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October 5, 2003

Prospectus Today

It's a Beautiful Game Because It Surprises You

by Joe Sheehan

I don't care for what the current postseason format does to the regular season. I think the costs outweigh the benefits, and that MLB hasn't been honest about the effects of the three-division/Wild Card structure.

However, I don't spend enough time writing about the flip side of that equation. For better or worse, the Division Series has provided a lot of exciting moments in the last nine years. Yesterday, a rare four-playoff-game day, was an example of the format at its best.

Giants/Marlins

It's a beautiful game because it surprises you.

While acknowledging the surface similarities between 1997 and 2003, I didn't think the Marlins could win this series. The Giants looked to have the superior team, with more than enough pitching to shut down a heavily right-handed Marlins' offense. Moreover, I don't think anyone gave this series much chance of being interesting. Certainly the networks didn't; the four games were all played in the afternoon, and none came close to over-the-air television. This was the fourth of four series, by acclamation.

Thirteen innings into it, everything was normal. The Giants won the first game and took a 4-1 lead in the second. At that point, I figure you could have gotten any odds you wanted on the Marlins' winning the series; it wasn't going to happen.

From that point forward, the Giants morphed into a semi-pro team, and not a particularly good one. They played sloppy, thoughtless, losing baseball, while the Marlins turned into the 2002 Angels, complete with automatic first-to-thirds on singles and a bullpen that wouldn't quit.

It's a beautiful game because of the images it burns into your brain.

If the shot of Ugueth Urbina tackling Ivan Rodriguez as Rodriguez holds up a baseball in triumph isn't on the front page of Sports Illustrated and every other sports publication next week, just fire all the editors. That was one of the single greatest pictures I've ever seen in sports, an amazing display of joy.

Just remembering that whole sequence gives me chills as I sit here and write about it 12 hours later...the arc of the baseball looping into left field, as J.T. Snow tries to find second gear...Jeff Conine getting rid of the ball quickly...Rich Aurilia desperately waving Snow to the inside of home plate...the collision...Rodriguez tumbling back, gripping the baseball...Snow dropping his head to the plate in disappointment...Urbina diving onto his teammate...

I'm not sure Rodriguez still isn't holding that baseball. He may show up with it in his hand on Tuesday. Heck, he may show up with it at his Hall of Fame induction.

It's a beautiful game because kids can be heroes.

Dontrelle Willis, 21 years old and with the smile of someone half his age, went three-for-three with a triple in his first three postseason at-bats. He pitched a little, too, and while his final line was poor, for five innings he was unhittable.

Miguel Cabrera is even younger than Willis at 20 years and six months, and he looks for all the world like he's going to a World Series: the one in Wiliamsport. He had four hits yesterday.

The two Marlins started the season in Double-A. Six months later, they were two of the biggest reasons why a franchise given up for dead is now the biggest story in baseball.

The biggest reason, however, is Ivan Rodriguez. It's possible that no player has ever put his stamp on a playoff series in as many ways as Rodriguez did this week. When you think about dominant postseason performances, you think of Rickey Henderson in 1989, or Orel Hershiser in 1988, but even those players didn't do everything the way Pudge did over the past few days.

Forget what he did with the bat, even though that's a pretty hard thing to do. Think about him gunning down Marquis Grissom at third base, as if Grissom hadn't gotten the memo about who was catching. Think about him picking off Snow at first base, rescuing the Fish from a Giants' rally and giving his team back some momentum after a disastrous inning. Think about him knocking a baseball from the hands of Yorvit Torrealba to score the winning run.

Think about him standing in front of home plate, protecting his team's win, saying, "You're not taking this one back." That was history, folks; playoff series don't end with an out at the plate. In that scene, the runner always scores.

Not yesterday. Not on Pudge's watch.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this series was the way in which two veteran managers with no postseason experience handled their first trip. Jack McKeon adapted to his environment, from his refusal to allow Barry Bonds opportunities to beat him to his use of only his best pitchers. Three members of McKeon's rotation came out of the bullpen in this series, and while Carl Pavano was actually designated a reliever, McKeon's use of Willis and Brad Penny showed that he "gets it" in the postseason: the rules are different, and all that matters is winning today's game.

Felipe Alou did very little right, and his persistent failures were a contributing factor to the Giants' collapse. The decision to start Sidney Ponson and Kirk Rueter in that order, rather than the reverse, turned out to be minor concern when weighed against his decision to carry 12 pitchers for five games. Not only do you not need that many arms in a Division Series, you don't want that many. You don't want the 11th- and 12th- best pitchers in your organization anywhere near a mound in these games.

