Arguing with a colleague about whether the Arizona Diamondbacks will have success in this year’s baseball playoffs brought to my attention a noteworthy fact: Randy Johnson has been known to choke in the postseason. Sure enough, in game 2 of the Diamondbacks’ series against St. Louis, Johnson followed Curt Schilling’s game-1 shutout by getting out-pitched by the Cardinals’ Woody Williams.
Baseball observers are always searching for interesting storylines and atypical intricacies that could tip scales in unexpected ways. In August, the Phillies were rolling along with Jose Mesa pitching his best closing baseball of the year. But when Mesa came in and blew a save against the Braves, ESPN’s Peter Gammons said it might signal a mini-slump for Mesa that could spell the end of the chase for Philadelphia.
Sure enough, the next day Mesa blew another save and the Phillies dipped behind Atlanta for several weeks.
Those keys to watch are at a premium in October.
All year long, analysts had pointed out that Schilling and Johnson make for an almost unbeatable start to the rotation — a factor figuring to play a role in short series when Arizona made the playoffs.
But if a team can escape with at least one win in matchups against the terrible duo like St. Louis did Wednesday, it has a great chance against the Diamondbacks. It will be worth watching Arizona’s postseason fate to see how this plays out.
While storylines to keep an eye on usually boil down to commentaries of attrition or specific matchups — as the Randy Johnson saga does — there are plenty of other interesting quirks to follow as the series shake themselves out. For example:
How will chewing tobacco figure into the postseason equation? Did anyone see the bulbous protrusion poking out of Bob Wickman’s cheek as he closed out the Indians’ win against Seattle Tuesday? No, kiddies, that wasn’t bubble gum.
I don’t know if there’s a more sordid habit than this, but dipping seems to be firmly rooted in baseball’s tightly-woven fabric.
In July, I was watching a tense game between the Mariners and Diamondbacks when Lou Piniella pinch-hit rookie Scott Podsednik with two outs and the bases loaded. Now, when Podsednik, in his first major-league at-bat, tripled down the left field line to clear the bases and give Seattle a decisive advantage in a key interleague game, I thought it was one of the most pure baseball moments I’d ever seen. Then they showed the kid, after getting batted in and retrieving his keepsake ball, stuffing his mouth with chaw in the dugout.
As much as major league veterans like Brett Butler have crusaded against the stuff, you can be sure to see a few more money shots of baseballers salivating over tobacco throughout the playoffs.
Unnecessary golf metaphors: As if it wasn’t enough to watch Sunday Night Baseball’s “hitter’s notebooks” as they were — the game’s best hitters talking about their art in technical terms we couldn’t possibly understand — the commentators repeatedly made it worse by comparing batting to golf. Joe Morgan and John Miller always described a player keeping his head still and arms extended “just like a golfer.”
If those skills are just as specific to a baseball swing, why relate it to a different game?
Baseball people aren’t the only ones guilty: In the past two weeks I’ve heard Barry Alvarez and Cam Cameron (twice) use golf analogies to describe their football teams in postgame press conferences. But as the playoffs head up, there is no doubt these golf comparisons will be in full swing.
Senior circuit: Can anyone think of four less likable teams than those playing for the National League title?
Okay, so the Marlins aren’t involved. But the Astros, Braves and Diamondbacks are three of the most annoying teams in baseball.
Houston is maybe the best team with the least coverage in the majors, but they backed into the playoffs losing seven of nine and feature the Jeff Bagwell-Larry Dierker combination of ugliness.
The Braves get a vote just for winning their division 10 times in a row. Enough already, we’ve seen these old men choke enough in one decade. The only thing Atlanta has going for it is its newfound underdog status. Remember: the only World Series it actually won was over the heavily-favored Indians in 1995.
Johnson’s D-backs are so infuriating because they’re an expansion team and because of their horrible teal-and-purple uniform.
St. Louis is a little classier than the rest, with a lot of history and a club of good all-around players like Edgar Renteria, J.D. Drew, Jim Edmonds and rookie sensation Albert Pujols. Of course, the Mark McGwire factor (aging, useless veteran on playoff roster out of pity) goes against them.
The only thing to watch and follow here is which American League team will have its way with the eventual NL champion.
Regular-season awards: Every sport’s postseason gets interrupted at one time or another for ever-popular speculation over who is going to win what award. Even though it’s not supposed to affect voting, MVP candidates tend to gain advantages for how well their teams play in these weeks. If the Mariners and Yankees meet in the ALCS, look out for a lot of dissection of how well Ichiro is doing against Roger Clemens and vice versa.
The National League ought to depend less on postseason advancement. Pujols is sure to wrap up Rookie of the Year honors, while another slugger appears to have an inside track at MVP.
As Baseball Prospectus’ Joe Sheehan puts it, “If Barry Bonds doesn’t win the NL MVP, the award ceases to have meaning. You might as well give it to Principal Skinner, or Zippy the Clown.”