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October 8, 2010

Playoff Prospectus

Stop Me If You've Heard This One

by Jay Jaffe

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A brilliant Andy Pettitte start. A bat-breaking Mariano Rivera save. An upstart contender pushed to the brink of elimination, their October dreams in danger of being snuffed out in short order. Same as it ever was.

The Yankees followed that time-honored blueprint against the Twins in Game Two of the American League Division Series on Thursday evening. Pettitte, who came into the game already holding the all-time record for post-season starts (40), innings (249), and wins (18), pitched like a man who'd done it all before a thousand times, looking much more like the veteran who'd gotten off to a career-year start than the one who'd missed nearly all of the second half due to a groin strain. After throwing 10 pitches to leadoff hitter Denard Span in the bottom of the first inning, he never threw more than six to any one hitter, effectively mixing in his four-seamer, two-seamer, cutter and curveball.

His second inning was his shakiest; he threw all of 16 pitches, after which TBS sideline reporter Craig Sager, resplendent in a mustard gingham blazer that brought to mind somebody's grandmother's couch* reported that the 38-year-old lefty consulted with pitching coach Dave Eiland to review video between innings. They must have found what they were looking for, because Pettitte returned to retire the next 11 Twins on just 33 pitches. He worked through the third and fourth on just 14, and clocked out at just 88 after seven innings, matching his four-inning October 2 start against Boston, his highest total since July 8. Tied 2-2 through six, the Yankees added two more runs during a 27-minute top of the seventh that saw opposite number Carl Pavano unravel after a stellar performance of his own, and manager Ron Gardenhire get ejected for questioning home plate umpire Hunter Wendlestadt's questionable strike zone.

More specifically, Gardenhire was arguing a 1-2 sinker to Lance Berkman which according to both MLB Gameday and TBS PitchTrak wound up right on the inside edge of the plate, just below the belt—a strike, in the common parlance, but nooooo. With the benefit of the call, Berkman pounded Pavano's next pitch off the wall in center field, sending Jorge Posada, who'd drawn a leadoff walk, home from first with the go-ahead run. It was the second big hit of the day for Berkman, who in the fifth inning had tied the game with a solo homer into the Twins' bullpen in left-center. That matched his regular season total since coming over from the Astros on July 31; troubled by an arthritic knee and a sprained ankle, the 34-year-old Big Puma hit just .255/.358/.349 in 123 plate appearances for the Yankees. His troubles against lefties have reduced him to the role of a platoon DH, batting eighth in a stacked Yankees lineup, but on Thursday, he made general manager Brian Cashman look very smart for acquiring him.

Which had to feel good on a day when one of Cashman's biggest mistakes looked quite good for the opposition. Pavano, who for $39.95 million over four years managed just 26 starts with a 5.00 ERA for the Yankees while finding new ways to piss fans and management off when he wasn't getting hurt, held his former team to two runs while scattering seven hits through the first six innings using just 75 pitches. Relying primarily on his sinker and changeup, he drew just three swing-and-miss strikes out of his 93 pitches—he wound up throwing as many without retiring a hitter in the seventh as he did in any other inning—but his pitch-to-contact style induced the normally patient Yanks to swing early in the count; 11 of the 24 hitters he faced through six saw just one or two pitches.

As they did in Game One, the Twins struck first. Delmon Young led off the second inning with a sharp single up the middle, and Jim Thome followed that with a bloop single to left. Michael Cuddyer, who tormented CC Sabathia the night before with a two-run homer and a double, tapped a short grounder to third which advanced the runners; somewhere, a Productive Outs accountant peed himself. Pettitte, already in trouble, appeared headed for the ropes when he walked Jason Kubel on four pitches to load the bases. Danny Valencia, who had walked to force in the tying run against a flagging Sabathia the night before, lifted a first-pitch fly ball to right field, deep enough to score Young on a sacrifice.

The Yanks tied the game in the fourth with a sac fly of their own. Curtis Granderson—him again, the player I nominated as the surprise of the series for the Up and In playoff preview podcast—nearly replicated his big hit from the night before by crushing a double off the right-center field wall after getting ahead 2-0. On the next pitch, Mark Teixeira dunked a sinker into left field for a single, and then Alex Rodriguez wasted no time by hitting a fly ball to right to bring home the run. The Yankees looked poised for more when Robinson Cano teed off on a Pavano sinker, lining it over Kubel's head, but the right fielder played the carom perfectly to hold him to a long single. Pitching coach Rick Anderson visited the mound to pull Pavano together, and two changeups later, the Twins got a room service 1-6-3 double play to end the threat.

