You would think, by now, that I would know better than this.
This series is over. They shouldn’t even make the Yankees fly to Detroit.
I sent that out after Johnny Damon hit a three-run homer. The Yankees were up 3-1, had actually looked a bit better than that in getting there, and seemed set to knock Justin Verlander out of the game. The Tigers chance to win this game was largely predicated on Verlander throwing a big game, handing it over to Joel Zumaya, and Zumaya handing it over to a vastly inferior pitcher and hoping he held on. With Verlander having thrown 79 pitches through four innings, allowing six hits and four walks, it looked like that hope was dead.
I should be smarter than this. I’ve been a baseball fan for 30 years, a serious one for 20-25, and I’ve written about the game for a decade. There’s no two-run lead that’s insurmountable. The game just doesn’t work that way; anything can happen, and the second you think there’s a certainty, it’s gone. Verlander, Jamie Walker, Joel Zumaya-the most entertaining pitcher in baseball right now-and Todd Jones combined to shut out the Yankees over the last five innings, and the Tigers’ hitters took advantage of every mistake Mike Mussina made to eke out a 4-3 win a tie in the series.
The Verlander/Zumaya tandem is just ridiculous. Verlander struggled with his command and seemed to spend much of the game nibbling against the Yankee power bats. Every now and then, though, he’d pull it together and just own someone. He had Alex Rodriguez bent into a pretzel, following up two 98-plus fastballs with a curve for a called strike three. Twice. He didn’t look nearly as good when Rodriguez’s teammates were at the plate, but he did what Nate Robertson couldn’t do Tuesday: kept it close.
Joel Zumaya is the most entertaining pitcher in baseball right now. His fastball is basically unhittable, and it doesn’t actually matter what the rest of his stuff is. Not many pitchers can win with one pitch, and of those, few can do it for any length of time. Right now, Zumaya can dominate a game with just his fastball, and that’s one of those baseball things that’s just fun to watch.
Down 3-1, though, it took more than pitching to bring the Tigers back into the game. Mike Mussina was effective, but one of the problems he has is that when he misses with a pitch, he tends to give up long hits. Even in his best seasons he would allow 60-70 extra-base hits and an isolated power above .150. His success stemmed from keeping runners off base for those events, and keeping the guys who hit doubles and triples from scoring.
That approach failed him yesterday. Mussina allowed eight hits, but five of them went for extra-bases, and four of those contributed to the Tigers’ four runs. Falling behind Carlos Guillen in the sixth and Curtis Granderson in the seventh led to a game-tying homer and a game-winning triple, both on fastballs that were located poorly. Mussina doesn’t have the fastball to be wrong in the zone to good hitters any longer, and both Guillen and Granderson took advantage of that to help the Tigers pull out a huge win.
Note the names above: Verlander, Zumaya, Granderson. Today’s win was helped along by the imports, but it was really all about the guys the Tigers drafted and developed themselves, as well as the product of one of the great thefts of the 21st century, Guillen.
All four, and their 21 teammates, head back to Detroit right now having quieted a lot of people who thought they’d be swept out of the postseason. They still have an uphill battle-the Yankees can still drop a nine-spot on you at any time, and Zumaya can likely only pitch in two of the three remaning schedule gams-but they have a much better chance than they did five hours ago.
Or three hours ago, when some moron sent a really dumb e-mail.
- So, the Yankees started the game with a single off of Verlander. The Tigers had been beaten by the big inning Tuesday night, and the worst thing that could happen to them Wednesday was if their best starter fell behind early, especially given the concern over the state of his arm after the heaviest workload of his life. At the plate was a guy that no one had gotten out on Tuesday night. Things were already looking a bit scary.
That guy who hadn’t made an out all series? The one who hit .343 this season, having the second-best year of his life? He decided-decided-to make an out, squaring to sacrifice and popping up to Ivan Rodriguez. He didn’t work the count, he didn’t go to the opposite field, he didn’t pull a ball into a hole. He tried to bunt. They hadn’t gotten him out yet, and he tried to bunt. The Yankees got two more runners on base in the inning and didn’t score, and if you want to blame the last hitter in the inning for that, you can, but at least he tried.
This has gotten out of control, and needs to stop. I know that any time a good player bunts we’re supposed to genuflect, but Derek Jeter does this far too often. Him laying down a sacrifice-and we can debate whether he was bunting for a hit or not, but it did not look quite like that, and he’s sacrificed in similar situations-is a gift for the opposition, an absolute gift. Any time a .340 hitter offers you an out, you take it and thank him profusely. Jeter does this all the time. I don’t think he’s doing it to burnish his reputation, I think he’s doing it because someone told him a long time ago that it was winning baseball, and no one’s told him otherwise since.
This isn’t Little League. This isn’t college. This isn’t 1905. Great hitters put runs on the board by swinging the bat, not by passing the baton to the next guy in the lineup. I know that Derek Jeter is the Teflon Shortstop, but he’s wrong in his persistence in sacrificing bunting, and he was egregiously wrong today. A sharp single to left might have helped the Yankees put the game away early.
