The playoffs have followed the regular season trend back to pitching dominance. Not that aces haven't done this in past postseasons, it's just that their supremacy this year stands out.
Roy Halladay's no-hitter, Tim Lincecum's 14 strikeouts in a two-hit shutout, Cliff Lee's three impressive wins, as well as Matt Cain, Roy Oswalt, Jonathan Sanchez and others dominating for seven innings.
The Yankees' averages going into Game 5 were pathetic. The Giants had little offense heading into Game 4 and their opponents, the Phillies, had only hit in Game 2.
Why is it so tough to put together a rally in this postseason?
I have the credentials to answer the question, maybe better credentials than anybody. I have two World Series trophies in my office — an MVP and a "Goat." In 1980, I hit in every game and had seven RBIs as we won the championship. In 1983, I went 1 for 20 with no RBIs and got the "Goat" trophy as we lost in five to the Orioles. What was the difference?
The difference was not the high quality pitching, it was my ability to execute my game plan in a relaxed at-bat.
In 1980, I got hits early and relaxed, a la Cody Ross. In 1983, I lined out against the right-center field wall with men on base the first two at-bats and started to press.
There's a big difference in "feel" and "confidence" when you hit in a big series early. It makes you relax, it gives you a sense that there's nothing to prove, that you've shown the opponent, your team and fans that you do hit under pressure.
The opposite is a mindset that tightens muscles and makes a hitter uncomfortable. It makes you overanxious, makes you feel a sense of urgency, which leads to impatience on every pitch. You want to hit now, not when the pitcher gives you a pitch to hit. Your body follows your mindset and a pitch you need to stroke the opposite way instead becomes a rollover, an easy out.
Yes, good pitching perpetuates this. The great ones, and there are several in play now, see this and know how to attack it. Basically, off-speed pitches, pitches that have late movement, in fastball counts do the job.
The reason the Phillies and Yankees are normally the favorites is that they drag out at-bats and don't fall prey to the easy out by being overaggressive to the pull side. They'll keep at-bats alive, run deep counts, take the walk and apply pressure.
The Yankees hitters jumped out and pulled hittable pitches foul and fell into trouble. The Phillies had their bout with this early in the season and around the All-Star break, then they became themselves again. Now there are traces of the past — just traces — showing.
Josh Hamilton is a good example of a hitter in these playoffs that has a carefree approach at a time when most clam up. He hits with a smile, a soft stride and easy swing. He doesn't clamp down when he connects, just applies the sweet spot and lets the ball go where it wants — 380 feet is far enough.
Most hitters never experience the feel of total relaxation through the ball. They all do in batting practice, but as game adrenaline takes hold, the tendency is to add something on impact. They want to make the impact with the ball harder, to make it go farther, and the result is funk city. The playoffs are the breeding ground for this funk. The big stage, big time TV, the best pitchers, and 24/7 face time for the big hit.
Having your stroke ready and applying the ingredients needed to hit the best pitchers in the game on the national stage is the ultimate challenge in hitting. They say hitting a round ball with a round bat, squarely, is the single most difficult thing in sports. Add baseball's postseason pressure and baseball's best pitchers, and believe me, it's true.
Watch the games. The hitters that smile at the plate are relaxed.
All three of them.