Strength of pitchers continues into October

After the divisional round of the Major League Baseball playoffs, it looks like the “Year of the Pitcher” will continue into October.

The most important player of round one was Texas Ranger Cliff Lee, who beat the Tampa Bay Rays twice in what was the only five-game first round series. Lee pitched 16 innings allowing 2 earned runs with a division series record 21-to-0 strikeout to walk total, lowering his career postseason ERA to 1.44, which is fifth all-time among pitchers with five playoff starts.

Lee faced 25-year-old Rays starter David Price in games one and five of the series and was able to beat him both times. Part of the reason for Lee’s effectiveness was his command with fastballs and cutters early in the game and Price’s struggles in the same area.

In game one, the Rangers jumped all over Price as he refused to throw a breaking ball, runs surrendering four earned before leaving. In the first two innings of game five, he adjusted throwing 32 pitches, 12 of which were curveballs. Through three innings, Price had already thrown 51 pitches and the Rangers had fouled off 11, showing that when he went back to his fastball the Rangers were on it.

Lee, however, threw 120 pitches in nine innings and only 17 were curves with the rest fastballs and cutters. He joined Bob Gibson as the only other pitcher with three or more postseason double-figure strikeout performances. Price put up a 2.72 ERA pitching in the A.L. East during the regular season, so there’s no doubting his talent, but he certainly didn’t shut the Rangers down like he needed to for the Rays to win this series (4.97 series ERA for Price).

In the Championship Series the Rangers will face the New York Yankees, which despite their reputation as the Bronx Bombers got into the second round sweeping the Minnesota Twins on the back of quality starts from all three of their starters: C.C. Sabathia (6 IP 3 ER in game one), Andy Pettitte (7 IP 2 ER in game one) and Phil Hughes (7 IP 0 ER in game three). This sweep made it nine straight the Yankees have won against the Twins in the playoffs. In fairness to the Twins, they have been without first basemen Justin Morneau for the last two playoff series against the Yankees and catcher Joe Mauer was banged up going 3-for-12 with no extra base hits in the series. They clearly lacked the offense or quality pitching to compete as they were outscored 17-7 in three games, all of which were closed out by Mariano Rivera.

In the National League side of the playoff bracket, the heavily favored Philadelphia Phillies dominated the Cincinnati Reds, sweeping them in three games. It was a long wait for Phillies ace Roy Halladay to make his first postseason start — 12 years with the Blue Jays to be exact — but it took just a few hours for him to establish an October legacy throwing the second no-hitter in postseason history (the other was Don Larson’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series). Having already thrown his own perfect game against the Florida Marlins on May 29 this year, Halladay became the first pitcher to throw two no-hitters in the same calendar year and have one in the playoffs.

Halladay wasn’t the only ace pitcher in the NL making his postseason debut this year, the San Francisco Giants’ Tim Lincecum just about matched Halladay’s performance with a two-hit 14-strikeout showing in game one over the Atlanta Braves.

In game two, it was two unlikely heroes who got it done for the Braves. With the game on the line in extra innings and closer Billy Wagner injured with a bad left side, they turned to well-traveled veteran righty Kyle Farnsworth who helped save Atlanta when he got rookie catcher Buster Posey to ground into a bases loaded double play to end the bottom of the 10th inning.

In the 11th inning, outfielder Rick Ankiel finally got the October moment he deserved. The same guy who 10 years ago couldn’t find the plate with a map as a pitcher for the Cardinals smacked a game-winning homer off reliever Ramon Ramirez making this the only series where the first two games split.

Utility player Brooks Conrad had a decent year offensively (.250/.324/.487) but is no Brooks Robinson with the glove and made three fielding errors in game three, the last of which was a two-out grounder in the ninth that went under Conrad’s glove and cost the Braves the game and ultimately any chance at the series in Bobby Cox’s last year managing the team.

The Giants will go on to face the Phillies with the series opening on Saturday with Halladay and Lincecum matching up for game one. The Phillies are the favorite to win that series because of their depth in the rotation and starting lineup.

The Yankees and Rangers will start Friday in Texas with Sabathia on the hill for New York facing lefty C.J. Wilson.

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