LCS Wrap: Detroit on the Brink & Cards Go All In

AP Photo/Charlie Riedel Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz

RANGERS 7, TIGERS 3 (Rangers lead series 3-1)

Another great Detroit starting pitching performance ruined by one inning. Another iffy bit of late-inning strategy that may have cost the Tigers the game. Another Nelson Cruz moonshot to seal the deal. Another 7-3 Rangers win in 11 innings.

As in Game 2, last night’s endless, soggy Game 4 started with an impressive outing by a Tigers starter, this time 22-year-old right-hander Rick Porcello. Unlike Max Scherzer in Game 2, who yielded two runs in the first inning before settling down and pitching a gem, Porcello dominated from the start. His repertoire resembles that of a closer, with two pitches (a sinking fastball and a slider) making up the vast majority of his pitch allotment (85 percent this year). He leaned almost exclusively on those two offerings all night, and for a long time, the Rangers couldn’t do anything with them.

After a Brandon Inge diving stop retired Ian Kinsler to start the game, Porcello set up Elvis Andrus 1-2. He then threw a vicious slider that dived out of the zone, tantalizing Andrus into a hapless swing. Strike three. A first-pitch groundout to second by Josh Hamilton made it a 1-2-3 inning for Porcello to start the game. The next three innings kept repeating that pattern. Of the first 16 batters Porcello faced, he struck out six and induced eight groundball outs, allowing a single and a double as the only Rangers baserunners through five innings. Five of the six strikeouts came on wipeout sliders, Porcello’s delivery obscuring the pitch just long enough for it to dart below hitters’ swings. Meanwhile, the grounders came almost exclusively on Porcello sinkers, with the entire Texas lineup unable to square up the pitch or even — with a couple exceptions — hit it out of the infield.

Then it all came undone in the sixth. It’s easy to say in retrospect that Porcello should have come out of the game after five frames. A fresh, elite relief pitcher stands a better chance of succeeding than does a merely decent starting pitcher (Porcello posted an average-ish 4.06 FIP this season, with just 5.1 strikeouts per nine innings) facing an opposing lineup for the third time. But Porcello had pitched beautifully to that point, making Jim Leyland think this could be a better-than-normal night for his young starter. The bigger issue was the Tigers’ lack of top-flight relievers. They have Jose Valverde to close, Joaquin Benoit to pitch high-leverage setup innings, and Phil Coke to battle tough lefty hitters. Everyone else, including flame-throwing, often wild, Mike Francesa-befuddling rookie Al Alburquerque, qualify as iffier options — or at least less trusted options — talented though they may be. Porcello wasn’t coming out after five.

Two bloop singles, one smoked double, one key line drive, and one unfortunate throwing error later, and the Rangers’ half of the sixth ended with Texas up 3-2.

The Tigers would tie it up in a most unexpected way. Rangers manager Ron Washington, taking advantage of the deeper bullpen that Detroit lacked, had brought hard-throwing, converted starter Alexi Ogando into the game to start the sixth. He set down the first five of the first six men he faced, giving him an even eight scoreless playoff innings this postseason. (Meanwhile, Leyland stuck with Porcello even after his rocky sixth, watched his starter give up two singles in the seventh, then nearly saw the game blown by Alburquerque before the Dominican righty shook off six straight balls to the first two hitters he faced and escaped a bases-loaded jam to temporarily save the game.) With two outs in the seventh, Inge strode to the plate. Wilson Betemit was the clearly superior hitter vs. righties (.277/348/.469 career for Betemit; .223/.291/.362 for Inge) and probably should have pinch-hit. He didn’t. Ogando got ahead 0-2. As the right-hander wound up to throw his next pitch, Tim McCarver said the following: “It would be very unusual for [Inge] to pull Ogando.” The split second McCarver completed that sentence, Ogando inexplicably threw a belt-high fastball right down the middle and Inge blasted the pitch over the left-field wall. McCarver was right. But John Sterling has a handy retort at the ready.

Though Leyland got away with not using Betemit in that spot, two other tactical mistakes ending up killing the Tigers, one tough to avoid, the other easy to avoid, but still royally botched.

First, Washington tried to hand the game to Detroit by walking Miguel Cabrera intentionally … with one out, and nobody on base. Perhaps this was an overreaction to the Rangers’ earlier error, when they went right after Cabrera with two on, two out and the hobbled Victor Martinez on deck, only to see Cabrera knock in the first two runs of the game on a deep double. Whatever it was, it was ludicrously stupid: Though Cabrera’s always a threat to break a tie with one swing of the bat, there’s virtually no scenario where walking any hitter in baseball in that spot will improve your team’s chances to win. Washington did it anyway. He wasn’t done. The Rangers then held Cabrera at first, even though Cabrera wasn’t stealing second with a jet pack and an invisibility cloak. Sure enough, Martinez hit a chopper right where Michael Young would have been standing were he not holding Cabrera. A potentially double-play ball went for a single instead, putting runners on the corners with one out. What happened next was tough for the Tigers to get around. Delmon Young hit a fly ball to medium right. We’d noted Gene Lamont twice messing up by not sending Ramon Santiago home on balls hit to right and two outs. The decision wasn’t quite as obvious here, given Cabrera’s running-in-molasses speed, though the ball was probably deep enough to warrant sending him anyway. Lamont did. And Cruz threw Cabrera out by 10 feet. Sean Rodriguez, Miggy is not.

