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October 30, 2008

Prospectus Today

The Champions

by Joe Sheehan

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Baseball is just fine. Rain, cold weather, long games, late games, poor TV ratings, worse umpiring... none of it matters. Nothing that makes this many people this happy is ever going to go away.

Watching your favorite team win a championship isn't the highlight of anyone's life. We love, we marry, we parent, we achieve, we have all of these experiences with family and friends. These are the things that make up a life.

Your team, though... you share that with everyone. You don't go through that alone, with your spouse or your kids, with your friends or your business partners. You live that passion in public, in a stadium, with thousands, tens of thousands of others, and your heart goes out on your sleeve and stays there, no matter how badly it gets bruised. Everyone around you, walking around for years-28 of them, say-all of you with a shared history of joy and pain, of almost and not-quite-almost, memories of the great third baseman or the scrappy center fielder, but also of a left-handed reliever gone awry, and the other guys jumping up and down, spiking your ill-placed heart, pain you'd try to forget if only those damned highlights people would let you.

And in a moment, you're healed. In the time it takes for a reliever-a perfect reliever-to drop to his knees and raise his arms to the sky, it all goes away. There's no disappointment, there's no pain, there's no frustration, there's just you and 46,000 like you, screaming into the night sky with that reliever, a building full of happy, surrounded by a city of joy, all looking at one thing: baseball.

That moment is why baseball is just fine. Baseball makes people happy, so happy that they hug strangers, cry in public, scream at the top of their lungs, or just sit, slumped, shaking, relieved, disbelieving.

Just after the game, maybe three minutes, I was walking through the stadium down to the field, probably half as fast as I needed to be moving. I couldn't rush through all that happy, couldn't walk through the crowd and not read every face, soak in the expressions as the ruddy-cheeked, apple-nosed Philadelphians shouted gleefully to no one in particular, demanding high-fives, high-tens, a high-twenty if you stalled in front of the right person.

There was this girl-23, 24, maybe?-brunette, curly-haired, 5'5", and based on her outfit, a ballpark employee. She had the standard T-shirt and Dickies outfit we've been seeing here all week. She was walking slightly off from the crowd, dialing a flip phone, crying openly, not the clenched-jaw tears of someone hiding something, but just weeping, sobbing. God knows who she was calling... a boyfriend, a mother, a coach, a sister... but the raw emotion she was showing was compelling. She was maybe nine or 10 when Joe Carter sliced a knife through a city, scarring it for 15 years, and she cried that night, too, cried herself to sleep the way little girls do-big, choking sobs that shook her body until she had nothing left.

Not last night. Last night the tears were happy, defiant almost, shaking a wet fist back in time to that night in 1993, the one that broke her heart, but maybe formed it as well, with little seams, and a darker red hue, and a small curlicue "P" forever branded in one corner.

Yes, baseball is just fine, and maybe we're all a little bit too close to it, we know too much, see the trees and miss the forest. Maybe that's not even all that bad, because some people need to know how the trees grow and what kinds there are and how best to keep them tall and florid, but not everyone does. Some people can just breathe the oxygen and sit in the shade and appreciate the beauty. On a night like tonight, when that beauty fills a space so fully that you can't imagine a world without it, you envy those people a little, the ones who express their love in a crowd, hearts on their sleeve, tears on their cheeks, and filled with all the passion this game inspires.

Baseball is just fine.

---

For those of us determined to count the rings and sniff the bark and determine just what shade of green we're looking at, last night's conclusion to Game Five provided plenty of fodder. The windup to the first plate appearance happened not quite as expected, but in a way that showed that both managers had studied the situation and come to the right conclusions.

Charlie Manuel eschewed his top two pinch-hitters in favor of Geoff Jenkins, specifically because it was just the sixth inning. "Actually, I wanted to keep [Greg] Dobbs and [Matt] Stairs both back and for the eighth or ninth inning," Manuel said. "I might have hit for Ruiz or Feliz and the pitcher, and I wanted to keep those guys back if a righty was in the game."

