SweetSpot: Joe Girardi

The most important decision a manager has to make in any individual postseason game usually involves when to pull his starting pitcher. There can be other important decisions -- whether to bench your best hitter, for example, or whether to bring in your sixth-best reliever in a tie game in the seventh inning -- but baseball games revolve around pitching, and it's the starter who has to carry the biggest workload.

The question, then: When should a manager remove his starter?

Obviously, there are myriad influencing factors in any game: how the starter feels, his pitch count, how many days of rest he's pitching on, the score of the game, how tired or rested the bullpen is, the quality of the relievers, the state of the series and so on.

So we're talking in broad terms here. One of the hot topics among sabermetric writers and analysts this offseason has been the idea that starters generally do worse the third time through a batting order. The batters have seen him twice by then, plus the starter is getting tired. It's certainly no coincidence that both times Clayton Kershaw blew up against the Cardinals came in his third time through the order as he approached and went beyond 100 pitches.

Here are the numbers we're talking about, all starting pitchers in 2014:

First time through the order: .246/.304/.377
Second time through the order: .256/.313/.395
Third time through the order: .268/.327/.421

[+] EnlargeDon Mattingly, Zack Greinke
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesNothing spurs debate in the postseason like a manager's call to the bullpen.
The most hardcore sabermetricians will advocate for a quick hook; overall, relievers have lower ERAs than starters, so the theory is that going to your bullpen over a tiring starter is the way to go. Dave Cameron of FanGraphs wrote a piece the other day praising Buck Showalter for his quick hooks in the Orioles' series win over the Tigers. Buster Olney wrote a few days ago that there's no perfect time to remove a starter.

And it's hard to say that there should be a hard and fast rule. If managers always managed like that, we wouldn't have had Jack Morris pitching his 10-inning shutout in the 1991 World Series or Chris Carpenter beating Roy Halladay 1-0 in Game 5 of the 2011 NL Division Series or any number of great postseason performances. You have to allow for a manager to adjust to what's going on in the game.

Anyway, I thought it would be interesting to look back and see how World Series winners have managed their rotations in recent years.

2013 -- John Farrell, Red Sox (16 total games)
Average batters faced: 24.2
Long outings (28+ BF): 3
Short outings (20 or fewer BF): 5

Farrell did extend his starters a few times, but all were in games when the Red Sox had big leads: 6-1, 8-1 and 12-2 were the finals of those three games. The Red Sox won three of the five short outings, including Game 4 of the World Series when he pinch-hit for Clay Buchholz with the score tied 1-1 in the top of the fifth. There were some extenuating circumstances as Buchholz was pitching through a sore shoulder that was limiting his velocity. But Farrell also pulled Jake Peavy after 74 pitches in the sixth inning of Game 4 of the division series. The Red Sox were down 1-0 and Peavy hadn't walked a batter; they ended up winning 3-1. In Game 5 of the ALCS, he pulled Jon Lester after 24 batters in the sixth inning with a 4-1 lead. Lester was at 98 pitches and there were two runners on, but Farrell didn't wait.

2012 -- Bruce Bochy, Giants (16 total games)
Average batters faced: 23.7
Long outings: 3
Short outings: 4

Two of the long outings came with big leads. The one exception was Matt Cain in Game 4 of the World Series, when he faced 28 batters. He was at 102 pitches and had retired the side in order in the seventh, but Bochy pulled him with the game tied. The Giants would win in 10 innings.

The Giants won two of the short outings. In Game 3 of the division series (the Giants were down two games to none), Ryan Vogelsong was removed after 20 batters (and five innings). The game was tied 1-1 and Vogelsong led off the sixth; plus he was at 95 pitches, so that was strongly dictated by circumstances. In Game 4, Bochy removed Barry Zito in the third inning, after 20 batters faced. The Giants were ahead 3-2 at the time. Bochy's decision was certainly influenced by Zito's four walks, but he took him with two outs and a runner on first, not the most threatening of moments. In the same game, Dusty Baker left in Mike Leake to give up two more runs in the fifth inning and the next game he left in Mat Latos to give up six runs, including a grand slam to Buster Posey the third time through the order.

2011 -- Tony La Russa, Cardinals (18 total games)
Average batters faced: 22.0
Long outings: 3
Short outings: 6

La Russa had a very quick hook throughout this postseason, with five other outings of 23 or fewer batters. Two of the long outings were from Chris Carpenter, including that memorable duel with Halladay, when he faced 31 batters. In the ninth inning, La Russa left him in to face Chase Utley, Hunter Pence and Ryan Howard. He probably shouldn't have, but it worked out. Sometimes it does.

It's possible La Russa adapted after losing Game 3 of that division series. Jaime Garcia took a 0-0 tie into the seventh inning but gave up a single, intentional walk and a two-out, three-run homer to Ben Francisco (pinch-hitting for Cole Hamels, so he was the 27th batter Garcia had faced). After that, La Russa was determined not to let his starters lose a game late.

2010 -- Bruce Bochy, Giants (15 total games)
Average batters faced: 25.7
Long outings: 6
Short outings: 2

Bochy rode his starters longer this postseason, as he also had four starts with 27 batters faced. In Game 1 of the division series, he let Tim Lincecum finish off a 1-0, 14-strikeout gem with 119 pitches and 30 BF. In Game 5 of the World Series, leading 3-1, he let Lincecum face the 9-1-2 batters in the eighth inning, but Lincecum retired the side.

Bochy also had two interesting quick hooks, however. In Game 4 of the NLCS against the Phillies, he removed rookie lefty Madison Bumgarner in the fifth inning after 20 BF, a 2-1 lead and two runners on. The move backfired at first, as Santiago Casilla allowed the two inherited runners to score plus one of his own, but the Giants rallied to win 6-5. The critical one came in the clinching Game 6 when he removed Jonathan Sanchez in the third inning of a 2-2 game. Sanchez had walked a batter and hit a batter. Jeremy Affeldt got out of the jam and Bumgarner would pitch two scoreless innings, Lincecum would retire a batter and Brian Wilson got a five-out save.

That was some unconventional managing and it helped the Giants win the series. But to manage like that, Bochy had to have a plan of attack ready in place in case Sanchez faltered.

2009 -- Joe Girardi, Yankees (15 total games)
Average batters faced: 25.9
Long outings: 4
Short outings: 1

Girardi was pretty much by the book. All four long outings came from CC Sabathia, and the short one was a blow-up A.J. Burnett start in the World Series (two innings, six runs). He did have a quicker hook on Andy Pettitte, but that was in part because Pettitte made some starts on three days' rest.

* * *

Is there anything to learn from this? In the five postseasons from 2009 to 2013, there were 175 postseason games (so 350 total team games). There were 72 "long outings" of 28 or more batters faced -- 21 percent of all games. You'd think the team with the long outing would win most of those games, right? After all, you're usually leaving in a pitcher that long only if he's been pitching well or has a big lead. The long-outing teams were 47-25 (.652), but the starting pitcher lost 17 of those 25 games. Not all of those were bad losses -- Halladay faced 32 batters in losing to Carpenter, for example.

But some were bad decisions. In the 2011 division series, Charlie Manuel left in Cliff Lee to face the Cardinals' 2-3-4 hitters for a fourth time in a 4-4 game. Allen Craig tripled and Albert Pujols singled and the Cardinals won 5-4. (Meanwhile, La Russa yanked Carpenter after 16 BF and the bullpen threw six shutout innings.) In Game 1 of the 2011 division series, the Brewers led the Diamondbacks 2-0. Kirk Gibson let Ian Kennedy face Prince Fielder a fourth time and Fielder hit a two-run homer, cementing the game for Milwaukee.

By the way, in the Oakland-Kansas City wild-card game, holding a 7-3 lead in the eighth, A's manager Bob Melvin let Jon Lester face the first four batters a fourth time. Three of them reached base.

Looking ahead, we know Buck Showalter will have quick hooks and Ned Yost will go to his back-end trio if he's leading in the seventh inning. (The fifth and sixth innings will be Yost's test.) Bochy isn't afraid to pull a starter quickly -- Vogelsong and Peavy faced 21 in their starts against the Nationals, both leaving with leads -- although he'll go longer with Bumgarner.

That leaves Mike Matheny as the key guy in this area. For the most part, he's pretty by the book. In the 34 postseason games he's managed, only twice (Adam Wainwright both times) has a starter gone beyond 27 BF. But one of those was Game 5 of last year's World Series, when the Red Sox scored twice in the seventh to take a 3-1 lead -- with the 26th and 28th batters Wainwright had faced knocking in the runs. He also left in Michael Wacha in Game 6 to give up six runs when a quicker hook in a must-win game was necessary.

Of course, none of this touches on that gray area around 24 batters faced -- that crucial sixth- or seventh-inning time when a starter is tiring and managers are loath to use their setup guys too early. But that's another article.
This came up in my chat today, so I thought I would address what happened Monday night between home plate umpire Laz Diaz and the Yankees. Readers were calling for MLB to suspend Diaz.

In the eighth inning, Brett Gardner was batting with the bases loaded and no outs against Jered Weaver with the game tied 1-1. The first pitch was called a ball. Then this happened and manager Joe Girardi was ejected.

Diaz doesn't have the best reputation. As Yankees broadcaster Michael Kay intoned, "There always seems to be fun when Laz Diaz is involved." He didn't mean fun as in Diaz has a really good stand-up routine.

The pitch (No. 2 in red) certainly looked like a ball, but look where it plots:

Brett GardnerESPN Stats & Information
Maybe it wasn't actually a bad call. The pitch from Weaver had a lot of horizontal and vertical break away from Gardner, so by the time it was caught, it was off the plate. But it appears to have caught the bottom of the strike zone. Anyway, Gardner ended up striking out and Derek Jeter grounded into a double play.

After the game, Girardi explained his explosion:
"I mentioned to Laz in a respectful way that I thought the pitch was up to Kelly Johnson earlier in the game, and he gave me the Mutombo," Girardi said, imitating a wagging index finger. "I don't appreciate that. I'm not a little kid. I don't need to be scolded. Obviously we're trying to work together, and I just thought there were a lot of inconsistencies tonight.

"It's the biggest pitch of the game to that point," Girardi said of the 1-0 pitch to Gardner that Diaz called a strike. "It's a lot different [at] 2-0. It changes the whole at-bat. Now the pressure is clearly on the pitcher."

