Thursday, October 7, 2010

MLB Playoffs: Rays ALDS Game 1 & Roy Halladay's Gem

Welcome to the postseason. I promised a reader that I would do at least one full day of "liveblogs" of the MLB Divisional Series playoff games, so yesterday found me setting aside a 12-hour block of time to endure such indignities as drinking beer, eating Thai food, drinking iced tea, eating sausages, watching a no-hitter and sitting down. I also typed.

I can't promise that I will do a full day of these again, so let's play ball!


Oh, we can't do that yet. We have to wait. It's time for the absence of analysis couched in vague non-answers and predictions so over-qualified that they declare nothing. This year TBS airs all the divisional games, which means that we open in the TBS studio, with your hosts, Cal Ripken, David Wells, Dennis Eckersley and some other guy who I would like to murder.

Offscreen (I just mistyped that as "offscream"), Cal Ripken hits balls in a batting cage at the edge of the studio. Awesome. He's way too old to play at anything like a major league level, and some boy cowers behind a net throwing him meatball pitches. We might as well be watching your drunk dad potato a bunch of fat, slow lobs for all the heroics on display here.

Here's what I want to know: why can't we do this for politics? As soon as Arnold Schwarzenegger retires, can we just have him off to the side of the MSNBC studio, shirtless, bench-pressing while grunting out general election predictions? He's way past his prime, too, but it wouldn't be any more or less meaningless than what's happening here. I just want to listen to him go, "Gnneeuugh... Ah tink dat when you look at da numbah, it obvious dat Mit Romney is dah real Towminatuh."

Meanwhile, someone must have tranqed the dipsomaniacal human manatee formerly known as David Wells, because someone has put a men's suit on him apparently without his knowledge. Last year he sat in the studio dressed in a brown Members Only jacket like the sort of PG-rated "biker" buddy that MacGyver would occasionally have to bail out of some kind of sticky situation in an episode with lots of backstory. I have no idea how they knocked Wells out, though, but if I had to guess, I'd say they used a large-bore hypodermic needle on a bottle of Evan Williams.

The studio team has been talking about Texas Rangers centerfielder Josh Hamilton wearing a flak jacket to protect his busted ribs, and Wells excitedly says, "Ear flak muffs! Ear flak muffs!" and then confuses himself and falls quiet.

Other people say stupid things, but they're sort of conventionally stupid, so I don't write them down.


I'm going to fess up to something right here: I don't think there's any way that the Rays win this game. I know this makes me a bad fan, but I'm going into this game with enormous amounts of dread. The Rays have battered Rangers starter Cliff Lee this season, but those outings seem anomalous. The hammer feels like it has to drop.

That's because, their record aside, this year's Rays team frequently simply disappears for games. Other teams make mistakes; they beat themselves, or their starter stays in too long despite having lousy stuff. The Rays just vanish. Suddenly they swing at every first pitch as if desperate to leave the stadium as soon as possible; or they do the reverse and take every pitch, working the opposing starters and relievers to huge counts, but never swinging at anything, until they're finally forced to make an out due to the inevitable inertia of the game.

The Tampa Bay Rays are the Roanoke Island of baseball teams, a fascinating and inexplicable vanishing act that should otherwise be a tremendous success. Whenever this happens, I expect them to start the top half of any random inning with the field empty and a desperate scrawl of CROATOAN on the infield dirt, written in some split second when no one at home or in the ballpark was looking.

I don't have a solution for this, and it's obvious that neither manager Joe Maddon nor his batting coach do either. In 2008, the Rays lit up the Boston Red Sox and then went to the World Series and were utterly destroyed by Jamie Moyer, a man who is 5,000 years old and looks eerily like Ferris Bueller's dad. This year, they managed to steamroll the Yankees enough times to win the season series, only to have the Baltimore Orioles and Kansas City Royals stomp holy hell on them.

Our announcers for this game are Don Orsillo and Buck Martinez! Yes!!!! This should be interesting because I'm pretty sure Buck Martinez suffered a massive stroke at some point that turned half of his brain into yogurt. I can't remember ever feeling any animus toward Don Orsillo, so I have a neutral attitude until:
ORSILLO: 2010 has been the year of the pitcher.
People much smarter and with subscriptions to baseball stat sites have pointed out that, aside from the outliers of two perfect games and some no-hitters, offense hasn't declined radically at all. But "year of the pitcher" is the narrative, and people keep hearkening back to Bob Gibson and Denny McLain and 1968. Thus Cliff Lee is liable to throw a no-hitter on the mound, despite being beaten by the Rays twice this season. Okay.

