World Series: Gotta get to Mo

mo riveraPHILADELPHIA—It was back in Washington, probably in late August or early September when all we did was write about the proper way to use a relief pitcher and closers. Needless to say it was during one of Brad Lidge’s many rough patches of 2009 and there was a whole bunch of name dropping and philosophizing by the likes of me.

It wasn’t just willy-nilly name dropping, either. Oh sure, there was Eckersley, Sutter, Goose, Sparky Lyle, Mike Marshall and, of course, Fingers. But we also waxed on about Rawly Eastwick, Will McEnaney and the socialism of baseball with its division of labor and labels.

Labels, we decided, were bad. However, since the Phillies seem to have their label/labor issues figured out, there is no need to go overboard when discussing the best use of the so-called “closer.”

Besides, Mariano Rivera makes that Rawly Eastwick look like Will McEnaney.

Oh yes, Mariano Rivera. His two-inning save against the Phillies in Game 2 of the World Series on Thursday night might have been a record-breaker, but it wasn’t exactly a study in the efficiency of pitching. The Phillies made Rivera throw 39 pitches in order to get his 10th career save in the World Series. They also brought the go-ahead run to the plate in the eighth inning, and the tying run in the ninth.

These weren’t mere flash-flood rallies either. In the eighth with one out Rivera had to face Chase Utley with Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino on base. Utley had ripped two homers the night before to pace the Phillies to the win, but this time Rivera got the inning-ending double play.

Sure, the TV replays showed that Utley was safe, but it was significant enough that Rivera got Utley to hit into a double play considering the lefty hit into just five of them all year and has grounded into just 49 double plays in his entire career.

Indeed, the lefty hitting Utley got one of those cutters Rivera throws.

In the ninth Matt Stairs faced Rivera with two outs and a runner on with a chance to tie it. Stairs, as we know, has had some success against big-time closers, but this one ended just as it has so many times with Rivera.

As soon as Stairs made the final out of the game, the talk started. For instance, there are a few that suggested that even though the Phillies didn’t score against Rivera, they got to him a bit. They saw those 39 pitches, of course, and sent eight hitters to the plate in those two innings. The idea, as it’s been written and spoken, was that the Phillies got a good, long look at Rivera and will be ready for the next time.

“Now you have a game plan,” Rollins said. “We didn’t really see Mariano during the season. Spring training, he comes in, I’m out of the game. So, it’s a mystery. Like, we know what he’s going to do. It’s no surprise. It’s not a secret. You’re getting a cutter. All right. You’re getting another cutter. All right. Now here comes another one. That’s what makes him such a good pitcher, because he’s not trying to trick you. But when you see him, you figure out how much his ball is moving. Once you find your approach, you’ve got to be stubborn with it because he’s going to be stubborn with what he’s going to do to you.”

Manager Charlie Manuel was one of those who believed the Phillies’ long look at Rivera was beneficial.

“We can hit Rivera. We can hit any closer. We’ve proved that,” Manuel said. “He’s one of the best closers in baseball, if not the best. He’s very good. But I’ve seen our team handle good pitching and we’re definitely capable of scoring runs late in the game.”

Here’s the big question from all of this… what makes this time so different? What is it the Phillies get that no other team, for the last 15 years, couldn’t figure out?

What makes the Phillies so darned special?

Certainly the Phillies didn’t need to see 39 pitches to know all about Rivera. He throws the cutter and like Pedro Martinez, Rivera is a force of nature. Hitters know what he’s going to throw and when he’s going to throw it, but he still turns bats into kindling. The Phillies, like every other team in the world, send scouts to watch Rivera pitch, they’ve seen him on TV, during spring training and on a continuous loop on the monitors in the clubhouse.

Really, what makes those 39 pitches any different?

“I don’t think you can be scared of anyone in baseball,” Victorino said. “You have to have the resiliency to say, ‘This guy is good. but we can beat him.’ His numbers show how good he is, but you can’t go with that mindset because then you’re beating yourself.”

