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October 1, 2009

Prospectus Today

Bitter Endings

by Joe Sheehan

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In four seasons as a Brave, Matt Diaz has batted .316, the highest average of anyone on the team not heading to the Hall of Fame. Despite constantly battling for playing time, he has put up .300 averages in three of those four seasons-save last year, when he missed most of the season with injury-and been a productive bat off the bench when not in the lineup.

That's not what Braves fans are going to remember about him, though. On Tuesday night, Diaz hit a critical three-run homer to tie the game at four, breathing life into a team that appeared to have run out of steam after a late-season charge. In the middle of a ninth-inning rally last night, Diaz reached on an error to keep the game, and the season, alive.

They're not going to remember that, either. No, what they're going to remember is Diaz, face down, pounding the dirt with his right fist, left hand futilely gripping third base, as the Marlins ran off the field with a 5-4 win that effectively ended the Braves' season. Diaz was the potential tying run with two outs in the ninth, but he got caught between two plans after Brendan Donnelly bounced a pitch and Ronny Paulino was unable to locate it immediately. Diaz broke for home, hesitated when he couldn't read Paulino's actions, and got hung up too far from third base to make it back safely. Paulino recovered the ball and threw to third for the game-ending out.

I'm fond of saying that it's better to commit to and execute a bad plan than to have no plan at all. That's usually a commentary on front offices-hell, on real life for that matter-but last night, it applied to Diaz, who just couldn't decide, and for that wound up wearing some very big goat horns. It was coincidental that Diaz had been praised just minutes prior for his baserunning by Don Sutton, who approved of Diaz's decision to not go first-to-third on a single by Omar Infante. Seconds later, Diaz was executing what Rob Neyer called "the second biggest baserunning blunder in Braves history."

Diaz's mistake was good for the 27th out in the 158th game, but the Braves aren't falling short of the postseason just because he was indecisive in a key spot. As they did Tuesday, the Braves were put behind by their rotation, and when that happens, they have very little chance to win. A team that lived and died by its starting pitching got back-to-back poor starts from Tim Hudson and Javier Vazquez at the wrong time, and couldn't overcome them. That's been a theme all year long. When they allow four or five runs, a level at which a team should be competitive, the Braves are a brutal 12-28, a .300 winning percentage. The rest of MLB is 495-638, a .437 mark. That .300 percentage is the lowest in the game, and by far the lowest of any contending team. It is the final indictment of the offense, and the reason the Braves' season will end on Sunday.

Of course, lots of teams would have lost to Ricky Nolasco last night. The right-hander has been a disappointment on the whole this year, but he had another of those nights that makes you get excited about him, striking out 16 men in 7 2/3 innings, coming out after 123 pitches despite having a shot at tying the single-game record-to his credit, Fish skipper Fredi Gonzalez was trying to win a baseball game, not play recordball. Nolasco has the build, the repertoire and the movement to be a top-tier starter. Despite a much higher ERA (5.06, versus 3.52) this year, Nolasco had a higher strikeout rate and did so with just a small uptick in his walk rate and while sustaining a K/BB of better than four to one. Some of the ERA jump is due to a BABIP spike, from .278 to .324, which is the result of trading some fly balls for line drives. If you just look at Nolasco since his return from Triple-A in June, you see a number-one starter emerging: 158 strikeouts and 31 walks in 141 1/3 innings, with 15 home runs allowed. That's more or less the pitcher he was a year ago, and more or less the pitcher I would expect him to be in 2010.

It probably wouldn't made a difference in the long run, but the Braves didn't get a whole lot of help from the Brewers, who lost to the Rockies for the second straight night, 10-6. Ken Macha made one utterly ridiculous decision that deserves mention, because while the game meant nothing to the Brewers, you'd still like to see them make every effort to win. Down 5-4 in the top of the sixth, the Brewers had runners on first and second and one out, with Jeff Suppan coming to the plate. Suppan had a 4.96 ERA last year, and a 4.62 ERA the year before that. His ERA was 5.04 coming into the game, and he'd allowed five runs in the first five innings. What I'm saying is that there was no earthly reason to want this guy to keep pitching, because he's just not very good. The 11-inning game Tuesday is an excuse, not a reason: the Brewers had been off Monday and have 11 relievers on their active roster. Even if a couple of those guys are off-limits, there's just no reason at all to let a bad pitcher bat in a game-critical situation just so you can get another crappy inning out of him. It was an embarrassingly bad decision, one that looked worse when Suppan's successful sacrifice failed to lead to any runs, and was followed by three runs for the Rockies in the bottom of the frame.

Despite Jason Kendall's wasted heroics Tuesday night, the Brewers have just been throwing up on themselves in this series. Twice in the first three innings on Tuesday they had the bases loaded with less than two outs, and twice they hit into double plays. Wednesday they hit into a fly-ball double play when Ryan Braun misread a deep drive to left, left the bases loaded thanks in part to letting Suppan bat in the sixth, and left the bases loaded again in the seventh. This is how you end up playing out the string, of course, but as a fan, it would have been nice to a stronger game from the Brewers in the interest of creating some drama this weekend.

Instead, the Rockies not only have clinched a tie for the NL Wild Card, but they've positioned themselves to have a shot at the West division crown if they can sweep the Dodgers in Los Angeles this weekend. While I don't doubt that on some level the players care, I'll point out that in every comparable situation since the three-division format came into being, the managers have acted as if the playoff spot, rather than the division title, was the important thing. We'll see how Jim Tracy and Joe Torre play the weekend out, but I suspect it will be more of the same. How the Red Sox handled last weekend's series in New York is a pretty good indication of what to expect.

In the AL, the Tigers just about put the Twins down by hammering Carl Pavano for seven runs in 4 2/3 innings and surviving Eddie Bonine along the way. The Twins started the game 6-for-9 with a walk, but thanks to a double play and a caught stealing they picked up just two runs. Well, it was more than that-every hit was a single, which is one of the Twins' problems. They have no power outside of the middle of their lineup, so despite having 30 hits in the first three games of the series, they have just 10 runs, because they have six doubles and nothing bigger than those among their 30 knocks. We can praise smallball and doing the little things and treat the Twins like they invented the game, but if you can't reach the warning track now and again, you're just not going to score enough runs to win. The loss of Justin Morneau was a tipping point, and while the scored a bunch of runs in the early days of his absence, they just don't have a good offense without him.

The Tigers can clinch today, although they don't have a great matchup. If they lose, they'll have to either take two of three from the White Sox over the weekend, or hope the Twins-who have to face Zack Greinke tomorrow-lose at least one. The unadjusted version of the Playoff Odds Report makes the Tigers about a 24-1 favorite, which seems about right. I expect that will also be about the size of their underdog status next week as well.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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