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October 5, 2008
One In, Two Knocking
This, folks, is what keeps you coming back for more with David Bush. He can be a very frustrating pitcher, prone to blow-up starts and blow-up innings, and his lack of development since 2006 has been maddening. Then he takes the ball in the biggest start of his career against a team loaded with lefty power and shuts them down into the sixth inning. Bush pounded the strike zone and kept the Phillies in the park, getting through 5
Mitch Stetter took that bullet, getting Howard to ground to third, and three of his colleagues closed it out. Does anyone remember when the Brewers' bullpen was discussed in the hushed tones reserved for conversations about death, say that of a beloved grandfather, or a market economy? In this series, the Brewers' bullpen has been outstanding: 12 shutout innings with eight strikeouts. Carlos Villanueva has faced 11 batters and retired them all. Eric Gagne, who most Brewers fans wanted left off of the playoff roster, the plane to Philadelphia, and the planet, has two shutout innings. They're still down 2-1, but this bullpen, which blew hot and cold all year long, is pitching well at the moment. And we haven't seen Brian Shouse yet, which is strange.
The eternal question about baseball, it being a zero-sum game, is whether what you're seeing is one group doing well or another doing poorly. Very quietly, the Phillies have had a terrible series at the plate, and when you look back, you see that even their successes had a tinge of fluke about them. Their three runs in Game One came thanks to defensive misplays, errors or otherwise, by the Brewers. Their inning in Game Two came about when uncharacteristic wildness met a small strike zone, allowing them to score five runs off of CC Sabathia. The Phillies have one run since Shane Victorino's second-inning grand slam on Thursday, and they don't seem in a hurry to get more.
As a team, the Phillies are hitting .234/.327/.394, and while they're hitting doubles (10), drawing walks (13), and stealing bases (five-for-six), they're not assembling those events into runs. Last night, they had five singles, three doubles, and a triple, but scored their only run on a grounder to third. A bases-loaded, no-outs situation in the ninth was quickly defused by a Pedro Feliz ground ball to third for two outs. The Phillies are, like a number of teams in this postseason so far, struggling with runners in scoring position, which is one reason why they are taking the field today. Having just one home run is part of the reason as well.
I wonder if yesterday's game changes the dynamic of this series. The Brewers know that if they win, they have a full-rest Sabathia going in Game Five, and that's what they were hoping for five days ago. The Phillies are up 2-1, and they are facing the unimpressive Jeff Suppan, but if they lose this game, a series that was in their hands a day ago becomes a toss-up, with a southpaw—a very good one—facing the Brewers and their ace. I think the Phillies wrap this up today, because they're a good offensive team facing Jeff Suppan and a bullpen that, 12 recent innings aside, isn't that good.
You take Manny Ramirez. I'll take Rafael Furcal. The Dodgers are 21-16 when he leads off for them this season, and while their 33-23 record with Ramirez in the lineup is an improvement on that figure, the effect Furcal has on the Dodgers' offense and defense is a big reason why we only have three games to watch on Sunday.
Furcal scored four runs—20 percent of the Dodgers' series total—and at least one run in each game. He scored a critical run last night, tearing home from first on Russell Martin's fifth-inning double down the left-field line to give the Dodgers a 3-0 lead. He was on base seven times, at nearly a .500 clip, in the series. For a team that suffered through more than a third of its season with Juan Pierre's .293 OBP as a leadoff man, having Furcal in that slot is an upgrade that, while not as flashing as trading for a Hall of Fame left fielder, is just as important.
Of course, the Dodgers might have been able to beat the Cubs even without Furcal. Or Ramirez. Or Russell Martin. Or all three. Their pitchers completely shut down the Cubs, allowing just six runs in total, and just three outside of garbage time (the Cubs got three in Game Two after the outcome had been decided). As expected, Chad Billingsley and Hiroki Kuroda took advantage of the Cubs' lineup's lean to the left by allowing one run in 13 innings, striking out 11 men along the way.
The Cubs' inability to score brings a key decision by Lou Piniella into the spotlight. With the Dodgers up 2-0 in the top of the fourth with a runner on third, Joe Torre walked Ryan Theriot to bring Rich Harden to the plate, essentially daring Piniella to hit for Harden with two on, two out, down two. Piniella let Harden bat, and he went down swinging to Kuroda. Harden would get just four more outs in the game, exiting in the fifth down 3-0.
Was that an opportunity lost? MLB.com's Matthew Leach made a convincing argument that hitting for Harden there, preferably with Daryle Ward, and taking a shot at a three-run homer was the best play. I didn't think so in the moment, but looking back, the runs Harden might have prevented in his remaining, say, three innings would be less valuable than the ones you might score by sending up Ward and taking a shot at a 3-2 lead. If the Cubs put runners on base, you might have to hit for Harden in the sixth, which means you're giving away a rally—he can't hit, with three singles and nothing else in 36 career PA—in a high-leverage spot in a must-win game for the sake of maybe six more outs.
That Harden didn't even pitch through the fifth makes it look worse, though you can't really use that information against Piniella. Still, the decision he made there was the wrong one. Taking a shot with Ward was the right play, even down just two runs in the fourth inning, because the Cubs weren't going to get that much more from Harden, and the value of the runs was so critical. Kudos to Matthew—we had a long exchange about the decision—for being on top of this one. Jerk.
The gnashing of teeth over another quick Cubs' exit in the postseason—they haven't won a playoff game since Game Four of the 2003 NLCS, a nine-game losing streak—will be quite painful. Unlike last year's team, which was good but not great, the Cubs had the best team in the NL this season, with a deep rotation bolstered by Harden, a power bullpen, and that rarest of things, a patient lineup. They were the favorites to reach the World Series for the first time since at least 1989, and that they ran into a team that had all its parts in order for the first time all year, and was much better than anyone realized, will be cold comfort to the fan base.
My article the other day about the overemphasis on post-season experience was met with some criticism that I was preaching to the choir, which isn't an unfair point. BP has readers with whom I was arguing baseball 15 years ago on r.s.b, and it has readers whose parents hadn't met when we were having those arguments. When you're writing to such a diverse group, you have to remake points, something I do largely when I get frustrated with the mainstream coverage of a particular matter.
I mention this because I'm about to do it again. Whatever frustration the Cubs, their management, or their fan base may feel at this moment, what they cannot and should not do is lose sight of the fact that the 2008 Cubs were a very good baseball team. Their was no missing link, no fatal flaw, nothing in the construction that portended a short stay in the postseason. They caught a bad matchup and had a three-game losing streak at the wrong time, and the rules of the game don't allow for that. This was the Cubs' fifth three-game losing streak of the season; these things happen even to 94-win teams. That they lost three in row, to a quality team, is just baseball. That they did so from October 1 through October 4 unfortunately means that they don't get to play on October 5. None of that, however, makes the 2008 Cubs less than what they were: the best team in the NL for six months. It just means they won't win a championship.
Post-season baseball is cool and cruel, but it doesn't mean everything, not in a sport that needs six months to figure out who the best teams are, and even then doesn't always get it right. The Cubs don't need to tear anything down, and the biggest challenge over the next eight weeks will be to not let the sense of disappointment drive the decisions they make. If they let three losses drown out 94 wins, well, that's how you end up without the opportunity to ever make that mistake again.