So much for the rise of low-payroll teams.
The ability of teams with low payrolls to advance to post-season play despite their collections of “poorly” paid players has been noted here, but the playoffs have produced a different development worth noting. In the four match-ups in the division series every one was won by the team with the higher payroll. The results by payroll rank:
- No. 1 Yankees over No. 19 Orioles
- No. 5 Tigers over No. 30 Athletics
- No. 6 Giants over No. 20 Reds
- No. 9 Cardinals over No. 16 Nationals
Each winner needed the full five games to prevail and some needed last-inning rallies or extra-inning victories to get there, but in the end the richer teams won. There was one playoff instance where the lower-ranked payroll team won. The No. 19 Orioles defeated the No. 7 Rangers in the American League wild-card game. In the National’s wild-card game No. 9 St. Louis downed No. 15 Atlanta.
But borrowing from Tennyson, ‘tis better to have played and lost than never to have played at all. Ask the No. 2 Phillies, No. 3 Red Sox and No. 4 Angels for confirmation.
Getting to the league championship series, though, was not all about money. In the most stunning instance of money being meaningless, the Cardinals edged the Nationals in Game 5 of their series behind the hitting of two of the lowest-paid players in the playoffs.
Second baseman Daniel Descalso, who played this year with a $495,000 salary, slugged a leadoff home run in the eighth inning, slicing the Nationals’ lead to one run at 6-5. He also teamed with Pete Kozma in two scoring bursts, including the one that won the game. With the Cardinals losing 6-1 in the fifth, Descalso’s double and Kozma’s single led to two runs. But they saved their best for last.
They stroked successive singles with two outs in the ninth, producing four runs and a 9-7 victory. According to Elias Sports Bureau, the 24-year-old Kozma was the first rookie in 88 years to drive in the game-winning run in a final game of a post-season series.
Kozma wasn’t even supposed to be there. He joined the Cardinals Aug. 31 after Rafael Furcal suffered an elbow injury. But the shortstop made his presence felt before his decisive two-run single in Washington. In Game 3 he banged a three-run home run in the second inning that propelled the Cardinals to an 8-0 win and a 2-1 series lead. The Cardinals have been the beneficiary of this clutch production for a mere $89,670, the pro-rated amount of Kozma’s minimum major league salary of $480,000.
LET CRITICS GET LAST THREE OUTS
Critics of the save statistic scoff at it, saying the rule awards saves too easily. In most instances, they note, a closer only has to get three outs and he is credited with a save. That simple, eh? Just get three outs and get a save. Have the critics been paying attention to the games that have been played this post-season?
Incidentally, if I may digress for a moment, the terms that are used interchangeably for this part of the year are post-season and playoffs. But they are not always interchangeable.
When the Nationals began their division series against the Cardinals, writers wrote and broadcasters said that Washington was in the playoffs for the first time in 79 years. They misspoke. When the Washington Senators played games in October 1933, they were in the World Series, not the playoffs. There were no playoffs then. The Senators did not play anyone to get to the World Series. As champions of the American League, the Senators played the New York Giants for the World Series championship.
But back to saves, which didn’t exist in 1933, but if they had, there would have been none because there would have been no save opportunities.
This year’s two wild-card games and four division series, a total of 22 games, produced 14 save opportunities but only 7 saves, a poor ratio of 50 percent success. During the season pitchers converted 70 percent of their save opportunities.
Besides the seven blown post-season saves, there was another poor outing by a closer that resulted in a loss for him and his team. . The Orioles’ Jim Johnson entered the 2-2 first game against the Yankees in the ninth inning and performed nothing like the reliever who gained 51 saves in 54 chances during the season.
Russell Martin opened the inning by lashing a home run. Singles by Raul Ibanez, Derek Jeter and Ichiro Suzuki followed, scoring one run, before Johnson struck out Alex Rodriguez. But Robinson Cano knocked Johnson out of the game with a two-run double and subsequently scored on a sacrifice fly, giving Johnson a 108.00 earned run average for the night and a loss.
More trouble was in store for Johnson. He was called on to preserve a 2-1 lead in the ninth inning of Game 3, but Ibanez tied the game with his first of two home runs in a four-inning span.
Ibanez was not finished menacing relief pitchers. In the opener of the American League Championship Series the Tigers led the Yankees, 4-0, entering the ninth inning. Under the rules, it was not a save situation, but Jose Valverde’s job nevertheless was to secure three outs and preserve the victory. He didn’t do it. Suzuki and that man again, Ibanez, whacked two-run homers, tying the game.
Valverde’s performance matched his debacle only three days earlier. Valverde, who was a perfect 49 for 49 last year and 35 for 40 this season, squandered his first save opportunity this post-season in Game 4 against Oakland. He turned a 3-1 lead into a 4-3 loss by allowing three runs in the ninth, two on a double by Steve Smith, the game loser on a Coco Crisp single.
Valverde’s failure, however, did not keep the Tigers from moving onto the league series, where he could and would fail again. The Nationals can’t say the same about their closer, Drew Storen.
