Tagged: World Series

Monday’s Bunts and Boots–Jacobs, The Weather, and Schilling

Brad Lidge had hardly secured the last out of the 2008 World Series when the Royals and Marlins quickly lit the match that started the Hot Stove burning this off season. In making the first trade of the fall (and winter), the Royals made it clear they will go in a different direction at first base in 2009, acquiring first baseman Mike Jacobs from the Marlins for live-armed right-hander Leo Nunez. Convinced that Ryan Shealy will never develop and apparently not yet full believers in Triple-A prospect Kila Ka’aihue, the Royals have decided that Jacobs will be their everyday first baseman in 2009. The move has already drawn criticism from Kansas City analysts, who cite Jacobs’ .299 on-base percentage as a problem for a team that already struggles to take pitches and draw walks. The criticism certainly has some merit, and will carry more steam if the Royals fail to address their on-base problems at other positions. But let’s not ignore the fact that Jacobs is still only 28 and has legitimate power. He hit 32 home runs and slugged .514 in 2008; there should always be room in a lineup for that kind of slugging percentage. And it’s not like the cost was prohibitive. Nunez throws hard and did pitch well, but he projects as a set-up reliever, which makes him an interchangeable part. When you have a chance to acquire a legitimate young slugger for a middle reliever, you almost always have to make the deal…

The constant calls that we’ve heard for a neutral site World Series have become a bit tiring. Most of the critics of Major League Baseball–and the decision to hold the World Series in late October–have ignored the fact that arguably the greatest Series ever included three straight days of rainouts. That was in 1975, when torrential rains in Boston created a 72-hour delay between the fifth and sixth games of that landmark series between the Red Sox and Reds. The long delay didn’t prevent the two teams from putting together a theatric Game Six, which ended on Carlton Fisk’s historic home run. Here’s the bigger question: did that stretch of inclement weather detract from the greatness of that Series? Not really, which is why I think some media members need to sit back and take some perspective on the issue of World Series weather. Let’s also remember that bad weather hasn’t really been much of an issue at the Series in recent years. The bigger problem has been the lack of competitive World Series, a shortcoming that really can’t be blamed on the weather… 

The Hall of Fame held a nice event over the weekend, holding a “Character and Courage Day” while unveiling three new bronze statues of Hall of Famers Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson, and Roberto Clemente–arguably the three greatest heroes the sport has ever produced. Rachel Robinson and Vera Clemente both attended the Saturday ceremony, lending touches of grace and class to the Cooperstown museum. The statues, all excellent likenesses of the three deceased legends, will be on permanent display in the main lobby of the museum. For those who visit the Hall of Fame, the statues of Clemente, Gehrig, and Robinson will be the first treasures they see upon entering the building. 

Unfortunately, a current-day major leaguer spoiled the proceedings–at least a little bit. The Hall invited Curt Schilling, primarily because of his involvement with ALS charities and his longtime admiration for Clemente. Unfortunately, Schilling couldn’t be bothered to stay for all of the programs, including a “Voices of the Game” panel discussion that was supposed to include him, two of Clemente’s sons and noted author Jonathan Eig. Instead, Schilling left the Hall of Fame immediately after the ribbon-cutting ceremony, claiming that he had to attend his son’s football game that afternoon. If that was indeed the case, why did Schilling promise Hall of Fame officials that he would participate in the panel discussion? Didn’t he realize that the Hall had promoted the program as an event that would include him, the marquee name on the dais, as one of its most prominent speakers? Typical Schilling. Always in a never-ending hurry to move on to the next engagement, he often acts like he has somewhere better to go, even if it means short-changing fans who have already paid their money. It’s no wonder why so many within the game consider Schilling one of baseball’s biggest phonies. 

