The successful failure of the Angels’ strategy
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Vladimir Guerrero’s interpretative-dance baserunning and John Lackey’s belt-high straight-ball to Jason Bay notwithstanding, the Angels lost last night because their offense couldn’t get it together against a good starting pitcher doing his best Cliff Lee ('08 version) impersonation. But just because they failed, that doesn’t mean they didn’t have a winning offensive strategy.
What do I mean? Superficially, when you rack up nine hits (even if they’re all singles), one walk, and one time reaching base on an error, you should expect to score two or three runs, not one. The Angels went an uncharacteristic one for seven with runners in scoring position after raking all year in high-leverage situations, no one more so than Howie Kendrick, who was last night’s real goat.
More strategically, they had the right idea all night against John Lester, and an uncharacteristic one at that: work the count and get his pitch count up, so you can feast on the soft underbelly of the World Champs -- the middle relief corps. Ask any Sox fan their level of faith these days in Manny Delcarmen, Hideki Okajima, and Javier Lopez (let alone Mike Timlin), and you’ll get an earful. Lester’s pitch count was at around 100 through five innings, then at least two of the three Angel hitters in the sixth worked a full count; unfortunately, he induced Kendrick and Mike Napoli to chase balls out of the strike zone, and Gary Matthews Jr. to look at a pitch on the corner, and struck out the side.
Then, Terry Francona made what I think was the best managerial move of the day: He trotted Lester and his high pitch-count out for the seventh inning, instead of feeding Angel hitters his middle relief chum. That way, his starter could hand off the baton to Boston’s putative version of 2002 Frankie Rodriguez, Justin Masterson, and on to that crazy guy for the ninth.
The Angels’ work-the-count strategy was so widespread (and successful -- at least in working counts) that even Howie Kendrick, he of the 30 career walks in 945 at bats, was getting all kinds of 2-0 pitches. The trouble with the game was not the offensive strategy, it was the execution: Kendrick turned hitter’s counts into weak ground balls. And, when Lester was particularly wild in the first inning, Guerrero swung at a first-pitch ball with runners on first and second and popped out.
But that’s just Vladdy being Vladdy, one of the many small concessions you learn to give a career .323/.389/.575 hitter. Blaming him for last night is like blaming Pavarotti for Lou Reed. Though sometimes forces can combine to make days less than perfect.
-- Matt Welch
Matt Welch is editor in chief of Reason.