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October 26, 2005

Prospectus Today

Almost Over

by Joe Sheehan

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You can assemble a roster with care, make trades and develop young players and mix in free agents.

Houston - Bottom of 8th: B Ausmus struck out looking.

You can ride a six-man pitching staff deep into October, getting heroic performances from three of the best starting pitchers in the game, including a three-inning relief stint from a Hall of Famer.

Houston - Bottom of 9th: M Ensberg struck out swinging.

You can spend $70 million on players, about that same amount on everything else, in an effort to push an aging roster into a championship one last time.

Houston - Bottom of 11th: M Ensberg popped out to shortstop. O Palmeiro grounded out to pitcher.

At some point, though, the guys you put on the field have to do something.

Houston - Bottom of 14th: A Everett popped out to shortstop.

The Astros got one hit in the last ten innings of last night's game, none in the last six. They left two runners on in the eighth, three on in the ninth, two on in the 10th, two on in the 11th, one on in the 13th and two on in the 14th. They had chance after chance to win what was arguably the biggest game in franchise history, and not only did they not come through, they never really came close. The lack of hits was one thing, but you'd be hard-pressed to identify a ball after Lane's double that was even a threat to become a hit.

The White Sox bullpen was shaky, allowing 10 walks in seven innings of work while constantly pitching out of trouble. The only hit they coughed up, though, was Jason Lane's game-tying double in the eighth. Eventually, their teammates picked them up, with Geoff Blum hitting a line-drive homer in the 14th, and a couple of scratch singles and two walks adding on another for the 7-5 final.

Analyzing a game like last night's really gives me a sense of the outer boundaries of performance analysis. We can look at players' performance records and approximate their talent levels and get a sense of what to expect over a given time frame. On a single night in October, though, the analysis breaks down and you're left with 50 guys playing a game of baseball. There's no tool in our box that's going to tell you what will happen.

What's important is that we know this. See, I've already been asked a few times today whether I was surprised that Roy Oswalt was so ineffective last night, not just in terms of results, but in terms of stuff. The answer is, "no." I know, and the people who do this kind of analysis know, that players aren't "stat-generating robots," to use the flip phrase. Just because Oswalt had an ERA of 2.94 doesn't mean he'll allow two runs in 6 2/3 innings each time out. Just because he'd been very good in his last three starts doesn't mean he'll be good in his next one. Player performances oscillate around a mean, that mean being their performance record, and some nights are going to be much worse than others.

What is grating is for people like me to know this, and for Phil Garner to act as if he doesn't. Oswalt scuffled from the start last night, lacking the movement on his fastball and the location on his breaking ball that he'd shown in three previous postseason starts. That he didn't allow any runs in the first four innings was misleading at best, dangerous at worst; Garner may have been lulled into a false sense of confidence based on the zeroes on the scoreboard--the stats--rather than what was obvious to anyone with two eyes.

So when the White Sox started beating Oswalt like a pinata in the fifth, Garner should have been prepared. Down 2-0 in the Series, the game was essentially the entire season for his squad. At that point, coming off a day off and before that a game in which Chad Qualls and Brad Lidge combined for 19 pitches, he should have been counting outs with his finger on the trigger. Instead, he let the Sox pile up six hits, a walk, a hit batsman and five runs without ever making a switch. Oswalt threw 46 pitches in the fifth, and according to one reader, became the first pitcher to ever face 11 batters in an inning in the World Series. I was half-hoping Juan Uribe would ground a ball to him at the end, so he could stand there and hold it while runners circled the bases, like the kid did in the first "Bad News Bears" movie.

Then Oswalt went back out for the sixth, and I officially gave up on Phil Garner. Forget that Oswalt got through the inning unscathed; Garner didn't do his job last night, which is to give his team the best chance to win the game. In the fifth, Oswalt wasn't the best pitcher available, and Garner needed to recognize that and make a move. A label of "ace" doesn't actually get guys out, and Oswalt doesn't get to throw his strikeout rate and groundball/flyball ratio at hitters. Garner was looking for a stat line last night, and what he got was a human being.

The Astros' starting pitcher, hitters and manager take the blame for last night's loss. The one guy I would hope doesn't come in for too much criticism is Ezequiel Astacio, who officially took the loss. I submit that using him in the 14th inning of a tied World Series game violates his warranty pretty thoroughly, given that his career consists of 81 innings with a 5.67 ERA and 23 home runs allowed. That he's on the playoff roster at all is an indication of how thin the Astros are, and I don't think you can hold Astacio accountable for that. He was out of his depth last night, and at that, he didn't pitch too terribly until he started nibbling with two outs, two on and a run in. Blum's homer came on a fairly good pitch down and in, and the two hits that followed went maybe 170 feet total.

