Scott Kazmir went winless with a 6.52 ERA in six September starts. He allowed 41 hits, eight of them homers, in 29 innings, posting an 18/11 K/BB ratio. When the Astros got five innings of two-run ball from him Friday against the Royals, they should have thanked their good fortune and moved right along to the pen.
And they knew this. They must have. Josh Fields got up in the pen after Kazmir issued a one-out walk in the fifth. The left-hander got out of the frame, making himself eligible for the victory in what was then a 4-2 game, but it was still very surprising to see him come back out for the sixth, particularly with the switch-hitting Ben Zobrist (.926 OPS against lefties) and right-handed Lorenzo Cain due up.
Kazmir retired Zobrist, but he gave up a double to Cain. He was then pulled, even with the left-handed Eric Hosmer coming up. Manager A.J. Hinch had committed my biggest baseball pet peeve: he sent his starter back to the mound with the idea of pulling him after his first mistake.
It worked out terribly. Oliver Perez gave up a pair of soft hits to Hosmer and Kendrys Morales before walking Mike Moustakas. Fields then entered and walked the unwalkable Salvador Perez to tie the game at 4. The Astros gave up another run in the seventh and lost the game 5-4.
Maybe that’s the way it would have worked out anyway. Kazmir did give up just the one baserunner. It might not have even harmed the Astros if Perez had better luck.
Still, the thinking that went into the decision was disturbing. It’s always better to bring that reliever in with no one on base when you can. That’s especially the case with this Astros pen, which lacks a double-play specialist, much less a Wade Davis. But anyone in that pen would have been a better choice than sending Kazmir out to face Zobrist and Cain for a third time. Hinch needs to be more aggressive going forward.
After going 0-for-6 with two strikeouts on Friday, Josh Hamilton is hitless, as well as walkless, in his last 27 postseason at-bats dating back to the 2012 wild card game. And it’s not like he’s making good outs. He’s swinging at everything, and he went his first eight ALDS at-bats without hitting a ball out of the infield.
At this point, it’s worth wondering whether the Rangers should be playing Hamilton at all. He hit two homers in an 11-10 loss to the Angels last Saturday, but those were his only two homers since he came off the DL when rosters expanded last month. He’s 7-for-38 (.184) with one additional extra-base hit, four RBI and a 16/1 K/BB ratio during that span.
The Rangers also realize that Hamilton is not their best defensive left fielder, which is why he’s typically pulled in favor of Will Venable when the team has a lead.
Of course, the Rangers are up 2-0 on the Blue Jays. There’s certainly no sense of urgency for making a switch and putting Hamilton on the bench. If he turns in another 0-for as part of a Game 3 loss, that would begin to change. The Rangers have alternatives. They used Mike Napoli in left field at times late in the regular season, and while that’s a clear defensive downgrade even from Hamilton, they could go that route next time they face a lefty. Venable and Drew Stubbs would offer more defense, probably at the expense of offense. Venable has had solid seasons in the past, but he was hit just .182/.325/.227 in 66 at-bats after arriving from the Padres this summer, and he wasn’t great early on, either. Stubbs hasn’t started a game since Sept. 23 and was just 2-for-21 with the Rangers after being picked up for the final month.
For now Hamilton seems like a given to start Game 3. And if he picks up a couple of hits, any talk of him being benched will go away for a spell. Still, the Rangers need to at least stick him behind Rougned Odor in the bottom half of their lineup. Odor looks like one of the Rangers’ best players right now, yet he never got to hit with a man on base Friday batting behind Hamilton. Hamilton hit with six men on base.
Alcides Escobar finished with a .292 OBP this year. He came in at .246 in 117 at-bats in August and .257 in 109 at-bats between September and October, so he wasn’t exactly flying high entering the postseason. Still, that didn’t stop Ned Yost from putting him into the leadoff spot for Thursday’s Game 1 against the Astros.
Yost finally did reconsider hitting Escobar first in September. It took Alex Gordon‘s return to health, plus the previous addition of Ben Zobrist to the lineup, in order to make that happen. However, it didn’t stick. Escobar hit ninth in each of his starts from Sept. 7-26, batting .236 with a .276 OBP during that span. With five games left to go, he was suddenly returned to the leadoff spot. The Royals went on to win all five games. Yost saw it as a sign, even though Escobar went 5-for-22 with no walks in those games.
