October 10, 2008
Notes on NLCS Game One
We write a lot about how very little separates post-season teams, which is why the result of a short series between them is so unpredictable. Well, that idea stems from this one: what separates them within games is very little.
Last night, the difference between Derek Lowe throwing a shutout and losing Game One of the NLCS wasn't three feet. It might not have been two feet, and most of that was the gap between James Loney's glove and the baseball flying above it as Rafael Furcal overthrew first base in the sixth inning. That error, which put Shane Victorino on second base, kicked off a six-minute stretch that turned a dominant effort by Lowe and the Dodgers into a 3-2 deficit that would hold up as the final score.
For the better part of five innings, Lowe was keeping the ball way down and getting great results. Of the game's first 16 batters, just two managed to get the ball out of the infield. Carlos Ruiz and Cole Hamels hit back-to-back singles with two outs in the fifth, but Lowe was able to retire Jimmy Rollins on a fly to left to end the threat. However, Ruiz's at-bat, and in fact that whole sequence, might have been a red flag. Lowe got a 1-2 pitch up to Ruiz, enabling the poor-hitting catcher to single sharply to right, one of the few pitches he mislocated in the first five innings.
Location is what killed him in the sixth. Lowe still had velocity and movement, but on pitches to Chase Utley and Pat Burrell, he caught too much of the plate too high in the zone, and was burned by the long ball. The difference between where each pitch was supposed to be and where it ended up was tiny; Utley's home run, which didn't look like much off the bat, came on a ball just a few inches higher than it should have been, allowing him to square it up and yank it out to right-center. Burrell's homer came on a sinker that Lowe seemed to be trying to bury inside and that he just left too much over the plate. Combined, the pitches might have missed by 12 inches, and more likely by eight. Those eight inches, added to the foot or two by which Furcal overthrew Loney, were good for three runs and, in effect, the ballgame.
Baseball is hard, and at this level, with very good teams, pitchers, hitters, baserunners, and fielders the difference between winning and losing an at-bat or an inning or a game is just so very small. That's one reason why I have always dismissed the character arguments, the idea that teams win and lose because individuals are strong of mind or will. Baseball isn't a test of character, it's a test of ability, a test of skill, and of the thousand small movements that go into the outcome of a game.
The Dodgers played a good baseball game last night. They hit three doubles off of a tough pitcher, turning them into two runs. Manny Ramirez hit a ball about as far as you can hit one in Citizens Bank Park while still keeping it in play. Casey Blake battled back from 0-2 in the fourth, with a runner on second and no one out, to avoid a strikeout and advance the runner to third. Lowe's start, while a bit less than they needed on this night, wasn't bad. The Dodgers made a number of fine defensive plays. They just made, as a team, a small number of mistakes along the way. The Phillies made fewer, and won.
I think we'll see a few more runs today. Chad Billingsley allowed a .360 OBP to lefties this season, which won't help him any while navigating the Phillies' lineup. Brett Myers had been scuffling a bit before coming across the Brewers, who don't take quite the same disciplined approach at the plate that the Dodgers do. Look for the bullpens to be more involved today, which could bring Manuel's lineup choices into question.
Later today, I'll have some notes on the ALCS.