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October 10, 2010

Playoff Prospectus

LDS Day Four Roundup

by Christina Kahrl

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When you're down 2-0, everything is a matter of last-chance sweepstakes. Do or die, theirs to reason why—curse you, Jim Wolf—with nothing to do but try and rally from it, because in a five-game series, you just need to set everything else aside and recognize that there are no tomorrows, not if you don't create them yourself. One of the two teams down to their very last game in every game left in the round, one did exactly that, one less so.

The agony of the exercise of losing yet again to the Yankees might make the Twins the true inheritors to any legacy as “dem Bums,” because of the sense that something major, almost inevitably, has to go wrong. Saturday night, with the Twins finally getting to face a right-hander, you could blame so much on the absence of Justin Morneau. Is it that much of a surprise to get shut out through seven innings by Phil Hughes when nobody in the lineup has more than six career plate appearances against the guy, and while going without Morneau, a hitter who'd pounded a pair of taters against Hughes in just three confrontations?

As guilty as I am in joining the line in the forge, however repeatedly wrought and overwrought the fidgeting over who the Yankees could count on to start and why that might have been, in the end it's important to dial back and recognize that they had a series of advantages, starting with obviously better starters in all three games. If there were concerns about Andy Pettitte or Hughes, keep in mind that the Twins were calling on Francisco Liriano, who's raked up more than his share of frequent flaky mileage, followed by the even more guilty Carl Pavano, and then a nice little lefty swingman for Game Three. Is that really the stuff of champions, from the team that should have learned otherwise from the big-two duo of 1987?

Say what you will about Brian Duensing as a utility pitcher—he has made himself indispensable to a Twins team that, for all of its jabber about its home-grown strike-throwing sensibilities, couldn't count on Scott Baker or Kevin Slowey, and shouldn't count on Nick Blackburn. Despite that, you really want to sign up for a Game Three start for a swingman, against the Yankees, in an elimination game? That's the master plan? If the Twins were supposed to live and die on the strength of their convictions, their rotation selections betrayed something less than a full measure of commitment to their oft-advertised value system. Either Duensing was going to dispense with a utility pitcher's label against the best offense in the league, or not. Already touched for a pair of scores in the first third of the game, when he ran into trouble against it in yet another eight-batter inning in the fourth, that shouldn't have come as that much surprise—he was already laboring against lowered expectations reflected in a SIERA 1.4 runs higher than his ERA.

So the Twins, short of quality pitching and equally short of quality hitting by the time they'd arrived in October, made another poor showing. Maybe matters would have turned out better if Morneau or Baker were totally healthy, maybe not—when you're talking about a team that chose Duensing and Blackburn and a post-season roster stocked with players they made a point of avoiding, it isn't like Ron Gardenhire had a full deck to deal from. It's another question altogether whether he'd have been able to use it, but choices like Duensing and Blackburn don't inspire a ton of confidence that the Twins weren't just another one of history's speed bumps built to be beaten by the beasts of the East.

If the Twins went in prepped for the slaughter and obligingly placed their heads on the block in the Bronx, in Texas the Rays eventually got around to playing with a sense of what was at stake—golf on Monday, or Game Five prep. Those wondering aloud how the Rays scored 800 runs this year got a necessary reminder, via seven walks. Even so, they very nearly handed away their opportunity to tie up the game in the sixth, but perhaps what was to come serves as a defense for those who stress the virtues of relief specialization. Ron Washington bugged out on Colby Lewis' high-wire act after three walks in his last four batters, but he turned to first one live arm and then another, without getting the full benefit of talent and mid-90s heat—Derek Holland pitched into trouble, but Matt Joyce, handily the worst baserunner on the roster, ran into the inning's second out after a Dan Johnson single. Holland just followed it up by walk Carlos Peña on four pitches. With B.J. Upton stepping in, Washington turned to Alexi Ogando, not his best righty reliever, but another kid who cooks with gas—except that Ogando has been less effective from the stretch, and his attempts to go up and in on Upton only got him to offer on a fourth pitch, which he lined to left to tie things.

