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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.

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mandamin
5/18
It's a wrap-around series, so we might want to wait for tonight's (seemingly inevitable, as a Twins fan) outcome before declaring that the Twins "got swept." But, yeah, that play was amazing.
jsheehan
5/18
Yeah, sorry about that. I always miss the wraparounds.
AndyWright
5/18
"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." Amen. This was a problem with one Grady Little back in the day with Boston as well.
mglick0718
5/18
Wow, a manager that's too enamored of the bunt and uses his bullpen woefully inefficiently. Look no further than across the Triborough Bridge for another such manager, Jerry Manuel. Who replaced another manager with exactly the same tendencies. I would contend that almost every MLB manager follows the same script, some more rotely than others.
sbnirish77
5/18
Swisher was hitting half a Mendoza for the month of May (5-42 .119). The only good thing about having him hit away would be that he wouldn't hit into a DP since he's struck out in 19 of those 42 ABs. Bunting might have been a questionable call, but hardly a terrible one, given the above numbers. The most questionable part about the 9th inning bunt wasn't the BUNT, but why Gardner didn't steal second BEFORE the bunt, so he could have gotten to third with one out. I'll agree that Brent Tomko can't be the answer given any question but it just shows how desperate the Yankees are for any reliever other than Mariano. This relief corps, which you thought was good (probably along with Brian Cashman) has been just dreadful at every turn. Blaming Girardi for their lack of performance at every oppotunity is misguided.
siegeljs
5/18
Amen, brother. My guess is we got Tomko there because Girardi didn't trust anybody else to come in AND NOT WALK A RUN IN! With Veras and Ramirez both walking the planet (roughly a man an inning)I don't know that there was a good choice there. The Yankees went through this early last season, where everyone in front of Joba/Rivera was awful. And I buried Cashman for his construction of the bullpen. But, come June, everyone pretty much seemed to straighten out and they were fine thereafter. Still too early in the season to be burying people, or building monuments to them for that matter.
jsheehan
5/18
In the abstract, I'd agree with you: with a basestealing threat on first, I would much rather see a steal attempt than a bunt, or the two in that order. In this specific case, I don't know that a steal was going to happen. Mijares is a lefthander, quick to the plate, and Gardner may have seen his move, but not often. Mauer, of course, has a strong arm. The chance of a successful steal was low enough to remove it as a viable option. The relievers have mostly been ungood. In fewer than 20 innings across the board. The skill sets are all intact, so you don't do yourself favors by running a constant tryout.
Arrian
5/19
I think you've been overly harsh on Girardi's bullpen management. The fact is that a good portion of his relief corps has simply stunk. Tomko will apparently at least throw strikes, which is more than any non-Mo Yankee reliever can say. Look at last night. Veras? Walks. Edwar? Walks. Coke? Walks. I for one want to see Robertson back up. I also think Bruney coming off the DL should help. But right now, Girardi just doesn't have many good options. The bunting... I do think he over-does it. But I'm not totally allergic to bunting in the right situation. Late in a close game, with a weak hitter at the plate (such as Pena, Cervelli, Cash or Gardner - who might turn it into a hit), I'm ok with it. If/when the lineup is back to full strength, I hope to see a lot less bunting.
sbnirish77
5/18
Seems like if you want to take someone to the woodshed today it should be Joe Maddon for filling out his lineup card incorrectly and getting 3 ABs from Andy Sonnanstine instead Evan Longoria. I'm still not sure how Longoria was able to re-enter the game given that he was on the original line-up card and should have been considerd as having been replaced by Sonnanstine as soon as he took the mound. Does anyone know if an AL lineup card includes a separate listing for the pitcher besides the 1-9 batting spots?
fsumatthunter
5/18
Longoria never actually entered the game. The Rays lost the DH spot, not who was supposed to be the DH player, hence why Andy hit third. That's why Longoria was still eligible to play. Sonnanstine did not replace Longoria, he replaced the DH Spot since Longoria had not entered the game.
woodson
5/19
Anyone know what would have happened had Indians waited until Longoria had batted to point out the error. They could have argued that he "batted our of order" perhaps and had him called out (in the event he reached safely). Maybe then he would have had to leave the game as well. Anyone know?
