October 21, 2010
ALCS Game Five
With the Yankees in the unusual position of being in an elimination game, the question Wednesday was whether they could at least end their last home series of the long season with a victory. Whatever happens in Texas may not stay in Texas—the National League has got World Series home-field advantage, after all. But Wednesday's contest was about staying alive while giving a desperate crowd something to feel glad about, should this be the end of a season, of an era, or of an association with the complete quartet of the Core Four.
In this, the Yankees were entirely successful with a 7-2 victory over the Rangers in Game Five of the American League Championship Series, giving the Bronx a band as well as a drama worthy of the name. They did so in the face of a major setback—Mark Teixeira's hamstring injury takes him out of any calculations for this series as well as the next one. And they did so with CC Sabathia pitching through trouble time and again, while dispelling the spectre of whether they could beat C.J. Wilson on the merits instead of as a measure of managerial misconduct.
Take the absence of Tex. Going up against a quality left-hander in Wilson, Joe Girardi did not do what you or I might expect, placing Austin Kearns in the lineup in the outfield and moving Nick Swisher to first base. Instead, he took his chances with Lance Berkman as a marquee player and as someone with more past relevant experience—in the playoffs as well as at first base. In point of fact, beyond Berkman, Girardi started everyone in front of Kearns—Brett Gardner in left, Marcus Thames at DH, even center fielder Curtis Granderson, the fabulous flailure against left-firing flingers. With Kearns joining Greg Golson, Francisco Cervelli, Ramiro Pena, and the newly activated Eduardo Nunez, it's well you might ask whether it would take a Biblical disaster, a Presidential order, or a Michael Bay screenplay to get him into action.
Wednesday, such things didn't matter, because with everything at stake, all sorts of happy, scrappy bits of joy came into play. Granderson, having good at-bats against lefties? Sure, why not? Baserunners taking the extra base, or advancing on outs to the outfield? Sure, works for Texas in its offensive innings, so why not? But add in Swisher and Robinson Cano jumping all over the second pitch in their second at-bats against Wilson in the third--they'd seen enough, and they knew what to do with it, which was smoke it first, and ask questions about where it landed later. The two bombs made it 5-0, enough to win, but a lead made more comfortable later, courtesy of Charlie O. Finley and his sub-amazing ass.
That wasn't the only bit of role reversal, though. Where the Yankees were moving up on fly-ball outs and trying to create the odd happy accident—like adding a run on Jeff Francoeur's throw in the second—the Rangers were taking their best shot at honing in on a Yankees trademark, generating a ton of baserunners against Sabathia and forcing him to burn through a lot of pitches, to the point that there was little doubt he'd come out after a long sixth inning, having already given up 11 hits and averaged more than four pitches per batter three complete trips through the order.
That still left three frames to go, but Girardi commented before the game that, in an elimination game, “you might stretch Woody and you might stretch Mo more than you would normally stretch them.” He did exactly that, letting Kerry Wood face six batters. Where Sabathia had pitched into and out of trouble, Wood simply eradicated his own, picking Elvis Andrus off second base while striking out three of the other five batters he faced. Then he turned to Mariano Rivera, and the game was already gone.
One thing to notice is the reliability with which the charges of Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux seem to carry out their gameplans. In Game Four, Tommy Hunter wasn't going to give Alex Rodriguez the inside corner, brushing him back the first time out before beaning him the next time around. Wednesday, Thames didn't get around on anything, while Derek Jeter kept hitting tappers to the infield. On a day like Wednesday, when Wilson was struggling with location from the outset, you could still see—and respect—elements of a plan.
Even in defeat, however, it's worth also noting the very Yankee-like things that the Rangers did. Rookie first baseman Mitch Moreland battled Sabathia at length—if fruitlessly—during the sixth inning, for example, but he was only one Ranger among many delivering something veritably Yankee-like in its well-spanked new digs. It's worth wondering if equally valid brands of desperation are inspiring better patience from the Rangers as well as more fully invested baserunning efforts.
Furthermore on the Rangers' side, if Wilson's control went missing in the second, and he left pitches out over the plate in the third, you can credit Ron Washington and Maddux alike for not panicking three innings in, down 5-0. Instead, they traded another two innings for another run, left the balance of the ballgame to their least-used relief duo of rookies Michael Kirkman and Alexi Ogando, and settled for just two runs allowed in the last six. It wasn't quite Derek Holland's Game Four heroics, but it was remarkable just the same, because they stranded a trio of Yankees at third base. In short, there was a lot less to complain about as far as managerial decisions, and beyond Wilson's lost sense of command and control in the early going, it was another game in which the expectations of a big score and big innings early didn't exactly come to pass, absent the late-game humiliation and pain.
The question that's left is whether the Yankees sans Tex can win two in Texas. In the broad strokes, I'm inclined to say of course they can, except that Game Seven will put them up against Cliff Lee. Even if they beat Colby Lewis or—more likely—the Rangers bullpen on Friday in Game Six, there is still the expectation of perfection to deal with in a seventh game, either as a matter of combating it or producing their own in kind. Even if you might charitably consider Game Four an evener for Game One's outcome, there's still the decision to match Phil Hughes up with Lewis, and the need to reverse that the next time around.