Through three innings, Edinson Volquez and Madison Bumgarner were dealing, with Curt Schilling praising both pitchers on Twitter. Volquez had thrown 38 pitches, 27 for strikes, although the Giants had helped him by swinging at a few pitches outside the strike zone.

The top of the fourth began innocently enough. Pablo Sandoval lined a 2-2 curve into right field for a base hit. Hunter Pence grounded an 0-1 fastball into left field. Brandon Belt worked the count full, checking his swing on a tough 2-2 curve below the knees, setting up a crucial pitch. Volquez gets a strikeout and he has a chance to work out of the jam. Give up something else and he's in serious trouble.

Volquez threw a terrible fastball, up and way out of strike zone to load the bases.

That brought up shortstop Brandon Crawford, who has some surprising pop at times -- 10 home runs and 10 triples, and that's in San Francisco, a tough home run park for left-handed hitters. The count went to 1-2: changeup away, fastball for a called strike, a curveball at the knees that was foul tipped. Volquez threw another curveball, Russell Martin wanting it low and inside again, but the pitch was up and ...

It was a bad pitch and Crawford didn't miss. Batters hit .136 against Volquez on 1-2 counts and he'd allowed only two home runs all season on that count. But one mistake can cost you the season. With Bumgarner dealing at 45 pitches through four innings, a comeback looks unlikely for the Pirates.

But that's what we said last night.
Can we top the American League wild-card game? Unlikely, but PNC Park promises to be one of the best atmospheres you'll see all postseason, just like last year when the Pirates beat the Reds in the wild-card game.

Giants lineup
CF Gregor Blanco
2B Joe Panik
C Buster Posey
3B Pablo Sandoval
RF Hunter Pence
1B Brandon Belt
SS Brandon Crawford
LF Travis Ishikawa
P Madison Bumgarner

The late-season injuries to Angel Pagan (back) and Mike Morse (oblique) have weakened the San Francisco outfield to the point where Bruce Bochy will start Travis Ishikawa in left field -- where he's started three games in his major league career, the first time in Game 159. He has played some outfield in the minors (25 games in left, 50 in right) but his lack of experience out there could be a big factor as the Pirates load their lineup with right-handed batters against Bumgarner.

While Panik has hit .305, it's a soft .305 with one home run in 269 at-bats. The Giants would have been better off leaving Hunter Pence in the No. 2 hole, where he's more likely to get an extra at-bat late in the game. Expect the Pirates to pitch carefully to Posey, who hit .354/.403/.575 in the second half. And don't forget that Bumgarner is a threat at the plate after mashing four home runs and hitting .258. He actually had a higher OPS than Blanco, Panik, Sandoval, Crawford or Ishikawa and the same as Belt.

On the bench
Position players -- C Andrew Susac, C Guillermo Quiroz, 1B/3B Adam Duvall, IF Joaquin Arias, IF Matt Duffy, OF Gary Brown, OF Juan Perez

Pitchers -- Jake Peavy (R), Yusmeiro Petit (R), Tim Lincecum (R), Hunter Strickland (R), Jean Machi (R), Sergio Romo (R), Jeremy Affeldt (L), Javier Lopez (L), Santiago Casilla (R)

The Giants elected to go with 10 pitchers. Maybe they watched last night's game. That's a pretty weak bench, a reflection of the injuries to Pagan and Morse. The top pinch-hitting options are probably Duffy and Susac, thus the need to carry a third catcher in Quiroz. Brown is a pinch-running option while Perez would be a defensive replacement in the outfield for Ishikawa. The lack of pinch-hitting options should allow the Pirates to match up as desired, as Bochy is unlikely to hit for any of the top seven guys in the order.

Peavy started on Saturday, so he could be the long man if Bumgarner gets hurt early or knocked out, although that role could fall to either Petit or Lincecum. Lincecum threw just eight innings in September and he's probably more of an emergency guy, although remember that he pitched well out of the bullpen in the 2012 postseason. Bochy will mix and match with the rest of his relievers. Lopez is more of a true LOOGY while Affeldt can pitch to righties if needed. Romo lost his closer job to Casilla, who converted 19 of 20 save opportunities after taking over. Keep an eye on Strickland, the rookie with a 97-99 mph fastball who threw seven scoreless innings down the stretch with nine K's and no walks. Will Bochy trust him in a big situation?

Pirates lineup
3B Josh Harrison
SS Jordy Mercer
CF Andrew McCutchen
C Russell Martin
LF Starling Marte
2B Neil Walker
1B Gaby Sanchez
RF Travis Snider
P Edinson Volquez

Clint Hurdle lines up right-handed batters in his first five spots to counter Bumgarner, moving Walker and Snider down in the lineup. Martin has been battling a hamstring injury and missed the final two games of the regular season. Volquez is coming off back-to-back scoreless outings and had generally better results down the stretch than in the first half. But he's still prone to control issues, so it will be interesting to see how long of a leash he's given.

On the bench

Position players -- C Chris Stewart, C Tony Sanchez, 1B Ike Davis, IF Clint Barmes, IF Brent Morel, OF Gregory Polanco, OF Jose Tabata, OF Andrew Lambo

Pitchers -- Vance Worley (R), Jeff Locke (L), John Holdzkom (R), Bobby LaFromboise (L), Jared Hughes (R), Justin Wilson (L), Tony Watson (L), Mark Melancon (R)

The Pirates went with nine pitches, with starters Worley and Locke backing up Volquez. Worley is on full rest so is probably the long man ahead of Locke. In the bullpen, Hurdle would love to bridge the gap to Watson and Melancon, as there has to be some concerns with the rest of the group. Holdzkom is a hard-throwing rookie who began the year begging for a job in independent ball and rose to pitching important innings in September.

