October 2009

This is not 2004

By Jon Lane
The inevitable comparisons are in full force. One victory from a World Series the Yankees drop a winnable Game 5 and are back home with two chances to grab that elusive ‘W’ with both hands and hold tight.

In the event you lived on Mars five years ago and are back on Earth: The Yankees blew a 3-0 ALCS lead to the Boston Red Sox in 2004, starting when they were three Mariano Rivera outs from a four-game sweep and the right to play the St. Louis Cardinals in the Fall Classic.

gordon_250_102309.jpgWatching Game 5 of Yankees-Angels, my colleague and friend Jerome Preisler couldn’t help but compare Phil Hughes to Tom Gordon, the latter one symbol of that epic collapse. I covered the 2004 ALCS from start to finish and sure there are similarities. Like these Angels, those Red Sox never quit. They had heart, soul, pop, clutch hitting and pitching, and some good luck. I remember specifically Game 5. The Yankees took a 4-2 sixth-inning lead on Derek Jeter’s three-run double off Pedro Martinez and had the bases loaded with two out. Hideki Matsui laced a liner to right field. If it drops, the game is broken open and we’re not talking about the 2004 ALCS.

Alas, Trot Nixon made a sliding catch to end the inning. Looking back at the series, Joe Torre called that the turning point, the first time when he told himself, “Uh oh.” David Ortiz homered off Gordon to begin the bottom of the eighth and Jason Varitek’s sacrifice fly off Rivera tied the game at four. Fate, by the way, also smiled on the Red Sox in the ninth when Tony Clark doubled off Keith Foulke, If the ball doesn’t bounce over Fenway Park’s short right-field fence, Ruben Sierra scores from first. Instead, Clark and Sierra had to stay on second and third. Miguel Cairo popped out and David Ortiz finally won the game in the 14th.

The moral of the history lesson: 2009 is a different time with a different team. These Yankees had it within them to pull out 15 walk-off wins and two in the postseason. Andy Pettitte and not Jon Lieber (to be fair, Lieber pitched very effectively in the ’04 postseason) is starting Game 6 Saturday night. And if there’s a Game 7, the season will be on CC Sabathia’s back, not our old friend Kevin Brown.

Furthermore, there are glaring differences between Joe Girardi’s lineup to what Torre had to send out for Games 6 and 7 five years ago:

DH
2004 – Kenny Lofton/Sierra
2009 – Matsui

2B
2004 – Cairo
2009 – Robinson Cano

1B
2004 – Tony Clark (John Olerud’s bruised instep kept him from starting Games 5-7)
2009 – Mark Teixeira

Cano instead of Cairo; Teixeira instead of Clark (who struck out to end Game 6 as the winning run at the plate). Here’s hoping you’re reassured. Now all this lineup has to do is score runs off two very good pitchers, Joe Saunders and Jered Weaver.

Heaven and hell

yankees_250_102309.jpgBy Jon Lane
Blame A.J. Burnett for a horrendous start and a miserable finish, if you want.

Blame Joe Girardi for allowing Burnett to start the seventh inning – three days after you killed him for his bullpen obsession, if that’s your poison.

Blame Nick Swisher, the one who made two outs in the Yankees’ six-run sixth inning, the one hitless in five Game 5 at-bats including the one when he popped up a bases-loaded, two-out, 3-2 pitch to shortstop to conclude a gut-ripping affair, the one with three hits in 29 postseason at-bats, until the roosters cluck and the cows retire.

Rant and rave at your choosing, it’s your right, but also heed Morris Buttermaker’s famous words, the ones in response to Tanner Boyle’s outburst over Timmy Lupus’ inability to throw the ball back to the infield, costing the Bad News Bears their first win: “When we win, it’s a team win. When we lose, it’s a team loss.”

Plenty of individuals were guilty, but the Yankees lost Game 5 as a team. I’ll isolate my personal turning point in a bit, but it was one of those games where you’re simply obligated to give a tremendous amount of credit to the opponent, to admire and respect how the Angels, neck-and-neck with the Yankees as baseball’s most resilient team, did not fold and found a way to force a Game 6. A lesser team would have decided it wasn’t meant to be and began dreaming about a winter’s vacation.

Not these Angels, who since the tragic and senseless death of Nick Adenhart have endured an emotionally-challenging season beyond anyone’s comprehension.

“When they got the six runs, I was out there deflated and [ticked] off,” said Torii Hunter. “I came in the dugout and threw my glove, but after all of that, I settled down. We all settled down and we saw we still had some innings left.”

