Wednesday October 21st, 2009

1. I generally don't get too wrapped up in mistakes by umpires in the postseason. The men in blue get right an enormous percentage of their calls, and the ones they do miss get a tremendous amount of attention, especially with high-definition cameras, super-slow motion replays and other technological advances of broadcasts. It has become an old story: Every year people get up in arms about the decline in the quality of umpiring and the need for more instant replay, when really, nothing changes but the intensity of the complaints.

Well, I hate to say it, but this year does feel different, and the mistakes in ALCS Game 4 convinced me that something else might be going on beyond the usual overreaction and complaining. In a span of 11 batters, umpires Dale Scott and Tim McClelland blew three calls so badly that you have to wonder what is going on. Scott called Nick Swisher safe on a pickoff play at second base in which he was tagged on the hands -- he was diving headfirst -- before the base even appears in the Fox replay. McClelland took a run off the board when he called Swisher out on appeal for leaving third base early, when replays clearly showed he was wrong. Then McClelland somehow called Robinson Cano safe after he was tagged when he was standing still, two feet off third base. (McClelland, who is a very good and respected umpire, owned up to his mistakes after the game.)

These were not cases where you had to run replays several times from several angles to figure out the proper call. These were blatantly awful calls.

So what is going on? Is there something that has gone amiss with the mechanics of the umpires? For instance, like the blown call by Phil Cuzzi on a Joe Mauer flare down the line in the ALDS, Scott was staring right at the pickoff play but may have been too close to the play to get the proper perspective. Replays also showed McClelland too close to third base to be able to see when Swisher's foot left the bag; the umpire is shown staring only at Torii Hunter making the catch. How he missed Cano being tagged out is mind-boggling, considering Cano was standing there as if waiting for a bus. What made the mistake even worse is that there were five other umpires on the field and apparently nobody else saw what I could see in the press box a gazillion feet away -- not to mention the entire viewing audience.

I'm sure this is rather complicated, and nothing that can be reduced to one reason why umpires seem to be missing obvious calls this month. That's why I think what may be needed is an umpire review board, some kind of committee of baseball people who can study all the blown calls this postseason. The purpose would not be to be grade individual umpires, but to ask why these mistakes are happening and what can be done to reduce them. Do we need to do away with foul-line umpires? Are umpires not getting proper depth on the calls? Do we need refresher courses to keep them sharp? Do we need to rethink proper positioning? Do we need to empower other umpires to quickly call a conference to make sure the proper call is made?

I'm not a fan of more instant replay because the more you allow, the more cumbersome it gets, as the NFL has proved. Nor do I pretend to have all the answers about why there seem to be not just missed calls this October, but badly missed calls. And I start from a place with tremendous respect for umpires and how exceptionally good they are on balance. But it's time to step back, ask the tough questions and objectively study what's going on here. Camera work and technology are only going to get even better.

2. CC Sabathia and Alex Rodriguez have been here before: one win away from the World Series. Actually, between the two of them they have been here seven times before. And in seven games in which a victory would have put them in the World Series, their teams are 0-7.

Along the way, both players gained unflattering reputations for how they handled the pressure of October -- Sabathia with his 7.71 ERA in five postseason starts and Rodriguez with his .138 batting average in 58 postseason at-bats since the Yankees, up three games to none against Boston, lost a ninth-inning lead in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS.

Since their high-profile failures, each of them signed free-agent contracts with the Yankees, contracts that made Sabathia the highest-paid pitcher in baseball and Rodriguez the highest-paid player. Between the two of them they pull down $50.5 million a year, more than three teams (the Pirates, Padres and Marlins) pay their entire roster.

On Thursday night in ALCS Game 5, Sabathia and Rodriguez get another crack at the Fall Classic. This time is totally different. Both of them have blown away their notorious October reputations. They have not just been good this postseason; they have been historically great. Sabathia is 3-0 with a 1.19 ERA, and going all the way back to Aug. 2, he is 12-1 with a 2.24 ERA in 15 starts, 14 of them Yankees wins in which he has left the bullpen with no more than seven outs to clean up.

"Before his first [postseason] start," Yankees pitching coach Dave Eiland said, "I told him, 'You're going to get out there and the crowd is going to be juiced. You're going to have to stay within yourself and keep yourself under control.' In past postseasons I think he got excited and he learned from that.

