When Joe Torre began his managerial career 33 years ago, he did not believe in the old baseball adages about good pitching always beating good hitting, pitching winning championships, and pitching being 80 percent of the game. Torre believed hitting was equally as important as pitching. That was understandable, considering that Torre was quite the hitter during an 18-year career that spanned from 1960-77, as he had .297/.365/452 slash stats with a .298 career Equivalent Average and 252 home runs in 2,209 games.
Then Torre made the transition from player to manager during the 1977 season with the Mets. With that new frame of reference, it did not take long for him to understand the importance of pitching. “We’d had the great starting rotation there but because of ownership reasons we had to start trading guys away,” Torre said. “First we traded Tom Seaver. Then we traded Jon Matlack. After that, we traded Jerry Koosman. The late Rube Walker was our pitching coach, and after every trade I’d say that it was OK because we needed to have an offensive identity and we couldn’t always be looked at as strictly a pitching franchise. Every time I would say that, Rube would shake his head. Eventually, I understood why Rube always shook his head.”
Torre found out the hard way with the Mets, suffering through seasons of 96, 99, and 95 losses before being fired in 1981. But Torre has had much success since those Mets’ days as his 2,245 victories in 28 seasons rank him fifth on the all-time list behind Connie Mack (3,731), John McGraw (2,763), Tony La Russa (2,551), and Bobby Cox (2,411). Torre has won 12 division titles, six pennants, and four World Series.
The Dodgers became the first National League team to clinch a playoff spot yesterday, which means Torre will be managing in his 14th consecutive postseason next month when he leads them into the playoffs for a second year. That comes after guiding the Yankees to the postseason in 12 seasons with them. Thus, Torre fully understands what it takes to be successful in October. “You have to have pitching,” Torre said. “You have to have good starting pitching and a good bullpen, too. If you have starters who can get you through six innings and keep it close and then a bullpen that can take you through the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings, you’re going to give yourself a chance to win. In the postseason, you really have to play for one run at a time. You can’t put yourself in a position where you’re going to need to score five runs in an inning because you are just facing too much good pitching.”
A month ago, there were questions about the Dodgers having enough pitching to make a significant run in the postseason. They were so thin on starters that they signed right-hander Vicente Padilla, even though the Rangers had released him while in the midst of the pennant race in the American League because he had caused so many problems in their clubhouse. The Dodgers also traded for Diamondbacks right-hander Jon Garland on August 31, the last day players could be acquired and still be eligible for a team’s post-season roster.
However, Torre is confident in his starting pitching now. He believes right-hander Chad Billingsley took a major step toward rebuilding his confidence with a solid outing against the Nationals this past week. Left-hander Clayton Kershaw is scheduled to start this afternoon against the Pirates in Pittsburgh after missing three weeks when he separated his non-throwing shoulder while crashing into the outfield fence at Dodger Stadium as he caught a fly ball during batting practice. “We have a lot of options now, a lot of good options,” Torre said.
The Dodgers are first in the major leagues in runs allowed with an average of 3.7 runs a game. However, to some ways of thinking, they don’t have an established ace who can dominate a short series. Kershaw is 14th in the majors in SNWP and 17th with a 6.0 SNLVAR, but he is just 21 and has already logged 161 innings this season, so fatigue is a concern. Wolf is 25th and 21st in each stat (respectively); though a veteran, he has never pitched in the postseason. However, Torre likes his chances if he can turn post-season games into six-inning affairs because of his back-end bullpen trio of closer Jonathan Broxton (5.79), right-handed set-up man Ramon Troncoso (3.42) and left-hand George Sherrill (1.79 since being acquired from the Orioles in a July trade).
The Dodgers are third in the NL in runs scored averaging 4.9 a game, but lead the league in team-wide EqA with a .273 mark. They also have a formidable middle of the order in left fielder Manny Ramirez (.333 EqA), center fielder Matt Kemp (.307), and right fielder Andre Ethier (.304). “Those three guys are all big threats but our lineup is deeper than that,” Torre said. “I feel we have pretty good hitters up and down the lineup.”
His strong outfield aside, Torre can’t help but remember back to those lessons learned early on in his managerial career as he looks ahead to October. “You have to have pitching to win,” Torre said. “Ultimately, how we fare in the postseason is all going to rely on the pitching staff. I like our pitching. I think our staff is in very good shape right now. I’ll take our chances with the guys we have.”
Cox announced this week that he plans to retire as the Braves’ manager after next season. He signed a contract that takes him through 2010 as manager then keeps him in the organization as a consultant through 2015. The Braves have a shot to make the postseason after sitting at home the last three Octobers following their run of 14 division titles in a 15-year stretch from 1991-2005. That’s because they are within three games behind the Rockies in the NL wild-card standings with eight days left in the season.
With an eye towards 2010, Braves players know that getting Cox back to the postseason would be the perfect sendoff both this year and next. “I think that maybe some guys are going to take a little more pride to give him at least one more run to the playoffs and maybe give him a chance to win a ring again,” right-hander Jair Jurrjens said. Said catcher Brian McCann, “We definitely want to send him out on a good note and get this organization back to where it was, and that’s on top of the division and making a post-season appearance every single year.”
Third baseman Chipper Jones initially joked that he would only believe Cox would actually retire when he sees it before turning serious. “Bobby’s as much a part of Atlanta Braves baseball as Skip Caray or Pete Van Wieren and all those guys were, more so because he’s been the one constant that we’ve had over the last 20 years,” Jones said. “It will be a sad day when he leaves.”
