As the old saying goes, momentum in baseball is only as good as your next day’s starter. The Phillies have a very good starter going in World Series Game 5, so perhaps it is premature to say that the Yankees may have broken their opponent’s spine. Yet, the dramatic action of Game 4’s eighth and ninth innings, which wrapped an entire “Yankees Classic’s” worth of action into about 20 minutes, suggests that conclusion.
Let’s review. The Yankees took a 4-3 lead into the bottom of the eighth. CC Sabathia, looking a bit frayed around the edges, pitched just that much better than Joe Blanton. The fifth inning was particularly tough, with the Phillies putting two on with none out for Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and the deadly-to-lefties Jayson Werth. Sabathia induced pop-ups from Utley and Howard, and struck out Werth to end the threat. In many games, that might have been the end right there.
Regarding the Sabathia- Utley relationship: I am reminded of Don Mattingly vs. Don Aase, who was the Orioles closer for a couple of years during the center of Mattingly’s career. Aase was often a good pitcher, but he could do nothing with Mattingly, who went 6-for-7 with two home runs against him. After Mattingly hit his second ninth inning homer off of Aase in a year, Orioles manager Earl Weaver was asked if he would ever let Aase pitch to Mattingly again. “Not even to intentionally walk him,” Weaver said. It’s getting to that point with Sabathia and Utley.
Utley’s home run in the seventh chased Sabathia, so Joe Girardi bringing in Damaso Marte’s fresh arm to go after Howard. Marte again rewarded Girardi’s faith in him this series. The Yankees stranded two runners in the top of the eighth, and Girardi decided to roll the dice on a new eighth inning man… Firpo Marberry! Actually, with Werth due up, he went for Joba Chamberlain with Phil Hughes being too scary and David Robertson having left the stadium to pick up some Chinese take-out. Joba is right-handed and has pitched a good inning in this series, so the manager was entitled to his fantasies of 2007.
Chamberlain seemed set to pay those off, as the old Joba was suddenly back, back for perhaps the first time all year, pumping 97 mph fastballs at the Phillies hitters. Unfortunately, Pedro Feliz took one of those 97 mph fastballs and made a souvenir out of it. Joba came back to get Carlos Ruiz on off-speed pitches, striking out the side around the game-tying home run. Baseball is a punishing game. For a moment, Joba had turned back the clock, and yet he still was punished. It’s like something out of Greek myth.
That sets up the ninth. With the game tied, the Yankees finally got their first look at Brad Lidge, the lost-then supposedly-found closer. Lidge looked very tough in retiring Hideki Matsui and Derek Jeter, but then came Johnny Damon’s terrific, nine-pitch at-bat. As Lidge threw fastball after fastball trying to get the elusive third strike, you could see Damon getting his timing down. We’ll never know why Lidge didn’t go back to his slider in any of his last five pitches to Damon given that the fastball wasn’t fooling the left fielder. Damon finally singled to keep the inning alive. If Lidge wasn’t unnerved at this point, he surely was after Damon — who didn’t run much in the regular season (and why would you if you’re on base in front of Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez?) — promptly stole two bases on one play, one by taking advantage of the Phillies’ defensive alignment to swipe an unguarded third.
That was all it took for Lidge to turn into the pitcher who went 0-8 with 11 blown saves this year. He hit Teixeira, grooved a pitch to A-Rod for an RBI double, and couldn’t retire Jorge Posada despite getting ahead 0-2. By the time Posada retired himself on the bases, the Yankees were up 7-4. Now, here is where I think we find the broken spine. Girardi called on Mariano Rivera to close out the game. The Phillies have now seen Mariano more times than I’ve seen “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” That’s about a bajillion times, for those keeping score at home. Nonetheless, the Phillies did not battle, did not make it tough on the Yankees’ Father Time. They went out on eight pitches — two to pinch-hitter Matt Stairs, three to Jimmy Rollins, three to Shane Victorino. Some of that economy is due to the greatness of Mo, but it also, I think, reflected the mood of the moment, that this was too high a mountain to climb.
