Ryan Riffs: ALDS Game 1’s

October baseball is just the best, isn’t it?

After two fever-pitch Wild Card games that already had the blood of baseball fans everywhere pumping, the real meat and potatoes of the MLB playoffs began today with the two American League Division Series matches beginning.

First up, in the 3:08 CT time slot was the juicy rematch of last season’s ALDS between the Texas Rangers and the Toronto Blue Jays. And Toronto wasted absolutely no time announcing their presence with authority and making it known that they are not about to be pushed over by their now bitter rivals.

Texas’ one problem entering this series was their starting pitching. It’s held up very well all season long despite a rash of injuries to Yu Darvish, Colby Lewis, A.J. Griffin, Derek Holland, and a bunch of others. But, entering the division series, there remains a massive drop-off in talent level after the duo of Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish.

Plenty of teams have shown that it’s entirely possible – not just possible, but viable – to win a World Series while riding two horses at the front end of a playoff rotation. If you think about it, in the Championship Series and World Series you need to win 4 games to advance. If those two horses that you rely on at the top of your rotation each pitch 2 games and win both, you’re through.

So, Texas really had no reason to not feel confident in the work that Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish would be able to do. It all feels completely different now, though.

After seeing Hamels get absolutely blown up by Toronto, the Rangers have some serious issues. If, quite possibly, the most important cog in the Texas pitching machine is as ineffective as he was on Thursday afternoon, it’s hard to not think Texas is doomed for another crushing series loss at the hands of the Blue Jays.

However, what could have been an absolute disastrous situation was somewhat salvaged by Jeff Banister’s brilliant maneuvering and a herculean effort from Alex Claudio.

After giving up an RBI single to Josh Donaldson with only one out in the top of the 4th inning, Banister opted to pull a clearly ineffective Cole Hamels in favor of Claudio, and it appeared as though Texas was in for a long afternoon.

What Texas needed from Claudio was exactly what they got and then some; innings. Claudio came in and delivered 3 and 2/3 scoreless innings that got Texas all the way through the 7th inning only having used two pitchers. Considering the quick turnaround – Game 2 is a 12:08 start the next day – the fact that Texas only ended up using 4 pitchers on a day where their best starter was obliterated and could only record 10 outs is absolutely massive.

Game 2 is a must-win for Texas.

They absolutely cannot go to Toronto down 2 games to zero with both Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish having picked up the losses and realistically expect a comeback. So, with Darvish on the mound for Game 2 and Sam Dyson, Matt Bush and Tony Barnette all fresh and available out of the bullpen, Texas is surprisingly set up pretty nicely for a bounce back win.

What could have been an absolute disaster was salvaged by a terrific long-relief performance from Alex Claudio, and if the Rangers can manage to get back into this series they will have him to primarily thank.

As for Toronto? Man, can those boys hit.

The offense that Baltimore was able to mostly suppress before a certain managerial move blew everything up showed up in Arlington on Thursday afternoon ready to mash.

As lauded as last year’s Blue Jay offense was, this year’s is exponentially better, in my opinion. Out of the leadoff spot is the .693 OPS of Ben Revere and into the leadoff spot is the .859 OPS of Devon Travis.

Every spot in the lineup is dangerous and serves as a legitimate home run threat. The most dangerous Toronto offensive player in the Wild Card game on Tuesday night was Ezequiel Carrera, the Jays’ number 9 hitter that went 3-4 and warranted Buck Showalter using 4% of his roster just to get out.

I understand that it’s just one game, and one game does not a good team make, but I severely underestimated the Jays. I figured J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada’s cinderella regular season runs would end in the playoffs and Toronto wouldn’t be able to slug their way through the American League. So far, I’ve been wrong about both. Estrada was brilliant today, throwing 8 and a third innings of 1 run baseball and completely stifling a potent Texas lineup, and the Jays posted 10 runs.

With Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion all but guaranteed to leave the team in free agency during this offseason, this postseason is shaping up to be the Blue Jays’ last hurrah for a while. And they seem to be making the most of it so far.

……….

Terry Francona is a genius.

Last Sunday night on a local radio show, I took some heat for picking the Cleveland Indians as my World Series champions. It seems completely insane, but what Terry Francona showed during game 1 of the Indians Division Series matchup with the Boston Red Sox is exactly why I picked Cleveland.