Maybe it was the biggest pitch of the game. The pitch that Jeter grounded into a double play was pretty big as well.

In the bottom of the eighth, Shawn Kelley entered and walked four of the six batters he faced, including Albert Pujols intentionally with a runner on second and two outs. He walked Howie Kendrick with the bases loaded to force in a run. Then this happened as Kelley walked off the field.

It appears the biggest gripe was the 1-0 fastball to Kendrick that caught the bottom of the strike zone but Diaz called a ball. Certainly, you can understand the Yankees complaining considering Gardner had just been given a strike on a pitch at the knees. Diaz actually gave Kelley a generous call on the 2-0 pitch, but balls three and four weren't close. Here are the pitches:

Howie KendrickESPN
Matt Thornton entered and walked John McDonald on a 3-2 fastball; Diaz didn't miss any calls in that plate appearance. Preston Claiborne came on and walked Chris Iannetta on a 3-2 fastball; again, no missed calls by Diaz.

The Yankees can't blame Diaz for this one. Gardner still had a good chance to do something with a 1-1 count. Jeter still had a chance to do something. The bullpen walked five straight batters with only one missed strike. Girardi could have pitched to Pujols (although it’s understandable why he'd put him on and go after the struggling Raul Ibanez).

OK, so the Yankees were griping after a tough loss. It happens. Should Diaz be suspended? Telling Kelley to "keep going" as he walked off the field was certainly a bush league move. In the ranks of bad umpire etiquette, however, we've certainly seen much worse. I guess I would be more upset if Diaz had actually blown a series of pitches. At the same time, Kelley doesn't appear to make any gestures (we don't know what he may have said, of course), so I don't understand why Diaz had to be a big jerk here (other than still being ticked off at Girardi).

I'd give Diaz a one-game suspension for unwarranted showing up of a player and general bad attitude. The umpires have a tough gig, but taking grief from managers and players is part of it.

My AL Manager of the Year ballot, explained

November, 12, 2013
This was as tough a year to pick a top AL skipper as I can remember because you could make a compelling case for at least five guys: finalists John Farrell of the Red Sox, Terry Francona of the Indians and Bob Melvin of the Athletics, as well as Joe Girardi of the Yankees and Joe Maddon of the Rays.

As one of the electors this year, whom did I vote for when the ballots were due at the end of the regular season? In the end, I voted: 3. Joe Maddon; 2. Bob Melvin; 1. Terry Francona. That was after I spent a long time picking Maddon over Farrell, almost as much time as I used picking between Francona and Melvin.

Francona edged Farrell to win his first manager of the year award, the BBWAA announced Tuesday. Melvin finished a distant third.

As I have since the first time I voted on a manager of the year award, I consulted multiple colleagues and spent a couple of days mulling different arguments. In the end, I focus on performance, particularly elective decision-making and managers making the most of what they had on hand, especially because a big problem in choosing between managers is the inequality of resources each man has at his disposal. Admittedly, my way risks leaving out important areas of the job they have to do, the challenge of motivating and managing people. In all five cases, you’ll hear folks argue that each of these men is great at this. Unfortunately, we can’t measure the relative impact of each, which leads me to stick with judging observable actions and outcomes when I make my vote.
[+] EnlargeChris Perez
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesIndians skipper Terry Francona spent a big chunk of the 2013 season on the mound.

Running through my ballot from bottom to top, I ended up voting for Maddon over Farrell because of what he had to deal with -- multiple injuries in the Rays’ rotation (with David Price, Matt Moore and Alex Cobb all missing time). That was on top of Price’s Saberhagen-ish even-odd year drop-off from his 2012 Cy Young season, not to mention an outright bad year from Jeremy Hellickson. The lineup had its share of disappointments, as well.

Despite all that, Maddon still helped get the Rays into the postseason. I don’t believe that, having won the award twice already, Maddon has already gotten his due and we should just change flavors for novelty’s sake. Maddon was faced with big challenges, and he helped provide winning solutions with his usual hyperactive tactical activity.

I tabbed Melvin second because he demonstrated that his positive impact on the Athletics in 2012 was no transient phenomenon. The A’s weren’t expected to beat the Rangers in the AL West a first time, let alone a second. However, Melvin’s effective use of floating playing-time platoons in the outfield, at second base and catcher and through the DH slot helped compensate for cycling through multiple backstops while weathering several injuries and off years (particularly Josh Reddick). The A’s also stayed on top while getting excellent results from a young and unheralded rotation. Melvin deserves credit for delivering a 96-win season that was perhaps even more impressive than the 94-win surprise division winner that earned him manager of the year honors the previous season.

But, although I thought long and hard about putting Melvin atop my ballot, in the end I went with Francona. Like Melvin, Francona made a difference on offense, not with in-game tactics but with his lineup cards, compensating for an offense short of star power by exploiting platoon advantages as often as possible. Francona secured the platoon advantage a remarkable 75 percent of the time, second only to Melvin’s MLB-leading 77 percent. In this, Francona leaned heavily on position-switching regulars such as Nick Swisher and Carlos Santana and plugged in position-flexible journeymen such as Mike Aviles and Ryan Raburn.

That wasn’t Francona’s biggest area of impact, though. Other managers had to deal with injuries within good rotations or breaking in young talent there while contending with it, but Tito had to deal with both challenges. Francona delivered a wild-card team despite getting just 73 quality starts from his rotation (“good” for 13th in the AL). In part, that was because Francona didn’t ask too much of Danny Salazar, Zach McAllister or Corey Kluber, but the frenetic use of his bullpen -- with an MLB-leading 540 relievers used -- compensated for a rotation that pitched only 5.7 innings per start (12th in the AL). If the bullpen is where a manager makes the biggest in-game impact these days, I chose to recognize that a deep Indians bullpen -- and Francona’s cultivation and employment of it -- was critical to their winning one of the AL wild cards despite a rotation that couldn’t contribute as much. Francona got great work from guys such as Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw to paper over the midgame innings gap that could have quickly killed off talk of Cleveland’s contending. So, Francona was my choice for 2013 AL Manager of the Year.
[+] EnlargeJohn Farrell
AP Photo/Paul SancyaIt was tough to exclude John Farrell of the Red Sox from this year's ballot.

So, what about Farrell, you ask? With the Red Sox always commanding outsized attention, win or lose, Farrell’s worst-to-first pitch for top skipper was easy to latch onto after the Sox clambered back from their disastrous 93-loss season in 2012. You might think Farrell’s case sort of resembles those of Bobby Cox and Tom Kelly in 1991, when those two men won manager of the year awards in their respective leagues while skippering the Braves and Twins to the all-time awesomeness of the 1991 World Series.

Not so much, though. Those two teams were genuine surprises. In contrast, with the Red Sox committing a franchise-record $175 million or so to payroll, they were supposed to win, and they did. With most of their success falling within the realm of the expected in terms of player performances, the midseason injury to Clay Buchholz was about the only thing that represented a significant setback, which they amply compensated for by acquiring Jake Peavy.

Does that mean Farrell doesn't deserve a ton of credit for a job well done, in delivering on that huge financial investment? Of course not. He did a great job helping sort and re-sort his bullpen in a fluid situation that forced him to switch closers repeatedly; he also got to pick between three save generators making more than $4 million per annum apiece. I would have loved to have voted for Farrell, but I could not, not within this year’s field of excellent alternatives.

Finally, Girardi did a tremendous job managing a Yankees team stuck spending oodles of cash on players who couldn’t or didn’t contribute, especially early in the season. I think it was his most impressive year in the dugout since his award-winning 78-win rookie season with the Marlins in 2006. But the funny thing was, the stronger the Yankees’ roster got down the stretch -- with Alex Rodriguez, Ivan Nova and Curtis Granderson back, and with Alfonso Soriano added to the mix -- the worse they did overall, putting up a .500 record after the All-Star break. Like Farrell, it would have been easy to vote for Girardi in many years, but that sort of reverse relationship between available assets and team performance put him behind a strong field on my ballot.

It was a tough year to choose because my top three and Farrell didn’t make it easy to pick from among them. Here’s hoping at least one Red Sox fan will do me the favor of letting me know if the Red Sox Nation posse is coming for me. And friends and family in New York might do likewise if they’re joined by a bunch of angry Yankees fans. I’ll take solace in knowing that I brought y’all together as you head west.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

Eric and myself discuss why Dusty Baker got fired in Cincinnati and why we're not happy with what managers are doing in the playoffs so far.

Well, you can't say this American League wild-card race is lacking in drama. Hey, the eventual payoff is small -- one game to keep your season going! -- but it sure is giving us a fun September.

A crazy Wednesday was followed by a crazy Thursday as AL East teams battled each other. Some thoughts on another night of playoff-like baseball.
  • It's been an awful stretch of baseball for the Tampa Bay Rays. Go back two-plus weeks, to Aug. 24, after they had just defeated the New York Yankees for the second game in a row. They were 74-53, tied for first place with the Boston Red Sox and humming along as The Little Engine That Could and looking like a playoff lock, either as division champion or a wild card.

    Things can turn quickly in baseball, however. The Rays lost to the Yankees in 11 innings on Aug. 25. Jeremy Hellickson got pounded in a makeup game in Kansas City. Evan Longoria stopped hitting. They went 3-7 on a 10-game road trip -- the offense dying -- and went home and got shut out on Tuesday and lost on a grand slam in extra innings on Wednesday.

    So when they jumped out to a 3-1 lead over Jake Peavy in the series finale against Boston only to see the Red Sox rally to tie it, the sense of dread had to be sweating out of the pores of Rays fans, maybe even manager Joe Maddon. But Red Sox manager John Farrell gave him a little lifeline in the eighth inning. After taxing his bullpen in recent days, Farrell brought in little-used rookies Drake Britton and Rubby De La Rosa. Britton got the first out, but then Longoria hit a ground rule double to left center off De La Rosa. Longoria had swung through an 0-1 slider, and De La Rosa came back with the same pitch, but left it over the plate. After Matt Joyce popped out, Wil Myers doubled to right off an 0-1 fastball.

