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October 5, 2005

Prospectus Today

Blowout Day

by Joe Sheehan

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After three innings of play, yesterday's scores: Cardinals, 4-0; White Sox, 6-0; Yankees, 4-0.

A couple of those games got interesting later on, but for the most part, yesterday wasn't exactly a day of tense, playoff baseball.

Padres/Cardinals

His final line was ugly, but Jake Peavy started out like a guy determined to make a name for himself. The Jim Edmonds first-inning home run came during a game-opening stretch of 13 straight strikes, and through 11 batters, Peavy had tossed just 30 pitches, 25 of them for strikes.

He'd also been let down by his teammates. Ryan Klesko's lack of range had just allowed a bloop double to Edmonds, making it second and third with one out and Albert Pujols due up. The Padres had squandered first-and-second, no outs in the second, and first-and-second, one out in the third. Their left-handed hitters were working counts and getting on base (3-for-5, two walks through three innings), while their righties were killing them (0-for-6, two GIDPs).

That's consistent with Carpenter's work in 2005, during which he owned right-handers and was a bit more vulnerable to lefties. To his credit, he worked around the tough spots in the first three innings and made good pitches to get out of jams, all while struggling with his curve.

Peavy lost it a bit after the intentional walk to Pujols, throwing a wild pitch that scored a run and apparently exacerbated his rib problem, a well-kept secret just 24 hours ago. A hard grounder to first base hit the bag and plated two runs, and the rout was on. Peavy allowed four more runs in the fifth before giving way, and while the Padres rallied to make the final score respectable, their best chance to win the series was gone.

With Peavy now done for the season and the Padres down 1-0, the Cardinals assume their place atop the list of favorites to go all the way. They were in position yesterday to become a victim of short-series baseball, but they outplayed the Padres and Peavy, most likely avoiding an upset in the first round. If Carpenter has a few more starts like that in him--and he should be able to get an extra couple days rest before his next outing, which will help--the Redbirds could suck a lot of the drama out of the '05 postseason.

It's worth pointing out just how close the Padres came from controlling yesterday's game. We still haven't come up with a good way to describe why playoff series outcomes are a poor way to define teams, but the first three innings of Tuesday's game were as good an example as you'll find to illustrate the point. The Padres failed to score in two key situations, and that helped to cost them the game. But it wasn't certain that would happen, and the margin between success and failure is razor-thin. If they get a couple of key hits and go into the bottom of the third up 3-1, everything that follows plays out differently.

It's not "luck" that they didn't; it's baseball, and it's Carpenter's good pitching and the Cards' infield defense turning two. That's how yesterday played out, but just because it did happen that way doesn't mean it was the only way it could have happened.

I continue to struggle to make this point, but it's a critical one to understanding why analysts put much less stock in postseason results than we do regular-season ones.

White Sox/Red Sox

Jose Contreras impressed me yesterday. Helped a bit by John Hirschbeck--I don't know where John ate dinner last night, but I know he had a 6:30 reservation--he kept the Red Sox off balance and gave the Sox 7 2/3 good innings. I'd been expecting something less; that great second half everyone has been touting came against some horrible lineups. He'd made eight of his last nine starts against the Twins, Mariners, Tigers and Royals, calling into question the predictive value of his second half.

Matt Clement had little to offer. His command was off, both in and out of the strike zone. If this series goes five games, the Sox will have to seriously consider using someone else in the deciding game.

Jonah Keri tackles this game in depth in his Game of the Week, so I'll just add one final point: the White Sox scored 10 of their 14 runs on home runs.

Angels/Yankees

Mike Mussina has a long history of great playoff performances, but coming off an injury-plagued second half and a brutal final start in Baltimore last week, it wasn't clear what the Yankees could expect from him. Getting 5 2/3 shutout innings was as good as they could have hoped for, and thanks to Mussina, they're out to a 1-0 lead. Mussina had his breaking stuff working last night, not just the movement, but the location. He kept the ball down, and that helped him avoid the extra-base hit problem that sometimes hurts him.

The Yankees backed Mussina with four early runs, plating three in the first when Bartolo Colon couldn't close out hitters. The Yankees got three straight hits after being down 0-2 or 1-2 in the count, a sequence capped by Robinson Cano's three-run double. It was strange to see a pitcher with a good strikeout rate and good stuff unable to close the deal, but that was the whole difference in last night's game: Colon not able to get strike three for 15 minutes in the first inning.

This isn't the 2002 Division Series. If the Yankees can get early runs they're going to be in good shape, because the Angels struggle to score. Some of this is self-inflicted; the Angels have two hitters with 800 OPSes or better, and one of them didn't get off the bench until the ninth inning last night. As Paul Swydan points out today, Casey Kotchman has to be in the lineup for this team, and sitting him so that Steve Finley and Darin Erstad can use up outs is just silly.

Scioscia mishandled the ninth inning badly enough that it warrants mentioning. Garret Anderson popped up and Vladimir Guerrero walked. With Erstad up, Guerrero stole second, and scored on Erstad's chopper past Cano. (One of Tim McCarver or Joe Buck said, "Tough play for Cano," which makes me wonder what they would characterize as an easy play. It was a two-hopper that Cano made a poor decision on, playing it to his backhand rather than circling it. Not all diving plays are good ones, not all balls just missed are tough ones.)

That brought the tying run to the plate with Erstad on first base, but in the form of Double Play Concentrate. Look, it's nice that Ben Molina had a good season, and even that he hit a home run last night. However, he's the slowest player in baseball, and it's not close. He may not be the last person I want up in that situation, but he's on the list.

Scioscia let Molina bat, and sure enough he very nearly grounded into a game-ending double play on a ball that Derek Jeter and Cano took so long to get over to first base that Fox went to commercial during the play and didn't miss anything. Had Tino Martinez held onto the throw, the game would have ended there.

Then Scioscia compounded his error by sending up Kotchman for Juan Rivera. This made no sense whatsoever; if Juan Rivera is the player you want starting the game at DH against Mussina, he's the player you want batting against Mariano Rivera in the ninth. Scioscia has been managing in the AL for five years; he has to be aware that Rivera chews up left-handed batters but is a bit more susceptible to righties, especially righties with some pop. If you're determined to get Kotchman an at-bat, have him hit for DP Concentrate a batter earlier. Using him for Juan Rivera probably decreased the Angels' chances of winning the game, chances that dropped to zero when Kotchman popped weakly to Alex Rodriguez.

We're 163 games into the season, and if you haven't yet figured out who your best players are, you're not likely to get religion now. The Angels desperately need Kotchman's bat in the lineup, even if it means upsetting guys with higher salaries and more service time. Scioscia, a good manager in many respects, has to work through his loyalty issues and put his best lineup on the field.

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

Related Content:  Juan Rivera

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