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Wednesday, September 07, 2005

NL Wild Card: A Study In Fundamentals and Contrasts

Two games last might probably demonstrated why the Phillies and Mets will not earn the NL Wild Card spot this year. Both teams had winnable games, but either bad mental errors or poor fundamentals -- on the part of star players -- cost both teams their games last night.

First, Phillies against the Astros in Philadelphia last night. Game is tied at 1 in the top of the ninth, and Billy Wagner, perhaps the best closer in the NL, is on the mound for the Phillies. He walks the first batter, Lance Berkman. Eric Bruntlett is sent in to pinch run for Berkman. Todd Pratt is catching, with a new and perhaps not totally broken-in glove to boot. Bruntlett steals second and third, and on both occasions he got a great jump and Pratt double-clutched. In basic baseball parlance, Bruntlett stole both bases off the pitcher. The next hitter singles him in, and the Astros go on to win the game 2-1. (Tomas Perez, not known for his longball power, almost gave the Phillies something to remember last night. In the bottom of the ninth, he jacked a shot to right that the wind held up at the front of the warning track; the way it was hit, it had "ballgame" written all over it, but it wasn't meant to be for the Phillies).

After the game, Wagner got testy with the reporters who asked him about what happened, saying something like "everyone who watches baseball knows that I don't have a move to first base." That was after he said his move to first base "sucks." Now, I'll allow for the fact that the competitive Wagner was just as disappointed as anyone in the Phillies' sphere, perhaps more so, and no one likes to be asked a tough question right after the situation happened. Fine, but Billy, if you're such an elite player, why do your fundamentals suck so badly? Sure, the role of closer in the Majors has morphed into a position where you don't come in with men on base, you start the ninth, because there just aren't that many complete games anymore. So, typically, closers don't inherit runners the way they used to. That job goes to the underrated and lesser paid middle relievers, who while they don't rack up the save stats, get their teams out of more jams than the Yankees serve at their average pre-game spread on a weekend day game.

That Wagner and other closers start innings and don't inherit runners explains why Wagner's move is deficient, but it doesn't excuse it. Championship teams don't lose games in a pennant race by having back-up infielders stealing bases with little threat of getting caught in tight situations. Wagner may be an elite closer, but he failed the Phillies big-time in a primary fundamental way last night. He knows it, all opponents know it, and there doesn't appear to be a thing that anyone can do about it, at least for this season. Elite closer? Last night's debacle throw that label into question.

That moves us to the Mets, which no less an authority than Baseball Prospectus predicted would win the NL wild card. Apparently, BP ran 1 million scenarios a few weeks back, and predicted that the Mets had the best chance, followed by the Phillies. Those numbers are great, but to paraphrase Casey Stengel, they don't really give you the lefthanded hitter who can hit the ball past the shortstop. Or, in the Mets' case, the ace starter who can check baserunners and prevent them from running wild.

I saw the highlight on ESPN, didn't watch the game live, and don't know when in the game this happened, but basically with the game tied the Braves had Marcus Giles on second with fewer than two outs. Someone hit a slow roller to Pedro Martinez's right, between the mound and third base, and Pedro moved over, picked the ball up and threw it to first to nail the runner. Just one problem: he didn't check Giles, and the speedy 2B gauged Pedro carefully, made it to third just about as Pedro released the ball and was more than halfway home by the time that the first baseman caught the ball. Giles scored standing up, Atlanta wins the game, and the Mets are now behind Houston, Florida, Philadelphia and Washington in the wild card race (oh, yes, not only did the Astros leapfrog over the Phillies, over whom they have a 1.5 game lead, so did the Marlins jump over the Phillies). In other words, they're a few steps shy of being out of it.

What does this all mean? Maybe it means nothing, maybe it was just a bad night for an elite closer who usually doesn't allow baserunners, and maybe it was just a great play by Giles as opposed to an omission by Pedro Martinez. And maybe the Phillies and Mets have enough gas left in their pit area to fill up the tank one more time and make a run during the home stretch like they did several weeks back. But both teams seem tired and unclutch, and neither has showed the killer instinct in the past week.

Championship teams play moneyball, small ball and any type of ball to win game after game and maximize their chances. Also rans swing at the first pitch after the tiring opposing hurler has walked two batters on eight straight pitches, miss first base on a potential double (as Jimmy Rollins did last night), hold runners on third while facing ace closers, leave too many men on base and don't get more than five innings out of their starters.

The Braves, despite tons of serious roster changes over the past several years, have found ways to continue winning. The Astros have three starters and a closer and then a bunch of guys who rival the 1906 ChiSox, the "Hitless Wonders." Yet, in both cases, they continue to find ways to win and are on a roll.

The Phillies and Mets, meanwhile, are running out of gas.

And time.

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