Sunday October 16th, 2011

Rangers starting pitcher Derek Holland had a seven-run lead when he took the mound for the fourth inning in Game 6 of the ALCS. This being the Postseason in Which Starting Pitching Doesn't Matter, Holland would not even qualify for the win.

I've been trying to tell you: Forget everything you thought you knew about postseason baseball. Runs are too easy to come by this postseason, and lousy starting pitching doesn't get in the way of victory. The Rangers clinched their second straight AL pennant on Saturday night with yet another clunker from a starter against Detroit. Holland gave them just 4 2/3 innings. So what? All the Rangers did was throw up more runs, 15, than any American League team ever scored in a postseason clincher.

Texas joined the 1997 Cleveland Indians (ALCS) as the only team ever to win a best-of-seven series with exactly zero wins from its starting pitchers. What the Rangers do have -- and St. Louis has used the same weird formula as it looks to clinch the NL pennant on Sunday night -- is a deep lineup and a deep bullpen that is fortified by converted starters who can provide length. I said Alexi Ogando would be the X Factor in the ALCS, and he was: 2-0 with a 1.23 ERA. The Rangers were 4-0 when he pitched in the series.

With plenty of rest for Game 1 on Wednesday -- and two off days during the series -- Ogando again will be a major factor in the World Series. Ogando calls to mind what Dave Giusti did for the 1971 Pirates, Mariano Rivera for the 1996 Yankees, Francisco Rodriguez for the 2002 Angels and Scot Shields for the 2005 Angels.

Watching Tony La Russa of St. Louis and Ron Washington of Texas manage this postseason is fairly entertaining, in terms of the haste with which they go to their bullpen. It's baseball's version of speed chess. The Rangers have won six games this postseason in which their starter has been knocked out after five innings or less. Only one team, the 2002 Angels with seven, ever won even four such games.

But the Rangers have some company. Their starters (3-3, 5.62 ERA, 49 2/3 innings in 10 games) are barely worse than the St. Louis starters (3-4, 4.99, 52 1/3 innings in 10 games). And if you're looking for quality starts this postseason, don't look for them out of your World Series teams. In 30 combined starts, the Rangers (1) and Cardinals (3) have managed only seven quality starts.

It's not a formula that any team would want to copy -- other than the part about carrying an extra reliever rather than a bench player, and making sure that you have one guy stretched out from starting who can go multiple innings and is platoon-neutral. To make it work, you better have an offense that is so good that it's like a forklift full of Wite-Out to cover up the mistakes of the starters.

"The only thing they don't have that is exceptional is starting pitching," Tigers ace Justin Verlander said. "Everything else is that good. The lineup, the bullpen... if their starting pitching is at least decent, they're going to be tough to beat. And I don't mean that in any derogatory way. It's just in comparison to their lineup and their bullpen, which are just really, really excellent."

I need to preface this point by saying that Tigers manager Jim Leyland did a fantastic job squeezing the most out of a team that was challenged with injuries, travel and rain. The better team won the ALCS. But now this: With my entire season on the line there is no way I am giving the ball to Daniel Schlereth with the bases loaded while pitching for the first time in 11 days, and yet that is what Leyland did on Saturday.

It was the third inning and the dam was ready to burst: Texas up, 3-2, bases loaded one out, and David Murphy due up with another left-handed hitter, Endy Chavez, behind him. Leyland made the right move in getting Max Scherzer out of the game. Scherzer had totally lost the strike zone, and left having thrown more balls out of the zone than in it.

This was the tipping point. This was the at-bat when you either stayed in the ALCS or fell out of it. Elimination games have to be managed differently. You have to respond to a crisis with urgency. You never know when a game will be decided. It could be the third inning. This one called for your best left-handed relief option. Leyland should have given the ball to Phil Coke and let his late-game script be damned.

Instead, season on the line, he gave the ball to Schlereth. That would be the same Schlereth whom Leyland had not used in 11 days. The same Schlereth who with the bases loaded this year had allowed hitters to post an outrageous 1.714 OPS. The same Schlereth who threw a fat pitch over the middle of the plate that Murphy smacked for a two-run single. Now the score was 5-2, and Texas was rolling. There would be no stopping the Rangers, especially not with the back of the Detroit bullpen.

Coke? He never pitched. Joaquin Benoit? Jose Valverde? Never pitched.

By the way, just how ugly was that third inning? It was the biggest postseason inning in nine years. It consumed 50 pitches, 38 minutes, 14 batters, 11 base runners, nine runs, four walks and four pitchers.

Entire wars were fought in the time it took the Tigers to get three outs. No kidding. The Anglo-Zanzibar War of 1896 also took 38 minutes. The Tigers suffered more casualties than did the British, who had one sailor injured.

Nelson Cruz won the ALCS MVP Award without getting a single. He had eight hits, all of them for extra bases: six home runs and two doubles. It was unquestionably the greatest display of power hitting in the history of postseason series. His six home runs and 13 RBIs are postseason records. He hit his six home runs off five Detroit pitchers, getting Verlander twice.

Was there something horribly flawed about Detroit's game plan on pitching to Cruz? No, said both Verlander and catcher Alex Avila. Cruz, both of them said, simply feasted on mistake pitches.

"He was a man-child," Avila said. "We threw the whole kitchen sink at him and he made us pay. A lot of good hitters will tell you they hit mistakes. And every time we hung a slider or left a fastball over the middle of the plate, he crushed it. To be honest, he hit mistakes. Good hitters will make you pay."

Just remember why the National League champion will get home-field advantage in the World Series: because Prince Fielder of the Brewers hit a home run off C.J. Wilson of the Rangers in the All-Star Game, a home run that bounced off the top of the outfield wall and over. Now Wilson is the presumptive Game 1 starter for Texas in the World Series on the road.

The good news about this World Series is that the goofiness of playing by two sets of rules -- a DH in Texas and no DH in the NL park -- should not be as pronounced a factor as it often has been.

With Michael Young playing first base and Mitch Moreland slumping, the DH spot for the Rangers is such a small factor that manager Ron Washington used it as low as eighth (Murphy in Game 6) and ninth (Yorvit Torrealba in Game 4) in his ALCS batting orders. There are no tough decisions as there were for recent AL champions such as the 2010 Rangers (Vlad Guerrero), 2009 Yankees (Hideki Matsui) and 2007 Red Sox (David Ortiz).

And on the NL side, St. Louis is well-positioned to add a right-handed stick to their lineup in Games 3, 4 and 5 in Texas, when the Rangers are likely to throw all left-handers (Holland, Matt Harrison and Wilson). The Cardinals can DH Matt Holliday and use Allen Craig in left field, or vice versa.

If St. Louis beats Texas in Game 1 of the World Series -- two of the most powerful trends of the postseason would collide in Game 2:

The Cardinals are 16-0 on getaway days since Aug. 3.

The Rangers are 12-0 after losses since Aug. 26, a streak of 40 consecutive games without back-to-back defeats.

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