October 18, 2006
With one out in the eighth inning of a 4-2 game, David Wright finally had a big hit, doubling into the left-field corner to give the Mets runner on second and third. With Shawn Green due to bat, Tony La Russa replaced Josh Kinney with southpaw Randy Flores to get the platoon advantage. The counter to that seemed obvious; get a right-handed hitter, any right-handed hitter, to the plate. Green hasn't been a true two-way player in a very long time. Since 2003, he's hit .247/.325/.419 against lefties. Flores held lefties to a .258/.337/.355 line this year, while allowing righties to rake: .329/.416/.566. He's a specialist, someone who can't be trusted against right-handed batters.
Even if La Russa walked the pinch-hitter to load the bases, which wasn't a lock because it would mean walking the go-ahead run, you then would have Jose Valentin batting from the right side against Flores, a fairly extreme case of weakness against weakness. The key batter was Green, or his replacement. Willie Randolph allowed Green to bat. One weak pop to center field later, the right fielder was back in the dugout, and the Mets were one step closer to being upset.
The events that led to that at-bat were set in motion a long time ago, first when the Mets sent Lastings Milledge to the minors on August 24, then when some teammates complained about the rookie's attitude in September. It's obviously much more important to sustain the wildly dysfunctional social structure of a major-league baseball team than to create an environment where the only capable right-handed-hitting outfielder in your organization can play.
Whether for baseball or interpersonal reasons, Milledge wasn't on the Division Series roster. When the Mets dropped down to 11 pitchers for the NLCS, they added Anderson Hernandez and his 406 OPS rather than Milledge, even though Cliff Floyd's Achilles' problem meant that his status was in question, and the Cardinals had two left-handed speciailists with massive platoon splits. Hernandez's only chance to get into a game would be to pinch-run for a pitcher or for Floyd in a pinch-hitting appearance. Milledge would likely have played in every single game as a pinch-hitter or as Shawn Green's legs.
Randolph has inherited a lot of Joe Torre's approaches as a manager, up to and including the inability to assemble a roster for the postseason. The problems with the pitching staff you can forgive, because he doesn't have half his projected playoff rotation. The terrible bench, however, is his own doing; Michael Tucker and Julio Franco are solid pinch-hitters, and Ramon Castro could be if he ever played. (Since Jorge Posada became the clear #1 catcher in 2000, Yankee backup catchers have played in four postseason games: two blowouts, one extra-inning game, and one Randy Johnson start that John Flaherty caught. So Randolph, like Torre, won't use his backup catcher unless Paul Lo Duca starts shedding body parts.) Hernandez isn't going to play. Chris Woodward isn't going to play. Cliff Floyd can't play. Castro won't play. Randolph has left himself with a two-man bench.
In the eighth inning last night, the Mets needed a good right-handed bat. Franco, Castro…hey, you pick the dictator…any of them would have been a better choice than Green. It would have meant putting Woodward in the outfield for the duration of the game, but so what? Lastings Milledge would have been the best option, but he wasn't around. If the Mets don't win two games in New York, they're going to have to look back at that decision and wonder what the manager was thinking when he put together his roster.
Randolph letting Green bat was just the most costly of a number of head-scratching decisions made during the game. I thought La Russa made a significant mistake in letting Jeff Weaver bat in the fourth inning, with the game tied at two, the bases loaded and two men out. Weaver had scuffled through the Mets' lineup twice, allowing the lefties to go 5-for-13 with a walk, and the top of the lineup was coming up in the fifth. Tom Glavine was clearly struggling with his command, elevating balls that the Cards were hitting into right field. A hit there would give the Cards the lead and possibly knock Glavine from the game, while turning the game over to a bullpen that had pitched very well up until Sunday's middle innings.
Weaver batted and grounded to second, and as it turned out, got threw two more innings unscathed, while the Cards scored in the fifth and sixth to make him the winning pitcher. You can credit La Russa with the right decision in retrospect, but at the time it seemed like he let an opportunity to gain the upper hand slip by. I don't know if expecting Jeff Weaver, who danced along the knife's edge all game long, to get through the Mets' lineup one more time was sensible, but it worked out.
