Thursday, October 22, 2009

ALCS Game 5: To Live And Die In L.A.

Last night was the 8th night off the Yankees have had this postseason. After tonight they will have played 7 games. In a sport that averages about one day off per week or less during the regular season, it must be pretty annoying for the teams to have to play so sporadically during the postseason.

That one extra night allowed for the possibility of starting CC Sabathia three times in this series, which certainly has helped put the Yankees as close as they are, but the lull between games is something that's not natural for baseball fans and players alike. Dave Cameron over at FanGraphs is dreading the possibility of yet another week without a baseball game and is therefore (as a Mariner's fan) rooting for the Angels. I'm obviously not going to go that far, but I do think that the MLB has gone a little too far by inserting off days not necessary for travel so networks can put as many games as possible in primetime. The league is in the superior bargaining position here and should be willing to preserve the rhythm of the season to some extent over having a couple of games start at 4:00PM Eastern instead of 8:00PM.

Regardless, here the Yankees are, on the doorstep of the Fall Classic. After Game 4, it was strange to hear people say the Yanks were "one win away". It didn't quite seem real yet. However, watching the Phillies clinch last night (and coming to the realization that we made it through the TBS coverage) did drive it hit home a little bit more. The Phils' win last night was a little bit like the Yankees' the night before in that they blew the Dodgers out, but there were some sweaty palms during the 8th inning with the bases loaded, no one out and the Dodgers trailing by 5. When the last out was recorded, the city Philadelphia of course handled it with the grace and class of a team who had made the World Series just last year a crack whore at a black tie function.

Back to the game tonight, though. Of course as we all know far too well, one blowout win doesn't mean anything when the next game rolls around. Especially with the pitching match up we've got tonight.

If rest wasn't a factor and the Angels could pick anyone in their rotation to start tonight's game, it would still be John Lackey. He has a 3.03 postseason ERA in 71 1/3 innings. Although his playoff record is 3-4, he's still known as the type of pitcher that excels in October. If the Angels are to be around in November, he'll have to keep the best line up in baseball in check tonight.

One of Lackey's four losses came against the Yankees in Game 1 of this series. The Bombers' philosophy going into the game was to be patient against the tall righty, which was exemplified by Derek Jeter's at bat to lead off the game - an 8 pitch tussle ending with a single to right field. Lackey allowed 4 runs (2 ER) that night and the 114 pitches he threw weren't even enough to get him out of the sixth inning. Two errors by his teammates surely escalated his pitch count as well, but those weren't what prevented him from having a good outing - that would be the Yankees approach and execution.

Our buddy Joe Pawlikowski at River Ave. Blues took a look at Lackey's postseason resume today, specifically his performances in the two elimination games he's started, and his playoff history against the Yankees. Click over to see how much he has earned his reputation as a "big game pitcher".

A.J. Burnett will oppose Lackey this evening and look to lift the Yankees into their 40th Fall Classic. Burnett has given up only three runs in his two starts this October but hasn't been able to pick up his first postseason win. He did however, get to deliver some whipped cream to the faces of Mark Teixeira and Jerry Hairston, Jr., which I'm sure were fine consolation prizes.

While Burnett hasn't given up many runs (3) or hits (6) in his two previous outings, he's given out 7 free passes, plunked 4 and buried numerous curveballs in the dirt. It's not unexpected, since Burnett led the league in walks, was third in hit batsmen and tied for most wild pitches during the regular season. To his credit, A.J. has held on for dear life and done a good job of limiting the damage when he's gotten into trouble (i.e. the 5th inning of Game 2).

With Burnett comes the requisite baggage of having Jose Molina in the line up. So far, Molina has only got 3 plate appearances and Burnett has pitched well, so there has been no real reason to switch things up. Line ups aren't posted yet, but Hideki Matsui should retain the DH role despite his tough night on Tuesday (0-5, 3Ks), leaving Posada available for direct substitution of Molina later in the game.

The Yankees are going to be coming back to New York one way or another after this game. Whether it will be a celebratory atmosphere or not remains to be seen. We've had our eye on this song ever since the it was official that the Yanks and Angels would be meeting in the ALCS. Thankfully it isn't the Yankees who are fighting for their playoff lives tonight.

It's the City of Angels in constant danger,
South Central L.A., can't get no stranger.

