Triple-round playoffs have all sorts of symptoms, but mostly they're a matter of scale. With so many more playoff games played in the wild-card era, every season and season after season, hardly a game goes by when one Yankee or another isn't setting some sort of record for most post-season hits or runs or full counts. It's all well and good, an act of vengeance on the record books where the present gets to blot out the feats of Octobers past, against leagues with their own historical handicaps.
But one of the other unavoidable symptoms of the simple fact of there being more post-season baseball every October is that you end up raising the odds of more Denkinger moments. Worse yet, there ends up being that much more at stake when Eric Gregg puts too much sugar on his corn flakes. The imperfect necessity of umpiring has long depended on the same basic assumption that Churchill asserted that democracy rests upon—it may well be the worst form of officiating ballgames, but for the alternatives.
That was an easy enough assertion during Churchill's lifetime. Unfortunately for the men in black in the present, mistakes don't just get made, they get catalogued and dissected. Calls for replay, however haphazardly they get dismissed by Bud Selig as a minor dissatisfaction, get better and better support for their arguments every October, because that's when the magnification on the inevitable human errors gets ratcheted up from the irked and perhaps indulgent to the understandably outraged. Perhaps worse still—for umpires, obviously, but perhaps for the game as well—the same comfortable, ready faith in technological perfectability that delivers a dubious certitude about Gamecast and PITCHf/x data informs arguments that the time for technological solutions is now.
If you want to stick up for umpires and the art of umpiring, you have to imbibe all of that. It doesn't make swallowing days like Thursday any easier, though.
The day started with the spectacle of the twinned ejections of Joe Maddon and Ron Gardenhire in their losing causes, which had everything to do with understandable frustration with umpires and umpiring. Where Maddon was livid over no call—even on appeal—in his club's favor on Michael Young's check swing before homering to put away the Rays, Gardenhire was simmering over a strike zone only Jackson Pollock could love. It doesn't matter that many proposals for replay wouldn't have done much, if anything, to address either man's complaint—at a point in time when you don't want umps at the center of any story, there they were, striving and failing, flawed and human. That's supposed to be part of the game's narrative—between the people playing it.
Those initial diamond dramas set up the last, ugliest, most correctable failure, a blown call on Buster Posey's stolen-base attempt, a ruling which set up the Giants' only run. The simple fact that Posey was out, and not by a little, reduced defenders of the men in black to pedantry like noting the job is hard, or obvious observations, like the fact that the tag was screened. After the game, the studio host politely danced away from decisiveness on the subject, but Cal Ripken had the appropriate gravitas to go so far as to suggest that umpire positioning around the keystone could be better.
Which is swell, but on a day when you wind up with the first two manager ejections in the postseason in five years, a day where you wind up with 35,000 people chanting “Replay!” on national television, the issue has done more than insinuate itself into yet another post-season narrative. Instead, it has shouldered its way in among the greatness of Roy Halladay and Tim Lincecum, of Cliff Lee and C.J. Wilson. In the big picture, it doesn't spoil those feats, not for most. But if you're a Rays fan, or a Twins fan, or a Braves fan, these are not the notes you want to go out on.
To their credit, the players generally directed attention back to the diamond, aside from a Posey smirk or an Orlando Cabrera tirade. It's easy to understand why—we were once again treated to some exceptional pitching performances. Starting with the Rays/Rangers game, Wilson responded to the doubt over whether he could really be this good. Surely the Rays would grind him down, the way an AL East team is supposed to? Instead, Wilson zipped through his game, taking a shutout into the seventh after not letting anyone get further than first base in the front six frames.
Instead, the Rays were the team left wondering about the meaning of reputations and accomplishments. Having placed James Shields in this spot after a season in which he'd done so much to disqualify himself from it, they had to watch him do the things they've come to know and regret. He won't knock Matt Young out of the record books for fielding follies just yet, but he plated the Rangers' first run on a broken pickoff attempt. Location was an issue—hitting Matt Treanor twice?—and the man's a Marxist when it comes to the liberal redistribution of cookies. With the heart of the Rangers order up, two men on, and the only out recorded in the fifth coming on the one Ron Washington ordered made, you can understand why Shields was hooked—but if that's the standard, you need to ask again why he was even starting.