- Without necessarily defending Mussina, it’s probably worth mentioning that until Granderson’s triple in the seventh, he’d basically done the same thing Chien-Ming Wang had done on Tuesday night. The Yankees scored seven runs in the first six innings of that game, though, and Joe Torre took him out while he was pitching well and before any rallies got started. The difference between the two outings is the context-the runs the Yankees scored and Torre’s approach-as much as anything the pitchers did.
- I’d mentioned the return of the random strike zone. It was very much in effect today, especially with two very good breaking-ball pitchers on the mound. The net effect was probably neutral-it tends to be a function of “skill,” not bias-but in the ninth, Todd Jones did get a critical strike on a 0-0 pitch to Posada. Not that it was outside or anything, but it needed a Metrocard and a transfer at 145th St. to reach the corner.
Later in that at-bat, Posada let a 1-2 fastball go by that, by rights, should be in some bleacher kid’s pocket right now. So you have to play around the umpiring.
Sunday in Phoenix, Bruce Bochy put his starting lineup on the field in an attempt to win the NL West crown and gain two home games against the Cardinals rather than a trip to New York to face the Mets.
The best laid plans…
Bochy’s starters beat Brandon Webb and the Diamondbacks on Sunday, and they haven’t won since. They’ve scored one run on ten hits in two games against the Cardinals. They’ve gone 2-for-17 with runners on base, 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position. Getting shut down by Chris Carpenter was one thing; losing today to Jeff Weaver and about 11 relievers today, quite another.
Bochy benched Mike Piazza to get an extra left-handed bat in against Weaver, the right-hander allowed a .340/.396/.609 line to lefties this year, 250 points of OPS worse than his line against righties. It didn’t matter, though. Weaver had good movement and just enough command of it to be effective. He worked into, and out of, trouble in the first and fifth, and left the game after 79 pitches in part because Bochy had made a left-handed reliever such an attractive option for Tony La Russa
I know I wrote this yesterday, but it’s worth mentioning today: last week seems like a very long time ago. Heck, even Sunday does. The Cardinals bullpen, such a problem during the long losing streak that nearly cost them a spot in the playoffs, threw 2 2/3 shutout innings Tuesday, and followed up today with four innings of near-perfect baseball. La Russa kept pulling levers-Randy Flores here, Josh Kinney there-and coming up cherries. Four innings, two hits, a walk and six strikeouts, capped by another dominating outing by Adam Wainwright. Suddenly, the Cards’ bullpen looks less like a problem and more like a significant asset.
There’s not much more to be said about the game. To be honest, and I admit I’m a hundred miles away, there wasn’t much to it. The Padres’ complete lack of offense kept the energy level in the park down, and it wasn’t so much a pitchers’ duel as a poor offensive game. The Cards scored just enough runs to win-testing Dave Roberts‘ arm twice along the way-and they go home with a very good chance to pull off a first-round upset.
- Roberts was 1-for-2 nailing runners at the plate in the game, and credit Josh Bard with half an assist on the play. He bluffed Juan Encarnacion into slowing down a bit, then picked a low throw off the dirt and held on while making the tag.
- Up 2-0, the Cardinals shouldn’t feel a lot of pressure, but Game Three is important to them. Weaver’s performance today notwithstanding, their chance to advance deep into the postseason is dependent on getting Chris Carpenter to the mound as often as possible. If the Cardinals lose Saturday, they’ll likely start Carpenter on full rest Sunday in an effort to close it out. If they can win Saturday, though, they’d be able to put Carpenter on the mound in NLCS Game One, and there’s no one the Mets or Dodgers can match up against him. He’s the best pitcher in the NL playoffs.
Winning Saturday not only puts the series away, but gives the Cardinals a big leg up in the NLCS. That’s a very big reason to treat it as a must-win game.
The key to this one was a brutal performance by the Dodgers’ infield. Three of the four runs the Mets scored were directly attributable to Dodgers’ misplays, whether scored that way or not.
In the third, Endy Chavez dragged a bunt past the mound that was scored a single. Hong-Chih Kuo got a glove on it and might have had a play had he been able to pick it up. It’s possible that he wouldn’t have, because Nomar Garciaparra was nearly as far from the bag as he was. Had Kuo gone to the bag instead of playing the ball, Garciaparra may have been able to make the 3-1 play.
With Chavez on first, Tom Glavine was at the plate intending to sacrifice. Kuo threw a 1-1 pitch past him up and in that he bunted through, but that Russell Martin missed completely. Kuo was dinged for a wild pitch, but I thought it should have been scored a passed ball. It was a fastball up and in, very playable. Advancing the runner to second without giving up an out was critical, and allowed the Mets to get Chavez to third-on a Glavine swinging bunt-with one out. He scored on a Jose Reyes ground ball. The Mets had scored a run not only without hitting a ball out of the infield, but without hitting a ball even to the basepaths. Impressive.
