Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Game 70: Oh Atlanta

Historically, the Yankees have not been kind to the city of Atlanta. Yesterday I referenced Sherman's March to the Sea, in which General William Tecumseh Sherman and his Union Army laid waste to the Georgia country side from Atlanta to Savannah, essentially ending the Civil War - or the War of Northern Aggression as some would call it.

More recently, and in far less pressing matters, the New York Yankees have done quite well in the city of Atlanta. As we examined earlier today and will continue to do over the next few days, the Yankees have had great success in Atlanta in the post-season. But the Yankees have done well in Atlanta outside of October as well.

In two interleague series at Turner Field, the Yankees are 4-1, sweeping a two game set in 1998 by an aggregate score of 16-6, and taking two of three in 2000. One month later, Joe Torre led the American League All-Star Team to victory at The Ted. Once and future Yankee David Wells started the game, giving up two hits and striking out two over two scoreless innings. Bernie Williams started in centerfield in the AL's first post-Griffey All-Star Game. Jorge Posada played and went 0-2 and Mariano Rivera closed out the victory for the AL.

But that All-Star game belonged to another Yankee. In a season that saw the AL's big three shortstops, Jeter, A-Rod, and Nomar Garciaparra, at the height of their collective powers, Jeter won the starting nod. He responded by going 3 for 3 with a double, a run scored, and 2 RBI. He was named the game's MVP.

A couple quick notes from Pete Abe: Johnny Damon is out of the lineup again with his sore calf but is available off the bench and CC's bullpen was pushed back to tomorrow, but he received treatment today and feels good.

Tonight, the Yankees return to Atlanta for the first time in nine years. Chien-Ming Wang opposes phenom Tommy Hanson, ranked by Baseball America as the number four overall prospect and number two pitching prospect entering 2009. At a time when the Yankees are seemingly back on their heels, they get back to a city where they are 9-1 lifetime. Let's hope they use this series to call on some old Atlanta luck and fix what's gone awry the last two weeks.

Well you can drop me off on Peachtree
I got to feel that Georgia sun
And the women there in Atlanta
They make you awfully glad you come
I said watching them planes
I wish I was on one
I'm sittin' here thinking about my crazy dream
If I could only be there tonight
Oh Atlanta, Oh Atlanta. I said yeah yeah yeah Atlanta, got to get back to you

Congratulations Brian Leetch

We're going a bit off the baseball beat with this one, but congratulations to former New York Rangers defenseman Brian Leetch, who was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame this afternoon, along with Steve Yzerman, Brett Hull, and Luc Robitaille. Arguably the greatest American born hockey player ever, Leetch was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame last fall.

Despite making his retirement home in Boston, Leetch is an avowed Yankee fan, having grown up in Cheshire, CT, about 20 minutes from where I live. Leetch starred in both hockey and baseball in high school, first at Cheshire High (my high school hockey rival), then at Avon Old Farms prep school. As a high school pitcher he was clocked in the 90s and pitched Cheshire to a state championship as a sophomore.

Leetch went on to my alma mater, Boston College, where he led the Eagles to the 1986-87 Hockey East title, winning Hockey East Rookie of the Year, Hockey East Player of the Year, and the Hockey East Tournament MVP award. He was also named an All-American.

He left BC after his freshman year to join the U.S. National team, and played for the U.S. at 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics, the first of three Olympic teams for which he would play. He won a silver medal in Salt Lake City in 2002, and also captained the U.S. team that won the innaugural World Cup of Hockey in 1996.

Following the 1988 Olympics, he joined the Rangers, and won the NHL's Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year for the 1988-1989 season. He was also a two time Norris Trophy winner (91-92 and 96-97) as the NHL's top defenseman, and was the first American to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the postseason MVP, as he led the Rangers to the Stanley Cup in 1994.

After the Cup victory, the Yankees honored the Rangers at a game, and Leetch, Mark Messier, and Nick Kypreos threw out the first pitches. I'm sure Leetch could bring the heat better than either Canuck.

Rehab Roundup

We'll be back with the exciting conclusion of the 1996 World Series tomorrow. But now, as we approach tonight's game preview, let's take a quick look at the Yankees who are currently on the disabled list.

Xavier Nady will officially start his rehab assignment with AAA Scranton tomorrow. All Nady's previous rehab action came in extended spring training games, so his thirty day rehab clock starts tomorrow. Chances are he'll be back with the big club long before his time is up.

