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October 9, 2006
Division Series, Day Six
The Cardinals completed the "how you finished the season doesn't matter" superfecta last night, closing out the Padres 6-2 behind Chris Carpenter's second good start of the series. Carpenter struggled early with his command, walking three hitters in a two-run first inning. Once the Padres let him off the hook-once again failing to get a hit with runners in scoring position-he cruised through the next six innings on just 68 pitches, not allowing a single Padre even as far as second base.
With last night's 1-for-7 (the hit didn't score a run), the Padres closed the series 2-for-33 with runners in scoring position. That, and being unlucky enough to draw Carpenter twice in four games, are the simple reasons for their demise. They had plenty of opportunities in every single game, and failed time and time again to capitalize. Even when the Cards made mistakes, as they did in the first inning Saturday, the Padres made bigger ones to let them off the hook.
Of course, the Cardinals were helped by two Carpenter starts. He threw 13 1/3 innings, more than a third of the total the Cards needed to get by the Pads. If you can run a Cy Young Award candidate out there for 37% of your innings you're in good shape. The schedulemakers were kind to the Cardinals, and they took advantage. Bruce Bochy could have used his own ace, Jake Peavy, last night, but given that Williams was just as effective this season, the decision to hold Peavy back made sense.
This game was a microcosm of the series. Carpenter walked consecutive hitters in the first to give the Padres a 1-0 lead with the bases loaded and one out. Mike Cameron then hit a grounder to short for a run, Geoff Blum walked to re-load the bases, only to have Josh Barfield follow with an inning-ending groundout. As good a pitcher as Carpenter is, you have to get to him when he leaves the door open.
The failed opportunity loomed large in the bottom of the inning when Woody Williams coughed up the lead. After skating by Albert Pujols in a plate appearance where he looked like he was pitching around the slugger, he fell behind Jim Edmonds 3-1 before hitting him on 3-2, then managed to walk Juan Encarnacion on five pitches, a feat that is probably worth the big teddy bear at a carnival somewhere (in fairness, the 3-1 was a strike). Having worked up in the zone all inning-all career, really-he was then victimized by Ronnie Belliard on what may have been his best pitch of the inning, a curve low and away that Belliard broke his bat on while dumping it into center for two runs.
That was it until the bottom of the sixth. Now, Williams had settled down considerably, even having a three-pitch inning in the fourth, and retiring seven men in a row entering the inning. However, he'd been hit fairly hard by the Cards' righties at times, and was still elevating pitches, a dangerous trait in a one-run game. Given that it was an elimination game, that the Padres have a loaded bullpen, and that Bochy had pulled David Wells after five innings on Thursday, I was a little surprised to not see Cla Meredith to start the sixth.
Williams walked Pujols to start the inning, bringing up Jim Edmonds and then two right-handed batters. Edmonds continued one of the themes of this postseason, not letting pitchers hang themselves, by flying to left on the first pitch. At that point, I expected Meredith; you have to be aggressive when you're season is on the line, and Williams' flyball tendencies were a serious risk with Encarnacion at the plate. Meredith would be a difficult matchup for Encarnacion, and he was basically ready to come in.
You know what happened next. Williams hung a curve and Encarnacion hit a shot into the right-field corner, scoring Pujols from first base and effectively ending the Padres' season. Meredith came in then an presided over the meltdown: another two-strike hit batter, a pair of two-strike singles, a throwing error, and a squeeze created the final score.
Should Williams have pitched to Encarnacion? It's easy to say "no" now that we know what happened. In the moment, I thought the Padres would have been better off taking the game away from the flyball-throwing nibbler who historically gets hit for power by righties, and giving it to the guy with the 4-to-1 GB/FB ratio and the .107 batting average allowed to right-handed batters. Meredith is going to pitch in this game; if the only question is when, why not right there? As it turned out, Williams pitched to one batter too many and Meredith didn't help the situation when he arrived. All in all, a disaster, but maybe one that could have been averted.
The Padres had one last gasp in the eighth, which they opened with consecutive singles to chase Carpenter, but it went the way of all their other rallies this week: a five-pitch strikeout of Josh Bard and a double-play ball off the bat of Mike Piazza. Whatever playoff money the 14 Padres position players get, they need to hand it off to the 11 pitchers, because they might as well have taken the week off after generating all of six runs in four games, with no homers and a .211 batting average.
