Friday, October 25, 2013

NC State And The College World Series: The Sequel?

NC State took 45 years after its first trip to the College World Series to make a return trip to Omaha a year ago. The plan in West Raleigh is to reduce the gap between trips two and three to just 12 months.

That’s certainly an attainable goal. The Wolfpack returns a talented and experienced nucleus from last year’s CWS team, led by All-Americans Carlos Rodon and Trea Turner. Rodon (10-3, 2.99 ERA, a nation-high and school-record 184 strikeouts in 132 ⅓ innings) and Turner (.368/.455/.553 with 13 doubles, seven home runs and 30 steals while playing most of the season on a broken ankle) are elite talents at critical positions — starting pitcher and shortstop, respectively. Both figure to be taken high in the first round of the 2014 MLB draft, with Rodon the likely first overall pick.

Beyond those two, center fielder Jake Fincher (.313/.399/.553 with 14 steals), catcher Brett Austin (.251/.333/.361) and second baseman Logan Ratledge (.250/.309/.307) return to provide veteran leadership and production up the middle. Fincher, Austin and Ratledge, like Rodon and Turner, are juniors and should figure prominently in scouts’ plans for the 2014 draft.

That nucleus alone is reason for optimism as 2014 approaches, but the Wolfpack has its question marks as well. In particular, how well can head coach Elliott Avent navigate the 2014 schedule without the incredible bullpen that pulled State’s fat out of the fire time after time a year ago?

How good was NC State’s bullpen in 2013? Consider: During one 18-game stretch, from March 1-27, Wolfpack starting pitchers failed to pitch the required five innings to qualify for a win 14 times. They failed to get out of the fourth inning 11 times, and failed to get out of the second inning nine times. The average outing by a starter in that stretch was less than three innings. NC State went 10-8 in those games. In games in that stretch not started by Rodon, the Pack was 8-6. That’s how good the Wolfpack bullpen was.

NC State’s bullpen was deep, versatile and talented. For the season, Wolfpack relievers were 31-5 with a 2.57 ERA and 19 saves. In 315 innings — approximately 4 ⅔ innings per game — they limited opposing hitters to a .210 batting average. Lefthander Grant Sasser (3-0, 1.03, 8 saves) and righthander Chris Overman (1-1, 0.33, 6 saves) anchored the back end of the pen and were money in the bank all year. Opponents batted .193 against Sasser, .110 against Overman. Setting up those two, Josh Easley was 7-2 with a 1.31 ERA and a save. He held opponents to a .228 average.

It wasn’t just those three. Andrew Woeck (6-1, 3.09) and Ryan Wilkins (4-1, 3.82) came up huge in long relief roles. Travis Orwig (3-0, 1.56) and D.J. Thomas (2-0, 2.89) were reliable lefty specialists. Ethan Ogburn was 2-0 and didn’t allow a run in 11 relief innings covering three outings, including the Super Regional-clinching victory over Rice. Whenever NC State’s starters got in trouble, which was almost every time Rodon didn’t pitch, or so it seemed, Avent was able to go to the bullpen and shut the other team down cold.

Not this year. Overman, Sasser, Easley, Ogburn and Wilkins all were seniors. Orwig had Tommy John surgery after the season and will not pitch in 2014. Woeck and Thomas are all that remain from that group, and both could wind up as midweek starters, a situation still to be determined.

The candidates to fill the many empty spots in this year’s bullpen are largely untested. True freshmen Ryan Williamson, Joe O’Donnell, Cody Beckman and Cory Wilder all came highly touted, but are untested freshmen. Ditto for redshirt-freshman Johnny Piedmonte. Sophomores Brian Donovan, Will Gilbert, Karl Keglovits and Jon Olczak combined to pitch 30 ⅔ innings in 2013.

Replacing seniors with freshmen and seldom-used sophomores is a tried and true way to keep coaches awake at night, but that’s the life Avent will have to lead this season. The less he exposes his bullpen with the game on the line, the better NC State’s chances of success. And the best way to protect his bullpen is for the starting pitchers to pitch deeper into games and for the everyday lineup to score more runs.

