TWO MEN ON, two men out, playoff game tied in the sixth, All-Star-caliber hitter at the plate. Crowd on its feet, ball in the air, the outfielders go back ... back ... and with a single stab of his glove, Kansas City rightfielder Norichika Aoki quiets everyone at Angel Stadium, sending the visitors to the dugout still tied at two. Aoki's circus catch of Howie Kendrick's long fly in Game 1 of the ALDS is another in a string of clip'n'save moments that help the underdog Royals sweep the Angels and duck and dodge their way to becoming the best story of the 2014 postseason.
As the Royals swarm Aoki in celebration, a nice young man—O.K., me—fumes on Twitter. "Ned Yost hits on 22 and draws a -1," he vents to his followers.
There's this conflict that plays out across almost every inning of the postseason. The baseball fan wants to revel in the drama, the magic, the long at bats and the great defensive plays, and the ungodly breaking stuff we were warned about in Bull Durham. The baseball analyst wants justice. Good strategic decisions should be rewarded and bad ones punished; the quicker the better. In recent postseasons there have been a lot of bad decisions and not quite as much punishment. That makes the fan revel in the athleticism and the skill and the baseball of it all. The analyst shakes his fist and wonders if Yost's mistakes will ever back up on him.
In Game 1 last Thursday in Anaheim, the Royals manager let journeyman southpaw Jason Vargas face the very righthanded middle of the Angels' lineup in the sixth inning of a tied game. Vargas had held L.A. to a mere two runs, as much as could be asked of a pitcher like him against the highest-scoring team in baseball. It was clearly against the odds to let Vargas face Mike Trout and Albert Pujols a third time, especially given the depth and effectiveness of the Royals' bullpen.
Yost made the "wrong" move ... and Vargas (with some help from Aoki) escaped the inning without allowing a run. That happens often, and therein lies the rub with October baseball. For all the angst over managerial decisions, the players decide the games. Even the worst matchups for pitchers leave them a 60% chance of getting an out. The worst matchups for hitters yield a 15% to 20% chance of a hit. Sometimes objectively bad decisions work. And sometimes they work for weeks on end, and Bob Brenly ends up with a new piece of jewelry to show off.
Yost's dugout skills were so bad in Milwaukee that he was fired in 2008 with two weeks to go and his Brewers tied for the NL wild-card slot. With the Royals, Yost has been justifiably roasted for his conventionally conservative bullpen management, his commitment to the sacrifice bunt, his poorly timed use of pinch runners and a host of other crimes against baseball. In the AL wild-card game against the A's, Yost made a series of bullpen mistakes that contributed to his team's falling behind 7--3. And yet, the Royals came back to tie the game in the ninth and win it in the 12th.
It's not just Yost. The very model of a modern major league manager isn't Earl Weaver with his index cards, Casey Stengel mapping out his platoons, Davey Johnson thinking over all 25 roster spots. No, in recent seasons teams have gravitated more and more to former players with little or no managerial experience, whose skills are applied less in the dugout and more in the clubhouse. That may be working in the big picture—the Nationals' Matt Williams, the Cardinals' Mike Matheny and the Tigers' Brad Ausmus were three of the eight managers in the Division Series—but it can make for some highly debatable decisions and highly entertaining Tweeting, from night to night. "If Ned Yost advances," a certain microblogger proclaimed during the AL wild-card game, "I'll be dead by Columbus Day."
We have to remember that there are two threads here. One is the excitement and fun of October baseball, which would be less exciting and fun if the odds weren't defied on a regular basis. We watch to see Matt Carpenter crush the double off Clayton Kershaw, and to see Yusmeiro Petit throw six shutout innings, and, yes, to see Jason Vargas dodge bullets. The other thread, the analytical one, doesn't diminish the first. You can question Ned Yost's moves while still thinking the Royals are a cool story. You can admire Mike Matheny's jawline while also thinking he sticks too long with his starters. In the end, the fan and the analyst are invested because both love baseball.
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