Clearing the Bases — Down from the Mountain Edition

First things first: I’m chatting today at 1 PM Eastern over at Baseball Prospectus, and I’ll have a Division Series preview of the Yankees-Indians matchup there tomorrow. The regular season finale of the Hit List will follow later this week.

Yes, I’m back from my European sojourn, though you’d barely know it around these parts. Since returning, I’ve done a promotional appearance for It Ain’t Over, written a Prospectus Hit and Run covering a second-half Hit List and the hottest and coldest hitters and pitchers in September, and watched one of the most thrilling final weekends in baseball history. Thanks in part to my Extra Innings package, I watched more than 24 hours of baseball from Thursday through last night, and while relatively little came up Milhouse from my point of view, the ride has been pretty fun.

The biggest news around these parts, of course, is the Mets’ collapse, one in which Nate Silver and Clay Davenport estimated to be the second-worst in baseball history based on the Prospectus Postseason Odds Report methodology, which measures the likelihood of a team making the postseason via a Monte Carlo simulation which plays out the season one million times, accounting for run-scoring and -allowing proclivities, home field advantage, and opposition strength. The Mets, according to the report, had a 99.8 percent chance at reaching the postseason as of September 13, the day I left for Switzerland. They proceeded to blow a seven-game lead with 17 to play, finishing with a 1-6 homestand against the sub-.500 Nationals, Cardinals, and Marlins that culminated with 300-game winner Tom Glavine making a shocking first-inning exit in which he was charged with seven runs.

One of the problems of being away so long at such a crucial time of year is that there’s really no adequate way to catch up with all the nuances of what’s been missed. Here’s how I started my column, which got lost in the editorial shuffle and didn’t run until Saturday morning instead of Friday:

I’m back from a nearly two-week European vacation that fell smack in the middle of the playoff hunt. News of distant pennant races trickled through on either end of my journey, but I was totally off the grid for a six-day period while hiking in the majestic Dolomites–no Internet, no newspapers, no TV, and the last thing my wife wanted to discuss when I called her from Rifugio Fanes at a $1 per minute clip was the status of the NL Wild Card hunt.

As such, I was mercifully spared the demise of my Dodgers. Discovering their seven-game losing streak upon returning was no more traumatic than being told that my goldfish died while I was at camp–no tears, just the accompanying solemnity of an imagined, unceremonious flush several thousand miles away. On the other hand, plugging in to discover the misdirected acrimony in the wake of their fade has my blood boiling. Along those lines, getting back into the swing of things isn’t easy; one can read the standings and the game reports for the handful of relevant teams, but two weeks is too long an absence to grasp the nuances of everything that’s gone down. Late rallies and bullpen meltdowns are most viscerally understood in real time or at most within one news cycle. To pick the most obvious example, the Mets had a seven-game lead in the NL East when I left, and even with their postseason odds falling below 90 percent after a huge loss on Wednesday, it was difficult for me to accept their shellshock until tuning in to Thursday night’s game, where if I closed my eyes, I could hear Roky Erickson strumming “I Walked with a Zombie” and know that he wasn’t singing about my jet lag.

Friday night’s game, which I took in with Alex Belth, was even more revealing. Oliver Perez, the only crazy man who might have been sane enough to salvage the Mets’ futile run, showed up in his Mr. Hyde guise and was wild all over the place, walking Jeremy Hermida before yielding a homer to Dan Uggla in the first, and hitting three batters in the third. Perez is one matter, but the telling moment for the Mets, the one that said they were cooked, occurred in that inning, when Hermida’s bases-loaded grounder was fielded by David Wright, who threw home for the force out. Catcher Paul Lo Duca threw back to third, but Wright, forgetting the force was still in effect, tried to tag Hanley Ramirez instead of stepping on the bag, and all hands were safe. After a huge strikeout of Miguel Cabrera, Perez was so adrenaline-charged that he hit the next two batters, bringing home two more runs to widen the lead to 4-1. The Mets would cut the lead in the bottom of the frame, but that moment, when MVP candidate–perhaps favorite–Wright made such a crucial mental lapse, was the skid in a nutshell.

I’m not really a Mets fan, but I have enough of them — not to mention enough experience with collapses going back to the Jaffe family institutional memory of 1951 — to understand their pain, and while I empathize, I’m glad I can shut the emotion off at some point. The sting for me is that via BP I was credentialed for the Mets’ playoff games at Shea Stadium, a plum opportunity that it hurts to miss. In the immortal words of Joe Schultz, aw, shitfuck.

Not much to say about the Phillies, who snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, except “Wow!” Whatever the flaws of laid-back manager Charlie Manuel, he earned his keep patching the team’s decimated pitching staff together all year long; five of the six starters they held at the outset of the season, all except Jamie Moyer, were injured at one point, with one, Punchy Myers, later shifted to closer to compensate for the loss of the injured Tom Gordon. Ace Cole Hamels, who threw just eight innings over a six-week span due to elbow woes, made the kid gloves treatment pay off with eight scoreless innings of 13-strikeout ball on Friday to move the Phils into first place. After Adam “Completely Useless” Eaton and company came up short on Saturday, Moyer, who had put up a 6.16 second-half ERA up to that point, was at his soft-tossing best, flummoxing the Nationals as fellow grizzled vet Glavine faltered in New York, giving the Phils the NL East title.

