Sunday, October 14, 2007

Breaking Through

Game 2 was absolutely loco. Tom Mastny? Trot Nixon? Seven runs in the 11th inning? Wow. I was exhausted afterward, so I can't imagine how the players must have felt. Probably pretty pumped, judging by the post-game celebrations. If there was ever a doubt in my mind that Cleveland could hang with Boston in this series, it was erased during Game 2.

Fausto Carmona did not fare well in this game. Like Sabathia in Game 1, Carmona struggled with his control all night, walking five on 100 pitches. Carmona appeared to be overthrowing from the start, consistently throwing in the 94-97 MPH range. As sick as a 98 MPH sinker is (just ask Dustin Pedroia), it's not going to get you many strikes if you can't control it.

Fausto threw just 51% of his pitches for strikes and had many erratic breaking balls that Sox batters weren't swinging at. Fausto failed to use his changeup or off-speed slider tonight, allowing the opposition to settle in. I may have missed it, but I don't think Fausto threw less than 90 MPH until the fourth inning (he used two off-speed pitches on Varitek for a K).

Fortunately for the Tribe, Curt Schilling was just as bad, surrendering 5 ER over 4.2 IP. Schilling was far from his best tonight and the Tribe's batters were able to capitalize on his mistakes. Tribe batters worked over the former ace, making him throw 85 pitches before getting pulled early. The Tribe also launched two taters off Schilling, including a 3-run bomb by Peralta to regain the lead in the 4th.

The trio of Jhonny Peralta, Grady Sizemore, and Victor Martinez continued their postseason tear on offense. Peralta leads the team this postseason with 6 RBI, while Grady leads the team in runs with 6. Tonight's line:

Peralta: 3-5 / 3 R / 4 RBI / 1 BB / 1 HR
Sizemore: 3-5 / 3 R / 1 RBI / 1 BB / 1 HR
Martinez: 3-4 / 2 R / 1 RBI / 2 BB / --

Peralta has been a pleasant surprise this series and has shown no signs of cooling off. Jhonny is a great example of why October is considered the second season; all those regular season stats tend to go out the window.

The key to the game for both teams was the bullpen. With both starting pitchers out of commission by the 5th inning, the game switched from a shootout to a pitcher's duel. Cleveland's bullpen depth was what really swung Game 2 in their favor. By the time the 11th inning rolled around, Boston was left with the dregs of its bullpen while Cleveland had yet to use their closer.

It's difficult to say which pitcher had the biggest impact on the game, since Lewis, Betancourt, and Mastny were all outstanding. Each pitcher had a different challenge to face in the team's win: Lewis had to hold Boston to their 6 runs until the Tribe could climb back in it. Betancourt faced off against Papelbon in the 9th and had to contend with an 11 pitch at-bat from Indian killer, Kevin Youkilis, with a man on 2nd.

The breaking point came with Tom "Indonesian Pride" Mastny on the hill. Mastny came on in the bottom of the 10th to face Ortiz, Ramirez, and Lowell. Boston knew their bullpen was spent, so the 10th was their best chance to win, but Mastny threw a perfect inning to let Cleveland face Eric Gagne the next inning. So many guys stepped up tonight, but Mastny is the one that stands out for me; he took his game to another level when it mattered most.

Just how deep is Cleveland's pitching staff? Well, when your best starter and second best reliever give up 6 runs over 4 innings, almost any other team would be toast. Instead, the Tribe's remaining relievers (Lewis, Raffy, Mastny, JoeBo) gave up just 3 hits over 6.2 innings, while striking out 5 to win the game. That, is depth.

Boston couldn't keep pace, utilizing every reliever in their pen, plus Jon Lester. By the time Papelbon left with the game still tied, it really was a new game.

The Tribe was on the verge of lighting up Gagne until Francona replaced him with Javier Lopez. Wedge replaced Barfield (who pinch-ran for Hafner) with Trot Nixon.

Trot Nixon?

Nixon and I have had a love-hate relationship this season, for obvious reasons, but I had a good feeling about this at-bat. I think a lot of Tribe fans knew something was going to happen when Trot came up to bat though; the setup was just too perfect. Nixon's first postseason appearance in Fenway without a Boston uniform on? I guess that got the Baseball Gods' attention. Nixon smacked a hanging junker into centerfield, scoring Grady on a close play at the plate. His single opened the floodgates as the Tribe scored 7 runs that inning, breaking the postseason record for most runs in a non-regulation inning.

Nixon was in need of some serious redemption after making an error on a routine ball in Game 3 of the ALDS. He more than made up for that performance tonight, so thanks Trot.

