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October 3, 2011

Playoff Prospectus

ALDS Game Two: Aye-yi-yala!

by Jay Jaffe

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You're Joe Girardi, manager of the Yankees, the AL's second-highest scoring team this year, and the one that led the majors in home runs. You're sitting on a 1-0 lead in the Division Series against the Tigers because the night before, your lineup exploded for six runs in the sixth inning against a flagging starter. Of your A-list relievers, David Robertson and Rafael Soriano last pitched five days ago, while Mariano Rivera has gotten four outs in three appearances over the past week. You're down 4-0 in the seventh inning of this contest, but you've got two on and one out with your number-nine hitter, Brett Gardner, coming to the plate. Gardner has been struggling (.223/.320/.313 since July 31), but his two-run single broke open Game One, and he lined out in his last at-bat. After him, you have Derek Jeter, who is 0-for-3 but had two hits late Saturday night, followed by Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano, your two most dangerous hitters this season.

It's a pretty desperate situation, right? Quick, think of something to do!

Girardi thought of something to do. He chose to pinch-hit hit for Gardner, sending up lefty Eric Chavez, a 33-year-old former star who through some miracle of science held up long enough to get 175 plate appearances this season, his highest total since 2007. That he hit .263/.320/.356 with just two home runs suggests he's better company on the bench than batting in this situation, particularly since he required an additional substitute to play left field. Batting against Tigers set-up man Joaquin Benoit, Chavez was overmatched, and swung futilely at two low changeups and a 95 mph fastball. Jeter went down on strikes as well; so much for that rally.

"Just hoping he might pop one," said Girardi after the game of his choice of Chavez. "If you're winning the game, I'm not going to pinch-hit there. But when you're losing the game 4-0, you're looking for a three-run homer."

Girardi was looking in the wrong place. Chavez, the only lefty on his bench, has just five homers in the 424 plate appearances since he became a perennial DL dweller. Righty Andruw Jones homered five times in 76 plate appearances against righties this season, and while his platoon split (.172/.303/.406) is ugly, the odds of him running into one are much better. Rookie righty Jesus Montero had four homers in 42 plate appearances against righties this season, and hadn't gotten an at-bat all series. By limiting himself to options in which he had the platoon advantage, Girardi bypassed his bench's best power threats.

The larger problem is that the Yankees didn't need to get three runs back in one big bite. A run here, a run there—with the middle of the lineup due one more shot, the chances of some Yankee hitting one out in Yankee Stadium weren't awful. Instead, Coffee Joe found a way to both overmanage (by forcing a move that wasn't entirely necessary) and undermanage (by not giving his team its best shot once the move was made) at the same time. His machinations were somewhat reminiscent of the ambivalence with which he handled his bullpen in the games following the Yankees' clinching of the AL East flag. Hold that thought…

Sure enough, Granderson led off the eighth inning with a solo homer against Benoit, cutting the score to 4-1. The next three Yankees went down in order, but rather than take the lesson that his team wasn't out of it, Girardi threw a pity party by calling upon Luis Ayala, his most-used reliever over the last five days, and his most battered. On Wednesday, Ayala surrendered a big three-run homer to Evan Longoria amid the Rays' stunning comeback, and on Saturday, he yielded two hits while retiring one in the ninth inning, turning the situation into enough of a mess that Girardi called upon Rivera to get the final out.

Ayala plunked .197-hitting Brandon Inge to lead off the ninth, and a sacrifice bunt, a ground out and an RBI single by Don Kelly, who for once did not look out of his element, restored the Tigers' four-run lead.

That run wound up looming large, because the Yankees made a show of it against Tigers closer Jose Valverde. Detroit went 77-0 during the regular season when leading after seven innings, but the Tigers' late-game bullpen isn't exactly infallible; the Yankees themselves hung a loss on him with two ninth-inning runs in a tie game on May 2, and three other teams managed similar feats in tie games.

Nick Swisher greeted Valverde with a solo homer on his first pitch in the bottom of the ninth, cutting the deficit back to three runs at 5-2. The cheers had scarcely died down when Jorge Posada, in what might have been the final at-bat of his career in Yankee Stadium, crunched a triple; the sluggish ex-backstop, who has just 10 triples in his whole career and none in the postseason, pounded one to deep left-center field that Austin Jackson couldn't run down, and came in well ahead of the throw. A Russell Martin walk brought the tying run to the plate in the form of Jones, who had subbed for the out-of-position Chavez. He seared one to right field, but Kelly ran it down; Posada waltzed home to cut the lead to 5-3.

Alas, there it stayed. Jeter struck out again; over his last three at-bats for the game, he left five men on base. Granderson walked after getting a reprieve from an ignominious end; ahead 2-0, he fouled one back that Alex Avila had a bead on, but with the rain having returned for yet another encore, the Tigers' catcher slipped on the visitors' on-deck circle and the ball dropped harmlessly, affording the Yankees new life. The walk brought up Cano, whose six RBI on two doubles and a grand slam had provided the bulk of the Yankee offense in Game One. The second baseman fell behind 0-2 on a take and a foul, then fouled two more pitches off as the tension continued to mount. Finally, on Valverde's 34th pitch of the inning, he threw his first splitter of the at-bat, and Cano grounded to second base, giving the Tigers the win to even the series.

"We still have two more games in a row, in a sense," said Girardi of calling upon Ayala over Soriano or Robertson, despite having declared before the game that he wasn't afraid to pitch his key relievers three days in a row if it came to it. "And we're down three. If we get it down to two, we were going to make a change. Being down three runs and you know what Valverde has done all year long, we decided to go to Ayala."

Somewhere Leo Durocher rolled over in his grave. "You don't save a pitcher for tomorrow. Tomorrow it may rain," the fiery skipper famously said. The sentiment was lost on Girardi, as was the weather report, the rested state of his best relievers, and the power of his offense to surmount even the mighty three- or four-run lead if given half a chance against a volatile bullpen. A three-run deficit is low-leverage duty on a random Tuesday night in July, but in a short series, no manager can afford to think that way, particularly when he's got that kind of offense—one that scored at least three runs in an inning an AL-best 104 times—and fresh bullpen at his disposal.

"It's very rare that everybody involved in a three-way trade gets a chance to gloat about it. It worked out pretty good for everybody." —Jim Leyland

Two seasons is a short timeline by which to judge a blockbuster trade involving a handful of players under age 30, but the December 8, 2009, trade involving the Yankees, Tigers, and Diamondbacks is particularly relevant to the 2011 postseason, for all three teams owe at least some credit for their October berths to those players' performances. Former Yankee pitching prospect Ian Kennedy emerged as the ace of the NL West champion Diamondbacks' staff, and started Game One of the NL Division Series in Milwaukee. Granderson walloped 41 homers and put himself in the conversation for AL MVP. Nobody from Detroit's haul from the trade—Jackson, Phil Coke, Daniel Schlereth, and Max Scherzer—had seasons that strong, but all contributed something this season. Sunday's Game Two was Scherzer's turn to shine.

With a fastball that touched 98 mph and a changeup that served as a put-away pitch on three of his five strikeouts, Scherzer held the Yankees hitless through 5 1/3 innings, and departed having tossed six innings of two-hit shutout ball, with his team ahead 4-0. Coming into the game, I noted that the weather-induced rotation change, which had Game Three's starters moved up a day, might favor the Yankees because the fly-ball-oriented Scherzer's home-run rate on the road was more than double that at home this year, 1.9 to 0.9. While he yielded a warning-track fly ball to Jeter, the first batter he faced, he otherwise had no problem keeping the ball in the park. He did struggle with the strike zone during a 27-pitch first inning in which he threw just 12 strikes, not helped by a couple of calls that took away strikes at the bottom of the zone. At one point, he threw 11 balls in a 12-pitch span, walking both Cano and Alex Rodirguez and going 3-0 on Mark Teixeira.

"I was very calm, relaxed in the first inning," said Scherzer after the game. "I thought I was slowing down my motion, my tempo. I kind of made the adjustment of getting fired back up and picking up my tempo, so I could continue to have a feel for my fastballs. Once I was abled to do that, I started executing pitchers a lot better." Indeed, Scherzer needed just 19 pitches to get through the next two frames, and didn't reach 20 pitches in any other inning, allowing him to pitch into the seventh. From the last out of the first through the first out of the fifth, he retired 11 straight hitters, and didn't let any Yankee get further than second base. As for the difference between pitching in spacious Comerica Park and Yankee Stadium, he said, "You really can't focus on the ballpark per se. I was more focused on the quality of their hitters, and making sure I was executing pitches throughout the whole night."

Though he allowed a two-run first-inning homer to Miguel Cabrera, Yankees starter Freddy Garcia did nearly as good a job of keeping the Tigers' hitters off balance for the first five innings. Following the homer, he retired 13 out of the next 14 hitters and struck out six, generating more swings and misses than Scherzer did in that span (six to four). Alas, his afternoon unraveled when Jackson reached first on a throwing error by Jeter to lead off the sixth. Singles by Magglio Ordonez, Cabrera, and Victor Martinez ran the lead to 4-0 before he departed in favor of Boone Logan, who struck out both Alex Avila and Jhonny Peralta to end the threat. You already know the rest.

 Now knotted at a game apiece, the series shifts to Detroit, where Game One starters Justin Verlander and CC Sabathia will again square off on Monday night, this time with the hopes of dodging Mother Nature so as to fully realize the first round's best pitching matchup. Rain has forced the Yankees to line up the erratic A.J. Burnett to face Rick Porcello in Game Four, a start that—thanks to Girardi's gaffes—could potentially come with the Yankees' season on the line. It's the Tigers who have the upper hand now.  

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

Related Content:  The Who,  Three Homer Game,  Two Strikes,  Luis Ayala

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