The Matchup: Miguel Cabrera and Junichi Tazawa

Miguel Cabrera strikes out against Junichi Tazawa during the 8th inning of Game 3.

Miguel Cabrera strikes out against Junichi Tazawa during the 8th inning of Game 3.

From the desk of Joe Sheehan. Joe Sheehan (@joe_sheehan) writes for Sports Illustrated and publishes the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter.

Miguel Cabrera is one of the most famous baseball players in the world. The best hitter alive, Cabrera won the AL MVP award in 2012 and is the favorite to win it again this season. Once a skinny Venezuelan shortstop, Cabrera has four consecutive — soon to be five — top-ten finishes in MVP voting and six, soon to be seven, top-fives in his ten full seasons. Eleven years into his career, he’s already built most of a Hall of Fame case, having debuted with the Marlins just a couple of months past his 20th birthday. He’s made more than $100 million in his career and will probably make another $200 million before he retires. Cabrera is the Tigers’ anchor, so important to the team that he’s played for nearly two months now with a set of nagging injuries that may have knocked a less-important player out of the lineup or off the roster.

Junichi Tazawa is less well-known. Born in Yokohama, Japan three years after Cabrera was born in Venezuela, he was so ill-regarded coming out of high school that not a single NPB team drafted him. That turned out to his benefit, because after succeeding with unaffiliated team Nippon Oil in 2008, Tazawa was able to sidestep the Japanese system and make himself available to MLB teams without playing out a career in Japan or being subjected to the posting system. Tazawa signed with the Red Sox in December 2008, locking in a three-year deal worth a reported $3 million. Unlike Cabrera, who spent four years working through the Marlins’ minor leagues and succeeded immediately upon reaching the majors, Tazawa was rushed to the majors in his first season Stateside and failed — a 7.46 ERA in six games. Tazawa then missed the entire 2010 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, which eliminated his prospect status. Moved to the bullpen in the summer of 2011, Tazawa began to have success, posting a 2.75 ERA and a 45/7 K/BB out of the pen at two levels. In 2012, Tazawa was one of the few positives for a lost Red Sox team, posting a 1.43 ERA and a 45/5 K/BB. Moving to the bullpen changed him; in his abortive 2009 debut, Tazawa averaged 90.6 mph with his four-seam fastball. Out of the bullpen in 2012, he averaged 94.5. This season, Tazawa, spending the whole year in the majors for just the first time, had a 3.16 ERA and a 72/11 K/UIBB, while making $815,000 — about what Miguel Cabrera makes every week of the season.

The Red Sox have a 3-2 lead in the ALCS because this rather anonymous, lightly-paid, injury-case reliever put down the greatest batter alive twice in massive-leverage situations on the road with the crowd going nuts. Last night, the matchup came in the seventh inning with the Sox holding a 4-2 lead, runners on first and third, no one out. Torii Hunter had just lined a single to right that launched the cold, damp crowd into a frenzy. Tazawa, following the Sox’ plan, threw a four-seam fastball at 94 for ball one, then came back with the same pitch; Cabrera topped the ball weakly to Dustin Pedroia, who turned an easy double play, Jose Iglesias scoring from third. The rally was over, and in effect, the game; the Tigers would not get another baserunner.

It was the second time in about 52 hours that Tazawa had taken on the best and won.Tuesday night, the same sequence; Hunter singles to right off Tazawa, on almost the same swing, same ball, putting runners on the corners with one out. This game was 1-0, so the cushion was even smaller. Cabrera came to the plate and Tazawa threw nothing but four-seamers, 94 and up: swing and a miss, swing and a miss, ball outside, swing and a miss. Once again, Cabrera went down, once again the Tigers didn’t score, once again the Tigers lost by a run. You can sum up this series by saying that the Tigers have lost three games; Jim Leyland punted one, and Tazawa beat Cabrera — perhaps, to be fair, some fraction of Cabrera — at the key moment in the other two.

