Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Why the Diamondbacks / Rockies will win the NL Wildcard game

NL West rivals will meet in the NL Wildcard Game
The New York Yankees defeated the Minnesota Twins by an 8-4 final score in Tuesday night's AL Wildcard Game.

I called it 7-4, Yankees, in yesterday's AL Wildcard preview and prediction piece. Now it's time to take a look at the National League matchup.

Wednesday night will find the NL Wildcard Game taking place at Chase Field in Phoenix, Arizona. There the Arizona Diamondbacks will host the NL West Division rival Colorado Rockies.

The winner of this win-or-go-home matchup will move on to face yet another division rival. That would be the Los Angeles Dodgers, who will host the NLDS opener beginning on Friday.

Arizona has a first-year big league manager in Torey Lovullo. The 52-year old played 303 games in Major League Baseball, mostly as a utility infielder, spread across eight seasons between 1988 and 1999.

Lovullo did have extensive minor league experience. He registered more than 5,000 plate appearances over a dozen minor league seasons from 1987-99. He then wrapped up his playing career overseas in the Japanese Central League in the 2000 season.

Following his retirement, Lovullo was hired as a minor league coach by the Cleveland Indians. He would rise during the 2000's to become one of the most successful managers in the minors, becoming a frequent big league managerial candidate and interviewee.

Following stints as bench coach under John Farrell with both the Toronto Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox, Lovullo finally received his own chance to manage a big league club when hired to guide the Dbacks last November.

The Rockies are skippered by 60-year old Bud Black, a successful starting pitcher over 16 MLB seasons. Black compiled a 121-116 record over 398 games, including 296 starts. In all, the lefty tossed more than 2,000 innings with a career 3.84 ERA between 1981 and 1995.

Black's best season came in 1984, when he went 17-12 in 257 innings over 35 starts for the Kansas City Royals. He notably surrendered both Reggie Jackson's 500th and Mike Piazza's first big league home runs, and was the starting pitcher for the Royals in the infamous George Brett 'Pine Tar Incident' game.

Black became a pitching coach under Mike Scioscia following his retirement, and in that role was a member of the 2002 Anaheim Angels team that won the World Series.

In 2007, Black became manager of the San Diego Padres. Over nine seasons he compiled a 649-713 record. His 2010 Padres club finished 90-72 and in 2nd place in the NL West. He was fired as the Padres floundered early in the 2015 season. Black was then hired to manage the Rockies last November, just three days after Lovullo took the same job in Arizona.

So each club enters this game with a manager who just wrapped their first season guiding their club. The Dbacks finished 93-69 under Lovullo, tied for the fifth-best record in the game. The Rockies went 87-75 under Black, clinching their postseason berth on the final weekend.

Arizona was an expansion franchise that began play in 1998. The Diamondbacks have been to the postseason five times in their history, and won the 2001 World Series. This is the club's first playoff game since the 2011 season.

The Rockies were also an expansion franchise, beginning play back in 1993. They have been to the postseason just three times, and were swept by the Boston Red Sox in their only World Series appearance in 2007. Earlier that October, Colorado had swept Arizona out of the NLCS in the only postseason meeting between the two clubs prior to this Wildcard Game.



WHY THE DBACKS WILL WIN

These are two high-scoring teams who match up fairly even in the offensive aspects of the game. But it is on the mound where the Diamondbacks enjoy a clear advantage.

The Arizona pitching staff compiled the third-best ERA (3.66) in all of Major League Baseball this season. The Dbacks arms tied for sixth in Batting Average Against (.240), and were sixth in strikeouts. The staff allowed the third-lowest home run total in the big leagues.

Drawing the starting pitching assignment for this Wildcard Game will be their ace, Zack Greinke. Turning 34 years old later this month, Greinke went 17-7 this year, allowing 172 hits over 202.1 innings across 32 starts. He had a fine 215/45 K:BB ratio, a 1.072 WHIP, and a 149 ERA+ mark.

Since this is an "all hands on deck" situation, Lovullo could turn to any of his remaining starting pitchers. Most likely that would mean lefty Robbie Ray or right-handers Taijuan Walker and Zack Godley.

In addition to those strong starters, Lovullo has a variety of effective options among his normal relief corps. Those include righties J.J. Hoover and Jimmie Sherfy, and lefties Jorge De La Rosa and Andrew Chafin.

When it comes down to the late innings, a pair of right-handers at opposite ends of the career spectrum can shut things down. 25-year old Archie Bradley is a converted starter who has been lights-out in the bullpen. 40-year old Fernando Rodney saved 39 games and is a 3x All-Star.

Offensively, Arizona was 8th in Runs, 7th in OPS and Steals, and 6th in Total Bases. They can hit, run, and score with any team.

That offense is led by perennial MVP candidate first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. The 30-year old slashed .297/.404/.563 this season with 36 homers, 73 extra-base hits, 120 RBI, 117 runs scored, and 18 steals.

Lefty-swinging third baseman Jake Lamb turns 27 years old next week. He had strong final numbers of 30 home runs and 105 RBI, but hit just .204 after June. Center fielder A.J. Pollock's return after missing most of last season has been huge. He leads the club with 20 stolen bases, and had 53 extra-base hits in just 466 plate appearances.

While Lovullo's lineup has a variety of weapons beyond that handful, a late-season addition has proven to be the single most dominant over the last couple of months.

30-year old right fielder J.D. Martinez was obtained from the Detroit Tigers prior to the trade deadline. All he did after the trade was slash .302/.366/.741 with 29 homers and 65 RBI over just 257 plate appearances in 62 games. 