Alou carried two very long relievers with no tactical value in Jim Brower and Dustin Hermanson. He carried two situational lefties in Scott Eyre and Jason Christiansen, even though the Marlins have no one worth using a specialist against.

What Alou didn't carry was Eric Young, a decision that should have come back to haunt him in Game Three, when he was out of position players with the pitcher leading off the 12th inning. Jose Cruz Jr. and Tim Worrell made that a non-issue in the 11th. Yesterday, however, not having someone to pinch-run for Snow was a devastating blow. Snow had an inadequate secondary lead and got a terrible jump on a ball he should have scored on. Watch the replay: When that ball goes over his head, he should be more than halfway to third base; he's not.

Even when Alou did something right, he didn't follow through. Alou changed his mind Saturday morning and elected to start Jerome Williams rather than Jason Schmidt. This was a great call; Williams has been very good this year, and the Giants needed two wins, not one. Holding back Schmidt for Game Five maximized their chances of winning both games.

Alou panicked, however, when Williams struggled in the third, removing him for Brower. The Giants were down just 3-1 at the time and Williams hadn't been pitching particularly poorly. I would argue that if you're going to use Jim Brower and Dustin Hermanson in an elimination game, you don't completely understand what wins in the postseason.

My bigger problem with this move is that it creates an impossible situation later in the game. With just five bench players, Alou can't start needing to hit for his pitchers early. By the end of the ninth, he again had no hitters left on his bench, which would have become a major problem had the Giants reached the 10th. Again, however, his players spared him that conundrum.

Alou got outmanaged by McKeon, and his charges were outplayed. The Giants made egregious mistakes on the bases, and Rodriguez took advantage. They played poor defense, particularly in Game Three, that allowed the Marlins extra outs and runs. They blew countless opportunities to score, and they hit no home runs in the four games.

One of the certainties going into the series what that if Bonds was even a little off, the Giants might have trouble scoring. Bonds drew eight walks, but was 2-for-9 with a double in his other plate appearances. As a team, the Giants hit .235/.338/.301, and even that line is deceptively good. Bonds walked a lot, and Edgardo Alfonzo hit a bunch of singles and doubles. Everyone else was awful, and that killed the Giants.

Sometimes, it's a beautiful game because it makes you happy about being wrong.

Athletics/Red Sox

It's not every day that a walk-off home run in extra innings of an elimination game isn't the biggest story of the day. It's even more rare that it's not the biggest story in its game.

Trot Nixon, meet Bill Welke.

Nixon's 11th-inning, two-run shot into the center-field bleachers at Fenway kept the Red Sox alive for one more day. They don't get to the 11th, however, without some controversial decisions going their way earlier.

In the second inning, the Sox got Jason Varitek into a rundown between third and home. Ramon Hernandez, running Varitek back to third, held the ball a bit too long and created a close play at the bag. It also left two A's, Eric Chavez and Miguel Tejada, covering third base. Chavez, about five feet up the line, reached for Hernandez's toss and missed, making contact with Varitek in the process. Third-base umpire Welke called obstruction on Chavez for impeding Varitek's progress to the bag. Varitek was awarded home plate for the first run of the game, as the penalty for obstructing a runner on whom a play is being made is at least a one-base advance (per Rule 7.06(a)).

I thought that one was a close call. Chavez was trying to make a play on Hernandez's throw, and he has the right to do so, even in the baseline. Had Tejada not been behind him on the bag, or had Chavez fielded the throw, the obstruction call may have been avoided. With Tejada there, however, he merely seemed to be getting in Varitek's way. I think Welke made the correct decision here.

Four innings, later, we'd all forget about that one. With the bases loaded and two outs, Hernandez chopped a ground ball under Nomar Garciaparra's glove. As Tejada rounded third base, he collided with Bill Mueller, who was going over to cover the bag. Welke immediately signaled obstruction, but correctly did not stop play, because no play was being made on Tejada at the time of the obstruction.

When Tejada heard the call, he stopped running home about halfway down the line and turned back, waving his arms in protest at either Mueller or Welke. Eventually, Manny Ramirez's throw came down, Varitek grabbed it and tagged Tejada, who was called out by home-plate umpire Paul Emmel. Hilarity ensued.