We’ll exempt Rodon from this discussion. He was not the problem. A two-time first-team All-American and the early favorite to win the 2014 Golden Spikes Award, Rodon is already the best pitcher in the country, and could be pitching in the big leagues before the season is over. It’s the rest of the rotation that Avent will have to worry about.

Logan Jernigan, a strong-armed but erratic junior righthander, was 1-1 with a most-deceptive 1.56 ERA last season. A potential high-round draft pick this coming June, he began 2013 in the weekend rotation and promptly pitched his way out of it. Despite a great arm and raw stuff comparable to Rodon’s, Jernigan’s failure to throw strikes dogged him early in the season. After failing to pitch out of the first inning of a start March 19 vs. UNC Greensboro, he challenged a cement wall in the clubhouse to a fistfight. The wall won, Jernigan broke his pitching hand, and Avent was short a starting pitcher for about five weeks.

Jernigan returned a humbled and noticeably wiser pitcher. Instead of trying to throw the ball through the catcher, umpire and backstop, he concentrated on making quality pitches. When he got in trouble, he threw softer instead of harder. Avent limited Jernigan’s innings as he made his way back from the injury, allowing him to ease into a more prominent role as the season went along. He responded with a 2.70 ERA in 13 ⅓ postseason innings, including an excellent start against eventual national champion UCLA in the College World Series. He limited hitters to a .196 batting average during the postseason.

Jernigan pitched this past summer at Harwich of the Cape Cod League and continued to harness his control and add polish to his game. It’s still something of a work in progress, but his command was better this fall than at anytime during his college career. If he continues that in the spring, the combination of Rodon and Jernigan will give NC State a 1-2 starting punch as good as, if not better than, any in the nation.

Freshman lefthander Brad Stone (3-2, 5.49) moved into the starting rotation March 10 in the finale of the Clemson series and steadily improved as the season progressed. He fashioned a 2.77 ERA in 13 postseason innings over three appearances, two of them starts. His stuff doesn’t overwhelm hitters the way Rodon or Jernigan’s do, but he keeps hitters off balance with a good assortment of pitches. He struck out 60 in 60 ⅔ innings and limited hitters to a .234 average. He was second on the staff in starts (13), innings pitched and strikeouts.

With a week remaining in fall practice, Rodon, Jernigan and Stone looked like an outstanding weekend rotation. The midweek spots were another story, with all the aforementioned bullpen candidates also hoping for a chance to start. That narrative most likely will have to wait until preseason practices open in February.

Scoring more runs shouldn’t be a problem either. In fact, it’s hard to imagine NC State scoring fewer runs than it did in 2013. The Wolfpack batted an anemic .277 as a team last spring, scored just 5.3 runs per game, and slugged just 29 home runs, fewest by a Wolfpack team in more than 30 years. This year’s team doesn’t figure to be power-laden either, but the returning nucleus of juniors, augmented by several newcomers and improved veterans, should have no trouble putting more runs on the board.

The best news is that Turner looks fully recovered from the broken ankle, which bothered him all spring and summer, and into the fall. He still had an All-America season but prior to the injury, suffered on the last play of the first conference game of the season, March 8 vs. Clemson, Turner was playing at a level that would have had him in the running for the Golden Spikes Award. For those old enough to remember, think Nomar Garciaparra at Georgia Tech in 1994, only with plus speed. The injury robbed Turner of much of that elite speed — he stole 56 bases as a freshman to lead the nation — and his defensive mobility, especially on plays to his right. He wasn’t the same player after the injury. With a week left of fall practice, he looked fully recovered, and that’s extremely bad news for the rest of the ACC.

Outfielder Bubby Riley, a transfer from Delgado Community College in New Orleans, has hit the ball with authority all fall. He’ll play left or right field. Chance Shepard, a sophomore catcher and outfielder, was the most improved player on the squad through late October, hitting for average and power. Sophomore outfielders Brian Taylor and Will Nance also showed flashes of power at the plate. With a strong veteran nucleus around them, true freshmen Preston Palmeiro and Andrew Knizner — the front-runners at first and third base, respectively — can develop at their own pace without any pressure to carry the team. Both look perfectly at home on a baseball field and should hit more than well enough to stay in the lineup.

