Still waiting for a postseason hero
Throughout the postseason on virtually every broadcast, the playoffs are now called a "crapshoot," phrasing attributable to Oakland general manager Billy Beane. It isn't exactly inaccurate, made so because Major League Baseball has been going out of its way for the past 50 years to curb their dominance of its most successful franchise, the Yankees.
What the league couldn't do with the draft it did with the wild card and now a second wild card. The crapshoot dynamic goes beyond just the best teams having their chances to win a title diminished. Now the sport's most important games are subject to the roulette wheel of late October-November weather. Greed is not good.
The playoffs may be increasingly random, little more than a disappointingly poor version of the NCAA tournament because baseball doesn't seem to trust its own traditions to endure. Giving into randomness is a mistake, an easy way out, for the playoffs should not be a crapshoot as much as a stage for the kind of high-level competition that separates good players from pressure performers.
The images over the past several days of both division series were hardly produced by cosmic chance. As the playoffs intensify, the performers made sure their teams were still playing. Clayton Kershaw took the ball on three days' rest for the Dodgers to make sure they did not return to Atlanta for a deciding Game 5. Michael Wacha, all of 22 years old and nine career starts made his first postseason appearance in an elimination game on the road and nearly threw a no-hitter. Snarling Grant Balfour and swearing Victor Martinez verbally went one-on-one before the benches cleared. In Tampa, Jose Lobaton homered in the bottom of the ninth of Game 3, extending the season for just one more day.
Buried under the incessant numbers, the lists of the undervalued and overvalued, the faux and legit analytics, and the verbal manipulating of the postseason to have it fit certain narratives are people, the flesh and blood who play the game. They are the ones with the ears to hear the crowds roaring, and they must negotiate what is happening to them. They are challenged to discover if they will be able to do their jobs or if they will be swallowed whole by the moment. They are Fernando Rodney, he of the crooked hat, frightened eyes and shaking knees. Rodney was terrific during the season and appeared terrified during the playoffs. They are Tampa Bay ace left-hander David Price, mad at the world but really mad at himself for blinking at Fenway Park in a must-win Game 2 that turned into battering by the Red Sox for him and his team. They are Adam Wainwright, the Cardinals ace, who took the ball, Bob Gibson-style, and did what an ace pitcher is supposed to do in these winner-take-all dramas. He made clear his team wasn't losing, not on his watch.
Wainwright and Wacha, pitching under the heat of the stage lights when it matters are the reason why the Cardinals are playing the Dodgers and the Pirates will be quiet for the remainder of 2013. The Rays, fantastic in September to advance to October, oddly crumbled under the pressure of Fenway Park as they threw the ball around carelessly, made three errors in five games and more mistakes that do not show up in the box score. When it was time to perform, the usually loose yet tough Rays wilted. They deserved to lose.
For all the discussion of randomness, a dynamic created by Beane, the brilliant mind in the A's front office, there were tears in the A's dugout. This year was supposed to be different from last year and yet the endings were exactly the same, silenced at home for the second consecutive year by the great Justin Verlander, who like Tim Lincecum last year flushed the regular season and traded it for two memorable October starts.
A crapshoot is unpredictable. The A's are a pattern. Oakland is 1-12 in clinching postseason games since 2000 (1-6 at home, 0-6 on the road) because no one has ever given them a peerless performance like Verlander's or any of the sterling moments that playoff baseball has produced over the past century and a half.
In fact, the A's have generally undermined themselves as the air thins, and this -- not the paltry payroll or the leaking stadium -- is the reason why they lose. In 2000, at home, Terrence Long misplayed a fly ball in the first inning and the Yankees eliminated the A's. The following year, up two games to none at home against the Yankees, A's pitcher Barry Zito was great in Game 3. Mike Mussina was better for the Yanks, and Jeremy Giambi didn't slide. A day later, Jermaine Dye broke his leg with a fastball he fouled off his shin, the late Cory Lidle pitched scared and the A's flew back to New York for another clincher. In Game 5, Derek Jeter leapt and fell into the stands, David Justice took Tim Hudson deep and Jason Giambi played his last game for the A's before leaving for the Yankees.
In 2003, in Boston up two games to none, A's pitcher Ted Lilly was terrific in Game 3, but the A's ran themselves out of the clincher with bad baserunning and by not knowing the rules.
On it has gone for Oakland. None of them -- not MVP Miguel Tejada, Giambi, Hudson, Mark Mulder, Zito, Frank Thomas, Josh Reddick or Brandon Moss -- has separated himself from the rest by delivering a command performance. Instead, the A's will spend this winter wondering how they lost Game 4 in Detroit, after leading in the early innings, after loading the bases with nobody out and the heart of the order up when they were down 5-4 in the eighth. If someone had stepped up in that moment, they wouldn't spend the winter regretting facing Verlander in Game 5.
An argument can be made that this lack of Broadway zeal in October is entirely the fault of Beane, baseball economics and Bud Selig for not letting the A's move to San Jose. It is hard to ask Sonny Gray and Seth Smith to match star power with Verlander and Miguel Cabrera. Eventually the gap in talent reveals itself to be a massive, intractable chasm – like in consecutive series deciders at home against Verlander.
I don't believe it. Somewhere, the A's needed Cody Ross, or Edgar Renteria homering off of Cliff Lee, or Juan Uribe or Carlos Beltran (the Houston Beltran) or Mike Napoli or Wacha or someone. Over the past 15 years that player has yet to emerge. Oakland is still waiting for its Gene Tenace.
It's the postseason where the performances are their most visceral, where baseball is its most primal, where Rodney stood on the mound looking for help that never came and Joaquin Benoit, the Tigers closer stood in a similar position, trying to save Verlander's gem with the tying run at the plate. There were no timeouts, no help defense, and no coaching scheme to help Benoit or save Seth Smith from making the final out. There was no randomness to it. There was only the competition, and the matter of who -- when the pressure grew to its most suffocating -- would blink.