Results tagged ‘ MLB ’

Baseball Miscellany for 10/13/16

cubs-world-series-1908

This October has been everything a baseball fan could ask for thus far. Well, unless you’re a fan of one of the teams already heading home for the winter. More to the point, we’ve seen plenty of postseason drama. We’ve also been seeing the lists popping up all over the place now that the Chicago Cubs have advanced to the NLCS. There is no shortage of fun facts about the last time the Cubs won the World Series. After all, much has happened since 1908.

Some of my favorites:

  • The United States was comprised of only 46 states
  • Sliced bread would not be sold is stores for another 20 years
  • The Eiffel Tower (984 feet) was still the world’s tallest building
  • Halley’s comet has passed the earth twice
  •  BONUS: Germane to today’s events, women did not yet have the right to vote

Needless to say, I did a little research on the last time the Cubs appeared in the World Series. The year was 1945 and World War II had come to a close just months prior to the Detroit Tigers besting Chicago in seven games in that year’s Fall Classic.

Hall of Famer Hal Newhouser went the distance in Game 7 as the Tigers closed out the series with a 9-3 victory over the Cubs. It was Newhouser’s second win of the series after getting rocked in a Game 1 defeat. Interestingly enough, when Newhouser was pulled in the third inning of that loss, he was replaced by a right-hander by the name of Al Benton, a man who holds a truly unique place in baseball history.

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Al Benton 1952 Topps

Benton tossed 4.2 innings and allowed just one run in three appearances during the 1945 World Series. A two-time All-Star for the Tigers, Benton paced the American League with 17 saves in 1940. At the time, that was the fourth best single-season save total in baseball history. Of course, the save did not become an official statistic until 1969 (more on that in a bit). All in all, Benton enjoyed an effective 14-year career.

So what makes him so interesting?

Well, on April 18, 1934, a 23-year-old Benton made his major league debut against the New York Yankees. He entered in relief for Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics when starter Johnny Marcum could not escape third inning trouble. An inning later, Benton went toe-to-toe with Babe Ruth and got the Yankees legend to ground out to the mound. This was Ruth’s final season with New York.

Eighteen years later, Benton was summoned from the bullpen for the Boston Red Sox as they battled the hated Yankees on July 2, 1952. The 41-year-old came on to face a fellow Oklahoman, a 20-year-old Mickey Mantle, who lined out to Benton in their lone encounter on that day. That made Benton the only pitcher to face both Ruth and Mantle.

In fact, according to Baseball Reference, Benton is also the only man to face the group of Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio. I’m inclined to add Jimmie Foxx to that list, personally. Those men were among 38 Hall of Famers that Benton faced between 1934 and 1952.

More miscellaneous fun with saves:

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Mordecai Brown 1911 T3 Turkey Red

Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown holds a special place in Cubs history. The Hall of Famer enjoyed his success thanks in large part a right hand that was mangled in a farming accident as a kid, costing him part of two fingers. Brown won two of the four games for the Cubs in their 1908 World Series triumph over the Tigers. The Cubs and Tigers met again in 1935 and in that 1945 series, in which Al Benton was a part of Detroit’s championship team.

Did you know, Brown was MLB’s all-time saves leader from 1910-1925? That’s 16 seasons as the record holder, good for a three-way tie as the second longest time any pitcher has ever held the saves record in baseball history.

The rest of the list:

Firpo Marberry (20 years, 1926-1945)
Mordecai Brown (16 years, 1910-1925)
Johnny Murphy (16 years, 1946-1961)
Hoyt Wilhelm (16 years, 1964-1979)
Lee Smith (13 years, 1993-2005)
Rollie Fingers (12 years, 1980-1991)

In case you’re wondering, Mariano Rivera has been the all-time leader since 2011. With 652 career saves, Rivera should surpass all of the aforementioned pitchers in the longevity department when it comes to holding onto that record.

Ross could be Braves’ wild card on Friday

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The Atlanta Braves need to win one game to continue their quest through the 2012 Postseason. That game comes on Friday against the St. Louis Cardinals at Turner Field and determines the National League’s true “Wild Card” under Major League Baseball’s new expanded playoffs.

On the surface, the decision to start backup catcher David Ross over All-Star stalwart Brian McCann seems unorthodox to say the least. It was certainly not a question of loyalty for manager Fredi Gonzalez, but with the Braves’ postseason aspirations tied to a single game, one cannot afford to simply play favorites.

Initially it was not a popular decision with McCann. How could it be? What player would not want to be in the lineup at a time like this?

It was a tough pill to swallow, but after taking the the news the way one would expect, McCann put his support squarely behind his teammate Ross by the time he spoke to MLB.com’s Mark Bowman on Thursday:

“I wish I was playing, but I’m not,” McCann said. “That’s it. Rossy has been playing unbelievable and I’m his biggest fan. He’s one of my best friends in the world and he’s going to play great.”

Offensively speaking…

This has been the worst of McCann’s seven full seasons in the majors. An ailing right shoulder has plagued him throughout a campaign in which he set career lows with a .230 AVG, .300 OBP, and .399 SLG. Based on McCann’s downward trend over the final two months of the season, Ross represents the best option for Gonzalez and the Braves in the one-game “win or go home” scenario.

Ross has spent four seasons with the Braves and has established himself as the best backup catcher in baseball. His powerful bat and veteran presence have been the perfect compliment for McCann when it was time for a day off. In his 577 at-bats with Atlanta – about a season’s worth of work for an everyday player – Ross has batted .269 with 24 homers and 94 RBI’s.

