MLB: Boston Red Sox at Tampa Bay Rays

It is well-established that the best team doesn’t always win in the playoffs. You could get all the way to “usually” and you aren’t likely to catch much flack around the baseball world. There is always luck and there is merit in just doing enough to win a given game on a given night. That’s the magic of the playoffs.

The reality of the playoffs strips that magic away. Because the playoffs, you see, are just as much a battle of attrition as they are a coin flip luckfest or battle of best against best.

This is the beauty and the horror of the new Wild Card format: the inability to set one’s pitchers just so and the added strain of playing extra games starts to take its toll. The Rays ran up against attrition last night and came up short, meaning the Boston Red Sox move on to the American League Championship Series.

Tampa Bay always has a way of making bad pitchers look good. Maybe it’s the organizational focus on defense and pitch selection as equal parts in their run prevention model, but guys like Jeremy Hellickson just don’t seem like they’d be much outside of Central Florida. He works interminably slow and struggles to throw strikes at the best of times.

Facing elimination and a serious starter shortage, it was Hellickson that Joe Maddon tipped to start Game Four of the ALDS, with his back squarely against the wall. Hellickson made it out of the first inning okay but once the second started there was trouble. A pair of walks and a hit and lo, there was Joe Maddon, making a change after his starter got all of three outs.

This might well have been the best move, rather than letting his hurler pitch his team out of their season, Maddon called upon a reliever. And then, another. And another still. It was kitchen sink time with the manager most willing to heave it into the mix.

The Rays ended up using nine pitchers on Tuesday night, none of whom lasted more than two innings. After a tiebreaker game and a play-in game and three other battles in this series, Tampa Bay had to do what they could to stay alive.

It worked for a few innings. In fact, it worked all night. Tampa Bay bent but did not break, allowing just three runs. Not bad after your starter goes one inning, not bad at all.

But the Rays bats couldn’t mount much in the way of offense against Jake Peavy and the Red Sox. Again: attrition. Matt Joyce looks lost at the plate so Maddon must turn to Kelly Johnson to be his DH, no great shakes himself. Later, the inestimable Delmon Young enters as a pinch hitter, flailing at the first pitch as he’s done this entire postseason.

The process of just getting themselves into a position to make Game Four a reality stretched the limits of Tampa Bay’s maximized (see also: maxed out) bench and wobbly bullpen. They threw everything they had until, finally, they just ran out of things to throw. A broken Fernando Rodney, his release point more askew than his hat, bleeding insurance runs as Maddon is forced to empty his bullpen of any and all players with a pulse. Out of viable players and reliable pitchers and doubles switches and witchcraft and black magic and extra percents, the Rays quietly watched their season slip away.

The Red Sox have no such problems, their admirable depth buoying them after a late-game substitution inserted stud prospect Xander Bogaerts into the proceedings, a positive example of learning on the go (for more than just the shortstop). Rather than use nine different pitchers, Boston used four. When the situation called for a pinch hitter, they used an actual good hitter. And then another. Maligned and injury-stricken as their bullpen is, manager John Farrell got four good outs from Craig Breslow and went to the unhittable Koji Uehara as soon as he could. Koji did not disappoint.

The Boston Red Sox, who patiently waited five days for this series to begin, again turn the tables on the battle of attrition. The get more time to set up their pitching staff just so, getting rest for starters who get to go on their regular rest while Koji secrets away to his hyperbaric chamber or spacecraft or whatever it is that let’s him do the things he does. Junichi Tazawa and Craig Breslow get a much needed break while players like Ryan Dempster wonder when they’ll next get a game – a most uncommon of postseason concerns.

Big Cats Become Scarce

The Detroit Tigers are about to learn their own lessons in the ways of attrition. Facing elimination in Game Four against the Oakland A’s, Jim Leyland and the Tigers pulled out similar stops to grab a victory and the right to head back to the glorious Coliseum. Using Max Scherzer out of the bullpen for two innings isn’t the kind of thing a manager hopes he needs to do to win a game.

But in came Scherzer, looking every bit the Cy Young winner…after loading the bases with nobody out. It was a great, dramatic moment as the Tigers kept their season alive. It was also one yanked change up from going very, very differently.

Leyland said he left in Scherzer in with the bases loaded because he needed a strikeout. Rather than going with the platoon advantage, he left in the man who struck out 240 batters in the regular season. I’m sure if asked, Leyland would give the age-old “I’ll worry about tomorrow tomorrow” response to concerns he used all his bullets just getting to Game Five.

Scherezer himself offered to go again on EXTREMELY short rest, according to Jeff Seidel of the Detroit Free Press. When asked if he could pitch again in Game Five, Scherzer told the Detroit columnist it was ‘“Possible,” he said, his eyes lighting up. “It’s the playoffs. Anything is possible.”’

Anything is possible, but now the Tigers are in a must win situation with a bullpen the manager possibly doesn’t trust (though he still managed to use his closer for 30 pitches one day after using his setup man for the same amount pitches. Today’s off-day is a godsend for Detroit, not to mention the luxury of sending Justin Verlander to the hill with the season on the line. That is nice weapon to have as well.

This is the name of the playoff game. The Tigers are still alive and that’s all they can ask. Their franchise cornerstone on the mound, in a stadium and against a team he dominated one year ago in a similar situation. But these days of flying by the seat of their pants catch up. The Tigers only hope that can stay ahead for nine more wins this year, lest time run out on Detroit like it did on Tampa Bay.