After being fired by Reds, will Dusty Baker get another chance?
Dusty Baker leaves the Reds as the Gene Mauch of our generation, a great old school baseball man who is known less for his impressive resume than for the hole in it. He has never won the World Series. Baker has been to the postseason more times without winning the World Series (seven) than any manager in history. He has managed and won more games without winning the World Series than any manager except Mauch. Cincinnati needed to fire Baker not because he did a lousy job -- he won 90 or more games three of the past four years -- but because he simply ran out of chances and the Reds needed a new voice.
Baker may be out of chances around the game, too, especially as more and more people who do the hiring in baseball are at least a generation younger than him, and they understand and embrace the game from an analytics standpoint that never interested Baker. Davey Johnson, 70, who retired, Charlie Manuel, 69, who was fired by the Phillies, and Baker, 64, are from another era. The irony is that Baker remained current with his young players -- few managers have ever connected with their players like Baker -- but not with the modern analytics of the game.
Maybe it was just pure lousy luck that stood between him and a World Series title. Even the most cutting edge baseball thinkers understand the randomness of the modern crapshoot that is the postseason baseball tournament -- the ultimate small sample. And that luck seemed to turn against him cruelly:
• The Bartman Game. After losing Game 5 of the NLCS, the 2003 Cubs are up 3-0 and are six outs away from going to the World Series when a cascade of calamities, including a fan reaching out to deflect a potential out, leads to Chicago losing Game 6 and Game 7 at Wrigley Field to the Marlins.
• The 2012 Reds, needing only one more win to advance to the NLCS, instead lose three straight games at home to San Francisco.
• The 2013 Reds blow homefield advantage for the NL Wild Card by losing their last five games of the regular season, then lose the Wild Card in Pittsburgh. It was the third straight time his Reds were knocked out of the postseason in the first round.
A couple of years ago in Arizona, on a slow day in his spring training office, I talked to Baker about the elusiveness of a title. In typical scenes for Bakers, players would stream in and out of his office. He would chat with Bronson Arroyo about Cuba, Todd Frazier about New Jersey and several other players about hip hop music and jazz. The door to his office was not just open, as the old baseball saying goes, but it also was seeing a lot of traffic. He loved not only leading "the guys," but being one of them.
"Hey, my time is coming," Baker said. "I always believe that. More than one."
It was typical Baker optimism. When he smiled through the disappointments his optimism was genuine. His love for baseball always shined through, though he did admit the end of his tenure in Chicago and the start of the one in Cincinnati were difficult. I asked him about putting in so many years without a title.
"Some of it has to do with having great team," he said. "Some of it has to do with getting breaks. Some of it has to do with you being in the right place at the right time. And there's my man in Buffalo, Marv [Levy]. Yeah, I need to get off that list. Seriously. But you look how many great ones have only one. I look at Ron Gardenhire. Every year they get in. That's worse. Bobby Cox. He has one -- out of 15. Man, I don't know. That would drive me more crazy than this."
And now Baker is the only manager to go 0-for-7 in the postseason. It's too soon to know if he gets an eighth try. He could be a fit in Seattle, an area of the country he loves, or perhaps a midseason option for a team looking for the right hand to push a team into the postseason. But in the dugout or not, he remains a good baseball man who has given much to the game without getting back the ultimate reward.
"The one thing I can't figure out," he said, "is how come the highs of the game don't equal the lows. The highs you expect. And the losses hurt."
2. Kershaw's gem sets up Dodgers well for NLDS and beyond
Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw has become so dominating that on a night in which he struck out more batters in a postseason game in franchise history than all but two other men, he had to answer questions about "struggling" against the Braves in National League Division Series Game 1. Kershaw struck out 12 and gave up only three hits over seven innings, but apparently the fourth inning, in which he allowed a run on two singles and a walk, merited criticism about Kershaw "not having his good stuff" and fighting his fastball command.
Huh? In postseason games in the wild card era (1995-2013), only seven previous pitchers managed to strike out at least a dozen batters while yielding no more than three hits. It was a rare gem -- like Kershaw himself.
The only Dodgers to strike out more batters in a postseason game than Kershaw are Carl Erskine (14, who did so 60 years and one day before Kershaw, and Sandy Koufax (15, 50 years and a day ago). It was Kershaw's first postseason win, and perhaps it means that he might soon begin to obtain his rightful recognition as the best pitcher of a pitching-dominant generation.
Over the past three years Kershaw is 51-23 in 99 starts with a 2.21 ERA, three ERA titles and two strikeout titles. And as the Dodgers look like a nightmare matchup for the Braves -- the best starting pitching against a strikeout-heavy lineup -- Kershaw may be in line to get the rest he needs to dominate the next two rounds and put his stamp on October.
The 124 pitches Kershaw threw likely take him out of a Game 4 start (he has never pitched on short rest and that's not the kind of effort to inspire doing it now). So if the Dodgers can win two of the next three games, they can avoid having to burn their ace again while giving him the ball in NLCS Game 1 with seven days of rest -- and just two starts in the previous 18 days. It would be a great boost this time of year for a grinder of a pitcher. The Dodgers are a tough knockout in any case, but if they have Kershaw and Zack Greinke rested and lined up to start the NLCS, they will be all the more formidable.
3. Every lead is safe
Can't anybody here mount a comeback? A week of tiebreaker and playoff games has followed a predictable pattern: a team jumps out to a quick lead and a frontline starter makes it hold up rather easily. Here's the middling October so far:
Monday: Rays lead Rangers 3-0 after three innings for David Price, win 5-2.
Tuesday: Pirates lead Reds 3-0 after three innings for Francisco Liriano, win 6-2.
Wednesday: Rays lead Indians lead 3-0 after four innings for Alex Cobb, win 4-0.
Thursday: Cardinals lead Pirates 7-0 after three innings for Adam Wainwright, win 9-1.
Thursday: Dodgers lead Braves 4-0 after three innings for Clayton Kershaw, win 6-1.
If nothing else, the importance of scoring first has been underscored this week.