October 5, 2006
Division Series, Day Two
I think it's fair to say that I spare my harsher criticism in this space for decisions made by managers and general managers, rather than players. The former have hours, days, months to make the choices they do, and access to more than enough information to reach the correct conclusion. When they ignore things, give in to myths, disregard performance metrics or just blindly grab at a solution, they deserve to have those actions picked apart.
For players, things happen much more quickly, usually in the space of a second or two. Take or swing? Get the sure out or try for two? Slide to the outside or the inside?
Dive or don't dive?
Yesterday afternoon, Torii Hunter was faced with that decision, and he probably made the wrong one. By diving for a sinking fly ball by Mark Kotsay, he turned a small chance of an out on a likely single into a two-run inside-the-park home run. His misplay was the turning point in the Twins' 5-2 loss, one that pushed them to the brink in their best-of-five Division Series. There's no minimizing the impact of the play, which gave the A's a cushion for their superb bullpen and quieted a crowd that had been plugged back in thanks to two homers in the bottom of the sixth.
We should evaluate the play correctly, however. The real misplay wasn't the dive, but the movements that led up to it, the erratic route Hunter took to the ball. This, too, is something that happens in the moment, no easy task under the best of circumstances, and quite difficult in a loud, indoor stadium with a roof apparently designed to camouflage baseballs. Hunter started left, charged a few steps in, then went straight left into his dive. The multiple changes in direction were what cost him not only a chance to make the play, but a chance to block the ball with his body. Compounding the problem was the location of the ball; hit to straightaway center and untouched by Hunter, it rolled to the furthest reaches of the Metrodome before Michael Cuddyer could track it down.
For all the talk about the ball "knuckling," I never saw it. I went all Zapruder film on the play, and the ball didn't seem to change direction at all. It did drop pretty quickly, as it it had a lot of topspin. That aspect of its flight is probably what fooled Hunter the most and caused him to break in on the ball, rather than cut straight across to his left. Had he continued moving to his left from the start, he likely would have played the ball on a hop and held Kotsay to a single.
Hunter has won five straight Gold Gloves, and probably deserved one or two before that run began. Even on the back end of his peak, he's a superior center fielder with great range. He made one bad play, at the worst possible time, and the Twins may not recover from it. But you can't pile on the decision to dive; the die was cast before he ever left his feet.
An excessive focus on the Hunter play lets far too many people off the hook, anyway. The Twins went 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position yesterday, running their mark for the series to 0-for-14. Unless you plan to hit an awful lot of solo homers-the Twins have three, and their fourth run came after a triple-that's not going to be enough. The Twins did a better job of working counts yesterday against Esteban Loaiza than they did against Barry Zito on Tuesday, but the results weren't there.
Joe Mauer is 1-for-7 in the series, with the one hit coming with two outs and no one on in his first at-bat of the series. He's 0-for-3 with runners on base, and he's stranded four runners. His first-pitch flyout in the eighth inning of Game One was a critical play in that game.
So my question is this: if Mauer goes hitless and strands a few runners tomorrow night in Oakland, can we conclude that he's a guy who puts up numbers in the regular season but doesn't have the heart to succeed when it counts? Is he not a true Twin, like Kirby Puckett or Kent Hrbek? After all, it'll be three games-an entire series!-of non-production; that's enough to reach conclusions about a player, right? If the Twins win anyway, and Mauer goes 0-for on Saturday, will that seal the deal?
Or do we only do incredibly stupid things like that for players who actually make market salaries?
I wanted to write about the managers, and the pitchers, and the injuries, but in a game that was decided by one run, I have to write about The Play.
You saw it, I'm sure. Two Dodgers being thrown out at home plate within seconds of each other, the Mets turning what could have been a gamebreaking rally into a double play. A crowd at first quieted, then spurred to an extended ovation for one of the strangest moments you'll ever see at a baseball game. There were three elements that made it happen, and if any of them are changed, the Mets not only don't get two outs, but they might well have lost the game.
First, Jeff Kent got a poor read on Russell Martin's fly ball to right. The ball hit off the wall, and Shawn Green never had a play on it. Kent should have scored easily, and his hesitation set up all that followed.
Green made a fantastic play on the carom. He stopped short of the wall, got into position and got rid of the ball quickly. It was, honestly, an underrated aspect of the play. If he doesn't make this perfectly, the Dodgers get at least one run. Green then threw a perfect strike to relay man Jose Valentin, who made a good one-hop throw to the plate. The "little things" may be generally overrated, but in this case, a string of little things altered the course of the game. Green and Valentin played it perfectly, and you really can't say enough about it.
Finally, J.D. Drew lost sight of the situation. Unlike Kent, he got a great jump off of first base and was just a few steps behind his teammate as he rounded third.
