October 9, 2010
LDS Day Three Roundup
How do you scale competing improbabilities? One team loses a game on an extended litany of statistical unlikelihoods that mounded up like a “can you top this” sketch. Another wins its contest in extras on a bomb belted into the Bay by a ballplayer with a backstory Bernard Malamud would have borrowed from, all the better to punch up the Eddie Waitkus story. It's these that are the chains of events that would drive Henry Waugh mad, let alone the men and women who really do live and die with every pitch.
Kicking into a segment of the LDS schedule where it's all one league or the other, Friday night's doubleheader was a simple enough case of whether either dog down 1-0 would have its day. Expectations were lower for the Reds than the Braves; Cincinnati had to take Wednesday's no-hitter as a fire-and-forget feat that, to a man, none of them should ever have to deal with again anywhere at any time during the balance of their careers. The Braves, undone in the first game an equally dominant introduction to post-season pitching for Tim Lincecum—and by umpiring fiat as well—could only hope that they'd somehow squeak by one of sabermetric's red-headed step-children, Giants ace Matt Cain.
Thee Reds/Phillies matchup wasn't quite as one-sided as a few data-driven talking points would have led you to believe. A few too many people could reflect on Roy Oswalt, 23-3 on his career against the Reds, and reasonably decide the conclusion fully foregone. What do you need, a roadmap?
But from the get-go, Cincinnati could afford to reject that storyline, because the current crew of Reds had long since been assembling their own stories against Oswalt, which was clear from the first batter. While Brandon Phillips' clean-pull homer to the left-field corner to lead off the game was his first career shot against Oswalt, he'd already belted five doubles in 40 plate appearances against the Phillies' in-season rotation oxygenation, so it isn't like he had struggled to deliver power against Oswalt. Which underscored the little fact that got lost behind the rushed explanations of the presence of Oswalt-slayer Laynce Nix in the lineup in left. Sure, Jonny Gomes offers less than a lot, but Nix was just one man in eight non-pitchers who, going into Friday night's game, had accumulated a collective career line against Oswalt of .297/.337/.491. That's production you can win with—and the Reds very nearly did.
Through the top of the fifth, you couldn't really fault Dusty Baker or the Reds on their execution of any element of their pre-game planning. Phillips' opening solo shot was complemented by another from Jay Bruce, sandwiching a second run scored in the second off second baseman Chase Utley, although a first baseman as immobile as Ryan Howard hardly helped matters any on either play Utley accrued errors upon. After scoring four runs in five innings against Oswalt, the game may not have been won, but add that to four shutout frames from Bronson Arroyo, and you could see how the Reds would win this game. At some point, Arroyo would give way to a deep bullpen, and assuming Baker managed matchups close to competently, maybe you turn a series-opening game for the ages no more important in the grand scheme of things than a serviceable spin with Arroyo.
Then, to tighten things up, the Phillies generated one of those 30-pitch innings which create comparisons to the Yankees. When you're dangerous one through eight, you can chew up even a guy going good when given an inch, and fifth-frame errors by Scott Rolen and Phillips created the Phillies' opportunity to plate a pair. You can kibitz and note that errors are too often matters of opinion, but you can also reasonably wonder what was amiss, because the Reds came into the game with the second-best defense in the league.
Still, get to the sixth, hook Arroyo with an out and a runner on in the sixth and a two-run lead? With this pen? That doesn't sound so bad, and how much weirder could things get? Very much, as it turned out, yet another reminder that the game's scale might be actuarial, but at the atomic level, there be dragons. Arthur Rhodes rang up Raul Ibañez, so the situation's almost in hand... except Rhodes then hits Carlos Ruiz. That's unfortunate and rare, since Chooch has taken one for the team against southpaws 0.7 percent of the time on his career. Then Logan Ondrusek comes in to face pinch-hitter Ben Francisco, needing an out... and he hits Francisco. Then he paints the outside the lines against Victorino to plate a run, cutting the lead to one.
So that's enough of the oddness, right? Aroldis Chapman comes in, doing the exciting things and feats of strength expected of the pride of Holguin—he got out to 0-2 counts to his first two batters, registering triple-digit heat, but scraping Utley before punching out Howard. At which point the weirdness resumes. Chapman suffers a fielder's choice where Rolen chose badly to put two men aboard but that's followed by Bruce's flat-footed wave at Rollins' fly ball. Whether he lost it in the lights or the towels or a patch of dark matter, it was followed by Phillips' failure to come up cleanly with the ball after cutting it off, a same-play execution error which blows the lead, the game, and perhaps the season. It's worth wondering what went into the Reds' worst playoff-club performance with inherited baserunners, ranking 27th in the league, but plating three runs within eight batters on three hit batsmen, a walk, and a pair of defensive miscues has to rate with Chernobyl for big Red meltdowns.
