Thursday, October 30, 2014

What if Alex Gordon had tried to score in the bottom of the ninth in World Series Game 7?

Let's start with this: Kansas City Royals third base coach Mike Jirschele made the right call when he threw up the stop sign and held Alex Gordon at third base with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning Wednesday night in Game 7 of the World Series.

Let's also give credit to the San Francisco Giants, who secured their third World Series title in five years with a 3-2 victory over the Royals at Kauffman Stadium. In particular, we give props to San Francisco left-hander Madison Bumgarner, who fired five innings of two-hit shutout relief to earn his third victory of the Series. He is not only a worthy World Series MVP, he deserves credit for one of the best postseason performances of all-time. Who would have thought he could come back on just two days rest and pitch five dominant innings like that? Not me. That's a helluva job by him.

But, I want to focus on the play that created all the drama in the bottom of the ninth inning. Leading 3-2, Bumgarner easily retired the first two hitters, and Gordon was at the plate representing Kansas City's final hope. He ended up hitting a sinking liner toward left-center field.

Giants center fielder Gregor Blanco got caught in between. He seemed unsure whether to dive and attempt a game-ending catch, or pull up, play the ball on a bounce and concede a single. He did neither. He pulled up and tried to play it on a hop, but the ball skipped past him and rolled all the way to the wall. San Francisco left fielder Juan Perez was backing up the play, and he bobbled the ball, as well.

By the time Perez's throw back toward the infield reached Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford, Gordon - carrying the tying run with him - was cruising toward third base.

Jirschele faced a split-second decision with everything hanging in the balance. Were Gordon's odds of scoring on that play better than the odds of the next hitter (catcher Salvador Perez) getting a game-tying base hit off Baumgarner? The Kansas City coach's answer to that question was "no," and I agree with him.

Crawford has a strong, accurate arm. He already had the ball as Gordon reached third base, and if he had to, he could have relayed it to San Francisco catcher Buster Posey in about two seconds. Gordon has decent speed, but not he's not a burner, and there's no way he would have been able to outrun the ball in that situation. A good relay throw, and he's a dead duck and Jirschele doesn't sleep for a month.

So, Gordon was held at third. Perez popped out to third baseman Pablo Sandoval to end the game, and now the second-guessing has begun.

Even though I agree with the decision to hold Gordon based on logic, there's a big part of me that wishes he would have been sent. On that play, the San Francisco fielders were handling the ball as if it had grease all over it. Could Crawford have executed a good relay throw under that type of pressure, with the outcome of the World Series on the line? We'll never know for sure.

Moreover, would Posey have caught the ball and tagged Gordon out without being called for blocking the plate?

It's an interesting thought: Gordon, Posey and the ball all converging on one spot in front of home plate, with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 7 of the World Series in a one-run game, with that silly home plate collision rule that nobody understands in effect. Can you imagine the World Series coming down to a replay review of a play at the plate? That would have been outgoing commissioner Bud Selig's worst nightmare.

Man, what if Gordon had tried to score? It might have created a play that would have been talked about for decades.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Royals force Game 7, have history on their side

After 2,430 regular-season games and 31 postseason games, it all comes down to one night. The Kansas City Royals will host the San Francisco Giants in Game 7 on Wednesday to determine the 2014 World Series champion.

The Royals forced a deciding game by smashing the Giants, 10-0, in Game 6 on Tuesday night. Kansas City starter Yordano Ventura was brilliant, firing seven shutout innings. San Francisco starter Jake Peavy was terrible. The Royals knocked him out of the game by scoring seven runs in the bottom of the second inning. Ventura took over from there in a drama-free victory for Kansas City.

Peavy has never pitched well at Kauffman Stadium. I remember him always struggling there when he was with the White Sox. A check of the numbers revealed he is 1-7 with a 7.28 ERA lifetime in Kansas City. This was one of his worst outings, as he allowed five runs on six hits over 1.1 innings.

When San Francisco won Game 1, I reported that history was on its side. The Game 1 winner has won 15 of the past 17 World Series. But, there is also some history working in Kansas City's favor after this Game 6 victory. Consider:
  • Home teams are 23-3 in Games 6 and 7 of the World Series since 1982.
  • The last eight teams to win Game 6 at home to tie a World Series went on to win Game 7. The 1985 Kansas City Royals are among the clubs to accomplish that feat.
  • Home teams have won the last nine World Series Game 7s dating back to 1979, when the Pittsburgh Pirates defeated the Baltimore Orioles.
  • The 1975 Cincinnati Reds were last team to lose Game 6 on the road (vs. Boston) and recover to win Game 7.
The other thing that's working in Kansas City's favor? It has more pitchers rested and available going into this decisive game. That's where Ventura's long outing Tuesday was key. Jason Frasor and Tim Collins both worked an inning of scoreless relief for the Royals. Neither was taxed and both should be available tonight. Kansas City's three best relievers (Greg Holland, Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera) have all had at least two days of rest. Even James Shields, the Royals starter in Games 1 and 5, could be available should Game 7 starter Jeremy Guthrie run into difficulty.