Despite McCann’s down year, it remains common practice for most managers to load their lineup with left-handed bats against a right-hander like St Louis starter Kyle Lohse. In that regard, this is a case of going against the book. It is also a move that Gonzalez believes will give Atlanta the best chance to win this game.

This season’s numbers support the decision there as well, with McCann batting .230 with 15 homers and 51 RBI’s in 84 games started by righties. Ross hit .260 with 4 home runs and 13 RBI’s  in his 28 games against right-handed starters.

Another – and perhaps more glaring – split statistic for each was performance at home this season. McCann connected for 11 of his 20 homers at Turner Field, but batted just .198 in 56 games there.  That low mark for McCann included a dreadful 2-for-49 skid to close out the home schedule. While his sample size may be much smaller, Ross batted a solid .260 with 4 HR’s and 13 RBI’s in 23 home contests.

The Medlen connection…

Offensive numbers are one thing, but there is more to consider when it comes to what Ross has to offer his club. Friday starter Kris Medlen will be pitching the biggest game of his young career. His season deserves a blog post of its own, but what is important to note here is that, while Medlen has shined with both men behind the plate, he has been at his best working with Ross.

Over 13 total appearances, Medlen sported a 0.81 ERA in 44-1/3 innings this year with Ross calling the signs. Perhaps more to the point was the success that the two men enjoyed as a battery in a trio of September starts. Two of those games rank among the best performances of the young right-hander’s career.

Medlen allowed one unearned run to Washington while setting a career-high with 12 strikeouts in a complete game effort on September 3. Two starts later, he eclipsed that mark by fanning 13 Miami hitters over seven innings of one-run ball. Medlen capped his season by winning his ninth consecutive decision, defeating New York on September 30.

When Medlen worked with Ross in September, he allowed just 1 ER (3 total) in 22 innings for a 0.41 ERA. The 31 strikeouts came against just two walks and at the staggering rate of 12.7 K/9 IP. Opponents batted just .121 in those three starts.

Any way you slice Medlen’s season, the numbers border on the absurd. McCann should be credited for his excellent handling of the staff, which included a 1.75 ERA in 92-2/3 innings pitched by Medlen during the regular season. The postseason, however, has proven itself to be a different monster entirely.

Looking solely at what has been working lately with the pairing of Medlen and Ross, there is simply too much chemistry to ignore. That is not a swipe at McCann. It is simply the circumstances that the Braves find themselves in.

A one-game playoff scenario.

What to take away…

All of those spits and statistics tell the story of why Fredi Gonzalez arrived at his decision to go with Ross over McCann. Plugging in a reserve catcher as skilled as Ross is a luxury that most if not every other team in baseball do not have.

Make no mistake about it, Atlanta will need McCann to regain some of his All-Star form in order to make a successful run toward a World Series championship. One can only imagine that McCann would be more than happy to oblige. After all, the games only get bigger from here.

We can throw a few more statistics and facts at the wall prior to the game.

Till then,

G-Mc

Is Andy Pettitte Hall Worthy?

andy-pettitte2-540x360.jpgThe Hall of Fame debate usually follows the retirement of a productive high profile player, particularly one who made his name with the New York Yankees. Such is the case with Andy Pettitte, a solid if unspectacular lefty who was an integral part of multiple World Series Championship clubs.

Pettitte’s legacy and Cooperstown candidacy are bolstered immensely by his work in October and, on occasion, November. He retires with the most wins in postseason history. The fact that Pettitte appeared in the playoffs in all but three of his 16 seasons in the majors no doubt enhanced his ability to accumulate those 19 postseason victories, but that’s not the “enhancement” that will be under scrutiny.

Make no mistake, Pettitte will have to buck a recent and growing trend of this generation’s stars who put up hall worthy numbers, yet will fail to gain admission to Cooperstown because of direct ties to or even the suspicion of performance enhancing drug use.

We don’t have to debate the moral platitudes in Pettitte’s case. He admitted his use, and to his credit continued on with his life and career. Contrition may have earned points with some fans, but it’s unlikely to lessen the impact that his outright admission will have on hall voters. The next chapter appears to be Pettitte’s participation in what is sure to be the very public legal drama involving his friend Roger Clemens. We’ll table that discussion for now.

To be frank, I don’t believe Pettitte’s regular season numbers warrant his entry. I’m further more not convinced that his postseason numbers are enough to make up the difference in Hall of Fame credentials, or to erase the damage done by his admission of PED use. Coming clean to some extent, while it does not erase the transgressions against the game, afforded Pettitte an opportunity to reconcile with fans. Baseball writers will not be so forgiving when they fill out their ballots in five years.

I’d like to take this argument outside of that dreaded acronym (PED) for a bit, to look solely at Pettitte’s body of work. In other words, let’s look at the numbers and the accolades that made him a very successful pitcher for 16 seasons in the major leagues.

Pettitte is the first member of the vaunted Yankees “Core Four” – with Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, and Jorge Posada – to retire. Those four players were the only men who were members of New York’s five World Series Championship Teams since 1996.

Today, pitchers who pile up postseason victories in bunches have a distinct advantage over those who pitched solely in the World Series (pre-1969). The expanded playoff format, which will likely swell again within the next two years, means that a pitcher could make between six and eight starts between LDS, LCS, and Word Series play.

Despite career numbers that are very solid by most standards, Pettitte is still not the greatest left-hander in Yankees history. Whitey Ford holds that distinction. Ron Guidry and Lefty Gomez would have to be thrown in the mix as well.

