Another Drama-Filled LCS Doubleheader

AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

Two more close, low-scoring battles, two games closer to the World Series. And a few thoughts on a tense Tuesday doubleheader:

There’s a belief in some corners that teams must do the little things well to survive in the postseason. The Tigers do them terribly.

Detroit led the majors this season in batting average (.283), finished seventh in home runs (176), and was second in overall park-adjusted offense. The Tigers also ranked last in stolen bases and Baserunning Runs, making them the kind of homer-dependent team that doesn’t manufacture runs and hence could run into trouble in the lower-scoring environment of October. They do have a stupendous starting rotation, of course, one that has generated 35 strikeouts in 21 innings over the first three games of the American League Championship Series. But when opponents do put balls in play, Tigers pitchers get very little help, with the team ranked just 24th in Ultimate Zone Rating.

A bullpen breakdown and lousy defense doomed the Tigers in Game 2. And with Detroit’s power bats silenced, the Tigers fell to the Red Sox, 1-0, in Game 3, giving Boston a 2-1 series lead. That marked the sixth time in eight playoff games that Detroit had scored three runs or fewer, and the third time the team scored one run or fewer. (It was also the fourth 1-0 playoff game in 11 days; there had been three, total, over the previous 11 years.)

Testing this “little things” theory is tricky. In the book Baseball Between the Numbers (to which I made contributions), Nate Silver and Dayn Perry argued that teams with dominant starting pitchers, a great closer, and strong defense tend to fare best in the postseason, a study that seemed to confirm conventional October wisdom. That theory has since been challenged by analysts who argue that the data set they studied happened to dovetail with a particular era in which these ideas held true. There are also debates about what exactly constitutes the little things. With starting pitchers getting pulled from games earlier than they have in the past, is a killer corps of setup men now a must? Could teams with high contact rates hold an edge over their playoff rivals? A quick-and-dirty study by Elias Sports Bureau looked at teams that ran infrequently and played shaky defense, but the results were inconclusive, with the 2011 Cardinals mixed in with several early-exit teams.

So really, we’re still seeking answers. The Tigers excel in some areas that would seem to result in playoff success. Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer, and Justin Verlander not only combined for 35 strikeouts, they also allowed just two runs over their 21 innings pitched this series. Also, Detroit hitters struck out less often than any other team during the regular season. But when extra-base hits are in short supply, it’s enormously frustrating to watch your team play station-to-station baseball with whatever singles they manage, struggling to move runners or snag extra bases with their legs. If it’s possible for any team scoring no runs to look worse than others doing the same, the Tigers have managed to do just that.

John Lackey turned in one of the best starts of his career.

Considering the stakes and the opponent, maybe the best start of his career. The once-maligned right-hander shook off a choppy performance during the ALDS, twirling 6⅔ shutout innings and allowing just four hits. A moderate strikeout pitcher during the regular season, Lackey was a whiffing machine against the Tigers. Of the 97 pitches he threw Tuesday night, Tigers hitters swung and missed at 16 of them, including six whiffs out of the 31 sliders thrown. He absolutely owned Miguel Cabrera in what would be a miserable night for the Tigers’ all-world slugger. In the first inning, Lackey flung four consecutive fastballs at Cabrera, inducing one swing-and-miss, eventually retiring him on a fly out. Lackey’s second faceoff against Cabrera was a complete whitewash:

• Shin-high slider, swung on and missed, strike one

• 93 mph chest-high fastball, swung on and missed, strike two

• 93 mph fastball outside, ball one

• 93 mph fastball, swung on and missed, strike three

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Lackey dispensed with any pretense of breaking stuff in his third matchup with Cabrera. He fired five consecutive fastballs, staying away for the whole at-bat before getting Cabrera to pop out to end a 1-2-3 sixth inning.

Some people doubted Lackey’s chances in this series, with the stacked Tigers lineup figuring to do more damage than the not-as-potent Rays did last series. For one game, at least, those doubts proved to be ill-founded.

The Red Sox found other unexpected ways to win.

Verlander was unhittable early in the game, striking out Mike Napoli, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Jonny Gomes, Stephen Drew, Will Middlebrooks, and Jacoby Ellsbury in succession to breeze through the second and third innings. Per ESPN Stats & Info’s Katie Sharp, Verlander’s final line made him just the second starter in postseason history to hurl three consecutive games with 10 strikeouts or more and one run allowed or fewer, and the first to fan 10-plus with four or fewer hits allowed in three consecutive games.

