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October 30, 2009
A Classic Confrontation
The best short reliever in postseason history, arguably the best relief pitcher in the game's history, on the mound. The best second baseman in baseball, one of the top six players in the game, coming off of a two-homer night, at the plate. Behind him, the greatest left-handed slugger extant. The crowd, 50,000 strong, rising to greet the moment in a beautiful new ballpark on a gorgeous autumn night. One man out. Two men on. A two-run lead in the eighth inning of a World Series game, as close to a must-win for the pitcher's team as the second game of a best-of-seven can be.
We sit through a lot of bad baseball, watch a lot of dreary 8-1 wins, shake our heads at all manner of errors, mental and otherwise, and we do it all for a moment like last night's eighth-inning confrontation between Mariano Rivera and Chase Utley. You can't script the drama in baseball, so sometimes the biggest moments come around and you find Rafael Betancourt pitching to Pedro Feliz. The matchups you want to see often happen in mundane situations. Last night, though, we had the setting for greatness, and we had players to match, and we got five minutes of hold-your-breath, bite-your-lip, too-scared-to-cheer tension as Rivera and Utley battled through seven pitches, a sequence in which they traded the upper hand twice-going from 1-0 to 1-2 and on to 3-2-as Rivera danced around the edges of the strike zone and Utley waited patiently for a pitch he could drive. There was a quiet intensity to the moment, two players known for excellence with an absence of flamboyance, professionals in the best sense of the word, executing against one another as a season hung in the balance.
Rivera won the matchup, getting Utley to ground into a double play that may have benefited from a bad call at first base. He then dodged a bullet in the ninth inning, allowing a double that brought the tying run to the plate before getting the 27th out. On this night, Rivera would once again cue Metallica with his entrance and Sinatra with his exit, the kind of book-end music combination you usually only find on Weird Al Yankovic albums. "Enter Sandman" may be Rivera's signature tune, but it's the frequency with which he ends his workday to the sound of Ol' Blue Eyes that had made him a legend of the game, and a hero in the Bronx.
Rivera would not have been in position to get the last six outs had A.J. Burnett not crushed the job of getting the first 21. It certainly wasn't the best start of his career, but Burnett may never have executed a game plan as thoroughly as he did last night. Taking the mound amid concern over what a Phillies team-one that loves fastballs and loves getting into hitters' counts-could do to the sometimes erratic, always hard-throwing Burnett, the righty defied all expectations with two pitches: first-pitch strikes and a sharp, backdoor breaking ball that froze left-handed hitters all night. The Phillies had a plan-the first seven hitters took the first pitch-and Burnett beat it-he started the first 11 hitters with a strike, and 22 of the 25 batters he faced 0-1. A.J. Burnett often has innings where he is 1-0 to four or five batters. He was 1-0 three times all last night. Almost every time he was in a key spot in the game, he made a great pitch to get out of it. We started the night wondering what Pedro Martinez might do to amaze us, and instead got mesmerized by the unexpected. How very like baseball.
It's not like Martinez didn't put on a show. Ranging up and down the velocity table, Martinez worked primarily off of his changeup to keep the Yankees off-balance all night. He allowed two runs in his first six innings, and probably should not have been allowed out for the seventh inning to give up his third. The outing was exactly what Martinez has done in his best work since joining the Phillies in July: pitching backwards, pitching from behind, but using such a wide array of pitches thrown at disparate velocities and locations to keep the opposition from squaring up balls. The two Yankee homers came off of good pitches, the first a changeup on the outer half of the plate that Mark Teixeira went out and got, yanking it over the fence in right-center. The second came on a curve well down and in on which Hideki Matsui had to clear out his entire front side to golf it into the right-field seats. Martinez beat himself up a bit for that one, saying, "I was disappointed because maybe the pitch wasn't the one I would probably have chosen if I were to think again." Perhaps, but Matsui really had to work to get the ball out of the park.
Refreshingly, the main stories of Game Two were the players, from Burnett's amazing performance to the Rivera/Utley battle to the work of Martinez to the swings by Teixeira and Matsui. It wouldn't be the 2009 postseason, however, if we didn't have the human element rearing its head. Twice last night, the umpires got key calls wrong that could have, perhaps did, change the game irretrievably. On the first, a seventh-inning line drive off the bat of Johnny Damon that was one-hopped by Ryan Howard was ruled a catch on the fly. Howard was unsure himself, and made a wide throw to second base that should have left the Yankees with the bases loaded and one out with Teixeira coming to the plate. Instead, Jorge Posada was doubled off (already at second base, he was tagged out easily) and the inning ended with the Yankees up 3-1.
