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MLB Playoff Roundup: Castillo and Bieber dominate, Scherzer gets lit up

If the first day of the playoffs was an indication, the teams in this year’s field will only go as far as their top starting pitchers take them.

MLB: Wild Card-Seattle Mariners at Toronto Blue Jays Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

In the seventh inning of yesterday’s Seattle-Toronto matchup, ESPN commentator Tim Kurkjan, while discussing the state of offense in today’s game, remarked “I watch games every single night and I wonder ‘How does anyone get hit anymore?’”. The game Kurkjian was commentating on featured a starter working on a dazzling shutout outing. The pitcher, Luis Castillo, was one of six on the day to start a game and give up two or fewer runs.

Kurkjian was expressing the right sentiment. As Wild Card weekend kicked off and October began in earnest, it was MLB’s finest hurlers that were in total control, leaving the best lineups in baseball flailing and praying for solid contact. There was a dash of chaos, as there always is when it comes to the postseason, but the theme on the first day of the playoffs was clear: pitching reigns supreme.

Let’s get to all that went down on what was a delightful day of October baseball.

ALWC Game 1

Cleveland Guardians 2, Tampa Bay Rays 1

(CLE leads, 1-0)

The playoffs got started off with what was less of a bang and more of a breeze. Shane Bieber made minced meat of the Rays lineup, and Cleveland cruised to a 2-1 win in record time; the game time of two hours and 17 minutes marked the shortest playoff game in 23 years according to Sarah Langs.

Bieber showed that he still has the stuff to dominate in October, despite seeing his velocity drop three mph below where it was two seasons ago. He had Tampa completely off-balance, mostly using a four-seam/cutter/slider combo. The Rays couldn’t figure out his bendy pitches in particular, with the cutter and slider generating whiffs on the majority of swings:

The right-hander would pitch into the eighth, finishing with a line of 7.2 innings, three hits, one run, and eight strikeouts. The only blemish on his outing was a solo shot from number-nine hitter Jose Siri.

Siri’s dinger did give Tampa a 1-0 lead in the top of the sixth, but Cleveland quickly countered to take the lead. Jose Ramirez went oppo with one on to put Guardians ahead:

That was just about all the action on afternoon, as Rays starter Shane McClanahan was nearly as good as the Shane on the other side. McClanahan managed seven strong innings, with Ramirez’s homer the only real mistake, with five strikeouts against zero walks.

But when your margin is one run, you can’t afford to give up two, especially with All-Universe Cleveland closer Emmanuel Clase looming. Clase took over for Bieber and retired all four batters he faced for his first career postseason save.

The Guardians don’t quite have the lineup depth or rotation depth of a great team. But they do have a combo that can play: Bieber for seven before handing things over to Clase is a genuinely scary blueprint. It worked to perfection in Game 1.

NLWC Game 1

St. Louis Cardinals 3, Philadelphia Phillies 6

(PHI leads, 1-0)

As the afternoon wore on, the offenses continued to suffer. Bieber vs. McClanahan was followed by a less starry matchup, at least by a half, in Zack Wheeler vs. Jose Quintana, but the two matched zeroes for some time.

Wheeler lived up to the billing, shutting out St. Louis through 6.1 innings, striking out four and yielding just two hits. Less expected was the work of Quintana, who put forth 5.1 shutout of his own, allowing only three baserunners. Each team hardly threatened early on; the only real chance for either side came in the fourth, when the Cards put two on with none out, but Albert Pujols grounded into a double play.

We went to the bottom of the seventh scoreless, where Philly reliever Jose Alvarado walked Dylan Carlson with two out. Juan Yepez pinch-hit for Corey Dickerson, and hit the first pinch-hit go-ahead homer in Cardinals playoff history, taking the top off Busch Stadium in the process:

The Cardinals seemed to have the game in hand. Jordan Hicks and Giovanny Gallegos combined for two innings, and handed a 2-0 lead off to Ryan Helsley with one out in the eighth. Helsley took things to the ninth comfortably, where things completely unraveled.

