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Mets/Cardinals

This has become a fascinating series. It’s not just that it’s tied at two games apiece, although that clearly helps. These two pitching staffs have been so damaged by injury and ineffectiveness, and usage patterns so changed in the wake of last Wednesday’s rainout, that how the two managers are working around the situation isn’t just a subplot, it’s the story of the series.

Take last night’s starting pitchers. Oliver Perez versus Anthony Reyes may have been the worst matchup in LCS history. It’s not just about their performance during the season-which wasn’t very good-but their roles as recently as a month ago and the many things that had to go wrong to put them on the mound last night. Perez spent a good part of the season in the minors, was traded as a throw-in to the Mets in the Roberto Hernandez deal, had an ERA of 6.55 this season and made exactly one quality start for his new team. He pitched last night because the Mets lost two starters in the space of a week at the end of the year.

Reyes didn’t pitch as poorly as Perez did, but the Cardinals never embraced him. He was shuttled between Memphis and St. Louis all year, and even after his return in September wasn’t really in the rotation. He was on the mound last night because Mark Mulder‘s arm fell off and Jason Marquis had been just that bad for three months. Like Perez, he’s the last man on his team’s staff, and while he had a few more quality outings than Perez did, he wasn’t a major contributor to the division title.

Perez and Reyes were pitching last night because their teams simply had no one else. It’s a tough situation to be in, and perhaps indicative of the quality of teams in the NL playoffs.

The pressure on Perez was increased by Steve Trachsel‘s disastrous outing in Game Three. Trachsel lasted just an inning-plus, leaving the Mets’ only long reliever, Darren Oliver, to throw six bullpen-saving innings for a team that had burnt its pen in the first two games and had lost an off day to the rainout.. Oliver is out until at least Game Six, which means the Mets-who because they’re down two starting pitchers lack another long reliever-are still shorthanded in the pen. They needed five innings from Perez at the least.

The bullpen situation affected Randolph’s decision making early in the game. With a 5-2 lead and two outs in the fifth, Perez came to the plate with two runners on base. It was a situation where sending up Julio Franco might have enabled them to break the game open. However, because Randolph’s available relievers are all wired to throw perhaps 30 pitches at a clip, he couldn’t afford to start the merry-go-round that early. He needed at least another inning from Perez, who struck out to end the frame.

As it turns out, it didn’t matter, because the Cardinals bullpen melted down in the middle of the game. The Cards’ pen had been arguably the biggest reason for the team’s 5-2 record in the postseason to date, shutting down the Padres and Mets in a number of high-leverage situations to put the Cardinals in the position they were in last night. Unfortunately, the dam broke, and the pen allowed 10 runs in five innings. Tony La Russa rolled the dice in the fourth, hitting for Reyes after the hurler had allowed two runs. (Non-Chris Carpenter starters in this series have thrown 17 2/3 innings and allowed four runs, a big boost for the Cards.) That decision was debatable, but the Cards had the fresher bullpen thanks to Jeff Suppan and Reyes, despite the reasonable line, was not pitching all that well.

Blaming the manager when his relievers allow nine runs before getting a fourth out may be missing the point, but La Russa did not help himself in the key innings of last night’s game. He opened the fifth wih Brad Thompson against the 2-3-4 spots in the Mets lineup. An error by Ronnie Belliard, a walk and a home run later, the Cards were down 5-2. Two batters later, after a Shawn Green single, La Russa brought in lefty Randy Flores to get out of the inning.

After a David Eckstein homer cut the lead to 5-3, La Russa started the sixth with Josh Hancock, who got hammered: after five batters and no outs, the Cards were down 7-3 with the bases loaded, and La Russa went to Tyler Johnson. The game was over at that point.

Take a look at the usage. La Russa managed to use three pitchers in a 13-batter stretch, one of them Randy Flores…but Carlos Delgado batted twice against right-handers in that span. Flores was brought in at the seven spot, after Delgado and Green had batted and used for two outs. Johnson came in to face Green in the sixth. Twice, La Russa had opportunities to force the middle of the Mets’ lineup to face lefties, and twice he went to right-handers.

Platoon matchups aren’t everything, although Tony La Russa has spent nearly 20 years managing as if they were. I’m not sure how you use both your lefties in consecutive innings and yet Carlos Delgado doesn’t face either of them. Perhaps it would not have helped anyway, but La Russa did not give the Cardinals the best chance to win last night with his decisions. If you’re going to beat the Mets, you start by making Beltran, Delgado and Green bat against lefties in close games.

Tonight is going to be very interesting, as two pitchers who can’t be considered “aces” take the mound in an ace role, pitching on short rest in what amounts to the first game of a best-of-three series. With both bullpens in reasonably good shape and an off day Tuesday, look for this to be another long game filled with pitching changes. The matchup clearly favors the Mets, who will run six left-handed batters and Tom Glavine, who hasn’t given up a run this postseason, against Jeff Weaver, who was on waivers 14 weeks ago. Weaver has made two good starts himself this October. The Cards need one more to give themselves a real chance at a huge upset.

  • The Cardinals need to come up with a different plan for pitching to Carlos Delgado, who seems to have figured out how to handle the fastball away. Delgado is going nuts to left and left-center, 6-for-14 in the series with every hit a long one, most of those to the opposite field.

    They can bust him inside, they can go up in the zone, they can take a four-fingered approach, but something has to change, and immediately.

  • Each of these games has been won by the team that played more and better bigball. Extra-base hits have put runs on the board and wins in the bank. The mythology of postseason baseball isn’t going away any time soon, but if you get your head out of your myth book and watch a game once in a while, you should be able to tell what’s getting it done: power.

Two offseasons ago, the Detroit Tigers signed Magglio Ordonez to a five-year, $75-million contract, a deal that was widely panned by nearly everyone. Too much money for too many years to too risky a player. Now, I stand by what I wrote at the time. The Tigers are still on the hook for $45 million over three years for a player who’s declining.

I also know this: if Ordonez asked for a raise today, the good people of Detroit would probably pass the hat for him.

Ordonez hit the game-tying and game-winning home runs in Saturday’s 6-3 win over the Tigers, rendering all debates over the wisdom of signing him moot. Ordonez may not have been a value signing at the time, but his contributions to a playoff team that may win a world championship mean that he’ll be a part of a revenue boost that more than pays for his salary. It’s not necessarily analytical, but it is real.

Ordonez’s three-run home run in the ninth inning off of Huston Street completed a sweep of the A’s and gave the Tigers their first AL pennant since 1984. They’ve been by far the most impressive team in this postseason, and will probably be a favorite in the World Series against either NL team. (I said differently in a chat session two weeks ago, but I’ve changed my mind.)

What I like is that the Tigers have shown an ability to win by getting ahead, and by coming from behind. I consider that one of the marks of a great team. They’ve won by getting a great start and leading all the way-the last two games against the Yankees, Games One and Three against the A’s-and they’ve also had some great comebacks, none better than winning after being down 3-0 in the fourth against the A’s on Saturday. Despite not having a good team OBP, they’ve shown some ability to have good at-bats in high-leverage situations. Their pitchers, especially their starters, are on the same kind of run the White Sox starters got on last year, allowing very little power.

It’s impressive baseball, and while the Tigers aren’t perfect any more than last year’s White Sox or the 2002 Angels or the late-1990s Yankees were, they’ve earned the accolades they’re receiving. They’re a good baseball team that’s playing very well right now, and is four games from a championship no one-except perhaps Nate Silver-saw coming six months or six weeks ago.

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