Playoff games preview: October 4
All four Division Series are in action tonight, and three of them involve teams facing elimination. The Diamondbacks return home hoping to avoid a sweep at the hands of the Brewers, while the Phillies and Cardinals will break a 1-1 tie in St. Louis, and the Rays and Yankees hope to force a Game 5 after losing tie-breaking Games 3 on Monday night.
Expanding a statistic I cited on Monday, in the entire history of best-of-five series in Major League Baseball (League Championship Series from 1969 to 1984 and Division Series in 1981 and from 1995 to the present), there have been 36 series in which the first two games were split, 1-1. In those 36 series, the winner of Game 3 went on to win the series 28 times while losing just eight times (a .778 winning percentage). Limit the discussion to the Division Series, and it's 19 of 23 teams, an .826 winning percentage. What's more, the last 10 teams to break a 1-1 tie with a win in Game 3 all went on to win the series. That doesn't mean that the Rangers and Tigers, who took 2-1 leads in their series with wins Monday night, or the winner of this evening's Phillies-Cardinals matchup are locks to win their series, but history is certainly on their side.
Meanwhile, the odds are even better for the 2-0 Brewers. Of the 64 teams to start out 2-0 in a best-of-five series 57 went on to win, an .890 winning percentage, and 41 those series (64 percent) ended in sweeps.
• The similarities between this series and the 2006 ALDS between these two teams have become eerie. Both series opened in New York and were interrupted by rain, forcing Game 2 in New York and Game 3 in Detroit to be played on consecutive days. Both series saw the Yankees win big in Game 1 (scoring eight runs in '06, nine this year), behind a compelling, homegrown second-year starter with a weak strikeout rate (Chien-Ming Wang in '06, Ivan Nova this year), with an MVP-candidate middle infielder (Derek Jeter then, Robinson Cano now) having a big day (Cano's eight total bases in Game 1 were the most by a Yankee in the postseason since Jeter's 10 in Game 1 in '06). Both saw the Tigers win a squeaker in Game 2 with the Yankees putting the tying run(s) on base against the Detroit closer in the bottom of the ninth. Both saw the Yankees lose Game 3 after getting a poor start from their oversized, left-handed ace (Randy Johnson in '06: 5 2/3 IP, 8 H, 5 R, 4 K; CC Sabathia on Monday: 5 1/3 IP, 7 H, 4 R, 3 K), and both saw the Yankees facing elimination in Game 4 with a less-than-inspiring pitcher on the mound (Jaret Wright in '06, A.J. Burnett tonight). Those are all coincidences, but it must feel like déjà vu for the 10 players to play in both series, one of whom, Curtis Granderson, has switched teams.
• Burnett and Porcello represent the worst pitching matchup any of these four series have to offer, and things get even uglier when you look at their home/road splits. Porcello had a 5.64 ERA at home this year, compared to a 4.00 mark on the road, with opponents hitting .302/.350/.470 against him at Comerica Park. Burnett, meanwhile, had a 6.28 ERA on the road, compared to 4.41 at home, with opponents hitting. 287/.370/.497 against him away from Yankee Stadium. Curiously, both pitched well when they matched up at Comerica on May 5, both going seven innings and allowing just two earned runs, but Burnett also allowed three unearned runs thanks to three errors, one of them his own, and took the loss.
• Porcello was hit hard by lefties this year to the tune of a .321/.368/.488 line, though there was some bad luck on balls in play involved there (.350 BABIP). The Yankees' standard starting line-up has six lefty bats, including switch-hitters Mark Teixeira, Nick Swisher and Jorge Posada. They could add another lefty by sitting the banged-up Alex Rodriguez, who is 0-for-10 in this series, in favor of Eric Chavez, which would add one more parallel to 2006, when Rodriguez was dropped to eighth in the order in Game 4.
• To be fair to Rodriguez, he's not the only middle-of-the-order Yankees hitter having a poor series. Mark Teixeira is hitting .091 (1-for-11 with no RBIs). For Detroit, Austin Jackson, Alex Avila and Wilson Betemit are a combined 0-for-23 with 11 strikeouts.
