The Detroit Tigers, Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals all reached the League Championship Series with dramatic wins in decisive fifth games. A round later, it looks like the Tigers and Texas Rangers are headed toward a seven-game thriller, and the Brewers and Cards might be as well.
The excitement of a season coming down to a single game is a great thing. Not only does it lend drama to every pitch of those contests, but the tantalizing possibility makes every game played leading up to it that much more thrilling. Every game could be the one that swings a series.
In that spirit then, read on for predictions on every game left in this tremendous 2011 season, from Game 5 of the NLCS Friday through to the close of the World Series.
Jaime Garcia's first two career playoff starts have not gone all that well. He lost Game 3 of the NLDS against Philadelphia, though he actually pitched very well before making a costly mistake to Ben Francisco. In Game 1 of the NLCS, he fully deserved to lose, giving up six runs in four innings.
Now, though, everything will be different. As the Brewers and Cards take to the Busch Stadium field for Game 5, Garcia will be entirely in his element: pitching at home.
Garcia posted a 4.61 ERA on the road this season, but a sparkling 2.55 figure at home. His peripheral numbers suggest it's as much about his defense and comfort as anything else—he actually had a better strikeout-to-walk ratio on the road, and opponents had a batting average on balls in play .103 worse when facing Garcia in St. Louis.
Still, there's predictive value there. Batters clearly are not as effective against the southpaw in St. Louis. The Brewers have not performed well against Garcia the past two years, and although Zack Greinke will finally find his rhythm and pitch a bit better Friday, Garcia is going to redeem his postseason by beating Milwaukee and sending the series back there with St. Louis in the lead.
Cardinals Win, Lead NLCS 3-2
Nelson Cruz has gotten all the headlines, but Miguel Cabrera is having an insane ALCS in his own right. His .565 OBP is gaudy, though somewhat artificial because Rangers manager Ron Washington seems perfectly content to give Cabrera first base any time he wants it.
That's bad baseball, and it says here that those tactics will cost Texas at the wrong time Saturday. Moreover, Scherzer has quietly been the best starter in the American League since the end of the regular season, while Holland scuffled in Game 2.
Tigers Win, Even Series 3-3
Call it small-sample variance, but Ryan Braun is off to a remarkable start in his postseason career. He hit .313 in Milwaukee's 2008 NLDS loss, .500 in this year's NLDS against Arizona and is at .438 through four games in the NLCS. His .420 batting average thus far in his playoff career ranks third all-time among those with 40 or more postseason plate appearances.
In 16 plate appearances against Sunday starter Edwin Jackson, Braun has five hits (including three doubles) and a walk. He will come up with the big hit to push the series to a seventh game.
Brewers Win, Tie Series
This game might well come down to the bullpens. With Rangers Ballpark helping hitters so much, and with so much adrenaline flowing for all involved, it seems unlikely that non-stars Fister and Lewis will be around by the sixth or seventh frames.
It comes down, then, to long relief work, and the Rangers have the edge there. Matt Harrison last pitched in Game 4, wherein he pitched only five innings and threw 91 pitches. He should be fresh, and although Scott Feldman has been amazing in this series, Harrison could be the one who gets five or six huge outs to bridge the Rangers to the excellent back half of their pen. Nelson Cruz hits one last homer to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Rangers Win, Move on to World Series
Carpenter was less sharp in Game 3 than he had been for the previous few weeks, but the Cardinals still beat Yovani Gallardo in a good game. This time, it feels like neither man will record eight innings of one-run ball or any similar feat. Both are very good pitchers, but as the series progresses, it gets more and more about the two offenses and the bullpens behind them.
That gives the advantage to St. Louis. Their bullpen is much deeper, meaning that if the Brewers chase Carpenter after four or five frames, the Cards can better withstand the blow than could Milwaukee if Gallardo were to be knocked around.
Meanwhile, Albert Pujols lurks. He has hit .429/.487/.714 thus far in the playoffs, and there may be room for growth there. His homer in Game 2 gave him 20-career bombs at Miller Park. Pujols loves hitting there, and will show it the way he showed his love for hitting in Houston against Brad Lidge in 2005.
Cardinals Win, Reach World Series
Wilson has been alarmingly bad this postseason, after entering the tournament with a real chance to make nine figures on a free-agent contract this coming winter. Hopefully, his struggles have reminded the Red Sox and Yankees that he was never worth that kind of investment, but Wilson is a very fine pitcher and a strong World Series performance would be a good reminder thereof.
Though Garcia should also pitch well, Wilson will shut down St. Louis and stake his team to an early series lead.
Rangers Win, Lead 1-0
This is a bold prediction, but it says here the Rangers will shift Alexi Ogando back into the rotation for a Game 2 start. Derek Holland's struggles have to have at least put this in the back of Ron Washington's mind, not least because an ideal pitcher against the Cardinals would be a right-handed one.
Having no shortage of lefty relief help if they need to get Lance Berkman out later in games, the Rangers can afford to send Ogando rather than Holland to the mound in a game that figures to be very high-leverage within the series.
Rangers Win, Lead 2-0
Maybe he isn't Pedro or Clemens or even Verlander, but Carpenter is pitching really well right now. Even though he will likely give up a homer or two in Texas in Game 3, the Cardinals have to feel good about the potential of matching him against Colby Lewis.
Carpenter does not depend upon keeping the ball in the park to be successful; he depends on never giving up a three-run homer. Meanwhile, Lewis is clearly not the pitcher he was a year ago, when he won four times in October.
Cardinals Win, Trail Series 2-1
Pitching to a contract has not worked out well for Wilson this autumn, but Jackson's arsenal is a constant reminder that he is a freely available alternative with a ceiling nearly as high as that of Wilson. He can miss enough bats and induce enough bad swings to survive in a hitter-friendly park, and is no stranger to the American League.
In seven career starts, Jackson has allowed a .736 OPS to the Rangers, which (after adjusting for the parks in which he pitched those seven times) is 10 percent better than his career opponent OPS.
Cardinals Win, Even Series 2-2
The Cardinals led the NL in runs scored this season, but theirs is a distinctly NL-style, short-sequence offense. Shut down Pujols, Berkman and Matt Holliday, and you shut down the Cardinals.
Not so in Texas. The Rangers have the big names (Josh Hamilton, when he feels like it, plus Cruz and Michael Young), but can also kill you by putting together five hits in six plate appearances from the sixth through second hitters. Ian Kinsler, Mike Napoli and Adrian Beltre hit southpaw pitching about as hard as anyone in baseball, and will bludgeon Garcia early in this one.
Rangers Win, Head to St. Louis Ahead 3-2
With their season on the line, look for the Cards to bring back Carpenter on three days of rest if this situation comes up. He did so in Game 2 of the NLDS, after all, and earned a win.
This time, though, it will not work. The Rangers are simply too good a team for a pitcher not fully rested. They will wear down Carpenter, grab an early lead and then turn the game over to their bullpen. Mike Adams, Neftali Feliz and Co. might record 10 or 12 outs in this one, but they will prevail, validating in a more definitive way what has been true since 2009: The Rangers are running the best organization in baseball.
Rangers Win, Rangers Win