OK, fine. But in the carefully choreographed world of relief pitching, Rivera is just like all those names we dropped earlier. Actually, check that… he’s better than them. That’s because in 21 World Series appearances—one fewer than Whitey Ford’s all-time record—Rivera has pitched 33 innings, finished 16 games and notched 10 saves.

Needless to say the 10 saves are the best in World Series history, with Fingers second with six. More notable, Rivera has saved four World Series games with multi-innings outings. Again, that’s another record.

So why is it that the Phillies think they can do what only one other team has done in 21 tries?

Maybe it was the 11-pitch at-bat from Rollins in the eighth where he earned a walk (like he really earned it) after falling behind in the count 1-and-2 and then fouling off five pitches. That’s the harbinger.

After all, the last time Rivera threw as many as 39 pitches when going for a two-inning save, the Red Sox rallied for a victory in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS and began the greatest comeback in baseball history.

Lidge’s legacy

lidgeATLANTA – When the 2009 season is archived or formatted to some digital data base way in the future, Brad Lidge and the issue of all those blown saves and extraneous runs will be the largest underlying theme. It has to be given how much time we’ve spent talking and writing about it.

Interestingly, all these months later the closer issue has not been resolved. Lidge started blowing saves in earnest in May and kept at it fairly consistently.

Who knows, down the road when we’re looking at the stats on Baseball-Reference or whatever clearinghouse baseball stats are vaulted in, maybe all we will see from Lidge is his save totals. After all, as the closer it is Lidge’s job to save games.

Lidge has 31 saves so far this season after finishing off the Braves in the ninth on Sunday afternoon. In his career, Lidge has saved at least 30 games (with a high of 42) four times in six full seasons. That’s a nice feather in his cap.

Now here’s some historical perspective on Lidge’s 30-plus saves in four seasons: Goose Gossage only got 30 saves in a season twice. The same goes for Rollie Fingers. Bruce Sutter, the other closer in the Hall of Fame, notched four 30-plus saves seasons just like Lidge.

Of course, 30 saves doesn’t mean what it did in the old days. In fact, of the five closers in the Hall of Fame – Gossage, Sutter, Fingers, Dennis Eckersley and Hoyt Wilhelm – only one has put together more 30-plus saves seasons than Lidge.

That will all change when guys like Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera get voted in. By then 45 saves will be what 30 was in the 1970s. Still, it will be interesting to see how history judges Lidge’s ’09 season. Chances are the legacy will have more to do with how the year ends as opposed as what happened between May and September.

He’s nailed down his last three chances in a row, allowing a run in each one of them, but the end justifies the means when it comes to saving games. In that case, the 31 saves comes with no caveats in Lidge’s case.

Looking at the blown save redux

GooseNo one has to look at the stats or old game logs to know baseball is a much different game now than it was just 25 years ago. Just look at the innings pitched stats of the pitchers to learn all you need to know.

Yes, the game has changed. Just look at the way folks are reacting to Brad Lidge’s 10 blown saves this year as exhibit A. Of those 10, including the one the Phillies’ closer snapped from the jaws of victory on Saturday night in Houston, five were walk-off jobs and four came after he retired the first hitter of the inning.

But here’s something for you… of the handful of pitchers with the record for most blown saves in a season (14), two of those pitchers are in the Hall of Fame. Yes, Bruce Sutter had 14 blown saves in 1978 only to come back to win the Cy Young Award in 1979 with 10 more blown saves.

Yes, that’s right. Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter from Donegal High School in Lancaster County, Pa. had 24 blown saves in two seasons and took home a Cy Young Award.

Of course Sutter didn’t always pitch just one inning to get his saves, which is where the huge difference lies. Of those 24 blown saves, Sutter coughed up nine of them in outings of two innings of more. In fact Sutter took a blown save in one game where he pitched five innings.

