Diet Cherry Vanilla Dr. Pepper presents “Heroes and Goats”
MLB Divisional Round Recap
By Adam Hoff
After a wild divisional round that featured a new set of Sox crushing the worn out version, a rookie felling the mighty Yankees, the Cards flexing their muscle, and the Astros furthering the Braves’ torture by winning what some are calling “the greatest non-World Series playoff game of all time,” it is time to take stock of who was magical and who was brutal over the past week.
(By the way, I’ve decided that since every stadium and show and competition has a sponsor these days, I’d go ahead and sell out as well. Dr. Pepper isn’t actually sponsoring the column, but man, that Diet Cherry Vanilla is something. So enjoy, D.P.! A little free advertising.)
Here are your LDS Heroes and Goats:
Chris Carpenter (Hero). The Cards annihilated the Padres, so this may seem like an odd choice, but other than Reggie Sanders (who is about to get some love), Carpenter deserves the most credit for the sweep. I felt it was critical for the Cy Young candidate to go out and establish his ace status in the series and to get the postseason off to a great start for St. Louis. He did his job, going six shutout innings and picking up a win. It’s all about setting the tone. Not only did it establish the Cards’ superiority, it also changes the tenor of the upcoming series against the Astros. Had Carpenter been hit hard in the Divisional Series, it just adds to the chatter about his late-season swoon, which would have meant one thing: Advantage, Pettitte and Houston. Instead, he looked like a stud and he takes the ball against the Astros’ lefty ace with confidence. I can’t stress what a difference that makes for him and his team.
Reggie Sanders (Hero). Might as well get right to this obvious choice. The man drove in 10 runs in three games! I have no idea why teams aren’t pitching him up in the zone (check out footage from the ’02 World Series when Anaheim pitchers were tossing 88 mph fastballs by him at the letters), but as long as he gets a steady diet of low fastballs and curveballs, he will rake. His trips to the plate (and how the ‘Stros pitch him) might be the absolute key to the NLCS.
NL West (Goat). I don’t want to blame any single person on the Padres (Peavy would have been a candidate until I found out he was pitching with broken ribs), so I’ll just anoint the entire NL West division as the goat, since they couldn’t step up and give us a decent playoff team. Seriously, the playoffs were comprised of seven outstanding teams and one joke. Pathetic.
Randy Johnson (Goat). Yes, he came up big in relief, and yes, there is very little difference between what the Unit did (4 1/3 innings of shutout relief following a bad start) and what the Rocket did (3 innings of shutout relief following a bad start), but hey, the Astros won and the Yankees lost. Plus, Houston doesn’t expect Clemens to carry them. They expect him to teach the other guys, bring intensity, make quality starts, and so on. It’s obvious they don’t rely on him to rack up W’s, or else they wouldn’t have made the playoffs. The Yankees, on the other hand, needed Johnson to be dominant. They traded their future for him, raised their payroll to over $200 million for him, and waited through a generally disappointing season for him to step up when it mattered most. Instead, when he got the ball for Game Three in Yankee Stadium, he got rocked. He gave up a series-changing home run to Garrett Anderson (to a lefty!) and was chased by the third inning. New York scored seven runs in the pivotal game of the series with Randy Johnson on the mound … and got destroyed. I would say that’s worthy of goat status.
Joe Torre (Goat). Everyone praises this guy like he invented the game, so I’m going to take a shot at him here. Johnson had a chance to be a hero instead of a goat, but Torre waited too long to get him into Game Five. Perhaps he was seduced by Santana’s struggles early and thought New York would score a ton of runs, but it was clear Mussina didn’t have it, yet he let him throw to Adam Kennedy, a left-handed batter. Put runs two and three on the board. And then he let him go back out and pitch some more! Once the Angels had five runs, you knew it was over. Nice job, Joe, way to manage like it’s an elimination game.
Hideki Matsui and Alex Rodriguez (Goats). The Yankees got .333 out of Jeter, .421 out of Giambi, and .286 from Sheffield, yet they couldn’t score runs. Gee, I wonder what the problem was? After a great regular season in which he racked up more garbage time stats than any baseball player in history, A-Rod reverted to Flail-Away-Rod yet again when the going got tough, hitting .133 and grounding into a huge double play in the ninth inning of the clincher. Matsui wasn’t much better. Godzilla has truly been a monster in past series, but he was more like the Puff Daddy song from the Godzilla soundtrack this time around … in a word, awful. He hit .200 for the series and left a whopping eight runners on base in the clincher. By the time he grounded out to end the game, Yankees fans were feeling a frustration that can only be captured with the words, “we always get slammed with these paper jams.” (Please tell me you’ve seen that commercial.)
