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October 14, 2008

Prospectus Today

Decisive Drama

by Joe Sheehan

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Someone's rui... nope, wait, used that one.

It's not a bad notion, though. Last night's NLCS Game Four was the senior circuit's answer to ALCS Game Two, a dramatic series of great plays, controversial decisions, and lead changes that left fans slack-jawed and breathless. From the opening lineup (Juan Pierre?) through the middle innings (Chase Utley!) and the dramatic denouement (MATT STAIRS!!!), last night's game was a well-crafted symphony, playing on our emotions, bringing us up and taking us down, and in the end, leaving us, Dodgers fans, Phillies fans, baseball fans, agreeing on one thing: baseball is a great game.

What will stay with you the longest depends on your particular loyalty. I have no rooting interest, but I do have a longstanding affection for Matt Stairs, who I remember as a second-base prospect for the Expos back in my college days. That particular career path ended abruptly, but Stairs just kept hitting, was an early BP favorite, and ended up, to some extent, as the public image of the early-Billy Beane A's, a fireplug who raked and didn't have much defensive skill. When Stairs swings, he swings hard, but he also works counts and draws walks and even hits lefties from time to time. He's never even had a chance to play this far into a season-three Division Series appearances were his furthest previous-so that he would be able to push his team within a game of the World Series last night, crushing an absolute bomb into the right-field bleachers... that's a great moment for a guy who has been around a long time without having moments like that.

Prior to that homer, Chase Utley had the top spot in my mind. Utley's defense is terribly underrated-his +/- numbers in John Dewan's system are off the charts-but that might change some after his game-saving catch and diving tag in the sixth, turning a double play that got the Phillies off the field down just two runs. The case for Utley as MVP-and there's been one in each of the last two seasons, even as the guys around him get the love-is in no small part built on his being a +10, +15 second baseman who also happens to hit like that. Because he doesn't often make the spectacular play, no one realizes how good he is. He more usually just turns baseballs into outs.

Of course, Shane Victorino was all over this game, a day after being the center of controversy. In the first inning, he short-circuited a big inning by grounding into a double play, a rare event; Victorino grounded into just eight all season, and his DP% of 11.2 percent was below average. In the sixth, Victorino was asked to lay down a sacrifice with men on first and second and nobody out, facing a rookie pitcher who hadn't retired a batter yet. In a game loaded with managerial miscues, this was a big one; it was reminiscent of the 2001 World Series, 10 days of watching Bob Brenly and Joe Torre play "live grenade" with the World Championship. Giving Kershaw an out when he hadn't gotten one on his own is a standard mistake, but bunting runners over to bring up the inevitable matchup-Kershaw versus Dobbs, or after the inevitable dance steps, Park versus Feliz-was giving away value. As I put it in last night's chat, you can have Victorino face Kershaw with first and second and no out, or Feliz face Park with second and third and one out. Oh, Ryan Howard is the lead runner, so you're probably going to need a hit to score him. In a tied game, in a later inning, the latter gambit might be viable, but down one in the sixth, there's no way you should choose it. Feliz and Taguchi both popped out, and even though a Park wild pitch enabled the tying run to score, the tactical decision was awful.

In addition to calling the bunt, Manuel issued an unjustified intentional walk to Manny Ramirez in the first, and burned through his bench in the sixth, but he redeemed himself a bit by breaking the seal on Brad Lidge in the eighth. Lidge had been the epitome of a one-inning closer in 2008, never once getting more than three outs in a game. Under the circumstances, however, with a chance to step on the necks of the Dodgers, Manuel called on Lidge with two outs in the eighth and a runner on second. Lidge brought some drama on this night, striking out Russell Martin on a pitch that bounced wildly away from Ruiz and allowed Martin to reach first, with Ramirez advancing to third. With the tying runs on base, and eastern Pennsylvania on supplemental oxygen, Lidge retired James Loney on a fly ball to left, then set down the Dodgers one-two-three in the ninth to end the game.

For a game their team would eventually lose, Dodgers fans spent a lot of time on their feet. They cheered James Loney's rocket off the wall in the first, a ball that cut the Phillies' lead to 2-1. They went crazy for Ramirez's 478th RBI as a Dodger, a single to left that tied the game in the fifth. Casey Blake, another import, sent the crowd into a frenzy when he broke a 3-3 tie in the bottom of the sixth with a homer to left. Hong-Chi Kuo raised the roof when he struck out Jayson Werth to end the top of the seventh.

