Lately, I’ve been doing my writing late at night, with the day’s games fresh in my head. For this one, though, I had to put a night of sleep between me and what transpired. I’ve seen a lot of baseball in my 32 years, but the way last night’s game turned was as sudden and as shocking as anything I’ve ever seen in baseball.

I could point to Game Six of last year’s World Series, or Game Four of the 1996 Series, but those comebacks happened over a period of innings. Game Six in 1986 might be the best parallel. Just like the Red Sox, the Cubs went from a few outs away from the World Series to dead in the water in just a few minutes, and I never saw it coming. Heck, as I look over my notes, there’s this gem:

It would appear I was wrong about Mark Prior.

I was. For six innings, Prior was the same awesome pitcher he’d been since coming off the disabled list in July, workload be damned. His command was a little off at times, but he wasn’t giving up solid contact, and his velocity was good. There was some degradation in both areas beginning in the seventh inning, and that would become important in the eighth, but I had no idea it would lead to what we saw.

In the aftermath of the collapse, far too much of the focus is on the foul ball hit by Luis Castillo on which a fan tried to make a play and may have denied Moises Alou the opportunity to catch the ball. No, that’s too mild; Alou likely makes the play if the fan actively avoids the ball. It wasn’t fan interference, because the ball was coming down out of play, and frankly, no umpire is going to give the home team that call in that situation.

Moreover, I don’t think you can blame the fan for doing what he did. While in a perfect world, fans would process all the information available quickly and correctly, something like that really just comes down to instinct. “Hey, a foul ball!” Sitting in the seats, relatively stationary and untrained to track fly balls, it’s hard to tell exactly where the ball will come down, and you’re certainly not thinking about the potential for stealing an out from the left fielder. The vast majority of the fans angry with the young man–some of whom pelted him with verbal abuse and debris in the aftermath–would have done exactly the same thing he did.

Look at where the Cubs were even after that play. They had a three-run lead with one out in the eighth inning, a runner on second base and a 3-2 count on the batter. To trace an 8-3 loss to one foul ball, to one innocent mistake, is scapegoating of the highest order.

Let’s face it, this collapse was the result of many little failures. Prior had Castillo down 1-2 and walked him. He had Ivan Rodriguez down 0-2 and hung a curve ball in the middle of the plate that Rodriguez pulled into left field for a run-scoring single.

At that point, Prior was done. His velocity and location were way off, and for some reason, Dusty Baker left him in the game. This isn’t a pitch-count argument; Prior’s figure wasn’t exorbitantly high, and to be honest, I didn’t even know what it was until the announcers started talking about it. No, this is an argument based on velocity loss and a clear lack of command.

If you’re wondering why pitch-count advocates hate the argument that managers and pitching coaches know best when to take a starter out and don’t need to worry about pitch counts, last night provides a great example. I don’t know what criteria Baker was using to make the decision on Prior, but it wasn’t pitch count, and it wasn’t what he was seeing. Baseball people who argue that they know best can make egregious mistakes; using pitch counts (and tracking velocity loss) provides helpful data that can guide a decision.

Anyway, Baker left Prior in, and it might have worked out but for Alex Gonzalez muffing a two-hopper to his right by Miguel Cabrera. With the bases loaded, a tired Prior and a dangerous hitter up, the situation screamed for Kyle Farnsworth. Prior stayed long enough to give up a two-run double on a first-pitch fastball to Derrek Lee, who hadn’t pulled a good fastball all series long. That tied the game and brought in Farnsworth, who walked Mike Lowell intentionally and gave up a sacrifice fly to Jeff Conine. (Sac flies aren’t a skill as much as they’re the intersection of OBP in front of you and warning-track power, but I have to say that as much as any hitter I’ve ever seen, Conine really seemed to try and hit a fly ball in his at-bat. It was really something.)

The Cubs might have gotten out of it from there. After another intentional walk, the Marlins had Mike Mordecai at the plate. Again, from my notes:

Good lord, Mike Mordecai? You can’t find anyone else?

Mordecai pulled a Farnsworth heater into the left-center field gap for three runs, and the game was over.

The Cubs didn’t lose this game because a fan tried to make a play on a foul ball, and they didn’t lose it because of Dusty Baker or Mark Prior or Alex Gonzalez or Kyle Farnsworth. They lost it because for 15 minutes, everything that could go wrong did. It happens, the way it happened for the Red Sox in ’86 or the Giants in ’02 or even the Dodgers in ’51. Give credit to the Marlins for everything they did right; none of this happens if Castilo and Rodriguez and Lee and Mordecai don’t come up with good ABs in important situations.

