King Kaufman's Sports Daily

The first day of the playoffs gives us tense, thrilling baseball, stupid poll questions and evidence of iron in the Yankees' gloves.


Salon Staff
October 1, 2003 11:00PM (UTC)

Russ Ortiz of the Braves pitched himself into one more jam than he could pitch his way out of while Kerry Wood of the Cubs handcuffed the Braves on two hits and then beat them with his bat. Jason Schmidt of the Giants overpowered the Marlins, who walked Barry Bonds three times, two of those leading to the only runs of the game. And the Twins got five innings of solid relief from four pitchers after starter Johan Santana left the game with leg cramps, and they beat the Yankees by exposing and exploiting New York's huge defensive weaknesses.

If the rest of the 2003 playoffs are as exciting as Day 1 was, this'll be a pretty good October.

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Chris Berman, Rick Sutcliffe and Tony Gwynn, announcing the middle game in San Francisco for ESPN, repeatedly called the Twins' 3-1 win over the Yankees in the early game "a shocker." That was hyperbole, this being baseball, where no team winning one game can be labeled shocking, but that early game was an entertaining nail-biter, interesting because the Yankees lost it in a very un-Yankeelike way for the postseason, fumbling around on defense, and failed to win it in that most Yankeelike of ways, with late-inning heroics, though they threatened to do so.

The other two games had a long way to go to live up to that curtain-raiser, but they managed. Schmidt locked horns with Josh Beckett in a classic pitcher's duel as the Giants beat the Marlins 2-0, and then Wood chased Ortiz with a two-run double to the gap in left-center in the sixth inning, his second hit of the night.

Ortiz had pitched out of two on, one out jams in the first and third and a bases loaded, no outs jam in the fourth. Clinging to a 1-0 lead, he loaded the bases again in the sixth and got the first out, but a botched double-play ball let the tying run score, and then Wood brought home two more with his double, then scored on Kenny Lofton's single for 4-1. The Braves got one across in the eighth and had the bases loaded against reliever Mike Remlinger, their old teammate, but Remlinger got Javy Lopez to ground out.

When Joe Borowski closed out the Braves in the ninth, it was the end of nine hours and 12 minutes of terrific baseball. Some things worth noting along the way:

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Those Yankee outfielders

With no score in the third inning of the Twins-Yankees game, Cristian Guzman of the Twins went from first to third on a hit-and-run single to left by Shannon Stewart. The next batter was Luis Rivas, who hit a soft liner to shallow center. Bernie Williams of the Yankees came in to catch it, then made a weak throw home as Guzman tagged up and raced down the line.

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"The throw is poor, and he scores!" shouted ESPN announcer Jon Miller, and there you had it -- the first criticism of Bernie Williams in the history of national television.

Williams, who is 35, won four straight gold gloves from 1997 to 2000, and he maintains his reputation as a stellar center fielder even as age and injuries have drastically reduced his range and throwing ability. You simply never hear anything about Williams' fielding on TV except that he's terrific at it, which used to be true but no longer is. He's an illustration of the fact that we tend to judge fielders by their reputations, and by the anecdotal evidence of plays we happen to see, a tiny fraction of the whole league-wide picture.

Fielding statistics are the most imprecise that baseball has, and great minds are at work as we speak trying to figure out better ways to measure individual defensive ability. But the stats at hand show us that while Williams isn't a disaster in center field, he leaves a lot to be desired. Among the 20 major league center fielders who played in two-thirds of their team's games, Williams was tied for first in fielding percentage, having made only one error all year, but he was well down the list in two stats that measure -- imperfectly -- a fielder's range. He was ninth in range factor, which is simply assists and putouts divided by games played, and 16th in zone rating, which attempts to measure the percentage of balls hit into a fielder's typical area that he fields.

Williams gave us anecdotal evidence of his weakness in the sixth inning, on the game's decisive play. The Twins led 1-0 and had Matthew LeCroy at first with one out when Torii Hunter hit a soft line-drive single to right center. Only Williams, hampered by his bad knee, was painfully slow getting to it. The ball skipped by him to the wall. LeCroy scored and Hunter had a triple. He scored too when second baseman Alfonso Soriano's threw away an ill-advised relay throw to third. What should have been a single became, in effect, a two-run homer.

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Yankees left fielder Hideki Matsui also enjoys a fine defensive reputation. I can't figure out why. The Twins' first run, the one Guzman scored on Williams' poor throw home, was set up in part by Matsui's defensive deficiency. Even though he was running on the pitch, Guzman would normally stop at second on Stewart's hit-and-run single because it was hit right to Matsui, who would field it just a few steps from third base. But Guzman steamed on toward third. You don't do that if you have any respect for the left fielder, and sure enough, Matsui failed to get him, setting up Rivas' sacrifice fly.

And then in the sixth, after Williams' misplay and Soriano's error had let two runs score, the very next hitter, Corey Koskie, hit a sinking liner in front of Matsui that the left fielder should have caught. He came in, slid, and somehow missed the ball, which rolled behind him for a double that a less charitable official scorer would have called an error.

Of the 19 major league left fielders who played in two-thirds of their team's games, Matsui was 18th in fielding percentage, 12th in range factor and 18th in zone rating. I'm not sure where his defensive reputation comes from, but from what I've seen this year, and the numbers, it certainly looks like he's a disaster out there.

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Those announcers

Fox's Thom Brennaman and Steve Lyons always keep things interesting, shall we say.

Talking about the salary-shuffling offseason trade that brought first baseman Eric Karros and second baseman Mark Grudzielanek to the Cubs from the Dodgers, Lyons said, "Without those two guys, the Cubs aren't even in the playoffs."

