The Fab Four

October 4th, 2017 sendarama Posted in baseball 2 Comments »

They were the best of teams. They were the worst of teams.

In a baseball season of improbable happenings, including records for home runs and strikeouts, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Los Angeles Dodgers reached the extremities of good and bad in the same season.

Through 127 games, after which their record was 91-36, the Dodgers had won at least 13 of 14 games three times and led their division by 21 games. From June 7-August 6, they went 43-7, the best 50-game major league stretch in over 100 years. They won virtually all the time, nearly every day, and in virtually every way, including ten walk-offs.

With the deepest starting pitching in the majors, including four lefties, young megastars Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger anchoring a power-hitting infield, the best closer (Kenley Jansen), and shrewd manager Dave Roberts pulling the strings, the Dodgers became the favorites to win the World Series.

Then, for reasons unknown, the roof fell in. No one has the answer. There’s been no finger-pointing, no explanations offered. But from August 26- September 11 the Dodgers lost fifteen of sixteen games. In one of them, starter Rich Hill lost a no-hitter and the game in the 10th inning. The other losses were more conventional. Their bats ran cold, their middle relief sagged. They displayed deficiencies in left field and at second base. They batted only .249 as a team.

One hard core Bums advocate offered a reason for the slump: “Lack of pressure and fear of injuries made them complacent. I am scared about the playoffs if they play Arizona in the first round. Arizona has beaten them six straight times.”

The Dodgers rebounded from their disastrous run, and won eight of ten to finish the season, ending with a league-best 104 wins. But the streak is a stark reminder of their vulnerability, as they enter the strongest post-season pool since the wild-card format was instituted in 1995. Great teams don’t lose 15 of 16.

Rookie Cody Bellinger sparks the Dodgers

At different points in the season, other teams looked like the best team in the majors. Coming out of spring training, the World Series winning Chicago Cubs appeared prime to repeat. But after the first two months of the season, the surprise answer to the trick question “What’s the best team in baseball?” was the Houston Astros.

Just three years removed from four consecutive 100 loss seasons, the Astros bounded to a 29-12 start and a 10 game lead in the American League West by the middle of May. They accomplished the transformation with an ace number one starter (Dallas Keuchel), a diminutive 3-time batting champion, 5’6″ Jose Altuve, a successful youth movement (Carlos Correa, George Springer), and one of the most productive offenses in years.

The Astros strike out less and hit for more power than any other team. As well, they had more infield hits than any other team and more extra base hits. Their team batting average for the year was .282. Twelve Astros had ten or more homers. Lead off man Springer had 34 homers and 85 rbi’s. Their team total of 238 taters is second only to the Yankees 241, and the Bombers had Aaron Judge (52).

To shore up their starting pitching, which was mid-level, the Astros acquired former MVP and Cy Young winner Justin Verlander from Detroit just before the waiver deadline. He arrived in Houston the same day that the team returned home after Hurricane Harvey, and he proceeded to energize the city and pitch splendidly throughout September. He pairs with Keuchel to give the Astros a formidable one-two punch. One sobering note: Tyler Clippard is their set-up man.

At about the time the Astros leveled off, in mid-July, the Cleveland Indians finally began to resemble the team which made the World Series a year ago without several of its best players. Injured starters Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco were back, along with veteran hitter Michael Brantley, and the Tribe added slugger Edwin Encarnacion in free agency; but Cleveland stumbled out of the gate and settled in at a few games over .500. Through 93 games, they stood at 48-45, in a tight race for the Central Division lead.

Then they turned on the switch. They won nine of eleven to close out July and open up a sizable lead in the Central Division. They acquired slugger Jay Bruce from the Mets at the trade deadline, and he provided an immediate boost. Their pitching stabilized. On August 23rd, they began what some analysts have referred to as the most dominating stretch of baseball ever played.

Over the next 22 games games, all won by Cleveland, they hit more home runs than their opponents scored runs, led by Bruce and Encarnacion. They didn’t just win. They pulverized opponents. Their run differential over the streak was greater than their run differential for all of last season, when they won 94 games. During the streak, they pitched to an era under 2.00.

