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.
It didn't take long for the Oakland A's to push this year's model of the New York Yankees to the brink of elimination. Quite simply, the A's are beating the Yanks at their own game. Their hitters are using their discipline at the plate to work deep into the count, exacting a toll from the pitcher even when lose a battle, collectively outlasting the starter and breaking into the soft, creamy center of the opposition's relief pitching to increase their margin. The A's pitchers are getting ahead in counts and controlling the at bats, forcing the Yanks into weak tappers and infield popups.
In the two games, the A's hitters have forced the Yankee pitchers into throwing 329 pitches, an average of 4.83 per plate appearance. The Yanks, who once excelled in this category, are down at 4.04, slightly above the major league average (3.78) but clearly not good enough against the A's fine young starters. The A's have drawn seven walks to go with their 19 hits, while the Yanks have only two, and it took them until the fifth inning of Game 2 to draw their first one.
Mark Mulder looked like the one in the catalog on Wednesday night, the man who racked up a 21-8 record in only his second season. In the harsh environment of a Yankee Stadium playoff, he had no shortage of poise or control, and dominated the Yankee hitters. Roger Clemens, on the other hand, didn't look right from the start, and left after four grueling innings with an ailing hamstring. Sterling Hitchcock pitched credibly in relief of Clemens, but Joe Torre stayed with him too Long (as in Terrence, the A's leftfielder who clubbed his second HR of the game off of Hitchcock in the 8th). The Yanks had a shot against setup man Jim Mecir, thanks to Tino Martinez's 2-run HR, but closer Jason Isringhausen slammed the door on their fingers in the 9th.
Last night, Andy Pettitte pitched a typically gutty game, allowing only one run, but he threw 115 pitches in only 6.1 innings and was out of bullets. Tim Hudson's 113 pitches, by contrast, took him through 8 innings, and he was simply brilliant, as the Yanks could barely manage to get the ball out of the infield until late in the ballgame.
Thus far, the thing that's driven me and nearly every other Yanks fan up the wall is Joe Torre's lineup selection. Starting two gimpy lefties, Paul O'Neill and David Justice, against A's lefty Mark Mulder looked like a bad idea on paper and an even worse one on TV. Justice's at bats, in particular, looked wretched. He was either way out in front or about five minutes late on each swing, with a little hop thrown in there to insure his bad timing. O'Neill, likely playing his final days, just doesn't seem to have fire anymore. I'd kill to see that helmet-throwing intensity, the defiance in his eyes, one more time, but he looks like a golfer in search of the clubhouse after a rough back nine.
As Rob Neyer pointed out, righty Shane Spencer would have been a much better option for either of those two against Mulder. Not only is Spencer healthy, but he also hits lefties LAMF: .313 AVG/.348 OBP/.563 SLG this year (though in only 64 ABs), and .335/.361/.616 for the previous three. Hello, Joe?
Torre's unswerving loyalty to those who brought him to this point has manifested itself up and down the Yankee lineup: from the decision to start Roger Clemens (who had lost his last two starts to Tampa Bay) over Mike Mussina (his hottest pitcher) in Game 1, to using Knoblauch in the leadoff spot (one decision that's working, at least, as the Lil' Bastard is 3-for-8 with some good at bats), to playing the struggling lefties, to the last-minute decision to fill his final roster spot with good-luck charm Luis Sojo over spot lefty Randy Choate (who pitched well against Oakland this season) or rookie first baseman Nick Johnson, whose keen batting eye could come in handy in the late innings.
Considering Torre spent so much time agonizing over the selection of his bench, it seems amazing that thus far he's been so reluctant to use it. Anybody, including Sojo, who stumbles into clutch hits like a blind squirrel with a nose for acorns, could have given Torre a better at bat in the late innings of Game 1 than Justice. Brosius has looked fairly lost as well, and with FOUR potential third basemen on the bench-- Velarde, Wilson, Sojo and Bellinger--there's no excuse for watching him pop out every damn time up. Brosius, O'Neill, and Justice thus far are a combined 1-for-24 with 15 men left on base. C'mon, Joe, take a risk, play a hunch, pull a lever once in awhile just to see if the result changes and to prove that you're not a statue waiting for the birds to land on you.
Even with Mussina, their hottest hand, going for the Yanks tomorrow, the outlook for the Yanks is not good. The A's are tough at home, they're loose, and they've got another young lefty, Barry Zito, going for them. Zito's only won 9 straight starts. The Yanks have no choice but to get past him and hope that El Duque can pull a win the magnitude of his '98 ALCS Game 4 start against Cleveland. Can it be done? Yes. Will it? Ask Joe Torre, he's the one with the lineup card.