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.

Friday, October 31, 2003


Twenty Million Dollar Hitter with a Ten-Cent Head

Three days after letting manager Grady Little walk, the Boston Red Sox are in the headlines for trying to usher another key member of their 2003 Wild Card team to the outskirts of town. The Sox placed slugging leftfielder Manny Ramirez on irrevocable waivers on Wednesday, meaning that any team can claim him without costing themsleves another player or worrying that the Sox will pull him back.

The catch, of course, is money; claim him and you owe bigtime. Ramirez will earn $101.5 million over the next five years -- $20.5 mil next year, second only to Alex Rodriguez -- and the Sox have clearly decided that's money better spent on staples such as pitching, defense, and one-year contracts to the likes of David Ortiz, who produced 31 homers, 101 RBI and a .961 OPS for the low price of $1.25 million. Or perhaps the Sox plan to spend their no-Manny mad money on Pedro Martinez and Nomar Garciaparra, both of whom are free agents after next season, and both of who figure to cause plenty of grief until Theo Epstein and company show them proper "respect" in the form of contract extensions.

Ramirez hit .325 with 37 homers, 104 RBI and a 1.014 OPS, terrific numbers right in line with his career production. But the 8-year, $160 million contract to which he was signed by the Dan Duquette regime is a relic. That deal came at a time when baseball salaries looked to be escalating ever higher, and via some combination of collusion, common sense and the Collective Bargaining Agreement, that has not been the case. As good as he is, he's not worth that kind of coin, a defensive liability now on the dark side of 30 (he'll be 32 next May).

Speaking of the dark side, at times Manny exists on his own planet, acting at best like an airhead and at worst like a selfish little brat. As an ESPN report recounts:
He was benched by Little late this season after he missed a crucial series against the Yankees with a sore throat and fever, yet managed to pull himself out of bed to reminisce with New York infielder Enrique Wilson about their days in Cleveland.

Then Ramirez didn't show up for an appointment with the team doctor, and when he joined the club the next day he sat on the bench but said he was "too weak" to pinch-hit.

And in a game at Yankee Stadium in September, the absent-minded Ramirez tossed the ball into the stands after making a nice catch, thinking there were three outs when there were only two.

According to a report in the Providence Journal, those actions by Ramirez set off internal discussions by the club to deal him this off-season, even though the Red Sox would likely have to pay much of the remaining money owed Ramirez.
That doesn't even touch on Ramirez's cowardice in Game Three of the ALCS, when a high fastball over the plate from Roger Clemens induced the hotairhead to charge the mound, emptying both benches. Put a ten-cent head atop a twenty million dollar hitter and you have Manny Ramirez.

Now, there simply aren't too many teams out there willing to take on a $20 million salary; the Yankees might be the only team with the financial wherewithal to do so. ESPN's Rob Neyer speculates that the timing of this maneuver is crucial because George Steinbrenner "is never going to be more frustrated and more aggressive than he is right now." But according to ESPN's Buster Olney, the Boss ain't bitin':
The New York Yankees have no interest in placing a waiver claim on Boston Red Sox outfielder Manny Ramirez, according to a baseball executive who has had contact with a high-ranking member of the team's front office Thursday...

The Yankees are aware, according to the executive, that if they claimed Ramirez, the Yankees could essentially create circumstances that would lead to the departure of pitcher Andy Pettitte, who is eligible for free agency this offseason. If the Yankees relieved Boston of Ramirez and the accompanying financial burden, the Red Sox could then turn around and make a deal with the Houston Astros -- perhaps for expensive reliever Billy Wagner -- and free up payroll for the Astros to sign Pettitte, whose preference may be to return to his home in Texas...

Adding Ramirez also would throw another designated hitter candidate onto the roster loaded with aging sluggers. There is some question about how much longer [Bernie] Williams and [Jason] Giambi could play in the field, because of their deteriorating physical conditions.
The Yanks have obligations -- big contracts to Williams, Giambi, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, and Mike Mussina, some of which are already biting them in the ass. They don't need another. But back to Boston for a moment. As my pal Nick notes, one reason the Sox may be attempting to rid themselves of Manny is their managerial vacancy. Theo and company seem set on a manager who will see things their sabermetrically inclined way, and may tap a relatively inexperienced skipper willing to do their bidding. Pre-emptively ridding themselves of one of the new manager's potential headaches may make the job a little easier, though most skips, if asked, would probably put up with those kind of numbers.

Before anyone weeps for Manny (Bueller? Anyone?), Peter Gammons reports that the feeling between Ramirez and the Sox is mutual:
Ramirez talked to the club at the end of the season and expressed that while he likes the Red Sox and Boston, he wouldn't mind seeing what there was in a trade, with his home (New York) an enticing option...

When Ramirez talked to Red Sox officials, they offered to let him out of his contract so he could become a free agent. Obviously he declined, as agent Jeff Moorad knows that the current market might bring four years, $50-60 million, in contrast to the five years, $100 million on his existing deal.
O, fragile equilibrium of unhappiness, sweet harbinger of a winter of discontent in New England, how I cherish thee at a time like this. Would that such feelings of schadenfreude could warm me until Pitchers and Catchers.

Manny Ramirez isn't simply one of the best hitters in the game. He's one of the best hitters in the history of baseball. With his career OPS 1.010, Ramirez is in the all-time top 10 with guys like Ruth, Gehrig, Williams, Foxx, Bonds, Greenberg, Hornsby, and Todd Helton. Now, the latter's presence on the list should clue you into the fact that adjustments need to be made to account for ballpark and era, so if we turn to the career leaders in OPS+, Manny ranks in the Top 20, third among active players behind Bonds and Frank Thomas. That list (which hasn't been updated to include 2003 yet) is still biased because sooner or later Manny's going to decline the way even superstars do. Even so, he's still one of the best hitters the game has seen. But his combination of price tag and attitude is too much for the Boston Red Sox and it's too much for the New York Yankees. The rest of the league isn't banging down the door either.

• • •

As Baseball Prospectus' Dayn Perry points out, prescriptions to improve the New York Yankees after a season in which they don't win are "one of the hoariest media traditions known to humankind." That said, Perry's prescription is worth a gander, as are those of Alex Belth, Larry Mahnken and Bryan Smith over at Bryan's Wait 'Til Next Year blog (which is long overdue for my attention). I won't go into the details or merits of any of them -- I gots my own plan, which will come in due time, probably between those two popular turkey dinners. I'm going to have lots of time on my hands, or hand... but that's a story for another day. Suffice it to say it looks as though we're all going to get real acquainted with Mr. Arthroscope. Will Carroll, I'm headed your way...

Mr. Belth has been a busy man lately. He's got a fantastic interview with writer and former pitcher Pat Jordan at Bronx Banter. Jordan was a Milwaukee Braves farmhand in the late '50s and early '60s who, for want of a better term "went Ankiel," derailing a promising career but providing him with a springboard to a new one. I've covered all of this before.

In the interview, which was done late this summer, Jordan offers his opinions on several pitchers, gets off a good Joe Torre tale, and generally sounds like a guy with whom you'd love to knock back a few beers while talkin' ball. I've got his A Nice Tuesday in my on-deck circle after I finish that Koufax bio (which is excellent), and I'm looking forward to it.

Thursday, October 30, 2003


Internet Baseball Awards -- One Man's Ballot

I waited until virtually the last minute to fill out my ballots at the Internet Baseball Awards this year, bleary-eyed from staying up to watch and then write about so many exciting ballgames. As a citizen of the online baseball community as well as the sheriff of this humble little outpost, I feel duty-bound to participate in the IBA, even if the rules are slightly different from those the Base Ball Writers Association of America follows for the "official" awards. BBWAA participants have to send their ballots off by the end of the regular season, while we schlubs had an extra two weeks to point and click -- two frenzied weeks of letting October baseball saturate our brains with two or three games a day. Now I understand exactly why the BBWAA does things the way they do.

Despite the late date, I tried to prevent any October bias from seeping into my judgement. That wasn't easy, especially with the Red Sox-Yankees series having boiled over only 48 hours before I cast my vote. But while I wouldn't piss on Manny Ramirez or Pedro Martinez if they were on fire, I did include them on the relevant ballots.

As I've said before in discussing my AL MVP choice, when it comes to voting on the MVP, playing for a team that makes the postseason isn't a requirement, but playing for a contender is. And while that isn't necessarily a requirement for the other awards, it did play a part in a couple of cases.

AL MVP: 1. Jorge Posada 2. Carlos Delgado 3. Manny Ramirez 4. Carlos Beltran 5. Bret Boone 6. Alex Rodriguez 7. Alfonso Soriano 8. Jason Giambi 9. Miguel Tejada 10. David Ortiz. This one I discussed already. Posada was a rock for the Yanks, and his emergence as a leader elevated him above his teammates, who had flawed years that still merited recognition. Delgado and Rodriguez were docked for playing on noncontenders, Boone held partially accountable for the Mariners' fade. Manny's disappearing act and the team's response to it spoke volumes. Ortiz gets a token nod because he was a Yankee wrecking machine, looking all-world every time I saw him swing a bat.

AL Cy Young: 1. Roy Halladay 2. Esteban Loaiza 3. Tim Hudson 4. Pedro Martinez 5. Mike Mussina. Halladay won this down the stretch, with a 5-1, 1.46 ERA September, while Loaiza went 3-3 with a 5.30 ERA. Loaiza still posted a lower ERA, 2.90 to 3.25, but Doc had 40 more innings pitched, and that counts for something, as does his 6.4 K/W ratio and the fact that I had Loaiza on my freakin' HACKING MASS team, destroying my chances there (or at least indicating how shocked I was at his improvement). Hudson, at 240 innings with a 2.70 ERA, was right in the mix as well, with the lower strikeout total costing him a bit. Martinez was impressive -- when he pitched. Moose was solid, but clearly behind all of these guys.

AL Manager of the Year: 1. Tony Pena 2. Grady Little 3. Ken Macha. Raise your hand if you thought K.C. was going anywhere but deeper into the AL Central cellar this year. Little did an impressive job with the Boston clubhouse, but we all know it ended in tears. Had I let my October bias creep in, I would have never voted for Macha.

AL Rookie of the Year: 1. Angel Berroa 2. Hideki Matsui 3. Mike Macdougal. Matsui's RBI totals and situational hitting ability were the most impressive things about his overblown season. Berroa was a real reason for K.C.s sudden improvement. Macdougal was another one, even with the high ERA. I could have flipped a coin between him and Cleveland outfielder Jody Gerut, who was a nice surprise.

