Wednesday, October 7, 2009

ALDS Game 1: Guess I Planted

When the Twins beat the Tigers last night, it ensured that there would be at least one team in the AL side of the playoff bracket that the Yankees had beaten in the postseason more recently than they had lost to.

Coincidentally, that was also the last postseason series that A-Rod had played in before being labeled a hopeless choke artist. He hit .421/.476/.737 in those four games back in 2004 and drove in three runs including one on a game-tying ground rule double in the 12th inning of Game 2 off of Joe Nathan. That happened at the Old Stadium but Alex will be looking to start anew across the street this evening.

At about 6:07, CC Sabathia will stride towards the mound and deliver the first postseason pitch ever thrown at the New Yankee Stadium. He will be trying to conquer some playoff demons of his own. The last non-regular season quality start he had in October was back in 2001.

In his four postseason outings since then, he's given up 20 ER and 27 hits in 19 IP while walking 17 and striking out 19. The lack of command is the most alarming trend for a pitcher who walks about 3 men per 9 IP in the regular season. Right or wrong, his season will be judged in large part by what he does from here on out. But both he and A-Rod can get that monkey off their backs with a good performance; the sooner the better.

The Twins send Brian Duensing to the mound tonight. You don't often see a team have to send an emergency starter to the mound in Game 1 of a playoff series, but that's exactly what's going down tonight. Deunsing is from Omaha and was actually a teammate of Joba Chamberlain's at the University of Nebraska.

He was drafted in the 3rd round of the 2005 draft (84th overall) and unlike his former teammate gradually worked his way up through the minor leagues, finally making his debut with the Twins this year. In addition to 15 relief appearances, Deunsing made 9 starts for the Twins, going 5-1 with a 2.73 ERA in 52.2 IP. Eight of those 9 starts came after August 22nd, so the sample might be small, but it's pretty recent. He's not a big "three true outcomes" kind of a guy since he doesn't walk or strikeout many and doesn't yield many home runs.

Amazingly, Duensing has never even been to New York City before. Welcome to the Big Apple, kid. Now here's the ball. You've only gotta hurl it against the best home run hitting team the Yankees have ever assembled with major gusts of wind whipping out towards the outfield in an already tight ballpark against a former Cy Young winner with an exhausted defense behind you.

Even given Sabathia's previous postseason struggles, and Deunsing's success in the starting role, it seems like deck is stacked towards the Yankees in a big way. If must-win Game 1, can actually exist, I think we are looking at it.

Coming off the 12th inning win last night, the Twins aren't going to be well rested. They're starting a rookie pitcher in what will be his 10th major league start. They crushed the Twins in the season series 7-0, although that didn't work out do well against the Indians back in '07. By virtue of having the best record in the AL, they earned the right to take on the weakest team coming into the playoffs and start on their homefield. Now it's time to take advantage.

Let's go Yanks.

Hungry for the union,
And so we kept on,
Singing and working, fighting 'til we got it,
And this is the big union song I guess I hear.

Union song, union battled,
All added up, won us all what we got now,
Union song, union battled,
All added up, won us all what we got now.

ALDS Previews Galore

We'll be back shortly with our own unique brand of preview, but wanted to gather up some more in-depth looks ahead at the series first.
- River Ave. Blues goes position by position.

- Replacement Level Yankees Weblog uses wOBA, pERA & pFIP to make some projections looking just at the postseason rosters of both teams. They already looked at the Twins and today tackled the Yankees. Brilliant concept and great execution. Well done, fellas.

- The Yankee Universe explores at the pitching match ups and examines the Twins' bullpen.

- The NYT Bats Blog calls it a "mismatch". I see no need to tempt fate like that.

- Aaron Gleeman goes in-depth at Circling the Bases.

- David Pinto does the same at Baseball Musings.

- The Sports Section at New York Magazine looks at each Yankee star along with Joe Girardi.

- And finally, here's some talk about the shadows that can play a part in late afternoon games, especially in the postseason. The sun won't be the element giving the teams the most problems tonight, though. That would be the wind.
You'd better read those because there's going to be a quiz on them later!

ALDS Roster Finalized

The ALDS roster has been released. There aren't any major surprises, but there are some decisions that I think might be less than optimal.

Here's how it breaks down:

Pitchers (11): Sabathia, Burnett, Pettitte, Rivera, Hughes, Aceves, Robertson, Coke, Marte, Chamberlain, Gaudin

Catchers (3): Posada, Molina, Cervelli

Infielders (5): Teixeira, Cano, Jeter, Rodriguez, Hairston

Outfielders (5): Damon, Cabrera, Swisher, Gardner, Hinske

DH (1): Matsui

The primary reason to take the "A" series for the ALDS was that the extra off day permits the team to use just three starters. The secondary benefit was that the schedule gave the Yankees the option to carry just 10 pitchers, allowing an extra position player on the bench. While it's hard to argue against the presence of any of the eleven pitchers on the roster, the Yankees have punted on the opportunity to bolster the bench.