I'm paraphrasing, but:
MARTINEZ: The Rays will be more prepared for the postseason this time because 2008 prepared them less on the field than off the field: they got used to getting tickets for family and traveling in the postseason.
Martinez managed the Toronto Blue Jays, so it's always theoretically possible that he has some kind of special insight the layperson doesn't. But I'm pretty sure that teams have travel coordinators and front-office personnel in charge of getting comped tickets. Martinez seems to be suggesting that — rather than dominating the ALDS and ALCS and then falling apart at the plate and swinging at crap out of the strike zone and bringing in the horrible Dan Wheeler in high-pressure relief situations — the Rays lost the 2008 World Series because of an institutional failure of travel agency.

David Price throws 22 pitches: 21 fastballs and one breaking ball. He's already starting to get anxious and hang stuff up about waist-high in the zone.

The Rays load the bases for Carlos Peña, who is simultaneously the Rays home run leader and also the only starter batting under the Mendoza Line. Peña walks a ton, though, so his plate discipline gets him to a 2-1 count when Lee whizzes the ball near his head for ball three. Except home plate umpire Tim Welke claims that the ball tipped Peña's bat for a foul ball. It's a terrible, terrible call, making the count 2-2 instead of 3-1. Peña strikes out looking on what should have been the 4-2 pitch. What a bunch of fucking bullshit.

Rocco Baldelli bats after Pena. It's great to see Rocco, because he's sort of a Rays folk hero for being one of their few good hitters back in the lean years and for eventually succumbing to what everyone thought was a bizarre and undiagnosable mitochondrial condition that left him debilitated with fatigue for days after a game. On the other hand, his being in the game feels like the goddamn stupidest decision on the planet, because he started the year as a coach in AA, jumped back into the majors pretty much by accident, then had a grand total of 25 at bats before making the postseason roster and starting in this game. Why is he here? Because of MATCHUPS!

This is one of those anecdotal situations like the thin-slicing examples Malcolm Gladwell describes in his book Blink, which you should under no circumstances read. In it, he tells a story about a faked piece of ancient Greek statuary. According to all kinds of highly technical, microscopic, chemical and other focused scientific tests, experts proclaimed the statuary an authentic work of antiquity. But a few art experts looked at it and instinctively, because of years of expertise looking at ancient Greek artwork, somehow knew it was a fake. Eventually, their instinct was borne out, but at first all they had to go on was years of knowing the way things should be and taking a macro glance and thinking, "On second thought, no."

It works the same way with Baldelli. I'm sure Maddon has studied how he performs against lefties and his previous at-bats against Cliff Lee, then examined the trajectory of most of Lee's fastballs and whether Baldelli has a swing that will optimally strike the ball, and finally he's looked at some new and arcane sabermetricians' stats for Baldelli's performances at the plate. But you know what? Fuck that. The man had 25 at-bats and spent the prior five years on the verge of fucking death. You do not put him in a postseason baseball game.

And this is the problem with Maddon. He becomes so wedded to this minutiae that he becomes tactically myopic. He becomes Tony LaRussa without the Transitions Lenses. And Tony LaRussa is the most horrible manager in the world.

Jeff Fancoeur doubles off the center field wall. Maybe Price should throw fewer fastballs up in the zone. Maybe don't throw fastballs to Francoeur because every time I've seen him bat, he can't hit anything other than fastballs. Maybe throw some garbage off the plate because he fucking sucks and swings at everything and almost never, ever draws a walk. Maybe I should turn off the TV.

I miss Kelly Shoppach wearing the striped socks and his pantlegs up high, because he looks like a penguin. It's adorable. Kelly Shoppach is a catching penguin. Everyone should call Kelly Shoppach "The Penguin." Also, when he sports the penguin outfit, he hits grand slams.

The Rays have had three men in scoring position and four on base. In response, Lee has said, "So fucking what?" and gotten five of six outs via strikeout. Not to be outdone, Price throws another belt-high fastball over the meat of the plate, which Nelson Cruz promptly hits only about 5,000 fucking feet to dead centerfield and off a goddamned restaurant.

The game is quickly giving way to despair, so I'm rescued by announcer blather!
MARTINEZ: The Molinas, of course: three great catchers, playing in the big leagues. It's unheard of to have that kind of ability in one family.
Bucky's talking about Texas Rangers catcher Bengie Molina, whose brothers José and Yadier also play catcher in the major leagues. All three are pretty good catchers and slow as shit on the basepaths, but Martinez's statement about their familiar uniqueness in baseball is just incredibly wrong. Off the top of my head, here's how unheard of it is to have that kind of baseball ability in one family:
Moises, Matty, Jesús and Felipe Alou
Bobby and Barry Bonds
Roberto and Sandy Alomar Sr. and Jr.
Orlando and Livan Hernandez
Tim and JD Drew
Greg and Mike Maddux
Joe and Phil Niekro
Jared and Jeff Weaver
Ken Griffey Sr. and Jr.
Dom, Vince and Joe DiMaggio
Buck Martinez was a manager, so I presume he's watched baseball kind of a lot. But even if he hadn't, these family stories are pretty common pregame fodder, and some of these people are a little bit famous. Joe DiMaggio is in the Hall of Fame, and he married Marilyn Monroe and wound up in the Simon and Garfunkel song everyone on the planet knows. He played for the Yankees, and his brother, who was pretty darned good, played for their arch-rival, the Boston Red Sox. Barry Bonds is either the greatest or second greatest hitter in the history of baseball. Ken Griffey Jr. is going to the Hall of Fame, and it was a big deal when he and his dad wound up on the same team. Both Niekros are well known in baseball. Lastly, Greg Maddux is probably one of the five greatest pitchers in history, and his brother is the pitching coach for one of the teams in this fucking game.