    The Red Sox got an infield single and walk off Fernando Rodney in the ninth, but Will Middlebrooks' screaming liner went right to Longoria and Dustin Pedroia popped out. The Rays kept their one-game margin over the Yankees for at least one more day.
  • Longoria had been hitting .190 with just three extra-base hits in his past 16 games, but two of those were doubles on Wednesday. He also tripled on Thursday, so maybe he's getting back on track. Myers, meanwhile, had two homers and three RBIs against the Los Angeles Angels on Sept. 4, but that had been the only game in which he'd driven in a run in his past 18, so his RBI double was a much-needed lift.
  • I thought Maddon tried to go one inning too far with Hellickson, who had scuffled through the first five innings but allowed just one run. Other than his previous start, when he tossed 5⅓ scoreless innings, Hellickson has been awful since late July. David Ortiz homered off him leading off the sixth and he walked Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who later scored when Stephen Drew doubled off Jamey Wright.
  • The Yankees-Orioles game had an even more dramatic eighth and ninth inning. The Yankees led 5-2 in the bottom of the eighth. Alfonso Soriano made a leaping grab in left to rob Manny Machado of a home run and David Robertson fanned Chris Davis, but Adam Jones singled, Nick Markakis singled and Danny Valencia crushed a first-pitch cut fastball over the fence in left center to tie it up. After J.J. Hardy doubled, Robertson finally struck out Matt Wieters for the final out of the inning. For Robertson, it was his first back-to-back appearances since missing several days with shoulder tendinitis, and he didn't face too many batters on this night.

    The Yankees then rallied off Orioles closer Jim Johnson with help from one of baseball's worst sins: not taking an out when the other team gives it you. Brendan Ryan led off the ninth inning by lining a single to right, and Chris Stewart sacrificed, but Johnson fielded the bunt and shot-putted the ball into center with a ghastly throw. The winning run eventually scored on a wild pitch and then Mariano Rivera got the save, and the Yankees remained a game behind the Rays while the Orioles fell 2½ back (tied with the Royals).
  • As for Johnson, I called him baseball's least valuable player this season on Twitter. The Orioles have blown nine games they led heading into the ninth inning this season, compared to the MLB average of three. This was a tie game entering the ninth, but Johnson is now 3-8. When your closer has eight losses, bad things have happened, and Buck Showalter's decision to stick with Johnson all season has proved costly.
  • Last season, the Orioles set the major league record with a 29-9 record in one-run games. Were they good, or was there a degree of luck involved? As Joe Posnanski pointed out today: The Orioles are now 16-27 in one-run games in 2013, the worst record in the majors -- worse than the Astros or Marlins or anybody else. So they've gone from being THE BEST TEAM EVER in one-run games to the worst in the majors in one season. And you wonder why the Orioles are miserable right now.
  • The Orioles gave Rivera a bronzed broken bat. Isn't all this Rivera love getting to be a bit much? I mean, it's kind of like, "Hey, Mariano, thanks for beating the crap out of us all these years!"
  • I liked the way Joe Girardi managed his pitchers. He started the awful-of-late Phil Hughes but took him out after three innings and went to lefty David Huff. Of course, that decision looked good only because Hughes and Huff combined to allow only two runs in six innings.
  • You do wonder, however, if the Yankees bullpen -- so good most of the season -- can hold on down the stretch. Robertson looked awful in the eighth and Rivera has been used heavily down the stretch and has five blown saves in his past 16 appearances.
Alex RodriguezDebby Wong/US PresswireAlex Rodriguez has had the look of frustration through much of his career in the postseason.
Some postseason averages through the first four games for some Yankees hitters:

Alex Rodriguez: .125, 16 AB, 9 SO
Ichiro Suzuki: .200, 20 AB, 3 SO
Nick Swisher: .133, 15 AB, 3 SO
Robinson Cano: .111, 18 AB, 1 SO
Curtis Granderson: .063, 16 AB, 9 SO
Eric Chavez: .000, 5 AB, 2 SO

Obviously, Rodriguez isn't the only Yankee struggling at the plate. He is, however, the only one getting benched in Game 5, in favor of Chavez. To be fair to manager Joe Girardi, A-Rod is the only player who could be benched. As bad as Granderson has looked, as little as Swisher and Ichiro have produced, the Yankees don't really have another option for the outfield. You don't want Raul Ibanez and his statuesque defense in left field in a sudden-death game (or any game, for that matter), and Brett Gardner is on the roster only as a pinch-runner. So that leaves Chavez replacing A-Rod.

It's also true that Rodriguez's struggles extend to before the playoffs. Since coming off the DL on Sept. 3 after his fractured left hand, Rodriguez has hit .228 (23 for 101), with just one home run and one double, a .267 slugging percentage. He's looked particularly awful against right-handers, striking out in 30 of his 74 at-bats (with nine strikeouts in 13 plate appearances against right-handers in this series). So, yes, from a strategic standpoint, benching A-Rod against the right-handed Jason Hammel is justifiable.

Buster Olney nailed it perfect after Ibanez hit for Rodriguez in Game 3:
      This is the same transition that Alex Rodriguez seems to have made Wednesday night, the Rubicon he has crossed, after his manager executed a necessary and excruciating move, like someone breaking the safety glass on a fire alarm.

Rodriguez is 37 years old, and he will never be the same preeminent player he once was. He has not been able to hit fastballs he used to crush, and against some right-handers he has looked helpless, unable to drive the ball unless he correctly guesses what the pitcher is going to throw. The days of Rodriguez having such bat speed that he could wait and wait and wait and still drive the ball 450 feet are over.

Hitting for Rodriguez gave Girardi freedom. Of course, having done it once, I have no idea why he didn't do it in Game 4, when Rodriguez faced Darren O'Day with runners at second and third and one out in the eighth inning. Why not hit Ibanez or Chavez there, when all you needed was a fly ball or a groundball through a drawn-in infield? It's possible that failure to hit for Rodriguez could cost the Yankees the series.

[+] EnlargeDerek Jeter
John Munson/THE STAR-LEDGER/US PRESSWIREDerek Jeter is a hero to Yankees fans for his postseason work. But his overall October numbers are similar to the maligned Alex Rodriguez.
There's an underlying issue here, of course, of what I've seen referred to on Twitter as the Alex Rodriguez Narrative: That is, that he's a postseason choker. Dave Cameron on Fangraphs addressed this a couple days ago (before the Ibanez game) and pointed out that A-Rod's career postseason numbers at the time were similar to Derek Jeter's: A-Rod was hitting .271/.380/.484 (127 RC+) while Jeter was hitting .309/.374/.465 (122 RC+). Of course, Rodriguez has been the better hitter in the regular season, so it's fair to say that Jeter has come closer to replicating his regular-season numbers. Dave also pointed out, for all of Jeter's recognition as a clutch hitter, A-Rod had a higher Win Probability Added than Jeter -- WPA calculates when a player produces; in essence, it figures a player's clutch score.

Of course, Dave was cheating a little bit. He was including Rodriguez's playoff time with the Mariners. In 15 games with the Mariners, he hit .340/.375/.566. Fair or not, the Alex Rodriguez Narrative does not include those games. It only includes the games with the Yankees. To the New York media (and Yankees fans), those games with Seattle have nothing to do with evaluating Rodriguez's October performance. With the Yankees, now including the past two games, A-Rod has hit .250/.377/.453, with 10 home runs and 33 RBIs in 57 games. Per 162 games, that's an average of 29 home runs, 94 RBIs, 102 walks and 160 strikeouts, compared to 162-game averages of 40 home runs, 127 RBIs, 86 walks and 135 strikeouts since joining the Yankees. So in the postseason, he has hit for less power while striking out a little more often.

Most of that damage was done in four series: the 2004 Division Series against the Twins (.421), and all three series in 2009 (six home runs, 18 RBIs). People remember the bad series, of course. The time in 2006 when Joe Torre moved A-Rod down to eighth in the order. The .190 average against the Rangers in the 2010 ALCS. The .111 average last year against the Tigers. Of course, Jeter has had bad series as well: .148 in the 2001 World Series (his only RBI was that game-winning home run), .176 against Cleveland in 2007, .231 with one RBI against the Rangers in 2010. A-Rod gets criticized for going 2-for-17 (three walks, two RBIs) in those final four losses against the Red Sox in the 2004 ALCS; well, Jeter went 4-for-19 with one walk and five RBIs (three in Game 4).

In the end, I think it comes down to this: A-Rod is perceived as a loser, Jeter as a winner. Many (most?) Yankees fans ultimately would put things like that as well. After all, Jeter was part of four World Series winners in five years. A-Rod has been part of one World Series champion in eight years (so far). In some ways, Torre started this back in 2006, that day he moved A-Rod down in the lineup, and Girardi is just following that line of thinking. Personally, I think it’s unfair and absurd, considering A-Rod has delivered some big postseason hits for the Yankees. Compare that to some others. Cano has hit .243 in the postseason entering Game 5. Swisher .157 with the Yankees. Teixeira has hit .190 with the Yankees.

But there’s no narrative with those guys.

Why each team can win it all

October, 4, 2012
With help from the blog network writers, here are reasons each team can win the World Series.

St. Louis Cardinals
1. A potent, balanced lineup. The Cardinals had the best on-base percentage in baseball, including four starters -- Matt Holliday, Jon Jay, David Freese and Yadier Molina -- with a .370 OBP or better, and that doesn’t even include two of their most dangerous sluggers, Carlos Beltran and Allen Craig.

2. Deep and solid starting rotation. Cardinals starters featured the second-best fielding-independent pitching in the majors, and Chris Carpenter has rejoined the staff just in time for the playoffs.

3. Playoff experience. If there’s an advantage to be gained from experience, the Cardinals have it, with nearly three-quarters of their championship team returning to the tournament.

4. "The postseason is a crapshoot." As a wild-card team, the Cardinals proved this last year by beating a dominant regular-season team in the Phillies in a short series, then the powerful Rangers in the World Series.

5. They’re saving their best ball for last -- again. As with the 2011 squad, the Cardinals are coming together at the right time. They won their last two series of the season against potential playoff foes Washington and Cincinnati and their regulars are generally healthy.
--Matt Philip, Fungoes.net

Atlanta Braves
The biggest thing the Braves need to do this postseason is hit left-handed pitching. For the year, they have an 85 wRC+ compared to the league average of 100 against left-handed pitching, the lowest of any of the playoff teams. If they win the play-in game against the Cardinals on Friday, they could face three left-handed starting pitchers in the first round in Gio Gonzalez, Ross Detwiler and John Lannan.