The bullpen is an enormous concern, and it should be. There is, however, abundant reason for optimism at Doak Field. If Jernigan, Stone and the everyday lineup are as improved as they appear to be, NC State will feature strong starting pitching, speed up and down the lineup, adequate power in the middle of the order, and strong defense up the middle of the diamond. In other words, this team could be every bit as strong as the one that finished fifth in the nation and broke NC State’s 45-year College World Series drought.

Monday, October 21, 2013

End Of An Era In Detroit: Don’t Blame Jim Leyland

Detroit’s ugly exit from the 2013 American League Championship Series no doubt caused some of the faithful to second-guess manager Jim Leyland, especially some of the late-inning moves he made with his bullpen. But let’s be fair. Leyland, who retired as manager today after a terrific career that included eight exceptional seasons with the Tigers, didn’t exactly have many good options in that bullpen. In fact, he really didn’t have any. Detroit’s bullpen stunk.

The autopsy of the 2013 Detroit Tigers should conclude with two questions:

1.) How do you spend $150 million in payroll on a Major League Baseball team and decide somehow that you don’t need to spend any of that on a bullpen?

2.) Who makes such a decision and thinks it’s a good idea?

Not the manager, that’s for sure. The answer to both questions is general manager Dave Dombrowski, an accomplished and highly respected baseball executive whose feet nonetheless should be held to the fire for the makeup of Detroit’s relief corps. Tigers closer Joaquin Benoit won’t be mistaken for Mariano Rivera anytime soon, yet he was easily their best reliever. The dropoff after Benoit was immense. If the Tigers had just two competent relievers to pitch the seventh and eighth innings and bridge the gap between their other-worldly starters and the often-shaky Benoit in the ninth, then St. Louis would be heading to Detroit and not Boston for Game 1 of the World Series.

The bullpen wasn’t the only glitch in the construction of the Detroit roster. The Tigers’ everyday lineup had to be the oldest and least athletic in all of baseball. Aside from shortstop Jose Iglesias, acquired from Boston at the trade deadline July 31, and center fielder Austin Jackson, the Tigers are slow and plodding. And aging.

Third baseman Miguel Cabrera, the best hitter in the game, is an unathletic 30 years old. He limped down the homestretch with some sort of leg or hip injury that serious compromised his production, and went 11-for-42 in the Tigers’ two postseason series, homering twice and driving in seven runs.

Right fielder Torri Hunter, 38 years old, was 9-for-45 with two RBIs in two postseason series. Second baseman Omar Infante was 8-for-39 and looked every one of his 31 years. Slugging first baseman Prince Fielder — 29 years old but going on 39, at least 50 pounds overweight and as nimble as a three-legged elephant — went 9-for-40 in two postseason series without an RBI or a home run.

In fairness, it should be noted that Detroit got production from two of its aging hitters. Designated hitter Victor Martinez, now 34, was 17-for-42 in the postseason with four doubles and a home run. Shortstop turned outfielder Jhonny Peralta, 31, served a 50-game sentence for his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal, but returned for the playoffs and was 11-for-33 with four doubles and a homer. And that was it. The rest of the Detroit offense was thoroughly punchless.

Given the makeup of an awful bullpen and a broken-down lineup, Leyland did a terrific job managing this team as far as he did. Sure, he had the best starting pitching in the American League, and starting pitching wins in October. But he also had a bad bullpen and a station-to-station offense that didn’t hit. Bad bullpens lose in October. So do slow lineups that fail to keep the line moving. The Tigers were fatally flawed and none of that was Leyland’s fault.

In eight years in Detroit, Leyland managed the Tigers to a pair of World Series. He might have won both if his team hadn’t clinched the ALCS so quickly. While the Cardinals in 2006 and the Giants a year ago played out a full slate in the NLCS and went into the World Series with momentum, the Tigers spent nearly a week each time sitting, watching and growing stale from inactivity. No amount batting practice, simulated games or scrimmages against your instructional league team can make up for not playing real games. The Tigers paid for it both times. Maybe they’d have lost anyway, but after buzzing through the ALCS without breaking a sweat either year, Detroit came out flat, played horribly in both World Series and got blown out.