World Series Notebook–October 30, 2008

This World Series will not go down as a classic–the Series really has to go six or seven games to achieve such status–but as five-game Series go, this was one of the best. Outside of Game Four, all of the games were competitive, close, and entertaining, even if the lateness of the games here on the East Coast continued to be a drag on World Series enthusiasm. Three of the Phillies’ four victories came by one run, which means that with a slight turn of fortune here and there, the Rays could have easily extended this to seven games, if not won it outright. But the Phillies pitched a little better, played much better defensively, and ran the bases far more wisely, giving themselves a much deserved world championship…

Chase Utley’s fake throw to first base, and follow-up throw to home to nail Jason Bartlett, will be remembered as one of the most cerebral plays in postseason history, right up there with Derek Jeter’s flip toss against the A’s in 2001. But let’s not blame Bartlett for the end result here. According to every analyst in attendance at the game, Bartlett never saw Utley’s pump fake to first. Rather, Bartlett was simply following the cue of his third base coach, who waved him on in an attempt to score. Already a great hitter to begin with, Utley has succeeded in enhancing his reputation as one of the headiest players in the game. Is there any second baseman that you’d rather have than Utley right now? I can’t think of one…

As well as Joe Maddon guided the Rays through their season of surpasses expectations, he did not manage one of his better games in the fifth game clincher. I thought he pulled Grant Balfour too quickly and then stayed with JP Howell too long, actually allowing him to come to bat in the top of the seventh inning. With a rested bullpen at his disposal and the season on the line, Maddon needed to pull out all the stops, including the use of pinch-hitters for his relief pitchers. Instead, Maddon managed like he was the one who was up three games to one, as the Rays fell just a bit short against Brad Lidge in the ninth inning…

Finally, a world championship for the Phillies brings to me my good friend, Don Casey, who died far too young a year and a half ago. A former Hall of Fame employee and the ultimate Phillies fan, one who stayed faithful to the cause during the many lean years that came after 1980, Don is probably smiling widely from above right now. For me, that’s what I’ll always think about most when I remember these championship Phillies of 2008. 

World Series Notebook–October 28, 2008

If Game Five of the World Series had been suspended on Monday night with the Phillies in the lead, Commissioner Bud Selig has indicated that he would have circumvented baseball’s rules, which dictated the Phillies be proclaimed the winners, and declared that the game be continued from that point at a later time. And that certainly would have been the right thing to do.

Frankly, it is time that baseball, rather than relying on the judgment of its commissioners, simply change its archaic rules about suspended and rain-interrupted games as they apply to the World Series. The rule should be simple: no World Series game can be considered final until it is played to its normal nine-inning or extra-inning conclusion. (Heck, we should probably expand this to include all of the postseason.) After all, the World Series is considered the showcase of the sport, the championship that pits the two best teams, at least in theory, in a given year. That way, there would no risk of the unthinkable: a World Series game declared a final after the fact–after the rains had made continuing the game an impossibility. There would also be no risk of a team being declared a world champion after the fact, which is exactly what could have happened if the Rays had not tied the score in the top of the sixth inning.

Baseball does not need such sister-kissing kinds of letdowns. These games are the most important of the season. They deserve to be played from start to finish, even if the finish happens a day or two later. Better said, they simply must be played to the finish. So let’s change the rules and make sure that always happens. 

World Series Notebook–October 27, 2008

After three highly competitive games that had done well to entertain most of the country, the World Series saddled us with a stinker on Sunday night. The Phillies’ 10-2 blowout lacked the sustained drama of the first three games, but may have marked the turning point in the Series. If the Rays had won, they would have guaranteed themselves a return trip to Florida; as it is, they are now fighting for their postseason lives while facing the unenviable project of having to defeat Cole Hamels on his home turf. It doesn’t look good for the Rays, though it certainly didn’t look good after they lost Game Six to the Red Sox, forcing them to beat Jon Lester the next day.

The Rays’ problems have been easy to diagnose. Their No. 3 and No. 4 hitters–Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria–have combined to go hitless through the first four games of the Series. Their starting pitching has been an utter disappointment, with Matt Garza and Andy Sonnanstine falling flat the last two games. And their defense continues a recent mysterious fade, after looking so strong in the early days of the postseason. Akinori Iwamura’s mishandling of a leadoff ground ball was the latest malfeasance, setting up an early unearned run for the Phillies.

