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Better approach needed to combat playoff pitching

In its simplest form, baseball is about a series of competitions between pitcher and hitter. It’s physical, mental and involves teamwork.

Sure, there are defense, baserunning and strategy. But at the core of baseball, it’s pitcher versus hitter. And up until a few years ago, the hitters had dominated for more than a decade.

Not anymore. Things have swung full circle in favor of the pitcher – this postseason is full of examples, with Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw and Adam Wainwright shutting down offenses.

That pair of 1-0 games in the league championship series on Saturday made history. For me, it just substantiated my theory that the pendulum has swung.

Of course, it’s not nearly as evident during the regular season because hitters can make up statistical ground against mediocre pitching. But a quick look at the league-leading totals in the regular season would also indicate a serious hitting decline.

Three hitters separated themselves from the pack this year – Miguel Cabrera, Chris Davis, and Paul Goldschmidt. Eliminate them and 109 RBI and 36 home runs led the majors.

Those are mid-1970s numbers. I twice led the NL in home runs with 36, once with 37 and twice with 38, and once had the most RBI with just over 100.

What’s happening?

Pitchers have made tremendous strides over the last 20 years. Hitters have made few, if any.

As pitchers have become bigger and stronger, they have raised the average fastball speed by 4-5 mph over that period. Once Nolan Ryan was a freak, then Dwight Gooden, then Randy Johnson as they threw in the mid-90s.

Now every team has seven or eight guys who throw in the mid-90s, and many such pitchers play in the minor leagues as well. Think about that: Today’s hitters see a Nolan Ryan fastball at some point in every game. For me, it was one game and a dozen at-bats a year.

Now add into the mix postseason pressure, where hitters are anxious to be the hero, refuse to walk and don’t make adjustments game to game. This new breed of savvy flamethrower eats them up.

Michael Wacha, a rookie, and the St. Louis bullpen shut down the Dodgers 1-0 on Saturday. Then Anibal Sanchez and the Detroit relievers beat Boston – the highest-scoring team in the majors – by the same score a few hours later.

Combined with Max Scherzer and Verlander, the Tigers have taken no-hitters into the sixth inning in three straight postseason games.

The A’s struck out 57 times in their five-game series against Detroit. Some would say it’s not the strikeouts, it’s when you strike out.

Oakland hitters made no adjustment with two strikes when several times contact would have produced important runs.

Postseason hitting is all about scratching out a run with a walk, a bunt, a stolen base and a sac fly, making the opposition have to score twice to beat you. That’s the only kind of approach that can beat Verlander. Swinging for the fences is futile.

In general, that’s the state of hitting today. Hitters aren’t accountable, they don’t value contact, don’t have a “go-to” swing in the arsenal for contact at-bats.

The Cardinals have those players – low-strikeout, high-contact hitters. They use the entire field. They are well coached and drilled on the value of thinking small, but being aggressive at the same time. Credit Mark McGwire, who coached both teams playing in the NLCS. He’s communicating something and his hitters are listening.

Watch the Cardinals hitters and compare them with those on the other teams. They don’t swing for home runs, they swing for contact to all fields, and home runs are accidents. Their goal is to score one more run than the opposition.

Hitting a baseball is said to be the toughest thing in sports. Better said, it’s putting the bat on a 95 mph fastball for a base hit up the middle, with a man on third and one out in the postseason.

Here’s a secret for any hitter reading this: A short, quick chop down-stroke will create contact on any fastball. Try it, you may end up with a home run.

Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt was the MVP of the 1980 World Series when the Philadelphia Phillies won their first championship. He wrote this for the Associated Press.

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