Tagged: Postseason

Postseason Notebook–October 20, 2008

The Tampa Bay Rays have themselves a new closer–along with their first American League pennant!

On Sunday, the Rays did what probably 85 per cent of baseball fans thought they would not do, and that is win a Game Seven against a steamrolling Red Sox team featuring its ace, Jon Lester. Among others, Rays manager Joe Maddon redeemed himself for that awful collapse in Game Five. Maddon managed the eighth inning of Game Seven as if it was the ninth inning–and that is exactly what he should have done considering that the Red Sox had the heart of the order batting. After relieving a tired Matt Garza and replacing him with Dan Wheeler to start the inning, Maddon played the matchups throughout the fateful frame. He skillfully used JP Howell, Chad Bradford, and David Price, taking away Boston’s platoon advantage whenever possible, And then Maddon showed true grit in the ninth, when he left the inexperienced Price, who has less than a year of pro ball on his resume, on the mound to finish off the game. Price has the best stuff of anyone on the Rays’ staff–and that includes Garza and Scott Kazmir–making him the best option to handle the bottom of the Sox’ order. Price will also become the Rays’ principal closer in the upcoming Series against the Phillies.

Along with Maddon, I feel especially good for Rocco Baldelli, who drove in the game-winning run for the Rays in the bottom of the fifth. No major league player has suffered the swarm of injuries and illness that has plagued Baldelli, a onetime top prospect whose career seemed over at more than one juncture this year. We now know that the former comparisons to Joe DiMaggio are ridiculous, but Baldelli still has a chance to become a serviceable major league outfielder. He can play all three outfield positions, has legitimate power, and has shown little fear throughout this postseason. Outside of Phillies fans, just about all of America will be rooting for Baldelli in this World Series.  

As for the Red Sox, another incredible postseason comeback ended because of their inability to hit after the first inning of Game Seven. After Dustin Pedroia’s early home run against Garza, the Sox managed exactly one hit the remainder of the night. The Red Sox’ hitters still grinded out at-bats in typical Soxian fashion, fouling off pitch after pitch with two strikes, but they simply could not finish off those at-bats with a sufficient number of hits and walks. The Red Sox were also done in by the lack of right-handed bats available to pinch-hit in the ninth. Mark Kotsay, allowed to bat against Price, went down easily, as did Jed Lowrie, the replacement for Alex Cora. Here’s where the Red Sox may regret their decision to carry three catchers in the series, including two light-hitting backups.

With the Red Sox eliminated, the World Series ratings will suffer, but diehard fans of the game probably care little about the lament of television executives. Those fans will now prepare for what appears to be a very even matchup, featuring two franchises with a grand total of one world championship between them. Well, that total will double over the next 10 to 12 days.

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Postseason Notebook–October 17, 2008

Two thoughts come to mind in recalling the Red Sox’ historic comeback in Game Five of the ALCS. First, the Red Sox are an amazingly good team when it comes to hitting with two outs and runners in scoring position. From Dustin Pedroia to David Ortiz to J.D. Drew, the Red Sox’ hitters continue to display the kind of doggedness, determination, and patience that make them as tough to pitch to as any team in the game.

Second, Joe Maddon did not manage a very good game for the Rays. He made several tactical errors in Game Five, mostly involving his pitching staff. For example, Maddon didn’t necessarily have to take Scott Kazmir out after pitching six shutout innings. Yes, Kazmir had already thrown 111 pitches, but he had shown few signs of tiring and could have been pushed a little harder considering that his next start would not have occurred until a) the World Series next week or b) next season. Maddon also displayed far too much patience in keeping Dan Wheeler on the mound throughout the seventh and eighth innings. Wheeler doesn’t have much raw stuff to begin with, but can survive when his control is good. Unfortunately, it was abysmal on Thursday night. He should have been taken out after coughing up the two-run homer to Drew in the eighth inning, if not sooner. That brings us to a third point with Maddon. He failed to call on one of his most reliable relievers, Chad Bradford, despite the fact that his bullpen was taking on flood water in the final three innings. As Wheeler, Grant Balfour, and J.P. Howell blew up, Bradford remained chained to the bullpen.

