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October 12, 2006

Prospectus Today

The Games Go On

by Joe Sheehan

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The death of Cory Lidle is a brutal invasion of the real world into our little fantasy realm. I wish I had some comforting words, some way of making sense of this, but I don't. I encourage you to read Alan Schwarz's description of Lidle, his budding friendship with him and the things that made Lidle more than a baseball player.

My reactions to the news followed the same pattern as they did when Darryl Kile died five years ago, although the details of the passings differ. The emotions, and the disbelief, are the same.

Sophia and I, as well as the entire Prospectus family, will keep Lidle's parents, wife, young son, and all the friends he had in the game in our thoughts and prayers.

--

Athletics/Tigers

There were some rumblings about cancelling this game, in fact both LCS games, but those were never realistic. The A's were the active team most affected by Lidle's passing, with the right-hander having played two strong seasons in Oakland and been a part of two playoff teams. Stars such as Eric Chavez and Barry Zito were teammates of Lidle, and there's no way of knowing how the news of the player's death affected last night's contest.

What's becoming clear is that the Tigers look a lot like the 2002 Angels. The success that they're having is being laid at the feet of their pitching staff. "Pitching and defense," or what guys like me call run prevention, is considered the driving force of the team. That was more true than not during the regular season, just as it was for those Angels, but the reason both teams were successful in the postseason was that they hit the snot out of the ball in October.

Those Angels were a .282 hitting team during the season, with a .433 slugging average. They scored 5.3 runs per game while allowing just a hair under 4.0. That last number jumped to 5.1 in the postseason, up more than 25%. They won the World Series because they boosted their run scoring to a whopping 6.3 per game, hitting .320 and slugging .511 in October. Ask people about the team, and they'll talk abouty speed and small ball and Francisco Rodriguez, but they won the World Championship because they hit way over their heads for a month.

It's early, but consider these Tigers stats. They hit .274 and slugged .449 during the regular season, averaging 5.1 runs per game while allowing 4.2. Their run prevention, unlike the Angels', has improved slightly: down to 3.3 runs per game. At the same time, though, their offense is going nuts, batting .307, slugging .533 and scoring 5.8 runs a game. The pitching has been good, but it's the overachieving offense that's making the difference. They may have beaten the Yankees because they allowed just four runs after the fourth inning of Game Two, but they buried the Yankees because they scored 17 runs in that time.

If you had to pick a path to follow, the 2002 Angels would be a pretty good one. That team was arguably the best in the AL that year in the regular season, and they picked a good month to get hot. Championships aren't always won by the best team; they do, however, tend to be won by the team playing the best in the playoffs. Five years ago, that was the Angels of Unremembered Origin. Right now, it's the Detroit Tigers.

It doesn't hurt that Jim Leyland has reached the "I'm Keith Hernandez" point of his career ($1, Simmons). Not all of the notes I take make my column-trust me, it's best for everyone-but I swear, I had a note Wednesday morning about Alexis Gomez, and how he might be forced into the lineup just to give the Tigers some kind of lefty balance. I didn't use it, so Leyland goes ahead, starts Gomez, and the guy hits a two-run homer that turned out to be critical in the win.

I spent a good portion of the last half of the game sending e-mails about Leyland's use of the pen, specifically, the absence of Joel Zumaya. Leyland used Wil Ledezma and Jason Grilli (!) and Fernando Rodney in protecting a lead, but not his flamethrowing right-hander. Given that Zumaya had pitched up 5-0 Tuesday, and before that, up 6-0 last Friday, Leyland's refusal to use him seemed inexplicable.

As it turns out, Zumaya was unavailable due to a sore forearm (per Jason Beck of MLB.com), rendering my criticisms mostly irrelevant. It is worth asking whether using Zumaya in a low-leverage situation Tuesday helped make him unavailable Wednesday, and whether that should call into question Leyland's decisions. Frank Thomas came about a half-inch from making this conversation a heck of a lot more relevant. As it stands, the Tigers are up 2-0, and Leyland is probably thinking about using Omar Infante to close out the next win.

Because he's Jim Leyland.

The A's aren't exactly helping themselves. They were 2-for-7 with runners in scoring position last night, both hits by Milton Bradley. They struck out in six consecutive ABs late in the game, and that was with Zumaya sitting in the bullpen watching.

The real problems last night were on defense. In the fourth, Eric Chavez turned a potential double-play ball into a two-run single by moving very slowly to his left on a two-hopper with the bases loaded and one out. At the least, Chavez should have been able to get one out, which would have enabled the A's to escape the inning tied, rather than down two runs. He looked very stiff as he moved towards the ball, as if he's still suffering from the hamstring problem that slowed him down the stretch.