NL MVP: 1. Barry Bonds 2. Albert Pujols 3. Javy Lopez 4. Gary Sheffield 5. Jim Thome 6. Todd Helton 7. Edgar Renteria 8. Richie Sexson 9. Marcus Giles 10. Lance Berkman. Even in a heartbreaking season for him personally, when Barry played, he was godlike. Pujols had an incredible year that would have been MVP in just about any season lacking a Ruth or a Bonds. Lopez, Sheffield and Giles made the Braves into an offensive juggernaut. Renteria would get a lot more ink if he played in the AL. Helton, Sexson, Thome -- these guys just crush a lot.

NL Cy Young: 1. Mark Prior 2. Jason Schmidt 3. Eric Gagne 4. Kevin Brown 5. Kerry Wood. Gagne's pristine season was worthy of a spot, but not the top spot here. Prior was the real deal, and Schmidt's season looks all the more impressive knowing that he was less than 100%. Brown had a nice comeback, Wood lotsa K's.

NL Rookie of the Year: 1. Dontrelle Willis 2. Brandon Webb 3. Scott Podsednik. Willis gets the nod here not only for helping to turn around the Marlins at a time when they really needed it, but for injecting some Fernandomania-style buzz as well. As rookies go, style points count in my book.

NL Manager of the Year: 1. Jack McKeon 2. Felipe Alou 3. Frank Robinson. McKeon was a no-brainer the moment the Fish made the playoffs, though Alou showed that it wasn't just Dusty Baker's magic which took the Giants to the 2002 World Series. Baker did a decent job in Chicago, but I think overusage of his young starters will have long-term consequences, and so I give the nod to Robby for keeping the Expos above water in a season they had to cross lots of it.

So there's one man's ballot. Taking a look back at my ill-conceived award predictions from April, none of them match my top choices on their respective ballots, and only the Matsui one (which I don't even agree with anymore) has a hope of actually being right, unless this really is A-Rod's year. I had Berkman as NL MVP, Randy Johnson and one of the A's Big Three as the Cys, and Marlon Byrd as NL rookie. No manager picks, fortunately. Scanning my team performance predictions, I got all of the AL playoff participants correct, underestimated the Royals (duh), overestimated the Angels and the Indians, and that was about it. The NL was a disaster, however; I didn't get a single postseason team correct (Phils, Astros, D-Backs plus the Dodgers), and had the Marlins in last place. That A's-Phils World Series never showed up either, due in part because the Phils never did act out their obvious desire to lynch Larry Bowa (which I predicted). Ah, wait 'til next year...

• • •

HACKING MASS, for those of you unacquainted with it, is a contest sponsored by Baseball Prospectus which stands for "Huckabay's Annual Call to Keep Immobility Next to Godliness: Maximus Aggregatus Stiffisimus Sensire." Um-kay... the idea is to choose a team of the worst performers by accumulating ESPN (Exuded Stiff Points, Net), which are produced by the formulas (.8-OPS)*PA for hitters and (ERA-4)*IP/3 for pitchers.

My choice of Loaiza was based on his 5.71 ERA in 150+ innings last season -- an inefficient inning-eating machine, I thought. But Loaiza's emergence this year derailed any chance I had, because via the ESPN formula he was tied for the 25th best player in the majors with Aubrey Huff and Bill Mueller at -82 points. I wasn't the only one sucked in by Esteban's potential suckitude, however -- he was the 18th most popular player chosen. Overall I finished 505th out of 927, a bit below the middle of the pack, though my score of 339 was within a point of the average team. Stalwarts such as Cesar Itzuris (120 ESPN), Rey Sanchez (84) and Einar Diaz (59) were offset by moderate comebacks from Jeromy Burnitz (8), Vinny Castilla (16) and Travis Lee (-4). What can I say, I suck at picking those who suck?

Wednesday, October 29, 2003


The Man for the Job?

One of the comments in my previous piece discussing Grady Little's firing led me to do some thinking about the right man for the now-vacant Boston job. Of all the names mentioned, there's one -- as yet unmentioned by the mainstream media -- who scares the hell out of me as Red Sox manager.

He's a guy who fielded competitive team after competitive team while building a reputation as a player's manager. He was way ahead of the curve, stathead-wise, in part because he learned the game while playing for another proto-stathead. He was reading Baseball Abstract back before the Internet was even a twinkle in Al Gore's beady eyes.

He might have a hard time taking orders from a 29-year-old GM, but his philosophy wouldn't be too far out of line, and he'd probably do a better job of selling it to the players than anybody else. He's one tough bastard who wouldn't get pushed around by a diva superstar.

He's a guy that, if I were a Red Sox fan, I'd be sneaking into Fenway Park to spray-paint his name in 30-foot high letters on the Green Monster to send a message to Epstein/Henry/Douchino. Any guesses yet?

Boston fans might have a hard time accepting him because he managed a team that caused them possibly the greatest pain they've ever felt (no, not Don Zimmer). And he might not want to get back into managing in the first place. But if you got Bill James to go after him, as an admirer of his work, he'd probably be flattered enough to accept the position.

You should have the name by now, especially if you're a Boston fan. But if you're not, I'll give you one more hint: he's the last guy to beat a Joe Torre team for the AL East title, and his reward for winning AL Manager of the Year was a pink slip.

I'm tallking about Davey Johnson. The thought of him in a Red Sox uniform might keep me awake at night.


Happier Days

Many of you will recognize the name Nick Stone, a pal of mine who's been the sounding board for innumerable thoughts and opinions I've ended up sharing here over the years. Possibly the most superstitious fan I know, Nick was at Game Seven of the ALCS against the Red Sox, chewing through bag after bag of sunflower seeds. He was kind enough to share his amusing account of that game for this site.

Tuesday, October 28, 2003


Clearing the Bases

Less than 72 hours after the team's untimely demise at the hands of the Florida Marlins, the brass of the New York Yankees will begin offseason organizational meetings in Tampa. Newsday's Ken Davidoff speculates that the early meeting is a sign of just how angry Boss Steinbrenner is, given that last year the Yankee bigwigs didn't gather until about a week after their season ended. Of course, that defeat by the Anaheim Angels in the ALDS was a much earlier exit, calendar-wise.

Unless Steinbrenner is going to do his Capone-with-a-bat act, it's probably a good sign for GM Brian Cashman that he's being summoned so early. He has one more year on his deal, and as New York Daily News's Anthony McCarren puts it, "What better way to make Cashman suffer than to bring him back for the final season of his contract? He's not getting a $1.15-million vacation, that's for sure." Less clear is the fate of Senior VP Gordon Blakely, who has been in Steinbrenner's doghouse after some disagreements over the team's AAA affiliate in Columbus.

Big Stein has given manager Joe Torre numerous votes of confidence over the past several weeks, but in the tradition of the Boss's manipulative meddling, Torre's coaching staff will be gutted. Without waiting for the other shoe to drop, bench coach Don Zimmer has already quit in spectacular fashion. Hitting coach Rick Down will take the fall for the Yanks' offensive shortcomings in the World Series, and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre and first base coach Lee Mazzilli may depart as well, either by being fired or by taking other jobs. Mazzilli will interview for the job as manager of the Baltimore Orioles later this week. Perennial managerial candidate Willie Randolph, the Yanks' third base coach, has been mentioned in connection with vacancies for the White Sox and the Red Sox; no word on any offer from the Utica Blue Sox, however.

On the field, the two most crucial decisions the Yanks face are whether to resign Andy Pettitte (a strong likelihood after his 3-1, 2.10 ERA postseason run), and what to do about Alfonso Soriano -- keep him at second base, shift him to the outfield, or use him as their best chip in a trade. "That decision will serve as the lead domino to many other actions," writes Davidoff. Whether they keep Soriano or not, the team's defense up the middle is in dire need of an overhaul, but the question of how to avoid ruffling the feathers of pillars like Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams is a tricky one. Williams may be bound for leftfield, with Hideki Matsui shifting either to center (where he was adequate for a long stint while Bernie rehabbed from in-season knee surgery) or right (where his throwing arm would be a liabiltiy). The rightfield opening is a prime one for upgrade, with superstar names such as Gary Sheffield, Sammy Sosa and Vladimir Guerrero being tossed around by every armchair GM with a keyboard. Other names bandied about are K.C. centerfielder Carlos Beltran, Montreal second baseman Jose Vidro and pitcher Javier Vasquez, Texas shortstop Alex Rodriguez, Oakland shortstop Miguel Tejada, and Florida third baseman Mike Lowell. Many of these amount to crackpipe dreams conceived by crackpot columnists convinced that the likes of Jeff Weaver and Juan Rivera could net big game in a trade. Uh-huh.

I'll be taking a more realistic in-depth look at the Yankees' needs in the coming weeks.

• • •

The Yankees made it to the World Series in no small part due to Boston Red Sox manager Grady Little's decision to keep flagging starter Pedro Martinez out on the mound during Game Seven of the ALCS. After gracelessly lettling Little dangle in the breeze for about ten days, the Sox put him out of his misery on Monday by failing to pick up his 2004 option. Never mind the fact that Little guided the Sox to 188 wins in his two years, or their first postseason appearance since 1999. Forget the job he did coaxing career years out of the likes of David Ortiz, Todd Walker and Bill Mueller while keeping harmony in a clubhouse populated by one-named diva superstars. Little's reputation as a poor in-game tactician and his status as a holdover from the pre Henry/Luccino/Epstien era did him in. It's not surprising to see the Red Sox eat their own, especially after such a gut-wrenching loss -- Red Sox Nation demands answers, dammit!

ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski feels that the Sox made a bad move. He writes:
Beyond the benefits of a relentlessly popular short-term public relations move in New England, there is no way Grady Little gets sacrificed unless you have an absolute tested, championship manager waiting in the wings.

Joe Torre.

Jim Leyland.

John McGraw.

...Grady's touch in the clubhouse, his ability to get the most of the Sox's over-achieving personalities, isn't so easily available and identifiable on the managerial market. The bottom line: The Sox are taking a far greater risk firing Little, than they ever could've by keeping him.

There was something right about the chemistry of these Red Sox, something someone else will have an impossible time duplicating. Ownership could've worked to re-program Little's late-game decision-making process, stocked his bench with stronger coaching presences and counted upon the fact that one more year of living and learning on the job would've made him a better bench manager.
Wojnarowski goes on to dismiss various candidates to replace Little -- Charlie Manuel, Jerry Remy, Terry Francona, and Glenn Hoffman, while another ESPN piece by Sean McAdam handicaps a larger field of candidates, including Bud Black, Joel Skinner, Jim Tracy and Bobby Valentine. "Handicaps" is an apt word, because as Wojnarowski writes, "This job has never been harder. Never."

