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October 11, 2010

Prospectus Perspective

LDS Day Five Roundup

by John Perrotto

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The postseason is always full of characters because the plot lines get magnified tenfold and the television cameras seem able to zoom in for closer close-ups every October. Thus, Sunday was a day of characters as one Division Series was pushed to the brink, another continued a heretofore anonymous player's assault on infamy, and a third concluded with a brilliant pitching performance.

There was the phoenix-like Evan Longoria leading the Rays back to even their set against the Rangers, forcing a decisive fifth game. There was the tragic figure, as Brooks Conrad looked like the Little Leaguer you try to hide in right field for his mandatory two innings in causing his Braves to fall behind the Giants two games to one in their NLDS. And there was the redemption of Cole Hamels, who made like Mrs. Fletcher and pushed his LifeCall button, enabling him to get back up after falling from post-season stardom in 2008 to October whipping boy in 2009 as the Phillies dispatched the Reds in the minimum three games in their NLDS.

Sunday started with an early-afternoon game in Arlington, one in which the Rangers hoped for a second day to secure the first post-season series victory in the franchise's 50-year history and one in which the Rays again hoped to stay alive after two dreadful performances at home in the dome in St. Petersburg to begin the series.

Through the first three games of the postseason and the final 10 games of the regular season, it seemed that the Rays would have to go at it without any semblance of production from third baseman Evan Longoria, who might not be considered a serious AL MVP candidate in the mainstream but led his loop with 8.2 WARP.

Longoria's streak of hitless at-bats in the series reached 12 when he grounded out to third base to lead off the second inning. Certainly, the 10 days of inactivity at the end of the regular season because of a strained left quadriceps had disrupted the timing of a swing that produced a .314 TAv this year.

After the Rays scored the game's first run in the second inning when Carlos Pena tripled and scored on an error, Longoria finally broke through in the fourth inning by rapping a double to center field off Tommy Hunter. Pena followed with a double to make it 2-0. Two outs later, B.J. Upton made it a triple-double inning with a run-scoring two-base hit.

Longoria spent the rest of the afternoon making up for lost time. He smacked a two-run home run off Derek Holland with two outs in the fifth inning, limping around the bases in much the same fashion Kirk Gibson did in Game One of the 1988 World Series. While it did not cause Rays play-by-play man Dave Wills to intone that he did not believe what he just saw, it did increase the lead to 5-0.

The Rangers tried to finally secure their first-ever post-season home victory with a sixth-inning rally that saw Nelson Cruz hit a leadoff home run and Mitch Moreland stroke an RBI double with two outs. The Rangers knocked starter Wade Davis out of the game during that uprising, but relievers Grant Balfour, Joaquin Benoit, and Rafael Soriano combined to retire the final 10 hitters in a row.

Suddenly, the Rays, who were five outs away from being swept in Game Three on Saturday, have gotten the series back to the Trop for the first winner-take-all game of the LDS round since the Angels took down the Yankees in 2005. The Rangers will send Cliff Lee, who struck out 10, to the mound against David Price in a rematch of a 5-1 mismatch in Game One. Yet while the Rangers profess to still have confidence because of the presence of Lee, this historical fact remains: Texas is the lone major league franchise that has failed to win a post-season series.

The Braves know all about coming up short in post-season series. Though the franchise won a record 14 division titles in a row from 1991-2005, that run produced only one World Series champion and plenty of autumnal heartbreak. Yet it is hard to fathom anyone who wore the tomahawk during that run ever feeling worse than Conrad, the second baseman, did Sunday when he made three errors.

If Conrad were a golfer, he would be diagnosed with a case of the yips. If he were a pitcher, baseball people would quietly and ruefully say he was inflicted with "The Thing." The most routine of fielding acts, be it catching the ball or throwing it, have become Herculean tasks to the 30-year-old journeyman who has logged just 254 plate appearances at the major league level in a 10-year professional career that began in 2001 when he was Astros' eighth-round draft pick.

Conrad has been one of this millennium's prime examples of the stats-versus-scouts debate. Conrad consistently had good on-base and slugging percentages in the Astros' farm system, causing the numbers crowd to insist he should be considered more of a prospect. The scouting set, though, claimed that the numbers belied the fact that Conrad was a butcher in the field who would be exposed with everyday play.