San Francisco has more limitations. Thirty-nine-year-old Tim Hudson is the oldest pitcher to ever start a World Series Game 7, and the Giants need at least six quality innings from the sinker-balling veteran. Peavy's early exit forced San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy to use Yusmeiro Petit, Jean Machi, Hunter Strickland and Ryan Vogelsong in relief on Tuesday. Machi and Strickland likely aren't available for Game 7. Petit had been solid in relief before getting hit around in Game 6. Will Bochy go back to him if Hudson struggles early? I'm not sure. If the game is close late, we'll probably see San Francisco ace Madison Bumgarner in relief. Bochy simply doesn't have as many options as Kansas City manager Ned Yost.

There are a lot of things that are pointing in the Royals' favor for Game 7. But, of course, this is baseball. All this stuff goes out the window if the Giants get an early lead. That's why we watch. That's why this game is great.

Enjoy Game 7 everybody.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Giants take 3-2 lead with win in World Series Game 5

There have been 30 games played in Major League Baseball's postseason so far this year.

That means there have been 60 starts for pitchers, and of those 60, only six times has a pitcher worked seven innings or more and earned a postseason victory. San Francisco Giants' ace Madison Bumgarner has accounted for four of those six this playoff year.

Bumgarner continued to cement his reputation as a clutch performer with yet another brilliant outing Sunday in Game 5 of the 2014 World Series. The San Francisco left-hander fired a complete-game, four-hit shutout as the Giants defeated the Kansas City Royals, 5-0, to take a 3-2 series lead.

Game 6 is Tuesday night in Kansas City.

Bumgarner is now 4-0 with a 0.29 ERA in four career World Series starts. Opponents are hitting just .120 against him in that span.

How dominant was Bumgarner on this night? In nine innings, Kansas City had only two at-bats with runners in scoring position. Those at-bats were taken by light-hitting outfielder Jarrod Dyson and starting pitcher James Shields, so the Royals had little chance to score in this game.

I've been critical of Shields' postseason performance in previous blog entries, but he was solid in Game 5. He allowed just two runs in six innings. That's certainly a credible performance. He just got outpitched, plain and simple.

The Giants finally solved the riddle of the Kansas City bullpen in the eighth inning, too. They scored three runs off the previously unhittable combination of Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis to increase their lead to 5-0, a two-run double by reserve outfielder Juan Perez being the biggest hit.

The question becomes, can the Giants get a closeout victory on the road with somebody other than Bumgarner on the mound? Jake Peavy will get his shot in Game 6 against Kansas City's Yordano Ventura in a rematch from Game 2.

If San Francisco wins this thing, I think we already know Bumgarner is going to be named MVP.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Royals get even with win in World Series Game 2

The Kansas City Royals couldn't afford to lose the first two games of the World Series at home. After getting pummeled in Game 1, it was imperative they bounce back with a win in Game 2 on Wednesday night.

Bounce back they did, as the Royals scored five runs in the bottom of the sixth inning to break open a close game and defeat the San Francisco Giants 7-2, tying the 2014 Fall Classic at 1-1.

My biggest question coming into this game was whether Kansas City starter Yordano Ventura would be healthy enough to pitch effectively. The youngster exited earlier than he would have liked in his Game 2 start in the AL Championship Series with a shoulder problem, and you couldn't help but wonder whether he would suffer any lingering effects in the biggest start of his life.

Before the game, I even saw some chatter on the Internet where Royals fans were criticizing manager Ned Yost for starting Ventura. Some were suggesting the 23-year-old needed to be shut down in order to "protect his future."

Here's the thing about that: Exactly what future are you preparing for? If you are the Royals, your future is right now. This is their chance to win it all, and Ventura is one of their best pitchers. If he can go, you send him out there. What are you saving him for? The 2043 World Series?

Ventura quieted all those fears with a credible performance. His fastball touched 100 mph, as it normally does, and he fired 5.1 innings, allowing two runs on eight hits. With the bullpen Kansas City has, that's all it needed from its young starter.

And credit Yost for removing Ventura at precisely the right moment. The score was tied, 2-2, in the top of the sixth inning, and the Giants had runners at first and second with one out. San Francisco looked poised to solve Ventura, so Yost brought in flamethrowing Kelvin Herrera, who retired Brandon Belt and Mike Morse consecutively to extricate the Royals from that jam.

Kansas City then battered San Francisco starter Jake Peavy and three Giants relievers for five runs in the bottom half of that inning. Hunter Strickland had another terrible showing out of the bullpen for the Giants. He gave up the two biggest hits of the game -- a two-run double by Salvador Perez and a two-run homer by Omar Infante.

Worse, Strickland was inexplicably jawing at the Royals runners as they rounded the bases after the home run. Perez took exception to that, and the benches briefly cleared.

I can't see Giants manager Bruce Bochy using Strickland in any more high-leverage situations in this series. Yes, Strickland's fastball sits at 98 to 100 mph, but it's straight as an arrow, and his slider hasn't been good enough to keep opposing batters off balance. Both Perez and Infante delivered game-changing extra-base hits against Strickland's fastball.