Mostly, stop beating up on a fan who did what fans do, and just happened to be in the wrong place, by inches, at the wrong time.

Two other things:

  • You have to love Fox breaking out the Leon Durham clip about an inning before this all happened. You think that’s going to be a staple of the pre-game show tonight?
  • Fox’s relentless cutting is usually annoying, but I have to say that the shots they were getting of the crowd after the comeback were really telling. Everyone looked stunned, even a full inning later. The facial expressions, if you hadn’t seen the eighth inning, might have been a little scary, as if the fans had witnessed an on-field death or something.

What happens tonight? As I look at the games I referenced above, there’s one common theme: the losing team also lost the next game. They didn’t always get blown out (the Braves lost 1-0 in Game Five, and the Red Sox had 3-0 lead in the Game Seven of the 1986 World Series), but they did all lose.

The Marlins will again be underdogs, as Kerry Wood faces Mark Redman. As I’ve said before, I think Redman, who pitches a bit like Mike Hampton, is a tough matchup for this Cub team, which is overanxious at the plate. Having to face a guy against whom “waiting” is a key skill is a problem for them, and you would expect it to be more so tonight. I’m sure the Cubs will want nothing more than to make something positive happen quickly.

Wood has been very good in the postseason, although he, like Prior last night, lost it quickly in his first start of the NLCS. You worry a little about power pitchers in high-adrenaline situations, because command can become a problem when there’s too much on the fastball. Wood pitched well in the deciding game of the Division Series, however, so that may be less of a concern here.

I’ve said all along that the Marlins would win this series. While I think that tonight’s matchup is a tough one, history tells me that teams winning the kind of game they won last night go on to win the next one. Marlins, 7-4.

In the wake of the night game, the afternoon contest was pretty much forgotten. I can’t say that’s a surprise. Aside from the non-baseball activities of Saturday afternoon, the ALCS has really been nondescript. Pretty much every game has been the same, with the team that will eventually win taking the lead by the fourth inning and holding on from there. While the atmosphere is that of a great matchup, the baseball being played is uninspiring.

Yesterday was no exception. The Yankees got a couple of two-out singles in the second inning to take a 3-0 lead, and spent the rest of the game watching the Red Sox not take advantage of opportunities before handing the keys to Mariano Rivera in the eighth inning.

The Yankees are in great shape, up 3-2, coming home and getting a great pitching matchup in today’s Game Six. I’m not sure how long they can win without hitting any doubles, but they certainly seem determined to try. It’s a big missing piece for the Yankees; how do you go into Fenway Park for three games and not hit any balls off the Green Monster?

I don’t think yesterday was just about the Yankees’ inability to drive the ball. Derek Lowe looked very good. He had ridiculous movement on his sinker and that little backup pitch made famous against the A’s. This was the Lowe who pitched in 2002, not the one who spent a good part of the first half of 2003 backing up home plate. Unfortunately, the Red Sox continued to get no production against left-handers, scraping together just one run against David Wells in seven innings.

The loss leaves the Red Sox in the exact same situation they were in 10 days ago. They need to survive a John Burkett start in an elimination game to get to a deciding game with Pedro Martinez on the mound. Unfortunately, the Yankees are a better-hitting team than the A’s, and they’re running Andy Pettitte out to the mound. I keep harping on this, but the Sox just aren’t doing anything against lefties. Including Wells’ Game Five performance, left-handed starters have a 2.14 ERA and have posted four quality starts in five tries against the Sox in the postseason.

The Sox have too many hitters in their lineup who can’t hit lefties, and that makes it hard to sustain rallies against southpaws. Since I don’t think they can trade for Reggie Sanders and Junior Spivey by 4:00, the series should be over by 7:30. Yankees, 9-3.

In three weeks, I’ll be in Phoenix as a guest speaker at the Baseball HQ AFL Symposium. It’s three days of Arizona Fall League baseball, fantasy baseball advice, and kibbitzing with fans from around the country. The speaker list includes Rob Neyer, John Sickels, Rany Jazayerli, David Ranwsley and a host of other baseball and fantasy-baseball experts.

For more on the Symposium, check the link on the Baseball HQ Web site, or drop me a line with any questions you have. It’s a great time, and I hope to see you there!

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