Well, slama lama ding dong, indeed! Both series are now 2-0 and there's no reason to think that we'll get a classic series out of either one, but stranger things have happened. We switch homefields and that means that we get the "House" commercials before the iPod commercials. And the guy in the top bunk, he's got to make the guy in the bottom bunk's bed. It's regulations. Now, if we were in Italy…I'm a lean mean fighting machine! Stewardess, is there a movie on this flight?
I'm sorry Dewey Oxberger momentarily took position of my body. That's what the combination of suffering through Jeannie Zelasko and Kevin Kennedy riffing for 45 minutes to fill during the rain delay plus a night of the three stooges of baseball analysis—the shrill silliness of Steve Lyons (Shemp), the basso profundity of Thom Brennaman (Larry), and the obtuse abstruseness of Bob Brenly (Moe)—will do to an innocent little mind like mine.
And then there are the commercials. C'mon, is there anyone likely to wander across a game now and say, "Hey, Fox has a new series called 'House'? I got to watch me some of that there show." Are there new viewers tuning into game three of a series who missed the first two games plus all of the division series? By now, everyone likely to watch the game knows about "House". Now, Fox, leave us alone! I actually thought the show looked interesting the first fifty times I saw the commercial. Now, I can't stand the sight of it.
Anyway, there is some actual baseball amid the bread and circuses that is the Fox telecast. Yesterday's Cards-Astros game was a testament both to the St. Louis potent offense and to Phil Garner's impotent frontal lobe. Actually, it was a paean rather than a testament and it was to his mustache which is actually were Garner's brain Samson-like resides. But you get the point.
What's interesting about the series has been what has not happened. The Astros starting pitching was supposed to be highly suspect. They had a rookie who had just 9 starts in the majors prior to the playoffs (Brandon Backe) and basically a Quad-A starter (Pete Munro) going in the first two games. Munro was a last resort. However, he has had the best start in the series albeit a short one, while his opponent, Matt Morris, looked terrible but was aided by the Astros inability to drive in runners in scoring position. The next best start was Backe's and both deserved better than a pair no-decisions.
One thing that was supposed to happen did: the Astros' tattered bullpen has been obliterated by the Cardinals' offense. Finally, Garner has turned to Dan Wheeler, who was not even used in the Braves series, first in mop-up duty in game one and then to hold down the fort for two innings when game two was tied.
Unfortunately, Garner chose to turn to journeyman, short reliever, Dan Miceli instead of closer Brad Lidge in the eighth with the game still tied and the meat of the order up, and he promptly gave up back-to-back tomahawked monster homers. Lidge has not been used in the first two games and worked just 4-1/3 innings in the five-game division series. Two and two-thirds of those came in game two, when Garner used him to hold down a 2-1 lead. He entered with one out in the seventh with a man on second and one out and eventually gave up the tying run. The Braves eventually won 4-2 on a home run off of—now who could it be? Hmm. Oh yes—Dan Miceli in the eleventh by Rafael Furcal (or inmate #00293771 as he's better known today). Since then Garner has refused to use Lidge in anything but late-inning duty. He got the save in game three and was used to defuse a one-on, one-out situation in the eighth inning of a tie ballgame in game four. He got the next two men out, but Garner foolishly forgot to double-switch for Lidge, he was up in the bottom of the inning and was pinch-hit for, and the winning run was given up by Russ Springer in the next half inning.
Garner is not using Lidge because he has painted himself into a corner. He's afraid to use him early because he can't rely on his other short men. He can't even bring him in before the ninth, because he (Garner) cannot figure out the double-switch.
So that leaves close but non-save situations for Chad Qualls, Chad Harville, Dan Miceli, Russ Springer, and now Dan Wheeler. Qualls is the only long reliever of the crew. Mike Gallo is the situational lefty (he's the only active lefty on the staff). Springer (18.00 ERA in postseason), Qualls (14.40 in 5 innings), and Harville (13.50) are getting killed. Qualls has cost them two close games. I know he wasn't hit hard in game one, but he was left in for five runs on five hits and a walk. With their bullpen beaten up, why didn't they activate for the NLCS a starter/long reliever like Darren Oliver (who pitched well for them in the regular season), Tim Redding, Carlos Hernandez, or Brandon Duckworth? They might not be the greatest choices, but they are fresh and can eat up innings (like Munro). The Astros depleted their bullpen via trades all season and lost two starters. That means that they are low on the typical long relief-types for the postseason. They ignored the options and the short-relief guys are suffering.
Then there's the offense. They are getting on base enough (.363 OBP in the NLCS and .382 in seven playoff games), but they are not driving runs in. Part of that is their collective failure to hit with runners in scoring position (.250 BA in 64 at-bats).
