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.

Saturday, November 03, 2001

 

The Biggest Hurdle

The Yankees are within one game of their fourth straight World Championship, but they may be facing their biggest hurdle of all. It stands six foot ten, has a wicked fastball, a mean slider, and a nasty scowl, and answers to the nickname The Big Unit. If you need to come up with one game to save your season, you could do a hell of a lot worse than having Randy Johnson on the mound.

Johnson has three Cy Young awards to his credit and deserves a fourth this year after winning 21 games and leading the league with a 2.49 ERA and 372 strikeouts. After taking a loss in Game 1 of the NL Division Series, the knock on him was that he wasn't a big-game pitcher--he'd lost seven straight postseason games. Of course, what few bothered to consider was that his team had scored eight runs for him in that span. And anybody who's forgotten his performance in the 1995 AL Division Series against the Yanks--after winning a one-game do-or-die against the California Angels to make the playoffs, Johnson won his start and then won the deciding Game 5 out of the bullpen--hasn't been paying attention long enough to gain entry into this argument.

Johnson took the loss in Game 1 of this year's Division Series against St. Louis. He allowed three runs, two in the first and one in the third. Not a terrible performance, by any stretch, but it was his worst outing of the post. Since that third inning, he's allowed two runs over a thirty-inning span. He won three straight starts, polishing off the Braves in Game 5 of the NLCS and the Yanks in Game 2 of the World Series. Two of those three games were complete-game 3-hitters. All told, his line for the postseason: 3-1. 1.36 ERA, 39 Ks and only 25 baserunners in 33 innings. Opponents are hitting a mere .165 against him in that span.

Johnson's a lefty, which complicates matters for the lefty-heavy Yankees. Tonight, only Tino Martinez will be in the lineup, while Paul O'Neill and David Justice will sit in favor of Chuck Knoblauch and Shane Spencer. Spencer joined Jorge Posada and Alfonso Soriano as the only Yanks to get hits off of Johnson in Game 2. Randy Velarde, who has hit Johnson well in the past (19-42 entering the series), started at first base in that game, but will be on the bench tonight--look for him to be the first pinch-hitter against Johnson.

The Yanks' best shot at winning this game is to outlast Johnson and hope that they can do damage against the Diamondbacks' soft bullpen. Whether it's twice-bitten Byung Hyun Kim, geezer Mike Morgan or the various other castoffs at Bob Brenly's mercy, the Yanks have to be feeling like they'll go through the bullpen like a hot knife through butter. Johnson threw 111 pitches--nowhere near his season high of 147, and five below his season average--five days ago, so fatigue shouldn't be an issue for him, the way it was with Curt Schilling's start on three days's rest.

The Yanks will once again depend on Andy Pettitte to keep them close. Pettitte gave up an early run in Game 2 but hung with the Big Unit almost pitch for pitch from there until he surrendered a three-run homer to Matt Williams in the 7th inning. He's pitched some amazingly clutch games in his career and he's as good a bet as the Yanks have going for them right now.

After the past two games, it would seem that nothing can top the drama we've witnessed. But either outcome tonight--the Yanks getting past the Big Unit to win #4, or Johnson forcing a Game 7 showdown between Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling--could make those key home runs by Tino Martinez, Derek Jeter, and Scott Brosius seem like yesterday's news. This has already been the most thrilling three-and-a-half weeks of baseball I've ever witnessed, and the setup right now is as good as it gets, folks. Enjoy the game.

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