Stealing Signals: Boo!

(Don’t complain about the title, Philly fans. What did you expect from a Mets fan? Besides, this is a more authentic congratulatory title than trying to fake it. Plus, I would have given the Dodgers the same title anyhow.)

Phillies 5, Dodgers 1 – Once again, Philly got the Chad Billingsley early, with Jimmy Rollins hitting a lead-off homer to set the tone early, and three errors in one inning by Rafael Furcal put the Dodgers so far behind that there were no Kirk Gibson-style heroices to whip out on the 20th anniversary of that legendary home run off Dennis Eckersley in the 1988 World Seires.

(Note: Wasn’t it quaint when the World Series was starting at about this time, back in the day?)

Cole Hamels is establishing himself as Philly’s vrsion of Josh Beckett, a hard-line playoff ace that the team can rely on and has in his three starts — his success has been absolutely disgusting, and he was filthy again tonight, only giving up a home run to Manny Ramirez, which, in the grand scheme of things, is no shame, particularly when no one else is able to touch your pitches.

Now, the Dodgers have to sit back and consider whether or not to re-sign Ramirez (they’re nuts if they don’t; that team is only in the playoffs because of him), while the Phillies get a week to take care of personal business and then head off to the American League city hosting the first two games.

Congratulations, Philadelphia. I hope you get swept.

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Stealing Signals: Unlikely Heroes

Phillies 7, Dodgers 5 – Everyone had probably forgotten Matt Stairs existed.  He somehow got traded to Philly after the deadline, clearing waivers from Toronto (and if you only remember him in an Oakland uniform a few years back with Jason Giambi, you’re not the only one.)  But Stairs is the one who helped cap a four-run comeback against the Dodger bullpen. Joe Torre pulled Derek Lowe after 74 pitches, and watched as, eventually, Cory Wade and Jonathan Broxton gave up 2-run homers to Shane Victorino and Stairs in the eighth inning, respectively.  Now, Los Angeles is facing its fate on Wednesday with Cole Hamels waiting his chance to end their season on Wednesday — forced into such a situation because of a lack of a fourth starter in its rotation (a healthy Brad Penny would be nice to have right about now, no?) and an unsteady bullpen without Takashi Saito on hand to close.

Rays 9, Red Sox 1 – I think it would be much better, when B.J. Upton bats, if announcers worked the source for his initials, the nickname “Bossman Junior” into their home run calls for him (Upton’s given name is Melvin Emanuel Upton; “Bossman” was his father’s nickname).  The Bossman struck again, going deep for the 5th time int he playoffs (he only hit 9 all regular season) in the playoffs, and was followed two batters later by Evan Longoria and his fourth palyoff bomb.  The deluge only continued later, as Rocco Baldelli and Carlos Pena added late jacks.  Matt Garza threw six scroless innings to do his part of shutting down the BoSox lineup.

Stealing Signals: This Weekend In Baseball

Phillies up 2-1, but we have a series now: The Dodgers knocked Jamie Moyer around for five runs in the first inning on a series of base hits (Blake DeWitt’s bases-loaded triple being the big one) and hit batters — it got even chippier after that. Russell Martin was hit by pitches twice, and the benches cleared after Hiroki Kuroda buzzed one over Shane Victorino’s head.  Kuroda pitched steadily for the better part of seven innings; a needed tonic after Chad Billingsley stretched the bullpen in Philly on Friday, and the staff gave up eight runs in the Citizens Bank Band Box.  Now, Derek Lowe will line up against Joe Blanton tomorrow, and even on three days rest, he has a bit more advantage in a park more friendly to pitchers than the aforementioned band box.

Red Sox and Rays tied at one a piece: After Daisuke Matsuzaka essentially took it to Tampa in Game One to snatch homefield advantage on Friday, the Rays knocked Josh Beckett for eight runs on Saturday. Scott Kazmir wasn’t having a great day either, and so the score was kept clos, with the game eventually being sent into extra innings on a wild pitch by Tampa reliever Dan Wheeler, who otherwise threw 3.1 great innings of relief for the Rays.  Manny Delcarmen, Justin Masterson, and Jonathan Papelbon did the same great work for the Red Sox, but every Boston fan felt a bit of dread when Mike Timlin walked out for the bottom of the 11th, and you could have written an Easterbrook-like “game over” in your mind after he walked both Dioner Navarro and Ben Zobrist. Replacing Navarro with pinch runner Fernando Perez was the right move, as Jason Bartlett grounded to third as Perez was stealing, keeping them out of the double play and forcing Timlin to walk Akinori IwamuraB.J. Upton hit a ball to shallow right that no one else but Perez would have tagged up adn scroed on — he has home in about nine long, quick strides.