Jim Leyland’s legacy in Detroit should have nothing to do with losing the 2006 or 2012 World Series, or the 2013 ALCS. Leyland should be remembered as the guy who took over an awful team and immediately made it a winner. In the three years before he took over as skipper in 2006, the Tigers lost an average of 100 games a year, including a horrific 43-119 season in 2003. They went 95-67 his first year. The Tigers had one losing season under Leyland, won three division championships and came within a game of first place twice. They averaged 88 wins a year and won a pair of American League pennants.

His eight years compare favorably with the best managerial performances in franchise history. That, and not this year’s ALCS flameout, should be Jim Leyland’s legacy in Detroit.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Reviews: McCartney’s New; The Band Live At The Academy Of Music

You can make a pretty convincing argument that no artist of his generation has made as much inconsequential music as Paul McCartney has in his post-Beatles career. It’s almost inconceivable, in fact, that a musician of his talent and stature could mix near-classics such as Ram and Band On The Run with birdcage liner like Wings Wild Life, Wings At The Speed Of Sound, Back To The Egg, Pipes Of Peace, and Give My Regards To Broad Street.

You can make an equally convincing argument that since 1997, McCartney has recorded some of the most impressive and creative music of his solo career, long after a great many Beatles fans stopped paying attention. Beginning with Flaming Pie in ’97, McCartney has been on a creative roll that includes such four- and five-star highlights as 2005’s Chaos And Creation In The Backyard, 2007’s Memory Almost Full, and 2008’s Electric Arguments, by his alter ego band, The Fireman. Ever creative and experimental, McCartney also has strayed from the beaten path with pleasing results, especially on Electric Arguments, the oldies rocker Run Devil Run in 1998, and the American Songbook collection Kisses On The Bottom a year ago. His latest album, New, released earlier this week, could rank as the best record of this late-life McCartney renaissance.

For New, his first album of new rock material in six years, McCartney employed four young, contemporary producers — Paul Epworth (Adele), Mark Ronson (Amy Winehouse), Giles Martin (son of legendary Beatles producer George Martin), and Ethan Johns (son of Glyn Johns, who produced Let It Be before it was given to Phil Spector to butcher) — and the result is a contemporary album that sounds more vintage than new.

New crackles with energy. The love songs are anything but silly, the rockers have bite and kick, and the lyrics have unusual heft and depth. Of particular note, several songs on New harken back to McCartney’s days with the Beatles. Two jump out right away on first listen. The hook-laden toe-tapper of a title track bounces along like a modern-day “Penny Lane” with some tasty Beach Boys doo-wop thrown into the coda for good measure. “Early Days,” on the other hand, is a wistful look back at McCartney’s early musical partnership with John Lennon. McCartney is 71 now and at times his voice sounds frail, especially on this track’s many falsetto passages, but he wears it well. “Early Days” is a memorable track.

“Early Days” also is a bit of an admonishment to all those revisionist historians who’ve tried to denigrate McCartney’s true role in the Beatles. That revisionist history took on a life of its own after Lennon was murdered in December 1980. McCartney had to deal with it for decades afterwards as Lennon was needlessly exalted as a musical saint while McCartney was derided as unworthy, a usurper of Lennon’s great gifts. It had all the unbelievable elements of an Ayn Rand novel, but thousands of intellectual lightweights swear by Rand, and millions of serious music fans bought into the "Lennon was the Beatles" theory.

To prove McCartney’s unworthiness, the Lennonistas skewered his solo career for not measuring up to his legendary work with the Beatles. Well, of course it doesn’t measure up. What did you expect? The same can be said of Lennon’s solo output. In fact, the only Beatle who ever made an album that surpassed his work with the Fabs was George Harrison, whose first post-Beatles release, All Things Must Pass, will stand forever as the greatest Beatles solo album. George’s solo career was every bit as uneven as McCartney’s or Lennon’s, and he never approached the quality of All Things Must Pass again. Neither Lennon nor McCartney ever reached that height as a solo performer in the first place.

