I’ve Got Soul, But I’m Not a Soldier: The GIants Win the National League Championship Series

Almost every team who qualified for the MLB Postseason this year did so with the help of an out-of-nowhere, breakout star. The Baltimore Orioles had Steve Pearce, whom even they released in April, but who ended up hitting 21 home runs and steadying the heart of the batting order as the team charged to the AL East title. The Los Angeles Dodgers had Justin Turner, a non-tendered former New York Met whom they scooped off the winter scrap heap, and who hit .340 as a utility man and lefty-masher for them. The Pittsburgh Pirates nearly saw Josh Harrison, a throw-in in a 2009 trade and previously a fringe-level bench player, win the batting title as their starting third baseman. Wade Davis brought his ERA from 5.32 to 1.00 for the Kansas City Royals by moving to the bullpen again. J.D. Martinez, released by Houston (themselves the worst team in baseball for three straight seasons) just before the season, became the third slugging stud the Detroit Tigers needed to catalyze their offense.

There really hadn’t been anyone like that for the San Francisco Giants. Yusmeiro Petit emerged as a major weapon for the pitching staff, but the team couldn’t quite decide how to use him, and some of his effectiveness was swallowed by the rash of injuries that befell his fellow hurlers. What the team would have really loved, but what never quite materialized, was a truly useful extra bat, someone who could lengthen the lineup in the absence of first Angel Pagan, then Mike Morse, then both. The closest they came to truly patching the holes, at season’s end, was reclaiming an old standby, Travis Ishikawa.

Ishikawa had passed through the hands of five other organizations since he left the Giants, but after being released by the Pirates in April, he’d re-signed and accepted assignment to Triple-A Fresno. He had always been a first baseman—as he is now 30 and has shown no affinity for other positions when tried, we can safely say that he always will be a first baseman—but he gave the corner outfield spots a try in Fresno, with mixed results in about a dozen games. A Brandon Belt injury opened up some playing time at first base, and Ishikawa acquitted himself fine there, as ever. He also played eight games in the outfield, including three starts, after Belt returned. He wasn’t good out there, but he was good enough not to remove on sight, and he provided above-average offense (in a tiny sample, but never mind that) at a spot where no other Giant could offer it. He has started nine of the team’s 10 playoff games in left field, and he rewarded manager Bruce Bochy well in Game Three of the NLCS alone, with his bases-clearing first-inning double.

*   *   *

Game Five, however, gave no feeling of one likely to be left in the hands of anyone as anonymous as Ishikawa. It matched Adam Wainwright and Madison Bumgarner, and despite Wainwright’s clear elbow problems, that’s as juicy as an October pitching matchup gets. Surely, someone would dominate, and then their bullpen would either hold up or implode spectacularly, and that would be the story of Game Five.

It sort of was. The game was low-scoring into the late innings. Each man pitched well. The story, though, is less about how well they pitched, than it is about how they pitched well at all. That’s especially true of Wainwright.

To understand where Wainwright was coming from, entering this start, you have to understand the mentality and history of the St. Louis Cardinals.

Bob Gibson casts a long shadow in St. Louis. It’s not that anyone of sound mind holds today’s pitchers to the standards of Gibson (or his contemporaries); it’s just that Gibson set a tone. In nine World Series starts, Gibson pitched 81 innings. He completed eight of those nine games. Gibson was all about winning when winning was there to be done, and the Cardinals have never moved away from that fundamental philosophy. One needn’t go back to Gibson, or even John Tudor, to find an example of this. Chris Carpenter, in 2011, picked up the slack for an absent Wainwright and pitched 36 playoff innings, after throwing a complete game on the final day of the season to get them into the playoffs. Carpenter faced more batters that year, including his postseason workload, than anyone since Randy Johnson in 2001. A Cardinals ace in October must not only take the ball, but take it with grim purpose, even if doing so means pain, and even if doing so is a sacrifice of one’s arm for the good of the team.

That might have nothing to do with Wainwright’s repeated insistence that he is healthy, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. It might mean nothing to him. I suspect, however, that it influenced him. Wainwright long looked up to Carpenter, and is a devout enough member of the Cardinals organization to know its history, especially Gibson’s history. He’s also blessed and burdened, as most great athletes are, with immense pride, and that might mean refusing to excuse patches of poor performance, and it might mean taking the responsibility of pitching a big game even when one knows he isn’t up to the task, at least not in full.

Thus, Wainwright took the mound Thursday night, without his best stuff or his full health, but with more than most people have on their best night.

He wasn’t better than Bumgarner, though. Madison Bumgarner averaged just over 92 miles per hour on his fastball in 2014, a career-best mark. On Thursday night, he averaged an even 94 MPH, a boost in velocity that widened his margin for error and made it even harder to make firm contact against him. In his first two innings, Bumgarner threw 20 pitches. Eighteen of them were strikes. The Cardinals notched two hits in the first frame, and Bumgarner was saved on a line drive with both men on when it turned into a double play. Clearly, San Francisco’s ace was in attack mode, but the Cardinals are a tough team to attack. They have a number of hitters who specialize in squaring up any pitch in the strike zone. Bumgarner looked great, but had his hands full nonetheless.

Wainwright started just as aggressively. He threw 39 pitches through the first three innings, 21 of them fastballs, and he, too, had more velocity than usual on his heater. Notably, though, his cutter was not there for him. Wainwright had admitted, days before, that throwing the cutter caused elbow discomfort, and specifically, that it was harder to throw that pitch than to throw his curve while dealing with the elbow soreness.

To jump ahead just a bit in our story, here are the breakdowns of Wainwright’s pitch usage for the full season, and on Thursday night, side-by-side:

Adam Wainwright, Usage Comparison

Pitch Type Percentage of Total Pitches, 2014 Season Percentage of Total Pitches, Thurs., Oct. 16, 2014
Four-seam Fastball 17.6% 37.1%
Cutter 29.5% 13.4%
Curveball 27.8% 35.1%
Sinker 22.4% 12.4%
Changeup 1.7% 2.1%

The cutter would not be part of Wainwright’s game plan most of the night, because it was too ineffective. Of the 13 he did throw, eight went for balls. The Giants swung at four. One made contact. It was Joe Panik, in the third inning, and Panik turned on that cutter, yanking it out of the park for two Giants runs.

By then, though, the Cardinals had given Wainwright some breathing room, and they would soon give him more. Bumgarner lost the plate in the third inning, just to one batter, and put Tony Cruz on base. Wainwright bunted Cruz to second, at which point Bumgarner issued his second walk, to Matt Carpenter. This time, though, he didn’t lose command; he actively chose to keep piling breaking balls at Carpenter’s feet. Carpenter fouled off the good pitches and laid off the bad ones, and trotted to first. Bumgarner seemed unfazed.

It was then that Bumgarner made one of his two mistakes all night. With two on and one out, he wanted to get ahead, and clearly, he didn’t fear Jon Jay. Therefore, he threw a first-pitch cutter that had a whole lot of the plate.

Against many hitters, that still might have been an effective pitch. It would have gotten well out on the end of the bat of any hitter looking to pull the ball. Jay, though, had exactly what he wanted: a chance to punch yet another ball sharply to left field. Jay was 14-for-29 in the playoffs, doing most of his damage going the other way with line drives and ground balls. He had not yet cracked an extra-base hit, though, when he got that elevated cutter and drove it to left-center field.

He still wouldn’t have had any, with most any other fielder in left field. The play didn’t require any skill—only the experience of fielding fly balls, to inform one that the ball would carry and slice back toward them. Travis Ishikawa didn’t have that. He took too shallow a route, then compounded the problem by overrunning the ball toward center field. It cleared his head by five feet and bounced to the wall. Cruz scored to give the Cardinals a 1-0 lead.

Then, after Panik’s homer, the Cardinals got to Bumgarner twice in the top of the fourth. Matt Adams led off the inning, and with two strikes on him, Bumgarner tried a curveball, knee-high on the outer half of the plate. It was a really good pitch, actually, other than that it didn’t appear to be executed with any special conviction. If it had been, Bumgarner might have thrown it a bit more outside, forcing Adams to adjust and go the other way. The pitch he actually threw didn’t do that, and Adams absolutely punished the tiny error. He pulled the ball for a home run, tying the game, and given the energy that had surrounded his two previous postseason homers, it felt like a game-changer. The Cardinals dugout went slightly berserk.

Bumgarner got the next two men, but then, he made his second mistake. It was a wandering cutter that failed to get in on Tony Cruz, and Cruz spun on it, sending a line drive into the left-field seats. The Cards suddenly led 3-2, and Bumgarner was pitching in bad luck while Wainwright was finding a rhythm. The series was not over yet, after all.

Something was different when Wainwright took the mound in the fourth frame, though. He was less trusting of all of his hard stuff. He would throw 24 pitches to get his next three outs, and 11 of them were curves. The Giants put Wainwright on the ropes with a walk and a single to lead the inning. Then Brandon Belt tagged a ball, put his barrel directly on it, sent a line drive screaming through the infield. Alas, it was caught, and the Cardinals doubled off Pablo Sandoval, the lead runner. It was close at second base, but just like that, two were out. Wainwright walked another, though, and had to fan Brandon Crawford to escape. Suddenly, the curveball seemed to be the only pitch Wainwright trusted, and it seemed he was about to break down.

The opposite happened.

Wainwright and Bumgarner each found a groove, beginning in the fifth inning, and each would ride it until he left the game. Wainwright was especially dominant. He retired the side in order in the fifth, sixth and seventh, notching five of his seven total strikeouts during those three innings. He threw 34 pitches, 15 more of them curveballs. He seemed to be just missing Giants’ bats, baffling them by pitching off his breaking ball, dodging bullets, but he did it so well that it never felt like he was in trouble. In reality, of course, he was in trouble the whole time. A pitcher whose arsenal diminishes due to discomfort throwing a certain offering always is. Wainwright pitched with guile, intelligence and intensity those last few innings. He also got lucky that the Giants were unable to adjust to his modified approach.

Bumgarner cruised in a more classic way. From the Cruz home run onward, he kept the ball more on the edges of the strike zone, maintaining the aggressiveness afforded by his sharp stuff but better respecting the Cards’ eagerness to attack pitches in the middle of the plate. His velocity never faltered, his pitch selection didn’t shift, he simply pounded the zone with pitches his opponents could not handle. With Jay at bat in the eighth, Bumgarner even made sure to show him something he hadn’t seen in the two earlier at-bats where Jay had hit him, dropping down sidearm in a 2-2 count.

When the dust settled, it was 13 straight outs for Bumgarner, who threw 72 strikes on 98 pitches. He had gotten the Giants through eight innings, one swing away from a tied game, despite the defensive gaffe from Ishikawa and despite the unforgiving treatment of his minor mistakes by Adams and Cruz. Of course, the game had fallen somewhat into stasis at that point. As Mike Morse stood in the on-deck circle awaiting the chance to lead off the bottom of the eighth, three full innings had been played without a man reaching base. The hour grew late, and Pat Neshek was in to set up the Cardinals for a chance to get back to St. Louis.

Morse was a strange fit for the Giants, who signed him as a free agent over the winter. Morse’s defining characteristic, the single thing he does better than almost anyone in baseball, is his opposite-field power. He’s a monster in this regard. A giant of a man, Morse has a long-armed, leveraged swing that generates long fly balls to right-center field, with plenty of backspin. It’s one of the most durable skills a batter can have, this feel for punishing the ball to the opposite field, but AT&T Park makes it all but useless. Tom Verducci said, on the FOX broadcast, that there have been only 16 home runs by right-handed batters to right field since the park opened, 15 seasons ago. That seems impossible, but if it may be true of any park, this would be the one. By my count, Morse did manage two opposite-field bombs at home, which is impressive (mind-blowingly so, if Verducci’s figure is accurate), but his effectiveness took a hit from the choice to come to San Francisco.

Now, he was to bat for the fourth time in the NLCS, having just gotten back onto the roster after an injury cost him September and the first part of October. Everyone in the park knew he would be looking to hit a home run, and thanks to the limitations of the ballpark, everyone knew he would be trying to pull the ball.

It didn’t matter. On a 1-1 count, Morse got a ball right in his wheelhouse, turned on it, and had both arms in the air before he finished his swing—or so it seemed. The game was tied; the stasis was broken, never to be restored.

Santiago Casilla pitched the top of the ninth for San Francisco. He was not quite himself; the Cardinals put runners on with a walk and a single, with one out, bringing Kolten Wong to the plate.

