The Real Curse

There is no less deserving an owner to go to a World Series than Jeffery Loria, who's done his dead-level best to kill baseball in two cities.  There are almost no fans less deserving to get a World Series team than the fans of Florida, who've stayed away in droves this season with the third worst attendance in the majors; they even drew fewer fans than Detroit.  That said, the Florida Marlins are in.  Why?

Because Jack McKeon gets it and Dusty Baker still doesn't.

McKeon gets that if your Game 7 starter doesn't have it, you don't wait to see if he can get it back.  McKeon gets it that sometimes you have to go with your most effective pitcher instead of your regular relief options.  McKeon gets it that you have to get outs when your back is to the wall and once the guy on the mound shows signs of struggling to get them, you take him out and put someone else in.  McKeon gets it that taking a guy out too early is much better than taking a guy out too late.  Baker doesn't.

In Game 7, when it was clear that Mark Redman wasn't gonna get the job done, McKeon pulled him and brought in another starter, Brad Penny, for an inning and then turned the game over to Game 5 hero, Josh Beckett.  He didn't go to his regular relief options because he knew that his starters were simply much better pitchers than his relievers.  The only reliever he went to was his closer, Ugueth Urbina, who was one of only two effective relievers the Marlins had in the postseason.  Baker, on the other hand, left Kerry Wood on the mound when it was clear he was struggling, then brought in his usual succession of relievers rather than going to his most effective pitchers this series.

It was pretty apparent from the start of the game that Wood did not have his best stuff.  He was topping out at 95 on pitches he normally throws 98 and he had absolutely no control of his slider.  Still, he battled for four innings to get the lead back that he gave up in the first.  In the fifth, he tired visibly, losing control of his fastball and the lead.  When he came out for the 6th inning, he was at 101 pitches.  Maybe Baker was trying to leave him out there long enough to get the win. 

Had Baker been thinking like McKeon, he would have taken Wood out at that point and replaced him with Matt Clement for a couple of innings.  Clement had dominated the Marlins in Game 4 and had three days of rest, plenty to go an inning or two.  Instead, he left Wood out on the mound to give up two more baserunners, one of whom scored on the ineffective Kyle Farnsworth (postseason ERA of 6.75).  He left Farnsworth in the game the following inning to give up two more baserunners, both of whom scored off Dave Veres (postseason ERA of 6.23).  Those three extra runs proved to be the margin of victory.

It didn't have to be Clement necessarily.  It could have been Juan Cruz, who was also in the pen and had pitched very well in the playoffs and was capable of giving the Cubs two or three quality innings.  The point is that Baker had plenty of other options, but rather than think outside the box and use all his resources, he limited himself to the options he used during the regular season.  And now he and Cubs will have the offseason to think about what might have been.

Just for the record, Baker brought in Veres to face the right-handed Alex Gonzalez with two men in scoring position and down by only two and needing just one out to get out of the 7th.  The pitcher was due up next and no one was warming in the pen, suggesting that there wasn't going to be a pinch hitter.  Right handers batted .359 versus Veres this season and have always hit him better than lefties have.  Baker had 7 other options (Joe Borowski, Matt Clement, Antonio Alfonseca, Mike Remlinger, Mark Guthrie, Juan Cruz, and Carlos Zambrano) who were clearly better options versus a right handed hitter.  Seven!   Of the two logical choices to make here - bring in a releiver who's more effective versus right-handers or, if he's completely sold on the idea that Veres is the right guy in this situation, pitch around this hitter to face a pitcher who hit .152 this season, .119 for his career - Baker chose neither. 

One hopes that Wood and Prior won't be any worse for the wear from the last month.  Between them, they threw 115+ pitches in 15 of their final 18 games, 6 of which were 125+.  The concern is more for Prior than Wood because he is still at a high risk age and shouldered the majority of that burden.  But if they are ok and someone can convince Baker that playing excellent prospects like Hee Seop Choi is a good thing, then the Cubs will very likely be in the hunt for the postseason next year.   If not, it won't be a 58-year old billy goat that is the real curse of the Cubs; it will be the 54-year old man managing them.