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Randy Johnson has become a spectacularly ordinary pitcher, highly hittable and lacking the blow-you-away fastball that was once the hallmark of his greatness. Of course if teams let him off the hook the way the Cleveland Indians did Sunday, it may not matter.

Time and again during Sunday’s tilt between the Indians and Yankees,
Johnson got into trouble. The Indians started each of the first five innings with a runner on base.
Johnson’s fastball kept catching the middle of the plate, leading to
several booming
hits into the gaps. But just when the Tribe looked ready to blow the
game
open,
they’d blow it by hacking at fastballs up and out of the zone, the only
kind Johnson
could throw by anyone. That impatience, along with Johnson’s
still-lethal
slider,
some Indians base-running blunders and some Yankee luck, combined to
keep the
Bombers in a game they should have lost early on. Here’s what
transpired:

We’re joined by Ken Singleton–an excellent broadcaster dating back to
his
days
working alongside
Dave
Van
Horne

in Montreal–and Dave Justice, who may be the worst baseball
broadcaster
in America.
Justice leads off by telling us how Johnson has come into his own in
his
last few
starts. Indeed, the numbers support Justice’s claim, as Johnson struck
out
eight and
yielded just two runs in seven innings his last time…except he
yielded
18 runs in
his previous 14 2/3 innings. Johnson heads into the game with an excellent
109 to 23
strikeout-to-walk
ratio, albeit with a lower strikeout rate than is usual for him in
121 2/3
innings pitched. He’s also proven to be far more hittable, yielding 124
knocks and
an alarming 19 homers. While a .313 BABIP explains much of the hit
total,
the homer
count, combined with watching just a few Johnson innings, seems to
suggest
he’s catching a lot more of the plate with his pitches, while lacking
the
velocity
he once used to overwhelm hitters. He’s facing an Indians lineup that’s
started to
hit in recent weeks after a slow start by nearly the entire team.


Indians

CF Grady Sizemore
LF Coco Crisp
DH Travis Hafner
C Victor Martinez
RF Casey Blake
1B Jose Hernandez
2B Ron Belliard
SS Jhonny Peralta
3B Aaron Boone

Travis Hafner came in riding the majors’ longest
on-base
streak (36
games), while Victor Martinez, Coco
Crisp
and
Jhonny Peralta have also turned it on lately.
Grady
Sizemore
jumps all over Johnson’s first pitch–a low-90s
fastball
right
down the middle–for a hard double to right. Sizemore, who doesn’t turn
23
until
next month, has racked up an impressive .285 EqA,
heading an Indians order that figures to be potent for years to come.
The
trade of
Bartolo Colon for Sizemore, Cliff Lee
and
Brandon Phillips ranks as one
of
the best
prospect bounties ever snagged at the trade deadline
. While
Phillips
hasn’t yet
panned out, Sizemore and Lee have established themselves quickly and
could
soon
develop into front-line players.

Justice wastes little time coming back with some more nails-on-a-chalkboard
“analysis.”
First, he makes no comment about Sizemore’s scorching double–jumping
straight into
Johnson’s stats as if on auto-pilot. Then, after Crisp strikes out on a
high, outside
fastball out of the zone, Justice offers this: “I’m really surprised
that
Coco Crisp
didn’t do any bunting there. You want to get on the board early against
Randy
Johnson, you’re not going to get many opportunities. When you get a
chance, you want
to make him pay.” Really, Dave? A lefty hitter just smoked Johnson’s
first
pitch for
a double, Johnson hasn’t been the Johnson of old for most of the
season,
the Indians
have the middle of the order coming up, it’s the first inning, the
Yankees
are one
of the best run-scoring teams in the game, and this is the time to
bunt?
Cool, just
checking.

After a nasty slider low and off the plate causes Hafner to whiff for
strike one,
the next slider proves flat, as Hafner whacks it off center fielder
Melky
Cabrera
‘s glove for a double, with Hafner taking third on the
throw home
(Sizemore had stopped, thinking the ball was going to be caught, then
ran
through a
stop sign to score). Martinez then smacks a hard shot to third on
another fat
fastball, but the ball goes right to Alex Rodriguez
for
the out.
Johnson’s approach to Casey Blake underlines his new
strategy. He’s
using fastballs to set up hitters early in the count, hoping they’ll
offer
at high
ones they can’t handle. Late in the count, Johnson will then go to the
slider, which
burrows so deep beneath right-handed hitters’ hands that it’s almost
unhittable.
Blake works the count to 3-2, only to be caught looking when a Johnson
slider
catches the plate instead for the strikeout.


