5 Things the 2019 Division Series Round Taught Us (that we can pretend we always knew)

by Ken Napzok

“I love playoff baseball!” is a sentence — correction proclamation — we’ve all heard a lot this past week. Since the Wild Card games on October 1st, the baseball world has been treated to some absolutely thrilling postseason play. Throw all those fancy words best saved for a Roger Kahn baseball book at the wall because all of them will stick. This was one of the best weeks of baseball in a long while.

Let’s catch our collective breath. We still have two rounds to go.

As in any baseball game or games, there is always a lot to learn about the game and life itself. That’s why baseball is so baked into the fabric of our souls. When you watch a game, when you really invest in it, you are receiving a lesson from the batter’s box, a TED talk from the mound, and a therapy session from the dugout. This divisional round was no different. Gather round and learn, children. Here the 5 things the 2019 division series round taught us (that we can pretend we always knew.)

5 – Little League Relay Drills Work

I was a Little League head coach for one season. Great fun. Made me never want kids. We finished in first place yet I called it quits after that one season and moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in comedy. (I should have stayed in the dugout) One practice I told my team that we were going to work on relay throws from the outfield until everyone knew exactly what to do. For added fun, we were going to time it because who doesn’t like being rushed! 

After a couple rounds the young kids whose baseball dreams I was shepherding got bored and wanted to move onto something more exciting. I understood. It’s the same part of the human brain that rejects core workouts and sends you straight to bench pressing the glory muscles. But we kept drilling and drilling. I wanted these kids to know that one day having the fundamentals of baseball be as natural as breathing would pay off.

We never once had an actual relay throw situation during the season. 

None of the kids I coached made it to the big leagues. 

But the Tampa Bay Rays Kevin Kiermaier, Willy Adames, and Travis d’Arnaud did and they definitely have done their relays drills

Much has been said and written about this play already, including some great stats about it. The Tampa Bay Times broke it down in impressive fashion. Kiermaier’s throw was clocked around 87 MPH. Adames transfer took .73 seconds, and d’Arnaud — well — did a bang up job catching the throw and tagging out Altuve. (The last part was my own very scientific research.) No matter the numbers behind it, what remained was a 3-0 lead for the Rays in a do or die game. 

What this teaches us is that despite this being a new era of baseball full of charts, shifts, and statistics like the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow factoring into every pitch and despite stories you see about the sport being nothing more than a swing for the fences game now, the fundamentals are still very much alive and well.

And they’re a beautiful thing to watch. 

Run those drills, coaches. Run those drills

4 – Days Rest Are Still Important

There should be no questioning of the decision to start Justin Verlander on three days rest in game four of the Rays-Astros series. Yeah, he had only done it once before in his career following a rain shortened start. Yeah, in the 2017 ALDS he came in for a relief outing that saw Andrew Benintendi take him deep. Yeah, the Rays knocked him out in the fourth after giving up seven hits and four runs. But even if the Rays had pulled off the biggest upset of the postseason, if Justin Verlander walks into your manager’s office and says, “Give me the ball.” You — you know — give him the ball.

That said, days rest are still important. This isn’t 1940. Hell, it’s not even 1985 when John Tudor had more shutouts in that season than Verlander has had in his career. (10 to 9 at this point.) The demands of pitching at the big league level are as taxing as ever before, but the human body is just a frail as it always has been. Even Superman would be hard pressed to come back on short rest. 

At some point in either of these League Championship series we’re about to take in, some manager is going to have to face that important question: Should I send him out there? The ‘him’ is that ace, that big gun, the guy you always want on the hill with your backs up against the wall. Is he going to pull a David Price just last season against the Astros (going 6 scoreless) or Josh Beckett shutting down the Yankees in 2003? Or are they going to be Kevin Brown in the 2004 ALCS and many, many other starting pitchers over the last twenty seasons that have walked out on short rest and trudged off the mound to an early shower? If 225 career wins and 3,006 strikeouts can’t get it done then is the gamble worth it? Can you live and die by the words “give me the ball?” Well… can you?

