October 26, 2008

1. Analysts like to point out the unpredictability of short series as a means of controlling expectations, both of the accuracy of their picks and the success of any one team in October. A week, 10 days of baseball leaves all kinds of room for the unexpected, and the winner of a best-of-five or or best-of-seven series is often just a matter of whose "unexpected" is better. Carlos Ruiz is the best kind of unexpected; the Phillies' starting catcher barely held his job earlier this season, and stayed in his role more because the team around him improved than for any work on his part. Ruiz hit .219/.320/.300 this year and threw out just 20 of the 85 runners who tried to steal on him, a poor 23.5 percent rate. In the World Series, though, Ruiz has been a star, a Billy Hatcher for the cheesesteak set, going 4-for-8 with two doubles, a home run, and the game-winning infield single in Sunday morning's Game Three. For a team still trying to get its stars tracked, Ruiz's production from the bottom of the lineup has been a critical boost.

2. Can you be both the world champions and the chokiest chokers who ever did choke? Ruiz's dribbler down the third-base line in the ninth inning was just the Phillies' second base hit with a runner in scoring position in the three World Series games. Their 2-for-32 mark features two infield singles and just one runner driven in -- that being Eric Bruntlett to end Saturday night's Game 3. In an era in which the noisy idea of "clutch" overwhelms the quieter notion that baseball is about all the moments, not just the ones we remember, the Phillies' ability to win World Series games despite their terrible performance in high-leverage situations should make us think about the facile connections we make among performance, success and character

3. One of the game's least valid conventions is declaring a player to be out of a slump with one hit. Ryan Howard hit a solo homer Saturday night that put the Phillies up 4-1, and had Phillies fans, and even Charlie Manuel, crowing. The thing is, sometimes the homer you hit after two dry weeks is just the blip in a four-week slump, and you won't know until the next game, next series, next 20 at-bats. As long as Howard continued to see left-handers in key situations -- as he did in the eighth inning of Game 3, when he struck out -- he's going to have trouble being a major factor in the Series.

4. The Ghost of Mike Scott is in the house. Or it would be if Scott, alive and well, were dead. In 1986, the New York Mets held a 3-2 lead over the Houston Astros in the NLCS. The series felt tied, however, with Game Six an elimination game for both teams. That's because Scott, who won the NL Cy Young that season for leading the league in ERA and striking out 306 batters, was waiting in the wings to start Game Seven. In his two NLCS starts, Scott threw two complete games, one a shutout, striking out 19 and walking one. At the height of his powers, burying splitter after splitter in the dirt, he was so good that the Mets were presumed to be goners if they lost Game Six.

Cole Hamels raises that spectre once again. With Hamels set to throw Monday's Game 5, the Rays must win tonight or face the dire prospect of being wiped out of October without ever again hearing the cowbells. Hamels hasn't been quite as good as Scott was in '86, but in his four postseason starts he's allowed just five runs, striking out 27 and walking four. He's pitched through the seventh inning every time, and the Phillies have won every start he's made. Like the 1986 Mets, the Rays are two losses from elimination, but it feels like just one.

5. Phillies fans, your chant of "Eeeeeevaaaaa!" during EvanLongoria's at-bats is an enthusiastic and humorous attempt to taunt the young Rays star. The Value Over Replacement Derision goes through the roof, however, if you switch it up to a "Gaaaaabeeeee!" chant. which pumps up the femininity, adds a layer of subtlety and, quite frankly, is the only character Longoria's N-challenged namesake is known for. So tonight, bring the noise -- Desperate Housewives style -- and make America laugh.

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