Checking In On The MLB Playoffs, Part II

Continuing our quadruple-header recap, here’s what transpired in Tuesday night’s late games, with a look ahead.

YANKEES 10 TIGERS 1 (Series tied 2-2)

When A.J. Burnett stared at Russell Martin’s sign with the bases loaded, two outs and Don Kelly at the plate, he had to know that his season, the Yankees’ season, and his legacy and career in the Bronx were all on the line.

That might seem like hyperbole, until you think about Burnett’s Yankees career leading up that point. The questions about his performance started long before he took the mound for Game 4 of the ALDS against the Tigers. Walk into any sports bar, listen to any New York sports radio station, talk to anyone with a pulse and an ounce of Yankees fandom in them, and the question for the past two years would be the same: What the hell is wrong with A.J. Burnett? (in less polite company, “hell” wouldn’t be the word people would use). A rational conversation might have started with Burnett’s age — his fastball had lost 3 mph from Burnett’s peak six years ago on the Marlins. That would often devolve into more existential talk. Can he handle the bright lights of New York? Is A.J. Burnett just Ed Whitson 2.0? If a grape fought a raspberry, who would win?

Whatever your angle, Burnett’s bases-loaded, first-inning jam ranked way up there on the list of big Yankees moments of 2011. Cory Wade was warming up in the bullpen, and a big hit might have ended Burnett’s season. He delivered, caught too much of the plate. Kelly swung, and cranked a screaming line drive to center. Curtis Granderson tracked it, extended his glove hand, leaped, and made a spectacular catch. Inning over. No harm done.

The catch didn’t have to be so difficult. Granderson completely misjudged the ball off the bat, starting in on Kelly’s liner before scrambling to recover and make the grab. In the 6th, Jhonny Peralta smacked a ball to left-center. Though you can’t see it in this video, last night’s replays showed that Granderson again misjudged the ball, taking a couple beats to pick up its trajectory before taking off after it, diving, and hauling it in. He’s had a hell of a season offensively, he’s been a huge contributor for the Yankees and a big reason they’re poised to potentially make a deep playoff run. But Granderson is a pretty lousy defender, even if a quick glance might suggest otherwise.

Granderson’s flights of fancy aside, that first-inning catch pulled Burnett’s ass out of the fire. He wasn’t perfect thereafter, yielding a homer and a double in the 4th and a leadoff single in the 5th and inducing just six swinging strikes for the game. But you take one run in 5 2/3 from your fourth starter in an elimination playoff game every time, especially when that fourth starter is A.J. Burnett. Though it didn’t get much play amid Granderson’s dives, Burnett’s overall performance and the Yankees’ offensive outburst, Burnett threw a two-strike curve to Alex Avila in the 4th that swooped down into the strike zone, nicked the outside corner, and punched out a potent hitter with a man on second and the game still very much up for grabs. It was a vintage Uncle Charlie by Burnett, the kind that reminded you of what he once was, and what he occasionally can still be.

Meanwhile, the Tigers continued to play Dead Ball Era baseball, because apparently playing a loaded Yankees team straight up in the playoffs isn’t a big enough challenge for Jim Leyland. Austin Jackson walked to start the game. That brought up Ramon Santiago, batting in the two-hole for the second straight game. In Game 3, the Tigers sacrifice bunted three times, lowering the likelihood of them scoring in each instance. Moving a runner over on a bunt can be a fine idea, especially late in a tie game, when one run makes a huge difference. But you don’t do it after your first batter of the game draws walk. Well, you shouldn’t do it. The Tigers don’t believe in “don’t.”

After Jackson’s walk, Santiago squared around … and popped it up, failing to advance the runner. Blame the technique, certainly. Santiago was leaning toward first base as he squared, trying to move the runner over with half a mind to try and beat the throw, instead of using the proper technique to deaden the ball in front of home and ensure Jackson’s advance. The bunt looked even dumber after Jackson swiped second right after the botched bunt. Wait, you mean you can pick up an extra base with a 75%-80% chance of giving up no outs, instead of trying to do so with vaguely similar success rates, plus a near-100% chance of making one out? No way!

The Tigers suffered 10,000 other setbacks in this game that led to their blowout loss. Santiago’s bunt didn’t lose them Tuesday night’s game, just as three Tigers bunts didn’t lose them Monday’s game (they won, in fact). But you can only control so many elements in a baseball game. If the Yankees strafe you with 10 runs, you tip your cap. If they make diving catches and throw perfect curveballs, you tip your cap. If you piss away an out for no good reason, that’s on you. And even if one particular bunt doesn’t prove costly, keep making the same tactical mistakes and eventually one very well might.

