By Jonathan Bernhardt
We've assembled some of our favorite baseball writers from around the country to contribute to Sports on Earth each day throughout the postseason.
It is useful at times like this to remember that the Baltimore Orioles are not a very good baseball team. They have not been a very good baseball team for a very long time; they will not be a very good baseball team for a fair bit longer. All of which is to say that if you didn’t predict the New York Yankees would take this series in four games at most, you’re probably doing this wrong.
One wonders if, perhaps, the only real reason the Orioles won 93 games this year was because they’d excelled so thoroughly at embarrassing themselves during the regular season that the only thing they had left to prove was whether or not they could still perform their particular brand of failure on the more challenging, higher-profile stage of the MLB playoffs. And by losing 7-2 at home with their closer giving up five runs in the ninth to guys like Russell Martin, Derek Jeter and Ichiro Suzuki, all with Cal Ripken Jr. sitting in the booth forced to watch, the Orioles assured their fans that this stage wasn’t too big for them.
It’s only one game, yes, but as has been mentioned a lot today, as bad as this year’s new and temporary playoff format is for the home team if it drops one of the first two games of the five-game divisional round, it’s even worse for the road team if it does the same. Perhaps the only redeeming quality about the format is that it’s now impossible, by rule, for the Baltimore Orioles to actually get eliminated in Baltimore. Though really, if they don’t win Monday night, they’re pretty much done already.
There wasn’t any bad managerial decision-making in this game by the Orioles’ Buck Showalter, like Mike Matheny’s questionable calls in the afternoon game against Washington. Going to Jim Johnson was a perfectly legitimate thing to do in the situation the Orioles were in. Johnson just blew the game. He gave up his first home run since early June and his first runs since early September. He was a ground-ball pitcher that got obliterated, and that’s just something that happens sometimes. The Orioles weren’t able to do anything against CC Sabathia because CC Sabathia is one of the best pitchers in baseball. Wait, check that -- the Orioles outside of Nate McLouth and “designated hitter” Lew f***ing Ford weren’t able to do anything against CC Sabathia, because baseball is a horrible, spiteful creature.
For the first time in 15 years, Camden Yards filled up with strange, perplexing people who seemed to actually believe the Orioles had a chance of taking a game in a postseason series from the New York Yankees, who somehow won 95 games despite starting a series of corpses in various stages of decomposition in such key positions as shortstop, third base, left field, right field, first base and designated hitter. And after making those people wait in the cold, miserable rain for two hours, baseball let them think for eight innings that the Orioles might actually have a chance of pulling it off.
Only in the top of the ninth -- late in the game and with the score tied and with all the other qualifiers that people paid not to know better have said make the Orioles play better baseball -- did the Yankees finally stomp Baltimore like everyone knew they were going to. Forget what Billy Beane’s doing in Oakland; you want to see some s*** that doesn’t work in the playoffs? It’s “winning percentage in one-run games” and “x-straight extra-inning victories” and “75-0 when leading after seven innings” and all sorts of other stuff that sounds good when you’re at a loss to explain why a team that doesn’t have a single complete hitter or playoff-caliber starting pitcher is hanging around the ALDS like an awkward kid who got tricked into showing up at a party where he wasn’t invited.
There was something really important on display in Baltimore tonight that I think most Orioles fans already knew but over the past six months had forced themselves to forget: no matter how much time or effort you invest, no matter how much of yourself you put into it, no matter how much you love baseball -- baseball does not love you back. Hell, Orioles fans, baseball doesn’t even like you. The only question is: Does it like the other guys less?
And the answer is, not Sunday. Check back tomorrow. Maybe. Probably not. We’ll see.
*Eds note: Jonathan Bernhardt is an Orioles fan.
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Coco Crisp probably never imagined that he’d be compared to Josh Hamilton -- or that if he was, it wouldn’t be a compliment. But days after the Texas outfielder misplayed a fly ball in center to extend a crucial inning and allow the Athletics to take the lead … Crisp misplayed a fly ball in center to extend a crucial inning and allow the Tigers to take the lead.
Unlike Texas on the last day of the regular season, Oakland briefly led again in Game 2 of the ALDS on Sunday, but Detroit would walk off with a 5-4 win in the bottom of the ninth on a bases-loaded sacrifice fly by Don Kelly. Kelly was designated for assignment earlier this year to make room for Jeff Baker – who, himself, was designated for assignment to make room for Avisail Garcia, and who barely had an OPS over .500 this year.
But what’s done is done; the series now moves to Oakland on Tuesday, where it will end one way or the other, and the storyline moves to something much more interesting than Kelly’s season, or whether Detroit reliever Al Alburquerque disrespected the Sanctity of the Game by kissing a baseball on national television after inducing a groundout to end the top of the ninth inning (he didn’t, and it’s a non-story).
