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For the Want of Getting Nailed
2003-10-02 21:50
by Mike Carminati

Run in such a way that you may win it.

Bible: New Testament, 1 Corinthians 9:24.

You run ahead?—Do you do it as a shepherd? Or as an exception? A third possibility would be as a runaway.

Friedrich "Fat Freddie" Nietzsche

Let's get small.

—Steve "Pepper" Martin

The small things are what win games during the playoffs. Isn't that what we're always told? It's evident from the A's dramatic twelfth-inning win over the Red Sox last night won by a bases-loaded Ramon Hernandez bunt.

As my friend Mike points out the game did go long enough to finish (at least on the East coast) on the 25th anniversary of Bucky Dent's dramatic three-run home run off Mike Torrez that put the Yankees ahead to stay in their one-game playoff with the Red Sox. Dent was an unlikely hero given that he finished the season with just five homers, including the one in the playoff, and a .317 slugging average.

Ramon Hernandez's timely bunt was just as unexpected since he had only two in 536 plate appearances this year. The bunt is being seen as a victory for "small ball" but it actually connects to the soul of the game at a much more fundamental level. Hernandez could be said to have followed Wee Willie Keeler's credo to a tie: "I keep my eyes clear and I hit 'em where they ain't." That's exactly what Hernandez did.

That is small ball in the broadest sense—doing what is needed when it is needed to win. "Small ball" has become opting for a bunt mid-rally when the whole house knows what you are going to do. The small ballists and the sabermetric-minded are now at odds since the latter decries the wasting of precious outs.

What Hernandez did is something both camps can get behind because it was chosen based on what ideology the player embraces but rather as a means of surprising the opposition. And the Sox were as surprised as the Trojans as the horsehide entered their perimeter.

Now this is being used to support the "small ball" weltanschauung. Joe Morgan has repeatedly said that the A's cannot win a series with their station-to-station offense based on the three home run (never mind that their playoff woes cannot be directly attributed to this supposed style of play). Well, if anything the "small ball" style of play was indicted rather than supported by yesterday's games. Each of the three playoff games featured blunders on the basepaths, though only once did they prove fatal.

It all started in the Marlins-Giants game. The Marlins entered the sixth behind, 5-4. Juan Encarnacion one-out homer tied the game. Then consecutive singles loaded by Jeff Conine, Alex Gonzalez, and pinch-hitter Lenny Harris loaded the bases. Juan Pierre then hit a long fly to right that Jose Cruz Jr. misplayed as his foot got stuck in the warning track, plating two. Harris failed to score on the play though, and ended up at third. Luis Castillo then flied out to shallow center, and Harris decided to try for home. He was out by a good ten feet. However, the Marlins held the lead winning 9-5.

Next, the Braves beat the Cubs, 5-3, in a game with ample opportunity for second-guessing. The Braves led 3-2 at the start of the eighth and Bobby Cox decided to bring in John Smoltz one inning early even though there were still lingering question about his health and Smoltz had only be used for two full innings three times this season. The strategy seemed to backfire as Karros and pinch-hitter Randall Sausage-Gate Simon hit back-to-back singles. With men at the corners Tom Goodwin lofted a fly ball that scored the runner at third, but Simon, one of the slower runners in the league, decided to try for second and was tremendously out to end the inning. The Cubs had tied the game, but the rally was dead. The Braves' closer was wounded but still standing.

The play looked even worse as the Braves grabbed a 5-3 lead in the bottom of the eighth. Again some strong choices were made. When John Smoltz had entered the game, the pitcher's spot was due up third in the bottom of the inning. Cox had brought Julio Franco in as a defensive replacement at third but since the first baseman's spot was due to lead off, no double-switch was possible. So when Franco grounded out and Vinny Castilla walked none other than John Smoltz, who had one at-bat on the year, was at the plate.

First, bringing Franco in as a defensive replacement is an unnecessary luxury in a close ballgame when the Braves bench is getting short. Second, at the start of the eighth the Braves had already used Giles and Bragg, leaving just Garcia, Estrada, and the Francos on the bench. Actually, both Giles and Bragg were used for the same at-bat when Giles singled for Hampton in the sixth giving the Braves the 3-2 lead and Bragg pinch-ran. Again given that Bragg is the only reserve outfielder, this was an unnecessary luxury.

Cox didn't take three catchers this go-round at least, but he still feels the need to keep one in reserve so he couldn't double-switch with Estrada in the eighth, even though that was the logical move (Lopez was the 8th hitter due up). The Francos are first basemen exclusively (Matt played third for the Mets a little but not in Atlanta), begging the question of why one needs three first basemen in a short series? Again, the first baseman was the first spot up so no double-switch is possible there. None of the outfielder could have been replaced because Bragg was already used and I wouldn't put Bragg in for any of the outfielders in a close game anyway. So that leaves Garcia, who Cox wanted to use and did use for pinch-running late in the game. Once again the Braves configured their roster and employed a strategy that leaves Cox with a non-existent bench. Instead of three catchers, carry three first basemen, but only one extra OF and of course, Cox won't use the catcher he has.

So of course this blows up in Cox's face, right? No, Smoltz bunts Castilla cum Garcia to second. The Cubs decide to intentionally walk Furcal with two outs to get to Mark DeRosa, who proceeds to double in the winning runs.

Lastly, we have the Red Sox-A's. Oakland actually killed a couple of earlier rallies earlier because they went the "small ball" route with miserable results. In the third, Miguel Tejada singled in a run to give the A's a 3-1 lead, but then stupidly tried to move up to second on the throw home. The throw was cut off and Tejada was out in a rundown.

In the fifth Mark Ellis went on contact from third on a dribbler to the mound by Durazo for the second out. This came after Pedro Martinez had thrown the ball away on a pick off attempt and Ellis had ambled into third.

The Tejada play was especially galling given that Pedro was on the ropes and the stupid out let him collect himself. I thought the A's were going to knock Pedro out in the third. He looked awful--not hitting spots, hanging big meatballs for the A's to hit.

So the A's do go on to win. And now the Red Sox are worse off perhaps than if Pedro had been knocked out early. Kim was just about their only reliable reliever in the second half and he again failed in the postseason. Their pen is in such a poor state that they had to use game-three starter Derek Lowe. Grady Little still says that Lowe will start game 3. The Red Sox rotation is not strong enough that they can afford to lose when Pedro starts. The A's must be happy to think that they will not have to face him again if they can beat Wakefield and a tired Lowe.

Let's say Pedro had hit the showers early and Burkett were used to mop up. The result would be that Pedro could potentially start or at least pitch in game three and Kim and Lowe would have been rested.

The A's now have a big edge and it came without a three-run home run. Meanwhile all of the mighty Red Sox runs came on homers. So will Joe Morgan now jump on the A's small ball bandwagon? Probably not, Joe is still incensed with Billy Beane for supposedly writing Moneyball. Of course, we all know that the book's author was Jim Bouton.

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