Both sides have been right to one extent or the other. Conrad produced a solid .288 TAv in a career-high 177 plate appearances. He was pressed into action as the starting third baseman during the last week of the regular season after Martin Prado suffered a season-ending oblique strain while subbing for third baseman Chipper Jones, lost for the season as well, with a torn elbow ligament. Conrad made costly throwing errors in the second-to-last and penultimate games of the regular season that led to losses against the Phillies and put the Braves in a situation where they had to win on Closing Day just to have a shot at qualifying for the postseason.

Venerable manager Bobby Cox, making out what could have been his final lineup card, felt Conrad had become so spooked at the hot corner that he moved him to his more natural position of second base for the finale and has kept him at the keystone throughout the NLDS. Conrad booted an Andres Torres' grounder in Game One, but that was a minor precursor to what would happen Sunday.

The first error came early when Conrad bobbled Freddy Sanchez's first-inning grounder as he attempted to throw to second base for what he hoped would be the start of a double play. Tim Hudson escaped that jam but the visiting Giants went ahead 1-0 an inning later on his second error, as Mike Fontenot led off with a triple and scored when Conrad dropped Cody Ross' popup.

The Braves eventually overcame Conrad's miscue and seven innings of dazzling pitching by Jonathan Sanchez when pinch-hitter Eric Hinske smacked a two-run home run off Sergio Romo that struck the right field foul pole. Suddenly, the Braves were ahead 2-1 and seemingly on the verge of also being ahead 2-1 in the series.

Fill-in closer Craig Kimbrel, the rookie who struck out an amazing 45 percent of the batters (40 of 88) he faced in the regular season, was on the brink of the save despite issuing a one-out walk to Travis Ishikawa and allowing Freddy Sanchez to slap a two-out rolling slider into center fielder for a single that put runners on first and second. Cox, not adverse to using rookies in the wake of closer Billy Wagner being shelved with a strained oblique muscle, then brought in left-hander Mike Dunn to face Aubrey Huff, even though the journeyman first baseman had an .884 OPS against fellow lefties in the regular season, just 10 points lower than his OBP against righties. Huff foiled the strategy by hooking a single into right field to plate Ishikawa and knot the score.

There is an old baseball saying that goes back to just about the beginning of time that says if someone has trouble fielding, the ball will eventually find him at the most inopportune time. Sure enough, the ball found Conrad again. Buster Posey hit a routine one-hopper right to Conrad and the ball went right through his legs and on into right field for his third error, Sanchez scoring the winning run. Brian Wilson retired the Braves 1-2-3 in the ninth after blowing the save in Game Two.

Instead of leading the series, the Braves are on the brink of elimination and sending the retiring Cox, their beloved manager, home to his Georgia farm for good. Game Four is tonight with 21-year-old lefty Madison Bumgarner trying to pitch the Giants into the National League Championship Series and Derek Lowe trying to give the Braves the chance to live another day by forcing a Game Five on Wednesday night at San Francisco.

Back in October of 2008, Hamels was the breakout star as he led the Phillies to just their second world championship in 125 years by taking MVP honors in both the NLCS and World Series. The handsome, charming, and articulate left-hander did seemingly every talk show from David Letterman to the morning farm report in Des Moines. The spotlight loved Hamels and he loved it back.

However, when Hamels traditional statistics dipped last season, he became the whipping boy on WIP-AM, which has apt call letters since it is the whippingest all-sports radio station in Philadelphia or any other city. Hamels had lost his focus, some callers yelled, while others shouted that he was out of shape. However, amongst all that noise (vocal not statistical in this case), the only difference between the Hamels of 2008 and the 2009 model was luck, as our Matt Swartz so presciently observed.

Hamels didn't need much luck on Sunday in putting the finishing touches on the Phillies' sweep of the Reds. He was just plain old-fashioned good or as Not Charlie Manuel of Kevin Goldstein/Jason Parks podcast fame might say, "Cole, he was, like, you know, real good."

Hamels shut out the Reds, who led the NL in scoring in the regular season, on five hits. While Hamels didn't outdo Roy Halladay's no-hitter of Game One, he did not walk a batter, struck out nine and threw 82 of his 119 pitches for strikes.

Hamels' changeup was particularly lethal as he threw 33 of them, 28 for strikes—including all five to left-handed batters. The change was a perfect complement to his fastball, which topped out at 96 mph and averaged 92.

Reds starter Johnny Cueto wasn't half-bad, giving up two runs, only one earned, in five innings. However, he was nicked for an unearned run in the first inning because of shortstop Orlando Cabrera's throwing error and a solo home run by Chase Utley with two outs in the fifth. On this night, however, even pitching shutout baseball was only going to keep the Reds when they needed perfection to avoid a quick exit from their first post-season appearance in 15 years.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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