Before we move into the League Championship Series, a bit of housecleaning from the LDS. In a private e-mail, frequent THT commenter and occasional co-author Paul G. asked, “Is this the most exciting first round of the playoffs ever?”
First, I like how he phrases it “most exciting,” as that is what I claim for the WPS system, rather than “greatest.” (Though I do slip into the “greatest” formulation now and again, because it’s quicker to express.) Second, I will assume that by “first round” he means the LDS round and isn’t including the LCS between 1969 and 1993, or the World Series before 1969. (We’ll all assume he’s ignoring the wild-card knockout games.)
To this question, I must answer “no.” There were 72 League Division Series before this season, with a median combined WPS Index of 1275.3. All four LDS in 2012 beat that mark. Yankees-Orioles was the third-best ever at 2123.1, Tigers-A’s finished at 1660.4, Cardinals-Nationals at 1648.0, and Giants-Reds at 1325.5. Add them all up, and the 2012 LDS round comes in at a combined 6757.0, for the maximum 20 games.
That’s good for third-best all time. Second-best was in 2003, with Boston-Oakland showing up as the second-best Division Series ever and Florida-San Francisco at sixth (but now displaced to seventh by the O’s and Yanks). Each of those series also had one of the top five single LDS games. That year came in at a total 6944.2 in 18 of a possible 20 games.
Number one should be little surprise to anyone who read by article on WPS in the LDS: it’s 1995. In a scant 15 games, it ran up a score of 7115.0, doing this with two sweeps as drag chains on the numbers. Four games came in as top-ten all time, including two from those sweeps. As for the series, Mariners-Yankees rates as the most exciting LDS ever, and Braves-Rockies just got nudged down to fourth by two-fifths of a point (so, really, a tie for first with New York and Baltimore).
The paths to greatness are starkly different. 1995 made it with some truly titanic games: six with a WPS above 500 (my benchmark for “greatness”), five of those above 600, four of those above 700, and two of those cracking 900 and standing as (Spoiler Alert!) the greatest postseason games of all time. 2012 did it with every series going the limit, along with generally above-average games led by four “great” ones (though none surpassed 600 and reached the upper strata of that classification).
The answers change if you try to give out bonuses for series going to the final game, but I am not going to attempt that here. 2012 is clearly in the higher echelons, but arguably not the greatest.
With four teams left with a chance at the pennants, we can start looking forward to potential World Series matchups. To help you along that path, here are two trivia nuggets.
First: three of the four possible combinations have occurred multiple times before in the Series. The Yankees and Giants have played seven World Series against each other (six times for the New York Giants, once for the San Francisco Giants). St. Louis and New York have clashed five times; St. Louis and Detroit three times, including the most recent of the possible previews in 2006. Only the Tigers-Giants matchup has never been seen before in October.
Speaking of the Tigers, my second nugget: Detroit is the only team ever to lose a World Series to the Chicago Cubs. They did so in 1907 and 1908, falling in five each time. (There was a tie in 1907: Chicago swept the games with decisions.)
So, how did the Tigers respond to my provocative little factoid? Actually, they didn’t care at all. They just played their game.
Game 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 F Tigers 0 0 0 0 0 2 0 2 0 0 0 2 6 Yankees 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 4 0 0 0 4 (Tigers lead series 1-0) WPs 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 Tigers 7 5 11 9 16 54 5 15 1 14 26 51 Yankees 22 18 13 6 7 58 18 5 66 42 29 9 WPS Base: 506.0 Best Plays: 94.7 Last Play: 1.5 Grand Total: 602.2
This game resembled the Yankees’ ALDS clincher in that the first several innings were a tightening spiral of tension. It resembled the Tigers’ clincher in that Detroit took a convincing shutout lead into the ninth. Then it resembled the Yankees-Orioles extra-inning wars of a few days back.
And then, for the New York Yankees, it resembled every disaster movie ever made, played simultaneously in Surround Sound. The numbers say it was a great game, but it felt anything but great in the 12th and final inning.
This was a game of breaks through the first six innings, all against New York. In the first two innings, the Yankees got the bases loaded with two outs, and both times, good defensive plays by shortstop Jhonny Peralta just got the third out. Replays showed half of those out calls were right, and that cost New York at least one run.
Leading off the sixth, Austin Jackson hit a fair ball down the first-base line that hit an angle in the stands partway to right field and dribbled back toward the infield. Jackson made three bases before right fielder Nick Swisher could chase it down. I would have observed that this was the shortest triple in history, except that the television broadcast crew made virtually the same comment a moment later. Stop stealing my lines!
Then came the break delivered by Joe Girardi. With Jackson on third and one out, he ordered an intentional pass to Miguel Cabrera. That is to say, in the middle innings of a tie game, with fewer than two outs, he walked someone to get to Prince Fielder. Naturally, Fielder drove home Jackson, and then Delmon Young drove home the man Girardi had put on. Girardi over-managed the situation, something we’ve been seeing from him this October.
With his team down 2-0, Girardi sent the back end of his bullpen into the game: Derek Lowe, Boone Logan, Cody Eppley, Clay Rapada. That’s proper leveraging, more or less, even if it led to two more Detroit runs. Jim Leyland played it the other way, using set-up man Joaquin Benoit with a four-run cushion in the eighth and closer Jose Valverde with the same lead in the ninth.
The only problem being, while Valverde is still the closer, he’s not quite an ace now. Ichiro Suzuki lined a two-run homer off him, but that only halved the lead with one out, so it was not time to panic. Cano went down hacking, then Valverde got Mark Teixeira down 0-2. No problem.
Except that Valverde managed to lose Tex on a walk. And up came Raul Ibanez. And out went the ball, again. Tie game amid frenzy at Yankee Stadium.
Here is where Girardi’s managerial moves put the Yankees in a great position. By letting CC Sabathia complete the previous day’s game, he gave his whole bullpen, including his two aces, a rest. Rafael Soriano and David Robertson could go and plausibly go multiple innings in a crisis situation, which this now was.
They both pitched in extra innings, and they both went only one frame.
David Phelps, the man who lost Game Four against Baltimore in the 13th inning, came on to pitch the 12th. The result was even worse. Not just for giving up the go-ahead run. Not just for giving up an insurance run. Worse for the play in between, when Derek Jeter dived for a grounder to his left—and destroyed his left ankle. Jeter was carried off the field, and the Yankees’ playoff chances may have gone with him.
With his dubious tactical moves, Joe Girardi arguably lost this game. He definitely lost something much more. The only solace he can take is that his hooking of Alex Rodriguez for a pinch-hitter in the eighth, raising the A-Rod Crisis to Defcon Two, will go almost unnoticed. He surely would take that problem over the one he has now.
It is very, very late in the East as I write this, and the events are still raw. I already resisted the instinct to parenthetically write, “Tigers win series 1-0” above, and I think I will stop now before I write myself into some other bad spot. I will just say in closing that this is a game people will remember for a long time, for good reasons and bad.