As the old saying goes, momentum in baseball is only as good as your next day’s starter. The Phillies have a very good starter going in World Series Game 5, so perhaps it is premature to say that the Yankees may have broken their opponent’s spine. Yet, the dramatic action of Game 4’s eighth and ninth innings, which wrapped an entire “Yankees Classic’s” worth of action into about 20 minutes, suggests that conclusion.
Let’s review. The Yankees took a 4-3 lead into the bottom of the eighth. CC Sabathia, looking a bit frayed around the edges, pitched just that much better than Joe Blanton. The fifth inning was particularly tough, with the Phillies putting two on with none out for Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and the deadly-to-lefties Jayson Werth. Sabathia induced pop-ups from Utley and Howard, and struck out Werth to end the threat. In many games, that might have been the end right there.
Regarding the Sabathia- Utley relationship: I am reminded of Don Mattingly vs. Don Aase, who was the Orioles closer for a couple of years during the center of Mattingly’s career. Aase was often a good pitcher, but he could do nothing with Mattingly, who went 6-for-7 with two home runs against him. After Mattingly hit his second ninth inning homer off of Aase in a year, Orioles manager Earl Weaver was asked if he would ever let Aase pitch to Mattingly again. “Not even to intentionally walk him,” Weaver said. It’s getting to that point with Sabathia and Utley.
Utley’s home run in the seventh chased Sabathia, so Joe Girardi bringing in Damaso Marte’s fresh arm to go after Howard. Marte again rewarded Girardi’s faith in him this series. The Yankees stranded two runners in the top of the eighth, and Girardi decided to roll the dice on a new eighth inning man… Firpo Marberry! Actually, with Werth due up, he went for Joba Chamberlain with Phil Hughes being too scary and David Robertson having left the stadium to pick up some Chinese take-out. Joba is right-handed and has pitched a good inning in this series, so the manager was entitled to his fantasies of 2007.
Chamberlain seemed set to pay those off, as the old Joba was suddenly back, back for perhaps the first time all year, pumping 97 mph fastballs at the Phillies hitters. Unfortunately, Pedro Feliz took one of those 97 mph fastballs and made a souvenir out of it. Joba came back to get Carlos Ruiz on off-speed pitches, striking out the side around the game-tying home run. Baseball is a punishing game. For a moment, Joba had turned back the clock, and yet he still was punished. It’s like something out of Greek myth.
That sets up the ninth. With the game tied, the Yankees finally got their first look at Brad Lidge, the lost-then supposedly-found closer. Lidge looked very tough in retiring Hideki Matsui and Derek Jeter, but then came Johnny Damon’s terrific, nine-pitch at-bat. As Lidge threw fastball after fastball trying to get the elusive third strike, you could see Damon getting his timing down. We’ll never know why Lidge didn’t go back to his slider in any of his last five pitches to Damon given that the fastball wasn’t fooling the left fielder. Damon finally singled to keep the inning alive. If Lidge wasn’t unnerved at this point, he surely was after Damon — who didn’t run much in the regular season (and why would you if you’re on base in front of Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez?) — promptly stole two bases on one play, one by taking advantage of the Phillies’ defensive alignment to swipe an unguarded third.
That was all it took for Lidge to turn into the pitcher who went 0-8 with 11 blown saves this year. He hit Teixeira, grooved a pitch to A-Rod for an RBI double, and couldn’t retire Jorge Posada despite getting ahead 0-2. By the time Posada retired himself on the bases, the Yankees were up 7-4. Now, here is where I think we find the broken spine. Girardi called on Mariano Rivera to close out the game. The Phillies have now seen Mariano more times than I’ve seen “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” That’s about a bajillion times, for those keeping score at home. Nonetheless, the Phillies did not battle, did not make it tough on the Yankees’ Father Time. They went out on eight pitches — two to pinch-hitter Matt Stairs, three to Jimmy Rollins, three to Shane Victorino. Some of that economy is due to the greatness of Mo, but it also, I think, reflected the mood of the moment, that this was too high a mountain to climb.
