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October 17, 2009
Keeping You Guessing
One game, two aces, 14 runs on Thursday. Two games, two aces, eight runs on Friday. Baseball's refusal to submit to our idea of what should happen remains its most appealing quality; no other professional sports league provides postseason surprises the way that MLB does.
Regardless of your rooting interest, you have to concede that there are few things more fun than watching Pedro Martinez pitch in a big game. Carrying a fraction of the raw stuff he had when he was the best pitcher in baseball, Martinez went out yesterday, changed speeds on every pitch, and threw seven shutout innings against one of the best offensive teams in baseball. Unlike his counterpart, who pounded the strike zone early and often, Martinez pitched from behind much of the day but never gave in, getting weak contact in hitters' counts and never once throwing ball four.
Vicente Padilla, facing perhaps a tougher task and expected to simply be fodder for the Phillies, matched Martinez but for one pitch. He started 20 of the 26 men he faced with a strike, allowing only a long homer to Ryan Howard when he left a slow breaking ball out over the plate. By pitching from ahead all day, at one point dropping in a 55-mph curve, Padilla was able to turn the tables on a patient Phillies team loaded with the lefty batters that usually give him fits. It's rare for anyone to match Martinez on a big stage, but what Padilla did yesterday for 7 1/3 innings was almost as impressive.
The starters left us a 1-0 game through seven. When the Phillies pinch-hit for Martinez in an attempt to add a run in the eighth, clearly the right move at the time, they were opening the door. Despite their 4-1 record in the postseason coming in, the Phillies' bullpen had been getting by on timing rather than performance. Phillies relievers allowed 16 baserunners in 11 2/3 innings in the Division Series, and eight in 3 2/3 innings in their Game One win over the Dodgers. They'd stranded a lot of baserunners along the way, getting big outs when necessary, but eventually, that adds up. Yesterday, aided by some shaky defense, the dam broke.
Sure, Chan Ho Park fell down, and Chase Utley threw another four-seamer to the first-base dugout, but where's the finger-pointing at Pedro Feliz? Although Casey Blake's leadoff one-hopper in the bottom of the eighth was scored a single, it was far from clean, and really quite playable. Feliz's inability to make a play-the ball ticked off his glove into left field-was the trigger event for the rest of the inning. Park was unable to make a play on Ronnie Belliard's hard-hit sacrifice attempt; it appeared to me not that Park's hamstring took him down, but rather that he overran a bunt that was, as bunts go, crushed.
Once two runners reached with no one out, it seemed inevitable that the Dodgers would tie the game. Russell Martin tried to bunt on five consecutive pitches, taking all for a 3-2 count (including an awful 3-0 call), and never pulling back the bunt on hitters' counts or showing take on 3-0. At 3-2, Joe Torre turned him loose to swing, and Martin did the worst thing he could do: hit a double-play grounder to Feliz. Feliz made a clean throw to Utley at second, but for the second time in two nights, Utley didn't pull his arm down through the throw and the ball sailed, allowing pinch-runner Juan Pierre to score from second to tie the game.
Charlie Manuel then did everything he could, matching up with pitching changes on four of the next five batters. His lefties failed him, as Scott Eyre surrendered a single to Jim Thome and J.A. Happ issued a seven-pitch walk to Andre Ethier to force in what would be the winning run. The 3-2 pitch was one of many close calls in the at-bat; I don't think either team was very happy with the strike zone throughout the game. The plethora of bad calls across the diamond in this postseason has distracted from another October filled with inconsistent strike zones.
If there was something to take from the eighth inning, it was that Torre's lineup in Game Two made life much more difficult for Manuel. With Matt Kemp batting between Rafael Furcal and Ethier, Manuel had to make a change rather than leave Eyre in after the Thome single. Ethier also separates Kemp and Ramirez, which forces either multiple pitching changes or at least one bad matchup. If Torre sticks with that alignment, he'll pick up a slight advantage in the late innings.
The Phillies can't be too devastated. They got one win in Los Angeles and now have three home games with Cliff Lee set to go in Game Three, and Cole Hamels on full rest in Game Five. That they were tantalizingly close to a dominating lead doesn't change the fact that they're in better shape than they were when the series began. Nothing's changed for them: they need to get great starts and lots of runs in the front part of the game, because the late innings aren't likely to go as well for them as they will for their opponents.
We're really just getting started in this one.
You could argue that this game was over about 20 minutes in, when a couple of poor decisions by the Angels allowed the Yankees to take a 2-0 lead in the first. On a cold night, with CC Sabathia dealing, those two runs would be enough. The Angels, seemingly out of sorts on a night unfit for baseball, made a bad throw (Juan Rivera) and Alphonse-and-Gaston'd a pop-up (Chone Figgins and Erick Aybar) to allow a run in the inning, then later saw Torii Hunter overrun a single while trying to make a play on a runner scoring from second. John Lackey didn't pitch much worse than he did in his ALDS start against the Red Sox, but a couple of additional balls falling in and the defensive miscues were enough to make the difference in a 4-1 loss.
Sabathia continued to bury the idea that his postseason career to date indicated some kind of inability to pitch in October. He started the night throwing strikes and never stopped, hitting the zone on 76 of his 113 pitches, going to a three-ball count on just two batters, walking one. The top of the lineup that was so critical to the Angels' success this season was a non-factor: Figgins and Bobby Abreu failed to reach base in eight plate appearances. That's how you beat the 2009 Angels: keep those two guys off the bases.
There wasn't much to this game after the first. The awkward play at the plate between Alex Rodriguez and Jeff Mathis could have been avoided had Rodriguez simply slid instead of trying to hit a catcher who was on the opposite side of home plate. Mathis missed the tag on Rodriguez's front leg, which made Rodriguez appear safe, but it appeared that Rodriguez missed the plate with that step anyway. A good slide to the outside of the plate might well have scored the run, and Rodriguez's decision to try to take out Mathis was ill-conceived.
For the sake of everyone involved-by which I mean 50,000-odd baseball fans currently chugging Theraflu prophylactically-let's hope MLB makes a call on this game early. Fox's needs should be a factor here, and they certainly would prefer to televise baseball on Saturday night rather than Sunday, but the playing conditions and the experience of the attendees should be taken into account as well. This isn't football; making people sit in the rain for three-and-a-half hours isn't part and parcel of the experience. If it's going to rain all night-and it's going to rain all night-call it at 4 p.m. and show that you give a darn about the fans.