October 23, 2009
Speed Up for a Showdown
The remarkable thing about last night's ALCS Game Five is how quickly things happened. After John Lackey escaped a two-on, no-out situation in the first inning, the Angels jumped on A.J. Burnett like a linebacker on a fumble, scoring four runs on 12 pitches over seven minutes and 32 seconds. Bobby Abreu, Torii Hunter, and Vladimir Guerrero went double/single/double on three consecutive pitches at one point. When it was over, the Angels had their first multi-run lead of the series and, with their ace on the mound, seemed to be in fantastic shape.
The next 37 outs in the game happened quickly as well. Between Kendry Morales' single in the first and Melky Cabrera's double in the top of the seventh, 40 hitters came to the plate, most of whom were dispensed with easily: 20 hitters in that stretch saw three or fewer pitches. The game moved from the second to the seventh so quickly it seemed as if the teams were concerned about getting to John Wayne Airport before the 11 p.m. curfew. John Lackey's work was the story, but after those 12 fateful pitches in the first, A.J. Burnett was fantastic, facing three batters over the minimum with lots of early-count outs mixed in.
And then the seventh inning took forever, as six pitchers faced 18 batters and nine runs crossed the plate. Still, if you blinked, you missed defining sequences. You might have missed John Lackey getting hosed on a 3-2 strike to Jorge Posada that Fieldin Culbreth turned into a ball. [Ed. Note: Perhaps as a surprise to no one, Culbreth's one of the most walk-generating umps in the majors.] If you walked to the kitchen during the ensuing mound conference, you may not have come back in time to see a visibly agitated Lackey walk Derek Jeter on four pitches from the LaLoosh Collection, loading the bases.
It was at this point that Mike Scioscia moved into one of the most puzzling sequences of his long career. With Darren Oliver up in the bullpen and the left-handed Johnny Damon at the plate, Scioscia let Lackey stay in the game. This wasn't a problem-Lackey was pitching well up to the Jeter walk, and he's Scioscia's best pitcher by any measure. It did seem to preclude the use of Oliver in the short term. With two breaking balls and a good fastball, Lackey righted himself, retiring Damon on weak fly to left. Scioscia then surprised everyone, Lackey most of all, by walking to the mound. If you can read lips, it was clear that the big righty was having a Bob Gibson moment. "Are you shitting me? This is mine."
He was right. Lackey was pitching well save for the walk to Jeter, from which he'd bounced back. He really should have been out of the inning. Oliver has had an effective season, but there was no reason to use him against Mark Teixeira, a switch-hitter with no platoon split, with Alex Rodriguez behind him. Scioscia downgraded as far as the pitcher he'd have on the mound, for no tactical gain, at the biggest moment of the game.
Four minutes later, Scioscia was presiding over a tied game following a double, an intentional walk, and a single. With Robinson Cano due up and the go-ahead runs on base, Scioscia went to the mound and hooked Oliver. Oliver hadn't thrown enough pitches, in my opinion, to reach a conclusion on his stuff-and quite frankly, Hideki Matsui hit a pretty good pitch up the middle-and bringing in the righty for Cano, who doesn't have a big platoon split save for his contact rate, which is much worse against lefties-seemed rash.
I make a lot of platoon differentials, and there is more to the game than that. But I can't look at that seventh-inning sequence, in which six runs scored over four batters, and get it to make sense. If you trusted Lackey rather than Oliver to face Damon (who does have a big split), why would you then pull Lackey against Teixeira? And how could you want Oliver to pitch to Teixeira, but after four pitches from Oliver, decide he was so bad that you needed to take him out and give up the platoon advantage against Cano? There's a lack of internal logic, and as quickly as it all happened, almost no time to see that there was a problem.
I've seen some criticism of the decision to allow A.J. Burnett to start the seventh inning with a two-run lead. I spend a lot of time criticizing managers, and many decisions really do have a right and a wrong. In this case, I don't think using Burnett was a problem, nor do I think starting the inning with Phil Hughes would have been a problem. Burnett had been lights-out since Morales' first-inning single, and there was no tactical reason to take him out the game at the start of the seventh. If I have a problem, it's that Joe Girardi didn't go right to Hughes once Jeff Mathis singled to start the inning. Hughes has been underworked in this postseason as Girardi has overmanaged, simply not allowing his best relievers to pitch. In this case, Hughes wasn't even up at the start of the inning-Joba Chamberlain was-but started throwing after the Mathis single. I can't figure what sequence of events Girardi foresaw, up two runs in the seventh, in which he would have preferred Chamberlain to Hughes.
While Hughes was throwing, Burnett walked Erick Aybar, which is a pretty clear sign that you're done. Damaso Marte came in to face Figgins, who greeted him warmly with a ridiculous sacrifice bunt on the first pitch. I'm pretty sure that giving Marte an out is tax-deductible; doing it from the right side may qualify you to have your student loans canceled. Marte got Abreu to ground out, with a run scoring, at which point Girardi finally got Hughes into the game.
Between them, Joe Girardi and Jorge Posada have caught 22,000 innings in the big leagues, and heaven knows how many others. Hughes, for all his enormous talent, doesn't have quite so much experience. So in the seventh inning of a playoff game, with Vladimir Guerrero at the plate, what I don't think we should be seeing is Hughes shaking off Posada. Twice. Guerrero beat Andy Pettitte's fastball-a cutter, fine-Tuesday, and he beat Burnett's in the first inning Thursday, and he'd just swung and missed at a big curveball 15 seconds prior to fall behind 1-2, and he may have displayed an occasional tendency to swing and miss at balls way out of the strike zone. Hughes decided to announce his presence with authority at the wrong time against the wrong hitter in most definitely the wrong location. Single, tied game. Kendry Morales followed up with a single of his own, and we had our final score.
The seventh inning last night packed an entire game into six outs. You could watch a lot of baseball and not see as much interesting stuff as we had in that one frame, with decisions, performances, success and failure in one neat package. The Angels walked out of it with the lead, and try as they might, they weren't able to give it up, so they're still in this postseason.