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September 13, 2006

Prospectus Today

One Enchanted Evening

by Joe Sheehan

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As I was taking notes during last night's games, I was thinking that today's column would be about "a night at the races." You had key games up and down the scoreboard, with the AL Central, AL wild card, NL West and NL wild card being contested, albeit not in head-to-head action. It made for, even with a pair of rainouts, intense baseball in nine or ten of the games.

I was wrong, though. Last night wasn't just a night to watch baseball teams try and extend their season. It was a night to create baseball fans. It was a night to show off the very best of what makes baseball the greatest game ever invented, to teach a naif why we love this game: the high achievement, the strategy, the tactics, the skill and the drama. It wasn't a perfect night; one winning team made six errors, while a couple of games-including one ending with a game-winning homer-happened in weather that was unsuitable for baseball. There were no outstanding pitching performances, and one team was done for the night about an hour into the evening.

But on the whole, Tuesday, September 12 was that one night a year that the game opens up, like a peacock, and shows us what's bright and beautiful and lovable about it.

I'll work east to west:

The Marlins had the longest night of any of the teams still playing for something. They endured two rain delays totalling just over two hours, and held a 4-0 lead well after 11 p.m. The weather might have cost them the ballgame, because Josh Johnson, who started the game after a 46-minute holdup and returned after an 82-minute delay in the second inning, left after the fifth despite tossing just 73 pitches in five shutout innings. The length of the evening was no doubt a factor in his departure.

The Marlins' bullpen has been more effective than expected, but as a group it's not quite as good as the starters are. Losing Johnson early on a night when he was pitching well opened the door, and the Mets walked through: one run in the seventh, four more in the eighth, one in the ninth, leading to a 6-4 win that kept the Fish from making up ground on the Padres. The Mets' bullpen was much better: four shutout innings, one walk, five strikeouts, with Guillermo Mota building on his case for a spot on the playoff roster with two whiffs in his inning of work.

Billy Wagner was squeezed in the ninth inning, which helped the game come down to a confrontation with Miguel Cabrera with two outs and two on. It might have been more dramatic in a different setting-take a typical Marlins' crowd, then fast-forward five very damp hours, and you get the picture-but you can't beat a power reliever taking on one of the game's best hitters in a situation where one swing can change the game. Wagner blew a 2-2 fastball by Cabrera to end the night.

The Marlins didn't lose ground, however, because the Padres lost a tough one to the Reds in 11 innings. The Reds came into this three-game series with the Pads basically needing to sweep to get back into the wild-card race; even winning two out of three probably wouldn't be enough given the number of teams in the mix and the lack of head-to-head matchups on their schedule. They took a 3-1 lead early, but watched Ryan Franklin and Rheal Cormier blow that in the sixth inning. Typical Reds? Not necessarily: the bullpen threw five shutout innings after that, enabling the offense to bounce back and win the game.

The Reds' lineup, in fact, looked like it was going to be the real goat. They loaded the bases with one out in the sixth and didn't score, then tied the game on a fielder's choice with two on and one out in the eighth. A double play ended another two-on, one-out situation in the ninth. The wasted opportunities were mounting, and the deeper the game went, the more the Padres' edge in the bullpen seemed like it would be the deciding factor.

With one out in the 11th, though, Jason LaRue, in the midst of the worst year of his career, jacked a homer down the left-field line, just fair, for what would be one of five walk-off hits on the evening. The Reds, one of the game's good stories in 2006, would stay alive for one more day, and while tonight doesn't bode well--Jake Peavy vs. Kyle Lohse--playing meaningful games at this point in the season is something of a victory in itself for a franchise that hasn't done so in years.

(I know the weather was bad in both places, but the argument that the wild card stimulates interest in baseball in cities where teams are competing for it fell very flat for me while watching the Marlins and Reds play last night. I see a lot more crowds like that among wild-card contenders than I do big ones. It's just another data point in the discussion.)

While the weather cleared up throughout the night in Miami and Cincinnati, it only got worse in Detroit. The rain there was a downpour by the ninth inning, and I'm convinced that it directly led to the Tigers win. With the bottom of the ninth starting, the rain was hard enough to justify stopping play. You can understand why the umpires were reluctant to do so, given that the 2-2 game would possibly be rained out and end in a tie and have to be replayed. However, the conditions appeared to be unfit for playing baseball.