After the streak ended, they won 11 of their last 15 to finish the season with 102 wins, second to the Dodgers’ 104. Their win streak overlapped the Dodgers’ losing streak, but despite the Tribe gaining almost 20 games in the standings on the Dodgers over that 3-week period, LA still finished with the better season record and the tie breaker should the teams meet in the World Series.

Are the Indians the favorite to win the World Series? Yes, acccording to the odds-makers, who have them slightly favored over the Dodgers. In the post-season, good pitching dominates good hitting, and the Tribe pitching staff has the lowest era in baseball (3.34). Its bull pen is air tight featuring the resplendent middle reliever and set-up man Andrew Miller, who will pitch at any time for varying lengths. Manager Terry Francona can match wits with anybody.

Andrew Miller can be the difference maker for Cleveland

Cleveland faces tough hurdles in the ALDS with the suddenly tough Yankees and with Houston, which Cleveland would meet in the ALCS; but the team which poses the biggest obstacle to the Tribe ending its 69 year World Series drought is, it says here, the Washington Nationals, the last of the four number one seeds.

At no time did the Nats capture the national spotlight, like LA, Houston, and Cleveland. There were no glossy winning streaks and no crucial series. But they are poised to eliminate the aftertaste of three brutal first round exits in the past five years. Bryce Harper is back from injury, Trea Turner is an ascendant star at shortstop due for a breakout series, and the other infielders – Rendon, Murphy, and Zimmerman – are having career years. The pitching staff is healthy for once, and the remade bullpen has put up good numbers. Their depth is superb. They must beat Chicago in the first round, for the sake of the team and the town’s collective psyches, and they should beat the Dodgers (or Arizona) because they’re the better team.

But the Tribe is strong in the areas where the Nats have question marks – starting pitching depth, relief pitching, and a history of playoff success. Plus, they have the secret weapon – Andrew Miller.

The post-season is Miller Time. Cleveland in seven.

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The Longest Game

October 27th, 2016 sendarama Posted in baseball No Comments »

I’m just getting back from Game 5.

Metaphorically, that is. In fact, I returned home from Nationals Stadium at 2:30 a.m. Friday, after the longest game in NL playoff history (4 hours, 32 minutes) ended in the Nats’ elimination from the baseball playoffs, and after a traffic jam, fueled by Metro’s refusal to extend service past midnight, had kept me stalled on Half Street for another hour.

But the game’s reach extended beyond 2:30 a.m. on Friday. My dreams that night were filled with pitching changes and double switches, and strike outs with men on third and less than one out. A week later, Game 5 still lingers.

Was this Game 5 loss worse than Game 5 of 2012, when the Nats blew a 6-0 early lead and a 2-run lead in the ninth? How did it compare with 2014 when manager Matt Williams’s bad choices cost them two games against an inferior opponent? In the aftermath, it felt like the worst of all.

Because they lost, again, Game 5 will reverberate far into the future, extending the Nats’ image as postseason underachievers and feeding into the notion that they lack playoff muster. Just too many failures at moments of truth. The Nats had Game 5 on their turf with their ace, 20-game winner Max Scherzer, ready to go. The Dodgers led with 36-year-old journeyman Rich Hill, the game 2 starter. Hill’s lifetime record over 10 seasons was 26-23. A year ago he was pitching for the Long Island Ducks. It was a game the Nats should win.

What happened?

Was manager Dusty Baker outdueled by Dodger skipper Dave Roberts? Absolutely. Roberts, in his first year as Dodger manager, conducted a bullpen management clinic. We should have known genius was at work when he lifted Hill after 2 2/3 innings when he was pitching well. He had fanned thirteen Nats in seven innings of work, primarily with a baffling curve ball which travels 73-74 mph and moves both sidewards and downwards. But Hill had been nicked for one run, and Roberts was leaving no room for another. Power righty Joe Blanton snuffed a Nats rally and pitched a clean fourth.

Then Roberts inserted 20-year-old starter Julio Urias to pitch the fourth and fifth. He defied convention when he inserted closer Kenley Jansen to pitch the seventh and eighth innings and into the ninth; and in a managerial coup de grace, he summoned stud starter Clayton Kershaw on one-day rest to get the final two outs with two men on in the ninth.

