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Welcome to MLB’s Second Season

With eight games in three days, October baseball is in full swing.

Russell Martin

There were times this year when Yankees fans couldn’t mention Russell Martin without giving him a colorful middle name. Four weeks into the season, he was hitting .172. During one five-week stretch from mid-June to mid-July, he hit .091/.178/.136. Sure, he’d had some miserable luck on balls in play, could still flash a solid glove, and was just a year removed from an 18-home-run season. Still, this figured to be an eight-man lineup for the rest of the season, with the chances of Martin coming back to catch next year roughly on par with Carl Pavano’s odds of returning to be the team’s no. 2 starter.

There were times this year when Orioles fans couldn’t mention Jim Johnson without wondering if Mariano Rivera had suddenly healed from a torn ACL and then come to pitch for an AL East rival. From June 6 through Friday’s wild-card playoff win over the Rangers — a stretch covering four months — Johnson gave up exactly zero home runs. He saved 51 games this season. From a distance, you might’ve mistaken him for the reason the O’s pulled off their miracle season, going from cellar dwellers to a playoff team that never seemed to lose close games. One ex-player turned analyst went so far as to make Johnson his pick for American League Most Valuable Player.

Regression is a bitch.

The game-winning, ninth-inning homer launched by Martin off Johnson wasn’t the first sign that both players’ fortunes had changed. Martin launched 13 home runs in his final 56 regular-season starts, reasserting himself as a legitimate power threat for the Yankees, if still a prolific out-maker. Johnson looked shaky in that wild-card tilt with Texas, taking a four-run lead into the ninth, then loading the bases to give the Rangers a shot at tying the game before finally taking their last hack of the season. But the enormity of Martin’s overall performance Sunday night, coupled with Johnson’s debacle of a ninth inning, reminded us that momentum means nothing when you get to the postseason. We learned that lesson again and again over the course of a jam-packed playoff weekend.

FRIDAY

They got the call wrong. According to the vague wording of the infield-fly rule, it wasn’t exactly wrong. Despite the rule’s name, you can, in fact, rule a ball an infield fly even when it reaches the outfield. But the devil, in this case, was in the details. As Grantland colleague Shane Ryan tweeted Friday night, there were six infield flies over the past three seasons that were not caught. The longest was 178 feet deep. The one that set the baseball world ablaze in the eighth inning of the Cardinals’ eventual 6-3 win over Atlanta traveled 225 feet. Andrelton Simmons’s pop-up behind short with one out that inning stayed in the air for more than six seconds. That was enough time for Matt Holliday to call off the backpedaling Pete Kozma, and for that dying quail to fall between the two players. Unfortunately for the Braves, left-field umpire Sam Holbrook signaled infield fly less than a second before the ball hit the ground, far too late to constitute a reasonable call. This was the latest indictment of a playoff system that adds two umpires to every game, putting the men in blue in unfamiliar situations and setting them up for failure. But it is also a judgment call, one with no chance of being overturned.

No one likes ranting against baseball’s aversion to technology and its obvious benefits for calling a fairer game. But the Braves found countless ways to submarine themselves without the umpires’ help. They stranded 12 men on base. They made three errors, the most costly one a throwing error by Chipper Jones that turned a potential inning-squashing double play into the genesis of a three-run frame that gave the Cardinals a lead they would never relinquish. This from one of baseball’s elite defensive teams by multiple measures. Doesn’t mean these are fatal organizational flaws. The Braves could very well win a home rematch against St. Louis six times out of 10. Maybe more. In stark contrast to last year’s collapse, this year’s Braves thrived down the stretch, going 19-8 in September. But the same one-game format that creates drama and intrigue can also hang a team out to dry if it botches a big throw or watches a potential big comeback inning turn to dust with an umpire’s call.

They say ballplayers have short and selective memories. For Chipper Jones’s sake, let’s hope that’s true.

Unlike the Braves, the Rangers limped to the finish line, losing seven of their final nine regular-season games, including a final-series sweep at the hands of the A’s that dropped them out of the AL West’s top spot for the first time since the third game of the season. This was what Bud Selig and friends envisioned when they launched the new playoff format: raising the importance of division titles by making wild-card teams play a winner-take-all format, thus creating the type of scenario that could see the 2012 Astros beat the ’27 Yankees, let alone send a slightly more talented team home early.