This is nothing new, either. Strickland has now tied a major league record for home runs given up in a postseason with five. He's given up five home runs to the last 23 batters he has faced, in fact. He's allowed six earned runs in just 5.1 innings this postseason. All other San Francisco relievers have given up just four runs in a combined 35 playoff innings. That tells you Strickland just doesn't belong on the mound right now unless it is mop-up time.

Meanwhile, the Kansas City bullpen continues to dominate. Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland combined to pitch 3.2 innings. They allowed nothing, and the Royals coasted to the five-run victory.

The series now shifts to San Francisco after an off day. Game 3 is Friday night. Kansas City sends veteran right-hander Jeremy Guthrie to the mound. The Giants will counter with veteran right-hander Tim Hudson.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Madison Bumgarner cools off Royals in World Series Game 1

The Game 1 winner has won 15 of the last 17 World Series, including 10 out of the last 11.

That fact bodes well for the San Francisco Giants, who cruised to a 7-1 victory over the Kansas City Royals on Tuesday in the opening game of the 2014 Fall Classic.

How did the Giants cool off the red-hot Royals, who had won nine consecutive games dating back to the regular season? They did it by scoring early and allowing their ace left-hander, Madison Bumgarner, to do his job.

Bumgarner fired seven innings of one-run, three-hit ball. He fanned five and walked just one. His only mistake was a two-out homer by Kansas City catcher Salvador Perez in the bottom of the seventh inning, and by that point it didn't matter because the Royals were hopelessly behind.

San Francisco jumped out to a 3-0 lead in top of the first inning. Hunter Pence's two-run homer off Kansas City ace James Shields highlighted the rally.

You wouldn't have expected Pence to be the guy to haunt Shields. Coming into Tuesday's play, Pence was 0-for-11 with three strikeouts in his career against Shields. However, his home run was the biggest hit of the game, and he also had a double to start a two-run rally in the fourth inning that increased San Francisco's lead to 5-0.

It's no secret San Francisco has the edge in postseason experience in this series. The Giants won the World Series in 2010 and again in 2012. For many of these Kansas City players, this is their first time in the playoffs.

That difference in experience showed up in this game, particularly in the bottom of the third inning when the Royals had their best chance to get to Bumgarner. Down 3-0, Kansas City placed runners on second and third with nobody out after Omar Infante reached on a Brandon Crawford error and Mike Moustakas doubled.

It's the kind of situation the Royals have taken advantage of throughout the postseason, but it didn't happen this time. Bumgarner escaped the jam unscathed by getting overanxious Kansas City hitters to swing at bad pitches. Perhaps the combination of being on the big stage and facing an early deficit caused the Royals to press.

It sure looked that way as Alcides Escobar struck out swinging on a fastball up and well out of the zone for the first out. Nori Aoki also fanned after he could not check his swing on an 0-2 breaking ball that bounced in front of the plate. Bumgarner tried a similar strategy against the next hitter, but to Lorenzo Cain's credit, he laid off those pitches and worked a walk to load the bases for Eric Hosmer.

The Kansas City first baseman swung at the first pitch and grounded out to second base to end what would be the Royals' last and best chance to get back in the game.

I've heard some analysts criticize Hosmer for offering at that first pitch. I won't be among them. I believe in swinging at the first hittable strike in RBI situations. Sometimes, that's the best pitch you're going to get. Hosmer got an 86 mph cutter from Bumgarner that was middle to outer half. It was a hittable pitch. The only criticism I have of Hosmer is he may have tried to pull that pitch when he would have been better served to try to drive it to left field. But, I don't fault him for swinging.

The real disappointment for the Royals in this game was the poor performance of Shields, who was knocked out in the fourth inning and allowed five earned runs. The Giants went 4-for-4 with runners in scoring position against the Kansas City ace, who is now just 1-3 with an 8.26 ERA in his last six postseason starts.

MLB Network analyst Dan Plesac and others need to stop with the obnoxious "Big Game James" references when discussing Shields, because he's obviously been struggling lately.

For an actual "Big Game" pitcher, look no further than Bumgarner. The San Francisco ace has started three World Series games in his career. He's 3-0 with a 0.41 ERA in those outings. That's clutch.

The Royals will try to even the series Wednesday in Game 2 behind youngster Yordano Ventura. Veteran Jake Peavy will be on the mound for the Giants.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Jose Abreu named the Sporting News AL Rookie of the Year

White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu on Monday was named the AL Rookie of the Year by the Sporting News. This award is voted on by players, and Abreu received 149 of 160 votes in a landslide victory.

The honor comes as no surprise. This year, Abreu became the first major league rookie to rank in the top five in each of the Triple Crown categories -- average (.317), home runs (36) and RBIs (107).

He led the league with a .581 slugging percentage and became the fourth player ever to top 30 home runs, 30 doubles and 100 RBIs in his rookie season. The other names on that list are Hal Trosky, Ted Williams and Albert Pujols.

Angels pitcher Matt Shoemaker finished second with four votes. Yankees pitchers Dellin Betances and Masahiro Tanaka tied for third with three votes each. Amusingly, White Sox infielder Marcus Semien finished fifth with one vote.

