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October 19, 2010

Playoff Prospectus

ALCS Game Three

by Christina Kahrl

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This may not be my first post-season game, or my first NuYankee Stadium, or even my first Yankees-Rangers game in the Bronx of 2010. Still, if one of the games' older adages is that you never forget your first, there's no harm in having it be something well worth remembering. This was a game that simultaneously fulfilled expectations, yet also left many analysts flabbergasted. It was both a tremendous pitching duel, and a rout of humiliating dimensions. And it was also a game in which both managers managed to hurt their team's chances of winning the series in Monday night's ninth inning. 

If you came into Game Three of the American League Championship Series with preconceived notions about who was invincible and why, you probably saw them validated. Cliff Lee was terrifyingly good, even against a Yankees lineup that did what it has been programmed to do for 15 years, working a pitcher who, even as he dominated, was still being forced to throw a career-high 122 pitches. He faced just 27 batters but struck out 13 of them as the Rangers blanked the Yankees 8-0. Among the 14 Lee didn't put away at the plate, there wasn't a lot of drama—Brett Gardner's third-inning slide into first base looks like it was correctly called, or close enough from various angles that maybe even RoboUmp would have been stumped. My thought was that maybe a less recent convert to first base than Mitch Moreland makes that play a lot less interesting, but Chris Davis' swashbuckling sense of derring don't at the plate is what put Moreland there in the first place. 

There was Mark Teixeira's perfection/spoiling pass in the fourth with two outs, after which Alex Rodriguez smoked the next pitch to left—which Nelson Cruz speared at a run. The no-hitter went away in the next frame with a two-out single by Jorge Posada, but that moral victory was almost the only thing won by the Bombers on this night, ranking behind Andy Pettitte's effort, but perhaps ahead of Nick Swisher's epic 11-pitch at-bat in the fourth. The only time the Yankees got a man past first base was in the sixth, when Garnder singled, stole second, moved to third, and died there. 

Similarly, if you're someone with unshakeable faith in Pettitte's capacity to perform on autumn stages, you've got another prop to your belief. Pettitte made one mistake, or two, if even that many. The first mistake wound up in the seats in the first inning when Josh Hamilton got just enough barrel on the ball to plate Michael Young with a two-run home run. (Hamilton stated subsequently that he wasn't sitting on the cutter that came, perhaps only vexing Yankees fans still further.) The second mistake was another pitch to Hamilton, this in the sixth, again with Young aboard, but that drive only pushed Swisher against the right-field wall to make the catch. 

If there was one wrinkle to Pettitte's start that should glum the pinstriped masses that much more, it's that the Rangers made like the Yankees and made the man work, even on a night when he wound up having his A-game. Forcing Pettitte to throw a lot of pitches early while having a narrow lead would prove critical, because it ended Pettitte's night after seven with the Yankees trailing, which informed Joe Girardi's subsequent in-game pen usage pattern. 

After eight innings of classic post-season baseball set up a script so well-worn that most Yankees fans can recite it by heart: even down, it's just a 2-0 game, so Mariano Rivera pitches the ninth, and with the top of the order due in the bottom of the ninth, some new agony like Game One's indignity gets visited again upon the Rangers' bullpen. Except that what followed was a frame that could only conjure up memories of Yankees post-season relief disasters of the past.* There was no Mo, but instead Boone Logan allowed a double to Hamilton to lead off the ninth, followed by David Robertson's permissive state of safeties to left field, with Bengie Molina and Moreland jumping on their first pitches to blow up Girardi's free pass to David Murphy in the faces of a promptly dispersed Yankee crowd, turning what had been a 3-0 game into a dead letter in just two offerings. 

Girardi's decision to treat a 2-0 deficit as worthy of entrusting to Logan and Robertson was directly responsible for turning a winnable game into a disaster. If the expectation was that Ron Washington was going to let Lee pitch the ninth if the game was still 2-0, that's a fourth at-bat for Derek Jeter and Swisher, Tex and A-Rod, against a pitcher who, however good, was tasked 120 pitches. By going with his lesser option instead of his best, Girardi closed the door on any chance the Yankees had of mounting a rally. 

But if Girardi's choice wound up making sure this game ended a Rangers win, Washington generously rewarded his foe with a gesture that might endanger the odds of a third or fourth win in this leg of the ALCS. Why Washington would turn to his closer, Neftali Feliz, with an 8-0 lead and a bullpen that has provided its share of scares in the last two weeks, defies the easy explanation offered: "We wanted him to feel good about himself." Swell, give him a hug, but don't burn him on 20 pitches he didn't need to throw in a series where you're going to need him today or tomorrow. Now, whatever Self-Esteem shares he's accrued, he might only be good for one game or the other. Much like the failure to go to Feliz in the eighth inning of Game One, you are left wondering if some god watches over fools, Irishman, and the Texas Rangers, because they're up in the series despite trying very hard to blow these kinds of critical decisions. 

