Saturday, October 08, 2005

Backs Against The Wall

I’m going to take this opportunity to be an optimist, since it my be my last chance this season. A lot of what I’m about to say may be a stretch, at best, but if it isn’t said now, it may never cross anyone’s eyes. There is no reason to believe that the Yankees are out of this series.

Okay, so there are plenty of reasons to believe that they’re just about broiled. But there are a few redeeming factors amidst a field of mud and standing water. Like the fact that their backs are against the wall, just like the last three weeks of the season. And what happened during those three weeks? We all witnessed the 2005 Yankees play like the 2005 Yankees.

Of course, that’s of little consolation to a team marred by inconsistent starting pitching and the complete lack of a bullpen before the ninth inning. Yes, this is a direct shot at Tom Gordon, who helped the Angels nail down the victory last night. Allow me a brief tangent on Flash.

While reading Now I Can Die In Peace, Bill Simmons’s book, I always read everything Yankee related with a sharper eye. This included his account of Tom Gordon’s service with the Red Sox from ’96 through ’99, where he was deposed by Derek Lowe as the closer (after converting from a starter). Simmons bashed Gordon for his inability to pitch in a big spot, which I quickly giggled at, thinking, “he’s the 8th inning guy. The 8th is a pretty big inning, Simmons.”

This thought only appeared in my head because of a memory blockage from last year. For some reason I didn’t remember, even when reading this account of Gordon, the six runs over 6.2 innings in last year’s ALCS. In 16 career postseason appearances before this year, Gordon has given up 20 hits, eight walks, and 15 earned runs over 17.1 innings. This only accents the dregs the Yanks bullpen is in, as they are down to one reliable piece.

While I’m on the subject of the bullpen (and Gordon), I’d like to know why Sturtze didn’t come out to start the seventh. Yes, this is a simple second-guessing, but I actually questioned it as it happened. We were down a run, and we’ve already been over Flash’s postseason track record. Why not let Sturtze, after coming into a big spot and executing, start the seventh? Yes, I know the Joe Torre strategy of keeping the game close. But all things considered, Sturtze definitely gave us the best shot at that juncture of the game.

And Leiter should only be facing a batter, maybe two at a time. In fact, Torre brought him into a perfect situation last night, with three lefties in a row – Erstad, Finley and Kennedy – coming up. But then he goes and leaves him in for the top of the eighth, with three righties – Figgins (switch), Cabrera and Vlad – due up. Have I mentioned Proctor’s success against righties? Isn’t that success the entire reason he’s on the postseason roster? Sure, Figgins would have turned around for him, but Cabrera and Vlad don’t have that option. I’d still rather risk Proctor against a lefty and two righties than Leiter against three righties.

As if the pitching didn’t pose enough of a problem, we had the future of Monument Park hitting 7-8-9, though Bernie came through with two hits and a big sac fly that put the Yanks up 6-5, giving me delusions of hope.

Hopefully today’s rainout gives the team time to step back, realize the spot they’re in and focus like they did over the last three weeks. I can’t decide if I’d rather see Washburn or Colon tomorrow, but I do think that if Chacon brings his A game, it shouldn’t matter. The con to Washburn is that Big Rube will be DHing. The con to Colon is that he’s the probably AL Cy Young winner. And the con to the whole thing: should there be a Game 5, we’re facing either Colon or Lackey. Wonderful.

And I managed to type that whole thing without mentioning the fact that Cano was avoiding being toppled, and the runner was definitely out. No question. Blown call. Not that it made a huge difference, anyway. The pitching sabotaged the team much more than the umps.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Weather Shmeather

Everything that could have been said about the Yanks-Angles series entering today has been said, so there’s not much to talk about today, besides the crappy weather. So I’m going to dedicate what little time and space I have here to talk about just that: the weather.

Here’s the thing with weather stations: there is a necessity to over-hype conditions. What grabs the attention of people, a 50 percent chance of rain, or a 90 percent chance of torrential downpours? So, knowing that they’re reputably fallible, the weather stations “juice” their predictions so that more people will watch.

This goes hand in hand with regular segments about how to prepare for heavy storms, which wouldn’t have any viewership if there wasn’t a storm coming.

And don’t tell me that the Weather Channel doesn’t know about the Yankees game tonight, and how nerds like me will watch their channel and browse their website looking for the answer to the ever present question: will there be baseball tonight?

Well, I bought into their garbage, and have been sitting on weather.com for quite a bit now, trying to figure out what’s going on with this storm that has been coming and going in spurts in Northern New Jersey. I called my buddy in Manhattan at around 2 p.m., and he said it hadn’t begun raining.

