Friday, October 11, 2013

2013 League Championship Series: Battle of Baseball Royalty

And then there were four. Not just any four though! These league championship series aren’t inviting any Cinderella’s to the ball it’s all about the big boys of baseball history. Four old school franchises each rich in the Great American pastime’s pedigree, popularity and post-season history. The Dodgers, Cardinals, Red Sox and Tigers, four icons of Major League Baseball, four organizations that pre-date the sport’s golden age, all sharing the October stage together for the first time since the league championship series format began in 1969. On the eve of game one of the NLCS, one could argue this is the most evenly matched foursome in league championship series history, period. Dodgers vs. Cardinals At the season’s start many prognosticators picked both the Dodgers and Cardinals to battle for a trip to the World Series, so this match-up is not much of a surprise especially considering the starting pitching staffs, both clubs have put together. With Clayton Kershaw working on short rest to dispose of the Atlanta Braves in the NLDS, Los Angeles number two man Zack Greinke gets the ball in game one for L.A. He’ll face St. Louis youngster Joe Kelly, as Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright worked game five for the Red Birds in their ousting of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Since recovering from a broken collarbone early in the season, Greinke has been just as good as Kershaw in the Dodgers rotation, basically giving the Blue Crew essentially two aces on the mound. Together they allowed the Braves to score just three earned runs in 19 innings with no long balls against baseball’s best home run hitting team this season. So the Cards will see Greinke’s 2.63 ERA, followed by Kershaw’s 1.83 ERA in games one and two in St. Louis. The game three starter for L.A. will be South Korean sensation Hyan-Jin Ryu. The rookie was spectacular in the regular season before appearing to tire down the stretch in his first full campaign in the United States. Ryu was shaky in his only NLDS performance against the Braves giving up two first inning runs and two more before getting the hook in the fourth after 68 pitches. During his post-game presser he admitted to feeling a little more anxious compared to his regular season starts, so the jury is still out on just how effective he’ll be in game three when the series shifts to Dodger Stadium. For game four, no decision has been made on whether Ricky Nolasco gets the nod or not. The fourth Los Angeles starter struggled so much over the last three weeks of the regular season; manager Don Mattingly skipped his start in the clinching game against Atlanta using Kershaw. If Nolasco is passed over again, the Dodgers could throw either Edinson Volquez who made five starts for LA in September and posted a 4.18 ERA or even Chris Capuano, who made several starts earlier in the season before battling injuries late in the year and being moved to the bullpen. Capuano did toss three innings of scoreless relief in the Dodgers win over Atlanta in game three of the NLDS. All three are crafty veterans but don’t have the same stuff as Greinke, Kershaw and Ryu. For the Red Birds on the hill, they are both accomplished and young. Kelly sports a gaudy ERA of just 2.69 in the regular season. He started one game of the Cards-Bucs series, going 5.1 innings, allowing five hits and two earned runs with four walks and five k’s. The question surrounding this rookie in such a big game at home is whether or not the moment will be too much for the 25-year-old? From there the Cards hand the ball over to a 22-year-old, in Michael Wacha. So far Wacha has been flawless for St. Louis since being called up late in the season due to injuries. The right-hander, like Kelly has been on fire so far this post-season allowing just two hits in 16 innings against Pittsburgh, so pressure doesn’t seem to be much of an anxiety trigger for him. The ace Wainwright takes the ball in game three on the road, which could be the pivotal game of the series should the teams split in St. Louis. He’s already shown his post-season toughness, picking up two of the Cards wins in their five game series against the Bucs. The fourth starter for St. Louis will be Shelby Miller who didn’t start a game in the NLDS but did pitch one inning giving up one earned run in a relief performance. At just 23-years-old, some believe his arm is tired after throwing 173 innings during his first full big league season but he did pitch in last season’s post-season, so he does have some experience on the big stage. We give the Dodgers a slight edge in the pitching match-up because of the experience and age of the starters compared to the Cardinal youth with the exception of Wainwright. When you start talking about the offense and line-ups, once again these teams are about as even as two can be. The Dodger bats exploded after the All-Star break ranking third in runs scored, when Los Angeles put together one of the most remarkable records (42-8) in modern baseball history for a 50 game stretch. It all starts with rookie Yasiel Puig. Since his June call-up the Dodgers fortunes took a 180 degree turn. Not only is he still a .319 hitter and home run threat but his base running ability puts pressure on the defense like no other player in the majors. Leadoff hitter Carl Crawford has seemed to find his stroke hitting three home runs in the NLDS and is also a