Meanwhile, Charlie Manuel cruised through some tough calls. Pulling Oswalt after five frames was good tactics, but would it have been as easy a sale to make on that many ballclubs? But without a hint of controversy, Manuel went through a paint-by-numbers pen pattern. You can assign the save to Brad Lidge because he came last, but Ryan Madson was the guy who had to face Joey Votto and Rolen and came away clean. The Yankees aren't the only club that's gotten good at this, either as a matter of making the most out of seven- or eight-batter innings, or leaching their leads, big or small, of much drama.
If Friday's first game was a triumph of unlikely events, the nightcap was a story of unlikely heroes, whether sabermetric or less so. The Giants might have been favored conventionally, considering Cain's reputation as one of the league's best pitchers. Suffice to say the same consensus does not exist in sabermetrics, where it seems as if Cain's capacity to exceed interpretive expectations is cause for complaint. Perhaps inevitably, there's going to come a point where Cain fails, and where my fellow statheads will celebrate and say, “Ah ha! See, it was going to happen one of these years!” Of course it will—the flesh, forever willing, inevitably fails, just as a roulette bettor with infinite time and infinite cash will eventually win a bet on black-13.
This year Cain “only” saw his delta between his actual ERA and his SIERA shrink from 1.20 to 0.76, or just the second-largest difference of his career, while enjoying another fine season. His critics will have to live with whatever satisfaction comes with a decline from a .611 SNWP in 2009 to a merely still-excellent .581. And Friday night he “only” delivered a good ballgame, while being spotted to a four-run lead spiked with a first-inning Weaver three-run special delivered by Pat Burrell.
Unfortunately for the Giants, from there the offense snoozed, while the Braves regrouped despite losing Bobby Cox to a second-inning ejection. Perhaps the most booted skipper of all time was envious and not to be outdone by Thursday's ejections, but whether it served any purpose, in the eighth inning the Braves put on a clinic as far as when the sac bunt makes sense, while the Giants made their contribution to the nellies nagging over why closers should only close in Eck-style save opps. Bruce Bochy went directly to Brian Wilson after Sergio Romo put his first two batters aboard, a reasonable risk for a closer he's used for multi-inning assignments before. A Pablo Sandoval error put a run across with Brooks Conrad up. Bunting with runners on first and second and nobody out upped the Braves' shot at tying the game from 22 to 36 percent, which Alex Gonzalez promptly cashed in with a double.
But does that make Gonzalez the hero? Or just one of many? With a new ballgame, the Braves had to keep putting their less famous players on the spot. If Chapman was the day's big anticlimax, Craig Kimbrel was the hard-throwing wild child who delivered on his packaging, wiping out five of seven batters on extra-lively heat and the occasional wiggly slidepiece, guaranteeing extras while Wilson settled down.
We might have gotten a more conventional Brave to point to at the end—in the top of the 10th, Bochy nearly paid again for his staff management by running situational right-hander Ramon Ramirez out onto the mound to pitch an inning led off by Brian McCann; the All-Star Game's MVP nearly planted the ROOGY's cookie in the Bay, but not quite. Maybe some measure of false confidence came from that, as well as Ram-Ram's retirement of the two switch-hitters who followed, because in the 11th it would instead be Rick Ankiel who got to do almost exactly what McCann did with a fastball left out over the plate, but just a little harder to achieve splashdown in McCovey Cove. But even then, Ankiel got to share the moment with his fellow former Royal, because Kyle Farnsworth was left alone to preserve the lead.
Think on that list of unlikelies responsible for evening up the series. Ankiel's story makes for the easiest to salute—Friday night's bomb as a hitter comes a full decade after he bombed on the mound for the 2000 Cardinals in the postseason. But what about Gonzalez, the shortstop Cox asked for? What about Kimbrel, the reliever the Braves tried to avoid relying upon most of the summer, or Farnsworth, the one they really should? What about Conrad for his bunt, or Troy Glaus for his fielding feat as a substitute in the 10th, when he started his first (and perhaps last) double play from the hot corner since 2008? What about the decisions to trade for Farnsworth and Ankiel, derided by some as unnecessary at the time? Does that make Frank Wren a hero on a night like this?
In its way, it was a Braves win with a lot of 1991 in it, a game that deserves its place as an endpoint in a history that honors Sid Bream and Francisco Cabrera, Lonnie Smith and David Justice, Mark Wohlers and Alejandro Peña, collections of those at the end and others at the very beginning of their careers. If it hasn't been 20 years of unending success, it is still going to be a tale with a certain symmetry. Whether Friday night is the Braves' last win, for Cox or for themselves, at the end as in the beginning you can say they did it their way.