Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Almost Game Time: ALDS Game 1

When the dust settled after Game 163...I think Emma Span put it best (via Twitter):
What an absolutely amazing game. But how neurotic am I that I'm already picturing the scene if Pavano eliminates the Yanks at the Stadium?
Yes, it was a great game, but also a reminder that great games don't always come from great teams. One of the reasons that the game went on for twelve innings is because both teams flubbed opportunities to put the other away. The Twins, perennially praised for their fundamentals, were plagued by shoddy execution, with outfielders throwing to the wrong bases, guys doing a poor job of tagging up on fly balls, and so forth. Certified genius manager Jim Leyland struggled with the bullpen, pulling young starter Rick Porcello early, but being a bit slow with the hook for closer Fernando Rodney, who pitched his longest appearance in four years and was tagged with the loss. At the end, the winners come to the ALDS tired, having gone 12 innings and used 8 pitchers on Tuesday, only to arrive in New York after midnight, with a 6:00 PM start today. They arrive without their big power hitter, Justin Morneau, or their starting third baseman, Joe Crede. They arrive having lost 7 straight against the Yanks this year. They arrive having been bounced out of the playoffs in the Division Series on their last three tries, two of those against the 2003-4 Yanks.

So they come to New York as immense underdogs, an 87-win just-scraped-through division winner against 103-win juggernaut. And yet they could win. Like every other underdog in sports, they get to take a rock, sling it at Goliath's head, and hope for the best.

Despite the lofty win total, this isn't a great Yankee team. Great Yankee teams tend to know who their #4 starter is heading into the playoffs. I'll take the 2009 Yankees' lineup any day--it's beautifully balanced, all the regulars met or exceeded expectations, it's beautiful. CC's been great, and the 1-2 bullpen punch of Mariano Rivera and Phil Hughes has been a thing of beauty. But the starting rotation hinges on a notoriously inconsistent guy who alternates great starts with horrible ones (A.J. Burnett) and a guy who many thought was done coming into the season (Andy Pettitte). You could see A.J. turn in one of his craptastic allow-eight-runs-in-three-innings starts on Friday, and that, plus the hostile environment of the Metrodome, could change the entire complexion of the series.

That's the nightmare. A miraculously healthy Carl Pavano celebrating a Division Series win, perhaps even on the mound at Yankee Stadium. No one--regardless of how the Red Sox do against the Angels, or the fact that the Mets managed to lose ninety games in their inaugural Citifield season--letting Yankee fans live it down, ever. But that's the deal when you're the favorite. You don't get to fail, you get to be humiliated. And anything short of a parade down the Canyon of Heroes is considered failure.

For fans, it's important to remember that the Pavano nightmare is a pretty nice problem to have. Unlike fans of 22 other teams, we have postseason baseball. The team, while not without its problems, is probably better than any we've seen in the Bronx since 2003. So bring on the underdogs, and don't be afraid to root for Goliath. Enjoy the game.

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