base stealing threat. Following the steady contact hitter Mark Ellis in the two-hole the Cards will then have to deal with Adrian Gonzalez (.293, 22 HR), MVP candidate Hanley Ramirez (.345, 20 HR) and then Puig. Andre Ethier is still not ready to start in centerfield in place of Skip Schumaker but does bring the Dodgers a huge left-handed bat off the bench for now. One must not forget Juan Uribe’s experience and knack for the big post-season hit (just ask Atlanta) or A.J. Ellis’ ability to put the ball in play in the eighth spot. Also, Dodger pitchers Greinke, Kershaw and Ryu all handle the bat extremely well for pitchers as far as making contact. St. Louis can flat out score runs as well. The Cardinals led the NL in runs scored during the first half of the season and the second half as well. They roll out seven hitters with an OBP of .335 or higher and four of the seven hit above .300. While they didn’t knock the cover off the ball over the wall in the regular season finishing 13th in home runs in the NL, they did hit a long ball in each game of the NLDS. They’ll need lead-off man Matt Carpenter to get his act together after going just 1-for-19 in the division series win over the Bucs. Carlos Beltran hitting second wasn’t much better going 4-for-18 but did rope two home runs in the series and is known for his playoff punch at the plate. Following Beltran comes the real power in Matt Holiday (.319), Mike Adams (17 HR) and catcher Yadier Molina (.300), all who hit a home run against Pittsburgh in the NLDS. At the end of the order David Freese was the Cards’ post-season hero in 2011 and jacked the winning home run in the game five win over Pittsburgh, while both Jon Jay and Pete Kozma are contact guys that can steal bases. However, with Ethier, veteran Michael Young and power man Scott Van Slyke coming off the bench in pinch-hit situations the Dodgers bench is stronger and so is the overall line-up by just a small margin. Like the starting staffs and line-ups, the bullpens of these teams match-up extremely well. Kenley Jansen (1.88 ERA) is arguably is the best closer in the NL at the time. Brian Wilson since joining the Dodgers has been a solid bridge to the 9th inning giving up nothing, while sporting a 0.66 ERA. Youngster Chris Withrow gives the Dodgers a power throwing righty that can toss long innings and J.P. Howell is a crafty veteran the Braves were able to get nothing off of. The concerns for Don Mattingly come from righty Ronald Belisario and lefty Paco Rodriguez. Both were lights out during the Dodgers historic run over the second half of the season but have struggled the last month. Rodriguez surrendered Jason Hayward’s game winning hit in game two of the NLDS and his home run in game three. Belisario gave up two hits and a run for a 3-2 deficit in the Dodgers eventual 4-3 win to clinch the series against the Braves. You have to wonder how much trust Mattingly has in either one of these relievers at the moment. St. Louis closer Trevor Rosenthal is a rookie and not yet in Jansen class of throwers but has been solid down the stretch. Carlos Martinez is a hard throwing right-hander with not a ton of big league experience but nasty stuff. Manager Mike Matheny will have to hope the moment doesn’t become too large for either of these guys. Lefties Kevin Siegrist and former Dodger Randy Choate will be ready for the Crawford, Gonzalez, Ethier part of the Los Angeles line-up, while Maness is a ground ball special from the right-side. Once again, the nod here goes to the Dodgers. Finally you have to add in what the managers bring to the table. Mike Matheny has watched Tony LaRussa do it but also watched the Cards blow a 3-1 lead to the Giants last year in the NLCS only to lose 4-3. Mattingly is riding through is first post-season rodeo as a manager and has already made some questionable decisions in the NLDS, one that maybe cost the Dodgers game two in Atlanta. Matheny with the experience holds a slight edge in this match-up. Overall however, we see the Dodgers with just a little more on the table than the Cardinals as well as the perfect combination of superstar power and blue collar grit to advance to the World Series beating the Cardinals in six games. Tigers vs. Red Sox It’s hard to believe that in the 112 years both the Tigers and Red Sox have been a part of Major League Baseball, they’ve never met in the post-season until now. Well the wait is over and this one appears to be well worth waiting for! For Motown, this is their third straight ALCS. While they reached the World Series last year, the trip ended in disaster with a sweep to the underdog San Francisco Giants so you know the motivation factor is sky high. Boston, under new manager John Farrell pulled off one of the biggest one-season turnarounds in baseball history! The Red Sox ended the year at 97-65, a 28 game turnaround, while the 97 victories were the second most regular season wins for a Boston team since 1978. Like the National League Championship Series the ALCS sports tremendous starting pitching on both sides. Detroit leads with the duel-ace combo of eventual AL CY Young winner Max Scherzer (21 wins, 2.90 ERA, 240 k’s) and the sudden reappearance of Justin Verlander the former CY Young winner. After just a 13-12 record this season, Verlander has found his “A+ stuff. He did not allow a run to the Oakland A’s in 15 innings of the Tigers ALDS win, while striking out 21 batters, improving to 7-4 lifetime in the postseason with a 3.48 ERA in 14 