I’ve been asked a couple of times now whether the different mix of teams in the League Championship Series–well, at least in the AL–is a net positive or negative for baseball. I think this kind of question is largely a media creation, a chance to write an easy story regardless of who’s involved. If it’s the Yankees and Red Sox playing, well, you write about how the same teams win all the time and the game has competitive-balance issues. If those teams aren’t playing, you write about whether anyone cares in seasons where the Yankees and Red Sox aren’t involved.
It’s just an easy way to make word count, to fill space on a day when nothing much is happening. The truth is, any collection of teams provides more than enough interesting stories to make the postseason interesting. If you can’t appreciate the paradox of the White Sox (“smallball” team that lives and dies by its home runs) or their terrific pitching and defense, or be entertained by the Angels’ offensive approach while at the same time appalled and intrigued by Mike Scioscia’s offensive assignment of playing time, you’re missing a lot of great things about the game.
The games in the AL are certainly different this year, quicker, with fewer runs, home runs or extra innings. In fact, I confess to being a bit sympathetic to writers who resort to easy topics to fill space, because these games, while entertaining and larded with storylines, haven’t been providing the kind of decision points by which I fill my own. There has yet to be a lead change this week, and the closest game of the bunch was decided in a four-pitch sequence that included a dropped third strike and an 0-2 splitter than hung like a painting. With a lack of lead changes, and precious few points at which these games have been tied (the eventual winner of the game has taken its lead in the first two innings and kept it in five of seven contests), there just hasn’t been much to write about.
The story this year hasn’t been managers or the late-inning moves and heroics and failures of recent memory. This year’s story is starting pitching, and lots of it. Starters have all seven wins and six of the seven losses so far, and every game has featured at least one quality start.
The White Sox starters are out in front, with three straight complete games against the Angels. They’ve thrown 35 2/3 of the 36 innings in the series, allowing eight runs and a ridiculous two walks against 20 strikeouts. Although the Angels are a difficult team to walk, two in four games is a tribute to how much the White Sox are pounding the strike zone and challenging the Halos to beat them with hits. With a good outfield defense, and the Angels’ lack of power, it’s a fomula for success.
In the two games in Anaheim, the White Sox have put on a display of the baseball that got them to this point: starting pitching that limits walks and homers, defense that makes plays, and an offense that scores on homers. Consistent with their in-season work, the White Sox have scored six of their 13 runs in the two games on home runs. First-inning blasts by Paul Konerko in both games have given them early three-run leads, making it that much easier for their pitchers to challenge, rather than nibble. After wasting a ton of outs in the first two games, they’ve thrown away just two–on an ill-advised first-inning sacrifice in Game Three, and a caught stealing in Game Four–since flying west.
They’re playing their game better than the Angels are playing theirs, and for that, are one win away from their first World Series since 1959.
In the NL, the situation is much the same, with only the sixth and ninth innings of yesterday’s game providing much fodder for discussion so far. After losing Game One, Astros needed to win both starts by their other big two, and they’ve done that. Roger Clemens was far from his Hall of Fame level yesterday, allowing two runs in six innings while struggling to put hitters away. He allowed nine two-strike foul balls and got just three swinging strikes all game long, and pitched out of jams in the fourth, fifth and sixth, allowing single runs in the last two innings. Some of Clemens’ struggles can be attributed to the Cardinals, who have as many good at-bats in a game as any team you’ll see (a stark contrast to the AL teams). I would be wary about connecting the shaky outing to the three innings he threw on short rest last Sunday.
Clemens couldn’t get strike three most of the day. Matt Morris couldn’t get strike three in the sixth inning, and paid for it dearly. In an inning reminiscent of the Yankees’ ALDS Game One performance against Bartolo Colon, Mike Lamb, Jason Lane and Brad Ausmus all fell behind Morris 0-2 in the sixth, and all three worked hits off the right-hander to give the Astros a 3-2 lead and chase Morris. A throwing error by Hector Luna–just into the game for the injured Abraham Nunez–gave the Astros their fourth run.
That was all they would need. Two good innings from Chad Qualls–so abused in last year’s postseason–led into Brad Lidge, and despite a pop fly double that closed the gap to 4-3, Lidge closed out the game and put the Astros ahead in the series.
We shouldn’t be surprised that the Cardinals didn’t complete their comeback. All four of these bullpens are so good that it’s going to be hard for games to change hands once they get involved. So far in the postseason, here’s what these teams’ bullpens have done:
IP ERA BB SO HR White Sox 8.0 0.00 3 5 0 Astros 27.1 1.98 13 29 1 Angels 36.2 2.45 15 34 3 Cardinals 14.0 6.43 4 12 3
Julian Tavarez is having a rough month, and his struggles are a big part of the Cardinals’ bullpen’s overall ineffectiveness. It’s clear, though, that they miss Al Reyes; Brad Thompson just can’t be relied upon for the same caliber of innings. Nevertheless, Jason Isringhausen and Randy Flores have been effective in limited time, and they get many of the high-leverage innings.
The other three teams, and particularly the two in the lead in the LCSs, have gotten terrific work from the pen. The White Sox, remember, won three close games against the Red Sox, and they did so in part because their bullpen threw 7 2/3 shutout innings.
Starters working deep into games, throwing strikes and keeping the ball in the park are leaving their leads to excellent bullpens pitching well. It’s a different kind of October, and what it lacks in tension and long nights compared to past seasons it makes up for in other ways. It’s the great thing about baseball: all kinds of games can be great ones.