To beat the impossible team -- The Miracle on Shale

Holy shit! Team Canada beat Team USA in the World Baseball Classic 8-6!

My computer crashed just after this last post about video games, so I didn't get to comment on the game before work, but now its time to let rip.... holy crap! I hardly know where to begin! Well, I'll begin with reminding you about my free baseball pool! If you're reading this blog, you're eligible to sign up. Did I mention its free, and you can know as much or as little about the game to play? Oh, I did already: onto the Team Canada win:

First off, the bad news: Canada still isn't a lock to advance to round two: if we give up more than two runs, we're out. That's right: out. Well, unless we win. (You see, Mexico only gave up 3 runs...) So if we lose 2-0, we're in. We lose 8-7, we're out. We win, we're in no matter what. So tomorrow's game against Mexico is crucial. I'll try to fit in some live weblogging of it, but I'm not sure if I'll get a chance.

Now onto the good news. Wow! Canada just made its job a whole lot easier...the general thinking beforehand was that the U.S. would win all 3 games, South Africa would lose all 3 games, and Mexico and Canada would be duking it out for the middle spot: the winner getting a 2-1 record and the loser posting a 1-2 record. So tomorrow's game was already considered a must-win for Ernie Whitt's Team Canada.. just now we can win as long as we lose narrowly.

Adam Stern is the big story of this Team Canada win. Under contract to the Boston Red Sox, Stern was considered a long shot to make the major leagues this season (that has to be considered slightly differently today, one thinks). He was used only occasionally in Boston late last season as a pinch runner (he got fewer hits for them all season than he scored for Canada today), and didn't even make it onto TSN's rundown of Canadians in the majors (that, too, has to be reconsidered). Which highlight from today's game did you want? His triple in the second inning with Canada up 1-0 to that drove in some guy named Aaron Guiel to put the Yankees down by 2? How about his single in the third inning to score both Justin Morneau and Pete LaForest? Maybe you'd prefer his third consecutive hit: an inside the park home-run in the fifth inning to put Canada up by 8 runs. That was a good one too. And those were his offensive plays. Now lets cover the defense: when he made a catch in centre field in the 6th inning when it looked like Michael Young was going to get a base hit blooper...Stern went down, and the ball hit the ground. For sure it hit the ground. Sure Stern made a valiant effort, but he was a split second too slow. And then he rolled over, triumphantly raised his arm into the sky, and you could see that in fact he had caught the ball, as it hung precariously at the very edge of his glove. It was an impossible catch, and he made it. But he wasn't done: in the 8th inning, score 8-6 with 2 outs, Vernon Wells makes it to 2nd base when Johnny Damon is walked, and substituted 2nd baseman Chase Utley blasted a monster shot to deep centre-right field. The ball soared high and wild, almost as potent as the Jason Varitek deep-bleachers grand slam 2 innings earlier. Its back, its back, they don't even mentionthe warning track, and the ball comes firmly down against the top of the way-too-high-fence...dropping down into the waiting globe of Adam Stern! The 8th inning is over, and Adam Stern saved what looked to be a 9-8 Team Canada loss. Stern's last amazing moment came in the bottom of the 9th, with Alex Rodriguez up to the plate. A-rod gets down 0-2 on Steve Freakin' Green, and then A-rod pops up a high shallow-field fly ball. Stern is there: he dives to catch a ball he had no business being near, secures it in his glove, and has his other arm in place to hold it in. But when Stern his the ground, his right elbow hit the dirt, and popped off the top of the glove...when his left elbow struck a quarter second later, the force popped out the ball, sending A-rod to first. Luckily, it didn't cost us anything.. not that Stern deserved any fault at that point.

If Stern was the hero of the Team Canada win, Dontrelle Willis was the goat of the Team USA loss: five runs (all earned) on six hits in 2 2/3s innings, for a 16.88ERA. A Pete LaForest ball bounced off his leg over to Chipper Jones with two outs, giving LaForest a chance to run to first and score Jason Bay, advancing Morneau to third. Willis was out of the game, but the damage was done. The biggest shocker is that Willis is a left-handed pitcher, and not only are lefty pitchers the bane of a left-handed batter, but Willis is particularly deadly against left-handed hitters: in 2005 with the Marlins he only allowed one home run against a lefty, and held those lefties to a 0.222 Batting Average with a killer 0.87 WHIP. Yet the Canadian team featured seven out of nine starting batters who bat left! Nobody expected this, nobody could have, and you put Dontrelle Willis against 7 left handed hitters in a night, with only Jason Bay a right-hander with any major league experience, you'll get a shutout from him 97 times out of 100. But March 8th was one of those other 3 times, and probably the only time he gets lit up for an ERA of almost 17.

Other heroic moments for Team Canada? You have to first give the props to another left-handed Adam: Adam Loewen for the Baltimore Orioles, who's never pitched in even AA-ball. He gave up 3 hits and 3 walks in 3 2/3s innings, but pitched shutout baseball and kept the USA powerhouse hitters out of the game. He loaded the bases up in the first inning, but a talk from Ernie Whitt calmed him down, he got Chipper Jones to ground into a double-play, and escaped the inning intact. Also of huge success was Steve Green: he gets the save when brought in to contend with Jeff Francoeur with Derek Lee, Alex Rodriguez, and Mark Teixeira all waiting in the wings to give Team USA a tie game. Vernon Wells and Jason Varitek behind him. What's a pitcher to do? Ground out Frencoeur. Ground out Lee. Get up 0-2 on A-Rod. When Alex makes it to base, just make Teixeira ground out. Game over. Scott Mathieson also gets huge kudos, an awarded hold, and the knowledge that he too held the U.S. scoreless, walking two and awarding no hits over a single inning. Really only Chris Begg has to take any blame in the game, getting lit up in the 5th inning by allowing 5 earned runs in four hits with a single walk. Other than that, Canada had excellent pitching. Not bad for a team which couldn't get Ryan Dempster, Eric Gagne, or Rich Harden. Edmonton local and Mariners prospect Van Gaalen also backed out, as did a few others who I can't find on Google. Good solid pitching, which is a welcome reprieve from the South African boondoggle. Maybe Chris Reitsma and Paul Quantrill should be sitting out after all. Ha ha, I'm just kidding. Reitsma can stay.