starts. Third starter Anibal Sanchez, who will pitch game one, led the AL in ERA this season at 2.57 but was rocked by Oakland in the divisional series to the tune of six runs (5 earned) in just 4& 1/3rd innings. Scherzer will pitch game two, followed by Verlander in game three when the series heads to Motown. Doug Fister gets the fourth start and depending on the situation like the Oakland series, could have a short hook from manager Jim Leland. The Red Sox bring to the mound not the same type of over-powering arms but starters that have proven to be equally effective from one thru four. Unlike Detroit, Boston’s rotation is set from the top with ace Jon Lester throwing in game one. He went 15-8 this past season with an ERA of 3.75. He surrendered just two runs in 7& 2/3rd innings in a win over the Tampa Bay Rays in the ALDS and in his career has held the opposition to a .199 batting average with 46 strikeouts in 49& 2/3rd postseason frames. The shakiest starter in the Boston rotation is now game three-starter, John Lackey. The Tigers will face him not at Fenway Park, where he has been solid in 2013 but at home. He beat the Rays in game two of the ALDS after going 6-3 with a 2.47 ERA in 13 home starts during the regular season. Overall this season he finished just 10-13, so the key is getting Lackey at Comerica Park where the odds of beating him go way up and for some reason that’s the position Farrell has put him in. At the number two spot the Sox have a wild-card in Clay Buchholz. He missed three months of the season with a shoulder issue but was solid in his return so far. His move to the game-two slot shows the confidence Farrell possesses in him, especially if Lester losses game one. Jake Peavy rounds out the Boston rotation and has proven to be a more than solid fourth starter. With Verlander appearing to regain his CY Young form over his last two playoffs starts the rotation edge has to go towards the Tigers but not by much. The tri-aces of Verlander, Scherzer and Sanchez were responsible for setting an all-time record for highest strikeout rate in baseball history by averaging 8.79 k’s per nine innings. This group of Red Sox struck out 1,308 times this season, the AL’s fourth-highest total. When you talk about offense this is a match-up of titans in both dugouts. However the Detroit bats will have to make a lot more noise than in their ALDS victory over the A’s. Besides Victor Martinez (9 hits) and Jhonny Peralta(5 hits) the Tigers offense proved to be the worst of the four teams to advance and even under-hit the eliminated Pittsburgh Pirates, batting just .235 with 17 runs scored and three homers in five games. Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera who of course is injured struggled against Oakland with the exception of Cabrera’s game-five winning homer and won’t beat Boston if the two-some remains quite. Tori Hunter, Alex Avila and Austin Jackson combined for just seven hits in 54 at bats which will not get it done. Boston on the other hand hit .286 as a team versus the Rays, scoring 26 runs despite only hitting two home runs total, both coming off the bat of David Ortiz. But what the Sox do well is get aboard and move at a rapid pace that is anything but station to station on the bases. Jacoby Ellsbury and Shane Victorino combined for 15 hits in the ALCS and 17 total bases. Ellsbury stole four bags and Victorino one, which of course ignites the Boston offense and sets the table for sluggers like Ortiz, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Dustin Pedroia. Everyone is the Boston line-up seems to hit including Will Middlebrooks, Jonny Gomes and Daniel Nava, which is why the Sox produced the best road OBA and second-best OBA this season. We also can’t forget the fact the Red Sox are baseball’s best hitting team against right handed pitching and the Tigers start four righties in their rotation. The offensive edge goes to Boston. When it comes to the bullpens, Boston gets a big edge here. The Red Sox relievers were solid this year and dominant in the ALDS. They averaged 9.8 k’s per nine innings, a 0.81 WHIP and gave up just a 1.64 ERA. All their relievers pitched well with Craig Breslow giving up just two hits, Junichi Tazawa one hit, while closer Koji Uehara was just about unhittable with the exception of the game winning home run he gave up in game three in three total innings of work. Over the course of the season he’s arguably been the best closer in the American League. Detroit on the other hand can be a bit of an adventure after the starters come out. Against the A’s they didn’t see a lot of innings because of Scherzer and Verlander. They didn’t surrender any home runs and recorded a decent amount of strike outs but they did walk batters and allowed base runners. Phil Coke is back for Detroit which will help but both Al Albuquerque and closer Joaquin Benoit were suspect against Oakland and it will only be worse against the better hitting Red Sox. Big advantage here goes to the Sox. Finally, when it comes to managers this is a push. Jim Leland has been there many times and is one of the best strategists in the game. Farrell no doubt has the pulse of his team at his ear and is respected highly in his clubhouse. This series completely rides on the arms of Detroit’s aces. If either of them falters, Boston wins in seven. If both Scherzer and Verlander are as unhittable as in the ALDS, the Tigers take it on the rode in seven.

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