What a Difference a Day Makes in the LCS

Harry How/Getty Images Adrian Gonzalez

Kicking the Momentum Fairy in the ass, the Dodgers and Tigers shrugged off tough losses, hoisting themselves back into their respective series with convincing wins Wednesday.

Here’s what went down.

The Dodgers showed that spending a quarter-billion dollars can have some advantages after all.

Absorbing $260 million worth of salary and surrendering multiple quality prospects for three veteran players of varying health and skill level was never going to win the Dodgers any WAR-per-dollar championships. Delving into the details, in many ways, makes last summer’s blockbuster deal with the Red Sox look even worse.

For about $34 million, the Dodgers got 15 starts and a 4.07 ERA from Josh Beckett. He missed most of this season, and he might never again produce quality innings in the big leagues, even though he’s got a year left on his contract. For about $106 million, the Dodgers are getting five-plus years of Carl Crawford … in theory anyway. In reality, he never played for them last season, played in just 116 games this year, and has to be considered both a performance and health risk over the final four years of his deal, given he’s already 32 years old and has averaged just 92 games played over the past three seasons. Adrian Gonzalez played reasonably well after the trade late last season, though a nagging shoulder injury (and maybe some random chance) limited him to just three home runs in 36 games as a Dodger in 2012. He fared better in 2013, hitting .293/.342/.461. But for a little more than $130 million, with five seasons left on the 31-year-old’s deal, you’d love to see him hit significantly better than, say, Will Venable. Given the present and future benefits that the worst-to-first Red Sox derived from the trade, you could argue that the Dodgers truly got hosed.

Of course, this all assumes that factors such as money — much less how the other guys made out — makes any difference to the Dodgers. They do not. What matters in Los Angeles is that the Dodgers are a better team with Crawford and Gonzalez than they would be without them. They were during the regular season. And in their 6-4 Game 5 win, it was Crawford, and especially Gonzalez, who powered the team’s offense in a do-or-die victory.

In four National League Championship Series games, the Dodgers had failed to hit even a single homer. But after badly injured slugger Hanley Ramirez wiped out a leadoff third-inning single by grounding into a double play, Gonzalez salvaged the inning, and staked the Dodgers to a 3-2 lead, with a massive home run to right. Gonzalez got in a dig at Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright, who claimed that A-Gone has been doing “Mickey Mouse stuff” in celebrating a bit too much earlier in the series. Trotting back toward the dugout, Gonzalez put his hands above his head in a Mickey homage, a move sure to foster a million more #HotSportsTakes from baseball’s keepers of decorum and human decency.

Crawford followed with a homer of his own later in the game to extend the Dodgers’ lead to 4-2, then after an A.J. Ellis homer in the seventh, Gonzalez capped L.A.’s scoring with another bomb in the eighth. The Dodgers’ first baseman shone on defense, too, bailing out Ramirez again by reaching way across his body to scoop an errant throw for the second out of the fourth inning. With Matt Kemp out, Andre Ethier struggling and playing a comically bad center field, Ramirez looking like he shouldn’t be playing, and Yasiel Puig slumping, Gonzalez has emerged as the team’s star in this series. That kind of star power, along with the Dodgers’ viability as a playoff contender, are really all that matter under the team’s new $8 billion TV deal. In other words, this has been money well spent.

In a game that featured several powerful moments, the Cardinals blew their best chance for a win just a few minutes in.

Zack Greinke’s command was terrible when this game got under way. He fell behind 1-0 on leadoff man Matt Carpenter, then tossed a 92 mph fastball down the middle that Carpenter roped to left for a base hit. He walked Carlos Beltran on four pitches, coming nowhere near the zone on two pitches way too low, one far too high, and one well off the outside corner. A bad-luck bloop single then loaded the bases with nobody out. The stage was set for a big inning, one that might nail down this series and propel the Cardinals to the next round.

