The Tenth Inning Week 27 – Wild Card Preview ]]> include($base_url . “/includes/header.htm”); ?>
By Mike Ivcic
I love the playoff format that baseball adopted last year, and it’s much better this season when everything is scheduled nicely with the proper amount of days off and travel considerations. The one problem with this new “wild card game” situation is that it makes it very difficult to write a full playoff preview without knowing exactly what the matchups will be. So with that in mind, we at “The Tenth Inning” will be unveiling our full playoff preview on Thursday, so be sure to check back for that. Today, though, we have three important games to discuss, so away we go:
American League “Game 163”
Rays Perspective: The Rays were done in by two losses to start off their series in Toronto, combined with suddenly inspired play from Cleveland and Texas. Now, the Tampa will have to play a winner-take-all game in order to play a winner-take-all game in order to face the Red Sox – not exactly what they were expecting when the week began with them in the driver’s seat to host the wild card game. That forces Joe Maddon to start David Price on Monday in Arlington instead of Wednesday in Cleveland, making the path to the World Series that much more difficult. This is a team that plays small ball better than just about anyone in the American League, but doesn’t have a history of playing well in the playoffs against Texas. Fernando Rodney is one of the better back-end stoppers in the game, and the Rays bullpen is very good behind him, but it will definitely be crucial for Ben Zobrist, James Loney, and especially Evan Longoria to play well. Sure, they have had contributions from Desmond Jennings, David DeJesus, Wil Myers, and Yunel Escobar all season long, but this is virtually a postseason game, and this is the time of year when previous experience has to come through in a big way. That means it falls to Zobrist, Loney, and Longoria – three guys with extensive postseason experience – to carry this team past Texas and on to Cleveland.
Rangers Perspective: Two major storylines will dominate the next 24 hours in the Dallas metro area. One, the Cowboys are terrible and still in first place. For more on that, come back here Wednesday and read “Fourth and Long.” Two, the names “Nelson Cruz” and “Martin Perez” The downside about having to win every single game down the stretch is that the Rangers have expended most of their top starters, including Yu Darvish on Sunday. That probably leaves Alexi Ogando as the logical choice to start in Cleveland on Wednesday, but that’s only in Perez can pitch well enough to keep the Rays off balance. And then there’s Cruz, free to come off the suspension list on Monday after serving a 50-game ban for his involvement in Biogenesis. The Rangers have already said they plan to activate the power-hitting right fielder, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s in the starting lineup against Tampa. I don’t know that it makes the most sense to do that, considering how well Texas has been playing over the last week, but he is the Rangers most feared bat behind Adrian Beltre, and his addition to the lineup could dramatically change the way this game goes agains the left-handed Price.
Prediction: The Rays have been the more consistent team from start to finish, they survived a more difficult division, and they have the better starting pitcher on the mound. Typically, that’s a recipe for success, especially playing against a team that’s suffered playoff heartbreak three consecutive seasons. Still, there’s always something about a one-game playoff that tends to favor the team that had to play better to get to that point, and in this case – surprisingly – it’s the Rangers.
National League Wild Card Game
Reds Perspective: I don’t believe “getting swept” was on the list of things Dusty Baker was looking for out of his ballclub this past weekend, especially knowing his team was going to have to play Pittsburgh in the one-game wild card game regardless of the outcome of the three games. Now, he’ll hand the ball to Johnny Cueto and hope the veteran right-hander can pitch Cincinnati on to St. Louis. The Reds will monitor his performance closely, especially with a very good bullpen that has been the backbone of this team, but they’re also going to have to deal with a nasty left-hander in Francisco Liriano on the mound for the Pirates. Cincy’s top three hitters all bat left-handed (Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, and Shin-Soo Choo) so that will put significantly more pressure on Brandon Phillips and the rest of the right-handed portion of the lineup to produce enough offense to support Cueto. One potential factor to watch, though, is Billy Hamilton. The speedster for the Reds could potentially be included on the postseason roster and play a big role in a close-game, late-inning situation, a la Dave Roberts from 2004 Red Sox.
Pirates Perspective: Playoff baseball is back in Pittsburgh! Sid Bream, Andy Van Slyke, and Barry Bonds can all be wiped away from the memories of the Pirates faithful, who will pack PNC Park for the first postseason game in the stadium’s history. Liriano is a good choice to start this game, because it’s either he or A.J. Burnett when it comes to starters with postseason experience. While the Reds bullpen has been good, that’s another area which also goes into the books as advantage Pirates. The top five relievers – Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, Justin Wilson, Vin Mazzaro, and Tony Watson – all sport ERA’s under 3.00 and WHIP’s at 1.06 or lower (Save for Mazzaro’s 1.22) and give the Pirates an exceptional chance to win a close game. The key will be the offense for Clint Hurdle’s group. Can they score enough runs in a playoff game, where every out and every pitch is that much more magnified, when they struggled to score for most of the regular season? The stars are there and the supporting cast is improved with mid-season additions, but there’s also the pressure of playing the first home playoff game in 21 seasons that will be heaped upon this much maligned offense.
Prediction: Despite all of the pressure and hype surrounding the Pirates, I think they get it done. They definitely have the advantage in a close game because of their bullpen, even if getting a run in the ninth inning off Aroldis Chapman is a virtual impossibility. It’s the feel-good story of the season, and I think it continues for at least one more round.
American League Wild Card Game:
Indians Perspective vs. Rays: Cleveland doesn’t match up well with Tampa, though it’s not quite clear who would pitch for the Rays. The Indians are a team that likes to play low, close-scoring games, which just so happens to be the Rays preference too. Plus, the Rays bullpen is better than Cleveland’s, another indication that Tampa would have an advantage in this matchup. The Indians would have the better offense and home field, though, so this would definitely be good matchup that would also feature two of the best managers in the game in Maddon and Terry Francona, who know each other very well from their games in the AL East when Francona was with Boston. Speaking of that – does anyone remember the Rays winning the 2008 ALCS against the Red Sox? I think Maddon wins this matchup too – if it happens.
Indians Perspective vs. Rangers: But, since I think the Rangers will win the one-game playoff, this might be the better matchup to analyze. As mentioned above, it will likely be Alexi Ogando for the Rangers, and it’s almost guaranteed that Justin Masterson will get the ball for Cleveland, a good move against a predominantly right-handed hitting Rangers lineup. Masterson leads the team with 14 wins and clearly gives the Indians the best chance to win a one-game playoff, but this is a Cleveland team that has a whopping no one that’s hitting .300 or better and only Michael Brantley and Jason Kipnis as regulars hitting over .270. Plus, Chris Perez has clearly proven over the past week that he’s just not the type of closer than can be trusted in a big-game, high-pressure situation. Joe Nathan, on the other hand, may possibly be the most reliable closer still remaining in the postseason, so the Rangers have no such concerns. That’s why I think they win this one game playoff game – assuming they beat Tampa first.
Be sure to check back Thursday for a complete first round preview from “The Tenth Inning,” only at the Ultimate Capper.
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