NEW YORK – Baseball's playoffs started a week ago Friday. Seriously. It seems like at least 10 days, or maybe two weeks, or however long it takes to pack in an entire postseason's worth of meaningful highlights. Baseball is having one of its finest weeks ever, one in which every grand moment seems to tie into another. This is no hyperbole, no exaggeration. The facts bear it out.
Take the most important one first: For the first time ever, teams will play all 20 of the possible division series games. By Saturday, each of the four series will have witnessed a do-or-die Game 5, and when combined with the two wild-card games to kick off the postseason, that makes for six win-or-go-home games in seven days.
These are no middling series, either, full of blowouts or bad performances. Eight of the 18 division series games played have been decided by one run. That's 44.4 percent, compared to the 28.7 percent during the regular season. And even though neither the San Francisco Giants nor the Detroit Tigers' series-clinching wins Thursday came by that mark, they were compelling nevertheless, a testament to how baseball has captured the sporting world in the throes of football season and once again laid claim to October as its month.
"There's a lot of really good teams in baseball," said Baltimore Orioles DH Jim Thome, in his 22nd year and 10th postseason. "You look at across the board. You're seeing a lot of teams play well. That never-say-die attitude. We're kind of that case."
Thursday night, Thome's Orioles scratched out a 2-1 victory in 13 innings at Yankee Stadium to force a Game 5 at 5:07 p.m. ET, and the Washington Nationals will host the St. Louis Cardinals at 8:37 p.m. Two teams will exult and celebrate. Two will shed tears and wonder what happened.
Two will sound like Giants outfielder Hunter Pence: "I love this moment."
Two will mimic Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker: "You get tired of the disappointments."
Love and disappointment are only natural, October turbocharging emotions in both directions. The winners feel for the losers, the losers envy the winners, and every night they step back, look at what happened in the rest of their baseball world and marvel. Because for all of the following to have taken place in but seven days truly strains credulity.
Sort of like the idea of Alex Rodriguez, still owed $114 million for the next five years, spending Game 5 on the Yankees bench. Only it's a real possibility with his 1-for-15 series getting uglier by the day, first with Yankees manager Joe Girardi pinch hitting for him in the ninth inning of the third game, then following it with a 13th-inning hook in Game 4.
Girardi made the choice to yank A-Rod just days after the death of the manager's father, and it was the most inspired move of his career: Raul Ibanez tied Game 3 with a ninth-inning home run and won it with another in the 12th.
And yet that was far from the biggest walk-off of the week. Thursday afternoon Jayson Werth saved Washington from possible elimination by bopping the 13th pitch of his ninth-inning at-bat into the stands. It was the best thing a Nationals outfielder has done this week, certainly better than 19-year-old Bryce Harper going 1 for 18, wearing ostentatious eyeblack followed by red contact lenses and copping an attitude all the while.
Of course, Josh Hamilton might have jammed more bad juju into one playoff game than Harper has into four. During the wild-card elimination game, Hamilton went 0 for 4 with two strikeouts, a double play and a comebacker, needed an umbrella to deflect the boos and epitomized the ignominious end to a Texas Rangers season that even a week earlier seemed as though it would end with a deep run into October, maybe to their third consecutive World Series.
Granted, that wasn't even the most interesting wild-card game. There was the infield-fly rule in the outfield, and the errors from Chipper Jones, Andrelton Simmons and Dan Uggla, which would be surpassed by mishaps from Scott Rolen, Coco Crisp and Al Alburquerque.
Alburquerque, remember, fielded a Yoenis Cespedes ground ball and proceeded to kiss it before throwing it to first base, a breach in decorum (albeit a pretty hilarious one). Already the A's had a great reason to win – for pitcher Pat Neshek, who courageously threw two-thirds of a scoreless inning two days after the death of his newborn son Gehrig – and Alburquerque only fortified them.
Following Game 4, nobody was going to question their ability to do so. Down 3-1 in the ninth, Oakland rallied to take down Detroit closer Jose Valverde and force a Game 5, a cursed blessing. On one hand, it was a Game 5. On the other, they were facing the game's best pitcher, Justin Verlander, who threw a four-hit shutout and struck out 11 in a 6-0 Tigers' series-clinching win.
It was the best performance in a postseason full of them already, from Brett Andreson to Max Scherzer to Miguel Gonzalez to Joe Saunders to Bronson Arroyo to Homer Bailey to Chris Carpenter, whose contribution was unlike any of the aforementioned. Carpenter had pitched three games and 17 innings this season. He was supposed to be home. Instead, he threw 5 ⅔ shutout innings, which was 5 ⅓ more than Johnny Cueto, the Reds ace who left with a strained oblique after one out of his series-opening start.
Cincinnati won anyway, then captured Game 2 before heading home for what seemed like a gimme: three chances to clinch in their home stadium, where they shared the best record in the National League. Then they lost the third game and the fourth, and before Game 5, Pence delivered a speech his teammates couldn't stop talking about. More important than any words was Buster Posey's grand slam, continuing the trend of big catcher home runs Russell Martin started in the ninth inning of the Yankees' first game against Baltimore, when he touched up Orioles closer Jim Johnson.
All that in a week.
Now, other division series writ large put up a good fight. Last season, three series went to 3-2, and the other included a star-making performance from Matt Moore. And in 2001, only a sweep sullied three five-game series, including a classic comeback from the Yankees over the A's.
Still, neither of those can beat this year. Coming into this season, teams had played 68 division series. There were 27 sweeps and 24 that lasted four games. Only 17 had gone to Game 5, and that lack of elimination games in part spurred commissioner Bud Selig to consider the second wild card. At least there would be two games guaranteed to mean everything.
"When I'm watching the hockey playoffs, even if you don't necessarily follow the teams in the deciding games, those are the fun ones to watch," Orioles outfielder Nate McLouth said. "And they're the fun ones to play in, too."
McLouth and his teammates tried not to think too much about Friday, lest they work themselves into some kind of a nervous tic. Then again, they shouldn't be the nervous ones. Between the wild-card game and Thursday, Baltimore has survived elimination twice. The last do-or-die game the Yankees won was in 2003 – the Aaron Boone game.
"This," said CC Sabathia, who will start Friday for the Yankee, "is what you play for."
And this, everyone concurred, is what we watch for.
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