Streaks

The Astros won their fourth game in a row, and fifth of the entire Spring Training, today.  A lot of people are scratching their heads and trying to figure out what happened.  What changed?  Why is this team, who went winless in nineteen straight, suddenly able to win four consecutive?

It’s pretty simple, really.  There are two basic reasons, and neither of them has anything to do with Ivan Rodriguez.

The biggest is that our lack of organizational depth, as you get deeper into Spring Training, is less exposed.  As more teams begin to send their minor leaguers back from whence they came, it becomes major leaguers against major leaguers.  Suddenly, the games that we were losing in the seventh and eighth innings, when our mediocre Double-A pitchers gave up hits to other teams’ slightly-better-than-mediocre Double-A hitters, are falling our way when we have major leaguers playing in those innings.  This is great in Spring Training.  As the season progresses and we need to patch holes in our roster, as every team does over the course of a 162-game season, we will begin to feel this.

The second reason is that our major league team is made up largely of veterans.  Veterans always seem to, from my observations, take a little longer to get into the “groove”.  Our starting eight average 8.75 seasons of experience between them.  There wasn’t a lot of competition this spring, so no one felt much pressure to produce sooner.  So now, as Opening Day approaches, it looks like things are falling into place and we can all take our fingers off of the panic button.

Of course, we’re still a fourth-place team in a weak division at best.

Speaking of streaks, tonight I watched Japan extend their World Baseball Classic title streak to two.  It doesn’t sound impressive, except that there have only been two WBCs. 

We arrived early today.  After two days of getting there just in the nick of time, I wanted to get a chance to watch the warmups and batting practice, get a few shots, and chat with the folks around me.

Of course, many of the folks around me didn’t speak English.  And of the few that did, far too many spoke a broken, gutteral English that NL Central fans will recognize as Cubspeak.

WorldBaseballClassic 036.jpgThere was a decidedly-international feel.  In addition to Korea and Japan, the U.S. of course had a large contingent on hand.  And, it being Southern California, after all, Mexico was well-represented:
WorldBaseballClassic 042.jpgWorldBaseballClassic 079.jpgSince I didn’t really have a dog in the race, I mostly allowed myself to get caught up in the fervor as gametime approached.  The Korean and Japanese contingents showed up in full-force and rooted on their teams.  Chants of “Nippon!  Nippon!” and the Korean phrase for  “Republic of Korea” (or so I was told… it was a three-syllable chant that sounded vaguely like “Attica” with five drum beats after it) overlapped and battled with one another in a multi-layered force of energy and enthusiasm, but both sides were respectful of one another.

In fact, as I allowed myself to get caught up in the excitement of the fans sitting around me, in a way I was glad to see Japan against Korea, instead of the USA in the finals.  These fans deserved it more.  In America, we complain about the WBC.  We complain about players potentially getting injured.  We complain about them missing time with the ballclubs paying them millions of dollars.  We complain about the playing time they get; the playing time they don’t get.  We don’t really like the WBC as a nation.  But Japan and Korea, on the other hand, wanted to win this thing, and they wanted to win it very badly. 

WorldBaseballClassic 080.jpgOf the sixteen teams participating, I began to wonder if maybe the USA was the least deserving.  Not based on talent, but rather on a pure lack of motivation to prove themselves on the national stage.  After all, don’t the best and the brightest from all of these other countries try to come to the US to compete in our major leagues?  Monetary reasons aside, the best players in the world have to prove themselves against the best competition, and that can only be found in Major League Baseball.  We’ve grown accustomed to it, and the puny and occasional chants of “USA! USA!” at Sunday night’s semi-final matchup simply could not compare to the inescapable, loud, constant cheers in Monday night’s finals.  From the first pitch until the last out, the fans cheered.

WorldBaseballClassic 085.jpgAs the game progressed into the later innings, however, I found myself rooting for the scrappy Koreans.  The reasoning was two-fold, I suppose: 1) I am from Ohio, and my second-favorite team is the Indians.  The sole major leaguer on the Korean roster is Shin-Soo Choo, an Indian.  Compare that with Ichiro, who would rather punch himself in the face than play in Cleveland.  2) I didn’t want to see Japan continue to dominate the WBC.  We’ve seen them win it.  This Korean team, on the other hand, was as much fun to watch and hadn’t yet won it all.  Besides, isn’t saying Japan is a great baseball country becoming old hat by now?

I guess not.

Two things struck me as I was watching the game.  Despite all the talk of fundamentally-sound Asian baseball (and it was), each team had one gaffe that may have helped to decide the game.  With two outs and a runner on second in the bottom of the ninth, up 3-2, Japan’s shortstop was playing almost directly behind the runner, very close to second base.  The third baseman was playing very nearly on top of third base.  A right-handed hitter was up, with about 80 open feet in the 5.5 hole.

I couldn’t quite understand the positioning, and as should have been expected, the batter knocked a grounder through that massive gap, scoring the runner from second and sending the game into extra innings.

The second moment came in the top of the te
nth inning.  With runners on second and third, Ichiro came to the plate.  Ichiro may very well be the greatest player in the history of Japanese baseball.  Without a doubt, he is the biggest star.  He now has eight seasons in Major League Baseball, and ice water runs through his veins.  I don’t care who’s batting behind him, I don’t know why you don’t walk him to load the bases and get a force at any base, especially with two outs.

