MLB's new postseason format has sure delivered on thrills, drama
SAN FRANCISCO -- Some team still must win six or seven more games before the curtain closes on this theatrical postseason. We have miles to go. How in the world can our heart rates and sleep patterns hold up to this? It's the greatest postseason since 1986 (starring Dave Henderson, Gene Mauch, Mike Scott, Bill Buckner and others) and we have just begun the LCS. The count: 23 games, 10 games won in the last at-bat and five leads lost in the ninth inning.
Game 1 of the ALCS was yet another instant classic. It gave us more of the disbelief of Raul Ibanez going all Babe Ruth, more crumbling by yet another closer, and the sickening sight of Derek Jeter going down and not getting up. Jeter always gets up. He has a standard line when it comes to all the injuries that would have given others excuses or down time to heal: "I'm fine." He mostly has refused to get x-rays or MRIs when the Yankees have appealed to him about various injuries over the years, explaining, "For what? Wouldn't make any difference. I'm playing."
This one looked so very different, what with manager Joe Girardi and trainer Steve Donohue having to assist him off the Yankee Stadium field in the 12th inning, his left ankle, already compromised for the past two months, turning gruesomely as he reached for a grounder to his left.
Few nights at this new Yankee Stadium ever saw such rapid and fierce swings of emotion. There was more anger about the continued abject failures of Alex Rodriguez as the Yankees were within one inning of getting shut out by Detroit, 4-0; then the joyful shock -- at least from those not yet traversing the George Washington Bridge -- that Ibanez had done it yet again: a ninth-inning, game-tying tracer for his unprecedented third home run the postseason in the ninth or later; then the disgust at watching right-fielder Nick Swisher whiff on a line drive that put Detroit in the lead; and then the chilly, mournful silence of watching Jeter leave the field wounded.
Baseball has delivered with this new format. The addition of the wild card games, the four Division Series getting pushed to the limit and the compressed schedule have provided wall-to-wall drama. The dull breaks between games have been excised. The 2009 Yankees, for instance, won the World Series by playing only 15 games and getting 14 off days.
The 2012 Yankees have to use Hiroki Kuroda today on short rest -- and it's only Game 2 of the ALCS. You wonder, too, if the grind of these games -- last night was the fourth of five in five days for them, with three of them lasting at least 12 innings -- caught up to Jeter's already wobbly 38-year-old legs.
Jeter is hurt. Rodriguez is benched. Ibanez is Babe Ruth. Justin Verlander and CC Sabathia are Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax. Tim Lincecum is a reliever. The Cardinals won't go away, especially when they are down to their last breath. My goodness, what will they think of next?
The Tigers took a haymaker of a punch and not only got back up, they also stole the game back from the Yankees. But here's the bad news for one very tough team: they don't have a closer any longer. Tigers manager Jim Leyland got burned again by Jose Valverde. The right-hander blew every bit of a 4-0 lead with two home runs, but most especially, by bringing up the tying run with a walk to Mark Teixeira after getting ahead, 0-and-2. Valverde was getting by on diminished stuff already, but now his command has betrayed him, too.
Leyland will need to start piecing together his bullpen the way Bruce Bochy does in San Francisco, though Bochy has more useful parts. Leyland just can't continue to be formulaic about running games (Joaquin Benoit in the eighth, Valverde in the ninth). It's going to get hairy for the Tigers to try to win without Valverde as an established closer. But it was downright scary when Leyland has been blindly trusting him for so long.
Where do the Yankees go from here with their $30 million magnet, which pulls energy out of this team on a daily basis? Every night, pregame and postgame, has become a distracting referendum on Alex Rodriguez. Start him? Bench him? Pinch-hit for him? Did he talk to the media? It's such great tabloid stuff that the ALCS is the sidebar.
New York manager Joe Girardi has no good answers because right now Rodriguez is so lost that the club finally has given up the false hope that the big guy "might run into one." The big guy has not hit a home run in 30 days, covering 87 at-bats. He is a .218 hitter in this disappearing act.
Girardi now either has pinch-hit for Rodriguez or benched him for four straight games. It is a daily drama that won't go away. Here's why the problem is getting worse: Rodriguez is useless against right-handed pitching: 0-for-17 this postseason with 12 strikeouts. And the Tigers have all right-handed starting pitchers. And Rodriguez, including the years he actually was effective, is a lifetime .175 hitter against Tigers starters Doug Fister, Anibal Sanchez, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer.
Giants manager Bruce Bochy didn't officially commit to his rotation plans beyond Madison Bumgarner tonight and Ryan Vogelsong on Monday. But Matt Cain is set to start Game 3. And what about Game 4? San Francisco is leaning toward giving Tim Lincecum the ball, but it could turn out to be another Barry Zito start. That's because Bochy will have Lincecum available out of the bullpen for both Game 1 and Game 2, and if he has to go to Lincecum for more than an inning, Bochy has Zito available for Game 4.
If Lincecum does get the start in Game 4, it will be interesting to see if he continues to pitch exclusively out of the stretch, as he did in his two relief appearances in the NLDS. Meanwhile, Bochy has his pitchers lined up to have all of them pitch with extra rest: six days for Bumgarner, five days for Vogelsong, five days for Cain and seven days for Lincecum. That's typically a good thing this time of year.
So the Cardinals, with 88 wins, get yet another postseason matchup against a team that won more games than they did -- which means the Giants, with 94 wins, had better beware. Since 2006, the Cardinals have had nine straight postseason matchups against nine different franchise with teams that won between four and 14 more games than they did -- and they've won eight of those nine matchups. There must be something to the idea that St. Louis is just a darned tough postseason team whose style and roster play up in October. Check out this run of "upsets" by St. Louis in the postseason:
The last time St. Louis had more wins than its postseason opponent was the 2005 NLCS, when the 100-win Cardinals played the 89-win Astros. St. Louis lost.