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August 15, 2005

Prospectus Game of the Week

Florida Marlins @ San Francisco Giants, 8/13/05

by Jonah Keri

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Giants announcers Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow thought the Giants were ready for their matchup with Josh Beckett. After all, in the 20 days leading up to Saturday night's game, the Giants had faced a string of pitchers with the following credentials: 12 Cy Youngs, 1 MVP, 1 Rookie of the Year, 3 post-season MVPs and 37 All-Star Games. With the help of Noah Lowry, they outdueled 2005 Cy Young candidate Dontrelle Willis 1-0 on Friday. Could they overcome Beckett, who at age 25 appears to finally be over his destructive blisters and is on pace for career highs in starts, innings pitched, wins and strikeouts? We shall see.


CF Randy Winn
SS Omar Vizquel
1B J.T. Snow
LF Pedro Feliz
3B Edgardo Alfonzo
RF Todd Linden
2B Deivi Cruz
C Mike Matheny
P Brett Tomko

That lineup won't help much. If the season ended today, a .500 record would win the NL West. Given Barry Bonds' 2004 VORP was worth more than 14 wins alone, it's fair to say a healthy Bonds all year could be enough for this ugly Giants team to win it anyway, warts and all. As is, Bonds is out for the year, their second- and third-best offensive players--Moises Alou and Ray Durham--have fought injuries all season, and perennial Cy Young candidate Jason Schmidt has turned into a pumpkin. And yet one five- or six-game winning streak--especially with underrated shortstop Khalil Greene going on the DL for the sub-.500 first-place Padres--and they'd be right back in the race. So as cruel as a Josh Beckett-Deivi Cruz matchup may be to the fine folks of San Francisco, the Giants will do as much as a team with the second-worst offense in the majors possibly can...

...Which is to say not much, early on. Randy Winn lines out to left on the third pitch to him, Omar Vizquel grounds out to second on the second pitch, and J.T. Snow lines out to center on the first. Six pitches, all fastballs, for three outs. Bring back J.R. Phillips!


CF Juan Pierre
2B Luis Castillo
LF Miguel Cabrera
1B Carlos Delgado
RF Juan Encarnacion
3B Mike Lowell
SS Alex Gonzalez
C Matt Treanor
P Josh Beckett

Brett Tomko's ERA is a run and a half higher than Beckett's, his peripherals are nowhere near as good, and if the Marlins ever traded Beckett for Tomko, South Florida would erupt in rage, break off from the mainland and start steaming toward Cuba. That said, they do have somewhat similar styles. Both are big, strong guys who can sling the fastball into the mid-90s. Both use breaking stuff that when effective can be thrown for strikes in any count. Beckett just possesses better command and more movement on his pitches. Sure, that's a bit like saying ice cream and gravel are the same but for the difference in taste, but it's still true. And hey, Beckett never got traded for Ken Griffey Jr. in his prime.

Tomko gets the same results in the 1st, too. Using almost all fastballs, Tomko gets Juan Pierre to ground out, before giving up a single to Luis Castillo that kicks off the pitcher's glove and into center field. But Miguel Cabrera, he of the .380 average and nine homers since the All-Star break heading into game, rolls over on a high fastball, into an easy 6-4-3 double play.

Beckett's aggressive approach backfires when a first-pitch fastball aimed at the inside corner catches too much of the plate. Pedro Feliz deposits the belt-high pitch over the left-field wall for a 1-0 Giants lead. Though the Giants didn't know it at the time, Beckett would follow the homer with 12 straight batters retired. Giants radio host Larry Krueger's comments about the giants "brain-dead" Caribbeans that got him fired weren't only offensive--they were flat-out wrong. Dominican-born Moises Alou leads the team in on-base percentage by a wide margin for one.

More significantly, the Giants don't discriminate by background when it comes to their hacking ways. Deivi Cruz (Dominican Republic), Mike Matheny (Ohio) and Omar Vizquel (Venezuela) all get themselves out on first pitches over the next four innings. Beckett needs only 44 pitches to cruise through the first five innings, Feliz's homer the lone blemish on his record.

