SweetSpot: Delmon Young

Don’t let the final score fool you: This was an interesting game, from Danny Salazar looking like the second coming of Bob Feller to sabermetric whipping boy Delmon Young hitting another postseason home run to the Cleveland Indians creating one scoring opportunity after another after falling behind, only to come up empty in every single one of them.

In October baseball, we love to dissect the strategies and the percentages and the bullpens and everything a manager has a pulse on, but what makes the postseason so exciting are the individual showdowns: Pitcher versus batter, fans on their feet, ducks on the pond, game potentially on the line.

In this wild-card game, there were three huge at-bats that allowed the Tampa Bay Rays to survive and beat the Indians 4-0.
[+] EnlargeYunel Escobar
AP Photo/Tony DejakYunel Escobar and the rest of the Rays' D can celebrate a decisive effort.

Let’s set the stage. Salazar, the rookie with the upper-90s gas and just 10 career starts, looked unhittable for two innings, but then Young tagged him for a home run in the third inning, a first-pitch 95 mph fastball low and in, a pitch Young rarely does damage against. In the fourth, Salazar fell behind James Loney two balls and Loney singled off a 97 mph fastball; he fell behind Longoria two balls and Longoria singled off a 96 mph fastball; after getting the second out, he fell behind Desmond Jennings with a changeup and then Jennings doubled down the left-field line on a 97 mph fastball to score two runs.

One thing about the Rays: You know no team is going to be more prepared. Others may be as prepared, but no team is going to out-prepare them. Salazar had 24 2-0 counts in his limited action this season and threw 24 fastballs. He had 93 1-0 counts and threw 77 fastballs. Major league hitters can hit 97 mph fastballs if they know they're coming.

So the score is 3-0, with the wind sucked out of Indians fans like it never was Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

Big at-bat No. 1: Bottom of fourth, bases loaded with one out, Alex Cobb versus Asdrubal Cabrera. Cabrera didn’t have a good season for Cleveland. A productive hitter the previous two seasons, he hit just .242/.299/.402. Terry Francona kept giving him a chance to get going and he was hitting cleanup even into August before finally moving down in the order.

Cobb posted a 2.76 ERA in 22 starts (he missed time after getting hit in the head with a line drive) and a good strikeout rate despite lacking an overpowering fastball. But he expertly mixes speeds and has a sharp, downward-breaking “spike” curveball and excellent changeup.

Cabrera actually handled changeups very well, hitting .297/.354/.582, with six of his 14 home runs. Left-handers hit just .214 against Cobb’s changeup. Strength against strength. Cobb started with a curveball for a ball and then threw a changeup that was actually a little flat and up in the zone. But Cabrera rolled over on it and slick-fielding first baseman Loney turned a 3-6-1 double play to escape the inning.

Big at-bat No. 2: Bottom of fifth, runners at the corners, no outs, Cobb versus Michael Bourn. Yan Gomes doubled and Lonnie Chisenhall singled, bringing up Cleveland’s leadoff hitter. Bourn is a speed guy, but one who strikes out too much for a speed guy. Still ... at least put the ball in play on the ground and you score a run and likely avoid the double play because you’re a speed guy.

But here’s the genius of Cobb: Two-seam fastball for a strike, a swinging strike on the curveball, a two-seamer for a ball ... and then another curveball, biting into the dirt, for a swing and miss. Bourn may have been looking for the changeup and got the curve. Great pitch, both in thought process and execution, probably his best pitch of the night.

Big at-bat No. 3: Bottom of the seventh, runners at first and second, two outs, Joel Peralta versus Nick Swisher. Joe Maddon had gone surprising deep with Cobb, 107 pitches and even let him face the tying run in Bourn with one out (Bourn flied out to deep left-center). That brought up the switch-hitting Swisher, a guy with a miserable postseason history, a .169 average in 46 games entering this game.

Maddon went to Peralta, keeping Swisher on his weaker left side (.220/.310/.370 versus .295/.397/.521). Peralta had some bad outings in September and can give up the long ball, but it’s understandable why he’d use Peralta there instead of lefties Jake McGee or Alex Torres. (If anything, it’s a little surprising that Cobb was left in to face Bourn.)

Swisher swung from his heels on a curveball and splitter, missing with two wild, go-for-the-fences swings, stumbling across home plate on the second one. He then swung through an inside 93 mph fastball. If Reggie Jackson is Mr. October, Swisher is the opposite.

There were a couple other key plays -- in the fourth, Ben Zobrist made a diving play on an infield hit to prevent a run before Cabrera’s double play; an error and hit/error off Swisher's glove led to Tampa’s fourth run in the ninth. But, really, this came down to those crucial one-on-one battles, and the Rays won those.

In the end, I think the better team won. Tampa Bay came from the tough AL East; the Indians had gone just 36-52 against teams over .500 this season. It was a magical ride the final two weeks for Cleveland to get here and it’s a shame it had to end so quickly for a city so desperate for a championship in any sport.

But the Rays are moving on to face the Red Sox and their left-handed pitching can perhaps match up with the lethal Boston lineup. Matt Moore will likely start Game 1 but with two off days in the series, David Price could start Game 2 and Game 5, if necessary, on regular rest.

Let the showdown begins.

The 10 worst decisions of 2013

September, 27, 2013
Earlier, I presented the 10 best decisions of 2013. Here are my 10 worst decisions -- moves that were clearly questionable when made. And, no, all 10 do not involve the Phillies.

10. Angels give $125 million to Josh Hamilton. It's easy to forget that Hamilton hit 43 home runs and finished fifth in the MVP voting with the Rangers last season. But that was fueled by a huge first half. A big increase in strikeouts compared to 2011 and an increasingly poor approach at the plate were warning signals that he could be a risky investment. Hamilton salvaged his season a little in the second half, but he's still a guy with a .304 OBP and the Angels will be on the hook for $30 million a season in 2016 and 2017 -- his age 35 and 36 seasons.

9. Rockies give rotation spot to Jeff Francis. Francis had a 5.00 ERA with the Rockies in 2010. He had a 4.82 ERA with the Royals in 2011. He had a 5.58 ERA with the Rockies in 2012. The Rockies thought it was a good idea to give him 11 starts. Look, if three guys get hurt and you have to use Francis to fill in, OK. But 11 starts? He went 2-5 with a 6.61 ERA.

8. Yankees have no backup plan for Derek Jeter. Knowing Jeter's return from last October's broken ankle didn't have an exact timetable, and knowing his defense was an issue even when he was healthy, the Yankees needed an alternative plan -- and, no, Jayson Nix and Eduardo Nunez weren't good ideas. I advocated early in the season that the Yankees go after defensive whiz Brendan Ryan, a move the team finally made in September. Nix, a .214 career hitter entering the season, didn't hit much and Nunez, a terrible fielder, rated at minus-28 Defensive Runs Saved, the worst total of any player in the majors.

7. Brewers pretend Yuniesky Betancourt is still a major league player. Giving Betancourt 396 plate appearances is kind of like giving up. Betancourt hit .280 with six home runs and 21 RBIs in April. Fake! He was still Yuniesky Betancourt and has hit .189/.215/.287 from May 8 on -- that's 284 PAs. Once it became obvious that April was a fluke, why keep him around all season?

6. Royals count on Jeff Francoeur for more than clubhouse leadership. The Royals believed so much in Francoeur that they traded super prospect Wil Myers to keep Francoeur in right field. Even though Francoeur hit .235/.287/.378 in 2012 and was worth minus-2.3 WAR. As in, way below replacement level. Francoeur played 59 games, struck out 49 times, drew eight walks, hit .208 and was mercifully released on July 5. There also was the Chris Getz problem at second. Or Ned Yost batting Alcides Escobar second for nearly 300 at-bats despite a .274 OBP. Or that Carlos Pena pinch-hit appearance ... if you get the idea that Yost had a bad year, well ...

5. Royals give Wade Davis 24 starts. Part of the controversial Myers-James Shields trade, Davis had pitched very well for Tampa Bay out of the bullpen in 2012, but the Royals decided to return Davis to the rotation, where he had mediocre results in 2010 and 2011 (4.27 ERA). Giving Davis a chance to start wasn't the worst idea, although he wasn't that great as a starter in Tampa considering the Rays' great defense and a pitcher's park. He was better in relief because his fastball ticked up in shorter outings. The big problem here was Yost kept running Davis out there despite a 5.67 ERA and .320 batting average allowed. The Royals have allowed the fewest runs in the AL, but what if Bruce Chen had joined the rotation before mid-July?

4. Mariners think it's a good idea to play Michael Morse and Raul Ibanez in the outfield. Together. OK, we'll be a little fair to GM Jack Zduriencik, who did reportedly acquire Justin Upton, only to see Upton veto the trade. He also pursued Hamilton. So Morse was kind of a Plan C or Plan D, the hope being his bat would make up for his lousy defense. Nope. Morse's defense was predictably awful, plus he didn't hit. When Franklin Gutierrez spent the year raising sheep in Australia instead of playing center field, that forced the Mariners to use Ibanez regularly in left field, giving them two of the worst (the worst?) corner defenders in the majors.

3. Giants stand pat with Barry Zito. OK, he beat Justin Verlander in Game 1 of the World Series, which pretty much justified that $126 million contract all by itself. While it was understandable to open the season with Zito in the rotation -- he was at least serviceable last season before his clutch postseason performances -- you couldn't assume Zito would roll 30 starts again. Zito went 5-11 with a 5.75 ERA as the Giants gave him 25 starts. But that ERA comes courtesy of help from pitcher-friendly AT&T Park. Zito went a stunning 0-9 on the road with a 9.56 ERA and .401 average allowed. Basically, on the road, the average hitter against Zito was Ted Williams.

