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October 11, 2006
LCS, Day One
If you had to pick a starting pitcher to throw 92 pitches in less than four innings last night, nearly half of them balls, you probably would have picked the one facing the A's, not the Tigers. That wasn't the case in Oakland, however, where Detroit showed up with an approach right out of the A's book and were rewarded with a 5-1 win.
Perhaps we shouldn't have been surprised. After all, in Barry Zito's Division Series start against the Twins, he had worked outside the zone as much as inside it, and been helped by a Twins' approach that most closely resembled a two-strikes-and-you're-out softball league. He got a lot of outs early in the count despite not pitching in a manner designed to do so.
The Tigers simply didn't get themselves out, at least not the way that the A's expected them to. The first 12 Tigers hitters took the first pitch, and every one of those saw at least three pitches from Zito, most more than that. The change paid off in the third, when Zito fell behind four straight hitters with two outs, leading to two runs. Brandon Inge hit a solo homer on 2-1; Curtis Granderson doubled on 2-0; Placido Polanco and Sean Casey both walked after starting 2-0. Magglio Ordonez became the first Tiger to swing at a first pitch, reaching on an infield single to make in 2-0. The Tigers got three more runs off Zito in the fourth, again working their way into hitters' counts by laying off his first and second offerings. In all, 21 Tigers faced Zito and 18 took the first pitch. Fourteen ended up 1-0, and seven went to 2-0. That's a recipe for success.
Even aside from Zito, the A's didn't play well. They went 0-for-13 with runners in scoring position, keeping the spirit of the Padres alive in this postseason, and hit into four double plays. D'Angelo Jimenez made a critical error in the fourth inning that helped the Tigers tack on two runs. They were able to make Nate Robertson work-86 pitches, six hits and three walks in five innings-but not cash in on doing so. It was, for the A's, a game right out of May.
Credit the Tigers with working against type for a day. Will they keep it up? Esteban Loaiza is usually a bit more aggressive than Zito about working inside the strike zone, so having shown they can be patient, it might serve the Tigers well to reverse field and attack him early in the at-bat. If Loaiza gets ahead, he might just put his fastball away and serve up a steady diet of breaking balls, which is the best way to go after the Tigers.
What's certain is that by changing their stripes for a night, the Tigers have added a fascinating subplot to an already interesting series.
Sean Casey will miss at least one and perhaps two games with a strained calf. It looks bad, but Casey--his work in the Division Series notwithstanding--isn't so good a player as to make his absence critical. The Tigers will miss the balance he provides, but his production is sub-par for a first baseman. While he's out, Neifi Perez will play shortstop with Carlos Guillen sliding over to first base.
That sounds bad. Perez was part of the Tigers' late-season collapse, his completely useless bat often taking up room in the #2 slot, meaning lots of bases-empty at-bats for the middle of the lineup. Perez was a terrible replacement in the #2 slot for Placido Polanco. With Polanco around, however, Perez should bat ninth, where he will do much less damage to the lineup.
The real question raised by this is why Chris Shelton isn't on the playoff roster. He didn't hit very well after a strong April, but he was left over in favor of three backup middle infielders in Perez, Omar Infante and Ramon Santiago. That's terrible roster construction, and it may hurt the Tigers if Casey has to miss more than a game or two.
This series looks like a bit of a mismatch, but I think after the first round, we know that looks can be deceiving.
The Mets have the superior just-about-everything, from the rotation to the bullpen to the lineup to the defense. The Cardinals have the two best players in the series in Albert Pujols and Chris Carpenter, the latter of whom could make just one appearance in the first five games. The Mets have everything else, and a manager who made enough good moves in the first round to inspire respect, if not necessarily comfort.
As was the case in the Dodgers/Mets series, the NLCS will be active in the middle and late innings. Both of these teams have mediocre rotations and deep bullpens filled with matchup guys. Look for Randolph and Tony La Russa to continue keeping their starters to four- and five-inning stints.
This is going to be a bit more difficult for Randolph than it was last week. First, unless Tyler Johnson and Randy Flores go bar-hopping with Joe Beimel, the Cards will have pitchers who can go after the lefty power in the Mets' lineup. You cannot minimize what the loss of Beimel did to the Dodgers in the middle innings of their Division Series loss, preventing them from getting an edge in high-leverage situations. La Russa will not have that problem; it would be a surprise to see Carlos Delgado face a right-hander in a situation that mattered after the fifth inning, with the exception of facing Adam Wainwright in a closing role.
The other matter is that Randolph won't be able to exploit a specific weakness the way he did the Dodgers' lefty-heavy lineup. With four left-handed relievers on the roster, Randolph abused the Dodgers, who had no answer for anyone but Darren Oliver. Randolph had made one concession here, dropping Royce Ring for Anderson Hernandez. We may see Randolph hit for Jose Valentin against a tough lefty, or use Hernandez to pinch-run for Cliff Floyd. In any case, the fourth left-hander wasn't going to help him much against a Cards' team that has just two good lefty bats.
The Cardinals sport other features that the Dodgers didn't have, ones that should make the series a bit closer. Yadier Molina is basically the NL's version of Ivan Rodriguez, and the running subplot of him versus Dave Roberts was one of the more entertaining part of the Cards' NLCS win. Molina now gets to take on two of the best basestealers in the game in Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran. How well he does--and whether Randolph makes adjustments to his style to account for Molina's arm--will be a factor in this series. The Mets took advantage of some shoddy infield defense against the Dodgers; they won't be able to do that in the NLCS, as the Cardinals' are better with the gloves.
All of these edges draw the Cardinals closer to the Mets, and give them a good chance to draw the series out. What they don't do is shift the balance. The Mets are still superior in most ways, and the early-series matchups between the Mets' lineup and the middle of the Cardinals' rotation could be a serious problem for the Cards. The Cardinals cannot outscore the Mets, and as competitive as they may be in the middle and late innings, they could lose two or three of these games without even being competitive. The Cards will do better than the Dodgers did, winning whichever games Carpenter starts, but that's all. Mets in five, six if Carpenter starts Game Five on short rest.