One more day, Yankee fans. All we have to do is make it through today, then the regular season officially becomes prelude to the thing we've all been waiting for, playoff baseball.
Off days are absolute killers for me. I'm all for instant gratification, so expect another post to follow this one, with an educated fan's guide to the A.L.D.S., more about that later. For now, I want to talk about the difference between winning in the regular season and winning in the playoffs, and there is a big, big difference.
When the post season starts, you take all of your highfalutin, sabermetric, Moneyball theories and throw them right in the garbage. Yes, outs still remain precious. Even more precious, though, are runs. You aren't facing a team's fifth starter. Opposing batters aren't taking at bats off. There aren't enough games for statistical averages to return a hot batter to the mean. You have very few opportunities, against the best pitchers in the game, to push runners across the plate.
For exhibit A, let's take a look at the combined records of every pitcher scheduled to start a game 1 in the Division Series (Hamels, Francis, Beckett, Lackey, Zambrano, Webb, Wang and Sabathia). It's 145-67. That's a 0.684 winning percentage. Those are 8 aces, who are very accustomed to going deep in games, keeping the opponent off the scoreboard, and winning games. If your offense is bound and determined to sit around and wait for the three-run bomb, they may as well reserve their tee times for early next week, because they are not advancing.
What's the key to post season success, you ask? Simple. That's it. Simplicity. Basics. Teams that play with their head, take advantage of situations as they arise and play sound, fundamental defense behind the strong pitching that got them here will prevail. It's as simple as that.
When I was a freshman in High School I had a tough-nosed coach. He ran us hard, he made us run infield/outfield over and over. He had the catchers stay late to work on low ball. He had us run laps for mental lapses. He was, by far, the best baseball coach I've ever had. Looking back, I think I have him to thank for learning how to play the game the right way. (Sorry Larry Brown haters, but the phrase fits.)
This coach would have one bench warmer keep the book, and another keep track of his own brand of statistics. We had a kangaroo court of sorts for the entire year. This other book had columns for things like scoring a run from third with less than two outs, successful sacrifice bunts, successful hit and runs, moving a runner over to third with 1 out, sacrifice flies, using ball fakes instead of making a foolish throw, hitting the cut off man. On the negative side of the ledger were things like not running out a dropped third strike, missing a cut off man, striking out with a man on third and less than two outs, throwing to the wrong base from the outfield, walking the lead off batter, giving up a hit on an 0-2 count.
On the bus ride home, my coach wouldn't be looking at the regular scorecard, he could care less. He'd be looking at the other one. He'd tally up the positive and negatives, and usually, it would be a great indicator of whether we'd won the game or not. He wouldn't single out the player who was 4-4 with 5 RBI as the MVP, he'd single out the guy with the best kangaroo court number. He put a value on the parts of the game that didn't show up in the box score. The parts of the game that had little value to the casual observer. The parts of the game that decide who wins, and who loses.
After a full season with Mr. Bergman, it was ingrained in me to value the columns on his scorecard more than anything when I stepped on the field. Physical errors happen, you can practice until your hands bleed, and you're still going to make physical errors. A dominant pitcher can shut down any hitter, on any day. Those are certainties. There's nothing you can do about them. What you can control is the mental portion of the game. Mental errors lose far more games than do physical errors, especially in the playoffs when the teams are so close together in talent level, and the margin for error is so small.
This is where games are won and lost in the playoffs. The team that can limit mental errors and play smart, fundamental baseball will prevail.
How does this apply to the Yankees? Well, the Yankees were the antithesis of a fundamental team the past couple of seasons. Not so from 1996-2000. They became a stagnant lineup, loaded down with hitters too powerful, or "too good" to move a runner over when the situation called for it. They fielded a roster loaded with All Stars and their manager waited, and waited, and waited for the knockout blow instead of forcing the action with a hit and run or a bunt.
The danger is there for Joe to fall into this trap again this year, but I don't see it happening. He's got versatility throughout the top and bottom of the lineup. Damon, Jeter, Abreu, Cano, Doug and Melky can all do the little things. That's something they didn't have in the past when Giambi and Sheffield were in there clogging up the bases and swinging for the fences. Joe also has the flexibility off the bench to bring a pinch runner in late in the game, or make a defensive replacement.
Yes, pitching wins championships. But take a look at the starters in all of these series. They're the best in the game. Pitching alone doesn't get the job done. The winner is in the details. The winner is in the fundamentals. The winner is the team that takes that small opportunity and makes the other team pay.
If your itching for some beisbol action, you've got the Phils/Rockies at 3 p.m., the Sox/Angels at 6:30 and the Cubs/D-Backs at 10:30. A triple-header on TBS. I can't even begin to imagine what TBS's "C" broadcast team is going to be like. I'm sure I'll be catching portions of all the games, here are my predictions for the game 1's, series predictions in parens. (I picked the better fundamental team in all of these games, because the pitching is pretty even. After the game 1 match ups, the pitching deficiencies of some of these teams will rear their ugly heads).
Lackey over Beckett (Angels in 5)
- Hamels over Francis (Phillies in 4)
- Webb over Zambrano (Cubs in 5)