The game, from my point of view, turned on one pitch: Phil Hughes’ fastball to Vladimir Guerrero in the fateful seventh. After walking Hunter, Hughes used a sharp curveball to move ahead 1-2. These days, breaking pitches make Guerrero look more like Pedro Cerrano than Vlad Guerrero.  Ahead in the count, you can afford to waste a pitch, and even if it’s do-or-die, it’s kill or be killed with your best pitch.

Inexplicably, Hughes, shaking off Jorge Posada multiple times, threw a fastball. Guerrero, who even with his best days behind him eats fastballs for breakfast, smoked a belt-high pitch up the middle to tie the game. Kendry Morales’ RBI single followed and the Angels were ahead for good.

“Trying to be a little too fine to Hunter,” Hughes said. “Then got ahead of Guerrero and tried to come up and in on him and left the ball pretty much in the middle. He didn’t get it good, but he got it just enough and in the right spot.”

Hughes, who is going to be a great starting pitcher, received an education. As fans and journalists, we saw that not every baseball diaper dandy ( Dick Vitale) is Mariano Rivera or Francisco Rodriguez. Because Hughes has a different learning curve, and because Swisher is completely lost at the plate, the 20 cases of champagne outside the Yankees’ clubhouse remained sealed and were packed for the flight to New York. Of course, there are those out there who are panicking, fretting about 2004, quaking because now the Angels have the momentum and nothing to lose.

Allow me to remind you (again) that momentum is only as good as the next day’s starting pitcher. All you had to do, writes Mark Feinsand, was “watch Game 5 to change your mind.”

Thus, it’s back to the Bronx Saturday night for Game 6. Of course, the forecast projects the heavens opening, but we’ve heard that before too. Those ’04 echoes are louder, but the games are played for a reason.

Now playing on Sirius 71: Bernie Williams’ “Go for It.” Appropriate.

ALCS Game 5: Starting lineups

YANKEES (3-1/103-59)
yankees.jpg
Derek Jeter SS
Johnny Damon LF
Mark Teixeira 1B
Alex Rodriguez 3B
Hideki Matsui DH
Robinson Cano 2B
Nick Swisher RF
Melky Cabrera CF
Jose Molina C

Pitching: A.J. Burnett (13-9, 4.04)

ANGELS (1-3/97-65)
angels.jpgChone Figgins 3B
Bobby Abreu RF
Torii Hunter CF
Vladimir Guerrero DH
Kendry Morales 1B
Maicer Izturis 2B
Juan Rivera LF
Jeff Mathis C
Erik Aybar SS

Pitching: John Lackey (11-8, 3.83)

Phils blast their way to World Series

phillies_275_102209.jpgBy Jon Lane
If the Yankees can defeat the Angels one more time, they will have the ultimate challenge ahead of them. The Philadelphia Phillies pounded and blasted Joe Torre’s Dodgers into submission Wednesday night to become the first team to reach consecutive World Series since Torre’s Yankees in 2000-01 and the first to capture back-to-back pennants since the Atlanta Braves in 1995-96. The last team to repeat as World Champions were also Torre’s Yankees when they won three straight from 1998-2000. The Phillies have a shot at becoming the first National League team to repeat since the Cincinnati Reds in 1975-76.

The Phils smacked four homers off Dodgers pitching, two from Jayson Werth. Bottom line, this team can bash and Yankees pitching will have to raise it to the highest of levels to get past Werth, Ryan Howard and that lineup.

But first things first. The Yankees have to win one more game; it takes four games to win the pennant, the Yankees have won three. A.J. Burnett gets the ball tonight (pregame on YES at 6:30, first pitch on FOX at 7:57 p.m. and YES will have an hour-long postgame show immediately after the last pitch) and the right-hander looked relaxed and confident during Wednesday’s media session. He has a firm grasp on what he has to do, and the Yankees are cognizant about the need to step on the Angels’ throats and make them tap out. Too many teams have rallied from down 3-1. One blew a 3-0 LCS lead. Guess which one?

Benjamin Kabak from River Ave. Blues wrote something I’ve been thinking about since yesterday: Joe Girardi refused to confirm it, but you know Jose Molina is catching Burnett tonight. In Burnett’s prior two postseason starts Girardi has left Jorge Posada on the bench while going with Hideki Matsui as the designated hitter.

That needs to change. To echo Kabak’s take, Posada is batting .308 with a .471 on-base percentage and .615 slugging percentage, compared to Matsui’s .286/.412/.357. The former not only looks more comfortable at the plate – his eighth-inning homer tied Game 3 before the Angels won it in the 11th – he owns better numbers against Halos starter John Lackey. Posada is 12-for-29 (.414) with three walks, a homer, and three RBIs against the big Texan, compared to Matsui’s .286 average, though he does have seven RBIs versus the Angels right-hander. 

