What a fun day of baseball. We had a tense 14-inning game with an obscure hero for the Rangers, a comeback victory for the Royals, a shutdown performance from John Lackey and then the expected pitching duel in the finale from Dodger Stadium.
1. Jacob deGrom, New York Mets. The pitching line says it all: 7 IP, 5 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 13 SO. Except it was even better than that: Two of the hits were Michael Cuddyer misplays in left field and the walk was intentional. DeGrom is one of my favorite pitchers to watch: He generates power from his slight frame, and he's able to hold his velocity deep into games; that big mop of hair that flows out from his cap is either a trait you joyously get a kick out of or annoyingly want to cut off.
The 13 strikeouts tied Tom Seaver for a Mets postseason record and were the most ever in a playoff game at Dodger Stadium. At times, deGrom simply threw his fastball past hitters. Overall, he induced 24 swings-and-misses, tied for the second-most in a postseason game since 2009. (Tim Lincecum had 31 in a 1-0 shutout over the Braves in 2010.) Fourteen of those misses were fastballs. The Dodgers simply had trouble catching up to it. It was a brilliant performance.
As for Clayton Kershaw, let's just say he was good, but not good enough, and I think it's absolutely fair that the narrative about his postseason history will continue, despite the attempts of many on Twitter to dismiss the idea. Look, Kershaw was great for six innings, allowing only a home run on a 2-0 fastball that Daniel Murphy -- who had homered just once against a left-hander all season -- crushed to right field. But in the seventh inning -- the same inning in which the Cardinals beat him twice last year, you may recall -- he walked Lucas Duda. He walked Ruben Tejada with one out. After deGrom sacrificed, he walked Curtis Granderson, a terrific seven-pitch walk by Granderson. Don Mattingly then went to Pedro Baez, and David Wright lined a 3-2 fastball into center field for a two-run single.
Was it the right call to remove Kershaw? I think so. I get that you let the best pitcher on the planet work out of his own mess, but Kershaw had walked three guys in the inning, including two lefties and a light-hitting shortstop. He looked done and had thrown 27 pitches in the inning. I'm not going to knock Don Mattingly there and I wouldn't have knocked him if he'd left Kershaw in. (You can argue that with the game was on the line that Mattingly should have used closer Kenley Jansen, but no manager would have brought in his closer in the seventh inning, which is more a discussion about bullpen roles than Mattingly's decision.) Kershaw struck out 11, but he walked four and he couldn't get the last out he needed. We still await a signature postseason game from him.
2. John Lackey, St. Louis Cardinals. He doesn't get much attention for his postseason résumé but the veteran right-hander has now pitched in eight postseasons and has an excellent track record. As a rookie with the Angels, he was the winning pitcher in Game 7 of the World Series. He went 3-1 with a 2.77 ERA in the 2013 postseason for the Red Sox, winning the clinching Game 6. And after throwing 7 1/3 two-hit innings against the Cubs in Friday's 4-0 victory, he's now 8-5 with a 2.90 ERA in his playoff career, much of that coming with the Angels during a higher-scoring offensive era. The one thing he does best in the postseason: Limit home runs; he's allowed just four in 124 1/3 innings. How do the Cubs love to score runs? By hitting home runs.
They didn't hit any on this night. Dexter Fowler drove one ball to deep right field that looked like it might have been a go-ahead two-run homer in the sixth, but otherwise Lackey was in complete control. He took a no-hitter into the sixth, relying almost exclusively on his fastball, throwing it on 71 of his 86 pitches. It was an interesting approach and it wasn't so much that he was painting the corners as mixing it around the zone, and a few times dropping his arm slot a bit on right-handers. Here:
One reason Lackey stuck with the fastball: He averaged a season-high 92.7 mph, above his season average of 91.6. Another reason he stuck with it: Home-plate ump Phil Cuzzi was calling the corners. Of the 23 pitches the Cubs took for called strikes in the game, only 14 registered as in the strike zone. The Cubs would get called out looking on six of their 10 strikeouts, including all three in the ninth against Trevor Rosenthal. Yes, only two of those six were strikes, but Cubs hitters never adjusted to the borderline pitches getting called. Or maybe they just had rotten luck. Only three of the 16 called strikes on the Cards were out of the zone.
One more note: Kudos to Mike Matheny for pulling Lackey in the eighth despite the low pitch count and shutout going. It was only 1-0 at the time, before rookies Tommy Pham and Stephen Piscotty homered in the bottom of the inning, but Matheny has maybe the best bullpen in these playoffs. He's received criticism in recent postseasons for possibly sticking with his starters a little too long, but unlike John Gibbons and A.J. Hinch in the two earlier games Friday, he didn't wait for a runner to get on before pulling Lackey.
Did we pay enough attention to John Lackey's spectacular finish? Only 2 NL pitchers had a lower ERA in Sept (1.78) - Arrieta & Strasburg— Jayson Stark (@jaysonst) October 10, 2015
3. Hanser Alberto, Texas Rangers. Here, I wrote a bunch of stuff about this game and the Rangers' unlikely hero who drove in the go-ahead run in the 14th inning. Also discussed: Did Blue Jays manager John Gibbons mess up the eighth inning? And here's Jim Caple's story from Toronto on the unknown rookie who was filling in for the injured Adrian Beltre.
4. Kansas City Royals bullpen. They're back! In what turned into a battle of bullpens, the Royals' pen did the job while the Astros' pen faltered, as Kansas City rallied from a 4-1 deficit to rescue a shaky Johnny Cueto and even the series with a 5-4 victory. Kelvin Herrera, Ryan Madson and Wade Davis each tossed a scoreless inning, with Davis picking off pinch-runner Carlos Gomez for the second out in the ninth, a play in which he was initially ruled safe but the call was overturned on replay.
The key inning, however, was the bottom of the sixth. The Astros led 4-2 and had to have been feeling good that Scott Kazmir had given them five solid innings considering his terrible final two months. But Astros manager Hinch tried to sneak one more inning from the left-hander, who had given up 15 runs in 11 1/3 innings over his final three starts and posted a 5.22 ERA the final months. Predictably, Lorenzo Cain, who hit .335 and slugged .568 against southpaws, doubled with one out. Hinch then went to the pen. With Cain running against Oliver Perez, Eric Hosmer simply stuck his bat out and blooped an RBI single to left-center. After another soft single -- Perez was left in to face switch-hitter Kendrys Morales even though Perez allows a .400-plus OBP to righties -- and a walk to Mike Moustakas to load the bases, Josh Fields came on and walked Salvador Perez, which is nearly impossible to do.
Anyway, good inning for the Royals, bad inning for Hinch and the Astros bullpen, and Kansas City plated the winning run the next inning on Alcides Escober's triple and Ben Zobrist's single. Jerry Crasnick writes that it was a missed opportunity for the Astros.
And the ALDS moves to Houston with the Royals leading the series, 1 game to 1.— Rany Jazayerli (@jazayerli) October 9, 2015