Contenders' flaws add intriguing plot twists, like any great drama
By Peter Gammons Special to ESPN.com
Dusty Baker understands the chain of command in the clubhouse and on the diamond.
We have the traditional rivalries, scrambling for October. The Cardinals and the Cubs last week played an unforgettable, tense five-game series that underscored how that I-55 passion can simmer, especially when one realizes that this is the third time (1945 and 1989 the others) both teams have been within two games of first place in September.
The Red Sox and Yankees went back and forth on successive weekends, with Boston trying to make this the first Yankee team ever to lose a lead in September. While they played at Yankee Stadium this weekend, Bruce Springsteen tried to "exorcise all those New York demons" from Fenway Park in his rendition of "Meet Me at Mary's Place." At The Stadium, Kevin Millar answered Roger Clemens' bridgework with a monster home run that was part of a Phynneas T. Bluster owner performance that rivaled Springsteen, although in the case of the Yankees owner, he seemed bent on exorcising all the good the Derek Jeter, Joe Torre and Brian Cashman teams have accomplished.
We have more than half the 30 teams contending three weeks from the end of the season, and only two --the Giants and the Braves (and, still likely, the Yankees) -- seem safely assured of the playoffs. So many teams are playing meaningful games in September. On Sunday for instance, there were 15 games and only one of them (Detroit-Toronto) did not have postseason implications, while Boston-New York and Florida-Montranjuan were head-to-head meetings of contenders. With all that much more to lose, with so much more to gain in so many ballparks every day, it is inevitable that there will be that many more explosions between players and umpires, pitchers and hitters, managers and managers, players and managers. Unlike all the other sports that aren't an everyday existence, baseball creates a buzzing high and a crashing low every 24 hours that decides how one wakes up the morning after.
There is the school of thought that the reason there are so many teams still in contention is that there are so many horrible, dreadful (pick your own adjective) teams, which runs hypocritically opposite to the greatness of parity theory that holds more than half the NFL teams to the final Sunday. Granted there isn't one seemingly great team, a '98 Yankees, '95 Braves, '89 A's, '84 Tigers club that could be matched against great teams of the past.
Every team is flawed, from the Braves' bullpen to the Dodgers' offense, the Giants' lineup save Barry Bonds to a Boston bullpen which bears an ERA at 4.94. But that is part of the fun. Fear. Every Braves, Red Sox, Yankees and even Cubs fan dreads the end of games. Every Astros and Cardinals fan sweats the first three innings. Dodgers and A's fans sweat their teams' first-and-second, two-out rallies. Their own teams' flaws are like the things that go bump in the night, their opponents' flaws reasons to believe, every day.
Are there any one-through-10 pitching staffs that make you think, "they're the favorites?" The Dodgers came the closest at one point, but with physical questions about Kevin Brown, Hideo Nomo and Kazuhisa Ishii, the starting pitching that has been so good all season seems vincible.
On the morning of Sept. 8, there wasn't one starting staff with an ERA as low as 3.48. The (team) quality starts for "contenders" may be a better measure:
White Sox 86
Red Sox 70
Now, it's easy to see Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, Carlos Zambrano and Matt Clement blowing through October, but when you face the best teams and the best lineups, the bullpen becomes critical. The White Sox front three (Esteban Loaiza, Mark Buehrle, Bartolo Colon) is very good, and Tom Gordon and Damaso Marte at the other end have been very good down the stretch. The A's have lost Mark Mulder -- and with Jermaine Dye hurt most of the year, thus have lost 30 percent of their payroll -- and the Diamondbacks, who could be the most dangerous in October, keep stumbling. The Marlins have taken the Giants' model for building a team to their own pitchers' park, and have the second-best home ERA (to Los Angeles) of any starting staff in the majors. It's very easy to see Kevin Millwood, Vicente Padilla and Randy Wolf taking the Phillies on a good October run, with Jose Mesa in waiting.
