Tuesday, October 14, 2014

John Fogerty -- "Centerfield" (1985)

Put me in, Coach
I'm ready to play

After suffering through the baseball-related rant in the previous 2 or 3 lines, you were no doubt hoping that I would get back on track and conclude my series of posts about my recent trip to Las Vegas, Joplin, and Cape Cod.

But I'm going to ask your indulgence while I pick at the scab of the Washington Nationals' playoff defeat at the hands of the San Francisco Giants just a little bit longer.

One of my favorite baseball stories involves Graig Nettles, a very fine third baseman who played in 2700 major-league games in the course of his 22-year career.

Nettles stealing a hit in the 1981 World Series
Nettles was manning third for the New York Yankees in the infamous 1978 one-game playoff between the Yankees and their hated rivals, the Boston Red Sox.  The Yanks had a one-run lead with two outs, but the Red Sox had two men on base when Hall of Fame Carl Yastrzemski stepped to the plate to face Hall of Fame relief pitcher Rich "Goose" Gossage.

Yaz popped up
Yaz swung late at one of the Goose's unhittable fastballs and lifted a popup to Nettles, who caught it to seal the victory.

After the game, a reporter asked Nettles what he thinking when Yastrzemski stepped into the box to face Gossage.

"I was thinking, 'Please don't hit it to me,'" Nettles answered -- perhaps the most honest thing a major-league baseball player has ever said.

Nettles jumps into Gossage's arms
after catching Yaz's pop-up
I think every boy who has ever played Little League baseball understands exactly how Nettles felt.  With the game on the line, you want the batter to hit the ball to anyone but you.

Fast forward to game four of the 2014 National League Division Series between the Washington Nationals and San Francisco Giants.  The score was tied and there were two men on base and only one out in the bottom of the 7th of a do-or-die game for the Nationals when manager Matt Williams walked to the mound to make a pitching change.  He decided to put the ball into the hands of rookie reliever Aaron Barrett.

Aaron Barrett
What was going through the head of Barrett at that moment?  "Put me in, Coach -- I'm ready to play"?  Or was Barrett thinking more like Graig Nettles in 1978?

Poor Aaron Barrett walked the first batter he faced to load the bases.  With a 1-1 count on the next hitter, Barrett uncorked a wild pitch, allowing the go-ahead run to score.

Then something perhaps even more telling happened.  After throwing ball three, Barrett was directed to intentionally walk the batter.  But his intentional ball sailed over the head of his catcher and went all the way to the backstop.

Fortunately, Nats catcher Wilson Ramos got the ball to Barrett in time for the pitcher to tag the Giants runner who was attempting to score.

But the damage was done.  The Nats were blanked in their final two at-bats, and the Giants escaped with their third one-run win in the 2014 NL division series.   

Barrett pitched very well for the Nationals in the 2014 regular season.  He struck out 49 batters in 40 2/3 innings, and allowed only one home run to opposing batters.  While he was a rookie, he was 26 years old -- so he had been around a little.

Coming in from the bullpen:
"Put me in, Coach"
But Barrett didn't have the best control.  He walked 20 batters during the regular season, or 4.4 every nine innings -- that's dangerously high.  And he uncorked six wild pitches during the regular season, more than any other Nationals reliever.

Sportswriters and fans are all too eager to say that a player has choked, and some were quick to accuse Barrett of gagging in this crucial situation.  

But if a pitcher can't control his pitches in regular-season games, how can you say he choked when he walks a guy and throws a wild pitch in a playoff game?  To some degree, walks and wild pitches are simply what Aaron Barrett does.  

Barrett appeared one other time in the Nats-Giants playoff series.  In game two, which lasted a record 18 innings, Barrett was called into the game in the top of the 12th.  His first three pitches were balls, and then he allowed a double.  Exit Aaron Barrett.

