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September 29, 2011

One-Hoppers

The Team Entropy All-Stars

by Jay Jaffe

In retrospect, I peaked too early. As memorable and riveting a night for baseball as Tuesday night was, with one barnburner and two other come-from-behind victories that collectively tied up both leagues' Wild Card races heading into the final day of the season, Wednesday was even moreso. My schedule and sanity didn't allow me to chronicle another night of quadro-entropic action in the same minute detail, but with a TV, a laptop, an iPad, and an iPhone, I caught all of the relevant action, including the Braves' agonizing 13-inning loss, the Red Sox ninth-inning collapse, and the Rays' amazing comeback from 7-0 against the Yankees with just six outs remaining (via Twitter and the #teamentropy hashtag, I caught a great deal fo the snark as well). The five or 10 minute span which saw Boston lose and Tampa Bay win may be the most shocking stretch of baseball I've witnessed since — we'll go easy on Bill Buckner and Sox fans — the Steve Bartman game.

We fans of entropy and extra baseball didn't get the unprecedented pair of Game 163 play-ins that we might have, but what we got was still quite special. Brutal for some (two of the five worst collapses ever), brilliant for others. What follows is an all-star team of sorts, featuring the players who most exemplified the Team Entropy experience, some by their shocking failures, others by their surprising successes, all of whom brought us together even as the baseball world that we knew was falling apart.

Catcher: Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Jason Varitek, Red Sox; Brian McCann, Braves

The two Sox backstops not only didn't hit — Salty batted .162/.174/.368 in September, Varitek .077/.200/.192 in a combined 99 plate appearances — but they did a brutal job behind the plate, yielding 36 steals in 27 games and letting 18 balls get by them (10 wild pitches and eight passed balls), to say nothing of their share of the responsibility for the staff's 5.84 ERA for the month. McCann, the Braves' best hitter, exemplified his team's offensive collapse, hitting just .200/.320/.306 for the month and .184/.311/.237 for the final two weeks, and he too must take a share of the blame for his team's wobbly pitching performance.

First Base: Albert Pujols, Cardinals

Entering what could possibly be his final month in a St. Louis uniform, Pujols hit .355/.393/.561 in September. While it ultimately went for naught, his lead on an eighth-inning double steal on Monday night, when the Cardinals were down 4-2, set up a game-tying double by Lance Berkman, exemplifying his heady play.

Second Base: Robert Andino, Orioles

Andino hit just five homers all season long, but three of them came in September, two of them against the Red Sox, including what may have been the season's most entropic play, his three-run inside-the-park home run on a fly ball that Jacoby Ellsbury just couldn't hang onto on Tuesday night. Even more dramatically, his single off Jonathan Papelbon drove in Nolan Reimold with the winning run on Wednesday night, leading to the biggest dogpile in over a decade at Camden Yards.

Shortstop: J.J. Hardy, Orioles

Hardy capped his best season since 2008 by hitting .326/.370/.558 over the final 10 games, seven of them against Boston. Furthermore, he homered twice in two one-run wins against the Sox, including his two-run, third-inning shot on Wednesday night, the only two runs allowed by Jon Lester.

Third Base: Evan Longoria, Rays

Longoria hit .289/.454/.589 with seven home runs in September, and .417/.559/.708 in seven games against Boston. None of his homers was bigger than Wednesday's 12th-inning solo shot off Scott Proctor, which put the Rays in the playoffs, though the three-run shot he hit in the eighth inning to cut the Yankees' lead to 7-6 wasn't exactly small potatoes either.

Left Field: Carl Crawford, Red Sox

The $142 million man capped his nightmarish season with an inability to stay out of his own way during the final days. He hit .264/.295/.440 for the month — numbers that are actually better than his full-season marks — but drew the ire of New Englanders by sitting out the team's September 19 doubleheader against the Orioles due to neck stiffness. Worse, he misplayed several balls in left field during the past week, including the one which allowed Andino's single to fall for the game-winning hit on Wednesday night, and by doing so, helped his former team into the playoffs.

Center Field: B.J. Upton, Rays

The much-maligned Upton hit a searing .333/.432/.606 with five homers in September, including a grand slam and a three-run shot against the Sox within a five-day span in mid-month. In all, he hit .344/.382/.594 with a league-leading 11 hits in seven games against Boston in September.