Pettitte sits high on the Yankee wins list, trailing only Ford and Red Ruffing for most victories in franchise history. In fact, Pettitte is one of just three pitchers in franchise history to reach 200 career wins. If you look up and down the Yankees pitching leaders, you’ll find that Pettitte’s name appears behind Ford numerous times.

It’s not merely the statistical comparison of the two that led me to bring Ford into the Pettitte discussion. There are some that regard the Yankee’s original lefty legend as a borderline Hall of Famer.

Perhaps it was Ford’s failure to reach the 300-win plateau, or the fact that he only had only one Cy Young Award. In fairness, Ford lost two seasons to military service and made just 16 starts combined in the final two years of his career. Ford’s career 55.3 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) is better than Sandy Koufax (54.5), so it’s possible to make the stats – newfangled or not – say what you want them to. The Hall debate always brings out the best in statistical maneuvering.

Putting both stats and Yankee legends aside to look at awards and accomplishments, it’s pretty clear that at no time during his career was Pettitte ever considered the best pitcher in baseball. He received Cy Young votes in five different seasons. His highest finish came in just his second in the Bronx (1996), but he also finished fourth (2000), fifth on two occasions (1997, 2005), and sixth (2003) as well. It surprised me to see that he was selected to just three All-Star teams.

I’m not one who enjoys playing this game, but the number of “if-then” scenarios that would spring up in newspaper articles and in the internet community would dwarf those brought about any time that the name Bert Blyleven is mentioned.

The candidacy of Jack Morris, whose ERA of 3.90 is just .02 runs higher than Pettitte’s career mark would gain a new lease on life. In my mind, the discussion would have to expand well beyond just the Morris case, and include guys like Tommy John, Jim Kaat and Dennis Martinez. None of whom are immediately seen as Hall worthy candidates in and of themselves, and I’m not saying I support the “if-then” philosophy of awarding spots in Cooperstown for reasons other than individual merit.

One would have to look at contributions to the game, right? If so, John was on the cutting edge of a career-saving medical procedure that now carries his name. He came back better than he was before the surgery and won 288 games over 26 seasons. Kaat was a 283 game winner who claimed 16 consecutive Gold Glove Awards, transitioned into broadcasting and has been a distinguished member of the baseball community for five decades now. Martinez is the top winner (245) in baseball history among all Latin American pitchers.

Are those things not indicative of some high level of contribution? None of those men I just mentioned have their names attached to PED’s, which will almost certainly be enough to keep Pettitte out.

The Hall of Fame discussion often times degenerates into a Hall of Numbers debate, but the statistics aren’t everything and “fame” is a relative term. Would anyone ever say that Pete Rose is the worst player with 4,000 career hits? While it is an absolutely ridiculous argument, it is true. That Ty Cobb guy accomplished a few more things than Rose. Still, this entire line of discussion isn’t really worth pursuing any further.

What should we take away from the Pettitte Hall of Fame discussion?

Based on recent voting patterns and my gut instinct, while he was an outstanding pitcher who contributed to the success of the modern day Yankee dynasty, Pettitte will likely never receive his bronze plaque in Cooperstown. He was on multiple World Series winners and got paid quite handsomely. That may have to be all the reward baseball has to give in this case.

Who knows, maybe we haven’t seen Andy Pettitte take the mound for the last time. After all, “retirement” is another relative term these days.

The proverbial changeup…

Maddux.jpgConsider this a rechristening of my little unit in the MLBlogosphere. So, if you came here looking for baseball content to pass the time, bear with me for this one entry. Just like Greg Maddux did so frequently, I’m about to throw you a changeup.

This has and always will be an Atlanta Braves blog at heart, but it has struck me lately that many of my entry ideas over the past year have had little or nothing to do with the Braves. That’s usually where my inspiration would ultimately yield an extremely unfulfilling “wait-till-later” verdict.

With that in mind, I began to wonder if I should just change some things around and update the look and feel of this blog in order to stir my creative process. Perhaps it will take some of the self-imposed restrictions off and allow for a wider range of baseball content. I guess we will find out together.

I decided to go with a more MLB-centric layout to get things started. Then, in a somewhat painful move, I decided to put my original blog name (“A ‘Braves’ New World”) into storage in favor of a more middle of the road baseball colloquialism.

As some of you may or may not know, my baseball career has allowed me the incredible opportunity to work in both the Atlanta Braves and Tampa Bay Rays organizations. I spent the first four years with the Atlanta Braves Radio Network, working in production, writing and reporting. Currently, I’m preparing for my third season as the play-by-play broadcaster for Tampa Bay’s High-A affiliate, the Charlotte Stone Crabs.

Despite spending the majority of the season in the Florida State League, there are still times when it would certainly be nice to delve back into Major League topics. Hopefully, this rebranding will pave the way for a variety of baseball musings over the course of 2011.

Only 10 days until pitchers and catchers report!

Here’s to that,

G-Mc

2010 World Series Primer

World Series 2010 Small Logo.jpgAfter spending the last few days hearing the media churn on relentlessly about the lack of a so-called “marquee presence” to add to the World Series appeal, I think I’m finally ready to do my part and help those with questions to wrap their collective heads around the actual point of the postseason. That being:

The team that keeps winning gets to walk home with the trophy.

It’s a remarkably simple concept. And for a league that has preached the virtues of parity for years, this should be a celebration of sorts.

Years of work to help bridge the gab between MLB’s richest and poorest, and even those stuck in the middle, has finally paid off with a Fall Classic that has historic implications.

