We're not here to analyze, scout, predict, project or proclaim Derek Jeter a "winner." We're here to Second Guess. Hey, isn't that half the fun of baseball's postseason?
Thursday, October 7
Royce Webb: OK, sports fans, got a question: Did Bobby Cox want to win this game, or was he content to play for a tie? In the seventh inning, the Braves were down 2-1, with one out and Rafael Furcal on third base. Marcus Giles stands at the plate, with J.D. Drew on deck. One strike on Giles. And Bobby Cox decides to BUNT!
To tie the game. At best.
It fails because Giles bunts the ball foul, and then, after giving away the second strike, he chases on the next pitch and strikes out. And the rally dies.
David Schoenfield: Coming soon to a playoff series near you ... SMALL BALL!
It's a wild and wacky world filled with failed squeeze bunts, runners trying to score on wild pitches, caught stealings, sacrifice bunts and other attempts to give the other team free outs!
Royce: My absolute least favorite Small Ball play came in the bottom of the eighth. J.D. Drew is on first, no out, and the Braves still trail by a run. Chipper's at the plate with more lumber behind him. And Cox sends Drew on a steal! J.D., though fast, is out easily ... and Chipper then walks, of course. Fortunately, the Braves managed another mini-rally to tie the game there in the eighth ... which only led to thoughts of What Might Have Been.
And, then, in the bottom of the ninth, with the game tied, after Cox has burned nearly his entire bench, he's forced, more or less, to let Smoltz hit. As it happens, Smoltz knows what he's doing up there and manages an opposite-field single. So what does Bobby do with this gift? He asks Furcal, his fastest runner, to sacrifice Smoltz over. Reasons this is dumb: 1. The best possible outcome, short of an Astros' miscue or a perfect bunt (unlikely in that Furcal is playing it safe), is that you've given away an out for a base. Especially with the top of the order at the plate, I think you need to use those three outs to take your hacks and make something happen. And the numbers back me up. Giving away an out is a bad idea there. 2. While Bobby Cox says that Smoltz is the best athlete he's ever been around and could have been a great center fielder, is he really the guy you want running the bases and trying to score the winning run from second base on a single? Is he the guy you want making decisions about base running? 3. Furcal is just about the fastest guy in the league. So there's little chance you're gonna double him up; and if he grounds out, then he's on first with a great shot at stealing second, if that's how you want to play it.
Eric Neel: The moment managers can't stand is the moment the game hinges on a hitter's bat. They try to alleviate their own anxiety, try to take control of an uncertain outcome, even if it means seriously limiting its potential outcomes (the good ones included).
Royce: I think he just thinks it too much. Wants it too much. Hates to think -- or hear -- that the Braves were not giving it all they have. He's not especially Small Ball-prone during the regular season. He just tries too hard.
Eric: It's a fairly safe strategy in another way, too: It's old, it's traditional, it's "good baseball," "fundamental baseball," etc. So if you play smallball and it doesn't work, well, at least you weren't some freak trying something unconventional/radical.
Royce: In Bobby's defense (sort of), I don't think his primary motivation is to avoid criticism. I think he's mostly beyond that. And I think he's adaptable -- you can't win 2,000 games in today's world if you're not. But I agree that he does default to convention many times. He's not a boat-rocker. He doesn't re-invent the wheel on a daily basis, a la Tony La Russa.
Eric: I think the whole managerial thing is hard-wired with aversion to criticism, though. Yeah, Bobby's been around a long time and won a lot of games, but I think the traditional strategies have this concern woven into them, regardless of who is executing them.
Royce: No doubt about it. Great point. However, I think Cox would definitely make a move that he knew would draw criticism if he thought the move would help him win. So, consciously at least, he's beyond worrying about that.
Eric: Absolutely. I agree completely.
Royce: Of course, after the squeeze-play nonsense, the Braves found another way to not win -- Raffy Furcal tried to score on a sort-of wild pitch and was thrown out at the plate by 25 feet.
I don't know what Furcal could see from where he stood, but I do know three things -- that wild pitch caught him flat-footed, there was no reason for him not to start to move when the ball got away (even if he wasn't sure how far he could go), and he never should've gone after waiting so long.
The bottom line: When you're thrown out by 25 feet, you screwed up. Mr. DUI was DOA.
Eric: Part of what I love about this kind of moment, and it's easy for me to say because I'm not rooting for the Braves, is the way the pressure of the playoffs seems to sit so heavy on a guy's shoulder in any given instant. Run, don't run, RUN! The guy hangs in the balance between being goat and hero, and he knows it, and you can't say exactly what effect it has on him, but you can see, in the stutter step, something that looks a whole lot like his trying to cope with that feeling and think clearly through it.
Royce: And, just to bring it all back home (or 25 feet from home, that is), when he bunted in the ninth, Furcal screwed up again by waiting. He paused just a second to admire his bunt, and was out by less than an eyelash when the Astros were sluggish getting the ball over to first. He who hesitates is lost. Unless, of course, he swings for the fences in his next at-bat.
Second Guessing, Bottom of the Ninth
Speaking of moves you could second-guess, President Bush arrived in St. Louis on Thursday for his debate with Sen. John Kerry, and was greeted by the specter of a past tragic decision based on faulty intelligence. Trailing St. Louis by three runs in the sixth inning, the Dodgers brought in reliever Wilson Alvarez, the pitcher the Rangers traded to the White Sox along with Sammy Sosa when Bush was a part owner of the team.
Second Guesses, Second Helpings
We question ...
Jim Tracy's decision to leave in Jeff Weaver to face Mike Matheny after he'd drilled Reggie Sanders to load the bases in the fifth. This is exactly the kind of thing Tracy has not done all year -- you have one of the best pens in all of baseball and you're on death's door and you don't use it?
The possibility that Eric Gagne will not pitch a meaningful inning in the series. But Jeff Weaver is allowed to give up six runs.
If is there a better uniform combo than Dodgers vs. Cardinals.
If Jason Marquis may have perhaps thrown the wrong pitch to Milton Bradley in the fourth inning. Bradley's mammoth home run just landed ... now.
If Joe Buck enjoyed saying the words "if your diarrhea comes back" on national television.
The "phone incident." Did the Astros really create the illusion of a busted bullpen phone to delay the game to get Brad Lidge ready? Did Bobby Cox really think baseball officials would uphold his meaningless protest? We love conspiracy theories, but what's next? Fox will make Ron Gardenhire leave in his relievers too long to help the Yankees win? Red Sox pitchers will have a slightly larger strike zone than Angels pitchers?
If Craig Biggio will ever get a big hit in a postseason play -- he's now eight-for-62 lifetime in the playoffs.
If Johnny Damon has been suffering from migraines because his hair is too heavy.
Previous editions of Second Guessing
Oct. 6: Ron Gardenhire leaves in Joe Nathan