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For Fans Who Should Know Better

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Mudville: October 28, 2020 6:55 pm PDT
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If the Yankees and Mets want to get better, and this goes for any team in baseball, hopefully they are keeping a close eye on the ALCS.

Learn something.  Learn that defense matters a lot more than you think.

The Yankees were not nearly the defensive team the Rays were in the ALDS and that is why they lost in five games even though their payroll dwarfs the Rays payroll. The Rays make up for lack of money by making money plays. It’s an art form for them and a huge part of their game. They practice their defense every day and it has paid off in a big way for Kevin Cash’s team.

The Mets defense has been dreadful for years and new owner Steve Cohen is going to have to make defense a priority when he takes over the club.

Having faith in your players to make big plays matters.

The Rays are putting on a clinic on how to play baseball, not just live and die by the numbers and the shifts.

By the way, the Rays were 19th in the majors in the amount of times they shifted this season. The Braves were dead last.

One more win for the Rays and they will be in their second World Series. They lead the Astros, 3-1 in the ALCS at Petco Park. The Astros survived to fight another day with a 4-3 win over the Rays Wednesday night behind a solid start from Zack Greinke and home runs by Jose Altuve and a two-run monster shot into the fourth level of the Western Metal Supply Building in the fifth inning by George Springer off Tyler Glasnow.

The Braves were crushed 15-3 by the Dodgers at Globe Life Field to cut the Braves lead in the NLCS to 2-1. No amount of defense was going to help the Braves on a night the Dodgers broke out with 11 runs in the first inning.

The Rays make defense a priority and so do the Braves. The Braves have the best infield instructor of them all in third base coach Ron Washington.

One of my favorite things about going to the ballpark is that no matter what time you go to a Braves game, there would be Washington on the field going through defensive drills and many of these drills are done in a 10-foot area on the sidelines. It’s one-on-one instruction, teaching the finer details of defense.

The secret to Washington’s success is to utilize these drills that improve hand eye coordination of his fielders. He works on the feet as well and quickness. It’s all about repetition and players buying into his program.

I remember going to Disney two springs ago, arriving at 7am, and having to cut through the outfield fence to get to the Braves clubhouse because the media entrance near the front of the ballpark was locked. So I found another way. As I walked into the ballpark with the rising sun glistening, there was Washington working on the dew dappled grass with a young infielder. That is commitment. March’s early mornings lead to October’s late success.

That’s how it’s done. Work. Perseverance. Sweat equity. It’s the oldest secret in baseball. This is a game of leather and laces.

Ron Washington

Braves coach Ron Washington works tirelessly with players and has the Atlanta infield hoovering up whatever is it hit to them.

Put out all the fancy terms you want to impress ownership but if you want to make your team better, make your pitching staff better, improve your defense with the daily grind, especially this October with teams not playing in their home ballparks once the wild card round was completed.

Bind that defense together and if you create just enough offense, you will win anywhere. As one wise baseball man told BallNine this week, “You still have to play baseball. It’s a game, not a video game game.’’

Around 60 years ago Baltimore Orioles manager and GM Paul Richards put it best, saying this about the skills of baseball: “It’s just throwing and catching and hitting and running. What’s simpler than that?’’

Richards signed Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson in 1955. Later when he went to the brand new Houston Colt .45s, he signed Joe Morgan, another Hall of Famer, in 1962. The former catcher knew defense and demanded his teams play it.

Throwing and catching were at the top of his list.

The way the Rays are catching everything in sight, starting with centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier, right-fielder Hunter Renfroe and the other right-fielder Manuel Margot, also got me thinking of something former second baseman Mike Gallego once said: “They talk about hitting and pitching being contagious, but the most contagious part of baseball is defense.’’

That’s such a wise comment.

Notice we are talking defense here and not run prevention.

Run prevention is a term that gets a lot of play these days, but give me good old-fashioned defense. Play defense and run prevention takes care of itself. Get the outs and your pitchers survive deeper into games. Get the outs and you win games.

And if you are the Rays, you win the AL East even though the Yankees were heavy favorites. You then take care of an undisciplined young team that doesn’t play good defense in the Blue Jays in two straight in the wild card round and then you beat the Yankees in the ALDS.

The Yankees were flustered in so many ways by the Rays and on Wednesday Brian Cashman and Aaron Boone held a press conference to try to explain what went wrong. Boone broke out the cliches saying, “My focus is getting us to the top of the mountain.’’

The truth is the Yankees defense was a mountain of a problem. Gleyber Torres struggled at shortstop, and Gary Sanchez was a horror show behind the plate even though year after year the Yankees bring in new catching coaches to try to improve Sanchez’ defense. Until they fix those two issues, the Yankees will continue to struggle. Sanchez became so unreliable that he started only two games in the postseason and the Yankees are wondering if Torres should remain at shortstop. Boone once again talked about Sanchez’ ceiling. That’s a tired comment.

Hunter Renfroe

OCTOBER 13, 2020: Tampa's Hunter Renfroe lays out to take away a base hit in game 3 of the ALCS. (Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

It’s not the ceiling I’m concerned with, it is Sanchez’ floor that is the problem.

As for Torres, Cashman, who let Didi Gregorius walk away as a free agent, said, “We’re gonna evaluate all circumstances… We think he’s capable of better defense.’’

Meanwhile, look how the Rays beat the Yankees, 2-1, in Game 5 of the ALDS. The tone was set in the first inning when first baseman Ji-Man Choi made two ballerina splits to catch bad throws from Glasnow and shortstop Willy Adames.