If there are no dominant staffs, per se, then it could be an offensive postseason, like 2002. There the Angels had the model: adequate starting pitching and a dominant bullpen with a great closer in Troy Percival with Brendan Donnelly and Francisco Rodriguez to shut down rallies in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings. The Angels once again have the American League's most dominant pen, but injuries wiped them out of the race. So the only two bullpens capable of carrying their teams through three postseason series are the Dodgers and Astros. The Eric Gagne-Guillermo Mota combination is the most dominant game (capably set up by Paul Quantrill and Paul Shuey, all of whom have contributed to a bullpen that took a 406 2/3 IP/407 SO/126 BB record through Sunday), closely followed by Billy Wagner-Octavio Dotel-Brad Lidge. The tricks will be for the Dodgers to score enough runs to make it, and for Wade Miller, Roy Oswalt, Tim Redding, Jeriome Robertson and Ron Villone to get to the Wagner Brigade enough times.
Watching the Angels outhit the Yankees, Twins and Giants last season, and watching what magnificent offensive teams like the Braves, Cardinals, Red Sox and Yankees do to opposing pitchers, has raised another criticism -- that pitching is simply dreadful. Two American League general managers think that's not the case. "I actually think there's a lot of really good young pitching coming along today in both leagues, a new cycle," Oakland's Billy Beane said. "The problem is that hitters have improved so much the pitching numbers don't show it."
"I would agree that there's not enough pitching," Kansas City's Allard Baird said, "but there isn't enough good pitching to contain all the improvements in offense throughout the game. Twenty years ago, the theory on hitting was to be aggressive, swing the bat and that it couldn't be taught. That's completely changed.
"Hitting is being taught today, better than ever before," Baird said. "Watch the approaches many hitters take today. They're taught to go deep in the count, to get the pitch they can handle, and more and more hitters have learned to not be afraid to hit with two out. The game is so much more aware of on-base percentage than years ago, it isn't funny. Look how well so many hitters can take the ball out over the plate and put it in play hard. Hitters now have video, they are schooled in pitch recognition and visual training, they are bigger and stronger and able to manipulate the bat better than ever. The bats are better, lighter, better-balanced, specifically made for individual hitters."
... Hitters who force pitchers to stay in the strike zone are productive, and pitchers who take hitters out of the strike zone dominate. ”
— A's GM Billy Beane
While the league on-base percentages don't show any real difference from 1989 to 1995 to 2003, it is clear to anyone who watches games that, as Beane says, "baseball has realized that one of the reasons Ted Williams was regarded as the greatest hitter of his time is that he realized all this. What we see today is the Williams-ization of baseball, and that's going to make a lot of good pitchers look mediocre.
"The game is all about control of the 17-inch triangle," Beane said. "Hitters and pitchers. A couple of years ago we broke down every pitch in our games, and we found that Jason Giambi and Edgar Martinez really only hit in half the strike area, never outside it. The great pitchers like Pedro Martinez and Tim Hudson dominate in the strike zone because they throw in it consistently early in counts, but they get hitters out out of the strike zone. Hitters who force pitchers to stay in the strike zone are productive, and pitchers who take hitters out of the strike zone dominate." So when Beane sees a Joe Blanton with a 178-26 strikeout-walk ratio in 168 2/3 innings in his first full professional season, he sees someone likely to be in the big leagues sometime next season.
Artistic 3-1 games are great and all that, but watching the Angels come back from 5-0 against the Giants in Game 6 last October was dramatic theater. Perfect? No, but Shakespeare made a pretty good living illuminating critical character flaws.
So this season is filled with flaws of character, pitching and most everything, which has made it such good theatre. Games meaning something? If the Yankees and Red Sox were tied at the end of the season and they each had clinched postseason play, the Yankees would have home-field advantage as the divisional champion and the Red Sox would travel to the AL West or Central as the wild-card and not get home-field advantage until the World Series (thanks, Hank Blalock).
Why? Because on Sunday, David Wells outdueled Jeff Suppan 3-1, thus winning the season series 10-9. Don't think that might not mean something.