Tuesday October 19th, 2010

Cliff Corcoran previews each day's games throughout the postseason.

Series: NLCS, Game 3, series tied 1-1 Time: 4:00 p.m. EST TV: FOX Starters: Cole Hamels (2010 postseason: 1-0, 0.00 ERA; 2010 regular season: 12-11, 3.06 ERA) vs. Matt Cain (0-0, 0.00 ERA; 13-11, 3.14 ERA)

The Phillies are playing right into the Giants' hands. Never mind that Cole Hamels has gone 6-1 with a 1.22 ERA over his last eight starts including a series-clinching shutout of the Reds in Game 3 of the NLDS. Hamels has a 6.12 ERA in four career starts at AT&T Park and gave up nine runs in 11 innings in his two starts against San Francisco during the 2010 regular season, most recently giving up five runs in as many innings in a loss to the Giants in Philadelphia on August 19. Perhaps more significantly, the Giants lineup contains a right-handed hitter with a significant platoon split who has hit .300/.323/.733 with four home runs in 31 plate appearances against Hamels in his career. That hitter's name is Cody Ross.

Ross went 3-for-6 in the first two games of this NLCS. All three hits were solo home runs. Take away those three dingers, which account for all but one of the Giants' extra-base hits in this series, and his two walks (the rest of the team has three), and the non-Ross Giants are hitting .164/.215/.180 in this series. Ross has been singularly responsible for three runs in this series; the rest of the Giants have collaborated to score just twice. Ross, who was plucked off waivers from the Marlins on August 22, hasn't just been a two-game fluke. He has actually been hot since September 17, when he kicked of a nine-game hitting streak. Since then, in the regular and postseason combined, he has hit .379/.438/.810 with seven home runs in 64 plate appearances (he had 11 home runs in his first 528 PA this season).

Similarly, the Giants' overall offensive woes extend back long before this series began. They averaged just 3.66 runs per game over the final 29 games of the regular season and 2.75 runs per game in their four-game Division Series victory over the Braves. Overall, since the calendar flipped to September, the Giants have averaged 3.49 runs per game over a 35-game stretch, and as their competition has gotten better, that number has gotten smaller.

Cain thus has his work cut out for him. He threw 6 2/3 scoreless innings against the Braves in Game 2 of the NLDS, but in his final regular season start, with a chance to help his team clinch their division, he gave up six runs in four innings and a season-high three home runs to an unimpressive Padres lineup. That was Cain's only disaster outing of the second half, as he went 7-2 with a 2.48 ERA in the 14 starts prior to it, including a quality start in Philadelphia in mid-August, albeit one in which the Phillies scored three unearned runs in addition to two earned. Jimmy Rollins tripled and homered in that game and is 6-for-10 against Cain in his career with five of those hits going for extra bases, three of them triples. Chase Utley is 7-for-15 against Cain with three home runs.

The Giants are lucky to be coming home with the series even. If not for Ross, they'd be down 0-2. However, they have an edge in the pitching matchup for Game 4 (Madison Bumgarner vs. Joe Blanton), and if they can steal a win in Game 3, they have a very real chance of taking command of this series with Tim Lincecum lurking for Game 5 (albeit against Roy Halladay). For that to happen, however, Cain will have to keep the Phillies' offense in check, and someone other than Ross will have to start hitting for the Giants.

Series: ALCS, Game 4, Rangers lead 2-1 Time: 8:00 p.m. EST TV: TBS Starters: Tommy Hunter (0-1, 4.50 ERA; 13-4, 3.73 ERA) vs. A.J. Burnett (N/A; 10-15, 5.26 ERA)

Here's what has gone right for the Yankees in this series: They scored five runs in the eighth-inning to steal Game 1, Robinson Cano and their bullpen both performed well in the first two games, and Andy Pettitte turned in a strong start opposite Cliff Lee in Game 3. That's it. Otherwise, this series has been all Rangers. The Rangers' starting pitchers in the first three games combined to post a 2.18 ERA in 20 2/3 innings, and as a team, Texas is hitting .291/.371/.476 while averaging 6.3 runs scored per game. Despite the Rangers' slim 2-1 advantage in games, this has been a lop-sided series thus far.

Things aren't necessarily looking up for the Yankees heading in to Game 4 as their starting pitcher will be A.J. Burnett, who was left out of the Division Series rotation (he wouldn't have started even if the Twins had forced a Game 4) after having one of the worst full seasons by a starting pitcher in Yankees history. Burnett's 5.26 ERA this season was the third-worst by a Yankee ERA qualifier in team history, and the second-worst in a non-strike season behind Bump Hadley's 5.30 in 1937. Burnett drops to 15th if you use ERA+, which adjusts for league run-scoring rates and ballpark effects, but that's still the 15th worst season by a Yankee starter out of 392 qualified pitching seasons stretching back to 1903. That's bad, and Burnett has actually been even worse. He opened the season by going 4-0 with a 1.99 ERA in his first six starts. After that, he went 6-15 with a 6.16 ERA as the Yankees went 8-19 in his starts. Since the end of July, he has gone 1-7 with a 6.61 ERA and the Yankees won just two of his 12 starts.

Amazingly, amid all of that awful pitching, Burnett managed to post a 2.50 ERA in three starts against Texas. Looking closer, however, Burnett's first start against Texas came during those strong first six starts, and his last was shortened to four innings by a long rain delay. Still, there's an outside chance that Burnett might actually come through for the Yankees tonight. Burnett's problem has always been inconsistency, and while that means he's rarely consistently good, it also means he's rarely consistently bad. Indeed, over his final 17 starts of the regular season, Burnett never went more than two consecutive starts without turning in a quality start, and his final game of the season saw him pitch reasonably well against the Red Sox at Fenway Park, turning in a quality start, albeit one marred by a pair of unearned runs.

The real disaster for the Yankees will come if Burnett does pitch well, but their sputtering offense fails to capitalize against the Rangers' fourth starter, Tommy Hunter. Hunter went 8-0 with a 2.31 ERA in his first 10 starts after returning from an oblique strain that cost him the first two months of the season, but his good luck on balls in play ran out thereafter and he went 5-4 with a 5.12 ERA in his final 12 starts, though that stretch did include five strong innings against Burnett and the Yankees in early September. Hunter struck out eight Yankees in that game and seven Rays in five innings in his ALDS start, but both of those games were played in Arlington, where Hunter's strike-out rate was 1.5 K/9 higher than it was on the road and his ERA was 1.42 runs lower.

It's hard to blame the Yankees for failing to hit Cliff Lee on Monday night, but if you remove Lee's eight innings and that big rally in Game One, the Yankees have scored just three runs in the other 18 innings in this series. If they fail to hit Hunter tonight, their only route to the pennant will be through Lee in Game 7, and even if they do hit Hunter, they have to out-hit Burnett as well. (Don't forget that Burnett has been abysmal at holding runners this year, and opponents swiped 37 bags at an 88 percent success rate against him this year.) The defending champions' room for error is gone and everything is pointing them toward them losing a best-of-seven ALCS for just the second time in nine appearances. The Rangers, meanwhile, are now two wins from their first World Series berth.

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