Breaking down today's two League Championship Series games. All times are Eastern; all stats for starting pitchers are for this postseason only.
Series: NLCS, Game 2; Phillies lead 1-0
Time: 4:35 p.m.
Starters:Chad Billingsley (1-0, 1.35 ERA) vs. Brett Myers (1-0, 2.57 ERA)
Game 2 of the NLCS shapes up a lot like Game 1, only this time it's the Dodgers sending out the dominant young ace and the Phillies trying to keep things close with a veteran on a hot streak. The only significant difference between Chad Billingsley and the other two 24-year-old aces making names for themselves in this postseason is that Cole Hamels and Jon Lester are lefties and Billingsley is a righty. Much like Lester, Billingsley stumbled out of the gate in April before flipping the switch in his final start of that month. Over his final 28 starts, Billingsley went 16-6 with a 2.78 ERA, 8.44 strikeouts per nine innings, and just 12 home runs allowed while holding opposing hitters to a .242/.316/.352 line. Compare that to Lester's final 28 starts in which he went 15-4 with a 2.82 ERA, a 6.85 K/9, just nine home runs allowed, and an opposing hitters' line of .248/.306/.344. One might argue that Lester's line is more impressive given that he pitched his home games at the explosive Fenway Park as opposed to pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium, but Lester's road ERA was 4.09 to Billingsley's 3.33. Although his performance was overshadowed by the Cubs' four errors and the Dodgers' resulting 10-run outburst, Billingsley was dominant in his Game 2 start at Wrigley Field in the NLDS. Billingsley held the Cubs scoreless on two singles and a walk through the first six innings of that game while striking out six. Only with a seven-run lead in the seventh did he give up a run on a trio of two-out hits.
Billingsley's weakness is occasional wildness. He led the Dodgers in wild pitches, hit batsmen, and walks this year, handing out 80 free passes, which translated to 3.59 walks per nine innings (though that rate shrank to 3.39 BB/9 in those final 28 starts). That's hardly an alarming walk rate, but it's worth keeping an eye on. It's also informative to note that Billingsley's almost twice as likely to walk a lefty than he is a right-hander. That matters because of the patience of Phillies lefties Ryan Howard and Chase Utley and switch-hitter Jimmy Rollins, who ranked second through fourth on the team in walks this year behind leader Pat Burrell. Still, while lefties hit nearly 50 points higher against Billingsley than righties this year and reached base against him at a troubling .369 clip, they only hit five home runs against him in 407 plate appearances.
Myers was given a brief minor league assignment in early July to adjust his mechanics, including keeping his front side from flying open. After returning to the majors, he reeled off 11 starts over which he went 7-2 with a 1.80 ERA and just four home runs allowed, holding opposing hitters to a .216/.266/.308 line. Myers' final two starts of the regular season were duds, but he turned in a strong performance in Game 2 of the NLDS against the Brewers. Myers got into a first-inning jam in that game, but escaped after allowing just one run to score. He then retired 15 of the next 16 Brewers he faced before allowing another lone run in the seventh on a double and a pair of productive outs. Myers faced the Dodgers twice in August, holding them to three runs on 14 hits in 14 innings while striking out 16. In 24 career confrontations with Manny Ramirez, Myers has allowed just three hits, though all went for extra bases. The only Dodger regular with strong numbers against Myers is center fielder Matt Kemp (4-for-10 with two doubles and a homer), who doubled in four trips last night.
The latter of Myers' two August starts against the Dodgers took place in Philadelphia with Billingsley starting for the L.A., the exact scenario we have for this afternoon's game. Billingsley walked five Phillies in that contest, but two of them were two-out intentional passes to Utley and were followed by inning-ending fly-outs by Burrell. Myers scattered eight singles, a double, and three walks across seven scoreless innings while striking out eight, while Billingsley allowed three runs on seven hits over six frames. Chan Ho Park then came on in the seventh and allowed two more runs. J.C. Romero and Clay Condrey completed Myers' shutout to give the Phillies a 5-0 win. I expect today's game will be more competitive.
