Thursday, May 27, 2010

Game 46: Sister Luck

The Yanks and Twins close out their three game series tonight. Javier Vazquez will take the mound for the Yankees, making just his third start in the last twenty six days. After a rough beginning to his second go round in pinstripes, Vazquez has been markedly improved over his last two starts, allowing just ten baserunners and two runs while striking out thirteen over thirteen innings. In between, he made a relief appearance and picked up an easy win by fanning the only batter he faced.

Vazquez banged up his right index finger in his last start, bloodying the digit in a sacrifice bunt attempt at Citi Field. It was enough to force his early exit from that game, but he showed no ill effects during his bullpen session earlier this week. He's been deemed good to go tonight.

Nick Blackburn gets the start for the Twins. He was the starting pitcher in the series finale in New York the weekend before last, going seven innings and surrendering three runs on nine hits and a walk. It was enough for Blackburn to earn the win after the Yankee bullpen coughed up the game in the eighth inning. He followed that with 7.1 IP of three run ball against the Brewers last Friday, getting another win to run his 2010 record to 5-1.

Barring their fourth playoff meeting in the last eight seasons, this will be the final game between the Yankees and Twins this year. Since taking the helm in 2002, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire has been very successful, posting a .547 winning percentage and capturing five AL Central flags. But the Yankees have been his personal kryptonite.

Gardenhire is just 15-45 against the Yankees over the past eight plus seasons, not including his 2-9 mark against them in post-season play. His Twins lost their first 13 games against the Yankees, going winless in 2002 and 2003, and dropped 17 of 19 from 2002 through 2004. Through yesterday, they're just 7-22 against the Yanks since the start of the 2007 season.

Those are some pretty staggering numbers, but they don't begin to tell the tail of how things have been between these teams since the start of last season. In that time, including last year's ALDS, the Yankees are 14-1 against the Twins. The one loss came only after Joba Chamberlain and Mariano Rivera combined for a two out eighth inning meltdown nearly two weeks ago, a game in which the Yankees had a 87% chance of winning with just four outs to go.

But of the 14 wins the Yankees have had, seven have been by a lone run. Two more have been by just two runs. Four of them are of the walkoff variety, three of them in extra innings. Over those 15 games, the Yankees have scored 78 runs and allowed 44, which equates to a pythagorean record 11-4, or three games worse than they've done in actuality against the Twins over the past year plus.

Yet even that doesn't tell the whole story. Aside from winning close games and outplaying the run differential, the Yanks have gotten an inordinate number of breaks: Phil Cuzzi's blown call on Joe Mauer's would-be double in Game Two of the ALDS. A-Rod's clutch game tying home run in the ninth inning of that same game - when the Yankees started the inning with 10% win expectancy. David Robertson's Houdini act to escape a bases loaded, no one out jam in the eleventh inning of that game. Game changing base running gaffes by Carlos Gomez and Nick Punto changing the tenor of Games Two and Three. J.J. Hardy's potential game tying blast dying on the warning track yesterday afternoon. Andy Pettitte wriggling out of jams in the seventh and eighth inning yesterday.

It's a wealth of good luck and more than anyone has a right to expect over fifteen games. For one more night at least, the Yanks hope that Sister Luck doesn't start screaming out the Twins name.

Sister Luck is screaming out
Somebody else's name
[Song Notes: "Sister Luck" appeared on the Black Crowes debut album Shake Your Money Maker. It's been twenty years since that's been released and apparently the Crowes have decided this is a good time as any to take a little break. They'll be touring hard through the end of the year and then going on an indefinite hiatus. Part of that saddens me as this is a band that I've really enjoyed through the years. I'm going to try to catch a few shows before the year is out, starting next Friday on the Cape.

On the other hand, I suppose it's a good thing that they're calling it quits on relatively good terms, especially considering their often acrimonious history. Plus, their hiatus will allow Luther Dickinson to focus fully on the North Mississippi Allstars again, which can only be a good thing. And with any luck, just as they did after their 2001 hiatus, the Crowes will decide to come back after a few years, and do it with Marc Ford and Eddie Harsch back in the band.]


After a one game absence, Brett Gardner returns to the two spot, with Nick Swisher going back to sixth in the order. Juan Miranda gets the nod at DH after crushing a long, loud out in a pinch hitting appearance last night. Francisco Cervelli starts his tenth straight game behind the dish and Kevin Russo gets his fourth straight start in left field and fifth in the last six games.
Derek Jeter SS
Brett Gardner CF
Mark Teixeira 1B
Alex Rodriguez 3B
Robinson Cano 2B
Nick Swisher RF
Juan Miranda DH
Francisco Cervelli C
Kevin Russo LF

Span CF
Hudson 2B
Mauer C
Morneau 1B
Thome DH
Cuddyer RF
Kubel LF
Hardy SS
Casilla 3B

Will Cowboy Joe Be Put Out To Pasture?

