October 7, 2003
Seven Days of Bliss
I'm having all kinds of problems writing lately. There's just so much stuff to write about and such a desire to get it out quickly, because the next day brings that much more material. I'll be writing about one topic and in my head I'm trying to get out thoughts on three others. I wrote seven columns last week, some of them Joe's-on-meth specials, and I still feel like I completely short-shrifted the Yankees/Twins and Cubs/Braves series. It's not because I didn't want to write about them or didn't have something to say; it's because I just didn't have the time to cover them.
If you're a Yankees fan or a Cubs fan and you're mad at me, rest assured that I'll be all over your favorite teams this week. It'll be easier now that we're down to two series, of course.
Before I get into last night's Game Five, I want to go back to Saturday night's events in Boston. I've gotten a lot of e-mail on the two bizarre baserunning plays in which the A's were involved, and the feedback has been terrific.
Upon further review, I agree with the call made on Bill Mueller's obstruction of Miguel Tejada. While there was definitely obstruction, the umpires cannot be expected to grant a run solely based on that fact. They have to see that the obstruction prevented the run from scoring, and in this case, what prevented the run from scoring was Tejada stopping between third and home. Whether he didn't know the rule and reacted based on Bill Welke's signal (which did NOT stop play), his actions did more to prevent the run from scoring than Mueller's did. Good call, and a nod to Jason Grady for getting it right from the start.
As far as plate-blocking goes, I should have made it more clear that I don't think Jason Varitek should have been called for obstruction when blocking Eric Byrnes off the plate. That's not the time to start setting precedents, as much as I believe what Varitek was doing stretches the bounds of fairness. I raised the issue because I think the problem of catchers setting up too early is epidemic, and it needs to be addressed.
A few readers brought up the phantom double play, and how often umpires overlook strict rule enforcement when a middle infielder leaves the bag before receiving a throw. I think that's a good parallel, with one key difference: when a middle infielder does this, it's in part to avoid injury. When a catcher blocks the plate early, it actually increases the risk of injury by increasing the chance of contact.
Hopefully, MLB will tighten the application of Rule 7.06 to rein in catchers. It's the right thing to do, and it should have a small positive impact on player health.
On to Game Five...I usually watch games in my home office while typing notes and sending e-mails. Lots of e-mails.
Time: 5:05 p.m... Subject: Red Sox... Walker, Ortiz and Nixon all playing. Bye-bye.
I shouldn't have been surprised by this, but I was. Todd Walker and David Ortiz can't hit lefties, and they looked helpless against Barry Zito in Game Two. If Grady Little was going to play them, the least he could have done is get them out of the #3 and #5 batting slots. Apparently learning nothing from Game Two, he didn't, which convinced me that the Sox wouldn't be able to score enough, or perhaps at all.
(Note: Jonah Keri replied to this with a prediction of his own: 4-2, Red Sox. Nice call.)
Time: 6:50 p.m... Subject: Hitting Walker... That's just awful. Todd Walker has embarrassed himself against Zito. He's an automatic out. Allowing him to reach is such a huge swing, especially with Manny up.
Walker hit .234/.282/.373 against lefties this year. His possession of Ricardo Rincon's soul aside, he can't hit southpaws. In six plate appearances against Zito in the ALDS, he'd hit four weak grounders, a soft fly to left and struck out.
Time: 7:14 p.m... Subject: Re: Hitting Walker... Hitting Walker was the season. They don't do that, it's 2-1 right now. Little starting Walker and Ortiz #3 and #5 against Zito is the equivalent of saying, "My time-share week in Puerto Rico starts Friday, and I don't plan on losing it."
If Zito doesn't hit Walker, Walker almost certainly makes a weak out. That leaves Zito facing Manny Ramirez with two outs and a runner on first or second, and Ortiz on deck. The path out of that inning is pretty smooth. By gifting Walker first base, Zito was forced to handle Ramirez more aggressively. He'd lost just enough on his fastball to make that a losing proposition.
Time: 7:19 p.m... Subject: Brutal... The collision will get all the attention, but how stupid do you have to be to get thrown out on the bases in this situation?