Wong had the walk-off home run that won Game Two for St. Louis, and another homer in Game Four that solidified him as a central figure in the story of the series. He tapped into significantly more power than he had once had, and more than one would ever suspect from his short, slight frame, when he made some changes in his setup early in the season. He opened his stance slightly, deepened his crouch somewhat and brought his hands way down, just below his chest. It all allowed him to address the ball more violently, keeping his bat in the strike zone as long but increasing the speed of the stroke. The adjustments have allowed Wong to impact the ball the way more traditional power hitters do, hitting it hard on all trajectories and to all fields.

He smacked a ground ball to the left side this time, and it looked, for just a moment, like a go-ahead single. Pablo Sandoval dove to his left, but could only deflect the ball off the end of his glove. Strikingly, it lost no speed; it just changed direction. It still seemed destined for the outfield, but Brandon Crawford had never broken stride going to his right, and Sandoval’s deflection was enough to push the ball back to him. Crawford snagged the ball cleanly and got a force out at second base. The air went out of the Cardinal rally right then. A walk later, Jeremy Affeldt came on and retired pinch-hitter Oscar Taveras on a groundout. The bullpen had held fast.

What came next was what the Postseason had been diligently preparing us for all along. To open the bottom of the ninth, Michael Wacha trotted in from the Cardinals bullpen. Wacha, a starter forced into relief by a shoulder injury that plagued him all season, hadn’t pitched to live batters since Sept. 26. He could not have been called upon in a higher-leverage situation, nor with a much tougher task before him: Pablo Sandoval, Hunter Pence and Brandon Belt were due up.

St. Louis manager Mike Matheny made a miserable decision by calling upon Wacha. He put his player in a position to fail, at a time when failure would follow him all the way through the offseason. He brought him into a situation to which he is not accustomed, on an irregular and troublesome rest schedule. Royals manager Ned Yost did (almost) precisely the same thing earlier this month—twice.

In the Wild Card Game, which the Royals took from the Athletics, Kansas City held a 3-2 lead in the top of the sixth inning. Starter James Shields had already allowed a home run to Brandon Moss, who was due up with two runners on base. Yost relieved Shields—the right choice—by calling upon Yordano Ventura—the wrong one. Ventura was on just one day of rest, a starter on a throw day, and he hadn’t appeared as a reliever but once all season. He now entered with men on base, and no time to find a rhythm. Promptly, he gave up a home run to Moss, nearly costing Kansas City their season. Yost chose Ventura because it was the sixth inning, and his three-headed monster of excellent relief arms (Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland) usually don’t come in until the seventh.

Yost repeated his mistake in Game One of the ALDS against the Angels, when he brought in Danny Duffy to pitch the 10th inning. Duffy is a starter who’s been buried in the Kansas City bullpen, seasonal fatigue leaving him ineffective and vulnerable to injury. Yost asked him to pitch on the road, in a spot where any run scored would cost the Royals the ball game, because he refused to use closer Greg Holland in a tied game. Duffy, however, pitched well, striking out one and allowing one hit, and he took the win when the Royals scored in the top of the 11th.

Matheny’s choice more closely resembled the Duffy call, but right away, it had the feel of the Ventura one. Sandoval singled, hard, to right field. Hunter Pence flied out, but then Wacha walked Belt. There were two on and one out, for Travis Ishikawa.

The grass at AT&T Park is arresting to the eye. It’s a deeper green than the grass most places, and this stands out because the park is one of a very few—sometimes there are no others at all—that doesn’t feature mowed patterns in the outfield. It’s unbroken green out there. Ishikawa had struggled in his introduction to that grass, struggled to find a home there. He had nearly given the game away, but now he had a chance to win it. After nearly being swallowed in the untextured abyss of the minor-league veteran scrap heap, Ishikawa had made it back.

Ball one.

Wacha couldn’t locate his fastball, let alone find the touch and feel of the changeup that made him the NLCS MVP last year. He just had to survive, but doing so almost surely would mean getting lucky, another ball hit hard at someone and a runner slightly late getting back to the bag, the way Bumgarner and Wainwright had escaped their tightest jams of the night. Randy Choate was up in the Cardinals bullpen, so any m-ishit, any chopper or pop-up or freeze from Ishikawa would allow Matheny to get Choate in to face Crawford. Wacha didn’t have it.

Ball two.

Ishikawa could lock in on the pitch he wanted, now. Keyhole Wacha. Make him throw one middle-middle. That deep green beckoned. Almost anything would win the game, any hit to the outfield. Joaquin Arias, plenty fast, had pinch-run for Sandoval, and paced off second. Maybe the things most charming about that outfield, that untextured abyss, is the stark way things stand out against it.

Crack!

Ishikawa knew it was enough right off the bat. That the ball carried into the crowd atop the wall in right field mattered not at all. It was going to at least get off the brick, so Arias would have scored easily. Several Giants met Ishikawa between second and third base, ready to tackle him, mob him, carry him away. The pennant was won. Ishikawa wouldn’t be stopped, though. This was the culmination, the reward for his perseverance, the greatest moment of his career, and his cleat marks had to find home plate. He had to finish the run.

*   *   *

In 2012, the first MLB Postseason I chronicled on Arm Side Run, it was as if baseball would not let us go. All four Division Series went the full five games that year. The ALCS turned into a Tigers romp over the Yankees, but the NLCS went the full seven games, too. The games kept coming, some of them captivating, others utterly unwatchable, as though they were being orchestrated by someone who knew we were all captive to the action, but couldn’t decide whether they loved or hated us for it. The most undimmed memory I have of that month is of the final outs in Game Seven of the NLCS, which was awful. Rain poured down, the field quickly becoming unplayable, but they played on it anyway, as Sergio Romo (the Giants’ closer, back then) tried to salt away a 9-0 lead.

It was 9-0! Yet, anyone who felt obligated to take in all of the baseball that fall had to sit and watch infielders wading from their starting positions to another small pond in order to catch pop-ups, the Cardinals shrinking into their sweatshirts until the sweatshirts were all there was, the whole thing. Nor was this an isolated incident. Five of the seven games in that series were decided by five or more runs. If the series had a theme, it was early, one-sided scoring. The whole thing was horrendously anticlimactic, especially after the Division Series round, which featured nine games in which the teams were tied or separated by a single run after seven innings, and eight decided in one side’s final at-bat. Somewhere along the way, a bubble popped, and the promise of a classic October fell flat, but the games kept parading by.

Not this year. No series in the 2014 Postseason has even reached a winner-take-all game. The American League saw sweeps in each Division Series and in the Championship Series, too. Yet, it feels not only like we’re all still lunging after baseball, trying to hang onto it as it rides wildly through the wilderness, but like the tension of this month is unbreakable.

That’s what I was thinking as I watched Game Five of the NLCS on Thursday night. That and:

“I’ve got soul, but I’m not a soldier.”

Here we have a line that nimbly amalgamates the two most sincere and serious themes popular music tackles, when popular music tackles themes at all: the question of the soul, or morality, or eternity; and the injustice of war. But the line itself means nothing. It’s a vapid little pun. You just chant it, and grow with it, until you’re singing it at the top of your lungs and it feels like it means all those things it almost means, but doesn’t.

The theme of the 2014 Postseason, if there is one, is in that vein: the ridiculous pretending to be sublime, or the sublime masquerading as the ridiculous in the guise of the sublime. It’s hard to recall an October where I felt less like bad bounces, bad calls, bizarre managerial choices or stone-cold fluke performances determined the outcomes. The baseball over the last fortnight has been as well-executed and crisp as any I can remember. Many Octobers consist of one team getting sloppy just a bit later than the other, and winning because of it, or of a sudden burst of dominance from a player we all know, deep down, just plain sucks. That hasn’t happened this year. Things have almost—almost, mind you—gone according to script.

Yet, the Royals and Giants will meet in a World Series no one foresaw, with fewer combined wins (177) than any two Series combatants have combined for since 1973. This will be the first World Series ever to feature two teams who won fewer than 90 games during the season. (A couple quick caveats: 1981, of course, was weird. It doesn’t count. Also, the 2006 and 1997 World Series featured teams whose combined win totals were 178, just one win better than Kansas City and San Francisco.) Maybe I’m being insufficiently critical of things like Randy Choate throwing Game Three of the NLCS away, or the pitching staff mismanagement that led to the Dodgers’ elimination, or the inability of the Orioles offense to bludgeon Jeremy Guthrie or Jason Vargas during the ALCS. I think not, though. Fate has simply burped up a strange matchup of two clubs without much demonstrated excellence on which to fall back, each of them needing to win this, in some way, to ensure their legitimacy in the game’s collective memory. That should make for wonderful baseball.

These Royals, American League Champions

Honesty compels me to report that Games Three and Four of the American League Championship Series were sort of boring. Sure, Game Three stayed tied until the bottom of the sixth inning, and sure, both finished at 2-1, but these weren’t the taut, nerve-fraying pitcher’s duels your grandfather remembers. The Kansas City Royals just followed their formula for each win, a little speed, a timely hit (or, in the case of Game Four, a fielder’s choice and a ball getting away from the catcher) and a whole bunch of pitching and defense.

In each game, manager Ned Yost got a fair outing from a middling starting pitcher, then turned the game over to his series of excellent short relievers. In Game Three, Jason Frasor got three outs before things were handed over to Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland. In Game Four, it was only Herrera, Davis and Holland, combining for 11 outs. We should note, that’s also how the Royals won Games One and Two. All three of their dominant relievers appeared in all four games in the series, with a combined pitching line of:

Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland, 2014 ALCS

Innings Hits Runs Earned Runs Walks Strikeouts
14.2 7 1 1 3 15

Yost simply decided, it would seem, that the time for messing around with the likes of Tim Collins (or even Brandon Finnegan, who struggled in Game One and made no more appearances) had passed. It would be senseless to lavish praise on a manager for this. Yost had four consecutive close games, coming off four days off and with two days off splitting the halves of the series, and a clear division between his best four relievers (especially the top three) and all other available options. The Royals are a well-labeled machine; Yost just had to avoid pressing the button marked ‘self-destruct.’

That’s the joyous thing about these Royals (and that is something of an official term; when friends or family have wanted to strike up a conversation with me lately, they nearly always invoke “these Royals”), though. They’re simple, but miraculously, not flat. They are dynamic, versatile and exciting. They just don’t have much in the way of nuance. Aside from the push-button bullpen, there are the two automatic pinch-runners who come in when a slow runner reaches base in the middle-to-late innings. Little tactical acumen is required to run this team. Everyone in sight has an obvious use, and each one of them is as good at the one or two things they do well as anyone in baseball.

Take Herrera. In 2014, he posted the worst strikeout-to-walk ratio he’s posted in three years. In fact, for a one-inning reliever, his strikeout and walk ratios were poor. He’s not the best controller of the strike zone, and he’s not an elite ground-ball guy. On July 26 of last season, Herrera was a fringe arm, having allowed nine home runs in half a season in relief. The punchline: Herrera had a 1.41 ERA this season, and hasn’t allowed a home run (save one, in Spring Training) since July 26, 2013. It’s been 102 appearances since Herrera allowed a ball to leave the park.

There’s no science to it, really. Herrera has thrown more fastballs and sinkers—each of which, for him, averages 99 miles per hour—over that span, and fewer changeups and curves. That helps. The essence of it, though, is that throwing nearly 100 MPH and being able to consistently pound the third-base side of home plate (tying up righties, forcing lefties to go the other way if they want to do anything with the ball) makes it very hard for opponents to hit the ball hard. So long as the ball stays in the park, too, the Royals defense is sure to make a pitcher look good.

Herrera had to leave his first appearance of the ALDS against the Angels. In five appearances since then, he’s recorded 20 outs, allowed two hits and one walk, and struck out seven.

Terrance Gore is another example. While he scored just once during the AL playoffs (his was the go-ahead run in the Game Two win), he stole three bases as a pinch-runner. Gore can’t hit, and he can’t throw much, and his mediocre instincts rob him of some of what could be huge value on defense, but he can come in and disrupt a pitcher, take a base at will, do as much to change the game on the bases as any player in baseball. That has very real value.

Now, having extreme skills is one thing; maximizing them is another. Yost is a poor tactician, blessed by a roster which limits his opportunity to mess up. He can, however, be a very effective leader, especially for a young team. He gets far too little credit for this. These Royals have been remarkable, not only for the on-field assets afforded them by their youth (speed, athleticism on defense, the energy to play at full strength after the long season has ended for so many other clubs), but for the absence of liabilities usually associated with that same trait. These Royals haven’t made mistakes. They may lay down bunts at peculiar times, but the bunts always get down. When the opponent bunts, the ball is always fielded cleanly, and the out recorded without a fuss. Despite the very strong arms across the outfield, no one is missing cutoff men. Despite the daring approach they take on the bases, there have been only two gaffes by runners—and one of those was sloppy execution of a play Yost put on, by the two men least suited to running it of any on the team.

