Monday, October 19, 2009

The Honeymoon Is Over

For the first five games of this postseason, it was easy to fantasize about the Yankees steamrolling through the playoffs without so much as a hitch. However, the reality was that an 11 game winning streak would have been their longest of the season by two games. To expect them to better that against the best competition they've faced, under the most extreme pressure was wishful thinking, and we were reminded of that in the 11th inning in Anaheim.

Perhaps four home runs should have been enough to win the game for the Yanks, but some missed chances, homers by the Angels and questionable decisions led to their undoing. Before we start debating the managerial moves (which we certainly will tomorrow morning), let's look at what actually did happen.

Derek Jeter began the 1st inning by depositing the third pitch he saw from Jered Weaver into the left field seats, his third tater of the postseason in only 25 plate appearances. It was as good a start to the afternoon as possible for the Yanks and they looked to add to that lead in the second inning.

After a lead off single by Hideki Matsui, and a walk to Jorge Posada, Robinson Cano grounded out thereby moving Matsui to third base. Nick Swisher had a chance at a cheap RBI but flied out to shallow left after which Melky Cabrera grounded out to end the threat.

Andy Pettitte had held the Angels scoreless through the first three innings when A-Rod led of the fourth with yet another October homer. Weaver left a 3-1 change up floating over the plate and Alex mashed it to deep left field, putting the Yanks up 2-0. Like they did in the second, the Yanks followed with a walk, single and a force out, again putting runners on first and third with one out for Swisher. This time Weaver threw all off-speed pitches, ultimately getting Swish to swing over a curveball in the dirt.

A homer by Johnny Damon in the 5th inning put the Yanks on top 3-0, and after a walk to Mark Teixeira, the Bombers looked poised to blow the game wide open. With Weaver still in the game, A-Rod ripped a ball to left center which looked at first like it had a chance to become his 6th homer off of Jered Weaver in career 18 ABs, but it fell short into the glove of Juan Rivera.

And it was pretty much all downhill from there...

Howie Kendrick knocked the first home run given up by Yankees pitching this postseason in the 5th inning to cut the Angels' deficit to 2 runs. Then, with Bobby Abreu on base in front of him in the 6th, Vlad Guerrero (who many had suggested be replaced at the Halos' clean up hitter) lofted a high drive off of Andy Pettitte and paused to watch it sail towards the visitor's bullpen, tying the game at 3.

Pettitte came out to start the seventh inning but was replaced by Joba Chamberlain after retiring Kendry Morales. Cue the Rally Monkey. Joba promptly allowed a triple off the right field wall to Howie Kendrick, putting the go ahead run on third with one out. Mike Napoli was due up but Mike Scioscia inexplicably pinch hit for him again, this time with Macier Izturis. The decision worked out, as Izturis smashed a deep line drive, scoring Kendrick easily.

The Yankees hadn't trailed for more than two times at bat during this postseason and this situation was no different. Hideki Matsui led off the 8th with a walk and was pinch run for by Brett Gardner. Unfortunately, the move backfired when Gardner was nabbed stealing on a well-timed 0-1 pitch out. If you subscribe to the FotPO, it cost the Yankees a run when Jorge Posada jacked a solo homer, tying the game at 4.

Damaso Marte needed only one pitch to get the 3rd out of the 7th inning, but Joe Girardi called on fellow lefty Phil Coke to pitch to Bobby Abreu to start the 8th. Abreu ripped a ball in the gap but took an extra wide turn around second and was tagged out thanks in part to a strong throw by his old pal Melky Cabrera, a nice relay by Jeter and Mark Teixeira's diligent back up of second base.

Johnny Damon and Mark Teixeira both made outs to begin the top of the 9th inning but the Angels intentionally walked A-Rod anyway. Brett Gardner was hitting 5th after replacing Matsui, but he was pinch hit for by Game 2 pie recipient Jerry Hairston, Jr. There was no magic for Hairston this time as Fuentes struck him out easily, giving the Halos their first chance at a walk-off.

