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October 7, 2010

Playoff Prospectus

LDS Day One Roundup

by Christina Kahrl

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Memes get played, because like a disc on a quiet day, it's what they're there for. But when everyone's playing best-of-five, getting worked up over every first-game outcome isn't just inevitable, it's necessary. Eight months to get to this is the point, the lurching shift from an almost actuarial sense of inevitability to the hurry-up-and-panic of the postseason. And yet, because of the games delivered by Phillies aces past and present, there's the obvious storyline of two gambles that look good. Cliff Lee delivered greatness in his latest uniform, but Roy Halladay, the man who replaced him, found yet another way to put him in the shade.

On that score, the Reds shouldn't feel too badly about their place in history. Operating from an obvious initial disadvantage as far as the two rotations in their NLDS are concerned, damned and doomed to face baseball's best starting pitcher, they played their unhappy part and lost just the one ballgame for all that. You can talk about the virtue of short-term memory when it comes to closers, but the entire Reds team may as well walk away from Wednesday night's game and remember they could have lost this 12-11 in the bottom of the ninth, or 12-0. That they lost 4-0 and will forever be associated with history, with Don Larsen, should simply be ditched in the nearest dumpster and forgotten.

Instead, the Reds can take away a few positives while looking for ways to keep themselves in this series. Hooking Edinson Volquez might have been hard on him, but against Halladay—or Roy Oswalt, and perhaps Cole Hamels as well—demands aggressive action early in-game. The fact that Travis Wood shut down the Phillies across four separate innings should be taken as suggestive, not just about who starts a fourth or fifth game if the Reds get that far, but also for how Dusty Baker should skipper the series from here on out—with desperation. Down 1-0 with a day off until Game Two, and yet another before Game Three, there is no such thing as a strategic picture.

As for Halladay, after feats that transcend the merely Homeric and get dialed all the way up to Olympian, is everything from here an anticlimax, in this series, this October, this career? Games like his Wednesday night serve to remind us that truth isn't stranger than fiction—it's better. After Doc got spotted a quick four on the board, that sense of near-inevitability in terms of his own execution—whether you want to talk location or movement on his offerings—made it clear from early on you were witnessing a world-beater on his A-game, with the only question being over whether or not his fielders would somehow fail him with balls in play. To complete an extended act of perfection, Chooch Ruiz's hurried throw to first from his knees on a dribbler was a beautiful reminder that it wasn't just Halladay's night, that the Phillies also have games to win, which they will, with other people on other plays.

The interesting contrast was with the day's earlier dominant pitching performance from a Philadelphia October ace of slightly older vintage. Lee's shuffle to his fourth club in two years has been controversial almost all the way along the line, usually as a matter of whether the Indians or the Phillies or the Mariners got too little in a market that heavily favors inexpensive maybes on the futures market over expensive excellence in the present. But just as Ruben Amaro Jr. had cause to feel good about the initial October results of last winter's master plan after Wednesday night's surgical perfection from Doc, on the Rangers everyone from Jon Daniels on down has to feel good about the first return of the go-for-it sensibility that informed the decision to go out and rent Lee.

Lee's afternoon wasn't quite as historic as Halladay's night, except in that he also achieved something that had only happened once before—a Rangers post-season victory. He fulfilled the advantage that he was supposed to deliver on, as an ace who, up until the last month or so, was seen as someone better than any other manning the staffs of the American League's post-season quartet. In a perfect Texan world, with Lee potentially getting as many as seven of a maximum of 19 post-season games, the Rangers become a lot like the '86 Astros: a strong team with plenty of depth, but also a single series-changing asset who fundamentally alter any calculation over whether or not they can win post-season series against the East's latest duo.

The question for the Rangers beyond the days when Marse Cliff's dealing and defeating his foemen is a much more uncertain proposition—Philly has the life-giving virtues of H2O, where the Rangers have to rely on conjuring tricks. With equal doses of scouting and daring, the Rangers invented the rest of their October rotation out of a sometime lefty closer, a stateside washout reinvented in the Japanese leagues, and the biggest pair of pants to mount the bump since Charlie Kerfeld was a phenomenon. It might demand some suspension of disbelief that it has worked as well as it has, but the Rangers are looking to win two out of three against the darlings of sabermetricians and scouts alike, but the fact that C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis and Tommy Hunter have turned out this well is a tribute to the front office's layering of rotation risk with its assiduous assembly of a league-leading defense.

