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Quick Hits & LSU-Bama Series

In College Football, General LSU, History, MLB, Preview, Rivalry on November 2, 2017 at 4:37 PM

Quick Hits

I want to talk about LSU-Alabama of course, but I also wanted to talk about a couple of other things first.

Really briefly, I’ve made previous reference to my dislike for politics seeping into sports. Accordingly, I won’t go into details about any one issue. I feel that since a certain point of view is being pushed by much of the sports media, I should at least recommend someone who says mostly correct things about such topics (this is an interview he gave): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4lqeseEV5_w.

I didn’t get that into this baseball season; but as I mentioned in the last blog, I have enjoyed the World Series. While of course I’m happy for former LSU player Alex Bregman, I’m especially happy for the players I’ve been watching for 10 years or more like Carlos Beltran, Justin Verlander, and Francisco Liriano. As a long-term fan of the Cardinals and Mets, I’m especially happy for Beltran, who may have had his last chance at the age of 40. I thought the Dodgers had a strong advantage going into Game 7, but they make you play the game for a reason.

Carlos Beltran with his teammates after they held a memorial service for his fielding glove. Beltran spent most of his career as an outfielder, but the Astros rarely needed him to take the field defensively this season.

Along those lines, I think there are some college football teams who are not being given as much of a chance as they have in reality. I haven’t been picking lines much this season, although I did go 4-1 in my recommendations in Week 1 or 2. The following underdogs are all ones I’d be tempted to put a little bit of money on: Texas A&M +15 (vs. Auburn), South Carolina +23.5 (@Georgia), Iowa +17.5 (vs. Ohio St.), LSU +21.5 (@Alabama), and Oregon +17.5 (@Washington).

Before I go into details about the LSU-Alabama game, I wanted to wish Nick Saban a happy 66th birthday. I have no reason to believe he won’t be around for a while, but I think such milestones are a cause for reflection. Although I’ll be glad to see him go for some reasons, I think part of me will miss him. I honestly enjoy listening to a lot of his press conferences. He has important perspectives to share when he’s not berating reporters for asking dumb questions, and you can’t complain about a guy raising the bar for his opponents.

Alabama DB Daniel Wright sings “Happy Birthday” to Nick Saban

So I had the occasion to check out Saban’s Wikipedia page and remind myself of a couple of things. I had forgotten that Jim McElwain was his offensive coordinator from 2008 to 2011, which included two national championships. Of course the offensive coordinator for his first national championship (the one at LSU) was another coach now on a bit of a hot seat by the name of Jimbo Fisher.

Other than LSU-Alabama, the biggest SEC game (in my opinion) is South Carolina-Georgia, which will be two former defensive assistants under Saban facing off as head coaches. Georgia’s Kirby Smart obviously was the defensive coordinator at Alabama recently. Will Muschamp was a Saban assistant at LSU and with the Miami Dolphins but has never been an assistant at Alabama.

Alabama often gets LSU’s best shot.

Despite the repeated losses, LSU has typically played better against Alabama than they should have on paper. I mention all of this in my LSU-Alabama series of blogs (this is the main one), but I thought it was worth rehashing a few things.

In 1993, LSU ended Alabama’s 31-game unbeaten streak. As most LSU wins of the past few decades have been, that was on the road. Like this game, that was a betting line of more than 20 points (it was 27 actually). The Tigers were much worse back then though. It had been 5 years since LSU even made a bowl game at that point.

Ivory Hilliard of LSU returns an interception deep into Alabama territory in Tuscaloosa in 1993. LSU would win, 17-13.

LSU would not beat Alabama again until 1997 when the Tide was having a bad year, but 5 of the Tide’s 7 losses that season were by 12 points or less, and 4 of the losses were by one possession. The only ones that were decided by more than 12 points were Tennessee’s 38-21 win (the Vols finished 11-2) and LSU’s 27-0 win (the Tigers finished 9-3). So in short, LSU should have won; but they shouldn’t have won by that much.

The respective fortunes reversed the next season, but despite finishing with a 4-7 record, LSU played the Tide close, only losing by 6. Alabama would lose 4 games to teams who would win 9 games or more apiece on the season and finished 7-5. It was the same margin the following year, in which LSU finished 3-8 and Alabama finished 10-3.

The series ceased to be a really meaningful rivalry until 2005 when Alabama entered the game undefeated and LSU entered the game on a 6-game winning streak after losing the conference opener in a weekday game that had been delayed by Hurricane Rita. The Tigers would win in overtime in another road game.

LSU’s JaMarcus Russell escapes an Alabama defender in Tuscaloosa in 2005.

The Tide kept the game close in Nick Saban’s first season in 2007, but they were ultimately overmatched by an LSU team on the way to a national championship.
Alabama would partially avenge LSU’s 5-game winning streak in the series by winning the next two, but the Tigers still played better than they should have. 2008 was probably LSU’s worst year under Les Miles, and yet they took the Tide to overtime. Alabama won the SEC West that year and probably would have won the national championship had they not lost to Florida in the SEC Championship. In the following year, Alabama beat everyone and LSU would finish 9-4, but the Tide only won by 9. That was despite a crucial LSU interception that was ruled incomplete.

Patrick Peterson grabs an apparent interception in Tuscaloosa in 2009. The pass was ruled incomplete.

Alabama’s 19-game winning streak was ended by South Carolina in 2010, but a number of people still favored the Tide in the SEC Championship race because they would have represented the West had they won out even though Auburn was undefeated at the time. But first they ran into LSU, who had just lost to Auburn the week before. LSU won in an upset, 24-21, in Baton Rouge. Although the SEC West was out of reach, Alabama would still nearly beat Auburn in the Iron Bowl before falling 28-27.

The 2011 regular-season game was as close as a #1 vs. #2 game should be, and I don’t need to recount how much of a disappointment the national championship game was, but since then, LSU has been generally competitive even when they really shouldn’t have been.

Alabama was on the way to another national championship in 2012 and LSU had already registered a 14-6 loss to Florida, but the Tide needed a last-minute touchdown to win by 4. The Tide pulled away late to win by 21 in 2013, but it was a 7-point game going into the last 11 minutes and a tie game going into the last 20 minutes. Alabama was #1, and LSU had already lost twice and was ranked #13.

