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September 26, 2007

Prospectus Today

A Crowd of Heroes

by Joe Sheehan

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This is why you stay up late.

The storyline for most of last night was the Braves making up ground on the rest of the playoff field, beating the Phillies 10-6 while both the Diamondbacks and Mets lost. The Padres looked like they were going to lose as well, falling behind 4-0 early to the Giants, who had their ace, Matt Cain, on the mound. Even the Rockies trailed the Dodgers 5-4 at one point, leading to the possibility that the Braves would gain one game on every single team that they were chasing.

Grady Little took care of part of that, using Mark Hendrickson to protect a one-run lead and Nomar Garciaparra with a one-run deficit, both with predictable results, and helping the Rockies to their ninth straight victory. It was the Padres' win, however, that once again resets things in the National League. They got solo homers from Scott Hairston and Khalil Greene in the sixth and seventh to cut the gap to 4-2, chasing Cain from the game after the seventh. The four-run ninth-inning rally may have been capped by Brian Giles' three-run homer, but up to that point the Padres were led by relatively anonymous players doing little things that made Giles' heroics possible.

The Pads were still in the game thanks to Joe Thatcher, the southpaw reliever picked up from the Brewers in the Scott Linebrink trade. Thatcher escaped a two-on, two-out jam in the seventh, and then pitched a scoreless eighth. His ERA is now 1.02 in 18 appearances, with 13 strikeouts, four walks, and just one home run allowed. Not only should he be on the playoff roster, he may be the Padres' third-best reliever behind Trevor Hoffman and Heath Bell. Thatcher will be a critical pitcher for this team if the Pads can survive this week and get to October.

Then there was Brady Clark, playing only because the Padres had lost two starting outfielders over the weekend. A decent fourth outfielder, Clark spent ten weeks in the minors after the Dodgers dropped him in June. Last night, in his 28th at-bat as a Padre, he fisted an 0-1 pitch into right field with two outs to make it a 4-3 game and keep things alive.

Speaking of Dodger rejects, there was Oscar Robles, the third of four second basemen that Bud Black would use in this game. Robles fell behind 1-2 to Brian Wilson and his one-point ERA, then showed great discipline by working a six-pitch walk from the righty to keep the inning alive.

Giles the took advantage of Wilson's command issues by getting ahead 2-0, then jumping on a cripple fastball for the hero's role. If not for the work of Thatcher, Clark, and Robles, however, there would have been no game for Giles to save. For a team reeling from the loss of four straight games and two of its best players, a team still trying to figure out what happened to its second starter starter-Chris Young was once again ineffective Monday night-the comeback win was like oxygen. It gave them an outright lead in the Wild Card race while also cutting the Diamondbacks' lead in the division to two games, putting that back into play.

The team the Padres didn't gain on was the Rockies, who put up five runs on Brad Penny and four more on the Dodger bullpen to extend their winning streak to nine games in a 9-7 win. There's no question that Grady Little's decision to try and sneak Hendrickson through the sixth inning was ill-considered; using the big lefty to get Cory Sullivan out of the game and even to pitch through Kaz Matsui wasn't the worst idea, but leaving him to face Troy Tulowitzki with Matt Holliday on deck was baseball malpractice. Tulowitzki and Hendrickson both have significant platoon splits, and the Dodgers, coming off of an offday on Monday, could have gone to any of Roberto Hernandez or Jonathan Meloan or Rudy Seanez to get out of the inning. Tulowitzki homered off of Hendrickson to retake the lead, and the Dodgers never led again. The Rockies' bullpen, such a key part of this team's run, bent a bit, allowing single runs in the eighth and ninth, but still held on for the win.

Unlike the Padres and Rockies, the Mets had a comeback fall just short, scoring six runs in the ninth inning and putting the tying run on second base with one out. They needed seven, however, and they fell to the Nationals yet again, this time by a 10-9 final score. The loss didn't hurt them much because the Phillies also dropped that game to the Braves. Like the Rockies, the Braves just continue to hang around this thing thanks to their huge late-season run, winning while the teams around them sputter, and because of that, they still have a chance, however slim-four out in the East, three out in the Wild Card-with five to play. They really could have used a 1-2-3 ninth inning in San Francisco; that Padres win did more damage to the Braves than to any other team.

They played some baseball in the American League last night, too. Here's your takeaway from that-Joe Torre, with his Yankees trailing the Red Sox by two games for the AL East crown (if tied, the Yankees win), used the following relievers: Edwar Ramirez, Brian Bruney, Ron Villone, Chris Britton, Kyle Farnsworth, Jose Veras, Jeff Karstens. The last three pitched with the game tied in the eighth, ninth, and tenth.

If Joe Torre isn't taking the Yankees' "pursuit" of an AL East title seriously, why should anyone else? The seedings don't matter; what matters is being ready to go next week. Last night's Yankees/Devil Rays game has to be the final data point in the case that the teams involved recognize just how little the division title means relative to everything else at stake.

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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