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April 18, 2010
Rangers at Yankees
This time of year, you get to say things like "the Yankees have won every series they've played" and not have to think too hard about the reasons why. But with two wins against the Rangers already booked, they were gunning for a sweep before setting out for next week's West Coast swing through Oakland and Anaheim. Already at 8-3 and close to the Twins for the highest Hit List factor in the league, they were closing out their fourth straight series against an expected contender, having played the Red Sox, Rays, and Angels previously.
With Andy Pettitte on the mound but Derek Jeter out with a cold—even the immortal are mortal—the Bombers wouldn't be at full strength. Absent the Captain, Joe Girardi may have lost the double leadoff man effect of having Brett Gardner in the nine hole, but having an on-base threat as good as Gardner to spot atop the lineup on Jeter's day off underscores the extent to which this remained a strong lineup. Ramiro Pena got his first start of the season in his place; where some skippers might fidget over changing any player's roles, for today's lineup card Girardi flipped Gardner up top, left Nick Johnson in place in the second slot, and appropriately slotted Pena ninth. No major calculations were required.
For the Rangers, this was an attempt to redeem the series and even up their early-season record. Notionally, swapping from Kevin Millwood to Rich Harden meant that the club's stopper was on the mound. If ever the off-season risk of turning to the unpredictable Harden to deliver on their upside bet on him was supposed to deliver, the present would do nicely. If not, at least the Rangers' pen was relatively full, after Friday's rain-shortened six-inning loss, and then with Saturday's blowout really only costing them mop-up man Doug Mathis' services after his 3 2/3 innings of sponging up after Scott Feldman.
On the lineup card, the Rangers also had their own leadoff switch to work with, as Elvis Andrus was spotting for Julio Borbon as the Rangers elected to add right-handed people to the lineup against Andy Pettitte, also spotting Ryan Garko at first base for Chris Davis, while moving Josh Hamilton in Borbon's place. Overall on his career, Pettitte's been a bit neutral in terms of his platoon splits, with some seasons outright bass-ackwards; benching Davis in Yankee Stadium seemed a strange adaptation, certainly, but to play Garko as well might have involved putting Vlad Guerrero in the outfield, and maybe David Murphy on the bench with Nelson Cruz in center. That's understandably unattractive, so you can't fault Washington much, especially with Davis running cold.
The outcome was perhaps a classic example of the downside of having Harden, balanced against the value of having someone like Pettitte, someone you can afford to let work out of his own in game trouble to see if he can reach cruising speed. Harden opened the bottom of the first by chopping down Gardner on a low and inside fastball—Pitch F/X's description aside, he was having trouble dialing up his heat—getting Johnson on a called strike, then hitting Mark Teixeira as well on a 1-2 fastball. Still struggling with fastball location, he walked Alex Rodriguez, then gave up a run on a second-pitch sac fly to Robinson Cano. He closed the frame out with his second called strikeout on the game, victimizing Jorge Posada, the fifth of six plays where his defense wasn't involved. Cue the foreshadowing alert: called strikeouts would become a bit of a leitmotiv in today's contest.
The Rangers scrabbled back in the third, as Matt Treanor hit a crisp single to left, moved to second on an Andres Blanco sac bunt, and then scored on a well-pulled shot down the line to left by Elvis Andrus past A-Rod. Then Michael Young lined a single to right, plating Andrus, putting the Rangers up 2-1. But that was the point at which Pettitte became more himself, allowing two walks and no hits through the next five frames. In his comments after the game, he noted that he'd also struggled with early-game location... until he didn't.
