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October 1, 2007
Padres versus Rockies
So, it's down to a one-game playoff, that distinct bit of rare fare for baseball fandom. Today's Rockies-Padres game holds all sorts of potential for creating odd heroes and instant scapegoats. What's especially interesting is the way in which each set of half-innings will be so dramatically different from one another. The top of every inning will feature a matchup of survivors, the remnants of the Padres' injury-marred everyday lineup against the always-workmanlike contributions of Josh Fogg, while the home half of every inning will be a confrontation between each team's finest features-the Rockies' hitters going up against baseball's best starting pitcher.
The Starting Pitchers: Jake Peavy's not just the league's best starter, he's baseball's best starter, by a lot. On the other hand, he's also got his pair of Division Series drubbings by the Cardinals in consecutive years, and while sabermetric orthodoxy says that shouldn't matter, it's the past, and it's something that even if he didn't think about it, he's sure to be reminded of by some helpful Mary Sunshine from the Fourth Estate. Simply put, today's a day where he might join Greg Maddux or Roger Clemens or even Kenny Rogers on the list of people who had reputations for playoff performance issues who reinvented themselves. There's no question of the ability, and if Peavy shows up at his best, you might expect that he'll just deliver his third quality start against the Rockies in three tries. However, it is interesting that he hasn't yet had to pitch in Coors Field this year, and the last time he had to pitch there, he was crushed by a worse Rockies lineup than the current one (they have a .270 team Equivalent Average, a big step up from last year's .260 mark).
Coming in against him, the Rockies have to turn to their token veteran starter, the peripatetic Josh Fogg. On paper, it's not a close matchup; against Peavy's MLB-leading 8.5 SNVAR, Fogg's 2.0 is decidedly mediocre. As noted earlier in Marc Normandin's Fogg profile, his survival has been in no small part a product of the best defensive team in Rockies franchise history. He's not gifted with any particular out pitch, but he'll throw strikes and work as carefully as he can. His 13 hit batsmen this season reflect well his need to back people off of the plate to be able to keep the outside corner strike in play. If he gets past the fifth, he should be on a pitch-by-pitch leash, but at least he's not facing the best possible Padres lineup.
The Lineups: ... do not feature the usual suspects, at least not in San Diego. With names like Geoff Blum, Scott Hairston, and Brady Clark all starting with alarming regularity, the Pads have obvious personnel issues. In contrast, the Rockies should have seven of their eight regulars in the lineup, so their offensive advantage here is much larger than what simply shows up in their season total EqAs, where the difference between the two clubs seems slight (.270 to the Padres' .266). In short, if there's a lineup against which Josh Fogg can be a hero, it's this one.
The Bullpens: The Padres have what looks like an equally massive advantage here-they're baseball's best pen, while the Rockies rank only 13th in the league. Bud Black has relied on Joe Thatcher and Justin Hampson to help shore things up from the left side, and Doug Brocail and Cla Meredith have both also come up big in this month's increasingly desperate attempts to keep games tight before they can turn to Heath Bell and Trevor Hoffman. The problem is that they've all not really gotten much rest in the last week, making shorter appearances with a perhaps-alarming regularity as Black cobbles together innings to bridge ballgames his rotation used to deliver. That could be telling today, meaning that if Peavy leaves early, things could get dramatically ugly.
The Rockies pen may have some terror-inducing names-you may remember such former closers as LaTroy Hawkins, Jorge Julio, Matt Herges, and Brian Fuentes-but it makes for a useful enough group of veterans with experience pitching in a difficult environment ahead of newly-minted closer Manny Corpas. Jeremy Affeldt's worn down of late, but Ryan Speier's been a late, useful reinforcement. Clint Hurdle also hasn't had to push most of them especially hard in the final week, so he'll have relatively fresh arms to turn to after he gets Fogg out of the ballgame.
Fun with Leather: One interesting similarity between the clubs is that they're both among the better-fielding teams in baseball. In the case of Colorado, the club's seventh-place ranking in Defensive Efficiency marks the first time the club has ever finished in the top half of the league, but it's still behind the Padres' fourth-place ranking.
To paint in some detail in this admittedly broad comparison, both teams have rangy shortstops, both have athletic first basemen, and both have had the benefit of center fielders who can cover a lot of ground-although in that last case, both Mike Cameron and Willy Taveras should miss the game because of their respective injuries. Both clubs have also taken defensive risks at third base and been rewarded with adequate work from a pair of players-Kevin Kouzmanoff for San Diego, Garrett Atkins for Colorado-put in the lineup for their bats.
