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October 21, 2004

Prospectus Today

Making History

by Joe Sheehan

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So what's the big deal? Lots of people had the ALCS going the distance, and many of those--including Derek Zumsteg in his preview--had the Red Sox winning in seven games. The best team won, and they did so by taking advantage of their superior depth.

OK, OK....

While the end result wasn't a surprise, the path to get there was unique in baseball history. You can't just hand-wave that away. While it shouldn't be forgotten that the Red Sox were the better team coming into the series, coming back from a deficit from which no MLB team had ever returned is what makes their win special. When given the opportunity--by winning two coin-flip games on Sunday and Monday--to make history, the Red Sox came to New York and completely outplayed the Yankees in the final two games.

The question I keep getting, from a number of places, is whether this outcome is more about the Sox than the Yankees. Did the Red Sox achieve it, or did the Yankees give it away (the "c" word). I don't think there's one answer; the Yankees should have won one of the final two games in Boston, and their poor play, and some poor decisions by Joe Torre, are the reason they did not. On the other hand, the Sox completely controlled the series from the eighth inning of Game Five onward.

The best team won, and that they did so in the way they did, winning four games in four days with a wrecked bullpen and a #1 starter who shouldn't have been pitching, is to their eternal credit. There will be plenty of time to dissect why the Yankees lost. For now, celebrate the Red Sox.

Game Seven turned out to be anticlimactic. Kevin Brown had nothing last night, which was evident early as he got ahead of Johnny Damon 1-2 and couldn't put him away, then nearly lost Mark Bellhorn after having him down 0-2. The cookie that David Ortiz hit into the bleachers would have been blasted by about 2/3 of the hitters in MLB. It was just a terrible pitch. You could almost see the cartoon exclamation point above Ortiz's head as he started his swing.

You could have made an argument for starting the second inning with Javier Vazquez, although that may be a results-oriented second guess. Brown seemed afraid to throw strikes, nibbling and falling behind Trot Nixon and Bill Mueller. He had Orlando Cabrera down 1-2, and managed to walk him, which was probably the key moment in the game. Ten minutes later, Damon wasn't in a slump any longer and the Yankees were done.

Brown's issues with not being able to get strike three were a microcosm of the problems Yankee pitchers had with doing so all series long. They couldn't put hitters away, and they paid the price for it time and time again.

Meanwhile, Derek Lowe was on his game. He showed up with better stuff than he had almost all year, getting excellent movement. Even though he was starting many hitters off with a ball, the Yankees weren't taking advantage. For the third straight game, the Yankees hit virtually no balls hard; the failure of the offense was a big part of why they lost, and a shock given how effective it had been in the three Yankee wins. I can't emphasize this enough: up through the end of regulation in Game Five, the Yankees had 28 walks and 30 strikeouts. From that point forward, they had five walks and 21 strikeouts.

Given that the game was a blowout, you wouldn't expect there to be too many questionable decisions. This is the 2004 postseason, though, and the rules state that a manager has to do something silly in every game. Last night, it was Terry Francona's turn, as he removed Derek Lowe, tossing a 69-pitch one-hitter and up by seven runs, to bring in Pedro Martinez in the seventh. Both halves of the decision were dumb; the Yankees weren't doing anything against Lowe, and given the seven-run lead, there would be plenty of warning for Francona should he need to make a change.

More importantly, however, is that the blowout win in Game Seven gave the Red Sox an opportunity that they never could have expected. Not only would they be going to the World Series, but they could start the Fall Classic back on rotation, with their top two starters, Martinez and Curt Schilling, available on full rest. Why mess with that for the sake of one inning of relief in a seven-run game? Will Carroll argues that it was Martinez's throw day, which is true, but I think that only makes Martinez available if the game situation requires it. The Sox didn't need him last night.

There's one more reason not to do this, and I think it became pretty evident in the bottom of the seventh. The crowd was completely out of the game at that point. By bringing in Martinez, and launching a sea of "Who's Your Daddy?" chants, Francona made about the only move he could that would inject some energy, some life, into the situation. I can't say that it mattered all that much, but under the circumstances, why do that?