This was also true of the 2007 and 2008 Brewers, by the way. Though those seasons are considered a mark against Yost, especially because he was fired with 12 games to play in 2008, in the thick of a playoff race, he had those teams playing with poise beyond their years, in addition to having tons of talent.

Yost is underrated as a baseball person. He refuses to speak the language of sabermetrics. In fact, he’s gruff and dismissive toward them, and he’s deadpan nearly to the point of true coldness with the media in general. His overall personality, though, is more ebullient. This is a man who became close friends with Dale Earnhardt (Senior) and Jeff Foxworthy in the 1990s. Sure, Yost lived and worked in Atlanta at the time, so part of it was that the two celebrities wanted to hang around the Braves, but being in with Earnhardt and Foxworthy is, in Ned Yost’s culture, like being in with Sinatra and Dean Martin. Even self-proclaimed rednecks have cliques, levels of coolness, status symbols. Yost is a master networker, and that’s not limited to schmoozing with the Catfish Pack.

Having given up on winning the argument for pure tactical genius in the dugout, one of the chief demands of the stathead community has been that the front office and the field staff keep wide-open channels of communication. Yost, who was a coach on the Braves staff while Royals GM Dayton Moore was a member of the Atlanta front office, has that solid relationship we’ve always wanted. If Joe Maddon and Andrew Friedman, or Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette, are to be lauded for their mutual trust and understanding, then so should be Yost and Moore.

Yes, these Royals are many things. In some ways, they defy convention, defy analysis, defy progress, but they have some strengths that make them unique—and uniquely tough to beat, for many playoff teams. They make contact (they struck out just 16.3 percent of the time, the lowest rate in the league), at a time when no one else does (that 16.3-percent strikeout rate would have been the second-highest in baseball the last time the Royals were a playoff team, in 1985). They run (even though Gore only joined the team in late August, they led MLB with 153 stolen bases). They field the ball exceptionally well, with maybe the best defensive outfield ever. And they shut the game down from the sixth inning onward. Now, even as good as Herrera, Davis and Holland were all season, their performance so far makes them overdue for a hiccup. As long as their dominance holds, though, these Royals have a real chance to win the World Series.

Two Game Threes: Giants Win Classic Over Cardinals, Royals Outplay Orioles

Pitchers Make Mistakes

The first 15 pitches St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher John Lackey threw to San Francisco Giants batters on Tuesday were four-seam fastballs. It was the darnedest thing. Lackey isn’t a guy who throws tons and tons of fastballs. Here’s his pitch breakdown for this season:

John Lackey Pitch Usage, 2014

Pitch Percentage of All Pitches
Four-Seam Fastball 50.94%
Slider 19.44%
Curveball 14.84%
Sinker 9.75%
Changeup 4.78%

(h/t brooksbaseball.net)

Of course, some pitchers feel the need to establish their fastball early, but there’s no evidence that Lackey does this regularly. Consider this representative sample, the first inning of a start against Milwaukee in early September. Lackey may mix in the fastball more heavily early on, trying to withhold his breaking stuff for later on, but this choice was anomalous.

It’s especially jarring given the horrendous results.

The Giants teed off on Lackey. Leadoff hitter Gregor Blanco went quietly enough, but Joe Panik crushed a ball to the gap in right-center field, run down by Jon Jay in center field only thanks to winds that seemed to knock down everything and that pushed the ball back toward Jay. Lackey had two outs and nobody on for the meat of the San Francisco batting order, but he’d already gotten away with one.

Buster Posey did not allow that to continue. Lackey left a 1-1 fastball fat, and Posey lined it for a single. Lackey got ahead of Pablo Sandoval 0-2, and ahead of Hunter Pence 0-2, but they each got hits on very hard-hit balls, and it was 1-0 Giants. All on fastballs.

Now, Lackey has a very good fastball. It’s underrated, really. He goes to it more often than most pitchers do with two strikes, because he gets a good number of swings and misses on it, and foul balls are frequent when they do make contact. Still, that he never went to his slider at all, on two very good fastball hitters, in 0-2 counts, is baffling.

Finally, Lackey began to mix it up. He fell behind 3-0 on Brandon Belt, though, and decided to intentionally walk him from there. Thus, Travis Ishikawa came to bat, with two outs and the bases loaded. Lackey’s first pitch to him was his first sinker of the day, but it was a few inches above the knees, a bit too high for that pitch. Here are the results of Lackey’s sinkers against left-handed batters over the last two years, by pitch location. The figure shown in each box is the opponents’ slugging average:

The pitch to Ishikawa ended up in what appears as the lower right-hand quadrant of the strike zone, low and in. You can see how, if Lackey gets the ball down just a bit more, he’s in good shape. He didn’t. Ishikawa crushed the ball. Lackey was extremely fortunate that the ball stayed in the park, caroming off the strangely-angled wall in right-center field, instead of flying out of there. That made it 4-0 Giants.

Lackey got Brandon Crawford to end the inning, but the damage was done, and the Cardinals had their work cut out for them.

In Games One and Two, Brandon Crawford had hit seventh, and Ishikawa had batted eighth. In fact, that had been true in all seven previous postseason games for the Giants. Crawford had done nothing good since hitting the grand slam that sent the team on its way to winning the Wild Card Game, though, so manager Bruce Bochy flipped the two batters in the order. Few hunches in managerial history have paid off so hugely, so quickly.

From that point on, though, the game slowly came back to the Cardinals. In the fourth inning, Jay made his second crucial contribution to the Cardinal cause. He worked a 2-2 count, then took a Tim Hudson sinker off the outside corner the other way, lining a single to left field. It was beautiful hitting. Jay stayed short to the ball, didn’t spin off and kept strong balance. When he does that, he’s an exceptional hitter.

Hudson’s first pitch to Matt Holliday, batting next, was one of his worst offerings of the day, a sinker elevated to just about the belt level. The Cardinals are a dangerous offense, in large part, because they never miss a mistake, and Holliday stayed true to that, singling sharply. Hudson rallied, though, inducing a Matt Adams lineout on a sinker shin-high, then fanning Jhonny Peralta with a great curveball low and away.

Maybe the tingle of that well-snapped curve was still in the back of Hudson’s mind. Maybe he knew that Kolten Wong had hit just .143 against curveballs in the Major Leagues, and had just one extra-base hit (and no homers). In either case, after painting the outside corner with a sinker for strike one, Hudson tried to get strike two by throwing Wong a curve on the outer half. He left it up, though, and Wong killed it. It should have joined Ishikawa’s blast in the right-field seats, but like Ishikawa’s blast, it ended up swallowed by the angles in right-center field. Unlike Ishikawa, Wong motored around to third base, netting a triple from his visit to Triples Alley. Both runs scored easily.

The sixth inning began not so differently from the fourth. There was Jon Jay again, taking a perfectly good pitch and ruining it, lining another single into left field on a splitter well below the strike zone. This time, Hudson did better against Holliday, inducing a weak ground ball from him for one out. He got another with another tepid grounder from Adams. Jay scooted to third base as the two went down, but Hudson was doing alright. He just needed to get past Peralta to finish the inning, and he did his part.

Hudson’s location wasn’t perfect. He was aiming for the knees at the outside corner (really, aren’t we all?), but his second sinker crept back toward the heart of the plate, and was up, though not way up. It was still below the belt on the outer half, and when Peralta tried to yank it, he rolled it over and grounded the ball toward third base. It was hit sharply enough, but it should have been an out. Pablo Sandoval moved to his left, but as he slid to attempt the play, he simply missed it. The ball bounded by his glove and into left field, and the score was 4-3. It was a clean single, as scoring goes, but Sandoval should have gotten it, and the inning should have been over. Hudson stopped the bleeding, at least, by getting Wong this time.

Hudson’s velocity was sliding quickly, from 90-91 to 89 miles per hour on his sinker, by the end of the sixth inning. His first pitch of the seventh was a flat 87. He got A.J. Pierzynski out with his next one, at 89, but then Randal Grichuk stepped to the plate. Hudson’s first pitch to Grichuk was a cutter. From where catcher Posey set up to receive it, it appears that Hudson was aiming to get the ball low and away, where the majority of his previous cutters Tuesday had been thrown:

He missed, badly. See the red square the highest up, the one that would be middle-in and thigh-high on a right-handed batter (like Grichuk)? That’s Hudson’s last pitch of the day. Grichuk launched it off the foul pole in left field, and the game John Lackey had seemingly overheated for the Cardinals was suddenly winnable again. The score was tied.

That Grichuk was in the lineup to do that to Hudson is Matheny’s feeble answer to Bochy’s great gut-feel lineup switcharoo. Grichuk has seen the majority of the action in right field during the Cardinals’ playoff run. He’s a better defender than Oscar Taveras, the left-hitting option and rookie non-sensation, and a better hitter than Peter Bourjos, an exceptional glove man. There were no shortage of people clamoring for one of those two to get the nod in Game Three, with a right-hander on the mound and in the spacious, quirky AT&T right field. (Presumably, Jay would have played right had Bourjos started.) Maybe they had legitimate points, but Matheny felt Grichuk was the best overall choice, and I can’t argue with him. The fact that Taveras and Bourjos each do one thing better than Grichuk (in theory; Taveras has scuffled somewhat in his first go-around at the plate, but he has the best pure hitting ability of the three) make them well-suited to opportunistic substitution, but Grichuk is the best starting option right now.

From then on, pitching took over. Hudson left the game immediately. (As an aside, I hate the managerial notion of sending a starting pitcher out to begin an inning if any single hit or walk will lead one to remove them. This happens all the time. It betrays an utter lack of strategic thinking in terms of when a pitcher is relieved. If you have sufficient reason to mistrust a pitcher that one baserunner, or even one home run, will exhaust your faith in them, they shouldn’t take the mound at all. Anyway.) A Matt Carpenter single came to nothing, and that would be the last baserunner for either side during regulation play. The Cardinals bullpen took over for Lackey in the bottom of the seventh, and shut down San Francisco for three innings. All in all, the two relief corps retired 18 straight batters.

Jon Jay (him again!) broke the streak with a single in the top of the 10th, but the Cardinals mounted no rally around it this time. In the bottom of the 10th, Randy Choate came on to dispense with the Giants’ three consecutive left-handed batters—Crawford, Juan Perez (double-switched into the pitcher’s spot) and Gregor Blanco. Choate is as good a lefty specialist as the game has had the past five years, but October has been unkind to him. That would only continue. He walked Crawford, then (when Perez failed to get down a bunt in two tries) gave up a single. With runners on first and second and no outs, Blanco laid down a sacrifice bunt—a foolish move, giving away an out for no reason, especially when the trailing runner had no value—that Choate turned into the game-winning strike. Charging, Choate scooped the ball and threw down to first base, using almost the same side-armed delivery he employs on the mound. It was a poor throw, wide to the inside of the bag, fair territory, but it would have been possible to field in other circumstances. Unfortunately, with the fast Blanco running, Choate had to throw hard and fast, and Wong (coming over to cover first, dutifully) was too busy racing to the bag to set himself to grab a throw that ended up behind him. Even so, a larger man makes the catch, or at least knocks it down. Wong is listed at five-foot-nine, and there’s almost no way he’s that tall. It was a bad play, but also a bad confluence of circumstances, that gave the Giants a 2-1 NLCS edge.

This series has been delightful so far. I didn’t anticipate liking it so much. Madison Bumgarner’s dominance made Game One compelling, if not dramatic, and the two 5-4 contests since have been unbelievably taut and thrilling. The circus of the 10th inning aside, the games have been crisply played, too, not fraught with mistakes and bad bounces like these clubs’ 2012 NLCS was.

One last thing to note: In the first inning, Pablo Sandoval called time as Lackey began his motion, and it was granted. Lackey looked livid. He stared off into the second deck for a while, his jaw set but not firm, seemingly quaking with anger. In Sandoval’s next at-bat, Lackey hit him, albeit with a back-foot slider. In a later Lackey at-bat, Hudson hit him with a 2-2 pitch.

Did either bean-ball appear intentional? No. I suspect nothing will come of this. It bears watching, though, as the Cardinals are prone to:

  1. enforcing unwritten baseball rules with senseless rigidity and fervor; and
  2. using conflict with the opponent to create a spark when they’re otherwise flat.