sbnirish77
5/19
So are you saying that someone who is listed on a batting order but doesn't bat can be replaced without penalty? There was no DH listed on the original batting order - only two 3B. Actually the home plate umpire should have not accepted a lineup without a DH and that may be why he allowed Longoria to re-enter. Theoretically Longoria could be infered to be the pitcher from the original lineup and was replaced as soon as Sonnanstine took the field. The other take would be that the lneup did not include a DH thus Sonnanstine ha to bat and the only possible place to bat was the second 3B position that didn't take the field. I'm pretty sure this was unchartered waters here. I wonder if the positions listed on the batting card even matter - other than the designation of DH. If the positions listings do matter then the umpire should have not accepted a batting order without a DH or pitcher.
caprio84
5/18
Totally agree on the bullpen. For Girardi, the bullpen was the lone shining star of 2008. He managed the unit well as a whole, and individually each pitched better than expected. The bunts I can't kill him on...Swisher has been pressing big time, and I'd rather trade a base for an out in that situation. I was a big Girardi supporter from the beginning, but admit that his baseball decisions (ones he would criticize if he were in the Yes booth), appear to be very much of the "fire, ready, aim" variety. His job isn't in jeopardy yet...and he should take that leash and relax...and use his good sense.
fsumatthunter
5/18
Are you kidding about giving an out for a base in teh Swisher AB? Am I on BP or ESPN?
illgamesh
5/19
Swisher is playing very poorly and the Yankees needed the run to tie; I wouldn't have done it, buts it's not really that bad.
mbodell
5/18
If your pitchers actually are evaluated to be pretty close to each other in ability, then using them based on how well they've done lately makes sense. Because the pitcher who is slightly better will get used slightly more often. It is sort of like a non-randomized drug trials where you might use protocol A on patients until you get a death and then switch to protocol B until you get a death and then switch back, etc. This way you get ample data until you can conclusively prove A>B or B>A, while providing the better treatment to more of the patients.
ashitaka
5/18
Yes, momentum does exist. You get it by playing Oakland.
jjgreen33
5/19
I would think Joe disagrees with that statement. After all, Joe ranked the A's as the 6th-best team in baseball at the start of the season. Seriously.
silviomossa
5/19
Seriously? Wow, thanks for the scoop! After all, I, like everyone else, just subscribed here two weeks ago.
mglick0718
5/18
Regarding The Play, I just took another look, and as great a play as it was by Mauer, I don't believe he made a conscious decision to eat the throw to first based on Gardner. He was looking at first and couldn't have seen Gardner coming home at that point, and without knowing what was going on in his head, it looks like he simply decided he wasn't going to have a chance for the out at first. Hardly takes away from what he did, especially since the pitcher didn't notice Gardner coming home.
BrewersTT
5/19
Only with baseball, and only with a good writer who loves the game and unfolds all the layers of the action, can a play be just as exciting to read about as to see. Thanks for a very enjoyable article. Adam Jones making an out advancing from first to second on a walk a week ago against NY was something new to me. Is that as rare as it seems to me? (I don't know how widely the play was seen: he was attempting to steal on the 3-ball count and overslid second, and was tagged.)
PSIllini
5/19
I think having Swisher bunt was stupid. A string of 40 bad at-bats doesn't make Nick Swisher a bad hitter. However, if you are going to play "smallball" in that situation don't you have to pinch run for Matsui? Injuries have sapped any speed he might have had and Gardner was available on the bench. If the whole point is to manufacture a run then you should make sure to maximize the likelihood that the runner can actually score. If the throw home hadn't been terrible, Matsui never would have scored on that sac fly.
sbnirish77
5/19
If 40 ABs aren't enough, how about 419 ABs last year of .219 - the real outlier is his April performance this year. The Yankees have been roundly criticized for not manufacturing runs. So now given two opportunities to do so - both of which would have turned out successfully but for Mauer's astute play - would only prove 'you're damned if you do' and 'you're damned if you don't'.
FalcoT
5/19
Not everything has to be argued with stats, and in particular arguments involving batting average are often best left unsaid. Except for Cristian Guzman: that guy rocks.
padresprof
5/19
This play reinforces my view that good baseball can be seen, for far less money, with just as much enjoyment, in the minors. I've seen this "play" before in the California League. We applauded. What makes this a great play is because it occurred involving the Yankees. But if the point is that more aggressive running is starting to appear in MLB, I am happy to see it. With the exception of Maddon's Rays, MLB is pretty conservative compared to the California League.
eighteen
5/19
You can get away with aggressive baserunning in the minors because the defenses aren't nearly as good at stopping it. I agree, though, that minor league baseball is just as much fun (albeit in different ways) as MLB.