General manager Frank Wren said he had no immediate plans to start looking for Cox’s successor. However, those close to Wren believe he will look outside the organization because he wants to put to begin putting his own stamp on the organization after taking over for John Schuerholz, who was promoted to club president prior to last season. Wren also wants to have a good working relationship with the next manager, and he and Cox are barely on speaking terms despite their public comments to the contrary.
“Obviously the way things are done around here may change,” Jones said. “That could be good, could be bad. Guys around here are used to the way Bobby runs a camp, the way he runs a clubhouse and the way he runs a game. Something different could be culture shock but, I mean, there could be some positives, could be some negatives. We’ve just got wait to see who the lucky soul is.”
A year after their stunning run to the American League pennant, the Rays were eliminated from playoff contention this past week. Instead of gearing up for a second straight World Series appearance, the Rays are trying to finish above .500 for just the second time in the franchise’s 12-year history as they are 78-76.
The Rays are trying to look on the bright side. However, 2009 has clearly been a letdown after they led the major leagues with 97 wins in the regular season last year. “We had a good season,” left fielder Carl Crawford said. “Hopefully we’ll still finish with a winning record. We had our opportunities, and we let it slip. Hopefully we learn from it and come back next year and compete. It’s disappointing because the expectations were so high in spring training. We didn’t do what we set out to do, but we still got some good things out of it.”
Manager Joe Maddon said he liked the attitude and effort of his team this season, but cannot hide from the idea that the Rays expected more after getting their first taste of the postseason last October. “I’m really not the symbolic kind of guy, but believe me, it’s annoying and it’s not the way we wanted this year to end,” Maddon said. “Even a month ago, we were so close to getting over the hump, and we were just unable to do so. But I like the way everybody’s hanging together. There are a lot of lessons to be learned through negative experiences also.”
It was quite symbolic that the Rays were eliminated in a game in which reliever Dan Wheeler gave up a game-winning home run in the eighth inning. Ten times since August 7, the Rays have allowed a homer from the eighth inning on that cost them a lead.
The Angels can put the finishing touches on their third straight AL West title when they host the second-place Rangers in a four-game series beginning Monday. The Angels hold a five-game lead with eight to play. However, it is doubtful that the Angels’ eventual clincher will be any sweeter than their 10-5 victory over the Rangers last Sunday at Arlington. Following that game, the Angels thought back to when they were swept there by the Rangers in a three-game series in mid-May. That sweep gave the Rangers a 4½-game lead on the Angels. Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler was caught by television cameras at the end of the third game, yelling “Get the (expletive) off our field” towards the Angels’ dugout.
Angels right-hander John Lackey was able to have the last laugh after winning last Sunday’s game. “They were definitely talking,” Lackey said. “We’ll let them do that. We’re worried about winning games. We notice that kind of stuff, for sure, but nothing needed to be said. We try to fly flags. We don’t talk.”
MLB Rumors and rumblings: An interesting piece of trade speculation that keeps coming up is that the Cubs will send Milton Bradley to the Rays for Pat Burrell in a swap of disappointing free-agent outfielders, with Chicago picking up the $15 million difference in what is left on the players’ contracts. The Padres, Giants, and Athletics are also possible destinations for Bradley if the Cubs put a large sum of a cash in a deal. … Mets outfielder Gary Sheffield says he wants to play one final season in 2010, and would prefer to finish his career with the Marlins, Rays, Astros, or Rangers. … The Cardinals‘ original plan when they signed right-hander John Smoltz following his release by the Red Sox was to use him in relief in the postseason, but he is now shaping up as their fourth starter in October after Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, and Joel Pineiro. … The White Sox won’t exercise the $12 million mutual option on outfielder Jermaine Dye‘s contract for 2010, and the Giants won’t pick up the $8.1 million club option on second baseman Freddy Sanchez, though both teams would be willing to work out deals at reduced prices. … The Brewers are expected to exercise their half of a mutual $6.5 million option on Braden Looper for next season, but the right-hander may decline his half in hopes of landing a multi-year deal with Milwaukee or another club. … A group headed by Pittsburgh attorney Chuck Greenberg could emerge as the favorite to buy the Rangers from Tom Hicks, especially now that it appears club president and Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan will join the bid. White Sox special assistant and former super-agent Dennis Gilbert is also putting together a group that will try to buy the club. … Al Pedrique, who has served as a special assistant to GM Ed Wade, is expected to get strong consideration for the vacancy at manager for the ballclub. … Diamondbacks right-hander Brandon Webb plans to test free agency if, as expected, his $8.5 million club option is not exercised. … Rangers left-handed reliever Eddie Guardado is leaning toward retiring at the end of the season. … The Mets are expected to pursue Rockies right-hander Jason Marquis in free agency. … Outfielder Rick Ankiel is expected to leave the Cardinals as a free agent in the winter, and the Pirates are one team that will have interest.
Three series to watch this week, with probable pitching matchups (all times Eastern):
Twins at Tigers, Monday-Thursday (September 28-October 1)
Nick Blackburn vs. Rick Porcello, 7:05 p.m. (MLB Network); Brian Duensing vs. Justin Verlander, 7:05 p.m. (MLB Network); Carl Pavano vs. Eddie Bonine, 7:05 p.m.; Scott Baker vs. Nate Robertson, 1:05 p.m.
Rangers at Angels, Monday-Thursday (September 28-October 1)
Tommy Hunter vs. Ervin Santana, 10:05 p.m.; Scott Feldman vs. Scott Kazmir, 10:05 p.m.; Derek Holland vs. Jered Weaver, 10:05 p.m.; Kevin Millwood vs. John Lackey, 6:05 p.m.