Thursday October 7th, 2010

1. Braves pitcher Derek Lowe, watching a television in a concourse at AT&T Park in San Francisco, tried to guess what pitch Roy Halladay would throw Brandon Phillips on a 0-and-2 count while he was one strike away from the second no-hitter in 1,263 postseason games.

"Sinker in, but he may not want to get beat in so late in the game," Lowe said. "Or breaking ball away. Or he's got that changeup now. Or . . . Oh, man, he's so good he'll probably throw a knuckleball!"

Halladay has been very good for a very long time, and regarded as the best pitcher in baseball. But what he did yesterday was what Sandy Koufax, fresh off his first 20-win season, did when he walked into Yankee Stadium for Game 1 of the 1963 World Series and struck out 15 Yankees. At last in the spotlight, it was the day he became a legend.

Halladay is now the Koufax of this generation. He is universally respected by his peers for his humility and competitive spirit. Mostly, he is another Koufax because his peers know he is obviously better than the rest of them.

"He's on a different level than everybody else," Lowe said. "He's amazing."

Here is a story that tells you all you need to know about the motor that runs inside Halladay. He reported to Phillies camp this spring with 148 wins, a $20-million-a-year contract and, while about to turn 33 years old, four straight seasons in which he finished no worse than fifth in Cy Young Award voting . . . and decided he needed to learn a new pitch. And so he simply mastered the changeup.

The truth is that Halladay had thrown various kinds of changeups before, but never well and never consistently. Pitching coach Rich Dubee suggested he try throwing it with his fingers split -- not quite a true splitter but thrown similar to a sinker. Presto. Halladay, already the best in baseball, had another weapon.

"Just means I'm getting old and need something new to trick 'em," Halladay joked recently when I asked him about it. "That's what happens when you hang around Jamie Moyer."

How good is his new pitch? Halladay threw 10 changeups yesterday: eight of them for strikes, including five that made the Reds swing and miss.

"And now [Roy] Oswalt is throwing the changeup," one Braves player said, "and it's nasty. You're not going to believe this, but Oswalt is throwing even better than Halladay right now."

Well, Halladay has thrown a two-hitter and a no-hitter in his past two starts, all while throwing just 57 balls to 56 batters and holding major league hitters to a batting average of .036.

His next start will be NLDS Game 4 if the shell-shocked Reds can manage to win a game, or NLCS Game 1 in Philadelphia Oct. 16 -- on nine days of rest. (He threw the no-no on eight days of rest.) That next start just became an event. Halladay, upon his first postseason opportunity, just became the national must-see superstar baseball has needed -- and then some. He became a legend.

And that last pitch? Curveball away. But it could have been a cutter, a sinker, a four-seamer or a changeup, too. And who knows -- maybe even a knuckleball one of these days.

How smart does Derek Jeter's acting job in St. Petersburg last month look now? The Rays lost their one chance to get to Rangers ace Cliff Lee in ALDS Game 1 when Carlos Peña failed to sell his hit by pitch in the first inning.

Tampa Bay had the bases loaded with one out and Peña up with a 2-and-1 count. Lee had yet to find his pinpoint range. The entire game changed on the next pitch. Lee threw a fastball that ran up and in on Peña. On the live TBS broadcast you could hear the "tick-tick" indicating the ball hit something before it hit the mitt of catcher Bengie Molina. And because the first tick wasn't a sharp sound and because the ball wasn't close to the bat, it did not appear to be a foul ball.

Home plate umpire Tim Welke, however, called a foul ball. Umpires can sometimes take a cue from a player's immediate body language to help in making a call. Peña did not give an immediate indication that the ball grazed his hand -- doing so only after Welke ruled a foul ball. Go back to Jeter's acting job when the ball struck the knob of his bat; he dropped the bat in mock pain and grabbed his hand.

Watch the Rays dugout in the background when Peña is hit; they heard it and knew he was hit.

Rays manager Joe Maddon argued, but Welke, without consulting another umpire, held firm. His call changed the game enormously. The Rays should have had a 1-0 lead, the bases loaded, one out and Lee on the ropes. Instead, Lee had two strikes on Peña -- which is as good as having an out in your pocket. With two strikes, Peña is -- get this -- an .091 hitter. Of course, he punched out, and Tampa Bay was as good as done for the day.

Maddon, who zigs where others zag, continues to be great for postseason second-guessing. Rocco Baldelli as your Game 1 DH? The guy began the year as a coach and had five hits this season. James Shields today as your Game 2 starter instead of Matt Garza? Shields was 0-4 with a 7.59 ERA in September. Jason Bartlett hitting leadoff? He had not batted first since May 27 and put up a .324 OBP this year. Can't wait to see what he comes up with today.

By the way, let's slow down the praise for Rangers hitters having the freedom to hack at 3-and-0 pitches, as if that was their swashbuckling approach all season. Vladimir Guerrero (double) and Nelson Cruz (home run) did damage on 3-and-0 pitches from David Price. But the entire Rangers team put 3-and-0 pitches into play seven times all year, including zero extra base hits and none from Guerrero.

The truth is that the Rangers ambushed Price.

Rocky V. The New Karate Kid. Twins-Yankees VII.

Some sequels should never be allowed to happen. Is this getting old, or what? The Twins coughed up yet another postseason lead to the Yankees and lost. How long has this been going on?

The Twins have held 11 leads in their past seven postseason games against the Yankees. They have lost all 11 leads and all seven games. Minnesota held six of those leads in the sixth inning or later.

Indoors, outdoors, home, road, left-hander, right-hander . . . it doesn't matter. In seven straight losses to New York, Minnesota has tried seven different starting pitchers (Brad Radke, Carlos Silva, Johan Santana, Carl Pavano, Nick Blackburn, Brian Duensing and Francisco Liriano) and seen seven different pitchers take the loss (Joe Nathan, Silva, Kyle Lohse, Pavano, Jose Mijares, Duensing and now Jesse Crain). Next up, Rob Schneider?

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