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September 30, 2007

Prospectus Today

The Last Day

by Joe Sheehan

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To read Sunday's "regular" column, scroll down past these in-day updates.

6:10 p.m: The Rockies finish their season on a 13-1 run, catch the Padres on the last day and get a one-game playoff at home. That's just an amazing story, no matter how tomorrow turns out. Today, Ubaldo Jimenez took a no-hitter into the sixth, watched his team fall behind, take the lead, then sweat out Manuel Corpas' shaky ninth inning for a 4-3 win for one...more...day...of baseball.

Much will be said about the collapse of the Mets and the mini-collapse--they were up 3-2 with two outs and two strikes last night, and up 3-0 today--of the Padres, but how about the teams that caught them? The Rockies, a team I picked to finish dead last in the NL West, played great baseball over the last two weeks, while the Phillies closed 13-4 in making up seven games on the Mets. Again, I think we may overemphasize the order of events, but what's clear is that both the Phillies and Rockies were better teams than they were expected to be, and they remind us that as much energy and effort as we put into analysis, the baseball season is immune to prediction.

And in 2007, it's one day longer. See you tomorrow.

5:40 p.m: The Padres lose 11-6, and now have to hope the Diamondbacks, or a version of them, can beat the Rockies to help them avert a one-game playoff. I'd mentioned earlier that the Rockies got their first run when Alberto Callaspo, playing well out of position, turned a deep fly ball into an RBI double. Now, in the eighth, Matt Holliday hits a rocket off of Robby Hammock's glove at first base, setting up first and third and no one out. It's Hammock's second career appearance at first base. Bill Murphy is coming in for Dustin Nippert with two on and no one out.

Alberto Callaspo. Robby Hammock. Dustin Nippert. Bill Murphy. The lesson here: win your games. Don't put yourself in position to need help, because you might not get it.

4:50 p.m: The Rockies are on the board in Colorado, where a long fly ball to the warning track by Brad Hawpe becomes a run-scoring double, with an assist from second baseman--playing the outfield for the 10th time in his career--Alberto Callaspo, who misjudged and misplayed it badly. Callaspo was only out there because Justin Upton was knocked out of the game by a pitch in his first at-bat, but it was still hard to watch, knowing the importance of the game.

With the Padres down 9-4 in Milwaukee, it comes down to this: Rockies win, and we get one more game. Rockies lose, and the Padres are the wild-card team.

4:25 p.m: Things sure have changed here on Waltons Mountain. The Brewers strung together four hits and two walks off of Brett Tomko and Cla Meredith to take a 6-4 lead over the Padres. Meanwhile, the Rockies are only getting a no-hitter, through five innings, from Ubaldo Jimenez. If the Rockies win and the Padres lose, the two will play tomorrow in Denver to determine the NL wild-card team. In that case, we'll know that the Phillies play the wild-card winner and the Cubs play the Diamondbacks.

Meanwhile, the Mets are down 8-1 in the ninth, having put up no resistance since their early-game rallies against Dontrelle Willis were stuffed. The Phillies are up 6-1, and barring a very strange sequence, the Phillies will have made up seven games in 17 days to win the NL East. The Mets, playing at home against three non-contenders, will have closed 1-6 to blow the division, and their playoff spot, in a hail of bad pitching.

Is this a choke? Most people will tell you it is, but the more baseball I watch, the more I think that we put too much weight on the order in which events happen. The Mets are ending with about the record I expected them to, and the Phillies are playing a little bit better than that. Does the distribution of wins and losses provide insight into their character, or is it more or less random?

I'm not saying I know the answer. I'm saying there's a question here.

3:30 p.m: Some signs of life in the games being played outside of New York. The Nats have two on and one out in the sixth, with Charlie Manuel making the odd decision to pull Jamie Moyer. Moyer has been getting a 23-inch-wide strike zone, and I'm not sure taking that edge out of the game to get to what is an overworked bullpen is such a great idea. Phil Cuzzi has had a greater impact on this game than any player, and whether you're a Phillies fan, a Mets fan, or just a fan of baseball, that's a bad thing. I shudder for October.

In Milwaukee, the Brewers have picked up two runs on a Ryan Braun walk, steal and a throwing error by Josh Bard, followed by a homer by Corey Hart. The Padres, unlike the Phillies, should want to get to the bullpen early, especially with Jake Peavy available to pitch a playoff game on full rest.

The Diamondbacks started about half their regulars in Colorado. That seems like a reasonable compromise.

Austin Kearns hits into a double play. Looks good for the Phillies. The Nationals have just four extra-base hits in this series, all doubles, in the second-best hitters' park in the NL.

2:40 p.m: This is a surprise. Dontrelle Willis, who has, admittedly, been shaky through 2 2/3 innings, was pulled with a 7-1 lead in the third inning. Now, the Marlins are freerolling--they can use the whole bullpen freely with no game until April--but this is a very unusual move. The Mets' broadcasters (underrated booth, although Keith Hernandez can be grating) are right: yesterday's conflict between the two teams may be driving the Marlins here, pushing them to care more about the outcome of this game than a team in their position normally would.

The Padres got three in the first to go up on the Brewers, and the Phillies got two in the third to also lead 3-0.

Paul Lo Duca taps to the mound with the bases loaded to end the inning. I'm sure that's someone else's fault, too.

2:10 p.m: Not that the Phillies needed any more help, but through two innings, it appears that Jamie Moyer is getting exactly what he needs from home-plate umpire Phil Cuzzi. Moyer opened the second with a couple of pitches to Austin Kearns that were off the plate, and called strikes.