I'm certainly biased by my hatred of the Sox and support of their chief rivals, but I think the move to fire Little borders on the absurd, done with all the consideration and tact of a lynch mob. This year's Sox team put the Fear into the Yanks, with Little melding an unlikely, diverse group into one that battled their New York rivals harder than any opponent during the Torre era. Yes, it's easy to point a finger at Little's failure to pull Martinez in Game Seven. But a great deal of responsibility should rest with the players as well. Had Martinez not pitched poorly and melted down in Game Three, or had the big bat of Nomar Garciaparra been a bit louder in the ALCS, would anybody be coiling rope for Little? This move simply smacks of a team driven by public pressure to pull the trigger instead of counting its blessings for a great season that came up a bit short. Once again, th Sox find a way to preserve their fragile equilibrium of unhappiness.

• • •

Rich Lederer of Rich's Weekend Baseball BEAT has an interesting piece on World Series MVP Josh Beckett comparing the Marlins' budding ace with the man he sent into retirement, Roger Clemens:
Beckett and Clemens have a lot of similarities. Both are Texans. Both are approximately the same height (Beckett, 6'5", and Clemens, 6'4"). Both are power pitchers, throwing fastballs in the mid- to high-90s. Both were highly touted as amateurs (Beckett, 1999 All-USA High School Baseball Player of the Year; Clemens, two-time All-America honors at the University of Texas and the winning pitcher of the 1983 College World Series). Both were drafted in the first round (Beckett, #2 in 1999, and Clemens, #19 in 1983). Both had outstanding minor league records. And both showed glimpses of stardom in their first couple of injury-plagued years in the big leagues.
Lederer goes on to examine the two pitchers' minor-league records as well as their early major-league experience. Like many, he believes Beckett is poised for a Clemens-in-'86-style breakout in 2004. Check it out.

• • •

Keeping a close eye on the hometown Salt Lake City beat, my mom sent me this piece from the Salt Lake Tribune about the Zinger Professional Bat Company. Based in Lindon, Utah, Zinger makes the bats which provided two of the biggest hits in Game Four of the World Series: Alex Gonzalez's game-winning homer off of Jeff Weaver and Miguel Cabrera's first-inning bomb off of Roger Clemens. According to the piece, "At last count, more than 200 professionals -- about 60 major leaguers -- are using the bats to put the hurt on hurlers," including Vlad Guerrero and San Diego's Kahlil Greene, as well as the two World Series heroes. The article goes on to offer an enlightening glimpse into the process of bat-making, a side of the game which most people never consider. Neat.

Sunday, October 26, 2003


The Bitter End

The Florida Marlins came to the hallowed ground of Yankee Stadium on Saturday night clearly unfazed by the task at hand. Behind brash ace Josh Beckett, they strangled whatever life remained out of the New York Yankees, beating them 2-0 to win the World Series, four games to two. The Marlins' victory will go down as one of the bigger upsets in Series history -- the Yanks had a 3-1 payroll advantage, a huge experience edge, and those 26 World Championships banners -- but the team playing the better baseball over the past week won the title. Fair game to the Fish, and no shame to the Yankees for coming up short.

Pitching on three days' rest, Beckett was magnificent, scattering only five hits and two walks while striking out nine. Only once, in the third inning, did the Yanks have more than one runner on base, and they were a combined 0-for-12 with runners on, grounding into two double plays in the process. Andy Pettitte again pitched admirably for the Yanks, but he faltered in the fifth, as the Marlins strung together three two-out singles by Alex Gonzalez, Juan Pierre, and Luis Castillo. Mired in an 0-for-14 slump, Castillo poked a single to rightfield and while Karim Garcia made an excellent peg to Jorge Posada, Gonzalez executed a perfect slide around the outside of the plate, touching home with his hand.

The Marlins added another run in the sixth thanks to a couple of defensive breakdowns by the Yanks. Derek Jeter bobbled and then misfired Jeff Conine's grounder, and after Mike Lowell walked, Pettitte hesitated while fielding Derek Lee's bunt, throwing to second for a forceout when he might have had a play on the lead runner at third. I must admit that as much as Tim McCarver and Joe Buck harped on this, not once did I see a replay showing Aaron Boone's position relative to the bag or the runner. Juan Encarnacion followed with a sacrifice fly to score Conine. Gonzalez reached on a bunt single which put Lee in scoring position, but Pettitte recovered to strike out Pierre and keep the margin at two.

Those two runs were too much for the Yanks. A leadoff double in the seventh by Jorge Posada got the Stadium crowd revved up, but Posada's hit fell by the wayside, as did a leadoff single by Alfonso Soriano in the eighth. Moved down to the #9 spot, Soriano was the only Yankee with two hits on the night, a case of too little, too late. Jeter, who'd gotten the Yanks' only three hits against Beckett in Game Three, went 0-for-4; Bernie Williams, the Yanks hottest hitter, went 1-for-4 with a critical GIDP, and Hideki Matsui, who'd powered the Yanks to an early lead in the Series, disappeared into the Federal Witness Protection program amid an 0-for-10 funk.

So this Marlins team, who stood 16-22 on May 11 before being taken over by a 72-year-old lifer who'd never won anything, are the World Champions. Revile their short and sordid history, which includes only two winning seasons, and their fickle fans, who stayed away in droves as their team nabbed the NL Wild Card. Stifle the urge to vomit when you see Bad Rug Bud handing over the World Series trophy to Bag Job Jeff. Cringe when you imagine the way this team might be dismembered over the next year. But tip your cap to this scrappy young ballclub, their crusty, hunch-playing manager, and the anachronistic little-ball strategies which enabled them to squeeze out runs when they desperately needed them. And prepare to keep an eye on Beckett, whose clinching performance was one for the annals.

Really, this Series turned on two critical moments. The first was Joe Torre's choice of pitchers in the late innings of Game Four, culminating with Jeff Weaver, who yielded the twelfth-inning home run to Gonzalez. The decision to use the Yanks' 14th best pitcher instead of Mariano Rivera or even lefty Chris Hammond (whose reverse platoon split makes him more effective against righties) is a black mark against Torre, and it cost the Yanks their shot at a 3-1 series lead. The second was the implosion of David Wells' back and Jose Contreras' subsequent meltdown. With all pregame signs pointing to Wells's infirmity, Torre and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre should have done a better job preparing Contreras for the admittedly unenviable task of emergency long relief. With the pitcher's split-fingered fastballs kicking up clouds of dust instead of slithering through the strike zone, Contreras looked panicked, and nothing Posada or Stottlemyre seemed to say could prevent the ballgame from slipping away from the Yanks.

Still, the men in pinstripes finished with a 2.13 Series ERA -- the lowest for a losing team in 59 years -- compared to the Marlins' 3.21, outscored the Fish 23-17, and outhit them by a considerable margin:
         AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS

Yanks .261 .338 .406 .743
Fish .232 .276 .300 .576
But the Yanks were only 7-for-50 (.140) with runners in scoring position, and only 17-for-86 (.198) with runners on base [I'd supply more detailed stats, but the usually reliable stat services' postseason splits are sadly lacking]. The disappearance of their plate discipline late in the Series was another huge factor. B-Pro's Joe Sheehan points to David Dellucci's bunt in the bottom of the 11th inning of Game Four -- "They had their single greatest probability of winning the World Series at the moment Hideki Matsui walked. It's decreased in almost a straight line since that point to right now. That bunt is the dividing line in this series..." -- and notes that prior to the bunt, the Yanks were averaging 4.06 pitches per at-bat (compared to 3.8 on the regular season), while from there on they averaged only 3.44. For all of the Yanks' oft-mentioned experience, that subsequent performance (17-for-71 with five walks, one intentional) smacks of a team slipping into desperation.

None of this will come as news to George Steinbrenner, whose high-pressure personality and joyless proclamations continue to choke much of the spirit out of the Yankees, though not their class. The pending eruption of Mount George, as inevitable as the day is long, will reap untold carnage, perhaps extending as far as general manager Brian Cashman and second baseman Soriano. Kiss Don Zimmer goodbye, and posssibly Stottlemyre, hitting coach Rick Down, and first base coach Lee Mazzilli as well. But those are issues for another day. At least Steinbrenner didn't repeat his tactless apology to the Yankee Stadium fans like he did the last time an opponent -- the 1981 L.A. Dodgers -- celebrated on their field, and no reports of the Boss' elevator scuffles with unruly Marlins fans have surfaced, either.

This was a frustrating moment to watch for Yankees fans. As my friend Ben put it, "The Yankees have now lost the World Series twice in three years to expansion teams with teal uniforms and swimming pools in their outfield. God, give me any curse but that... We just got smoked by a guy named Pudge and a kid who learned how to throw a breaking ball from Sony Playstation." Arrgh.

But rather than shedding tears or throwing chairs, we Yank fans should feel grateful that this ultimately flawed team gave us such an exciting run, including that exhilirating come-from-behind win over the Red Sox in the ALCS that we'll be able to lord over any Boston fans in our midst until the Curse of the Bambino is finally lifted. We've been exceptionally lucky to have a team that consistently provides a championship run, and should expect no sympathy from those whose ballclubs produce only the occasional contender. As William Rhoden of the New York Times writes: "let today be a day of introspection and humility."

That's not to say the players should feel the same way we fans do. They're upset, and rightfully so, driven to expect more of themselves. For all of the good-to-great players it takes to win a championship, it takes the brazenly great ones who are satisfied with nothing less than total victory to keep that spirit going, from Michael Jordan to Derek Jeter to Josh Beckett. As Bernie Williams put it, "The front office and the people in charge designed this team not to play in the postseason, but to win. When that didn't happen, obviously a lot of people are going to be very upset, including the players. I don't think anybody is more upset than we are." Jeter joined the chorus: "It never sets in. You start in the middle of February with one goal, to win a championship. We didn't do it."

On the Yankees' singular position, Rhoden writes:
Being the Yankees is like being king of the United States: a grand but incongruent distinction. The Yankees have sealed themselves in a lucrative but suffocating archive. The manager, the general manager and even the owner, for that matter, operate in the long shadow of history. They work in a museum filled with black-and-white photos of men wearing pinstripes from eras long past.

The reality is that nobody else in baseball is trying to build a dynasty. Most try to assemble a winning team for the short run. They unload high salaries and reload with hungry, young and cheap talent. The formula has worked: just look at the Yankees' most recent postseason tormentors: Arizona in 2001, Anaheim in 2002 and Florida this year.

For the Yankees, the lesson is that money is a powerful tool that buys strong arms and legs.

