October 11, 2003
All the Right Moves
In a game that could have been lost many times, Dusty Baker did all the right things to win.
That line may not ring true, given how strenuously I criticized Baker in Thursday's column and in a number of others this year. All of those criticisms still hold, which doesn't change the fact that Baker made the right decisions Friday to help the Cubs take a 2-1 lead in the NLCS.
The biggest thing Baker did was use his best pitchers in the biggest situations. In the 11th inning, nursing a one-run lead, Baker rode Mike Remlinger through a series of Marlin hitters who hammer left-handers rather than go to the inferior right-handers left in his pen. Baker not only correctly overrode platoon considerations, but left the closer myth behind as well, choosing the guy with one save in three years ahead of former closers Antonio Alfonseca and Dave Veres.
Prior to that, Baker had made the unusual move of stretching current closer Joe Borowski out for 2 1/3 innings, the last two in a tie game. Borowski didn't throw a ton of pitches and was fairly effective, especially in the last inning of his appearance, a 1-2-3 frame.
The pitching usage in last night's game was weird all around. Both teams used just three pitchers through 10 innings, highly unusual for 21st-century baseball. That reflects the overwhelming right-handedness of both team's lineups. Without much in the way of left-handed hitting in this series, there's little call for playing matchups out of the bullpen, clearing the way for good right-handed relievers to get six or more outs at a clip.
Knowing he won't have to play a lot of matchup baseball, Baker has made liberal use of the double-switch in this series. That puts his pitchers far enough from batting to enable them to go two and even three innings without running into a pinch-hitter. You could argue that a weakness in Baker's team--relatively poor players in the bottom three lineup spots--becomes a positive because he doesn't feel like he has to keep any of them in the game. Randall Simon or Eric Karros? Alex Gonzalez or Ramon Martinez? Damian Miller or Paul Bako? It doesn't really matter, so use the interchangeable parts to get extra outs from the good pitchers.
Another notch in Baker's belt was the night had by the players we can loosely group as "Cubs BP Doesn't Like," as Simon, Tom Goodwin and Doug Glanville had two triples and a home run, creating the last three Cub runs among them. It's a reminder that while players may have flaws that make them inadequate contributors in the aggregate, even the worst players on playoff rosters, or in MLB for that matter, are capable of doing damage sometimes.
All in all, it was a good night for Baker, who saw so many of his decisions go right and was rewarded with a win, one that puts him one step closer to the World Series, and quite possibly, being anointed king of Illinois.
This is a huge game for the Red Sox, less so for the Yankees. See, the Sox are supposed to win when Pedro Martinez pitches, so all the pressure is on them. If they lose this game, they'll have to pull out one of the next two behind their #3 and #4 starters, just to have a chance to get the series back in the hands of Derek Lowe and Martinez.
The problem for the Sox is that the Yankees have done as well against Martinez as any team in baseball. The strategy of making him throw a lot of pitches early in games works for them; Martinez has seen the eighth inning against the Yankees just once in eight starts over the last two seasons, and his 3.80 ERA this year against the Bombers is what passes for success against one of the game's greatest pitchers.
You can expect more of the same this afternoon. The Yankees will try and stretch Martinez out by taking pitches early, trying to get him over 20 throws an inning to wear him down by the sixth. Most pitchers show some decline as they reach 100 pitches and beyond, and Martinez is no exception (in limited exposure over 105 pitches, he's been wild and hittable). The sooner you get him there, the sooner he slips from immortal to merely great, and the sooner you're hitting off of Scott Sauerbeck. As good as the Red Sox' pen has been the last two weeks, there's no way that the Yankees don't want to get Martinez out and the relievers into this one very early. Martinez's pitch count in the early innings is the key to this game.
Much will be made of this being Roger Clemens' final game in Boston, and I think that factor will be an issue for one reason. Clemens, despite his long list of accomplishments and status as a 20-year veteran, is still prone to carrying too much exuberance with him to the mound. If that is a problem today--and I think it will be to some extent, given the circumstances--Clemens will likely be wild high, which would give the Red Sox extra baserunners and make Clemens homer-prone. With their ace on the mound, just one three-run homer could put this game away. Clemens will have to throw strikes, especially in the early going when he'll be fighting his own adrenaline.
So despite this appearing to be a great pitchers' duel in the making, there are reasons to suspect that it will turn out otherwise, and that's before considering the quality of these teams' lineups and that Fenway Park has played as a great hitters' park this year.
Throw it all together, and I'll fall back on my original idea that this series would be won by the Yankees in five games. Look for a 5-3 Yankee win today, with both starters putting up decent, but not great, performances, leaving somewhat early, and the bullpens determining the winner.