October 24, 2008
The Phillies' utter failure to convert with runners in scoring position is the primary reason they go back to Philadelphia with a split, rather than up 2-0. Their 1-for-17 night Thursday, which included having the leadoff man on in six innings, three times with doubles, was an even more impressive feat than their record-setting 0-for-13 Wednesday night.
However, we learned more than just the importance of timing during the game. One of the key questions before the series was which team had an edge in the dugout. The consensus was that Joe Maddon would out-think Charlie Manuel, although I wasn't convinced that the gap between the two skippers was large, believing that Manuel is a bit underrated and that Maddon might be prone to the big mistake, the inexplicable decision that costs his team a game.
Well, last night, Maddon decisioned circles around Manuel. Manuel stubbornly refused to separate Chase Utley and Ryan Howard in the batting order, and in both the seventh and ninth innings, Maddon used a left-handed reliever-the same one, actually-to shut down a threat. Without a right-handed batter between the two to be walked, to be pitched to, or to force a pitching change, Maddon has free rein to use his power lefties in the pen to exploit this weakness, particularly that of Howard, who has looked overmatched against both David Price and J.P. Howell.
It wasn't just that, though. Manuel made a questionable decision as far back as the first, playing his infield back with a runner on third and one man out, with Evan Longoria at the plate. As Joe Maddon explained Wednesday, after he made a similar decision in a slightly different situation, what you do with second and third and no one out is leave the infield back, to lower the chance of giving up multiple runs or even a big inning. Thursday's situation, however, called for the infield to play in: a chance to save a run in exchange for an increased chance of a single. I don't think Longoria's ground ball would have produced an out at the plate-given its location, it likely would have been a single-but the decision to play the infield back eliminated any chance.
In the sixth inning, the Phillies chased James Shields from the game. They were still down 4-0, but had two on and two out as Dan Wheeler entered the game to face Pedro Feliz. With two outs and Wheeler having to face a hitter, it was the right time to us Matt Stairs, because the gap between Feliz and Stairs against a pitcher such as Wheeler, who has a significant platoon split, is large, and Stairs also is a real home-run threat. Asked about it after the game, Manuel said he didn't consider the move. "Feliz has been getting some real big hits for us," he said, "I thought he'd been swinging OK."
Contrast Manuel's passivity and unimaginative approach with Maddon. The Rays' manager called a squeeze in the fifth, switching from a suicide to safety squeeze after a failed attempt, and picking up an insurance run in the process. In the sixth, even though his best pitcher had a shutout and a four-run lead, he hooked him because he had a chance to exploit a matchup. Wheeler, remember, pitched in the ninth inning just 24 hours before; being able to use the right man in the right matchup, regardless of inning, is an enormous advantage for Maddon.
The whole sequence shows the gap in understanding leverage. Maddon understood-and let's all take a second to remember David Ortiz' home run in the ALCS-that you have to be aggressive and exploit matchups when you have the best of it, and that up 4-0, he was better served to keep the game 4-0 than to get cute and possibly let the Phillies back in. Manuel, however, took the worst of a tough matchup rather than make a move that was unlike how he'd managed his team, but which would have increased their chance of winning. Whether a misunderstanding of the true difficulty of the matchup, blind faith in one of his players, or simply thinking it was too early, Manuel helped the Rays escape the inning.
You can't pin this loss on the manager, though, not when his team has such a disastrous night at the plate. The Phillies have the last two NL MVPs in the top four slots in the lineup, and neither player is performing at all. I've gone over and over Howard's issues repeatedly, and I won't cover them in depth again. Suffice to say that his counting stats don't matter in the World Series. What matters is that he has five innings to impact any game-he doubled off a tough breaking ball in the second yesterday-and then the Rays will keep showing him pitchers he cannot hit, ones who throw good stuff with their left arms. In any relevant situation, the Rays will reduce him to a .220 hitter who occasionally runs into a ball. Maybe he'll run into one over the next week, but until then, you have to consider Howard a problem. He's just been disappeared by southpaws this month: two singles and four walks in 20 plate appearances.
Rollins' performance doesn't have the same clear-cut reason, but the effect is similar. On a night when Carlos Ruiz had a career game and was on base in every one of Rollins' last four plate appearance, Rollins failed to take advantage. He couldn't catch a break: Rollins popped out in the ninth after being hit by a pitch on a play missed by umpire Kerwin Danley. He showed a good glove on a couple of occasions, so unlike Howard, he's making some contribution, but his importance to this offense means that he has to be on base for them to win. Rollins has yet to reach base in the World Series, and has a brutal .240 OBP this month.
In the ninth inning, David Price retired both these former MVPs on his way to a seven-out save, a feat nearly unheard of-almost not even conceivable-in modern baseball. It came as something of a surprise; Maddon had relievers up throughout Price's outing, and there were a number of situations in which it seemed a natural spot to remove him. As we've seen, though, Price can retire right-handed batters, he has a starter's endurance, and he probably has the best pure stuff you'll find in a pitcher on either team in this World Series. Riding him, especially when the key hitters for the Phillies bat left-handed, is a natural move. No doubt the offday today played into Maddon's decision, but I think what we're seeing here is just the best reliever on the staff being given opportunities commensurate with his talent.
One note on Price: he works quickly. Not that I needed another reason to like him, but he's a get-ball, throw-ball guy, and those types always make me happy. He doesn't look like a rookie on the mound. He looks like someone who knows he's better than the other guys.