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.

Monday, October 15, 2001

 

Still Open for Business

The team they still call World Champions is in the house, y'all! The New York Yankees, whose dynasty was on the brink of crumbling a mere 72 hours ago, have evened their Division Series with the Oakland A's in emphatic fashion. With literally no margin for error, they won a 1-0 thriller on Saturday night. On Sunday, they pounded the A's for 9 runs in an epic that felt, to a Yankees fan, like an all-day sucker. Four hours? Six hours? Who cares?

I didn't see most of Saturday night's game; my parents were in New York City for the weekend and we had 7:30 PM dinner plans. I couldn't have timed my entry into the ballgame better, arriving home and flicking on the TV to find Mike Mussina in the middle of a matchup with Terrence Long, the A's hottest hitter. On the first pitch I watched, Long lined a shot into the rightfield corner, where Shane Spencer struggled to chase the ball down, then overthrew two cutoff men. But Derek Jeter, in one of the most incredible displays of instinct I've ever seen manifested on a diamond, picked up the errant throw as he cut across the infield toward the first base line. Like an option quarterback, he shovel-passed the ball to catcher Jorge Posada in time to tag Jeremy Giambi as he lumbered into home plate standing up.

As the play unfolded, I was standing in front of the TV. When Jeter got to the ball I started jumping up and down, screaming, "OUT! MOTHER******! OUT MOTHER******! OUT!" so loud that my voice cracked, pumping my right arm (recently strained in some mysterious exercise mishap) so frantically that it was throbbing deep into the night. But what a play! I watched the replays several times, still barely believing what I'd seen. The replays looked conclusive only from the angle where one could see Giambi from the back, tagged on the inside of his right leg by Posada before his left one reached the plate.

Mariano Rivera came on in the eighth inning to preserve Mussina's 1-0 lead, keeping things interesting by allowing baserunners in both the eighth and the ninth. But he shut the door successfully, allowing the Yanks to finally record a win in the series.

That win did more than allow the Yankees to avoid the indignity of a sweep. It put the pressure back on the A's to close out the series or face a long cross-country flight to play the deciding game in the home of the World Champions--a mirror image of last year's series, when the Yanks couldn't close out the A's in Yankee Stadium and had to head to Oakland to play the deciding game.

Having finally caught a break or two the night before, the Yanks appeared much more confident on Sunday. They ran up long at bats against Oakland starter Cory Lidle, who performed effectively as the A's fourth starter this season but who is clearly a notch below their young trio of heralded hurlers. They manufactured not one but two runs in the second inning without benefit of a hit--two walks, an error by Oakland second baseman F.P. Santangelo, and a groundout. Then they added two more on a Bernie Williams double in the third inning, and bled Lidle for another run in the fourth after a Paul O'Neill double and a timely single by Alfonso Soriano.

Coming into the game, the big question was how effective Yankee starter Orlando Hernandez would be. Hernandez started the season 0-5 before missing two months on the DL, but he finished with a strong 4-1, 2.88 ERA September. Still, he was removed from his final start in the second inning, unable to gain command of his pitches, and only four innings of shutout relief on the season's final day guaranteed him a roster spot for the series. El Duque has excelled in the postseason for the Yanks during this run, with an 8-1 record and one of the Yanks' biggest wins along the way (1998 ALCS against Cleveland, down 2-1, he hung a 4-0 shutout on the Indians in Jacobs Field). He didn't have nearly that kind of dominance today; instead he gave the Yanks what my friend Nick Stone refers to as a "Granny Gooden" outing--one watched with all of the trepidation reserved for witnessing an elderly woman navigate an icy staircase, so named for a certain former Yankee starter.

But Granny Hernandez, despite throwing 30 pitches in the first inning and allowing two runs in the third, got stronger as the epic (two hours old in the third inning!) progressed. He allowed only one baserunner in the fourth and fifth innings combined, and when he departed up 7-2 in the sixth with two runners on, not a single Yankee fan could complain that this wasn't the equal of his past clutch performances. Mike Stanton, as he is prone to do with the dynasty's foes at the gate, beat back the A's threat in the sixth, and yielded to Ramiro Mendoza in the eighth inning with the game under control.

So in one afternoon, the Yanks totaled more runs than the A's had for the entire series, and more tripled their own offensive output. Meanwhile, the A's woes with runners in scoring position, an oversight as they raced to a 2-0 lead, have now become dire: 1-for-31 through four games. Worse, they've lost their fine rightfielder Jermaine Dye for the season. Dye, whose arrival in Oakland via trade set the tone for a remarkable 48-14 run (he drove in 59 runs in those 62 games), fractured his tibia in the third inning by fouling a pitch off of the leg, then crumpling awkwardly to the ground in obvious agony. Ron Gant, whose solo home run paced the A's in Game 2, will fill in for Dye, a serious downgrade both offensively and--in the spacious outfield of Yankee Stadium--defensively.

A's manager Art Howe made one questionable change in his lineup, subbing lefty-hitting utilityman F.P. Santangelo at second base for righty regular Frank Menechino. Santangelo's error in the second inning opened the door to the first Yankee runs; it was his first error this season, but it cost the A's big time. On the other hand, Howe managed to spread the workload throughout his bullpen, using five pitchers after Lidle departed, notably sparing both setup man Jim Mecir and closer Jason Isringhausen.

Torre's lineup decisions paid off for him on Sunday. David Justice, batting third once again, reached base three times out of five, battling for walks in the middle of two rallies and hitting a triple to key the Yanks' final two runs. Paul O'Neill, batting seventh after sitting Saturday night, hit the tough grounder which tied up Santangelo for the error, then doubled and scored in the fourth inning. What's more, when O'Neill grounded out in the fifth with the Yanks already up 7-2, he spent the rest of the inning visibly cursing a blue streak at himself, displaying the fiery defiance which had seemed absent in days past.

Suddenly this rematch has achieved the fever pitch we all hoped for. Never mind the broom-speak, here's an elimination game. The big question mark is the health of Roger Clemens. Is the hamstring problem which forced his removal after four lackluster innings in Game 1 sufficiently healed to allow him to pitch effectively Monday night? Clemens' throwing session on Sunday was good enough for the Yanks to send him back to New York ahead of the rest of the team, allowing him a relatively restful night. The Yanks will likely have all hands on deck, including Andy Pettitte, to bail him out should he falter.

As for Torre, the Yanks' resurgence in this series should offer some vindication for the manager's critics. While many folks--Yankee fans and Yankee haters alike--would have liked to bury Torre's future with the team after the first two games of the series, news of a contract offer of a two-year extension worth $10 million dollars clearly shows he's still in the driver's seat. The fact is that Yankee owner Steinbrenner needs Torre now more than ever. With his new network in place to start next season, Steinbrenner needs to protect his flagship property, and that means having Torre at the helm. The economic climate being as lousy as it is means a scramble for advertisers for the new network, and far more advertisers are likely to come on board with the known commodity of a Torre-managed team that looks as if it can still contend for a World Championship. Anything less, especially with the retooling the Yanks appear headed for (likely no O'Neill, no Martinez--two underperforming but popular players), is a less bankable commodity.

So the Yankee dynasty lives to fight at least another day. And after sitting, standing, pacing, high-fiving, wincing, and writing my way through nearly NINE HOURS of intense playoff baseball (a few words about Curt Schilling's performance are certainly in order, but time doesn't permit right now), I can hardly wait for more. Bring it on.

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