Tomko, whose 2.87/9 IP walk rate leads all Giants starters, makes similar efforts to challenge Marlins hitters. Lacking Beckett's near-unhittable stuff, though, he meets with lesser results. A two-out double by Alex Gonzalez in the bottom of the 2nd ties the score at 1. A Carlos Delgado monster homer to left-center makes it 2-1 in the 4th. A diving catch by Cruz on an extreme Delgado shift saves two runs from scoring in the 5th, but Tomko plays with fire for much of the night.

In the end, though, it's all Beckett. When a pitcher with no-hit stuff also brings a solid game plan to the mound, you know the other team's in trouble. After carving up the Giants the first two times through the order using almost entirely fastballs, Beckett starts mixing in his big, breaking curve and an occasional change-up. Pitching to Snow in the 7th, Beckett starts him with two curves, missing inside with the first, then painting the inside corner at the knees with the second. After a fouled-off fastball sets him up at 1-2, Beckett retires Snow on a flyout to center, courtesy of a well-placed change. Perhaps wanting to blow one by Feliz after the earlier homer, Beckett cedes another hard hit to him, this time a single to center. But a first-pitch change to Alfonzo produces an around-the-horn double play.

Already leading the league in complete games, Jack McKeon looks for another one for Beckett. But with one out in the 8th and Linden on second, Matheny slaps a single to center. It's a tough spot for third-base coach Gene Glynn: Do you send Linden, a runner with average speed at best, against Pierre, a center fielder without a ton of arm strength but often a lot of accuracy? With Durham, the Giants' best available hitter, on deck to pinch-hit, it's a doubly tough call--plus Glynn has at most a second or two to react, making it tough to weigh all the information in the moment. Add in Beckett being so hard to hit all night, and Glynn sends Linden. Pierre comes up firing, and delivers a perfect strike to Treanor, in the glove without a bounce, just to the third-base side as Linden comes crashing in. Treanor hands on, and Linden is out.

With first-base open after Matheny advanced on the throw, Beckett works around Durham for a walk. The big righty then whiffs Winn on a huge 12-6 curve out of the zone to end the 8th. Inning over.

After putting the first two on in the 9th, including a hit-by-pitch on a curve that flew way off its target, though, a move to the rejuvenated Todd Jones seems a given. But as he did in the clinching game of the 2003 World Series, McKeon decides to ride his horse to the end, one way or another. Even in the 9th, pitching all night in the Florida heat, Beckett's still thinking out there. Ahead 0-1 to Feliz, he throws a curve, inducing a pop-up in a dangerous spot after Feliz tattooed his fastball twice earlier. Ahead again 0-1 to Alfonzo, Beckett mixes it up with a fastball, good for another popout to second. With Todd Linden on a 1-1 count, Beckett takes a little off the fastball, painting the outside corner to go to 1-2. With Linden not knowing what to expect, Beckett rears back and fires a 97-mph dart, his 106th pitch of the game. He can only watch as the ball nails the corner again. Ballgame.

On a night when their star, the he-can't-really-be-22 Miguel Cabrera goes 0-for-4, the Marlins look all the more formidable in getting a win. With Castillo getting on base, Cabrera and Delgado among the best tandems in the game, and even Juan Encarnacion picking up much of the slack left by the declines of Pierre and Mike Lowell, the Marlins lead the NL in batting average and rank third in OBP. A lack of power outside their 3-4-5 hitters has them only middle-of-the-pack in runs scored, but a return to health by Delgado and a revival from either Pierre or Lowell would make them an upper-tier offense.

With three of the league's top 30 in Support-Neutral Value Added in Willis, Beckett and A.J. Burnett as well as surprise contributions from Scuffy Moehler, rookie Jason Vargas and the NL's fifth-best reliever in Jones, it's a team with the assets to make a late run and do some playoff damage, as they did two years ago. BP's Playoff Odds Report gives them nearly a 12% chance to make the post-season despite their fourth-place standing. With the Astros (hole-filled lineup), Phillies (patchy pitching) and Nationals (worst offense in the majors) all rife with flaws, don't count out the Fish just yet.

--

Set Your TiVos and VCRs: The next Prospectus Game of the Week happens Sunday, Aug. 21, 4 p.m. ET, as the Kansas City Royals visit the Oakland A's. Tune in to Channel 743 on DirecTV as we check out the A's for the first time since spring training. Apparently a few things have happened since then, or so we're told.

Jonah Keri is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jonah's other articles. You can contact Jonah by clicking here

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