On the pitching front, Kris Medlen has taken the ace role of the staff, but the Braves will specifically need Mike Minor and Tim Hudson to perform at a high level to compete with the other National League teams. Defensively the Braves have been stellar, so the key for all of their starters will be to avoid free passes and long balls. They do not have an overpowering or star-filled staff as other rotations do, meaning their starters will need to rely on command and pitch sequencing to perform well against upper-tier offenses.

If the Braves get solid pitching performances from Medlen and Minor, and manage to scrape enough runs across against left-handed starters and relievers, they should be able to advance through the playoffs and potentially win their first World Series since 1995.
--Ben Duronio, Capitol Avenue Club

Cincinnati Reds
Here are five reasons that there will be a celebration in Fountain Square the first weekend in November:

1. The bullpen. This is the Reds' most obvious advantage. Their bullpen ERA ranks first in baseball at 2.65. How deep is this bullpen? One of these pitchers probably isn't going to make the postseason roster: Logan Ondrusek (3.46 ERA), Alfredo Simon (2.66) or J.J. Hoover (2.05).

2. Jay Bruce. The Reds' right fielder is one of the streakiest hitters in the game. If he gets hot, the Reds will be tough to beat. Bruce was twice named National League Player of the Week this year. In those two weeks, Bruce hit .488 AVG/.542 OBP/1.186 SLG (1.728 OPS). If Bruce gets on a hot streak like that, he could carry the Reds to the 11 wins they need.

3. The defense. Defensive metrics are flaky, but when you look at all of them, you start to learn something. The Reds rank near the top of almost every leaderboard. Seven of their eight starters are plus defenders, and three-quarters of the infielders have Gold Gloves on their shelves.

4. Ryan Hanigan. One of the things I'm most excited about this postseason is the broader baseball world discovering Ryan Hanigan. He does a lot well. His .365 OBP is better than any Red but Joey Votto. He walked more than he struck out. He threw out 48.5 percent of would-be base stealers -- the best in baseball -- and his handling of the pitching staff has the Reds' coaching staff speaking about him in hushed tones.

5. Luck, or something like it. The Reds outperformed their Pythagorean W-L by 7 games. Since Sept. 1, they have an 8-3 record in one-run games. This could mean they're due for a reversion to the mean. I like to think it means they're destined to win the Series.
--Chris Garber, Redleg Nation

Washington Nationals
1. The one-two punch of Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann. Few teams could lose a starter like Stephen Strasburg and still claim that starting pitching is a strength, but the Nats can. Cy Young candidate Gonzalez leads the NL in strikeouts per 9 innings and is second in hits per 9. Zimmermann rarely allows a walk, and has an ERA under 3.00. I'd match Gonzalez and him up with any team's one-two.

2. The infield defense. Each position is manned by someone you could argue is one of the majors' top 10 fielders at his spot. The staff throws a lot of ground balls. Put them together and you get a lot of outs.

3. The re-emergence of Drew Storen. Tyler Clippard had been manning the closer role effectively but has recently looked very shaky. No matter. Storen returned to the 'pen and has been dominant, allowing just one run in his past 16 appearances. He’ll be closing games going forward.

4. The offense with no holes. While there is no individual superstar, six of the Nats' eight regulars had an OPS+ between 112 and 128 for the season. A seventh, Danny Espinosa, would have been right there as well if not for a hideous April. The weak link is Kurt Suzuki -- and he hit over .300 in September.

5. Davey Johnson. Outside of Jayson Werth, this team has little postseason experience, but this is the fourth team Davey has led to the playoffs, and he’s won five postseason series. You have to expect that he can guide this team through the highs and lows of October baseball.
--Harper Gordek, Nats Baseball

San Francisco Giants
1. Buster Posey. His second half was off-the-charts awesome, hitting .385/.456/.646. He was the best hitter in the majors after the All-Star break -- even better than Miguel Cabrera.

2. The rest of the Giants' offense. Even though they ranked last in the NL in home runs in the second half, they still managed to rank second in runs per game. Marco Scutaro proved to be a huge acquisition, hitting .362 with the Giants.

3. Matt Cain. Remember his dominant postseason performance in 2010? In three starts, he allowed just one unearned run. This time around he's the Giants' No. 1 guy.

4. Sergio Romo. The Giants rode Brian Wilson a lot in 2010, but this time they'll have Romo, who could be just as dominant closing games. He allowed just 37 hits and 10 walks in 55.1 innings while striking out 63. He was equally crushing against lefties (.491 OPS allowed) and righties (.537).

5. Bruce Bochy. He's considered by many to be the best manager in the game. If a series comes down to in-game tactics, most evaluators would rate Bochy superior to Dusty Baker, Fredi Gonzalez and Mike Matheny.
--David Schoenfield

Baltimore Orioles
1. No. 1 -- and, you could certainly argue Nos. 2-5 as well -- is the bullpen. The O's went 73-0 when leading after the seventh inning. As relievers, Tommy Hunter is touching 100 mph and Brian Matusz has struck out 19 batters in 13 innings. Then there's Troy Patton (2.43 ERA), Pedro Strop (2.44), Darren O'Day (2.28) and Jim Johnson (2.49, 51 saves) to finish things out. While it might not be the best bullpen ever -- or even the best bullpen in the league this year -- it may have been the most "effective" 'pen in history, as noted by its record-setting (record-obliterating, really) +14 win probability added. Maybe 16 consecutive extra-inning wins and a 29-9 record in one-run games (the best since the 1800s) is partially a fluke, but having a quality bullpen certainly doesn't hurt in keeping that going.

2. Buck Showalter. Aside from bullpen management that's been so effective, Buck seems to just make all the right moves, putting guys in positions to succeed and making in-game decisions that seem to work even when they probably shouldn't. Sac bunt? You get the run you need. Hit and run? Batted ball goes right to where the second baseman was. Bring in Chris Davis to pitch? Two shutout innings, a pair of strikeouts (including Adrian Gonzalez!), and a win. Judging managers is tricky, but it would be mighty hard to argue that Buck isn't a net plus.

3. A surging offense. Overall, the O's were a little below average, but since the beginning of September they've actually been one of the league's better hitting teams (with an AL-best 50 home runs). It's mostly been the Davis show recently (.320/.397/.660, 10 home runs), but Matt Wieters (.296/.389/.541), Adam Jones (.295/.343/.504) and Nate McLouth (!) (.280/.355/.456) haven't been slouches either.

4. An improved defense. The glove work was often sloppy early in the year, all around the diamond, but not so much lately (largely since Manny Machado was called up). Machado is a shortstop (with the range that implies) playing third base, and adjusting both well and quickly to it. J.J. Hardy is one of the game's better shortstops. Whoever is playing second is decent (Robert Andino or Ryan Flaherty). Mark Reynolds may have found a home at first base, even if he's not a Gold Glover there (yet). The O's fielding (via FanGraphs) for the first four months: -20 runs. Fielding since: +0.

5. Orioles magic. Even if you count the O's as underdogs in each playoff series -- and really, you probably should -- they still have a 3-5 percent chance of winning it all (those chances double if they knock off Texas, by the way).
--Daniel Moroz, Camden Depot

Texas Rangers
1. An obvious on-paper advantage in the wild-card game. Yu Darvish has been dominant down the stretch with a 2.13 ERA and just 10 walks over his final seven starts. He's a strikeout pitcher against a lineup that strikes out a lot. Meanwhile, Joe Saunders is 0-6 with a 9.38 ERA in six career starts in Arlington.

2. Big-game experience. Matt Harrison had a terrific season, and having started a Game 7 of the World Series won't be fazed by the postseason. Derek Holland has had an inconsistent season but, as he showed in the World Series last year, is certainly capable of huge performances. Ryan Dempster also has playoff experience with the Cubs.

3. Defense. The infield defense with Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler is arguably the best in baseball and was a key component to the Rangers' World Series run a year ago.

4. Josh Hamilton. If these are his final days with the Rangers, you get the feeling he'll be focused to go out with a bang, especially after his disastrous game in the regular-season finale. After his hot start, Hamilton recovered from his slump in June and July to hit 14 home runs over the final two months.

5. One game equals momentum. OK, the series sweep in Oakland was a disaster, but all it takes is one win over Baltimore and the Rangers can forget what happened down the stretch. Do that and this team is still the scary opponent everyone figured it was a few days ago.
--David Schoenfield

Oakland Athletics
1. Sometimes a very good overall team matches up poorly against a playoff opponent. As far as lefty-righty goes, the A's won't have that issue. General manager Billy Beane gave manager Bob Melvin the pieces to construct platoons, including at first base (Brandon Moss/Chris Carter), designated hitter (Seth Smith/Jonny Gomes) and catcher (Derek Norris/George Kottaras). Further, the top two everyday hitters, Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes, bat from opposite sides of the plate, and leadoff man Coco Crisp, a switch-hitter, has very similar career splits from both sides of the plate.

2. The top three relievers, Grant Balfour, Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle, have pitched remarkably well. All three bring gas. Cook can struggle with his command and Doolittle might hit a rookie wall any minute, but Balfour's 3.01 FIP is the highest of the group.

3. The A's are third in baseball in runs scored after the All-Star break. Ahead of the Yankees. Ahead of the Rangers. Well ahead of the Tigers. The current roster has been legitimately excellent on offense.

4. Defensive efficiency is a very simple metric: It is the rate at which a team turns balls in play into outs. It doesn't account for everything, but it does measure the core skill of a team's run-prevention unit. The A's are third in baseball in this number. Either the pitching staff doesn't give up hard-hit balls, the defense catches everything in sight, or both. Regardless of the why, the what is indisputable: Hits don't happen against the A's.

5. By record, the Tigers are the worst squad in the playoffs, yet the A's, the No. 2 AL team, play them in the first round because of the structure of playoff seeding. It likely isn't a huge advantage (the A's did just sweep Texas, after all), but every little bit counts on the way to a trophy.
--Jason Wojciechowski, Beaneball

Detroit Tigers
1. Miguel Cabrera. MVP or not, the Triple Crown speaks for itself. He is the best pure hitter in baseball and, unlike last year, is healthy heading into the postseason.

2. Prince Fielder was the American League’s only .300/.400/.500 hitter, and he’s not even the best player on his own team. He isn’t completely helpless against LOOGYs either, posting an OPS of .808 against left-handed pitchers this season.

3. Justin Verlander, who has been just as good as he was in 2011. If Mother Nature cooperates this year, he will put a serious dent in that career 5.57 postseason ERA.