Willie Randolph makes a peculiar choice of pinch-hitter with a runner on first and no one out in the second, sending up double-play machine Sandy Alomar Jr. I'll post this entry with a 2-2 count on Alomar. Let's see what happens.

Correction: Craig Biggio caught last night, the first two innings of the Astros/Braves game. I simply missed it, which I'm sure had nothing to do at all with USC playing last night.

1:30 p.m.: Just a disaster for the Mets, as the Marlins rope five hits off of Tom Glavine, throw in some Little League defense, a couple of walks, and a ridiculous 1-2 hit batsman with the pitcher up, and fall behind 5-0 in the top of the first with just one out. The Marlins do hit lefties, but they're also impatient in general; the latter trait seems to be less important today. The Marlins didn't crush Glavine, just made contact and hit the ball in the right spots.

I have to figure we'll start hearing chants of "Let's Go Nats" if this keeps up. The only saving grace for the Mets is that they're facing Dontrelle Willis, who's probably the most overrated pitcher in baseball. It might not matter if they fall behind by much more.

1:08 p.m.: The Mets are minutes away from first pitch, the Phillies start in a half-hour, the Pads in an hour, the Rockies in two. Three of those teams control their own destinies, the Rockies need help from the Brewers.

In lineups posted so far, there's some entertaining stuff. A.J. Burnett closes out the season for the Blue Jays, looking to extend his streak of starts with at least 114 pitches. Remember Burnett's late-season workload in meaningless games when he extends another streak--seasons without making 30 starts--next year.

With that said, I think there's a 10% chance Burnett throws a no-hitter today.

The Mets have just about their best team on the field, including Ramon Castro catching instead of Paul Lo Duca. And in case you were curious, Miguel Olivo isn't starting for the Marlins. I've never heard of Ryan Hanigan, but he's played in four games this month, and he's catching and batting second for the Reds today. Troy Percival, who's been great for the Cardinals this year, makes his first career start after 638 career relief appearances. That would be the gimmick of the day, but it looks like Craig Biggio is going to catch for the Astros.

The Padres/Brewers lineup is up: Prince Fielder gets the day off in favor of Joe Dillon--that can't make the Rockies happy--but otherwise it's the starters playing.

---

We haven't had one of these in a while. With one day of regular season games left to play, just two of the National League playoff teams are known, and four teams remain eligible for the other two slots. The Chicago Cubs have clinched the NL Central, and the Arizona Diamondbacks have clinched at least a tie in the NL West, which would leave them as the division winner based on a 10-8 head-to-head edge over the Padres.

Despite the obvious drama involving the Mets and Phillies, it's the Diamondbacks whose storyline is the most fascinating to me today. They've had to sweat for 161 games over six months to get where they are, which is the best record in the National League, and their first playoff berth in five seasons. Today, their last scheduled game is also the last relevant game of the 2007 season, a 3 p.m. ET start against the Rockies, who can tie for the Wild Card with a win plus a Padres' loss in Milwaukee in a game that starts an hour earlier, at 2 p.m. ET.

Now, here's the dilemma. There are two approaches to the endgame of a season, each perfectly sensible in a vacuum, each consistent with the principles of fair play. Teams that have clinched a postseason berth and cannot improve upon their status will often give their players a day off after the clinching, especially if those players have been ridden hard over the last month, in an effort to rest them for what has become a grind of a postseason. At the same time, teams that are themselves eliminated, but playing teams whose status is uncertain, generally put their best lineups forward to keep the integrity of the races intact.

Today, those two ideas are in conflict for the Diamondbacks. Today's game is completely meaningless to them; they have locked up no worse than a tie for the best record in the league, and they hold the tiebreaker in that case. They will have home-field advantage in both the Division Series and NLCS. They've just completed a very difficult month, and they're closing their season in the most physically demanding environment in baseball. With the postseason starting Wednesday, they have every reason to start the scrubs today.

At the same time, the game means the world to the Rockies, who will have something to play for until and unless the Padres win. To be fair to the Padres, as well as to the Mets and Phillies, who could also find themselves tied with the Rockies for the Wild Card, the Diamondbacks are under some obligation to play a representative lineup, to treat this as they would a game against a contender.

I don't know what the correct answer is. My initial instinct is to say that the Diamondbacks' sole obligation is to themselves and their fans, and that they should play the bottom 12 or 13 guys on the roster today. They shouldn't risk injury to any key players-a sensitive point for a team that recently lost its starting second baseman for the year-and shouldn't ask their starters or important pitchers to make any contributions. It's the privilege of clinching early. I'm not fully convinced of that, though; the integrity of the competition is critical to a league, and there is some competitive obligation to the other teams in the race.

I suspect that Bob Melvin will play his starters at least as long as the game in Colorado remains relevant. If he doesn't, though-and I would defend his decision-this should be the story of the day.

By comparison, the games in New York and Philadelphia don't hold the same intrigue, but they mix in some World Cup-style scheduling instead. Both start within minutes of each other, 90 miles apart, and feature two of the oldest starting pitchers in baseball attempting to pitch their clubs into at least a one-game playoff. Tom Glavine and Jamie Moyer are soft-tossing lefties going up against the kinds of teams they love to face: free-swinging squads loaded with right-handed batters who love to chase changeups. Both teams are big favorites today, and should they both win, they would play a one-game playoff in Philadelphia on Monday to determine the NL East titlist, unless the Padres win and the Rockies lose today.

It makes for a great final day of baseball, and we'll be covering it wall-to-wall. Nate Silver is in Milwaukee for the Padres game, and he'll be chatting beginning at 2 p.m. ET. I'll be tracking all four relevant games from the home office in Inwood, and running updates all day in Prospectus Today. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the drama of the 183rd day of the 2007 baseball season…and maybe hope for a 184th.

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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