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What does that mean? Wouldn't that be true of pretty much any two players who got significant playing time? Grudzielanek rebounded from two off years to have a nice season, for him, meaning he was somewhere in the middle ranks of second basemen. Karros had a pretty similar year to Tino Martinez of the Cardinals or Carlos Pena of the Tigers, which is not a compliment. If Karros was so valuable, why did Randall Simon, scourge of racing sausages if not National League pitchers, steal so much playing time from him after coming over from the Pirates?

If the Cubs had a major-league average first baseman and a slightly above-average second baseman, they might have won the Central Division by five games instead of one. Lots of teams make the playoffs without guys like Karros and Grudzielanek. In fact, most teams that have guys like them playing so much don't make the playoffs. Good thing the Cubs had all that pitching. Uh, right Steve?

A little later, by way of saying that if Wood's game-winning double held up he would be the first Cubs pitcher to drive in a postseason winning run since Orval Overall in 1907, Lyons and Brennaman made it clear they'd never heard of Overall.

Jeez, fellas, he was a two-time 20-game winner and one of the mainstays of the great Cubs teams of 1906-10, and he was a guy whose name you don't forget if you've heard it once. He wasn't Christy Mathewson or anything, but he's hardly an obscure footnote if you know even a little bit about baseball history. Lyons and Brennaman -- a former player and a second-generation announcer -- should be ashamed of themselves for parading their ignorance like that.

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And by the time I stopped listening, I had counted seven mentions of the fact that if the Cubs won Tuesday, it would be their first postseason road victory since 1945. The way Fox's announcers and graphics kept harping on that amazing factoid, you'd figure the Cubs' postseason road losing streak must be up around 95 or 100 games, right? Fox never mentioned this, but the Cubs postseason road losing streak stood at eight games, none of them having been played before 1984.

The ESPN announcing teams -- Miller and Joe Morgan in New York and Berman, Sutcliffe and Gwynn in San Francisco -- were much better Tuesday. Miller is the best, and his chemistry with Morgan is terrific. The trio in San Francisco seemed to enjoy each other's company, and while none of them offered any terrific insights, they were pleasant enough to listen to, and Berman amazingly managed to broadcast an entire game in the Golden State without incessantly quoting the lyrics to the song "Hotel California." It's high praise indeed coming from me when I say that Berman was only insufferable Tuesday, as opposed to shoot-the-TV insufferable.

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The virtual manager

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The first "virtual manager" poll question of the night was, "What is more valuable, the experience of the Atlanta Braves or the youthful exuberance of the Chicago Cubs?"

The answer, of course, is: Gosh, what a stupid question.

First of all, the Cubs are older than dirt. The average age of their starting lineup Tuesday was 32. Five of the nine were older than that, and only two were under 30. The average age of the Braves' starting lineup was 29.6, and five of the nine were under 30. When Eric Karros had youthful exuberance, the spitball was legal. When Kenny Lofton was youthfully exuberant, Esther Williams was a hottie. Moises Alou and Sammy Sosa ran a speakeasy during Prohibition.

But putting that aside, the answer to the question of whether an experienced team or a youthfully exuberant one has a better chance of winning a baseball series is: Whichever one has better baseball players. If the experienced team wins, typists with nothing better to do will write about their experience. If the youthful team wins, chatterers with nothing better to do will talk about their exuberance. But if you look closely, you'll probably find that the winner pitched better, hit better, or both. Who had the youthful exuberance on their side when steady 29-year-old Braves pitcher Ortiz blew a 1-2 fastball past excitable 34-year-old Cubs slugger Sosa in the third inning Tuesday?

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And then there's chemistry, another elusive attribute credited to teams who play better than the commentariat thinks they have any right to. If you think a team is going to be lousy and they play well, it must be because they have such good chemistry, because it can't just be that you underestimated them. Braves catcher Javy Lopez turned the Cubs-Braves series into a test of chemistry when he said the Braves have it and the Cubs, largely cobbled together through trades during the year, don't.

"They have a pretty good team, but you got to think about the fact that they are a team that recruited players from different teams during the season," Lopez told MLB.com. "It's not like this team that has been together since Day 1. There's no way they can beat us as united as we are. Our chemistry is totally different than theirs. There's no doubt they have a great team. Their pitching speaks for itself. But it's all about teamwork."

Yeah. We'll see. There wasn't a whole lot of teamwork going on when Kerry Wood doubled off Russ Ortiz to drive in the go-ahead runs. It was two athletes competing one-on-one, and one of them winning. Chemistry's great when you're making medicine. When you're trying to score runs, you need to be able to hit. It really doesn't matter if you get along with your teammates. Many championship teams have proven this.

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That blimp

According to some boilerplate copy read by Berman, that Snoopy blimp "has traveled over a million miles to provide aerial coverage of sporting events." Wow. A million miles to show us that same overhead shot of every stadium and arena roof in America, most of them surrounded by a sea of cars or, at night, a sea of lights in a black field. Aerial coverage: Give me a break. If they never again flew a blimp over a sporting event, would you even notice?

It would be nice if the networks would spend less time showing us the blimp view and more time showing us that shot from the camera that ESPN had directly behind home plate and raised a bit, so we're looking over the top of the catcher's head. We only got a few quick glimpses, but it's a great camera angle, the best seat in the house. It offers a great view of the pitch's movement, and a better idea of where the ball is going when it's hit.

I'm guessing here. ESPN never showed an actual pitch from that angle.

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