Random Thoughts on the NLDS
October 5, 2007

It's no secret that I'm a Padre fan.  Over the last few years I've grown attached to the Nationals too, but my home town is San Diego and the team I grew up rooting for from the time they had Dave Winfield and Ozzie Smith and Randy Jones was the Padres.  So when they lost the play-in game a number of my friends sent consolation emails.  But with their two best players out, I honestly didn't think they would win that game.  So when they had a chance late in the game to steal it yet didn't I was a little disappointed.  However, as I told each of my friends, "I figure if you can't score off Matt Herges in three innings of work, you don't deserve to be in the playoffs." 

I didn't understand Bud Black electing to pinch-hit with Oscar Robles instead of Morgan Ensberg against Herges - using a guy who won't take a walk vs a guy who can't do anything but, going against a guy who doesn't like to throw strikes - and then not pinch hitting with Marcus Giles (.375 lifetime versus Herges) for Geoff Blum (.154 lifetime).  Then he could have used Sledge and Barrett to drive in the run, giving Hoffman the bottom of the order to face in the tenth instead of the heart of the order in the 13th.

That said, I've never been a big fan of change-up closers in the post-season.  I think Hoffman's complete lack of success in the biggest games is due to the fact that as a change-up artist, he can't afford to let the adrenaline of the moment affect him, otherwise he will overthrow the ball and elevate his pitches.  It's ok to be a little wild up in the strikezone when you are throwing 95+, but when you are topping out at 85 and your change is 75-77, as we saw on Monday, that's called batting practice.  Just FYI, Hoffman's lifetime October ERA is 9.39 with a WHIP of 2.09 with batters hitting .382 off him.  I doubt his playoff numbers are much better.  But is there any doubt that Heath Bell is his successor?  That was as dominating a performance by a set-up man as any since Francisco Rodriguez' coming out party a few years ago.

Anyway, the Padres were the better team and perhaps the best in the NL when they are healthy.  But without Mike Cameron (their best defensive player) or Milton Bradley (their best offensive player), they were a team that was playing with one arm tied behind their back.  Even had they won against the Rockies, they would have not had much of a chance in the playoffs.  The numbers perhaps tell another story but the numbers, as is often the case in sports other than racing, don't tell us everything we need to know.

That said, the Rockies are a very dangerous team.  Their line-up is very good, their defense is not only sure-handed but at several positions exceptional range-wise, and they have three hard-throwing starters - Jeff Francis, Ubaldo Jimenez and Franklin Morales - who will give opposing hitters fits if they can keep their nerves.  What I didn't expect was that their bullpen would be so effective in the first two games in Philly.  In nine innings of work they have allowed two runs (only one earned) and just ten baserunners.  If they keep that pace, no team can beat the Rockies because they simply have too much thunder.

I hate to pile on to Cubs' fans because they have enough issues to deal with already, but the Cubs are playing some of the dumbest baseball I have ever seen in the postseason.  Plenty has already been written about Lou Pinella's decision to pull Carlos Zambrano after 85 pitches in Game 1 and I agree 100% that it was a terrible decision.  He's the team's best pitcher and they were in a tie game.  It's a different animal if he's thrown 120 pitches already, but when every game means as much as it does in a 5-game series, the smart money stays with the best pitcher until the game is won or until the concern for injury arises like when Bobby Valentine let Al Leiter throw 140+ pitches in a World Series start.

And then there's the complaint about the D-backs watering down the front of the plate to help get more groundballs for Webb and Davis.  Pinella complained about it but rather than complain, why not switch his Game #2 starter from the flyball throwing Ted Lilly to the groundball throwing Jason Marquis?  He might even get points for gamesmanship, switching from a lefty to a righty just before game-time and possibly messing up Bob Melvin's line-up.

Playoff teams are generally pretty even talent-wise.  The most significant factor in who wins and who loses is the decisions of the managers.  Against good teams opportunities are rare and blown ones are punishable by defeat.  Charlie Manuel said he liked his call of bringing in Kyle Lohse to face Kaz Matsui in what was at the time a very close Game 2 of their series.  Did he also realize that Matsui was a lifetime .400 hitter againt Lohse?  Still like that call?  The fact of the matter is that the Phillies are in the postseason despite Manuel's managing, not because of it... with significant help from the Mets' collapse, of course.

One of the most over-rated skills in sports is the ability of a manager to maintain an even keel in the clubhouse during the season.  I know millionaires can be a prickly bunch, but give me a guy who doesn't make tactical blunders in crunch time over the clubhouse therapist any time.  Winning will cure most hurt feelings.  The reason Bobby Cox hasn't won more championships is not because of bad luck or the randomness of a short series: it's because he makes bad decisions in the playoffs.  The only time he did win was when he faced an even worse tactician, Mike Hargrove.  Bruce Bochy is renowned as being one of the best clubhouse managers in the game.  Grady Little is up there too in that category.  So how has that gone?  The GM is the one who should get credit or blame for the regular season but the playoffs are the province of the managers.  And if your team has the talent edge, don't get in the way.  Pinella simply forgot that.

That said, Sweet Lou has not been the Cubs' only problem.  Watching their at bats in Game 2, it was almost as if most of the hitters had not even seen a scouting report of Doug Davis.  Davis is a notoriously slow worker and a nibbler; he hates to throw strikes.  But the Cubs' hitters were up there hacking as if they were facing Greg Maddux.  Aramis Ramirez was the worst offender, swinging at pitches from the on deck circle.  In his final at bat versus Valverde, he watched strike one down the heart of the plate and then swung at two pitches that would have been called balls, the last one nearly hitting him.  He was so awful Pinella should consider benching him for Game 3 because wherever his head is, it hasn't been in these games.

And then there was Ted Lilly.  I used to have high hopes for him but after two frustrating years watching him I am convinced he will never be anything more than an innings eater.  He has the pitches to be a solid #2, but his pitch selection is some of the most ill-conceived of any major league pitcher.  The clearest example was his second inning match-up versus Chris Young.  You don't stay in the majors all year hitting under .240 if you can't hit a fastball.  The problem with most guys who hit that low is that they can't hit breaking balls and Young is no exception.  Lilly sets him up at 2-2 for a breaking pitch.  A well placed curve ball will get him swinging, or a good change will get him to beat the ball into the dirt and the inning will be over with no damage.  Lilly throws the curve but it is in the dirt.  However, Young clearly was ready to swing at it had it been higher.  So Lilly has two choices that will result in an out - throw another curve or drop a change on the outside of the plate.  Young is hoping for a fastball because it's the only thing he can hit... so what does Lilly throw?  A big fat high fastball that gets yanked about 20 rows into the seats.  TBS commentator Frank Thomas noted that it looked like rookie catcher Giovanny Soto had signaled for another curve but Lilly shook him off.  Maybe next year, Lilly will finally listen to his catcher.