The Rays haven’t stopped making spectacular plays since, no matter the position and multiple players at the position making incredible plays like Margot leaping over the high side-wall in right at Petco to make a play at and Renfroe making Ron Swoboda-like dives. Add Choi catching everything at first, giving supreme confidence to the infielders.

Same goes for catching and Mike Zunino and Michael Perez. At third base Joey Wendle is covering ground like Brooks Robinson. Adames is all over the place at short and Brandon Lowe has produced timely double plays.

Nothing revs a team up better than a great defensive play. It is the most overlooked aspect of the game these analytical days with teams locked on home run production, velo, barrels, spin rates and other trendy aspects of the game.choi

But leather and laces make everything else possible. In fact, the Rays are playing defense like defense was played in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, balls to the wall plays, throwing their bodies and leather at the baseball. That takes effort and a can’t miss mentality that has been lost in the game.

Too often these days it is strikeouts or walks or a home run. Players stand at their position and become watchers instead of doers. The Rays do. Same with the Braves and their catcher, who was a Ray last year, Travis d’Arnaud, has masterfully guided that young staff until Wednesday’s meltdown.

In recent years defense has suffered because front offices focused on offense and pitching. It always comes back to what the front offices put an emphasis on every day. The Rays, though, as I’ve told you, have a great development staff and players get better under their tutelage. Little things are done right and because they can’t sign big offensive players the Rays know they must excel in other parts of the game.

Like Gallego said, defense is contagious. One player makes a play and that helps build the confidence of the next player. It makes the game fun. It makes it a team game and people forget that. Defense picks up the pitcher. It’s a beautiful thing.

Bob Gibson, who recently passed away, just one of so many Hall of Fame players of my youth to recently die, a list that includes Whitey Ford, Morgan, Al Kaline, Tom Seaver and Lou Brock, said just such a thing when he noted: “A great catch is like watching girls go by – the last one you see is always the prettiest.’’

Margot’s leap, Renfroe’s dives, one prettier than the next. Two former Padres making Petco Park perfection. Those plays energized the Rays. Suddenly everyone wants to get in on the action, suddenly a tiring pitcher finds another gear. Bringing energy when there are no fans to supply energy is huge in every one of these postseason series. And it is not just about offensive energy.

Sure, that 1999 Nike commercial says, “Chicks dig the long ball.’’ But pitchers and true fans of the game dig defense. It’s been the difference maker this October.

And then there are the plays that are not made. That is how a game turns.

And sometimes, the Baseball Gods do get involved. Once you anger the Baseball Gods they find a way to even the playing field. It may take a while, but they do.

The biggest lesson here is the one that would have been driven home if this were a normal season with fans. If that were the case the Astros would not have made it this far.

But these Astros never were held up to the Scarlet Letter scorn of a season they should have been hit with every day on the road in 2020. In fans’ eyes they would have a big C on their uniforms for “Cheaters’’ and what went down in 2017 and beyond – and really no Astros players have had to pay the price for their cheating ways.

On Wednesday even Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse took a shot at the Astros. “I’d like to talk about the Houston Astros who are miserable cheaters,’’ he said at the confirmation hearing for Amy Coney Barrett. “All baseball fans know that the Houston Astros cheat. They steal signs. They bang on cans … they deserve to be punished probably more than they have been.’’

Sasse is correct. The Astros did not have to face the wrath of the fans in this fan-less season, they also got a gift pass to the postseason, another gift from Commissioner Rob Manfred who invited 16 teams to his postseason party.

Then the Astros matched up against two of the choking-est October teams of all time in the Twins and A’s in the first two rounds. They were talking big again led by shortstop Carlos Correa after beating those two teams who can’t produce in October.

Eventually, though, the pressure of the postseason, even with no fans in their line of sight, got to the Astros. You see it with every bad throw made by Altuve, who suddenly could not reach the base. Altuve has the yips. His teammates and his manager Dusty Baker feel for Altuve and on Wednesday night Altuve bounced back a bit.

Can he keep it going? Can the Astros win four straight from the Rays? Can they be like the 2004 Red Sox who stunned the Yankees after being down 0-3? “We want to be the second team to come back from 0-3,’’ said Altuve, who also had a run scoring dAltuve has th Yipsouble in the third inning. As for his defensive woes, he said he made an adjustment on his throws. “When I get the ball now I’m just throwing it, I’m not thinking about the throw. I don’t want to overthink.’’

The Rays followed up their 2-1 win over the Yankees the the deciding Game 5 of the ALDS with a 2-1 win in the opener against the Astros. Then a 4-2 victory and  5-2 win before the 4-3 loss that ended with the tying run at third base. All close games. One great defensive play could be the difference between winning and losing.

It is a beautiful thing to watch.

Despite their brave talk all season the Astros could feel the contempt of their contemporaries. Poor Dusty Baker has been on the wrong side of defense before.

Go back to 2003 and the Bartman Series when he was manager of the Cubs and the Marlins came back to beat him. After Bartman got in the way of Moises Alou, catching all kinds of hell, it was really an error by Cubs shortstop Alex Gonzalez that was responsible for the Cubs stunning collapse only five outs away from going to their first World Series since 1945.

Baker is hoping his Astros can now pull off a miracle. The Rays only have to put it all together one more game to get to the World Series. Superior defense and a few timely hits will make the difference.

Leather and laces will be the Rays’ ticket to the World Series.

44+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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