The best news to come out of the series for Cards fans is the work of the bullpen. A big contributor to the year-end slump, Cardinals' relievers were outstanding in the Division Series: 13 1/3 shutout innings, 16 strikeouts. La Russa was helped along by Bochy's lineups, which combined with a complete lack of good right-handed hitters on the bench made it easy for La Russa to play matchups.
Repeating this pen performance against the Mets will be just as critical, because their left-handed hitters have to be attacked aggressively. Willie Randolph, however, has a more balanced lineup and some better help on the bench. The Mets caught a break when Dodgers' lefty Joe Beimel lost a fight with some broken glass in a New York bar just before the Division Series started. Unless Randy Flores and Tyler Johnson make the same dumb mistake, the late innings should play out a bit different in the next round.
There are no games today, allowing plenty of time to consider the LCS matchups and work your Internet Baseball Awards ballot. I'll be doing both, and will share my thoughts on both tomorrow.
What follows isn't really "analytical" in the sense that I like to be in this space. I don't have much evidence for it, and it comes dangerously close to fanboy whining. So warned, feel free to back out of this page and read Maury or The Week in Quotes or something. If you continue, you have no one to blame but yourself.
There is all kinds of craziness being put forth in the wake of the Yankees ouster from the playoffs. The way in which this team went from The Greatest Lineup Ever to a problem to be solved in the span of 54 hours is as much a story about the media as about baseball. I fail to see how 1-3 should mean more than 97-65, especially when it's quite clear that the Yankees faced off against two good pitchers having terrific days in their last two losses. As ever, the disproportionate emphasis on the postseason as a measure of success is driving the kind of pseudo-analysis, and perhaps decisionmaking, that does little to advance a discussion or build successful baseball teams.
If we're going to do a post-mortem, though, I think it's instructive to consider more than just what happened in Detroit, as ugly as that was. If Changes Must Be Made, there should at least be an attempt to find out what went wrong, why the season ended so much earlier than was hoped. There are certainly on-field reasons-playing injured, rusty players at new positions, and mid-rotation starters who aren't very good, and a right side of the infield with absolutely no range-but I want to, for a second, consider something else.
What concerns me isn't that the Yankees lost. What concerns me is that they and their manager set themselves up for a free ride going into the playoffs. After a season of laying all failures at the feet of Alex Rodriguez, and going so far as to inspire and participate in a Sports Illustrated story that furthered that storyline, the Yankees absolved themselves of responsibility. Complicit with the media, they washed their hands and let Rodriguez carry the water for their performance.
At just about any point along the way, one of the two most visible Yankees-Joe Torre or Derek Jeter-could have come forward and said what should be obvious: Alex Rodriguez is a great, great player, and in the worst season of his career he's a star. Defining his season by his lowest points is doing him a disservice, and the constant focus on his play is an insult to the other members of the team. Whatever Rodriguez's performance issues, such as they were, his overall contributions were valuable. Beyond that, he's one of the game's model citizens, with barely a controversy to his name in a time when so many others have been tainted.
That statement, completely true, would have done more to alleviate the pressure on Rodriguez than anything else. They didn't do so, instead allowing petty nonsense like his desire to please people (heaven forfend) and his performance is varied subsets (in Boston, in the playoffs, against a small handful of pitchers, in 20 at-bats in July) to substitute for real information. They didn't defend their teammate, and by allowing, even stoking, the situation, they absolved themselves and every other Yankee of blame for their fortunes. If they lost, it would be Rodriguez's fault, no matter how the rest of them played.
Torre's handling of the Rodriguez situation is perhaps the blackest mark on his record. Going so far as to bat him eighth in a playoff game, a move guaranteed to make him a point of discussion, would have been the nadir if he hadn't already reached that in the pages of SI. Torre made his bones in New York by keeping controversy out of the clubhouse; he committed a boner by turning his clubhouse into a circus this year.
As far as Jeter goes, any claims to a captaincy or leadership skills are and will remain in doubt. His refusal to provide a full-throated defense of the player whose willingness to take his Gold Gloves to third base allowed the illusion of Jeter's defensive prowess to grow to a point where he could get his own hardware is as much to blame as Torre's sudden open-mouth policy. He could have stopped this with 50 well-chosen words. He didn't, and it's fair to wonder why.
Alex Rodriguez "sucked," to use his words, against the Tigers. He's a part of the Yankees' failure to advance. He's not the biggest one, on or off the field, and I can only hope people recognize that, and take a good, long look at what happened in the last four months, before writing their next article or making their next trade.