As I said at the outset, Lee is a terrific pitcher, and if the Phillies chose the better part of valor in the ninth inning, there is nothing in that to indicate that they won’t come out fighting in Game 5. These are, after all, the reigning champions. If they don’t get up off the mat, though, no one can blame them — they’ve had to overcome a great deal of adversity this year, much of it at the hands of Lidge and their manager’s loyalty to them. If this loss is one cut too many, it will be understandable. No team in the history of baseball has ever had to work harder to overcome one of their own relievers than the Phillies have had to work to overcome Lidge.
THE SHOT HEARD ‘ROUND THE CAMERA
I’m not sure how we ever had baseball without replay. I’m not sure how we can continue to have baseball without replay. Pennant races worth millions of dollars to the teams and a great deal of emotion to the fans are resolved on the whim of umpires — any time a team loses a race by one game, you have to ask, “Did they earn that, or did a blown call earn it for them?” And we have had World Series games decided by poor calls in the past, going back at least as far as the 1922 World Series between the Yankees and the Giants when umpires decided to call Game 2 for darkness in the middle of the afternoon. As far as pennant races altered by umpires, they go all the way back to the very beginning — just ask Fred Merkle. Wherever you are, Fred, we’re sorry.
Alex Rodriguez’s timely camera-shot would have been reviewed whether it occurred in the regular season or the postseason, but all calls should be reviewed. Baseball shouldn’t be a game that is sometimes accurately refereed and sometimes not. As I’ve suggested in previous installments, it wouldn’t have taken a booth umpire much longer than 30 seconds to change Rodriguez’s double into a home run, whereas there had to be a complaint by Joe Girardi, followed by a near-minyan of umpires conferring on the field, followed by the long march off the field, the review, the long march back on — what the heck is this, Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow? Baseball is famous for being a retrograde institution, but let’s get on with it already. Baseball games are slow enough without the March of the Penguins added for no good reason.
That said, the games aren’t too slow for instant replay properly handled. On Saturday, my Baseball Prospectus colleague Joe Sheehan wrote at Sports Illustrated:
The most common objection to this system is that it would cause delays, but both pro and college football have survived, in part by selling additional television ads during the breaks. Delays would happen, but the improvement in accuracy, especially on high-leverage, high-profile plays, would be worth the time investment. You may even save time by eliminating the long arguments and conferences that currently occur.
Actually, the best way to save time would be to have umpires vigorously enforce pace-of-game rules. Doing that would more than make room for the occasional replay. Batters don’t step out. Period. Batters don’t get time called when the pitcher is already in his wind-up. Period. The pitcher holds the ball more than a set number of seconds — less than it is now — then it’s a ball to the batter. Period. If the plate umpire or the base umpires can’t manage a ten-second countdown between pitches, then the aforementioned booth umpire can do it.
…There isn’t much in the way of deep analysis to do with Game Three. Andy Pettitte didn’t pitch well by his standards, but the offense helped him out, including Andy himself. Phillies pitchers were wilder than they’re accustomed to, both with walks and hit batters, and the Yankees finally got a look into the bullpen, and they saw that it was good — looking into it, that is, not the bullpen pitchers themselves. Nick Swisher came back to himself. Jorge Posada stranded a bunch of runners but got a key single. We’re still waiting on Melky, Robbie and Teixeira. Joba Chamberlain pitched his first solid inning in recent memory. Phil Hughes didn’t. Girardi seems convinced that Damaso Marte is back to his pre-injury, 2002-2007 form — I will never cease to be bugged that the Yankees were smart enough to sign Marte as a free agent (out of the Mariners system, where he was a starter), smart enough to move him to the bullpen and make something out of him, and dumb enough to trade him for Enrique Wilson, one of the worst hitters ever to wear a Yankees uniform, worst even when you cut him some slack for being a utility infielder.
