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Win-or-go-home games becoming norm

Drama thick this year with wild cards and 5-game division series

Phil Rogers

On Baseball

4:31 PM CDT, October 13, 2012

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Once upon a time, the chance to go to Great American Ball Park and watch the Reds play a win-or-go-home game in the playoffs would have been the chance of a lifetime for fans in Cincinnati. The franchise hadn't played one since 1975, and that was at Fenway Park.

Before Thursday, there hadn't been one in Cincinnati since '72, when Catfish Hunter and Rollie Fingers hung on to a 3-2 victory for the A's in Game 7 of the World Series.

There are baby boomers across North America who can tell you where they watched those games, even if they weren't fans of the Reds, A's or Red Sox. It was baseball with unbridled urgency, and it was to be treasured because it didn't come along that often.

But don't try telling that to one of baseball's newer fans. It's raining win-or-go-home games in the playoffs, and only partly because Major League Baseball added two one-game wild-card games this season.

Beginning with those two games Oct. 5, there were six win-or-go-home games in a span of eight days, ending with late-night theater Friday at Nationals Park. This year marked the first time that all four division series went five games, and it followed an intense postseason in 2011. The World Series went seven games, and three of the four division series were decided in Game 5.

Roll the two years together, and you have eight of the last 11 postseason series going the distance (10 of 13 if you count the one-game wild-card affairs as series). Pretty crazy, given that 13 of 24 division series were sweeps in a seven-year stretch from 2005-10.

What does it mean?

"There are no dominant teams,'' Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "Anybody can beat anybody on any given day, and I think that makes for good baseball. I don't think baseball likes a bunch of sweeps. I think baseball likes four or five games (in a best-of-five series), you know what I mean?"

While it was only baseball's quarterfinals, the Reds' Jay Bruce had a chance to put his name on the long list of October heroes Thursday, when he faced the Giants' Sergio Romo in a 12-pitch, ninth-inning at-bat. The stakes weren't as high, of course, but the atmosphere was supercharged, not that unlike St. Louis when the Cardinals rallied in Game 6 of the World Series last year, forcing a seventh game.

Bruce failed to take advantage of his David Freese moment, but not unlike Carl Yastzemski in Game 7 at Fenway Park in 1975.

Bruce won't go down alongside Yastrzemski, of course. There weren't nearly as many people watching, and there wasn't a championship on the line. But the drama was thick, as it has been throughout this postseason. That's the beauty of either this particular period of parity or this playoff format.

In the first three years of this decade, there have been more win-or-go-home playoff games (11) than there were in the 1970s (10) or '90s (nine). We're guaranteed two a year until further notice, so it seems we'll see at least three or four times as many of these dramatic games as in any previous decade.

October never has been such a roller-coaster ride for so many.

Leading men: Halfway home to the World Series, here's a look at October All-Stars.

SP — Justin Verlander: His postseason domination has started, as he worked 16 of a possible 18 innings, including a Game 5 complete game. He has 22 strikeouts and seven hits allowed in 16 innings, overshadowing excellence from Joe Saunders, Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey and Chris Carpenter.

RP — Tim Lincecum: He had one big league relief appearance before the NLDS, in 2008, but gave the Giants 61/3 tough innings over two outings as a long guy, getting the victory in Game 4 behind Barry Zito. He seems likely to get an NLCS start, but he might have more value in the bullpen. Other guys with maximum playoff value were Darren O'Day, Sean Marshall, Drew Storen, Rafael Soriano, Jim Johnson (despite the Game 3 pounding) and Sergio Romo.

C — Buster Posey: His throw to stop Brandon Phillips going from first to third in the first inning of Game 3 was as valuable as his Game 5 grand slam.

1B — Allen Craig: Among regulars, no one swung a hotter batter in division series games. Joey Votto was a tough out, even if his injured left knee didn't let him hit for power.

2B — Phillips: The Reds' second baseman quietly hit .375 with seven RBIs while playing a great second base. Omar Infante provided a lift for the Tigers.

SS — Derek Jeter: The Nationals' Ian Desmond played great, but Jeter's bat and toughness were vital in a lineup full of slumping hitters.

3B — Josh Donaldson: A catcher when the Cubs traded him for Rich Harden, he was 5-for-17 for the A's against the Tigers' stingy pitching staff.

LF — Yoenis Cespedes: You can make good arguments for Ryan Ludwick and Nate McLouth, but only Cespedes stole second and third, then scored on a wild pitch.

CF — Angel Pagan: He had only three hits but made the most of them, driving in four runs against the Reds. Another former Cub, he's a very good all-around player.

RF — Jayson Werth: His game-winning homer Thursday sent the Nationals to Friday's Game 5.

UT — Raul Ibanez: The Yankees don't make it to Game 5 without his two homers off the bench in Game 3.

Head over heart: The emotional groundswell against the Nationals' decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg a month ago peaked last week, when the Nats played the Cardinals without him. General manager Mike Rizzo fired back at critics quoted anonymously by USA Today, telling CBSSports.com that he can take the heat, especially from unnamed rivals.

"That's not how we do things in my neighborhood,'' said Rizzo, who grew up in River Grove, the Chicago suburb known for its iconic hot-dog stand, Gene & Jude's. Of course not. The River Grove motto is "Village of Friendly Neighbors.''

Rizzo hasn't been treated kindly since taking Strasburg off the big stage with an unprecedented decision. But it's highly unlikely that the decision greatly affected the Nationals, who replaced him with lefty Ross Detwiler, who allowed no earned runs in six innings of Game 4.

As great as Verlander is, the Tigers were 4-4 in his eight postseason starts before this year, and there's no reason to think Strasburg wouldn't have had a similar learning curve. There really wasn't that big of a falloff from Strasburg to Detwiler.

Writing for ESPN.com, Dave Szymborski uses his ZiPS system for projection to estimate that Strasburg would have been likely to allow 3.27 runs per nine innings in the playoffs compared to 3.88 for Detwiler. Mixed with the Nationals' lineup and bullpen, he says that meant Washington could have expected a 64.4 percent chance to win a game behind Strasburg compared to a 58.2 percent chance behind Detwiler.

That means one more victory for every 16 games lined up behind Strasburg. Is that worth the wear and tear?

For what it's worth, based on their value compared to the talent behind them, Szymborski says there were 15 more important players in the postseason than Strasburg. The least replaceable according to his calculations — Posey, Votto, Miguel Cabrera, Verlander and Johnny Cueto.

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