Semien spent about half the season at Triple-A Charlotte, so you have to wonder which knucklehead player submitted that vote.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Giants win the pennant ... and Mike Matheny doesn't

Second-guessing managers is part of the fun of watching baseball -- especially during the postseason -- and we're putting St. Louis Cardinals skipper Mike Matheny on the hot seat tonight.

Here's the situation: Game 5 of the National League Championship Series. The Cardinals trail the San Francisco Giants 3 games to 1 and face a must win. The game is tied 3-3 going into the bottom of the ninth inning. St. Louis must hold or its season is over. And the pitcher Matheny turns to is none other than ... Michael Wacha?


Yes, Wacha was one of the postseason heroes for the Cardinals in 2013. He won the NLCS MVP award, in fact. But that was then and this is now. It's been an injury-plagued season for Wacha. He missed two and a half months with a shoulder problem, and he wasn't good enough or healthy enough to make the St. Louis postseason rotation.

Wacha hadn't pitched in a game since Sept. 26, yet there he was to start the bottom of the ninth inning with the season hanging in the balance. Four batters later, the Giants were National League champions.

In fairness, I can't say Wacha didn't look healthy. His fastball touched 98 mph on the Fox Sports 1 radar gun. However, his command was absolutely terrible, which is exactly what you would expect from a pitcher who hadn't seen the mound in nearly three weeks. That's why he shouldn't have been out there.

Pablo Sandoval led off the bottom of the ninth inning with a base hit, and the pressure was on Wacha immediately. One out later, he walked Brandon Belt on four pitches. Then, he fell behind 2-0 to San Francisco left fielder Travis Ishikawa and was forced to challenge him with a fastball. Ishikawa answered that challenge, knocking the ball over the right-field wall for a three-run homer.

Giants win, 6-3. Series over. Season over for St. Louis.

It isn't like Matheny didn't have other options. His starting pitcher, Adam Wainwright, gave him seven innings of two-run ball. Reliever Pat Neshek worked the eighth and surrendered a 3-2 lead, giving up a solo home run to pinch-hitter Michael Morse. Everyone else in the Cardinals bullpen should have been available.

Why not bring in closer Trevor Rosenthal? Or hard-throwing Carlos Martinez? A left-handed reliever such as Marco Gonzales or Randy Choate wouldn't have been a bad call in that inning, either, because Belt and Ishikawa are both left-handed hitters, and Sandoval -- a switch-hitter -- is far less dangerous when he's hitting right-handed.

If Matheny had brought in any of those four relievers, it would have been a defensible move. Instead, he went with Wacha. Terrible choice.

The San Francisco victory sets up an wild-card World Series with the Kansas City Royals. Thanks to the stupid TV networks, we have to wait until Tuesday for play to begin.

Am I the only one who thinks it stinks there won't be any baseball on this weekend? 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Kansas City Royals must be happy they traded for James Shields, Wade Davis

Wade Davis struggled with Tampa Bay.
Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore made a trade that stunned the baseball world on Dec. 9, 2012.

He sent outfielder Wil Myers -- who at the time was Kansas City's top prospect and perhaps the best prospect in all of baseball -- and pitcher Jake Odorizzi and two minor-leaguers to the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for veteran pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis and a player to be named later.

The critics howled. How could the general manager of the perpetually rebuilding Royals part with such a huge piece of the franchise's future? This was a "win-now" kind of trade, and Kansas City was coming off a lousy 72-win season in 2012. Was Moore delusional? Certainly he didn't believe Shields and Davis would vault the Royals into contention. Trading away Myers was a move that would haunt the franchise for the next decade, right?


Nearly two years after the deal, Moore is getting the last laugh. That's because the Royals are headed to the World Series for the first time in 29 years. Kansas City finished off a four-game sweep of the Baltimore Orioles in the American League Championship Series with a 2-1 victory Wednesday night.

Shields and Davis are both centerpieces of this pennant winning team. Shields is the No. 1 starter in the Kansas City rotation. This season, he led the team in wins (14), innings pitched (227) and strikeouts (180), while finishing second on the team in ERA (3.21). Teammate Yordano Ventura's ERA (3.20) was just a touch better.

The Royals converted Davis, a failed starter, to a full-time relief role this year with outstanding results. Working as Kansas City's eighth-inning guy, he fired 72 innings, striking out 109 batters and posting a 1.00 ERA and a 0.847 WHIP.  He's been lights out in the postseason, striking out 10 and allowing just one run over 9.1 innings in eight games.

In Wednesday's pennant clincher, Davis worked with surgical efficiency, retiring the Orioles 1-2-3 in the eighth inning on 10 pitches (9 strikes). It was the kind of outing Royals fans have come to expect from Davis. He's done it all year.

So, on one December night, with one trade, Moore acquired two players who would become the best starting pitcher and the best relief pitcher on an American League championship team. He paid a price for it, sure, but that celebration that's going on in Kansas City tonight would not be happening without this trade.

And Myers?

