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October 8, 2011

Playoff Prospectus

A Night for the 25th Man

by Jay Jaffe

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"Donny, You're Out of Your Element!" –Walter Sobchack, The Big Lebowski

On paper, it looked like a mismatch. Already with low-wattage hitters in the leadoff and number-three spots in Austin Jackson (.249/.317/.374) and Delmon Young (.268/.302/.393), Tigers manager Jim Leyland dug into his reserves for the deciding game of the AL Division Series and found a hitter who appeared even less qualified to bat in front of Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez: Don Kelly, who hit .245/.291/.381for the season in a role that Leyland termed “the 25th man” on the Tigers’ roster. A 31-year-old utilityman who played no less than seven positions for the Tigers this season—even pitching one-third of an inning, and catching once—Kelly instantly rewarded Leyland's faith, pounding a hanging Ivan Nova curveball into the right-field stands in the top of the first inning. One pitch later, Young creamed a high slider for his third homer of the series. Before the Yankees knew what had hit them, they were down 2-0 in an elimination game, and while they clawed their way back, in the end the Tigers prevailed 3-2, upsetting the AL's number-one seed in their own house.

Kelly had seen action in three of the four games this series, subbing in as a late-inning replacement for regular right fielder Magglio Ordonez, who is clearly on his last legs; he even started Game Four, and it was his first-inning, bases-loaded drive off A.J. Burnett that required Curtis Granderson to make a leaping catch to keep Detroit off the scoreboard. Kelly had gone 3-for-7 in his limited opportunities, showing Leyland enough at the plate that he decided to start him at third base in Game Five, instead of either Brandon Inge or Wilson Betemit, who had gone a combined 3-for-14 in the series. "I felt like he's been swinging the bat real good," said Leyland. "As I said before the game, he's got a little pop to him and he can reach that right field fence. Of course it didn't take him long to do it."

Nova had yielded just one home run in his previous eight outings, a total of 54 innings, including his rain-induced Game One relief effort. Sure enough, the two homers were a sign that something was off. Joe Girardi pulled him after just two innings and 31 pitches, explaining after the game that the 24-year-old righty was suffering from forearm tightness (he’s headed for an MRI). "After the second inning, he was stiff. And we didn't like the way the ball was coming out of his hand," said Girardi. "Some of his fastballs were cutting, and we never saw that. So I had to make a change. And I had to, you know, try to get our bullpen through it."

Indeed, Girardi unloaded his bullpen like the proverbial clown car, at times raising eyebrows with the timing of his choices, but Phil Hughes, Boone Logan, CC Sabathia, Rafael Soriano, David Robertson, and Mariano Rivera combined to pitch seven innings of one-run ball, yielding just five hits and two walks while striking out 10, to keep the Yankees within striking distance. The run came at the expense of Sabathia, making the first relief appearance of his career, that on two days of rest following Monday night's disappointing start. Coming out of the bullpen to start the fifth, he surrendered a leadoff double to Jackson—1-for-14 at that point in the series—and after striking out Kelly and Young, intentionally walked Cabrera to face Martinez. Sabathia left a slider over the plate, and the Tigers' DH poked it up the middle for an RBI single and a 3-0 lead. In the end, the big man got four outs, all via strikeouts, but yielded two hits and two walks, finishing up with a very odd series line of three appearances, 8 1/3 innings pitched, and six runs allowed—far short of what Girardi had expected when he slotted his ace in Games One and Four.

In the end, the game boiled down to the Yankee hitters' inability to break through against Tigers starter Doug Fister and company. The Yankees left six runners on base in the second, third, and fourth innings as they ran Fister's pitch count up to 82; the wiry righty needed 25 pitches to get through the third as the Yankees loaded the bases with one out via an Alex Rodriguez walk and back-to-back singles by Nick Swisher and Jorge Posada. Third-base coach Rob Thomson threw up the stop sign on the latter hit, a liner up the middle, as Rodriguez, who played all series in considerably less than mint form, rounded third. That unscored run would loom large once Russell Martin and Brett Gardner both popped out, the latter after getting ahead in the count, 3-1.

The Yankees did put a run on the scoreboard after the Tigers scored their third run, when Robinson Cano drilled a two-out solo homer off of Fister, his second homer of the series. Nonetheless, it took just 10 pitches for Fister to work through the top four hitters in the Yankees' lineup (Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson, Cano, and Rodriguez) in that inning. That was the last crack they would get at him.

Prior to the game, while Girardi had trumpeted Sabathia's availability, Leyland had dismissed the idea of using his ace, Justin Verlander, due to his high pitch count (120) and maximum effort on Monday night. "I'm not going to use Verlander. I am not under any circumstances. He threw a side today hoping to pitch in the near future… He went a little longer than CC the other night. He was also throwing 100 miles an hour in the eighth inning. He's also thrown a lot of pitches under stressful circumstances." Instead, the Tigers skipper offered up Game Two starter Max Scherzer, who had thrown six shutout innings in Saturday's win, as an extra reliever.