2. Angels sign Joe Blanton. Considering Blanton had a 4.79 ERA in the National League over the three previous seasons, the odds that he would perform better moving over to the American League seemed slim. There may have been some belief that Blanton's fly-ball tendencies would work in Anaheim. Wishful thinking. He went 2-14 with a 6.04 ERA. Meanwhile, the Angels let Ervin Santana go, and he had a great year for the Royals.

1. The Phillies go Young. Let's see. Delmon Young and Michael Young were worth a combined minus-2.8 WAR in 2012, with the Defensive Runs Saved statistic suggesting both were lousy defenders. Ruben Amaro flouted advanced metrics and acquired both players. They combined for minus-2.3 WAR while with the Phillies. On a perhaps related note, the Phillies have allowed the second-most runs in the NL.

It's another edition of SweetSpot TV!


Which team has been the biggest disappointment?


Discuss (Total votes: 1,688)

Eric and I discuss four pairs of teammates who have been big disappointments.

I realize now we didn't talk about the Blue Jays -- and we should have, considering they were viewed as potential World Series favorites by many heading into the season. I guess their disappointing duo would lead with Josh Johnson (2-8, 6.20 ERA); he could be joined by R.A. Dickey (9-11, 4.46 ERA) or Melky Cabrera (.279, three home runs) or Ricky Romero (stuck in the minors, unable to throw strikes). The Jays have had injuries but they've also had plenty of bad performances.

Which team has been most disappointing? I still go with the Nationals, but you can make a good case for the Blue Jays, Angels, Phillies or the defending champion Giants. What do you think?

The Philadelphia Phillies are 23-24, they've been outscored by 31 runs, Roy Halladay is on the disabled list, Ryan Howard hasn't hit and Cole Hamels can't win. So the Phillies eventually will be sellers at the trade deadline, right? I don't think so. Here are 10 reasons why.

1. Cliff Lee is an ace.

Remember him? Finished third in the Cy Young voting back in 2011. Pitches 200-plus innings every year. Can throw a fastball over a postage stamp while blindfolded. He's still pretty good. OK, his three-hit shutout Wednesday came against the Marlins. It still counts. He's 5-2, his ERA is 2.48, he's one inning shy of leading the majors in innings pitched and opponents are hitting .227 against him. He's one of the best pitchers in baseball.

2. Cole Hamels will pitch better.

Hamels is 1-7 with a 4.45 ERA and has struggled with his command. The Phillies have won just one of his 10 starts. In a way, this is good news. You really think Hamels will go 3-21? That the Phillies will win just three of the 30 or so starts Hamels will make? Of course not. So the fact that the Phillies are 23-24 while playing worse than the Marlins or Astros when Hamels pitches means they could easily be worse than 23-24. But they're not.

[+] EnlargeCliff Lee
AP Photo/Alan DiazPhillies lefty Cliff Lee improved to 5-2 with a complete-game, three-hit shutout of the Marlins.
3. Kyle Kendrick is actually good now.

As Bill Baer wrote at the end of April, this is a new-and-improved Kendrick over the previous mediocre editions. Basically, Kendrick has stopped throwing so many cutters to left-handers and started using his changeup more often. It has given him a strikeout pitch against lefties and helped hold them to a .240/.290/.380 (BA/OBP/SLG) line against him this season, a big improvement compared to the .268/.341/.458 mark from 2010 to 2012.

4. Michael Young hasn't been horrible.

He hasn't been great, hitting .287 with just one home run, but for some reason, he has started drawing walks (23 this year compared to 33 all of last season with the Rangers). That's given him a fine .378 on-base percentage. If he keeps that walk rate up, Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel should actually consider moving him into the leadoff spot -- especially considering Young's tendency to ground into rally-killing double plays (11, most in the majors). It's not so much that he hasn't been a big positive, but he hasn't been the gaping wound many sabermetric analysts projected. Take that, smart guys!

5. Delmon Young isn't good at baseball.

No, no, no, this is another good thing. The Phillies will eventually realize they'll need a better right fielder. Can you say Andre Ethier? Actually, he and Young would make a nice platoon.

6. The bullpen will do better.

The Phillies rank 27th in the majors with a 4.67 bullpen ERA. I think they have enough quality arms down there (14th in strikeout percentage, for example) to improve. Well, assuming Chad Durbin doesn't keep getting used.

7. The Nationals just might not be that good.

The Phillies are just one game behind the Nationals in the standings. Their run differentials are nearly the same -- minus-26 for Washington, minus-31 for Philadelphia -- but nobody is suggesting the Nationals sell off. That still leaves the Braves, a team the Phillies still have to play 16 times. In fact, the Phillies haven't played the Nationals yet, so they have 19 games remaining against them. So, umm ... they control their own destiny!

8. Even if the Phillies decide to dump, what do they have to dump?

OK, you could trade Chase Utley, but you're not going to get a franchise prospect in return for three months of Utley's services (yes, everyone can point to the Mets getting Zack Wheeler for Carlos Beltran in 2011, but that's a rarity). You could trade Lee, although his salary is so high -- $25 million each of the next two years with a possible $27.5 million vesting option in 2016 -- that he might not bring much in return, either. You're not going to get anything for Delmon Young or Michael Young. In other words, trading assets isn't really the way to start a youth movement because you don't have valuable assets to deal. That leaves general manager Ruben Amaro with the option of trying to acquire players other teams might be looking to dump -- such as an Ethier, who probably wouldn't cost much if the Phillies are willing to absorb part of his contract.

9. Roy Halladay might return this year.


What should the Phillies do?


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He just headed to Florida to begin rehabbing from his shoulder surgery, and everyone is hopeful he can return in late August. Hey, you never know.

10. Big-market teams don't give up!

Well, OK, the Red Sox did a year ago, but that's because the Dodgers offered a gift too generous to turn down. The Phillies aren't going to find a taker for Howard's contract.

Look, I don't believe the Phillies are good enough to beat the Braves or Nationals, but the wild card isn't a crazy impossibility. They have a tougher schedule ahead, with 35 games left against the Braves and Nationals and only 19 against the Marlins and Mets. Manuel's resistance to doing things such as platooning Howard or admitting that Delmon Young can't or shouldn't play right field is an obstacle. Michael Young might stop drawing walks. Utley just missed a game with a sore rib cage, so who knows when he'll miss a chunk of action.

If the Phillies trade for a couple of bats in the outfield, however, you never know. It certainly doesn't seem in Amaro's nature to concede a playoff berth. Look for the Phillies to be buyers.

Which teams are taking big chances on D?

February, 3, 2013
As the Hot Stove League burns itself out and we near pitchers and catchers reporting, it’s clear that some teams are making wishcasts about their rosters. Spring training might dispel how unrealistic expectations are for some winter lineup designs and defensive alignments. But right here, right now and entirely on paper, it’s clear there are certain risks on defense that a few teams are willing to take.

We’ll see whether these teams decide to really take those risks once the games begin to count, or whether they’ll lose patience early in the season. So far, these risks fall into a few broad categories:

Let’s see if this DH can handle an outfield corner: The Phillies’ decision to sign Delmon Young and return him to regular outfield play ought to make them the instant winner in this category. Young made just 20 outfield starts for the Tigers last year when the DH slot was available (and just 29 outfield starts total), "good" for minus-7 runs according to Total Zone on Baseball-Reference.com. Spin that forward, and that prorates to minus-38 runs on defense in 1,200 innings if Young had been a regular in the outfield. That’s bad, but it’s also fairly consistent with Young’s career, which has seen him put up full seasons of minus-10 and minus-22 in seasons when he was younger and lighter afoot.

[+] EnlargeDelmon Young
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhDelmon Young, Detroit's primary DH last season, will be back in the outfield for the Phillies in 2013.
Working from that small 2012 sample, you might wonder, could a full-season outfielder really cost his team 40 runs over a season, or almost the equivalent of four wins? Those of you who remember Dave Kingman or Dante Bichette can put your hands back down; I’m sure it seemed that bad, but it really wasn’t. How bad could this get for the Phillies?

Using Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index, the single worst season for an outfielder with 100 or more games played was Matt Kemp in 2010 (minus-37 in the defensive component of WAR); for you few Fonzie fans, Bichette’s 1999 season was next-worst at minus-34. That’s the most damage done in center and left; the worst ever for a regular right fielder was the Rockies’ Brad Hawpe in 2008, at minus-28. For the sake of comparison, if we switch over to Baseball Info Solutions’ Plus/Minus data for last year, nobody was as low as minus-20 in 2012.

Even if you’re unwilling to concede that Kemp or Bichette or Hawpe produced the single worst seasons ever for a regular outfielder at their positions, the broad suggestion is that the most damage a bad defender in the outfield might do is somewhere around 30 runs. That seems reasonable, especially in today’s high-strikeout era with fewer balls in play than ever before.

Does that theoretical ceiling for how much damage Young might do cheer Phillies fans up any? Probably not. However, the one funny thing is that back in 2007 when Young was playing right field for the Rays, he was useful, netting eight or nine runs of value on his arm alone (using Total Zone and Plus/Minus), and +5 overall. Maybe Young will accept the challenge of wearing a glove regularly and reclaim that bit of distant promise; the guy is just 27 years old, after all. I just wouldn’t place any bets.

For a dishonorable mention, the Red Sox signed Jonny Gomes to play a whole lot of left field, even though Gomes has been reliably terrible with the Rays, Reds and Athletics, generally bouncing around -20 in Total Zone and usually in the red in Plus/Minus. As consistently bad as Gomes has been, will playing in front of the Green Monster make matters worse? Or will the Red Sox do him the favor of finding him a platoon partner who can also pick him up on defense, considering Gomes has slugged less than .400 against right-handed pitching over the past three years?

