September 2009

Notes From A Hospital Waiting Room

This thing in Atlanta. This is really happening? The Braves, 8-1/2 behind the Rockies 18 days ago, have won 15 of 17, are two behind the Rockies in the Wild Card, and four behind the Phillies for first in the division, with five to play? It is of course impossible, even for a team on as much of a roll as Bobby Coxs, to pull this off – except we so easily forget: this is almost exactly what the possible victims here, the Rockies, did to San Diego in 2007. Plus there are two very relevant facts here: since Jim Tracy took over, Colorado has been so hot that they necessarily had to cool down (as will the Braves), and if Atlanta pulls this off they can thank Jair Jurrjens. After he beat the Marlins tonight he rose to merely 9-1 against the NL East (yes, its 4-0 versus the Mets; that still leaves 5-1 versus everybody else). This is one of the more remarkable stats of the last few years. And lets not even start talking about how the Phlounderin Phillies have enabled all this.

Yankees-Red Sox Last

Not only was Jon Lester in good enough shape to stick around and do interviews after the Red Sox 9-5 loss to the Yankees – he did them standing up. The impact point just below the right knee is just red right now – he expects a bruise by morning – and he insists he will not only make his next start but he will not even limit his next in-between starts throwing session.

Yankees-Red Sox 5: The Seventh Steal

To my knowledge, no team since the 1985 Cardinals of Vince Coleman ever made a statement with a stolen base, but here in the Bronx tonight the Yankees came close. As noted in the first post, New York stole three bases – basically uncontested – off Jon Lester and Jason Varitek in the first. The game count is now seven (including one from Alex Rodriguez that shouldve been called a bak on Hunter Jones). Rodrigue has three, Jeter two, and Cano and Damon one each. The message may be less about Boston having to watch out for the Runnin Yanks and more about putting some doubt in the minds of Terry Francona and John Farrell that their pitchers – even southpaws like Lester and Jones – are doing enough to keep runners close. That, in turn, could mean more throws to first, and that could lead to the length of the average Sox-Yanks game increasing from eight hours to a week-and-a-half.

Yankees-Red Sox 4: Lester Leaps Out

Nothing broken. Jon Lester left tonights game here with nothing worse than a contusion of the right quad – x-rays at Yankee Stadium negative and hes day-to-day (were all day-…). After Lester had been levelled by Melky Cabreras third-inning line stove – as Sox radio play-by-play man Joe Castiglione had put it in the press box hallway half an inning earlier – our season hangs in the balance in the trainers room.

Yankees-Red Sox 3

Well that changes everything. The 78th pitch of Jon Lesters long night here at Yankee Stadium just rocketed back off Melky Cabreras bat and the inside of Lesters right knee. He started to drop to the ground before the ball did, and when Terry Francona and the training staff helped him down the steps toward the Boston clubhouse, Lester has to hop from one step to the next. As the old grim joke goes, I dont know what it is, but Im guessing its broken.

Yankees-Red Sox 2

The last time Boston was here in the Bronx one of the franchises many great baseball minds nodded gravely at my contention that the Yankees might not be that great a team, then could contain his disbelief no longer, smiled broadly at me, and asked, in the way only friends who consider each other slightly nuts can ask, Really?

The Baseball Prospectus folks (sorry, subscription required, these are not plugs, I just really find their work useful) analyzed the nine possible playoff teams four-man rotations based on Support Neutral Winning Percentage, which I think I understand but probably dont. The Cards lead at .575 with the Tigers second, the Red Sox third (.561) and the Yankees, dragged down by Joba Chamberlain, eighth at .520. Thus – natch – Jon Lester has sputtered through a long first three innngs capped by a second-deck home run by Alex Rodriguez, while Chamberlain is perfect through three, havng struck out three of the bottom four Boston hitters and popped up the fourth (Varitek) behind the plate.

Red Sox-Yankees 1

Jason Varitek, who for my money is the only reason the head-to-head matchup between the teams offering us playoff previews tonight here in the Bronx end up 4-3-2 Yankees instead of 4-3-2 Red Sox, must have just tied some kind of dubious record. In the first inning he and Jon Lester were victimized by three stolen bases without a single throw. Two were on balls that popped away from the Boston veteran but the third was not. It was pointed out, in the Baseball Prospectus Annual I believe, that veterans who guide pitching staffs without contributing offense are not called catchers – theyre called coaches. If Varitek is not producing that vaunted glove and brainwork behind the plate the Stockings need to move him out, Victor Martinez in, and almost anybody to First.

