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October 20, 2010

Playoff Prospectus

ALCS Game Four

by Christina Kahrl

Television ratings for the postseason are up, or at least they were for Game Three of the ALCS. You can wonder what that really means, of course. Maybe folks like TBS, and maybe the games and the matchups are a lot more interesting. And maybe, just maybe, what America is tuning to is baseball's answer to the WWE. That's because if they're dialing up diamond drama, they've been getting one Yankee smackdown after another.

If not for Ron Washington's hamfisted mismanagement of the eighth inning of Game One, we'd already be done. As I noted Tuesday night before Game Four, coming into the action A.J. Burnett had a little bit more going for him than you might initially anticipate if all you'd heard was the cacophony of concern in the Big Apple's media echo chamber. His performance against the Rangers on the season should have helped alleviate some of the fright-mongering accompanying the decision to use him. But loathe or merely tolerate the decision to start Burnett, a short leash was in order.

To his credit, Burnett was throwing in the mid-90s from the start of the action, looking very much in command as he dispatched the first six batters in order. But then he had very Burnett-y problems in the third, issuing a leadoff walk to David Murphy. With veteran moxie—I jest—Burnett plunked Bengie Molina after his wild pitch took the double play out of order. Not to be out-moxied, Washington had first baseman Mitch Moreland drop his first successful sac bunt in the bigs to move both runners up to second and third, going small ball and giving away an out to a weak starter at a time when he had his own starter's weaknesses to consider. This “worked” insofar as Elvis Andrus' grounder plated a run, with Michael Young's infield single plating another.

Burnett ran into trouble again in the fifth, putting three men on base, but escaping damage because of a double play. However, with the heart of the order due up in the sixth, and with the Burnett-bashing Murphy batting fourth in the frame, I was among the twitterati who anticipated the wisdom of a hook after five with a one-run lead. Joe Girardi didn't see it that way, and Burnett set about pitching his way back into danger, giving up his fourth baserunner in six batters with Vladimir Guerrero's leadoff single.

It's at this point that a combination of happy chance, the virtues of Rangers aggression accruing an outsized benefit, and Girardi's hyperactive tactical responsiveness decided the outcome. First came the happy accident for the Rangers: Nelson Cruz's grounder to third swapped in a better baserunner on a fielder's choice. So, when Ian Kinsler's loud out to center field on the next pitch was reassuringly run down by Curtis Granderson, Cruz did what you rarely see enough of, but which the Rangers to their credit did here—he tagged and took second base, easily. The contrast with the Yankees' decision to hold up Alex Rodriguez at third on a single to right field could not have been stronger; Girardi's club came away with a lone run from a bases-loaded, one-out situation.

So, with Murphy at the plate and a one-run lead and two outs, what did Girardi do? He walked the leading run to pitch to Molina, who homered on the next pitch delivered in anger. That's the sequence for Burnett: a fourth baserunner allowed in his last six batters, a fielder's choice, a hard-hit loud out, electively adding a baserunner to the mix for grins and a full pen, and a homer. Whatever vindication Burnett had achieved through five was washed away by Girardi's failure to let the batters tell him when his pitcher was done until they'd placed an exclamation point at the end of the sentence. That Girardi added a run to the tally just tacks on the indignity of doing harm where doing none should usually be a manager's first order of business.

These weren't the last mistakes in his defensive innings. Using Boone Logan against Josh Hamilton seems like a formula for failure, a case of matching power against power and getting burned Tuesday night as on Monday; that Hamilton homered instead of “just” doubling as he had on Monday shouldn't make too fine a point. But why, with a four-run lead and one last inning to come against a combustible Rangers pen, was Sergio Mitre pitching in the ninth when he'd warmed up before the game with Burnett and pitched the night before? That he was crushed should have been as unsurprising to those with memories of how the 1960 Yankees lost the seventh game in no small part because they asked Ralph Terry to stand up and sit down a few times too many before they finally got him into the game he would lose.

The problem is that Girardi also bollixed up his offensive innings. Walking out of the park with an equally exasperated Joe Sheehan after the game, we mused over what would have been better, pinch-hitting for designated Burnett mollycoddler Francisco Cervelli in the fourth with two men on and two out (Joe's point), or pinch-running Jorge Posada for the injured Mark Teixeira in the fifth (mine) to keep a better bat than Marcus Thames' in the third slot of a game that was far from over. My thought was that if you swap in Posada at that point and in that slot, whether you hook Burnett, at least that also frees up the ninth slot in the order for a better defender in right than Thames; stick in Austin Kearns and finally give him something to do in this series, because he's at least more glovely than Thames' frozen-footed brand of defensive indifference that helped make Guerrero's sixth-inning leadoff single possible. Conversely, to follow up on Joe's point and pinch hit for Cervelli in the fourth is a tactic any table manager would love—but so too would a real-world skipper like Earl Weaver, because he would start people for defense, and then exploit big-inning possibilities in-game, even if it meant sacrificing some defense.

