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October 11, 2005

Prospectus Today

Heavenly Relief

by Joe Sheehan

On Sunday, one of the oldest pitchers in baseball came out of the bullpen unexpectedly to pitch his team into the League Championship Series.

On Monday, one of the youngest pitchers in baseball showed that he can learn from his elders.

Ervin Santana, 22 years and 10 months old to the day, took the ball when Bartolo Colon's back and shoulder wouldn't let him continue past six batters. With just one professional relief appearance under his belt--back in 2001 in the rookie-level Arizona League--Santana scuffled initially, completing a walk to Robinson Cano and passing Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada on 10 pitches. When Bubba Crosby singled home a run, Paul Byrd started throwing and the Yankees looked ready to put the game away early.

Santana would not walk another batter. He started 13 of the last 18 batters he faced with a strike, allowing just three singles before a Derek Jeter home run forced him from the game in the seventh. Like Clemens on Sunday--or Santana's opponent, Mike Mussina, back in 2003--the young right-hander threw his team a lifeline, holding down a good offense and giving his teammates a chance to win the game. It was a gutsy outing against a tough lineup in a critical situation.

The Angels needed the lift, because they started Game Five much as they'd finished Game Four: sloppy in the field. Crosby's hit drove in a run thanks in part to a poor, late throw, which followed a slow charge on the ball by Vladimir Guerrero. The throw also set up a second run. The Angels gave up the pair of second-inning runs on walks and poor defense, and they couldn't afford that kind of baseball.

They would turn it around in the bottom of the inning. After a sharp first inning, Mussina showed command problems in the second. Garret Anderson hit a 3-1 fastball into the right-field seats to cut the lead in half. Mussina missed his location badly; Posada was in off the plate, and the pitch tailed out and over the dish, making it a cookie for Anderson. Mussina started having location issues, going 3-2 on Juan Rivera and walking Steve Finley.

The ballgame was the first pitch to Adam Kennedy. Kennedy ripped a first-pitch breaking ball to the warning track in right-center. It appeared that Gary Sheffield got there in time to make a play, and it appeared that Crosby also got there in time to make a play. Neither would, as the two collided, the ball hit the ground, and two runs scored.

Just like that, $203 million was about to go to waste.

The Angels would tack on two more runs in the third, this time displaying some of the characteristics that helped them win 94 regular-season games. They dropped in some singles on the Yankee outfield, and twice went first to third on shallow fly balls that dropped in. Both times, the runner on third scored on a subsequent out. Mussina wasn't hit hard in the inning, but the Angels' ball-in-play style and good baserunning were good for two runs. It was 5-2, and it was over. Randy Johnson would keep the Angels at bay with 4 1/3 shutout innings, but with Santana dealing and turning the game over to the Angels' bullpen, it would not be enough.

For the second time in three games, the game featured a mildly controversial call that went against the Yankees. Once again, the umpire involved was Ken Kais…er, Joe West. With two on and two out in the fifth, Cano struck out on a ball Bengie Molina let get by him. Molina's throw to first was terrible, getting by Darin Erstad and apparently loading the bases. West, however, ruled Cano out for interference, running inside the baseline and hindering the play.

It was the right call; Cano was just inside the baseline, and while the throw was terrible (and Erstad not in position to make a play on it), West's decision to call Cano out was consistent with the rulebook. Again, though, it was a call that isn't always made, and while less capricious than dinging Cano for leaving the bag early on a force--Friday's issue--it was nonetheless an example of umpiring inconsistency. I don't blame West so much as I blame the umpiring pool at large for setting up a situation where that call is a random event.

The Yankees can't blame West for their fate, however. The team that played the best won the series. The Angels held the Yankees to four home runs and a .392 slugging in four games, well below their season marks. All of the dingers came with the Yankees down at least three runs, and only Hideki Matsui's blast in Game Three was even a small part of the games. The Yankees stranded 11 men last night, and given a chance to take their very expensive offense up against a rookie with a 4.65 ERA, tapped him for just three runs in 5 1/3 innings in the season's decisive contest.

The Angels just outplayed the Yankees. Not by a ton, but enough, in five games, to win three and advance. That's all you need to do.