Josh Hamilton ended his season in ignominious fashion, going 0-for-4 with two strikeouts and a double play in Texas’s 5-1 loss to the Orioles. That performance capped a nightmarish home stretch for the Rangers star, one that saw him end the year going 10-for-39 with no homers or walks and 17 strikeouts, while also committing the game-turning error Wednesday that helped cost the Rangers the division and thus relegated them to that do-or-die spot.

You can’t put it all on Hamilton. Ron Washington saw fit to let Michael Young and his butcher’s hands cover first base; sure enough, the ball found Young immediately, with Nate McLouth leading off the game by hitting a ball to him, which went for an error, opening the scoring for Baltimore. The Rangers went 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position and hit into three costly double plays. They managed not a single extra-base hit. They were outplayed in every facet of the game.

But what stood out the most were the contributions made by cast-offs, the flotsam and jetsam plucked by GM Dan Duquette off other teams’ rosters that helped the Orioles pull off their borderline miraculous season. Joe Saunders, the soft-tossing lefty cast asunder by the Diamondbacks, got the unlikely start against the potent Rangers lineup stacked with eight right-handed bats. The percentage play might’ve used Saunders as bait, leaving him in for the first three batters, then pulling him after the lineup’s lone lefty, Josh Hamilton, took his first at-bat. Instead Buck Showalter let the gamble ride, squeezing 5⅔ innings of one-run ball out of his seemingly overmatched starter. Even that didn’t burn quite as much as the Orioles using the Rangers’ own refugees against them. Former Texas first baseman Chris Davis emerged as a middle-of-the-order power threat and pivotal fill-in throughout the year. And Baltimore’s bullpen, its biggest strength all season, got huge lifts from right-handers Pedro Strop and Darren O’Day. It was O’Day, in fact, who tossed two scoreless innings against Texas in the wild-card game, bridging the gap to the Orioles’ short-relief crew and setting up the Rangers’ demise. After two straight years of crushing losses in the World Series, losing to a team in part because you had too many good players and thus had to let a few go might be the cruelest blow of all.

SATURDAY

Not everyone agreed with the one-and-done format for wild-card teams, but at least you could understand its reasoning. Less so for the new best-of-five setup for the four League Division Series. Under the new format, higher-seeded teams would actually go on the road for the first two games of the series, before heading home for Game 3, and if necessary, Games 4 and 5. The concern was obvious: What if an underdog held serve at home, sending the team that spent all season cultivating home-field advantage to a 2-0 deficit and a sudden elimination game at its home park?

The Tigers offered Exhibit A for the new alignment’s critics, shutting down the A’s 3-1 to claim Game 1 of the series. This wasn’t exactly a huge surprise, given Justin Verlander — arguably the planet’s best pitcher — was Detroit’s opening-game starter. Verlander struck out 11 and allowed just one run on three hits against Oakland en route to the win; he was virtually unhittable after ceding a leadoff homer to A’s outfielder Coco Crisp. Curiously, that marked the first time last year’s Cy Young and MVP winner had allowed fewer than three runs in nine career playoff starts. Also curiously, Detroit’s power-hitting duo of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder combined to go 0-for-7 in the game, with a throwing error by A’s starter Jarrod Parker triggering the go-ahead run for the Tigers, and a solo shot by number-eight hitter Alex Avila icing the game.

It ended up having no bearing on the outcome of the game, but the enduring memory will be that of A’s reliever Pat Neshek tossing a scoreless ⅔ of an inning. Neshek and his wife, Stephanee, had lost their first child, a son, to a sudden death just three days before the game, less than 24 hours after his birth. Neither the Nesheks nor their doctors knew the cause of little Gehrig Neshek’s death. The normally affable Neshek took to Facebook and Twitter to share his family’s heartbreaking tale. No one could know what to expect next, though having Neshek join the A’s postseason roster so soon after the family’s tragedy seemed an unlikely outcome. Having Neshek enter Saturday’s game in the middle of a jam, pitch the A’s out of trouble, run off the mound, tap the memorial patch on his right sleeve with Gehrig’s name on it, then enter the dugout to teammates’ hugs and tears … it was more than a little affecting.

It was one game and proof of nothing per se, but the Reds’ 5-2 win over the Giants Saturday underscored the Reds’ biggest advantage over San Francisco: They’re a much better power-hitting team. As noted in Friday’s NLDS preview, the Giants hit the fewest home runs in baseball, with just 103; the Reds hit that many at home alone (versus just 29 home runs for the Giants all year at AT&T Park). Reds ace Johnny Cueto left the game after just eight pitches with a back injury, yet the Giants could do little with Cincinnati’s cavalcade of relievers. Deserving MVP candidate Buster Posey homered off Mat Latos (normally a starter), but San Francisco managed only one other extra-base hit the rest of the game.

