Thursday, May 20, 2010

Game 41: Mr. Big

Somewhere along the line, tonight's Tampa Bay starter, James Shields, picked up the nickname "Big Game James". Apparently started as a joke during his minor league days, the handle has stuck on Shields, even if no less an authority than JoePos himself questioned if it was really deserved.

Deserved or not, it's a pretty cool nickname, and one that Shields is doing his damndest to grow into. He was the top starter on Tampa Bay's 2008 pennant winning team, got the win in the first post-season game in Tampa Bay history, and threw five shutout innings in Game Two of the 2008 World Series, the first, and thus far only World Series game ever won by the Rays.

Shields took a small step back in 2009, seeing increases in his ERA, FIP, as well as jumps in his BABIP, walk and home run rates. Still it's splitting hairs. Despite a sub-.500 record, he was still worth 4.1 WAR, his xFIP was right in line with what he'd done in previous years, and he led Tampa Bay pitchers in innings for the third consecutive season, finishing in the top ten in the AL for third straight year.

He's off to an outstanding start this year, leading the AL in strikeouts and K:BB. There are a handful is statistical anomalies in his overall line: his HR rate has jumped up, but his walk rate is down, his strand rate is up, but he has an insanely high BABIP. All in all, they balance out as his ERA (3.00), FIP (3.45), and xFIP (2.94) all seem to indicate a pitcher who's quietly become amongst the twenty or so best in the game over the past three plus years. He may not have fully earned his "Big Game James" nickname just yet, but if Shields keeps pitching this way the Rays will be playing in plenty of big stage games in which he can prove his mettle.

Shields will be opposed by a pitcher who lacks the Big Game nickname, but certainly has the Big Game reputation. Through fifteen Major League seasons, Andy Pettitte has appeared in the post-season twelve times. Though his 3.90 ERA through 40 post-season starts doesn't stand out as overwhelmingly ace-like, he's won twice as many as he's lost (18-9), and his big game reputation extends from his 1-0 Game Five masterpiece against Atlanta in his second season, to winning the clincher in all three rounds of the 2009 post-season. Yes, he's tossed a clunker or two along the way, but when the stakes are highest, you'd be hard-pressed to find another pitcher Yankee fans would rather have on the mound.

Tonight's contest isn't exactly a Big Game, but a typically solid Pettitte performance would go a long way towards calming the nerves of a suddenly on edge fan base. The Yankees suffered bullpen meltdowns in three straight games to start the week, then followed that up with their worst overall performance of the season last night. They're a Jonathan Papelbon implosion away from having lost four straight against three teams who figure to have a good a chance to be playing when the Big Games come along in October.

Compounding matters is the seemingly never-ending string of injuries that adds to the-sky-is-falling sentiment that's starting to crop up. Pettitte himself was part of the leading edge of those injuries, exiting his May 5th start after five innings due to tightness in his elbow. He was skipped next time through the rotation, contributing to some of the pitching staff woes from which the club is just now emerging. He returned to the mound last Saturday, tossing 6.1 shutout innings during the last game in which the Yankee bullpen allowed fewer than four runs. Pettitte's strong performance in that game did much to quell concerns about him having lingering elbow issues. A similar performance tonight will go along way towards talking some fans back from the ledge and reminding folks that all is not lost after a rough patch in May.

So we'll see two Big Game pitchers take to the hill tonight. Much like Thunderdome, only one of them can emerge victorious. Will it be the wily veteran or the up-and-comer? Just remember, if the Yanks can't bury Big Game James tonight, a five game deficit with four and a half months to go isn't the end of the world.

So Mr. Big, you'd better watch out
Don't you come hanging around
Because for you, I will dig
A great big hole in the ground
[Song Notes: "Mr. Big" was initially recorded by Free in 1970, but Gov't Mule immediately made it part of their repertoire upon forming in 1994. And while Free is a fine band, I'm not choosing them over the Mule. YouTube has several excellent Mule versions of this tune, including one featuring Chris Robinson and Marc Ford of the Black Crowes during their joint tour in 1996. That tour took place in the fall, and that performance took place in Atlanta. The same time and place that Andy Pettitte established his big game reputation.

The video above is of better quality than the one featuring Robinson and Ford, but is of the same vintage, coming from Martyrs in Chicago on 6/7/96, one day after Andy Pettitte threw a one run complete game gem against the Blue Jays in the Bronx. It features the late, great Allen Woody on bass - the above video that is, not the complete game.

Lastly, the cheesy pop rock band Mr. Big also covered this tune, and presumably took their name from the song as well. I'll be damned if I ever embed a Mr. Big video here, but I bring this up if only to mention that 17 years later I still can't believe that my buddy Arty got the out-of-his-league Becky to slow dance with him to Mr. Big's "To Be With You" at the junior high Halloween Dance. But I digress.]


First, the roster moves. Jorge Posada has been placed on the DL. Kevin Russo has been recalled to take his place. Nick Johnson has been shifted to the 60 day DL, opening a spot on the 40 man roster. Chad Moeller's contract was purchased from Scranton, thereby placing him in that open 40 man spot. Mark Melancon was optioned back to Scranton, and Moeller was recalled to take his place. In terms of roles Moeller is clearly replacing Posada, but because Kevin Russo hasn't been down for ten days yet, he can only be recalled in place of a DL'd player. As such, he is technically taking Posada's spot on the roster, with the Melancon/Moeller move happening independently. Meanwhile, Boone Logan lives another day.

Russo is a bit of interesting choice as he isn't a pure outfielder, but he's seen a lot of action there in Scranton recently, with four appearances in center field and one in both corners. As the nagging injuries heal up though, the need for a strict outfielder will diminish and Russo's versatility will be an asset heading into interleague games in NL parks.

The lineup is currently on hold thanks to Nick Swisher. He is expected to play tonight, but Joe Girardi wants to watch him take BP before penciling him in officially. Nick Swisher returns to the lineup. I wouldn't call 6 through 9 formidable, but it's far better than what we've seen for the past three games.

Please note tonight's game is on MY9, not YES
Jeter SS
Gardner CF
Teixeira 1B
Rodriguez 3B
Cano 2B
Swisher RF
Miranda DH
Cervelli C
Winn LF

Jason Barlett SS
Carl Crawford LF
Ben Zobrist 2B
Ecan Lognoria 3B
Carlos Pena 1B
B.J. Upton CF
Willy Aybar DH
Dioner Navarro C
Gabe Kapler RF

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