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October 11, 2011

Playoff Prospectus

ALCS Game Two: A Grand Opportunity

by R.J. Anderson

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They say good things come to those that wait, and that idiom was at least half-right on Monday night. With Game Two delayed by 20 hours due to the rain that never fell, the news cycle morphed into a discussion about which team would benefit the most from an impromptu rest day. The early returns varied, but the answer became clear by nightfall.

Hours before the game started, the Tigers made a roster move, removing Magglio Ordonez from their ALCS roster. At some point or another—and nobody seems quite sure when—Ordonez fractured his right ankle during Game One. That would be the same ankle that the outfielder fractured during the 2010 season, and the same ankle that caused him to miss time during 2011, including a month-long trip to the disabled list back in May. Not that Ordonez could return if the Tigers advance due to the severity of the injury, but he cannot under post-season rules that dictate a player removed from the roster due to injury must sit out the next round. Detroit avoided a similar fate with Young by keeping him off the initial ALCS roster. Therefore, adding Young just days after ruling him out due to an oblique strain comes with no penalty.

Ken Rosenthal explained Young’s situation during the FOX broadcast by suggesting Young experiences pain when throwing, but not swinging. It did not take long for Rosenthal’s report to appear prescient. Josh Hamilton drove a high-and-away fastball deep into the left-center gap that Young tracked down and had to throw back in. The throw lacked the usual oomph from Young and came at a labored pace, allowing Elvis Andrus to score from first. Worth noting is that Andrus appeared to be picked off at first base just before Hamilton’s double, and may have been called out had Miguel Cabrera held onto the throw. Instead, the Rangers drew first blood, and an Adrian Beltre double made it 2-0 after the first inning.

Luckily for Detroit, the enigma known as Derek Holland started for the Rangers. Holland is a fastball fiend, often using his heater 70 percent or more during his starts—not that you can blame him, what with the pitch sitting in the mid-90s and generating empty swings aplenty. Holland’s reliance increases his dependency on having good command of the pitch; otherwise, he can get into trouble in no time. The inability to command his heater has been a knock on Holland since his prospect days, and it was easy to see why yesterday. Holland walked the leadoff hitter, but stranded him after a 25-pitch first. He walked the first batter he faced in the second inning too. After getting two outs, Holland walked Brandon Inge with two outs and started Austin Jackson with a ball, prompting a visit from Ron Washington.

Mound visits are something of an imperfect science. If a good result follows, the pitching coach will get some credit for calming his pitcher down or advising them well. If a bad result follows, then expect second-guessing centered on breaking the pitcher’s rhythm. There is something generally accepted about mound visits, and that is a pitcher is working on a short leash when the manager is the one who takes the trip. Washington departed and Holland threw a slow curve for a strike before throwing three straight zone-missing fastballs and walking Jackson. Ramon Santiago bailed Holland out, but it became clear Holland’s fastball command was going to cause him trouble before his day ended.

Trouble came in the third inning. Holland would exit by the end, having thrown 80 percent fastballs on the day and those resulting in less than 60 percent strikes. He had more success locating his slow curve and slider, enough to wonder why he didn’t try to use them to atone for his uncontrollable heat early in counts.  Before Washington pulled the plug, the Tigers gave Holland a few parting gifts. Miguel Cabrera doubled, and Victor Martinez reached after being struck by a pitch, just not before some controversy arose. After the initial striking, the ball escaped and the Rangers were consumed with asking the first-base umpire if Martinez had swung. The idea resonated with the Rangers’ battery so much that they ignored Cabrera, who had since advanced to third base and then scored. After a brief counsel, the umpires ruled that Martinez had been hit by the pitch and reset the game situation, thus removing the run from the scoreboard. Five pitches later, Holland left a fastball up and over the plate. Ryan Raburn, a career .270/.340/.507 hitter versus southpaws, timed it right and gave the Tigers back that run and two others. 

