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.

Tuesday, October 30, 2001

 

That Purple Team

That purple team, the one with the Escape from Taco Bell uniforms and the most lethal pitching duo to reach a World Series since Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, has got the New York Yankees by the throats. Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson of the Arizona Diamondbacks have throttled the three-time defending World Champions in the first two games of this World Series to the tune of 1 run, 20 strikeouts, and a .102 batting average. The Yankees' deer-in-the-headlights stare looks familiar, if only because we've seen it on their victims' faces in Octobers past, as the Yanks forced the errors, pummelled the lame fastballs, and mounted the endless rallies.

But those days seem a long ways away right now, and it's the Diamondbacks who are rallying. The Snakes emphatically took control of the series in the third inning of Game 1, when Luis Gonzalez crushed a Mike Mussina pitch for a two-run homer and a Steve Finley fly ball clanked off the iron glove of Justice (David Justice, the Yanks' rightfielder). The onslaught was enough to end the evening of Mike Mussina, the Yanks' best pitcher over the past two months, at an early hour. But the D-Backs weren't done, adding another quartet of runs in the fourth inning at the expense of Randy Choate, thanks in part to a Scott Brosius error. It was a lost night for the Yanks, as Schilling cruised through seven innings before yielding to the ancient Mike Morgan.

The Yanks made a better show of it in Game 2, as Andy Pettitte hung in there against the Big Unit. Pettitte was nicked for a run in the second inning, as Danny Bautista doubled in Reggie Sanders, but he was dominant nonetheless, throwing only nine balls in his first 66 pitches and striking out seven. But Pettitte found trouble in the seventh, when he hit Luis Gonzalez and couldn't get a double-play on an infield grounder by Reggie Sanders (announcer Tim McCarver harped on Brosius's double-clutch before releasing the ball, but the fact is that speedy batter, Reggie Sanders, grounded into only 2 double plays in over 500 plate appearances this year). Then Bautista hit a comeback shot that richocheted off of Pettitte, and suddenly Andy was in a jam. He made his only real mistake of the night on an 0-1 fastball to Matt Williams, who deposited it in the left field stands for a 3-run homer. That lead was downright insurmountable against Randy Johnson, who went through the Yankee lineup like a blowtorch. Johnson struck out nine through the first five innings and allowed only one hit until the Yankee eighth. The Yanks mounted their closest thing to a rally, but pinch-hitter Luis Sojo, overmatched against the Big Unit, grounded into an inning-ending double play.

That move--pinch-hitting Sojo--is a telling one for the series. While Sojo has had his share of big hits, including three game-winners this year and the World Series-winning hit against the Mets last fall, his presence in theis crucial situation revealed just how thin Joe Torre's bench is, and how desperately he seems to be grasping for past glories. With lefties Paul O'Neill, Tino Martinez, and David Justice out of the lineup and righties Shane Spencer and Randy Velarde in, Torre was left with Enrique Wilson, Clay Bellinger, Todd Greene, and Sojo as his options (Rob Neyer examines this state of affairs here). Bellinger, nothing if not a decent fastball hitter, would have probably been a better choice, but we can second-guess about that one until the cows come home and it still won't change the score.

If any second-guessing of Torre should come about, a better place to start would be the decision to keep Pettitte in the game after Bautista's ricochet. Ramiro Mendoza was already warmed up, and with Matt Williams, a struggling but powerful righty with a significant platoon differential (935 OPS vs. lefties, 719 vs. righties) at the plate, it made sense to go with Mendoza. Pettitte had pitched his heart out, but Torre's loyalty to his starter cost them both the game.

But credit the Diamondbacks. They have played nearly flawless baseball in the series. Schilling and Johnson have continued to pitch like the ones in the catalog, and are now a combined 7-1 with a 1.07 ERA and 77 strikeouts in 67 innings this postseason. Their infield, particularly third baseman Williams, has played stellar defense. Unlikely hero Craig Counsell, with the most ridiculous batting stance this side of Tony Battista, continued his postseason tear with a home run in Game 1. Danny Bautista has continued to justify Bob Brenly's faith in starting him over the red-hot Steve Finley by getting big hits. The Snakes are hungry, and they're now two games away from dethroning the Yankees.

But history will note that a similar cast of Yankees overcame a similar hurdle five years ago. After being destroyed by the Atlanta Braves 12-1 and 4-0 in the first two games of the 1996 series, the Yanks roared back to take the next four. This time, they have the luxury of trying to get a leg up on their home field. Roger Clemens, nine days removed from his last start and apparently healthier, is faced with his biggest start as a Yankee. No team has ever come from down 3-0 to win a series, so Game 3 is about as must-win as they come. Fortunately for the Yanks, the back end of the Diamondbacks rotation is considerably less imposing than the front--the D-backs were 49-58 in games where their big duo didn't get a decision. Quirky lefty Brian Anderson, 4-9 with a 5.20 ERA, faces Clemens in Game 3, and Miguel Batista will go in Game 4--unless Brenly deviates from his plan and brings back Curt Schilling on three days rest. Not exactly a rosy picture for the Yanks.

In the great tradition of lefty pitchers, Anderson is quite a wit. Talking about how the public sentiment largely seems to be backing the Yanks, even in the quarters of their most-hated rivals such as Boston, he said, "They're anti-New York but they can't be too happy about a purple team from Arizona winning it all."

Thanks to the partial season ticket package in which I partake, I'll be attending Game 3 in Yankee Stadium (look for me up in Row T of the Upper Deck, with the oxygen tank and the binoculars). The last time I was in Yankee Stadium for the World Series, I was in a similar seat, watching Roger Clemens nail the coffin shut on the Braves in the 1999 World Series for a four-game sweep. I can only hope Clemens summons up a similar result on Tuesday night. If he doesn't, that purple team will be one win away from a World Championship.

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