Monday, August 10, 2009

The Empire Strikes Back

A sweep over the Red Sox, especially post-All-Star break, always feels good. But there are few that are quite as gratifying as this one.

Especially after losing the first eight games of the season against them.

Yes Red Sox Nation, the Evil Empire has struck back, and it's done so with a vengeance.

CC Sabathia gave the Yankees exactly what they needed coming off Friday's brilliant 15-inning victory, pitching 7-2/3 dominant innings in a 5-0 victory Saturday and Andy Pettitte went toe-to-toe with Jon Lester before Johnny Damon and Mark Teixeira went back-to-back as the Yankees rallied to a 5-2 victory Sunday to secure the sweet, sweet four-game sweep.

They Yankees have a very impressive seven-game win streak going, taking games started by Mark Buehrle, Roy Halladay, Josh Becket and Jon Lester along the way. They have won 18 of the last 23 and 31 of 41. They are now 6-1/2 games ahead of the second-place Red Sox in the AL East. Boston, meanwhile, is tied for the wild card lead with the Rangers, 1-1/2 games ahead of the Rays.

Does that mean the division race is over? Not by any stretch. The Yankees still have 51 games to play, including two West Coast trips and six head-to-head with the Sox. Stranger things have happened, but consider this:

  • The Yankees have never failed to reach the playoffs when they've had a lead of at least 4-1/2 games this late into a season.
  • The Yankees road record this year is 30-25, second best in the American League to the Angels.
  • Since 2001, the Yankees' record in Seattle is 17-14 and their record in Oakland is 15-12. No, that's not dominant, but it does show that their West Coast struggles are primarily related to their struggles with the Angels. The Yanks have nine games out west with the Mariners and A's and just three with Halos remaining.
But this sweep has put them in great position.

Saturday the Yankees needed Sabathia to do more than just give them length. They needed him to dominate. Sabathia has been solid this year. He's eaten up innings, taken pressure off the bullpen and has generally given the Yankees good starts.

But the Yanks needed more. Coming off Friday's marathon, the bullpen was taxed and the bats were tired. CC needed to find that form that allowed him to dominated the National League last year and win the AL Cy Young Award the year before.

He did, carrying a no-hitter into the sixth before Jacoby Ellsbury broke it up with a single. Sabathia (12-7, 3.76 ERA) ended up allowing just two hits and two walks in 7-2/3 innings. He struck out nine and threw a whopping 81 of 123 pitches for strikes.

His dominance allowed the Yankees to grind out at-bats against Clay Buchholz and scratch out runs. Teixeira's RBI single gave the Yankees the lead in the third before Jose Molina (sacrifice fly in the sixth) and Nick Swisher (bases-loaded walk in the seventh) provided some breathing room. Derek Jeter finally put the game away with a Jeterian two-run homer to right in the eighth.

More importantly, Sabathia allowed most of the bullpen to rest and recover from its brilliant 7-1/3 shutout inning-performance from Friday, which should help in the next few days because Pettitte made sure to give the Yankees a third straight outstanding starting performance.

Pettitte had outdueled Halladay in his previous start and was being called upon again to deliver another stellar outing against another outstanding pitcher in Lester.

He was more than up to the task.

Though he struggled at times with his location, Pettitte finished very strongly and allowed just five hits and two walks in seven innings. He struck out four and threw 68 of 112 pitches for strikes.

In his five starts since the All-Star break spanning 33-2/3 innings, Pettitte is 1-1 with a 1.87 ERA, a 1.01 WHIP and 33 strikeouts. He has always been a better second-half pitcher and he seems to be following his career trends this year.

Meanwhile, Pettitte's outing meant Yankees starters have not allowed a run in 22-1/3 innings over the last three games, keeping the Red Sox bats stone cold. Boston did not have a hit with runners in scoring position over the last three games, going 0-for-17, including 0-for-5 Sunday.

And the Yankees needed Pettitte to be that good because Lester was just a brilliant, keeping the Yankees off the board until Alex Rodriguez's leadoff homer in the seventh broke open the scoring. Of A-Rod's 21 homers this season, 12 have either tied the score of given the Yankees the lead.

