October 20, 2009
Putting the Drama in Drama Season
This postseason becomes a bit more ridiculous with each passing day. Counting the AL Central playoff, we've had 21 games since the regular season ended on October 4. Five have gone to extra innings. Three saw the lead change hands after one team was down to its final out. In 14 games, the tying or tie-breaking run has come to the plate in the ninth inning. Yesterday featured six lead changes, two extra innings, and the Phillies winning a game that they trailed through 26 outs-for the second time in just six games. It was a day that could make baseball fans out of people who had never heard of the game, or just remind the devoted of why they keep coming back.
Short-sequence offenses are the best way to score in the postseason. When you're facing better pitching, the proper approach isn't to play smallball and string events together in the hopes of adding a single run to your total. No, you want to score as many runs as you can in as few swings of the bat as possible. The Yankees were 5-0 this postseason coming into yesterday because they hadn't allowed their opponents to hit a home run. For all the talk of the Angels' approach to the game, they swept the Red Sox in part because they roped nine extra-base hits to the Sox' four, and nearly doubled the Sox' slugging average.
Yesterday was an object lesson in the principle. Seven of the game's nine runs scored on homers. The others scored when a triple was knocked home and on a double off the wall. Earl Weaver would have been proud. Scattered among those long hits were a baserunner being picked off, a caught stealing directly in front of a home run, and a runner making an egregious baserunning gaffe that erased his own double. The only things being manufactured were outs.
In the end, the Angels overcame their mistakes by hitting baseballs very far. Howie Kendrick isn't someone you expect to go deep-he hits a homer every 60 at-bats or so-but he broke up Andy Pettitte's shutout in the fifth and breathed life into a dying Angels season with a shot to left. I didn't see it at the time, but I'm wondering if there wasn't a warning sign there; Pettitte had been very good at burying the cutter in on right-handed batters in the early innings, but the pitch to Kendrick seemed to catch more of the plate than is optimal. An inning later, Pettitte left a cutter in just about the same spot, and Vladimir Guerrero tied the game.
This is admittedly a second guess, and something I wasn't entirely sure of while watching the inning unfold. But the more I think about it, the more I look at the situation after the Abreu walk, consider the depth of the bullpen, where Pettitte was, I think the move was to go to Joba Chamberlain for the two right-handed batters. I can't kill Girardi for this-we'll get to that later-but the entire Guerrero at-bat had a sense of impending doom about it. It featured seven pitches, three throws over to first, a mound conversation, and the whole thing lasted five minutes before Guerrero ended it, violently. Chamberlain's skill is getting right-handed batters to swing through his fastball and over his slider; maybe he should have been facing Torii Hunter and Guerrero given the skill sets involved.
An inning later, Girardi did go to Chamberlain, but that didn't work. Kendrick tripled off the right-field wall and came home on a sac fly, then an Erick Aybar double knocked Chamberlain out of the game. Even given that outing, I think Chamberlain was the right call in the sixth.
After the Yankees' fourth solo homer of the day tied the game in the eighth, the Angels got another big extra-base hit to start the bottom of the inning, as Bobby Abreu crushed a ball into center field that caught Melky Cabrera shifted over to the left-center gap. It was an easy double or a hard triple, but Abreu split the difference, running 25 feet past second into no-man's land. A relay throw from Derek Jeter to Mark Teixeira covering the bag wiped out a scrambling Abreu. Not that it's ever a smart play, but with no one out you simply cannot make a baserunning out like that when you're the winning run.
The Angels got two more big blows in the game, both Jeff Mathis doubles. After squandering a leadoff two-bagger in the tenth by not hitting another ball out of the infield, the Angels won in the 11th when Mathis crushed a ball off the warning track in left-center, scoring Kendrick to keep the Angels in this series. He's about the last guy you would have expected to be a hero-Mathis, once a top prospect, has a career batting line of .200/.277/.320 in five seasons-but on a beautiful afternoon in Southern California, he was once again the guy who had hit .284/.364/.463 as a 20-year-old in the Texas League.
The Angels won this game with their bats. However, Joe Girardi had to make a number of decisions that called into question his handling of his personnel, and served to remind everyone that the Angels have a significant tactical advantage in this series. I mentioned Pettitte, but the first clearly questionably decision game in the eighth inning. After Chamberlain surrendered the double to Aybar, Girardi removed him in favor of Damaso Marte with Chone Figgins coming up. Marte retired Figgins, but was then removed in favor of Phil Coke to start the bottom of the eighth. Girardi burned both his left-handers in succession to get two outs, and while he got those two outs, had left himself down two pitchers for the process. There's been no discussion of a Marte injury, and there's simply no skill advantage that Coke could have over Marte that would justify losing a bullet in this fashion.
