After three weeks of non-stop playoff baseball columns, Joe Sheehan is getting the night off. But fear not, fair readers. To ensure that no World Series game goes uncovered, I’ll be pinch-hitting on Prospectus Today. In far more exciting news, Joe will continue working on the playoff beard he’s been growing throughout the playoffs. He’s about two days from matching Kevin Millar‘s Abe Lincoln look of a couple weeks ago.
Having spent six hours in the sun prior to game time, here are my heat-addled thoughts on Game 1:
Sox fans who complained about Mark Bellhorn and wanted Pokey The Outmaking Machine in his stead can officially stop complaining now. A 1-for-14 streak like Bellhorn had earlier in the playoffs means nothing, whether it’s April or October, and it was just a matter of time before he got it going again. Aside from yearning for Reese’s defense, it’s clear that many Sox followers can’t stand Bellhorn’s strikeouts; he led the league in Ks this season, and strikeouts tend to look bad, or at least worse than outs on balls in play.
But there’s a reason Bellhorn was the starter at second base all year, and there’s a reason Terry Francona stuck with him through his mini-playoff slump: the guy can hit. Bellhorn’s two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth was his third in his last three games, and a game-winner for the Sox. For all the analysis of minutiae between these two teams, Boston can claim a big edge in bottom-of-the-order hitting, with Bellhorn and Bill Mueller dwarfing So Taguchi, Mike Matheny and Tony Womack. Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds went 1-for-12 last night–the Cards can ill afford to have the heart of their lineup neutered that way, given the likely contributions of the stiff brigade at the bottom of their order.
Second inning, Cards down 4-0, Edmonds leads off with a well-placed bunt single and Reggie Sanders follows with a walk off Tim Wakefield. So Womack comes up and…bunts? Granted, the bunt advanced the runners, and Mike Matheny then cashed St. Louis’ first run with a sacrifice fly. But against a team as dangerous offensively as Boston, willingly taking steps to bring a potential big inning one out closer to ending? In the second, down four? Of course part of this goes back to Womack and his limp bat. Surely La Russa had no choice but to bat Womack after Sanders in the lineup, right?
Well, not really. Using a rare two-fer of lame managerial excuses, Tony La Russa opted to start light-hitting So Taguchi over a good hitter in John Mabry. The move, it was felt, would improve the Cardinals’ left-field defense at the face of the Green Monster, while also preserving Mabry for a pinch-hit appearance, given his skill at that role. Of course Mabry never got used, negating that angle. Taguchi managed an RBI infield hit and looked good in the field on several plays, while Roger Cedeno rapped a pinch-single subbing for Taguchi in the eighth–it’s still the wrong move not to use Mabry in the seven-hole behind Sanders.
Even given Matheny’s sac fly and the decent plays by Taguchi and Cedeno, a hit or a walk in that spot in the second inning gets you either that same one run or loads the bases. It also gets you one step closer to reaching Larry Walker and the rest of the Cards’ bombers, setting up a possible big inning. I didn’t like the bunt by Womack, but as I said, I think this was more than just one bad tactical move in play here.
- Speaking of Womack, credit La Russa with abandoning the plan to keep his second baseman in the leadoff spot, instead opting for Edgar Renteria at the top of the order. Renteria chipped in two key hits and provided a clear upgrade as a table-setter. While Womack hit over .300 this season, nothing in his track record saw that coming, and nothing suggested it would keep going. Womack went into last night’s game hitting an ugly .217/.250/.283 for the playoffs, and went 0-for-1 with a walk before being pulled in the seventh inning after taking a David Ortiz rocket off his collarbone. Marlon Anderson and Hector Luna won’t score anyone either, but at least the Cards don’t figure to suffer a downgrade if Womack is out for any extended period.
