October 11, 2008
NLCS Game Two and ALCS Game One
I just want to remake the point that these League Championship Series have the potential to be the most interesting and entertaining post-season series we've seen in a long time. Even though one of the matchups is at 2-0 already, it's provided one close game, and another that gives us plenty to talk about.
While I expected the Phillies to have some success against Chad Billingsley, how they got to him was something of a surprise. The right-hander retired five of the first six men he faced and seemed on his way to two relatively easy innings-one walk, four strikeouts-when Greg Dobbs popped a little broken-bat single into short center. Down to the escape hatch I referenced in yesterday's column, Billingsley gave up a double to Carlos Ruiz (on a 2-1 fastball right down the middle) and a single to Brett Myers (on a better pitch, looked like a tailing fastball down and in), bringing up the top of the lineup. Rollins poked a seeing-eye single up the middle, Victorino roped a line drive to left-center, and the Phillies were up 4-1.
As in Game Two of the NLCS, in which Myers famously worked CC Sabathia for a nine-pitch walk as part of a five-run inning, the inability to put away a pitcher with two outs in an inning proved costly. Just as important in this frame was Billingsley's 2-1 pitch to Ruiz, a poor hitter who should have been retired before Myers ever got involved. The Phillies assembled a rally off some good breaks-the hits by Dobbs and Rollins were well-placed dinks-and some well-hit balls, taking full advantage of Billingsley's mistakes along the way, just as they'd taken advantage in the sixth inning Thursday night.
The Phillies got four more runs in the third-Billingsley continued to struggle with his location, missing in the zone with hittable pitches-and then shut it down, continuing their pattern of putting up crooked numbers or nothing this October. I can't emphasize this enough: that's how you win in October. The team hitting more homers in a game is 13-2 this month, and the winning team has scored more runs in an inning than their opponent has in the game in 11 of 18 contests.
For his part, Myers hit better than he pitched on this night, allowing single runs in the second and third and a three-run homer to Manny Ramirez in the fourth. He needed 102 pitches to get through five innings, walked four, and allowed five runs in total, barely qualifying for the win. It was the kind of start that would get a man booed off the mound on many nights, but on this one, with the Phillies scoring eight runs, it got him a win and a hearty round of backslaps. Jack Morris would be proud.
The most interesting decision of the game came in the fifth inning. Down 8-5 thanks to Ramirez's three-run homer in the fourth, the Dodgers had a man on first with one out, and rookie James McDonald coming to the plate. It seemed like a clear pinch-hitting situation. Myers wasn't pitching well, the game was fairly close, and McDonald was actually batting for the first time as a major leaguer. Not hitting for him was giving away an out in a situation in which outs were extremely valuable.
Torre let McDonald ground out, and the Dodgers didn't score there or at all for the rest of the game.
Here's the problem I have with this decision: a half-hour prior, in an 8-2 game, Torre had valued an out so highly that he played matchups, bringing in McDonald rather than allowing Joe Beimel to face Pat Burrell with two outs and the bases loaded in the third. If you're going to make that play, and burn a pitcher to get out of the third inning down six, don't you have to play the top of the fifth in the same fashion? The two decisions, individually defensible, are dissonant together.
Now, let me say that I understand why Torre made the second decision. He's carrying-sensibly, more or less-11 pitchers, and at the point at which McDonald walked to the plate, here's how they stood:
With 12 outs to go at minimum, 15 if he planned on winning the game and possibly more at that, Torre had five relievers available behind McDonald. Kuo, just off of the DL, is probably not someone Torre wants to use on consecutive days, and certainly not someone he wants to use for multiple innings on the second day. Broxton is the closer, and a one-inning guy. Maddux threw yesterday, and while he's not a high-effort pitcher, asking the career starter to go back-to-back days would be suboptimal. Maddux and Kershaw were both possibilities to start Game Four Monday, so Torre had to consider the possible effects there.