The Giants had a shot at a big comeback in the ninth. With the Reds up by four but Aroldis Chapman struggling mightily to find the strike zone, the Giants loaded the bases and got the tying run to the plate. Chapman threw three fastballs high and out of the zone. Pablo Sandoval, one of the least patient hitters in the game, swung at all three, eventually popping up for the second out of the inning. Chapman soon regained his command, eventually struck out Posey, and that was that.

SUNDAY

The first two days of the playoffs didn’t offer much in the way of game-changing managerial tactics. Sunday did.

The game most closely tied to decision-making was Washington’s first playoff game in 79 years, an NLDS Game 1 tilt in St. Louis. The Cardinals built a 2-1 lead in the second inning, a lead they held through most of the game. Adam Wainwright overwhelmed the Nationals, striking out 10 batters, an amazing nine of those on huge, sweeping curveballs, many of those in the dirt. One of Wainwright’s few mistakes, a hanging curve to Kurt Suzuki, netted the only run the Nats would score for the first seven innings. But the Cards got two right back, taking advantage of what looked like the old Gio Gonzalez, the talented but incredibly wild lefty who would have meltdown innings in which he simply couldn’t find the plate. Of his first five batters faced in the bottom of the second, Gonzalez walked four and threw a wild pitch. A Jon Jay sacrifice fly gave the Cardinals a 2-1 lead, though Carlos Beltran stranded two runners by flying out to center to end the inning.

Letting Gonzalez off the hook after a 37-pitch debacle of an inning allowed the Nationals to press on with their starters and save individual bullpen members for their preferred roles. September hero Pete Kozma rapped into a double play to end the fourth, snuffing out one would-be rally. Two more Gonzalez walks produced nothing when Matt Holliday struck out and Allen Craig popped out to end the inning. The squandered opportunities soon escalated, sometimes at the Cardinals’ own hand, sometimes due to sparkling Washington defense. Jayson Werth’s home-run-robbing catch in the sixth saved two runs, set up the comeback that would follow … who knows, it might end up proving to be a season-saver when all is said and done.

Great defense you could understand. But as much credit as the Nats deserve for their defense, and their eventual eighth-inning rally that won the game, it was Allen Craig and especially Yadier Molina who deserve to wear the goat horns for the loss. The Cardinals loaded the bases with nobody out in the bottom of the seventh. Davey Johnson summoned right-hander Ryan Mattheus to try to drown the rally. Given the get-me-over tendencies of pitchers in that spot, especially a pitcher fresh out of the bullpen, you could perhaps understand Craig’s impulse to swing at the first pitch. Unfortunately that first pitch was a wicked, sinking, 94 mph fastball near the knees that Craig tapped to short for a forceout at home. That was rough. Yadier Molina swinging at the first pitch immediately afterward, on another 94 mph fastball that was nearly a foot inside this time, met with an even uglier end: an inning-ending, around-the-horn double play. In Mattheus the Cardinals were facing a pitcher with only 5.6 strikeouts per nine innings during the regular season, someone who’d proven fairly hittable despite a low ERA, certainly not someone who required a defensive swing on the first pitch for fear of a high-likelihood strikeout later on. Given the combination of his otherworldly defense and career-best offense, Molina might be the player who makes for the most worthy rival MVP candidate to Posey; at the very least you can lump him in with Ryan Braun and Andrew McCutchen among top contenders. But despite the game not actually turning until the next inning, it’s hard to look at the Cardinals’ chances in the seventh and not conclude that Molina largely cost St. Louis its biggest game of the year to date.

Mike Matheny should share some of that blame for being badly outmanaged in the eighth. Kozma’s less-than-stellar game got even worse leading off the inning, as a Mike Morse grounder bonked him in the face, giving him an error and setting the stage. An Ian Desmond bloop single followed. Then, after Danny Espinosa foolishly bunted (it looked like he was trying to bunt for a hit rather than sacrifice, but the run was unlikely to score that way with no one expecting it anyway) and Suzuki struck out on a 97 mph fastball, the two managers finally got to lock wits. The Nationals were going to pinch hit with journeyman lefty swinger Chad Tracy. Mike Matheny had three choices at that point:

• Leave excellent setup man Mitchell Boggs in the game, giving him a matchup against a cold pinch hitter without much of a pedigree.

• Bring in lefty specialist Marc Rzepczynski (having a mediocre season) to face what would almost surely be a pinch hitter,1 likely power-hitting reserve outfielder Tyler Moore.