We need a center fielder and a leadoff man; can you please be both? The Reds and the Cubs head into 2013 hoping to get good-enough fielding in center from the guys they’ll be batting leadoff: Shin-Soo Choo for Cincinnati, and David DeJesus in Wrigleyville. DeJesus’ numbers in the field weren’t great while playing center for the Cubs last year (minus-4 in a partial season in Plus/Minus), consistent with a generally negative trend over his career. But with a poor arm for right while providing a lot less power than you expect from a corner outfielder, he’s been an odd fit for a few years now.

[+] EnlargeShin-Soo Choo
AP Photo/Mark DuncanThe Reds acquired outfielder Shin-Soo Choo for his productive bat, not his defense.
That’s still miles ahead of Choo’s experience as a center fielder, though. His last start in center was in 2009, for all of one game; the last time Choo spent any serious time in center field was back in 2002 in the Low-A Midwest League as a 19-year-old. Reds GM Walt Jocketty made the expected polite noises about the prospect of playing Choo in center regularly. But Jocketty wound up sounding an awful lot like former Cubs GM Jim Hendry did while talking wishfully before the 2007 season about Alfonso Soriano as his team’s new possible center fielder after the Cubs had signed Soriano to his ginormous deal.

To make matters worse for the Reds, Choo’s defensive numbers cratered to a career-worst minus-12 in Plus/Minus and minus-15 in Total Zone last season, a big change after bouncing around adequacy over his career. Assuming there’s no underlying problem, you might have expected Choo to come back to adequacy as a right fielder, but putting him in center will be sporadically ugly, inviting plenty of late-game substitutions if Dusty Baker elects to get aggressive on that point. Considering the huge boost the Reds should get on offense (perhaps netting as much as five wins with Choo leading off instead of Zack Cozart), we’ll see if Dusty can really live with the in-game lineup card challenge and the odd extra triple.

The Cubs experimented with DeJesus in the leadoff/center field role in 2012, giving him 36 starts in center when they weren’t despairing over the feeble contributions of first Marlon Byrd, then Tony Campana and finally the unreadiness of Brett Jackson. At least initially, they might open with DeJesus leading off and playing center, but signing lukewarm bodies like Nate Schierholtz and Scott Hairston to play right field should not present Jackson with an insurmountable challenge from reclaiming a job, pushing DeJesus back to right field at some point.

This shortstop can handle the transition from the Japanese leagues. Confronted by a weak market for shortstops this winter, the A’s decided to expand their options, reaching for an extra-market solution by signing Japan’s three-time Gold Glove winner Hiroyuki Nakajima. Seems creative enough, except does anybody remember how well three-time Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) Gold Glover winner Tsuyoshi Nishioka handled the move from the NPB’s artificial surfaces for the Twins? He was a thorough disaster, washing out faster than the Mississippi in March. How about Kazuo Matsui, a four-time Gold Glove shortstop in Japan? Again, he promptly flopped at short for the Mets, although he wound up an adequate placeholder at second base for a few years.

In the case of both Nishioka and Matsui, we were assured that this was the shortstop who could handle the transition, and both times those predictions turned out to be spectacularly wrong. Maybe the third time is the charm, but Nakajima’s arrival isn’t accompanied by any plugs for his fielding prowess. How about his contributions at the plate? Clay Davenport’s translations of his hitting performances in Japan suggest he’s a guy who will OPS around .700 -- right around last year’s average major league shortstop (.688), so there’s no big payoff to expect there either. Oakland’s challenge of repeating as AL West champion isn’t going to get any easier with at least three infield positions in doubt.

Maybe he just has to catch to hit: The Mariners’ decision to trade John Jaso puts Jesus Montero on the spot as the club’s likely regular catcher. This comes after Montero failed to hit well enough as a rookie to be their DH in 2012, producing an awful .226/.265/.309 when he was DH, against the .310/.343/.498 he delivered when he was catching.

Given that Montero is just 23, you don’t want to get too upset with him. Nevertheless, his failure last season came on the heels of years of touts that Montero’s best position was hitter, accompanied by stacks of indictments from scouts regarding his ability to make it as a catcher at any level, going all the way back to his arrival stateside as a Venezuelan teen. His problems behind the plate are legion: He’s bulky for a backstop and stiff as a receiver. He also struggles to contain the running game because of a long, slow throwing motion and poor footwork, producing a 21 percent career caught-stealing rate in the minors and 17 percent in his big-league career so far.

The Mariners know all of this, and manager Eric Wedge was understandably being protective of his player when he asserted that he -- perhaps drawing on his days as a lead-gloved big-league backstop -- has no doubt about Montero’s ability as a receiver. Unfortunately, numbers like Plus/Minus suggest that Montero’s 2012 performance stretched across a full season would have tied him with Rod Barajas for an MLB-worst minus-12 Defensive Runs Saved behind the plate. Various metrics evaluating receiving skill suggest that, barring any improvement, Montero will be about as bad at blocking pitches as offense-first backstops like Carlos Santana and A.J. Pierzynski -- among the worst. (But still better than Colorado's Wilin Rosario, who has the remarkable ability to treat baseballs the way a toreador treats bulls. Ole!)

We’ll see how much damage Montero can do, splitting time with the recently signed Kelly Shoppach, but it’s worth noting that despite all of the ground-breaking analysis regarding a catcher's impact on the running game and blocking pitches, the Mariners have consistently employed some pretty weak catchers in recent years: Kenji Johjima, Rob Johnson and Miguel Olivo. Montero’s numbers in limited playing time were bad as well, but you can’t help but wonder if this is one area where the Mariners have simply elected to punt on the value of contemporary analysis.

Oops, we’ll do that again: The Rockies’ fascination with Chris Nelson is one of those things that can happen to any organization when evaluating one of its own prospects. But can you really blame them? Nelson was a toolsy high school shortstop they picked with the ninth overall selection in the 2004 draft, and expectations go with the territory.

Once it turned out that Nelson couldn’t play short (not just because somebody named Troy Tulowitzki was atop the depth chart), figuring out what Nelson's best position is has defied the organization’s best efforts. They drifted into employing him as their most-regular third baseman in 2012, and for their trouble got one of the most spectacularly awful defensive seasons at the hot corner in baseball history. According to Baseball-Reference.com, Nelson’s 2012 season afield, at minus-22 in Defensive Runs in WAR, was seventh worst among third basemen with more than 100 games played.

That really took some doing, since Nelson only managed 377 plate appearances. The only other non-batting title qualifier to do worse was Ryan Braun in 2007, and the only player to do almost as badly in as little playing time at third was ex-catcher Johnny Bench in 1982. It was Bench's next-to-last season, and his only year as a near-regular third baseman.

Playing Nelson isn’t the worst tragedy for the Rockies, but their lack of a ready alternative might be. Because guess who finished with the second-worst tally of Defensive Runs Saved at third base in 2012? Jordan Pacheco with minus-13, in even less playing time than Nelson. And guess which two guys are at the top of the Rockies’ depth chart heading into camp in 2013? If those two combined to hit like Harmon Killebrew in Coors Field, that would be one thing, but they don’t.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

Offseason report card: Tigers

February, 1, 2013
2012 in review
Record: 88-74 (88-74 Pythagorean)
726 runs scored (6th in American League)
670 runs allowed (5th in AL)

Big Offseason Moves
Re-signed Anibal Sanchez. Signed Torii Hunter. Lost Jose Valverde and Delmon Young.

It has been a relatively quiet offseason for general manager Dave Dombrowski, but his two major signings made perfect sense. Bringing back Sanchez gives the team another reliable innings-eater in the middle of the rotation, even if he's not quite as good as his three terrific starts in the postseason, when he posted a 1.77 ERA.

Snapping up Hunter for two years and $26 million was one of the sleeper free-agent signings of the winter. While the Tigers ranked 25th in the majors with minus-32 defensive runs saved, the biggest defensive liability wasn't Miguel Cabrera at third base or Prince Fielder at first base, but the collection of right fielders (primarily Brennan Boesch). Hunter will be a clear defensive upgrade there, and while he won't hit .313 again (he'd never hit .300 before 2012), he'll provide more offense than the .235/.285/.357 line the Tigers got from right field in 2012 (the lowest OPS in the AL).

Position Players

The return of Victor Martinez is addition by subtraction, because it means the departure of Young and his .296 on-base percentage. Martinez is a career .303 hitter, but he is 34 and returning from missing an entire season following knee surgery.

Certainly, any lineup with Cabrera and Fielder is going to score runs; it's knowing you can build around two of the most durable players in the league (they missed only one game between them last year). Despite their presence, the Tigers ranked just 10th in the AL in home runs and they'll remain one of the slowest teams in the league. But if Martinez hits and Alex Avila hits like he did in 2011, there is potential for more runs here.

Pitching Staff

They have the best pitcher in baseball in Justin Verlander and follow that up with the underrated Doug Fister (how did the Mariners trade this guy?), Max Scherzer (fourth-best ERA in the AL in the second half) and Sanchez. Drew Smyly is one of breakout candidates for 2013, and clearly the Tigers believe so as well if the trade rumors involving Rick Porcello are true.

The question mark: Who closes? Following Valverde's meltdown in the playoffs, Phil Coke handled the position just fine, but his 4.05 career ERA and ugly .854 OPS allowed in 2012 have led to speculation that hard-throwing rookie Bruce Rondon -- with no major league experience -- will be given the chance to close. I have my doubts about that, considering Rondon has fewer than 30 innings above Class A and enough command issues (4.4 walks per nine in the minors) that Jim Leyland might want to see the kid throw some strikes before handing him the ninth. The closer issue moves the overall grade of the staff down a notch.

