CINCINNATI -- After two riveting wild-card games in which both road teams won, the Division Series has been the most exciting such round ever staged. All four LDS went the maximum of five games for the first time in the 18 years of the format. Tonight the Yankees host a decisive game against the Orioles and the Nationals host the Cardinals to finish off a thrilling opening week of the postseason. Of the 18 LDS games so far, there have been eight one-run games and seven games decided in the last at-bat.
Once upon a time -- say, three years ago -- the Division Series almost never were competitive enough to go the full complement of games. But now seven of the eight LDS over the past two years have given us a Game 5. Check out the table at right to see how the past two years of LDS play compare to the previous five years.
What does it mean? I've been saying the talent distribution in baseball is more even than it ever has been in the game's history, which is why every year one or two teams make the playoffs in the year after a losing season. There are no outlier great teams. The series are more unpredictable than ever because of how the talent is distributed. So just enjoy not knowing what's going to happen next.
There is one down side to the full slate of LDS games in a year with a condensed postseason calendar: whoever wins the Game 5s tonight might need to use a fifth starter or somebody on short rest to open the next round. So can we adopt this format permanently?
I was with Detroit ace Justin Verlander recently when he was asked when he first began to believe that he could be not just a good major league pitcher, but among the all-time greats. I thought he might say 2006, when he was named Rookie of the Year. Or 2009, when he won his first strikeout title. Or maybe 2011, when he won the Cy Young Award and Most Valuable Player Award. His answer shocked me.
"Ten," he said.
That's not 2010. That's age 10.
If Verlander wasn't exactly born to greatness, he found the path to it quickly and with a fierce sense of purpose. He has become the undisputed best pitcher in baseball, the one pitcher you would give the ball to when you absolutely needed to win a game -- and then good luck trying to get it out of his hands.
Verlander gave a command performance in ALDS Game 5 last night: a four-hit shutout with 11 strikeouts in a 6-0 victory that struck midnight on the Athletics' fairy tale season and sent Detroit back to the ALCS. He threw 122 pitches, the 10th time this year he has thrown at least 120. There is nobody like him.
He is both the best starter and closer in baseball. One of my favorite stats on Verlander this year: After he throws 100 pitches, he turns batters into .130 hitters, with no home runs, just two doubles, and 45 strikeouts in 115 at-bats. When I asked Verlander where his "closing speed" comes from, he talked about both his offseason workouts, when he emphasizes his legs and core strength, and his genetics. Verlander may look lean because he has long levers, but his thighs and glutes, the boiler room of a pitcher's factory of power, are thick with strength.
He insisted to me a few weeks ago that the Tigers are a team that responds to pressure. They responded to late September series against the White Sox and now they responded to the challenge of the Oakland mojo. But let's be clear about where this team gets its confidence: the Tigers are better than anybody in baseball on the days Verlander gets the baseball. He has two no-hitters and the Rookie of the Year, Cy Young and MVP awards, and now Verlander is cleaning up his postseason resume. It now stands at 5-3 with a 4.19 ERA in 10 starts. Detroit's mission from here on out is to find a way to steal two other wins in each series in games not started by Verlander.
You have to feel for Dusty Baker, the veteran Reds manager who took another kick in the gut in the postseason with a third epic collapse with a franchise inside of 11 years. The autopsies read like this:
• Up 5-0 with eight outs to go to win the 2002 World Series, Baker's Giants lose Game 6 to the Angels and then also lose Game 7.
• Up 3-0 with five outs to go to get to the 2003 World Series, Baker's Cubs lose Game 6 to the Florida Marlins, one of three straight losses after being up three 3-games-to-1.
• Tied 1-1 in the sixth inning of NLDS Game 3 -- with a no-hitter intact by his pitcher, Homer Bailey, and a sweep in play -- Baker's Reds become the first NL team to blow a 2-games-to-0 Division Series lead with three straight losses, all of them at home.
(I won't even bring up the year his Giants won 103 games and didn't make the postseason -- the last postseason without wild cards.)
The tally: Baker has played 10 games with a chance to close out a postseason series since 2002 World Series Game 6. His teams are 1-9 in those potential clinchers.