How Girardi will handle pinch-hitting/pinch-running duties with regards to Posada and the risk of losing the DH, we’ll find out if the game is close and late. The Yankees don’t want it to get that far. It won’t be easy, but they’ll have to get to Lackey early and cash in on the opportunities they missed against him in Game 1. Batting Posada behind A-Rod gives them their best shot.

A-Rod or CC for MVP?

arod_300_102109.jpgBy Jon Lane
Disclaimer: The ALCS is not over. Someone this morning asked me if I’m feeling good with the Yankees ahead three games to one. My answer: “No.”

It takes four games to win the LCS, the Yankees have won three. The last two ALCS have had teams with 3-1 leads and both went to Game 7. Two years ago, the Red Sox rallied to defeat the Indians en route to winning the World Series. Last year, Boston came back again, but fell short in Game 7 against the Rays.

Furthermore, Suzyn Waldman had a good line during Tuesday night’s broadcast on the Yankees Radio Network: “We’ve seen plenty of (Angels) rallies here. We saw rallies before the Rally Monkey existed.” I also don’t need to remind you what happened in 2004.

That said, the Yankees bashed the Angels, 10-1, and kept the monkey grounded in Game 4 led by outrageous performances by both Alex Rodriguez and CC Sabathia. If the series had ended last night, writers would have had to make a snap decision on an ALCS MVP. It’s very close between A-Rod and Sabathia. Here’s the breakdown:

A-Rod’s five home runs have him tied with Reggie Jackson (1977, all in the World Series) for the second-most by a Yankee in a single postseason (Bernie Williams clubbed six in 1996). He’s batting .375 with three homers, five RBIs and five runs scored in the ALCS, and .407-5-11, nine runs scored in the postseason. His slugging percentage in the DS and CS, respectively are both 1.000. Absolutely remarkable.

Sabathia, pitching on three days’ rest, neutralized a good Angels lineup over eight innings for the second time in the series, this time allowing only a run on five hits with two walks and four strikeouts. He’s 3-0 with a 1.19 ERA and took another big step towards completely erasing his prior October track record (4-3, 5.45).

It’s a tough call, but Mike Lupica makes his case for Sabathia, of whom he writes “continued to be the kind of star ace pitcher in games such as these that he was
hired to be, that he was paid a fortune to be. And clearly relishes
being.”

In addition, Sabathia has matured to where he is now a polished pitcher, says John Flaherty during a Podcast after Game 4.

If the Phillies close out the Dodgers tonight, and the Yankees eliminate the Angels tomorrow or Saturday, it’ll likely be Sabathia against Cliff Lee in Game 1 of the World Series. How’s that for a pitching matchup? But until then, there’s a lot more work to do for the Yankees to win their 40th pennant. Figure on the choice for MVP to be either Sabathia or A-Rod. Who’s yours?

ALCS Game 4: Starting lineups

yankees.jpgYANKEES (2-1/103-59)
Derek Jeter SS
Johnny Damon LF
Mark Teixeira 1B
Alex Rodriguez 3B
Jorge Posada C
Hideki Matsui DH
Robinson Cano 2B
Nick Swisher RF
Melky Cabrera CF

Pitching: CC Sabathia (2-0, 1.23)

angels.jpgANGELS (1-2/97-65)
Chone Figgins 3B
Bobby Abreu RF
Torii Hunter CF
Vladimir Guerrero DH
Juan Rivera LF
Howie Kendrick 2B
Kendry Morales 1B
Mike Napoli C
Erick Aybar SS

Pitching: Scott Kazmir (0-0, 7.50)

Arms obsession

By Jon Lane
I, like many, am still trying to comprehend Joe Girardi’s decision to pull David Robertson after he used 11 pitches to get two clean outs in the 11th inning.

Alfredo Aceves was the eighth pitcher used in Game 3. Girardi also employed eight men, including the starting pitcher in Game 2 as well as Game 2 of the ALDS. All that amounted to was playing with fire and getting away with it, because until Monday the Yankees were unbeaten in postseason play. But on Monday, Girardi finally got burnt, and at the worst possible time. His whole bullpen except for Chad Gaudin was burned with CC Sabathia today going on three days’ rest.

Girardi and pitching coach Dave Eiland cited matchups and declined to elaborate further when presented with the fact that Howie Kendrick, who greeted Aceves with a single to set up Jeff Mathis’ walk-off double, was 1-for-2 lifetime against Robertson and had never faced Aceves. (And in case you wondering, Mathis had never faced Robertson and was 0-for-2 with a strikeout against Aceves.)

