The last 13 days of the season kick off in a big way tonight, with two series that pit teams locked in head-to-head battles for playoff spots.
White Sox at Twins
With just a half-game separating the two teams, this is effectively the first round of the playoffs, a nearly must-win three-game set for both. The Twins were on the brink just seven days ago after dropping the first two in Chicago, but bounced back to win behind Johan Santana (not a surprise) and against Esteban Loaiza (big surprise).
The Twins won’t have their best pitcher, Santana, who started last night against the Indians. That leaves them one bullet down against a very good offense. Working for them is that they’ll be starting two right-handers who can be tough on righties in Brad Radke and Kyle Lohse, against what is still a fairly right-handed Sox lineup. Watch Radke tonight: he threw 126 pitches in his last start, and Keith Woolner’s PAP3 research indicates that pitchers who exceed 121 pitches can see some negative effects over their next three starts.
If they don’t get good performances from the starters (in addition to Radke and Lohse, Kenny Rogers goes on Wednesday), the Twins do have the bullpen depth to make a game of it. The back of the pen, with Eddie Guardado being set up by J.C. Romero and LaTroy Hawkins, is excellent–the pitchers have combined for an ERA of 0.00 this month. In front of them, the Twins have good options in Juan Rincon and Carlos Pulido. Grant Balfour‘s ERA is inflated (4.57), but he’s a very good pitcher, the kind who can toss three shutout innings to keep the Twins in a game in which their starter gets knocked out early, which is always a danger with this staff.
Offensively, the Twins are a much different team than they were early in the season. Shannon Stewart has provided essential OBP in the leadoff spot (.390 as a Twin), while Matt LeCroy has established himself as the cleanup hitter. LeCroy has been in a terrible slump the last couple of weeks, hitting just .213/.339/.340 in September. With three tough right-handed pitchers going for the Sox, he may find himself on the bench once or twice in favor of Mike Ryan‘s Bob Hazel impersonation (.375/.417/.781 in 35 PA). With the Twins playing so many low OBPs (four regulars at .323 or below), they have to squeeze out extra offense wherever they can.
For the Sox, their season will likely come down to getting more good work from their starters. Loaiza has been great all year, one of two front-runners for the AL Cy Young Award. Bartolo Colon has been a horse, averaging more than seven innings a start, including three consecutive complete games this month. Despite that, he has just two starts above 121 pitches, and doesn’t show up that high on the PAP3 list for 2003.
That said, Colon has had some odd lines in September, throwing 117, 117 and 116 pitches despite dramatically reducing his walks and strikeouts over those starts:
Opp. IP H R ER BB SO NP 9/02 BOS 9.0 2 2 2 1 5 117 9/08 MIN 9.0 10 2 2 1 4 117 9/13 BOS 9.0 5 1 0 2 2 116
I’m not exactly sure what this means, if anything. That start against the Sox, in particular, makes me wonder if Colon is running out of steam. That’s a lot of pitches for a start with seven baserunners and two Ks. Watch his start Thursday carefully, and don’t be surprised if it doesn’t go well.
Jerry Manuel has reduced his bullpen to four pitchers he uses when the game matters, and everyone else, almost an October-style pen. Damaso Marte might come in anywhere from the seventh through the ninth, might pitch an inning or as many as three. He’s the closest thing to an 70s-style ace reliever in the game right now, even though his workload is far below that type. Tom Gordon, back with the team after bereavement leave, gets the rest of the high-leverage innings late in games. Scott Sullivan sets up when Manuel doesn’t want to use Marte or Gordon just yet, and Kelly Wunsch, against whom the league is hitting .124, gets lefties. Look for Jacque Jones, Doug Mientkiewicz and Corey Koskie to be targeted.
Offensively, the Sox are about where they spent much of the season, with about five guys hitting well and the rest not. Other than a streak after the All-Star break, that’s been their story all year. This time, it’s the outfield and Paul Konerko finding their strokes, with the rest of the infield and Frank Thomas slumping.
The series is a bit more important to the White Sox, who come in a half-game behind and will leave town having the much tougher road over the rest of the season. The Twins will be left with seven games against the Tigers and two with the Indians, while the White Sox will have seven games with the highly-motivated Royals and three with the Yankees. If the Sox come out of this series behind, it’s going to be very hard for them to make up ground in the last 10 days.
I think the Sox are in very good shape to win at least two of these games. They have the pitching matchups in their favor in all three; they come into the series after an off day, while the Twins had to play a marathon in Cleveland. They are the better team, although that’s not much of an edge when we’re talking about three games. I think they’ll win the first two, putting all the pressure back on the Twins in Thursday’s Colon/Lohse showdown.
Marlins at Phillies
Unlike the Sox and Twins, who are in the second act this week, the Marlins and Phillies are in their first, and will meet again next week in South Florida. Because of that, this series has slightly less importance, but is still a key matchup in the NL wild-card race. The Marlins hold a 1 1/2-game lead on the Phillies, with the Dodgers two games back and the Cubs holding on at four behind, so this series doesn’t carry the singular weight of the one in Minneapolis.
It’s hard to say which team has the edge in matchups, as both have done a good job setting their rotations. The Phillies will throw three right-handers who are very tough on righties and who have been effective this season: Vicente Padilla, Brett Myers and Kevin Millwood. With six right-handed-hitting regulars, the Marlins have a huge platoon split:
AVG OBP SLG vs. LHP .288 .351 .469 vs. RHP .260 .328 .410
vs. RHP vs. LHP AVG OBP SLG AVG OBP SLG Jim Thome .279 .413 .619 .241 .326 .401 Bobby Abreu .318 .444 .526 .272 .324 .383
It makes for an interesting strength-vs.-strength matchup in both cases, with the Phillies probably having a slight edge in that their disadvantages will be exploited in just two of the three games, and those disadvantages are largely contained in two lineup slots.
To beat the Phillies, you want to stay close and get the starter out of the game, because their pen outside of Rheal Cormier and Terry Adams–expected back tonight after missing a few weeks with elbow problems–has been a mess. If the Phillies need to get outs from another pitcher late in game, they might be able to get them from Mike Williams. Williams, a.k.a. SliderBoy, isn’t much of a closer, but his one trick could be real effective against the Marlins, who have a bunch of right-handed hitters (Williams eats them alive) and two left-handed ones with no power at all in Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo. The Marlins have hit just seven home runs from the left side of the plate this year, which, now that I think of it, has to be some kind of modern record.
The two managers present an interesting. Make all the age jokes you want about Jack McKeon, he keeps taking teams no one is talking about deep into September. He did it with the Reds a few years back and he’s doing it now with the Marlins. On the other hand, Larry Bowa has had three straight rosters more than capable of winning at least the wild card, and is a few losses from having nothing to show for it. McKeon never loses his cool, while Bowa is at a perpetual boil.
If the Marlins can win tonight’s game–which is their worst matchup of the series, with Carl Pavano on the mound–and especially if they can win it against the bullpen, the Phillies might not be heard from again. That’s how tightly wound I think Bowa has his squad. They don’t need to sweep, and they can probably even survive losing two of three, but the way they’ve been playing, you get the feeling that anything less than taking four of three isn’t going to sit well with the manager.
Next year, when the Phillies have a cooler hand at the wheel, we’ll find out what this team is capable of doing.
Something to think about in watching both this series and the one next week: these teams are both very good at home and under .500 on the road, so you would expect the Phillies to take at least two of three this week, and the Marlins to do the same down in Pro Player next week. Speculation about meltdowns aside, I think the Phillies will win tonight and squeak out one of the two games against the left-handers, leaving them a half-game behind the Fish with nine to play.