So what does all of this mean for Game Six? Damned if I know. The Red Sox have the same kind of true grit that helped them come back in 2004 against the Yankees and in 2007 against the Indians. They’re certainly capable of winning two more games in this series. As for the Rays, they’ve forged a remarkable record at home this year and have shown little inclination toward allowing crushing defeats to leave lasting impressions.

While I have no idea who will win this series, I do know this. I am glad that we will have some baseball to enjoy and savor this weekend. 

Postseason Notebook–October 16, 2008

More than anything, I’m thinking of Don Casey today. Don was a good friend of mine who died a year and a half ago, the victim of a heart related ailment. In addition to being a caring and outgoing guy, he was also the most loyal Phillies fan I’ve ever met, someone who was patiently waiting for a repeat of the 1980 championship season. Don left us before the Phillies could do justice to his wishes, but today he must be nodding approvingly from his perch high above us. Congratulations, Don. You deserve it…

 

In winning a 5-1 decision in the fifth game clincher against the Dodgers, Cole Hamels solidified his position as the best starting pitcher left standing in this postseason. I’m sure that Jon Lester’s fans will beg to differ, but he lost his No. 1 ranking to Hamels after his flameout in Game Three of the ALCS. Hamels also has the best change-up of any pitcher in this postseason; that pitch, coupled with his 94-mile per hour fastball and solid control, will make the Phillies very difficult to defeat in the first and fifth games of the upcoming World Series…

 

Shane Victorino’s temper tantrum against Hiroki Kuroda might have changed his name from “The Flying Hawaiian” to “Hawaiian Punch,” but his impressive defensive play in center field left a far more lasting impression with me. Few center fielders cover the right field gap the way that the rangy Victorino does. He also has a right fielder’s throwing arm, which could make for an interesting showdown against Tampa Bay’s speedy base runners, assuming the Rays are able to finish off the Red Sox. We’ve already heard plenty of comparisons between Victorino and former Phillies stalwart Lenny Dykstra. “Nails” was a better offensive player than Victorino and might have been a slightly better center fielder, but Hawaiian Punch brings exactly the same kind of energy and grit that Dykstra did during his hey day in New York and Philadelphia…

 

I’ve never seen Ryan Madson throw as hard as he did in pitching a scoreless eighth inning in the Game Five clincher. Madson regularly hit 97 miles per hour, giving him a nice contrast between his riding fastball and sinking change-up. Madson has always been a mystery man for the Phillies, a talented right-hander who couldn’t hold up to starting every fifth day, but has become a devastating set-up weapon in Charlie Manuel’s deep bullpen. With Madson and Chad Durbin from the right side and Scott Eyre and J.C. Romero from the left, Manuel has four terrific options for the sixth, seventh, and eighth innings of games…

 

So what exactly happened to the Dodgers? Other than Manny Ramirez, few of their hitters showed up in this five-game series. Dodgers cleanup batters left a dozen runners on base throughout the series, while Rafael Furcal and Andre Ethier failed to set the table in the top two spots. Furcal had a miserable series all the way around, doing his best Willie Davis impression with three errors in the fifth inning of Game Five. Then there was the managing of Joe Torre, who misused his bullpen in Game Four and mysteriously buried Matt Kemp in the seventh spot in the batting order. Kemp, who hit batted .333 in the five games, should have been batting ahead of Russell Martin and Casey Blake in the Dodger lineup. In fact, Kemp would have made perfect sense as the cleanup man behind Ramirez.

 

Postseason Notebook–October 13, 2008

Normally masterful during the postseason, Joe Torre made a series of highly questionable bullpen moves in Game Four of the National League Championship Series, as the Dodgers absorbed their third loss in four games. The second-guessing–or was it first-guessing?–began when Torre took Derek Lowe out after five innings, despite the fact that the veteran sinkerballer had a low pitch count in the 70s and seemed to have settled in to a groove. Instead, Torre turned to rookie left-hander Clayton Kershaw, trusting the 20-year-old in a critical one-run playoff game.

