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Friday, December 19, 2014

MLB Playoffs Day 1: Rocco Baldelli vs. Jeff Francoeur, Rays-Rangers Is Best Series

The 2010 MLB postseason got off to a fantastic start with three very exciting ballgames. I have in-depth notes for Game 1 of the Tampa Bay/Texas series— which is going to be the most exciting series of the postseason other than a Phillies-Yankees World Series rematch.

Why is this perhaps the most exciting match-up in the postseason? Surely, (my home team) against (that other team) is better! Of course, but no other series features two more exciting, dynamic, young, complete teams that are also totally different in the way they approach and play the game.

In Cliff Lee and Carl Crawford, we have two of the best players in the league, both about to enter free agency with a lot at stake. In Josh Hamilton, we have one of the game’s most exciting, compelling players playing hurt. We have a difficult pitching environment in Texas where not a lot of postseason games have been played and pitchers are going to have to battle. Both teams will score runs and both teams have question marks in their pitching staffs that keep the series interesting. I could go on and on.

RAYS-RANGERS

In Game 1, Cliff Lee was his usual, strike-throwing-robot-self, working mostly off his fastball, keeping it down and locating it on both sides of the plate, cutting it against righties. He mixed in his change and curve but did not have a great feel for his curve and did not use too many. He obviously did not need it, striking out 10 and walking none.

Lee did surrender a home run to Ben Zobrist on a pitch up in the zone and a fair amount of hard contact, but his speedy outfield kept him out of trouble. Recovering from a back injury, we will monitor how well Lee finishes his pitches and keeps the ball down, especially if he makes a start in Arlington.

David Price also threw mostly fastballs and when he made mistakes up in the zone, the Rangers’ tough right-handed hitters punished him. I knew it would be asking a lot of him to get through Michael Young, Vlad Guerrero, Nelson Cruz, Ian Kinsler and Bengie Molina two or three times through the order. No, I am not joking, including Larry Brown favorite Bengie Molina in the above list. He may not hit in the regular season or any right-handed pitching for that matter, but he is a clutch player who murders lefties.

There was a moment during the game where I did a double-take: Rocco Baldelli was the starting designated hitter for Tampa Bay. Evidently, he started the season as a coach in the minor leagues, then joined the team in September, got 24 at bats (where he did nothing) and now Tampa Bay is asking him to hit against Cliff Lee … bad idea. The Rangers did right by the Rays, though, and started Jeff Francoeur, so they were good sports about it. Frenchy won the battle, knocking in the first run of the game with a hard double to center in the second. Francoeur 1, Baldelli 0.

Game 2: James Shields takes on the former-left-handed-reliever-turned-surprisingly-good-starter C.J. Wilson. Between Wilson’s poor control and Shields homer-proneness, I see this one as a boat race. Let’s say: 7-5 Tampa. It will depend on if the Rays can keep their strikeouts in single digits.

A few odds and ends:

Michael Young, also playing in his first post-season, looked to be pressing in Game 1. At this stage in his career, he is mostly a product of playing in Texas and despite what Nomar said on Baseball Tonight, he is not one of the keys to the series.

Elvis Andrus had a beautiful base hit bunt, but against this caliber of playoff pitching, I don’t see him making an impact. Manager Ron Washington should move Ian Kinsler to lead-off and move Andrus to the nine hole. There is no good reason why Kinsler should bat sixth.

Carlos Pena will burn someone with a three-run home run, but it will take a lot of ugly at-bats before that happens.

Neftali Feliz will implode at some point… Carlos Pena in Arlington with the lumber?

PHILLIES-REDS

Roy Halladay threw a no-hitter, his second of the season. Coming into this series, there were some whispers about the pressure Halladay would feel pitching in his first postseason. Like a true ace, the best pitcher in baseball set the tone for the rest of the rotation and sent a resounding message out to the rest of contenders. What will we do if he throws another no-no? Give Doc the World Series trophy.

Game 2: Soft-tossing Bronson Arroyo will do everything within his power to avoid serving up tape-measure home runs to a dangerous Phillies team. Ryan Howard has a lot of trouble with slow curves, so I anticipate Arroyo will be reasonably successful there if he uses his fastball sparingly. However, he’ll have to find a way to get Chase Utley and Jayson Werth out two-plus times apiece. I’ll take the over.

Roy Oswalt will represent head two of the three-headed monster. His performance against the Reds this season was nothing special (6.75 ERA in two starts), but those were both when he was pitching for the hapless Houston Astros. Oswalt is a competitor and loves pitching in big games, so I expect him to look more like the version we saw pitching down the stretch (1.74 ERA in 12 starts).

YANKEES-TWINS

I only saw bits and pieces of the game, but from what I did see, CC Sabathia did not look crisp. His velocity was down at times and he did not have good command of his fastball, but he is a Yankee and they scored a bunch of runs and he came away with a W (and this is maybe our Cy Young).

This game had to have been both disheartening and inspiring for the Twins, who managed to compete and will now face two unknowns in an old, hurt Andy Pettitte and a young, worn-out Phil Hughes.

Game 2: It almost goes without saying Pettitte-Carl Pavano will be the key to the Twins’ series hopes. With the Twins lineup relying heavily on left-handed hitters (Joe Mauer, Jim Thome, Denard Span and Jason Kubel), it’s asking a lot of them to beat Sabathia and Pettitte once apiece to advance.

I see the Yankees scoring a bunch of runs and Pettitte and Hughes coming away with the Ws.



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