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October 5, 2000

Playoff Prospectus

The First Two Days

by Joe Sheehan

Before we jump into the first two days of the Division Series, a plea to Fox, which now has the rights to the entire baseball postseason through 2006: while it's probable that they will push some of the games off to their cable network, I hope they give some serious thought to having the whole first round on the broadcast network.

The model? The NCAA basketball tournament. Two of the best days on the sports calendar are the first Thursday and Friday of "March Madness". CBS blows out its schedule and runs basketball games from noon 'til midnight (with a break for local news in the evening). Fox can take the first three days of the playoffs and do much the same, showing three games the first two days and two the third and fourth days.

They'd be blowing out a couple days of daytime television--not a significant loss for a network with no soap operas--and possibly creating an "October Madness" to rival the NCAA's.

It's just a thought. Baseball needs to generate excitement to compete in the entertainment marketplace. This kind of effort could be, should be, a centerpiece of Fox's new relationship with baseball.

On to the games:

Seattle/Chicago

The story of the first round is the Mariners' bullpen, which has tossed ten shutout innings against one of the best offenses in the league, and almost single-handedly won the first game of the series. While you could have expected quality pitching from Arthur Rhodes and Kazuhiro Sasaki, the two shutout innings from Jose Mesa have been a critical surprise.

Mesa, with a 5.36 ERA this season and a career on a slide since his big 1997, got Magglio Ordonez to pop out to right field with two outs and the winning run on third Tuesday. He then came into a two-on, one-out situation in the sixth inning Wednesday and retired Frank Thomas and Ordonez.

Not to be lost in the shuffle is the performance of Brett Tomko, who came into a Game One that the White Sox were threatening to blow open and stopped the Sox cold, getting Jose Valentin and Thomas in the fourth inning with the bases loaded.

Notice another story in the paragraphs above? Frank Thomas and Maggio Ordonez are 1-for-14 with four walks, one intentional. The Sox #3 and #4 hitters have been ciphers in the first two games, and that's a big part of the reason the Pale Hose find themselves one bad James Baldwin start from oblivion.

Before everyone jumps on me, let me clear this up: I'm not calling Thomas and Ordonez "chokers" or putting all of the blame for Seattle 2, Chicago 0 on their shoulders. Having two bad games against a good pitching staff happens. However, the impact of that performance, and of Jose Mesa's two days from 1997, is the same.

The Sox are in some serious trouble, because they now have to toss a questionable Baldwin at the Mariners, who counter with their nominal ace, Aaron Sele. If they survive that matchup, they run reliever Sean Lowe out in Game Four. For the Sox to win this series, they're going to have to find their offense and put up a whole bunch of runs to support a patchwork staff Friday and Saturday.

This team hasn't been challenged since their amazing road trip to Cleveland and New York in May. Back then, they responded with a seven-game sweep that launched a thousand headlines and propelled them to a division title. They need a weekend like that, right now.

Oakland/New York

The Yankees finally snapped their 132-game losing streak behind 7 1/3 shutout innings by Andy Pettitte. As always seems to be the case with the Yankees, their second baseman embarrassed himself defensively. Of course, this time it was Luis Sojo tripping over his own feet on a routine ground ball in the eighth inning, and the gaffe didn't do anything but get Mariano Rivera into the game one out earlier.

The Yankees appear to have straightened out their pitching, having allowed just five runs in the two games. Their offense hasn't been as impressive, however, and given that they were hitting of the A's #3 and #4 starters, it's hard to be optimistic about their chances in Games Three and Four against Tim Hudson and Barry Zito.

The good news for the Yankees is that they have Orlando Hernandez pitching in Game Three at the Stadium on Friday. Now, in general, I believe that putting a lot of emphasis on postseason performance is a bad idea. But El Duque has two seasons' worth of pitching like Bob Gibson's older brother in October: a 1.02 ERA in 44 innings over six starts.

Maybe it means something, maybe it doesn't. But it's certainly something to consider, and it's enough to make me a little less confident about the A's chances than I should be.

St. Louis/Atlanta

The series that most needed a day off after Game One got it, as the Braves and Cardinals took Wednesday to digest a bizarre game Tuesday. Just like the Mariners' pen, the Cardinals' bullpen came up big, with 6 1/3 quality innings after Rick Ankiel went Steve Dalkowski in the third inning.

Lost in the shuffle was that the Braves' bullpen pitched just as well after Greg Maddux left, tossing four shutout innings, and that the Braves came pretty close to winning a game in which they trailed 6-0 after just two outs.

Much has been made of Tony La Russa's decision to start Ankiel in Game One, so I'll just toss out one other thought. Having used a bunch of relievers on Tuesday he now has his best innings sponge, Darryl Kile pitching in Game Two. It's not as a big a deal as it would have been had the games been played on consecutive days, but it is a nice bonus, and another point in La Russa's favor.

New York/San Francisco

The Giants really don't have any chance as long as they continue to carry choking dog Barry Bonds. Bonds, with a chance to give the Giants an early lead Wednesday, managed only a single that moved Bill Mueller to third base. Clutch monster Jeff Kent showed true leadership by grounding out, scoring the big run.

Later in the game, Bonds hit a weak triple to right field to score just one run, and was once again shown up by a subsequent batter. Ellis Burks followed just a bit later with a three-run home run, the kind of thing truly great players do in October.

Mildly amusing sarcasm aside, we saw the real problem the Mets will have in this series in Game One, and that's putting runs on the board. Livan Hernandez did a good job of shutting down the Mets' overly right-handed lineup.

Al Leiter carries a season with him to the mound on Thursday. This pitching matchup will be the best one the Mets get in the series, facing the Giants' Shawn Estes. If they can win this game, they're in this thing. If they can't, I don't see them taking three straight from a Giants team that looks more and more dangerous every day.

Joe Sheehan can be reached at jsheehan@baseballprospectus.com.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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