Andrew Miller is the perfect bullpen weapon. Left handed, can dominate a hitter on either side of the plate, and doesn’t have a designated role. When Miller was acquired from the New York Yankees in a midseason trade, it was the idea of Indians GM Mike Antonetti that Francona would be able to deploy Miller in any given situation and have a dominating bullpen arm to put out fires at any point in the game.

And in game 1, with two outs in the 5th inning and the Indians protecting a one run lead, Francona made the surprising move to replace Trevor Bauer with Miller. After wiggling his way out a self-made jam in the 5th inning, Miller proceeded to throw two innings of dominant baseball, shutting down the Red Sox and striking out 4 batters before handing off the torch to Bryan Shaw in the 7th inning.

Sensing a high leverage situation, Francona made a quick move to his best reliever, not saving Miller for a theoretical save situation while leaving an ineffective Bauer in or putting in a lesser reliever. And it was completely refreshing.

Miller was brilliant, posting a +.132 WPA in an average leverage index of 1.36, and spanning over the potentially sketchy innings between the end of Bauer’s start and the dominant back end of Cleveland’s bullpen.

And then, in the 8th inning, after Miller’s replacement, Bryan Shaw, gave up a leadoff home run to Andrew Benintendi to cut the Cleveland lead to 5-4, Francona made the move to his closer, Cody Allen, for a 5 out save.

Again, in the highest leverage situation of a playoff game, Francona went to the best reliever he had available to maximize run prevention and make a one run lead stand tall.

Allen was brilliant, pitching 5 outs of scoreless ball to pick up the save, striking out four and posting a +.220 WPA while working in an average leverage index of a bullet sweat inducing 2.43.

This, right here, is what a bullpen is supposed to be.

Francine pushed all of the right buttons, and it wasn’t luck. He used his best relievers in the optimal spots to maximize run prevention and win a very tight game. It was absolute perfection and only served to further emphasize my reasoning for picking Cleveland to win the World Series.

In tight postseason games, bullpens mean more than ever, and if Cleveland’s continues to get managed as brilliantly as it was in game 1, they can and will ride it all the way to the shiniest trophy in sports.

Also, with Cory Kluber on the mound for game 2, and a much weaker starter in Trevor Bauer toeing the slab for game 1, Francona’s trigger finger was probably much quicker in this game due to the fact that his confidence is higher in Kluber’s ability to pitch a more effective game than Trevor Bauer.

Cleveland, up 1-0 in the series and with their ace pitching tomorrow afternoon in game 2, are in a terrific position, which only furthers Francona’s brilliance in his usage of Andrew Miller and Cody Allen tonight. As is generally the case when down 1-0 in a best of 5 series, tomorrow’s game is a near must-win for Boston, as the back end of both rotations are very weak and Cleveland showed tonight who the superior will be if this series breaks down into a battle of the bullpens.

……….

Today’s action felt so refreshing to me.

There were so many ‘new’ teams that it felt good to see on the postseason stage. Instead of more Kansas City or Detroit or Houston or New York, we got to see Cleveland and Texas and Toronto. The storylines and intrigue within the American League series are fascinating and have very effectively pulled me into the action so far.

I really wish I could say the same about the National League, but I can’t.

Dodgers-Nationals? No, thanks. The Dodgers are as stale as moldy bread, having made the playoffs in each of the past 4 seasons, and Washington is, quite possibly, the most dry team in baseball, with no storylines or intrigue backing them. This series is so ‘blah’ that I almost don’t want to watch it. But I will anyway because I love baseball and I know I’ll miss it desperately over the winter.

As for the Cubs-Giants series, I’m beyond sick of San Francisco. If you can’t already tell, I like seeing fresh, new faces on the playoff scene, and the Giants – much to their organization’s credit – are the exact opposite of a fresh, new face.

I’m sick of all this “even year magic” stuff and I think it’s about time the Cubs did something productive during the playoffs. So, while the American League playoffs draw me in and really get me excited, the National League is a snoozefest and I almost couldn’t be less excited for it.

But, baseball is baseball, and it will all likely be absolutely brilliant.

Buckle up.

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Ryan Riffs: ALDS Game 1’s

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