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The Cardinals were trouncing the Giants 6--0 in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series when an uncomfortable feeling came over St. Louis third baseman David Freese. After all, he has been following the postseason this year, when every lead seems the equivalent of a banana peel on freshly waxed linoleum. "I'm out in the field, it's 6--0 and I'm thinking, It's not enough," Freese said. "Sure enough, three outs later it's 6--4. Believe me, we know."
The Cardinals hung on by their fingernails, or whatever was left of them after contributing their fair share to this Octoberfest of nail-biters. Of the first 25 postseason games this year, 15 were decided by one or two runs (60%, way up from the regular-season rate of 47%), 12 were games in which one or both teams faced elimination, nine were decided in the winner's last at bat, and four saw leads blown in the ninth inning.
Every day seems to bring something we've never seen before: Raul Ibañez, the Yankees' 40-year-old afterthought of a free-agent signing, becoming the first player to belt three postseason home runs in the ninth inning or later (in a three-day span); the Cardinals becoming the first team to come from six runs down to win a winner-take-all postseason game (in Washington in Game 5 of their NLDS); the Giants becoming the first team to win, in a five-game series, three straight on the road (in Cincinnati in the other NLDS) after dropping the first two at home; Justin Verlander of the Tigers becoming the second pitcher to strike out 11 in a winner-take-all postseason game (in Oakland in Game 5 of their ALDS); and Alex Rodriguez, courtesy of a deep slump, becoming the highest-paid bench player in history.
Here's another first: All four Division Series went to the maximum of five games. Commissioner Bud Selig can tout his two expansions to the playoff format—introducing the Division Series in 1995 and the wild-card games this year—as the keys to creating more postseason mayhem. But his far greater achievement may be facilitating the kind of competitive balance that allows for so many close games and long series in October. The Nationals-Cardinals NLDS proved that the talent gap between the team with the most regular-season wins in the majors (Washington had 98) and a team with the 11th most (St. Louis had 88) has never been thinner.
Twelve of the 30 big league teams won between 88 and 98 games this year. The two teams on the bottom of that scale, Detroit (88 wins) and St. Louis, jumped out to leads in the ALCS and NLCS, respectively. To get an idea of what kind of competitive balance that represents, imagine the Denver Nuggets, who had the 11th-most wins in the NBA last season, reaching the brink of the NBA Finals.
"This is a different team than the one that won 88 games in the regular season," says Cardinals first baseman Lance Berkman. "We didn't have [Chris] Carpenter in the rotation and Joe Kelly, Trevor Rosenthal and Edward Mujica in the bullpen most of the season. If we had the roster we have now all season, we would have won 100 games."
Make no mistake: Money still matters. Larger-payroll clubs have more room to buy themselves out of personnel errors. But teams are relying more heavily on young players—a function of cost efficiency, steroid testing and more sophisticated amateur training and development. Across the majors this year players 25-and-under made 25% of all plate appearances. Ten years ago—the last season without a drug-testing agreement—the 25-and-under crowd accounted for 18% of trips to the plate.
The roller-coaster nature of the postseason may have been best represented by Game 1 of the ALCS at Yankee Stadium. Down 4--0 to the Tigers, New York forced extra innings with two-run homers in the ninth by Ichiro Suzuki and "Babe" Ibañez. But in the 12th inning Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter broke his left ankle while reaching for a ground ball. "Don't carry me," the prideful Jeter told manager Joe Girardi. So the shortstop hobbled off the field, his broken ankle dangling, as Girardi and trainer Steve Donohue propped him up as surrogate crutches. The Yankees had played 158 straight postseason games with Jeter in the lineup since 1996.
With Jeter and closer Mariano Rivera (knee surgery in June) injured and Rodriguez (who began the postseason 3 for 23 with 12 strikeouts) having been removed for a pinch hitter, the Yankees had three players of no use to them making a collective $60 million—or just $8 million more than the entire roster of the AL West--champion Athletics. The Yankees went on to lose to the Tigers 6--4 and followed that with a 3--0 loss in Game 2. No team has ever lost the first two LCS games at home and come back to win the series. But then, given how this postseason has played out, how much does precedent matter these days?