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October 21, 2010

Playoff Prospectus

NLCS Game Four

by Ben Lindbergh

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Well, that was fun. After a back-and-forth affair that took nearly four hours to christen a winner, the reputedly invincible Phillies find themselves one Giants win away from reserving tee times (or studying agriculture, or however players spend their off months these days) after a 6-5 loss in Game Four of the National League Championship Series on Wednesday night. In the first game of the series that didn’t feature a standout pitching performance, the Phillies’ bats didn’t roll over and play dead as they had in their previous losses, but their owners were left holding the short ends of the lumber nonetheless. What’s more, the victorious manager had a better game than his counterpart, and received a resounding assist from his most talented position player. However, before we can recount out how it all unfolded, we should rewind a few hours.

The pre-game period was dominated by rotation debate, as the news that Charlie Manuel had decided to stick with Joe Blanton rather than go to Roy Halladay on short rest set network heads to talking. Perhaps the move shouldn’t have been shocking, given that Blanton had started three games during each of the Phillies’ last two playoff runs; then again, the Phillies didn’t have three aces in their arsenal during their previous gunfights at the October corral. As it was, second-guessers massed on the horizon, waiting to descend on Manuel at the first sign of struggle from Blanton.

In a sense, it’s hard to blame them: despite his success down the stretch, Blanton could, with apologies to Eric Seidman, be described as “serviceable,” while Halladay has a strong case as the league’s best pitcher. Of course, the issue doesn’t come down to a full-rested Blanton vs. a short-rested Halladay, as FOX analyst Eric Karros seemed to imply in his cursory pre-game analysis; starting Halladay on short rest would have imposed similar demands not only on Roy Oswalt, but on Cole Hamels, who has never been asked to pass that test. For someone on the outside, it’s difficult to pass judgment on an issue like this. Had I been rolling the dice, I’d have banked on the likelihood that Hamels wouldn’t break under the strain, and that even a diminished trio of aces could exceed Blanton in the performance department. That said, I’m willing to accept the notion that the Phillies—who, unlike me, have made a significant investment in Hamels’ left arm—might have a more informed perspective on what sort of workload constitutes a bridge too far.

Speaking of workloads, the man alternating half-innings on the mound with Blanton had amassed quite a lot of mileage himself, as Marc Normandin pointed out Wednesday. With his first out recorded last night, Madison Bumgarner crossed the 200-inning threshold in his age-20 season, a figure that might give many a manager pause. Working in Bumgarner’s favor was the fact that no Philly hitter had ever seen him outside of a video room. In addition, if the rookie was feeling at all fatigued—perhaps unlikely, given that his velocity had been trending upward in recent starts—he at least had the good fortune of enjoying 65-degree surroundings on another beautiful night in what has thus far been an almost flawless postseason, weather-wise.

Aside from their choice of starters, Manuel and Bruce Bochy each pulled a string or two before first pitch that would play some role in the contest’s outcome. Ben Francisco started in left field for the Phillies over a slumping Raul Ibanez, and on the San Francisco side, Aaron Rowand continued to displace Andres Torres in center field. Back by popular acclaim was Pablo Sandoval, who received his first start of the series at third base.

Bumgarner started strong, striking out two in the first, and in their half of the frame, the Giants mounted a modest rally, as Freddy Sanchez singled to left and advanced to third on two wild pitches. Carlos Ruiz blocked what almost became a third, but that effort was wasted, as Buster Posey slapped a single up the middle to drive in Sanchez. Posey was just getting started, but we didn’t know that then. What we did know was that Blanton didn’t appear to have his best control: those two wild pitches matched his season total in his prior 175 2/3 innings. The rust was excusable, given that Blanton was working on approximately 20 days’ rest, but perhaps it should have colored his manager’s expectations to a greater degree than it did.

Bumgarner stayed strong in the second, erasing his lone mistake—a one-out single—by picking off Jimmy Rollins with the aid of a fantastic sliding tag by Edgar Renteria (and perhaps a blind eye in the balk department from the umpiring crew). Blanton held serve, though he continued to display some wildness by hitting Cody Ross to lead off the bottom half.