To live and die in L.A., it's the place to be,
You've got to be there to know it, what everybody wanna see.

On The Bases

Two of the most critical plays in the Division Series against Minnesota were base running mistakes: Carlos Gomez tripping rounding second base with two outs in the fourth inning of Game Two, and his subsequent failure to get himself caught in a rundown long enough to allow Delmon Young to score may have cost the Twins that game. In Game Three, down by a run with no one out in the eighth, Nick Punto got a little too aggressive rounding third base, and Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, and Alex Rodriguez combined to pluck the potential tying run right out of scoring position.

In Game Three of the ALCS, the Angels made a pair of base running mistakes of their own. Torii Hunter was erased on a pickoff/caught stealing while trailing 2-0 in the fourth. With the score tied in the eighth, Bobby Abreu erased his own leadoff double by getting nabbed retreating to second base after an overly aggressive turn.

While the Twins and Angels are heralded for "doing the little things right" these base running mistakes (not to mention the Angels' play in the field) have flown in the face of that. The Yankees had been relatively immune to such mistakes on the base paths until Game Four:
- Derek Jeter got picked off/caught stealing after a single to leadoff the game.

- In the fifth, Jorge Posada was on second base with no one out, and failed to score on double from Robinson Cano, victimized by a deke from Hunter in centerfield.

- The next at bat, Posada broke for home on Nick Swisher's tapper back to the mound. I don't know that I can fault Posada for breaking for home. Perhaps the contact play was on. The Yankees scored their first run of the game on a similarly aggressive move from A-Rod in the fourth. But the comedy of (baserunning) errors began thereafter.

Posada, knowing he was a goner at the plate, rightly froze and got caught in a rundown to allow the other runners time to advance. As Posada reatreated to third, he and Cano converged on the bag. For some reason, Cano hesitated and it took a terrible call from third base umpire Tim McClelland to keep the Yankees from losing two outs on the play. While Cano should have already been on the bag, he may have been crossed up by Posada continuing to retreat. Once Posada was sure Cano was at the base safely he should have given himself up. Meanwhile, Swisher failed to advance to second while all this was happening.

- As discussed earlier today, in the seventh Brett Gardner was caught stealing as a pinch runner for the second consecutive day, though this one wasn't nearly as costly as his CS in Game Three.
In the end, none of the Yankees' mistakes on the bases Tuesday proved to be too costly. They've subsisted this post-season largely on the strength of their pitching and on the long ball. But, as we've mentioned here a few times already, they've also had several breaks go their way. These little things matter. Giving outs away on the bases can prove very costly (just ask the Twins) and can make a team "unlucky" awfully quick. Here's hoping that Tuesday's poor base running was the first and last we'll see from them this month.

The Missing Links

The news might be almost two weeks old, but these links go out to my girl Ardi, whose 3.2 million year old remains proved that there is no "missing link''.

Matthew Pouliot at Circling the Bases doesn't like the Angel's chances for mounting a comeback. Joel Sherman says they won't go down without a fight.

Sadly, the "Save Gate 2" movement isn't going so well.

Larry at Wezen-Ball re-discovers how 70 million people were captivated by the 1952 World Series in light of the fact that the Yankees and Dodgers won't be meeting in the Fall Classic again this year.

Tyler Kepner talks to Joba about his sweat-stained cap. Unfortunately he didn't tell him to get a fucking new one.

Our buddy Simon on Sports has a different take on the conspiracy theory Matt detailed this morning. And I have to admit, despite our differences, this is kind of funny.

A former up calls for the use of instant replay. Buster Onley wants it for this World Series. Like my grandfather always used to say to me, "Simmer down, Buster".

Behind the Box Score asks which is more important (or more appropriately less important), a batter's last 7 plate appearances against a pitcher or their most recent 7 times up?

YFSF wonders why A-Rod isn't getting the courtesy of intentional walks extended to Barry Bonds. I mean, they walked him with their closer in Game 2 with no one on base. It's 32 plate appearances, let's not get carried away here...

King of the sports podcasts, Dan Levy, celebrates his Phillies' return to the World Series and (prematurely) sizes up the Yankees from afar. Let's just say he's not shaking in his shoes. He also talks a little bit about A.J. Daulerio's own "media meltdown" over at Deadspin yesterday.

Philly fan boo TBS. Well done, folks.

