There will be no more opening the At Bat app at noon and finding anything to do but answer the phone in my office, until next April. There will be no more walking home with my son from daycare, with my phone propped in the hood of my sweatshirt to act as a boom box. There won’t even be any more laying awake as my wife falls asleep, listening rapt to the end of a long day that began in Detroit and now concludes in Los Angeles. October Madness, if you will, is over.
Baseball is terrific this time of year, and as the quantity of teams remaining in the tournament dwindles, the quality of baseball (and the legitimacy of the competition) rises. It’s a melancholy moment, though, when one realizes that the all-day frenzy of meaningful games is gone. Monday was the last day with that feel to it that we’ll have in 2013.
It didn’t disappoint, though. It would be hard to write a more compelling script, a more gripping series of finishes and fracases. The individual performances and the dramatic moments came from unexpected places and at unexpected points, which only heightened the joyousness of it all.
Athletics at Tigers
Good pitchers prevent long sequences of positive offensive events, even against good hitters. What they can’t do, though, is prevent positive outcomes altogether. That’s why it’s crucial, when facing great pitching staffs come October, to be able to score without three hits, ot two hits and a bunt, or two hits and a stolen base, or whatever. Power is a prerequisite to post-season success.
The Oakland Athletics have no shortage of power. Despite playing in a home park that favors pitching, the A’s hit 186 home runs, third-most in the Majors. They also finished third in isolated slugging, and third in walks, the latter being a critical element of a homer-centric offense—every now and then, guys have to be on base when the ball leaves the park.
Josh Reddick, Brandon Moss and Seth Smith brought that power to bear once each over the course of the fourth and fifth innings Monday, pushing across four of what would be six Oakland runs on the day. That was enough, as Jarrod Parker and the bullpen kept the Tigers in the ballpark.
Miguel Cabrera only saw eight pitches in his four trips to the plate, netting a long single but nothing else. By general consensus, Cabrera had every right to second base on the line drive he hit. It went fairly deep into the left-field corner. He never even considered it, though. It’s clear he’s not right, right now, and the unhealthy Cabrera is not helping the team in any way. This is another good discussion point, although it’s hardly something teams can plan for or build around: You’re only as good as the team you actually take into October. Health, or the lack thereof, can make teams who were very good for most of the regular season look pedestrian and thoroughly beatable in a short series.
Now the A’s have two chances to win one game. They should be proactive, even though a Game 5 would be at home in Oakland. Doug Fister is going to be much easier to beat than Max Scherzer would be, venue be damned. Oakland is healthier, deeper and better able to adapt to what the Tigers can throw at them. It looks for all the world like Billy Beane is going to be on national TV again very soon.
Cardinals at Pirates
This was one of those games people might forget about, in time, but that fans who treasure the game’s nuance will savor forever. St. Louis took the lead on a two-run home run by Matt Holliday (after a Carlos Beltran walk) in the top of the sixth inning, and they never relinquished it. Cardinals starter Michael Wacha got the first 22 outs without giving up a hit, but 22 isn’t quite compelling enough to stick with people. With one out in the eighth, Pedro Alvarez took Wacha deep, drawing the Pirates to within a run. It would be the only tally Pittsburgh managed.
The roar of the Pittsburgh crowd when Alvarez hit that home run, though—man, you had to hear it. Television does disservice to crowds at sporting events. Their microphones tone down the noise too much, and smooth it. It also allows you to focus on things, like the fact that the fans at PNC Park have all worn black and frantically waved towels throughout this run, that distract from the sheer passion of their voices. If you can find the radio clip of that home run, do it. I was walking down the side of the road to pick up my son, and did a sort of skip and hop as I listened to the cracking voices of the Pirates announcers, then the sustained shouts—not waves of noise, but a wall of it, and without any uniformity or restraint.
The miracle might be that, even prior to that homer, it wouldn’t be fair to say that Wacha had even managed to take the Pirates fans out of the game. They had resolutely hoped for a base runner, then a hit. They had been, for an audience watching the home team be no-hit in a crucial game, shockingly resilient and supportive. After that shot, they were nearly rabid for the final inning and change.
Wacha walked Russell Martin in the immediate aftermath of the Alvarez homer, That spelled the end of his day, and the Pirates then pinch-ran (Josh Harrison for Martin) and pinch-hit (Jose Tabata for the pitcher, Justin Wilson). It was then that Clint Hurdle got some playoff ants in his pants, and Pittsburgh ran themselves out of a rally.