For all that, you can't fault either manager for what they tried to do on offense. Those who might complain about Curtis Granderson batting against Lee should take heart that Lee is one of the few lefties Granderson has both a lot of experience and a measure of success against. You really can't fault Girardi his choices for who played. Most Yankees hitters have posted excellent career numbers against Lee, but as the lefty noted after the game, the cycle of adjustments never stops rolling—he had made his own, achieving his stated goal of "forcing hitters to make decisions on quality strikes." 

You can be a little less charitable to Washington, for his sitting Murphy despite a good career record against the annually bass-ackward Pettitte, but at least the Rangers' skipper had the lefty-batting Moreland in the lineup. In terms of offensive tactics, opportunities were scarce. Girardi ran with Gardner after the latter's single in the sixth, but he really sort of had to, considering Jeter is among the most likely hitters in baseball to hit into the deuce. Washington didn't even have the opportunity to make that kind of elective decision with his batters. 

With the Rangers up by a game after delivering on so much of what was supposed to happen in Game Three, the interesting issue now is whether Game Four will similarly fulfill expectations—in this case, low ones. Tommy Hunter relies heavily on his defense, and while that's not a bad thing in the abstract, against this Yankees lineup that seems like a recipe for public vivisection and crooked numbers. Against that, there's the fragile balance between mystery and terror over what A.J. Burnett might be capable of. Either way, the matchup promises to provide a combined score in the double digits and one of those classic four-hour marathons we've come to expect this time of year. Being whether Washington's use of Feliz makes Monday night's win the source of the Rangers' next loss has to rank with the uncertainty over Hunter and Burnett. If it does we'll be down to a best-of-three where, after Monday night's humiliation, the Yankees now have that extra little incentive to make sure that a seventh game against Lee is not what determines their fate. 

—-

Random note about pre-game nonsense: Before the game, the Yankees had some PR flak talking on their ginormous center-field screen about the virtues of their concessions. Now, I understand how, in some conference room somewhere a few weeks ago, some pinstriped variation on the flightless brass-added boobie aired his or her conviction of the dire need for some underling to go Goebbels on the goodies. But really, a video feature on the virtues of an undercooked-looking pork sandwich, with this suspicious-looking bit of porcine gelatinousness, blown up to several times larger than your average Manhattan studio? There's just something disconcerting about a stadium and an organization that earnest in its desperate desire to advertise, babbling about their concessions virtues while putting them on display in swollen, super-sized, food-porn enormousness. 

*: Or, where have you gone, George Frazier, a Yankee-loathing nation turns its eyes to you. 

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

Related Content:  Yankees,  The Who,  Yankees Fans,  Washington

13 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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ScottyB

Methinks ye second-guess too much.

Knowing you have games the next two days, why burn Rivera in the 9th down two runs? He has not pitched 3 straight days all season, and you may eed him in games 4 and 5. Logan is one BP writer's selection for LOOGY of the year (sorry I forget who wrote that great article), and Robertson has been very good. It's not like Girardi went all Mosley on us.

Re: Feliz pitching up 8-0 in the 9th. I guess you could argue either way, but Feliz is like 20, so can probably pitch 3 innings in 3 days if needed- and he has not been called upon for 4+ out saves this year. Also, he got to close out a WS game in Yankee Stadium with a 123 inning that probably did increase his confidence.

As Rob Neyer stated today- pitching Rivera and not pitching Feliz makes sense in a computer game, but these decisions all made sense when taking people into account.

Oct 19, 2010 07:47 AM
rating: 4
 
akw4572

Feliz was already warming up..........so using him is pretty moot. He was warm, you use him, and it give him confidence against the heart of the Yanks order. Zero problem with that move.

Oct 19, 2010 08:01 AM
rating: 3
 
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff
(11)

Actually, no, there's no obligation to use him. The logistical consideration here just adds another potential complaint: that with seven relievers, too many of them situational playthings, there may not have been some other guy to warm up during the long top half of the ninth to use with an eight-run lead that they could trust. Where the Yankees arguably have perhaps one too many, between Moseley and Mitre.

Oct 19, 2010 09:09 AM
 
scottieo2

Kinda off topic but what happened to the odds of World Series Champion stat? IIRC there was a box on the main page that broke down the odds for all of the playoff teams last year. Forgive me if this has been touched on somewhere else or moved.

Oct 19, 2010 08:07 AM
rating: 0
 
bflaff1

I think Girardi's willingness to let the game blow up in the 9th instead of trying to stop the bleeding with some bullpen moves was because he figures he's going to need a lot of arms for tonight's game.

