Thursday, October 30, 2008

Did Rays' Maddon blow it in Game 5?

Just a few quick thoughts about strategy in Game 5 of the World Series.

Admittedly, it's much easier to manage from the couch. Or second-guess the day after.

Still, I can't let it go without bringing up a few managerial tactics by Rays manager Joe Maddon. It seems that no media outlet (including both major papers that cover the Rays) have bothered to second-guess Maddon, who deserves an A+ for getting the Rays this far in the first place.

Still, there are three things I can't help but question in an unprecedented Series game that lasted 48 hours from start to finish.

1). David Price. This is the easy one to take Maddon to task with. And frankly, it's the most subjective. Price has been the wild card all postseason and against the Red Sox, he came in and delivered a World Series berth to the Tampa Bay region. So, who only use Price 1 inning, if he's your best bet out of the bullpen?

Perhaps, Maddon was worried about overusing Price. After all, the Rays had four innings to shut the Phillies down. But the best that I can figure is Maddon badly wanted J.P. Howell to face Pat Burrell. Howell has a nasty curve and Burrell is known for chasing junk in the dirt. Maddon got his matchup, but not the result (Burrell doubled, which led to the winning run).

I don't have a problem not starting with Price, as Grant Balfour has done an admirable job this year. And Price, while dominant, has had control issues, so there's no guarantee he mows down the Phils for 12 straight outs.

Still, bringing out Price in the 7th inning (not the 8th) seems to be the way to go with a tie game in the balance and a season on the line.

2). Carl Crawford not stealing in the 8th? Crawford has been the single best base stealer in the American League over the past five years. Plus, he's one of the most successful base swipers in baseball history at 82.5 percent. Crawford stole 6 bases in the postseason and the Rays stole a postseason record 24.

Crawford led off the 8th inning with a clean single to center. B.J. Upton was up next and instead of taking a pitch or two to let Crawford get into scoring position with nobody out, Upton swings at the first pitch and hits into a double play. Game over.

Why didn't Maddon put the mandatory green light on for Crawford and the red light to Upton? To me, this was the most egregious error of the night. Pressing the issue has been the Rays' M.O. all season, especially in the playoffs. When it counted most, Maddon got conservative.

3). Fernando Perez not stealing 3rd in the 9th. This is my final rant and I'll get off my soap box. Dioner Navarro sawed a broken-bat single off the nearly-unhittable Brad Lidge. Predictably, Perez pinch-ran and easily stole second base. Wasn't close.

Pinch-hitter Ben Zobrist had just one strike on him. There was one out. Lidge has not blown a save all season long. Why not send Perez, one of the fastest guys in baseball, to third. Gutsy? Sure. But what's harder to do? Get a single off a dominant closer or steal a base and get a fly ball. Zobrist accomplished the fly ball a couple pitches later. But Perez ends up stranded at third.

Now, it's your turn. Did you think Maddon could've managed the game any differently? Starting in the bottom of the 6th inning, the strategic moves take on a whole new meaning.

The non-steal attempts by Crawford and Perez weren't awful, and haven't been mentioned, even on the game broadcast, but in my mind, considering the circumstances and Maddon's style, they were both way too conservative. This was a team with the season on the line. They need to manufacture a run somehow, someway.

Still, it's a great story, one of the best in baseball in my lifetime. And Maddon deserves praise for not just getting to the Series, but for winning the A.L. East with a payroll one-fifth as big as the Yankees.

Hopefully, this isn't the last we've seen of the Rays.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Why the Rays will win Game 5

The game is tied 2-2 in the bottom of the 6th.

But Mother Nature is winning.

The question now is: Who will win tonight? Patience.

The most bizarre World Series situation has unfolded over the past 36 hours with Game 5 being suspended because of a rain that went from an annoyance to turn-the-windshield-wipers-on-high in the span of a couple innings Monday night.

MLB probably waited too long to call the game. But they waited just long enough for Tampa Bay to tie Philadelphia 2-2 with a Carlos Pena opposite-field single.