Red Light, Green Light

At about the one third mark of this season, I became very vocal here with my belief that Brett Gardner deserved the lion's share of the playing time as the Yankees' centerfielder. His broken thumb in late July pretty much derailed any chance of that becoming a reality.

There was never any doubt that Melky Cabrera would be the starting centerfielder in the post-season, and buoyed by the strength of his ALCS Game Four, Cabrera's small sample size post-season numbers have been good. While some have suggested that Gardner start in place of the slumping Nick Swisher, that shouldn't happen, and I highly doubt it will.

Outside of it flying in the face of conventional wisdom, Joe Girardi seems to be infatuated with the idea of having Brett Gardner available as a pinch running option off the bench. While Hideki Matsui, and to a lesser extent Jorge Posada, make that a desirable option to have, I think the underlying thought process is faulty in something of the same way that the Joba to the bullpen argument is: it doesn't matter how good your late game options are if your early game options don't put you in a place to leverage them. That is, Gardner's speed shouldn't count against him. Don't hold him back because he's fast; if he belongs in the starting line up put him there.

That aside, something unexpected has happened in Gardner's last two pinch running appearances. After being successful in 26 of 31 attempts this year and 39 of 45 in his brief MLB career, Gardner has been caught stealing as a pinch runner in both of the last two games.

At the risk of blowing a small sampling out of proportion, I'm curious about this. Generally speedsters like Gardner have permanent green lights; they're free to go whenever they want so long as they're not given an explicit red light. I would assume that Gardner's operating under those conditions, but the situations in which he's decided to run in the last two games have made me wonder.

In Game Three, Gardner pinch ran for Hideki Matsui in the eighth. He was on first base, with no one out, trailing by a run. After a throw to first, on a 0-1 pitch, Gardner took off for second. Given the situation it was a risky move to begin with, given the count, it was even riskier. The Angels pitched out, Gardner was gunned down at second, and the potential tying run went from on base to the batters box. The Yankees lost 14.3% of win probability in the process, the most costly Yankee out of the game.

In Game Four, Gardner entered again in the eight, again at first, again with no one out. This time at least, the Yankees were up 5-1. After two throws to first, Gardner took off on a 2-0 pitch and got caught again. At least there was no risk of a pitch out that time. Because of the score, this time it only cost the Yankees 1.1% of win probability.

I'm wondering what exactly the thought process is here. Is Gardner perma-greenlighted and going on his own? Is he under express orders to go? As a pinch runner, does he feel like he has to run? In a situation like Game Three's, why is he not given a explicit red light?

I'm not anti-stolen base. In the right situation it is a calculated risk well worth taking. Gardner's SB in the tenth inning of Game Two of the ALDS was a good one. It put him in scoring position as the potential winning run, and his speed later forced an errant pick off throw that put him on third base with just one out. But I'm dubious of the two latest attempts, and not just because of the negative outcomes. I wonder if Gardner's becoming entrenched in his role as pinch runner/defensive replacement and trying to make something happen in each of his limited opportunities.

An Interview With Kevin Long

We couldn't get any face time with the Yankees' hitting coach, much less during a playoff run, but the folks over at Locker Blogger did get a chance to pick Long's brain for a bit.

In the interview, Long discusses the nuances of coaching a slew of great veteran hitters like ones the Yankees have, their use of video as an instructional tool and how Jorge Posada acts as a second hitting coach.

(If you are reading via RSS, you might have to click through for the video)

Say what you will about Jorge's ability to call a came (although I recall the staff performing pretty well with him behind the dish so far this postseason) but the guy obviously knows a whole lot about hitting. Perhaps he doesn't always bend to the pitcher's will like Jose Molina but I'm sure he can see exploitable tendencies in opposing hitters that pitchers are much less likely to pick up on.

Keep an eye out for Locker Blogger as well. They've already recruited David Cone, Darryl Strawberry, Tino Martinez and Don Mattingly to contribute to the site so you can expect more Yankee-related content from them in the future.

Fack Youk Exclusive: A Conspiracy

Good morning Fackers. As Jay mentioned late yesterday afternoon, both he and I were too occupied to tend shop and shuttered a little earlier than usual. What he didn't tell you was that we were busy as part of a major emergency investigation undertaken by the Fack Youk Investigative Report Team.

