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October 20, 2009

Prospectus Hit and Run

Double-Barreled Disappointment

by Jay Jaffe

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The late Bart Giamatti famously observed that baseball is designed to break your heart, but the former Commissioner was notably silent about its ability to strangle you with your own entrails. That's how I felt on Monday, watching two teams near and dear fritter away late-inning leads and ultimately suffer walk-off losses.

Last Friday had me aglow. For the first time since October 9, 2004 and just the second time in my entire adult life, the Dodgers and Yankees both won playoff games. These are the two teams at the heart of what I've long referred to as my Bicoastal Disorder, a complicated set of rooting interests borne of blood and geography. My dream of a World Series which would replicate the formative matchups of my youth was intact. The drop from that high point to Monday's action was dizzying, to say the least.

I offer that introduction not as a plea for sympathy. Indeed, the inherent contradictions of this life I've chosen have been the fuel for nearly a decade of writing beyond the decimals and differentials that make up so much of my work here, and I'm hardly ungrateful for this playoff bounty, particularly in the face of an angry mob of Tigers/Cardinals/Twins/Your-Team-Here fans. Nonetheless, Monday's twin killing will have to suffice as an excuse for the rather disjointed account that follows. As a fan, I feel as though I've been run over by a Mack truck. As an analyst... yep, Mack Truck again.

By far the more glancing of the two blows from Monday's action came in the ALCS, where the Yankees squandered a 3-0 lead thanks to a curious set of decisions by Yankees (over)manager Joe Girardi, all of which blew up in his face in spectacular fashion ā la Wile E. Coyote. I'll leave that postmortem to others except to note that the Yankees still hold a two games to one lead in the series. Suffice it to say that my forehead was sufficiently tenderized for the nightcap.

As with the rest of the NLCS, Game Four continued to defy the percentages. Randy Wolf yielded a homer to a lefty hitter, Ryan Howard. The league's best bullpen and the league's best closer, Jonathan Broxton, faltered, while the shakier Phillies bullpen and their historically awful closer, Brad Lidge, held their ground. It happens.

Wolf came into his start having allowed just one home run against lefty hitters all season long, and having held them to to a feeble .159/.217/.200 line in 185 plate appearances. Howard hit just six of his 45 homers against southpaws, managing just a .207/.298/.356 line. Yet when Wolf left a fastball up in the strike zone during last night's first-inning confrontation, Howard demolished it for a two-run homer.

We can scratch our heads and curse or cheer at the defiance of those percentages, but we'd do just as well to remember that Wolf's fateful pitch was set up by very human reactions. Home-plate umpire Ted Barrett, whose strike zone was small enough to fit into a pocket protector, made a lousy call on the preceding 2-1 fastball, which caught plenty of the plate according to both TBS's pitch tracking device and MLB Advanced Media's Gameday. Catcher Russell Martin had set up on the outside half of the plate, however, and in reaching back across his body to receive the pitch, swayed the umpire's judgement. Backed into a corner against the slugger, the flustered Wolf clearly still had that call on his mind when he served up Howard's homer, given the camera shot of him jawing with Barrett as he received a new baseball.

Broxton led the senior circuit in WXRL and led all major league relievers in strikeouts while posting a stellar 3.9 K/BB ratio. He too demolished lefties at a .138/.230/.185 clip in 148 plate appearances, slightly better than even his showing against righties. Pinch-hitter Matt Stairs batted just .200/.360/.390 against righties this year, particularly struggling against power pitchers; his bat speed has slowed with age, and a lack of repetitions only make matters worse for him. Yet last year's NLCS confrontation, in which Stairs clubbed a go-ahead eighth-inning pinch-homer in Game Four, still weighed on the closer's mind as the two faced off last night. After missing inside with a 100 mph fastball on his first pitch, Broxton's last three pitches were far enough outside the strike zone to be under New Jersey jurisdiction. "I wasn't going to give him anything to hit," said the closer after the game, a strategy which essentially put the Dodgers in a sudden-death situation, with the winning run at the plate. Two batters later, Stairs' pinch-runner scampered home with the tying run on Jimmy Rollins' gapper, closely followed by Carlos Ruiz with the decisive tally.