Money can't buy the one thing the Yankees need the most, however; it can't buy time.
Speaking of time, with the final out of the Series, the cold, cruel offseason is now upon us. I've had an exhilarating time covering this season from spring training to the bitter end, and I've enjoyed watching this incredible postseason, one of the best in memory even if, in my eyes, the wrong team ended up on top. I want to thank each and every reader who has stopped by here during the past season -- my readership has doubled over last year -- as well as the other bloggers without whom this would be a lot less fun. Particular shoutouts are in order for my pals on the Yankee beat, Alex Belth, Larry Mahnken, and Steven Goldman -- wait 'til next year, eh guys? And a great big hug to my gal Andra for sharing the highs and lows of the entire season, from encouraging me to head to spring training to heal my wintry soul to flopping down on the couch beside me for damn near every playoff and World Series game to heading to the Yanks' most important game of the season to cheer them on in my place. Y'all should be so lucky to have a girlfriend who, along with her myriad other gifts, appreciates baseball as mine does.

I'll conclude by reminding you that just because the ballgames are over doesn't mean this space will be lacking for baseball content over the winter months. After all, there are 112 days until Pitchers and Catchers, and we have much to discuss.

Saturday, October 25, 2003


Looking Down the Barrel

The New York Yankees find themselves in an odd position tonight, looking down the wrong end of the barrel at an elimination game, knowing that even if they survive, their work isn't done. The last time the Yanks were in this situation was the 2001 AL Divisional Series, where they lost the first two games to the Oakland A's before winning the final three. That comeback, you may recall, began on the strength of Mike Mussina's brilliant pitching and Derek Jeter's famous play.

But despite some familiar names, that was a different ballclub than the current crop of Yankees. Those were the three-time defending World Champions, long in the tooth but loaded with players who'd been there, done that, and had the jewelry to show for it. These Yankees still have Jeter, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, et al, but they're chock full of men whose resumes, until this October, were largely unimpressive. Even by smothering the Minnesota Twins and barely outlasting a fierce Boston Red Sox team, this one still seeks the validation that can only come with a World Series ring. Or so a certain blowhard owner would have you believe.

What was frustrating the other night wasn't just watching the Yanks lose, it was watching them fall apart with a squad that was nowhere near the best nine they could field. Never mind the fact that once David Wells limped away, it was a $32 million Cuban cigar exploding in their faces -- it's one thing to watch your big gamers like Roger Clemens or Andy Pettitte get lit up, yet another to see a hastily-cobbled-together Plan B go awry. The reasons that Joe Torre used three weeks ago to justify keeping Wells in the postseason rotation instead of hot-handed Jose Conteras should be abundantly clear by now.

So now, with no margin for error, the Yanks need not one but two wins in a row to avoid a huge upset and be crowned World Champions. But if you were going to engineer a team to withstand such awesome pressure, you could do a lot worse than the ballclub Joe Torre has playing at the most famous venue in sports. No, this isn't Murderer's Row, but the Yanks take the field behind Andy Pettitte tonight, and whatever happens from here, the war-horse lefty has laid to rest most questions about his big-game mettle. This shouldn't be a referendum on Pettitte's pinstriped future -- Andy's done more to get the team to this point in October than any other starter -- and I hope that whatever happens tonight, this won't be the last time the bright lights of the Bronx shine on him.

About the rest of the team, there are certainly question marks -- Jason Giambi's knee, Alfonso Soriano's head, and whether the aliens who now inhabit Aaron Boone's body are aware that we're onto them. But the Yanks have several things going for them, starting with the home field advantage, a ton of experience in high-pressure situations, and an opposing starter on three days' rest. Jack McKeon has elected to go with 23-year-old ace Josh Beckett, who pitched the rain-besotted Game Three on Tuesday which the Yanks won in eight innings. Beckett struck out 10 Yanks and gave up only three hits -- all to Jeter -- but this will be an even bigger test. McKeon has opened the floodgates for second-guessers with this call and his plan to send Carl Pavano to the hill on short rest tomorrow, if there is one. B-Pro's Joe Sheehan, a smarter man than I, disagrees with the decision, writing: "It's a move you make when you're down 3-2, not up 3-2. It's a decision you make when the difference between your best pitcher and the rest of the staff so large that going with anyone else in Game Six almost guarantees a Game Seven."

Furthermore, Sheehan cites evidence that the three days' rest strategy is a misguided one:
The recent track record of pitchers starting postseason games on short rest, covered by Rob Neyer a couple of weeks ago, is just the most prominent reason to hold Beckett back. The best pitchers in the game are the ones asked to do this, and the record shows that they become, collectively, replacement-level starters. Beckett was a hero out of the bullpen on short rest against the Cubs, and the memory of that outing is no doubt easing McKeon's mind about using him tonight. Nevertheless, the evidence that using pitchers on three days' rest is a self-defeating strategy is considerable, and the Marlins are going to fly in the face of that evidence not just once, but twice in the next two days if they lose Game Six.
The stats Sheehan uses to back up that claim are these: "from 1995-2002 starters working on short rest went 6-15 in 32 starts, with an ERA of 5.20."

That ought to give the Yanks (and their fans) a bit of optimism if they need it. But really, if the team in the pinstripes looks and plays like the Bronx Bombers they're capable of being, they have an excellent chance not only of forcing a Game Seven, but of winning it. As my brother (whose birthday it is today, so Happy #32 to him) likes to say, "Big players, big games, big plays." The Yanks have no shortage of such players, and it's my guess that just like Game Seven in the ALCS, those guys will be the ones to pick this team up. Derek Jeter has started rallies

And if not, hey, we all knew this ballclub was flawed coming into the postseason, a lesser team than those of the recent dynasty due primarily to a hole in the bullpen that you could drive a 747 through and to Torre's inflexible reliance on the men who brought him here before. But these Yankees have given their fans a great ride and a few unshakable memories in October, and even if their season ends tonight, they deserve to be remembered fondly.



After a promising start, Thursday quickly turned into a tough night for the Yankees. Their new-look lineup threatened to break the game open in the top of the first, but came away with only one run. Then starter David Wells's bad back prevented him from pitching more than one inning, and reliever Jose Contreras hemorrhaged the ballgame away early. The Yankees clawed back from down 6-1, twice bringing Bernie Williams to the plate as the tying run. But it was too little, too late, and the Florida Marlins are now one victory away from winning the World Series. The Yanks need to sweep two ballgames in the Bronx in order to win.

Joe Torre adjusted Thursday's Yankee lineup to reflect two realities: Alfonso Soriano has been a mess this postseason, and Jason Giambi's aching knee has been exacerbated by playing the field in Florida. So Torre put two men who have combined for 84 homers on the bench, replacing them with light-hitting futilityman Enrique Wilson and Nick Johnson. The moves seemed reasonable enough, especially with the hotter Derek Jeter in the leadoff spot. Jeter singled on Brad Penny's second pitch of the ballgame, and on the next pitch Wilson (who's really not suited to the #2 spot in the lineup) reached on a bunt single which Penny misplayed and then first baseman Derek Lee threw away, with Jeter going to third. Things were looking good for the Yanks. Bernie Williams got ahead of Penny 2-0, then hit a lazy fly ball to rightfielder Miguel Cabera which scored a run. But from there the Yanks could do no more damage.

Wells got out of the first in a hurry, throwing only eight pitches and getting three groundouts. But while the big man's body language indicated discomfort, it nevertheless came as a surprise to viewers to see David Dellucci in the on-deck circle to pinch-hit for Wells in the top of the second. Though the prospect of Wells' back crapping out was not unfamiliar to Yankee fans -- live by the 40-year-old pitcher with the balky back and the "How To Not Exercise" philosophy, die by it, too -- Fox's announcers scrambled to explain the situation, and Jose Conteras hurriedly warmed up in the bullpen. Since this was an injury replacement, he had as much time as necessary, but Conteras nevertheless had a deer-in-the-headlights look as he came into the ballgame.

Perhaps I'm reading too much into the Cuban's body language and the subsequent results, but to me, this was inexcusable. According to everything I've read and heard, the Yankee brass was well aware of the situation, with pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre warning Torre that Wells' back was cranky, and Torre cobbling together Plan B. Reports the New York Times:
David Wells's bullpen session just before Thursday's game went so poorly that the pitching coach, Mel Stottlemyre, had serious doubts about Wells's ability to make it past the first inning. But with Andy Pettitte on the way to New York to rest for Game 6, Joe Torre had few options to replace Wells.

Torre said the Game 3 starter, Mike Mussina, offered, and José Contreras and Chris Hammond were considered. Jeff Weaver, who lost Game 4 in relief, apparently was not.

"Right at game time, Mike Mussina came up to me, he asked me if I wanted him to pitch," Torre said. "I just said no to him. I know he had thrown earlier in the day. But we had no one else. If he didn't start, it was either going to be Hammond or Contreras."
Though he'd pitched two innings the night before, Contreras started off the inning solidly, getting Cabrera to line out and then Jeff Conine, the Marlins' toughest hitter in this Series, to fly out. But he walked Mike Lowell on four pitches and then went 3-0 on Lee, his splitters skipping in the dirt reminiscent of his ALCS Game Six meltdown. The Yanks did what they could to calm Conteras, but the bleeding got worse. Lee walked, then Alex Gonzalez hit a ground-rule double to tie the game. Next up was pitcher Penny, who slapped a two-run single on Conteras' first pitch, 3-1 Marlins.

"There goes the Series," I muttered -- not because I didn't have some faith the Yanks could mount a comeback, but because I saw this as the kind of bad break which could be decisive in a close game, especially when it looked as if the Yanks might need additional relief to get out of the inning. Conteras walked Pierre on four pitches, the fifth straight hitter to reach base, and then the Cuban finally struck out Castillo to end the nightmare.

After his shaky first, Penny settled into a groove. A leadoff walk by Jeter to start the third was erased in a double-play, and a Jorge Posada single in the fourth went unfortified. Meanwhile, the Marlins got another run off of Contreras before he departed. Lee led off with a single, and after Gonzalez struck out, Penny sacrificed the runner to second. Pierre doubled into the right-centerfield gap, and the Marlins now led 4-1.

Further disaster arrived in the fifth, when Chris Hammond, who hadn't pitched in nearly four weeks (shades of Jeff Weaver), came on. Ivan Rodriguez led off with a single, and alertly tagged to second on a deep fly ball to rightfield. Hammond fell behind Conine 3-0, but pulled to a full count before scorching a shot down the leftfield line. Third baseman Aaron Boone, a man who's had his share of tribulations in the field this Series, speared the ball and then threw to Wilson second as he saw Rodriguez retreating. Pudge reversed directions, but as he headed towards third, Wilson threw -- with nobody covering the bag! Boone had cleared the lane, while Jeter was still several feet away from the bag. The play ended with Pudge on third and Conine on second, and on the next pitch, Hammond yielded a single which scored both to widen the gap to 6-1.