Heat Map to Watch
Miguel Cabrera's 44 home runs was one element of the Triple Crown. Impressively, he hit 40 of those off right-handed pitchers -- and you can see from the heat map Cabrera's ability to turn on inside pitches.

Miguel CabreraESPN Stats & InformationMiguel Cabrera hit 44 of Detroit's 163 home runs in 2012 -- 40 off right-handers.
Overall grade


How many games will the Tigers win?


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Despite their World Series appearance a year ago, the Tigers were hardly a super team, top-heavy around the big three of Verlander, Cabrera and Fielder. Winning 88 games in the weak AL Central doesn't necessarily inspire a lot of confidence, but I have a feeling the rotation will be stronger after Fister and Scherzer had strong second halves, a full season of Sanchez and the full-time addition of Smyly. Hunter is big upgrade in right field as well. The Tigers will be heavy favorites once again to win the division.
It's time for the old columnist staple: Random thoughts!

1. Mike Trout turned 21 years old in August, so the common axiom about young players as applied to Trout: He'll get better. But is that even possible? His 10.7 WAR was one of just 20 such seasons by a position player since 1950. If he repeats this season 10 more times he'd be over 100 career WAR -- a valuation just 19 position players have achieved. Now, unless he's the second coming of Willie Mays, Trout isn't going to be a 10-WAR player every season. His baserunning and fielding ability may have already crested, but is there room for development as a hitter? I think it's possible. He has a walk rate of 10.5 percent -- while above the AL average of 8.0 percent -- could improve, boosting his on-base percentages over .400, even if he's more .300 hitter than .330. Of course, maybe he is more Mays than Rickey Henderson. Mays had a .384 career OBP and walk rate of 11.7 percent that didn't grow much from a 10.9 percent rate as a rookie.

What about power? Trout wasn't projected as more of 20-homer guy coming up, so the 30 home runs was a big surprise, especially in a tough home run park. According to the ESPN Home Run Tracker, eight of Trout's 30 home runs were "just enough" -- a figure that wasn't near the league-leading figures of Miguel Cabrera (16) and Adrian Beltre (15). Trout's home run percentage on fly balls was 21.6 percent, which ranked 15th in the majors among those hitters with 300 plate appearances. Remember, as fast as is he, Trout isn't a small guy, at 6-1 and over 200 pounds. He's bigger than Mays or Hank Aaron. I believe the power is legit; that doesn't mean he's going to turn into a 40- or 45-homer guy. Eddie Mathews hit 47 as a 21-year-old and that was his career high. A friend of mine who plays in a simulation league owns Trout and was offered Bryce Harper for him. He asked my thoughts, wondering if it's possible Trout will never do this again. I suppose that's possible, but answered: He doesn't have to get better. He's already the best all-around player in the game.

[+] EnlargeTrout
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonMike Trout doesn't have to get better to be great.
2. Does anybody sign Delmon Young?

3. Dave Cameron of FanGraphs broke down the Jeremy Guthrie signing here. Buster Olney also wrote about the Royals. I like the move a little more than Dave does. I understand the readers who said the Royals could have spent the money more wisely, but that ignores that in all likelihood none of the really good pitchers want to come to Kansas City. Guthrie has thrown 175-plus innings six straight years; yes, he'll be 34 in April, so that's not a guarantee to continue, but durability is no sure thing with any pitcher. But to a club like the Royals, getting an innings eater is a pretty valuable addition. Over those six seasons, the Royals have had just 11 seasons where a starter reached 175 innings -- and only five with 200 (three by Zack Greinke, two by Gil Meche). For the Royals, half the problem has been not having good starters, but half the problem has been not having durable ones, which leads to the necessity of using even more bad ones, and the deeper you go, the worse they get.

4. Some days I like B.J. Upton and some days I don't. For what it's worth, his Defensive Runs Saved figures the past three years are NOT very good: minus-19, minus-7, minus-4.

5. Are the Rockies really counting on Todd Helton to play first base again?

6. Excellent column from Jeff MacGregor on stats guru Nate Silver and how the quantification of sports impacts some of our enjoyment of the games. Jeff isn't saying the numbers and analysis are bad or evil; this isn't a terrible Mitch Albom column here (you can find it easily enough). Jeff is raising a fair and honest question: "The game exists to produce joy or sadness or distraction or love or hate or a thousand sensations unrelated to common sense or business or efficiency. Not even money. So to what end do we go to WAR over VORP?"

7. Joe Posnanski with a blog entry comparing MVP winners -- which he equates to the best narrative -- to the HOW winners (Heroes of WAR). Fun piece. As Joe points out, there are many seasons where a pitcher could have been in the MVP discussion, but the only one to win in the past two decades was Justin Verlander. If anything, Verlander's MVP stands out as the biggest outlier in recent MVP voting. Not that he wasn't deserving, but there have been many starters just as deserving -- Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux -- but only Pedro came close to winning. This is certainly an inconsistency to the MVP voting, which is really the reason it's so fun to argue over.

8. Rumors out there the Tigers are interested in Stephen Drew and would then trade Jhonny Peralta to Arizona. I agree with the Tigers' desire to upgrade defense at shortstop, but is Drew the answer? He'll be turning 30, an age when many shortstops start to lose range. His Defensive Runs Saved was not good last year -- minus-7 runs. There is some upside here -- Drew was a 4-win player in 2010, but there is the possibility he's not really an improvement over Peralta and more of an injury risk (Peralta has never been on the DL). The Tigers defense wasn't great in 2012, but I don't think Peralta was the main reason why. His DRS the past two seasons has been +2 and minus-1. Sometimes steady and reliable is OK.

9. Anibal Sanchez: $100 million? I can't see it. I mean .. it's Anibal Sanchez. Nice No. 3.

10. Chase Headley's road numbers, doubled: .300, 36 home runs, 128 RBIs. Miguel Cabrera's road numbers, doubled: .327, 32 home runs, 128 RBIs.

11. Joey Matschulat looks at the Rangers' 2013 payroll situation, which he estimates at $110 million and counting. Assuming an estimated $120-$130 million payroll that has been reported in the Dallas media, Joey points out why the team didn't make a qualifying offer to Mike Napoli (he may have accepted it) and writes:
    I think this should also serve to temper some of the expectations being bandied about as far as the Rangers making a serious run at a marquee free agent such as Zack Greinke -- sure, they could backload the hell out of such a deal in anticipation of another $30-plus million in expiring contracts coming off the books next winter (and, for that matter, in anticipation of their coffer-filling TV deal with FOX Sports Southwest that begins in 2015), but they would still end up around $125-130 million for 2013 just by adding Greinke alone, and before addressing any of their other roster holes. To make that work, ownership would need to be prepared to move above and beyond the $140 million mark for next season, or they would need to shed some of their existing payroll obligations.

Based on this analysis and assuming the Rangers aren't going to break that $130 payroll mark, it does seem unlikely the team will sign Greinke and one of the big free agent outfielders (whether Josh Hamilton, B.J. Upton or somebody else). A Craig Gentry/Leonys Martin platoon would probably be adequate for center field and David Murphy can hold down left field or Ian Kinsler could move to the outfield. Remember, the team still has a big hole at catcher, especially if Geovany Soto is non-tendered.

12. Jason Linden looks at Jay Bruce, who said he'd like to play his whole career with the Reds. Of course he would. Bruce is a career .280 hitter at home with 82 home runs versus .231 on the road with 52 home runs (same number of PAs). Bruce is already signed through 2016 with a 2017 club option. There's no reason to extend him for seasons beginning with his age-31 season. My personal take is that Bruce is one of the more overrated players in the majors (which isn't the same thing as saying as he's a bad player; he's not). But it does seem that Bruce benefits from the cozy confines at GAB more than most hitters (certainly more than Joey Votto, whose splits are pretty even). Look at how Ryan Ludwick fared in 2012. Anyway, Jason looks at some comparable to players to Bruce to see how they fared from ages 31 to 35. Check it out.

13. I think the Dodgers end up with Greinke.

14. Finally, Happy Thanksgiving to everyone. Thanks for reading and enjoy the long weekend.

DETROIT -- We can go silly overanalyzing three baseball games, so let’s keep it simple: The Detroit Tigers are a stars-and-scrubs team. If the stars aren’t delivering, it’s going to be an uphill climb. And now that climb is Mount Everest.

In Game 1, Justin Verlander didn’t deliver. In Game 2, Prince Fielder grounded into a crucial double play with the score 0-0 in the seventh inning. In Game 3 on Saturday night at Comerica Park, Fielder and Miguel Cabrera both had their chances. With two on in the first, Fielder grounded into a 4-6-3 double play, with Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford nicely turning two as Cabrera barreled down on him. In the fifth, Cabrera batted with the bases loaded, two out and the Tigers down two runs, but Ryan Vogelsong induced Cabrera to pop out to shortstop.

When that ball fell harmlessly into Crawford’s glove, the air was sucked out of Comerica. You had the feeling the game -- and perhaps the World Series -- ended there, with the best hitter in baseball unable to knock in runs the Tigers desperately needed. Oh, Comerica tried to come to life a couple times after that -- when Anibal Sanchez struck out Angel Pagan to end the top of the seventh and when Cabrera led off the bottom of the eighth -- but the fans were muted by the cold air and wind and the big, fat zero on the scoreboard.