Next up for St. Louis was Matt Adams. The big first baseman got ahead of Greinke 2-1, meaning he could sit back and wait for a pitch to hammer, knowing that if the offering wasn’t right, Greinke could soon be in danger of walking in a run. The next pitch was a 90 mph fastball … only it was a good two or three inches outside, clearly ball three. Adams swung at it anyway, fouling it off for strike two. Now, with the count even rather than Greinke being on the ropes, the right-hander was able to throw his pitch: a 77 mph curve in the dirt. Adams, at this point just trying to protect the plate, missed the pitch by a foot, striking out in an at-bat when Greinke threw just one pitch in the strike zone.

That brought Yadier Molina to the plate, one out, bases still loaded, still plenty of opportunity for a big result. Greinke started him with a letter-high, 94 mph fastball, technically a strike but one that would’ve almost certainly been called a ball. Overanxious, Molina swung through it for strike one. The next pitch, another fastball in almost the same spot, was ball one. The next pitch, a curve in the dirt, was ball two. Granted, Greinke probably would’ve adjusted his pitch sequence had Molina not swung at that first pitch. But he’d shown all inning long that he was wild, and in non-hypothetical land, he’d thrown three consecutive pitches out of the zone, yet found himself with a workable 2-1 count, rather than a desperation time 3-0. Greinke blew a 95 mph fastball down the middle and right by Molina for strike two. The next pitch was way inside, but Molina couldn’t hold up his swing, and what would’ve been ball three (or four, depending on your perspective) instead hit his bat, keeping the count at 2-2. The next pitch was a curve that hung in the middle of the plate. Molina tapped it to third, where Juan Uribe stepped on the bag for one out, then fired to first to complete the inning-ending double play. Bases loaded, nobody out, and the Cardinals got bubkes.

That pattern of impatience persisted throughout the game, with Molina being the biggest offender. The Cards tied the game at 2-2 in the top of the third and had a golden opportunity to score more, with runners on first and third and just one out. Molina worked the count to 3-1 in another chance for a Cardinals hitter to wait for a smashable pitch, then drive it somewhere. Nope. Instead, Molina hacked at a pitch that would’ve probably been ball four, another chest-high fastball. He banged the ball into the ground, where Greinke fielded it and pegged it to second for one out, before it was sent to first for yet another inning-ending double play.

All told, the Cardinals walked just once, while making multiple outs instead of waiting for pitches they could handle. Though they did walk six times (against 11 strikeouts) in Game 4, the rest of the series has been a hackfest for the St. Louis offense, with 32 strikeouts against just eight walks. Give some credit to the Dodgers’ three non–Ricky Nolasco starting pitchers, who’ve posted a combined 1.29 ERA in 28 innings pitched and, other than Greinke early in Game 5, looked sharp. But with Clayton Kershaw looming in Game 6 and the threat of an anything-can-happen Game 7 right behind him, Cardinals hitters will need to find a way to be more patient — if not with big walk totals, then at least by not chasing pitches that will sabotage potential rallies.

The Tigers changed their lineup. For one game, it worked.

We’ve mentioned this many times before but it bears repeating: While the manager’s most important job in assembling a lineup is getting the right nine guys on the field, batting order does matter, at least a bit. And if a manager wants to give his lineup a little boost, slotting his best hitter in the no. 2 slot is an inventive way to do so.

I’ll go out on a limb and say Jim Leyland wasn’t thumbing through his dog-eared copy of The Book when he bumped Miguel Cabrera up to the no. 2 spot for Game 4 of the ALCS. Also, we can’t just blindly point to the lineup changes that saw Cabrera move to no. 2 — with Torii Hunter pushed up to leadoff and Austin Jackson dropped to no. 8 — and say they were the reasons for the Tigers’ offensive explosion. Hunter did knock in two runs, Cabrera did bang out two singles and drive in two runs of his own, and Jackson did have one of his best offensive days of the season, reaching base all four times up and also bagging two RBIs; that was really more about random variance, and all three being good players, than anything else. But Leyland has already said he’ll keep the same lineup for Game 5, leaving intact a combination that led a 7-3 rout of Boston and also looks pretty decent if you’re into batting order optimization. Even if all this occurred by happenstance, there are worse fates.

The Red Sox might make a lineup change of their own.