Washington replaced Holland with Scott Feldman, and from that point on Feldman and the game’s other starter, Max Scherzer, engaged in a pitching duel. Scherzer had retired 12 straight before Andrus walked in the sixth inning. Hamilton singled again, and the Rangers eventually had a first-and-third situation with one out, yet Scherzer managed to escape without surrendering the lead. After the half-inning, the FOX broadcast showed Scherzer conversing with Jim Leyland, perhaps telling the skipper to give him one more inning. Feldman, meanwhile, did yeoman’s work or the Rangers as he compiled 4 1/3 innings on 49 pitches while allowing just one hit and zero runs.

Leyland gave Scherzer his wish and left him on the mound to start the seventh. It took Leyland fewer than five minutes to regret his leniency. Scherzer missed his location on a 1-2 fastball to Nelson Cruz, then watched in horror as the baseball slammed into an overhang in left field. Leyland hurried out of the dugout and went to use his bullpen, as Phil Coke and Joaquin Benoit combined to shut down the Rangers in the seventh.

Not to be outdone, Washington handed the ball to Alexi Ogando, who worked 12/3 scoreless innings. Ogando would leave a runner on first for Mike Gonzalez, who entered just to face Don Kelly and yielded a double. Continuing the bullpen carousel, out went Gonzalez and in came Neftali Feliz. Texas had a decision to make in whether they would face Cabrera or load the bases and go after Victor Martinez. Setting up the force play at each station and avoiding Cabrera seemed like the easy call to make, but Feliz’s and Martinez’s respective platoon splits further back up Washington’s decision to issue a free pass (Feliz has a lower career OPS against versus lefties, while Martinez is a worse batter from the left side). Feliz got Martinez to hit a harmless-looking pop fly that Andrus hauled in, just not before bobbling and nearly losing control of the ball.

With one closer already in the game, Leyland decided to send in Jose Valverde. Perfect in save situations this season, Valverde’s ninth-inning work was anything but. Beltre hit a ball to left field as well as one can in Arlington without it being a home run. After issuing an intentional walk to Mike Napoli, Valverde ran a pitch inside on Cruz that struck him, loading the bases with no one out. David Murphy sent a lazy fly ball to left field Beltre was unable to score on, and Mitch Moreland hit a sharp grounder to first that Cabrera and Alex Avila converted into a successful 3-2-3 double play, sending the game into extras.

The last unusual managerial decision of the night came early in the 10th. After a leadoff walk by Raburn, Leyland instructed Jhonny Peralta to bunt. Playing for one run can make some sense in these situations for the home team, since one run would win the game for sure. The strategy is more risky for the road team, since one run does not guarantee victory. Adding to the skepticism is who bunted. Peralta is just a shortstop, sure, but he led American League shortstops in True Average this season. Plus, the last time Peralta successfully bunted came back in May 2009 against Sidney Ponson (when Sir Sidney pitched for Kansas City). Peralta got the bunt down, and the next two Tigers went down without plating Raburn.

Uneventful half-innings for Valverde and Mike Adams kept the game rolling into the bottom of the 11th as Ryan Perry entered and a rally followed. Michael Young broke an 0-22 hitless streak with a single, and Beltre followed it up with a single of his own. Napoli then sent a ball to right field that Jackson and Andy Dirks converged on, with Dirks seemingly having an easy play in front of him. Yet the ball fell and the Rangers again had the bases loaded with nobody out, this time with Cruz coming up. Everyone knows what happened next. Cruz missed on a hanger, then fouled another pitch off well into the night before connecting on the coup de grâce—a game-winning grand slam.

Cruz will be cast as the Rangers’ hero, but do credit the rain for the Rangers’ ability to use Ogando. Had this game been played on Sunday, he likely would have been unavailable after throwing 32 pitches in Game One. Without Ogando, Washington may have used Koji Uehara or Adams instead, and who knows whether the results are the same.   

 Game Three is scheduled to start at 8:05 Tuesday night. Make sure to chat with the Prospectus staff while watching Colby Lewis and Doug Fister

R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  Derek Holland,  Fractured Ankle,  Washington

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