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bench jockeying

before game 1 of the nlds, scott at cardnilly predicted: "we might well get an upset in this round." the deciding factor, in his mind? none other than the manager:

[T]he intense pressure created by Tony vents itself in a positive release in the NLDS. The players get the "This is what you've been working for, so go out there and take care of business!" pitch, and do just that. They play very well and win convincingly, and sail on to the next round. Tony ratchets up the pressure, and they respond.

I think that Tony's only got that one motivational tool, though -- crank up the pressure. When the next round of the playoffs comes, Tony gives the "This is what you've been working for, so go out there and don't piss it away!" pitch. The players tip over the line, and instead of playing with focus and determination, they start pressing and playing with fear. The pressure causes a negative release, and when things don't go the way they should, everyone tightens up all that much more. This is true of Tony personally, too -- his boneheaded managerial decisions, where he outthinks himself about eight different ways, don't come in the NLDS; they come in the NLCS. Because he wants to win so much, he creates an environment where it's hard to relax and play the game with a mindset that's conducive to winning.

For me, this makes Tony a sympathetic figure -- it's a tragic flaw, where the thing that makes him great is the thing that denies him his ultimate goal. And since it's fundamentally part of his nature, it can't be changed -- it just is.

i like the theory; rings true to me. la russa's teams always burst out of the gate in october at a full gallop. factoid: after tuesday, la russa's career record in postseason "opening days" -- ie, the 1st game of the 1st round -- stands at 11-1; the only time his team failed to take game 1 in an opening-round series was in 2001, when matt morris lost a 1-0 classic to curt schilling. in 9 of those 12 openers, la russa's team scored the first run. his career record in the opening round of the playoffs now stands at 33-12 -- .733.

joe sheehan of baseball prospectus thinks the series sets up extremely well for la russa, thanks to the poor personnel selections made by his opposite number, bruce bochy:

Bochy has two players on his playoff roster with a combined seven at-bats since August 17, one of whom has no chance of playing the field, the other may or may not be able to bat. He has two slow utility infielders who play shortstop poorly and had sub-.300 OBPs this year. . . . . That's why Tyler Johnson got to face not only Bellhorn and his fork, but Todd Walker, who batted .204 against lefties this year. Ballgame.

Bochy's roster is set up for La Russa to absolutely drill him from the sixth inning on in any game. I fully expect Bochy to end up having to pinch-hit with Park, or put Russ Branyan at shortstop, or insert himself into the game. Had I any idea Bochy would leave himself such a worthless bench--Johnson, Sledge and Alexander [all excluded from the roster] all at least do things--I would have rethought my prediction [ie, padres in 4]. This is a horrible bench, and it could end up being the difference in the series.

the use of bellhorn to pinch-hit during the pads' 7th-inning comeback bid -- he came up as the tying run with the sacks jammed and 1 out in the 7th -- has padre fans scratching their heads, to say the least. to put this into perspective, suppose la russa had put jose vizcaino on the playoff roster instead of john rodriguez, and then used vizcaino to pinch-hit in the middle of a comeback bid while spiezio was available on the bench; that's the kind of decision it was. geoff young, who writes the outstanding padres blog Ducksnorts (i recommend you check it out during this series), sums it up nicely:
Bellhorn hasn't reliably hit big-league pitching for a long time. Since the beginning of the 2005 season, Bellhorn's line is a staggering .201/.306/.351 in 553 at-bats. It's possible that he might run into one or the pitcher might walk him, but you don't count on it. We are talking about a batter who has failed to make contact in over 31% of his plate appearances over the past two seasons.

Given what we know about Bellhorn, it came as no surprise to see him strike out in that at-bat. It's easy to get down on the guy, but we shouldn't -- he was doing what he does. The thing that boggles the imagination is that Bellhorn was brought into that situation at all.

the padres' biggest advantage coming into the series seemed to be their superior bullpen. but if bochy has denied himself the necessary weapons to exploit fully the cards' vulnerable relief pitching, that undermines san diego's edge in the late innings of close games. if it's another tight one today, mind your matchups; see if they skew in the cardinals' favor.

ducksnorts shares my weariness (though he's considerably less grouchy about it) of fans' indignation over perceived slights at the hands of ESPN and other national commentators. substitute "cardinals" for "padres" in this passage, taken from the same post cited above:

We need to stop complaining about the lack of respect given the Padres by the national sports media. For one thing, respect isn't given, it's earned. What, exactly, have the Padres done to earn anyone's respect? Obviously you and I love them because we are fans, and we're justifiably proud of what they've done because we understand the context -- three consecutive winning seasons [or "division-winning," in the cards' case] is unprecedented in this franchise's history. It's a big deal.

To us.

The other reason we need to stop complaining about "lack of respect" (you knew I'd get back to that, right?) is simple and goes a little like this: Who cares what anyone else thinks? We know that our Padres are a solid ballclub and that's good enough for me -- at least until they do something a little more worthy like, I dunno, win the World Series. For now, though, the focus should be on watching these guys battle and not on what some yahoos in Connecticut think about our team.

amen to that, brother. the national experts don't know our team; they don't care about our team. they're entitled to their opinions, but their opinions are worthless -- they don't matter. so don't let them get you worked up.

and if they do get you worked up, don't vent your frustrations here.

ken arneson wrote some smashing nlds prediction limericks over at the eccentric blog Humbug Journal (a treasure to all baseball fans, if you've never read it). here's the verse he wrote about the card-padre series:

With Woody, Wells, Young after Peavy
And a 'pen that is very releavy,
The Padres are deep.
So maybe a sweep
Is something not too unbeleavy.

heading into game 2, maybe it ought to read like so:

With Pujols and Carp as big gunners
The Cards made themselves the front-runners
Should Weaves pitch a gritty'un
And Suppan a pretty'un
The Cardinals may be 1st-round stunners.

or like this, perhaps:

In Game 1, Carpenter and Pujols
Brought cheer back to Cardinal fans' blue souls
Win one more today
And the pundits will say,
"Teams rarely come back from 0-2 holes."

nipsey russell, eat your heart out.