Tuesday October 6th, 2009

Welcome to the postseason, where baseball hardly resembles what has been played for six months to get here. Runs are harder to come by, but not off days. Pitching is more important than ever, but paradoxically you need less of it. Here is the 2008 postseason in a nutshell: The Phillies played 13 games in 27 days while starting Cole Hamels five times in the 11 games they won to win the world championship. That's nothing like the regular season.

So go ahead and try to figure out what's going to happen in the next four weeks, but just remember how the Cardinals won the 2006 tournament with 83 regular-season wins, a rookie closer and by giving six postseason starts to Anthony Reyes and Jeff Suppan.

What can we learn from last year? The early games of the Division Series are huge. For the third straight year, no Division Series went to a fifth game, a run of 12 consecutive series that ended in three or four games. Also, games were closer and lower-scoring than what we saw in the regular season; runs per game dropped by nine percent, while 18 of the 32 games (56 percent) were decided by one or two runs (compared to 46 percent in the regular season).

In such a climate, managers might have a greater influence on postseason games than regular-season games. That's why what is most interesting about this postseason is that it features some of the brightest, most experienced minds in the dugout.

There are 10 active managers who have won a World Series. Five of them are in this postseason -- Tony La Russa of St. Louis, Joe Torre of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Mike Scioscia of the Los Angeles Angels, Terry Francona of Boston and Charlie Manuel of Philadelphia -- with a sixth, Jim Leyland of Detroit, needing to win a tiebreaker game on Tuesday to join his fellow Lords of the Rings. Of the six active managers who have won two or more pennants, three are in this postseason (La Russa, Torre and Francona), and Leyland could fill out a foursome.

And in the most prolific postseason matchup ever staged when it comes to career wins, La Russa, No. 3 on the all-time list, and Torre, No. 5, bring 4,798 victories -- and 8,939 games of experience -- to the St. Louis-Los Angeles matchup. (La Russa's 2,552 wins are just shy of the most regular-season wins by a manager to reach the postseason; Connie Mack had 2,572 in the 1931 World Series.) La Russa-Torre is the Fischer-Spasky duel of postseason series. The best part of it? Accountants, mechanics, brush salesmen, salsa instructors, sportswriters and all kinds of others will wildly second-guess two managers with almost 9,000 games of experience and call them idiots.

Just ask Scioscia (one World Series title, 10 years' experience) how that works. He still has people wondering why he tried a suicide squeeze in the last inning of the final game of the 2008 ALDS against Boston. (The play blew up when Manny Aybar whiffed on the attempt.) Asked if he had any misgivings about the decision, Scioscia said, "Well, if you had a do-over and you knew we weren't going to get the bunt down, then of course! Give me the do-over!

"No, not at all. I think in that situation, the count, we've got who I think is the best bunter in our league at the plate, speed at third base. I felt very comfortable with that decision. It didn't work. If the same situation presented itself I would have the same play on and we would get it down this time."

Well, at least he gets another shot. The Angels drew the Red Sox yet again.

The eight postseason managers have combined for either 50 or 51 years of postseason experience, depending on whether the Twins' Ron Gardenhire or Leyland gets in. The only one never to have managed a postseason game is the one with the most heavily favored team in the tournament. Joe Girardi of the Yankees doesn't have many moves to make with a loaded lineup spiced with switch-hitters, but he will be under the microscope about whether he starts A.J. Burnett or Andy Pettitte in Game 2 and how much rope he gives CC Sabathia in Game 1.

Girardi does have plenty of postseason experience as a player and coach under Torre, the winningest postseason manager in history who makes a habit of managing aggressively in October, especially with his bullpen. Girardi will have the luxury of extra off-days so that he can use relievers Phil Hughes and Mariano Rivera to cover as many as nine outs almost every game. (The Yankees could not have scripted a more perfect postseason scenario: They have home-field advantage in every round, extra off-days and an outmanned first-round opponent coming in with no off-days and a weary pitching staff from having been pushed through a manic race that required a 163rd game.) Meanwhile, if Torre's Dodgers are going to make any kind of a run it will depend on whether Manny Ramirez's bat recovers from its infertility problem and whether the bullpen outpitches its opponents. Torre will be on the spot because his starting pitchers don't figure to give him much length and he has several options in the bullpen. In other words, he can expect to be grilled about his pitching moves, though he already has a preferred road map to victory.

"I thought a great get for [GM] Ned Colletti was George Sherrill," Torre said of his top setup man to get to closer Jonathon Broxton. "I know there was a lot of talk about Roy Halladay and all the other pitchers whose names were banging around, but Sherrill has pretty much cleared up what we're going to do late in the game.

"Nobody had it better than I did in '96, when my starters would pitch -- we'd get six innings pitched, and I had Mariano Rivera for the seventh and eighth and [John] Wetteland for the ninth. Right now, if we pitched six innings, it may not be every day, but we have [Hong-Chih] Kuo, Sherrill and Broxton. So, I'm out of managing thoughts by the seventh or eighth inning, based on if I have those guys available to us. So I'm very comfortable with what we have going on late in the game."

The postseason is full of myths, many of which seem to be dying slow deaths thanks to analysis of the facts. We should know by now that it doesn't matter whether a team was hot or cold in September, that the team with the best regular-season record rarely wins it all (once this decade), that you don't absolutely have to have two aces (see 2006 Cardinals) or an experienced closer (Byung-Hyun Kim, Adam Wainwright, Bobby Jenks) or a premium shortstop (David Eckstein, Jose Uribe, Julio Lugo, Alex Gonzalez, David Eckstein, again, this decade alone), and that "momentum," the favorite plaything of the pundits, dies a thousand deaths.

"The momentum swings in postseason during a ballgame or from game to game are huge and much more so than what happens during the regular season," Scioscia said. "But I really believe that once you start to understand what your team can do and what is the best way for you to go about trying to win a ballgame, you have to play that game whether it's a spring training game, whether its a regular-season game, if you're in a pennant race, or you're in a playoff game. You have to do what you can do best on the field. You can't be scared, can't be afraid.

"If you're a shortstop and you know you've got to make this play, you can't be tentative -- you have to get after it. If you have an opportunity to steal a base and all of a sudden you shut it off cause it's a playoff and there's some downside, I think you're not bringing your game onto the field. I know our guys believe in that, we believe in that, and every manager I've talked to believes in that, too. You have to bring your game, what you do best, onto the field and be willing to do it in any situation and in any game."

It's a brand new ballgame now. Postseason baseball, played under a different format than the regular season, surprises us because it winks at the conventions we came to know for the previous six months. This postseason is particularly engaging because of all that star power in the dugout. All of these managers are smart enough to know that anything can happen.

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