He won the Rookie of the Year award in 2013, but this year he compiled an ugly slash line of .222/.294/.320 with just six home runs and 35 RBIs in 87 games. Myers is only 23 years old, and there is still plenty of time for him to get his career on track, but I don't think the Royals miss him right now.

Let this be a lesson to some media and some fans who tend to overvalue prospects. No matter how highly regarded a young player may be, sometimes it does pay dividends to trade that prospect for more proven ballplayers.

Kansas City is proof of that.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

White Sox announce early lineup for SoxFest 2015

White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu and shortstop Alexei Ramirez are among the current players scheduled to attend SoxFest 2015 at the Hilton Chicago from Jan. 23-25.

In a news release and an email to fans, the team released a list of eight players who are expected to appear at the annual convention. Joining Abreu and Ramirez will be outfielders Adam Eaton and Avisail Garcia, catcher Tyler Flowers, third baseman Conor Gillaspie and pitchers Jose Quintana and Jake Petricka.

Sox manager Robin Ventura, pitching coach Don Cooper and hitting coach Todd Steverson also are scheduled to attend.

That's a good list. Chris Sale is probably the only current player fans care to see who isn't on there.

The Sox have said former players from the 2005 World Series championship team will be at SoxFest this year for a 10-year anniversary celebration. Unfortunately, we've yet to hear exactly which players will be back in Chicago.

Maybe the team just hasn't gotten those former players to commit yet, but in the interest of selling hotel packages and weekend passes, you would think the Sox would want to release that list of names sooner rather than later.

Call me crazy, but I think Jermaine Dye, Joe Crede, Aaron Rowand, Scott Podsednik and the newly retired Paul Konerko, et al, would sell more SoxFest passes than any of the current players would.

We'll stay tuned to see if there's any more news on this in the coming weeks.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Royals take 2-0 lead in ALCS; Bumgarner dominates Cardinals in NLCS

The Baltimore Orioles hadn't lost back-to-back home games since June 28-29 -- until the Kansas City Royals came in and won the first two games of the American League championship series.

The Royals scored two runs in the top of the ninth inning Saturday to come away with a 6-4 victory in Game 2 of the ALCS. They'll take a 2-0 series lead back to Kansas City, where the series resumes Monday night.

I'm happy for the Royals and their long-suffering fans, but as I watched Saturday's ninth inning unfold, I couldn't help but have a bit of sympathy for Baltimore fans. That game-deciding rally by the Royals was death by 1,000 cuts for the Orioles, and as a White Sox fan, I've seen that movie before in games against Kansas City.

Here's how the Royals manufactured their two runs: a swinging bunt infield single, a sacrifice bunt, a perfectly placed RBI double right down the first-base line, an error and a ground ball through a drawn-in infield for an RBI single.

As we noted yesterday, Kansas City has been on a power surge lately, and it got another home run from Mike Moustakas on Saturday -- his fourth of the postseason -- but the aforementioned go-ahead double by Alcides Escobar was more indicative of what we typically see from the Royals offense.

They swing for contact, they put the ball in play, they "hit 'em where they ain't," and they run the bases well. In that RBI situation, Escobar wasn't trying to do anything heroic. He hit the ball to the opposite field. It happened to be in the right spot, and he got the desired result.

When your team is playing against the Royals, you feel like they should be able to stop them, but they can't. Kansas City often creates rallies out of nothing. They put the ball in play. They come at you with speed. They keep the pressure on. They force teams to execute defensively.

That approach is the opposite of what you see from a lot of teams today, where offenses are focused on being "dangerous" at all times and hitters don't care if they strike out while swinging for extra-base hits. For the most part, the Royals are looking to single and double teams to death, and they just might ride that all the way to the World Series. They are now just two wins away.

Giants blank Cardinals in NLCS opener

There is no underdog story on the National League side of the bracket. The San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals have combined to win the last four NL pennants. This NLCS is a clash of the usual suspects, with most people picking the Cardinals to win.

The Giants, however, drew first blood with a 3-0 victory behind ace Madison Bumgarner on Saturday in St. Louis.

The San Francisco left-hander set a postseason record for most consecutive scoreless innings pitched on the road. He ran his streak to 26.2 innings with 7.2 spotless frames in this Game 1. He hasn't given up a run on the road in the postseason since 2010.

In case you were wondering, the previous record was 23, held by some guy named Art Nehf, who pitched in the 1920s. Kudos to any reader who knows anything about Nehf.

The Giants have now won 12 of their last 13 postseason games dating back to their World Series win in 2012. St. Louis is known for being at its best in October -- the Cardinals have made the NLCS four years in row -- but San Francisco also seems to save its best ball for the playoffs.

The teams face off in Game 2 on Sunday night.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Royals win ALCS Game 1 with more home runs

The Kansas City Royals on Friday became the first team in history to win four extra-inning games in the same postseason with an 8-6, 10-inning victory over the Baltimore Orioles in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series.

The Royals won only five extra-inning games the entire regular season, but now they've won four of them in about a week on their way to a 5-0 record thus far in the playoffs.

