Monday, October 11, 2004

Division Series Wrapup -- Super Sized

It's been a long while since last we spoke. In the meantime, all four Division Series have resolved. In the National League, the Cards and the Dodgers proved a classic mismatch, two very similar teams -- good lineups, light on the starting pitching -- where the Cardinals had the benefit of having the four best players on the field. They'll face the Astros, who have better starting pitching than the Dodgers, but less depth. Basically, it's Roy and the Rocket 'til their arms come outta their sockets. The Braves managed to take the 'Stros to 5 games, but in the end, Leo Mazzone's Amazing Recycled Pitching Staff wasn't good enough to hold off the Killer B's.

(By the way, it'd be pretty cool if we could get Leo a PBS show: "This Old Pitcher". Every week someone brings Mazzone an old, broken down former prospect, and Leo turns him into a guy that can win double digit games in the Show. Maybe Will Carroll would be available for sidekick duty...)

Over in the American League, the battle of annoying red-wearing teams was won by the Boston Red Sox, in a landslide over the Anaheim Rally Monkeys. Landslide might not be a strong enough word to describe Boston's three-game sweep: the first two games, wins at Anaheim, had a combined score of 17-6. Game three went extra innings, but was won on a walk-off bomb by David Ortiz. Ortiz batted .545 in the series.

If you give up 8+ runs per game to Boston, chances are you're going to lose.

Meanwhile, in Yankeeland, the Pinstripers endured a scary series against the Demon Johan Santana and his Twins. As reported here, the Twins took Game 1 at the Stadium on a strong performance by the Demon. Games 2, 3 and 4 were each come-from-behind wins, played out over 32 innings. Here's a quick recap:

Game 2: It Ain't Over 'Til The Skinny Italian Sings

The Yankees should pay me to show up late to ballgames. The last time I was tardy to the Bronx, I was treated to an epic extra-inning battle between the Yanks and the Red Sox, featuring dramatic comebacks, defensive gems, insane dives into the stands, and some of the most unlikely heroes in Yankee lore (John Flaherty for the win!).

This time I showed up late in the third inning. The Yankees had tied up the game at 3 as I scaled the ramps to the upper deck. I arrived with my hands full of beer, thinking I'd somehow misread my ticket, because my wingman for the evening, my younger brother, wasn't anywhere to be seen. Turns out he let someone talk him out of the fact that this was a 7:00 start, he showed up about two outs after I did.

The Yanks scored two more off of Brad Radke to get a 5-3 lead. Jon Lieber was pitching well, taking the ball into the 7th inning. Gordon came into the game to get the final out of the 7th, and everything looked set: six outs to go, Gordon in the game, Rivera not far behind.

The wheels fell off in the 8th inning. With one out, a third strike against Jacque Jones skipped past Posada, putting Jones on first. A single by Torii Hunter ran Gordon out of the game.

Now, without a decent lefthander in the pen, it was the natural and correct call that Torre went to Rivera, and his lefty-busting cutter, to get out the lefthanded 4-5-6 batters in the Minnesota order, Morneau/Koskie/Kubel. It was the right move to make.

It just didn't work out. Maybe it was just good hitting, or the (never-verified) notion that Mariano doesn't do well when he comes out of the pen with people on. Either way, a Morneau single and a Koskie double tied up the game. Heck, I give Rivera lots of credit for getting out of the one out second and third situation he put himself in.

And so it was on to extra innings. Juan Rincon and Joe Nathan held down the Yankees through 11. Rivera was succeeded by Tanyon Sturtze in the 10th. Much to my amazement, Sturtze had pitched 2 2/3 scoreless before Torii ripped a homer to left in the top of the 12th. At that point, Tanyon totally lost it, and Paul Quantrill -- hardly anyone's idea of the cavalry -- was left to bail him out of a two on, two out jam.

The air came out of the stadium. Even the guys in front of us, who started chants and waved for everybody to stand up on every other pitch, were quiet. Heck, one of them even left.

If the Twins won this game, it would be a crushing defeat -- the kind of backbreaker the Yankees usually dish, rather than take. The Yenkees would face three consecutive elimination games -- at least one against Santana -- after being a mere six outs from victory.

And coming up for the Yankees were the 8-9-1 spots in the lineup: Olerud, Cairo, and Jeter.

Joe Nathan came out for the top of the 12th. This has become an item of intense controversy, but it really wasn't all that surprising. The remaining bullpen for the Twins was something too old (mega-veteran Terry Mulholland) something too new (late-season callup Jesse Crain) and something too blue (lefty J.C. Romero, in the doghouse after a bad September) to be used in a playoff game.

But the signs Nathan might need someone to tag in were there. Olerud, the first batter Nathan faced in the inning, struck out on a checked swing, but Nathan's control had been shaky during that at bat. As for how things turned out, here's how I wrote it in a comment on the Baseball Primer website:

Really, the blunder was that [Gardenhire] didn't have a righthanded
reliever ready to come in when Nathan lost it.