Two innings later, Torre delivered the real head-scratching moment of the game. In the top of the eighth inning, he removed Hong-Chi Kuo, who had breezed through the seventh inning, replacing him with Cory Wade. After watching Wade allow a game-tying home run to Shane Victorino, Torre then summoned closer Jonathan Broxton, who proceeded to give up a game-deciding two-run shot to supersub Matt Stairs. By the end of this quagmire of befuddling bullpen moves, the Dodgers had to crawl home as 7-5 losers, putting them on the precipice of postseason elimination…

While the Phillies have taken control of the NLCS, the resurgent Rays are threatening to do the same in the American League. It’s amazing how quickly momentum can shift in these short postseason series. Let’s remember that the Red Sox, fresh off a 2-0 win in Game One, had taken an early lead in Game Two, scoring two first-inning runs against a laboring Scott Kazmir. Since that moment, the Rays have dominated the scoreboard, scoring 18 runs against one of the game’s premier pitching staffs. Their young hitters, led by B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria, have shown little fear in taking in their first doses of postseason play.

The Red Sox’ offense simply hasn’t been able to keep pace with the Rays. As good as the Red Sox are, they do not have the offensive firepower of their 2004 and 2007 editions. We all know that Manny Ramirez is gone, but it’s the back end of the lineup that really suffers, in part because of the absence of Mike Lowell. Their bottom three of Mark Kotsay, Jed Lowrie (or Alex Cora) and Jason Varitek brings little thump to the table.  Kotsay is playing for the purposes of speed and defense, Varitek is virtually shot as a hitter, and Lowrie, while a good complementary player, doesn’t hit with much more than occasional power. With their offense running at something less than full efficiency, it becomes even more imperative for the Red Sox’ vaunted pitching staff to regroup and keep them close at the outset of Games Four and Five.

Postseason Notebook–October 11, 2008

If the Rays go on to lose a closely contested American League Championship Series in six or seven games, they will have to look no further than the seventh and eighth innings of Game One against the Red Sox. In the seventh, the Rays put runners on first and third with no one out–and didn’t score. In the eighth, they put their first two runners on base–and didn’t score. The lack of timely hitting failed to erase a 2-0 deficit, as the Red Sox continued what has been an amazing postseason run. Dating back to last year, the Sox have now won 10 of their last 11 postseason games, thereby putting themselves within three games of a return to the World Series…

Daisuke Matsuzaka continues to amaze with his tightrope ability to escape from repeated run-scoring situations. Matsuzaka’s refusal to give in to opposing batters has resulted in a bevy of walks this season–an average of about five per game–but he makes up for it with his ability to deliver key pitches at just the right time, whether he’s ahead or behind in the count. Of course, the Rays didn’t help themselves on Friday night by swinging at 3-0 pitches on two separate occasions–once against Daisuke and once against the Sox bullpen–with outs resulting both times…

Finally, is there something that can be done about the dawdling of Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon? By my own conservative estimates, Papelbon regularly took 20 seconds or more between pitches, with no runners on base the entire inning, in finishing out Game One. On one occasion, I had him timed at 31 seconds! My goodness, the rules dictate a maximum of 12 seconds between pitches when there are no runners on base. The umpires either need to warn Papelbon, or start calling automatic balls on him, just as the rules dictate they should.  

Postseason Notebook–October 9, 2008

As the two franchises resurrect a playoff rivalry that reached its heights during the seventies and eighties, the Phillies appear to have a distinct advantage over the Dodgers in the 2008 National League Championship Series. They had by far the better record during the regular season, played much tougher competition within their division, and scored significantly more runs. Well, not so fast. The Dodgers have better pitching and a proven playoff-winning manager in future Hall of Famer Torre. Given all of these factors, this series looks exceedingly even-matched to me, giving us the distinct possibility of a Game Seven, winner-take-all situation.

For the Phillies to win, they really need to claim the games started by staff ace Cole Hamels, who is the best pitcher on either staff. If Hamels can win the first and fifth games, that leaves the Phillies needing only two wins on days when Brett Myers, Jamie Moyer, and Bulldog Blanton are starting. The non-Hamels games will be tougher ones for Philadelphia, since the pitching matchups against Chad Billingsley, Hiroki Kuroda, and an unannounced starter  (either Greg Maddux or Clayton Kershaw) figure to be relative tossups. I also wonder how the lefty-throwing Moyer will fare against a Dodger lineup that has right-handed studs like Russell Martin, Manny Ramirez, and Matt Kemp.