At the very least, you don’t give him anything to hit.  At all.  Instead, an eight-pitch at-bat followed, during which Ichiro hit a two-run single to put Japan up for good, 5-3.  Especially puzzling was that a few batters later, with first base open, Korea intentionally walked Norichika Aoki for the second time in the evening to get to cleanup hitter Kenji Johjima of the Mariners.

All things considered, though, it was a well-fought game and I’m extremely glad I went. 

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7 comments

  1. juliasrants

    Okay – we can’t really play baseball outside in March in Boston, but it would have been nice to see a game or two in person. The fans for the other teams seemed to have a passion for their country in the WBC – while I guess we Americans get too caught up in the individual players. It was a good game last night. Congrats to Team Japan.

    Julia
    http://werbiefitz.mlblogs.com/

  2. astrosfaninexile

    Sounds like you had a good time at the WBC. I still think it’s a good idea but the wrong implementation. It should be played at the end of the season, not during Spring Training when the players aren’t really game-ready. And it should be the best teams in each league (i.e., the Phillies against the Saitama Seibu Lions, etc.).

    With regard to the Astros streak, think what you will. I have my own hypothesis, based on being here in person – see http://astrosfaninexile.blogspot.com/2009/03/key-to-astros-newfound-success.html. 🙂

    Seriously, you are right about the reasons. for improvement. Although everyone’s been knocking the pitching at Spring Training, I’ve been happily impressed over the past week. If you look at the 8 runs the Astros pitchers allowed yesterday, only 3 were charged to pitchers who will be in Astros unis come Opening Day (Hampton). The others belonged to guys who will be back on the farm.

  3. rockiefan123

    This is a great blog with amazing insight. I love to hear about experiences at the WBC. You are certainly right about the situations in the bottom of the 9th inning. I look forward to keep on reading as the season progresses. Good luck to the Astros!
    Doug
    rockiesmania.mlblogs.com

  4. Kaybee

    Great entry! I agree about Spring Training. The Padres have been cutting players at a good pace, mostly guys who haven’t been doing well or are not going to make the roster. SO cool that you got to be at the game! Great observations!
    http://kaybee.mlblogs.com

  5. roundrock15

    The problem with that, Susan, is… let’s say the Seattle Mariners won the World Series. Your proposition would have Endy Chavez, Carlos Silva, Jose Lopez, and Felix Hernandez playing for the USA against their home Venezuela; Kenji Johjima and Ichiro playing against Japan. I doubt that would fly, especially in Ichiro’s case. I do advocate a later start to this thing; I think MLB Spring Training may, in fact, be the absolute worst time to play.

    http://houston.mlblogs.com

  6. renaudtn

    The game last night was great. I really enjoyed watching Japan playing small ball. I think it’s very unfortunate that this style of baseball is mostly forgotten in MLB. I’m gonna go out there on a limb and disagree with most people here: I don’t think the timing for the WBC is the problem (the NPB and the Korean seasons start around the same time as the MLB season and yet Japan and Korea were ready to play unlike the US); the problem is that the US team didn’t get together and practiced early enough. What about the US team starts training in January so that they can be in mid season form for the WBC, It would also give more time to players to get accustomed to playing with each other…you can’t say you’re not ready when you know a big tournament is coming…it’s like a student telling his teacher at the end of the semester that the presentation he was given at the beginning of the semester is not ready…Obviously an even bigger problem for the US is the lack of participation from some of their very best players: Dunn in right field??? DeRosa 1st base??? that’s not right! Anyhow, I hope the next time around the US will step up to the challenge and try harder. They just didn’t look like they were really giving their best effort against Japan (just like Venezuela against Korea). It was painful to watch Dunn play the other night (or Abreu for that matter), catching fly balls like he was in ST practice. I would really like to see the very best (at each position) from the US compete for real against Korea and Japan.
    What I think needs improvement in this tournament is the format. I liked it better in 2006 because each team faced all the other teams in the pool. That’s fairer in my opinion. I mean when the two finalists already met 4 times before in the same tournament, there’s something wrong.
    Gotta give credit to them Asian fans…were they loud or what?
    I kind of like your idea Susan the problem is that there would be a huge gap, level wise, between the Italian champion (A level on a good day per ESPN.com) and the Phillies for instance. So this would be interesting only if you have the best from Japan, US, Korea and central/south America.

  7. roundrock15

    You know, I have to admit I was very humbled by the loud outpouring of support for both teams. As I’ve said before, from the first pitch to the last out, they chanted, cheered, banged their drums and thundersticks, and made their presence known.

    The thing is, I keep hearing about how Americans could learn from this. I don’t know… when I watch a game, it tends to be a bit of a quieter affair. I keep a scorecard. I talk strategy with whatever friends are around me. I first- and second-guess managers. I get to know the players, how they’re performing. The matchups. It’s a more cerebral game for me.

    At points, I wondered if many of the fans around me knew anything about the players. The only time anyone tipped their cap (other than their mad love for Ichiro) was during the Sunday night semifinal when the guy next to me shouted, incredulously, “Mahara!?!?!!” when the aforementioned pitcher was brought in. Mahara proceeded to give up two hits, a walk, and two earned runs in an inning of work before striking out Evan Longoria to kill the USA’s only rally.

    Though I think it’s exciting, I don’t know that it’s necessarily the ideal way to watch a game.

    http://houston.mlblogs.com

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