Despite the fact that the Texas Rangers and San Francisco Giants have not been as fortunate in October as the dragons they slayed to get to the World Series, neither team was ready to roll over and allow a rematch of last year’s series.

This World Series matchup contains not only great storylines but also great human interest stories.

For Texas, there is the well-chronicled comeback of Josh Hamilton, followed up by Rangers ownership’s faith in manager Ron Washington, who made some poor personal decisions but was allowed to stay the course and lead his team to the World Series.

For San Francisco, there is the clutch hitting of late season waiver claim Cody Ross, Then there’s the slim margins of victory that have led to a brand of baseball that Giants fans have dubbed as “torture.”

And of course there is Brian Wilson‘s beard.

The two teams are not complete strangers. A 15-7 lifetime Interleague mark favors the Giants, who have won seven games in a row over Texas and claimed victory in 11 of the last 12 regular season battles between the two teams.

After 50 years and two cities in the league, the Rangers started this run through October by defeating the Tampa Bay Rays to win their first postseason series in franchise history. Then they came just one big New York inning away from sweeping the much vaunted Yankees right out of the American League Championship Series.

Mays Catch.jpgStill playing in New York, the Giants last won the World Series in 1954 over the Cleveland Indians. It was in that series against the Tribe that Willie Mays made his historic catch at the old Polo Grounds.

The Giants moved out west in 1958, but have been unsuccessful in three trips to the World Series while in San Fran. A very different Giants club was just five outs away from a winning it all in 2002, before the Anaheim Angels rallied to take Game 6 and then went on to win a decisive Game 7 the next night.

The Rangers first joined the American League in 1965 as the
second incarnation of the Washington Senators, relocating to Texas prior
to the 1972 season.

As you might have gathered, these are two completely different clubs. The Giants are strong on pitching and rely on timely hits, while the Rangers hit the ball with authority, run the bases well and rely on key pitching performances to hold opponents in check.

Texas has left-hander Cliff Lee, one of the biggest weapons on the mound in recent memory. With his October work over the past two seasons, Lee is cobbling together one of the best postseason résumés in the history of baseball.

As good as Lee has been individually, the San Francisco pitching staff has been collectively. Giants hurlers boast a 2.47 ERA in 91 playoff innings and have held opposing hitters to just a .199 average thus far this postseason.

When it comes to offenses, the Rangers appear to have an edge there. Texas hit .276/.338/.419 and scored 787 runs as a club in 2010, while San Francisco’s team slash line was .257/.321/.408 with 697 runs scored.

Since they have the luxury of the designated hitter, the AL team should hold the advantage upon a cursory evaluation of the team offensive statistics. There is a rather vast chasm between the hitting exploits of Vladimir Guerrero and those of Giants pitchers and pinch-hitters. So take it all with a grain of salt.

The Rangers and Giants both hit exactly 162 home runs as a team in regular season. Texas, however, utilizes the speed game more than their NL counterpart, stealing 123 bases to San Francisco’s 55 this year.

Texas has put on a postseason power display while running wild on the basepaths thus far in October. As a team, the Rangers are hitting .281 with 17 homers and 59 runs scored in 11 playoff games. Led by Elvis Andrus‘ seven steals, the Rangers have swiped 15 bases and been caught just twice this postseason. That gives the Texas offense a rare balance of power and speed. 

Offensively, the Giants have not exactly been the biggest run producers in October. Through their first 10 postseason games, San Francisco is hitting .231 as a club and averaging just 3.0 runs per game. Their defining work with the bats seems to come in the clutch, with 15 of the 30 Giants runs coming with two outs in an inning.

Cody Ross has been the man the Giants have turned to throughout the postseason. He’s shown not only a flair for the dramatic, but an ability to give his team a lift when it’s needed the most. Ross has broken up three different playoff no-hitters with solo-homers. His heroics in the NLCS netted Ross series MVP honors.

The Game 1 Pitching Matchup:

Cliff Lee WS.jpgA pair of Cy Young Award winners will lock horns in the opening contest, which pits two distinctly different styles against each other.

Trying to write economically about Cliff Lee’s postseason career is probably one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. Where do you start?

How about his absolutely unheard of 34/1 K/BB ratio this postseason. Or maybe his six game postseason winning streak, second only to Bob Gibson in baseball history. Or maybe the fact that Lee (1.26) possesses the third lowest ERA among all pitchers with at least five postseason starts, trailing the likes of Sandy Koufax (0.95) and Christy Mathewson (1.06).

Lee (3-0) tamed the Yankees bats as a member of the Phillies World Series squad last year and did it again for the Rangers in this year’s ALCS. He brings a streak of 14 consecutive scoreless innings into tonight’s start, and has struck out 10 or more batters in each of his three playoff outings with Texas. One more 10+ K performance would give Lee the most in MLB postseason history (6).

Tim Lincecum WS.jpgTim Lincecum has been putting together a fine playoff run of his own for the Giants, twirling a dominating two-hit shut-out against Atlanta in Game 1 of the NLDS before splitting a pair of decisions against the Phillies in the NLCS.

Lincecum (2-1) has piled up 30 strikeouts in 23.1 innings so far this postseason The aptly dubbed “Freak” is a former first round draft choice who has been silencing critics throughout his career. Nine teams passed over the hard throwing yet slightly built Lincecum in the first round of the 2006 draft, fearing his body would never be able to hold up under the incredible strain of his mechanics. If his early results are any indication, Lincecum is doing just fine, thanks.