I’m still angry about the way LSU lost in 2014. The Tigers recovered a late fumble near the Alabama end zone in a tie game. Under normal circumstances, LSU wins, but after some routine mutual pushing and shoving, there was a personal foul called which pushed LSU back and kept crucial seconds on the clock for the next Alabama possession. After the field goal to go up 3, the idea was for LSU to kick a low bouncing ball in the middle of the field. It was the kind of kick the coaches had in mind except for how it bounced out of bounds. Had LSU scored a touchdown, which would have been a strong possibility without the personal foul, Alabama would have nonetheless needed a Hail Mary to win. Anyway, after these turns of events, Alabama was able to kick the tying field goal at the end of regulation before winning in overtime. I was happy when Alabama lost to Ohio St. a couple of months later, but the feeling from that loss still lingers. By the way, that was one of 5 LSU losses that season.

Alabama’s T. J. Yeldon fumbles, while Kendell Beckwith (#52) prepares to recover the ball in Baton Rouge in 2014.

The result in 2015 (Alabama winning 30-16) was consistent with how good the teams were, but I thought last year was much closer than it should have been on paper. Alabama ended up winning by 10, but it was a scoreless game going into the fourth quarter. Alabama was every bit as good as Clemson even though they didn’t win the national championship game at the end, and LSU finished 8-4 last year. So despite the losing streak, more often than not LSU does better than they theoretically should do against Alabama.

I’m not picking LSU to win, but I’d be at least mildly surprised if it’s a 14-point margin or greater. LSU has a better offense than they did at this time last year. The Tigers have a much better playbook, and LSU quarterback Danny Etling is improved. Alabama’s offense is also arguably better, but I think the difference between this year and last year for LSU is larger. Even if Alabama is just as superior as last year, I still don’t think they should win by more than twice as much.

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Game 5 was must-win for Astros, not Dodgers

In College Baseball, History, MLB on October 30, 2017 at 5:26 PM

I’m going to say upfront I am cheering for the Astros, given their proximity to Louisiana (and shared understanding of floods), the fact that they’ve never won before, the fact that they have an exciting young player who recently played for LSU, among other reasons. However, I don’t want anyone to act like the rest of this series in just a formality.

Former LSU star Alex Bregman’s RBI in the 10th gave the Astros a 3-2 lead in the World Series.

The Astros had a great win, which will be memorable regardless of the outcome; but they had the pressure on them much more than the Dodgers did. I really thought the Dodgers’ bullpen would outlast the Astros once the game was tied, and the Dodgers may still have a stronger bullpen going forward.

Justin Verlander having a chance to put the Dodgers away is much different from merely having the chance to pull even. If it does go to Game 7, I think the Dodgers would have had the edge regardless. If going to Game 7 in Los Angeles were the Astros’ best-case scenario, it would be all but over.

Regardless of the specifics of this series, the response of most fans when they see a 3-2 series lead is that the team with the lead has the series in the bag. This may be in part because it’s more of a challenge in other sports where Game 6 and Game 7 are usually in different places. But in baseball, when the team who is behind has two games at home, half the time that team wins instead.

Just ask the Yankees, who went to Houston with a 3-2 lead this postseason. Many in my area were anticipating/bracing for the Yankees/Dodgers World Series. No doubt this was worse closer to Los Angeles and in New York. Ask Astros fans who remember 2004. The Astros went to St. Louis that year with a 3-2 lead.

David Freese hits the game-winning home run against the Texas Rangers in Game 6 in 2011. Including that one, the Cardinals have been involved in at least four postseason series since 1987 in which a team won Games 6 and 7 at home after trailing 3 games to 2.

Speaking of the Cardinals, another team in Texas took a 3-2 lead against them in 2011. Also, if you go back to 1987, the Cardinals won such a series for the NL title (over the Giants) before losing Games 6 and 7 in the World Series (to the Twins). The Twins also beat the Braves four years later under the same circumstances.

The World Series was also won this way in 1986 (Mets over Red Sox), 2001 (Diamondbacks over Yankees), and 2002 (Angels over Giants).

Scott Spiezio hitting a 3-run home run against the San Francisco Giants in Game 6 of the 2002 World Series.

This is not the full list, just the ones people might be likely to remember. I don’t remember the 1986 and 1987 series; but I remember almost all of the players, and I remember hearing and reading about those series from first-hand sources.

Preliminary LSU Thoughts and Dodger Blue Skies

In Bowls, College Football, General LSU, MLB, Rankings Commentary on August 21, 2013 at 5:21 PM

Preliminary LSU Thoughts

I’m fine with my team not being highly rated to start, but I still question the reasoning.

I guess people are forgetting that despite the #14 ranking to finish last year, LSU was one of the handful of top teams in the country for the third year in a row. The loss to Clemson in the bowl game was a matter of a highly motivated team playing a highly disappointed team. I’m not saying that it wasn’t right for LSU to fall in the polls afterward, but that didn’t mean that they weren’t one of the best teams in the country. If Alabama had been slotted into the Peach Bowl (Chick-fil-A doesn’t send me money, so I’m calling it what I want) against Clemson, that probably would have been a really close game too. When you are the national runner-up one year and you go down to the wire against a team like Alabama for what in all likelihood would have been a chance to repeat as SEC Champions, the Peach Bowl isn’t something you get excited about.

I’m not saying LSU would have necessarily won the SEC (Georgia showed itself to be pretty much equal to LSU and Alabama despite having played none of the top three teams in the West before the SEC Championship game [SECCG]), but only very good SEC teams control their own destiny going into the SECCG. LSU was in that position in neither of its championship years; and of course in 2011, Alabama wasn’t even in the SECCG.

An unfortunate aspect of preseason rankings is many voters (or random people who do preseason rankings) want to envision a team going undefeated. That’s hard to do when you have to play the best four other SEC teams from last year (Alabama, Texas A&M, Georgia, and Florida) and TCU.

How many does Alabama have to play? Two. So it’s possible LSU beats Alabama and still doesn’t make the SECCG as a result of the rest of the schedule.

You might vaguely recall the fact that Alabama had an easier slate against the East last year too. The Tide played Missouri and Tennessee while the Tigers played Florida and South Carolina. It seems like the least that could have been done would have been to let LSU play Missouri this year.

LSU also had quite a gauntlet in 2011 and went 13-0 going into the BCS title game. And that was without a reliable quarterback, which LSU finally seems to have going into next year. Zach Mettenberger had some shaky starts early last year, but compared to Jarrett Lee’s growing pains, his first season was a walk in the park. Had LSU not played Florida, the Tigers could have very well gone into the Alabama game (in which Mettenberger would have likely finished leading the team to victory had he been allowed) undefeated.

