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Baseball wraps up first round

Three quick thoughts as baseball wraps up a terrific first round with Thursday's Game 5 between the Detroit Tigers and Oakland Athletics at O.Co Coliseum:

1. We've seen how the conclusion to a season can frame a team's perspective - see the Cincinnati Reds' firing of manager Dusty Baker after their uninspired play in the final week.

Well, what will the Detroit Tigers say about their handling of the physically compromised Miguel Cabrera if they lose to the A's on Thursday night - or even to the Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series?

My guess is that they'd take Fredi Gonzalez's "no regrets" route. But Gonzalez, the Atlanta Braves' manager, at least had a reasonable explanation for declining to use Craig Kimbrel for six outs in Game 4 against the Los Angeles Dodgers, no matter how many sabermetricians' heads are exploding. (Gonzalez said he did not want to put Kimbrel in such an unfamiliar position.)

The Tigers, if they fail to snap out of it, will find it more difficult to justify their refusal to rest Cabrera.

This all started on July 23, when Cabrera was listed as day-to-day with a strained left hip flexor. Cabrera sat for four days, and it seemed to do the trick - he produced a 1.162 OPS in August, his third highest in any month this season. But in September, his groin/abdomen issues clearly affected his performance - his .729 OPS was his lowest for any month since September 2004.

So, what should the Tigers have done? They can argue that Cabrera wanted to play and that the risk of his aggravating the injury was minimal. They can argue as well that the team needed him even in his weakened state - the Tigers finished only one game ahead of the Cleveland Indians after leading them by six on Sept. 21.

It's difficult to know how much Cabrera would have benefited from rest, if at all. His performance, however, suggests that at some point in September, the team should have been more proactive and shut him down for an extended period.

Cabrera, never terribly mobile to begin with, now can barely move at all. He is just 4-for-16 - all singles - in the Division Series. And the Tigers' offense, at least until an eight-run outburst in Game 4, had been all but non-existent against the A's.

We've known for a while now that Cabrera would not return to full health until the offseason. The question is whether the Tigers could have put him in a better position to succeed. It sure doesn't look like they chose the optimal course.

2. Watching the Boston Red Sox in the Division Series, I was reminded of Mike Scioscia's best Angels clubs. The Sox are that distinctive, that much fun to watch, that efficient in the way they dismantle opponents.

Most fans are aware of the Sox's relentless offensive approach, but this team also is unyielding with its baserunning and vigilant about its defense. Combine that with the preparation of manager John Farrell and his coaching staff, and - presto! - you've got the recipe for a worst-to-first revival.

Baserunning reflects not only team speed but also attention to detail. The Red Sox's 86.6 percent success rate on stolen bases was the second-best in the live-ball era, which began in 1920. They had stolen 45 consecutive bases dating to Aug. 8 before Tampa Bay's Jose Lobaton caught Daniel Nava on a botched hit-and-run in Game 4 of the Division Series.

Only four teams ran the bases better than the Red Sox in the regular season, according to Fangraphs' Runs Above Average for Baserunning - the New York Mets, Kansas City Royals, Colorado Rockies and Baltimore Orioles. The Sox finished at 11.3 runs above average, the best of any postseason team (the Athletics were ninth at 4.1, the St. Louis Cardinals 17th at 0.9, the Dodgers 29th at -11.5 and the Tigers 30th at -19.4).

Defensively, the Sox grade out as somewhat average - they ranked 13th in John Dewan's defensive runs saved and 17th in Baseball Prospectus' defensive efficiency. But according to Dewan's plus-minus ratings, four Sox defenders are elite: first baseman Mike Napoli, second baseman Dustin Pedroia, center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury and right fielder Shane Victorino. Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia is improved, and shortstop Stephen Drew is steady. Overall, it's an impressive group.

Plus, though Blue Jays fans might never forgive Farrell for pursuing his "dream job" in Boston, it's fairly clear now that the manager's sub-.500 record in his two seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays reflected more on his players than his actual ability.

If Farrell was as big a problem as some portrayed, longtime Jays coach Brian Butterfield never would have accompanied him to Boston along with one of Farrell's handpicked coaches with the Jays, Torey Lovullo. Farrell regained his comfort level with Sox management, and no less an authority than designated hitter David Ortiz cites the manager as a huge reason for the team's turnaround.

3. In preparing an essay for "FOX Sports Live" on the National League Championship Series, I'm struck by the classic nature of the NLCS matchup between the Cardinals and Dodgers.

It's Middle America vs. Hollywood. It's the largely homegrown Cardinals against a largely store-bought Dodgers. It's the team of the late Jack Buck against the team of the great Vin Scully.

For the Dodgers, Clayton Kershaw represents the legacy of Sandy Koufax. For the Cardinals, Adam Wainwright represents the legacy of Bob Gibson. And the contrast of right fielders alone - the elegant Cardinals veteran, Carlos Beltran, and the hard-charging, irrepressible Dodgers rookie, Yasiel Puig - is stunning.

It's difficult to pick against the Dodgers, and the combination of right-hander Zack Greinke and lefty Clayton Kershaw, who will start Games 1 and 2. But the sudden emergence of rookie righty Michael Wacha, combined with the continuing excellence of Wainwright, gives the Cardinals their own formidable 1-2 punch.

Wacha and Wainwright are lined up to pitch in Games 2 and 3, plus 6 and 7, if necessary. For the other games, the Cardinals will choose between righties Lance Lynn, Joe Kelly and Shelby Miller - better options, perhaps, than the Dodgers will have with lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu and righty Ricky Nolasco.

Kershaw would be available on three days rest in Game 5 and then out of the bullpen in Game 7, but let's not get ahead of ourselves - the Dodgers will want to see how Kershaw fares Saturday coming off his first career start on short rest.

Greinke, who could start Games 4 and 7 on short rest, has a 2.84 ERA in four career regular-season starts under such conditions, according to STATS LLC. But he allowed four runs in five innings in his one postseason attempt on short rest, while pitching for the Milwaukee Brewers in Game 2 of the 2011 Division Series.

In any case, it should be a fascinating series. I'll go with the Cardinals in 7, knowing full well that picking against Kershaw is not a terribly smart thing to do.