Escobar went 0-for-4 in Thursday’s loss to the Astros. He did not swing at the first pitch of the game, which probably explains the defeat.
It’s been difficult to argue with Yost since last year’s World Series run and this year’s incredible run out of the game. The blind spot with Escobar, though, gets rather infuriating. One can defend hitting him leadoff against the Astros’ lefties. His career OBP against southpaws is .319 (.316 this year). Against righties, he’s the most obvious No. 9 hitter alive, with a career .258/.290/.342 line (.252/.284/.314 this year). He’s not a pace-setter. He’s not a spark plug. He’s a liability.
With their rented ace on the mound and the home crowd riled up, this was supposed to be the Blue Jays’ game. After all, they’re the one overwhelming favorite to win their LDS. Well, they were. After a 5-3 loss to the Rangers on Thursday, the Blue Jays face an uphill climb to advance in the best-of-five series.
It’s not over, obviously. For one thing, the Blue Jays get to face left-handers in at least two of the next three games, and the Jays destroy southpaws. The Jays will have the pitching advantages in Texas after Friday’s Game 2 showdown against Cole Hamels, and they’ll probably have a sharper David Price out there next time if the series goes five games.
How Toronto’s lineup shapes up in the coming days will hinge on the health of Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista. Donaldson passed his initial concussion tests after colliding with Rougned Odor‘s knee, but he’d be far from the first player to experience lasting effects after initially getting the all clear. Bautista, too, is expected to be ready to play Friday after leaving with a hamstring cramp. At this point, there’s no reason to suspect that the Jays are understating the extent of the problem.
If Donaldson is fine, the Jays will have a much better chance of taking down Hamels. Game 2 starter Marcus Stroman has looked outstanding since returning from his torn ACL, and he should be able to hold down the Rangers’ offense better than Price did. He might not even have to face Adrian Beltre, who left Thursday’s game with a back problem.
The Rangers have yet to announce the rest of their rotation, though it sounds like Martin Perez is the favorite to get the ball opposite Marco Estrada in Game 3. It would then be either Colby Lewis, Derek Holland or Yovani Gallardo on three days’ rest in Game 4 (with the Jays starting knuckleballer R.A. Dickey). Lewis seems the more likely choice because of Holland’s inconsistency and the Jays’ dominance of left-handers. Those would both be winnable games for Toronto.
So, what it comes down to is beating Hamels. If the Jays head to Texas tied 1-1, they’re still the favorites to advance to the ALCS. If it’s 2-0 Rangers, three in a row is going to be a lot to ask.
Well, it had to come down to this. Because baseball’s postseason is more about making money than fair play, the teams with the second- and third-best records in baseball played a one-game series on Tuesday night. And the team with the second-best record lost.
In a just world, the Pirates and Cubs would have opened a seven-game NLDS tonight. Not that seven games really tells us who the best team is, either, but it’s certainly more illustrative than one game. In the last two years, the wild card Pirates have gone up against Madison Bumgarner and Jake Arrieta in games with no margin for error. They went down quietly in each, but that’s the kind of thing that happens when Cy Young contenders are at the top of their games.
Baseball isn’t about to eliminate its divisions, so this is the kind of thing that’s going to happen all too often. Unfortunately, good teams are doubly punished for playing in strong divisions. They deal with tougher schedules during the regular season, and they often deal with harsher seeding when it comes to the postseason.
Make no mistake, the Cardinals, Pirates and Cubs didn’t simply rack up their strong records this year by beating up on a pair of also-rans in the Brewers and Reds. The NL Central was 99-62 against the NL East and 89-76 against the NL West (the big three were 66-33 against the NL East and 69-30 against the NL West). The 97-win Cubs had five wins on the Dodgers for the NL’s third-best record. Maybe the margin wouldn’t have been that significant if the Dodgers had something to play for in September, but they did go 17-13 in their final 30 games, giving them a practically identical winning percentage to their 92-70 full-season mark.
But, again, baseball isn’t getting rid of it’s divisions. And it probably won’t follow the NBA’s lead in discounting divisional standings when playoff time comes around. Which doesn’t seem like very good news for the Pirates at all. The Cubs are looking like a future juggernaut, and the Cardinals show few signs of slowing down. The Pirates have quite a bit going for them, too, but they’ll be the third favorite in the NL Central next year and just getting to another winner-take-all wild card will again be an accomplishment.