The final score: Giants 2, Tigers 0, the Giants now 27 outs from a World Series sweep after becoming the first team with consecutive shutouts in the World Series since the 1966 Orioles.

Cabrera and Fielder are now 3-for-19 in the series, without an extra-base hit and with one RBI that came in Game 1, trailing by six runs. (Austin Jackson has a .500 OBP in the series, so it's not like they've been hitting with the bases empty every time.)

"I wouldn’t say it’s pressing," Fielder said after the game. "That’s just a word you use when you’re not playing well."

I happen to agree with Fielder. There will be a lot of opinions out there tomorrow or if the Tigers go down in Game 4 that Cabrera and Fielder pressed or choked or whatever label you wish to apply. Teams struggle for short stretches like this all the time in the regular season, of course; such stretches are unremarkable in the midst of 162 games. The difference is in the regular season there's a next day. For Fielder and Cabrera, there's only one more tomorrow to snap out of their mini-slumps.

* * * *

Vogelsong wasn’t near as dominant in this start as in his two in the National League Championship Series against the Cardinals, when he allowed just eight hits and three walks in 14 innings, but he scuffled through 104 pitches in 5.2 innings and got the big outs when he needed them -- the Fielder double play in the first, a Quintin Berry double play in the third, the Cabrera popup. He gave up five hits, walked four and struck out three. Here’s how rare his outing was: Since 1990, a starting pitcher has had four walks and three strikeouts in a postseason game 25 times; each time the starter allowed at least one run and the average was 3.2 runs allowed.

[+] EnlargeMiguel Cabrera
H. Darr Beiser/USA TODAY Sports Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera, popping out to end the fifth, is 2-for-9 in the World Series.
So give props to Vogelsong for making pitches when he had to, but the Tigers also missed their opportunities. This gets a little to the stars-and-scrubs description of the Tigers: Once you get past Jackson, Cabrera and Fielder, there just isn’t much to fear in the Detroit lineup. This is best exemplified by the Nos. 2 and 5 hitters, Berry and Delmon Young.

I’ve written enough about Young, so I’ll skip him other than to mention he had a .279 OBP against right-handed pitchers in the regular season. Berry, back in the lineup with a right-handed pitcher starting, was a nice story this year: Essentially an organizational player, signed last November as a minor league free agent, he’d been let go by the Phillies, Mets and Reds in his career. Called up in late May after an injury, he had a hot few weeks and Jim Leyland and the Tigers kind of fell in love with him. He can run (21-for-21 in stolen bases) and his glove was a big improvement over the likes of Young and Brennan Boesch in the outfield.

But Berry has no business batting second in a World Series game. Since July 1, he hit .224/.285/.312 (BA/OBP/SLG), which is probably a fair assessment of his abilities. OK, he can run and none of other Tigers except Jackson and Omar Infante can. But he killed the Tigers in Game 3: the double play, striking out with the bases loaded and one out ahead of Cabrera’s popup, and then striking out feebly against a Tim Lincecum changeup in the seventh (OK, a lot of hitters have done that through the years).

Look, Berry is the kind of underdog you root for, but he was exposed in this game.

* * * *

Give credit to Sanchez for a strong performance. Unfortunately, he had one bad inning -- the second, when he seemed to lose his fastball command. He walked Hunter Pence on four straight pitches to start the frame, which isn’t easy to do. That began a laborious 31-pitch inning, with the key hit being Gregor Blanco’s one-out triple to deep right-center on a 3-2 slider. With two outs, Sanchez fell behind Crawford with a first-pitch changeup and Crawford then lined a 1-1 fastball just in front of Jackson for the Giants’ second run.

* * * *

Speaking of Crawford, he turned two nice double plays and made a diving stop and throw to take a hit away from Cabrera to begin the eighth. He did make an error later that inning, but he’s played an outstanding shortstop throughout the playoffs. Looks like a kid who will be winning some Gold Gloves in the future.

* * * *

Finally, kudos to the Giants’ new secret weapon: relief pitcher Lincecum, who threw 2.1 hitless innings with three strikeouts. His dominant performance allowed Bochy to easily bridge the gap to closer Sergio Romo with just one middle reliever. It certainly makes managing a little easier when you can minimize the use of your bullpen (you never know which guy may not have it that night) and not worry about LOOGYs and ROOGYs. Old school, baby.

* * * *

There isn't much to analyze now. Blanked in two consecutive games, the Tigers now have to face Giants ace Matt Cain. Before Game 1, I thought the key decision looming over the series was Bochy's decision to start the struggling Madison Bumgarner in Game 2, which meant Cain would be lined up for just one start. Well, now Cain has a chance to pitch the clinching game of a World Series. The Giants have won six in a row and their starters have a 0.47 ERA over that span.

The Tigers turn to Max Scherzer, who is certainly capable of a big game. He's allowed just two runs in his two playoff starts, although he was pulled in the sixth inning both games with his pitch counts in the 90s. Even if he shuts down the Giants, Leyland will likely need some length from his bullpen. It's certainly possible and a win means Verlander in Game 5 and then Tigers fans can start dreaming of the impossible ...

Don't count out Tigers just yet

October, 27, 2012
On Wednesday we looked at five reasons the Tigers would win the World Series. Now, the boys from Detroit are down two games to none and spent Friday preparing for three straight games at home that, given their road struggles, have now become three must-win scenarios. So let’s take a look back at those original five reasons and evaluate what happened.

[+] EnlargeJustin Verlander
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesDetroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander might not get to take the mound again this season.
1. Justin Verlander. Game 1 certainly goes to Pablo Sandoval and his three home runs, but Verlander was the author on the mound who was supposed to dominate. The narrative all night was how shocking it was to see the 2011 Cy Young and MVP winner struggle so much. It was his shortest non-rain-effected start since June 2009 and when the dust settled and all the reactions had been made, one truth stood tall: He simple didn’t deliver, and his team lost a game they were favored to win. Now with Max Scherzer officially starting Game4, the ace might not even see the mound again this season. That would surely leave a putrid taste in his mouth and in the mouths of Detroit Nation.

2. Prince Fielder. While Miguel Cabrera hasn’t done any real damage in the two games, Fielder hasn't made anyone pay either. He is 1-for-6 at the plate and has left five runners stranded. His lack of defense is mostly ignored when he’s hitting, but when he’s not, like now, the fact that he’s a one-dimensional player stands out like a caveman in a modern bank. I’ll leave with this: two games are a minute sample size, but at this point in the season every at-bat counts and Fielder is simply running out of time to stand out (in a good way).

3. Bullpen. The Tigers don’t necessarily have a great bullpen, we all know that, but they have solid arms that can shut down an offense, and for the Tigers to have any hope of putting a dent in the Giants’ plans of running away with this thing, they need to produce. So far, the collective efforts of Al Alburquerque, Jose Valverde, Joaquin Benoit, Rick Porcello, Drew Smyly, Octavio Dotel, and Phil Coke have resulted in six innings, six hits, four runs, four walks and an inherited runner allowed to score. That’s not what anyone in Detroit is looking for. Especially since the offense has scored three runs in 18 innings.

4. Starting pitching. Verlander struggled mightily, but Doug Fister sure didn’t, and he has nothing to show for it other than a nasty lump on the right side of his head. The Tigers will have Anibal Sanchez and Scherzer going, and I don’t expect either one to struggle, but as the offense has shown thus far, the margin of error is zero. Good pitching beats good hitting, but is a non-factor if horrible hitting fits into the equation.

5. Austin Jackson, Jhonny Peralta and Delmont Young. In Game 1, these three were the only reason the Tigers found themselves on the scoreboard as they collectively went 5-for-12 and each scored a run. Peralta launched a two-run home run in the ninth inning to make an 8-1 game look a little bit less lopsided, and Young had a pair of hits. However, in the second game, Young’s potential RBI double in the second inning was foiled by an excellent relay throw and an ill-advised decision by Gene Lamont who gambled and sent Fielder home, thus destroying the possibility of second and third and no outs with Peralta up. Jackson reenacted his rookie and sophomore campaigns with three strikeouts, and Peralta ended the game without a hit.

After two games the Tigers have received production out of two of the five key reasons they needed to win the World Series. Given their defensive handicap, their overall offensive hibernation, and the Giants' stellar pitching, the Tigers are going to need to squeeze every drip of home-field advantage to send this back West. With Ryan Vogelsong and Matt Cain looming on the horizon, it could be a tall order.

However, if following the Tigers has shown me anything this season, it’s that we must expect the unexpected when it comes to this team, and hopefully their last song has not been sung.

Josh Worn runs the Tigers blog, Walkoff Woodward.

SAN FRANCISCO -- This was the Madison Bumgarner Giants fans saw most of the season: the pitcher with impeccable control, the ability to get inside on right-handed batters, generate ground balls and change speeds. This was the pitcher who had become one of the best young left-handers in the game, not the guy who had struggled in recent weeks.

Bumgarner justified manager Bruce Bochy’s faith in choosing him to start Game 2 over Tim Lincecum or Ryan Vogelsong, leading the Giants to a 2-0 victory and sweep of the first two games. He threw seven shutout innings, an efficient 86 pitches with eight strikeouts and just two hits allowed, one of those being an infield single. It was a dominant effort.

Amazingly, the day before, Bumgarner himself didn’t seem to know what to expect. Through his first 25 starts he had a 2.83 ERA and had allowed a .218 opponents' average. But he had struggled since an August start against the Dodgers when he threw 123 pitches. Since then he’d posted a 6.85 ERA. His fastball velocity had dipped and he appeared fatigued in his previous playoff start, against the Cardinals. Batters had feasted off his fastball, hitting .400 against it his past nine starts.

