Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Game One, Baby!

What more could the Yankees have asked for last night? It seems like everything the team could have been hoping for came true, more or less, and all came together in the end. And while there were a few gaffes along the way, none were egregious enough to bring down the Yanks while they were flying high again.

The Yanks executed last night like a playoff team, unlike they did for the bulk of the regular season. Sure, they pummeled teams into submission from July through September, but that strategy rarely works in a playoff run. Their .272 average – and especially the .233 with two outs – with runners in scoring position wasn’t going to hold up against the Angels. Not for a five-game series, and hell, probably not even for one game. And especially not with Bartolo Colon on the mound.

But right in the first inning, the Yanks capitalized. Two quick outs made it seem as if a pitcher’s duel was at hand, which did not bode well for the Yanks. Mussina hasn’t had consistent starts since August, and his effectiveness came into question after getting bombed by Baltimore last week.

But here come the hitters, and with consecutive singles by Giambi, Sheffield and Matsui, Cano was up with a chance to give the Yanks a quick upper hand. But quite honestly, despite Cano’s scorching September (.381/.393/.648), he wasn’t the ideal guy for the situation. Never mind his lack of playoff experience. This was Bartolo Colon, a seasoned vet and Cy Young frontrunner, against Cano, a free-swinging rookie, who even in his hottest month only drew two walks, and only 16 all season over 522 AB.

That didn’t seem to matter much, as Cano’s mind was on the same wavelength as Colon’s. After Colon went away on him, Cano didn’t waver, still anticipated a pitch outside and drove it over Garrett Anderson’s head. This isn’t anything new to Cano. The main difference that led to his monster September was a renewed ability to drive – and I mean DRIVE – the ball to left and left-center. So the monster smash combined with Matsui taking off with the pitch (duh, there were two outs) led to three runs and a quick cushion for Moose.

Of course, that was more than he needed. Moose flipped on his “playoffs” switch before the game, and came out firing like he hadn’t missed 23 days with elbow tendonitis. The formula behind his success was rather simple: he threw his curve for strikes. It’s a feeling of unique elation to hear John Sterling announce, “and there’s a breaking ball for a strike,” every few pitches.

That sets up his devastating knuckle curve, which he used gratuitously against Vladdy Daddy. It also kept them off-balance for his fastball, which only rarely reached 90 on the FOX radar gun, which I’m convinced pads the speed by a mile per hour or two.

Moose made the Angels play his game, and it was advantage Moose through five and two thirds. It seemed like he would finish out the sixth and get a pat on the butt for a great game, but after he left a ball up in the zone for Vlad to slap for a single, Torre obviously saw something. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I saw Joe run to the mound that fast that didn’t involve Jaret Wright and a flying object.

I can’t imagine how the game would have played out had Vlad been a tid bit smarter on the base paths. I don’t think anyone, even those of us who haven’t played ball since high school, would have been stealing in that situation. Not with Al “Lotto Ticket” Leiter on the mound. Not down 4-0 in the sixth. Not with Giambi holding you on.

But Vlad ended the inning without giving Erstad a fool’s chance. Not only did this blow an ever critical baserunner in the late innings, but it allowed Leiter to face Erstad with no one on, no one out in the seventh, rather than have the pressure of Vlad on with two outs in the sixth. This also allowed for Tanyon to come in, much to the Angels delight, though he did record an out en route to Tom Gordon.

Even if Leiter had retired Erstad in the sixth, it would have been better off for the Angles, who would have been facing Sturtze to start the seventh. Judging by the two batters he faced, they could have easily gotten something going and forced Torre to bring in Gordon with zero or one outs, rather than two. This translates into more work for Flash, and consequently more work for Mo, as he would have more than likely entered the game for Vlad, who would have batted in the eighth.

It all worked out in the end, though, and the Yanks headed back to the hotel with the advantage, despite a bit of drama courtesy of Mo in the ninth. But the Yankees cannot become complacent, as some of their fans have. Upon the game’s conclusion, I performed my normal routine of scouring the message boards, and saw a lot of posts that were along the lines of, “now it doesn’t matter if we lose tomorrow.”

‘Scuse me? Apparently some fans have had their brains cleansed since 2002 and forget what happened with the Angels that year. And maybe their brain no longer accesses the portion that says that you can always use a sweep. And at this point, with the “unflappable” (as is a common descriptor) Chein-Ming Wang on the mound tonight and Randy Friday, those chances seem realistic.