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October 28, 2007

Prospectus Today

The Shortest Month

by Joe Sheehan

Thirty days hath September
April, June, and November
All the rest have 31
Except February, which has 28, and 29 in leap years

Rocktober has 23.

The wild ride of the Colorado Rockies, who won 21 of 22 games to go from also-rans in their own division to the World Series, came to an effective end last night at the hands of the Boston Red Sox. Faced once again with the prospect of throwing a pitcher with insufficient stuff to the pack of hungry wolves in the Sox lineup, the Rockies fell behind 6-0 in the third inning. Josh Fogg surrendered 10 hits in 2 2/3 innings, creating a deficit from which they could not recover. From my game notes, middle of the first inning:

Fogg survives first, but hard to win with this many deep counts. Not sure how he gets through four, much less five, pitching like this.

He didn't make it through three. The Red Sox, by my count, had just three swinging strikes against Fogg in 67 pitches, and when he needed a strikeout in the third, what he got was contact, hard contact by five Red Sox hitters that chased him from the game. The term "NL stuff" was never more in evidence than in last night's third inning, when Fogg was trying to work in the mid-80s with average breaking stuff against one of the best lineups in the AL, even spotting the Rockies one of their better hitters. Also from last night's notes:

Matsuzaka looks pretty bad at the plate.

That was after Matsuzaka's strikeout to end the second inning. In the third, however, batting with the bases loaded and two outs, he popped a single through the 5-6 hole to score two runs. It would be a stretch to say that the Red Sox didn't miss having a DH, but Matsuzaka's single, reminiscent of Mike Moore's double in the 1989 World Series, sure made it easier to take.

Down two games and six-love early, the Rockies could have folded their tent. To their credit-and the credit of the crowd, which remained into the game despite the deficit, the cold, and the seemingly interminable breaks-they were pumped for a comeback, and they got one. The Rockies got 4 1/3 shutout innings from three relievers, and for the first time all Series, their lineup got to the Red Sox bullpen, knocking around Javier Lopez, Mike Timlin, and Hideki Okajima for six hits, including a three-run homer by Matt Holliday in the seventh that closed the gap to 6-5. When Todd Helton singled, it was the 1996 World Series, with Jim Leyritz in the spotlight, that came to mind. Okajima, however, found his good stuff and escaped the seventh without further damage.

The eighth inning-and in fact, much of the game-saw the kinds of balls fall in for the Red Sox that had been falling in for the Rockies all month. Coco Crisp squibbed a single that barely got to the outfield. Jacoby Ellsbury-who might go from Double-A to a World Series MVP award in three months-blooped a ball down the right-field line that was a dead ringer for Seth Smith's hit in Game Four of the NLCS. It landed just outside the reach of Brad Hawpe, the Sox had a run, and for real this time, the game was over.

The two hits in that inning, as well as a near-homer by Ryan Spilborghs and a liner by Jeff Baker that Julio Lugo just barely snared, each aborting the sixth-inning comeback attempt, were a bit of a karmic reversal for the Rockies, who had always seemed to catch those breaks before Wednesday. Think back to Smith's double, or a Yorvit Torrealba single that hits the right-field line, or a ball just over the head of Brady Clark in the one-game playoff. The Rockies had played good baseball and had caught their share of breaks. In this World Series, neither is happening.

So now it's just a matter of time. Will it be tonight, when Jon Lester takes the hill, with the Sox looking for a second sweep in four years? Will it wait until tomorrow, with Josh Beckett, postseason hero, on the mound? No one, and I mean no one, now expects to go back to Boston, and we could see a mad scramble to cancel hotel rooms and change flights in about 12 hours.

Here's the thing to remember, though; no matter how it ends, or when it ends, this Rockies run has been the story of the year in baseball. Even if it doesn't end with a dogpile on the mound, the way this team played for a month, coming from nowhere to within four games of a championship, is something we'll remember and recount for a very long time. Step back from the how and why for a moment, and just reflect on this: 14-1, 7-0. They're getting beat by a better team, and there's no shame in that.

  • We saw more managerial head-scratchers in this one than in the entire postseason to date. The biggest one, to my mind, was Terry Francona's decision to go with Lopez, then Timlin, in the sixth, rather than Manny Delcarmen. Delcarmen hadn't been terribly effective in the ALCS, but he'd been the team's third-best reliever all year long, and would have been the best in any number of bullpens. Playing matchups with inferior guys is more Clint Hurdle's gambit. Delcarmen eventually got two outs in the eighth before giving way to Papelbon, and it appears he's fallen down the depth chart quite a bit.

