Cliff Corcoran breaks down today's Division Series matchups. All games are on TBS; all times are Eastern.
Series: ALDS, Game 1Time: 2:30Starters:Javier Vazquez (12-16, 4.67) vs. James Shields (14-8, 3.56)
The big question entering this series is, "how did the Rays get here?" The answer, which I detailed at length over on Bronx Banter in mid-September, is pitching and defense. By replacing a rotating cast of stone-gloved middle-infielders with shortstop Jason Bartlett and third baseman-turned-second-baseman Akinori Iwamura, installing Evan Longoria in Iwamura's place at the hot corner, and getting a full season from B.J. Upton in center, the Rays went from being worst in the majors at turning balls in play into outs last year to being the best in the majors at it this year. That rising tide lifted the boats of back-end starters Edwin Jackson and Andy Sonnanstine and contributed to the startling improvement in their bullpen (6.16 ERA last year, 3.55 this year), while off-season acquisition Matt Garza, who will start Game 3, combined with lefty Scott Kazmir and righty James Shields to give the Rays a stellar trio of young starters atop what proved to be one of baseball's best rotations this year. Mix in Longoria, who helped replace some of the production lost by 2007 sensations Upton and Carlos Peña, and a helping of good fortune and late-game comebacks (the Rays' won 29 games by one run, the second highest total in the majors), and you've got the Rays' 31-win improvement.
Shields gets the ball tonight at Tropicana Field, where he has a 2.59 ERA on the season and has allowed just nine home runs in 17 starts. The Rays don't give up many runs at home in general, allowing an AL-low 3.79 runs per game at the Trop. Similarly, the White Sox don't score much on the road (4.19 R/G, third-worst in the AL). The last time the Sox visited St. Petersburg for a four-game set ending June 1, the Rays beat them three times, but the aggregate score of the series was just 9-9, each team averaging just 2.25 runs per game. That was before Longoria flipped the switch. Longoria finished that series hitting .241/.314/.434 on the season. He's hit .291/.360/.589 since. On the season, the Rays had scored just 4.51 runs per game through the end that series, but since the Sox left town and Longoria found his stroke, they've scored 4.97 runs per game. The loss of MVP candidate Carlos Quentin to a broken wrist has had an opposite effect on Chicago's attack. With Quentin, the Sox scored 5.06 runs per game. Since his injury, they have scored just 4.54 runs per game. Quentin hopes to return if the White Sox make it to the ALCS, but he may not get that chance.
Chicago sends Javier Vazquez to the mound this afternoon. Vazquez was awful in his final three starts of the season (0-3, 13.50 ERA), but pitched well in three starts against the Rays earlier this year, particularly in his two outings at the Trop (2.70 ERA, 13 1/3 IP, 1 HR, 3 BB, 14 K). Shields faced the Sox just once this year, holding them to one run over six innings in that late-May series.
This is a must-win game for the Brewers. Had they not needed Sabathia to pitch them in to the postseason on Sunday, yesterday's Game 1 would have pitted Sabathia against Phillies ace Cole Hamels, giving the Brewers a good chance to neutralize Philadelphia's biggest asset in this series. Instead, the Brewers were forced to turn to 22-year-old Yovani Gallardo, who was one four-inning start removed from a DL stay. Gallardo acquitted himself well yesterday, but Hamels was untouchable and, save for a scary ninth inning from closer BradLidge, the Phillies cruised to an easy win. Now, with Sabathia taking the mound this evening, the Brewers need to return serve or they'll be down 2-0 in a best three out of five series in which any comeback would have to go through Hamels.
Fortunately for Milwaukee, they've lost just three of Sabathia's 17 starts since his arrival in early July, and there's little reason not to expect Sabathia to deliver yet again. With an average pitcher you might worry about his recovery after throwing the 122 pitches Sabathia did on Sunday, but Sabathia is not an average pitcher. The big man has topped 120 pitches four other times this season. Here's his aggregate line from the starts that followed each: 29 1/3 IP, 23 H, 8 R, 7 ER, 1 HR, 6 BB, 29 K, 2.15 ERA, 0.99 WHIP. As you might expect, Sabathia went 4-0 in those games. Sabathia's ERA in his other 13 starts as a Brewer is 1.51. Sabathia last faced the Phillies last June. The six remaining Phillies starters from that game (Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Pat Burrell, Shane Victorino and Jayson Werth) went a combined 2-for-17 in that game.
In the three Sabathia starts the Brewers lost, Milwaukee was outscored by a total of just four runs, so the real focus heading into tonight should be how the Brewers hitters will handle Philly starter Brett Myers. The Phillies' closer a year ago, Myers' conversion back to the rotation was rockier than that of the Cubs' Ryan Dempster. Sporting a 5.84 ERA on July 1, Myers was sent to Triple-A to get straightened out. After a quartet of minor league starts, Myers returned to the Phillies with adjusted mechanics and reeled off 11 starts in which he went 7-2 with a 1.80 ERA, the last of which was a complete-game two-hitter against the Brewers on September 14.
The encouraging news for the Brewers is that Myers' last two starts of the year, the first of which came on short rest, were awful (16 runs allowed, 14 earned, on 19 hits in 8 1/3 innings), and even during his hot streak, the right-handed Myers was harder on lefty batters than on righties. That last is significant because the Brewers have just one lefty in their lineup, first baseman Prince Fielder. Of course, the only two hits in that September 14 game were a single by switch-hitting platoon second baseman Ray Durham, and a home run by Fielder.
Just like that, the Cubs are in big trouble. Even if they win tonight's game, this series will have gone from a best-three-out-of-five series with three games scheduled at Wrigley Field, to a best-two-out-of-three series with two games scheduled at Dodger Stadium, where the Dodgers have held their opponents to a major league low 3.27 runs per game. If they lose tonight, the Cubs will be heading out to La La Land needing to sweep their way through the remainder of the series. It doesn't look good, and it looks worse when you take a closer look at tonight's pitching matchup.
Game 1 starter Derek Lowe may have been unhittable down the stretch, but 23-year-old Chad Billingsley is the Dodgers' real staff ace. In his last 19 starts, Billingsley went 12-3 with a 2.83 ERA. Take out a pair of flukey bad outings, and that ERA improves to 2.19. By comparison, Carlos Zambrano has a 7.93 ERA over his last eight starts and has walked 5.36 men per nine innings over that span, during which he skipped a start due to rotator cuff tendinitis. Zambrano's first start after returning from that brief layoff saw him no-hit the Astros, but in his only two starts since then he allowed 13 runs in just 6 1/3 innings while walking seven. The Cubs believe that Zambrano was jetlagged in the first of those two starts as he had just returned from his grandmother's funeral in Venezuela, but it's very possible that whatever Zambrano had left in his shoulder this season was left on that mound in Houston.
Zambrano is pitching on six-day's rest, but if he goes bust early, the game will likely be left in the hands of Jason Marquis, as Sean Marshall threw 38 pitches last night after Ryan Dempster lasted just 4 2/3 innings. Marquis also pitched in Game 1, working an 18-pitch ninth inning and surrendering a solo home run to Russell Martin. Given that the Cubs' hopes in this series are suddenly only as strong as Zambrano's rotator cuff, Lou Piniella's decision to use Marquis last night is already ripe for second guessing.