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October 4, 2006
Division Series, Day One
The big story was the continuing tear of Frank Thomas, who hit two homers to account for the early lead and the insurance run in the ninth inning. What is most impressive about the two shots is how different the pitches were, and how they showed the broad range of Thomas' still-impressive batting skills.
Leading off the second, Thomas worked the count to 3-1 against Johan Santana and yanked a high change-up down the left-field line. This was a strength homer. He was a little out in front, the pitch was offspeed, and he used his power to drive it into the seats. His ninth-inning blast against Jesse Crain was completely different: he caught up to a 96-mph fastball in on his hands and yanked a line drive out. That was a bat-speed homer. That Thomas can succeed against both of those pitches is a sign that he's retained most of his skill at the plate. His 2006 may not be a last gasp, but the start of a last act.
The second homer might not have happened if Ken Macha had been listening to me. When Thomas singled to right to open the seventh, I thought he was going to pinch-run for the DH, especially after Michael Cuddyer tried to throw him out at first on the line-drive hit. Thomas eventually reached third, and when he was unable to score on a one-out fly ball by Marco Scutaro, the decision to leave him in looked costly.
This was one of those questions that had no right answer, something you see a lot in close playoff games. Macha doesn't have a real burner on his bench, and Thomas was almost guaranteed another plate appearance in the game. Taking Thomas out dramatically changes the A's lineup, enough so that it really should only be done in the ninth inning or later if Thomas is the tying or winning run. Macha 1, Sheehan 0.
That three runs was enough to beat the Twins is a discredit to their collective approach at the plate. With due respect to Barry Zito, the Twins played the game as if the Minnesota Golden Gophers got the gym at 3:00. Eighteen of the 34 batters they sent to the plate saw no more than two pitches. Zito averaged 16.6 pitches an inning this season; he didn't throw more than 14 in any inning Tuesday. That's hacktastic.
Want more? The Twins saw fewer than 10 pitches in three of their nine turns at bat. After Jason Bartlett's leadoff double in the eighth, the Twins went through their last seven batters, six outs, on 13 pitches, the last seven from Huston Street. The Twins lost this game because they scored just two runs, and they scored just two runs because they swung like the Saturday night crowd at Plato's Retreat.
The sequence that followed the double was critical. Ron Gardenhire has small-ball leanings; he'd already called for a first-inning steal that failed, and Nick Punto had sacrificed-while push-bunting for a hit-in the fourth. Gardenhire had Luis Castillo square to bunt Bartlett over. Castillo missed, and Bartlett was nearly picked off of second. After a ball, Castillo grounded out to third, freezing Bartlett. According to Scott Merkin at MLB.com, Gardenhire wanted Castillo to bunt, which was absolutely the right decision at that point. The sacrifice is an overused tactic, but one of the situations in which it makes sense is as the home team, down a run, tying run on second, nobody out in the eighth or later. Castillo's failure to get the bunt down or advance Bartlett was a terrible breach.
(Yeah, a BP guy just defended the sacrifice bunt. Blink already.)
The Twins should have had a runner on third, one out, and a contact hitter facing a pitcher who had posted just one strikeout on the day. Tie the game, and a host of options become available. Instead, Punto grounded to second on two pitches, Joe Mauer flied to left on one, and the rally was over. The ninth inning had its dramatics; Thomas' home run made it a two-run game, which enabled the A's to survive Milton Bradley's Terrence Long moment in the ninth, when he lost Michael Cuddyer's fly ball in the roof. The ensuing triple led to a harmless run and the 3-2 final score.
Gardenhire had the bunt on, his player failed. That decision can't be laid at his feet. The choice of Crain to pitch the ninth is something he should have to answer for. Crain is either the third- or fourth-best right-handed reliever in the Twins' pen, certainly the fourth-best against right-handers. Juan Rincon had warmed up earlier, and using him to protect a one-run deficit would have been optimal. If a tactical approach was preferred, Gardenhire could have used righty-killer Pat Neshek to get Thomas, then played out the rest of the inning matchup-style. Crain was almost certainly the worst option, and the run he allowed turned out to be critical. In a five-game series with an off day, there's just no reason to go three names deep on the list in a one-run game. Use Rincon, and if there's a tenth inning, you can go to Nathan, or Reyes, or…hey, who cares, you got to the tenth inning!