Another key factor will involve the run differential in the games. The closer the games, the more I like Torre, who is a supremly underrated postseason skipper and should have the tactical advantage against a less strategic Charlie Manuel. While Manuel has done an exceedingly good job for the Phils over the last two seasons, his strength has never been one-upping his managerial counterparts. His handling of the bullpen sometimes leaves something to be desired, while Torre’s preference for concentrating his innings on his better relievers makes good sense in the postseason, if not as much during the regular season.

All in all, this series looks like it has a chance to match the intensity of those Phillies-Dodgers matchups from 1976 to ’78. The names have changed, from Pete Rose, Steve Garvey, and Mike Schmidt to Ryan Howard, Manny Ramirez, and Chase Utley, but the talent level, the caliber of competition, and the ultimate stakes remain high. Let’s go with the Phillies in seven, as we finally find a postseason series that manages to go the distance.

Postseason Notebook–October 7, 2008

The Red Sox have become the Yankees. The Yankees of 1996-2001, that is. The Red Sox do everything that a great team is supposed to do. They hit in the clutch. They score runs with two outs. They make above-average plays, and sometimes spectacular ones, in the field. And they pitch, everyone from staff ace Jon Lester to new middle man Justin Masterson to hyperactive closer Jonathan Papelbon.

The Red Sox have plenty of talent, but talent alone is not what makes the Red Sox exceptional. They also have a mental toughness that helps them come back late in games, and helps them win so many one-run games in the eighth and ninth innings. In addition, their players are unselfish. Both veterans and rookies alike switch from position to position, but without making federal cases about the alleged hardship of such inconvenience. Mark Kotsay, a career-long outfielder, plays first base like he’s ready to win a Gold Glove. MVP candidate Kevin Youkilis switches seamlessly from first to third base. Rookie infielder Jed Lowrie plays shortstop one day, then third base the next, and looks fine either way. They all do it without complaint. A few other teams, like the Yankees of today, should take note of the versatility–and the selflessness.

None of this means the Red Sox are guaranteed to win the American League pennant over the next week. The rival Rays are playing almost as well, and will have home field advantage in the first two games. The Red Sox will also have to make do without Mike Lowell, and perhaps Josh Beckett, who isn’t anywhere close to 100 per cent, even if he’s able to pitch. The Red Sox could lose this series, largely because the Rays have become a very good team almost overnight and have the kind of pitching that could put the shackles on David Ortiz, Jason Bay, and J.D. Drew. But the Sox won’t lose this series because of their own ineptitude. The Red Sox will only lose if the Rays play an outstanding series, with the kind of pitching and defense that Boston displayed against Los Angeles. The days of the Red Sox shooting themselves in their collective feet are over…

A few other notes from the Red Sox’ five-game win over the Angels: As highly as I regard Terry Francona as a manager, I did have some questions when he pulled Jon Lester, his newly emerged staff ace, after seven innings. Lester had thrown 109 pitches at that point, but had shown little fatigue through the sixth and the seventh innings.  If he was laboring at all, I must have missed it. The move almost cost the Sox the game, as relievers Hideki Okajima and Masterson combined to allow the game-tying runs to score in the top of the eighth. Masterson then escaped trouble in the ninth, as Erick Aybar (one of many goats for the Angels) completely missed a bunt attempt on a suicide squeeze…

While Mark Teixeira raised his bargaining power with a terrific four-game performance, no Angel lost more value than Howie Kendrick. Other than his two-hit effort in Game Three, Kendrick was an offensive nonentity throughout the series, as he continually swung at (and missed) outside breaking balls, especially down and away. Kendrick also looked shaky in the field, getting mixed up with Torii Hunter in Game Three and botching a possible double-play ball in Game Four. He simply didn’t look like the player that the Angels have touted as their second baseman of the present and the future…

Sean Casey is a better hitter than Mark Kotsay, but the latter’s range at first base, along with the speed that he brings to the bottom of Boston’s lineup, make him a logical candidate to play first base against right-handers in the upcoming Championship Series. The tougher question for Francona is this: how does he configure his lineup against left-hander Scott Kazmir? Does he let Kotsay start against a southpaw, or does he move Youkilis back to first, slide Lowrie over to third, and let Alex Cora take shortstop? It might be the toughest question that Francona faces as he prepares for his return trip to the ALCS.