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November 1, 2009

Prospectus Today

Game Three Recap

by Joe Sheehan

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"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.

---

  • My friends who spent the dynasty years at Yankee Stadium were uniform in spending the season talking about how New Yankee Stadium wasn't nearly as loud. I spent those years in LA, so I can't make a comparison. I can say that Citizens Bank Park, which was loud last year, makes New Yankee Stadium seem like a meeting of the Gallaudet alumni club. It's just a great crowd in a great park.

  • The auxiliary press box at CBP is down the left-field line in the terrace, a pretty good location as these things go. It's a terrific angle for watching a pitcher keep a runner close at first base. In the first inning, Jimmy Rollins was completely confused by Pettitte, who admittedly was spending a lot of time keeping him that way. On a number of pitches, Rollins was moving back towards the bag as Pettitte was delivering the ball to the plate. On the stolen base, Rollins simply guessed, going on Pettitte's first move. It was an entertaining inside-baseball moment between one of the best basestealers in the game and one of the best at keeping runners close.

  • Cole Hamels' second-inning bunt was sublime. It was an easy sacrifice, but he placed it in a spot where Pettitte would have had to make an acrobatic play to get him at first. No one was covering third, taking away that option. Jorge Posada had the only play on the ball, but he pulled up thinking Pettitte was making a play. The play didn't cost the Yankees as much as it might have, and certainly won't be what people remember from Hamels on this evening, but it was a fantastic bunt.

  • Has the escape hatch closed? Nick Swisher, benched in Game Two, had a double and a homer last night. Swisher has generally been better from the right side, and was rightly put back in the lineup last night in part for that reason. Prior to the game, Girardi didn't cite Swisher's splits, but did say, "In Game Six against the Angels, we thought his at-bats were real good right-handed." They were real good last night as well. We'll see if they're real good tonight, from the other side, against Blanton.

  • The Phillies did make the Yankees use Mariano Rivera, and while Rivera threw just five pitches, he also warmed up, so that's something. It's possible that Rivera could go in three straight games, but it's less likely that he could pitch in three straight games and be a two-inning reliever multiple times. With Sabathia throwing tonight, Girardi probably has a game like Game Two in mind, where he hands the ball from his ace to his ace reliever. With a chance to take complete control in the series, Girardi shouldn't let a game Monday night get in the way of winning tonight-if he has to burn Rivera to lock up the win, he should do so.

More on Game Four from the park before the game. Remember to check out @joe_sheehan on Twitter for in-game reactions.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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