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September 26, 2008

Prospectus Today

Sweeps and Walk-Offs

by Joe Sheehan

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If the White Sox aren't still playing baseball a week from now, they'll have no shortage of people to blame.

  • Bobby Jenks is a very good pitcher, but last night he made a couple of inexplicable decisions in critical situations that helped him blow the save. Coming on in the eighth with a 6-4 lead, one out, and a runner on third base, he quickly got ahead 0-2 on Carlos Gomez. He then threw Gomez, who has a personal strike zone as big as all outdoors, a fastball down the middle that he lined into right for a single. Carlos Gomez on an 0-2 count is 11-for-70 with 39 strikeouts. He is nearly four times as likely to strike out as to get a hit. In that situation, you throw him a pitch-maybe two-that he can't reach without going through customs. That was a terrible decision, and the Twins made him pay for it.

    Jenks got ahead of the next batter, Denard Span, 0-2. Span isn't quite the free swinger Gomez is-Hugh Hefner isn't quite the free swinger Carlos Gomez is-but once again, Jenks threw away his advantage by throwing a fastball down and over the middle of the plate. Span yanked it past Paul Konerko for a game-tying triple.

    Jenks would lose the game in the 10th, appearing to run out of steam as he trundled past the 30-pitch mark. It's been a very long time since Jenks had to pitch in three separate innings, and he seemed to lose his stuff a bit towards the end of the outing. He issued a four-pitch walk to Nick Punto, then two batters later threw either a spinning breaking ball or a fastball with nothing on it-I've looked at it a dozen times and I can't quite figure which it was-that Alexi Casilla lined into left-center for the ballgame. The questionable 0-2 pitches in the eighth inning forced him to be pitching in the 10th, and he didn't have enough left to go that far.

    Give Ozzie Guillen some credit. He treated this game like a seventh game, knowing that winning it would give the White Sox a massive edge in the division. As mentioned yesterday, neither Matt Thornton nor Bobby Jenks had pitched since Sunday; Guillen went to Matt Thornton in the sixth and Jenks in the eighth, and used no one else in the game. That's using your best pitchers in the highest-leverage situations. It didn't work out, and it may cost him the use of both guys tonight, but it was the right call.

  • Ken Griffey Jr. will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and if he's played poorly since coming over to the White Sox at the trade deadline, the deal for him was still justifiable given the price the Sox paid for him. The mistake, however, has been the decision to let Griffey play center field, and that mistake cost the Sox last night. Griffey's lack of range was exploited in the first inning on a ball Justin Morneau hit over his head to the warning track. Griffey was playing too shallow-something Bert Blyleven pointed out on the telecast just before the ball was hit-and he showed both a lack of speed and difficulty reading the ball in turning the shot into a triple. Griffey has no business playing center field in the major leagues, and as long as he's out there, the Sox fly-ball staff is at a disadvantage.

    The White Sox defense did not have a strong night, as the Twins picked up four doubles and three triples, batting .429 on balls in play. The Twins hit balls past Juan Uribe and Paul Konerko, and over Dewayne Wise's head, and seemed to spend the entire night rounding second base with a head of steam. The Sox have a middle-of-the-pack Defensive Efficient Rating, but looked like a terrible defensive team last night, and it cost them.

  • The Sox can also look at their hitters, who after chipping their way to a six-run fourth inning and knocking Kevin Slowey out of the box-literally, as he left after taking a Juan Uribe liner off of his right arm-shut it down. They got two singles and two walks off of six Twins relievers over 6 1/3 innings, and remember, this is a bullpen that has been a significant problem for the Twins as they've tried to hang in this race. Last night, that bullpen helped save a game that looked lost. The Sox managed to score five runs without hitting a home run, but it wasn't enough on this night.

The difference in the importance of last night's game for the two teams is this: the White Sox still control their own destiny. If they win out, including a Monday makeup against the Tigers, they'll do no worse than a one-game playoff Tuesday against the Twins. Had the Twins lost, they would have needed a sweep of the Royals and at least two Sox losses along the way. Last night's result makes it very likely that the Sox will have to play Monday to determine the Central winner, and the result of that game could well give us an additional tie-breaking game on Tuesday.

Looking ahead to the games, you'd have to give the Twins a solid shot at at least two wins. They'll have a significant edge in pitching matchups on Friday and Sunday, and they're playing at home against the Royals. The Royals have actually had a good season by their own lights, and their recent success at the plate against southpaws gives them a fighting chance against Francisco Liriano and Glen Perkins. They'll also be up against a Twins' pen that, after the last two nights, is on the darker side of crispy. It doesn't seem likely that Joe Nathan will be available at all tonight.

Keep something else in mind: two years ago, the Royals went into Detroit on the season's last weekend and swept the Tigers, a sweep that allowed the Twins to sneak away with the AL Central crown. This isn't nearly over yet. The Sox will host the Indians, and also have an edge in the pitching matchups the first two nights before drawing Cliff Lee on Sunday.

As the AL got crazier, the NL got calmer. Wins by the Mets and Brewers all but eliminated the Astros, whose season will end with their next loss or the next win by either of the other two teams. Those wins did not come easily; the Mets climbed out of 3-1 and 6-3 holes to beat the Cubs' B team in 7-6 final in a game won in the ninth. The Brewers had to go 10 innings to beat the Pirates' A team-not quite as good as the Cubs' B team-and for the second time in the series, won with a walk-off homer against a Quadruple-A pitcher with less than 70 innings of MLB experience. As much as we're all focused on the decisions made by Lou Piniella, it's worth nothing that managers around the game make curious personnel decisions when the game matters more to their opponents than it does to them.

More importantly, the Mets and Cubs completed their game, if just barely. I shudder to think of what might have happened had Carlos Beltran's line drive stuck in Micah Hoffpauir's glove in the ninth inning. Would the teams have continued playing in rapidly deteriorating conditions unfit for baseball and borderline dangerous? Would the umps have sensibly called the game, waited out an interminable rain delay and then suspended the game, potentially forcing the Cubs back to New York on Monday? The teams played the last four innings in weather that probably would have inspired a delay under other circumstances, largely because of the logistics involved. If Hoffpauir makes that play, the two teams are either playing baseball in completely unfit weather, or into the great unknown.

Weather may still create problems over the weekend, as it's supposed to rain almost continuously in New York through early Sunday, and sporadically after that. Philadelphia will also be wet. I strongly suspect that the Mets will, at best, get one game in over the next two days, and the Phillies may also face at least one rainout.

The Mets have a particular challenge in that many of their fans have purchased tickets to Sunday's 1 p.m. start on the idea that it would be the final regular-season game at Shea Stadium, and the entire last series has been sold out. It will be difficult to shuffle the schedule in a way that doesn't anger some large subset of fans. Were you to squeeze in one game Saturday, and schedule a day-night doubleheader Sunday, how would you handle ticketing for the two games, and more importantly, how do you assure than 50,000-odd people get the message?

That adds a layer of complication to an already complicated situation. What we can say for sure is that the Cubs have probably played their way out of any more travel, and that the three NL teams remaining are headed for a long and interesting weekend of watching not just scoreboards, but satellite pictures.

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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