Monthly Archives: October 2009

YANKEES BEAT TWINS BUT IT’S NOT ALL NICK PUNTO’S FAULT

                                                                              Kallas Remarks by Steve Kallas

By now you may have seen the play a number of times:  2-1 Yankees, bottom eight, Nick Punto doubles off Phil Hughes to lead off and then Denard Span hits a chopper up the middle.  Derek Jeter runs behind second and catches the ball as Nick Punto rounds third steamrolling towards home.  Punto doesn’t see third-base coach Scott Ullger’s stop sign until it’s too late and Posada takes Jeter’s throw and throws out Punto at third.

For all intents and purposes, game (and series) over.

But there’s a lot more to this play then just a runner (and a smart one, by all accounts) rolling through a stop sign.  Punto, a classy guy and very good player, took all the blame, saying he thought that, since the crowd was going wild, the ball had gone through and he would score the tying run.

BUT WHERE EXACTLY WAS THE THIRD-BASE COACH STANDING?

In the last 20 years or so, third-base coaches have, more and more, moved down the third-base line closer to home as a runner is coming to third.  It didn’t happen like this decades ago but, over time, this method seemed to give a third-base coach an extra split-second to make his decision as to whether a runner should be sent home.  A very tough job (often-times tougher than managing a team, see Kallas Remarks, 5/18/08), the third-base coach, unlike a manager, has to make instantaneous decisions (and can’t turn to his bench coach either).

But on this particular play, in the unusual instance where the middle infielder gets to the ball (as Jeter did), the location of the third-base coach almost halfway to home is a HUGE DETRIMENT to stopping a runner when and where he needs to be stopped (close enough to third to get back).  Understand that when a runner nowadays is running to third and looks straight ahead, he can rarely see the third-base coach.  He literally has to shift his eyes to his left to pick up the coach because the coach is nowhere near third base (in this case, Scott Ullger was about halfway to home).

Understand that in the “normal” situation (that is, when the ball gets through) where the coach does hold up the runner, the runner can make a huge turn and get back no problem.  But in this situation (Jeter cuts the ball off and throws home), the runner has to know earlier and the best way to tell him would be for the third-base coach to be much closer to third.

Is this too picky?  Maybe, and this is second-level stuff, but understand that this is the difference between having a chance to tie up the game and losing.  If the third-base coach sees the ball go through, that’s one thing; but if the ball is caught in the infield, that’s quite another.

IS IT NICK PUNTO’S FAULT?

Of course it is but understand, in the rare situation that a middle infielder can get to the ball, a different (and quicker) decision has to be made by the third-base coach.  While Punto deserves most of the blame, a different approach by Scott Ullger (that is, an approach where he’s near third base, not 40-45 feet down the line) may (not necessarily would) have allowed Punto to see the stop sign early enough to get back.

So drop most, but not all, of the blame on Nick Punto.  But a third base coach should not be halfway to home BEFORE the ball leaves the infield.  If he is, he risks the chance of his baser runner not seeing his sign.  Would Punto have seen the stop sign if Ullger was closer to third?  Well, we’ll never know, but he certainly would have had a better chance as he certainly had to look towards third base (not 30 feet to the left of third base) to actually touch the base.

THE MORAL OF THE STORY

Well, there’s a few.  Of course, Nick Punto can’t “assume” (his word) that the ball had gone through (obviously the crowd was cheering because there was no play on Span at first).  Nor can Punto look over his shoulder into centerfield (that’s a sure way to lose a step and get thrown out at the plate if the ball did get through).

But the fascinating thing here is when (or, frankly, even if) a third-base coach should run forty feet towards home to give himself a better “angle” on the ball and his runner.  In the case of Nick Punto rounding third in a huge game, the location of the third-base coach hurt a lot more than it could have potentially helped in the (somewhat rare) instance of a ball not getting through up the middle.

It’s unlikely that this will change the way coaches coach third, but some manager or coach who is a student of the game may see the replay of this play and understand what happened.  We’ll see if it changes any coach’s positioning on these kinds of plays in the future. 

© Copyright 2009 by Steve Kallas. All rights reserved.

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GAFFES GALORE: ANATOMY OF A YANKEE PLAYOFF WIN

                                                                   Kallas Remarks by Steve Kallas

It’s hard to watch sometimes, but, at the same time, very exciting.  So it was as the Yankees came back to beat the Minnesota Twins, 4-3, in Game 2 of their best-of-five ALDS.  Both teams, both managers, umpires and even announcers were not immune from poor decisions.  But, hey, that’s how it is nowadays.  Or maybe that’s how it’s always been.  Remember that famous quote from Wes Westrum, former major leaguer and one-time manager of the New York Mets:  “Baseball is like church; many attend, but few understand.”  Amen to that.

CARLOS GOMEZ – WHAT’S HE THINKING?

Top of the fourth, two out, scoreless game, the Twins have runners on first and second when Matt Tolbert singles to right.  Everybody’s off and running and, as Nick Swisher fields the ball and realizes he has no play at the plate (and with Derek Jeter motioning to Swisher to throw to second), Carlos Gomez (former Met) looks over his shoulder (mistake number one) and stumbles after rounding second (mistake number two) and then tries to scramble back to second (mistake number three) only to be tagged out by Jeter before Delmon Young crosses the plate.  Had Gomez done virtually anything differently (not looked, not stumbled, got in a rundown, ANYTHING), the first run of the game would have scored.

This would be very important in a one-run game.

Here’s a quote from Twins manager Ron Gardenhire BEFORE the game (from the New York Post): “We’ve been trying to get him [Gomez] to calm down, have him control the situation, and sometimes the situation controls him.”  Well, he certainly wasn’t under control on this play.

RON GARDENHIRE

 An excellent manager by all accounts, Gardenhire left a chance to win the game on the table in the top of the 10th inning.  Nick Punto draws a two-out walk and, while the people at the ballpark (this writer was fortunate to be in Section 230) thought Punto would steal with leadoff hitter Denard Span up (we knew from the scoreboard he was 16-19 in steals this year), Ron Darling was telling a TBS audience that of course Punto would steal because he was 10-10 on steals in the seventh inning or later.

But Gardenhire, after sending Delmon Young earlier in the game on an 0-2 pitch with Jose Molina catching (he was safe) and later sending Carlos Gomez on the second pitch of an at-bat in the top of the eighth (single, first and third), inexplicably did not send Punto until the FIFTH (i.e., very late in the at-bat) pitch of the at-bat to Span, who proceeded to single him to third on that pitch.  Of course, you never know what would have happened, but the play was definitely to send Punto earlier in the at-bat to give Span a chance to drive him in, not move him over to third.

In addition, with the bases loaded and nobody out in the top of the eleventh inning and your six, seven and eight hitters coming up, Gardenhire never had anyone bunt (suicide or safety squeeze) with his season on the line.  Very curious.

BRETT GARDNER – EXCELLENT BASE STEALER; POOR BASE RUNNER

By all accounts a bright guy and a good baserunner, Gardner separated himself yesterday by showing he’s an excellent base stealer but a poor baserunner.  Gardner was put in to pinch-run for Jorge Posada in Joe Girardi’s interesting three-catcher scenario (Molina starts in order to catch A.J. Burnett and then Posada pinch-hits and stays in and then, in a big spot, Posada gets on, Gardner pinch-runs and Cervelli comes into catch).

But Girardi had no idea that Gardner would get brain-lock four times on the bases in one pinch-running debacle.  Bottom 10, Gardner pinch-runs for Posada, steals second, one out, he’s the winning run.  You had to be at the game to see that Joe Nathan easily could have picked off Gardner on the 2-1 pitch on the old “daylight” play – that is, shortstop Orlando Cabrera comes in behind Gardner and, if the pitcher sees “daylight” (space) between Cabrera and Gardner, he throws to second.

Missing his opportunity on the 2-1 pitch, Nathan had an excellent chance on the 3-1 pitch to do the same thing on the same play (clearly Gardner was too hyped up – the Gardenhire quote on Carlos Gomez set forth above also could apply to Brett Gardner in this game) but threw the ball into the outfield (it wasn’t even close to second base).  Gardner, who would have been out with a good throw, dives back into second, gets up, turns to run to third, stumbles and still runs to third.  A good throw and he’s out easily at third.  But, fortunately for Gardner, it’s a bad throw and he makes third.

So, after making three mistakes (two poorly-judged leads at second and then a fortunate bad throw to let him get to third), Gardner would calm down enough to collect himself and become the good baserunner we thought he was prior to this game.  Right?  Wrong. 

Derek Jeter walks and with first and third, one out and Johnny Damon and Mark Teixeira coming up, you have to love the Yankees chances to score.  But, with the middle infielders half-way (to maybe turn a double play, but to also take a shot at Gardner going home to save the game), Johnny Damon lines out to short and Brett Gardner is already half way home when the ball is caught.  The double play ends a potential game-winning rally and makes you scratch your head when Brett Gardner has to run the bases in a key spot.  Just bizarre.       

PHIL HUGHES, JOE GIRARDI, TONY PENA, JORGE POSADA

Plenty of blame to go around when Phil Hughes comes in to pitch.  The key batter is number nine hitter Nick Punto.  Punto, a tough out (but still a number nine hitter), faces Hughes, who’s consistently throwing 96, with first and third and two outs.  Apparently Pena, a great catcher in his own right, is calling the pitches.  Ron Darling explained to us that, earlier in the inning, Hughes seemed reluctant to throw a curveball to Delmon Young and stepped off the mound after getting the sign from Posada.  He stepped back on, threw a slider and struck Young out.  But, after throwing five straight fastballs to Punto, and having him swing weakly at the fifth (he barely fouled it off), Posada called for the curve.  Once given a chance, Punto stays back, bloops a single to center and gives the Twins the lead.  You can’t lose on your third best pitch (fastball one, slider two, curveball three) but that’s exactly what Phil Hughes did on orders from … well, you fill in a name.

Girardi THEN decides to bring in the greatest closer ever.  While it’s unusual to bring in a closer in the eighth (as opposed to ninth) inning at home in a tie game, if you’re going to bring him in, bring him in before you give up the lead, not after.  Again, just bizarre decision-making in a major league playoff game.  Mariano then gives up another hit and run, setting the stage for A-Rod to be the game-tying (not winning) hero (the game-winning hero would be Mark Teixeira as the Twins walked off the field after Teixeira won the game with an 11th inning homer).

CHIP CARAY AND RON DARLING AND JOHN STERLING

Chip Caray’s problems parachuting in to do a playoff game have been well-documented in the New York Post and other places.  In this game, when Delmon Young stole second on an 0-2 pitch to Carlos Gomez, who struck out swinging weakly at it, Caray said, “Gomez tried to protect the runner, swung at a ball in on his hands and struck out.”  I’m not sure if anyone in the history of baseball has ever swung at a bad pitch with two strikes (as opposed to one strike or no strikes) on him to protect a runner.  The theory of even doing it is absurd.  But, hey, it was Carlos Gomez, so maybe he did try to protect the runner (see the Wes Westrum quote above).

Darling, almost always excellent, seemed to slip up a bit when he said, in the top of the eighth, “which bullpen blinks first is the game right now.”  Caray, after the Twins had scored two in the top of the eighth, maybe tried to prop Darling up by saying, in the bottom of the eighth, “A couple of innings ago you said this game may be decided by the bullpen that blinks first.  Right now it’s the Yankees.”

Well, certainly a bright guy like Darling knows that it’s not the bullpen that blinks first that counts, it’s the bullpen that blinks last that counts.  Sometimes the two are one and the same but in this game, not surprisingly, there were multiple blinks – the Yankee bullpen blinked first in the eighth, the Twins bullpen blinked second in the ninth (Joe Nathan couldn’t throw his fastball by anybody – again, at least in the case of the Yankees) and the Twins bullpen blinked third (and last) in the eleventh.

In a world where the bullpen is in the game often times in the sixth or seventh inning, there’s just a lot more blinking in modern-day baseball.

I’ve been told by multiple people that John Sterling called Mark Teixeira’s long foul off Twins starter Nick Blackburn a home run.  But if you’ve listened to the Yankees for years, you’ve heard “It is high, it is far, it is caught” a hundred times and you’ve also heard dozens of wrong calls like a long foul ball being called a home run.

Frankly, like it or not, that comes with the territory if you’re a long-time Yankee fan.  For whatever reason, that’s just the way it is.

THE UMPIRES

You’d like to think that a lot of the terrible calls we see nowadays replayed hundreds of times every day (especially in big games) also took place in prior generations but there was no instant replay or slow-motion or 23 camera angles.  But to miss a Joe Mauer definite double down the leftfield line, as LEFTFIELD LINE umpire Phil Cuzzi did in the crucial top of the tenth, is as bad as it gets.  Whether you are for replay or not, if it’s to correct EGREGIOUS calls (as is its intent), then this call should somehow have been reversed.  Game-changing?  Well, we’ll never know, but certainly possible.

Chuck Meriwether’s strike zone was also scary.  While announcers can say that all the players want is consistency, when the strike zone is consistently preposterous (unhittable pitches up and away to both teams), it doesn’t matter that you, the batter, know that those up and away pitches are going to be called strikes.  You can’t hit them anyway unless your name is Vlad Guerrero or Yogi Berra.

There were at least 20 pitches that looked like balls and, according to the TBS strike-zone box (always a dangerous thing), were outside the strike zone.  Melky Cabrera’s at-bat in the bottom of the seventh against Jon Rauch was the best.  Rauch threw five straight balls out of the strike zone – and then Cabrera flied out on the 3-2 pitch.  You can’t make this stuff up.

YANKEES WIN, YANKEES WIN!!!

Yes, it was a great game and a great win for the New York Yankees in Game 2 against the Minnesota Twins in the 2009 ALDS.  But while everybody really is bigger, faster and stronger today, you have to wonder where all the excellent-thinking players, managers, umpires and announcers have gone.  While there are many in each category still around, collectively, the game of baseball, its participants and its coverage have gone downhill in the past decade or so.

© Copyright 2009 by Steve Kallas. All rights reserved.

Steve Kallas on WFAN with Mike Francesa (12/02/08)

Steve Kallas on ESPN SportsCenter with Sage Steele (12/02/08)