In the sixth, the Mets were clinging to a 2-0 lead when the Dodger infield got involved again. With first and second and no one out, Jose Valentin dropped a bunt to the right of the mound. With a right-handed pitcher on the mound in Brett Tomko, third baseman Wilson Betemit should have charged the ball and gotten the out. (I pick on broadcasters a lot, but Steve Lyons nailed this, one of a number of good calls he made last night.) Instead, Betemit broke back to cover the bag, leaving Tomko-which means “the opposite of nimble” in two dead languages-to chase down the ball, plant and make a throw. Tomko made the play, but Julio Lugo dropped the throw covering first base. That error was critical, making it a near-certainty that the Mets would score rather than leaving an escape hatch open.
Mark Hendrickson did as good a job as could be expected, but became the third Dodger pitcher to be let down by the defense. He got Chavez to hit a weak grounder to the mound for a force at the plate. He then induced a perfect double-play grounder from Julio Franco, perhaps a bit slow, but then again, so is Franco. Rafael Furcal played back on it, made a soft flip to second, and Lugo’s turn was slow, allowing Franco to beat out the grounder and Cliff Floyd to score. Furcal made the more obvious misplay, but you can see that Lugo’s turn is mechanical, rather than smooth, which slowed the play down.
Jose Reyes followed with a single to make it 4-0, and the game was essentially over.
Note the names in the above paragraphs: Tomko, Hendrickson. The biggest pitches of the first two games in this series have been thrown by the bottom guys on Grady Little’s pitching staff. Brad Penny lost Wednesday’s game, while Jonathan Broxton pitched down two. Hendrickson pitched with the bases loaded down by two runs. Takashi Saito threw the eighth inning down by three.
Little is doing a terrible job of matching his pitchers with the situation. Hendrickson, who struck out three batters this year, was brought in to relieve Tomko in the sixth with the bases loaded and no one out, the most obvious strikeout situation in the game. With second and third and one out in the fifth-another strikeout situation-Little had Kuo walk Jose Reyes, presumably to set up a double play, then brought in the most extreme flyball guy he has in Tomko. There seems to be no consideration of skill sets at all, and that’s costing the Dodgers at key times.
Little’s management of the pitching staff appears to be one of two things: completely random, or dictated solely by the inning. Neither is going to do anything but leave Dodger Stadium free next week.
Of course, the Dodgers didn’t help themselves at the plate, scoring just one run, on an eighth-inning solo homer by Betemit. Little appears to pay no mind to platoon differences, even well-established ones. Kenny Lofton bats second, every day, even though Kenny Lofton hit .214/.275/.274 against them this year. It’s not a fluke: since 2002, Lofton has put up a sub-.320 OBP against lefties, with no power. He cannot hit left-handers, and he’s not a good enough defender that he plays for his glove. Anyone would be a better choice.
Little has also decided that Marlon Anderson is Honus Wagner, turning him into an everyday player. Setting aside the idea that Anderson’s Dodger performance reflects a change in his skill level that would make him a viable choice against right-handers every day, Anderson has been even worse against lefties than Lofton: .232 with 14 walks and 12 extra-base hits in more than 300 plate appearances. He’s awful.
Both of those guys started last night, which makes the six shutout innings for Glavine look a lot like his expected performance. But here’s the kicker, all you really need to know about the Dodger starting lineup against a lefty: When Willie Randolph had to replace Glavine, he went to another lefty, Pedro Feliciano. He didn’t go looking to turn the team around, because Little hadn’t put a lineup worth doing that to on the field. Somehow, Olmedo Saenz and Jason Repko never got into the game, while Lofton and Anderson went 0-for-8.
If the Dodgers get to a Game Four against Oliver Perez, they’ll have to correct this. Little showed no compunction about using Lugo in the outfield in the regular season. He’ll have to do so again, shuffling the lineup to get Lofton and Anderson out and guys who don’t hit like pitchers against lefties in. Making a mistake once is forgivable. Making it twice isn’t.
- What drives me insane is that with all of this diving into first base when there’s no tag play, guys do so little to avoid tags when one is necessary. On two of the three outs in the ninth, Jose Reyes, threw balls away, pulling Carlos Delgado off the bag and forcing him to make a tag for the out. In neither case did the runner–Russell Martin with no one out, then Julio Lugo for the final out-dive, slide or do much more than turn their body.
I just don’t get it. Sliding, and its grandchild diving, were developed in part as means of avoiding tags. We’re now evolved to a point where players will dive on a force play and run through the bad on a tag play.
- Martin had a bad night. In addition to missing the pitch in the third and not avoiding the tag in the ninth, he killed a Dodger rally by flying out on a 3-0 pitch in the fourth, with two outs and two runners on. I would never say that you never swing on 3-0, but when you do, you have to be successful, even if the outcome isn’t great. Martin didn’t hit a rope or a bomb; he hit a generic fly ball.
Endy Chavez should play every day for the Mets. His defense in the corners this year has been terrific, enough so that the power he gives up to Shawn Green isn’t enough to make up the difference between the two. If nothing else, he should bounce between left and right, giving the two veterans lots of time off. Given the fragility of the Mets’ outfielders, Chavez has been a very valuable spare part for them this season.