As for the rest of the slate, I won’t pick over the Dodgers in too much detail except to say that when I heard a rumor Ned Colletti was contemplating a Matt Kemp/Clayton Kershaw for Johan Santana deal, I sent a faux telegram to BP’s internal list: “AM ON WAY TO AIRPORT STOP. WILL KILL COLLETTI, PLASCHKE STOP. TELL MY WIFE I LOVE HER.” The idea that youngsters like Kemp (who hit .342.373/.521 but couldn’t get 300 at-bats from Grady Little) are responsible for the team’s collapse for lack of veteran herbs and spices isn’t just laughable, it’s downright criminal. At a time when Dodger assistant GMs Logan White and Kim Ng have drawn consideration for other teams’ GM openings, it’s clear that the Dodgers’ best play would be to fire Stupid Flanders and promote one of them rather than lose either, but it appears Ned gets at least one more year. God save the Dodger prospects.

Beyond the Dodgers, the Brewers’ demise disappointed me. It had been a slow leak from that 24-10 start, characterized by the fact that the team lost 22 straight games (18 starts) in which Chris “Angel of Death” Capuano appeared. Plus they had to endure yet another incomplete season from Ben Sheets, who threw just 22 innings after July 14 and only one in the season’s final two weeks, so dogged with injuries was he. Still, the team mounted a respectable 16-12 September after going 20-34 in July and August, and remained alive until losing to the Padres on Friday night. They exacted no small amount of revenge against the Pads, beating them in extra innings on Saturday; the game-tying hit off Trevor Hoffman came via Tony Gwynn, Jr., of all people, and the winning hit was by Vinny Rotino, fellow passenger on a puddle-jumping flight I took a year ago upon his initial recall. The Brewers found plenty of sweetness in that victory; their 82nd win of the year meant they recorded their first winning season since 1992; my wife (in Milwaukee on business) and in-laws called to celebrate that bit of good news. The Brewers weren’t done, kicking Padre ass on a crazy Sunday to force a Game 163 playoff for the NL Wild Card on Monday night.

That loss tied them with the Rockies, who went on an incredible 13-1 run (including seven straight over the Dodgers) to vault from fourth place in the NL West into the thick of the Wild Card race. I’m no Rox fan, but I do like their storyline. The fact that the team’s vaunted youngsters — BP’s Kevin Goldstein rated their organization second at the outset of the season — like Franklin Morales, Ubaldo Jimenez (both filling in within a decimated rotation) and especially Troy Tulowitzki came up so big down the stretch should serve any Dodger exec with a reminder that the NL West is a pirhana tank full of young talent in Denver and Arizona, making the perils of Ned all the more clear.

So I was mildly pulling for the Rox last night although I actually picked the Padres to win the World Series back in March. My reasoning on the latter is that they no longer stood a chance with the losses of Mike Cameron and Milton Bradley, the the latter of whom while I was gone stepped on the former’s hand, tearing ligaments in Cameron’s thumb then tore an ACL amid an umpire-baited tirade later in the same game, thus wiping out 2/3 of the team’s starting outfield in one night. That, plus the late-season struggles of Chris Young (6.33 ERA since missing time in July with oblique and back trouble) and the presence of Brett Tomko in their rotation, prompted me to compare the Padres to Randall Patrick McMurphy at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Pass the pillow.

Anyway, even with the Padres’ maladies, they helped leave us with a 13-inning epic that culminated such an incredible weekend. Jake Peavy, who appears on his way to winning the Cy Young award I predicted for him, must have gotten stuck in the humidor while a cleverly disguised impostor surrendered three early runs to the Rox. They came back to take a 5-3 lead thanks in part to a grand slam by Adrian Gonzalez. The look on Rockies’ starter Josh Fogg’s face when he watched that ball go out was priceless. Something along the lines of: “Shit, I left the car in neutral, and now it’s down in the river. My wife is gonna be PISSED. We got any more of those PBRs?”

In the end, the game came down to a pair of questionable umpiring calls. Up 6-5, Garret Atkins appeared to have a home run over the leftfield wall, but out-of-position ump Tim Tschida ruled the ball hit the yellow cushion atop the fence — which would have absorbed the blow — instead of the chair just behind it, which caused a sizable deflection. He, or rather pinch-runner Jamey Carroll, was left stranded. The Pads tied the game up in the eighth, and things remained knotted until the top of the 13th despite the Rockies hauling out an unenviable parade of shamed closers — Latroy Hawkins, Brian Feuntes, Matt Herges, and finally Jorge Julio, who surrendered a two-run homer to Bradley’s replacement, Scott Hairston. On came Hoffman, and at this point I was fully pulling for the Rox, if only because Hoffman has symbolized the Padres’ superiority in the NL West for so long. But he didn’t have it, as Kaz Matsui, Troy Tulowitzki, and Matt Holliday laced consecutive loud hits off him to tie the game.

One out later, Carroll came up and lined to Brian Giles, whose throw home appeared to beat Holliday, who tagged up. The runner went in head first, narrowly missing catcher Michael Barrett’s cleat but apparently — replays were inconclusive at best — not touching home plate even as he got a faceful of dirty. Home plate ump Tim McClelland made no signal until the ball dribbled away from the catcher. The only explanation for this sequence, as I understand from BP rules expert Bil Burke, is the rarely-invoked application of rule 7.06(b): “The catcher, without the ball in his possession, has no right to block the pathway of the runner attempting to score. The base line belongs to the runner and the catcher should be there only when he is fielding a ball or when he already has the ball in his hand.” Lacking possession, the catcher has committed obstruction and the runner is therefore safe — except that rule goes against the de facto precedent of the last quarter century which has seen catchers block the plate with impunity whether or not they had the ball.

It was a controversial end to a thrilling ballgame and a fantastic regular season, and while I’d love to pick it over further, I’ve got plenty to do over the next 24 hours, so check in at BP, where we’ve got your October covered.

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