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October 7, 2004
Gardenhire Blows It
For the second straight day, the most competitive Division Series game was played in the Bronx, where the Yankees and Twins endured one of those games that almost justifies an extra round of playoffs.
The first six innings of this game were played in about an hour and a half. The last six took nearly three more. So that tells you where we need to start looking at things.
The first decision that made me shake my head was Brad Radke coming out for the seventh inning. Radke was off his game last night. For just the second time all year--both in the last few weeks--he walked three batters. The Yankees were getting good swings off of him, popping three home runs and putting men on in all but one of the first six frames. Radke closed the sixth by walking Ruben Sierra and struggling to put away The Ghost of John Olerud. Even with just 77 pitches thrown, it seemed like Radke was done.
Radke walked Miguel Cairo to start the seventh--hold that thought--allowed a sacrifice bunt to Derek Jeter and a single to Alex Rodriguez to give the Yankees a critical fifth run before being lifted for Grant Balfour.
If it will take just two baserunners and one run to get you to go to the pen, why not just start the inning with the reliever? All things considered, you'd rather have a reliever start an inning than be forced to come in with runners on. Radke hadn't been pitching well, Gardenhire had designs on bringing him back on three days' rest anyway, and the Twins this year are loaded with good relievers. Allowing Radke to start the seventh, then leaving him in after the cry for help that is walking Miguel Cairo, was the first set of mistakes Gardenhire made.
The top of the eighth inning was a great example of what I mean when I and others write about the playoffs being determined by "luck" rather than one team being filled with better, more determined people than the other. With one out, Tom Gordon got Jacque Jones to strike out on a brutal breaking ball, one not near the plate and so nasty that it skipped past Jorge Posada, allowing Jones to reach first base.
Let's boil that down: the Twins gained a baserunner because Jones is such an undisciplined hitter he couldn't lay off of a wild pitch.
Torii Hunter singled to center, and Justin Morneau hit a well-placed bloop shot that scored Jones and sent Hunter to third base. At this point, the Twins had two strikeouts, one decent single and one bloop single off of Gordon, and had the tying run 90 feet from home. Joe Torre brought in Mariano Rivera, who put Corey Koskie down 0-2, went for the strikeout four times to fill the count, then watched as Koskie stuck out the bat and poked ball four down the left-field line for a book-rule double that tied the game.
While Gordon and Rivera combined to give up two runs in the eighth inning, I think they actually pitched well. Although I was surprised by the decision to use both of them in Tuesday's 2-0 loss, I don't think those appearances had any impact on Wednesday's game. Joe Morgan, who is at his best when providing insight into the game on the field, was off base in speculating that Rivera lacked enough time to warm up, leading to Koskie's double. Both Rivera and Gordon pitched very well; the outcomes were bad.
Things weren't all bad for the Yankees, though. If Koskie's double doesn't bounce into the stands, pinch-runner Luis Rivas scores easily from first base and the Twins probably win in regulation.
The point is--and forgive me, I know I come back to this a lot, but it's very important in light of how baseball's postseason generally gets covered--that the things that decide a short series aren't related to players' character, but first to their performance, and then to things not really in their control. Moreover, being the better team, whether on paper or over the course of the regular season, doesn't matter that much when you have to win three games out of five. Any team good enough to make it this far is good enough to do that.
With the game tied, Gardenhire elected to remove Balfour after six pitches and one batter, bringing in Juan Rincon. At the time, the decision seemed innocuous, but getting just six pitches from a good pitcher would eventually come back to bite the Twins.
I got a lot of e-mail about my criticism of how Gardenhire chose his relievers Tuesday night, most of it emphasizing that there's little real difference between Rincon and Joe Nathan. I don't think that's a defense, true though it may be. Gardenhire is assigning innings based not on the quality of the two pitchers, but on the inning, ireespective of the guys coming to the plate; he doesn't think the two are interchangeable, and he chooses to use the guy he thinks is better in the ninth inning, even if that means the lesser one faces more difficult opposition.
That it works out because Rincon is a good pitcher isn't relevant to the flawed thought process. In the absence of the save rule, would Gardenhire do it the same way? That's what it comes down to: the stat driving the usage pattern.
Back to the game. Torre made the correct decision to take Rivera out after the ninth inning. Cyborg Reliever had thrown 39 pitches in 2 2/3 innings over two days, and while this was an important game, it wasn't an elimination one. I think this might be the one way in which Tuesday's outing affected this game. Without the inning in the 2-0 loss, Rivera might have been able to pitch the tenth on Wednesday.
What was surprising was seeing Tanyon Sturtze come in, rather than Paul Quantrill. It's apparent that the latter has slipped on the depth chart following a difficult last six weeks. Sturtze, however, closed the year with 12 shutout innings, striking out 14 men while allowing just four walks and three hits, and seems to have established himself as the #3 man in the pen. I have no idea how you spent $183 million on baseball players and end up with Tanyon Sturtze starting the 10th inning of the biggest game of the year, much less how he ends up as the best choice for the job.
He was effective last night, making one big mistake in getting a fastball up to Hunter, who launched it out to give the Twins a 6-5 lead in the top of the 12th.
Having taken the lead, Gardenhire was left in a bind. Nathan had thrown 36 pitches in two innings, on top of the 10 he threw on Tuesday. He hadn't been asked to get more than six outs since May 3, 2003, when he was pitching in middle relief for the Giants. The 36 pitches were already the most he'd thrown in one game all year.