The old cliche says that you never notice the umps until they screw something up. And for the most part, I think that's right. The men in blue take a lot of flack when they get something wrong, and it seems to me that the level of anger directed at them has been growing recently. But generally speaking, I think they do a good job. If we need a super slow-mo instant replay from three different angles before we can tell, I think we can cut them a little slack on the close ones.

What isn't quite so easy to stomach is when an umpire chooses to make himself less inconspicuous. Certain umps like to get a little too emphatic with their punch outs. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Tim McClelland is notoriously slow and nonchalant when behind the plate. Tuesday night saw Balking Bob Davidson nearly lose his mind in tossing Carl Crawford and Joe Maddon after an indefensibly bad strike call.

And of course, Cowboy Joe West has been having a quite a 2010 for himself. While West is usually the one with the poor strike zone while Davidson calls the balks, the two apparently chose to reverse roles this week. By now you've certainly heard of West's two balk calls on Mark Buehrle yesterday, leading to West tossing Ozzie Guillen and then Buehrle. As Rob Iracane at Walkoff Walk rightly points out, the two balk calls may have been borderline, but West within his rights to call them. And while I can understand Buehrle's frustration after getting hung up twice on something many other pitchers get away with, he didn't help his case by drawing a line in the dirt after the first and dropping his glove in frustration after the second. You can debate whether or not his ejection was deserved, but it certainly shouldn't be surprising.

What's most disturbing though is that circumstantial evidence is mounting that West's repeated appearances in the news may not be accidental. On the heels of yesterday's debacle in Cleveland, word leaked that West will be working this weekend's series between Boston and Kansas City. It will be West's first series with Boston since his early season comments about their pace of play. Normally umpiring crews are not publicized by MLB in advance of a series, and this one is no different. How then did this information become public? Through Joe West's publicist of course.

This is the real problem here. Regardless of how poorly regarded West is as an umpire, regardless of his confrontational history as an umpire, I'm willing to cut him some slack as an arbiter of the game. I can understand why West, with a side career as country singer, might retain a publicist to support that endeavor. But there's absolutely no way that any umpire or any official within Major League Baseball should be publicizing his upcoming series. His job as an umpire is to be invisible, not to intentionally draw attention to himself.

Buehlre may face a fine for his actions yesterday. Ozzie Guillen will certainly be fined and possibly even suspended for his actions and for his hilarious, and likely truthful, postgame rant. And that's fine. I don't begrudge those two the actions they took but they took those actions knowing full there are consequences for them. Now they'll be held accountable, but accountability is a two way street.

I understand that MLB cannot publicly admonish, fine, or suspend Joe West. But at this point, with his comments on the pace of play, with his look-at-me actions during yesterday's game, and with his inexcusable press release, Major League Baseball has to do something about Joe West.

West is in his 32nd year as a Major League umpire. He'll be 59 by year's end and isn't exactly the fittest fella on the field. This past off-season, MLB had no qualms with quietly showing the door to longtime umps Randy Marsh, Ed Montague, Rick Reed, and Charlie Relaford, as well as even longer-tenured supervisors Marty Springstead, Rich Garcia, and Jim McKean. After his antics through the first two months of 2010, MLB would be very wise to do the same with Joe West after this season.

Radio Play

At different points in my life, I've listened to varying amounts of baseball on the radio. During the summer of 2004, I settled into a workout regiment that put me on an exercise bike right about 7:00 in the evening. It was happenstance at first, but I eventually started to enjoy listening to Charley Steiner and John Sterling so much that I would aim my time on the bike for that slot whenever the Yankees were playing.

I had an old RCA boombox situated across the room that, since it was in the basement, necessitated one of those axillary bowtie antenna in addition to the retractable one attached to the unit. The reception would fluctuate for no apparent reason and, not wanting to get off the bike and walk over to fix it, I'd strain my ears in an effort to decode what was going on. Sometimes there would be a loud sound that I would swear was crowd noise only to find out it was just more snow on the radio. On some nights, I couldn't focus and would lose track of what was going on in the game - how many guys were on base, what the score was, what inning, who as pitching for the other team - but the constant flow of voices and crowd noise was just enough white noise to let my mind wander without being too aware of itself.

Listening to a Yankees game is a different experience today. Most of the time when there's a game on and I'm in the car, I'll turn it on, but since I do so much writing about the Yanks now, I try to be in front of the TV (and my computer) when they are playing. And also because the broadcast team is just not as good. Essentially, I'll only listen to the game on the radio out of necessity now.

