Thursday October 21st, 2010

SAN FRANCISCO -- 1. Game 4 is the Night at the Improv of postseason baseball, the witching hour when managers close their eyes and hold their noses and reach into the back end of their rotations and tired bullpens and hope for the best. It's when seven-game series become disjointed and darkly comical. The poster game of Game 4s remains Game 4 of the 1993 World Series, when the Phillies and Blue Jays staged a 15-14 burlesque during which one Veterans Stadium fan raised a pitch-perfect placard that read, "Will Pitch Middle Relief For Food."

NLCS Game 4 last night didn't quite reach the absurdist level of Albee (Edward, not Lopez), but it earned its place in the company of typical Game 4 weirdness. The Giants and Phillies used 33 players and blew three leads before San Francisco won in the bottom of the ninth, 6-5, against Roy Oswalt, a starting pitcher pressed into relief. It was the first time in 25 days San Francisco scored more than four runs.

The looser these games become, the more they become managers' games, and Bruce Bochy of the Giants won the managing battle over Charlie Manuel of the Phillies. It wasn't just that Bochy used double-switches three times and used his pitcher in four different spots in the lineup. It's that he almost always wound up with matchup advantages -- with Manuel's cooperation.

My head hurts from trying to think along with Manuel in a game like Game 4. But suffice to say, Manuel is a hitting guy first and a manager second. The backbone of his success and the cool clubhouse that he keeps is that he has tremendous faith that his players will deliver hits, and that belief comes before any need to manage around the tricky corners and narrow turns of a close baseball game. So keep the Manuel Manual in mind as we revisit the key decisions by Charlie that helped let Game 4 get away from the Phillies:

• In the fifth inning he had left-hander Antonio Bastardo warmed and ready for Aubrey Huff -- the only left-on-left matchup needed among the top six spots in the San Francisco order. Huff's turn came up with a runner on second, two outs, and the Phillies holding a 4-2 lead.

But Manuel didn't bring in Bastardo. He let Joe Blanton pitch to Huff after the inning had begun this way: walk, bullet out to third base, bullet out to center. Huff laced another bullet to center for a run-scoring single. Why even warm Bastardo if you won't use him in exactly the spot he is needed?

• An almost exact situation occurred in the seventh. Manuel had Ryan Madson warmed. Bastardo rightfully pitched to Huff this time and retired him. The next three hitters, starting with Buster Posey, were right-handed. But Manuel left the lefty in. Posey doubled.

• Here's the real killer: eighth inning, runner at second, no outs, tie game. Jimmy Rollins at bat. The Phillies must get the runner to third base. Does Manuel bunt? Of course not. He trusts his players to get hits. I swear to you I said this as Rollins stepped in: "He has to bunt because Rollins hits way too many pop-ups." (Rollins has popped out an incredible 22 percent of the time in his postseason career.) Rollins popped out.

But it got worse. The next batter was Ben Francisco, a part-time player forced into the starting lineup because Manuel lost faith in slumping Raul Ibanez. Sergio Romo, the Giants pitcher at the time, is death on right-handers (.185). There is no way you can give a right-handed part-time player like Francisco an at-bat in the eighth inning against a dominant right-on-right pitcher with the go-ahead run at second base of a crucial NLCS game -- no way unless you are a manager who always believes your guy is going to get a hit.

"I couldn't believe that," said one Giant. "That has to be Ibanez's spot. Has to be. He's a professional hitter who's done it before."

There was another layer to the decision. Manuel forces Bochy's hand if he sends up Ibanez. Bochy had lefty Jeremy Affeldt warmed in the bullpen. Bochy has to choose whether he wants Romo, a righty, on Ibanez, a lefty, (Ibanez is 1-for-2 against Romo) or if he wants Affeldt on Ibanez (2-for-6). And if he summons Affeldt, Bochy is one pitcher closer to running out of relief options, having used three relievers already. Trying to run the other manager out of options (as Bochy did with Manuel) becomes an important strategy in these bullpen games.

The result was predictable. Francisco waved weakly at Romo's pitches and struck out. The inning ended when Carlos Ruiz also whiffed. The Phillies had the go-ahead run at second with no outs and never even managed to get him to third, nevermind home.

San Francisco left-hander Jonathan Sanchez, who started Game 2 against Oswalt, ran into the Giants clubhouse when the ninth inning began to change from his running shoes into his spikes.

"Just to get ready whenever they needed me," Sanchez said. "I was good to pitch. Plenty of rest."

Here's the big difference between Oswalt, who did pitch the ninth inning and was the losing pitcher, and Sanchez: Oswalt threw a side session before the game and Sanchez did not. Asked why he didn't throw a bullpen, Sanchez said, "Just in case of a game like this."

It was, after all, a Game 4, right?