The most surprising part of this development is Kansas City is doing it with home run power. The Royals had the fewest home runs of any team in the league, 95, while their opponent in this series led the AL with 211. You would think the Orioles would be the team hitting home runs to win games, but you'd be wrong.

On Friday, Alex Gordon's solo home run off Darren O'Day broke a 5-5 tie in the top of the 10th inning. Later, Mike Moustakas hit a two-run shot off Brian Matusz, his first home run off a left-handed pitcher in two and a half months, to make it 8-5. Baltimore scored one run in the bottom of the 10th, but could not recover from the three-run deficit.

The Royals also won two of their games in the ALDS on extra-inning home runs, one by Moustakas and one by Eric Hosmer.

Why the sudden power surge? Who knows, but the Royals have shown remarkable resiliency for a team with no postseason experience. James Shields, the Kansas City ace, was not effective in Friday night's game, letting an early 5-1 lead slip away. It didn't matter. The Royals kept their composure and found a way to win, just as they have since the playoffs began.

As an aside, one of the most annoying things about this postseason has been listening to commentators repeatedly referring to Shields as "Big Game James." Now, Shields has been a solid pitcher in the American League for several years, but let's remember he's 3-4 with a 5.19 ERA in nine career postseason starts. Some announcers seemed to have deluded themselves into believing "Big Game James" is lights out in the playoffs. Don't let the nickname fool you. He is not.

The Royals bullpen, however, has been lights out, and Friday was no exception. Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis each fired two shutout innings. Neither man gave up a hit. Davis struck out four of the six men he faced.

Perhaps the key to the whole game was the shutdown inning Davis posted in the bottom of the ninth. In the top half of the inning, Baltimore closer Zach Britton walked the bases loaded with nobody out. But, Hosmer and Billy Butler failed to produce any runs, with Butler grounding into a double play against O'Day to end the threat.

The momentum seemed to swing to the Orioles side at that point, but Davis would have none of it. He fired a clean inning and got the Royals right back to the plate quickly, and then Kansas City scored three runs to take the lead.

Closer Greg Holland was a little shaky in the 10th, giving up a two-out run, but the insurance runs Moustakas provided with his two-run homer proved to be the difference.

Game 2 is Saturday afternoon, and it's a big one for the Orioles. With the way the Royals have been playing, I don't think Baltimore wants to head to Kansas City down 0-2 in this best-of-seven series.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Game 4 of the NLDS shapes up as a defining moment for Clayton Kershaw

Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw is widely considered the best pitcher in baseball. We'll make no argument to the contrary.

Kershaw's performance over the past four seasons has been without peer. This year, he finished 21-3 with a 1.77 ERA. He claimed his fourth consecutive National League ERA title, and that 1.77 mark was nearly half a run better than his closest competitor. He is a lock to win his third NL Cy Young award in the last four years.

Kershaw had a 1.83 ERA during the 2013 campaign, so that means he is just the second pitcher in the live-ball era to post an ERA of 1.85 or less in consecutive seasons. Hall of Famer Greg Maddux is the other.

Yes, Kershaw is the best in the game right now.

But you know what has eluded him to this point in his career? Postseason success. I've heard some people compare Kershaw to another former Dodgers' lefty, Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax. Some say Kershaw may go down as the best pitcher to play in the live-ball era once he's all done. Who am I to say he can't do that? But if he is going to be considered better than Koufax, he better figure out a way to beat the St. Louis Cardinals in the playoffs.

The Cardinals will take a 2-1 series lead over the Dodgers into Tuesday's Game 4 of the National League Division Series. Kershaw is taking the ball on three days' rest. The season is on the line for the favored Dodgers.

Normally, a team feels pretty good about sending its ace out there in a must-win game, but Kershaw's postseason numbers are inexplicably terrible.

In 10 postseason games (7 starts), he's 1-4 with a 5.20 ERA. He has lost each of his last three playoff starts, all against the Cardinals. In two of those outings, he got bombed.

Kershaw went to the mound in a similar situation in Game 6 of last year's NLCS. The Cardinals were up 3-2 in the series, at home and looking to clinch. St. Louis roughed up Kershaw to the tune of seven earned runs on 10 hits over four innings. The Cardinals won, 9-0, and advanced to the World Series.

In Game 1 of this NLDS, Kershaw was staked to a 6-1 lead. He coughed up the whole thing, allowing eight earned runs on eight hits over 6.2 innings pitched. The Cardinals rallied to win, 10-9.

In Kershaw's last two playoff starts, he's allowed 15 earned runs on 18 hits over 10.2 innings pitched. Those aren't numbers you would associate with someone whose name is being mentioned alongside some of the all-time greats.

Most experts picked the Dodgers to win this series, because they figured the combination of Kershaw and teammate Zack Greinke would be too much for the Cardinals to handle. Greinke did his part in Game 2, a 3-2 Dodgers victory, and he's poised to pitch Game 5 back in Los Angeles if Kershaw can lead the Dodgers to a win in Game 4.

This game is a defining moment for Kershaw. His postseason failures are a black mark on an otherwise brilliant resume. As of this writing, we're just three hours from the first pitch of Game 4. I'll be interested to see how Kershaw responds in this pressure-packed start.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Thursday produces two wins for perceived ALDS underdogs

The prevailing wisdom says the Detroit Tigers and the Los Angeles Angels are on a collision course to meet in the American League Championship Series.