It was almost as if the Tribe was letting off some pent-up frustration left over from an embarrasing Game 1. The hapless Boston relievers were just the unfortunate recipients at that point.

Random Notes

Wedgie seemed to be managing with the off-day on Sunday in mind, allowing Lewis and Betancourt to go over two innings each. Their extended outings were actually out of necessity, since Perez got roughed up (.1 IP, 2 HR) and was unable to contribute. Wedge was smart to pull Perez tonight, but I think this was just one of those isolated incidents where he didn't have his best stuff and got rattled. Perez's performance against New York is cause enough for me not to worry about him.

Another agressive move by Wedge was pinch-running for Hafner in the 9th with 2 outs. Granted, Barfield was able to steal secondbase with Victor at the plate, but if Nixon doesn't succeed in his pinch-hit appearance later on, you can bet Wedge would have been raked over the coals for removing Hafner. I think the timing of Barfield coming in (2 outs, Papelbon pitching) was off, but I agree with Nixon coming in with a man on second (not in lieu of Hafner, but in that situation). Boston's reliever, Javier Lopez, posted an .805 OPS against lefties (.565 vs. righties) in 2007, so Wedge made a smart move in countering Francona with Trot. (Ed: Nixon has a career .629 OPS against LHP. So maybe it was a coin flip here, but I still like the move.)

If the Tribe hadn't come up big in Game 2, they would have been in serious trouble for the remainder of the series. After splitting at Fenway, against Boston's top two starters, Cleveland has placed itself in a great position to put a stranglehold on the ALCS at home. All of this went down while the Tribe's top two starters pitched horribly. Cleveland is a very dangerous team, but Boston may not realize until it's too late.

Jake Westbrook faces off against Daisuke Matsuzaka in Cleveland on Monday. It will be intersting to see how the Tribe handles a change of pace in Matsuzaka's pitching style. Cleveland has a reputation of crushing fastball pitchers, but whiffing on guys strong with the breaking ball. Matsuzaka has a 4.26 ERA in 2 career starts against Cleveland and a 4.02 road ERA on the season.

The Elephant in the Dugout

What's up with Cleveland's aces? The hype around Sabathia and Carmona was certainly justified coming into the playoffs. Many analysts picked Cleveland to go deep in the playoffs based on the performance of their top-flight starters. Here's what the Tribe has gotten out of Sabathia and Carmona this postseason:

Game Player IP H ER BB SO HR Pitches-
ALDS Game 1 Sabathia 5 4 3 6 5 2 114-62 1-8
ALCS Game 1
4.1 7 8 5 3 0 85-44 4-3

Game Player IP H ER BB SO HR Pitches-
ALDS Game 3 Carmona 9 3 1 2 5 1 113-77 16-4
ALCS Game 2
4 4 4 5 5 2 100-51 4-2

The glaring line for Sabathia is his BB-SO ratio. Sabathia came in with a dominant 5.65 K/BB ratio, but has a 1.37 ratio in two games this postseason. That speaks to his lack of control and the ineffectiveness of his strikeout pitches, the changeup and slider. Sabathia seems to have the same issue as Carmona had in the ALCS; he's overthrowing the ball and his control is suffering because of it.

I almost never saw Sabathia fire away in the 95-97 MPH range on a regular basis during the season. He has not mixed in his off-speed and breaking pitches effectively and has had a hard time putting away batters. Sabathia will go up two strikes on a batter, but often struggle after that.

I'm still sticking with my earlier assertion that C.C.'s breakdown is mostly mental. There's no other explanation for such a drastic divergence from his regular season and career numbers in just two starts. Maybe he's still rattled from pitching in October? My hope is Sabathia has a long talk with whoever he turns to for help, be it Carl Willis or another pitcher, and then locks himself in the film room to fix it. It's as if everything he learned about pitching the last two seasons has left him. Simply put, he needs to get it back, and fast.

Carmona is an odd case. The kid was lights out against New York, but couldn't find the strikezone against Boston. Go figure. I broke down Fausto's overthrowing issue earlier and like I said, his issues appear to be similar to C.C.. It's possible the Fenway crowd or all those horror stories he's heard about Ortiz and Ramirez got to him, but Fausto has never been one to shy away from a challenge. A more logical antagonist is what happened to Fausto the last time he pitched in Fenway. Saturday was Fausto's first appearance in Fenway since his stint as closer ended in dramatic fashion during the 2006 season. I may be grasping at straws here, but it's something to think about.

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