(AND LAY OFF THE COFFEE, COFFEE JOE)
The postseason’s many off days have frequently been observed to allow shenanigans with starting pitchers that wouldn’t be possible in the regular season, such as reducing the rotation to three pitchers as the Yankees are doing in the ALCS.
Less often remarked upon is the freedom it allows a coffee-achiever/manic manager to run pell-mell through his bullpen, pulling out relievers like they were blades on a Swiss Army Knife — Mariano Rivera is the bottle-opener, Phil Hughes is the screwdriver and Alfredo Aceves is the one whose function you’re not quite certain of. If a manager acted that way in the regular season, he’d burn out his bullpen in about a week.
Thanks to the schedule, Joe Girardi has had the freedom to ignore questions of fatigue and can make changes on a whim, or at the command of a black binder that suggests you ignore what’s happening right in front of you in favor of oracular advice in the form of head-to-head data and scouting reports. In the case of the former, the samples are so small as to be meaningless, and as to the latter, whatever Howie Kendrick’s preferences are insofar as whether he likes fastballs better than curveballs or boeuf bourguignon to Lobster Thermidor, his interactions with David Robertson have been so limited that all you really have is a theory along the lines of, “If a tiger fought a lion, we believe the tiger would win,” or “In our prior experience we have seen that when sodium hits the water, things go boom, and we believe that Robertson is sodium and Kendrick is water.”
It’s speculation. There’s no fact behind it, just inferences. You can’t know if those inferences are correct until you test them. Girardi opted not to, and in a situation where he had the platoon advantage all along. Unless Aceves is harboring a specific pitch that we’ve not yet heard of — The Klingon Ball? The High ‘n’ Tight Hemingway Paragraph? The Astro Orbiter? — and Kendrick has been seen to wet himself at the sight of the Klingon Ball, there is no advantage that Aceves could have had over Robertson to justify the switch.
In fairness to Coffee Joe, we don’t know would have happened had he stuck with Robertson. Perhaps Kendrick would have hit the ball to the moon and the game would have ended right there. It could be that the manager’s hunch was correct and Aceves didn’t execute. What we do know is that Robertson was doing a fine job, has done a fine job, and that learning to trust him is a big part of this manager’s and this team’s future. If Hughes rejoins the rotation next year, Robertson could be your eighth-inning guy, and no reason that he shouldn’t be.
The Robertson/Aceves switch, and the Damaso Marte/Phil Coke switch earlier in the game, or all of the hectic pinch-running (which has not availed the Yankees and has actively hurt them) are also symptomatic of a manager who is managing too much in the moment and not thinking about what will happen if it turns out he needs the player he just chucked away. In particular, he seems to have forgotten that Brett Gardner is not just a runner but a full-function player. Since Eric Hinske is not on the roster, he’s the closest thing the Yankees have to a competent hitter on the bench. Because of the way he’s been used, the Yankees have been forced into having Freddy Guzman, Jerry Hairston, and Francisco Cervelli hit in key spots and potentially lost an extra inning of work from Rivera because they gave up the DH to replace Johnny Damon on defense.
This is the opposite of good managing. For the rest of the series, Girardi might better focus on imparting some of his high-caffeine mojo to his hitters, who haven’t had a hit with a runner in scoring position in the last two contests. The speed of the runners on base matters not a bit if the next three guys make outs and that is exactly what’s been happening. Alas, this aspect of things might be out of Coffee Joe’s hands.
YESTERDAY, CC SABATHIA SEEMED SO FAR AWAY
BUT OBJECTS IN THE MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR
As for today’s matchup, when the three-man rotation concept was first floated, I brought up Luis Tiant in the 1975 World Series. El Tiante, who had been just so-so in the regular season that year but was nonetheless the team’s ace, had a week to get ready for Game 1, and he pitched a five-hit shutout. He pitched Game 4 on three days’ rest and was just good enough, holding the Reds to four runs in nine innings as the Red Sox won 5-4.
After Game 5 there was rain, which meant that Tiant got to pitch Game 6 after a five-day layoff. He shut out the Reds for four innings, but they broke through for three runs in the fifth, two in the seventh, and one more in the eighth. Given the long rest, the issue wasn’t fatigue, but familiarity — the Reds had seen all of Tiant’s tricks and were ready for them (they would go on to lose the game in extra innings on Carlton Fisk’s famous home run).
Obviously the Yankees don’t want this series to go seven games, and if Sabathia pitches well tonight it might not have to, but they have an extra reason to hope that it does not — a third helping of Sabathia might prove to be too much of a good thing.
This was one for the ages, a nail-biter all the way through, a game with clutch failures and successes, controversial moments. As I write this, the game has been over for about an hour and I don’t feel like I’ve absorbed all of it; I feel like I should watch it again right away, like a great movie you need to go through one more time to make sure you caught all the important lines.
There were many reasons why the Yankees should not have won this game. The Twins reached base by hit, walk, or hit batsman 21 times, the Yankees only 10 times. The Twins stranded every runner in baseball history this side of Goose Goslin. If Kirby Puckett were still alive, they would have stranded him, too. Rickey Henderson in his prime could not have scored for the Twins on this particular night. Part of that is a reflection of the depth of the Yankees’ bullpen, which is undergoing a kind of trial by fire; some of it is bad luck for the Twins and good luck for the Yankees; a big bit of it might have been a blown call by an umpire.
