It’s playoff time for Major League Baseball, and every season gives us something that we never expected. There will be heroes that come out of nowhere, and there will be stars that fade into the cool of fall. And each and every move a manager makes will become fodder for sports talk radio.
As a high school and junior college coach, I have been involved in two distinctly different types of tournaments. In high school, it is pretty much one-and-done in Florida, except for the top two teams advancing from the first round of playoffs at the district level.
In junior college, it was double-elimination, at all levels, from the state to regional to national championship held in Grand Junction, Colorado. In high school, you basically couldn’t have a misstep. In JuCo ball, you got a second life.
So this year, we have it all in MLB. The one-game playoff between wild card winners was incredibly intense. With everything on the line, it’s must-make-a-move time. Games often hinge on one pitch or one play, and that puts excellence, and a little bit of luck, at a premium in a high-noon shootout sort of way. Ask Atlanta how they feel about the infield fly rule right about now. Fredi Gonzalez can’t be blamed for a call that was questionable, at the very least. It killed momentum for the Braves, and while there is no way to predict what would have happened had the call gone the Braves’ way, it’s often a momentum shift when a club not only loses an out, but a base runner as well.
Rumor had it that Buck Showalter planned on using Johnny Wholestaff against Texas in the American League Wild Card Game. Run the starter out there, get a couple of innings, and then go batter-by-batter, inning-by-inning as needed. Baltimore had TEN relievers on the roster to follow up starter Joe Saunders. Saunders managed to go 5.2 innings, and two middle-relievers turned the job over to Jim Johnson, their closer, in the ninth. Four pitchers, wisely used, with more in the wings, if needed. Result? O’s 5, Rangers, 1.
Now we’re into the Divisional Series’ and the situation is a bit different. Best-of-five sounds good, unless you’re Oakland or San Francisco, as I write this. St. Louis is up on Washington 7-3 in the sixth, and the Yankees and Orioles will be on the diamond later this evening. You would think San Fran’ would be the favorite against Cincinnati because of their pitching, but now they’re looking down the barrel of an 0-2 deficit. At least in a five-game set a manager can make some moves. Down two-love, of course, makes every move crucial. But a manager doesn’t get blamed much for taking a few chances when he has nothing to lose.
The League Championship Series’ and the World Series get back to the traditional big league playoff system of best-of-seven. More chances for things to go wrong, and more chances to make something positive happen. The biggest difference as you move up the post-season ladder is probably the investment and the emotion. The closer a team gets to the finish line, the more it means.
That might sound cliché, but it’s real. I personally don’t think teams or players choke – I hate the term – but they try TOO HARD. They want it so much that they get in their own way. This is where it doesn’t hurt to have a playoff-savvy team with a few well-grounded veterans. There are no guarantees to veteran teams, but it helps to have a Derek Jeter on the club. Of course, Texas has been in the Series the past two years, and look who bounced them…the upstart Orioles.
Here are a few things I look for in the post-season:
- Who can best mix and match the lineup – see Tony LaRussa
- Who has the best bullpen, especially in the middle, long-relief, and specialist areas. Closers are supposed to be able to close. No, they don’t always (remember Mariano Rivera dropping game seven to Arizona in 2001?)
- Which club has the strongest ace, or better yet, two aces? In 1968, the Cardinals had Bob Gibson at his very best. Too bad that Detroit had Denny McClain, a thirty-one game winner, and a pretty good lefty by the name of Mickey Lolich. McClain went 1-2 in the Fall Classic, but Lolich had three wins, and topped Gibson in the deciding seventh game. Oh, and how about that Arizona team in 2001? They were able to run Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson to the mound five times in the seven games against the Yankees as starters. And Johnson got the game seven victory in relief
- Expect something big from someone whose name you might not even know. Edgar Renteria was the MVP of the 2010 Series as he neared the end of his career. He hit .412 with six RBIs to help the Giants take Texas. Names like Scott Spiezio of the Angels and Scott Brosius of the Yankees may not roll easily off the tongue, but they helped their teams take home the rings in 2002 and 1998. How about Bill Mazeroski hitting the magnificent walk-off in 1960 to give the Pirates a Series’ championship over the Bronx Bombers? Or Don Larsen, who was 11-5, but had only gone 3-21 only two years earlier, firing a perfect game for the Yankees in ’56?
- Finally, for the managers. It’s important that they don’t change. A team often goes as its manager goes in a tough-fought series or game. I’m not talking about the blowouts, but the nail-biters. They have to be able to look at the big picture, have a plan several batters ahead, and keep things in perspective. A good manager has the pulse of his team, and whether they are young or veteran, has to know which buttons to push. There is only one button they CANNOT push – and that’s the panic button!
There’s no way to predict a WS winner, especially with expanded playoffs. It may be a team that’s hot. It might be a team with great resolve. It might be a team of loose wires, like the A’s of the 1970s or the Johnny Damon/Kevin Millar Red Sox. There’s a good chance it will take a little baseball luck, as well. Whatever – I just hope every series goes the distance. We know there will only be one team dog piling when all is said and done.
Have a baseball question you would like a coach’s opinion on? Leave it in the comments or send it via Twitter to @Aerys_MLB or @WayneTyson11.
Our coach is Wayne Tyson, who was a high school and community college baseball coach for 26 years including six years at Florida Air Academy. His FAA team won the Florida Class 3A State Championship in 1998 and was runner-up in 1999, when the team included freshman Prince Fielder. Wayne currently writes for Cowbell Clankers, the Aerys Sports home of the Tampa Bay Rays.