4. The rest of the rotation. With Doug Fister finally healthy, Max Scherzer’s breakout second half, and the acquisition of Anibal Sanchez, the Tigers have the best playoff rotation in the big leagues. The four starters (Verlander included) combined for a 2.27 ERA in September and October.

5. Jim Leyland. The Tigers’ skipper has been ridiculed by the fan base for most of the year for the team’s lackluster performance, most of which was a mirage created by its early struggles. He has had his finger on this team’s pulse all season and deserves credit for managing the outrageous expectations for a team with more flaws than people realized. Now he has the Tigers playing their best baseball heading into October and is the biggest reason why they could be parading down Woodward Avenue in early November.
--Rob Rogacki, Walkoff Woodward

New York Yankees
1. The rotation. This looks like the strongest playoff rotation the Yankees have had in years, even better than 2009, when Joe Girardi rode three starters (CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, A.J. Burnett) to the World Series title. Sabathia has battled a sore elbow but looked good down the stretch, including eight-inning efforts in his final two starts. Pettitte is 40 years old but still looks like Andy Pettitte. Hiroki Kuroda had a quietly excellent season, finishing eighth in the AL in ERA and 10th in OBP allowed among starters. Phil Hughes is a solid No. 4.

2. Home-field advantage. While this generally isn't a big factor in baseball, the Yankees' power comes into play with the short porch at Yankee Stadium. Earning the No. 1 seed was probably more important to the Yankees than any other team.

3. Robinson Cano. He's locked in right now, going 24-for-39 in his final nine games, all multihit games. Don't be surprised if he has a monster postseason.

4. Lineup depth and versatility. In this age of bullpen matchups, the Yankees are difficult to match up with. They can run out a lineup that goes right-left-right-left-switch-switch-left-left/right-right. You'd better have a deep bullpen to beat this team in the late innings.

5. Health. While Mark Teixeira may not be 100 percent, at least he's back in the lineup, meaning the Yankees finally have all their position players available (even Brett Gardner may make the postseason roster as a pinch runner/defensive replacement). They've been dinged up all season, but Sabathia and Pettitte should be strong. The only question: The Yankees haven't won a World Series without Mariano Rivera since 1978.
--David Schoenfield
  • So Trevor Bauer starts tonight for the Diamondbacks. Andrew Cashner, who pitched out of the bullpen for the Padres at the start of the season, is back after getting stretched out as a starter in the minor leagues and he'll start as well. Dave Cameron of FanGraphs has an interesting comparison between the two pitchers. For all of the Bauer hype, Cashner's minor league pedigree is similarly impressive.
  • Cameron Scott of Walkoff Woodward looks back at the Rangers-Tigers and declares that the Rangers are good and the Tigers are not.
  • ESPN Insider Dan Szymborski on the worst rotations since 1950 Insider, in honor of the Minnesota Twins. The Twins' rotation (as of two days ago, when the piece was published) have the worst ERA+, just ahead (behind?) of the 2003 Reds. And, yes, Rockies fans, your rotation isn't far behind. As for those 2003 Reds ... well ... it was ugly. Seventeen different starters combined to go 33-72 with a 5.77 ERA. Paul Wilson was the staff ace at 8-10 with a 4.64 ERA and 166.2 innings. Danny Graves (4-15, 5.33), Ryan Dempster (3-7, 6.54) and Jimmy Haynes (2-12, 6.30) were the others who started at least 10 games.
  • Starlin Castro, Hall of Famer? Sam Miller of Baseball Prospectus makes a great point about age and playing time.
  • Ben Duronio of Capitol Avenue Club says all three Braves outfielders should be All-Stars.
  • Franklin Morales has looked good for the Red Sox. Has he earned a few more trips through the rotation?
  • The Reds do have some problems with their lineup, but you can't blame Dusty Baker, writes Brien Jackson at Redleg Nation.
  • Just returned to baseball after watching the NBA and NHL playoffs? Luckily, DJ Gallo has a guide to what's been going on.
  • Bill Petti of FanGraphs with a fun look at the disappearing breed of hitters who walk more than they strike out.
  • Another Insider piece: Jim Bowden rates his best managers of the first half and makes a gutsy call in picking Bobby Valentine as the No. 1 guy in the American League. Over the weekend, while watching the FOX broadcast of the Mets-Yankees series, Tim McCarver said Terry Collins and Joe Girardi both have a strong case for manager of the year. Collins, I completely agree with. The Mets have had to start five different players at shortstop because of injuries, Collins has mixed and matched platoons and worked through a bad bullpen. But Girardi? Come on. He's got the easiest gig in baseball, basically writing out the same lineup card every day. And even with the Mariano Rivera injury, he had David Robertson and Rafael Soriano waiting in the bullpen. I'm indifferent towards Girardi as a manager (although that intentional walk to Sean Rodriguez in the first inning on Opening Day was one of the dumbest moves I've seen this year), and he'll get a little more test with Andy Pettitte and CC Sabathia injured, but I don't see how you argue him as a manager of the year candidate.
  • Some thoughts on Ian Desmond, Adam LaRoche and Trent Moore from Nationals Baseball.
  • Who is Cuban outfielder Yasiel Puig, the guy the Dodgers just reportedly gave $42 million to? Jon Weisman checks in with some reports from around the Web.

MetsAP Photo/Frank Franklin IIThe Mets are off to a 3-0 start after sweeping the Atlanta Braves to start the season.
Hey, it's only one weekend but for one weekend New York Mets fans can rejoice in a simple statement of fact: the New York Yankees are 0-3 and the Mets are 3-0.

The Tampa Bay Rays' sweep of the Yankees was an important statement for the Rays, a team that has a brutal April schedule. The Rays follow up their series against the Yankees with a nine-game road trip to Detroit, Boston and Toronto, series at home against the Twins and Angels and then a three-game series in Texas. Not until they travel to Seattle and Oakland from April 30 through May 6 do they get an "easy" week. The Rays started 1-8 a year ago and managed to quickly dig out of that hole (they were 15-12 by the end of April), but this April schedule is a stiff challenge.

Jeremy Hellickson, everybody's favorite pitcher to regress to the mean in 2012, did exactly what he did in 2011: Limit hits even though he didn't strike out many batters. Pitching on his 26th birthday, Hellickson took a three-hit, 3-0 lead into the ninth. After walking Nick Swisher on a 3-2 pitch with two outs -- his 118th pitch of the game -- Joe Maddon finally brought in Fernando Rodney for the final out. Hellickson walked four and struck out four but the top three hitters in the Yankees lineup (Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano) went 0-for-11). As somebody wrote on Twitter, "Nobody induces more line-drive outs than Hellickson."

That was a knock against Hellickson's low average on balls in play in 2011 -- his .224 average was the lowest by a starting pitcher since 1988. But it's also a credit to Maddon and the Rays' defensive alignments. No team shifts and moves more on the defense than the Rays. You saw this result in several outs over the weekend, whether it was Mark Teixeira lining a ball to the second baseman playing in shallow right field or Alex Rodriguez grounding a ball over the second-base bag only to have the second baseman perfectly positioned.

Maddon will also move his players all over the batting order. Outside of Desmond Jennings in the leadoff spot and Evan Longoria in the three-hole, you never know how they'll line up. Carlos Pena hit second on Sunday and hit a third-inning home run off Phil Hughes. The Rays' lineup looks much stronger against right-handed pitching with southpaw power bats in Pena, Matt Joyce and Luke Scott. Teams would be wise to try and line up their left-handed starters against them.

Meanwhile, Joe Girardi looked like a kindergartner trying to take the SAT compared to Maddon. His intentional walk to Sean Rodriguez on Friday backfired when Pena hit a grand slam. He played Eduardo Nunez at shortstop on Saturday and his first-inning error led to two unearned runs. Look, Jeter will have to take days off throughout season and while you can understand the desire to sit him on turf, it's also just the second game of the season. Shouldn't Jeter be sitting against the Twins or Mariners or Orioles and not the Rays? And keep in mind that Nunez isn't any better on defense than Jeter; his Defensive Runs Saved in 2011 was minus-8 in 386 innings; Jeter's total was minus-14 in 1047 innings.

With Swisher battling a sensitive hammy, Girardi also put Raul Ibanez in right field on Sunday. This is akin to playing a fire hydrant out there. With two outs in the first Joyce blooped a ball to right field that should have been caught. Ibanez misplayed it into a triple, allowing Longoria to score the game's first run.

The Yankees travel to Baltimore on Monday, with Ivan Nova facing Brian Matusz. Nova had a rough spring, giving up 31 hits and five home runs in 22.1 innings, although he did have a 17/3 SO/BB ratio. The Yankees are 0-3 and while it's fun to pretend they are panicking, that's not really the case. This series was more about Tampa Bay doing everything right. But it is the Yankees, and when they start 0-3 that's not how most fans will view it.

* * * *

As for the Mets, they completed their sweep of the Braves as Jonathon Niese took a no-hitter into the seventh. The Mets nearly blew a 7-0 lead but held on for the 7-5 victory as Frank Francisco picked up his third save.

I watched a few innings of this game and one thing the Mets' hitters do is work the count very well. Atlanta starter Mike Minor threw 104 pitches in just five innings. On Saturday, Jair Jurrjens threw 102 pitches and didn't get out of the fifth. Ruben Tejada and Daniel Murphy may not have a lot of power at the top of the order but they're pesky, make you throw strikes and should go a nice job of getting on base. On Saturday, each saw 23 pitches in five plate appearances; on Sunday, they saw a combined 40 pitches as Tejada went 4-for-5 and Murphy 2-for-5.

It's easy to forget, but the Mets did lead the NL East in runs scored in 2011 -- despite playing in Citi Field. They did this with a lot of a patience as they led the NL in walks drawn. Yes, Jose Reyes is gone and Carlos Beltran was part of that production, but the Mets don't have any easy outs in the lineup. All eight regulars (Andres Torres landed on the DL with a calf injury after the season opener) are capable of posting a .340 OBP and that means the Mets could once again end up leading the division in runs.

Like the Rays, the Mets face a tough April: Washington, at Philly, at Atlanta, San Francisco, Miami, at Colorado, at Houston. Let's not overreact to three games and declare the Mets contenders, but I don't believe they're the 95-loss team that many fans believe. The Mets drew 27,855 on Easter Sunday, 14,000 short of capacity. It will take more than a 3-0 start to turns Mets fans into believers, but at least they can spend a few days having fun at the Yankees' expense.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.

