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October 13, 2004

Prospectus Today

Playoff Musings

by Joe Sheehan

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Too much stuff to cover, so I'll cheat and use the black dots:

Yankees vs. Red Sox

  • That was as crazy a swing in the tension level of a game that you're likely to see. Three innings of fever pitch in which the Yankees went up 6-0, three innings of coasting in which the only drama was Mike Mussina's shot at perfection, and back to three innings of insanity.

  • The last five batters that Mussina faced shouldn't take away from his performance. He changed his approach after the Mark Bellhorn double and paid the price. I would have liked to have seen Joe Torre be quicker about taking him out. His not doing so may have cost him 35 pitches from Tom Gordon and Mariano Rivera. Things like that matter in a short series, especially against a team with so little depth in the bullpen.

  • Mussina had to be wondering what was going on. The eight runs the Yankees scored while he was on the mound were the second-most he'd ever gotten in support. By the end of the third inning, the Yankees had given Mussina more runs of support than he'd gotten in his last five postseason starts combined. When he walked to the mound to start the second, it was the first time in 35 postseason innings that he'd done so with more than a one-run lead.

  • The Yankees' lack of a good left-handed reliever cost them last night, as David Ortiz tripled off of Gordon in the eighth inning. That probably should have been Rivera's batter, anyway. In other years, it would have been Mike Stanton's batter.

    Torre's slow hand in bringing in the Cyborg Reliever, as well as his slow hand in taking out Mussina, indicates that he knows just how thin his staff is. Once he has a good pitcher in the game, he's going to want to get as many outs from him as possible. He gets two pitching changes a game, one to bring in Gordon, the other to bring in Rivera. After that, his choices become unattractive.

  • Speaking of Rivera, would it have killed Fox to stay with the game when he came in? That has to be a nice moment, no? They showed so many clips of his arrival at the ballpark, his arrival in the bullpen, that their not showing his walk from the pen to the mound left me feeling cheated.

    The fourth commandment of television, I guess: Thou shalt not mess with commerical time.

    About a third of my e-mails from readers this week have been ones complaining about Fox. It's not just the cranky columnist, Bud. People don't like your broadcast partner, and they're right about most of the problems.

  • As great as Hideki Matsui was at the plate last night, he almost single-handedly put the Red Sox back in the game, having two balls bounce off of his glove for extra bases. Both balls--especially Ortiz's triple--might have been handled by a better left fielder, which isn't to say that Matsui is bad, but more to point out that the cost of inferior defense shows up in places other than the error and unearned-run columns.

  • With Curt Schilling's short outing, speculation has already begun about his coming back for Game Four. I think that's ridiculous, given the inferior pitcher we all watched last night. The Red Sox have to hope to get one more good start out of Schilling in this series, and whether that start comes in Game Four, Five or even Seven isn't as important as making sure that when he pitches, he can do so to his standards.

    They've already lost one Schilling start. They probably can't afford to lose a second because they sent last night's version out there again.

  • Al Leiter, by the way, was tremendous in the booth, perhaps because there was an issue right up his alley. Jeff Brantley, on "Baseball Tonight," was also informative. It's rare that players or ex-players actually bring something to a broadcast, but both of those guys were terrific at explaining how Schilling's ankle injury was affecting his performance.

  • Odd management of relief pitchers is becoming the central theme of this postseason. Last night, Terry Francona sent Mike Timlin to the mound for the eighth inning with the Sox down 8-7. He got Keith Foulke up in the bullpen. Timlin gave up two runs on three hits, the big one being a two-out double that plated two runs.

    At that point, Francona went to Foulke. Huh? Look, if it's important enough that you'll use Foulke down 10-7, wouldn't you get him in there to start the eighth inning down 8-7? Or perhaps with two on and two out down 8-7? Bringing him in after the Bernie Williams double is the mother of all after-the-fact barn door closings.

    I don't think it's a matter of affecting Foulke's availability, although warming him up might have some small impact. Using him after the 8-7 game has become a 10-7 game is pretty suboptimal, whereas using him to start a late inning down by one or two runs--as both Torre and Bobby Cox have done this postseason with their best reilevers--is a viable strategy.

    I was asked by a reader why I've been writing so much about managerial decisions. It's not so much the individual decisions, although they've often been wrong and had a huge impact on the games. The problem is the thought process; what is the overarching plan or philosophy or approach that governs the management of your relievers?

    In most cases, I don't think there is one. At this level, shouldn't there be?

    The Red Sox don't need to win tonight's game to win the series, not with the major Yankee rotation questions going into the weekend. It's going to feel that way, however; if they go down 0-2 after using both Schilling and Pedro Martinez, the 44 or so hours between the end of Game Two and the start of Game Three will be made miserable for them by the fans and media. The Yankees, having beaten Schilling, are free-rolling tonight.

Astros vs. Cardinals

  • Not to put too fine a point on this, but this looks like a mismatch. The Cardinals looked like a championship team against the Dodgers, getting very good pitching in support of their terrific lineup. They didn't have to use their bullpen much, and only Jason Marquis is coming off an unimpressive outing.

    The Astros come into the series off-rotation, having to go with Brandon Backe and Peter Munro in the first two games. That's not quite as bad as it looks; Backe has been pitching well down the stretch, although Munro hasn't had a good start since August.

  • It's a bit too simple, but this series really comes down to whether the Astros can steal one of the first two games. If they can, then it becomes a best-of-five with the Astros having home-field advantage and a big edge in the starting-pitching matchups.

    Can they steal a game? Neither Williams nor Game Two starter Matt Morris is unbeatable. Both are homer-prone, and more importantly, neither is the kind of attack right-hander who might pose a matchup problem for the heavily right-handed Astros lineup. Moreover, the Astros can probably be as aggressive with Brad Lidge as they care to be should they have an opportunity to win one game. Lidge threw just seven pitches after Saturday, and should they use him heavily in St. Louis, they'll have an off day followed by their best two starters pitching on full rest.

  • The Cardinals are much deeper than the Astros, especially on the pitching side. During their late-summer hot streak, the 'Stros got a lot of good pitching from guys like Chad Qualls, Dan Miceli and even Russ Springer. I don't think you can count on that continuing. Any game not started by Roy Oswalt or Roger Clemens has the potential to get ugly quickly, while the appearance of any reliever besides Lidge is a negative development for Houston.

    This is the most top-heavy pitching staff for a playoff team since the 2001 Diamondbacks, who had Schilling and Randy Johnson, a serviceable #3 starter in Miguel Batista, Byung-Hyun Kim in the bullpen, and very little else.

    That team did win the World Series, however.

  • The Cardinals have fewer issues. Scott Rolen's calf and knee problems are their main concern. They've killed his performance for three weeks now, and may require that he sit down in favor of John Mabry. It might even help them in one of the first two games: both Backe and Munro have platoon splits from the Jose DeLeon Collection.

  • I'll split the baby. I think the Astros will steal one of the first two games, most likely behind Backe, but eventually fall to the better team. Cardinals in seven.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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