In a game in which Boston outhit Detroit 12 to 9, only three starters couldn’t manage a hit. One was David Ortiz, who has hit just .067/.176/.267 in the ALCS … which means absolutely nothing, given the tiny sample size, and that whole grand slam that saved the Red Sox’s season thing. The continued woes of the game’s other two hitless Sox could prompt a switch, though. Third baseman Will Middlebrooks went 0-for-2 with two strikeouts before getting lifted for a pinch hitter, making him just 4-for-23 in this year’s playoffs and just 1-for-10 against the Tigers. Meanwhile, Stephen Drew went 0-for-4 in Game 4 and now sits at 3-for-28 in the postseason, with just one extra-base hit. These two are also small sample sizes, of course. But neither Middlebrooks nor Drew has anywhere near Ortiz’s reputation. Their struggles, combined with rookie Xander Bogaerts looking good at the plate on the rare occasions when he’s gotten a chance (two big walks in the ALDS against the Rays, plus a ringing opposite-field double in the ninth Wednesday night), led to postgame scrum questions on whether Bogaerts might get a start in Game 5, followed by the equivalent of a “we’ll see” answer from John Farrell.

We’d love to give you some mind-blowing nuggets of data to break down every single angle of a potential Bogaerts lineup addition. But really, there’s not enough evidence here to say one way or another. Bogaerts got a grand total of 44 at-bats during the regular season. Middlebrooks was an incredibly streaky hitter who was absolutely terrible early in the year, got sent back to the minors, and returned and started swatting homers, but he remains a huge strikeout guy who can be all-or-nothing at the plate. As for Drew, he was a solid defender at short this season who also smoked right-handed pitchers, hitting .284/.377/.498 against them. If you value yearlong numbers over a few recently shaky games and still want to give Bogaerts a spin in a pivotal game, the play here is probably to send Middlebrooks to the bench.

With the series now down to a best-of-three, will we see either manager start to operate with a bit more healthy desperation?

Many observers might argue that pulling Jake Peavy before the bottom of the second devolved into a five-run Tigers massacre Wednesday was the more obvious move compared with our call to pinch-hit for Nolasco with the bases loaded in the bottom of the second inning in Tuesday’s NLCS Game 3. The Peavy move could be seen as trickier, though.

For one thing, Peavy gets out of that inning down 1-0 instead of 5-0 if Dustin Pedroia doesn’t muff a tailor-made double-play ball with one out and the bases loaded. As Red Sox blogger Patrick Sullivan noted, Pedroia’s struggles have been overlooked for a while, and are also pretty severe. Boston’s no. 3 hitter managed a line of just .279/.336/.385 in the second half, and is now batting just .226/.278/.290 in this year’s playoffs. It’s rough to see an integral part of the Red Sox not hit at all, then compound the problem by making defensive miscues that prove to be disastrous. The other issue with removing Peavy was who the Red Sox would go with instead. Even if you (correctly) deduced that Peavy was off his game Wednesday night, trusting multiple innings to rusty converted starters like Felix Doubront or Ryan Dempster would’ve been plenty risky, too, since the Red Sox don’t have anywhere near the bullpen depth that the Dodgers do. If you pull your pitcher when he’s due to bat in the second inning, you know you’ve got a big offensive upgrade and a chance to score multiple runs as a counterweight against taxing your bullpen and trusting your relievers to navigate through seven innings. The Red Sox had no such bonus to fall back on when mulling an early ouster for Peavy.

The specifics of those non-moves aside, we’re nearing the point in this series when doing something ballsy and controversial might become the appropriate course of action. Though both Jon Lester and especially Anibal Sanchez looked very good last time out, Farrell and Leyland shouldn’t hesitate for a second to yank their starter early if things start to turn ugly, doubly so with an off day coming and each team just two wins away from a World Series. If there are other buttons to be pushed — say, yanking Jose Iglesias early (assuming he starts) if a big spot demands a pinch hitter very early in the game, or pinch-running with Quintin Berry if you have a chance to pick up a stolen base and one run could decide the outcome — you push them. Fortune favors the bold, and now’s the perfect time to be bold.

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

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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