In the meantime, the Phillies have solved their hitting woes with one fell swoop. On Sunday night, the Phils rapped out four hits with runners in scoring position, quadrupling their total from the first three games. Ryan Howard has simultaneously emerged from a postseason batting slump with three home runs in his last two games, including two dingers and five RBIs in the Game Four blowout. Jimmy Rollins is now hitting like the 2007 MVP edition, making life much easier for Jayson Werth, Chase Utley, and Howard.

So is there any way that the Phillies can be stopped? Of course they can. Hamels is due for a bad start, Longoria and Pena are due for a few hits, and the speed of B.J. Upton (when he wants to run) and Carl Crawford remain constant sources of concern for Philadelphia. But the Rays will need a stellar effort from Scott Kazmir, who has the ability to neutralize Utley and Howard and will force Rollins to swing from the right side. If Kazmir can at least match Hamels on the scoreboard, the Rays might be able to make David Price a factor again over the final three innings.

If not, then this World Series will end almost quickly as all the other Fall Classics have been doing since 2003.  Though I’m still rooting for the Phillies, the baseball fan in me wants to see the Rays pull out a win on Monday and push this Series to Wednesday in Tampa.

World Series Notebook–October 26, 2008

Evan Longoria is taking some heat for his decision not to allow Carlos Ruiz’ game-winning grounder to go foul at the end of Game Three, but I think the criticism is a bit over the top. First off, no one can be sure that Ruiz’ ground ball would have gone foul. It looked like it might have, but in that situation a player has to be sure, and there’s no way that Longoria could have been given the distance between the ball and the foul line. Some of Longoria’s critics have also overlooked an important consideration: if Longoria’s throw had been true, he would have retired lead runner Eric Bruntlett at the plate. When all was said and done, Longoria made the right decision, if not perfect execution, on what amounted to a difficult play…. 

Given the Phillies’ monumental struggles with runners in scoring position–stunningly, they have only once hit in such situations through three games– it’s rather remarkable they’ve taken a lead of two games to one in the World Series. The Phillies can thank the quality of their left-handed starting pitchers, with both Cole Hamels and the ageless Jamie Moyer turning in gems, and the power their batters displayed with the bases empty in Game Three. Still, the Phillies will have to step up their situational hitting if they are to complete a World Series win over the resilient Rays…

Baserunning continues to be astonishingly bad in this World Series. In the bottom of the eighth inning, Jayson Werth (representing the go-ahead run in the game) managed to get himself picked off at second base with only one man out. Werth joins Tampa Bay’s Carlos Pena and B.J. Upton as baserunning goats in the Series…

I was a bit surprised that Joe Maddon didn’t pinch-hit for Gabe Gross in the ninth inning of Saturday night’s game. With left-hander J.C. Romero on the mound and Gross struggling monumentally since mid-September, a move to use a pinch-hitter like Rocco Baldelli seemed logical. Maddon did use a pinch-hitter later in the inning when he called on Ben Zobrist, but by then, there were already two men out and no one on base, which dramatically reduced the Rays’ chances of scoring. Baldelli never did get in the game, despite the fact that he has put together some excellent at-bats during the postseason. 

World Series Notebook–October 23, 2008

As much as anything, bad baserunning did in the Rays in Game One of the World Series. The enigmatic B.J. Upton continued to display his atrocious habit of lackadaisical effort on the basepaths, not once but twice failing to run hard on batted balls that resulted in double plays. I’ve talked ad nauseam about Upton this year, but it is absolutely unfathomable that a major league player would fail to run out batted balls on the ultimate stage of the World Series. In response to the Upton apologists who have tried to rationalize his indefensible lack of hustle, I have to ask: what in the world is Upton conserving his energy for? The season has a maximum of six games to go; there’s no reason not to run out every batted ball the rest of the way, no matter where on the field it is hit. Unbelievable.