Jose Molina is working out in Tampa, as is Damaso Marte who continues to play catch with The Memory of Carl Pavano.

Lastly, Cody Ransom continues to rehab with AAA Scranton. RAB's Mike Axisa pointed out last night that Ransom rehab clock runs out on Wendesday, meaning he'll have to be activated or cut loose. Since Ransom is on the 60 day DL he doesn't currently count against the 40 man roster. Thanks to DFAing Jose Veras last Tuesday, the Yankees have an open spot on their 40 man for Ransom.

The quesion is, who goes off the Major League roster? Logic would dictate Angel Berroa. However logic dictated that he would be gone at innumerable points over the past six weeks. It wouldn't surprise me to see Ramiro Pena sent down and see Berroa hang on to his spot until Nady is ready to return. I'm not advocating for this move, but Berroa has more lives than a cat.

Speaking of Veras, the Yankees have until either Thursday or Friday to trade him or else he will be released. It's also possible that the team is holding the empty 40 man spot for a potential return on a Veras trade, but I highly doubt anyone would give up anything of value for him.

Lastly, CC Sabathia could not receive treatment at The Ted yesterday due to the makeup game between the Cubs and Braves. He is scheduled to throw a bullpen today and insists he will start on schedule against the Mets on Friday. If he can't, the A.J. Burnett suspension will leave the Yanks without a starter for that game, meaning Phil Hughes or Alfredo Aceves would likely spot start.

1996 World Series: Game 3

[With the Yankees squaring off against the Braves this week, we thought it would be appropriate to take a look back at the two World Series during which they faced off in the late 90's]

Game 3 had the Series shifting south to Atlanta. Things were not looking good for the Yanks, down 0-2 and having lost the first two games on their home turf by a combined score of 16-1. It wasn't going to get any easier for Game 3, as the Braves were sending former Cy Young Award winner Tom Glavine to the hill. Glavine won 15 games in 1996 and posted what was then the second best ERA+ of his career (147). Despite entering the game with a 7-7 post-season record, Glavine had a post-season ERA of just 3.05. He pitched 8 shuout innings of one hit ball in the 1995 World Series clincher, was the reigning World Series MVP, and was 2-1 with a 1.83 ERA in the 1996 NL Playoffs.

If all that added up to feeling of impending doom surrounding the Yankees, from George Steinbrenner to the media to the to fanbase, there was at least one little corner of the team that wasn't worried: Joe Torre. As he had been all throughout his first season as Yankee manager, and as he would be for the remainder of his twelve year tenure, Torre was the picture of calm.

Following the Game Two loss, Steinbrenner made a comment to Torre essentially asking him to make it respectable and avoid a sweep. Torre countered by predicting they would win the next three, claiming that Atlanta was his town. And in a way it was. Torre had played the first three seasons of Atlanta Braves baseball, hitting .290/.356/.469, 134 OPS+ and making two All-Star teams. He returned as manager in 1982, leading the Braves to the NL West title. It was the first post-season appearance for Atlanta, and their only one until they started their remarkable run in 1991.

But it wasn't just his Atlanta track record that gave Torre confidence; he had an ace up his sleeve, literally. David Cone was taking the ball for the Yankees in Game 3. Despite missing most of 1996 following surgery to correct an aneurysm in his throwing arm, Cone was still the Yankees' ace, going 7-2 with an ERA+ of 174 in eleven starts. He had last pitched twelve days earlier, starting Game 2 of the ALCS, and easily could have started the Series opener. But Torre intentionally held Cone back until Game 3, as Torre always felt Game 3 to be a series' most critical game. And it would never be more critical than when looking at an 0-2 deficit.

Cone entered Game 3 with a career post-season line of just 3-3 with a 4.29 ERA. But he had as many World Series rings as Glavine and a reputation as a big game pitcher. He would do nothing on the night of October 22, 1996 to detract from that reputation.

The Yankees drew blood in the top of the first. Tim Raines worked a leadoff walk and moved to second on a sacrfice by Derek Jeter. A Bernie Williams single up the middle plated Raines to make it 1-0.

David Cone came out guns blazing. He gave up a leadoff bloop single to Marquis Grissom, then erased him on a doubleplay from Mark Lemke. Cone then surrenedered a second single to Chipper Jones, but got out of the first with a groundout from the spokesperson for Tom Emanski's defensive drills video.