3 – Sums and Parts and Whatnot

Either the Nationals and Cardinals are going to be in the World Series. Both are great teams with rosters full of big time talent. There are stars on each roster. Or least, players that should be considered stars. Yet going into both series you wouldn’t be wrong for overlooking them for the teams across the diamond. The Braves have a great core of sexy, sexy talent that will be reaching for the stars for many seasons to come. The Dodgers — well — sigh — they had a roster worth 106 wins in the regular season. Yet five games later, the big names are going home. The sum is always greater than the parts — especially in a short series. 

Full confession. I find watching teams like the Nationals and Cardinals come through during big moments to be more inspiring than the superstars being super. Give me Billy Bates legging out a single (he’s only hit as a Red) and then coming around to score to give the 1990 Reds a 2-0 lead of a stunned Oakland A’s team any day. (Dennis Eckersley’s other big postseason oopsie) Which, quite frankly, is a bit weird since I have been saying — read: rooting for — a Astros/ Yankees vs Dodgers World Series would be good for the business of the game. And I do enjoy watching the best be the best. 

But watch an aging Ryan Zimmerman belt one out and round the bases like a man who helped carry the franchise for over a decade and not get caught up in the moment.

Watch a nine time former all-star lift a fly ball to left that scored a former can’t miss prospect that kept missing to send the series to a fifth and final game and be inspired.

Watch Howie Kendrick remind the world that he has always known how to hit the ball long after fantasy baseball owners scratched him off their draft sheets and stun an entire franchise.

All of this goes for the Tampa Bay Rays as well. They didn’t move on, but they got there and they reminded the entire baseball world that a team that has the bullpen take care of the entire game and puts out a “served fresh daily” line-up can stand tall against the titans. I heard a stat that Rays manager Kevin Cash used over 5,000 different line-ups this season. Or… wait… no… that doesn’t sound right… I think it was more like 149 different line-ups. (Sorry, I still get dizzy when I try to understand how to calculate WAR.)  Regardless, the Rays won 96 games during the regular season and were just one win short of making more memories. But what they did do will remain vibrant in the minds of their fans.

These are the parts that make the sum that keeps us tuning in. These are the bits of magic that dazzle us forever.  

3 – Dress for the job you want

Gerrit Cole will be taking some meetings in the off-season. 

In case you hadn’t heard, the 28 year-old righty is in a free agent year. Once a rising star — and 19 game winner in 2015 — for the Pirates, Cole took things to a new level this season. 326 strikeouts in 212 ⅓ innings, a sub-one WHIP, and 20 wins (because I still like that stat) all but ensured young Mr. Cole that he will be in high demand this off-season. Yet as teams wine and dine these big free agents every winter you’d like to think that one of the things they’re looking for in a 300 million dollar man is someone that can bring it in during the fall. You want to invest in a Mr October, not a Mr May. (With apologies and respect to Mr Dave Winfield, who proved that bad nickname given to him by his former boss was just not true.) Cole is making his case.

His first two starts of this postseason run are proof that you can dress for the job you want… and Gerrit Cole wants to be the go-to guy on the mound from the first start in the spring to the last one in the crisp, pressure-filled fall. His 25 K’s in two starts tied Mike Mussina for second most in back-to-back postseason games behind Bob Gibson’s 27. With their backs up against a possibly stunning upset, Cole calmly went 8 dominant innings and struck out 10 plus… again.

This is reminiscent of Carlos Beltran’s 2004 postseason in which the former small market savior of Kansas City, joined the Astros (then of the senior circuit) with free agency looming and went into video game mode for two rounds. Seriously. 20 for 46, 8 home runs, and an OPS that said “please pay me what I’m worth.” Though Beltran didn’t actually get his first (and only) World Series title until he returned to Houston in 2017, that postseason run by Beltran was one for the ages. Cole is primed to eclipse that. The team that eventually signs this pitcher will know that should they call upon him when everything in the universe is on the line — he’s not going to wither. The bright lights won’t get to him. He will be The Ace and the hardest part of the job interview is already complete. 

1 – One Move Can Make You… if it doesn’t break you first

Dave Roberts has won 393 major league games in four seasons and his team has finished in the first place each time. His teams have been to the World Series twice and lost to the juggernaut of now — the Astros — and the juggernauts of the last 15 years — the Red Sox. He’s deftly guided his team on the field and off, navigating rough waters with public player drama. He has done everything you would want out of someone you hand the keys to the store to. Yet most of the conversations this week are centered around the question of whether the Dodgers should fire Dave Roberts. 

