(Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)
Around this time last year I complained in a post that the early rounds of the playoffs had been boring. (Not everyone loved my take on this.) I concluded by saying this:
I don’t want to watch sweeps or shutouts. I want twists, turns, home runs, failure and heroics. C’mon, Baseball Gods. We Giants fans haven’t had a lot to cheer about for a couple years. You owe us some October fun.
Well, the 2018 postseason never did get that much better, ending with a five-game beatdown of the Dodgers by the Red Sox in the World Series…OK, the “beatdown of the Dodgers” part was fun. But as for October 2019, so far there’s been a little of everything. Really, the only “boring” thing was the Yankees sweeping the Twins, but since the Twins have lost 16 straight playoff games now, you could kind of see that one coming. Bummer, though, for the likes of #ForeverGiant Sergio Romo and #GiantTwin Taylor Rogers.
Otherwise, we’ve had it all. Just this week we had four elimination games in one day, we had three Game 5s, and we had two major upsets in the NL, as both of the top NL teams lost their series on the same day.
There’s a lot to talk about, so let’s break it down a couple of different ways.
The Best Games, Ranked 5-1
Let’s start with the five most twisty-turny games so far. (Apologies to Anibal Sanchez for last night’s game not making the cut, but he’ll get his spotlight in the next section.)
#5: Braves 3, Cardinals 1, NLDS Game 3 at Busch Stadium, St. Louis
This one was a little heartbreaking because 38-year-old Adam Wainwright was a hero, pitching 7.2 shutout innings. But he squared off against the Braves’ young ace, Mike Soroka, who gave up just one run in seven innings. So Wainwright left with a 1-0 lead in the eighth, and then Carlos Martinez happened in the ninth. Everybody knows that in the LDS, Game 3 is everything. Whoever wins Game 3, usually wins the series, right? Well…since it is College Gameday Saturday, I’ll quote Lee Corso: “Not so fast.”
#4: Cardinals 7, Braves 6, NLDS Game 1 at SunTrust Park in Atlanta
The Braves, rested and at home, led 3-1 going into the eighth inning of this game. Then Paul Goldschmidt did Paul Goldschmidt-y things. And Mark Melancon did Mark Melancon-y things, one thing led to another, and the Cardinals had a 7-3 lead going to the bottom of the ninth…and the Braves scored three runs off a shaky Carlos Martinez, who nonetheless earned the win. Melancon would go on to earn saves in Games 2-3, but the tone for the series was set.
#3: Cardinals 5, Braves 4 (10), NLDS Game 4 at Busch Stadium in St. Louis
The Cardinals were four outs from elimination when Yadier Molina hit a single to drive in Goldschmidt to tie the game. The game went into extra innings, and in the bottom of the tenth, it was Yadi again, with the sacrifice fly for the walk-off win.
#2: Nationals 4, Brewers 3, NL Wild Card Game at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C.
OK, OK. It can’t be all Cardinals-Braves, though it was a great series, even if it did end with a Tomahawk Flop (hat/tip Matthew). The NL Wild Card game was plodding along. Max Scherzer, who isn’t much better in the postseason than Clayton Kershaw is, had given up three early runs, and the Brewers were making them hold up. Going into the bottom of the eighth, the Brewers were up 3-1, and their stud closer, Josh Hader, was on the mound. You could almost hear the champagne corks starting to pop in the visitors’ clubhouse.
/Cue Lee Corso
Hader grazed Michael A. Taylor with a pitch, a call so iffy that it had to be upheld by replay. Then grizzled veteran Ryan Zimmerman, pinch-hitting with two outs, blooped a broken-bat single to center. Then Hader walked Anthony Rendon. So with the bases loaded and two outs and the Brewers still up by two runs…this happened.
I did a little Twitter/Google search on “Josh Hader” to look for a video clip, and suffice it to say that there are still a lot of “Haders” out there in Brewers Nation. While it’s easy to point fingers at the young right fielder whose error allowed the go-ahead run to score, it’s really on Hader for not being able to put hitters away or get lefty-hitting Juan Soto with two outs and the game on the line.
#1: Nationals 7, Dodgers 3, NLDS Game 5 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles
It was a cute little story that the Nationals finally, after years of playoff failure, made it out of a “first-round” game, meaning the wild-card win over the Brewers. But that’s where it ends, right? The Dodgers won 106 games this year and were nearly unbeatable at home. Like the Braves, the Dodgers had won that all-important Game 3. Their best pitcher, Walker Buehler, was making the start, and even the formidable Stephen Strasburg starting for the Nats wasn’t going to be enough to knock off the best team in the National League in the first round.
/Cue Lee Corso
The Dodgers got three early runs off Strasburg, and Buehler pitched 6.2 dominant shutout innings. He got into some trouble in the seventh, and in came Clayton Kershaw, who struck out Adam Eaton on three pitches to end the inning and strand Buehler’s runners.
That would be the last happy moment the Dodgers and their fans would experience in 2019.
Dave Roberts made the first of two decisions that he and Dodger Nation will think about all winter. He left Kershaw in to start the eighth and face MVP candidate Anthony Rendon and future MVP candidate Juan Soto. BOOM. BOOM. Back-to-back pitches, game tied, Kershaw crouched on the mound in disbelief and then sitting by himself in the dugout in anguish.