• Porcello did have a solid September, going 2-1 with a 3.55 ERA in five starts, all quality, though he did so against weak competition (the White Sox, A's, Orioles and Indians twice) and with poor peripherals (4.4 K/9, 1.60 K/BB).
• Burnett struck out 36 men in 29 innings in his final five starts (11.2 K/9), but he also gave up six home runs (1.9 HR/9, nearly twice the league average) and just two of those five starts were quality.
• Echoing Rollins, the leading hitter in this series has been Jorge Posada, a 40-year-old pending free agent who is almost guaranteed to be playing his final games as a Yankee. Posada is 4-for-8 with a triple (!) and four walks as the Yankees' starting designated hitter.
• The Brewers enter this game one win away from just their second playoff series win ever, but their first serves as a note of caution. In the best-of-five 1982 American League Championship Series, the Angels took the first two games at home from the Brewers, but never won another game, as Milwaukee became just the second team in baseball history to come back from an 0-2 deficit in a best-of-five series. It has been done five times since, most recently in 2003 when the Red Sox rallied to beat the A's. Of those seven comebacks, six of them were by teams that lost the first two games on the road, as was the case for Arizona in its first two games of this series. Of course, the Brewers had future Hall of Famer and postseason veteran Don Sutton pitching in Game 3 in 1982. The Diamondbacks have rookie Josh Collmenter.
• The 25-year-old righty Collmenter finished the season strong, posting a 3.04 ERA over his last nine starts, seven of which were quality. He also held the Brewers scoreless in consecutive starts in July, one home, one away, though the All-Star break separated the two outings. His combined line: 14 IP, 6 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 10 K, and all the hits were singles. It's worth noting that Ryan Braun missed both games due to a calf strain and has thus never faced Collmenter.
• Marcum had a huge home/road split this season, posting a 2.21 ERA on the road that was 2.60 runs lower than his home mark. He benefitted from a .238 BABIP on the road, which suggests the difference in his performance wasn't that great. However, he also struck out an extra man per nine innings and cut his walk and home run rates, which prove that at least some portion of his road success was real. Marcum was awful in three of his final four regular season starts (combined 18 runs in 16 1/3 innings), but all three came at home, and the one exception, a gem against the Cubs (8 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 0 BB, 7 K), came on the road. Marcum's only start against Arizona this year came at home and saw him surrender four runs on seven hits, two of them homers by Miguel Montero and the since-departed Wily Mo Peña, and a pair of walks in six innings.
• Ron Roenicke's decision to bench Casey McGehee in favor of Jerry Hairston Jr. at third base has thus far been a success, as Hairston is 3-for-6 with a double and a walk. The hitting star of this series, meanwhile, has been Braun, who is 6-for-8 with two doubles and a home run. The bulk of the Diamondbacks' offense has come from Chris Young, Aaron Hill and Ryan Roberts, who are a combined 9-for-20 with two doubles, two homers, three walks and just two strikeouts, while Miguel Montero and Gerardo Parra are a combined 0-for-15 with six Ks.
• Of the three series to stand at 1-1 after two games, this has been by far the most evenly matched. Just look at the cumulative batting lines of the two combatants:
• Jaime Garcia could have started Game 1 of this series on regular rest, allowing Kyle Lohse to start Game 2 and Chris Carpenter to pitch on full rest in tonight's Game 3, but Tony La Russa opted to have Carpenter start Game 2 in order to try to get him two starts in this series and to have Garcia pitch this game at home, where his ERA was more than two runs lower than his road mark this season. However, the difference in Garcia's home and road performances this year were heavily influenced by a 103-point swing in his opponents' batting average on balls in play, which suggests that he was more unlucky than bad on the road, where he had a higher strikeout rate, but a fluky .374 BABIP. The first half of La Russa's gamble failed when Carpenter, starting on three-day's rest for the first time in his career, gave up four runs and lasted just three innings, but he got a reprieve when his offense rallied and his bullpen shut the door on the Phillies.