The Giants also used the latter tactic after Matt Holliday ran over Marco Scutaro on a would-be double play in the 2012 NLCS, coming back from 3-1 in the series after that. If either side needs to fire itself up, they’ve collected just enough kindling to start a fire.

Other Matters Over Minds

Ned Yost is very close, so close one could taste it, if one were so creepy as to have that visceral a connection to the MLB Postseason, to ousting Buck Showalter in a best-of-seven series. Coming into the series, the Kansas City Royals and the Baltimore Orioles were adjudged to have roughly equal talent, although very disparate styles of play, and the biggest difference many people took time to emphasize was the difference between the men at the helms.

Showalter is beloved not only by statheads (even he isn’t beloved by statheads, you understand, but we like him better than we like most managers), but by nearly every person who consumes and analyzes baseball. He earns waves of praise for his preparation, his strategic mind and his honest, proactive, strengths-based treatment of his players.

Ned Yost is the reason the Royals lost several games this season, or so we like to think. He’s bunt-happy, unfortunately rigid (a rare problem for a man his age, if baseball’s most preferred postseason sponsor is to be believed) when it comes to bullpen management and lineup construction, and too slow to change his mind.

It has not mattered in the least.

Showalter out-managed Yost in Games One and Two in Baltimore, but the Royals players outplayed the Orioles. Yost out-managed Showalter in Game Three (although by a narrow margin, and really only by being even more push-button than usual), and the Royals players outplayed the Orioles again.

A great manager might earn his team as many as seven or eight wins more than a terrible one, over the course of a 163-game regular season. In the postseason, the skipper’s level of impact sometimes rises. It still determines the outcome of fewer than 15 percent of all games, and even though each of the three games in the ALCS to date has been close, none of them fall within that 15 percent.

That’s great, by the way. That’s wonderful, really. I have long enjoyed debates over the right tactics and the creative opportunities to shave a run here and there, things too many managers miss. I do like that part of baseball fandom, analysis, gameplay. However, it’s not the highest form of baseball. The best games are the ones without an egregious managerial gaffe, the ones that are defined by the success of failure of the players and nothing else.

Baseball is a game of small margins. That’s why we wring our hands and tug at our hair over bad managerial decisions. The best teams win 65 percent of their games. The worst win 35 percent. That’s at the extremes. Most baseball games are toss-ups. At their end, many games aren’t a conclusive result at all; they’re just more information about each side, punctuated by a win awarded to the team who played slightly better that particular day, or on whom the fates smiled for a few hours.

Since the margins are so small, though, and since the results are often arbitrary or unsatisfying, we drill deep into it all, we embrace minutiae. I’m all for that. I prefer, though, to enmesh myself in the actual plays, in the execution of each team’s plan, in what makes a certain player good and why. The Royals won Tuesday night because good defense helped Jeremy Guthrie overcome some hard-hit balls; because they have four excellent relievers (hey, Ned, great job rediscovering Jason Frasor!) who cruised through the latter half of the game; and because they put the ball in play very often and have very good speed, which creates many opportunities to push across a run or two. The Orioles lost because their hitters couldn’t figure out those Royals relievers.

That sounds sort of boring, when it’s just me telling you in simple terms. That’s one reason so much goes into analyzing in-game moves. A lot of people want to make a living writing about baseball, and one of the ways we try to create enough value to do so is to talk your ear off about these tiny margins. Again, I’m not remotely saying that that’s wrong. It’s fun. It’s also true that, tiny margins or not, right is right and it should help to put the percentages on your side whenever possible. But the best way to enjoy baseball is to watch it, so let my writing guide you not to more of my writing, but to your TV when the next game comes on. In the meantime, check out Sam Miller doing a much better job than I of coping with the meaninglessness of the managers, by looking at Yost’s moves in Game Three.

Heroes: The Giants, the Cardinals and the First Two Games of the 2014 NLCS

In American sport, the playoffs are always a time for heroes. I should amend that. The playoffs are the time for heroes. A tremendous player can be cast as somehow deficient if he never meets his usual standard of performance during the postseason. A player with no business getting anywhere near the Hall of Fame can come within a breath of enshrinement if they become the focal point of a truly memorable playoff contest.

In European soccer, the most popular sports leagues on Earth, there are no playoffs. The champion of each league is simply the one who wins the most during the season. There is a wholly separate set of knockout tournaments to satiate the appetite of fans for an unpredictable, do-or-die dynamic, but those are considered separately. In the United States, it seems, fans are uninterested in differentiating teams and players who prove their superiority over a long season from those who win under the artificial (or arbitrary, at least) pressure of a very short sequence of contests. The former do not capture the national imagination unless they also, somehow, become the latter.

It’s important to note, though, that playoff hero status is not available on an equal or open-ended basis to all players in all games. Many playoff games are forgettable, and even if one’s team wins thanks in large part to them performing well, the margin of victory or the identity of the clubs or one of a dozen other possible factors will wash that heroic showing from the collective memory.

Worse, perhaps, is this: Even games that are well-remembered—even some of the most famous games of all time—tend to be remembered for one or two huge moments. There are no end of possible twists and turns in a great game, but attention is lavished onto just a single hero, sometimes two. The best example of this is Game Six of the 1975 World Series, maybe the most famous and greatest baseball game of all time. It included a three-run, pinch-hit, game-tying home run in the bottom of the eighth inning, for a team (the Boston Red Sox) fending off elimination, by a player (Bernie Carbo) the opposing team had cast aside a year earlier; a dazzling catch, maybe the second- or third-greatest catch in World Series history, certainly top-five, by an underrated star (Dwight Evans), to preserve an 11th-inning tie for the Red Sox; and a walk-off home run by the team’s third-best player (Carlton Fisk). If you’re like 90 percent of baseball fans, only Fisk’s name rings a bell, and if I showed you video of each moment, you would recognize only Fisk’s moment immediately. Fisk is a deserving Hall of Famer. He was inducted on his second ballot. Evans is an equally deserving Hall of Famer. He fell off the ballot due to a lack of support the year before Fisk was inducted.

That’s the elusiveness and the power of playoff heroism. This stuff matters. Statistics matter, and a thorough and analytic approach to baseball, especially, is rewarding and fun, but story lines are what make the playoffs go. And there’s nothing wrong with that. So let’s look at Games One and Two of the stirring (so far, at least) National League Championship Series between the San Francisco Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals through the prism of a quest for heroes.

Game One: Country Hardball

I don’t want to create artificial suspense about Game One. It was hardly one-sided, with a final score of 3-0 and the Giants offense seeming to spin its wheels in a way those three runs might not convey. Even so, the hero of the game came from precisely the source one should most expect the hero of every game to be, if forced to bet: it was a starting pitcher.

Madison Bumgarner is a throwback, in a sense. Roger Angell surely recognizes Bumgarner; David Halberstam would, too, if he were alive. Born in a tiny town in North Carolina, Bumgarner is a hyper-competitive but fun-loving hick, a wacky lefty with an edge, the very picture of most every old-time ace hurler. This is what great playoff pitchers used to look like, what they used to sound like, where they used to come from.

America has moved miles past the point at which we should expect those pitchers to come from those places, anymore. More people live in cities and suburbs; fewer live in small communities. Year-round baseball systems have become assembly lines for Major Leaguers, giving players nearer large population centers in Florida and California and Texas the advantage. The international market is wide-open. Hell, don’t forget, most of the years dominated by those Southern farm boys were years in which minorities were barred from competing.

Still, here’s Bumgarner, not only dominating the postseason but doing it for a third time by age 25, the clear ace of a team in search of its third World Series title in five years. He reached the Major Leagues not long after his 20th birthday, and if you include the postseason, his previous start (against the Washington Nationals in the NLDS) pushed him over 1,000 innings in MLB. One thing about playoff heroes is that, while the games themselves are crucibles for it, hero status usually is conferred upon those with some regular-season pedigree or previous narrative that makes their heroism especially interesting. Bumgarner has been a champion and a key part of playoff glory, and that makes him a very good candidate to wear the hero’s crown when he pitches well in October.

He blends four pitches masterfully, with one of the least varied release points of anyone in baseball. As for the efficacy and intensity of that repertoire, there’s a funny story here. Most pitchers throw as hard when they first crack into professional baseball as they ever will. Some guys have some filling out to do, some need to clean up their mechanics, and those things can muddy the water, but in general, gains in velocity don’t happen, and losses are permanent. More pitching prospects than you can possibly imagine flame out not because they get hurt or fail to develop a second pitch of lack poise, but because their stuff softens instead of progressing, or even holding firm.

You can understand the alarm that went up, then, when a younger version of Madison Bumgarner suddenly saw his stuff go soft during his second year as a pro. It wasn’t enough to turn people off entirely, but there was a good deal of hand-wringing when Bumgarner went through a long stretch of struggling to get within five miles per hour of his previous levels. He made a brief MLB debut toward the end of the season, pitching in a few games, and his average fastball velocity in those games was 89.2 MPH.

On Saturday night, Bumgarner averaged 93.6 MPH with his four-seam fastballs. He touched 95. In the intervening years, Bumgarner has done nothing but ramp up his velocity, and his stuff has gotten more useful across the board as a result. He’s only getting better, and part of that, somehow, is that he’s only throwing harder every year.

His very good heat, his devastating breaking ball and his peculiar mechanics allowed Bumgarner to throw seven and two-thirds innings of shutout baseball at the Cardinals on Saturday. He was in control all night. St. Louis has great hitters who attempt to frustrate their opponents with foul balls in two-strike counts and tough takes in high-leverage spots, but they were at a loss. Only in the seventh inning did two Cardinals even reach base in the same inning, and Bumgarner deftly pitched around that.

It wasn’t the sort of start of which legends are made, but Madison Bumgarner was the clear hero of Game One. The Giants cruised to the win. Game Two would be much more interesting.

Game Two: Seesaw

Matt Carpenter’s face, with a dark beard creeping up prominent cheekbones, evokes the word “gaunt.” There was a time, though, when he was downright fat, or fat enough to threaten his future as a baseball player, anyway. He went off the rails as a player during his time at TCU, and wasn’t even drafted at the end of his junior year there (when most serious prospects are drafted, and leave school). He cleaned up his act, hit quite well as a senior and restored the faith of scouts that he could capably field third base in pro ball, but he still went in the 13th round of the 2009 draft. He signed with the Cardinals almost right away, and has scarcely stopped hitting since.

Carpenter has had to earn everything. He was too old for virtually every level at which he played, until he reached the Major Leagues. He lost his rookie eligibility in 2012, at age 26. He’s moved from his native third base over to second, and back. He had terrific gap power in 2013, his breakout star turn, and although that power was harder to come by in 2014, he remained a very productive player.

Then he reached the 2014 postseason, and he became a slugger. He homered off Clayton Kershaw in Game One of the NLDS. He homered twice more en route to St. Louis’s knocking the Dodgers out of October. Then, on Sunday night, he homered again, this time off Jake Peavy, giving the Cardinals a 1-0 third-inning lead. Carpenter is going to be the MVP of the Cardinals’ postseason, and the biggest reason for them advancing however far they advance. But Matt Carpenter was not destined to be the hero of Game Two.

*   *   *

Jake Peavy was on a Hall of Fame track at one point in his career. He won the 2007 NL Cy Young Award, and that year, he also won the pitching Triple Crown—he led the NL in wins, ERA and strikeouts. It was his second ERA title and his second strikeout title. From ages 23-27, Peavy had a sub-3.00 ERA in four out of five seasons. He was pitching in one of the league’s best pitchers’ parks, but the league itself was very friendly to offense.

That was a long time ago. This Jake Peavy is not that one. His lowest ERA since that heyday was a 3.37 mark in 2012, and that against a league in which many fewer runs were scored. Peavy remains a sturdy workhorse, racking up innings, but he’d flashed no dominance in 2013 or the first half of 2014. The Giants traded for him out of desperation, with attrition claiming two stalwarts from their regular starting rotation.

Thereupon, Peavy rediscovered his old self. His strikeout rate spiked again. He kept the ball in the park. He posted a 2.17 ERA in 12 starts with San Francisco, proving the ace inside him was not fully dead.

After Carpenter’s blow Sunday night, Peavy might have fallen apart, but he didn’t. He pitched into and out of a jam in the bottom of the fourth, allowing a second run to St. Louis, but he did fine damage control and kept San Francisco in the game. He’s a crucial cog for the Giants, and he gave the team the best innings he could. But Jake Peavy is not the hero of Game Two.