So why did Oswalt throw on the side before a game in which the Phillies were starting Blanton, a shaky pitcher who hadn't started a game in 21 days? This was an all-hands-on-deck game for Philadelphia -- down two games to one with their rusty number four starter taking the ball.

Manuel seemed to be in a fog about Oswalt's preparedness for relief work. "I think he knows himself a little bit more than I do," Manuel said. "And [pitching coach Rich] Dubee watches him a lot. He's closer to him than I am. He spends more time with him."

The Phillies were in deep trouble as soon as Game 4 became a bullpen game in the middle innings. Philadelphia is a powerhouse as long as Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Oswalt are carrying the ball deep into games and leaving the bullpen with only light lifting. But when Philadelphia has to ask its bullpen to pick up 16 outs, as it did last night, it simply doesn't have enough power arms to cover the game.

Until Madson came into the game in the seventh, here is all you need to know about what the Phillies were throwing at the Giants: Blanton, Jose Contreras (one batter), Chad Durbin and Bastardo threw 51 fastballs without getting a single swing and miss.

Watching Durbin trying to nibble his way through the sixth inning -- and worse, trying to sneak a tepid 91 mph fastball up past Pablo Sandoval -- was painful. He needed 38 pitches to get three outs.

This game was circled in red on the Philadelphia postseason calendar even before October began. There would be only two games out of a maximum of 19 in which the Phillies could not pitch Halladay, Oswalt and Hamels on full rest. This was one of them. (The other would be World Series Game 4.)

The game was booby-trapped from the start. And sure enough, it blew up exactly as was expected, with Blanton leaving the bullpen with too many outs to get.

Just how tough is it for the Phillies to win a bullpen game? They have won just three games all year when their starting pitcher is out before the fifth inning, falling to 3-13 in those tests.

And Blanton is just the latest guy to suffer from too much rest and rust. According to STATs Inc., since 1952, pitchers with more than 16 days of rest heading into a postseason start were 0-11 with a 7.43 ERA in 15 tries -- including the Yankees' A.J. Burnett. Talk about your red flags. Joe Blanton was not about to buck 58 years of history.

This postseason is becoming the vehicle to national renown for Giants rookie catcher Buster Posey, and Game 4 was his biggest statement yet. Posey smashed four hits -- one to left, one to center, and two to right, including a ninth-inning key single off Oswalt in which he was bound and determined to shoot the ball the other way. Posey became only the ninth catcher in postseason history with four hits in a game -- and the second youngest, behind only Joe Garagiola of the 1946 Cardinals.

"I don't think there's a better right-handed swing in baseball," Giants first baseman Aubrey Huff said. "And he's got that 30-year-old mindset. He's a real talent."

Said Giants outfielder Mark DeRosa, "Buster's a monster. I see a guy who's going to win multiple MVPs and compete annually for All-Star Game starts -- he and Brian McCann will go at it for years."

Posey's ability to hit the ball to the opposite field with authority on pitches outside and inside is a freakish talent, reminiscent of Edgar Martinez in his prime. His career home runs, for instance, break down this way: five to left, eight to center, five to right.

Moreover, he has become an athletic, capable receiver. And a tag play at the plate in the fifth inning last night showed not only his skill but also his precious value to the franchise. Posey made a nifty short-hop catch of a strong throw from center fielder Aaron Rowand and then quickly applied a tag on Ruiz.

Look carefully at the play: Posey made sure to stay out of harm's way. The Giants have talked to Posey about keeping his body, and especially his legs, out of a runner's path. San Francisco will be very happy if Posey never develops the skill of blocking the plate. He's too valuable to the franchise to risk his knees just to save a run. Indeed, the Giants took note this summer when Indians rookie catcher Carlos Santana blew out his knee while trying to block the plate. They used that injury as a talking point to reinforce their preference that Posey use a swipe-tag technique more than trying to block the plate. There is no run that is worth risking what looks to be the career of a franchise player.

So it comes down to this: The Giants are one win away from the World Series and they are home and giving the ball tonight to Tim Lincecum, who is 2-0 with a 1.69 ERA and 22 punchouts in 16 innings this postseason.

"I know this," DeRosa said, "the little guy doesn't want to get back on a plane [to Philadelphia]. He's going to be more than ready."

And even if Halladay stands in the way between the Giants and the World Series, well, let's just say they like their chances. In two games against San Francisco this year, Halladay is 0-2 with a 5.79 ERA.

"I think we beat him a couple of times because we're the type of team that likes to be aggressive and he's always around the zone," Huff said.

It's the second straight day in which baseball gives us the theater of a Cy Young Award winner getting the ball in a possible elimination game. CC Sabathia delivered another day for the Yankees. Now Halladay gets his chance to let the Phillies play on.

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