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Rangers better hope Vlad doesn't get lost
Vladimir Guerrero can play right field. We know that. In his finest summers at Stade Olympique, he finished with 15 outfield assists. As recently as two years ago, he was an everyday outfielder for the Los Angeles Angels. He is not that anymore.
Guerrero is the designated hitter for the Texas Rangers. The American League champion Texas Rangers. Having said that, it’s time to consider everyone’s favorite October question: What should the AL manager do in the NL park?
Sometimes, the answer is clear.
Last year, Hideki Matsui’s surgically repaired knees didn’t allow him to play in the outfield. Joe Girardi had to use him as a pinch hitter during the middle three games. No problem. Matsui batted .615 and was named World Series MVP.
This year, we have a second-guesser’s delight.
Texas manager Ron Washington said Monday that Guerrero will be his starting right fielder in Game 1 -- and also Game 2, “if everything goes well.”
I get it. Guerrero had the clutch hit in the clinching game of the American League Championship Series. He’s a nine-time All-Star. He’s the cleanup hitter. Take him out of the lineup, and a lot of people will be hitting higher than they should. The World Series is a lousy time to ask that players assume greater responsibility.
But I keep imagining this: At twilight, a ball jumps off the bat and carries to the wall in right . . . It rattles around one of the arches . . . It kicks past the out-of-town scoreboard and toward the corner . . . It bounces over Guerrero’s glove . . . The Ball Dude laughs . . . Orange towels wave like mad . . . And Pablo Sandoval belly flops onto home plate with the goofiest inside-the-parker in World Series history.
Think it’s impossible? Then I’m guessing you (a) have not witnessed a baseball game at AT&T Park and (b) forgot about Ichiro Suzuki’s rollin’, bouncin’ homer in the 2007 All-Star Game.
The issue isn’t whether Guerrero can play right field. He can. He made 15 starts there during the regular season. The question is whether he can play this right field, in the most important games of the year.
Forget “Vlad vs. Tim Lincecum” and “Vlad vs. Matt Cain.” The matchup of the series is “Vlad vs. The Bricks.” From a distance, the bayfront panorama looks like a painting. Up close, it’s a blocky hodgepodge.
“There’s the flat part, where (the ball) kind of hits and stops,” observed Nate Schierholtz, the Giants outfielder whose right-field expertise is valuable in the late innings. “The bricks. The chain-link fence. A couple others. There’s probably five different materials out there.”
Washington acknowledged that right field at AT&T Park is “very challenging, with all the different crevices they got out there.” Then he added with a smile: “Hopefully our pitchers keep the balls from getting out there. Then we won’t have to worry about it.”
The Rangers will probably start left-handers Cliff Lee and C.J. Wilson in the first two games. That should help. When the Giants’ right-handed hitters make contact, they may pull a large percentage of balls toward the left side. Texas will hope that Guerrero sees only a handful of chances, all routine flies.
One potential problem: Routine flies are rare in front of the Cove.
“It’s just different,” Schierholtz observed, when asked to compare AT&T’s right field to that of other parks. “You never know. In a series, you might get no balls off the wall, or a handful. The tricky part is the different dimensions of the wall and the bricks -- also the wind and weather. No matter how much you work on it, you can’t predict where it’s going to go.”
That’s how Schierholtz ended up with an inside-the-park home run of his own, against Oakland last year.
“A weird carom,” he explained.
As a general rule, home-field advantage isn’t determinant in the baseball postseason. But in this case, the Giants might want to mail Brian McCann some gift certificates for a nice Italian place in North Beach. Three months after the fact, his bases-clearing double in the All-Star Game means the NL team will host Game 1 for only the fifth time since 1995.
Recent evidence -- albeit in a small sample size -- suggests that it isn’t easy for AL teams to open a Fall Classic without their DH. The ’95 Braves, ’97 Marlins and ’01 Diamondbacks went a combined 5-1 at home in the first two games of their Series. All three went on to win. (The ’99 Braves, swept by the Yankees, went against the trend.)
“It’s something you know going in, and you try to plan for it, but your club isn’t built for the NL game,” said Mike Hargrove, whose Cleveland Indians lost -- on the road -- in ’95 and ’97.
“It’s like the Rangers. They’re going to play Guerrero in the outfield. That hurts their defense. How bad does it hurt? I don’t know. Guerrero at one time was a good right fielder, but he does have some age on him now.”
Texas will hope to get a early lead and replace Guerrero with David Murphy or Jeff Francoeur in the late innings. And the Rangers can take solace in knowing Josh Hamilton will play alongside Guerrero.
Hamilton is an excellent center fielder. He has been superb on defense throughout the postseason, despite playing with broken ribs. And he spent the 2007 season with the Cincinnati Reds, in the National League, so he must be familiar with AT&T’s quirky landscape.
“I’ve never played here,” Hamilton said, correcting his interviewer. “I think I was on the DL.”
In that case, good luck to both of you.