Notes on the Second Round

Say all you want about the curses, but the primary reasons the Cubs and Red Sox are in their current predicaments has nothing to do with the supernatural and everything to do with their managers.  Last year, the Giants were five outs away from winning the World Series and Baker mis-managed his team to a stunning defeat in Game 6 and the rest, as they say, is history.  Grady Little has no such postseason track record but fans of these two teams should be worried much more about the Curse of Bad Managers than any pop legend.

If the Red Sox fail to move on to the World Series, it won't be because John Burkett started Game 6.  It will be because of several things, one of which is that Nomar Garciaparra and Kevin Millar didn't hit.  But probably the most prominent factor is Grady Little 's insistence on using strategies he didn't use during the regular season.  Three times he's employed the hit and run this series and three times it's ended budding rallies with utter failure - double plays.  Also, why walk intentionally Nick Johnson to put two men on in the second inning when there are already two outs?  I understand the reasoning behind an intentional walk if there is only one out, but putting an extra man on when only one out is needed not only gets the pitcher out of his rhythm, but it also needlessly gives the opposing team another baserunner who could score if something goes wrong.  Something did and the Red Sox were down 3 runs as a result.  Nick Johnson is hitting .129 in the playoffs, .167 in the LCS... why take the bat out of his hand?

I actually like the idea of using Burkett in Game 6 because Pedro wasn't all that effective in his earlier start and it's unlikely he'd be more effective on shorter rest.  It's too bad they left Byung-Hyun Kim off the roster because he seems like a perfect fit for the Game 6 start.  He pitched decently during the regular season as a starter and wouldn't have the pressure of closing out the games.  Anyway, the Red Sox best chance to win the series is for Burkett to frustrate the Yanks for 5 or 6 innings, let the bullpen finish the game and then see if a rested Pedro can atone for his Game 3 mediocre outing with a more typical effort in Game 7.

Speaking of Pedro's last start, there's no question that he instigated the ensuing fracas by throwing at Garcia.  Of course,  Roger Clemens didn't help matters.  No, he didn't throw at Manny, but he does have a reputation for not only throwing at hitters, but throwing at their heads.  A ball that high on the inside of the plate... well, that's Clemens.  I thought the fines were a little light and Don Zimmer should be suspended from baseball for at least a year.  There is no place in any sport for a coach or manager to go after a player.  That type of behavior is completely unacceptable under any circumstance.  I don't care if the guy is 72 years old.  He was intent on either sucker punching Pedro (the opposing team's starting pitcher who was still in the game) in the face, or clothes-lining him.  Either way, he was intent on harm.  Baseball is sending a lousy message by fining him so little.

As for the Cubs, just like in the series against the Braves, they still have the advantage.  Look, it took the best game of Josh Beckett's major league career - he's never even had a complete game, much less a shutout - to force Game 6, and it took one of the most bizarre turns in postseason history - a mindless fan interfering with a catchable flyball, a shortstop who hadn't made an error in two months making an error and a banjo-hitting utility man clearing the bases with the hardest hit ball of the night - to force Game 7.  The Cubs starting Kerry Wood are simply a better team than the Marlins starting Mark Redman.  Redman struggled in his last start against the Cubs to hold them to 2 runs and the Fish were incredibly efficient in getting to Wood in his last start.  That kind of bad luck for the Cubs and that kind of incredible efficiency and good luck for the Marlins is just not likely to continue.

What might continue is Dusty Baker's strategic ineptitude.  Many will say that the Cubs are where they are because of Baker.  If you mean that they are in Game 7 of the NLCS instead of waiting for their World Series opponent, then yes, I agree it's because of Baker.  If you mean they are in the playoffs because of Baker, I would disagree and state that they are there despite Baker.  Yes, the Cubs' skipper has brought a positive attitude to the Cubs and we should see if that makes a difference after the Cubs misfortunes of the last two games.  But his in-game managing skills leave a lot to be desired.

For example, in that fateful inning last night, it was pretty clear that Prior was laboring after the walk to Castillo.  I didn't mind so much that Baker left him in to pitch to Rodriguez because catchers are usually a good target for a double play ball.  But once the first run had scored, it was time to make a decision: do I bring in my strikeout reliever (Farnsworth) or my groundball reliever (Alfonseca)?  Either one is a decent choice if you let them do what they are good at.  Baker opted for his strikeout reliever, but then proceeded to ask him to get a double play grounder rather than playing to his strengths.  He intentionally walked the bases full rather than letting his pitcher immediately go after the hitters.  Worse still, he did this twice.  If Baker thought he needed a double play and was going to walk the bases loaded anyway, then he should have put in the reliever who induces the most ground balls, Alfonseca.  He eventually put Alfonseca in the following inning and of course he induced a double play grounder.  And the big blow by Mordecai?  A fastball from a fastball pitcher to a fastball hitter who can't hit breaking pitches and primarily hits groundballs, a specialty of sinkerballers like Alfonseca.  By mis-using his bullpen talent, Baker gave the Marlins favorable opportunities to win the game and simultaneously took his team out of the game. 

The redeeming part of the Cubs' situation is that unlike last year's Giants, they clearly have the better guy going in Game 7.  And if they need help late in the game, I'm sure Matt Clement, who completely dominated the Marlins in his start, will be available for an inning or two.  As for the Marlins, it remains to be seen how effective Ugueth Urbina will be if the Marlins need him after pitching two innings last night.  That leaves Braden Looper as the only rested Marlins reliever who has been effective this postseason.  Exactly like their last series, the Cubs simply have more bullets than their opponent going into the final game.