And now the wait. Who will win Game 5? 


Controversy has been brewing in the sports media on Bud Selig's rule change, insisting the game would not have ended because of rain, even after the 5th inning, had the Rays not scored that tying run in the 6th. Even though the letter of the law states that.

Incidentally, I agree with Selig's ruling, which as commissioner he's allowed to do. You simply can't end the World Series on a called game in the 6th inning. This guy's still trying to recover his image from calling the All-Star game a few years ago, tied in the 12th inning.

So, where does that leave us for tonight's 8:37 p.m., 6th-inning first pitch? 

Not so fast.

The fact that the Rays players didn't know what they were dealing with, specifically Pena, when he was at the plate. If he strikes out, is that the end of their run? Sure, Joe Madden could have told his players what the commish had decided, but the fact that the decision was made on the fly without the players' knowledge is stirring the pot. 

Pressure does change how you play the game. Sometimes dramatically. And leave it to Madden, the unorthodox, fifth-infielder, mad scientist to keep that pressure boiling in the clubhouse, which may have led to the them tying the game in a near-downpour.

Which leads us right back to our suspended game, which will be nearly 48 hours old before we know the winner of Game 5, and more importantly, whether the Phillies will bring the first major sports championship to the city since 1980.

My official gut feeling for tonight's game: The Rays win 3-2.

Let me explain. 

Temperatures will be in the upper 30s at first pitch. Wind chill will be around 30. 

Have you ever tried swinging a bat in these conditions? It's brutal. Actually beyond that. 

And both teams will be using their best bullpen guys. Grant Balfour was the pitcher of record for the Rays, but look for David Price to throw at least two innings tonight. And I wouldn't be surprised if Madden digs deep into his bag of tricks and sends out Game 4 pitcher Andy Sonnanstine.

And you can bet the Phillies will likely stick with setup diva Ryan Madsen and closer Brad Lidge, who hasn't blown a save all year. 

Yes, these hitters are all big boys, but the sting of the bat and the deadness of the ball in these frigid conditions will likely paralyze most long-ball hitters, even the HR-swatting Ryan Howard, who had recently found his stroke, as if it was the remote stuck between two cushions of the couch.

Tonight, it's all going to come down to Small Ball.

Not to say the Phills can't manufacture a run. But the Rays and Madden's NL-style, run-manufacturing coaching all season long gives the Rays a huge advantage, despite the Phillies getting 12 outs to the Rays' 9. 

Look for Carl Crawford or B.J. Upton or even Jason Bartlett to steal a base or two to set up the winning run, possibly a bunt or sac fly or a grounder to the right side that sends this thing back to Tampa Bay.

And then, the Series will be on.

This 2-day rain delay may be a huge inconvenience for the players and fans alike.

But it's doing wonders for  turning a World Series Snoozefest into must-see TV.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Rays starting Kazmir a mistake

Sure, it's easy to second-guess a manager's decision after the fact.

But here's one before hand. Call it 20/20 foresight:

Starting Scott Kazmir is a mistake for the Tampa Bay Rays.

Rays manager decided to roll the dice with Game 2 starter Kazmir in Game 5 against the Red Sox, in a game the Rays could clinch their first World Series berth.

The reasoning is Kazmir's career numbers (4-4 with a 3.02 ) at Fenway have been much better than those of James Sheilds (0-3, 10.13).

But when you look at Kazmir's most recent success against Boston it's a no-brainer to use Shields. Kazmir gave up 5 ER in 4 1/3 innings in Game 2, not to mention the 9 ER in 3 IP he served up to Boston on Sept. 15 show he could be just what the slumping Red Sox need.

Shields has been their rock all year and the Rays should go for the knockout punch while they can.

Thanks to TV, there's a day off between Games 4 and 5, which gives Kazmir the proper rest (four days) that makes this decision appealing.

But Madden shouldn't try to outsmart himself.

This is just the sort of decision that may rally Boston and inspire a Game 5 win. A 3-1 lead seems like a done deal.