The Rangers probably weren't going to make a one-run lead stand up all day, but that cuts both ways. Big Game Matt Garza may not have a rhyme scheme going for him, but he just delivered another winnable ballgames in the postseason, even if he lost the lead with a seventh-inning leadoff homer. Joe Maddon kept things under control in the next two innings with a pair of retreads better than Chad Qualls. You can wonder if Washington shouldn't have immediately answered the employment of Randy Choate against a non-Hamilton in the lineup with a right-handed batter—especially when he pulled David Murphy after the at-bat—but there's no second-guessing Maddon's use of Joaquin Benoit against his former team to keep the Rangers shut down.

But in the eighth, just as in the sixth, it would be Johnson and Peña, a pair of patient pounders, who would again deliver against a lefty to tie the game back up, this time Darren Oliver. At which point Washington started to run up against the limitations of a six-man pen. He brought in Darren O'Day to get Upton, which O'Day did, after which the skipper called in young closer Neftali Feliz, with the game tied, two out, a man on, and Jason Bartlett up. This might have seemed strange—why not just place your faith in O'Day? But Bartlett had reached in four of six plate appearances against O'Day—three singles and a walk.

The problem is that, by hooking O'Day after a lone batter, that after already using up both Ogando and Holland in the sixth, Washington was down to just two relievers to finish things—Feliz, and mop-up man Dustin Nippert. In a tie game. So Feliz gets asked to just say Mo and pitch in the eighth. This goes badly, very badly—he walks Bartlett, then gives up the lead by getting cute and leaving a slider over the plate against John Jaso, which scores Peña.

So now the Rangers are down by a run, and Feliz goes to the bump in the ninth, and gives up a homer because Carl Crawford just kept flicking strikes foul and waiting for Feliz to give up a fastball over the plate. It took him eight pitches, but it was as much a definitive Rays at-bat as any. So now the Rangers are down by two, and where can Washington go? How long could he leave Feliz out there and still have him available for Game Four? So he goes to Nippert, who makes a bad situation worse the way mop-up men can, by giving up a two-out, two-run shot to Peña, and turn an ugly late game into a certain loss.

Admittedly, agency's a slippery thing. Whether you want to complain about Washington's staff management or credit the Rays for so many excellent at-bats from Peña and Johnson and Crawford, there's a chicken/egg quality to the exercise that can leave you wondering if the real problem is that, between Oliver and Holland, the Rangers are short a southpaw with much success against the Rays' lefty-stacked lineup. Is this an example where a seventh reliever would have been handy? It's enough to make you wonder, but in the end, Feliz is still available, and Washington might want to reconsider hauling out a veteran starter just 85 pitches into a sixth-inning shutout.

Beyond the on-field action, one thing that seems to have changed on the production level is that TBS seems to have finally gotten comfortable with the idea that it's fair to take aim on umpires and the state of umpiring. That's not really that different from any given week, except as a question of degree—on an entirely superficial level, it seems as if the network has decided to delight in the flawed power of human decision-making when it comes to officiating. That's not to blame the network—as a matter of their place in the middle of the action, and horrendous calls made on almost every diamond involved in October action, umpires have put themselves front and center. But whether this latest demonstrated capacity for studio-level courage in journalism reflects the industry's sense of itself and the scale of the problem, we'll have to wait and see, after the leaves are all dead. Since TBS is a broadcasting partner through 2013, it isn't like the majors have much leverage... or would choose to.

Lip service paid to the relationship to the once-busted umpires makes for polite relationship-mending for the Commissioner's Office, but only so far. This may not yet be a Tim Donaghy-level crisis of confidence in the quality of the arbiters, but the majors have always had the benefit of the perception of better professional standards when it came to officiating, at least compared to the NFL's weekend warriors, let alone the NBA's standards that make you wonder if the WWE is part of their selection pool. If that's already lost, the important follow-on question is how much that damages the game's brand value—some, lots, or not at all? If publicity in any form is positive, and heat generated over this sort of thing is a form of entertainment, maybe it matters little, if at all.

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

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