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October 13, 2010

Playoff Prospectus

LDS Day Seven Roundup

by Christina Kahrl

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Like a proper pint of Ben & Jerry's, history gets made in all sorts of flavors. A Rangers post-season series win is new and exciting, and Cliff Lee's feats as far as LDS strikeout records are indisputable numerical facts. But at the end of Tuesday night's anti-climactic shutdown of the American League's best team by the AL's best pitcher, you got left with some obvious questions: Why 162 games, if it all just gets burned away in a subsequent quintet of contests? Will Andrew Friedman's brand of poopadoodle wind up amounting to that much better than Billy Beane's? Does home-field advantage really just not matter quite so much after all?

After the Rays' inspired two-game rally in Texas against the back end of the Rangers' rotation, Cliff Lee's performance brought matters back to their most basic—short series rest on the best, and Lee's late-season struggles with back woes are yesterday's news. Tuesday night was a matter of Lee toying with his foes, whether as a matter of waiting to get into throwing breaking stuff his second and third time through the lineup, or just dicing up an increasingly frustrated team before sending them to posterity. Combined with the decision to push matters on the bases, it's a brilliant bit of risk taking in the abstract, but it's one that depends entirely on Lee showing up and doing the Mr. Invincible act. Which he did.

Subsequent studio jabber among likened Lee's dominance to Picasso, which is swell—after all, nobody ever called Pablo Picasso an asshole, not like you, not in New York. But let's face it, that's the wrong burning sensation, especially after his humiliation of the Rays. Lee's post-season record is more Rembrandt in its perfection in execution and detail, the sort of thing that leaves subsequent generations breathless. If anything, the man leaves batters looking like Picasso's cubist portraits, diced-up deconstructions of the whole that initially stepped in.

But Rangers baserunning makes for another storyline, one well worth crediting because it reflected the tactical variant on a mindset already established by trading for Lee in the first place: now or never. That showed up from the start, with Elvis Andrus' creation of a run through his basepaths aggression. He paused at third base, checking out the action at first base, but motored on home once the slow-developing play took shape with Carlos Peña patiently flipping to David Price.

So sure, that's about baserunning, but if ever there was a single-play illustration in assumed caution and its discontents, you've got it right here—the Rays played the percentages, and got the out. The Rangers didn't, and scored. It's hard to fault the Rays for just taking the out this early in a game, and as far as Andrus, it's the sort of play where everyone loves you if you score, and laments your aggression if Price hits the deck and Peña throws home in good time. It's worth noting that Andrus ranked second in the league in extra bases taken on non-hits, beyond none other than much-loved gamer Derek Jeter, but he also did so on a much higher percentage of his opportunities.

This was part of a theme on the night. In the third, Bengie Molina swiped his first stolen base in more than four years—it may not be Ozzie Smith's '85 homer, but good luck on capturing that, Strat. In the fourth, the Rangers untied the game again with Nelson Cruz's steal of third. Cruz may not seem like the type, but with seven steals of third in 2009 and four more in 2010—getting caught just once each season—he's done a better job snagging the last base before home on his career than he has second base.

The problem with taking the meme of those “hustlin', rustlin' Rangers” too far is that Cruz's run scored was the product of happy accident after baserunning indifference—he pasted a pitch to center he thought was gone, it wasn't, and if he hadn't been making like Manny or Mel Hall or whoever your loudest-arfing hot dog might be these days, and observing and admiring the flight of the ball, he'd have wound up with a triple. If he executes soundly on that base hit, he may not necessarily score—sure, Ian Kinsler subsequently singled, but he probably doesn't see the same pitches with two outs and a man on third. Instead, what plated Cruz was Kelly Shoppach's wild throw—or Evan Longoria's poor positioning, or what might be chalked up to defense-wide failure on Cruz's stolen base attempt.

Even so, during the broadcast Ron Darling said that all of the basepaths mayhem was about forcing the Rays to make mistakes, but I wonder how much of it was really about that. If anything, it was about exploiting the Rays' prosaic execution, as I noted before. The Rays threw to the correct bases to get the right outs. It would be hard to identify “mistakes” made if you look at this game in the abstract. In the first inning, Price and Peña made an unextraordinary, safe play—it took Andrus to stretch the opportunity.

Take what happened in the sixth inning: Sean Rodriguez's attempted fielding of the force on Jason Bartlett's desperation throw to second to get the lead runner (Vladimir Guerrero) illustrates how easy it can be to underrate the difficulty of playing first base; Bartlett really didn't have much of a play, and he certainly couldn't go to first to get Cruz, the lead runner. Rodriguez wasn't in great position to scoop the throw; maybe a guy used to making that play is in better position, but it wasn't an easy play. The mishap proved critical because Ian Kinsler's double play grounder to short wound up just being a force thanks to another questionable officiating call at first base; Vladi, undeterred by his leading the league in outs made on the bases, motored home to score. If Kinsler is ruled out, the inning's over. Baseball can at least take some satisfaction that the 35,000 throats weren't howling for replay at that point; despair was probably producing a paralyzing effect, because the game was slipping away with Lee cruising. Kinsler's two-run homer in the ninth just poured cement on a grave already well dug.

Letting Lee pitch into the ninth telegraphed another bit of obviousness—he's going to pitch Game Three in New York next Monday. Maybe that sets him up for Game Six on three days' rest, or Game Seven on regular rest, which makes matters especially interesting. If they're to win, it'll be on the merits of their initial risks, not just the one involving the most famous gambit. As much as the Rays have been sabermetrics' favorite dish to savor for the last three seasons, the Rangers represent just as many positive developments at once. The virtues of several Jon Daniels deals, of course, but also a rejuvenated farm system popping out prospects that help on the field or as fodder for those swaps. Not even those things would have been enough, though—the willingness to take huge evaluative risks to conjure up an initial rotation probably represents the season-making decision of the year, not just for this team, but for any team. Success with C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis is what puts the Rangers in position to not just trade for Lee to get an obvious ace, but to have enough going for them to win a five- or a seven-game series against their full-season betters.

If, on the other hand, the Rangers had simply settled and accepted that their window is only just opening—which it is—you'd have seen a club using Tommy Hunter earlier, and starting Derek Holland or Scott Feldman. That the Rangers decided not to settle for that is why they're in the LCS, and why they'll make a good series of it. The expectation is that this is the inauguration of something dynastic, at least as far as the league's short stack is concerned. More than that will come, perhaps as soon as next week.

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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