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October 15, 2007

Prospectus Today

Narrow Margins

by Joe Sheehan

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First off, my apologies for yesterday's column, which opened by getting the winner of ALCS Game Two wrong and proceeded to return Mike Hargrove to the Indians' dugout for about five paragraphs. The Indians' manager, of course, is Charlie Manuel. No, I'm kidding…Eric Wedge made a reappearance in the column, but the earlier mistakes were bizarre-I truly don't know what I was thinking-and embarrassing. Thanks to the readers who caught them.

The Rockies continued their amazing run last night, holding the Diamondbacks to one run thanks in part to double plays in each of the first three innings. The D'backs have four runs in the series, having hit just one home run and three doubles. As we kicked around before the series began, the Diamondbacks have to score with their power, as they did in the Division Series against the Cubs. With a high strikeout rate, low batting average, and so-so walk rate, they don't put enough runners on base to rely on long innings. If they hit the long ball, they score; if they don't, they go down like a cold drink on a hot day.

That particular metaphor is pretty valueless at the moment. Last night's game was played in a light rain, with a gametime temperature of 43 degrees that slipped steadily as the game progressed. While the rain didn't quite demand that the game be halted, and the field held up well under the conditions, the weather wasn't exactly suitable to competing for a baseball championship. I'm wondering what the extra off days built into the postseason schedule were for if not to allow a rainout on a night like last night? (Well, I'm not naïve enough to really be wondering-it was to allow fewer two-game days for television purposes-but if the nominal reason is weather flexibility, then don't play in the rain.) No one got hurt, and there was no standout instance of the rain affecting play, but I think it's unfair to the players and downright hostile to the fans to play the game in such conditions.

The Rockies once again did just enough at the plate to win. While holding their opponents to 13 runs in six games this postseason-remember, they gave up eight in the one-game playoff against the Padres-they haven't quite set the world on fire themselves, scoring 12 runs in the NLCS so far, and 14 in their last four games. They actually have a lower average and slugging average in this series than the D'backs do, but they've done a marginally better job of converting runners on base, and they have the only multi-run homer game of the series.

That go-ahead blast by Yorvit Torrealba may have put the cap on this series. Torrealba launched a 3-2 fastball over the left field fence with two on and two out in the sixth, breaking a 1-1 tie and effectively ending the game. The homer came on the seventh pitch of an entertaining at-bat that featured curveballs at 58 mph and 60 mph by Livan Hernandez. (The at-bat is broken down in terrific detail by Jenifer Langosch at MLB.com, with commentary from both Hernandez and Torrealba.)

As Torrealba's bat was setting off an explosion in the stands, I was thinking that Bob Melvin had gone one batter too far with Hernandez, pushed a mediocre pitcher too deep because of his belief that the veteran's mind and heart meant more than his right arm. The decision to die with Hernandez was contrasted, in my mind, with what Terry Francona and Lou Boudreau (wink) had done Saturday night in Boston, getting games to their bullpens in the fifth inning. When you consider the performance gap between Hernandez and the pitchers behind him, as well as the importance of the D'backs bullpen in their success this season, it seems incongruous that Melvin would let Hernandez lose the game.

That reaction, however, is unfounded, and I believe I'm guilty of results-based analysis. Hernandez, in fact, wasn't really struggling. He was more in command last night than he'd been in his Division Series start against the Cubs. He'd thrown just 76 pitches coming into the fifth inning, allowing five hits-two of the infield variety-including a solo home run. Even in the sixth, he wasn't laboring, mixing a five-pitch walk and a single around a fly ball and a strikeout. On the batter prior to Torrealba, Troy Tulowitzki, Hernandez got out to a 1-2 count before eventually notching a strikeout. He went ahead 1-2 on Torrealba as well, including a 58 mph curve that looked like something from the Dave LaRoche Collection.

So, Hernandez was in control for 5 2/3 innings, and had made just one bad pitch at one bad time. It's possible to argue that Tony Pena should have been in the game before Hernandez ever had the chance to make that pitch, but it's not the kind of clear managerial error worth roasting Bob Melvin over. Not every decision is 75/25. Some are 51/49, and those are the ones on which we have to give ground.

At this point, the series is as much a coronation as anything else. You can never say never, of course, but to come back from a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven is rare in any sport, and has been done exactly once in baseball, by the Boston Red Sox in the 2004 ALCS. In the Diamondbacks' favor is that they're evenly matched with their opponent, and will have the better starters, by a little bit, in the next two games. Maybe give them a hope bonus late in the game-Manny Corpas has pitched in eight straight Rockies' games, albeit over 15 days, so if you're looking for reasons to back the D'backs, you could hope he gets tired.

Realistically, though, we're just waiting for the dogpile, the moment in which the Colorado Rockies, 76-72 and 4 ½ games removed from a playoff spot less than a month ago, win the National League pennant and go on to the World Series. This is the best story in baseball since those 2004 Red Sox, and no matter when the ride ends, we should all enjoy a truly great moment in baseball history.

--

Just a quick comment on tonight's ALCS Game Three, which is expected to feature some of the same weather than plagued Denver last night: the Red Sox are facing Jake Westbrook, who is stylistically the same guy as Fausto Carmona, without all that pesky great stuff. The approach the Sox took against Carmona, waiting out the stuff low and out of the zone and either drawing walks or making him come up into the zone, is the exact same one they should take against Westbrook. If they can replicate that style, they'll be in good shape.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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