Maddon countered by leaving in Grant Balfour, confounding the expectation that he would rush to get David Price into the game, in part for the same reason Manuel went with Jenkins. "I was fine with him pitching against any left-hander right there," Maddon said. "He was going to do that. You don't know if it's going to be nine, 10, 11, 12 innings or whatever."

The decisions were considerably less surprising than the outcome, which saw Jenkins crushing a 2-2 fastball from Balfour to the track in right center for a double. The "Jenkins pulls Balfour" prop was off the board in Vegas, but there he was standing on second base, the most popular .246-hitting free-agent pickup in Phillies history. Jimmy Rollins followed with a sacrifice bunt-normally a poor move, but defensible given Balfour's incredible strikeout rate and the difficulty of pulling him, Jenkins notwithstanding. Jayson Werth, who quietly had a ridiculous Series (.438/.591/.813 at the plate, and roaming everywhere in right field), popped a ball to short center field that Akinori Iwamura-playing on the infield grass-reached but couldn't make a play on, dropping an attempt at a basket catch. Jenkins scored from third to give the Phillies the lead.

Two points about this play: I was tracking the ball and Iwamura, and never saw where B.J. Upton started or finished the play. Given the height of the ball, though, it's surprising that Upton didn't have a play. That he didn't is even more important considering that Jenkins wasn't tagging off of third base; if Iwamura holds the ball, he might not have scored even given where Iwamura was headed; if Upton had played it charging in, there's no way he scores. That was a big break for the Phillies.

Down 3-2 with two lefties coming up, Maddon switched to J.P. Howell. This decision was one that he had to make, given that only a double play would have kept him from having to make it when Ryan Howard came up, so why not use a lefty for Utley? At this point, however, he's used his top two relievers aside from Price, and he still has 10 outs to go, and his pitcher is still batting fourth in the next inning. It wasn't a great spot, although Howell helped by disposing of Utley and Howard easily enough.

Rocco Baldelli, who just missed snagging Jenkins' double, shocked the park by lining a first-pitch offering from Ryan Madson into the left-field grandstand to erase all the Phillies' work, reminding us that the Rays were here for a championship, not a coronation. A Jason Bartlett single put the go-ahead run on base and set up what would be the last act in Joe Maddon's difficult week. He allowed Howell to go to the plate and lay down a sacrifice bunt, which he did successfully.

Due up for the Phillies in the seventh were Pat Burrell, Shane Victorino, Pedro Feliz and Carlos Ruiz. Here are their splits for 2008:


               vs. LHPs           vs. RHPs
            AVG/ OBP/ SLG      AVG/ OBP/ SLG
Burrell    .279/.406/.545     .238/.351/.492
Victorino  .282/.345/.537     .298/.355/.407
Feliz      .288/.349/.496     .231/.279/.357
Ruiz       .212/.346/.333     .220/.313/.291

This isn't about Howell, his splits, or his skill set. You only have had to see the Rays since October 1 to know that Maddon has multi-inning relievers, ones he doesn't have to take out the second they lose the platoon advantage. In this case, however, he was letting his pitcher bat, with the go-ahead run on first, with a full bench, with both a righty-getter (Chad Bradford) and a phenom (Price) in the bullpen, all so that he could take the worst of it in every matchup the next inning. At first, even I didn't see it, defending the decision to let Howell bat because pinch-hitting for him would have left him burning through his bullpen far too quickly. I was wrong. The idea was right-to keep an effective pitcher in the game-but the situation, the entirety of it, called for a pinch-hitter and a reliever.

After Howard's successful bunt, Manuel surprised me a bit by relieving Madson with J.C. Romero with Iwamura due up. I had figured Madson would go more than four batters, even considering that two had reached. Iwamura has a small platoon split and isn't a threat to do that much more than hit a single, especially against the ground ball-throwing Madson. It seemed to me that the entire point of using Madson in the seventh was to get two innings from him, or at least get him into the eighth. Manuel, however, played the splits and went to Romero.