Conversely, Baker’s rapid removal of Scherzer after Joc Pederson homered to lead off the seventh had backfired. Baker used five pitchers after Scherzer in the seventh inning alone, setting a record for most pitchers used in an inning, and the Dodgers scored four times. The seventh inning lasted 66 minutes. In the course of the multiple mound changes, Baker made two double switches which cost him Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon at crunch time. The double switch is a convenient tool to push back the pitcher’s position in the batting order, but Baker overdid it. Suddenly Baker’s 0-9 record in playoff deciding games is no longer a mystifying stat.

But you can’t blame Baker for the outcome, not when he was such a huge upgrade all year long over Williams, and not when the Nats blew so many chances on the field. If there is a common denominator to the Nats’ postseason troubles, it has been their failure to make the most of scoring opportunities. And that’s what happened in Game 5.

The primary culprit was Jayson Werth. Because his arrival as a free agent in 2011 coincided with the Nats’ improvement as a team, and because of his monster game-winning home run in game 4 of the 2012 NLDS, Werth has gotten a pass. He earns prime star money at $18 million a year, but his average stat line since joining the Nats is .270, 16 homers, and 60 RBIs. In the last two years, he has batted .221 and .244, respectively. He can be a black hole in the middle of the line-up when he is batting second or third.

Werth hit well during the first four games of the series but it was fools gold. In Game 5, he reverted to form. He struck out three times, twice with a runner on third and less than one out. With the Nats ahead 1-0, Trea Turner led off the third with a single to left. He promptly stole second. Then, after Bryce Harper’s medium drive to left center, Turner took off for third, narrowly edging Pederson’s laser-like throw with a head-first slide which originated at least fifteen feet from the bag. Safe. One out, Turner on third, Werth up.

Trea’s bold progression around the bases without a base hit was typical of his contribution. His arrival from the minor leagues in late July altered the Nats’ character and solidified their roster. He provided speed at the top of the order, solved the center field problem, and fortified the infield and outfield depth. He was Trea the Transformer. Derek Jeter on steroids.

Had the Nats advanced, Turner would have been the reason. Like Jeter, Turner is a tall, rangy shortstop by trade with a modicum of power. But he fields three positions, has the speed of a cheetah (22.7 mph at top speed), beats out infield grounders, and steals bases at will. His stats over 73 regular season games projected to .342 BA, 233 hits, 29 homers and 73 stolen bases for the full season.

So it was particularly important to this observer that Werth get the runner home — to reward Turner’s effort, and to manufacture a run in a playoff game where it might make the difference. Pre-Turner, the Nats squandered scoring opportunities. Now, through the devices of Turner, they were run creators.

But he’d need at least a minimal contribution from Werth to finish the job. “Just get the damn ball on the ground, and I’ll score,” Turner must have been thinking to himself.

But Werth struck out, and Turner was stranded on third. The importance of that second run cannot be discounted. Had the Nats led 2-0 when Pederson homered to lead off the seventh, perhaps Baker would have extended Scherzer’s leash and left him in the game. Werth continued his reign of error. In the sixth, after a walk, he was thrown out by a mile when he tried to score on Ryan Zimmerman’s double to the left corner; and he struck out in the seventh inning with one out and the tying run on third.

Werth’s problem is not just that he bats third and does not hit for average. His outs are predominantly strike outs, or feeble pop-ups to the right side. He is no more than adequate in the outfield. His lackadaisical approach to a flyball hit by Justin Turner in Game 4 cost the Nats a crucial run. He enters the final year of his contract in 2017.

The Nats should not wait until the end of his contract to reduce Werth’s role. Obtaining a right-hitting outfielder with pop should be high on GM Mike Rizzo’s wish list. In the task re-configuring the Nats from post-season failures to playoff victors, eliminating Jayson Werth will be an important first step.

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Goat Horns Come In All Sizes

November 8th, 2015 sendarama Posted in baseball No Comments »

When the World Series was the Big Show, before football overtook baseball in the national consciousness, there were heroes and there were goats whose careers were forever defined by how they performed during those few days in October. We mostly remember the heroes because there have been more good deeds than bad. Since Bill Buckner’s miscue in 1986, can you name one player who is blamed for his team’s World Series loss?

