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Cooperstown Confidential
by Bruce Markusen
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Pondering The Playoffs

As the snow falls in Cooperstown on an early October morning, here are some thoughts on the ongoing post-season… Objective observers had to admire the overwhelming efficiency with which the Cardinals manhandled the Braves’ celebrated pitching staff in all three games of their Division Series sweep. Given their depth on the bench and throughout the pitching staff, the Cardinals have the best roster—1 through 25—of the four teams left standing in the post-season… Although the Braves certainly underachieved in their disastrous series against the Cards, it may be time for John Schuerholz to break up the old gang, if for no other reason than to eradicate the memories and reminders of so many Fall shortcomings. The Braves have sufficient talent, but also too many players who have experienced breakdowns at crunch time—and who don’t like being asked about it time and time again. The post-series reaction of many Braves’ players, which might be described as blasé, was also troubling… I’m tiring quickly of all the criticism being leveled at New York fans, the New York media, and the entire "Big Apple" community for supposedly being self-absorbed during the Mets’ and Yankees’ successful advancement to the Final Four. What other parts of the country don’t look at the baseball world from their own team’s perspective? Putting petty jealousies of New York aside, both the Mets and Yankees are likable teams. The Yankees play like sportsmen, never belittling opponents with thoughtless putdowns or excessive celebrations. The Mets, with great stories of perseverance like Benny Agbayani, Jay Payton, and Timoniel "Timo" Perez, have shown tremendous resiliency through their knack for comebacks and counterpunches. In their last three playoff series, the Mets have lost the first game each time, only to come back and win two of the series while giving the Braves a fitful fright in the other… As much as I like Dusty Baker as a manager, he has to take some of the blame for the Giants’ early departure from the post-season. His decision not to pinch-hit for Mark Gardner in the fifth inning of Sunday’s decisive loss may have short-circuited the Giants’ only real scoring threat. In Game Two, his refusal to use Robb Nen—the National League’s top closer this year—in either the ninth inning of a one-run game or the 10th inning of a tie game played a huge role in San Francisco losing control of the Division Series. Baker’s handling of his bullpen corps brings to mind something I’ve said previously and now believe more strongly than ever before: The stubborn refusal by most managers to use their best relievers for two innings, or even more, is the single most foolish strategy that has been developed over the past 20 years. Now, if you have three or four outstanding set-up relievers like Tony LaRussa had with the A’s in the late eighties (Greg Cadaret, Rick Honeycutt, Gene Nelson, and Eric Plunk), then you have the luxury of waiting until the ninth to use your closer (Dennis Eckersley). But who has three or four standout middle relievers today? No one does, not even the best teams. Not even the defending world champion Yankees, what with the season-ending loss of Ramiro Mendoza. As long as most managers continue to obsess with the idea of a one-inning limit for their closer, games will continue to be lost by secondary relief pitching…

In contrast to the Giants’ situation, Joe Torre understands the wisdom of using his closer to record anywhere from four to six outs. In Game Two against the A’s—a game that the Yankees absolutely needed for survival—Torre called on Mariano Rivera for four outs. In Game Three, he asked him for six outs, which Rivera achieved with his most dominating performance of the season. In Game Five, Torre called on Rivera for five more outs. Not so surprisingly, the Yankees won all three of those games—and an excruciating series against a hearty group of A’s… Speaking of the A’s, their inconsistent starting pitching and shoddy defensive play let them down in the decisive fifth game. Even with the sun and the twilight playing a factor, Terrence Long badly misplayed Tino Martinez’ three-run double in that critical first inning. It should have been no more than a sacrifice fly, which would have given the A’s their second out and greatly altered the complexion of the inning… What do the A’s need to do to advance farther in next year’s post-season? They certainly don’t need much; their nucleus of young talent (both hitters and pitchers) is as good as any team in either league. As discussed in an earlier column, they need to find a true leadoff hitter, move Long down in the order, and find a situational hitter or two who can advance baserunners with outs. As potent as the A’s offense was during the regular season, they reached their average number of runs per game only once (Game Four) in their series against the Yankees. Yes, winning in the post-season is different than winning during the regular season. Runs are harder to come by—and pitching and defense does matter… One other note on the A’s: Eric Chavez is a great talent and has the ability to do what Troy Glaus did this season, but his maturity level needs a bit of a boost. His comments about the end of New York’s dynasty served only to infuriate the Yankees—a team that usually pays little attention to what other teams have to say. Although Chavez is apparently well-liked in the Oakland clubhouse now, keep in mind that this is the same player who arrogantly proclaimed himself superior to the A’s other third basemen when he first arrived as a rookie, thereby alienating some of his veteran teammates. It’s also the same Chavez who has carried on a war of words with Oakland fans by repeatedly criticizing them for mediocre attendance figures at Network Associates Coliseum. As Art Howe reminded his players prior to the games at Yankee Stadium, think first and then speak… The White Sox’ defeat at the hands of the underrated Mariners once again shows how timing is more important than regular season success in determining how a team will perform in the playoffs. With injuries waylaying the bulk of their starting pitching, the White Sox couldn’t use Mike Sirotka in Game One like they would have preferred, and didn’t have the services of veteran Cal Eldred. Of course, the White Sox didn’t hit at all in the series, a shortcoming that can’t be blamed directly on pitching injuries. Jerry Manuel should take some criticism, too, for the bizarre way that he managed the first game of the series. He used Chad Bradford, a September call-up who had never pitched in a crucial major league game, in a critical bases-loaded situation. He also pinch-ran for Charles Johnson (with another catcher, Josh Paul, no less), whose throwing arm might have dissuaded Mike Cameron from stealing a base during the Mariners’ game-winning rally. Who knows, maybe Cameron wouldn’t have thought of stealing against Johnson, allowing Keith Foulke to concentrate more on Edgar Martinez at the plate. That said, Manuel did phenomenal work in guiding the Sox to the AL’s best record and will be a better post-season manager the next time around.

Predicting The Post-Season Having successfully picked the four teams to make it to the Championship Series, I’ll try to keep rolling with predictions for the World Series. In the NLCS, I’ll stick with the Mets; after all, they’ve been my pick since the start of the season (if only the Red Sox had cooperated in the American League). Although the Cardinals have an exceptionally talented team top to bottom, the Mets have the kind of left-handed starting pitching that could give St. Louis fits in a best-of-seven series. I’ll take the Mets in seven… In the AL, I think the Yankees’ incredible run of seven consecutive wins of post-season series will finally come to an end. Man for man, the Yankees are as good as the Mariners, but so often these series are about matchups—and the Mariners match up very well. The Yankees have never been able to figure out a way to handle Alex Rodriguez and Edgar Martinez, who will have several cracks at left-handed pitching (Andy Pettitte twice and Denny Neagle at least once) throughout the series. The Mariners also have the kind of hard throwers in the bullpen that will make those patented Yankee comebacks in the post-season very difficult to muster. I’ll pick the Mariners in six.

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