As I said at the outset, Lee is a terrific pitcher, and if the Phillies chose the better part of valor in the ninth inning, there is nothing in that to indicate that they won’t come out fighting in Game 5. These are, after all, the reigning champions. If they don’t get up off the mat, though, no one can blame them — they’ve had to overcome a great deal of adversity this year, much of it at the hands of Lidge and their manager’s loyalty to them. If this loss is one cut too many, it will be understandable. No team in the history of baseball has ever had to work harder to overcome one of their own relievers than the Phillies have had to work to overcome Lidge.
THE SECRET SAUCE
My pals at Baseball Prospectus have a little congeries of stats we call the Secret Sauce. Introduced in the book, Baseball Between the Numbers, to which your humble host contributed a chapter and a little page about the relationship between stats and Stephen King’s “Cujo,” the Secret Sauce ranks teams by how well they do in the three key areas that correlate to winning postseason games. As explained here by sauce-master Nate Silver, they are:
1. A power pitching staff, as measured by strikeout rate.
2. A good closer.
3. A good defense.
I won’t get into how these ranking are derived, because they involve some of those esoteric statistics that I suspect make many of y’all’s eyes glaze over. Still, we can appreciate what the rankings say by looking at some more commonplace measures. Here is how the likely postseason teams fare, in reverse order:
No. 20 PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
The Phillies have been strong in strikeouts, both in the rotation, where Cole Hamels and Joe Blanton have done their part, and particularly in the bullpen, but the pen has been a disaster overall, accounting for the team’s low ranking here. As of today, Brad Lidge and Charlie Manuel are still trying to figure out what the former’s role will be going forward, which is a problem given that the season is nearly over. You wouldn’t want to say that Lidge has gone Steve Blass on the Phillies, but six walks and two home runs per nine makes a compelling case that he has. The Phillies can at least take justifiable pride in their strong defensive infield of Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Pedro Feliz.
No. 13 TEXAS RANGERS
The Rangers, second in the American League in runs allowed (4.41 per game; the Mariners lead at 4.36), are third from last in strikeouts per nine innings, which suggests a lot of balls in play. The reason that this is a particularly bad thing in the playoffs is pretty basic: In a regular season game against the Baltimore Orioles, your team might fail to get a lot of strikeouts but nothing happens anyway, because when they hit the ball it goes “piff,” not “boom!” In the playoffs, where the best offenses are usually to be found, balls in play tend to do real damage. Note that AL starters are averaging 6.5 strikeouts per nine innings; Rangers starters are whiffing 5.6.
The Rangers have been solid on defense, with the second-best record in the league of turning balls in play into outs (that’s how they survive the weak strikeout rate). Frank Francisco has been effective, if not a lights-out closer. Neftali Perez’s crazy debut doesn’t enter into these calculations, but you can’t forget about him when talking about the Rangers’ end game.
No. 11 THE LOS ANGELES ANGELS OF ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA, USA
The Angels get knocked down on the power pitching angle, as overall they are a tick below average in strikeouts per nine, and in defense, which has been just average or a little below. Call it the Bobby Abreu Effect. Closer Brien Fuentes leads the AL with 40 saves but has also blown six, and right-handed hitters are slugging .462 against him. None of this is a reason to take the Angels likely, as Jered Weaver and John Lackey, combined with their fine offense, should be able to keep them in at least the first two games of any short series. Still, this is not Mike Scioscia’s usual flavor of team.
No. 10 ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
The Cardinals get strikeouts from starters Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter. The rest of the rotation, and even closer Ryan Franklin, allows the opposition to put more balls in play than is typical. Joel Piniero, who would be the third starter in any playoff scenario, gets by on exquisite control (just one per nine innings) and a high groundball rate. Franklin, formerly an unexceptional starter and reliever, leads the NL in saves with 37 and has a 1.67 ERA and it’s deserved — he’s actually done a good job of stranding inherited runners as well as keeping runners off base in the first place. He’s blown three saves all year long. While the bubble could burst at any time, particularly in October, at this point you have to take Franklin seriously. Cards’ defense has been problematic at times, especially at second base, where converted outfielder Skip Schumaker is making a game effort at competence.
No. 6 COLORADO ROCKIES
The Rockies are about average as National League strikeout rates go, in part because Jason Marquis and Aaron Cook drag down the numbers. Ubaldo Jimenez and Jorge de la Rosa do get batters to swing and miss. The bullpen has also been solid in the swing-and-miss department. The real problem right now is overall depth, with Cook and Huston Street injured. Both are supposed to be back ere long. One potential equalizer for the Rockies is former starter Franklin Morales who (shades of Phil Hughes) has moved into the pen and has been throwing bullets from the left side. When their park is taken into account, Rockies fielders have been solid if unexceptional. Street has converted 33 of 34 saves and has even held left-handed batters in check, a problem for him in the past.
