October 28, 2010
World Series Prospectus
Game One Analysis
As Coca-Cola executives learned back in the day, one of the problems with packaging something old as something new is that it ain't necessarily classic, whatever else you call it. With as much build up Game One of the World Series got—from parties as guilty as I am, among so many others—because there was Cliff Lee, and there was Tim Lincecum, there just had to be some new bit of history made, right? And what we got was indeed classic—Keystone Kops classic.
If it weren't Lincecum on the mound to help strain credulity, you might simply credit the Rangers for opening the game with a frame like so many others in their hard-fought climb to a pennant: first two men on, an out to advance the runners, followed by a litany Giant hiccups that you had to wonder if they'd ever find a cure. After a Vlad Guerrero run-scoring hit off Lincecum that was hit off Lincecum, there was the bizarre spectacle of the next batter tapping toward the mound, with Lincecum making a fielder's choice to retire nobody, just to shepherd Michael Young back to the bag while the bases loaded up.
Even after escaping that mess with a double play, the Giants' co-ace wasn't done futzing execution. What else can you say about giving up a single to Bengie Molina (.213 versus RHPs) and then a double to Lee in the second, producing another productive-out scenario for the Rangers? In the sixth, after striking out the first two batters and finally starting to resemble, y'know, Tim Lincecum, he ran into still more trouble with a two-out walk to Ian Kinsler after 10 pitches—the hurler kept trying to get Kinsler to chase a slider, and kept failing to locate. Then things got out of hand again, with a Molina RBI double, another pitcher-pelting single, and then an outing-ending pinch-hit RBI single from David Murphy as Ron Washington fired his one good bench bullet down by five.
Keep in mind, that was the effort of the night's effective starter. Lee was worse. The pair of runs he allowed in the third can be chalked up to poor execution, from Michael Young to some extent, but also to Lee himself, because if Lincecum was struggling with location, Lee was simply missing. Adding a beaned batsman after Young's initial error, he then surrendered a pair of runs because Freddy Sanchez pulled and then legged out his second double of the night past a waving Young on a pitch out over the plate; then Buster Posey poked a single toward center on a fat changeup left hanging outside, but not far enough outside.
Basically, this was the sort of stuff that happens to mortal moundsmen, surprising everyone, so that when Pat Burrell got rung up on strikes and then Cody Ross was called out on something well outside by home-plate ump John Hirschbeck, you could understand the actions of all three men—Mr. Lee was off, but he still has to be Cliff Lee, right? But he wasn't, at least not the Cliff Lee who sets records and overawes the opposition. There's a bit of a chicken/egg issue here—Lee didn't simply throw a 32-pitch inning in the third as much as the Giants also managed to work him for a 32-pitch inning in the third, getting Lee to 60 at the end of three. Keep in mind, he'd given up doubles in each of those first three innings, so he was also pitching from the stretch in each frame, possibly taxing him still more, beyond what a simple pitch count tells us.
Wherever you want to come down on cause and effect, by the fifth Lee didn't look like he could locate any of his off-speed pitches after a quick pair of hard-hit doubles. After walking Burrell, he got tagged by Ross for a sharp single through the middle on his third straight fastball to the same spot, making the game 4-2. Huff added another single up the middle, 5-2. Darren O'Day's attempt at cleanup was an unmitigated disaster: After two outside sliders, he had to come inside on Juan Uribe, and over the course of his entire career, if Uribe loves anything, it's trying to turn on an inside fastball. Exit one souvenir, enter pandemonium.
Which is not to say there wasn't still baseball to be played, as mid-game surprise turned toward late-game tragedy or farce, depending upon your rooting interests, or your fondness for the memory of Vladimir Guerrero. Beyond a one-game deficit, if there's to be a hangover effect in Texas, they'll be over Vladi's fielding mishaps in the bottom of the eighth. It's too easy to overstate their impact, if not their ugliness. The first boot, on Edgar Renteria's squirt to right field, isn't a very defensible bit of defense, because it looked like the sort of thing that only reps could have prevented—reps Washington wasn't willing to risk taking regularly in the regular season. If that ball drops for a base hit, you don't know if Renteria would have been plated by Travis Ishikawa's subsequent double, but even if it's an out, you still wind up with Ishikawa scoring on the subsequent Sanchez single to right, with or without Vladi's humiliating bobble. So there's your weak bit of sunshine. The damage might have been limited to one or two runs instead of three.
However, Vladi's arguably avoidable mishaps create the questions that cannot be avoided. If you're going to make this call, you need to keep in mind that it's a gambit you invest in to get the three at-bats from Vlad, after which you're hopefully in position to hook him. Unfortunately for the Rangers, down big early, Washington was put in the difficult situation of having to decide whether to pull Guerrero while also needing to score. How about after Murphy's pinch-hit at-bat in the sixth, when a double-switch to keep Murphy on the field might have made sense if you're worried about balls hit Vladi's way? That'd be swell... except that doing so exacerbates the problem of whether Josh Hamilton gets to bat in a rally, because that's the upshot of this tactical puzzle, whether you put the pitcher's slot in the fourth slot on the double-switch, or do something even more convoluted (like leaving Murphy in, kicking the pitcher's slot to seventh by pulling Molina, and putting Treanor behind Hamilton).
Basically, hooking Vladi mid-game if he's cleaning up involves lots of things that you don't want to have happen, all as a function of sticking with the formula that worked on offense in the regular season: Hamilton and Vladi, batting three-four.
Down by four, Washington stuck with his gamble and it bit him; to his credit, he didn't throw Vladi under the bus, as if he were, say, Tony La Russa in the 1990 World Series. Obviously, what happened might encourage Washington to skip risking a repeat of the experience in Games Two, or Six and Seven (if necessary), but as his post-game comments reflected, putting Guerrero out there meant that risk had been accepted implicitly as part of the decision. If he makes it again against Matt Cain after doing so against Lincecum, it shouldn't surprise anybody, but there's almost no way around the basic problem—starting Guerrero means pulling him, and batting him fourth means guaranteeing that Hamilton gets walked in any outcome-relevant at-bat after the sixth inning.
Which brings us to the wasted rally, as the Rangers loaded the bases in the ninth with one man out, inviting Brian Wilson's deployment in a save-less fireman situation. Wilson blew the conflagration into full flames, in that he let all three of other people's baserunners score, but getting one run on a Guerrero sac fly just got the conclusion closer to achieved as opposed to foregone. If Guerrero's ugly eighth doesn't happen and it's a 9-4 or 10-4 game going into the bottom of the eighth, doesn't that just increase the likelihood that Bruce Bochy brings Wilson into the game sooner, instead of bonking about with Ram-Ram and Jeremy Affeldt? There just doesn't seem to be much point to fretting about a Rangers win that wasn't.
So Game One was a Giants win after all, but not at all like any of us expected it, least of all me. The decision to start Guerrero in San Francisco will be re-evaluated, or not, but we can be fairly certain that Washington will make that call in a way that retains the respect he commands from his club. Where the Giants used almost everyone in their pen to bridge the gap between Lincecum's early departure and Wilson's finish, the Rangers got the benefit of a good two-inning stint from Alexi Ogando, and avoided using Neftali Feliz and Darren Oliver. Whether the value of such minutiae accumulate to produce a different outcome is unknowable, but in a series pegged to be close, what Wednesday night's sloppy game lacked in classic qualities it provided as support for that one expectation.