Those all-too-human mistakes were followed, respectively, by a scrappy Dodger comeback that will ultimately be forgotten and a Phillies rally that deserves more remembrance than I'm able to muster. They added to the litany of Dodger mistakes made elsewhere in the series, not the least of which have come from the dugout. Manager Joe Torre's miscalculations in the way he set up his rotation loom especially large. Clayton Kershaw wasn't up to the task in the series opener, and Torre's failure to apply a quick hook only exacerbated the situation. Wolf, the Dodgers' most durable and consistent starter, pitched on 11 days' rest last night. Whatever Hiroki Kuroda showed Torre and his staff during last Monday's simulated game action-Kuroda's first time on a mound since September 28-certainly wasn't in evidence in Game Three on Sunday night. Kuroda got strike one on just two of the seven hitters he faced in the first inning while the Phillies piled up four runs, and of the 10 hitters he eventually faced, he only got a second strike on Raul Ibaņez, that after he'd fallen behind in the count 3-0. Kuroda's stellar showing in the 2008 postseason, coupled with Chad Billingsley's bad second half and a pair of meltdowns in last year's NLCS, certainly weighed into Torre's decision-making. Those three starters have combined to yield 14 runs in 11 1/3 innings in this series, leaving the Dodgers' bullpen a heavier load than it has been able to bear.

The one rotation hunch Torre's gotten right in this series was in starting Vicente Padilla in Game Two on Saturday. Padilla had dispatched the righty-heavy Cardinals with seven shutout innings in the Division Series clincher, but on paper looked to be entirely more vulnerable against the Phillies' lefty hitters. Instead he combined with Pedro Martinez to produce the postseason's most memorable pitchers' duel, holding the Phils to just one run in 7 1/3 innings before yielding to the bullpen. Given how the rest of Torre's best-laid plans have fallen apart, it's not surprising to hear that he'll turn to Padilla to save the Dodgers' season in Game Five.

That Game Two duel deserves more than just a passing mention, and not just because it may be the final high point of the Dodgers' season. Played out against a brilliant blue sky amid unseasonable 93 degree heat, it was the kind of game that made one's hair stand on end regardless of rooting interest, filled with a mixture of joy at the opportunity to catch such a thriller, and melancholy at the knowledge that it would somehow end with one valiant hurler's effort going for naught. Neither pitcher had joined his respective club until mid-August, yet here they both were on the postseason's grand stage, prodigal son Martinez returning to Dodger Stadium for the first time since 2006, and possibly the last time in his Hall of Fame-worthy career, overshadowing but not entirely outshining Padilla, whose six years with the Phillies ended on Charlie Manuel's watch.

In the end it was like some classic Western. Martinez, the aging sheriff no longer so quick on the draw, showed he could still could summon enough guile and deception to baffle hitters. Padilla, the black-hatted villain, stood his own ground summoning a power he had only intermittently tapped throughout his career, allowing just a solo homer to Howard. What came afterwards-a messy eighth-inning rally featuring five Phillies pitchers, a misplayed bunt, a throwing error, and a winning run walked home-made for a jarring transition akin to the juxtaposition of two Monty Python's Flying Circus sketches. "And now for something completely different..." That's not nearly so jarring a transition as from that Dodgers win to their 11-0 drubbing on Sunday. But still...

At the outset of this series, my prediction hinged on the way the Dodgers' lefty pitching matched up with the Phillies' lefty hitting and vice versa, but thus far the Phillies have gotten the advantage. By my quick tally, Utley, Howard, Ibaņez, and Cole Hamels are a combined 5-for-18 with two homers, nine RBI, seven walks, and four strikeouts against the Dodgers' southpaws, good for a .440 on-base percentage and a .611 slugging percentage. In the first two games, Dodger lefties Andre Ethier, James Loney, and Jim Thome started off 5-for-8 with a double, a homer, three RBI, and three walks against Philly southpaws, but they went 0-for-6 with a pair of K's against Cliff Lee on Sunday night.

That blowout aside, the two teams have been very evenly matched, with the other three contests decided by a total of four runs, and the outcome in doubt until the final out hitter. It's the Phillies who have made the fewer mistakes, however, serving a reminder of how they won last year's championship, and why they're one win away from a chance to repeat. They're stocked with weapons galore in their lineup and rotation, and it's not just big guns like Howard (.385/.529/1.077) that are doing the damage-eighth-place hitter Carlos Ruiz is batting .500/.667/.900, for example. On the mound, fourth starter Joe Blanton ate six innings last night without letting the Dodger comeback get out of hand. Closer Brad Lidge has yet to allow a run in his two brief appearances, having at least partially rediscovered his mojo. The staff as a whole has consistently gotten ahead of the Dodger hitters, compiling a nearly 3-to-1 strikeout-to walk ratio and holding them to a .226/.286/.318 showing-a classic case of good pitching beating good hitting.

As bad as Monday's events turned out from this vantage, I'm consoled by the fact that if nothing else, there won't be another grueling post-season doubleheader to wade through, no more opportunity for such double-barreled disappointment. That knowledge makes it much easier to navigate the line between fan and analyst; win or lose for both the Dodgers and the Yankees, I know that some relief is on the way.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

Related Content:  Fan Reactions,  The Call-up,  Southpaws

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