Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Driving a Wedge

When a team gags on a 3-1 series lead the way the Indians just did, index fingers start arrowing the blame around. It's unavoidable.

Playoff series don't just choke themselves away. When a team crashes and burns so spectacularly as to be outscored 30-5 in the final three games, there are a police lineup's worth of culprits.

A number of suspects have already been rounded up: C.C. Sabathia, who is charged with (poorly) impersonating a staff ace. Fausto Carmona, the the Tired-Armed Bandit. Travis Hafner, who is wanted for lack of assault with a deadly weapon.

There is Joel "Stop Sign" Skinner, Kenny "The Hustler" Lofton and Casey "The Swinger" Blake.

Watching it all unfold before him, unmoved except for the occasional utterance to hitting coach Derek Shelton, was Eric Wedge. Curiously, Cleveland's own Teflon Don has been hit with very little public backlash for the embarrassment his team just caused a city that is already way too familiar with sports humiliation.

You could very well make a case that Wedge was as much of a hapless bystander as the fans were. After all, he can't hit, pitch or field for his players. The players ultimately win or lose the games and series.

It wouldn't be that hard of an argument to accept, if not for the fact that this has happened to a Wedge team before.

Flash back to 2005. The final week of the season. Indians poised to clinch the wild card, maybe even stun the White Sox and nab the division. The bottom-feeding Devil Rays in town.

Is it all coming back to you? A 1-6 record over the last seven games? Losing out on the playoffs on the last day of the season?

Like the '07 Tribe, that team had a chance to do some serious damage armed with a postseason berth. They had the best bullpen in the American League, the AL ERA champ in postseason-tested Kevin Millwood and a Pronk who was actually hitting the ball well.

Like the '07 Tribe, that team entered the time frame in question with a lead and needed to do far less to clinch than the other wild-card contender -- which also happened to be Boston.

Like the '07 Tribe, that team didn't just crumble under pressure. They collapsed, first panicking and ultimately disintegrating right before our very eyes.

This year's team was supposed to make up for that collapse. Instead, it was Flameout Version 2.0.

There are plenty of common denominators between the two teams, so it's probably wrong to accuse Wedge of being the sole author of both implosions. But I'm really curious to know what Wedge's answer would be to the question, "How do you explain two of the worst late-season collapses in franchise history in the span of three years?"

It has moved from an isolated incident to a trend: Eric Wedge's teams become unglued at the worst possible times. You can even include 2004, when the Indians fought back into contention in August, only to immediately regress with a nine-game losing streak.

Only the guys in the clubhouse know what the real story is, but from where I sit, it looks like Wedge has trouble transitioning his leadership style from the marathon of a season to the sprint of pennant races and playoff series.

Wedge is the master of promoting clubhouse stability. He clings to the grind-it-out mentality like it's gospel. Don't get too high, don't get too low, take it one game at a time. It's an approach that is generally successful, tailored to the six-month march of a baseball season.

But the environment changes radically once the postseason begins. Suddenly, "We'll get them tomorrow" becomes less and less of an option following a loss. Suddenly, the pressure to win becomes like a python squeezing the blood out of your neck. Emotions take over, momentum swings are sudden and violent, and even the most experienced veteran players start to press.

When emotions take over and seasons are determined in the span of days, not weeks or months, Wedge seems to fall out of his element. His club can look downright rudderless without effective leadership, especially when the other team issues a challenge as the Red Sox did by winning Game 5.

Wedge is still a young manager. His leadership style is far from perfected. But for now, Wedge looks incapable of adapting his team to deal with adversity in the high-pressure, emotionally-charged environment of the playoffs. When calm, cool and collected doesn't work, nothing works.

If Wedge wants to last as a manager at the major league level, these late-season disasters can't keep happening. Indians management might appreciate Wedge's businesslike approach to his job, but nobody is going to remember his grind-it-out mentality if it simply translates to routine failure in September and October.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Erik:

You're full of shit.

Zach said...

Don't ya just love anonymous comments? I bet that was Casey Blake.

Anyway, it gets difficult at this point to blame one but not all. After 162 games, teams enter a strange playoff season which renders the regular season practically meaningless.

If life were fair, you would separate the regular and postseason when deciding how to judge a manager.

But life isn't fair. If we are to give Wedge credit for the regular season and the first round of the postseason, we must also see his struggles when things get dicey.

And let's be realistic: Wedge earned his salary twice over this year by keeping this team together. But in the expectation of a world championship, he came up short.

The point? Wedge was great most of the time, questionable when it was most vital. It will be enough to secure him in this environment. Should he eventually be lured elsewhere, that might not be the case.

Erik said...

Anonymous:

You have no balls. If you're a woman, you have cellulite and look terrible in a bathing suit.

Zach:

I think, unlike some people, you understand the point of the column. Wedge is a good manager 95 percent of the time. He proved that this year. But that other five percent occurs when the spotlight is the brightest, and that's what he'll be remembered for.

If these September/October failures keep happening, pretty soon it won't just be me blogging, and defending Wedge won't be as simple as leaving snippy comments on my blog or sending me hate-mail. It will be ESPN and Fox picking up the "What's wrong with Eric Wedge?" flag.

I want Wedge to succeed as a manager. That's why I'm hoping he figures out how to stop these collapses from occurring. Any manager, no matter how much the front office likes him, can only endure so many of these before he gets replaced.

ballsy said...

Uh, Erik, I can assure you that I indeed have balls. Rather nice ones, my wife tells me.

What I didn't have a lot of was time before I made my original comment, so I just pressed the Anonymous option and, evidentally, your button as well.

My virility notwithstanding, I still think you're full of shit. Your points are so forced, so contrived and convoluted, I just might break my nice balls trying to convince you they are.

Erik said...

Anonymous/ballsy/whatever:

No, I think you were trying to hide behind the "anonymous" option so you could hurl insults without any fear of being held accountable.

Disagree with my column. That's fine. I encourage constructive, topical debate. What I don't encourage is people like you who resort to spewing mindless swear words and polluting my (or anyone else's, for that matter) blog.

The fact that you're old enough to be married is a bit disconcerting. I was hoping you were just some 14-year-old with too much time on your hands. But apparently, you're old enough to act more maturely. So give it a try, won't you?

Scott said...

yeah I can't stand it when people act that way. grow up ballsy.

linda h. said...

I don't have much of an opinion on the column one way or the other, but Erik is right about Mr. Ballsy. What would your wife say if she knew you were acting like this? It's childish.

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