Posted: Monday October 10, 2011 11:58PM ; Updated: Tuesday October 11, 2011 12:08AM
Tom Verducci
Tom Verducci>FIVE CUTS

Rangers dependable bullpen, Nellie Cruz on fire, the TV ratings story

Story Highlights

The Rangers have overcome shaky starting pitching with stifling bullpen

Nelson Cruz has rediscovered his hot bat and is a big threat in Rangers' lineup

The TV ratings may dip because of the smaller markets involved this season

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Neftali Feliz
Neftali Feliz and the Rangers' bullpen has not given up a run in 12 2/3 innings in the ALCS.
Max Faulkner/ZUMAPRESS.com

1. So much for the importance of starting pitching in the postseason. The Texas Rangers are proving there are many roads to the World Series, not just one. What they are doing is certainly unconventional -- with starting pitchers checking out of games early -- but it has worked.

In each of the first two games of the ALCS against Detroit, Rangers starters -- first C.J. Wilson and then Derek Holland -- were gone before the fifth inning ended. They didn't last long enough to even qualify for a win.

Do you know how deadly that typically is this time of year? This deadly: teams lose 75 percent of the time in the postseason when their starter fails to cover as few as five innings (151-462).

And just how bad was Holland in Game 2? He walked four batters and struck out nobody, joining Joe Saunders of the 2009 Angels as the only starters ever in AL playoff history to record no strikeouts while walking so many batters.

(Including the World Series, only eight AL starters have walked that many with no strikeouts, and only one of them actually managed a win: Babe Ruth for the 1918 Red Sox.)

So how in the world can Texas be up two games to none, a lead in LCS play that leads to an 86 percent conversion rate into a pennant (18 of 21)? Simple: the Rangers have better and more bullpen options than the Tigers. Texas relievers have locked down 38 outs in this series without giving up a run and holding Detroit to a .119 batting average (5-for-42).

CHEN: Rangers boast complete team

Alexi Ogando and Neftali Feliz, in particular, look downright nasty, with Ogando hitting 98 mph "from his ear," as manager Ron Washington put it, referring to his unorthodox throwing motion, and Feliz topping out at a ridiculous 101 at the knees. Washington will check with Ogando today about his arm strength before deciding if he can pitch in Game 3 -- it's likely he can give Washington one key out if an emergency develops -- but Washington still has Mike Gonzalez, Mike Adams, Darren Oliver, Koji Uehara and (after two days of rest off his 4-inning game saving appearance in Game 2) Scott Feldman. All of them can pitch with the game on the line.

"This bullpen," Adams said, "is put together to put up zeroes."

The Tigers? Once Leyland had used Phil Coke, Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde to get the game to extra innings, his good options had depleted to zero.

Leyland gave the ball to Ryan Perry in the 11th, and even as Perry was jogging to the mound from the bullpen, righthander Al Albuquerque and lefthander Daniel Schlereth started warming in the bullpen behind him, a sign of the dire nature of the task.

The decline of Albuquerque has been a huge hit for Detroit. He was a big swing-and-miss guy during the season with his wipeout slider, especially to righthanded hitters. But he lost his mojo in the Division Series against New York, possibly because of the size of the moments. His trademark slider lost its bite. So Leyland, though he had Albuquerque warmed, simply couldn't pull the trigger on running him into Game 2 with the outcome on the line.

Perry never managed to get an out. The Tigers were out of good bullpen options. The Rangers were not.

2. The amazing Nelson Cruz

Few batters in the major leagues can hit a baseball like Texas outfielder Nelson Cruz. Yes, he is one strong dude and swings a big bat. But technically, Cruz is almost unique in how he can hit flyballs with freakish carry on them. Cruz can do this by imparting ferocious backspin on balls that he hits. It's actually a technique hitters work on -- it is not simply some natural skill -- and Cruz does it like nobody else.

"There's nobody like him," teammate Mike Napoli said. "He's unbelievable. The way he backspins a ball is almost impossible. Watch him in batting practice. He hits line drives that hit the base of the wall and even go out -- they just don't go down. It's crazy how much backspin he can put on a ball."

The Rangers know Cruz also is a streak power hitter. He was in an awful streak at the end of the season, hitting .190 in that month, but that was due to a hamstring injury that kept him out of the lineup for weeks. Texas believed it was only a matter of getting at-bats before the power in his bat returned. Turns out they were right.