Before Game 1, he hesitantly suggested he and pitching coach Dave Righetti had resolved his issues. “I think we were going through some mechanical issues that -- just some small things that might have affected my arm and made it more difficult to throw, and I think that’s really all it was,” he said. “I think we’ve got it fixed. Like I said before, there’s no way to tell 100 percent until you get out there and get going game speed.”

I think we’re 100 percent sure now.

* * * *

Doug Fister -- despite taking a line drive off his head in the second inning -- matched Bumgarner zero for zero through six innings, albeit with one caveat: not with the same efficiency.

That set up the key decision of the game. With Hunter Pence leading off the bottom of the seventh, Fister had thrown 108 pitches. Pence hits right-handed, followed by three lefties. Jim Leyland had right-hander Octavio Dotel and rookie lefty Drew Smyly warming up. If Leyland brings in Dotel -- probably his best option against right-handed hitters -- it’s probably for just one hitter with the string of lefties due up.

Leyland decided to leave in Fister for one more batter; he’d thrown more than 108 pitches seven times, so it wasn’t uncharted territory. Pence had flied out twice against him and has looked feeble most of the postseason. There were certainly cries on Twitter suggesting Leyland should have pulled Fister. I see it both ways. I can certainly see Leyland’s desire to hold back Dotel to possibly face Marco Scutaro and Buster Posey later in the game. It's easy to criticize Leyland since the decision didn't work out and in this day and age few managers want to lose game when a starter is over 100 pitches.

[+] EnlargeGregor Blanco
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAYThis little thing -- Gregor Blanco's bunt staying fair -- led to the only run the Giants needed in Game 2.
On his 114th pitch, Fister left a 2-2 slider over the middle of the plate and Pence grounded a base hit past Miguel Cabrera.

That brought in Smyly, who walked Brandon Belt on a 3-2 slider up out of the zone. Gregor Blanco then placed a bunt down the third-base line, the ball rolling to a stop on the dirt between the grass and the baseline. Catcher Gerald Laird had no option but to let the ball go; it was just a perfect bunt by Blanco. Brandon Crawford grounded into a double play but that scored the game’s first run.

Leyland did have another option there. Use Phil Coke instead of Smyly. Coke, of course, had defaulted into the closer's role after Jose Valverde's postseason implosion and pitched well in the American League Championship Series against the Yankees. Normally, the seventh inning -- especially against the left-handers -- would have been Coke's inning, followed by Joaquin Benoit and Valverde. Instead, Leyland trusted a rookie with little experience pitching in relief. Coke did finally get into the game -- in the eighth, with the Tigers now trailing 2-0.

"Probably if Valverde was ready, probably would have had Coke in that situation, but Smyly did fine," Leyland said. "He got a little bit wild there, but he got a couple big outs. He got the double-play ball and gave us our shot at it."

A 114th pitch. A slider meant to be a few inches outside left over the plate. A perfect bunt. The little things.

* * * *

One more little thing that can matter: sliding. In the top of the second with none out, Prince Fielder was hit by a pitch and Delmon Young doubled just inside the third-base bag. As the ball bounced away from left fielder Blanco, third-base coach Gene Lamont waved home Fielder. First, the wave. With nobody out, you had better be pretty sure Fielder is going to score. In fact, you had better be just about absolutely sure Fielder is going to score.

According to sabermetrician Tom Tango’s run-scoring matrix, an average team would be expected to score about 2.05 runs with runners at second and third and no outs; with a runner on second and one out, the average run production is about 0.7 runs. That data is from 1993 through 2010, so the run-scoring environment is a little lower now, and of course you would have to adjust based on upcoming hitters and so forth. Still, Lamont’s decision was about a 1.3-run decision. Fair or not, he made the wrong one.

Blanco’s relay throw actually airmailed shortstop Crawford, but Scutaro -- him again! -- was backing up and threw home to catcher Posey, and replays showed he tagged Fielder on his shoe and/or rump just before he slid across the plate. If Fielder had slid to the back part of the plate, he probably would've been safe, as Posey would have had to stretch to make the tag. That’s asking a lot from Fielder, however; he's not paid to slide expertly into home plate. Yes, the next two Tigers hitters popped out and struck out, so maybe Fielder wouldn’t have scored, but it’s kind of like time travel: That play changes everything that potentially comes after.

Then, in the top of the fourth, Omar Infante was picked off first and caught at second. With a better slide -- he dragged his foot behind him -- he might have been called safe.

Those two plays exemplified the first two games of the series: The Giants made plays and the Tigers didn't. Pablo Sandoval snagged a Cabrera line drive; Cabrera didn't have the range on Pence's base hit. Scutaro made the relay, Fielder didn't make the slide. Smyly couldn't execute the 3-2 slider that he walked Belt on, Fielder grounded into a 1-6-3 double play after Cabrera had led off the seventh with a walk.

Right now, like Bumgarner's pitches on a perfect San Francisco October evening, everything is working for the Giants.

They call him Kung Fu Panda. Now they can call him a World Series legend.

Pablo Sandoval, a batter who rarely sees a pitch he doesn’t like, found three pitches he loved in the World Series opener and entered his name alongside three of the biggest names in the history of the game.

Ruth. Reggie. Pujols. Pablo. The only four players to hit three home runs in a World Series game.

Here’s the thing: The first three guys didn’t hit two homers off the reigning best pitcher in the world. The San Francisco Giants beat Justin Verlander and the Detroit Tigers 8-3 but the score was secondary to one of the great individual performances in World Series history (Sandoval would later add a line-drive single to finish 4-for-4). His trip into the record books:

Home run No. 1: An 0-2 95-mph fastball that Verlander tried to elevate but Sandoval jacked to dead center, a 421-foot rocket of a line drive with two out in the first. It wasn’t necessarily a bad pitch -- eye level -- but Sandoval has the hand-eye coordination to extend the strike zone like few batters. In that regard, he’s similar to two great World Series performers of the past, Yogi Berra and Kirby Puckett, notorious bad-ball hitters. And at least in Puckett’s case, even the similar stocky build.

How unlikely was the home run? Not surprisingly, Verlander hadn’t served up an 0-2 home run all season and only four in his career.

Home run No. 2: After Angel Pagan had doubled off the third-base bag with two out in the third and scored on Marco Scutaro’s sharp single up the middle, Verlander threw Sandoval two changeups in the dirt, prompting a quick visit from pitching coach Jeff Jones. The next pitch was a 95-mph fastball on the outside corner that Sandoval drove to left field, just clearing the fence for a two-run homer. Again, not a terrible pitch, just a terrific swing. Of Sandoval’s 12 regular-season home runs, just two went to left field or left-center, but he hit nine in that direction in 2011, so he has legit opposite-field power.

[+] EnlargePablo Sandoval, Angel Pagan
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsAngel Pagan, who went 2-for-4 himself, salutes Pablo Sandoval after his first homer as Giants manager Bruce Bochy looks on.
Home run No. 3: Now facing reliever Al Alburquerque in the fifth, Sandoval golfed a 1-1 slider that was barely off the ground into a long, beautiful arc over the center-field fence, sending Giants fans into a communal roar of joy. Is there a better sound than a ballpark erupting?

The amazing thing: None of the three pitches was grooved. Two were outside the strike zone. It was simply three swings for the ages for Kung Fu Panda.

* * * *

It’s easy to say after the fact that Verlander didn’t have it, but the first two batters of the game were an indication this would be tougher going than when he faced the Oakland A’s and New York Yankees. Verlander required six pitches to retire Pagan, who fouled off three fastballs before finally grounding out on a curve. Scutaro grounded out on a 2-1 slider, laying off a tough 1-1 curveball.

The Giants have a completely different approach than the two teams Verlander faced in the American League playoffs. The A’s are a swing-from-the-heels team that set a league record for strikeouts. The Yankees clearly were in midst of a team-wide offensive meltdown. But the Giants play in a tough home run park -- fewer home runs were hit at AT&T this season than any other park -- and play a style that suits their home stadium. Only the Phillies struck out fewer times in the National League, as the Giants work the count, put the ball in play and make the opposing defense make plays.

As dominant as Verlander was in his three previous playoff starts, and even though he was working with plenty of rest, it’s worth noting he was worked hard down the stretch. He has had 12 games of 120-plus pitches this year, including the postseason, and six of those came on Aug. 28 or later. His three starts against the A’s and Yankees featured pitch counts of 121, 122 and 132.

I’m not saying that’s the reason he struggled; give credit to the Giants for a lot of quality at-bats. Pagan and Scutaro are locked in right now and the Tigers will have to figure out a way to keep those two off the bases. Maybe Verlander was also too amped-up, as he was in the All-Star Game. In fact, only twice in the past two years has Verlander failed to pitch at least five innings (other than the rain-delayed playoff game against the Yankees a year ago): Game 1 of the 2012 World Series and Game 1 of the 2011 American League Championship Series. Questions about his ability to stay focused and in the right frame of mind will be there out until his next start.

* * * *

Defense could still play a major factor in this series. Pagan’s double off the bag wasn’t Miguel Cabrera’s fault, although even if he fields that ball I’m not sure he throws out Pagan. Delmon Young was playing left field pretty much over in Oakland, even for weaker hitters such as Gregor Blanco, which made no sense. It didn’t really come into play in this game, although he may have had a chance to throw out Brandon Belt at home plate on Barry Zito’s RBI single in the fourth. Instead, he chunked one of the worst throws you’ll ever see. With Madison Bumgarner starting Game 2, I'm sure we'll see Young out there again. Beware, Tigers fans, beware. Meanwhile, Blanco made two diving catches in left field, an example of the Giants' edge at several positions.