Welcome back, Carlos Pena

April, 6, 2012
If my math is correct, the Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees still have 17 games against each other. The Rays and Boston Red Sox have 18 games against each other. The Red Sox and Yankees have 18 games against each other. And all three teams have 18 against the Toronto Blue Jays.

That's 107 more games of American League East mini-wars, in which every game will be treated as the one that may win -- or lose -- a division championship.

Friday's game at the Trop was as interesting as a regular-season game can be, with a hundred little moves worth discussing and dissecting. Rays manager Joe Maddon was already in midseason form, calling for a squeeze bunt, pinch-hitters and lefty/righty matchups out of the bullpen. Yankees counterpart Joe Girardi went to his trusty binder in the bottom of the first inning and got burned. And the greatest closer of all time failed to do his job. Yes, I'll take more, thank you very much.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Pena
AP Photo/Phelan M. EbenhackCarlos Pena's game-winning hit was his first ever off Yankees closer Mariano Rivera.
A few quick highlights about a game you could write 3,000 words about:

  • With two out in the first and runners on second and third, Girardi had CC Sabathia walk Sean Rodriguez to pitch to Carlos Pena. Girardi has a bit of unusual obsession with the intentional walk. Sabathia, for example, issued 17 IBBs over the previous three seasons. Compare that to guys like Justin Verlander (0), Cliff Lee (3), Roy Halladay (5) or Jon Lester (0). Anyway, while it's true Pena struggles against left-handers (.133 in 2011, .179 in 2010), it's also true that he's a very patient hitter willing to take a walk. Juicing the bases forces Sabathia to throw a strike. Pena worked the count to 3-2 and drilled a fastball for a grand slam. An intentional walk on Opening Day with two out in the first inning? Just ... well, wow.
  • Down 6-5, the Rays had a great chance to tie the game in the bottom of the eighth when they put runners on the corners with no outs against David Robertson. Maddon sent Stephen Vogt in to hit for Elliot Johnson, Vogt's first major league at-bat. Robertson struck him out on four pitches -- two 92 mph cutters and a fastball up sandwiched around a curveball in the dirt. With Jose Molina up and a 1-1 count, Maddon sent the runners ... except Molina missed the squeeze sign and instead fouled off the pitch. Maddon, with the proverbial guts of a cat burglar, went right back to the squeeze, but Molina fouled it off for strike three. Robertson than fanned Matt Joyce to escape the jam.
  • Mariano Rivera entered to close out it out. Desmond Jennings singled to right-center and Ben Zobrist tripled to deeper right-center. Girardi -- remember, he loves the intentional walk -- gave free passes to Evan Longoria and Luke Scott to load the bases. Once again, Girardi left his pitcher with no margin for error. Rivera fell behind 3-1 to Rodriguez but came back to strike him out, bringing up Pena. He got the count to 1-2 and the strikeout-prone Pena looked like a dead duck. Instead, Rivera threw a meaty pitch over the middle of the plate and Pena lofted a deep fly off the base of the wall in left-center. Game over. His first hit ever off Rivera. "Oh, yeah. [I was] very aware of it," Pena said. "His ball moves so much that your eyes deceive you." But Pena's eyes mapped this Rivera cutter, giving him a three-hit, five-RBI day. And as Pena did a postgame on-field interview, B.J. Upton delivered a shaving cream pie in the face that tasted just right.
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.
We closed out a full week of Baseball Today podcasts with Friday’s memorable edition, as Mark Simon and I kind of made things up as we went along, but in a fun and entertaining way!

1. First we talked about poor Joba Chamberlain of the Yankees, and wondered whether he’ll ever be relevant again.

2. What about Kendrys Morales of the Angels? We think he’ll matter soon to any Angels lineup lacking a bit.

3. More about movies and their occasional sports inaccuracy in our email segment!

4. What off-the-wall storyline would we like to see this season, something that has never happened before? And no, we don’t mean the Cubs winning the World Series.

5. And finally our ridiculous question of the day (which Mark again sung -- an appearance on "American Idol" is next for Mark!) deals with older players hitting as many home runs as their age. Fun!

So have a seat, put your feet up and download and listen to Friday’s cool Baseball Today podcast, because let’s face it, I was sitting with my feet up when we recorded it. Have a great weekend and we’ll still be daily next week!

Robin Ventura and the trial by fire

March, 4, 2012
Robin VenturaAP Photo/Jae C. HongThe team GM Kenny Williams, left, hired Robin Ventura to manage certainly has its share of holes.

Robin Ventura succeeds Ozzie Guillen as manager of the White Sox, having never managed (or coached) at any level in pro ball. Just what has he gotten himself into?

Distinguished Playing Career

Although he will be hard-pressed to make as vivid an impression as his predecessor, Ventura should be able to command the respect of his players on the basis of his own career as a player. Though he isn’t a Hall of Famer, he has certainly had a career worthy of a Cooperstown exhibit. He was a three-time All-American at Oklahoma State University, where he set the NCAA consecutive game hitting streak record of 58 (he still holds the Division I mark). He was a first-round draft pick (10th overall) of the Chicago White Sox in 1988 and made his big-league debut a year later, after only 129 games in the minors.

While never a top-10 player, with few "black ink" stats on the back of his baseball cards, his career was notable for its consistency. Though he only surpassed 100 RBIs and 30 homers twice in his 16-year career, he was a six-time Gold Glover at third, and from 1991-2003 he compiled a 117 OPS+, with no season lower than 97. Whatever foot speed he had in his youth was erased in a horrific fractured/dislocated ankle injury suffered during a spring training game in 1997. He had compiled a line of .276/.367/.442 prior to 1997, but only .256/.357/.446 from 1997 onward.

Ventura had a knack for making history with the bases loaded. On September 4, 1995, he became only the eighth player to hit two grand slams in the same game. On May 20, 1999, he became the first and only player to hit a grand slam in both games of a doubleheader. During Game Five of the 1999 National League Championship Series, he hit a walkoff slam, which turned into a "Grand Slam Single" when his trip around the bases was interrupted by a celebrating teammate who hoisted Ventura up, preventing him from touching home plate. Another memorable moment came in a game against the Rangers in 1993, when he decided he didn’t like getting hit by Nolan Ryan, and charged the mound, only to be "noogied to death" by the 46-year-old Texan.

Track record of neophyte managers

Of those who will be pacing a dugout in 2012, at least seven went into their first big-league stewardship like Ventura is now, a babe in the managerial woods. But unlike Ventura, they all had prior coaching experience. Let’s examine how those seven did in their first two seasons:

  • Dusty Baker (1993 Giants): Baker inherited a team that won 72 games in 1992. Thanks in large part to the addition of free agent Barry Bonds (who compiled a 1.136 OPS), San Francisco improved to a 103-59 record in 1993, with Baker winning NL Manager of the Year. The '94 squad slumped to a 55-60 mark in the strike-curtailed season.
  • Bob Melvin (2003 Mariners): The 2002 squad went 93-69, only good enough for third place in the highly competitive American League West and six games out of the wild card. Melvin guided the M’s to the exact same record in his first year. This time they nabbed second place in the West, but still missed the wild card by two games. Melvin’s second year saw the Mariners fall from seventh to last in the AL in runs scored, and the team went 63-99. Melvin was fired after the season.
  • Ozzie Guillen (2004 White Sox): After the Sox went 86-76 in 2003, Guillen took over in 2004 and led the team to an 83-79 finish. His second season was when the magic happened: An AL-best 99-63 record and a 11-1 postseason record culminating in the franchise’s first title since 1917.
  • Joe Girardi (2006 Marlins): The 2005 Florida squad went 83-79, and Girardi somehow guided the team with the lowest payroll in the majors in '06 to a very respectable 78-84 record. He was rewarded with the NL Manager-of-the-Year award, but not before getting fired by the Marlins due to some clashes with ownership.
  • Bud Black (2007 Padres): Black’s fortunes were similar to Melvin’s -- he barely changed the team’s record in his first year (going from 88-74 to 89-74, with that 163rd game being a loss in the wild card tiebreaker), then saw the team totally collapse in his second season (63-99).
  • Kirk Gibson (2010 Diamondbacks): The D-backs had suffered through a 70-92 campaign in 2009, and were on the same path in the middle of 2010 at 31-48 when Gibson took over. He guided them to a slightly better 34-49 finish, then surprised most pundits with an NL West Division title in 2011, going 94-68 and earning the league’s Manager-of-the-Year award.
  • John Farrell (2011 Blue Jays): After the Jays finished in fourth place in the AL East 2010 despite an 85-77 record, manager Cito Gaston retired, and Farrell was surprisingly given the reins. The Jays meandered to an 81-81 ledger in 2011, never more than four games over or five games under .500 at any point.
  • Don Mattingly (2011 Dodgers): Donnie Baseball took over for a retiring Joe Torre, who had gone 80-82 in 2010. Despite all the off-field distractions, and very little offense outside of Matt Kemp, Mattingly was able to guide the Dodgers to an 82-79 record in 2011.

Two of the most recent examples of managers being hired despite no prior managing or coaching experience have turned out poorly:

  • Buck Martinez (2001 Blue Jays): The 2000 season saw the Jim Fregosi-led Jays go 83-79. Martinez, who spent most of his post-playing career in the broadcast booth, led the ’01 squad to a similar 80-82 record; after getting off to a 20-33 start in 2002, Martinez was fired.
  • A.J. Hinch (2009 Diamondbacks): The 2008 Diamondbacks went a disappointing 82-80, and when they started out 12-17 in '09, Hinch was given the job, at the tender age of 34. He led the team to a 58-75 finish to that season, and was 31-48 in the 2010 campaign when he was replaced by ... Kirk Gibson.

As you can see, most times there is little change in year one, but major upheaval (both good and bad) in year two.

The team he will manage

Since their splendid 99-63 regular season run to the 2005 World Series title, the record of the ChiSox has been neither wretched nor exemplary. With the exception of 2007 (a 72-win campaign), they’ve won between 79 and 90 games each year. They’ve compiled a .511 winning percentage and just one playoff appearance. They rank 13th in W-L percentage during that time.