*   *   *

Lance Lynn outpitched Peavy Sunday night, mostly with the same simple approach he used all season. He throws two different fastballs, and his idea of mixing things up is mostly just moving those offerings around the plate. Big and strong, Lynn gets his heat easily, which allows him to manipulate it without losing command. He throws a two-seamer and a four-seamer, and each can eat up a hitter so long as Lynn sets it up correctly and locates it well. For two straight seasons, he’s labored as a wildly underrated starter, overshadowed by Adam Wainwright, out-hyped by Michael Wacha and Shelby Miller, but quietly better than either of the latter two.

Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) is a stat that takes a pitcher’s strikeout, walk and home-run rates, puts them into a formula and spits out a number, scaled to ERA, that estimates the pitcher’s true skill level. It eliminates, or mitigates, the distorting effects of luck and defensive support on a pitcher’s ledger. Lynn, whose ERA dropped from 3.97 to 2.74 this year, basically duplicated his 2013 season in FIP (3.35 versus 3.28). He went 15-10 in each season. This year was not his breakout. Last year was.

At any rate, Lynn did impressive work, allowing two runs in five and two-thirds innings. He got stronger as the game went on, fanning three straight Giants batters near the end of the outing, and with better outfield defense, he might have shut San Francisco out over six full frames or more. But Lynn was not the hero.

*   *   *

It was Hunter Pence’s bizarre thrice-hit, broken-bat infield double that turned the 2012 NLCS in the Giants’ favor. It was his strangely gripping pre-game pump-up speech ritual that galvanized the club that year, if one believes in such things. It was Pence who played all 162 games this season, the second straight season in which he’s done so, and who put up yet another productive batting line, never breaking out, never breaking down. Pence’s performance is as steady and valuable as his appearance and mechanics are awkward and off-putting.

Pence was the one who chased Lynn from the game. In the top of the sixth, with Pablo Sandoval on base thanks to a bloop double, Pence worked a 3-2 count against Lynn. He fouled off the first 3-2 offering. All six pitches in the at-bat to that point had been fastballs. Lynn was making a clear attempt to elevate, get Pence chasing a ball outside a comfortable hitting zone.

Lynn wasn’t even mixing the two-seam heater in. He had pounded Pence with the four-seamer, around the top of the zone, trying to force the long-armed Pence to stay short to the ball in order to catch up. Pence had been smoked on one of the early ones. Lynn wasn’t about to speed up Pence’s bat by going to the curveball.

Pence knew that as well as Lynn did, though, or so it seemed. He got a pitch a bit too down, a bit too much over the plate, and he cracked a clean single to right-center field. Sandoval scored the tying run. It was a huge hit. Lynn was lifted. The Giants had wiped the slate clean, and would get to turn the thing over to their excellent bullpen. Alas, Pence was not to be the hero of Game Two, in the end.

*   *   *

If there’s one tool on a scout’s checklist that a player has to have, if he wants to stay in consistent demand, it’s power. That’s what sets apart more Major Leaguers from their Minor League counterparts than any other tool, but more importantly, it’s perceived as a separating tool. Certainly, players without power to speak of struggle to fit any of the pre-formed molds evaluators use to try to place someone.

Unfortunately for Gregor Blanco, he’s never had any real power. That helps explain why he was 24 before he broke into the Major Leagues, in 2008. To illustrate the point, I give you this: Blanco came to bat 519 times in his rookie season, but only 19 of those ended in extra-base hits, and only one of those hits was a home run.

Blanco’s lack of pop became such a knock that, despite a healthy .366 on-base percentage that 2008 season, he didn’t see much time with the Braves the following year, nor with them or the Royals in 2010. In 2011, Blanco was a 27-year-old, and he never played in the Majors. Many players in that situation—most players in that situation—never see the big leagues again.

Blanco did, though. He got a break with the Giants in 2012, and has been with them ever since. He still draws walks, steals bases and plays a solid defensive outfield, but he also hits a homer every now and then, and the total package is a nice little ballplayer. A healthy team would not start him every day, as the Giants must in the absence of Angel Pagan, but Blanco is a solid contributor to the team. He was, however, having a brutal October when he came to bat in the seventh inning, the game tied. He was batting an ugly .100.

Then, as will happen during the playoffs, things turned around in a heartbeat. Blanco singled past a drawn-in infield, and the Giants had their first lead of the game, with just nine outs left to get.

Blanco, though, was not the hero of Game Two.

*   *   *

Exactly where he stood depended upon whom you asked, but Oscar Taveras entered the season as one of the three most-heralded prospects in baseball. A lefty hitter whose swing has been lauded for its beauty, its violence and its control, Taveras has been on the doorstep of St. Louis stardom for going on three years. He will, eventually, be an All-Star caliber starting right fielder. It’s just that he’s not there yet.

It was a long season for Taveras. His production flattened out in Triple-A, where the story was that he was bored and frustrated not to be in the Majors. When he was on the MLB roster, he struggled to find playing time in an outfield rotation that often included Peter Bourjos, Randal Grichuk and/or Allen Craig. Then, once GM John Mozeliak dealt Craig, Taveras had a prolonged adjustment period, finishing his rookie year with an ugly .239/.278/.312 batting line. Starting him became untenable, especially because Grichuk is a superior fielder.

It was Taveras upon whom manager Mike Matheny called to pinch-hit in the bottom of the seventh, pitcher’s spot due, tie game, mostly because there weren’t a lot of other choices. Taveras rewarded his manager’s indifference with a long home run. The game was tied again. Taveras had struck perhaps the biggest blow, in terms of the team’s energy level, but he had only tied the game. Guys who get the tying hits aren’t heroes. Taveras is no exception.

*   *   *

Matt Adams had to overcome rather the opposite of the problem Gregor Blanco faced. As a fat first baseman, he was never considered much of a prospect. Guys like Adams have to be exceptional hitters, because they provide no value in other facets. Remember how Matt Carpenter went to the Cardinals in the 13th round of the 2009 draft? Adams came to them in the 23rd round, of the same draft. Adams was another who would have to fight his way up. He did it, a year later than Carpenter but as a younger man. He became the Cards’ starting first baseman this season, pushing Craig out of his way (with no small amount of help from Craig, who didn’t hit).

Adams is interesting. He’s clearly an above-average hitter, but he may not be above average given his position. He needs to develop more plate discipline. Right now, his approach at the plate consists of swinging viciously at the first pitch he feels can drive. Still, he’s not a one-dimensional slugger. He will hit for average, thanks to a solid contact rate and plenty of line drives. He just doesn’t draw walks, and because he’s not selective enough to do it, he doesn’t hit for tons of power. He certainly doesn’t lack strength; he just isn’t often in a position to wait for a certain pitch and open his hips on it.

Clayton Kershaw would not want to hear about Adams’s lack of power production, though. Kershaw gave up Adams’s three-run, game-winning home run in Game Four of the NLDS, effectively ending the Dodgers’ season. Pounding the strike zone, especially with fastballs, is the worst way to attack Adams, even if one has excellent stuff and is used to succeeding with that approach. Kershaw learned that the hard way.

So did Hunter Strickland. Strickland threw his too-straight fastball into Adams’s wheelhouse, and Adams gave the Cardinals a 4-3 lead in the bottom of the eighth inning. His bat flip was over-the-top, but given the frenzy of the crowd, almost any enthusiasm is forgivable, especially from a 26-year-old. Adams was the hero of Game Four of the NLDS, and he made his bid to be the hero of this game, too. But he wasn’t.

*   *   *

Matt Duffy has some future in the Major Leagues. At 23, he played in 34 games with the parent club this season, having proved that Double-A Richmond was no challenge. He’s come a long way in a short time, from being an 18th-round pick in the 2012 MLB Draft.

There isn’t tremendous star potential here, but having hit so well in a first exposure to Double-A augurs well, and Duffy is a middle infielder with decent speed.

On Sunday night, only that last part of that last sentence really mattered. After an Andrew Susac pinch-hit single, Duffy ran for Susac as the Giants rallied in the ninth. He was on second, with a full count and two outs, when Trevor Rosenthal bounced a 99-mile-per-hour fastball in front of home plate, and Tony Cruz let the ball get away and out of his sight. Duffy had been running with the pitch, and he read the play in front of him perfectly. He didn’t slide at third base. He didn’t even slow down. He tore home, sliding in well ahead of Cruz’s throw to Rosenthal. The game was tied. The rookie with the fresh legs had made a veteran’s read in a crucial moment. New game.

But Duffy wasn’t the hero.

*   *   *

Last year, in the World Series, Koji Uehara caught Kolten Wong floating (literally, mid-hop, unable to break back because he wasn’t on the ground) off first base in the bottom of the ninth inning, picking him off to end a game. In the World Series. It was a tough way to end a tough rookie season for Wong, who plays with a certain unrestrained energy but whose instincts are good enough to keep him out of embarrassing spots like that most of the time. Wong had hit poorly in limited exposure during the regular season, and in an even more limited role in the playoffs, he wasn’t impressing anyone.

This Spring Training, Matheny had some issues with Wong’s attitude. It wasn’t that Wong wasn’t hustling, working hard or focusing on improving. He just seemed to have a lot of swagger, maybe too much for a kid who made a poor first impression in the Show, and Matheny wondered if that would interfere with his development—or worse, disrupt the clubhouse. Wong opened the season with the Cardinals, but would spend a chunk of the season in Memphis, after it became obvious to management that Matheny wasn’t ready to trust his young second baseman.

Wong did quietly improve, though. By season’s end, he had established himself as the starting second baseman. He wasn’t controlling the strike zone, but he cracked 12 home runs and stole 20 bases (efficiently), so the tools were starting to show up. Wong punctuated that emergence with a game-winning home run in the seventh inning of Game 3 of the NLDS. He’s quite small, so the mind goes immediately to speed and defense, but Wong has quick, strong wrists, and he gets power from bat speed, not just leverage.

Sergio Romo may have known all of that, and simply executed poorly, or he may have been ambushed, but in either case, Kolten Wong took him deep into the right-field corner seats to win Game Two of the NLCS, a walk-off homer that made sure: Wong was the hero, and now has a more indelible postseason image attached to his name than diving back to first base in vain.

This One Will Be the Fun Series: Royals Beat Orioles 8-6, Take 1-0 ALCS Lead

There’s one 30-game hot streak to which the Kansas City Royals owe their presence in the 2014 MLB Postseason. It came in late July, after a brief stumble out of the All-Star break, when the team fell to 48-50 and it looked like the Detroit Tigers might run away with the AL Central. Suddenly, though, the team caught fire, and could do no wrong. From July 22 through August 23, they went 24-6. They had separate five- and eight-game winning streaks, they lost consecutive games just once during the stretch and they took eight out of 10 games against eventual playoff teams. From the end of that month-long tear through the end of the season, they played .500 ball, 17-17, just staying afloat, really. Take away that stretch and the team had a losing record and a negative run differential.

How did that hot streak happen? Well, for one thing, opponents averaged three runs per game against them, even. Pitching-dominated era or not, allowing three runs a game gives you a very good chance to win. As for the offense, though, it hardly went nuts. Check out the stats of these key team contributors during that stretch:

Kansas City Royals, Offensive Output, July 22-August 23, 2014

Player AVG OBP SLG
Nori Aoki .289 .361 .392
Alcides Escobar .270 .308 .310
Lorenzo Cain .317 .360 .402
Mike Moustakas .245 .287 .422
Billy Butler .309 .350 .518
Omar Infante .203 .240 .280
Salvador Perez .211 .221 .358
Eric Hosmer 1-for-12, no XBH
Alex Gordon .321 .380 .550

Only one Royal really posted outstanding numbers during this season-defining month: Alex Gordon. Gordon was so good, in fact, that MVP talk briefly bubbled up around him. (I do mean briefly. He won’t win the award. He isn’t likely to place within the top five vote-getters.)

It would be silly to say Gordon is the lifeblood of the Royals. This offense, by its nature (they’re extremely contact-focused, driven by getting on base and running well, not by power), requires more than just one great or hot hitter. It requires almost the whole lineup, in Kansas City’s case. They finished ninth in the AL in runs scored. Gordon isn’t an elite hitter, and the Royals lineup is not a juggernaut.

That said, the lineup doesn’t have a truly better hitter than Gordon, at least not yet. He’s not elite, but he is very good, and the Royals would struggle without him.