Yet his team has lost two of those three games. Lackey’s monster start led the way, but the offense came from an equally unlikely source, at least if recent history is to be trusted. When Napoli came to bat in the seventh inning against Verlander, he was 0-for-6 in the series, with one walk … and six strikeouts. Verlander had thrown him four consecutive sliders in the second, the last one a pitch in the dirt that Napoli could merely wave at for strike three. So when Verlander got to 3-2 against Napoli in the seventh, you had to figure a strikeout was coming, maybe via another backbreaking slider. Instead, Verlander delivered a fastball, belt-high, right down the middle … and Napoli crushed it, sending the ball soaring over the wall in left-center for what would prove to be the only run of the game.

If the Red Sox had one weakness coming into the playoffs, you would have figured it was their relief corps, specifically the pitchers who come in before killer closer Koji Uehara. The biggest risk was the group of relievers who formed the pre-setup corps, pitchers like Brandon Workman, Ryan Dempster, and Felix Doubront, all of whom you hope to see pitch as infrequently as possible. But Boston’s starting rotation, supposedly an underdog against both the Rays and Tigers starters, has fared well — brilliantly, at times — in these two series, pitching deep enough into games to hand off to Craig Breslow and Junichi Tazawa instead of the bullpen’s lesser lights. Given how Breslow and Tazawa pitched in Boston’s first playoff games (Breslow’s strikeouts of Tampa Bay’s 3-4-5-6 hitters in Game 4 of the ALDS might’ve been the seminal moment in that series), maybe we shouldn’t be surprised to see them succeed anymore.

Red Sox manager John Farrell used his relievers in an unorthodox way Tuesday night, but those moves worked out perfectly. Leading off the bottom of the eighth, the Tigers pinch hit with Jose Iglesias, because … who knows, really. After a three-pitch strikeout, Breslow then walked Austin Jackson. With Uehara well-rested, you might’ve figured Farrell would get aggressive and use him to get the last five outs of the game; Farrell had already used Uehara to get five outs or more four times this season (hat tip @2ndHS). Instead, Farrell went to Tazawa, sticking to his pattern of avoiding using Uehara with runners on base (he’d come in with one or more runners on just four times in his previous 44 appearances). When Torii Hunter singled Jackson to third, the inning looked like it might collapse on Farrell’s head. When Farrell left Tazawa in to face Cabrera with the game on the line, it seemed nearly certain. Instead, Tazawa fanned Cabrera, leveraging the live fastball that he has and Uehara, for the most part, does not. It was only after that strikeout that Uehara came in. Inherited runners be damned, Uehara struck out Tigers playoff goat Prince Fielder (zero RBIs in his past 53 postseason plate appearances), and the threat was squelched. After a leadoff Victor Martinez single in the ninth, Uehara got Jhonny Peralta to ground into a double play, then followed that up by striking out Alex Avila — and that was that.

So now, despite getting dominated by each of the Tigers’ top three starters and leading in just four of the 27 innings played this series, the Red Sox are two wins away from winning the pennant. You can’t predict baseball, Suzyn.

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Playoff teams need to do a better job of managing the workload of their no. 4 starters.

TBS broadcasters brought up an intriguing stat during Tuesday’s Game 4 between the Dodgers and Cardinals: Starting pitchers with 15 days of rest or more have posted a 4.50 ERA in postseason play. There’s a selection bias in play here, since only no. 4 starter types will get that kind of treatment, with top-of-the-rotation options all but assured of starting earlier in a series. Still, as we noted at the start of the playoffs, teams should try to anticipate excessively long layoffs and get their back-end starters some work to avoid rustiness. A relief stint during an early-series game in the postseason, or even some multi-inning work on the last day of the regular season (assuming a playoff spot is already sewn up) could help curtail some of that potential rust.

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny went to Lance Lynn in extra innings of Game 1 of the NLCS and got two frames of scoreless relief, and a win, as a result. That way, when Lynn would take the mound to start Game 4, he wouldn’t have an 11-day layoff from not pitching since Game 2 of the NLDS.

Dodgers manager Don Mattingly made no such allowances, and it cost him. Give some credit to Cardinals hitters for racking up three runs in four innings off Game 4 starter Ricky Nolasco. But the crushing blow was a flat, do-nothing, 91 mph fastball that Matt Holliday hit 17 miles for a two-run homer, giving the Cards a 3-0 third-inning lead that held up in a 4-2 St. Louis victory. Maybe Nolasco makes that bad pitch if he’s on regular rest. But it’s hard to see Nolasco going 20 days between appearances in a live game and not wonder if that played a major role in his disappointing start. It’s something to think about for future playoff teams.

