffs. Tie game, eighth inning. Adrian Gonzalez drew a leadoff walk. Mattingly tapped Dee Gordon to pinch run, yanking Gonzalez from the game. There are circumstances in which you could argue in favor of the decision. Gordon is certainly a lot faster than Gonzalez, and in a low-scoring tie game, getting a runner into scoring position via stolen base makes sense. That’s not what happened here. Gordon didn’t run. You could argue that sending Gordon was a risky move with rocket-armed Yadier Molina behind the plate. But if that’s why you’re not sending him, then pinch running with Gordon loses much of its utility, especially given what you stand to lose by lifting Gonzalez. The next batter, Puig, quickly hit into a forceout, meaning both Gonzalez and his fleet-footed replacement were out of the inning. Juan Uribe then hit into a double play. Inning over.

Normally we try to focus on the process behind a move rather than the results. But sometimes they end up being intertwined. Mattingly subbed in Michael Young to replace Gonzalez, going with a vastly inferior hitter and fielder. Two innings later, Young came up with a runner on third and one out. He hit a fly ball to right-center. Beltran called off Jon Jay, then gunned the ball home to complete the double play. Two outs on one swing, though at least in that case it took a great play by Beltran to end the inning. Two innings after that, in the 12th, came a much more troubling move. Carl Crawford led off the inning with a bloop single, bringing Ellis to the plate. This is exactly why you don’t want a weak hitter like Ellis, rather than a real threat, batting second. What happened next ranked among the most predictable sequences of events by any team all year. Feeling that Ellis might be overmatched against right-hander Lance Lynn, Mattingly ordered a bunt. With first base open, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny immediately ordered an intentional walk of the next batter, the beastly Ramirez. That brought Young back to the plate. In addition to being nowhere near the excellent hitter he once was, Young also hits into double plays more frequently than nearly any other player — he ranked ninth among qualified hitters in double-play percentage this year. So what happened when Young came up with runners on first and second, one out, and the game on the line? He hit into a double play, making it four outs off his bat in two at-bats. That sequence of events was so obvious, 12-year-old boy manager Billy Heywood even warned against it in Little Big League … and everyone watching knew that if Mattingly ordered Ellis to bunt, the sequence of events to follow would be exactly what Heywood warned us about.

The coup de grace was Mattingly’s excessively by-the-book closer usage. Over and over, we see managers retain their closers for save situations during road games, rather than bringing them in when a suitably high-leverage situation demands it. As a result, too many teams lose extra-inning games without their best reliever seeing action. The Dodgers can get away with that move better than most teams can, since they have a deep stable of quality relievers. But none of them are as good as Kenley Jansen. On Friday, we saw a hidden drawback to keeping your closer on ice instead of using him in a big spot around the ninth inning or so. Mattingly kept bringing in non-Jansen relievers as the game went on, while also warming up Jansen multiple times to prepare for the possibility of L.A. grabbing a lead and a save situation. By the time the Dodgers stopper did get into the game, he’d already had to get up and sit down multiple times, taxing his arm and possibly his mind-set. Granted, Beltran was the one who delivered the winning hit off Jansen in the 13th to win it for St. Louis, and Beltran has been so scorching hot in the playoffs that maybe that happens regardless of matchup. But this was another case of Mattingly messing up the process. The ugly result was just the rancid icing on the foul-tasting cake.

In baseball, over the long haul of a season, players win games and managers might affect only a handful of outcomes. But everything gets magnified during the playoffs, and one bad decision leading to a loss could spell the end of the road for a team. At the very least, a manager should deploy common sense when running a team, understanding the basics of lineup construction, relief pitcher usage, and how his moves (and non-moves) could affect the final outcome. Mattingly has shown, both during the regular season and here in October, that he’s not very good at any of those things. In a series against a very good team, with your own squad already short-handed, that’s something the Dodgers can ill afford.

Filed Under: Jonah Keri, Movies, People, Series, The League

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Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri

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