First things first: apparently, I was wrong about the responsibility for the call on a ball like the one Carlos Guillen hit Friday night. That is the third-base umpire’s call, not the left-field umpire’s one. This doesn’t make a ton of sense to me-why make the call the responsibility of the guy who has to turn to make it?-but a number of umpires wrote in to correct me, so we’ll go with it. Tim McClelland, I apologize.
We’ll run through Saturday’s action in brief, notes-style:
- It was a rough day for the Padres. They went 1-for-16 with runners in scoring position, had a guy thrown out at the plate, another picked off of first base by the catcher and gave up a homer to a 135-pound left fielder who hit two all year.
Oh, and they won, largely because they had the best starting pitcher in the building. Chris Young was hitting spots, throwing not just strikes but quality strikes. He had Albert Pujols at a loss all day, getting a key strikeout in the sixth that took a lot of the air out of the Busch crowd. Young seemed to become more aggressive after the Padres took the lead, nibbling less and going after hitters.
- Another Chris didn’t have such a good day. Chris Duncan made three misplays in left field, just one scored an error, for a total of five bases. He dropped a line drive by Todd Walker in the first, took a Shannon Stewart route to Mike Cameron’s double in the gap in the second, and made an error on Rob Bowen’s pop in the eighth. (No, I don’t care what they scored it; it was an error.) He also failed to reach Geoff Blum’s blooper down the line in the sixth.
- What’s amazing is that the Padres capitalized on these four plays for a total of…no runs. With the exception of one at-bat-Russell Branyan’s fourth-inning triple-they not only aren’t performing in high-leverage situations, but they aren’t even having good at-bats. Todd Walker keeps getting into hitters’ counts and then taking weak swings; his 2-0 hack in the fifth with Dave Roberts on third base was just embarrassing.
The Cardinals aren’t doing much better. They were 0-for-4 with runners in scoring position yesterday, and have three runs since Tuesday afternoon. Scott Rolen looks lost at the plate, reaching for the ball rather than swinging at it, and David Eckstein hasn’t been an offensive asset since the first half. Throw in Yadier Molina and Juan Encarnacion, and it’s hard to sustain any kind of offense with so few guys on base. The Cardinals need their stars to hit, and when they don’t, you get the last two games.
- If Jeff Suppan faces Steve Trachsel in the NLCS-currently unlikely given the rotations-it might push the playoffs into the winter meetings. Yesterday’s game, a 3-1 affair, ran 3:33. Suppan was gone in the fourth inning, but his approach with runners on is about .8 Trachsel.
- It’s series like this that make people believe that pitching is 60%, 75%, 90% of baseball. It doesn’t happen all the time, but when good pitching does shut down good, even great, hitting, it makes an impression. What Joel Zumaya did Thursday, what Kenny Rogers did Friday, what Jeremy Bonderman did Saturday…that was great baseball. That was great pitching, and it is the reason the Tigers go on while $200-odd million of Yankees do not.
- In an elimination game, against a right-handed starter, Joe Torre started Melky Cabrera over Jason Giambi.
In an elimination game, against a right-handed starter, Joe Torre started Melky Cabrera over Jason Giambi.
I think Joe Torre is one of the men most responsible for turning a franchise that had become something of a joke into a dynasty, and when he one day is inducted into the Hall of Fame for it, I will stand and cheer. But he had a terrible season, and in assembling his lineups the last two days, he choked. Benching Gary Sheffield and playing Giambi against Rogers, then reversing that against Bonderman, isn’t managing, it’s flailing.
It means as much in the evaluation of his career as Alex Rodriguez’s poor series, or Randy Johnson’s poor start, which is to say, very little. It’s there, however, and it’s part of the reason the Yankees lost.
- The first five innings of the game were surreal. Bonderman had terrific stuff, to be sure, but the Yankees were playing as if there was a bomb in the dugout. Pitch counts for the first five Yankee ups: seven, eight, eight, eight, nine. When the entire team starts hitting like Robinson Cano, you’re just not going to beat a pitcher like Bonderman. The Yankees had some better at-bats after the game was decided, but they lost this one in the first five innings.
- The Tigers won by playing the game they played in starting the year 76-36: good starting pitching, good defense, and some home runs. They allowed just a .276 batting average on balls in play in the four games, a testament to their range. The staff put up a 3-to-1 K/BB in the series, this against one of the most patient teams in baseball. They batted .309 and hit six home runs, swinging the bat the whole time: they walked just seven times in four games. It might not have worked against a stronger pitching staff-it might not work against the A’s-but it was, like the 2002 Angels, the perfect counter to the Yankees.
It’s hard to not enjoy this a little. Setting aside the matter of my 30-year allegiance to the Yankees, it’s good for baseball when payroll is shown to be a nonfactor in postseason success. More importantly, however, I think it’s great when cities that have long, storied baseball traditions take the stage. For all the focus on New York and Boston, Detroit is one the great sports cities in America, and a great baseball city. As with anywhere else in America where the owners haven’t beaten down the fan base, a successful team will bring fans to the ballpark and be embraced by the city. What happened in Detroit has happened in Minneapolis, has happened in Oakland, and could just as easily happen in Baltimore, in Pittsbugh or in Denver, with the right mix of decisions.
- This series gave us an element almost completely missing from the other three: lead changes. There was one lead change in the other three series combined (Game Two, Yankees/Tigers). There were two in this game alone last night.
- Give Willie Randolph credit. He assembled a roster designed to win games in the bullpen, and he’s managed to that roster. He hooked John Maine in the fifth on Wednesday with the rookie having allowed just one run, and took out Steve Trachsel in the fourth last night having allowed two. The decision to let Darren Oliver start the fifth with a lead, followed by the decision to let him pitch to Jeff Kent, weren’t among his best, but his offense rescued him.
- Grady Little did a better job as well, getting Jonathan Broxton into the game with a one-run lead in the sixth. Broxton’s line was ugly, but his performance wasn’t that bad. He made good pitches to three straight hitters in the sixth, and all three hit weak bloops that landed in just the right spot, turning a 5-4 lead into a 7-5 deficit, and effectively ending the game. Whereas the Tigers dominated the Yankees, just as an example, the Mets’ edge over the Dodgers in this game was fairly small; they caught some breaks on balls in play, and that drove the final score.
If the Tigers’ win was evidence for the idea that pitching is some large percentage of baseball, the Mets’ victory was support for the value of making contact, putting the ball in play: they hit .359 when doing so, which was the biggest reason they scored 19 runs in three games while hitting just two homers. The Dodgers neutralized the Mets’ power and still got swept, which is a frightening thought for whoever comes out of the other Division Series.
- Ever just out-think yourself? For most of the year, the Tigers and Mets were the consensus best teams in each league. The two look like the best teams in each league right now. In between, I fell all over myself looking for reasons why any other team was better. I think the analysis had some value, but there’s also the danger of missing the forest for the trees, of becoming too caught up in looking for the hidden factors that we miss what’s right in front of us: that performance over 162 games is the best measure of a team.