Phil Hughes had cruised through an inning and two-thirds without giving up a hit, so Girardi left him in to begin the 9th. Hughes would only face one batter, Jeff Mathis, who drove a lead off double into the gap in left. After some stalling on the mound, Girardi pulled the escape hatch and called on Mariano Rivera to face Eric Aybar. In an attempt to sacrifice, Aybar laid a bunt down the third baseline. Rivera, spry as ever on the mound, sprung off mound to field it. He looked to have Mathis at 3rd, but botched the throw. It bounced in the dirt past A-Rod and rolled into foul territory but Johnny Damon was there to back it up. At that point, the Angels' Win Expectancy was 93.8%.

Rivera had his work cut out for him and began by getting Chone Figgins to bounce out sharply to Mark Teixeria, holding the runner at third and getting the out at first. With Bobby Abreu due up and men on second and third, the Yankees walked the bases loaded, putting a force at every base. There were a lot of ways to get the run across, but Rivera got both Torii Hunter and Vlad Guerrero to ground out to first and squirmed out of a death-defying jam.

Because Girardi chose to swap Jerry Hairston for Johnny Damon in the 10th inning for defensive purposes, Rivera was due up at the plate in the top of the 11th. After Ervin Santana got both Melky and Jeter out, Girardi pinch hit for Rivera with Francisco Cervelli who struck out on a slider in the dirt.

Since Rivera was out of the game, Girardi went to David Robertson. After getting Juan Rivera and Kendry Morales - Girardi, to this dismay of many - called on Alfredo Aceves to face Howie Kendrick. The decision backfired in a major way. Kendrick singled and Jeff Mathis - the far inferior hitter of the two Angels' catchers who could have been pinch fun for in the 10th - ripped his second double of the afternoon, this one a game-winner.

This game is bound to leave a bad taste in some people's mouths, but luckily it won't linger for too long. CC Sabathia will take the hill on short rest in a pivotal Game 4 tomorrow night at 8.

ALCS Game 3: Going Back To Cali

Yesterday the Yankees traded the chilly confines of New York City for the cloudless skies and comfortable temperatures of southern California. Instead of ponchos and parkas, fans in the stands today will be rocking shorts and sunglasses.

Given that players wearing thermal facemasks were at the center of Angels' two biggest errors of the series (and Robinson Cano had two errors of his own), it's probably safe to say that the frigid weather - by baseball standards - contributed mightily to the sloppy play in New York.

As Mike Scioscia said after Game 2, "Anybody can play baseball when it's 70 degrees and beautiful out", which is what the conditions are going to be when the game starts up around 1:00 Pacific Time. While the sunlight, warmth and early start might take away some of the edge of a typical playoff game, we can hope that this one will be won't be wrought with nearly as many miscues. The Yankees are probably thrilled with where the series is at right now, but the Angels are probably the happiest to be stationed in SoCal.

Jered Weaver gets the ball for the Angels this afternoon. Weaver is coming off his best season as a Major Leaguer, having thrown 211 innings to a 3.75 ERA with a 2.64 K/BB and 16-8 record -which compares favorably to the best season his brother has ever had. He's been even better down the stretch, posting a 2.47 ERA over his last 8 starts, including a masterful performance against the Red Sox in which he gave 4 baserunners and one run over 7.1 IP.

Weaver has walked 14 in his last 51 innings which isn't bad at all, but has still had problems controlling his pitch count, averaging about 6 1/3 and 110 pitches per start. If the Yankees are patient and work the count as effectively as they did against John Lackey, they should be able to reach the Angels' bullpen before the seventh inning is over. The Yanks have been fairly successful in doing that against Weaver this year, extracting 12 runs in 19.1 IP over three starts.

With Jorge Posada behind the plate Weaver will have to contend with a full-strength Yankees offense including, most notably, A-Rod who has a notorious affinity for hitting in Anaheim. He's compiled an offensive line of .335/.401/.716 with 37 HRs during 89 regular season games at the Big A, which is the most HRs of any park he hasn't called home. It almost unfair to expect him to continue with the heroics that have thus far defined this postseason, but given his track record there, would you be all that surprised?

The Yanks send Andy Pettitte to the hill to make his 37th postseason start. His teams are 22-14 in those games and Pettitte has 15 wins and a 3.89 ERA. A win today would give him sole possession of the most in postseason play as he is currently tied with John Smoltz. Andy might not be one of the greatest playoff pitchers of all-time in terms of dominant performance, but he's certainly one of the most prolific with a regular season's worth of wins and innings pitched (224 1/3) in October.