Jermaine Dye was once a toolsy player with good speed. He's now a slow shell of his former self, barely able to move 90 feet at a time, and a liability in the outfield. When he got the gift of a single on his two-out, seventh-inning fly ball when Johnny Damon and Damian Jackson collided, he should have stayed on first and allowed the tying run to come to the plate. Getting gunned down at second base was a terrible, terrible play.
The A's' poor baserunning was a theme in this series. The two plays Saturday were pretty much the reason tonight's game was even played, but the one that sticks in my craw was Jose Guillen being thrown out going first-to-third on a single to left field with nobody out in the fourth inning of Sunday's game. One of the few pieces of baseball's received wisdom that has merit is the idea that you don't make the first or the last out of an inning at third base. The risks far outweigh the benefits of the extra 90 feet in both situations.
Now, that should lead to criticism of Guillen getting thrown out last night trying to stretch his tiebreaking double into a triple. However, it's common practice to have the trail runner advance in that situation, in part to "protect" the runner trying to score. In addition, Damon and Trot Nixon were playing "you got it, I'll take it" with the baseball, so Ron Washington had reason to wave Guillen around. Credit Nomar Garciaparra with a tremendous relay throw to nail Guillen.
The collision on Dye's single was horrifying, so much so that Fox not only showed it 37 times, but they're considering adding, "Baseball's Worst Collisions" as a mid-season replacement. I wouldn't expect Johnny Damon back before Saturday at the earliest, and maybe not until March. He might not even be able to fly before the weekend.
More disturbing is that Damian Jackson stayed in the game. Perhaps he wasn't as bad off as Damon, but there's virtually no way he didn't need to be examined carefully and immediately. I understand the desire of players to stay on the field, and also the need the Sox had to not lose their best defensive second baseman. Nevertheless, any standard of care would seem to mandate that Jackson leave the game and the ballpark, and be treated as a concussion victim.
Time: 8:13 p.m... Subject: Bunt?... I say, "no," just because Williamson is a high-K guy, and Williamson/Dye is a terrible ball-in-play matchup. I'd actually use Melhuse to hit for Dye, who is an awful player right now. If Lowe comes in, things change. Then I like the bunt. I love Singleton in the #9 spot right now.
Time: 8:14... Subject: Bunt?... Following up...I also bunt because Lowe's explosive sinking stuff has a reasonable chance of sneaking away, and I want the runner on third for that.
Derek Lowe did come in, and Ramon Hernandez did bunt. Adam Melhuse hit for Dye. At that point, you had to like the A's chances. Lowe doesn't strike out many hitters, and he gets a lot of ground balls. One through the infield would likely win the game for the A's. If Melhuse, an underrated hitter, drew a walk, the tough-to-double-up Chris Singleton would be coming up next. A tie game seemed likely, and a 5-4 A's victory within reach.
Time: 8:44... Subject: Re: The Game... How freaking nasty were the two strikeout pitches Lowe threw? I don't think there's a hitter on earth--Bonds included--who gets to those.
Melhuse didn't like the call on the 2-2 pitch on which he was called out, but it was a strike, just as the 1-2 to Terrence Long that ended the game was a strike. They were just about unhittable pitches, located beautifully--the first pitches up in the strike zone in both at-bats, which no doubt was a factor in the reactions of the hitters.
Much will be made of the fact that this is the fourth straight season in which the A's lost in the Division Series, all of them in the final game. They've lost nine straight games in which they had a chance to eliminate their opponent, the kind of fact that can become an epitaph. I'm reluctant to make the leap from that fact to an indictment of the players' character, however, because these are successful people who, like all of us, are more than our work. The rush to brand the A's with all kinds of labels that assail their collective character is wrong. As you read what will be an avalanche of stories that glorify the Red Sox players and make the A's out to be chokers, remember that it's all media nonsense. The outcome of a baseball game, a series, or even multiple trips to the playoffs don't define a man's character, good or bad.
The A's lost because they played baseball poorly at the wrong times. Is their baserunning a problem? It would seem so, but remember that this A's team allowed the fewest runs in the league and scored the sixth-fewest. They played a lot of close games, and if their baserunning was such a problem, it would stand to reason that it would have shown up in their record.