• Changeup artists Hamels and Garcia are both reverse-split lefties. Righties hit just .264/.309/.388 against Garcia this season and a mere .204/.251/.326 against Hamels.
• Hamels struck out nine Cardinals in seven innings without walking a man in his only start against them this season, but also allowed four runs on home runs by Albert Pujols and Allen Craig.
• In two starts against the Phillies this year, Garcia allowed two runs, just one of which was earned, in 15 innings. He was ever so slightly better in the home start in that pair, but both starts were excellent.
• The hitting star of this series thus far has been Jimmy Rollins, a pending free agent who could be in his final days with the Phillies. He is 5-for-8 with a walk, a pair of doubles, a stolen base, and five runs scored. Meanwhile, Placido Polanco and Carlos Ruiz are a combined 0-for-16 in this series with five strikeouts and no walks.
• The Rangers have won the last two games of this series but it's not as thought they are running away with the series. Their two wins have come by a total of just three runs, and the Rays brought the tying run to the plate in the ninth inning of Game 2 and the winning run to the plate in the bottom of the ninth of Game 3.
• There's little room for error in a best-of-five series, and B.J. Upton's misadventures on the bases aren't doing Tampa Bay any favors. Upton has been caught stealing in two key late-game situations in the last two games. In Game 2 he was caught stealing third with one out in the fifth and the Rays trailing 5-3. Even more disastrously, he was caught stealing second in Game 3 with no outs in the eighth, his team trailing by just one run, and Evan Longoria at the plate. The Rays led the AL in stolen bases during the regular season, but thus far this series, Upton is the only Ray to attempt a steal, and he's been thrown out twice in three attempts.
• The Rangers' Matt Harrison had a strong first four months of the season, but had a rough August, which prompted Texas to skip him once through the rotation in order to limit his innings and give him a breather. Harrison threw two perfect innings of relief against the Rays during his week off, then returned to go 4-0 with a 2.64 ERA in five September starts. That relief appearance was the 26-year-old lefty's only action against Tampa Bay this season, and he clearly didn't face Evan Longoria during that outing, because Longoria is 4-for-4 with a double and a home run in his career against Harrison.
• The likely AL Rookie of the Year, Hellickson posted a 2.30 ERA over his final eight starts thanks to a minuscule .196 opponent's average on balls in play (BABIP). That continued a season-long trend for Hellickson, who only once failed to complete five innings and only once gave up more than four runs, but lacked the strong peripherals that made him such a strong prospect in the minor leagues. Instead of replicating his minor league rate of nearly 10 strikeouts per nine innings and only a quarter as many walks, Hellickson posted a 5.6 K/9 and 1.63 K/BB, but was kept afloat by the lowest BABIP in the majors (.224) among pitchers who qualified for the ERA title.
• That low BABIP paints Hellickson as more lucky than good this season, but the Rays as a team had a .267 BABIP, far below the major league average of .295 and well below the team with the second-lowest mark, the Rangers at .280. A low team BABIP is a good indication of excellent team defense, and, indeed, the Rays were by far the best team in the majors at defensive efficiency -- turning balls in play into outs -- while the Rangers ranked high among the runners-up, but still well behind Tampa Bay.
• Hellickson's only start against the Rangers this year was a quality start (6 IP, 2 R) in Arlington at the end of August. Lefties Josh Hamilton and David Murphy went a combined 4-for-5 with a walk against the 24-year-old righty in that game, with Hamilton's two hits being a double and a solo homer.
• Harrison and Hellickson have similar home/road splits, both of which favor them in this game, with Harrison better on the road and Hellickson better at home, both by roughly nine-tenths of a run of ERA.
• Desmond Jennings is getting hot, and just in time for the Rays. The rookie leftfielder finished the regular season in an 0-for-25 slump, but he has broken out of it in this series, singling in Game 1, doubling in Game 2 and cracking a pair of solo home runs in Game 3 to go 4-for-11 and produce a .365/.462/1.000 line through the first three games. He has the top OPS among the hitters who have started all three games of this series.