Much of it, though, was purely magical, the culmination of stories long brewing in the Bronx. Alex Rodriguez had two big hits and looks so mellow that you expect to see him turning up at Bernie Williams’ next cool jazz concert sitting in on the pan flute. If Mark Teixeira’s excellent regular season hadn’t earned him his “True Yankee” badge, he won it tonight with his walk-off shot. Rodriguez and Teixeira hit their shots off one of the top two closers in the league and an up-and-comer who may soon aspire to that status, respectively. We also saw the arrival of David Robertson as a bullpen force to be reckoned with. No Edwar-dian flash in the pan, Robertson was on the verge of establishing himself as a late-inning alternative to Phil Hughes when elbow troubles halted his progress. After pitching out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam tonight, it seems likely he’s back on the path towards replacing Hughes in the eighth inning when the latter graduates (back) to the starting rotation next year. First, though, we may see more good things from this 24-year-old, a 17th-round pick of the Yankees in 2006.
So you had heroism, but you also had the Twins failing to execute. Last week, when I wrote up my hypothetical awards ballot, one reader took me to task in the comments for failing to include Ron Gardenhire. I’m not a Gardenhire fan, and we saw why tonight. Gardenhire has undoubtedly achieved something in posting a .547 record and five postseason appearances in eight years as Twins manager given just how little ownership supports that team. The Twins do not sign big free agents and they rarely make a big effort at the trading deadline (this year they did reach for Jon Rauch and Orlando Cabrera, though more was needed). The Twins try to mask their complacent approach by hyping themselves as paragons of fundamental baseball. Yet, when you see them in a big spot, they don’t carry through. Their defense shakes, they get caught up in one-run strategies, and they go home. The Twins should not have been expected to win this series against the Yankees, and they almost certainly will not. They should, however, be expected to win the games that they can win, and Friday night’s contest was one of those that was gift-wrapped for them. Instead, they ran into outs, threw away balls, and helped the Yankees stay alive.
A last note: in my pre-game entry, I challenged Joe Girardi to get Jose Molina out of the game as soon as possible so as to minimize the downside of using him. This he did at the first opportunity. Indeed, he used all three of his catchers, also pinch-running for Jorge Posada in the tenth. All credit to the Yankee skipper for making the obvious strategic calls. That sounds like a weak compliment, but most managers never get that far.
AND ONE MORE THING
Not meaning to jump on the now famously mal-informed TBS broadcast crew, but Ron Darling said that Nick Swisher was primarily a designated hitter and first baseman with the White Sox. In fact, he played 97 games in the outfield for the Sox, played first base 71 times, and did not DH once. Not ever. None. Indeed, Swisher has always been a fielder, DHing exactly 10 times in his career.
At this writing, the Angels are up on the Red Sox late. A Yankees-Angels ALCS sounds scary given the history between the two teams, but given seven games and home field advantage, the Yankees will take that series on pitching depth every time. Before I attempt to defend that statement, let’s see if we actually get there. Due to the glacial pace of these series, there’s a Marco Polo road-trip’s worth of off days before we’ll get any resolution.
ONE AND ONE
Friday was a sort of good Yankees day (great hitting, no pitching) and Saturday was a very bad Yankees day, which sounds like some kind of weird children’s story: “Jorge Posada and the Rumpy Grumpy Starting Pitcher.”
It does seem like Posada has had more than his share of disagreements with his starters this year, but in many ways there is a culture clash at work with the Yankees in a minor key way. The team has a new pitching staff. Few of the current pitchers — CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, Alfredo Aceves, Phil Coke, David Robertson, Chad Gaudin, Damaso Marte, and Sergio Mitre (that is, just about everyone except Andy Pettitte and Brian Bruney) — have much experience being Yankees and throwing to Posada. The veterans among them have their own way of doing things. The rookies may be headstrong or timid. Posada, one senses (at least from trying to talk with him in the clubhouse), may not be the most diplomatic guy in the world. You can see how this could lead to conflict on those days when defeat wants to be an orphan. Suddenly it’s not what the pitcher threw, but what the catcher called.
When it comes to an established veteran like Burnett, the final responsibility must be with him. He certainly has the standing on the Yankees to call his own game. It’s not important that he disagrees with Posada, only that he either shake Posada off until they come to an agreement (that is, doing it Burnett’s way) or Burnett throws Posada’s selection with confidence. An in-between approach — resignedly throwing Posada’s pitch — can lead to disaster, apparently what happened yesterday.
Perhaps, though, we need not delve that far to find the source of Saturday’s discord. Burnett has rarely been a consistent pitcher. There are days his control just doesn’t show up for work, one of the reasons he currently leads the American League in walks issued. This has been a career-long problem for Burnett, and blaming his catcher would be unfair given just how many catchers have received his pitches on days like Saturday. Note that Burnett did not blame Posada. We shouldn’t either.
SWISHER’S WEIRD SPLITS
If you average Nick Swisher’s 2008 road stats with his 2009 home stats, you get .198/.343/.309. Miserable. If you put last year’s home stats with this year’s road stats, you get .263/.363/.552. Brilliant. I have no further comment, except to say that if the fellow could just get his concentration down in both places, he could have a 40-homer season. Of course, that he hasn’t is why he was available to the Yankees for Wilson Betamax. As with Burnett’s occasional wild days, Swisher’s oddly bifurcated production represent the invisible hand of human psychology at work on the game.