When Hideki Matsui came up to pinch-hit for Chamberlain with two outs in the eighth, I said, “This is a kind of low-leverage situation to use Matsui in, but then at this point in the game, a high-leverage probably isn’t going to come up. Girardi might as well just go for it and hope for a solo home run.” Moments later, Matsui made the move pay off, giving the Yankees an extra bit of cushioning which would make Hughes’ failure to contain postseason superman Carlos Ruiz a bit less of a cause for tension. The only drag about THAT was that it momentarily pushed Girardi into Coffee Joe mode and he got Mariano Rivera into a game that he should have been kept out of.
On the topic of subjects for another day, if the Yankees are determined to keep just one from the expiring Johnny Damon/Hideki Matsui duo of imminent 36-year-olds, I’m beginning to wonder if the right answer isn’t Matsui, regardless of the roster limitations a pure DH brings.
BLANTON TO START GAME FOUR
This is how chess is played: the Phillies have a paper advantage on the Yankees in starters because Joe Blanton > Chad Gaudin, but CC Sabathia > Joe Blanton. Move and countermove. Of course, it could have been CC Sabathia ? Cliff Lee, but Charlie Manuel didn’t feel comfortable with that. Maybe with tonight’s loss he’ll rethink that decision, but I’ve not heard anything of the sort. Thus Sabathia goes on short rest, and he’ll have to perform to make the chess move good. It might not matter: in four career starts against the Yankees, Blanton is 0-3 with an 8.18 ERA. The last time was in June, 2008, so we probably shouldn’t become over-stimulated by this particular bit of trivia.
THE SECRET SAUCE
My pals at Baseball Prospectus have a little congeries of stats we call the Secret Sauce. Introduced in the book, Baseball Between the Numbers, to which your humble host contributed a chapter and a little page about the relationship between stats and Stephen King’s “Cujo,” the Secret Sauce ranks teams by how well they do in the three key areas that correlate to winning postseason games. As explained here by sauce-master Nate Silver, they are:
1. A power pitching staff, as measured by strikeout rate.
2. A good closer.
3. A good defense.
I won’t get into how these ranking are derived, because they involve some of those esoteric statistics that I suspect make many of y’all’s eyes glaze over. Still, we can appreciate what the rankings say by looking at some more commonplace measures. Here is how the likely postseason teams fare, in reverse order:
No. 20 PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
The Phillies have been strong in strikeouts, both in the rotation, where Cole Hamels and Joe Blanton have done their part, and particularly in the bullpen, but the pen has been a disaster overall, accounting for the team’s low ranking here. As of today, Brad Lidge and Charlie Manuel are still trying to figure out what the former’s role will be going forward, which is a problem given that the season is nearly over. You wouldn’t want to say that Lidge has gone Steve Blass on the Phillies, but six walks and two home runs per nine makes a compelling case that he has. The Phillies can at least take justifiable pride in their strong defensive infield of Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Pedro Feliz.
No. 13 TEXAS RANGERS
The Rangers, second in the American League in runs allowed (4.41 per game; the Mariners lead at 4.36), are third from last in strikeouts per nine innings, which suggests a lot of balls in play. The reason that this is a particularly bad thing in the playoffs is pretty basic: In a regular season game against the Baltimore Orioles, your team might fail to get a lot of strikeouts but nothing happens anyway, because when they hit the ball it goes “piff,” not “boom!” In the playoffs, where the best offenses are usually to be found, balls in play tend to do real damage. Note that AL starters are averaging 6.5 strikeouts per nine innings; Rangers starters are whiffing 5.6.
The Rangers have been solid on defense, with the second-best record in the league of turning balls in play into outs (that’s how they survive the weak strikeout rate). Frank Francisco has been effective, if not a lights-out closer. Neftali Perez’s crazy debut doesn’t enter into these calculations, but you can’t forget about him when talking about the Rangers’ end game.
No. 11 THE LOS ANGELES ANGELS OF ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA, USA
The Angels get knocked down on the power pitching angle, as overall they are a tick below average in strikeouts per nine, and in defense, which has been just average or a little below. Call it the Bobby Abreu Effect. Closer Brien Fuentes leads the AL with 40 saves but has also blown six, and right-handed hitters are slugging .462 against him. None of this is a reason to take the Angels likely, as Jered Weaver and John Lackey, combined with their fine offense, should be able to keep them in at least the first two games of any short series. Still, this is not Mike Scioscia’s usual flavor of team.