Lester ended up allowing just the one run on five hits in seven innings, while striking out seven and throwing 66 of 107 pitches for strikes.

And you figured he was going to be the hard-luck loser, only the wrong Phil pitched the eighth for the Yankees. Phil Coke, to the surprise of everyone, came out to bridge the game to Mariano Rivera. This was Phil Hughes territory, but there was Coke.

Initially I though he was out there to face Ellsbury, a lefty, before Hughes would come in. But after Ellsbury struck out, Coke stayed in, allowing a single to Dustin Pedroia before Victor Martinez ended the Red Sox's scoreless streak at 31 innings by crushing a belt-high, inside fastball into the stands in right to give Boston the stunning 2-1 lead.

And it was absolutely baffling as to why Hughes wasn't in there. He had thrown a total of nine pitches over two-thirds of an inning in the last two games. Joe Girardi's reasoning was that Hughes had pitched in four of the last five games and he wasn't going to put Hughes arm at risk by putting him out there again.

OK, look, I respect that stance and I understand what Giradi is saying. I'm just not sure that I buy that given Hughes' very light workload in the previous two games.

Still, it worked out because the Yankees are clearly not the same team they were in April, May and June. They are a confident bunch and a one-run deficit, especially at home will not phase them.

An neither did flame-throwing Daniel Bard.

With two outs in the bottom half of the inning, Damon turned on one of Bard's blazing fastballs and put it into the bullpen in right to tie it. Teixeira followed with a moonshot to retake the lead. It was the sixth time this season Damon and Teixeira have gone back-to-back.

The Yankees then made sure to ended any Sox hopes of a comeback by tacking on two more on a single by Swisher, leaving it to Mo to finish it off for his 32 save and 28th straight. I guess the Sox don't "own" Mo, afterall.

The Yanks are in great shape. At 69-42, they have the best record in the majors, but they still have work to do. There can be no letup because let's say they go 26-25 over their last 51, the Sox would need to go only 33-19 to tie -- and that is very doable for a team as talented as Boston.

The question is whether Boston can snap out their tailspin soon. The Sox have not won any of the nine series they've played since the break against teams over. 500 and their schedule for the rest of the month is not easy, featuring series against the Tigers, Rangers, Yankees and White Sox.

If the Sox are not careful, this might turn into tailspin similar to 2006, when they didn't even make the playoffs.

And I can think of nothing sweeter.

Runners In Scoring Position
2-for-12 (.167)
1-for-8 (.125)
272-for-1,045 (.260)
First Half
217-for-819 (.265)
Second Half
56-for-224 (.250)
Since A-Rod's Return May 8
207-for-773 (.268)
Vs. Red Sox
20-for-126 (.159)

Up Next
Monday vs. Jays, 7:05 p.m., YES
Marc Rzepczynski (1-3, 3.74) vs. Sergio Mitre (1-0, 7.50)

If the Yankees lose tonight, it might be tough to tell whether it was because of a letdown or because Mitre is pitching. Ugh. Prediction: we see Chad Gaudin by the third inning and Mitre ends up losing his spot in the rotation.


Dave said...

You do realize you guys lose in the third movie, right? :)

Aviv said...

Just playing into John Henry's and Red Sox Nation's fantasy ;)

Anonymous said...

You should check your facts next time. If you watched last year you would know that Pettitte is most definitely not always a better second half pitcher.

Aviv said...

I love these geniuses who are too gutless to leave their names.

Andy Pettitte has a career record of 113-52 post-All Star break. That is second in the majors among all active pitchers to Johan Santana. Pettitte is 111-81 in the first half. Yes, he struggled in the second half last year, but that appears to be the exception that proves the rule. So Mr. Anonymous, put those facts in your crack pipe and smoke them.

Dave said...

I knew that was coming... :)

Aviv said...

Dave, do people not get the distinction between the phrases "has always been a better second-half pitcher" and "has always pitched better in the second half"? The former is an observation about his career trends, that he performs better in the second half, an observation that is not an absolute, but is supported by the facts above. The latter is a comparison of Pettitte's year-to-year record, is an absolute and therfore incorrect. Pettitte has always been a better second-half pitcher.

Dave said...

It's grammar. They don't teach it enough in schools anymore. I weep for the future.