1.

The Washington Post‘s Adam Kilgore wrote a good piece about the Nats’ pinch-hitting crew, which collectively hit .288/.367/.420 this season, compared to the league average of just .230/.309/.346.

• Bring in closer Jason Motte, and entrust the game’s highest-leverage pitching situation to the team’s best pitcher, regardless of who might come in to hit.

Given the respective talents of each of these pitchers and the hitters they’d most likely face, you’d have to pick Motte as the most logical candidate, followed by Boggs, then a big gap, then Rzepczynski.

Matheny chose Rzepczynski. The pitch Moore finally looped to right for a two-run single was well off the plate, requiring an impressive bit of hitting by Moore to drive in what would prove to be the game-winning run of a 3-2 Nats victory. But when your process is bad, a bad result often follows.

Curiously, the Tigers’ walk-off win Sunday — the only walk-off by any team all weekend — didn’t pivot on any one managerial decision the way the Nationals’ victory did. In a nutshell, Coco Crisp badly misjudged a Miguel Cabrera pop-up and exacerbated the situation by trying a basket catch, and the usually reliable A’s relief combination of Sean Doolittle, Ryan Cook, and Grant Balfour let the team down, spoiling an excellent start for Tommy Milone. Detroit’s relief corps suffered a similar meltdown, but got a pick-me-up from Al Alburquerque and a little kiss. If smooching a baseball mid-play to squelch a ninth-inning rally wasn’t unusual enough, having Don Kelly drive in the game-winning run with his first RBI of any kind in six months added to dramatics.

If A’s fans were howling about having a superior record this year yet going down 2-0 to the Tigers at Comerica, the weekend’s other games followed the opposite pattern: Non-A’s road teams went 6-0 from Friday through Sunday, while LDS-specific road teams, bound to the supposedly punitive new rules, went 4-0. The Reds smashed the Giants 9-0 to take a 2-0 series lead, riding a diverse attack and seven innings of one-hit, shutout ball from Bronson Arroyo; even the Reds’ biggest backers probably didn’t see that coming.

As for Russell Martin’s redemption and Jim Johnson’s collapse, the Orioles closer retired just one batter, allowing five runs on four hits, including Martin’s blast to left. The Yankees’ ninth-inning outburst snapped a 2-2 tie, leading to New York’s 7-2 win. There’d been plenty of theater earlier, too, with Jason Hammel making his first start in a month (seeking his first win since June), negotiating his way through 5⅔ innings and 112 pitches while sporting a bulky knee brace. Hammel got help from two costly baserunning mistakes by the Yankees. When J.J. Hardy led off the eighth with a slicing double, it seemed New York’s wasted chances might result in an oh-so-Orioles one-run win, with Baltimore doing just enough to overcome its more vaunted opponent.

Never happened. And for that you can thank CC Sabathia (8⅔ innings, two runs, eight hits, seven strikeouts, one walk, 120 pitches). With everyone else in the Yankees rotation raising serious questions except for Hiroki Kuroda, Sabathia’s struggles earlier this year caused some serious freak-outs. The Bombers ace hit the disabled list twice in one season for the first time ever. Then, during one four-start stretch running from late August to early September, Sabathia allowed 17 runs in 27 innings, striking out fewer batters than usual and failing to locate his pitches as well as he normally does. Expectations are understandably sky-high when you’re the number-one starter for the Yankees, doubly so when you’re raking in $23 million a year. But the rise of Verlander, David Price, and other AL aces has obscured Sabathia’s contributions a bit. Take a larger sample — say 2007 through 2012 — and Sabathia has a case to be the most valuable pitcher in the game. Sabathia followed that lead-off by Hardy with a wicked 2-2 slider to fan the Orioles’ most dangerous threat, Adam Jones. Matt Wieters then fouled out, Mark Reynolds grounded out, and just like that, the threat was extinguished. It was one start, against a team that wasn’t elite offensively this year and was missing one of its best players in Nick Markakis. But given the concerns about the rest of the rotation and the near-panic over Sabathia himself just a few weeks ago, the optimists could spin this as the start of something big.

By launching the game-winning home run and playing terrific defense by blocking two balls in the dirt with a runner on third and making a nimble pickup and sprawling throw to avert what would’ve been a first-and-second, nobody-out situation in the fith, Russell Martin served as the day’s unlikely hero. In a playoff field this crowded and this close together on talent, it never hurts to have your likely hero come through, too.