You have to win the game you're playing. That means using your very best players unless you have a damn good reason not to do so.
I'd written yesterday about how this series looked a lot like last year's. Well, it looked a lot like it in Game One, too: Chris Carpenter pitched really well, Jake Peavy didn't, the Cards played longball and some late Padres' rallies failed to close the gap. For it to be any more similar, Peavy would have to cop to a broken rib.
At any given moment in time, someone, somewhere is taking a baseball player's performance at his job and extrapolating from that performance character traits. It's like judging a book by reading one line on page 146, and about as entertaining. Clutch is a belief system, not a skill. Clutch performances, however, are very real; some plate appearances, innings, plays, games have higher leverage than others, and converting them can make the difference between a win and a loss.
That's what we saw yesterday. The Cardinals won because they did better in high-leverage situations than the Padres did. The Padres might be the better team by any number of measures, but the Cardinals were better yesterday, and they're up 1-0 in the series.
Take the bottom of the first inning. Dave Roberts opened the game with a single off of Chris Carpenter on a 3-2 pitch. Brian Giles worked a 2-2 count and fouled off a pitch. Already, you had Carpenter having long at-bats, working from the stretch and struggling with left-handed hitters, The Padres seemed to be off to a good start. On the sixth pitch he saw, though, Giles hit a ball that bounced straight down and into fair territory. Yadier Molina pounced-there really is no other word for his movement-on it and started a 2-6-3 double play that killed the inning.
In the top of the fourth of a scoreless game, Albert Pujols had the AB of the day, Down 1-2, he fouled off some tough pitches and fought to 3-2, then deposited a fastball to one of the deepest parts of Petco Park for a two-run homer. The Cards added a third run in the inning to take a 3-0 lead.
In the bottom of the frame, the Pads started up again. Roberts singled again on 3-2 and Giles followed with a bloop to left for a hit. With two on, no one out and the middle of the order up, the Padres look set to get back into the game Carpenter, however, ran the count to 3-2 on each of the next three hitters and retired them all; he struck out Adrian Gonzalez and Russell Branyan on the same 3-2 curve low and in, sandwiched around a 3-2 fastball that Mike Piazza grounded to shortstop for a forceout.
Runners on, no one out, payoff pitches, and Carpenter came out ahead every time. The entire game was like that. The Padres were 1-for-9 with runners on base, 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position. They loaded the bases with one out in the seventh, but couldn't even muster a single run as Mark Bellhorn struck out and Todd Walker grounded to second. Every high-leverage moment swung the way of the guys in gray.
The Cardinals pitched better, hit better and fielded better, and suddenly, the last two weeks of the season seem like a long, long time ago.
Form finally held in the last game of the day, as the Yankees unveiled their full complement of zillionaires for just the second time. Much was made before the game of the decision to bat Alex Rodriguez sixth, with Gary Sheffield fourth. Of course, we know now, after the Sports Illustrated piece, that Joe Torre is on board with the people who feel that Rodriguez is having the worst 915 OPS, 35-homer season ever. It happens; I once believed that the graphic for a local TV station was coming to get me in my sleep.
I eventually turned five and got over it.
Torre handwaved the lineup, which might have worked if it wasn't so silly. Rodriguez out-hit Sheffield this year, and played four times as much. Batting him sixth calls attention to Rodriguez; batting him fourth wouldn't have. Which is the better way to alleviate pressure?
To a certain extent, Torre's job is just to make sure he doesn't lose the lineup card on the way to home plate, because whatever order he puts his nine in, they're going to score runs. Not only are the Yankees loaded with bats, they have amazing balance that inures them to tactical relief usage. Going L/R/L/R/L/R/L/S/L is about as close to perfect as you can get. Even against Nate Robertson, who being a southpaw was presumed to have an advantage, the Yankees put up seven runs in six innings, roping line-drive hit after double after homer, with the lefties doing much of the damage. Derek Jeter had one of the great postseason games ever, going 5-for-5 with three extra-base hits. After the game, NewsCorp renamed its U.S. broadcast television network "Jeter," and announced plans to relocate to channel 2 in all markets. "There was really nothing else left for us to do," said a spokesman.
A crowded bandwagon is a very dangerous place to be, but the early coronation of the Yankees as a decided favorite to win the World Series looks downright reasonable after last night. They're going to accidentally score five runs a night, and if they get warmed up, the sky is the limit.
