Friday, September 28, 2007

the crucible

not the playoffs but the promise of the playoffs is, in my observation, the high test of truth for many a ballclub. baseball, it's said, is an easy game to play and a difficult game to play well; but it is also a nearly impossible game to play under pressure. so much of the game is relaxation, concentration, perseverence, attrition, acceptance -- any and all of which are quickly perverted and compromised with the admittance of even a sliver of doubt and fear. the accumulated weight of six months' sacrifice follows a september ballclub in a playoff race, a carefully hoarded treasure and intense sinking burden, the loss of which is simultaneously unthinkable and fervently hoped for. its pure emotional bulk makes every step hard. having finally made it into october, being freed of the cross, many clubs who had but a week before trudged and scraped and stumbled suddenly play with the fluidity of men reprieved from the gallows. but that is not their test. it is september, not october, is the crucible in which good teams are tested.

i'm not a big fan of modes of analysis that harp constantly on nothing but the metaphysics and psychology of the game and its players. much too much is made of it, in fact, and that in part because the real pressure is rarely on in professional baseball. six month seasons leave considerable margins for error, and the participants know it.

but the waning days of september are different, i think, when you're within a game or three of a playoff spot.

so it should perhaps be no surprise to watch as the chicago cubs try to choke away a divisional race that has been handed to them on a silver platter. being swept by the worst team in the national league in the final week leaves to the imagination only what greater horrors might be conjured in cincinnati in the next three days. but anyone who has been watching for a certain number of years should by now understand that this is how the cubs have pursued virtually every playoff spot. there's hardly room to expect otherwise. hearing about today's losing pitcher and supposed-playoff-ready-veteran-pickup steve trachsel shouting at clubhouse televisions is just the tip of the iceberg as several of these cub players are being forced to find out if they are strong or weak. not all of them are comfortable with the answer.

but it's as little a surprise to watch the young milwaukee brewers fracture under the very same weight. following on a sequence of four games in which manager ned yost -- the theoretical leader of that ballclub, mind you -- absolutely cracked, getting tossed three times in ridiculous and distracting style and doing all he could to narcissistically undermine his team's position, the brewers are as i write in the process of committing four errors in the first four innings, putting ace rookie starter yovani gallardo behind the eight-ball. prince fielder, in the biggest at-bat of his career to date, just grounded out meekly to end the home half of the fifth with the bases loaded, his team trailing 5-2. they are twelve outs through an excellent bullpen from facing the reality that the cubs left the door wide open and they, blinded by pressure, could not even find the doorknob. september is indeed the crucible.

and it isn't over. 1060w gurus ccd and vehere agree with me on a lot of things, which is one of the consequences of spending a lot of time boozing together over many years. one of those many things is that carlos zambrano is generally not a good pressure pitcher. he put in his worst month of the season in september of 2003, and was generally shelled in three postseason starts that fateful autumn. down to the awful wire in 2004, he pitched well until faced with true crisis on october 2 (though that collapse can hardly be hung on him). "volatile" doesn't quite do justice to the man at work, and the quiet desperation that almost certainly set in on the flight to cincinnati is little less than an open-channel amplifier buzzing in his agitated ear from now until gametime. much of how he performs tomorrow will be a function of how he deals with the sublime admixture of energy and panic that supercharges these kinds of games.

i've personally rarely found a kind word to say about zambrano's manner and the state of arrested development from which it springs. indeed, i think he's almost ideally suited to disappoint under such circumstances; the only thing that would likely be worse would be playing at home in front of wrigley's rowdies. but i'd desperately like to see him teach me a little something about his capacity to handle the electricity of september, and finally get the cubs a leg up and out of this crucible with something to play for.

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