Stealing Signals: What A Difference A Half-Inning Makes

Phillies 3, Dodgers 2 – L.A. got 2 early runs off Cole Hamels and that was it — he struck out eight in seven innings of work. But it was the sixth inning where Philadelphia came back and captured the lead for good on a Rafael Furcal error that allowed Shane Victorino to get to second base. Derek Lowe, whose slider had been very good for most of that evening, got one up to Chase Utley, who sent it into the right field seats of the band box that is Citizens Bank Park. Two hitters later, Pat Burrell took a pitch into left field (probably a fly out in most other places), and that was all Hamels and Brad Lidge needed after that. If the Dodgers want to make a series out of this, they have to go after both Brett Myers this afternoon and Jamie Moyer in L.A for Game 3 — those two can be hit if you are patient; Hamels can’t be touched even when he’s merely very good, never mind on.

Ill-Advised Championship Series Predictions

NL: Dodgers in 6 games – It hurts me even to type that.  However, I think the Dodgers are just running a lot hotter right now in the second half. The pitching 1-2s seem even in the starting rotation (Derek Lowe and Chad Billingsley vs. Cole Hamels and Brett Myers), and they’ve both got grumpy old men in Jamie Moyer and Greg Maddux. Philly’s line-up is a Murderer’s Row if hot, the Dodger offense flows more freely with Manny Ramirez in and Rafael Furcal leading off. Brad Lidge is better as a closer than both Jonathan Broxton or Takashi Saito — but I think the Dodgers are playing with house money right now; not a whole lot of us expected them to even be in the NLCS, and will find a way to get to the World Series.

AL: Red Sox in 6 Josh Beckett may be the only starting pitching issue for the Red Sox. Having Daisuke Matsuzaka and Jon Lester get possibly two games each of a 7-game series is a good start, and the Red Sox look just as capable of pulling out offense when it needs to. But the Rays have owned the Sox all year; while it’s always different in October, is there enough of a difference? Yes. It probably will come down to the bullpen, when Boston gets to Jonathan Papelbon while the Rays are adjusting and Troy Percival is still hurt. Papelbon is perfectly capable of a two-inning save on a semi-regular basis, or what many recognize as “the Mo Rivera thing” during the playoffs.

Pushing The Narratives

The benefit of my current work schedule is the ability to watch Pardon the Interruption, which remains the only ESPN piece of programming worth investing too much time in.  SportsCenter is not as essential as it used to be; much of the analyst shows focused on individual sports are background fodder. Outside The Lines can be very hit or miss, and is subject to the typical ESPN/mainstream blinders on much of its subject matter. Anyway, back to it.

The Four-Letter’s $3 million a year poaching, Rick Reilly, subbed for Tony Kornheiser on PTI yesterday, via satellite from Denver with Michael Wilbon in-studio in D.C., and parroted what I’m fairly sure may be a common impulse among a certain segment of sportswriters regarding the current state of the baseball playoffs: he stated his preference for a Red Sox-Dodgers World Series, proclaiming the Tampa Bay Rays “bad for baseball.”

We probably need to separate that “bad for baseball” comment into two categories: bad for the sport and bad for the business of the sport. There is a vast difference: any die-hard baseball fan or one who merely follows the sport regularly would say a worst-to-first story is not only good for the sport, but also compelling and justifying smart moves by a front office.  Tampa’s entry into the playoffs already yielded more attention to manager Joe Maddon in SI, a likely Rookie of the Year award for third baseman Evan Longoria, and a front office that assembled a solid starting line-up and a roster of budding stars. That’s good for the sport; it gives some leverage behind the idea that baseball’s uncapped salary structure can still yield good things for teams who use their money wisely.

