Monday November 2nd, 2009

1. With the sound of Alex Rodriguez's ringing double to left field, the Phillies' situation went from "bad" to "desperate" late Sunday night. Philadelphia is now down 3-1 in the World Series, a position from which very few teams have ever recovered: Those in this position have gone 5-28 in best-of-seven Series, and the last team to come back from a 3-1 hole was the 1985 Royals. Teams in the specific position of the Phillies, down 3-1 in the World Series without home-field advantage in 2-3-2 format, have won just two of 13 times: the 1979 Pirates and the 1958 Yankees.

Are there any lessons to be gleaned from those squads? Well, the '58 Yankees had the best offense in their league, and after scoring just 12 runs in four games, losing three to Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette, they turned it on at the end, with 17 runs in the last three contests, the last two started by the Braves' legendary duo on two days' rest apiece. It's unlikely that Joe Girardi will ask that much of his own top starters, although anything seems possible this month.

The '79 Pirates are a bit more interesting. They also split the first two games of the Series, as did these Phillies, lost Game 3 when their lefty starter, in Pittsburgh's case John Candelaria, couldn't hold an early 3-0 lead, and watched their ace reliever lose Game 4. Like this year's Phillies, they were an underdog going in, a freewheeling bunch whose rallying cry was the Sister Sledge disco hit, We Are Family. To win their Series, their pitchers stepped up, allowing just two runs over the last three games. Oh, Phillies fans who want to bury Cole Hamels should note that Candelaria bounced back with six shutout innings in Game 6 of that Series.

If the Phillies are to win the World Series, that's the path they'll need to take: improved run prevention, beginning with the starting pitchers.

2. They're not in a bad place to get that started on Monday night, as Cliff Lee takes the mound coming off his domination of the Yankees in Game 1. Lee has yet to allow more than one earned run in any postseason start, and all told he has allowed just five runs in 33 1/3 postseason innings over four starts, all Phillies wins. Since they acquired him just before the trade deadline, the Phillies are 12-4 when Lee starts, behind his 11 quality starts in 16 turns. He has replaced Hamels as the team's ace, and there were a number of people who felt that Charlie Manuel should have matched Joe Girardi by using Lee on short rest in Game 4.

The statistics on starting pitchers on short rest are daunting -- they pitch with much less effectiveness -- but that's not the reason why Manuel was correct to hold back Lee. No, the aggregate statistics in a situation like this are less important than the individual's comfort level and his manager's read of the situation. Lee's willingness to pitch on short rest, even off a 122-pitch outing on Wednesday, is no surprise; it's the manager who has to decide between asking his pitcher to do something unusual (Lee had never started a game on short rest) or to go with an above-average starter in that spot. The Phillies didn't lose on Sunday night because of Manuel's decision.

The Phillies are in a strong position to win on Monday night, with Lee on the mound at home against A.J. Burnett. Win this game, and they can start to think about finishing off the miracle in New York midweek.

3. Game 5 may be Ryan Howard's last chance to have an impact in the World Series. Howard is 3 for 17 with 10 strikeouts against a heavy dose of left-handed pitching and Mariano Rivera. Howard's massive platoon split -- he's the most dangerous hitter in baseball against right-handed pitchers, and a below-average hitter against southpaws -- have been a motif for the last two years, but this is the first time in that span that he's seen this many lefties in such a concentrated period. Of his 17 Series plate appearances, 13 have come against lefties -- he's 3 for 13 against them -- and one against Rivera. He's simply not the same player when a southpaw is pitching.

On Monday night he'll get maybe his last chance at a right-hander when Burnett takes the mound. Howard struck out three times against Burnett in Game 1, struggling as many Phillies did against the sharp backdoor breaking ball that Burnett flashed when he got ahead in the count. The Phillies' offense has been passable in the effective absence of Howard, but it hasn't been good, and if they're going to win three in a row they need something more than the 700 OPS hitter he usually is against southpaws in the middle of their lineup.

4. Sunday night's hero, Alex Rodriguez, continued to reinforce the analyst position about postseason performance -- not just his own, but everyone's. Even as he was slogging through tough Division Series in 2005 and 2006, and the weight of fans and the media, even his own manager, came down upon him, analysts repeated the mantra: small sample size. Players have bad series. Players have bad weeks, bad months, and that Rodriguez had a couple of bad weeks in playoff series didn't mean anything other just that. He'd had good performances in the postseason as well, both with the Mariners and in his first Division Series with the Yankees in 2004. The narrative simply ignored these and inflated a cherry-picked sequence of plate appearances to create one of the worst memes of the decade.

What Rodriguez has done this postseason should put to rest any idea that he lacks some element which would cause him to fail in pressure situations, which is nice as far as it goes. What it should also do is retire the entire idea that you can evaluate players based on a vanishingly small number of at-bats or innings pitched. A playoff series is a small sample no matter how many people are watching, and the game doesn't change dependent on the number of eyeballs involved. Players can have clutch performances, or even unclutch ones. But doing so isn't a skill above and beyond being a good or bad player on the whole. We should celebrate or mourn the acts without leaping to the conclusion that the results mean more they do. Baseball is the greatest game ever devised, but it's not a morality play, and we should be able to enjoy it, love it even, without needing to turn every 1 for 11 or 7 for 10 or game-winning double into a statement about someone's character.

5. It shouldn't go unmentioned that Rodriguez's heroics on Sunday night rescued Joe Girardi from a long and uncomfortable set of questions about his bullpen usage. After riding Mariano Rivera relentlessly this postseason, Girardi allowed his third-best reliever, Joba Chamberlain, to give up the tying run with four outs to go in last night's game. There was no reason to not use Rivera in the eighth inning on Sunday night, even with the closer having gotten two outs the night before, to put a lock on the series. Girardi's inexplicable passivity -- his aggressive use of Rivera has been the only redeemable element of his bullpen use this postseason -- very nearly put the Series back on the table.

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