|Nearly every move Showalter made paid off, even starting Saunders. (US Presswire)|
For the first time in Major League Baseball history, each league had a wild-card game Friday night, the winner of each moving on to face the top seeded club in each respective league in the League Division Series. Let's get out the red ink and hand out some grades.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter was absolutely masterful. First off, he had enough intestinal fortitude to start Joe Saunders in the game, despite Saunders' awful career numbers in Rangers Ballpark. It wasn't just that, though. It was so much more. The Orioles were last in the majors in stolen bases this past regular season with 58, but Showalter must have seen something in scouting the Yu Darvish/Geovany Soto battery, because the Orioles swiped a pair of bases early Friday night. Then in the Orioles' seventh, Rangers manager Ron Washington removed Yu Darvish to bring in a left-hander (Derek Holland) to face lefty Nate McLouth. Showalter wasn't worried about the matchups and let his guy stay in the game. McLouth came through with an RBI single. Then, in the eighth inning with left-handed Josh Hamilton representing the tying run, Showalter summoned Brian Matusz from the bullpen. Matusz struck out Hamilton on three pitches. There was much more, but it's pretty simple: Showalter put on a managing clinic Friday night.
Kyle Lohse wasn't awesome, but he did the job for the Cardinals in a game where he's sure to be overshadowed by so many other stories, for obvious reasons. He worked 5 2/3 innings, allowing six hits and two runs. That's a 3.18 ERA and he fails to meet the "quality start" criteria, but it was still enough to put the Cardinals in position to win. Meanwhile, Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter are ready to go for the start of the NLDS. That's a B performance all around for Lohse.
The Braves offense came through with 12 hits, including two doubles, a triple and one home run. Heading into the game, if you told me that's what they would do, I'm pretty sure I'd have guessed they would score five or maybe even six runs. Instead, the Braves left 12 men on base and only scored three times. We can talk about the infield-fly call all we want, but the Braves blew plenty of scoring opportunities on offense (not to mention the bad defense my esteemed colleague Dayn Perry already covered).
The Rangers offense. Obviously we have to give the Orioles' pitchers credit, but this was a pretty poor effort by the team that led the AL in runs this season and was top three in average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Four different players got two hits, but as a team not one player came up with a clutch RBI, as the only run that scored came on Josh Hamilton's rally-killing double play in the first inning.
This is the easiest pick on the board. It's the bottom of the eighth inning scene in Atlanta. Maybe the language in the infield-fly rule needs to be firmed up -- as some are saying Pete Kozma could have caught the baseball with "ordinary effort" -- but the spirit of the rule is to protect the offense from the defense purposely allowing a pop up to drop in order to get multiple force outs on the bases. The Braves were in no danger of the Cardinals doing so here, so the language of the rule should probably better reflect the spirit. Regardless, the reaction of the Atlanta fans -- peppering the field with trash for almost 20 minutes -- was just as embarrassing as many believed the call was. Pathetic. I'd give an F- if that were a grade.