Just for fun, here are two sentences that I keyed in around 4 p.m. on Saturday afternoon:
“How about the Angels and Giants, going on the road and going nuts. Just a great stretch of baseball.”
“Dodgers really could blow this thing.”
A few minutes after putting those thoughts down, I was staring slack-jawed at my television, watching Steve Finley pose. For the second time in five days, the Dodgers had gone from being shut out in the bottom of the ninth to posting a huge crooked number for a win. This time, it was a seven-run inning, capped by Finley’s grand slam off of the fourth Giants pitcher of the frame.
Of course, this one was slightly more dramatic than Tuesday’s win over the Rockies. Finley’s blast clinched the division title–which had appeared to be slipping away–for the Dodgers, their first title since 1995. It also pushed the Giants to the brink of elimination, and turned out to be the decisive loss when the Astros closed out their season with wins Saturday and Sunday over the Rockies.
At a little past 4:00 on Saturday afternoon, they were two outs from having to either beat Jason Schmidt or face at least one one-game playoff to make the postseason. A few minutes later, they were staging a wet T-shirt contest in the clubhouse.
Not to get all Tommy Lasorda here, but two wins like the Dodgers had this week make you start to think about the 1988 team. Even before they went on to upset the Mets in the NLCS and the A’s in the World Series. The ’88 Dodgers had their share of memorable wins. Watching Finley, what came to mind for me was this game. I have no idea how I did so, living in New York at the time, but I distinctly remember listening to it on the radio late on a Saturday night, and being astonished by how it ended.
That’s the kind of win the Dodgers, who led MLB in comeback victories just one season after a two-run deficit spelled the end for them on most nights, have had plenty of this season.
What made Saturday’s win all the more interesting was that Jim Tracy, who’s had a very good year, made a big mistake in the middle of it. With spot starter Elmer Dessens–gone after four innings, Tracy had Wilson Alvarez pitching in a 2-0 game. In the bottom of the fifth, Marquis Grissom dropped Brent Mayne‘s fly ball to create a second-and-third, one-out situation, with Alvarez coming to the plate. Tracy let Alvarez bat, later explaining that he felt his hands were tied by his available pitching.
That actually would have made sense, except that after allowing Alvarez to ground to third and contribute to a scoreless inning, Tracy proceeded to use four pitchers to get the next six outs, lifting Alvarez after the sixth. The two decisions made no sense together; by allowing Alvarez to bat, you’re committing to him for two more innings, until his lineup spot comes up again. If you can use three pitchers in the seventh inning, surely you could have used them starting in the sixth, even if it meant using Mike Venafro against (gasp!) right-handed batters. Tracy gained three outs of Alvarez in exchange for ruining what was the only real scoring threat the Dodgers had before the eighth inning.
This doesn’t appear to be as good a baseball team as it did two months ago, and it has nothing to do with the Paul Lo Duca trade. The bullpen is still strong, with power arms in front of Eric Gagne. The offense is good, and the bench can hit, if not run. Any argument that the team lacks intangibles should have been put to rest in the last 10 days, although it’s clear that anything short of a World Championship is going to be blamed on the absence of Lo Duca and Guillermo Mota.
No, it’s the rotation that doesn’t inspire confidence. Odalis Perez and Jeff Weaver are good, not great, pitchers, and Perez is just a month removed from a stretch of poor pitching so bad the Dodgers had his left arm checked out. Jose Lima is probably the Game Three starter in any playoff series, and I’m headed to Dodger Stadium later today to see if I can be the #4. Thanks to drawing the series that gets spread over seven days, the Dodgers can probably avoid using a fourth starter in the Division Series.
While Tracy didn’t acquit himself all that well on Saturday, Felipe Alou did worse, contributing to the disastrous ninth inning. Dustin Hermanson wasn’t pitching well–he walked consecutive batters, and three out of four at one point–in loading the bases, but I think Alou panicked when he turned the inning into a tryout. When you take out your nominal closer so you can start going righty/lefty on people like Cesar Izturis, you’ve left the reservation. Alou put himself into a situation where he had Wayne Franklin–who, let’s be frank here, sucks–pitching with the Giants’ season on the line.
Hermanson didn’t pitch well, and Cody Ransom made a critical error during the inning, but the parade of relievers was a rare sign of panic from a manager who had, not so long ago, drawn kudos from us for getting away from the matchup-centric style of bullpen management.
The Giants will remember Saturday’s loss for a long time, but just as critical was their defeat on Sept. 23. That night, they took a 3-2 lead into ninth only to watch Hermanson allow three straight hits, the last a three-run homer by Lance Berkman that led to a 7-3 loss.
