October 7, 2006
Division Series, Day Four
If you're Billy Beane, and you had to listen to national commentators and columnists tell you for years that you couldn't win unless you built a team that could play playoff baseball and do the little things and play smallball to win, the following has to be gratifying:
The A's approach in this series was no different than it was in 2001, 2002 and 2003. (The 2000 team was actually a different animal.) This year, in a small number of games, they caught some breaks and knocked extra-base hits. In those other series, the breaks went the other way and they didn't slug as well. But the basic approach was the same: pitch well, don't give away outs, don't give away at-bats.
Over the next few days, you'll probably read about how this A's team had something different that those teams didn't have. Don't believe it. The basic structures of the 2001-03 teams and this one, were the same, and I'd argue that the 2001-02 teams were better than this one. This team hit five homers in three games, and it gets to keep playing.
Oh, wait, there was one other difference: these A's acquired two players largely considered bad guys, malcontents, losing players…and won a playoff series with the two batting third and fourth. Chemistry is an effect, not a cause.
The 16 runs the A's scored were enough because their pitchers held the Twins to just seven in the series. Distrubuting the credit and blame for that is difficult; did the Twins go 1-for-19 with runners in scoring position because they hit poorly, or because the A's pitchers threw well? Certainly the Twins approach at the plate, on the whole, was ineffective. They came to the plate swinging, early and often, drawing just six walks and averaging just 3.5 pitches per plate appearances in the series.
The Twins were off track Friday as early as the second inning. Justin Morneau led off the frame with a double, the second straight inning the Twins had led with a hit. Torii Hunter, the Twins' third-best hitter, then dropped a bunt down the third-base line. It was one of those, "kind of bunting for a hit, happy to take the sacrifice" bunts that have become epidemic among good players, it seems. It was a bad idea, not least because in his next plate appearance, Hunter hit basically the exact same pitch for a home run.
On the very next pitch, with a runner on third and one out, Rondell White fisted a pop to short left field far too shallow for Morneau to score. He would end up stranded at third base.
So in a span of about 90 seconds, the Twins had gone from having a runner on second, no one out and one of their better hitters at the plate, to two outs, a runner on third, and Jason Tyner up. They simply let Dan Haren off the hook without making him work at all, a criminal offense. You don't put pressure on a team by giving away an out with a bunt; you put pressure on a team by making their pitcher work for outs, especially early in the game.
That sequence--double, first-pitch sacrifice, first-pitch pop-up-was the Twins' series in a nutshell. Bad decisions at the plate producing runners left on base.
This wasn't the game to waste opportunities, either. The Twins were running Brad Radke, who may or may not have two shoulders, to the mound, largely because he looked good against the Royals last week. There's having a healthy respect for the desire of a veteran, and there's starting a pitcher whose stuff is interchangeable with mine. I think the world of Radke-I love pitchers who work quickly and throw strikes, guys like Radke, Greg Maddux, Bob Tewskbury, Tom Browning-but starting him in an elimination game was a risk I wouldn't have taken. Through no fault of his own, he just wasn't capable of keeping a major-league team off the scoreboard. Radke allowed four runs in four innings, one more than the Twins would muster.
Twins fans will no doubt focus on the controversial play at home plate in the sixth inning. After a Morneau single and a Hunter double-the guy had a day when he wasn't giving away outs-White snuck a single through the right side to make it 4-2. Third-base coach Scott Ullger sent Hunter home, even though Milton Bradley fielded the ball maybe 25 feet deep on the outfield grass. Bradley's throw beat Hunter by a good 10 feet, but Hunter made an amazing slide in an attempt to elude the tag.
Did he? I honestly don't know. The necessary angle was on the inside of home plate, between the plate and the mound, and there was no shot from there. Hunter might have tagged the base with his left hand with Jason Kendall missing him, or Kendall might have tagged Hunter's back before Hunter's hand touched home. I still am unsure. I also can't believe that home-plate umpire Mike Everitt can be all that certain, given where he was standing; Kendall tagging Hunter and Kendall just missing Hunter would look the same from his angle. (I don't know enough about umpiring to know whether he was out of position.)
What I'm certain of is that the decision to send Hunter was as wrong a decision as you'll see in a baseball game. Take it from any angle you want: game situation, play situation, series situation…the value of the run Hunter was carrying wasn't worth the risk of an out in that situation. The Twins had just gotten three straight hits off of Haren, including their first hit with a runner in scoring position in the series. It was the first time they'd looked alive since the Mark Kotsay homer in Game Two. Bradley was maybe 135 feet from home plate, and he has a good arm.
There was no reason in the world to send Hunter, and about a dozen reasons to hold him at third base. Hunter made the play a lot closer than it had any right being, but he never should have been in that situation. The out effectively ended the rally, and four A's runs in the seventh put the final nails in the coffin.
I'd written earlier this week that the only result that would surprise me was a sweep, and I am surprised. There's not much difference at all between these two teams, and if you look at each game, you see the small edges that went the A's way, rather than the Twins', and added up to a 3-0 sweep. Frank Thomas gets just enough of a ball in Game One; Luis Castillo doesn't advance a runner; Torii Hunter just misses a ball in Game Two; the Twins never get a key hit; a critical play at the plate goes the A's way.
It just goes to show: there's no predicting the outcome of a short series.
