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Lessons Learned and Questions Posed in Divisional Round

 

Heading to the LCS

 

By Adam Hoff

 

Surprise, surprise.  After 162 regular season games and one round of the playoffs, we’ve come full circle: Red Sox versus Yankees in the ALCS.  You can’t ask for much more than that.  And over in the National League we’ve got the All-Central Division matchup that everyone anticipated at the beginning of the season … except that it’s the explosive Cardinals rather than the Cubs going head to head with divisional rival Houston. 

 

Astros, Cardinals, Yankees, and Red Sox.  It’s the fearsome foursome picked by many of the experts (including this non-expert), but it could have gone in any number of directions.  Lest we become tempted to rule out the importance of the divisional round altogether, here are some of the observations, criticisms, and revelations from the first round of the playoffs.

 

Carlos Beltran jacking up his price tag.  The guy was already set to earn a huge contract in the offseason, but now things are going to get downright ridiculous.  Not only is he the ultimate power and speed fusion in the game today and a phenomenal defensive player in centerfield, now he’s adding “insanely clutch playoff performer” to his resume.  .455 with an NLDS-record 4 home runs and 9 RBI in his first playoff series?  Are you kidding me?  Not only were the numbers nice, but every single home run came at a huge moment for Houston, when all of the old doubts were creeping back in and threatening to shut down this offensive juggernaut.  Let’s recap Beltran’s tremendous sense of timing: 1) Early in Game one to set the tone.  2) A game-tying shot in Game Four immediately after Atlanta had jumped out to an early lead.  3) A huge shot into the bullpen early in Game Five to ease some of the tension (ala Chubs in “Happy Gilmore”).  4) A direct response to Atlanta cutting the Houston lead to 3-2 in the fifth inning of Game Five.  There were no “piling on” home runs here.  Every blast came in a huge spot.  Add on the fact that he was playing in pain after being hit by a pitch in the opener and you are looking at one of the best five-game series in recent memory. 

 

The bad news?  Beltran just priced himself out of the range of every team in the big leagues, with the exception of one.  The Yankees.  And the beat goes on …

 

Emerging postseason heroes.  Every season features young or unheralded players that emerge into the spotlight.  Call it the Mark Lemke Award.  This year we’ve got an early frontrunner for the 2004 title … Brad Backe of the Astros.  Three months ago this guy was trying to learn how to pitch in the minors after being switched over from shortstop.  Now he’s stepping up as the Miguel Batista to Clemens and Oswalt’s Schilling and Johnson.  I was one of the many people drawing comparisons between the 2004 ‘Stros and the 2001 D-Backs due to the twin aces at the top of the rotation.  The thing that everyone forgets though is that Miguel Batista gave Arizona a strong outing in each of his four playoff starts that season.  Somebody had to step up for Houston and it appears that Backe is ready for the challenge.  He ripped the Cubs’ hearts out in early September, twirled a gem against the Rockies on the final day of the season to clinch the Wild Card, and then pitched his heart out in his first playoff game on Saturday.  Will the latest Killer B continue to get the job done against the powerful Cardinals?  He’ll need to for the Astros to win the series. 

 

Is the Yankees rotation better than expected or do the Twins just suck that bad offensively?  Don’t get me wrong, the Twins battled.  With their budget and lack of power at the plate they did all they could to win the series.  However, for all the talk of the Yankees’ demise on the mound, they certainly didn’t look too bad to me.  Mike Mussina had a great September and appears to be all the way back.  He will be making Boston fans very nervous dueling Schilling throughout the series.  Jon Leiber got off to a slow start in Game Two but rebounded nicely to stake New York the lead.  And Kevin Brown looked terrific in Game Three.  In fact, only Javier Vasquez continued to flounder.  So the question remains: are the criticisms of Yankee pitching incorrect, or are the Twins just so bad offensively that they made New York look good?  I’m afraid that it’s a little of both, but we’ll know for sure after the first four games of the ALCS.

 

Why did the Twins throw Santana on three-days rest?  Time to rail on Ron Gardenhire a little bit.  To be honest, I was ready to bash this decision either way it went.  Had the Twins won, they would have had to go back to New York with a tired Brad Radke taking on a rested Mike Mussina.  Yeah, right.  So why do it?  If you can find a way to win Game Four with Kyle Lohse – not impossible since they were hitting against the suddenly horrific Vasquez and playing with home field advantage – then you go back to New York with a rested and unbeatable Johan Santana.  I’m telling you, this made no sense.  Even down 2-1, this series was still Minnesota’s for the taking.  All they had to do was avoid panicking.  So what did they do?  You guessed it: panic. 

 

Why did they take him out after five?  Even allowing for the possibility that Minnesota was willing to do anything to avoid Kyle Lohse (anything except for bringing him in for the 10th inning, apparently), how do you explain taking Santana out of the game after five innings?  He was puzzled, the announcers were puzzled, and the fans were puzzled.  Not only is he the best pitcher in baseball and a complete sorcerer against the Yanks (two runs in his last 27 innings against one of the best offenses in recent memory), but he was picking up speed.  He’d labored through the first three innings but had allowed only one base runner while striking out four batters in his final two innings.  The result was that it put the bullpen in motion too early and the rest is history.  Good job, Gardenhire.