The Yankees picked up a couple of runs off Martinez, but failed to get closer than 8-3. When Bellhorn led off the eighth with a home run, any momentum was gone. That was a theme in last night's game; every positive Yankee event was met with an immediate Red Sox response. Runner thrown out at the plate in the first? Two-run home run. A run in the bottom of the third? Two in the top of the fourth. The Red Sox never let the Yankees off the mat.

I was thinking about it, and I think the Red Sox should send Richie Phillips a very large, very expensive bottle of champagne. See, it was Phillips who orchestrated one of the dumbest moves in the history of labor relations, the umpires' midseason walkout in 1999. It was that decision, which was met with a collective shrug by MLB, that changed the face of major-league umpiring. The increased willingness of umpires to reconsider a call by getting input from their peers is a direct result of the end of the Phillips era. It is that willingness that turned two bad calls in Tuesday's Game Six into two correct ones, both changes benefitting the Red Sox.

I don't think it's unreasonable to suggest that had the arbiters' mindset of the 20th century been in place, the Sox might well have lost Game Six, and never had the chance to make history last night.

I've spent enough time this past week criticizing Joe Torre that I don't have much energy left for doing so now. Nothing he could have done last night was going to change the outcome. Brown was the right choice to start the game; he just had nothing. He did manage to reanimate Kenny Lofton for the game, which is something.

I will point out two head-shaking moments. One came in the seventh, when John Olerud came off the milk carton to pinch-hit for Tony Clark. Olerud stayed in to play first base the rest of the game. So if Olerud was available enough to play a few innings, that means that Torre elected to play Clark ahead of him.

The other decision came with two outs in the ninth, with the Yankees down 10-3. Torre went to the mound to bring in Mariano Rivera for Tom Gordon. Now, I have no problem with using Rivera in Game Seven, even in a blowout, because you might as well use your best players. But that means starting the eighth or ninth with him on the mound. To make a mid-inning pitching change at that point in the game is a waste of everyone's time, save Fox, who gets to move some commercial inventory.

Neither of these moves made a difference, but they left me scratching my head and wondering exactly what Torre was doing. A fitting end to the series, actually.

Of course, the World Series matchup isn't set yet, because there's one more seventh game to be played. It's great that this series goes seven, if only because the first six have been a bit lost in the shadow of the ALCS.

While I know there are a lot of Astros and Cardinals fans upset by this, keep in mind that some of the overshadowing was circumstance. The rainout in Boston last Friday pushed the Red Sox and Yankees' fifth game to Monday. While they were going 14 innings, the Astros and Cardinals were playing their fifth game--the game that really elevated the series--at a rapid pace. No one wanted that kind of conflict, no one scheduled it. It just happened, helped in part by the pace of the AL: game, and Fox's scheduling of it for 5:05 p.m., rather than the 4:15 p.m. that was the normal first-game slot.

I know I wish I'd seen more of Game Five. I think that rather than run some stupid reality series this winter, an enterprising network should just take seven weeks and show this series again in all its glory. It's really been that good.

Yesterday added to the legend. A 4-3 game in the fourth was a 4-3 game in the ninth, thanks to the best work the Astros have gotten from their non-Lidge relievers in the postseason. The Astros took advantage of a huge mistake by Jason Isringhausen--hitting Morgan Ensberg with a 2-2 pitch--to piece together the tying run in the ninth.

Isringhausen was working his second inning of the game. As I wrote last week, he just doesn't do this. Tony LaRussa rarely uses him for more than an inning and a third, and usually then only because he's blown a save. No once all year was he asked to get a six-out save. It was the right decision by LaRussa; it just didn't work out. LaRussa badly misses Steve Kline right now, and is having to revamp his usage patterns on the fly.

