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October 7, 2010

Playoff Prospectus

Lefty-on-Lefty Violence

by Jay Jaffe

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Francisco Liriano was cruising. On a day when Cliff Lee had delivered the goods against Tampa Bay and Roy Halladay had gone down in history with his second no-hitter of the year and just the second in more than a century's worth of posts-season baseball, he was holding his own. Through 5 1/3 Liriano had shut out the Yankees, allowing just two hits and two walks as the Twins rolled to a 3-0 lead in their American League Division Series opener. Working out of jams in the second and third innings, he'd found a groove, retiring 10 straight Yankees, beginning with an emphatic three-pitch strikeout of Alex Rodriguez to end the third. To that point Liriano had whiffed six hitters, four of them going down swinging against sliders. But just as the going-on-27-year-old lefty's pitch count passed 80, all hell broke loose against the heart of the Yankees order.

Mark Teixeira laced a double into the left field corner on Liriano's 81st pitch then advanced to third on a wild pitch as Rodriguez worked a walk. Robinson Cano drilled a single through the right side—A-Rod had to leap to let it go through—to put the Yanks on the board. After coming back to whiff Marcus Thames on yet another wicked slider, Liriano fell behind 3-1 to Jorge Posada before the Yankees catcher lined a shot juuuuust over the head of a leaping Orlando Hudson and into right field, cutting the lead to 3-2.

Up next was Curtis Granderson, who's spent most of his seven-year major league career flailing at southpaws to the point— a .215/.274/.346 career line in 859 plate appearances—that it's been politely suggested he yield to a platoon partner. Granderson has tried hard to change his ways of late; in the midst of a disappointing debut season with the Yankees, he went to hitting coach Kevin Long in mid-August and asked for help. The results have been a resounding success: Granderson hit .261/.356/.564 with 14 homers from August 12 to the end of the regular season, belting more longballs than anyone except Jose Bautista over the timeframe. Small sample sizes be damned, the work to quiet his swing appears to have particularly paid off against portsiders: .286/.375/.500 in 64 PA since his appointment, compared to .206/.243/.275 in 107 PA prior.

Which is why Yankees manager Joe Girardi gave no thought to sitting Granderson against the Twins' ace southpaw. "He’s a different hitter now, we think," said Girardi before Wednesday's game. "You look at what he did the last two months in his at-bats against left-handers. He was a different guy for us. I know there was a lot of talk about him against left-handers in the beginning of the year and coming into the year, (but) his at-bats against left-handers were good."

Ron Gardenhire had his chance to pull Liriano in favor of Jose Mijares, but he stuck with his starter rather than bring in his shaky-of-late left-handed reliever. Granderson took a called strike, a slider on the outside black, then laid off two fastballs even further outside. Liriano brought a 94-mph heater back to the black but up in the zone, and Granderson smashed a towering shot which clanked off the Target Field scoreboard in right-center field, a two-run triple for a 4-3 Yankees lead. For a Twins team that had been swept by the Yankees last year in the ALDS and that had lost nine straight playoff games dating back to the 2004 ALDS opener against—guess who?—the Yankees, and had run up an 18-54 record against the Bronx Bombers under Gardenhire, it had all the makings of a coup de grâce. A dejected Liriano departed after 106 pitches in favor of Mijares, who fell behind 3-1 before getting Brett Gardner to ground out to contain the damage.

The Twins didn't roll to 94 wins and their sixth AL Central flag in nine years under Gardenhire by surrendering easily, and they clawed their way right back into a tie the way the Yankees so often do—with patient at-bats against a flagging starter. Through the first five innings, CC Sabathia had been the shakier of the two ace southpaws, surrendering three early runs. He'd grazed Jim Thome on the shoulder to lead off the second inning then served up a 2-0 sinker that didn't sink but sat squarely in the center of the plate and was crushed by Michael Cuddyer for a 428-foot homer to dead center field. Sabathia needed to work past a two-out double by J.J. Hardy to escape further trouble.

The Twins dinged Sabathia for another run in the third. Hudson led off with a single to left—take that, Joe Torre, wherever you are!—and when Joe Mauer slapped a 3-2 curveball between first and second base, Sabathia had lagged behind the play as though he needed a tugboat to turn the big freighter around. With first base thus unattended, Mark Teixiera was forced to dive to the bag to beat a diving Mauer, and in the hubbub, the heady Hudson—who'd been running with the pitch—alertly rounded second and slid into third headfirst. He raced home when Sabathia's next pitch, a low-and-away changeup at which Delmon Young flailed, careened away from Posada towards the Twins' dugout on the first base side.

Last week, when Sabathia had taken his regular turn in the rotation on four days' rest to halt a 1-5 slide and clinch the Yankees' playoff spot, much had been made of the fact that he'd be working the post-season opener on a full week's rest. CC prefers less rest to more—who knew he was such a Calvinist?—and the numbers back him up; over the course of his career, the big man has put up a 4.02 ERA in 39 regular season starts with six or more days of rest, compared to 3.60 in 191 starts on four days and 3.44 in 88 starts on five.

Still, Sabathia looked to be more game and less gamey than Liriano when he whiffed Mauer on three pitches (good morning, good afternoon, good night), but Young jolted a 2-0 changeup to left field that the TBS camera crew certainly thought was leaving the yard—tie ballgame, Yankees fans within earshot muttered—but the ball died on the warning track and settled into Gardner's glove. Perhaps shaken by the scare, Sabathia lost the strike zone, issuing four straight balls to Thome after getting ahead 0-1, then serving up a changeup that Cuddyer pounded into the left-center gap. Gardner nearly pulled off a spectacular diving catch; though he couldn't hold on, he deflected the ball to keep it from reaching the wall and letting Thome score. Jason Kubel got ahead 3-0 and drew a disconcertingly easy five-pitch walk to load the bases, and rookie Danny Valencia, a contact hitter not particularly known for his patience (6.2 percent unintentional walk rate), laid off four straight balls to force in the tying run.