The problems may come on the other side of the ball. Joe Torre has done his best work when he's had a reliable, push-button bullpen. In fact, the Yankees lack of World Championships since 2000 may be related to the breakup of the Jeff Nelson/Mike Stanton/Mariano Rivera group that turned so many postseason games into six-inning affairs. Torre has struggled with his postseason bullpens ever since, sometimes assembling them strangely (three lefty relievers against the 2003 Marlins), sometimes pushing then too hard (Tom Gordon in 2004), sometimes violating the warranty by putting spare parts in critical situations (Aaron Small and Tanyon Sturtze in 2005).
Torre is already up against it this year because of Rivera's shoulder. The Cyborg Reliever will only be used in one-inning stints for the time being, relieving Torre of his escape hatch in the eighth. When you consider how the aggressive use of Rivera has been a constant for a decade of Yankee playoff teams, this is a serious blow to Torre's game plan.
The limitations on Rivera are what made last night's decisions so strange. With a 7-3 lead and one out in the seventh inning, Torre lifted a cruising Chien-Ming Wang, who'd thrown just 93 pitches and retired six straight batters after a brief bout with elevating pitches in the fifth, to bring in Mike Myers. It was mildly peculiar, but defensible because of the timing; the Tigers had two lefties coming up in the next three hitters, the only spot in their lineup where that would happen. Myers would face Curtis Granderson, Placido Polanco and Sean Casey, then give way to a righty for the parade of righty bats (and Carlos Guillen) that followed.
It didn't happen that way, though. Myers allowed a long home run to Granderson to make it 7-4, and Torre pulled him immediately for Scott Proctor, who allowed back-to-back singles before getting Magglio Ordonez to end the inning. Proctor, by the way, threw 102 1/3 innings over 83 appearances this year, and reasons passing understanding, pitched in Sunday's season finale. Maybe he needed the work.
I have been over and over this sequence, and I still don't understand it. Wang was pitching well and no where near a high pitch count, but Torre decided he wanted the platoon advantage. Like I said, bringing in Myers to face Granderson is as leveraged a spot as the Tigers' lineup allows. If it was only going to be Granderson, though, then what's the point? Why play righty/lefty games for one batter in an incredibly low-leverage situation with a 7-3 lead? Doesn't Myers have to face Casey to make the move worthwhile? Otherwise, you've gained almost nothing and burnt two pitchers.
There's a cliché attached to the use of multiple relievers in a game, something along the lines of "if you keep doing that, eventually you'll find the one who doesn't have it that day." This isn't 1999, and Torre doesn't have his life preserver if he gets in too deep. Diddling around with Myers and Proctor and Kyle Farnsworth-who was something less than solid in getting through the eighth-and is just asking for trouble.
Torre capped the night by using Rivera with a four-run lead in the ninth. If he is on restriction, then that seems like a waste of the innings he can give you. And it all goes back to the decision to remove Wang. If he completes the seventh, it's one fewer out you have to get, and perhaps the 8-4 lead would have been 8-3, and Torre would have been able to get by with a lesser pitcher in the ninth.
Like Bochy's assembly of a bench, Torre's use of relievers last night doesn't turn on one decision. It's a series of decisions, each making the situation a little worse. Bochy's mistake helped cost him a game; Torre's didn't, at least for one night, but you can see where things could go wrong on a different evening. Just because you expect to score seven runs a night doesn't mean you get a pass on the rest of the decisions.
Today, I think we'll see more runs in at least two games, maybe all three. Esteban Loaiza has no history of success in Minnesota, and the Twins should bring a different approach after giving away so many at-bats yesterday. The NL swaps out Padres/Cards for Mets/Dodgers, and the Mets might be down to their third, fourth or even fifth starter after the news that Orlando Hernandez has a calf problem. It looks like Endy Chavez and his insane range will ride the pine as well. The Dodgers look a little bit better every day.
The Yankees have to face Justin Verlander, a terrific right-hander whose arm may have checked out for the year. If it hasn't, you're still looking at a rough matchup. The Tigers may fare better against Mike Mussina, a flyball righty who occasionally leaves a lot of breaking balls up in the zone, manna from heaven for the Tigers right-handed power. 8-4 could be the score at the end of six innings.
I have to do an ESPNews hit in Anaheim a little after noon, but will hustle back and catch up on the games, posting updates throughout the day.