Tuesday October 13th, 2009

1. How is Mariano Rivera looking right about now? Not that we didn't already know that the Yankees closer is the best all-time at what he does, but the Division Series, in which closer after closer blew up in the ninth inning, showed why Rivera has been the team's ultimate weapon all these years.

Every team that went home in the Division Series gave away a game in the ninth inning with its closer on the mound. The ninth inning is statistically the toughest inning in which to hit, in great part because closers are so overpowering. But you wouldn't know that by watching postseason baseball this year, when runners were flying around the bases against closers.

Take all the closers this postseason (Rivera, Brian Fuentes of the Angels, Jonathan Papelbon of the Red Sox, Joe Nathan of the Twins, Jonathan Broxton of the Dodgers, Brad Lidge of the Phillies, Ryan Franklin of the Cardinals and Huston Street of the Rockies), look at what they did in their 18 ninth-inning appearances of the Division Series, and compare that to the major league average ninth inning -- not just those thrown by closers -- for the 2009 season:

Whoa. Runs jumped 54 percent from the average ninth inning to the postseason closers' ninth inning, while the rate of base runners jumped 61 percent.

Why is the ninth inning so much harder for pitchers in October than in the other six months? There is the element of pressure, of course. But there are also so much more detailed scouting reports and so much studying of that information. (Players couldn't possibly absorb and apply that much information over 162 games without frying their brains, but it works for a five- or seven-game series with off days.) Finally, there is also more intense focus by the batters in the postseason. No one gives away an at-bat in the ninth inning of a postseason game. No one. Yes, it does happen during the regular season.

All of those factors make the closer's job even more difficult in October than it is from April through September. And that's why Rivera, doing it year after year, is the greatest ever.

2. You could see Street's crash coming on Monday night in NLDS Game 4. The Rockies closer threw nothing on the inside corner of the plate, or even a show-me pitch off the inside corner to keep hitters honest. Maybe he pitched tentatively, thinking he would not even risk making a mistake inside. Maybe he had nothing he felt confident enough about to throw there. But if you pitch to any lineup, especially the Phillies lineup, using only one side of the plate, you're going to get burned.

Street threw 29 pitches in the ninth inning, only one, thrown to his last batter, Jayson Werth, in which he dared to come inside. Street was especially overcautious with Chase Utley, throwing him six pitches -- all of which were off the plate, though he got strikes on two of them -- and walking him. That at-bat put the tying run on base and the go-ahead run at the plate.

By the time Ryan Howard batted, with two runners on and two out, I was yelling at the television that Street was in trouble, because Howard knew where the pitch would be coming: outside. Sure enough, Howard saw four outside pitches. He hooked the fourth one off the right field wall for a game-tying double. It was the 23rd consecutive pitch Street threw without coming inside.

3. Give credit to the Phillies' Charlie Manuel for great managing in the NLDS. Knowing that the Rockies are far less effective against left-handers, Manuel had his lefties get 80 of 108 outs in the series -- 74 percent. (Yes, he was helped by the snow that took away the Game 3 start from right-hander Pedro Martinez and gave it to J.A. Happ.) And even in the ninth inning of the clincher, he smartly gave the ball to lefty Scott Eyre, a guy with no postseason saves but who doesn't sweat the big moments.

You will no doubt read all about Lidge getting his 2008 groove back after notching saves in Games 3 and 4. That fits the narrative of a sportswriter, anyway. The Dodgers' scouting reports, however, will show that you can get to Lidge. He couldn't command his fastball in Game 3, and in Game 4 Manuel didn't have the confidence to give him the ball with a one-run lead to start the ninth -- and wisely so. And then facing one batter, Lidge didn't even try to throw a fastball. He threw five straight sliders to Troy Tulowitzki -- another wise move. Tulowitzki is a fierce competitor, but his competitiveness works against him in the postseason. He was jumpy all series, taking big swings or check swings. The Phillies, and Lidge in that at-bat, took advantage of his emotion and lack of discipline. Tulowitzki is now a .221 career hitter in the postseason, covering 68 at-bats.

Lidge, meanwhile, does come into the NLCS with far more confidence than he had at the end of the season. But don't make this out to be 2008 just yet. Manuel used him in Game 3 only because he had to, after he had to go to his bullpen early because of a brief outing by his starter and an ankle injury to Eyre. And he used him in Game 4 for only one out because he preferred Eyre against the lefties. Even after Carlos Gonzalez reached base, Manuel didn't turn to Lidge because he is too easy to steal against. Lidge has given the Phillies reason to hope, but he remains a work in progress.

4. Here's another general observation about this postseason, and I will include the tiebreaker game between Minnesota and Detroit: The base running has been atrocious. Think about it -- Curtis Granderson getting doubled off first base on a line drive to shortstop; Carlos Gomez rounding second unnecessarily hard, then making an even more blockhead play by not continuing to third to allow a run to score; Colby Rasmus making the first out at third base in a 2-1 game; Nick Punto rounding third with his head down and getting thrown out with no outs while carrying the tying run; and Tulowitzki getting doubled off second base on a line drive to third. Ugh. Those are terrible mistakes.

There's a common denominator here, folks: overaggressiveness. When guys get caught up in the pressure of the postseason they get in trouble when they "try to make something happen." The ones who succeed -- and here is where I think of guys like Derek Jeter -- are the ones who don't just talk about treating postseason games the same as regular-season games, but remain calm enough to actually do so.

5. As well as Angels right-hander Jered Weaver pitched in Game 2 in the ALDS against Boston, he should move back in the rotation to Game 3 for the ALCS against the Yankees. Manager Mike Scioscia likely will stick with John Lackey for Game 1 at Yankee Stadium on Friday, but left-hander Scott Kazmir is a better call than Weaver for Game 2 there on Saturday. Why?

• Weaver was much better at home this year (9-3, 2.90) than on the road (7-5, 4.78).

• Weaver was much worse against the Yankees this year (1-1, 5.59 in three starts, including 0-1, 6.08 in two starts at Yankee Stadium) than Kazmir (2-1, 3.20 in three starts, all at home).

• Most importantly, it is slightly more advantageous to throw a left-hander against the Yankees at Yankee Stadium, where you have to defend the shorter porch in right field, because you force their switch-hitters to bat from the right side. Right-handed starters got pounded by the Yankees in that ballpark. They were 10-19 there, including 3-14 since June 19. (Left-handed starters were 6-10). Including the postseason start by Nick Blackburn of Minnesota, 28 opposing right-handers have started at Yankee Stadium in the past four months and only three came away with a win: Roy Halladay, Chris Tillman and Kevin Millwood, and in each case they were supported by 10 runs.

Honestly, the Yankees are such a dominant offensive team in that ballpark that it doesn't matter that much. Here are opponents' records in games at Yankee Stadium, whether the starter gets the decision or not:

With right-handed starter: 14-37 (.275) With left-handed starter: 10-20 (.333)

But I'd still rather throw a lefty at Yankee Stadium, especially when the right-handed choice, Weaver, is better at home and worse against the Yankees. Remember, Scioscia's Game 2 starter is also likely to be his starter for Game 6, also to be played at Yankee Stadium -- assuming he uses four starters and assuming the Angels can extend the best team in baseball that far.

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