Just ask the Cubs how that worked out in 2003.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Does Manny deserve 'despicable' label?

Manny being Manny is one thing.

But the question has surfaced in bold type recently whether or not Manny Ramirez's actions in Boston, where he appeared to be tanking it to get traded to the Dodgers, went too far.

The controversial quotes were delivered by MLB on Fox analyst Tim McCarver, according to a report in the MLB on FOX analyst Tim McCarver said, according to a report in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

"It's extraordinary — the dichotomy between what he was in Boston and what he is in Los Angeles," McCarver was quoted. "I mean, talk about wearing out your welcome in a town, and it was a long welcome with the Red Sox. But some of the things he did were simply despicable, despicable — like not playing, refusing to play. Forgetting what knee to limp on. And now it's washed, it's gone."

Is "despicable" a little strong for Manny's actions?

Perhaps. But depending on which coast you live on, you see this thing through different glass.

Looking at how Manny rolled out excuse after excuse for why he couldn't play in those final weeks in Boston, then miraculously seemed perfectly healthy in Los Angeles doesn't sit well with most baseball purists.

But how is this different than someone in the final year of his contract, running out every hit, diving for balls, taking the extra base, all for that extra 1-2 million per year on a multi-season deal?

(For example, see Adrian Beltre).

Thursday night, as the NLCS kicked off with a 3-2 Phillies win over the Dodgers, Manny went 2-for-4, including a double in the first that just missed going out.

Manny hit .398 with 53 RBI in the final two months with the Dodgers. These were numbers only a healthy Manny, playing at his absolute peak, could reach. So why could he not even play in a key game against the Yankees, despite looking completely fine taking batting practice?

Perhaps only one thing could put a rest to the whole "despicable" debacle.

Manny and the Dodgers facing the Red Sox in the Series.

Now that's must-see TV.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The root of the Cubs' heartbreak?

People want to know why.

After winning 97 games this year and with 100 years of futility staring directly at them, how could the Cubs get swept by the Dodgers.

It's simple.

All you fans out there have nobody to blame but yourself.

I know, pretty strong words. And how can I mean that?

After all, it is the Cubs' 25-man playoff roster who "choked" right? These are the guys who didn't perform, stopped hitting, forgot how to field, couldn't find the strike zone with a GPS.

Well, yeah. But that's just the root of the cause.

Hear me out.

I've had a full 24 hours to digest this and I can only come to one logical explanation: There was too much pressure.

Expectations are a funny thing. Take a frozen pizza. How many times have you popped one in the oven, expecting something barely edible, but instead, after taking a couple bites tell yourself, "you know, this ain't half bad."

The 2003 Cubs were a frozen pizza.

Nobody expecting much of anything out of them and then behind Mark Prior and Kerry Wood they came five outs away from the World Series. The were nearly a Tombstone supreme.

This year, since the first optimistic day in Mesa, Ariz., so much was made of the 100-year drought and how THIS was the year. But then you would hear about the billy goat. The black cat. The ground ball to Leon Durham. Steve Bartman.

If you believe in all that stuff, more power to you, but I don't think any of that had a shred of influence on the Cubs' pathetic display this week.

They simply were trying too hard to live up to the grand expectations everyone – and not just the city of Chicago – but the entire sports media branded on them before the playoffs began.

They had the best starting pitching in baseball. One of the top bullpens. Steady lineup. No easy outs from top to bottom. Experienced manager.

All that was true.

But in the end, it may have been just the opposite of what has done in the Cubs countless other times this past century.

Instead of everyone thinking of them as lovable losers, they were unbeatable winners who would end decades of frustrations with a World Series Championship and a celebration like no one has seen since man first stepped on the moon.

One of these years the Cubs will take that one small step ... and one giant leap for Wrigley Kind.

But it'll be when you – and the Cub Nation – least expect it.

Let's hope it's soon.

"Nooooooooooooooooooo! ... I simply can't believe it!"

Ron Santo can only take so much.