By 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.