In the third, another pre-game Manuel move backfired, as Francisco misplayed a deep fly off the bat of Posey into a run-scoring double. Just like that, the Giants held a 2-0 lead, as the rally towels waved. The Phillies’ first threat came in the top of the fourth, as a one-out Placido Polanco single preceded a Ryan Howard walk on six straight fastballs, leaving Jayson Werth and Rollins looming. The former lined out to Ross, and Bumgarner froze Rollins with a picture-perfect slider to Posey’s glove on the outside corner for the final out of the inning. Through four frames, Bumgarner had allowed only two hits, with six strikeouts under his belt.

The Phillies flashed some leather in the bottom of the fourth. The red-hot Ross—the prototypical “Even his outs are hit hard!” batter of this series—smoked a liner caught by Polanco to lead off the inning, which was followed by a vintage Chase Utley robbery of a potential Sandoval single. Finally, Rollins made an impressive running catch and release to his right on a Rowand grounder, one of several superlative plays on a night of nice glovework from the Philadelphia shortstop.

At this point in the contest, Joe Posnanski tweeted a recommendation that the Phillies offense attempt to summon some offense from State Farm. As it turned out, the Phillies wouldn’t have to rely on ad-driven apparitions. You’ll recall that Bumgarner appeared to be in command from the start, and it didn’t require much imagination to envision him continuing to cut a swath through one of the NL’s best offenses. However, while it’s tempting to assume that a pitcher’s smooth sailing in the early going increases his likelihood of near-future success, only the inverse is true. A struggling pitcher can be forecasted, with some degree of confidence, to continue struggling, but research by the authors of The Book indicated that a pitcher who earns early accolades isn’t a safe bet to maintain an above-par performance the rest of the way. In the top of the fifth, Bumgarner appeared intent on backing them up.

Francisco partially redeemed his outfield play by leading off with a single, and Ruiz followed with a single of his own, bringing the pitcher’s spot to the plate. Manuel now faced a decision: as he prepared to hit, Blanton had thrown 50 pitches, allowing two runs on four hits and a HBP, while striking out three. Hardly a horrendous performance, but with his starter about to embark on his third time through the order—always a cause for alarm—and a golden opportunity to conjure a crooked number, Manuel could have sprung for the jugular by going to his bench.

Instead, he elected to play the situation conservatively, and called for Blanton to bunt. To his credit, the hefty hurler laid a perfect sacrifice down the third-base line and nearly beat it out, the effort required revealed by the somewhat unsettling sight of his sweaty hedgehog hair upon his return to the dugout.

The next play unfolded quickly. On the first pitch of his at-bat (a 92-mph fastball), Shane Victorino singled to center. Rowand intercepted the bouncing ball and made a strong throw plateward. Francisco had already scored from third, but Ruiz ran right into Posey and was retired by his opposite number, who adeptly gloved Rowand’s throw on a short hop and applied the tag. To this point, Posey had accumulated two two-out RBI hits and a pretty putout, while shepherding his even younger batterymate through the Phillies’ offensive minefield, but more heroics were to come.

Victorino failed to go to second on the throw, but his failure to advance wouldn’t cost the Phillies. After Utley followed with a single, Bochy double-switched, calling on Santiago Casilla to replace Bumgarner, and Torres to substitute for Rowand. Unlike some other managers, Bochy certainly couldn’t be accused of having left his starter in too long, nor did he prioritize an individual’s chance to earn a win over the team’s (Bumgarner departed a single out short of eligibility for the win). Unfortunately, his quick hook didn’t pay off: Casilla allowed a two-run double on a two-strike hanging slider to Polanco, and followed that game-changer with an intentional walk and a hit by pitch. Finally, with Rollins at the plate, Casilla uncorked a wild pitch that somehow vaulted into the stands behind home plate, allowing Polanco to score. Casilla ultimately struck out the shortstop, but he’d surrendered the lead. At the game’s midway point, Bumgarner, who had been cruising—and whose final line doesn’t do justice to his performance—stood to take the loss.

The Giants answered quickly. Bochy’s double-switch paid off to some extent (no thanks to Casilla), as Torres led off with a walk. After advancing to second on a grounder, Torres scored on an Aubrey Huff single to center, signaling the end of Blanton’s night, and resurrecting the specter of what might have been had Manuel pinch hit in the top half. Jose Contreras brought an end to an eventful fifth by ringing up Posey on a diving slider—the only time the young backstop would fail to reach base.