Thankfully, on Friday night, any future without Gordon felt very far off. Gordon, in fact, felt as indelibly marked with Royal Blue as anyone this side of Mike Sweeney. He had such a great night that one could almost squint and see George Brett out there. Fitting, since Gordon was once baseball’s top prospect, and was ticketed for the third-base job that was, for so long, Brett’s. He played there some, but he struggled badly, and at one stage, he began taking his fielding problems to the plated with him. It got so bad that he was demoted to Triple-A and instructed to learn a new position: left field. He was already 25 years old, an MLB veteran of two-plus seasons, but he dutifully took over 350 plate appearances in the minor leagues in 2010. When he came back, he was a changed man, liberated at the plate, but also comfortable afield.

The following year, he began a streak of Gold Glove awards for his work in left field, using great instincts, solid athleticism and perhaps the strongest left-field arm in baseball. That streak stands at three, and a fourth is a mere formality now. He also began killing the ball. Home runs will never be a huge part of Gordon’s game, but doubles certainly are, and walks are now, too. He’s been Kansas City’s best and most beloved played for the last three or four years, so it made sense that he was the first hero in Game Three of the Royals’ Division Series-clinching win over the Angels Sunday night. That blow was a line-drive, bases-clearing double with two outs in the first inning. It gave the Royals a 3-0 lead they would never relinquish.

Things weren’t as clean on Friday night in Baltimore. When Gordon came to bat in the third inning, the bases were loaded again, there were two outs and the Royals led 1-0. The crowd was no longer supporting Gordon, though. Instead of facing C.J. Wilson, he was facing Orioles ace Chris Tillman. It had rained earlier and would rain later, though it wasn’t raining just then. TIllman got ahead, throwing fastballs above the letters that Gordon chased and fouled off.

Before Gordon even came to bat, I had seen something with Tillman. He commands his fastball better lower in the zone, even down below it. It’s not that the pitch flattens out or goes totally wild when he elevates it, or anything; it’s just that he seems unable to locate with the same precision near the top of the zone. That nearly cost him on the fourth pitch of the at-bat, and third fastball. Gordon had chased and fouled off the first two, sandwiching a changeup for a ball, so Tillman thought he might be able to put Gordon away the same way. This one strayed down into a good hitting zone, though, below the letters, far enough out over the plate to permit Gordon to extend his arms. Gordon wasn’t expecting the heat, and was late, but he fouled the ball sharply, and Tillman clearly got nervous. His next pitch was the only curve he would throw to Gordon. The one after it was a changeup on which he didn’t finish his delivery well. Both were balls.

Gordon knew Tillman had to throw a fastball now, and Tillman knew it, too. He had a good game plan, electing to press Gordon inside instead of going back to the high one and risking it running into the path of Gordon’s bat barrel. Unfortunately, the execution didn’t match the plan well. The pitch he threw floated over the inner half of the plate, where Gordon might have most liked it, if he hadn’t been looking back to the outer half. He was, and so he was slightly sawed off, but he still had a good swing. The result was a bizarre hit, a fly ball without much fly to it, directly down the right-field line. Off the bat, it looked like it would hook foul, but it did the opposite. Something about the swing that Gordon had put on the ball, pulling his hands in at the last moment to adjust, breaking his bat halfway up, led the ball to slice instead. It landed perhaps five or 10 feet fair, clearing the bases. Gordon ended up on third base.

Gordon wasn’t done having a significant impact on the game, but that’s what you need to know for now. He’s Mr. Royal right now, and he’s come a long way to earn that.

As for Tillman: sometimes you get lucky, and sometimes you get unlucky. Check out his plot of pitches to Eric Hosmer earlier in the inning, with two on and one out:

Pitch No. 6 there is a fastball, not so unlike the one to Gordon. In fact, it has even more of home plate. That was a 3-2 pitch, too. Hosmer could easily have crushed it, but he missed altogether. One could say Tillman changed Hosmer up better, had him more off-balance, but I’m not sure. I think the main difference between the pitch to Hosmer (which fans would call brilliant) and the one to Gordon (which fans would call something else) is that one happened to get hit. It didn’t even get hit that hard.

Between those two at-bats came one by Billy Butler, who hit a ground ball very deep into the hole at shortstop and got an infield hit out of it, when the throw by J.J. Hardy skipped away from first baseman Steve Pearce. The location to which Butler hit the ball would make the infield hit unremarkable—it’s a very tough play from there—but for the fact that Billy Butler hit it. Butler is one of the game’s slowest runners. Bad break that Tillman wasn’t out of the inning then.

The Orioles got a good break, though, not long after that. It was 5-1 when Adam Jones came to bat in the fifth inning, runners on first and second, no outs. James Shields was still on the mound for Kansas City, although this was Baltimore’s third time through the lineup and although Shields had struggled to get that far. Jones chopped a ball almost directly to third base, but after stepping on third for the out, Mike Moustakas could do no more. Two on, one out, instead of one on, two out.

That extra margin for error in the inning was nice, but the break Baltimore really got, was Kansas City manager Ned Yost’s decision to stick with Shields at that point. Shields walked Steve Pearce. Yost did not remove him. He struck out J.J. Hardy, although on a 3-2 (bases-loaded) pitch that—well, you decide:

Pitch No. 6 there is borderline, but okay, he got Hardy on a called third strike.

Yost had rookie lefty and long man Brandon Finnegan up in the bullpen. In fact, Finnegan had been up for a while. Left-hitting infielder Ryan Flaherty was coming to bat. Reaching base in any way would mean an RBI for Flaherty and a very close game for the Royals to muddle through, after all. Check out Flaherty’s splits this season:

Ryan Flaherty, Batting Splits, 2014

Split Batting Average On-Base Percentage Slugging Average
v. LHP .174 .224 .391
v. RHP .230 .300 .349

Flaherty is not a great hitter, no matter how you slice it, but as you can see, he’s perhaps a third more likely to reach base or get a hit against a righty as he is to do so against a lefty. To review, Shields is right-handed. Finnegan is left-handed. The Orioles caught a break, because Yost elected to leave Shields in the game. Flaherty singled to right field, scoring two runs, making the score 5-4. And another good bounce was coming Baltimore’s way.

Finnegan would finally be allowed into the game in the bottom of the sixth, with the Royals still ahead by a run, but because the Orioles third, fourth and fifth hitters are a gauntlet hardly and left-hander can safely run, he was restricted to three batters. The first walked; the second singled. With two men on and no one out, the Orioles were ready to give up an out to get to the meat of their order without letting their rally be spoiled by a double play. Alejandro De Aza squared around to drop down a bunt.

When a batter is trying to bunt over one or more runners, the runners themselves have a job to do. They’re to get as wide a secondary lead—the distance toward the next base traveled as the ball is pitched and/or contacted—as possible, to minimize any chance of the defense throwing out a lead runner instead of settling for the out at first base. It’s something everyone works on, and the best baserunners can get very good secondary leads without ever getting caught too far off the bag.

Jonathan Schoop is not among the best baserunners. He is a six-foot-four, 235-pound second baseman. He posted a .244 on-base percentage this season, staying in the lineup thanks only to his pop (15 homers) and his glove. Salvador Perez, the Royals’ iron-man backstop, is one of the best and strongest-armed catchers in baseball. On a pitch at which De Aza did not offer, but did not pull the bat back quickly, either, Perez leaped from behind the plate, snagged the ball and fired it down to second base. It worked! He had caught Schoop too far toward third base. Shortstop Alcides Escobar caught the ball cleanly, turned and threw toward third, where Schoop was trying in vain to run from his mistake.

The throw was perfectly on target. Schoop was just in the right place at the right time. Just as he began his headfirst slide, the ball caught him in the left shoulder, and it bounded past Moustakas, into foul territory. Moustakas ran it down and Schoop was unable to score, but he was safe at third base, and Markakis had second.

A lazy announcer might then have said, “All De Aza has to do now is get the ball in the air.” That’s a common throwaway line when a runner is at third and there are fewer than two outs, anyway. I don’t remember whether anyone on the TV broadcast I was watching said it.

If they did, though, they surely felt silly for just a moment, when De Aza hit one in the air, about 95 feet from home plate. It was a looping droop of a ball, struck badly, flared over the pitcher’s head but not by all that much. In raced Escobar. In raced second baseman Omar Infante. Escobar dove for the ball, but he never truly had a chance. It bounced about two feet in front of him, and he grabbed the ball on one hop as he fell. De Aza was safe, Markakis held second, and Schoop—the very bonehead whose straying off second base had nearly killed the Oriole rally—got a perfect read on it, and rushed home with the tying run.

The game was now in the hands of the bullpens, and good hands those were. Tommy Hunter of the Orioles allowed an inherited runner to score, the Royals’ fifth tally, in the fifth inning, but from then on, the Baltimore bullpen toughened. They bent, allowing three hits, four walks and a hit batsman through the ninth inning, but they stranded or erased every one of those runners, picking one off, catching one stealing (Jarrod Dyson actually stole second base cleanly, but Jonathan Schoop made his own break, this time, keeping his tag firmly on Dyson’s leg as Dyson slipped off the bag) and turning a double play to close out the ninth.

Kansas City was a bit less permissive. After Finnegan’s trouble, Kelvin Herrera came on and recorded six outs on five batters faced. Wade Davis had no inherited runners with whom to play, so he had to face the full six in his two innings of work, but he struck out four of them and allowed nothing remotely resembling a rally.

All that excellent relief work led to the 10th inning, which some have referred to as an ‘extra’ inning, but which seems to be a routine part of the Royals’ plan for playoff games. It took three pitches of the 10th frame for the score to change. One was a strike to Alex Gordon. One was a ball to Alex Gordon. One was a long home run to right-center field, by Alex Gordon.

Gordon had a single and was hit by a pitch, in addition to his two big blows at either end of the long night. By Win Probability Added, Gordon’s performance Friday night is the 12th-most valuable single-game offensive performance in the history of the American League playoffs. George Brett never had as good a postseason game, by that measure. Gordon was unstoppable, and his homer put the Royals in front to stay. Moustakas added two more runs with a homer of his own later in the inning. Greg Holland, as usual, did his work less neatly than Herrera or Davis, but he finished the Orioles off.

This was a great game. There was no shortage of strangeness, but the game was well-played, not sloppy, not loose, crisp, despite poor conditions. The Cardinals and Giants know each other. They’re budding rivals, the rotating rulers of the National League, and they should mount a fine NLCS. This series, though, with the promise of much more offense, with such contrasting styles of play and with great athletes all over the field, is going to be the aesthetic champion.

One last vignette, to carry you forward into a Saturday that will see two games: The sequence of events leading up to Dyson being caught stealing in the seventh inning.

It was the top of the seventh, and Norichika Aoki led off with a walk against Kevin Gausman. He no sooner reached the base than was called to the dugout, as Dyson took his place. Dyson is one of two pinch-running specialists on the Royals roster, but he’s a far more viable all-around player than Terrance Gore, so he comes in for players whom the team can’t easily replace from elsewhere on the bench. A plus in center field thanks to speed alone, Dyson frequently comes in for Aoki anyway, taking over center and bumping Lorenzo Cain to right field.

The Royals have run so wild this postseason that the Orioles had no choice but to shape a certain game plan around it. There’s only so much one can do, of course: A pitcher is either good at holding runners on, or he isn’t, especially once October comes. A catcher either has a decent arm and quick release, or he doesn’t. Buck Showalter and Co. tried, though. Pearce did a peculiar dance to throw Dyson off throughout Cain’s at-bat. Pearce would set up in the traditional stance of a first baseman awaiting a pickoff throw, but he would do so in front of first base by a step or so, and a few feet in off the foul line.

It’s not a tactic you see often. A fielder is always counseled to let a ball travel in the air if possible, to improve the chances of getting an out on a tag play, and anyway, setting up where he did put Pearce at a tough angle for applying a tag. The whole thing seemed more an effort to stall and confuse Dyson than anything, and it didn’t work. In the course of it not working, though, we went nearly five minutes between pitches with the count 1-1. The cat-and-mouse game between the Royals’ aggressive basestealers and the Oriole defenders will be a big story in some key spots during this series, and the O’s wasted no time in demonstrating their willingness to do some unique things to combat that dimension of the Kansas City offense.

All pitch charts in this post are courtesy of brooksbaseball.net, the very best site for anything involving PitchF/X or pitch information in general. 

