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October 12, 2009

Playoff Prospectus

A Game Three Classic

by Joe Sheehan

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More than the cold, more than another critical missed call, more than one manager taking the game and the other giving it away, what I'll remember about last night's Rockies/Phillies game is the sheer number of great pitcher/batter confrontations. The difference between this game and the Twins/Tigers one-game playoff, the most recent "great" game this season, is that the playoff game wasn't well-played and is better remembered for the failures of its players, the mistakes by the managers, the terrible umpiring. Last night's game was played at a higher level.

There were so many quality at-bats, many from players who you don't expect to have them. With the bases loaded in the fourth, Raul Ibañez fell behind 1-2 then battled back to work an eight-pitch walk that tied the game. There was Carlos Ruiz, the slap-hitting catcher, pushing the count to 3-2 in the third, chopping a pair of balls foul, then grounding a single into left field to salvage a final run from a rally nearly killed by Pedro Feliz's double-play ball. Feliz himself came up big in the eighth, yanking an 0-2 slider into left field for a double. Leadoff man Jimmy Rollins, coming to the plate in the ninth having played poorly all year and on into this series, working the count to 3-2 against Huston Street and grounding a single to start the game-winning rally. Carlos Gonzalez had three hits on the night, including a big homer in the fourth, but never looked more like he was ready for the majors than he did fighting off Brad Lidge sliders in the ninth to reach on an eight-pitch walk.

We don't think about pitchers having quality at-bats the way we do batters, but hurlers came up huge in this game as well. Perhaps no pitcher made a bigger mark on the game than did Ryan Madson. Forced into the game when Scott Eyre rolled his ankle, asked to warm up on the game mound in the cold in front of 50,000 freezing fans demanding he get on with it, sent in to retire the Greatest Rockie Ever with no one out and the winning runs on base, Madson pitched Helton beautifully, seven pitches in which he changed speed and location and when he needed to, overpowered Helton. The sequence reads like a clinic:

  • Fastball up and away, foul
  • Fastball up over the plate, ball
  • Changeup, up and away, ball
  • Fastball, up and away, outer edge of the zone, swing and miss
  • Fastball, down and in, foul
  • Changeup, low and away, foul
  • Fastball, way up, swing and miss

If the Phillies win the series, if they go on to repeat as champions, that's where it happened. The Phillies were on a path to lose the ballgame, they were forced into an awful matchup by circumstance, and their guy beat the other team's guy. That the Rockies tied the game on a sacrifice fly one batter later takes nothing away from the fact that Madson saved them in that critical spot, that getting out of that inning tied was a victory. You can put an S next to whomever you want-Madson got the save last night.

The Rockies countered with Rafael Betancourt, who after being victimized by Feliz's bloop double, pitched out of it by overpowering Ruiz, then taking on Matt Stairs, who is on the roster just for this spot, who hit a huge homer one year ago in almost the exact same situation that essentially ended the NLCS and won the Phillies the pennant. Betancourt went with his best pitch, his fastball, kept going away, away, away, and on the seventh pitch, away again, got Stairs to swing and miss to end the rally.

Now, I want these things to be the takeaway, to remember these incredible baseball moments, these high-tension, high-performance confrontations. I don't want anything else to cloud them, and yet…

Chase Utley reached first base on a dead ball, and that play allowed the winning run to advance, and the winning run scored on the next out, when maybe it wouldn't have. This, too, is part of the story, another failure by the men charged with seeing the game and ensuring that it is played by the rules. They failed to do so, failed to see that Utley's ninth-inning bouncer in front of the plate hit Utley, still in the batter's box, in the right thigh. Rather than ending the play, a foul ball, the contact caused the ball to bounce to a dead zone, from where Huston Street could not get Utley at first base. As a double became a foul ball in New York on Friday, so did a foul ball become an infield single on Sunday-because an umpire failed.

The Rockies didn't argue that, though Jim Tracy did argue the play at first base, which was a close call that may have gone against them as well. Even in the absence of an argument, though, we're left with what happened-a foul ball-and what was deemed to happen-a single that led to the game-winning run. We're left to wonder why another baseball game has been gone down a path other than what the bats and the balls and the gloves have dictated, and to wonder why we allow the hopelessly fallible men to make decisions when there are better means of doing so.