Zach Mettenberger (looking classy for once) will likely be a key part of LSU's success if they have it.

Zach Mettenberger (looking classy for once) will likely be a key part of LSU’s success if they have it.

I honestly don’t know all the nuances of players LSU has lost and is replacing this year, but I have learned that you can’t judge teams like Alabama and LSU based on how good the players they lost were. Often, there was a player with even more ability who will simply get more playing time. I expect at a minimum a very good defenses and a steady, consistent offense. I do like being less worried about the position of QB, but that’s always just a play away from radically changing.

As for 2010, let me just say that LSU finished #8 in the AP poll, behind Auburn (who beat LSU on the Plains by a touchdown for one of the Bayou Bengals’ two losses) and Ohio St. (who would later vacate the wins that season), so even if that’s not one of the 5 best teams, that’s pretty close.

Contrast that with Florida St., who is ahead of LSU in the AP preseason rankings after finishing in the top 15 last year for the first time since 2004. That was way back when you could finish undefeated in the SEC and not even make the BCS Championship.

This will probably be my most lackluster pre-season ranking in a decade, so don’t put too much stock into it. I will try to get it done this weekend, but I might not finish until closer to the start of the season a week from tomorrow.

Dodger Blue Skies

Something that has always annoyed me around here (Southern California) is the fair-weather fans. I first noticed it a while back when the flags people put on their cars would appear or disappear with the Lakers’ fortunes. I first noticed it in regard to baseball a few years ago when the Yankees won. So many Yankees hats appeared on people’s heads. For some reason, basketball fans use flags. I guess because basketball players don’t wear hats when they play. But both flags and hats are removable.

Anyway, the Dodgers won 41 of 50 games recently. Before that happened, I rarely saw a Dodgers hat. This is usually more Angels territory. If there is low traffic (and going to a typical week-night game, there is), it’s perfectly possible to get to Anaheim in around 30 minutes. I have a cousin who lives in Southern Los Angeles County (the general region closest to Anaheim), and even though I live in a completely different area much farther away, it often takes him longer to get to games than it takes me since I come from the opposite direction.

It takes over twice as long to get from where I live to Chavez Ravine. I haven’t actually gone there on a week night, but I have to travel in that direction at times. Anyway, before this, I would see a Dodgers hat or jersey maybe once a week or less. Now, I see what looks like a new Dodgers hat once a day, sometimes many of them in a day. I’ve only seen a couple Angels hats in the last month, and I don’t recall seeing a Yankees hat since the last baseball game I went to in early July (it wasn’t a Yankees game, but there is usually at least one person in a Yankees hat there).

There was even a female DJ on the radio talking about it. She put on her “Dodger blue” because they were finally in first place (this was at the beginning of the streak). She had never mentioned the Dodgers before. I believe it was a station that typically promotes the Angels too. I guess it’s just part of instant-gratification culture out here.

I just don’t see how there is satisfaction in that if you only really identify with a team when it’s doing well. Louisiana is full of LSU and Saints fans even if the Saints only win 3 games or LSU only wins 2 games (yes, I remember such a season). That’s what made it so meaningful when LSU won the national championship and the Saints won the Super Bowl. If I had just decided to be a Florida St. or Nebraska fan in the 1990s and only later decided I liked LSU, I don’t think that would have been very fulfilling. I did cheer for Florida St. at times in the 1990s, but only after I suffered through an LSU loss to Vanderbilt or Colorado St. or a loss to Florida by 8 touchdowns. (My special love for Florida back then is one of the things that led me to cheer for Florida St.)

There are split allegiances with the NBA in Louisiana, but that’s partly because New Orleans has only had a team for just over 10 years (and part of that time, they were primarily in Oklahoma City). People didn’t just stop liking the team they liked in the first place. I’m not saying you have to pick a team at birth and stick with it, but the mid-season conversions are a bit transparent. At least act like they’re your team when the season starts and when they’re .500 or below a few months in.

Mid-Season Baseball and Weekend Series

In MLB on July 5, 2013 at 2:39 PM

We are just over halfway through the baseball season with the final few series before the All Star break coming up, so I thought this was a good time to talk about how teams have been playing lately, featuring the main team I focus on, the Angels.

I’ve been trying to write this for a little while, but one reason I don’t blog more about baseball is it never takes a break. You can want to write about a recent development, such as a no-hitter or winning streak, but if you wait a few days, the same pitcher could have had a disastrous start since then or the team you were going to write about could have lost a few games in a row. So often when I’m thinking of a baseball topic, I just give up before I get around to writing it.

The main focus of this will be performance since June 11, so if I don’t mention something different, assume that to be the time frame.

Anyway, thankfully the Angels won last night (with three runs in the bottom of the ninth to spoil what could have been a complete game win for Adam Wainwright), so they are now one of the best two teams in baseball since June 11. The other team is the Pirates, both 14-6 over that span. Not too long ago, the Pirates swept the Angels, so in reality, the Halos have been playing even better than the record indicates. The other losses during that span were one apiece to the Cardinals, Yankees, and Mariners (whom the Angels were only able to beat 3 out 4). This included a 6-0 road trip against Detroit and Houston.

One thing I found interesting is that among the teams 12-10 or better during this stretch, only 3 of the 11 are currently in playoff position. Those teams are the Pirates, Red Sox, and A’s. The Angels just so happen to be playing the Red Sox at home tonight and will be trying to get revenge for the 2-1 series loss in Boston in early June. That was during the lull between winning streaks.

After consecutive sweeps of Seattle and Kansas City in late May, the Angels were only 4 games under .500. They lost almost all the ground they had gained in early June before this most-recent stretch of games. Their current position of 3 games under .500 (attained on Tuesday and then again last night) had previously not been reached since April 23, when the Angels won 3 of 4 after an atrocious 4-10 start.

There are a few teams that are also trying to chase Texas and Baltimore for the wildcard and have kept the Angels from climbing above a tie for 7th in the wild card standings, including Cleveland (14-7) and Toronto (13-8). There is now a group of 6 teams within 6 ½ games of the Orioles.

