Elimination Blues

After the Dodgers’ heartbreaking NLCS Game Four loss, I went into last night’s game braced for their inevitable elimination at the hands of the Phillies. So braced, in fact, that I chose to (i)phone in an appearance on Baseball Prospectus’ roundtable and instead view the game from an undisclosed Upper West Side bunker in the company of BP colleagues Joe Sheehan and Derek Jacques, and ESPN Insider’s Matt Meyers.

None of which lessened my disappointment at their loss, but the outcome was hardly in doubt after the fourth inning. Indeed, the script looked all too familiar. From today’s writeup:

Vicente Padilla’s chariot turned back into a pumpkin last night. An unlikely hero of the Dodgers’ playoff run via his two previous starts, he joined Game One starter Clayton Kershaw and Game Three starter Hiroki Kuroda in failing to survive five innings against the Phillies’ offensive juggernaut. For the second year in a row, the Dodgers were unceremoniously bounced from the National League Championship Series in five games. Wait ’til next year.

It didn’t have to be that way for the Dodgers, who came into the series as the favorites among a broad consensus of writers, gamblers, simulators, and moral degenerates thanks to the home field advantage, fewer questions about their pitching staff, and more righty hitters and lefty pitchers to counter the Phillies’ ample supply of lefties. Dodger manager Joe Torre made a hash of his rotation, however, and far more often than not, the pitchers he entrusted failed to deliver. Consider the two rotations’ performances:

Team         IP   H   HR   BB  SO   ERA
Dodgers 21.2 22 6 10 15 8.72
Philllies 30.2 24 6 4 22 2.93

The Dodgers had four full days of rest between playoff rounds, giving Torre the chance to align his rotation to best advantage, so that line above constitutes epic failure in both planning and execution. Subtract Padilla’s Game Two gem as well as that of his opposite number, Pedro Martinez, and the two ERAs become 13.19 and 3.80. If you’re the Dodgers, it should go without saying that that’s no way to win a pennant.

The problem, ultimately, is that as strong as their rotation was — and they finished with the league’s second-best ERA and tied for third in SNLVAR — the Dodgers lacked a true number one starter who could be depended upon to pitch deep into a ballgame come hell or high water and to make multiple starts in a competitive series (i.e., one longer than four games). The 21-year old Kershaw and 24-year-old Chad Billingsley, who was bypassed for a start, may both eventually develop into that stud, but neither is there yet. Randy Wolf, the Dodgers’ most dependable starter this year, isn’t that stud, either. To expect Kuroda, whose 2008 postseason performance outweighed his recent health woes in Torre’s eyes, or Padilla, a free-talent pickup whose ERA has been six percent worse than the park-adjusted league average over the past six years, to rise to live up to such expectations was asking too much.

The Dodgers did have a few chances to make a game of it, but Torre managed from back on his heels throughout the game and indeed the series, failing to give Padilla an earlier hook and notably failing to get pinch-hitter Jim Thome to the plate with the bases loaded even at the expense of one of his trusted but underperforming position players. I suggested in last night’s roundtable that one might have trouble finding an active manager with the cojones to bat Thome for one of his regulars, but a Casey Stengel or an Earl Weaver wouldn’t have hesitated. Here’s Joe’s take:

…[W]hen I think about the Dodgers’ failures — Torre’s failures — I will recall an isolation shot on Jim Thome, alone in the on-deck circle, studying Ryan Madson, just as he’d studied so many pitchers before hitting his 564 career home runs, including 23 this season. I’ll think about a team down five runs with five outs to go, with the bases loaded, with a glimmer of a hint of a ghost of a chance against a bullpen just aching to be exposed. I’ll think about the decision to let first Russell Martin and then Casey Blake try their luck against Madson, someone who, throughout his career, has been tougher against righties than lefties. I’ll think about how, when you start the eighth inning down six runs, you just hope for the opportunity to make a big score with one swing, to make a game of it, to pull off a miracle. I’ll think about that miracle never getting closer than that on-deck circle.

I watched last night’s game with friends, among them Jay Jaffe, who says that no manager in baseball would have made the move I insist was so obviously the correct one. Perhaps he’s right. I could only come up with one name, and after sleeping on it, I don’t think even he would do it. But winning a championship isn’t something you do by following the path of the other 29 guys. It’s something you do by making the right move at the right time to win that game. The right move was to get Jim Thome and his power to the plate with a chance to make it 9-8 with the top of the order batting in the ninth inning against Brad Lidge. Maybe Manuel goes to Scott Eyre (which is why you hit Thome for Martin, rather than wait for Blake), and even if he does, well, that worked out in Game Two. But you don’t go down with Martin and Blake without getting 564 home runs and a .557 slugging average to the plate. The entire reason you put Jim Thome on the roster is so that maybe he can get you four desperately needed runs with one swing of the bat. Whatever the considerable skills of both Martin and Blake, they were the wrong men for the job. Their failures are Joe Torre’s failure.

Sad but true.

I’ll have more postmortem stuff about the Dodgers in tomorrow’s edition of “Kiss ‘Em Goodbye” at BP and ESPN Insider. In the meantime, I’ll be rooting for the other half of my portfolio as the Yankees try to wrap up their first pennant in six years.

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