The Errors Of Their Ways
Saturday, October 28, 2006
ST. LOUIS, Oct. 27 -- There is no more relaxed setting in baseball than a sunny spring morning with men gathered on the freshly mowed diamonds of Florida and Arizona, when ballplayers limber up after a long winter's slumber. Fake the follow through of a pitch. Field a ball back to the mound. Toss it to first. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
"We work on those plays all the time in spring training," Detroit Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander said late Friday night, long after he looked like he needed to work on them some more. They are the lessons that, eight months later, are supposed to be rote. Teams that play in the World Series field bunts routinely, get the outs that they should. And yet for the pitching staff of the Tigers, a championship was lost in part because, on a record number of instances when their pitchers had to field a ball, they couldn't do it.
A red-and-white sign at Busch Stadium Friday night -- where the St. Louis Cardinals clinched the title with a 4-2 victory in Game 5 -- encapsulated the best strategy: "Hit it to the pitcher." And why not? In five games, Tigers' pitchers committed five errors.
There was, of course, no explanation. Detroit had a week off before the Series began and spent much of it taking pitchers' fielding practice, known as "PFP."
"In the American League, you don't handle a lot of bunts and stuff," Manager Jim Leyland said. "We knew we were going to do that this series, so we worked on it."
With no payoff. The last moment of indignity came in the fourth inning of Game 5, with the Tigers holding a 2-1 lead. Jeff Weaver, the Cardinals' pitcher, came up with one out and runners on first and second. The strategy was simple: Bunt the ball to advance the runners.
First, a quick recap: It was Verlander who started this trend, back in Game 1, when he inexplicably tried to pick Albert Pujols off first. His throw sailed away, sparking a three-run inning.
The following night, in Game 2, the Cardinals couldn't score a run -- until, in the ninth, when they hit a ball back to Detroit closer Todd Jones, who booted it. But because the Tigers won, Leyland was able to crack his first joke about taking "PFP" on the plane. He couldn't imagine what was to come.
The error in the third game came from ace reliever Joel Zumaya, a play that had an extra level of idiocy because not only did he throw poorly to third base, he should have thrown to second. It cost two runs. By Thursday, the pattern was well-established. In the seventh inning of Game 4, reliever Fernadno Rodney fielded a bunt from So Taguchi. The ball ended up down the right-field line, tying the game.
"I haven't seen anything like it," Leyland said -- and that was before Game 5, when Weaver's second bunt attempt went directly back to Verlander.
"It's tough that one of the big things people will remember from this is the one-liners about how our pitchers fielded," Jones said.
Tee them up. A pair of Tigers pitchers walk into a bar. "Two beers," they say. The bartender declines, lest they drop the mugs.
Friday, Verlander had the runner at third out with a nice, easy throw. For the Tigers' staff, though, there is no such thing.
"I had the wrong mindset," Verlander said. "I picked up the ball saying, 'Don't throw it away,' instead of picking it up and just throwing."
Verlander threw wide of third baseman Brandon Inge. Yadier Molina scored from second to tie the game. The Cardinals soon took the lead.
And all that was left for the Tigers was to pack their bags, head home for winter, thinking about February on those fields in Florida, to those first rounds of "PFP."