Yankees

SS Derek Jeter
2B Robinson Cano
RF Gary Sheffield
3B Alex Rodriguez
LF Hideki Matsui
1B Jason Giambi
DH Ruben Sierra
C John Flaherty
CF Melky Cabrera

Hideki Matsui‘s hitting .450 with five homers over a
five-game
hitting streak heading into Sunday. After a slow start, he’s combined
with
Gary Sheffield and Rodriguez to form the best 3-4-5
combo
in the
majors:


TEAM    VORP
NYA    122.2
CHN    118.5
FLO    97.7
CLE    96.8
SLN    89.1
ATL    87.8
HOU    83.7
LAN    82.3
CIN    78.5
TEX    77.2
BOS    72.4
PHI    71.7
WAS    67.3
BAL    66.3
DET    64.9
PIT    63.0
MIL    62.3
SEA    61.6
ARI    61.6
NYN    58.5
MIN    57.9
ANA    56.1
KCA    51.6
COL    45.1
CHA    44.5
OAK    43.7
SFN    43.5
TOR    39.0
SDN    34.9
TBA    16.1

Jake Westbrook is on the mound for the Indians. A
sinkerballer who
rarely strikes hitters out, Westbrook is at his best when batters pound
the
ball into
the turf all day. He’d love this first inning: Derek
Jeter
1-0
groundout back to the mound. Robinson
Cano

0-2 groundout to second (it’s a mystery why Cano and his .316 OBP are batting second
in a
loaded
lineup like this one, instead of, say, Jason Giambi
and his
league-leading OBP–though maybe we shouldn’t be surprised, given how
managers too
often pick their #2 hitters
). Sheffield 3-2 groundout to third.

Jose Hernandez, starting at his fourth different
position
this year
and continuing his very effective utilityman/lefty-masher act, starts
the
2nd with a
single to center on another unimpressive Johnson fastball–if it’s not
above the
belt and outside, hitters are going to jump all over it at this stage.
Ron
Belliard
hasn’t gotten the memo, though, striking out on a
too-high
fastball as Hernandez steals second. But oh, that slider. Down 2-1 to
Peralta,
Johnson throws a frisbee under Peralta’s hands for a big whiff. Another
tough slider
barely gets fouled off. A show-me fastball runs the count to 3-2,
before
Johnson
comes back with a rare slider breaking away from a righty
hitter–strike
three…

…and then Boone destroys a juicy, first-pitch fastball for a long RBI
double to
left, 2-0 Indians. To Sizemore: slider strike, fastball ball, slider
strike, slider
strike three. Notice a pattern here?

The bottom of the second shows the fine line sinkerballers must walk to
succeed.
After Rodriguez makes it four straight weak groundouts to start the
game,
Matsui
hits a slow hopper to Belliard, one of the worst fielders at the deuce
in
the game.
Belliard’s slow charge and inability to get off a throw allow Matsui to
beat the
play. Giambi then wisely lays off an array of sinkers to draw a walk.
With
two on,
Westbrook starts nibbling, working Ruben Sierra away,
away, away
and running the count full in the process. Westbrook’s full-count
fastball
misses,
and suddenly what looked like another easy inning has become a big
problem. First
pitch to the next hitter John Flaherty is an absolute
gift, a
get-me-over fastball right down the middle. Flaherty hits it pretty
well,
but only
manages a sacrifice fly to center. The overmatched Melky
Cabrera

then taps a groundout to first to end the threat (it’s early, but it
looks
like the
Yanks will
have to trade for an outfielder, because Cabrera’s either not ready,
not
good
enough, or both). What could have been a huge inning quickly dissolves
due
to the
Yankees offering no threats at the bottom of the order.

Potpourri time:

  • Westbrook at the All-Star break: 19 starts, 115.2 IP, 108 H, 11 HR, 34
    BB,
    69 K,
    .267 BABIP, 6-11 W-L, 4.51 ERA. Compare that to last year, when
    Westbrook
    put up
    nearly identical peripherals plus a higher BABIP of .277, but went 14-9
    with a 3.38
    ERA. Aside from showing the unreliability of both won-lost record and
    even
    ERA as a
    predictor of future performance, Westbrook’s results also underscore
    how
    tough it is
    to thrive consistently as a sinkerballer in the bigs. Brandon
    Webb

    went from being one of the best pitchers in baseball in his rookie year
    to
    leading
    the league in walks because people stopped swinging at the sinker.
    Derek
    Lowe
    ‘s ERA jumped nearly two runs from 2002 to 2003; though
    his
    home-run
    and walk rates swelled somewhat from one year to the next, the 50 more
    hits allowed
    in 16 fewer innings did him in, following Lowe’s rabbit-foot
    .238
    BABIP
    showing in ’02. Performances rise and fall based on the smallest
    events,
    like a
    hitter
    barely laying off at the last second, or a few more balls scoot
    through
    the infield
    for hits.

    Steven Goldman interviewed Tommy John (one of
    the
    best
    sinkerball pitchers of all-time and an accomplished pitching coach
    )
    recently at
    Old-Timers Day at Yankee Stadium and asked him why, in this era of high
    home-run
    totals, more pitchers don’t throw sinkers. John interrupted Goldman and
    said that’s
    what it’s all about: “Sink, sink, sink, sink, sink.”

    When healthy, Kevin Brown has shown an extended run of
    dominance
    with the pitch. But he’s the exception, not the rule. Webb, Lowe and
    Westbrook,
    perennially the top three GB/FB pitchers in the majors, go into every
    season hoping
    karma intervenes and keeps those four-hoppers in the infield. Bottom
    line:
    It’s hard
    to throw a hard, sinking fastball with control and succeed with it
    every
    year.
    Really hard.

