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October 20, 2004
Just As Expected
Just as so many people predicted, the Yankees and Red Sox will once again go down to a decisive Game Seven in the AL Championship Series. The two teams, so closely matched for the past two seasons, will play another deciding game on sport's greatest stage, Yankee Stadium. It is exactly what we all expected.
If you ignore everything that happened in the first six games, anyway.
Curt Schilling set up this finish by going to the mound last night with a torn tendon in his right ankle and throwing seven tremendous innings. He had some of his lost velocity back, even as he showed little to no push off the damaged leg. Given a week, he'd figured out how to pitch effectively even without being able to generate as much power with his legs. He threw just 99 pitches, about 98 of them strikes (OK, 67), and gave up just a couple of well-hit balls.
I don't know that it's possible to make too much of what he did. I really don't go in for mythmaking, but when you consider the importance of that ankle to what Schiling does, the impact that the injury so clearly had on his first ALCS start, the severity of the injury and the steps he took to get to the mound on Tuesday--which included stitches to hold the tendon in place--you have to come away with a lot of respect for the man. It will become one of the best stories in playoff lore.
Schilling got all the help he needed in the fourth inning, when the Sox got four runs with two outs. Say, does anyone remember when Boston wanted Mark Bellhorn hung from a tree in Kenmore Square? It was Bellhorn's three-run homer that proved to be the difference last night. He's 3-for-9 with a walk, a double and a homer in the last two games.
Johnny Damon is playing much worse than Bellhorn, and no one is calling for a Gabe Kapler start in center field. That's in part because the slumps of a player who strikes out always look worse than the slumps of a player who puts the ball in play. The value is the same, but the ball-in-play guy gets more credit for his performance.
Four games of performance isn't enough to justify sitting down a player who had 162 games to prove his worth. It's overreacting to this kind of small sample of information that can get a team even further off track in October. Bellhorn never should have been removed from the lineup, and Terry Francona's turning a deaf ear to the din is another of his good decisions this October.
By the way, a number of people wrote in defending Bellhorn, rightly so, after I said I didn't think he'd be back with the Sox next year. That comment has less to do with Bellhorn and more with the Sox front office, which I believe has shown itself to be sensitive to public opinion in its decisionmaking, and which appears to have a newfound emphasis on defense. How they'll evaluate Bellhorn is yet to be seen, and certainly his status in Boston is much different now than it was on Monday morning.
Bellhorn hit his homer on a 1-2 pitch from Jon Lieber, who basically had a four-batter stretch that killed him. In addition to the 1-2 home run, he also got ahead of Jason Varitek 0-2 before eventually giving up a single that kept the rally going. You might recall that David Ortiz fell behind in the count on Monday before poking his game-winning single off of Esteban Loaiza.
Questionable location and pitch selection on 0-2 and 1-2 counts has been plaguing the Yankees all series long, but the bigger problem is having pitchers who can't get strike three. In performance analysis, we place a lot of emphasis on a pitcher's strikeout rate in projecting his longevity and success. That's because strikeouts are a proxy for a pitcher's ability to miss bats. When you can make batters swing and miss, you can turn 0-2 and 1-2 counts into outs without risking a ball in play.
When you can't--and neither Lieber nor Loaiza is a strikeout pitcher--you end up being more reliant on your defense and more prone to events like the hit that ended Monday's game, or the four two-strike foull balls by Varitek that led to his single. At-bats like the ones we saw from Ortiz, Varitek and Bellhon are on-field evidence of the sabermetric principle that strikeout rate is the most important piece of information you can have about a pitcher.
If not being able to get strike three were the Yankees' biggest problem, they might not have to play tonight. Unfortunately, they're dealing with what can only be described as a slump by manager Joe Torre. Torre, never one to make a lot of moves with his bench, has become so passive that he's hurting the team. For the third straight game, he allowed Ruben Sierra and Tony Clark to bat in game-critical situations. He once again left Sierra on base as the tying run without pinch-running for him with Kenny Lofton.
