Detroit has to hit early, before the Texas bullpen slams the door
The Tigers must put up early runs against the Rangers' left-handed starters
Justin Verlander doesn't have quite the command he had in the regular season
Detroit's 14 strikeouts --and ALCS Game 1 record -- may not be an anomaly
It took just one game, but the Tigers learned how they must win the ALCS: They must put up early runs against the Texas left-handed starting pitchers. Texas manager Ron Washington showed off his bullpen weapons in Saturday night's Game 1, using five relievers to pick up 13 outs without giving up a run. And the X Factor is Alexi Ogando, the reliever-turned-starter-turned reliever who is pumping 97 mph bullets past a right-hand-dominant Detroit lineup.
The Tigers' lineup is diminished, especially against right-handed pitching. They are missing injured Delmon Young, their No. 3 hitter. One of their key left-handed bats against right-handers, Alex Avila, looks as lost at the plate as his 1-for-20 postseason would suggest. And another key left-handed bat, Wilson Betemit, is even worse -- so overmatched that he may no longer be an option at all.
Washington's formula is to set the game up with a left-handed starter -- Derek Holland goes today -- and then pound Detroit's right-handed lineup with Ogando. Right now Ogando on the Tigers lineup is a two-inning mismatch, a game shortener.
Ogando already beat Detroit three times this year as a starter. Asked how Ogando looked in Game 1, Detroit first baseman Miguel Cabrera laughed and said, "The same. Very strong arm."
That's why the biggest play of Game 1 might have occurred in the first inning. Detroit had Texas starter C.J. Wilson on the ropes: bases loaded, one out, and Magglio Ordonez at the plate. Ordonez grounded into a double play. Even with a short start by Wilson, reduced by rain and a high pitch count, Washington then had the game in good hands with his bullpen.
Psst, here's a little secret: Justin Verlander is losing a bit of his aura. Deep into a season of 4,168 pitches, the Detroit ace, while still maintaining velocity, doesn't have quite the same command he had throughout most of his magical 24-5 season.
Of course, he needs something of a hall pass because of the nuttiness of having two postseason starts abbreviated by rain. A pitcher's routine is held sacred, and Verlander has been thrown off of his comfort level.
But still, even before rain became an issue in ALCS Game 1, as Tigers manager Jim Leyland said, "I thought tonight his control was not very good. He didn't really have his curveball going for strikes. He had a tough time with it."
Over his past four starts, Verlander has pitched to a 5.85 ERA and allowed 27 baserunners in 20 innings. His career postseason ERA is now 5.71 in 34 2/3 innings, a reflection of his intensity in big spots. As Leyland said, Verlander was guilty of overthrowing last night.
Verlander is still the best pitcher in this series, and Leyland will figure out on Sunday what to do with him for the rest of the series; he has the option of bringing him back for Game 4 and having him as an option for Game 7 out of the bullpen, or possibly as a starter if he gets through Game 4 without much stress.
But understand this, too: the Tigers ace is not the same force he was throughout the season. There was a scene in the Rangers clubhouse that underscored his reduced aura. One of the Rangers, while fiddling on a cell phone, and tired of the media's questions about the importance of beating Verlander, said in a mocking tone under his breath, "Verlander, Verlander . . . geez."
But Verlander is a big story of this postseason. He dominated the regular season so much that defeating him does inflict a wound a bit more painful than against any other pitcher. The next time he takes the ball -- regardless of whether on short rest or not -- look for Verlander to start regaining that aura.
The Tigers struck out 14 times on Saturday night. Only once in their 88-game franchise postseason history did they ever punch out more often -- and that was when Bob Gibson of the Cardinals whiffed 17 Tigers in Game 1 of the 1968 World Series.
In fact, the Tigers' 14 whiffs was a record for Game 1 of any ALCS, surpassing the 13 punchouts by the 2000 Mariners against the Yankees.
What's significant about the strikeouts is that they may not be an anomaly. The combination of Texas' power arms and Detroit's aggressive, long swingers -- Austin Jackson, Jhonny Peralta, Brandon Inge and Betemit come to mind -- could result in bucketloads of strikeouts in this series.