I don't want this game, this beautiful baseball game, to have been about that. I don't want to think about it and wonder how it should have gone had the reality been observed and not interpreted. And I suppose I'm asking, as someone who has loved baseball since before he can remember, for Commissioner Selig and anyone else who can repair this problem to do so, because everyone deserves better than what the human element is providing us.

It should be "The Phillies played well and won this game." Instead, we're left with an "and," a "but," a "what if." I imagine even Phillies fans-like Yankees fans Friday night, grateful but sheepish-want better than that.


In addition to playing well in this game, the Phillies were managed much better than their counterparts were. Charlie Manuel was aggressive, yanking J.A. Happ in the fourth inning when a chance to open up the game presented itself with Happ due to bat. When Eyre was injured, Manuel went to his best reliever, even though it was the seventh inning, because he had to save the game right there. When restraint was called for, though, he exercised it, allowing Joe Blanton to attempt a sacrifice in the top of the sixth with the Phillies up a run, two men on and one out. Manuel knew he had three right-handed batters due up and needed innings from Blanton. Other than the ninth-inning sacrifice by Shane Victorino-which is defensible-I think Manuel had a terrific game.

(The following paragraph is completely and totally wrong due to a massive factual error on my part. See the comments for an explanation. My apologies to Jim Tracy and to BP readers for the mistake.--JSS)

Jim Tracy, on the other hand, made mistakes, none bigger than in the ninth inning. I was thinking, in the bottom of the eighth, that the Rockies might be better off not scoring. With a lead, Tracy would certainly use his closer, Huston Street, against the top of the Phillies' lineup. This would create an edge for the Phillies. In a tied, game, though, Tracy might use Joe Beimel, a stronger choice given the players involved and their skill sets. Tracy surprised me, though: he used Street in a tied game, and while going to the best reliever in a tied game in the ninth is usually praiseworthy, the special circumstances of playing the Phillies-the Ryan Howard Factor-mean that Beimel was clearly the better choice. Street wasn't hit hard, but he wasn't the best man on the roster for the job of facing the hitters he faced. Tracy setting up the inning to allow Howard to face a right-handed pitcher with the game on the line was asinine, and that Street retired Howard-or that the out record should have been the third of the inning-in no way makes it less so.

Tracy also should be chided for his assignment of pinch-hitters. He used Seth Smith in a situation, for the pitcher the sixth, where it would be criminally easy for Smith to be neutralized by Scott Eyre. He allowed Ryan Spilborghs and Clint Barmes to bat against Chad Durbin in the eighth in a spot where any left-handed pinch-hitter would have been a better choice. He constructed a lineup with Yorvit Torrealba in the fifth slot in the order, which is a pretty clear sign that you can't sort out the relative strengths of your personnel. Tracy's game management was a problem in the second game of this series, and it cost the Rockies the third. When you have to overcome the other team, the elements and the umpires, life's hard. When you have to beat your own manager, too, it's probably too much.

I'm writing this early Monday afternoon due to some scheduling issues, which has given me a chance to see some of the coverage of the game. Much of it seems to be focused on Brad Lidge getting three outs before allowing a run. Is this really the lesson we're taking from last night? I saw a guy who started five straight batters off 1-0, who walked two of the five men he faced, who threw 11 balls and nine strikes, who got one swing-and-miss, and who seemed to have absolutely no idea where the ball was going when he released it.

I think Lidge got incredibly rescued by Brad Hawpe, who hit a weak ground ball on a 1-0 pitch to start the ninth. It was a horrible decision by Hawpe given Lidge's command problems and the value of a leadoff baserunner in that situation. Don't you have to be open to the possibility of a four-pitch walk? A 2-0 count? A 3-1 count? Don't you have to give Lidge a chance to hang himself? Hawpe threw him a rope in a spot where we weren't quite sure yet if he could swim on his own.

As far as I'm concerned, we're still not. Lidge may have succeeded in the big picture, but if Manuel and the Phillies think he's now a high-leverage option, they're wrong.

I'll have wrap-ups of the three series that are now over later tonight.

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

Related Content:  Brad Hawpe,  The Who,  Huston Street,  The Call-up

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