November 1, 2009
Game Three Recap
"Momentum is tomorrow's starting pitcher." That's one you've heard, the great Earl Weaver's spot-on dismissal of the idea that yesterday's game matters to the next one's outcome. I'm not sure it goes far enough, though. How about, "Momentum is the next inning's starting pitcher" or "Momentum is the next pitch," or perhaps, "Momentum is nonexistent in baseball"?
As Cole Hamels was walking off the mound after the top of the third inning last night, I turned to a colleague and said, "Have you seen anything that indicates the Yankees can get to four runs tonight? To that point, Hamels had been masterful, exceeding even my expectations of what he could in this series. He'd retired nine of the ten men he'd faced with an ease that made it seem like Cliff Lee's performance from Wednesday night was within his grasp. Hamels threw 25 of his 35 pitches in the first three innings for strikes.
Meanwhile, Andy Pettitte spent the first two innings looking for an answer. He worked deep counts, throwing 51 pitches to 12 batters, allowing three runs on four hits and two walks. The Phillies had him on the ropes in the second inning, when a beautiful Cole Hamels bunt, designed as a sacrifice, rolled to no-man's land up the third-base line and went for a single, loading the bases. After a five-pitch walk to Jimmy Rollins, the game seemed headed for a blowout, but Pettitte got Shane Victorino-who, after Pettitte had started five hitters in the inning 1-0 and two 3-0, came up swinging on the first pitch-to fly to left on three pitches, plating a run. Pettitte then struck out Chase Utley to keep the game 3-0. Given the spot in the order, his lack of effectiveness to that point, and the way Hamels had looked, the Pettitte/Victorino matchup may have been the one that saved the game for the Yankees. Pettitte would allow just one hit and one walk in his last four innings, throwing 54 pitches in those frames. The first two innings weren't in any way predictive of the next four.
The same was true for Hamels who, after retiring Johnny Damon to start the fourth, found that pounding the strike zone led not to strikeouts, but to early-count hits. Hamels gave up a homer, two doubles, two singles, and two walks in a ten-batter stretch covering the fourth and fifth that knocked him out of the game. Both walks were to Mark Teixeira, both on 3-2 pitches, and they bookended a sequence in which the Yankees jumped on Hamels, swinging at 14 of 19 pitches and getting four of their hits in the first two pitches of an at-bat. They seemed to adjust, and before Hamels could adjust back, he was in the dugout. His first three innings weren't in any predictive of his next two.
Game-to-game momentum is hard enough to prove, though any team on a four-game winning streak is deemed to have it. But if a team cannot sustain its momentum from the first three innings to the next six, how can it possibly carry it from one game to the next? Last night's game was a terrific example of why the idea of momentum, so seductive, is not connected to the objective reality in any way.
Home runs, it turns out, beat momentum every time. The Yankees hit three last night, including the Alex Rodriguez one that just barely got out of the park, deflected off a camera and was ruled a homer only after a delay for replay. For the folks like the Commissioner who have their doubts about replay, the incident showed both that it can work-the delay was brief and the call was correct-but it also reflected the way in which it currently doesn't, with four umpires running off of the field to make a call. That's where the real delay comes, which is why you need a fifth umpire in the booth empowered to make these decisions.
In fact, last night's game shows just how important it is to get these calls right. You may recall that one reason the argument over Joe Mauer's double that was ruled foul in the Division Series was muted was that the Twins had subsequently loaded the bases and then not scored. There was an air of "well, they had their chance" to the discussion. Had they scored a run, though, the sequence that followed would not have necessarily been damning-they would have had the lead. Had last night's initial call stood, the Yankees would have had men on second and third with one out, and while you can't know that events would have happened the same, Hamels did proceed to get out of the inning on four pitches, and it's probable that the Yankees would have had one fewer run. Getting the call right changed the inning, changed the game, and prevented the course of events from being altered by the umpires.
The Yankees likely would have won anyway, as they hit Hamels and the Phillies' bullpen hard after that inning, roping two additional homers, including a pinch-hit shot by Hideki Matsui. With the exception of solo shots by Jayson Werth in the sixth and Carlos Ruiz in the ninth, the Phillies didn't do anything after that second inning. But the use of replay last night worked, and it can work in any number of situations beyond what we saw last night, maintaining the integrity of the game with a minimal addition of time.
Werth provided most of the good news for the Phillies. He doesn't have quite the platoon splits that Ryan Howard has-he could play if he did-but he does things to lefties that make him a good guy to bat behind Howard. Last night he hit a great pitch low and away for a second-inning homer, yet another good pitch hit for a homer in this series. Later, he hit an absolute bomb out to left field in the sixth, punctuating it enthusiastically at home plate. Werth took a long time to get healthy enough to stay in a lineup, but now that he has, this series has been something of a coming-out party for him. He is a five-tool player in the best sense of the term, contributing at the plate, in the field and on the bases, leavening the tools with skills, and, like Chase Utley, being a better player than is generally known.
The Phillies are now trailing in a postseason series for the first time in their two-season run, and Charlie Manuel's decision to use Joe Blanton tonight rather than Cliff Lee, defensible in the moment, means they're a favorite to trail by more. At least they don't have to worry about momentum.
More on Game Four from the park before the game. Remember to check out @joe_sheehan on Twitter for in-game reactions.