* * * *

Finally, Zito did what he had to do. Bruce Bochy got him out of the game as soon as he got into trouble in the sixth, with Tim Lincecum again looking like a guy who can be a big weapon out of the bullpen. The winners of Game 1 have won eight of the past nine World Series and 13 of 15. But as Wednesday night showed, those are just numbers. We have no idea what is going to happen.

We finally know the World Series participants and maybe it's good news the second wild-card team didn't reach the World Series. Instead, we do end up with two first-place teams and two of the game's historic franchises. Here are three key players from each team I'm paying attention to.

Justin Verlander
There’s always pressure on a team’s ace to deliver the goods in a World Series, of course, but even more so for Verlander, and not just because he’s the best pitcher in baseball. The alignment of the pitching rotations -- Barry Zito will start for the San Francisco Giants in Game 1 -- means the Detroit Tigers will be huge favorites in Verlander’s two starts.

After mediocre performances in his first two postseason trips in 2006 and 2011, Verlander has a chance to finish off one of those legendary playoff runs -- think Orel Hershiser in 1988 or Jack Morris in 1991 or Curt Schilling in 2001. In fact, with two wins, Verlander would become the first starting pitcher to win five games in a single postseason.

Delmon Young
Tigers fans have suggested I have it out for Young. Well, they’re kind of correct. Young had a lousy season. Those are just the facts. He hit .267 with 18 home runs, but that masks his ineffectiveness: He grounded into as many double plays as he drew walks (20) and posted a lowly .296 on-base percentage. He scored just 54 runs. Despite hitting behind Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, he drove in just 74 runs. Tigers’ designated hitters -- mostly Young -- ranked 12th among 14 teams in the AL in OPS. What Young did do, however, was produce a great American League Championship Series, hitting .353 with two homers and six RBIs to win MVP honors. He also hit five home runs in last year’s postseason, leading to some false beliefs that Young has some sort of magical postseason bat. Trust me. He doesn’t.

This leads to a dilemma for Jim Leyland when the series begins in San Francisco: Does he play Young in left field, hoping to get a hot bat in the lineup, but doing so by playing a terrible defensive player? Remember, one reason the Tigers pitched so much better in the second half is that Andy Dirks, Quintin Berry and Avisail Garcia provided better defense than Young and Brennan Boesch, the Tigers’ Opening Day corner outfielders.

My guess: Young starts in Game 1 against the left-handed Zito, since he hit .308/.333/.500 against lefties. But if Tim Lincecum or Ryan Vogelsong start Game 2, you can’t justify Young in the lineup considering he hit .247/.279/.370 against righties. I’d rather go with Berry and Dirks and the better defense.

Aside from all that, Young will be an important part of the Detroit offense. He delivered some clutch hits against the Yankees and will have to do so again.

Phil Coke
Does Leyland go with the hot hand and keep Coke as his closer after his 5.2 scoreless innings against the New York Yankees? Coke is certainly a better matchup against the Giants than he would have been against the St. Louis Cardinals, who would have run out a long string of right-handed batters against him.

Still, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the right-handers hit .396 and slugged .604 off Coke this season. I can see Coke matching up against the bottom of the Giants’ lineup or against switch-hitters Angel Pagan and Pablo Sandoval. But Octavio Dotel, Joaquin Benoit or Al Alburquerque would be better options against the 4-5 combo of Buster Posey and Hunter Pence. Posey hit .433 against lefties this season; considering Detroit’s all-righty rotation, if Leyland plays his cards right, Posey won’t see a left-hander in the series.

Hunter Pence
Similar to Young, Pence occupies that fifth slot in the lineup. Just like the Giants will pitch around Fielder whenever possible, the Tigers are going to be more willing to pitch to Pence than Posey. Pence has not hit well since coming over to the Giants in a midseason trade, hitting .219 with seven home runs in 59 games in the regular season and then .188 in the postseason. His approach has been terrible, with a lot of uncontrolled swings, leading to one walk and 11 K’s in 12 playoff games. He has also fared poorly in AT&T Park, where he hit just .220 with three homers in 31 games in the regular season.

Even after pounding out 14 hits in the Game 7 wipeout of the Cardinals, the Giants are hitting just .234 in the postseason. They need more offense from the middle of the order.

Brandon Belt
Pence will be facing Detroit’s tough foursome of right-handed starters, which means that pressure for more offense may fall on Belt’s shoulders. Maybe the home run he launched in Game 7 will get him going. He has hit .222/.300/.389 in the postseason, but after hitting .349 in August and .310 in September, he was a key reason the Giants’ offense ranked second in the NL in runs per game after the All-Star break. If you’re looking for a surprise candidate to deliver some big hits for the Giants, Belt may be your guy.

Tim Lincecum
The Giants haven’t announced their Game 2 starter yet, leaving three rotation options for Bochy, assuming Madison Bumgarner -- who looked fatigued against the Cardinals -- isn’t a consideration.

Option No. 1: Zito, Lincecum, Vogelsong, Cain, Zito, Lincecum, Vogelsong

Option No. 2: Zito, Lincecum, Cain, Vogelsong, Cain, Zito, Lincecum, Cain

Option No. 3: Zito, Vogelsong (3 days’ rest), Cain, Lincecum, Zito, Vogelsong, Cain

I’d go with option No. 3, which gives the Giants the potential of using Ryan Vogelsong and Matt Cain for four starts instead of three. Vogelsong has never started on three days’ rest, but I’d take the risk, knowing that winning a series in which Zito and Lincecum start a possible four games is going to be difficult.

Either way, Lincecum then becomes a key to the Giants’ hopes. In options 1 and 2, he’d start twice, matched up against Doug Fister. In option 3, he likely becomes a bullpen option, either in long relief of Zito or maybe for an inning or two in relief of Vogelsong if he doesn’t go deep into the game. He has pitched great in relief in the postseason, allowing just three hits and one run in 8.1 innings. Somewhere, somehow, Lincecum will have to step up big for the Giants.

The Cardinals were certainly the favorite to beat Barry Zito and the Giants at home in Game 5, but now have to travel to San Francisco. Molly Knight writes that this added playoff pressure won't faze the Cardinals. Meanwhile, Wayne Drehs asks what we've learned about the Cardinals and Giants.

Even though they're trailing in the series, the Giants have to be feeling pretty good. On paper, they arguably rate the edge with both starting pitching matchups -- Ryan Vogelsong over Chris Carpenter in Game 6, and Matt Cain over Kyle Lohse in Game 7. Of course, as we learned with Zito, "on paper" doesn't mean a whole lot. Vogelsong has looked good in his two playoff starts but Carpenter has a long history of playoff success. Cain hasn't had a stellar postseason so far, allowing three runs in each of his three starts and going more than six innings just once. And let's not discount the excellent season Lohse had.

Prediction? Carpenter and the St. Louis bullpen come up big and wrap it up in Game 6.

Now, for some post-apocalyptic coverage of the Yankees' fall:
  • Jonah Keri at Grantland looks at what the Yankees could do for 2013, and maybe why they won't work to get below the $189 payroll tax threshold: "The biggest reason for the Yankees to go full ham is that they're swimming in cash. Forbes estimates that the Yanks reaped $439 million in revenue last year, 42 percent more than the next-highest team, the Red Sox. The owners' effective wealth might be significantly higher, given that the YES Network (partly owned by the Yankees) is a private and wildly profitable enterprise, the franchise's market value is surging every year, and baseball's national TV deal is about to drop an additional $26 million per year into every team's coffers. The Steinbrenners are perfectly entitled to pocket massive profits and cap their spending at whatever level they choose, of course."
  • On ESPN Insider, Buster Olney examines the Yankees' possible next moves: "The Yankees will restructure their outfield in some fashion. Brett Gardner will be back, and, although Curtis Granderson was an incredible bust in the postseason, with 16 strikeouts and three hits in 30 at-bats, he has hit 84 homers and driven in 225 runs the past two seasons combined. He's 31 years old; it's a no-brainer for the Yankees to pick up his $13 million option for next season because he still represents a good value in the market. The Yankees almost certainly will turn the page on Nick Swisher, whose repeated postseason struggles have become a problem for an organization that defines itself by postseason success."
  • Wally Matthews of ESPNNewYork says heads would have rolled under the old Steinbrenner regime: "The first thing he would do is berate his older son, Hank, for negotiating what is now indisputably the worst contract in the history of professional sports, the deal that extended Alex Rodriguez for 10 more years and a minimum of $275 million."
  • Take 'em or trash 'em? ESPNNewYork asks which players the Yankees should keep or dump.
  • Joe Posnanski seems ready to bury this Yankees team: "Suddenly, you see questions and concerns everywhere and no sure things anywhere ... but, really, it isn't sudden at all. Everyone could see that the Yankees were getting old. Everyone could see that sooner or later the bill was going to come due on their huge win-now, pay later contracts. ... The most amazing part of this team, I think, is not that they collapsed at the end, but that they managed to squeeze one more great season out of this team first."

Will it be four and no more for ALCS?

October, 17, 2012
CC Sabathia William Perlman/THE STAR-LEDGER/US PresswireCC Sabathia will be on the mound for the Yankees to try to extend the ALCS to Game 5.
DETROIT -- Down three games to none, facing a better rotation in its own park backed by a lineup built around Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera, how hopeless does the task confronting the Yankees seem?

As tough as it will be for them to get back to the Bronx, it seems as though they may be no more likely to return to New York with a live shot than they will with their dignity intact. Consider Phil Coke's postgame comment about his opponents: “These guys are a great ballclub. They’re scrappy, and they’re built to win, and we’re just matching them.”

