October 9, 2003
Both Barrels Blazing
Powered by Disc One of Sign O' The Times and a 1998 Pinot Noir from Benziger in Sonoma...
(Imitation is flattery.)
Judging from my Inbox, I'm supposed to be upset because Fox dictated to MLB that the two LCS games last night would be played simultaneously, with one shown on the cable channel FX. I might have ranted about it a couple of years ago, but to be honest, this is a minor, understandable move. Afternoon baseball games during the week don't draw very good ratings and are difficult for fans in broad swaths of the nation to see. Even motivated fans on the west coast who might be able to shake free from work to catch a 5 p.m. start are pretty much screwed by a game at 1 p.m.
A lot of the frustration over various scheduling decisions is justifiable, because the decisions are driven primarily by television and often run counter to logic. However, neither Fox nor MLB can do anything about the fact that the continental United States spans four time zones. None of the solutions will placate everyone, so the one that allows the widest possible audience to watch the games is acceptable. Rest assured that if a similar conflict occurs next Wednesday, Game Six of the Red Sox/Yankees series will be played at 4 p.m. Eastern, clearing the night for the Cubs/Marlins Game Seven.
As it turns out, the Cubs solved yesterday's problem by about 6:15 Pacific time, pushing ahead of the Marlins 5-0 after two innings. Brad Penny didn't have much command and Sammy Sosa punished him for it with a two-run bomb to an el station somewhere in the Loop. Everything after that, including two Alex Gonzalez home runs (see? I told you he'd be a great player some day!), was gravy.
Around the fifth inning, I realized that I was wrong about something. "Antonio Alfonseca" is the correct answer to the question, "Who should pitch the last four innings of this game?" After all, the Cubs had a huge lead, and Mark Prior had thrown 133 pitches in each of his last two starts, plus many, many more in the 29 preceding those. An easy night seemed like just the thing for his 23-year-old elbow and shoulder, especially since the Cubs' chances of ending the world rest on those joints.
Prior had completed five innings using just 73 pitches. He walked off the mound with an 8-0 lead and scheduled to bat fourth in the bottom of the frame. I really couldn't see an argument for letting him bat, although it seemed too optimistic to hope that his night would be over. Sure enough, he laid down a sacrifice bunt, and 15 minutes later, took the mound with an 11-0 lead. Ten pitches into the sixth, the score was 11-2, and Prior seemed like a lock for the showers. He got out of the inning having reached a pitch count of 94 and having shown some mortality. Due up fourth again in the sixth, I figured we'd see a pinch-hitter.
Prior batted. Up 12-2, now, after yet another Alex Rodrig...er, Gonzalez...home run. I was more than a little surprised that Prior would still be in the game. A 10-run lead with three innings to play was a gift from the gods to Dusty Baker, a chance to give his overworked right-hander a well-earned short night. Besides, Prior had just given up two home runs and had his longest inning of the game. Everything pointed to the bullpen.
Prior came out for the seventh, and I started drinking. Mercifully, it was a 10-pitch, 1-2-3 inning that pushed Prior's pitch count, on what should have been a light night, to 104.
(What was annoying is that I should have been focusing all of my attention on the Yankees/Red Sox game at this point. I couldn't. I had to keep going back to the Cubs game to see if Prior was still pitching. It was as if the game had morphed into "World's Dumbest Sports Decisions" sometime between Alex Gonzalez home runs.)
Baker had Troy O'Leary bat for Moises Alou in the bottom of the seventh. That's good, because it's very important to protect your immobile left fielder from overuse. I'm glad Baker read Keith Woolner's groundbreaking "Outfielder Abuse Points" piece in BP2003.
Prior came out to start the eighth, and I got an e-mail from Dallas Green:
Joe,Finally, FINALLY, after Prior walks Mark Redman on nine pitches to start the eighth and Randall Simon makes an error behind him, Baker walks to the mound. I flipped to the other game, but came back a couple of minutes later. After all, it could have just been a pep talk. No, Dave Veres was pitching. Ish. Prior was done after 116 pitches.
Look, whatever you might think of the use of pitch counts to measure pitcher usage, or whatever you feel is an acceptable workload for a starting pitcher in the year 2003, you have to agree with certain principles. One of those is that there is some level of overuse that is dangerous for a pitcher, even one with great mechanics and the heart of a lion and the eye of the tiger and the spleen of a woolly mammoth. If you'll grant that, then I think you'd grant the idea that not using a pitcher when he can no longer have an impact on the game, to allow his body some brief respite from the rigors of pitching, is helpful.
Mark Prior has pitched more this year than he ever had in any season in his life. Over the past six weeks, he's made nearly 1,000 pitches, all of them in pressure situations. How hard would it have been to give him 40 pitches off? The Cubs had an 11-0 lead with 12 outs to go; four Lincoln Park Trixies would have closed out the game, and if you couldn't find four, well, you could still use Alfonseca and Veres until it got close. My god, if Baker isn't going to use Juan Cruz in a tie game in the 11th inning, and he isn't going to use him with a 11-run lead in the sixth inning, why the hell is Cruz on the roster? A chip in case you have to negotiate a hostage exchange? Food? Defense at first base?
I've had it with Dusty Baker and his halo. He's a mediocrity who was blessed with Barry Bonds in his first job and somehow managed to make two division titles and a Wild Card in 10 years seem like an accomplishment. He showed up in Chicago just as two excellent young pitchers were prepared to start their first full seasons, managed a 90-win team all the way to 88 wins, and had the good fortune to be up against Jimy Williams and Tony La Russa. Baker cost the Cubs maybe 60 runs on offense this year because he cared more about forcing his preferred plate approach on good young hitters than on developing them, and 30 more by showing unwarranted loyalty to the worst starting pitcher in the league. He'll cost them more going forward as the star versions of Prior and Carlos Zambrano he managed this year turn into something less pleasant as a result of his heavy hand.
Baker made major mistakes with this team, and it made the playoffs not because he's a genius, but because he inherited enough talent that even he couldn't screw it up. The Teflon coating he carries around is ridiculous, and an example of just how far the media will go to avoid doing actual analysis when given the option to tell a good story.
I've been over and over it in my head, and I can't understand why Prior pitched as long as he did last night. Maybe, and this is just playing devil's advocate, I send him out for the sixth, just so he can get a little more work. But once he gives up back-to-back homers, what's the use? Is there some intangible that you're going to reinforce in the guy who'd been a college Player of the Year, the NL's best pitcher in the pennant race, and who'd shut down the league's best offense for nine innings in his first-ever playoff start?
There was no good reason, not even a bad reason, for Mark Prior to throw 116 pitches last night. I truly hope his career doesn't go the way of Jaret Wright's, but if it does, remember last night's game. Extra effort in pursuit of a championship is justifiable. Last night was just a joke.
Other stuff from last night's games: