What a Difference a Series Makes

Disappointing series in Phoenix. Those pitching match-ups sure looked favorable on paper. But that’s why they play the games.

I was talking to a friend the other day who noted that people tend analyze things more closely when they’re not going well. He thought it might be instructive to take a closer look during good times as well. If lessons can be learned from situations gone wrong, then shouldn’t they also be culled from situations gone right?

With that background, let’s compare the series in San Francisco with that in the desert. Interestingly, the Padres came into both series facing a team in trouble. The Giants had just been swept at home by the Dodgers and had lost four straight. Although the Pads ended up losing the first game at SBC, as I’ve said before, their attempted comeback in the ninth inning against the San Francisco bullpen helped set the stage for events to come. Throughout the rest of the series, the Giants were forced to go to their bullpen early and often, with often disastrous results.

Just as some of the blame must fall on the Giant relievers’ shoulders, so must some credit be given to the Padre hitters. Other than the first eight innings of the first game, the Padres steadily put runners on base, advanced them, and brought them home. There were no easy outs in the lineup. There was nobody on whom the opposition could count to kill any given rally.

No doubt the Pads caught their rivals to the north at an opportune time, but they also capitalized on the situation. In contrast, this past weekend, Bruce Bochy’s troops came up against a team reeling from a series loss at Milwaukee. The final contest for the Diamondbacks had been a 15-inning affair which saw their closer surrender another lead and seven relievers work a total of 10 innings. This on getaway day, no less.

To start the series against the Pads, Bob Brenly sent Casey Daigle to the mound Friday night. To that point in his career, Daigle was most famous for being the first National Leaguer to surrender five homers in fewer than three innings since Steve Stone did it in 1974. I say this was Daigle’s greatest claim to fame because it was, in fact, his big-league debut.

Daigle entered Friday’s contest with an ERA of 18.90. The bullpen had pitched 10 innings the previous day. Simple strategy: get to the starter early, force Brenly to further tax an already overworked bullpen, and then hammer away all series like in San Francisco.

This is where theory and practice diverge. Daigle destroyed the plan by largely shutting down the Padres for 6 1/3 innings. On the visitors’ side, Adam Eaton was matching him and spinning a gem of his own through seven. Then in the eighth, with one on and two out, Luis Gonzalez stepped to the plate. Without a bona fide big-league lefty in the bullpen (more about that a bit later), Eaton stays in the game and intentionally walks Gonzalez to get to Sexson.

I actually understand the thinking behind this one and I’m okay with it. Aki Otsuka is ready in the bullpen, and Otsuka vs Sexson is a more favorable match-up than Eaton vs Gonzalez, who had the highest batting average against right-handers in the bigs last year.

Here’s where we see a big difference between the series in San Francisco and that in Arizona. This is going to sound like second guessing, but I was pretty stunned by the move (or lack thereof) at the time. Eaton stays in the game to pitch to Sexson. You have to realize that Eaton had pretty well been cruising to that point. He hadn’t even thrown 100 pitches, so I can understand the temptation to leave him and let him get out of the inning. On the other hand, if there’s ever a time to use your top setup man, it’s in the eighth inning of a tie ballgame with runners on and the opposition’s biggest slugger coming to the plate.

The result was a three-run blast by Sexson on Eaton’s first pitch. I don’t like to judge a move solely on the basis of its outcome. But in this case, beyond the result, I don’t agree with the thought process. Otsuka has been the one reliable pitcher in the bullpen so far. Sexson has already faced Eaton three times during the game. Why not pull the starter, pat him on the back, and let Otsuka do what he does best? I don’t buy the argument that you leave the starter in there to get the win. Baseball is a team sport, and while individual victories are a great help when it comes time to talk contract, it’s the team victories that get everyone closer to the postseason, which is the ultimate goal.

Long story, short: Regardless of the outcome, Eaton should not have been left in the game to face Sexson.

The second game was a lot like the final game of the Pads’ initial homestand. Basically a slew of wasted opportunities salvaged by a timely ninth-inning hit by Ryan Klesko.

The rubber game featured, among other things, another curious decision by Bochy with regard to his pitching staff. Starter Brian Lawrence cruised through the first two innings and was staked to an early 2-0 lead. He then allowed four unearned runs in the third before coming back with a scoreless fourth.

Sean Burroughs sprained his left ankle the previous night and was unable to start against Elmer Dessens, against whom he had posted some obscene numbers in limited at-bats. In the top of the fifth, with one out and nobody on, Bochy sent Burroughs up to the plate to bat for Lawrence. Burroughs promptly struck out and the Padres went down quietly. More importantly, Lawrence was out of the game despite having thrown just 72 pitches.

Enter Jason Szuminski. He retires Gonzalez for the first out. Then this happens: homer, walk, single, single, walk. Jay Witasick comes in and fans Dessens for the second out. Matt Kata singles home two more runs before the inning finally comes to an end. A two-run defecit has become a six-run defecit, and the Padres have used three pitchers. Oh, and there are still four innings left to play.

The Padres, showing their resolve, score five runs of their own in the top of the sixth. Khalil Greene is left on second after getting there with one out and watching Kerry Robinson (Juan Pierre skills + Karim Garcia approach = Triple-A outfielder) and Ramon Vazquez strike out to end the inning. But the Pads have made a dent, and the home crowd is booing its D’backs.

To the bottom of the sixth and Eddie Oropesa, the Pads’ fourth pitcher of the game. Oropesa throws 15 pitches. Three are for strikes. He faces three batters, all of them walk. Bases loaded, nobody out. Enter Antonio Osuna, the fifth pitcher for the Pads. Bear in mind that this is the sixth inning and that Lawrence is usually a decent bet to make it that deep into a game.

Osuna eventually stops the bleeding, but not before he’s allowed all of Oropesa’s runners (and one of his own) to score. On the strength of two hits, Arizona has answered four of the five runs scored by the Padres the previous inning. The game is effectively over (although the Pads do have to use a fifth reliever, Scott Linebrink, before it actually ends).

We’ve kind of wandered all over the map here, but the main forces conspiring against the Pads in Arizona, as compared to their stint up north, are these:

  • Less clutch hitting
  • Worse management of pitchers by Bochy
  • Worse execution by said pitchers

It would be misguided to blame Bochy for the Arizona series. It isn’t his fault Khalil Greene made an error Sunday that led to four unearned runs. It isn’t his fault that Szuminski and Oropesa can’t get big-league hitters out. At some point the players have to execute, and there’s no question that the Pads didn’t play as well as they could have.

That said, the decisions to leave Eaton in the game Friday night and to pull Lawrence early in Sunday’s contest loom large. They didn’t make a lot of sense at the time, even before we saw what the outcome would be.

Hopefully the Padres can come home and the hitters can execute better during the upcoming series against the Expos and Mets. If they do, then Bochy can spend less time messing around with his pitching staff and more time letting them do their jobs.

Also, looking at the bigger picture, the Padres did go 4-3 on the road trip. Even though the Arizona series was disappointing, the club returns home having completed what can only be described as a successful trip.

Geek Stuff

This weekend I added permalinks to every blog entry at Ducksnorts all the way back to the initial entry from June 12, 2001. In addition to demonstrating with crushing clarity that I have no life, this will eventually allow me (and you) to refer back to individual entries from a particular date. Furthermore (and I haven’t completely thought through this part, but I have some ideas), it will eventually allow me to index entries by topic, player, etc. So if you want to read what I had to say about Jake Peavy when he was at Elsinore and compare it with what I had to say about him last week, there will be a mechanism for that.

Timetable for this? None as yet. But the important point to note is that with permalinks now in place, there are some possibilities for future development that didn’t exist last week. If this doesn’t excite you, that’s okay. I’m psyched enough for the both of us. ;-)

Expos in town tonight. Jake Peavy vs Livan Hernandez, 7:05. No television.

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