Harden, meanwhile, obligingly combusted. Having squelched a second-inning threat with two men aboard with his second called K against Nick Johnson, he fell from the high-wire act in the third. Mark Teixeira ripped his first homer of the season to right field to lead off the frame, after which A-Rod walked. Posada got a silly single on a towering pop-up down the left-field line that David Murphy pulled up on, thinking it would drop foul. Instead, it landed just fair, turning a Texas-sized can of corn into a base hit. Curtis Granderson walked to load the bases. Harden looked like he might escape after getting his second strikeout of the inning on Nick Swisher (swinging), but Ramiro Pena whistled a single directly over Garko's head; maybe that's a ball Frank Howard might have speared, but either way, a matter of inches were just enough to plate a pair of runs
With that, it was 4-2 Yankees, and that would be all they'd need once Pettitte switched into gear. Harden made things frightening in the fourth, walking Johnson, getting Tex to hit into a 4-6-3 deuce, and then giving up two more baserunners, but Washington brought in the towering Dustin Nippert, who closed the inning with a left-field fly. As a combination, going from Harden—relatively short and quite wild—to Nippert makes for an interesting in-game switch, one which might make the tilt of Nippert's deliveries from 6-foot-8 that much more difficult. Having put out the fire in the fourth, Nippert would do a fine job of keeping the game close by throwing a pair of shutout innings, but allowing a full-count lower-deck homer to Posada in the bottom of the seventh—his fourth frame he'd appeared in—ended his day. Darren Oliver would close out the game with a pair of scoreless frames, including—you guessed it—a pair of called strikeouts. Mariano Rivera was handed the save opportunity in the ninth, and recorded his own pair of called Ks to get in on the action en route to another lead preserved and another notch on what has to be an extra-long belt.
Seeing Nick Johnson get called out on strikes three times (and draw a walk) elicited concerns among some in the box that the DH might be a little passive; after the game, Girardi shot down any quibbling, saying, "I'm not upset with Nick Johnson, I like his patience at the plate, I like his approach. … That's going to happen, when you get two strikes on you."
Since Johnson was called out on strikes in his first two plate appearances, he had a shot at becoming just the sixth hitter to be handed the called golden sombrero from 1974 to the present. However, he walked and flew out to left his next two times up, meaning that he had no shot to join Bobby Smith (August 24, 1999), Luis Castillo (June 20, 2001), Todd Linden (July 23, 2007), Justin Duchscherer (June 17, 2008), and Carlos Villanueva (October 1, 2006) in this particular hall of ignominy, even with a called strikeout in the eighth. (For the curious, the called sombrero had been inflicted exactly 300 times from 1974.) Since Duke and Villanueva are hurlers, it's been handed to a non-pitcher just three times. It also came at the hands of an unlikely suspect—home-plate ump Mike DeMuro isn't especially noteworthy for his impact on strikeouts. Sometimes, these things just happen, and the nine called Ks on the day weren't especially historic, however noteworthy—the highest single-game tally for non-pitchers from 1974 to the present is 15, achieved on September 7, 1997 by the Tigers and Angels, but that was a 15-inning joust. All told, 16 different games have had tallies of a dozen non-pitcher called strikeouts since 1974.
To be blunt, parking Johnson in the second slot is exactly the sort of thing the most stathead-y skipper would do, so points to Girardi. Balanced against his walking somewhere around 16 percent of the time, you've got the concern that he's a double-play threat, but looking at last season's performance, his NetDP tally of 2.84 was tied with Kosuke Fukudome (faster by reputation and in a footrace) for 78th among the 346 major-league hitters who accrued 200 PA last season. It's above average, but hardly tragic; switch over to the number of double plays he hit into in double-play situations, and he dropped to 100th. Basically, it's an acceptable risk, one that doesn't force Girardi to run with Brett Gardner in all situations as if he was being trailed by a latter-day Jim Rice. (Or a current-day Hunter Pence or Miguel Tejada or Mike Lowell, guys hitting in double plays in nearly a quarter of their opportunities.)
With that, a 5-2 Yankees win with a strong resemblance to so many others over the years: Pettitte cruises, Posada parks one, and Rivera swiftly strangles any hope for an opponent. However frequently those elements may seem to be part of the Yankees' regular playbook, it's worth seeing because of what's at stake in the season to come.
Thanks to Eric Seidman for research assistance.