Stacked with superior every day players, armed with the best starting pitchers, and compilers of the best regular season records in the National League, the Nats and the Dodgers were better than their NLDS opponents at virtually every position but the one that mattered most – in the dugout.
Of the twenty three managers elected to the Hall of Fame, all but one is either a former catcher or journeyman or never played in the majors. The exception, Leo Durocher, a slick-fielding but weak-hitting shortstop who made three all-star teams, was described by Babe Ruth as “the All-American out.” It will come as no surprise to witnesses of the just concluded NLDS series that the victorious Giants and Cardinals are managed by non-descript ex-catchers Bruce Bochy and Mike Matheny,respectively, while the losing Nats and Bums are piloted by former star players Matt Williams and Don Mattingly.
It’s hard to describe the “Je ne sais quoi” quality which Bochy and Matheny bring to the table, but it’s safe to say that neither Williams nor Mattingly has it. Call it touch, call it feel, call it an ability to think outside of the box; but when it came to the crucial pitching choices which determine tight playoff games, both Williams and Mattingly were thoroughly outclassed by their counterparts across the diamond. Maybe all those years of thinking about ways to get an edge have sharpened the minds of less-talented players who became managers to the detriment of managers to whom playing the game came easy.
Much has been made of Williams’ unfathomable decision to remove Jordan Zimmerman with two outs in the ninth inning of Saturday’s game 2; but he may have exceeded that extraordinary level of ineptitude in Tuesday’s decisive fourth game. First, in a move which smacked of desperation, he pinch hit for starter Gio Gonzalez with two outs in the top half of the fifth inning and a runner on first. Despite successive bone-head plays in the field by Gonzalez which handed the Giants two unearned runs in the second inning, Gonzalez was pitching well, the Nats trailed by only a run, and the move heralded a parade of relievers who were not up to the task.
Having spent Tanner Roark and Jerry Blevins to get through the sixth, Williams made his next mistake by starting the seventh with situational left-hander Matt Thornton. Thornton is most effective facing a left-handed hitter late in the game with men on base. Upcoming later in the inning were dangerous right-handed hitters Buster Posey and Hunter Pence. To save Thornton, his last remaining lefty pitcher, and to best deal with the threat posed by Posey and Pence, the situation called for a right-hander.
Then, when Thornton got into trouble, Williams summmoned Aaron Barrett, a rookie who walks more than five runners per nine innings of work, ahead of reliable veterans Craig Stammen or Tyler Clippard, or even Steven Strasburg, who was available in the bullpen. In his only previous appearance in the series, Barrett relinquished a double to Pence to lead off the twelfth inning of Saturday’s marathon. Barrett was bailed out by Blevins on that occasion, but there was no damage control this time.
Barrett walked Pence to load the bases, and then bounced a pitch to Pedro Sandoval, allowing the lead run to score. Then, to cap one of the worst relief performances ever, Barrett overthrew his catcher while attempting to intentionally walk Sandoval. Posey, who had singled earlier and gone to third on the passed ball, broke for home and was thrown out on a bang-bang play at the plate. The Nats escaped this most bizarre inning only one run down, but the Giants held on. The Nats’ best bullpen arms remained glued to their seats while Barrett, enabled by Williams, sabotaged the season.
Mattingly’s mistakes were less visible, but no less damaging to the Dodgers. In game one, he dissipated a 6-2 seventh inning lead by allowing Clayton Kershaw to stay in too long, and then replaced him with untested rookie Pedro Baez, who promptly relinquished a three-run homer to Matt Holliday. In game four, he benched the team’s best hitter, Yasiel Puig, for light-hitting Andre Ethier, and then inserted Puig into the game in the ninth inning, as a pinch runner, Mattingly was lambasted a year ago for questionable game management during the playoffs, and he did nothing to help his cause in this go-round.
The Giants led the Dodgers by nine games in the National League West on June 8th, and then proceeded to lose 19 of their next 26. They finished six games behind the Dodgers and struggled to make the wild card. During the course of the season, three-fifths of their original starting rotation was either disabled (Matt Cain, Yusmiero Petit) or discredited (Tim Lincecum), and three regulars – centerfielder Angel Pagan, second baseman Marco Scutaro, and first baseman Michael Morse – missed the NLDS due to injury. But for Giant catcher Posey, who may finish his career as the greatest catcher in history, every Giant position player was inferior statistically to the corresponding Nat.