But a large part is the poor in-game situational strategizing by Garner. He bunts when he should hit away. He sends runners when he shouldn't. (Why Bagwell was that far from first when Kent struck out in the third yesterday is beyond me. Beltran knew to get back to second. Why send Bagwell if he is that poor a runner. Maybe he couldn't see the backdoor pitch to the left-hander, but Munro was throwing it all night, and all he really had to see was that Kent didn't swing.) As I've already established, he cannot figure out the double-switch. He doesn't pinch-hit when he should. (Why let both Vizcaino and Ausmus bat in the ninth in game one? He had just brought Everett in to play short the previous half inning while shifting Vizcaino to second and pulling Kent. Why? It just wasted a body.) And if I went through my logs, I would probably find a dozen more poor choices by the Houston manager. Consider too that his management of the pitching staff has been even worse than his offensive choices.
The one thing that was expected, that the Cardinals offense will have a field day, is fast becoming the big story. However, they have been kept in check by good pitching while feeding on poor pitching (and some questionable defensive plays as well). Garner is managing with the in-season mentally of making pitching changes to fit the score and situation. I think it's been demonstrated a number of times this postseason (e.g., any game managed by Bobby Cox) that that doesn't work. He would be better served, especially with this Cards team that devours pitching mistakes and hits in bunches, to minimize the big innings by pulling pitchers who are obviously laboring no matter the score. He also thinks that he has a set bullpen like the Mariano Rivera-to-John Wetteland Yankee pen of yore. He thinks that he can run Qualls out in the sixth/seventh, then bring in Harville for the setup, and then go with Lidge for the ninth and ignore the rest. He can't do that and expect those pitchers to perform, not with the number of innings they are throwing.
So even though I had said that the Astros should not panic should they lose the first two games, there are some deep concerns. Their bullpen is fried and Garner seems incapable of coming up with a solution other than piling more innings on tired and ineffective middle guys. I think he should stick with Wheeler for long relief—he has no other option—, use Lidge whenever they are in a close situation from the seventh inning on, and rotate in the other guys as necessary and depending on who's hot and not overworked. And certainly, if one of them is ineffective, don’t wait until the game is out of hand. Get them out quickly. His options are not very enviable, but a better manager could figure it out.
There is now more pressure on Clemens and Oswalt because of the tired pen. If the two aces pitch well but exit early without a commanding lead, the bullpen issues come to the fore. If Houston can win the next two, they look good with Backe, Munro, and Clemens going the last three. If Munro falters, and they are facing elimination in game 6, they can use Clemens in long relief (on three day's rest) and then pitch Oswalt in game 7.
I guess it's too late to replace Garner, however.
By the way, Steve Lyons said that the Pujols play in the fourth on Berkman's single, where he at first appeared to throw his glove at the ball, should have been a two-base error. Brenly corrected him on one account, that the glove would have to hit the ball for this rule to be invoked and it clearly hadn't. However, Lyons got the number of bases wrong, too. Here's the rule:
Each runner including the batter runner may, without liability to be put out, advance… (c) Three bases, if a fielder deliberately throws his glove at and touches a fair ball. The ball is in play and the batter may advance to home base at his peril. (d) Two bases, if a fielder deliberately touches a thrown ball with his cap, mask or any part of his uniform detached from its proper place on his person. The ball is in play; (e) Two bases, if a fielder deliberately throws his glove at and touches a thrown ball. The ball is in play; In applying (b c d e) the umpire must rule that the thrown glove or detached cap or mask has touched the ball. There is no penalty if the ball is not touched. Under (c e) this penalty shall not be invoked against a fielder whose glove is carried off his hand by the force of a batted or thrown ball, or when his glove flies off his hand as he makes an obvious effort to make a legitimate catch.
Clearly, Brenly was right and since the ball was not hit by the glove, the point is moot. However, had the glove hit the ball and it was unintentional (which was clearly the case), Pujols would not have been penalized. When Lyons said that the penalty would be two bases, he confused the glove rule (7.05c) with the everything-else-rule (7.05d). Or possibly he thought of 7.05e which penalizes two bases for a thrown glove, but only on a throw ball, not a batted ball.
But enough of rules, the Yankees and Red Sox resume tonight at Fenway, which will surely be feted by the Zelasko-Kennedy dynamic duo. The Red Sox are still reeling from losing Curt Schilling to his ankle injury and of course there is no DL nor any roster changes during a series. Therefore, they will need to move Derek Lowe from the pen to start game five (against Mike Mussina who was tremendous in game one).
Then again, that game may not be necessary given how the first two have gone. The Yankees just announced that Orlando Hernandez is well enough to pitch game four against Tim Wakefield, who the Yankees hit well in a short relief appearance in game one. Tonight it's Kevin Brown still recuperating from losing a fight with a wall against Bronson Arroyo, who went from a four-year scrub to a decent number three pitcher this year.
Suddenly one of the Red Sox strengths, starting pitching, has evaporated overnight. The Yankees seem to have a distinct edge in each game going forward at least until the John Lieber-Pedro Martinez rematch in game six, should it come to that. The Yankees seem like huge favorites now, but that could always change.