The Baseball Desert

Saturday, October 25, 2003

Old school

Even the most casual observer of this year's postseason games can't fail to have noticed that, beyond the almost constant drama of the games themselves - in fact, almost in counterpoint to it - there is one guy standing out every day off the field: Florida manager Jack McKeon. Thomas Boswell gives us his thoughts on McKeon's 55-year baseball career.

Maybe one of the reasons Jack McKeon has had so much success with this Florida Marlins team is that he puts no pressure on them. When I say pressure, I mean pressure of the George Steinbrenner, it's-either-win-the-World-Series-or-find-a-new-team variety. It's not that McKeon doesn't care - in fact, it's just the opposite - he does care, but what he cares about is players playing the game right and playing it hard. If there's pressure from the fans or from the media, then McKeon acts as a kind of buffer - he takes that pressure away and soaks it up on behalf of his ballclub with his no-bullsh*t, this-is-just-another-game approach. He makes the moves and manages the team, but maybe the single most important thing that McKeon does is simply let his players go out on the field and play their game, and this is why players are willing to accept roles with which they are unfamiliar (Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis are two names which spring to mind).

Tonight in Game 6 we're going to see yet another McKeon Move - he intends to start Josh Beckett on just three days' rest in order to try to deliver the knockout blow the Marlins need. I can see the logic behind his move - the Marlins need only one more win to clinch the Series, so why hold back your #1 pitcher for Game 7 when you can try to clinch it in Game 6? McKeon's options are actually pretty limited - given that Mark Redman has been pretty shaky, the only real options open to McKeon are Beckett or Dontrelle Willis (who has been pitching in relief). Beckett is a 23-year-old with attitude in the same old-school tradition as McKeon, who will probably relish the chance to take the mound in hostile Yankee Stadium and try to prove to everyone that what McKeon has been saying all along - that there's no real difference between three days' rest and four days' rest - is in fact true.

It IS a roll of the dice, a calculated risk, but at the same time, at least McKeon won't be second-guessed on this one. He's played the whole of the postseason as if each game were Game 7 - don't save your best players for a later game - play them now, win this one, and worry about the next one if and when it happens. Were the Marlins to lose tonight, they would have to pitch Carl Pavano tomorrow in Game 7, also on short rest, but at least McKeon will be able to say that they gave it their best shot when they really had the Yankees on the ropes. The Marlins won't get a better chance than tonight to clinch it - even if, on paper, tomorrow's game gives them just as big a chance to clinch it, it's not quite as simple. The Yankees, though they say they're not panicking, are somewhat in disarray - they're one game away from losing the World Series, but a Yankee win tonight would once again shift momentum in their favour. The Marlins may be loose and relaxed, but not even these guys could fail to be fazed by a Game 7 in Yankee Stadium. I'm not saying that they couldn't win under those circumstances - the season has proved that they can win under pretty much any circumstances - but it would be harder to win tomorrow night than tonight. (Of course, you could easily argue that McKeon is making a big mistake going with Beckett tonight, as David Pinto does over at Baseball Musings...).

Whatever your thoughts on McKeon's decision, tonight will see a battle between two Texans - Beckett and Andy Pettitte. Pettitte has been the guy who has come through for the Yankees every time he has had to this postseason, so it promises to be a great matchup. I can't wait. I think I'm probably secretly longing for a Game 7, because this Series - and the postseason as a whole - almost deserves a seventh game, but I think that this Game 6 pitching matchup promises to be something special. Miss it at your peril...