May 18, 2009
The standard baseball cliché is that if you go to a game, you'll always see something you've never seen before. This is true in the most literal sense, as no two games are exactly alike, and you'll often see, say, a player or pitcher you've never seen before. Often the new element is fairly mundane, or even ridiculous ("oh, look, it's Brett Tomko being brought into a critical situation"). Yesterday at Yankee Stadium, though... yesterday I saw something that's going to stick in my head for a long, long time.
You've probably seen the play by now. With the game tied in the bottom of the ninth, the Yankees had pinch-runner Brett Gardner on second base with one out. Francisco Cervelli hit a hard one-hopper back to the mound, a ball that Jose Mijares knocked back towards home plate with his glove. Mauer ran out to field it, leaving home plate uncovered. Gardner, with a head of steam rounding third and seeing the plate clear, didn't break stride and headed home. Mauer held his throw, turned and saw Gardner, and headed home to meet him. Mauer beat Gardner to the plate, then went one step further and instead of running to the plate, ran to the right-handed batter's box to force Gardner wide and place the tag on the runner as he dove helplessly past home.
We see runners try to score from second on long-play grounders on occasion. It seems to me to be more common than it used to, particularly with two outs. If there's a ball in the 5-6 hole, or deep up the middle, good baserunners won't break stride and will just head home, forcing the defense to make a tag play at the plate if they're unable to get the force out elsewhere. Catchers will, in most games, not run much at all; some back up first base aggressively, and occasionally they have to break into a sprint to make a play on a foul ball.
To see a catcher run hard for 40 feet to make a diving tag play on a runner trying to score from second with one out on a ball that never got past the mound... I'd never seen that before. From section 232a down the left-field line, I had a great view of the developing play, and what Gardner did was terrific heads-up baserunning. At the point at which he decided to go, home plate was completely uncovered, he was accelerating, and the catcher was 40 feet from the plate, moving towards first base, with his back to the plate and cocking to throw the ball. If Mauer releases the ball-if he hesitates at all-Gardner scores and the Yankees win. There aren't many runners in the game for whom this play would make sense, and Gardner is one of them. This wasn't reckless, false hustle, a poor risk; this was a terrific read of the situation.
For his part, Mauer did the one thing he absolutely had to do: eat the ball. He also reacted immediately to what he saw, turning to break for the plate with no hesitation. This is where his youth and athleticism came into play, because there are a lot of catchers who would have been beaten home by Gardner, catchers who simply wouldn't have had the speed to get to the plate in time. Mauer not only got there, but he got there in time to take any doubt away from the issue, running through the plate to take away Gardner's angle. It would have a been a great play for anyone; for a catcher, it was amazing. Mauer will win Gold Gloves right up until he becomes a first baseman just for that play.
This game featured two terrific starts, a walk-off home run, a couple of other runs scoring by beating throws to home, a great sliding catch by Nick Punto, and the best hot dog I've had at the Stadium in a while (Hebrew National foot-long from somewhere in the left-field main), and I can't stop talking about this one play. It had so many facets, from decisions that had to be made to tiny things that had to be executed. Would Gardner have made it if not for a slight deceleration heading into third base? How about the ball knocked down by Mijares bouncing to just the right spot to make it Mauer's play, far enough from the plate to leave the plate open to tempt Gardner, close enough to allow him to get back for the tag. Mauer's decision to not throw to first, when he might have actually had Cervelli-who is savvy enough to eat that ball, eat an out, in that situation?
A play like that will keep you coming back to baseball again and again. Everybody did exactly what they were supposed to do, and it created one fantastic moment.
Other notes from a cloudy, at times wet, day at the Stadium:
Does momentum exist? The Twins arrived in New York fresh off a sweep of the Tigers, winning the final game by coming back from a 5-0 deficit in the seventh inning, starting that against the recently untouchable Justin Verlander. They had a 4-2 lead in the ninth inning of the first game Friday night... and then got swept. If any team was positioned to play well based on how they'd been playing, how they'd been winning, it was the Minnesota Twins three days ago. Momentum, as applied to baseball, is a meaningless term used to explain things after the fact, and if the Twins' last week doesn't convince you of that, well, stick around and I'm sure we'll have another great example shortly.
