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Mudville: May 28, 2024 9:45 am PDT

Aircraft Carrier

BY KEVIN KERNAN

October drama is the best baseball drama. These Final Four teams are not here by accident. It’s not a crapshoot as the Nerds proclaim.

This is about seeing the goal as a team. This is about having the pitching staff that can navigate danger. The Phillies, Diamondbacks, Rangers, and Astros possess true leaders. Certain players have a flair for October and that is why this is the best time of the baseball year.

Spring training is about rebirth.

The regular season is about development.

October is about survival.

Every October that lesson is pounded home, yet every November, teams and owners talk about fully engaging the analytic world, about having a manager in tune with analytics and a GM who is going to guide the team through numbers and systems.

They never learn. It’s not that complicated.

Baseball men step up to the challenge of October whether they are managing the team or on the field of play.

Bryce Harper just put on a leadership seminar in the NLDS and during the victory over the mighty Braves, who won 104 games in the regular season but were beaten the second straight October by Harper and the Phillies, a true baseball team with a beating heart.

Harper batted .462 in the four games with a .611 on base percentage, 1.154 slugging percentage, and 1.765 OPS. And don’t dare give me “small sample size.’’

Four NLDS games are huge.

The best description of Harper is something I heard on Saturday when I was speaking with one of the top talent evaluators in the game.

“You know, Bryce Harper, to use an old Al McGuire term, is an Aircraft Carrier,’’ the evaluator told BallNine.

That is a perfect description.

“You can put it all on him,’’ the evaluator said. “You can put all the planes, the trains, the automobiles, the tanks, whatever. There’s not a guy who is near what he is; look how Harper worked to come back. Last year he worked to come back from the broken thumb. This year he’s coming back from Tommy John surgery and he’s playing first base very, very well for a guy who has never played it in his life.’’

Pro tip to Orlando Arcia: next time you make fun of somebody when the media is in the clubhouse, don’t make fun of a superstar who is looking to put a chip on his own shoulder to reach another level (much as Michael Jordan used to do when I covered him across his Bulls championship run). I betcha Arcia’s Braves teammates are thrilled with him this morning.

Don’t poke the Aircraft Carrier.

“The Phillies won because they were the better team,’’ the scout said.

Al McGuire, the legendary coach and broadcaster, also once described basketball in this manner and I think his words fit perfectly with the four managers who are left standing.

“I don’t know basketball,’’ McGuire brilliantly said. “I feel basketball.’’

These managers: Bruce Bochy, Dusty Baker, Rob Thomson, and Torey Lovullo feel baseball and it shows by the paths their teams took to get to this point. It’s more than numbers, tendencies, spin rates, and exit velocity.

These managers: Bruce Bochy, Dusty Baker, Rob Thomson, and Torey Lovullo feel baseball and it shows by the paths their teams took to get to this point. It’s more than numbers, tendencies, spin rates, and exit velocity.

“Again, the game is played on the field,’’ the evaluator said.

Decisions have to be made on the field; you can have a general game plan but you have to be able to read what is going on with the players on the field and adjust accordingly.

The Astros’ Baker is trying to become the first manager to win back to back World Series since Joe Torre won three in a row with the Yankees in 1998, 1999, and 2000 when the Yankees were run by baseball men and not analytics.

Asked on Saturday in the ALCS press conference about the Battle of Texas and facing old foe Bochy and the Rangers on Sunday at Minute Maid Park, Baker, a wise soul in both life and baseball, made this keen observation.

“I’ve always said that it’s harder to manage against the person than it is against analytics or a computer, because a lot of times the computer and analytics will tell you – just like we played Minnesota, they’re going to change their whole lineup early in the game, where a person might not change any part of their lineup or try to do different things to – I respect Bruce. I don’t know what his record is. But he’s got a lot of brains in the head up there.’’

Manager Bruce Bochy of the San Francisco Giants and manager Dusty Baker of the Cincinnati Reds talk before Game 1 of the NLDS at AT&T Park on Saturday, October 6, 2012 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/MLB via Getty Images)

He sure does. So does Baker. Same goes for the Phillies’ Rob Thomson and the Diamondbacks’ Torey Lovullo, who has the added help of the best pitching coach in baseball in Brent Strom, who used to guide the Astros’ staff.

These are all baseball lifers who understand both the game and people.

I wish I were at Minute Maid Park Saturday to ask Dusty about the Al McGuire quote, about “feeling’’ the game. I’m sure his answer might include a John Wooden tidbit, but you can see as clearly as the toothpick that juts out of Baker’s mouth, he manages with baseball wisdom and baseball feel.

The Phillies survived the Braves because Ronald Acuna Jr. hit .143 with a .294 on base percentage, a .214 slug, and a .508 OPS and the fact that Matt Olson was pitched extremely carefully by the Phillies. The Phillies had the good sense to play youngster Johan Rojas in centerfield because (as I noted in an earlier column) he is like Devon White or Andruw Jones;  and his bases-loaded catch off the Acuna blast in Game 4 was incredibly difficult with the point of the wall sticking out in left-center at Citizens Bank Park. But listen to this.

“I’ve seen him make 10 catches more difficult than that,’’ said the scout who made the White/Jones comparison.

It takes a team to win in October. Witness Trea Turner’s performance in the NLDS. Same goes for Nick Castellanos.

Those guys had to run the gauntlet in Philadelphia but are now reaping the rewards. “The Phillies’ fans hold their players accountable and always have,’’ the scout said.

That’s why I find it ironic that Tommy Pham is in the final four with Arizona. He criticized the Mets for not working hard enough as a team during batting practice. I agreed with Pham and the Mets fans immediately started whining that Pham has been on seven teams, what does he know? He knew enough to hit .429 in the NLDS win over the Dodgers.

