Sunday, October 18, 2009

Destiny Beckons

The doubters, the haters, even Dave, they all must be starting to believe now.

Destiny is beckoning. The Yankees will win World Championship No. 27.

After Saturday's epic, 13-inning victory in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series, can there be any doubt?

Macier Izturis' throwing error in the 13th allowed Jerry Hairston Jr. to score the winning run and earn some playoff pie as the Yankees defeated the Angels 4-3 at Yankee Stadium to take a 2-0 lead in this best-of-seven series.

Winning Game 2 was huge for the Yankees. In both the 2002 and '05 ALDS against the Angels, the Yankees had won Game 1 only to drop Game 2. That gave the Angels confidence heading back to Anheim, where the Yankees had struggled so mightily.

Had the Yankees lost Game 2 Saturday, then series would not have been close to over. Winning that game, however, radically changes the outlook of the series. Now it is the Yankees heading to California full of confidence, knowing they'll be in great shape if they take just one in Anaheim, though to be honest I wouldn't mind the Yankees winning out there just so they can dance on the Rally Monkey's grave as they celebrate the AL Pennant.

Just as importantly, the Yankees won a game in which the Angels, for a while, had begun to play the pesky, aggressive style of ball that has troubled the Yankees so mightily over the years.

This was a tremendous, dramatic game, full of twists and turns, great plays and crushing miscues, big pitches and and big outs. If this was a Game 7, books could be written about it.

Hairston pinch hit for Freddy Guzman to lead off the 13th and singled off Ervin Santana in his first at-bat this postseason. Brett Garnder moved him to second with a sacrifice before the Angels intentionally walked Robinson Cano to get to Melky Cabrera, who had three walkoff hits in the regular season.

Cabrera hit a grounder toward the hole between first and second that Izturis fielded cleanly, but instead of just getting the sure out a first for the second out of the inning, he tried to start a double play. He whirled, but didn't set himself and his throw sailed into left, allowing Hairston to easily trot home and set off a wild celebration that I think spilled over onto the Yankees' charter that headed to the West Coast.

But the Yankees wouldn't have gotten to that point if not for Alex Rodriguez and David Robertson.

Alfredo Aceves committed the mortal sin of walking leadoff hitter Gary Matthews Jr. with the scored tied at 2 in the 11th. The Angels immediately got to work as Erick Aybar sacrificed Matthews to second. Chone Figgins, who had been 0-for-18 in the postseason this year, the broke out of his funk, dunking a single into left that Johnny Damon fielded before Matthews even hit third, but lacked the armstrength to nail Matthews at the plate. Damon's throw was accurate, but way late and the Angels led 3-2 with their closer Brian Fuentes ready to come on.

The Yankees' deficit lasted all of three pitches as A-Rod fell into an 0-and-2 hole, but hammered Fuentes' third pitch, a 90 mph fastball, and sent it just over the wall in right to tie the score.

This is A-Rod's October. It was his third home run of the postseason, each one of them tying the score. The Yankee Stadium Ghosts clearly are smiling kindly on the Yankees' big slugger.

Aceves then got the first out of the 12th and Damaso Marte the second before Joe Girardi, aka Captain Hook, brought in Robertson. Jeff Mathis greeted Robertson with a double. Robertson then intentionally walked Izturis before striking out Matthews.

Robertson escaped more trouble in the 13th as Aybar reached on Cano's second error of the game to lead off. Figgins moved up Aybar with a sacrifice before Bobby Abreu, who went 0-for-5 in the game and is 0-for-9 in the series, was intentionally walked to set up the double play. Torii Hunter then grounded out with runners moving up to bring up the dangerous Vladimir Guerrrero.

With first base open, I wanted the Yankees to walk Vlad. I know he's not the same hitter he was a few years ago, but he's still dangerous. He's has no strike zone and can hammer any pitch he can get his bat on, something we saw in Game 3 of the ALDS, when he burned Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon.

The Yankees, however, chose to go after Vlad. After missing with a fastball to fall behind 1-and-0, Robertson blew a 92-mph heater past Vlad. He followed with a nasty curve just off the outside part of the plate that Vlad swung at and missed. Robertson then backed up that curve with another, making sure it was off the outside part of the plate and just off the dirt. Vlad swung, but could only ground out weakly to second.