- Swapping out Womack for Renteria in the leadoff spot was a theme I hammered on in my World Series preview which appeared in the New York Sun newspaper Friday (Baseball Prospectus regularly contributes content to the Sun, which also happens to have one of the better and more underrated sports sections in the Tri-State area). I also suggested Francona sub in Kevin Youkilis for Ramiro Mendoza on the playoff roster, since Mendoza was rarely being used to begin with, and stunk on the rare occasions he did get into games. Amazingly, Francona took the bait on that one too and made the switch. This makes me think I should wish for things I could really use in the future. How about some Google stock at its IPO price? And hey, the wife’s been clamoring for a new entertainment center.
- Would La Russa consider shaking up his rotation as the series goes on? While Woody Williams got crushed for seven runs in 2 1/3 innings, Danny Haren held the Sox in check for 3 2/3, allowing St. Louis to claw back into the game. It’s probably a long shot for La Russa to flip-flop the two pitchers, but Haren does provide a good counterpart to Boston’s Bronson Arroyo as a starter-turned-reliever who can soak up three, four innings and give his team a chance to come back. Given both team’s great offenses, the long-man role could take on added importance as the series wears on.
- I find the whole concept of random players getting dealt at the deadline to and from contenders fascinating. Think how much it must chafe Nomar Garciaparra not to be playing right now. Now think of Orlando Cabrera, who despite frequently praising the city of Montreal and Expos fans, obviously was in a bad situation this year; now he’s the starting shortstop and #2 hitter for a team three wins away from one of the biggest championship wins in baseball history. How quickly do players develop strong bonds with their teams? Would Larry Walker feel the same elation if he won a championship after 12 weeks in St. Louis, compared to 10 years in Colorado? What about benchwarmers Doug Mientkiewicz and Dave Roberts, who not only changed teams but were reduced from everyday players to limited role players?
- With Jason Marquis and Gabe Kapler both playing this week, I wondered when was the last time two Jewish players faced off in the World Series. I’d guess a Detroit Tigers series from back in the day, with Hank Greenberg locking up with a fellow member of the Tribe (not the Cleveland Indians). Anyone know the answer? (And yes, this is partly a transparent attempt to get you to rent “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg”, possibly my favorite sports movie of all-time.)
The seeing-eye single he allowed to Renteria and the twin errors by Manny Ramirez notwithstanding, this may be the year the world learns just how good Keith Foulke really is. A knowledgeable baseball fan I know wrote me recently, fretting that Foulke’s slowish fastball makes him uneasy in big spots, since he doesn’t have the ability to blow gas by a team’s best hitters with the game on the line.
I don’t buy it. Foulke’s best pitch, as we’ve all seen by now, is his change-up, which befuddles hitters with its deception and its exaggerated sink. When you can pitch to a hitter the caliber of Larry Walker in a key spot, 2-1 count, and throw a change that makes him look terrible, you know you’ve got a huge weapon in your arsenal. The added value of Foulke’s change-up is that it makes his fastball look that much faster when he throws it. He’s back-doored several hitters on the inside corner for strikeouts during the playoffs with that fastball, largely because opponents have to be so cognizant of Foulke’s change darting six inches under their bats. His nine walks allowed are ugly. Other than that for Foulke: 11 1/3 IP, 0 R, 6 H, 15 K.
- At the beginning of the playoffs, I said to anyone who’d listen Sox over Cards in six. Two innings into Curt Schilling‘s Game Six LCS masterpiece, with Schilling having snuck through scoreless but looking like his ankle would act up again and cause an avalanche of runs, I predicted 6 1/3 frames and one run allowed (I was off by 2/3 of an inning). Now, since I’m not a big betting man, those predictions are worth roughly one Clay Bellinger rookie card. Moreover, such predictions are no great feat, but rather the result of some weird bug which infects one BP author per playoffs with an uncanny ability to make accurate predictions, of both the major and trivial variety. Dayn Perry dazzled us with a string of correct predictions last year. My money’s on Rany Jazayerli for 2005, correctly predicting the singer and length of song on God Bless America in Game 1 of the World Series. Charo, and nine minutes, 32 seconds. Take it to the bank.
Joe’s back tomorrow, presumably unaffected by heatstroke.