BY KEVIN KERNAN
If April is the cruelest month, October is the honest month when it comes to baseball.
October doesn’t lie. You can’t fool October. The theories of the summer give way to the hard lessons of October.
No. 1 is don’t embarrass the game.
In July, on a hot summer night, you can get away with playing the fool. Mistakes are quickly forgotten as the grind of the season rolls over to a new day. Not in October. The spotlight is bright. There is nowhere to hide especially when it comes to pitching changes.
That change you make is there on all the highlights to stare back at you.
Who knows what the Mariners had in mind in Game 1 of the ALDS when they brought in starter Robbie Ray and tempted slugger Yordan Alvarez with fastballs middle – middle. Ray was roughed up on Saturday when the Mariners staged their miracle comeback against the Blue Jays in Toronto, partly because Toronto interim manager John Schneider pulled starter Kevin Gausman too early from the game in the wild card loss. That day it was clear Ray was not ready for his October assignment, allowing six hits and four runs over three innings.
So naturally, the Mariners, who are out of practice with October baseball – not having played in the postseason since 2001 – came up with the genius idea to use Ray to get the final out against Alvarez with two outs in the ninth and two on and the Mariners clinging to a two-run lead over the Astros.
One scout, a former pitcher, told BallNine of the Alvarez at-bat, “I was taught in Rookie Leagues that when you throw a fastball and a hitter fouls it straight back, he is on your fastball.’’ You don’t throw him another one.
After the 438-foot game winning blast Alvarez said it perfectly about his Astros, who overcame a big Mariners lead to win, “I don’t think any team can fall asleep on us.’’
Nailed it. The Mariners were asleep at the wheel, leading 7-3 going into the eighth inning. The Mariners, manager Scott Servais and the faceless analyticians in the Mariners front office decided to use a fastball pitcher against a fastball hitter, a pitcher who had given up the second most home runs in the American League this year with 32 bombs, a pitcher who came off a terrible outing, simply because he is lefty; and by the way, Alvarez hits lefties as well as righties.
Not to mention that Ray was in a totally foreign situation trying to close it out in the madhouse that is Minute Maid Park.
Give credit to Alvarez for making it all happen but what a dumb move by the Mariners. An arrogant move, too, and usually those things go hand in hand.
One scout, a former pitcher, told BallNine of the Alvarez at-bat, “I was taught in Rookie Leagues that when you throw a fastball and a hitter fouls it straight back, he is on your fastball.’’
You don’t throw him another one.
Afterwards Servais noted of using Ray to close, and I will translate: “We talked about it going into the series,’’ he said.
Translation: The Nerds thought it would be a good idea to bring in Robbie Ray in relief and don’t forget the Mariners are one of the organizations with a pitching strategist as well as a pitching coach. They also have some really good, experienced coaches like infield coach Perry Hill.
“We talked about it pregame today,’’ Servais said.
Translation: The Nerds thought it was a really, really good idea – and remember the Nerds love to outsmart the opposition and that way – and if it doesn’t work out they fall back on the old, “Don’t blame us, blame the player, that was bad execution.’’
Yordan Alvarez #44 of the Houston Astros hits a walk-off home run against the Seattle Mariners during the ninth inning in game one of the American League Division Series at Minute Maid Park on October 11, 2022 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Servais’ next comment was pretty much exactly that. He was a catcher who played 11 years in the majors. He should have known better.
“I looked at it in the seventh inning and said, ‘Hey this could happen.’ So that was the plan going in,’’ Servais said. “End of the day, you have a plan, we still got to execute it.’’
No translation needed.
The Mariners stuck to their “Hey let’s bring in the guy who got bombed on Saturday and have him close the game with two outs and with two on base in a game we are leading by two runs. Also let’s not pitch around Alvarez, who is pretty close to Aaron Judge as the one player you don’t want to face in that situation, let’s go after him with fastballs.’’