Torre has yet to make a move not related to an injury or a blowout situation. He doesn't have a good bench, but the one player on it who has value is Lofton, who can poke a right-hander and swipe a base. How Torre could find no use for Lofton in all of the situations in which Sierra batted against a right-hander, all of the ones in which Clark batted against a right-hander, and all of the times the Yankees had a slug carrying the tying run....I don't know...Torre may be under the impression that position players removed from the game are immediately shot in the head and buried under third base.
And where was John Olerud? Yes, he has a sore instep, but the starting pitcher for the other guys had minor surgery before the game so that he could pitch, and the guy who closed the game threw 100 pitches in 48 hours. Surely, Olerud could have limped to the plate in the ninth inning, rather than force Clark to bat in a situation in which he could not possibly have been expected to succeed. I'm not sure there's anyone on the Yankee roster I would have wanted up at the plate less at that moment. There might not have been anyone in the 10463 zip code.
Torre's passivity as an offensive manager is killing this team nearly as much as Clark is. If Clark and Sierra are once again in the lineup tonight, rather than Olerud and Lofton, it will be a boost to the Red Sox as they try once again to reach the World Series.
Torre is also having a bad year in selecting his pitchers. His late-season fascination with Tanyon Sturtze contributed to the closeness of Game One and the loss in Game Four. Having Paul Quantrill around at all, after breaking him in the season's first four months, is a sign of desperation.
One last time: $183 million should buy more than this. The Yankees have about a 16-man roster, and that stands in stark contrast to the 22 or 23 useful players available to Terry Francona.
The main controversy last night involved Alex Rodriguez's attempt to dislodge a ball from Bronson Arroyo's glove on an eighth-inning tag play. Rodriguez swung at Arroyo's arm, causing the pitcher to drop the ball, but was subsequently called out for interference.
My initial reaction was that the call was ridiculous. Rodriguez's actions were no different that a sliding runner attempting to kick a ball from a fielder's glove, or a runner trying to score barreling through a catcher with the same intent. Why the latter cases would be permitted, but not Rodriguez's contact, struck me as inconsistent and unfair.
As it turns out, the umpires' manual specifically legislates against the type of thing Rodriguez did, barring runners from batting at fielders with their arms in an attempt to cause a drop. Had Arroyo been in the baseline, Rodriguez would actually have been permitted to run over him; he just couldn't take a swing at the ball. The umpires got the call right, which is all you can ask of them. That they did so after a conference was also commendable, if unfortunate in that the second reversal of the night to go against the home nine sparked inexcusable behavior by the crowd.
I don't think the rule makes sense, given the kind of mayhem that is permitted at other spots on the diamond, but with the rule in place, the ruling follows naturally.
What shouldn't have followed was the debris-fest. The Yankee crowd--frustrated, cold and tired--went past the bound of acceptable behavior in reacting to the decision. As someone who's spent far too much time being frustrated, cold and tired in that ballpark, I was disappointed by the embarassing display.
That said, crew chief Joe West overreacted in demanding that riot cops be deployed. As is consistent with his history, he grandstanded without considering the effect of his actions, which was that the clip of blue uniforms ringing the field would become the dominant image from the game, rather than a clip of Schilling on the mound, blood seeping from his ankle, strikes seeping from his right arm.
Baseball didn't need that, just as it doesn't need Joe West.
I have no idea what to expect tonight. I don't think anyone does. It's not just that the Game Seven following an 0-3 deficit is uncharted waters, but the path to it--four games in four days, completely shattered bullpens--is also so unusual. The Yankees have been complete ciphers at the plate since Saturday's blowout, with barely any balls even hit hard. They will have the edge in the quality of available pitchers, but if the offense can't muster anything against Tim Wakefield, it won't matter.
I'm more sure of what we'll see in the NL: one more game. Peter Munro is no Brandon Backe, while Matt Morris is pitching with the extra rest that has done him good this year. I'd be surprised if this game was decided by less than three runs.