The Sox sloppiness afield has cone in contrast to the unlikeliest of Yankee brilliance: a Joba Chamberlain barehanded pick-up of Ellsburys squib in the first, and a stop, slide, and hope grab by Nick Swisher to rob Ortiz just now in the second.

Bunning And Short And Lidge… And Happ?

I don’t really remember the last time I saw him, but it may have been 1987. I never knew his name and I could not then verify his story, but he claimed that he had been at every one of Gene Mauch’s opening days since 1965 (and a lot of other Mauch-managed games, even some in spring training).

His act was always the same. He was there when the park opened, and he stayed till it closed. And any time he thought Mauch could possibly see him, he raised his sign, which read, simply “BUNNING.” If he had one friend with him, that guy carried another sign reading “AND SHORT,” but there was supposedly a three-man version (one fellow with “AND” and the other with “SHORT.”). “He has to be reminded,” I heard the guy say. “He has to be reminded, every year, what he did.”
The vengeful fan’s argument – echoed by a lot of people then and now – was that the infamous Philadelphia Phillies collapse of 1964 was neither organic nor accidental, but the direct result of a crazy managerial strategy pronounced by then-Phils’ skipper Gene Mauch. Around the 13th of September that year, with Ray Culp lost to injury and onetime ace Art Mahaffey shaky, Mauch had pronounced that he wanted the Hall of Fame righty Jim Bunning, and the unsung southpaw Chris Short to each pitch in each of the remaining six series the Phils had to play. “Bunning and Short,” Mauch supposedly said, “these are my men. Bunning and Short.” If Mauch indeed said it on the 13th, he said it when the Phillies still had a six game lead and an 86-57 record.
They would thereafter go 6-13 and between them Bunning and Short would win a total of three games and the Phillies’ collapse would be etched for all-time as the most painful, if not the mathematically worst (they were still 90-60 after play on September 20th, still six-and-a-half up, and then lost 10 of the last 12).
So this fan followed Mauch to Montreal, to Minnesota, to the Angels, and every year trotted out his message of “Bunning And Short.” And Gene Mauch never did get to the World Series, and as history narrows his place in its nooks and crannies, it will be for the collapse, and “Bunning And Short,” that he will be remembered. 
And I wonder if Charlie Manuel isn’t going to join him. Inherent in the criticism of Mauch is that there is nothing unforgivable in a manager, other than inflexibility. Indeed, some of the greatest managers have been the ones who have let go of their deathgrip on consistency. Think of Connie Mack starting the washed-up Howard Ehmke in Game One of the 1929 Series. Ehmke was, in fact, Mack’s seventh starter, behind Hall-of-Famer Lefty Grove, 24-game winner George Earnshaw, 18-game winner Rube Walberg, and three lesser lights who had each won 11. Ehmke merely set the then-record for strikeouts in a Series. Later skippers like Chuck Dressen used relievers like Joe Black and Clem Labine as Series starters. As late as 1974, Walter Alston was leaning towards starting Mike Marshall – who had only relieved 114 times that year – to start the sixth game against Oakland, if the Dodgers had survived that long. Consider Mayo Smith of the 1968 Tigers deciding, on August 23rd, with his team up by seven-and-a-half games but his shortstop Ray Oyler hitting just .142, that he had better find an alternative – and giving centerfielder Mickey Stanley an audition of exactly nine games before penciling him in at short for Game One of the World Series.
And here is Good ‘Ol Charlie, insistent on closing with Brad Lidge, who has the singular flammability – and more impressive, the endurance - of the infamous Underground Fire Of Centralia, Pennsylvania. I have written before here of the paucity of viable alternatives: Ryan Madson is now at 8/14 in Save conversions this season, but just 13 of 32 lifetime. Brett Myers may not be able to pitch on any nights, let alone consecutive ones. Eyre, Park, and Romero are hurt. Condrey’s a quandary and Durbin’s doubtful.
But whatever his future redemption might be, Lidge is Charlie Manuel’s ticket to Mauch-like infamy. He needs to punt, and he needs to punt now, and he has insisted he will not. And still there is Tyler Walker and his respectable record as a closer, or if this still somehow seems more terrifying than a guy doing the Human Torch act during your three-game failed defense of your World’s Championship, take a page from Chuck Dressen or Walter Alston, mix in a little Mayo Smith, and work in reverse. Nominally, at least, you have six starters, two of whom you will not use as such no matter how long you go in the playoffs.
This is no time to stick to tradition. Crunch the numbers and talk to the men and, if need be, ask for a volunteer. Presumably you cannot envision a world in which you don’t start Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee as often as you can. But are you really risking your rotation if you pick one man out of the other four to serve as your emergency closer? 
Interestingly, just a superficial look at data suggests there are two candidates, one of each arm kind. A closer must have, more than any other attribute, the ability to be effective immediately. If you get that first man out in the ninth, your track record with runners-on or in late innings becomes decreasingly relevant. And one Philly starter offers these numbers in the first innings of his games: .219 opposing batting average, .259 opposing on base percentage, less than one base-runner per first inning, 3.41 ERA. Another maps out at  a.197 BA, .288 OBP, 1.05 WHIP, 1.35 ERA.
The first guy is Joe Blanton. The second one is J.A. Happ.
Charlie – you can’t get by without one of them in your rotation? Hamels, Lee, Happ, Martinez is too lefty-laden for you? What about Hamels, Lee, Blanton, Martinez? (Parenthetically, if you’re wondering about the others, Hamels has a .238 OBP in the first inning, Lee .268, Martinez .369, Moyer .381. Intuition tells you that a still-rehabbing Pedro might be the choice – the numbers don’t).
The point here, of course, is that if the Phillies swap out Lidge for Blanton or Happ, and it fails, Manuel will be criticized. But at least he won’t be criticized for ignoring the possibility that there was a way of avoiding the iceberg. Fate even offers him one righty and one lefty, to fit whichever kind of rotation he thinks will serve him best against whoever he might face along the way.
The other alternative, I’m afraid, is three guys showing up every day for the rest of Charlie’s managerial career. One has a sign reading “Brad,” the second has one reading “Lidge,” and the third one uses the fireplace lighter for comedic effect.