As Oakland won its division with a better record than Detroit, it allegedly has home-field advantage in this series -- but how useful is “home-field advantage” if the visiting team gets a chance to make every single game played there an elimination game?
The Baseball Reference Blog took a quick look last February at how home-field advantage has helped teams in regular-season play since 1920 and found two things: first, that league-wide and across the vast expanse of time and space, baseball teams always win more at home than they do on the road; and second, that home-field advantage is more important in low run-scoring environments than it is in high run-scoring environments -- that is to say, as league-wide runs scored per game go down, league-wide home winning percentage generally tends to go up.
It’s safe to say that runs are down enough for that to matter: This year, runs per game were at 4.32, which is slightly up from last year’s 4.28 but still a good deal south of the 4.5-4.8 numbers that were put up last decade. Meanwhile, in this era, not only is home team winning percentage around .540, but as SI.com’s Jay Jaffe pointed out this August, the team that wins the first game of a five-game playoff series will generally win the whole thing more than 70 percent of the time. That advantage obviously only increases when the team wins the second game as well.
That said, if MLB is going to abandon the 2-2-1 format as it has (albeit temporarily) this season in favor of a 2-3 format, it has to be a 2-3 format -- flipping it to 3-2 won’t have any traction, because MLB isn’t going to approve a divisional playoff format that doesn’t guarantee each of the two teams at least one home game and all the gate, parking and advertising revenues that come with it.
So tough luck, Oakland. But then maybe the Athletics wouldn’t be in this bind if Coco Crisp -- or Josh Hamilton -- had caught a fly ball.
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Since it’s going to come up -- since it hasn’t stopped coming up for the last, oh, three weeks – yes, Stephen Strasburg should have started Game 1 of the NLDS for the Washington Nationals. But he didn't, and he won’t be starting any more games for them this year, so let’s move on.
It probably wouldn’t have mattered too much on Sunday in St. Louis anyway; Gio Gonzalez came out and had himself a solid Edwin Jackson start: five innings, one hit, five strikeouts, seven walks, but only two earned runs. Then the Nationals’ pen came out and shut down the Cardinals for the last four innings of a 3-2 win. St. Louis got only three hits to go with seven base runners on balls and two hit by pitches -- none of them with runners in scoring position.
If the Cards’ biggest problem was not being able to capitalize on the many opportunities that the Nationals handed them, then their second-biggest problem was unnecessarily playing into Washington’s hands. First-year manager Mike Matheny succumbed to temptation in the bottom of the eighth and had Daniel Descalso sacrifice bunt Adron Chambers over from first. But as bad as wasting outs is, it wasn’t as harmful to St. Louis’ chances as bringing in Marc Rzepczynski into a bases-loaded pressure situation in the playoffs.
Rzepczynski’s had a terrible season in relief, much worse than his 4.24 ERA suggests; his strikeout rate went from 23.8 percent of batters faced last year to 16.8 percent this year, and he was striking out fewer than two guys for every one that he walked. Worse than that, his home HR/9 went from suspiciously low in 2011 (0.44, in a year in which almost 65 percent of the balls put in play off him were on the ground) to intolerably high this season (1.35; his ground-ball percentage dropped to 58.9 and his line-drive percentage picked up the slack, going from 14.8 to 21.9).
All this is to say that he’s not really the guy you want in that situation at that moment in time, and maybe he wouldn’t have had to be if Matheny had let Adam Wainwright work through the top of the sixth, instead of hitting the panic button when Wainwright let two guys on base, burning Lance Lynn on a third of an inning of work. Or perhaps Lynn could have stayed in the game to pitch the next inning. As it was, Matheny started the reliever clock so early that by the time he needed someone to pitch high-leverage and late, he had no choice but to go to Rzepczynski.
Except that he did, of course. He could have gone to the guy most rational managers go to when they need an out in a close, high-leverage game: his closer, Jason Motte. The reason he didn’t? Because the pitcher’s spot was coming up to bat in the next inning, and he wanted to pinch-hit with Matt Carpenter, and that would mean burning his closer on just a third of an inning of work, as he did with Lynn. Personally, I think either that or just letting Mitchell Boggs try to work out of it would have been preferable to what actually went down, but you know what? None of this would matter in the slightest if the Cardinals, one of the best offenses in baseball this year, had been able to take care of business against a starter who gave them seven free passes in five innings.
You know what else? I hate National League baseball.
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Bernhardt is a freelance sportswriter who has contributed to Baseball Prospectus, The Classical and ESPN's Sweet Spot blog network, among others. You can follow him on Twitter @jonbernhardt.