Davis platoons at first base with Gaby Sanchez, so expect to see him if the Giants have a right-hander pitching with Sanchez up (although Bochy has Affeldt and Lopez in the pen to counteract if necessary). Polanco has the best wheels off the bench and Tony Sanchez gives the club a third catcher if Martin's hammy proves problematic.

After last night's results, predictions are a foolish thing, but I'll go Giants 4, Pirates 3, as Volquez gives up some runs early and Bumgarner pitches deep into the game and maybe even delivers and a crucial RBI hit.

I still can't get this game out of my head. I'm happy for Royals fans, sad for A's fans, happy for baseball, worried that we just saw the best game of the postseason. Let's hope we get few more like this one. Some stuff from other people:

Joe Sheehan, in his newsletter:
All of that made the bunt a bad play. What made it worse is that the bunt sent a runner to scoring position for a mediocre hitter in Escobar and waiver bait in Nix. Nix does not have a hit since joining the Royals. He's on the Royals because lots of other teams have had him and decided they didn't want him. He's not very good at baseball, as major-leaguers go. Ned Yost traded Jarrod Dyson, with the platoon advantage, a runner on first, nobody out and a 2-0 count, for Jayson Nix without the platoon advantage, two outs and a runner in scoring position.

Ned Yost does not understand the relative skills of his players. He doesn't understand the range of potential outcomes of a plate appearance. He doesn't appear to understand how leverage changes within an at-bat. He doesn't know how to look ahead in an inning. He just knows the things he learned about baseball 40 years ago.

Dave Cameron of FanGraphs examined all of Yost's bunts. His take on the Dyson bunt:
Another inning, another leadoff single, another bad hitter making the out/advancement trade-off. Only with Dyson, the bunt is probably an even better play than usual, as 40% of his career bunts have resulted in hits. Bad hitters with great speed have even more incentive to attempt bunts because of the higher likelihood of reaching safely if the defense doesn’t play it perfectly, and again, we’re looking at a -1.1% cost in Win Expectancy even when the A’s do convert the out at first base.

This was not only an entirely defensible bunt, but probably the right call.

So, all told, we have four sacrifice bunts by Yost last night, and they break down something like this:

Probably Negative: 1
Unknowable Gray Area: 1
Probably Positive: 2
Joe Posnanski, Hardball Talk:

The Royals, for many years, did not have anything concrete to believe in. They would talk the happy talk of spring training about how they believed they had better players, believed this pitcher would improve and that outfielder would build on last year’s success, and their defense would get better. But this was the misty kind of belief. There was no blueprint for winning that anyone actually could spell out, no clear line to victory like: “We will score more runs than other teams because we will hit more home runs” or “We will keep people from scoring because we have strikeout pitchers” or anything else like that.

The very best part of this year’s Royals team has been the replacement of that old bleary belief with a clarity of vision. It’s not an easy vision. But it’s clear. These Royals know what they’re up against. They can’t hit home runs. They don’t walk. They don’t have a starting pitcher who will get Cy Young votes. They have a manager who will occasionally just leave the planet. They don’t have as much money. They are not very deep.

OK – that’s something to work with. Now, how do you use all that? No power? Well, let’s steal lots of bases. No great starter? Maybe not, but let’s put together five really good ones and build a legendary back of the bullpen. Kooky manager? Maybe, but remember a manager can only hurt so much and, anyway, sometimes the nutty stuff will work. No depth? All right, have Alicedes Escobar play all 162 games at shortstop and Salvy Perez catch more games in a season than any Royals catcher ever.

Buster Olney says Billy Beane may have to make some big moves in the offseason:
Oakland has never stripped down completely, in the way that the Astros have in recent seasons, or the Cubs. In Beane’s tenure as general manager, the Athletics have never failed to win less than 74 games; the only other teams that can say that are the Cardinals and Yankees.

But this overhaul will be particularly excruciating, because of how good the team was in late July, how well it performed all summer, and how heartbreaking the finish. The work to push the rock back up the hill will start sooner rather than later.
Sam Mellinger, Kansas City Star:
There is no telling where this already wild ride will end, and whether it will be with more champagne. They have been lost and winning and buried and then winning again — and that was just Tuesday night.

So very little of what we’ve seen in this Royals season has made even a bit of sense to anyone with whom the franchise’s sorry history might as well be ingrained into their fan DNA. The Royals, after all this time, have a legitimately good baseball team that even seems to be getting good breaks here and there. Up is down. Cats and dogs living together. All of it.

The oddity of a 162-game season coming down to a single do-or-die playoff had turned a fan base’s worst fears wild. But that is all over now. The Royals left in the middle of the night on the happiest flight of the year, taking luggage they packed without knowing for sure whether they’d actually need it. They landed in Anaheim in the dark, ready to prepare for a best-of-five division series against the Angels, who won more games than any team in baseball this year.

It figures that very few people around the sport will expect the Royals to win that series.

But how many people expected them to even be in it?
Bruce Jenkins, San Francisco Chronicle:
“I can’t say anything negative about these guys,” said Josh Reddick in the still of the A’s clubhouse, one of many players who gave calm, patient interviews in stand-up fashion. "When we score eight runs, hey, we know we’re winning that game. Especially behind Jonny (Lester). It just didn’t go our way. But we’ve got nothing to hang our heads about."

Someone asked Lester, crestfallen in defeat, if he pondered the notion of it being his last game in Oakland. "I’m not worried about that," he said. "Right now I’m worried about these guys, this team, this outcome. I got to grind it out for two months with them, something I’ll always cherish. There’s a time and place to think about yourself. This is not that time."