Early in the inning, Romero was warming up. IIRC, during Jeter's at bat,
there was a sudden scramble in the Minnesota bullpen to get Crain ready, as if
Gardenhire just noticed that a series of dangerous righthanded batters (Jeter,
Rodriguez, Sheffield) were coming up, and a righthanded pitcher might be

I remember that at the time, I told my brother that Crain wasn't going to be
ready for A-Rod's at bat. And as it turned out, by the time Crain could have
been brought in, Rodriguez had already doubled, and Sheffield was going to be
intentionally walked.

Maybe it wasn't a no-brainer, but it seems that Gardenhire did consider the
possibility of Nathan tiring. He just had the wrong pitcher warming in the pen,
with Olerud followed by four righthanded batters due up in Nathan's third inning
of work.Managers work with more information available to them than the average
fan or sabermetrician that's watching the game. In addition to stats, they have
"inside" information about their pitchers' readiness and physical condition, so
we owe their judgment some deference.

If Gardenhire had Crain ready, and simply decided that Nathan/Jeter or
Nathan/Rodriguez was a better matchup, criticizing him would just be
second-guessing. But to me, it looks like he didn't leave himself the option of
bringing Crain in, which was pretty stupid.

The end result was Nathan walked Cairo and Jeter, and A-Rod scorched a ground-rule double into the gap, before Gardenhire could take his closer out. After a walk to Sheffield, Romero got Hideki Matsui to hit a line drive to shallow rightfield (the outfielders were shallow on the sac fly possibility), and to the shock of everyone in the Stadium, Jeter tagged and came charging home.

Yankees win.

Game 3: Brown's Back in Town

After a season full of uncertainty, the Division Series brought us the drama of El Duque. Was his "tired shoulder" finally rested? Could the Yankee rotation survive without their new-found ace?

The announcement Wednesday evening that Kevin Brown would be making El Duque's Game 3 start was one of the things that fed my 12th inning despair. Brown is the idiot who missed much of September because he decided to get physical in a fight with a brick wall. He had two tune-up outings prior to the postseason: one getting raked by the Red Sox, where he didn't evenget out of the first inning, and a nice 5 inning bit against the Blue Jays in the final weekend, that got him a spot on the playoff roster.

The fact that Brown was starting game 3 said two things. First, it said that El Duque is probably down for the count. At the time they announced Brown would start, the Yanks were down 0-1 in the ALDS, with a great shot of heading to Minnesota down 0-2. If Orlando could make the starting bell, I think he would have. The second thing it said is that the Yanks have no confidence in Javy Vazquez.

Calling Game 3 a come-from-behind win is only correct in the most nitpicky way possible. Yes, the Twins scored first, in the first. The Yankees immediately came back with three runs in the second, and five more runs in the 6th and 7th. At 8-1, the game was in hand, even though the Twins mounted a late rally to make for a 8-4 final.

Brown's performance was promising: 6 innings of 8-hit ball. He only struck out one batter, which is a concern going forward. But I think we'd take three or four more performances just like that this postseason, thank you very much.

Game 4: Twins Wars, Episode IV: The Phantom Tag!

This one must've hurt. The Demon, Johan Santana, comes back on short rest. Once again, he gives the Yankees some chances, but only gives up a run. Javy Vazquez, on the other hand, gets raked for five runs in five innings. Human white flag Esteban Loaiza comes out of the pen. The grounds crew at Yankee Stadium starts preparing for a game five.

Then something amazing happened: the Twins let us go. Santana gets pulled after five innings. The Twins get three hits off of Loaiza in the 6th, but Cuddyer runs them out of the inning. In the 7th, the Twins give Loaiza another extra out on another caught stealing.

Meanwhile, Juan Rincon comes in to pitch in the 8th inning, and proceeds to give up a single, a walk, and a single. With one out and one run already in, much-maligned Ruben Sierra comes to the plate, and earns himself a job for as long as Joe Torre's a manager by lacing a huge bomb into the folded up seats in right-center.

Tie game.

At that point, it was over. There were a few more innings, a bizarre sequence where A-Rod doubles, steals third, and comes home on a wild pitch. But the bomb by scrubby old Ruben is what did the Twins in.

As a Yankee fan, I have a big taste for the jugular. And this postseason, the opponents have been talking unusually hard -- Torii Hunter was jawing before this series; Damon, Ortiz, and Schilling have been jabbering all year long about the Yanks/Sox rematch. But I feel for the Twins. In an extremely tight series, they lost by the slimmest of margins.

The bad breaks were summed up for me by a play in the first inning of the game. The Twins had just scored on a sac fly, and had Jacque Jones on first, Justin Morneau at the plate. Justin's a dangerous hitter, so this is a big spot early on. Vazquez strikes Morneau out, and Jorge Posada guns it to second base, where the high throw beats Jones to the bag. Jeter does a sweeping tag with a flourish and the ump signals "out". Strike 'em out throw 'em out double play.

Except Jeter never touched Jacque Jones. He missed the guy by at least half a foot. Jeter got the call on pure chutzpah. The Yankees won the series much the same way -- they just took it. The Yankees simply showed more confidence than the Twins.

Next: Prelude to a Rematch

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