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November 1, 2010

World Series Prospectus

Game Four Analysis

by Christina Kahrl

In yesterday's space, I speculated about Game Four being more of a pitcher's duel than people anticipated. The Rangers certainly gave it a solid shot at making it so. If you had suggested beforehand that they would allow just two runs through the first six innings, we'd probably figure things had gone about as well as they possibly might in a Tommy Hunter start. Even down 2-0 doesn't sound so bad in the abstract.

But a funny thing or three happened on the way to the final third of the game, things that made certain that this seemingly winnable contest remained as unattainable as world peace or truly indestructible doggie chew toys.

First, the Giants' batters deserve a ton of credit for doing their part to wear Hunter down early, just as they had in the Series' first game against the considerably more frightening Cliff Lee. Complicating matters more than a bit was the presence of home plate ump Mike Winters, whose strike zone seemed to be all over the place. As I tweeted Sunday night at the outset of the game, Winters ranked 14th among big-league umps when it came to the incidence of unintentional walks while behind the dish, but as frustrating as several players seemed to find his zone, perhaps the biggest difference was that Hunter is a nice little strike-thrower without a great off-speed pitch who needs a little bit of wiggle room to operate within. He didn't have that, and the Giants kept after him, having to settle for Aubrey Huff's two-run, hard-pulled, no-doubt shot in the third.

Getting "just" the two runs, however, diminishes what the Giants hitters accomplished by getting Hunter past 80 pitches in just four frames. Pushing Hunter hard had the additional benefit of forcing the Rangers back into using a bullpen that's probably going to end up making Texas fans wishing Nolan Ryan's jabbering about starter endurance was more a matter of actual policy than empty sports-page braggadocio. Alexi Ogando's early exit with an injury exacerbated the issue, but even then, you could anticipate the eventual employment of both Darrens. While you can take Darren Oliver's two-out run allowed in the seventh on Andres Torres' double as a bad break, Edgar Renteria's scoring on the double was perhaps as much the product of his already running on the play as Torres' purportedly unlikely double against a lefty. But even there, give credit where credit's due: despite this year's poor performance against southpaws, Torres was used to good effect as a lefty masher from Bruce Bochy's bench in 2009, slugging them at a .718 clip, and he also crushed them for a .602 SLG at Iowa in 2008. Here as elsewhere, it's important to not get hung up on single-season platoon splits as career-defining.

The Giants' fourth run, on Buster Posey's eighth-inning homer off Darren Number Two, was equal parts pure Posey power and the side-arming O'Day's seeming over-exposure against an opponent far from in awe of him. While I'd be in the front rank among those who tout the Rangers' ROOGY for his situational uses, as a trick pony getting run out to face the same lineup and many of the same batters in a fourth consecutive game, you have to wonder about how much mystery might be left as far as picking up his offerings. If you get to see him four times in five nights instead of once or twice in a month, you can anticipate how familiarity might breed relish, and not merely contempt. You can pity Ron Washington this problem, instead of banging on him: with Frank Francisco not available to him and with only so many bullets to fire in the first place, if he's had to fire this one in particular too many times, you wind up with an illustration of the Rangers' problem with depth this late in the season.

Of course, this sort of trench fight is a matter of deliberately looking away from the incontrovertibly obvious. The Giants' hard-won quartet of runs stood up so handily because Madison Bumgarner's ballgame was one of those outings for which mere superlatives fail. Eight shutout innings, with a lone baserunner getting as far as second base--thanks to an error, no less--had some conjuring references to a young Jim Palmer, others to Steve Avery. I like the latter comparison for what it suggests about the Giants' long-term potential for hanging around; like the '90s Braves, a platform resting on baseball's best one-through-five rotation and Posey makes for a great springboard. If this year's Giants lineup resembles the Braves' cobbled-together crew of '91, that's just a suggestion of where Brian Sabean will have to focus his energies going forward.

In the meantime, Sunday night's performance shouldn't leave red-state Rangers merely seeing red; green with envy would be far more appropriate. The nascent third ace of the Giants' rotation left his calling card at history's doorstep, and the rest is just belaboring the point. Games like Sunday night's one-sided outcome serve as a reminder that, in many ways, the Rangers only just got here. As loaded with tout-worthy talent as the organization might be, they're just not all there yet. This shows up in all sorts of symptoms: they're stuck carting leftovers like Jorge Cantu and Jeff Francoeur to the postseason--and worse yet, having to start Frenchy in consecutive post-season games. They have to get worked up over Bengie Molina's heroic performance beyond understandably low expectations. They're making do with Mitch Moreland's OTJ learning curve as a newlyminted first baseman. They're starting someone like Hunter in a World Series game, and in light of the alternatives, at least until Derek Holland really establishes himself, it seems an unfortunate necessity, survivable as long as the front three roll, but now the full price of Lee's Game One meltdown really comes home.

Which leaves us with what? Certainly the Rangers can reasonably hope for a better outcome in Game Five, what with the usually incomparable Lee back on the mound. But in the last-chance sweepstakes the Rangers are left with Monday night and in every other night they earn from here on out, you can wonder if they have or could even try to have the same combination of top-tier talent and outright desperation that shows up in Bochy's lineup cards, in-game tactics, and defensive switches. That's not a slight of Washington as much as an acknowledgment that the Rangers' bit parts seem to have little to contribute, and haven't really been identified as useful parts, where Bochy has been using almost everything he has to accrue every little advantage he can. Staying out of the way of greatness while also contributing where you can makes for a tough combination to beat, but that's Texas' lot, now as it has been all Series.

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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