The Rangers' Ron Mahay opened the ninth by throwing three straight fastballs to Carlos Guillen, all to virtually the same spot high and away. It was clear that he couldn't grip the baseball well enough through his delivery, and kept losing it a little early. Mahay appeared to grip the ball tighter at that point, but in doing so, he sacrificed some movement and ability to control location. He got a called strike on 3-0, threw a cookie on 3-1 that Guillen just missed, fouling it back, and then another fastball on 3-2 that was in Guillen's wheelhouse, up and over the inner half. Guillen launched it over the left-center wall to end the game.

You have to watch the sequence to get the full effect, but seeing Mahay lose the grip on three straight pitches in the exact same manner, followed by the pitches where he overgripped, it's hard to not chalk this up as a win created by the rain. I understand that there's significant pressure to get these games in, especially at this point in the season-just a week ago, the Tigers sat through a three-hour rain delay so that they could complete a game with the Mariners-but baseball is not designed to be played in a driving rain.

That the Tigers were even in a position to win the game with one swing was a credit to their defense and the Rangers' baserunning. In seven innings of work, Kenny Rogers retired just 16 batters. The Rangers helped him out by grounding into two double plays and having three runners cut down on the bases, two at the plate. Credit Craig Monroe--who had all three assists-for some of that, and Ivan Rodriguez's terrific plate block in the seventh on Ian Kinsler saved a run as well.

Right now, the Tigers remind me of one of those football teams that can't score but plays great defense and tries to win every game 13-6; last year's Bears, or the 2002 Ravens or half the SEC last year. They play exceptional defense, they hit an occasional home run-three runs last night on three solo shots-and hope like hell they can keep the other guys from getting to four runs. They'll almost certainly reach the playoffs-they have a four-game lead on the White Sox and a schedule John Thompson would envy-but they're no better than the fourth-best team in the AL right now. I might even take the Angels over them.

The evening's worst nightmare was had by the Dodgers, who had a 7-0 lead against the worst team in the NL, with their second-best pitcher on the mound, on a night when the other guys made six errors…and lost. It was a team effort: Derek Lowe blew most of the lead, but had help from what has been a very effective bullpen. Brett Tomko comitted the unpardonable sin of walking Henry Blanco to set up a game-tying single by Aramis Ramirez, and J.D. Drew misplayed a fly ball in the eighth to set up the Cubs' go-ahead run.

Even at that, the Dodgers nearly won. They took advantage of two rare misplays-one error and one scoop not made-by Derrek Lee to tie the game in the ninth, then had two runners on in the tenth and couldn't score. In a final twist, the game-winning run in the 11th was driven in on a single by former Dodger Cesar Izturis.

This game offers an important lesson, one that separates baseball from other sports. I was thinking about this Monday when I talked about the different schedules teams face down the stretch, and how that might impact the races. The fact is, baseball is just too random for that kind of analysis to have much meaning. The difference between even the best and worst teams is fairly small relative to what the differences are in the other sports, so even a Downy-soft schedule can be a minefield. If you can have a seven-run lead over the 2006 Cubs with 14 outs to go and lose, there's just no scenario, not even a week of games at home against the Rangers and Orioles, followed by seven in the last two weeks against the Royals, that's safe.

Astros fans may not have had as bad a night as Dodgers fans, but they get extra points for having to relive a nightmare. Just as he did in last year's NLCS, Albert Pujols beat Brad Lidge in the ninth inning. This time it was a two-out double down the line that scored the tying and winning runs, a hit that essentially ended the Astros' hopes this year.

The unpardonable sin wasn't giving up a double to the best player in baseball. No, it was hitting Scott Spiezio with a breaking ball with two outs to allow Pujols to come to the plate. You can't just give Pujols a chance to beat you that easily. Lidge has had a terrible season, allowing the highest home-run rate and highest walk rate of his career, and being moved in and out of the closer role a number of times. His stuff is still very good, and I like his chance to rebound and have more good years. In 2006, though, his struggles with his command were as big a reason to the Astros' off year as anything.

Of note for the Cardinals was the work done by the bullpen: four shutout innings, two hits, one walk, six strikeouts. Conceding that it was the Astros, that's the kind of performance they'll desperately need in any playoff game not started by Chris Carpenter. It's indelicate to write it, but the team might be better off if Jason Isringhausen can't pitch.