 

This Yankees lineup is pretty good.  I’ve been loathe to praise the Yanks over the years, but even I’m a little in awe of their current lineup.  Jeter, A-Rod, and Sheffield is a downright terrifying top of the order.  (Two notes about that: 1) Kudos to Pay-Rod for stepping up and delivering in postseason play.  I had my doubts but so far, he’s been outstanding.  2) Kudos to Joe Torre for being the first manager to figure out that it makes sense to put your best hitters at the top of the order so they can get more at bats.  Barry Bonds should have been hitting second for the Giants this year; doing so would have put him at the plate 53 additional times, which would have lead to something like 53 more walks and probably about 30 more Giants runs.)  Moving through the lineup, Matsui is one of the toughest outs in the game, Bernie still has a flair for the dramatic, and guys like Posada, Sierra, and Cairo are always terrifying.  I’m telling you, this lineup is a buzz saw. 

 

Jose Lima magic.  It was an abbreviated run for the Dodgers in the playoffs (thanks to Brad Penny’s bicep), but Game Three in LA was a thriller thanks to Jose Lima.  Despite being a baseball vagabond, Lima landed with the Dodgers this year and clawed his way into the rotation.  Then with his team down 0-2 in the series, he turned in an incredible performance, throwing a five-hit shutout.  The emotion, the pinpoint control, the durability – the whole Lima Time experience was pretty awesome.

 

(Quick side note though.  Why in the world did Beltre catch the final out like he was messing around in someone’s backyard.  Did anyone see this?)

 

Latest Curse?  Just when it looked like the Red Sox had the perfect team assembled to roll to a title, Curt Schilling screws up his ankle.  Not to get all doomsday here, but that is NOT a good sign.  It’s hard to imagine Boston beating the Yanks without having Schilling at his most dominant.  Boy, bad luck sure does suck. 

 

How out of control will the Jeter worship get this year?  Look, Jeter’s great.  He’s a leader and he plays hard and he’s not a bad baseball player either.  However, he is not the only good player on the field.  Yet to hear Fox tell it, he is the spirit of baseball embodied in one man.  The soul of sports in pinstripes.  Give me a break.  I love the playoffs, but I absolutely abhor the Joe Buck/Tim McCarver “Annual Jeter Worship Session.”  Tim McCarver: “What a pitch by Mike Mussina; I bet Jeter told him to throw it there.”  Joe Buck: “No one breathes better than Derek Jeter.  He does it every October!”

 

Killer B’s exorcise the demons.  While Beltran led the way for Houston, it is worth noting that Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell came through in a huge way to rid themselves of their playoff demons.  Biggio had several huge hits and played a solid leftfield while Bags held down the middle of the order and delivered some tremendous at bats in big spots.  It was great to see two veterans finally break through in October. 

 

Garner learns nothing from Gardenhire’s mistake.  More to the point, is Garner clinically insane?  With Jimmy Williams out of the way, I thought Houston had solved their “intrusive and idiotic manager” problems.  Guess not.  Did you see all of the horrific mistakes Garner made in that Game Four?  First, he learned nothing from the Twins series and went with Clemens on three days rest despite the fact that A) Clemens is 42 years old, B) he has never pitched well on three days rest, C) the recent stats for starters going on three days rest are just abysmal, and D) Houston was scoring a ton of runs.  Why not run out Pete Munro and try to slug your way to the win?  Especially if you are only going to get five innings out of your starter!  Then they could have had Clemens coming back on his normal rest.  Furthermore, he pulled Biggio in the 7th inning to gain one spot in the batting order and inserted Brad Lidge without making a double switch, which forced him to burn his best pitcher after only seven pitches. 

 

Luckily, Houston was just considerably better than Atlanta so they were able to bounce back and trounce the Braves in Game Five.  Unfortunately, this does not mean that everything turned out okay.  Had they won with Munro, they would be able to open the series against the Cards with Clemens, Oswalt, and Backe – all on normal rest.  Even if it went five and Clemens had to start, they’d still have Oswalt to throw Game One.  Now they have to use Backe and Munro in St. Louis, creating a strong likelihood that they will be down 0-2 going back home.  To top it all off, they will be going back home with a nutcase of a manager. 

 

Why are NL teams pitching around the #8 hitter so much?  First of all, the pitchers have been making them pay on occasion with some decent hitting.  More importantly, you are allowing the opponent to “clear the pitcher” and send up the leadoff hitter the next inning.  It’s madness!  If you are on offense and you’ve got the #8 hitter coming up with two out, all you are hoping for is that he can scrap his way on base so that you can get the pitcher’s spot out of the way.  There is nothing worse than starting the next inning with your pitcher contributing an automatic out in front of the top of the order.  So why do teams eliminate this problem for their opponent?  Go after Brent Mayne and Brad Ausmus.  Challenge guys like Charles Thomas.  Don’t let players like that get on base, it’s pathetic. 

 

On that note, enjoy the League Championship Series games, everyone!

 

Adam Hoff is a columnist for WhatifSports.com and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers of America.  He can be reached by email at ahoff@uchicago.edu or by sitemail at adamo112.

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