On Friday, strange things happened. Before that and since then, more strange things happened. If baseball’s regular season is akin to a long and drawn out game of chess, baseball’s postseason is a game of Risk, played at a particularly frenzied pace. While the board game requires some sense of strategy for success, the majority of it is in the outcomes found in the roll of the dice, completely outside of the player’s control.
Baseball happens to have several more moving parts than a game board, playing cards and set of dice, and so it’s a bit harder for us to accept that not all things are under the control of the skilled athletes who partake in the game or even the managers who place those players in positions to succeed or fail. Sometimes, good teams doing everything the right way can fall to an equally good, or even inferior team.
It’s maddening. It’s joyful. It’s baseball. On Friday, we witnessed this sport at its finest, as the last of the best of five American League and National League Division Series concluded with a big bang that ended the seasons of some and created life in the next round for others.
After unlikely fifth games had resulted in Championship series spots for the San Francisco Giants and Detroit Tigers on Thursday, the New York Yankees, once again holding the offensive punch a striking dummy without arms, were able to withstand and outlast the Baltimore Orioles thanks mainly to the taken for granted abilities of C.C. Sabathia. The large and reliable left-handed starter pitched all nine innings for the Yankees in the team’s most important game of the season, seeing only five more batters than the absolute minimum. Sabathia struck out one batter each inning and only allowed a single run.
It’s remarkable that such a talented pitcher who showcases his excellence in baseball’s largest market isn’t more celebrated. However, Sabathia reminds me of something I heard once about tight-rope walkers. Those most-skilled at the craft have grown so comfortable performing their exhibition that in order to make it memorable and entertaining, they often have to feign difficulty that doesn’t naturally exist for them. Sabathia is like a tight-rope walker who doesn’t bother with illusion, he merely goes out in front of large audiences and performs to the best of his abilities which are so good as to have become expected and unsurprising when they manifest themselves for us.
Sabathia, with little run support from the Yankees lineup, ended the Orioles run of seeming wizardry which had seen them form an almost impossible run of success in one-run and extra innings games, drawing comparisons to Cinderella’s unfortunate transformation back to reality at midnight. Their ALDS taken to the absolute limit against the best team in baseball for the last decade was their ball, the memory of this improbable success is their forgotten glass slipper and now, we’ll wait until the next season to find if their prince comes looking for them again.
However, this wasn’t the main draw of the weekend in baseball. That came immediately following the conclusion of the ALDS, with the Washington Nationals hosting the St. Louis Cardinals in the fifth and final game of the NLDS. The Nationals were the best team in baseball this season, and they earned that title convincingly without the lucky crutches of the Orioles, while still being almost as surprising with their successful results.
The franchise has been unlucky through most of its existence, which began in Montreal and now finds itself in the capitol of the United States after an unceremonious transfer that still pushes a nose or two out of joint in the Canadian province of Quebec. In five of the eight years since moving to Washington, the Nationals have finished last in the National League East. However, something happened this past season: most of the things that could go right, did go right.
There’s an urge toward calling this transformation sudden, but the reality is that their winning more games than any other team this year is like a band that’s been around for ages winning the Best New Artist Grammy. There’s been a purposeful build up to mainstream success that shouldn’t be easily ignored, but it wasn’t fully realized until that success was actually achieved.
It was this Nationals team that got off to a presumably insurmountable 6-0 lead by the end of the third inning in Game Five against the Cardinals. After all, the Giants had beaten the Cincinnati Reds the day before after going up 6-0 by the fifth inning in their finale and essentially holding tight and outlasting their opponents, who chipped away at the run discrepancy every opportunity that they could, until those opportunities ran out in the most dramatic of fashions in the ninth inning.
It would be in support of a good narrative to suggest that the resolve of the St. Louis Cardinals was superior to the Reds, but the truth of the matter is closer to my pedantic suggestions in the opening paragraphs of this post: sometimes things just happen without an all-informing “because.” The Cardinals, like the Reds, chipped away at their score differential, but unlike Cincinnati, St. Louis was able to put up a crooked number in the ninth inning to actually take the game and the series.
That’s not the most dramatic retelling of the events that occurred, but describing the drama of that ninth inning as the Nationals went from standing on rock solid ground to sinking in swampy quick sand while rodents of unusual size attacked them seems like it’s offering an amuse-bouche of a main course worthy dish. Just realize this, all four of the runs that the Cardinals scored to take the lead in the ninth inning were scored with two outs already collected. Washington’s Drew Storen was a strike away from winning the game on three different occasions, but he ultimately succumbed to the St. Louis lineup, through no serious fault of his own.
It’s been noted several times throughout the season, that the Cardinals are a team that isn’t constructed like the typical National League roster. That is to say that they have a very good offense, with six regulars putting up a weighted on base average above .340. The only thing surprising about their status in the postseason is that they had to endure a Wild Card game against the Atlanta Braves, which will forever be tainted by an infield fly call that ultimately would’ve had no impact on the game if it wasn’t called, just to get to the point that they’re at now.
If the Baltimore Orioles got to where they did because of luck, the St. Louis Cardinals got to where they are in spite of it, losing twice as many extra inning games as they won, and putting up a below .500 record in one-run games during the regular season. Nevertheless, bad luck in the regular season is easily swapped for good luck in the playoffs.
These conclusions to the Division Series were so dramatic and eventful, that even the surprising results of the opening of the Championship Series don’t seem quite that shocking.
Nonetheless, I’d be remiss not to mention that the Yankees, again revealing the least potent of offenses, were defeated on Saturday and Sunday by the Tigers. This isn’t so much unexpected because both of these wins occurred on the road for Detroit, or that Robinson Cano only has two hits in 33 postseason plate appearances, or that Delmon Young was Game One’s hero, but rather we associate these victories with all of the other surprises that have occurred during the MLB playoffs because neither came with Justin Verlander or even Max Scherzer starting. Now, this series will go back to Detroit, where the team’s two best pitchers will perform against the already mentioned listless New York lineup.
Meanwhile on Sunday, the Cardinals continued their winning ways by getting to San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Madison Bumgarner early in the opener of the National League Championship Series. St. Louis chased the normally steady-handed Bumgarner from the game in the fourth inning, after going up, you guessed it, 6-0. The Giants responded in the bottom half of the frame, putting up four runs, but both teams’ bullpens shut the door on any more scoring after that, as the visitors took a 1-0 series lead.
As much as we may want to explain any and all of the occurrences of these playoffs by looking at match ups, strategies and intangibles, the truth is that sometimes sixes come in bunches when the other team is rolling ones and twos. The game of baseball depends on such a large amount of random outcomes, that these moments of good and bad luck can add up quickly and easily form the outcomes of single baseball games. This is how we explain such things as the less that 0.2% chance that all four Division Series would go to five games. This is why baseball plays such an enormously long schedule, so that these moments of randomization might end up evening out to a degree, and we might find something that comes closer to resembling true talent.
Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way, and it never will, but that’s sort of what makes it all a lot of fun. It creates the tension of games like we had on Friday, and it’s the stuff that forces us to have hope even after our team loses the first two games of a series at home without the opponents even using their best pitchers. Assuming predictive knowledge in any given moment of baseball is a very risky game to play.