2014 National League Wild Card Game Preview: The GIants and Pirates, as God Intended it

While I’m warming to the idea of the dual Wild Card system (this may be some A’s-Royals afterglow; forgive me), I’m not wild about the concept of reducing an entire baseball season to a single game. It’s a fairly obvious injustice when one team, with a record several games better, must put its whole campaign on the line against another in a single matchup (see, for example, the two previous NL Wild Card tilts), but I object just as strongly to the cases where a single game separates two clubs. That the Royals, who tilted the close calls in their favor once more than did the A’s over the course of the long season, had to risk having that day-to-day doggedness invalidated by a single loss, seems unfair.

Happily, then, for the second time ever, Wednesday night’s Wild Card matchup pits two teams who tied this season. Even absent the new play-in playoff system, we’d be getting this game. I’m especially delighted that the two teams finished, not only with the same record, but with an exactly even plus-51 run differential. And on top of that, they’re in a near dead heat in the race for the best home park in baseball! I digress. I’m sorry.

There’s nothing like this earned feeling of everything coming down to a single game, and the game itself should be a great one. Here’s my preview.

When the Pirates are At Bat

The first thing to know when the Pirates are at bat is that Madison Bumgarner will be the one facing them. Bumgarner is awesome. Even with James Shields and Jon Lester pitching in the AL game last night, Bumgarner is clearly the best starter of this year’s winner-take-all collection.

Though he just turned 25 in August, Bumgarner has already been a big part of two World Series champions. In 2012, you could argue he was the ace of the Giants’ second title winner. This time around, there’s no doubt about it. Bumgarner set career highs in innings pitched, wins and strikeouts this season. He fanned one of every four batters he faced, and walked fewer than one in every 20. (Drink it up while he’s with us, by the way. Guys who pitch as much as he has before they turn 25 aren’t long for the world, at least at a level comparable to this.)

Bumgarner is dominant, but he’ll need his best stuff even so. Believe it or not, there’s an argument that the Pittsburgh Pirates have the best offense in the National League. (The Dodgers probably have an edge, ultimately, but it’s that close.) If you don’t know about the delightful and dangerous Andrew McCutchen, I can’t help you very much. He’s already the reigning NL MVP, and he proposed to his girlfriend on The Ellen Show, for crying out loud. Beyond McCutchen, though, this is a largely anonymous team, and that’s a shame. They’re deep and they’re very, very talented.

There’s Josh Harrison, a throw-in in a 2009 trade who entered this season with 575 replacement-level plate appearances, and who this season, had 550 of them and hit .315. There’s Neil Walker, a Pittsburgh native who rediscovered his power this season and had a career year. There’s Russell Martin, who would have led the NL in OBP if he’d had 40 more plate appearances. There’s Starling Marte, who stepped forward from plenty good to true stardom this season, taking better command of the strike zone along the way. That’s five real studs making up the heart of the lineup. Importantly, though, it’s not a black hole at the bottom of the order. Travis Snider, Jordy Mercer and a platoon of Ike Davis with Gaby Sanchez have given the team league-average offense from the other slots in the order, and Mercer has done so while delivering plus fielding at shortstop. They do everything pretty well. They were fourth in the NL in home runs, second in OBP and tied for first in walk rate. They struck out at a significantly below-average rate, too.

Defensively, the Giants hold their own, but there’s no reason to expect them to hugely help Bumgarner. If that five-to-one strikeout-to-walk ratio isn’t enough of a weapon, Bumgarner’s goose is cooked. The San Francisco bullpen is solid, but unspectacular. There’s scarcely a more disparate pair of pitchers, from a physical perspective, than Bumgarner and long-relief weapon Tim Lincecum, but my gut says that if Lincecum comes on, it will mean that the Pirates have already marked up Bumgarner.

When the Giants are At Bat

Madison Bumgarner he ain’t, but Edinson Volquez posted a 3.04 ERA for the Pirates this season. He’s getting a lot of flak from the sabermetric crowd leading into this start, and it’s true that he’s far outperformed his peripheral indicators. Whereas Bumgarner has struck out five times as many as he’s walked, for instance, Volquez has not even fanned twice as many. He remains, as ever, an electric sort of arm who just can’t keep a firm hold on the strike zone, and who misses fewer bats than you’d like such a pitcher to miss.

On the other hand, though, Volquez is a very good pitcher in one regard: he uses that electric-seeming stuff to induce many ground balls. And happily, that plays right into what might be the Pirates’ greatest team strength. They’re the most grounder-centric pitching staff in the NL, for the second year in a row, and it works so well because their infield defense is just phenomenal. Harrison, Mercer and Walker are all above-average, and through aggressive shifting, the Pirates get even more out of them than they might be expected to get. Volquez isn’t a 3.04 ERA pitcher, but that doesn’t mean his 3.04 ERA is a total mirage. It’s just, mostly, a testament to his teammates. I expect him to be better than many think he will be tonight.

Still, the Pirates can’t win a Madison Bumgarner versus Edinson Volquez matchup. It’s going to have to be Bumgarner v. Wholestaff. The Bucs have a deep and versatile bullpen, with two strong lefties and two strong righties in short-relief roles, and they’ll also have Vance Worley and Jeff Locke available for longer work tonight. Given that, Volquez should face no more than 18 Giants batters. From there, a parade of solid Pittsburgh relievers can take over.

The Giants are a strong offense, too, though nothing like Pittsburgh’s. Hunter Pence and Buster Posey fairly approximate Walker and McCutchen. In fact, Pence is sufficiently superior to Walker at the plate that I might even give the Giants’ big bats an edge. Everywhere else, though, San Francisco is fielding either an injured player’s replacement, a recently returned injured player or Pablo Sandoval. Sandoval is fine, and all, but he’s not as good as any of Harrison, Martin or Marte, and he’s the Giants’ third-best hitter right now. A healthier version of this team would be a nightmare for almost anyone. This version (sans Angel Pagan, sans Michael Morse and with an only moderately healthy Brandon Belt) is going to struggle.

Prediction

As the tone of all this might portend, I’m picking Pittsburgh. I think this is an underrated team, and since I’m picking them to win this Wild Card Game without even using one of their top two starters, I’m going to remain optimistic about them heading into the Division Series, should they make it. The Giants’ hopes, as I think I’ve stressed, depend a great deal on Bumgarner pitching well, holding down that good Pirates lineup.

Don’t sleep on this Pittsburgh team. Last year’s won more games and was cuddlier, but this year’s is a World Series contender. They need only to escape this one-game death trap, then have their relief pitching hold up, in order to have a shot.

As for the Giants, they’re in for a strange winter. Sandoval will be a free agent. Whether they look to keep him might well depend on whether they have any leftover sentimental feelings from a nice playoff run when the decision point comes. If they don’t do so, they really need to find a second anchor-type bat for their order, someone to pair with Posey who produces more reliably and stays healthier than guys like Pagan and Morse.

2014 AL Wild Card Game Preview: Stakes are Sky-High for Athletics and Royals

I’m not a fan of the second Wild Card. I dislike the feeling of artificial drama, and for a long season of baseball games to come down to one arbitrary contest feels wrong to me. That said, I must give credit to the system this season, because it has given us one Hell of a matchup Tuesday night in Kansas City. The Oakland Athletics would, under the old MLB playoff format, be heading home right now, bitter tastes on every tongue, a really hideous collapse haunting their dreams until the spring. The Kansas City Royals would be preparing for their first playoff appearance in 29 years with a bit less trepidation, and a bit less adrenaline flowing.

 

This season, because of how the two teams who will play for the last full membership in the AL postseason got to this point, the Wild Card game is going to be a blast. It’s James Shields and Jon Lester, two long-time big-game titans of the mighty AL East, each now pitching for the little guy, with a shared sense of cataclysm hanging between them. You couldn’t ask for more.

 

What’s at Stake

 

For the Athletics: This was to be the coronation for Billy Beane, the year Moneyball (having already gone Hollywood) went viral. Oakland dominated in the first half, clearly the best team in baseball. There was nothing they didn’t do well, and what they did best, they did better than anyone. Two-time defending AL West champions, they seemed destined to cruise to the third title in a way they hadn’t been able to do the first couple times.

 

With their history of postseason missteps, though, the club didn’t feel that they could simply go into October as assembled. They had entered the last two tournaments with flat rotations rounding out well-balanced rosters, and had been beaten by the star-studded, artless Detroit Tigers each time. So Beane went out and added Jeff Samardzija, Jason Hammel and Jon Lester to the starting staff. The flat rotation was no more. The A’s had to cough up Yoenis Cespedes in order to land Lester, changing their team identity somewhat, but just at that moment, it seemed well worth it.

 

Now, in hindsight, it looks like a huge risk. The A’s could end up paying more for this team, in terms of money and in terms of the talent they gave up to acquire several of the pertinent players, than they have ever paid before, and it might not even result in a full-strength playoff appearance. Lester is gone after this season. So is Hammel, and so (more likely than not) is starting shortstop Jed Lowrie. Josh Donaldson has been a marvelous story for Oakland, a near MVP candidate his first two full seasons, but he’s also going to be 29 (already! He was a 27-year-old rookie!) next season. Coco Crisp has a contract with the team that seems like it will carry him to retirement. They emptied the farm system to add Samardzija and Hammel, especially. Winning this year matters, I’m saying, because winning will get harder for this team over the next few.

 

There’s this, too: Like it or not, the way the A’s backed into this playoff appearance makes the outcome of this game extra important. Win, and at least you made the playoffs. It was a rough second half, and maybe you even get bounced in the ALDS again, but you weathered the storm and got to celebrate on the field a couple of times.

 

Lose, though, and the collapse becomes the story of the season. You only got halfway to the playoffs, really, and ran out of steam so badly that you couldn’t even avail yourself of the system’s safety valve.

 

The 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers had a massive lead in August, gave it away, then lost the tiebreaker series for the NL pennant to the New York Giants. It’s one of the most infamous collapses ever, punctuated by perhaps the most famous home runs ever (Bobby Thomson’s, for New York), but if the Dodgers win that series and go on to the World Series, no one would remember the dozen games they gave away in the standings over the final seven weeks of the season.That would just be another in a long line of great Dodgers teams from that era, with a more colorful story to tell than most of the others.

 

More recently, the 2012 Texas Rangers had a miserable September, punctuated by a loss to the A’s on the final day of the regular season that doomed them to the Wild Card game. We wouldn’t look with disdain on that team if they had beaten Baltimore in the Wild Card game itself, or at least, we would remember the collapse more charitably. Because they lost that game, though, the Rangers will be remembered as the choke artists who fell off the high wire, then tore right through the net below. You don’t want to be that team.

 

For the Royals: The Royals need the validation of a victory every bit as much as the A’s. While there’s a certain euphoria surrounding the team right now, history will remember this team as unremarkable if they don’t finish the job by reaching the ALDS. No Royals team has gotten even this far (that is, past game 162) since 1985, but then, it was a lot harder to get this far back then.

 

This team is here because it played a bit over its head (89 wins, against a Pythagorean record of 84-78) and had the Wild Card on which to lean. There’s nothing illegitimate about their achievement, but if this is as far as they get, the celebration of those drought-busting 2014 Royals at Kauffman Stadium next spring is going to feel terribly hollow. This season is, in the team’s eyes, their bold step forward into the sunshine, after 30 years in cold shadow. In order to get the rest of the baseball world to see them that way, though, they need to have the dogpile on the mound in their home whites. They need to play a series against the best team in the American League, show they can hold their own and let the national audience get a look at the likes of Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura.

 

This is an exciting team, but it’s not quite the young and dynamic one Royals fans probably envisioned when they daydreamed about breaking the playoff fast a few years ago. The studs who made up maybe the greatest farm system ever have turned into serviceable, unspectacular regulars. They’ll have more shots at division titles, but I don’t see any season in the short- to mid-term in which they’ll be favorites. This is their big chance to make a cultural change, and might be the statement they need to start fishing in deeper waters during free agency. A loss would mean a whole bunch of fans packed into the park going home disappointed, and the glow of having reached the playoffs fading away long before it gets the chance to warm anyone’s heart over the cold winter.

 

How They Got Here

 

Oakland Athletics: I covered some of this above, but here, I want to get into exactly how their season unfolded, how they play, what their strengths and weaknesses are.

 

For the A’s, the watchword has been depth. For much of the season, they had as many as 13 players worthy of full-time duty rotating through their nine lineup spots. I count 16 position players who could (and probably should) be on the roster Tuesday. They break down thusly:

 

Oakland Athletics, Batters by Handedness

RHB SHB LHB
Donaldson Crisp Moss
Norris Lowrie Vogt
Gomes Callaspo Sogard
Freiman Punto Reddick
Soto Burns Dunn
Fuld

Before John Jaso, Craig Gentry and Kyle Blanks got hurt, and before Cespedes was sent to Boston for Lester, and before Lowrie, Donaldson and Moss began battling injuries that have hampered them even as they have continued playing, this team was an offensive juggernaut.