Just as the Rangers rotation has to be on the spot to deliver repeatedly, the lineup's nice day against David Price can't be taken for granted. The Rangers come into the playoffs with the worst lineup of any of the AL's foursome, and Bengie Molina's big day is easy to discount as another October oddity—glorious and transient. Happily for Texas, the Rays have no other lefty to throw at them in the series.

Which brings up another October oddity that was apparent in Wednesday's first playoff game. The Rangers experience a major offensive drop-off against lefties, shedding about 60 points of OPS if you want to be quick and dirty about it, but for both teams the first game involved some strange names on the scorecard: Jeff Francoeur? Rocco Baldelli? Three months ago you might have doubted if either would be starting for anyone anywhere, for good cause. The fact that the Rangers have to rely on Jorge Cantu in such situations is almost as surprising as seeing the Rays turn to a DH platoon of Baldelli with another Japanese leagues refugee, Dan Johnson. Not that these things don't need doing, but for fans of the platoon monsters of the past, these seem strange heroes to procure this late in a season. While the Rangers can safely sit Frenchy until or unless they see Price again, against Wilson the Rays will turn again to Baldelli and Sean Rodriguez. They'll have to do so yet again if they get to Lee at the end of the series. It's hard to see this helping matters, but that's perhaps Scylla to their self-imposed Charybdis, the possible vortex of suck that comes with trusting in the worthiness of "Big Game" James Shields for Thursday's turn.

After the two exercises in one-sided dominance, the nightcap of the first day's tripleheader finally gave us a plain old good game, a see-saw affair in which you could argue both Ron Gardenhire and Joe Girardi left their aces in that batter or two too far. Of course, these are the games you're supposed to be counting on your best starters, but it's that reflex, that abdication of responsibility, that seems too often characteristic of skippering in the present. If the players fail to execute, it's on the players; however, if a manager fails to put his players in the best position to succeed...

Francisco Liriano's command was obviously gone by the time he got to Jorge Posada in the sixth with a man on and a two-run lead, but he'd thrown "just" 97 pitches against the Yankees' meatgrinder offense. With the seemingly easy pickings of Curtis Granderson against a southpaw on the other side of the switch-hitter, Gardenhire demonstrated again the dysfunction of a few too many post-season series: if you're going to carry seven or even eight people in a bullpen, by all means, use them. But Posada singled to narrow the lead to a run, and then Liriano did what a tired pitcher can do, leaving a fat and flat fastball up, and as bad as Granderson is and seemingly always will be against lefties, he got a hold of it, tripling to center to deliver the lead and that extra bit of bloodshed that seems to spatter any October featuring pinstripes.

Pulling CC Sabathia at some point during the sixth was the more difficult decision, given his past feats, but here again, the Twins had done a great job of working him in their at-bats. By the time he wound up walking Jim Thome and Jason Kubel and finally Danny Valencia to push a run across, he clearly wasn't executing. Girardi left the big lefty out there because of who and what he was, not so differently from Gardenhire's choice to invest Liriano with something more than he was able to deliver.

In another study of contrasts, the first basemen delivered much of the offense, with both Mark Teixeira and Michael Cuddyer delivering a couple of times apiece. In some ways, it's to be expected: keep leaving something up against a hitter like Tex, as Jesse Crain did one time too many, and he'll get a clean pull and plant it in the seats, whether it's a slider that isn't sliding or a curve that isn't breaking. Cuddyer's mashing against Sabathia was a reminder that he can play something approximating a first baseman's role on offense against lefties, with an ISO of .190. The less said about Cuddyer's hitting against right-handers, the better; add in his proclivities for hitting into twin killings, and he's not quite the super-utile hero he's made out to be. If the Yankees really do pull off four starts by southpaws, Cuddyer or Valencia could end up being the surprise heroes of the series.

So, we got two dominating games and a merely great game. If baseball's the gift that keeps on giving, we can all be greedy. With Carl Pavano and the Yankees doing another post-season dance this season, with Shields trying to live up to his rep if not his record, and with the Yankees and Rangers both looking to put their series away, I think we can afford to be.

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

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