Scherzer worked through a scoreless sixth in which he surrendered a single to Posada (his sixth in 13 at-bats to that point, in what may have been his final game in pinstripes). With one out in the seventh, Jeter beat out an infield single to shortstop, and Leyland again went to his bullpen, this time in favor of Joaquin Benoit, a questionable choice given that Scherzer held Granderson to an 0-for-3 showing with a strikeout on Saturday.

Before Benoit could face Granderson, however, a bit of gamesmanship ensued, as Girardi requested that the reliever remove a sizable Band-Aid from the left side of his face, concealing what looked like an emergent second head (it was an infected ingrown hair, yuck). Having turned the other cheek (sorry), Benoit yielded a sharp single to Granderson, and failed to glove a dribbler by Cano, loading the bases for Rodriguez, to that point 2-for-16 with four walks in the series. As righteous indignation at that overpaid bum stirred in a hundred hacks’ columns, the crowd of 50,960 (a NuYankee Stadium record) worked into a frenzy. Amid the noise, Tigers catcher Alex Avila made two trips to the mound; on ESPN Radio, Orel Hershiser suggested that the battery was changing signs because Granderson was signaling locations to Rodriguez.

If that was the case, it didn't help. Rodriguez worked the count to 2-2, but looked none too sprightly as he swung. Finally, he flailed at an 86 mph changeup for strike three and a smattering of boos. The rally didn't go for naught, however, as Mark Teixeira worked a walk to force in a run. Benoit escaped further damage by blowing a 96 mph fastball by Swisher for strike three.

With the A-list relievers mowing down the Tigers—Soriano, Robertson, and Rivera retired the last 10 Detroit hitters, getting 11 outs, including the former's double play, which ended the fifth—the Yankees still had two more innings to summon the tying run. A two-out Gardner single against Benoit went unaccompanied in the eighth. Jeter drove a ball to right field, but it died at the warning track, thus leaving the one-run lead in the hands of Jose Valverde.

On the season, Valverde converted all 49 of his save opportunities, though he did suffer four losses after entering tie games. A whopping 32 of his 49 saves included at least one runner reaching base; Rivera, for the sake of comparison, allowed a runner in just 13 of his 44 saves. In addition to his usual postgame antics, Valverde had found a new way to irritate the Yankees; after the Tigers' Game Two win, he guaranteed that the series wouldn't come back to New York.

He had already been proven wrong on that count, but Crazyface would get the last laugh. Granderson and Cano both flew out, and then Rodriguez—of course, who else?—took two strikes and a ball before a futile hack at a 94 mph fastball ended the Yankees season, completing Detroit’s first playoff series win since 2006, and sending them into the AL Championship Series against the Rangers. It was the Yankees' first first-round defeat since 2007, when the Indians and a swarm of midges ushered them out.

For the series, the Yankees outscored the Tigers 28-17, piling up 19 runs in their two wins, but falling short by a total of four runs in their three losses. The collective failures of their 4-5-6 hitters, Rodriguez, Teixeira, and Swisher—who hit a combined .164/.254/.255 with one homer—hamstrung an offense that otherwise hit a sizzling .308/.394/.466. As I noted in the preview, the matchup with righty-heavy Detroit largely neutralized their ability to punish lefties. Jeter in his old age has become a liability against same-side pitchers (.277/.329/.338 for the season), and endless second-guessing will ensue over Girardi’s decision to lead off with the Captain (.250/.280/.292 for the series), instead of Gardner (.412/.444/.471). On the other hand, his choice of Posada as the designated hitter against the Tigers’ northpaws paid off well; in his possible swan song with the Yankees, he hit .429/.529/.571.

Pitching-wise, Girardi made his mistakes by not handling his bullpen more aggressively in Game Two, when he presumed a four-run deficit to be a lost cause. While the bullpen for the most part didn't falter given extra work, the fact that the team got just a 4.50 ERA in 28 innings over five games from their four starters (including Nova’s work in relief in the suspended Game One) didn't help their cause. Questions in particular loom regarding Sabathia, who can opt out of his contract this winter; after helping the Yankees win a world championship in 2009, he has struggled in each of the past two postseasons.

Leyland did not entirely cover himself in glory during the series; twice, he phoned the wrong number in Al Alburquerque, and even with Thursday’s performance, his late-game relievers (not including Scherzer or Fister) allowed 11 runs in 12 innings. However, he went to the hook at the right time with Fister, and was rewarded for his decision.

 While the Yankee pitchers largely kept Cabrera and Martinez in check (a combined .212/.350/.393 with a homer apiece), Inge and Ordonez went 8-for-18 in part-time duty. In the end, the unlikely heroes, Young (.316/.381/.789 with three homers) and Kelly (.364/.364/.636), stood tallest among the Tigers hitters. "To have this moment in Yankee Stadium for Donnie Kelly, you've got your stars, but to happen to a guy like this, that's real special," said Leyland after the game, choking up at a question asked by yours truly (yes, I apparently made him cry at least a little bit). "Cabrera and those guys are going to have millions of memories, but this is one that Donnie Kelly will have forever. It's a real special moment." Perhaps not so out of his element after all, at least for one night.

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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