[+] EnlargeJohn Danks
Jennifer Stewart/US PresswireHow John Danks, right, performs as No. 1 starter and whether Gordon Beckham can get his OPS back on track are key questions awaiting Ventura.
But last year’s club showed some glaring weaknesses. On offense, the 2011 squad had only two regulars compile an OPS greater than .728 (the league OPS was .730) or over a 100 OPS+. There were 22 players with more than 400 plate appearances and a sub-.660 OPS during 2011, and the Sox had five of them. The team finished no higher than seventh in the AL in any offensive category. It were also the third-oldest offense in the league. On defense, committing the second-fewest errors in the AL couldn’t mask the lack of range afield, as White Sox' Defensive Efficiency ranked third from bottom. If you reached first base against the Sox, you ran, as they threw out a league-low 22 percent of stolen-base attempts. The pitching helped keep some of the pressure off of the defense, as their 7.5 K/9 and 2.78 K/BB led the AL. But they still ended up with a league-average 4.10 ERA.

In 2012, the club will face some major hurdles if it wishes to improve on last season's performance or even just to keep pace with it. The starting rotation must replacing staff ace/workhorse Mark Buehrle’s 200-plus innings. Buehrle’s 2,425 frames since 2001 are 60 more than anyone else. John Danks, who pitched better than his 4.33 ERA might suggest, assumes the No. 1 starter position, with 22-year-old Chris Sale stepping into the rotation. Philip Humber pitched more than 21 2/3 innings in the majors for the first time in 2011, by 141 innings; his BABIP was a low .276, and something may have to give in 2012. In the bullpen, Matt Thornton has been the ChiSox primary set-up man for six years, and had a shot to close last year but lost it; with the departure of Sergio Santos via trade, can the 35-year-old Thornton step up, despite a sharp drop in his K/9 rate last year (12.0 to 9.5)?

On offense, there is a growing concern over second baseman Gordon Beckham. The former first-round draft pick has seen his OPS slide from .807 to .695 to .633, though his defense has improved at second base. Third baseman Brent Morel may not be the answer at the hot corner, as his profile (a .250 doubles hitter with few walks and below-average range) is lacking for the position. Catcher A.J. Pierzynski is 35 and closing in on 1,500 games behind the plate. His 120 games at catcher last year were his lowest since 2004, and he threw out only 20 percent of runners attempting to steal, below his career mark of 24 percent. There have been only 30 player-seasons in the past 50 years where a 35-or-older catcher has managed at least a .728 OPS (as Pierzynski did last year).

Then we come to the two biggest enigmas, Adam Dunn and Alex Rios. Everyone is well aware of Dunn’s legendary collapse in 2011, including his .064 batting average versus lefties. With three years and $44 million to go, can new hitting coach Jeff Manto get "The Big Donkey" standing upright again? Also, while Rios will never truly be worth the $21 million he is drawing each year through 2014, the Sox hope for something closer to the .284/.334/.457 line of 2010, rather than the .227/.265/.328 slash of 2011. They’re moving him to left field this season, where he has played one game his entire career.

Will Ventura exceed expectations?

So, Robin Ventura will certainly have his hands full (and tied) with a team that is, at best, in transition and, at worst, about to fall off a cliff. If he can move the White Sox in the right direction, it will be yet another extraordinary performance, as impressive as any of his grand slams. Given his history as a player, and the opportunity to establish a new atmosphere in the clubhouse, I think there is at least a chance he can pull it off.

Diane Firstman blogs about baseball at Value Over Replacement Grit, a SweetSpot network affiliate, and you can follow her on Twitter at @dianagram
I spent last night watching the postgame coverage on YES. I listened to Yankees fans calling in to sports-talk radio as I drove in to work this morning. I have the Mike Francesa show on YES on right now as I write this. Love the Yankees or hate the Yankees, the day after they're eliminated from the postseason is always one of the more interesting days of the year: The overanalysis, the stunned shock of defeat, the placing of blame on Alex Rodriguez. As Yankees broadcaster Michael Kay said on Mike & Mike about Game 5, "You couldn't find a person in New York who thought the Yankees had a chance to lose that game. ... Everything was lined up for the Yankees to win, it just was."

OK, some thoughts on all this, the 10th time in 11 seasons that will end without a World Series pennant flying over Yankee Stadium, the seventh time in eight years that ends without the Yankees making a trip to the World Series.

[+] EnlargeIvan Nova
AP Photo/Kathy WillensRookie starter Ivan Nova gave up first-inning homers to Don Kelly and Delmon Young in Game 5.
1. I didn't quite understand why everybody thought this was such a sure win for the Yankees. Did I miss the memo where Ivan Nova had suddenly turned into Bob Gibson? Do people realize this is baseball, where anything can one happen in one game? You could have put the Houston Astros out there and they would have had a chance to win. Plus, the dismissing of Doug Fister was a little embarrassing. It's easy to argue that Fister is a better pitcher than Nova and certainly not inconceivable that he could outpitch Nova. In analytical terms, the game was a toss-up.

2. You can extend that analogy one step further: Not enough fans understand that the baseball playoffs are a crapshoot. Since 1990, you know how many teams with the best regular-season record have won the World Series? Three -- the '98 Yankees, '07 Red Sox and '09 Yankees. If you make the playoffs, you essentially have a 1-in-4 chance of reaching the World Series. If you get to the World Series, you have 1-in-2 chance of winning. So if you make the playoffs every season you should win a World Series once every eight years. In their past eight trips to the postseason, the Yankees have reached two World Series and won one. Exactly what the odds would predict.

3. Of course, the current Yankees suffer in comparison to the 1996-2000 squad that captured four World Series titles in five years. What that team did was simply mind-boggling, going 46-15 in the postseason over a five-year span ... that's a .754 winning percentage, which is higher than the 1927 Yankees. That kind of run will never happen again. It can't. It just defies the laws of probability and postseason baseball. Since 2001, the Yankees have gone a still-impressive 48-43 in the postseason, but it's led to just one championship. (There's a comparison here to be made with the 1991-2005 Braves. In this ESPN Insider piece, Dan Szymborski reported that given their opponents, the Braves' postseason record of 63-62 was only one game worse than their expected record of 64-61.)

4. Let's not forget that the Yankees actually outscored the Tigers in the series by 11 runs. Of course, playoff series aren't determined on aggregate.

5. Alex Rodriguez ... look, you can argue that he shouldn't have been hitting cleanup. That would be the major question regarding Joe Girardi's managing in the series. Yankee fans love to bash A-Rod, of course, and it's somewhat understandable why. Here are his postseason averages since joining the Yankees:

2004 -- .320
2005 -- .133
2006 -- .071
2007 -- .267
2009 -- .365
2010 -- .219
2011 -- .111

Add it up and his overall postseason line with the Yankees isn't as bad as you think, however: .260/.388/.480, with 10 home runs and 33 RBIs in 53 games. He's hardly the one who should be "blamed," however. Here's how some of the Yankees did with runners in scoring position this series:

Derek Jeter: 1-for-8
Curtis Granderson: 1-for-4
Nick Swisher: 1-for-5
Russell Martin: 0-for-3
Mark Teixeira: 0-for-3
Alex Rodriguez: 0-for-5.

By the way, I'm not quite sure why Teixeira seems to escape criticism. His career postseason line (including one series with the Angels) is an abysmal .207/.315/.322, with just three home runs and 13 RBIs in 31 games. Swisher is a .169 postseason hitter in 38 games, with just six RBIs (he's 1-for-31 in his postseason career with runners in scoring position). The blame can be spread around.

6. You can't really fault Girardi too much. You can question the odd Eric Chavez pinch-hitting move for Brett Gardner in Game 3 and I thought his handling of the bullpen in Game 5 was a little questionable. Like pretty much every manager today, Girardi gets too locked into roles: David Robertson in the eighth, Mariano Rivera in the ninth. I know Ivan Nova's injury made things a bit more difficult, but I didn't like the idea of using CC Sabathia unless absolutely forced to. He brought in Sabathia to face the top of the Detroit lineup in the fifth inning when the Yankees trailed 2-0. Austin Jackson doubled and then after two strikeouts, he intentionally walked Miguel Cabrera. I think there were two better options as that inning unfurled: (1) Bring in Rafael Soriano to start the inning in the first place, try and get two innings from him, and then two from Robertson and then Rivera; or (2) once Sabathia had put two runners on base, bring in Robertson. What are you waiting for? I know it's CC Sabathia, but he was pitching on two days' rest. You cannot afford to allow any more runs at the point and Robertson was terrific all season. You have to manage Game 5 differently, and in my book, that meant getting as many innings as possible from Robertson and Rivera.

7. The Rob Thomson hold on A-Rod: Absolutely the right call. After the watching the replay again this morning, Rodriguez would have been out by 15 feet. Good decision by Thomson not to run the team out of a big inning.

8. For all the questions of "What will the Yankees do next?" the answer is: Not much. I expect the whole lineup will return, with the exception of Jesus Montero taking over the DH role from Jorge Posada. The bullpen is set with Boone Logan, Soriano, Robertson and Mo. A-Rod will be a year older and maybe a year more injury-prone (he's missed 150 games over the past four seasons and I wonder if we can ever expect him to play 150 games injury-free again). Jeter is a year older. Swisher will be 31. Teixeira will turn 32 and his OPS has declined three seasons in a row. And the rotation ... well, let's see if CC opts out of his contract and go from there. No doubt the pressure will be on GM Brian Cashman to re-sign Sabathia, and maybe go after free agent C.J. Wilson or swing a trade for another rotation anchor.

9. Anyway, it was a fun, interesting series. Did the better team win? Maybe, maybe not. I certainly don't buy the argument that the Yankees should have won the series and Game 5. There is no should in postseason baseball.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.

I was sure Alex Rodriguez was going to pop one out.

I was pretty sure Mark Teixeira was going to pop one out.

I knew Nick Swisher was going to knock one over the short porch in right field, probably down the line and into the first row.

That's what we expect from the New York Yankees, isn't it?

When the Yankees asked Joaquin Benoit to remove the big bandage that covered a zit or mosquito bite or whatever had infected his cheek like a small alien, you knew it was coming: Benoit would be rattled, he'd be thinking about exposing his sore to a national TV audience more than throwing strikes and the Yankees would win another big October game.

Band-Aid Gate. We all saw it coming.