  • Though the Indians trail four teams in the AL Wild Card standings, BP’s
    Postseason
    Odds
    Report
    gives the Tribe the best shot at winning it, at 25.6% (the
    Twins are
    second at 13.3%, the Yankees fourth at 8.1%). A big part of that
    projection owes to
    the Indians’ schedule, the easiest of all the contenders as they face
    the
    weak
    underbelly of the AL Central numerous times down the stretch. Meanwhile
    check out
    the Yankees’ assignment right out of the All-Star break: four at
    Boston,
    three at
    Texas, four at the Angels. Ouch.

Crisp opens the third inning with another first-pitch, ringing double, a blast
to
left-center that would have gone out in almost any other park, but
instead
bounced
against the 399 sign at Yankee Stadium. The Indians trail only the
Green
Monster-aided Red Sox in AL doubles. Hafner taps an inside slider to
Giambi for the
first out, moving Crisp to third. Wait for it…there, Justice is
ready:
“That’s a
nice job by Travis Hafner. You’re only going to get so many
opportunities
to score
off Randy Johnson. You’ve gotta try to put as much pressure on…”
…as
possible,
yes, we know, Dave…wait, what’s that? “But so far in this outing
Randy’s
not as
sharp as he was in his last outing against Baltimore. Many more pitches
out over the
plate.” When ex-players become broadcasters, are they sent to the Ned Flanders School of
Re-Neducation

to have mindless mantras pounded into their heads? It’s like Justice is
watching the
game, deep down he knows
Johnson is being crushed, but some great cosmic force is
compelling
him to
play the productive outs card. Martinez grounds to third with Crisp
forced
to hold,
and Blake pops out. No doubt the Indians should have squeezed with
their
cleanup
hitter.

No scoring in the bottom of the third. Hernandez makes a great diving
play,
then later
runs his streak to seven straight hits off Johnson.

Top of the fourth, Hernandez draws a leadoff walk, then Belliard picks on
another
flaccid fastball for a single to right to put men on first and second
with
no outs.
The Indians then either miss a hit-and-run sign or Hernandez is
confused,
as he
takes off for third and gets gunned down by Flaherty by a mile. With
two
outs,
Belliard tries to steal second, only to see Flaherty gun him down to
end
the inning.
The Indians do execute a hit-and-run to perfection later in the game.
Justice must
be loving the effort, right?

Not quite. Starting the bottom of the fourth, Justice notes how Westbrook
has
frequently given up two or three runs in a game this season, so why not
try to get
him four or five runs to take some pressure off. “Why wouldn’t you try
to
manufacture runs with a team like the Yankees against you?” Actually
they
are trying
to manufacture runs, and it’s failing miserably.

Matsui reaches on a leadoff error. Then Giambi, who’s turned what
looked
like a
disastrous season into a great .322 EqA campaign, blasts a two-run shot
to
right,
giving the Yankees the lead. Somehow this qualifies as an I-told-you-so
for Justice,
because he’s harping on run manufacturing even more. Please, YES, put
Goldman in the
booth, or Jim Bouton, Don Zimmer, Big Daddy Kane…anyone but
Justice.

The Indians tie it up in the top of the fifth, reaching base for the
fifth
straight
inning as Boone slams another first-pitch fastball for a hard single,
goes
to third
on a hit-and-run knock and scores on a Hafner sac fly. Johnson squirms
out
of the
inning when Martinez’s deep drive to right backs Sheffield up to the
wall,
where he
makes the catch for the final out.

Westbrook quickly comes undone, though, through a familiar pattern.
Jeter
and Cano
tap out harmlessly for the first two outs of the fifth. Two nibbling
walks to
Sheffield and Rodriguez open the door for Matsui, who puts the Yankees
ahead for
good with an RBI double. After a Giambi walk loads the bases, Westbrook
again works
Sierra away, away, away. After four straight pitches that either nip or
miss the
outside corner, Westbrook goes back to the well. Knowing the outside
pitch is
coming, Sierra leans over the plate and dumps a single to left–6-3
Yankees. The
Bombers tack on three more, Wayne Franklin becomes the
latest
Yankee reliever to fail and draw Gotham boos, and Mariano
Rivera

buzzes through six straight Indians hitters for a perfect two-inning
save.

This game taught us that a few things have changed. Johnson’s no longer
the dominant
force he once was, now forced to rely more on his slider and guile.
Sizemore, Crisp
and other young players are maturing into strong complementary parts to
help the
Indians make a run at the playoffs.

But some things apparently never change. The Yankees can still mash,
but
have no
center fielder. Rivera’s still untouchable. Sinkerballers still walk a
daily
tightrope. And Dave Justice is an injustice to broadcasters everywhere.

The next Prospectus Game of the Week will see the Angels take on the
Twins, Sunday
July 17, 2 p.m. ET (Channel 738 for DirecTV subscribers). Joe
Mays

battles Steve Undecided as the Halos play Rotation Roulette at
the
break.