Al Leiter, who the Yankees picked up midseason last year as an ace, is another left-handed pitcher who makes lefty batters cringe: in 2005 he only allowed 3 homers against left-handers, had a WHIP of 1.26, with an opponent batting average of 0.250. Yet against Team Canada, he allowed two earned runs on 3 hits and a walk in only 2/3rds of an inning. Huston Street, Scot Shields and Brian Fuentes both held the Canadians scoreless in 3 combined innings, but by then it was too late: only A-Rod, Griffey, Chipper, and Varitek did .400 or better on the game where the best pitcher they faced plays single-A ball. Meanwhile Morneau, Bay, and Stern did .400 or better against two of the best starters in baseball... one a runner-up for the Cy Young award just last year.

Other team America goats? Mark Teixeira has to be a candidate: not only did he go without a single hit on the game (grounded out, reached first on an error, struck out swinging, then grounded out two more times), but he also botched a couple of big plays on first base (miraculously avoiding drawing the error himself), particularly when Stern made it to first just after Leiter took over the game.

Team Canada's dark spots? Corey Koskie's attempt at stealing second with two outs in the sixth inning was probably a bad play. He's not much of a base-stealer: he stole 5 times in 2005 (admittedly the Jays weren't a big small-ball team), only getting caught once. Since '98 he's stolen a total of 70 bases with 34 catches, a 67% success rate. What did John Thorn and Pete Palmer write on the subject in "The Hidden Game of Baseball"?

The stolen base, as indicated in the chapter on the Linear Weights System, is an overrated play, with even the best base stealers contributing few extra runs or wins to their teams. The reason for this is that the break-even point is so high, roughly two steals in three attempts.

What's the exact figure to compare with Koskie's 0.673 stolen base success rate? Well, from "Hidden"'s Table VII,1 - Potential Runs for 24 Base-Out Situtations, a runner on first and two outs is 0.209. Runner on second and two outs is 0.348, with obviously 0.000 for three outs. The P[b]=(V[p]-V[f])/(V[s]-V[f]) formula then punches out the number P[b]=0.209/0.348=0.601. So Koskie's play has a very small measure of success, which has to be balanced against the throwing arm of Jason Varitek, who catches more than a few steals in a year. (Why can I not find those stats online? Argh). Pete Orr also has to take on a bit of goat status: like Koskie, he's a bona-fide major leaguer...he shouldn't have an anemic 0.111 batting average on his teams most important game (even if it wasn't clear until after it was half over). Likewise Matt Stairs with a single hit, his 0.286 average tying him with Pete LaForest. Stubby Clapp, with only 23 games for the Cardinals in 2001 (only 8 of them starting roles), isn't so much a major league powerhouse: still, he should do better than a single hit, though he did end up scoring.

What are the keys to the game against Mexico tomorrow? Pitching for sure. Jeff Francis has to pitch a perfect starter, keep the Mexican big guns off the board. Jorge Cantu, Vinny Castilla, Adrian Gonzalez, and Luis Garcia are potent offensive longball hitters who could leave Canada in the dark early. Quantrill and Reitsma will also have to be on top of their game. If Karim Garcia is healthy, he too will be a deadly opponent: he'll get on base any way he possibly can and let the big guns drive him in. Mario Valenzuela and Erubiel Durazo are the weaker links in the chain, and if Juan Castro and Luis Cruz are shut down by Canada as they were by South Africa, Mexico could be in some trouble. Offensively, Canada will have to try out some power in the first couple inninings against Rodrigo Lopez: the Orioles starter is a dominant right-handed strikeout pitcher who suffers from a fairly high ERA and above-average WHIP. He's calm under pressure though: his WHIP with the bases loaded is 1.20 with a 5.40 ERA and 0.263 opponent batting average, so loading up with singles isn't the answer. The trick is to hit him with the long-ball: he allowed 13 homers and 132 hits against left-handed hitters in 2005, with a 1.46 WHIP. Lopez also had 14 solo homers in total last season, so he can be succeptable to heavy hitters like Stairs and Jason Bay. Put runners in scoring position, you might also have success against him. When Oscar Villarreal comes up to the mound, start up the small ball: put runners in scoring position. Try to draw him into starting off with balls: he gets down in his counts easily and is vulnerable to walks. Most importantly though is get those runners over to second and third. I don't think Geronimo Gil (what an awesome name though) and Miguel Ojeda have particularly good throwing arms, and 2nd baseman Jorge Cantu made 21 errors last season. Put pressure on them early, and give yourself enough of a lead to make their mid-game rally less potent than the two South Africa and America have acheived so far. By the time the seventh inning stretch is started, and you're facing Rincon, you're in a good position to just keep chipping away at them: you won't have to worry much about strikeouts against him, so try to go back to a little bit of power baseball: Stairs, Morneau, and Bay can win you the game and you can leave Pool B the 3-0 victors!

Update, 4:45pm:I do a followup to this post here: fark.com, Seattle MariNerds, and FAN 590 in Toronto all weigh in.