Mark Kotsay contributed as well, making an offline throw-praised, for some reason, by the guys with microphones-that might have nailed Craig Monroe had it been with five feet of the plate. An interesting note about that play is that Monroe's lead leg never touched home plate when he slid. He didn't actually touch home until his bent trailing leg dragged across it, just ahead of Jason Kendall's tag. Had Kendall's tag come just a bit sooner, we might have seen a huge argument. Well, that or a missed call.

It's interesting because I'm certain that Lou Piniella, in the booth for this game, was called out on an identical play 30 years ago, a story recounted by the late umpire Ron Luciano in one of his books. I'm afraid I don't remember more than that, and I don't have the books handy. Does anyone else recall this?

D'Angelo Jimenez made another error, this time a harmless one. He's just not much of a player right now, although there's still time for him to have a better career than Alfonso Soriano. With his brutal glove and history of hitting poorly from the right side, Friday might be the day for Ken Macha to make history and write in Mark Kiger's name. Kiger would have played last night had the game gone to extra innings, and if he does get into a game, will become the first player in history to make his major-league debut in a postseason game. I'm rooting for him.

Mets/Cardinals

Rain washed away the first game of the NLCS last night, sparing us a night of simultaneous playoff games. (It wouldn't bother me as much if they simply wouldn't provide score updates from the other game. I could DVR the second game and then watch it. As it stands, I get just enough information to ruin the other game. Bad network, bad.) As of this morning, the Friday game time hasn't been set; it will be interesting to see if they force the teams to play a night game before traveling to St. Louis.

With the likelihood of a long game-the average number of pitchers per game should be well over seven in this series-you're setting up a brutal travel schedule for teams if you don't start the game until 8:20 ET Friday night. Figure the game ends around 11:30, you have to handle the post-game gaggle, plus the personal hygiene stuff…I doubt you can get in the air until maybe 2 a.m. The flight isn't long enough for a full night's sleep, you're on the ground in St. Louis at 3:30 CT, in a hotel room at 5:00…be at the park at 4:00 for a 6:50 CT start…that's a rough night before playing an important game, and it's the best-case scenario. A rain delay, an extra-inning game, weather problems affecting flights all push the schedule back.

Playing Friday's game at 1 p.m. or 4 p.m.-the latter is my suggestion-would make for a much more reasonable travel schedule. We'll see if Fox accedes, or merely locks in on the idea of showing a New York team in prime time to the detriment of everyone involved.

One of the sillier ideas floating around in the wake of the rainout is that Tony La Russa might not take advantage of it to start Chris Carpenter on full rest Friday, getting his best starter to the mound earlier in the series. La Russa himself said that he expected to stick with Jeff Suppan in Game Two.

Now, maybe Jim Leyland could pull this off, perhaps even calling on Ricky Horton or John Stuper to start Game Two. But La Russa is a mere mortal, and if he elects to not take advantage of this massive gift from Mother Nature, he deserves to lose and to be criticized for it. The idea that you would hold back Carpenter so that he could pitch a potential Game Seven on full rest is not only silly, but flies in the face of everything teams have done with their postseason rotations forever. No one holds back his best pitcher. You start your guys in the order of their ability as long as they've gotten sufficient rest since their previous start. No one starts their #1 in Game Three just so they can be set up for a Game Seven that may never happen.

Besides, a Game Six is just as important. They're all important, but if the Cardinals get to Game Six, one of two scenarios will be in play: they can clinch with a win, or they will have to win to survive. In either case, a fully-rested Chris Carpenter would be the best choice to pitch such a critical game. Holding back Carpenter with an eye towards using him in a Game Seven completely ignores how important a Game Six is, and how big an impact he could have on the series in that slot.

There's no argument here: Carpenter needs to start Friday night, because it gives the Cardinals the best chance to pull an upset. They need to get Carpenter to the mound as often as is reasonable, and the rain yesterday opened up a tremendous opportunity for them to do so while not endangering his right arm.

Reader E.M. pointed out an effect of the rainout that I hadn't considered. The teams are now scheduled to play for five straight days, which means that Willie Randolph-who lacks an innings-eating ace in the Carpenter mold-will have to lean on his bullpen for five straight days. This, and not the potential for getting Carpenter an earlier start, may be the biggest effect the rainout has on the series. The off day is critical for a team that could be getting four, five or more innings from its pen in every game. At some point, Randolph may need to get a seven-inning start, and his rotation isn't wired for that.

Thinking about it some more, playing on five straight days will also mean that the Game Five starters will either be starting on short rest, or be randoms. Neither team really has a fifth starter on the roster-the Mets only have one long reliever in Darren Oliver, while the Cardinals replaced Jason Marquis with Anthony Reyes, who is starting Game Four-so a Tom Glavine/Jeff Weaver rematch seems likely.

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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