Two Cy Young Awards later, the 26-year-old Lincecum is anchoring the pitching staff which turned in the best ERA (3.36) in all of baseball this season. Lincecum will need to channel the same kind of electric performance that he turned in against the Braves in the NLDS to get keep the high-powered Rangers offense in check. That makes a nice segway to the…

Series Keys:

San Francisco — The Giants will need more strong pitching from Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez and rookie Madison Bumgarner in order to lay the foundation for success in the series. Texas has Hamilton, Guerrero, and Nelson Cruz among other very capable sluggers who can turn the game around with one swing of the bat.

If they can avoid a barrage of Rangers longballs and maintain some semblance of order on the basepaths, then there is a chance that San Francisco could minimize damage long enough for their offense to produce the necessary run support. I wouldn’t count on the bats breaking out in a big way for the duration of the series, but the Giants should be due for at least one big scoring night.

Freshman catcher Buster Posey has made himself right at home in his playoff debut, racking up a franchise rookie record with 11-hits so far this October. Veteran bats Aubrey Huff – who led the Giants in most offensive categories, Pat Burrell – who enjoyed a renaissance after returning to the NL at midseason, and Pablo Sandoval will all need to do their part to help generate the support that Lincecum and company will need.

San Francisco has one of the deepest bullpens in the NL, and have used it to their advantage throughout the playoffs. Anchored by the bearded-wonder Brian Wilson, the Giants got seven scoreless innings out of the pen in the NLCS clinching win against Philadelphia. Suffice it to say, manager Bruce Bochy would like to avoid doing that on a nightly basis.

The Giants have gone 4-1 on the road this postseason, but they want to grab the early series lead in order to make the most of the homefield advantage that was provided by the NL’s victory in the All-Star Game. The Giants can ill-afford to see the series shift to Texas with the hot-hitting Rangers up 2-0.

Texas — If Lee and/or C.J. Wilson can give the Rangers an early lead in the series, then there is a chance the Rangers can bring the series home and do some real damage. Hamilton hit .390 with 22 homers and 57 RBI’s in Arlington this season and is coming off ALCS MVP honors. His presence in the lineup will be a clear and present danger to the Giants hopes of quieting the Rangers run scoring attack.

The Rangers red-hot lineup will force Bochy and the Giants to pick their poison. Nelson Cruz (.371-13-42), Vladimir Guerrero (.315-16-63), and Michael Young (.307-16-55) likewise enjoyed the home cooking for a Texas club that batted .288/.352/.447
at home during the regular season. Luckily for the Giants, this series starts with the Rangers playing the visitor’s role.

I mentioned the Giants had the lifetime advantage against the Rangers during Interleague matchups, but the Rangers enjoyed their slate of games against the NL in 2010. Texas went 14-4 in Interleague play, while the Giants finished 7-8 against the AL this season.

At the back of the bullpen for the Rangers is the electric right arm of 22-year-old rookie closer Neftali Feliz, who strangely enough has not registered a save in the postseason. His early work was definitely shaky, with five walks and a home run allowed over his first three appearances. Feliz bounced back with scoreless frames in his final two outings against the Yankees, but if the Rangers are going to edge the Giants in close contests then Feliz must be ready to slam door.

NLDS Game 3: Conrad’s errors give Giants edge

Conrad_Alone.jpg

The Recap…
 
Atlanta was one strike away from victory before the San Fransisco Giants stunned the Braves with a ninth inning rally in Game 3 of the National League Division Series on Sunday.        

The defensive woes of second baseman Brooks Conrad fueled the Giants comeback. Conrad committed three errors on the night, including a costly miscue on a ground ball that allowed the eventual winning run to score in the top of the ninth as the Giants took a 3-2 victory.

Momentum has been swinging back and forth between the two clubs, in both single contests and the series itself.

Great pitching performances by both Tim Hudson and Jonathan Sanchez had the two teams locked squarely in another one-run battle into the late frames.

Hudson went seven innings and allowed just one unearned run on four hits and four walks while striking out five. The lone run against him came across during the second inning, when Conrad dropped a flyball in shallow right field to allow Mike Fontenot to cross the plate and break the scoreless tie.

Sanchez continued the Giants starters’ penchant for big strike-out performances, fanning 11 men and allowing just two hits and a walk over 7 1/3 innings of work.

Atlanta moved quickly against Sanchez in the eighth as Alex Gonzalez stroked a single to give the Braves just their second hit of the night. Conrad’s nightmare continued, this time with the bat, as he popped up a bunt attempt for the first out of the inning.

From there, the managerial wheels began to turn. Braves manager Bobby Cox sent right-handed hitting Troy Glaus to the plate to pinch-hit for the lefty swinging Rick Ankiel. That move prompted Giants skipper Bruce Bochy to lift the lefty Sanchez in favor of righty reliever Sergio Romo (1-0).

Cox countered by replacing Glaus with lefty bat Eric Hinske, who made the move look like a stroke of genius when he wrapped a line-drive two-run homer around the right field foul pole to put the Braves ahead by a run.

But just when the dramatic pinch-hit homer by Hinske gave the Braves a 2-1 lead, disaster struck an inning later in the form of Conrad’s third error of the night.

Hard-throwing rookie Craig Kimbrel started the ninth, but his one-out walk to Travis Ishikawa breathed life into a stunned Giants club. After a strikeout of Andres Torres pressed the Giants down to their final out, Freddy Sanchez rolled Kimbrel’s two-strike slider back up the middle to put the potential go-ahead run aboard as well.

