Coach's Corner

I was going to a post-season baseball game. My first one. My dad had an extra ticket to game four in Chicago. The Cubs only needed to win just one measly game to make a game four happen. In addition, I was working on credentials for game five in Houston. I was one excited sports fan. At least one of these games, if not both, was a sure thing. I was counting on the Houston Astros and the Chicago Cubs. For a very negative guy, I sure pick stupid times to be optimistic. I deserved what I got.

My personal laments aside, the playoffs have been disappointing. The Rangers and the Cubs were swept; both crushed by vastly superior teams. The Indians beat the Red Sox in four listless games. Quickly, the most intriguing match-ups were spoiled. A New York-Boston series is a natural any baseball fan wants to see. The cities dislike each other. The owners dislike each other. The fans detest each other, each considering its counterpart naked barbarians. A few massive, tumbling brawls are certain, both on the field and in the stands. A Chicago-Boston World Series of professional sports' biggest losers would've been ... well, might as well try to catch the Easter Bunny. The Astro-Padre series figured to be the best, and it was. The teams are mirror images of each other, both revolving around solid, deep pitching. If this entire playoff round has showed anything, it's this: The oldest adage in baseball is true. Good pitching will beat good hitting every time -- and it has.

Ranger fans need not feel too bad about the sweep at the hands of New York. In three games, Ranger pitchers gave up only nine runs against the top hitting team in the AL. Texas got three well-pitched games, which for anyone who follows the Rangers knows, is more than they usually get in a month. Too bad for the Rangers -- they scored a grand total of one run in three games. It's hard towin a five-game series if you score only one run. The Ranger cumulative batting average of .141 was the lowest ever posted in the post-season. Still, the story was not the failure of Texas bats. A lineup of Ruth, Maris, McGwire, Orlando Cepeda and Mike Schmidt might have fared no better. Yankee pitchers were untouchable. Cone, Pettite, and Wells were all close to perfect. After watching Texas pound these same guys in the regular season, I expected more, but that's why they have a regular season and then there's the playoffs. New York didn't win 114 games because visiting teams were anxious about playing in a bad neighborhood.

How overmatched was Texas? Andy Pettite had the worst ERA, 4.33, among the Yankee starters. That's better than any Ranger pitcher could post. The off-seasonjob of the Texas front office is clear: get a top-flight starter.

It was much the same story in Chicago. A home run-studded line-up didn't fare much better than Texas, managing only a mangy .181 batting average against witchy Atlanta pitching. How the rotten Cubs won 90 games is one of those inexplicable flukes of nature. Did I mention the ticket I had for game four?

So, if you're looking for broken hearts and frustration, cast your gaze toward Houston, a barren, desolate plain renowned for heat, traffic, water that catches fire, biting insects of all sorts, and baseball mediocrity interspersed about every 10 years with good teams involved in a repeating, grizzly, head-on train wreck. The Astros of '98 easily won the Central Division, setting a franchise record for wins (102) along the way. Featuring a nasty eight-deep lineup, backed with a solid pitching rotation, anchored by the frightening lefty, Randy Johnson, and an untouchable closer in Billy Wagner, the Astros seemed a formidable team. The Padres, winner of the West, were worthy opponents, but still, the Pods lost almost every game they played in September. The Stros looked like a decent pick to play in their first World Series.

Unlike the Cubs and Rangers, who rarely had anyone on base to waste chances on, the Astros had plenty. They squandered three superior pitching performances, two by Johnson. Astro base runners spent so much time hanging around on bases they could've been ticketed for loitering, and the powerful lineup, which scored a league high 874 runs, was rendered impotent. They tallied all of three runs in as many losses to San Diego. Clutch hits, no matter who was up, were non-existent, and they suffered minor league defensive lapses, invariably at crucial moments that cost them games. San Diego matched the vaunted Houston pitching staff inning for inning, got clutch hits, and made clutch plays when they most had to have them.

As it was in '80 against the Phillies and '86 against the Mets, Houston lost a tight playoff series they could have won. The losing dynamic was so similar, it's enough to make a guy believe in spooks and jinxes. A single bad pitch, an untimely error, hits that didn't happen, bad luck. Houston has now made five post-season appearances and lost 'em all. The only consolation I guess an Astro fan can take is at least they were spared the inevitable human sacrifice at home in game five. Did I mention those tickets?


Write me: Coach36@aol.com

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