So I tinkered around at weather.com for a few minutes and clicked on the moving radar, which can be found here: http://www.weather.com/weather/map/USNY0172?name=index_large_animated&day=1. Notice how the storm is moving mainly north, with a slight shift east. But if you check out this radar, you’ll see that the way the storm is shaped and moving, it should miss most of New York City.

I’m not a meteorologist, so you can’t take my word as gold. But at the same time, you know those conniving weathermen aren’t the most reliable chaps in the world.

Based on my observations, with absolutely zero meteorological training, I’d say there’s an 80 to 85 percent chance of baseball in the Bronx tonight.

So, in conclusion: what’s the deal with partly cloudy and partly sunny? Is there a certain level of cloud activity that denotes the difference between partly cloudy and partly sunny, or did the weather people just make two categories for the same conditions, just to mix things up?

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Anyone Check A Calendar? It's April Again!

I’m greedy. Real effin greedy. Gordon Gekko greedy. I wasn’t like a lot of fans, complacent with splitting the games in Anaheim. The Yanks had to win last night, dammit, and with some fine pitching by Wang and a little bit of offense, they damn well should have won.

The analysis of the game is simple: the Yanks blew it. It doesn’t take a sabermetrics expert to tell you that if you give a team like the Angles extra outs, they’re going to capitalize. Yanks did their part, and so did the Angels, stealing (and yes, they did steal that one from us) Game Two, 5-3.

It wasn’t just the errors that cost the Yanks. Four guys left in scoring position is never a good sign, especially when they’re in four separate innings. And A-Rod getting caught stealing…sure we got a few gifts in that form, but after watching the replay, the pitchout was the obvious call. It didn’t take Joe Morgan to see that Alex was leaning a bit gratuitously.

I won’t blame it on Alex, but after his caught stealing the Yanks lacked a single base runner, sans Jorge’s bomb in the ninth. It’s almost like they saw that they were down and all the sudden put the game on autopilot. What does that sound like? April maybe? May, anyone?

That doesn’t give me a good feeling heading into Game Three. The Yanks beat themselves out of a sweep, and now they have to come back and play like last night never happened. And A-Rod has to play like this is just a series in mid-June. Because, as much as I hate to say it, he has an obvious case of the playoff jitters. He’d better find his old self, or, in the words of Jake Taylor, he’s of no use to Torre or the team.

What does all this mean? It depends on how you look at it. The series is headed back to New York with Randy Johnson on the mound, so it could mean a missed opportunity to close it out on Friday. On the other hand, the Angles were bound to win a game this series. There are worse things than splitting on the road.

Like not finishing at home. That’s the whole idea of splitting on the road, that you’ll come back home and finish the series, avoiding a return trip to Anaheim for the potential Game Five. So as long as that task becomes a reality, I’ll be happy.

But until then, I’ll be pissed about throwing away a chance to go up 2-0. And even though I’ve backed him countless times, I’ll still be a little peeved at A-Rod for 1) the inexcusable error and 2) swinging at ball four in his last at bat. Sure, it was Francisco Rodriguez (and since Felix has been told to go home, can I just refer to Francisco as F-Rod?), but he’s Alex Effing Rodriguez, winner of the AL home run crown.

Game Three: bring ‘em to the brink.

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Since this subject is increasing my gray hairs exponentially, I’ll head to a more lighthearted subject: the non-baseball things I noticed last night.

I’m sure everyone caught it as well, but Joe Morgan gaffed when talking about the Yankees “$200,000” payroll. And he did it twice, without correction from Jon Miller. You think they had a mid-inning pow-wow about that one?

Each and every time Juan Rivera was mentioned, the ESPN crew felt it necessary to add the “former Yankee farm hand” qualifier. It wasn’t just Miller, but the guys on SportsCenter, too. This wouldn’t bother me as much if Juan Rivera was merely a Yankees farm hand. Remember, he was the starting right fielder at the end of the 2003 season and into the playoffs. No mention of that, or that he was part of the Javy Vazquez trade, which was a pretty major one.

It was very strange watching hockey scores scroll by during the 28/58 update. I think this is all the time anyone should dedicate to hockey. Rangers won, that kid Crosby didn’t do anything. That’s about all I need to know.

Oh, and Andy Pettitte has more hits in this year’s postseason than A-Rod.

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.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Ten Things I Hate About The Angels

No explanation needed, just 10 things that have bugged the crap out of me, mainly since 2002, about the Anaheim Angels.