For the Rockies, with Taveras still out, it'll be a very bitter pill indeed if the outcome of today's game depends on the difference between Taveras and either Ryan Spilborghs or Cory Sullivan-both solid fielders, but short of Taveras' level of talent. However, as handicaps go, that's small potatoes next to the Padres' problems-with Cameron and Milton Bradley both out, the Pads have been left with DH-worthy Scott Hairston in left and aging journeyman fourth outfielder Brady Clark in center. That's a massive drop-off, one that will almost certainly be punished if the Rockie hitters power pitches towards the gaps and corners. In comparison, both Matt Holliday and Brad Hawpe have made great progress as fielders, and if Hawpe's still short of being an asset, Holliday might draw-and deserve-Gold Glove consideration.
Both teams have been terrible about slowing up opponents' running games, although that's a matter more of the pitching personnel's slow windups than a reflection that both the Rockies' Yorvit Torrealba and the Padres' Josh Bard are weak-armed liabilities. Peavy's been better than most other Padre pitchers at holding runners close, allowing "only" 23 attempts (with 21 successes)-Maddux has allowed 37 steals in 39 attempts, while Chris Young's a perfect 44-for-44 on stolen bases allowed. In contrast, Josh Fogg's allowed only 12 steals in 14 attempts. It's unlikely that the Pads will try to win this game on the bases, not given what they're left with in the lineup, but the Rockies could push things and take some risks, both running the bases on balls in play, and in trying to pressure the defense by exploiting the Pads' weakness (or indifference) against the running game.
All in all, this is an area where the Rockies have a notable advantage. That might be a product of their relative good health, but they know they have to depend on their defense with Fogg on the mound, and have reason to expect some success; in contrast, if the Pads are dependent upon their fielders, they can't, and it wouldn't be a good sign for what that means as far as Peavy's pitching.
The Skippers: Because we're still in extended roster season as far as this game's concerned, neither manager is in any danger of repeating the mistake that cost the Rockies a chance to win their first-ever playoff game in 1995, when Don Baylor's decision to carry 12 pitchers left them watching a bases-loaded, two-out ninth-inning shot at a come-from-behind win drain away when they were left with pinch-hitting lefty reliever Lance Painter for co-closer Curtis Leskanic, having already run out of position players.
Neither manager runs much, although Clint Hurdle's a little more aggressive, and here again, Taveras' absence cut into the team's totals. Hurdle's one of the more likely guys not named Bobby Cox to call for a free pass, while Bud Black's slightly less so. Hurdle's more likely to have a position player bunt (he lead all NL managers in position player sacrifices), while Black's pretty nondescript in this regard; Hurdle's also more likely to bring in a pinch-runner. In short, Hurdle's likely to be more active in-game, and given the combination of having the better offense while also trying to generate runs against the better pitcher, he should have reason to as well as the opportunity.
Ghosts in the Closet? Since we're talking about a pair of expansion teams, there's obvious potential for somebody to become the most famous playoff hero in either team's pantheon. For the Padres, the most likely reigning heroes are guys like Sterling Hitchcock or Jim Leyritz for their postseason performances in 1998, or Ed Whitson for his Game Three shutdown of the Cubs in 1984, with perhaps also a nod towards Kurt Bevacqua for being the team's first-ever World Series hero that same year. The Rockies' slate of options is pretty well limited to Andres Galarraga's extra-inning RBI single in the club's losing effort in 1995, although it was Dante Bichette, Vinny Castilla, and Eric Young who effectively delivered almost all the hitting the club got in the series, and the Big Cat's bases-loaded strikeout in Game One is what put Painter on the spot. Instead, the Rockies' lone postseason appearance was really marked by the failure of its best asset-their bullpen-as well as the now-infamous postseason roster malconstruction of Baylor and GM Bob Gebhard.
The Call: It's a fool's errand to pick the outcome of a single game, which naturally makes this my job. The balance in this game is between what seem like the Rockies' almost universal advantages in all areas of the game against one critical consideration-the men on the mound. I don't like Peavy's track record in Denver, and if Peavy comes out early, I won't be surprised at all if we see one Padre middle reliever or another go up in flames. I expect we'll see some Rockie daring on the bases, as well as some damage done on balls driven out into Coors' wide expanses by Rockies hitters. Perhaps surprising even myself, I'm picking a Rockies win.
Bil Burke contributed timely and much-needed research to this column.