With two Giants runners on base, Cox again played the matchup game and brought in southpaw Mike Dunn to face lefty-hitting slugger Aubrey Huff. That move backfired when Huff lined a single to right that plated Ishikawa and tied the game 2-2.

Conrad’s third and final gaffe of the evening would follow, and it proved to be the Braves undoing. Buster Posey slapped a sharp grounder that skipped between the second baseman’s legs, allowing Sanchez to come across with the eventual winning run.

The Breakdown…

 
Atlanta proved to be one of the most resilient teams in all of baseball throughout the season, and they will need to continue those kinds of exploits if they hope to continue playing beyond Monday.

That said, the Giants gave the Braves a taste of their own medicine with the late-inning come-from-behind victory. Atlanta had 25 victories in their last at-bat during the regular season, and one already in the NLDS, but the Hinske homer would not stand up in the face of a ninth inning collapse.

Brooks Conrad’s night became the stuff on infamy. In the aftermath, columns that threw Conrad in with the names of “the Ralph Brancas, the Bill Buckners, the Leon Durhams” popped up almost instantaneously.

While most of them were able to keep in mind that the Braves roster has been –  and continues to be – drastically altered by injuries suffered to key players, it’s still hard to fathom how one player could have a defensive game of such epically poor proportions. It was so much so that “Brooks Conrad” was the number two trending topic on Twitterin the entire world in the hours following the game.

Conrad_in_field.jpg

Conrad has served much of his 10-year professional career trying to find his way into the big leagues after showing a decent bat and little else in the minors for three organizations. Some forget, or simply fail to realize that the only reason that he is in the starting lineup for a playoff team is the number of key injuries to the Atlanta infield.

His story should have been marked among the highlights of what was an incredible 2010 season for a Braves club that had missed the playoffs every season since 2006. Conrad became the master of clutch hits, and clutch grand slams for that matter. His game-winning hits represent yet another piece of the puzzle that has the Braves battling for postseason glory in the NLDS.

Sadly, one cannot overlook the fact that Conrad’s glove has long been a big part of the reason that he has never had the opportunity to hold down and everyday job in the majors. He committed seven errors in 37 games at third base this year, and his throwing issues there in the final week of the season forced Cox to move him back over to second base to keep the best-hitting infield option the Braves had remaining in the line-up.

It’s a fact of the game that when you’re playing badly on defense, the ball will find you. I think we’ve all seen that now.

There’s no way to bring back Chipper Jones or Martin Prado. Their seasons are over. Troy Glaus lacks mobility and has played two innings at third base in the majors this season. Add to that that Glaus missed most of 2009 due to injury and then moved across the diamond to first base in Atlanta. That may not stop him from finding his way back in the lineup at the hot corner based on his key double play from Game 2.

Diory Hernandez, a career .138 major league hitter in parts of two seasons, is primarily a shortstop. He has only played eight games at second base over the past two seasons (majors and minors), but perhaps he should have checked in defensively given the struggles Conrad has suffered with the glove. There’s no going back now.

There simply weren’t better options to be had at the time, but Conrad’s defensive lapses may force Cox to explore one of those options tonight. My guess would be Glaus over Hernandez, as the offense can’t afford to lose the power threat.

While much of the blame will sit squarely on the shoulders of Conrad’s defensive shortcomings, the loss of closer Billy Wagner was evident in the ninth inning struggles.

Cox chose to go with hard-throwing rookie Craig Kimbrel to start the ninth, but the righty put the tying and go-ahead runs aboard be
fore being lifted with two outs in the frame.

A questionable pitch selection by Kimbrel in giving Sanchez a slider after repeated late swings on high-octane fastballs may have been the final straw in the rookie’s outing. There’s no questioning Kimbrel’s stuff, but after issuing a walk and yielding a base hit on a secondary pitch that puts both the potential tying and wining runs aboard, it’s hard to blame Cox for making a move.

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Some would decry the decision to use the situational lefty Dunn, citing that Huff hits LHP’s better than RHP’s, but that is a fallacy. Sure, Huff had a hit against Jonny Venters prior, but over the course of his career, Huff has been more productive against RHP. Huff had strong stats against lefties in 2010, but his slash lines were roughly the same. Again, choice is often dictated by track record and calculated risk.

Postseason games are not a good place for a young closer’s growing pains. If Cox leaves Kimbrel in the game with Dunn warm in the pen and Huff does his damage against Kimbrel, then critics will ask how could Cox not go to the lefty and play the matchup. It’s a classic damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation.

As it happens, you have to make a choice. All numbers aside, there’s a 50/50 chance that the batter is either going to make an out or get on base. That is the only percentage that matters. Beyond that, it’s hunches and educated guesses.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Second-guessing is easy. It’s the first-guessing that’s hard.

Regardless of having the luxury of hindsight being what it is, there is no guarantee that Kimbrel retires Huff. One can’t simply assume, because there’s absolutely no way of knowing. Given the eventual outcome of the game, of course the masses are going to side with any other option that was available at that time over the stark reality of a frustrating loss.

That’s baseball. That’s sports. That’s life.

One of the best pieces that I have ever read on second-guessing was written by former player turned ESPN analyst Doug Glanville. He is a very talented wordsmith who has been inside the world where most of us can only imagine the inner workings. I’ll leave you with that as we get ready to discover what changes may be in store for the Braves line-up…

Doug Glanville – As an authority, expect second-guessing

NLDS Game 2: Ankiel makes a splash

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The Recap:
 
The Atlanta Braves have been a team that has taken to coming from behind to win games through 2010. Why should the postseason be any different?