10. The “Experts’” Collective Hard-On
Out of 16 “experts” (they will always get quotations in my book) over at ESPN, 12 have the Angels knocking off the Yanks in Round One. And of those 12, half have them winning the World Series. I’m sorry, I just didn’t see enough dominant play out of Anaheim to warrant a World Series prediction. Sure, they’re a team well suited for a playoff run, but does anyone remember the division they play in? One competitor that was going through a rebuilding year (Oakland) and not much else.

I just don’t think they stack up with the Yanks when you go through the batting order. While pitching may be the cliched way to win ballgames, having a dominant one through nine is one way to win a short series.

9. Brendan Donnelly
It’s not so much the pine tar incident or his goofy glasses as his being overrated. Sure, his 3.78 ERA holds up well in a league with depleted bullpens, but his 1.21 WHIP and .273 BAA and .803 OPS against righties won’t bode well in the playoffs. We’ve seen this guy break down against the Yanks before, and he’ll surely be called on more than once this series.

Have I mentioned his goofy glasses? Yeah, they make him look like a ‘mo.

8. ThunderStix
What is this, a hockey game?

7. Owning Us (sort of) Under Torre
Okay, so their 49-48 record doesn’t exactly spell out dominance, but that’s the best mark by any team under the Joe Torre Reign. Not to mention the fact that they knocked us out of the ’02 playoffs, a year we were looking for revenge. We’re looking for revenge again this year, which doesn’t bode well, but remember the old saying: knock me out of the playoffs once, shame on you. Knock me out of the playoffs twice, shame on the pitching staff.

6. Bartolo Colon’s Cy Young Bid
He looks like a shoe-in, as he’s the only 20-game winner in the AL, and these sportswriters covet the almighty win. Isn’t this award supposed to go to the most dominant pitcher in the AL? If so, it should be handed to Mariano, hands down. Of course I sport a bit of bias, being a Yankees Faithful and all, but I don't think this opinion is jaded.

A common argument is that Colon’s 222.2 IP hold up over Mo’s 78.1, but just remember the situations. Colon started 33 games, meaning he had 33 pressure-less first innings. Plus all those innings in the middle that don’t carry the weight of, oh, say the bottom of the ninth. Mo has maybe two or three meaningless innings, if that, scattered throughout his 78. In fact, I could probably write an entire column on why Mo should be the Cy. But that’s for a later date.

5. K-Rod
See, his name is Francisco Rodriguez, but he throws heat and racks up the strikeouts – Ks. K-Rod! Get it? K rhymes with A, A-Rod, K-Rod. Hi-friggin-larious.

Yeah, I detest the nickname. In fact, I’m no fan of Alex being called A-Rod, just because of the complete lack of creativity. But I guess Blank-Rod just rolls off the tongue. Unless, of course, it’s F-Rod, which is just a complete mockery of the trendy nickname. But I digress.

So his nickname makes me hate him, but his heat makes me want to sit atop Angel Stadium with a Remington 700LTR and pick him off as he throws a 3-2 slider to Jeter. Oh, don’t get me started on that slider. It’s like a splitter that drops twice as far and twice as fast. Just devastating.

4. Chone Figgins
Yes, he’s a base stealing machine, topping Scott Podsednick for the AL stolen base crown (though he had 137 more ABs) with 60. And yes, he may go hog wild on the Yanks, who have a deficiency with holding runners on. But the most important aspect of this argument comes down to his name. I’m sorry, but I refuse to pronounce it “Shawn.” “Ch-own” is how it’s spelled, and “Ch-own” is how it will be pronounced. It’s like Andra Davis on the Cleveland Browns. Sure, it’s supposed to be pronounced “Andre,” but it’s “An-drah” to me.

Note to all athletes: I know your mothers donned you with these monikers, but you’re grown men. Isn’t it high time you realized that the spelling is friggin’ ridiculous?

3. Los Angels Angels of Anaheim
Where do I begin with this one? Okay, we’ll start with the obvious one: they don’t play in Los Angeles! But Art Moreno, marketing genius that he is, believes that he can create more revenue by dubbing the team “Los Angeles,” even though he has an agreement with the city of Anaheim for naming rights. So he bends the rules, adds “Los Angeles” to the name, and tacks on “Anaheim” at the end to fulfill contractual obligations.

Hey, the moniker “Manhattan Mets,” is deliciously alliterative, but you don’t see Fred Wilpon lobbying for a name change, mainly because the Mets don’t play in Manhattan.

In addition, the name is ri-friggin-diculous. Translated, it is “The Angels Angels of Anaheim.” And you only really need to translate one word to get to that. Even as it stands, the word “Angels” appears twice in a row, which causes Word to put a red underline under the second one. Why? Because a word is not meant to be juxtaposed with itself.

