If you are a Cincinnati Reds fan, Saturday’s introduction to the National League Division Series playoffs against the San Francisco Giants took you on an emotional rollercoaster ride in the early going and it is hard to imagine that at some point you didn’t utter the words “Uh, oh.”
If you are a Detroit Tigers fan, Saturday’s introduciton to the American League Division Series playoffs against the Oakland A’s probably gave you a sense of optimism and you probably uttered words like “At last.”
As we began an October playoff stretch that on paper, at least, seems to be about as evenly matched in every series as possible, putting a single victory in the win column was a great achievement. No one thinks it’s going to be easy to advance this fall and it is not difficult to picture every series going the five-game, and later the seven-game, distance.
No question the Reds dodged a bullet. When your ace has to come out of the game because of injury on the second batter a lot of stuff is up in the air. Johnny Cueto’s back spasms put a huge amount of pressure on manager Dusty Baker. Cueto, the staff ace with a 19-9 record, was back in the clubhouse so quickly the strains of the National Anthem were still echoing at AT &T Park.
What to do? You can’t just give away a playoff game. How much messing with the planned rotation could be tolerated? Baker pushed the right buttons. He went to the bullpen for Sam LeCure, who is a middle relief guy and got nearly two innings out of him (and the win) while Mat Latos prepared to come in. Latos, the scheduled game three starter, was able to prepare at his leisure as if he was starting a game. All worked out for the Reds in their 5-2 win, including a less-scrutinized, but nonetheless slick move by Baker pinch-hitting a pitcher in for LeCure.
It was only the third inning and Baker did not want to use up one of his stronger bench players such as Todd Frazier because he might well be needed later. The situation called for a bunt. So Baker inserted Homer Bailey as a pinch-hitter to attempt that task. Although Bailey did not make much of his chance at the plate it was a smart move.
Latos came into the game when he was warm and pitched four solid innings. Despite the late-game shakiness of closer Aroldis Chapman the Reds played to their strength–pitching–and saw it pay off. One of the best fielding teams, the Reds also stifled Giants opportunities with big catches. Ryan Ludwick twice made hit-saving grabs in left field. Joey Votto speared a wicked line drive and turned it into an instant double play.
Cueto’s injury (supposedly not severe and leaving him as a prospect to start Tuesday) at first blush seemed devastating. Instead, the Reds adapted and triumphed.
Detroit, meanwhile, cooled off one of the hottest teams in baseball by clipping the A’s 3-1. Oakland, which won the American League West Division crown on the last day of the season, couldn’t handle Tigers ace Justin Verlander. The Tigers, pre-season favorites to romp to the AL Central Division title, struggled to catch and pass the Chicago White Sox until the season’s last week. Between Verlander on the mound, Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder at bat, the Tigers may well be shaping up as one of the most dangerous teams of the playoffs.
It may have taken the Tigers until September to get organized, but there’s nothing wrong with peaking in October.