That game is what swung the race. The Astros, who had lost the first two games of the series, kept their shot at the wild card alive with that win.
The Astros, of course, did a lot more than win one game on the road. They closed the season on a 36-10 tear that goes into the books as one of the great late-season rushes. At the start of it, the question was whether they would trade Roger Clemens. At the end of it, it was whether they’d gotten fortunate that he couldn’t pitch the final game of the season, leaving him ready to start Game One of the Division Series.
We can spend too much time on the impact of closers, but Brad Lidge has pitched at an Eric Gagne level for two months, posting a 1.31 ERA and 60 strikeouts in 34 1/3 innings since the trade deadline. He closed the season on an 11 1/3-inning shutout streak, giving up just four hits in his final ten appearances. He’s the best right-handed pitcher in baseball right now.
You don’t go 36-10 just because your closer gets hot. The Astros, who were flailing about trying to assemble a bullpen just six weeks ago, had a number of journeymen put up the best pitching of their career. Dan Miceli didn’t give up an earned run after coming off the disabled list in early September. Chad Harville, Dan Wheeler and Chad Qualls, none of whom were taken in your fantasy league’s draft, combined for 39 innings and a 2.31 ERA in September and October. Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt reverting to their April form helped, but for a team with essentially no back of the rotation, the quality middle relief was huge.
The Astros’ run was keyed almost entirely by their pitching staff. The offense wasn’t special over the last month, averaging 5.2 runs per game. Berkman and Jeff Kent finished the season strong, but Craig Biggio put up a .285 OBP over the last two months, cancelling out their contributions. Biggio walked just 18 times after the All-Star break, a pitiful total for a leadoff hitter who doesn’t bat .370.
Let’s face it: the Astros took this playoff spot. Set aside the Giants, and consider that the Cubs had a 2 ½-game lead on the ‘Stros with eight games to play. The Astros didn’t lose the rest of the way, while the Cubs dropped six of their next seven (and seven of eight total), including an embarrassing 1-3 series at home against the Reds. Their closing death march–26 games in 24 days–will likely provide an excuse, but let’s face it; the Cubs only had to beat the Mets and Reds over the season’s last nine days to reach the postseason, and they couldn’t do it. They lost five one-run games in a seven-day stretch, and their run totals in their last ten games (2, 3, 2, 12, 3, 3, 1, 4, 6, 10) tell the story of a team that was far too one-dimensional at the plate.
Yes, they missed 31 starts by Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, and had an inferior version of Matt Clement down the stretch, and lost their nominal closer for most of the year. They still had a substantial lead with an easy path to the postseason, and they got caught from behind.
The same situation held in the AL, where the Angels took a playoff spot right out of the A’s hands, only they did it face-to-face. After Rich Harden threw a gem at them on Sept. 24, the Angels trailed the A’s by three games in the AL West with nine to play. The next day, the A’s Jermaine Dye hit a two-run home run off of Jarrod Washburn in the sixth inning to tie the game at three.
That was the A’s last baserunner of the day. While we didn’t know it at the time, it was also as close as they would come to locking up the division. The Angels retired the last 11 A’s to come to the plate, then rallied for two runs in the eighth inning off of the A’s bullpen. They beat Mark Mulder the next night to cut the lead to one, then went on the road and won five of six, the last two against the A’s in Oakland.
Whether it was a payroll infusion for the Angels or a flaw in the Moneyball plan or some combination thereof is a topic for the winter. What matters now is that the Angels, like the Astros, went out and won a bunch of baseball games in the season’s homestretch. They won four straight games from the A’s, seven of eight overall, to go from three down to two up with one to play. That’s got nothing to do with performance analysis; that’s just performance.
As they were in 2002, the Angels are as good an offensive team as you can be without drawing walks, relying on putting the ball in play hard to put runs on the board. They have good team speed, which shows up in runner advancement on hits, double-play avoidance (Mike Scioscia starts his runners more than any manager in the game) and their stolen-base success rate. This year, they hit .283, right in line with their .282 average two years ago. While this team doesn’t play defense as well as that one did, and has a bit less power, it’s still good enough to win three series in October. Remember, though: while the “fundamentals” and little ball got all the attention, the Angels slugged .512 during their run to a championship. That’s why they won.
One last Angels note: Vladimir Guerrero is the entire reason they’re still playing. He was the most valuable position player in the AL this year, and in a year in which almost everyone else on the team missed time with injuries, he played in 156 games. Credit Arte Moreno and Bill Stoneman for making the best move of last winter.
That was a look back. I’m back tomorrow to look forward at a postseason with no favorite.