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October 20, 2010

Playoff Prospectus

NLCS Game Three: Baseball's Caprice

by Ken Funck

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If every baseball game is a short story, Tuesday's NLCS Game Three featured three interwoven narratives: a classic pitching matchup featuring 26-year-old starters Matt Cain and Cole Hamels, the lineup machinations of Giants manager Bruce Bochy and Phillies skipper Charlie Manuel, and the continued post-season star turn of husband, father, slugger, teammate and all-around great interview Cody Ross. Cain and Hamels lived up to expectations, churning out another data point in support of the old adage that great pitching stops great hitting, one manager saw each of his decisions hit the jackpot, and one of those decisions helped Ross once again deliver in the clutch in support of a 3-0 Giants victory, giving San Francisco a 2-1 series edge.

Going into the game, both managers had interesting lineup decisions to make that would eventually play a role in the game’s outcome. While having to face the resurgent Hamels should never be considered a bonus, it at least gave Bochy the cover he needed to shake up his moribund lineup. Slumping center fielder Andres Torres would sit against a fellow lefty in favor of benched millionaire Aaron Rowand. At third, lefty Mike Fontenot was also given the day off—here’s hoping some rest helps him shake his recent bout of Little League Glove Syndrome—while Juan Uribe’s quick recovery from a sore wrist put him back in the infield mix. Bochy opted for Edgar Renteria at shortstop rather than pencil the progressively ignored Pablo Sandoval in at third, leaving Uribe to man the hot corner. All these machinations left the Giants with a Strat-like lineup of eight righties and a lefty slugger, none of whom remotely resembled a leadoff hitter—even in the Dusty Baker sense of the word—so Renteria was assigned first raps. Each of these decisions would play a role.

Conversely, the Phillies lineup featured only one small surprise—Chase Utley in the two-hole. Analysts have long argued that Utley and fellow lefty Ryan Howard should be separated in the lineup, but after Manuel opted to bat Utley second against southpaw Jonathan Sanchez in Game Two, conventional wisdom held that Manuel would go back to his normal lineup against the right-handed Cain. The old dog showed us he can learn new tricks, however, and Placido Polanco remained ensconced in the third spot between the Phils’ lefty superstars. This, too, was a decision that would have gameday implications.

Both starters pitched to the level you would expect from two members of baseball’s newest Golden Generation of starters, but it was Hamels who was most dominant early on. The young southpaw was perfect through three, without a single hard-hit ball during his first spin through the Giants’ lineup. During the game FOX commentator Ken Rosenthal made much of Hamels’ improved mental toughness this year, and that’s all well and good, but as our own Matt Swartz has repeatedly shown, it’s his newfound cutter and improved velocity (as evidenced by a 95 mph heater blown by Buster Posey to end the first inning) that should receive the most credit. Meanwhile, Cain was also putting up zeroes but with somewhat more struggle. The young Gigante strived to establish the inner half, brushing Utley’s uniform for an uncalled hit-by-pitch in the first inning, throwing high and tight to Hamels to foil an bunt attempt in the third, then plunking the next batter, Shane Victorino, with a chest-high fastball. This last set up the game’s first real scoring chance, putting runners on first and second with two out, and brought Utley to the plate with a chance to validate Manuel’s decision to move him up in the order. But Cain got ahead of him with a first-pitch curve taken for a strike, then fed the Phillies’ best hitter a steady diet of off-speed pitches before retiring him on a check-swing grounder to Renteria.

Cain again found trouble in the fourth, when Howard flared a one-out single to left. Jayson Werth followed and Cain fell behind 2-0 before throwing perhaps his worst pitch of the day, a belt-high hanger that Werth inexplicably managed to swing through—a pitch he often deposits in the left-field bleachers. Instead, Werth eventually walked to bring Jimmy Rollins to the plate with two on and one out, but Cain unleashed perhaps his best pitch of the day—a 1-1 fastball at the knees which tickled the outside corner that Rollins, a low-ball afficianado, had to take for strike two. Behind in the count, Rollins was retired when Pat Burrell was able to fight off the sun to haul in a lazy fly to left, and when the recently punchless Raul Ibanez struck out on high heat, Cain had wriggled his way free again.