It’s a myth, really, a narrative built around memorable outliers, but it seems impossible to talk anyone out of it. In October, they say, you have to manufacture runs. You have to bunt runners over with less than two outs, and steal bases with two outs. You have to play small ball.
Again, it’s crap, but Dave Roberts stole second off Mariano Rivera in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS, so nothing is ever going to change. Despite all his progress as a manager this season, Hurdle still isn’t going to be the guy who defies all that and goes back to Earl Weaver’s way.
So he had Josh Harrison run, on Yadier Molina. Harrison is a fine runner, He has 13 stolen bases in 17 career attempts in the big leagues, and stole 19 in 26 tries in Triple-A this season. Those numbers don’t sparkle, but they work.
They don’t work against Yadier Molina, though. If you’re going to pinch-run and then attempt a steal against Yadier Molina, you have to be Mike Trout, Jacoby Ellsbury or Billy Hamilton. You have to be one of the game’s elite base-stealers. Harrison running in that situation was a bad idea, and Molina threw him out, as should have been expected.
Still, the top of the ninth was easy, and the bottom of it was thrilling. Neil Walker drew a two-out walk, which brought Andrew McCutchen to the plate as the potential winning run.
That would have been an unmatched moment, one of those when we all wish that the League Championship Series and World Series would be canceled, that the players would all disappear in a puff of mystic smoke. The MVP candidate, the one who had led the team here after 21 years in the desert, advancing them with a walk-off, comeback home run. The count went to 3-0, then 3-1, as McCutchen—although I’ve seen him aggressively get after two 3-0 pitches over the last week—waited out Trevor Rosenthal. I can’t explain why, exactly, but holding my phone near my ear and imagining the change in the crowd’s tenor if McCutchen did it, I was almost ready to cry, if it happened.
It didn’t. McCutchen flew out to shallow center. So it goes. Baseball can be so bittersweet. The team whose home crowd has been so relentlessly passionate, whose fan base has become the story of the postseason, now must win on the road in order to survive. Even if they do win, there will be some sense of loss because they didn’t get to celebrate on the field at home.
That’s what this game was. It was deeply emotional, even for those without a vested rooting interest. So many games are most important for what they say about the game as a whole, or what they do to advance the drama of a series, or about some sideshow or some single performance. While Wacha and Alvarez certainly put on their show, and while tactical questions tinged the late innings, this game was a delight because it was, principally, about feeling and treasuring the game, and riding the roller coaster.
Red Sox at Rays
The details differ, but the theme remains the same: Power wins in October. The A’s homered three times. All the runs scored in Pittsburgh came on balls over the wall. The Rays took a 5-4 decision, to just barely stay alive, when Jose Lobaton hit a two-out walk-off homer. They were only in that position because Evan Longoria hit a three-run game-tying shot in the bottom of the fifth frame.
This series has been fraught with strange, frankly miserable decisions by a manager I esteem above all others currently active: Joe Maddon. He’s mishandled his pitching staff and handed out dubious intentional walks. In the bottom of the eighth Monday night, he might have out-undone himself. He asked Matt Joyce to lay down a sacrifice bunt. Forget the general folly of the bunt. In that particular game situation, it wasn’t the worst call. Joyce, though, simply never bunts. He’s never asked to do it, and he doesn’t have the sort of skill set that leads to practicing that craft diligently just in case.
Joyce predictably failed, popping up a bunt that Jarrod Saltalamacchia caught. Just a silly managerial error. I mentioned this in my article about Maddon yesterday, and will reiterate: Even good managers make bad decisions. If the Rays go home this week, though, Maddon is going to have tough questions to answer over a long winter.
Braves at Dodgers
Dodgers GM Ned Colletti bought Juan Uribe as a 31-year-old free-agent infielder. Fresh off a World Series title, but facing a tough aging curve given his skill set, Uribe was a credible big-leaguer, but no star. Colletti, though, gave him $21 million on a three-year deal.
In the first two seasons of that contract, Uribe hit .204/.264/.293 and .191/.258/.284, respectively. Injuries and futility limited him to less than a full season’s worth of action over the two campaigns. Even at third base, he was losing defensive viability. He gave away his status as a credible Major League player, and most teams would have cut bait.