The Yanks had a shot at getting back into the game in the seventh. Johnson led of with a single, and then Karim Garcia stroked a single which sent him to third. Boone, again with a chance to make a difference at the plate, failed to do so, his fly ball too short to score the run. Torre had bluffed with Giambi in the on-deck circle while Boone was at bat, but once the out was made, he called the slugger back and sent up Ruben Sierra instead. While the move at the time exasperated me -- "Let's get three goddamn runs!" I screamed at the televison, wanting Giambi in that spot -- Penny was still going strong, blowing high fastballs by Sierra which the Yankee slugger likely wouldn't have caught up to. Sierra struck out on a 99 MPH fastball. But the Yanks pressed on. Jeter singled in Johnson, and then Wilson walked to load the bases as Williams, the Yanks' hottest hitter in this Series, came to bat. But with a tie game in reach via one swing, Bernie popped the first pitch to shallow rightfield, ending the inning. Damn.

Penny left after seven, having allowed eight hits and two walks but only one earned run -- a gritty effort. Dontrelle Willis came on in relief, foretelling manager Jack McKeon's rotation choice of Josh Beckett for Game Six. Willis got two outs before Johnson singled, and Torre sent up Soriano to pinch-hit for Garcia. Unsurprisingly, Soriano struck out. But surprisingly, he remained in the game as the Yankee rightfielder, the first time he'd played the outfield for the Yanks in a game that counted and perhaps a glimpse into the team's offseason plans.

Braden Looper took over in the ninth for the Marlins, and after retiring Boone (what else is new?), Torre finally played his Giambi card. Big G fell behind 0-2, but fought back, and on the fifth pitch, he golfed a ball over the right-centerfield wall for a solo homer. Not dead yet. Jeter did as Jeter does, keeping things alive with a single, and then Wilson shocked the world with an RBI double down the rightfield line to make the score 6-4 and bring the tying run to the plate. McKeon summoned Ugueth Urbina to face Williams, and Bernie made every pulse in the ballpark skip a beat with a deep fly ball to rightfield. But it died at the warning track, bringing the Yanks to their final out. Hideki Matsui, silent all game after a big series thus far, grounded Urbina's first pitch to Lee, and the Marlins had their third victory of the series. The scrappy team in teal, a Wild Card in every sense of the term, is now on the brink of their second World Championship in the franchise's young history.

There's so much more to say; I'll be back with a look at tonight's game later this afteroon.

Thursday, October 23, 2003


Late Breaker

For the second night in a row, the Yanks outlasted a stellar start from a Marlin, but this time it was Florida who got the last late-inning laugh. Alex Gonzalez smacked a 12th-inning walk-off homer off of Jeff Weaver to give the Marlins a 4-3 win, tying the World Series at two games apiece. In a game whose dominant theme was Roger Clemens' final start, Carl Pavano got the better of the all-time great. But closer Ugueth Urbina squandered a 3-1 lead when he was one strike away from finishing the job, and the Yanks tied the game on a pinch-hit Ruben Sierra triple before losing it in extra innings.

This was an epic. Clemens' night began to take on eerie similarity to his ALCS Game Seven start with two out in the first inning. He was one strike away from finishing off Miguel Cabrera after a two-out single by Ivan Rodriguez, having delivered some chin music to the Marlins' rookie early in the at-bat. But the Rocket's seventh pitch of their showdown was a high-and-outside fastball which Cabrera reached out and touched for an opposite-field two-run homer, the Marlins' first of the series. The next three Marlins singled, whipping the Pro Player Stadium crowd into a frenzy as the Marlins upped their lead to 3-0. Clemens took an astonishing 42 pitches to get out of the inning, and it looked as though a quick and ignominious end would come to the Rocket's storied career.

But Clemens didn't get to 310 wins and 4,099 strikeouts by relying solely on his now-diminished natural talents. The Rocket gritted this one out, settling into a groove and fighting admirably for seven innings, allowing no further runs and only three more hits. With his spot in the order due to begin the Yankee eighth, flashbulbs twinkled to the point of distraction once he got two outs in the bottom of the seventh. In an eight-pitch at-bat that seemed a metaphor for Clemens' night, he struck out Luis Castillo looking, then slapped his glove as the 65,934 fans in Pro Player -- long with teammates and opponents -- gave him a lengthy, well-deserved ovation. A classy gesture from the Florida crowd.

Pavano started shakily. After a scoreless first, the Yanks loaded the bases in the second inning on a Bernie Williams single and then consecutive infield hits by Hideki Matsui and Jorge Posada. The Marlins began warming up Rick Helling in the bullpen, but Pavano recovered to strike out Karim Garcia and held Aaron Boone to a sacrifice fly before K'ing Clemens to end the inning.

The Yanks got two runners on in the third to no avail, and from there Pavano cruised, allowing only a bloop single by Clemens to lead off the fifth and thus retiring 15 of the final 16 batters he faced. Only when Urbina came on in the ninth did the Yanks' offensive pulse return. Williams stroked a one-out single, the third of his four hits on the night, and then Matsui survived a 1-2 count to draw a walk. Posada hit into a fielders' choice, erasing Matsui and then yielding to pinch-runner David Dellucci. Sierra, batting for Garcia, got ahead of Urbina 3-0, took two strikes, and then fouled off two more pitches before lining a shot into the rightfield corner which cleared the bases and evened the ballgame, taking Clemens off the hook for what would have been the only World Series loss of his career. But with a chance to give the Yanks a lead and summon Mariano Rivera, Useless Aaron Boone -- how quickly we forget, eh? -- failed to pick up Sierra, grounding out to shortstop to end the inning.

Jose Contreras came on instead of Rivera, his first appearance since his ALCS Game Six meltdown a week ago. He sawed through the Marlins in the ninth, striking out two. The Marlins did put a runner in scoring position in the tenth on a leadoff walk by Juan Pierre and a Castillo sacrifice, but El Titan de Bronze struck out Rodriguez and Cabrera to end the inning.

The Yanks got a two-out Derek Jeter double in the tenth off of Chad Fox which went for naught, and they loaded the bases in the eleventh via a Williams double, a Matsui walk, a Dellucci sacrifice, and an intentional walk to Juan Rivera. But Braden Looper, Game Three's goat, came on to face Useless Boone, who's been batting blindfolded, Jedi-style, the entire postseason. Boone struck out, and backup catcher John Flaherty popped out, quashing a potential rally.

The Dellucci sacrifice (sounds like a Robert Ludlum novel) was an interesting strategic decision. Again, I'm not much of a littleball fan, but here the Yanks had runners on first and second with none out and a double-play in order. After the bunt, which was perfectly executed, the Yanks had one out, two runners in scoring position, and no double-play threat. Had Boone been able to make contact, even without hitting safely, the Yanks could have scored. But he didn't, and the game continued.

In a shocking move, Joe Torre summoned Jeff Weaver to pitch the eleventh. The ass-end of the Yankee staff hadn't pitched in exactly four weeks. "I'll bet he can lose this game in ten pitches," I glumly told my chums. But Weaver took care of the Marlins 1-2-3 on eight pitches, giving the Yanks another shot. Alas, they managed only a two-out Giambi single.

Weaver came back out to start the twelfth, facing Gonzalez to lead off the inning. He went to a full count on the Marlins' shortstop (bypassing my 10-pitch prediction), watched Gonzalez spoil a couple pitches by fouling them off, then left a fastball over the plate. Gonzalez, who'd been only 5-for-53 in the postseason, poked a ball down the leftfield line for a Get Off My Property homer, and suddenly the Marlins are back in the Series.

The question must be asked -- what was Torre thinking by sending Weaver into a tie ballgame in the first place? The kindest estimate of his abilities this season would place him about the 14th-best option for Torre (behind every other pitcher on the Yankee postseason roster, plus non-roster pitchers Antonio Osuna, Al Reyes, and Jorge DePaula, and then arguably Mel Stottlemyre, Ron Guidry, Whitey Ford, and the late Allie Reynolds...). But with a 2-1 lead in games, with Rivera having thrown two innings the previous night, and with another ballgame looming Thursday night, Torre chose his long reliever for the extra-inning spot. The choice can be second-guessed until the cows come home, but the other non-Rivera pitchers the Yanks had remaining were all lefties -- Felix Heredia, Gabe White, and Chris Hammond -- and the Marlins' lineup except for Pierre was entirely right-handed. The gamble didn't pay off for Torre or the Yanks, but one could see where he was coming from. On the other hand, Hammond is that rare lefty with a reverse platoon split (.648 OPS against righties, .797 against lefties this season), and if he's on the roster at all, it's for that reason. Grrrrrrrr.

So the World Championship will now be decided by a best-of-three, starting with David Wells and Brad Penny slated for a rematch of their Game One tango. Wells notched a huge fifth-game win in the ALCS, and this may well be his finale in pinstripes, so the Yanks can reasonably expect another big game from the big man. Penny had to have gained confidence from his performance on Saturday, the first postseason start in which he wasn't knocked out. But he's not likely to go deep into the ballgame, and if the Yanks have shown anything in the Series, it's that they can get to the Marlins bullpen -- eight runs in 15 innings thus far (4.80 ERA), compared to nine in 25 innings for the starters (3.24 ERA).

One other thing the Yanks have shown is that they desperately need to shuffle their lineup to get Alfonso Soriano And His Amazing Strikeout Machine out of the leadoff spot. I'd love to see Joe Torre post a lineup with Jeter leading off, followed by Williams, Matsui, Posada, and Giambi, with Sori down in the #6 or #7 slot, and Enrique Wilson playing third base instead of Useless Boone, who can do nothing but besmirch his pinstriped legacy with his continually futile at-bats. But it's not going to happen that way. If the Yanks win, they're going to do it by grinding another one out with the same cast of characters that's gotten them this far. Joe Torre's nothing if not consistent.

Wednesday, October 22, 2003


Soaking It Up

The Yankees took the Marlins' best punch last night, outlasting ace Josh Beckett and then lighting up Florida's bullpen in a rain-soaked game that matched Sunday night's score, 6-1. Mike Mussina picked up where he left off in Game Seven of the ALCS, stifling the Marlins when they had men on base and making a key defensive play to prevent a run. The Yanks now lead the series 2-1.

