Nobody expects we can exceed the excitement of The Last Night of 2011, when three Game 162s were decided in last at-bats to decide the final two playoff spots. But what we have tonight has the potential to be another massively thrilling night for baseball: For the first time in eight years, we get four postseason games, and three of them are elimination games.
Let's get the technical disclaimers out of the way: there were four games Saturday, but one of them, Yankees-Tigers Game 1, was the resumption of a game Friday, technically not a full game played start to finish that day. But the Division Series were just getting started then, anyway. Tonight is much different. We get the win-or-go-home pressure of three possible eliminations among the four games. These are the games when managers burn convention -- grasping for new lineups, pulling starters out of the bullpen, trying aggressive baserunning and giving flight to any idea that may improve the chances of living for another day.
Adding intrigue, two of the teams in elimination games will put their season in the hands of a rookie pitcher at home: Jeremy Hellickson for Tampa Bay and Josh Collmenter for Arizona. The third team facing elimination, the Yankees, turns its fate over to A.J. Burnett, who gets the start only because of that Friday night rain that caused the suspension.
In the fourth game, the only one of the night in which an entire season won't be on the line, Cole Hamels of Philadelphia and Jaime Garcia of St. Louis will try to prevent their teams from falling to the brink of elimination.
What's cool is that the four games have staggered starting times, so between approximately 5 p.m. ET and 12:30 a.m. you might be looking at wall-to-wall fantastic finishes -- not just for those games but of entire seasons. It's March Madness with a fall twist, and a sneak peek at the eventual Wild Card Knockout Doubleheaders we will get when second wild cards are added in each league.
Baseball takes great pride in the integrity of such a long championship season -- running the marathon of sports schedules. But now baseball has become about urgency, about doing whatever it takes to earn another tomorrow. The game and the managers are left out of their usual element, and this makes it terrific fun for the rest of us.
You know that stuff about how important postseason experience is to success in October? It's not all it's cracked up to be. Eight starting pitchers have won a game this postseason, including Yankees rookie Ivan Nova, whose appearance in the resumption of ALDS Game 1 technically is scored as a relief appearance but was otherwise a start in every way. Two of those winners were veterans Colby Lewis and Roy Halladay. But check out the lack of experience of the other six winners as measured by their postseason wins and starts entering this October:
Oh, by the way, how about the four thirty-something Cy Young Award winners this postseason? Halladay, Cliff Lee, Chris Carpenter and CC Sabathia are 1-1 with a 6.29 ERA.
Game 4 of the ALDS between the Tigers and Yankees has a chance to be a defining game for all the wrong reasons for New York. The Yankees need Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira (1-for-21 combined in this series) to at least put some good at-bats together. Burnett, never trustworthy, has a chance to save the Yankees' season and his reputation. Manager Joe Girardi, faced with an elimination game, needs to run an aggressive kitchen-sink game and not worry about keeping relievers rested for spots that never come. Think of it as a lesser version of what game 162 meant for the Red Sox as far as shaping the winter narrative and beyond.
It is a pressure-packed game. But remember this: for all of the Yankees' successes, having their back against the wall is not a position of strength. Beginning with that walk off bloop single by Luis Gonzalez of Arizona to beat New York in the 2001 World Series, the Yankees are 4-8 in postseason elimination games, including 0-5 on the road. The last time they won a win-or-go-home game on the road, Orlando Hernandez was the winning pitcher (Game 4 of the 2001 ALDS at Oakland).
Give Jim Leyland credit: the salty veteran Tigers manager squeezed every drop out of ALDS Game 3 to provide his team an edge, the same way his friend Tony La Russa did in Philadelphia in NLDS Game 2 the previous day.
Here is where the game turned for Leyland in a brilliant but subtle move: after Detroit took a 3-2 lead after five innings, Leyland put Don Kelly, a defensive specialist, into right field for Magglio Ordonez.
Managers don't typically start running their defensive specialists into the game while still needing 12 outs to defend only a one-run lead. And they certainly don't do it as a matter of course when the offensive player coming out of the game is due to lead off the next inning.
So why put Kelly in that early? Three reasons:
1. Justin Verlander is so good that Leyland was willing to compromise the Ordonez at-bat -- and possibly even two of them -- to keep a one-run lead in check.
2. With Kelly now due to lead off the sixth, Girardi was more apt to leave a struggling CC Sabathia in the game. Why? Now two of three hitters due for Detroit in the sixth were left-handed (Kelly and Alex Avila). If Ordonez stayed in, then Girardi was more apt to bring in Rafael Soriano because four of the next five Tigers hitters would have been right-handed. Would you rather face Sabathia going past 100 pitches on a night when he had poor command or the teeth of a fresh Yankees bullpen? The Tigers had no problem with Sabathia throwing more pitches.
3. Here's the kicker: not only did Leyland put Kelly into the game -- improving his defense and influencing the Yankees to stick with a wearing Sabathia -- he told Kelly to drag bunt for a base hit. So what happened? Kelly dragged a bunt for a base hit, taking advantage of Sabathia falling off to the third base side of the mound -- and scored a tack-on run when Jhonny Peralta followed with a double.
The Yankees made some mild complaints about the strike zone of Game 3 home plate umpire Gerry Davis. You know going into the game that the veteran Davis is going to call a tight zone and a very consistent one, and that's exactly what he did in Game 4. "You know what you're going to get," one Tiger said. Davis, the crew chief, did his typically consistent job on balls and strikes.
New York also was moaning privately about the strike zone of Eric Cooper in Game 2. The club looked at video to determine that Cooper, by their own unofficial accounting, "missed" 18 balls by calling them strikes. Eighteen? Really? That's a boatload. Cooper also called a solid game -- a bigger zone than Davis, but with the consistency teams want. The strike zones are far, far down the list of why New York lost both games, if even on the list at all.