MLB playoffs offer drama in multiple acts every 24 hours


Tampa Bay Rays celebrate after Jose Lobaton hits a home run in the bottom of the ninth as Mike Napoli of the Boston Red Sox walks off the field during Game Three of the teams’ American League Division Series. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Thomas Boswell
Columnist October 8, 2013

Manager Don Mattingly, just hours after risking his Dodger career by starting his ace on short rest when it wasn’t necessary, wiped champagne out of his eyes and said, “Playoffs are stupid, aren’t they? Just crazy.”

After a bench-clearing cuss-off in Detroit, a near no-hitter to save a season by a Cardinals rookie, a walk-off homer by an obscure Ray off baseball’s toughest closer and a game-winning homer by a Dodger who had just botched two sacrifice bunts, I agreed with Donnie Baseball and hit the hay at 2 a.m.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

It’s possible that baseball has never had a better single day than the 12 hours from 1 p.m. Monday afternoon until after 1 a.m. Tuesday morning. Almost everything good about the game, especially its warped but wonderful postseason, was on display.

The best and worst aspect of October baseball is that you have no idea who will win or why or which heroes will emerge. The better team usually wins, but not often enough to claim that baseball’s format is any model of fairness. Instead, it’s the epitome of entertainment, but one that is so spread out that it demands hours of attention, or good luck, to see the best of it.

In each playoff team’s town, every moment is tasted, hair is yanked by its roots and throats are raw from screaming, just as Washington got to agonize through five division-series games last year and probably will return to this insane stage again fairly soon. But few, except those whose job is to follow baseball or who’ve had the misfortune to be furloughed by fanatics, get a sense of the whole sweep of the nutty thing.

Highlights

In just one day, we saw several of the most powerful forces that magnetize us to baseball. One is the constant psychological game-within-the-game between pitchers and hitters, or between entire teams and pitchers they want to unhinge. In the ninth inning in Game 3 in Detroit, A’s closer Grant Balfour, who amps himself ’til his eyes bug out because his stuff isn’t quite top-drawer, flipped out when Victor Martinez of the Tigers stared him down after a foul ball.

Did Martinez provoke Balfour, knowing he’s on a precarious emotional tightrope every time he pitches? Balfour screamed an obscenity. Martinez screamed back, and everyone danced at home plate. But Balfour lost some command and might have melted down if he hadn’t had a three-run cushion. If he has another save chance, which Bengal will push his buttons now that he’s shown that you can wind him up until it hurts his pitching?

There’s just such a book on many a pitcher. Does he hate to field bunts, hold runners (Stephen Strasburg), watch hitters step out of the box (Jordan Zimmermann) or simply get nervous under playoff pressure (Gio Gonzalez). Championship teams have to iron out almost all such damaging quirks.

A pure October moment, crystallizing everything we love and hate about this freakish month, was captured by the monstrous walk-off homer by a .228 career hitter, Jose Lobaton, off Koji Uehara, who was the hardest pitcher to hit this year (.130), far ahead of runner-up Tyler Clippard (.152).

When one maybe-lucky swing can change so much in a five-game series, what is postseason baseball really “examining?” The answer: It finds out if you can cope with the ridiculous, the undeserved, the illogical and still forge on, even though more of the same may beat you anyway. It’s a strange test of character for a game. Don’t we get enough of that in everyday life?

Uehara’s gopher ball also illustrates the lingering damage that October can do to fine players, especially relievers, a scenario Nats fans hope they won’t see someday in Drew Storen. The ’11 playoffs traumatized Uehara who, after a fine season, gave up three homers while getting only four outs in October. After that, the Rangers didn’t pitch him in the World Series.

The Cards’ 2-1 Game 4 win to avoid elimination by the Pirates illustrated more than just the high promise of winner Michael Wacha, 22, a rookie who took a no-hitter into the eighth inning. Like Shelby Miller on his own staff, Wacha shows us that a young-power-arm pitching era is upon us in this less-PED period. The N.L. ERA was 3.74, the lowest in 21 years.

Only teams that can compete in this arms race — with money, trades or player development — will be consistently competitive the rest of this decade. “Young pitching comes fast,” ex-Nat Manager Davey Johnson said last month. High strikeout-to-hits ratios in Class AA, or even lower, can project a pitcher to the majors, or at least a trial at that level, faster than ever.

A 113-73 strikeout-to-hit ratio got Wacha to the Cards’ rotation 10 months after his first rookie-ball game in the low minors. Miller also debuted at 21 after a 472-352 “unhittable” ratio at four minor-league levels announced his raw stuff, plus command. The Nats? Some are still unformed, but all fit this profile to varying degrees: Nate Karns (362-208), Robbie Ray (343-309), Lucas Giolito (40-30 after elbow surgery) and A.J. Cole (393-353).

Maybe the clearest message from this quartet of classic games was the Dodgers’ victory to knock out the 96-win Braves. That blow now puts the Dodgers ahead of schedule. Maybe not their own, but the one the rest of baseball hoped for. This was supposed to be the season the ultra-rich Dodgers weren’t quite ready. Oh? Yasiel Puig probably showboats in his sleep the way my collie chases rabbits in her dreams. But he and the Bums are here now and ready to spend more.

The Cards, Braves and Nats should look at L.A. and think, “We have to get better, not just stay good.” If Mattingly’s gamble to start Clayton Kershaw on three days’ rest had blown up in his face, as it almost did, and L.A. had lost a Game 5 in Atlanta, Donnie might have been on the manager market this winter and even headed to Washington where he was the Nats’ first choice after Manny Acta was fired. Now? Not going to happen. Like the man said, “The playoffs are stupid, aren’t they? Just crazy.”

They’re a wave that changes everything in its wacky wake. And they haven’t even started to crest.

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