Had Roger Clemens' hamstring not balked, it's unlikely that Astacio even would have been in the game. But Clemens was neither available to pitch last night nor capable of pushing himself up a day to start Game Four, the latter of which might have made Brandon Backe available last night. (As it was, Backe might well have pitched a 15th inning, which would have made for a fun "Probable Starters" list today. Wandy Rodriguez? Jason Lane? Mike Scott?)

Nothing has gone right for the Astros in three games, but for the most part, it's because they've failed to help themselves. From the breakdown of the rotation to more failures with runners in scoring position to a number of mistakes by Garner, they've played bad baseball for three games. The White Sox, who have had their own problems, have taken advantage of those failures to pull out close wins, much as they've done all year long. They're not winning with great pitching defense--their M.O. all season long--but they are winning.

One more gets them a parade.

  • Score two for the "these guys are professionals" argument: Brad Lidge pitched out of a jam in the ninth on his way to retiring all four hitters he faced. Bobby Jenks tossed two shutout innings, although he wasn't dominant. There is way, way too much armchair psychoanalysis of baseball players, in October and otherwise.

  • In a slightly different universe, Juan Uribe is wearing goat horns the size of a small county right now. His fielding error and subsequent throwing error in the third inning allowed Adam Everett to reach and then stay on base, leading to two Astros runs. In the 14th, he bobbled an easy ground ball by Brad Ausmus that should have ended the game. No one remembers the winners' screw-ups, so Uribe's lousy night ends up forgotten.

  • Umpiring update: Lane didn't hit a home run, Jermaine Dye actually was hit by a pitch.

    If they fired every single MLB umpire tomorrow, would the game be better or worse?

    (The question also works if you use "Congressmen" and "the country.")

  • Can we get a little Lance Berkman bandwagon started? For all the attention paid to Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell, it seems like no one is talking about the Astros' best player. Berkman's career line is .302/.416/.557, with .400 OBPs in every season since 2001. He's hit .340/.448/.574 in this postseason, .348/.436/.739 in last year's. He'll be 30 come Opening Day, so we're not looking at a Hall of Fame career path, but he's one of the 15 best hitters in the game, and even on a bum knee, that seems like it should get more attention.

  • Is it OK if I admit that I tuned out the whole "roof open/roof closed" debate? The whole thing struck me as the kind of slow-news-day story that develops when you have too much media and not enough happening.

    The Astros' records with the roof open and closed have been presented as evidence that it's an advantage for them to have it closed, but all they really show is that the roof is closed during the summer, when it's 140 degrees and muggy in Houston. MLB had done this before, in 2001 in Phoenix, so there was precedent for them stepping in. You can argue whether they made the right decision.

    No, that's it. You can argue. I don't care…it's a tempest in a teapot filled to bursting with microphones and notepads. Nature abhors a vacuum, but media fears it.

  • At some point, Fox showed a shot of Steve Perry in the stands. What, Dennis DeYoung couldn't make it? Was Jon Anderson getting a hot dog at the time? Did Geoff Downes miss his flight?

    Steve Perry. Wow. Makes you long for the days of Calista Flockhart and Chi McBride just a little, don't it?

  • Garner repeated his mistake with Mike Lamb in the eighth inning, allowing him to face Neal Cotts rather than send up a pinch-hitter. This was an even worse decision than Saturday's mistake, because in this case, Cotts was brought in to face Lamb, and would have had to face any pinch-hitter. I don't think Eric Bruntlett or Chris Burke are anything special at the plate, but either would be a better option than Lamb, who can't hit left-handers. Bruntlett actually has a respctable .277/.350/.491 line against southpaws in his career.

    It wasn't even an issue of conserving players; Garner ran for Lamb with Bruntlett after Lamb drew a walk, so clearly he was prepared to take him out of the game. Garner has twice now chosen a matchup with little chance of success, and with an acceptable option available to him who, at least in one case, he was going to put in the game anyway. It's bad tactics, and just another reason to consider Garner a problem for the Astros right now.

    (The talented Tom Verducci points out another reason here.)

  • Last year's miracle notwithstanding, this series is over. The Astros take the bad end of tonight's pitching matchup, then send a hobbled Clemens to the mound Thursday if they get there. It's possible we could have baseball on the weekend, but it would be a surprise.

    The White Sox are now 10-1 in the postseason. In the three-tier era, just one other team has won a title with just one postseason loss, that being the 1999 Yankees.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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