Pettitte has not fared well against the Angels this year. In three starts (two of them against Weaver) he's given up 21 hits, 8 walks and 14 runs in 16 innings (7.88 ERA). If it makes you feel any better, the most recent one of those was the best of the bunch (6 IP, 3 ER).

That start came on long rest (like the one today) after Pettitte was skipped in the rotation because of shoulder fatigue and was the first of a three game set. It was the last time they were in Anaheim and the Yankees lost that game but took the next two to win the series. Two out of these next three would earn the Yanks a trip to the World Series.

Think I'm gon' stop, givin' L.A. props?
All I got is beef with those that violate me,
I shall annihilate thee...

I'm going (going),
Back (back),
To Cali (Cali).

Final Thoughts On Game Two

We're just a few hours away from Game Three. We'll have the preview up shortly, but before we do, here are a few final thoughts on Game Two.

I made a poor decision Saturday. Late in the afternoon I was offered a ticket to the game. I was feeling pretty tired, ran some quick calculations in my head to what the night would cost, how much driving I'd have to do, and considered the weather forecast, and I declined. To a lesser extent, I didn't think Saturday's game could measure up to what I was fortunate to witness in Game Two of the ALDS. I hate passing up the opportunity to attend a game, but it seemed like the right decision for me at the time. I was wrong.

It's eerie how similar Game Two of the ALCS was to Game Two of the ALDS. Bad weather was predicted, but held out for the most part. The Yankees used the same eight in pitchers in both games, and in the same exact order save for a flip-flop between Phil Coke and Joba Chamberlain in the seventh inning. David Robertson pitched well in relief, earning the win. Once again, Joe Girardi managed aggressively for the win, leaving himself with just one reliever and one position player on the bench at game's end. And of course, with the Yankees down to their final three outs, Alex Rodriguez hit a game tying home run of the opposing team's closer.

Before both series, we've heard how the Yankees' opponents are skilled at doing "the little things" and won't beat themselves. Yet in the ALDS, the Carlos Gomez and Nick Punto made big baserunning blunders that cost the Twins. Thus far in the ALCS we've some costly defensive miscues from the Angels. While the focus has been on the dropped popped up in the first inning of Game One, the "neighborhood play", and on Maicer Izturis' decision to go to second in the thirteenth inning of Game Two, there were two other very costly defensive miscues from the Angels in Game Two that haven't received as much attention.

In the second inning, Robinson Cano laced a triple into the right center field gap to score Nick Swisher for the game's first run. The Angels seemed to be employing what I thought was an odd defensive alignment. Torii Hunter appeared to be swung around to left center field, playing Cano to go the other way, while Bobby Abreu was more towards straightaway right field, if not shaded towards the line. I was surprised that the ball made it all the way to the wall, I had imagined it would be cut off in the gap. But that's not the biggest problem for the Angels with this play. As Nick Swisher was rounding third, he appeared to be running out of gas. I was anticipating a play at the plate, but the throw never came, as Izturis bobbled the relay, killing any shot at Swisher.

Then, on the game's final play, Chone Figgins astutely backed up second base, and was in position to field the errant throw from Izturis. Jerry Hairston said he broke for home as soon as he saw the ball rolling around, and had Figgins picked it clean, he may have had a shot at Hairston at home. At the very least, a throw home may have prompted Hairston to retreat to third base, which was vacated with Erick Aybar covering second and Figgins in short left field. This would have left a bases loaded, one out jam - but who knows if the Halos would have been able to induce another double play ball. Instead, Figgins twice bobbled the ball; there was no throw, negating any chance at prolonging the inning.

Neither play was scored an error, but both were critical in leading to two of the four Yankee runs on the night. Last week, I took a look at the extreme amount of good fortune the Yankees had against the Twins in 2009. While the Angels have fared very well against the Yankees in recent years, the Yankees have caught some big breaks through the first two games of the ALCS. Here's hoping that trend keeps up through the remainder of the series.

The Best Fans In The World?

That's what Mike Lupica is calling Yankees fans this morning:
There aren't fans better than this anywhere in the world. This isn't about whether or not you love the Yankees. This is about Yankee fans.

