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between the ears [UPDATE -- la russa to return]

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Update [2007-10-22 9:55:22 by lboros]: la russa returns; it's official. nice of them to announce it right after i've written 1200 words about the indians and red sox . . . . ha ha, just kidding (sort of). my only comment for now: i'm not enthusiastic, but it is what it is. i worry that tony's determination to wring one or two more playoff appearances out of this wrung-out roster is going to delay the necessary business of replenishing the cardinals' talent base. i have nothing personal against tony; like any manager and any human being, he has his strengths and his weaknesses. in my opinion, his particular set of strengths / weaknesses doesn't line up well with the current needs of the franchise.

but my opinion doesn't really count; i don't hire the staff. he's back; he's got his agenda, and i hope he succeeds in it. [end update]

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for the cleveland fans' sake, i'm glad the sox tagged on those 6 runs in the 8th inning. it would have been awful to go into the off-season thinking a 3d-base coach's bad decision might have cost you a trip to the world series. all the little miscues and bad breaks the indians fell prey to in the first 7 innings --- the bad bounce on manny's one-hopper in the first, which turned an inning-ending dp into an rbi single; lofton's out on the basepaths in the 5th, punctuated by an ump's missed call; the failure to send lofton home in the 7th, followed by the rally-killing double-play; and then blake's error leading off the following half-inning --- cost the team a minimum of 4 runs. those little plays will still haunt and gnaw and gall for the entire off-season, but they'd have inflicted far greater suffering if the final margin had been closer.

ballsy decisions by both managers to stay with their starting pitchers as long as they did. i agreed with wedge's call to stay w/ westbrook --- despite yielding 9 hits through three innings, jake wasn't getting hit all that hard; 4 of those hits were dribblers or bloops. but i thought francona was insane to let matsuzaka face sizemore in the 5th inning with two on and one out. dice k hadn't retired a man yet that inning (the only out came on ramirez's peg to nail lofton at 2d) and had allowed hits to 5 of the previous 7 batters. and they were loud hits, including 2 doubles and a single off the green monster. he was laying some very hittable pitches in there; even the offering that got sizemore out wasn't anything special. but it would later become clear that francona didn't trust his second-line relievers at all; he gave 2 innings to okajima and 2 to papelbon, and he said in the postgame presser that if necessary they'd have used josh beckett to close things out. those were the only guys he was prepared to use; timlin and lester were never in the plans, nor was gagne for obvious reasons. hence the gamble on matsuzaka v sizemore. i did see timlin stirring down there in the 'pen at around that time, and i suppose he'd have been summoned if sizemore had gotten a hit; the sox tiptoed past that moment, and now here they are.

this was one of those series where the pressure shifted onto the team that was leading; cleveland took the 3-1 lead, but when they didn't close it out in 5 you could almost see them go "uh-oh." they never held a lead in game 6 or 7, and i'm pretty sure they never cracked another smile; i saw grimly hollow expressions, much as i have seen on the faces of cardinal players in postseasons past (although not, o happy memory, in 2006) . . . . anyway, there's something crazy about the dynamics of the 3-1 series score. the indians win 3 games in a row (2 through 4), and they're all but anointed the winners; then they lose one game (#5) and people start talking about how they're in trouble and the momentum has shifted. when we say momentum, we really mean "psychology"; we mean that one side is playing with a little more poise, a little more optimism, while the other side seems to be a bit more anxious and back on its heels --- playing not to lose, rather than playing to win. in an enlightening comment during last year's playoffs, texbird referred to the former (ie, playing not to lose) as a "prevention" focus, and to the former as a "promotion" focus. did the indians get into a prevention mindset after dropping game 5 --- or did random variation simply kick in? the sox did win 96 games this year, after all; over any given 3-game stretch, we'd expect a team of that caliber to go 3-0 a certain percentage of the time through plain ol' random chance. over 162 games, i tend to think random variation exerts a more powerful influence than momentum/psychology, but in these short october series, i think the two factors are about equal in importance. it wasn't random variation that caused the 3d base coach to hold lofton in the top of the 7th; it was hypercaution, the fear of making a mistake. and i don't think random variation explains why casey blake backed up on, then booted, ellsbury's grounder leading off the bottom of that inning; i think casey was still beating himself up over the double play he'd grounded into a few pitches earlier, which for all he knew cost his team its last chance to tie the score. and it certainly wasn't random variation that propelled papelbon when he came on in the 8th inning with the tying run at the plate and cleveland's 3-4-5 hitters coming up. he got out of the jam on 8 pitches; 7 were fastballs. 7 were strikes.

it was random variation, though, that held garko's two-out drive to right-center in the ballpark. he put an excellent swing on the ball despite being down 1-2 in the count and having been fooled on the previous pitch. and he seemed to have noticed that all 7 of the previous pitches were on the outer half of the plate; he made an adjustment and took the ball the other way. that was not a panicky at-bat; garko deserved a better result..

all the same . . . . i think back to josh beckett's little spat w/ kenny lofton back in game 5. the sox were battling for their lives at the time --- down 1 to 3 in games, and ahead only 2-1 in game 5 --- but which guy seemed in possession of himself in that exchange? which one got rattled? i am not suggesting that this fairly meaningless confrontation "shifted the momentum," as it were. but i do think it crystallizes the way the last 3 games came off. the sox played with authority, and the indians played like a bunch of guys with question marks in their minds.

i'm also thinking back to last year. does random chance explain why the detroit pitchers made 5 errors in the world series? why the tiger hitters swung at so many 1st pitches? why the mets' guillermo mota chose to throw a fastball instead of a changeup to scott spiezio in the 7th inning of game 2 in the nlcs? why carlos beltran didn't even manage a swing at the curveball everyone knew was coming in game 7?

playoff baseball is awesome. with or without the cardinals.

i love the world series matchup --- a classic overdog / underdog thing, bad guys vs good guys. the red sox have shifted poles entirely: only a few years ago they were a team you couldn't root against, a tragic franchise haunted by an almost century-old curse; now they're the yankees, a buncha overpaid and overexposed mega stars from a big media market. it will be interesting to see how the rockies fare psychologically on this stage --- they've played all their postseason contests so far on cable tv and against foes with as little october experience as the rockies themselves. they've already passed the ultimate test in terms of responding to pressure --- ie, their 3-run rally vs trevor hoffman in the play-in game, with elimination a scant 3 outs away. but since then colorado has largely coasted on pure --- momentum? --- rarely trailing in any game and never in a series. whoever wins the whole thing, i hope it's a tussle; there hasn't been near enough drama yet this october.