Saturday October 10th, 2009

1. Charlie Manuel caught a break. The postponement of tonight's Phillies-Rockies game saved the Philadelphia manager from having to throw his worst cold-weather pitcher on the coldest of days. Pedro Martinez had been scheduled to start, despite a forecast calling for 34 degrees and the always-unpleasant "ice pellets." Not the best of scenarios for the 37-year-old native Dominican, who has had arm trouble in recent years and has often spoken about his affinity to pitch in warm weather.

After the obvious decision to start Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels in Games 1 and 2, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel has used his starting rotation rather strangely. Manuel had three reasonable options (Martinez, J.A. Happ and Joe Blanton) to start Games 3 and 4, with no clear-cut starter who has so vastly outperformed the others that it was an obvious decision. So if Manuel had only consulted a weather report, he'd have seen that after tonight's wretched forecast, Sunday in Denver should be a comparatively pleasant 50 degrees and partly cloudy. Instead, Manuel used both Happ and Blanton in relief in Game 2, and though neither pitched so much that he couldn't pitch tonight, it'd have been easier to save one or the other of his younger arms to enter tonight's start better rested.

Instead he turned to Martinez, whose ability to warm up and get loose would have been severely tested. And Manuel would have been second-guessed. Now Game 3 is set for Sunday night, and Martinez will be pitching in much more favorable weather.

2. Alex Rodriguez rarely enjoys October as much as he has the start of the 2009 edition. Not only are the Yankees up 2-0 over the Twins in their division series, but in Game 1 on Wednesday night he broke a 0-for-19 postseason slump with runners in scoring position with hits in his two three at bats in the same situation. A-Rod added to that Friday night in Game 2 with a two-out RBI single in the sixth and, with the first of New York's two big homers of the night, crushing a 3-1 inside fastball from Twins closer Joe Nathan with a big inside-out swing, sending the ball far beyond the reaches of the right-centerfield fence to tie the game in the ninth.

That's the good short-term news, but Rodriguez also recently received a good bill of health from Dr. Marc Philippon, the surgeon who repaired A-Rod's right hip before the season. Philippon attended Friday night's game at Rodriguez's behest and made a few comments to the media beforehand, none more promising for the Yankees third baseman than this: "His power is excellent, the rotation in his hip is excellent. ... At this point in time, based on my clinical exam and what I saw in batting practice -- and I'll need a few more tests -- but so far I don't think he'll need surgery," Philippon said.

3. Brendan Harris was nearly the Twins' breakout star of the evening, several times over. The utility infielder entered a scoreless game as a pinch hitter in the sixth inning because of an oblique injury suffered by Matt Tolbert, and Harris promptly delivered an RBI triple, a single and the defensive play of the night, making a diving snare on a Derek Jeter eighth-inning grounder down the line.

There are seemingly two types of Twins, those developed from within and guys like Harris, who were acquired by trading players developed from within. It's instructive to follow the lineage of trades that brought Harris to the Twin Cities. Along with Delmon Young, Harris was traded from the Rays for Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza. Minnesota acquired Bartlett from the Padres in exchange for Brian Buchanan, who was one of four players the Twins received in a trade . . . from the Yankees for Chuck Knoblauch. Minnesota selected the second baseman in the first round of the 1989 draft.

"Any success that we're going to have in this organization," Minnesota general manager Bill Smith said before Game 1, "is going to come through scouting and development."

It's been said before but warrants repeating, that the Yankees are spending $201 million on payroll this season, to the Twins' $65 million. Harris, for instance, is making $466,100 this season, which is only slightly more than his third-base counterpart, Rodriguez, makes in every two games -- at $33 million in '09 compensation, A-Rod makes roughly $204,000 for each of the 162 regular-season games.