The result was cruelly familiar for Beane, the A’s having now lost all seven winner-take-all postseason games under his stewardship, but it never came down like this. Even with all the cards stacked in his favor, he still couldn’t taste a victory.

I didn't feel like I gave proper perspective to Tuesday's night wild-card game, so here's a quick follow-up post. How unlikely and dramatic was the Royals' win, considering they trailed 7-3 in the bottom of the eighth, 7-6 in the ninth and 8-7 in the 12th? One way to measure this is using Win Probability Added, which describes as "Given average teams, this is the change in probability caused by this batter during the game." A change of +1 or -1 would equate to one win or less. In other words, a leadoff single in a tie game in the ninth changes your team's chance of winning more than a single in the fifth inning when trailing 5-2 or whatever.

We can add together all the WPAs of the individual batters to arrive at a team WPA. A game that features a lot of lead changes or dramatic comebacks is going to have a higher WPA and can even exceed 1.0 in rare circumstances. Baseball-Reference hasn't updated its WPA from Tuesday, but FanGraphs has Kansas City's team WPA at 1.063. That would be the fifth-highest for any postseason game -- out of 2,738 individual possibilities.

Here the four higher ones:

1. St. Louis Cardinals, Game 6, 2011 World Series: 1.377 WPA

There's a reason some call this the most exciting postseason game ever played. The Cardinals trailed the Rangers 1-0, 3-2, 4-3, 7-4 and then 7-5 entering the bottom of the ninth. They scored twice to tie it on David Freese's two-out triple, only to see the Rangers take a 9-7 lead in the 10th. Once again, the Cardinals tied it with two outs, on Lance Berkman's single. Freese then won it with a home run in the 11th.

2. Pittsburgh Pirates, Game 6, 1960 World Series: 1.251 WPA

Another popular choice for greatest game ever played, Bill Mazeroski won it 10-9 with a home run in the bottom of the ninth, but the Pirates had trailed 7-4 in the bottom of the eighth before scoring five runs, only to see the Yankees score twice in the ninth to tie it.

3. Chicago Cubs, Game 1, 1908 World Series: 1.135 WPA

The Cubs blew a 4-1 lead against the Tigers but then rallied to score five runs in the ninth to win 10-6.

4. Cincinnati Reds, Game 3, 1976 NLCS: 1.073 WPA

The Reds were down 3-0 when they scored four runs in the seventh. The Phillies scored twice in the eighth and once in the ninth to take a 6-4 lead, but in the bottom of the ninth, George Foster and Johnny Bench hit back-to-back home runs off Ron Reed to tie it and Ken Griffey Sr. eventually singled in the winning run.

And then come the Royals. So everyone who called last night's game "epic" wasn't exaggerating. It goes down as one of the most exciting postseason game not just of recent history but any history.

On an individual basis, Eric Hosmer, who went 3-for-4 with a key walk off Jon Lester in the eighth and the big one-out triple in the 12th, had a .599 WPA according to FanGraphs, which would rank 36th on the all-time postseason list. (Freese's Game 6 performance ranks No. 1.)

This is supposed to about the five key things that decided this game. There were about 20 of those. Or 50. Or 100. I lost track somewhere there in the 10th or 11th inning of one of the craziest, wildest, most improbable baseball games I can remember watching.

This was supposed to be a pitcher's duel between Jon Lester and James Shields. It wasn't.

It was supposed to be about the Kansas City Royals getting the ball to their dominant bullpen trio with a lead. It wasn't.

It was supposed to be about Oakland Athletics manager Bob Melvin matching wits with the Royals' Ned Yost, and Melvin winning in a landslide. OK, Yost did make one of the worst tactical decisions in recent playoff history.

The Royals won anyway.

This game ties Game 7 of the 1924 World Series for the longest winner-take-all postseason game ever played. Walter Johnson won that one. Jason Frasor, the seventh Royals pitcher of the game, won this one, after helping to give up the lead in the 12th inning. The Royals were down 7-3 in the eighth inning and won. They were down 8-7 in that 12th inning and won. The heroes were guys such as Brandon Finnegan and Christian Colon. It was small ball over Moneyball, at least for a day. It was baseball, not always beautiful, but still baseball at its most entertaining, at October intensity.

OK. Doug Padilla has the Royals angle. Here are five reasons the A's lost.

1. Bob Melvin stuck too long with Jon Lester. Down 7-3, the Royals rallied in the bottom of the eighth inning. Melvin, determined to apparently ride starter Lester straight to closer Sean Doolittle, left him in for 111 pitches, and maybe one batter too many. A Jed Lowrie error, a stolen base and a single made the score 7-4 and then Lester walked Eric Hosmer with one out (after Lorenzo Cain had stolen second). Melvin finally brought in Luke Gregerson, but Billy Butler's RBI single made it 7-5. Pinch-runner Terrance Gore stole second and a wild pitch made it 7-6 and put Gore on third with one out. Gregerson pitched carefully to Alex Gordon, who walked and then stole second with Salvador Perez up. A base hit puts the Royals up, a sac fly at least ties it up ...

Gregerson fanned Perez on three sliders, the third one a good foot off the plate. Yes, the Royals drew the fewest walks in the majors and Perez drew just 22 in 606 plate appearances. Gregerson exposed his free-swinging ways and it was a terrible at-bat. He threw four sliders to Infante, the fourth swung and miss on a pitch in the dirt. Gregerson, a sneaky offseason pickup from the Padres, does have a nasty slider, as batters hit .212 against this season. But it's not the nastiest in the game -- they also hit four home runs and nine doubles (all four home runs by right-handed batters). What makes it impressive is how often he throws it -- 48 percent of the time. Among pitchers with at least 50 innings, only five threw their slider a higher percentage of the time.

