(Written by Doug Vose)
Consider for a moment the relative brevity of the MLB postseason: After 162 regular season games, a World Series champion is crowned after just 11 postseason wins – 12 if that team plays in the wild card round. By comparison, the NHL and NBA each play a 82-game regular season schedule, with each league requiring its winner to trudge through four seven-game rounds and win 16 games in the playoffs.
Baseball’s sleepy summer cadence of day-in, day-out routine intensifies by a factor almost double that of its hockey and basketball peers during its postseason. As a result of this weird postseason structure, teams with great power pitching are at an advantage. Soft-tossing, innings-eating pitchers who provide depth for their teams during the dog days of summer are handed a towel, given a pat on the back, and asked to watch from the bench in October.
The postseason sprint is for thoroughbreds, and if the LDS round was any indicator, the 2013 postseason will be no different. There was enough cheddar on display this week to make Wisconsin blush.
Let’s take a look at how power pitching won the day in the LDS and what it means for the upcoming LCS matchups:
Detroit Tigers at Boston Red Sox
How they got here: For the second year in a row, Tigers ace Justin Verlander delivered a cold-blooded start on the road in Oakland in the deciding game of a series with the underdog A’s. This year, a two-run home run from a gimpy Miguel Cabrera was enough run support for Verlander in Game 5. Verlander, who flirted with a no-hitter and was still hitting 96 on the O.co Coliseum radar gun in the eighth inning on Thursday night, threw 15 shutout innings with 21 strikeouts in the series.
Detroit also got a big performance in the series from AL Cy Young frontrunner Max Scherzer, who started and won Game 1 and delivered a gutsy relief performance to collect another win in Game 4 that pushed the series back to Oakland.
Back east, Joe Maddon’s squad finally ran out of magic and laid an egg against the Red Sox. Maddon said his team was “Out Fenway’d” en route to digging themselves a 2-0 hole to start the series on the road. Regardless of the luck of the bounces off of Fenway’s quirky corners, the Rays were whitewashed 12-2 in Game 1 and kicked the ball around in a 7-4 loss in Game 2. Tampa rallied for a 5-4 walk-off win in Game 3 before finally succumbing to Jake Peavy and timely hitting by the Red Sox in Game 4. Leadoff hitter Jacoby Ellsbury was the catalyst for Boston’s impressive lineup in the series, going 9-for-18 with seven runs scored and four stolen bases. David Ortiz was his typical October self, bashing two home runs off Rays ace David Price in Boston’s 7-4 win in Game 2 and getting on base at a .556 clip for the series.
Cheese factor: If you buy the baseball purist theory that good pitching almost always beats good hitting, bet on the Tigers in this series. Boston’s pitching has been solid, but the team owes its 2013 success to its offense. After a ho-hum regular season, Verlander has been his vintage self this postseason. Max Scherzer is having a career year, and is riding high from two clutch appearances against Oakland.
Also, keep an eye on Boston closer Koji Uehara, who has been nearly perfect since taking over 9th inning duties this summer. Uehara is a veteran, but it remains to be seen whether the walkoff home run he allowed to light-hitting backup catcher Jose Lobaton of the Rays in Game 3 of the ALDS will have any lingering effects.
The Call: Detroit’s starting duo of Verlander and Scherzer will again be strong, but after pitching on Thursday night in Oakland it is unlikely that the former will be able to take the ball again until Game 3 in Detroit. Anibal Sanchez was roughed up in his only start against the A’s, and the Detroit bullpen is still giving Jim Leyland ulcers.
After wrapping up their ALDS win on Tuesday, the Red Sox have time to set up their rotation for Saturday’s Game 1. A stronger bullpen and a deeper lineup give the Red Sox the edge here. Plus, how intimidating are those beards? RED SOX IN SIX
Los Angeles Dodgers at St. Louis Cardinals
How they got here: After running out NL Cy Young favorite Clayton Kershaw twice in four games, the Dodgers dispatched the perennial postseason also-rans from Atlanta with relative ease in the opening round. The Dodgers won both of Kershaw’s starts, and found the soft underbelly of the Braves’ middle relief in a 13-6 victory in Game 3. L.A. skipper Don Mattingly drew some second guesses after starting Kershaw on three days’ rest on Tuesday (even drawing the ire of my wife for this decision, which is awesome), but the Dodgers won anyway.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals outlasted the Pirates in the best series of the divisional round. Ace Adam Wainwright rode his mid-90’s heater and unhittable hammer of a curveball to two wins, including a complete game in a deciding Game 5. Rookie right-hander Michael Wacha announced himself on the national scene when he took a no-hitter into the 8th inning in front of a hostile crowd in Pittsburgh in Game 4. The Cards won that game 2-1, and Wainwright’s gem in Game 5 on Wednesday night sent them to their third
Cheese Factor: After his brilliant performance in Game 4 against Pittsburgh, Wacha passed the baton to 22-year-old Carlos Martinez to finish the eighth inning. Featuring a triple-digit heater, 23-year-old closer Trevor Rosenthal then slammed the door on the Bucs in the 9th inning. When the series went back to St. Louis for Game 5, it was all over but the crying for the Pirates. (Damn those Cardinals anyway. Where do all of these arms come from?)
Look for the young power arms in the Cards’ bullpen to be the story against the Dodgers veteran lineup.
The Call: Kershaw is the best pitcher in baseball, but after starting Game 4 against the Braves it appears that he will only get two cracks at the Cardinals in the NLCS. The Dodgers’ $147 million No. 2 starter Zach Greinke, who will get the Game 1 nod for the Dodgers, was knocked around in his only start of the opening round in Atlanta. Third starter Hyun-Jin Ryu was bailed out by his offense after he couldn’t find the strike zone in his Game 3 start.
Given what we saw this week from the Cardinals’ young arms and timely hitting, the Dodgers seem to need too many things to break their way to pull off a win in a longer series where their lack of pitching depth can be exposed. CARDS IN 7