Not one of the Twins' 10 starters last night was signed as a free agent. Six were drafted -- three first-round picks (Denard Span, Joe Mauer, Michael Cuddyer), a 12th (Jason Kubel), a 16th (Matt Tolbert) and a 29th (Nick Blackburn) -- and the other four (Orlando Cabrera, Young, Carlos Gomez, Nick Punto) were acquired in trades. The Yankees, meanwhile, only drafted two players (Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada) and signed their other eight starters as free agents (albeit two, Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera, as international amateur free agents who weren't subject to the major-league draft).

4. Angels pitchers are doing a reasonable job at attacking the strike zone, just as Tom Verducci wrote they should, but the Red Sox aren't being patient enough. The Angels have started 57.6 percent (38-of-66) of Boston at-bats with a strike, a rate that's slightly below the major-league average of 58.5 percent, and have thrown 59.4 percent of all pitches for strikes, which is the below the majors' average of 62.8 percent. In other words, the Angels weren't be so precise that walks couldn't have been had.

The walk has become a vital part of Boston's game. The Sox, the AL's third highest-scoring team did so while ranking sixth in the league in hits and second in walks. In their 95 wins, the Sox averaged 4.5 walks per game; in their 67 losses, they drew just 3.3 walks. But Boston has drawn only four walks in two games.

No at-bat better exemplified this than Dustin Pedroia's in the eighth. Trailing 4-1 with two outs and one on, the Red Sox needed another baserunner to bring Victor Martinez to the plate as the tying run. Instead, after the count reached 2-1, Pedroia swung at each of the final three pitches of the at-bat -- on which he swung and missed, fouled off and grounded out to the pitcher -- which's Pitch FX data showed were all out of the strike zone, low and away. Pedroia is typically far more patient and is one of four Red Sox players in the majors' top 25 for highest percentage of pitches taken.

5. This week baseball has lapsed into the regrettable territory more commonly occupied by the NBA or the NFL in which the officiating is a topic of postseason conversation. Last night it stemmed from the Bronx, where leftfield umpire Phil Cuzzi blew what seemed to be an easy call at a critical juncture. Mauer led off the 11th by slicing a ball into the leftfield corner, where Cuzzi, standing some 10 to 15 feet away, ruled the hit was foul -- despite clear video evidence that the ball both tipped off Melky Cabrera's glove and landed about a foot inside the chalk foul line. The ball bounded into the stands, but instead of the ground-rule double, Mauer had to settle for the single he hit later in the at-bat.

Though there's no way of telling that the next few at-bats would have played out in the exact same way had Mauer been standing on second rather than first, the next two Twins also singled, which could have scored the catcher for the go-ahead run. Instead, Minnesota left the bases loaded (three of its 17 men left on base, by the way, to the Yankees' five) without plating a runner. Mark Teixeira led off the bottom half of the inning with a walk-off homer.

Last night's call on Mauer's would-be double was merely the most egregious mistake and perhaps the most poorly timed one, but it follows several other gaffes. In Tuesday's one-game playoff to decided the AL Central a pitch appeared to graze the jersey of Detroit's Brandon Inge, who was batting in the 12th with the bases loaded, so he should have been awarded a base and the tiebreaking RBI. And in Thursday night's Angels-Red Sox Game 1, first-base umpire CB Bucknor missed three calls at first base, two aiding the Angels and one that went in the Red Sox's favor.

No baseball game, from Little League to the majors, spring training to the World Series, will pass without somebody disputing whether at least one pitch was a ball or strike. But what's troubling about this week is that none of the oft-discussed blown calls was about a ball or strike and were all on plays that would seem to be easier to call.

Umpiring is, of course, a difficult and thankless profession in which the men in blue get the calls right the vast majority of the time and are only noticed when something goes wrong. Accountability is important, and expanding access beyond the current practice of having only a pool reporter ask questions of only the umpiring team's crew chief would be a helpful start, so we can learn exactly what happened and what went wrong. And maybe meeting the issue squarely will help any confusion and debate dissipate sooner, turning attention away from the officials and back on the competition.

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