The Royals were 90 feet from tying the game. Assuming the A's would close it, I had written, "Royals fans will have all offseason to think about those seven sliders."

Instead the postscript will read: How do you leave in a starter to give up six runs in a do-or-die game? (Actually, I was surprised that it has happened 14 times out of 182 sudden-death games, the last in 2012, when Adam Wainwright and Mat Latos both allowed six runs in Game 5 of the division series.

The difference is those guys weren't still in there in the eighth inning with a four-run lead. The last comparable game was Nolan Ryan in Game 5 of the NLCS for the Astros, when he took a 5-2 lead into the eighth and coughed up the lead. Melvin let the game slip out of his hands even though the A's bullpen -- despite a couple notable tough losses -- had actually pitched well. Obviously, if Lowrie doesn't make the error the inning probably unfolds differently, but in this day of dominant pens, Melvin waited too long to go it.

2. Geovany Soto leaves with a thumb injury.

Soto was a controversial starter at catcher over Derek Norris, in part because he had never caught Lester. But he's the best defensive catcher on the A's, with the best arm. When he left in the third inning, unable to catch, it allowed the Royals to take advantage on the bases against Norris. They stole seven bases, with five of those thieves eventually scoring.

video 3. Royals' bunting finally pays off! OK, the sabermetrically inclined folks on Twitter were having a fun time with Yost and his bunts -- the Royals had four sacrifice bunts in the game. But in the ninth inning, the Royals tied the game off Sean Doolittle on a Josh Willingham flare to right, with Jarrod Dyson pinch-running (Willingham had hit for Mike Moustakas); Dyson was bunted to second and then, in maybe the most important play of the game, stole third, the first steal of third Doolittle had given up in his career. Dyson then scored on Norichika Aoki's sac fly.

4. The dropped pitchout. In the bottom of the 12th inning, after Hosmer tripled and Colon scored him on a high hopper of an infield hit to third base, Colon was running against Jason Hammel, who had just entered the game. The A's had called a pitchout, but Norris dropped the ball.

5. Oakland's No. 5 starter gave up the winning hit.

To be fair, Hammel pitched very well in September, with a 2.20 ERA and .198 average allowed. He was one of eight pitchers on the Oakland roster, kind of the designated long man. Sonny Gray had started Sunday and Jeff Samardzija on Saturday, so the choice probably came down to Hammel to Scott Kazmir (although Kansas City put Ventura on its roster, despite his starting on Sunday). This wasn't a bad call by the A's so much as you just hate to lose a game with a guy pitching in an unconventional situation. Hammel actually threw Perez -- who had had awful at-bats all game -- a pretty good 2-2 slider that was off the plate, knowing Perez will chase any pitch within the vicinity of Kauffman Stadium. Perez was just able to pull it inches past a diving Josh Donaldson -- a Gold Glove-caliber third baseman -- for the winning hit.
I'm all for thinking outside the box in the postseason, especially in a one-game situation like a wild-card game. But it's another thing to think so far outside the box and pull off one of the worst managerial decisions in recent history.

The Kansas City Royals led the Oakland Athletics 3-2 in the top of the sixth inning when James Shields, who had cruised through the previous two innings, gave up a broken-bat bloop single to Sam Fuld and then walked Josh Donaldson on a borderline 3-2 fastball. Up stepped Brandon Moss, who had homered in the first inning.

Yost has three of the best relievers in baseball in Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland, who usually pitch the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. He pulled Shields and could have stretched those guys out for 12 instead of nine, or even used lefty reliever Brandon Finnegan to pitch to the lefty-swinging Moss (who was unlikely to be pinch-hit for after his earlier home runs)..

Ventura threw a 99-mph fastball up high for ball one. A 98-mph fastball was up and out of the zone. Moss hit the next pitch up and out over the center-field fence for a game-turning three-run home run. The A's went on to score two more runs in the inning -- one run charged to Ventura, the second to Herrera, who finally entered with one out.

The Royals got a prime position, leading in the sixth inning with the game's most dominant bullpen trio available. Instead, they used a pitcher who had thrown 70-something pitches two days prior. They got #Yosted.

What was Billy Butler thinking?

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30
It’s not too often you see a Little League play work in the majors. And it didn’t work in the first inning when Billy Butler wandered off first base and got caught in a rundown and then Eric Hosmer got caught trying to score. Officially, Hosmer is credited with a caught stealing of home, the first in the postseason since Elvis Andrus in Game 3 of the 2011 American League Division Series.

The play is a little strange considering Butler is one of the slowest runners in the majors, but consider these facts:

--The count was 0-2 on Alex Gordon. He hit .136 on 0-2 counts on the season and .200 on all two-strike counts. Lester allowed a .118 average on 0-2 counts.

--Lester hadn’t thrown to first base ALL SEASON long, a much-tweeted topic before the game began.

--As Susan Slusser tweeted, a similar play had just worked against Lester.

I’m guessing the Royals had considered this play as a possibility given the right situation. So while everyone was ripping Butler on Twitter, the idea appears to have come from the bench or pregame scouting reports.

It just didn’t work. As Royals manager Ned Yost would later say in his in-game interview, Butler left too soon, not waiting until Lester had started his delivery. Still, while these plays are easy to pull off against 12-year-olds, they don’t work often in the majors.

Was it a bad play? You can argue if it had greater than a 15 percent chance of succeeding that it was a good play, given the odds of Gordon getting a hit on an 0-2 count. I don't know the odds of that play working -- especially with a baserunner like Butler -- since you rarely even see it attempted. I'd probably give Gordon -- one of your best hitters -- a chance to drive in the run, even with two strikes.

