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October 23, 2003
I'm sorry, but the better angels of my nature have been locked in the closet. Maybe they'll be back tomorrow.
Dear Aaron Boone:
Boone, whose Game Seven home run won the ALCS and sent the Yankees to the World Series, has been swinging at pitches he has no hope of hitting ever since then.
I looked it up, expecting to see that Boone has taken about four pitches in the World Series. It turns out that he'd actually let 25 baseballs go by in the first three games, just shy of half of the 51 pitches he'd seen. He's pushed counts to 3-2 in a number of at-bats, so it's hard to make the argument that he's not being patient enough.
That said, he was horrific last night. The Yankees' three biggest chances to win the game landed in his lap, and he approached his at-bats as if it were fifth-grade gym class or a co-ed softball league with some goofy rules like "swing or you're out." Against Carl Pavano in the second inning, with the bases loaded, one out and the Yankees down 3-0, Boone swung at the only two pitches he saw and flied to center field on the second one. Sacrifice flies down three runs with the pitcher coming up aren't team baseball, they're a lifeline for the opposition.
Boone got another chance in the ninth, after Ruben Sierra's triple tied the game. Boone again went up hacking, fouling off the first and third pitches he saw to fall behind 1-2, then grounding out weakly to shortstop after two more foul balls.
Finally, in the 11th inning, Boone again batted with the bases loaded and one out. And just as he had against Pavano and Ugueth Urbina, he made Braden Looper's job easy by hacking at fastballs up and in, pitches he doesn't have the bat speed to hit. Boone swung at six of the seven pitches he saw, looked completely overmatched, and struck out.
Three at-bats, two pitches taken out of 15 seen, three times falling behind in the count, three outs. Boone needed to have a solid approach last night, and his mental effort was completely lacking, leading to wild swings that gave the pitchers all the leverage they needed to get out of jail.
As bad as Boone was, he shares the blame for last night's loss. It's not with Roger Clemens, who threw seven innings worthy of a win, or with Jeff Weaver, who hadn't thrown a pitch in anger since September 24.
No, the big goat in South Florida last night was Joe Torre. Torre, who I've lauded as being one of the best postseason managers ever, made a number of tactical errors that contributed to the Yankee loss. At the same time, Torre's major strategic error this fall--roster assembly--cost him repeatedly in the late innings.
We'll start in the ninth inning. After the Yankees tied the game and Boone grounded out to end the inning, Torre removed Jeff Nelson, inserted Jose Contreras into the game in the #7 slot, and put John Flaherty in the #9 slot. David Dellucci, who had run for Jorge Posada, stayed in the #6 slot to play right field.
It's two hours later, and I still don't know where to begin with this. The idea is that you don't want the pitcher leading off the 10th inning, because you might have to pinch-hit for him. But the easy way around that is by leaving Nelson in the game. He's the single biggest weapon you have in a tie game against the Marlins, and he'd only thrown one inning, using 16 pitches. Yes, you'll have to hit for him to start the 10th, but so what? Pinch-hitting Juan Rivera or Enrique Wilson is actually a better option than having the non-hitter you can't bat for, Flaherty, leading off the inning, and two innings is as far as you want Nelson going, anyway.
Torre focused on the concept of getting the pitcher out of the #9 spot, knowing that he had to get Flaherty into the lineup anyway. But by doing so, he cost himself an inning of Nelson in a tie game with a thin bullpen and had the worst of his three options leading off the 10th inning. The double-switch was overmanaging.
All of this could have been avoided by having Erick Almonte around. Just as he did Tuesday, Torre used Dellucci as a pinch-runner in a situation where he was going to need him as a right fielder after the Yankees were retired. Both times, that cost him a useful pinch-hitting bat and a double-switch option. Had Almonte been around last night, he could have pinch-run for Posada, and Dellucci--a better hitter against right-handers than the other three guys--would have been available to lead off the ninth, whether as a pinch-hitter or placed there in a double-switch.
Almonte, of course, was dropped from the roster in favor of Chris Hammond just before the World Series. More on that decision in a minute.
Tie game, ninth inning, World Series, you have the Cyborg Reliever. Who ya gonna call?
Torre had Jeff Nelson in the game, who the Marlins can't hit, and took him out. He had Mariano Rivera in the bullpen, who the Marlins can't hit, and didn't bring him in. Instead, he went to a starting pitcher who has been erratic out of the bullpen and who is very prone to bouncing pitches past the catcher.
