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October 26, 2003

Prospectus Today

Florida Marlins, World Champions

by Joe Sheehan

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Wow. That was quite the ass-kicking.

Shrugging off the hubbub about starting on three days' rest, as well as a raucous Yankee crowd that was making its first appearance of the World Series, Josh Beckett put his name into the history books with one of the great performances in baseball history. Beckett's four-hit, nine-strikeout shutout gave the Marlins their second championship in seven years, second only to the Yankees in that timeframe.

The Marlins have a cleanup hitter too young to drink and a manager too old to drive. They're owned by a man who was a key part of one of the ugly episodes that marred MLB's integrity in the late 1990s. They drew 8,362 fans to a Memorial Day home game as years of neglect, deception and wheedling continued to hold down interest in the team.

And yet, they're the champs, and they stood on one of the game's sacred spaces last night and beat back a team that was supposed to be too experienced, too well-paid, and too blessed by the gods to lose to such an upstart.

As a Yankee fan, I hated it.

As someone who despises the way in which Jeffrey Loria came to own the Marlins, I hated it.

As a baseball fan, it was hard not to love it.

The Marlins beat the Yankees, no qualifiers. They played better over the six games of the World Series, mostly because they shut down the Yankee offense. Oh, the Yanks managed to outscore the Marlins 21-17, and their six home runs and 22 walks aren't unreasonable figures for a six-game stretch, but when you look closer, you see that a lot of those figures are padded.

Half the Yankee home runs had little game impact. Alfonso Soriano hit a two-run job in the second game with the Yankees already up 4-0. Bernie Williams hit a three-run homer in Game Three with the team up 3-1. Jason Giambi cut a 6-1 game to 6-2 with a shot in the ninth inning of Game Four. Beyond that, the Yankees were incompetent with runners in scoring position, going 7-for-50. In their four losses, they left 33 runners on and grounded into seven double plays.

I don't want to repeat the comments I made in last night's Roundtable, but I will use one excerpt, something I wrote in the late innings:

You can trace the Yankees' position in this series to the decision to have David Dellucci bunt in the 11th inning of Game Four. They had their single greatest probability of winning the World Series at the moment Hideki Matsui walked. It's decreased in almost a straight line since that point to right now.

That bunt is the dividing line in this series. The Yankees had a 2-1 lead in games, a situation in which they could expect to score one run and had a shot at two, and the Cyborg Reliever ready to get three outs. After the Dellucci bunt, they had two lousy hitters trying to get a run home against a guy who eats righties. Then they had Jeff Weaver in the game. Then they were tied in the series.

Weaver goes down in the record books as the loser of Game Four, but it's hard for me to consider him the goat. Asking a guy who hasn't pitched in a month, who you spent the year moving further and further down the depth chart until he was nearly the #3 starter in Norwich, to suddenly be the man in the World Series is ridiculous. Getting even one good inning from him was a bonus, and it's like he gave up a bomb to lose the game.

After the Dellucci bunt, the Yankees went completely into the tank offensively: 17-for-71 with five walks, one of them intentional. They scored just four more runs, three after falling behind 6-1 in Game Five. For a team that oozes postseason experience and veteran leadership, those two traits didn't do them a lot of good when it came to the most important games of the year. Isn't it fair to ask what good those qualities are, given the amateurish way in which the Yankees approached their at-bats in the last two games?

This isn't hyperbole: the core of the Yankee offensive problems was a disintegration of their plate discipline. This team was third in the AL in pitches seen per plate appearance at 3.80. In the World Series, that figure was 3.85. But the split around the bunt is damning: 4.06 before, 3.44 after. The first figure would have led baseball over a full season; the latter would have been the worst.

This failure to work the count was on display last night. Before the game, I expected that the Yankees would treat Josh Beckett the way they'd treated Pedro Martinez over the years: make him work, get him tired, and take advantage of that or the lesser pitchers who would follow.

It didn't happen. Beckett opened the game with a 12-pitch inning in which the Yankees let just four balls go by. It got worse. The Yankees went down on seven pitches in the fourth, 10 pitches in the fifth, and nine pitches in the sixth. Beckett did his part by throwing strikes and keeping his mechanics in tune, but if you'd told me going into last night that Beckett would throw 26 pitches over any three consecutive innings, I would never have believed it. It was basically the dream scenario for McKeon and the Marlins, and it was a big reason why the decision to start Beckett worked.

The Marlins did a lot of things right in the World Series. They finally got the good starting pitching that, Beckett aside, had eluded them on the way there. They didn't beat themselves in the field; other than Brad Penny's misplay of a bunt in Game Five, I'm hard-pressed to remember any Marlins' fielding miscues. The Yankees seemed to have one a game, from blown rundowns to bobbles--Derek Jeter's sixth-inning error last night led to a critical insurance run--to plays that their fielders, with their limited range, just couldn't make.

The Marlins did what they had to do to win. The Yankees didn't. Flags fly forever.

The end of the World Series caps what was an amazing stretch of baseball. I'll let historians pass the final judgment, but for me and the postseasons I've experienced, this series ranks right there with 1991 and 1986 for quality of play, for drama, and for sheer enjoyment.

In the first week of October I did a bunch of radio gigs, and of course everyone wants to know your Division Series picks and your World Series prediction. I passed mine on, but on every segment, I also made it a point to emphasize one thing: this was going to be a lot of fun. The eight playoff teams all had a shot to win it all, and the number of great players about to take the stage was astounding. I was as excited about baseball as I'd been in a long time, and like the best dish at your favorite restaurant, the playoffs didn't disappoint despite the anticipation.

Jason Schmidt. Ramon Hernandez. Mark Prior. Ivan Rodriguez. Andy Pettitte. Trot Nixon. Miguel Cabrera. Tim Wakefield. Aramis Ramirez. Todd Walker. Josh Beckett. Aaron Boone. Dontrelle Willis. Hideki Matsui. Mike Mussina. Juan Pierre. Roger Clemens. Alex Gonzalez.

Jack McKeon.

Thanks, guys. See you in 162 days.

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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