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October 18, 2010

Playoff Prospectus

LCS Day Three Recap

by Christina Kahrl

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You know, going in, that this would be another tight contest, because where Game One of the National League Championship Series was doomed to be an anticlimax, the combination of Jonathan Sanchez's past dominance of the Phillies and Roy Oswalt's past dominance of the Giants' collection of hitters figured to make this a tight ballgame. Through to the seventh inning, we got something that very much resembled that anticipation, at least up up until the Phillies generated and delivered on another one of their long, gory innings, disassembling the odd second-rank reliever or two en route to converting a duel into something dull and then done.

Long before Jimmy Rollins' seventh-inning bases-clearing double reduced the series' latest showdown between power and grace on the mound to an afterthought, the Phillies once again delivered all sorts of the little things that produce paroxysms of commentariat glee. It might be easy to underrate, but keeping in mind how many opportunities the Rangers wasted in the first game of their LCS, and considering Sanchez's past dominance, acquiring any and every base while counting on Oswalt to dominate makes good sense tactically.

Chase Utley's one-out stolen base in the first with Placido Polanco due up is a great bit of situational baserunning. Whatever window dressing might get spruced up around Charlie Manuel's decision to move Utley up and Polanco down, getting a top OBP source up in the order and counting on Polanco's ability to get balls in play behind Utley is a canny exploitation of the gifts of the players in the lineup. It perhaps also reflected that balls in play against this Giants defense, especially when tasked with baserunners, might lead to all sorts of friction, Clausewitz-style.

Infield defense was already looking more and more problematic for the Giants with Juan Uribe out of action for a stretch. With the increasingly slow-footed Edgar Renteria being added to the mix at shortstop, and with Freddy Sanchez's limited range at second, exploiting limited opportunities on balls in play with strikeout-oriented starters like Tim Lincecum or Jonathan Sanchez on the mound is an important adaptation for a team already widely credited for its basepaths moxie.

What might get lost to history is that this was anything but a well-played game, and perhaps wasn't even all that well conceived, particularly as far as the Giants were concerned. If this was a duel, it was punctuated with a bit too much slapstick to qualify as a real death match. The Phillies blooded the ballgame in the first with contributions from the Giants' defense and home plate ump Dan Iassogna's caprices. In fairness, for a home plate ump, Iassogna's walk rate is only a few notches above the median, and it really is up to a pitcher to not just throw pitches but to also make a sales pitch that he knows what he's doing.

But what can you say about Mike Fontenot's throwing error, that took what might have been a man on third, two outs scenario into first and third with one out? The miscue goes into the scorebook as his fault alone, but we're talking about a second baseman playing third making a wild throw to a former lead-gloved third baseman playing goalie over at first base. Blame Fontenot for the throw? That's easy, but Aubrey Huff is a player who has never really been converted to a full-time anything after failing to stick at third as a Rays prospect a decade ago. He winds up playing first base in the hope that he can't do too much harm, but his inability to come up with the ball while vaguely trying and decisively failing to stay on the bag provided a reminder that actual first basemen do have their uses. Add in Iassogna's contributions toward another Kenny Rogers Moment in the postseason—because we ought to name the bases-loaded walk in somebody's honor—and you get the Phillies' first run.

Having these two men, Fontenot and Huff, doing their uncertain best at the corners for the Giants subsequently helped give Rollins his cloud-busting pop single in the fourth. That didn't directly lead to a run, but it gave Manuel a baserunner, which let the Phillies clear the pitcher's slot in the frame. That set up the circumstance of the fifth inning, when scoring a man from second with consecutive outs owed everything to that contretemps. Fontenot's failure to call for the ball perhaps owes equal parts to his status as a Giants noob as well as a third baseman of uncertain vintage. Here again, it's easy to blame Fontenot.

Should it be? Unlike ill-starred Brooks Conrad, Fontenot is playing not because he has to, but merely because Bruce Bochy wants him to. That didn't make that much sense in the first game, because Pablo Sandoval has had some success against Roy Halladay, but it made even less sense against Oswalt, a pitcher Fontenot has struggled with. If you're not playing matchups and you're not playing a guy with much in the way of defensive chops, what benefits are you really accruing? Punishing the Panda for what he isn't—svelte, or able to duplicate '09 on command—risks losing sight of the fact that he's still a better player than Fontenot. If this ends up like Sparky Anderson's decision to bench Howard Johnson in the '84 postseason—again, on the basis of what HoJo wasn't, as opposed to what he was—the Giants are overlooking an asset when they have so few on offense in the first place.

You can't fault Bochy for his decision to leave Sanchez on the mound to start the seventh—with the pitcher's slot due up, you could anticipate an initial out, and then go batter by batter in a one-run ballgame. That got promptly spoiled, but here again, you can't really credit Bochy with his handling of the defensive inning. As one of the more likely skippers in the senior circuit to call for the intentional pass, Bochy is used to playing with fire, but to call for two in the inning and see both score should serve as an important reminder of the dangers of getting too cute. That he wound up letting Ramon Ramirez, his reliever with the lowest strikeout rate in the pen, face Polanco with a runner in scoring position, was to go begging for bad news.

What mattered most, however, was Oswalt's early achievement of cruise control on the mound, marred only by Cody Ross' third homer of the series. Perhaps the best expression of Oswalt's command last night was his single-handedly hanging the golden sombrero on the Giants' leadoff man, Andres Torres. But even as Oswalt was playing stopper on the bump to even up the series, it was his work producing some offense beyond just preventing it that attracts attention. Whether working Sanchez for an eight-pitch at-bat in the fourth, or singling in the seventh, he was doing something to accrue value. His decision to run through Sam Perlozzo's stop sign to score the Phillies' third run isn't quite a bloody sock moment, nor was it quite as cool as Kentucky Joe Blanton's World Series homer, but it will be the sort of thing that will get the madding herd of “he knows how to win!” believers lowing their delight.

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

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