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June 29, 2006
A little peek inside the sausage factory:
7:01 p.m.: "I think I'm off tomorrow. I have radio and chat starting at 8:30 a.m., and nothing's jumping out at me."
It's a great gig, but the progression of ideas and the events that affect them can drive you a little batty on some nights.
Regardless of how the ninth inning of last night's game went--the Cardinals won thanks to two errors by the Tribe--its eighth inning is still worth dissecting. There were a series of decisions made that really showed how the Blessed Little Things--actual little things, not code for intangibles or smallball--can dramatically affect a baseball game.
I don't mean to pick on the Cardinals when they're down. I still think they're the second-best team in the NL and the team most likely to get to the World Series. They have been playing poorly, but doing so during a brutal stretch in the schedule, playing at Chicago and Detroit, and then coming home to face an Indians' team better than its record.
Well, you can get an argument on "playing poorly." In Wednesday's St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Tony La Russa defended his team, then on an eight-game losing streak: "What do you mean by playing poorly? We're not playing poorly. When you say playing poorly, I think about running the bases, and playing defense."
Let's go to that eighth inning. With no one out, a runner on first and the Cards up 3-1 Ron Belliard looped a ball into right-center field. Juan Encarnacion made a diving effort, but he wasn't close and the ball skipped past him for a double. By diving for the ball, he turned a first-and-second situation into second-and-third, putting the tying run in scoring position. Had he played the ball on a hop, he would have saved two bases, two critical ones at that juncture.
After a strikeout and an infield single made it 3-2 with one out and first-and-third, La Russa got into the act. Eric Wedge sent Eddie Perez up to hit for Ben Broussard, playing the percentages against the lefty Tyler Johnson. At that point, La Russa had the following decision: let Johnson, who's been pounded by righties this season (.346/.414/.615), face Perez (.330/.355/.693 against lefties), or bring in a right-hander and open the door to Travis Hafner, who's only been the best hitter in the American League since 2004.
Neither of these matchups are attractive, especially when the righty warming up is Jason Isringhausen. What factors other than platoon splits could be considered? Well, there's the double-play possibility. Perez is an egregiously slow right-handed hitter and a strong DP threat. Hafner doesn't run well either, but bats from the left side and doesn't hit as many groundballs as Perez does. There's also something to be said for not letting the opponent use his best weapon in a high-leverage situation.
All in all, I think La Russa lowered the Cards' chances of getting out of the inning by going to Isringhausen. With my Strat background, I tend to worry too much about platoon splits. In this case, with neither matchup favorable to the Cards, they would have been better off with the stronger double-play possibility.
As it turns out, Isringhausen pitched fairly well by his standard. He pitched around Hafner, loading the bases for Todd Hollandsworth. Hollandsworth popped up to short left field, a ball that landed just outside the range of So Taguchi. Taguchi's biggest mistake, however, wasn't missing the ball; it was throwing home after doing so. He had no chance to get the runner--who had gone a third of the way down the line--at home plate. Had he thrown to third base, however, he had an easy force on Victor Martinez, which would have left the Cards tied, but with two outs. Even throwing to second base for a force there would have been a good idea. Taguchi made the longest throw on the fastest runner, and got no outs on a play where he should have gotten one. When Aaron Boone flied to left field, instead of ending the inning, it was only the second out, and Martinez tagged and scored from third for a 4-3 Indians lead.
It wasn't physical execution that killed the Cardinals in this inning, but mental. Guys like Encarnacion and Taguchi don't hit enough to keep their jobs, so they not only have to play good defense, they have to make good decisions. Both made mental errors that could have cost the Cardinals a very winnable game.
The other Cards' outfielder wasn't much help. After Fausto Carmona walked David Eckstein to start the bottom of the eighth,. Jim Edmonds came to the plate and ran the count to 3-2. Carmona's payoff pitch was very high and a bit outside, but Edmonds chased it for a critical out. Instead of two on and no one out for Albert Pujols, there was one and one, a much less stressful situation. Pujols drew a walk that, had Edmonds been on, should have loaded the bases. Edmonds, like his outfield mates, had made a bad mental error at the wrong time.
It all washed out in the ninth. After a scoreless top, Taguchi reached on a pop-up around the plate that Kelly Shoppach misplayed. Aaron Miles doubled him home and then scored on Jhonny Peralta's throwing error. It was as obviously bad a half-inning as you'll see, a stark contrast to the more subtle mistakes that the Cards had made in their eighth, but just as devastating to the cause.
I'm the first person to argue that performance analysis can't measure everything, while at the same time pointing out that the gap between what it does measure and perfection is fairly small. Mistakes like throwing to the wrong base, or turning a single into a double, or swinging at a brutal 3-2 pitch, all fall into that space.
It is, perhaps, the most fascinating place to be.