2. Vladdy Daddy
Do I need to list the reasons here, or is his go-ahead grand slam off Flash enough for everyone?

1. The Rally Monkey
Is it a mascot? Not really. It’s just the most inexplicable feature in baseball ever, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that the folks in LA have the attention spans of a walnut. What does that mean, rally monkey? What does it have to do with the Angels Angels? What does it have to do with baseball? Why do 45,000 people worship this monkey nightly?

Maybe, just maybe we can get the creators of 28 Days Later to infect it with RAGE. That’ll shut up the fans in Anaheim, and hey, maybe it’ll spread down to LA, too!

Monday, October 03, 2005

A Sigh Of Relief, A Plea For Intensity

So we lost two of three, and still reign as AL East champs. Kinda screwy, considering common thought was that a playoff would be held today in that instance. But thanks to our friends in Cleveland and their choke-artistry, both New York and Boston were on planes last night to their respective destinations, Anaheim and Chicago.

I just have one comment on yesterday’s game before I move on. Torre said that winning that game was still important, as it would give the Yankees home field in the Division Series. Accordingly, he put out his normal starting lineup in hopes that they could pummel Boston in a manner similar to Saturday. There were just two flaws in that logic.

First, he put J-Wright out on the mound, a sure sign of not caring about the game. Seriously, when would you EVER want J-Wright on the mound when it counts? If I’m short on words later on, I may elaborate on this a bit.

Second, the Yanks weren’t exactly in prime form to be giving it their all. After 161 grueling games, through the anguish, the losing, the criticism, the injuries, the negative press, the threatening of jobs, were the Yanks really expected to go out with the same intensity that they showed up with for the last three weeks? Especially after a champagne bath the day before in the enemy’s locker room.

The Yankees deserved every drop of the Dom Perignon that soaked their mint 2005 AL East Champs t-shirts. But it’s easy to become complacent after winning the division after a season of such intensity. If the Yankees wear that complacency on their sleeves for even one game out in Anaheim, their season may come to an end before they get to the much-anticipated rematch with Boston.

Somehow, I don’t think the Yanks will fall into that rut. Sure, there are plenty of guys in the clubhouse who have tasted the only champagne that matters – World Series Champagne – but there are enough vets to keep everyone in perspective. I don’t think Torre, Jeter, Bernie, Posada, and Tino will let this team lose focus. Everyone who has been around for the Steinbrenner era knows that falling short of a World Series title is to fail.

Well, if anything can be said about this Yankees team, it’s that they don’t accept failure well. When they dropped to 11-19, they rattled off ten straight wins. When they entered the All-Star break two and a half back of Boston, they bushwhacked them three out of four to pull within a half game, then overtook them the next day, if only for that one day.

When they were down in the eighth two days in a row to those Angels they face this week, they rallied back and took both.

When they took the field on Sunday September 11th desperately needing a win against Boston to even consider a run at the postseason, they got a gem out of Randy Johnson and prevailed 1-0 to pull within three games.

When they realized that three games was a difficult margin to surmount against those Red Sox in a mere twenty games, they didn’t relent. And when they saw that their first opponent during the final stretch was Tampa Bay, those blasted Devil Rays, they didn’t revert to their old ways. They didn’t succumb to the mediocrity of Doug Waechter and Mark Hendrickson the way they did earlier in the year.

Three games back, and they kept gaining on the Sox. Then on Wednesday, September 21st, Randy Johnson pitched another gem, and the Sox lost, putting the Yanks up a half game. A Mike Mussina return the next night would put the Yanks up a full game, and they had finally reached the apex. True, they wouldn’t remain there alone for long, Boston tying things up over the weekend, but the Yanks still didn’t relent.

They battled the O’s with intensity, even though the O’s had given up. They battled their own pitching during a 17-9 rout, but bounced back with another solid performance from Shawn Chacon and from Mr. 10-0, Aaron Small, in what may have been the finest deed he performed all year.

And finally, they bounced back from a 5-3 loss to Boston that they should have won at 18 different points of the game. For one night, they looked like the April/May Yanks, unable to come up big in clutch situations, unable to hunker down on defense and make the big play.

But the very next day, they proved that an aberration. Proving these Yanks can, in fact, come up with situational hits, John Flaherty and Derek Jeter had back to back sac flies to plate two crucial runs in the Yanks 8-4 victory that clinched the AL East.

I can only imagine the feeling in the clubhouse after that game, because I realized the sense of relief the fans felt after hearing “The 2005 American League East Division Champion New York Yankees.” Eight straight years we’ve heard that uttered, and after this one I don’t think anyone will take that for granted ever again.