On the other hand, the Yankees had John Olerud scheduled to lead off the inning, followed by four straight right-handed batters. The obvious next-best choice, southpaw J.C. Romero, wouldn't look nearly as good against the right-handed power atop the Yankee lineup. The correct decision was to go to Jesse Crain, but just as he had in the seventh, Gardenhire elected to stick with a veteran rather than bring in a rookie.
Gardenhire's mistake wasn't any different than the one his peers would have made. While I feel for him, his lack of imagination was costly. The fascination with experience and roles is an industry-wide blind spot. What's strange is that Gardenhire doesn't have the same blind spot when it comes to position players. He started Jason Kubel last night, and Kubel has 60 at-bats of major-league experience. Gardenhire is usually good about allowing young players to take on roles and provde themselves worthy, and picked the wrong time to get away from that.
I didn't like Gardenhire's comments after the game, particularly his claim that he asked Nathan if he felt he could finish the game. For one, they don't pay Nathan to make pitching changes. For another, there's only one right answer to that question if you're a baseball player, and even if Nathan was being honest about how he felt, asking the guy pumped on adrenaline to make that decision is silly.
Just as he did in the seventh with Radke, Gardenhire had a chance to make the right decision. Nathan retired Olerud and got strike one on Cairo before throwing four straight balls. Any use of Nathan in the 12th has to be predicated on the idea that the second he shows weakness, you get him out of there. Gardenhire not only left him in to face Jeter, but didn't allow balls five through eight to change his mind.
Walking Miguel Cairo--one base on balls for every 21 plate apperances in 2004--is a sign that you're done. Gardenhire saw it twice, ignored it twice, and paid the price. After Jeter's walk, Alex Rodriguez slammed Nathan's 53rd pitch to the warning track in left-center, a ball that would have ended the game had it not bounced over the fence for another automatic double. Finally, Gardenhire removed Nathan, calling upon Romero to walk Gary Sheffield and pitch to Hideki Matsui.
The final play of the game has been the subject of a lot of debate, with the consensus being that Jacque Jones screwed up. I don't know that it's so easy to grill him. Upon catching Hideki Matsui's line drive, Jones was on his heels. He appeared to focus more on getting rid of the ball quickly rather than making a good throw, and as such becomes the first player in history to be criticized for hitting the cutoff man.
It's a split-second choice--set up for a good throw or just fire--and I don't know that I can ride Jones for the decision he made. What we do know is that Jeter made his own decision, to put his head down and run. That, as much as Jones' poor throw, was the key part of the game-ending play. It's not easy to score from third on a fly ball to right field in Yankee Stadium. Jeter did, displaying the excellent baserunning skills that are a hallmark of his game.
Here's the significance of the loss: the Twins were two outs away from forcing the Yankees to beat Johan Santana to win the series. Now, they don't have that luxury. It was a brutal loss for the Twins that didn't have to happen.
Postseason baseball is the intersection of performance and something else, something we're still searching for a description of. I wrote a column earlier this season about the search:
We have to find a better way to describe this phenomenon than "luck." Made famous in part by Billy Beane's quote in Moneyball, the idea that playoff series are determined by luck is both inaccurate and an inelegant way to present the concept to people invested in the idea that it's how the best team is determined. It sounds like you're--and I could say "we're," because it is certainly connected to the perception that Baseball Prospectus has favored the A's and their processes over the years--making an excuse for the team that lost.That the Yankees won enabled the coverage of the game to fit the storyline, with the veteran Yankees showing off their clutchness while the inexperienced Twins couldn't close the deal. This, of course, conveniently ignores the eighth-inning comeback and the fact that the Twins were two outs from going up 2-0 on Team 183. That they lost had little to do with their players; young players Morneau and Rincon made key contributions, while it was Ron Gardenhire who made the biggest mistakes of the night.
So much happened in that one game, but there were two others played.
I still can't believe that Jaret Wright started the first game of the postseason. It worked out pretty well for the Astros, though, who had six extra-base hits, a figure that matches or exceeds their total for three of the four playoff series they've played in the Killer Bs era. It was nice watching Jeff Bagwell, who carried so much of the burden for those prior disappointments, pick up a key double in the 'Stros four-run fourth inning.
Roger Clemens wasn't great, but he was good enough, especially after the first two innings. It's important to take advantage of opportunities against a good pitcher, and when the Braves left five runners on in the first two frames, they left themselves wide open.
The Astros have an even bigger pitching edge in today's game, when Roy Oswalt faces off against Mike Hampton. Although they're up 1-0, the game might be more critical to the Astros' hopes than the Braves'. With the Hyde half of the rotation schedule to start the games in Houston, the Astros have to get up 2-0 to feel safe about their chances of surviving the weekend.
The better team won again. The differences between the 2002 and 2004 Angels have been apparent in the first two games, as their defense makes just enough mistakes to create opportunities for the Red Sox. It's not just obvious ones, but things like not getting to balls; Jason Varitek's two-run homer that tied the game in the sixth was preceded in the inning by David Eckstein allowing two singles where a better shortstop might have allowed none.
Like Clemens, Pedro Martinez was good enough rather than good. Relying more on his change-up than his heater, Martinez allowed three runs but kept the Angels from piling on, giving his offense a chance to get something done. The Red Sox beat the Angels' bullpen, which is not something that's easy to do.
Francona didn't start the eighth inning with Keith Foulke because he wanted that matchup, and judging from how lost Anderson looked against Myers, it was the right decision. It's rare to see a major league hitter, and a good one, appear so completely dumbfounded at the plate.
This series is over, and the Red Sox will probably advance to the ALCS in less than five games for the first time in the three-round era. We'll see how much impact that has on their chances, but you have to see them as the AL favorites right now.