The decision to use Contreras in the ninth was ludicrous, another case of using the third choice on a list of three. I know why Torre did it: because he wanted to use Rivera for only one inning, and he wanted that inning to be a save situation. That's not defensible, not in Game Four of the World Series. Rivera should have been brought in to start the 10th (you know, after Nelson pitched the ninth). Depending on how that went, and whether the Yankees scored in the top of the next inning, you could debate using him for a second inning. Losing an extra-inning World Series game without getting Rivera into it shows an allegiance to the closer mentality that is completely at odds with winning baseball, and for that matter, at odds with how Joe Torre has managed this team in the postseason.
In fairness to Contreras, he pitched well in his two innings, allowing just a walk in the 10th. The Yankees' loss had nothing to do with his performance.
The game remained tied into the 11th, in no small part because Alfonso Soriano and Jason Giambi have been replaced by extras from a touring production of "Bugsy Malone". Bernie Williams, who has really found his stroke from the left side, opened the inning with a double to right field. Hideki Matsui walked, and honestly, alarm bells started going nuts in my head before Ivan Rodriguez caught ball four.
Sure enough, Torre had Dellucci lay down a sacrifice bunt in front of the pitchers' slot, then sent up Juan Rivera to hit for Contreras. Jack McKeon had Chad Fox walk Rivera to load the bases--a borderline decision in itself--and brought in Braden Looper to face Boone.
The Yankees had a decent matchup and the potential for a big inning. Torre threw away an out and created worse matchups. Dellucci is coming off a lousy year, but he's a decent line-drive hitter who doesn't hit into a ton of double plays. Besides, why would you do anything that would give Fox, who hasn't looked good yet in this series, an out? Why would you make moves that pushed Fox out of the game? If you're the Yankees, you want Fox in the game until he proves he can get ahead of even one hitter.
Dellucci vs. Fox with no one out and two men on was the absolute peak of that inning for the Yankees; once Dellucci bunted, there was no way it was going to get better. McKeon tried to help--I don't know if you want to load the bases for a guy like Looper, who can be wild--but the Yankees had seen their best chance at a run go by. Looper against Boone just isn't fair. Boone can't hit good hard stuff, and Looper has been consistently tough on righties throughout his career. All that applies to Looper vs. Flaherty as well. It was no surprise that the Yankees didn't score; the course of the inning was entirely predictable once Torre ordered the bunt.
Frankly, Torre should have sent up Enrique Wilson for Boone. You really want a baserunner or a ball in play in that situation, and Wilson has a much better chance of getting either against Looper. Additionally, you play to Looper's weakness, his inability to throw strikes to left-handed hitters.
All of the above decisions, every one of them, are a failure of the imagination. The book says you double-switch the reliever in to avoid having him bat soon. The book says you save your closer for a closer situation. The book says you bunt with two on and no one out in extra innings. (In and of itself, not a bad play, just not with the personnel involved here.) The book says you don't use your last position player to hit for another position player, certainly not for a Certified Postseason Hero.
Torre won't take a lot of criticism for mismanaging this game because he did everything by the book.
The book is wrong.
After the 11th-inning shenanigans, Torre called on Jeff Weaver, mostly because he had to. He'd established that he wasn't going to use Rivera unless the Yankees took a lead, and he had no one else who threw with the appropriate hand.
Remember Chris Hammond? I know I've been a broken record on this point, but Torre's decision to go with three left-handed relievers in this World Series is a huge strategic error, and you can trace last night's loss to that decision.
Go back to the ninth inning, after Posada reached on a fielder's choice. If Almonte is available, he runs for Posada, leaving Dellucci on the bench. After Sierra's triple and Boone's groundout, you can insert Flaherty into Posada's spot, Dellucci into Sierra's spot as the right fielder, and leave Nelson in the game for one more inning. Juan Rivera or Enrique Wilson leads off the 10th inning, Contreras comes in to pitch the bottom, and you've bought yourself one more inning of good relief pitching. (Alternatively, Dellucci gets double-switched into the game in the #9 spot, which costs you an inning of Nelson but yields a much better leadoff hitter in the 10th.)