It fell apart after that, however. With first and second and one out in the bottom of the seventh, Torre let Kuo bat. Having already used Kershaw and Joe Beimel, Kuo was his last left-hander, and he wanted the southpaw to face Howard leading off the seventh. The decision in the moment was correct, but it was set up by Torre getting three batters and two outs combined from the other two lefties, and by not double-switching Beimel in the sixth, which forced him out for a pinch-hitter. That waste of resources may have been costly; Kuo sacrificed, and the Dodgers failed to tack on insurance runs.

Kuo allowed a cheap single to Howard leading off the eighth, and with three right-handers and a switch-hitter coming up, Torre went and got him out of the game. This decision was not met well in the Roundtable last night, but I think it's defensible. Kuo was effective against right-handed hitters this season, but is still coming back from injury. Do you let him throw a second inning, with a runner on, against a slate of right-handed batters?

The problem I had was the decision to go to Cory Wade. Wade has been effective for the Dodgers, but in that situation, protecting a two-run lead, tying runs coming up, you have to get your best reliever in the game. Jonathon Broxton is that guy, and holding him back to let Wade pitch was a mistake. I can't help but think about the inning Broxton threw Sunday, protecting a 7-2 lead in the ninth. Had he not thrown that inning, would he have been available for two on Monday night?

The players didn't execute, and any analysis of the Dodgers' loss has to emphasize the mistakes they made: Ramirez not scoring from first on a double off the wall with two outs in the first inning, or the missed opportunities to tack on runs in the fifth, sixth, and seventh, or the pitches by Wade and Broxton that left the yard. Andre Ethier's decision to hack at the first pitch he saw in the eighth, batting with one on, none out, and Ramirez coming up behind him, led to an excruciating double play. However, you can't get away from what Joe Torre did last night. From starting Pierre to managing the bullpen, he did not put his team in the best position to win the game. As Steven Goldman pointed out in the Roundtable, Torre has struggled running bullpens ever since the roles weren't clearly dictated by the personnel. Last night's game was the latest chapter in that book.

The loss was simply devastating for the Dodgers. They wouldn't have been in great shape at 2-2, what with facing Cole Hamels on Wednesday (ah, ridiculous scheduling) and then heading back for two games at Citizens Bank Park. Now, they have to win all three of those. While not impossible-it's baseball, where no team is ever that big a favorite over another-the likelihood is that the Dodgers' run will end in the next few days.

Red Sox/Rays

This is why they play the games. The one thing I figured you could count on in the ALCS was Jon Lester beating the Rays at home. The Red Sox were great at home this year, and the Rays were poor on the road. The Rays were poor against lefties, and Lester was the third-best pitcher in the AL. Everything pointed to a Red Sox win.

How can you not love a game that defies all of that? In a five-minute span, the Rays rocked a double and two homers, ending Game Three early and officially changing the storyline of this series. It was not that long ago that the Red Sox were up 1-0, threatening to go up 2-0 and head back to Boston with a massive edge. Now, they're down 2-1, having watched their best starter at the moment get his head handed to him.

That the Rays beat Lester was surprising, but it's worth noting how they did it. If Saturday's win was the work of the future Rays, with David Price and Fernando Perez playing key roles, Monday's game shined a light on the team's past futility. While some savvy trades, good free-talent pickups, and low-wattage free agents have all contributed to this year's success, it's failure that is the foundation:

  • The 2001 Devil Rays went 62-100, earning the second pick in the 2002 amateur draft. Yesterday, that pick, B.J. Upton, hit a monster three-run homer in the third to put the Rays up 4-0.

  • The 2005 Devil Rays went 61-101, earning the third pick in the 2006 amateur draft. Yesterday, that pick, Evan Longoria, homered and walked, scoring two runs.

  • The 1999 Devil Rays went 69-93, which was what amounted to success in franchise history prior to this year. Nevertheless, they earned the sixth overall pick in the 2000 amateur draft. Yesterday, that pick, Rocco Baldelli, hit a three-run homer that iced the win.

  • The 2002 Devil Rays were the worst team in baseball, tied with the Tigers at 55-106. That earned them the first pick in the 2002 draft, Delmon Young. Last winter, Young was traded to the Twins for Matt Garza, who threw six good innings at the Red Sox yesterday and was credited with the win.

The Rays have done a lot of good things over the past few years, since Stuart Sternberg bought the team and hired a whole new front office. Yesterday's win, however, was the end result of the years of incompetence that came before him, a showcase of the draft picks the Rays earned by being bad for so very, very long. Like patient investors, they've finally realized the value of that talent in building a winning baseball team.

The Red Sox are where the Dodgers were 24 hours ago, down two games to one, playing at home, needing to win to avoid an even tougher spot, and facing the other guy's fourth starter. After last night, I won't even pretend I know what might happen. The Rays beat Jon Lester at Fenway Park; if that's not a reminder that we don't really know anything, nothing is.

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

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