A few minutes later, the duel between Utley and Rivera ended with a 4-6-3 double play. Replays showed that Utley's foot did hit the bag before Teixeira received the throw. The missed call was a devastating blow to the Phillies, who went from first and third with Ryan Howard up to the inning being over, and Rivera, who had thrown 23 pitches already, safely in the dugout.
Both calls were close, and in a postseason that has seen so many easier plays get called wrong, it's almost piling on to point out these mistakes. They were critical to the game, however, ending innings that were on their way to being productive for the teams involved, and the calls did, in effect, change reality: Posada should not have been "doubled off" on a ground ball. The Phillies' rally shouldn't have ended on a fielder's choice. That's just what the humans decided had happened. My point isn't to blast the umpires for their calls-each was arguably too close to call-but to note that these plays expressly illustrate that the problem isn't umpire competence, but the impossibility of the job. We have much, much better technology for evaluating these plays, and to not use them because it'll take a few extra minutes, or because of some misguided allegiance to a romantic notion of baseball, or just because you don't think it's worth it, is wrong.
We know, empirically, that Ryan Howard didn't catch that ball. We know that Chase Utley beat the throw. Why shouldn't we get to use that knowledge?
The managers mostly stayed out of this one as well, although Charlie Manuel was involved in a couple of key decisions. Allowing Pedro Martinez to start the seventh inning was just a mistake. He'd gotten six great innings from his starter, and asking more from him on a night when he'd labored a bit, just after he'd given up a home run, was too much. Manuel put nine relievers on his postseason roster and hadn't used a single one through 45 outs. With a day off today, he should have pulled Martinez in favor of Chan Ho Park to start the seventh. The run that scored in part because he didn't do so may have been critical to the outcome.
Perhaps more interesting, and certainly more debatable, was Manuel's decision to not start the runners on Rivera's 3-2 pitch to Utley in the eighth. When the count went to 3-2, I turned to Sports Illustrated's Ben Reiter and asked him if he'd start the runners. Reiter said he would, and we debated the point just long enough for Robinson Cano, Derek Jeter and Brian Gorman to make him look very, very smart.
As I see it, though, Manuel was risking something to gain virtually nothing. Despite what actually did happen, a double-play ground ball was highly unlikely given the matchup. Utley is a left-handed fly-ball hitter with good speed. Rivera throws a pitch, the cutter, that isn't designed to produce grounders, and the ones it does generate are usually far two weak to allow for double plays. In fact, the frequency with which Rivera saws off left-handed hitters for humpback liners made starting the runners likely to increase the double-play risk. Starting the runners in anticipation of a hit seemed unnecessary given the speed of Jimmy Rollins on second base-he would be likely to score on any hit-and even the scenario of a strikeout on which the runners would advance a base wasn't particularly enticing, as it would open first base with Howard coming up, giving Rivera, Jorge Posada and Joe Girardi greater flexibility in pitching to the slugger. There was very little to be gained and, with Rivera pitching, a lot to be risked. I could see going either way on this-starting the runners would have been defensible as it might have put the tying run on second-but the decision to not start them isn't a bad one.
The other decision of note came just prior to the Ryan Howard double play in the seventh. After the Yankees had taken a 3-1 lead and had runners on first and second with no one out, Derek Jeter and his .334 batting average came to the plate. Girardi called for the sacrifice, because we couldn't go a whole game without some overmanaging. After Jeter failed to get the bunt down twice, Girardi took the bunt off, but Jeter tried again, striking out. Girardi said, "With two strikes it was on his own, we had taken it off." That's nice, because it allows us to ridicule both of them for the same plate appearance. Having your .334 hitter sacrifice in all but a degenerate situation is a bad play. Being a .334 hitter and sacrificing of your own volition is also a bad play. Jeter does this all the time, like he learned in Little League how to play baseball and never really grasped that you don't play MLB quite the same way. You're a .330 hitter, man, swing the bat. You sacrificing is like Christina Kahrl writing billboard copy.
The Phillies won the first game in a relatively low-scoring affair, then lost the second in similar fashion. They're headed home tied to host a presumably superior team. Is any of this sounding familiar to anyone? Maybe those in Florida? Along the West Coast? I don't know a single person who doesn't think we're going to be back in New York next Wednesday, but then again, you could have said the same about Tampa Bay a year ago.