It's all tied together, and it all comes back to the decision to go with Hammond instead of Almonte. It's not about Hammond--the Yankees' three lefties are more or less interchangeable--but about having three left-handed relievers around against the Marlins. It's a waste of at least one roster spot, the kind of thing we expect from Bobby Cox or from the Joe Torre who used to carry four backup infielders with two skills among them.
Earlier this week, I was talking this over with an AL executive who pointed out that the short time between the ALCS and the World Series may have worked against Torre in making this decision. That's a fair point, but the fact is, Torre had to make a move to add the third lefty, which means he did spend some time thinking about the roster he wanted in the World Series. Haven't we all heard about how the Yankees' huge advantage is that they have eleventeen scouts at all the postseason games, evaluating potential opponents? It takes about four seconds to figure out that the Marlins have no one worth using a lefty specialist against, and that you're not going to be able to let any lefty chew up innings unless the game is out of hand. Torre somehow missed this.
Twice now--actually, three times if you count the ninth inning of Game One--Torre has had situations where Erick Almonte would have been useful to him. Shoehorning Dellucci into one of those spots last night forced him to give up a tactical edge in making subsequent decisions. Just a few innings later, Torre showed that he has no use for Hammond, and in fact, little use for even one left-handed reliever. The Marlins just don't allow it.
At this point, I think even Torre realizes he screwed up, because the decision to use Jeff Weaver in the 11th inning of a tied World Series game is a cry for help. Weaver has been the last man on the staff for two months, and with three fresh left-handers available to him, all of whom are above Weaver on the depth chart, Torre went to the team pariah.
The Yankees might have lost last night's game even if Torre had all the right personnel and made all the right decisions. A manager still needs players to execute, and God knows, Torre had plenty of players to execute. But if his job is to put the players in the best position to succeed, Torre failed last night.
It's a best-of-three now, and I don't think anyone is the favorite. The Marlins may have just one more home game, but they'll face lefty starters in both of the next two contests, a big edge for them. Although the Fish didn't do much against David Wells or Andy Pettitte the first time around, they still have a lineup that crushed left-handers all year long. They're a completely different offense, a dangerous one, against southpaws, and that's the biggest factor in the next two games. They only need one win to guarantee themselves a chance to win it all with Josh Beckett on the mound.
I think the most interesting thing we'll see tonight is Nick Johnson at first base. Jason Giambi had a couple of singles last night, but still looks lost at the plate. That's not the reason for the switch, however. The reason is that with David Wells starting, the Yankees won't want to leave themselves completely defenseless against Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo. Wells is a lousy fielder, and Giambi doesn't move well enough to take bunt singles away.
If Giambi was hitting like he's capable of hitting, it would be hard to sit him down for defense. With anyone but Wells on the mound, you might just rely on the pitcher to make plays. But the combination of factors means that it's worth taking advantage of Johnson's superior defense to shore up a weakness. Wells probably won't walk Pierre and Castillo, and if you can take away the bunt, you force them to swing away to reach base.
A reader asked how my playoff predictions were doing. I honestly haven't kept track, but I don't think it's been a strong month as far as the game calls go (I have picked five of the six series correctly, none in the exact number of games). I thought it would be a fun exercise, continuing something I started last fall when I was writing the newsletter, but there are no guarantees of accuracy. As with the playoff previews, the analysis is much more important than the prediction.
(As two other readers pointed out, the analysis yesterday didn't even match the prediction, as I had the Yankees winning 5-4, but Roger Clemens having either an excellent or a very poor outing. Perhaps the symmetry of being wrong on all counts outweighs the internal inconsistency of the individual parts?)
Before last night, I expected the Marlins to win a high-scoring game tonight by finally breaking out against a left-hander. I saw them taking advantage of the Yankees' letting down after going up 3-1, and I had it in my mind that Rivera wouldn't be available (I thought he'd close out a win Wednesday).
Obviously, that equation has changed. The pitching matchup still favors the Marlins, especially with the Yankees starting at least two infielders who stopped hitting a month ago. The Yankees will probably have the two-inning version of Rivera available, though, and can also go to Jeff Nelson for at least an inning, which reduces their reliance on Wells. Brad Penny pitched well for the Marlins in Game One, mostly because he was throwing a bunch of strikes, especially with his breaking ball. He needs to be just as sharp tonight; as Pavano showed, if you can take away the Yankees' walks, you can beat them.
I think today could go either way. The Marlins are playing better right now, and are probably due to hammer someone, so I'll say Fish, 7-5.