New is not the Beatles and not as good as the Beatles, nor was it intended to be. It will, however, remind you in places of the Beatles, and McCartney is the one person left on the planet with the musical credibility to pull that off. Even when New veers away from the Beatles references, it’s still a challenging and compelling listen. Even at 71, McCartney is still producing excellent music. Based on his track record of the last two decades, New should not be overlooked.

By the way, if you’re a Beatles fan and you’ve never seen McCartney in concert, do yourself a huge favor and go. He tours constantly so opportunity shouldn’t be an issue. His voice isn’t quite what it was 10 years ago, but he can still hit the note and can still carry a song. His touring band is fantastic, easily the second-best band he’s ever played with. His shows routinely last nearly three hours, without an intermission. Best of all, the set list is about two-thirds Beatles classics. It’s a high-energy, life-changing experience.

* * *

The Band was probably North America’s greatest rock group. Their first two albums, Music From Big Pink and The Band, rank among rock’s most iconic recordings. Blessed with three incredible lead singers and tempered by about a decade of constant touring, first as Ronnie Hawkins’ touring band and later as Levon and the Hawks, the Band was without equal on stage.

In 1972, they released their live masterpiece, Rock Of Ages, recorded the week of Dec. 28-31, 1971, at New York City’s Academy of Music. Exquisitely performed and recorded, and featuring a horn section comprised of some of New York's finest jazz musicians, Rock Of Ages ranks among rock’s all-time great live records, right up there with At The Fillmore East by the Allman Brothers Band, Get Yer Ya-Yas Out by the Rolling Stones, Live Rust by Neil Young and Crazy Horse, and Live At Leeds by the Who, to name a few. When the expanded deluxe edition of Rock Of Ages came out in 2001, an impossibly great album became impossibly perfect.

Or so it seemed.

Robbie Robertson, guitarist and self-proclaimed leader of the Band, always loved the performances but never cared for the sound on Rock of Ages, so he, his son Sebastian, and collaborators Bob Clearmountain and Jon Castelli went back and remixed and remastered every track from all four shows. The result is a stunning new five-disc box set, The Band Live At The Academy Of Music 1971.

The set’s first two discs include what the producers believe to be the best performance of each song the Band played during their four-night stand at the Academy. The third and fourth discs are the complete New Year’s Eve show, uncut and uninterrupted. The fifth disc is a DVD of 27 video tracks, two of them previously unreleased. The box set also includes a 48-page hardcover book and retails for a rather pricey $99. Luckily, the first two discs were released as a two-disc package for $20, a tremendous bargain that comes highly recommended.

The sound on The Band Live At The Academy Of Music 1971 is shocking, a significant and wholly unexpected improvement over Rock Of Ages. The performances on the two-disc set are not all the same as those used for Rock Of Ages — many are significantly better — but all are timeless masterworks of one of the great rock units of our time.

By the way, those of you who believe The Last Waltz to be the Band’s great live album, you clearly haven’t been paying attention. The Last Waltz was a great event and made for an interesting movie, but the Band was beset by internal problems by that point. In particular, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson were at loggerheads with Robertson over numerous issues, from songwriting credits and royalties to Robertson’s unilateral decision to stop touring and effectively break up the group. The mood within the band was acrimonious, and the plethora of guest performers on The Last Waltz was a distraction, not an enhancement.

The 1971 concerts at the Academy of Music, on the other hand, marked the end of a truly great era for the Band. They didn’t play live again for more than a year and didn’t release another album of original material until 1975’s Northern Lights-Southern Cross. They were never the same. Drugs, alcohol and group in-fighting took a steep toll, and that toll was clearly evident by The Last Waltz.

Live At The Academy Of Music 1971, by comparison, is the Band at their very best.
And their very best was very great, indeed.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Mattingly Leaves ‘Em Scratching Their Heads In Atlanta

Without question, the number one qualification necessary for a baseball manager is not game strategy but the ability to manage people.