It is probably fairer to attach the horns of the scapegoat to the head of Nationals manager Matt Williams than to the head of Aaron Barrett.  His decision to bring a rookie reliever into the game at such a crucial moment has been second-guessed from here to the moon and back. Hindsight is always 20-20, as the saying goes, and the manager's call to Barrett in game four does appear questionable given the situation and his alternatives -- especially when you look back to Barrett's shaky performance in game two.

But managers make questionable decisions every day, and they often get away with them.  Only a few days before the Nats' loss, Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost pulled his ace starting pitcher out of a one-run playoff game with two men on base and brought in a rookie starter who had only appeared in relief one time all season.  That pitcher gave up a three-run homer.

Ned Yost calls to the bullpen
Yost was eviscerated for his choice of relievers given his other options -- the Royals have an outstanding and deep bullpen -- but his team bailed him out.  Kansas City erased a 7-3 deficit and eventually won the game in 12 innings.

If the Royals don't come back, Yost would almost certainly be looking for a new job this offseason.  But the Royals did come back, swept the Angels, and won the first two games of their playoff series on the road against the Orioles.  

Five of their six playoff wins have been nailbiters -- four were decided in extra innings, and the fifth was tied going into the ninth.  The Royals are on a roll, and they look like a pretty good bet to win the World Series despite the fact that they had only the 7th-best record in baseball and the 11th-best runs differential numbers.

It's always better to be lucky than good in the MLB playoffs.  The Royals are a very good team . . . but no team wins five playoff games in their last at-bat unless a lot of things break just right for them.

The Royals celebrate yet another playoff win
By almost any measure, the Nationals are a better team than the Royals.  But the Nats are watching football today and thinking about what might have been, while the Royals are preparing to play a game that could propel them into the World Series.  

All because a bad decision by Matt Williams bit him and his team in the ass, while an even worse decision by Ned Yost didn't.  Life ain't fair, boys and girls.

By the way, my cousin Cody Clark -- who played in the major leagues with the Astros last year after eleven years in the minors -- is the Royals' bullpen coach.  Ever wonder what a bullpen coach does?  Here's the answer:

P.S.  In the last 2 or 3 lines, I trashed Washington Post columnist Tom Boswell for jumping to conclusions about which baseball players perform well under pressure and which ones are chokers based on unreliably small samples of data.  In his column about the Royals' two playoff wins in Baltimore over last weekend, Boswell did a one-eighty.  Instead of pontificating about how the Royals must have those special character traits and other intangibles that spell postseason success, Boswell called the Royals "incredibly lucky" to have won six playoff games in a row -- five in their last at-bat.  

In the most recent of those five games, the Royals scored two runs in the ninth to break a 4-4 tie on the road.  Here's how Orioles manager Buck Showalter described the hits that produced those two runs: "A swinging bunt, a bunt, a groundball [that hugged] the right-field line, and a groundball in the hole" that barely eluded the third baseman.  (If those pitches were one mile an hour faster or slower, those ground balls would have gone a little more to the left or to the right -- that game could have come out very, very differently.)

Buck Showalter
Don't misinterpret what I am saying: the Royals are a good team, with players who don't shrink under pressure.  But I wouldn't bet on the 1927 Yankees against the Royals right now.  As another Post writer said about the team, the Royals "are riding the ultimate gambler's high, winning against the odds."  

Enjoy it while it lasts, guys.  And let's hope you don't follow in the footsteps of the 2007 Colorado Rockies, who finished the regular season by winning 11 straight games, won the wild-card tiebreaker in 13 innings (scoring three runs in the 13th to overcome an 8-6 deficit), won seven more in a row to sweep the NLDS and NLCS, and then -- after an eight-day layoff due to baseball's insane postseason schedule -- collapsed against the Red Sox in the World Series, losing four games in a row.

Here's "Centerfield," a song by former Creedence Clearwater Revival stalwart John Fogerty that I've heard way too many times during the twenty baseball seasons since he released it in 1985.

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

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