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Putting the blame where it belongs

10/8/2003 - Oakland Athletics

What are they going to blame now?

Every time the A's don't make it past the Division Series, the pundits tell us it's because they're one-dimensional. That they don't do the little things, they can't play small-ball. That it's pitching and defense that wins championships, not walks and home runs.

Well, this year the A's had the best pitching in the American League, they had good or great defenders at nearly every position, and in the Division Series they 1) won the first game with a well-placed bunt and 2) employed a perfect sacrifice bunt in the last inning of the last game. And still they lost.

If you want to blame anything, blame brains. Blame brains for what happened in Game 3. It was Eric Byrnes' brain that didn't tell him to go back and touch home plate in the sixth, and it was Miguel Tejada's brain that didn't tell him to continue plateward after he'd been interfered with in the same inning. But were these brain problems symptomatic? Well, Byrnes is considered one of the more intense players in the league, and just a year ago Tejada was considered by many the most valuable player in the league.

And yet, an inch here or there and we wouldn't be having this discussion because the A's would have won.

Consider: the two best A's pitchers (Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder) combined for the grand total of seven and two-thirds innings in Oakland's five games against Boston, and the two best A's hitters (Chavez and Tejada) combined for the grand total of three hits in 45 at-bats ... and yet, still they very nearly won.

There's nothing wrong with the A's. They just haven't been quite good enough or quite lucky enough to win. They'll eventually win. It might be next year, or the year after, or the year after that. But they will win.

Zito ran out of gas
How good was Barry Zito last night?

He was so good that after five innings, I opened a previously created Excel file and tried to figure out who was the last postseason starter to pitch a great game on short rest.

Since 1994 -- according to my calculations, which probably aren't exactly accurate -- 44 postseason games have been started by pitchers on three days' rest. And as I mentioned Monday, those pitchers haven't fared particularly well; including two short-rest starts on Sunday, they're 6-16 with a 5.32 ERA. For the sake of comparison, pitchers on "regular" rest facing pitchers on short rest have a 3.97 ERA over the same span.

But through five innings, Zito was bucking that trend. Two hits, zero walks, zero runs. Simply put, he looked exactly like the pitcher who won 23 games in 2002.

And then in the sixth, it all fell apart, and suddenly it didn't seem quite so relevant that the best short-rest start in recent seasons was Mike Mussina's in Game 4 of a 1997 Division Series. Mussina allowed just one hit and two walks in eight innings, out-pitching Seattle's Randy Johnson.

Committee of three?
According to SportsCenter, Derek Lowe is the first pitcher since 1969 -- when the save became an official statistic -- to lose the first game of a postseason series and save the last one.

But legions of researchers have gone back and figured saves for all the pre-1969 games, too, including the World Series. And looking at all the postseason games, Lowe is still the first.

(Prior to 1969, only one pitcher saved the first game of a postseason series and won the last. In 1947, Yankees reliever Joe Page pitched four good innings to save Game 1 of the World Series, and later pitched five brilliant innings to win Game 7.)

That's just a bit of pointless trivia. What's not pointless is how Lowe became the first to do what he did. During this Division Series, Lowe started once and relieved twice. Tim Wakefield, another starter, started once and relieved once.

Byung-Hyun Kim, the best Red Sox reliever during the regular season, pitched two-thirds of an inning in the series, and now he's supposedly got a sore shoulder. If Kim pitches against the Yankees, it'll be the biggest shock since Michael Clarke Duncan got fried in The Green Mile.

Which leaves the Red Sox with exactly three relievers in whom they've got any confidence at all: Scott Williamson, Alan Embree, and Mike Timlin. None of them allowed even a single run against the A's, and all of them went through some tough times during the regular season.

What does it all mean? It means that Grady Little has to be creative when the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings roll around (and Katy bar the door if one of these games goes extras). And it means we probably haven't seen the last of Derek Lowe trotting in from the bullpen. It's often said that sinkerball pitchers like Lowe are more effective when they're a little tired.

Cubs are no lock
The common wisdom seems to favor the Cubs over the Marlins by a significant degree, and I'm not sure why.

It's true that Mark Prior and Kerry Wood have lately been pitching even better than they did in the regular season ... but it's also true that Carlos Zambrano and Matt Clement have been pitching worse.

In the regular season, the Marlins scored 26 more runs than the Cubs, and allowed nine more; in terms of run differential, the Marlins played (slightly) better this season and they played a (slightly) tougher schedule. The Cubs did make a number of mid-season moves, but Aramis Ramirez at third base was the only significant upgrade over what they had before.

The Cubs probably deserve to be considered the favorites, because 1) they're the home team, and 2) in Prior, they've got the best pitcher in the National League.

But it's close, very close. The Cubs may have sentiment on their side, but what they'll need is performance and their fair share of luck.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information about the book, visit Rob's Web site.