The A's didn't just do this to themselves, however. They also lost because the Red Sox played good baseball. The Sox's much-maligned bullpen provided great innings in this series, with Mike Timlin and Scott Williamson coming up huge. (I believe Williamson is the first pitcher to throw in every game of a five-game Division Series.) In the aggregate they hit poorly, but on three straight days they got monster clutch hits from Trot Nixon, David Ortiz, and Manny Ramirez.
The Sox move on, but the big winners were baseball fans. For seven straight days (can you believe it's just seven), we were treated to exciting, pressure-packed baseball. It wasn't always great baseball--in some cases, it was downright ugly--but every day and every night there was the kind of tension that only this game, the one without a clock, the one that doesn't let you run your offense through your stars, can provide.
Tonight, this amazing October continues as the Cubs and Marlins open the NLCS. That is one weird sentence. I know people who picked the Cubs, and I even know people who picked the Marlins, but I don't know anyone who had both. We're either going to see the Cubs reach their first World Series since 1945, or watch the Marlins--a member of baseball's nominal underclass--go to their second in the last seven years.
This matchup is defined by an insane amount of great young starting pitching. It's likely that no one over 30 will start a game, which would make this the first time since the 1986 World Series that has happened.
That young starting pitching, or more accurately, the condition of that pitching, is the biggest factor in the series and the hardest to predict. Dusty Baker has placed a tremendous workload on his young starters. Two members of the Cubs' rotation, Mark Prior and Carlos Zambrano, have blown past their previous peak workloads, while Kerry Wood is just now breaking new ground.
While Jack McKeon has been much more careful about the innings he's gotten from his two very young starters, both Josh Beckett and Dontrelle Willis are into uncharted territory. Neither has ever thrown this many innings or worked this deep into a season before. The team whose starters show the least fatigue may well win the series based on that alone.
A mitigating factor is that these are two of the more impatient teams in the league. Neither walks much--they ranked 13th and 14th in the NL--and the Marlins don't strike out very often. Pitchers may be able to get through innings more quickly than is usually the case. At this point in the season, every saved pitch counts.
In facing the Cubs, the Marlins have the same problem the Braves did, only worse: their lineup is so heavily right-handed that they will have their hands full with the Cubs' power right-handers. Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo will have to reach base frequently for the Marlins to have any chance of scoring enough runs to win, and those two players will have to be very careful about picking their spots to run. The Cubs allowed the fifth-fewest steals and the third-lowest success rate in the NL. Getting the two table-setters on base will be especially important against Zambrano and Matt Clement, who both pitch much better with the bases empty. Something to watch: the Cubs have very poor range on the infield corners, and only Prior is a good defensive pitcher. Pierre and Castillo may make a nice living with bunts.
The Marlins took advantage of the Giants' mediocre outfield range with a lot of singles and doubles and taking extra bases. The Cubs have a similarly challenged set of flycatchers, but have been able to minimize the damage they cause because they have a strikeout-heavy staff and a small pasture to cover in Wrigley Field. In three of these games, they'll have only one of those things going for them. For that reason, I think it's important that the Cubs win the first two games in Chicago. They're going to have a hard time keeping the Marlins from picking up singles and doubles when the series shifts to Miami; Moises Alou, Kenny Lofton, and Sammy Sosa just can't cover the necessary ground.
This series is basically a battle of strikeout rates, not unlike last year's AL Division Series between the Yankees and Angels. The Cubs' staff set records for strikeouts, while the Marlins were the third-hardest team in the league to whiff. If the Cubs get 10 to 12 strikeouts a game, the Marlins won't be able to take sufficient advantage of the Cubs' defense or their own speed. If the Marlins put more balls in play, they'll get more than their share of hits, and their offense will work.
I think the Cubs are the better team, but I expect to see some degradation in the performance of at least two starting pitchers (most likely Zambrano and Prior), which will exacerbate the team's defensive issues. That will be enough to push the Marlins over the top. Fish in six, but Cubs tonight, 6-5, as both Zambrano and Josh Beckett struggle a little.