Playoffs thrown a curve as teams reverse roles in early going
``Baseball is a funny game,'' as catcher-turned-broacaster Joe Garagiola likes to remind us, and never has this been more apparent than in the current league championship series. The conventional wisdom in the American League, for instance, was that the young, inexperienced Toronto Blue Jays would be tense and jittery in their first-ever playoff appearance, giving a big edge to Kansas City in this all-important department.
So of course in the first two games it was the ``old hand'' Royals, appearing in their sixth playoff in 10 years, who looked like a bunch of office workers cavorting at the annual company picnic. Their fielders were charged with four errors and had problems on other key plays, while the pitchers added to the chaos with two hit batsmen and a wild pitch. Meanwhile the Blue Jays looked as though they'd been doing this sort of thing all their lives -- getting timely hits, playing errorless ball in the field , coming up with big plays in crucial spots, and capitalizing on just about every Kansas City miscue to grab a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
Even a questionable and controversial 10th inning call that might have rattled a much more experienced club failed to faze the Blue Jays. Lloyd Moseby apparently had made a run-saving catch, only to have umpire Dave Phillips rule that he had trapped the ball, giving Kansas City a 5-4 lead. Refusing to cave in, however, the Blue Jays battled back for two runs in the bottom half of the inning to pull out a 6-5 decision.
Over in the National League, the word was that Los Angeles and St. Louis looked reasonably well matched in the pitching and batting departments, but that the Dodgers weren't really in the same league on the basepaths and had a very suspect defense.
So what happened? In the opener, the Dodgers stole three bases to the Cardinals' one, and it was the supposedly great St. Louis defense that fell apart -- committing one actual error and failing to make a couple of other key plays in the midst of a three run sixth inning rally that wrapped up as 4-1 Los Angeles victory.
Both the Royals and Cardinals still have time to retaliate, of course -- especially with the playoffs lengthened this year from their former best-of-five format -- but the early returns certainly highlighted the unpredictable nature of these post-season clashes.
Actually, despite a couple of Mack Sennett routines in the field by the Royals, Game One in the AL playoffs was really just a case of an ace pitcher having one of those games when he is pretty much unhittable. Toronto's Dave Stieb, the league earned-run average leader during the regular season, was in command throughout as he cruised to a 6-1 decision with ninth inning relief help from Tom Henke. The Royals's defensive miscues just made things easier for him.
Game Two was a different story, however. Three of the Toronto runs were officially scored as unearned, and sharp play might have prevented them from even tying the score in the 10th, let alone winning the game. Shortstop Onix Concepcion failed to come up with a routine-looking grounder past the mound to start the inning (it was scored as a hit), and first baseman Steve Balboni dropped a pickoff throw, allowing Moseby to reach second, from where he scored the game-winner on Al Oliver's single.
There's also a temptation to charge Kansas City pilot Dick Howser with a managerial miscue on that final hit. Everyone knows that ace reliever Dan Quisenberry's sidearm delivery is much tougher on right-handed hitters than on left-handers. This season, for instance, lefties hit .330 against him, righties .223. And in both the 1980 World Series and last year's playoffs, he was beaten by big late-inning hits by relatively unsung southpaw swingers (Del Unser of the Phillies and Johnny Grubb of the Tigers).
Despite all this, with the winning run on second and first base open, Howser elected to have Quisenberry pitch to Oliver, a lifetime .305 hitter, rather than walk him and face right-handed Jesse Barfield. Of course Oliver, now in the twilight of his career, isn't as dangerous as he once was. And Barfield is one of the Blue Jays' top hitters. But still it was a questionable decision that will be second-guessed for a long time -- especially if Toronto goes on to win the series.
Fernando Valenzuela was the main show for the Dodgers in their opening-game triumph. The ace left-hander mowed the Cardinals down into the seventh inning, and relief specialist Tom Niedenfuer took it from there.
One piece of pre-playoff wisdom that did pan out, by the way, was the theory that the way to beat St. Louis is to keep its ``rabbits'' (base-stealing whiz Vince Coleman and NL batting champion Willie McGee) off the bases. Valenzuela and Niedenfuer accomplished that feat, all right, holding them to a combined 0-for-8 -- and without their ``table setters,'' the Cardinals couldn't get any sort of a consistent offense going.
St. Louis Manager Whitey Herzog, in fact, had even indicated before the game that he was thinking about benching Coleman -- who hadn't done much against Valenzuela all season. In the end he couldn't bring himself to hold out the exciting rookie who stole 110 bases and was such a big part of the attack all year. He had to be second-guessing himself afterwards, though -- especially when Coleman's would-be replacement, Tito Landrum, finally got in the game as a pinch-hitter in the seventh inning and singl ed to drive in the only Cardinal run.
Herzog and his team also got caught napping by Dodger Manager Tommy Lasorda in the midst of L.A.'s three-run sixth. With Puerto Rican outfielder Candy Maldonado at bat, runners on first and third, and two out, Lasorda noticed that third baseman Terry Pendleton was playing back. Not wanting to alert the Cardinals, and correctly guessing that neither pitcher John Tudor or catcher Darrell Porter would understand him, Tommy took advantage of his bilingual abilities and called out a bunt signal to Maldonado in Spanish. The latter did as told, catching the Cardinals by surprise as he lay one down along the third base line. Pendleton raced in but couldn't make the play and it went for a single, scoring one run and setting up another to break the game open.