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.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

 

Start Spreading the News

After a night of revelry — I was a one-man dogpile — let's get straight to the opener of today's piece at Baseball Prospectus:
Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter may be the Yankees for whom the spotlight shines the brightest, but it was Hideki Matsui who did the dirty work on Wednesday night. Setting a single-game World Series record with six RBI, Matsui collected big hits in his first three at-bats to help the Yankees pounce on Pedro Martinez and the Phillies early, building up a 7-1 lead by the end of the fifth inning. As the Yankees did two nights earlier when they found themselves in an early hole, the Phillies made a game of it by summoning a brief hint of their offensive firepower, but it was too little, too late. For the first time since 2000, the Yankees are the World Champions.

Matsui, who punched a decisive solo homer off Martinez in Game Two, homered again in his first turn at-bat, this time following a Rodriguez walk which led off the inning (oh, those bases on balls) to give the Yankees a 2-0 lead. An inning later, with two outs, the bases loaded and Martinez's night going down in flames, he stroked a two-run single to widen the lead to 4-1. In the fifth inning, with one out, two on, and another Yankee run having crossed the plate, he greeted J.A. Happ with a two-run double to right-center to expand the lead to 7-1. I believe he also demonstrated his heretofore unknown prowess as a tenor by singing "God Bless America" during the seventh-inning stretch, but I could be wrong, as by that point I was busy counting the remaining outs on my fingers.

For his performance, Matsui was named the World Series MVP, becoming the first designated hitter ever to win the award. Though he made just three starts and 14 plate appearances in the series, his .615/.643/1.385 showing (8-for-13 with a double and three home runs) ranked as the Yankees' most potent offensive force. Their lineup had its share of complementary performances, including Derek Jeter (.407/.429/.519), Johnny Damon (.364/.440/.455 and the series' most memorable play, his mad dash to third base in Game Four) and of course the ghost-chasing Rodriguez (.250/.423/.550 and six RBI, including the Game Four winner), but it was Matsui who not only led the team with eight RBI but was the only Bronx Bomber to hit more than one bomb, or to collect more than one game-winning hit. His showing was somewhat bittersweet, as it came in what well may have been his final appearance in pinstripes given his pending free agency and the Yankees' need to clear the DH spot for the aging stars above his pay grade. It left absolutely no doubt that the man can be a viable component on a championship team, so wherever he winds up next, Godspeed, Godzilla.
I took a special pleasure in Matsui's showing, as on Wednesday's Toledo radio hit, I told host Norm Wamer that the Matsui-Martinez matchup was the key to the game given the pitcher's struggles with lefties. It didn't take long for that call to make me look smart, as Matsui and the rest of the Yankee lineup made Pedro's night a short one. The 38-year-old pitcher simply couldn't muster the magic he'd summoned in Game Two, getting significantly fewer strikes on both his fastball and his changeup.

Meanwhile, Andy Pettitte gave the Yankees a dogged effort on three days' rest, yielding just one run through the first five innings even as his strike zone was squeezed by home plate umpire Joe West. He gave up a two-run homer to Ryan Howard in the sixth before departing, but that marked the big slugger's only blast of the series, and it was the only one of the eight yielded by the Yankees' lefties which came with a man on base. His showing marked the third time this October that he gotten the win in a series-clinching game (matching Derek Lowe's 2004 run), the sixth time in his career that he'd done so, and the second time he'd done so in a World Series (1998 being the other occasion). Though he's benefited from a career spent amid the three-round playoff format, he leads all pitchers in postseason starts (40), innings (249), and wins (18), and his 3.90 ERA is a ringer for his career mark. I don't believe he's done enough to reach the Hall of Fame once those credentials are placed alongside the rest of what he's accomplished in his 15-year career — he's a Clydesdale, not a thoroughbred, lacking a Cy Young and a whole host of statistical achievements which identify the game's top starters — but the man's earned his five rings.

The real difference between the two teams, ultimately, came down to the man who closed the door on the Phillies, Mariano Rivera:
Consider how closely matched the overall performances of the two rotations were, regardless of the number of days' rest or the handedness, and the bullpens, minus the Sandman:
Split     IP   H   ER  BB  SO   ERA
PHI SP   36.1  32  21  11  36   5.20
NYY SP   34.1  28  19  20  33   4.98
PHI RP   15.2  17  10   7  20   5.74
NYY RP*  13.1  13   8   4  14   5.40 
Rivera    5.1  3    0   2   3   0.00
* Except Rivera
Mariano Rivera now has a 0.74 ERA across 133.1 postseason innings with a 107/21 strikeout to walk ratio and just two home runs allowed. He is the greatest closer of all time, and arguably the greatest postseason performer as well. The closers of each of the other seven teams which reached the 2009 postseason faltered at least once when the money was on the table, and those mistakes ultimately proved fatal. Rivera, as in three other World Series, was the last man standing. Along with Pettitte, Jeter and Posada — the "Core Four," they're called — he's now one of four Yankees to have earned seven pennants and five World Series rings dating back to 1996.
Old guard, new guard, it was all a gas watching the Yankees win. In doing so they vanquished a very strong and very special Phillies team, one which had been the first one since the 2000-2001 Yankees to repeat as pennant winers, and the first NL team since the 1995-1996 Braves to do so (an error I made in the article, acknowledged in the comments thread, identified the 1975-1976 Reds as such). One which, over the course of the past two Octobers, has given me a considerable amount of frustration as they steamrolled the Dodgers and stretched the Yankees nearly to the limit. As I wrote in the BP piece, it's easier to run across I-95 four times a night than get through the middle of that batting order.

So congrats to the Yankees, their organization and their fans, particularly to those of you who've followed their exploits via my work in this space and at BP. After writing to deadline for each of the Series' six games, I'm going to take a few days to catch my breath and dig into my annual winter workload, but you can rest assured there's plenty more baseball content to come from me during this offseason.

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Comments:
Congrats, Jay. I still recall joining you at a 2003 Yankee Spring Training Game and sitting behind a Japanese woman dressed in a Godzilla outfit to celebrate the arrival of Matsui. If only the Brewers were still in the American League!

Aaron, Jr.
 
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