Wednesday, October 20, 2010

ALCS Game 5: Nobody Knows You When You're Down & Out

It's been three long years since the Yankees have faced an elimination playoff game. Three years is long enough for the team to build a new stadium, destroy its old one, lose its owner and its voice and turn over the majority of its roster. It's certainly long enough to forget what it's like to have your whole season resting on one game, but over the last two nights at the Stadium, we got a taste.

As the Rangers went to work on the Yankees bullpen, destorying what little hopes there were of mounting a comeback, fans poured out of the exits like the Stadium was on fire. That sign of resignation is something you don't see very often in postseason baseball, much less two nights in a row in the damn Bronx. For a fanbase who isn't afraid to tout themselves as the best and most dedicated in the world to turn their backs on the team like that speaks volumes.

But today is a new day, and the Yankees are trotting out their best pitcher. No bullets will be left in the chamber. The best the Bombers can do is to avoid the indignity of losing the fourth straight game of this series in front of their home crowd and jump a plane bound for DFW later tonight. It ain't much, but it's all we got.

Down but not out.

Then I began to fall so low,
Lost all my good friends, I did not have nowhere to go.
I get my hands on a dollar again,
I'm gonna hang on to it till that eagle grins.

'Cause no, no, nobody knows you
When you're down and out.
In your pocket, not one penny,
And as for friends, you don't have any.

When you finally get back up on your feet again,
Everybody wants to be your old long-lost friend.
Said it's mighty strange, without a doubt,
Nobody knows you when you're down and out.

Yankees: The Big Puma will replace Mark Teixeira at first base while Marcus Thames will DH against the lefty Wilson.
Derek Jeter SS
Nick Swisher RF
Robinson Cano 2B
Alex Rodriguez 3B
Marcus Thames DH
Lance Berkman 1B
Jorge Posada C
Curtis Granderson CF
Brett Gardner LF
CC Sabathia LHP
Elvis Andrus, SS
Michael Young, 3B
Josh Hamilton, CF
Vladimir Guerrero, DH
Nelson Cruz, LF
Ian Kinsler, 2B
Jeff Francoeur, RF
Matt Treanor, C
Mitch Moreland 1B
CJ Wilson LHP

The Fateful Fifth

Without falling victim to the fallacy of the predetermined outcome, there are is a rational way to look back at a baseball game and wonder what might have been. You have to identify a turning point in the game and restart from right there, assuming nothing going forward. But that method is always going to be unsatisfying because you can't say that that the Yankees would have won if a certain event didn't happen, you can only say that they might not have lost.

There are a lot of points that the Yankees probably wish they could rewind time and start last night's game from. Perhaps they'd like to put Brett Gardner up again with the bases loaded and one out in the fourth inning. The score was tied, but that was a real chance to break it open. Instead, Gardner settled for an RBI fielder's choice, Francisco Cervelli stayed in - instead of Jorge Posada pinch hitting - and struck out looking against Derek Holland and the Yankees walked away with a scant one run edge.

If they had to choose one spot though, it would likely be the moment before Mark Teixeira's fateful, balls-out sprint to first in the bottom of the fifth. As the ball dribbled up the third baseline, Teix reached for an extra gear that he apparently didn't have in order to beat out the double play and about fifteen feet from first, then reached for his right hamstring, lost his momentum and fell into an inadvertent feet-first slide, narrowly beating out the throw.

[As an aside... Could the hamstring have been weakened by the awkward attempt at tracking down the ball popped just into the stands by Nelson Cruz in the fourth inning? Maybe that at-bat would be a decent place to restart the tape from.]

Teixeira is a defensive wizard and generally a great hitter, but something about the postseason doesn't seem to agree with him. He's always said that one of the reasons he tends to start slow at the beginning of the regular season is that it takes time for both his right and left handed swings to align properly. Perhaps the long layoffs that are inherent to October baseball keep him too off balance to be the kind of devastating hitter he has the ability to be. In any event, it's not inconceivable that his replacement could hit better than he would have, in a small sample, from here on out. The Yankees will surely miss the plays Teix makes in the field (like the 3-6-1 DP he started in the top half of the fifth inning) but it's not impossible that the Yankees could win a World Series without him in their starting line up.

Nonetheless, this was still a soul-crushing moment. You could hear a groan of pure despair emanate from the crowd as he was helped towards the dugout and the feeling was that, even if the Yanks got out of this game with the win, their chances of defending their title just took a big hit. It was all too easy to forget that they were still holding at 3-2 edge, with men on first and second, only one out and had a roughly 75% chance of winning the game, according to WPA.

But A-Rod rapped into a double play, putting an end to what had begun as a two-on, no out potential rally and dropped that WPA down to 63%. That twin killing completed what might have been the worst imaginable outcome of having your 3 & 4 hitters up with two men on base and nobody out: force out (season ending injury), double play.

Still, it wasn't the end of the world. A.J. Burnett had acquitted himself quite nicely over the first five innings and seemed to be about as in control as one could rightfully expect him to be under the circumstances.

Burnett allowed a single to Vlad Guerrero to start the frame but sat down Nelson Cruz on a pivotal fielder's choice. Why is that important? Because Ian Kinsler, the next batter up, ripped a deep fly ball into center field that Curtis Granderson caught just off the warning track. The ball was so deep in fact, that Cruz tagged up from first base and slid safely into second, just ahead of a high throw from Granderson. Would Vlad and his ancient legs have tried to tag up under those circumstances? Highly doubtful.

So by advancing to second, Cruz opened up first base. And with David Murphy due up, Joe Girardi made one of the more controversial decisions of the evening and chose to intentionally walk him based on his history with Burnett, opting to face Bengie Molina with two men on instead of Murphy with just a man on second.

David Murphy is a capable hitter, but if Joe Girardi didn't like the match up, then why didn't he go to his bullpen in an attempt to shuffle the deck instead of putting a guy on base and leaving Burnett in?

What was he going to get out of Burnett, one more inning at most? Burnett was supposed to be on a short leash. Girardi might be the biggest proponent of two out pitching changes in the history of the fucking sport. Joba Chamberlain had been warming up for roughly two hours at that point. WHAT THE FUUUUCCCKKKK!??!?1

Sorry, I lost it for a second there. But for all the talk that there would be a quick hook for Burnett, the decision to walk Murphy (in addition to the one not to pinch hit for Cervelli) simply don't make any sense. Girardi was trying to ride Burnett for as long as possible and he paid dearly for it.

We all know too well what happened next. Molina took the first pitch he saw deep into the left field seats an delivered the running cockpunch from which the Yankees wouldn't recover.

They surely tried, however. With the bases loaded and the Bombers down by four in the eighth inning, Nick Swisher tried to avoid an inside breaking ball that got away from Darren Oliver. Replays showed that it caught Swisher's pant leg and he should have been awarded first base, thereby forcing in a run and putting the go-ahead run at the plate with just one out.

But on a night where almost everything went just about as wrong as possible for the Yanks, Angel Hernandez didn't see the contact and didn't buy Swisher's attempt at selling the fact that he got clipped when was contorted in some sort of yoga position (the dying giraffe?) on the ground.

There are losses and then there are impossibly brutal, heart-stabbing defeats like last night. The Yankees are still technically alive in the series and are a good bet to win tonight behind CC Sabathia, but even if they take the next two games, they'll have to get past Cliff Lee in Game 7. It's not over, but it certainly fucking feels like it is.

Other incredible/horrible moments that didn't make the cut: