The MLB Playoffs began this week, first at Yankee Stadium, in an 8-4 Yankees win over Minnesota, then at Chase Field in Phoenix, where the Diamondbacks held off Colorado 11-8. They continue now with the start of the four League Divisional Series.
It is here–the start of each series–where this piece is focused. Because in MLB, the ALDS and NLDS come as a best-of-5 instead of a best-of-7, which means that for each team, player, and (especially) manager, Game 1 may be more than just that.
Common wisdom is split on this, and is predictably dependent on who and when you ask.
Hard logic says that aside from injuries there is no way for any one game to matter more than another, and this is true. A team doesn’t gain any more, empirically speaking, from winning Game 1 than it does from winning any other game. The series format dictates this–the team who wins three, or four, before the other team does wins the series, plain and simple.
This is the sentiment most often heard from the team who has just lost Game 1, or in a cautionary tone from the team who has won, said in a way so as to not seem too braggadocius with most of the series still to come.
From the former something like “Obviously we’re not happy with how we played and with the result, but we know we have a chance to come back out tomorrow and even it back up, so that’s what we gotta do.”
Or from the latter, “We’re glad to come out and start strong and get a win but we know we gotta come out and do it 2 more times. There’s a lot of baseball left. We’re happy to get the win but we gotta go get focused now for Game 2.”
There is then also the train of thought that stresses the importance in any series of taking a 1-0 lead. It gets one team on the board, and it maybe seizes momentum right away, each speaking to the perceived psychological success of having won the only game thusfar played.
Approaching Game 1, each team would likely emphasize the importance of starting strong, or establishing some momentum, or controlling home-field, and certainly no player or coach would engage pre-game in a conversation that starts with ‘What if you lose?’
Maybe ” We want to win our games at home, we know if we do that that’s all it takes. And we want to come out strong, give our pitcher a lead to work with. We always feel good with this guy on the mound if we can give him a few runs.”
Or “We want to come in here and win one of the two, take home-field away. If we can jump right on ’em and get the first one, who knows? But its gotta be one game at a time, right now we just gotta go out there and get this one.”
While losing Game 1 does afford a team the rest of the series to recover, the events of Game 1 can affect the games that follow it. Frustration can be seeded by failures to drive in RISP, favorable match-ups can be revealed, intentionally or by chance, and even in one game the foundation of momentum can be laid.
And the shorter the series, the heavier these effects are. Back-to-back wins at any point in a best-of-five is guaranteed to put an opponent at least on the brink of elimination, so adjustments made to turn the tide have to be handled like an emergency, where there’s only so much time.
In the ALDS and NLDS in particular–short series where pitching rotations must be considered–slow and steady can mean too little too late, and each manager should have one word in mind when their teams take the field for Game 1–urgency.
In Game 1 in Houston is a battle of aces. Aces are part of what make MLB Game 1s so compelling. One or both teams almost always have their best pitcher on the mound in Game 1, and in a matchup like this one, where both do, the important inevitably is that one team will have to lose and will have surrendered one of their two allowable losses on a day when their best pitcher got the ball.
A Game 1 loss can be both deflating for the losing team and galvanizing for the winners. Houston’s rotation behind Justin Verlander is more formidable than Boston’s after Chris Sale, and John Farrell and AJ Hinch should both appreciate this fact and chase hard after this game come the middle and late innings.
When Game 1 is over, though, one of the two teams will be stuck feeling like they’ve gone down a game even with the league’s best pitcher having thrown for them.
A different set of circumstances will take place at Dodger Stadium, with Clayton Kershaw pitching against the Arizona Diamondbacks. There will not be an ace on the mound for Arizona. There will not even be anything close, as it took extended (enough) work from Zack Greinke and Robbie Ray for the Diamondbacks to outlast the Rockies.
Having Kershaw pitching unopposed in the opener puts LA in an ideal position. Even in defeat, though, all is not lost. In fact, this series may actually have the least riding on the first game.
Learning from past postseason failures, LA targeted starting pitching at the trade deadline, and after acquiring Yu Darvish, this year’s Dodgers are better equipped to weather a Game 1 letdown. Quality runs deep in the Dodgers’ rotation, and with LA preferring for Rich Hill to pitch at home, Darvish is set to pitch Game 3, and they needn’t panic.
A similar chess match to that in Los Angeles will take place in Washington, D.C. The Washington Nationals host the Cubs, and either Max Scherzer or Stephen Strasburg will be the first one tasked with putting the defending champs on the ropes in 2017.
Unlike the Dodgers, however, if the Nationals drop Game 1 to the Cubs, it could spell disaster.
Their rotation has depth, but with Scherzer dinged up the the gap between their starters and Chicago’s could close considerably, especially if Strasburg goes first. And the problem for Washington with falling behind in the series is that their opponent is the defending World Series Champion.
Fans and writers have had doubts all season about the Cubs’ performance compared to 2016, doubts which will surely boil over into belligerence and hysteria if they drop Game 1.
However, the Cubs may as well-suited to shake off a Game 1 defeat as any team. Chicago’s rotation is not top-heavy; they barely even have an ace at all. It is just good (at best) throughout, but like their bats, which are a strength, the Cubs’ arms are experienced.
The Cubs have a core roster that has won playoff series in two straight postseasons, with a World Series win, and their makeup is that of a team that is a threat all the way to the moment when they are actually eliminated.
Not only are the Cubs more poised to stare down a Game 1 loss, this same ‘tough out’ principle applies also to each game, and the most crucial element of Game 1 may be whether or not the Nationals bullpen can hold a lead if Scherzer or Strasburg hands one over.
An inability to resist a late rally can become chronic within a series, and vice-versa, and if the Nationals cannot effectively manage the Cubs’ confidence at the plate late in the game, which starts fundamentally with Game 1, then trouble may ensue.
In Cleveland will be Game 1 between the Indians and the New York Yankees. This Game 1 has particular importance, not because the Yankees will face Corey Kluber (Terry Francona will start Trevor Bauer in the opener), but rather because they have Kluber waiting for them in Game 2.
Terry Francona is a proven playoff manager who thrives in recognizing the sometimes unique situational opportunities that can make or break a game and/or a series. Last season in the ALDS against the Red Sox, Francona used Andrew Miller to stifle a Boston rally in the fifth inning of Game 1.
Cleveland swept the series and Francona’s utilization of Miller had Miller dubbed as the Indians’ ‘super-reliever.’ He was the league’s first such pitcher, and now a year later it is a role held by David Robertson in NY, Chris Devenski in Houston and even David Price in Boston; the designation is now referenced w/r/t almost every team.
With the potential circumstances created by Game 1–did the Red Sox lose with Chris Sale? Did the Yankees lose Game 1 with Corey Kluber pitching Game 2? Did the Cubs snatch victory from the jaws of defeat? Did the Dodgers lose another Kershaw start in the postseason? Did a team lose at home?–Game 2 can suddenly feel must-win for one side and seem relaxed for the other.
Enough pressure will burst pipes. And in a short series, that pressure builds faster.
Starting with Game 1.