When was the last time Brad Lidge went more than three outs to get a save? Try July 6, 2006.

No, closers aren’t asked to do too much these days, which is probably why the blown save stands out so much. The game is so defined by roles and managerial moves so compartmentalized and beholden to statistical data that there is much more pressure on everyone. If the manager deviates from the norm he is questioned and if the closer can’t walk that tight rope night after night without tripping up, people call for his head.

One inning to define failure or success.

Only a handful of relief pitchers won the Cy Young Award and even fewer were awarded the MVP. One of the guys who got both in the same season was Rollie Fingers who helped pitch the Milwaukee Brewers into the playoffs in the strike-shortened 1981 season. However, in just 47 appearances and 34 save chances, Fingers nailed down just 28.

Of course he pitched 78 innings and had a 1.04 ERA, which means the nine runs he allowed that season led to those eight blown saves.

There are more examples, too. Remember when Steve Bedrosian was saving games every time he came into a game for the Phillies in 1987? Yeah, well he blew eight of his 48 chances, too, and still got the Cy Young Award.

bruce_sutterIn 1974 Mike Marshall of the Dodgers won the Cy Young Award even though he had 21 saves in 33 chances. Yes, that’s right… that’s 12 blown saves. Of course he appeared in 106 games and racked up over 200 innings all in relief.

Sparky Lyle won the Cy Young for the Yankees in 1977 and there was a lot of talk about how relievers weren’t worthy of such an honor. After all, Lyle had just 26 saves and 13 wins with eight blown saves. Of course he finished 60 games and averaged nearly two innings per outing, so he kept busy.

My favorite of all workhorse closers is Goose Gossage who was charged with 10 blown saves in 36 chances in 1977 in his only season in Pittsburgh. That season Goose picked up 16 saves when he pitched more than two innings, including four of three innings or longer and one four inning save.

Goose also had blown saves of four and five innings each in 1977. That’s nothing compared to Goose’s first year with the Yankees where he took two blown saves in a seven-inning outings and had five blown saves when he pitched three innings or longer.

Only 10 of Goose’s saves were three-inning jobs in 1978.

Lidge, on the other hand, has appeared in 57 games this season but only accumulated 50 1/3 innings. The last time he pitched more than an inning was late in the 2007 season when he got ahem a blown save.

Still, I have talked to closers about going more than one inning in save situations and even brought up Gossage’s efforts in 1977 and 1978 and they usually look at me like I have two heads. Only Brett Myers seemed interested in coming in before the ninth inning for a save chance, but that was when he was healthy.

No, I’m not saying stretching out the closer by asking him to do more work is the answer. In fact, it’s clear the modern day pitcher can’t handle the work load that the relievers of a generation ago piled on. But I am saying there is much more pressure on guys like Lidge these days. The fact that closers have absolutely no wiggle room at all makes Lidge’s 2008 season that much more impressive.

Moreover, closers like Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman walked that precarious ledge for decades and somehow have come out on the other end lauded as the best ever at the role.

Yeah, the current-day closer has more pressure and is expected to be practically robotic, but there’s something cool about the best reliever coming into a game in the seventh inning and throwing heat to every hitter in the lineup.

It was a simpler game back then – for better or worse.

Fingers, Finger and jaunty little hats

finger-and-fingersBeer at the ballpark is $8.75. That’s a lot of money. That’s especially a lot of money when one considers that they made it just down the street from the ballpark. Like literally. That watery, flavorless Budweiser beer is made very near the famous St. Louis Arch – which is very cool, by the way – as well as the main office for Purina pet foods.

Can’t make this up, folks. Doggies and kitties need to eat, too.

Anyway, I haven’t seen too many things here that knocked me over. For instance, I haven’t seen Rollie Fingers yet and I heard he was here. I saw a guy that almost looked like Rich Hofmann, and I gave away my All-Star Game lanyard that held my credential because the nice St. Louis-ian who sold me the faux-chicken sandwich (yeah, eat your bleep, veggie boy!) thought it was cool and asked me for it.