Again, that is what I love about October. There is nowhere to hide. If the Nerds make a bad plan and it blows up in their face they can try to blame the player but I’m not buying it and Servais should have seen from the start of the at-bat that Alvarez was all over Ray.
That’s another problem with the Nerd game. What you see on the field happening in front of you does not matter, it is the pre-game plan that matters. Gut feel and experience are out the window. A number of baseball men I checked with were incredulous with the Mariners’ move of Ray coming in for the last out to face Alvarez, who punishes fastballs. But that’s the way of the new analytics world baseball lives in, common sense is out the window. It’s about gadgetry and outsmarting the opponent and usually that means you outsmart yourselves.
Certainly the Mariners can come back and beat the Astros. They have the talent but losing that type of game in that manner to start a series, that gives a team an incredible lift.
As one scout told me, “That is the kind of win that can carry you all the way to the World Series.’’
Robbie Ray #38 of the Seattle Mariners pitches during the game between the Seattle Mariners and the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park on Tuesday, October 11, 2022 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
In a way, the same thing happened to the Mets in their devastating loss to Joe Musgrove and the Padres in the deciding game of the wild card round.
The Mets simply could not fathom how Musgrove had risen to the postseason occasion and that is why his spin rate was through the roof. He must be cheating. It could not possibly be better mechanics. Musgrove recently went to a setup where he stood taller on the mound and that has helped him create better leverage, that’s too much baseball for the Nerds to understand. Musgrove must be cheating so they had Buck Showalter do their dirty work, call time and request the umpires check Musgrove’s ears because they were shiny on a cool night at Citi Field.
Bad look for Buck and the Mets.
Musgrove has done what this column has been stating for quite a while, throw more curve balls against today’s hitters. Funny thing is that Gerrit Cole finally figured that out in his Yankee start and threw more curve balls against the Guardians as the Yankees came away with a 4-1 win in their ALCS matchup that keeps the Yankees and Astros on a collision course, the AL showdown everyone wants to see. It will be hard for the Yankees to not get past the Guardians, whose offense is punchless as they went 0-for-8 with RISP on Tuesday.
For some reason, the Yankees and Guardians and Astros and Mariners did not play Wednesday. I’m sure it had something to do with making more money for MLB and Rob Manfred, putting a complete stop to October momentum. Just for fun, the 1962 World Series that saw the Yankees beat the San Francisco Giants in seven games 60 years ago ended on October 16.
Joe Musgrove #44 of the San Diego Padres gestures to his ear as he walks back to the dugout after closing out the sixth inning against the New York Mets in game three of the National League Wild Card Series at Citi Field on October 09, 2022 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images)
The Guardians have scored all of four runs in their first 33 innings of October play. Again, October doesn’t lie. If you can’t score you are not going to be around for long. The Guardians were fortunate they faced the Rays in the wild card round and the Rays run prevention ways work well in the regular season, but comes up short in October. They are not the geniuses the media makes the Rays out to be every year.
While we are at it, is it too much to ask the Yankees’ Josh Donaldson to run hard in October and not go into his home run trot on a fly ball to right field – where if all goes well the ball will land in the first row of the Yankees short porch? That’s not cool. You would look at lot better standing at second base with a double and calling for the instant replay than getting caught off first base and looking foolish.
As I’ve always said: Be the player, not the umpire. Also, just a reminder, Donaldson is making about $22 million this year and another $22 million next season and the year after that will be paid $16 million – and even if he doesn’t play that season, owns an $8 million buyout.
The least you could do is run hard on every play in October in the postseason. It’s not that hard, Josh.
The Yankees have a little sign leading out to their dugout that says: Do Your Job.