The Giants jumped out in front in the bottom of the inning, when every one of Bochy’s lineup decisions conspired to pay off. Leadoff man Renteria lined a single to right, and when Freddy Sanchez sacrificed to move Renteria to second the Giants had one of their table setters in scoring position for the first time since Game Three of the NLDS. After Posey struck out on a high fastball, Burrell, moved up to fourth in the order, worked a two-out walk. Up strode Ross, moved up to the fifth spot in the order and sporting a quantity of eye black that would have made John Randle proud. The unheralded former Marlin has had a dream series so far, with three solo home runs that have accounted for 60 percent of the Giants’ offensive output, and no one was surprised when Ross lined a low, outside fastball into left for an RBI single. He might not match Paul Bunyan or Casey Jones, but Ross’ recent feats have at least reached the Mike Fink level on the American Folk Legend scale—and when Aubrey Huff, the only lefty in the lineup, punched a weak single past a diving Utley into left field, the Giants led 2-0.

If there was any more evidence needed to prove that the Hands of Fate were pointing in the home team’s direction, the fifth inning provided it. In the Phillies’ half, Utley again came up with a runner in scoring position and two outs after Victorino walked and stole second, but was again retired on a grounder to Sanchez. Conversely, Rowand led off the bottom half with a scorching double to the left-field corner, then scored when Sanchez fisted a one-hopper right at Utley, who let the ball play him as it bounded off his right leg into center field, plating Rowand. It’s a play the All-Star second baseman usually makes in his sleep, but the combination of odd spin, high hop, bad karma, and blinding sun led to another San Francisco run.

The Phillies would make one final rally in the seventh, when catcher Carlos Ruiz was hit by a non-breaking ball and pinch-hitting professional hitter Ross Gload coaxed a two-out walk. But Bochy left Cain in to face Victorino, who’d already reached base twice, and Cain fell behind 3-1 before making good on his skipper’s trust by retiring Victorino on yet another routine grounder to Sanchez. Frisco relievers Javier Lopez and Brian Wilson closed out the combined three-hit shutout by working one perfect inning each, and the Giants had taken a 2-1 series lead and set up a virtual must-win situation for the visiting Phillies behind Joe Blanton in Game Four as he faces Madison Bumgarner on Wednesday night.

If there’s a lesson in all this, it’s not that Cain is a better pitcher than Hamels, or Bochy is a smarter or more intuitive manager than Manuel. Mostly it’s just a reminder of baseball’s capricious nature—had Utley delivered in his two chances with men on base, situations set up by Manuel’s lineup decisions, or if it was the defensively challenged Burrell had been bedeviled by a blinding sun, this may have been a very different story. Pitching has defined this series and will continue to do so, and well-pitched games lead to low scores and contests likely to turn on one lucky (or unlucky, depending on the dugout you’re sitting in) bounce.

Game Notes:

FOX ran a graphic early in the game noting that Utley was among the top five hitters in career batting average against Cain (.467). Of course, that’s after 15 plate appearances. You’re probably sick of me saying this, but here goes: I love to see statistics used in baseball broadcasts, but if all you’ve got are relatively meaningless small-sample-size metrics, I’d rather you show nothing at all. And yes, I know I’ve argued in the past that batter-pitcher matchup data might be useful, but not based on Utley’s 15 trips to the plate—Andre Ethier’s .488/.511/.561 line in 47 plate appearances is more what I had in mind.

Anybody else notice how this game doubled as a partial reunion of the 2005 White Sox? Uribe, Rowand, Gload, Jose Contreras—I half-expected Geoff Blum to pinch-hit.

 I know the easy comp for Wilson’s beard is Jeff Reardon, but to me it’ll always remind me fondly of Brian Winters—perhaps it’s the initials.   

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

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