“We have all the matchups and all the scouting reports,” Girardi said. “And we felt that, you know, it was a better matchup for us.”

Three at-bats to me doesn’t seem like a concrete body of work to make such a critical decision. These numbers would have worked out a lot better. In the second half, Robertson was 1-1 with a 3.00 ERA and 29 strikeouts in 21 innings pitched. Aceves was 5-0, but with a 4.65 ERA and 33 Ks in 40 2/3 IP. Robertson’s ERA in the first half was 3.57, while Aceves’ was 2.49. I also don’t need to explain how big Robertson has been since the start of the playoffs.

Oh, Aceves also allowed a run on a hit with two walks in 1 1/3 innings in Game 2.

Aceves made a serious impact as a swingman when he was promoted to the Majors in May, but hasn’t been the same pitcher since another one of Girardi’s strange decisions: when he made a spot start against the Twins on July 9 after Chien-Ming Wang was lost for the season due to injury rather than call up a stretched-out Sergio Mitre to fill the void.

Of course, people are calling for Girardi to be fired immediately. Chill. Girardi’s Yankees won 103 games and own a 2-1 lead in this series, and  you know what they say about momentum being as good as the next day’s starting pitcher. Girardi is also not to blame for the Yankees leaving 10 men on base and going 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position.

A team that scored a league-high 915 runs are 0-for-16 with RISP with 22 stranded in its last two games. The Yankees need to get it going against Scott Kazmir, who has pitched well against them, or another loss evens the series with A.J. Burnett opposing John Lackey on the road in a swing game. I’m not crazy about those odds.

Sabathia: Stay under control

By Jon Lane
CC Sabathia, officially named the Yankees’ Game 4 starter on Sunday, met the media before Game 3 in Anaheim. The big lefty is going on three days’ rest, which he made a habit of last season. This year though, with the Yankees affording the luxury of providing him extra rest down the stretch, there’s a lot more in the tank.

The plan has worked to perfection. Sabathia is 2-0 with a 1.23 ERA in his two postseason starts. While he admitted that when working on shorter rest you may not have your best fastball, it’s about how you approach the game mentally, and Sabathia has said more than once that the extra rest last month left him energized and recharged.

“You know that going on certain rest that you’re not going to have like your best fastball,” Sabathia said. “So you’ve just got to stay under control and make sure your my delivery is good, and make sure I go out there and throw strikes.”

Someone asked on whether Sabathia feels any different the day after pitching in cold weather. He doesn’t citing all those years pitching in Cleveland.

Other comments from the press briefings:

Joe Girardi on Chad Gaudin’s role going forward:

“He’s more of a long guy for us,” Girardi said. “We had him up in Saturday’s game. [David] Robertson was done, and Gaudin was warmed up, so by having Chad down there it allows us to mix and match more in our bullpen, being able to use maybe a couple guys in an inning and not worry if you go extra innings or a long game.”

You can watch Girardi’s full conference here.

Angels Game 4 starter Scott Kazmir was asked about opposing Sabathia, he summed it up by saying he knows he has to be very good, and facing Alex Rodiguez the way he’s been hitting.

“Anyone that’s seeing the ball as good as he is, it’s tough,” Kazmir said. “You know, you can just tell when hitters are comfortable out there. When they start hitting the ball hard to the opposite field, they’re really seeing the ball good and really feeling comfortable out there. So like I said, you’ve got to attack the strike zone and just get them in defense mode. If you get behind hitters like that, especially how good he’s seeing the ball, he’s going to hurt you.”

ALCS Game 3: Starting lineups

YANKEES (2-0/103-59)
yankees.jpg
Derek Jeter SS
Johnny Damon LF
Mark Teixeira 1B
Alex Rodriguez 3B
Hideki Matsui DH
Jorge Posada C
Robinson Cano 2B
Nick Swisher RF
Melky Cabrera CF

Pitching: Andy Pettitte (14-7, 4.11)

ANGELS (0-2/97-65)
angels.jpgChone Figgins 3B
Bobby Abreu RF
Torii Hunter CF
Vladimir Guerrero DH
Juan Rivera LF
Kendry Morales 1B
Howie Kendrick 2B
Mike Napoli C
Erik Aybar SS

Pitching: Jered Weaver (16-8, 3.75)

Watch Game 3 at Yankee Stadium

By Jon Lane
Here’s something pretty cool: Yankee Stadium’s field level and Great Hall are open to the public to watch Game 3 of the American League Championship Series on the facility’s colossal hi-def televisions. Turnstiles between Gates 4 and 6 will open at 3:30 p.m. for the 4:13 p.m. first pitch.

Food and concession stands will be open and available, as will NYY Steak and Hard Rock Cafe will also be open.