Pitching in relief in the top of the 7th inning is the Rays' big trade-deadline acquisition for this year: journeyman reliever Chad Qualls. This is part of the bummer of rooting for the Rays. They have so little payroll that they can't really get any big names at the trade deadline without potentially trading away a great prospect who could turn in several years of low-cost ball. So you wind up getting guys like Chad Qualls. I remember at the deadline writing a bunch of whining and entitled tweets like:
"What are you doing tonight?" "I'm takin' my kid to the ballgame!" "Oh, really?" "Yeah. This is his first chance to get to see Chad Qualls."

Glad the Rays added Chad Qualls. His poise in being a hacky dead fish will help Dan Wheeler figure out how to look distinguished in failure.

Chad Squall: the torrent of impotent and well-deserved tears that comes over someone watching Chad Qualls pitch for a team they like at all.

Wish my dad had taken me to see a player like journeyman middle reliever Chad Qualls. Someone who throws a baseball, wears a uniform, shoes.
But there are two things that I should mention. One, the Rays traded for Chad Qualls at the deadline, gave up no significant prospects, meaning they're still protecting the future of the franchise, and they still beat the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox to win their second American League East title in three years. So I guess I'm a fucking idiot. Two, Chad Qualls comes in and pitches really well, so now I know I am.

Ben Zobrist hits a home run despite being the last person in the lineup who you'd expect to do so. "Zorilla" injured his back earlier in the season, and Rays wonks suspect that he's never fully healed, which accounts for his power numbers and stolen bases dropping off a fucking cliff. At this point, the nickname Zorilla has to be put in quotation marks because of those power numbers. Still, this is the only scoring the Rays will do, so Rays fans bitching about his disappearance at the plate can thank him for preventing a shutout.

I like Zobrist. He plays every position except pitcher and catcher — make your jokes about his passionate Christianity here — and he does so without complaint. The Christian part also supplies a lot of unintentional comedy. His son is named Zion Benjamin, which is going to saddle the poor little guy with Matrix jokes for his entire life. His wife is a Godawful Christian pop singer, and he supports her by coming to bat to her music. Plus, during rain delays, the Rays' network plays this charmingly hapless profile of him where he's interviewed with his wife. (This isn't it, but you get the idea.) It takes place in this kind of crummy Rooms To Go-living room, where she quickly takes over the discussion, while he looks on with this kind of dopey beta-male "I got to marry one of the pretty ones!" expression. It becomes obvious both that she completely manages his life and that if he weren't making a lot of money in baseball, he might wind up one of those guys back in Tennessee, driving around in a Dodge Dakota, wearing his hair in a rat tail and spending his spare non-church time over-enthusiastically following something like teenage BMX racing. I know this probably sounds mean, but I really do like Ben Zobrist

Buck Martinez mentions that Joe Maddon has used 129 different lineups in 162 games this year. This again raises the ugly specter of Tony LaRussa-ism. It's also manifestly clear that, even if you batted all of them end to end, Cliff Lee would have owned the shit out of every one today.


Your announcers are Brian Anderson on play-by-play, with Joe Simpson doing color commentary. I have no idea who these men are, but during the 7th-9th inning and after the game, everyone in America will want to see them keel-hauled.

There's little new to write here. If you haven't seen the game, go to a torrent site and download it. Now. You've probably read that Phillies pitcher Roy Halladay threw a no-hitter for only the second time in the history of postseason baseball. He came one walk away from a perfect game. Incredibly, he threw a perfect game earlier in the season, becoming only the 20th man to do that in history. (I looked at Wikipedia's perfect game entry to make sure I got the number of them in history correct, and I discovered this wonderful little illustration of the rarity of the feat: "Over the 135 years of Major League Baseball history, there have been only 20 official perfect games by the current definition. For comparison, more people have orbited the moon than have pitched a Major League Baseball perfect game.")

