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October 27, 2008

Prospectus Today

Judgment Calls

by Joe Sheehan

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Through two games, the World Series was going exactly as scripted. Cole Hamels shut down the Rays through seven innings Saturday and was picked up by Ryan Madson and Brad Lidge for a win that the Phillies were expected to get. On Sunday night, the Rays got a good start by their ace, James Shields, and tied the series at a game apiece. In both games, Joe Maddon used his bullpen aggressively, specifically making sure that Ryan Howard was forced to face a steady diet of left-handed relievers, a strength of his team.

The series shifted when that strategy did. Saturday, Maddon let Howard see Matt Garza in the sixth inning of a 3-1 game, and Howard made it 4-1, a key run in a game in which the Rays later rallied to tie it at four. Last night, it was Andy Sonnanstine's turn, protecting a 2-1 lead in the fourth inning of what may well have been an elimination game. Sonnanstine was not pitching well, struggling with his command, which is his entire game. Sonnanstine without his command is like me without the "e" key-you can understand what's happening, and you get the sense that there's skill present, but the results are pretty hard to watch.

Maddon recognized the entire situation; he saw the play developing, and he had Trever Miller up in the bullpen as Sonnanstine faced Chase Utley with two on and no one out. It was getting late early out there; the Rays, down 2-1, had been struggling to score for the entire series, and an early multiple-run deficit was the worst-case scenario for them. All of Maddon's bad moments in the postseason had come from being passive; when he was aggressive with his bullpen, his bullpen rewarded him with outs and wins. When he sat on his hands, things like the events that lost him Game Five of the ALCS or Game Three of the World Series happened.

To some extent, the worst thing that could have happened was Sonnanstine striking out Utley. "He struck out Utley, so at that point I'm saying let's ride with it a little bit," Maddon said. "If Utley had gotten on, Miller would have faced Howard. I didn't really want to do that."

He should have. He had a right-handed command pitcher without his best command, pitching from the stretch in a bandbox, against a guy who had been neutralized all month by southpaws. Howard's October "slump" was entirely a function of being force-fed good left-handed pitching in key spots. When he came to the plate against Sonnanstine in the fourth, Howard was at .357/.454/.571 against right-handers in the postseason, and .125/.300/.125 against left-handers, or basically the same player he's been all season long. It wasn't a slump: it was exploitation of his weakness.

Drawing Sonnanstine's measure, Howard hit a three-run homer to left field, and in the time it took for the ball to leave the yard, the Rays' chance to win a championship redlined. Joe Maddon has oscillated between Casey Stengel and Bob Brenly for three weeks; right there, he made the big mistake at the wrong time. That Howard later ran into one off of Miller in the eighth doesn't mean a thing in terms of the fourth-inning decision. That was a high-leverage situation for the Rays, and they needed to maximize their chance of getting out of it, even if that meant needing the bullpen for 16 or more outs.

The last two nights, Maddon has allowed righties to face Howard in pivotal spots, and the Phillies' starting pitchers have out-pitched the Rays' starters. Howard, Moyer, and Blanton are why the Phillies are up 3-1.

Joe Blanton made the Rays look much like Jamie Moyer made them look: anxious. For the second straight night, the Rays had bad at-bats against a pitcher who took advantage of their sudden loss of plate discipline. Whether it's because they're young and playing in the World Series, or it's just the kind of four-day siesta that we'd look past in June, the Rays' sudden departure from what worked for them all year long is noticeable, and it's killing them. They have a dozen runs in three games, just nine walks, just six extra-base hits, and a .187/.246/.285 overall line. Every Phillies starter has given their team a quality start, and the edge that was supposed to exist in all the non-Cole Hamels starts for the Rays has not emerged. Blanton and Moyer struck out a dozen men in 12 1/3 innings, which may be the single statistic that indicts the Rays' World Series more than any other.

The Maddon decision, the Howard homers, Blanton's work on the mound and at the plate all overshadowed the worst call of October. In a postseason where the umpiring has been shoddy but lacked a signature failure, we got that last night when Tim Welke blew an easy call that was right in front of him. With first and third and one out, Sonnanstine fielded a comebacker and charged at Jimmy Rollins halfway between third and home. He chased Rollins back and threw to Evan Longoria, who plainly tagged Rollins' rear end as the shortstop tried to dive past him to the bag. Welke signaled "safe."

"I just saw [Longoria] swing and miss," said Welke. "I never saw a tag. That's a swipe tag. A lot of times, on a swipe tag, the glove will pause. I saw him try to make a swipe tag but I never saw the glove pause."

Well, it wasn't really a swipe tag, which entails brushing the glove past a player's body. Longoria's tag made full contact with Rollins' behind in a manner that would probably get you slapped in a bar. Welke was in position, wasn't blocked out of the play, and was maybe a foot from the contact. How he missed the call is one of October's great mysteries, right up there with why Linus' parents never had a problem with their toddler spending an autumn night in a godforsaken pumpkin patch wearing a T-shirt and shorts.

The Phillies won 10-2. Had they won 3-2, this is all we'd be talking about. Sooner or later, MLB is going to have to decide whether their efforts to determine a champion are important enough to warrant letting the players decide it. Rollins wasn't safe. He was out, and he was called safe. Maybe that difference works for some people-it certainly works for the umpires union-but it's unacceptable on a stage this big in a world that allows for better. That wasn't the human element we saw last night. That was blatant incompetence.

And with all that said... what the hell was Sonnanstine thinking? With first and third and one out, you go to second on a comebacker. That was a double-play ball with almost anyone running, and with Howard running, it was two free outs and a trip to the dugout. It was a terrible decision by Sonnanstine, who is actually a smart baseball player. In the same way that Maddon's decision overshadowed Welke's call and let him off the hook a little, Welke's call overshadowed Sonnanstine's mental error and let him off the hook a little.

It all added up to Phillies 10, Rays 2. With Hamels on the mound tonight, it's very hard to find anyone who think this World Series is going to break the record-setting stretch of four straight seasons without a Game Six. The Rays, remember, weren't supposed to beat Jon Lester, and they did it twice in a week to get here, so the pessimism about their situation may be overwrought. However, Hamels is better than Lester is, and as a pitcher who relies on a changeup more than a big breaking ball, he's an even tougher matchup for a team that collectively is having trouble staying back at the plate.

This World Series isn't over yet, but for it to take us back to Tampa Bay, the Rays will have to get back to taking pitches and getting into hitters' counts, being aggressive with their bullpen and, quite frankly, getting a little bit lucky by guessing right against Hamels and running into a few balls. If they can just find a way to beat him tonight, they'll be headed home and they'll have the best starter on the mound for each of the final two games. For the Phillies' part, they just have to let Scott Kazmir give them opportunities, which he will with his wildness, and make plays behind Hamels.

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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