His team is in the NLCS while the Mets couldn’t even make the postseason with the biggest payroll ever.

Another quick baseball point.

“It was clear to me,’’ a scout said, “that Rob Thomson singled out that Olson was not going to beat them and he saved Gregory Soto and Jose Alvarez for the high leverage situations that Olson was not going to beat them.’’

Unlike Nerd teams, the Phillies pushed their starters all season to keep that bullpen fresh and credit has to go to the three starters against the Braves, Zack Wheeler, Aaron Nola, and Ranger Suarez. The Phillies had to start Suarez twice because they weren’t able to line up their pitching like the rested Braves did because the Phillies had to dispatch the Marlins in the wild card series.

What the Phillies did during the season that was so smart was they went after the first wild card with a vengeance because of the home field advantage it gave them and their faithful fans at Citizens Bank Park.

One other thing, and this comes directly from Harper, too. The Phillies want to beat you, they don’t want to have friendly conversations with you on the field like so many other teams where it’s a coffee shop gathering at second base. After the Arcia gaffe, Harper stared down Arcia twice after hitting home runs in Game 3 and did not play coy with the media after that. He was asked if he enjoyed staring down Arcia and answered: “Yeah, I mean I stared right at him.’’

I am so tired of watching shortstops congratulate the opponent at second base. The Phillies play with an edge, all these four teams do. They don’t want to be your BFF, they want to beat you. I also loved the Phillies’ celebration chant where they put on blast: “F… the Bravos, and whoever the f… we play next, and always the Mets.’’

Always the Mets.

That’s old school animosity and baseball needs more of it.

Manager Rob Thomson of the Philadelphia Phillies speaks to the media in the clubhouse after the Phillies beat the Atlanta Braves 3-1 in Game 4 of the NLDS at Citizens Bank Park on October 12, 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

“The Phillies are old school,’’ the scout said. “Every day is about winning the game, it’s not an individual thing. They are not afraid to move the line. They are not afraid to take a walk, it’s not, ‘I got to drive in these runs.’ No, the guy behind you can do it. And they don’t like the other team. I want a bunch of Harpers running around the bases staring at guys they don’t like. I want to beat your ass today.’’

They don’t teach all of that at Harvard. That’s from the School of Hard Knocks.

It’s about competition. And here is a theory on that. All the Nerds nerd out together when they are at league meetings and in general conversation during the season. Their competition levels are sitting at the friendly Ivy League debate stage and not at the hand to hand combat stage that is needed in the postseason.

If upper management doesn’t have the edge, it’s hard for players to get the edge. Dave Dombrowski runs a Phillies ship where it’s all about competition. He will be civil but there is no doubt he wants to beat your butt and always talks about acquiring “championship caliber players.’’

His players are driven to win championships. My friend Ruben Amaro Jr. made a great point about the Phillies, saying they truly care about each other and love each other and that’s when good things happen.

The pieces have come together, big and small.

The Phillies will be facing a team that knocked off the Dodgers.

“I hope the Phillies don’t look too far ahead of Arizona,’’ the scout said. “Don’t sleep on the Diamondbacks. They are a high energy, dynamic team with one of the best pitching coaches in baseball that preps the shit out of their pitchers. They run the bases. You’d better not sit back on a ground ball because they got guys that are busting their ass from the time they hit the ball all the way through the bag. There are gamers on that team.

“And don’t forget Brent Strom was the pitching coach in Houston who always prepped his guys to pitch. He’s highly analytically smart but he also understands what none of these people that have come in and said, ‘mechanics are for cars.’

“He understands the importance of having good mechanics. All their pitchers have good deliveries.

“And Torey Lovullo is an old-school guy,’’ the scout said. “He brought in an edge and an intelligence and understanding of the new data; he was with John Farrell in Boston, he worked in the Cleveland organization after his playing career. He learned the game. He understands every part of the game and he brought an attitude there. Even when they were bad they played with an edge. They’ve done a good job in the draft and got Zac Gallen in a trade.’’

A great acquisition.

Manager Torey Lovullo of the Arizona Diamondbacks celebrates in the locker room after beating the Los Angeles Dodgers 4-2 in Game 3 of the NLDS at Chase Field on October 11, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Which brings us full circle to Harper. I’ve written about it before but I can’t write about it enough. The Yankees made one of the biggest, if not the biggest mistake in their history, when general manager Brian Cashman, along with the full blessings of Hal (Maginot Line) Steinbrenner refused to even entertain the free agent Harper, who desperately wanted to be a Yankee. That Cashman proclamation was the Yankees version of the Curse of the Bambino.

Call this one the Curse of the Aircraft Carrier.

Starting in the 2018 season the Yankees got locked into Giancarlo Stanton. The last two years while Harper has taken his team to the World Series and has the chance to do it again this year, Stanton has played in only 211 games, can’t run a lick, and has hit .202 those two years for the Yankees.

Cashman’s Nerd Plan – blew up in his face.

As far back as February, 2016 at my old place of work I was writing the Yankees had better put aside $400 million for Harper, who will be a free agent after the 2018 season. How they blundered and not even entered the Harper race was a terrible decision. That day with the Nationals in Viera, Fla., after also speaking with Nationals manager, one Dusty Baker, Harper told me, “All I care about is winning. I don’t care about MVPs or accolades.’’

He was trying to get that message to Cashman, who simply ignored it.

I ended the column with these words: “Save all your pinstripe pennies, Yankees.’’

The Yankees saved them, but not for Bryce Harper; and now Harper is just down the NJ Turnpike from Yankee Stadium, one step away from heading to his second straight World Series with the Phillies while the Yankees are home again, not even one of the 12 teams to make this October run.

All the while, the USS Bryce Harper remains on a baseball mission.

45+ 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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