Casilla recovered to retire the Phillies in order in the top of the sixth, and the Giants got back to scoring in the bottom half of the frame. After a leadoff walk to Pat Burrell by new pitcher Chad Durbin, Ross—there’s that man again—doubled to left. To the delight of the throngs of Kung Fu Panda supporters crowding AT&T Park, he and Sandoval soon traded places, as the rotund third sacker re-announced his presence by doubling in two. Durbin recovered to retire Travis Ishikawa, Torres, and Sanchez without further damage, but when the dust settled, the Giants again held a lead, with only three innings to play.

The seventh would bring no scoring for either side, though the Giants came close, as Posey added his second double and Ross’ fear factor forced Rollins to flub a grounder to short (note: I’m just guessing). In the eighth, the Phillies would draw their final bit of blood, as Howard put together a seven-pitch at-bat ending in an opposite-field double against a tough lefty in Javier Lopez, who’s hardly Howard’s idea of a good time. With a righty, a switch-hitter, and another righty due up, Bochy called for Sergio Romo, whose rather bushy, if not exceedingly well-groomed beard must have resembled Brian Wilson’s to someone seated in the bleachers. Romo coughed up a game-tying double to the first batter he faced, Werth, but just when it appeared that the Phillies might be poised to deliver a death blow, Romo recovered. Although he was burned by a slider to Werth, the righty only increased the RDA of sliders in the next few hitters’ diets, and was rewarded by better results, striking out Francisco and Ruiz on six consecutive, seemingly identical sliders at 79-80 mph to escape the inning.

And now we come to the ninth. With the possibility of a save situation eliminated, Bochy had no qualms about making the call to closer Wilson. Juan Uribe entered the game at short; as Jay Jaffe observed, the Sandoval/Uribe left side of the infield is likely among the most corpulent to grace the game in recent memory, so provided you were watching, you can tell your grandkids how you put the broadcast’s widescreen format to good use. Wilson dispatched the Phillies in short order (with the aid of a truly spectacular play from new arrival Uribe), and with that, the time for last licks had arrived.

To almost everyone who wasn’t in the ballpark, the identity of the pitcher on the mound for the Phillies when the broadcast returned from break came as a surprise. That was most certainly not the familiar late-inning form of Brad Lidge; no, that was Roy Oswalt, whom we’d last seen for eight innings in Game Two. If Manuel was holding Lidge in reserve solely in hope of a save situation, he deserves ample criticism for letting an outmoded statistic dictate his strategy. However, the enlistment of Oswalt is defensible on its own merits; the former Astros ace is a skilled starter, and could be expected to surpass his typical performance when employed in a short role. Manuel doesn’t get off the hook on this technicality, though: if he knew that Oswalt was available to pitch in on his throw day, he could have spared himself some exposure to lesser pitchers earlier on.

Manuel’s second-guessable bullpen management aside, the inning started innocently enough, as Sanchez lined out to right. However, Huff followed him by singling in the same direction, and Posey followed suit. The catcher finished with four hits; as Aaron Gleeman discovered, the list of players under 24 who’ve accumulated that many safeties in a post-season game is short and bursting with big names. It might be hard to justify the contention that a single game could constitute a coming-out party for a player who’ll likely finish first or second in his league’s Rookie of the Year voting, but Posey left his national audience no doubt as to his bona fides on both sides of the ball Wednesday night.

Oswalt would face only one more batter. After starting Uribe with four straight fastballs, he tried a change of pace on 1-2. Uribe managed to slow his bat enough to lift the ball to left, touching off a rare celebratory bat-flip following a routine fly. Huff tagged and scored as soon as the ball settled into Francisco’s glove, inciting pandemonium in the infield as the Giants walked off.

Thanks, again, to The Book, we know that good pitching doesn’t actually beat good hitting—not any more often than good hitting beats good pitching, that is. Game Four was the only matchup in this series between pitching-rich clubs that featured at least one hurler who qualified as “hittable,” and San Francisco came away with the hard-fought (and well-managed) win. Though the Phillies’ World Series destiny may have been taken for granted in some quarters, the Giants have reminded the country that the Phillies can be beaten, in spite of their vaunted top three pitchers; each of those aces has already taken a loss in this series. In order for the Giants to secure their first pennant since 2002, they’ll need to win at least one more game started by a member of that trio, and they’ll make the attempt with their own assembly of crack run preventers ready to answer the bell.

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

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