The presence of Marte and Coke both is necessitated by the Twins' dangerous lefty combo of Joe Mauer and Jason Kubel. Having both Joba Chamberlain and Chad Gaudin is somewhat redundant, but in my opinion both are equally worthy of a roster spot. However, given the way the schedule shakes out, neither pitcher should be used too heavily unless there is an extremely long game. The off days should allow Mo, Hughes, Alf, DRob and the lefties to pitch the bulk of the relief innings.

The Yankee bench is further shortened by the decision to have Jose Molina catch A.J. Burnett in Game 2. This is the only conceivable reason to have Francisco Cervelli on the roster. I like Cervelli as much as the next Yankee fan, and I hope to see him as the back up catcher next year. But barring something disastrous, he shouldn't see the field in the ALDS.

I have mixed feelings about Molina catching Burnett. While it appears that Burnett works better with Molina, I'm not convinced that's the case nor am I convinced of the reliability of the small sample size of data that supports the decision. Either way, the lack of Posada's bat in the line up, and replacing it with Molina's, could negate any perceived or realized advantage on the other side of the ball.

Furthermore, I hope that Cervelli's presence isn't an indication the Posada will DH when Molina catches. Replacing Matsui with Posada is a wash at best, particularly with Matsui's success against southpaws. Confining Posada to DH duty means that Cervelli, who is an incremental offensive upgrade over Molina, would enter the line up when Molina is inevitably pinch hit for in the late innings. Otherwise, the Yankees will lose the DH if Posada moves from DH to behind the plate.

Cervelli's presence also means that Ramiro Pena and Freddy Guzman are off the roster. I certainly haven't been an advocate of having Guzman present for the express purpose of pinch running. However, his absence likely means that Melky Cabrera will be the centerfielder, with Gardner coming off the bench as a pinch runner. As Jay and I have covered several times over the course of the year, we feel that Gardner is the better choice for centerfield.

Pena on the other hand, offers about the same offensive value as Cervelli, with the added benefit of being more versatile defensively and a better pinch running option. While the Yankees shouldn't need one, let alone two utility infielders, having both Hairston and Pena on the roster would allow them to spell both Jeter and A-Rod should a game get out of hand.

In the end, this is all probably much ado about nothing. Given the talent level at the top of the Yankees roster, if the series comes down to the 24th or 25th man on the roster things are likely pretty well screwed anyway. However, as we discussed at over the course of this season, each roster spot is a resource that needs to be allocated in the best way possible. I'm not convinced that this particular group of 25 is the best use of the Yankees resources for the ALDS.

Chip Caray Is Unclutch

(Photoshop via Sussman, via BBTF)

Sadly, I didn't even hear Chip Caray severely botch the call of Ryan Rayburn's throw home, calling it a "line drive, base hit" when it clearly was caught on the fly, instead pointing out a smaller error he made in the bottom of the 9th. Luckily, pretty much everyone else watching the game did.

This should come as no surprise though, as Caray has previously shown that the more important the moment is, the more likely he is to completely fuck it up. He did it in the 2007 ALDS against Cleveland too:
Caray does not distinguish a go-ahead run from a winning run. In Cleveland on Friday, he said the Indians had the winning run on second base in the bottom of the eighth, and he put the Yankees in the same position in the top of the ninth. Wrong.
I think we know who the real postseason choke artist taking part in this ALDS is. And it's not A-Rod.

Why Is A.J. Burnett Starting Game 2?

This I don't get, so let's let the first guessing begin!

A.J. Burnett has pitched more recently than Andy Pettitte, so flipping the order means Pettitte will start on 7 days rest while Burnett will start on 4. The Twins two best hitters, Jason Kubel and Joe Mauer are left handed so throwing Pettitte might help keep them out of the short porch in right at the Stadium. Burnett will be caught by a dismal offensive catcher, replacing one of the better bats in the line up with someone who may or may not be replacement level.

The decision forces them to carry three catchers for a 5 game series instead of a pinch runner, who might be a waste of a roster spot, but could theoretically be used in every game. Burnett has pitched in a grand total of zero postseason games. The two guys who stand to be offended by this are dynasty cogs - Pettitte and Posada - in favor of a free agent acquisition and a back up catcher that's probably not going to be around next year.

So why would Joe Girardi choose A.J. Burnett to start in two games of this ALDS including the potential deciding Game 5? Even if Posada figures to catch that Game 5, negating one of the above variables, don't you trust Andy Pettitte to give you a representative effort more than Burnett? Not just because of the lack of postseason experience for Burnett, but the fact that Pettitte surrenders fewer homers and far fewer walks. Wouldn't you trust Andy even more if you were Joe Girardi and had caught him before?

Is Pettitte's shoulder hurting? That would make some sense, and I'd be happy that the Yankees didn't announce that publicly. Are we looking at home/road splits, though? Because those are skewed horribly by Burnett's bad outings at Fenway and have evened out since the All-Star Break. Is Girardi doing this based on Burnett's power "stuff"? Because their K/BB rates are pretty similar and the whole "not giving up walks" part of that equation is a lot more important than striking guys out.

Girardi wasn't around the Yankees back then, but he must have been aware of Joe Torre's decision to start John Flaherty to catch Randy Johnson in Game 3 of the 2005 ALDS. You might recall that didn't work out so well.