And it almost did. Curtis Granderson reached out on a 3-2 pitch off the plate and looped a liner into right field to move Derek Jeter to second base. Robinson Cano hit a dribbler to Benoit's right that he stabbed at and somehow missed to load the bases. Bringing up Rodriguez. He just missed a 1-1, 95 mph fastball, fouling it straight back. He laid off a low changeup. Benoit came back with another changeup, a fantastic one that dove inside, an unhittable pitch. A-Rod missed it, swinging over the top. The fans booed as he walked back to the dugout. Sometimes it's not easy being the $275 million cleanup hitter.

But Teixeira walked on five pitches. Tigers 3, Yankees 2.

Nothing beats the tension of postseason baseball, especially in Yankee Stadium, with a visiting team trying to pull off the upset, the fans on their feet, too nervous to cheer or boo, it seemed. Maybe we've seen too many ballparks with fans waving towels. Maybe we just haven't seen enough Game 5s or Game 7s in recent years. But this felt like the most pressure-filled October moment in a long time.

Swisher struck out on a 2-2, 96 mph fastball.

Tigers fans exhaled for the first time in 12 minutes.

Benoit had needed 23 pitches to get two outs. The Tigers still needed six more.

Tension? It was punishment for fans on both sides, 166 games of big wins, big home runs and big comebacks, all down to two innings of October baseball. This is why we watch those games when it's 48 degrees and drizzling in April, why we watch those 3-hour games that move slower than a slug in the sun, meaningless games against the Royals or Twins in June. To get here. To six more outs.

As Jeter stepped in with two outs and Brett Gardner on first base in the eighth, Benoit had thrown 36 pitches. He hadn't thrown 37 pitches in a game all season. You can't make that kind of stuff up. On Benoit's 37th pitch, Gardner took off, Jeter took his classic inside-out swing ... Don Kelly took a step or two back, that right-field wall at Yankee Stadium that seems like it was built for wiffleball looming just a few feet behind him ... it looked like it had a chance ... fans reaching over, trying to pull a Jeffrey Maier ... the ball dropping into Kelly's glove.

So of course it came down to Jose Valverde, the man who said the series wouldn't return to New York. All he had to do was retire Granderson, Cano and Rodriguez. The big pitch was a 3-2 fastball to Granderson that he popped up to left. Cano lined softly to center. A-Rod swung through a 94 mph fastball. Game over, Tigers move on, Yankees go home, A-Rod walks off to more boos, the fans not caring that he was playing with a bad knee or that he wasn't the only Yankee to come up short in this series.

* * * *

Three big moments in this game:

1. Home runs from Don Kelly and Delmon Young in the first inning. I criticized Jim Leyland for hitting Kelly second. As we say though: You gotta make the plays, and Don Kelly came through. Kudos.

2. Yanking Ivan Nova after two innings essentially forced Joe Girardi to use CC Sabathia. I didn't like the idea of using CC, and he didn't pitch well. He got four outs but gave up two hits, two walks and the run that proved to be the winning run. Of the 37 pitches he threw, just 19 were for strikes.

3. Yankees third-base coach Rob Thomson held up Rodriguez at third base on Jorge Posada's one-out single in the fourth. Rodriguez had reached the bag right as Austin Jackson picked up the ball. Jackson has a decent arm and threw out eight runners on the season. It probably would have been a bang-bang play, especially with Rodriguez not at 100 percent speed. Tough call for Thomson, but I think he made the right decision, not wanting to potentially ruin a big inning. Russell Martin popped out to first and Gardner fouled out to leave the bases loaded.

* * * *

During his postgame news conference, Leyland said it perfectly: "This will be a game I'll remember the rest of my life." He pointed out he's been on both sides of it. Asked about Kelly's home run, he said, "Sometimes things just work out for you." He then praised Kelly, said it couldn't have happened to a better kid and nearly got choked up, knowing that home run will be with Kelly for the rest of his life.

And that's October baseball. Unsung heroes, big strikeouts, big hits, tension, pain, suffering and ... joy.

And memories. Love the memories.

You can follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.

Breaking down AL postseason managers

September, 30, 2011
Rays versus Rangers

The tactical matchup between Texas’ Ron Washington and Tampa Bay’s Joe Maddon figures to be a particularly interesting in-game chess match. That’s because both managers have so many moving parts in their lineups, making this a series where you’ll see in-game offensive tactics actively used to score, and not just in reaction to pitching changes.

True to his past track record, Maddon is one of the league’s more aggressive skippers with the running game, not simply in terms of stealing bases, but also ranking among the most likely managers to have his runners moving. Washington might appear relatively conventional in the aggregate, but he’s equally aggressive when he has Elvis Andrus, Ian Kinsler or Craig Gentry on base. Because both clubs run with those who can and don’t with everyone else, they rank close to the top in fewest outs made on the basepaths.

One thing that stands out is Maddon’s willingness to swap in pinch-hitters to mix and match with his two established platoons at catcher shortstop; no AL manager has come close to using as many pinch-hitters as Maddon (137 times). Maddon’s tactical aggressiveness on offense has been rewarded with a .382 OBP from his pinch-hitters, which reflects what he’s using them for: Not to drive runners in, but to create scoring opportunities.

Washington’s willingness to start Mike Napoli behind the plate should expand his opportunities to pinch-run with Gentry (or Endy Chavez) or Esteban German, not just for Napoli but also first baseman Mitch Moreland, with Napoli rotating out to first base; add in the decision to carry two backup catchers, and Washington will have plenty of opportunity to get tactical with the back end of his lineup if he needs to.

With Washington’s decision to lead off their series with lefties C.J. Wilson and Derek Holland on the mound, it’ll be especially interesting to see how Maddon employs right fielder Matt Joyce (.657 OPS vs. LHPs, .866 vs. RHPs) -- starting him locks him into a lineup position where he won’t be an asset early on, where bringing him in off the bench would be a key mid-game move. The roster decision to carry Jose Lobaton, Elliott Johnson and Sam Fuld instead of Justin Ruggiano or Brandon Guyer as possible platoon partners -- both slugged better than .550 vs. lefties at Triple-A Durham -- for Joyce could prove unfortunate.

Which brings us to bullpen usage, another area that should be interesting. One criticism of Washington from last October was his refusal to bring Neftali Feliz into games earlier than the ninth, but that was when he lacked for many alternatives. This year, Jon Daniels has supplied Washington and Feliz with a superb collection of set-up men, especially with the trades for Mike Adams and Koji Uehara, so that complaint isn’t going to be relevant this time around.

Maddon’s bullpen usage pattern stands out in stark contrast, but he’s worked wonders with the unlikely collection that Andrew Friedman assembled last winter. Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta make for an unconventional late-game tandem as is, but the Rays have used loose committee arrangements before. Maddon is the league’s most aggressive manager at pulling his relievers quickly but using them often -- Rays relievers average a league-low 15 pitches per game, and no AL manager used his relievers on consecutive days without rest more often than Maddon this year (112 times). That might sound like a recipe for burning out the bullpen, but with a rotation that goes deeper into games than any other in the league, it has proven sustainable.

One thing it would be surprising to see? Either manager ordering a pitchout, because Washington and Maddon were two of the three managers in the AL least likely to call for one, the other being Minnesota’s Ron Gardenhire.

Tigers vs. Yankees

Jim Leyland’s bid to win a World Series in two different leagues owes plenty to a certain consistency in how he runs a lineup and a pitching staff. On offense, Leyland does more with his lineup card than he exerts influence with in-game tactics. Part of that is a matter of the personnel he has on hand, and adapting to it. The Tigers don’t run much, but they don’t have many people to run with. He bunts a bit with key defenders like Austin Jackson and Ramon Santiago, but he isn’t nuts about it.

Instead, Leyland makes his impact through who plays, and when. He’s built productive platoons in the past, and his third-base combo of Wilson Betemit and Brandon Inge or his mixing and matching in right field are just the latest examples. Leyland has long been an active practitioner when it comes to employing defensive replacements, particularly in the outfield corners and at second base, usually as a matter of getting Magglio Ordonez’s glove off the field late in-game, and bringing in Santiago’s leather at the keystone, with superutility players Ryan Raburn and Don Kelly moving around as needed. Multi-positional bit parts like this are another Leyland staple -- remember John Wehner? -- long before seven-man bullpens made them appear necessary for everyone’s roster. It’s the sort of space-saving that affords carrying third catcher Omir Santos.

On the other hand, Leyland has adapted to the times, especially with his willingness to take starters out early. Where he used to have one of the slowest hooks in baseball, he’s much more conventional these days, although he still prefers to leave starters in past 110. He also been fairly conventional in his bullpen usage, not working anyone too hard or without rest especially often, but that’s given him an especially well-stocked pen in October, with closer Jose Valverde getting great support from both right- (Joaquin Benoit and Al Alburquerque) and left-handed set-up men (Phil Coke and Daniel Schlereth). By including Brad Penny for long-relief chores, he also has the flexibility to pull a starter early if he feels the need -- another gambit that he’s been willing to resort to more often than most.

Joe Girardi’s not a manager with a ton of hands-on in-game signature moves on offense, but he hardly has to resort to them. If not for Leyland’s comparatively frenzied pace of bringing in defensive replacements, looking at aggregate numbers alone might make you think this is the one tendency you’d notice most frequently from Girardi, but it’s less about achieving a defensive advantage as it is about pulling his regulars out of games already handily won or thoroughly lost.

No manager in the postseason has used fewer lineups, and with the kind of offense the Yankees crank out, there’s not much need for tactical chicanery. He stills more than most, but that’s a function of setting Brett Gardner and Curtis Granderson loose, but he has Eduardo Nunez available to use as a pinch-runner, and in the past Girardi’s proven willing to turn to speed off the bench.

What will be especially interesting to follow from the New York side of things is whether or not Girardi will show a quicker hook with his non-Sabathia starters than he did last year. That’s obviously on everyone’s radar when picking a post-season rotation after his ace has been cause for concern for months, but it’s especially relevant after last year’s “inning too far” from A.J. Burnett in Game Four of the ALCS, when few people present thought sending Burnett out to the mound for the sixth and a one-run lead was advisable.

With that in mind, it’s worth noting that in 2011 Girardi rates among the AL leaders in what Baseball Info Solutions’ “Slow Hooks” (calculated using pitches thrown and runs allowed, indexed against league average), but perhaps past experience will have some influence on his choices by the time Freddy Garcia’s start in the third game rolls around.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.