In the National League, by contrast, only a single team (Washington, 6 games back) is within 6 ½ of Cincinnati, the #2 wild card team in that league. One reason for that is that other than Pittsburgh, the hottest teams in the NL are the Dodgers (12-8) and the Marlins (13-7), but the Marlins are still 20 games under .500, worst in the NL. The Dodgers, as well as the Phillies and the rest of the NL West, are still not completely out of the wild card picture though, all within 10 games back. The Nationals, Cubs, and Mets are the only teams apart from Pittsburgh, Miami, and Los Angeles who are even playing above .500 (barely) during this stretch.

Other than Miami, the Angels have had the biggest jump in winning percentage in major league baseball, improving by nearly 7 percentage points, clearly better than Cleveland and Toronto, which each improved by about 4 ½ percentage points.

I definitely think the Angels-Red Sox is the inter-divisional series to watch this weekend, but Yankees-Orioles, Indians-Tigers, and Rockies-Diamondbacks could have a lot of bearing on who is going to be in playoff position going into the All Star break.

The NBA Crowns Another Familiar Champion

In MLB, NBA, NFL, NHL on June 23, 2013 at 5:11 PM

So another NBA Championship was awarded, but I wasn’t paying much attention because I was at a baseball game where the Angels came back from 7 runs down to win 10-9. I would go into more detail about that game, but the game today–where the Angels gave up 7 runs in the final two innings alone to lose 10-9 and allow the Pirates to complete the sweep–put a bit of a damper on my enthusiasm.

One reason I don’t care for the NBA is the playoffs always have an air of inevitability. Since the Lakers didn’t have a great year, the Spurs were the obvious team to beat in the West, and not surprisingly, no one from the West could do so. It was nice to see the Pacers make a run again, but not surprisingly, they could not make it past the Heat. So we were left with a choice between the Spurs winning their fifth title since 1999 or the Heat winning their third since 2006. I was happy when the Spurs won in 1999 and when the Heat won in 2006, but I’ve grown tired of both. I’m still tired of the Lakers. At this point, I would actually welcome watching the Bulls win for the 7th time because it’s been so long since the last time they won. I’d even rather watch title-rich Boston win again, since I only vaguely remember them winning before 2008.

Just to show how much this is a trend in the NBA, I have a couple of lists here.

NBA Championships 1984-2013
Lakers 8
Bulls 6
Spurs 4
Celtics 3
Heat 3
Pistons 3
Rockets 2
Mavs 1

Western Conference Championships 1977-2013
Lakers 16
Spurs 5
Sonics/Thunder 4
Rockets 3
Trail Blazers 3
Jazz 2
Mavericks 2
Suns 2

If we go all the way back to 1962, that only adds two more franchises to the West (the Warriors and the Bucks). Going back to the beginning of the NBA also adds the Pistons (who have obviously won the East a few times since then and the Royals (now Kings), who only won one conference championship in franchise history (in 1951, the same year they won the NBA).

By my count, 10 teams total have won the East, including the Warriors, whom we’ve also counted toward the West. The East was pretty dull for a while not that long ago. Between 1984 and 1998, the Bulls won 6, the Celtics won 4, the Pistons won 3, and two others won 1 apiece (Knicks and Magic in 1994 and 1995, respectively). But since then, it’s been all right. Apart from Miami winning the East 4 times, no franchise has won more than twice since 1999, and there have been 9 distinct conference champions, more than the West has had since 1976. But it’s still sort of a blur as to which franchise got to lose to the Spurs and Lakers anyway.

It makes the monotony seem worse that when the East was more predictable, If the Lakers weren’t playing (and a few times if they were), Eastern teams typically won from 1980 to 1998; and since then (at least until the last two years), Western teams typically won (9 of 12 [8 of those 9 being the Spurs or the Lakers] to be exact).

The Heat are the only team from the East to win the NBA title two years in a row since the Bulls and are also the first team to win three Eastern conference titles in a row since then.
If you look at the overall NBA list, there is a top tier of only four teams who have won 4 or more titles. There is a middle tier of 5 teams who have won either 2 or 3. Then there is everyone else.

NFL teams have had dominant stretches, but there are more franchises that have experience these. The Super Bowl has only existed since 1967, and 5 teams have won four or more. That middle category (winning either 2 or 3) is comprised of seven teams.

In the NHL, I don’t have to go back nearly that far to compare. 7 teams have won the Western conference since 2004. And there have been 9 different Stanley Cup champions since 2003. (Either way, there will still be 9 after this season.) Don’t forget that there wasn’t even a champion in 2005. There is a historical upper echelon of the NHL (Detroit, Montreal, and Toronto), but Detroit had a 42-year drought ending in 1997, and Toronto hasn’t won since 1967. Even Montreal has only won once since 1986 and not at all in the last 20 years. From 1993 to 2012, Detroit was the only team to repeat. These are the only multiple-cup winners in that 19-season period: Detroit, 4; New Jersey, 3; Colorado, 2. Colorado (formerly Quebec) and New Jersey (formerly Kansas City and Colorado) had never won before that period.

In Major League Baseball, no one has repeated since the Yankees won three in a row (the last of that streak in 2000), and the Yankees and Blue Jays are the only two teams to repeat since 1978 (the previous instance the Yankees had won two Series in a row). Other than the Yankees, no team has won more than twice total in the last 30 years.

I’m not sure of all the reasons. It might partly be that one good player (like Michael Jordan) comprises 1/5 of the players on the court and close to 1/5 of the total minutes played. I also think being more dominant is hard to hide. You can look pretty bad in a hockey game and still win 1-0, for instance. You can’t get away with that in basketball: there is too high a percentage of good plays and bad plays that result in points.

I used to love high school basketball, and I love college basketball now (although I no longer have the time to fully appreciate it), but individual games during the season matter so much more, and winning one game by itself is what determines advancing in the playoffs.

The NBA is not helpless in light of the nature of the game of basketball. I think something needs to be done to level the playing field, but the impression seems to be that dynasties led by the same player season after season make the NBA money. That might work for some people, but I find it boring.