The Marlins got off to a flying start, as Juan Pierre keyed a first-inning run for the second time in this series. Centerfielder Bernie Williams and rightfielder Karim Garcia combined to misplay his blooper into a leadoff double. Then, with Alfonso Soriano playing Pierre close at second, Miguel Cabrera slapped a one-out single through the widened hole in the right side to put the Marlins on the board first, with the Yankee second baseman doing his best there-goes-my-taxicab impression. At this point it looked as though the contact-hitting Marlins might exploit the Yanks' defensive weakness as they sloshed around the spacious Pro Player Stadium field. But Mussina limited the damage from there, and that would be the only run he surrendered on the night.

The Yanks began the game absolutely stifled by Beckett, who was perfect through the first three innings on the strength of a 98-mph heater to which the Yanks simply couldn't catch up. Derek Jeter got their first hit in the fourth, a one-out double, and then the Yanks loaded the bases on a Jason Giambi walk and then a Hideki Matsui hit-by-pitch. Jorge Posada battled Beckett through an eight-pitch at-bat to draw a walk and force in the tying run as Marlins manager Jack McKeon went ballistic over home plate ump Gary Darling's strike zone judgement in the Florida dugout.

The rain, which had nearly saturated the field prior to first pitch, really picked up in the fifth, and with two outs in the bottom of the inning, the umps paused the game for a 39-minute rain delay. Mussina returned and yielded a single to Pierre, but on the next pitch, the Marlins centerfielder was gunned down by Posada trying to steal second.

With the score still deadlocked, the Marlins could have broken the game open in the sixth. Ivan Rodriguez punched a one-out double which at first looked to go out of the park. Cabrera then singled to right, with Garcia bobbling the ball off the heel of his glove. Inexplicably, Florida third base coach Ozzie Guillen had held Rodriguez at third, not realizing the Yankee rightfielder's misplay. With runners on the corners, Moose then battled Derek Lee in a seven-pitch at-bat, and Lee smoked a comebacker to the pitcher that he didn't field cleanly. With no option to make an easy play at first or to try a 1-6-3 DP, Mussina fired home, and the Yanks caught Rodriguez in a rundown, Posada tagging him out near third base. Mussina then went to a full count against Mike Lowell before striking him out to end the threat.

Beckett returned from the rain delay fairly sharp, striking out four over the next two innings. The Yanks got two on in the sixth via a Jeter single and a Matsui walk, to no avail. But by the end of the Yankee seventh, the 23-year-old Florida ace had thrown 103 pitches.

McKeon's managing in the bottom of the seventh turned the game around. After Jeff Conine led off with a single, Alex Gonzalez tried twice to bunt, but both attempts went foul. Even after Gonzalez finally popped out foul to first baseman Giambi, McKeon was still set on moving Conine over via a sacrifice, so he elected to let Beckett hit for himself -- an ass-backwards move that I find puzzling. I mean, I'm no big fan of littleball, but if you're going to play for one run, you've got to get that runner in scoring position with one out and then take two cracks at getting him home. Using your second out to get him to second is an exercise in futility. Better to pull Beckett and get a real hitter in the box with a shot at piecing together a rally -- especially with the rain returning and a very real possibility that the game might be halted again, finishing your ace for the night. In this situation, the Marlins had lefty Todd Hollandsworth (4-for-6 with a walk in postseason pinch-hitting appearances), lefty Lenny Harris (pretty useless but still the all-time pinch-hit leader), and righty Juan Encarnacion, who has a reverse platoon split (.765 OPS vs. righty, .736 vs lefty this season, and an even more pronounced split for the past three years). But McKeon used his ace to bunt Conine to second, and the Yanks countered by intentionally walking Pierre to face struggling Luis Castillo. Mussina struck Castillo out on three beautiful curveballs to end the inning.

As it turned out, Beckett was about cooked. He struck out Soriano to begin the eighth (big surprise there, as Sori continues to swing at anything within three feet of the plate -- 23 K in 64 PA this October). Jeter was next, with the Yanks' only two hits on the night. For some reason, McKeon had first baseman Lee playing at normal depth instead of guarding the line, and Jeter lashed a ball down the rightfield line for a double, his third hit of the night -- the entirety of the Yankee output to that point. This finished Beckett, and McKeon brought in Dontrelle Willis, who was wild. Willis started by walking Giambi, and nearly did so to Bernie Williams before the Yankee centerfielder flied out, with Derek taking third. He gave up a go-ahead single to Matsui, and then walked Posada on four pitches to load the bases. Chad Fox came on in relief of Willis and struck out pinch-hitter Ruben Sierra to end the inning, but it had been a costly one for the Marlins.

After seven bob-and-weave innings from Mussina, Mariano Rivera made his first appearance of the Series in the eighth inning, protecting a 2-1 lead. Well-rested since seeing no work since his three-inning stint last Thursday, he retired the side on a mere six pitches. And then the Yanks built him a real cushion. Aaron Boone -- who'd committed another error, his third of the Series, earlier in the ballgame -- crushed Fox's first pitch of the inning for a home run. "Not useless!" my girlfriend hollered, countering my earler diagnosis of Boone. One out later, Fox entered the annals of Ripley's Believe It or Not by issuing a walk to Soriano, only his third of the postseason, and the first that didn't occur leading off a ballgame. McKeon went to the pen again, calling upon Braden Looper, a servicable reliever who's stayed well under my radar despite nearly 370 appearances for the Fish over the past five years. Looper began badly, hitting Derek Jeter on the elbow with his second pitch. One out later, Bernie got ahead on a 2-1 count and then smacked a three-run homer to centerfield, breaking the game open once and for all. Rivera worked a spotty ninth, allowing a base hit to Conine and throwing 17 pitches, but finishing the job. Mussina got credit for the win, his first of the postseason against three losses.

So the Yanks now find themselves in control of the series, having beaten the Marlins' ace and reclaimed the home-field advantage, and set to start Roger Clemens against Carl Pavano on Wednesday night. This will almost definitely be the final start of Clemens' illustrious career; even if there's a Game Seven, Clemens would be on only three days' rest, with Mike Mussina in line for the start on full rest. We can expect lots of ceremony on the part of Fox's broadcasting crew, though Clemens has been through this rigamarole so many times over the past month that it really shouldn't be much of a factor. Even with his abortive start in Game Seven of the ALCS, Clemens is 2-0 with a 4.26 ERA in his three postseason starts. He's never lost a World Series start, holding a 3-0 record with a 1.56 ERA in 40.1 innings, though he did garner a no-decision the Yanks' Game Seven loss in 2001.

Young Pavano has pitched well this postseason, mostly in relief, for a 1.46 ERA and 2-0 record in 12.1 innings. The Yanks got a quick glimpse of him in Game Two, when he pitched a scoreless inning, striking out Sori and Jeter, allowing a double to Giambi, a walk to Williams, and retiring Matusi on a groundout. With the Marlins struggling for runs -- only five in the series' three games -- he's got a big task to keep the Yankee bats at bay until the Fish can put up some numbers.

Not that the Yankee bats are steamrolling anybody, but 12 runs scored in two games is a veritable plethora of support, especially for Mussina, who has yet to take the mound this postseason with a lead. But a quick look at the two teams' offensive performance is revealing:
         AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS

Yanks .258 .374 .464 .838
Fish .216 .262 .247 .509
The Fish haven't shown any power (a mere 3 doubles and no homers) or patience (six walks) compared to the Yanks (5 doubles, 5 homers, and 15 walks). It's tough to manufacture runs when you can't get people on or bring them around, a fact the Marlins surely know by now. Good pitching will beat good hitting in October, and vice versa.

Tuesday, October 21, 2003


She Got Game

I just added pages for several of my recent visits to the ballpark, including all three rounds of the postseason (where I went 0-3, and so I'm done for the year). If you've been following along here, you've probably read my accounts already, but now they've got photos and memorabilia to go with them. By far, the best of these -- and the one which you haven't read -- is my girlfriend's story of her experience at Game Seven of the ALCS (she went, I didn't). She may not be able to tell you about OPS or EQA, but that gal can talk the talk and walk the walk, and I'm a really lucky guy to have her on my side.

Monday, October 20, 2003


Series Notes

In my quick jottings before the World Series opener, I noted that the Marlins don't really have a lefty to match up with the Yankee bats out of the bullpen, that rookie sensation Dontrelle Willis had looked pretty cooked in October, and that Fish head Jack McKeon could only mix and match his starters for so long without leaving his rotation shorthanded in a key game.

In Game One of the Series, McKeon gave a shot at killing all three of these birds with one stone. With two outs in the sixth, he turned the ball over to lefty Willis (a starter during the regular season) in relief of Brad Penny, and Dontrelle gave the Fish 2.1 innings of scoreless relief. Willis, with his funky motion, is especially tough on lefties, as Baseball Prospectus' Joe Sheehan noted (.216 AVG/.293 OBP/.307 SLG), but the sample size isn't too big, only about 100 PA. Still, this looks to be a case of the Marlins' manager taking two negatives and turning them into a positive, and it's a good bet Willis will continue to be a factor in the Series.

On the third point that I mentioned, during Game Two, McKeon used Carl Pavano in relief for an inning. Best known for being one of the pitchers the Red Sox traded to Montreal for Pedro Martinez, Pavano had his best season in the majors as the Marlins' #5 starter. He's been performing admirably as a swingman duties athis October, with six scoreless appearances in relief, none longer than an inning, and one decent start (NLCS Game Six which the Marlins famously rallied to win). The Marlins have him slated to start Game Four, so the Fox announcers scoffed at McKeon's giving the Yanks a first look at him before what will undoubtably be a key start -- hey, they're all key now. In the postgame press conference, McKeon used words to the effect that this being Pavano's throw day, he was just getting his starter some work.

This consistent usage of his starters in relief has been McKeon's most impressive gambit this October, and it's the reason the Fish are still hanging around. Every starter except Mark Redman's done double duty. Here are their stats in relief:
         G   IP   ERA

Beckett 1 4.0 2.25
Penny 3 3.2 0.00
Willis 3 3.2 2.45
Pavano 6 5.2 0.00
TOTAL 13 17.0 1.06
Two runs in 17 innings? Yeah, that works, especially in comparison to the leavings at the bottom of the Fish tank -- Rick Helling, Nate Bump, and Michael Tejara have combined for a 6.92 ERA in 13 innings. So long as McKeon doesn't overdo it -- and he hasn't, with these guys averaging 1.08 innings per appearance if you throw out Beckett's four-inning Game Seven stint -- he should be able to keep the ball in the hands of his best men on this short staff. And as managers like Joe Torre have proven time and time again, that's what wins in October.

• • •

Several weeks ago, I told a couple of friends that I though that this winter, the Yanks might think about shipping second baseman Alfonso Soriano to Kansas City in exchange for centerfielder Carlos Beltran. The 26-year-old centerfielder, who hit .307/.389/.522 with 26 homers and 100 RBI, has one year remaining before free-agency.

Apparently, this rumor has some legs; the New York Daily News's Bill Madden reports that with Soriano's struggles this postseason, his welcome in pinstripes might be worn out:
If he is [still a Yankee next season], it isn't likely to be as either a leadoff hitter (where he had just a .338 on-base percentage this season) or at second base (where he committed 19 errors.)

Going into last night's Game 2 of the World Series, Soriano was hitting .222 with 18 strikeouts in 54 at-bats (or one in every three). "If the Yankees are smart, they'll look to deal Soriano now while his value is still high and before he starts to make big money," one NL scout observed last night.

The Yankee high command has had internal discussions about whether to pursue trade talks with the Royals about center fielder Carlos Beltran.

The Royals have conceded they're going to have to move Beltran, who is a free agent after next season, and Soriano, who likely will get a bump from $800,000 to over $2 million in arbitration, would still be a cheap alternative whom they could control for three years.
Of course, acquiring Beltran would plug the Yanks glaring hole in centerfield, where Bernie Williams has lost more than a step. But the problem becomes what to do with the rest of the Yankee outfield. Moving Williams to left is probably a no-win situation, because leftfield in Yankee Stadium requires centerfielder-like agility due to the ballpark's asymmetrical layout, and Hideki Matsui's arm isn't strong enough for right field. Williams' arm is nowhere near strong enough for rightfield either.

Far from a quick fix, it looks as though this deal would have to be part of a much larger blueprint for the Yanks to make it work. There will be plenty of cold nights to ponder those possibilities once the World Series is over.

But here's one scathing indictment of the Yankee leadoff hitter (and by extension, Joe Torre): the team's number 9 hitters (Karim Garcia, Juan Rivera, David Delluci and Nick Johnson) have a higher OBP (.333) than Sori in the leadoff slot (.281) this October. And that's excluding Sori's 0-for-3 in the 9-hole during the ALCS.

• • •

A couple of good pieces at Slate:

• A back-and-forth conversation between Allen Barra and Charles P. Pierce. Sez the latter, recounting the bag job which sent Expo owner Jeffrey Loria to Florida and Marlins owner John Henry to Boston: "The Florida Marlins—a toy franchise founded 11 minutes ago—are the perfect example of everything that's gone wrong with baseball under that bratwurst Machiavelli, Bud Selig, and the kabuki "fiscal crisis" that has been the presiding dynamic of his tenure at the head of the game."

Sam Eifling writes that the best chance the Fish have of avoiding being gutted like they were in 1998 is to come up short: "Lost in the continual cursing of Huizenga is the fact that he did, blessedly, manage to buy the Marlins a fighting chance at a World Series. And for some Florida fans, lost in the astounding turnaround of the 2003 Marlins is the prospect that this team, too, will be torn apart after the season... The only way to save the Marlins, perhaps, is for them to get clobbered this week and have the owners bring everyone back for another run next year. Doomsday would be to win the whole shebang and again kick the best players to the curb. Presumably new owner Jeffrey Loria knows this and, despite Huizenga's continued stranglehold on the team's finances (he owns Pro Player Stadium, for one, and doesn't exactly give the Marlins a break on the rent), won't repeat the mistakes of 1998."

• • •

Nothing leaves a manager more open to second-guessing, as we've been reminded this postseason, than whether or not to remove a pitcher. The latest installment of Steven Goldman's Pinstriped Bible has some words of wisdom from the man with the most World Series wins of anybody:
So that Grady Little and Dusty Baker can avoid staircase moments in the future, here are the seven best things Casey Stengel said to a pitcher who didn't want to leave the game:

7. To Tracy Stallard, 1963: "At the end of the season they're gonna tear this place down. The way you're pitching, that right field section will be gone already."

6. To Roy Parmalee, who had just been struck by a line drive: "Make out like it's your pitching hand. I want to get you out of here gracefully."

5. Asked by a pitcher why he had to come out: "Up there, people are beginning to talk."

4. To Tug McGraw, who said that he got the batter out the last time he faced him: "Yeah, I know, but it was in the same inning."

3. To Ray Daviault, who said he had made a perfect pitch: "It couldn't have been a perfect pitch. Perfect pitches don't travel that far."

2. The pitcher said he wasn't tired: "Well, I'm tired of you."

1. To Walter Beck, who wouldn't leave on Stengel's second trip, July 4, 1934: "Give me the damn ball, Walter.
A smart man, that Casey.


Lather, Rinse, Repeat: Dandy Andy Draws the Yanks Even

Stop me if you've heard this one before. The Yankees, with their backs to the wall after dropping the opening game of the Series, drew to even behind a stellar pitching performance from Andy Pettitte. Sunday night's game followed the pattern that the Yanks have set this postseason, as Pettitte survied a shaky start to twirl a six-hitter, coming within one out of a complete-game shutout.

The night started for the Yanks as thoughtheir luck with Andy Pettitte might have finally run out. Working on three days' rest, the big lefty spent fifteen pitches and went to full counts on the first two Florida Marlins hitters, with Luis Castillo legging out an infield single to Derek Jeter after Juan Pierre grounded out. At this rate he wouldn't last -- a prediction which looked even more solid as he went to 3-0 on Pudge Rodriguez. But Pettitte nibbled his way back into the at-bat, spotting a fastball low and over the outside corner which Pudge thought was ball four, and then getting a swinging strike. On his 21st pitch of the inning, Pettitte got Rodriguez looking while Castillo, running on the pitch, got a late break from first. Jorge Posada fired to Alfonso Soriano at second, and Castillo was out by so many feet he didn't even bother to slide. A huge break for the Yankees.

They went to work on Mark Redman, who was also working on three days' rest. Tim McCarver and Joe Buck pointed out before the game that Redman relies on his changeup and isn't afraid to pitch from behind in the count, but when he walked Soriano to start the game, he seemed to be taking his own scouting report a little too far. After all, that was only Sori's second walk of the postseason. Derek Jeter bunted foul twice, then looked ridiculous striking out on a hellacious curveball. Two pitches later, Redman picked Soriano off of second. But his third pitch to Jason Giambi -- back in the three hole after two games down at #7 -- kept the inning alive when he plunked the big slugger in the ribs, and Bernie Williams followed with a single. Redman then went to 3-0 on Hideki Matsui, and tried to sneak a courtesy strike over the heart of the plate. Godzilla surprised everybody by swinging and crushed the ball, driving it over the "8" in the 408-foot sign in dead centerfield for a three-run jack, a huge lift for the Yankees. Watching the game, my girlfriend and I paused the TiVo after the inning for a quick rendition of Blue Oyster Cult's "Godzilla":
With a purposeful grimace and a terrible sound
He pulls the spitting high tension wires down

Helpless people on a subway train
Scream bug-eyed as he looks in on them

He picks up a bus and he throws it back down
As he wades through the buildings toward the center of town

Oh no, they say he's got to go
Go go Godzilla,
Oh no, there goes Tokyo
Go go Godzilla!
I've been waiting all year to do that... Anyway, Pettitte took the mound in the second inning a much more confident pitcher; backed by a 3-run lead, he cruised through the inning on five pitches, and from there he never looked back. The Yanks added another run in the second when Nick Johnson bunted his way aboard with one out and then Juan Rivera laced a double to leftfield. The Fish relayed the ball to try to get Johnson at home, and while the throw was well up the first base line, Pudge then fired to third base, where umpire Ed Rapuano called Rivera out. Replays appeared to show Rivera reaching the bag before third baseman Mike Lowell's tag, but this was hardly the only questionable call the umps made all night.

Pettitte continued to cruise, striking out the side in the third. Meanwhile, the Yanks chased Redman after he put runners on first and second with one out in the third. Rick Helling arrived and escaped trouble on a Matsui fielder's choice and a Posada strikeout. But he found more trouble in the fifth as Johnson hit a one-out single up the middle and then Soriano drilled a two-out homer to left for a 6-0 lead.

From there it was more or less academic. Through six innings, Dandy Andy had allowed only the two infield hits by the Marlins' speedsters, but he allowed a leadoff single to Pudge to start the seventh. The next play was the most controversial of the game, however. Miguel Cabrera fouled a ball off of his left foot which rolled to Yankee third baseman Aaron Boone, but the umps missed the contact of the ball with his foot, and the Yanks went around the horn to complete a surreal double-play which had Rodriguez and Cabrera stopped in their tracks -- a lousy call that should have been common sense; I mean, anytime you see a topped ball spinning down to third like that, it's not hard to assume that it hit off of the batter first. But Rapuano, who would have had the best angle to make a call in the Marlins' favor, did not. Derek Lee nearly took Pettitte out of the yard on the next at-bat, but Rivera ran down the ball at the warning track to end the inning.

Pettitte carried his shutout into the ninth. He induced Pierre to ground out, then gave up a single to Castillo before retiring Mike Redmond, who had replaced Ivan Rodriguez behind the plate, to fly out. Cabrera hit a tough grounder down to Boone, which the charging Yankee third baseman mishandled for his second error of the game. Lee singled to score the run, ruining Andy's shutout and ending his night just one out shy of the complete game. Boone's hangdog expression while the infielders met on the mound seemed to say it all, but Pettitte slapped him with the glove as if to say, "Forget it." Jose Contreras came on to face Mike Lowell, who with one swing of the bat could pull the Fish back to within two runs. But Conteras got Lowell to ground to -- who else? -- Boone, the third baseman had put his gaffes behind him, and he fired to second for the force and the ballgame. Series tied.

With his 13th postseason victory, Pettitte tied John Smoltz as the all-time leader and raised his stock even more as the Yanks' money pitcher. The lefty was coy in his postgame interviews about sticking around, but it's clear to both him and the Yanks that this October run has placed him high on George Steinbrenner's to-do list this offseason.

So again, a series heads out of town with both teams having something to hold their heads up about -- the Marlins for garnering a split on the road and the Yanks for salvaging their momentum. Lather, rinse, repeat. The series heads to Huizenga Blackmail Stadium, where the Fish throw ace Josh Beckett against Mike Mussina. I'll have a closer look at the series thus far prir to the game.

Sunday, October 19, 2003


Yesterday's Papers are Today's Fishwrap

The New York Yankees apparently didn't get the memo: the World Series started on Saturday night, with or without them. But could they be blamed for a tardy arrival after the dramatics of their victory on Thursday night? 56,000 fans at Yankee Stadium didn't seem to think so, not as they mustered up more bile for pregame video highlights featuring Pedro Martinez and the Boston Red Sox than for the Yanks' current opponents, the Florida Marlins.