Naturally, the Baltimore Orioles and Kansas City Royals have other ideas, and both perceived underdogs threw a wrench in that plan Thursday with Game 1 victories in AL Division Series action.

The Orioles took advantage of Detroit's leaky defense and lousy bullpen by scoring eight runs in the bottom of the eighth inning, breaking open a tight contest on their way to a 12-3 victory.

Meanwhile, third baseman Mike Moustakas hit a solo home run in the top of the 11th inning to lift the Royals to a 3-2 win over the Angels.

Baltimore's rotation: Better than we think?

Anyone else think the experts are underestimating the Orioles? They won 96 games this year. They must have done something right.

I keep hearing Detroit has an overpowering edge in starting pitching. I'll be honest: I disagree with that. Detroit's starting pitchers are all prominent media names, but they haven't necessarily pitched better than the guys in the Baltimore rotation throughout the season.

We saw today how things don't always go the way you might expect. Quite a few observers assumed Detroit ace Max Scherzer was going to own Baltimore's Game 1 starter, Chris Tillman.

That did not happen. Tillman only lasted five innings, but he allowed just two runs and left the mound with his team leading, 3-2. He ended up getting the win.

Scherzer took the loss, allowing five earned runs over 7.1 innings pitched.

Shocking? Not really.

Scherzer had a 3.15 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP this year. In comparison, Tillman had a 3.34 ERA and a 1.23 WHIP. Sure, you would have to give Scherzer the edge on paper in that matchup, but not decisively so.

The Game 2 matchup in this series is an interesting one. Detroit's Justin Verlander has the Cy Young awards and the playoff experience. He also has a puffy 4.54 ERA, his worst since the 2008 season. Baltimore's Wei-Yin Chen is unfamiliar to casual fans, but don't underestimate him: He won 16 games this year and posted a 3.54 ERA -- a full run better than Verlander. It's hard to bet against Verlander in the playoffs, but his mound opponent is formidable. Game 2 is hardly a slam dunk for the Tigers.

Looking ahead to Game 3, Detroit will send David Price to the mound against Baltimore's Miguel Gonzalez. Again, Price has a Cy Young award and the playoff experience. But it's Gonzalez who posted the better ERA this year (3.23 to 3.26).

This isn't to say the Detroit starters won't ultimately outpitch the Baltimore starters over the course of this five-game series. They might. But keep this in mind: The Orioles have a great chance to win if their starters are good enough to keep the game close into the late innings.

Here's why: Baltimore has a nasty bullpen. Closer Zach Britton and his power 96 mph sinker totaled 37 saves and a 1.65 ERA this year. The Orioles have a outstanding lefty-righty combination setting him up. Midseason acquisition Andrew Miller had a 1.35 ERA in 23 games with the O's since coming over from Boston. Darren O'Day, the right-handed setup guy, posted a 1.70 ERA this season.

We saw all three of those relievers in Thursday's game. The Tigers found out they are pretty tough to beat.

Two of the relievers Detroit is counting on to work in high-leverage situations, Joba Chamberlain and Joakim Soria, contributed to that eight-run eighth inning meltdown in this opening loss. You better believe the bullpen is a huge concern for the Tigers. Detroit's 4.29 bullpen ERA was third worst in the majors this year.

Yes, Detroit has a bit of an edge in starting pitching, primarily because of all that playoff experience among Scherzer, Verlander and Price. However, I don't believe it's a huge edge. If there's a huge edge in this series, it's the advantage the Baltimore bullpen enjoys over the Detroit relievers.

All the Oriole starters really need to do is keep it close into the late innings. That's what Tillman did Thursday. Baltimore got its desired result.

Can the Royals pull it off? 

If you're looking for a reason to believe Kansas City can upset the 98-win Angels, here it is: Los Angeles has a starting pitching staff that is in disarray.

Jered Weaver is the Angels' lone reliable starter, and he pitched well in Game 1 on Thursday. However, Kansas City's Jason Vargas matched him. The game was tied, 2-2, when the starters left, and the Angels' bullpen blinked first with Moustakas hitting the home run off Fernando Salas.

Los Angeles has burned up its best starter and trails in the series. The Angels will be counting on rookie Matt Shoemaker, who hasn't pitched since Sept. 15 due to an oblique strain, in Game 2. C.J. Wilson is in line to pitch Game 3 for Los Angeles. Wilson has had a terrible second half -- his ERA is 6.05 over his last 16 starts.

The Angels definitely miss ace Garrett Richards, who is gone for the year with a serious knee injury.

Kansas City has a shot if it can take advantage of the iffy Angels starters. The Royals are 65-4 when leading after six innings, so it could be tough for Los Angeles if its pitchers put them behind early in games.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Madison Bumgarner turns NL wild-card game into a snooze

All the drama in the wild-card round this season got packed into Tuesday's marathon American League game. If you went to bed early Wednesday and missed the end of the National League wild-card game, you didn't miss a thing.

