Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Ghosts Are In The New House

During the epic Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series, Derek Jeter turned to Aaron Boone and told him not to worry. Jeter assured Boone that the Ghosts that had brought the Yankee so many improbable October victories would arrive in time to bring yet another win.

Friday, those Ghosts took up residency at the new Yankee Stadium.

Alex Rodriguez hit a tying, two-run homer in the ninth and Mark Teixeira earned the first playoff shaving cream pie with a leadoff homer in the 11th as the Yankees beat the Twins 4-3 to take a commanding 2-0 lead in this AL Division Series.

This is the type of playoff baseball Yankee fans had grown so accustomed to seeing during the late 1990s ... and it's so, so, so good to have it back.

The game was an absolute classic and a bit of everything: great pitching, clutch hitting, bone-head plays, poor umpiring, questionable managerial moves and, most importantly, a great ending.

Coming into the game, all the attention was focused on A.J. Burnett and Joe Girardi's decision to start Jose Molina at catcher. Girardi wanted to make sure he got a strong start out of talented, but inconsistent righthander.

Girardi got exactly what he wanted as Burnett was strong from the start and allowed just one run on three hits and five walks. He struck out six, threw 57 of 95 pitches for strikes and got very lucky in the fourth inning.

With two outs, Burnett hit Delmon Young and Carlos Gomez with pitches to put runners on first and second. Matt Tolbert then grounded a single to right that seemed sure to plate a run, but Gomez slipped around second and Nick Swisher threw in behind him to Derek Jeter waiting at second to apply the tag before Young could cross the plate. The game remained scoreless.

Meanwhile, the Yankees' offense just couldn't get anything going against Nick Blackburn, who carried a no-hitter into the fifth, when Robinson Cano singled to break it up. Blackburn ended up allowing one run on three hits and two walks.

And with every pitch Burnett and Blackburn threw, the tension mounted. Neither team was able to score until the sixth.

In the top half, Young walked with one out and stole second as Gomez struck out. Brendan Harris, pinch hitting for Tolbert, then rocketed a shot off the wall in left for a triple to give the Twins a 1-0 lead.

The Yankees, though, answered in the bottom half as Jeter doubled with one one before Johnny Damon walked and Teixeira flied out. That brought up A-Rod. Would Wednesday's two RBI singles prove to be a fluke?

Not this year. This October is shaping up to be all A-Rod's.

Rodriguez grounded a sharp single to left to bring in Jeter and tie it at 1.

It was now a battle of bullpens ... and questionable decisions.

Girardi brought in Joba Chamberlain, who allowed a hit in two-thirds of an inning before Girardi summoned Phil Coke to face Joe Mauer. Coke struck out Mauer, but in one inning, Girardi had used two bullets out of his bullpen. Mauer is a great hitter, but Joba's stuff has been electic, why not let Joba face Hughes there and save Coke until later?

Phil Hughes started the eighth with two quick out before running into trouble. Gomez walked and Harris singled to put runners on the corners. Nick Punto then brought in one with a single to center on a 2-and-2 hanging curve. Why Hughes is throwing a curve there is beyond me, but if he's going to try to break one off, he has to make sure he buries the pitch in the dirt. He didn't and he got burned.

Mariano Rivera relieved, but Denard Span greeted him with a soft single to make it 3-1, and fear that this series would head to Minnesota tied a 1 was creeping into Yankee Universe.

But the Ghosts were not about to let that happen. This is Yankee Stadium and it's October, when the improbable always seems to happen.

Closer Joe Nathan, who tied with Rivera for the AL Rolaids Relief Man Award this season, came on to try to close out the ninth for the Twins. Teixeira got things going with a single to bring up A-Rod.

Nathan missed with three sliders to start the at-bat and then on 3-and-1 threw a 94 mph fastball that A-Rod crushed into the bullpen in the right-center to tie it at 3.

After four postseasons of absolute misery and futility, A-Rod is off to an amazing start this year. In the two games, Rodriguez has four hits, one homer and five RBI, three of which came with two outs and the other two allowed the Yankees to tie the score.

A-Rod is quickly shedding his postseason choker reputation, and the bodes well for the Yankees' World Series hopes.

Then things got really interesting.

With one out in the 10th, Jorge Posada, who pinch hit for Molina in the sixth, singled. Pinch runner Brett Gardner promptly stole second and went to third on Nathan's errant pickoff throw. The Twins then walked Jeter intentionally and the Yankees were poised to end it. Damon, however, lined to short and, for some reason, Gardner was running on contact, resulting in an inning-ending double play and giving the Twins life.

Girardi then made a poor move. Alfredo Aceves had pitched the 10th. During the regular season, Girardi normally would let Ace pitch two or three innings in that spot. But in this game, he elected to bring in Damaso Marte to face lefties Joe Mauer and Jason Kubel.

The move nearly backfired, except the Yankees got some help when umpire Phil Cuzzi blew a call. Mauer lofted a fly ball down the line that Melky Cabera got his glove on in fair territory with the ball landing in fair territory, yet Cuzzi called the ball foul. It would have been a double. Between that call and the poor calls in the Red Sox-Angels series, this playoffs has had way too much poor umpiring. It's a shame.

Mauer ended up hitting a single and Kubel followed with another single before Girardi replaced Marte with David Robertson. Michael Cuddyer greeted Robertson with a single to load the bases with no outs and the Yankees were in trouble.

Robertson, however, got Young to line out to first and got Gomez to ground into a force out with Teixeira throwing out Mauer at the plate for the second out. Robertson escaped the jam by getting Harris to fly out to center to preserve the tie at 3.

That was the good news. The bad news was that Girardi had nearly exhausted his bullpen. With a day off today, Girardi could have afforded to go longer with both Joba and Aceves. Instead, he had just Chad Gaudin left out there.

The Yankees needed the game to end and end quickly.

The Ghosts answered their prayers in the bottom half, as Teixeira lined a 91 mph, 1-and-2 fastball from Jose Mijares that hit off the top of the wall in left and bounced into the stands.

The stadium erupted and rocked. Teixeira's teammates mobbed him at home. And Burnett delivered his special pie during the postgame interview with TBS.

This is how October at Yankee Stadium is supposed be: filled with Ghosts, drama and plenty of victories.

Runners In Scoring Position
4-for-12 (.333)
Game 2
1-for-4 (.250)
Game 1
3-for-8 (.375)
Regular Season
419-for-1,543 (.272)

Up Next
ALDS Game 3
Sunday at Minnesota, 7:07 p.m.
Andy Pettitte (14-8, 4.16 ERA; 2009 vs. Twins: 1-0, 5.40 ERA in 1 start)
Carl Pavano (14-12, 5.10 ERA; 2009 vs. Yankees: 0-0, 2.70 ERA in 2 starts)


Rebelyankeechick said...

Your analysis of Girardi's handling of the bullpen last night is dead on. I was surprised to see Marte come in, even with the lefthanders. What's the point of bringing Ace in if you're not going to leave him out there for a few innings in a tie game? Plus, Marte has been unreliable this year and I wouldn't have trusted him in such a close game.


Aviv said...

Thanks, Rebelyankeechick. I understand mixing and matching relievers with a one- or two-run lead, but in tied, low scoring game that had the potential to go to extra, I just feel that you need to get as many outs as possible from the relievers who can go more than one inning (Joba, Ace).

HeartyLarry said...

Nice post, Aviv. I think the ghosts are there, and they're helping, but they won't have moved until the Yanks bring home a series trophy. And it feels really good right now....

Aviv said...

Have faith, Larry. That World Series trophy is coming. The question is: Will you fly in for the parade down the Canyon of Heroes?