"The other [difference] is that we took him into this postseason fresh. Down the stretch we pitched him on the sixth day a lot and pulled him out of games earlier than we otherwise would. That's where clinching early came into play."

Rodriguez, too, looks like a different player this October: relaxed, confident, self-assured. He is hitting .407 this postseason with five home runs, 11 RBIs and an eight-game RBI streak to match Lou Gehrig and Ryan Howard for the longest ever in postseason history.

So go ahead and call Sabathia and Rodriguez money players, but this time it has nothing to do with their contracts. On Thursday night, after the collapses of Rodriguez's 2004 Yankees and Sabathia's 2007 Indians, the highest-paid pitcher and the highest-paid player are again one win away from playing in their first World Series. It is the eighth time they have been here, one win away. And yet it is unlike any other time.

3. The ALCS is not officially over, but it certainly turned when Angels closer Brian Fuentes, three outs from evening the series at one game each, decided on an 0-and-2 count to "elevate a fastball" to Rodriguez. Hello? Hand, meet stove. You should know the darn thing is hot. It was evident then and more so now that Rodriguez is the playoff monster that was Barry Bonds in 2002, a guy who knew something himself about erasing a bad postseason reputation. Enjoy the show folks, because you're looking at an all-time great at the very top of his game. Want proof? Try this body of evidence:

• Angels manager Mike Scioscia intentionally walked Rodriguez in a tie game in the ninth inning of Game 2 with nobody on base. Only five players have ever been intentionally walked with no one on base in the postseason: Greg Luzinski (1978), Bonds (four times in 2002 and 2003), Albert Pujols (2006), Frank Thomas (2006) and Rodriguez. Bonds (by the Marlins in 2003) and Rodriguez are the only players to be intentionally walked in the ninth inning with the bases empty.

• Rodriguez has made contact on 41 of his 46 swings this postseason, an 89 percent contact rate. In the regular season he made contact 78 percent of the time.

• Dating to his last two at-bats of the regular season, Rodriguez has put the ball in play 26 times. He has homered on seven of those 26 times. That means that one out of every three or four balls he hits fair is going out of the park. He is batting .500 on balls he puts in play in that span.

• Rodriguez has not gone more than seven at-bats this postseason without hitting a home run.

• Rodriguez is outhomering the competition by himself. He has five home runs in 27 at-bats this postseason. Opposing hitters against the Yankees this postseason have combined for three home runs in 262 at-bats.

4. Red Sox president Larry Lucchino has a term for playing in the intense conditions of the Northeast: East Coast Baseball. He is on to something. In Philadelphia, Boston and New York, almost every home game carries an intensity (from fans and media) that is a close facsimile to playoff baseball. And when you do get to October, the frequently cold, wet, blustery weather provides something else to battle, too.

I started thinking about East Coast Baseball as I watched the Dodgers and Angels go 0-4 in Philadelphia and New York in the LCS, all the while looking like they were not up to the challenges of the crowd and the weather. And then I thought, is there something to West Coast teams not measuring up to East Coast Baseball in October?

So I looked at all the West Coast teams -- the Dodgers, Angels, Athletics, Padres, Giants, Mariners and, because they fit the criteria except for a nearby beach, the Diamondbacks -- who have played East Coast Baseball in the postseason in the wild-card era, since 1995. In addition to New York and Philadelphia, other cities that fit the definition of East Coast Baseball at the time they hosted West Coast teams in the playoffs were Boston, Detroit and Baltimore.

It turns out there have been 22 playoff matchups when a West Coast team ventured into East Coast Baseball. The result: the West Coast teams are 10-36 in East Coast Baseball venues, a .217 winning percentage. In other words, get them out of their laid-back, warm environment and into the nasty conditions in the East, and they're not even the 1962 Mets.

And it is not getting any easier. Since 2003 the West Coast teams are 3-17 in East Coast Baseball playoff environments. That's the kind of history the Dodgers are up against tonight when they play NLCS Game 5 in Philadelphia. Bundle up, Dodgers.

5. Happy birthday to Yankees public address announcer Bob Sheppard, one of the great treasures of the game who celebrated his birthday on Tuesday. Sheppard is believed to be 99 years old, though he enjoys leaving his age unconfirmed. He announced his first game in 1951 and has not worked since 2007 due to health issues. In a most noble and fitting gesture, a recording of Sheppard's introduction of Derek Jeter is used every time Jeter bats at Yankee Stadium -- at the captain's request.

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