This move would be all but forgotten in the 11th inning, when Girardi started the inning with David Robertson, watched him get two quick outs, then brought in Alfredo Aceves to pitch to Kendrick. The outcome is irrelevant; that Kendrick singled and Mathis doubled turns a lot of eyeballs to this move, but it was inexplicable in the moment and remains so nearly a day later. Girardi didn't provide a specific explanation for the decision, citing "matchups," but the moment didn't call for a tactical answer. You don't sweat skill-set or style information when you have the platoon advantage with two outs and no one on. You don't need a specific kind of out; you need an out. As with choosing Coke over Marte, preferring Aceves over Robertson may have had its roots in an information-filled binder, may have even been the best way to get one specific out, but the marginal value gained by the change was dwarfed by the way it squandered resources. You cannot use your two left-handed relievers for four pitches over back-to-back batters in the seventh and eighth innings, and you can't waste relievers in extra innings by emphasizing some kind of "matchups" over resource conservation.
Joe Girardi is not a good tactical manager, and while I've defended his bullpen usage during this postseason, there's no defense for what he did yesterday. He's overmanaging more with each passing day, and even a roster as strong as that of the Yankees is breakable.
What's interesting is that Girardi made one or two moves I actually liked in this game, but even those came with costs. He correctly pulled Johnny Damon out of the game with the winning run on third base and one out in the 10th. Unfortunately, because of the earlier decisions to use Brett Gardner and Jerry Hairston Jr. in the DH slot, he had to give up the DH to do so, sliding Hairston into left and putting the pitcher into the lineup, batting third in the 11th inning. If he's doing to look to take Damon out of games, he might consider using Freddy Guzman rather than Gardner to pinch-run for Hideki Matsui, saving the better outfielder for a different role.
I thought Girardi's use of Mariano Rivera after the Mathis double opened the 10th was correct. As in Game Two, the Angels had two switch-hitters and a left-handed batter coming to the plate, and Rivera is, with the two lefties having been used, the best choice for that sequence with the game on the line. As it turned out, the subsequent decision to put Hairston in the game forced Rivera to be hit for in the top of the 11th, and set up the game-ending rally in the bottom of the inning. Taken as a whole, there's no major mistake in the sequence; it's the sum of smaller decisions-running Gardner rather than Guzman, then hitting Hairston for Gardner against Brian Fuentes in the 10th with two outs and a runner on first, maybe a spot to save the bullet-that added up to a problem. Girardi could have allowed Rivera to bat in the top of the 11th with two outs and no one on, rather than use Francisco Cervelli, who had little chance of starting a rally. I suspect Rivera's heavy use over the first three games of the series, even with the offday, mitigated against this, and I think Girardi wanted to be careful about overworking him.
There was an idea, at the start of this postseason, that the Yankees were a clear favorite. Perhaps that was the case, but when you look at their last two weeks, you see a team that hasn't exactly put the hammer down. They won CC Sabathia's two starts handily; in the other four games they went to extra innings three times and had a one-run lead after eight in the other. Had they won yesterday they would have been in line for another of those sweeps that is far from dominant. Instead, they send their ace to the mound today, and at least some players have to be hoping that Sabathia pitches well enough to keep their manager from having to make any decisions harder than "windbreaker or bare arms."
I'm not a baseball expert… no, wait, I kind of am a baseball expert, so here's my take. If you can play .500 ball in games in which you trail with one out left, you'll probably win the championship.
That's the story of the Phillies' postseason so far, and last night, unlike their Game Four win over the Rockies, you can't point to the opposing dugout for a reason. Joe Torre managed his rear off last night, using Hong-Chih Kuo differently than he had all season because that's what he needed to do, correctly leaving George Sherrill in to face Ryan Howard in the eighth, and putting his best pitcher on the mound with the game on the line.
The Phillies won anyway. They won because their bullpen bounced back to provide three shutout innings, including the best work Brad Lidge has provided so far. They won because they have Matt Stairs, who will always make a pitcher beat him, and who will take a walk if he has to. They won because Jonathan Broxton made an awful mistake, hitting Carlos Ruiz, at the worst possible time. They won because Jimmy Rollins, despite tacking a terrible postseason onto a lousy regular season, can still destroy a thigh-high fastball. Rollins' game-winning gapper was as hard hit a ball as we've seen this October. The former MVP has now featured prominently in all three games the Phillies have won with ninth-inning rallies, which illustrates his importance to their offense.
Unlike the ALCS game, which featured a lot of tactical intrigue and managerial mistakes, this game was really all about the players, from Ryan Howard hammering a 3-1 fastball for an early 2-0 lead, to a two-out rally by the Dodgers that was their first sign of life since the eighth inning of Friday's game, to Matt Kemp going up the ladder to hit a long homer, to Manny Ramirez playing a Shane Victorino double into a triple-but then saving his team with a shoestring catch in the sixth-to the Sherrill/Howard showdown, to Ryan Madson pitching out of trouble in the eighth, to the ninth-inning rally that may have turned this series for good. Joe Torre and Charlie Manuel pushed and pulled and did what they could, but this game was settled between the lines, where one very strong lineup found yet another way to beat one very strong bullpen, and move one very big step closer to one very big feat: repeating.
I'm chatting at 2 p.m. We'll talk more about both these series then.