The far worse transgression occurred in the fateful 11th inning. Josh Hamilton led off the inning with a double against Jose Valverde, who was working his second inning of relief in a tie game. After Valverde got a huge strikeout against Michael Young, Adrian Beltre strode to the plate. A day earlier, Beltre had collapsed in terrible pain after fouling a ball off his knee. He clearly wasn’t right at the plate last night, failing to hit the ball out of the infield in four times up (two strikeouts, two groundouts) and wincing on nearly every swing. On deck was Mike Napoli, the best hitter in baseball after the All-Star break with a preposterous line of .383/.466/.706. Behind him was Cruz, a beast under normal circumstances who’d been hotter than the sun in the series, including his walk-off grand slam in Game 2. Leyland decided the best course of action was to walk Beltre, because apparently setting up a potential double play warrants pitching to two absolute beasts with your closer running on fumes.

Napoli fought off an inside fastball to punch a ball to center, driving in the go-ahead run. Then Cruz rocketed a pitch over the wall in left-center. Ballgame.

CARDINALS 4, BREWERS 3 (Cardinals lead series 2-1)

Few managers attract more criticism than Tony La Russa. He’s smart and lets people know it. He runs players out of town when they don’t perform to his standards, or even when they don’t behave the way he likes. It’s no coincidence that the Cardinals have made enemies with other teams, too. The Reds and Brewers especially have clashed with the Cards, a team with a reputation for being a little too serious and a little arrogant for their own good. You know, like their manager.

His persona notwithstanding, La Russa also gets flack for helping to make baseball games interminably long. Those constant pitching changes you see in the middle and late innings of games? La Russa started that. Managing the A’s two decades ago, La Russa realized he could snuff out opponents’ rallies by being more aggressive than other managers in matching up right-handed relievers against right-handed hitters, lefties against lefties. Not that people didn’t understand platoons before. They did. But La Russa realized that carrying six relievers instead of five, in lieu of a third catcher or pinch hitter, could give him an edge over his rivals.

Twenty-plus years later, every team in baseball does this, to the point where even eight-man pens aren’t unusual anymore. But even now, La Russa plays the matchup game as well as any other manager in baseball. Assuming he has the right personnel.

For the first half of this season, he most assuredly did not have the right personnel. Sub-replacement level talent dotted the bullpen, as the Cards blew multiple games they should have won. Then the Colby Rasmus trade happened. We’ve written multiple times about that deal, how whatever the long-term effects might be, the Cardinals improved their 2011 roster by adding a solid starter in Edwin Jackson, adding effective relievers in Octavio Dotel and Marc Rzepczynski, and deleting the likes of Trever Miller, P.J. Walters, and Brian Tallet. The Cardinals weren’t done there, though. La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan cycled through five closers this year before finally deciding on one they liked. In Jason Motte, they landed on a right-hander whose fastball could hit the high-90s but whose command had never lived up to the future closer tag he’d acquired in the past. This time, everything clicked. Motte became the lights-out closer the Cards had been seeking, leaving the rest of the pen free to match up as needed. The team’s biggest weakness became one of its biggest strengths and a big reason the Cardinals pulled off a September comeback for the ages.

When the Cardinals pushed four runs across in the bottom of the first last night, the outcome might as well have been written in stone (and not the damn stars … those promos are going to kill us all by Monday). By the top of the third, the Brewers had come back with three runs of their own. The third run came on a solo jack by Mark Kotsay, who rewarded Ron Roenicke’s hunch that an aging bench jockey was a better lineup choice than speedy, defensively strong LDS hero Nyjer Morgan by reaching base three times … and also arriving late on a key Jon Jay double, and getting picked off second on the ugliest face plant of the year. Still, the Cardinals hung on with Chris Carpenter escaping a big jam in the fifth, striking out Rickie Weeks on a nasty slider with two on and two out.

Follow the Rangers’ playbook of lifting their starter in favor of a deep, fresh bullpen, La Russa yanked Carpenter and brought in Fernando Salas … who set the Brewers down 1-2-3 in the sixth. Then came Lance Lynn … and another 1-2-3 inning. The eighth figured to be the biggest remaining challenge, with Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, and Weeks due up. That’s when La Russa went to work. After Lynn induced a Braun groundout to second, La Russa called on Rzepczynski to protect the one-run lead against Fielder. The lefty fired a tight slider off the outside edge, Fielder waved at it in vain. Two outs. On came Motte. After chucking two quick strikes at Weeks, Motte climbed the ladder, throwing an eye-high 98-mph fastball. Weeks had no chance. Strike three. The bottom of the Brewers’ order was equally powerless in the ninth, with Motte inducing a groundout and two swinging strikeouts to end the game.

The Cardinals now head into Game 4 to face a recently battered Randy Wolf, with a chance to claim a stranglehold on the series. Albert Pujols has been unconscious, so bored with conventional batting that he’s now launching one-handed doubles into the gaps. David Freese has emerged as a potent and unlikely running mate. The starting pitching continues to hold its own. But as it is for the Rangers, the Cardinals’ bullpen is their great equalizer, giving them an excellent chance to win any game in which they’re close after five innings. Without it, they wouldn’t be two games away from completing one of the most unlikely World Series runs in baseball history.

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Filed Under: Detroit Tigers, Milwaukee Brewers, MLB, St. Louis Cardinals, Texas Rangers

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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