Obligatory Game 6 Blog

In Me, MLB on October 28, 2011 at 4:45 PM

About 4 weeks ago, I wrote about the last day of the season and mentioned what great baseball viewing it was. I still think that was the best day based on the fact that two series were tied and three of the four games went down to the wire, with a rain delay in Baltimore perfectly timed, combined with a late finish in Tampa. But I’m having trouble coming up with a World Series game better than the one last night. I am old enough to remember 1991 Twins-Braves, 1993 Blue Jays-Phillies, 1997 Marlins-Indians, etc., and obviously there were some great Game 6/Game 7 hits in those series, but the three instances of the Cardinals coming back to tie before the game-ending home run has to put this over the top for a single game. Now, if I had to choose between being there last night and being there for Don Larsen’s perfect game, I would have chosen the perfect game, but I wasn’t around back then and even something that historic has a sort of predictable flow to it. At first, it was simply an early-game lack of offense, then after a handful of innings, with each out it became a bigger and bigger deal. This was a complete roller-coaster though, and it looked like completely different Cardinals teams (except for Lance Berkman anyway).

I love the weird facts and statistics that come up in baseball so you can have a long list of the first team to do x, the first player to do y, etc., even after 106 World Series. So that’s what I’ll start with.

The Cardinals are the first team to score in the 8th, 9th, and 10th in a World Series game (then they added the 11th). They are the first team to come back from down 2 runs twice in 9th or later.

The last team to win a road Game 7 was the 1979 “We Are Family” Pirates. At least the Pirates did some things before I was born, because other than almost beating the Braves in the early ’90s, they haven’t done much since.

8 teams since then have won seventh games at home, 7 of them were down 3 game to 2 before winning the last two.

Two teams during that time period had won Game 6’s on the road, the 2003 Marlins and 1992 Blue Jays. The other exception (the winner at home who didn’t trail 3-2) was also the Marlins, the 1997 edition, which lost to the Indians in Game 6 at home before winning Game 7.

I have to single out a certain player, David Freese, of whom I became a big fan earlier in the playoffs, and now he might be my favorite player. I thought the Cardinals were going down most of the night of course, but I knew he wouldn’t get the last out. I don’t remember ever being that confident that a player would somehow reach safely. Based on his interviews, he wasn’t that confident himself (he said what was going through his head was something to the effect of, “Seriously, I dropped a ball on my head and now I’m going to be the last out in the World Series?). Two innings after hitting the game-tying triple, Freese hit the first walk-off home run in Game 6 or 7 since Joe Carter in 1993. Others in recent history: Kirby Puckett in ’91, Carlton Fisk in ’75, and Bill Mazeroski in ’60. Freese was the first player to hit tying or go-ahead hits twice in 9th or later in single WS game.

But it’s important not to overlook Lance Berkman. He doesn’t get that home run in the first and the gradual bleeding by the Cardinals’ pitching staff would have made the lead insurmontable, barring a Rays-esque comeback, but of course the opposing team was not the Yankees trying to keep guys fresh for the playoffs, so that just wouldn’t have happened. Berkman also scored a run in the 4th, a run in the 6th, and the tying run in the 9th; and he batted in the tying run in the 10th. So he scored and/or drove in 6 of the Cardinals’ 10 runs.

I actually got to see Berkman play once, for the New Orleans Zephyrs when they were an Astros farm club. This was only about 10 years ago, so it was after he had played for some time in the majors already. At the time, I wondered if his career was winding down, but apparently it was not. I was never a big fan of Texas teams though (and I was decidedly on the side of the Cardinals when they battled the Astros in the Central in the ’90s), so I wasn’t much of a Lance Berkman fan back then, but I knew the Cardinals picked up a guy with some skill when they got him.

This is honestly not to rub it in, and I know the Rangers have what it takes to win tonight if the opportunity presents itself, but there are some facts about the Rangers that should be mentioned.

This was the first time in a World Series that a team had 3 blown saves in one game. If you can’t remember the first one, it was by Alexi Ogando in the sixth inning when he walked Yadier Molina with the bases loaded, which tied the game at 4. But since he did not give up a run that was charged to him and got credited for an out when Matt Holliday was picked off third, he actually improved his ERA for the series to 11.57. Without the pick-off play, his second walk issued may have resulted in a run as well (but again, it would not have been credited to him, nor would it have been an earned run anyway). I say “may have” because of course, we don’t know how the pitches might have been different and so forth, but I think he was having enough trouble finding the strike zone that he would have issued the walk. Putting Ogando into the game in that situation was one of many baffling decisions by Ron Washington.

To give Wash some credit, he may have honestly believed the problems would work themselves out. Against Detroit, Ogando had allowed only one earned run in 7 2/3 innings pitched. But when a pitcher doesn’t have his stuff (and/or is facing a team that seems to be seeing his pitches really well), you don’t put him into a one-run World Series game with the bases loaded and one out in the hopes that his problems will suddenly vanish. If Wash had put him in at the start of an inning or when the bases were empty and then put Derek Holland in if he ran into problems, that would have made a lot more sense and may have resulted in no damage being done even with the same pitches.

“The Rangers had gone 5-2 in the postseason when walking five or more batters; that’s just not sustainable. When doing that in the regular season, they went 7-19. They walked seven batters in Game 6.”

ESPN’s David Shoenfield mentioned the above quote as well as some other interesting facts and strange decisions (including the Ogando decision) here.

I’ve been a Tony LaRussa fan since I was 7 years old, and as I learned the rules and strategy, I became more and more of a fan of his, but I did have a similar issue with him. I question possibly misplaced loyalty by LaRussa in reference to Rafael Furcal. He might get 3 hits from the leadoff tonight (in which case the announcers will heap praises upon LaRussa for sticking with him), and I understand him being in the game yesterday because it’s important to have a good shortstop (the 5-6-4 double play was beautiful), but the leadoff batter going 0/5 was a big part of the Cardinals’ offensive woes before Allen Craig’s home run in the 8th. The #2 and #3 spots didn’t help much either, going a combined 2/11, although of course Albert Pujols got the double to start things off in the 9th (later scoring on Freese’s triple) and former LSU star Ryan Theriot at least put the ball in play for an RBI in the 10th. Theriot went 0/3 though. The one hit from the #2 spot had come in the first inning and made Berkman’s home run count for two runs.

Well, they scored 10 runs, what offensive problems am I talking about? Don’t forget that the Cardinals had only two hits (in the second and fourth AB’s of the game) in the first 5 1/3 innings. They had three runs because of the two-run home run, and the following fourth inning:
Berkman safe on error.
Holliday walked.
Freese grounded into fielder’s choice (Holliday out at 2nd, Berkman to 3rd).
Molina grounded out to third (Berkman scored).
Punto struck out swinging.