As you may be aware, Fack Youk has been involved in a bit of a blogowar with a certain Angels' blog whom I refuse to name or link to any longer given the sheer amount of garbage they've spewed over the past week. It began when they tried to go all FJM-style on the Bobby Abreu post I authored last week. I don't usually make a habit of reading blogs dedicated to other teams, but when Jay received a Google alert that my post had been linked to there, I went over to defend my viewpoints as rationally and politely as I could. And that in and of itself wasn't too bad. There was a decent discourse in the comments, nothing got too inane, and things remained relatively friendly.

With them now on my radar and the ALCS underway, I checked back occasionally. And that's when the general IQ level started swirling down the tubes. Yesterday, they unearthed the gem that they had "pretty conclusive evidence" that the secret to Mariano Rivera's success over the past decade and a half was that he was throwing spitballs. Nevermind that spitballs either move erratically or down and that Mariano's cutter moves from his right-to-left. Nevermind that Rivera has spent the past 14 full Big League seasons playing in the planet's biggest media market with dozens upon dozens of his games being aired on national television. In one fell swoop, with a little help from a DVR, these witty gumshoes had uncovered the equivalent of the Zapruder Film spliced with video evidence of Big Foot banging the Loch Ness Monster.

If that weren't enough, as proof that a few idiots crying out in the wilderness really can change the world, the grass roots conspiracy theory grew to the point that MLB actually launched an investigation. The MLB investigation, and a modicum of diligence from a far more rational Angels fan, exonerated Rivera.

Apparently not satisfied that they had their fifteen minutes of fame without becoming the laughingstock of the baseball blogosphere, the site began questioning the expedience with which Rivera was cleared, suggesting that it was a bit fishy and reminding everyone that it took MLB "over a decade" to get to the bottom of steroids, which by the way, everyone who has ever played for the Yankees takes.

Quite a day there for our left coast friends. Not content to sit back and enjoy the likely 50,000 plus page views their responsible and well-thought-out accusations earned them, they came back for an encore yesterday, focusing on three atrocious calls in Game Four, one of which actually benefited the Angels and none of which had any impact on scoring. But see, that's all part of the conspiracy.

What conspiracy you ask? Oh, you poor gullible reader. The joint conspiracy amongst MLB, FOX, and the World Umpires Association to ensure that the Yankees receive favorable calls in order to place the ginormous New York media market in the World Series thereby securing a ratings bonanza. Plus it would keep small-town greater Los Angeles and its tiny metropolitan area of dozens of residents out of the Fall Classic where Bingo Night or a seasonal bobbing for apples contest could single-handedly kill the World Series ratings.

Got all that? Oh, I know what you're going to say: "The umpiring has been horrible all post-season. It's been the single biggest story line all through the playoffs". Well of course it has you nitwit. They couldn't make it obvious; then any moron could have figured it out. They had to disguise it so that only the internet's brightest minds/Angels bloggers could just barely uncover the plot. Look, everyone knew the Yankees were going to get by the Twins, it was when they got to their arch-nemesis, the Angels, who have absolutely pwned the Yanks over the past ten years, that they would need help. So by decree of MLB/FOX/WUA, umpires began intentionally blowing calls throughout the Division Series in order to make it more believable when they started throwing things the Yankees' way in the ALCS. That's why the Angels got the benefit of three blown calls in Game One of the ALDS against the Red Sox; it makes it all the more believable that they're not getting screwed now.

As Yankee fans, of course Jay and I have mixed emotions about corroborating all this shocking news. But the truth will set you free and we want to hold ourselves to a high moral standard rather than be handicapped by blind loyalty to the juiced up cheating Yankees. That's why we took the afternoon off yesterday, to partake in a daring mission to capture the security tapes of the headquarters at said Angels blog. That way we could prove to the world that they did in fact have airtight evidence that all their claims were true. Unfortunately, MLB/FOX/WUA/CIA operatives arrived just as we were about to make our getaway, recapturing the security footage from us in an effort to leave the entirety of the baseball loving public in blissful ignorance.

But we are undeterred. We turned to the Fack Youk Artistic Reconstruction Team, a crack assemblage of disgraced former police sketch artists and art school dropouts and had them reconstruct what we had seen at the Angel blog fortress of solitude. The reconstruction is below. Prepare to have your minds blown:

See how reeediculous all this sounds? So in honor of the folks over at the Blog That Shall Not Be Named, here's a video starring A-Rod's girlfriend's ex-husband: