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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

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