On an NFL Sunday when the last unbeaten team fell and the Detroit Lions won a game by their biggest margin since 1995, I settled in front of WTBS for a tripleheader baseball binge.
For some, this is the best time of the baseball year. I am not among them. Though dramatic, a short series – whether it’s three-of-five or four-of-seven — says little about which team is better. The 61-101 Mariners had separate stretches of six straight wins and seven out of eight this year; the 57-105 Pirates won four of their six games against the defending and likely NL Champion Phillies.
Bud Selig is said to favor expanding the playoffs. Even if he merely means making the division series four of seven, this would be dreadful. It’s tough to follow four playoff matchups at once; at least in a three-of-five, there’s heightened pressure in every game. If the division series were four-of-seven, only fans of the teams involved would pay attention to the first couple of games. And if he means expansion by adding more teams and more layers… yikes. The seventh game of the World Series is scheduled for November 4 already; does the commissioner have his eye on big ratings for a Thanksgiving finish?
The biggest winner on Sunday was a team that didn’t play: The New York Yankees. With Texas and Tampa Bay meeting for a fifth game on Tuesday, the team that emerges will probably be unable to start its ace lefthander – Cliff Lee or David Price – until the third game of the ALCS, in New York. Each pitcher is 3-1, with an ERA under 3.50, against the Yankees over the last two years. Their matchup on Tuesday should be compelling, but it gives the New Yorkers an edge in the opening road games.
The Yankees made quick work of the Twins in the division series, as they always do. They’ve met four times this decade in the opening round; Minnesota won just two of the fourteen games. Starting pitching was supposed to be a significant edge for the Twins, which is fine until you remember that the Twins’ big three includes Carl Pavano, known as “American Idle” during his injury-riddled tenure in the Bronx. It is a curious fact that Joe Mauer has yet to play in a postseason victory; Minnesotans can take comfort that he won’t break that streak next year in Yankee pinstripes.
Tampa Bay’s bats at last woke up against the Rangers. The Rays scored two runs on thirteen hits in the first 25 innings of the series, ten runs on eighteen hits in the last eleven. Evan Longoria’s strained quadriceps contributed to his 1-for-12 performance in the first three games; he went three-for-four on Sunday with two doubles and a home run. Both of the Tuesday night starters pitched counter to their seasons in game one: Cliff Lee went 0-3 against Tampa Bay in the regular season, with a 4.56 ERA, while David Price allowed five or more runs just twice all year. Momentum and experience suggest the Rays will continue Texas’s run of postseason futility – the Rangers lost in all three of their playoff appearances during their first 38 years since moving from Washington.
The Giants and Braves played out a dramatic, twisting narrative Sunday. First Jonathan Sanchez allowed one hit over seven innings, that coming from Atlanta pitcher Tim Hudson. Then in the eighth, Atlanta pinch-hitter Eric Hinske – aiming for his fourth consecutive World Series with four different teams – hit a two-run homer off of reliever Sergio Romo, the second consecutive rough outing for a pitcher who had not allowed a run or an inherited runner to score since August.
With closer Billy Wagner lost for the remainder of the playoffs, Braves manager Bobby Cox turned to rookie Craig Kimbrel to get through the ninth. The hard-thrower sandwiched two outs around a walk, but Freddie Sanchez ground a single up the middle, and Cox brought in another youngster, lefthander Mike Dunn, to face Aubrey Huff. Huff’s single to right tied the score, and the Giants untied it when a Buster Posey bouncer to second baseman Brooks Conrad went through his legs for Conrad’s third error of the game. Brian Wilson retired the Braves in the ninth, and the Giants are now one win away from the NLCS, with Tim Lincecum waiting to pitch game five if Madison Bumgarner falters Monday night.
San Francisco’s “hitless wonders” act is a high-wire thrill ride under playoff pressure. The starting staff is impeccable, but the lineup is peccable in the extreme. Awaiting the Giants-Braves winner will be a well-rested Philadelphia squad that can hit, run, field, and boasts a pretty fair rotation of its own in no-hit hero Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels. The threesome held the best offense in the National League to eleven hits in three games. The Cincinnati Reds are not as bad as Philadelphia made them look; the surging Phillies, who went 49-19 from mid-July on, and 25-7 in September and October so far, may just be that good.
All signs point to a Yankees-Phillies rematch. That’s the bleary conclusion after a ten-hour immersion in balls and strikes. That, and the fact that Conan O’Brien is awfully tall.