They went into the ninth inning of their Game 5 against St. Louis with a 7-5 lead, but the Cardinals erupted for four runs against Storen, two each on successive singles by Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma.
“I’ve got a bad taste in my mouth that’s going to stay there for a couple months,” Storen told reporters. “It’s probably never going to leave.”
Given the post-season plight of the closers, still more should be expected to finish their seasons with bad tastes in their mouths.
BEFORE GIRARDI AND RODRIGUEZ
So Joe Girardi, the New York Yankees’ manager, had Raul Ibanez bat for Alex Rodriguez in the ninth inning of a playoff game the Yankees were losing, 2-1, to Baltimore, and Ibanez tied the game with a home run. In his next at-bat Ibanez hit another home run and won the game. The development evoked superlatives on top of superlatives. That reaction, in turn, annoyed one of the faithful readers of this column.
“I got tired of hearing how Girardi’s Ibanez-A-Rod decision the other night was ‘the boldest move in post-season history’ as WFAN declared, and ‘the most daring’ and ‘gutsiest’ move, as other outlets exclaimed,” the reader wrote. “It was a logical move, and a long overdue move. The ‘boldest … most daring … gutsiest …’ etc., lineup move in post-season history (at least that I remember) actually happened 35 years and one day earlier – Oct. 9, 1977, when Billy Martin benched Reggie Jackson for the fifth and deciding game of the ALCS in Kansas City. I’m sure you remember it.”
Some things, especially those involving Billy and Reggie, you don’t forget.
That series was tied at two games each, and Martin was concerned that Jackson would be little or no help in winning Game 5 and getting the Yankees to a second successive World Series. Martin told a friend several hours before the game what he was thinking, and it didn‘t include Jackson in the lineup. Jackson had only one hit in 14 at-bats in the first four games.
In addition, the Kansas City pitcher was a left-hander, Paul Splittorff, whom the manager felt Jackson couldn’t hit. With no computer statistics available at the time, Martin asked Catfish Hunter, a Jackson teammate in Oakland. “Reggie can’t hit Splittorff with a paddle,” Hunter said. In their careers, though, Jackson hit .274 (26 for 95) against Splittorff, hitting 3 home runs and striking out 20 times.
Whatever the numbers at the time, Martin sat Jackson and put Paul Blair in right field. Before Martin posted the lineup he asked Fran Healy, a Yankees’ catcher and chief diplomat between Martin and Jackson, to inform Reggie, but Healy declined the assignment. When Jackson learned of the surprising move, he took it calmly and actually credited Martin with having the guts to make such a move.
The Yankees won the game, 5-3. After the Royals brought in the right-handed Doug Bird to pitch in the eighth, Jackson batted for the designated hitter, Cliff Johnson, and singled in a run, cutting the Royals’ lead to 3-2. The Yankees won with a three-run rally in the ninth. Jackson batted one more time, making the last out in the ninth a grounder to second base.
The Yankees went on to beat the Los Angeles Dodgers, four games to two, and Jackson, back in the starting lineup, secured his notoriety in baseball history, slugging three home runs in Game 6.
Back in the present, Girardi faced a similar predicament for Game 5 as Martin did. Rodriguez had 2 hits in 16 at-bats, and Girardi opted to omit him from the lineup and use Eric Chavez at third. The Yankees won the game, beating Baltimore, 3-1, as Rodriguez sat out the whole game.
NATIONALS LOSE AND CHEAT ALL
General manager Mike Rizzo and other Washington Nationals officials can defend all they want the decision to take the ball away from Stephen Strasburg, their best pitcher, and not use him in the playoffs. But their reasoning was faulty and costly.
They didn’t want to risk a new injury to Strasburg’s valuable arm, but his elbow was fixed and was unlikely to break down over a few more innings of pitching. I say a few because the Nationals could have worked out a plan that would have limited the number of innings he pitched while still allowing him to pitch post-season games.
Their 160-inning limit was arbitrary and not scientific. That manager Davey Johnson shut him down one start earlier than they had planned because they said he lacked focus in his Sept. 7 start as a result of the distraction from all of the shutdown talk was the Nationals’ fault. They, not anyone else, including the news media, generated the talk by constantly talking about it themselves.
The Nationals have arrogantly said they wouldn’t be concerned if Strasburg’s absence prevented them from advancing deep into the post-season because they are built to have long-term success and will be back, But they may want to look at the ninth inning of Game 5 of their playoff series with St. Louis for a reality check. They were one out away from going to the National League Championship Series and instead went home,
The Nationals have cheated their players, their fans and themselves. If they don’t care about themselves, they should have cared about the fans, who have supported them, and the players – not just one player – who played hard to amass the best won-lost record in the major leagues. They also cheated Strasburg himself, who very likely knows his arm better than the Nationals do.
There’s no guarantee that Strasburg’s presence would have produced a different outcome, but a lot of people would like to have found out.