Ervin Santana. When was the last time a rookie pitcher that was barely old enough to drink and spoke very little English came to a team’s rescue in the postseason? Oh, that’s right, it was 2002 and it featured the same team: the Angels. That time around it was Francisco Rodriguez coming out of nowhere to just dominate teams out of the bullpen. This team, it was Santana – a guy known only to desperate fantasy baseball owners looking for a spot starter down the stretch – bailing out an injured Bartolo Colon, a nervous Joe West (the only explanation for his atrocious calls over the first three innings), and an impossibly bad Chone Figgins (he had “goat” written all over him had the Angels lost). He got squeezed like no one I’ve ever seen (by West) in the second inning, but battled through it and started jamming hitters like he was Mariano Rivera the rest of the night. Tremendous stuff. (Plus, he looks familiar, but I can’t place who it is that he looks like. Needless to say, that offered up a nice little side project during the game, so he gets bonus points.)
Garrett Anderson and Benji Molina. Vlad Guerrero seemed to be sleepwalking through the series (what was with those throws?), Erstad is hopeless against lefties, Finley never found the range, and Figgins’ struggles have been well documented. I love Orlando Cabrera and the spark he provides, but he certainly wasn’t crushing the ball. Adam Kennedy had the big triple, but he was average. Seriously, when you break it down, it is amazing the Angels scored at all. All Rally Monkey-toting, Thunderstick-clapping, bandwagon-jumping Angels fans should be writing Anderson and Molina thank you notes for carrying this offense into the ALCS. GA shook off a miserable season to drive in seven runs and hit two tone-setting home runs and Molina hit .444 with three jacks and five RBI. You need unlikely guys to step up and the Angels got it from these two.
Jose Contreras (Hero). The “set the tone” logic was applied above when discussing Carpenter, with the added bonus that the White Sox needed to know they could compete in a playoff atmosphere. Contreras gave them everything they needed: a fast start, a dominant starting pitcher, and some swagger. On the other hand …
Matt Clement (Goat). It doesn’t get any uglier than Clement’s Game One effort. This guy has been brutal ever since he took a line drive off the dome. He almost cost me a fantasy crown and then he went out and gave the White Sox all the confidence in the world by serving up walks and gopher balls to open the series. Tony Graffanino’s Buckner impersonation is probably a more popular pick here, but the egg Clement laid meant more to the series.
Tony Francona (Goat). Whenever a team’s lone ace starting pitcher (Curt Schilling) fails to take the mound over the course of an entire series, well, that’s a poor job of managing somewhere along the line.
Chris Burke (Hero). Obviously. When one of the great playoff games in baseball history has a decent chance of being remembered as “The Chris Burke Game,” you know you’ve done something right. (By the way, do you think there was any chance that he and fellow rookie Luke Scott had a bitter feud going? Because if they did, it only intensified with Scott’s would-be walk off homer going foul by inches, only for Burke to accomplish the feat eight innings later.)
Brad Ausmus (Hero). Obviously, part two. When a guy hits a game-tying home run with two out in the bottom of the ninth, that qualifies. I have to say though, Ausmus making the “Hero” list with his bat makes him the most unlikely name on the list. Yes, even more unlikely than Ervin Santana who wasn’t even slated to ever appear in a game.
Lance Berkman and Morgan Ensberg (Heroes). Any time a lineup has only two legit run producers, and those two guys drive in big runs time and time again, that is the very definition of coming through. While we’re here though, was anyone else confused when Garner pulled Berkman for a pinch runner in the 11th? The game could go on forever (which it did), yet you are going to take down your best hitter in the hopes that someone will get a two-out hit? Insane. This was obviously a “wait until someone hits a solo shot” ordeal, so why would you remove your best chance of that happening? Of course, Burke was hitting in Berkman’s spot when he jacked the game-winning home run, so perhaps Crazy Phil Garner knows something I don’t.
Roy Oswalt (Hero). Brad Lidge has been throwing smoke as usual, Dan Wheeler showed some grit, and Roger Clemens was fantastic in relief, but the most valuable pitcher of the series for Houston was Oswalt. Not only did he win the all-important Game Three (all four series winners took the third game) with a dominant effort, he also saved the bullpen by going deep into the game. Oswalt is the least appreciated of the big three starters, but in actuality, he has the best stuff and the arm with the most juice in it (youth can be a glorious thing), so if Houston is to topple mighty St. Louis, expect Oswalt to play a big role.
Rafael Furcal (Goat). Last year he stunk in the NLDS in part because he was staring down an extended stay in the drunk tank at season’s end. Being destined to spend some time behind bars can throw off anyone’s game. But what was his excuse this year? I visit with his PO? A DMV test? Brutal effort from a guy that was arguably Atlanta’s most important player.
Atlanta’s Bullpen (Goat). Big surprise, huh?
John Smoltz (Hero). The only hero from a losing team, Smoltz was clearly ailing on the mound, yet he stepped up to beat Clemens and further cement his status as one of the game’s greatest big game pitchers. The Braves lost again, but Smoltz showed what competition is all about. What a performance.
On that note, enjoy the League Championship Series games, everyone!
Adam Hoff is a columnist for the Webby-winning WhatifSports.com and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers of America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.