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November 3, 2009

Prospectus Today

A Player's Game

by Joe Sheehan

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Game Five of the World Series was about players. In a postseason where we've spent endless amounts of time talking about the managers and the umpires, we finally got a game in which the players took total control. From Chase Utley's three-run homer in the first inning through Ryan Madson inducing a game-saving double play in the ninth, there was example after example of players making plays, a dearth of mistakes by the non-playing personnel, and when it was over, at least one more game to play.

The drama snuck up on all of us last night. After the Phillies chased A.J. Burnett out in the third inning, giving Cliff Lee a five-run lead, there was an air of inevitability to the proceedings. After he pitched out of a first-and-third, one-out spot in the fifth, allowing just a single run, Lee banged out the next two innings in just 27 pitches, cutting off the path to a Yankee comeback that entailed the Phillies needing to get a lot of outs from their shaky bullpen. When Utley and Raul Ibaņez buried Phil Coke even deeper in the Yankee pen with solo homers in the bottom of the seventh, you could hear America flipping to the fourth quarter of the Saints/Falcons game.

The Yankees, though, had a bit more in them. They'd been making better contact against Lee then they did in Game One, and when Lee was let down a bit by his defense in the eighth-Jimmy Rollins was unable to gun down Johnny Damon on a playable grounder-that greater hittability led to two quick runs and his own exit. Lee's performance might not have worked on a different night-he gave up a number of hard-hit gappers-but with the eight runs in his pocket, it got the job done. He'd gotten the Phillies to the six-out mark, which is about as much as you can ever hope for.

In the spot where they'd been failing, the Phillies pen came up big. Chan Ho Park cleaned up Lee's mess, getting three outs-including a sacrifice fly-on 11 quick pitches. The extra run set up a save situation and 15 minutes of "who's coming in?" discussions, ones that only ended when Charlie Manuel summoned Ryan Madson, not Brad Lidge, for the ninth. The decision to get his best reliever into the game was laudable, and perhaps foreseeable after the choice of Park to pitch the eighth. But then Madson fell behind the first three batters he faced, allowing a double to Jorge Posada, a single to Hideki Matsui, and going to 2-0 on Derek Jeter.

The Phillies are still a significant underdog to win this World Series, maybe as high as 7-1. If they do, though, there will be any number of heroes, any number of moments to remember. The 2-0 pitch to Jeter may end up forgotten, but it shouldn't be. Madson was a bad pitch away from turning what had been a blowout into a game the Phillies would be fortunate to win. If Jeter reaches, the Yankees have their 2-3-4 hitters up with no one out and the tying run on base. The Phillies had their best reliever in the game and their second-best one toweling off. There was nowhere else to go.

Madson threw a 94 mph fastball down the middle, a cripple pitch if there ever was one. Jeter took it, which is proper procedure for facing a pitcher in that spot. He wants to get on base, wants to let the pressure build on Madson, wants to make him work into a tough situation. Now, at 2-1, Jeter had given a little ground, and that ground would cost him. Madson's next pitch was also a fastball, this a bit better located, in on the hands, and Jeter chopped it towards shortstop. The single biggest hole in Jeter's exceptional offensive game is that he's a right-handed ground-ball hitter, and as such, is someone prone to hitting into double plays. The only thing that he can't do in that spot is hit into a double play, as it would wipe out the tying run at the plate.

Madson beat Jeter. He threw a strike on 2-0 and then a better strike on 2-1, and seconds later, the Phillies were off the ledge, as well as off the potential Lidge. Johnny Damon would add some drama by working back from 0-2 to knock a single on the seventh pitch he saw-reminiscent of his at-bat against Lidge Sunday night-but Madson got ahead quickly on Mark Teixeira and ended the game with his best pitch, a changeup.

The Yankees had gone from dead to damn near a favorite to win the game, and in two pitches, Madson put them away again and gave the Phillies a chance, not a great one, but a chance to win the World Series. When you start the night down 3-1, that's all you can hope for.

---

  • A.J. Burnett didn't allow six runs in two innings because the Yankees started him on three days' rest. He allowed six runs in two innings because he's A.J. Burnett, and he sometimes shows up with nothing, and the Phillies will kill you if you show up with nothing. Burnett couldn't put Jimmy Rollins away to start the game, eventually giving up a single after two 1-2 foul balls. Two pitches later-a hit batsman and a home run-the game was 3-1. Shane Victorino may have bunted at the pitch that hit him, and he may have been in the strike zone when he was hit, but there was enough disagreement on both points that you have to let it go. Burnett wasn't able to get ahead of hitters to the extent that he did last Thursday, and he wasn't getting as many swing-and-misses or called strikes. None of these things are necessarily related to his being used on short rest, and the rush to declare starting him a mistake-and to project Burnett's failure onto Andy Pettitte's expected start-is hasty. The surprise isn't that the Phillies smacked Burnett around; it's that he pitched so well against them last week.

  • Chase Utley can play a little bit. He now has five homers in five World Series games, and will get at least one more game to break the tie for the record. John Perrotto has more on Utley today; I'll just note that maybe it's time for the baseball world to recognize that he, and not the MVP Award winners on either side of him, is the best player in the Phillies' infield.

  • Alex Rodriguez did it again, driving in the game's first run and then two more during the team's abortive comeback in the seventh. Had Jeter managed to make just one out, or Teixeira found his way down to first base, he would have been batting with a chance to tie the game or even to win the World Series, and it's a measure of how far the story on him has come that every fan in the park knew exactly when he was coming up, and was terrified about the prospect of facing him with their season on the line. Utley may end up as the World Series MVP no matter what happens, but Rodriguez is the Yankees' top candidate at the moment.

  • Derek Jeter is a truly great player who has had an amazing career, but that was a devastating swing of the bat last night, and it's not that unusual for him. Jeter hit into a huge double play that killed a rally in Game Two of the ALCS, two in the first three innings of Game Three of the 2007 Division Series (in a game the Yankees won) and another in the shutout loss that ended that series. Many of my memories of Jeter are of him making two outs with one swing, but somehow getting praised because he did so with high effort. That DP last night was worse than just about any strikeout you can imagine.

  • Phil Coke's four-batter, two-homer outing was critical in retrospect, and it served to justify Joe Girardi's decision to elevate Damaso Marte into high-leverage roles this October. However, Coke was the right choice last night at that spot in the lineup and with the Yankees down by four runs; he simply didn't get the job done in a very loud, very costly fashion. The Yankees may not need him the rest of the Series-Marte and Mariano Rivera will be used to get Ryan Howard in any game-relevant situation.

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

Related Content:  A.J. Burnett

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