Helsley has electric stuff, but he looked in the ninth as if he was trying wield actual electricity on the mound. He nearly hit multiple Phillies batters in the head with his 100 mph fastball, losing the strike zone entirely in the process. After allowing a single to J.T. Realmuto, Helsely walked Bryce Harper and Nick Castellanos back-to-back, then hit Alec Bohm to force in a run.

St. Louis brought in Andre Pallante to take over for Helsley (who was revealed after the game to be experiencing numbness in his middle finger), but he promptly gave up a two-run go-ahead single to Jean Segura. A fielder’s choice, single, and sac fly later, and the Phillies suddenly had a 6-2 lead.

After eight silent innings, the Phillies busted out for a six-run frame against one of the very best relievers in the game. Playoff baseball!

ALWC Game 1

Toronto Blue Jays 0, Seattle Mariners 4

(SEA leads, 1-0)

Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth, or so they say. Well, Toronto had a pretty simple plan for this one, which surely involved letting young ace Alek Manoah shove in front of a potent offense. But within minutes of stepping the mound, the Mariners had socked Manoah in the face and set the tone for the game.

Manoah started things off by hitting phenom Julio Rodriguez with a pitch. Two batters later, Eugenio Suarez opened the scoring with an RBI double. Then, regular season hero Cal Raleigh (aka Big Dumper), took Manoah deep, taking an immediate sledgehammer to Toronto’s championship hopes:

A first-inning blow like Raleigh’s isn’t as devastating as it once was during the one-game Wild Card era, but it still is crushing. Before their star-studded lineup could even take an at-bat, Toronto was down 3-0 in the first game of a best-of-three series.

On the other side, Seattle had just the man they wanted on the mound, imported ace Luis Castillo, making his second career postseason start. Castillo was clearly amped, averaging nearly 99 mph on his fastball, a tick or two above his season average. He danced through the Toronto lineup, inducing consistent weak contact, and generating more whiffs as the game moved along. He finished with 7.1 shutout innings, allowing six hits and striking out five.

Andrés Muñoz relieved Castillo, and pumped 102 mph gas past the Jays to slam the door:

The Mariners lead 1-0, and are a win away from guaranteeing that they’ll host their first playoff game in 21 years.

NLWC Game 1

New York Mets 1, San Diego Padres 7

(SD leads, 1-0)

The Mets have perhaps the most vaunted top-two in baseball, with Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom forming a spectacular duo at the front of the rotation. Yet the small-sample theater nature of playoff baseball makes fools of us all. The Padres showed how even a game plan as airtight as “start two of the three best pitchers of a generation” can fail, taking Scherzer to task to seize control of the series.

San Diego led almost from the word “Go”. Josh Bell, mired in a prolonged slump since coming to the Padres at the trade deadline, crushed a Scherzer fastball to the opposite field for a two-run shot and a 2-0 lead:

An inning later, Trent Grisham hit a solo shot to extend the lead. Meanwhile, the Mets couldn’t get much going early on against Yu Darvish, and so the Pads took a 3-0 lead into the fifth, where they delivered the finishing blow to Mad Max. With two on and one out, Jurickson Profar doubled the advantage:

One batter later, Manny Machado piled on with a line drive homer of his own:

Scherzer exited after 4.1 innings having allowed seven runs and four dingers. He never seemed right, struggling to generate easy strikes and outs, and didn’t have his best stuff, with his spin rate on all of his pitches noticeably down from his season averages. The Mets will have to hope he gets a chance for redemption at some point this October.

The Padres’ heroes on offense really served to show just how random the playoffs can be at times. Grisham hit .184 on the season with a ghastly .280 wOBA. Profar has a career .386 slugging, and a .391 mark for 2022. Bell ran a .275 wOBA as a Padre and had been one of the worst regular players in the league for the second half. Thanks to them, the best Mets season in decades is on the brink.

The only offense the Mets could manage was an Eduardo Escobar solo shot. Otherwise, Yu Darvish was masterful, keeping the Mets guessing with his trademark deep arsenal. He finished after seven strong innings, allowing one run on six hits and zero walks.

Blake Snell gets the ball for San Diego today, and likely will be opposed by Jacob deGrom. The Mets will need their ace to step up, or face a long winter after a miserable two-game exit.