Sunday, January 18, 2015

World Series 2014: One Base Shy, Too Much Bumgarner

As the four most gratifying words to the ear of a die-hard baseball fan -- "pitchers and catchers report" -- rapidly approach, let's take a look back at last season's World Series. (Alas, and to the chagrin of Giant fans everywhere, the fear expressed in the conclusion of this piece has indeed come to pass.)

The San Francisco Giants’ Madison Bumgarner was the break-out star of the 2014 World Series – or MLB Finals, as ESPN’s Keith Olbermann has taken to calling it. The big country boy has been a mainstay, indeed a work-horse, in Bruce Bochy’s rotation now for four seasons, logging 129 regular-season starts, roughly half of the seven-inning variety. The acclaim he is receiving is bought and paid for.

As eye-popping as was the performance of the Giants’ lefty, though, the real winner to come out of this post-season was the game of Baseball itself, particularly as represented by the “small-ball” style of the frumpy runners-up from the Midwest. Ned Yost’s No-Name Kansas City Royals rode the tripartite mantra of Pitching (particularly a shut-down bullpen crew), Defense and “Get ‘em on, get ‘em over, get ‘em in” to its best finish in two decades.

Regal Reality seemed to have set in, however, against battle-tested Jon Lester and the Oakland A’s in the Wild Card play-in game. But a miraculous rally saved the day and ignited a clean sweep through the American League side of the playoff bracket. Bumgarner’s gem in Game 1 of the Fall Classic stemmed the tide only temporarily, as consecutive KC triumphs snatched back the home-field advantage, which held true until Game 7.

Maybe in a case of role reversal, the Giants stole a page from Yost’s playbook in forging an early 3-2 lead in that decisive game. For example, just prior to scoring what would prove to be the championship run from third base on Mike Morse’s fourth-inning single to right, Pablo Sandoval had advanced to third on an outfield fly – TO LEFT. The Panda’s rather a big boy to be executing such daring base-running, eh? SF’s first two runs had been scored on sacrifice flies … indeed, four of the twelve base advancements it took to plate three runners were the result of a tag-up.

Put the ball in play and good things can happen!

During the second inning of a “do-or-die” Game 6, a dribbler off the bat of speedy KC shortstop Alcides Escobar made grizzled vet Jake Peavy and young first baseman Brandon Belt look like a couple of T-ballers. The infield single (no, fielder’s choice; yes, single again) begat a seven-run inning, a 10-0 blowout and that Game 7.

Certainly, Iron Man Bumgarner’s long relief creates the enduring impression for this Series. But Baseball’s extraordinary capacity for innovation had saved up one final edge-of-your-seat moment for us – on a play that could have laid waste to MadBum’s chunk of posterity.

‘Twas fitting that this one ended with the tying run a mere 90’ away. And the manner by which Alex Gordon got himself into that position soon had the irascibly witty Olbermann invoking the likes of legendary Giant goats Fred Snodgrass (he of the “muff”) and Fred Merkle (he of the “boner”).

The Royals’ wonderfully athletic left-fielder whistled an 0-1 slider right up the middle on a line, under most circumstances a playable, if not catchable, ball for a proficient center-fielder like Gregor Blanco. But the Giants were utilizing the so-called “No Doubles” alignment as well as playing the left-handed hitting Gordon to pull. Blanco got himself into No Man’s Land, and the ball skipped through to the wall. Left-fielder Juan Perez complicated matters by mishandling the ball before getting it to shortstop Brandon Crawford in short left field.

Over and above the misjudgment and poor ball-handling, this outfield play is fundamentally un-sound. The corner outfielder is expected to serve as the backer-upper, not the chaser-downer. What in the world was Perez thinking? That he had a play on the ball? Or did he figure Blanco had it all the way and was guilty of pre-mature jockularity, as seemed to be the case with the Giants’ battery at that point in time?

Either way, and notwithstanding the error properly charged to Blanco, Perez’s mental miscue cost at least one base, if not two. The Keystone Kops component of it all was advanced by the pundits who were chastising Gordon and third-base coach Mike Jirschole for not further testing the Giants’ capacity for foible by trying for the game evener right then and there.

Of course, such base-running judgment would be the epitome of folly. No way Gordon could have navigated those final 90’ more quickly than Crawford can throw a ball 120’ or so. In prior baseball eras, one might factor into this decision the likelihood that Gordon, who’s built like a blocking back, could have jarred the ball loose from the grasp of catcher Buster Posey. But such collisions have been legislated from the rulebook, if not quite completely yet from the instinctive nature of aggressive ballplayers.

A payoff (i.e. tie game, extra innings, no more Bumgarner) on such a long-shot required another defensive blunder (i.e. off-line or delayed throw, another player out-of-place). Methinks I recall a famous line from “Dirty Harry” that fits such a scenario. Of course, Det. Callahan’s sentiment might just as easily have applied to the prospects of Salvador Perez’s subsequent at-bat. And therein lies the dilemma that was facing Gordon and particularly Jirschole in that most tense of moments.

There are a variety of ways by which a base-runner can advance from third to home: a batted ball in play, a balk, a pitch that goes awry, even a straight steal of home ala Jackie Robinson. All things considered, holding the runner was the only move to make, and both runner and base-coach seemed to resign themselves to this inevitability. (Gordon, in violation of youth ball gospel, admitted to watching the ball while running.)

Conceivably, the Royals could have bluffed Crawford into making a hurried throw without actually sending Gordon. An aggressive rounding of third may have induced such a reaction. But Jirschole put the brakes on Gordon well before reaching the bag.

Kinda ironic that on such a crucial play, two teams who had made their 2014 mark with a “balls-out” approach ultimately went conservative – the Giants with their defensive alignment and the Royals (who uncharacteristically attempted only two stolen bases in the whole series) with some too casual base-running.

In the end, Madison’s magnificence made it all a moot point by inducing the least stressful out in the sport, a foul pop. And let’s hope that Kung Fu Panda’s last act as a San Francisco Giant is NOT falling on his keister.