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November 2, 2009

Prospectus Hit and Run

The Terrific Tandem

by Jay Jaffe

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Dear Haters,

Eat it.

Love,
Alex Rodriguez

Last night, in the ninth inning of Game Four of the World Series, Alex Rodriguez put to rest the seemingly endless string of complaints that have dogged him since 2004 regarding his ability to come through in the clutch. Never mind the fact that 15 of his 30 homers this year either tied the score or gave the Yankees the lead. Never mind the fact he had already bopped six homers during the Yankees' current postseason run, early-inning homers to kick off the scoring or late-inning-even extra-inning-homers to tie games. For some of his critics, that could never be enough, simply because he's the highest-paid player in the game, and a socially awkward one at that.

Last night, in the ninth inning of Game Four of the World Series, Alex Rodriguez came to the plate with two outs and the opportunity to drive in a run to give his team the lead in a World Series game-the kind of situation just about anyone who's ever played baseball has daydreamed about, whether in their own backyards as a school kid or when putting pen to ink on a multi-million dollar deal. And he did. And it was good. Knowing that with a runner on third base he could expect a fastball, Rodriguez ripped a 92 mph Brad Lidge offering into the left-field corner to bring home Johnny Damon, restoring the lead that the Yankees had held from the top of the first to the bottom of the eighth, only to fritter it away. The Yanks would add two more runs on a Jorge Posada single one batter later, but it was Rodriguez who drove in the decisive run, giving the Bronx Bombers a commanding 3-1 lead in the World Series. It doesn't get much more clutch than that.

It took a bit of help from his teammates to have that opportunity, of course, and it was Damon who more or less manufactured that opportunity. With two outs in the top of the ninth, he battled back from the 1-2 hole Lidge had put him in, stretching the at-bat to nine pitches by fouling off slider after slider and fastball after fastball. Finally, he poked a soft liner into left field for a single.

What happened next is the stuff of timeless World Series lore. With struggling Mark Teixeira at the plate and the infield playing an extreme shift, Damon decided to steal his way into scoring position. He broke on Lidge's first pitch, a slider; holding runners is not something the Phillies' closer does well. Catcher Carlos Ruiz snared the ball in the dirt but didn't have time to rise out of his crouch. He two-hopped a weak throw in front of third baseman Pedro Feliz, who picked it up about three feet in front of second base, leaning towards first base. Damon popped up out of his slide, the bag swiped cleanly, then alertly took off for third base when he saw no Phillie was covering. What made the play so brazen was that when he broke, Feliz was still less than three feet away; a faster infielder might have caught the 35-year-old Yankee, or at least made a desperate dive to attempt to do so. A better organized infield might have never allowed it; Jimmy Rollins was left to take responsibility for the mistake, not for the last time he'll be in that position if current trends continue.

It was a brilliant play, for not only did it put the go-ahead run 90 feet away, it took away Lidge's best weapon, his slider. He did throw one to Teixeira on his next pitch, but after evening the count, he plunked the Yankees' first baseman to put runners on the corners and set the table for the delicious confrontation with Rodriguez.

Up to that point, the game had been a memorable one, if something of a plodding affair as well. Up two games to one, the Yankees had jumped out to a 2-0 lead against Game Four starter Cliff Lee Joe Blanton, who yielded two hits and a run on his first six pitches, a Derek Jeter single, a Damon double, and a Teixeira groundout. The Yankees added another after Blanton plunked Rodriguez, the third time in two games the slugger had been hit by a pitch. It didn't look particularly intentional, but as A-Rod gazed towards his own bench as if to say, "Come on, guys, isn't it time we got even?" the umpires converged and decided to warn both benches. Jorge Posada followed with a sacrifice fly to plate Damon.

Pitching on three days' rest, and now enjoined from any type of retaliation, CC Sabathia plodded. He surrendered back-to-back one-out doubles by Shane Victorino and Chase Utley, then ran up his pitch count via an eight-pitch strikeout of Ryan Howard, a five-pitch intentional walk of Jayson Werth, and then a three-pitch strikeout of Raul Ibaņez. Though the Phillies only got the one run, they made a man who needed to conserve his bullets fire 24 pitches before it was all said and done.