Madison Bumgarner and the San Francisco Giants made it look easy, as they dispatched the Pittsburgh Pirates, 8-0. With the win, the Giants advance to take on the Washington Nationals in the NLDS. That series will start Friday.

Bumgarner entered his seventh career postseason start with a couple factors working in his favor. First off, he's been good on the road all season -- 11-4 with a 2.22 ERA. Secondly, he pitched well down the stretch, going 7-3 with 2.12 ERA over his last 10 starts.

When the Giants won the World Series in 2010 and again in 2012, Bumgarner was a member of the supporting cast. Now, he's the San Francisco ace, and he proved it Wednesday night with a dominant, efficient performance.

The left-hander needed just 109 pitches in his four-hit, complete-game shutout. He struck out 10 Pittsburgh batters and walked just one.

Believe it or not, Pirates starting pitcher Edinson Volquez also entered this game with reasons to feel good about himself. After a disastrous 2013 that saw him record the highest ERA among qualifying pitchers in the National League, the right-hander enjoyed a comeback season this year.

He posted a 1.85 ERA over his last 17 starts, and he had allowed just four earned runs in his last 34.2 innings pitched at home. Unfortunately for Volquez, he allowed four runs on one pitch in the fourth inning Wednesday night.

Brandon Crawford became the first shortstop ever to hit a postseason grand slam when he picked on a 1-2 hanging breaking ball from Volquez and knocked it over the right-field wall to give the Giants a 4-0 lead.

That was your ballgame. There was no drama from that point on. San Francisco added four more runs, and Pittsburgh had no chance against the masterful Bumgarner.

Maybe we'll have something more interesting to talk about after tomorrow's action. Tonight's game was one-sided. It was all Giants.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Royals use running game to beat A's in AL wild-card game

Kansas City Royals fans have waited exactly 10,565 days for this night.

After 29 consecutive years of missing the playoffs, the Royals captured their first postseason victory since Game 7 of the 1985 World Series on Tuesday night, defeating the Oakland A's 9-8 in 12 innings in one of the craziest, most entertaining American League wild-card games you're ever going to see.

The Royals overcame three deficits and finally prevailed with a two-run rally in the bottom of the 12th inning, capped off by a two-out RBI single by catcher Salvador Perez off former Cubs right-hander Jason Hammel.

Credit the Royals for this: They stuck with their offensive identity in this game. They were going up against a tough pitcher in Oakland ace Jon Lester, who entered Tuesday's action with a 2.11 ERA in 11 career postseason starts. The A's went 2-5 against Kansas City during the regular season, but Lester was the starting pitcher in each of the two Oakland victories.

The A's had the right man on the mound, but the Royals prevailed thanks to their ability to manufacture runs with speed. Kansas City stole a league-best 153 bases during the regular season, and on this night, they tied a Major League record by swiping seven bases in a postseason game. They also successfully executed four sacrifice bunts.

Remarkably, the seven stolen bases came from seven different players: Nori Aoki, Lorenzo Cain, Christian Colon, Jarrod Dyson, Alcides Escobar, Alex Gordon and Terrance Gore.

Dyson had perhaps the biggest steal of them all in the ninth inning. The Royals trailed 7-3 after seven innings, but they scored three runs in the bottom of the eighth to get close at 7-6. In the ninth, pinch-hitter Josh Willingham led off with a bloop single and was lifted in favor of pinch-runner Dyson. After one of the aforementioned sacrifice bunts, Dyson found himself on second base with one out. Moments later, in a gutsy move with the season on the line, he stole third and put himself in position to score the tying run on Aoki's deep fly to right field. The stolen base allowed the Royals to tie the score, force extra innings and, ultimately, extend their season.

The stolen base also played a key part in the 12th-inning rally. Kansas City trailed 8-7 after allowing a run in the top of the inning, but erased the deficit when Eric Hosmer tripled and scored the tying run on an infield single by Colon. 

Colon then came through with the second-most important stolen base of the evening, getting himself in scoring position to set the table for Perez's game-winning hit. 

Defense is not a strong point for Oakland. In fact, the A's were the worst defensive club among the five AL playoff qualifiers. They have excellent starting pitching, but if an opponent can put some pressure on them and force them to execute defensively, they cannot. The Royals proved that with Tuesday's win. 

The loss finishes an epic collapse for the A's, who had a 66-41 record the first four months of the season. But they slumped to a 22-33 mark since Aug. 1, and they did not clinch a berth in the wild-card game until the last day of the regular season. 

The Oakland offense struggled mightily down the stretch of the season, but it was not their bats that caused them to lose to Kansas City. Designated hitter Brandon Moss clubbed two home runs and drove in five runs, and left fielder Sam Fuld reached base three times Tuesday, quieting critics who said before the game that Oakland manager Bob Melvin was making a mistake by not including late-season acquisition Adam Dunn in the lineup.

The A's scored plenty of runs, but they could not slow down Kansas City's small-ball attack. Oakland is going home, and the Royals are moving on to the American League Division Series, where they will face the Los Angeles Angels in a five-game set that starts Thursday night.