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Rick Ankiel belted a towering solo-shot into McCovey Cove in the 11th inning gave the Braves their first lead of the series and propelled Atlanta to a 5-4 win over the San Francisco Giants in Game 2 of the National League Division Series on Friday.

Staring at an early 4-0 hole and with just four innings turned in by Tommy Hanson, the Braves offense was still struggling to find themselves against another strong Giants righty starter.

Matt Cain worked 6 1/3 innings and allowed just one unearned run, but this game would be decided in an extra-inning battle of the bullpens.

The Giants jumped on top thanks to Pat Burrell‘s three-run homer in the first inning and added another run in the second when Cain helped his own cause with an RBI-single that built the 4-0 San Francisco advantage.

When Hanson departed after just four innings of work, Atlanta turned to the one of the team’s biggest strengths, a multi-talented bullpen.

Six Braves relievers combined to turn in the seven scoreless innings that closed out the game. A trio of righties and a trio of lefties took to the mound, holding the Giants to just four hits and a walk from the fifth inning on.

As the game rolled on, the bats slowly began to come around for the Braves. Brian McCann stroked an RBI-single in the sixth inning to give his club its first run of the series and cut the deficit to three runs.

Atlanta mounted a late inning comeback that was vintage for the 2010 regular season. Still trailing by three-runs in the eighth and with all-star closer Brian Wilson on the in relief,  Melky Cabrera reached on a throwing error that allowed a run to score. Alex Gonzalez capped the three-run rally with a game-tying two-run double that knotted things up, 4-4.

Extra-innings would eventually follow, and it was there that the Braves suffered would could be a substantial blow to the strong relief corps. Closer Billy Wagner was forced to depart the game with just one out in the 10th inning with what was later diagnosed as strained left oblique, which puts his availability for the remainder of the postseason in serious jeopardy.

With Wagner out, Atlanta turned to the once-maligned Kyle Farnsworth to extinguish the fire that was started when Edgar Renteria opened the inning with a bunt single and advanced to second on a sacrifice. Farnsworth hit Freddy Sanchez with a pitch and then walked Aubrey Huff to load the bases with one out for rookie sensation Buster Posey.

What followed was the stuff of legend. Troy Glaus, who had seen limited playing time over the season’s final six weeks was in at third base – a position he played in the majors on just one prior occasion during the regular season.

Posey battled Farnsworth before eventually sending a sharply hit grounder to third base that was fielded by Glaus and fired to second to start an inning-ending 5-4-3 double play.

Atlanta turned in a big league best 46 come-from-behind wins in the regular season, but it was Ankiel who would provide the first of the playoffs. His splash down homer off Giants reliever Ramón Ramírez (0-1) broked the 4-4 tie and put the Braves ahead to stay, 5-4.

Farnsworth (1-0) finished off the Giants by pitching a scoreless 10th inning and earning the victory that ties the NLDS at a game apiece as the series shifts to Turner Field for the next two games.

GAME NOTES Braves manager Bobby Cox was ejected for the third time his postseason career (158th overall time) after arguing a play at first base with umpire Paul Emmel, the same man who missed a crucial call on a stolen base at second in Game 1 that led to the only run of the night… Alex Gonzalez was just 2-for-35 to close out the regular season and hitless in three at-bats against Tim Lincecum a night ago before lacing the game-tying double in the eighth inning… Rick Ankiel’s extra-inning blast was his first career postseason homer… The Braves acquired both Ankiel, who drove in the winning run, and Kyle Farnsworth, who notched the victory, from Kansas City in the same trade on July 31… Giants closer Brian Wilson entered the game with no outs in the eighth inning, but had never previously recorded a six-out save in his career… Billy Wagner will be forced to sit out the NLCS, should the Braves advance, if he is replaced on the NLDS roster due to injury… Troy Glaus had played just two innings at third base with Atlanta this season after making 1,336 appearances there over his 12-year career entering the season… Atlanta committed the third most errors by any team in the NL (126) during the regular season, played errorless ball on Friday while the Giants, who committed the third fewest amount of errors (73), were charged with two errors on the night, including one by Pablo Sandoval during the Braves three-run eighth inning rally… Tim Hudson will face Jonathan Sanchez of the Giants in Game 3 on Sunday.

COMING SOON: The Breakdown

Melky in the middle for Game 2?

Now, I know that the very fact the Atlanta Braves are batting Melky Cabrera in the fifth spot in the order is far from ideal and somewhat confusing to some, but I’m going to try and construct a theory as to why he may – surprisingly – be a classic case of making the best of what’s around.

Here is the Game 2 lineup, before we get started:

Infante, 3B
Heyward, RF
Lee, 1B
McCann, C
Cabrera, LF
Conrad, 2B
Gonzalez, SS
Ankiel, CF
Hanson, SP

Injuries have claimed the Braves starting third baseman twice this season. The absence of Chipper Jones and his hot corner fill-in Martin Prado have been felt in the field and in the lineup. Both men were manning the #3 spot in the order at the time of their respective injuries.

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When a team loses their number three hitter, not once but twice, and still makes it into the postseason, then they have already had to “make the best of what’s around” in every meaning of the phrase.

The Braves have the best manager in baseball at maximizing the impact of all 25 men on the roster. Often second guessed but seldom, if ever out-managed, Bobby Cox no doubt spent a fair amount of time pouring over his decision before eventually settling on Cabrera and not Matt Diaz, Nate McLouth or Eric Hinske in the Atlanta outfield for Game 2 of the NLDS.

