October 4, 2010
Maybe it's a matter of my being close to the action in the AL Central the last two years, but it seems to me that a 163rd game for a one-game play-in is one of the rites of autumn you can start taking for granted. And with a day that opened with a 50/50 shot at there being a 163rd and even a 164th game riding on the outcome, you can't deny the Braves/Phillies and the Padres/Giants games deserved center stage.*
The Braves' attempt to limp into October action has endured its share of handicaps. No Chipper Jones and, subsequent to last week's season-ending hip injury, no Martin Prado, so the Braves have had to finish the season with an entirely different infield than the one they opened the year with. The outfield beyond Jason Heyward has been barely any more stable. Atlanta also had to endure the indignity of a pair of games in which the Phillies decisively cleated the Braves on the throat, just to make it absolutely clear who the class of the league must be before Sunday's action.
Happily for the Braves, Charlie Manuel seemed to treat the game as a tune-up for the LDS, starting with his hooking Cole Hamels after two innings. That might not have seemed like an act of mercy, since he followed Hamels with Roy Oswalt, but then the skipper handed the game to Danys Baez, as clear a challenge to the Braves to win or have only themselves to blame as you might imagine. Atlanta responded easily enough, crushing the Cuban by plating four in the fourth.
Before the action, Tim Hudson was chided in the TBS pre-game show for struggling of late, but that's hardly fair, given his extraordinary fortune on ball-in-play outcomes earlier this year—Clay Davenport noted earlier this summer that Hudson was on pace to finish with the biggest discrepancy between actual hits allowed and expected hits. However, Hudson's September record wasn't really a case of his being flailed by the league with regression's cat o' nine tails. To his credit, he delivered five quality starts in seven between September and October—albeit through the first six innings of those seven starts.
Three of those quality outings, including yesterday's, were subsequently blown after the sixth. That's something you can't lay at any one doorstep—you can blame Hudson, of course, because he's the guy who gave up the two-run homer in the seventh to Jayson Werth with two outs to cut the Braves' lead to four. You can also blame a bullpen with a mediocre record for keeping inherited runners from scoring.
However, to take an unpopular tack given the skipper's future in the Hall of Fame as he heads into his career's conclusion, you also need to place some responsibility at Bobby Cox's desk. You have to, even if the skipper had a slow hook with his ace on the mound; with the club's rotation fraying down the stretch, you can understand the reasons why. Yesterday's choice to leave Hudson on the mound wasn't that different from the decision to have him work on three days' rest in his last two turns after having him pitch on longer-than-normal rest in his previous pair.
These were all elective decisions that weren't Hudson's to make. Cox very well could have kept Hudson on turn every fifth day in September, in which case his ace would have started Friday's game—opening the Phillies series. Doing so would have had Hudson cued up for either a Tuesday tiebreaker on three days' rest, or left him extra rested-up for the LDS.
If you're given to managing from your couch, you can also fidget over whether the Braves should have tried to add additional runs by little-balling it, considering that they had 13 baserunners in the last four innings but came away with just three tacked-on runs to tally eight. However, in the sixth, Cox couldn't have really avoided Derrek Lee's GIDP and gunned for an insurance run, even with his ranking in the top 15 in the majors in delivering twin killings at the plate—Lee hasn't dropped a successful sac bunt since 2004, and pinch-hitting for his best defender at the position seems equally unlikely. In the eighth, however, coming up empty on a bases-loaded GIDP by Alex Gonzalez was much more bitter; he's also a bit above average among deuce-generators.
But even then, you can't complain much about Cox's subsequent decisions. He gave Hudson the seventh, and it cost him two runs, but with Takashi Saito and Eric O'Flaherty both unavailable, and with Michael Dunn and Kyle Farnsworth pitching in both of the series' previous pair of games, Cox's options for the seventh and eighth innings before getting back to Billy Wagner were limited. He had Jonny Venters and Peter Moylan and the terribly exciting Craig Kimbrel.
Cox turned to Venters and nearly got through unscathed. It took a two-out grounder hit through Omar Infante at the hot corner to open the floodgates and create a three-run disaster barely contained by bringing Wagner into the eighth. It wasn't a rocket-science move in itself, but it's one that not every manager makes, so credit the old man there as well. Down just a run, you might wonder if Manuel should have expended any extra effort in the final frame, but he was nearly out of position players by the ninth. After Shane Victorino battled Wagner to an eighth pitch, there wasn't much to be done beyond simply letting Brian Schneider and Greg Dobbs stand in to get rung up.