Let’s not bury the Tigers, though. Game 5 awaits at Yankee Stadium, and as expected, Doug Fister takes the mound with a chance to win the series for Detroit. No pitcher in the American League, not even Justin Verlander, pitched better than Fister did over the final two months of the season. The short porch in right-center presents a big challenge against a stacked Yankees lineup, and Fister’s middling velocity won’t keep Granderson or Robinson Cano up tonight. But the Tigers righty has flashed great command since coming to Detroit, hitting his spots and keeping runners off base. If he gives up a solo homer or two but otherwise keeps the Yankees in check, that gives the Tigers an excellent chance to leverage their own 4th-ranked AL offense for some big hits.

More broadly, there’s something great about Doug Fister and Ivan Nova potentially deciding the season for the Tigers and Yankees, a scenario even their moms couldn’t have foreseen six months ago.

DIAMONDBACKS 8, BREWERS 1 (Brewers lead series 2-1)

One of the toughest challenges for any team sizing up its chances for the season is figuring out who’s going to be on the roster once the home stretch rolls around. In the Tigers’ case, that meant envisioning the payroll space and the will to add three key players to the roster in Doug Fister, Wilson Betemit and Delmon Young.

The Diamondbacks didn’t attack the trade deadline with anywhere near that level of aggression. Then again, maybe they didn’t need to. Their two biggest moves of the season were nothing more than minor league promotions. And the results have been nothing less than terrific.

Josh Collmenter and Paul Goldschmidt, two rookies who didn’t break camp on the Diamondbacks’ Opening Day roster, were the stars of Tuesday night’s lopsided Arizona win. Collmenter rolled through seven masterful innings against the potent Milwaukee lineup, striking out six batters, walking just two, allowing just two hits and a single run on Corey Hart’s third-inning homer. The Arizona Republic’s Nick Piecoro talked about the secrets to Collmenter’s success on today’s podcast. The 25-year-old right-hander posted the third-lowest walk rate among National League pitchers with at least 150 innings pitched this season, trailing two dudes named Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. He also benefited from an outfield defense that Rob Neyer (rightly) rated as the best in baseball. Collmenter found a few more strikeouts than usual last night. But the basic formula of avoiding walks and putting balls in play worked for him again, giving the DBacks something they couldn’t get with their top two starters on the mound: a win.

Goldschmidt provided the offense. After knocking in the second run of the game with a single in the 1st, the rookie slugger came up with the bases loaded in the 5th, his team leading 3-1 and Shaun Marcum teetering on the edge of oblivion. Today’s podcast guest Jack Moore of the excellent Brewers blog Disciples of Uecker eloquently lamented what happened next: Brewers manager Ron Roenicke stuck with Marcum too long. Goldschmidt blasted a ball just over the wall in right-center, becoming just the third rookie ever to hit a grand slam in the playoffs. And Marcum gave us the best .gif of October.

The question of prospects, service time and knowing when a player is ready has come up several times with other teams and other players this season. Brett Lawrie wrecked minor league pitching for months before the Jays called him up. The Rays’ handling of Desmond Jennings made Bill Simmons and I so emotional that we spent 85,000 words arguing about it (for the record, I was wrong).

Goldschmidt was a bit of a different case. He’d shown huge power in the minors, cranking 35 bombs last year and another 30 in just 103 games this year. But scouts wondered about the holes in his swing and his high strikeout rates. Statheads wondered if Goldschmidt was partly a product of his environment, playing in some of the friendliest hitter’s parks around. All of those concerns might be valid. But when your alternatives are Juan Miranda, Xavier Nady, and a desiccated cactus, you do what you have to do. Goldschmidt is a mistake hitter. Marcum threw a mistake pitch. Goldschmidt killed it. Diamondbacks win. Easy.

The two teams go at it again tonight, with Randy Wolf taking on Joe Saunders. The DBacks smoked Wolf in two starts this year, tallying 10 runs and 18 hits in 13 1/3 innings; a lineup that features right-handed power hitters like Justin Upton, Chris Young and Goldschmidt, in a park that favors offense like Chase Field, could present serious problems for Milwaukee’s veteran lefty. On the other hand, Joe Saunders is Joe Saunders, the guy who’s struck out just five batters per nine innings in his career, with a ugly career FIP of 4.65. And the Brewers finished second in the NL this season in homers against lefties, trailing only … the Diamondbacks.

It might take 10 runs for either team to win tonight’s game. Grab a mitt, set up near the pool, and watch the fireworks fly.

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Filed Under: Arizona Diamondbacks, Detroit Tigers, Milwaukee Brewers, MLB, New York Yankees

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 New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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