It’s not fair. 

It’s really not.

But it might not be wrong. 

Dave Roberts decisions in game 5 of the series with the Nationals are in the crosshairs. First, it was the removal of Walker Buehler, a pitcher doing, you know, pretty good as of late.

But Buehler had got into trouble, so Roberts made the call to the bullpen and brought in ace… relief pitcher… Clayton Kershaw. But this is Clayton Kershaw. His beard might be shaggy, but his three Cy Young awards and career 2.44 ERA aren’t. Kershaw got the big out, but came back out in the eight… to remind everyone that he has a career postseason two runs higher than that 2.44 ERA. 

Pitch one…

Pitch two..

Then the bullpen phones rang. Joe Kelly got them through the ninth and was still on the mound when Kenley Jansen and the rest of the capable Dodger bullpen watched Kendrick go yard with all the ducks in the world on the pond. 

These decisions are just the next collection of picked apart moves that have plagued Roberts and the Dodgers the last few postseasons. And each move seems to have a connective thread — Roberts makes these moves based on what he feels. He’s going with his gut and there is a lot to love about that. Baseball games should have some portion of the outcome determined by one’s gut instinct and not just be a series of mathematical moves cooked up by fancy computer that’s probably weeks away from becoming sentient and managing the game itself. And that’s where the case against Dave Roberts starts to gain some traction.

Sticking with Kershaw and Kelly. Pulling Rich Hill for Scott Alexander and Ryan Madson in 2018. Bringing in and then sticking with Brandon Morrow until it was too late in 2017. And there’s even more of these tucked away in the less scrutinized days of spring and summer. Going beyond the stats should be encouraged in the postseason, but when those decisions of the heart continue to seem completely out of one’s mind — well — it might be time to look beyond those aforementioned manager stats.

However, at the time of this writing, the question that everyone is asking seems to have been answered. The Los Angeles Times’ Jorge Castillo exclusively reported first that Roberts, who has three years remaining on the contract he extended last December, will be back in 2020. 

Which… well… might be fair. 

Baseball managers shouldn’t seem like interchangeable figureheads. Leave that for the other sports. This is the sport of John McGraw and Connie Mack. Tony La Russa and Earl Weaver. Joe Torre and Bruce Bochy. There is something romantic about having those big personalities and minds in front of a franchise, not just a season. I know… I know… times have changed. We’re in a new era where recent former players with little to no experience are giving the keys to the manager’s office and told to expect some calls from the general manager and vice president of baseball operations. But, even then, it’s tough to see it all come down to one (or three) decisions. 

Any one of these decisions could have gone right. One move can absolutely make you and so many of the game’s biggest gambles throughout history have paid off. If you go to every World Series win, every League Championship victory, you will no doubt find some move, some decisions, something that was slightly outside the box that worked. 

This season, the Nationals are being heralded (rightly so) for their performances, but if Stephen Strasburg doesn’t come in and hold off the Brewers after relieving Scherzer then that decision puts Dave Martinez in hot water. Back in 1988, if a hobbled Kirk Gibson doesn’t launch Eckersley’s pitch into the right field seats of Dodger Stadium, does Tommy Lasorda get called on the floor for letting him bat? If Luis Gonzalez doesn’t bloop a single over a drawn in Derek Jeter, does Bob Brenly get remembered as the Diamondback manager that let Byung-Hyun Kim blow a second game? And, for what it’s worth, if Dave Roberts gets thrown out trying to steal in 2004 — Terry Francona and the Red Sox would still seem cursed. 

There are many more big decisions to make and even more lessons to learn. What a postseason so far. 

On to the League Championships…


Walk Off Quote

“No other sporting event can compare with a Good Series. The Super Bowl is a three-hour interruption in a week of drink and Rotarian parties.” – Roger Kahn, author, The Boys of Summer

***

Ken Napzok lost the only postseason Little League game he managed because his left fielder was playing with a wad of grass when a ball was hit to him, but is the author of Why We Love Star Wars and host of The Napzok Files podcast feed. 

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