  • Derek Jeter hit a home run Friday with the Yankees down four runs. He hit one last night with the team down three. The one last night was pointed to, by the game broadcasters as well as the ones on "SportsCenter," as evidence of his "clutchness."

    Not for nothing, but why is it if Alex Rodriguez hits a solo homer with the Yankees down by a bunch, it's evidence that he's a stat-padding loser, but when Jeter does it, it's clutch?

    It's just another example of the double standard in place for the two players. Neither covered themsleves in glory in the series--the statistical difference between the two is those two Jeter home runs, whose value seems to be entirely in who hit them--yet Jeter comes out as Captain Intangible while Rodriguez, whose back is still a bit sore from carrying the team in the '04 Division Series, for which he got no credit, is the choke artist.

    It ain't right.

  • I don't complain about the telecasts to much, but how does Fox cut away from the ovation for Santana when Scioscia came out to get him in the seventh? How does that moment, the rookie pitcher coming off the mound in the game he'd saved for the home team, not count as one you want the people to see?

    Just as MLB has to rework its relationship with its television "partners," those partners need to think about how they present the game. Sometimes, telling a story, creating fans, really is more important than the $200,000 from Cialis or shoving another "House" ad in front of people.

    Fox owes me 15 seconds of goosebumps.

  • There was some post-game rattle about Mark Bellhorn not advancing from second to third on Gary Sheffield's two-out chopped in the ninth, especially in light of the Angels' work on the bases all evening. While the analysis of the effects was salient--with Bellhorn on second, the tying run on first, pinch-runner Tony Womack wasn't held, leaving first baseman Erstad in position to snag the game-ending ground ball--I'm not sure you can criticize Bellhorn for holding. He has the play in front of him, and that play is a chopper to third base. He has to make a quick decision with one out to go in the season, and I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt in that situation. You have to be about 117% sure you'll be safe to go. Maybe more.

--

I have to jam an ALCS preview in here, because of the reversal of whatever decision had been made Sunday to push Game One back to Wednesday. (In the end, the players involved got the worst of all worlds, once again begging the question of why Sunday's makeup game couldn't have been played three hours, or more, earlier.)

The Angels are happy to have the problem of three games in three nights in three time zones, of course, but when the joy wears off, they'll be in a tough spot. They have to figure out Bartolo Colon's status, as well as that of Jarrod Washburn. It's going to be hard for them to have complete information when they go to set their LCS roster, and this is not a team that has a lot of extra pitchers lying around.

I had the Angels going through to the World Series a week ago, albeit before they went all Carmen Sandiego on the nation's air routes. That was also before Colon pulled up lame and Washburn picked up that avian flu that's going around and John Lackey pitched twice in four days. I don't think there's a dime's worth of difference between these two teams when both are healthy, but possibly losing Colon and starting off-rotation cuts deeply into their pitching edge on the White Sox. That's before talking about the fatigue or the White Sox being rested and with their pitching set.

The interesting thing about this matchup is that even though these were two of the best run-prevention teams in the game this year, their matchups against one another saw a lot of runs scored; after an early season pitching fest in Anaheim, the two averaged more than 11 runs a game in their last seven head-to-head contests, all of them at U.S. Cellular Field. I don't know if that's enough to draw conclusions on, but it's interesting in light of how the Braves/Astros series, expected to be a series of pitchers' duels, turned out.

The White Sox hit a bunch of home runs against the Red Sox, supporting a great pitching and defense that held the Sox to nine runs. We saw how the Angels' staff took the home run away from the Yankees, and if they do that to the White Sox, that team is perfectly capable of going into the tank offensively. Certainly both teams' strong defenses will make non-HR hits hard to come by.

I'm going to stick with my original thought, Angels in seven, conceding that the White Sox have a lot of advantages going into the first game. If Colon is out for the series--at 5:45 a.m. PDT, I have no sense of whether he'll pitch, and Will Carroll reports that we'll know more later today--that's almost certainly stubbornness getting in the way of rationality. This is probably a coin-flip series that will be determined by who has the best week with runners on base, on both sides of the ball.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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