Yes, Bill Belichick would be proud. It’s a great message and it is something Aaron Judge lives by and that should matter to Donaldson, and it is Aaron Boone’s job to make sure that the players play hard. Again, October doesn’t lie. When you do something stupid like that it is there for the world to see. Donaldson is lucky the Yankees won that game. While we are at it, and AMBS usually never picks on coaches, because that’s a thankless job, but a first base coach cannot get caught up in the moment like the Yankees first base coach did and be giving high-fives to his hitter who just hit a fly ball to right field – that may or may not make the seats.
New York Yankees third baseman Josh Donaldson is tagged out by Cleveland Guardians first baseman Josh Naylor in the 5th inning in Game 1 of the American League Division Series at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York, on October 11, 2022. (Photo by J. Conrad Williams Jr./Newsday RM via Getty Images)
The situation was different in Houston. The Astros first base coach celebrated like all the Astros and was ready to give Alvarez his congrats as he came to first base, but that ball was hammered 438 feet to win the game. It wasn’t a Yankee Stadium fly ball to right that may or may not carry over the short porch.
Tone it down a bit, especially in the fifth inning of a 1-1 postseason game.
On the other side of the coin, credit Yankees shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa for his hustle later in the fifth inning. After seeing Donaldson get embarrassed, Kiner-Falefa hit a ball down the right field line and was sprinting out of the box. The ball was butchered by rookie Oscar Gonzalez in right and Kiner-Falefa wound up on third base. That’s hustling baseball. He later scored on a sacrifice fly and the Yankees had their 2-1 lead, created by hustle and a bad defensive play.
I’m wondering if Gonzalez took his share of practice balls hit in the corner before that game or on the workout day or just took BP and looked at right field. Let me take you back to the 1998 World Series and there was San Diego’s Tony Gwynn having a bucket of balls hit to him just to figure out all the angles and how much room he had in the previous Yankee Stadium.
That’s a lesson to be learned for all players. Make the extra effort. A scout told me yesterday about going up to Fenway Park and there at 2:30 in the afternoon was Judge taking all kinds of balls just to figure out how the Pesky Pole area played.
Here is one other point I have to mention about the Mets’ bush league tactics, and I said it at the time it happened, it was not a good look for the Mets or the game. I was at a couple youth baseball and softball games this week and some of the young athletes were saying, “Musgrove cheated.’’
I pointed out that the umpires did not find anything on Musgrove’s ears and hair but they were still convinced: “Musgrove cheated.’’ I get being a fan but don’t cheat Musgrove out of a standup, great performance.
Sometimes baseball can’t get out of its own way. The Mets won 101 games this season, collapsed that last weekend in Atlanta and then lost to the Padres in the wild card round and accused the other team of cheating when there was no proof whatsoever of cheating.
Talk about leaving a bad taste in October. Again, all eyes are on you in October and if you do lose, lose with class.
Philadelphia Phillies manager Rob Thomson (59) looks on from the dugout during Game 1 of the NLDS between the Atlanta Braves and the Philadephia Phillies on October 11, 2022 at Truist Park in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
The best lesson of October is never quit.
When he got the job as Phillies interim manager I wrote and said that Rob Thomson will be a success because he is organized, calm, and learned under the competitive Yankee way of George Steinbrenner. Thomson spent 28 years in the Yankees organization and was a go-to guy for me when I needed a baseball explanation on any subject. There is quite the Yankee influence in the Phillies with ex-Yankee hitting coach Kevin Long the Phillies hitting coach. The Phils have made adjustments to score runs, it is not just about the home run with the Phillies.
Thomson has done an amazing job, the Phillies are still in the postseason and the 101-win Mets are gone and now the Phillies are trying to get rid of the other NL East 101-game winner in the Braves, the defending World Champions.
The Braves shutout the Phillies, 3-0 Wednesday night to even the NLDS 1-1.
The Phillies took care of the NL Central Cardinals in two games in St. Louis and now have played 14 straight games on the road. That’s mental toughness right there and not allowing excuses to be made; good for Rob Thomson, who was rewarded with a two-year contract by Dave Dombrowski this week.
October never lies.