One of the things that his players will always say is that Bobby has a way of making each man feel like he can be the difference maker on any given night. That could play a role here as well. 

I can’t explain why Cabrera is hitting fifth in this line-up. In a perfect world, he wouldn’t be.  What I can
tell you that the men batting behind him or those on the bench don’t really offer much in the form of alternatives.
 
Melky Cabrera: Batted 266-3-33 with a .365/.317 (SLG/OBP) vs. RHP this season (RHP Matt Cain starts Game 2). With runners on base, his average was a healthy .274 with 38 RBI in 215 AB’s. 

Brooks Conrad – For all his heroics, and they were many, Conrad only had 156 regular season at-bats, but you could certainly bat him ahead of Cabrera if you like. His situational stats with runners on base are strong (.274-5-30 in 69 AB’s), and include an excellent .378 AVG with 26 RBI’s in 45 AB’s with RISP.

Alex Gonzalez – Finished the season 2-for-his-last-35 and promptly went 0-for-3 vs. Lincecum in Game 1. He’s been ice cold, and that’s not exactly the kind of thing you can afford to just trot out there in fifth spot and hope it improves.

Rick Ankiel – Batted just .210-2-9 in and struck out 42 times in 119 AB’s with Atlanta. He has provided some pop in the past, but his stint with the Braves (47 games) has not been very productive.

Nate McLouth – He will be watching from the bench, but McLouth hit just .190-6-24 in a disastrous season and has seen his range in center field diminish. All six homers were hit against righties, but his .205/.368/.317 (AVG/SLG/OBP) vs. RHP this season does not scream middle of the order bat either.

Eric Hinske – In addition to losing a power threat pinch-hitter by starting him in left field, the AJC’s Dave O’Brien was nice enough to point out (via Twitter) that – “In his past 48 games, Hinske has hit .190 (16-for-84) w/ 3 homers, 12 RBI, 23 Ks, a .299 OBP and .333 SLG” 

A cursory look at the numbers Cabrera posted this season would tell you that he has not been especially impactful to this point, and has looked like little more than a fourth outfielder who was pressed into regular play with the rash of injuries and ineffectiveness that ravaged the Braves outfield.

One thing that Cabrera has that others (save Hinske) do not possess is that all-too-valuable postseason experience, so maybe that played some role in Bobby’s final decision.

Like I said before this whole entry really got going, having to bat Cabrera fifth in a playoff game was never part of the Braves master plan, but they’re way beyond that now. The Braves need a productive showing collectively from the offense in order to even the NLDS at a game apiece and make a run deep into October.

Here we go again…

Ankiel_Farnsworth_470_264.jpgGreetings out there in Braves Nation. It has been quite some time since last I wrote. By the looks of it, somebody was paying attention when I mused giving the sometimes maligned and occasionally productive Willy Taveras a job in the organization. I knew if I left that entry up long enough, it would elicit a response.

Perhaps, we’d be better suited taking a look at the recent Trade Deadline movement.

The Braves have roared back to the top of the National League East this year. There was that little speed bump early, but now the team is primed to make a run in October for the first time since 2005.

While much has changed since that last playoff appearance, some things are eerily the same. Remember when Atlanta was making deadline deals that season? I do.

It’s funny how the Braves were busy trying to bolster their bullpen some five years later and were thinking along those same lines. Kyle Farnsworth has been productive for the Royals this season. His power arm won’t be expected to close games this time around, but should fit in nicely with the current mix to bridge the gap to Billy Wagner.

Atlanta also added outfielder Rick Ankiel in that trade with Kansas City. The jury is still out on what exactly Ankiel can bring over the course of a full season, but the Braves will seek to get every thing they can out of him in 2010.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the price was particularly steep, but what I did find somewhat curious in the deal was the inclusion of left-handed reliever Tim Collins. Atlanta acquired Collins from the Toronto Blue Jays as part of the Yunel Escobar trade, but his stay in the organization proved to be brief.

Collins, just 5-foot-7, has very impressive strikeout numbers that come thanks to a wicked curveball. While he was named the Blue Jays Organizational Pitcher of the Year by MLB.com following last season, there are some who believe his eventual role in the majors would likely be that of lefty specialist.

After watching him pitch in the Florida State League last year, I have to say that there is just something special about the little lefty. His path to the Big Leagues should only improve with a move to the Royals organization. Seeing as Wagner was slight of stature and big on stuff, Collins could be a success story in the same vein down the road.

Parting ways with both Gregor Blanco and Jesse Chavez shouldn’t impact the Braves whatsoever. If anything, adding a pair of more experienced players simply gives Bobby Cox more pieces to work with in his final campaign at the helm for the Braves. Depth is key.

QUICK HITS: Second baseman Martin Prado will try to avoid the disabled list after suffering a fractured pinky while sliding into home during the 10th inning of Friday’s victory over the Reds. Atlanta can ill afford to lose the NL hits leader (138) and the team leader in runs scored (75). A decision will likely be made on Monday as to whether or not he will land on the 15-day DL… Hand injuries have been a common theme this season, but rookie standout Jason Heyward has bounced back nicely from the ailing left thumb that slowed him down prior to the All-Star Break. The right fielder is hitting .349/.453/.460 in 16 games since the break. He even threw in a steal of home last week against Washington to remind everyone just how impressive the soon-to-be 21-year-old truly is. 

Till next time,

G-Mc