But in the World Series just concluded there was an abundance of goat horns to be dispensed after the Mets’ deflating 4-1 defeat by Kansas City . The Royals were so balanced in their excellence that it was difficult to name an MVP (catcher Salvador Perez got it); but there was no shortage of Mets who tanked at critical moments.

And the irony of it is that the bearers of the blame were four Mets, including manager Terry Collins, who were experiencing career highs following the Amazins’ triumphs over the Dodgers and the Cubs in the NLDS and NLCS, respectively.

Most prominently, second baseman Daniel Murphy went from setting a playoff record for hitting home runs in six consecutive games during the playoffs to making two critical errors on routine grounders which cost the Mets game four and deprived them of a chance to come back in game five. Forget about his homer off Grienke to give the Mets the lead in their pulsating game 5 win over LA. The memory of Murphy as he enters free agency is of Eric Hosmer’s slow bounder slipping under his glove into right field as the Mets’ game 4 lead evaporated.

Following Murphy’s home run explosion there was pressure on the Mets to re- sign him, notwithstanding his reputation for bad defense. But Murphy’s World Series miscues have likely stamped his exit visa from Flushing. Murphy Goat No. 1.

Yoenis Cespedes was acquired by the Mets at the trading deadline from Detroit and promptly led them to the pennant. In his first 41 games with the Mets, he hit 17 homers and drove in 42 runs. His presence in the middle of the lineup almost overnite transformed the Mets from weak sisters to dangerous.

En route to winning the NL Player of the Week award for 9/7 to 9/13, Cespedes crushed Drew Storen for a 3-run triple and homer on successive nights, ending the Nats’ playoff hopes. He continued strong through the first two rounds of the playoffs. There was speculation that Cespedes, a free agent, would command six years at $25 million per year. How could the notably penurious Mets fail to sign him without angering their fan base? After his World Series, Cespedes may still get his money; but it won’t be from the Mets. They will leave Cespedes to the rest of us, including perhaps the Giants, who desperately need an outfielder with pop.

Cespedes’ devaluation began on the first pitch of the series when Alcides Escobar smashed a drive to deep left center. Cespedes tracked it, seemed to defer to left fielder Michael Conforto, then made a failed attempt at a backhanded basket catch. Had the process stopped there, the damage might have been contained to a double. But Cespedes kicked the ball into deep left center and Escobar waltzed home without a slide for an inside the park homer. The Mets lost in the 14th inning, 5-4.

In game 4, Cespedes misplayed a drive by Perez into a double and KC scored its first run. Then, he killed a last gasp rally in the ninth by being doubled off first on a soft liner to the left side. Throughout the Series, he swung at bad pitches, struck out often, and left a dozen runners on bases. His line was 3 for 20 (all singles) with one run batted in. He had disappointed in all phases-at bat, in the field, and on the base paths. Cespedes Goat No. 2.

Murphy fails to get his glove down in 8th inning of Game Four.

Entering the Series, Mets’ closer Jeurys Familia had not blown a save since July. Following Familia’s six out save in Game 5 against the Dodgers and three perfect outings against Chicago, Familia’s 97 mph sinker was drawing comparisons to Mariano Rivera’s cutter. Unlike the Royals, who were content to get 5 or 6 innings from their starters before turning matters over to their very deep bullpen, the Mets looked for their starters to go deep, and to get the ball to Familia.

Game 1 at Kansas City, a see-saw affair, could not have worked out better for the Mets. When KC first baseman Hosmer let a grounder go through his legs a la Buckner, the Mets took a 4-3 lead into the bottom of the eighth. Familia cleaned up Tyler Clippard’s mess to end the eighth and retired the first batter in the ninth. At this time, the Mets had a win probability above 90%. But on a quick pitch attempt by Familia, Alex Gordon smashed a high fastball over the centerfield fence to tie it, and the Royals won in 14. Said Alex Rodriguez commenting for Fox, “That was like a win and a half for the Royals. They won the game and they know they can get to Familia.”