    Francona also made a peculiar double-switch, taking J.D. Drew out of the game and leaving Manny Ramirez in. Now, he saved two lineup spots by doing so-Drew batted last in the sixth-but the gain wasn't that great, and up 6-2 at the time, it seems to me that defense should have been the greater concern. With David Ortiz already out of the game, taking out Ramirez is a greater risk. Nevertheless, the defensive difference between Ramirez and Drew is so high that the move doesn't make sense. However, it proved to be a non-factor as the game played out.

  • Two Clint Hurdle moves stand out in a lesser way. When Hurdle pulled Fogg in the third, he brought in his only long man in Franklin Morales. With no accompanying move, this left Morales leading off the third. It's arguable whether having a pitcher lead off an inning down 6-0 was the best idea. Hurdle might have used Ryan Speier or someone to get the third out in the third, then hit for them. It's a small point, but given that the Rockies did close to 6-5 at one point, throwing away a leadoff man early in the game could have made a difference.

    Later, Hurdle relieved Matt Herges, who had struck out the side in the seventh, with Brian Fuentes to start the eighth. Herges is more than capable of multi-inning outings, the pitcher's spot was due up second in the bottom of the eighth-meaning any pitcher from the top of the frame was coming out-and there's the idea that the more pitchers you bring in, the more chance there is of landing on the one who doesn't have it that day. Fuentes didn't get hammered, but he did help hang a three-spot on the board, one created by the law firm of Lugo, Crisp, Ellsbury, and Pedroia. Would leaving Herges in have made the difference? We'll never know, but the argument for taking him out was fairly weak.

  • Daisuke Matsuzaka left the game in the sixth with a three-hit shutout intact, and while that was blown in his absence, he did once again give the Sox a serviceable outing that provided their offense and bullpen the opportunity to win. He had some trouble putting hitters away at times, with eight hitters taking him to at least six pitches, including two tremendous battles with Todd Helton that ended in a strikeout (12 pitches) and a walk (eight pitches). As frustrating as he may have been for Sox fans this year, his last two starts have been critical in putting them one win away from a championship.
  • I've defended Manny Ramirez in this space, but he cost the Red Sox a run last night with some awful baserunning. Ramirez should have scored fairly easily on Jason Varitek's single in the third. Not only did he slow down approaching third to knock his helmet off his head, but he toook a brutal route through the dugout to get to the plate. He still might have been safe had he come in standing or just slid through the plate, but his pointless slide behind the plate gave Torrealba the chance to tag Ramirez before the runner's hand touched home. It was a display of all the things that Ramirez's detractors criticize him for, and in this case, they would be right.
  • Let's revisit Clint Hurdle's decision to "shake things up" by starting Cory Sullivan in center field ahead of Willy Taveras. The more I looked at it, the more I hated it. What's the point of making a change if the guy you make it with has to bat eighth? Isn't that basically saying that the guy just isn't very good? Moreover, when you listen to much of Hurdle's description of Sullivan-"If he gets on, he can sneak a base; he can put the ball on the ground with a bunt"-you realize that the attributes he's ascribing to the bench player all apply to the better starter, Taveras.

    All of this mattered in the third, when the last hit of the inning, Jacoby Ellsbury's single, came on a ball that a better center fielder-like Taveras-might well have made. Sullivan took an awkward route to the ball, changing direction in the middle of his chase sharply, which is exactly the kind of thing you never want to see in an outfielder. Perhaps Taveras wouldn't have made the play, but what we do know is that Sullivan took a bad route, and Taveras is a better defensive center fielder. Draw your own conclusions.

I was impressed enough by the Rockies' fans last night to be sympathetic to the idea that they deserve to see a World Series win, even just a game. I did say that I expected them to get one in this series, most likely by picking up a lot of hits on balls in play. Jon Lester is a pretty good matchup for them, and having Aaron Cook on the mound approximates Jake Westbrook, who was reasonably effective in the ALCS against the Red Sox. We won't see any miracles in this World Series, and I doubt we'll see Fenway Park again, but I do think we'll get one more game Monday night.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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Premium Article Playoff Prospectus: Wo... (10/28)
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