Torre thought, and I can't really disagree, that he couldn't get through the game without getting innings from McDonald. He would have had five relievers left, and of those, only Cory Wade could go multiple innings without complicating matters. Throw in, as Torre said in a mid-game interview, the possibility that he would have to pinch-hit for subsequent relievers, and the necessity of allowing McDonald to continue becomes clear. The mistake Torre made probably came in the third, when he used three relievers to get two outs in an inning that ended 8-2. It may have been an error to not just let Beimel pitch to Burrell, given where the decision to take him out led.
Of course, picking on a managerial decision on a day when the pitching staff allows eight runs may be missing the point. The Phillies have outplayed the Dodgers through two games, having better at-bats than the Cubs did, doing a better job of keeping the Dodger hitters off base, and playing much tighter defense. The series isn't over, but we do have a clear favorite now.
Because many of my opinions and my analysis of this game-relentlessly erroneous, it turns out-showed up in our in-game roundtable last night, I'll just hit a couple of highlights.
I cannot emphasize enough how unimpressed I was by both Terry Francona and Joe Maddon. Francona rode Daisuke Matsuzaka too long in a game that could have gone wrong at any moment. Matsuzaka, despite his excellent work in pitching out of trouble, was not dominant enough to warrant letting him pitch tired to the middle of the Rays' lineup, not when that lineup can be handled more easily by matching up relievers. Perhaps my insistence that he should have been taken out with a no-hitter is extreme, but given his pitch count, the score, and the importance of the game, I fail to see where Matsuzaka had much chance to finish the game even had he continued no-hitting the Rays. Winning the game, rather than the no-hitter, would have to take precedence, and there's no way a 120-pitch Matsuzaka would be a better choice than a fresh Jonathan Papelbon.
Francona was also far too passive with his offense, letting Jason Varitek and his fork bat with two on and two out in the seventh, and not sacrificing with Mark Kotsay two batters prior to that. Two on, none out, a one-run lead in the seventh, a mediocre hitter and double-play threat at the plate... if you're not going to lay down a sacrifice there, you never should. Varitek is an anchor in this lineup, something Francona recognized in action by keeping three catchers on the roster. He's clearly prepared to hit for Varitek-he did in the ALDS-so he had to be willing to do so in a situation like the seventh inning last night, no-hitter or not.
Joe Maddon didn't cover himself in glory, either. With first and third and two out in a one-run game in the seventh, he let Jason Bartlett bat and didn't run for Cliff Floyd on first base. I'm bothered more by the combination of the two than by either individually; there's not much chance Bartlett will get a hit to tie the game, but there's essentially none that he can hit a ball on which Floyd can score from first base. I think in that situation, you have to create a chance to take the lead, and the personnel at that point weren't giving the Rays that chance. As Francona did with Varitek, Maddon let his player bat as much because of who he is outside of the batters' box. Defense matters, but not when the tying run is at third base with two outs.
I think both of these managers bring a lot to the table, and I've seen Francona be a good tactical manager on his way to two World Series titles in four seasons. Last night just happened to be a night where they made what I considered mistakes, all stemming from the same place. To keep winning, both will have to be more aggressive about putting the right personnel in the right situations.
The managerial miscues aside, we had an entertaining, well-contested game. James Shields once again looked very good, showing a near-unhittable changeup among his offerings. Matsuzaka was himself, walking the bases loaded in the first inning and pitching out of it, and retiring 16 of 17 batters after that while always giving the impression there were two on and no one out. I'll stand by the idea that he wasn't getting through a no-hitter and that he could have been lifted, completely defensibly, as early as the sixth. He went 18-3 in spite of how he pitched, not because of it.
It would be overreacting to say that the Rays are in trouble, but tonight is something in the vicinity of a must-win game. They'll be facing a rested Jon Lester at Fenway Park in Game Three, which will not be a good situation for them, so getting the off-peak Josh Beckett at home is a critical opportunity for them. Scott Kazmir has the reputation of an ace, but he once again failed to average six innings per start, he became an extreme fly-ball pitcher, and like Matsuzaka, he shows only a passing familiarity with the strike zone.
If ALCS Game Two looks a bit like NLCS Game Two, I won't be surprised.