When Steiner was in the booth, he was obviously doing play-by-play and Sterling was the color guy. Steiner did a largely straightforward rendition of the game calling and only gave Sterling so much lattitude to do the goofy shit that so characterizes his broadcasts with Suzyn Waldman. Now you've got Sterling controlling the broadcast with his play-by-play and Waldman who -although I'm sure she is a very nice person and knowledgeable about to team - is tough to listen to and adds hardly any of the insight that I think most people are looking for from a baseball broadcast.

And to make matters worse, yesterday, MLBAM heavy-handedly cracked down on It Is High, It Is Far, It Is caught..., the only thing that made what happened in the booth even remotely amusing or tolerable.

Aside from the tragic decimation of the portfolio of winwarbles and mash ups that El Duque put together at IIH, IIF, IIC..., there was another thing that made me reflect on my radio listening days.

Ted from Pitchers and Poets (and Everyday Ichiro) wrote a fantastic, evocative piece about driving back from a camping trip and listening to the Mariners on the radio:
I didn’t literally tune out, like out of life. I kept an eye on the road and all, and at the very least I wasn’t texting and driving. But instead of zeroing in on the details of the Mariners game, on every pitch, I let my mind wander in between the phrasings, and the pure sounds of a man telling a story of a game happening somewhere distant. The radio game was the backdrop, the hazy middle distance seen from the path that my thoughts wandered, rarely settling anywhere but walking, step after step, in the directionless direction of a figurative destination, the highway emerging a few car lengths ahead and crumbling away behind me. Driving the pace of my ranging thoughts: the game itself, pitch after pitch ringing in the subconscious like a heartbeat.

The radio, humming along like time and the storyteller before the fire, sets a beat to life rather than recreating the world the way that TV does. So maybe I was wrong. I didn’t need to know anything about the Mariners that the radio couldn’t provide, because the voice in the radio doesn’t offer information as much as it does forward motion. A sense of progress, through time, through life, down the highway, on the way home.
You should read the whole thing. It'll make you miss the days when you could just listen to the radio broadcast without being annoyed to tears by the announcers, doesn't it?

Girardi Bends The Rules, Probably Didn't Have To

Good morning, Fackers. One of the details I didn't cover in last night's recap (which I will attribute to the combination of the extreme heat and my lack of an air conditioner) was that the Yankees tried to pull a bit of a fast one to begin the bottom of the ninth inning.

Since Nick Swisher's go-ahead home run came with two outs in the top half of the inning and Mark Teixeira made an out three pitches later trying to leg out a double, Mariano Rivera had barely any time to warm up before he came in to protect the one run lead.

With the lefty Justin Morneau up and Andy Pettitte having thrown only 94 pitches, it seemed plausible that Girardi would let Andy stay in for at least one more batter. However, he let Pettitte take the mound and throw his warm up pitches only to remove him without facing a batter when the inning was about to resume, thereby securing an extra eight or so pitches for Rivera.

When it happened last night, Matt voiced his objections on The Twitters, saying:
This is a pet peeve of mine. If a pitcher takes the mound at the start of an inning, he should have to face 1 batter unless there's a PH.
It turns out that Ron Gardenhire is of the same opinon (via BBTF):
Asked if he ever thought Pettitte actually would throw a pitch in the ninth, Gardenhire said, "No, he wasn't going to throw a pitch. That was kind of tired, to tell you the truth. You don't know normally get that long between innings to do all that, but we know what's going on there."

"That's a situation Major League Baseball needs to take care of when stuff like that happens. You don't have a guy ready in the bullpen, if your starter goes out there, he should have to face a hitter. That's just the way it should be. If you don't get a guy up, that's the way it should be, unless the other team makes a change."
"But that's not what lost the game for us. That's stuff that just gets old right there."
This is somewhat similar to the issue that Joe Girardi protested the game against the Red Sox about. The difference is that Girardi was taking advantage of a loophole in the rules whereas the Sox didn't have any ulterior motives but made a slight procedural error.

I think this transaction speaks to a larger issue, though. The one of Girardi feeling like he absolutely needed Rivera for all three outs despite the fact that he pitched earlier in the day. Would it have been the worst thing in the world if Pettitte, who had pitched pretty damn well and was still very effective in the inning before, faced one left handed batter and gave Mo the appropriate amount of time to get ready?

I often struggle to understand Girardi's moves as a manager but I've found one tendency that he is incredibly consistent in displaying. If the game is tight, he will exert every ounce of control over it that he can. Like in the seventh inning of the game Javy Vazquez started against the Mets when Joe went through three pitchers before they got two outs despite the fact that there were still two more innings left to pitch. Just yesterday, he didn't want to announce who would be pitching when the first game resumed because then the Twins could have... um... I don't know, done something with that information, maybe?