However, if you look at Reilly’s comment in the business sense, it fits. Tampa was 12th out of 14 AL teams in attendance this year, not helped by the reported shittiness of Tropicana Field, and locals are right to ignore a lousy team in a bad park for a while. That doesn’t change overnight, and it’s also part of the trend of questioning whether Florida is really interested in regular-season baseball. (We really won’t have an idea until both the Rays and Marlins’ new facilities open.)  The Dodgers and Red Sox are two of several “glamour teams”; ones that matter to people outside their home markets (the others, in my eyes, are the Cubs, Yankees, Cardinals, and Braves*.) Those are teams that have bandwagons, intense home fans, and ones who don’t drop loyalties when they move in the age of the Internet and MLB.tv.

Dodgers-Red Sox is an easier World Series to sell, and I’m sure it’s the one Fox is clamoring or as we speak.  The Rays aren’t, although everyone loves an underdog story — because there’s not enough to sell. The lore bheind L.A.-Boston is too much, two big cities, Manny Ramirez back in Betantown, the Sox seeking back-to-back titles, etc.  That’s a narrative that writes columns; that’s how Reilly kind of thinks., and it’s what Bud Selig would love to see. (Philadelphia doesn’t have the same pull as Dodgers-Sox, but it’s better to MLB than the other AL choice.)

The Tampa Bay Rays going from worst to first and capping it with a world championship is just another Marlins team beating Cleveland or the Yankees, or a Diamondbacks bloop single. It’s a blip, and won’t register outside of those of us who pay attention. Of course, you know what happens when the narrative gets openly expressed: the underdog shocks us all, and considering my loathing of both the Dodgers nad Phils, along with a need for Boston teams to cool off, I’m riding the Rays right now.

Fuck the cheap narratives, though. Let ’em do some work. Tampa is full of new stories, and that’s good for the sport.

(*I include the Braves because of their near stranglehold on the South until recently thanks to TBS and the lack of pro baseball anywhere else in that region.)

Stealing Signals: Round One Is Done

Kind of playing catch-up, since I didn’t recap the weekend’s games….

Rays keep moving on, beating the White Sox in 4 – At least the South Side saved some amount of face by taking one game at home, but watching B.J. Upton jack homers in his first two at bats was a sign that Tampa had so much more in that team to move on. It wound up being an easy 6-2 win, and another tack to an improbable story. I am officially on the Rays’ bandwagon for the rest of the playoffs, despite being an NL guy — because I loathe both teams involved in the NLCS.

Red Sox put the Angels away, 3 games to 1 – While the first two games in Anaheim were ultimately anti-climactic, games 3 and 4 gave us moments actually worthy of baseball’s post-season: the Halos pulling one out in extras, even going to Jered Weaver to do it, and Jed Lowrie’s bottom of the 9th heroics for the Sox to end the series now rather than go back to Southern California.  So, we have both league leaders in wins (more on the Cubs later in this entry) eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.  Baseball’s playoffs are not as capricious as pro football or college basketball (“one game and you’re out” is always much more subject to the whim of whatever team comes in hotter), but the Angels’ faltering again could be a symptom of its lousy division — although considering how they beat teams great and lousy across the AL, that may be too simplistic.

Phillies take out the Brew Crew on Sunday – I turned Game 4 off on Sunday after Pat Burrell hit his three-run job off Jeff Suppan, and I suppose we all knew the ending was going to come for Milwaukee in this series at some point, because, sadly, CC Sabathia does not have a bionic left arm.  The Phillies are set up well to try and compete for a World Series championship: plenty of mashers and htiters in that line-up, enough good starting pitching, a decent bullpen, etc.

The Dodgers make a mockery of the Cubs – I’ve written before that these Dodgers reek of 2006 Cardinals, except this team probalby hits a bit better than they did (Albert Pujols notwithstanding; I remember that series being more about good pitching and timely hits rather than offensive assaults.)   The Dodgers feel like one of those unlikely post-season teams that are supposed to go deep; they’re playing with a line-up that hadn’t playing together until the Division Series: it was a combination of injuries (Rafael Furcal), trades (Manny Ramirez, Casey Blake), old age (Blake DeWitt, who shifted from third to second base to replace the aging and bitchy Jeff Kent), and Joe Torre finally giving up on Ned Colletti’s mistakes (Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, and James Loney all not having to cede time to Andruw Jones, Juan Pierre, and Nomar Garciaparra.) That line-up and the Bums’ starting pitching laid waste to the Cubs’, whom, outside of Derrek Lee, appeared to give an effort that would make Little Leaguers ashamed. I have two Cub fans for co-workers, and there is something about that kind of abject failure that inspires streams of swearing usually reserved for those suffering from Tourette’s.