The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

 

Bicoastal Disorder, Revisited

Friday was a rare treat. For the first time since October 9, 2004, the Dodgers and Yankees — the two teams at the root of my Bicoastal Disorder — both won playoff games. Oh, what a day.

Back up a bit. On Thursday night, the Dodgers lost the opener of their National League Championship Series to the Phillies in exasperating fashion. After four mostly dazzling innings, Clayton Kershaw suffered a fifth-inning meltdown and Joe Torre, who navigated the Dodgers past the Cardinals thanks to a quick hook and aggressive bullpen management, fiddled while Chavez Ravine burned. Here's an excerpt from my writeup at Baseball Prospectus.
Clayton Kershaw wasn't ready for his close-up. Tabbed to start the opening game of the National League Championship Series, the 21-year-old Dodger lefty dazzled for the first four innings, holding the Phillies to a single and a pair of walks while striking out two, at times flashing the big-bending curve that Vin Scully termed "Public Enemy Number One" before the kid even had a day of major league service. Alas, he came unraveled in the fifth inning, and it was excruciating to watch.

Joe Torre wasn't ready for his close-up either. Lauded in this space and elsewhere for his deft handling of his pitching staff during the Division Series — handling that included boldly giving struggling Game One starter Randy Wolf the hook despite a 3-2 lead with two outs in the fourth inning — the Dodger manager spit the bit on Thursday night. He fiddled while Kershaw became a deer in the headlights of the Phillies' Mack truck offense, all in an effort to prevent himself from having to use one of his three lefty relievers, and one of his six pinch-hitters. By the time he finally emerged from the dugout to pull Kershaw, five runs had scored.

It could have been prevented. By the time Kershaw surrendered the coup de grâce, a two-run double to Ryan Howard (yes, off of a lefty), he had already walked three hitters in the fifth, including the hacktastic Pedro Feliz and pitcher Cole Hamels. He had also surrendered two hits, a leadoff single to Raul Ibañez and a three-run homer to Carlos Ruiz. He had additionally set an LCS record by throwing three wild pitches in the inning. As Chase Utley flung his bat away to take his base, he had thrown 31 pitches amid this meltdown, and Torre had both lefty Scott Elbert and righty Ramon Troncoso warming up in the bullpen. Beyond the numbers, the kid appeared to be rushing his tempo and hemorrhaging self-confidence, but pitching coach Rick Honeycutt had already visited to the mound prior to Ruiz's at-bat — which worked like a charm, obviously — and catcher Russell Martin was putting on a performance behind the plate that was only slightly better than this guy, so he wasn't exactly in a position to be calming his rattled batterymate's nerves...

Torre stuck to the percentages, keeping his wild, flagging not-yet-ace southpaw matched up with a slugger who hit just .207/.298/.356 against lefties this year and owns just a .226/.310/.444 line against them in over 1,000 career plate appearances — the latter more than 300 points of OPS below his showing against righties. He left a 94 mph fastball over the plate, and Howard smoked it to right field, expanding a 3-1 lead to 5-1 and finally spelling the end of the night for Kershaw. The Dodgers would keep the game tight thanks to an off night by Hamels and some shakiness in the grand tradition of the Phillies bullpen, but they ultimately fell, 8-6.
All night long, on both sides, it was lefty-on-lefty violence, the kind of thing that could drive an analyst whose central thesis in previewing the series was that the Dodgers were better suited to attack the Phillies' weaknesses and counteract their strengths based upon the balance of lefties in the lineup and bullpen. Instead, batter after batter seemed to defy my analysis and the percentage, with Howard and Raul Ibañez collecting the big blows off the lefties Kershaw and George Sherrill.

In any event, the Dodgers pinned their hopes for Game Two on Vicente Padilla, a late-season pickup who was released by the Rangers in part because he had become a clubhouse distraction. The Phillies countered with their own late-season pickup, a guy you may have heard of, Pedro Martinez. The odd symmetry of this matchup was that Padilla started his career with the Phillies and Pedro, more famously, with the Dodgers. Tommy Lasorda infamously proclaimed that the young righty — whose older brother, Ramon, was on his way to becoming the staff ace — was too slight to survive the rigors of starting pitching. Given that Lasorda shredded Ramon's arm in the grand tradition of Rick Rhoden, Doug Rau, Fernando Valenzuela and Orel Hershiser, it was probably for the best in the grand scheme that Pedro was traded away.