In fact, Texas closer Neftali Feliz looked so dominant blowing the ball past Detroit hitters, that you wonder if Leyland had to do it all over again if he would have played for a tie on the road and ordered a sacrifice after Ramon Santiago began the inning with a bunt single. There was no hope of stringing three hits together against Feliz to score a run, so on a wet field the better play may have been to put the ball on the ground and see what happens. The Rangers already had used their best relievers, so a tie game -- normally not advantageous on the road -- might have been a more attractive scenario.
How dominant was Feliz? The Tigers, excluding Santiago's bunt, swung at nine of his pitches. They missed seven times.
The Phillies' loss to the Cardinals was made possible by the Phillies playing so hard against the Braves in the final series of the season, with the Philadelphia extra-innning win in Game 162 helping to knock out Atlanta and send St. Louis in. The lesson is to beware the hot (and healthy) team down the stretch.
In terms of win differential, the Cardinals (90 wins) pulled off the third greatest knockout in Division Series history by taking out Philadelphia (102 wins). Overall, the team with the better record wins 54 percent of the time in Division Series (35-30).
What St. Louis did was reprove that baseball, like other sports, has become much more of a tournament sport than ever before. Baseball used to be about the best team in each league deciding which one is better. That was a long time ago. Now because of expansion, television money and the ways fans and advertisers get invested in "event" appointments that get consumed in real time and not time-shifted (Oscars, Emmys, Super Bowl, playoff games, etc.), baseball championships are decided by negotiating a short tournament. It's nothing like the true World Series era (1903-1968) that now is a legacy without relevance to how championships are won today.
You would think that the postseason, for instance, would be all about pitching. But with Philadelphia ousted, no team that has led the majors in ERA has won the World Series since the first year of the Division Series era (1995 Braves). And this is really odd: In every Division Series, the teams that gave up the most runs won the series. The losers outscored the winners in all four series, and by the combined score of 95-75. It makes sense only when you understand that the postseason does not make sense. The old rules don't apply.
Here's one look at how the mighty have fallen in Division Series play -- the greatest series defeats measured by win differential:
Mark Teixeira had another awful postseason series for the Yankees. The guy is an accomplished hitter. So it must be written off as Teixeira being "unlucky," or meaningless because of the whims of the "small sample size" defense, right? Knock yourself out by telling yourself that, but that just means you haven't been paying attention to how Teixeira has been devolving as a hitter.
I wrote back in January about how Teixeira, coming off a .256 season, is so mechanically unsound that he is going to continue to decline. Teixeira collapses on his back side and swings up on the ball. I wrote then, "The style means Teixeira must catch the ball out in front of him and leaves him prone to lifting the ball rather than driving through it. As he ages, Teixeira becomes an even more extreme fly ball hitter and pull hitter, trends that mean he will continue to lose points off his batting average."
Teixeira, who came to the Yankees as a .290 career hitter, followed that .256 season with another decline, to .248. Put him in a postseason environment, with better pitching and home runs tougher come to come by, and Teixeira's rally-killing style is going to be more pronounced. He has hit .167 over his last 108 postseason at-bats.
His troubles are particularly acute from the left side. Teixeira batted .224 from the left side this year while getting only four hits all year to the opposite field.
His batting average on balls in play has dropped every year with the Yankees: .302, .268, .239. That's not unlucky. It's symptomatic of his hitting style. His fly ball rate has increased every year as a Yankee (37 in 2008, followed by 44, 46, 47). His infield pop-ups, which are no different than strikeouts, and were as low as 14 in 2008, have grown to 21, 30 and 27 as a Yankee.
Teixeira's swing simply is not built to make him a consistent clutch hitter. After coming to the Yankees with a .308 average with runners in scoring position in 2008, he hasn't come close to that kind of reliability with New York (.264, .273, .268) -- especially in the postseason environment.
Teixeira turns 32 years old next season. The Yankees already have age-related issues with Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter. You can put Teixeira in that category, not because of health, but because his pull-happy, fly ball swing is the kind that doesn't age well, sort of like those of J.D. Drew and Adam Dunn.
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