Cone pitched perfect second and third innings. By the time he issued a walk to Fred McGriff with two outs in the fourth, he had retired nine in a row. He followed the walk by catching Ryan Klesko looking to end the inning. In the fifth, he gave up a leadoff single to Javy Lopez, then erased him on a fielder's choice by Andruw Jones. After Joe Girardi caught Jones stealing, Cone K'd Jeff Blauser to end the inning.

At that point, Cone had a 2-0 lead, with the Yankees having added a run in the fourth when Williams reached on an error, moved to second on a walk to Cecil Fielder, to third on a Charlie Hayes lineout to right, and scored on a Darryl Strawberry single. Entering the bottom of the sixth, Cone had gone 5 innings scoreless innings, giving up 3 hits, a walk, striking out 3, and facing just two over the minimum. He had allowed just four balls to leave the infield, and one was a blooper and another a groundball single. The Braves couldn't touch him, but he was about to make things interesting.

Glavine led off the inning, and Cone walked him. Grissom followed with a single to move Glavine to second, but Cone caught a break when Lemke's bunt attempt became a popout to Fielder. Cone then walked Chipper Jones on five pitches to load the bases for the heart of the Braves order.

The situation was enough to bring Torre to the mound. According to The Yankee Years, Torre asked Cone repeatedly if he was OK. The game was on the line, and Torre needed to know that Cone, just five months removed from surgery, had enough left in the tank to get out of the jam. But after waiting his whole life to get to the Series, Torre wasn't about to accept the typical answer of a proud athlete. He was nose to nose with Cone, asking him if he could get the job done. Whatever Cone said to Torre, it was sufficient to convince him. And Torre's trust would be rewarded.

Cone got McGriff to popup to Jeter for the second out of the inning. Facing Klesko, Cone issued his third walk of the inning, forcing in a run and cutting the lead to one. But Lopez followed by fouling out to Girardi. It ended the threat and was the last big chance the Braves would have on the night.

Jim Leyritz pinch hit for Cone in the seventh and Mariano Rivera took the mound in the bottom of the inning. Mo retired the first two batters, when Luis Polonia, between his second and third stints as a Yankee, pinch hit for Glavine. He drew a walk, but when he tried swiping second he was gunned down by Girardi, ending the inning.

The Yanks padded their lead in the eighth. Jeter led off with a single and scored on Williams' sixth and final HR of the '96 post-season. Fielder followed with a double and pinch runner Andy Fox moved to third on a Hayes groundout. Strawberry was walked intentionally, then Luis Sojo dribbled one of his patented seeing-eye-RBI singles through the infield to make it 5-1. All three runs were charged to Greg McMichael, who failed to record an out.

Rivera got into a bit of trouble in the eighth. Grissom ledoff with a triple, then scored on a Lemke single. Mo whiffed Chipper Jones then gave way to southpaw Graeme Lloyd, who got lefties McGriff and Klesko to end the inning.

John Wetteland came on for the ninth. After the leadoff batter reached on a Jeter error, Wetteland struck out Andruw Jones and Blauser, then retired pinch hitter Terry Pendleton on a groundout to give the Yankees their first victory of the Series. Glavine had pitched masterfully, 7 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 3 BB, 8 K, but Cone matched him. No one quite knew it yet, but the tide of the 1996 World Series had turned.

1996 World Series: Game 2

[With the Yankees squaring off against the Braves this week, we thought it would be appropriate to take a look back at the two World Series during which they faced off in the late 90's]

The most amazing part about the Braves of the early-to-mid 90's was of course their starting pitching staff. In 1996, Smoltz, Maddux and Glavine all posted sub 3.00 ERAs and combined to pitch 734 innings. Smoltz won 24 games and struck out 276 and allowed only 199 hits in 253 2/3 IP. Glavine's ERA was comparable to and Maddux's was actually .22 lower than Smoltz's, but the lack of gaudy strikeout, and more significantly, win totals kept them from accumulating many Cy Young votes. Already 30 years old, Maddux was coming off of four consecutive seasons where he won the Cy Young, Gold Glove, placed no lower than 13th in the MVP voting and walked fewer than two batters per nine innings, so he probably didn't lose a lot of sleep over the lack of acknowledgment.