On a sunny 93 degree (!) day at Chavez Ravine, the two pitchers matched zeroes for three innings before Howard smashed a solo homer to left field. Pedro no longer has the stuff to miss many bats; he generated just four Dodgers swings and misses all day, but he prevented them from making solid contact. Hitter after hitter could only pop the ball up harmlessly. Padilla was nearly as good, throwing mid-90s fastballs to both sides of the plate.

The lone run stood up as the sole blemish on the scoreboard for nearly an entire afternoon as a rich tableau unfolded, with Martinez, the future Hall of Famer, thrilling us perhaps one final time on the big stage through little but guile and deception, and Padilla, the black-hatted villain to Martinez's aging sheriff, standing his own ground by summoning a power he had only intermittently tapped throughout his own career. It was the kind of pitcher's duel that made your hair stand on end, regardless of your rooting interests, filled with a mixture of joy at the opportunity to catch such a great ballgame, and melancholy at the prospect that it would somehow end, and that one of the two valiant, grizzled hurler's efforts would go for naught.

At the start of our BP Roundtable, colleague Kevin Goldstein took the following question from a reader:
Wheels (Virginia): Anyone care to lay odds on a 1 to 0 game with both starters around in the 8th inning?

[KG]: If Pedro pitches into the eighth, I will, in honor of the great Werner Herzog, eat my shoe.
He very nearly had to eat his words and said shoe, just as the German New Wave film director (no relation to Whitey) famously did to pay off a bet with fellow director Errol Morris. Luckily for him, Martinez was pulled after seven shutout innings, still leading 1-0. Padilla got one out in the eighth before he departed to a thunderous ovation.

Freed of those two gunslingers, the game broke open in the bottom of the eighth, as the Dodgers strung together a rally against no less than five Philly relievers, with the tying run scoring as Chase Utley airmailed — Knoblauched, really — a potential double play ball into foul territory for the second time in as many games. The Dodgers pulled ahead when Phils lefty J.A. Happ issued a bases-loaded walk to Andre Ethier, the lefty whom he'd been summoned to face. They might have gotten more had Manny Ramirez not popped up Chad Durbin's first pitch with the bases loaded to end the frame, but Jonathan Broxton bolted the door shut in the ninth to even the series. What a game.

As for the Yankees and Angels, their game, played under wet and frigid conditions in the Bronx, couldn't help but pale by comparison. Both teams featured the odd sight of players wearing ear flaps or body socks, none more conspicuous than Angels shortstop Erick Aybar, who dazedly let Hideki Matsui's potential inning-ending popup drop in front of him as third baseman Chone Figgins looked on with near-equal cluelessness. Johnny Damon, running from second with the pitch, crossed the plate with the Yankees' second run of the inning. Seemingly psyched out because of the cold, the Angels made three errors in the field, and they could do little at the plate against CC Sabathia, who pitched eight strong innings before Mariano Rivera finished things off.

I watched the entirety of both games, chatting with BP colleagues Goldstein and Steven Goldman throughout, with Joe Sheehan joining us for the first game and Will Carroll for the nightcap. It was an epic day in front of the laptop and the TV, but it was a whole lot of fun.

As for the only other day in my adult life that the Dodgers and Yankees both won playoff games, I remember it well. Alex Belth invited my wife and I to trek up to Riverdale to watch the Yankees eliminate the Twins on the strength of a four-run eighth-inning rally to tie the game via a big homer by Ruben Sierra, and then some 11th-inning heroics by Alex Rodriguez, who doubled, stole third, and scored on a wild pitch. I wrote about that game here.

But not before writing about the nightcap. My wife and I had plans to attend a friend's birthday party afterward, so I missed the bulk of what became the Dodgers' first postseason victory in 16 years thanks to Jose Lima's bravura performance against the Cardinals. Knowing the result, I still watched the final three innings when I got home, just to see the frenzied jubilation of Dodger Stadium's denizens. You'd think they had won the World Series given the joy. Instead they'd watched the Dodgers shed a monkey off their backs. They didn't win another game that October, but they set the stage for much better days. Better days like October 16, 2009, a day of baseball I'll not soon forget.

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