Just don't necessarily go blaming Butler for a bonehead play.

Video chat: Anthony Rizzo

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30
Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo stops by to take your questions today at 4:45.

The Oakland Athletics and Kansas City Royals have announced their 25-man rosters for Tuesday's wild-card game and since rosters can be changed before the Division Series, it's no surprise that both teams left several starting pitchers off their rosters. For Oakland, Sonny Gray, Jeff Samardzija and Scott Kazmir are all inactive; for the Royals, Jason Vargas is inactive. The surprising inclusion for the Royals is Yordano Ventura, who started Sunday and threw 73 pitches. Obviously, Ned Yost believes he's available for an inning if needed.

A's lineup
CF Coco Crisp
LF Sam Fuld
3B Josh Donaldson
DH Brandon Moss
RF Josh Reddick
SS Jed Lowrie
1B Stephen Vogt
C Geovany Soto
2B Eric Sogard
SP Jon Lester

The big news here is Adam Dunn is on the bench, even though right-hander James Shields is starting for the Royals. Manager Bob Melvin decided to go with Fuld's defense in left, with Moss moving over to the DH spot. Geovany Soto also gets the start at catcher over Derek Norris, a bit of a surprise since Soto has never caught Lester before (of course, they've only been teammates for a few weeks).

This is one of the fun things about baseball: You know many times the A's fielded this lineup during the regular season? Yep. Zero. Dunn had started the final four games of the season at DH and started nearly every game against a right-hander since coming over from the White Sox, but has hit just .212/.316/.318 with Oakland. Considering this is his first time in the postseason after 2,001 career games (and he's retiring after the season), let's hope he gets into the game.

On the bench
Position players -- DH Dunn, C Norris, IF Nick Punto, IF Albert Callaspo, IF Andy Parrino, OF Jonny Gomes, OF Billy Burns, 1B Nate Freiman

Pitchers -- Jason Hammel (R), Drew Pomeranz (L), Fernando Abad (L), Ryan Cook (R), Dan Otero (R), Luke Gregerson (R), Sean Doolittle (L)

The A's went with just eight pitchers compared to nine for the Royals. Hammel and Pomeranz are the two long guys available if Lester gets hammered or injured or the game goes in deep extra innings.

Speedster Burns is the pinch-running option off the bench. If a pinch-hitter is required late in the game, the Royals' big trio of relievers are all right-handed, so expect to see the switch-hitting Callaspo or Punto if a single is needed or Dunn if a home run is needed. Norris, Gomes and Freiman would be a matched up against a left-hander, while Parrino could be used as a defensive replacement.

Royals lineup
SS Alcides Escobar
RF Norichika Aoki
CF Lorenzo Cain
1B Eric Hosmer
DH Billy Butler
LF Alex Gordon
C Salvador Perez
2B Omar Infante
3B Mike Moustakas
SP James Shields

Yost used this exact same lineup the final eight games of the season, so I guess he didn't want to overthink things too much. Escobar and Aoki didn't settle into the 1-2 spots in the lineup until Sept. 13, when Yost finally realized he should get Infante and his sub-.300 OBP out of the two-hole. Aoki stays in the No. 2 spot even with the left-handed Lester pitching since he had a .428 OBP against lefties this year. Plus, Lester is actually tougher on right-handed batters, so no need to worry too much about platoon splits anyway.

The odd thing is that Gordon spent most of the season hitting third, fourth or fifth and has the highest wOBA on the team -- but is hitting sixth. No, this isn't a lefty-lefty thing. Gordon hits left-handers better than Hosmer. It could be a September thing though, as Gordon hit just .190 the final month.

On the bench
Position players -- C Erik Kratz, IF Christian Colon, IF Jayson Nix, OF Jarrod Dyson, OF Josh Willingham, OF Raul Ibanez, OF Terrance Gore

Pitchers -- Ventura (R), Jeremy Guthrie (R), Danny Duffy (L), Jason Frasor (R), Brandon Finnegan (L), Kelvin Herrera (R), Wade Davis (R), Greg Holland (R)

The perfect scenario for Yost is for Shields to take the lead into the seventh or eighth, where he can give the ball to his power trio of Herrera, Davis and Holland. Guthrie pitched on Friday, so he's more likely to be the long man ahead of Duffy and Ventura.

The two position players to watch are Dyson and Gore, two of the fastest players in the game. The Royals led the majors in stolen bases while hitting the fewest home runs, so don't be surprised to see both of these guys get in at some point. Dyson was 36-for-43 stealing bases and will be used as a defensive replacement for Aoki if the Royals are leading late. Gore is strictly a pinch-runner, having spent most of the season in the minors before going 5-for-5 on the bases in the majors.

Tim Kurkjian has some of the key questions for the game here. To me, the big one is this: How will Yost use his bullpen? If Shields gets into a tight spot in say, the fifth or sixth inning, will he be willing to go to Herrera before the seventh? Will he trust rookie lefty Finnegan -- with just seven major league appearances -- in a crucial spot against one of the A's lefty sluggers if such a situation arises? You have to think Yost has the utmost confidence in Herrera, Davis and Holland but I can also see him riding Shields one inning too long. He has big weapons down there in the pen; he can't go down in this game without maximizing those three relievers.

For Melvin, he's probably a little more dependent on Lester delivering a big performance. The bullpen had a couple tough losses down the stretch but actually pitched pretty well overall in September, with a 3.05 ERA. Still, his late-inning options aren't as dominant as Kansas City's. Melvin will have better matchup opportunities, however, as Yost is unlikely to use his bench for much more than pinch-running. Maybe Willingham would hit late for Infante or Moustakas, but that's about it.