The Nats, of course, coasted to the National League East title, emasculating Atlanta by seventeen games.
They entered the NLDS as a 9:5 favorite over the Giants. But for the second time in three years, the Nats faithful were blindsided by an unexpected result. Season ticket holders can wallpaper their dens with unused playoff and world series tickets for 2012 and 2014. This time, they can’t blame inexperience.
At first blush, the Nats post-mortem will focus on the Giants’ shutdown of Span, Werth, La Roche, Desmond, and Ramos, who collectively batted .111 in the four games. La Roche’s performance will make his imminent departure from the team less painful. The only positive takeaway was the brilliant play of Bryce Harper, who after a disappointing regular season, shone in the field and at bat. When Harper’s maturity grows to match his talent, he will be a transcendent superstar.
But it’s too easy to blame the dormant bats. Everybody knows good pitching stops good hitting, even more so in the playoffs. Power outages are common in October. In the regular season, talent wins out. But in the playoffs, talent takes a back seat to the intangibles. And the most tangible intangible of them all was Bruce Bochy’s superiority over Matt Williams.
Commissioner Justice Runs Amok
What has more hang time than Michael Jordan, more legs than a caterpillar, more curves than Mamie Van Doren, and more twists and turns than a large box of Snyder Hanover pretzels?
If your answer is the Ray Rice saga, you are correct.
Four weeks after release of the video of Rice cold-cocking his girlfriend in an Atlantic City Casino elevator, three weeks after NFL commisioner Goodell called a news conference to explain his too-lenient punishment of Rice, two weeks after Ravens owner Steve Bischotti called a news conference to defend himself against an allegation by ESPN that Bischotti had lobbied Goodell to reduce Rice’s punishment, one week after an unnamed Atlantic City law enforcement official claimed that he sent a tape of the elevator incident to the NFL office in April belying Goodell’s statement that noone in the office saw the tape before its release by TMZ on September 8th, and just one day after NFL owners convened to discuss modifying the commissioner’s currently unfettered power to punish players for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy, the Rice affair continues to bedevil, bewilder and befuddle the NFL.
In our politically correct – charged climate, a cottage industry of complainers has arisen as a result of the NFL’s handling of the matter and its history of indifference towards domestic violence. Women’s groups have been quick to point out the contrast between the NFL’s punishment of drug offenders and drunk drivers and its kid gloves treatment of domestic henchmen. Before the Rice video went viral, Rice was nursing a mere 2-game suspension and girlfriend pounders Ray McDonald and Greg Hardy were unpunished. Since release of the video, Rice has been suspended indefinitely by Goodell, Hardy has been placed on an “exempt” list, Cardinal running back Jonathan Dwyer has been suspended from play for the entire season by the Cardinals for an incident occurring last July, and there has occurred a crackdown throughout the college ranks against players arrested, but not convicted, for crimes involving violence.
What’s going on here? Has the NFL or its executives intentionally disregarded the rights of women or other innocent victims of violence? Is Steve Bischotti a bad guy for intervening in behalf of his star player, who until he bashed his wife, had been a spokesman for the Ravens at community events and a so-called model citizen? Has the NFL all of a sudden become a sanctuary for felons and wife beaters? Or is this simply the latest instance of social media taking over an issue and whipping it out of proportion?
Rather than point the finger at Goodell, who was certainly trying to do the right thing, we should focus instead on the sports leagues’ systems for administering punishment for off-field conduct, which concentrate too much power in the hands of the respective commissioners and in the case of the NFL, are entirely unregulated. Unlike the NBA, Major League Baseball, and the NHL, where the commissioner’s actions are subject to review by an arbitrator or panel of arbitrators, Goodell’s decisions are appealable only to Goodell. The source of his power is the league constitution and the collective bargaining agreement between the players union and the league.
The result of concentrating non-reviewable power in one person without reasonable standards for imposing punishment is public outrage when the commissioner’s decision offends the public’s notions of fairness. And these days that outrage spreads like wildfire. The solution is to curb commissioner power and to establish rules and regulations for how and when extra-judicial punishment is to be imposed. When Goodell’s sanctions in the New Orleans Saints bounty case became the subject of a lawsuit, he quickly relented by agreeing to let the case be reviewed by an independent arbitrator, ex-commissioner Paul Tagliabue. When the NFL announces its new policy for handling allegations of misconduct, we can expect the commissioner to play a less dominant role in the disciplinary process.