It almost didn't work. Iwamura singled up the middle, with Chase Utley making a backhand snag just on the edge of the infield. Utley pivoted and faked a throw to first, then turned and made a weak one-hop throw home to try and get Bartlett, who was attempting to score from second on the play. Despite the throw, and a fantastic dive to the inside by Bartlett, Ruiz got the tag on him for the out to end the inning. If Utley goes to first, Bartlett scores easily; it was the second fantastic play of the game by the Phillies' second baseman-remember his tag-and-throw DP Monday night-and just another example of his greatness, on display all month long.

Immediately, the decision to hit Howell backfired as Pat Burrell doubled off the left-center-field wall, missing a homer by about a foot. Maddon walked to the mound to get Howell, immediately indicting the decision he'd made minutes ago-if his commitment to Howell was that slight, then there was no way Howell should have been allowed to bat. The sequence ranks right up there with the decision to let Andy Sonnanstine face Howard in the fourth inning of Sunday's game as Maddon's two critical errors in the Series.

Shane Victorino failed to get a bunt down off of Chad Bradford, then grounded to second to advance the runner anyway. Having him try to bunt was suboptimal; unlike the Rollins/Balfour matchup, the most likely outcome by letting Victorino swing away was contact that would advance the runner. In fact, by turning Victorino around to the left side and bringing in the ground-ball pitcher, Maddon almost guaranteed that pinch-runner Eric Bruntlett would get to third base. A Howell/Victorino matchup, despite Victorino's splits, would have had a much better chance of ending in a much needed strikeout. Maddon left Howell in when he should have taken him out, and took him out when he should have left him in. Tough night.

The matchup between Bradford and Feliz, like the one between Balfour and Werth, was a pretty good one for Tampa Bay. However, the much-maligned Feliz made contact, grounding a clean single back up the middle, scoring Bruntlett with the final run of the 2008 World Series. There would be drama that followed, but nothing like the seventh inning. Carl Crawford's leadoff single in the eighth was immediately followed, on the next pitch, by a ground ball to short from B.J. Upton that became a double play. When the Rays look back at this series, it's plate appearances like that-not allowing a pitcher prone to wildness to work himself into trouble-that they'll regret. Their approach in the Series, as a team, was dreadful, and the Phillies, especially Jamie Moyer and Joe Blanton, repeatedly exploited it. The Rays also got a single in the ninth, even getting the runner to second base in front of a Ben Zobrist rocket to right field, but the ball settled into Werth's glove. Three pitches later, bedlam.

In reviewing the Series, the key plate appearances all have one thing in common: Phillies' batters beating Rays' pitchers despite tough matchups. They didn't beat them by much, but they made contact in spots where they might not have, and they got the ball in the air when they might not have, and they hit it to the outfield when they might not have. Ruiz made the minimum amount of contact off of Balfour, strikeout machine, in Game Three, dribbling a single for the win. Werth blooped a ball off that same strikeout machine, perfectly placed, when a strikeout would have been costly. Feliz slapped a grounder through the infield to bring home the winning run against a pitcher who lives to get grounders right at people. Even in Game One, Chase Utley kicked off the Series by homering off of Scott Kazmir, who's allowed 11 homers to lefties in his career.

Everything we knew about these players is as true today as it was two weeks ago, but in specific situations in these five games, the Phillies beat the Rays. They outperformed the Rays in every facet of the game, but particularly in the field, on the mound, and in the dugout. They are the champions.

---

Thanks to all the BP readers for helping make this such a great season. I am very lucky to have this job, and with it, the best readership any writer could possibly hope for. Thanks also to our partners at Sports Illustrated, especially Christian Stone, who supplied me with both a press credential and a sounding board for story ideas.

I'm now headed west for the Arizona Fall League, ShandlerFest and, with some luck, golf. I'll check in from Phoenix next week.

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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