If Burnett throws a gem, then fantastic, all's well that ends well. But if this doesn't work out for Girardi, he's going to be taking a world of shit for it. On one hand, you can give him some credit for sticking his neck out and making a very questionable decision and going with his convictions, but on the other hand you can look at this as another instance or overmanaging and a potentially fatal one at that.

I get the feeling that this postseason could bring out the worst fan in some us, should things fail to go as planned. The kind of fan who criticizes announcers and questions the manager. Oh wait, I've already done both and the games haven't even started yet. At least I haven't bitched about the umpiring. We'll leave that to angry Tigers fans.

Twins & Tigers Thrill Through Twelve

Good morning, Fackers. Did you see that game last night? If you didn't, you're probably already regretting it. It was one of the all-too-rare moments in sports in general and baseball in particular when a game with huge implications delivers huge drama. One of the few times that we can look at incredible over hyping that led up to the event after the fact and it actually seems less ridiculous. It would have been a great game had you stripped away the context of what was at stake.

With the spotlight pretty much all to themselves on a quiet Tuesday night in the world of sports, with their seasons on the line, the Twins and Tigers played like it. I hate do trot out the old boxing metaphors about "trading blows" and "having each other on the ropes" but there isn't really any other way to characterize the changes in momentum. The game even went 12 rounds innings.

We've been lucky with the last three play-in games. The Rockies and Padres came down to a play at the plate in '07, the White Sox and Twins last year turned on an 8th inning home run and ended on a great catch, but this year's version might have been the best of the trio.

I didn't "see" the game until the bottom of the 10th inning. I was doing some painting (housework, not art) and started with the Tigers' radio broadcast on WXYT with Dan Dickerson and Jim Price. Then I flipped over to the Minnesota guys to see if I liked it any better, but that was a terrible, terrible mistake. John "Gordo" Gordon has a laughable token radio voice and constantly places the emphasis on the wrong words. I'd say he's a cut-rate Jon Miller, but that would be giving him too much credit.

I stuck with the Detroit fellows until I had to run an errand and got the ESPN Radio team for the whole 9th and top of the 10th inning. I believe it was Gary Thorne and Dave Campbell and those guys were excellent. I finally got in front of the TV for the bottom of the 10th until the end and by then I wasn't paying attention to a word Chip Caray said.

There's nothing like some mindless labor and a good baseball game on the radio. If you're with around other people or the game isn't compelling, it's easy to lose track of what's going on. But when you are alone, applying coat upon coat of latex paint to a metal door, it's easy to get entranced in a hardball battle as good as the one last night.

After striking out one batter in each of his last three starts, twenty year-old Rick Porcello matched his season high in K's with 8, all swinging. Neyer surmised yesterday that he might have been a little tired down the stretch, so maybe the fact that he hadn't pitched in a week cured what ailed him. The kid should just be starting his junior year in college but instead he was starting a game with an MLB team's playoff chances in his hands, and did a pretty damn good job.

He pitched 5 2/3, and allowed two runs, one earned. However, the unearned run scored on Porcello's error - a botched pickoff throw to first in the third inning that could have been worse had it not his Twins first base coach Jerry White. He had nearly picked off Denard Span a few throws earlier but made the rookie mistake of not realizing that you usually only get one good chance to get someone snoozing with a big lead. The earned one came in the 6th when he allowed a solo homer to Jason Kubel.

In so far as it's okay to like a Boras bonus baby from another team, I think I like Rick Porcello. One more of these and I'm sold.

The villain in this game, aside from the Metrodome, was clearly Miguel Cabrera. The (wife) slugger was booed vociferously anytime he came to the plate or touched the ball. He responded in a big way though, with a double in the gap in his first at bat and a two run homer that temporarily put the Tigers ahead 3-0 and hushed the crowed in his second.

The hero was probably another man named Cabrera... Orlando. He hit a two run homer in the 7th inning that gave the Twins a one run lead and afterwards said it was the best game he ever played in.

In the top of the 9th, the Tigers looked to be set up with runners on 1st and 3rd with no one out but Joe Nathan struck out Placido Polanco looking and then got Magglio Ordonez to line out into a double play to short.

Brandon Inge had a double and an RBI, but also a diving, game-saving catch in the 9th on a bounce that almost certainly would have scored the winning run. I just listened to the highlight on and in typical Chip Caray fashion he declared that the play saved a run but didn't acknowledge that said run would have ended the game, since the score was tied at 4-4 and it was the bottom of the 9th. Get ready!

Ryan Rayburn was very nearly the goat after he badly misplayed a single into a triple, putting what proved to be the tying run on third with no one out. He partially redeemed himself by catching a line out by Nick Punto and gunning down Alexi Casilla at home plate to end the inning. The speedy Casilla blundered by tagging up a moment too late, and was tagged out by Gerald Laird by the slimmest of margins.

Casilla got some redemption of his own in the bottom of the 12th when he lined a one out single to right field to drive in Carlos Gomez from third and send the Twins to New York.

Get some rest, Twinkies. Don't stay up too late savoring your thrilling victory. Wouldn't want you to be all tired for the game tomorrow...