Right Field: Allen Craig, Cardinals

Craig actually split his time between left field, right field, and pinch-hitting, but he put together a monster month, batting .327/.364/.692 with five homers in just 55 plate appearances, including dingers in each of the last two games as he filled in for the injured Matt Holliday.

Designated Hitter: David Ortiz, Red Sox

"Hell, yeah, you've got to panic," said Ortiz on September 11, back when Boston had lost nine of 11 to start the month to trim their Wild Card lead to three and a half games. Apparently, he panicked too hard; Big Papi hit just .250/.364/.304 without a homer from that day through the end of the season, and his baserunning — including being thrown out at second base in the seventh inning on Wednesday — didn't help matters either.

Pinch Hitter: Dan Johnson, Rays

"The Great Pumpkin" gained a small amount of fame last year by hitting five home runs in a 15-day span against the Yankees and Red Sox as the Rays clawed their way to a division title. Though he opened the year as Tampa Bay's everyday first baseman, he hit just .141/.214/.203 in April and was soon exiled into oblivion. When Joe Maddon called upon him on Wednesday night, he was hitting just .108/.178/.157 in 90 plate appearances for the season, but his two-out, two-strike solo homer off Cory Wade in the ninth inning — his first big league hit since April 27 — tied the game at 7-7 and gave the Rays new life.

Starting Pitchers: John Lackey, Red Sox; Derek Lowe, Braves; A.J. Burnett, Yankees; Chris Carpenter, Cardinals

We've got all kinds of flavors represented here. Lackey averaged less than five innings per start in his five September turns while being bombed for a 9.13 ERA, capping a gruesome season in which he finished with a 6.41 mark. Lowe was almost as bad; he too failed to average five innings in his five September starts while being rocked for an 8.75 ERA. The five runs he allowed in four innings on Tuesday night set the stage for Atlanta's elimination on Wednesday, after which he said, "I've let everybody down in here."

On the other side of the coin, while Burnett posted a 5.15 ERA for the season, he held Boston to just four runs in two September starts, both Yankee wins; on Saturday, he pitched into the eighth inning for the first time since June 29 while delivering just his second quality start in 15 turns. Carpenter simply shone in September, posting a 2.15 ERA in six starts. Two of them were complete-game shutouts, including Wednesday's two-hit, 11 strikeout performance that guaranteed continued life for the Cardinals.

Closer: Craig Kimbrel, Braves

A contender for Rookie of the Year honors as he racked up a league-leading 46 saves, Kimbrel burned out down the stretch due to overuse; his 79 appearances were second in the league behind setup man Jonny Venters' 85. From September 9 onward, he blew three saves in six chances while walking six in 7.1 innings. None hurt worse than Wednesday night's performance, when he waked three and blew the save in the ninth inning agains the Phillies.

Setup: Daniel Bard, Red Sox; Jonny Venters, Braves

Bard was absolutely brutal in September as he was torched for a 10.64 ERA while being scored upon in six out of 11 outings and taking the loss four times. Venters wasn't much better as he was lit for a 5.11 ERA while walking 10 in 12.1 innings and taking the loss twice.

Mop: Scott Proctor, Yankees

Proctor looked completely done when the Braves released him in August, but Yankees manager Joe Girardi insisted upon wringing every last drop from his surgically repaired right arm nonetheless. He was rocked for 13 runs in 11 innings over eight games in September, nine of them in his last 4.1 frames. He took the loss against Boston in the 14th inning of Sunday's nightcap when he allowed Ellsbury's three-run homer, and surrendered Longoria's decisive shot on his season-high 56th pitch.

Manager: Terry Francona, Red Sox

While you can make a case that Fredi Gonzalez's bunting and bullpen burnouts belong here, Francona's stubborn insistence upon handing the ball to the likes of Lackey and Tim Wakefield instead of Alfredo Aceves may go down as the single biggest missed opportunity of the Red Sox collapse. Aceves gave Boston 25 innings worth of 1.80 ERA ball in September, providing more innings than either of those beleaguered starters. They lost six out of those two pitchers' nine turns; who's to say they couldn't have found one more win in there with him starting instead?

Have I missed anyone? Who would you vote for as the Most Valuable Player (positive contributions) and Least Valuable Player (negative contributions) during this stretch? Drop a comment below or via Twitter using the #teamentropy hashtag (I'm @jay_jaffe there) before 6 PM ET and I'll tally them up.

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

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