No. 5 DETROIT TIGERS
The Tigers have allowed the third-fewest runs in the AL, just 4.5 per game. Their strikeout rate is roughly average, with only starter Justin Verlander, who leads the league with 230 strikeouts, really jumping out in that department. The Tigers have been an average to slightly above average fielding club, with few standout performances (Clete Thomas has been strong in right field, though he can’t hit like a right fielder) but no truly poor ones either, and overall they rank in the top half of the AL in turning balls in play into outs. Desperation closer Fernando Rodney has blown only one save all year, but walks too many batters for comfort against strong postseason lineups.
No. 4 BOSTON RED SOX
We begin with Jonathan Papelbon. We continue to the staff overall, which is tied with the Yankees for the league lead in strikeout rate, propelled by Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Daniel Bard and Papelbon. We conclude with a defense that has been surprisingly weak. The outfield has been defensively shaky, the infield has lacked a shortstop of any defensive quality until Alex Gonzalez came over, and Kevin Youkilis has had to play too much third base, not to mention a couple of scary games in left field.
No. 2 LOS ANGELES DODGERS
Joe Torre’s guys have perhaps the best defense in the game this year, which is a novel thought for those of us used to watching even Tommy Lasorda’s good teams juggle balls. They lead the NL in turning balls in play into outs, receiving fine defensive performances around the infield (though Orlando Hudson has not been at his best) and from center fielder Matt Kemp. Manny Ramirez is the exception that proves the rule. They are third in the NL in strikeout rate, an advantage that doesn’t wholly disappear when you start adjusting for park effects. Starter Chad Billingsley is whiffing eight per nine innings, lefty Clayton Kershaw 10, and closer Jonathan Broxton 13.6. It should be noted that the rest of the pen is not particularly intent on the strikeout, a possible vulnerability. Broxton has blown five saves in 39 chances, which is shaky by today’s standards.
No. 1 NEW YORK YANKEES
I probably don’t have to give you much detail here. The Yankees are tied for the league lead in strikeout rate, have the most reliable closer in the game, and ra
nk third in the league in turning balls in play into outs. The high rankings in all three categories boosts the Bombers to the top of this list.
None of the foregoing guarantees anything, but it’s a reassuring indicator. Historically, teams with large helpings of these qualities have gone far in October. The Yankees haven’t had all of the elements line up in the same place at the same time in quite a few years. In fact, the last time the Yankees came this close to the top of the Secret Sauce list, the year was 1998.
As I write this Thursday morning, there are just two shopping days left until the non-waiver trading deadline falls and every deal essentially requires the approval of 29 other teams. Several deals dropped on Wednesday, though none had the participation of the Yankees (their sole transaction line was the release of the ungrateful Brett Tomko).
The Phillies picked up Cliff Lee and outfielder Ben Francisco (I hear Jeannette McDonald sing, “Ben Francisco, open your golden gates” every time I think of that guy, and it never fails to disturb me) from the Indians, the Tribe picking up several players who could be useful contributors in the near future but almost certainly won’t be stars, with the possible exception of New Jersey native Jason Knapp, a teenaged righty whose fastball reaches atmospheric escape velocity.
The Phillies now get another reliable, top of the order type who can not only help them maintain their current lead but can get them through the playoffs — Cole Hamels, J.A. Happ, and Joe Blanton seemed like less than sure bet to get them through Round 1, let alone to the World Series. Lee, Hamels, and Happ seem like a much better bet, and a real threat to an opponent with too left-handed a batting order. The Phillies still have a problem too address, and solving it doesn’t involve blowing their remaining prospects on Roy Halladay, but finding someone who can supplant Brad Lidge at the end of games.
