Wednesday, October 3, 2012
New format brings new excitement
By David Schoenfield
Wait, we get more baseball?
More of these Oakland A's, too young to know they're not supposed to be here? More Washington Nationals, trying to bring the World Series back to the nation's capital for the first time since 1933? More Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander? More Buster Posey? More Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte?
Sounds good to me.
We didn't get any Thursday baseball after the New York Yankees won and the Baltimore Orioles lost on Wednesday night, but that's OK: I need a day to rest up, go outside, get some exercise and give my brain a short break from baseball. Because starting Friday, October baseball begins and there's nothing like the pitch-to-pitch pressure and drama of postseason baseball we get to watch for the next month.
We have a new format this year, of course, with the addition of a second wild-card team. The scenario worked out about as well as baseball's top officials could have hoped for. In the American League, four of the five playoff teams were forced to go all-out through the final day of the season, pushing to win the division title. Things were a little more settled in the National League, but the Nationals and Reds still fought to Game 162 to secure the best record and No. 1 seed.
The biggest effect of the new format -- besides the excitement of the one-game, win-or-out wild-card game -- is how managers may have pushed their bullpens and starters down the stretch. Bob Melvin of the A's used Ryan Cook and Grant Balfour, his main set-up guy and his closer, each of the final five games as the A's pulled off their miracle run to the AL West title. Prior to that they hadn't pitched in more than three consecutive games all season. The Yankees, known for coasting down the stretch and resting their veterans in previous seasons, had to play Jeter and Alex Rodriguez every day to help secure the AL East. Joe Girardi even drew criticism for pushing ace CC Sabathia, who has battled a sore elbow during the season, to eight innings in his final two starts despite big leads in those games.
The managers probably dislike the new format more than anyone. The biggest decision the four wild-card managers may make all year is selecting who to start in that game. Ron Washington of the Rangers will go with Yu Darvish when the Rangers host the Orioles. Most would have expected Matt Harrison, who led the Rangers in wins and ERA and started Game 7 of the World Series last year, but Darvish has the hot hand. Over his final seven starts of the regular season, he posted a 2.13 ERA with 59 strikeouts, 10 walks and a .167 batting average allowed. The Rangers signed Darvish to be that No. 1 guy with a dominant arsenal that they lacked a year ago. He'll get his chance to prove the investment was worth it as the Rangers attempt to finally bring home the World Series trophy.
The most surprising stories of 2012, of course, are the A's and Orioles. In ESPN.com's preseason predictions file, none of our 50 experts picked either team to make the playoffs; 0 for 100. I'm not sure we've seen other teams like these two squads in recent years except maybe the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays. The A's, with their batch of rookies and cast-offs, were 13 games behind the Rangers on June 30. They pitched a rookie starter in 103 games and yet only two teams have ever overcome a larger deficit to finish in first place. Unless veteran Brett Anderson (who is all of 24 years old) returns from his oblique injury, it will be an all-rookie rotation against the Tigers in the division series.
The Orioles are a miracle of their own. They hadn't posted a winning season since 1997, but Buck Showalter manipulated the league's best bullpen like a magician and the O's have won an incredible 16 extra-inning games in a row while posting the best record in one-run games in major league history. The O's lack an ace, however, and some will question Showalter's decision to go with Joe Saunders, a soft-tossing lefty, in the wild-card game against a Rangers lineup filled with right-handed power (though Tim Kurkjian reports that they may start Steve Johnson).
Then we have the Washington Nationals. It was only three years ago this club lost 103 games, a year after losing 102. They won a division title for the first time in franchise history -- a history that began in 1969 as the Montreal Expos. In the middle of that 103-loss season they drafted Stephen Strasburg. The next they drafted Bryce Harper. We won't (likely) see Strasburg in the postseason, but we will see the 19-year-old Harper. What a talent. With the way he's finished -- he hit .327/.384/.660 with 12 home runs over his final 44 games -- don't be surprised if he shines on the big stage. Age ain't nothin' but a number when you can swing the bat like he can.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals look to become the first back-to-back champions since the Yankees in 2000. The Cincinnati Reds hope to reach their first World Series since 1990 and finally win a ring for manager Dusty Baker, a skipper with heartbreaking postseason history under his belt. The Giants won two years ago. The Tigers have maybe the best hitter and best pitcher in the game. The Braves erased last year's collapse. And looming there -- as always -- the New York Yankees.
It may be a new world order with the A's and the Nationals and the Orioles and we've seen this year that you can win in smaller markets and that money (we mean you, Los Angeles Angels) doesn't always buy pennants. New playoff system, new strategies, new teams. But the Yankees: It's October. Of course they're here. And we'll all be watching to see how they do.