Sabathia settled down for a couple of innings, but spent another 20 pitches getting into and out of further trouble in the fourth when Howard snapped an 0-for-9 slump with a sharp single, then boldly stole second base. Two outs later, Feliz-who came into the game hitting .143/.182/.310 for the playoffs-collected the first of his three hits on the night, scoring Howard to knot the game. Then it was the Yankees' turn to interrupt Blanton's flow. Nick Swisher worked a leadoff walk to start the fifth, snapping Blanton's streak of retiring 11 Yankees in a row. An infield single by Melky Cabrera-Chase Utley gloved the ball and tried to glove-flip it to Jimmy Rollins for the force, only to send it on an absurd arc over second base which he almost caught a few paces later-and then singles by Jeter and Damon gave the Yankees a 4-2 lead.

Still Sabathia labored, putting Rollins and Victorino on with nobody out in the fifth and having to walk through the lion's den of Utley, Howard, and Jayson Werth. In between about 17 different trips to the mound by Posada, he induced the two lefties to pop up to Jeter, then battled Werth to a seven-pitch strikeout, ending a 22-pitch inning. By that point, his pitch count was at 88, and he looked to have another inning in him at best despite manager Joe Girardi's claim that he might go as far as 110 or 120 pitches. Luckily for the Yankees, his mileage improved; a seven-pitch sixth induced Girardi to let the big man bat to lead off the seventh. He was one pitch away from a one-two-three inning, with Utley in a 1-2 hole, when the Phillies' slugger, who'd nicked him for a pair of solo homers in Game One, launched another one, this to deep right field to trim the lead to 4-3.

That ended Sabathia's night at 107 pitches, his shortest outing of the postseason, and his first allowing more than two runs. Whereas the Phillies' hitters had gone just 10-for-53 against lefties in Games One and Three for a .189/.268/.453 line, they went 7-for-27 with three walks and 12 total bases against the big man, who also generated only 10 swings and misses, his lowest total of the postseason. Still, he left with the lead, and when Damaso Marte got Howard to fly to left, the Yankees were six outs away from a victory.

They almost never got there. In the eighth, Girardi called upon Joba Chamberlain, who looked as though he was starting to rediscover his relief mojo as he blew away both Werth and Ibaņez with some 95-97 mph gas. He got ahead of Feliz 1-2 on three more heaters, but evened up the count when he started nibbling with sliders low outside the zone-admittedly, the kind of pitches a hacker like Feliz might fish for. Alas, the full count allowed Feliz to sit on the fastball, and he sat on a 97 mph one, crushing it to left field for a game-tying homer.

When the Yankees were down to their final out in the ninth, their skipper appeared prepared to reprise the mistake of another Joe in another Game Four by losing a game with somebody besides his best pitcher on the mound. He warmed up lefty Phil Coke in anticipation of pinch-hitter Matt Stairs leading off the bottom of the frame, and not until Damon's bold bolt for third did Mariano Rivera begin warming up. Only after all hell broke lose in the ninth did Girardi wind up with the right reliever. A night after using just five pitches to get two outs, Rivera needed only eight to get all three.

Johnny Damon's dash is what will likely be remembered years from now, and a well-deserved memory it will be, particularly after the tenacious at-bat in which he worked his way on base. But he's not the only hero of this ballgame. On the night after Halloween, Alex Rodriguez chased away some ghosts with his first World Series game-winning hit. He's now hitting .348/.483/.804 with six homers and 15 RBI this fall, and after all the drama that has dogged him since reports of his steroid usage broke, he produced on the game's biggest stage in the biggest moment of his career. It may never be enough for some if his critics-it wasn't Game Seven in the bottom of the ninth with the Yankees trailing, and he didn't pledge to donate his entire annual salary to an orphanage in the postgame jubilation, after all-but those left standing to point a finger at him for being somehow unclutch are completely out of ammunition now.

And the Yankees are one win away from their 27th World Championship. The path to their fourth victory isn't as straightforward as it might otherwise be, given that tonight they'll face ace Cliff Lee, who nearly shut them out in Game One, while hoping that a less-than-fully-rested A.J. Burnett can string together his second straight glowing start, this time against a lineup that got a good look at his repertoire and his pattern of first pitch strikes. It may not be the ideal scenario for the Yankees, but it's one for which the Phillies would certainly trade.

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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