The Twins' comeback victory wasn't a walkoff win, but it was swift, dramatic and decisive. On back-to-back pitches in the eighth inning, Michael Cuddyer and Justin Morneau hit doubles into the gaps, turning a 5-3 deficit into a 6-5 lead. Morneau would come around to score on a wild pitch for the last run in a 7-5 win that enabled the Twins to hold their position in the AL Central race and stretch their lead in the wild-card race to 2˝ games.

Is there any place in baseball that seems more fun than the Metrodome when the Twins are rallying? Heaven knows that Carl Polahd wants this to become a distant memory, but the Metrodome used to be seen as a massive advantage for the Twins. They won both their World Championships by going 4-0 at home in the World Series, in at least some part because the building housed 56,00 white-wearing, hanky-waving screamers. Even now, with smaller crowds and the aftermath of anti-marketing and contraction still hanging in the air, the crowds at Twins' games just seem to be among the game's best.

We're going to learn a lot about the Twins' chances to win a World Championship over the next 18 hours. If Francisco Liriano is effective this afternoon and wakes up on Thursday morning with minimal aftereffects, this might become the second-best team in baseball after the Yankees.

This game was played far from the pennant race, but I wanted to point out that the Diamondbacks coughed up a multiple-run lead to the Nationals again. You'll recall that the D'backs fell out of the wild-card race by blowing three straight eighth-inning leads on a trip to D.C. two weekends ago. The last two nights, the Diamondbacks have done much the same, losing games they led 4-2 in the seventh and 4-2 in the sixth. That's now five straight losses to the same under-.500 team where they had at least a two-run lead in the sixth inning.

Finally, in an important series that isn't getting very much attention, the Angels rallied to gain a game on the A's in the AL West, cutting that gap to 4˝ games. They scored the winning run off of Bobby Jenks, whose ERA has risen to 3.92 as his command begins to desert him. Jenks's K/BB in the first half was 49/13; it's 23/14 since the All-Star break. That walk rate of five per nine innings is unacceptable for a closer.

Once again, however, we see Ozzie Guillen working around the problem by integrating other pitchers in high-leverage situations. Remember a year ago, Guillen lost his closer, Dustin Hermanson, to injury. Guillen used a variety of pitchers and, when Jenks emerged as a dominant force, showed little hesitation in making him his top relief pitcher. Guillen has been quick to move guys like Matt Thornton and Mike MacDougal into higher-leverage roles as their performance has warranted, and if Jenks continues to be outpitched by those guys, I think he'll shuffle the roles once again. Guillen remains one of the best managers of a pitching staff in the game, and it's because he, like Mike Scioscia did when he came into the league, lets the performance drive the usage patterns.

Speaking of closers…remember when we were all concerned about Francisco Rodriguez's mechanics and pitch selection and jumping off that bandwagon? OK, maybe that was just me. Anyway, K-Rod hasn't allowed a run since June 26. He's thrown 29 1/3 shutout innings since then, allowing just 19 hits and 11 walks and striking out 38. He's jumped over Jonathan Papelbon and B.J. Ryan and others to become the best reliever in the game by WXRL, and would be a candidate for the NL Cy Young Award if the early-1960s expansion had happened a bit differently.

--

This is a bit meta, so if you'd prefer to only read about baseball, you can move on to Christina's latest or an update on Rich Harden or some great work by Neil DeMause.

When I meet new people who learn what I do, they invariably ask if I go to a lot of games or do a lot of traveling. My answer is usually that I don't do either of those things as much as they might think, that I do most of my work at home. This is largely by choice; as much as I love being at the ballpark and watching a game-from the stands, as liking baseball in the press box is generally frowned upon-the nature of what I do is enhanced by being able to watch 10-15 games in a night, following multiple storylines and getting ideas for articles. I consider my approach to be a feature, not a bug, in producing good baseball content.

A night like last night reinforces my position. Had I been, say, in Anaheim last night, I would have watched and enjoyed a great game, and I would likely be able to write in depth about it, maybe even pepper this column with sprightly, though largely content-free, quotes from the participants. I would not, however, have seen the problems Ron Mahay had with the weather, or Ivan Rodriguez's game-altering plate block, or the Wagner/Cabrera confrontation in Miami, or any of a dozen other things that helped me build today's column.

I'm not going to argue that one of those approaches is better than the other. They're different, they have their own strengths and weaknesses, and I'm sure a beat writer would offer up reasons that their role adds value in ways that mine does not. However, a significant part of my job is covering games, and the results of that coverage make their way into my work every day.

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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