American League Championship Series:
Detroit Tigers vs. New York Yankees
In 1993, the Philadelphia Phillies played the Toronto Blue Jays in a World Series that, thanks to Joe Carter’s walk-off home run to clinch the Series for Toronto, will always have a highlight in World Series montages. I believe though, if not for that home run, little of the 1993 Fall Classic would be recalled, which is a shame because it’s one of the most underrated World Series match-ups of our generation. A rag-tag set of mullet-sporting Phillies faced-off against a Blue Jays lineup with three future Hall of Famers (Molitor, Henderson, and Alomar, Jr.) plus Joe Carter and John Olerud, who probably should have won the AL MVP in 1993 instead of Frank Thomas. (It’s true. If you’re a stats geek, take a look at Olerud’s incredible 1993 season.) The Phillies gave the Blue Jays all they could handle in six thrilling games. If you had asked me, a rabid Phillies fan recently out of college at the time, if the Phillies had a future Hall of Famer, I would have thought the only remote possibility was Lenny Dykstra, but at age 30 he’d been hurt far too often to amass the statistics necessary for Cooperstown consideration even if he were to put together five more MVP-caliber season like he did in 1993.
It turns out the Phillies probably did have a future Hall-of-Famer on that team, although we won’t know for sure for a couple of years, and that’s remarkable because in 1993 he was 26 years-old, pitching for his third team, and had a record of 18-22 entering the season. But Curt Schilling gave us the first hint of his future superstardom in Game 5 of the 1993 World Series.
Anybody old enough to know where I’m going with this story?
The story of Curt Schilling’s Game 5 performance requires us to back up 24 hours because it starts with a review of Game 4 of the 1993 World Series – the highest scoring game in post-season history. In that game, won by Toronto 15-14, the Phillies coughed up leads of 3, 5, and 5 during the game. It was during this game, not the more famous comeback in Game 6, that Schilling earned the permanent enmity of Mitch Williams by putting a towel over his head in the dugout during Williams’ 8th inning meltdown in which the Blue Jays scored six runs to take a 15-14 lead.
So Schilling took the mound in Game 5, in a series in which runs had been scored in 35 of the 71 half-innings played to date, and essentially announced to Phillies’ manager Jim Fergosi, that he was not going to come out of the game – an elimination game for Philadelphia – under any circumstances. Schilling proceeded to toss a five-hit shutout, won by the Phillies 2-0, and in doing so threw 147 pitches! That’s taking matters into your own hands.
I was reminded of Schilling’s single-minded determination on Thursday night, when Justin Verlander took to the mound in Oakland, in an elimination game, after having watched his closer blow a seemingly decided game the night before. Having predicted the A’s last-day-of-the-season division title, and having called for a playoff game to end in Oakland with Jose Valverde backing up home plate amidst a green and gold walk-off celebration just like Game 4’s ending, and having witnessed much of the Bay Area – even Giants’ fans – caught up in the magic of the A’s season, of course I was rooting for Oakland. But two innings into the game it was clear Verlander was untouchable, and like Schilling in 1993, the only way you were getting him out of the game was to keep it scoreless for 12 innings or so. It was a masterful performance that made this baseball fan, once again, appreciate the brilliance of Justin Verlander.
Therefore, with Verlander scheduled to pitch games 3 and 7 in the ALCS, if you think the Yankees are going to win, you must believe it’s going to be over in 6 games or less.
The Tigers caught a huge break when Baltimore forced a Game 5 in its ALDS series with the Yankees. New York was forced to use CC Sabathia in Game 5, eliminating his ability to pitch more than one game in the series unless the Yankees use him on short rest. And whenever I think of CC Sabathia pitching on short rest in the post-season I think about Phillies pitcher Brett Meyers working a 9-pitch walk against him that set up Shane Victorino’s grand slam during the Phillies 2008 run to a World Series Championship. Or I think about the two ineffective short-rest appearances (due to weather issues) he had during last year’s ALDS against the Tigers.
Speaking of last year’s playoff match-up between these two teams, I remember writing that the Tigers had the starting pitching advantage in every single game against the Yankees last year, and as evidenced by the heavy odds that the Yankees were favored (about 3-to-2) I didn’t think oddsmakers and casual fans realized it. Well, that’s true again this year – even if we don’t know exactly how the pitching match ups will play out yet. (The Yankees are apparently going to use Sabathia on short rest in Game 3 to face-off against Verlander in Detroit.)
If the Yankees hit the way they did during the regular season (I’m looking at you Messers. Cano, Swisher, Granderson, and Rodriguez) New York, thanks to spotty bullpen work and inferior defense in Detroit, should be able to overcome the Tigers’ starting pitching edge and win the series in 5 or 6 games. If, however, they hit like they did against the Orioles, they’re in deep trouble. The Tigers, as a staff, were second in the AL in strikeout rate, and that strength played well against an A’s team that struck out at the highest rate in the AL during the regular season. In the case of the Yankees however, it’s more of strength on strength as New York struck out at a below-average league rate in 2012.
That’s what made the Yankees performance against the Orioles so baffling. At the plate they suddenly turned into the free-swinging Pittsburgh Pirates, against pitchers, no less, that had demonstrated little ability to make batters swing and miss all season.
First pitch for Game 1 starts in a few hours so I’ll leave an in-depth look at Tigers, including a review of their fielding woes for an in-series piece. A Tigers win in this series is logical and if you can get the Tigers as an underdog for the series there is certainly more value there than in picking the Yankees as a 56% or 57% favorite (-130 in price terms). But I have to weigh regular season data far, far more heavily than a subsequent five game series and, to boot, when I close my eyes and think about the Tigers, I think about Game 4 in Oakland. I think about Prince Fielder butchering a Coco Crisp groundball into a double, I think about Omar Infante showing as little range on a groundball to lead off the A’s ninth-inning as we all accuse Derek Jeter of having, I think about Avisail Garcia coming up empty trying to field the game winning hit when there was absolutely the opportunity for a play at the plate. And, of course, I think about their closer woes. I can’t wait to watch this series, I’ll be rooting for the Tigers to overpower their flaws with dominating starting pitching and lots of extra-base hits from the middle of the line up, and last year, on these very pages, the pick was Detroit in 5, but this year, the pick is Yankees in 6.
Mop Up Duty:
Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, the Newsletter, a companion piece to Trading Bases, A Story about Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball* (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) March 7, 2013 release. The book is available for pre-order here: http://www.amazon.com/Trading-Bases-Gambling-Baseball-Necessarily/dp/0525953647/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1346604029&sr=1-1&keywords=trading+bases
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