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October 7, 2007

Playoff Prospectus

Game Two Report, Yankees versus Indians

by John Perrotto

CLEVELAND--Every credible study ever done on hitting with runners in scoring position indicates success or failure in such situations is pretty much random. With that in mind, perhaps the fact that the Indians are a sabermetric-friendly organization helped their hitters not get frustrated as an unseasonable warm, summer-like afternoon turned into a balmy Friday evening at Jacobs Field.

The Indians kept coming to the plate with runners in scoring position. And they kept coming away empty. Yet, the Indians would not give up. "The way I look at it is that if you keep putting people on base then eventually you're going to drive somebody in," said Indians left fielder Kenny Lofton, a veteran of 18 major league seasons. "The law of averages has to eventually work in your favor."

So it did after 10 2/3 incredibly frustrating innings for the Indians in Game Two of their American League Division Series against the Yankees. The Indians had only one hit in their first 17 at bats with runners in scoring position. And that hit, a single by Lofton, resulted in Jhonny Peralta being thrown out at home plate by New York Yankees center fielder Melky Cabrera to end the second inning.

However, designated hitter Travis Hafner finally put an end to the Indians' RISP misery by lining a bases-loaded single into right-center with two outs in the bottom of the 11th inning to give the Indians a 2-1 victory and 2-0 lead in the best-of-five series. The series resumes tonight at Yankee Stadium with the Yankees facing elimination in the ALDS for a third straight year.

It had been a miserable day for Hafner in clutch situations to that point, continuing a season in which Hafner hit just .224 with runners in scoring position. Those struggles played at least a part in his VORP going over the cliff, as it dropped from 79.7 and fourth in the major leagues in 2006 to 30.7 and 75th in 2007.

Hafner had left runners in scoring position in each of his three previous at-bats on Friday. He came to bat in the sixth and eighth innings with the Indians trailing 1-0. In the sixth, he struck out with one out and a man on third against Andy Pettitte. In the eighth, he smoked a line drive while again hitting with one out and a man on third, and first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz dropped to his knees like a hockey goalie to make the save, er, catch.

Immediately after Hafner's line out, Grady Sizemore sprinted home from third on a wild pitch by rookie phenom reliever Joba Chamberlain to tie the score. Sizemore, the Indians' gifted center fielder, was barely safe as the ball ricocheted back to catcher Jorge Posada, who threw to Chamberlain covering home plate.

Sizemore admitted that the Indians' struggles with runners in scoring position spurred his decision to take off. "I knew Chamberlain had been a little wild and I knew we were having a hard time coming through with that clutch hit that could swing the game in our favor," Sizemore said. "I realized I had to be aggressive and force the issue if the situation called for it. I know how the ball bounces off the wall here and that it would be a close play but I felt it was a risk I had to take."

Sizemore's RISP-induced risk gave Hafner yet another opportunity to be the hero in the 10th inning. While fans of productive outs might have enjoyed seeing Hafner's grounder to second base with one out off Mariano Rivera move Sizemore from second to third, it turned out to be inconsequential. Though Victor Martinez was intentionally walked and Ryan Garko was hit by a pitch to load the bases, Rivera struck out Peralta to end the threat. "It got a little frustrating," Peralta subsequently admitted. "You come up in that situation and you want to get the big hit. It's the playoffs and you know one hit can make the difference. I couldn't get that hit. Nobody could but you also have to give credit to the pitching sometimes. The Yankees made some big pitches when they had to."

Indeed, Pettitte shut out the Indians on seven hits through 6 1/3 innings and Chamberlain held them hitless for 1 2/3 innings in his post-season debut, though he gave up the Indians' first run with his wild pitch. Rivera then pitched two scoreless innings before the Indians broke through for the winning run in the 11th against Luis Vizcaino.

Lofton drew a leadoff walk, Franklin Gutierrez singled, and they moved to second and third on Casey Blake's sacrifice bunt. Yankees manager Joe Torres intentionally walked Sizemore to load the bases, and that strategy looked good when Asdrubal Cabrera hit a towering pop fly into an insect-infested sky that landed in Mientkiewicz's mitt.

That brought up the resilient Hafner, and the fourth time was the charm in this case as he worked the count full before delivering the game-winner. "I had come up a few times in big situations, had two punchouts and hit one of them on the screws right to Mientkiewicz," Hafner said. "But every time that happens, you want to get up there again and have a chance to do something late in the game. So, I came up in a great situation. That's what you dream about as a kid and this time I came through."

What gave Hafner multiple opportunities to be the star was a strong effort by Indians starter Fausto Carmona and rookie left-handed reliever Rafael Perez against a Yankees offense that led the major leagues in runs scored in the regular season, averaging 5.98 a game. Carmona gave up all of three hits in nine innings, walking two and striking out five. Melky Cabrera homered with one out in the third for the Yankees' only run. Perez finished with two perfect innings for the win, the second night in a row he was asked to pitch two innings. He had not logged more than 3 2/3 innings on consecutive days in the regular season. True to the form of a pitcher who led the major leagues in groundball/flyball ratio in the regular season, Carmona got 18 of his 27 outs on grounders, including two double plays.

"You saw early on that he was under control and had good stuff," Indians manager Eric Wedge said of Carmona. "He was gong to command the baseball game and make pitches when he had to. When you're facing a lineup like that, there's not much room for error. You've got to be aggressive, work ahead, trust your stuff, and work off your strengths, and we saw Fausto do that all night long."

Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez's October woes continued with an 0-for-4 night and three strikeouts, making him a combined 3-for-35 (.086) in his last three post-seasons. Rodriguez was complimentary of Carmona, but also said Pettitte "pitched the best game I've ever seen him pitch."

Pettitte appreciated the compliment but disagreed, citing that he only lasted 6 1/3 innings and was lifted after 92 pitches. "I've pitched a lot deeper into games in my career but I can't remember too many times when I've been more tired by the time I came out than this one," Pettitte said. "The Indians just kept putting guys on base every inning. I was always pitching out of trouble. I just had to keep making one big pitch after another to keep it a close ballgame and it was exhausting, both mentally and physically. You've got to give the Indians credit. They were relentless and finally broke through with the big hit."

Wedge, like his players, never lost faith that the percentages would finally go his team's way with runners in scoring position. "It's a funny game but you've got to keep putting yourself in position to win the game with one swing of the bat," Wedge said. "So, we kept pushing and eventually it worked for us."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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