Honestly, part of the reason that this kind of stuff frustrates me is that I hate commercial breaks and Girardi makes so damn many mid-inning pitching changes it's like he has a clause in his contract that gives him a percentage of the ad revenue. Those are usually the times when the game is on the line and we all have to sit through two minutes and thirty seconds of shitty advertising because the other team's backup catcher is left handed.

Clearly his bullpen management has been one of Girardi's strengths in his time with the Yankees but that's partially because he has Rivera as a rock at the end of it. What's going to happen when someone less trustworthy is responsible for nailing down saves? Will he still sit on his hands and watch things unfold?

During that game against the Mets I likened Girardi with a slim lead to a kid holding a pet rabbit. He holds it like a vise grip because he doesn't want to let it get away. But sometimes he ends up strangling it in the process. You want your manager to do what he can to win every single game, but was it necessary to rush Rivera and make sure that he was in there for all three outs given that he had pitched earlier in the day? If there's any chance that he's nursing an injury or could have hurt himself as a result, the answer is obviously "no".

Game 45 Recap

This wasn't Andy Pettitte's best start of the season in terms of innings pitched and runs allowed, but it was probably his most impressive overall. Joe Mauer singled in a run in the first inning and Michael Cuddyer and Delmon Young stacked up a single and a double for another in the seventh inning but Pettitte needed just 83 pitchers (a whopping 65 of them for strikes) to make it through those seven frames.

When Drew Butera led off the eight inning with a double just out of the reach of Brett Gardner, the game was still tied at two. Denard Span - who terrorized the Yanks in these two games, reaching base six times - then laid down a soft bunt towards third. The Yankees had the wheel play on, which put Alex Rodriguez in position to field the ball get Span at first, but A-Rod couldn't handle it and the Twins had runners on the corners with no one out. It seemed a forgone conclusion that the Twinkies would plate at least one run and take the lead heading into the top of the ninth.

Pettitte tried to keep Span close at first base with a pair of pick off attempts. With two double plays on the night already, Andy knew that a Twin-killing was his best chance at escaping the inning. He almost got an unexpected one on the second pitch of the at bat when Orlando Hudson looped a curveball right back over his head but Pettitte snared it with a full extension and whipped his head to third and then to first to see if the runners had strayed. They hadn't, but he was one step closer to getting out of the jam.

Although it was just one out and a well placed grounder or a deep enough fly ball would have given Minnesota the lead, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. A light considerably dimmed, however, by Joe Mauer standing directly in front of it.

The Yanks played in at the corners but left their middle infielders at double play depth and on the first pitch of the at bat, Pettitte threw a cutter low and away, hoping that Mauer would cue it off the end of the bat, but he didn't offer. Pettite then checked Span at first base with a pick off attempt and threw a cutter over the outside corner for a strike.

Cervelli set up almost comically inside on the next pitch, but Pettitte missed low to bring the count to 2-1. Another pickoff attempt. Pettitte proceeded to come back inside with another fastball that made Mauer to check his swing, but the pitch missed by the slimmest of margins and 3rd base umpire Chris Guccione said that Joe didn't go. That brought the count to a dangerous 3-1.

Pettitte and Cervelli then went back to the same pitch that they started Mauer with, except this time he did swing at it and grounded into an inning-ending 6-4-3 double play.

Andy might have missed some of his spots in that at bat by a bit, but he was either inside and off the plate or low and away out of the zone - two spots that even Mauer can't get good wood on. It was one of my favorite at bats of the year given that I was more or less resigned to Mauer or Morneau finding a way to drive in that run, but Pettitte, primarily by virtue of his ability to spot the ball, was able to get exactly what the Yanks needed in that spot.

Pettitte's Houdini-esque escape from that jam was rewarded in the 9th inning as Nick Swisher hit a two out, line drive blast off of Twins' closer Jon Rauch that left the yard in a hurry and gave the Yanks a 3-2 lead.

Although he had closed out the earlier game, Mariano Rivera came back to nail this one down as well. He induced three grounders from Morneau, Cuddyer and Young and the Yanks pulled off their second one run victory of the day.

There were other parts of this game that were worth of further exploration, namely Brett Gardner's RBI triple and Kevin Russo's run-scoring double and/or catch up against the wall, but those likely would have gone to waste if Pettitte wasn't able to wriggle out of that 8th inning jam.

It was a great win for the Yanks (both of them, actually) and they'll look to go for the sweep tomorrow night at 8.