With the help of Murphy’s 4th game error, and Lucas Duda’s wild throw to home plate in Game 5, Familia went on to give up two more leads, becoming the first pitcher ever to blow three saves in a World Series. This label is not entirely fair since Familia inherited runners in blown saves two and three; and Gordon’s homer was the only earned run charged to him in the Series. But belying his reputation, he was far from unhittable against the contact-hitting Royals. Familia Goat No. 3.

But no Met had a worse World Series than manager Terry Collins. Following a magical last two months of the season, and two playoff series in which he pushed all the right buttons, everything was coming up aces for the 66 year old Collins, who was experiencing his first post-season after eleven years as a manager.

He did nothing wrong when the Mets lost the first two games at Kansas City. But he was questioned for using Familia to pitch the ninth inning of the Mets’ 9-3 third game blowout, and then again for letting starter Steven Matz begin the sixth inning in Game 4. When he summoned Tyler Clippard to protect the Mets’ 3-2 edge in the eighth inning of that affair, Mets fans cringed. In the decisive moment of the Series, Clippard went wild high, walking two consecutive batters with one out. Familia could not put out the fire, and the Royals won the critical swing game to take a 3-1 Series lead. When questioned on inserting Clippard over Familia to start the eighth, Collins cited his use of Familia the day before.

In Game Five, Matt Harvey was brilliant for eight innings. The Mets took a 2-0 lead in the ninth when Collins told Harvey, through his pitching coach, that his night was over. Harvey beseeched Collins to send him out for the ninth. Collins relented. Harvey walked the first batter and Collins, in mistake number two, let him face another batter, Hosmer, who slapped a double to left . Collins admitted later that he allowed Harvey to change his mind, and that he was up all night ruing his “mistake.” Collins Goat No. 4.

Honorable Mention goat horns go to Clippard, who was simply awful at the most critical moment of the Series, and to Duda, .
whose wild throw home in the ninth inning of Game Five allowed the Royals to tie the score with two out.

Collins’ bullpen uncertainty at crunch time was remindful of former Nat Manager Matt Williams’ decision-making. The difference, of course, is that Collins’ faux pas were limited in time and place while Williams’ were ongoing. Recognizing that, and apparently appreciating that no amount of good strategy could have overcome the Royals decided superiority over the Mets, Mets brass signed Collins after the series to a two-year extension.

Williams has been so discredited that he is unlikely to sniff a managerial opportunity during the next several years. His successor, Dusty Baker, was celebrated at a festive press conference on Thursday. The Nats, to their considerable embarrassment, were reported to have first offered the job to Bud Black. But in the wake of Baker’s demonstration of charm, wit, and communication skills, qualities rarely exhibited by Williams, there will be no recriminations over the clumsy hiring process. The Nats have upgraded big time at manager.

For reporters who endured two years of metronomic answers by Williams about game strategy after tough losses, the sight of Baker at the press conferences expounding on a variety of issues must have been refreshing. No more are the days when all the manager has to say is “We’ve got to get them tomorrow.”

Even Baker may have a problem replacing the key parts which the Nats are sure to lose over the winter, including Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmerman, Dan Fister, and Dennard Span. The feeling here is that Jason Werth will continue to spiral downward, and that Ryan Zimmerman will remain injury prone. The front end of the bullpen requires a complete re-working and the back end is manned by question marks Drew Storen and Jonathan Papelbon. The Mets will challenge even an improved 2016 Nats for the NL East title.

But the good thing about having Baker as manager is that if things do go wrong, we’ll at least get an explanation.

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Nats Post-mortem: An Explosion of Implosion

September 30th, 2015 sendarama Posted in baseball No Comments »

He may go down as the most reviled Nat ever, but you’ve got to give Jonathan Papelbon some credit. He did what a season’s worth of bad decisions, inept play, and bullpen mismanagement could not make certain.

He got Matt Williams fired.

Williams is general manager Mike Rizzo’s guy. They worked together in the Arizona organization and Rizzo developed a liking for the taciturn “Big Marine.” Williams was NL manager of the year in 2014 and despite his horrendous performance in last year’s playoffs against the Giants, the Nats in February executed their option on Williams’ services for 2016. And Rizzo didn’t sound like he wanted to fire Williams. Just three weeks ago, after yet another game blown by the relievers, Rizzo described Williams’ handling of the bullpen as “masterful.”

During August and September, the Nats played twelve games against the Mets (6), the Cardinals (3), and the Orioles (3) which were arguably significant. In ten of them, the Nats were either tied or leading entering the seventh inning. The Nats won one and lost eleven. In most of the losses, questionable decision-making by Williams figured prominently.

He could do nothing right. Against the Mets 7/31-8/2, in the series which cost the Nats first place, he failed to use either Papelbon or Drew Storen in three tight losses. Against St. Louis in early September, he brought woeful Casey Janssen back for consecutive poundings which cost two games. Against the Mets on September 7th, he left Max Scherzer in too long. The following night, he yanked J. Zimmerman too soon, after 5.2 innings of 3-hit ball and a manageable pitch count. His replacements promptly surrendered a 7-1 lead in an 8-7 loss.

With apologies to James Russell Lowell, what is so rare as a reliever who can pitch a clean seventh inning?

“Bullpen Implodes Again” became a standing headline in Washington Post game accounts

MacMillan defines “Implosion” as an inward explosion. The word is more aptly used to describe what goes on in Williams’ mind as he makes one bad decision after another. All year long, the Nats have failed to move runners, botched sacrifices, made critical fielding errors, and run themselves out of big innings. A manager must be held accountable when a team is deficient in fundamentals. Williams’ bungling has not been limited to the bullpen.

To make matters worse, Williams could not or would not explain his looney decision-making. “We’ve just got to win tomorrow,” was his robotic mantra to reporters after losses.

A baseball fan since the 50’s, I cannot recall a manager whose job was threatened because he made terrible in-game decisions. I guess it’s because most managers who reach the major leagues have managed at other levels and have learned game management. Not so Williams, who never managed prior to being hired by Rizzo.

When I broached the subject of Williams being fired to colleagues after the recent Mets series, at least half of them opined that he would hold on to his job. In the aftermath of the dugout brawl in the home half of the 8th inning Sunday between Papelbon and Bryce Harper, in which Papelbon choked Harper in full view of the cameras, the climate has changed. The fight evidently caught everyone’s attention but Williams, who sent Papelbon back to the mound to start the ninth inning. Papelbon was rocked for five runs.

Papelbon embraces Harper

There was prelude to the scuffle, and some irony. Papelbon would not have been playing had he not appealed his 3-game suspension for throwing at Manny Machado last week. And Harper had taken exception to Papelbon’s head-hunting. “They’ll probably hit me tomorrow,” he said. To the bombastic Papelbon, who has a well-earned reputation as a bad apple, these were fighting words. When Harper failed to run out a fly ball on Sunday, Papelbon imploded. The brawl ensued.

When Rizzo brought Papelbon in at the trade deadline to supplant Drew Storen as closer, there was speculation that Papelbon’s arrival would disrupt team unity. Storen was having a good year and was popular with teammates. But during Papelbon’s two months with the team, during which he performed poorly, he has been more than disruptive. He has shattered the careers of Rizzo, Storen, and Williams, as well as his own, and has contributed mightily to the perception of the Nats as choking dogs.

Rizzo will long be lampooned for acquiring Papelbon. Storen, who broke his hand against his locker in frustration after a string of failures following the trade, is discredited. Williams, as noted, will be fired at year’s end. Papelbon is under contract next year for 11 million, but after that, he’ll be lucky to find employment as a bouncer.

After the game, William advanced the incredible notion that he didn’t see the fight and hadn’t been aware of the severity of the struggle. Had he known the details, he said, he wouldn’t have sent Papelbon back out. More likely, Williams was overwhelmed by the confluence of events, lost his train of thought, and did what he usually does at crunch time – the wrong thing.

Nats fans who have followed the team closely knew Williams had to go. For getting it done, Papelbon is entitled to a thank you note. But mail it soon. Because if one thing is certain other than Williams’ ouster, it’s that Papelbon, despite the 11 million, will be getting a new address.

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Nats, Bums Skippers Too Good For Their Own Good/ Commish Justice Runs Amok

October 8th, 2014 sendarama Posted in baseball No Comments »

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.

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