The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Wednesday, October 17, 2001

 

Score one for the Old Guard

The New York Yankees completed their comeback against the Oakland A's in the AL Division Series Monday night, taking their third straight game from the A's and coming from two runs down against the man who baffled them in the Series' opening game. By now you know all this, and if you've been reading this web log for any length of time, you must know that I'm a happy man today.

With the vultures circling their dynasty, the three-time defending champions won their third game in as many days, enduring a cross-country red-eye flight before the final game and luring the upstart A's to the killing-est floor in all of sports, Yankee Stadium. The White Elephants' graveyard, if you will. In the deafening roar of the Bronx, the A's imploded with three errors in the early innings, all of them because the Yanks kept the pressure on the A's defense to make the plays.

In the third inning, catcher Greg Myers threw wildly to first base as Bernie Williams ran out a dropped strike three, allowing Williams to reach base. Four batters later, third baseman Eric Chavez bobbled a Scott Brosius grounder just as baserunner Tino Martinez entered Chavez's immediate field of vision. Williams scored the go-ahead run on that play. In the fourth inninng, Chuck Knoblauch was picked off of first, but first baseman Jason Giambi's errant throw allowed Knoblauch to reach second with no outs. The Yanks sacrificed him into home on Randy Velarde's bunt and Derek Jeter's fly ball.

The defensive collapse added to the woes of Mark Mulder, whose riddle the Yanks seemed to solve with 7 hits and 2 walks over 4.1 innings. Tim Hudson came on in relief and yielded a pinch-hit home run to David Justice after the A's had narrowed the gap to 4-3.

By then, Roger Clemens, the Yankee starter, had also left the game, lasting only 4.1 innings himself. But Mike Stanton kept the A's at bay, pitching out of the mess the gimpy Clemens had left behind--two on, one out, and Jason Giambi at the plate. Stanton's performance echoed a similar appearance in last year's Game 5 between the two teams, and one of my favorite images of the Yanks 2000 postseason run--the lefty, out of the pen early to protect a slim lead bequeathed by a struggling starter, with all of the money on the table and the fort under siege. Both times, Stanton delivered big. When he and Ramiro Mendoza shut down the A's through the seventh inning, Joe Torre had the luxury of the surest bet in October: Mariano Rivera with a lead. Rivera has now converted 20 consecutive saves in the postseason, 16 of them longer than an inning.

Nearly all of the levers Joe Torre pulled in this game yielded jackpots: the decision to start Velarde at DH and bat him second for his bat-control abilities, the decision to lift him for pinch-hitter Justice in the sixth (a move I was in the process of second-guessing--I thought Justice should sub for Shane Spencer because he could play defense as well and because Spencer's D in the game had already proved dicey--when Justice parked Tim Hudson's pitch in the right-field bleachers), and the decision to suffer Clemens' struggles until he could get through the game with his three most reliable relievers. Contract extension, anyone?

As for A's manager Art Howe, he was left with the knowledge that his pre-series assessment--that the Yanks would have to play at the top of their game to beat his A's--had become bulletin board fodder for the Yanks. It was yet another echo of last year's series, as A's third baseman Eric Chavez prematurely applied the past tense to the Yankees' run in an interview broadcast over the Oakland Coliseum PA before Game 5. Deja vu all over again, anyone? It's worth noting, and somewhat gratifying to Yankee fans, that Chavez looked more lost than any other A's batter during the series, going 3-for 21 (.143) with a 333 OPS.

Howe was gracious in defeat, but the future of his team is uncertain. Jason Giambi is a free agent with a yen for big bucks and perhaps the bright lights of New York City. Centerfielder Johnny Damon is also a free agent, and even if the A's can iron out a contract with Giambi (they reportedly had a tentative agreement on a 6 year-$90 million dollar contract that fell apart over the exclusion of a no-trade clause), there's probably no way they can sign both. Howe and the rest of the A's are also left to ponder whether the result would have been different with Jermaine Dye, felled by a broken tibia in Game 4, in the lineup. Ouch. Still, the A's pitching nucleus of Mulder, Hudson, and Barry Zito has a bright future ahead which includes several years locked in at reasonable salaries. So long as General Manager Billy Beane remains creative (and he resists the overtures for a more high-profile job), this team will be in the hunt.

One more word about the A's. I've watched this team grow for the past four seasons, and have pulled for them to get to this point. Had they beaten the Yanks, I would have had no problem rooting for them to go all the way. Despite their overly brash predictions and their fans' premature jocularity after Game 2, this is a class organization with classy support. Doing this web site has put me in touch with several A's fans whom I've enjoyed chewing the fat with over the course of the year. To them I say, keep supporting your team, especially at the box office. In this age of economic disparity, baseball needs the A's to remind us of the possibilities (and occasionally the limitations) of a well-run, low-budget team. And to them I also say those famous last words: wait 'til next year. Despite my Yankees cap, I know how it feels, both from the twenty years I spent with the Dodgers as my favorite team and the twenty years I've spent rooting for the Utah Jazz in the NBA. Trust me, folks, I know how it feels.

As for the Yankees, they now face a series with the Seattle Mariners rich in subtext: a rematch of last year's LCS, in which the Yanks beat the M's in six games, a defense of the 1998-model Yanks' legacy of 125 wins, including a World Championship, and, on yet another personal note, a clash with both sides of my own family tree thanks to all of my relatives in the Pacific Northwest. The early line shows some favorable pitching matchups for the Yanks: they face Aaron Sele, whom they've beaten each of the past three postseasons, in Games 1 and 5; they face the M's ace, Freddy Garcia, on three days rest in Game 2, they've got Mike Mussina, their hottest pitcher, in Games 2 and 6, and their weakest link (due to injury), Roger Clemens, slated only in Game 4.

It promises to be a helluva series. Am I bold enough to pick the Yanks again? The longer the series goes, the better the Yanks' chances. You think I'm ready to jump off the bandwagon? Read every word I wrote about the Division Series and tell me. The Yanks have question marks up and down their offense and their pitching staff. To paraphrase what the sportswriters used to say about the old Dodger infielder Jim Gilliam, they can't do anything except beat you. Yanks in six.

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