After caucusing, the umpires let the out on Tejada stand, ending the inning. This was, in my opinion, the wrong decision. There was obstruction on the play, and that obstruction affected Tejada's ability to score. However, by not continuing to run out the play--which he has to do, there's no dead ball--Tejada hurt his best argument, that the obstruction had kept him from scoring. Under rule 7.06(b), the umpires can exercise judgment as to whether the runner is entitled to action that nullifies the act of obstruction. The umpires judged that the result of the play had been unchanged by the obstruction, and let the on-field result stand.

I am of the opinion that you penalize the team that broke the rule, rather than the player who reacted to it. Tejada's decision to not finish the play gave the umpires a way to not change the on-field result, and they took it. The umpires were wrong, but so was Tejada.

It was actually the play immediately preceding that one that grates on me more. With Eric Byrnes on third base, Tejada hit a weak chopper to the right of the mound. Derek Lowe grabbed it and flipped to Varitek, who was planted in front of home plate. Varitek did not field Lowe's throw cleanly, but he did trip Byrnes, who missed the plate on his way past. Byrnes got up, shoved Varitek in anger over the trip, then limped away from the plate. On almost any play like this, the runner will re-tag the plate just to be sure; the fact that the home-plate umpire hadn't signaled "safe" should have been a clue to Byrnes and the A's bench what had happened. Byrnes, however, was tagged out by Varitek on his way to the dugout.

The way in which catchers are allowed to set up five feet up the third-base line two innings before a throw comes in has been out of control for some time. Varitek didn't have the baseball; he was waiting for it, and as Rule 7.06 states, "NOTE: The catcher, without the ball in his possession, has no right to block the pathway of the runner attempting to score. The base line belongs to the runner and the catcher should be there only when he is fielding a ball or when he already has the ball in his hand."

That rule hasn't been enforced in years, and it leads to situations like last night, when all Varitek did was block Byrnes from the plate in much the manner of an offensive lineman in pass protection. (Actually, no; tripping is a 15-yard penalty in the NFL.) "Fielding a ball" is a reference to batted baseballs, not thrown ones (it allows for a catcher to be making a play on, say, a bunt up the third-base line with a runner coming home). Setting up shop along the third-base line merely to prevent a runner from accessing home plate isn't even a gray area; it is expressly prohibited in the rules.

The rule violations--the Red Sox new affinity for tackle baseball--was a problem last night. You can't just excuse what the A's did, however. Byrnes and Tejada worried more about complaining than they did about finishing plays. Had they each touched home plate, the A's would be home right now, enjoying a few days off before the ALCS. They failed to follow through, and now they're playing more pressure baseball.

All of this may be moot by Sunday night. The A's have Tim Hudson pitching against John Burkett in Game Four, although I think Burkett is as much a placeholder as anything else. Everybody except Lowe is going to be available, and that includes Pedro Martinez if the situation calls for it.

This will be the first time all series that the Sox lineup get things in its favor: facing a right-hander in Fenway Park. With that, Hudson going on short rest, and a full bullpen featuring a pretty good right-handed closer, I think we're going to see a Game Five. 8-5, Sox.

Yankees/Twins

With all due respect to the great baseball players on both teams, this series has paled in comparison to the others. The three games have been nondescript affairs, notable mostly for the strong starting pitching and Mariano Rivera's four perfect innings. Saturday, it was Roger Clemens' turn to pitch well, with seven innings of one-run baseball. Hideki Matsui's two-run homer supplied all the offense Clemens needed.

The Twins don't have a ton of home-run power, so they need to draw some walks and hit doubles to win. They're not doing either right now, which means they need great, not just good, starting pitching to have a chance. Fortunately, Johan Santana takes the mound today, which gives them a reasonable shot at a shutout. I like the Twins to force a fifth game, 5-1.

Braves/Cubs

They're already without Gary Sheffield, and now the Braves look like they might be without John Smoltz, who barely made it through the ninth inning last night and appears to be pitching in tremendous pain.

If Smoltz is done, it doesn't mean the Braves can't win one game. (It may mean that we get treated to Greg Maddux as closer, which would be entertaining.) It does mean that their chances of winning a best-of-seven series are reduced, though, because the rest of their bullpen is pretty lousy.

With Sheffield out and the Braves facing yet another nasty right-hander, Chipper Jones came up big with two two-run home runs, the first off Matt Clement. Against Kerry Wood tonight, they'll need more of the same; Wood shut down the Braves in Game One, and he's coming back on full rest against a short-rest Mike Hampton. If the Cubs show anything even vaguely resembling plate discipline, they should be able to win this game.

I'll make a conditional prediction: if the Cubs draw three walks off Hampton, they'll win 5-2. If they don't, they'll lose 2-1.

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

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