It should be a low-scoring game. I guess I'm leaning on Lester's postseason history here -- 1.97 ERA in 11 career postseason starts -- and excellent work down the stretch and predicting the A's win 3-1.
Click here for Tuesday's chat wrap.

Simmons best defender of September

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30
Amazingly, we almost got through a full season without naming Atlanta Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons our Defensive Player of the Month.

Alas, Simmons finally won our vote for September. He won on the strength of five Defensive Runs Saved, which trailed only Brandon Crawford of the San Francisco Giants among shortstops. Crawford had seven Defensive Runs Saved, but Simmons garnered more favor for having nine Good Fielding Plays and only two Misplays and Errors compared to Crawford’s 10 and 7 for the month.

After a slow start, Simmons finished the season with 28 Defensive Runs Saved and should be a lock to win the National League Gold Glove at shortstop.

Simmons didn't lead the league in Defensive Runs Saved. His teammate Jason Heyward did, finishing with 32. Simmons placed tied for second with New York Mets outfielder Juan Lagares, who won this award in August.

Simmons had 14 Defensive Runs Saved in his first 109 games, than had 14 in his last 37 games of the season (helped by plays like this one).

At one point in mid-August, Cincinnati Reds shortstop Zack Cozart had a seven-run advantage over Simmons for the most of any shortstop. He finished nine runs behind Simmons for the season.

So even though the Braves offense may have gone in the tank at the end of the season, at least one defender was playing pretty hard and pretty well on the defensive end.

* * * *

Alexi Amarista
I also want to give a salute to San Diego Padres utility man Alexi Amarista, who finished as the runner-up in our voting. Amarista had only one Defensive Run Saved for the month, but was credited with 25 Good Fielding Plays by the video trackers at Baseball Info Solutions, by far the most of anyone for September.

Examples of the handiwork by the player known as "Superninja" to the Padres broadcast crew can be seen here, here and here.

Amarista played five different positions this season. Shortstop was his best, the one at which he got seven of his 10 Defensive Runs Saved.

One conventional baseball axiom says power pitching wins in the postseason. Think Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson dominating World Series games in the 1960s, or pitchers such as Curt Schilling and Josh Beckett winning in the 2000s with high-octane fastballs, or Justin Verlander blowing away the A's the past two Octobers.

Of course, in the past two postseasons, it seemed just about every pitcher dominated. Teams hit a collective .227 in 2012 and .231 in 2013 and averaged just 3.49 and 3.55 runs per game, the lowest totals since the wild-card era began in 1995. In the 38 postseason games played in 2013, eight were shutouts; there were 13 other games in which a team scored just one run. There were four games that ended 1-0; there had been just 10 such games the previous 18 postseasons. With offense trending even further downward in the 2014 regular season and strikeouts still trending upward, expect offense to once again be at a premium this October.

But what about that adage? Does power pitching ultimately reign supreme in October? Are the Nationals with Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann (who ranked fourth and sixth in average fastball velocity among potential playoff starters during the regular season), and the Tigers with David Price and Max Scherzer (who can both crank it up to 97 mph) the favorites to reach the World Series because of these power duos?

[+] EnlargeDavid Price
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaDavid Price throws heat, but that doesn't necessarily translate to guaranteed postseason success.

There are different ways to look at this, but I took the approach of simply looking at average fastball velocity from starting pitchers in the postseason (leaving relievers for another study) and checking the results. We have data at ESPN going back to 2009, so we have five postseasons worth of starts to examine, or 132 different pitcher-seasons, ranging from Gerrit Cole in 2013 (96.7 mph average fastball velocity) to Barry Zito in 2012 (84.3 mph).

The median fastball velocity turned out to be 92.0 mph: We have 66 starters at that velocity or higher, and 66 below it.

Here are the totals for these two groups:

92-plus mph: 916.2 innings, 390 runs (3.83 runs per nine)
Less than 92 mph: 926.2 innings, 370 runs (3.59 runs per nine)

Maybe that's not the best way to look at this question, however, because the pitchers tend to cluster around the 92 mph mark. So let's break our 132 pitchers into three groups: High velocity, medium velocity and low velocity. The results:

High velocity: 594.1 innings, 256 runs (3.88 runs per nine)
Medium velocity: 730.1 innings, 284 runs (3.50 runs per nine)
Low velocity: 519 innings, 220 runs (3.82 runs per nine)

So the low-velocity guys have pitched fewer innings than the high-velocity guys, but have been just as effective. Maybe that shouldn't be surprising; low-velocity pitchers don't get as many opportunities, but if you can stay in the big leagues despite a below-average fastball, it's because you've proven you can get guys out.

The middle group has performed the best. This group includes postseason standouts such as Cliff Lee in 2009 (10 runs in 40.1 innings), Matt Cain in 2010 (one run in 21.1 innings), Chris Carpenter in 2011 (13 runs in 36 innings) and Adam Wainwright in 2013 (12 runs in 35 innings). Our ESPN colleague Schilling -- who obviously knows a thing or two about succeeding in October -- likes to say pitching is all about fastball command, whether you throw 98 or 88. Those are four pitchers who all have excellent fastball command.

* * * *

Much has been written about the decline in offense in recent years, from a steroid-era peak of 5.14 runs per game in 2000 to 4.07 this season, the lowest since 1981. There have been many theories: Testing for PEDs, testing for amphetamines, better pitching, worse hitting. When I canvassed veteran players in spring training about what they thought, Dodgers outfielder Carl Crawford just laughed and said: "Steroids." Michael Cuddyer of the Rockies suggested it was the new wave of power arms. "Look at all these young pitchers coming up the past few years," he said. "They all seem to throw 95. And then you get into the bullpens and it seems like every team has a few guys can throw even harder than that."

