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October 1, 2005

Prospectus Today

Four Games...One Channel?

by Joe Sheehan

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We're down to four relevant matchups of the 15 series being played this weekend: the Phillies in Washington and the Astros at home against the Cubs, as they duel for the NL wild card; the Indians at home in Cleveland, trying to win the AL wild card; and there are apparently two teams based in the Northeast playing some games. If only they could get some media coverage.

I kid, of course. I love this game and its history and rivalries, but there's a little part of me that wouldn't mind seeing the Yankees and/or Red Sox go through a multi-year slump, just to cool down the hype that surrounds every series the two play. Attention is warranted, of course--the two have won five of the last six AL pennants, and as of this morning, they're tied for first place with two games left in the season--but we've reached, some might say passed, the point of overkill.

Or maybe I just need to turn off the TV and read a book or something.

I outsmarted myself last night. I actually had to leave the house around 6:30 Pacific to go to an event Sophia had put together for her employees. Let this be a lesson to those of you prone to answering your spouse's questions while watching three baseball games. (Sophia: "Is next Friday OK?" Joe: "Jeez, does John Gibbons know about the rule that says you can use a substitute batter?!?! What? Um…yeah, sure.")

But I had a plan. I could watch the four big games right up until I had to leave, and then I would record the two AL matchups from the point at which I left. To save space on my TiVo, I set it up manually, giving the Yankee/Red Sox game an additional two hours--because they play high-scoring games with lots of walks and pitching changes--and the White Sox/Indians game an additional 90 minutes--because it was almost over when I had to leave.

Brilliant!

By the time I got to the dinner, I knew I was in trouble. The Indians had tied their game in the ninth and moved to extra innings, and I would only get three of the additional frames recorded at home. I followed the game via cell phone and frequent trips to the restroom, conveniently located on the other side of the restaurant, forcing me to walk past a bank of televisions. The downside of this is that Sophia's staff now thinks I have a serious medical problem or a raging cocaine habit. Or both.

On the other hand, I did see the Ross Gload double that broke a city's heart. Ozzie Guillen certainly started an interesting lineup, with just two regulars and at least that many players who won't be on the postseason roster. Once the game began, however, he played it for real, using every good pitcher in his bullpen and working some regulars into the action off of the bench. (Worth mentioning: Guillen has a more representative lineup listed for today's game.) Whatever complaints the Red Sox and Yankees might have had--and it is admittedly a difficult situation for Guillen--certainly sound more hollow in the wake of the Sox' 3-2 win.

The Indians have simply gone into one of those funks. With the lineup core not producing, the OBP issues at the bottom of the order--Aaron Boone and Casey Blake--hurt that much more. Since taking a 3-0 lead over the Royals in the first inning of Sunday's game, the Tribe has scored 13 runs in 47 innings--six of those in Thursday's win over the Devil Rays--and that slump has cost them a shot at the AL Central and kept them from taking control of the wild-card chase. They may well be the best team in the AL, and they do still control their destiny--two straight wins will get them at least a one-game playoff--but they'll need the lineup core to put some runs on the board in support of a terrific pitching staff or see a great second half fall just a bit short.

The Indians still control their destiny because the best the Red Sox and Yankees can both do is 95-67. That's because the Red Sox danced around some wasted outs on the bases last night to pull out a 5-3 win over the Yankees, tying the AL East. David Wells walked two batters in the first inning, then none over his last six, throwing strikes and refusing to allow the Yankees to leverage their plate discipline to create rallies.

For all the concern about the Red Sox bullpen, I like what Terry Francona can do if his starters pitch deep enough into games. Chad Bradford and Mike Myers are excellent specialists, and Mike Timlin is a reliable short reliever. That's a solid back of the bullpen; with Jon Papelbon available for complete-inning stints, the Sox' playoff bullpen, if they get to October, will not be as bad as advertised.

Today's game is incredibly important to the two teams involved, but in some ways, a bit irrelevant. Some team is going to have a one-game lead on the other going into tomorrow, when the real drama happens. What the Indians do today in Cleveland is as important to the two teams as what they do between themselves; the winner of today's game locks of a playoff spot only in the Indians also lose.

Tim Wakefield is the Red Sox' #1 starter right now, and Randy Johnson is the Yankees' ace, so this is the best pitching matchup these teams can give us. Because Wakefield can work deep into the game--taking the Chad Harville section of the bullpen out of play--the Sox should be in good shape. It's hard to picture these two teams playing back-to-back games under 10 runs, but that's likely what we'll get today.

The National League continues to be the League No One Wants. The Astros, at home with a one-run lead in the ninth over a disappointing Cubs team playing out the string, with one of the nastiest relievers in the game on the mound, managed to lose 4-3. Brad Lidge hadn't blown a save since June 11 against the Blue Jays, but he gave up three straight hits to start the ninth last night, the last of which tied the game, then a Todd Walker single with one out gave the Cubs the winning margin.

The Astros send the best pitcher in baseball to the mound today, needing a win to, again, lock up at least a tie for the wild-card slot. This isn't your typical Roger Clemens; his deteriorating physical condition has hampered his performance for more than a month. Clemens has a 4.24 ERA in his last seven starts, and has pitched into the seventh inning just three times in that span.

The Phillies, who got a good start from Cory Lidle in picking up a 4-2 win over the Nationals, have a tough matchup this afternoon as they face John Patterson. Like Clemens, Patterson has seen his performance slip a bit over the last month, his ERA rising about half a run in September. He's still one of the league's best. The Phillies will have to continue getting good performance from the top of their lineup and converting the work of Jimmy Rollins and Kenny Lofton into runs.

--

I've gotten a lot of e-mail over the last three weeks from people furious with the way in which baseball games have been televised on Saturdays over the last month. Sometimes there's a blackout window and a Fox game. Sometimes there's no Fox coverage at all, no national MLB presence during the game's true showcase, its pennant races. There's certainly no overall plan in place to expose pennant races to the widest possible audience.

I'm lucky today in that the local Fox affiliate is showing the Yankees and Red Sox at 10 a.m. On the other hand, there is no way extant, no amount of money I can pay, that will enable me to see the White Sox/Indians game. That's inordinately frustrating, and appears to be so for the many people who have been e-mailing me to say that today, they can't see their favorite team in action because the only outlet for baseball is Fox, and Fox isn't showing their team's game.

This is a problem for baseball. There has to be some way to make all of the great, important and exciting baseball available to all of the game's fans, rather than turning them on on a Friday night and off again on Saturday. Playoff games have been farmed out to Fox Sports Net and FX, and if the former is football-logged on a Saturday, certainly the latter can pre-empt "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" for "Hurling Astro, Hacking Cub."

This is MLB's fault. They've become so enamored of TV money that they simply won't stand up to their broadcast partners and insist that they do what's right for baseball fans. I'm not advocating a permanent lifting of blackout rules--not today, anyway--but there has to be a creative solution here that will protect Fox while not alienating the people who love the game or, more importantly, ceding an opportunity to create more of them.

I'm just asking, on behalf of millions of people like myself who account for hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, that on a day with four critical games being played in a 500-channel universe, that all four games be available for viewing.

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

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