Series: ALCS, Game 1
Time: 8:37 p.m.
Starters:Daisuke Matsuzaka (0-0, 5.40 ERA) vs. James Shields (1-0, 4.26 ERA)
The Rays and Red Sox have already met 18 times this year, with the Rays winning ten of those games. As a result, there are no secrets between these two teams, nor much love lost. Shields has already faced Boston four times this year alone. In two starts at Fenway Park, Shields was beaten severely, and almost literally, allowing 11 runs on 13 hits in just 4 2/3 innings spread over two starts, the latter of which ended after the first batter of the second inning when Shields plunked Coco Crisp, igniting a brawl and earning an ejection and a six-day suspension. That brawl was the culmination of tensions that had been building in that three-game series (which the Sox swept), starting in the first game when three batters (two Sox, one Ray) were hit by pitches, and continuing the next night when Crisp slid hard into Rays second baseman Akinori Iwamura.
Shields' starts against Boston in Tampa were a very different story. Shields won both, holding the Sox to two runs on seven hits and a pair of walks over 15 1/3 innings while striking out 12. The first of those two was a two-hit shutout. That home-road split is an extreme example of Shields' tendencies over the season, as he posted an ERA more than two runs lower at home than on the road. If you take out those two Boston starts, Shields' road ERA drops nearly a run to 3.96, but that's still almost 1.4 runs higher than his home mark.
Overall, Shields went 9-2 at the Trop, with a 2.59 ERA, a 1.04 WHIP, a 4.14 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and allowed just nine home runs in 17 starts. He made his first career postseason start in Game 1 of the ALDS at home against the White Sox. Though Shields gave up three runs in that game, they were the product of just one bad inning and one good swing by Dewayne Wise, who turned on an inside pitch for a three-run homer. In the other five of Shields' first six innings of work in that game, he allowed just one man to reach base, on a single that was promptly erased by a caught stealing.
Matsuzaka faced the Rays three times this season, each of them typical Matsuzaka outings. In each of his three starts against Tampa Bay, Matsuzaka lasted just five innings, but threw more than one hundred pitches. In those 15 innings combined, he put 13 men on base via a walk or hit-by-pitch. Two of those starts resulted in no decisions lost by the Red Sox. The last saw Matsuzaka get the win thanks to the 13 runs scored by his offense. Matsuzaka's Game 2 ALDS start against the Angels was more of the same: five innings, 108 pitches, three walks, and a no decision.
Matsuzaka, whose innings total this year was the lowest in major league history for a starting pitcher who won 18 or more games, has a habit of foisting things off on his bullpen and his offense. Shields should be able to keep Boston's lineup in check (worth noting: Kevin Youkilis is 0-for-17 career against Shields, regardless of venue). If he does, Boston will once again have to rely on its bullpen.
The Red Sox wrapped up the ALDS against the Angels with three games that were decided in the victor's last at-bat, two of which saw the Boston 'pen blow an inherited lead only to be picked up by the offense, and one of which, the 12-inning Game 3, saw the pen take the loss (though only after contributing six scoreless innings). Righties Jonathan Papelbon, Manny Delcarmen, and rookie Justin Masterson, and lefties Hideki Okajima and sidearmer Javier Lopez combined to post a 1.80 ERA in 15 innings in the ALDS, but that pales next to the performance of the Rays' pen, which allowed just one run in 12 1/3 innings against the White Sox (0.73 ERA), that one run coming on a meaningless ninth-inning solo home run surrendered by Dan Wheeler in Game 1. With closer Troy Percival once again left off the series roster due to a bad back, the primary players in the Rays' bullpen are righty Grant Balfour, submariner Chad Bradford, and lefty J.P. Howell. In the ALDS, those three combined for 11 1/3 scoreless innings, allowing six baserunners and striking out 12, but don't forget that also lurking in the Rays' pen is 2007 top overall draft pick David Price, who has the talent to become a Francisco Rodriguez-like rookie sensation.