This was Robertson's second big postseason outing. He also got the big outs in the 11th inning to win Game 2 of the ALDS against the Twins. He's earning the right to play an even bigger role in the Yankees' bullpen the rest of this postseason and next year.

The Yankees got off to fast start in this game, grabbing a 1-0 lead in the second, as Nick Swisher walked with two outs before Cano lined a shot into the gap in right for an RBI triple.

Derek Jeter made it 2-0 in the third with his 19th career postseason homer, a Jeterian shot that sent Jeter past Reggie Jackson and Mickey Mantle for third all-time on the career postseason homer list. Of course, there is the obligatory notd that all 18 of Mantle's homers were in the World Series.

The offense, however, shut down after that, getting runners on base against Joe Saunders, but failing to come up with any big hits. The Yankees went 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position and hit into double plays in the fifth, sixth and seventh -- and should have hit into another in the 10th, except umpire Jerry Layne chose an odd time not to grant the Angels the neighborhood play.

Saunders ended up allowing two runs on six hits and one walk in seven innings. He was brilliant, striking out five and throwing 57 of 105 pitches for strikes.

Still it appeared as if a 2-0 lead would be more than enough for A.J. Burnett, who was simply dominant through four innings. But that's the maddening thing about Burnett: you never know what you're going to get from inning to inning. And in the fifth, Burnett fell apart.

Izturis lead off with a ground-rule double and scored one out later on a single by Aybar. Burnett needed to buckle down there and limit the damage to just that one run. Instead he lost the strike zone and confidence, which led to this extra-inning saga.

Aybar then stole second, the Angels' first steal of the series, before Burnett hit Figgins with a pitch. Abreu followed with a fly out, but Hunter walked on a 3-and-2 pitch in the dirt to load the bases. Burnett got ahead of Vlad 1-and-2, but his next pitch was again in the dirt for a wild pitch, allowing Aybar to score the tying run before Vlad grounded out to end the torturous inning.

Burnett's line ended up looking good as he cruised through the sixth and into the seventh, leaving after Cano's first error of the game. Burnett allowed the two runs on three hits, two walks and two hit batters in 6-1/3 innings. But the reality is that Burnett has to do a better job when he finds himself in trouble. There is no way the second run in the fifth should have ever scored.

After that, Girardi again showed his tendency to overmanage with the bullpen in tie games. With a runner on first and one out in the seventh, Hook brought in Phil Coke, who walked Figgins before striking out Abreu. Hook then brought in Joba Chamberlain, who allowed a weak infield single to Hunter to load the bases before striking out Vlad.

Now Chamberlain is strong enough to go multiple innings. He was a starter for the entire season, afterall. He clearly could go more than two batters and with the score tied, letting Joba pitch the eighth would have been the prudent thing to do.

Instead, Girardi brought in Phil Hughes for the eighth. Hughes allowed a hit and another runner to reach on Jeter's error, but he was strong, throwing eight of nine pitches for strikes in getting the first two outs of the inning. But instead of allowing Hughes to finish the inning, Hook brought in Mariano Rivera, who retired Aybar on one pitch.

Rivera ended up pitching 2-1/3 innings allowing just one pitch and striking out two. It was Mo's longest outing since pitching three innings in that dramatic Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS against the Red Sox, but in this game, Rivera threw just 25 pitches, so it wasn't an overly taxing outing. Rivera will be fine for Game 3 Monday after today's off day to travel.

But just like in Game 2 of the ALDS, Hook ended up with just Chad Gaudin available in the bullpen. He got away with it again, but if doesn't stop trying to matchup in tie games, he's going to get burned.

Runners In Scoring Position
ALCS
3-for-20 (.150)
Game 2
0-for-8 (.000)
Game 1
3-for-12 (.250)
ALDS
6-for-17 (.353)
Regular Season
419-for-1,543 (.272)

UP Next
ALCS Game 3
Monday at Angels, 4:13 p.m., Fox

Andy Pettitte (14-8, 4.18 ERA; Postseason: 1-0, 1.42; 2009 vs. Angels: 0-2, 7.88 in 3 starts)
Vs.
Jered Weaver (16-8, 3.75 ERA; Postseason: 1-0, 1.23; 2009 vs. Yankees: 1-1, 5.59, 3 starts)

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