 

Some of that was because players were playing over their heads, and those guys came crashing down to Earth in the second half. Some of it was that guys with long injury histories (Lowrie, Jaso, Crisp) suddenly stayed healthy for a solid stretch; those guys went back to their former, fragile form in the second half.

 

All that said, did the A’s completely fall apart in the second half? Did their offense suddenly imitate that of the San Diego Padres? Not really.

 

2014 Oakland Athletics, By Half

Split BB% K% BABIP ISO
First Half 9.6 17.9 .286 .149
Second Half 9.0 17.3 .268 .119

 

The most glaring difference here is the power drop, which one could fairly ascribe to the choice to trade Cespedes, but which really boils down more to the injuries that have hampered Donaldson and Moss.

 

The team played 12 one-run games in September, and lost 10 of them. They went 8-6 in the other 14 contests, so it’s not as though they dominated but for a handful of bad breaks, but they also didn’t collapse the way, if Tuesday night goes badly, history will say they did.

 

On the pitching side, the story of the season is upheaval. This team lost two prospective members of the starting rotation (Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin) to Tommy John surgery before the season even began, and two more fringe candidates (Dan Straily and Tommy Milone) to unexpected ineffectuality in the early going. Straily and Milone proved so unsatisfactory, in fact, the Beane jettisoned each of them in trades during July.

 

The team managed to patch the holes with, among other things, the transition of career reliever Jesse Chavez into the rotation, but they needed a boost at mid-season, and the sense that the offense would bludgeon opponents into submission led Beane to move boldly to shore up that group. Lester, Samardzija and Hammel cost the team a whole lot of talent, and a whole lot of flexibility, but without them, the offensive erosion might have cost them any hope of getting this far.

 

Samardzija made 16 starts for Oakland, chewing up 111.2 innings and posting a 3.14 ERA. He struck out 99 and walked 12. He tossed two complete games. For a team whose bullpen proved an unexpected liability, the ability to rest it on occasion was a huge help. (That relief corps, by the way, has come together again, and may yet be a strength for the team if they survive into October.)

 

Lester far outpitched Samardzija, though. In 11 starts, he had an ERA of 2.35, struck out 71, walked 16 and averaged seven innings per outing. That he will end up with the ball for the game that determines the outcome of the team’s season is delicious and delightful.

 

This team was a monster, a powerhouse that nearly gave away a great season. They finished with 88 wins, but a Pythagorean projection indicating 99. They are the very prototype of a club that was much better than you think, or than the standings show, and if they get past this game, they remain extraordinarily dangerous.

 

Kansas City Royals: The Royals will never be mistaken for the A’s. They got here by playing steadily and beating bad opponents. They scored 78 fewer runs than Oakland, and allowed 52 more. They’re also a monumentally different team, in terms of roster construction, value distribution and how they win games. Whereas Oakland found itself floundering in the second half, unable to score runs despite general offensive stats that portended better, Kansas City turned fairly tepid actual hitting into a serviceable offense:

 

2014 Kansas City Royals, AL Ranks in Offensive Statistics

 

Home Runs 15th
Walks 15th
Isolated Power 15th
OPS+ (An adjusted, holistic measure of offense) 15th
Runs 9th

 

That’s no juggernaut, nothing in the vein of the first-half A’s, but it sure keeps a team that emphasizes run prevention afloat. How did they do it?

 

Well, there are a few more league rankings I should have showed you before:

 

2014 Kansas City Royals, AL Ranks in Offensive Statistics

Strikeouts 15th
Batting Average 2nd
Stolen Bases 1st

 

The Royals run, and run very well. They put the ball in play relentlessly, which pressures an opposing defenses, gives their guys chances to use their legs and frustrates many modern pitching staffs, the majority of which are focused on striking opponents out in order to dominate. Pesky, you could call this team, if you were so inclined. They create runs because they have enough decent contact hitters to occasionally string together a few singles, and because they can take the extra base at almost any time, with almost anyone.

 

Their run prevention is the real story, though. Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain and Norichika Aoki (or, once the team grabs a late lead, Gordon, Jarrod Dyson and Cain) comprise the best defensive outfield in baseball, and maybe the best in a few years. Their range is terrific, everyone has an arm, they charges balls hard, cut them off in the gaps aggressively and generally stunt an opponent’s running game. No one stopped runners from scoring from second on singles or from first on doubles as well as Alex Gordon, whose arm has become so legendary that no one challenges it anymore. They catch darn near everything, which has been a huge help for the fly-ball guys in their rotation—Jason Vargas, Jeremy Guthrie, and yes, James Shields, to name a few. Kansas City hurlers finished with the AL’s median FIP, at 3.69, but their ERA ranked fourth-best on the circuit thanks to help from the defense.

 

It’s also true, and should be noted here so we can build upon it later, that the Royals’ pitching talent is concentrated almost entirely in seven arms:

 

2014 Kansas City Royals Pitchers, bWAR

 

Wade Davis* 3.8
Danny Duffy 3.6
James Shields 3.4
Yordano Ventura 3.3
Kelvin Herrera* 2.8
Greg Holland* 2.6
Jason Vargas 2.5
ALL OTHERS -1.2

 

Why are the Royals dangerous in October? Three of those seven arms they rode to this point are one-inning relievers (designated with asterisks above). The other four are their prospective playoff rotation. The Royals could ask these seven to pitch 95 percent of all their innings during the postseason, and focusing strictly on Tuesday night, they should need no more than Shields and three relief aces.

 

Matching Them Up, and a Prediction

 

That’s all the pertinent information about how these teams managed to reach this stage, and about what’s on the line. Now, let’s attempt the impossible (and extremely inadvisable), and try to forecast a single baseball game.

 

When the A’s are at bat: There’s a lot to digest here. Obviously, the A’s have that modularity in the lineup, the ability to stack the lineup with lefties and switch-hitters against Shields. The problem is that Shields has a backward platoon split, or has shown one the past two years, meaning that right-handed batters do as well or better than lefties against him. I think Oakland will line up much the same way they did on the last two days of the regular season:

  1. Coco Crisp – CF (S)
  2. Adam Dunn – DH (L)
  3. Josh Donaldson – 3B (R)
  4. Brandon Moss – LF (L)
  5. Josh Reddick – RF (L)
  6. Jed Lowrie – SS (S)
  7. Stephen Vogt – 1B (L)
  8. Geovany Soto – C (R)
  9. Eric Sogard – 2B (L)

 

That’s what I project, but don’t be surprised if A’s manager Bob Melvin goes with something slightly different. Herrera, Davis and Holland—the Royals’ horses out of the bullpen—are right-handers who destroy opposing right-handed batters. If Melvin has a righty he feels good about, like World Series hero and noted good-luck charm Jonny Gomes, the smart time to get him into the contest will be at its start. Gomes is also a better defensive left fielder than Moss.

 

Shields is, as I mentioned, a fly-ball pitcher, and that’s interesting because the A’s are the fly-ball offense. That might seem to play into Oakland’s hands, but in fact, fly-ball guys usually do better against fly-ball hitters, and ground-ball hurlers do best against ground-ball hitters. Of course, it also helps Kansas City’s cause that they have that terrific outfield defense to run down those fly balls.

 

The most interesting thing to watch here will be the ability of any Oakland baserunners to advance on subsequent hits and outs. The A’s are the second-worst running team in baseball this season, according to Baseball Prospectus’s Baserunning Runs (BRR). By the system’s estimation, that cost the A’s about 12 runs over the course of the season. It’s a small effect; you would expect as much.

 

However, as I noted earlier, the Royals are the best in the business at clamping down on these kinds of things anyway. The combination of those facts has me wondering if, at some crucial moment on Tuesday night, the A’s will miss a scoring opportunity due to their inability to run on the Royals. If they do, I feel sure that will be the killing blow. This version of Oakland just can’t afford to miss chances the way the first-half version might have.

 

We shouldn’t pretend that there’s no chance of Oakland putting up runs against Shields, though. Shields has great command and misses bats at crucial points, but one thing he has never done reliably is avoid hard contact. He surrendered 23 home runs this season, even calling roomy Kauffman Stadium home, and with Donaldson, Moss and company having had a day to draw breath and heal up a little, it may well be that someone will get ahold of one off of the Kansas City ace sooner or later. Even if they don’t, they also had the highest line-drive rate in the league this season, and a couple well-tomed rallies could be enough.

 

When the Royals are at bat: Lester is a left-handed starter, but that matters relatively little in constructing the lineup. I can daydream about Ned Yost sliding in Christian Colon at third base and sitting lefty-hitting Mike Moustakas all I want; it’s not going to actually happen. My best guess:

 

  1. Alcides Escobar – SS (R)
  2. Norichika Aoki – RF (L)
  3. Lorenzo Cain – CF (R)
  4. Eric Hosmer – 1B (L)
  5. Billy Butler – DH (R)
  6. Alex Gordon – LF (L)
  7. Salvador Perez – C (R)
  8. Omar Infante – 2B (R)
  9. Mike Moustakas – 3B (L)

 

Yost told local media he envisioned carrying nine pitchers for this game, so let me guess at the seven guys who will populate the bench for Kansas City, too:

 

  • Erik Kratz
  • Jarrod Dyson
  • Josh Willingham
  • Terrance Gore
  • Jayson Nix
  • Raul Ibanez
  • Lane Adams

 

It matters, who the Royals carry into this game, because a good number of them may be called upon. Yost never pinch-hits, it seems, but he pinch-runs liberally, so having Gore, Dyson and Adams all available is lovely. (All three are absolute burners, great options to have if a key base is needed.)

 

With Lester starting, I wonder how aggressive Yost may be. Say Billy Butler gets on as the tying run in the bottom of the fifth. Knowing that he could call upon Willingham to combat Lester the next time through, would Yost lift Butler that early? I hope so. That’s the point of having this sort of flexibility. No chance to score should be passed up on Tuesday night, assuming no overwhelming tradeoff.

 

Unlike the Royals, the A’s have a deep and balanced bullpen. They won’t be able to match Herrera, Davis and Holland, but they have guys from each side, guys with differing repertoires, a lot of ways to mix and match. If Lester gets 18 or 19 outs, there are six guys the A’s would feel comfortable bringing in to divvy up the remaining fistful. It will be interesting to see in whom Melvin places his trust; he tends to partition his bullpen, and some of his lower-leverage arms could be left off this roster entirely if he knows he wouldn’t ask them for a big out, anyway.

 

The game is more likely than not, though, to be decided by which starter gets the better of the matchup. The Royals will have a lot of trouble with Lester, who pounds the strike zone from the left side and can therefore neutralize two key Royals threats: Hosmer and Gordon. As a lefty, Lester also exercises good control over the running game, which would be one of Kansas City’s preferred weapons against him. If the Royals do break out against him, it’s going to have to be because they kept putting the ball in play and sequenced some hits well.

 

The Verdict: I envision a low-scoring game. The weather forecast has me frustrated; I want to see the deep blue of a cool fall evening, getting colder, as Shields throws the first pitch. I want the stark sharpness of dying summer, but it sounds like a warm and cloudy night is ahead. Still, this game should be great, taut and thrilling throughout.

 

If you know anything about the evolution of MLB’s competitive structure, you’d probably guess that the A’s and Royals are meeting in the postseason for the first time. They shared the AL West from the advent of divisional play until the shift to the three-division, Wild Card format in 1995, and of course, the Royals haven’t been to the postseason since then.

 

Yet, the two teams actually have met, and under strangely similar circumstances. In 1981, a protracted strike cut the season in half, and each half had a champion. The A’s won the West in the first half, and had the best overall record in the division that year, too. The Royals won the second-half title, though, and so the two played in one of the very first Division Series, even though Kansas City had finished the regular season a composite 50-53.

 

Oakland swept the series 3-0, without regard for the presumed momentum of the second-half champion Royals.

 

This time around, things are sort of the same, and sort of very different. The A’s almost had a split season themselves, terrific in the first half, poor in the second. The Royals are the steady hand in this matchup, even though they’re probably the inferior overall team. Given their home-field advantage, though, and given the promising matchup of their defense with Oakland’s hitters, I’ll take the Royals to advance to their second-ever ALDS. If that happens, watch past the final pitch. You’ll see a generation of catharsis spilling out of a city, all at once. It’s going to be beautiful.

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