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October 20, 2010

Playoff Prospectus

Fear and Loathing from the Cheap Seats

by Jay Jaffe

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Decades ago, while calling a University of Utah football game from a blizzard in Laramie, Wyoming, the great Utah sportscaster Bill Marcroft described the scene: "It's not the end of the world, but I can see it from here." That's exactly how I felt from my seat in Yankee Stadium's Section 431A, Row 12 on Tuesday night, perched high enough to see the top of the left field foul pole, far enough from home plate to test the limits of corrective lenses, yet all too close to the ugly late-inning implosion which pushed the 95-win defending world champions to the brink of elimination from the ALCS at the hands of the upstart Rangers.

Down two games to one after Cliff Lee smothered them the night before, the Yankees entered the night in precarious position behind A.J. Burnett, owner of the highest ERA (5.26) and second-highest SIERA (4.42) of any pitcher to make a postseason start in 2010. While perhaps not as desperate as the tense and frigid throngs which witnessed the infamous "Bloody Sock" game back in 2004—in the new ballpark, everyone's better scrubbed, the bleachers (where I sat with Cliff Corcoran that fateful night) connect to the mainland, and these were the Rangers, not the Red Sox—this was not the festive crowd of a team three wins away from a return trip to the World Series. This was the anxious crowd of a team with one boot heel bruise in the ribs, waiting for the other boot to drop in the form of the disaster-prone Burnett.

But even with a dreadful season under his belt, Burnett could provide at least some reason for optimism, in that he had handled the Rangers at a .232/.303/.319 clip during his three starts. Meanwhile, opposite number Tommy Hunter represented the weak link in the Rangers' rotation, a pitch-to-contact type who puts too many balls in the air for his own good, a potentially fatal proclivity at the NuYankee homer haven, where more longballs were hit than all but one other ballpark in 2010.

The Yankees took an early lead, lost it, tied it, regained it while Burnett wobbled through the first five innings, chasing Hunter midway through the fourth but failing to deliver the coup de grâce as reliever Derek Holland worked out of a jam. Things took an ominous turn for the hometown team in the bottom of the fifth, when Mark Teixeira blew out his hamstring running out a fielder's choice grounder; he was safe at first base via a slide and an off-the-mark throw, but carried off the field, he was obviously done for the series if not the season. When Alex Rodriguez snuffed out the two-on, one-out rally by grounding into a double play, it seemed to suck all the oxygen from the ballpark.

Burnett had actually gotten most of the 49,977 in attendance on his side from the get-go, with the crowd standing to will him on with every two-strike count from the game's first hitter—which was actually something of a distraction given our high-altitude sight line from 431A. In the row directly in front of us, an overgrown kid dressed in a pinstriped Derek Jeter jersey over a navy blue hoodie—a balding, 40ish man accompanying his 8-year-old nephew, it turned out—popped up so many times in the early innings that I thought we were playing Whac-A-Mole. To his credit, that owed to Burnett's getting ahead of hitters; he got first-pitch strikes of the out-of-play variety on 14 of the 21 hitters he faced through five, going 0-2 on five of the first seven and eight out of those 21. He found trouble in the third inning via a leadoff walk to David Murphy, a wild pitch, a hit by pitch, a sac bunt, a run-scoring fielder's choice, and then a soft grounder by Michael Young on which Rodriguez couldn't find the handle, scoring the Rangers' second run.

That erased the one-run lead which the Yankees had gotten via Robinson Cano's solo homer in the bottom of the second, his third shot of the series but one which barely cleared the right-center field wall. Rangers manager Ron Washington popped out of the dugout to question whether Nelson Cruz had been interfered with—from the replay later it certainly appeared he had a case—but the ruling on the field stood. The Yankees appeared to double their lead two batters later when Lance Berkman poked a drive down the right field line for another home run; right field ump Jim Reynolds, the same one who'd made the previous call, said so. But again Washington came out of the dugout (more Whac-A-Mole?) to argue, and this time the umps took the play under review. The partisan crowd booed vociferously as the men in blue filed off the field, but perhaps because enough of them had a view of the play to know better, the overturned call didn't generate nearly as much outrage.

The crowd's worst fears about Burnett were confirmed in the next inning, when he couldn't protect the one-run lead which the Yankees had regained. They'd done so via a two-out Derek Jeter triple off the center field wall quickly followed by a Curtis Granderson smash to second base, too hot for Ian Kinsler to handle, and then via the rally which chased Hunter in the fourth: a Rodriguez hit by pitch and singles by Cano and Berkman sandwiched around a Nick Swisher strikeout, capped by a fielder's choice generated by Holland which scored A-Rod. With two outs and a man on second—one batter away from a quality start, all any Yankees fan could have hoped for from Burnett coming into the game—manager Joe Girardi ordered his pitcher to intentionally walk righty-masher Murphy (who homered off Burnett this one time, see) to face Bengie Molina. A pushover against righties this year (.213/.252/.292), Molina nonetheless mashed Burnett's next pitch, an inside fastball, down the left field line for a three-run homer and a 5-3 lead, a buzzkill for the buzzing audience.