Lawnchairfan
5/19
Bert Blyleven stated at the beginning of this game that the 'snakebit' Twins had been 3-23(and growing) during Gardenhire's tenure in games played at Yankee Stadium. And some guy named Santana won 2 of those. Joe, that may not be momentum, but it sounds like an awfully large gorilla on the Twins' collective backs. It was definitely a fun game, though.
HonusCobb
5/19
Don't you think it's a little too soon to be filling out an all-star ballot? I don't know...I thought I'd wait until at least mid-June.. Anyone else voted yet?
jsheehan
5/19
I'll cover this in the piece, but the short answer is that the current season doesn't mean that much to me in selecting All-Stars. I vote for the best players, and four additional weeks of ABs doesn't change much when measured against a body of work. People hate it. It's fun!
eighteen
5/19
I voted on May 10. For Manny Ramirez. Ten times.
mjradolf
5/19
This analysis stuns me, the part about the running situation anyway (Girardi appeared good with the pen last year, but has been awful this year). Gardener's play may have been exciting, but it was terrible. He made the 2nd out at the plate, taking away a runner in scoring position. If the Yankees held him they would have had a man on 3rd with one out. With Gardener's speed even a moderate sacrifice would have scored him, or at least defended sending him. Given that Cano did pop out to end the inning, you have to wonder if we didn't risk the game giving the Twins another chance to hit. Not good baserunning, or managing at all.
sbnirish77
5/19
the play from Mauer's perspective ... "He's about as fast as they get on the bases," Mauer said. "As soon as I got to the ball, I remembered who was at second and thought I'd fake and maybe have a chance to throw him out at third. I didn't really think I'd have to race and beat him home." So he was thinking about 3B not home ....
Nacho999
5/20
First I want to stay that I am a long time diehard Yankee fan. I agree with you on the handling of the bullpen. One thing I will say, even if it means Brett Tomko (for crying out loud), is that we desperately need some veteran presence in the pen. I said before the season started that their inexperience would cost them it has. Some of them have talent (I like Melancon, Bruney, Robertson and Coke the best), but almost none of them throw consistent strikes. That win Monday night was pitiful. Girardi does have to take the blame for his inconsistent use of these kids, but that is just what they are; kids. Marte is a disgrace like Farnsworth and all the rest before him. It's maddening how these pitchers can pitch great in other locales and suck wind in NYC. Anyway, I wanted to respectfully disagree with you on the Swisher bunt as well. Swisher has been awful lately and Slowey had stymied us all afternoon. He wasn't going to walk Swisher. I'm of the opinion that Torre didn't do this enough. Just because some guy is capable of hitting a home run doesn't mean we don't take what the defense gives us. Swisher is not making solid contact consistently and I wanted that runner at 3B at all costs. So did Joe Girardi clearly. I wish someone would look up the sum total of man on second no out runners the Yankees have failed to advance over the past three years. I'll bet the total is staggering and I don't need the facts to make that claim. I don't care for Melky Cabrera's game at all and he tried to blow that RBI opportuntiy (a decent throw would have had the lead footed Matsui by a good margin...I was surprised he ran), but even with Melky on deck I liked Swisher's bunt very much. I hear what you are saying and your argument is not without merit, but I am respectfully disagreeing with you here. Take the off chance that Swisher, who hasn't homered in a month it seems, hits one out and you've got a sub .240 making sure he advances the runner to third down one in very tight game. Also, are you dead certain that call came from Girardi? Couldn't Swisher have done that on his own? I honestly think we don't win the game if that play isn't executed. Regarding the Gardner - Melky scenario, I would have liked to see Gardner take off and Melky under orders to not swing until he absolutely has to. I don't have confidence in Melky to A) swing at strikes in the clutch, B) hit the ball where it needs to be hit to advance the runner, C) not hit into a double play with one of his patented one hoppers to the infield, D) not pop up on the infield, and E) not strike out. I know he got the game winner Friday night, but he swung at the first pitch, as he so often does and the ball found a hole...nice but not a clutch hitter does it make. Overall I would like to see the Yankees bunt and execute 10 times better than they have this decade even if it means playing it safe from time to time. Sitting around waiting for three run homers doesn't cut it anymore. I'm not a big fan of Joe Girardi the manager; I thought Joe Torre should have been able to stay as long as he wanted (how 'bout those Dodgers again...minus Derek Lowe?), but I'm not going to harp on Girardi for calling for the bunt in general. As a catcher you would like to see him handle a staff better, but it won't matter if we don't make the playoffs again this year. He'll be looking for another gig. Great Column by the way!
eighteen
5/22
[...and I don't need the facts to make that claim.] Are you Steve Phillips?