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October 8, 2007
Three In, Two Knocking
This had been a bland postseason to date. In most games, the losing team has gotten down and stayed down. Nine of the 12 losing teams have scored three runs or less in their efforts, limiting the amount of back and forth we've seen after so much anticipation. Some of the games have been tense and low-scoring-Game One between the Cubs and Diamondbacks, Game Two between the Yankees and Indians-but most have just been nondescript. Pitchers' duels are fun, but a mix of games makes for a good postseason. So far, we haven't had that. The pitching of the Red Sox, Indians, Rockies, and Diamondbacks has limited the excitement.
Over three games, Red Sox pitching simply didn't let the Angels do anything on offense. The Angels, prone to this kind of display at times, had three awful games against a good pitching staff. It happens, and it was oddly reminiscent of what some sox of a different color had done to them two years ago. I doubt the difference between these two teams is as wide as it appeared to be over the last five days. However, when you bat .192/.250/.253, you're just not going to win very often.
I think Steve Stone is a terrific announcer, and I lost track of the salient observations he made during yesterday's game. However, his insistence on talking about the Angels' speed was distracting, and worse, it was counterfactual. I know I keep harping on this point, but the 2007 Angels were not a very fast team, certainly not compared to the 2002 and 2004 teams, and I would go so far as to describe them as slightly below-average in that department. Yesterday's lineup featured four slow players (Garret Anderson, Kendry Morales, Mike Napoli, Juan Rivera), two players with average speed at best (Howie Kendrick, Vladimir Guerrero) and just three with above-average speed. Even if you give them a lineup with Reggie Willits and Gary Matthews Jr., it's still not a team that features great speed.
Worse still was how they applied what speed they had. With two outs in the third inning of a scoreless game, Chone Figgins went first to third on a single to left by Orlando Cabrera, with Guerrero coming to the plate. Given the location of the ball and the on-deck batter, it may have been the single dumbest baserunning play I saw in the AL all season long. The Angels' entire hope of winning consists of getting Guerrero to the plate with runners on base, and to potentially end the inning for a gain of 90 feet by a player who would score from second on just about anything was just bad, bad baseball. It wasn't "Angels baseball" or "hustle" or "making things happen"-it was dumb. Figgins was safe, barely, and arguably on a blown call, and the Angels failed to score anyway.
The Red Sox chipped in as well. Up 2-0 in the eighth with no one out, third base coach DeMarlo Hale sent Julio Lugo home on a double by Dustin Pedroia, rather than take second and third with nobody out and the middle of the lineup coming out. Lugo was beat by 10 feet at the plate, but Orlando Cabrera's relay was up the first-base line, leaving Mike Napoli unable to make the play. The seven-run inning the Sox had might have been short-circuited right there. Again, you'll see praise for Hale's aggressiveness, but when you look ahead and see Kevin Youkilis, David Ortiz, and Manny Ramirez, why flip a coin for one run?
Mercifully, the random strike zone has yet to make a notable appearance. We have seen a fair number of large zones, most notable Laz Diaz's in Game Two in Cleveland. I'm not saying it was big, but I dropped a napkin during the fourth inning and Diaz called a strike on Bobby Abreu.
Brian Runge had a huge strike zone yesterday, and both Jered Weaver and Curt Schilling took advantage of it. Schilling has good control to begin with, and if you give him an extra couple of inches down and to the outside, he becomes essentially unhittable. The bigger zone helped Weaver's big breaking stuff, enabling him to catch corners that might not have been there on a different day. Runge, as much as anyone else, was responsible for yesterday's game being 2-0 into the eighth. I'm left feeling like the home plate umpires are exerting too large an influence on the game. A large strike zone is better than a random one, to be sure, but not as good as a rulebook strike zone. Calling strikes on pitches down and off the plate does little more than move games along; if umpires were to call the high strike-which has made an inconsistent appearance at odd times-while maintaining lateral integrity, they'd be closer to the book zone, and a better game.
The Angels' hitters in the fifth slot of the lineup in this series were Maicer Izturis and Kendry Morales. That's just not going to be good enough, and before you point to the absence of Gary Matthews Jr., note that Matthews wasn't any better than those guys this season: .252/.323/.419, which is what happens when your batting average floats back down to its career levels. Matthews' 2005 and 2007 seasons are completely indistinguishable from one another; he got to be a free agent after 2006. Ah, serendipity. Four years and $40 million left on that deal, folks. It's OK, though; he's just 33.
I watched this game with Will Carroll, and I have to admit that when the Yankees fell behind 3-0, I thought the series might be over. Jake Westbrook is a good pitcher, and you have to be patient when facing him. Having just 18 outs to go in your season isn't the right place to be when facing a guy who, if you let him, will throw pitches down and away until your head explodes.