Then there was the hard-to-figure baserunning of Carlos Pena in the sixth inning. After Pena reached on a leadoff gift by Ryan Howard–a groundball that he fumbled twice before throwing to first base late–Pena got caught leaning by Cole Hamels, who threw to Howard, who in turn made a good throw to second base. I’m not sure why Pena was even contemplating a stolen base in that situation. He’s has average speed to begin with, plus the Rays had the middle of the order coming up with no one out. Pena’s faux pas erased what turned out to be the Rays’ best scoring opportunity over the final four innings. That’s because Ryan “Mad Dog” Madson, once again throwing in the high 90s, and closer Brad Lidge were virtually unhittable over the final two frames, cementing a 3-2 win for the Phillies in Game One…

On paper, the Rays appear to have the advantage in Game Two, with James “Big Game” Shields rating the nod over the up-and-down Brett Myers. It’s practically a must-win game for the Rays, who would otherwise be staring down the barrell of a two-game deficit, with both losses coming before their frenetic fans at Tropicana Field…

Shields’ presence on the mound will allow Greg Dobbs to make his first start of the Series as the DH. He’s already one of the game’s best pinch-hitters, and might become Philadelphia’s everyday left fielder in 2009–assuming that Pat “The Bat” Burrell signs elsewhere as a free agent…

In the meantime, Joe Maddon is making an interesting choice in right field for Game Two. Even though a right-hander is on the mound for the Phils, Maddon’s opting for Rocco Baldelli over the left-handed hitting Gabe Gross. That means that Gross and Ben Zobrist will both be available as pinch-hitters late, which could give Maddon some extra options in the late innings of a close game against Madson and Lidge. If Maddon needs a pinch-hitter for Jason Bartlett late, he’ll certainly have his choice of a good one. 

Postseason Notebook–October 22, 2008

More than anything, baseball needs a long and competitive World Series. Remarkably, we haven’t had anything other than four and five-game Series since 2003, when the Marlins and Yankees played a six-game Series. And we haven’t had a classic Series since 2002, when the Angels pulled off their late-inning miracle in Game Seven against the Giants. Let’s hope that the Phillies and the Rays, at the very least, can give us a six or seven-game event that isn’t a foregone conclusion by Game Three…

The Phillies face perhaps the most intriguing strategical dilemma as the Series approaches. Who will DH for them in Games One and Two, which will be played at Tropicana Field, the American League home site? Greg Dobbs, one of the game’s best pinch-hitters, is the obvious choice for Game Two, when the Rays will throw a right-hander at the Phillies. But what about Game One, which will feature Tampa Bay southpaw Scott Kazmir. In my mind, the best option would be to play supersub Chris Coste at first base and move Ryan Howard to DH. That way, if the Phillies need to pinch-hit for starting catcher Carlos Ruiz late in the game, they can move Coste behind the plate without losing their DH for the rest of the game. Coste is also a far better hitter than either So Taguchi or Eric Bruntlett, who represent the two other right-handed options for Charlie Manuel…

I keep reading that scouts feel the Rays have the better bench than the Phillies, but I don’t see it. Coste is a much better backup catcher than Michael Hernandez, and Dobbs is the best pinch-hitter on either team. Furthermore, the Phillies have an excellent power bat in Matt Stairs, who will be available to pinch-hit in the late innings of all seven games. As for the Rays, they have two good platoons going in right field and DH, which will give them two solid pinch-hitting options each night. After those two players (coming from a group of Rocco Baldelli, Gabe Gross, Willy Aybar, and Cliff Floyd), the Rays also have the versatile Ben Zobrist, which probably puts their bench on equal footing with the Phillies, but not better…

All in all, this is a tough Series to call. The Rays compiled the better record this season against tougher competition, but the Phillies have the best pitcher in Cole Hamels, and a bullpen that is better and deeper than the Rays, even with the David Price factor being included. So let’s go with the Phillies in seven, with most of the games being decided by three runs or fewer.