I was on KXPS in Palm Springs last week and got a question that surprised me: Is Joe Girardi's job in jeopardy? I hadn't thought it was, which tells you a lot about how different life is around the Yankees as opposed to 15 years ago.
Thinking more about it, I don't think his job is in jeopardy, but I also don't think he's an asset for this team. Without reducing the man's body of work to one game, he made enough frustrating decisions yesterday to build a case for dismissal by 4:30 p.m.
Most egregious were his two bunt calls. The first, in the seventh, came with no one out and Hideki Matsui on second base. Kevin Slowey had just allowed consecutive extra-base hits to Alex Rodriguez and Matsui, and was pitching to Nick Swisher, and to repeat, with a runner on second and no one out. Swisher sacrificed, and Matsui scored on Melky Cabrera's sacrifice fly to left to tie the game. That's a terrible bunt; Slowey has shown the first signs of vulnerability he had all game, and Swisher is the type of hitter, with good power, who can take advantage of Slowey's high-ball tendencies. At the least, a ground ball or fly ball to the right side, advancing Matsui, was likely. To take the bat out of Swisher's hands in that situation was a hyper-conservative move.
In the ninth, Girardi called another bad bunt, this time with Gardner on first and Cabrera at the plate. The bunt set up the play discussed above, but the real issue is that Girardi took the bat out of Cabrera's hands and put the game in the hands of Cervelli and Robinson Cano against a tough lefty reliever. It was once again a seemingly reflexive bunt, automatic by score and situation, but much less defensible when you consider the personnel.
Managers never, ever get criticized for bunting. There's so much morality associated with small ball, with "playing the game the right way," that having a player, especially a good hitter, lay down a sacrifice will always return goodwill. That doesn't make it right, and when bunts do little to add to your chance of winning a game, they should be called out. Just because there's a mythology attached to a tactic doesn't mean the tactic can be implemented without an analysis of its effects. The two bunts Joe Girardi called for yesterday were bad ideas.
We also got to see Girardi's mishandling of the bullpen at work. Derek Jacques, who invited me to the game, made the key point: when a manager has a large group of relievers of comparable skill, as Girardi does, it's up to him to evaluate them and define their roles. Girardi has by and large failed to do this, running his pen in read-and-react fashion, changing his usage patterns based on what a pitcher did in his last outing, or his last batter. Yankee relievers, a group I was very high on eight weeks ago, have not pitched well this season, and they are responsible for that themselves. Girardi's approach, however, has contributed to the problem, as he's moved players in and out of spots and created an atmosphere in which everyone is pitching for their job at all times. Sometimes, pitchers have bad outings, even bad weeks; Girardi could have done a better job of waiting these out. Instead, he's constantly changed his patterns and now finds himself making seat-of-the-pants decisions and far too many changes in each game.
As a case in point, take the eighth inning yesterday. Girardi had called on Jonathan Albaladejo to get out of the seventh, and left him in to start the eighth. Albaladejo, who really should not be a high-leverage reliever, allowed two walks and a single to load the bases, bringing Girardi out as Denard Span came to the plate. This seemed like a spot for Phil Coke, but Coke had given up runs in consecutive games and didn't appear to be available. Instead, Girardi called on Brett Tomko-not Edwar Ramirez, not Jose Veras, not Alfredo Aceves-but Brett Tomko to get the biggest outs of the game.
The question this should create is why Tomko is on the roster at all, and it's one I can't answer. He's 36, and his last MLB season with an ERA below 5.00 came in 2006. His last with an ERA below 4.00 came in 1997. Tomko had a good month at Scranton, and Girardi doesn't really have a plan for his last couple of bullpen slots-he's rotated Mark Melancon and David Robertson through them so far, in addition to Anthony Claggett's bitter MLB debut-so Tomko it is. It worked, thanks to a great play by Mark Teixeria on Span, but if a team so very deep in right-handed relief has to resort to Brett Tomko with the bases loaded and one out in the eighth inning of a tied game, it reflects both some organizational confusion and a manager whose approach to managing a bullpen is reflexive and more about avoiding bad outcomes than creating good ones. If Girardi makes Tomko a high-leverage reliever rather than return to the better arms in his arsenal, it's a sign that perhaps the Yankees are being overly hampered by their manager.
I filled out my All-Star ballot at the game as well, so we'll talk about that later this week.
Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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