I looked at this play as many, perhaps more times than I looked at the Hunter play, trying to see what third-base coach Rich Donnelly was doing. I never found an angle; Donnelly was in a tough spot, essentially needing to communicate different messages to two runners who were too close to make that a viable option. He had to wave Kent in, and he had to stop Drew, and there wasn't time to do both. So Drew saw the sign intended for Kent and charged home. My initial reaction was to blame him, thinking he should have seen his proximity to Kent and pulled up, but honestly, I think that's a bit harsh. You're trained to pick up your coach, and Drew did that. He just picked up a signal intended for Kent.
The play was huge. Frankly, Kent should have scored, but if Drew just holds up at third, Marlon Anderson's double drives home two runs instead of one, and the game plays out differently. When you lose a one-run game, any number of plays, even pitches, are critical, but if the Dodgers lose this series, the double-tag at home plate is going to haunt this organization for a while.
The memorable moment added to the storyline of a game that, had you had no idea of the date, would have looked a lot more like Game Seven of the NLCS than Game One of the Division Series. Set aside the fact that John Maine started because of the injuries to Pedro Martinez and Orlando Hernandez. Just look at the way both managers played the game. Randolph took out Maine with one out in the fifth inning, the right-hander having allowed just one run and nursing a 2-1 lead. It was an elimination-game move, not the thing you do in the first game of the postseason with the pitcher who'd been your best starter for four months.
Randolph would use Pedro Feliciano and Chad Bradford to get out of the inning, and then start the sixth with Guillermo Mota. Randolph is carrying eight relievers in this series, seven of them short relievers, four of them left-handed, and he seems determined to play matchups from the start. If yesterday is any indication, going lefty/righty in a 2-1 game in the fifth inning of Game One, we're in for some very long Mets games this October.
Randolph's early hook with Maine, and his decision to go with 12 pitchers, combined to tie his hands with Mota. He let the reliever bat with the bases loaded and two outs in the sixth, with the Mets up 4-1. A converted shortstop, Mota has hit well in his very few career at-bats, but that was a situation where the Mets could have broken the game open. Randolph, though, has a five-man bench, and has to pick his spots to dip into it. All these decisions are related.
Hitting Mota looked worse when the right-hander gave up three runs in the seventh. This, too, was related to the decisions before it. Randolph went too far with Mota, who not only hadn't thrown 30 pitches in an appearance since early June, and hadn't pitched well in a longer outing since April 21, but whose entire Mets career had consisted of outings of one inning or less, save one appearance in late August. In fact, Mota hadn't thrown more than 20 pitches in a game since August 28. He threw 33 yesterday, and he struggled with the last 15 or so. It was the wrong time to stretch him out, especially when he looked fatigued. Aaron Heilman should have pitched to Nomar Garciaparra, whose double off of Mota tied the game.
Grady Little didn't cover himself in glory, either. Having seen his team tie the game in the seventh, he made the bizarre decision to use Brad Penny in the bottom of the inning. Penny isn't expected to start until Sunday at the earliest, in part because he's been getting his rear handed to him: a 6.83 ERA in September, just three decent outings in his last nine, all while dealing with some back problems of unknown severity. To take that guy and say to him, "hey, pitch in an unfamiliar role in an incredibly high-pressure situation against the best top of the lineup in the league" doesn't strike me as putting your players in the right roles. Penny gave up the deciding runs…and then Little took him out and let Jonathon Broxton pitch the eighth inning with the Dodgers down 6-4?
Huh? How is it you let your struggling fourth starter pitch in the tie game against the best hitters the other guys have, then use your second-best reliever against the bottom of the lineup down two? Grady, just a suggestion: now that you've managed a team back to the postseason, you might want to minimize the egregious mistakes you make in managing your pitching staff. It may be that some people remember you have a history there. I'm just saying.
The seventh inning of yesterday's game illustrated a point that I think is critical to this series, and serves as an explanation, if not an excuse, for Little. The Dodgers, not the Mets, were hurt more by the last-minute injuries suffered by their pitchers. Orlando Hernandez's strained calf forced the Mets to shuffle their rotation and will likely push Oliver Perez into their postseason rotation. That's not good, although Perez is unpredictable enough that it could work out. On merit, Maine is probably a better pitcher than Hernandez right now; it's at least a close call.
Losing Joe Beimel to a cut he suffered while breaking a glass-and I have no inside information, but isn't that usually code for something else?-absolutely cripples the Dodger bullpen. Beimel may just be a journeyman, but he's one who had a very good year for the Dodgers and who is not only effective against lefties, but their only real left-handed reliever. Mark Hendrickson is on the roster, but he's a mop-up pitcher, not a tactical one, and he has almost no experience as a reliever.
The Mets drop off to a poor pitcher in one start, but the Dodgers now have to play every game without a guy who can be used to attack Carlos Delgado and Cliff Floyd. You saw the effect that had on the seventh inning last night; it might well have cost the Dodgers the game, and it's going to be a factor in every single game that follows.
Orlando Hernandez is more famous than Joe Beimel. He's made more money in this game, earned more accolades, and in a vacuum, might be a better pitcher. But in the context of this series, his loss doesn't mean as much as the loss of Beimel does. If the Dodgers could wave a wand and undo both injuries, they'd come out ahead in the deal.