Friday, October 12, 2012

Collapse, Conclusion and Continuation

October can be a cruel month for fans of the Great American Pastime. Think about it, only one fan base ends up satisfied while 29 others are left with questions of what if, why and what happened? Most don’t even get to enjoy watching their team play past September but for those who do; become emotionally involved at your own risk. No group of supporters know this better than the 41,142 Cincinnati Reds fans, that crowded into the Great American Ballpark to watch the greatest choke job in the history of Cincinnati sports over the last three days. At least that’s what many of the Cincy media are calling it. You have to remember, the Reds haven’t won a post-season series since beating the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995 and a post-season home game in 17 years, so after they captured both games one and two of their NLDS over the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park with the series headed to the Queen City for games three with four and five on a….if necessary basis, there was a lot to be pumped up about! But with a change in scenery came a change in focus, execution and momentum. It all started in the bottom of the first inning of game three. Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips was on first and stealing second after the Giants had gone three and out versus Homer Bailey in a must win game, coming off a 9-0 shutout loss in game two. Phillips was safe at second as the pitch from Ryan Vogelsong got by catcher Buster Posey. Instead of being satisfied at second and in scoring position with no outs giving the Reds a chance to jump on the board first and continue momentum, Phillips decides to try and take third. Posey throws him out easily, becoming the first out of the inning and at third base which is a major baseball no-no! After a few hits, Cincinnati does score one run, but the inning could have been a huge one and maybe even put the Giants away early in game three… but they survived and felt relief after the frame. Turns out the single run would be the only run the Reds scored all day long. When Scott Rolen couldn’t make a play on Joaquin Arias’ ground ball in the top of the 10th inning allowing Buster Posey to score from third with the go-ahead run for an eventual 2-1 San Francisco win wasting Bailey’s ten strikeout performance, momentum had shifted. So game four rolls around and instead of going for the jugular, Reds Manager Dusty Baker sits both Rolen and starting catcher Ryan Hanigan against lefty Barry Zito. Todd Frazier and Dioner Navarro are put in the line-up. Maybe its strategy as Navarro is a switch hitter and maybe is just a case of making sure everyone is fresh in case of a game five. Baker also decides to start youngster Mike Leake on the hill, with pitcher Johnny Cueto injured from game one, choosing against starting Matt Latos on three days’ rest. The 24-year-old Leake had shutout the Giants back in June and was 3-0 lifetime against San Francisco but had also never started in a playoff game before. The right-hander gives up a leadoff homer to Pagan and ends up going just 4.1 innings after surrendering six hits and five earned runs. Giants win easily 8-3 as the Reds’ lack of killer instinct now has them tied at 2-2 in the series with all the pressure squarely shifted to their clubhouse as no team has ever blown a 2-0 advantage in NLDS history. Game five matched a rested Latos against Giants game one starter Matt Cain. Both pitchers are great through four innings. In the top of the fifth however, Latos gives up a single to Gregor Blanco and starts to get his strike zone squeezed by home plate umpire Tom Hallion. While Latos is getting annoyed at balls and strikes he then gives up a no-out triple to Brandon Crawford scoring Blanco for a 1-0 Giants lead. After striking out Cain, Angel Pagan hits a ground ball to short. Zack Cozart has a play at the plate on Crawford but fumbles the ball and the San Francisco led is now 2-zip. Latos proceeds to load the bases with Posey the likely N.L. MVP coming to the plate. In a must-win game, already down 2-0, does Baker pull him? No and Posey makes them pay with a grand slam off Latos for a huge 6-0 lead and now its game over. After cutting the deficit to 6-3 in the 7th, the Reds get men on 2nd and 1st with no outs. Could this be a chance to pull this comeback off after all? With Hanigan at the plate and a full count, Baker sends the runners. Hanigan watches a call strike three and Posey throws out the stealing Jay Bruce at third, killing the inning and basically the Reds true chances. Did the Reds have other opportunities in the 8th and 9th innings? Sure but they didn’t close the deal eventually going two for 13 with runners in scoring position in the game and 3 for 24 with men in scoring position in the series. 