Since 2010, the Giants have a regular season record of 520-452. The Dodgers are 526-445 during that span, 6.5 games better than their rivals. Yet, the Giants hold a 3-0 ring advantage. Why is that? Deep analysis is not needed. For the answer, we need to only review two plays that define why the Giants have soared while the Dodgers have stumbled in the postseason.
One of the plays was the stealth steal of third base by the Mets’ Daniel Murphy during the fourth inning of Thursday’s NL Division-deciding fifth game against the Dodgers. Murphy was on first base, with left-handed hitting Lucas Duda at the plate facing Zack Greinke, and the Dodgers leading 2-1. The Dodgers applied the shift defense, leaving only shortstop Corey Seager on the left side of the infield. When Duda walked, Murphy trotted to second. The alert Murphy saw that the non-attentive Dodgers hadn’t shifted back to have someone cover third, so he breezed into the bag without a throw. He then scored the key tying run on a sacrifice fly to right by Travis ‘Arnaud.
The Mets went on to a 3-2 win to advance to the NL Championship Series, and the absent-minded Dodgers ended up looking like part of an Abbott and Costello skit (who’s on third?). I put the blame on Dodgers manager Don Mattingly. The once-rare shifts have become common defensive strategy, but there is a risk because the players are out of their familiar positions. In this case, as soon as Duda walked, there should have been an automatic re-shift where Seager would break to third base. This isn’t on the rookie Seager. Mattingly should have this already drilled into his team so the positioning was natural. If nothing else, the Dodgers’ blunder has created a new sabermetric category, RAWS (Runs Allowed While Sleeping).
In Game 2 of the 2012 World Series between the Tigers and Giants, Detroit’s Prince Fielder was on first base in a scoreless game in the second inning when Delmon Young slashed a line drive off Madison Bumgarner down the left field line. While left fielder Gregor Blanco tried to track down the ball as it careened around in the corner, third base coach Gene Lamont waved Fielder around third. Blanco’s throw sailed over the head of shortstop Brandon Crawford, who was the cutoff man. At that moment it appeared the Tigers would take a 1-0 lead. However, second baseman Marco Scutaro had hustled all the way over to the third base line just in case, and was in position to grab the errant throw, wheel, and fire the ball to catcher Buster Posey as the 275-pound Fielder neared home. Posey made a classic catch and sweeping tag in one motion and Fielder was out. It was Detroit’s only scoring threat and the Giants won 2-0 on their way to a sweep.
While there are obviously other factors that affect postseason success and failure, those two plays speak a lot about focus, preparation and a baseball second sense to react to sudden developments on the field.
Other thoughts while watching the early phase of the postseason:
The Utley slide: If every baserunner slid into second base like the Dodgers’ Chase Utley did against Mets’ shortstop Ruben Tejada, we’d be out of shortstops after the first couple weeks of the season. Tejada suffered a broken leg when Utley ignored the base and crashed into his lower body in an attempt to break up a double play. This is not just about hard slides being part of the game. If Utley smashed into someone walking down the street in that manner, he’d be doing hard time. Baseball has looked the other way at legislating the danger around second base, so you have this gray area of “neighborhood plays” where a fielder doesn’t even have to touch the bag for a force, and no boundaries on how far a runner can go to prevent the infielder from throwing to first. Giants fans should be sensitive to this after the Cardinals’ hulking Matt Holliday tried to send second baseman Marco Scutaro to an early grave with his barrel-roll attack in the 2012 National League Championship Series. A ruling that says a slide needs to be started before reaching the base would be a good start.
Despite those feelings, I felt MLB executive Joe Torre was out of line in suspending Utley for two games. Taking out the infielder has been part of the game for 150 years. The player who does so is welcomed back to the dugout with high-fives and respect. So making Utley the sudden poster boy for baserunner bad boys wasn’t fair. Instead, Torre could have issued a warning that such activity would be subject to suspensions from that point on through the postseason. Even if his authority to do so would be in question until safety rules were agreed to by the players union, his threat might be sufficient to keep the MLB out of the ICU.
Catcher in the Why: Toronto catcher Russell Martin must have been wondering “why me” after his routine throw back to the pitcher in Game 5 deflected off the bat of the Rangers’ Shin-Soo Choo, and rolled away, allowing Rougned Odor to score from third. No one could ever remember this happening, but on further review, baseball should have seen this coming. Before the new rule this year that keeps players in the batter’s box, hitters used to practically wander to another zip code in between pitches while adjusting batting gloves, uniforms and other things. So catchers could toss the ball back with no one there. In this case, Choo stayed in the box, stretched his arms over the plate and Martin let the ball go. Baseball is going to have to look at this: Could you imagine the winning run scoring in the ninth inning of a World Series this way?
Flipped out: Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista caused a stir when he pulled off a three-fer after his booming, game-changing home run in Toronto’s AL Division winning Game 5 against Texas. Bautista posed to admire his work, stared at the pitcher and then tossed his bat like it was a javelin. This showboating is becoming part of the show, and it’s probably fair given the fact that that pitchers pump their fists after strikeouts and look skyward to thank God for taking time out of his busy schedule to help them whiff the Devil-worshipping batter. So I’m Ok with all of it, but I’m going to draw the line if a hitter takes a selfie while doing his home run trot.
Man vs. cooler: My favorite moment of the postseason so far was the assault on a water cooler by Pirates’ reserve Sean Rodriquez. Rodriquez was ejected during a benches-clearing scrum after he said he was grabbed by the throat. When he got to the dugout he landed a number of unanswered punches on a water cooler. Brave man that Rodriguez. He had 25 guys on the opposing side he could have used his fists on if he views himself as a tough guy. There have been a few of these scrums in the early postseason games, but these baseball “fights’ are so silly. No one goes after another player until everyone shows up so he can be held back. The most ridiculous part is when the bullpen has to run in from the outfield to demonstrate solidarity. You just know that none of them have a clue about what happened, and I’m sure that as soon as they arrive at the crowd of players, they ask, “Who are we mad at?”
A Giant break: This every-other-year postseason run for the Giants is fine with me. The 2014 season was so amazing that it should keep Giants fans on a high at least until the 2016 spring training. So I’m enjoying watching baseball this postseason without emotions and without having a dog in the hunt. I’m also aware that even if the Giants had remained healthy enough this year to get into the postseason, this year’s version might not be championship caliber. The rotation just seems like it would not have been strong enough, and the bullpen, which has been so vital to the titles, was not at that level this year. So now that I can’t root for the home team, I’m shifting my allegiance for now to the Cubs. A World Series at Wrigley Field! Like the late, great Ernie Banks might say. “Let’s play seven.”