Besides, it was itchy.

I thought Tim Lincecum’s jaunty little cap was neat. So did he, too. After all, Tim Lincecum liked it so much that he wore it to the press conference with the managers and Bob Costas. He even had to endure a wisecrack from that smart-ass Costas, too. You know, something about how it was the same style of hat Jim Bunning wore at the ’64 All-Star Game at Shea Stadium.

If you’ve heard one Jim Bunning joke, you’ve heard them all.

So Ryan Howard is coming to hit and he has his high school coach pitching to him. Cameras are popping like strobe lights…

Time to watch.

Good day for Baseball in Milwaukee

MILWAUKEE – Pretty cool day so far. After all, it’s not every day that a guy like me wakes up, goes to the ballpark, talks to a Hall-of-Famer near the cage during batting practice, heads up to the press box and is greeted by another Hall-of-Famer who hands out the day’s lineup card.

After chatting with Robin Yount and Harry Kalas, I had waffle fries and the best veggie dog I ever tasted for lunch. Usually those things taste like pencil erasers, but the people in Milwaukee know their wieners.

After that, the great writer from The Inquirer, Phil Sheridan, took my photo beneath the huge Rollie Fingers poster, which was pretty cool. Needless to say, I learned a lot about ol’ Rollie when I was a kid.

Besides, wieners, they also know how to make a lot of freaking noise in Milwaukee. As the fans walked in this morning, the ushers handed out those thunder stick things and now everyone is beating the hell out of them. With the lid closed on Miller Park, it was almost impossible to hear yourself think down on the field.

But Jimmy Rollins didn’t have to think – just swing. And on the sixth pitch of the game, the Phils’ leadoff hitter lined one into the seats in right field.

Suddenly it got eerily quiet.

They got noisy again soon, though. When Ryan Braun laced a two-out single to left against Joe Blanton it sounded like they were beating a tin trash can with a crowbar. Thankfully, when Prince Fielder ended the inning with a fly out, the fans all got up, put down the thunder sticks and went to the concourse to get a wiener or some fried cheese curds.

They eat a lot of weird things out here.

End of 1: Phillies 1, Brewers 0

Game 4: The Kid and The Hammer

MILWAUKEE – If the folks in Philadelphia are torn about making the choice between the Eagles against the Redskins or the Phillies in Game 4 of the NLDS, sports fans in Wisconsin are close to a meltdown. After all, just about the same time as the first pitch is thrown here at Miller Park at noon central time, the Packers will be teeing it up at Lambeau Field against the Falcons.

They love the Packers here in Milwaukee and all over the dairy state. In fact, when talking to folks around town this morning about “The Game,” we were quick to learn that it didn’t mean playoff baseball.

Still, they have a very significant baseball history here in Milwaukee. A scan of the retired numbers hanging from the roof of Miller Park proves as much. Paul Molitor and Rollie Fingers were as good as any designated hitter and closer in the history of the game. Molitor collected more than 3,300 hits during his career, was MVP of the 1993 World Series and guided the Brewers to the playoffs twice during his Hall-of-Fame career.

Fingers was one of the first closer specialists in the game and helped redefine the role. But more than just a one-inning trick pony, Fingers worked two or three innings in order to pick up a save. In 1981 Fingers won both the Cy Young Award and the MVP for the Brewers by posting a 1.04 ERA during the strike-shortened season.

But when one talks baseball in Milwaukee, the two names are Hank Aaron and Robin Yount. Aaron, of course, was one of the greatest players in the history of the game. He also played in Milwaukee for 14 of his 23 big-league season for both the Braves and Brewers. Better yet, Aaron led Milwaukee to its one and only World Series victory by clubbing three homers and batting .393 in 1957 against the Yankees. Aaron’s Braves got there again in ’58 but lost to the Yankees in seven games even though Hammerin’ Hank hit .333.