But it was strange to see him sitting there while Robertson threw batting practice.

Oct 19, 2010 08:57 AM
rating: 0
 
kasgard

Where's the bidding start on Lee? Given the pressure the Yankees will have on them to sign Lee--especially if they lose this series and even worse if they lose a game 7 to another Lee masterpiece--might he be able to write his own check? The Yanks will have to sign him. And possibly sticking it to the Phillies in the WS? Wow, what potential storylines.

Oct 19, 2010 09:00 AM
rating: 0
 
theguarantee

I don't mind going to Logan there I do mind Logan looking like a scared little teenager afraid Hamilton was going to hit one where we all thought that second pop-out was going. That at-bat would make me nervous about putting him into an actual big spot. Robertson seemed like the right call, he just didn't have it. I will say, I really thought they had a big chance to make it interesting in the bottom half if they could've held it 0-2 and I would not have minded seeing Mo there...but the three straight games did make it tough to do. Lee had already thrown 122 pitches, it was getting cold out...a nice, long, scoreless inning, with the top of the order slated might have caused some certain drama regardless of how sharp Lee had been all night.

I think bigger even than having warmed up Feliz is that A) It's hard to expect to have to use him in all 3 games on the road vs. the Yankees. and B) They're probably more concerned about him getting too much rest and struggling with command from being too juiced up as we saw last series than having a "tired" arm which might result in what, a fastball only hitting 96-97?

Oct 19, 2010 09:10 AM
rating: 0
 
Rob_in_CT

Logan and Robertson have been good this year. Down 2-0, I can't fault Girardi for using a somewhat fragile Mo. It didn't go well, obviously, but I understand the choice.

Lee was ridiculously good, vs. Pettitte's very good. Usually I'd take 7IP, 2R happily. With the Yankees offense and typically good bullpen, that's usually enough.

Burnett is very likely to be awful tonight. I think the Yankees can hit Hunter, but they might hit at'emballs all night. Hunter figures to at least make the Yankees hit. Burnett, on the other hand, is a decent bet to walk the first two hitters, go 2-0 on the 3rd, and then lay one right down the middle (in any given inning. Maybe every inning). He's basically been doing that all year. Then you end up with Dustin Moseley or Sergio Mitre on the mound in the 4th inning, trailing already.

Is there some small chance of "good AJ" showing up? Sure, I suppose. I'd rate it as approximately as likely as me winning Powerball. This game will be on the offense and the bullpen.

Oct 19, 2010 10:37 AM
rating: 0
 
69wildcat

Four hours Christina? Tonight's game could easily end up taking five hours, with the final score (in 9 innings) being 12-9, or something. I will surprised if either starter makes it past the 5th inning.

Oct 19, 2010 12:02 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff
(11)

Point well taken, in proposing double-digit possibilities, the double digit I had and have in mind starts with a '2.'

Oct 19, 2010 14:37 PM
 
Ray Whatley
(267)

Girardi's decision to go with Hughes instead of Pettitte in Game 2 was a disaster and is what likely caused the Yankees to be in this 1-2 hole. With a battle tested Pettitte a much better choice than an inexperienced Hughes, the Yanks stood a better chance of being able to come home up 2-0--the home-road for each be damned. With an excellent chance the Lee would dominate in Game 3, Girardi could have used Burnett as a sacrificial lamb vs. Lee and still be ahead 2-1 instead of behind 1-2. Then a "right" Sabathia could possibly get the Yanks up 3-1. Not starting a 7 game series with your best two pitchers is as dumb a move as there is.

Oct 19, 2010 13:02 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff
(11)

A good point, but considering how unreliable Sabathia has been (to be kind, since "reliably bad" in two starts is something of a left-handed comment for the lefty), talking in terms of chance would seem to encourage the expectation that the Yankees would be down 2-1 no matter what they did.

Oct 19, 2010 14:39 PM
 
BurrRutledge

I watched the game tonight surrounded by a vocal group of Yankee fans, most of them pretty savvy to the tenor of sabermetrics and the dangers of small sample sizes. We were also watching without the benefit of announcers or TV replay. Let's just say there was lots of criticism of Girardi's pitching decisions as they were happening, not just after the fact.

Before Bengie Molina's three run blast had even landed, the Stadium had gone silent. A few moments later, a "Let's Go Rangers" chant from one section in the second deck was loud and prolonged, and it didn't get drowned out by the Yankee faithful. Instead, it just kept going until they apparently tired of it. I've never been at a Yankee game where the crowd was so demoralized, and if the group around me was any indication, the root cause was a complete lack of faith in Girardi.

Oct 19, 2010 22:50 PM
rating: 0
 
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