LaRussa made another big decision late in the game, choosing to intentionally walk Carlos Beltran with a runner on second base and two outs, a walk that set up Jeff Bagwell's game-tying single. The move made sense for an assortment of reasons, Beltran's ridiculous ability just being one of them. Isringhausen is much tougher on right-handed batters in his career, his big curve being a more effective weapon against them. The move set up force plays at three bases. Bagwell jumped on the first pitch to ruin the strategy.

Not all the wrong moves have a cost, and not all the right moves work out. LaRussa played the late innings of yesterday's game well; that the Cardinals had to play three more innings to get the win doesn't reflect on his decisionmaking in the ninth.

The loss was the worst-case scenario for the Astros, who rode Brad Lidge for three innings and 32 pitches in the defeat. As LaRussa did, Phil Garner made the right decision, using his best pitcher to give his team the most opportunity to win the game. Lidge continues to amaze: with three perfect innings yesterday, he ran his line for the NLCS to eight innings, one hit, two walks and 14 strikeouts. Fourteen strikeouts, three baserunners.

As has been par for the course for the Astros, once Lidge left the game, things fell apart. Dan Miceli completed his hat trick of allowing home runs to all three members of the middle of the Cardinals' order, coughing up a two-run blast to Jim Edmonds in the 12th inning to set up a Game Seven. Miceli has faced eight batters in this series and has allowed homers to three of them, so presumably he'll be hanging out tonight wherever it was Kenny Lofton spent last weekend.

Lidge will be available for tonight's game. Given the circumstances, I think the first 12 innings of tonight's game will be some combination of Lidge, Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt, with the rest of the pitching staff reduced to spectators.

Perhaps forgotten in the extra-inning heroics were the two plays at the plate in the early innings. The two developed the exact same way: with a runner on first base and two outs, a ball was grounded down the third-base line just fair. It found the space on the wall just below the padding and ricocheted hard into short left field, catching the left fielder by surprise and allowing the runner to try and score from first base.

Here's the difference: when Jeff Bagwell hit his ball in the third inning, Reggie Sanders had to track down the ball himself, which allowed--who else?--Beltran to score easily from first base. In the bottom of the fourth, when Scott Rolen hit almost the exact same ball with Albert Pujols on first base, Jose Vizcaino went all the way out to retrieve the ball, and although he made an off-line throw to the plate, got the ball there in time for Brad Ausmus to make the play on Pujols.

I'll grant that some of the difference can be attributed to Beltran being faster than Pujols, but I think Vizcaino's effort was a big part of it as well. If Edgar Renteria--who started after the first ball but peeled off--had made a similar play, the game might never have gone extra innings.

The other big baserunning play was Pujols and Rolen's tag-up on a fly ball of medium depth to Craig Biggio in the third inning. Pujols took advantage of Biggio's poor arm to take a base on a ball that virtually no one ever goes from second to third on, and Rolen moved up on the throw. Renteria drove home both runners with a single. If Pujols doesn't tag, the Cardinals probably get just one run in the inning. It was a terrific read by Pujols, who benefitted not just from Biggio's inability to throw, but from what had to be his shock that anyone would go to third on a fly ball like that. It was a great baseball play, and was almost as significant as his two-run home run in the first inning.

Other than a very small selection of Astros pitchers, what will we see tonight? Clearly, the matchup favors the Astros, who have their best starter working on full rest, and their other two good pitchers available out of the bullpen. Jeff Suppan is no Peter Munro, but like the rest of the Cardinals' starters, he's an innings guy, not a shutdown pitcher. The Cardinals, whose bullpen was a big advantage over the Astros coming into series, don't have as big an edge tonight as a number of good relievers were worked hard yesterday, and they remain down a top-tier lefty in Kline.

I think the last prediction I got right was that the season would open at 5 a.m. EDT--it's been one of those years--so get out the salt shaker as I tell you that I think Clemens does exactly what he came to Houston to do: pitch the Astros into the World Series. Suppan has a rough night, and the Astros jump on him early to give the Rocket a cushion. Lidge closes it out with two more strikeouts.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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