Baker is one of 20 managers to win more than 1,500 major league games. But only two of those 20 prolific winners have never won a World Series: Gene Mauch and Baker.
What made the latest Baker loss, a 6-4 defeat to San Francisco in Game 5 on Thursday, so painful is that it called attention to Baker's acumen at running games. Three key moments in the game backfired on him:
• He stayed with Mat Latos too long. Latos came out humming fastballs for strikes. He threw only 16 balls to the first 15 batters. But Latos' reputation for immaturity came into play in a fateful fifth inning. Latos began sulking about some ball-and-strike calls -- so much so that home plate umpire Tom Hallion once walked halfway out to the mound apparently to tell him to cool it. Latos' body language worsened when Zack Cozart bobbled a grounder, costing the Reds an out. I watched Latos after Cozart fumbled with the ball; the pitcher dropped to a knee and stayed there with a pained look on his face, as if he couldn't believe it was happening to him -- rather than telling his teammate he would pick him up.
Latos was gone at that point. He didn't come close to throwing a strike on his next four pitches, walking Marco Scutaro. Pitching coach Brian Price walked out to the mound to try to settle Latos, but it was too late. The next batter, Pablo Sandoval, whistled a single past Cozart. Now the bases were loaded and Buster Posey was up. The sulking about the calls, the error, the walk, the visit, the single . . . it was a steep decline and there was every indication except bells, whistles, alarms and flares that Latos was not surviving this inning. But Baker allowed him to pitch to Posey. It was the at-bat that finished off the Reds. Posey crushed a grand slam with such force that Latos didn't even bother to turn around and watch it. He nearly walked off the field himself as Posey rounded the bases.
• With runners at first and second, no outs, a full count and trailing 6-3 to Matt Cain in the sixth, Baker sent the runners on the pitch. It was a reckless risk on many levels. For one, though the batter, Ryan Hanigan, did ground into a double play earlier in the game, Cain, as usual, was throwing more flyballs than groundballs. The situation did not call for protecting against a groundball with a high-risk play. Also, if Hanigan hits a short pop-up or line drive, it's a triple play and the inning is over.
Baker was counting on Hanigan making contact, but he should know this: Hanigan never grounded into a double play on a full count this year. However, he did strike out eight times in 34 at-bats with a full count -- almost a one in four chance.
Hanigan looked at strike three and Jay Bruce was thrown out.
"You have to push the envelope sometimes," said Bruce, "and it just didn't work out."
• He sent Xavier Paul, a lefthanded hitter, to bat against George Kontos to lead off the seventh inning, down 6-3. Giants manager Bruce Bochy countered with lefty Jeremy Affeldt. Baker had Miguel Cairo and Todd Frazier, both righthanded hitters, on his bench. But Baker left Paul in to bat against Affeldt. Paul was 0-for-3 this year against lefties. Repeat: just 0-for-3. Paul whiffed.
Baker essentially forfeited his leadoff spot in one of his last three innings of the season. Why was he saving players? Cairo, in fact, never did get in the game.
Matt Cain is now 26-1 over the past two seasons when the Giants get him at least three runs, including 20-0 in such starts since June of 2011 . . . I gave Yankees manager Joe Girardi credit for pinch-hitting for Alex Rodriguez in Game 3, so I better scold him for not sending up a hitter -- probably Eric Chavez -- with runners at second and third in the eighth inning of Game 4 and the Yankees one flyball away from pouring champagne on each other. (If you send up Raul Ibañez there, he probably gets walked.) Rodriguez whiffed in what was an easy call for Orioles manager Buck Showalter to pitch to him with a base open. That should tell you how bad Rodriguez is going . . . Nice gesture by the smitten Oakland fans to call out their A's for a curtain call after Verlander ended their season. It was cool to see a season end not with booing, scapegoating and fingerpointing, but genuine thanks for a great ride. Oakland fans get it. It's the journey, folks, not the destination . . . Angel Pagan made one of the great clutch catches in recent postseasons. He made an aggressive play on a line drive with two outs and two on in the eighth with a 6-3 lead and snagged it with a dive. Quite a steal the Giants made in that trade with the Mets in which they shipped out Andres Torres and Ramon Ramirez.