In the fifth inning, after Robinson Cano's double, Will and I were playing the home version of the game. As was the case in a similar situation in Cleveland Thursday night, Eric Wedge had Aaron Fultz and Jensen Lewis up in the bullpen, and we were speculating as to when they might come in, how Wedge would use them. Will wanted them in immediately; he'd spotted something in Westbrook that indicated the righty was getting tired, saying that he was "pushing" the ball. I argued that he was able to get out of the inning, and that at least, he could stay in through Derek Jeter, leaving Fultz to face Bobby Abreu.
Six pitches later, we weren't talking about that any longer. Westbrook went 2-0 on Melky Cabrera, who lined a single to left on a ball up. Westbrook then went 2-0 on Johnny Damon, elevated a pitch, and Damon hit a three-run homer to give the Yankees a desperately-needed lead. There's no telling what would have happened had Wedge yanked Westbrook sooner, but it certainly couldn't have gone any worse than it actually did. Had Will Carroll been the manager in Cleveland last night, maybe there wouldn't be a game tonight.
There is one, however, and one thing we know is that Joba Chamberlain will probably not be involved in it. Joe Torre, staked to an 8-3 lead after six innings, managed to have Chamberlain throw two innings and 38 pitches, almost certainly burning him for tonight. Chamberlain had gotten up in the top of the sixth, as Philip Hughes was nearing the end of his season-saving 3 2/3 shutout innings and while the Yankees led 5-3. Now, the Yankees have said that they will not warm up Chamberlain and then not use him-one of the oft-cited "Joba Rules"-but this seemed to be a time to deviate from that. The Yankees essentially have a two-man bullpen; using one of the two men to protect a five-run lead with a game the next day is wasteful, and hurts the chance to win the series as a whole. Sending Chamberlain out for a second inning actually made some sense; if you can't bring him back Monday anyway, you might as well max him out. It was putting him in the game to begin with, however, that may haunt the team tonight if it has to get out of a late-inning situation with Kyle Farnsworth or Luis Vizcaino.
Prior to Chamberlain coming in, Hughes was terrific: 11 outs, two singles, no walks, four strikeouts. This was the guy the Yankees hyped, and the one we expected to see all season long, the one who threw six no-hit innings in Texas in his second start. I'm still insistent that he's been rushed a bit, last night notwithstanding, and would prefer that he start 2008 in the minors. He might, however, find himself starting Game Three of the ALCS if the Yankees can win the next two games against the Indians.
With an eye towards doing that, the Yankees have pushed Chien-Ming Wang up to start tonight. This isn't a bad move. Set aside Wang's home/road splits and the notion of whether they matter. I'm not inclined to say that they do, while smart people disagree with me. Wang is the Yankees' top starter, and if there's one type of pitcher who conventional wisdom says should be better on short rest, it's a sinkerballer. The data dictates that having starters go on three days' rest is counterproductive, and that's something to take seriously. However, this game is likely an all-hands-except-Joba-on-deck one, anyway. You can start Mike Mussina and have Wang in relief, or vice versa, and as much as I think the rush to kill Mussina after his three-start slump was ill-considered, I think Torre has the right idea here. Start the better pitcher, and see where the game takes you.
The Indians are not going to, as of noon, move up their ace to match the Yankees. Paul Byrd will start tonight, with C.C. Sabathia going Wednesday in Cleveland on full rest if necessary. This is also the right move. The Indians have to win just one game, and they maximize their chance of doing so by having their best pitcher pitch on full rest if need be. Byrd is a league-average starter, something the Yankees don't have as an option tonight; I love Moose, but he's not that guy right now.
Each manager has pulled the right strings heading into Game Four. All that's left is to see what happens when the puppets dance.
Time for a plug…as you've seen, Will and I have been joining Mike Siano and Cory Schwartz on the Baseball Channel at MLB.com, talking playoffs and keeper lists each day. (Today, we're on from 3-5 ET, and the podcasts of each show are also available.)
One of the other MLB.com features, in conjunction with TBS, is an online simulcast of the game (delayed by about a minute) that features a couple of static cameras at the ballpark and a studio show, arrayed in a four-window setup.
The studio show is why I bring this up; there are two, actually, one a TBS production and one an MLB.com one, and they trade off throughout the game. The MLB.com in-game studio show is terrific. I caught yesterday's, with Vinny Micucci, John Marzano, and our own Will Carroll, and it was informative, entertaining and most of all, about baseball. If you've ever been frustrated by game announcers and asked why BP doesn't do in-game broadcasts, it's because of that whole "pictures and descriptions" disclaimer you hear during the game. This is the closest we've come to that, and whether Vinny is hosting Will and John or anyone else, the content you get in this format is going to be more interesting to the hardcore fan-the BP reader-than the stuff you see on the broadcast.
For more information and to give it a test drive, go to the TBS Hot Corner and launch the player during the game. It's well worth it.