National League Championship Series:
St. Louis Cardinals vs. San Francisco Giants
NFL offensive coordinators have mastered the skill of ‘thinking on their feet.’ At any moment of an NFL game, within a window of ten of fifteen seconds, tops, he must choose from a pool of over a hundred plays designated for possible use by his team’s offense for that week’s game. Those plays have been culled from several hundred more included in the team’s training camp playbook. The offensive coordinator must be ready, on a moment’s notice, to call a play if “1st and 10 at the opponent’s 14” arises or “2nd and 24 at the 28” follows seconds later. Further, he must be ready to modify those calls for unexpected twists like “the defense just brought in a back-up safety” or “the wind is blowing from left to right and we have a left footed kicker.” To be effective under that much pressure, offensive coordinators must spend nearly every waking moment from July to January thinking about various scenarios until their reaction and decisions are second nature. You can question the critical reasoning of offensive coordinators (situational punting, run/pass mix, etc.) but their ability to think under pressure is unquestioned.
On Friday night, during the Cardinals incredible comeback, Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson made exactly the type of mental error that could be avoided if baseball teams employed an in-game strategist in the dugout or the press box whose sole job is to think about these situations.
Last week I scolded Reds manager Dusty Baker for not realizing an intentional walk in the 10th inning of Game 3 vs. the Giants would have forced Bruce Bochy to use his last position player to hit for his best reliever, Sergio Romo in a tie game. A sharp reader pointed out to me that issuing a walk to right-handed Joaquin Arias would have brought switch hitting Hector Sanchez to hit for Romo from the left side of the plate and that Baker knew this. That is a fair point and I was sloppy for not recognizing the platoon splits. Although overall the two hitters are virtually identical threats as I pointed out in the piece, a left-handed hitting Sanchez is mildly > Arias, thanks to Arias’ relative weakness versus right-handed pitchers. I still believe, strongly, removing your opponents sub-2.00 ERA pitcher from a tie game, with no one remotely that good left in the bullpen while also forcing the use of the opponent’s last position player greatly outweighs the batting upgrade. But it’s a fair point, Dusty Baker may have felt otherwise and his decision had a defensible logic to it.
Fast forward to Friday night when the exact same situation presented itself during the bedlam that was the Cardinals’ 9th inning comeback and in this case, because there was nothing but upside for the Nationals in intentionally walking a batter, I’m certain Davey Johnson didn’t recognize the strategic advantage he had at his disposal. After the Cardinals had stunned Washington with two runs in the top of the 9th, Daniel Descalso stole second base to put runners on second and third with Pete Kozma at the plate. On deck was St. Louis closer Jason Motte, the fifth reliever used by the Cardinals during the game. The only position player left on the Cardinals roster was back-up catcher Tony Cruz. This is the identical situation the Reds faced in Game 3 except Kozma > Cruz as a hitter and Cruz never walks (3 walks in 131 regular season plate appearances) so loading the bases in this case puts little pressure on the pitcher. By walking Kozma, the Nationals could have gotten a weaker batter to the plate and gotten the Cardinals’ best reliever out of the game. Kozma, of course, singled to right to drive in the winning runs and the game was over ten minutes later when Jason Motte, still in the game (!), overpowered the Nationals in the bottom of the ninth inning.
If the Nationals had a strategist, an offensive coordinator if you will, that thought about potential situations at all time, they could have watched the Reds/Giants series, catalogued the 10th inning events of Game 3 and been prepared to act accordingly when faced with the same situation Friday night.
After the 9th inning fireworks in Washington, St. Louis finds itself in a position to advance to the World Series for the second year in a row and become the first defending champion to reach the World Series since the Philadelphia Phillies in 2009. St. Louis is the very embodiment of a ‘never-say-die’ team but if you look back at the last two teams they stunned with multiple-run comebacks while repeatedly down to their last strike, the bullpens they did it against were suspect. (Last year’s Who’d You Rather piece fingered Neftali Feliz as the most likely to implode during the playoffs.) The Giants have an extremely versatile bullpen which Bruce Bochy expertly mixes and matches as the situation dictates. In fact, St. Louis may recognize his work in this series as awfully similar to the work Tony LaRussa oversaw from his bullpen last season.
The stunning thing about the Giants slow start against the Reds is that they had such a potent offense during the second half of the season. In fact, they scored 39 more runs than the Cardinals did over the last 81 games of the year – and the Cardinals were the second highest scoring team in the National League during the regular season. Just like it’s impossible to envision the Tigers losing a Game 7 if Justin Verlander is on the mound, it’s just as hard seeing the Cardinals lose one under any circumstance. I don’t think it gets that far against the Giants who dodged a bullet by waking up just in time in Game 3 against the Reds to salvage the season. Giants in 5.
Mop Up Duty:
Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, the Newsletter, a companion piece to Trading Bases, A Story about Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball* (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) March 7, 2013 release. The book is available for pre-order here: http://www.amazon.com/Trading-Bases-Gambling-Baseball-Necessarily/dp/0525953647/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1346604029&sr=1-1&keywords=trading+bases
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