A manager has to create an atmosphere in the clubhouse that allows his players to relax, be themselves and perform on the field. He has to have his players’ backs and shield them from the media and the front office, and above all he has to have their trust. That’s the formula Joe Torre brought to The Bronx as manager of the New York Yankees in 1996. Torre’s deft handling his clubhouse and the way he served as a shield from egomaniacal owner George Steinbrenner and the cannibalistic New York media allowed a talented but underachieving roster to become a championship dynasty.

Others have followed in the Torre mold, including Terry Francona in Boston and Cleveland; Charlie Manuel in Philadelphia; Davey Johnson in New York with the Mets, in Baltimore and Washington; Clint Hurdle in Pittsburgh; Ron Washington in Texas; to name but a few. Each of the aforementioned has been second-guessed about game strategy at one time or another, but each turned difficult clubhouses into peaceful workplaces for their players, who responded by playing championship-caliber baseball. That’s not a coincidence.

Game strategy ranks a distant second. If X’s and O’s mattered more than managing the clubhouse, Bobby Valentine would be a Hall of Famer instead of a serial train wreck. At some point, though, every manager has to make crucial decisions during the course of a game, decisions that can lead directly to wins or losses. At what point does a lack of strategic acumen become a detriment?

That is the question to ponder when considering the curious case of Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly. Mattingly has a big reputation as a calming influence in the clubhouse. He steered the team through a turbulent first two months of the season as a raft of injured players returned to the lineup. His players seem to recognize his steady hand and love playing for him because of it. Suffice it to say, however, that Game 2 of the National League Division Series in Atlanta was not Donnie Softball’s greatest moment as a big league skipper.

In three seasons as manager in LA, Mattingly’s in-game moves have left many observers scratching their heads in wonder. Opposing skippers have managed circles around him at times, especially Bruce Bochy of the rival San Francisco Giants. No one, however, ever played Mattingly the way the Atlanta Braves’ Fredi Gonzalez did Friday night in a crucial, series-tying 4-3 victory for the Braves.

Let’s start by establishing that the Braves may well have won this game without Mattingly’s assistance. After falling apart like a state-fair kitchen appliance on Thursday, the Bravos played a superb game Friday night, especially defensively and on the mound. Starting pitcher Mike Minor outdueled Dodgers ace righthander Zach Greinke, and Atlanta nursed a 2-1 lead into the seventh inning.

The game got away from the Dodgers in the seventh. Almost without trying, Gonzalez maneuvered Mattingly into forsaking two very favorable pitcher-hitter matchups in order to get a left-on-left matchup against Jason Heyward, one of the most dangerous hitters in the Atlanta lineup. Mattingly could have had hard-throwing righthander Chris Withrow — who came into October on a roll — pitch to Jose Constanza. That’s right, THE Jose Constanza. Perhaps thinking the lefty-hitting Constanza was Roger Maris circa 1961, Mattingly immediately went to his bullpen for struggling lefthander Paco Rodriguez. Gonzalez responded by yanking Constanza in favor of Reed Johnson, a righthanded hitter. This time, Mattingly apparently mistook the banjo-hitting Johnson for Mickey Mantle and had Rodriguez intentionally walk him to load the bases for Heyward. Predictably, Heyward hit a two-run single up the middle for a 4-1 lead, ballgame.

Opposing managers should drool at the thought of facing Constanza or Johnson in a big situation. Mattingly got them both to the plate in the same inning — the same at-bat, no less! — of a postseason game, and passed on both to face Heyward. With the bases loaded. All because he wanted a left-on-left matchup.


In 236 career plate appearances, Constanza has a .278 batting average with six extra-base hits. In 2013, he batted .258 with no walks, no extra-base hits, no nothing, in 31 plate appearances. Johnson, an 11-year veteran and a .282 career hitter, also was a non-entity in 2013, hitting .244 with eight extra-base hits and 11 RBIs in 136 trips.

