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Playoff Diary (10/06)

October 6, 2008

Prospectus Preview

Monday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Matchup: Rays (97-65) at White Sox (89-74), 4:05 p.m. CT, TBS
Probable Starters: Andy Sonnanstine (193 1/3 IP, 4.89 RA, 1.29 WHIP, 124 K) vs. Gavin Floyd (206 1/3, 4.67, 1.26, 145)
Pythagorean Record: Tampa Bay, 92-70 (774 RS, 671 RA); Chicago, 89-74 (811 RS, 729 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Tampa Bay, #3; Chicago, #10
Series Favorite: Rays, 76.2% (Up 2-1)
Prospectus: With a win yesterday, the White Sox kept Chicago from being swept clean out of the playoffs in both leagues, salvaging some pride in the Second City. The victory was Chicago's third straight at home when a loss meant certain elimination, after the Sox beat the Tigers in last Monday's makeup game and then the Twins in Tuesday's one-game playoff for the division title. Floyd pitched well in that game against Detroit, giving up one earned run in six innings to pick up his team-leading 17th win of the season. This will be his first career outing against the Rays. Sonnanstine pitched the best game of his career against the White Sox back on April 19, a complete-game three-hit shutout at Tropicana Field, but did not fare as well in his next two outings versus Chicago, giving up 19 hits and seven runs combined in 12 innings.

Floyd will likely be tested on the basepaths tonight by the fleet-footed Rays. Tampa Bay led the majors this year with 142 stolen bases, and Floyd was by far the easiest starting pitcher in the majors to run on: he gave up 37 steals, 10 more than the next-highest total (Jair Jurrjens allowed 27). Just five runners were thrown out when attempting to run on Floyd this year, leaving opponents with an excellent 88 percent success rate against him, the highest for any AL starter against whom there were at least 10 attempts. While Floyd is extremely slow to the plate, one of Sonnanstine's strengths is his ability to completely eliminate the running game. Chicago stole three bases in yesterday's win, but it's virtually assured that they won't be able to duplicate that feat today, for Sonnanstine had a base swiped on his watch by just one runner all year in his 32 starts (the lucky thief was Texas's Ian Kinsler, in a May 27 game). Three runners attempting to steal on Sonnanstine were gunned down, and his opponents' 25 percent stolen-base success was the lowest against any pitcher qualified for the ERA title, a remarkable feat considering he's a right-hander. Just three other qualified starters gave up only one steal this year: Kenny Rogers, Braden Looper, and Roy Oswalt.

Both bullpens have been strong so far, with the Rays' relief corps giving up one run in 8 1/3 frames over the three games, and Chicago's one run in seven. The White Sox rank just ahead of the Rays in the Secret Sauce index, primarily because of their large edge in closer WXRL, with Bobby Jenks at 4.46 wins added, and Troy Percival at 1.67. That is deceiving, however, because while Percival led the team in saves during the regular season, he is not on the team's playoff roster due to injury and performance issues. Substitute in Dan Wheeler, the team's current stopper, and the Rays move from 21st to 16th in closer WXRL, and vault ahead of the White Sox in Secret Sauce. Wheeler isn't even the Rays' best reliever, however, as both J.P. Howell and Grant Balfour rank ahead of him in WXRL and ARP; Balfour finished the season as baseball's second-best reliever by ARP behind Mariano Rivera, and Howell was seventh in WXRL and eighth in ARP. Thanks mostly to those three, the Rays' pen ranked first in the majors with over 15 wins added above replacement one year after it ranked last with -1.75.

Matchup: Angels (100-62) at Red Sox (95-67), 8:35 p.m. ET, TBS
Probable Starters: John Lackey (163 1/3 IP, 3.91 RA, 1.23 WHIP, 130 K) vs. Jon Lester (210 1/3, 3.34, 1.27, 152)
Pythagorean Record: Los Angeles, 88-74 (765 RS, 697 RA); Boston, 95-67 (845 RS, 694 RA)
Hit List Rankings: Los Angeles, #8; Boston, #1
Series Favorite: Red Sox, 73.9% (Up 2-1)
Prospectus: After a gut-wrenching five hours of baseball, the Angels finally broke Boston's October spell in the early-morning fog of Boston, picking up their first victory against the Red Sox in their past 12 playoff meetings to extend this division series between American League heavyweights to Game Four. The official time of the contest was five hours and 19 minutes, the longest in ALDS history, and the marathon featured a record of another sort as well: with the bases loaded in the second, Ellsbury hit a popup to center field which landed in a Bermuda Bi-angle between a befuddled Torii Hunter and Howie Kendrick, leading to the first three-run single in post-season history. Los Angeles fought back from that misfortune, and got the game-winning hit from an unlikely source, shortstop Erick Aybar, whose RBI single in the 12th was his first hit in 14 LDS at-bats. Boston's Dustin Pedroia was unable to end his own hitless streak-the major league's leader this year with 213 hits squared several balls up but finished 0-for-5 for the second straight game, and is now 0-for-13 with a pair of walks in the series.

The hero for Los Angeles was catcher Mike Napoli, who pounded a two-run homer off of playoff juggernaut Josh Beckett to tie the game at three in the third, a colossal shot that bounced off the metal light stanchion over the Green Monster. Then Napoli put another one into the monster seats in his next at-bat against Beckett, and scored the winning run from second on Aybar's hit after singling to lead off the 12th. Rather quietly, Napoli had a fantastic year at the plate, due to a torrid last two months of the season. When he hit the DL in early July with right shoulder inflammation, Napoli was hitting .204 with a 780 OPS, but upon returning in August he went off for a .388/.481/.776 line with eight homers in 105 plate appearances, which included a stretch of 18 hits in his final 27 at-bats. For the season, Napoli finished with a 960 OPS and 20 homers in 274 plate appearances. He had an AB/HR ratio of 11.35, the best of any player in the majors with at least 200 at-bats this year. Napoli also led all major leaguers with 200-plus PA in Isolated Power, at .313, and even chipped in seven stolen bases, the second-highest total among AL catchers despite playing less than 80 games.

The Game One starters will head back out to the hill tonight on regular rest due to the elongated series structure. Fenway Park might be Lackey's least favorite place to pitch: he has given up 38 runs in 44 regular-season innings there, a higher RA (7.77) than he holds in any other major league park. He also lost to Beckett in Boston last October in Game One of the ALDS. Lackey might have conquered his Fenway phobia, however, because in his lone road start against the Sox this year he nearly tossed a no-hitter, holding Boston off the board for 8 1/3 innings; Dustin Pedroia singled and Kevin Youkilis followed with a homer to break up the bid before Lackey closed things out for a complete-game victory. Lester meanwhile has not given up an earned run in his two career playoff starts, and held the Angels without an extra-base hit in his seven strong innings against them in Game One.

Caleb Peiffer is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached here.

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