By Jon Lane
First pitch: 6:07 p.m. at Yankee Stadium; gates open 3 p.m.
Pitching matchup: A.J. Burnett (13-9, 4.04) vs. Nick Blackburn (11-11, 4.03)
Forecast: Cloudy with a slight chance of showers in the evening; showers likely with a slight chance of thunderstorms after midnight. (They could play through “showers,” but “thunderstorms” will force a delay and put everyone in one big I hate rain bad mood.)
If there’s a rainout: Game 2 moves to tomorrow night (TBD) and the teams lose the travel day. Games 3-5 will remain Sunday, Monday and Wednesday. If the series then goes the distance, the Yankees would be faced with a choice of starting Burnett on short rest, Chad Gaudin or Joba Chamberlain.
Throwing out the first pitch: “Mr. October” Reggie Jackson. Incidentally I heard a replay of Reggie’s appearance on “The Howard Stern Show.” His weekly Tuesday night show on Sirius 123 was plugged, but the rest of the details are for mature audiences only.
The big story: Joe Girardi’s decision to sit Jorge Posada and start Jose Molina.
Before Game 5 of the 1977 ALCS in Kansas City, Billy Martin made the most courageous decision of his career when he benched Jackson, George Steinbrenner’s $3 million man. It’s apples and oranges compared to Posada and Molina, but hang with me. Jackson was 1-for-15 in the series and numbers against Royals starter Paul Splittorff so poor that when asked, Catfish Hunter told Martin that Jackson “can’t hit him with a paddle.” That left Martin, who felt if the Yankees lost he would be fired anyway, to convince Steinbrenner and Gabe Paul why he had to bench Jackson.
Posada owns three World Series rings and was .285-22-81 this season, while Molina can’t hit even if attempted to put paddle on beach ball, so obviously this is different. But what’s similar is the manager’s guts. Ian O’Connor writes it’s E-2 on Girardi, but Sam Borden commends Girardi for making the requisite tough decisions.
There is something to chemistry between some pitchers and catchers. Andy Pettitte had it with Jim Leyritz – and not Girardi – in 1996, so did Greg Maddux with Eddie Perez. You can’t discount that Burnett went 5-5 with a 4.96 ERA and .270 opponent batting average in 16 starts with Posada and 5-2 with a 3.28 ERA and .221 opponent batting average in 11 starts with Molina catching, including 3-1 2.92 in his last six.
Molina showed a knack for keeping Burnett’s emotions in check and in a cohesive enough pace to not made desperate mistakes during crisis situations. And during the time of season where pitching rules all, you do whatever you believe is best to shut down the opposition, especially if Nick Blackburn suddenly morphs into Jack Morris. And it’s not like Posada won’t be available to pinch-hit or enter the game immediately after Girardi finds an opening. And it’s certainly not like the rest of the Yankees lineup can’t hit. Blackburn was 11-11, 4.03, so the odds are long that he’ll pull a Morris and good that the Yankees offense will knock him out early.
Of course, if Burnett is razor-sharp and the Yankees win, Girardi is a genius. If he’s blasted, Girardi is stupid, Burnett is a whiner, boos will be heard from Jersey and Posada would be given carte blanche to scream, “I was the problem?” Yankees fans, in a panic, will declare the series over and demand that Girardi is shown the door.
That’s the nature of sports. It’s also the nature of sports to stop debating, hang up the phone after your favorite sports talk station leaves you on hold for an hour, quit crunching numbers, and sit back and watch. It’s why the games are played. We’ll see if this issue is either buried quickly or linger like a thunderstorm of biblical proportions.
Memo to Mother Nature: Hold off on the showers until after midnight. Too much going on tonight in the Bronx.