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October 12, 2007

Prospectus Today

NLCS, Game One

by Joe Sheehan

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Second base wasn't a good place for the Diamondbacks last night. They hit into double plays in the fourth and second innings, wiping out the lead runner at second. In the seventh, Justin Upton tried breaking up a third DP with an aggressive slide, and was called out for interference. Then in the ninth, Miguel Montero overslid the bag with two outs, getting himself tagged by Kazuo Matsui for the final out of the game.

The Montero play was simply inexcusable. Down four in the ninth, your break-even for taking an extra base is comfortably above 132 percent. Unless you're going to be very, very safe, you don't make a move. Credit Matt Holliday for a terrific bare-handed play and a strong throw. Montero was surprised by how quickly the ball got back to the infield and slid too late and too hard.

I'm less inclined to blame Upton for the seventh-inning play. With runners on first and second and no one out, Augie Ojeda bounced a 1-1 pitch to Garrett Atkins at third base, who turned and got the force at second. Upton, bearing down hard on Matsui, used a late pop-up slide and came up, with his right forearm extended, into Matsui. Second-base ump Larry Vanover immediately called Upton out for interference, and after Clint Hurdle insisted, the umps sent Chris Snyder back to second base under rule 7.09(e). After the game, Vanover said, "Once he got to the base, I thought he threw his hip up into the guy, and his intent at that point is not to get to the base. His intent is to crash the pivot man."

Vanover is correct-Upton was trying to use his body to make sure that Matsui couldn't complete the double play…which is the intent of just about every runner going into second base every day in every baseball game. The difference here is that Upton was successful with what looked to me like an aggressive, but not dirty, slide. We-and players in today's game-have to hear all the time about the way Hal McRae and guys like him went into second base. Then a player actually executes that play, and he gets nailed for interference. Meanwhile, catchers can block home plate, trip runners, and set up five feet up the third-base line without the ball, and obstruction is never called.

Last night's play was on the margin between legal and interference, and I don't think you can fault Vanover for his call. However, in the context of how plays around that bag get made, with runners routinely going six feet to the outside of the bag to try and take out a pivot man, it seems a little ridiculous to me to make a stand on this particular point. It goes back to a point we've seen made many times over the past few weeks: there are rules on the books that are enforced arbitrarily, and when that is the case, you have inconsistency and the potential for controversy. By the rule book, Vanover made the correct call under the rules, but games are no longer umpired by the rule book, but by a de facto set of standards developed over generations. That, and not a specific call by a specific umpire, is the problem.

Let's be clear-the Diamondbacks didn't lose because Larry Vanover made a shaky interference call. They lost because they didn't generate any offense against Jeff Francis. The Diamondbacks need to hit for power to win, and last night they got two doubles and no home runs. They lost because Brandon Webb, their best player, was just a little too hittable last night, giving up five singles in a two-inning span to put the D'backs behind 4-1. That's really all there was to the game-Francis pitched better than Webb did, knocking out the Diamondbacks' power, and the Rockies went up 1-0.

It's the second straight start in which Jeff Francis has out-pitched a superior pitcher on the road to open a series. In fact, there are a number of parallels between this game and Game One in the Division Series, when Francis threw six good innings against the Phillies to beat Cole Hamels. The Rockies scored early, they took advantage of, really, one bad inning, and they turned the game over from Francis to a deep bullpen that locked the game down.

By losing Game One last night, the Diamondbacks put themselves in a tough spot. In looking ahead to the series, I felt they needed to win---felt they would win-two Brandon Webb starts and find two other wins along the way. As good as Francis is, they had a starting pitching edge last night that they will not have in any game not started by Webb. Doug Davis and Livan Hernandez pitched well enough to beat the Cubs, of course, and they may again come up big. As I consider the series, though, the Rockies' 1-0 lead looks huge. Beating Brandon Webb changed this series completely, and may make all the difference for the Rockies.

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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