6-4 turned out to be the final score in the fifth and deciding game with Cincinnati losing the series 3-2, season over. This is one they will not forget about on the banks of the Ohio River for a long time coming. At least, until the Reds finally win another post-season series, after the biggest choke job and collapse in the history of Cincinnati sports. For the amazing A’s this is not how it was supposed to end. After that incredible three-game sweep of the Texas Rangers over the last three days of the regular season to win the division, their fate seemed brighter! Oakland at one time trailed in the A.L. West by 13 games late in June. But with a few trades and some young talent playing the way Billy Beane’s “money ball” system calculated things out, Oakland made a run into the post-season with five rookie starting pitchers, something unheard of! After losing two close games in Motown to the Detroit Tigers, the “never give up A’s” captured games three and four of their ALDS at the Coliseum with the culmination taking place in the bottom of the 9th of gave four. Trailing by two runs with just three outs remaining in their season, the Oakland magic took over! Four hits off Tigers closer Jose Valverde resulting in an incredible 4-3 victory forcing Thursday’s fifth and series deciding game. After a league-leading 14 walk-off victories this season which set the stage for Wednesday’s heroics, it appeared the A’s were the post-season’s team of destiny. But there can only be one true team with the fate of a champion on their side and most of the time that team has a “true ace” on its pitching staff. The Tigers have Justin Verlander. Last year’s A.L. Cy Young winner and MVP can be dominating and unhittable at times, especially when his team needs it the most. Detroit needed something powerful to combat the A’s momentum, magic and Coliseum mastic. What they got was a four-hit, 11 strikeout gem, in a 6-0 series clinching win to save their season. 36,393 loyal Oakland rowdies threw all the “Bernie-mojo” they could into game five but the bottom line proved to be star-power outperforms passion at least on the mound most of the time. Verlander won both the front and back games of the series putting Detroit back into the ALCS. While the majority of the baseball world wanted what seemed like the destined A’s to continue a mythical post-season ride deeper into October, those dreams ended up facing the harsh reality of a deciding game versus a veteran superstar and his right arm of reason. The conclusion here is that will, pride and desire, still have a rough time against a 95 mile per hour sinking fastball. All is not over however in the divisional series. Jayson Werth’s walk-off job, kept the season alive for the best National League team during the regular season. They hadn’t seen playoff baseball in Washington D.C. since 1933 and the Nats faithful certainly weren’t ready for the ride to end yet! The 2-1 victory over the defending World Series Champion St. Louis Cardinals, forces a fifth and deciding game today at Nationals Park. The match-up on the hill is extraordinary! Gio Gonzalez, who could win the National League Cy Young, faces veteran Adam Wainwright. The Washington lefty started game one of the series and has not allowed an earned run at home over his last 23 innings of work. The Cardinals went 4-0 last season when facing elimination games to become the champs. Wainwright gave up just one earned run in the Red Bird’s game one 3-2 defeat, earning a no decision. The Cardinals not only have the starting pitching experience tomorrow but also the offensive experience. They’ve outscored the Nats 23-9 in the series and why would that change with the most pressure at bats of the season coming today? St. Louis wins a tough game five on the road to face the Giants in the NLCS on Sunday. Start spreading the news! The Yankees and Orioles will do it again in the Bronx one more time in 2012! Scrappy Baltimore found away once again in extra innings like they have all season long, extending favored New York to a fifth and deciding game at Yankee Stadium, with Thursday night’s 2-1 victory in 13 innings. These two squads played 162 games to decide the American League East title so why should this five game set be any different? Jason Hammel, (5 2/3rds allowing two runs in game one) starts for the O’s, while ace CC Sabathia, who came just one out short of a complete game victory in game one… (7-2 New York) starts the decider for the Bronx Bombers. The big lefty is 6-1 with a 3.29 ERA in 11 playoff starts with New York. During the regular season, these teams played the season series to a tune of 9-9 with Baltimore outscoring New York 92-90. But as resilient as the O’s have been in 2012, (17 straight extra innings wins) this is still a deciding game at Yankee Stadium against a star pitcher. Sabathia’s numbers don’t lie in post-season games nor do they sway in the house Ruth built. Both teams have big names struggling offensively but New York has more chances of a star running into one with the game on the line. The small spenders of the world will be rooting for the Orioles Friday, but the smart money is on the Yankees and their ace in an elimination game in the Bronx

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