As good as Lidge was last year, the Phillies can’t blow their season on sentimentality. A reliever who is giving up two homers per nine innings pitched isn’t worthy of his job (just ask Edwar Ramirez). I’ve seen some commentary on the deal worrying about how the Phillies are going to accommodate their current rotation plus Rodrigo Lopez and Pedro Martinez. This is much ado about nothing; in the case of the former, the Phillies can thank their various gods that they got some good work out of junk pile pickup, and as for Martinez, his utility is purely theoretical at this point. If he can pitch, perhaps he can add some depth to the bullpen.
The Giants tried to bolster their slim wild card lead by pulling second baseman Freddy Sanchez away from the Pirates. It cost them their No. 2 pitching prospect, righty Tim Alderson. While I am not completely sold on Alderson’s future as an ace (his control is of the finest quality; his stuff isn’t), the Giants might have picked the wrong spot to fix — Sanchez will upgrade their production at second base if he hits at all, but in the grand scheme of things he’s not a big generator of offense (his current .334 on-base percentage is about league average), not even at his batting title best (back in 2006), and he’s just an average glove. The Giants could have tried to live with what Juan Uribe was giving them at second while addressing themselves to left field or even shortstop, where the five-time All-Star Edgar Renteria is having a miserable year. Parenthetically, if Renteria has a couple of decent years left in his bag, he’s going to finish his career with somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 career hits and make for a really annoying Hall of Fame argument.
The Mariners acquired Ian Snell and Jack Wilson from the Pirates for reasons that are sort of hard to figure. They gave up five, count ’em, five players in the deal. Wilson has a superb glove, but while he should give the M’s more offense than they’ve gotten from their shortstops this year (.222/.249/.320, numbers that deserve a double-take and a whispered prayer), he’s only a career .269/.311/.376 hitter himself and the difference won’t be enough to make a real dent in the Mariners’ major problem, which is that the league-average offense is scoring 4.8 runs a game and they average 3.9.
For their trouble, the Pirates pick up quite a bit of depth. They get a futile shortstop placeholder in Ronny Cedeno, but the real haul is 25-year-old Jeff Clement, a former No. 1 pick who still has a lot of offensive potential (his .288/.366/.505 at Tacoma translates to .255/ .329/.462 in the Majors), especially if the Pirates can live with his defense at catcher. The three pitchers the Buccos got in the deal are lower echelon prospects, but when you’re the Pirates, depth is not a bad thing, as you need a lot of pieces to sort through if you’re ever going to build a competitive roster with the kind of budget that their city requires.
Finally, the Reds picked up outfielder Wladamir Balentien from the Mariners, who had designated him for assignment last week. Balentien looked like he might be a solid prospect a over the last couple of years, hitting for real power in the minors, but his plate judgment is so bad he may never be able to be a regular contributor. Still, he’s only 24 and has a career slugging percentage of .526 in the minors. The Reds, who suffer from the worst outfield production in the bigs, have a much better chance of gaining a lasting asset by playing Balentien than they do by giving more playing time to Laynce Nix — or Willy Taveras, though Balentien can’t play center field. Tavaras’ current .240/.279/.290 would qualify as among the bottom five seasons turned in by a regular outfielder in the history of the game were he to carry those rates through to the end.
In his last 20 games, not counting appearances as a defensive substitute, Melky Cabrera has batted .317/.403/.444, numbers which include five doubles, one home run, nine walks, and only one double play hit into. Much like his running mate Robinson Cano, Cabrera’s hot and cold streaks can make him a frustrating player to watch; he’s seemingly at his best or his worst, with little in between. Last year that divide broke down as best in April, worst the rest of the year. At the very least, Cabrera is mixing it up a bit more this season, and you can’t fault his timing — his first hot streak this year came when Brett Gardner struggled out of the gate, the second after Gardner broke his thumb. Perhaps Cabrera is the kind of player who needs to be in fear of his job to play well. After all, had he continued to slump with Gardner on the shelf, Austin Jackson was just a phone call away.
TERROR IN A TINY TOWN
Yesterday, electrical storms rolled through the obscure village in which I lived and disrupted Internet service for a good chunk of the day; I couldn’t even get on line with my phone. I was quite fearful that the Yankees would acquire Babe Ruth in exchange for $100,000 and the mortgage on Fenway Park and I wouldn’t know about it, but Brian Cashman was good enough to hold off on making any moves. I just want to thank him publicly and let him know that I am back on line and he is free to proceed with any acquisitions he would like to make … as long as they don’t involve dealing Jesus Montero.