In just a few October days, we've seen a number of pitching masterpieces. Barry Zito and Johan Santana both twirled gems in the Division Series opener. Chris Carpenter mesmerized the Padres. Tom Glavine shut out the Dodgers for six innings.
All of those paled to what we saw last night, when a 40-year-old man completely changed the storyline of the postseason. Kenny Rogers had everything working last night, and he put it all to use in shutting out the Yankees for 7 2/3 innings and pitching the Tigers to within one game of the ALCS. Rogers' masterful work came against a lineup that some have called the greatest ever assembled, and others-including me-have just conceded an average of six or seven runs a game. Not only are the Yankees falling short of that mark, but they haven't scored since Thursday afternoon, and have just one run event-Johnny Damon's three-run homer in the fourth inning of Game Two-in the last two games.
Rogers deserves all the credit you can give him. Not only was he using his usual mix of slop-fastball/change-up/sinker, nothing in the same place twice-but he had borrowed Tom Gordon's curve for the night. This last element turned him into a strikeout pitcher, one who could not only keep hitters off balance, but put them away. He spotted the curve just enough to make hitters look foolish with it.
I've been vocal about the random strike zone, and when a pitcher, especially a command pitcher like Rogers, has a start like this, you assume that he got help from the home-plate umpire. What is unusual is that if this was happening, I didn't notice. The strike zone seemed consistent, and in no way exceptionally generous to Rogers. The lefty just had one of those dart-throwing nights, when everything he sent up to the plate found a corner, good either for a called strike or a weak swing leading to an out.
Kenny Rogers simply went out and pitched one of the great games of his life, perhaps second only to his perfect game in 1994.
The Yankee frustration grew as the night wore on. They spent most of the night with at least one runner on base, and often had two. Rogers pitched out of the stretch to 17 of the 22 batters he could have, conceding that you wouldn't do so against a leadoff hitter. Despite this, he stayed strong into the eighth inning. The Yankees were a Twinsesque 0-for-18 with runners on base, blowing leadoff-man-on chances in the third, fourth, fifth and seventh. Rogers just didn't put balls over the middle of the plate and he walked just two men. That combination is hard to beat.
The shock value of this is hard to describe. The Yankees came into the postseason as overwhelming favorites, blew the Tigers out on Tuesday, went up 3-1 in the fourth inning Thursday…and then curled up like a dead leaf. They've been outscored 9-0 in the last 14 innings, are 0-for-23 with a runner on base, and are now on the brink of being knocked out of the playoffs by a team with a third their payroll, one that closed the season playing sub-.400 baseball for nearly a third of the schedule.
Joe Torre didn't help himself last night. He pressed the right button in getting Bernie Williams into the lineup, adding a lefty masher to the order. Taking out Gary Sheffield made the move a net zero. Sitting Jason Giambi or Hideki Matsui-who doesn't look right at all-would have made more sense. No single lineup change was going to get the Yankees seven runs last night, but with Yankee lefties going 2-for-16 with a walk against Rogers-righties were 3-for-12 with a walk and two of the three doubles--it's fair to wonder what Sheffield or Melky Cabrera might have done with four at-bats.
The Yankees needed runs last night because they started a ghost, a stat line, a highlight film, instead of a pitcher. Randy Johnson is trying, but he's a shell of his former self. Relentless contact helped the Tigers score five runs off of the Big Unit in 5 2/3 innings. Johnson allowed eight hits and struck out just four, numbers reminiscent of Randy Wolf or Randy St. Claire. Johnson's lack of stuff can be summed up like this: Sean Casey pulled him for two hits.
Johnson was let down a bit by the defense, which was shaky. Robinson Cano let one of those Casey hits, a single in the second, get under his glove, when a dive that blocked the ball might well have retired the very slow Casey. In that same inning, Alex Rodriguez and Cano both released tags early on runners who overslid bases. Holding the tag would have picked up at least one out along the way, an out Johnson could have used. Jason Giambi made a poor throw on a pickoff play as well. Overall, the Yankees did not play a good game, showing their lack of postseason experience and veteran leadership.
They may not get much more experience this year. Jeremy Bonderman can end their season tonight by beating Jaret Wright, or by getting his teammates to do it for him. While Bonderman is the better starter, the Tigers are a great matchup for Wright, a heavily right-handed team that likes to swing the bat. If Wright is ever going to succeed, this is the set-up for it. Bonderman was shaky down the stretch, and the Yankees have the personnel to destroy right-handed starters who bring anything less than the best. Chances are, we'll get more than one more game here, but after last night, all bets are off.
Thanks to the Gambler.
Just a few notes on today's NL matchups. Chris Young, who pitches for the Padres in a few hours, was borderline unhittable down the stretch. He's arguably the Pads' best pitcher right now. Add in the effect going on the road has on the Padres' hitters--the best road offense in the league--and they're in good shape to extend the series to a fourth game. That is, unless the game is close and pinch-hitters get involved, Then, all bets are off.
The Dodgers also have a favorable pitching matchup down 2-0, sending Greg Maddux up against Steve Trachsel. It's a game that should require a chess clock, with the well-paced Maddux up against the deliberate Trachsel. Trachsel has danced around disaster all season, with terrible ratios and terrific run support. The Dodgers should be in shape to extend this series one more day, and with Oliver Perez lurking, they're not out of this yet. Look for runs all weekend long, with games decided very late, a situation that gives the advantage to Willie Randolph and the Mets.