The Dodgers had a chance to make a go-for-broke move, and they didn’t take it.

In the bottom of the second inning, L.A. loaded the bases, bringing Nolasco’s spot in the order up. At that point, the Dodgers starter hadn’t allowed any runs. But this was an opportunity to do something big, with one pinch-hit able to build an early lead and turn an already shaky inning for Lynn into a serious problem. It’s entirely possible that Mattingly never even gave pinch hitting a thought in that situation — many other managers would just accept the near-automatic out and go from there. But down 2-1 in the series, with a deep and rested relief corps, the situation called for a ballsy move. Instead, Nolasco struck out looking. (This was exactly the spot to have starter Chris Capuano on the roster instead of near-pointless right-handers Carlos Marmol and Edinson Volquez, by the way. Capuano could have given the Dodgers multiple innings to make pulling Nolasco more palatable, with the bonus of potentially exploiting the Cardinals’ very weak offense against left-handed pitchers.)

Two innings later, after Nolasco’s disastrous four innings, Mattingly did pinch hit for his starter … and Skip Schumaker hit into a brutal, inning-ending double play. Still, we’re about process and not results here. And taking a shot with their playoff lives on the line was, arguably, the move to make. With the Dodgers now one game away from elimination, here’s hoping Mattingly does manage with more of a go-for-it mentality.

Matheny hasn’t been perfect, but he pushed the right button to snuff out a potential game-changing rally.

Yasiel Puig singled with one out in the sixth, bringing Juan Uribe to the plate. Lynn had settled down after a two-run fourth, and had thrown just 83 pitches at that point in the game. No one would’ve faulted Matheny for riding Lynn a little longer in that spot.

Instead, the Cardinals skipper summoned Seth Maness from the bullpen. Maness produced a 68.4 percent ground ball rate this season, the second-best mark among all pitchers with as many innings pitched. This was the ideal move in a spot when a double play is your goal. That’s exactly what the Cardinals got, a 6-4-3 beauty that included a great snag by Pete Kozma (just into the game for defense after Daniel Descalso had missed two grounders up the middle that several other shortstops would’ve grabbed) and a smooth turn at second by Matt Carpenter.

When managing in the playoffs, it helps to have a bottomless well of young pitching talent you can call in for tight spots, much less one that includes a wormburner as skilled as Maness. But there’s something to be said for a manager who is not afraid to use young pitchers — even rookies — in big spots. Make it one run allowed in their last 14 innings pitched for the Cards, with that Maness double play proving to be huge in Game 4.

The Dodgers really miss the big bat of Hanley Ramirez.

There are the subtle reasons, such as what happened in the bottom of the fifth to prove this point. Down one run, the Dodgers got a leadoff single from Carl Crawford, PADDD (Past a Diving Daniel Descalso). Crawford’s speed would often dictate a stolen-base attempt in this situation, but not necessarily against the Cardinals’ rocket-armed catcher Yadier Molina. We’ve already roasted Mattingly for his stubborn insistence on batting Mark Ellis second against right-handed pitchers when he’s terrible against them, but hypotheticals aside, with Ellis coming up behind Crawford, this was a case when a sacrifice bunt could have at least been considered. The Dodgers opted not to bunt, and Ellis popped out instead, failing to advance the runner. It’s quite possible that Mattingly simply didn’t want to give up a free out in this spot, especially when it was still relatively early in the game — he would have a good case for taking that stance too.

But you get the feeling that if Ramirez were healthy, the bunt might have been on. That way, Ramirez could have come up in a big spot, or left the inning to Adrian Gonzalez in the event of an intentional walk. Unfortunately, you can see that Ramirez isn’t swinging with much authority, as he’s still badly bothered by his rib injury. Ramirez struck out after the Ellis popout, and Crawford never made it past first base in the inning.

Two innings later, Ramirez was out of the game, replaced by Nick Punto, whose baserunning blunder short-circuited a potential rally in the seventh. After the game, Ramirez tried to sound optimistic about his chances of playing in Game 5. But even if he can somehow answer the bell, Ramirez will likely be a shadow of his usual self, unable to drive the ball the way he usually does. That’s a scary thought for the on-the-ropes Dodgers.

Filed Under: Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers, Los Angeles Dodgers, MLB Playoffs, St. Louis Cardinals

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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.

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