[+] EnlargeAdam Wainwright
AP Photo/Danny MoloshokThe Cards' Adam Wainwright did just fine in the 2013 playoffs without a high-velocity fastball.
Those undoubtedly are factors. But the overriding factor may be even simpler: The strike zone has gotten larger -- about 30 square inches larger since 2008, when Pitchf/x cameras were first installed in major league ballparks to track pitch location and data. And those 30 inches are mostly at the bottom of the plate. You combine a lower strike zone with pitchers throwing harder than ever and maybe it's amazing teams are able score four runs a game.

What's interesting is that none of the veteran players I talked to in spring training said they noticed a lower strike zone. C.J. Wilson of the Angels is one of the more analytical pitchers in the game, and he said he hadn't seen a change -- although he joked that with his shaky command, "I don't get those calls anyway."

Cuddyer broke the strike zone down this way: "It all depends on the umpire, the pitcher's movement and stuff like that. Obviously, I don't do the studies and can't give you the percentages and all that, so I may not be the best person to ask. A lot of it depends on the umpire and what they see that day, the movement on the pitches. If the pitcher has some good sinking action, maybe he loses some strikes."

Two people who weren't surprised about the lower strike zone were two veteran umpires, who wished to remain unnamed. One said: "That's the way we're trained to call pitches now, especially the new guys coming in."

The data allows umpires to be more thoroughly reviewed now. There's no doubt the quality and consistency of umpiring has improved in recent years, if still far from perfect. "Hey, the strike zone probably did get too wide there for a while," one of the veteran umps said. "How much does it help the pitchers? I don't know. What's the average fastball now, 91, 92 mph? When I first entered the majors, it was 85. I don't think the pitchers now are any smarter but they throw a lot harder. A guy like Nolan Ryan used to stand out. Now a lot of pitchers throw that hard."

And pitchers are adjusting to the lower strike zone. ESPN Stats & Information tracks pitches in three vertical zones: Down, middle and up. Look at the percentage of pitches in the down region since 2009:

2009: 37.7 percent
2010: 41.8 percent
2011: 40.6 percent
2012: 41.8 percent
2013: 41.6 percent
2014: 43.0 percent

What does that mean? Hitters do less damage on pitches down in the strike zone. Here are 2014 numbers:

Down: .223/.288/.319
Middle: .288/.305/.458
Up: .226/.339/.358

* * * *

You may think the starting pitchers to watch in the postseason, then, aren't the ones with the best velocity but the ones who can keep the ball down in the zone. But that isn't necessarily the case, either. In looking at the 149 pitchers who threw at least 100 innings this year, these pitchers all ranked in the bottom 10 of percentage of pitches down in the zone: Madison Bumgarner, Doug Fister, Price, Zimmermann and Chris Tillman. Those are five good pitchers. Those are different types of pitchers, from the hard-throwing Price to Zimmermann, who throws a hard two-seamer up in the zone that generates a lot of ground balls, to Fister, who rarely tops 90 mph. Four of the five have supreme command and walk few batters, Tillman being the exception.

I guess this is the bottom line: You'll hear a lot about power pitching during the next few weeks. And yes, we'll see a lot of strikeouts and a lot of upper-90s gas. But there are many ways for a pitcher to succeed. About all I can guarantee is that we probably won't see a 23-7 game like we did in 1999, when the Red Sox beat the Indians in a division series game.
Eric Karabell and David Schoenfield talked about what awaits in the postseason and answered all of your playoff-related questions.

Mariners make strides, but fall short

September, 28, 2014
Sep 28

SEATTLE -- Felix Hernandez has pitched 10 years in Seattle, winning a Cy Young (and maybe a second this year), establishing himself as the American League’s premier pitcher ... and has yet to pitch a single inning in the postseason.

But at least he finally had this Sunday. When Felix took the mound on the final day of the regular season, with the King’s Court packed full of yellow-shirted subjects and more than 40,000 fans throughout the stadium, he actually had a chance to pitch the Mariners into the playoffs. Which is far, far more than most everyone thought possible when the season began -– or when Seattle lost eight games in a row in April.

Seattle entered Sunday needing to beat the Angels and have Oakland lose to Texas in order to tie the Athletics and force a one-game playoff for the second wild card spot. King Felix accomplished the first part by pitching 5 1/3 dominant, scoreless innings to secure the American League ERA crown and lead the Mariners to a 4-1 victory. But the tumbling Athletics thwarted the second part by beating the Rangers 4-0.

The Mariners fans had been chanting "Let's go Rangers!'' so they were very disappointed when they saw the Oakland-Texas final go on the scoreboard. But the fans soon erupted in appreciative applause for the entire season. And for good reason. This was an exciting season for the Mariners, whom Seattle fans figured would not contend again until the Highway 99/waterfront tunnel project is finished (hint to non-Seattleites, that project is our version of the Big Dig.

“It was fun. It was fun all year round,’’ Felix said. “We would go down. Then we would get up. We had some struggles, but I’m proud of this team and proud of my teammates.’’

Seattle didn’t make the playoffs or even win 90 games, but the Mariners gave fans something to cheer and hope for until the final afternoon. And considering the past 13 years, that means a lot. As manager Lloyd McClendon told his team, “You’re no longer the prey. You’re the hunters.’’

“I think this was a tremendous learning experience for this ballclub, and we took a tremendous step forward,’’ McClendon said. “We’ll be better. We have a lot of work to do.

“I told you guys when I took the job this was a golden era for the Seattle Mariners and they haven’t let me down. And we’re only going to get better.’’

