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August 27, 2004
Mailing It In
I've been on the road for a few days, but I'm back now. If you'll allow me some room, consider my next three columns--Friday, Saturday and Monday--as just one long piece, as I get caught up on a lot of the things I've been wanting to write about. I'm done traveling through the end of the regular season, so I will be back to a regular writing schedule starting Monday.
Sometimes, a close baseball game is a taut pitchers' duel between two good teams fighting hard to win. The opposite of that idea was on display in Wednesday's Cubs/Brewers game. I can't remember watching a game and being more disappointed in the general level of effort. The game, which started after a rain delay of and hour and 45 minutes, probably never should have been played if the two teams cared so little.
Ned Yost, for one, decided that the way to stop a seven-game losing streak and avert a sweep was to play all of his bad players. His lineup wasn't fit for September. It might not have been fit for March:
Scott Podsednik, CF Trent Durrington, 3B Craig Counsell, SS Brady Clark, RF Chris Magruder, LF Bill Hall, SS Russell Branyan, 1B Chad Moeller, C Doug Davis, PLet's see...five of those players have been in the minor leagues this season. Of the others, the #3 hitter is a career .264/.348/.348 hitter who was batting .254/.348/.333 in '04 coming into the game. The leadoff man has the job because he had a career year last season; his .316 OBP in '04 certainly doesn't justify the two-year contract extension he signed in May. The #8 hitter is the non-hitting catcher. The pitcher, while a favorite of mine, is about a year removed from the waiver wire.
I'm sure the Giants and Padres would love to see their opponents run out lineups like that the rest of the way. (Actually, given the way in which the Mets have lain down for the Padres this week, maybe that's a bad example. I digress.)
On days like this, Yost should try to get Brooks Kieschnick into the lineup. (Note: this doesn't specifically apply to Wednesday's game, as Kieschnick is on the DL.) Kieschnick is at least the Brewers' fourth- or fifth-best hitter, and there's no tactical reason not to use him as the left fielder. If it turns out that you need his right arm on the mound, you can put Chris Magruder in the game just as easily as you can start him, and having Kieschnick in the lineup makes the Brewers that much more competitive. He's been used just three times in left in two seasons as a Brewer, not once in 2004. Getting him out there more often would be one of those small things they could do to help themselves.
Beyond Yost's lineup construction, the game was played with all the enthusiasm of a teenager forced to attend a Peter, Paul and Mary concert with his parents. Seventy-two batters came to the plate in this game, and 26 swung at the first pitch. I was watching the game on television, and I honestly thought that percentage would be much higher. I kept thinking that I hadn't seen two teams just give away so many at-bats in one game. I'm sure that Greg Maddux and Doug Davis contributed to the aggressiveness, throwing a lot of strikes to the hitters who took the first offering. Over the last few innings, the pace picked up considerably; seven of the last eight Brewers to bat hacked at the first pitch they saw, helping Maddux to a four-pitch eighth inning. At one point, I'm pretty sure I saw Craig Counsell turn to home-plate umpire Angel Hernandez and ask, "I'm getting paid in cash, right?"
I'll concede that there's a subjective element here, and that what I saw may not translate well to your screen. It was just one of those things I found offensive as a baseball fan. In a season of 2,400-odd games, I'm sure this wasn't the only one that was played without a sense of urgency for anything but the post-game spread, but given that the outcome mattered not only to one of the participants, but to at least two other teams fighting for a playoff spot, I was disappointed by how little the Brewers put into the game.
I can get myself into trouble this way, but I think that it's instructive, in evaluating managers, to look at how their teams approach the season when all hope is lost. I have a lot of problems with Lloyd McClendon's decision-making, but I can honestly say that I don't think the Pirates have mailed in many games under his stewardship. The Devil Rays and the Expos, postseason hopes long gone, always seem to play hard. On the other hand, teams like the White Sox, Diamondbacks, Mets and Rockies always seem like candidates to be blown out at any moment, and not just because the talent isn't there. There's an apathy that shows in their play, a lack of concern for the outcome of an at-bat, an inning or a game.
I tend to stay away from evaluating intangibles, things I can't measure, because the informed-outsider vantage point is a poor one from which to do so. However, I do think it's possible to get some idea of effort by watching the games, and that a team's effort level--not hustle, but effort--can be evaluated in both objective and subjective ways.
The Brewers didn't show up on Wednesday afternoon, and that reflects poorly on Yost.