After Berkman’s infield single in the 6th (which led to the run on Ogando’s bases-loaded walk), the Cardinals actually batted around without a hit. So there were still only three hits before the Craig home run with one out in the 8th (and we thought with only 5 outs to go before a trophy presentation).

So that’s a good way to get your second and third blown saves. Give up 6 runs on 10 hits, 2 walks, and a sacrifice while only getting 8 outs. Still, I think it’s fair to criticize the line-up that made that necessary for the Cardinals to win.

But Tony may put Furcal 9th in the order for all I know. He’s done similar things before, although probably not in the World Series. This will be LaRussa’s first World Series Game 7. Incidentally, yesterday was his first Game 6.

Of course, this will be the first Game 7 since the Angels (my AL team of choice and the only local MLB team I’ve ever had…I don’t count the Dodgers) beat the Giants in 2002.

All the people watching the game probably missed this, but I did post a college football blog about reorganizing the conferences here if you didn’t catch it. By the way, I sort of rushed this (not used to writing something overnight on a week day), so excuse any errors. I’m editing bit by bit. I just couldn’t not write a blog about this.

Top 10 MLB pre-playoff chokes

In MLB on September 30, 2011 at 11:39 PM

“7-20 in September. We go 9-18, we’re where we want to be. 9-18 is what, winning a third of your games? The worst teams in baseball win a third of their games.”
–Theo Epstein

First of all, I recommend checking out the timelines of what went on Wednesday. Having three games like that happen at once doesn’t happen in the playoffs, that might be more memorable than anything I have to say about how historic the “collapses” (euphemism for choke) were.

Here are three good timelines:
HuffPo
MLB
ESPN

Obviously the Rays have returned to the playoffs with a vengeance, but the main topic I still want to talk about is how they and the Cardinals got there, and I also wanted to give some historical perspective on those collapses. That’s why I don’t blog about baseball much. By the time you sit down to think about it and research and so forth, something else important is going on. The Yankees/Tigers game was postponed as I was writing this, so that helped me finish without too much distraction.

I mentioned in a couple of places after the Red Sox had the 3-13 stretch (or some approximation thereof) that I couldn’t find another team that had ever done that in September, not even the 1964 Phillies, who had a 10-game losing streak in September. Those Phillies went 4-13 for one stretch, but that was followed by two wins (in the last two games of the season) and preceded by a 3-game winning streak. The Phillies were 2 ½ behind in the second-to-last game but technically were not eliminated until the next day. So that was also less dramatic.

Looking at the full month though, it’s not even closer. The Phillies won 13 games in September ’64, the same number the Angels (a team I follow a good bit) won this September. The Angels gained 6 ½ games against the Red Sox in the month. After the 3-13 stretch by the Red Sox and before the Angels finished with four consecutive losses, the Angels had gained 8 games on the Red Sox for the month.

So if you compare the Septembers of the 2011 Red Sox and 1964 Cardinals, the Red Sox would have lost 13 games against the Cardinals. So that’s about twice as many games as the Phillies lost (the Phillies actually lost 7 games in the standings from the beginning of the month to the end, but that regular season actually ended on October 4; the Phillies lost 6 ½ in the last 28 days of their season, so by that calculation, it is twice as many games).

I did notice the coincidence of the Phillies playing the Braves on Wednesday and helping to send the Cardinals to the post-season yet gain. It’s also a coincidence in that by causing the Braves to lose, that’s arguably another team that passes up their 1964 team in choking.

The Braves’ 9-18 September record ties the Phillies’ (the rest of this discussion will be about the 1964 Phillies of course) worst 27-game stretch. The Braves preceded that with a 2-3 stretch and the Phillies preceded that with a 3-2 stretch, so that’s inconclusive. But the Phillies’ largest September lead was 6 ½ games as compared to the Braves’ largest September wild card lead of 8 ½.

What clinches it for me about Braves’ choke as being worse is the competition. The Braves played only 9 games in the month of September against teams that won 85 games or more on the season. The Phillies played 17 or 18 such games, depending on how you count the last month of the season. If you limit it to just September and eliminate the two October games, it’s still 16. The Phillies’ entire 10-game losing streak was against teams that won 88 games or more on the season. From September 1 on, the Phillies only lost one series against a team than won fewer than that, the Dodgers, who finished 80-82. The Braves’ opponent in their third-toughest series (based on record) was…the Dodgers, who this year finished 82-79, pretty similar (the Braves lost that series as well). The only team the Phillies played in the last month who finished with fewer than 80 wins was Houston, whom they beat 2-1 in a series on the road. The Braves played 11 such games, 6 at home, and went 6-5 in them. Also, the Phillies had two teams chasing them: Cincinnati as well as St. Louis got really hot late. In the last month, the Phillies played the Reds 5 times and the Cardinals 5 times. That alone is more than the 9 games the Braves played against 85+ win teams (actually against any team that won over 82) in the last month.

Highlights of the seven other biggest pre-playoff chokes
(I didn’t bother to rank them, but if you’re so inclined, this is a good starting point: http://baseball.about.com/od/majorleaguehistory/tp/pennantcollapses.htm. These are my next 7 though.)

The 2007 Mets
Those Mets are similar to the ’64 Phillies in that they also had a late lead, 7 games on September 12, but it was down to 1 ½ only 6 days later. But what sealed it for the Mets was ending the season by losing 6 of 7. So they went a total of 4-11 from September 14 through September 28. (Their last off day had been September 13.) It also helped that the ’07 Phillies won 12 games from September 13 to September 28.

The 1995 Angels

This was more of a long-haul choke, as the lead was 11 ½ in August. On the morning of September 1, the lead was already down to 7 ½ and it was never 7 ½ again after that. The Angels had a 9-game losing streak from late August through early September and only won 3 games from August 16 through September 3. It was the second 9-game losing streak (9/13 through 9/23) that was the problem though. That one cost the Angels 8 games, as they went from 6 games ahead to two games behind. The 6-24 stretch is worse than any 30-game stretch of any by the higher-rated teams on this list, but half of that was in August, and the Angels actually rallied at the end of the season, winning 6 out of 7 before losing the one-game playoff to the Mariners. That’s the only reason 4 teams are ahead of them.

The 1978 Red Sox

This was actually the only 3-14 stretch I noticed. So not even this year’s Red Sox did that. The problem was this one started August 30. These Red Sox were at one time up 9 games, but after their last August game (on the 30th), they were 6 ½ ahead. But they had already lost the lead for good on September 13. They had an even better finish than the ’95 Angels, winning 12 of 14 to force a one-game playoff against the Yankees (which they lost). The end-of-season tie was the first since losing the lead.