Sabathia finally escaped by striking out Hardy, but the damage had been done. At 111 pitches, he was cooked, but regardless of the outcome beyond this point in the game, the Yankees held something of an advantage in that so long as they avoided a sweep, they'd get their top gun back to the mound for Game Four under more comfortable circumstances, while Liriano wouldn't be available until Game Five.

Despite Mijares having thrown just seven pitches to end the sixth, Gardenhire called upon righty Jesse Crain, a move that made sense in facing righty Derek Jeter, who flied out, but turned switch-hitters Swisher and Teixeira around to their stronger sides. Swisher fell behind 0-2 but managed a single to right, and then Teixeira—whose walkoff homer in Game Two of last year's ALDS pushed the Twins to the brink of elimination—skied a shot down the right field line that stayed fair for a two-run homer and another Yankees lead. The Yanks kept the pressure on when Rodriguez singled, forcing Gardenhire to pull Crain in favor of lefty Brian Fuentes. A-Rod stole second base and took third as Fuentes got Robinson Cano to ground out, but the Twins' lefty got lefty-masher Marcus Thames to ground out as well.

Girardi used Boone Logan and David Robertson to get through an adventurous seventh, with the former yielding a two-out single to Mauer and the latter immediately walking the nearly unwalkable Young to bring up the fearsome Thome. Visions of tape-measure homers circa the 1998 ALCS came back to haunt Yankees fans as they covered their eyes, but Robertson jumped ahead of the slugger with called strikes on the first and third pitches, a seemingly crushable fastball and then a tougher curve. He then delivered a 59-foot hook which appeared to bounce before Thome swung, strike three.

Sticking with a quick hook for his relievers—they don't call him Coffee Joe for nothing—Girardi brought out Kerry Wood for the eighth. He whiffed Cuddyer on high cheese, but walked Kubel, who yielded to pinch-runner Jason Repko. Valencia hit a slow dribbler towards shortstop, but the far-ranging Rodriguez cut Jeter off; realizing that he had no play at first, he flipped to Cano at second to try to get Repko, who'd overrun the bag. The heads-up play almost worked—they'd have built a statue for Jeter for even trying it—but the runner scrambled back safely, and Cano dropped the ball anyway. Wood got Hardy to ground out, but with Repko advancing to third, Girardi called for Mariano Rivera.

As staggering as Rivera's postseason numbers (0.74 ERA across 133 1/3 innings, 30 saves of more than three outs in 88 appearances) may have been, Girardi had expressed "trepidation" about calling upon the venerable closer for long work based upon his rough September, which had included three blown saves in a 14-game span. When he fell behind 3-0 to Denard Span, one could almost understand why, but after getting a called strike, Rivera ran a cutter in on the hands, got Span to foul another one off, and quelled the threat with a groundout. Rivera came back in the ninth to win a nine-pitch battle with Hudson via a grounder and got Mauer to line out right to Cano.

With the Yankees one out away from snatching a 1-0 lead in the series, Rivera appeared to sew up the victory by getting Young to hit a dying quail to right field, where defensive replacement Greg Golson snagged the ball just before it hit the grass. But right field umpire Chris Guccione blew the call, ruling Golson had trapped the ball. Girardi burst out of the dugout to plead his case, asking the gathered sextet of umps to check the ball for grass stains, to no avail. In the context of the astounding gaffes of the men in blue over the last couple of years, it was hardly a singular moment, but the obstinate idiocy of Commissioner Bud Selig's hardline stance about not advancing the cause of instant replay looks even more ridiculous when outfield umpires presumably dedicated to such calls can't even get them right. ROBOT UMPIRES NOW, PLEASE.

Rivera was unflappable in the face of such a mistake. Yankees fans cringed while Twins fans moved to the edges of their seat with Thome coming to the plate, but the marquee matchup between the two 40-year-old future Hall of Famers ended abruptly, as the slugger popped up a first-pitch cutter that ran in on his hands. The ball settled into Rodriguez's glove, and the Yankees had broken serve.

Moreso in yesterday's writeup at Pinstriped Bible than in my epic Playoff Prospectus, I focused upon the battle-within-the-battle between the two teams' lefty starters and the opposing lefty hitters. Nothing influenced my Yanks-in-four call for the series so much as the fact that in Sabathia and Andy Pettitte, New York could send southpaws to the hill in four out of five starts to counter Span, Mauer, Thome and Kubel, much of the muscle of the Twins' lineup; secondarily, switch-hitter Hudson would be the only Twin ensured of a constant platoon advantage. The Twins, by contrast, could send at best three southpaws to the hill, Liriano and Brian Duensing, facing Cano, Granderson and Gardner—a much smaller footprint within their offense over the course of the series; furthermore, with the switchable Swisher, Teixeira and Posada and a readymade DH platoon between Thames and Lance Berkman, the Yankees would have a bigger platoon advantage .

Sabathia held the Twins' four lefties to a 1-for-9 showing, with a hit-by-pitch and two walks; the sole hit was Span's single to lead off the first. Liriano, by contrast, gave up two hits and a walk in seven plate appearances versus lefties, but the hits were big sixth-inning blows, first Cano's single and then Granderson's triple. As with comedy, timing is everything, and for yet another October night in a long line of October nights stretching back over the past decade and a half, the seemingly vulnerable Yankees had perfect timing.

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

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