How does next season look? A lot like this year -- which is both good and bad.

The pitching staff, which led the league in ERA, looks solid. Felix will be back, as almost certainly will Hisashi Iwakuma (who has a team option for 2015), though comeback player of the year candidate Chris Young is a free agent. Rookie James Paxton pitched brilliantly after returning from injury. Taijuan Walker also pitched well when healthy.

And then there is the offense.

Signed to a $240 million contract, Robinson Cano was a terrific addition in the lineup, on the field and in the clubhouse while first-time All-Star Kyle Seager keeps getting better. But the rest of the lineup needs a significant upgrade. Seattle was shut out 19 times and finished last in OPS. General manager Jack Zduriencik, whose contract was extended this summer, has his work cut out for him to improve what has been a serious weakness for several seasons.

“It’s sad now that we have to go home,’’ Cano said. “You look back and say, we should have won this game or that game. But you can’t look back. You have a sour taste in your mouth, but you have to go home, work out and be ready for next season and think about what we need to get better for next year. We’re pretty close.’’

Seattle fans hope so, which is more than they usually feel at the end of most seasons.

As the Mariners took the field for the ninth inning Sunday, Earth Wind and Fire’s classic hit “September’’ played over the stadium loudspeakers while their fans danced, swayed and waved their rally towels. It was a wonderful moment, but what Seattle still awaits is an October song, like “We are the Champions.’’

Tigers pull it off, like you knew they would

September, 28, 2014
Sep 28
You can sort of feel sorry for the Detroit Tigers, even as they clinched their fourth straight AL Central title, because this one might have been their hardest-fought yet. But for all the expectations, they’ve never truly had it easy.

That’s because while every one of those four titles were expected and predicted, the last three involved the Tigers fending off late challenges: From the White Sox in 2012 (the two were tied on September 25), the Indians in 2013 (the Tribe had to win 10 straight to finish one back, but Detroit’s 13-13 September stumble made that matter), and now the Royals. After this past month, just barely overtaking Kansas City two weeks ago and then having them nipping at Detroit’s heels ever since, there’s something understandably desperate about celebrating a four-game series split against the Twins to clinch.

Feel sorry for them? Sure, if only because nobody gives you a gold star for winning when you were expected to. But it would have been easy to blow any of those opportunities, but the Tigers did not, and in each of the last three years, they’ve advanced at least as far as the ALCS.

[+] EnlargeDetroit Tigers
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesMax Scherzer and the Tigers celebrated winning the AL Central.
The Tigers can easily suck you into a “glass half-empty or half-full?” debate. Consider this checklist of disappointments: If you knew in March that they’d have to deal with may be Justin Verlander’s worst season (according to ERA+, second-worst per FIP), that Anibal Sanchez would get hurt, that Joe Nathan would not solve their closer questions but perpetuate them like Jose Valverde had never left, and that Rajai Davis and J.D. Martinez would log regular playing time in their outfield, you’d be forgiven (then) if you thought they’d be lucky to win the division.

But the Tigers did win again. And they weren’t lucky. Certainly not if you use their extrapolated record from runs scored and allowed, which suggest this was supposed to be an 85-win team, not when they did what you’re supposed to do in one-run games, splitting those 23-20. Their 13-6 record head-to-head against the Royals didn’t just decide the division, it was also their best mark against any AL Central foe.

Explaining their win goes towards crediting them for their strengths, which are easy to take for granted. Even after dealing Doug Fister and with Sanchez’s injury and Verlander’s struggles, they nevertheless finished third in the AL in quality starts. They did that because of Max Scherzer delivering another excellent season, Rick Porcello finally did come into his own, and because GM Dave Dombrowski took this team’s present-day possibilities seriously enough to trade for David Price. And they had the benefit of having stable producers in the lineup like Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler and Torii Hunter, guys as notable for their durability as the productivity.

If you want to talk about luck and the Tigers, you might put that on the Martinezes. There was no reasonable way you could anticipate that Victor Martinez would have the best year of his career, or that J.D. Martinez would be the waiver-wire find of the season. But even there, I’d suggest luck was the residue of design: Standing by their multi-year commitment to V-Mart through injury and recovery generated the opportunity to reap the benefit of this season. And because the Tigers didn’t have a big-money solution already in place in left field, they were free to take a chance on an Astros discard and discover his entirely remade swing was totally worth taking that flyer, because there was no chance they’d have found a guy who could slug .553 this year on the free agent market, as J.D. Martinez just did.

So now that the regular season is done and the Tigers don’t have to sweat the one-night terror of the wild-card play-in game, you might still be wondering what they’re capable of doing. A strong rotation, stable lineup assets, power ... those are the things that usually serve you as well in a short series as they do over a six-month season. But there’s still that bullpen to worry about. Nathan might be the most frightening presumed closer on a postseason team since Brad Lidge just a few years back, or Mitch Williams in 1989 and 1993. Lidge had the last laugh; “Wild Thing,” not so much. Add in how badly Joba Chamberlain and Phil Coke have done in set-up roles (allowing more than 36 percent of inherited runners to score), and you can’t hope Joakim Soria solves all of their relief problems simultaneously.

The easy escape is to say that we’ll see what happens, that this is why they play the games. Maybe Brad Ausmus shows us something with his in-game and in-series problem-solving skills as manager. Maybe Nathan finds redemption, as Lidge did. Maybe this lineup cranks out enough runs that a return to the ALCS or the World Series doesn’t rely on sweating the small stuff. But if there’s a lesson to this particular Tigers season, it’s that you can count on them to punch that ticket themselves, and not rely on luck to get them there.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.