October 22, 2009
Prospectus Hit and Run
Vicente Padilla's chariot turned back into a pumpkin last night. An unlikely hero of the Dodgers' playoff run via his two previous starts, he joined Game One starter Clayton Kershaw and Game Three starter Hiroki Kuroda in failing to survive five innings against the Phillies' offensive juggernaut. For the second year in a row, the Dodgers were unceremoniously bounced from the National League Championship Series in five games. Wait 'til next year, redux.
It didn't have to be that way for the Dodgers, who came into the series as the favorites among a broad consensus of writers, gamblers, simulators, and moral degenerates thanks to their home-field advantage, fewer questions about their pitching staff, and more righty hitters and lefty pitchers to counter the Phillies' ample supply of lefties. Dodger manager Joe Torre made a hash of his rotation, however, and far more often than not, the pitchers he entrusted failed to deliver. Consider the two rotations' performances:
The Dodgers had four full days of rest between playoff rounds, giving Torre the chance to align his rotation to the best advantage, so that line above constitutes epic failure in both planning and execution. Subtract Padilla's Game Two gem as well as that of his opposing pitcher, Pedro Martinez, and the two ERAs become 13.19 and 3.80. If you're the Dodgers, it should go without saying that that's no way to win a pennant.
The problem, ultimately, is that as strong as their rotation was-and they finished with the league's second-best ERA and tied for third in SNLVAR-the Dodgers lacked a true number-one starter who could be depended upon to pitch deep into a ballgame come hell or high water and to make multiple starts in a competitive series (i.e., one longer than four games). The 21-year old Kershaw and 24-year-old Chad Billingsley, who was bypassed for a start, may both eventually develop into studs, but neither of them is there yet. Randy Wolf, the Dodgers' most dependable starter this year, isn't that stud, either. To expect Kuroda, whose 2008 postseason performance outweighed his recent health woes in Torre's eyes, or Padilla, a free-talent pickup whose ERA has been six percent worse than the park-adjusted league average over the past six years, to rise and to live up to such expectations was simply asking too much.
In the end it was a classic illustration of the way depth matters less in the postseason than it does in the regular season. In an alternate universe, either Billingsley or playoff-tested Jon Garland could have gotten the call as well, with no more certainty of results, and no less hand-wringing. With six starters to choose from and several competing factors-injuries, platoon splits, late-season performance, and postseason experience-which made identifying their current capabilities a more difficult task. It's at least marginally understandable how a manager could fumble around without finding the sticker that read, "This End Up." But those managers unable to sort out such simple packaging issues are the marginal ones. They don't win championships.
The Dodgers' miserable performance rendered their tactical advantages in the bullpen a moot point-not that the pen's performance provided much relief. The much-maligned Phillies bullpen made far fewer mistakes by simply keeping the ball in the park:
Which still isn't to say that Dodgers didn't have their shots at overcoming all that bad pitching given a quicker hook here and a pinch-hitter there. Whereas he gained the upper hand in the Division Series by pulling a shaky Wolf in the fourth inning, before disaster struck, Torre managed from back on his heels throughout the LCS. He had the chance to pull Kershaw in Game One when the score was still 3-1 and didn't. He had the chance to pull Kuroda in Game Three when the score was 4-0 and didn't. He could have pinch-hit for Wolf in the top of the sixth in Game Four, with two outs and Casey Blake on first, having just doubled the Dodgers' lead with an RBI single. Calling Jim Thome's number would have likely prompted Charlie Manuel to pull Joe Blanton and deploy either Scott Eyre or J.A. Happ to regain the platoon advantage; the inning might have ended there, but you could at least respect Torre for trying to strike while the iron was hot. Throughout the series, he could have dropped Andre Ethier in the batting order against lefties and elevated Matt Kemp, as the two players' platoon splits suggested was wise. "Shoulda but didn'ta," as Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel would have agreed.
Even amid last night's ultimately lop-sided affair, Torre had chances to be more aggressive. With both Billingsley and Kershaw on ample rest to provide multiple innings in an elimination game, he could have pinch-hit for Padilla as early as the second inning, when the score was 3-2, or pulled the struggling starter after two innings and two gopher balls with the score still 4-2. He could have left Orlando Hudson, who pinch-homered in the fifth, in as part of a double-switch involving Ronnie Belliard, who was batting second; that would have given him a switch-hitter to counter any pitching moves when that spot came up again in the seventh and ninth innings. He could have thrown up one last Hail Mary by calling upon Thome to pinch-hit for Blake with two outs in the eighth inning, down 9-4 but with the bases loaded against Ryan Madson. As I suggested in last night's roundtable, finding an active manager with the gumption to do so might have been impossible, but a Stengel or a Weaver wouldn't have hesitated.
Ultimately, though, when a team is outscored 35-16 across the five games, there are only so many managerial nits one can pick. The Phillies' offense bopped 10 homers and collected 19 extra-base hits, the Dodgers managed just six and nine, respectively. Ryan Howard hit a monstrous .333/.524/.933 and drove in eight runs, half of them coming in two big swings against lefty pitchers. Jayson Werth bashed three homers, and Shane Victorino (.368/.478/.842) and Carlos Ruiz (.385/.579/.692) made things very difficult at both ends of the lineup. Meanwhile Phillies pitchers kept Ethier (.263/.333/.474), Kemp (.250/.286/.400), and Manny Ramirez (.263/.300/.421) largely in check, and devoured both Rafael Furcal (3-for-21) and Blake (2-for-19). Cliff Lee and Pedro Martinez combined for 15 scoreless, walkless innings. Brad Lidge came through all three times he was called upon. Manuel outmanaged Torre.
The Phillies have now won back-to-back pennants, something that hasn't been accomplished in the NL since the 1995-96 Braves, and hasn't been done in either league since Torre's 1998-2001 Yankees. It's an impressive feat which at the very least elevates this current club to the status of a mini-dynasty, particularly given their accompanying 2007 NL East title. Congratulations to their players, their organization, and their fans on a fantastic season, no matter what transpires in the World Series.
Congratulations are in order for the Dodgers and their crew as well, though their season obviously ends with an all-too-familiar note of sadness. Derided as a weak division winner that got hot at the right time to reach the same point last year, they were the NL's best club across 162 games this time around despite numerous obstacles, and for all of the mutterings about general manager Ned Colletti in this space, he earned his recent contract extension with a career-year performance. That's a topic for another day, however-this moment belongs to the Phillies.