No. 10 ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
The Cardinals get strikeouts from starters Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter. The rest of the rotation, and even closer Ryan Franklin, allows the opposition to put more balls in play than is typical. Joel Piniero, who would be the third starter in any playoff scenario, gets by on exquisite control (just one per nine innings) and a high groundball rate. Franklin, formerly an unexceptional starter and reliever, leads the NL in saves with 37 and has a 1.67 ERA and it’s deserved — he’s actually done a good job of stranding inherited runners as well as keeping runners off base in the first place. He’s blown three saves all year long. While the bubble could burst at any time, particularly in October, at this point you have to take Franklin seriously. Cards’ defense has been problematic at times, especially at second base, where converted outfielder Skip Schumaker is making a game effort at competence.
No. 6 COLORADO ROCKIES
The Rockies are about average as National League strikeout rates go, in part because Jason Marquis and Aaron Cook drag down the numbers. Ubaldo Jimenez and Jorge de la Rosa do get batters to swing and miss. The bullpen has also been solid in the swing-and-miss department. The real problem right now is overall depth, with Cook and Huston Street injured. Both are supposed to be back ere long. One potential equalizer for the Rockies is former starter Franklin Morales who (shades of Phil Hughes) has moved into the pen and has been throwing bullets from the left side. When their park is taken into account, Rockies fielders have been solid if unexceptional. Street has converted 33 of 34 saves and has even held left-handed batters in check, a problem for him in the past.
No. 5 DETROIT TIGERS
The Tigers have allowed the third-fewest runs in the AL, just 4.5 per game. Their strikeout rate is roughly average, with only starter Justin Verlander, who leads the league with 230 strikeouts, really jumping out in that department. The Tigers have been an average to slightly above average fielding club, with few standout performances (Clete Thomas has been strong in right field, though he can’t hit like a right fielder) but no truly poor ones either, and overall they rank in the top half of the AL in turning balls in play into outs. Desperation closer Fernando Rodney has blown only one save all year, but walks too many batters for comfort against strong postseason lineups.
No. 4 BOSTON RED SOX
We begin with Jonathan Papelbon. We continue to the staff overall, which is tied with the Yankees for the league lead in strikeout rate, propelled by Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Daniel Bard and Papelbon. We conclude with a defense that has been surprisingly weak. The outfield has been defensively shaky, the infield has lacked a shortstop of any defensive quality until Alex Gonzalez came over, and Kevin Youkilis has had to play too much third base, not to mention a couple of scary games in left field.
No. 2 LOS ANGELES DODGERS
Joe Torre’s guys have perhaps the best defense in the game this year, which is a novel thought for those of us used to watching even Tommy Lasorda’s good teams juggle balls. They lead the NL in turning balls in play into outs, receiving fine defensive performances around the infield (though Orlando Hudson has not been at his best) and from center fielder Matt Kemp. Manny Ramirez is the exception that proves the rule. They are third in the NL in strikeout rate, an advantage that doesn’t wholly disappear when you start adjusting for park effects. Starter Chad Billingsley is whiffing eight per nine innings, lefty Clayton Kershaw 10, and closer Jonathan Broxton 13.6. It should be noted that the rest of the pen is not particularly intent on the strikeout, a possible vulnerability. Broxton has blown five saves in 39 chances, which is shaky by today’s standards.
No. 1 NEW YORK YANKEES
I probably don’t have to give you much detail here. The Yankees are tied for the league lead in strikeout rate, have the most reliable closer in the game, and ra
nk third in the league in turning balls in play into outs. The high rankings in all three categories boosts the Bombers to the top of this list.
None of the foregoing guarantees anything, but it’s a reassuring indicator. Historically, teams with large helpings of these qualities have gone far in October. The Yankees haven’t had all of the elements line up in the same place at the same time in quite a few years. In fact, the last time the Yankees came this close to the top of the Secret Sauce list, the year was 1998.