Attention immediately swung across the country and the Giants/Padres game, with the outcomes being restricted to a fairly simple proposition—no extra action, or the scheduling nightmare scenario. Think on that—six months of regular-season play to try and determine the league's four best clubs, and we nevertheless could have been reduced to the spectacle of a playoff team playing in four different venues on four consecutive days without rest. Because the Padres, Giants, Reds, and Braves were all so tightly grouped in the last week, I suppose defenders of the three-division setup can take some satisfaction—matters could have been even worse if we had two-division leagues with two wild-card teams, since you'd have all four clubs potentially sucked into this parity-minded mess.
However, Jonathan Sanchez kept things somewhat simple early on, shutting down the Padres again as he had earlier in the month. The Pads' offense came into the game having scored zero runs or one in eight of their previous 22 games; in Sunday's action they'd make it nine of 23. You can't blame Petco Park alone for this, or the quality of their offense—those nine games came in two starts by Sanchez, and one apiece by Adam Wainwright, Madison Bumgarner, Tim Lincecum, Hiroki Kuroda, Carlos Zambrano, Jake Westbrook, and Tom Gorzelanny. Gorzo the Magnificent is obviously the least of them, but it's the sort of pitching that puts you in chicken/egg territory, about whether good pitching makes bad hitting worse or bad hitting makes good pitching great.
Robbed of an extra-base hit early thanks to the game's devotion to human error from the men in black, the Giants got to enjoy the benefit of the even less-likely heroics of a pitcher's triple in the bottom of the third. Padres outfield defense, especially in a unit numbering Ryan Ludwick or Chris Denorfia or Scott Hairston, might be best described as a desperate affair. It's hard to blame Bud Black for selecting that trio, given his desperate quest for runs, but it came with a penalty, which Mat Latos paid.
Black would also come under fire from the studio for failing to get tactical in the sixth inning after Adrian Gonzalez and Ludwick reached base to lead off. Bobby Valentine can chime in here with the obvious, since bunting with Yorvit Torrealba down by two is obvious enough. Both runners were station-to-station runners, and Torrealba is a GIDP threat (3.53 NetDP and a 16 percent GIDP rate). But that's assuming Torrealba can get it down, or that Gonzo can beat a throw aimed to get the lead runner. Predictably enough to some folks' way of thinking, Torrealba hit into the double play, and the Pads were as dead as ever on the scoreboard.
If swinging away and gunning for a bigger inning was the plan, it would have been better to see Black reach for either of his best-available lefty batters as Santiago Casilla's first batter faced. Both Will Venable and Matt Stairs were riding pine for the lefty Sanchez's start, and how many two-on, no-out situations were the Pads going to get? Stairs and Venable are both fly-ball hitters, both are very difficult to double up, and both boast significant platoon advantages worth dropping on Casilla for his first batter. Unfortunately, one may as well howl at the moon these days. We're in an age of tactical paralysis where offense is concerned. Pinch-hitting for position players, even with expanded rosters in September, just isn't something most managers go for much.
Whatever complaints Black's skippering on this day might engender, Bruce Bochy did his damnedest as far as in-game tactics, working for matchups on the mound and managing the offensive side of his lineup card every bit as aggressively. Pulling Jose Guillen after six innings in the field and three at-bats at the plate is exactly the way you'd want to see a manager handle a weak defender, but that was just one of three defensive-minded tweaks Bochy made in-game once he had a lead to work with. Bochy took his own shot at getting a third run in the seventh, but A-Gonz spoiled Eugenio Velez's bunt attempt by gunning Pablo Sandoval. Of course, using a pinch-runner for the slow-footed Sandoval might have helped matters.
It ended up not mattering—Buster Posey delivered that critical third run in the eighth with a solo homer, and Brian Wilson nailed down the save. I'll leave lamenting the Pads' fate to others, sad as it might be. As much as the Giants wound up winning by virtue of the quality of top talents, sure, they also won by not sitting still. As frequently flogged as he might be by statheads of several stripes, Brian Sabean's attentive shoring up of his roster with in-season reinforcements wouldn't necessarily make for a great playbook. However, the team that had Casilla and Javier Lopez and Ramon Ramirez holding Sunday's lead, the one that featured Posey and Pat Burrell slugging for them, that isn't the same club they opened the year with. If at any point within either the pen or the lineup the Giants had simply settled, their affairs would be already, by somebody else. That they didn't has them matched up with the afternoon's other relieved victor out in Atlanta.
*: Unless you're TBS, of course. The network decided to stick many people with the tedium of a Yankees/Red Sox game featuring just one playoff team instead of possibly two, and with the outcome not even certain to determine home-field advantage in the American League. Cable viewers had to settle for seeing the Red Sox avenge themselves by denying the Yankees while the Rays dragged out their own desultory denouement to 12 innings against the Royals.