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October 24, 2003

Prospectus Today

Game Five

by Joe Sheehan

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How many people, with Ruben Sierra standing on third base Wednesday night, Aura and Mystique shaking their moneymakers just behind second base, and Mariano Rivera getting loose down the left-field line, would have figured this World Series would not only be going back to New York, but going back with the Yankees down three games to two?

Other than Jack McKeon, I mean.

The idea that the Yankees have some stash of special skills that only come into play in October took a huge hit the last two nights, as the Marlins not only bounced back to win Game Four in 12 innings, but took advantage of the Yankees' bad fortune and bad baseball to move within one win of their second championship in seven seasons.

The big story going into the game yesterday was Joe Torre's lineup, which left 79 regular-season home runs on the bench. Alfonso Soriano, who had struck out in nearly half his World Series at-bats and has a .206/.250/.279 line in the postseason, was getting a much-needed day off, with Enrique Wilson filling his spot. Jason Giambi, struggling himself in October, was left on the bench ostensibly because of pain in his left knee, brought on by consecutive days of playing in the field. Whether the reason was his knee or his bat, having Nick Johnson on the field would help the Yankees defend against Juan Pierre and his amazing technicolor dreambunts.

(Soriano, by the way, managed to be both brutally honest and dead wrong in the same paragraph when he was quoted by the AP as saying, "I think I swing at bad pitches, that's the problem. It's tough to recognize the pitches because it's a different league. I think I try to do too much." Clearly, Soriano swings at bad pitches, but using the "different league" line is feeble. He hit .283/.318/.432 in interleague play in 2003, and .347/.413/.625 against NL teams in 2002.)

The lineup changes looked like pure genius in the first inning. For just the sixth time in 16 postseason games, the Yankees opened with a baserunner, as new leadoff hitter Derek Jeter singled. After Jeter scored on a Bernie Williams sac fly, Johnson made two excellent plays in the bottom of the frame, one on a Pierre bunt.

And then...David Wells, who tossed a 1-2-3 first inning, couldn't continue, knocked out of the game by his chronic bad back. The first sign was the presence of David Dellucci in the on-deck circle in the top of the second inning. With two outs and a runner on first base, Torre had Dellucci hit for Wells, who was done for the night. It seemed like quite a waste; the at-bat was as low-leverage as they come, and as we've seen in the first four games, Dellucci is Torre's main pinch-runner and defensive replacement in right field.

You could argue that with Giambi and Soriano on the bench, Dellucci was a bullet Torre could afford to fire, but Dellucci's value to Torre is less his bat and more his legs and his glove. Additionally, once you know you're going to your bullpen in the second inning, it's reasonable to assume you're going to be pinch-hitting for the #9 slot a few times, so you need to save your bench players. Besides, with two outs, you want to use a pinch-hitter capable of launching a home run, and Dellucci had less chance of doing that than most of Torre's other bench options. Batting Dellucci was a poor use of resources that indirectly led to the sight of Soriano playing right field in the eighth inning. Torre could have used one of his pitchers (Mike Mussina and Jeff Weaver have both displayed some batting skills), not given away much in the way of expected production, and saved a better player for a more important situation.

The other interesting pinch-hitting move was Torre's use of Ruben Sierra instead of Giambi in the middle of a seventh-inning rally. Giambi was on deck with first and third, no one out, and the Yankees down 6-1. When Aaron Boone popped out to right field, Torre swapped Sierra for Giambi. At the time, I figured Giambi had just been a decoy, but then Giambi did get into the game two innings later. I can't think of why you would use Sierra instead of Giambi in that situation. You need, more than anything else, to avoid outs; the double play possibility was unchanged; and batting Sierra meant using the last outfielder.

That rally, in which the Yankees had first and third with no one out and scored just one run (the second time in the game they'd done that), was indicative of the main problem the Yankees have faced in October. Countless times this postseason, the Yankees have had great situations in which to score and come out of it with little or nothing. More often than not, Soriano, Giambi and, as was the case last night, Boone are in the middle of the failed rally.

While failing to produce again at the plate--Marlins starters, so erratic in the first two playoff rounds, have a 2.90 ERA in this series with four quality starts--the Yankees also hurt themselves in the field. With a runner on second and one out in the fifth, Boone made a nice stop of a grounder by Jeff Conine, but in trying to catch Ivan Rodriguez off of second base, threw too soon to Enrique Wilson covering second. That mental error was compounded when Wilson threw the ball to third base to try and make a play on Rodriguez. Not a player at third base; the base itself, which was uncovered. The Marlins would score two runs off of that misplay, runs that turned out to be the difference in the game.

Wilson was nailed with a throwing error on the play, which he deserved. Jeter took some light criticism for not covering third base, but the play developed so quickly that he really didn't have time to get there. (Yes, I'm covering for Derek Jeter.) The culprit, to my eyes, was Boone, who had time and space to run Rodriguez back to the bag--proper rundown protocol--and unleashed his throw too soon.

Mixed in with the bad baseball were some bad breaks. Bernie Williams just missed a couple of homers in the seventh and ninth innings, either one of which would have tied the game. When Giambi finally did get in the game, he launched a pinch-hit home run, a blast that would have, had it been magically transported to the seventh, changed the course of the ballgame.

It's not like the Yankees just lost this game, however. For the third straight night, a Marlins starter tied them in knots. Brad Penny had a better fastball than he did in Game One, and the same command of it. He also mixed in a huge two-out, two-run single in the second inning, past a diving...Wilson, actually. The Marlins continued to outplay the Yankees in every aspect of the game, getting a better start, taking advantage of their offensive opportunities, and not allowing extra outs on defense.

Maybe Aura and Mystique need to update their resumés.

Notes

  • I'll have more on Game Six tomorrow, but with Jack McKeon playing coy about his starting pitchers for the last two games, what about the idea of dispensing with the notion of roles--which he's largely done, anyway--and just treating the last 18 innings as a bit of a free-for-all? Everyone but Penny can probably make a contribution Saturday, and even he would likely be able to get a few batters Sunday, especially staring at 113 days' rest.

    I think McKeon should take advantage of the flexibility that the 3-2 lead affords him and not use Josh Beckett in Saturday's game. Beckett has already done yeoman's work in this postseason, and as good as he's been, the best chance he has to win is to pitch on full rest. Going for the throat is nice, but you don't get style points for winning in six.

  • I don't remember if it was in this space or on the radio that I proffered the idea that Miguel Cabrera could have Albert Pujols' career track. It's not an original thought, but it gives you an idea of how highly I regard the Marlins' right fielder.

    The more I watch him, though, the player who comes to mind is Mike Piazza. Piazza has the best power to right and right-center fields of any right-handed hitter in the game, and he's held that title for a decade. When he's going well, he's getting his arms extended and driving the ball the other way, and he has the strength to hit homers to the gaps.

    I made the connection to Piazza last night when Cabrera drove Karim Garcia to the wall in the fourth inning. The swing, the way the ball jumped, the seeming ease of it were all Piazza. Cabrera can yank a ball out to left field, to be sure (you don't pull Kerry Wood deep into the Wrigley bleachers if you can't), but it's that opposite-field power, and his confidence in it, that is grabbing my attention.

  • Did Alex Gonzalez really give the bat he used to win Wednesday night's game to the Hall of Fame, as Joe Buck said he did? I'm shocked. Players are usually really protective of their game bats, especially ones with which they're doing well. When the Hall requests a bat, generally the player will use it until it breaks, then pass it along.

I'll have some more on the Series in advance of Game Six Saturday afternoon. Tune in for Saturday's in-game Roundtable too.

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

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