The 2009 Tigers
I mostly remembered the microscopic choke at the end. They lost 3 games in a 4-game period. Their magic number was 2 after they beat the second-place Twins on September 30 and they played those same Twins the next day, but the only decrease to the magic number would come on October 4, the last day of the regular season. This also required a one-game playoff, which the Tigers lost. There was a prior 3-10 stretch from September 8 to 19 that cost Detroit 5 games. The Tigers’ lead had peaked at 7 games after the games of September 6.

The 1951 Dodgers
This one gets a lot of fanfare because there were two New York teams battling for the pennant, and New York does tend to create attention for itself. 13 ½ games on August 11 is substantial of course. But rightly, the Giants get more credit than the Dodgers get blame. Brooklyn went 26-22 to end the season. That would normally be more than enough (see the Epstein quote), but the Giants won a ridiculous 37 of 44 to end the season, not counting the 3-game playoff. The Dodgers did have a 4-8 stretch from 9/17 to 9/28 that dropped them into a tie from being up by 4 games. The Dodgers were also up 4 ½ as late as September 21 pre-game (the last originally scheduled game was 9/30).

The 1969 Cubs
Back to the New York/East Coast bias topic, you don’t ever hear about the team that lost the race to the Mets in 1969. The Cubs also didn’t have enough of a lead to start out with for a really high-quality choke. Although they once led by 9 games, their largest September lead was 5. After they lost 11 of the next 12, they were already 4 ½ games behind and, despite playing 10 of the final 13 at home, never challenged again, finishing 8 games behind. Also, the 5-game September peak only came after a 5-game winning streak. Before that winning streak, the Cubs were only up 2 ½. If the Cubs’ 8-18 stretch (which included the 5-game winning streak) had been to finish the year, they would have an argument for the top 5. For the record, they were up 8 games before that stretch began with a loss on August 20 and 4 ½ behind when it concluded on September 15.

The 1993 Giants
I’m going to share my own story about this. This is the first one I remember and although I grew up in Louisiana and the first team I really supported was across the bay in Oakland, I never disliked the Giants. Also, I never liked the Braves. I would either watch one of the Chicago teams or whatever big game the networks saw fit to show instead. I don’t know what it was about that team, but I just did not like to watch them. I was also annoyed that they were on so much. The Cubs were at least competitive in the late ’80s, and the White Sox were pretty good around this time, so that didn’t bother me as much. I eventually started to dislike the Cubs too, because I didn’t like that so many people just went along with the herd and followed the Braves or the Cubs because they were on TV so much. Anyway, my anti-Braves sentiment was furthered by fervently cheering against them when they played the Pirates (twice…I liked skinny Barry Bonds), the Twins, and the Blue Jays. Three of those series went to 7 games. Even if you start out only marginally liking one team more, usually a 7-game series will make it more intense. I probably would have cheered for the Iraqi national team to beat the Braves in the 1992 World Series and in the 1993 regular season. By the way, skinny Barry Bonds had moved on to the Giants.

This was in part another matter of timing for why they aren’t a more prominent example. The Giants slipped 11 games in the standings from the start of play on August 23 to the end of play on September 15, but the reason this one is even farther down the list is they won 6 games during this period. The end of that stretch was an 8-game losing streak (which was followed by a day off for the Giants, when the Braves increased their lead to 4 games), but that was followed by 14 wins in 16 games. Both teams were tied before their respective last games of the season. Neither game was very interesting, but the Giants lost 12-1 to the Dodgers to miss the playoffs despite 103 wins. The wild card began the next season (although the wild card would not be awarded until 1995 because of the strike). Of course, I was happy that the Braves didn’t make the World Series that year, so I wasn’t that upset in the long term, but I wasn’t happy that the Braves won something that came down to the last game again (although they had lost to the Twins in that situation).

Honorable mention?
I also considered the 1987 Blue Jays and the 1962 Dodgers for this list, but they were both examples where a team had a really good stretch and then a not-so-good stretch, but over the last 20 games in each case, the team was .500 or better. The Dodgers finished 40 games above .500 before the playoff games, and the Blue Jays finished 30 games above .500. The Dodgers maxed out at 5 ½ ahead for the season in early August (4 in September), and the Blue Jays were only a high of 3 ½ ahead, albeit with 7 games to play (but with 10 games to play, the Blue Jays were only ½ ahead).

The other teams listed by about.com didn’t seem to really choke at all, the other team in contention just seemed to do really well. There weren’t any meaningful September losing streaks or bad stretches to elaborate on. One of them had a 1-9 stretch in August, one of them lost 6 of the last 7 after barely being in playoff position, but those aren’t chokes to me. To me a choke is when you have it right in your grasp and you blow it, not when you have a somewhat decent chance and you don’t do much with it.

NOTE: It’s still nothing like my TSN numbers, but last month more than doubled my previous best month on this site (I got just under 500 views), so thanks to whoever is out there reading this.

Some closing thoughts on the Angels

In Me, MLB on September 27, 2011 at 12:02 AM

NOTE: My college football rankings will be released on Wednesday. People will have less time to complain that way.

If you’ve been following my writing, you know that I don’t get around to blogging about baseball much. Much of my baseball time is spent either watching games (there are a lot of them) or looking at box scores and other stats (there are a lot of those too). The reason I find football so blog-worthy is all the time between games to reflect. It’s not, “Well, that was nice, but now we have to make sure we win the series, not just the game. Who’s our starting pitcher tomorrow?” My favorite teams are the Mets (for whom I gave up hope some time ago, not that I ever had too much) and the Angels. Since moving to Southern California seven years ago (where does the time go?), I’ve become more and more of an Angels fan, since they’re on TV almost every day, and it’s not all that hard for me to go to Anaheim to take in a game either.

At least as far as the Angels, there is now plenty of time to reflect. I didn’t expect the Angels to be completely eliminated this soon after being so alive yesterday. I’ll recap why. But on the other hand, when they had elimination magic numbers of 4 and 5 six days ago, I didn’t give them much of a chance.

Anyway, the Angels should have been only one game behind Tampa Bay and two behind Boston headed into tonight.