Ever heard a Stadium PA guy play the charge call in the bottom of the first inning? It is a neat summary of the Mets 2009 season, and it sounded out tonight here at CitiField not long after Jerry Manuel confirmed Carlos Delgado had suffered new setbacks and now would not make a late-season cameo after hip surgery in June. It had been assumed that if Delgado did not reappear it would augur poorly for his chances of 2010 employment here or elsewhere. But Manuel seemed to recognize an awful truth few others did not in saying Delgado might be back after all. That truth is this: he is earnest and he has flashes both of an instinctive ability to play the position, and even an occasional flash of brilliance. But Daniel Murphy is not now a major league first baseman. After a game-losing, panicky, assumption-driven fiasco in Atlanta Wednesday, Murphy tonight failed to make what would admittedly have been a special pick-up on a tough hop off the bat of Christian Guzman in the top of the first. And a first baseman needs to be special defensively if he has no real history of power, and has produced only 10-56-.262-.414 on his first big league season. Consider Delgado, in a power-starved lineup and in only 26 games, ended at 4-23-.298-.521. The Mets cannot assume his viability for 2010 but he is no more of a risk than Murphy appears to be now.
Off-point, talk in the press box here tonight of the NFL fiasco in which Jerry Jones spent – what was it? Eleventy Billion? – to install a video screen that is within easy reach of the leagues punters. Not that any of us was here for it, but the last confirmed new stadium screw-up on that level came in Brooklyn in 1913 when Charlie Ebbets opened his new home for the Dodgers. Reporters followed Ebbets to centerfield for the ceremonial raising of the flag, everybody applauded, and then some scribe asked So, Charlie, where do we sit? It was only then that the Dodger owner realized that Ebbets Field had been built without a press box.

The Ordeals of A.J. Burnett

At their current trajectory, the Yankees are going to be eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. Here in the Bronx, A.J. Burnett – to my thinking the most important player on the roster – has again succumbed to the yips, and, for the fourth time in his last nine starts, surrendered six or more runs – twice in twelve days to the less-than-daunting Orioles. As on Monday, Burnett, staked to a 1-0 lead, wobbled in the second, giving up a blast to Nolan Reimold and then walking Matt Wieters with one out. There followed three successive singles – the last two of them dink hits by Aubrey and Andino – and then the almost predictable kaboom: a crushed and crushing grand slam by Brian Roberts.

Burnett’s ability to handle misfortune – or even ordinary adversity – seems to be declining. And as was speculated here in the press box by Pete Caldera of The Bergen Record, on what can the Yankees depend if they were to lose a Sabathia playoff opener 1-0 and had to hand the ball to Burnett in an essential second game? More daunting still, until today Burnett had made 14 starts at Yankee Stadium and only once given up more than three.

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