But the game wasn’t over, the score was still tied, and the Dodgers still had home field advantage, and all the hitters. So of course, their latest stud rookie, catcher Will Smith, hit a walk-off homer in the bottom of the nin—wait, what? He didn’t!? But I saw him flip his bat! I saw his teammates hop the dugout rail to celebrate!
— James E. Clark 3 (@EVT_JClark) October 10, 2019
There are theories that MLB has “unjuiced” the baseballs for the postseason, which may explain why Smith and his teammates were fooled (and maybe why the homer-happy Twins were bounced out of the postseason so quickly).
As a counterpoint, ask Kershaw about the baseballs he threw to Rendon and Soto. Better yet, ask Joe Kelly about the baseball he threw to Howie Kendrick (pictured at the top) for the grand slam that won the game and ended the Dodgers’ season. That was the second of Dave Roberts’ odd decisions in that game. Kelly had pitched the top of the ninth and looked good doing it, 1-2-3 on just ten pitches. But with lefty specialist Adam Kolarek and closer Kenley Jansen warmed up in the bullpen, Roberts decided that Kelly should start the tenth inning. So Kelly, how shall we put this, wasn’t as good in the tenth as he’d been in the ninth. He walked the leadoff man, Eaton. Then he gave up a ground-rule double to Rendon. Time to go get him, right, Doc? RIGHT?!
Nope. Roberts ordered Soto walked intentionally and let Kelly pitch to Howie Kendrick with the bases loaded and nobody out. During the series, Kendrick had killed several rallies at the plate and made several bad plays at first base. He was not the guy to be the hero, but then…
— Taijay Blagrove (@taijay_blagrove) October 10, 2019
The last time I heard a ballpark go that quiet, it was Brandon Crawford circling the bases behind his three teammates in Pittsburgh in 2014.
A few minutes later, it was all over. The Dodgers have the dubious distinction of being the first team in MLB history with that many wins to exit after the first round. From bat flip/rail-hopping to watching the visiting team celebrate on your field for the third year in a row. Just breaks your hea—bwahahahaha. No, it doesn’t. It was AWESOME.
But running over Kershaw’s jersey in the Dodger Stadium parking lot? C’mon guys. Be better.
Old Guys Rule
Besides some really great games so far, there have been some unlikely heroes (Kendrick, Adam Duvall in a couple of the Braves games), some epic fails (the disappearance of MVP candidate Cody Bellinger and former Rookie of the Year Corey Seager; bad outings by ace pitchers), and some exciting young stud moments (Juan Soto, Ronald Acuna Jr.). But one of the most interesting twists of the 2019 postseason so far has been the star turns from guys we thought were finished years ago and were slowly sailing off into the sunset.
/Cue Lee Corso
- Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals: Zimmerman is 35 years old and has been around forever. He’s been on the Nationals since 2005, before they even moved to their current home park in 2008. So far in the postseason he’s 7 for 19, with that key pinch-hit in the wild card game and a huge three-run homer in Game 4 of the NLDS that broke the game open and kept the Nats alive for a Game 5.
- Yadier Molina, Cardinals: Molina is 37 and has played for the Cardinals since 2004. He had the two huge RBIs in Game 4 of the NLDS against the Braves to keep the Cardinals alive.
- Adam Wainwright, Cardinals: I’m going to write this before he faces the Nats and Scherzer tonight, but as I noted above, 38-year-old Wainwright, who’s been on the Cardinals since 2005, pitched 7.2 shutout innings against the Braves in Atlanta in Game 2.
- Howie Kendrick, Nationals: Raise your hand if before these last two weeks you were only vaguely aware that Kendrick was still playing baseball. He’s 36 and he’s been around, including a two-year stint with the team whose heart he broke on Wednesday night. So far in the postseason, he’s 8 for 28 with five RBIs and one Very Big Homer.
- Anibal Sanchez, Nationals: Sanchez is 36 and has also been around a long time. We saw him with the Tigers in Game 3 of the 2012 World Series, when he lost a tight 2-0 game to Ryan Vogelsong. When he went into the eighth inning with a no-hitter last night in the first game of the NLCS, I vaguely remembered that he’d pitched at least one no-hitter in his career, so I looked it up, and indeed he had–back in 2006, when he was 23, against the Diamondbacks. In this postseason, he’s made two starts and pitched 12.2 innings, giving up just one run and five hits. He reminds me of…wait for it…Vogelsong in 2012. Vogey wasn’t the star of that rotation. That was Matt Cain that year, and Bumgarner had won 16 games, and there was Zito and Lincecum. But Vogey was just there and just got it done, and he ended up with the best ERA of any starter for any team in that postseason.
That list is somewhat surprising, and not just because those guys are ancient by today’s standards in baseball. Guys like Wainwright and Molina and even Zimmerman have had fine careers–but it would have been fair to speculate that their best days were well behind them. But…not so fast.
Other notable old guys, even though they’ve had their bumps in the road this postseason, are Justin Verlander (36), Max Scherzer (35), and Zack Greinke (36 next week). Given all of the hype about how the game has gone young, it’s notable that when the lights shine brightest, age and experience turn out to be an advantage. Go figure.
We have action in both LCS today.
Nationals at Cardinals, 1:08 p.m., TBS
Old (Scherzer) vs. Older (Wainwright)
Yankees at Astros, 5:08 p.m., Fox
Youngster (Tanaka, “only” 30) vs. Old (Greinke)
All this plus college football, too (though I’m afraid I’ll be cringing and averting my eyes when USC plays at Notre Dame later). Gotta love October. Lefty out.