October 6, 2014 [LINK / comment]

Orioles & Royals sweep ALDS, advance to ALCS

The first stage of the playoffs on the American League side were decided in rapid fashion over the weekend, setting up a League Championship series between the Baltimore Orioles and Kansas City Royals swept their opponents.

In yesterday afternoon's game, in Comerica Park, the [Orioles'] only two runs came in the fifth inning. Nelson Cruz hit a pop fly into the right field corner that just barely carried the fence for a home run. The Tigers staged a dramatic rally leading off in the bottom of the ninth inning, with two consecutive doubles by Victor and J.D. Martinez. The stage was set for a heroic comeback But then popped out, was intentionally walked, and pinch-hitter Hernan Perez grounded in to a double play, thus putting an end to Detroit's season. Orioles 2, Tigers 1.

The wild card underdog Kansas City Royals likewise swept the Angels. In the game at Kauffman Stadium last night, Mike Trout gave the visiting team something to cheer about by homering in the first inning. But the Royals loaded the bases and [Alex] Gordon hit a [bases-clearing double] in the bottom of the first to put the Royals on top, 3-0. Final score: Royals 8, Angels 3 -- in only nine innings!

One of the more amusing surprises of that series was when the Royals' stocky slugger Billy Butler stole second base, only his sixth stolen base of his entire eight-year career. See MLB.com.

The Royals had already made history by winning three consecutive postseason games in extra innings. In the AL Wild Card game, they had beaten the Athletics 9-8 in twelve innings, and in Games 1 and 2 of the ALDS, they beat the Angels 3-2 and 4-1, respectively. The last time a team won two consecutive postseason games in extra innings was the 2004 ALCS, when the Boston Red Sox beat the New York Yankees 6-4 and 5-4, thanks mainly to David "Big Papi" Ortiz. The last time there were two consecutive extra-inning games in a postseason series was in the 2012 ALDS, with the Orioles and Yankees each winning one of them.

Meanwhile, the Dodgers and Cardinals split the first two games of their divisional series, in Los Angeles. And as for sweeping the divisional series, what is going on in San Francisco at this very moment might yield a third such result, because...

Prolonged agony in Washington

NLDS Game 1 was disappointing [Giants 3, Nats 2], but what happened in Washington [on Saturday] night made Game 5 of the 2012 National League Division Series (when the Cardinals scored four runs in the top of the ninth inning to win, 9-7) look like a picnic. Jordan Zimmermann had another splendid outing, going 8 2/3 innings and allowing only three hits and no runs. Then he walked Joe Panik, and manager Matt Williams decided to replace him with Drew Storen, the team's closing pitcher. [Storen] quickly gave up a single to Buster Posey and a double to Pablo Sandoval, and the Giants almost scored a second run except that Posey was called out sliding into home.

Here are the protagonists in the high-tension ninth inning drama that changed everything:

Drew Storen
LEFT: Drew Storen pitches to Donovan Solano, in the top of the ninth in on September 27, when the Nationals beat the Marlins, 5-1.

Pablo Sandoval
RIGHT: Pablo Sandoval, after striking out in the August 15, 2013 game. The Nationals lost that game to the Giants, 4-3, after Rafael Soriano gave up three runs in the top of the ninth inning.

Nats fans will argue until the end of time whether Zimmermann should have been pulled, or whether that was what really decided the game's outcome. In the Washington Post, Mike Wise wallows in the dark side of despair, fearing that the traumatic episode may linger for years. Maybe, but I don't think so. Professional ball players know that such hideous reversals of fortune are part of the game, and sooner or later the law of averages will work to their benefit.

Tyler Clippard, Craig Stammen pitched exceptionally well for the 13th, 14th, and 15th innings, after which Rafael Soriano took the mound. Uh-oh... Actually, he did a good job, getting three quick outs. Then in the top of the 17th inning, Tanner Roark came in as a reliever and did just fine until the 18th inning, when the leadoff batter Brandon Belt smashed the ball into the second deck in right field. That was all it took, as the Nats failed to do much in the bottom of the inning. And so, after six hours and 23 minutes, the longest postseason game in history, the Giants emerged victorious, 2-1. frown

Data footnote: the 44,035 in attendance in two consecutive nights seems implausible to me.

It may seem an impossible situation, to be down 0-2 in a series and facing the opposing team's best pitcher (Madison Bumgarner) in their ballpark (AT&T Park), but stranger things have happened. Indeed, the Giants came back and won the NLDS against the Cincinnati Reds after losing the first two games at home. So maybe, just maybe, the Nationals can do likewise this year.

As shown in the table below, which covers the 162 regular-season games, the Nationals enjoyed a 5-2 win-loss ratio over the Giants this year. That means the best the Giants can hope for is to earn a 5-5 split with the Nationals for regular-season and postseason games combined.

Nationals' head-to-head matchups, 2014

As of the sixth inning in Game 3, it is still a scoreless tie. Can the Nats still pull it off? I say YES!

UPDATE: As I was finishing this blog post during the top of the seventh inning, the Nationals staged a three-run rally in which the key play was a throwing error to third base by pitcher Madison Bumgarner. He was charged with the loss in the 4-1 game, so there WILL be a Game 4 tomorrow. More details tomorrow. Natitude!!!