Comparatively, David Cone was the only Yankee to post an ERA below 3, and he only started 11 games. Next to him, Pettitte's 3.87 was the Yankees' best, followed by Kenny Rogers and Jimmy Key, both at 4.68. Per usual, the Bombers' strength was in their offense, scoring nearly 100 runs more than the Braves in '96.

Atlanta's bullpen in 1996 was nothing special, but when you have three starters throwing that many innings (including 12 complete games), at that microscopic of an ERA, you don't really need a great 'pen. Their closer Mark Wohlers had an ERA higher than any of the top three starters, but that was good enough to net him 39 saves. Mike Bielecki was actually their most useful reliever. Averaging almost two innings per appearance (75.1 IP/40 games), and a sort of jack-of-all trades, Bielecki accrued a 2.63 ERA while starting 5 games and finishing 8, including two saves.

The Yankees had the clear advantage when it got late in the game, with John Wetteland and Mariano Rivera combining for 170 1/3 innings (107 2/3 belonging to Rivera) of 2.38 ERA. Despite the difference in workload and the fact that Wetteland had a respectable 2.83 ERA and saved 43 games, Rivera destroyed him in every meaningful statistical category. Most tellingly, Mo's WHIP was .2 lower and he allowed only 1 home run all year, compared to Wetteland's 9.

The pitching match-up in Game 2 slotted Maddux against Jimmy Key. After reaching his ostensible prime as a pitcher and placing fourth and second in the Cy Young voting in 1993 & 1994, respectively, Key was leading the league with 17 wins when the 1994 strike occurred. He missed almost all of the 1995 season when he went on the disabled list for what was thought to be tendinitis, but ended up needing rotator cuff surgery. 1996 was one of his worst full season as a professional but in the postseason he managed to win two games and have an ERA of 3.33 in, slightly under his eventual career ERA of 3.51.

The gametime temperature was a relatively mild 55 degrees, but the Braves picked up right where they left off with their hot hitting. Mark Lemke hit a ground rule double and was driven in by Fred McGriff with two outs. Javy Lopez singled as well, but Jermaine Dye flew out to deep left before any further trauma was inflicted.

Maddux needed only 11 pitches to get through the first inning, and he would only get more efficient as the game progressed. Key and Maddux matched scoreless halves in the second inning before Fred McGriff struck again in the top of the third. He drove in another run with another single, putting the Braves ahead 2-0. He added another RBI on a sac fly in the top of the 5th.

The Yankees were simply flummoxed by Maddux. Through five innings only three men reached base, and one was via a HBP and was erased by a caught stealing. He had thrown just 48 pitches, partially due to the fact that he had yet to register a strikeout. The two he got both came in the seventh inning.

Marqius Grissom drove in another run in the sixth, which would be Key's final frame. He didn't have great stuff, but he bent instead of breaking unlike Pettitte the night before. Key scattered 13 baserunners but never gave up more than one run in an inning.

The single biggest play in the game came in the bottom of the sixth inning with Wade Boggs at the plate. Jeter and Tim Raines left off the inning with back to back singles and for a moment it appeared that the Yankees might claw their way back into the game. However, Boggs was a victim of one of the 21 ground balls induced by Maddux that night, and it turned into a 4-6-3 double play. Bernie Williams hit yet another grounder to second which ended the inning.

Maddux expended only 82 pitches to work through eight shutout innings and hand the ball over the Mark Wohlers, who struck out the side in the bottom of the ninth. Atlanta's pitching staff had predictably dominated the Yanks once again, and now had only given up two runs in their last five games.

As legend has it, a furious George Steinbrenner summoned Joe Torre and his first base coach Jose Cardenal into his office following the game. Torre responded to the tirade by guaranteeing three victories in Atlanta, which, given The Boss's temperament was probably his only recourse. Steinbrenner jabbed "If you guys can't beat the Braves at home, you surely can't beat them down in Atlanta". He did have a point.

1996 World Series: Game 1

[With the Yankees squaring off against the Braves this week, we thought it would be appropriate to take a look back at the two World Series during which they faced off in the late 90's]

With each year that passes, the exact boundaries of the Yankees' most recent dynastic era become increasingly clear. The late stretch of first round playoff exits and last year's failure to qualify for the postseason has separated the current Yankees team from the squads of the late 90's and the turn of the millennium. The only common parts between the 1996 roster (or the 2001 version, for that matter) and the current one are Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera. Buster Onley placed the end of the dynasty as the last night of it as Game 7 of the 2001 Series but even if you'd argue that it took place sometime in October of 2004, the accumulation of 4 WS Titles and 6 appearances in 8 years in the era of free agency is pretty staggering.