This is one of the key separators between baseball and our other sports, and for me, one of its best traits. The superstars win that matchup in other sports. LeBron James drives for the game-winning layup as time expires. Peyton Manning leads his team down the field for a last-second touchdown. Superstar strikers drive the action on the pitch, great goalies win Stanley Cups almost by themselves. In baseball, though, the skills gap between the very best and the guys behind them just isn’t that large. Junichi Tazawa, unknown to anyone but AL fantasy players and hardcore baseball fans with zip codes beginning with a zero, turns up as a hero twice in three days not just by pitching well, but by dominating the presumed two-time league Most Valuable Player at the most critical moment of each game. That’s baseball. That’s postseason baseball.

That double play was just one of many bad moments for the hobbled Cabrera. After two years of arguing about the merits of what makes a player great, we watched Cabrera put all of the things he doesn’t do — all of the things that lower his value — on display. In the first, he was thrown out easily trying to score from second on a single. Cabrera did not go from second to third like a man intending to go from third to home, then failed to see third-base coach Tom Brookens throw up a stop sign that should have kept the inning going. Brookens did change his mind midstream, but his hands were up early enough and far enough down the third-base line that Cabrera should have been able to see them and stop at third. It was poor baserunning not just for the lack of speed, but the lack of awareness. Minutes later, Cabrera let a ground ball by Jonny Gomes get over his glove and through his legs, contributing to a two-run rally by the Sox. The seventh-inning double play was another indicator, as Cabrera’s complete lack of speed — exacerbated at the moment by injury — means double-play balls always become double plays. Baserunning, defense and double-play avoidance are three things statheads have been trying to make part of the conversation surrounding Cabrera for two years now. His deficiencies in those areas, so often waved away by his supporters, cost the Tigers dearly last night.

Before we leave this game, and possibly the city of Detroit, behind, let’s acknowledge John Farrell’s work. He’s been appropriately and increasingly aggressive in this series. He took a flyer last night with his lineup, much as Jim Leyland had done Wednesday, inserting Jonny Gomes, Xander Bogearts and David Ross. Similar to the Tigers in Game Four, the lineup changes rose to the fore in the second inning, as Bogaerts and Ross roped back-to-back doubles to give the Sox a 2-0 lead. That’s coincidence more than anything else. No, Farrell’s best work has come not before the game but during it. Tuesday, he inspired the annoyance of his starting pitcher, John Lackey, by going to the mound to get him in the seventh inning of a 1-0 game. Last night, he went a bit further, taking a better pitcher out an inning sooner. Jon Lester hadn’t reached 100 pitches when, with two on and one out in the sixth, Farrell went to get him, bringing Tazawa into a game in the sixth inning for the first time since June 23. Not long after Tazawa induced the double play from Cabrera, Farrell called upon Koji Uehara to get the final five outs.

In baseball, you don’t get to choose when your best players bat. You can only put your best starting pitchers on the mound every few days. You can’t control which fielders will have opportunities to make plays — sometimes a ball goes through Miguel Cabrera’s legs, sometimes Jose Iglesias runs 120 feet to turn a single into an out. But you have complete control over how to deploy relief weapons. You choose when a Koji Uehara, a Kenley Jansen, a Trevor Rosenthal, a Craig Kimbrel pitches, and to whom, and in what game context. Even if you choose to use those pitchers in a limited fashion, as we see in today’s game, the choice of using them, of getting their overpowering fastballs, and disappearing splitters ($1, Pete Abraham), and impossible cutters to have an influence on the outcome is entirely at the discretion of the manager. It is nearly the only thing that is. Leveraging dominant relief pitchers in postseason baseball is one of the big things managers can do differently, have to do differently, in pursuit of a championship. Farrell got four outs from Uehara Tuesday and five from him yesterday. I can’t prove this by inference, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Uehara throw two full innings in a single game before this postseason is over, in the tradition of Mariano Rivera. John Farrell, in his first postseason, gets it.

 

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Episode 87 may have had some sound issues due to a connectivity problem on my end. I apologize for this and am working on a solution.

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  • areyouseriously

    Actually in Playoff moments, it’s more likely Payton Manning throws for an interception.

  • M. Leeman

    Joe, this is a great column. Thank you for helping me explain to my friends and family who don’t get it why post season baseball is the best.