As we know, Girardi did neither, because Girardi was busily doing nothing, apparently nothing beyond just hoping that something big and exciting on offense would just happen on its own. By the time Posada batted in this ballgame, the Yankees were down by four instead of one, and Thames-batting-third had created a nice, big, obvious place for Washington to use situational right-hander Darren O'Day in the eighth inning, which he did, to mixed effect—O'Day got Thames, then walked A-Rod, the man who had beaten him with a first-pitch single in Game One's ugly eighth inning. That was the best part of another ill-conceived eighth on defense, because the question of what Clay Rapada is for provided no happy answer, and letting Darren Oliver face an aging Lance Berkman now a few years removed from making reliable contact against lefties was successful owed much to Girardi's decision to use Thames on defense early and avoid using Kearns at all.

You can also wonder why Neftali Feliz was seemingly still warming up in the bullpen while the Rangers dismantled Mitre. At least here you might figure that Washington hadn't anticipated another trio of runs to truly put the game away in the top of the ninth, because using Feliz with a four-run lead would have made sense. Maybe there was a slow reach for the phone. But here again, you can also wonder why Feliz wasn't warming up earlier in the eighth, for use to help protect that four-run lead with the bases loaded. So now Feliz has been used to little point in Game Three and then warmed up and not used at all in Game Four. The way this series is going, this won't matter, but it's not a very good sign for the World Series if Washington's making a hash of using his best pitcher in potentially game-deciding eighth innings in the LCS.

Looking at Tuesday night's action, questions about the Yankees' roster design go begging for answers. What was carrying Kearns for, if he won't hit for Granderson or Berkman? Where's an extra lefty bat on the bench? Why carry both Mitre and Dustin Moseley and then repeatedly use Mitre? The Rangers have their own perplexity involving Rapada and too many specialists in the pen, an error hopefully corrected if they advance. But in general, looking at both of these rosters, you might wonder where the extra bats are, or if either skipper would know what to do if he had one. In the “compromise” of going from 12 pitchers during the regular season to 11 in the postseason, at least in this series you're left with an ugly assemblage of bench players you avoid and relievers you ought to.

However, we need to credit Washington and his team for the things that they're definitely responsible for, because they won them this critical 3-1 advantage in the series. Cruz's advancement to second on that fly to center in the sixth inning was the most critical play of the game, but we should also credit Washington with having a quick hook for Tommy Hunter after 80 pitches only got him into the fourth inning. If you want to talk about a talented young Texas player, talk about Derek Holland, because his freezing the Yankees through the seventh was what won the game on the defensive side of things.

The couple of runs Washington scrabbled after in the third mattered, in that lining up a pair of contact hitters behind Moreland provides possibilities for plating one or both; it's conservative, but defensible, because as we noted in Girardi's performance, the world isn't populated with new-age Weavers. Against these things, Hamilton's two homers were nice, but were the products of securing a lead already gained against pitchers he can beat in a game they shouldn't be facing him in at all.

Before much of this happened, there was plenty of initial in-game chatter about the ghosts of postseasons past—not Gabby Hartnett or Carlton Fisk, but Jeffrey Maier and Steve Bartman. Robinson Cano's third-inning homer involved a fan reaching and interfering with Cruz's glove as Cruz reached from fair territory. Maybe it deserved review, but at this point, the shrieking for reviews of every and all sorts have long since passed into self-satisfied, metastasizing, futile snark. Yes, it would be nice, and no, the powers that be don't really move at the pace of Twitter outrage. Whatever sunny pronouncements made about the industry's disinterest in replay made by Bud Selig at the All-Star break in July might get some worthwhile additional concern in November and December, in a rare opportunity for “might” to make it right. Certainly, Berkman's subsequent first-pitch drive to the right-field foul pole, initially called fair in an act of Men in Black self-immolation, proved that there's some hope the system can work, since the call was overturned and called what it was, a foul ball.

After the night's massacre had been brought to a successful conclusion, the points about replay seem much less pointed—those events that caused concern might have changed the outcome, but apparently were rendered moot. You can argue causation and suggest they might have encouraged subsequent actions and reactions; causation's a slippery little minx, after all. But in the face of so much managerial misconduct, the significance of operator error from the arbiters makes for just one more poor joke in a full-scale romping farce.

So now the Yankees are down three games to one, and to echo that point I made earlier, bringing up Casey Stengel's mismanagement in the 1960 World Series, the last time the Bombers came back from being down 3-1 was in 1958, in the World Series against the Milwaukee Braves—Stengel's last crown. The irony for the Yankees is that the present is a situation that calls for tactical acumen that's to be found in the past, especially when both skippers in this series have created openings that go crying for exploitation. Whether Girardi or Washington learn from it will have to be seen, but with Teixeira gone for the rest of the year, the Bombers' only answer to so many questions might be this one: Wednesday with Tex gone, Nick Swisher probably playing first, and with their going up against C.J. Wilson, they may have finally found something for Kearns to do.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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