In 1975, the season after he broke Babe Ruth’s all-time, home-run record, Aaron returned to Milwaukee to play his final two seasons for the Brewers. But by then Aaron was in his 40s, winding down and hardly the same player he was when he came up more than two decades before.

However, one of his teammates was a young 19-year-old shortstop already in his second fulltime, big-league season. Eventually, Yount went on to play 20 seasons for the Brewers, won the AL MVP twice and took Milwaukee to its last World Series in 1982. He retired with over 3,100 hits and was an easy selection for the Hall of Fame in 1999.

But in 1975 the Brewers had the youngest player in the league with the teenaged Yount and the oldest with the 40-plus Aaron. Needless to say it was a curious dichotomy, but one that Yount, even at such a young age, understood completely.

“He was significant,” Yount said about Aaron as the Brewers took batting practice before Game 4 of the NLDS on Sunday morning. “Even though I was just 19 I could see how important he was and not just in baseball, either. He had already broken the record. I knew how big he was, but he didn’t come off that way in person. I mean he didn’t let it get to him. We knew all he had accomplished in this game, but like I said before, he acted just like anyone else.”

The humanness of the all-time home run king is what stood out the most more than 33 years after the kid and the vet joined the same team.

“He was great to me and being around him was a great experience for me. What I learned was what a normal guy the greatest home-run hitter of all time at that time can be,” Yount said. “You know that made a huge impression on me. Here I was a young kid, in his second year in the Major Leagues, trying to learn this business and found out that everyone is pretty much the same. You know… he treated me just like he would anyone else. He was great to me.”

Both were even better to the game and to Milwaukee.

The Phillies are mixing things up a bit with their languid offense.

11 – Rollins, ss
8 – Victorino, cf
26 – Utley, 2b
6 – Howard, 1b
5 – Burrell, lf
28 – Werth, rf
19 – Dobbs, 3b
51 – Ruiz, c
56 – Blanton, p

The Brewers lost Rickie Weeks for the rest of the playoffs with a sprained left knee suffered in Game 3.

25 – Cameron, cf
5 – Durham, 2b
8 – Braun, lf
28 – Fielder, 1b
7 – Hardy, ss
1 – Hart, rf
30 – Counsell, 3b
18 – Kendall, c
37 – Suppan, p

Pregame: Nice ‘stache

MILWAUKEE – The series has shifted to a new city so that means the players get re-introduced before the game. The Brewers’ fans neither booed, hissed, cheered nor tossed rolls of quarters at the Phillies when they trotted out onto the third-base line. They were stoic with their indifference.

However, when Geoff Jenkins took the field he got loud hoots and hollers from his former hometown fans.

They also clapped loudly when the Brewers exited the field after batting practice, too.

Talk about polite… these people make St. Louis fans look like a bunch of devil worshippers.

The one thing that stood out the most to me when I walked through the corridors to the press box here was the giant poster of the great relief pitcher Rollie Fingers. Quite obviously I was a huge Rollie Fingers fan when I was a kid. Part of that had to do with the fact that Rollie was pretty good – he’s in the Hall of Fame after all. Plus, he had the tremendous handlebar mustache and the unfortunate last name.

So one of my goals before we leave Milwaukee is to have my picture taken beneath the poster. I’m going to make that happen.

On another note, Robin Yount also had a very serious mustache.

11 – Rollins, ss
28 – Werth, rf
26 – Utley, 2b
6 – Howard, 1b
5 – Burrell, lf
8 – Victorino, cf
7 – Feliz, 3b
51 – Ruiz, c
50 – Moyer, p

25 – Cameron, cf
2 – Hall, 2b
8 – Braun, lf
28 – Fielder, 1b
7 – Hardy, ss
1 – Hart, rf
23 – Weeks, 2b
18 – Kendall, c
31 – Bush, p