An inning after Berkman's homer put the Yanks up 2-1, Pettitte gave the run back. After retiring Span to run his streak to 12 straight hitters, Orlando Hudson drilled a hanging curveball to left field for a solo homer, sending what had become a glum Target Field crowd of 42,035 into a frenzy. Joe Mauer grounded out on his first pitch, inducing mutters throughout the Twitscape that the boy ain't right. Young got ahead 2-0 on Pettitte and skied a fly ball to right-center field which deflected off the lip of Granderson's glove for a triple. Thome took a Ruthian hack at a 90-mph fastball, but wound up meekly tapping a cutter back to the mound. 

The Yanks retook the lead on Berkman's double, his fifth extra-base hit in 12 lifetime at-bats against Pavano. They added another run after Gardenhire was tossed when Brett Gardner beat out a bunt to the third base side of the mound, with Valencia missing in his effort to pick the ball up (fundamentals, people!). Derek Jeter hit a blooper to right field which landed just in front of a diving Kubel, who trapped the ball as Berkman scored. That was it for Pavano, who yielded to lefty Jose Mijares. Granderson greeted him with a lousy sac bunt that Mijares could have used to nail Gardner at third (fundamentals, people!), but instead he took the easy out at first.

Mijares then intentionally walked Teixeira to load the bases for Rodriguez, dangerous territory given that over the past two years, teams have immediately yielded three grand slams to A-Rod; the Twins were one of those three teams back on May 14 via Matt Guerrier. This time acting manager Scott Ullger brought in Jon Rauch, who struck out the slugger on four pitches, the last of them a curveball in the dirt. Rauch then got Cano to pop up to end the inning.

After the 27-minute half-inning, Pettitte would have been excused had he not returned for the seventh. Instead he returned to put an exclamation point on both his health report and his day, retiring the Twins 1-2-3 on 11 pitches. Cuddyer struck out on three pitches, the last of them a low changeup, Kubel popped up a 2-0 pitch, and Valencia worked to a full count before looking at a called strike fastball on the outside corner.

Following a downright filthy inning from reliever Kerry Wood—10 pitches, nine strikes, two Ks—the Yankees would add one more run before it was all said and done. Facing Minnesota closer Matt Capps, Gardner singled to right, advanced to second on a Jeter grounder, and then stole third. Granderson blooped a single into center, his third hit of the evening and fourth of the series. Rivera showed up for ninth-inning festivities, and after allowing a single to Mauer—which snapped a 1-for-8 slump thus far in this series—got Young to hit into a 6-4-3 double play, then retired Thome on a soft fly to right.

So the Twins are now down 2-0 despite opening at home, something only one team out of 28 has surmounted in the wild card era: the 2001 Yankees, who required Jeterian intervention to survive.  They've now lost 11 straight post-season games dating to the 2004 ALDS, the last five to the Yankees. From the seventh inning on in those five games, they've been outscored 18-2, and they're now 18-56 (.243) against the Bronx Bombers in the Gardenhire era. I normally avoid putting myself inside the heads of any players, but if that kind of imbalance doesn't represent an upper hand on the psychological front, I don't know what kind of numbers would. I feel pretty secure in saying that the true talent levels of these two teams isn't enough to render the Twins—a team that's made the playoffs six times in nine years under Gardy—worse than the 1962 Mets, and that luck's not enough to account for the difference.

While it was easy to get onboard with the decision to skip A.J. Burnett, I first-guessed Joe Girardi's decision to pitch Pettitte instead of Phil Hughes in Game Two and a potential Game Five based upon the former's health and stamina questions and the latter's fly ball tendency, which plays better in Target Field than it does NuYankee Stadium. Pettitte has more than delivered on his part of the deal already, and he's also made Girardi's plan to offer as many as four lefty starters to counter the Twins' four lefty hitters (Span, Mauer, Thome and Kubel) look smart as well. After going just 1-for-9 with a hit by pitch and two walks against Sabathia, that quartet went 2-for-11 with a walk against Pettitte on Thursday, with both hits coming in the first two innings via another leadoff single by Span and then a second-inning single by Thome that led to their first run.

Mauer and Thome are a combined 3-for-16 with a walk and an HBP overall, while the rest of the team is hitting just .219/.292/.375. That looks more like the second coming of Rod Kanehl than it does the AL Central champions. Needless to say, the Twins are going to have to summon more to overcome their pinstriped tormentors, and they'd do well to find a different script than the one they're using.

*hat tip to Keith R.A. DeCandido for that one

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

Related Content:  Right Field,  The Who,  Single,  Fourth Of July,  A-rod,  The Call-up

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