Cruz's past six at-bats in the ALCS have gone like this: home run, flyout, double, groundout, home run, home run -- the last one an historic walkoff slam in Game 2. There have been 1,316 postseason games played in baseball history. Cruz became the first player ever to end one of them with a grand slam.

He has now has hit nine home runs in 82 career postseason at-bats -- a home run rate of one dinger every 9.11 at-bats that is better than every player in history with at least 75 postseason at-bats except Troy Glaus (8.67), Babe Ruth (8.60) and Carlos Beltran (7.45).

The Tigers now have a huge problem on their hands. Cruz came into this series as a cold bat that could be challenged, but suddenly has become a hot bat that must be avoided.

3. The Flyover Championship Series

Neither the East Coast nor the West Coast has a dog in either LCS fight, the first time that's happened since 1991 (Minnesota, Toronto, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, if you use "coast" literally). More to the ratings point, there is no Boston, New York or Los Angeles in the LCS for only the third time in the past 15 postseasons.

So prepare yourself for doomsday headlines about ratings declines. What do the declines mean? It means baseball has parity, and if you want more teams to have a shot at the World Series, you can't have boffo ratings, too. Parity and ratings are mutually exclusive.

ALCS Game 1, for instance, was down 25 percent from last year's NLCS Game 1 and down 43 percent from last year's ALCS Game 1. The difference? Last year the LCS had two teams with national drawing power: the Phillies and the Yankees.

This year, instead of ratings kings such as the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies, we get better stories. The Brewers, for instance, are an exciting, fun team that never has won a World Series. But let's be honest, folks: they are not going to pull down decent ratings. It's too small a market and too unfamiliar as far as postseason history.

This is not football. Wisconsin's pro football team, for instance, the Packers, put up a 14.0 rating Sunday night -- that's a bigger audience for a Week 5 matchup than 24 of the past 29 World Series games. (Here's a very scary note: 66 percent of all TVs on in the Milwaukee market Sunday were tuned to the Packers-Falcons game. That's cultish.)

The best baseball can hope for -- as happened in the Division Series -- is that these LCS can extend to the full complement of games. Then you could be looking at big numbers for a Game 7. But breakout teams are an acquired taste. People may say they like Cinderella stories and fresh faces, but they don't like them enough to watch in the same numbers as they do with tried-and-true franchises.

4. Rewarding The Faithful

Still Waiting
Longest championship droughts
Team Years
1. Cubs 103
2. Indians 63
3. Rangers 51
4. Astros 50
5. Brewers 43
5. Nationals 43
5. Padres 43

If you've been paying attention to the past decade, you might start to believe there is some karma working toward a Milwaukee-Texas World Series. This is the Decade of Patience Rewarded. It's the decade of spreading baseball cheer to places that haven't seen such cheer in generations, if at all.

Think about it: six of the previous nine World Series champions broke droughts of at least 24 years. The busted droughts lasted 24, 28, 41, 56, 86 and 88 years. (In order of suffering: Cardinals, Phillies, Angels, Giants, Red Sox and White Sox.)

In the Wild Card Era alone (since 1995): five cities witnessed a World Series champion for the first time: Atlanta, Miami, Phoenix, Anaheim and San Francisco.

That's where the Rangers and Brewers come in. Neither franchise has won a World Series. A third LCS team, Detroit, has a generational drought of its own; it's been 27 years since the Tigers won the World Series.

So moan all you want about TV ratings. There is nothing like winning a World Series for the first time -- even for the first time in a generation is a huge deal. The halo effect in San Francisco, for instance, was enormous. For a long time, even throughout most of baseball history, New York seemed to be the home office of the World Series. But the game has become more democratic, and the World Series -- and all the thrills that go with it -- has become much more portable and much more interesting. Take a look at the current longest championship droughts in baseball, and you will begin to understand what this opportunity means for Milwaukee and the Dallas Metroplex:

5. Young Back At First

Look for Michael Young to get a start at first base tonight in ALCS Game 3. Why sit lefthanded Mitch Moreland against righthander Doug Fister? Give credit to Washington, who has developed into a better game manager with experience.

Washington knows that Young needs to get on the field once in a while rather than being relegated to full-time DH duty in order to get the most out of Young offensively. Young hasn't played the field since Sept. 30, and his hitting (3-for-23) has suffered. So Young is expected to start at first in Game 3, Yorvit Torrealba will go behind the plate and Napoli gets a break from catching but stays in the lineup as the DH.

 
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