There are other baseball fans in other cities, of course, Mets fans in this one. There are fans who come out strong for teams who haven't won the way the Yankees won, who don't make the playoffs just about every year the way the Yankees have since Joe Torre first came to town 13 years ago and the winning came back to the Yankees and the Bronx.

But no fans have ever supported a baseball team, the most famous team in this world, the way Yankee fans support theirs.
We constantly hear this praise heaped upon us. Derek Jeter said it in his final speech at the Old Stadium. Michael Kay would like you to believe that Yankee fans are the only ones in baseball that cheer in anticipation of anything. I know I've heard John Sterling say that Yankee fans are the best in the world on the radio broadcast as well. But all of those guys have great reason to pander to fan base, and along with fans themselves trying to compare themselves to followers of other teams, that's all these declarations ever come down to.

It's pretty much impossible to compare fan bases, just as it would be to compare other groups which contain millions of people to each other. Are people from Vermont more laid back then people from New Hampshire? Are Baptists more religious than Evangelists? Are BMW drivers more alert than those who own an Audi? Are people who drink Bud Light cooler than those who drink Coors? (Trick question, they both suck!) The only way to deal with groups that big is to look at them with sweeping generalizations or compare them anecdotally.

The Yankees have some great fans, no doubt, but they also have their fair share of supporters who expect everything and are ready to jump ship two losses into the season. We might have some of the best fans in baseball right now, but that's largely because the ownership and players have given us ample compensation in return for our support. The Yanks only regained their place atop MLB attendance in 2003. There are plenty of factors contributing to how many fans the Yanks draw to games like the logistics of trying to go to a game after work in NYC and price of parking once you get there, but let's not pretend that the Stadium have been selling out through thick and thin.

I'll give you one measure that I find to be interesting, however. There are far more blogs about the Yankees' than any other team. We've got a decent amount linked up over on our Blogshelf, but check out this post by Ross at New Stadium Insider or run down the sidebar at LoHud. There are a huge amount of people that feel compelled to write about the Yankees (most of them for free) and I think that tells us something.

Maybe that something is that the Yankees have been more successful and compelling over the last 15 years than any other team in baseball. And maybe the fact that Yankees fans are so dedicated to the team isn't a function of how great we are as fans, but how successful the team has been over that time. Following the Yankees is easy. The people who follow teams like the Royals, Reds or Pirates through thick and thin are the best fans in baseball, in my opinion.

It's Official: CC To Start Game Four

Good morning Fackers. Well, that was one helluva weekend. Outside of the Giants getting blown out in Nawlins yesterday I don't know that we could have asked for anything more.

In the least surprising news of the weekend, Joe Girardi made it official last night: CC Sabathia will start Tuesday's Game Four of the ALCS on three days rest. This, and the improbable holding out of the storm system on Friday and Saturday, will allow the Yankees to use only three starters over the course of the series, with Sabathia's Game Four start being the only made on short rest.

A talking point entering the post-season was Sabathia's poor post-season track record with Cleveland in 2007 and Milwaukee in 2008. Last season, Sabathia made just a single start in the NLDS, lasting only 3.2 innings allowing ten baserunners and five earned runs.

Sabathia's outstanding performance in two starts this post-season has done much to alleviate those concerns. Last season's poor performance could be chalked up to being just one poor start, or it could have been because Milwaukee whipped Sabathia like the rented mule he was down the stretch. He made his final four starts, including his NLDS disaster, on three days rest. While the final one didn't work out too well, Sabathia was excellent in the previous three: 2-1 with a 0.83 ERA, a 0.88 WHIP, and 21:4 K:BB in 21.2 IP. In 2001, the rookie Sabathia made the only other start of his career on three days rest, giving up just one run, one hit, two walks, and fanning five in five innings work.

While Sabathia pitched 230 innings this year, sixth most in baseball, the Yankees handled him pretty well. Thirteen of his thirty-four starts came with at least one extra day of rest, including his final four regular season outings. Thanks to the sweep of the Twins in the ALDS, by the time Sabathia takes the mound Tuesday he'll have thrown just 226 pitches over the previous seventeen days. Asking him to make one start on short rest should not be taxing in any way.

Anything can happen in a given start. But if CC lays an egg Tuesday it won't because he's pitching on short rest and it won't be because Joe Girardi chose to run him out for the eighth inning Friday night. Pitching Sabathia in Game Four is the right decision.