If the 1996 World Series had played itself out differently, the Braves could very well have been the team of the 90's that everyone still romanticizes. Who knows what rash decisions George Steinbrenner might have dictated and the implications they might have had. Surely things couldn't have turned out much better than they did for the Yanks, so pretty much any decision other than the ones that were made wouldn't have been beneficial.

Perhaps the championship glow from winning in '96 would have been the first step to immortalizing Bobby Cox instead of Joe Torre, Chipper Jones, not Derek Jeter, and Fred McGriff could have replaced Paul O'Neill. Maybe Atlanta would have been the owners of an incredible run and the Yanks would have been the ones who would only manage one title during their extended playoff appearance streak.

Midway through the 1990 season, Bobby Cox came down from his GM position with the Braves for his second stint in their dugout. This time, he took the team to the World Series in both of his first full seasons, losing to the Twins in seven games in 1991 and then to the Blue Jays in six in 1992. In the strike-shortened season of 1994, the Braves were on pace to win 96 games but were six games behind the Expos when the season was cut short. They won their only World Series of the Cox era in 1995, needing six games to knock of the Indians.

So when the Yanks and Braves ended up head to head in the 1996 WS, it was Atlanta who were the heavy favorites and the Bombers who were the up and comers, making only their second playoff appearance in 15 years. Don Mattingly had just retired and although Buck Showalter had overseen some vast improvements take place in the franchise he was replaced in a somewhat confusing maneuver.

Game 1 was originally supposed to take place on October 19th, but the first World Series rainout in ten years pushed the start of the series back and ended up eliminating the travel day that was supposed to take place after the first two games were completed in New York.

After falling behind in the NLCS to the Cardinals 3-1, the Braves had caught ablaze in the final three games, winning 14-0, 3-1 and 15-0. The Yanks on the other hand had wrapped up their 4-1 victory against the Orioles four days earlier. The rainout gave the Braves an extra day to recover from the seven game bout with the Cards, but the Yanks needed no such reprieve.

It was damp 53 degrees at game time and a 24 year old Andy Pettitte took the hill for the Yanks. Pettitte had a breakout year, notching 21 wins with a 3.87 ERA and finishing second in the Cy Young voting to Pat Hentgen. He retired the side in order in the first inning and the 1996 World Series was under way.

In the Yanks half of the first inning, Bernie Williams and Tino Martinez both worked two out walks but Cecil Fielder flew out to the gap in right field to end the frame.

Javy Lopez got aboard with a one out single in the second and remained on first until Andruw Jones came to the plate with two outs. Jones was only 19 and had played in just 31 regular season games that year, but worked a decidedly veteran at-bat against Pettitte. He worked the count full and deposited the first 3-2 pitch into the left field stands, drawing the first blood in the game. 2-0 Braves.

Paul O'Neill and Jim Leyritz worked two more walks off of John Smotlz in the second, but again failed to plate a run.

The wheels came off in the third inning for Pettitte, even though he never allowed anything worse than a single. The damage occurred as follows, single by Marquis Grissom, single by Jeff Blauser, sac bunt by Mark Lemke, then a two-run single by Chipper Jones who advanced to second on the throw home. Jones then stole third, and was driven in on a base hit by Fred McGriff. Pettitte's night was over after he walked Javy Lopez and left the game trailing 5-0. He was replaced by Brain Boehringer, who got Jermaine Dye to fly to left, but allowed another homer to Andruw Jones put the game even further out of reach. 8-0 Braves, seven of those runs charged to Pettitte in just 2 1/3 IP.

The Yankees wouldn't score until the fifth inning on a double by Wade Boggs and it would prove to be all the Yanks could muster offensively. They worked 5 walks but only 4 hits, a far cry from the 14 baserunners Atlanta was successful in creating.

Smotlz pitched a pretty smooth 6 innings of one run ball before handing it off to the bullpen, an effort which meant the Braves had given up only two runs in their last four games, all the while scoring 44.

The Yanks looked rusty and overmatched and it appeared that the Vegas oddsmakers and those who thought wrapping up their series with Baltimore early worked to their disadvantage were right.