Après ça, le deluge. Obscenities poured from the upper deck, with dazed parents and uncles too wearied to earmuff children already up well past their bedtimes. The Yankees went down on just 11 pitches in the sixth, and Girardi belatedly tucked into his bullpen, only to find it wanting. Strafed for five ninth-inning hits the night before, David Roberston did get the first two hitters out, but Girardi brought on LOOGY Boone Logan to face Josh Hamilton, who despite his subpar splits against lefties had already rocked CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte for a pair of big first-inning home runs thus far in the series, and had doubled off Logan to key the game-breaking ninth-inning rally the night before. Logan threw two 93-mph fastballs in succession, one about a million feet off the plate, the other right in Hamilton's happy zone. The slugger's towering shot came down quickly but cleared the wall by a few feet in right center, near Cano's homer. That ended Logan's night, and on came Joba Chamberlain to reinforce his suitability for only low-leverage duty. A Vlad Guerrero double, a four-pitch walk to Cruz, and a single to right by Kinsler extended the lead to 7-3 and had me muttering to all within earshot that Chamberlain should be fed to the pigs, Brick Top style. That was more than enough to cue the exit of my companion for the night, a Manhattan high school teacher whose shot at six hours of sleep had already sailed out of the yard with the game's four-hour pace.

The hometown nine went down in order against Holland in the bottom of the seventh, but the decision to pinch hit Jorge Posada, who'd been benched in favor of Francisco Cervelli, was enough to set any Yankees fan's blood to boil—because it was at least three hours overdue. The emergence of a Burnett-Cervelli battery has always struck me as a dubious one, given that the myth of catcher ERA has long since been debunked, and as bad as Posada's pitch-blocking skills have become as he's aged—the supposed reason why Burnett preferred Jose Molina to Posada last year, generating controversy galore when the two paired up five times in the postseason—Cervelli is an absolute slob behind the plate. Despite being named as the organization's best defensive catcher by Baseball America for four straight years—as the Jumbotron politely informed us during his first at-bat—Cervelli caught a lower percentage of base thieves than Posada, accompanied by a higher rate of wild pitches per nine innings, and tied for the league lead in errors—five more than anyone else besides Jason Kendall—despite starting just 80 games. He'd grounded out on the first pitch he saw in the third inning, just before Jeter's triple signaled the Yankees lineup's ability to square up on Hunter the second time through the order. He'd struck out looking facing Holland with two on and two out in the fourth, the spot where Girardi should have pulled the trigger. Yes, Cervelli is much stronger against lefties than righties, but the switch-hitting Posada is still better, and having already bollixed the lineup with the little backup's presence, the right move would have been to go to the big bat in the high-leverage situation. Instead, here was Posada pinch-hitting with a four-run deficit and nobody on base. Fail.

The Yanks did almost make a game of it in the eighth, loading the bases via three walks while Washington emptied his bullpen. Granderson walked to chase Holland (who gave his team 3 2/3 strong innings of work, retiring one more hitter than Hunter) in favor of Darren O'Day, who struck out Marcus Thames but walked Rodriguez, then Clay Rapada walked Cano before departing in favor of Darren Oliver. But with the tying run at the plate, the pinstripes couldn't deliver. Oliver got Swisher on a routine fly ball to center field then got ahead 0-2 against Berkman—sadly, now a pushover against lefties—on a pair of outside fastballs. Berkman wound up lashing a ball to third base which Young nearly olé-d again—shades of the Ranger's Game One meltdown—but he came up with the ball despite bobbling it as he spun, firing to second base for the force. Fans began filing out of the stands en masse at that point, and while one can take issue with them turning their backs at that point, this time their instincts proved all too correct. Sergio Mitre came on in the ninth inning and immediately yielded another homer to Hamilton; two batters later, he also surrendered a two-run homer to Cruz to run the rout to 10-3. Feh.

So the Rangers have now taken a commanding 3-1 lead in the ALCS, putting the 50-year-old franchise (neé Washington Senators II in 1961) one win away from its first trip to the World Series. Their offense has now rolled up 30 runs on the Yankees in four games and is hitting .307/.390/.536 for the series. Hamilton, the favorite in the regular season MVP race, now has four homers and a headlock on the series MVP award unless Cliff Lee gets back to the hill—which, by the way, is now the Rangers' worst-case scenario should they lose the next two games. The Rangers' staff has limited the majors' most potent offense to a mere 11 runs on .198/.295/.321 hitting, with nobody besides Cano—or, suddenly, Jeter—able to make solid enough contact when it matters. The Yankees are now 6-for-39 (.153) with runners in scoring position, the Rangers 15-for-37 (.405); if such an imbalance were a boxing match, the referee would have stopped the fight.

As it is, the defending champions are on the ropes. They retain a puncher's chance, but they'll need to solve C.J. Wilson while CC Sabathia summons a much stronger start than he has thus far in the postseason, and that's just to get the series back to Texas. It's not the end of their season, but you can see it from here.

 

 

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

1 comment has been left for this article.

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