La Russa would make one more decision that set my inbox afire. After Flores retired Green in the fateful eighth inning, La Russa called upon Adam Wainwright to pitch to Jose Valentin. I got a lot of questions about this; Valentin has been so bad from the right side that he actually gave up switch-hitting for a while. He hit .219/.300/.344 against lefties this year, .288/.341/.538 against righties, and I'm pretty sure this was the first time in a decade any manager had replaced a lefty with a righty just for him.
Looking at it, though, I figure La Russa knew that he wasn't going to get a platoon advantage worth having, so he wanted the better pitcher in the game. Flores is so bad against righties that he's a risk even against Valentin, and Wainwright is probably the best reliever the Cardinals have. Of the decisions that caused raised eyebrows, this was the most defensible one, and like the others, it worked out for the Cardinals: Valentin was called out on strikes.
The umpiring in the 2006 postseason hasn't been as egregious as the umpiring in 2005. We haven't had a Doug Eddings moment, a critical controversy that defines the month. What we have had, however, is the ball/strike work so bad that it has materially affected every single game. Pitches are being called essentially at random, and the looks of confusion on the faces of everybody involved tell the story.
The pitch that retired Valentin was another in a long, long line of pitches that were miscalled in critical spots. It was, essentially, the Eric Gregg moment of this series, the pitch that will stand out as an umpire's error in a high-leverage moment. The big curve by Wainwright was outside, and while a nasty pitch, was correctly taken by Valentin, who is a reasonably disciplined hitter.
What I found highly amusing was the sequence that followed on Fox. The FoxTrax graphic, which has consistently shown the umpiring to be a disaster, popped up briefly. Before it could be activated, the game went into a commercial break. They didn't return to it until a batter had been retired, at which time they highlighted the replay with some sponsor's logo, and "showed" that the pitch was just on the outside corner.
Now, take this with a very large grain of salt, but I'm just distrustful enough of the powers involved here-Fox and MLB-to speculate as to the timing of the graphic and the information it provided. To have that tool, which had consistently shown the home-plate umpires missing pitches time and time again, show up to confirm perhaps the biggest called strike of the series, and to do so after ten minutes, after it had nearly been used in the immediate aftermath of the pitch…it just seems terribly convenient. The pitch didn't look like a strike, Valentin didn't think it was a strike, no one I talked to thinks it was a strike.
Regardless of whether that pitch was called correctly or not, the inability of these umpires to call a consistent, correct strike zone has been one of the biggest stories of the postseason. It's not just big strikeout calls that change games. Take Yadier Molina's at-bat in the fourth inning. Home-plate umpire Jeff Kellogg called a 3-1 pitch well off the plate a strike; Glavine threw essentially the same pitch on 3-2, and Molina had to swing, because even though it was not a strike, he couldn't be certain the guy making the call was going to see it that way.
Keith Law, over at ESPN.com, has dubbed it the "Heisenberg Strike Zone," which is a label I can't top. Until and unless we concede that humans can't do the job with the precision needed, however, we're going to continue to see baseball games worth millions of dollars decided by functionaries making a few thousand.
Will that be the case tonight? The Mets find themselves up against the wall, throwing a rookie against the guy who might win the NL Cy Young Award. As bad as that looks, if they win the game, they don't even have a Game Seven starter, and they'll be up against a pitcher who threw eight shutout innings against them.
First things first. The Mets are as tough a matchup for Chris Carpenter as you'll find, a team with patient left-handed batters who will work deep counts. In Game Two, Carpenter wasn't able to get the Mets to chase the breaking ball low and inside, the pitch that had helped him beat the Padres twice. The approach for the Mets tonight will again be the same: lay off that pitch, make Carpenter work in the strike zone, draw some walks if he doesn't. They've beaten him once, and I'm not sure they can't beat him again.
John Maine is a good pitcher in his own right, and Willie Randolph should have a reasonably long leash on him. The Mets need to win two games, so Randolph should be careful about using Darren Oliver too quickly, or starting the short-reliever parade. It's unfortunate that a spate of injuries has pushed the Mets to this point, but that can't serve as an excuse; the Mets can still win this series, and I suspect that they'll again get to Carpenter and at least force a Game Seven.