Fortunately for both Uribe and the Dodgers, though, everything about the organization changed during those two years. The contract Colletti had handed to Uribe came when times were already lean. It killed them, hamstrung them, in 2011. By Memorial Day of 2012, though, it posed no problems whatsoever. The Dodgers became a financial juggernaut, a powerhouse, the league’s most lavish spenders. They had the margins to keep even an unplayable infielder at $7 million per year.
So it was that Uribe could step into the batter’s box on Monday night, with the tying run on second, bottom of the eighth inning, Game 4, National League Division Series. Uribe hit .278/.331/.438 during the regular season. After starting just 17 of the team’s first 38 games, he earned something close to an everyday job on the left side of the infield. He started all four NLDS games at third base. He’d even homered in Game 3.
Then he did it again. With Yasiel Puig dancing off second, Uribe launched one off David Carpenter, over the left-field wall and into Uribe’s legend. A 3-2 deficit became a 4-3 lead, and the Dodgers held it easily.
Again, power wins in October. While it’s becoming well-established that power is currency, though, we should note that for the Dodgers, currency has also become power. Money doesn’t pervade competitive concerns across the league the way it once did, but at the extremes, it can still distort things.
This series, which Los Angeles closed out by finishing off the Braves, was the sunk-cost World Series. The Dodgers got nothing of much value from Matt Kemp (injured; second year of an eight-year, $160-million contract extension), Andre Ethier (available as a pinch-hitter only due to injury, and limited by platoon vulnerability, all in the first year of a five-year, $85-million deal) or Brandon League (left off the NLDS roster for performance reasons, in the first year of a three-year, $22.5-million pact). The Braves’ two highest-paid players are Dan Uggla (left off the roster on merit) and B.J. Upton (used as a bat off the bench, unplayable as a starter), and they were no help to that side, either.
The difference is in how the two teams were able to weather those mistakes. The Dodgers had not only those issues, but some major ones with injuries to their starting rotation early in the season. They were able to patch the hole there by nearly buying (it was technically a trade, but they took on the full contractual obligation and gave up very little talent) Ricky Nolasco from the Marlins. Speaking of patching holes by throwing money at the problem, they all but purchased the weighty contracts of Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Nick Punto—the first two crucial cogs in the NLDS—from the Red Sox last season. For that matter, the reason they landed Hanley Ramirez—maybe the best player in baseball when he’s been on the field this year—was primarily their wealth, which allowed them to take on all of the money the Marlins owed to him when they started selling parts last summer.
Then there are Skip Schumaker, Mark Ellis, Brian Wilson ($1 million for a flier on a relief pitcher who didn’t even sign until July 30; it seems a small thing, but it isn’t) and company. The bottom of the Dodgers’ roster is the best in baseball, mostly because it’s the most expensive in baseball.
I’m not one for moaning about inequality. It would be foolish, especially, to harp on some perceived achievement gap between rich and poor in a year that has seen the Rays, Athletics and Pirates get this far. The fact is, though, that the Braves had rotation depth to match the Dodgers’ at the beginning of the season, but didn’t have gobs of cash with which to fill the holes when they arose. They also didn’t have the wherewithal to spend anything like the $42 million the Dodgers showered on Yasiel Puig last summer, so when Upton faltered and Heyward battled injuries, they couldn’t weather the storm as well as Los Angeles handled their problems with Ethier and Kemp.
At some point, a team has so much margin for error that the rules no longer apply to them. Big contracts aren’t significant risks. Big mistakes don’t cost them big. That’s bad for baseball, in my opinion. Rich is one thing. Bulletproof is another. The Dodgers are playing God, defying fate by outspending it, walking through walls other teams have to find ways to climb. Salary caps tend to mess with the purity of player movement. There’s literally an equation, of sorts, something through which NBA trades have to run to determine their legality. The NFL’s cap rules have compromised any sense of reason in their compensation structure. Still, if the Dodgers can’t somehow be reined in, they might push the league close to the cliff and force a decision on whether a salary cap is in the best interests of the game.
For now, I don’t want to zero in on that too closely. Uribe’s moment was special. Clayton Kershaw delivered a workmanlike outing, not a dominant one, but on short rest and with the opportunity to avoid a Game 5 in front of him, it was sensational. The Dodgers are the first entrants to baseball’s Final Four, and can now wait to see whether they’ll be replaying the 1985 NLCS (which the Cardinals won) or the 1974 affair (in which they beat the Pirates). Either series should be fun.Next post: Red Sox Beat Rays, Advance to ALCS
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