"When I first came, I really wasn't doing that well," said Martinez in an interview with Marly Rivera for ESPN. "I was struggling. I felt like I was trying to be someone that I wasn't; trying to do a lot more. And the guys were like nothing, they were like, 'Dude let's go,' every day picking me up, picking the whole team up. I felt a part of the team very quickly here."

If Greinke dominates for five or more innings, great. If not, Lovullo can become a Brian Kenny disciple and go "bullpenning", as Girardi did with the Yankees last night. Dominating pitching, some big hits from Goldschmidt, Martinez, Pollock and company, and the Dbacks advance.





WHY THE ROCKIES WILL WIN

The Rockies offense got to the Dbacks strong pitching for five or more runs on seven occasions this season. They won five of those games. It's my opinion that this will be the biggest single key for Colorado if they are going to win tonight - score at least five or six times.

The Colorado offense is equipped with the talent to score on anyone. The Rockies were third in Runs scored, second in Hits, and fifth in OPS this season in all of Major League Baseball.

Black's attack is led by MVP candidate third baseman Nolan Arenado. The 26-year old is one of the best young players in the game. He has been an NL All-Star each of the last three years, and has won a Gold Glove in each of his four previous big league seasons.

This year, Arenado slashed .309/.373/.586 with 37 homers, 87 extra-base hits, 130 RBI, and 100 runs scored. Not just a Coors Field product, his numbers hold up on the road as well.

The Rox also have another legit NL MVP candidate in center fielder Charlie Blackmon. The 31-year old was an NL All-Star for the second time this year. He slashed .331/.399/.601, tying for the NL batting title. The long-bearded Blackmon bombed 37 homers, had 86 extra-base hits, drove in 104 runs, scored an NL-high 137 times, and stole 14 bases.

34-year old first baseman Mark Reynolds banged 30 home runs, reaching that 30-homer plateau for the first time in six years. He also provided 97 RBI. Shortstop Trevor Story added 24 homers and 82 RBI.

The Rockies' second baseman, DJ LeMahieu, is one of the most underrated players in the game. The 29-year old made the NL All-Star team for the second time in three years this summer. He hit .310 with a .374 OBP and scored 95 runs.

Veteran catcher Jonathan Lucroy came over from the Texas Rangers in a trade deadline deal, adding yet another solid offensive weapon to the mix. Lucroy hit .310 with a .429 OBP in 46 games following the deal.

On the mound, Black is sending out 25-year old right-hander Jon Gray to start the Wildcard Game. Gray was the Rockies first round pick at third overall in the 2013 MLB Amateur Draft.

I have a lot of positive emotions coming in here, and it leads me to think it’s going to be a lot of fun,” said Gray per Patrick Saunders at The Denver Post. “I don’t think it’s going to be a tight game for me. I don’t think I’m going to be feeling that nervous. I’m just going to go out there and control what I can. The results are the results. But the effort is going to be 100 percent for me.

Gray was sidelined by a stress fracture in his foot from mid-April through nearly all of June. He returned to go 10-4 over the final three months of the season, striking out 103 batters over 98 innings in that period. Should Gray falter at some point, Black would likely turn to a mix of his starters and regular relief corps.

Black's top righty options on the mound would likely be German Marquez, Antonio Senzatela, Adam Ottavino, and Pat Neshek. From the left side it would mean Kyle Freeland, Chris Rusin, Jake McGee, Tyler Anderson, and Mike Dunn are the best bets to see action.

The regular closer is Greg Holland, a 31-year old right-hander who was one of baseball's biggest comeback stories this season. He saved 41 games, allowing just 40 hits over 57.1 innings with a 70/26 K:BB ratio. It all added up to an NL All-Star season for Holland, who missed all of last season following Tommy John surgery.

The Rockies recipe for victory is to have their bats come out hot, putting pressure on the Dbacks offense to match them. Arizona is very capable of that, so I would see a Colorado win coming only via out-scoring the Dbacks in a high-scoring affair in which both pitching staffs are battered around the ballpark, with perhaps Holland finally shutting the home team down to secure the win.


THE MATCHUP AND PREDICTION

As NL West Division rivals, these two clubs are extremely familiar with one another. They met 19 times during the regular season, with Arizona taking 11 of the head-to-head matchups. 

Only the Dodgers had a better record at home than the Dbacks 52-29 record at Chase Field. However, the Rockies battled them to a 5-5 split of their 10 games in the desert this season.

"We've spent a lot of hours breaking it all down," Arizona GM Mike Hazen said on Tuesday per MLB.com's Steve Gilbert. "But in the end, once 5:08 p.m. (WDT) hits tomorrow, it's about executing. It's about going out and playing a good brand of baseball that we have all year. It's about going out there, making our pitches, making them work on their side of it. And that's all there is to it it's a baseball game. The more relaxed and freer we're going to play tomorrow, the better chance we have for good results."

The forecast high is for 98 degrees today in Phoenix, and so the roof will be closed this evening, making this an indoor playoff game.

Greinke made five starts this year against Colorado. He allowed just 30 hits over 34.1 innings in those starts with an incredible 37/2 K:BB ratio. He won the last three of those outings, including a pair of dominant starts at home.

Gray made just three starts against Arizona, but two of those came in September. In those two more relevant outings he allowed 12 hits over 12 innings with a strong 16/3 K:BB ratio. On September 12, Gray struck out 10 Dbacks hitters over seven strong innings, leading the Rockies to a 4-2 win at Chase Field.

While that recent outstanding outing by Gray provides some hope for the Rockies faithful, I don't see a repeat happening tonight. I do, however, see the 14-year veteran Greinke posting up a big game. He and the Dbacks bullpen should shut Colorado down enough for the bats to open it up at some point. I'm calling it 9-4 in favor of the Diamondbacks, who advance to Dodger Stadium on Friday.


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