Heyward had an up-and-down season and missed a month after taking a fastball in the face in August, but he is a dangerous hitter with a bunch of power — 99 doubles, 73 homers and a career .443 slugging percentage in less than four full seasons. He hit 22 doubles and 14 homers in 104 games in 2013.

The Dodgers entered this series heavily favored and still hold the upper hand, with two of the remaining three games in Los Angeles and Clayton Kershaw — the best pitcher on the planet — waiting as a fallback should the series go all the way to a fifth game in Atlanta. After facing Kershaw and Greinke, possibly the two best starters in the NL, the first two games, the pitching matchups are much more even for Atlanta in Games 3 and 4 at Dodger Stadium. Normally the road team wants a split in the first two games of a series. All things considered, the Braves had to feel good going to the West Coast with a split at home.

The Braves might have won Game 2 anyway, but the giftwrapping, complete with greeting card, ribbons and a big bow, were compliments of Don Mattingly.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Braves Outfield Does The Puig

From the time he was called up from the minors on June 3, Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig has astounded observers with his Bo Jackson-esque physique and physical skill-set. The 22-year-old Cuban defector can pretty much do it all, a proverbial five-tool player, and all five tools are well above big-league average.

As gifted as Puig is, however, he also has displayed an alarming lack of fundamental polish, compounded by an exuberant playing style that at times causes him to try to do too much. He’s thrown out baserunners at third and home with his cannon arm, but he’s also overthrown cutoff men and given opponents extra bases. He’s gone from first to third effortlessly on routine grounders through the infield, but he’s also run into outs and run his team out of innings by taking dumb chances. He’s run down balls in the gaps with seemingly impossible diving catches, but he’s also run over teammates in the outfield, teammates much better positioned to make the catch and calling for the ball all the way. They've learned to get out of the way when they hear him coming, but that's hardly the solution.

The talk around the Dodgers most of the year was that while Puig didn’t cost them a single regular-season game with his boneheaded plays, things could be much different in the postseason, when the opposition is less forgiving and the games matter so much more.

One game into the postseason doesn’t provide much of a sample size, but it’s ironic that in Game 1 of the National League Division Series against Atlanta, Puig was a central figure in the Dodgers’ 6-1 victory while the Braves outfield committed numerous costly fundamental blunders. Puig had two hits and was hit by a pitch in five plate appearances, scored a run, and doubled a runner off first base on a fly ball to right field.

Meanwhile, Braves outfielders Evan Gattis and Justin Upton both turned singles into extra-base hits by diving after uncatchable balls. Both runners scored. Center fielder Jason Heyward overthrew the cutoff man twice on pointless throws to home plate, allowing runners to advance from first to second base. On both occasions, the runner who advanced into scoring position wound up scoring.

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez attributed the leaky play of his team to being overamped, and that’s understandable. It was the first game of the postseason, the first postseason game for many of his players, and the less-than-sellout crowd (not selling out home playoff games is a longstanding Atlanta tradition) was loud and raucous, at least for the first few innings. Adrian Gonzalez hit a two-out, two-run homer in the top of the third, taking most of the starch out of the home crowd.

It was an inopportune time for the Braves to have a sloppy game. Dodgers lefthander Clayton Kershaw, arguably the best pitcher on the planet and a lead-pipe lock for the NL Cy Young Award, was simply outstanding. Kershaw lost his fastball command in the middle innings, and the Braves hitters, armed with a good game plan, made him work and had his pitch count up to 77 through four innings, to 91 through five.

Having a good game plan and executing it are two different things, however. Kershaw adjusted and went more to his curveball and slider, resulting in 12 strikeouts in seven innings. He fanned nine of the last 11 men he faced. He allowed just three hits and walked three, despite not being able to throw his fastball over the plate consistently. It was a ridiculously impressive performance.

No series is ever decided in one game, and this one is far from over. But the Braves have a tough hill to climb to get back into it. Zack Greinke, very nearly as good as Kershaw this season, is on the mound tonight for Los Angeles. This is not quite a win-or-go-home situation for Atlanta, but the Braves don’t want to go to LA down two games to none. Even if they recover from an 0-2 hole and force a deciding fifth game, Kershaw would be there waiting for them.