The Yankees ... scrappy? When, in the history of the English language, or just American vernacular, has that ever been a word you associate with the Yankees? The next thing you know, we'll have to endure listening to Joe Girardi talk about how his team is just lucky to be here, and they're taking it one day at a time.

One pitcher's off-the-cuff remark aside, there's still at least one more game to play. If the Yankees are to take solace in anything going into Game 4 on Wednesday night, it might have to begin and end with the matchup on the mound, because they have CC Sabathia facing Max Scherzer in an elimination game.

In 2012, Sabathia was 3-0 against the Tigers, holding them to .238/.289/.405. So that's fairly promising, unless you want to start worrying about postseason-edition Delmon Young's Yankee-killing prowess showing up yet again. Given Sabathia's willingness to pitch around Miggy in the past -- walking him eight times, three times intentionally in 38 at-bats, having also surrendered a pair of homers and two doubles -- the prospect of a Young versus Sabathia matchup with men on could be the fulcrum upon which the game's outcome pivots.

Jim Leyland will no doubt try to expand the Tigers' scoring opportunities by mixing and matching with his lineup card. Avisail Garcia should be in right, for example, fulfilling his half of the late-developing platoon with Quintin Berry. Should the Tigers also start Gerald Laird instead of Alex Avila behind the plate? While Leyland generally tried spotting Laird for Avila against lefties, you might wonder why given Laird's feeble .204/.275/.347 line against southpaws this season. But Laird has a good career clip against Sabathia, hitting .417/.500/.625 in 28 plate appearances, while Avila is 0-for-11 with seven strikeouts. In a microcosm, these are choices that reflect Leyland's flexibility with his lineup. Lineup changes during the ALCS without any drama? Who does that? The team up three games to none.

In the other half of the game, at least on paper the Yankees' lineup would seem perfectly set up to exploit Scherzer's huge platoon split. This year, he has held right-handed batters to .201/.244/.343, while lefties hit him for .292/.366/.465, including a walk rate of more than 10 percent. It's worth noting that during his late-season run of seven quality starts before getting slowed down with shoulder trouble, Scherzer never had to see a lineup that leaned as heavily to the left as the Yankees' normal starting nine: six lefty bats, which goes up to seven if Girardi decides to have Alex Rodriguez keep him company in the dugout again and start Eric Chavez at third base.

Set against that, though, is the combination of the Yankees' absolute futility at bat in this series and this postseason. Girardi's panic-stations Game 3 lineup didn't achieve anything against Justin Verlander, and the Yankees' collective career line against Scherzer is a thoroughly woeful .177/.266/.282. So even if Girardi tries stacking the deck with seven bats from the left side against Scherzer by starting Chavez, he's got a lineup that's almost as punchless all of the time against him as it has been during the rest of the postseason.

However, there is the other issue Scherzer will have to overcome to become the latest Tigers' rotation stalwart turned October hero -- health. If the shoulder's OK, that's great, but how great, and how long before he tires? Add to that the ankle injury suffered during Detroit's dog pile to celebrate the division series win, and whether the Yankees struggle or not, this seems to cue up an opportunity for the Tigers' bullpen to make an extended appearance.

Certainly, that puts the spotlight back on Coke after he closed out each of the Tigers' past two victories. After Game 3, Coke hardly sounded like the fire-breathing closer, saying of his game-ending whiff of Raul Ibanez, “Alex called slider, 3-and-2, gotta make it count, and I threw it as a hard as I could, luckily he swung as hard as he could and didn’t hit it.”

Admittedly, that he got to do it against Ibanez, who had homered against him in the 2009 World Series for the Phillies when Coke was a Yankee, surely that was worth some strutting? Not so much. “He’s killing everybody; my hat’s off to him. He’s done things that nobody’s ever done in the game of baseball. He did take me deep in the World Series in ’09, about 460 to the gap if I recall correctly, so I’m glad that I’ve been able to put all that behind me.”

Coke doesn't exactly have a handle on his being the closer, even if he's closing, saying, “I didn’t know I was going to finish it. I thought that I might have a couple of lefties, and then maybe [Joaquin Benoit] was coming in for [Mark] Teixeira, but as soon as I saw that there wasn’t anybody was going to come out to talk to me, I was like, ‘all right cool, let’s roll.’”

So much for the necessity of a closer -- or any reliever -- needing to know his role, beyond a responsibility for getting people out. But the other thing you can take from that comment is that Coke wasn't looking for Jose Valverde to take his place, but Benoit. That says a bit about where Valverde is, whatever noncommittal "let's see how he feels” comments Insider made for his benefit. Come the ninth, with a one-run lead, the Tigers weren't looking for Papa Grande to bail them out, not even out of a sense of polite inclusiveness.

There's something very Mitch Williams circa 1993 about seeing “established” closer Valverde surrender leads and his job in the middle of a postseason. That year, the Phillies managed to survive Williams' combustibility in the NLCS, only to see him surrender history to Joe Carter in the World Series. But even to get that far, the Phillies had gotten surprise relief help from journeyman Roger Mason, not unlike how Leyland has had to place his faith in Coke now.

For Tigers fans' sakes, you can hope for a happier ending for Coke and Valverde, but first there's a fourth game to win at the Yankees' expense. If the Tigers' bullpen can finish what Scherzer will start, that may not have to wait until Thursday, let alone a trip back to New York.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
The Oakland A’s didn’t really know what to expect from Brett Anderson, who hadn’t pitched in 20 days since suffering an oblique strain.

But here’s the one thing about Anderson: He can roll out of bed and throw the ball over the plate. He returned from last summer’s Tommy John surgery Aug. 21 and made six starts before the oblique injury. In those six starts, he walked just seven batters, displaying the control the 24-year-old had shown since reaching the big leagues at age 21.

Manager Bob Melvin was hoping to get five innings from Anderson on Tuesday. Anderson delivered six shutout frames, throwing 80 pitches and allowing just two hits. His final two pitches might have been his best: a 2-1 slider to Miguel Cabrera that broke sharply into the strike zone for a called strike, and then a 2-2 slider that dove down and in and on which Cabrera swung over the top.

Asked what his expectations were after Oakland’s bullpen locked down the 2-0 win, Anderson said, "Just go out there and give us a chance to win," citing the performances of Jarrod Parker and Tommy Milone in the first two games of the series with the Tigers. "You couldn’t really script it, but it worked out. ... Coco [Crisp] robbing the home run sort of set the tone. You can’t say enough about the defense," he said.

On a day when we had two games and saw a combined total of 16 hits, pitching did rule the day. And instead of two games Wednesday, now we get four. Good for everyone (except maybe Reds and Tigers fans).

[+] EnlargeBrett Anderson
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezIn his first start since September, left-hander Brett Anderson pitched six shutout innings.
A few other thoughts:

  • Crisp’s second-inning robbery of Prince Fielder is one of the greatest postseason catches I can remember, right up there with Willie Mays, Kirby Puckett in the 1991 World Series, Devon White in the 1992 World Series and Endy Chavez in the 2006 National League Championship Series. Fielder got robbed again when Yoenis Cespedes made a diving catch of his liner in the seventh. When the ball was hit, it looked like a sure single and maybe a double in the gap; it hung up just long enough for Cespedes to appear from nowhere. Josh Donaldson also started a nice 5-4-3 double play off Omar Infante’s hard smash to end the third.
  • I loved the way Melvin handled the seventh and eighth innings, first using Ryan Cook and then Sean Doolittle, even though he usually uses Doolittle and then Cook. He brought in Cook to face Fielder, when he could have either left in Anderson for one more batter, brought in Doolittle or brought in Jerry Blevins, who had been warming up in the sixth. I think he wanted to give Fielder a different look than a third shot at Anderson, so he brought in the hard-throwing Cook. That meant Cook would also face right-handers Delmon Young and Jhonny Peralta (who did single), and Melvin wouldn't waste Blevins for one batter. But it also meant Doolittle faced rookie Avisail Garcia and catcher Gerald Laird in the eighth. If Cook had pitched the eighth, Jim Leyland would have pinch hit lefty swingers Quintin Berry and Alex Avila, a better duo than Garcia and Laird.
  • It’s going to be difficult for the Tigers to go all the way with Young batting fifth. Only Josh Hamilton swung at a higher percentage of pitches outside the strike zone among qualified batters this season. Yes, Young hit five home runs in last year’s postseason. He also hit .133 in the American League Championship Series. He had 112 strikeouts and 20 walks this year. He is not good. As a No. 5 hitter for a team aspiring to win a title, he’s a joke.
  • Strong outing by Anibal Sanchez. Seth Smith turned on an inside fastball for his fifth-inning home run to dead center, but the Tigers couldn't have asked for more than the 6.1 solid innings he gave them.
  • Cabrera singled with one out in the ninth, bringing up Fielder against Grant Balfour as the tying run. Balfour got a break on the first pitch, a fastball outside called a strike by plate ump Dana DeMuth. After a fastball outside, Balfour threw a tough 94 mph heater at the knees that Fielder took for strike two. Another fastball, this one at 95, and Fielder grounded into a 6-3 double play. Guess which team led the AL in double plays grounded into?
  • Max Scherzer versus A.J. Griffin in Game 4. Scherzer left a start Sept. 18 after two innings due to a sore shoulder and returned Sept. 23 but then didn't pitch again until Oct. 3, when he pitched four scoreless innings against the Royals. If he's healthy, he's certainly capable of dominating, after ranking second in the AL in strikeouts to his teammate Justin Verlander and posting a 2.69 ERA in the second half. Following a great run, Griffin struggled in three of his final four starts, with 26 hits and 15 runs in 17.1 innings. Look for a quick hook.