Matters only got worse from there, thanks to another problem with assignment selection—of all the relievers on the team to turn to in this situation, down by two, and with Wilson cruising, they went to Chad Qualls. Admirable bit of retreading or not, is Qualls really the guy you want in this situation? He did have the best rate for generating grounders among the righties in the pen, and the double play was in order, and Young has been known to ground into his share of twin killings… but Qualls?
In some ways, Qualls is a lot like Shields as performance quandaries go, a pitcher whose performance record suggests he ought to be doing better than he has, what with a SIERA 3.5 runs lower than his full-season ERA. It's cute and clever to recoup that value after the Snakes shed him out of despair; it's also too clever by half to put your season in that guy's hands when you have Joaquin Benoit or Grant Balfour and Dan Wheeler all hanging around, especially if you lose right there, then you're probably lost. From that trio, only Balfour had pitched the night before—as Qualls had. Even if Qualls was only being asked to face a single batter, it was a risk upon which the season hinged. Blaming the ump for not giving Qualls his check-swing strikeout doesn't mask the stakes being played with a self-selected bad hand.
In contrast, Washington didn't get overly clever or push his luck. After Wilson got Kelly Shoppach out on strikes, inspiring another Tampa tantrum, he hooked his hurler; when situational side-armer Darren O'Day had to face lefty bopper Matt Joyce with two runners in scoring position, he didn't rush in Darren Oliver or call for an intentional walk, he took his chance on a six-run lead and let it ride. Joyce waved through a rising fastball, at which point Oliver then entered the game, returning the Rays to their futile flapping after lefty offerings. Game over, homestand over, and here's your box of Rice-a-Roni, just in case you don't make it back home.
To skip ahead to the other act of sublime mastery on the day in the Giants/Braves series opener, Lincecum's slider set up a dozen swinging third strikes Thursday night, which was enough to help put him in august company as far as big-K Octobers, a notch behind Livan's Gregg-enabled greatness, and tied with Mike Scott. Lincecum didn't do it with pure gun readings, or with a complete buyer-beware sale of his changeup, or with the benefit of a full-game Enrico Palazzo experience. No Brave was reduced to pathetic, empty rage, a la Gary Carter in '86 (or Cabrera just now). Instead, the Freak managed it with movement on his heat and his vicious-breaking slider, providing an easy reminder that dominant dealing comes in multiple flavors. That the Giants plated their one run through an act of judicial activism might obscure the sense that, had Posey not scored, Lincecum looked good enough to still be pitching as I type this, still mowing down whatever Braves Bobby Cox sent up against him. At some point the Giants would have eventually gotten their cuts against Kyle Farnsworth or Christhian Martinez; Cox had already run through all of his good non-Wagners in the pen.
Which left the Yankees/Twins game in the less-sexy sandwich slot, coming up behind an upset up front and a gem at the end, and perhaps predictably, the two teams gave us one more game like so many of their others. Just as he had last year, Carl Pavano spun a pretty nice little ballgame against the Yankees, surrendering just two runs through six. But yet again, Andy Pettitte produced one of those quiet, understated assassinations of some other team's dreams, as politely and professionally as if he were Max von Sydow's hit man from Three Days of the Condor.
Meanwhile, the men armed with much more blunt weapons did unto Pavano as they do to so many starters, deflecting strikes and pounding away until they get their opening, and then cracking the man like an oyster and eating him whole, splashing the scoreboard with a two-spot. Admittedly, they did so while exploiting/exposing an overworn/undertrue October trope: yet again, the “good fundamentals Twins” weren't, but at least this time it didn't involve Delmon Young by himself. In its broadcast, TBS did a nice job of capturing the fact that third baseman Danny Valencia came running in on Curtis Granderson's poorly executed seventh-inning bunt, leaving his bag uncovered. That the Twins got away allowing just the two runs in the seventh wasn't something exploited, at least not by them. The Yankees just kept banging away, adding a third run to their lead in the ninth while throttling the life out of a mostly lifeless offense with another Kerry Wood-to-Mariano handoff. In an evening echoing with calls for machine-like efficiency, the Yankees gave us exactly that.