There's no reason for any of you to believe me, since I imagine a lot of people try to claim prescience after the fact when these things happen, but I started to get the feeling that something was happening after the top of the 3rd inning. Here are my end notes for the tops of the first three innings:
TOP 1st: 1,2,3 inning for Halladay. i get the feeling im gonna type that more than once

TOP 2nd: 123- again

Top 3rd: 123- i dont think hes playing the same game everyone else is playing
Unless you're a baseball fan, it's really difficult to explain the eerie sense of dominance that comes over a game when a player is not only working on a no-hitter but makes it seem like only a pure accident could rob him of it. By the third inning, it started to feel as if, at most, a fielder's slip in the rain to let a ball leak through the infield would stop Halladay from overwhelming the Reds, the best hitting team in the National League. I began writing these unconnected superlatives and weird questions to myself (corrected for grammar):
This is masterful.

Does describing this as the supremacy of his will make him seem like a Pitching Nazi?

Why do baseball writers always make chess metaphors out of these games?

This is like if Kasparov beat Deep Blue so bad it reprogrammed it to show him Russian porn.
And still none of that works: not stated awe, not questioning, not trying to be funny about it. What I saw was simply awesome, in the full sense of the word "awe." It's one of the greatest sporting spectacles I've ever seen — one man, seemingly effortlessly, dominating and outwitting some of the smartest and most talented people at their craft.

That said, by the bottom of the 7th inning, Anderson and Simpson can't stop saying "no-hitter!" "no-hitter!" "no-hitter!" ad nauseam. I never bought into the old sports superstition that announcers should never say that a pitcher has a no-no going. I think it's silly: at least before and after the commercial break, you should let people who might casually be tuning in know that something pretty amazing is going on. Now, however, I can see the value in not talking about a no-hitter, because once someone starts, it's obviously very hard for them to stop. If I didn't know these two are basically sort of bozos, I would assume they are trying as hard as possible to jinx Roy Halladay. They keep saying, "Halladay is X outs/strikes away from a no-hitter!" and the number of times they've said it in one inning is off the charts.

One of the announcers mentions that he can't hear anything, because the crowd at Citizen's Bank Park is deafening. (Philly fans: miserable jerks in football, pretty great for baseball.) And it is! I can totally tell it is! But it doesn't sound like it is. Whomever is in charge of mixing the audio for this game is really obviously dampening the crowd sounds, because you can feel the surging white-noise aspects of it but also feel how flattened it is. It's like if someone recorded a tidal wave and then played it for you through a single speaker with the volume, bass and treble turned down. The effect is one of anemic mid-range. I'm turning my surround-sound system up and down to see if it does anything, and the anemia doesn't change. This is really terrible. The Philly crowd should be electric. It should be thundering out of the speakers and washing the announcers out, not vice-versa. Nobody fucking cares about them. Instead it's coming across like hearing the Carlyle Group get rowdy. What the fuck?

Why is everyone taking the first pitch? This happened in the Rays game as well. Everyone knew that Lee would smoke a fastball down a corner of the plate, and Halladay is doing the same (although his ump's strike zone seems less generous). In the early innings, I can see the value of taking a pitch and hoping to make the pitcher throw more strikes. But the Rays worked the count well against Lee in the first inning, then barely took any swings on the predictable first-pitch strikes in later innings. Somewhat similarly here, the Reds are already getting killed by Halladay, so they have less to lose by swinging; basically, the quick three-pitch outs almost come to the same thing, right? Instead of hoping to work the count against him, why aren't they trying to smack that first pitch back at him? Both the Rays' and Reds' performance feels like a concession, like both teams are handing out first-pitch strikes and just letting themselves get behind in the count again and again and again, surrendering to a force of inevitability.

Halladay does it! But the announcer blather postgame is fucking unbearable. Anderson and Simpson both try to create extemporaneous poetry, as if they expect to show up on ESPN Films highlight reels or some future edition of Ken Burns' Baseball. Neither seem to realize that this will never happen because (a) they suck, and (b) the game is already over. This should be a fairly easy problem to solve: the game has ended, but you still have broadcast time. Okay. Now, given the fact that a man just pitched an amazing game and achieved a feat that has only happened once before in history, maybe you should just show highlights from the game constantly. Nobody needs to be told how amazing this is; it's amazing to casual viewers. Flash a graphic and show clips. Or, better yet, take a cue from Vin Scully and cut off the announcers' microphones and just play unaltered crowd noise for five minutes. Nobody who likes baseball — i.e. the target audience — would ever complain. Jesus Christ, how does something so purely and elementally appealing as sports get fucked up in such profoundly complicated ways by people who are professionally trained to not fuck up entertainment?

You know what? Just get me out of here. Just get me to the last game. I've been doing this for seven hours now.

Please see MLB Playoffs: Yankees/Twins ALDS Game 1.