Wednesday, October 11, 2006

ALCS Game 1: Zito Gets Zinged

The Tigers have been incredibly impressive in the playoffs so far. Last night, they were facing Barry Zito, who had shut down the Twins in his previous postseason start and was equally impressive against the Tigers when he faced them earlier in the season. He is supposed to be a pitcher who thrives on inducing harmless contact from batters, and with the Tigers’ free-swinging ways everyone seemed to think this was a good matchup for the A’s. Well, these Tigers don’t seem all that interested in what is supposed to happen.

Zito retired the first eight batters he saw, but after that the Tigers pummeled him. With two outs in the third, Inge hit a line drive over the left field wall just inside the foul pole. Granderson then yanked a 2-0 pitch into right field for a double, and Polanco followed that up with a walk. Casey walked on seven pitches, loading the bases, and that brought up the cleanup hitter, Magglio Ordonez. He hit a hard grounder to the left of Chavez, who got his glove on the ball but was unable to field it cleanly and was unable to get an out. Zito finally got his third out when Guillen grounded out to short but not before the Tigers worked him over for two runs on thirty eight pitches in the inning.

Even before they started getting to Zito, they were taking pretty good approaches at the plate. Granderson led off the game by flying out on a 2-1 pitch, but he made contact on the first pitch he swung at. Polanco then grounded out on another 2-1, and he didn’t swing until the count was 1-0 (he fouled that pitch off). Casey ended the inning in the first when he hit a grounder back to Zito on a 2-2 pitch, but he looked at the first two strikes he saw as well. In the second, the Tigers went 1-2-3, but Maggs and Pudge both worked the count full before getting out and Guillen made an out on a 2-1 pitch. In fact, if you look at the Tigers’ approaches against Zito, only three batters swung at the first pitch and almost everyone did their damage from either a full count or a hitter’s count.

It wasn’t just their approach that did Zito in, though. They had their mojo working. According to’s pitch-by-pitch, they swung and missed exactly three times. Inge was one of those hitters who missed a pitch, but followed it up in the same at bat with a home run. The Tigers pretty much put on a clinic as to how they can beat Barry Zito. It’s unfortunate that they didn’t seem to take that same disciplined approach the rest of the game, as they picked up only four hits and zero runs off non-Zito pitchers.

Luckily, the pitchers made sure the early runs stood up. Robertson didn’t look all that sharp (he walked Jason Kendall twice, after all), but he made his pitches when he had to. He was in trouble early in the first with runners on first and second with one out, but he got Big Hurt to hit to the big part of the park for a fly out and Jay Payton grounded into a fielder’s choice to end the inning. In fact, he got into some degree of trouble in each of his five innings but nothing ever came of it. His most impressive escape act came in the fourth when he walked Frank Thomas and gave up double to Jay Payton to start the inning. As you may have heard, Leyland came out at this point, said his magic words, and Nate struck out the next three batters to get out of the pickle. It was still early in the game, but you had the feeling the A’s would not get a better chance to make things interesting.

They didn’t. They put two runners on again in the fifth, but a double play grounder by Kotsay and a fly out from Bradley ended the threat pretty quickly, and that was it for Robertson. Rodney pitched two innings, and while the A’s scored a run off Zumaya in the eighth, they scored it on a ground out that left the bases empty with two outs. That’s not exactly prime ground for scoring four comeback runs. When Jones came in to wrap things up, I said that at least we wouldn’t have to sit through the damn walks any more. He proceeded to walk the first batter on four pitches. He made up for it though, by getting a harmless popup and grounder to Polanco for the first two outs and finally retired the immortal Jason Kendall (this is sarcasm, but he had reached base in all his other appearances) to end the game.

This was another game where the Tigers took advantage of both their strengths and the opportunities the other team gave them. It was another great team effort, between the gritty pitching, the undressing of Zito and the timely double plays. Let’s not get to cocky, though. The A’s put a lot of runners on the bases, and sooner or later the walks and hits will come in an order that produces runs if you don’t start keeping guys off the bases. The Tigers also need to keep the same discipline they take into their first couple at bats throughout the game. They worked over Zito pretty badly, but they didn’t seem to have an answer for any of the A’s relievers and the A's didn’t even throw Duchsherer or Street. They’ll need to improve there because I doubt they’ll score five runs too many more times off the A’s starters.

The other bad news was Sean Casey hurting his calf coming out of the batter’s box in the sixth inning. Since the Tigers decided to carry three middle infielders instead of putting Shelton on the playoff roster, I would imagine replacing Casey will involve sliding Guillen over to first and putting in Infante (I hope) or Perez (please, no) at short. My guess is they only put in Santiago last night because the game was already 5-0 and they figured his solid defense was more important than the increased offense Infante offers. The subs may actually work out well for the Tigers because they will probably slide Thames or Monroe up into that three slot, and Infante is at least as capable at the plate as Casey.

The pitching matchup tonight is Justin Verlander against Esteban Loiaza. I think this is a big edge for the Tigers, especially when you consider each team's lineup. Then again, I thought the A's had the edge last night.

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