Still weary from Thursday's late-night celebration, I felt little of the previous week's intensity on my way to the Stadium. There were no teal caps on the 4 train intermingled with the midnight-blue Yankees regalia, no "19-18" sing-song taunts, no awkward sardine-can twisting. Compared to the American League Championship Series, this felt like just another ballgame, except everybody was talking about the Red Sox in the past tense.

My friend Issa and I arrive to find the mood at the Stadium still October-festive; the bunting was hanging, the giant flag made its appearance in centerfield, and the F-14s still flew overhead -- only a few feet over our heads, it seemed from Section 3, Row P of the Tier Reserved section. And half the fans proudly wore their tickets around their necks on lanyards. One elderly woman had several dozen World Series ticket stubs, dating back to who knows when -- Mantle, if not Ruth -- laminated and stitched to a navy-blue cape. Collectively, we Yankee fans had been here before. And we knew what to expect -- the Yanks had won ten straight World Series games at the House That Ruth Built dating back to 1996.

Which isn't to say everyone in the Stadium was a Yankee fan. Immediately to my left were a pair of ditzy young women who joked that they were afraid of falling out of the upper deck. As I gleaned from the thirty-seven cell phone calls the one next to me made throughout the ballgame, they were apparently from Chicago, and though they were mourning the Cubs, they'd somehow fallen in with the Marlins' young pitchers. Uh-huh. "If you're so close with them," I felt like asking," how did you get such great seats eight rows from the top of Yankee Stadium?" More on them later.

With the Yankee staff in slight disarray after its all-hands-on-deck performance on Thursday, David Wells drew the nod for the Series-opening start. The Marlins rotation was in a bit of a state as well, so manager Jack McKeon tabbed Brad Penny, who'd been rocked in both of his October starts but had pitched reasonably well out of the bullpen.

Penny quicky got some backing from the Marlins' small-ball offense. Speedy Juan Pierre drag-bunted David Wells' second pitch past the bulky pitcher, and by the time the ball rolled to second baseman Alfonso Soriano, Pierre had himself a single. Luis Castillo quickly followed with a bloop hit to rightfield, with Pierre taking third. Ivan Rodriguez smacked Wells' first pitch to centerfield, deep enough to score the run, as the Yankee Stadium crowd collectively muttered. Five pitches into the ballgame, they were down 1-0.

Wells settled down, retiring Miguel Cabrera on a popup and striking out Derek Lee to end the inning as the crowd roared its approval. What was one run to overcome against the Marlins after Thursday night's heroic rally?

The Yanks got off to a fast start in the bottom of the inning. Alfonso Soriano reached on an infield single to shortstop Alex Gonzalez, and stole second on the next pitch -- a bold move given catcher Rodriguez's reputation behind the plate (though it should be noted Pudge corraled only 33% of opposing runners this year, compared to 49% for his career). Penny struck out Nick Johnson, however, and the Yanks failed to bring home Soriano.

The Marlins threatened in the second, with Jeff Conine and Juan Encarnacion stroking back-to-back one-out singles. But Gonzalez hit a one-hopper to third baseman Aaron Boone, and Thursday night's hero tagged the bag to force Conine before firing across the diamond to complete an inning-ending double play.

The Yanks evened the score in the third. Number nine hitter Karim Garcia blooped a 2-0 pitch into leftfield which Cabrera muffled on the hop, and Garcia took second. Soriano failed to move the runner over on a grounder to shortstop, but Johnson walked, and then Derek Jeter stroked a single up the middle to score the first Yankee run, with Johnson taking third. Bernie Williams failed to score him, however, and then with Hideki Matsui ahead in a 2-1 count, Johnson was inexplicably picked off of third base to end the inning.

All the more frustrating was that Matsui opened the fifth with a single, followed by a Jorge Posada walk. But Jason Giambi -- still in the seventh spot in the order after a two-homer game from down there on Thursday -- grounded into a rally-killing double-play. Boone failed to salvage Matsui's advancement to third, grounding out to end the inning.

Wells cruised into the fifth having retired seven straight, but he threw three straight balls to Conine to open the inning. Though Wells fought back to a full count, Conine wriggled free with a walk. Encarnacion singled, and then Gonzalez laid down a perfect sacrifice bunt to put both runners in scoring positon.

The next play reminded the 56,000 fans in attendance that it's possible to run the complete spectrum -- from the new Mr. October to boneheaded goat -- in less than 48 hours. With the infield drawn in, Pierre lined a single through the hole between Jeter and Boone. Conine scored easily, but as Encarnacion headed home, Boone cut off a strong peg from Matsui and fired across the diamond to try to hold Pierre, conceding the run. I haven't seen the replays, but to a man, the announcers and the Yanks seemed to feel that Encarnacion might have been out had Boone thrown home instead, or even let the ball go through. Instead it was now 3-1 Marlins. Only Wells seemed willing to let Boone off the hook; after the game, he remarked, "Instinct, that's all it was. He cut off the ball. If you look on TV, you second-guess. But you can't second-guess.''

By this time, the two women next to me were absolutely pickled; they'd been double-fisting Arbor Mist wine coolers, Strawberry White Zinfandel -- a combination I'm reasonably sure ended up on my shoes the last time I tasted it. After passing by us for the third or fourth time to go to the ladies room (they were still afraid of falling over, but by now the reason was more clear), these erstwhile sorority chicks "graduated" to double-fisting Smirnoff Ices. This got Issa and me laughing as we speculated on who would be holding whose hair when the other one barfed later. These gals were in for the World Series of Girly Drink-Induced Stomach Pain. Meanwhile, we had bonded with the Yankee fans around us. A chatty fortysomething Chicago native named Scott regaled us with a ribald tale of being flashed by a teenage Derek Jeter fan at a day game, but he disappeared mid-game to catch his brother's 40th birthday. An orange-haired woman with a nose-ring bought us a round of beers, as if to apologize for her husband's annoyingly repetitive and cryptic cheers -- "Hot Pocket! Immediately!" and "Fish! Fish! Got my Wish!" were the biggest groaners -- and we returned the favor a few innings later.

Back to the ballgame. Bernie Williams cut the gap in half in the sixth inning, smashing a Penny pitch over the rightfield wall for a solo homer. The shot was his 18th postseason dinger, tying Reggie Jackson and Mickey Mantle -- pretty fair company. Matsui followed with a single which chased Penny in favor of Dontrelle Willis, the Marlins' rookie pitching sensation. Willis had a hot enough first half (9-1, with a 2.08 ERA) to make the All-Star team, but he faded in the second half, and his October had been game but grisly --12 runs allowed in nine innings.

But the Willis who came out of the pen was the one I'd tabbed as a potential sleeper in my quick pre-Series analysis, and he took care of business. Matsui was erased on a fielder's choice, and then Posada, much to everyone's surpise, stole second. But the lefty, who almost lost Giambi after getting him 0-2, induced the struggling Yankee slugger into a groundout to Gonzalez. Damn.

Willis retired the next five hitters as well, but he left the door open for the Yanks in the eighth. Back-to-back two-out singles by Williams and Matsui put runners at the corners, inducing McKeon to summon Ugueth Urbina. The Marlins closer rung up Posada looking to escape the jam.

Wells had yielded to the bullpen after seven gritty innings, and Jeff Nelson nearly widened the lead. A one-out walk to Cabera was followed by a Lee single, but Mike Lowell's fly ball to rightfield wasn't deep enough to score the run, and Nellie escaped by getting Conine to pop out foul.

The Yanks gave it one last gasp in the ninth. Giambi finally weighed in with a positive contribution, walking to lead off the inning and then yielding to pinch-runner David Dellucci. Boone flied out, but pinch-hitter Ruben Sierra walked, putting the tying run in scoring position. Next up was Soriano, who's looked lost with runners in scoring positon since the Red Sox came to town. Sori actually had a good at-bat, coming back from 1-2 to draw the count full as Urbina couldn't tempt him away from the plate. But Ugie took advantage of Sori's new-found discipline, and struck him out looking. Nick Johnson got ahead of Urbina 2-1, but on the fourth pitch he popped one to Pierre in centerfield, and just like that, the Marlins took a 1-0 lead in the 2003 World Series and handed the Yanks their first home loss in the Series since October 21, 1996.

So now the Yanks need to call upon their Game Two specialist Andy Pettitte to even the series. Twice before during this October run, the Yanks have lost the opening game of the series, but Pettitte's strong efforts have enabled them to even things out. He's been the stopper for awhile, winning ten straight decisions following Yankee losses. The hitch this time is that Pettitte is only on three days' rest. The Yanks can take some solace in the fact that Andy has done pretty well in those situations (2-1, 3.71 ERA in four starts, according to Fox) and that he controls the running game very well, which might help them counteract the Marlins' small-ball tendencies

They'll be facing Mark Redman, who's got only three days of rest under his belt as well. But Redman threw only 69 pitches as the Marlins' Game Seven starter in the NLCS, and was hit hard for five runs in three innings. The Yanks will have to treat him similarly, or they'll find themselves in an 0-2 hole as they head to Florida, with Thursday's heroics looking like so much fishwrap.


June 2001   July 2001   August 2001   September 2001   October 2001   November 2001   December 2001   January 2002   February 2002   March 2002   April 2002   May 2002   June 2002   July 2002   August 2002   September 2002   October 2002   November 2002   December 2002   January 2003   February 2003   March 2003   April 2003   May 2003   June 2003   July 2003   August 2003   September 2003   October 2003   November 2003   December 2003   January 2004   February 2004   March 2004   April 2004   May 2004   June 2004   July 2004   August 2004   September 2004   October 2004   November 2004   December 2004   January 2005   February 2005   March 2005   April 2005   May 2005   June 2005   July 2005   August 2005   September 2005   October 2005   November 2005   December 2005   January 2006   February 2006   March 2006   April 2006   May 2006   June 2006   July 2006   August 2006   September 2006   October 2006   November 2006   December 2006   January 2007   February 2007   March 2007   April 2007   May 2007   June 2007   July 2007   August 2007   September 2007   October 2007   November 2007   December 2007   January 2008   February 2008   March 2008   April 2008   May 2008   June 2008   July 2008   August 2008   September 2008   October 2008   November 2008   December 2008   January 2009   February 2009   March 2009   April 2009   May 2009   June 2009   July 2009   August 2009   September 2009   October 2009   November 2009   December 2009   January 2010   February 2010   March 2010   April 2010   May 2010  

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Subscribe to Posts [Atom]