The fifth and deciding game of the ALDS between the Rangers and the Rays features a fantastic match-up of left-handed twirlers. In fact, it’s been raining lefties in the ALDS, with four Cy Young candidates showing off their stuff. CC Sabathia and Francisco Liriano faced off in the Yankee-Twin opener, and Cliff Lee and David Price go at each other for the second time tonight. Throw in the fine performances of Andy Pettitte and CJ Wilson and left-handed batters have not felt very comfortable since the regular season ended.
I’ll never forget my introduction to the lefty’s breaking ball. For left-handed batters, it’s a rite of passage. Mine came in the ultimate setting, the batting cages near the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. I was eight or nine years old and I had never seen a batting cage that spit out breaking pitches. The cage with the shortest line featured a lefty slide-piece and I jumped in without a clue for what was in store.
The first round was not a happy experience – the bend was just too unsettling. The ball came directly at my front, right shoulder before succumbing to the laws of physics and dropping down and towards the plate. I realized that even though the pitches looked like they were going to hit me, they always broke down and away before impact. I just had to trust it, keep the front shoulder pointed at the machine, and wait for it.
After attention-getting success in the second round (after all this time, I can remember the special feeling of a gathering crowd behind the cage) , the baseball gods decided that this was too much, too fast. Or maybe one of the balls was just worn down too much to generate the proper spin when released from the machine. As it came hurtling toward my front shoulder, I dug in and waited for the break. It never broke. The ball just bore in and in and plowed into my lead arm. It stung badly and I watched, through tears, as the last few pitches sailed over my head. The balls whacked the backstop with that depressing thud.
I understood something there on the ground. This was the deal you made when facing a lefty. If you want to cover that pitch, you have to give in, trust the break and accept the consequences. That’s how these pitchers keep us from hitting everything they throw. Among other dastardly things, they can move us off the plate; they can drill us in the arm.
Cliff Lee and David Price are both incredibly tough lefties, but that doesn’t mean that facing them is a similar experience. Look at their release points. David Price comes at you from the sling-shot arm slot, like a Randy Johnson-lite. The fastball and the breaking ball sweep across the left-handed batter’s box, but the fastball materializes suddenly on the hands while the breaking ball just keeps slipping down and away. Distinguishing one from the other is the difference between a difficult at bat and an impossible one.
Cliff Lee comes more over the top, which might be preferable for some lefties. But because of the expert way Lee hides the ball, and the movement he generates on all his pitches, he replaces the sweeping motion of Price with dart-gun precision and an unpredictability that the sling-shot lefty does not possess.
Both Lee and Price have success at limiting left-handed batters, but in two of the last three years, Lee actually had better numbers against righties. Price displayed the more traditional platoon advantage this year. Small sample sizes are in play for both, but I can believe that Price’s sweeping approach makes things more difficult for lefties but is slightly easier to track from the right-handed batter’s box. Meanwhile, Cliff Lee’s overhand style sacrifices some advantage versus lefties to better contend with the righties.
Outside of Ben Zobrist, none of the Rays did much with Cliff Lee in the first game. And then the righty-heavy lineup did even less with CJ Wilson in Game Two. I wonder if Joe Maddon will be tempted to start some of the lefties tonight, since the offense finally put runs on the board in Texas. Ron Washington has a much easier decision. His right-handed sluggers damaged Price the first time around and he can feel confident in trotting the same team out there again.
I expect Cliff Lee to be excellent, and I expect David Price to be much better than last time. But I don’t think he will be good enough. I expect the Rangers will win a low-scoring affair, 3-1. But no matter the outcome, Yankee fans can look forward to seeing a tough lefty in Yankee Stadium in Game 3 of the ALCS.