But with the Boston/New York night game still to go yesterday, All-Star rookie closer Jordan Walden absolutely choked. After the Angels gave up two runs in the top of the 8th–their first two runs given up of the game–Walden did get that final out with no drama. Then the Angels padded their lead from one run to three in the bottom of the 8th. They seemed to be on their way to victory, and a Boston loss would have meant that they would have trailed both Boston and Tampa Bay by only a game each. The Rays began a three-game series at home against the Yankees today, and the Red Sox began a three-game series in Baltimore against the suddenly good Orioles. Starting today, the Angels face the Rangers, who have sewn up the division, at home for a three-game series.

One game behind going into these series would have given the Angels a fighting chance. So in this context, Jordan Walden returned to the mound to hopefully complete a 1 1/3- inning save of Joel Pineiro’s start in which he allowed no runs over 6 1/3 innings. Walked allowed three hits and one run out (HR) in his first four batters faced. But then he fielded a ground ball with a chance for a double play. Not only did his throw prohibit a game-ending double play, it resulted in no outs as it sailed into the outfield and allowed the A’s to score yet another run to get within 1 and leaving runners on the corners. This was followed by a double, which put runners on second and third and tied the score. Mike Scioscia had seen enough and had Walden intentionally walk the next batter and then removed him from the game. Walden left to some fairly heavy boos (in light of the shock of some and relatively laid-back attitude of others [Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers fans… people just enjoying the day] in attendance). The A’s took the lead on a sacrifice fly, and the Angels got a baserunner in the bottom of the 9th but never seriously threatened.

Anyway, for the format, I decided I wanted to write open letters to both Walden and the fans who booed.

Dear Jordan,

First of all, congratulations on your first full season in the big leagues. We’re lucky that we happened to have a closer as capable as yourself on the team without having to pick one up through a trade or free agency.

Pleasantries out of the way, you screwed up. I’m sure you’re well-aware of this. Next time if you’re nervous or not confident in a throw, it’s all right. We’ll take one out in that situation. Maybe you’ll get taken out of the game. So what? It happens to the best of pitchers. Maybe you’ll get a loss, but not likely. Runners on the corners with two outs and a one-run lead is not a terrible situation. Even if you allow another hit, then it’s just a tie game unless the hit clears the bases. That’s not a loss.

I know closers are generally more emotional than starting pitchers, but watch Ervin Santana when you get a chance. He can give up a multi-run home run, and all he wants to do is concentrate on getting the next out. Keep perspective and don’t feel like you have to win the game on your own because you allowed a few hits. You can’t control what’s already happened.

That’s even true of Sunday. A win could have helped complete a miraculous wild card comeback, but it was one game. There were 161 others scheduled this season, and there are 162 scheduled next season. We know you’re not going to get a save in every opportunity, but if you can get a hold and someone else gets a save, that’s all right. If you blow a save and someone else on our team gets the win, that’s all right too. It didn’t work out that way this time, but there will be times where the hitters will come up with one more run than they were planning on needing.

I’ll get into this more with my next open letter, but we don’t expect you to be Trevor Hoffman, Dennis Eckersley, or Mariano Rivera in their prime when to be honest I had never heard of you going into this season. I know you pitched a few times, but the race was over and if I watched, it wasn’t intently enough to notice you. Every save you got was more than I expected and probably more than some of those baseball fans who watch every pitch of the whole season expected. If you become one of those guys (and I see no reason why you can’t), great, but do what you can do first.

Please don’t let one inning negatively affect what you do this offseason or what you do from here forward. Also, don’t let the fans’ reaction get to you. Even many of those who have been complaining about blown saves since long before Sunday still want you to do well and want to support you. Some of the anger is because of other close losses this year, some of it is because of frustration with what used to be a consistent playoff team losing the division two years in a row and not even making it interesting at the end. Or if you’re so inclined, forget the fans. I’m sure there are people in your life who are proud of you. I can’t imagine someone I even know in passing being in your position. Enjoy it. Be proud of yourself.

Also, maybe part of the thing with the fans is the ones who can play baseball know they could have gotten at least one out there. Of course, you could have as well, but that’s what I mean by doing what you can do. If it’s not a perfect double-play throw, you’re not the shortstop, it’s not the end of the world. But you can do better than that every time.

Dear Booing Fans,

Booing this guy, really? We didn’t spend $10 million on him. $400,000 is a lot of money to us (and I know what you’re thinking, pay me 1/10 of that and I’ll throw to second instead…yeah, we’ll let you know when there are designated mound-fielders [MF’s for short]), but find me someone in major league baseball with paid fewer dollars per save.

He was just sort of around the organization and pitched a few decent innings in the last month of last season. If you’re not happy we had him this season, you’re crazy. Go cheer for the Yankees if you can’t appreciate that kind of season-long effort from a previously anonymous player, especially a 23-year-old rookie.

Yeah, I know, it was a pressure situation, and he choked. But this is the team that lost 3-1 on Friday and lost in extras on Monday and Thursday. They also lost by 1 to the Yankees a couple of weeks ago due to a fielding error, and about a week before that, they lost to the Mariners 2-1 without allowing an earned run. Sure, this game, the bullpen had what should have been ample room for error (in the strict statistical sense and otherwise), but we all know there wasn’t quite enough run support for a number of pitchers throughout the year, so there were more tense situations like this one than there should have been. Boston won anyway last night, Tampa Bay won today, and we just lost to a guy named Hamburger (loss by 1 again). Just like I said above, this was one game or 162.

Other pitchers generally had someone else’s error to blame or someone else’s failure to get a hit with runners in scoring position (for example), but a fielding mistake by a relief pitcher? Say it isn’t so. Come on, and a rookie on top of it?

Boo someone who doesn’t run out a ground ball. Boo someone who lazily lets the ball drop right in front of them. Don’t boo someone for trying too hard to fix their own mistakes, which if he had done, it would have made you all happy, at least temporarily. We can all appreciate trying hard on some level, but how many of you were ever in a similar situation? You can’t say the pressure wouldn’t have gotten to you in that moment or that wouldn’t have been the one time you screwed up. If you don’t want him to be the closer, first, you’re crazy if you thought we had better options on the team this year, and second, I don’t care if you boo the manager’s decision to put him in. I don’t mind booing in that situation. To me it says, “Skip, I’m paying attention, I care, but I disagree with what you’re doing right now.” Nothing wrong with that (not that Scioscia causes people who know what they’re talking about to want to do that very often). Just don’t boo when the manager takes him out.